NEW YORK -- One of the great things about any NFL season is how it doesn't matter what we all think out here in media- and fan-land. Just after Labor Day, teams are going to play, and truths will soon be self-evident, and some of the damndest things are going to happen.
Like, this year:
• The Bengals can play defense.
• The Titans are pitiable. Let me expand: Two of the first-round-bye playoff teams last year, Tennessee and Carolina, are a combined 1-8 this year. And the Panthers had to come back from a 17-2 deficit at home Sunday for that one measly win.
Let me take a couple of those and dig in, starting with the Friendly Revenge Match in Denver.
As impressed as I am with Josh McDaniels in the wake of his 20-17 overtime victory over his mentor,
Underline this and put it in your mental bold print: I'm not saying Orton is as good as Brady or ever will be; what I am saying is that he's doing for the Broncos in 2009 what Brady did when
Exhibit A: Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High (what a silly stadium moniker), Orton led the Broncos on scoring drives of 90, 66, 98 and 58 yards. With 10 minutes left in the game, New England led 17-10, and Denver was starting at its own 2. The Broncos weren't going to have many more chances -- two, maybe -- and Orton knew the significance when he went out to the huddle.
"We'd had a 95-yard drive earlier,'' Orton told me last night. (Actually, it was 90.) "And after we scored on that drive, I never had so much confidence in us as an offense before. It was a big game and we made a big drive. So here we were at the 2, and I got in the huddle and said, 'We did it once for 95 yards. What's three yards more?' '' And that was it for the inspiration.
The Patriots D looked gassed, even though it had been on the field for a reasonable 46 snaps to that point. But Orton only needed one third-down conversion and four and a half minutes to buzz down the field. He got 27 yards on a smart screen to
"It was a big win,'' Orton said, "but what I liked was we prepared like we'd prepare for any game, like it was any other week. Josh does a good job of that. They create a lot of problems for an offense, and we spent the whole week on that, not on any of the stuff surrounding the game. We put a plan together this week to try to beat New England, which is different from the other game plans we've had, and I'm sure this coming week will be different. That's the way we play, the way we prepare.''
I reminded Orton of his first game with Denver, when the city was apoplectic after he threw three first-half interceptions in a Broncos' preseason game at San Francisco. Joe Bronco was petrified that they'd gotten shafted in the trade with Chicago, and the franchise would never recover from losing
"I just thought about that this week,'' Orton said. "And I actually took that as a positive. I'm serious. There was a lot of doubt about me locally, but not from the coach. It was great to have a game like that and have the coach back me the way he did, with no reservations. That's the first time in my career that ever happened to me. I know my game. I'm not a turnover guy. Now I had a coach who knew I wasn't either.''
As long as he's not a turnover guy -- Orton's first pick of the year came on a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half Sunday -- the Broncos will be a contending offense.
In Baltimore, the Bengals completed the AFC North Hat Trick. Three Sundays, three AFC North wins. And good things, evidently, come in threes, as in three-point wins: Bengals 23, Steelers 20; Bengals 23, Browns 20; Bengals 17, Ravens 14.
If you watched
"I was at their house Thursday,'' coach
Lewis has done the unthinkable (at least to me) in Cincinnati: He's won as many as he's lost (50-50-1), and he's done it rebuilding on the fly. Three reasons Cincinnati's better on defense, finally:
One: Most important is the Bengals have established a physical presence, led by punishing rookie linebacker
Two: The first-round starting corners,
Three: They're getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, led by
The Bengals could have been the same old Bengals a couple of times Sunday.
"You could have folded then,'' I said to Marvin Lewis.
"We don't get intimidated by anyone,'' the coach said. "It was funny. The Ravens always introduce the defense here. I'm sure they like to get the crowd fired up. And so I told our players, especially our young guys, 'Make sure you get a good seat for it and get a good view.' They all saw it. They saw Ray Lewis do his thing. Then we went out and played pretty good defense too.''
For a pretty good defensive coordinator and for themselves.
I'd planned to write 800 words or so on the Browns and where they stand in the wake of their three big deals this year -- trading
Now for some other items of interest around pro football over the past few days:
The 49ers have the bye this week, but they'll use the time to expedite the learning process for Crabtree. Barring injury, he'll be on the field Oct. 25 at Houston, likely as a slot receiver. The Niners could play an interesting four-receiver set with
Let's assume -- as I've been told reliably -- that the 49ers do put Crabtree in the slot and give him a spot in three or four personnel groups of three- or four-receiver sets. Rather than immerse Crabtree in the offense and throw the phone book of a playbook at him, it's smarter to feed him piecemeal if you want to get something out of him this year. Crabtree's holdout destroyed his chance to be a big player this year, but he still can be a helpful one.
After his third practice with Crabtree, quarterback
I asked Hill about how the 49er skill players are now fairly competitive with the rest of the league. "When you've gone through what we've gone through as an organization, nobody in the outside world expects anything from you, but I can tell you we have some playmakers here,'' he said.
If Crabtree can be a two-catch-a-game guy in the slot, he should draw some attention away from Bruce and Morgan and help the Niners become more diverse on offense.
I don't know Crabtree, and I have questioned his judgment over this senseless holdout. But I like one thing I heard about him late in the week, after he and GM
Convinced that the fall is when people watch football, the league chose to play opposite the NFL and high school and college football, which is almost like planting a garden in a blizzard. The only way the league can work is to be content being a Triple-A league with some borderline NFL players; to have the long view; to play on Thursday nights; and to not have the sort of visions of grandeur that the XFL and USFL had. All of which commissioner
"This season's an appetizer,'' he told me Saturday night from Orlando, after
Bollinger handed to
The UFL will play a title game Nov. 27 between the two teams with the best regular-season records. The goal is to experiment in several stadiums and markets (Tropicana Field in Tampa, Rentschler Field in Hartford, CitiField in Queens), then to add two teams for 2010. "We may never play more than 10 games,'' Huyghue said. "We may never have more than eight teams. We're going to do what's practical.''
I'll tell you what's practical: not playing a Florida team's opener directly opposite Florida-LSU, which the league should have seen months ago, and finding some way to put bodies in the stands, no matter how papered the houses are. The wide swaths of empty seats at both games was embarrassing.
"Good football, bad marketing, nothing for kids, probably 3k there,'' one attendee at the Citrus Bowl on Saturday Tweeted me Sunday morning.
The only way a fall minor league can make it is if the league's serious about not having visions of grandeur and can settle into a niche of Thursday night football in underserved pro football markets (Las Vegas, Orlando, Hartford, Sacramento, etc.) for the long term. And I don't mind the lack of hype as the season kicked off. The XFL had hype out the wazoo and lasted five months. This is a startup company, and startups needs to come in quietly, have money, and have a good football plan. I have my doubts about the UFL making it, but it does have money, a plan and good football people in place. I'll be watching.
The NFL absolutely, positively isn't going to cut down on its vigilance of quarterback hits, no matter how many
Here's what I have a problem with: players like Patriots defensive tackle
One other thing: Players are getting the message about going easier on the quarterback, judging by roughing numbers over the past five seasons and four games this year.
I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the 2009 numbers -- yet. As I said earlier, they're through four weeks, and a couple of light weeks would put the average back down to the levels of the past two years. I wondered why the numbers plummeted between 2006 and 2007, but other than the usual points of emphasis about protecting the quarterback, there was no big rule change that year.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the hit from Cincinnati linebacker
"I don't know,'' he said when I spoke to him in the tunnel at the Metrodome, an hour or so after the emotional win over the Packers. He looked like he'd been through a 15-round fight, emotionally and physically. "No one knows. You never know what'll happen. I know how hard I'm working for it.''
He said he hasn't had anything to drink but water, has sworn off sweets, hasn't been hunting, and said he's throwing totally pain-free. I asked him about the gigantic welcome-to-Minnesota billboards Wrangler, one of his employers, has put up around town. "Haven't seem 'em,'' he said. "All I see is the road between my house and the training facility.'' Tunnel vision.
That probably gives him the best chance to make it. But we won't know how this story turns out until we see if Favre can make it and play competently through December, and he knows that.
"From my blindside,
"Well, the weather's nice.''
"People see what I do and forget who I am and they really don't know who I am. Working with kids is what I do. I have over 100 kids in the NFL -- I called them kids, but they're young adults -- that I text every morning, Monday through Friday.''
Sanders was an adviser to Michael Crabtree, the 49ers' first-round draft choice who had the longest holdout of any pick this year, and Sanders' statement that two teams were willing to pay Crabtree at least $40 million a year was part of the reason the 49ers filed tampering charges against the Jets. Then, Oklahoma State wide receiver
First, it's dubious that NFL Network can have Sanders on the air commenting on anything relating to Crabtree when he's advising him. Second, there's no question Sanders is good on TV and makes good analytical points about all aspects of the game. The problem is, you don't know when you're listening to him who his sacred cows are, who he's training, who he's taken under his wing.
Is he over-praising Ray Lewis or Ed Reed because he's so tight with them? Or is he over-praising scores of other players because he's worked out with them or advised them or mentored them or exchanged texts with them before and after games?
Coaching three days after his wife, Vikki, died, Zimmer went to battle on the road against the NFL's third-rated offense in both scoring and yardage. His troops played an inspired game, holding the Ravens to a season-low 257 yards and seven points. (Baltimore's defense scored the other seven.).
Zimmer had an agonizing decision to make -- whether to coach or not -- and the Bengals gave him the latitude to do whatever he wanted to do. And what he wanted to do was coach his defense. "Vikki loves you,'' Zimmer told his players in a halting voice after the 17-14 Cincinnati upset of the Ravens
As I said earlier, Orton is rapidly becoming to the Broncos what Brady was to New England when he took over for Bledsoe in 2001 -- an efficient player who does precisely what his game plan directs him to do. In his biggest Denver start to date, Orton, the anti-Cutler, completed 35 of 48 throws for 330 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, and drove the Broncos to the tying touchdown in the last 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, and to the winning field goal on the first drive of overtime. Jay Who?
What does he do for an encore? In his first 41 NFL games, Austin totaled 23 catches for 435 yards. In his 42nd -- also his first NFL start -- Austin caught 10 passes for 250 yards in the Cowboys' 26-20 overtime victory at Kansas City. His 60-yard TD reception on second-and-16 midway through overtime, saved the Cowboys from having the most miserable bye week of the NFL season.
With 27 minutes left at San Francisco, White already had broken the Falcons' single-game record for receiving yards. His six-catch, 210-yard day was the best ever by an Atlanta player, and his 90-yard catch-and-run over ace Niner corner
With the Cards on the verge of blowing a 21-0 halftime lead, the Texans were driving near midfield in a 21-21 game with 2:30 left.
Amazing a team can win, especially on the road, when its quarterback goes 2-of-17. The Browns beat Buffalo 6-3 in one of the all-time ugly NFL games because of Zastudil, and almost because of Zastudil alone. On nine punts, the Bills had seven return yards. Seven! With one of the best returners in football,
Average drive start for nine Buffalo drives on Zastudil's punts: Buffalo's 15-yard line.
When the Redskins take FedEx Field next Sunday against the Chiefs, it will be the sixth consecutive week they've played a winless team. The titanic schedule they've played thus far:
Week 1: vs. 0-0 Giants.
The Giants, obviously, don't factor into the bad-teams-on-the-sked deal. But it's amazing how poorly this team has played, and still Washington has a chance to be 3-3 entering its home Monday night game against the Eagles on Oct. 26.
Tried one of the low-cost carriers to and from Minneapolis for the Packers-Vikings game last Monday. They sure are friendly at Sun Country Airlines, and they fly big planes, and, though they pack 'em in like sardines, it's at least non-stop at a sub-$300 round-trip fare.
Eight hours after the Vikings pranced off the field with a 30-23 victory over Green Bay in the Brett Favre Revenge Bowl, I boarded the 6:50 a.m. flight from the mostly barren Humphrey Terminal at the Minneapolis Airport (the main terminal in Minneapolis is the Lindbergh Terminal, which is part-mall, part flying place) to Boston. The droll captain said this as the door to the 737 was sealed:
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us on Sun Country for our 2-hour, 11-minute flight over to Boston this morning. Our route of flight will take us over Green Bay, where it appears tears are still falling, then over parts of Michigan, across Lake Erie, and on into New England.''
The agonizing wait is over! You can find my some-things-old, some-things-new "Monday Morning Quarterback,'' the book,
1. Give each team at least one possession in overtime. As I say in the book, I don't care if only 43 percent of the overtime games are won on the first possession by the team winning the coin toss. If the coin toss were so insignificant, why is it that only seven times since overtime was adopted in 1974 has the team that won the coin toss chosen to kickoff and play defense? There was another example Sunday. Tom Brady never came off the sidelines after New England lost the overtime coin flip. I wouldn't care if it was the other way around -- if New England had won the flip and Brady drove the length of the field to score with the Denver offense not getting on the field. It's unjust. Period.
2. Eliminate ties. Play OT clockless. Ties are stupid.
3. Care for indigent older players by starting The Mackey Fund. I told you about the disgrace of the bedrock players of the league, like former Baltimore tight end
• One last note: In the book, I also pass along some of my greatest hits from past columns. Like this gem from my coverage on the day of the 1999 draft:
Indianapolis will rue the day it bypassed
And that sort of peerless analysis is why I make the big bucks.
"Just because you are clueless doesn't mean everyone else is Peter. Is SI still in business?''
This little tempest occurred when I was asked on Twitter where the United Football League game between Florida and New York was being televised. I said it was on "HDNet, whatever that is.'' I had never heard of HDNet until seeing it was the outlet for Saturday's game. A flurry of tweets informed me it was Mark Cuban's channel. Cuban's amiable Tweet followed. Then I wrote two Tweets:
"Nice to meet you, Mark.''
"Never heard of HDNet till tonight. Sue me. I cover football, not television.''
Then Cuban accused me of being condescending to his channel. And so on. The Tweeters loved that. @Iluvcollinfultz wrote: "Oh, HELL YES! Old man Twitter catfight!! Ding, ding, ding!!'' And @PatIVERSON wrote: "Round 3! King sidesteps a Cuban punch, throws a body blow! Intense!''
"Play nice, fellas,'' came in a while later, from @qbkilla, someone who always played nice.
a. Weirdest sight of the opening United Football League weekend: Officials in blood-red shirts and black pants.
b. Second-weirdest sight: Simeon Rice sacking the quarterback. He's 33, and playing for the New York Sentinels. With team training headquarters in Florida, by the way. San Francisco and Las Vegas are headquartered in Casa Grande, a southern Arizona city about 20 miles north of Jackrabbit. I kid you not.
e. The Broncos uniforms were so ugly I actually like them.
f. The Patriots ought to wear those togs every single, solitary time they wear white. Gorgeous. Classy. And those helmets with the real Patriot snapping the ball ... fantastic. I remember getting one of those for Christmas
h. Every Cincinnati game this season has been decided in the final 60 seconds.
i. I don't care that
j. I recall Peyton Manning telling me at training camp that he didn't want to get too excited yet, but he really liked what he saw in the rookie from BYU,
k. Every Sunday I do Peyton Manning a grave disservice by not naming him Player of the Week. Like last night ... 20 of 24 in the first half for 200 yards against a team that knows him intimately and was playing a playoff-type game. We're watching one of the great players in any sport in recent history right now.
l. Bad Day For Northeasterners Dept.: Within three hours Sunday,
1st round (15th overall)
3rd round (73)
3rd round (82)
6th round (182)
Jared Allen, DE -- The league's best all-around defensive end has 21 sacks and three safeties in 22 Viking games.
6th round (187)
It's not certain, but it's possible that history will show that the Vikings got a more productive player at 187 (Sullivan) than the Chiefs got at 15 (Albert). Ouch.
"After this season,'' owner/president
Said a Viking source close to the stadium talks: "We're clearly headed for a crisis in Minnesota if our leadership sits back and does nothing.''
The Metrodome sits on the smallest footprint of any NFL stadium, contains only 200 club seats, has one traffic-clogged narrow concourse for the entire stadium, and 28 NFL cities have gotten a new venue in the last 20 years. Minnesota and the three California teams have not. At this point there have been no substantive talks between the state and the Wilfs, who plan to contribute about a third of the costs for the new stadium.
It's too early to start using Los Angeles as a stalking horse, but the L.A. stadium issue will be resolved in the next two weeks, and there's no question prospective L.A. owner
This team is awful, but would
The current staff wouldn't be loyal to Shanahan because they'd know he has his own guys in mind, like defensive coordinator
c. Coaches other than Zorn and Jauron with futures in hand over next two months:
d. I don't see how Tom Cable makes it to the 2010 season. He may not make it to January.
6. I think this is what I liked about Week 5:
a. Loved the Chiefs' Texans helmet. Strange, of course, with a map of Texas on the side of helmets the day they play a Texas team, but good helmets nonetheless.
d. Defenses keep challenging Adrian Peterson by clogging the box. Favre keeps completing 70 percent.
e. When the Broncos came after Brady, he kept going to
g. I've criticized
i. The Lions are not terrible. They compete.
a. Chad, Chad, Chad. You can't let Ed Reed punch the ball away from you like that, Ocho.
c. Sam Hurd, you have to catch that ball in the end zone. Have to. With Dallas down 10-0 late in the first half, Romo threw one in the end zone behind Hurd but right in his hands -- and it threw flew through both hands.
d. The Dallas punt-return game is a disaster. Either they can't catch the punt (Patrick Crayton) or they unwisely let the ball bounce inside the 10 instead of catching it around the 20 (
e. Patriots 27 carries.
f. Rams: 400 yards, 27 first downs ... and four fumbles. Ridiculous.
h. Don't celebrate too much, Cowboys. That was one shaky win against a bad team.
i. Burger King: You're not serious about that Cowboys video on the FOX pregame show, are you? That's the bad taste of the year spot, without question. It must be on YouTube. Try "Crass
j. Magic's over,
The guarantees for the two players picked ahead of Crabtree -- Jacksonville's
The net gain for this holdout? There is none. Crabtree didn't come close to Heyward-Bey. He ended up missing the first six weeks of the season. If I were advising him, I'd tell him to go to the 2010 NFL Rookie Symposium and make a speech to next year's crop of newbies entitled: "Don't Make the Same Dumb Mistake I Did.''
a. I demand to know why the volume on some television commercials is 30 percent higher than the volume on the regular program. And if I find out it's anything like the sponsors pay more money to get their volume raised, I vow to never buy that advertisers product again.
Kendrick tries to steal twice while the next batter is up, but the ball is fouled off. Then he goes on the first pitch to
c. Coffeenerdness: Earlier this morning, 2:06 a.m. Because my hotel coffee stinks out loud, I get my coffee on the outside. (Sound familiar, Mr. Seinfeld?) Tonight, on the walk back from NBC's studios, I stopped at a midtown deli in need of some caffeine. But not wanting to risk the coffee, not knowing how long it'd been in the urn, I got an Illy Issimo cold cappuccino -- 8.4 ounces of (I hope) two shots of espresso and lowfat milk and cocoa. I'll need it an hour from now. The early results are encouraging. That is, I'm not drooling on the keyboard.
d. I wasn't sure it would be possible for the
e. Yes, I am officially the last person on earth to have figured out the Seinfeld stuff on
One of the things I like about Rex Ryan? The Jets deal for