Eleven main characters from an eventful Week 11 that had its share of drama.
The words "Belichick'' and "karma'' kept coming back from the ether, and I cannot argue. I've always thought the capriciousness of Belichick's early- and mid-fourth-quarter lineups in Patriot routs were his only weak points as a coach. It's bizarre to me that with a 28-point lead and 7:37 left in the fourth quarter Tom Brady was in the game -- and throwing twice -- to stretch the lead to 35. With a 31-point lead midway through the fourth quarter against the Rams in Week 8, backup Ryan Mallett entered the game. Good for him, and good for the Patriots long-term, to get the raw backup some playing time. So you'd think, then, that I'd view Gronkowski's injury in that same critical light. I don't.
Coaches have 45 active players each game. They don't have a "second team'' of the point-after-try unit. The PAT is one of the most risk-free plays in football. Rodney Harrison, the former Patriots safety now in the NBC studio with me on Sunday nights, didn't get taken off the kickoff team in routs. And Tony Dungy, who coached the Colts and Bucs, told me: "Jeff Saturday was my right guard on the PAT team, and I'd never think of taking him off. All my years in football, I never heard anyone, never heard Chuck Noll saying, 'Well, we better get Jack Ham off the PAT team.' It's not something I'd question."
Whatever, the Patriots lose Gronkowski for an important stretch (at Jets, at Dolphins, Houston, San Francisco), and from the looks of it, even if they do appear to be the best team in football right now, it's going to be tough to move past Baltimore and Houston and get a first-round playoff bye in the AFC.
"This is not about being a tough guy,'' said Fuller, who has neither examined Roethlisberger nor seen his X-rays or scans. So he made it clear he was speaking generally about the dislocation of the first rib, which is connected to the breast bone on one side and the spine on the other. A throwing motion, he said, would not allow the rib to heal, and he would not recommend it any time soon. "Playing football with a dislocated first rib would put you at severe risk. There are many things to be concerned about, including destroying the nerves in the arm.''
Fuller said he thought Roethlisberger would miss a minimum of four weeks. "I do remember their coach, Mike Tomlin, not allowing that safety [Ryan Clark] to play in altitude in Denver because of his sickle-cell disease,'' Fuller said. "That is a good sign, to me. I believe he won't risk the health of Roethlisberger."
Meanwhile, back at Heinz Field ... Ravens 13, Steelers 10. They meet again in 13 days, and from what we saw of Byron Leftwich after the first drive of the game (he suffered a bruised rib at some point in the contest), Baltimore will be a confident group if Roethlisberger doesn't play. Pittsburgh's last 12 drives featured eight punts, a fumble, an interception and a field goal.
I kept watching Sunday night and thinking about what the game must have been like for Suggs, who tore his Achilles in April, was told it'd be nine to 12 months before he could put full pressure on the Achilles and sprint, only for Suggs to return after six. "Tonight,'' he said an hour after the game, "I was very emotional. I got to the stadium early and went out before the circus started. You know how these games are, and I just thought, 'Prayer really does work. I'm here. I'm playing.' Because when it first happened and I saw the doctor, he said nine months to a year, and the world just shook. I wasn't thinking about Ravens-Steelers, I was just thinking, 'How am I going to get back faster than that?' ''
It was a classic Steelers-Ravens game. Ray Rice, 20 carries, 40 yards. Just 511 total yards of offense in 126 plays ... everything a battle. Suggs got two pressures of Leftwich in his 70 plays -- he played all but two defensive snaps. I was surprised to hear what he said when I asked him what this win, even against a depleted Steelers team, said about the Ravens. "It doesn't say nothing,'' Suggs said. "They got what we want -- all the championships. Nothing means anything to us 'til we get those. We gotta catch 'em in the ring race, then we'll be able to talk."
"It's crazy,'' Johnson told me from the Texans' locker room. "I don't know what to say. I didn't know something like that would ever happen.'' Heck, it may never again. The story in Houston's 43-37 overtime win was the crazy overtime. Houston kicked a field goal. Jacksonville kicked a field goal. Schaub threw an interception. Jacksonville -- correctly, I thought -- went for it and failed on 4th-and-10 from the Houston 47? (Really, what do you have to lose when you're 1-9 and there's two and a half minutes left to play and you're tied against the top team in the conference? Go for the win.) On the second play after that, Schaub threw a wide receiver screen to Johnson on the right side of the formation, and Johnson ran 48 yards for the winning touchdown.
Johnson said he's fully healthy for one of the first times in recent years, and he's able to practice and go through the normal drill work he's had to miss because of two knee scopes and a bad hamstring injury over the past two seasons. "My stride is opening up,'' he said. "I feel like I have my legs back, my explosion. I can't tell you how many OTAs, how many training camp practices, how many regular practices I missed. I feel like I've been battling so many injuries the last two or three years.'' Schaub threw to Johnson 19 times Sunday, and look for numbers like that to be the rule, not the exception, down the stretch.
I asked Ellenbogen about what I find to be a smart proposal by the players association -- the adoption of a rule that would have an independent neurologist on the sidelines for all NFL games. He said he didn't like the idea, comparing it to showing up for surgery and having a surgeon you'd never met before do the operation. He said team physicians on the sidelines know the players and can best understand what is happening to them medically. Agreed, but there's also the chance that a team-employed physician is going to have the best interests of the team at heart over the player. Seems the argument over that slippery slope has been going on for years.
One other interesting note from Ellenbogen, the chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He attended a FIFA-sponsored conference on head trauma three weeks ago in Zurich and came away with respect for rules. That's right: rules. "Rules count,'' he said. "When the NFL changed the spot where teams kick off from, injuries went down 40 percent in a year. In soccer, FIFA outlawed elbowing in head-balls, and concussion rates were reduced significantly. When people say all these rules are ruining the game, I say, 'No they're not. They're making the game safer.' " Ellenbogen said to me at one point he wasn't paid by the NFL. I asked him why he did the job. "Good question,'' he said. "My wife would really like to know that. Two reasons. One, if I took $100,000 to do the job, then I lose all my credibility; everything I say, you could say, 'Well, what do you expect? He works for the NFL.' Two, the trickle-down effect. If the NFL can work with the IOC and some of these international sports federations to institute rules and programs to make games safer, then we all win. I went to Roger Goodell and [legal counsel] Jeff Pash, and I asked for $75,000 to give to the Centers for Disease Control, to put a sort of concussion [recognition] course on the site for coaches and parents. They said sure. Now that's the CDC's most hit-upon site.''
"You don't really have many options,'' said Freeman, considering the pass rush and the clock and the need for a touchdown and not a field goal and the physicality of Jackson to fight off defenders to make the catch if he needs to. "You just gotta go. It was remarkable.'' We forget Freeman is 24 years old. He's six months younger than Ryan Tannehill. He's with a new head coach, Greg Schiano; a new quarterback coach, Ron Turner; a new offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan; with a new franchise receiver in Jackson, a new tight end in the rejuvenated Clark and a new franchise running back in Doug Martin. And here comes Freeman off a terrible 2011, playing the best football of his pro life. "What we've learned so far this year,'' said Freeman, "is all that matters is battling. Games are 60 minutes, longer sometimes, and we know we've got the players to make sure we can win in the end.''
Well, I did the all-time stupid thing Saturday. Thought I was direct-messaging agent David Canter on Twitter Saturday, asked him to call me, and, much to my terror, found it went to all of my followers. I bet it was up for six seconds before I took it down, but that was long enough to enable quite a few loyal Peter Kingites (and gee, thanks, Deadspin) to post the number all over the place. The final results:
Phone calls received in the five hours between posting and canceling of the number: 373.
Text messages received in that time: 255.
Angriest text message, from the 773 (suburban Chicago) area code: "You ------- skunkheaded ------. Go ---- Favre. Have a nice day."
Love my fans!
Since their 1-3 start, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone 5-1 and averaged 34 points a game in doing so. On the face of it Josh Freeman's 94.6 quarterback rating and 21-7 touchdown-to-interception differential seem to indicate a substantial reason for the turnabout, but that would be too simple; Freeman's season (and his performance here) has been far more enigmatic than that.
Freeman deserves tremendous credit for elevating his game, with the arrival of trusted veterans like Clark and Jackson. The Buccaneers have already exceeded most expectations and can go even further this season ... but Freeman's play is not without flaws. If he is to take the next step as one of the game's best quarterbacks, he needs to clean up his short game and become more efficient between zero and nine yards.
"At this point, talking about the playoffs seems inappropriate."
Even if the Chargers go 6-0 down the stretch, Denver would have to go 2-4 or worse for San Diego to win the division.
"In the locker room after the game, the way they were just dancing around and acting. The enthusiasm is so raw. It's just awesome. They are so passionate ... I just love the college game. I love the pageantry. I loved that both teams were in their home uniforms. I thought that was so awesome. I just got a kick out of watching their student body and our student body. I can't wait to hug my mom, shake my dad's hand and kiss my kids."
"That's the old rule number one you never do. You're in your 15th year, and you kind of just say, 'Who gives a ----.''
Manning sounded like a coach often in the miking, gathering his offensive mates at one point and barking: "Let's address this now, so we don't do it at the end of the game and say, 'This is what went wrong.' We've made mental errors on every single play. I don't have to review 'em, right? There's not one thing they've done to stop us, right? Do our jobs better, and we'll execute. All right? Let's go. Hone in."
Shawne Merriman, who had his first sack of the season Thursday night for Buffalo, averaged 13.2 sacks per year in his first three NFL seasons. He's averaged 1.2 sacks per year in his last five seasons.
The quarterback coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Clyde Christensen, has tutored Peyton Manning and now Andrew Luck, but he has been around defensive greatness in his life too. For two years in college, when he was a backup quarterback at the University of North Carolina, he roomed with Lawrence Taylor in a Chapel Hill dorm.
Three of them:
• Nov. 14. Step on the Hertz bus at O'Hare. Andy Williams and a chorus are warbling. "
• Ten-letter billboard, huge, on I-65 south on the drive to Indianapolis, somewhere around Valparaiso: "HELL IS REAL." Yikes!
And this: There's a Starbucks in downtown Indy, on the circle surrounding the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and I pulled up behind an Indianapolis police officer in front of it, put my flashers on, and ran in to get coffee. On my way out, five minutes later, the officer rolls down his window and says to me, "That your car?''
"Yes,'' I said.
"Need your driver's license,'' he said. "I can't believe you did that, right behind a cop. You parked in front of the hydrant.''
"My God, I never saw it,'' I said. "What an idiot I am."
He took my license, wrote out the ticket, handed it to me, and I said, "Sorry.'' I got in the car, and as I got set to leave, the officer got out of his car and gave me the stop sign, walking to the passenger window. I rolled it down.
"Give me that ticket,'' he said. "You were just in there for a couple minutes.''
"No, I did it,'' I said. "It's OK. My fault.''
And I started to realize: This man is about to rip up a ticket, for whatever reason, and I'm trying to argue him out of it?
Play idiot much?
Officer: "No, I'll take it. Just come back and see us. Say nice things about our city."
Me: "Hey, thanks a lot."
Say nice things about Indy, the greatest city on the face of the earth, kind sir? Sure thing!
"Rivers is to turnovers what an ATM is to cash ... just keeps giving it away."
"Good job today #NYJETS for beating up on Shotty n the #RAMS''
"Sanchez lookin good! Don't let me see 15 back on the field ..."
"Anonymous Jets: Mother Teresa "terrible."
"I'm sick about this crap. Philly is my home. I feel like I'm letting my family down"
a. Kyle Williams and Jairus Byrd. Two Bills who never give up.
b. A.J. Green on end-zone fades. He can catch 'em one-handed, in a physical mismatch, whatever.
c. I was totally wrong about Nick Folk. I thought he should have been cut in camp, but he continues to kick well, as he did with a 51-yard field goal in the first quarter at St. Louis.
d. Phil Dawson -- with his fifth 50-yard-plus field goal of the season Sunday in Dallas -- now has a comfortable lead as the NFL's 2012 All-Pro kicker.
e. Justin Blackmon, with a preview of the future if Jacksonville ever gets a quarterback worthy of him, with a 63-yard catch.
f. Good pursuit of Tony Romo, Juqua Parker. Good-looking Cleveland D in The House That Jerry Built.
g. Arian Foster's in-traffic cuts. Things of beauty. How'd this man not get drafted?
h. Rip the Jets for some bad draft picks if you will, but Muhammad Wilkerson (first round, 2011) is not one of them. Second straight week with a big play in the opponents' backfield, this time a strip of Sam Bradford that helped turn the tide in the Jets' win.
i. Dezman Moses, with a great strip of a scrambling Matthew Stafford.
j. Running back on the all-underrated team from Sunday: LaRod Stephens-Howling.
k. When you beat Joe Thomas for a sack, that's one you put in your career time capsule, DeMarcus Ware.
l. A major-league goal-line stoning of Jags running back Jalen Parmele by Houston inside linebacker Bradie James.
m. Play of the Day: The catch by Santana Moss with two Eagles all over him, turned into a touchdown.
n. You're not going to defend a fake-punt play better than Tampa Bay special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky did at Carolina Sunday. The Bucs acted like it was their call, not the Panthers', and sniffed it out easily.
o. You go, Aqib Talib. Great pick. Instinctive 59-yard return for touchdown.
p. You too, Alfonzo Dennard. What a return off Andrew Luck.
q. Great free agent acquisition for San Diego, wideout Danario Alexander.
r. Just my imagination, or does Malcolm Jenkins make a huge defensive play in every New Orleans game -- as he did with an interception returned for TD in Oakland?
a. Announcers who say "Tanney-hill.'' There's no "y'' in the man's name. Short "e'' in Tannehill.
b. Jets defense on 4th-and-goal in the first quarter. Two receivers uncovered in the end zone? Who designed that brilliance?
c. Nick Foles. Lord, what a nightmare for the Eagles.
d. Ryan Lindley was worse. Significantly.
e. Come on, Eagles safeties. That's Aldrick Robinson we're talking about, scoring a touchdown, wide open, on you and your mates.
f. The Arizona tackles. They're going to get people fired on that team.
g. Are you kidding, Dez Bryant? Tiptoeing out of bounds a yard short of a first down with your team down 10-0?
h. Great FOX graphic 26 minutes into Cards-Falcons. "Passing yards: Atlanta 141, Arizona 1."
i. Armanti Edwards wide open on a corner route in the end zone for Carolina. Cam Newton throwing it three yards over his head. There aren't many times when a receiver's that open in the end zone, and when he is, a good quarterback has to hit him.
j. The ridiculous non-booth-review in Carolina just before the half, when Tampa receiver Mike Williams didn't complete the act of a catch, the ball was plucked out of the air by a Panthers defender, and no replay review was initiated from the booth. Williams didn't catch it, and it probably wasn't an interception, but that's a play that has to be reviewed. It certainly was not a catch by Williams, which was the ruling on the field.
k. Michael Turner, who looks like he's running with cement shoes.
l. Tough, tough luck for Brandon Meriweather, who appeared to rip up his knee, not touched, against Philadelphia.
m. Onside kicks aren't supposed to travel 22 yards, Dan Bailey.
n. Please explain that performance against Jacksonville, men of Bum Phillips.
o. Patriots fans booing Adam Vinatieri. You kidding me? Your team chose not to sign him when he got too expensive. He saved your bacon in gigantic playoff game after gigantic playoff game. Stop it. Just stop it.
p. Preview of what I won't like about Week 12? Panthers-Eagles. Monday night. Combined record: 5-15. Start your Jon Gruden coaching rumors early, folks.
The other day on Deadspin, Kluwe ripped the 44 voters for Pro Football Hall of Fame in the kind of piece I thought was reserved for mass murderers, all because we haven't elected Ray Guy to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The voters, Kluwe said, were "indolent cows'' guilty of "heartless effrontery,'' were "selfish, short-sighted, too g-------- lazy to learn the subtleties of kicking,'' "indolent, slothful, petulant, ignorant and flat-out stupid,'' "small-minded,'' "UNWILLING TO LEARN'' (all caps).
Added Kluwe: "This is a player who pinned opposing offenses back inside their 20-yard line instead of simply booting a touchback, winning the battle of field position before anyone realized there was even a fight." And he bleated to the selectors: "How dare you tell a man who devoted his life to perfecting his craft that he's not worthy of admission among the game's greatest?'' A few points from this one lazy cow:
• Re the gall we have for not enshrining a man "who devoted his life to perfecting his craft:" Nowhere in the bylaws of the Pro Football Hall of Fame does it ask selectors to make hard work and endless dedication the key elements for induction. If so, Lawrence Taylor wouldn't be in and Reggie Williams would. Taylor wasn't much for practice, but he showed up on Sunday and played great. Williams, the longtime Bengals linebacker, was one of the hardest workers in any walk of life I've ever seen. A nice player, but no one would mistake him for a Hall of Famer. Did Ray Guy work harder than Dave Jennings or Tom Blanchard or Reggie Roby? No clue. Nor does it matter.
• Re Guy pinning opponents back so consistently: In the 11 years Guy played that stats were kept on punts inside the 20-yard line, he had 210 such punts, an average of 19.1 per season. In two of those years, there were 14 games played, and in another year, because of a strike, there were nine games played. So it's not exactly apples to apples to compare his number to those recorded by today's punters -- and, certainly, there's more emphasis on dropping balls inside the 20 now. But last year, 13 punters had 25 or more punts land inside the 20; in 2010, 16 punters had at least 25 punts inside the 20. I'm not convinced 19 punts a year inside the 20 is special, in that day or this one.
• Kluwe points out that Guy never had a punt returned for a touchdown. That is a tremendous accomplishment. Give Guy credit.
• I'll remind you, Kluwe, of something you forgot to mention because it didn't fit your plotline: Gross punting average is not the only important stat for punters, to be sure. But it's how history judges punters, the same way batting average judges hitters. It may not be the best judge, but can you say it's meaningless? Ray Guy's career gross punting average is 42.4 yards, good for a 78th-place tie on the all-time list.
• I've always wondered why no one ever asks with the same intensity as is done for Guy, "Why isn't Jerrel Wilson in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?'' Maybe it's because he didn't hit the gondola in the Superdome with a punt once, as Guy did, according to legend. I don't know why else Wilson and Guy wouldn't be discussed with the same fervor. Wilson played 217 games, mostly for Kansas City. Guy played 207, all for Oakland. Wilson out-averaged Guy, 43.0 to 42.4. Each won three punting titles, Wilson with averages of 44.8, 44.8 and 45.5, Guy with averages of 42.2, 43.8 and 43.3. (Wilson also won two American Football League punting titles before Guy was a pro.)
• As for the future of punters in the Hall of Fame -- of course, there are none now -- I'm open to one or more being in. I think Shane Lechler's body of work will be worthy of discussion for Canton someday; no one who punted for at least a decade is closer than two-and-a-half yards to Lechler's 47.6-yard career average. I think, as far as kickers go, Adam Vinatieri has a very strong case because of his string of clutch playoff kicks over the past 11 years.
So don't think I won't vote for a punter or kicker (if I'm still on the committee). I believe in special teams' impact on the game; I have long supported Steve Tasker's case, because I believe he's the best special teams player in NFL history, and special teams is worthy of being represented in the Hall.
I'm all for a healthy debate on all subjects Hall of Fame, which you know if you read this column and follow me on Twitter. I like to consider all angles, and not just the incendiary ones. We're not out to get punters. We're out to be fair. Kluwe doesn't think we are, and if he can present further evidence to show me I'm wrong, I'll listen.
Finally, I'm disappointed in Kluwe. I like him. He's the kind of independent voice football, and all of sports, needs. His column in Deadspin is beyond mean-spirited things. It's the kind of thing you'd pen to read at the trial of the men who dismembered your mother with an ax.
I'm open to hear your thoughts on all of it. I'll print some of the best emails in my Tuesday column.
a. Congrats to Cornell wideout Luke Tasker, son of Steve, for a great senior year at Cornell: 75 catches, 1,207 yards, 16.1-yard average. Chip off the old special teamer.
b. Personal college football note of the week: Take a bow, Dick Ebersol. You're the one who always believed Notre Dame could get back to the top of college football.
c. No Matt Barkley Saturday ... I mean, how can Notre Dame not play Alabama for the national title in a month and a half?
d. Good luck editing the
e. Great line: "I don't know who deserves more blame: Western Carolina for taking the money, or Alabama for scheduling Western Carolina." That's from NBC studio host Jimmy Roberts, showing highlights of the game between national power Alabama and one of the worst teams in the NCAA FCS, formerly NCAA I-AA, Western Carolina.
At the time the highlights were shown, Alabama had possessed the ball five times and had a 35-0 lead; the final score was 49-0. Roberts also had one of the best stats I heard all weekend: In its last 27 games, Western Carolina is 2-0 against 1,200-student Mars Hill (N.C.) and 0-25 against all other teams. Western Carolina got a check for $475,000 for playing the game Saturday.
f. Welcome to the world, Asa Cormier. You've got a good big sister and a couple of great parents. They'll never lead you astray.
g. Coffeenerdness: Woman in the Indianapolis Airport Friday, in front of me in line at the Starbucks in the rotunda/lobby before the security gates, was just finishing some kind of frappucino, a huge one, and got to the front of the line. "Grande pumpkin spice latte, with four extra shots.'' So ... you've finished a 16-ounce frap, loaded with caffeine, and now you're getting a pumpkin drink, which normally has two shots of espresso, and now you're getting six shots. Wow. I wonder if she's been to sleep since.
h. Beernerdness: Had the pleasure of the Strand Brewing Company's (Torrance, Cal.) 24th Street Pale Ale, a tan ale, filled with malt. Bitter, but a very easy drink. Liked it a lot.
i. All this talk about Twinkies makes me want one. Like, now.
j. Glad to see you're feeling better, Mike Ditka. Football's not the same without you.
Fatsis has written an
Fatsis quotes NFL head-trauma adviser Dr. Robert Cantu as saying he's proposed to ban tackle football until kids are 14. Writes Fatsis: " 'Youngsters are not miniature adults,' Cantu said. For starters, he explained, their brains are not fully myelinated, meaning their nerve cells lack the complete coating that offers protection. That makes them more susceptible to concussions and means they recover more slowly from them than adults. Cantu said children have big heads relative to the rest of their bodies and weak necks, creating a 'bobblehead-doll effect' that elevates the risk of concussion. They typically play in the oldest equipment, with the least educated coaches, and with little or no available medical care.''
Football wouldn't likely die if kids didn't play until they were in high school, or if only flag football were allowed at an earlier age. Just a couple of weeks ago, I spoke with the man who might be the Offensive Rookie of the Year this season, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin. He never played a football game 'til he got to high school. The point about the future of football that I think everyone should realize is this: All options are on the table.