NEW YORK -- So we're a quarter of the way through the season, except for those four luckless teams that had the dumb Week 4 byes. Here are your 2009 NFL verities:
1. The Giants might or might not be the best team in football, but I can tell you this: They're the deepest.
"Jerry Reese is a psychic, I think,'' Justin Tuck said from Kansas City, where the Giants had ho-hummed a 27-16 win over the Chiefs. It's the second straight week New York toyed with a bad team, and the Giants have won their four games by an average of 11 points.
Reese, the Giants' GM, made two good decisions in the offseason. He fortified the defensive line beyond what seemed to be smart, going seven strong players deep. "So early in camp, when we lost [defensive tackle] Jay Alford, who was going to have a breakout year, we didn't panic,'' Tuck said. "And we've been without some of our best players -- [safety] Kenny Phillips, [cornerback] Aaron Ross, [defensive lineman] Chris Canty -- and today was [corner] Kevin Dockery's first game. When we get most of our guys back, we're going to be really good.''
But that's the thing -- in the NFL, you never have a full complement of players. Or very rarely. That's why Reese built, in my opinion, the best 53-man roster in the league, and Tom Coughlin has no fear in playing young players to develop them.
On offense, Reese eschewed dealing for a veteran receiver like Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards, knowing that dealing for either would not only have cost a high draft choice, but also about $10 million a year. The Giants instead have a productive quarterback, Eli Manning, playing smart football and have three budding receivers -- Steve Smith (24), Mario Manningham (23) and Hakeem Nicks (20) -- who have combined for an average of 197 yards and two touchdown catches a game ... with none of the Plaxico Burress headaches that came with that star. We'll start to find out how good the Giants are Oct. 18, when they visit the Saints, with New Orleans coming off its bye. Tough place to play, at a tough time.
2. The Saints look like the best team in football. The Giants, Colts and Vikings might be too, and Denver and Baltimore and New England ... well, proclaiming a best team is a foolish pursuit on Oct. 5. But if the Saints are the best, I credit a decision Sean Payton made on Jan. 13, sitting by the firepit in his backyard in Louisiana with a cold beer in his hand.
At the time, he really wanted to hire Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator; Williams had a history of making chicken salad out of chicken feathers, and Payton knew his talent on defense was decent but limited, particularly in pressure packages. Payton knew where the Saints' offer was -- a little over one million (I can't be sure precisely what it was) -- but he also knew Williams was on the way to Green Bay after a great visit with the Saints, and he knew the Packers would offer him more than New Orleans did.
"So I had a couple of beers in me,'' Payton told me over the weekend, "and I start thinking, 'I make enough money. We really need this guy. I'm going to offer some of my own money to try to make this happen.' So the next day, I walk into [general manager] Mickey Loomis' office and say, 'Mickey, take $250,000 of my salary, add it onto our offer for Gregg and let's get this thing done right now.' Mickey called [owner] Tom Benson, they discussed it, and they agreed. So we upped the offer.''
One other thing: Payton knew it was important to Williams that he work with his son, Blake, an aspiring football coach who prepped at Princeton, and so the Saints brought him in as an offensive assistant working with the line. Williams saw the welcome mat. He took the three-year coaching offer, and the match has been perfect. "It's the perfect place for me,'' Williams said. "You're allowed to coach the way you coach here, and the only way I know how to coach is to get after the offense every day in practice. I know we give Drew [Brees] fits, and I hope that makes him better, because I know it makes us better, going against him every day.''
So what have the Saints got for their money? Last year, New Orleans was 26th in the league in scoring defense. This year, it's seventh.
3. Feel-good story of the year? Denver. I'm looking at notes from a couple of interviews I did with Josh McDaniels -- one on the weekend the Jay Cutler story was blowing up in March, then next from training camp seven weeks ago today. "If we win, none of this will matter, and if we lose, then we blew it,'' he said in March. Five months later, he said, "We just need to start playing games. Whoever's on your team, all that matters is winning or losing.'' I guarantee you that's the vibe he sent to his team.
Whether Denver's a championship team or not -- and allowing an insane 6.5 points per game through four weeks suggests they'll battle San Diego for the AFC West title -- there's one thing you have to love about the Broncos: They've got a Patriot way (what a coincidence!) of tuning out the outside crappola and focusing on the only thing that matters -- the next play. They tuned out the Jay Cutler thing. They tuned out the Brandon Marshall distraction. That's not easy in an NFL-crazy market like Denver, but McDaniels did it. "DO YOUR JOB'' is the gigantic wall art in the Broncos' team meeting room, something McDaniels brought with him from New England and his mentor, Bill Belichick. And it's what his players are doing.
Now let's do a mini-analysis of the biggest decision of the off-season, Denver dealing Cutler for two first-rounders and Kyle Orton. It reminds me of the Patriots dealing Drew Bledsoe in 2002 and handing the quarterback job long-term to Tom Brady. Bledsoe, the independent-thinking mad bomber; Brady, the caretaker who'll follow the gameplan to a T. Just substitute Cutler for Bledsoe and Kyle Orton for Brady and you've got McDaniels' line of thinking. Now, I'm not saying (and McDaniels wouldn't either) that Orton's going to morph into Brady, but the amount of negative plays at the quarterback position has been exactly what McDaniels has preached: zero interceptions, zero lost fumbles, six sacks. If Orton continues on his present pace -- 3,624 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, 59 percent passing (that should be a tick better) -- the Broncos will be playing in January.
4.The Titans have lost as many games in 24 days as they did in five months last year. They're 0-4. They're lifeless on defense -- where's the chip-on-the-shoulder, Raven-esque attitude? -- with no leader on the sidelines or the field to get them out of a ridiculous slide. Tennessee's allowed 34, 24 and 37 points in its past three games. Only once last year did the Titans allow 24 points or more in a game. Pass defense is a major issue; they're not scaring any quarterbacks, and allowing a 68.5 percent completion rate means defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil simply has to be more aggressive. His predecessor, Jim Schwartz, would be dialing up blitzes from all over.
On offense, the kneejerk reaction is to change quarterbacks (Jeff Fisher told me last night he's staying with Kerry Collins), which I wouldn't do for one more week. Simple reason: This game against Indianapolis at home Sunday night is the Titans' season, pure and simple, and I don't want the latest on-the-job-training game for Young to come in a game that is positively a playoff games for Tennessee. That, plus the fact Collins has been more productive (51 more passing yards per game) and just as accurate as he was a year ago. If the Titans lose to go 0-5, Fisher's got no choice but to see if Young can give the team a spark. "I don't know what to say, other than we're going to keep plugging away,'' Fisher said from Jacksonville. "We have to. We've got Indy, and then we go to New England.''
How can you not love this game tonight?
One of the keys to Minnesota-Green Bay, obviously, is the Vikings sticking to the type of football they've played in their 3-0 start. Minnesota's on a 54-46 run-pass ratio, and why not? The Vikings are averaging 4.8 yards per rush, and Brett Favre has been an efficient caretaker so far, making one ridiculous play (the touchdown throw at the end to beat San Francisco last week) and lots of conservative ones in his first three weeks on the job.
I asked veteran Packers outside 'backer Aaron Kampman what he saw when he looked at Vikings tape. "What jumps off the tape,'' he said, "is the running back [Adrian Peterson],'' he said. "He's playing as well as he ever has, obviously. He challenges the containment on every run. The addition of Brett gives them a different option at quarterback, because you know what Brett can do. But from what we've studied, he's doing a smart job of running the offense efficiently. He's happy with the checkdown. I haven't seen him doing what's he's done for so long -- squeezing the ball into tight spots. With that offense, he doesn't have to.
"You also see the difference Percy Harvin has made. He's a real different option for them. Running the Wildcat is a smart use of him, because you can have a tight end, three receivers and two backs on the field at the same time and it really increases the options of what they can do. And [tight end Visanthe] Shiancoe is playing well. So when I look at the Vikings, I see a lot of different options.''
That's the big thing Green Bay's nascent 3-4 defense will have to deal with. Who's going to hit the home run on a given play? You can't take away the Favre drama tonight in Minneapolis, but the football's going to be really exciting.
The Tillman saga gets more curious.
I read an article in the New York Times about a trip author Jon Krakauer took to West Point recently to speak to students and promote his new book about late Army Ranger Pat Tillman (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Doubleday). In talking to Times reporter Charles McGrath, Krakauer said he'd been given access by Tillman's widow, Marie, to the diaries Tillman kept as a civilian and soldier. And Krakauer told McGrath, "What really blew me away was that the journals made it so obvious how miserable he was in the military. And that he turned down a chance to get out after two years and join the Seattle Seahawks. I would have been out of there so fast."
My first reaction: Wow. My second reaction: How true could that have been, with Tillman having a year remaining on his three-year commitment to the Army?
"There's real validity to it,'' said his former coach with the Cardinals, Dave McGinnis, now on the Titans staff.
Apparently there was. Since Tillman's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 21, 2004, the story has been that he was destined to do other things after his military commitment. Tillman was sort of a Renaissance man, and friends say he wanted to do many things with his life other than play football.
You'll recall Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals safety, spurned a $3.6 million NFL offer to enlist in the Army in May 2002. He went to Ranger School, then was deployed to Iraq in March 2003. Soon after returning to Fort Lewis in Washington from that deployment, Tillman visited his old coach, McGinnis, on Dec. 20, 2003, in the Arizona team hotel the night before the Cards played Seattle. And he spoke to Seattle GM Bob Ferguson -- who'd gone out on a limb to draft the marginal Tillman out of Arizona State in the last round of the 1998 draft, when Ferguson was the Cards GM.
Ferguson, now a scout with the Colts, told me, "Pat actually called me. He was just back from his first deployment, and he definitely wanted to play football. I told him, 'Pat, you know you'll always have a job with me, wherever I am.''
Frank Bauer, Tillman's agent, recalls a conversation he had with Ferguson in the fall of 2003. "He said to me, 'Frank, we have great interest in Pat. If he can get an early discharge, we'd love to have him,' '' Bauer told me. "When I told Pat, he said to me, 'I'll look into it. Let me think about it.''
Tillman thought about it. He'd have had to seek a release from the Army one year before his scheduled date in May 2005. But he called Bauer four days later, said he decided not to seek an early out, even though he'd become disillusioned with the country's intent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Instead, he asked Bauer when he'd be needed for NFL free agency in 2005. Bauer told him early in 2005, soon after the Super Bowl. That was fine with Tillman.
"Pat said, 'I'll just serve out this next tour in Afghanistan, come back, get [assigned to a base] back here, where I'll be able to get a cake job, and work out and train so I'll be in the right shape when free agency comes around,' '' Bauer recalled Tillman telling him.
"That was the last conversation we ever had," Bauer said.
Ferguson said he thought Tillman could have had a Rocky Bleier-type career. Bleier, after his rookie season with the Steelers in 1968, deployed with the Army to Vietnam, where he was wounded in both legs. But he recovered to play on four Super Bowl teams of the '70s as a blocking back mostly, though he had a 1,000-yard rushing season in 1976. "If Rocky did it,'' said Ferguson, "I thought, Why not Pat? Even if he'd have lost a step, imagine the kind of locker-room presence he'd have been.''
"At the very least,'' said McGinnis, "I think he'd have come back and been the best special teams player in football, and the best leader. I remember when he came to our team meal before we played Seattle that weekend [in 2003], he just walked into the room and there was silence. The room was stunned. Everyone on that team respected him so much -- and you'd have seen that respect if he went and played again.
"When I asked [Pat] what he planned to do? -- in what turned out to be our last conversation -- he said to me, 'Mac, when I get out, I'm still gonna be young enough to come back and play. I'm playing.' ''
In the last conversation Tillman had with Bauer, he told his agent, "You won't believe the letter I got from Bill Belichick.'' In the letter, Belichick praised him for his courage, his leadership, his willingness to set an example for people in this materialistic society, and he said it was an honor to be in the same league he'd been in.
"In the letter,'' Bauer told me, "Belichick said, 'If you ever need a job when you get out of the Army, give me a call.' ''
So what would have happened if Tillman hadn't been killed? He'd have been 28 at the time of his scheduled discharge. McGinnis was fired by the Cardinals after the 2003 season, and Ferguson canned after the 2004 season in Seattle. Imagine Tillman being on the free-agent market in 2005. St. Louis pushed hard for him in 2002, before he enlisted, and likely would have been involved. Tom Coughlin was coming off a rocky 6-10 rookie season with the Giants; he loves all things military. I bet he and then-GM Ernie Accorsi would have bid for Tillman. McGinnis, the linebacker coach in Tennessee, would have tried to sell him to Jeff Fisher, as would Ferguson with his new employers, the Colts.
I don't know what team would have signed him. But the Patriots, even with Rodney Harrison, then 32, ensconced at strong safety, were not deep on the back end, with only one other solid NFL player, Eugene Wilson (let go two years later). After the Belichick letter, I bet Tillman would have walked to Foxboro and taken any role Belichick would have offered.
1. New Orleans (4-0). OK, OK. I blew this one big-time in May. Putting the Saints 24th in my offseason power ratings totally discounted the impact Gregg Williams would have in rebuilding the defense of this team. That's a tough, tough D.
2. New York Giants (4-0). Guess what game is 13 days away? Give you a clue: Eli Manning going home, gumbo, two very fine Fine Fifteen teams. That's going to be a great one.
3. Indianapolis (4-0). The art of the strip-sack aided and abetted the Colts once more. Robert Mathis told me it's something defensive line coach John Teerlinck has the Colts work on every day during practice, in almost all pass-rush drills. The Colts are riding a more aggressive defensive front to a good two-way team right now.
4. Minnesota (3-0). The Metrodome, in 52 hours, hosts a sudden-death baseball game (the Twins won), the biggest regular-season football game in years (tonight) and then a one-game playoff for the American League Central title Tuesday afternoon. Nice to be a sports fan in Minneapolis these days.
5. Denver (4-0). I still don't know how good the Broncos are. But they're this high for this reason: 26 points allowed in four games, by far the lowest in the league. That's a touch less per game than any team in football. Amazing. Totally unexpected. Josh McDaniels for governor. Mike Nolan for mayor. Elvis Dumervil for ... well, whatever he wants.
6. New York Jets (3-1). Mark Sanchez will take a very important lesson from the 24-10 loss to the Saints. He can't telegraph his throws. Even when he thinks he's not. Twice Darren Sharper knew exactly what was coming, resulting in two picks.
7. New England (3-1). Hey, sometimes good teams have to escape. The Patriots were breathing a pretty big collective sigh of relief after the most catchable ball of this NFL Sunday bounced off Mark Clayton's chest in the final seconds.
8. Baltimore (3-1). The Ravens probably should be 4-0, but that doesn't mean I haven't started to have a little skepticism. Can anyone in the back end cover? I mean, the Browns are playing the pass more efficiently than the Ravens.
9. Pittsburgh (2-2). I'm not sure where to put the Steelers. They're sixth defensively after four weeks, but does the sixth-ranked defense in football allow a good offense to track-meet downfield on them for 79-, 67- and 54-yard touchdown drives in the last 20 minutes of a game?
10. Green Bay (2-1). The calm before tonight's storm.
11. San Francisco (3-1).Shaun Hill might be a little more than a caretaker. Through four weeks, he's a 62 percent thrower, with five touchdowns and one interception.
12. Chicago (3-1).Jay "Helicopter'' Cutler is winning friends and influencing people, playing not like some finessy quarterback, but like a Monster of the Midway.
13. Philadelphia (2-1). Bucs at Eagles on Sunday. Phils at Rockies on Saturday, and possibly Sunday. The game at the rockpile's going to be a lot more interesting.
14. Atlanta (2-1). In four weeks we'll know if the Falcons are real challengers for the Saints in the NFC South. Atlanta's upcoming sked: at 49ers, vs. Bears, at Cowboys, at Saints. Ouch.
15. (tie) San Diego (2-2). This year at the bye there won't be a defensive coordinator's firing, as there was last year (Ted Cottrell). Although there might be a few fans calling for it.
15. (tie) Cincinnati (3-1). I'm not a Bengal buyer.
"What's it gonna be next week? Two-hand touch?''-- Baltimore pass rusher Terrell Suggs after getting a questionable roughing-the-passer call by referee Ron Winter for brushing against Tom Brady's knee while Suggs was on the ground at New England Sunday. The Ravens spent much of their postgame period with the media biting their tongues so as not to get fined by the league for criticizing Winter's crew after a few ticky-tack calls.
"That's like changing the inflight snack on the Hindenburg. It won't help.''-- Frank Caliendo as Andy Rooney, on "FOX NFL Sunday,'' analyzing the Browns' change of quarterbacks from Brady Quinn to Derek Anderson.
"Being at a loss for words is a good way to put it.''--Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck, on his team's 0-4 start.
"That's a nice tie you're wearing tonight on NBC. Can we fire Wade Phillips now?''--@mattdscott, presumably a Cowboys fan, in a Tweet to me Sunday night. A disillusioned Cowboys fan, from the sound of it.
Forty percent of the Green Bay active roster has never met Brett Favre. Of the 53 players eligible to dress for the Packers in the Metrodome tonight, 21 joined the team after Favre's departure in March 2008.
Add eight practice-squadders and two of three injured-reserve players who weren't on the team in Favre's last season there, and Favre would have a pretty strange time if he walked in to the Green Bay locker room at these days. He wouldn't know 31 of the 64 players in there.
Offensive Players of the Week
Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver
There's a reason the Broncos have put up with so much guff regarding Marshall, and that reason was abundantly clear with 1:46 left in a tense 10-10 tie with Dallas at Invesco. Kyle Orton hit him in tight coverage by Dallas cornerback Terence Newman, and Marshall weaved the last 30 yards through five Cowboys to score the game-winner.
Justin Hartwig, C, Pittsburgh, and Chris Kemoeatu, G, Pittsburgh
We've been screaming about what a bad job the Pittsburgh running game -- and in particular the Steelers offensive line -- had been doing through the first three weeks; Pittsburgh was 27th in the league in rushing entering Sunday night's game. But Hartwig and Kemoeatu led the best rushing game of the season (in memory, actually) that allowed first-time starter Rashard Mendenhall to rush for 165 yards and two touchdowns, and kept Ben Roethlisberger clean enough to throw for 333 yards with only seven incompletions in 60 minutes.
Defensive Players of the Week
Darren Sharper, FS, New Orleans
Four games, a league-high five interceptions. This former college teammate of Mike Tomlin at William & Mary picked off two passes and led New Orleans with eight tackles as the key Saint in the battle of unbeatens at the Superdome. His first pick of Mark Sanchez was returned 99 yards to give the Saints a 10-0 lead in the second quarter; his second iced the win in the final minutes.
Patrick Willis, MLB, San Francisco
With five tackle, an interception returned for a 23-yard touchdown and 2.5 sacks, Willis continued to force himself into the class of the very best linebackers playing today. In the decisive win over the Rams, Willis again looked like a young Ray Lewis.
Champ Bailey, CB, Denver
Money players like Bailey do what he did in the final 30 seconds of the aforementioned tight game with Dallas. On third-and-goal from the Denver 2, Tony Romo threw a slant in the end zone to Sam Hurd; Bailey knocked it away. On fourth-and-goal from the Denver 2, Romo threw another slant to Hurd in the end zone; Bailey reached around him to knock it away. For the game, Bailey was back to his old wily self, with eight solo tackles and four passes broken up. For those who thought Bailey was in decline, think again.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Shaun Rogers, DT, Cleveland
My guess is the average Special Teams Player of the Week doesn't have the body dimensions of this very large and wide man. But you win this prestigious award when you block two kicks, including what would have been the winning extra point. Instead, Cincinnati was forced into overtime. Rogers doesn't look much of a leaper at 345 pounds, but he has 14 blocked kicks in his career, most among active players.
Coach of the Week
Josh McDaniels, head coach, Denver
Don't trade Jay Cutler, McDaniels was told. Kyle Orton can't play, McDaniels was told. You'll never win in Denver with a popgun offense, McDaniels was told. Brandon Marshall's too much of a distraction and you should dump him, McDaniels was told. Here's what no one told McDaniels: You'll be 4-0 after the first month of the season.
Goats of the Week
Mark Clayton, WR, Baltimore
Good for Clayton. He came up big after the game, taking complete blame for the six-point loss to the Patriots. Joe Flacco had his Ravens marching unerringly downfield with a chance to win the game in the final minute. On fourth down, Flacco threw a short fourth-down conversion pass to Clayton inside the Patriots' 10 ... and the ball bounced off the receiver's chest. Good to be noble, but Clayton's still a goat.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. He's 305 yards ahead of Drew Brees now, and, at 33, he's already third in NFL history in touchdown passes with 342. It's hard to imagine he's as good as he's ever been with two new receivers to break in, but he is.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Dropped to number two with his second straight touchdownless game. Great thing about it is, the Saints are winning, and he doesn't care about any touchdownless games.
3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. The more I see of him, the more I think I'm seeing the second coming of Walter Payton.
4. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets. Three more very good defensive plays in a tight game Sunday at New Orleans.
5. (tie) Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants. Has led the Jints to a 3-0 road record -- best in football -- while piloting an offense with new receivers to 27 points a game. And don't worry about that heel injury. Nothing's torn. It's just going to have to be pain he deals with.
5. (tie) Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore. He's a Mark Clayton drop from being third on this list.
For 24 years, I lived in New Jersey, until moving to Boston last winter. I've found myself getting melancholy for the Garden State. Friday and Saturday illustrate why. Spent Friday at Jets camp, 30 minutes west of the Meadowlands in Florham Park, with lunch in tony Madison with Darrelle Revis and Jerricho Cotchery. Had pizza and Peronis with lots of old friends in Cedar Grove at Lombardi's, which has the most underrated thin-crust pizza in Essex County.
Drove into the city Friday night around 10, passed Giants Stadium and realized how old I am; what was I doing driving past a Springsteen show at the Meadowlands and not stopping for the final hour? After taping Notre Dame halftime for NBC in the city Saturday afternoon, I went to a quintessential Jersey wedding in Bloomfield with our old friends the Volkerts marrying off daughter Kelly. Picked up the Star-Ledger to catch up on high school sports. (What a vastly improved sports section; I like it as much as I like the Boston Globe.) The reception was in Hasbrouck Heights, a few long spirals from where Bill Parcells grew up, in a 12th-floor banquet room overlooking I-80.
A perfect weekend to get a much-needed Jersey fix.
Drew Brees an icon on the level of Jim Kelly.
Gregg Williams the next Marv Levy.
The San Antonio Saints.
It's interesting how one draft choice you didn't make can affect so many lives and two franchises. Think back to the 2001 draft. Gregg Williams, the coach of the Bills, was teaming for his first draft as a head coach with GM Tom Donahoe. Before the draft, when Williams attended a workout for Brees, the smallish Purdue quarterback, he thought he was the best quarterback prospect coming out that year. "I fell in love with him,'' Williams said the other day. "Not just his ability; he had plenty of arm. But his moxie as a leader. You need that in your quarterback, and I loved his."
The Bills determined they would use their first-round pick to get Nate Clements, the Ohio State cornerback (they actually traded down a few spots in the first round and still got him), then focus all their attention trying to move up from the 46th overall pick in the second round -- their slot -- to pick near the front of the round. That's where they projected Brees getting picked. So Buffalo began calling around, trying to see if Brees was still there when they picked, could the Bills move up to get him? No team bit. And then, as the second round dawned, San Diego used the 32nd overall pick to select Brees.
"I almost pulled a hamstring in the draft room, jumping up and down because I was so mad,'' said Williams.
Think about how this might have changed the current landscape of pro football. A year later, Buffalo wouldn't have been in the market when New England went to deal Drew Bledsoe, so Bledsoe would have been traded elsewhere in 2002. It's likely Brees would still be quarterbacking the Bills. "I'll tell you this: I wouldn't be sitting here in New Orleans right now,'' said Williams, who's certain the drafting of Brees would have led to a great marriage in Buffalo.
The biggest mystery is what would have happened to the Saints without Brees. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, the Saints became orphans of the storm, and they finished the season with a 3-13 record. The next spring, desperate to upgrade their quarterback situation over Aaron Brooks and Todd Bouman, New Orleans signed Brees -- jettisoned by San Diego after it gave Philip Rivers a six-year, $60-million deal.
The Saints became an American feel-good story. With a refurbished Superdome and Brees' leadership, the team won the NFC South and advanced to the conference title game. And with Brees playing so well over his first three years and keeping the Saints competitive and compelling, the team got a new stadium lease through 2025 out of the state of Louisiana. What if Brees hadn't come? Would the state have acted so aggressively to keep the team if it was floundering at 3-13 every year? My guess is, without massive public and legislative support, the team may have become the San Antonio Saints, because that's where owner Tom Benson would have been most inclined to move the team had it continued on a bad path.
Just what you've been waiting for (and an inexpensive Halloween gift for that special someone): MMQB the book. It reprises some columns from the first 12 years of MMQB -- I know you can't wait to re-read the one about the death of our dog -- with some new lists and opinions and other sundry observations. Like my list of the best 100 players of alltime, and the best 100 players of today. After running my top quarterbacks in history in this space two weeks ago, I thought I'd throw out the best QBs of today. I ranked 13 quarterbacks among my top 100 players, and the order follows.
When I did this list in the spring, I didn't have Joe Flacco in the top 100. If I had the list to do over right now, he'd certainly be in my top 100. In fact, I'd probably have him No. 9 on my quarterback list . He's been terrific in the first month of the season, a legitimate MVP candidate, and he's played his way into the top 10 for sure. One note about Flacco from Sunday's loss at New England that says great things about him: Baltimore coughed up the opening kickoff, surrendering an early field goal. The ensuing kickoff left Flacco at his 19, and he led a 15-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, the longest allowed by the Pats this year, culminating by taking a big hit by Derrick Burgess while he hung in and threw a touchdown pass to Derrick Mason. Believe me, I wish I had the Flacco call back.
So if you want to bash me for that one, I deserve it.
You can find the book online now or in stores next week.
1. Peyton Manning. It's possible he's a notch better while turning over his receiver corps?2. Tom Brady. A struggling post-surgical month does nothing to alter my opinion of him.3. Ben Roethlisberger. Vaulted Brees, Rivers with his terrific Super Bowl.4. Drew Brees. He carries the most explosive team of the season's first quarter.5. Philip Rivers. Deep arm was questioned in '04 draft. Nevermore.6. Matt Ryan. Smartest, most mature of the young guns entering NFL in last four years.7. Jay Cutler. We don't have to love him to admire his ability.8. Eli Manning. Terrific first month reinforces solid winning résumé.9. Carson Palmer. Needs to keep lifting his average team to stay in top 10.10. Tony Romo. I know, I know. I like him more than the average American male.11. Donovan McNabb. Would be higher if he exhibited better durability.12. Kurt Warner. Debated this one because of age, but he was so good last January.13. Aaron Rodgers. Continues to be oblivious to the pressures of the job. Good trait.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 4:
a. Why, FOX, why? Why show the top 10 plays of Brett Favre's career? How many celebrations of his career have you done, and how many more will you do? What possible relevance do the top 10 plays of his career have this weekend?
b. Ron Winter's officiating crew had the worst day a crew has had all season in New England. From a ticky-tack roughing-the-passer call to two ridiculous unnecessary first-down measurements, to what seemed like a 10-minute delay for crew discussion and replay review in the fourth quarter. All of it made a long game agonizing.
c. Get ready for another week of the-officials-are-calling-too-many-marginal-calls stories. We're going to hear lots of grumbling from Ravens fans, and some in the media, who feel like Baltimore got jobbed Sunday. I know the guys in the NBC studio sure feel the Ravens got jobbed.
d. There's no quit in those Manginis, and I mean that with no sarcasm.
e. I'm also serious when I say: You can't stop Elvis Dumervil; you can only hope to contain him.
f. Chuck Cecil, get aggressive. It's your only chance. Send the house.
g. I could have sworn I could read David Garrard's mind while he shredded the Titans on Sunday. His mind was saying, Mr. Weaver, we don't need no stinkin' Tebow.
h. Wow. Did you see that handshake between John Harbaugh and Bill Belichick? Harbaugh belichicked Belichick! Gave him the dead-fish handshake that Belichick has given Eric Mangini andRex Ryan.
i. I really like Steelers returner Stefan Logan, who's 60 percent the player Darren Sproles is ... at about 10 percent of the cost.
j. Well, Junior Seau thought he had six or eight good games in him. Now, while Jerod Mayo heals, we'll see if Seau has at least two or three.
k. Whoa. Limas Sweed inactive. It took all of three weeks for the unknown Mike Wallace to move ahead of him on the depth chart.
2. I think, at some point, Shawne Merriman has to either make a play or take a seat. I respect the fact he's got a strained groin muscle. But if you're hurt, sit. Three solo tackles in four games? Embarrassing.
3. I think it's great the NFL devoted so much time and energy and pinkness to breast-cancer awareness Sunday. Now I'd like to know when the league is going to have the following two gamedays:
a. Concussion Awareness Day. Kudos to the New York Times for pounding on this issue hard and giving impassioned players an outlet for their concerns on brain injuries. Current players see many of their elder brethren struggling through memory loss and can't help but think their time is coming.
b. Indigent Retired Players Day. Leroy Kelly, a Hall of Famer, has a pension of $176 a month. Scores of players, well into the hundreds, don't have the medical care they need. The league and its players are making headway toward ameliorating the crisis, but not soon enough.
Smarter minds than mine can figure out how to draw attention to these issues, but I do know this: A much-needed bridge between players and owners would be built if the owners spent the kind of lockstep verve on these issues some weekend as the league, the players and its network partners did in unison on breast cancer awareness Sunday.
4. I think we could argue about a lot of NFL-related things right now, but there is one fact that is indisputable: Peyton Manning is the best player in football, and right now, it's not close for second place.
5. I think New England could have the quirkiest schedule a team has ever faced. It opened the season against the 0-0 Bills, the 1-0 Jets, the 2-0 Falcons, the 3-0 Ravens and now gets the 4-0 Broncos ... and then against what could be the 0-5 Titans (if they lose to Indy this week) and the 0-6 Bucs (if they lose to Philly and the Panthers).
6. I think NBC's Rodney Harrison created quite a stir Sunday night, saying Tom Brady should take his skirt off and put some pants on. In other words, Brady should man up and, I guess, not take these piddling calls the refs are giving to him. As Sunday turned into Monday, Harrison was getting mondo crappola for this statement ... and just after midnight, he called my cell and said, "Can you believe this? I WAS JOKING! I had a smile on my face! I texted Tom and told him I was going to have fun with this, and he had no problem with it at all. He thought it was funny.''
Well, no one thought he was joking. I told Harrison that when the NBC PR staff, which puts out quotes from our Sunday night show each week, e-mailed his comments, obviously whoever read those comments was going to think he was ripping Brady for being a wuss. "I was joking!!!'' he said. OK. Consider your point made to thousands.
7. I think Pete Carroll's going to stay married to college football. I'd be surprised if he took a pro job in the near future. I talked to Carroll the other day about Mark Sanchez, and he made an interesting comment about how he noticed a lot of teams are hiring lesser-known coaches (San Francisco, Tampa Bay) and not paying them as much as the veteran proven NFL coaches ... and they're not being very patient with them. His point, pretty simply, was this: Why should I give up a great job in a place I love for a speculative job that could crash and burn in the first year?
8. I think this is what I liked about Week 4:
a. Glen Coffee's 106 total yards isn't what I thought it'd be in relief of Frank Gore, but who can complain when you win by 35?
b. Denver punter Brett Kern was a field-position guru against Dallas, with four punts from Denver territory averaging 55.3 yards.
c. Ricky Williams, 35 Miami touchdowns. Jim Kiick 28, Mercury Morris 29. Does that stun anyone else?
d. Best news of the day for Miami: Cameron Wake, the pass-rusher who led the CFL in sacks over the past couple of years, had a three-sack afternoon against Buffalo.
e. Jacksonville's D is starting to play like Jack Del Rio drew it up. First eight Titan possessions: Four punts, three turnovers, a field goal.
f. San Francisco's 3-0 in the NFC West. No division game now till week 13, and the remaining Arizona game at home. It's beginning to look a lot like the Niners are going to make the playoffs.
g. I hold my breath when Ahmad Bradshaw (12 for 64 in KC) gets the ball with even a little space.
h. Carson Palmer, who had to convince Marvin Lewis to go for it on fourth-and-11 in overtime at Cleveland with 64 seconds left, ran for 15 yards to make them both look good. That would have been playing it much too safe for me. Good for Palmer.
i. Peyton Manning is 33. He has 342 touchdown passes, third-most of all-time. He is 127 behind Brett Favre. Let's say Favre puts up 18 more and Manning finishes the year 125 behind Favre. Manning's going to obliterate the record. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get to 500 while still playing effectively, consistently.
9. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 4:
a. Buffalo's run D, which has allowed 472 yards in the last two games. Stunning.
b. Even by JaMarcus Russell's standard, the past month has been about as dismal as a quarterback could have. His quarterback rating in each of his four games: 47.6, 46.0, 33.6, 48.5. Amazing. He has one touchdown pass. The first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft has one touchdown pass.
c. 100-yard rushing games by a Raider: zero ... 100-yard receiving games by a Raiders: zero. The Raiders don't have a 70-yard rushing game by a back.
d. Shayne Graham may have made the winning field for the Bengals, but anyone looking at the trajectory of his blocked extra point would tell you it's way, way too low.
e. A 28-point loss at Miami, sad to say, could well have sealed Dick Jauron's fate in Buffalo for the luckless Bills. That and an eight-game losing streak in the division.
f. Three picks for Trent Edwards ... lots go into picks, including far too much pressure over an inexperienced offensive line, but Edwards can't be throwing three interceptions.
g. Matthew Stafford's kneecap subluxed, I'm told, and the team will know more after an MRI this morning. It wasn't a full-blown dislocation. He could play against the Steelers at home this week.
h. The Rams were down 35-0 with 14 minutes left. Sad. No question they'll have to be in the Bradford-McCoy derby next April.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Glad to see you light the lamp in your first game with Les Canadiens, Brian Gionta.
b. I'm not opposed to fighting in the NHL, except when it's clearly premeditated. How can Donald Brashear skate out onto the ice in his first game with the Rangers this year and, with no provocation, drop the gloves with some thug from the Penguins and go at it? Just stupid. That's the kind of fighting the league should come down hard on.
c. There's nothing like a sudden-death game in a pennant race.
d. Now you have to wonder how much it'll hurt Detroit, if they beat Minnesota on Tuesday, not pitching Justin Verlander in the opener against the Yankees. I think that's a mortal wound. To have a chance, I think Verlander had to pitch Games 1 and 4. He could have gone Wednesday (Game 1) and Monday (Game 4) had he not had to go to the post Sunday. Now Game 2 might be his only outing.
e. In my limited (very) time covering baseball in four spring trainings recently, I got to know Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi a little bit, and found him to be smart, cutting-edge and challenged by the role of the little guy trying to beat the big, bad Yanks and Sox in the American League East. Always sad to see a good man fired, which happened to Ricciardi on Saturday. I'm sure the massive struggles of Vernon Wells and failure to get a ransom for Roy Halladay were the chief reasons. Wells used to be a franchise player. Now he's a franchise anchor. Hard to predict that when he got signed for big money.
f. I'm also told there's not a more honorable man and good baseball guy than Eric Wedge. I'll always wonder what would have happened to the Indians in the playoffs a couple of years ago if Sabathia and Carmona hadn't laid such gigantic eggs against the Red Sox.
g. My baseball awards:
• NL MVP: Albert Pujols, St. Louis. Easy. Not a competitive race.
• NL Cy Young: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis. Led in wins and IP, fourth in ERA.
• NL Rookie: J.A. Happ, Philadelphia. A 2.85 ERA, with 15 of 22 quality starts.
• NL Manager: Jim Tracy, Colorado. Rockies went 74-40 and earned Wild Card after he took over.
• AL MVP: Joe Mauer, Minnesota. Terrific receiver. Batting champion. Plus: Imagine missing a month and still having more total bases than Youkilis, Jeter, Michael Young, Longoria.
• AL Cy Young: Zack Grienke, Kansas City. Not even a discussion.
• AL Rookie: Andrew Bailey, Oakland. Edges Porcello, Andrus with 26 of 30 saves, 1.88 ERA.
• AL Manager: Ron Washington, Texas. With an assist to pitching coach Mike Maddux and prez Nolan Ryan for their construction of a pitching staff. Rangers are relevant again.
h. Playoff crystal-balling: New York over Detroit/Minnesota in four, Boston over the Angels in five, St. Louis over the Dodgers in four, Philadelphia over Colorado in three.
i. Coffeenerdness: Tried Via, the new Starbucks instant coffee. The mere thought of instant coffee is not pleasant to me, though I've liked the Green Mountain Keurig cups, particularly the excellent dark roasts. We use Italian Roast intermittently in our home Krups machine, and we love the bite.
Three times in the past week I had the Via Italian Roast. Three times I was pleased. I take my coffee with a little half-and-half, and I honestly tasted no difference between the Italian Roast we brew and the Italian Roast I had in this little Via packet. Even bought a dozen of them to use at home. I think Starbucks got this one right.
j. Met Don Pardo in the elevator at NBC Saturday. You know Don Pardo, the voice of NBC for decades; he now intros the talent on "Saturday Night Live.'' He said he flies in every Thursday from his home in Tucson for the gig. He's 91. What a cool thing, meeting such a famous voice.
k. Curb Your Enthusiasm has never been better, which is very hard to say about a great show, and I haven't even seen the Seinfeld episode that debuted last night yet.
Vikings 26, Packers 23. When all the hubbub dies down, and there is a football game, I am reminded about what Bill Cowher used to tell his Steelers' teams. The Steelers would go into hostile environments on the road -- usually more hostile than most teams would feel, because the Steelers were always so good -- and Cowher would tell him team: "You've got to weather the storm.'' You've got to take their best punches early, not get blown out, and just survive. Then, 12 or 15 minutes into the game, it'll settle down into a football, not a screamfest from the fans, and the kind of football you've been practicing and playing will take over.
That's how I see this one tonight. The Vikings break out strong, riding the wave of emotion from the crowd, and Green Bay battles back. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers trade lightning bolts -- I think they'll both be up around 300 passing yards -- and somehow, some way, the best player in the stadium, Adrian Peterson, will hang around to win it for the Vikings at the end. If I'm wrong, and the game's 41-0 one way or the other, it's still going to be compelling theater. But I don't see a blowout. I see three hours of tension.
Order a copy of Peter King's new book, "Monday Morning Quarterback: A fully caffeinated guide to everything you need to know about the NFL"