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Saints honor ALS-stricken Gleason with emotional ceremony; mail

What a strange game Monday night. How does a team win a game against an unbeaten foe when the team scores no touchdowns, fumbles six times and relies on a neophyte kicker who shanked a 21-yard field goal attempt a couple of weeks earlier? That's why they play the games, I guess. Dan Bailey's six field goals beat Washington 18-16.

The takeaway, for me, is that the Cowboys have taken to Rob Ryan's defense well, and as the season goes on, I think the duo of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer is going to wreak as much havoc as any other pass-rush combination in the NFL.

But this morning I'd like to give a little bit of attention to something that happened in New Orleans Monday night. The Saints gave a player who last played for them in 2007, safety and special-teamer Steve Gleason, a 2009 Super Bowl ring in an emotional ceremony at a New Orleans restaurant.

Gleason, you may recall, is the special-teamer who burst through the middle of the Atlanta line on a first-quarter punt in the first post-Katrina game the Saints played in the Superdome -- the very emotional first game, you'll recall, five years ago -- and blocked the punt for a touchdown. The frenzy kept feeding all night, and the Saints had a stunning first victory. It's been called one of the most important single plays in the history of the Saints, and I don't think that's any exaggeration. The Saints all acknowledge this, as does Sean Payton: That was a team of misfits and players other teams didn't want, and that 2006 team built the base for the 2009 championship team.

You may know that Gleason, in a story written eloquently by Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, disclosed to the world Sunday that he has Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS, a debilitating neuromuscular malady for which there is no cure. It usually strikes men in middle age. Gleason is 34. Though there is thought to be some connection between playing football and getting the disease, it's still something doctors are studying.

For now, I wanted to point out Gleason's story, because I'll be trying to help his foundation, team-gleason.com, raise awareness for his case, and for his cause. Look for an announcement of something you can help support in the coming weeks.

But Monday ...

The Saints' players and coaches have been emotional about Gleason's disease since hearing about it. Monday night, Payton showed up at the surprise event for Gleason and recounted how he was a perfect metaphor for the Saints when Payton took the head-coaching job in 2006. He recalled how, in a summer team-building and -bonding paintball game, it was Gleason who eliminated him with a well-placed shot. At the time, Payton barely knew who the diminutive overachieving safety from Washington State was. "I thought he was one of the equipment interns," Payton quipped. But his emotional speech last night showed how valuable Gleason had been to the team when the Saints were coming back from Katrina and becoming national heroes.

"Steve had been waiting his whole life for this one perfect moment," Payton told the crowd Monday night.

And now, his former teammates and current friends want to help Gleason through what will surely be a difficult rest of his life with ALS. With his wife holding the microphone last night because he was unable, Gleason told the crowd that, "ALS was [messing] with the wrong guy," and urged his supporters to do meaningful things with their lives.

"It's not about the blocked punt or the ring, it's about what you're gonna do when you walk out of this room," he said.

Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Browns, was one of several former teammates who flew in from as far as Hawaii and San Diego to support Gleason. He will be part of the group at team-gleason.com that tries to make some good out of something so bad. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks.

***

IT HAPPENS. "In the Giants match there was a penalty call that was out of the ordinary -- "false start, the whole offensive line." How did they manage that?''-- Andrew Malcolm; Exeter, England

If I were being obnoxious, I would say, "Lots of practice.'' But I think what happened is that more than two linemen moved on the play, and so the call was what it was.

MIKE MARTZ UNDER FIRE (WHERE HAVE WE HEARD THAT BEFORE?) "Not Mike Martz for Goat of the Week? After two weeks in a row of all passing, no running, with no means for the quarterback to call audibles at the line, Martz is looking more and more like a genius without a brain. Can you have a 'Greatest Show of Turf" without receivers who can run routes and catch the ball? How can the Bears be in the red zone and not have their tallest receiver, Roy Williams, on the field? Can this Bears team recover and will Cutler get the tools needed to save his life from the relentless rush of defenses that have seen enough Martz to know what he's going to do?''-- Loren, Chicago

One point first about Goat of the Week. On a weekend with 16 NFL games, it seems that I get 16 candidates for the award, each from a fan of one of the 16 losers. I understand your frustration, but I'll point to a big reason the Martz offense isn't working well right now. Martz likes to design the offense where the quarterback makes throws down the field. With the offensive line a disaster, he can't count on the line protecting Jay Cutler (obviously) long enough for him to make those throws. And so now Martz is left to try to decide what he should do.

I agree he should give more touches to Matt Forte, because he's a star in the making. But he shouldn't over-feature Forte or he'll get stuffed, because the line isn't a great run-blocking line either. My (at least temporary) solution is to throw to the young tight ends and try to get them in space so they can move the chains. It's not something Martz has ever liked to do, but I think he has to face it that Cutler's just not going to have time to find receivers running consistent downfield routes.

IT'S NOT TOO SCIENTIFIC. "Love the column. I start every week with it. You frequently write about the difficult process of electing members to Hall of Fame, usually focusing on borderline candidates. I was wondering what the process is like for the obvious choices (I'm thinking players such as Montana, Rice, Emmitt Smith and eventually Brady and Manning). Is there even a discussion around these players? I mean, if anyone on the committee seriously objected to one of these players, shouldn't they be kicked off the committee?''-- Matt; Bridgewater, N.J.

Thanks for the kind words, Matt. We can't talk about what goes on inside the room in specific details, but I can tell you that there was one absolutely automatic candidate who came up for discussion in a meeting the day before the Super Bowl some years ago -- let's call him John Smith -- and his presenter, a media member who covered him for years, stood up and said: "John Smith.'' And sat down. We all got it. It was so automatic we didn't have to waste time better spent on the other candidates. That's happened a couple of times.

I'LL HAVE AN ANSWER FOR YOU IN MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK. "The Packers have now beaten the Bears three times in 2011 (Jan. 2, Jan. 23, Sep. 25) with a chance to make it four on Christmas Day. I know teams have beaten another one three times in a season something like 20 times, but could this be the first time two teams have even met 4 times in one calendar year?''-- Marty; Eureka, Ill.

I don't know. It's an interesting question, and I'll find out between now and Monday. Check back and I'll have an answer for you then.

I LOVE THE WIDE FIELD. DON'T FORGET THE WIDE FIELD. "Was debating with some friends about which Canadian Football League rules would be interesting to see in the NFL -- even on an experimental, one-time only basis. Just wanted to get your thoughts on the following CFL quirks and how you see them impacting the NFL (if it ever happened)

1. 20-second play clock

2. Unlimited motion for all receivers and backs before the snap

3. No fair catch (kick returners must be given five yards to catch the ball or let it bounce behind them)

4. 20-yard endzones

5. One yard off the ball at the line of scrimmage.''-- Moe; Hamilton, Ontario

Interesting. I've always loved the wider field -- 65 yards instead of the NFL's 53 -- because I think it gives electric, smaller players more of a chance to make plays that thrill the fans. Of the ones you mentioned, the one that would be most interesting, by far, to fans is the 20-second play clock. Not only would it severely restrict substitutions, but it would put a premium on athletic receivers and the conditioning of all players. I'd love to see that experimented with. And it would spawn lots more no-huddle offenses, I believe.

THE WEIRDNESS OF THE BEAR PUNT PLAY. "We watched the Packers-Bears game. Near the end, with the Packers up two scores, the Bears returned a punt for a touchdown, only to have the play called back on what looked like a phantom holding call. I didn't see any coverage of that. What happened and did the officials blow the call? I know that's not a challengeable call, but it should be. What do you think? P.S.: Miss you in Jersey.''-- Danie Barnes; Wayne, N.J.

Hey Danie, miss Jersey too. Say hi to the Fountains of Wayne (the store, not the band that's in love with Stacy's mom) on Route 46 for me. And the field hockey pitch at Wayne Hills High.

Well, as far as that play goes, it was an ingenious call by Chicago special teams coach Dave Toub. His theory was the Packers would want to punt away from Devin Hester, and so if Hester lined up to the far side of the field on the play, it would cause Packer punter Tim Masthay to punt to the empty other side of the field. Presumably, Toub told another Bear receiver, Johnny Knox, to peel off to the left, in the hopes of being unnoticed, and pick off the Masthay punt while every Packer simply went to Hester, who was feigning looking up in the sky like the ball was coming to him. And the 10 Packers in punt coverage all saw Hester looking up and made beelines for him.

Meanwhile, cornerback Corey Graham of the Bears, trying to block a Packer running downfield to cover the punt, was called for holding. Was it a ticky-tack call? Not really. It did restrict the coverage player, but it was far away from the play, and sometimes officials either don't see jersey grabs like this one or don't call the penalty. But with the flag on the ground, the play proceeded. Knox made the great catch of the punt, probably 30 yards away from Hester and the crowd of Packers around him, and turned upfield and ran 89 yards for the touchdown. Ingenious play. But it was called back because of the hold.

INTERESTING TOPIC TO CONSIDER. "Why do you think the NFC West is consistently so bad? We tend to discredit the travel aspect, but I wonder if it has a larger impact than we think. Looking at the four major sports, the NL/AL Wests are consistently the worst in baseball, and the NBA has some historically bad franchises with the Warriors, Kings and Clippers. I'm not as familiar with the NHL, but it seems to follow a similar pattern.''-- Jeremy; Washington, D.C.

Very interesting theory. I tend to think the reason the Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs, Cards, Rams, 49ers and (now) the Seahawks have had a very rough stretch in recent years is much more quarterback-related than travel-related. But it's dangerous to draw conclusions on something like this when there are so many outliers -- the Lakers for years, the Giants in baseball last year, the Raiders being good for a long time, the Oilers winning for most of a decade in hockey. But I might listen to some arguments about it.

Those road trips and body-clock adjustments must be nuts for teams. Imagine the Mariners. Other than the flight to Oakland, their shortest trip to a foe is probably slightly less than three hours, and any trip home (other than from Oakland and Minnesota and maybe Anaheim) is going to be four-plus hours.

WE'LL BE TALKING ABOUT FREENEY'S CASE FOR IMMORTALITY SOMEDAY. "I noticed that you mentioned Dwight Freeney a couple of times and you also talked about the HOF selection process. That got me thinking. What are Freeney's chances of making it to the HOF? I know it's pretty early and he's still got a few years in him, but given how well he's played so far this season, without the early leads that Manning had been giving him, I think he can make a legitimate claim to be inducted to the Hall of Fame.''-- Harsha Pakhal, Houston

I hate to put odds on anyone's candidacy except for the gimmes, like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, among today's players. But I feel sure Freeney's case will be brought to the floor of our meeting room one day, and he'll be seriously considered. Let's see how much longer he can stay a dominant pass-rush force.

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