Behind Pagano appearance, Colts continue Hollywood-worthy season
Current events: This morning, Chuck Pagano checks into an Indianapolis hospital for a second round of leukemia treatment. Tomorrow, we vote. And for a long time -- weeks, months, years -- the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut region battered by Hurricane Sandy rebuilds and heals.
We start with the story in Indianapolis that seems too surreal -- and good, for now -- to be true. Six weeks ago, after the Colts lost to Jacksonville to fall to 1-2, coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. On Sunday, before the Colts faced Miami in what had suddenly become a game with playoff implications, Pagano showed up in front of the team for the first time since his diagnosis. He spoke to the team before the game, and then after the 23-20 win, and if you haven't seen
Appearing tired and slightly thinner than when the team last saw him, Pagano spoke, his voice quivering at times. "I've got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it," Pagano said. "It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision is that I'm living to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then lift the Lombardi Trophy several times.''
And then the interim coach and friend of Pagano, Bruce Arians, had all the players put their hands in the middle, enveloping Pagano. Kids on third-grade soccer teams do the thing Arians called for next.
"Chuck on three!'' Arians shouted. "One-two-three CHUCK!!!!!"
Somebody has to make a T-shirt of that. It's the coolest saying in sports right now.
"Coach Pagano's a inspiration,'' Andrew Luck told me after the game. "When I found out this morning he'd be here, I was giddy. Excited. Jacked to see him in the flesh. We all were. I love him. We all do."
The Colts often this year have looked like colts, just learning how to gallop. Chicago pasted them. The Jets, who don't rout anyone, embarrassed them. But since Pagano got sick, the Colts, somehow, are 4-1. Margin of victory in those four wins: three, four, six and three points. They find a way. I'll write more about Luck's record-setting day -- with an NFL-rookie-record 433 passing yards -- and how the Colts are winning tomorrow. It's Hollywood Day today.
"The whole story's for Spielberg,'' Arians, sounding a little misty himself, told me Sunday night. "I can't explain it. No one can. I just know this: I tell Chuck, 'You coach your ass off from the couch, and we'll handle the rest. Don't worry. The job's gonna get done.' "
The story doesn't have a happy ending. Yet. Not for the Colts, and not for Pagano. "This next round of treatment's going to be brutal,'' Arians said. "He could be down and out for a while. But he felt good today, and so he wanted to come in and see the guys. It helped, big time. It's good for him, good for us.''
Then Arians gave me a surprise.
"The goal is to get Chuck on the field December 30th,'' Arians said. "I don't know if it can happen, but that's the goal.''
Final home game of the year. Houston at Indianapolis. The new power of the AFC South coming to town -- maybe with a playoff spot on the line for the little-engine-that-could Colts.
Memo to my bosses at
On Sunday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the contract extension Sean Payton purportedly agreed to in 2011 never was approved by the league office, and Payton will become a free agent at the end of this season, when his year-long league suspension for involvement in the Saints bounty scandal expires. On FOX, Jay Glazer, who is close to Payton, quoted Payton as saying he "absolutely plans'' to stay with the Saints, and the Saints, angry that the story leaked in the first place, insisted Payton was going nowhere other than on their coaching payroll in 2013 and beyond.
But the fact that the story got out tells me a few things. It's no lock that Payton will stay a Saint; if it were, he'd have agreed to a rewritten deal by now. Payton, despite his charred reputation from being the only coach in league history to be suspended for a year, would be sought after in the offseason if he chose to enter the market, with possible head-coaching vacancies in Dallas and Philadelphia looming largest.
And if he does leave, owner Tom Benson will likely feel betrayed -- unless Payton convinces him for family reasons he is best off in Dallas, where his family has relocated. Benson has been hugely supportive of Payton this offseason, leasing him an office and making sure he's tethered to the organization so he can make a smooth transition back to the team once his suspension is up.
Many of the possible coaching openings would be good fits for Payton. I doubt sincerely the Chargers could compete financially in Payton's $8-million-a-year league. I doubt sincerely Payton and the conservative Clark Hunt, Kansas City's owner, would be a good match. Ditto Payton and Carolina's owner Jerry Richardson. He has no connection with new Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, though Haslam could be very aggressive if he decides to go all-in to try to get him.
That leaves New Orleans, Dallas and Philadelphia. If Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fires Andy Reid at the end of the season, Payton, who coached quarterbacks in Philly in 1997 and '98, would be intriguing to him, and I believe Lurie would try hard to get him. It's a Lurie kind of move, trying to head off Dallas at the pass and take the kind of jump with a playoff-ready team that would give them a chance to break out of their recent malaise.
Schefter reported the league quashed the contract submitted by the Saints last year because it contained a clause that said if GM Mickey Loomis left the team, Payton could be free to leave too, even if his contract still had time on it. That'd be a bad precedent for the league, a coach having the right to void his deal if some member of the front office were no longer in the house.
Would Payton be willing to trade that clause for money? Would Payton really consider abandoning Drew Brees with four years left on the great Brees' new contract when the coach returns in 2013? Could the Saints' current situation -- a troubled defense with a bloated future salary cap -- have a major impact on what Payton does? Will the Saints, battered and bruised by the mass suspensions and awful defensive performance through the first half of the season, feel pressured to do a new deal with Payton soon, with its rabid fan base in full panic mode at the thought Payton might leave? Does Payton feel it's time for him to be near his children every day, instead of being a commuter dad? I'd have liked to ask Payton or his agent, Don Yee, those questions on Sunday, but neither returned my requests for comment.
I do know this: From the time he was suspended last spring, Payton was not afraid of his job prospects. I believe he knew if Benson decided to part ways with him because of the bounty stain, which I don't think Benson wants to do at all, he'd be well-positioned to get a lucrative gig somewhere else.
Payton's a tremendous coach. He's imaginative, and he's a quarterback guru, and he can get players to follow what he says because they know what he says works. In this day and age, modern owners might not like the baggage of the suspension history, but Payton's so good at what he does that they'd deal with it. Happily, for many of them.
Now for the Cowboys. If you saw Jerry Jones' interview with Bob Costas Sunday night on NBC, you saw the Dallas owner give what I'd call a tepid endorsement of his current coach, Jason Garrett. I know Jones really likes Garrett, but the owner also has to be frustrated with the fact that Garrett's just 16-16 in his short career as coach, and 3-5 this season following a soft offensive performance in a 19-13 loss at Atlanta Sunday night. Awful clock management likely cost the Cowboys a good shot at a win at Baltimore three weeks ago, and Tony Romo and his receivers sometimes look as though they're all college freshmen going through orientation together. Jones liked Payton when Payton was on the Dallas staff coaching quarterbacks and the passing game from 2003 to '05, and they're similar people. They work hard and play hard.
Case in point, which you may remember from the 2010 Scouting Combine, from a Monday Morning Quarterback item I wrote then:
I don't know how this story ends. But with the Cowboys on the ropes, and the specter of Lurie facing a nutty fan base tired of the same old story, and with the Saints tired of being the NFL's punching bag, Payton could turn the biggest nightmare of his life into the biggest payday. Stay tuned.
Charles Tillman forced the 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th fumbles of his illustrious 10-year NFL career Sunday in Nashville, where the Bears humbled the Titans 51-20. (It wasn't that close.) At 31, if this is possible for a cornerback, Tillman is an ascending player.
Where I watch the games on Sundays, in the NBC viewing room, I sit next to Tony Dungy, who once had Bears head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with him for five seasons on his Buccaneers coaching staff. "We used to have a turnover period every day in practice,'' Dungy said. The Bears do the same thing now, which is a very good reason why they forced six fumbles Sunday, intercepted one pass (Brian Urlacher returned it for a touchdown) and blocked a punt for a touchdown. The five takeaways pushed the season total through eight games to a league-best 28. Chicago is plus-16 through eight games, a vital reason they're 7-1 and the defensive scourge of pro football right now.
It was intriguing to listen to Tillman afterward discussing the turnover philosophy that runs through the defense, one that
And he did, punching the ball out from wideout Kenny Britt's grasp -- on the first Tennessee offensive play. Tillman is expert at punching the ball when a ballcarrier seems to have it securely held. He did it later in the game with running back Chris Johnson and tight ends Craig Stevens and Jared Cook. The Bears recovered three of the fumbles, turning two into touchdowns. "I guess I have gotten good over the years at punching,'' Tillman said. "And if I don't get the punch or the forced fumble, the majority of the time I get the tackle."
Urlacher told Tillman he wanted to score a touchdown Sunday. (Why not? Seemingly everyone else on defense has this crazy season.) Tillman said he told Urlacher, "Call it, man. The tongue has the power of life and death. Call it, say it, speak it, believe it. He did, and he got in the end zone.''
Then Tillman channeled his inner Iverson. "Our whole motto on defense is 'score,' '' he said. "We practice it every single day. Practice.''
He sounded like Allen Iverson just then, but no one in the media crowd got the message.
"You like that reference?'' he said. "You're supposed to laugh!''
I have a feeling the Bears laughed most of the flight home to Chicago.
"We're treating it just like a home game,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during the week, once it became apparent that Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc with the power grid in New Jersey, and therefore the Steelers couldn't be guaranteed that their Jersey City hotel would have power when they arrived on Saturday.
Tomlin didn't make a big deal of it, which was smart. "A lot more people have a lot more adversity than what we had on this trip,'' Tomlin said. Not only was it not a particularly difficult hardship, it would have sounded absurd to complain about logistics when thousands of people had homes and property destroyed.
Here, then, was the Steeler Sunday schedule:
Time from morning takeoff in Pittsburgh to nighttime landing back in Pittsburgh: 12 hours, 50 minutes.
"It was a challenge for us, because it was different,'' one of the stars of the game, Mike Wallace, told me afterward. "It just seems like a long day. Normally, you have a late game, and you get to sleep a little more and you're more rested for the game. When we got to the hotel, we really were just laying around on the floor or wherever we could find. But it all worked out.''
It's a mark of how meaningless the odd travel day was that the Steelers played their best game of the year. The artistic part of the game might have been better in wins over the Jets and Washington, but this was against the Super Bowl champs, on the road. The Steelers outscored the Giants 14-0 in the fourth quarter and throttled Eli Manning (10 of 24, 125 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) all day.
It had to be a sweet day for Ben Roethlisberger winning the head-to-head with Manning, who was drafted higher than him in the 2004 draft. Roethlisberger played significantly better (21 of 30, 216 yards, two touchdowns and an interception). His well-timed throw to Wallace, who finished it with a 51-yard touchdown, brought the Steelers within 20-17, and then Roethlisberger led a 51-yard drive that ended in an Isaac Redman touchdown run to win it.
"I love this team,'' said Wallace. "We're fighters. This win says we're rolling now."
Rolling, yes. Almost detoured by officials' calls, a big yes. A Keenan Lewis interference call on Victor Cruz gave the Giants 41 free yards when Lewis hardly brushed Cruz. The 70-yard "fumble'' return by Michael Boley that gave the Giants a 14-7 lead
It's always easy to dump on Alex Smith. Is there a young quarterback in NFL history who, in the first 16 games he played as a pro, lost by 39, 35, 38, 41 and 31 points; a quarterback who'd been given up for dead time after time in his star-crossed career; a player who -- after leading his team to the conference title game -- watched his team flirt with another quarterback to take his place, and, in response, took a forlorn free agent trip to the last place he ever wanted to be?
Smith didn't play Sunday; the 49ers had their bye this weekend. But I didn't want the week to get away from us without extolling his virtues after his performance last Monday. His numbers were alarmingly good: 18 of 19 for 232 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions -- and the one incompletion was a clear drop by Delanie Walker.
There was something else notable about his game: Not one of his 19 throws (20, actually, if you count one that was negated by penalty) was off-target. His accuracy, in a word, was stunning. I watched the game again on NFL Game Rewind, focusing on each of the 20 throws, and watching each one several times, running it back and forth. Though he threw short much of the night, he did have completions that traveled 10, 11, 15, 20 and 22 yards past the line of scrimmage. Here's how I graded the 20 throws:
A (perfectly accurate, hitting his receiver in stride): 15 throws
B (accurate, but receiver reached slightly away from body): 3
C (passable, catchable throw; if missed, would have been a drop): 2
D (poor throw that would have been a great catch): 0
F (significantly off target): 0
Smith's two Cs came on his eighth and ninth passes of the game, early in the second quarter. The first was a sliding-on-his-knees catch by wideout Kyle Williams on a low throw that led him well. The second: a crossing route dropped by Walker -- slightly behind him, but Walker erred because he tried to run with it before concentrating on securing it. The final 11 passes (10 As and a B) were all thrown the way quarterbacks are taught: leading the receiver, throwing so the receiver can make significant yards after the catch.
"It's good you noticed that,'' Smith told me. "Putting the ball in the right spot, in the right time, when he's expecting it, is a crucial part of the passing game, I think. So many guys talk about yards after the catch, and I've always believed the quarterback has a huge responsibility there -- it's not just the receiver. A quarterback has to put it on the receiver and give his guys the opportunity to make plays downfield. Joe Montana was great at that. I have a lot of respect for Tom Brady with that now. Watch how he gets the ball to [Wes] Welker in stride, so he can run after the catch.''
It stands to reason, then, that Smith would have a good yards per attempt average. Just how good, I didn't know until I looked. I interrupt this note to bring you ...
Rating the best quarterbacks in football in yards per attempt and accuracy through nine weeks (not including Eagles-Saints tonight) shows Smith, at the NFL's midpoint, is second in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt, two key indicators for quarterback play. Guess who's first in each category? Peyton Manning.
Two other points to make from watching the 49ers passing game:
Randy Moss is a significant presence in the offense, despite have 13 catches in eight games. Perfect example: Late in the first half, Moss took two defenders deep on a corner route -- a coverage error by the Cards -- and left Mario Manningham alone to catch an easy seven-yard out route in stride. Smith threw a nine-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree on the next snap.
I counted three times in the game that Moss almost magnetically took coverage away from sideline throws and gave 49ers receivers big openings. "You definitely have a point there,'' Smith said. "On that play to Mario, I'm reading from the top down there -- Randy on the corner route, where he draws coverage, and then down to Mario, who's open. Since the beginning of the season, we've seen DBs [defensive backs] give Randy respect, and he gets safety help. The last few weeks, he and Vernon Davis, as well, have forced teams to concentrate on taking the big play away. So the money to be made in our offense is underneath."
Hard to pass judgment on this just from watching every play in the passing game one week, but I didn't see receivers show any sign of ego or anger for not getting the ball when open. You know how you see, on iso-camera replays, receivers sometimes waving for the ball, or jumping up and down when they don't get it, or showing some emotion when they think the ball should have come to them? None of that here. Again, don't draw any conclusions based on one rout of the Cardinals.
"I'm telling you, we have a lot of selfless guys, and a great example is Randy,'' said Smith. "Everyone knows he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he has a role here. He blocks in the run game. He does what he's told to do. He's set the tone for our receivers.''
I asked Smith how often Moss has come back to the huddle saying he had an edge on a corner, or how often in an offensive meeting he talked about how some route would be perfect for him against a certain coverage. "Not a single time,'' said Smith. "Never once. Never says, 'I saw this out there -- get it to me.' Nothing like that. The honest truth is he's taken so much pride in things that no one would notice, like the run game, that the other guys have no choice but to follow his lead."
There's a lot to like about the Niners. They've allowed six points or fewer in four of their last five games. The offense knows what it is -- a move-the-chains deal with a smart quarterback who, most importantly, knows who he is. Smith had a crummy game against the Giants and contributed to San Francisco's downfall in a major way that afternoon. But I really like what I've seen out of him this year, mostly. He's as accurate an intermediate passer as I've seen this season. I think he's going to be asset, not a question mark, as the 49ers make a Super Bowl push.
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
This week it's Andrew Luck, who completed 30 of 48 passes for 433 yards (151 yards after the catch), two touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a 105.6 rating. The numbers don't tell the whole story, but in this case they come pretty close. A number of things that make this performance one to remember:
Though he was only sacked once, Luck was hit five times and hurried on many others. Some of his best plays came in the face of pressure as he either evaded it and made a great throw (in the first quarter, stepping away from Olivier Vernon and completing a pinpoint pass to Reggie Wayne on an out) or scrambled and threw on the move, as he did to pick up the first down with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. Overall, under pressure, Luck was 9 of 14 for 165 yards and a touchdown. Rating: 128.6. Outstanding.
Then I come to find out Harbaugh, as part of something called the Visa NFL Fan Offers, is going to allow one fan the chance to sit in on a pregame speech to the team. Those, I'm told, can get rather fiery. I always viewed Harbaugh as a clannish, insulated coach who would want his locker room a sanctum. "Coach is an outside-the-box guy, full of surprises,'' Smith told me. For me, this is one.
The 42-32 victory in Oakland continued to show that Schiano's way on offense can work. He's determined to be able to run the ball for big chunks in a league where offense seems to be increasingly measured by how gaudy their passing numbers can be. After half a season, Schiano has made his mark in a way the Bucs could have only dreamed of when they made him their surprising hire to replace Raheem Morris last winter.
"It looks like we've been bombed."
Christie could have been talking about many different areas between Long Island and the Jersey shore.
"You're givin' 'em the game!!!!!"
"Well, I think so."
"This isn't tennis or golf or even basketball, where three great players, together, can win a championship. This is the ultimate, ultimate team sport, with 22 guys on the field at once, where you need all three phases of the game working for you to win big. For people to say my career's been diminished because I haven't won a playoff game, I say bulls**t! I'm a frickin' tight end, not the quarterback. My career will mean nothing less if I'm never on a team that wins a playoff game."
Luck and Peyton Manning have a little connection in football history, which you probably can understand. They also have this connection: After eight games, Luck and Manning have each passed for 2,404 yards.
Precocious Rookie Quarterback Note of the Week: In Indianapolis Sunday, Luck and Ryan Tannehill dropped back to pass 89 times and threw no interceptions.
Heath Shuler has retired from two incredible careers, and he's only 40.
After Washington drafted him in the first round in 1994 as a quarterback, he lasted four mostly failed seasons in football before retiring in 1998. Back home in his native North Carolina, he ran for Congress in 2006 and won election as a moderate Democrat in the state's 11th Congressional District. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2010, and earlier this year decided to retire at the end of his third two-year term in January.
In a statement announcing his refusal to run again, Shuler said: "I have always said family comes first, and I never intended to be a career politician. I am ready to refocus my priorities and spend more time at home with my wife, Nikol, and two young children.'' The Shulers have a daughter, Island Shuler, and a son, Navy Shuler.
Hmmm. Four years in the NFL. Six years in Congress. The next career should be eight years. But what?
Had some business in Baltimore early Wednesday morning. Left BWI Airport at 6:55 a.m., drove through light traffic back to Manhattan, and got through the Lincoln Tunnel at 10 a.m. sharp. It is 2.4 miles to my apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. I got there at 11:25. Which means:
I drove the first 193 miles in 185 minutes.
I drove the last 2.4 miles in 85 minutes.
There was a lot of traffic in Manhattan Wednesday, as you're well aware, because of the mass-transit shutdown because of Sandy, and the snarl in midtown because of a collapsed crane on a skyscraper. But as I listened to the radio with the horror stories from around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and as I sat for four and five minutes at a time, I couldn't have my usual emotion -- spittin' anger -- at the traffic.
"The fix is in."
"I cannot express how impressed I am with Luck. This guy is the real deal. Clearly he has been groomed well to play ball his whole life.''
"I'm surprised the presidential candidates haven't promised a couple of high NFL draft picks to the Cleveland Browns.''
"Now flipped over to LSU/ALA & this is a great game... Can't go to sleep even tho I have a 3:40am wake up call! #whyilovefball #fb''
"Part # 1: LOYALTY: loy•al•ty: noun, plural loy•al•ties: The state or quality of being loyal; faithfulness to commitments or obligations.
"Part # 2: There are 17 teams with the same record or worse than us. Thanks for being loyal fans....... We'll get it right"
Because this has been a different week where I live, it's a different time for the Ten Things, with the feelings of some Giants fans who went to the game and some who couldn't even think of going Sunday.
a. Thank you for re-signing, David Ortiz.
b. I wouldn't take a chance on Josh Hamilton for more than three years, $33 million. That would mean I wouldn't get him, which would be OK with me. I'd be able to sleep at night.
c. Not a fan of Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri saying after his kicker, Kevin Harper, missed a 33-yard field goal in overtime, "We missed a field goal. That's why we lost the game." What a teammate Sunseri is. Pitt blew a 20-6 lead in the fourth quarter, and Harper made four of five field goals in the 29-26 loss. But he missed the one field goal that would have won it in the second overtime. Everyone who watched the game, and everyone in the Pitt locker room, understands a makeable field goal would have won the game. But to put the spotlight on one guy -- that's not what the quarterback on a team should do.
d. There's a reason I never hear Les Miles' name when there's talk of how certain college coaches would fit in the NFL.
e. LSU leads Alabama in the 59th minute and gives the Tide the best game, by far, it's had to survive in over a year. And the coaches poll in
f. Congrats to Mark Waller and his crew at the NFL for putting together, on very short notice, the 30-second PSA urging TV and web viewers to send money to help the recovery efforts. These were the PSAs narrated by Osi Umenyiora and Eli Manning that were invented Thursday and Friday by Waller and his staff.
It started when Roger Goodell called Waller into his office Thursday morning and said he wanted to do something special for a PSA on Sunday. "Great,'' said Waller. "Which PSA do you want to run?'' Goodell said: "The one you're going to create." So Waller got a 30-second spot together, and Tracy Perlman from his office got Manning and Umenyiora to record narrations at Giants offices Friday afternoon. Let's hope the stark images of the PSA get people to give.
g. Coffeenerdness: I couldn't figure out why, walking Bailey around Tuesday afternoon in the desolate city, after the storm, I saw 10 or so people outside a Starbucks with their laptops in one hand, or seated on the sidewalk with laptop in lap. Then I figured they must be using the wireless. Good citizenship by Starbucks, if it indeed was intentional to leave the WiFi up and running for desperate people to use.
h. Beernerdness: Had a chance the other night to sample a couple of Flower Power IPAs from the Ithaca (N.Y.) Beer Company, and it's one of the best IPAs I've ever tasted. Dry, easy to drink, with a faint scent of pine. Great beer.
Steve Politi, the entertaining, often poignant, terrific sports columnist for the
As for the game tonight:
Morning, Jersey Shore.