J.J. Watt is making his case—with actions, not words—as the best player in the NFL. Can a defensive player on an average team earn the honor? Plus, Cam Newton puts the Panthers back in the playoff race, the trade value of Jim Harbaugh and much more
Three weeks from today, I’ll email my awards ballot to the keepers of the flame for NFL awards, the Associated Press. Fifty members of the media vote for Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, etc. This year a defensive player is gaining some traction for the MVP, and for good reason: J.J. Watt, most of us would agree, is the best player by the widest margin at his position in the NFL.
Does that make Watt the MVP? I'll investigate. But first, let’s sum up where we are as we head into the last 49 games of the regular season:
• Green Bay, New England and Seattle are the best teams in football, in some order. Then Denver. After that, there’s a big line of demarcation.
• If the Patriots win home-field in the AFC (three remaining foes’ combined record: 16-23), their quarterback and revived defense will make them very hard to beat in Foxboro. Or anywhere, for that matter.
• Russell Wilson was spectacular Sunday. With the Seattle defense playing like the ’85 Bears over the past three games (you can look it up), a Seattle-Green Bay NFC title game could be an all-timer.
• The Bengals are psycho.
• The best team in the NFC South is 4-8-1. Carolina could actually win the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs. “We’re honestly not worried about it," Cam Newton said from New Orleans after the Panthers beat the Saints into submission. “All we can control is how we play. That’s all we’re focused on." Evidently they took a crash course in “focus" last week. Carolina hadn’t won in 62 days before Sunday, and yet, the Panthers enter the last three weeks with a remarkably good chance to make the playoffs. Can you imagine Seattle at Carolina on wild-card weekend?
• Baltimore lost its best defensive player, Haloti Ngata, for the regular season (suspended for the final four games after testing positive for Adderall), then went to Miami with a Triple-A secondary … and won by 15 with a suffocating defensive effort. Football is a funny game.
• Arizona, quarterbacked by Drew Stanton, beat Kansas City to take a three-game lead on San Francisco, quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick, with three games to play. The Niners lost to previously one-win Oakland, 24-13, on Sunday. Amazing: San Francisco could be eliminated from playoff contention as early as next week.
• Frustrating first 56 minutes for Indianapolis on Sunday. Exhilarating final four minutes. “If anything’s frustrating," said Andrew Luck, “it’s my bonehead mistakes." Luck handed Cleveland 17 points, but had the stuff to drive 90 yards for the winning touchdown in the final minutes. What else is new? The Colts are winning the AFC South again.
* * *
Now to raise the ire of fandoms from New England to Green Bay, and then deep in the heart of Texas: Who deserves this year’s MVP?
“Whoever you pick I’m sure will be deserving," Watt told me from Houston. “The way I look at it is, I’ll worry about what happens on the field. And I’ll let all of you worry about the MVP.”
Three more sacks for Watt on Sunday. His production is insane. Since he entered the league in 2011, his 51 sacks lead the NFL. That’s pretty heady stuff for a 3-4 defensive end who plays different spots on the line and often has to fight through double-teams of 300-plus-pound linemen. He has 148 quarterback hits over that time, the most in football by far, and his 36 passes deflected or batted down are double anyone in football during that span.
For this year alone: Justin Houston and Elvis Dumervil are tied for the league lead with 16 sacks. Watt is next with 14.5. But using the numbers of the redoubtable Pro Football Focus database for quarterback hits and pressures, you can see where Watt distances himself from the pack of the leading sackers in the NFL through 13 games. The sacks are updated through 13 games, hits and pressures through 12:
|Player, Team||Sacks||Hits||Pressures||Total QB disruptions|
|J.J. Watt, Houston||14.5||33||35||82.5|
|Von Miller, Denver||13||11||40||64.0|
|Justin Houston, Kansas City||16||6||41||63.0|
|Connor Barwin, Philadelphia||13.5||7||25||45.5|
|Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore||16||6||21||43.0|
So do we really have to establish some sort of Greatness Quotient?
“If all positions were created equal, J.J. Watt’s the best player in football by a mile, and it isn’t close," said Neil Hornsby, the founder of Pro Football Focus, which judges every player on every snap.
Aaron Schatz, the president of the long-running football analytics group Football Outsiders, agreed: “Watt is by far the best player as his position compared to the average of his position."
In many ways, Watt’s season is historic. He has scored five touchdowns, the first defensive lineman to have that many since 1944. Three have come as a tight end moonlighting on offense, one of them a diving circus catch. Against Buffalo in September he hit quarterback E.J. Manuel nine times and returned a nifty interception 80 yards for a touchdown. And on and on.
There’s also the dedication that, even in this era of players dedicated to greatness, seems put on. Except the scars would show after a while, and they haven’t shown on Watt yet. In training camp I asked him about how he continued to strive to be better. Watt said: “I heard a quote that says, ‘Success isn’t owned. It’s leased. And rent is due every day.’ Every single day, someone’s coming for your job. Someone’s coming for your greatness. If you’re the greatest, someone wants to be the greatest, and so if you’re not constantly improving your game, somebody else is. And somebody wants to take your spot. So the way I attack it, every single day is like a game. Every single practice rep I treat like a game rep. I get pissed if I get blocked … Some people chase money. Some people chase fame. Some chase greatness. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
You want the guy to be a legit MVP candidate, don’t you?
So then the question becomes whether we can logically judge whether a defensive lineman can be as valuable to his team as a quarterback can be. In an ideal world, football would have a stat similar to “WAR” in baseball—Wins Above Replacement. In other words, if an average player would replace the star for a season, what would be the difference in the number of wins a team would have by season’s end? “We don’t have a WAR-type stat that compares players across positions," Schatz said. “It’s too hard, given we can’t fully separate a player’s performance from his teammates’.” So then it comes down to the judgment of 50 people: Can a defensive end possibly mean as much to his team as, say, an Aaron Rodgers, who can put a touchdown on the board every time he possesses the ball? Probably not.
Then there’s the matter of Houston being a middle-of-the-pack team. The Texans are 7-6. They are seventh in the league in scoring defense, 27th in the league in yards allowed (a wide disparity). This doesn’t help Watt. MVPs most often come from the offensive side of the field, and from playoff teams. The last 17 MVPs have come from teams that won 10 or more games. No defensive player has won the award since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, and no MVP since 1973 (O.J. Simpson, who rushed for 2,003 yards that year) has played on a team that didn’t make the playoffs. It would be hard enough for a defensive player to win the award, of course. But on a mediocre team it would be doubly hard.
That’s the case particularly because we’re in the golden age of quarterbacks, and so many of them are playing so well at the position of most influence in football. “Doesn’t the MVP always have to be a quarterback simply by virtue of how the game is played [today]?” asked Schatz. Possibly, but Adrian Peterson, in his 2,096-yard season two years ago, lifted the Vikings into the playoffs with mediocrity all over the roster, and he edged Peyton Manning that year.
"It doesn’t matter to me," Watt says. "It’s an award. If people vote for me, great. But to politic for it, no. My play on the field is all that should matter."
I asked Watt if he felt there was anything he felt was significant about his case that he wanted voters to know.
"That’s for people like you to decide, not me," he said. “I can’t change any voters’ minds, and I don’t think I should try. I don’t care, actually. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s an award. If people vote for me, great. But to politic for it, no. Please vote for me? No. People who play don’t get to decide who wins, nor should they. I want to be deserving, but not because I politicked for it. My play on the field is all that should matter. Nothing else."
Sounds like Watt.
The AP asks for one winner. (I’m on record as wishing we voted as in baseball, 1 through 10, so we could see how close the vote really is. If you have to pick one, even in a very close vote, it often doesn’t mirror the closeness of the contest.) Three weeks from the end of the season, here is my standing of the top five:
- Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay
- J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston
- Tom Brady, quarterback, New England
- DeMarco Murray, running back, Dallas
- Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver
May the best man win. It probably won’t be Watt, but I’m hoping for a contest.
* * *
The craziest division race in years.
Who knows who wins the craziest show on turf, redux? Atlanta would have it wrapped up but for terrible clock management at the end of a one-point loss to Detroit and a two-point loss to Cleveland. If those two games had been coached properly down the stretch, the Falcons would be on a five-game winning streak headed in Lambeau Field tonight, and would have the division clinched by now. But let’s look at where the division stands this morning:
|W-L||Div. W-L||Conf. W-L||Remaining Schedule|
|Atlanta||5-7||4-0||5-4||@GB, PIT, @NO, CAR|
|New Orleans||5-8||2-2||4-5||@CHI, ATL, @TB|
|Carolina||4-8-1||2-2||4-6||TB, CLE, @ATL|
Let’s assume Atlanta loses in Green Bay tonight. The three NFC South teams would be separated by a half game … and, amazingly, any of the three teams could win the division by winning the final three games on its schedule. Each team, too, could think it’s the best team, based on one recent result: Atlanta over Arizona 29-16 last week; New Orleans over Pittsburgh 35-32 last week; and Carolina over New Orleans 41-10 this week. My pick to win the division? Carolina, with the impressive 1-6 record since week six.
“For a lot of the season,” Cam Newton said from New Orleans Sunday afternoon, “a lot of our guys, because we’re so young, have had kind of a deer-in-the-headlights look. When you’ve got a lot of veterans on the team who have been in the game for a long time, it’s easy to get your motor going because you feel like these guys have been around, and they know everything. But for so many of these guys it’s just time and experience. That’s what they need. Time. We’ve had time together. We’ve grown together.’’
It’s still a work in progress with Newton, playing banged up with a bad ankle, and 2014 first-round wideout Kelvin Benjamin (last five games: 47 targets, 21 catches, which needs to improve). “You can see him growing in every meeting,” Newton said. “A guy of his magnitude, learning every day—it’s all going to pay off.” Question is: Can it pay off with big production and two or three wins in the next three weeks, and the strangest division title in NFC South history?
* * *
Storylines of the weekend.
Dan Quinn is setting himself up to be a strong head-coaching candidate. The Seattle defensive coordinator will be on every head-coach-needy team’s homework list in the next month. He’s got the Pete Carroll verve and imagination, and the production of his defense rivals what we saw last year, when the Seahawks were the top-rated D in the league. They’re No. 1 again, with three straight incredible performances against playoff contenders. Here’s a number to behold, in this era of skyrocketing offense: In the last three games, Seattle has allowed an average of 6.7 points and 169 yards. Pick the great defenses in recent times, or any times, and Seattle will fall into line with them over the past two years—and that’s been Quinn’s bailiwick. “When the time comes, I feel I’ll be ready to take that step,’’ Quinn told me. “What’s great about coaching for Pete is that a lot of [head] coaches do all they can to keep their staffs together—Pete wants you to get ready to take a [head-coaching] job.” I said to Quinn that a lot of times a team’s postseason success can work against an aspiring head coach, because some (most) owners get impatient and won’t wait until after the Super Bowl to hire their coach. I told him for his sake I hope the length of the season didn’t roadblock him from a head-coaching shot. “I hope it does,” he blurted. That’s the kind of attitude, I’d think, that a prospective owner would like.
The one call of the day I just couldn’t fathom. Arizona 17, Kansas City 14, 5:31 to play in the fourth quarter, Chiefs driving for the tying or go-ahead points in a crucial game with playoff implications—for both teams. Alex Smith throws to tight end Travis Kelce, and he advances the ball to the Arizona 22. Field-goal range now. At end of the play, Arizona safety Deone Bucannon rides Kelce to the turf. Just before Kelce hits the ground, the ball moves—but is not dislodged—in his grasp. Kelce hits the ground, is ridden over on his side, and the ball pops free. The Cards recover, but it appears to be the end of the play, with Kansas City keeping possession, and the whistle blows, so Arizona doesn’t advance the ball. I watched four different angles. There is no way you can tell that the ball is out of Kelce’s possession when his knee hits the ground and he is down. No way. Yet ref Craig Wrolstad went under the hood, and after consulting with the New York replay center, came out and reversed the ruling on the field. Calls should change only when replays show with 100 percent certainty that the call should be changed. And it is inconceivable that Wrolstad could be 100 percent that Kelce had lost possession before his knee contacted the ground. The replay center has worked well this year and improved the consistency of replay reviews overall—without question. But that call in Arizona was a major gaffe … and the Chiefs will have a beef if this game costs them a playoff berth.
T-minus three weeks, and Tampa Bay now leads the Marcus Mariota derby. Oakland’s win over San Francisco takes the Raiders out of the first slot in the 2015 draft. That leaves five teams at 2-11, vying for the top pick and the right to take Mariota (presumably—considering all the off-field problems swirling around Jameis Winston). As of this morning the top five would fall in this order, based on the win-loss record of the opposition in each team’s 13 games to this point:
1. Tampa Bay. The Bucs would sit and take Mariota, or raffle it for a ransom to a quarterback-needy team.
2. Tennessee. The Titans would be in line for Mariota too.
3. Jacksonville. Knowing GM Dave Caldwell, he’d be in the auction business.
4. New York Jets. You can’t know what the Jets will do until you know the identity of the GM and the coach who’ll be making the decision. Odds are both will be different from the incumbents five weeks from now.
5. Oakland. Euphoria over beating San Francisco—except in the guts of the scouts, who will say the right thing, but really: The first pick in the draft is worth far, far more than a morale-boosting win in December.
Last point here: For Tennessee, it’s New Jersey, New Jersey, with the Jets following the Giants to Nashville this week. (Not New York, New York, because the two teams play and practice and do business in New Jersey.) Why on earth would Ken Whisenhunt, who, presumably, is going to be the coach in 2015, pull out all the stops to try to win this game? Take your medicine, lose, and get the highest pick you can so you can be in the best position possible to take the best quarterback or best player—or trade the pick for a few good ones.
Washington eats its young. Lather, rinse, repeat. Nothing changes in Washington under owner Daniel Snyder. Despair is followed by hope, which is followed by a ton of spending, which is followed by losing, which is followed by coach-firing, which is followed by more spending, which is followed by more losing, which is followed by coach-firing … and that’s the way it flows inside the Beltway. And you thought partisan politics was awful. Washington has finished in last place in the NFC East in five of the last six years, and is on track to do it a seventh time in eight years. The team has had eight coaches this decade; that’s exactly how many coaches the other three teams in the division have had, combined, in this century. Yet the Washington Post reported over the weekend that Jay Gruden, handed a five-year guaranteed contract 11 months ago, would be “one and done,” or fired after one season, in the wake of the disaster that Robert Griffin III’s tenure has become. “We’ve been fighting uphill forever now,” veteran wideout Santana Moss told the Post. After the latest debacle, the 24-0 loss to St. Louis, Gruden told Washington’s NBC affiliate that he’d been told by GM Bruce Allen that the story was false. Maybe. But coaches are never told a bad reality with three weeks left in a lost season. All possibilities (Griffin and Gruden returning together, Griffin and Gruden both departing, or anything in between) are on the table. My guess is Gruden returns, and Griffin does only if he turns over a studious leaf and works harder in the classroom.
And a new frontier for MMQB this morning. I have video takes on three things—Sean Payton running out of answers in New Orleans, the Jim Harbaugh era teetering to an end in San Francisco, and the dubious helmet-to-helmet call on Brandon Browner in San Diego last night—up on Page 1 of this column today. I’d love to hear, and read, your reactions to the video piece, either with an email (email@example.com) or Twitter (@SI_PeterKing). We’ll try it for the last four regular-season weeks. If you like it and consume it, we’ll keep doing it. If not, we won’t. Your call.
Some history on the trading of coaches.
Looking at the history of the six coaches who have been traded in the past 20 years, it seems foolish for the 49ers to think of getting only two third-round picks for Jim Harbaugh, if they trade him after the season. That’s the compensation Pro Football Talk reported the Browns and Niners were discussing after last season.
That is a ridiculously small bit of compensation for a coach who has turned around a once-proud but moribund franchise and helped turn it into one of the winningest teams in football.
Harbaugh has engineered one of the most decisive turnarounds in recent NFL history. In the four years before he arrived in 2011, San Francisco was an afterthought, 26-38 over the four seasons. In his first three full seasons, Harbaugh coached the Niners to the playoffs each time, and a 36-11-1 record, and one Super Bowl appearance. The Niners are 7-5 this year, struggling to make it four-for-four in the playoffs under Harbaugh.
Look at Bill Belichick’s résumé before Patriots owner Bob Kraft traded a first-round pick for him in 2000. He was 37-45 in five seasons as Browns coach, with a distinguished career as a coordinator. And he got Bob Kraft of the Patriots to give up a 2000 first-round pick for him.
The six coach trades in the last 20 years:
|Date||Coach||From where to where||Compensation|
|Jan. 9, 2006||Herman Edwards||NY Jets to Kansas City||Fourth-round pick|
|Feb. 18, 2002||Jon Gruden||Oakland to Tampa||2 first-round picks
2 second-round picks
|Jan. 10, 2001||Dick Vermeil||St. Louis to Kansas City||Second-round pick
|Jan. 3, 2001||Marty Schottenheimer||Kansas City to Wash.||2 third-round picks|
|Jan. 28, 2000||Bill Belichick||NY Jets to New England||First-round pick
Other low-round picks swapped
|Feb. 11, 1997||Bill Parcells||New England to NY Jets||First-, second-, third-
and fourth-round picks
For the record: Coaching trades can’t work the way the player trades do. Coaches do not have clauses in their contracts allowing them to be re-assigned, as player contracts do. What happens if a coach wants to leave or a team is interested in testing the market for the coach: The two teams agree on the compensation (draft picks or cash) that would be exchanged if the acquiring team can work out a new contract with the coach. Then the current team terminates the contract in exchange for cash or the draft compensation, or both, when the coach is dealt.
If I were Niners owner Jed York, I’d read Parcells: A Football Life, by Bill Parcells and writer Nunyo Demasio. In it, Demasio describes Parcells playing hardball with Patriots owner Robert Kraft over the Belichick compensation. Kraft first offered third- and fourth-round picks for Belichick. In the next phone conversation, it rose to second- and third-round picks. In one last conversation, Kraft agreed to surrender the Patriots’ first-round pick, with some low-round picks being exchanged as a sweetener.
I don’t see why Jim Harbaugh in 2015 isn’t worth to some team at least what Bill Belichick was worth to the Patriots in 2000. At least.
* * *
A few words on the lost season of Jadeveon Clowney.
Very few. Because his rookie season never really got off the ground. This is what you need to know about Clowney’s freshman year in the NFL, after being picked first overall and having his season wrecked by hernia, concussion and knee issues:
Compensation in bonuses and salary: $14,938,000.
Games played: 4.
Quarterback hits (via Pro Football Focus): 0.
Clowney’s next payday will be in late July, when the Texans will pay him a roster bonus of $922,409.
* * *
Bryan Burwell: A good man, and a model for future journalists.
Bryan Burwell, a longtime newspaper columnist, TV reporter, talk-show host and web trailblazer, died at 59 on Thursday, just two months after being diagnosed with liver cancer. He packed a lot of life into 59 years, and his death really hit me hard. Hit a lot of people hard, particularly in St. Louis, where he was an esteemed sports columnist and web personality for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
I last saw Bryan at Rams training camp in August. He had a tripod with him, and as we talked, he connected his smart phone to the tripod, and plugged in a microphone with an “stltoday.com” mike flag on it. We talked about how his job and all of our jobs in the media have changed.
“My job used to be 100 percent writer,” he said that day. “Now it’s 75 percent web stuff, 25 percent writer.”
This is why young journalists should learn from Burwell. Fifty-nine years old, and re-inventing himself with a smart phone and tripod and microphone, setting it up for an interview for his daily segment on the paper’s website called “Upon Further Review." There’s another reason why Burwell’s a heck of a model for young media people: On this day, he was excited about talking to the seventh or eighth defensive lineman on the roster, an undrafted rookie named Ethan Westbrooks from West Texas A&M.
Who gets excited about talking to the 51st guy on the roster? On this day, Burwell was that guy. Two reasons: Because Ethan Westbrooks was a story to Burwell; every player in camp was a story to him. And Westbrooks was the player who might keep Michael Sam from winning a spot on the active roster. (Turns out Westbrooks, indeed, beat out Sam for a spot.) That made the story more interesting. But I can tell you this: Burwell was excited about speaking to him. It was a Wednesday in August, a dog day of training camp, and this former HBO correspondent and New York columnist and well-traveled media guy who counted Magic Johnson as a trusted source, was excited about interviewing a bottom-of-the-roster player using his phone and tripod contraption.
Now that’s an admirable person in our business.
On Friday, I spoke to Chris Long, one of the only veteran Rams, about Burwell, and his words confirmed what I believed people he covered thought of him.
"I never hung out with Bryan," Long said. “But after I heard about what happened, it really hit home. He was a personable, cool guy. I liked his demeanor. You know, there are good football players and bad football players, good media people and bad media people. But you just like people who do their job with respect for other people. When I first got here, we were a pretty bad team, and he’d write about us and he knew the story—there was no sense killing us because he figured it out, that we had a long way to go. He was always very even-keeled. He’d talk to me, and I never really knew if it was on the record or off the record, but I didn’t really care. Because I trusted he got it—he got the big picture.
"Then, yesterday, to see all the outpouring from everywhere about him. I saw what Mike Wilbon said about him on Twitter and Facebook—and Wilbon’s one of the greats. I never, ever realized how big Bryan was. That’s because he never let you know it. He wasn’t one to talk about himself, or what he’d done.”
Over the weekend I went back to see his interview and report on Westbrooks from August. It’s a five-minute video, with an enthusiastic but professional Burwell smoothly intro-ing the interview with Westbrooks at Rams camp, letting it run two or three minutes, then coming back to talk about the strange face tattoo Westbrooks has—a tiny happy face/sad face near his left eye.
"I had to ask," Burwell said on the video, breaking into a grin. "‘Dude! Was this just the result of a regrettable wild weekend in college, or did you really think this through?!'” And he told the story of Westbrooks and the tattoo, as well as pointing out early in the video that this is the man who could be the roadblock to Michael Sam. This is one big way today people are consuming news: through storytelling on video. Lots of people in the business—the vast majority young and flexible and smart—are making their mark this way. Bryan Burwell made his mark in so many ways, and it’s fitting the last way I saw him make his mark was smart, cutting-edge, informative and fun. Make him a lesson in journalism class, college professors and high school newspaper advisers. It’ll be a lesson your students will remember, a 59-year-old professional still learning at 59. I’ll miss the journalist, and the man.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Green Bay (9-3). Not that it’ll matter much, but the wind chill tonight will be about 26 at kickoff, with snow showers during the day. Neither sleet nor snow nor blah blah blah will keep Aaron Rodgers from continuing this remarkable streak over the past 24 months at Lambeau Field: 31 touchdowns, zero interceptions.
2. New England (10-3). Quick note about the 2014 Patriots: Jamie Collins was a really good pick by Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio in the second round of the 2013 draft. Rangy and hard to block. Anyhoo … The Patriots clinch the AFC East with a win Sunday at home against Miami (yawn), and if it’s not this Sunday, it’ll be the next one. They’re at the Jets in 13 days.
3. Seattle (9-4). Troy Aikman on FOX, as the 24-14 dismantling of the Eagles in Philadelphia wound down: “The Seattle defense, they’re completely overwhelming. They’ve given up one play—that touchdown to [Zach] Ertz.” In the past three wins over Arizona, San Francisco and Philadelphia—by a combined 62-20—the Seahawks have allowed 204, 164 and 139 yards. 139 yards against a Chip Kelly offense! In Kelly’s house!
4. Denver (10-3). That was a tough win, 24-17 over Buffalo. When Peyton Manning goes touchdownless, with two interceptions, you know you’ve played a tough defense. But you also know the offense isn’t clicking the way it should. The Broncos really need Julius Thomas (ankle) back.
5. Philadelphia (9-4). A bad loss, if you’re thinking about how poor the Eagles’ passing game looks (10 of 20, 96 yards, 2-1 TD-picks), and if you consider that the Eagles may have to beat Seattle get to the Super Bowl. But of a more immediate nature, the Eagles still control the NFC East and have a home game with similarly 9-4 Dallas before finishing against the Giants and Washington. The division is there for them to win.
6. Dallas (9-4). Speaking of a division being there to win, Dallas is in this position: For the fourth consecutive December, the Cowboys will play to win the division; in the previous three years, that has come in Week 17. This year it’s in Week 15, assuming, of course, that if the Cowboys can beat Philly on Sunday night they finish the job against Indy and Washington.
7. Indianapolis (9-4). When the Colts clinch the AFC South in a week or two, this 25-24 win over Cleveland is the game Chuck Pagano will think of when he says to his staff, “Guys, it’s a good thing the games are 60 minutes long.”
8. Arizona (10-3). It wasn’t always pretty, but Drew Stanton (15 of 30, 239 yards, one TD, no picks) did the most important thing of all: He didn’t cough the ball up. No turnovers. And now the Cards can take a giant step toward the most incredible division title by any team this year Thursday night at St. Louis. Very, very tough game.
9. Detroit (9-4). Sunday’s 34-17 win over Tampa Bay might have been the closest this season to a classic Lions win—311 passing yards for Matthew Stafford, 158 receiving yards for Calvin Johnson, and a defense that forced three turnovers. The Lions could walk into Lambeau in Week 17 with an 11-4 record, beat a 12-3 Packers team and win the division tiebreaker because of a 2-0 series sweep.
10. San Diego (8-5). Still in decent shape for a wild-card spot, but the Chargers may have to beat Peyton Manning at home this week to get there. By the way, liked this Al Michaels line from the second quarter about the Chargers, desperate for a new place to play: “The stadium looks great from the air, but you walk underneath, and it’s like you’re walking in the ruins." He’s right, and Los Angeles beckons for one or two teams. Soon.
11. Baltimore (8-5). Can’t believe the defensive effort without Haloti Ngata and with a sketchy secondary, holding the Dolphins to 249 yards. This was a huge win for a team that looked so deflated in midweek.
12. Pittsburgh (8-5). After a great day in Cincinnati, and another huge play by Martavis Bryant, I am left with this: You figure out the Steelers. They confuse me.
13. Cincinnati (8-4-1). Speaking of that, you figure out the Bengals. They confound me.
14. Kansas City (7-6). The Chiefs have to get far more with 390 yards than 14 points, especially against a team as strong defensively as Arizona. The Chiefs did have good reason to complain about the officiating.
15. St. Louis (6-7). The Rams are 3-1 in their last four, including three dominant defensive games: 22-7 over Denver, 52-0 over Oakland and 24-0 over Washington. First back-to-back shutouts by the Rams since 1945. That is pretty good.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. This was the first time all year that we got Classic Cam, the multiple threat as a passer and runner, and the vocal leader of his team, and the Superman thing, whether you like it all or not. This is the Newton that Carolina needs to be great, and great he was in the 41-10 rout of the Saints at the Superdome. He was 21 of 33 for 226 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions—and he ran it 12 times for 83 yards and a touchdown … the 2-yard TD run that resulted in a mini-brawl after the Saints took exception to Newton's Superman celebration. The Panthers looked like the best team in a bad division Sunday afternoon, and Newton was the reason.
Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. Stat of the Day In Philadelphia: Seattle had the ball for 41:56. Son of Stat of the Day In Philadelphia: The Eagles, leaders in offensive snaps this season with their fast-paced offense, ran 45 offensive plays Sunday; Seattle ran 85. Credit Wilson, who was an absolute maestro against a determined Philadelphia rush. Wilson was 22 of 37 for 263 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (99.3 rating), and added a perfectly executed fake and 26-yard touchdown run that frustrated the Eagles greatly; they never came close to touching him once he wheeled around and sprinted left for the end zone. Wilson was so fluid and unhittable in the pocket. Just a terrific game for him.
Defensive Players of the Week
J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston. Don’t you think I get tired of this Watt-as-Player-of-the-Week rigmarole every week? Comic relief happened after Sunday’s 27-13 win over the Jags in Jacksonville, with three more sacks for Watt. A reporter asked him a question and included the fact that Watt had two sacks, and … “How many?" Watt said. “Those suckers are hard to get. Don’t short me, brother." Okay, the official line: 3.0 sacks, one more tackle for loss, two additional quarterback hits, one pass deflected. In other words, a typical day at the office.
Elvis Dumervil, linebacker, Baltimore. The Ravens had to make up for the missing Haloti Ngata, and the front seven was oppressive in the decisive 28-13 road win against Miami. Dumervil arguably had his best day as a Raven: 3.5 sacks, four tackles and a forced fumble. The Ravens sure are glad the Broncos had the fax problem with Dumervil and his agent 20 months ago.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Tavon Austin, wide receiver/returner/Jet Sweeper, St. Louis. The Rams won’t say they’re disappointed with Austin since making him their first pick of the 2013 draft, but entering Sunday’s game the electric player from West Virginia had but six touchdowns in 24 career games. Not good enough for a guy who cost St. Louis four picks to move up in the draft. But he showed in Washington how valuable he can be. His 78-yard punt return capped the scoring in a 24-0 shutout, and he added seven touches for 60 yards. This is what the Rams need from the man who was the most dangerous weapon in the 2013 draft as a runner, receiver and returner.
Brandon Bolden, running back, New England. With the Patriots struggling on offense and trailing 14-6 late in the first half in San Diego, Bolden, a vital Patriots special-teamer, steamed in from the left side of the Patriot punt rush and smothered a Mike Scifres punt at the San Diego 18, leading to a New England touchdown that made the score 14-13 and threatened to change the course of the game. It also knocked one of the best punters in football out of the game, meaning Nick Novak had to punt the rest of the game for San Diego. A very big play.
Coach of the Week
Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator, St. Louis. The Rams are the first team this season to shut out two straight foes (and the first Rams team to do it since World War II), and they’ve now held the Raiders and Washington to a combined 450 yards. Those are not two good offensive teams, but it’s the way St. Louis is winning right now—the rush is stifling, and the secondary has been playing clinging coverage. You wondered how long it would take the Rams to assume the personality of the go-for-broke Williams, and it looks like they’re there now.
Goat of the Week
The San Francisco offense. With 248 total yards. Against the Oakland Raiders. In a game the Niners absolutely had to have. I rest my case.
Quotes of the Week
“The good thing was, it wasn’t intercepted."
—Jets radio colorman Marty Lyons, on a simple third-down incompletion by the struggling Geno Smith in the second half of the Jets’ overtime loss in Minnesota. Smith threw a pick-six on the first play of the game.
"RG3! RG3! RG3! RG3!"
—Chant from the crowd at FedEx Field late in the third quarter, with the home team trailing 24-0.
"If I have to motivate pro football players to play a pro football game, then we need to get new pro football players.”
—Washington coach Jay Gruden, after the 24-0 loss to St. Louis.
"You know who votes for that. They don’t seem to see eye-to-eye with me, which is cool. And if I’m not, I’ll still live."
—Marshawn Lynch, in an interview with former Seattle teammate Michael Robinson for NFL Network, on his chances to someday make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ah, the old media-has-a-problem-with-me-and-it’ll-be-a-factor-in-barring-me-from-Canton line of thinking, from the 39th-leading rusher of all time. Interesting.
"Let me ask you a question. When did Nick Nolte take over the Rams?”
—Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, after showing video of a Nolte-ish Fisher discussing the Rams’ Ferguson controversy.
“The shame of it is, I’m not sure they care about Michael Brown or anything else. This was a reason to protest and to go out and loot. Is this the way to celebrate the memory of Michael Brown? Is this an excuse to be lawless? Somebody has to tell me that. I don’t understand it. I understand what the Rams’ take on this was. I’m embarrassed for the players more than anything. They want to take a political stand on this? Well, there are a lot of other things that have happened in our society that people have not stood up and disagreed about. I wasn’t in Ferguson. I don’t know exactly what happened. But I know one thing: If we dismantle and limit the power of our policemen any more than we have already, then we’re going to have a lot of problems in this country. What do you do if someone pulls a gun on you or is robbing a store and you stop them? I don’t want to hear about this hands-up crap. That’s not what happened. I don’t know exactly what did happen, but I know that’s not what happened. This policeman’s life is ruined. Why? Because we have to break somebody down. Because we have to even out the game. I don’t know. I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.”
—Mike Ditka, to the Chicago Sun-Times, on the five Rams players who showed their support for the Ferguson protesters by coming out for the game eight days ago with their hands raised.
“Make sure you put in the paper that we thank Chip Kelly and I hope the Seahawks do well tomorrow. He was helping them out. Maybe somebody in Philadelphia ought to buy him a map so he knows where he lives now. But, go Seahawks."
—Widener (Pa.) College coach Mike Kelly, to Jason Wolf of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Saturday, after Widener lost an NCAA Division III playoff game to Linfield (Ore.) in Philadelphia. Mike Kelly was peeved because Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach, let the Linfield team practice at the Eagles’ training facility Friday, the day before the game.
Mike Kelly said the husband of Chip Kelly’s secretary is a Widener grad. “So he probably ought to figure out where he’s living now," Mike Kelly said.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
At Washington on Sunday, St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher sent out as captains for the game Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers, Zac Stacy, Alex Ogletree, Stedman Bailey and Greg Robinson.
Coincidence that all six players came as draft picks in the trade for Robert Griffin III, who was standing on the opposite sideline? I think not.
Questions asked Colin Kaepernick at his weekly press conference Wednesday: 32.
Total words uttered by Kaepernick in response to the 32 questions: 87.
This is either one intense dude who wants to be preparing for football and football only during the week, or someone who hates his weekly press conference, or someone angry about how he’s playing, or someone angry about how he’s being portrayed in the press. Or some of the above. Or all of the above.
If Aaron Rodgers and the Packers beat Atlanta tonight at Lambeau Field, Rodgers and Brett Favre would have identical records (68-32) in their first 100 NFL regular-season starts.
Chip Kelly Wisdom of the Week
The Eagles’ coach, on the rumors that go with a formerly successful college coach being successful in the NFL but always linked to college jobs at this time of year—but to a lesser degree about being happy wherever you are, in whatever job you have:
“Our whole mantra around here is, ‘Be where your feet are,’ and my feet are right here and that's all we ever talk about. I can't control what other people think or other people write. I've never been concerned with it; never will be concerned with it. I've been happy—I've been very, very fortunate in my career. Everywhere I've been in my career has been a great situation. I had an unbelievable opportunity when I was at New Hampshire and I loved it there and could have stayed there for the rest of my life. And then same thing at Oregon. I loved Oregon; I loved those players … I loved that group; I loved that coaching staff. I loved being in Oregon; I loved everything about it, but I had an opportunity to come here. I've been very happy everywhere I've been and I'm happy with being here now."
Stat of the Week
The identity of the first quarterback picked in the draft next spring will depend on so many factors. Marcus Mariota is out of the pocket at Oregon more than he’ll be in the NFL; Jameis Winston plays a more pro-style game. Winston has a better arm, but just slightly. Mariota’s biggest off-field problem at Oregon appears to be a speeding ticket; Winston has had significant problems away from football that will be investigated, debated and then investigated again. (I guarantee some teams will employ private eyes to do a Winston study.)
Winston has the field presence and body type of Andrew Luck. Mariota has the ability to make people miss like Russell Wilson. So they each have positive pro traits that will be big pluses for them come April.
What’s going to be very interesting in the next few months is to see how NFL teams process the numbers. They favor Mariota, particularly the stark interception number. In three full seasons, Mariota has thrown 12 interceptions.
The comps (starting statistics only):
|Pct.||Yards||TD-Int||Rushes-Yards||Avg. rush||Rush TD|
|Career (3 yrs)||.666||3,372||101-12||319-2136||6.7||28|
|Career (2 yrs)||.661||3,808||64-27||138-301||2.2||7|
It is Dec. 8, and the leading sacker on the Atlanta Falcons has 2.5 sacks. Actually, Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora each have 2.5. But it is a sign of how pathetic the Atlanta pass-rush is that the best men on their team in sacks are tied for 109th in the league in tackling the quarterback for a loss. Just a hunch, but I would guess right about now, heading into a game tonight at Green Bay, that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and head coach Mike Smith wish they’d made pass-rusher more of a priority when they met with GM Thomas Dimitroff before free agency and the draft last winter.
The following non-household names have more sacks than anyone on the Falcons in 2014:
Zach Kerr, Indianapolis: 3
Frank Kearse, Washington: 3
Derrick Shelby, Miami: 3
Avery Williamson, Tennessee: 3
Jonathan Newsome, Indianapolis: 4.5
Mario Addison, Carolina: 5
Ryan Davis, Jacksonville: 5.5
Tom Johnson, Minnesota: 5.5
Tweets of the Week
Landed in Green Bay or Greenland not sure which one...#StupLyfe #RiseUp @atlantafalcons pic.twitter.com/Y4jBjxqBhb
— Nathan Stupar (@thenastynate54) December 7, 2014
Other than providing fodder for TV talking heads, why have weekly ratings for college playoffs when they are ignored in the end?
— Vinny DiTrani (@sageman01) December 7, 2014
Well, whatever could the retired veteran Giants beat man mean? Maybe that TCU was ranked third last Tuesday, won its game 55-3 Saturday, and was demoted to sixth on Sunday?
Please Lord, don't let the Raiders be the team that comes to LA. #NFL
— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) November 30, 2014
The Glitterati checks in. That’s Lowe’s best line since, “Fact: I can’t go with other people in the room.”
As more and more people care about fantasy football, it's more and more true that no one cares about someone else's fantasy football team.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) December 4, 2014
Thoughts and prayers to the family of Bryan Burwell. Respect and appreciation for one of STL's finest.
— Albert Pujols (@PujolsFive) December 4, 2014
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 14:
a. Eli Manning starting his 175th consecutive game (including playoffs). Only nine full seasons to go until he passes Brett Favre (321). Should be easy. Manning would be 42. In his prime.
b. Cam Newton’s well-placed touchdown throw to Kelvin Benjamin to put the Saints behind the 8-ball early in New Orleans. Newton has taken too much of the blame for the bare-cupboard offense he was given.
c. Darrell Stuckey of the Chargers, with a heads-up grab of a live ball against New England—and a 56-yard touchdown run.
d. Manti Te’o, with a near-interception and then a real interception in the last six minutes of the first half Sunday night.
e. Sheldon Richardson with a steamroller of a play for a safety at Minnesota.
f. In fact, Richardson deserves kudos in this train wreck of a Jets season for having the best day of his career, a three-sack domination.
g. The line by FOX’s Daryl Johnson, with the Saints leaving the field after an offensive series, trailing 17-0: “New Orleans’ offense, moping off the field."
h. Watch the tape of Lamar Miller, Miami’s running back, making an 11-yard run midway through the second quarter. Bet he ran 40 yards hither and yon to make 11. Great run.
i. Ryan Tannehill, knowing when to run.
j. Joique Bell, knowing how to run at the goal line.
k. Andy Dalton, knowing … well, forget that line of writing. Dalton, with a burst of speed, cutting through the Pittsburgh defense.
l. Until the last Indy drive of the day: Everything about Joe Haden’s game recently. Great cover player.
m. London Fletcher on CBS Sports Network, on Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett: “Jay Gruden better get him out the door, because he’s probably backstabbing Jay like he did everybody else … [Haslett] has no idea what he’s doing."
n. Uh, that was London Fletcher’s boss last year. Must have been one fun defensive team meeting room.
o. Nice week for Odell Beckham Jr. A mentor dinner with LeBron James in Manhattan during the week, a 100-yard first half against the Titans on Sunday.
p. Great move by Le’Veon Bell, deking a Cincinnati linebacker and scoring a key touchdown. Bell is just a great running back.
q. Reality Check of the Week, from Browns coach Mike Pettine after the crushing home loss: “It’s a kick in the gut. We’ve got to win our last three or we’re done."
r. Dallas center Travis Frederick’s terrific night, paving the way for DeMarco Murray’s 179-yard game, and keeping Tony Romo clean too.
s. Ben Roethlisberger, when it counts. What a throw, the 94-yard bomb to Martavis Bryant.
t. Andrew Luck, when it really counts.
u. Andre Williams of the Giants, with a 131-yard rushing game behind a line that had been struggling mightily until Sunday in Nashville.
v. Reggie Bush, for having the courage of his convictions to wear the “I CAN’T BREATHE” T-shirt at Ford Field Sunday.
w. Jim Caldwell, for backing Reggie Bush.
x. Several Cardinals, during pre-game warmups, wearing T-shirts that read "Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Berry," in honor of Chiefs safety Eric Berry. The Chiefs are selling the shirts with proceeds going to the Eric Berry Foundation and then to a research institute once a diagnosis is confirmed.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 14:
a. Whoa. The Mike Scifres fall and injury. He got a punt blocked by Brandon Bolden and violently landed on the ground in a huge play against New England. Terrible block, or non-block, by running back Donald Brown on the wing.
b. Speaking of a terrible block, Washington left tackle Trent Williams giving up on a block that got quarterback Colt McCoy unfairly nailed.
c. Washington. Everything about that team. A disgraceful performance at home.
d. Vikes corner Captain Munnerlyn’s mugging of Jets wideout Jeremy Kerley, the easiest interference call.
e. Man, Brian Hoyer doesn’t get much help from his receivers.
f. Man, Brian Hoyer overthrew a wide-open Taylor Gabriel by seven yards. That negated an easy touchdown.
g. Man, the Titans are horrible.
h. I do understand the narrative about Johnny Manziel not being a worker bee, and I have reported that myself. But for Manziel to get knocked for going to a Cavs’ game on his night off? Not right. How do we know Manziel wasn’t at the facility during the day? (Not saying he was. Just saying without that context, criticizing Manziel, who lives downtown, for walking a few blocks over to the arena and watching a basketball game in his free time, is wrong.) Not criticizing Jay Glazer for reporting it; just criticizing the mania around the story, because for Manziel to be criticized for watching a basketball game on his night off is absurd.
i. Greg the Leg.
j. Anyone still anointing Jimmy Graham?
k. Jay Cutler. I don’t see how the Bears can be confident in him.
l. The strange case of Jonas Gray. It's like that game 22 nights ago never happened.
m. Three drops by Reggie Wayne? Has to be a personal record.
n. How bad Indy played and still won.
o. Some of the officiating, including the awful spot on third-and-short late in Indianapolis-Cleveland.
p. My Lord, this is not something from this week, but how about this Thursday night game 10 days from now: Tennessee at Jacksonville.
3. I think almost every year there's a stunner in January—a coach we never thought would be parting ways with his team for whatever reason. That coach this season could be Sean Payton. Things just don't seem right in New Orleans right now.
4. I think the collapse of the Saints is the one thing that’s happening that I never would have predicted at the start of the season.
5. I think the silent story of the week was offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford quietly slipping away from Tampa Bay, after a lost season in which he had a heart procedure in August, and could never rejoin and improve a bad offense (28th in scoring after 13 weeks). Strange, given the fact that Tedford and Lovie Smith spent so much time together in 2013, when they weren’t working, formulating plans for a tag-team (Smith as head coach, Tedford as offensive play-caller) with some NFL team in 2014. Odd to me that Tedford, healthy, wouldn’t still be Smith’s choice in 2015.
6. I think the headline of the week belongs to stlouisrams.com: “Punters Get Paid Like People Too," after they rewarded versatile punter Johnny Hekker with a six-year, $18 million contract extension. I love this contract for St. Louis. Hekker is certainly worth 2 percent of the Rams’ cap space, especially because of how valuable he’s been in the fakery aspect of the punt team since arriving in St. Louis.
7. I think it’s interesting to note that, instead of working an NFL game this weekend—there are 17 officiating crews, which means most crews get two weeks off during the season—referee Gene Steratore took a tour of the Big Ten in one of his other jobs. He’s an NCAA basketball official. See him chuckling it up with Coach K at the Duke-Wisconsin games Wednesday night? His week: Tuesday in West Lafayette for North Carolina State-Purdue, Wednesday in Madison for Duke-Wisconsin, Saturday in Columbus for Colgate-Ohio State.
8. I think this is the best takedown of the week on any player in the league. It comes from Jenny Vrentas’ Friday Interview with Fran Tarkenton, on Robert Griffin III:
"He came into the league with an arrogance. He goes into Washington, which is the worst place for him to go. They have been so hungry for a quarterback, and for winning, they worshipped him. Here’s RG3; he’s our savior, he’s our guy. His father gets involved and is in the locker room—I have never seen a father in a locker room on Sundays. The owner, Dan Snyder, adopts him and becomes his best friend. So RG3, at 21, 22, thought he was Jesus, right? And he was making pontifical statements about how he approached the game. I was listening to him the offseason after his rookie year, which was not a bad year, and I’m saying, ‘Holy s—, this guy is out of control with his ego.’ That was the first sign you saw that he lacked leadership. Then, he was so into himself. You know a quarterback’s job? Make his teammates better. It’s not about you; it’s about your teammates. You’ve got to make them better, and if you don’t make them better, you have no chance. And he was all about RG3. I sympathize with Jay Gruden. Gruden came out and pointed out, which is right, that he has no mechanics. He is a terrible passer, has no accuracy, he doesn’t understand the offense, he doesn’t read defenses, and he has no discipline. When he is supposed to take a three-yard drop, he takes a one-yard drop; if he is supposed to take a five-yard drop, it’s a three-yard drop. There’s no discipline and understanding of the defense because he is a pontificator. He will never make it. He will be out of football. He will be in the same graveyard as JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young."
9. I think, speaking of Jenny Vrentas stories, there’s one I really want you to read from the past week. It’s about the University of New Hampshire, a power at the level below the Alabamas and Oregons, teaching tackling without wearing helmets. A snippet from something that could well be the way of the future when concussions in football reach a critical mass, and a story I strongly recommend:
The University of New Hampshire football team, the best in the FCS, is about to practice tackling. But before doing so, 25 players drop their helmets on the turf. Head coach Sean McDonnell stands careful watch, barking commands into the chilly New Hampshire air.
Eyes through his thighs!
Run your feet on contact!
Use the leverage you’ve got!
Get that head out of it!
The sight is jarring. Players dive at tackling dummies, or push into blocking sleds, or wrap up a live runner without helmets or shoulder pads. Their heads are bare, and so by instinct, they don’t lead with their heads. What if avoiding head contact becomes practically automatic, part of the muscle memory of a new generation of football players?
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. So, a quick baseball story here: Russell Wilson’s attorney, Mark Rodgers, is also the agent for relief pitcher Andrew Miller. In early October, when chatter about the off-season free-agent market was taking shape, Rodgers mentioned to me, knowing I liked baseball, that he thought Miller could get four years for more than $8 million per. “I think we can get him $9 [million] a year," Rodgers said two months ago. On Friday, the Yankees signed Miller to a four-year, $36-million deal. Talk about knowing your market. That’s amazing.
b. Miller will own 65 seventh or eighth innings for the Yankees. Great signing.
c. As for shortstop Didi Gregorius, who batted .226 with a .290 on-base for Arizona in 299 plate appearances and was benched and later farmed out at age 24 last season: I don’t know many great players, or even borderline all-star ones, who were on their third team by age 24 (Cincinnati, Arizona, Yanks). I don’t see any annual all-stars playing at short for Cincinnati, or looming at short for Arizona.
d. And dealing with the specter of replacing Derek Jeter will be exhausting, regardless what spin the Yankees put on it.
e. The plot on The Newsroom is quite good this year. Dialogue, not so much.
f. New York Times headline atop a nine-paragraph story in the sports section Thursday: “Woman Sets World Mark in Beer Mile." The story noted the winning men’s time was 5:00.23, and the women’s winner ran 6:17.76, and, “Only seven of the 10 men in the elite field finished.”
g. Puzzled by two things: The New York Times writing anything, never mind nine paragraphs, on a race that mandates runners chugging a beer before each quarter-mile … and that there is an “elite field" for such an event.
h. Beernerdness: Of course, I puzzle at the paper of record writing about a sports event that includes beer—and then I use a note every week about it! This week, mind me being a little boring? I’ve gotten back into Peroni. Sometimes I go through Peroni phases. It’s really simple, really clean-tasting, and conjures so many good memories of Italy.
i. Coffeenerdness: Thanks for introducing your dark roast to the Dunkin’ Donuts in the bowels of the Time & Life Building, Dunkin’. It’s a good occasional alternative, and much cheaper, than Starbucks. Nice job.
j. There are about 10 movies I want to see, but Unbroken, The Imitation Game and Foxcatcher—those are the three I vow to see by the end of the holidays.
k. Any of you who have movie recommendations for the holidays, send them my way. I plan to include them in my Tuesday mailbag column. Thanks.
l. UMass-Lowell beat New Jersey Institute of Technology in NCAA Division I basketball (a joke in and of itself, the Division I part) twice in the past three weeks. On Saturday, NJIT won at previously 6-0 Michigan, 72-70. This is a wonderful thing about sports. On any given Saturday…
m. Or, for that matter, on any given Friday. Good for you, Yale, waltzing into Storrs and beating the defending national champions, the UConn Huskies, 45-44 on a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Thought those scores in the 40s went out with the demise of the Dean Smith four-corner offense.
n. Anyone have Marcus Mariota’s home address? Heisman people need it, to mail him the trophy.
o. Not saying Saturday night’s Heisman award ceremony is anticlimactic or anything, but anyone who has his team in the race for the national title, with a 38-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, would seem to a pretty hands-down pick.
p. Martin Brodeur, 688 wins as a Devil. One win as a Blue. Man, was that odd, to see Brodeur dressed in blue … and coming in as a relief goalie Saturday on the island to get a win.
q. So much great work over your 27 years CNN, Candy Crowley. Thanks for your reporting, and looking forward to what’s next for you.
r. My college football final four: 1, Alabama; 2, Oregon; 3, Florida State; 4, Ohio State.
s. Nothing about my list, or the selection committee’s list, is truly “fair," so TCU and Baylor people, I get it. But things like this have to be based on who is playing best at the end of the year—and who hasn’t lost. The Cardale Jones thing is incredible, a third-string quarterback starting the first game of his life and playing competently, and Ohio State, a slight underdog, stuffing the best running back in the country and beating Wisconsin in the conference title game 59-0. I’m not convinced Florida State is one of the best four teams in the country, but FSU hasn’t lost. Can’t keep an unbeaten team out. And Ohio State had the most impressive conference championship game performance of all, considering the quality of competition. I do expect the next hue and cry in college football will be for an eight-game playoff.
t. Five big conferences, four playoff spots. That’s where the problems in the four-team playoff begin. And as my peer Pete Thamel wrote for SI.com Saturday night: “In the giddy excitement that came with getting rid of the two-team BCS in favor of the four-team playoff, many overlooked a potential fatal flaw. The vague criteria essentially allows the selection committee to make up the rules as it goes along.” Which is why Baylor and TCU were screaming Sunday afternoon after the naming of the field. But whatever the criteria, let’s face it: A four-team playoff was always going to make three or four teams that didn’t make it go crazy.
u. Finally, RIP Jean Béliveau, who was not only one of the great hockey players of all time (507 career goals in two decades as a Canadien) but also one who left his mark with class all over Canada. In an excellent column for the Toronto Star, goalie Ken Dryden wrote eloquently of Béliveau’s impact on Canada, and on Canadian people. Dryden, a 23-year-old rookie in 1971, was the 39-year-old Béliveau’s roommate in Béliveau’s final Stanley Cup title run, at home and on the road. (Now there’s something that wouldn’t happen today.) Dryden on Béliveau:
It was after he retired in 1971 that Jean became truly special. He became an ambassador for the Canadiens, but one like no other. He was proud of being a Montreal Canadien and proud of his sport. He was proud of being a Victoriavillois and a Montrealer, proud of being a Quebecker, proud of being a Canadian. He believed in all of them, and he represented all of them wherever he went. No place was too small or remote because no fan, no person was too unimportant.
He was the great Jean Béliveau, tall, handsome, graceful and gracious, with his warm dignity and friendly smile, yet there he was. He treated everyone with such respect. He said the right things, and in the right way — in French and in English — because that is what he believed, and that’s how he was. He made every occasion better. He made everyone who attended feel that their town, their organization, their province, their country, their event, mattered. That they mattered. Appealing to their best selves, he reminded them of the best that was in them.
It’s how he had been as a player. Unlike most other great stars, his presence didn’t diminish others. He made others better.
Who I Like Tonight
Green Bay 40, Atlanta 23. I think Matt Ryan will be able to move the Falcons some, which accounts for the Atlanta points. But he won’t move them enough to counterbalance an insignificant Falcons pass-rush. As I said higher in the column, if the Packers beat the woebegone playoff contenders tonight, Aaron Rodgers will have an identical record after 100 starts (68-32) as Brett Favre. What’s notable in the comparison between the two quarterbacks is the edge Rodgers has statistically. These numbers include only games each quarterback started, not the mop-up stuff each did before beginning their starting careers:
However, in Most Valuable Player awards won by the time of their 100th starts:
Now, Rodgers may get his second this year, but my point about all of this is a simple one. Even though Rodgers is playing in a different day, with more emphasis on the passing game and (this year) more points of emphasis to make it easier to put up monster numbers in the passing game, Favre was a great player early, and Rodgers has been a great player early, one generation apart. There’s good reason if you’re a Favre fan to say Favre was better, and a good reason today to say Rodgers is better. If you love the Packers, simply count yourself lucky to have had two starting quarterbacks in the past 22 years, and both are likely to go down as all-timers if Rodgers stays healthy.
The Adieu Haiku
Watt for MVP?
Can’t see it. Today, I take …
12. Mister Cheesehead.
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