Every month or so we get what I'd call a Landmark Game, a contest that's especially significant for some reason ... that's memorable. Last weekend we were lucky enough to get two of them. The first was Denver-Kansas City, which Dante Hall broke up with his punt return. The second was that wild Indianapolis-Tampa Bay Monday nighter.
Hall's TD was a repeat performance, but it was a completely different type of play than the one that turned the lights out for Baltimore the previous week. For one thing, against the Ravens Hall scored on a kick return. The TD in the Broncos game came on a punt runback. Kick returners don't mess around back there. What you want is good take-off speed and a burst that can carry you past the first wave of tacklers. Just about obscured in that Denver-K.C. game was the fine work Broncos' kick-return man, Chris Cole, was doing. There was a guy with a real burst.
Hall's 97-yard kick return against the Ravens had a dramatic effect on the game, but it was basically an unremarkable run. He just took off straight upfield and no one touched him. It was, however, a well-conceived play that featured the end man on the wedge, running back Derrick Blaylock, executing a trap block on the other side and clearing a huge hole for Hall. That's what you can do on kick returns -- run designed plays. Punt returning is more instinctive. You can try to set things up on a particular side, but sometimes a return man's instincts take him elsewhere. There's some dancing around involved, some matador moves. A guy can retreat until he finds a spot he likes.
The kick returner who tries to do the same thing generally gets smeared because there's such a heavy convoy of tacklers heading downfield. Hall is a rare combination of kick returner with a burst and punt runback man with the jukes and fakes. If there was ever any doubt about his magical ability in the open field, go back to the game in Denver last December, the one in which Priest Holmes got hurt. The Chiefs lost, but Hall kept them in it with 75- and 49-yard TDs off pass receptions -- wild, crazy-legged runs with tacklers flopping all over themselves.
And that's what his 93-yard punt return against the Broncos was. I read a quote from Hall afterward in which he said, in a kind of off-hand way, that he messed around back there, "until I had 'em set up all to one side." Then he jumped out of trouble and into calm waters. He baited a trap and then sprung it. The only other punt returner I've seen who was as effective at this, at least in modern times, was Deion Sanders, but all that goofing around he did back there, waiting for the ball, was so distracting that you lost sight of what a brilliant return man he was. And so is Hall, a 5-foot-8 master of the chessboard who can move the knights and rooks and bishops around until he gets the alignment he wants, and then it's checkmate.
Now let's talk about classic No. 2. When all the analysts were previewing the Bucs-Colts contest one thing kept coming to mind. It was exactly the same type of situation as the Super Bowl. Jon Gruden, who'd coached the Raiders, knew their offense, so he could feed all the information to his defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Tony Dungy's a defensive coach. He knew all about a Bucs defense that he had personally built, so he could feed everything to offensive coach Tom Moore. And at the end it was Peyton Manning picking the Tampa Bay double zone to pieces. It wasn't that simple, of course. Fatigue was really the deciding factor in this game -- that and the weird penalty against Tampa Bay on Mike Vanderjagt's missed field goal in overtime that gave him another shot at kicking the game-winner. But in all honesty, when's the last time you saw anyone come down the field so consistently against the Bucs?
The Colts' victory was even more remarkable because Edgerrin James didn't play, and one thing you need against Tampa Bay is the semblance of a running game. The Colts didn't have it, but that didn't discourage them to in their attempts to pound the ball. And by the end of the game, there was no oomph left in the Bucs' pass rush, either, because the D-line had been pounded, or because they didn't have enough people to use for a decent rotation.
Bill Walsh once said that a late pass rush was the key to NFL football. The Colts, who worked a full rotation of seven linemen, got their late rush, which kept the Bucs offense off the field and gave Peyton more of a chance to work his magic. Their defensive line wore the Bucs out up front, and a big play that helped kill Tampa Bay's opening possession in overtime was a forced incomplete caused by Josh Williams, a reserve tackle, who ran his man back into Brad Johnson's lap.
But where was the Bucs' D-line? The guys who had destroyed Oakland in the Super Bowl were practically invisible Monday night. Warren Sapp got plenty of attention, as he usually does, but by the end of the game it wasn't necessary anymore. He was just putting on a straight line charge, with no ball awareness. Tarik Glenn, the Colts' left tackle, had a terrific night on Simeon Rice. Glenn drew flags for setting up early on occasion, but this was in an enemy park, with lots of noise, and he couldn't let a speedy guy like Rice get the jump on him. It was the best game I've ever seen him have. Made me re-think my checklist for All-Pro, an honor I've never awarded to Glenn.
But on the other side Adam Meadows, an old warhorse, and certainly no superstar, was putting the clamps on Greg Spires, one of the Super Bowl heroes who had feasted on the Raiders' Lincoln Kennedy. The Bucs basically rotated five D-linemen , with a sixth, tackle Chartric Darby, putting in an infrequent appearance. And it wasn't enough.
"The year we beat Miami in the Super Bowl," Walsh says, "do you know how many defensive linemen were in our rotation? Nine, and we used them all quite a bit. We just wore the Dolphins out."
Another part of the game I particularly liked ... Keyshawn Johnson, who was miked for TV, getting off his sneering little diatribe about Marvin Harrison fattening up his totals on little dinky stuff. This was early in the game, of course. When the final tally was in, and Harrison's 11 catches for 176 yards and two TDs had done as much as anything to finish off the Bucs, we never got a reading from Keyshawn on the subject.
I was only sad about one thing. My favorite referee, Johnny Grier, had a rough night. Unfortunately the game ended on a controversial call that nullified Vanderjagt's field goal. Grier's umpire, Ed Coukart, called leaping on Rice -- a rare infraction at best, and one that didn't interfere with the play.
Then there was the Jumbotron incident. Grier waved off a 15-yard face-mask penalty on Rice after the replay had showed that it was an erroneous call. And it looked as if Grier had looked up at the screen before the officials went into their huddle. Personally, I think it's a great thing to do, but the league doesn't like an official acting like a mere mortal.
And Grier is not really in favor with the NFL's officiating department. Last year I couldn't understand why he didn't get to work any playoff games. As I said, he's my favorite ref. I've always liked the positive, logical way he has worked his games. But I was told that on performance, he didn't grade out as high as the ones who worked the postseason. This contest won't help him, either.
I've never really gotten a handle on what kind of a game-day coach Steve Spurrier is, but last Sunday I realized he's as capable of butchering the clock as most of them are. The end of the half is when you can tell if a guy understands clock management.
The Eagles were just thrown for a loss on third down, back to the Redskins' 18-yard line. There was 1:50 left in the half and the Skins had two time outs left. You have to call one in this situation to give your offense more time to put seven points on the board. But instead, Spurrier let the clock run, and when the Eagles kicked their field goal, 43 seconds had run off. With under a minute left, Washington still moved downfield and kicked a field goal, but with those extra 43 seconds, they might have scored seven points. Textbook football, but unfortunately it was a textbook Spurrier forgot to read. ...
Want to know what ESPN's Tommy Jackson was like as a linebacker for the Broncos? Check out the 49ers' Jamie Winborn. He and Jackson are clones. Explosive little guys who run all over the field making plays. ... Here's an underrated player for you -- Redskins reserve fullback Rock Cartwright. He makes things happen on almost every play in which he's involved. So why is he a backup? Beats me. ...
I can't agree with the way Denver coach Mike Shanahan managed the end of the Broncos-Chiefs game. At the end of the third quarter, beginning of the fourth, Denver had just put together a 14-play drive that kept the K.C. defense on the field for 7:41. The Chiefs D was showing signs of exhaustion. After the Broncos' field goal, the Chiefs ran three plays and punted. Denver kept the ball for another four minutes, punted and Hall ran it back for his score. Now the Broncos were down by a point, but the punt return TD meant that the K.C. defense had to get back on the field again. The Broncos reached the Chiefs' 43. Two runs by Clinton Portis gained eight yards. Pounding a weary defense made sense for two reasons: It would move Denver closer to a score, and it would eat more clock, assuming it scored and K.C. got the ball again. Instead, on third-and-2 Plummer passed. It was incomplete. On fourth down they tried a 53-yard field goal, which hooked wide. Game's over. Sorry, but I don't buy the logic. ...
Here's an interesting statistic ... Cleveland Browns rebound games, following a bad loss, under Butch Davis.
2001: After losing at Cincinnati, they beat defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore. After a tough overtime loss to Pittsburgh, they beat the Ravens again, by 10 points, in Baltimore. After losing to Green Bay, 30-7, they come back to score 41 points and beat Tennessee in overtime.
2002: After a dismal 13-6 loss to Carolina, they won at Jacksonville on a Hail Mary. After losing to Indy at home, they beat Baltimore and Atlanta to make the playoffs.
2003: After the Jamal Lewis game in Baltimore, they upset the 49ers on the road. After being upset by the Bengals, they beat the Steelers by 20, at night, on the road. ...
I hate to see Emmitt Smith going out like this. I remember Walsh agonizing about how he would script O.J. Simpson's last few games after the Bills' great halfback came to San Francisco at the end of his career.
"The thing you don't want to do is use him too much against some sturdy run defense," Walsh said. "What you'll do is create one of those scenes where everyone's flying over the pile to get a hit on him, and all you see are arms and legs." Yep, that was Dallas-Arizona Sunday.