Two unheralded players are quickly becoming vital to their teams; mail
A lot of times you'll hear coaches say, "We're going to go back and clean a few things up, and we'll be fine.'' Lovie Smith needs to do more than cleaning when the Bears gather in Lake Forest Wednesday to begin preparations for the Minnesota game Sunday night. Reconstructive surgery would be more apt this week. I worry about Cutler's future, and whether he'll still be healthy enough to be a top-10 quarterback by the time the Bears get the offensive line fixed, more than anything right now.
Now for a couple of players who starred Sunday, and have become indispensable pieces of their teams.
It's not just the production -- it's the significance of Graham to an explosive offense. In those three New Orleans wins, Drew Brees has looked for Graham 34 times, 11 more than any other receiver in his stable. Graham's 32 catches and 496 yards through five weeks lead all NFL tight ends.
"I've been incredibly blessed,'' Graham told me the other day. "To go from being a college basketball player for four years to playing one season of college football, to the Senior Bowl, the Scouting Combine, and then to one of the most electric offenses in the NFL, with the greatest leader I've ever been around.''
Graham played four years of college basketball at the University of Miami and was a marginal NBA prospect. He might have got invited to an NBA camp after his final basketball season but instead chose to take the advice of Miami football coach Randy Shannon and retired Hurricane and Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar, both of whom told him he should use a fifth year of college to try his hands at football.
"I always wanted to come out of the smoke," said Graham, referring to the pyrotechnic display that greets Hurricane football players when they run onto the field for home games. "I also really admired the camaraderie of all the football players who played at Miami. It's such a unique thing."
So he played tight end for the Hurricanes in 2009 and had some modest success: 17 catches. Then came the invitations to the Senior Bowl and to the Scouting Combine. Graham's size (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) and startlingly fast 4.5-second time in the 40 gave the Saints reason to pick him in the third round. After being schooled at the position by another former Hurricane, Jeremy Shockey, for a season, Graham had the training wheels taken off this year by New Orleans coach Sean Payton. The Saints didn't bring the oft-injured Shockey back, and trusted the inexperienced Graham enough to hand him the starting job. Great decision. Brees' faith in him shows through at the biggest times, as in a close game at Carolina Sunday. On one third-quarter series, Brees went to Graham three times, even though Graham had either a safety or cornerback on him.
"It is surprising," Graham said of his ascension to favored receiver status with an offensive juggernaut. "Drew is easily the smartest football player I've ever played with. Each week, our offense evolves and is different ... That's the biggest thing I've had to get used to. We do so many different things each week, and you know on any pass play that Drew can come to you.''
I'll be writing about Graham more in the coming weeks, because his story is an inspirational one about not giving up despite some ridiculously long odds in his adolescence. The Saints wouldn't be where they are right now without him.
Two months ago, no one in Seattle had heard of Doug Baldwin. Where exactly did this guy come from, and how is it that he's leading a team that's not as bad as we thought in catches and receiving yards?
"This isn't a story about me,'' Baldwin told me after his game Sunday. "It's a story about this team. We don't quit.''
Valiant words, but let's go selfish on Baldwin for a bit. When he graduated Stanford last year, he went undrafted, but after scoring nine touchdowns (on throws from Andrew Luck last year), the 5-10 Baldwin was a candidate for NFL rosters in free agency. It seemed likely he'd follow Jim Harbaugh from Stanford to the 49ers. But the Niners took a late-round receiver in the draft -- USC's Ronald Johnson, in the sixth round -- and the Seahawks were very interested when the free agent signing period began. "In the grand scheme of things, Seattle's opportunity was better, and Seattle gave me the best chance to make the team,'' Baldwin said.
Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell knew they needed a slot receiver, and Baldwin fit the bill perfectly after playing in such a sophisticated pro-style offense at Stanford. So the fit has been perfect. He's caught 20 balls in five weeks -- and only the far more famous Julio Jones and A.J. Green have caught more among rookies so far this season. He's a little acrobatic, a little slippery, and exceedingly sure-handed. Seattle quarterbacks have told coaches that he catches anything in the same zip code. He reminds some who watch him of Brandon Stokley -- an undersized tough guy who can ping-pong off defenders over the middle and never drop a ball.
"It's still surreal to me,'' he said. "That I'm able to live my dream here so quickly has been amazing. I knew I'd have an opportunity somewhere to prove myself at the highest level of football, and I know what I could do if I had the chance. But I needed the chance -- and Seattle gave it to me.''
Now for your mail:
APPARENTLY MY SARCASM WAS LOST ON A FEW PEOPLE -- MORE THAN A FEW.
Google "NFL fall apart'' and you'll see. But yes, it was sarcastic. And thank you for being a loyal reader. I wouldn't be where I am right now, or have the forum I do, without readers like you. I really mean that.
THE EAGLES FLOP.
What I think is that, first and foremost, Nnamdi Asomugha should be head-up, man to man, on the best wide receiver the opposition has every week that they play. If you sign a $12 million corner and then don't use him to do what he does best, that's your fault, not his. I think the biggest problem is the corners aren't being used to play the way they'd play best.
STATS ARE STATS. THEY DON'T TELL THE WHOLE STORY
Wow -- you watched the Pats in Prague! Good for you. Rick, all I can say is that stats don't perfectly illustrate anything. They tell a good bit of the story but not everything. And if tipped interceptions shouldn't count, should balls that are tipped and end up as touchdowns count? How would we ever be able to place blame on an interception if we started factoring in receivers running the wrong way? I understand your point, but those things usually even out over time.
Your wish is my command.
ON TRADES THAT NEVER HAPPEN.
Sure. But do you think Elway would have been a very good player for Oakland? And do you think Marino would have been a very good player for the Colts? I do. And do you think Denver and Miami would have been historically night-and-day to what we've thought of them over the last 30 years with Elway and Marino? I do.
THIS IS AN INTERESTING THOUGHT.
Personally, I can't. But all you TV execs out there: Can you?