Here are two questions for you to start your Championship Week: What would have happened if Ernie Accorsi hadn't had such a backbone on April 24, 2004? And what would have happened if A.J. Smith had played hardball with Accorsi as the clock wound down on the fourth overall pick of the 2004 NFL Draft, with just seven minutes to go and the Giants on the clock?
Ben Roethlisberger a Giant.
Osi Umenyiora (not Shawne Merriman) a Charger.
Eli Manning a Charger.
It takes a big story to throw the 49ers off the front page of Monday Morning Quarterback today -- and you Niner fans will get your love soon enough, courtesy of the man who made the block of the year in NFL -- but the fates of Manning and Umenyiora, after their huge combined role in the Giants' 37-20 trouncing of the top-seeded Packers last evening, were on my mind as I sat down to write. I've told the story of the 2004 draft and the Manning/Chargers/Giants love triangle before, but the Umenyiora part of it has never gotten its due.
Smith, the Chargers' rookie GM at the time, asked then-Giants GM Accorsi for unknown second-year pass-rusher Umenyiora in the week before the draft. No, Accorsi said; I don't trade young pass-rushers. San Diego had the first pick in the draft, and Manning said he didn't want to play for San Diego, but the Chargers picked him anyway -- and everyone in football knew they wanted North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers instead; the Manning pick was going to force the Giants to deal a ransom for him because Accorsi loved Manning and Smith knew it. So with the Giants on the clock, Smith called again.
"He brought up Umenyiora again,'' Accorsi told me last night, "and I said no. We were not giving him up. There was no way.''
So now the trade teetered. If Smith had insisted on Umenyiora and killed the deal, Accorsi had an ace up his sleeve: He could trade down three spots and pick up a second-round pick from Cleveland ... and still draft the Giants' No. 2 quarterback on the board, Ben Roethlisberger from Miami of Ohio. The Giants liked Manning much more, but Accorsi wouldn't budge on Umenyiora. Accorsi offered the Giants' first- and third-round picks in '04, and an '05 first-rounder. "We still want Osi,'' Smith told him.
Tick, tick, tick ...
Two minutes left.
Accorsi's last, best offer.
"No Osi,'' he said. "That's still a deal-breaker. But we'll throw in a six next year.''
Pause on the line from San Diego.
Tick, tick, tick ...
"Make it a four,'' Smith said.
"I'll give you a five,'' Accorsi said.
On Sunday, here came the Packers, down 20-10 to start the second half, starting and stopping down the field, trying desperately to find some rhythm. Five minutes into the half, Aaron Rodgers had the Pack at the Giants' 30, and it was first down, and he took the snap and looked over a packed secondary that had frustrated him throughout the first half. From Rodgers' left, Umenyiora took an inside move against left tackle Chad Clifton, beating him as Clifton flailed away.
Now 30 and coming off knee and ankle injuries and a contract hissing match with current GM Jerry Reese earlier this season, Umenyiora sped in and batted the ball out of Rodgers' hand just as he went to pass. (Telling stat from FOX just then: The forced fumble was the 32nd of Umenyiora's nine-year career. That's a lot.) Giants recovered. Packers never got closer than seven the rest of the way. Umenyiora had two of the Giants' four sacks, and the line made sure Rodgers was never comfortable all day.
Accorsi liked defensive linemen, and he stocked this team with Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka before he left the team after the 2006 season. In came Reese, and he's taken it up a notch: Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard in free agency, along with Dave Tollefson (a seventh-round pick from Green Bay who was cut, signed to Oakland's practice squad, and then signed by the Giants from the Raiders), and Linval Joseph and Jason Pierre-Paul in the draft. Can't have enough defensive linemen. That, plus their cool quarterback and his receiving weapons, is why the Giants are one win away from their second Super Bowl in four years.
"People have always depicted what we did in that '04 draft as an obsession with Eli Manning,'' said Accorsi. "It wasn't. If we'd have had to, we'd have taken Roethlisberger, and we'd have been fine with that. We just weren't giving up Umenyiora.''
Almost eight years later, Accorsi's stubbornness is a big reason the Giants are headed to San Francisco for Sunday's NFC Championship Game ... and just as big a reason the Packers feel so deflated this morning.
Five most noteworthy events of the playoff weekend, with Ravens-Patriots and Giants-49ers on deck:
FOX counted eight Green Bay drops; I counted six. Victor Cruz found big gaps in Packer coverage. Hakeem Nicks scored on a Hail Mary that Packer safety Jarrett Bush, who had the best seat in the house to see, let him have. The Packers looked a lot more like a 7-9 team Sunday than 15-1. Credit the Giants quarterback for being better than the presumptive MVP, the Giants receivers being better, and the Giants defense being loads better.
Four years ago, New England scored 34 or more 11 times in the regular season, then won by 11 and nine in the playoffs before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. They had Randy Moss in his prime then, and he was great. I'd rather have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Seems like a little thing for Miami to surrender with owner Stephen Ross wanting Fisher badly, but consider this: The last six Super Bowl winners leave the final draft and personnel say up to the general manager. Maybe Miami should have given in, but that would have violated Ireland's contract and changed the structure Ross wanted in place. ... and flown in the face of the way most (but not all) winning teams operate.
Phenomenal finish. One of the best ends of a game of all time, with an embattled quarterback and formerly banished-from-the-sidelines tight end making the throw and catch of their lives, and the Saints fighting back, and so many big plays happening so fast you couldn't keep track of them. But the play I'll never forget is that weird Alex Smith bootleg called by offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Why call that play then, with so many things that could go wrong? Why do it on 3rd-and-8 with 2:18 left in the game (in the season, quite possibly), at the New Orleans 28-yard line ... what causes a team to take such a risk as the Niners did?
"The Saints had been blitzing us all day,'' left tackle Joe Staley told me Sunday, still a little hoarse from Saturday's craziness. "So there was probably a 50-50 chance they blitz here, and if they blitz off the side we're going to run, to the left, then it's a crappy play.''
A crappy play that could push David Akers to a missable field goal. Fifty yards, maybe, if Smith is tackled for a loss.
"Who knows why,'' said Staley, "but they brought a blitz from the right. So the play we called was perfect for the blitz they put on. Alex was basically running away from it. The receiver [in motion from the left], Kyle Williams, did a good job sealing off the defensive end, and my job was to pull around the end for the alley defender [the lone safety on the second level of the play] so I could block him. We had this play up for the Giants game a few weeks ago, and Alex ran it to, I think, the two-yard line. Then we didn't have it [in any gameplan] for the rest of the year, until this week.
"Pretty amazing we called that play, and the Saints gave us exactly what we needed.''
Staley, from the snap, sprinted out to his left, out of the traffic jam at the line of scrimmage. Smith was three steps behind him, and it's to Staley's credit that he was fast enough to stay ahead of Smith as he ran down the left sideline. If Smith could stay tight-roped along the sideline, the only man between him and the goal line was safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Could Staley take him out, or would Abdul-Quddus be deft enough to avoid him and push Smith out of bounds?
"We practice cut blocks,'' Staley said. "There's a technique for it. You dive for the upfield [leg] and just make sure you get a piece of him.''
Staley dove at the 12-, rolling toward Abdul-Quddus' legs. At the 10-, Staley's torso hit both of them, and the safety went down like the headpin nailed by a bowling ball.
"I assumed I was in front of Alex, but it's not like you can look around to find out exactly where he is,'' Staley said. "But when I was on the ground, I heard the roar of the crowd and I figured something good happened. It's pretty funny this play happens now, right when all the Tim Tebow stuff is happening. When we'd watch Tebow in college, we'd say, 'Alex was Tebow before Tebow.' You know, Alex was coached by Urban Meyer, and then Tebow was, and they did a lot of the same things.''
It's the block of Staley's life, and he knows it. A textbook cut block in the open field, the kind coaches will show their linemen and tight ends and backs and wideouts and say, "This is how to block downfield.'' For linemen, a thing of beauty.
"Pretty special,'' Staley said. "You just play to do your job the best you can on every play, because you don't know when the big play is coming. You don't know which play's the big play. All the work we do as a team, and to know your season can come down to that one play. Pretty amazing.''
Then it wasn't over. Smith got the ball one last time, inside the two-minute warning, and had to take the Niners 85 yards to save their season. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but it was, and that just makes the story better. Alex Smith wasn't supposed to be able to be clutch. He wasn't supposed to even be the quarterback of the Niners now. The fact that he was still around, and the Niners were counting on him to save the year ... his teammates loved it.
"We just appreciate him as a man,'' Staley said. "Never one time has he thrown anyone under the bus, even though he's got a new coordinator or different offense every year. And it's so fitting Alex went toe to toe with Drew Brees, in a playoff game, and no one gave him a chance, and the game comes down to Alex against Brees in his first playoff game, and he makes that run, and then he makes that touchdown throw to Vernon Davis, right on the money. It's just fantastic. It happened the way it should have.''
After the game, Staley found Smith. He hugged him. "You deserve this,'' Staley told Smith. They both knew he did.
Found myself looking out at the Patriots' dismantling of Denver thinking:
1. No one uses two tight ends like the Patriots. Gronkowski blocks and catches, and the uber-athletic Hernandez has the moves of a wide receiver. Two tight ends, 261 total yards, four touchdowns. In one game.
2. No one moves a struggling first-round corner to deep safety in the middle of the season, but that's what the Patriots did. That's where Devin McCourty played most of Saturday night.
3. No one plays with a fired Oakland practice-squad safety, Sterling Moore, at cornerback in the playoffs, or backup wideout Julian Edelman, at nickel back, in the playoffs. The Patriots do. Every time I looked up Saturday night, Moore was on an island with Demaryius Thomas or Eddie Royal. A safety in Oakland, not good enough to stay on their practice squad last September, on the street in October. Now Moore's playing 36 snaps at corner (according to the charting of ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss) in a divisional playoff game.
Bill Belichick's a mad scientist. He knew his defense had to change when it was getting strafed so badly in midseason, and he changed it, drastically. Who knows if it works another eight quarters. But 10 seasons after he used a bunch of middle-class free agents to help New England win its first Super Bowl, Belichick is scotch-taping another run together with Tom Brady playing at his peak, and a bunch of complementary pieces on the chess board. Should be fun to watch.
Weird harmonic convergence of sorts in the last couple of weeks. Let me explain.
My agent for television negotiations is a lawyer from California named Marvin Demoff, who has represented many high-profile players and coaches over the years. His son, Kevin Demoff, is the executive vice president of football operations and chief operations officer of the St. Louis Rams. I've known Kevin, through Marvin, since he was in college.
Marvin Demoff is also the agent for Jeff Fisher, who is in the process of agreeing to terms on a contract to coach the Rams. Last week, Fisher was torn between the Rams and the Dolphins when making a final decision about where he wanted to coach in 2011 and beyond, and he chose the Rams, and I'm sure many people in the football business, and fans smart enough to see what was going on, thought: Of course Fisher went to St. Louis. Marvin Demoff is taking care of his son.
If you feel I'm incapable of being straight down the middle in covering the Fisher story, I understand. I wouldn't try to convince you otherwise. Just know that I'm trying to be balanced about it; you'll be the judge whether I am or not.
The larger story, though, seems to me to be the inference I've heard in some circles that the fix was in with Fisher and the two Demoffs. I spoke to Fisher last night about it. I'm not asking you to believe that this would be reported the same way if it were the
Q: Did you ever feel Marvin Demoff was trying to move you toward St. Louis, in any way?
Fisher: "Under no circumstances at any time. I have 100 percent conviction on that. This was my decision, and Marvin assisted me. I was the one who decided. No one pushed me anywhere.''
Q: How did you decide?
Fisher: "From day one, when I began this process after the season, I felt Miami and St. Louis were my best options. I did my research. I looked at every team that had an opening. I looked at the personnel on each team, I looked at the owners, I looked at the cap situations, and I narrowed it to two. Not Marvin. Me. Marvin didn't push me. I am convinced he was completely objective.''
Fisher went on to say at the start of the process he was interested in a team that had a good owner and good quarterback, and he felt St. Louis had the best combination of both.
My interpretation, which I stated higher in this column, is that the fact that the Dolphins wanted to keep their GM-with-the-roster-power structure in place was a factor in Fisher choosing the Rams. Not the major factor, but a factor at the end that played into Fisher picking St. Louis.
The Tim Tebow story was fun while it lasted. But now what? I don't subscribe to the school of thought that Tebow can't succeed as a full-time NFL quarterback. We don't know that for sure. I'm like John Elway in this regard: I'd like to see Tebow have one full offseason, and team minicamps and training camp, working with the first unit for the first full offseason of his three in the NFL.
Denver should backstop Tebow with a second- or third-round prospect and either Brady Quinn or an option type of quarterback like Tebow, in the event of an in-game injury; that way the Broncos won't have to revolutionize their offense in the middle of a game. Finally, this: Denver cannot enter the 2012 season with the same predictable play-calling, with that inside handoff or Tebow sprinting into an option. It limits the offense way too much.
The reality of Tebow's 2011 season is he had some great moments and eight wins. But he also plateaued. He simply has to be more accurate to have a chance to be a long-term NFL quarterback. Check out the first five quarterback starts of the season, with Kyle Orton playing, and the last five starts, all by Tebow.
This is a critical offseason for Tebow. There's no question he'll put in the work. The only question is this: Is he physically capable of training his arm and his head to be a significantly more accurate passer? If so, he'll have a long career. But accuracy doesn't often increase significantly in NFL quarterbacks. It can get better, but most often the improvements come in small doses. We shall see.
Green Bay couldn't hang on for the entire season, and I'm at a loss to separate New England, the Giants and San Francisco. Call it what it is: the honest-to-goodness Copout Fine Fifteen:
"History was running through my mind. Us against no, us against can't.''
"How the hell is that not a fumble?''
"I'm sure if we win, I'll have nothing to do with why we won.''
You can make numbers say what you want them to say, and Flacco had a good passer rating for this game (97.1) after a 14-of-27 day with two touchdowns and no interceptions. But if you watched the game, you know Flacco missed his share of open receivers and didn't have a very good day.
"I have a great deal of confidence in me.''
"Al Michaels is my favorite. By far. C'mon, everybody misses John Madden. It sucks that he's retired, but at least we've still got Michaels. He is the last of the true icons still calling games. Just hearing his voice, it's nostalgic, man. It brings you back to when you were a little kid. His voice is ill. I don't know how long Al Michaels plans on doing the Sunday night games for NBC, but if he retired tomorrow, it would really [expletive] suck.''
The Carolina Panthers scored 210 more points in 2011 (406) than they did in 2010 (196).
Cam Newton accounted for 210 points in 2011. He threw for 21 touchdowns and ran for 14. Those 35 touchdowns, multiplied times six points, equal 210.
Busy week for NFL referee Gene Steratore, who traveled a long way to go 21 miles between Tuesday and Saturday evenings.
On Tuesday, he reffed the Louisville-Providence Big East men's basketball game in downtown Providence. He woke up Wednesday and flew from Providence to Lincoln, Neb., a distance of 1,489 miles, to do the Penn State-Nebraska men's game that night. Then he flew back east, and Saturday night he was in Foxboro to do the Denver-New England AFC divisional playoff game.
Providence is a popular place to stay before and after Patriots games because of its proximity to Foxboro. Steratore had to take a 2,978-mile detour to spend two working nights in eastern New England.
Busy Beaver, that Steratore. He got up early Sunday and flew to Columbus to do the Big Ten battle between Ohio State and Indiana.
The Oakland Raiders might be the most impetuous drafting organization in NFL history, and the 2012 draft is a good example.
They traded the first-round pick in October as part of the Carson Palmer deal with Cincinnati.
They traded the second-round pick last April as part of a deal to obtain New England's third- and fourth-round picks in 2011. Oakland used those picks to take tackle Joseph Barksdale and running back Taiwan Jones, neither of whom started a game for the Raiders in 2011.
They gave up the third-round pick in August to choose Terrelle Pryor in the Supplemental Draft. Pryor has not seen the field yet.
They traded the fourth-round pick to Washington in 2010 for quarterback Jason Campbell. Campbell got hurt in October and is a free agent, likely to play elsewhere in 2012.
They traded the seventh-round pick to Seattle as part of a deal to obtain linebacker Aaron Curry in October. He played well for the Raiders after the trade.
Not including compensatory draft picks, that means the Raiders' first regular draft choice in 2012 will be on day three, midway through the fifth round, on approximately the 148th overall selection. (The exact choice depends on how many compensatory picks the league will dole out this spring.) The Raiders' first choice, a compensatory pick for the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency, would be at the end of the third round at the earliest -- the 97th pick overall.
The Raiders have also surrendered their second-round pick in 2013 as part of the Carson Palmer trade; that pick could rise to a first-rounder if the Raiders make the AFC title game next year. And they've also lost a mid-round pick in 2013 as part of the Aaron Curry trade.
So let's tally this up.
In 2012, Oakland has two of its seven draft picks left.
In 2013, Oakland has five of its seven draft picks left.
With holes in an aging roster, they've traded seven of their 14 draft choices in the next two drafts ... including a one, two twos and a three.
Good thing new owner Mark Davis gave GM Reggie McKenzie a long-term contract.
Location, Location, Location Dept.:
There is a Renaissance Hotel built into the Gillette Stadium complex. A media friend of mine stayed there while on assignment for the Broncos-Patriots game over the weekend. On Friday night, his stadium-view room cost $299 plus tax. On Saturday, game day, the room went for $709.
Add tax to that a room tax of $40.41 and an "occupancy tax'' of $42.54. (I've always loved that one -- the occupancy tax. Hoteliers are taxing you because you're occupying the room. Well, what did you expect us to do with the room? Use it to shoot free throws?)
Total bill for staying in a regular Marriott Hotel room for one evening: $791.95.
So my friend went back to the hotel 90 minutes after the game, after working for the day, looking for a cold beer before bed. Bar closed.
All in all, a heck of a two-day stay in Foxboro. I can only hope his accounting department at work understands when he files an expense report for two nights at a Renaissance Hotel, and the bill for the room tops $1,100.
"Here's the crazy thing,'' my buddy told me. "The place was sold out.''
"A repeat of the unexpected news that broke in 1957: NY Giants heading to San Francisco.''
"Ravens, Niners & Giants: the 3 teams that run & defend the best, all still alive. PATS will their hands full with any of them."
"That said ... I'll take my chances with Brady, Belichick & #75 any day! #GOPATS''
a. Tremendous block from Frank Gore on Saints defensive end Will Smith near the goal line.
b. The throw from Brees to Marques Colston at the right pylon, dropped in the arms of Colston perfectly.
c. Justin Smith never taking a play off.
d. Brees, who deserves criticism for throwing twice into coverage and costing his team, deserves more praise for his two long drives to put the Saints up twice in the last four minutes.
e. New England left tackle Matt Light, who kept pressure off Brady all night.
f. Steratore's a really good ref. Thought he had the best day of any ref this weekend.
g. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich, for being big keys in bottling Tebow.
h. Johnathan Joseph on Torrey Smith. That's why they paid him the big bucks in Houston.
i. Rick Smith, the Houston GM, for choosing J.J. Watt in the first round, Brooks Reed in the second.
j. Anquan Boldin's ability to catch the ball in traffic. I mean, who's better?
k. Arian Foster -- brilliant day. He's the best all-around back in the game, and if that one-handed pluck out of the air didn't prove it, you were watching a different game. As a pure runner, Adrian Peterson, surgery and all, is my pick. But for every aspect of the game, Foster is the guy.
l. After picking off Manning deep in his territory in the second quarter, Packer safety Morgan Burnett made a play with two minutes left in the half of a 10-10 game that if you weren't watching very carefully, you would have missed Burnett saving four points. Manning had tight end Jake Ballard slightly open in the end zone for what appeared to be a five-yard touchdown pass. Manning threw, and Burnett got a fingertip on the ball (nothing more; maybe even a fingernail) and the ball was knocked off its path just a little bit, and it hit Ballard in the hand. Not a drop, but a misdirection of the ball at the last second.
m. Eli Manning, for owning January again.
n. What a blitz pickup by Ahmad Bradshaw on the Giants' first drive of the game.
o. Wow. Jermichael Finley pancaked Jason Pierre-Paul on the first Packer snap of the game.
a. The phrase "divisional playoffs.'' Stupid title for the weekend.
b. Courtney Roby, your role is special teams. That's pretty much it. When you muff a kickoff, then kick it into the arms of the Niners, and hand them three points, that's a good way to have your role eliminated.
c. Malcolm Jenkins in the open field against Vernon Davis, and then Roman Harper in the end zone
d. Gregg Williams' defense. Horrible execution in almost certainly his last game in New Orleans. (I reported Wednesday it was likely the Saints defensive coordinator, whose contract is expiring in New Orleans, will join Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.)
e. Michael Crabdrop.
f. Jermichael Findrop.
g. James Starks, Tom Crabtree, drops on consecutive throws.
h. And James Starks: You've got to pick up the rushing linebacker better than that, son.
i. T.J. Yates. Look, he's a kid, and he was in an impossible spot. But he made two truly dumb throws (and was intercepted on a third), right into the hands of Ravens.
j. The Packers. That's it. Just the Packers. Other than the overtime loss to the Giants four years ago for the NFC crown, this was as disappointing a playoff loss as the team has had since Ron Wolf reinvented them 20 years ago.
k. Idiotic that the Packers have to burn a replay challenge to prove what everyone in America saw: Randall Cobb's knee was certainly down before the ball came out.
l. Bill Leavy. I must be the only guy in America who didn't think his non-reversal on the Greg Jennings fumble or non-fumble was horrible. But his blow-to-Rodgers'-head call, extending a desperation fourth-quarter drive, was a fictitious call if I ever saw one. I wouldn't expect to see Leavy doing any games until next September.
Whoa now. Those are very serious charges. Does Haley have proof that a federal crime has been committed and his phone was tampered with, or an office he works in has been bugged so team management could spy on him and other employees? If he has proof or something more than simple paranoia, out with it -- and expose the team for something incredibly scurrilous. If not, that's a damaging rap to lay on someone, or an organization. Haley needs to set the record straight.
a. I guess that supposedly good Miss America omen didn't quite work out. Miss America was named Saturday night, and Laura Kaeppeler, from Wisconsin, was supposed to be the good-luck charm of the Packers. No dice.
b. Happy Martin Luther King Day.
c. Favorite MLK quote: "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.''
d. Red Sox alive? Making any moves to combat the Yankees' 13-man starting rotation? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
e. Glad to have helped a few of you discover
f. I saw a movie!
g. Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Meryl Streep of male actors. He can do it all.
h. Missed the Golden Globes. What'd I miss?
i. Coffeenerdness: So I was in Boston over the weekend, and I walked into one of my three former Starbucks there, and the gal behind the counter, who I recognized, pointed to me and said: "Triple grande hazelnut latte.'' Wow. Impressive. You've got me. Maybe that's not entirely a good thing.
j. Beernerdness: So I was in Boston over the weekend, and I went to the House of Blues Friday night to see the Peter Gammons band play Rolling Stones covers. A good time was had by all -- particularly getting reacquainted with Harpoon IPA. The Harpoon line can't be beat.
k. Have a fun Championship Week. Home teams are 7-1 so far, but I don't see an easy road for either San Francisco or New England next weekend.