If the Saints make something of this wreckage of a season -- with Sean Payton watching on TV from his place in Dallas, with the fate of their reputation in so many courtrooms and lawyers' offices in Washington and New York, with one interim/interim coach giving way to an interim coach this morning, with the new judge and jury in the case the savior of football in New Orleans -- they'll look back at a play every Pop Warner, junior high school, high school, college and NFL coach should show their players before practice today. They'll look at a trait that warms the heart of every fan, a trait so many of us think is missing all too often from the games we invest so much of ourselves in.
"I knew I had a long way to go,'' Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said from Tampa after a scintillating 35-28 win over the Bucs. "I knew I just had to go."
"What was going through your mind?'' I asked. "What were you thinking?''
"Not much thinking,'' he said. "Just, 'Go as fast as you can.' ''
Let's describe what Malcolm Jenkins, and the Saints, faced with seven minutes to go in the third quarter Sunday afternoon at Tampa. The Saints led 28-21 and had the Bucs pinned at their 4-yard line. At 1-4, and 4.5 games out of first place in the NFC South, New Orleans faced a must-win game here to have any shred of playoff hope.
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman lofted a throw to wide receiver Vincent Jackson between the numbers and the left sideline, and Jackson caught it at the 26 in full stride, having beaten two Saints defenders. Every Saint's heart sank. There was nobody between Jackson and the goal line, 74 yards away. It was a gimme touchdown.
I've looked up the dimensions of the NFL field, and ran the play over and over about 20 times on NFL Game Rewinds in the wee hours of this morning. This is what Jenkins faced as he turned from covering his man to look at Jackson catching the ball: He was at the far right hashmark on the other side of the field, precisely 27 yards across the field and three yards behind where Jackson was in full gallop. It looked impossible, but Jenkins said he didn't think of that. "Just, 'Go as fast you can.' ''
Right away, you could see he might have a chance. Jackson, who'd been limited all week in practice because of a calf strain, was running at tight end speed. Jenkins, who runs about a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, took a very good angle, from watching the replay over and over. It looked like he aimed to go on a straight line from where he began, at about the Bucs' 23, to the Saints' 20. Running at a bad angle here would have ruined him. If he aimed to catch Jackson near the goal line, he wouldn't be able to contact him in time.
"Vincent Jackson, he's not slow,'' Jenkins said. "I think what affected the play is we were in a regular Cover 2, and they quick-snapped the ball. Roman Harper went for the ball against Jackson, but they completed it, and then nobody's around. So the first thing is to just run and see what happens.''
When Jackson got to midfield, Jenkins was 10 yards to the side and six yards behind.
"I saw him start to slow down a bit,'' Jenkins said.
"I obviously wasn't 100 percent,'' Jackson said.
When Jackson got to the Saints' 30, Jenkins was three yards to the side and three yards behind. Jackson looked to his right and seemed to feel him gaining. At the 20, Jenkins was two strides from being able to touch Jackson. At about the 12, Jenkins, now behind him, reached out and contacted Jackson. At first touch, Jackson was at the 10. When Jenkins got both hands on him, Jackson was at the 7. Then it was a pigpile on Jackson, who contacted the earth, with Jenkins on his back, at the 1.5-yard line.
"That was a great feeling, to catch him,'' said Jenkins.
He wasn't the only one in pursuit. On his tail were linebacker Jonathan Casillas and corner Jabari Greer. Casillas picked up Jenkins and Greer was there to tell him what a wonderful human being he was. So this wasn't only one Saint who thought to try to do the impossible -- it was three who chased Jackson for 70 yards in what looked to be the impossible dream.
No time to back-pat. The ball was spotted at the 1.5-yard line, and the play clock started. Jackson went to the sideline and fresh troops came in for Tampa Bay, including a fresh running back, LeGarrette Blount. But Jenkins stayed in. The Saints stoned the Bucs on first and second down. Now it was 3rd-and-goal from exactly the 1. Jenkins was still huffing and puffing when he lined up outside the right end's shoulder. "Third down,'' Jenkins said. "No time to be tired, or to feel sorry for yourself. Not much being said at that point." At the snap of the ball, Jenkins evaded the scrum and shot past the line, driving and corralling Blount's right leg. No gain. And Freeman's weak try at a play-action rollout on fourth down was foiled by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who pushed him out at the 5.
"The defense really stepped up,'' said Jenkins, "and stoned 'em." Leave it to Drew Brees to take the Saints 95 yards the other way then, for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. Within minutes, the game that should have been a 28-28 tie turned into a 35-21 Saints lead.
"A 14-point swing in what could have been a tie game,'' said Jenkins. "That was huge.''
The Saints' problems aren't over. They're still adjusting to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's new scheme, which de-emphasizes the endless blitzing former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams commandeered. It's not a great day for the defense when it gives us 28 points and 513 yards. But they won because they didn't give up the 514th yard. (And because, even though the rule needs to be studied because it can be abused, the Bucs' Mike Williams was pushed out of the end zone on a Freeman scramble on the last play of the game, meaning Williams wasn't able to return to the field as an eligible receiver.) They won because Jenkins hustled like he was taught back when he started playing football, like every young player is. The play's not over until it's over.
So the Saints have 10 games left. Maybe the wild card teams ahead of them beat each other up -- and defeat each other. It probably won't matter if the Saints don't grasp Spagnuolo's D and start rushing the passer better. But here's what they face: Peyton Manning Sunday in Denver, Atlanta twice, the Niners at home, the Super Bowl champ Giants on the road, and a charitable three-game season-ending stretch (Tampa Bay, at Dallas, Carolina). If the Saints can find a way to go 8-2 and save one of the strangest seasons in NFL history, every man in that locker room -- and the coach in exile, watching on TV -- will have Jenkins to thank.
Now for the rest of what's happening in a busy Week 7.
The Texans expose the Ravens. The chorus will be loud in Baltimore today. We had 59 offensive plays, and Ray Rice touched the ball on only 14 of them? Crazy! That's missing the point. If Joe Flacco isn't better than he was Sunday (21 of 43 for a pathetic 45.4 rating), and if he isn't better than he's been recently (53 percent passer over his last three games), the Ravens will have a very short postseason run -- if they have one at all.
On Sunday in Houston, outside linebacker Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks last year, none through six games this year) sacked Flacco for a first-quarter safety, then spent the rest of the day living behind the line of scrimmage. That is, when he and Brooks Reed, his bookend outside linebacker, weren't spying Rice to take him out of logical Flacco aim. "We knew they'd be throwing a lot, because they'd been throwing so much -- more than anybody except the Patriots coming in,'' Barwin said from Houston. "I think spying Rice helped. We did that on a lot of third downs because we knew Flacco liked to go to him so much on third down.''
Smart game-planning by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips -- and by the way, the Texans cannot allow Phillips to get away; the Son of Bum must retire in Houston as a proper circle-of-life move because he's so good at moving these excellent Texans puzzle pieces around -- and superb play by Barwin and friends. "I'd been on the schneid,'' Barwin said. "Everybody thinks about itwhen it's been this long [since I've gotten a sack].'' But Barwin's just too quick and instinctive, and he's surrounded by too many good players, to stay on the schneid. The Texans enter the bye week the no-doubt leaders in the AFC clubhouse.
Robert Griffin III leaves his mark in New Jersey. I always judge the mark of an incredible play in an NFL game by the reaction it gets in the NBC viewing room on the fifth floor of our Rockefeller Center building in Manhattan. And when Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III had a 4th-and-10 with 2:07 left at the Meadowlands, his team down 20-16 to the Giants, this is the sound I recall hearing from the likes of Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy, Dan Patrick, Mike Florio and a score of other football wackos in the room as Griffin took the snap, looked for a receiver, found them covered, then rolled left, Giants chasing him -- "Getridofit! ... Noooooo! .... Whoaa!!! ... Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!''
Sounded louder than "Born To Run" at a Springsteen concert. Somehow, some way, as the law was closing in, Griffin, stumbling forward, threw a low 19-yard strike to tight end Logan Paulsen. "Even though you don't know what's going to happen, you have some kind of feeling that something good is going to happen,'' RGIII said. "That's the way I try to play. No matter what's called I always feel like it's going to work. If it doesn't work, we will make it work some way or another.''
Watching this game, I kept thinking how glad I was that Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen paid whatever it is they paid to deal for Griffin. And whatever it is, it'll be worth it. He's one of the great, special players to come into the league in the 29 seasons I've covered it. No play's ever over. Though he's running for his well-being on 10 or 12 plays a game, he still leads the NFL after seven games of his rookie year with a 70.4 percent completion rate. Once he gets the kind of protection Shanahan and Allen will build for him, he'll be better, and the Redskins will be competing for championships. That's right -- plural.
"I'm pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East,'' Justin Tuck of the Giants said. "To face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache. He takes away from your enthusiasm for the game a little bit, when you play a play perfectly and he still has 4.3 speed to run by guys and make plays.''
Tuck's GM, Jerry Reese, has the right idea taking all those defensive linemen high in drafts. He shouldn't stop. They need to come in droves at Griffin, because he'll tire them out. Three plays after the miracle 4th-and-10 conversion, Griffin threw the go-ahead touchdown pass, a perfect 30-yarder right over Santana Moss' shoulder. I thought that was the ballgame.
And yet, there's Eli to win another game late. Eli Manning is decidedly the anti-RGIII, a pocket guy who can escape trouble but not make a living at it. What Manning does is precisely what he did after Griffin strafed the Giants: He threw a perfect arcing shot to Victor Cruz, splitting two Washington defenders, for a 77-yard winner. Manning is amazing. Fourth quarter after fourth quarter -- Patriots, Niners, Packers, Redskins, whoever -- it doesn't matter. There is no quarterback in the NFL in the same league as Manning when the game's on the line. And for a kid, Griffin's pretty clutch himself.
So get used to this. Manning's had a good rivalry with Tony Romo, and an OK rivalry with Michael Vick. But Manning-RGIII could really be special. Manning's 31. Griffin's 22. I hope Sunday was the first of about 20 meetings in the regular season and postseason between them.
Dot-dot-dot on Week 7.
Snap counts you need to know: Tim Tebow, five (four carries for 12 yards) from scrimmage, three on special teams; Jonathan Vilma, 18 (25 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps); Terrell Suggs, 44 (55 percent of the Ravens on defense) ... Throw of the day: Aaron Rodgers' 39-yard arcing, perfect strike into the arms of Randall Cobb in the end zone for Cobb's second touchdown of the day. Rodgers, over the last two games, is a 73-percent passer with nine touchdowns and no picks ...
I asked the new owner of the Browns, Jimmy Haslam, what he would say to Browns fans across the country about the future of the franchise. "Thank you for your phenomenal support over the years. We'll do everything in our power to give you the winner you deserve,'' he said. The reason why I don't see an all-powerful coach-GM type going to Cleveland is because, as Haslam said, he and new president Joe Banner "will work collectively on all major decisions.'' My gut feeling is Tom Heckert's a long-shot to stay as GM and Pat Shurmur needs to have a very strong finish -- losing in Indy didn't help Sunday -- to have a chance to stay. When the 2013 season kicks off, the Browns want to have the braintrust (Banner, the coach and the GM) in place for several years. Haslam believes in the stability of the Pittsburgh model ...
After 27 days of treatment in an Indianapolis cancer center, leukemia-stricken Colts coach Chuck Pagano was released Sunday morning in time to be able to watch the Colts' win over Cleveland at home. As I said on NBC last night, interim coach Bruce Arians said he hoped Pagano -- who, despite his medical condition, remains intensely involved in the team -- didn't strain himself coaching from bed. "The win is so much better because of the news Chuck was able to be home,'' said Arians ... I know the Steelers had safety help consistently for A.J. Green last night, but there's no good that, with Troy Polamalu out of the lineup, Green catches one ball for eight yards against the Steelers ... Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein takes his act to London with the Rams this week, as St. Louis plays the Patriots at Wembley Stadium. In seven games, he's made 10 field goals of 46 yards or longer ... Jay Glazer reported on FOX Sunday that the league is investigating the Chargers for using illegal stickum. My question: Ever felt the tackiness of the gloves players wear? Those things are like having Elmer's glue on your hands. Why on earth do you need something to make the hands stickier? If this is true, and Glazer's evidence sounded compelling, the league will hit San Diego hard, because you can't have teams wildcatting unfair equipment -- though, as I say, I can't imagine how the goop can make players much more sure-handed.
So what does the Paul Tagliabue appointment to hear the Saints' appeals mean?
"I think it's a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator," the most aggrieved party, Jonathan Vilma, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune Sunday. "We expect that he is going to do things in a neutral capacity, which would be to allow us to cross-examine some of the witnesses, allow us to see more of the evidence -- if there is more evidence -- and be able to have a fair hearing. We just want to see the evidence, to face our accusers and be able to cross-examine them.''
The union has been noticeably quiet about commissioner Roger Goodell's decision to recuse himself and name Tagliabue, which Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, an attorney, rightfully views as the players association retaining the right to protest the appointment if Tagliabue makes some early decisions in the case the union doesn't like. Goodell, I'm told, had several conversations with union boss De Smith about Tagliabue. And though Tagliabue's firm in Washington, Covington and Burling, is representing Goodell in Vilma's defamation suit against the commissioner, the league pointed out Sunday that the commissioner's office has often appointed those with ties to the league to hear cases.
Though Vilma called Tagliabue "neutral,'' it's not up to the league to appoint a neutral arbitrator. The league can appoint who it wants, and in the past has had league counsel Jeff Pash and others hear cases on appeal. This is the system the union negotiated with the players and signed in the last CBA. If Tagliabue rules against the players, clearly they'll continue to press their case in the courts.
One last note: Tagliabue was the keystone in preventing the Saints, post-Katrina, from flirting with a move west to San Antonio. That was one of the final acts of Tagliabue's tenure before giving way to Goodell in September 2006, and the city is forever grateful. Resident and political pundit James Carville says New Orleans should erect a status of Tagliabue in the city, and the Times-Picayune on Friday called the Goodell appointment "brilliant.''
I'll be interested in seeing if Tagliabue finds significant evidence of a bounty system. When the league showed several reporters the evidence in June, there was a load of pay-for-performance exhibits but few that purportedly provide intent to injure, or to entice players to injure. I hear the league has some evidence in that regard it hasn't shown -- and if that's the case, Tagliabue will have the ability to review and use such data in his decision-making process.
Criticize me for selfishness here, because this is a book I contributed to in the offseason, but I've got to plug the Sports Illustrated Football's Greatest book. It just came out last week -- a coffee table book that, sadly, does not turn into a coffee table -- and it's filled with gems from the pages of the last half-century of great SI writing and photography and lists that you can argue about (the David Tyree Velcro Catch game more memorable than The Catch game between the Niners and Cowboys, for instance).
Football's Greatest came in the mail Wednesday, and I lost two and a half hours just leafing through it and reading some of the great stuff I remember from my youth, and later years. Such as Ron Reid's ode to the Raiders' win over the Colts in the 1977 AFC playoffs, highlight by the TD throw to Dave "The Ghost'' Casper:
"On the sidelines, coach John Madden grabbed running back Mark van Eeghen and gave him a bit of inside information. 'Look for Ghost to the post,' said Madden, the bard of the Bay. Ken Stabler dropped back, but the 6-4, 230-pound Casper, who had already scored two touchdowns, had difficulty breaking away from Baltimore linebacker Tom MacLeod. While waiting for Casper to get untracked, Stabler noticed that the Colts had switched from a coverage designed to prevent the Ghost from going to the post. So Stabler wisely lofted the ball not at the left post but rather in the direction of the right corner of the end zone. "I picked up the ball visually when it was halfway to me,'' Casper said. "When I looked up, I realized the ball was going to the corner, not the post, so I just ducked the old head, turned and ran. When I looked up again, it was there."
The perfect photo by Walter Iooss Jr., with Casper securing the catch and the scoreboard and players staring in the background, is one of several in the book.
The book's a keeper, and I'd say that even if I worked for Women's Wear Daily.
Happy 80th, Dr. Z.
Paul Zimmerman, the writer so many of us in this business aspire to be, turns 80 on Tuesday. And speaking of the Sports Illustrated Football's Greatest book, check out this passage from him, from the Feb. 3, 1986 SI, following the Bears' 46-10 drubbing of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX:
"It will be many years before we see anything approaching the vision of hell that Chicago inflicted on the poor Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It was near perfect, an exquisite mesh of talent and system, defensive football carried to its highest degree. It was a great roaring wave that swept through the playoffs, gathering force and momentum. Until it finally crashed home in New Orleans' Superdome. The game wasn't exciting. So what? Go down to Bourbon Street if you want excitement. The verdict on Chicago's 46-10 was in after two Patriot series. Don't feel cheated. Louis-Schmeling II wasn't very competitive either. Nor was the British cavalry charge at Balaklava, but Tennyson wrote a poem about it."
Miss that guy.
Anyway, so many of you have asked about the Z-man over the past four years, since he suffered a series of three strokes in late November 2008, that I thought it would be nice to give you an address where you can send him a card if you'd like. Whether it's a birthday card or just warm wishes, send it to: Paul Zimmerman, c/o Tom Mantzouranis, SI.com, 1271 Ave. of the Americas, 32nd floor, New York, N.Y. 10020.
I also wanted to give you an update on his health, after speaking to his wife, Linda, on Saturday.
The bad news is it's unlikely he'll recover his faculties to the point where he'll write again. There was so much damage done by the strokes -- irreversible damage, from the looks of it, that after nearly four years Zim has a difficult time recognizing letters and words, and even people. He's had a hard time immediately remembering people he's known over the years.
He's good with numbers, and he still enjoys Sunday afternoons in front of the TV. "He still gets enjoyment out of the games, but not as much as he used to,'' Linda said. "He just loved charting the games, and it's not something he can do anymore.'' He is not able to speak many intelligible words, though he still works hard at his rehab.
The good news, Linda reports, is he still exercises daily, is in good physical condition, and he refuses to stay down about the damage the strokes caused. "I think his mind has gotten sharper,'' she said. "We might have a day where one of us gets down a little bit, but then we rally. We're good for each other.''
Good? Having seen the two of them together since the strokes, I'd say that's the wrong word. "Great'' is much more accurate.
1. Houston (6-1). Amazing, just amazing, to see J.J. Watt continue to make game-changing plays, like the first-half tipped pass resulting in the Johnathan Joseph interception returned for a touchdown. That's the fourth time this year Watt has tipped a ball that's resulted in an interception.
2. Atlanta (6-0). Average yards after the catch through six weeks: 36-year-old Tony Gonzalez 3.23, Reggie Wayne 3.07, A.J. Green 2.98, Roddy White 2.70, Brandon Lloyd 2.29, DeSean Jackson 2.21.
3. New York Giants (5-2). Eighty-seven seconds. An eternity for the good Eli, a couple minutes after the bad Eli almost handed the Redskins the game with an interception. And after the game, Tom Coughlin sounded like your high school coach in the locker room, with the players around him: "Let's have a TEAM! One-two-three ... (now with all the players joining in) TEAM!!!!!"
4. Chicago (4-1). It's been 15 days since the Bears played (bye, then a Monday nighter), so you're forgiven if you forgot how well Chicago was playing entering the off-week. Average margin of victory in a three-game winning streak: 23.6 points.
5. San Francisco (5-2). Niners have allowed point totals of zero, three, 26 (with three short fields) and six points the past four games.
6. Green Bay (4-3). Pack righting the ship. Green Bay 72, Foes 44 (with a combined 8-3 record entering the two games) the last two weeks.
7. Minnesota (5-2). Adrian Peterson is carrying the Vikes like the pre-ACL days. Last four games: 105.5 average rushing yards per game, 5.4 yards per rush.
8. New England (4-3). I don't like putting them two spots ahead of Seattle and one spot ahead of Baltimore -- two teams that have beaten the Patriots in the last month. And I didn't love what I saw in the win over the Jets. But it goes back to feeling the Patriots would beat either team today on a neutral field in Wichita.
9. Baltimore (5-2). Stunningly bad performance by a good team. I understand the injuries, of course, but I don't get it, honestly.
10. Seattle (4-3). Have to give props to left tackle Russell Okung for doing something I never thought I would see in an NFL game (or a biker street fight, for that matter): Okung pancaked Justin Smith in the Thursday night game. Stunning. You do not pancake Justin Smith. You just don't.
11. Washington (3-4). Odd to have a losing team No. 11, but Robert Griffin III makes all things possible. The rookie made a couple of plays in the fourth quarterback at the Meadowlands, under pressure, that caused the Giants to gush about him endlessly. "Best quarterback we've faced all season,'' Osi Umenyiora said.
12. New Orleans (2-4). Odd to have a losing team No. 12, but who out there is going to stop Drew Brees and that passing game? And there's a chance -- just a chance -- that the addition of coach Joe Vitt, back from suspension, and the big play on defense Sunday by Malcolm Jenkins could boost the Saints just when they need a boost, with a big Sunday-nighter at Denver coming up.
13. Miami (3-3). Like what I see out of this excruciatingly close and competitive team. Last four: lost by three, lost by three, won by four, won by three.
14. Denver (3-3). Seven of the 10 remaining games are against teams with losing records. Why, with the 2-4 Saints coming to town next week, does it not feel like a cake schedule the rest of the way?
15. Pittsburgh (3-3). So the Steelers, six games in, are 1.5 games behind Baltimore with both games left against the Ravens (two weeks apart, Nov. 18 and Dec. 2), and are back in the AFC North race. But the NFL's Bono comes to town Sunday -- Robert Griffin III at Steelers, at 1 p.m. ET -- followed by a trip to play the Giants. So the Steelers won't have an easy road to the playoffs.
Offensive Player of the Week
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. Kudos to Peterson after a 23-carry, 153-yard rushing, one-touchdown performance against the Cardinals (and Arizona is a much better defense than that). The Vikings improved to 5-2, something no one outside the Wilf household saw coming two months ago. And though Christian Ponder is making progress toward becoming a good quarterback long-term, and Percy Harvin has been the most explosive overall skill player in football this year, the dominance Peterson has shown recently shows he's the key weapon for the Vikings, the same way he was before his reconstructive knee surgery 10 months ago. "How much better does it feel? Light years,'' Peterson said Sunday. It shows.
Defensive Players of the Week
Malcolm Jenkins, S, New Orleans. If the Saints end up making something of this mega-troubled season, they'll point to the play Jenkins made in Tampa Bay on Oct. 21. Coming from all the way across the field, Jenkins caught Vincent Jackson at the Saints' 1.5-yard line after Jackson had run 95 yards downfield with a reception that really should have been the tying touchdown. The excited Saints D then held on during the ensuing goal-line stand and defended some last-minute passes too for a 35-28 New Orleans win. Jackson had a game-high nine tackles, one for a loss.
Connor Barwin, OLB, Houston. "We found out today we could still play great defense,'' said coach Gary Kubiak, and Barwin led the way. Sackless until taking down Joe Flacco here, Barwin had two more tackles for loss and three more quarterback hits in the beatdown of the Ravens. Barwin has been overtaken in dominance this year by J.J. Watt, but on this day, in this dominant performance, Barwin was the best of the brightest on a very good Houston defense.
Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore. The worst-kept secret in Baltimore turned out to be Suggs playing his first game of the season after only three practices. And though the Ravens got their clocks cleaned, it's noteworthy that Suggs had two tackles on the first series of the game, a sack, two more quarterback hits, and a pass deflected. Just when his team needed him, he responded. Not his fault the rest of the team stunk in Houston.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Andy Lee, P, San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh knows the kind of team he has. It's a field-position team. His passing game is not explosive, but his running game is very good, and his defense mostly suffocating. On Thursday night, Lee, the superb punter for the Niners, played right into Harbaugh's plans. He punted five times. He pinned the Seahawks back at their 4-, 33-, 14-, 9- and 6-yard lines. (Average post-punt drive start: 13-yard line.) Seattle had five punt-return yards all night. Niners 13, Seahawks 6.
Dr. Z Unsung Man in the Trenches of the Week
The award for the offensive lineman who was the biggest factor for his team in the weekend's games, named for my friend Paul Zimmerman, a former collegiate offensive lineman who loved watching offensive line play.
The interior of the San Francisco line -- Left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone. You want to see how to wear down a defensive front? Watch the three men on the Niners offensive line batter a very good Seattle front seven (and tackles Joe Staley and Antony Davis played well too) for 175 rushing yards on 32 clock-eating carries.
My favorite run of the Thursday night win over the Seahawks: Early in the fourth quarter, Frank Gore took a handoff from Alex Smith. Boone cut left to erase defensive lineman Jason Jones, Goodwin blasted out to smother defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, and Iupati, foraging for a victim, ran ahead to clear out middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Gore was off to the races. Gain of 37. This is what these three guys did all night for Gore and Kendall Hunter, particularly late, when their physical dominance showed.
Coach of the Week
Gary Emanuel, defensive line coach, Indianapolis. In the last three weeks, the injury-riddled Colts' defensive front had added Clifton Geathers (from the practice squad), Antonio Dixon (from the Eagles on waivers) and Lawrence Guy (from the Packers' practice squad), and on Sunday, in crunch time against Cleveland, all played. Credit defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for the scheme, and Emanuel, a great story himself, for getting three newbies ready to play at a time when an NFL game was on the line.
Emanuel, in the last 31 autumns, has been a typical football journeyman, working on 10 college staffs (including the likes of Plymouth State and Purdue) and one pro staff (49ers, 2005-06) until getting hired out of the blue by GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano last winter.
"He cold-called me,'' Grigson texted me after the 17-14 win over Cleveland. "Getting [Emanuel] was like finding money in the street. We had all kinds of big-time recommendations, and after Chuck and I met with Gary, we didn't even want to talk with another DL coach."
What a story.
Goat of the Week
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore. You can be a goat and not blow the game at the end. And that's what Flacco was in Houston, with his abysmal play helping pave the wave for a 26-3 Houston halftime lead. Numbers at the half: 7 of 20, 50 yards, two interceptions ... for a passer rating of 4.2. Goat material.
"Obviously we cannot play as a team. We appear to not be able to handle adversity or finish games. Individual and team confidence appears to be going south.''
-- San Diego GM A.J. Smith, to Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego, on the state of the increasingly dysfunctional Chargers.
Gotta love Smith when he gets going. He also told Acee: "In the next 10 games, we will either rally and see a slow, steady rise from the ashes to a division championship, or the beginning of a new era in Chargers football.''
Uh, someone had better tell Norv Turner.
"He's really willing to do anything, absolutely anything. No matter what it is. And ... and I kind of like that. I like somebody that doesn't look at us in the morning when we're holding a Speedo and saying, 'We need you to put this on right now,' and he goes, 'Okay.' "
-- Kelly Ripa, the co-host of Live With Kelly and Michael, on her new co-host, Michael Strahan, in an HBO Real Sports story on Strahan to air Tuesday at 10 p.m. on, of course, HBO.
"He wants to be a fan. He wants to tailgate. He wants to be a dad. Do I think we've seen Ray's last game? I think so.''
-- Bob Angelo of NFL Films, who filmed and produced the documentary Ray Lewis: A Football Life, for which he miked and followed Lewis for the entire 2011 season, on my Sports Illustrated NFL podcast last week.
It's a good podcast this week -- with Angelo, former Ravens coach Brian Billick and Boston Globe football writer Greg Bedard. On iTunes and on SI.com.
"These results sadly confirmed what we had expected all along.''
-- Statement from the Andy Reid family, after an autopsy confirmed that son Garrett died in August of a heroin overdose.
Very big game -- very explosive game, potentially -- Sunday night: New Orleans at Denver.
Teams call pass plays of 20 yards or more "explosive plays.'' The two teams with the most 20-yard-plus plays, per game, in the passing game through seven weeks (entering tonight's Detroit-Chicago game) are the Drew Brees-led Saints, and the Peyton Manning-piloted Broncos ... the supposedly spaghetti-armed Manning coming back from four neck procedures in the previous two years.
After Sunday's games -- the Broncos had the Week 7 bye -- here are the leaders in pass plays of 20 yards or longer in the NFL:
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
This week, with the Eagles having their bye week, I asked PFF founder Neil Hornsby to examine the ball-control issues of Michael Vick, who has 13 turnovers in six games. PFF assigns blame to each fumble and interception in their game tape dissection. This season, Vick has eight interceptions and nine fumbles, five of which have been recovered by the opposition. But because who recovers a fumble is most often luck of the draw, I asked Hornsby to assign blame to the 17 times Vick either fumbled or threw an interception.
Of the nine fumbles, PFF assigned Vick the blame on eight. On the eight interceptions, Vick gets the blame for six. The 14 major quarterback errors were by far the most among NFL quarterbacks through the first six weeks of the season.
On the eight fumbles where Vick was at fault, three came while scrambling, two came on botched snaps, one was on a designed run, one was on a strip-sack, and one when he didn't secure the ball in the pocket and it was knocked away.
Of the six interceptions where PFF faulted Vick, he had more than enough time to throw on every one: 3.4 seconds or more. Four of the throws PFF had as forced throws to unopen receivers, with two coming because of inaccuracy.
Interestingly, PFF has only 15 percent of Vicks's passes as negative throws or poor decisions. That's the same as Drew Brees, and only 1 percent worse than Tom Brady. The inference is that Vick is not consistently careless, but when he is, it's often a doozy.
The bottom line, and you probably already know this, is that ball-security remains a constant concern with Vick. He knows that, the Eagles know that, and it's something Andy Reid won't be able to stand much longer if it continues.
Chick out this live blog where the ProFootballFocus staff gives out nuggets from premium content.
Las Vegas Locos coach Jim Fassel, not pleased with the lack of marketing budget for the 2012 United Football League season, paid $30,000 out of his pocket to place ads for the current season.
That season was cut short Saturday, when the cash-strapped, four-team UFL announced it was suspending operations for the season and would return in 2013. That seems a dubious vow now, but we shall see.
"It's really disappointing," Fassel told me from Vegas Saturday. "I've poured so much of myself into this league. I put four years of my life into it. It's not about the quality of play on the field; I've had NFL people who've watched our games tell me the quality is good, and there are players in this league who definitely can play in the NFL. It's the business model. It's the funding. If they weren't sure we had the funding, why'd we start the season? Now we've got airplanes paid for, hotels paid for. I wanted to be part of building something great, so this hurts.''
The Locos were 4-0. "I've got a lot of guys,'' said Fassel, "who I know could have played for me with the Giants."
Vikings past and present, take note: Antoine Winfield's son, Antoine Winfield Jr., is a freshman cornerback for Eden Prairie (Minn.) High. He is coached by Mike Grant, the son of former Minnesota coach Bud Grant.
I moved from Boston to Manhattan last fall. Last Wednesday, I had a noon appointment with my dermatologist, Dr. Suzanne Grevelink, in Boston. (Why, you ask, would I live in New York and have a Boston dermatologist? Because I've had melanomas carved out of both forearms in the last four years, and when you find a keeper of a dermatologist, who examines you with a ridiculously fine-toothed comb to make sure you don't die of this insidious disease, you can take the inconvenience of traveling 195 miles to be examined three times a year.)
I got on a subway in Manhattan for Penn Station at 7:25 a.m. Departed New York on the Acela at 8:03 a.m. Arrived Boston Back Bay Station at 11:40 a.m. Got into cab. Arrived at derm office at 11:55 a.m. Taken into exam room at 12:07 p.m. Examined and had slight procedure done. Finished at 12:55 p.m. Got into cab. Arrived Boston South Station at 1:10 p.m. Got on 1:15 p.m. back to New York. Arrived at 4:55 p.m. Got on subway at Penn Station. Arrived home at 5:25 p.m.
In Boston: 95 minutes. With doctor: 48 minutes. Interviews by cell while in transit: four. Peace of mind: the next four months, sort of.
"Pats won the game, but they've been outscored 34-6 in 4th quarter the last three games.''
-- @wingoz, ESPN NFL Live host Trey Wingo, after the Patriots eked out the overtime win over the Jets.
"Brandon LaFell: 'If we keep playing like this, we're not gonna make the playoffs.' *cue Jim Mora clip''
-- @billvoth, freelance TV guy reporting from Carolina after the Panthers, and wide receiver LaFell, fell to the Cowboys ... and to 1-5.
"Elmo still need a job. Hear Yankees need an ss. Elmo more clutch than arod."
-- @FireMeElmo, a parody site (let's hope) started in the wake of the PBS funding debate and started by someone who appears to be disenchanted with the play of Alex Rodriguez.
"Today's locker room laugh from practice was hearing how Paul Ryan looked Colt McCoy dead in the eye & said "great job at Oklahoma State' ''
-- @scottfujita99, the Cleveland linebacker, after Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan got Colt McCoy mixed up with the real McCoy, Browns starter and Oklahoma State product Brandon Weeden, on Wednesday while on a visit to the Browns practice facility.
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 7:
a. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch meeting Dashon Goldson and bulling him five yards past the initial hit.
b. Very nice touchdown-allowing block by Vernon Davis Thursday night, the Delanie Walker job just inside the cone.
c. Martellus Bennett, with hands Jerry Jones paid for but never saw.
d. Great tackle on Ben Tate, Ed Reed.
e. Ronde Barber. The ball just finds him.
f. Two touchdown runs, Andrew Luck? Who are you trying to be, RGIII?
g. As important: 11- and 14-play drives on the first two possessions of the day against Cleveland.
h. Catch of the day, and I don't mean fish: Houston tight end Garrett Graham's tap to himself on the Texans' second-quarter touchdown drive. A 240-pound man shouldn't be that lithe.
i. Linval Joseph, the unsung Giant on the defensive line, knocking Alfred Morris' first fumble of his NFL career loose.
j. Great camera work by FOX showing, apparently, Ahmad Bradshaw going nutso on Victor Cruz for pulling up short on a downfield block that could have sprung Bradshaw for a longer run. Bradshaw slapped Cruz so hard on the helmet I was surprised Cruz didn't go back at him. But they didn't have to be separated.
k. How clutch is Eli Manning?
l. Casey Hayward, the rookie from Vanderbilt, with his fourth interception in seven games for the Packers. The kid's a keeper.
m. I'd love to give Chris Johnson more praise than this for a 195-yard, two-touchdown day, but the Buffalo defensive front, so stunningly leaky all season, doesn't allow me to muster all that I normally would.
n. Surprised how clutch Nick Folk has been for the Jets.
o. Really like how active the former draft-weekend busteroo Vontaze Burfict was against the Steelers. I can see why defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer likes him so much. He had 15 tackles Sunday night.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 7:
a. Dumb, dumb taunt by Dashon Goldson, handing Seattle a drive-extending first down.
b. Robert Turbin, you just can't drop a touchdown pass in a game of Seahawks-Niners magnitude. Cost your team four points right there, the difference between a touchdown and the field goal Seattle settled for. And Ben Obamanu, you can't trip over a ghost.
c. That wasn't a chop block, Walt Anderson. Second blocker blocked the San Francisco defender, Aldon Smith, in the hip/waist, and a second block in a chop-block combo needs to block below the waist.
d. You might want to cover Tiquan Underwood, Saints. He's a receiver for the Bucs. Wide open in the red zone.
e. Uh, Bucs? Worst uniforms in NFL history, those creamsicles. There was once a time, a generation ago, when the Bucs wanted to send the team out with orange shirts and orange pants. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson balked. Said you can send everyone else out in that junk but I'm not wearing orange pants with the orange shirt; the shirt's bad enough. So the team relented.
f. Decisions, Christian Ponder, decisions. Throw the ball away near the end of the half deep in your own turf, not to the other team.
g. Could say the same thing for John Skelton in the same game. Awful pick he threw.
h. And Carson Palmer, if you're going to make a dumb left-handed throw, study Brett Favre first, please.
i. Redskins defenders jaw too much for my liking.
j. Ryan Fitzpatrick's interception late to Jason McCourty, costing Buffalo the game. "Dumb throw, dumb decision,'' Fitzpatrick said. No one argued.
k. Are you serious, Mike Wallace? Two drops in the first 13 minutes Sunday night? The second was going to be a big gainer. And here's the deal: There's no way a receiver with a case of the drops (which Wallace has had this year) is going to get big money from the Rooneys.
l. Baron Batch, Baron Batch. You get playing time by making plays. You sit when you drop wide-open touchdowns.
m. Jags adrift. So many injuries, so little hope.
n. Stephen Hill's big late drop in New England. Can't build trust with your quarterback playing like that.
3. I think this says something, and it's not good, about Cam Newton: Carolina's 0-12 in games he throws an interception. And the one he threw deep in the red zone Sunday was a horrible decision.
4. I think you should watch for chinks in the Steeler offensive harmony. Ben Roethlisberger has been taking little shots at first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Friday, he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Haley's offense is not a big-play offense. It's kind of a dink-and-dunk offense." Asked about wanting more downfield throws, Roethlisberger said: "There's a guy calling the plays. That's on him." There was a gulf between Haley and his quarterback in Kansas City, Matt Cassel, and now there might be some with Roethlisberger.
5. I think it's been a long time since I saw the Steelers get gashed on the run the way Cincinnati gashed them early Sunday night. Nine carries, 49 rushing yards on the first drive. We're seeing a changing of the defensive guard in Pittsburgh right now, and it's not good.
6. I think the officiating call of the day was by Tony Steratore, the back judge in Tampa, when he had to make a lightning-fast ruling when Vincent Jackson caught a pass at the back of the end zone in Bucs-Saints, and both of his heels came down verrrrry close to the end line, and Steratore ruled the catch no good immediately. And when the replay came down, both feet had a half-inch on the back line.
7. I think quarterbacks trying to resuscitate their careers look to San Diego throwing coach George Whitfield, and Vince Young is the latest. Whitfield said Sunday night he just spent a week with Young, working three times a day. Young, who could get a workout with Arizona, has been dogged by NFL teams thinking he's not a worker bee, so being with Whitfield will obviously help.
8. I think if I were defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, I would be renting, not buying, in Buffalo.
9. I think we're not going to know what we need to know about the Vikings -- namely, how they'll play in January, if they make it that far -- until we see their 15-day stretch following their Week 11 bye: at Chicago, at Green Bay, Chicago.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week.
a. I may be the last person on earth still to have an AOL email address, I guess I'm just too lazy to change. Now I have a good reason to change. On AOL's front page the other day, the page with news and social and sports commentary, there was a picture of Kim Kardashian, with the news that she was caught going "commando,'' which, and you don't need to use Urban Dictionary for this, means she was photographed with no underwear. Of course you could click the link and go find out more about this important story. So I'm a prude. Do I need to see a headline about some celebrity's underwear displayed prominently on the front page of a supposedly respectable internet company? Aren't there idiot websites for that? Shame on you, AOL.
b. I weep for America.
c. Congrats, Paul Fichtenbaum, for getting the Time Inc. Sports Group editor's job, and Chris Stone, for being named the new managing editor of Sports Illustrated. And thanks to Terry McDonell, SI's longtime managing editor, for his leadership over the past 10 years -- and for his personal friendship. Good luck to all.
d. Save Bill and Lou.
e. From those who enjoy calling someone who has lost four parents and parents-in-law to cancer (me), pro-cancer, it's a free country.
f. My point in questioning those who continue to support Lance Armstrong and the cancer-cure charity, Livestrong, that arose out of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, was not to criticize anyone for giving money to try to help eradicate cancer. It was this, very simply: When I contribute money to a cause, I want to know where it's going, and I want to respect the people and or the cause.
Lance Armstrong engendered a flood of giving -- some $470 million over the years -- to Livestrong because he sold a great comeback story: that he'd overcome testicular cancer to win seven Tours de France. Now the avalanche of evidence suggests he did it while blood-doping, which is against the rules. It could be that people would have contributed the same amount if Armstrong finished third or eighth or 26th in all those races, but I doubt it. If you donate money, it should be to a cause that's totally above board.
g. For those who say everyone was cheating, so who cares, I say: So he won a dirty race while cheating like everyone else. Wow. That's something to be proud of.
h. For those who say, I don't care how they raise the money, it's sorely needed, I say: I'm glad people felt so passionate about cancer research and causes that they contributed more than a dollar for every man, woman and child in the country toward it. I just believe that if you ask complete strangers for money for anything, you should be honest in doing so.
i. Coffeenerdness: Long live Starbucks Italian Roast. Along with Peet's Major Dickason's Blend, it's peerless among dark roasts.
j. Beernerdness: Found the best pumpkin beer of the season (with due respect to my buddy Alex Marvez, who votes for Dogfish Head Punkin, which I liked but not as much as this one): Captain Lawrence Pumpkin Ale, from Elmsford, N.Y., with, according to the label, "pumpkin pie spices added to the end of the boil.'' Very noticeable. And very good. Great nose.
k. Sox trade shortstop Mike Aviles to Toronto for manager John Farrell. Odd, unless you consider Farrell is one of the only guys who can handle that strange mess in the Boston clubhouse, and unless you consider Aviles, an admirable good team player, had a .291 on-base percentage in 613 Boston at-bats over two years and wasn't part of the long-term solution.
l. Never thought the Yankees would hit for a full series like the '11 Mariners. Stunning fall.
m. There's no perfect team, which is why the World Series, Detroit at Cards/Giants, starting Wednesday, should be fun and unpredictable.
n. Notre Dame seems to have used two of its nine lives.
o. I still see Geno Smith as I saw him a month ago -- as a top-10 pick next April. With flaws, like the rest of the prospects.
p. RIP, George McGovern. He grew up during the Depression, fought for everything he ever got in life, and earned his right to be the biggest anti-Vietnam critic in America 40 years ago because he flew 35 bomber missions over Europe in World War II. South Dakota mourns the 1972 Democratic candidate for president today, and American joins in.
q. And RIP, Abe Collinsworth. The father of Cris, who died last week of leukemia, coached and taught before becoming a school superintendent in Florida. If children are the measure of a man, Abe had one heck of a life. Condolences to Cris and his family.
The former SI senior writer has written an invaluable two-part series on the decline and suicide of Junior Seau for UT-San Diego, and it puts into clear focus why Seau killed himself. She writes: "Seau was completely unprepared for retirement's physical, psychological, emotional and financial toll. Instead of having open-ended days in which he could just relax and enjoy life, he started to question his identity; his purpose in life; his shortcomings as a husband, a boyfriend and a father, and his worth as a man. The lack of structure in his life -- in particular, the absence of career obligations and responsibilities -- increased his depression, and gave him more time to dwell on it. The diminished offseason physical training, as well as no longer having to devote hours each week to practices and games, meant he generated less adrenaline and fewer endorphins, which act as antidepressants. Once Seau retired, it didn't take long for his life to start coming apart. It happened fast, and it came at him from all angles. And it never seemed to stop.''
She quotes Seau's former wife, Gina, as saying he felt "obligated to be an ATM for his family. It was a constant drain." Lieber Steeg writes that Seau became a serial gambler, losing $191,276 one night at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. And she quotes good friend Warren Moon as saying he understood, after seeing the weight of evidence, why Seau killed himself. Great work by Lieber Steeg.
As for Chicago 27, Detroit 20 tonight at Soldier Field: The state of the Bears right now reminds me of the state of the Bears around game nine last year, when they routed the Lions 37-13 at Soldier Field. (After starting 7-3, Chicago faded when Jay Cutler was hurt in game 10 against San Diego.) Only this time, the Bears have better weapons at receivers, and they're competent at cornerback. I think the Lions are getting better, particularly in the passing game, which is why I think this will be a competitive game into the fourth quarter.
Love football? Me too.Learned one thing in Week 7: RGIII's something.