Sunday’s Most Important Unknown
DENVER — Two storylines on the best championship weekend I can recall:
Sunday is a very big day for the officials.
Ever hear of Bill Schuster? Insurance man from just outside Rochester, N.Y. Everyman type. Likes going to a bar in his hometown called “The Pigpen.” Schuster, 55, is going to be the umpire in the San Francisco-Seattle game. It’s a big job. Seattle and San Francisco are to the NFL today what Pittsburgh and Baltimore were over the past half-decade: UFC combatants.
I got to know Schuster a bit as a member of the Gene Steratore crew for my week-in-the-life-of-an-officiating-crew series in December. Steratore and Schuster will be together in Seattle on Sunday, working the game on an all-star crew with five other men. (Tony Corrente has Manning-Brady XV here, where I’ll be.) I bring up the NFC game because you saw and I saw what happened in Carolina last Sunday. I thought the chippiness and the non-calls on said chippiness were black eyes for the league. The crew in Charlotte swallowed its whistles on taunting call after taunting call, on a clear and purposeful head-butt … and called a silly unnecessary roughness penalty on Carolina safety Mike Mitchell that enabled San Francisco to kick a field goal.
Both crews are in tough spots Sunday, because there’s been far too much chatter in the press and public about the subpar year for the zebras. I think Steratore’s crew will have it much tougher. The Niners and Seahawks are championship woofers and trash-talkers. The players on each team will be out, early, to draw lines in the FieldTurf. You saw it last week in Carolina, and you saw it in Seattle, when a bunch of Seahawks had to be separated from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in pregame warmups.
Schuster is a barrel-chested, physical man—umpires need to be physical guys, because they’re the ones in the middle of the most scrums at the line of scrimmages and where the plays end—and I can tell you this: He’s not going to take any crap. In Chicago, the game that culminated my week with the crew, Schuster was aggressive at breaking up little scrums, jumping into one so quickly and slipping on the bog that was Soldier Field’s turf that he strained a hammy.
Schuster’s a football guy, a fast-talker, a needler, not afraid of the biggest players, and he makes quick decisions. I saw it for four quarters in Chicago. After the game I covered, he said in the officials’ locker room: “I loved it out there. Mud and glory. Classic football. Like what John Madden said: ‘Nice to get back to real football for a change.’ From hash to hash, nothing but loose divots. They were coming up like briefcases.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if Steratore does more than exchange pleasantries with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll before this game. I wouldn’t be surprised if he warns each about the short leash their teams will be on. One of the things I learned about officiating in my week with the Steratore crew is that he and Schuster won’t let problems stew. They’ll get in the middle of them and try to defuse them as soon as they see something. In this game, this crew needs to send the message that taunting and over-aggressive scrums will draw flags, and those flags will continue as long as the juvenile behavior does.
Personally, I hope Steratore enforces what I've just described. On Sunday night, we should be talking football, not bush-league ranting and cheap shots ignored by the officials.
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Some context, please, on 10-11.
That is Peyton Manning’s career playoff record. You know that. And we’ve seen some fourth-quarter stinkers (or, maybe better put, some golden chances he blew), most notably the Super Bowl interception by Tracy Porter that clinched the Saints’ win four years ago. I don’t expect a little chart will change the minds of those of you who call Manning a choking dog, but here it is anyway.
Manning’s postseason stat line, compared to some other Super Bowl-era quarterbacks who share Peyton’s place among the top quarterbacks of all time:
|Playoff W-L||Super Bowl W-L||Comp. %||TD-INT||Rating|
Just as you can’t tell the story of John Elway’s 2-3 Super Bowl record without context—the Denver defense allowed 45.3 points per game in the three Super Bowl losses—you can’t tell the story of Manning in the postseason without context. Stats shouldn’t tell the whole story—in anything. And Manning has a bunch of throws in the postseason he’d like to have back. What great quarterbacks don’t? He deserves to take hits for some of his postseason failings, to be sure. But in that, he’s not alone.
Sound Bite of the Week
“It would be as satisfying a victory as we’ve ever had to go into Denver and win this game.”
—New England quarterback Tom Brady, to WEEI in Boston.
Player You Need to Know This Weekend
Byron Maxwell, cornerback, Seattle (No. 41). The last time the Niners traveled to CenturyLink Field last September (for their second straight Pacific Northwest rout by Seattle), Colin Kaepernick was discombobulated by not having his favorite target, wideout Michael Crabtree, who was rehabbing his torn Achilles. Kaepernick threw three interceptions, no touchdowns, and had one drive all day longer than 50 yards. Now the Seahawks are down to their fourth corner, Maxwell, a sixth-round pick from Clemson who has been playing credibly since entering the lineup in early December. And San Francisco has a healthy Crabtree, so the Seahawks, as they did in the first meeting back in September, won’t be able to erase Anquan Boldin with Richard Sherman and not worry about the other wideout. Boldin and Crabtree together are as formidable a wideout duo as remain in the playoffs, and certainly more challenging, along with Vernon Davis at tight end, than Seattle faced last week in the 23-15 win over the Saints.
Richard Sherman explains why he has faith in Maxwell in his In This Corner column.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Clash of styles. The old quarterbacks, Peyton Manning (37) and Tom Brady (36), playing the game the old-fashioned way—in the pocket—for the AFC title. The young quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick (26) and Russell Wilson (25), running around for the NFC title. Strange positioning of the games. The AFC goes first. Feels like the JV game. And it might be the last big one Brady and Manning ever play.
2. Percy Harvin. After suffering a concussion last Saturday in the divisional playoff win over the Saints, Harvin hadn’t been cleared as of late Thursday to return to practice. Seattle needs a lightning-bug difference-maker against the Niners D. Stay tuned. Even if he plays, Harvin’s been so fragile you have no idea how long he’ll last.
3. Auditioners for Cleveland. One head-coaching job left, and the Browns will have their pick of the interviews whenever these games are done. (Cleveland brass can talk to the losers anytime after Sunday’s games, and the winners during the week after the games, in the winner’s town.) The hot names: Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase and his San Francisco counterpart, Greg Roman.
4. The weather. A total non-factor from the forecasts early this morning. Denver at 1 p.m. Mountain Time: 59 degrees, 9 mph winds, zero percent chance of rain. Seattle at 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time: 50 degrees, 3 mph winds, 20 percent chance of rain. Now, about that long-range Super Bowl forecast …
5. Legacies. I am not one to say Peyton Manning will be the 14th-best quarterback of all time if he loses this game, although there are some talk-show hosts, including one with a canine nickname with a canine-named radio channel, who would. I will watch the game first, then judge.
6. No Gronk. Seven receptions for 90 yards in the first meeting between Denver and New England for tight end Rob Gronkowski. And the possibility of no Kenbrell Thompkins or Aaron Dobson either; both played in the first meeting.
7. GM stuff. Take your time, Miami. Relax, Tampa. No hurry. No consensus on the top personnel guys this postseason.
8. The concussion lawsuit. The judge in the case, Anita Brody, is skeptical that $765 million is going to be enough to cover 65 future years of damages from players who claim the NFL was careless in warning them about the dangers of head trauma. Scores of players agree with her. Look for the plaintiffs’ side to get out its best arguments and best actuarials this weekend to prove the money’s going to be enough.
9. Johnny Manziel buzz. The draft is three months and three weeks away, but in the past week, both Gil “The Godfather of the Draft” Brandt and Mel “The Godfather of Hair” Kiper have put the 6-foot, 202-pound Texas A&M quarterback No. 1 in their first mock drafts of the season. Could it be? Could the kid who has so much in common with Brett Favre, on and off the field, shock the world and go No. 1?
10. The Nickname.