Panic and Patience
Moral of the story after two weeks in the NFL: Nobody knows nothin’.
I know that, after the second Sunday of the season, it looks an awful lot like a Green Bay-New England Super Bowl. (And wouldn’t Roger Goodell and Tom Brady, who has found the fountain of youth, be happy to see each other in Santa Clara in February?) But football rarely looks in January the way it did in September; the four teams that played in the conference championship games last year were a combined 8-7 after four weeks. I’ll get to the good, the bad and the ugly of the league after two weekends, but first a few words about the two-time defending NFC champions.
The Seahawks are not finished. At all. The defense badly misses—but should not cave to—holdout strong safety Kam Chancellor, a true difference-maker. The offense, as we suspected going back to the daily offensive-line changes, misses regularity and stoutness on the line, and Russell Wilson (on pace to be sacked 64 times) is in a race to get better. Fast. But consider this: If the first quarter of the Seattle schedule had been reversed—Chicago and Detroit at home to start the season, St. Louis and Green Bay on the road in Weeks 3 and 4—the Seahawks might well be 2-0 right now, and no one would be throwing themselves off the top of Mount Rainier this morning.
“We have dealt with adversity before,” said wide receiver Doug Baldwin. “What has made us good in the past is being able to come out of that adversity better than we were before.”
The way the schedule fell this season is that Seattle had its toughest two games in Weeks 1 and 2—at St. Louis (1-3 in the last four years there) and at Green Bay (best team in the NFC right now). In Week 1, Chancellor’s replacement allowed the tying touchdown in the final minute, and a kooky and truly dumb decision to onside/pooch kick to start overtime cost them the game. In Week 2, Wilson, down seven and driving, threw an interception midway through the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.
Neither loss was a killer. In fact, neither was at all surprising. But couple those with the way the Super Bowl ended, and the Seahawks are on a three-game losing streak, there’s no end in sight to the Chancellor drama, and things look bad.
I’ll be surprised if Seattle isn’t 2-2 when it heads to Cincinnati in three weeks. The flawed Seahawks are still a top-10 team, even with the zits that have shown up in the first eight quarters. If I were offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, I’d be incorporating Jimmy Graham far more into the game plan as a post-up intermediate presence; Graham has been targeted only 10 times in eight quarters. It’s ridiculous that he has only 62 yards worth of catches so far. Wilson’s got to look for him more often. Rookie Tyler Lockett (six catches, 51 yards) needs to be featured more too.
But those are play-calling points of emphasis that can be fixed. Seattle is wounded, but with the Chancellor holdout and the schedule, we could see that coming. So much else around the league, we couldn’t.
The five things we never saw coming
1. The NFC East is going to be one bizarre division this year. If you took a poll of fans of a certain knowledge before the season, my guess is that Washington would have been ranked fourth of the four teams in the division. This morning, with the crippling injuries to Dallas (and I think the Cowboys overcome them, because of their good defense and because Tony Romo and Dez Bryant should return for the final five or six weeks), Washington might be first. The narrative in D.C. has changed. It was: What in the world are they doing with RG3? Now it is: Who can stop their running game? Jay Gruden’s team is playing good defense, and without question has the best ground game in the division, a job-share between Alfred Morris and Matt Jones. A week after incumbent Morris had 25 rushes to rookie third-rounder Jones’s six, Gruden called Jones’s number 19 times and Morris’ 18 in the decisive win over the Rams. Jones had a workmanlike 123 rushing yards. After two weeks Jones and Morris have combined to run for 331 yards. “There will be some games where it may not happen like that,” Gruden said on Sunday. “Our plan is to keep both of them fresh. I don’t really care who is in there. In pro football, I think that is the blueprint for most successful teams. We have a young quarterback. We don’t want to throw it 50 times.” It’s working so far. Kirk Cousins is a 76% passer after two weeks.
2. Incompetent Eagles. How is it possible that nothing works right for a Chip Kelly offense? I mean, nothing. The second-most efficient running team in the league over the past two years is dead last in that category now, despite a huge commitment to it in the off-season. There is no more stunning statistic after two weeks than this one: 2014 rushing champion DeMarco Murray has carried 21 times for 11 yards. The sacrificing of Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans on the offensive line has wounded the running game, and the inability of Sam Bradford, who looked absolutely incapable against Dallas on Sunday (first seven Eagle drives: 9, 6, 0, 2, 4, 12 and 0 yards), is something Kelly has to fix right now. Why? The next two defenses the Eagles face (at Jets, at Washington) bring as much pressure as Dallas.
• THE PULSE OF PHILLY: Jenny Vrentas on how the Eagles are coping with their disastrous 0-2 start. Players are grasping for answers as they try to figure out what has gone wrong and how they can move forward.
3. Broken Baltimore. Something odd about John Harbaugh’s eighth team in Baltimore: It’s his first one to start 0-2. The mantra around the Ravens after the 19-16 defeat in Denver in Week 1 was that the loss of Terrell Suggs to season-ending Achilles surgery wouldn’t be deadly, because the defensive depth was good enough to cover up for him. Well, that was before Sunday’s game in Oakland. Remember, the Raiders were down 33-0 to Cincinnati, in Oakland, just seven days earlier, and looked incompetent offensively. Against Baltimore, Oakland put up 37 points and 448 yards, and the Ravens had no answer for Derek Carr. Before the season the Ravens told the league they’d prefer their four western games—at Denver, Oakland, San Francisco and Arizona—be parceled out, two at a time. So the league scheduled Denver and Oakland roadies in Weeks 1 and 2, and Niners and Cardinals games in Weeks 6 and 7. Surely the Ravens didn’t count on being in an 0-2 hole with a brutal five-game stretch coming up beginning Sunday. Baltimore is home to Cincinnati, then travels to its annual mayhem-fest in Pittsburgh on a short week Thursday. Time to either save the season or ruin it.
4. Atlanta is 2-0. I credit Dan Quinn and the pass-rush he imported, an improving offensive line, a steady Matt Ryan, and the most acrobatic, sure-handed receiver playing today. Julio Jones has twice as many catches (22) as DeMarco Murray has rushing yards. Look at Jones’s first two weeks: nine catches for 141 yards Monday in the win over Philadelphia, and 13 for 135 in the win over the Giants on Sunday. My mini-interview with Jones after he dove for balls and picked one off a Giant corner’s head:
Me: Are you still going to be standing after 16 games? Looks like you’re getting beat up a lot.
Julio: Football’s a contact sport. You’ve got to expect that. I don’t feel physically punished at all right now. It’s football. I get hit. No big deal.
Me: Your style’s pretty unique—physical and fast and quick. You learn the craft from watching any other receivers over the years?
Julio: I don’t watch other receivers. I just focus on my job and improving and being the best I can be. I don’t watch football outside of our games.
Me: What’s Dan Quinn brought to the team?
Julio: With Dan Quinn, his message is, “We’re going to be relentless.” Who has the grit to keep at it? One game at a time. That’s what he talks about. That’s pretty much how we’ve played.
So we see.
5. It took eight days for Johnny Football to produce a quarterback controversy in Cleveland. As I said on NBC Sunday night, my gut feeling is that if Josh McCown passes his concussion protocol this week—and McCown was not passed when checked on Friday—he’ll keep his starting job. But Manziel won his first NFL game Sunday, 28-14 over Tennessee, and his 60- and 50-yard touchdown passes to Travis Benjamin were big reasons why Cleveland won. Manziel’s exciting. It’s possible that the coaches will decide this week to keep him in the lineup, but his four fumbles and one pick in seven quarters will work against him, as will the fact that the coaches seem to trust McCown more, at least for now. “Johnny is definitely arrow-up right now,’’ coach Mike Pettine said from Cleveland Sunday night. “He has been very interactive with the coaches, very involved, and those are the things we like. He’s been different, very different, in a positive way. On the other hand, you talk to some of the veterans, Joe Thomas and Brian Hartline, and they’re big fans of Josh too, as a player and a leader.’’ The good thing for Pettine, and his team, is that the backup quarterback—if that’s what Manziel remains when McCown returns—isn’t the liability he was a year ago.
• MANZIEL BEATS MARIOTA, BUT… : Despite outdueling the heavily hyped rookie on Sunday, Andy Benoit writest that Johnny Manziel still has flaws that will keep him from being a consistent quarterback in the NFL.
6. The Bengals are Old Man River. Since Andy Dalton was drafted in the second round in 2011, he has started every one of Cincinnati’s 70 games. The Bengals have won nine, 10, 11 and 10 games in his four regular seasons. For the first time in franchise history they’ve made the playoffs four straight years. And as you know if you follow football even slightly, it’s not enough. Dalton and the Bengals are 0-4 in those playoff games, and the local populace is getting quite restless. Reportedly, Dalton was booed by some fans during this year’s baseball All-Star Game festivities in Cincinnati.
So what are we to make of the Bengals’ 2-0 start, and Dalton’s terrific performance so far? He has completed 68.3% of his throws in wins over Oakland and San Diego, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The difference this year could be a tight end the offense trusts instead of the inconsistent Jermaine Gresham. Tyler Eifert leads the team with 13 catches on 17 targets, 153 yards and three touchdowns—more, in each count, than star wideout A.J. Green. That’s because offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been eager to feature a strong receiving tight end, and now he has one. With Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, and a very good receiving back in Gio Bernard, Dalton has five legitimate threats. If they stay upright, Dalton might finally break his January schneid this year.
“We understand that we have a lot of good players on the offensive side of the ball,” said Eifert, the 2013 first-round pick out of Notre Dame. “But you never know who is going to break out or have a good game. It’s good to have a lot of good players to give the defenses a lot of things to worry about.”
While it’s true the Bengals have to get the playoff monkey off their backs, what they’ve done in the first two games shows it’s not something that beats them down. The next three weeks—at Baltimore, then Kansas City and Seattle at home, all defenses that can pressure the quarterback well—will give a good indication whether Dalton has enough weapons and can rise to the pressure he has to be feeling.
It’s the most worrisome time of the year
For the Romo-less Cowboys. Owner Jerry Jones is the sunniest guy in the NFL. Losses always have silver linings. But it was a sign of how down the Cowboys were, even after making the Eagles look like a bunch of Bad News Bears Sunday in boo-happy Philly, that Jones said he felt “as low as a crippled cricket’s ass.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard that one… I didn’t think I’d see any hands.) His franchise quarterback, for the second time in six seasons, will miss at least half the year because of a broken left collarbone, this one suffered on a hard sack by Philly’s Jordan Hicks. When Romo got the word after an X-ray in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field, he called Jones, and the owner said, “We were both sick.” It’s likely Romo will miss two months; the Cowboys would be fortunate to get him and Dez Bryant (broken foot) back for the final six games. It’s not a stretch to think they could split the next eight games, particularly with the way their defense played in suffocating the Eagles. Dallas doesn’t have a strong backup (Brandon Weeden) and may be in the market for quarterback help this week. (Matt Cassel? Chad Henne?) So the Cowboys will now have to rely on defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s unit to play low-scoring, run-heavy games. As Tony Dungy said on NBC last night, Marinelli will tell his defensive players they have to play even better now and keep Dallas in the race until Romo returns. In what is shaping up to be a weak NFC East, playing 17-13 games might be the Cowboys’ best chance to survive.
For the 0-2 Saints. At the start of the fourth quarter Sunday, in the Superdome, the Saints were trailing the Bucs 23-7. At that point New Orleans had 19 possessions this season and two touchdown drives. Running game, mortal. Drew Brees, mortal. The crowd, understandably laconic. After a sixth straight home loss—heresy to think about—to a team that gave up 42 points to Tennessee last week, the Saints have to face the real possibility that the glory days aren’t coming back without a complete rebuild. They’re 26-26 (including playoffs) since the start of 2012. And though Jameis Winston was suitably honored to be playing a guy he’s watched on TV since he was a kid (“That’s Drew Brees over there!” he said after the game), he shouldn’t genuflect too much. After two games, Winston has a better passer rating than the great Brees. Strange days indeed in New Orleans.
For the 0-2 Giants. Sunday was the 50th game since their Super Bowl 46 win over New England. They’re 22-28, with zero playoff trips, since. Team president John Mara, seething at the end of the last season, has to be apoplectic after the Giants, who have now blown 13-point and 10-point leads—both in the fourth quarter—limped off the field in the Meadowlands at a low point in recent history. The Giants weren’t going to be great this year, because they have too many defensive holes and no pass-rushers. But they’re not getting the return on offensive investments Eli Manning (two touchdown drives in two games, not including a one-yard drive in Dallas after a turnover) and Victor Cruz (injured). Manning, in particular, has had a brain-locked first two weeks, a bad delay-of-game penalty Sunday against Atlanta (on a key third down, coming out of a Falcons timeout) following the dumb endgame decisions in Dallas. It’s New York, so it won’t be long before the drumbeats increase for Tom Coughlin’s job.
For Matthew Stafford and the winless Lions. Detroit is 0-2, and this is the Lions’ reward: consecutive prime-time dates with Peyton Manning and the 2-0 Broncos Sunday at home, then at Seattle eight nights later in a game the Seahawks will have to have. Tremendous reportage by Mlive.com’s Kyle Meinke in the losers’ locker room Sunday at Minnesota, when The Franchise, Matthew Stafford, looked like a guy who’d just gone 12 rounds with Tyson in his prime.
Wrote Meinke of Stafford: “There was a blood-soaked bandage on his left forearm, near the elbow. He began picking at a bandage around his left wrist. His throwing arm looked beat up too. It's no wonder he put on long sleeves for that press conference. The big toe on his left foot was blue. Two toes on his right foot were taped … Stafford just kept sitting there in the corner, breathing just right, trying to soothe his battered ribs. He had X-rays for those ribs. There's no word on the results.” Yow. It’s Sept. 21. How in the world will Stafford last through 14 more of these three-hour survival tests? And as Stafford goes, so go the Lions.
Three questions with a UNC
Even the most rabid NFL fans will say, in response to that header, “Why are you asking questions to a University of North Carolina?” This UNC stands for unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant. There are two of these at each NFL game, one on each sideline. They have the power to stop the game if they see a player struggling with what appears to be a head injury. They also can join the team physicians to examine a player on the sideline between plays or series, which could happen after an independent observer in the press box signals down to the sidelines to take a player off the field for an exam.
Geoffrey Manley is the chief of neurosurgery and co-director of the Brain and Spinal Injury Center at San Francisco General Hospital, and a professor of neurological surgery at the University of California at San Francisco. He has been one of the UNCs at Oakland Raiders games since the program began in 2013. Manley was selected by the NFL and NFL Players Association as one of the brain-trauma experts to analyze players at home games of teams throughout the league.
The MMQB: How exactly does the system work?
Manley: We get there about an hour before the game, and the [two] UNCs and the team medical personnel meet to introduce themselves. We give them our qualifications, since often it’s the first time meeting them. When the game starts, I stay at about the 35-yard-line, watching the game as closely as I can. We also have a video station on the sideline, where we can look at any play between plays. There is a radio system between the spotter upstairs and the sidelines. It’s not just looking at head-to-head contact on the field, but it could be a player’s head hitting the ground hard, or something we observe. During the game, we could get a call from the spotter. There’s been an open-field tackle with some head-to-head contact. So we go and look at the tape to see the hit. If we think the hit merits looking at the player, we will look at him—the team physician and me, together. Over the time I’ve been doing it, I’d estimate—and this is just a guess—that we look at two or three players a game. Last week we looked at a player who got what I would call a glancing blow to the head, but one worth looking at. He looked all right, but then we ask him questions. What quarter are we in? Who did you play last week? Questions like that. This player was very crisp with his answers, very with it. It was clear he had no wooziness. We didn’t feel the need to go back to the locker room to do the more thorough test and the balance test.
Of course, players want to play. Frequently there is resistance. The first response often is, “I gotta get back in the game.” If we think the player may have suffered some brain trauma, we will go to the locker room. We run through the cognitive tests for the player, then we do a balance test. They either pass the test or not. Sometimes I tell them if they are resistant, “If you twisted your knee, you wouldn’t feel good about going back in the game. When in doubt, you need to sit it out. You need to let your brain heal, just like you’d let your knee heal.”
The MMQB: In your time doing this, have you felt any subtle or overt pressure from teams to get a player back in the game?
Manley: I have never felt any pressure to keep a player in the game. I have been treated with the utmost respect. All I have felt is the teams are very proactive to do the right thing on the sidelines. I really have the ability to have a second opinion. Believe me, I wouldn’t do this if I felt I was being marginalized.
The MMQB: Do you feel this is helping the league get players off the field who would otherwise be staying on the field with a head injury?
Manley: I know the NFL gets a bad rap in this area, but I can tell you they’re trying really hard. Guys who come to the sideline get some of the best medical care that I see. For me, this has been a great experience as a physician. I have learned a tremendous amount about concussions and the assessment of concussions. We as physicians don’t do a very good job in assessing concussion. You can’t always tell just by asking a few questions. Here [on the sidelines] we do the cognitive test, and the baseline, and the balance test. I like the idea that we are unaffiliated.
* * *
I followed up with a question over the weekend, via email to Manley, about whether he has the power to keep a player out of the game if other medical authorities on-site disagree. In other words, can the UNC trump the other medics at the game?
“It is my understanding,” Manley wrote back, “and it has been my actual experience, that if I believe a player has had a concussion, they cannot return to game.”
How we view the importance of drafts
It’s not altogether strange for the top of a draft to crap out. But so fast? That could be the lasting story of the 2013 first round. The first overall pick, tackle Eric Fisher, is on the bench with the Chiefs. Four players in the top half of the first round look like looming busts, and the bottom half of the round looks stronger than the top half already. Keep in mind that the 2013 class was not evaluated to be particularly strong. There wasn’t a no-doubt quarterback, and the skill positions and corners were below-average. But who’d have thought it would look this bad 34 games later?
Surveying the carnage leads to one overriding conclusion: We hype drafts to a silly level of expectation. We overrate players just because of where they are picked. We don’t wait to see how they play before we rate success and failure. And then, a couple of years later, we look at a draft like 2013 and say with some incredulity, W-w-w-what happened?
As one longtime scout told me Saturday: “That draft is a disaster—a total riddle. You simply can’t predict how players will do in a different environment. Everyone thought Eric Fisher would be good. Everyone. I thought Jonathan Cooper would be good. Easy pick. There is a randomness to the draft that you can’t explain.”
I’m going to get to the lesson of why a volume of compensatory picks should be as valuable as first-round picks in a few moments. But first, learn a draft lesson this morning. The badness of the 2013 draft:
• There is not a star among the top dozen picks of the first round. Not close. Ziggy Ansah, maybe. But if the best player in the top 12 of a draft after 2.1 years is a guy averaging half a sack per start, that’s a terrible bit of testimony to the quality of a draft.
• The No. 1 overall pick, tackle Eric Fisher of the Chiefs, lost his left tackle job to the 74th pick of the 2012 draft, Donald Stephenson. And then, under cloudy circumstances, Fisher lost the right tackle job—because of an ankle sprain, or maybe poor performance—to a tackle off the street, Jah Reid, signed just seven days before the season-opener. The Chiefs will have paid Fisher $17.7 million by the end of this season, and they’ve got to be having major buyer’s remorse for a guy who, according to Pro Football Focus, was the 34th-rated right tackle in the NFL his rookie year (among 36 who played at least eight games) and the 28th-rated left tackle in 2014.
• The No. 3 pick, defensive end Dion Jordan, is suspended for the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse program, his third substance suspension in three years. He has started one game and had three sacks.
• The No. 9 pick, cornerback Dee Milliner of the Jets, had a poor rookie year, tore his Achilles last year, and saw the Jets sign three free-agent cornerbacks this year to play above him … then needed wrist surgery in camp (his seventh football-related surgery of his life) and will be sidelined until at least midseason. So it’s not all his fault, certainly. But he hasn’t been a profitable pick for the Jets.
• The No. 16 pick, quarterback EJ Manuel, is the third passer on the Buffalo depth chart after 14 underwhelming starts in his first two seasons.
Then there are the marginal starters: tackle Luke Joeckel of Jacksonville (second overall), defensive end Barkevious Mingo of Cleveland (sixth overall), guard Jonathan Cooper of Arizona (seventh overall), and cornerback D.J. Hayden of Oakland (12th overall). So in just 28 months, eight of the top 16 picks have raised major questions about their future. That is significantly more than the major questions in the second half of the first round. The last 16 picks, overall, are clearly better than the top 16. Compare for yourself:
|The Top Half of 2013 Round 1||The Bottom Half of 2013 Round 1|
|1. Kansas City T Eric Fisher||17. Pittsburgh LB Jarvis Jones|
|2. Jacksonville T Luke Joeckel||18. San Francisco S Eric Reid|
|3. Miami DE Dion Jordan||19. N.Y Giants T Justin Pugh|
|4. Philadelphia T Lane Johnson||20. Chicago G-T Kyle Long|
|5. Detroit DE Ziggy Ansah||21. Cincinnati TE Tyler Eifert|
|6. Cleveland DE Barkevious Mingo||22. Atlanta CB Desmond Trufant|
|7. Arizona G Jonathan Cooper||23. Minnesota DT Sharrif Floyd|
|8. St. Louis WR/Ret Tavon Austin||24. Indianapolis DE Bjoern Werner|
|9. N.Y. Jets CB Dee Milliner||25. Minnesota CB Xavier Rhodes|
|10. Tennessee G Chance Warmack||26. Green Bay DE Datone Jones|
|11. San Diego T D.J. Fluker||27. Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins|
|12. Oakland CB D.J. Hayden||28. Denver DT Sylvester Williams|
|13. N.Y. Jets DT Sheldon Richardson||29. Minn. WR Cordarrelle Patterson|
|14. Carolina DT Star Lotulelei||30. St. Louis LB Alec Ogletree|
|15. New Orleans S Kenny Vaccaro||31. Dallas C Travis Frederick|
|16. Buffalo QB E.J. Manuel||32. Baltimore S Matt Elam|
* * *
If I were to rank the top quarter of that draft’s first round, I’d go this way:
1. Sheldon Richardson (13th overall).
2. Travis Frederick (31st).
3. Desmond Trufant (22nd).
4. Kyle Long (20th).
5. Xavier Rhodes (25th).
6. DeAndre Hopkins (27th).
7. Sharrif Floyd (23rd).
8. Ziggy Ansah (5th).
Quite an indictment of the scouting process in 2013, that six of the top eight players may have been picked from No. 20 and beyond. There are several messages here. The easy thing to say is that scouts stink, and the thought process of teams is flawed. What I would say is that scouting is an incredibly inexact science. Joeckel and Fisher have struggled with the outside speed of the pro game, though Joeckel, specifically, played against speed rushers on the outside of a spread system at Texas A&M. So how do you figure him struggling so mightily? I think it’s also the case that some years, and this one certainly appears to be one, are just not top-heavy. The strength of the draft looked to be on the outside of the offensive and defensive lines, and it’s been nothing like that.
Two other points need to be made.
In this draft-evaluation business, you’ve got to be careful with making absolute statements. For example, GM Scott Pioli was ridden out of Kansas City after four seasons, in early 2013. But from his four drafts come the guts of the current Chiefs defense that looks so good right now: Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey on the line, 2014 NFL sack leader Justin Houston (with the 70th pick in 2011) at outside linebacker, and Eric Berry in the defensive backfield (if he can continue his comeback from lymphoma). The left tackle, Stephenson, was a Pioli third-round pick in 2012. Pioli had his share of misses, and didn’t leave Andy Reid with a quarterback of the future. But his hits—and the team’s relative success since his dismissal—go to show you that the tar-and-feathering business in personnel evaluation can be pretty misleading.
Also, I’ve become convinced—and this started with the way Jimmy Johnson/Jerry Jones were wheeling and dealing when Johnson got to the Cowboys—that the number of picks in a draft is far more important than the location of the picks. With lots of low-round gems, Johnson proved that collecting lots of picks was the way to go, because history says teams are bound to be wrong on even some of the seemingly surest things. Take the Ravens. They are the biggest believers in the compensatory pick system. That’s the lottery in which teams that lose pricey free agents collect picks between the third and seventh rounds in future drafts as compensation. In the past five drafts the Ravens have had 15 compensatory picks and turned them into two key pieces of the offensive line—starting tackle Ricky Wagner and third guard John Urschel—plus starting fullback Kyle Juszczyk and pass-rusher Pernell McPhee. Love this irony: McPhee could net the Ravens a pick at the end of the fourth round in 2016 after he signed a five-year, $39 million contract with the Bears last spring. That’s the kind of personnel discipline, knowing when to let good players leave because you trust you can train new players who cost much less, that consistently good teams have.
Quotes of the Week
—Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, while walking off the field to have his left shoulder X-rayed, as captured by FOX cameras and then lip-read by sideline reporter Erin Andrews.
“This loss is squarely on one man’s shoulders. It’s on my shoulders. You know, yeah, we gotta get better as a team. There’s no question. But I have to get better. You know, [Bill] Belichick outcoached me. No question about it … Can’t give up 500 yards and beat anybody, and then we turn it over three times. But, uh, you know, we did a horse---- job, and it’s my responsibility.”
—Buffalo coach and purported defensive maestro Rex Ryan, after the Bills allowed the most passing yards in franchise history to a quarterback (Tom Brady, with 466) and lost to New England 40-32.
“No matter how much you may hate Belichick, anyone who watches ‘Do Your Job’ has to give the Hoodie his props. The end of that game stands as the greatest demonstration of championship preparation and execution I have seen in more than a half-century of watching sports.”
—Boston Globe columnist and consistent “Patriots Way” needler Dan Shaughnessy, on the end of the Super Bowl, and how NFL Network’s “Do Your Job” documentary illustrated the coaching acumen of Bill Belichick.
“I haven’t heard anyone on our side talk about 18 games in a long time.”
—Steelers president and Management Council executive committee member Art Rooney II, on reports that the league’s owners want an 18-game regular-season schedule.
“I never read this book the Cardinals wrote way back in the day regarding how to play baseball.”
—Cubs manager Joe Maddon, after a beanball conflict between St. Louis and the Cubs the other day.
It's interesting that Maddon’s a big Arizona Cardinals fan. He reminds me a lot of Bruce Arians.
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland. Few young players in the game have gotten puffed up the way the football world has puffed up Carr. Watching Sunday against the Ravens, Carr deserves it. Completing 30 of 46 passes for 351 yards, with three touchdowns and one pick, Carr was at his best in the last two minutes. He took the Raiders 80 yards in nine plays, finishing with a 12-yard strike to the totally unknown Seth Roberts to win the game, 37-33.
Travis Benjamin, wide receiver/returner, Cleveland. On a day when six or eight receivers were absolutely huge, Benjamin stood alone against Tennessee in Cleveland’s home opener. The fourth-year receiver from the University of Miami owned this game. (Well, with his partner in aerial crime, Jonathan “Football” Manziel.) He started the Browns’ mayhem by catching a 60-yard bomb from Manziel two minutes into the game. A minute before halftime, Benjamin took a punt at his 22 and ran, untouched, 78 yards to put the Browns up 21-0 at the half. And, needing a little insurance after the Titans cut the lead to seven late, Benjamin got open on a scramble play, and Manziel hit him for a 50-yard touchdown. For the day, Benjamin had nine touches for 269 yards. That’s pretty good, 30 yards every time you touch the ball.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. How does Brady top his performance in the opener, with all the pressure of an off-season scandal weighing on him? He goes up against Rex Ryan, that’s what. Brady was tremendous Sunday, in one of the most difficult environments he’s ever encountered, 70,858 screamers at Ralph Wilson Stadium: 38 of 59, 466 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady is 38. Never in his career has he thrown for more yards and more touchdowns in the first two weeks of a season than he has this year.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Ryan Shazier, linebacker, Pittsburgh. This is exactly the kind of game the Steelers envisioned when they drafted Shazier in the first round of the 2014 draft. The numbers were ridiculous enough: 15 tackles, a sack for a 17-yard loss, three tackles for loss, a strip and recovery off Colin Kaepernick, when the Niners were trying to get back in the game in the second quarter. With the immense production came speed, the kind that had multiple teams—Atlanta wanted him badly pre-draft in 2014—hoping he fell to its spot. Pittsburgh, instead, got the sideline-to-sideline speed and presence that Shazier brings to the interior.
Chandler Jones, defensive end; Jamie Collins, linebacker, New England. It would be unfair to honor one and not the other. Jones and Collins combined for 5.5 sacks (for a combined 39 yards in losses), 17 tackles, seven quarterback hits and one forced fumble. The Patriots showed up in a hostile place, against a team that spent most of the week calling them out, and the physically imposing defense, led by Collins and Jones, announced it wasn’t going to take it. And the Patriots didn’t.
Sean Lee, middle linebacker, Dallas. What a keystone to what the Cowboys do defensively; we see it so clearly in the first two weeks of this season after Lee missed last year with a torn ACL. Lee had 14 tackles, two passes defended and a crucial end-zone interception of Sam Bradford that ended the stunning Dallas domination of the Eagles at a boo-filled Lincoln Financial Field.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Matt Bosher, punter, Atlanta. Punting five times for a 54.6-yard average against the Giants in the Meadowlands, Bosher added to an impressive start to the season. In his first two weeks he’s averaging 56.0 yards per punt, with a net of 43.7 yards.
David Johnson, kick returner/running back, Arizona. Talk about setting the tone for the game. Johnson ran back the opening kickoff 108 yards to make it 7-0 at Chicago. Then he gave the Cards insurance points with a 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The rookie from Northern Iowa is going to be an important cog for what’s looking very much like a strong playoff contender after two weeks.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Rod Marinelli, defensive coordinator, Dallas. The Cowboys were one of the most-prepared defenses you’ll see in any game. Missing premier pass-rusher Greg Hardy and premier linebacker Rolando McClain (both suspended), Dallas held 2014 NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray to 13 carries for two yards, and, in the first 55 minutes, held the Eagles as a team to 131 yards. The Eagles could do nothing, and Marinelli’s game plan made that possible.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Sam Bradford, quarterback, Philadelphia. I don’t care what the numbers say. I’m sure Chip Kelly doesn’t care what the numbers say. But Bradford had zero answers for the complicated Dallas rush and cover schemes Sunday and looked like a Double-A batter facing Clayton Kershaw. The worst thing? Bradford looked unprepared, tentative, almost nervous. And when the final chance died—when a stray snap bounced off his chest and he didn’t move heaven and earth to try to recover a ball the Cowboys ended up with, I just thought: The Eagles are in big trouble.
• THE PULSE OF PHILLY: Jenny Vrentas on how the Eagles are coping with their disastrous 0-2 start. Players are grasping for answers as they try to figure out what has gone wrong and how they can move forward.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City. I know, I know. Andy Reid called the play with 35 seconds left in a tie game at his own 20, and Charles fumbled the ball, and Denver’s Bradley Roby ran it in for the win. Just kneel down, coach, and play for overtime. I agree. But Charles, to me, is the no-doubt GOTW. He had huge gaffes at the beginning and the end of the 31-24 loss to Denver. On Kansas City’s first series, he took a pass from Alex Smith at the Denver six-yard line in a scoreless game. Denver safety David Bruton punched it out, and the Broncos recovered. That’s either a three-point or seven-point loss there. And at the end, Charles has to know the Broncos are going to be punching at the ball, trying to force a fumble. Linebacker Brandon Marshall did just that, and Bradley Roby recovered. Charles is a great player, but he cost the Chiefs seven points early, and he cost them the game late. “I caused us the loss,” Charles said. “I tried to put the team on my back, and I ended up losing the game.”
Stat of the Week
One man’s prediction: I doubt Peyton Manning will last the season if the Broncos protect the way the line has protected in the first two games, and unless coach Gary Kubiak allows Manning to consistently run the offense from the shotgun. I addressed this some in The MMQB Extra video atop this column, but roll this around in your head: Manning, 39, is on pace to be pressured and hit almost 70 percent more than he was last year, according to quarterback-pressure stats compiled by Pro Football Focus.
Check out the season-by-season data of pressure on Manning since he signed with the Broncos in 2012:
|Year||Dropbacks||Sacks||Significant Pressures*||S.P. %|
*Significant Pressure (S.P.) accounts for the total of QB pressures, hits and sacks.
The crux of the numbers: Manning is on pace to be sacked 56 times (more than triple his sack number from last year) and on pace to be under significant pressure 224 times, 69.7 percent more than he was pressured a year ago. Now, Manning has taken to collapsing when he sees the inevitable sack coming, so that’s less punishment than a normal quarterback taking 56 sacks would endure. But at his age and with his lack of mobility—if this continues—Manning would be so battered by December with all that pressure that it’d be an upset if he made it through the season.
That’s why I think Kubiak has to take Manning away from under center, and let him use the no-huddle the way he’s used it through the latter stages of his career. Which is to say, almost always.
Touchdown passes for Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field in his past 58 quarters played there: 38.
Interceptions thrown by Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field in his past 58 quarters played there: 0.
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Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The starry New York Giants receiving duo of Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr. have been on the field together for one full professional game, the New York-Atlanta game on Oct. 5, 2014.
The CBS/NFL Network telecast of the Thursday night between Denver and Kansas City was 5 hours and 7 minutes long, including a pregame show and (longer) postgame show, which lasted longer on NFL Network than it did on CBS.
If you think the weekly fantasy football commercials are, say, plentiful, and if you think the competition for your weekly fantasy football dollar is pretty intense, well, you’re right on both counts. The breakdown of the stream of fantasy-game ads in Thursday’s football telecast:
Total fantasy football spots: 19
FanDuel: 11 (including nine in pre- and postgame shows)
Draft Kings: 7 (including five during the game)
According to Crux (a site covering all things Catholic), the 70 reporters who travel with the Pope this week from Rome to Havana to Washington to New York to Philadelphia to Rome (and Francis, you’ll find that it’s a lot quicker, all things considered, to take the bus or train or car from New York to Philly next Saturday, but no one asked me) must agree to travel on each leg of the trip and must pay $5,500 for the coach-class ticket.
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Tweets of the Week
I’ve covered Drew Brees for all 10 years of his Saints career. That’s the most reticent & disspirited I’ve seen him at a post-game presser.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) September 20, 2015
By the way HUGE S/O lil bro @JManziel2 on his performance and most importantly getting that W this afternoon. Yesir!!— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 20, 2015
Peyton carrying himself like he doesn't care. No energy. Not engaged with WR and the OL and def not the coaches like we are used to seeing.— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) September 18, 2015
The Super Bowl-winning coach tweeted this when the Broncos trailed 14-0 in the first half Thursday night.
We get it. Alex Smith hasn't thrown touchdown passes to wide receivers in a while. Can a statistic jump the shark?— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) September 18, 2015
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 2:
a. The threaded-needle touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to James Jones early in the Sunday night affair. Wow. Rolling left, through two defenders. Just perfect.
b. Rodgers’ practice of flinging the ball deep when the defense is caught offside, which resulted in a gain of 52 yards when Seattle’s Richard Sherman was called for pass interference … and about half the players on the field were just standing around.
c. Carolina’s defense, through two weeks: 26 points allowed, and six of those quarters were played without Luke Kuechly.
d. The tip-and-interception by Jared Allen. He is not too old. That was one of the most athletic plays of the week.
e. The great catch by A.J. Green, and very good throw by Andy Dalton, on the Bengals’ touchdown two minutes into the game against San Diego. Green’s such a great fingertip catcher.
f. Aaron Donald. He has multiple “wow” plays every week, notably Sunday for throwing two linemen aside and sacking Kirk Cousins five minutes into their game.
g. If anyone makes more physical, tough catches in traffic than Antonio Brown, I don’t know who it is.
h. Kevin Harlan, incredulous, in Buffalo, on New England’s first drive: “How in the world can you communicate with this noise? What do you do?” Just then, Tom Brady called timeout, presumably because he couldn’t hear, or be heard, above the din in Orchard Park.
i. Excellent reading of the hole by Cleveland running back Isaiah Crowell on his touchdown run for the Browns.
j. Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner with the smart call on the goal line—a play-action fake to Adrian Peterson and boot around end by Teddy Bridgewater. Touchdown. Good execution by Bridgewater too.
k. Peterson, with what should be the new normal for him: 29 carries, 134 rushing yards, the most in the league in Week 2.
l. Aqib Talib’s anticipatory interception against the Chiefs. No corner is better at predicting where a quarterback is going and executing the big plays after said predictions.
m. Malik Jackson, showing the depth of the Denver defensive front.
n. Malcolm Butler’s diving interception, an inch from the ground, of Tyrod Taylor.
o. Tennessee running back Dexter McCluster turning the corner against Cleveland with Sproles-like speed. Which I believe was the lone highlight of the day for the Titans.
p. Arizona safety Tony Jefferson knifing through the Chicago line at the goal line and stopping Matt Forte for a loss of two, forcing the Bears to go for the field goal instead of a short touchdown run.
q. Nick Foles to Kenny Britt, perfectly thrown into end zone traffic. Touchdown.
r. Ryan Mallett to Garrett Graham, perfectly thrown to the back of the end zone, where only the tight end could catch it. Touchdown.
s. Zach Line, former rookie diary subject for The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas, with a one-yard touchdown run on the first rush of his NFL career.
t. Larry Donnell—NOT double-catching it for once, regarding Tom Coughlin’s instructions—with a tough diving touchdown catch on a pass from Eli Manning.
u. Terrific 91-yard must-score drive by Matt Ryan, ending in a perfect throw into a tiny window for a touchdown to Leonard Hankerson.
v. Julio Jones, who is going to be very sore today. Boy, did he take some shots against the Giants. But he made some very big catches.
w. I’ve been slow to promote a really fun new feature at The MMQB. It’s our weekly podcast with Andy Benoit and Robert Klemko, posting every Thursday during the season. “Football is already more complex than chess, infinitely,” Benoit says, and he and Klemko then get into a podcast-y brawl about that opinion, and then they speak with Michael Brockers about the Rams’ terrific young D, and it’s good and interesting football talk. “I can’t agree with you on that one,” Klemko said about the chess argument. Benoit: “Well, you’re wrong. Not every team’s bishop is better than every team’s pawn.” Well, okay. “Someone needs to take down chess!” Benoit, the anti-chess man, said. “Let’s not call your little game a sport!” Get ’em!
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 2:
a. How incredibly out of sync the New Orleans passing game looks.
b. Of the many disastrous performances by the Eagles against Dallas, Byron Maxwell, who gave up a sloppy insurance touchdown to the Cowboys (and Brandon Weeden), takes the crown.
c. The Arizona secondary, not covering receiver Josh Bellamy—at all—on the Bears’ first touchdown of the game.
d. Disappointing team of the first two weeks: New Orleans. Totally discombobulated.
e. Buffalo linebacker Manny Lawson, giving Rob Gronkowski a free release on his first catch of the game.
f. Way too long a replay review on the Leonard Hankerson catch for Atlanta, down near the goal line. If it’s not obvious, which it wasn’t, stick with the call on the field.
g. Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller, arguing a patently obvious defensive pass-interference call.
h. Get rid of the ball when you’re standing on the goal line, Tyrod Taylor. Throw it to the tuba player in the bleachers. You can’t stand there and take a sack at the half-yard line.
i. Mario Williams, on New England running back Dion Lewis’ touchdown run at Buffalo, being stood up by tight end Rob Gronkowski and not making much of an effort.
j. Ryan Mallett, a 49 percent passer in relief of Brian Hoyer.
k. Hold the ball, Vernon Davis.
l. Hold the ball, Anquan Boldin.
m. Detroit, for all we heard about how the loss of Ndamukong Suh wouldn’t hurt the defense. Lions have allowed 416.5 yards, on average, and 29.5 points, on average, in the first two weeks.
n. Mike Tomlin, for successfully converting a pair of two-point conversions after the first two Steelers touchdowns … then trying the PAT after the third touchdown, and Josh Scobee rewarding Tomlin by doinking it off the left upright.
o. Carlos Hyde, with the fumble of the day. Right in his gut, down 22-3, crucial time, and he fumbled, and Pittsburgh got it back, and drove to a score.
p. Marcus, Marcus, Marcus. We put you in Canton too fast.
q. The Chiefs not throwing into the end zone on any of three goal-to-go snaps on the first series against Denver, after going through the Denver defense easily all the way down the field.
r. Four Denver defensive personal fouls in the first 20 minutes of the game. Sheesh.
s. Andy Reid getting too aggressive late in the first half instead of going into halftime with a seven-point lead.
t. The simplistic “Reid blew the game by going for it with 35 seconds left instead of playing for overtime.” I’m more on the side of those who say the Chiefs should have played for overtime. But, and this is a big but, let’s say they needed to make 48 yards in 34 seconds, with one timeout left, to have a chance to kick a winning 50-yard field goal in regulation. Reid has a quarterback who doesn’t turn it over much in Alex Smith (six picks last year), but who clearly isn’t likely to hit one big strike to a wideout downfield. That argues against trying to advance the ball for a field goal. Also arguing against it is the fact that no back in football has fumbled more than Charles since 2012. That would bother me. And I would have kneeled. But I don’t think it’s dumb to consider running the all-time yards-per-carry leader among NFL running backs two or three times around end, with the knowledge that he tries to get out of bounds on each one, and ask Smith to throw two or three out routes, to see if the Chiefs can get the ball down to the 33-yard line with a second or two left. One reminder: Though the Patriots had 81 seconds in the Super Bowl 14 years ago to go 51 yards for the winning field goal, New England didn’t have a good running back and didn’t have any timeouts. They did have a quarterback America didn’t know yet, and that quarterback took them half the length of the field, with an apoplectic John Madden upstairs in the broadcast wondering why the Patriots weren’t playing for overtime. Clearly, the Chiefs had only half as much time, but they did have a timeout and a great back.
u. I’m not arguing that Reid was correct. As I said, I would have had Smith kneel. But I am arguing that Reid wasn’t a nitwit for taking a shot, even though that shot blew up in his face. Sometimes you make decisions, and bad things happen.
v. Kickers moaning about the new PAT distance. Or, one kicker moaning. That would be Mike Nugent of the Bengals, who told the Cincinnati Enquirer: “It’s a rule that was changed to make players fail more, which I don’t [understand]. To change a rule to make less points, it just confuses me, and I completely disagree with it.” The rule was not changed to make fewer points, Mike Nugent. The rule was changed because the extra point was a complete waste of time, a drama-less exercise; teams missed an average of 6.5 extra points from 2011 to 2014. In the first two weeks this year, with the conversion now a 33-yard kick, kickers missed nine of 151 PATs. That's one more than teams missed in 17 weeks last season.
w. Yo Adrian: Three fumbles?
x. Ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Dan Bailey, the Dallas kicker, for a meaningless exchange with DeMarco Murray.
3. I think after watching the Dallas-Philly game and seeing Tony Romo go away for two months a week after Dez Bryant went away for two months, and then after watching Seattle-Denver and seeing Davante Adams head off to the locker room with an injury, and seeing Eddie Lacy leave with a bum ankle, I made this declaration: I will never support an 18-game regular-season schedule, unless it includes a provision that all non-kickers will be allowed to dress for a maximum of 16 games per year.
4. I think the news from PBS’ “Frontline” that 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players who had their brains examined posthumously had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is alarming but not surprising. This is why: Five years ago I toured the facility outside Boston, at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Bedford, Mass., where Dr. Ann McKee, an expert in neurology and pathology, was studying the brains of former NFL players (and other athletes). At that time, 13 of the 14 brains she had studied were confirmed to have CTE, the disease associated with repeated head trauma that former football players had endured. So for 74 of 77 former players whose brains were subsequently studied to have tested positive for CTE isn’t really a surprise, in part because those samples have primarily come from players who suffered cognitive or behavioral problems, which their surviving family members or estates suspect were caused by football-related head trauma. I doubt that 87 or 88 percent of all former players who have died would test positive for CTE. The family of a former player who dies at 76 with no evidence of memory loss or brain dysfunction isn’t likely to say, “Let’s have him checked to see if he had CTE.” What’s needed is for a mass number of players and former players to agree to have their brains examined after they die, so there can be a true population study of former football players, to see what the CTE percentage is of a huge cross-section of players. That is obviously years away. But what I’d like to find out is what percentage of all former players, not just ex-players who show signs of dementia or who get ALS at a young age, test positive for CTE. Then we’d have a better idea of the evidence of CTE in all players. The NFL absolutely has a CTE problem—no question about it. The question is: Is the problem an epidemic, and if you choose to play football, say, beyond high school, what is the likelihood that you’ll end up with a cruel brain disease? We’re years away from knowing, but the NFL and everyone associated with the game owes it to the players to be exhaustive in its study of brain trauma.
5. I think coaches certainly have the right to change their minds. All do it. But Houston’s Bill O’Brien yanking Brian Hoyer after three-and-a-half quarters for Ryan Mallett in the opener, and then inserting Mallett to start Sunday at Carolina, seems knee-jerk. Especially after the “Hard Knocks” cameras captured him saying this in a quarterback meeting when he named Hoyer the starter in late August: "I think basically they pay me to make decisions in the name of consistency with the team and trying to get this team into a rhythm, especially offensively … I'm going to name Brian the starter. And really, it comes down to consistency. It's just consistency over time, from OTAs through training camp, consistency in the meeting room, consistency on the field, consistency all the way around the organization … If things aren't going very well, look, we're not on a short leash here, but we're not going to sit there and let it go, like, eight games not being very good." I am not at practice, and I don’t see what O’Brien sees. But for Hoyer, a veteran whom O’Brien knew well as a player from his experience with him over the years, to have lost his job after 12 series of one game is just not fair.
6. I think this would be my best guess—as one of the 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters—for the list of 15 finalists for the Class of 2016. The preliminary list of 108 candidates came out Wednesday. It will be cut to 25 on the first vote, by mail ballot, and then after another mail vote, cut to 15. Then we meet in California the day before the Super Bowl to winnow the class of 15 down to 10, and then to five, and then we vote yes or no on each of the five. So here’s a guess about which 15 will be left standing entering the Feb. 6 vote:
Quarterback (2): Brett Favre, Kurt Warner.
Running back (1): Terrell Davis.
Wide receiver (3): Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens.
Offensive line (3): Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace.
Linebacker (1): Kevin Greene.
Defensive back (1): Ty Law.
Kicker (1): Morten Andersen.
Coaches (3): Don Coryell, Tony Dungy, Jimmy Johnson.
Boselli, Law and Faneca are the surprising new nominees. Favre, of course, is the slam dunk. I’d like to see Bryant Young, Steve Atwater, Darren Woodson and Leroy Butler have their cases heard in the room one day as well.
7. I think it’s pretty hard in this business to write anything new or fresh or really different about the biggest stars who play in the NFL. But I’ve got to hand it to Gary Myers of the New York Daily News: He’s done it with his new book, “Brady vs. Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry that Transformed the NFL.” (Crown Archetype, due out Tuesday.) There are stories from on the field, from all the games Tom Brady and Peyton Manning played against each other. There are stories from their relationship, and they are fairly close. But the best chapter in the book, for my money is “Boys Will be Boys,” the chapter on Brady and Manning the practical jokers—and the victims of practical jokes. One of the few players to play with both Brady and Manning is center Dan Koppen, who, having started at center and had both men’s hands under his rear end for a time, is uniquely qualified to discuss both quarterbacks in depth. Koppen’s best reveal, according to the book, happened as the football relationship between Koppen and Brady lengthened:
The next step was Koppen passing gas on Brady’s hands as he was about to snap him the ball. He feels that’s what cemented their friendship. “I think it becomes really special when you’re able to fart on him and do all that stuff,” Koppen said. “That takes it to a whole new level.”
He farted on Brady’s hands in practice?
“He did,” Brady said, as if he were providing confirmation in testimony in a courtroom.
Koppen traveled west to Denver [in 2012] and packed his sense of humor. “I don’t think I farted on Peyton,” he said. “I only had a year with him, so we never got that far.”
Flatulence in football. Who knew? Worth the price for the book. There’s more. Go buy it, and study up before what might be the last game between the two, Patriots at Broncos, Nov. 29.
8. I think the best defensive rookie in the first two weeks of the season, and it’s not particularly close, is Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters. What confidence, and what veteran savvy for a kid with eight quarters of pro football under his belt. One thing he’ll have to learn is to better disguise his physicality—he was called for one defensive hold in coverage Thursday night, and got away with another clear pass-interference that was not flagged—but that’s just experience. So far so good with a risky off-field pick.
9. I think I’m going to give you one more recommended book, and I’m late on this one. “The Art of Smart Football,” by Chris B. Brown, made me a smarter football writer in August, as I read it on the western swing of my camp tour. What I really like is that Brown analyzed coaches’ presentations from clinics—where so many secrets are shared with eager high school and college coaches—to get a good view into the philosophies of some of the best in today’s game. Example: Pete Carroll and his dismissal of two-gapping—the coaching technique in which a defensive lineman takes away two offensive rushing lanes—as a coaching technique. Many coaches swear by two-gapping, because one man taking away two lanes is a pretty good trade. Not Carroll. Brown examined Carroll’s presentations at multiple coaching lectures. “When you put a defensive lineman in a gap and tell him he has to control [only one] gap, he can play very aggressively,” Carroll said at one lecture. At another, as Brown wrote, Carroll said: “We want to be an attacking, aggressive football team. We don’t want to sit and read the play like you often have to do with two-gap principles of play.” Carroll needed to be whacked in the face with tough early trials as coach of the Patriots and the Jets to see what worked and, more importantly, what didn’t work. With Seattle, he’ll often use one defensive lineman to do the dreaded two-gap work … just so many other defenders will be able to attack one gap voraciously. The chapter on Carroll was a good example of a coach learning and getting better. Carroll, as Brown wrote, “evolved over time by turning earlier failures into lessons.” The other chapter in the book that I really liked was the one on Chip Kelly. Brown puts you in coaching clinics that featured Kelly telling coaches in the audience they can invent any offense or defense they want. Football, as presented by these coaches and by Brown, is such an imaginative game. It’s a great read: Go buy it.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Those New York Daily News layoffs—friends Hank Gola and Bill Madden and Filip Bondy among them, and ace reporters like Wayne Coffey, and a terrific editor in Teri Thompson, and maybe Mike Lupica, depending on his negotiations with the paper—have decimated a once-great sports section. What a shame. I’ll really miss Madden’s baseball column.
b. I know there have been more impactful and meaningful plays in recent college football history, but none loonier than that Mississippi touchdown pass. Shotgun snap bounces off the quarterback’s hands … bounces eight feet into the air … quarterback catches it … two Bama pass-rushers steaming in on him … quarterback, just as he’s going to get plowed over, throws a sidearm duck way in the air, about 15 yards to his left, toward a receiver and two Bama defensive backs … ball bounces in air, then off a helmet, then bounces in air again … trailing Ole Miss receiver sprints by and grabs it and runs it 66 yards for a touchdown. I don’t know if I’ve seen a crazier, nuttier play.
c. I guess it’s okay to try to fake 43-yard field goal if you don’t have confidence in your kicker, UConn. But to let the holder loft a lollipop into triple coverage by Missouri downfield … that’s interesting strategy. Missouri 9, UConn 6.
d. I guess, also, that America knows Leonard Fournette now.
e. You’re going want to read it: Greg Bishop’s piece of enlightenment on Aaron Rodgers for Sports Illustrated is wonderful.
f. I’m definitely going to see “Black Mass,” mainly because of my interest in the life and bad times of Whitey Bulger. But after reading A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times, I’m preparing for it to be B or B-plus at best. After criticizing the portrayal of women in the movie as coming up short, Scott writes: “It’s possible, though, to think of the shortcomings of ‘Black Mass’ as fitting comeuppance for Bulger. He may have thought he was a big deal, but, in the end, all he merits is a minor gangster movie.”
g. Juxtaposition of the Week: Reading about a 50-year-old Henry Kissinger deep into the 1973 Vietnam peace talks in Evan Thomas’ great book “Being Nixon” the other night … and then, two nights later, turning on Mets-Yankees and seeing a 92-year-old Kissinger in a box at Citi Field watching baseball with Tom Brokaw.
h. Really cool idea by WNYC, the public radio station in New York City, with a weekly podcast, beginning last Thursday, on turning around an awful football team at Columbia. The team lost its 22nd straight game on Saturday to open the new season. Good concept and execution by Ilya Marritz of WNYC.
i. A three-hour debate? Whose idea was that?
j. Welcome, Pope Francis. I know you’ll just be getting to town Thursday evening, but if you want to de-snarl traffic Thursday night and take in a different kind of football game, I’d be happy to take you to Meadowlands for Giants-Washington that evening. New York coach Tom Coughlin and Giants owner John Mara, two of the most Catholic men in the National Football League, would love to see you.
k. Just read that someone’s selling Pope Francis shot glasses in New York. Not sure that’s what the Pope had in mind for his flock.
l. Great headline about the gridlock coming to Manhattan later this week with the Pope’s visit, from the New York Post: “HIGHWAY TO HELL.”
m. Beernerdness: Congratulations, Magnify Brewing (Fairfield, N.J.), for brewing the second-best Saison I’ve tasted, next to The MMQB Saison from Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Magnify’s Saison, called Search Saison, was a gem I found last week while eating with friends at De Novo, a restaurant near the Upper Montclair, N.J., train station, just up the street from where the King family lived for 18 years. Search was light and cloudy and delicious. I’ll be looking for more Magnify beers.
n. Set a personal King running record the other day, running a half mile (treadmill) in 3:27. I can guarantee you that does not translate to running a mile in 6:54. I can dream about breaking 7 minutes for a mile, but 7:20 still stands as my personal best.
o. Interesting debut for new Columbia quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, a transfer from Florida and the son of Ravens quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg. In his last game at Florida in 2013, Skyler completed 20 of 25 passes against Florida State. In his first game at Columbia, a loss to Fordham, he completed 21 of 25, for 187 yards, no TDs and one interception.
p. You gained a lot of fans Saturday, Northern Illinois.
q. Boston’s Wade Miley pitches like he’s late for something. Every start. I clocked a two-pitch sequence Saturday to Toronto shortstop Ryan Goins with the bases empty Saturday afternoon. From the time he released one pitch (and the catcher caught it and threw it back to Miley and Miley wound up again) to the time he released the next pitch was 7.80 seconds.
r. Caught a few minutes of the lyrical Vin Scully on Saturday night, waxing about Roberto Clemente. Scully pointed out Clemente was at his best against many Hall of Fame pitchers. Six homers off Sandy Koufax. Batted over .400 against Warren Spahn. Leave it to Scully to tell his viewers why Clemente, who was celebrated across major league baseball with Roberto Clemente day last week, mattered.
s. Scully doesn’t even need a color man on TV. He’s 87. Who doesn’t have a color man?
t. If the Blue Jays and Royals meet in the playoffs, how are you going to tell their fans apart on TV? Seems like every fan in both ballparks is decked out in royal blue.
* * *
Who I Like Tonight
Indianapolis 23, New York Jets 17. Two of Indy’s top three corners will be sidelined tonight—Darius Butler (hip) and Greg Toler (neck)—and so the game could come down to whether the Amish One, Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, can take advantage of a secondary with Vontae Davis and the end of the Colts’ corner depth chart. Fitzpatrick has thrown 60 interceptions in his last 54 starts (he’s 22-32 over that span, with four different teams), but he had an auspicious start with his new top wideouts last week, targeting Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker 11 times and completing eight passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Then there’s the Jets’ running game, which should give a generous Indy run defense some problems too. I could see the Jets making this a game. I cannot see Andrew Luck losing to a second straight strong defense, even if T.Y. Hilton either misses the game or is limited with a deep knee bruise.
The Adieu Haiku
Bad day at the Linc.
The Eagles look like fool’s gold.
Chip Kelly, unbowed.
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