Before we get to the teams still playing for something, I bring you the most disappointing team of recent years, the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. In the span of seven days at home, the Eagles blew their season by doing what they've done all year: disappear down the stretch. The 3-6 Eagles have been to fourth quarters what John Lackey is to baseball free agency. Their two-month history of fine fourth-quarter play:
That, folks, is how to blow a season right there.
Don't read the papers today, coach.
We media geniuses have had our fun in the last few weeks. Tebow will never make it. Tebow can't transition to the NFL. Tebow's game is a college game. The Broncos are playing the guy just to show the fans it can't work, and then they'll move on to a real quarterback.
"After a while,'' coach John Fox said from the Broncos locker room Sunday, "you come to the realization that Ernie Els' golf swing is different than Lee Trevino's, but it's what they're comfortable with, they both work, and they both win.''
When Tebow took over as quarterback four games ago in Miami, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy tailored a few things to him, but the Broncos basically ran their regular offense, the one Kyle Orton used to go 1-4. They lucked out in that win at Miami, then tried their luck against Detroit, with McCoy calling 46 pass plays and 30 runs in the 45-10 loss to the Lions. "We got shellacked,'' Fox told me. "We were so one-dimensional, and we were banging our heads against the wall. I remember back in '06 in Carolina, we had a bunch of injuries, we were losing and we had to go play a really good Atlanta team. We basically invented the Wildcat for Chris Weinke that week and went into Atlanta and won the game. So here, we just figured let's try to do what Tim's comfortable with. It's just coaching. Doesn't matter if you coach JV, high school, college or the pros -- when you've got different kids, you need to do different things. Figure what your players can do, and adjust to them.''
So in the last couple of weeks, practices have been different for the Broncos. "Lot of dive options, pitches, play action, trying to get Eddie Royal the ball wide,'' Fox said. "Practicing what Tim does well, and oh yeah, I'd say that part [of the gameplan the last two weeks] has grown.''
In Oakland eight days ago, the Broncos ran it 39 times (for 299 yards) and called 22 passes; Denver won 38-24. In Kansas City Sunday, the ratio was out of control: 55 runs, eight passes ... and that was after losing the top two backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, to injury, and running a third-stringer, Lance Ball, 30 times. The offense is not necessarily designed to get Tebow running; of their 94 runs in the last two weeks, Tebow's had only 22. The offense uses Tebow the same as at Florida, as an option pilot. As Tebow said after the game Sunday, he doesn't care how often he throws or passes or hands off -- his job is to survey the defense and make a judgment how to attack as the play, millisecond by millisecond, develops.
Can it work long-term? Doubtful, but who knows? Who'd have ever figured, in the Aerial Era, a team going 2-0 running it 76 percent of the time? That's what Denver's done the last two weeks. Tim Tebow hasn't completed 50 percent of his throws in any of the five games he's played this year ... and he's lost only once.
I expected to hear the "yeah but'' at some point from Fox -- like, This is great, but it can't last long-term. Instead, I heard in Fox's voice, Why can't we win this way?
"The division has come back to us,'' Fox said. "We've got a great opportunity here, and that's what I've told the players.''
"So,'' I said to Fox, "is Tebow your quarterback the rest of the way?''
"At this rate,'' he said, "I would say yes. Now, who knows? But he's running the offense well, and he's not turning it over.''
The Broncos are a game behind Oakland, the team they clobbered last week. The battered Jets come to town for a Thursday-nighter this week, and the advantage for Denver is simple: The Jets have a short practice week to figure out a new offense and have to travel. Who knows? Ride the wave.
The situation: Overtime, 23-23, Falcons ball, fourth-and-a-foot at the Atlanta 29. Smith sent out the punt team. Then he changed his mind and decided to go for it. He had a 245-pound back, Michael Turner, and an interior line he trusted to get a foot. Smith knew, of course, that if the Falcons failed, the game was over. If they gained nothing in the next three plays, the Saints would send out John Kasay to win it with a 46-yard dome kick; just a few yards would put him in the lock zone. Kasay was 15 of 15 from inside the 40- this year. So Smith knew the consequences of a miss. Miss equals loss, basically. Which is exactly what happened. It was reminiscent of two years ago, when Bill Belichick went for it, with a lead, on fourth-and-two from his 37- at Indianapolis, failed, and watched Peyton Manning march down the short field to beat New England. That's where we first got to know Brian Burke, a former Navy fighter pilot and huge football fan. He runs a website called AdvancedNFLStats.com, and he was the first to say Belichick actually made the right call based on the performance of teams in similar down-and-distance-and-game situations over the previous decade. So I called him to ask what he thought of Smith's move.
"I thought it was smart,'' Burke said. "It just didn't work.''
According to Burke, judging Smith's call by using data of all similar game situations over the past 11 years found:
• If Atlanta punted the ball, the numbers say New Orleans would start its drive on its own 33-yard line, and the Falcons would have a 42 percent chance of winning the game. If they went for it on fourth down, they had a 47 percent chance of winning.
• If Atlanta went for it on fourth down, they had a 74 percent chance of making it. But, as Burke pointed out, that includes all fourth-and-one calls, including fourth-and-inches and fourth-and-a-yard-and-a-half.
• If Atlanta went for it and got the first down, they had a 57 percent chance of winning. If they went for it and failed, an 18 percent chance of winning.
I guess where I fall on this is simple. I'd rather make Drew Brees drive the ball 45 yards into comfortable field goal range, with all the risks that entails, instead of taking the 26 percent risk that I wouldn't make the first down. Making the first down, by the way, would mean exactly this: a little better than 50-50 chance the Falcons could drive the ball for a touchdown or into field goal range.
"The way we're playing now is what we're capable of,'' Brian Urlacher told me last night. "We're playing fast, the way our defense needs to play. One of the reasons we've turned it around is our coaches wouldn't put up with mistakes; they held us accountable and we cleaned them up.'' Chicago, 6-3, is tied for second with Detroit now, 2.5 games behind Green Bay. I asked Urlacher if the Packers could be caught. "I don't see anyone beating them twice,'' he said, meaning he didn't see them losing two games. "It looks like a fight for the Wild Card for us, but that's fine. We just want to get in.''
The Patriots' victory over the Jets Sunday meant Bill Belichick tied his old New York (Giants and Jets) boss, Bill Parcells, for ninth place on the all-time coaching victories list (including playoffs) with 183. It'll be tough to catch No. 8 this year -- Chuck Knox, with 193. How Belichick and Parcells compare historically:
Fitting that in the Year of the Pass, one of the new legends passes one of the old ones. Tom Brady and Belichick became the winningest quarterback-coach combination of all-time, beating a familiar couple of faces.
Let's ask the guru, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, heading into the Monday-nighter against the Vikings.
"I don't like the way we're playing,'' Capers told me the other day. "I like the way we're taking it away, but I don't like all the big plays we're giving up, and we need to communicate a lot better going forward if we're going to fix this. But the one thing I remember about last year was it was just about this time when we started playing well on defense. We went to New York and shut out the Jets, we held the Cowboys to seven points and the Vikings to three. Then we won our last six [including postseason] and played pretty well on defense using a lot of people. We found our niche. Now we've got to do that this season.''
So it's been done. But not since mid-2009 have the Packers given up this many points (65) in consecutive games. According to ProFootballFocus, the trio of corners who helped the Packers win the Super Bowl last year (Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, Sam Shields) allowed nine touchdown passes all of last season; they've allowed eight this year through eight games.
I watched the tape of the Packers-Chargers game, and two or three times one defensive back would turn around after a play and yap to another. Williams, on one play, lit into a couple of his mates, presumably for not providing the safety help he thought should have been there. From talking to Capers, that's what he meant by the communication problems. I saw a defense bothering the quarterback enough but breaking down badly in the back end. "Not up to our standards, but that's sort of been the pattern this season,'' Capers said. "Their long run of the game was nine yards, which is good. But they had seven pass plays of 20 yards or more. That we can't allow.''
Capers, in piloting two expansion teams, said the plan for great NFL teams hasn't changed. Build a defense, find a quarterback. In Carolina, he did it with Kerry Collins and a stingy defense built through the draft and free agency. In Houston, he tried to do it with David Carr and defense, but both weren't up to NFL averages. He looks at the Packers now and sees a team with a great quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and what should be a good defense. And he knows it's foolish to expect Rodgers to put up 40 points every week, because sometimes great offenses (see: New England, Super Bowl, 2008) have an off day. He understands the impression fans have: If the Packers are going to stay unbeaten, they're going to have to have Rodgers win shootouts.
"I understand why people would think that,'' Capers said. "We just have to stress communication with the guys, everybody being where they're supposed to be, because when they are, we definitely should make the plays. But we've done it before. Last year, Tramon and Sam covered as well as any two corners in the league. We can get back to that level. I've seen it.''
You'll get an excellent indicator tonight, with rookie Christian Ponder coming to Lambeau Field with all the distractions and noise attendant to that experience for a visiting quarterback. If the Packers struggle holding the Vikings down, you'll know it's going to be pretty tough to keep this undefeated streak alive in the coming weeks.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association announced Thursday a plan, pursuant to the July labor agreement, to distribute $620 million over 10 years to the men who played before 1993, the players who had been getting pittances for their pensions. "Nothing the league can do can ever full express our appreciation to the players who helped build our league,'' commissioner Roger Goodell said in the league's release. "However, the Legacy Fund is a significant step, especially as the benefits apply to the older players.''
I put pen to paper over the weekend to figure out the increases for long-retired players. Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly, for instance, played 10 seasons, retiring in 1973. He is 69. Kelly had been receiving a monthly check for $176. (So low because he'd chosen to take his monthly pension at 45 instead of waiting 10 or 15 years for it to mushroom.) Under the Legacy formula, a 10-year vet who retired before 1975 will now get $1,840 per month. That's a 945 percent increase. Now, instead of getting $2,112 a year in pension, Kelly will receive $22,080 annually.
So I expected Kelly to be pretty pleased when I reached him at his home in Willingboro, N.J., Saturday.
"No comment,'' he growled. "I really have nothing to say.''
A minute later, Kelly finally said: "Anything is better than nothing, I guess. I think the [retired] guys are happy to get something more, but it's just not enough. The NFL takes in, what, $4 billion more than baseball in a year? Baseball players have a great pension. I can't understand why we can't get at least $60,000 a year for the work we've done in making this sport what it is.''
Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, who has become a spokesman for retired players, said he's heard from 12 players since the announcement, and the retirees felt the same as Kelly.
"We still have sub-poverty pensions in the NFL, and I don't just blame the league -- I blame the union too,'' DeLamielleure said. "You talk about $22,000, but that's before taxes. I emailed Roger Friday and said, 'I'm very disappointed to say the least. You told me you'd make this better. Why do you continue to punish the pre-'93 guys?' ''
DeLamielleure said the players he's spoken to are "disillusioned, angry and totally depressed'' that the pension isn't more generous. "There are days I could cry, listening to their stories,'' he said. "And now it's worse, because they were waiting for some hope, and even though this is more than they were getting, it's still nothing compared to what other sports do.''
I spoke with a baseball union lawyer, Rick Shapiro, on Sunday, and he told me a 10-year veteran baseball player who retired any season in the '70s would be getting a pension of between $112,000 and $200,000, depending on the prevailing rate of return on the pension plan's investments. Let's use $112,000. That's still $90,000 more per year than a similar NFL player would get.
An NFL spokesman emailed me Sunday and called the Fund "an unprecedented and substantial increase'' for the retirees, which it certainly is. But it still pales in comparison with baseball, and that's something that will always irk football players because football is a much more popular sport today. And I should also reiterate that DeLamielleure is as angry with the union as he is with the NFL; he believes both should be more generous with the retired players.
I asked Emily Kaplan, a friend of mine from New Jersey, a Penn State junior, and a writer for the campus paper the
"I think that's as good a game as we've played against a team that's credible. I think overall ... I haven't felt like that since Jason has been head coach.''
"I was supposed to be studying, but I went rioting instead."
"No, I would not go. And no, I would not want my child to go ... The black eye of this alleged cover up certainly would play a major part in my decision or that of my child.''
The Patriots have made 13 transactions involving safety Ross Ventrone in the last three months. They are:
For his troubles, Ventrone, an undrafted free agent out of Villanova, has one career tackle -- a third-quarter stop of Jeremy Kerley of the Jets after a seven-yard punt return in Week 5.
In April 2005, Centre County (Pa.) district attorney Ray Gricar, who decided not to bring child-assault charges against Jerry Sandusky after an incident with a young boy in 1998, disappeared without a trace in Pennsylvania and has never been heard from since. His car was found in Lewisburg, Pa., near the Susquehanna River, and his laptop computer was found in the river.
In May 1996, Gricar's brother Roy, who lived in southwest Ohio, disappeared not long after being fired from his job in Dayton. His body was found days later in the Great Miami River. His car was found parked near the Great Miami River, and authorities ruled his death a suicide.
I don't know what that means. I just find it a horribly bizarre coincidence -- I think.
Walking down Second Avenue in Manhattan about 11:30 Sunday morning, I noticed three 25ish people walked toward me. A woman was flanked by a man in a black Maurkice Pouncey Steelers jersey and a man in a black Hines Ward Steelers jersey. They seemed to be in search of a Steelers bar to watch the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game. The guy in the Ward jersey was singing, "Here we go, here we go, Pittsburgh's goin' to the Super Bowl.''
If you've been in Pittsburgh to see the Steelers, you know exactly what that song is.
Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.
(In the immortal words of Cindy Adams.)
"Team coverage of Eagles' collapse on local NBC affiliate is hilarious ... News reporters at different locations, covering it like a murder.''
"Shame on PSU riotters. The only message they are sending is we are becoming a morally bankrupt society.''
"FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!!!!!!!!"
a. Aaron Curry looks reborn rushing the passer in Oakland. He's playing much faster and freer than he did in Seattle.
b. Carson Palmer. Great touch on the ball in San Diego. He will make Hue Jackson look like a genius if he plays that way every week.
c. The Raiders overall. They'd lost 13 straight to San Diego before last season. Now they've beaten the cool guys down south three straight. There's good depth on the offensive line with Stephon Heyer playing well at guard after Wisniewski had to move over to center to replace the injured Samson Satele.
d. Stat of the TV Weekend, from the
e. Might not go down as a catch of the day, but Heath Miller's reception, with Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson taking a flying shot at him half-a-second after the catch, and the ball never budging in Miller's grasp.
f. Nice job on James Harrison, Andrew Whitworth.
g. Mister Alexander's in the game!
h. Rashard Mendenhall, for the best effort run of the day Sunday, capping an 11-play drive to give the Steelers a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter.
i. FOX had a good stat about Drew Brees in the second half: He's completed at least 20 passes in 30 straight games. All I could think when I saw that is that Tim Tebow has a long way to go.
j. Brilliant play call by Cam Cameron, the pitch to Ray Rice, and lefty touchdown pass by Rice to Ed Dickson.
k. Players ending in "kowski'' for the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski and Steven Gostkowski combined for 23 points, enough to outscore the Jets Sunday night.
l. The Bears, who back down from no one.
m. Marshawn Lynch, Sunday's definition of workhorse. Thirty-two carries, 109 hard yards in the win over Baltimore.
n. Good find, Niners, in Carlos Rogers.
o. I don't remember ever seeing Karlos Dansby not playing hard. Ten tackles, a sack and an interception in the game against Washington.
a. San Diego's depth. Both lines got abused by the Raiders.
b. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark: How do you not break up that touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green? I mean. Polamalu seemed to just watch it happen. Weirdly irresponsible.
c. Two drops in the first 16 minutes by Jimmy Graham. Rare.
d. It will go down as a Roethlisberger pick, but it should go down as Heath Miller handing a simple catch, bobbled, to a Bengal.
e. I don't like struggling all through the half, being down 16-0, having fourth-and-goal at the five ... and going for the touchdown. If you miss, you're demoralized. You kick the field goal, and you're on the board, two possessions away from the lead. Raheem Morris did it just before halftime -- and failed -- and went into halftime down 16-0.
f. Oct. 9, road: Bucs lost to Niners 48-3. Nov. 13, home: Bucs lost to Texans, 37-9. Has any team ever lost two games by 28 or more and won a playoff game that same season?
g. Thomas DeCoud gets beat for a touchdown and a couple of minutes later makes an easy tackle and celebrates like he just won the Super Bowl. Emote, fine. Be professional, better.
h. Why passer rating is overrated (and maybe this should be the final straw for me to stop using it so much): When Tebow threw his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Eric Decker, he was 2 of 8 for 69 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. His rating: 102.6. Brady's rating for the season: 102.0.
i. Dumb rule of the week: Giving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to a coach (as in Gary Kubiak at Tampa) for throwing the challenge flag on a questionable play ruled a touchdown. Come on. That's not a 15-yard penalty. It's just not.
j. Bad loss for the Bears: Left guard Chris Williams gone, likely for the year, with a dislocated wrist. He had surgery Sunday.
k. The Ravens. Don't give me any excuse about a cross-country trip. Stupid. That is a ridiculous loss.
l. Pats cornerback Devin McCourty. Looked like he hurt his shoulder in a collision late in the game, and before that, he was awful. Mark Sanchez picked on McCourty early and often, and the Patriots really have to be wondering when he's going back to shutdown corner mode, which is what he was most often as a rookie last year.
The other thing that's wrong with the Eagles, I sense, is that not enough guys in that locker room are bleeding with these losses. There's no Brian Dawkins, no Jeremiah Trotter, just a bunch of new guys playing together for the first time.
I wondered whether that might have made any difference on draft day. It's impossible to draw any significant conclusions, but it's interesting. In the last eight years, Penn State has won eight more games than Iowa, but Iowa has had three more players drafted (29-26) by NFL teams.
a. There will never be any doubt in my mind that this whole story could have, and should have, been exposed in 1998, when the district attorney of Centre County, Pa., where the university is located, failed to take solid evidence of Jerry Sandusky's relationship with a young boy to a grand jury. That DA, Ray Gricar, never said why -- even though Sandusky was confronted by the mother and tacitly admitted something had happened and said, "I wish I were dead,'' which was overheard by two eavesdropping officers. (Gricar disappeared in 2005 and hasn't been heard from since.) Even if Sandusky had been tried and found innocent, the trial would have cast a spotlight on Sandusky . Who knows how much of the other alleged abuses could have been prevented if Sandusky knew after 1998 the world was watching him?
b. There is a weight of supposition that Paterno should have done something more than he did when his grad assistant, Mike McQueary, told him he witnessed Sandusky with a young boy in a shower at Penn State in 2002. McQueary told Paterno about it the next day -- though what precisely he told Paterno is not crystal clear. McQueary told the grand jury he witnessed Sandusky raping the boy. Paterno told the grand jury that McQueary told him of Sandusky "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature.''
Paterno waited until the day after that to notify his superiors of McQueary's report. Paterno said the other day, "I wish I had done more.'' The weight of evidence is piling up that Paterno should have done more, and he's going to have to bring some compelling reasons why he should not be found exceedingly morally negligent in the case, at the least.
The reason I refuse to bury him yet is there is no need to. There's a need to know more first. What precisely did McQueary tell Paterno? I mean, precisely. That's unclear. I've had football people tell me in the last few days just what Barry Switzer said the other day: Paterno had to know what was going on with Sandusky over the years, and the same with members of the staff. They had to know. I think there's a good chance that is true. But do we know Paterno knew? No.
And what of the evidence that Paterno and Penn State buried the truth about Sandusky after the 2002 incident, enabling more years of the alleged abuse to happen? Certainly the university's sanction of Sandusky -- reporting him to his children's charity and taking away his keys to the locker room and telling him not to bring children on campus -- is laughably light if they believed what McQueary told them. But does this fall on Paterno? There will be time to sift through everything at trial, and to see what blame lies with Paterno.
c. I don't think this should be a country of guilty until proven innocent, and I'm having a little problem with the angry national supposition that Sandusky is suspect 1 and Paterno 1a.
d. I do think Paterno should have been fired, as I said, because the university had to draw a line in the sand and (though it hasn't done so yet) say a new football program will have to be built from scratch.
e. Should Sandusky be found guilty of these horrific crimes, there will be scores of people with scarred reputations for eternity, including one presumed-dead prosecuting attorney.
a. St. John's starts a JuCo transfer named God's gift Achiuwa. He is from Nigeria. His father is a minister, and God's gift was named for the family's devotion to God.
b. I worry about the NHL. Last week, on the same night, all starting at 7 p.m., three teams within 35 miles -- the Islanders, Rangers and Devils -- all dropped the puck. And 97 miles south of the Devils' rink in Newark, the Flyers played. Also at 7.
c. And Quebec City can't get a team?
d. I Rick-Perried on Friday night on our NBC SportsTalk NFL preview show on Versus, stammering until I remembered Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik's name. Thing is, I remembered.
e. Had fun Friday night at the Rawlings Gold Glove awards in Manhattan. Three observations: Mark Buehrle looks like a bowler from the Midwest, which he is ... The guy who got the loudest ovation of the night would surprise you. Yadier Molina ... I could not stop howling at Jerry Seinfeld's 50-minute set. Never saw him do standup live. Big mistake. "One thing I got out of the 2011 season as a Mets fan: Found out there are three Gatorades,'' he said, and revved into how, for years, the "green bilge water'' (his words) sufficed, and now we have to drink something before, during and after our workouts to survive. You had to be there.
f. Weirder casting job: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe? Or Leonardo (I Was Just The Kid in
g. Coffeenerdness: Too many baristas in Manhattan get Starbucks drinks wrong. Some of these stores are so overrun with customers that the assembly-line-ness of it all must get to them. They hurry, they err, and all you want to do is get out of there so you don't make a big deal that the barista has screwed up the drink.
h. Beernerdness: Not a big beer week for me. Don't you just hate when work intrudes on life? But any bar/restaurant that has Allegash White from Portland, Maine (the best white beer I've tasted) is OK with me ... and there are two of them within 10 blocks of me on the east side of Manhattan. Lucky me.
j. Long live Wilson Ramos. Glad you're still alive.
k. Jonathan Papelbon? I'll miss him. But at some point, I'm glad to see some slight fiscal responsibility for a guy who was pretty adventurous a quarter of the time, maybe more.