NFL marks 9/11 anniversary with stirring tributes, entertaining open
NEW YORK -- We'll get to what was great in the first NFL weekend (Cam Newton in a exhilarating loss, the Ravens in a monkey-off-their-backs win) and what certainly was not (Tony Romo in a fourth quarter of doofus proportions and my Super Bowl-pick Falcons flopping at Chicago), but first, and I don't want to overdo the emotion of the day, a few thoughts on the 9/11 tributes.
Normally I think the NFL overdoes some of these "cause'' things, but Sunday, in 13 stadiums around the league, the message was proper and done well. Remember our history, honor those who died and remember what a time of renewal can do in what can be such a divided country. Then play ball.
Ten years ago, there was such a we're-all-in-this-together feeling in the country. I remember going to Kansas City to cover the Giants and Chiefs 12 days after 9/11, being on the field to do a TV appearance before the game and listening to "The Times They Are A-Changin' " by Bob Dylan. I saw Giants and Chiefs fans hold hands before the national anthem, and as I entered the Giants locker room, I saw tears from more than one player, totally washed out after all the emotion.
On NFL Network yesterday, Steve Mariucci, who coached the 49ers to a win over the Jets in Gang Green's first post-9/11 game in the Meadowlands, got emotional talking about the game in the studio. I thought his words were a window into what so many felt after the attacks and conveyed what can be a tiny bit of salve for the country. "That night,'' Mariucci said, "for once in my life it wasn't us against them. We were all on the same team. It was an honor to be in that game.''
When events happen that rock the country, football "has a role to play, a small role,'' Dallas coach Jason Garrett told me this summer in Texas. "It's a unifying role. Rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, love football. We just need to show we're all together.''
On with Week 1. On with what should be a fun season.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint,'' coach Jim Caldwell said bravely afterward, but I don't know how anybody can buy that the Colts will contend with Manning possibly out for the year after Thursday neck surgery. More about this later, but the fact that president Bill Polian was watching Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck play at Duke on Saturday is a harbinger of an autumn where the Colts will do due diligence on every quarterback that might come out in the draft next April.
"It's not broken, but they think it's a nerve issue,'' coach Steve Spagnuolo told me. "And with Steven, he's a running back with a quad injury; that's not good. Those are our three most productive offense players. So I'll be praying all night.''
San Diego lost defensive lineman Luis Castillo to a broken leg, and there are suspicions that the league's most accurate kicker, Nate Kaeding, has a torn ACL. Running back Mike Tolbert, who scored three touchdowns in the win over Minnesota, has a sore knee but should be OK.
With a minute to go and the score tied, only the Lord knows what Romo was looking at. He badly underthrew Dez Bryant, and the interception into the waiting arms of Darrelle Revis led to the winning field goal.
Trying desperately to rally with eight seconds left, Romo wasn't ready for the shotgun snap, which hit him in the chest in a fittingly Keystone Kops moment to basically end it. I've defended Romo for a long time. He has some extended stretches of brilliance, throws a great ball, is accurate enough to be one of the great ones ... but Sunday night has to make the biggest Romo boosters question his judgment. How could he take such a huge risk on a third-and-goal dive that he could not deliver a touchdown on, and to follow that by hand-delivering the interception to Revis -- and the game to the Jets. A total, absolute, utter debacle for Romo.
We saw three returns for touchdowns in the first 14 games, and you saw more players take kicks out from four and five and six yards deep -- and, in the case of Randall Cobb of the Packers, 108 yards for a touchdown Thursday night. If the ball is going to be placed on the 20-yard line after touchbacks, some coaches feel there's a motivation to try to run a kick out if it's five or six yards deep; they think it's worth the risk to try to get the ball beyond the 20-. Plus, I believe when returners choose to take the ball out from five yards deep, we'll be watching and thinking, "Could this be another Cobb return? Another Ted Ginn return? Or will the guy get kayoed at the 14?''
The only way to judge whether the new rule will lead to the decline of Western Civilization is to let it percolate for the season. As Roger Goodell told Bob Costas the other night, if the rule's a debacle, teams can vote to change it next spring.
So many wondered if the Panthers were rushing Newton into action too soon, to justify being picked first overall last April. But his 422-yard performance showed that was wrong, as did the words coming out of the Panther locker room. He made the right reads and didn't take off to run at the first sign of pressure. He showed how, in trouble, he could make plays with his arm -- not just his legs.
Maybe being an itinerant has helped Newton. Over the past four falls, he has backed up Tim Tebow at Florida, starred at Blinn (junior) College, taken Auburn to a national championship, and now taken over the Panthers. He's used to change. He's used to adapting, and taking a new team over. Look for offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to add more plays to the repertoire week by week. Should be an interesting matchup this week. The Super Bowl champs come to Charlotte for the home opener, and Newton's performance gives Panther fans reason to think it might actually be a contest.
With Stafford cramping up on a sunny day in Tampa with a 102-degree heat index, he still managed to go 24 of 33 for 305 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. "The best thing we did was finish drives and get sevens instead of settling for threes,'' he said. The Lions could be America's darlings by the end of the month. They host Kansas City Sunday, and then go to Minnesota in Week 3 -- both, obviously, winnable games.
On Saturday, Colts president Polian found himself in Durham, N.C., scouting the Stanford-Duke game and keeping an interested eye on Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck. This is what he does on almost every fall Saturday -- scout. And this year, in the wake of the possible season-ending surgery on Manning's neck, that takes on added importance.
Is there any way the Colts could be bad enough to be in the Andrew Luck derby on draft day? Very unlikely, but the team will do its due diligence. And is there any way they'd take a quarterback from the possible pool of well-regarded players -- such as USC's Matt Barkley, Oklahoma's Landry Jones or a still-to-emerge 2011 college star passer? That's more possible.
This is not a new story. Last spring, shortly before the draft, the Colts sent a three-man team, including coach Jim Caldwell, to Fort Worth to work out and get to know TCU quarterback Andy Dalton. Had Dalton been there late in the second round, would the Colts have pulled the trigger on him to be Manning's heir? We'll never know.
Look at Polian's history, however, and you see he loves acquiring franchise quarterbacks. (Duh. Who doesn't?) And check your history. Joe Montana was traded at 36. If traded after the season, Manning would be 36. I am not suggesting Manning will be traded. In fact, I don't see any way it will happen. Regardless of what happens the rest of this year, I don't. But if the Colts finish 2-14 (and that has a snowball's chance in Phoenix of happening), they'd be staring at Luck, one of the best quarterback prospects to come out in years, and an above-average pool of passers. What would Polian and his son, GM Chris Polian, do? Check out Bill Polian's history when confronted with a quarterback need:
Of course, the Bills had Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison as quarterbacks in 1985, the Panthers were an expansion team that needed a quarterback obviously, and the Colts had Jim Harbaugh in 1997. Harbaugh was a good NFL quarterback, but Polian didn't think he was a franchise player. So none of his teams were in remotely the same position as the 2012 Colts could be in.
Neel Anand, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Los Angeles, is very familiar with the surgery Manning had. He told me it would be between three and six months before Manning would be able to perform the sort of athletic acts required by an NFL quarterback. But he said he had little doubt about Manning being able to resume his football career.
I had an interesting email the other day from a reader, John Swain, of Smyrna, Del., about having the same surgery Manning had ... and he had it 20 years ago. "Without getting into a lot of history, I will say I played a lot of sports as a kid and on into college,'' wrote Swain. "I am about 6-3. I have lived with the results of my surgery for 20 years. My results were excellent. I have had 20
Just another voice for you to consider.
Three other Manning points:
• Tony Dungy had an excellent observation on our Saturday night NFL special on NBC. He said Manning's neck history dates to Oct. 22, 2006, when his neck got wrenched and his helmet ripped off on a hit by two Washington defenders. We showed the highlight on our Saturday show, and Manning, after being hit and crumbling to the ground awkwardly, lay there for a second, and when he rose, he stretched his neck and shook his right arm for a second, as if trying to get the feeling back in it.
"Earlier in the game,'' Dungy told me, "I'm outraged that there was a flag for roughing-the-passer on Dwight Freeney for just grazing the quarterback's helmet. So I'm yelling at the ref [Scott Green], 'Where's the flag! Where's the flag!' And I don't yell much, but I did then. So I didn't notice Peyton calling timeout and being shaken up. Peyton came to the sideline and said to [backup] Jim Sorgi, 'Jim, start warming up.' As the timeout went on, he said to us, 'I can stay in, but we need to run the ball here.' ''
Which the Colts did, settling for a field goal deep in Washington territory.
"Then we sort of forgot about it at halftime, and Peyton seemed fine," said Dungy. "He lit it up in the second half. He was on fire [throwing for 244 yards and three touchdowns]. But that's the year we started cutting back on his throws at practice. I'm not putting two plus two together. I just figure he's getting older and he needs some time off, he's made enough throws. But now, as I look back on it, there's no doubt in my mind that this was the start of his neck problems.''
• Just to clarify: Polian told me Manning was fine at the end of last season, with no recurrence of the neck problems that caused his first surgery after the 2009 season. Polian said this latest flareup, leading to the May 23 procedure, stemmed from an injury suffered at an informal offseason workout in the spring at North Central High in Indianapolis. Just FYI.
• The last time Manning didn't start a game for Indianapolis, Tony Mandarich was blocking for Jim Harbaugh with the Colts, and John Randle sacked Harbaugh twice.
When I visited Ravens camp in late July, there was a different feeling about Ray Rice entering his fourth year. For the last couple of years, it was Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and then Joe Flacco, and then anybody else on offense; that was the pecking order of franchise players once Jonathan Ogden left. Rice was creeping into the picture last year. This year, in relative importance with club officials, it seemed like Rice was on a level with the top defensive players. That's how highly he was regarded. And on the first weekend of the season, there were other players who played very well, including a couple who are teammates of Rice. But I thought Rice did something I simply would not see with these Pittsburgh Steelers -- physically impose his will on them on a few running plays. Last season, Pittsburgh was superb against the run, only twice allowing teams to exceed 100 yards (the Jets had 106, New England 103). On Sunday, Rice had 107, and the Ravens totaled 170. Only once in the last three years had a team run for so many on Pittsburgh.
The difference in this game was the Ravens didn't have Willis McGahee anymore, and Rice is now working as the short-yardage and goal-line back. Even though Ricky Williams got 12 carries Sunday, eight came in the fourth quarter, with Rice on the shelf to save further wear and tear. Rice was the every-down back when it counted, and it counted early: He started the game with a 36-yard sprint around left end and never stopped producing for three quarters.
"I'm a complete running back now,'' Rice said from the Ravens' locker room after the rout of Pittsburgh. "Before, I'd come out on goal-line and short-yardage. Now I am more of a complete back. When I get low and have to run with power, it's hard for guys to get under me and drive through me because I get so low.''
Rice did something interesting late in the game. He got involved in a shoving match with Troy Polamalu that turned Pittsburgh/Baltimore ugly. Eight or 10 players got involved, and hair was pulled (Polamalu's), a couple of kicks were given (hard to tell whom) and mayhem lasted for 20 or 25 seconds. When the game was over, Rice made a beeline for Polamalu to apologize for his role in the brawl. "I look up to you as a player,'' Rice told him.
"We have to look out for each other in this game,'' Rice said. "I know this is a heated rivalry and these games get so physical, but at the end of the day we respect them, and even though it gets heated, I don't get upset about things like that. It's football.''
That's a good guy to build a team around, particularly with defensive cornerstones like Lewis and Reed near the end of their careers.
"The whole thing about ghosts and demons and monkeys, that stuff is not real to us. This was a football game.''
"It felt good to know I could go out there and play lights out.''
No problem with Vick being excited at how he played. And stats are never everything. But competing 44 percent of one's throws isn't exactly playing lights out. Vick, though, had a very good, impactful game.
"It's incredibly humbling which, obviously, we needed at this point. It'll be interesting to see how we persevere. This is a big step towards humility.''
"I want the country of Sept. 12th again, when everybody came together. We said we'd never forget and now we can live up to it."
Down 7-0 early, Newton's 77- and 26-yard touchdown strikes to Steve Smith gave Carolina the lead. When the Cards tied it up, Newton bowled over from the 1 for another Panther lead. Think of the low expectations we all had of Newton. He was a downright star Sunday.
How do you spell "pshaw"? Ridiculous. And he showed that Sunday in a 30-12 stunner over the Falcons. His parallel-to-the-ground, diving interception, his 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown, his team-high 10 tackles ... just a tremendous sideline-to-sideline performance for a team that loudly pronounced it's still going to be a very big factor in the NFC playoff race.
Noted New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has to be polishing up his drawing board this morning, figuring out what to draw on it. In the Saints' last two games, the defense has been awful. Against one struggling offensive team (Seattle, in the playoffs last year) and one superior one (Green Bay, on Thursday), here's how the Saints' defense fared in eight quarters combined:
With Manning missing his first game after 13 straight years starting, it falls to the next man on the list to break the Brett Favre consecutive quarterback starts record. Next on the list: brother Eli, who started his 111th straight game (including playoffs) Sunday afternoon at Washington. Favre is at 321, including playoffs. So Eli has 211 straight starts to go. Assuming no playoff games are played by Manning (a faulty assumption, but I'm not going to guess at it), calculating when Eli would pass Favre shows just how amazing the Favre streak is.
That would be Week 4 in 2024.
Randall Cobb's nickname inside the Packer locker room is Corn.
I've been on some short flights before, but how's this for the 66-miles-as-the-crow-flies puddle jump from Chicago to Milwaukee last Tuesday:
7: Minutes from the time we got above 10,000 feet and could use laptops to the time we were on our final descent and had to turn off all electronic devices.
27: Minutes from takeoff to landing.
For those who would ask (I might be one of them if I hadn't flown myself and knew my itinerary), "Why'd you fly from Chicago to Milwaukee?'' the answer is that I flew from Boston to Milwaukee, with a plane change in Chicago. Normally I might just get a rental car in Chicago and drive up, but I was able to use the time at O'Hare to finish my Tuesday column.
I was in Milwaukee Tuesday afternoon to speak to students at Marquette. Afterward, I drove two hours to Green Bay, directly to an NBC planning dinner at the Brett Favre Steakhouse. I got off the highway, took a right on Holmgren Way, drove a mile or so to Brett Favre Pass (just before intersecting with Lombardi Avenue), took a right on Brett Favre Pass, and pulled into the parking lot at the steakhouse. Had I driven further on Brett Favre Pass, I'd have come to Tony Canadeo Run. From there, I'd have been able to take a left onto Reggie White Way, or I could have driven another block and dead-ended at Bart Starr Drive.
Rumor has it Green Bay's a football town.
So when Hurricane Irene was headed up the East Coast, ESPN's Adam Schefter, who lives right in the path of the storm on Long Island, thought he should pack up the family -- wife, two kids, dogs -- and drive west. He found a Hampton Inn in Hershey, Pa., that would take dogs. Oh, Schefter has dogs all right. Five of them: four Labradoodles, one Wheaton Terrior, all between 25 and 90 pounds. So into the family SUV went this modern-day
"Other than the grandmother tied to the roof, it was exactly the same trip,'' Schefter said.
They made the four-hour drive to Hershey Saturday morning, and when the power was lost in his town, they decided to stay a couple of extra days. Through Wednesday. "We had seven living beings sleeping on the bed at one point,'' said Schefter. And housekeeping? Never happened. They made the bed themselves and just exchanged towels with the maid. Too much mayhem in the room to clear out and let cleaning happen.
The power on Long Island was still out when they decided to drive back home -- saying they were getting on each other's nerves might be understating it. On the way home, his son, wife and Schefter all traveled with a dog on the lap. "Driving four hours with a dog on your lap -- that's a lot of fun,'' said Schefter. And when they got home ... surprise! A foot of water in the basement.
"Let's just say I was pretty happy to get back to work,'' Schefter said.
"Cromartie Island is sinking.''
"Thank God! My brother @tpolamalu will retire a Steeler! That's the way it should be! Thank God!"
"People so wishy washy, you either on the train or you not. Our team has each other back thru the good and the bad that's why we'll be great!''
"Moon lit sky, free I lay. These words kiss thoughts and walk miles for you. We own the night.''
"Sad to see how rusty these elite QBs are after the lockout. It's going to be a few weeks before everyone gets on the same page.''
a. Fantastic tribute, not too over the top, for the eight early games. DeNiro was good, the taps emotional, the field-length flags appropriate, and the anthems good. (I heard three.)
b. Good to see new life from John Kasay Thursday night. He had his first non-Carolina field goals in the NFL since 1994, kicking two for the Saints.
c. Fantastic add by Phil Simms on the initial touchdown Sunday in Baltimore, saying Ravens coach John Harbaugh texted Joe Flacco and told him on tight coverage, don't be afraid to try to stick the ball in there. That's precisely what Flacco did early in the first quarter of the opener against Pittsburgh.
d. It took Mario Williams exactly six minutes to begin to prove Wade Phillips right. He got around Dallas Clark from the standup outside linebacker position and nailed Kerry Collins.
e. It took Chris Long eight minutes. More credit to Long. His was of Michael Vick.
f. Ben Tate, Houston, 24 carries for 116 yards. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
g. Bruce Gradkowski was more than a clipboard-holder in Cleveland. His on-target 41-yard touchdown pass to rookie A.J. Green, the first in Green's career, was the winner in Cincinnati's 27-17 upset of Cleveland.
h. No matter how we try to marginalize Cedric Benson, he keeps coming back and playing well: 125 more rushing yards Sunday.
i. Jag Mike Thomas is a tough little receiver. Physical, too. Just doesn't drop the ball.
j. Philip Rivers had it when he needed it.
k. As did Mark Sanchez. That was a weird game in the Meadowlands, but the thing I like about the Sanchize (26 of 44, 335 yards) is he doesn't let four or five bad series carry over to late in the game, when he knows he has to be good.
a. Well, Michael Irvin sure gets the shiny-silver-suit award for Week 1.
b. Sidney Rice, inactive (shoulder). Just leads to more thought that Rice is not going to be as durable as needed to be one of the highest-paid skill players in football.
c. Gotta catch that ball, Andre Johnson, and not let it slip through the hands for an Indy pick.
d. Still waiting for the Eagles to touch Steven Jackson on that long first-quarter touchdown run.
e. You too, Tennessee D, on the Maurice Jones-Drew touchdown run.
f. So much for the great story of the Baylor firefighter going in the first round to Philadelphia: Guard Danny Watkins, who just lost the starting right guard job, was a healthy inactive for the Eagles.
g. Horsecrap Journalism of the Week Award: To FOX, for taking my quote from Tony Dungy about Lee Roy Selmon and putting it on the screen of the Lions-Bucs telecast without sourcing.
h. In the last two drafts, the Bucs picked four defensive linemen in the first two rounds: Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Combined, they had five tackles, no sacks, no quarterback pressures on Sunday. Yikes.
i. In fact, the Bucs had no sacks and no pressures ... against a Detroit offensive line that isn't in the league's upper echelon. That's a bad sign for a team that will live or die on its young defensive stalwarts.
j. Kerry Collins. I know it's not all his fault, but he looked his age in Houston.
Drew Brees threw him a 23-yard post, and Colston made a diving catch with 31 seconds left. The dive fractured his collarbone. If he lay on the turf with, say, 27 seconds left, the officials would have called for an automatic 10-second runoff because the Saints had no timeouts left. Then the Saints ran to the line, Colston knowing his collarbone was broken, and he lined up because there wasn't time to get off the field, and Brees threw a short pass to Darren Sproles, and then Colston had to get back to the line again for Brees to spike the ball. Tick, tick, tick. Finally, with three seconds left, Colston was able to get off the field. Now he's out for at least a month. Those are the kinds of sequences you remember about a player. At least I will.
6. I think the underrated player of the day has to be Mike Scifres, the San Diego punter, who subbed for the injured Nate Kaeding against Minnesota and boomed a 40-yard field goal to the back of the net that would have been good from 55. He hadn't kicked a field goal against a rush since placekicking for Western Illinois against Western Kentucky in the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA football playoffs. And his holder, Eric Weddle, wasn't the usual holder either; Scifres holds for Kaeding. "So today was the first day Eric held in a game, and the first day I kicked in a game in the NFL,'' he said after the game. "I was a little nervous, and now, driving home, I still find it hard to believe I did it, honestly. I'm kind of shocked. But it comes back to you: swing easy, just try to make solid contact, don't try to hit it too hard.''
a. Great new logo and uniforms, Winnipeg Jets. Love this
b. Sidney Crosby, on the chance his post-concussion syndrome might end his career: "It's a pretty slight one. I wouldn't bet on that.'' Let's hope he's right.
c. I love quirky little stats like this one: Last Monday and Tuesday, the White Sox and Twins played three times at Target Field. Chicago won all three. I'd be hard-pressed to figure three straight games this year in which the starting pitching was as dominant. Chicago's Phillip Humber, Zach Stewart and Jake Peavy put this pitching line together over the three games:
d. If Armageddon ever happens, I hope it's not during the two weeks of the U.S. Open. Not sure the
e. Love watching Panda's at-bats.
f. Sorry. I liked the Maryland uniforms. They look like the state flag. Thought they were fun.
g. Liked Maryland's. Loved both Michigan's (with the great block "M" on the front and the stripes on the shoulders) and Notre Dame's. And if you want me to start watching college football again (NO!!! Too many other things to follow!), show me a few more of those Notre Dame-Michigan games, with three touchdowns in the last 75 seconds, and Denard Robinson accounting for 446 yards of offense -- 400, seemingly, in the last few minutes. Wow.
h. Beernerdness: Yes, I had the Spotted Cow in Wisconsin. Good summer beer. Light and a little cloudy-yellow. You could probably drink a lot of them and be relatively unaffected. Problem was, I had it at the end of a very long day in Green Bay last Wednesday (at the incomparable Nicky's Lionhead), and barely made it through one. Too tired. But I approve.
i. Coffeenerdness: I tried the Alterra Coffee in the Milwaukee Airport, as many of you suggested. I've had it before and liked it OK, but there was some different taste to it that I couldn't quite figure out. This time I could: licorice. And licorice in the espresso -- uh, no.
j. Coffeenerdness II: What a good coffee town Appleton, Wisc., is. In a two-block stretch of downtown on College Avenue (I once had night-before-the-game dinner with Bears linebacker Ron Rivera in an Italian place on this street), there are local espresso places -- the trendy and modern Copper Rock, the homey and filled-with-locals Brewed Awakenings -- and if those aren't good enough for you, there's a Starbucks on the corner. I can't imagine there's a better downtown coffee experience in a medium-sized, middle America city.
k. And thanks to Ira Freehof and his wonderful Comfort Diner on 45th Street in Manhattan for giving me a great place to write Sunday morning -- and some pretty good oatmeal pancakes.
l. Interesting 15-second experience in my Manhattan hotel Saturday. Got stuck in an elevator, sort of, with Bob Lanier. You know, the Hall of Fame basketball player. I was on the elevator, it stopped at Lanier's floor, he got on, doors closed ... and nothing. For 15, 20 seconds. Then I opened the doors by pressing the door open button, let them close again, and finally we got down to the lobby.
He told me his favorite stuck-in-an-elevator story, then we were off. But before we left, I did manage to look down at his feet. I'd always been amazed as a kid to read that Bob Lanier had size-22 feet. And though I didn't measure (wouldn't that have been an interesting sight?), they sure looked like big shoes to me.
"They were plus 28 in turnovers last year and they won a ton of games," the Miami coach said Saturday, "so the importance is that when you turn it over against this team, at least in the past --and every year is a new year -- but when you turn it over against them in the past, they would turn it back over into about 63 percent scoring, which is one of the best in the league. They had 31 possessions and turned them into 19 scores.'' Be warned.