The game of the season came when football fans needed it, because face it: There's more suspense in a three-game Marlins-Nationals series than there was in the first three games of wild-card weekend.
First, a few words about Green Bay. I feel for Packers fans this morning. That's an excruciating loss. The worst. It'll take days, weeks, to get over it, I'm sure. But that's sports. Sometimes you get your heart broken, and the only way to not get your heart broken is to not fall in love. And there is much to love about this Green Bay team. The quarterback's scary good, even if he did hold on to the ball too long on the last play of the season. (Aaron Rodgers career yards per game: 269.5. Peyton Manning career yards per game: 261.1.) Rodgers has a 22-year-old tight end, Jermichael Finley, and a 26-year-old receiver, Greg Jennings (who made the catch of his career, a one-handed catch of a Rodgers dart for a touchdown), to grow old with. There is hope on the defense. These Packers are going to be good for a long time.
Now some words about the quarterback who is singlehandedly forcing me, one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters, to act like the five-year donut hole in the middle of his career is a crack in the sidewalk and not the Grand Canyon. I don't like to judge active players for the Hall, and I won't. But Kurt Warner is a great football player, and a great pressure football player. He played the best pressure game of a career knocking on Canton's door (I mean the best 60-minute game, not the best Super Bowl quarter), and for all we know, it might have been the last game of his career had the Packers taken the first drive of overtime down for the winning points as we all thought they would.
When the game was over, and Arizona had survived 51-45, I looked at the stats online and saw this:
My God. Look hard. More touchdowns than incompletions.
I texted New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- who was in his office preparing his game plan for Warner and the Cards for their Saturday divisional game in New Orleans -- and asked him what he thought.
"It reminded me of the games we used to see Joe Montana slow his heartbeat down and play the music in his head from Bill Walsh's west coast offense. Kurt was in charge and playing a really fast game in slow motion in his mind ... The game slowed down for him and his focus was strong.''
Warner agreed. "I knew early on it was going to be a good day,'' he told me as he drove home. "Sometimes I know when I'm on, when I'm going to play well, and there were specific things I knew they were going to have trouble stopping. Like the touchdown to Steve Breaston [that gave Arizona a 45-38 lead in the fourth quarter]. From watching tape, we knew how we could get a matchup of Steve isolated on a linebacker.''
That way was to line up Breaston wide left, with another receiver in the slot, then motion Breaston in toward the formation, and at the snap of the ball have him jet upfield. The corner wouldn't follow him all the way inside, tape study told Warner, and a linebacker would pick him up. That's exactly what happen. Nick Barnett was no match for the speed of Breaston, particularly when Barnett had to turn and run with him. Touchdown.
The other play that interested me -- on the passing and receiving ends -- was Warner's touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald while getting clocked by Green Bay defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. As the 315-pound Jenkins drove him to the ground, Warner somehow threw a ball into the end zone, and Fitzgerald -- after getting away with offensive pass interference by plowing over Charles Woodson -- dove and made a brilliant one-handed catch.
"That was luck,'' said Warner. Luck? Warner was trying to throw the ball away, or at least to the far back of the end zone so it wouldn't be picked off, and when Jenkins hit him and drove him back, the ball didn't go as far as he wanted it to go. And that was the luck. Because it wasn't thrown far, Fitzgerald could corral it. Barely.
"I heard it was complete by the fans,'' he said. "I never saw it.''
As Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers told our Don Banks, "Kurt's a heck of a quarterback. When we covered, he beat the coverage, and when we pressured, he got the ball out of his hands.'' That's been the story of his postseason play. Warner's 9-3 in the playoffs, with one Super Bowl and one Super Bowl MVP. In the regular season, he compares favorably to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, with just 598 fewer yards, a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (208-128 to Aikman's 165-141) and four percentage points more accurate (.655 for Warner, .615 for Aikman); Aikman, who started 40 more games, has 27 more victories than Warner. "Very respectful & anxious to play,'' Williams texted. "Our guys are rested & ready to compete. Drew Brees is like that every day in practice.'' "It's gonna be a cat-and-mouse game,'' Warner said. "It always is with Gregg.'' I wonder if the scoreboard in the Superdome goes to three digits.
What else, aside from the Pete Carroll story, caught my eye this weekend:
• Jets 24, Bengals 14:Jay Feely saves the day. When punter Steve Weatherford was kayoed from the Jets-Bengals game two minutes before kickoff due to an irregular heartbeat, Feely, who hadn't punted in a game in his nine-year NFL career, got the call. And his stats weren't good -- seven punts, 31.4-yard average, three inside the 20-yard line -- but what was great about his day was that only one punt was returned. At the end of the game, Rex Ryan gave Feely a backbreaking hug and said in his ear, "Great ----ing job!'' Which it was.
"I think it garners a kicker a lot of respect when he can do something more than kick,'' Feely told me. "All I was doing was catching it, taking one step and kicking, just making sure nothing got blocked.'' Even though every punt was basically a pooch punt, Feely directionally kicked well and did just what he was supposed to do -- not put his team in a hole. For the Jets, just one more hero on a team of them.
• Cowboys 34, Eagles 14: Dallas has a lot of ways to beat you. First of all, Charles Barkley ... Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Are you serious? On the NBC air, he said, "Donovan McNabb is the most underrated player in Eagles history.'' Wow. Some statement. We're going to part ways on this one, big fella. But onto the Cowboys. In eight quarters over the past two weekends, they suffocated the Philly offense, which managed two touchdowns in 24 possessions. And with the weight of the world on them because they hadn't won a playoff game in 13 years, Miles Austin said, "We didn't really feel it. When you're playing for each other, that's not a feeling you have. You feel like someone else will pick you up. That's the way this team feels right now.'' Dallas' defensive speed will be a tough match for Minnesota Sunday on the rug in the Metrodome.
• Ravens33, Patriots 14: It wasn't that close. New England was woefully outmatched on both sides of the ball for the first time in a playoff game in the Belichick Era. I think there's trouble in Red Sox City, but the team is certainly salvageable. Tom Brady was a shadow of himself and played the worst big game of his career, inaccurate and seemingly not willing to run because of his myriad injuries. The mismanaged receiving corps (going back to Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis as the offseason solutions instead of keeping the redoubtable Jabar Gaffney) was too hurt to be a factor. But New England is too smart, with too many draft picks and too good a coach and quarterback, to be saying this is the end of an era. It's not.
Now, as for the Ravens, I was hugely impressed with their defensive game plan and the fact they could win without hip-hampered Joe Flacco being any sort of factor. They could do that because the defense played like the Ravens of old, with Ray Lewis (13 tackles), Jarret Johnson, Dwan Edwards, Domonique Foxworth, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs taking turns making big plays.
"One of our emphases this week was the middle of their line,'' said Johnson, the hybrid end/linebacker who is vital to what the Ravens do. "Not so much we saw a weakness, but Tom does such a good job sliding out of the way, that we felt like if we could get him off his spot his accuracy would go way down. I thought [defensive coordinator] Greg Mattison had a great game, mixing up the calls, not being afraid to turn it loose against Brady. He can be a scary guy to turn it loose against. Greg did a good job of staying persistent, mixing up his blitzing. I think we shocked 'em early, kind of like a fighter who gets hit early and stunned.''
Now come the Colts, who have beaten Baltimore seven straight. The Ravens had a shot to win Indy's 17-15 verdict earlier this year. Several shots, in fact. If they don't turn it over, this will be a great game.
• A traffic jam at the Hall of Fame. The Hall cut the list from 25 semi-finalists to 15 by eliminating, among others, Paul Tagliabue (it was hopeless for him this year with the labor strife some voters trace back to him), Steve Tasker (I am weeping), Cliff Branch (if Lynn Swann is in, so should he) and Art Modell (I don't see it happening). Now the 44 selectors, me included, will hear the cases of the 15 modern-era finalists and the two Senior Committee nominees (Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little) Feb. 6 in Fort Lauderdale.
There's a maximum of five modern-era candidates who can be inducted each year; the two Senior men are voted on separately. With Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith sure to be first-ballot players, that will leave three spots among the 13 other finalists, and I honestly cannot give you a good feeling about who will make it. I believe Don Coryell, Richard Dent, Cris Carter and Shannon Sharpe are close, but that guarantees them nothing. Should be a dramatic day as usual when the results are announced the day before the Super Bowl.
• The misunderstood MVP vote.Peyton Manning won in a walk, with 39.5 of the 50 votes cast by a national media panel (me included). Drew Brees got 7.5, Philip Rivers four and Brett Favre one. Most of the feedback I got was about two things: How could Manning win in a rout, with all the other great years had by quarterbacks in the league And how could Tennessee running back Chris Johnson, after the sixth 2,000-yard rushing season in history, get shut out of the voting?
As for Johnson, it's simple. We have one vote. He might be a close second, but unless you judge Johnson, a runner on an 8-8 team, to be more valuable than Manning, who had his second-best season of a walk-in Hall of Fame career for a 14-2 team, or more valuable than Favre or Brees or Rivers, he's not going to get any votes. I was surprised that Manning got 79 percent of the vote to be sure, but to have that good a year with a poor running team and a team with two new receivers is why he's deserving.
Three rules/officiating points from a crazy day.
1. Regarding the non-facemask call on the last play of Arizona-Green Bay: I've watched the TiVoed combination of replays six times now. Arizona's Michael Adams blitzes, dislodges the ball from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, rakes his hands over the facemask of Rodgers, then appears to grab the facemask, and the ball is inadvertently kicked by Rodgers.
The ball flies briefly into the air and is grabbed by Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby, who secures it and runs into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Adams keeps his hands on the mask as he plows into Rodgers and brings him to the ground. Adams didn't tackle him by the mask, but his hand did stay secured on the mask as Rodgers fell to the ground. (I say it that way because from the mountain of e-mails and Tweets last night, most of you think he got yanked to the ground by the facemask. It didn't appear that way to me.)
For a facemask penalty to be called, there has to be evidence not just of a hand on the mask, but of twisting and pulling of the facemask. And there is a slight pulling of it, but not in a flagrant way. To me, it's a close call. But what complicates matters is this: The referee, Scott Green, is the official on the crew with the responsibility of watching plays involving the quarterback. Once the ball has been dislodged, Green has to watch the ball, not the contact on the quarterback. He has to see if the ball hits the ground and judge if it's a forward pass or a fumble, then he has to follow the live ball until the end of the play. So Green could not -- at least, he should not -- have seen the contact on the mask of Rodgers.
Of course, the reason this is a big concern is if a facemask had been called, Green Bay would have had a first down at its 32 in a game where defense was optional. I don't see how the call could have been made any differently with the current rules and officiating assignments the way they are.
2. Re the non-tuck-rule call on the last play of Arizona-Green Bay: the ball, once it somehow became dislodged from Rodgers, never hit the ground. If the ball doesn't hit the ground, it's live, and the tuck rule doesn't apply.
3. Re the Ravens' failure to challenge a punting play in the second quarter at New England: A major gaffe by the Ravens. On the New England punt, the ball hit Baltimore's Tom Zbikowski in the back and was recovered by Patriot Kyle Arrington as he slid out of bounds. The rules for possession call for Arrington to maintain possession as he falls to the ground, and every replay showed the ball coming dislodged as Arrington slid.
I spoke with Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who told me the coaches upstairs are responsible for telling him whether to throw his challenge flag (most teams handle it this way) and they never saw the replay we saw at home. "Our coaches upstairs told me they saw the punt hit Zibby a couple of times on replay but they never saw enough to alert me to make a challenge,'' Harbaugh said. "I'm disappointed, but in the heat of battle, sometimes that happens.''
The deep hole Pete Carroll is stepping into.
Out of the mouths of Sanchezes ...
After the Jets' playoff win in Cincinnati, former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, smiling, said this about USC coach Pete Carroll's imminent decision to coach the Seahawks: "Speaking of coach Carroll, I just want everyone to know I completely disagree with his decision to go to the NFL. Statistics show it's not a good choice.'' Obviously referencing Carroll's press conference last winter when the junior announced he was leaving USC early, Sanchez said he was just kidding. But he's right.
Statistics show even the most celebrated college coach make terrible NFL coaches. Or at least go to terrible situations, with players they can't reach the same way they reached in college. As Tony Dungy said on NBC Saturday night: "Most college coaches find out it's a lot harder to coach rich 25-year-olds than it is poor 19-year-olds."
With the exception of Jimmy Johnson's foray into pro football 20 years ago, the record of owners dipping into the college ranks for coaches in recent years can be summed up in two words: abject failure. In the last two decades, 10 NFL owners have hired a coach from a major-college program to be the head coach of an NFL team. (I don't include Barry Switzer or Tom Coughlin here -- Switzer because he'd been out of football for six years, unemployed, and Coughlin because he was a seven-year NFL assistant with a career goal of being an NFL head coach before taking a three-year detour to Boston College.)
This chart is about the 10 established college coaches who built their résumé in college football, then went to the pros. Johnson's the only one who won a playoff game in his career. He won two Super Bowls in his five-year run with the Cowboys.
Looking at the tough road Carroll has to travel with the 10 hires from college football since 1989:
Totals: 10 hires.Winning records: 1 of 10.Coaches who won playoff games: 1 of 10.Playoff seasons coached: 4 of 27.
Think of it this way: In the past 10 years, four of the biggest college hires in the league were Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino. They coached nine seasons, with a combined record of 29 games below .500.
There's one other factor in the failures of so many of these coaches: the lack of a top quarterback where they landed. Spurrier thought he could win with Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel. Saban chose the wrong quarterback -- Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees -- in free-agency in 2006. Petrino bolted when he found it hopeless after Michael Vick's dogfighting ban left the Falcons grasping for a quarterback. And on, and on. The only quality quarterback any of these coaches inherited or acquired in their first year: Troy Aikman, the first draft choice in Johnson's tenure in Dallas.
Other than the big paycheck Carroll will collect, there's not a lot to envy about his decision. He always said if he was going to go back to the NFL, he'd want full control over the 53-man roster. Yet in Seattle, owner Paul Allen doesn't want to give one man that control. Can the situation be tenable with the right man in the GM chair? Of course. But it bears watching. When the Ravens' director of player personnel, Eric DeCosta, called the Seahawks last week to inform them he was turning down an invitation to interview for the GM job, he was told there would be a major surprise in the coming days. Seattle's ideal seems to be a separation of church-and-state in the front office that Washington (Bobby Beathard/Joe Gibbs), the Giants (George Young/Bill Parcells) and Green Bay (Ron Wolf/Mike Holmgren) made work so well in recent years.
History says Carroll will build a team with great defensive energy. He has a few good defensive players to start with -- linebacker Aaron Curry, cornerback Josh Wilson and defensive linemen Brandon Mebane and Lawrence Jackson (a Carroll product from USC) -- but overall the talent on the team befits one that's gone 9-23 in the last two years. Matt Hasselbeck turns 35 in September, and his career is in decline. Carroll will have many tasks early on -- replacing a franchise left tackle in Walter Jones, developing some semblance of a pass-rush, building a running game -- but none as daunting as finding an heir to Hasselbeck.
The quarterback is always the hardest puzzle piece to find. Just ask the nine teams who got so little out of such big hires.
The Pete Carroll Affair.
Remember when Charlie Weis last month said Carroll, the married father of three, was "living with a grad student in Malibu?'' Carroll, furious, said it was "untrue, irresponsible ... and incredible that he'd be talking about me like that.''
Aah, the wonders of the NFL schedule, which has AFC teams visiting NFC teams once every four years, and vice versa:
Kansas City (Weis' new employer) at Seattle, date TBA, next fall, Qwest Field.
That'll be an interesting pregame conversation on the field between the new Kansas City offensive coordinator and the new Seattle head coach.
Drew Brees and Ted Williams, Chapter II
I wrote last week about Drew Brees sitting in Week 17 and setting the NFL record for the most accurate passing season (70.62 percent, beating Ken Anderson's 70.55 percent in 1982), which was mindful to some of the 1941 baseball season. Ted Williams was batting .399955 (.400, because the average would have been rounded up) entering a doubleheader on the last day of the season, and his manager gave him the option of sitting, and Williams said he'd play, and he went 6-for-8 in the doubleheader and finished with a .406 average. It's the last time a player ever hit .400.
I was with Brees in New Orleans Thursday night and asked him about it, and a pained expression came over his face. He wears number 9 because he grew up idolizing Ted Williams. When he was drafted by the Chargers, he moved into his first house because it was on Ted Williams Way. I can tell you he's still conflicted about setting the record the way he did -- but understands he couldn't have done anything about it.
Turns out that on the day after Minnesota lost to Chicago in Week 16, clinching home-field advantage for the Saints, Sean Payton called Brees into his office and told him he wasn't going to play in the season's final game at Carolina. You know -- it's the whole thing about resting starters, avoiding injury, giving other guys a chance to play. Later that day, doing a media interview, Brees was told that, though he and Anderson were both at 70.6, if the figure were taken out to the next decimal place, Brees' number was better, and thus he was ahead of Anderson.
Brees didn't want to spill the beans about Payton's lineup plan, so he said nothing. But he said he got a terrible feeling right then.
"I immediate thought of Ted Williams going into the last day of the '41 season batting .399995, or whatever it was,'' Brees said, "and I thought, 'If I don't play, I'm letting Teddy down.' ''
Most players aren't students of sports history. What was so rare about Brees' knowledge, obviously, is it was about a guy from a different sport.
"When I was growing up in Austin [Texas], every Sunday morning before my brother and I went to church, we popped in a video called 'The Golden Greats of Baseball.' It was like a religious thing between me and my brother. We loved baseball. All the great players -- Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Cobb, and Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter -- were on it, and I identified with Ted. I was a left-handed hitter. He was a left-handed hitter. They called him the purest hitter of all time, and that's what I wanted to be -- the purest hitter of all-time.
"Everything about him was great. The hitting, the fact that he left baseball twice to serve in two wars. So when Sean told me, 'You're not playing, and it's not up for discussion,' that was tough. On the one hand, I don't want to set the record by sitting. On the other hand, if I say I want to play because I don't want to set a record this way, it's selfish. So I didn't say anything.''
The obvious question: What would Williams have thought of Brees sitting and breaking the record?
"Well, the next day, Ted Williams has nothing to do but go marlin-fishing,'' said Brees. "They're not in the World Series. And I've got playoff games to play. The sports are different. The risks are different. Apples and oranges.''
1. San Diego (13-3). If I'm Ron Rivera, I walk into Norv Turner's office this morning and say, "We've got to practice some live running Wednesday. Full pads.'' Shonn Greene might be more dangerous to the Chargers than Thomas Jones.
2. Indianapolis (14-2). Happiest guys in the Colts locker room this week, after three low-pressure weeks, are Dwight Freeney (abdominal) and Robert Mathis (quad), who've needed some real downtime. They can be fresh, at least as fresh as speed-rushers can be in Week 19, to torment Joe Flacco Saturday.
3. Dallas (12-5).DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, my two all-pro outside linebacker picks, combined for three sacks, four quarterback pressures, a pass deflected and a forced fumble Saturday. On the rug Sunday at Minnesota, they're going to be tough to stop.
4. Minnesota (12-4). Pressure's on the two vulnerable Vikes tackles, Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt. McKinnie, with Ware on his left shoulder, could have a very long day.
5. New Orleans (13-3). The more I thought about it the past few days, the more faith I had in the Saints offense to play well this weekend after slumping late. They just have to use Kyle Eckel or one of the tight ends more than Sean Payton probably wants -- but that's the cost of keeping Brees clean.
6. Arizona (11-6). Pray it doesn't come down to Neil Rackers, Cards faithful.
7. Baltimore (10-7). John Harbaugh is one heck of a coach. Last year, the Ravens went to AFC top-seed Tennessee in the divisional round and dominated the game physically, winning 13-10. On Sunday, the Ravens went to three-time Super Bowl champ New England, which hadn't lost a home playoff game in the Belichick Era, and embarrassed them. Good head coach, good coaching staff.
8. New York Jets (10-7). Best sign for the Jets is they won't have to win in spite of Mark Sanchez. They can win with him playing a big role.
9. Green Bay (11-6). I'd feel sick this morning but pretty good about the future if I were a Packers fan. Aaron Rodgers is special.
10. Philadelphia (11-6). Eight sick quarters to end the season.
11. New England (10-7). Four turnovers yielded 20 Baltimore points. End of story.
12. Cincinnati (10-7). You can't convince me that Carson Palmer's not hurt. Either that or he's become Steve Sax or Steve Blass. You know, with some sort of thrower's block.
"I felt great. I loved our plan. I was seeing everything well. And it accumulated into 50 points.''-- Kurt Warner, after the highest scoring NFL playoff game in history, the 51-45 Arizona overtime victory over Green Bay.
"I know what's coming. Eighteen's coming.''-- Baltimore safety Ed Reed, on the prospect of Baltimore moving on in the playoffs to face Indianapolis. The Colts have a seven-game win streak against the Ravens.
"The issue is they haven't always been the big dog and they won't always be the big dog, and I think they're being really short-sighted and that's pretty much in my mind the definition of the ugly American where you say, 'Hey, it's all about me and this is the way it's always going to be, and if you don't like it, that's your problem.' ''-- Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on ESPN Radio Dallas, via sportsradiointerviews.com. Cuban, whose Mavericks hosted Utah Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Central Time, was angered when the NFL scheduled the Philadelphia-Dallas NFC wild-card game at 7 p.m. Central Time, when three other time slots were available.
Offensive Player of the Week
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore.
"I wanted to be the guy today to start this game right. I wanted to be the guy to say, 'This is going to be a fast-tempo game,' '' Rice said after motoring for 83 yards and a touchdown on the first play of the game at Foxboro. It set up Rice's 22-carry, 159-yard day. Rice was right. The Ravens ran it 52 times for 234 yards, the kind of running game you'd have against the Detroit Lions, not the once-proud Patriots. And Rice continued to prove he belongs in the discussion when you're talking about the top 10 backs in the game.
Defensive Player of the Week
Bradie James, LB, Dallas.
For filling almost every defensive category on the stat sheet: six tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss, two quarterback hits, one pass defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery. And for making the play that I thought snuffed out the Eagles' last hope. One minute left in the half, Philly driving, down 24-7, ball at the Dallas 48 ... Donovan McNabb dumped a hot-route to fullback Leonard Weaver at the 43. James met Weaver squarely, jarred the ball loose and recovered it. Dallas went on to score a field goal before the half, and the Eagles weren't coming back from 27-7.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Rico Murray, S, Cincinnati.
I celebrated Jay Feely higher in the column, so I'm reserving this for a guy who made one of the heads-up plays of the weekend -- and I bet you don't even remember it. First: Imagine you're Rico Murray. Grew up in Cincinnati. Went to storied Moeller High, then on to college at mid-major Kent State. Undrafted. Signed as a college free agent by the Bengals. Spent most of the year on the practice squad. Got into four late-season games on special teams. Two tackles. Active for the playoff game against the Jets. On the first Feely punt of the game, the ball hits at the Bengals 32, and takes a high bounce, and out of nowhere streaks in Murray, who is not the return man on the play. He grabs the ball, much to the surprise of players on both punting units, and turns upfield and sprints 23 yards to the Jets 45. Seven plays later, Cincinnati strikes first and takes a 7-0 lead. Just a very smart play by a kid whom I'm sure will never forget it.
Coaches of the Week
Greg Mattison, defensive coordinator, and Chuck Pagano, secondary coach, Baltimore.
We all know that was a flawed Patriots team on the field Sunday in Foxboro, but to hold an experienced playoff team with a top quarterback to 196 yards at home is tremendous achievement. Mattison called a terrific game. Figuring Baltimore needed to move Brady out of his comfort zone in the pocket, he had middle blitzes called early and often, forcing Brady to throw on the move. And Pagano, according to Harbaugh, "did a fantastic job of dissecting their pass routes, to the point where our defenders felt they had a handle on everything New England ran.'' It helps to have Wes Welker sitting up in the owner's box, and to have Randy Moss nursing some sort of injury and playing soft all day. But the Ravens embarrassed the Patriots, and the defensive scheme was a big part of that.
Goat of the Week
Shayne Graham, K, Cincinnati.
I could have easily given this to Carson Palmer, who had a horrible day in Paul Brown Stadium. And Neil Rackers was a candidate too, very nearly blowing the Arizona season by missing a chippy. But Graham lined up for a 35-yard field goal, with the Bengals down seven in the third quarter, and curled it barely wide left. And then, kicking a gimme to bring the Bengals to within one score with four minutes left, Graham inexplicably missed wide right to insure the Jet victory. Graham helped the 2009 Bengals look like so many other Bengals teams -- not clutch, playing dumb when it counts.
I've said it more than once: JaMarcus Russell is the second coming of Ryan Leaf. The lack of desire, the inability to get in top shape (one source close to the Raiders says he reported to camp 35 pounds overweight last summer), and not making football the overriding focus in his life all have contributed to his failure as an NFL player.
Russell is on his way, but I've got to hand it to Leaf, who is almost singular in his badness in recent NFL history. Comparing the first three ill-fated seasons of Russell's Oakland career with the entire three years of Leaf's run (he played two years in San Diego and one in Dallas):
This is what happens when you give a city hope:
In March 2006, the Saints had 44,000 tickets available.
Today, the Saints have a season-ticket waiting list of 50,000.
Flew to New Orleans and back in midweek and found nothing different about the security process. Nothing. Other than putting my toiletries in one of those one-quart Ziplocs, I didn't change at all either. Strange. Thought it'd be a lot more bothersome.
One other note, from a quiet Amtrak regional train home from New York Sunday. Five people in my car. I sit in the middle of the car and continue typing out a story for the magazine on Drew Brees. A smartly dressed woman in the back of the car, eight rows behind me, is on the phone. She is Loudwoman. "CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? ... YEP, 35 TOMORROW! THE BIG 3-5! ... NO, NOTHING. NOTHING. WHAT SHOULD I DO, GO TO A STRIP CLUB? ... YEAH, LIKE RICHIE WOULD DO THAT ...'' And on and on it went. After a couple of minutes, I packed everything up and went to the front row of the car. It was better, but still not silent, for the next 10 minutes. Then it got quiet for a while. Then clip ... clip ... clip
Loudwoman, clipping her nails on Amtrak. Fingers, not toes.
In the immortal words of George Costanza (I believe in the "Chinese Restaurant'' episode), "We live in a society!''
"Did the Rooney Rule go to Ireland with its namesake?''--@adbrandt, former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, now the president of football-news Web site nationalfootballpost.com, on the NFL rule that mandates teams interview at least one minority candidate before naming a head coach. Washington (naming Mike Shanahan head coach last week) and Seattle (naming Pete Carroll over the weekend) hardly honored the rule that bears the name of its sponsor, former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is now the United States Ambassador to Ireland.
Or, as I said on NBC Saturday, Seattle conducted the longest sham interview in NFL history with Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
"Just got back in town. Wow.''--@matthewhass8, Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, at 9:12 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday.
Wonder what he means.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of wild-card weekend:
a. Don't shut up, Rex. Win or lose, you're fun for the game.
b. You know which Ryan quote received far too little attention: "The Jets will be making a White House visit during the Obama Administration.'' Love that one.
c. The story never ran in SI, but I remember going to Florham Park, N.J., when the Jets were 3-0 to do reporting for a Jets story. And I think this side of Ryan gets far too little attention. He likes players to say what they want, as long as they keep the team in mind. "Rex spent 45 seconds with the players when he took over, talking about the media policy. He basically said, 'Say whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt the team. And when you do an interview, make sure you mention two teammates and one coach every time you talk.' ''
d. A smart man told me: "Watch out for Ron Rivera in Buffalo.'' Not buying it, but the man is smart, so I wanted to throw it out there.
e. A smart man in Buffalo told me: "They love Leslie Frazier.'' Bills interviewed him for five hours Thursday, and as I said on NBC Saturday night, he's the leader in the clubhouse for that job, but so many golfers are still out on the course -- like Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
f. Everybody in Cleveland: Calm down about Josh Cribbs cleaning out his locker and saying he doesn't want to return. If Cleveland truly did make a take-it-or-leave-it offer to Cribbs the other day -- and no one does such a thing on Jan. 7 -- take my word: It's not a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
g. Predictions of the Week: Newsday ace football writer Bob Glauber in Friday's paper and SI writer Ben Reiter on SI.com last Thursday: Jets 24, Bengals 14. Way to go, guys.
h. The Patriots need a running back. A big-time running back. How much longer can Belichick put up with a running back like Laurence Maroney, who fumbles on the goal line, rarely runs with abandon and can't keep blitzers off Brady (see Lewis, Ray, first quarter, wild-card game)?
i. Jermichael Finley's really good.
j. Think of how many really good tight ends there are in football right now, speaking of Finley: Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis, Brent Celek, Jason Witten, Visanthe Shiancoe, John Carlson, Tony Gonzalez (still), Owen Daniels, Heath Miller, Chris Cooley, Jeremy Shockey (when he's healthy, which is occasionally),
2. I think this is the stat the San Diego Chargers should be worried about with the Jets coming to town Sunday: The Chargers allowed 4.5 yards per opposing rush. No secret what'll be coming at them in the divisional playoff game.
3. I think you did the right thing, Mike Holmgren. No coach of a bright-eyed team on a season-ending four-game winning streak -- particularly in Cleveland, where there hasn't been a four-game winning streak since the nineties -- deserves to be fired. Holmgren saved owner Randy Lerner from eating another $12 million or so in head- and assistant-coaching contracts (to go along with the estimated $19 million he still owes fired GM Phil Savage, coach Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Ron Chudzinki).
4. I think I'm pretty skeptical that this shotgun wedding between Pete Carroll and this John Doe GM can work long-term.
5. I think I'd be stunned if the Eagles got rid of McNabb, because Andy Reid's not the kind to throw away (or trade for a couple of good draft picks) his starting quarterback. But I think it's time for the Eagles to seriously think about it. Over the last eight quarters in Dallas, McNabb was a D-plus quarterback, and of course, it's not the first time he hasn't come up big in the big spot. One touchdown pass in eight quarters in the two biggest games of the year. A completion percentage of .534. He came out of the gate terribly Saturday night, bouncing his first throw three yards in front of Jeremy Maclin, then missing his second throw, also to Maclin, badly. Three and out.
We saw some bad quarterback play over the weekend out of a couple of other vets -- Carson Palmer and Tom Brady -- but the difference is that Palmer has no one behind him and Brady's a three-time Super Bowl winner coming off an injury and was beat up the whole year. The Eagles have a strong prospect behind McNabb, Kevin Kolb, and I can't think of any physical excuses for McNabb. If the Eagles believe Kolb is a player, and I'm told they certainly do, Reid owes it to the franchise to think long and hard about allowing Kolb to compete for the job or take the job next year in his fourth season, at age 26. It's not like the Eagles need draft fortification, but McNabb could bring, let's say, something in the range of two second-round picks from Brad Childress if Brett Favre retires. Maybe it'd do Kolb good to get out of the Philadelphia cauldron.
6. I think this is what I liked about wild-card weekend:
a. Cedric Benson. His comeback's complete, redemption well-earned, after rushing for 169 yards against the league's top-rated D.
b. The Sanchize. The Jets didn't win in spite of him, and they didn't have to be cautious with him.
c. Terrell Suggs doing what he does best -- making a strip sack to turn the outcome of a big game.
d. I thought that was Domonique Foxworth's best game as a Raven.
e. Jim Leonhard. A physical, smart keeper for Rex Ryan.
f. Kevin Ogletree. Every time the little receiver for Dallas plays he does something good.
g. You had to love Ray Rice's long touchdown run on the first snap of the game, of course. I liked his third-down conversion run on the next drive better. Third and four, and he breaks a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then lunges through two Patriots for the first down. Baltimore got a touchdown instead of a field goal, and it was due to Rice's conversion.
h. I liked Gene Steratore's refusal to overturn the Ravens' failed two-point conversion. We all saw Willis McGahee all but certainly break the plane of the goal line. But for a play to be overturned, it can't be all but certain. You have to see the ball cross the plane of the goal line. And you can't be certain you saw the ball cross that plane, can you?
i. Green Bay's passing game. Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings. Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne. Not sure which combo platter I'd rather have right now.
7. I think this is what I didn't like about wild-card weekend:
a. Come on, Dwight Lowery. Cover Laveranues Coles on the simplest out to the cone, and stop peeking in the backfield and letting Coles get two steps on you.
b. Ridiculous challenge by the Bengals, the first-quarter catch near the sidelines, prompting, for some reason, the Bengals' second challenge of the game. And last challenge. Have some common sense up there in the booth, coaches.
c. Nice catch, Braylon Edwards. Toughest call of the Jets offseason will be determining how much this restricted free agent's worth. He's not in Larry Fitzgerald's league, but he'll want to be paid in it.
d. My dumb comments about Jets punter Steve Weatherford on Twitter. I apologized on Twitter, and I'll do so here. I called out Weatherford for not taking the field Saturday -- it was said during the game that he was "ill'' -- even as cameras showed him jogging on the sidelines at one point. What I didn't know is that moments before the game he was found to have a racing heartbeat and irregular heartbeat, and Jet medics forbade him from playing. I was kneejerk and shouldn't have been. I should have refrained from commenting until I knew more about what ailed Weatherford. I owe him one.
e. The Eagles. By halftime of Saturday's game, the composite score in their two meeting six days apart in Arlington was Dallas 51, Philly 7. I mean, that has to cost someone his job.
f. Tom Brady, you have to run when you have that much pasture in front of you.
g. Not sure Joe Flacco can make enough plays to match Manning Saturday night. He's creaky. Looks a lot more injured than the Ravens are letting on.
8. I think the reason the silence is deafening with Bill Cowher right now is simple: What can the guy say? We all know he wants to coach sometime soon, and maybe this year if the job is right. If he doesn't know with certainly which jobs will be open, how can he come out and say he's either coaching or not coaching?
9. I think Jack Del Rio had better get his résumé ready. I'm not certain he'll get fired this week after today's meeting with owner Wayne Weaver in Jacksonville, but I am saying it's Groundhog Day there. Del Rio's 58-57 in seven years, with one playoff win. Finishing 1-5 with a young team that should have been better later in the season than earlier won't help.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Gilbert Arenas. I don't know him, and I don't think I want to know a guy who "jokes around'' by pointing a gun "in fun'' and then points imaginary guns at teammates, causing them to all laugh. Dude, you're an idiot. A fool. You have no idea, and apparently your teammates don't either, about the influence of athletes on our society. Would you like part of your legacy to be kids who root for you fooling around with handguns in some part because their hero does it?
b. Well, I'll say this about Nick Saban: He may not have the greatest conscience in the world (you remember his I'm-not-coaching-Alabama vow two weeks before he coached Alabama, two years into a five-year contract with the Dolphins), but he sure can coach.
c. Movie Observation I: Up in the Air. Not an all-time great by any means, but a B-plus ... I like movies that make me think about the life I lead, and life in general. I don't live in airports, but I'm in them 50 days a year. George Clooney, in this movie, is in them 300, and is totally disconnected with the thinking, feeling part of the human race. When you're off in your own world for a week or two at a time, traveling, it's easy to build a cocoon around yourself. Imagine being in that cocoon for 45 or 48 weeks a year; it becomes your life. The smart part of the move is the director sending a kid just out of college, Anna Kendrick, into Clooney's life and mentally slapping him around about life. It's all good.
d. Movie Observation II: The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Interesting, and sort of fun. But I don't get the hubbub. Looked at my watch 15 times.
e. Coffeenerdness: Shared a coffee with Drew Brees at P.J.'s Coffee House in the University Section of Uptown New Orleans the other day. Actually, he is lactose intolerant and had a soy latte. I had a triple latte. Interesting that there's a Starbucks across the street and this place holds its own. It does that because the espresso is excellent -- rich, no bitterness. Highly recommended if you're around Tulane or Loyola, or visiting the Mannings down there.
f. Sympathy to the family of Tim Davey, the NFL's little-known but vitally important director of football operations, who died last week at 58. Davey did as much of get-your-hands-dirty work to put games on around the league as anyone. Stadium and field operations, logistics, inclement-weather preparations ... Davey did it all, and he must have done it well, because games in this league go off with the efficiency of a Swiss watch. Shared a few planes with Davey over the years, and I'll just say he knew more secrets about more people in the league than anyone. Good guy.
g. Congrats to Jets director of media relations David Tratner and wife, Jessica, who had son Mark Harrison Tratner late in the second quarter of the Jets' Saturday win. The game was in the delivery room until the doctor entered for the final act, shall we say. But Mark got to see the second half. Precocious little fellow came out yelling, "J-E-T-S! Jets Jets Jets!''
h. I can only imagine what kind of handsprings Mike McGuire is doing today over in Germany. He's a big Kurt Warner fan, and he and his U.S. Army company spend some long weekend nights this time of year staying up for the NFL playoffs. I called last week to check in on the First Sergeant. I have a plan that involves you, the readers, and Mike's 150-man company, which will re-deploy to Afghanistan sometime around the middle of the year -- it'll be his third deployment -- to do the toughest job of them all. The McGuire men, using technology and gut instincts, seek and dismantle Improvised Explosive Devices. We talked about the readers and Twitter followers at SI_PeterKing combining to do something to help Mike's men that I'll be writing about in the next couple of weeks. Anyway, here's McGuire's latest email:
"Nice hearing from you again. I always have all these football questions I want to ask you when we talk but then I figure that you get tired of it all the time so never do. One day we will have a beer (or a few) and then I will get all my questions out.
"Life is going good here, rumors are flying now about our next deployment. Can't give you dates yet due to OPSEC [security] and all but will let you know when we get there and where we are. I am now a First Sergeant (E-8). When we first met I was a Staff Sergeant (E-6). Seems like a long time ago. Since the deployment rumors started flying, its been hard to sleep, constantly thinking and working out things in my mind. Just recently I have been sleeping horribly due to dreams or whatever to call them but I am reliving certain days from previous deployments when our men got hit over and over. [Wife] Pam says I wake up sweating horribly and flopping around, talking in my sleep. Guess I should go get my meds again for sleeping).
"It's every leader's worst nightmare to lose a man, I have had more than that even. My company consists of over 150 soldiers and many MOS's (Military Occupational Specialty). Soldiers seem like they are getting younger and younger. My son Joel is now currently on FOB Falcon, which is where I spent time my last deployment. He sounds really good but he has a newborn son (Levi) and I know he is missing his new wife and son. My wife worries for him a lot. She holds her own pretty good but at times you can tell that having him gone now in Iraq and me gone soon, it is taking a toll.
"On the football side of the house, getting ready for a big weekend of games. Tell you what, with the games on so late here it makes the next day very difficult, but would not miss it. I have a lot of favorite football moments, but all time has to be Tyree and that catch, it was awesome. Never forget it. It was early in the morning, like 0430, and we all screamed and jumped around, woke up the entire complex. I am humbled and overwhelmed that people want to know what I am doing or how it's going. I can tell you this, 'it is going to get real interesting fast.' More to follow. Take care. Mike.''