Rodgers' brilliance, Lions' thrills make NFC North a force to beware
Ten Things that surprise me about the NFL at the quarter-pole:
Now for a few awards after the first 25 percent of the year. For those you in Washington, Houston and Detroit, and for you fans of Andrew Luck, more news about your teams and the first pick of the 2012 draft at the top of my Tuesday column.
Munchak did things like make practices more competitively fun (receivers versus corners, best of five) because, as he said, "When I played, the worst thing was letting teammates down.'' Tennessee has responded superbly. Hasselbeck's on pace for the best year of his career, and the defense is a top-five group so far. The Titans are 3-1.
Until Sunday, Brady had never thrown a professional touchdown pass in the Bay Area.
And Sunday, in Oakland, 29 miles from his childhood home in San Mateo, Brady passed his childhood idol, Joe Montana, on the all-time touchdown pass list. Entering the game against the Raiders tied with Montana with 273 touchdown passes, Brady threw two and now sits tied with Vinny Testaverde for eighth. (Next up, at number seven: Johnny U, with 290.)
Brady has never played at Candlestick, and his only previous game in Oakland came in 2002, a 27-20 loss to the Raiders in which he threw no touchdowns. In 2008, when the Patriots played at both Oakland and San Francisco, Matt Cassel was New England's quarterback because Brady was out after his Week 1 knee injury suffered against Kansas City.
That just seems wrong, Brady never having played in San Francisco. Brady, who was a 4-year-old kid in Candlestick at "The Catch'' game in January 1982, in fact, may never play there. According to the current NFL schedule rotation (which could change following the 2012 season, though I haven't heard any sentiment why it would), each team plays at a nonconference foe every eight years. In 2008, the Patriots had the NFC West as the non-conference division it faced that year. New England hosted St. Louis and Arizona, and traveled to Seattle and San Francisco. That would mean in 2012 the Patriots would have San Francisco and Seattle at Gillette Stadium, and play the Rams and Cardinals on the road.
Brady says he wants to play until he's at least 40, so this could be moot; he could play the Niners on the road at 39, in 2016, if the current schedule format -- and Brady's health -- hold up. But how weird would it be if Brady played from 2000 to 2015, a 16-year career, and never stepped foot on the home field of the team he rooted for as a kid?
Last year, the near-locks for the Hall of Fame were Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk. The year before, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. The year before that, Bruce Smith and Rod Woodson. And so it's gone in the last few Hall seasons. But not so this year. There's no lock on the list of 104 preliminary candidates released by the Hall of Fame the other day.
This is going to be what I view as a cleanup year. A maximum of five modern-era finalists can be elected in any year, and this could be the year when some candidates who have been close finally get in. Two guys who appeared to be on the border last year, Dermontti Dawson and Curtis Martin, might get over the hump this year. If this were Vegas, I think the tote board would probably list Charles Haley, Willie Roaf, Bill Parcells and Will Shields next. But there are four candidates I hope get into the final 15, so the panel of 44 media members can hear their cases and debate in the Hall of Fame selection meeting in Indianapolis on Feb. 4:
In Tagliabue's 17 years as commissioner, the other three major sports had a total of four job actions (strikes or lockouts) causing those sports to miss games. Franchises were worth about eight times more in 2006 than in 1989; the gross revenue of the game was six times higher in '06 than '89. But his candidacy has also been hurt by not returning a team to Los Angeles, and by never being able to get eyesore stadiums replaced or rebuilt in Oakland, San Francisco or San Diego.
Mike Heimerdinger was a Super Bowl offensive coordinator for the Broncos, and tutored Steve McNair and Vince Young with the Titans. He died after a year-long battle with cancer Friday in Mexico, where he'd gone in a last-ditch effort to use experimental drugs on his cancer. He was 58.
There aren't many assistants I've met who were more well-respected by peers, and very few who could explain the game to the public and media -- and his players -- as well as Heimerdinger. Jeff Fisher and Mike Shanahan counted him among their closest friends. Jim Schwartz told me Saturday he's not sure he ever would have become a head coach had he not had Heimerdinger to work with in Tennessee in 2008.
"We worked well together without ego to do what was best for the team, not just what was best for the offense or defense,'' said Schwartz. "Tough as nails. Perfectionist. Called it the way he saw it, and players and coaches respected that.''
If the defense had something it needed to work on, Heimerdingder would have his offense give Schwartz's unit a good look, and vice versa. On many teams, the rivalry between the two sides is strong and they may not help each other out as much. Schwartz thought Heimerdinger helped his defense get better.
He had another impact in Tennessee, former tight end Frank Wycheck told me, and that was to help maximize McNair's talent. "He put the air in McNair,'' Wycheck said. "He really took Steve to the next level. Early in Steve's career, I think the attitude with the coaches was, 'Don't put the game in the quarterback's hands.' But just like Shanahan did with John Elway, Mike in certain ways worked with Steve to develop the downfield passing game and let him open it up."
But I thought the officials got the weird call in Arizona right. It was a game-deciding ruling. Arizona led late in the fourth quarter, with the Giants driving to take the lead when wide receiver Victor Cruz, after catching a Manning pass, was hit by a Cardinal defender, nearly fell to the ground, then righted himself and ran forward a few steps before inexplicably going down without contact. He placed the ball on the ground, then rose and began to turn back as though to go back to the Giants huddle. The Cards picked it up and started running with it. The officials ruled Cruz was down because he'd given himself up and stopped trying to advance the ball; the play wasn't reviewable.
According to the rule that applies to this play, a dead ball is declared and the down ended "when a runner is out of bounds, or declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance ...'' This is a shady play, and a gray-area of a rule. But the way I saw it, Cruz did stop trying to advance the ball, and he was on the ground, and he lay the ball down and began returning to the huddle, which falls under the tenets of this rule. I can't see how, if replay had been allowed, the referee would have overturned the call anyway.
Manning said postgame he saw it as a fumble and rushed to the line to call another play, in case replay was possible. Dungy said he could recall 25 plays where this was called a fumble and not ruled that the runner was down. I disagree. The way the rule reads, I believe Cruz was down, had stopped trying to advance the ball, and turned to walk to the huddle.
I also wouldn't have minded giving the goat horns to Philadelphia kicker Alex Henery (The Eighth I Am I Am) for missing a field goal from 39 yards with 14 minutes to play and from 33 yards with six minutes left, either of which would have given the Eagles a victory and a 2-2 record. But you saw the last 21 minutes of Dallas-Detroit, and there can be no bigger goat than Romo.
Has any player had more of a yo-yo first quarter of the season? Has anyone had more of a yo-yo quarter of a season in any season? Goat at the Jets, star (in pain) the next two weeks, and a nightmare of a loss Sunday against Detroit. Romo captained the ship that blew a 27-3 lead and lost to the Lions 34-30. In an eight-play span of the third quarter, Romo threw pick-sixes to linebacker Bobby Carpenter (a groomsman in Romo's wedding last spring) and Chris Houston -- turning that comfy 27-3 lead to a shaky 27-17 lead. The avalanche continued from there.
"I'm glad the third-best wide receiver on the Cowboys is on our team.''
"Do I really have to explain how I'm feeling? Do I really have to explain it? Aaaaaah. Frustrating. It's frustrating.''
"It really seemed like a waste of time, because I felt pretty certain that he wouldn't hire a defensive coach, because he hadn't since Eddie Erdelatz [in 1960]. It's a parade of offensive coaches out there. He's really a defensive coordinator.''
"What's the point of history if history can only be approved talking points?''
Any biography, any true biography, will have good things and bad things in it. The book is 460 pages. The
The Lions, perfect through the season's first quarter, are pretty good. Statistically, they're amazing, and that's no hyperbole.
Last week's regional cover of
Last week, Buffalo defender Drayton Florence was shown prancing home with a 27-yard interception of a Tom Brady pass at Ralph Wilson Stadium in one of Buffalo's biggest wins in years, an emotional victory over the New England Patriots, as a presumably dour Bill Belichick watched from the sideline.
In Week 1 2003, Buffalo defender Sam Adams was shown prancing home with a 37-yard interception of a Brady pass at Ralph Wilson Stadium in one of Buffalo's biggest wins in years, an emotional victory over the Patriots, as a presumably dour Belichick watched from the sideline.
By the way, the final points in each game came on Rian Lindell field goals.
Friday morning, 5:05 a.m., Back Bay Train Station, Boston. Man sitting with a blanket outside the front of the station said to me: "Sir, do you have five dollars?''
"Uh, well, I can give you a buck,'' I said.
I reached in my pocket, took out two ones and handed them to the guy.
"Don't have a five, huh?''
"I'm sure I do, but I'm giving you two.''
The guy grunted and gave me a withering look, and we both went about our day.
"Robert Griffin from Baylor is a beast! I see u youngn.''
"Discussing the PSU QB battle w/my 12-yr-old sister. Her take: 'But sports aren't decided by statistics. C'mon we learned that in
"I just ate ham and eggs. A day's work for a chicken, a lifetime commitment for a pig.''
a. Devin Hester runs backs punts like he's got sensors on his torso, and anytime anyone gets close, he's able to run away -- without, seemingly, getting closer to anyone else with a different uniform. Amazing to watch, and now he has the record for punt returns for touchdowns. Deservedly.
Interestingly, the record-setting punt return is just what Chicago special-teams coach Dave Toub needed. The 11th return for a score by Hester means more and more teams will be paranoid about him returning punts against them and could set up another weird return like the imaginative Toub designed eight days ago against Green Bay. Toub had Hester fake like he was receiving a punt, drawing the coverage to him, while on the other side of the field wideout Johnny Knox made an over-the-shoulder catch of the punt and returned it for a touchdown. A holding penalty negated the return. But as Toub told me, "It's going to get called again.''
Toub, who learned special-teams coaching from John Harbaugh while on the Eagles staff with Harbaugh, the special-teams coordinator, from 2001 to 2003, is fortunate to work with a head coach now, Lovie Smith, who gives him the freedom to call the plays he wants and move the players as he sees fit.
"Lovie gives me the ability to be creative, which helps a lot,'' said Toub. "Every week, we look for different things to do, hoping we can find something that could work. I don't remember exactly how we thought of this, but I study every special-teams play in the league. You just see how much respect Devin gets from every team, and you figure maybe we can use that to our advantage. Teams are so afraid of giving Devin any space. When we practiced it, the guys were like, 'Hey coach, this is going to work.' '' And it did. I look forward to seeing it work again.
b. Charles Woodson with another interception returned for a touchdown. He turns 35 Friday. He's playing like he's 24.
c. That touchdown from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant says so much about the future of the Cowboys -- most notably that the Cowboys will give the still-maturing Bryant lots of rope and that Romo is one of the better touch passers in the league
d. Great job by FOX in Dallas showing presumptive National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers in a box at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, watching his Dallas middle school and high school catcher, Matthew Stafford, quarterback the Lions against the Cowboys.
e. Progress for the Atlanta offensive line: zero sacks allowed.
f. Stat I Do Not Understand: Average yards per rush -- Beanie Wells 5.44, Chris Johnson 2.88.
g. My readers. You prodded me, Marty from Eureka, Ill., to check out an interesting story. Marty asked
h. The one-handed catch Saturday night on the flea-flicker by Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Two questions: You mean he makes acrobatic catches too? Is it possible for NFL scouts to drool any more about this kid? Since opening day 2010: Luck has a 70.9 completion percentage, 40 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
a. Patriots corner Leigh Bodden. Picture of health. Spent all last season on IR, and now is missing with a groin strain. Not exactly what the Pats had in mind for $5.5 a year for four years when they signed him before the 2010 season.
b. Terrible throw by Stafford on the first Lion drive at Dallas, behind and a little high to an open Calvin Johnson, killing the first possession. Looked like Stafford thought Johnson might curl instead of break outside, which he did. But mistakes like that cost teams games.
c. You're not going to get many more chances in big situations if you keep dropping easy catches like the one you dropped in the first quarter from Andy Dalton, Andre Caldwell.
d. No team had more protections issues in Week 4 than the Steelers.
e. So much for it's just another game, Richard Seymour. Weird. Just weird, how Seymour flipped out on the first New England series, getting the unnecessary roughness call for slamming Brady to the ground when everyone else had stopped competing after the whistle, then getting a facemask call five plays later. This was the sign of a guy too geeked up for his own good early on. He finished with three tackles, no sacks, three called penalties -- and handed the Patriots 30 yards on their first drive of the day, which ended with a touchdown.
f. Are you kidding me, Jason Campbell? I mean, are you kidding me, throwing that pass in the end zone to Patrick Chung of the Patriots with no Raider in sight for miles?
g. Joe Flacco at halftime of Jets-Ravens: eight of 27.
h. Flacco and Mark Sanchez for the game: 21 of 66. That's anti-this-year in the NFL.
i. How weird: Flacco's completion's percentage for the season is .493.
j. Shonn Greene. More disappointing by the week.
k. Slightly anointed Cleveland too fast. Browns still haven't beaten a team with a win.
l. The protection for Pittsburgh. I said this about Matt Ryan the last week or two and now I say it about Ben Roethlisberger, who wore a walking boot on the plane home from Houston last night, his left foot having been crunched underneath him on another of many hits by the Texans: He'll never make it to November getting hit like that.
m. Donovan McNabb in the second half. Hard to see how Leslie Frazier goes with him much longer.
n. A win's a win, but Mike Smith's got to be seething at how a 27-7 lead in Seattle became a 30-28, missed-field-goal-at-the-end survival test requiring 47-, 50- and 42-yard Matt Bryant field goals to hang on.
o. The Rams, scoreless for 48 minutes against the Redskins. They've fallen behind the Ravens and Redskins 30-0 and 17-0 the last two weeks.
p. That sure was some commitment by the Broncos to get Tim Tebow in the flow Sunday: one rush, minus-one yard.
q. Anyone seen Danny Woodhead? Other than on a milk carton?
Me: "Denarius, Al Davis is famous for collecting wide receivers who can run. I wonder if you've had a chance to talk to Al about the receiver position and how much you've contributed so far?''
Moore: "I haven't met Al Davis yet but I would like to, soon."
Me: "Do you see him out at practice or around the facility at all?"
Moore: "Ah, no sir. But then again, once we're at practice I'm focusing on the play-calling and what coach is trying to teach us.''
Interesting note about Gent: He was a basketball player at Michigan State and never played a down of college football. Part of the brilliance of the Gil Brandt scouting system at the Cowboys was he'd take great athletes, like Gent, and bring them to training camp in the hopes a few of them might shake out into football players. And the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Gent caught 68 passes, mostly from Don Meredith, in his five Dallas seasons. But his real contribution to the game was telling us what pro football was really like.
Great example Sunday. The show focused mostly on the matchup problems tight ends are posing for defenses. There was superb coaches' video of Tom Brady throwing a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, who had rookie Buffalo corner Aaron Williams on him, and the video was so good because it showed Gronkowski even with Williams -- but Brady was so certain Gronkowski was going to beat him that he threw to the spot where he knew Gronkowski would be open. Perfect throw, smart call on the matchup.
Point is, if you're going to put highly drafted, 6-foot corners on tight ends, and tight ends are still going to win those battles, how do you cover these tremendous athletes? Jermichael Finley on a safety, Jason Witten on a safety ... you're not going to cover this era of tight ends with linebackers anymore.
Reminds me of my trip to Green Bay in the preseason, when Aaron Rodgers told me you'd better play your No. 2 corner on Finley, and Mike McCarthy said at worst you'd better play your nickel defender on him. "Matchup nightmare,'' Rodgers said of Finley. The first month of the season shows he's not the only tight end who is.
It didn't end there. Pereira, for a FOXSports.com column, did about the only thing he could in terms of research: He found how many times per pass-drop each quarterback in the NFL got flagged for a defender hitting him illegally. Vick, per pass play, was ninth in the league, meaning he got the ninth-most roughing calls per pass play in the league. (Now, many of you tweeted me when I credited Pereira for this column, saying it doesn't matter how many flags a quarterback gets, but rather how many times he gets hit and how many flags result from those hits. No kidding! But empirical evidence on that would require the kind of massive research project no one in the media, except maybe ProFootballFocus.com, would have any chance of doing.)
Anyway, I called Pereira Saturday to tell him that, from his comments of the week, it sounded like this is something that had been pent-up in him for some time. "I think you're right,'' Pereira said. "This has been building in me for a while. I got to say some of the things I never was able to say when I worked in the league office. When Michael Vick says something, to many people, perception becomes reality, and I don't think there's any evidence to suggest he is treated differently than other quarterbacks.''
a. A few thoughts on the ouster of the Boston Red Sox, the one team I've followed unwaveringly since 1964. That was a stake-through-the-heart 90 minutes Wednesday night, when the Yankees had a 7-6 lead on the Rays and two outs in the ninth and two strikes on a hitter who hadn't had a big-league hit since April, and Dan Johnson hit a home run to send it to extra innings. (I have no anger toward the Yankees for playing whoever they wanted in the last few days, and keeping Mariano Rivera on the shelf -- they deserved that right. But the capricious and bizarre use of the pitching staff by Joe Girardi, using 11 pitchers, including A.J. Burnett for one batter and five pitches, four days after mix-and-matching five relievers against the Red Sox with leads of 9-0 and 9-1, was, well, the weirdest managing I saw all year.)
• Terry Francona, who managed the 2004 and 2007 World Series winners, parted ways with the Sox and their GM, Theo Epstein, whose major free-agent signings since 2005 are Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron, Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks.
• You can look it up: Since 2005, Epstein has signed those nine players to contracts totaling $462 million, with an additional $51.1 million paid to a Japanese team to acquire Matsuzaka. Of that $513 million spent, and those nine players, only Scutaro has been worth every dime of his contract -- and his deal was only for two years and $12.5 million.
The infantile Lackey has been worth not a nickel of his five-year, $82.5 million deal. The most depressing thought of the 2012 season? That I'll have to sit through even one Lackey start.
Stop giving me stats showing how good Drew's been, and that's he the nth-best right-fielder in the league since signing. A player who, in five years, hasn't scored 90 runs once, hasn't hit 25 homers once, and hasn't driven in 70 runs once is not worth even half of the $14 million a year Drew cost. Period.
Crawford? Jury's out, but that's the nicest thing you can say about what appears to be a declining player who can't play on the big stage. I do like Crawford, because he shows up and plays hard and seems to be pained about not living up to his contract. But the overriding point is, Epstein has done a terrible job restocking a good team over the last six years.
I am a bit mystified why the manager goes and the GM doesn't (unless these Cubs rumors are true), based on the track record in free agency.
Now, Epstein wisely stole Curt Schilling and signed David Ortiz and laid the groundwork for the 2004 and 2007 World Series title. He'll always have a place at the head table in Red Sox history, to be sure. As will Francona. I'll always appreciate what they did, no question. But Epstein's last few years? Royals-like. (I don't include the Adrian Gonzalez trade here, because he was not a free agent. He was acquired in trade with a year left before free agency for the Red Sox's best two minor league prospects, and it was a simple trade to make. How many teams in baseball had the financial wherewithal to make such a deal and then sign him long-term? Two? Three? So don't make that a great score on the Theo ledger. Who was he competing with?)
• If David Ortiz or Gonzalez had a big hit in September, I must have been in the bathroom for it. And as far as it being God's will that the Red Sox didn't make the playoffs, which Gonzalez said Wednesday night, I have this opinion: God does not care who wins a Red Sox-Orioles game on a dank Wednesday night in September. I am sure He has bigger fish to fry than the American League wild card race. I don't care if Gonzalez believes it. It's a dumb thing to say 15 minutes after you're crushingly eliminated from the playoffs.
• The "collapse'' of the Red Sox was two or three months in coming. The starters had a 7.08 ERA in September. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are good and sometimes very good pitchers, but they aren't aces. When your best pitcher in the last month of the season is Alfredo Aceves, and your best clutch hitter is a tie between Jacoby Ellsbury and Marco Scutaro, you have no business backing in, fronting in or sliding into the playoffs. Hats off to those three players, by the way, and to Dustin Pedroia for supreme effort down the stretch. The Scutaro-to-Pedroia-to-Gonzalez double play Wednesday is one of the best I've ever seen.
• Fitting that the runner-up to Francona for the managing job in 2004 (Joe Maddon) managed the 9-0 Tampa Bay win at Texas in the first game of the playoffs Friday, and the former Sox catcher dealt as part of the deal for Coco Crisp (Kelly Shoppach) in 2006 and the former Sox leadoff man (Johnny Damon) combined for three home runs in the game.
• One note, perhaps apropos of nothing, perhaps apropos of everything. In June, my wife and I went to visit my brother-in-law and his family in Pittsburgh. We stayed downtown and planned to go see the Red Sox play Pittsburgh on a Friday night. When we arrived that afternoon, we saw that we were in the Red Sox team hotel. Our room wasn't ready upon arrival, so we sat in the lobby and waited for the room to be made up.
Around 3 or so, David Ortiz walked into the lobby with a couple of friends. A minute or so later, Kevin Youkilis walked into the lobby. He was 10 feet from Ortiz. I'm virtually certain they saw each other, but they didn't acknowledge each other. Youkilis asked the bellman if he could get a taxi. One of Ortiz's friend had a white Yukon brought to the front of the hotel. Within 15 seconds of each other, the Yukon and the taxi appeared, the taxi right behind the Yukon in the driveway of the hotel. Ortiz and friends walked out and got into the Yukon. Youkilis walked out and got into the cab. Both left, presumably for the ballpark, the cab right behind the Yukon.
First thing I thought of: Twenty-five players, 25 cabs, 2011 version. Surprising that two guys in the middle of a lineup are either both blind or simply do not like each other? No. But they can't share a five-minute ride to the ballpark?
• And now, for all of you who say, "Shut up about the Red Sox already,'' I'll shut up. Except to say: How about Jacoby Ellsbury leading baseball in total bases this year, with 11 more than Matt Kemp, 28 more than Ryan Braun and 52 more than Jose Bautista?
b. My 2011 baseball awards: To refresh, before the season, I had as American League division champs Boston, Detroit, Oakland, with Texas the wild card, and as National League division champs Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Colorado, with Atlanta the wild card. I had Crawford (wishful and stupid thinking) and Ryan Braun as MVPs, and Trevor Cahill and Josh Johnson Cy Young winners, with John Farrell and Ron Roenicke managers of the year. Not too good.
My postseason choices: Justin Verlander and Braun, MVPs; Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, Cy Young; Eric Hosmer and Craig Kimbrel, rookies; Joe Maddon and Kirk Gibson, manager ... As for the why-no-Matt Kemp, I'm more inclined to vote my players on winning teams who had to play for something all season, and Braun is close enough to Kemp in numbers (and routs him with a league-high .994 OPS) to get the call.
c. Haven't caught
d. Good job by ESPN on the Steve Bartman documentary
And it occurred to me watching the documentary that if Moises Alou hadn't freaked out over Bartman (and at least four other fans) trying to catch a ball that was extremely close to being either fair game for fans or very slightly in the field of play -- it's still hard to tell after seeing 10 replays -- then probably no one in the stadium would have made a big deal of it. I say probably because you never know if the TV crew would have made a big deal of it the way it did after Alou went nutso.
e. Never knew Dan Patrick got Howard-Sterned live on
f. Startling, jump-of-the-page stat I'd never have thought true: Starlin Castro had 207 hits this season. There's some good news, Cub fans. Now you should hire Francona.
g. You actually had Ian Kennedy pitch to Prince Fielder with first base open, down 2-1, Saturday, Kirk Gibson? Might want to rethink that.
h. Coffeenerdness: Green Mountain K-cup French Roast: as good as a top French roast, brewed or French-pressed. Choose the six-ounce setting for concentrated dark coffee. No bitterness. Good and dark.
i. Beernerdness: Sure am glad I don't take a lot of the evening trips on the Acela. That Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA is so strong that drinking two of them is almost like taking a Lunesta.
k. I'll never, ever get to it.
All the Bucs have to worry about, with Curtis (Trying To Stave Off Being A House) Painter making his starting NFL debut, is the Indy pass-rush. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are certainly not mailing this season in, if last week's superb effort against the Steelers is any indication.