Big Ben Goes Boom
There was a time when the 4,000-yard passing season was special. In 2005, two quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Trent Green, surpassed that total. In this pyrotechnic season in the NFL, 13 quarterbacks are on pace to throw for 4,000 yards.
The game is changing before our eyes. It has changed. Tonight, if the game goes the way the Dallas season has to this point, you’ll see the Cowboys run more than they pass against Washington, which is a quaint little thing that teams just don’t do anymore.
On Sunday, for the first time in NFL history, four players threw for 400 yards or more on the same day. Tom Brady threw as many incompletions, five, as touchdown passes. Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck combined for 922 yards. The day, really, belonged to Roethlisberger. He has transitioned to a brand new wide-receiving corps in the last four years, all chosen in the middle to late rounds (Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant), and you can see how his comfort level increases with them weekly. Particularly with Brown, who is to Roethlisberger what Santonio Holmes was when the Steelers last won a Super Bowl.
The Steelers have been alive since 1933, and Roethlisberger, 32, had the best passing game in team history Sunday: 40 of 49 for 522 yards, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. You cannot play the position better than Roethlisberger did in beating the Colts—who’d shut out Cincinnati last week. He was not sacked. In his 49 dropbacks, he was significantly pressured once, that figure coming in part because of great play from his line and in part because Roethlisberger knows how to deftly step out of trouble and duck out of harm’s way. He doesn’t look like he would be quick in the pocket, but he is.
We often forget Roethlisberger when we speak of the great passers in the game. That’s a mistake. He’s fearless in and out of the pocket, can make every throw, will always have a chip on his shoulder about being overlooked in the Brady-Manning-Rodgers-Brees conversation of the greats, and produces no matter who’s out on the flank for him.
And this year, as with the other passers putting up ridiculous numbers, Roethlisberger is being helped by the officiating emphasis on cleaning up the chicken-fighting between receiver and corner in the secondary. There were more illegal contact penalties called in the first seven weeks of the season than had been flagged all last year; defensive holding is way up too. The league has seen 47 more accepted penalties per weekend, and many are helping the quarterbacks. “Every year there are new points of emphasis," Roethlisberger told me from Pittsburgh after the game, “but the people who would say all this is happening because of those, I disagree. Look at the plays that were made out there today." Tight end Heath Miller wasn’t left open on a 49-yard catch-and-run because a safety or linebacker couldn’t tussle with him; he was open because the Colts had too many other Steeler weapons to concentrate on.
Brown is the kind of smooth and versatile threat who could win an NFL receiving title before he retires. He’s on pace to catch 120 balls for 1,704 yards and 14 touchdowns, which would be the best receiving season in Steelers history. Pittsburgh has been looking for a bookend for Brown, and they may have found one. Or two. Bryant—a raw 6-4 kid from Clemson who played in the shadow of Sammy Watkins—and Wheaton had been non-factors much of the year until last week, but they combined for 10 catches, 139 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts. Brown is 26, Bryant 22 and Wheaton 23. They’re the future, and the future is now in a division that doesn’t have a dominant team.
“We just work,” said Roethlisberger. “We know we have a lot of catching up to do, especially with the younger guys. We work on the practice field, and we even talk on the way in and out of the walkthroughs, just making sure they know exactly what they’re doing. If people don’t know about them yet, that’s fine. Let’s keep ’em under the radar.”
Roethlisberger was also well-protected by a maligned line. “I am going to play as well as my line plays in front of me, and today they drove this train,” Roethlisberger said. “Today they were great.”
As was their quarterback. “A.B. [Brown] would say some things to me in the huddle about the kind of day I was having,” Roethlisberger said, “but I don’t know my stats. I never do. I’ve never been a stat guy. I’m just trying to make plays to help us win.”
"Was this the best day you’ve ever had in the NFL, personally?” I asked.
"If you’re a numbers guy—and I’m not—I guess you’d say yes. But I still see two or three plays I left out on the field that bug me a little bit. I can make more plays.”
The Steelers are the strangest good team in football. They’ve embarrassed 2013 division champs Carolina and Indianapolis—and been embarrassed by Tampa Bay and Cleveland. But they’re smack dab in the middle of the AFC North race now. Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two games over .500; Cleveland is one over. Baltimore and Pittsburgh meet on Sunday night this week, then the Steelers play at the 1-7 Jets and 2-6 Titans, and then they have their bye. “Why does it have to stop here?" Roethlisberger said he told the team afterward. “Why can’t we keep doing this?"
In a very strange Week 8, all things seem possible, particularly when you’ve got a great quarterback. Pittsburgh does, and he’s not going to let us ever forget it.
Now onto the rest of the stories of the week.
John Brown has no business doing what he’s doing right now.
On Oct. 26, 2013, the Percy Harvin of Division II football, John Brown, was in St. Joseph, Mo., with his Pittsburg (Kans.) State football teammates, playing Missouri Western. A crowd of 4,517 watched Brown catch four passes for 48 yards in a Pittsburg State win.
One year later Brown was in Arizona with his new team, the Cardinals, to play the Philadelphia Eagles. A crowd of 61,789 watched Brown make the play of the day, and of his young and burgeoning career: a fingertip 75-yard bomb from Carson Palmer that accounted for the winning points in a battle of one-loss teams.
What an absolutely perfect match Brown is with Bruce Arians and his daring ways. Sunday was the first time America got to see it on the national stage, and it lifted the surprising Cardinals to a two-game lead over San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC West at the season’s midway point.
“I told you John Brown could play,” Arizona GM Steve Keim said by phone from Glendale, Ariz., an hour after the game.
Keim did say that, at training camp this year. And everyone can see it now. Coach Bruce Arians is calling his number, and Carson Palmer, who targeted him 10 times Sunday, clearly has faith in him the way he has faith in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. It’s happened so, so fast. It’s happened because Brown has two traits—raw speed (4.34 seconds in the 40) and the kind of competitiveness an Arians receiver has to have because of the toughness Arians requires of his players.
I’ve told the story of Keim dealing the 20th pick in the draft to New Orleans for the 27th and 91st picks, selecting safety Deone Bucannon at 27 and hoping, praying that Brown would last until the 91st pick. And Brown was there, because he hadn’t played at a big program, and he’d once been cut from a junior college team, so really, how good could he be? When he met with the Cardinals at the scouting combine, and later with vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough and receivers coach Darryl Drake in a private workout, his ability impressed them—but it was his desire and competitiveness that really won them over.
“I remember telling them I’m a very hard worker,” Brown recalled Sunday night. “I told them, ‘I’ll get there and from the first day I’ll follow Larry [Fitzgerald] around and learn everything I have to learn to be a good player.’ I was convinced I could do it. It’s football. And I love football.”
The Cardinals found out early that Brown wasn’t cowed by the quality of the competition. After minicamp he went to southern California to practice daily with Carson Palmer—paying the expenses himself. When Arians got him in training camp, he thought Brown would be a great complement to the more polished receivers, Fitzgerald and Floyd, with the kind of speed they didn’t have. That speed is what won Sunday’s game.
On third-and-five from the Arizona 25 with 1:33 left in the game, Arians faced a tough call. Philadelphia led 20-17, and Arians was running out of time to make a big play. Across from Brown was a physical, veteran corner, Cary Williams, and over the top was safety Nate Allen. The Cards had thought to call a play for Brown previously but didn’t see the right matchup. Now Palmer saw it, and Arians saw it. They both thought Brown would be able to make the move they’d practiced several times during the week, beating the corner off the line and then freezing the safety with a double-move toward the post. Clearly, Philadelphia wouldn’t have expected Palmer to go for it all there; the Eagles would be expecting Palmer to be thinking first down, and just move the sticks.
But that has never been Arians’ way.
“We had three [receivers] at eight yards for the first down,” Arians said later, “but when there’s a touchdown involved in the play, never pass it up. Don’t play scared; play smart.”
Off the line, Brown beat Williams, and pulled the double-move on Allen, who trusted that Brown was going to pull up on a short curl to make the first down. Nope. Brown sped by Allen. “He bit,” Brown said. And Palmer, who has learned to take shots even when logic tells him not to, threw a high-arcing bomb way downfield.
“I thought it was too far,” Brown said. “When it was coming down, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to catch up. I’m thinking, ‘No—please don’t be an overthrow.’ I just had to catch it.”
Watching it over his shoulder, Brown gathered it in … just barely, on the tips of both hands. “A Willie Mays catch over his shoulder,” said Arians, even though most of his players would have no idea what he’s talking about. They’re not versed in 1954 World Series history.
Brown barely made it to the end zone on the 75-yard touchdown catch, and a replay review confirmed he was in. In the locker room, he accepted congratulations, but he was careful to not be too gee-whiz about a play he thinks he should make every week.
“This is what they drafted me for,” Brown said. “I’m a football player, and I belong here. There’s no such thing as, ‘You’re just a rookie.’ ”
* * *
The Seahawks are not out of the woods.
Now for the annual Seattle-at-Carolina game (even though they’re not in the same division) that sets offensive football back to the 1950s. The Seahawks and Panthers have met in Charlotte three years in a row and scored a grand total of four offensive touchdowns in those three games. The recent series:
2012: Seattle 16, Carolina 12
2013: Seattle 12, Carolina 7
2014: Seattle 13, Carolina 9
That last one was yesterday, and it left the battle-scarred Seahawks almost euphoric, even though Carolina’s defense was one of the softest in football entering the game. The Seattle players were happy and relieved that they hadn’t fallen farther back in the uber-competitive NFC West, and not paying much attention to, you know, how they’re actually playing. I’ll remind them. Since the opening-night rout of the Packers that seemed more like an extension of the 2013 season than the start of the 2014 one, Seattle is 3-3. Points scored: 136. Points allowed: 134.
Then there were the locker-room questions, the ones about Russell Wilson’s leadership, about Marshawn Lynch being on his last legs and not in the team’s 2015 plans, about the hangover from Percy Harvin’s divisive presence. So I touched base with one of the team’s most prominent leaders, safety Earl Thomas, to get an idea of the pulse of the Seahawks.
“I’ve been so much in my zone,” he said, “that I haven’t really followed all that.”
I asked him if he’d heard about the Bleacher Report piece that had a teammate saying Wilson wasn’t “black enough,” and about the Chris Mortensen report that Marshawn Lynch wouldn’t be back with the team in 2015.
“I didn’t know those things,” he said. Which puzzled me quite a bit.
“My reaction [to the Wilson story] is that it’s an insult to our race. And Russell is the ultimate competitor. He always works as hard as anyone, and he handles himself with poise. He represents our team and our organization very well. I don’t think there’s any problem with him in our locker room at all.”
Said Thomas: “It’s time for the leaders in our locker room to step up. I look at it as a challenge. Today was a good step for our team. The close games help us grow. The pressure in games like this is good for us down the road.”
There are also problems down the road. If Lynch understands—and he certainly must have an inkling about it—that the Seahawks weren’t going to pay him the $6.5 million he is due in 2015, never mind a re-done contract, he’s going to be even more enigmatic than normal. I agree with Mortensen: I believe this season is the end for Lynch in Seattle. The drafting of Robert Turbin and Christine Michael in 2012 and 2013, respectively, provides a big clue that the Seahawks will move on when Lynch turns 29 in the off-season. I don’t see him being moved by Tuesday’s trading deadline unless Seattle gets a great offer for him, which I can’t see. Even a running-back-needy team isn’t going to give Seattle GM John Schneider anything like the third-round pick that would make him think hard about radically affecting their chances to repeat this year.
Lynch almost cost Seattle the game Sunday. A pass from Wilson went through his hands in the end zone just before the half, and instead of a touchdown, Carolina’s Josh Norman intercepted it. Seattle trailed 6-3 at halftime instead of going up 10-6. It was a stunning miss by the sure-handed Lynch, and Seattle was fortunate to overcome it. In the coming weeks, they’ll need Lynch, and it’ll be interesting to see if he throws all of himself into his work knowing his future with the team is very likely a short-term one.
* * *
Look what the old geezers have in common, Mabel.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meet for the 16th time Sunday (4:25 p.m., CBS), and they’ve been near-mirror images over the past month. Check it out:
It wouldn’t be Brady-Manning if there wasn’t something particularly eerie about it: Each has 100 completions over the past four games, each has four wins, each has 14 touchdown passes, each is over 70 percent completions, each is over a 125 composite rating.
* * *
Now for the rest of the story …
In brief as the NFL hits the season’s midpoint:
Two-thirds of America liked the early game Sunday. Well, at least the Americans who follow me on Twitter. I polled my followers Sunday at three different points of the day, asking if they favored an occasional 9:30 a.m. start in the future. The 9:30 a.m. start came Sunday with Detroit-Atlanta from Wembley Stadium in London, the earliest Sunday kickoff in NFL history. Of the 885 who responded by midnight Eastern Time, 574 said yes; that’s 64.9 percent who want to see more. I asked the chief operating officer of NFL Media, Brian Rolapp, what he thought Sunday night, and he said his first impressions were positive, but he wanted to see the ratings and get feedback on the game before talking about it. The preliminary ratings will be seen in the morning
The Fine Fifteen
1. Denver (6-1). Now comes the tough part of the schedule. Denver has one home game in the next 41 days. Six road, three home the rest of the season, and the first one’s a battle: next Sunday in Foxboro. Brady-Manning XVI (Brady 10, Manning 5) is Sunday in the late-afternoon window, and Manning enters this duel with the best chance to beat Brady in Foxboro in years.
2. Dallas (6-1). Not a lot of time to breathe easy after tonight’s game with Washington. Arizona comes to Texas next Sunday for the game of the week in the NFC.
3. Arizona (6-1). What a story these Cards are becoming. What a story John Brown is. And what a day Todd Bowles had, sending blitzers from everywhere.
4. New England (6-2). Kansas City 41, New England 14 seems like five years ago, not five weeks ago.
5. Philadelphia (5-2). If the field is 12 inches wider, Jordan Matthews catches that touchdown inbounds on the last play at Arizona and it’s the Eagles who leave the desert dancing. Philly has agonizing losses to the Niners (26-21) and Cardinals (24-20).
6. Indianapolis (5-3). My one troubling pick here, after Pittsburgh hung up 51 on the Colts—who’d been playing superbly entering Sunday. But I cannot dismiss a five-game winning streak broken on Sunday, and a 27-0 shutout of a division leader eight days ago.
7. Green Bay (5-3). Hard to kill a team for losing at the Superdome, where the Saints never falter. Pack with the bye this week, and they play four of the next five at Lambeau. Who ever has a stretch like this in the middle of an NFL season, playing one road game in a 48-day span? I think they’ll be okay.
8. Cincinnati (4-2-1). Not a very impressive win, all in all, but the Ravens can make a team play ugly. What’s good about this win for the Bengals is they’d been playing in quicksand all month (0-2-1) before Sunday, and sweeping the team that looked like the best in the division (23-16 in Week 1, 27-24 Sunday) puts Cincinnati in the driver’s seat to win the AFC North.
9. Baltimore (5-3). A legitimate OPI call on Steve Smith from being 6-2 and owning the division.
10. San Francisco (4-3). A non-controversial Sunday for once. The bye helped.
11. Kansas City (4-3). The Chiefs have won four of five, and I don’t know how you block that defensive front. Justin Houston (three sacks in the rout of St. Louis, a league-high 10 for the season) led a seven-sack marauding at Arrowhead yesterday.
12. San Diego (5-3). Defensive coordinator John Pagano will have good ammunition to get the attention of his secondary and his rushers this week at practice: The Chargers allowed 19 completions in 23 targets to wide receivers Thursday in Denver. San Diego needs to be better at harassing the quarterback and clinging to the wideouts.
13. Seattle (4-3). Know why that game in Charlotte was such an important win for the defending champs? The Week 12 through 16 schedule for the Seahawks: Arizona, at San Francisco, at Philadelphia, San Francisco, at Arizona.
14. Pittsburgh (5-3). You figure out the team that, in the past four weeks, has lost to Tampa Bay at home, struggled to beat the Jaguars on the road, got routed by the Browns in Cleveland, had the bizarre burst of points to beat Houston at home, and then blew up the Colts (who shut out Cincinnati last week) at Heinz Field on Sunday. You figure it out, because I can’t.
T-15. Buffalo (5-3). Kyle Orton is 3-1 with a rating of 104.0. Hey Doug Marrone: I said at the time of the E.J. Manuel benching that it was a mistake, but clearly I was a dolt. Orton really belongs.
T-15. Detroit (6-2). Bet you a dollar I can call the Week 17 flex game on NBC: Lions at Packers.
The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh. A historic day for the Big One, and not just because he went 40 of 49 for 522 yards—the fourth-most prolific day for a quarterback in the 95-season history of the game—with six touchdowns, no interceptions. Historic, too, for its symmetry. Roethlisberger is now 100-50 in his regular-season professional career.
Rob Gronkowski, tight end, New England. If you remember the bumper-car way Mark Bavaro used to play the tight end position, you’d recognize the way Gronkowski played against the Bears. He had eight catches on eight first-half targets for 102 yards and two touchdowns, twice bouncing off multiple Bears (his sixth catch of the half was a three-Bear bounce-off). The Patriots are back to the offense Tom Brady loved running two and three years ago, when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez made it a tight-end-centric attack. Gronkowski and Tim Wright (the ex-Buc) combined for three touchdowns in the first half. Anyone complaining about that Logan Mankins trade now? For the game, Gronkowski caught nine balls for 150 yards and three touchdowns. What a virtuoso performance. “That’s the old Gronk we know," said Vince Wilfork.
Defensive Players of the Week
Von Miller, outside linebacker, Denver. Should have known he was in for a big game Thursday night when he wrecked the second and third San Diego drives of the game. Second series: Miller smashed tight end John Phillips on a wide run by Branden Oliver of the Chargers; loss of five, and the Chargers punted two plays later. Third series: Third-and-seven, Philip Rivers in the shotgun, Miller blew by his tackle for a five-yard sack. San Diego punted. According to Pro Football Focus, Miller in the past five games has a gaudy 34 sacks/hits/significant pressures of the quarterback. The addition of DeMarcus Ware has been a big factor in Miller’s performance, as has Miller simply growing up.
Anthony Barr, outside linebacker, Minnesota. On the first play of overtime in Tampa, Barr stripped fellow rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs tight end, after a pass reception, recovered the fumble at the Tampa 27-yard line, and rumbled in for the winning touchdown. For the game, the precocious linebacker from UCLA had eight tackles, one sack and one pass defensed. Midway through the season he’s a serious contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. While the Ravens’ offense struggled for consistency Sunday in Cincinnati, Tucker decidedly did not. His 45- and 50-yard field goals in the first half kept Baltimore close, and in the fourth quarter with 3:59 left, his 53-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 24-20 lead. The way Baltimore’s defense was playing at the time, that looked like it would be enough. But the Bengals came back to overcome Tucker’s big day and beat the Ravens with a late touchdown.
Coach of the Week
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England. The Patriots looked to be down for the count after getting swamped in the Week 4 Monday-nighter at Kansas City 41-14. Alarm bells all over New England, from Kennebunkport to New London. In the four weeks since, juggling an offensive line with three combinations in four games and getting a new tight end (Tim Wright) ready to contribute, McDaniels has the offense purring: New England has scored 43, 37, 27 and 51 points in the last four games. Who’d have thought the Patriots would follow that game in Kansas City with a four-game stretch averaging 39.5 a game? Good to have Tom Brady at quarterback, obviously. But also good to have a play-caller who understands what works with the talent he has.
Goat of the Week
Geno Smith, quarterback, New York Jets. Eleven minutes played. Three turnovers. Awful forcing of the ball to Percy Harvin. That was one terrible bit of football for Smith, who is fighting for his NFL life with the Jets … and Sunday opened the door for Marcus Mariota, or whoever is in the wings. Smith’s 11-minute totals: 2 of 8, five yards, no touchdowns, three picks. Yikes.
Quotes of the Week
"Not black enough? I don't even know what that means. I think I'm an educated male trying to lead this team."
—Seattle quarterback Russell after the 13-9 victory over Carolina. A Bleacher Report story last week said some veterans on the Seahawks didn’t consider Wilson “black enough."
"I take my job very seriously, and if I was a rookie quarterback named starter for the first time in the league, I feel like I’d be a little more focused than that. Maybe he’ll learn from it, maybe not."
—Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, on the perceived pre-game flippancy of first-time starter Zach Mettenberger of the Titans.
“We are happy to reward someone that has a rare work ethic, which not only makes him an elite player but serves as an example for our entire team. His commitment, character and leadership are attributes that make him a truly special person, who will play a pivotal role in our future success."
—Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht, announcing on Saturday a seven-year, $95.2 million deal for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the franchise’s cornerstone player.
"Here’s the amazing thing about Peyton Manning: He’s an ascending player at the age of, what, 38 years old? I have never seen a great player on that level ascending at that age."
—NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, to me, on Saturday.
"The strip comes. The ball starts to move just a hair before the elbow hits the ground. That fumble is going to be confirmed. Now we just need to confirm the clean recovery---"
"After further review, the runner’s elbow was down, in complete control of the football. Denver’s ball, at the 26-yard line."
—A double quote … first from CBS officiating analyst Mike Carey, watching in slow motion on Thursday night and announcing to the nation that a fumble that was ruled on the field on a kick return by Denver’s Andre Caldwell should be confirmed. The second quote, interrupting Carey on the CBS/NFL Network simulcast, is from referee Terry McAulay, who overturned the call on the field.
I’ll discuss the mechanics of the play, which was highly controversial, in Ten Things a little later in the column. But first a couple quick points about Carey’s analysis, with the advantage of hindsight. This was a close play, but a play I believe was called correctly through the new replay review process that involves the NFL replay center in New York. There is no way Carey can look at this play and say with conviction that the play should be confirmed. It’s in the NFL rule book that the ball has to be clearly loose, or coming loose, for it to be a fumble before the runner’s arm hits the ground; if the ball is moving slightly but still in Caldwell’s possession, it’s not a fumble. Also, Carey needs to leave himself some wiggle room on plays that obviously are close. I don’t think Mike Pereira, the official-as-commentator godfather, would ever have been as absolute on a play this close.
"With concussions, sometimes you don’t know what is a symptom and what is not. But some symptoms are impossible to ignore. The ringing is like someone shooting a shotgun right next to my ear, every second of every day. It doesn’t go away. The sensitivity to light also has a profound impact. I’ll be in a business meeting indoors and have to politely ask to put on my sunglasses before the headaches and double vision start. But I can deal with those symptoms. The short-term memory loss is more difficult. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m just busy with a very full schedule and that’s why I can’t remember everything, or if it’s a concussion symptom."
—Former NFL quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was forced to retire from the game last year because of repeated concussions, in a story he wrote for The MMQB last week.
Stat of the Week
The Dallas Cowboys take the field tonight against Washington with a hugely different offense from the one coach Jason Garrett ran the past two seasons. In fact, Tony Romo is throwing the ball an average of 11 fewer times per game this year than he did in the 2012 season. Illustrating that:
|Percent Run Plays||Avg. Runs Per Game||Avg. Passes Per Game|
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Eddie Vedder, playing a Pearl Jam concert in Milwaukee the other night, wore a Packers No. 10 jersey. The current Packer who wears No. 10 was in the middle of the mass of humanity on the floor of the Bradley Center for the show: backup quarterback Matt Flynn.
It’s possible, I suppose, that Vedder thinks Flynn is a Better Man than Aaron Rodgers, more Alive than Clay Matthews, and in Future Days will come off the bench, play like an Animal and lead the Pack Around The Bend to another title.
That’s The End of this horrible note.
Playing earlier on Sunday in London could turn out to be a selling point for teams that hate the idea of playing a regular-season game in Europe. Instead of kicking off at 6 p.m. local time, and then staying in England overnight and returning home sometime on Monday, the Falcons and Lions left Heathrow Sunday evening.
Time the Lions landed back in Detroit today: 1:15 a.m. Eastern.
Time the Lions would normally get home from a Sunday afternoon game in, say, San Francisco: approximately 2:30 a.m. ET.
In their last two games, the Lions had the lead for a total of 98 seconds. They won both games.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Raining hard the other day on the East Coast. I had to go to Washington for a Hall of Fame meeting at a hotel right near Reagan Airport. I chose the train. Left New York at 2 p.m. Got a table/desk and worked all the way to Washington. Train was due into the Washington train station at 4:53. It arrived at 4:55. I walked to the Metro stop at Union Station in Washington and, after a change of trains, got to Crystal City and my hotel at 5:35.
Meanwhile, a couple of the other voters got weather-delayed coming into town. It was foggy, windy and rainy.
Just another reason to love the train in the Northeast Corridor, which I do.
Tweets of the Week
That was most Falconest of Falcon losses. Ever.
— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzAJC) October 26, 2014
First half: Atlanta, 21-0. Second half: Detroit, 22-0. More mistakes than any other game I remember this year. "Both teams should be forced to swim back," said Tom Mantzouranis of SI.com.
Jon Gruden told one close friend: “If there is one job I’d come back to the @NFL for, it’s the #Raiders.” But will he leave his current job?
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 26, 2014
If that’s true, Gruden’s a loon.
I think if George Steinbrenner was alive, Joe Maddon would already be hired today as #Yankees manager. #joemaddon
— Linda Cohn (@lindacohn) October 24, 2014
The ESPN anchor, after Maddon surprisingly opted out of his contract as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday.
Somebody tell Phillip Rivers to stop showing so much emotion. What's wrong with him?
— Machine Marshall (@BMarshall) October 24, 2014
The current Bears wide receiver, and former hothead.
TMI Tweet of the Week
If laying in bed in your underwear listening to a high school football game on a Friday night is wrong I don't want to be right
— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) October 24, 2014
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 8:
a. Detroit coach Jim Caldwell resting Calvin Johnson and his recovering ankle sprain. Johnson could have played Sunday in London, but he shouldn’t have—not with the bye coming up and the risk of Johnson re-injuring the ankle.
b. Thom Brennaman’s line about the irony of Devonta Freeman growing up in Miami, going to Florida State … and the first touchdown of his NFL career coming in London.
c. Juwan Thompson, a long-shot running back to make Denver’s roster heading into training camp, with two touchdowns against the Chargers. Sure, we all figured midway through the season someone named Juwan Thompson would have more touchdowns for Denver (three) than Wes Welker and Montee Ball combined (two).
d. Detroit’s Jeremy Ross hurdling Atlanta safety Kemal Ishmael. Nifty.
e. Chris Mortensen’s report about Marshawn Lynch wearing out his welcome in Seattle, and the Seahawks likely to part ways with him after the season.
f. The catch by Harry Douglas on third down on the Falcons’ last drive.
g. Even better: the catch by Theo Riddick for Detroit in London.
h. But the best catch of the day: Cincinnati’s Mohamed Sanu, with a one-handed, bat-in-the-air-to-himself job, and then run for 48, on the Bengals’ first scoring drive.
i. Sen’Derrick Marks, who is having a very good year in Jacksonville, bursting through the Miami line to sack Ryan Tannehill.
j. Louis Delmas’ long interception return—the kind of play Detroit never saw enough—for Miami. Brent Grimes also returned an interception for a touchdown in the same game.
k. The T-shirt CBS showed in the Meadowlands at Bills-Jets:
l. Everson Griffen’s quick-twitch diagnosis of a reverse run, and a tackle behind the line on it, for the Vikings at Tampa.
m. The rebound of Carolina’s defense, which had allowed 75 points in the previous two games.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 8:
a. Everything about the Jets.
b. How ridiculous to have extra time to prepare for the game, because of the Thursday game in Week 7, and then come out and play as ragged a game as they did? All the goodwill Geno Smith built up last week at New England was erased in 11 minutes in New Jersey.
c. Blake Bortles. The Jags had the right idea in the off-season about him not playing this year, as it turns out.
d. Whoa: the Lions’ inactives … starting running back (Reggie Bush), franchise receiver (Calvin Johnson), and the top three tight ends (Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron, Joe Fauria).
e. The NFL battling to the death to stop gambling on sports events in New Jersey. People just don’t care anymore. If you want to put a bet down on an NFL game, you can surely find a place to do so.
f. Matthew Stafford missing at least four receivers with low throws Sunday. He was just off his game.
g. The field at Wembley Stadium, slippery and slipshod, led to a Matthew Stafford interception when the receiver fell down on an incut. “The conditions of this field … were a factor on that interception," Troy Aikman said, correctly, on FOX.
h. Ray Lewis’ wardrobe on the ESPN pregame show.
i. No holding call on the Lions’ potential two-point conversion that would have tied the game. It was a hold. Golden Tate was restricted.
j. Matt Ryan’s brainlock fourth-quarter interception. “I never saw him," Ryan said of the interceptor, Cassius Vaughn. Hard to believe from the look of the replay. Vaughn was the only one in that area code.
k. Atlanta’s clock management.
l. Mike Smith’s game management, particularly not trying to add points with a fresh series of downs and two timeouts left with 74 seconds remaining in the first half.
m. Miami’s offense in the first 23 minutes at Jacksonville: 3 yards.
n. Teddy Bridgewater’s feeble, way-too-short Hail Mary in Tampa.
o. The delay-of-game call at the end of Lions-Falcons, which absolutely did not look like a delay of game.
p. The Chicago Bears.
q. How does a defense that reputable give up 37 points in one half of football? To paraphrase Tony Dungy, if Brandon Marshall thought last week was unacceptable, what’s he’s going to think this morning?
r. Brandon Marshall’s first catch at New England, which came when the score was 45-7, New England.
s. Joe Flacco’s awful interception, thrown right to Adam Jones in Cincinnati.
3. I think I’d make two points about the Andre Caldwell replay Thursday night in Denver-San Diego, the one that has generated so much attention:
You’re not going to convince me the replay was botched. I believe referee Terry McAulay got it right when he went under the hood, ruling the original call on the field of a fumble should be overturned. The key thing to watch, and I urge you to go back and study it: When Caldwell’s forearm touches the ground, look at the ball in the crook of his arm. Caldwell still has it, though almost simultaneously to the forearm touching the ground, the ball moves in his arm. The key thing is, the ball moves but is not knocked away. “Slight movement does not constitute a loss of possession," NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said on his officiating training tape for the media and for teams over the weekend. “The forearm was down, and the player still had control of the loose ball."
Just because a play is close does not mean it cannot be overturned. I have been an advocate that a replay has to show irrefutable evidence for a call on the field to be overturned. Yes, this play is close. Yes, there is clear evidence that Caldwell possessed it when his forearm hit the ground, meaning it should have been overturned.
4. I think that Roger Goodell and the Ravens are both wrong, in reference to neither talking to the NFL Players Association’s investigator into the Ray Rice flap (as the Associated Press reported over the weekend). This is supposed to be the most transparent of processes. I think Goodell should have been open with the press about what exactly Ray Rice said to him in the June 16 disciplinary hearing. I think he should be open with the NFL investigator. And I think he should be open with the NFLPA investigation. There should be nothing to hide, from anyone.
5. I think Shonn Greene channeled his inner Costanza Friday night. And it’s never good to fool around with handicapped parking spots.
6. I think—and I know this is a week old, but I just love the inside-football nature of it, and wanted to share it with you—that the most interesting thing I learned about football in the past few days came from St. Louis punter Johnny Hekker. You recall the Rams' special-teams-prompted win over Seattle eight days ago, with the Stedman Bailey 90-yard return for touchdown on the misdirection-punt-team play. But the derring-do fake punt with 2:55 left in the game was significantly more risky, and I loved it.
The background: The Rams hadn’t stopped Seattle on its most recent three series, and with the score 28-26, all Seattle needed was a field goal in the final three minutes to escape with a win it probably didn’t deserve. St. Louis had fourth-and-3 at the Rams' 18. Now, what Seattle should have recalled is St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher being a special-teams risk fiend, with a smart special teams coordinator, John Fassel, who never met a kicking-team idea he didn’t like—and the fact that two years ago in San Francisco the Rams used a fake punt from their own end zone for Hekker to throw a 21-yard pass. As Hekker trotted onto the field, he was stunned to hear the code word for a fake punt (a pass to the left of the formation) and pass to running back Benny Cunningham, the wing man on the punt formation. “I had absolutely zero idea it was going to be called until I was running out onto the field and got the call," Hekker said from St. Louis. “I like it that way. Not a lot of time for me to think about it."
I watched the play on NFL Game Rewind a few times after speaking with Hekker, and there couldn’t have been more than 12 to 15 seconds that elapsed from the time he was jogging onto the field until he took the snap near the Rams' 5-yard line. You probably shouldn’t play poker with Hekker. His body language didn’t give anything away once he was trotting on the field, or lining up to take the punt snap. “It was pretty easy," Hekker said. “Just throw and catch. I played quarterback in high school, so it’s nothing I’m not used to. One thing I like about the way we play is we really value the importance of special teams. I know it can win games, but it can lose them too—just look what happened to us against Philadelphia [when the Rams got a punt blocked for a touchdown]." I know they’re not winning enough, but I love the Rams’ special-teams imagination.
7. I think we should all prepare for a week’s worth of Manning-Brady fodder, for this Sunday marks the 16th game matching the two greats. Peyton Manning is just 5-10 versus Tom Brady, and just 2-7 when the game happens in Foxboro. This marks the fourth autumnal trip to Foxboro for Manning since 2010, all in October or November. He’s lost the previous three: 31-28 (2010), 31-21 (2012) and 34-31 (2013). So Manning knows he’d better score in the 30s, at least, this weekend. But that hasn't been much of a problem for him this year.
8. I think Sean Gilbert has a very small chance of unseating De Smith as the executive director of the NFL Players Association, but he sure did provide some good sportswriter fodder Friday when he released the combined salaries of some big stars who got their current jobs in 2006: Roger Goodell (who got the commish’s job in August 2006), Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson (both drafted in 2007), among others. Goodell: $210 million. Johnson: $94 million. Peterson: $69 million. Chew on those for a while.
9. I think I loved the Wall Street Journal story about the football acumen of one F. Scott Fitzgerald—the genius author of The Great Gatsby, among other classics. Writer Kevin Helliker did much research on what a huge fan of the game Fitzgerald was before he died of a heart attack, at 44, in 1940. In fact, Helliker writes that Fitzgerald suggested to one of his confidants, former Princeton and Michigan coach Fritz Crisler, that the game should have two distinct units on offense. As Helliker wrote: “In 1962, Fitzgerald acquaintance Andrew Turnbull wrote a biography of the author. He recounts that Asa Bushnell, a Princeton athletic manager during the Crisler years, reported receiving a call from Fitzgerald promoting the idea of distinct units of players. ‘Princeton must have two teams,’ Fitzgerald told Bushnell, according to the book. ‘One will be big—all men over two hundred [pounds]. This team will be used to batter them down and wear them out. Then the little team, the pony team, will go in and make the touchdowns.’ ” I don’t know why. I just think that’s the coolest thing: F. Scott Fitzgerald—football nerd.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Peace be with you, Thomas Menino. The former Boston mayor, such a legend in one of the great American cities, is seriously ill with cancer. Everyone who lives in Boston, or has lived there, has a good Menino story, and mine is this: Soon after I moved to Boston in 2009 (lived there for two and a half years), I wrote about how depressing the littering was there. He saw me at a Little League game in my neighborhood, commented on what I’d written and wanted me to know they’d been working on it. Quite a guy.
b. I got misty, and I am probably not the only American who did, when I saw and read the reports of the Canadian soldier, Nathan Cirillo, gunned down by his countryman-turned-terrorist in Ottawa, being taken home by motorcade with thousands of Canadians lining the highway for miles and miles in tribute. Just beautiful. News reports said 500 people filled one overpass in Ontario and, as the motorcade passed, the crowd broke into a rendition of "O Canada."
c. And those strangers who rushed to comfort and tried to keep Cirillo alive after he was shot in Ottawa … What a beautiful act.
d. Very good job by the Penguins on Wednesday night, playing the Canadian anthem even though it was a game between two American teams.
e. Joe Maddon, free agent. Wow. Poor Tampa Bay. That’s the best manager in baseball right there.
f. I don’t know why he isn’t the manager of the Cubs already. Perfect spot for him. He’s a great thinker, and he’ll be good for National League baseball.
g. Best line of the baseball postseason, from the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, about what has happened to the World Series in our culture: “Today, the World Series is like ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ the Miss America pageant, Timex watches, and sitting in your favorite chair surrounded by a stack of daily newspapers. It’s like ‘Peanuts.’ It was once the biggest event in sports. Now it’s a relic of a simpler time before the Worldwide Leader and the World Wide Web. My fantasy baseball world of 1962 has been overthrown by the fantasy baseball (where you can win millions!) of 2014. In 2014, the World Series is your father’s Oldsmobile."
h. After that ringing endorsement—which I agree with—I still love watching the games.
i. Who’d have thought two of the top five candidates for MVP of the postseason (not just the World Series) would be relief pitchers who are not closers—Yusmeiro Petit of the Giants and Kelvin Herrera of the Royals?
j. What a great player Madison Bumgarner is. I just wish I could have seen the game last night.
k. Stunning news, the death of promising St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Just 22. What a damn shame.
l. Coffeenerdness: Thanks for your hospitality this fall, Greenwich (Conn.) Starbucks. I’ve done quite a bit of writing there. Good atmosphere.
m. Beernerdness: I did not serve you well in the past seven days, I am afraid. No pumpkin beer. Will try to make it up to you this weekend, with Halloween being the pinnacle pumpkin beer time. I have a feeling I’ll be replaying my Southern Tier favorite, Imperial Pumking Ale.
n. By the way, not all New Yorkers are cowering because of Ebola. In fact, I haven’t met one.
Who I Like Tonight
Dallas 31, Washington 17. This season has not been about the passing games for Dallas, as you can tell by my Stat of the Week earlier in the column. But if somehow DeMarco Murray gets stonewalled tonight in Arlington, Dallas can feel very comfortable going to the air. Washington’s defense has allowed foes to complete 65 percent of their throws, with 15 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. And the corners are incredibly green—rookie Bashaud Breeland and unimpressive second-year man David Amerson. This could be a dealers-choice night for Dallas on offense.
The Adieu Haiku
The Chicago Bears.
Looking a lot like the Jags.
Somewhere, Halas weeps.