I’ve got a lot to say about the insanity of this season, about the Cowboys being up and the Seahawks down, about the Patriots being left for dead on the side of the road and now this, about Aaron Rodgers pulling the Dan Marino fake spike in the House That Dan Built, and I will soon. But the top of the Week 6 column belongs to the Cleveland Browns.
The contending, competent, fun, just-might-be-for-real Cleveland Browns.
One factoid before I go there, to tell you that no matter how much you know about football, you actually do not know jack. Remember opening night, Sept. 4? A nation turned its eyes to Seattle, and the Seahawks looked only slightly less scary-good than they did in last season’s Super Bowl. Seahawks 36, Packers 16, and the story line for the next week was something like this: Yeah, we know no one ever repeats in the NFL, but this year’s different. Seattle’s unstoppable. No weaknesses. Everyone who didn’t pick Seattle to repeat, change your picks now.
Seattle since the opener:
Points scored: 97.
Points allowed: 97.
I’ll get back to Seattle, but now it’s time for the only other team that will exit Week 6 with a 3-2 record.
* * *
Ben Tate led a Browns rushing attack that imposed its will on the Steelers defense. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
You are now permitted to get excited, Cleveland.
When’s the last time things broke right for the Browns? I mean, really broke right. And 2007, when the Browns won 10 games, really doesn’t count, because it was a fool’s gold kind of season; the Browns won 4, 5, 5, 4, 5 and 4 games in the six seasons to follow.
Not to say this 3-2 start signals anything permanent, or that Brian Hoyer is Kurt Warner reincarnated. But it’s going to take some getting used to, the Browns looking like a respectable NFL franchise.
“Even our fans don’t know quite how to react,” coach Mike Pettine told me Sunday night from Cleveland. “It’s uncharted territory for them, and for us. But they were great for us today. When we walked on the field before the game, there was a buzz we all noticed, an anticipation. The place was rocking. Just like I said to the team last night about the crowd and how it can help us: ‘We control the volume in the stadium, based on how we play.’ ”
As he spoke, Pettine was parked outside defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s house. Seems that O’Neil has a newly constructed bar in the home he’s recently moved into. “I’m going to help him break in that bar tonight," Pettine said. Deservedly so. But he didn’t seem in any rush to get off the phone.
The Browns beat Pittsburgh 31-10, and the place went mad with 15 years of pent-up glee. The Steelers have owned the Browns over the years; Ben Roethlisberger, bypassed by Cleveland on draft day 2004, was 18-1 in his career against the Browns entering Sunday. And on this day, the Browns owned Roethlisberger. It was 31-3 early in the fourth quarter, and Roethlisberger was awful, pressured consistently and unable to generate any passing game.
Brian Hoyer, the native son, had another efficient game, and it’s becoming clear the Browns are comfortable with him managing the game because he doesn’t make the kind of killer decisions that most inexperienced passers do. For the fifth straight game, he was in the 200s in passing yards (217, with one touchdown and no interceptions), comfortable enough in his own skin and in the Kyle Shanahan game plan to preside over a grind-it-out scheme. Not many games in the NFL these days feature 68 percent runs for one team, but that’s what this one had for Cleveland, and the 158 rushing yards showed a will that Pettine has wanted from day one when he got the job. Northern teams have to be able to run to win, and this one can. Hoyer’s running the ship so well that the immense story of the summer—When will Johnny Manziel take over the starting job?—has turned into an afterthought now. A single line under the Cleveland roster on the official NFL stat sheet said it all. Did Not Play: QB 2 J.Manziel.
Pettine looked around the postgame locker room, took it in and felt grateful. “There’s no drug like that, no money you can pay to get that feeling. It is special, and we will appreciate it."
“Brian is the best example of a guy who’s confident because of his preparation," said Pettine. “He learned in the Tom Brady school of preparation. [Hoyer was a New England backup from 2009 to ’11.] I doubt there’s a better person to learn from. He knows everything about his opponent. Plus, he has a much better arm than people give him credit for. I have seen it since I got here—he can make all the throws.
“For Johnny, I think it’s the best thing for his career. He can see how a pro prepares and executes an NFL game plan. Nobody’s given up on Johnny. He has made great strides. This is a win-win, because now he can learn the game and not be forced into it before he’s ready. Nothing’s changed for us with him. We’re hopeful he’s going to be our quarterback one day. We just don’t know the day."
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Of course, part of the issue is Hoyer’s looming free agency. The better he plays, and the longer he proves he can be a competent starting quarterback, the more he’s going to want to at least test the market to see what’s out there. “I’m sure we’ll revisit the situation during the year and hope to get something done," said Pettine. “It’s not like we’re not open to negotiations."
Pettine savored his walk off the field after the game, seeing the joy on the faces of fans and his own players. Beating Pittsburgh—no, clobbering Pittsburgh—is a moment he’ll long remember. “It’s just a time to be extremely proud," he said. “The big part of the success for me is that the success we’re having now cements the buy-in by the players. When I got here, when this new staff got here, these guys didn’t have a lot of reasons to trust us. New staff. Not a very well-known head coach. Radical change on both sides of the ball. But what we’ve seen the last two weeks—coming back from 28-3 down last week to win, coming back from two major injuries today to adjust and win, you don’t do those things without being a team.
The injuries: defensive lineman Armonty Bryant suffered a knee injury, and Pettine said he’s likely gone for the year. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, an ironman of the highest order, fractured his leg and might have some ligament damage, which would put him out for the year too. Not having Mack at center was a culture shock for the Browns. Since being drafted in 2009, Mack had played every snap of every Browns game—4,556 offensive plays—until the injury in the middle of the second quarter. “Big, big loss," said Pettine. “But no one’s sending us get-well cards. Everyone has injuries."
When Pettine looked around the postgame locker room, loud music blaring, he took it in and felt grateful. “There’s no drug like that, no money you can pay to get that feeling. It is special, and we will appreciate it."
Now, about things breaking right … check out the schedule Cleveland has before a Thursday night date at Cincinnati in early November that could have quite a bit of playoff meaning:
Sun., Oct. 19: at Jacksonville (0-6)
Sun, Oct. 26: vs. Oakland (0-5)
Sun, Nov. 2: vs. Tampa Bay (1-5)
It wasn’t so long ago (actually, about a month) that the Browns were everyone’s idea of a good Homecoming game. So Pettine’s not going to get cocky, and his players shouldn’t either. But if you thought LeBron coming home was going to be the only bit of good Cleveland sports news this year, it looks like you’d be wrong.
DeMarco Murray is the first running back since Jim Brown with six consecutive 100-yard rushing games to start a season. (John W. McDonough/The MMQB/SI)
On Dallas, DeMarco Murray and what Jerry Jones knew.
The greatest workhorse back in NFL history is Emmitt Smith, who had nearly 600 carries more than any other player in history when he retired in 2004. So it seemed sensible to compare one workhorse Cowboy to another in the wake of Murray’s sixth straight 100-yard game to start the season, a 115-yard job against the best rush defense in the league, Seattle.
Through six weeks, Murray has 159 carries, 43 more than any other back in football. I thought I’d compare his first six games to the back with the most carries ever, just to see how close he is to a truly historic workload. I was surprised by what I saw when I went in search of Emmitt Smith’s busiest six-game start to a season.
Scary, isn’t it? The Cowboys never handed it to Smith as much as these Cowboys are handing it to Murray. I asked Murray last week if he thought he could keep up the crazy pace, and he said, “I think I can. I’m in the cold tub right now.” Well, what else would he say? The big workload is what caused coach Jason Garrett the other day to say he planned to cut down on the Murray reliance. That’s easy to say on a Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday in a nice football office. It’s another thing to get in the mayhem of a game against the Super Bowl champs, at their place, and stick with the conservative plan.
Murray ran it six times in the first quarter in Seattle, eight in the second quarter, six in the third quarter and nine in the fourth. The game was decided in the fourth quarter, and Murray had a big hand in it, as you’d expect. But not the only hand. One of the great catches of this, or any, year bailed out the trailing Cowboys and gave Murray a chance to win it. With five minutes left and Dallas trailing 23-20, the Cowboys had a third-and-20 at their 31. Tony Romo scrambled to his right, ducked out of pressure and threw for second-year wideout Terrance Williams just past the first-down marker. Williams leaped for the ball and snagged it with every fingertip he had; falling out of bounds, he somehow had the presence of mind to lightly scrape molecules of each shoe on the green fibers of fake grass closest to the white sideline. In game speed, there was no way it looked complete. But line judge Mark Perlman ran over and immediately signaled a good catch. Pete Carroll threw his red challenge flag (I would have too), but the replay showed a good catch. Somehow.
Terrance Williams made a spectacular, toe-tapping sideline catch against Seattle. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
A time to save Murray now? Save, schmave. Murray over right tackle for 25. Murray in the right guard-tackle slot for six. And Murray, finishing it off, sliding through the right side again and running 15 yards. Touchdown.
The Dallas defense deserves credit for the win too. It’s hard to make Russell Wilson inefficient. This was only the third time in his young career that Wilson had a passer rating under 50 and completed 50 percent or less of his throws. And the frustration in the Seattle locker room boiled over afterward, with wideout Doug Baldwin snapping at reporters thusly: “We’re frustrated. The offense can’t f------- move the ball. We’ve got too much f------- talent over here to not be moving the ball. It’s not on Russ. I’m just saying in general, our offense, we’re just too f------- good to not be moving the ball down the field."
The Cowboys were able to do what Washington tried and failed to do Monday night: stop the Seattle rushing game from dictating much, and prevent Wilson from finding creases for his improvisational romps for first downs. Dallas has the kind of defensive quickness up front that’s a good antidote for a shifty quarterback.
Which reminds me of my final Dallas point in this man-bites-dog story of the Cowboys ascending the NFL ladder a month after we were convinced they’d be awful this year. On an August Saturday night in South Florida, I talked to Jerry Jones about a few things, including the national perception that his team would stink, particularly on defense.
“You understand what people are saying about you—that you guys will be one of the worst teams in the league?” I asked.
“I’ve heard it,’’ he said, and thought for a moment how to respond. Tactfully. “Quite candidly … they’ll be wrong. You just watch: We’re going to be a lot better on defense than anybody thinks."
Look who’s laughing now.
Aaron Rodgers after throwing the game-winner in Miami. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
You are there.
“On the line! On the line! Clock! Clock! Clock!”
Aaron Rodgers throttled his hand in a pass-spiking motion one, two, three times, looking over the Miami defense as the seconds ticked away in the final minute in Miami.
“I was looking at Davante Adams,’’ he said from the Packers’ bus, on the way to the Fort Lauderdale airport late Sunday afternoon, “but he wasn’t looking at me. In a situation like that, you want to make eye-contact so he knows something might be coming. But not this time. He didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Ball at the Dolphins’ 16. Second-and-six. Miami up 24-20. No timeouts left for Green Bay. Randall Cobb split left. Jordy Nelson in the right slot. Adams wide right, just outside the numbers.
Adams, the rookie from Fresno State, had never been on the field with Rodgers in this situation. “But I’ve been trying to get him more involved in the offense,’’ Rodgers said. “He’s good—going to be good. I told him before the game I was going to get it to him on the first play of the game today. ‘If I see you open, it’s coming.’ I got it to him [for a five-yard gain on the first play of the day].’’
“I saw the corner on that side [Cortland Finnegan], at the last second, back off to about 12 yards off Davante. And I’m thinking there, ‘They’re giving us free yards.’ ” Actually, Finnegan was about eight yards off to start, then walked back to make it about 11. The cushion was just too tempting. But Rodgers knew if he threw to Adams, and Adams didn’t get out of bounds, the game’s over. Did Adams know? You’d think he would, but a rookie?
The snap. Nelson was locked in place, thinking spike. The Dolphins played dead too. Rodgers got small, like he was throwing the ball into the ground.
While moving back and to his right, Rodgers looked at Adams, who, a bit startled, saw Rodgers looking at him and ran two steps off the line. The ball was on him immediately at the Miami 14. Finnegan, also stunned, ran ahead to stop Adams.
“How about that!’’ John Lynch, the FOX announcer, says on TV. “In the home of Dan Marino, he pulls the Marino!” Dan Marino once fake-spiked and threw a touchdown pass to Mark Ingram (the dad, not the son) to beat the New York Jets.
Adams and Finnegan met at about the 11, and Adams, smartly, was already making tracks for the sideline. But all Finnegan had to do was tackle Adams in-bounds. He could have walled him from the sideline and forced him to stay in. But no. The veteran failed to make a veteran move.
Adams was in Finnegan’s grasp as they wrestled near the sideline. He got to the four-yard line before being shoved out.
The play started with Rodgers wanting to get a few free yards. He got 12. And a chance for potentially two throws into the end zone to try to win the game. “Andrew Quarless was telling me during the game that when he was matched up with 53, Jelani Jenkins, he thought he could win. He said, ‘I don’t think that guy can cover me outside,’ ” Rodgers said. Thing was, now it was a different linebacker, Philip Wheeler, on Quarless. Rodgers went there anyway. With Quarless split wide right and running a quick out just past the goal line, Wheeler slipped and Quarless didn’t. The ball was right in his hands. Perfect. Touchdown. Packers win.
“The only way to build trust with your receivers,’’ Rodgers said, “is to trust them to make plays. Work with them, practice with them, show them if they work hard you’re going to them. I told Davante, ‘I’m really proud of you.’ ”
What receiver wouldn’t want to play with Aaron Rodgers?
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J.J. Watt might be the best player in football, but that doesn’t spell “M-V-P”
JJ Watt dominated again on Thursday night, including this scoop-and-score for his third touchdown of the year. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)
“Gotta find a way to do more.”
That’s what J.J. Watt said after he had his latest in a series of MVP-worthy performances Thursday night in Houston’s 33-28 loss to Indianapolis. He was referring to having to do more to help his team win. He could have been referring to his MVP candidacy.
The toughest things for Watt’s uphill climb to the Most Valuable Player award:
No MVP since 1973 has played for a non-playoff team. The last one was O.J. Simpson, understandable after he became the first man to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. The Texans are 3-3 and certainly no lock for the postseason.
The last 17 MVPs have played for teams that won 10 or more games.
No defensive player has won MVP since 1986.
“I think it will be very difficult,’’ said Bill Parcells, who coached the last defensive MVP, Lawrence Taylor, in 1986. “The kid is making his case. But they’re 3-3. He’s going to have to help them be better than .500. Possible [to win it]? It is. Probable? Not really—the game is distorted so much toward the offense right now.”
I covered that Giants team in 1986, for Newsday. Taylor had 20.5 sacks for a 14-2 team, including a four-sack afternoon against the Eagles. As Parcells noted this weekend, Taylor wasn’t simply a wide speed-rusher. He’d take on tackles with power moves and win too. That’s a part of his game that’s never gotten the attention of the speed rush.
But there is no question in my mind that Watt tilts the field the way Taylor did in his prime, and if a defensive player can win MVP, Watt should be a candidate if he continues playing at this level. Being a candidate, though, is not winning it. The MVP is, essentially, a winner-take-all contest. The 50 voters for the award (I am one) vote for one player—unlike, for instance, baseball, where writers vote for 10 players and a point system determines the final winner. So the vote in football is often lopsided, even if there might be three or four candidates who seem worthy and close in achievement.
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In 1986, Taylor’s main competition was running back Eric Dickerson of the 10-6 Rams (1,821 rushing yards) and quarterback Dan Marino of the 8-8 Dolphins. Marino had a tremendous season (4,746 passing yards, 44 touchdowns), but his team didn’t make the playoffs. The Giants had a dominant defense. As I recall, no one was particularly surprised when Taylor won it. The result was expected, especially because the Giants were a punishing defensive team and won 14 of their last 15 games, and Taylor made so may difference-making stops.
“Here’s what I like about Watt,” said Parcells. “When you’ve been a defensive coach all your life, you like those players where the ball just comes to them. Those players—George Martin, Lester Hayes—are just invaluable. They’re always there to make something positive happen around the ball. Watt is like that. He’s athletic, acrobatic, a high-effort player. He’s a mismatch for the offensive linemen who aren’t particularly nifty. He avoids the big hit. Good things are always happening around him, and those are the kinds of players you want to have on your defense.”
For Watt to win, he’ll need some help from his friends—on the Texans’ offense especially.
* * *
How are the Niners doing it?
Fangio has gotten it done with a short-handed unit so far. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
The assistant coach of the year so far? San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is in the discussion. Without two of the Niners’ best three defensive players—linebacker NaVorro Bowman (knee rehab, out for at least another month) and pass-rusher Aldon Smith (due back from league suspension Nov. 16)—and with the secondary having been largely rebuilt (three of four starters from last year are gone), the Niners enter tonight’s game in St. Louis second in the league in yards allowed per game and ninth in points allowed. “We’re missing [defensive tackle] Glenn Dorsey too,” said Fangio. “He’s a really good player. So we’ve had to make a lot of adjustments.” My talk with Fangio Saturday:
The MMQB: You’re as good against the run as you were with Bowman, and you’re holding quarterbacks to a lower rating than the last couple of years without Smith. What’s the reason?
Fangio: We have a standard of play that we’re used to, no matter who we have. If you’re playing, you’re expected to live up to the standard. Sure, we were concerned at the start of the year. Smith and Bowman are terrific players. But some of our new guys have stepped in and played at a high level. [Safety] Antoine Bethea had to come in and replace a productive player, Donte Whitner. We had high expectations for him, and he’s exceeded those expectations. Very solid player, excellent tackler. He quickly earned the respect of his teammates. I think [defensive end] Justin Smith has come back strong. Last year he really played most of the time with one-and-a-half arms. He had a bad shoulder that really affected him, and now he’s healthy and making plays like he always has.
The MMQB: The guy who jumps out to me the last couple of weeks is Aaron Lynch, your rookie pass-rusher from South Florida. How has he made such a big impact?
Fangio: He’s taken that nickel rush position of Aldon Smith and done well. He’s a good system fit for us—good size and speed for an outside linebacker, and a good feel for the game. Even when Aldon comes back, he may have to be gradually built up into game condition, so Aaron is going to be important for us.
The MMQB: Pretty tough schedule for you now—at St. Louis Monday night, and then go to Denver Sunday night to face Peyton Manning.
Fangio: It seems highly unusual to me that a road team on a Monday night is on the road the next week as well. But we take the attitude that it doesn’t matter when you play ’em; you’ve got to play ’em in some order, and just show up and play.
Branden Oliver's 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter helped give the Chargers a win over the Raiders in Oakland. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Fine Fifteen
1. Dallas (5-1). In Fine Fifteen history, I have to say this is one of the biggest surprises I ever recall: the Dallas Cowboys being number one. Many reasons why on Sunday, but the biggest may have been the fact that the Cowboys weren’t supposed to be able to run on the best run defense in football. Thirty-seven carries and 162 yards later, Seattle has to believe.
2. San Diego (5-1). Margins of victory since the opening night loss at Arizona: 9, 12, 19, 31 and 3.
3. Seattle (3-2). Since opening night, mortality.
4. Denver (4-1). Peyton Manning will begin next week's Sunday nighter at home versus San Francisco with 506 touchdown passes. He’ll need three to pass Brett Favre for the most touchdown passes in NFL history. Against these Niners? That’s going to be one tough task.
Tom Brady, who threw four TD passes Sunday, is now 23-2 in his career against the Bills. (Jim Davis/Getty Images)
5. Philadelphia (5-1). I love Zach Ertz. From the look of Nick Foles’ first-half distribution on Sunday night, Chip Kelly loves him too.
6. Arizona (4-1). As Mike Florio said in our little NBC den Sunday night: “Why’d the Steelers ever let Bruce Arians go?" Good question, Mike. Very good question.
7. San Francisco (3-2). There’s a reason the Niners have a dominating 34:38-possession average. His name is Frank Gore.
8. New England (4-2). The loss of Jerod Mayo hurts. Hurts bad. But consecutive 26- and 15-point season-saving wins are a good salve.
9. Green Bay (4-2). The 19-7 loss at Detroit doesn’t seem like it was three weeks ago. More like three months. Three wins and 107 point since then.
10. Indianapolis (4-2). Colts Stat I Like: T.Y. Hilton is averaging 100.7 receiving yards per game this season.
11. Baltimore (4-2). Tough to pick the AFC North, but I’d like to flip a three-sided coin please.
12. Cleveland (3-2). Lots of reasons to like the Browns right now. Quarterback playing well, never out of games, good running game, and a total buy-in to a good coaching staff. They are not going away.
13. Cincinnati (3-1-1). What a rotten eight days for the Bengals, and it leads to questions about how good they really are. They’ve given up 80 points in the last two games. That’s no way to win a division.
14. Detroit (4-2). The defense is saving this team. Forty-four points allowed during the current 3-1 streak.
15. New York Giants (3-3). Those Giants-offense-has-arrived stories can be put away for a while.
Four different receivers caught Joe Flacco's five touchdown passes in the Ravens’ rout of the Bucs on Sunday. (Gary Bogdon/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
DeMarco Murray, running back, Dallas. This was the week Murray was supposed to start getting his carries cut down, for body-saving and strategic reasons. Nope. Running against the Great Wall of Seattle (the best run defense in the league), Murray carried it 29 times—he’s averaging 26.5 rushes per game, 8.8 more than any other running back in the league—for 115 yards, his sixth straight 100-yard rushing game. The Cowboys owned the clock, possessing the ball for more than 37 minutes. Dallas won 30-23, and it could have easily been a 17-point margin but for a couple of Cowboys giveaways deep in their territory.
Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore. Cute line from Flacco post-game: “At one point I was on pace for 16 touchdowns today. Surreal." Sort of. Flacco had four touchdown passes in the first quarter and got his fifth in the second quarter. For the day in Tampa, he was 21 of 29 for 306 yards and a career-high five touchdown passes.
Defensive Player of the Week
J.J. Watt, defensive lineman, Houston. I was reminded of a Julia Louis-Dreyfus line in Seinfeld at the end of the Texans’ 33-28 loss to the Colts, regarding Watt: “I am speechless! I am without speech!" Watt had seven tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, a fumble returned 45 yards for a touchdown that got the Texans back in the game, two more significant pressures and three passes deflected. You cannot have more impact on a game than Watt had against Indianapolis—and the Colts still scored 33 points. That’s got to be disheartening. In six games Watt has three touchdowns—a catch as a tight end, an interception return for touchdown and a fumble return for touchdown; he has outscored Andre Johnson 18-6 this season—and four sacks and nine deflected passes.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Dan Bailey has made 13 of 14 field goal attempts through six games this season. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Dan Bailey, kicker, Dallas. Late in the third quarter, with Dallas down in Seattle 20-17, Bailey tied the game with a 56-yard field goal, one of his three field goals in three tries—and the longest of his NFL life. His seven kickoffs averaged landing seven yards deep in the end zone and kept Percy Harvin from controlling the kicking game. This was also the day Bailey went over 100 field goals made in his career, thus qualifying him for inclusion on the NFL’s career field goal list … and he debuted at No. 1 with a bullet. He is 102 of 112 (.911) for his career, far ahead of No. 2 Mike Vanderjagt’s .865 (230 of 266).
Pat McAfee, punter/kickoff man, Indianapolis. I don’t know how a punter (who also kicks off) can have more impact on a game than McAfee had on the Colts’ victory Thursday night in Houston. McAfee kicked off six times, and all were touchbacks. His four punts forced Houston to start at its 7-, 30-, 11- and 9-yard-lines. He executed a perfect onside kick four minutes into the game, bouncing it 11 yards to a perfectly placed hole in the Texans return group—and recovered the damn thing himself; two plays later, the Colts had a touchdown. A brilliant performance from a terrific special-teams weapon.
Coach of the Week
Rod Marinelli, defensive coordinator, Dallas. Playing in the toughest place to play in the NFL, the Dallas defense shut down Russell Wilson’s improvisation, limited Marshawn Lynch to one impact play in four quarters, and frustrated Seattle all day. What Marinelli’s game plan did to Percy Harvin was particularly stifling (six touches, minus-one yard). A tremendous coaching job by Marinelli.
Goats of the Week
Mike Nugent, kicker, Cincinnati. On the last play of overtime in a 37-37 game with Carolina, Nugent had a straight-on, 36-yard field goal try. Shanked it wide right. Never has a tie felt more like a loss.
Gus Bradley, head coach, Jacksonville. With 12 seconds left, and no timeouts left, trailing by two at Tennessee, the Jags had a third-and-two at the Tennessee 37. The Jaguars had just been handed a gain of eight yards on a sideline-route to put the ball at the 37. And Bradley, instead of taking six or eight more free yards on another sideline route, chose to put Josh Scobee on the field for the 55-yard field goal try. Now, there’s no guarantee Blake Bortles completes a ball on third-and-two. But why not try? Why settle for a 55-yard attempt when you’ve got a chance to get six or eight yards closer? Bradley needs to help his kicker there, and he didn’t.
Quotes of the Week
"BRI-an HOY-er! BRI-an HOY-er! BRI-an HOY-er!"
—The Cleveland crowd, serenading its starting quarterback early in the fourth quarter, with the Browns up by 28 on the hated Steelers.
“Bob Kraft is a character. I like him. First time we went to meet him, [wife] Kim and I were driving from New England to New York City and we stopped by Patriot Place and we had our dog with us and it was a real hot day. I was planning on leaving the dog in the car and I said, ‘I can’t leave this dog in the car; I’ll be in jail tomorrow!’ I went up to his office and I asked the girl up front, I said, 'I have a dog and I’m supposed to meet Mr. Kraft. Is it okay if I bring my dog in?’ And she looked at me and she got on the phone and she said, ‘Mr. Kraft said bring the dog in.’ So we got off the elevator, Kim and I and Sidney the dog, and Bob Kraft turned around and started walking towards his office and he said, ‘Forty-nine years I’ve been in business and this is the first time anybody’s ever brought a dog to a meeting.'"
—New Bills owner Terry Pegula, on New England owner Robert Kraft.
“Gruden treats players like professionals. Unfortunately for him, many Redskins players have no clue what it takes to be one."
—Jason Reid, columnist for the Washington Post, on Washington coach Jay Gruden, after watching several Washington players (Pierre Garçon and Trent Williams most notably) laughing in the locker room after the team lost its 13th game of the last 14, a 27-17 decision to Seattle Monday night.
“If we don't get this thing on the right track, I don't think for a minute I'll be here."
—Rex Ryan, coach of the 1-5 Jets, on his weekly spot with Michael Kay on ESPN Radio in New York.
"Yeah, I expect to go on Sunday. I played with MRSA last year.”
—Tampa Bay cornerback Johnthan Banks, to Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune, on Friday. Banks was listed as questionable with a neck injury, and ended up playing against Baltimore.
"One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.”
—2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban two years ago but refused to back down from her life goal of educating herself, and urging other young girls to be educated. What a heroine.
Stat of the Week
How long has Adam Vinatieri kicked in the NFL?
- In his first pro game, Sept. 1, 1996 (the NFL opened before Labor Day in those days), Bill Parcells (Patriots) and Jimmy Johnson (Dolphins) were the coaches. This was the first game Don Shula was not the coach of the Dolphins.
- Vinatieri's résumé: 10 years with the Patriots, nine with Indianapolis.
- In his rookie year, at Dallas, Vinatieri saved a touchdown when he tackled Cowboys kick returner Herschel Walker at the Patriot 19. Dallas settled for a field goal.
- In the final game of his rookie year, Super Bowl XXXI, Vinatieri kicked off to Desmond Howard of the Packers in the fourth quarter. Howard returned it 99 yards for a touchdown and won the Super Bowl MVP, the only return man to ever win the award.
- On the last day of this, his 19th regular season, Vinatieri will turn 42.
- On Thursday in Houston, Vinatieri became the first player in NFL history to score more than 900 points for two teams.
- In his sixth season, he kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired to lift New England over St. Louis 20-17 in the Super Bowl.
- In his eighth season, he kicked a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to send New England to a 32-29 win over Carolina in the Super Bowl. In his ninth season, his 22-yard field goal with 8:40 left provided the deciding points in a 24-21 win over Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.
- I haven’t even mentioned his signature kick—his 45-yard field goal in the final minute, through a biting snowstorm, in the Tuck Rule game that sent the Oakland-New England playoff game to overtime in that first Super Bowl season. He won that one with a field goal in the fifth quarter.
Anyhoo … It may not be that much of a surprise to note that Vinatieri has been more efficient as a kicker in his last nine years, playing home games mostly indoors in Indianapolis, than he was in his first 10 years in New England, playing outside. Either that or he’s getting better with age; Vinatieri was 23 when he first kicked with the Patriots as a free-agent out of South Dakota State, and he was 33 when he started his tenure with the Colts. The breakdown:
Vinatieri is fourth on the all-time scoring list (Morten Andersen, with 2,544 points, is a scary 481 points ahead). If Vinatieri stays healthy, and plays through the end of the 2015 season, he’ll set a record that will be hard for anyone to match: only man to score 1,000 points for two teams.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
In 114 previous NFL starts (including playoffs), Joe Flacco had one four-touchdown game. He had five touchdown passes in the first 17 minutes Sunday at Tampa Bay.
What you need to know about the new Bills owner, Terry Pegula, 63, who also owns the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres:
- He does not use a computer. He does not have an email address. He is big on talking to people face to face and on the phone. He does send text messages, short ones. Such as this one to his daughter when the deal was done to buy the Bills: “We own Bills."
- He uses a several-years-old flip phone.
- He likes to drive long distances to business and personal meetings and events. The afternoon that his agreement with the NFL to buy the Bills was announced in September, he drove himself seven-and-a-half hours from Buffalo to a hockey tournament in Traverse City, Mich., to see Sabres prospects play.
- He likes sports quite a bit. He donated $102 million to his alma mater, Penn State, so that an on-campus hockey arena could be built, and so that a varsity hockey program could be founded. He and wife, Kim (the 45-year-old co-owner of the Bills with him), donated $12 million to her school, Houghton (N.Y.) College, for a new athletic complex featuring baseball and softball stadiums and a field house.
- He has an office in Pittsburgh and followed the Penguins closely before buying the Sabres. Figures that his Australian Shepherd is named Sidney, after Sidney Crosby.
Baseball Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Josh Beckett retired the other day. Very quietly, the way he would like it, and just a few months after the crowning achievement of his 138-win career: He pitched a no-hitter for the Dodgers at Philadelphia. I don’t know why this sticks with me, but it does.
Three notable players picked in the 1999 amateur baseball draft:
Player, Pos., Team
Josh Hamilton, outfielder, Tampa Bay
Josh Beckett, pitcher, Florida
Albert Pujols, third baseman-first baseman, St. Louis
When Orioles manager Buck Showalter was in high school in Florida in the mid-’70s, he dreamed of playing quarterback for Bear Bryant at Alabama. It never happened. He played junior college baseball, and then baseball for Mississippi State, before embarking on a minor-league playing and coaching and managing career with the Yankees.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I didn’t travel last week, but the Denver Broncos did. To New Jersey, for the third time in 13 months (after not playing in New Jersey since 2008). And they chose to stay a mile down the street from their Super Bowl hotel this weekend—at the hotel that housed the Seahawks in the week before Seattle routed Denver in the Super Bowl. Football teams are superstitious, and Denver’s travel patterns in New Jersey recently suggest only one thing: The Hyatt in Jersey City won’t be getting the Broncos’ business anytime soon.
Broncos 41, Giants 13
Short Hills, N.J.
Seahawks 43, Broncos 8
Jersey City, N.J.
Broncos 31, Jets 17
Jersey City, N.J.
Tweets of the Week
The NFL Network host in the middle of the second quarter of Baltimore-Tampa Bay. First six Ravens possessions: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal.
The former Philadelphia and Cleveland executive who—evidently—is not a fan of the Pittsburgh offensive coordinator.
A Missouri writer, lamenting that Winston, the Florida State quarterback, played at Syracuse on Saturday after being notified he faces a university hearing into whether he sexually assaulted an FSU student in 2012. Gurley, the Georgia running back, was banned from the game against Missouri (and may not play again this year) after being accused of signing memorabilia and getting paid for it by a Georgia dealer.
The NFL Network reporter and former SEC scribe, on Saturday, watching Starkville get the star treatment.
The Los Angeles Times writer after new Detroit kicker Matt Prater missed two of his first three field goals with the Lions.
The Titans blocked a 55-yard attempt by Josh Scobee as time expired to earn at 16-14 victory and keep the Jags winless in 2014. (Wade Payne/AP)
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 6:
a. The Dallas defense, which can be doubted no more after surrendering just seven first downs to the Seahawks in the first 50 minutes of their showdown in Seattle.
b. Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr, with a vital pass-breakup in the middle of the fourth quarter, forcing Seattle to kick a field goal instead of drive for a possible touchdown.
c. A receiver for the Raiders whom America hadn’t heard of until about 4:30 ET Sunday afternoon—Andre Holmes, who had two touchdown catches (one a 77-yarder) to help Oakland nearly stun the Chargers.
d. Tyler Patmon, an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, with a great head-over-heels takedown of Percy Harvin on a third-quarter kickoff. The stop made Seattle begin at its 17.
e. Sammie Hill, the Tennessee defensive tackle, with a game-clinching play against Jacksonville. Hill found a tiny crease between the guard and center on the Jacksonville field-goal team, stuck his big right hand in the air and deflected what could have been a winning 55-yard field goal in the final seconds, ensuring a 16-14 Titans win.
f. Tony Sparano. I knew he’d get the Raiders to play harder.
g. Ryan Kerrigan, who makes about five big plays a week for Washington. He’s no J.J. Watt in terms of impact, but he should be more famous.
h. Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett stoning Knowshon Moreno on fourth-and-goal at the Packers’ 1. Terrific penetration and physical stop.
i. Packers nosetackle Letroy Guion, who made two big first-quarter stops at Miami.
j. The Colts’ defense on third down. It’s allowed just three conversions in the past three weeks. That’s crazy good. You can look it up: Foes have converted 1 of 8, 1 of 9, and 1 of 11 in the past three games.
k. "Finding Giants." Good, educational show on NFL Network about scouting and scouts, and about how much in love the Giants were with Odell Beckham Jr., beginning at the combine last winter.
l. Great touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff by Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby in Miami.
m. Most impressive drive of the day: Carolina opening the game at Cincinnati by driving 86 yards in 15 plays and eating up 9:15 on the clock.
n. Good baiting-of-Teddy Bridgewater pick in the end zone by Detroit safety Glover Quin.
o. Miami linebacker Jonathan Freeny laying out to block a Green Bay punt.
p. Brilliant sniffing-out of a Patriots bubble screen to Julian Edelman by aptly named Bills nickel back Nickell Robey.
q. Jets defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Leger Douzable, disrupting the Denver backfield all through the first half.
A Sampling of Feedback
The editors of The MMQB have decided to run a regular column highlighting the complaints, challenges, compliments and points of view of our readers. FULL STORY
r. What terrific hands Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler has.
s. Gio Bernard’s 89-yard run.
t. Bradley Roby’s diving pass-breakup at the goal line for Denver.
u. What an athletic leap and pass-breakup by Joe Haden.
v. Well-thrown, perfectly placed touchdown throw by Brian Hoyer to Jordan Cameron.
w. Line judge Mark Perlman with a tremendous call on the ridiculous catch-and-two-feet-dragging-on-the-sidelines play by Dallas wideout Terrance Williams. We criticize officials often enough and should praise them for a brilliant call—which this was.
x. Terrance Williams. One word for that play: Wow.
y. Arizona safety Rashad Johnson, with two picks and a forced fumble—all in one quarter.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 6:
a. Duke Williams, the Buffalo safety, made a brainlock play against New England. In close pursuit of Julian Edelman near the goal line with the ball in the air, Williams—instead of looking back for the ball and playing defense—two-hand-shoved Edelman to the ground. Blatant pass-interference, setting up a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Tim Wright. Senseless.
b. The Kirk Cousins interception to close the 30-20 loss to Arizona. He threw directly to a wide-open Arizona safety, Rashad Johnson.
c. Four turnovers in the fourth quarter for Washington. Yikes.
d. DeAndre Hopkins’ effort to recover the fumble that ended Indy’s win in Houston. He should have stuck his nose in there. Could have recovered it.
e. How is it possible, on the first snap of the game in New Jersey, that Demaryius Thomas not have a Jet defender within seven yards of him on a 54-yard catch?
f. Bad snap by New England’s Danny Aiken, leading to a hooked missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
g. Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga, in celebration, head-butting his teammate, Vontaze Burfict, who just returned from a concussion. Head-butting is a terrible way to celebrate in football anyway, given what we know about concussions. To head-butt a fellow football player is not smart. To head-butt a recently concussed one is really not smart.
h. Tampa Bay and the first half. In six games, the Bucs have been outscored in the first half 123-27.
i. The Steelers, who will watch the tape of their game at Cleveland and feel, “We cost ourselves at least two touchdowns, blew a field goal, and didn’t cover Jordan Cameron well on his touchdown."
j. Raiders fans, for egging the Chargers' team buses heading into O.co Coliseum Sunday. What are you guys, in third grade?
k. Giants right tackle Justin Pugh, who will want to burn the tape of the Sunday night game.
l. Pugh’s linemates. Eli Manning is lucky to be ambulatory this morning, assuming he is.
m. The consistency of the Giants, who have not won a game or lost a game by single digits through six weeks. Of course, a 27-point no-show job in the fight for division supremacy is one of the worst losses in recent team history.
Cruz was overwhelmed by pain after a knee injury on Sunday night. (Al Tielemans/The MMQB/SI)
3. I think—and I wasn’t there, simply tried to divine what happened from the NBC sound and pictures—that I was so impressed with the reaction of the Philadelphia players and crowd when Victor Cruz of the Giants went down with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee Sunday night. This is not a friendly rivalry. In fact, if you were in the New York/Philadelphia corridor last week, you’d have thought a playground fight between 12-year-olds had broken out. The Eagles and Giants set an NFL record for juvenile sniping in a week. Thus, I was heartened to see players kneeling from both sides, praying for Cruz, and impressed that so many Eagles spoke of Cruz with such emotion after the game. I asked The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas, covering the game for us, to file a short report on what she saw and heard at the Linc. Her words:
The play could have been a turning point for the Giants, down 20-0 midway through the third quarter but threatening at the Philadelphia three-yard line. The Eagles defense was in a blitz-man look, and on the right side of the field receiver Victor Cruz was running a 7 (corner) route—the hardest route for his defender, cornerback Brandon Boykin, who had inside leverage, to stop. The fourth-down pass hit Cruz’s hands but fell incomplete, and as soon as Cruz landed, it was clear something was very wrong.
He grabbed his right knee and began screaming in pain. “As soon as he hit the ground, he was screaming, like, really screaming. Not like, Ahh, but he was screaming at the top of his lungs. I was trying to signal for somebody to come over,” Boykin said. “When you hear a professional NFL player scream like that, you know it is serious.” Boykin had never heard a player scream like that before. As two members of the Giants’ medical staff raced over, a handful of Eagles players stayed in the end zone, and the otherwise rowdy Eagles crowd went silent. Safety Nate Allen and defensive end Vinny Curry were among the opposing players who dropped to their knees to join in prayer. “They were trying to straighten his knee out, and he was just screaming,” Boykin said. “No matter if it’s a rivalry or not, this is his livelihood, and this is his career. Going against him for the past two, three years, knowing how great of a receiver he is, you never want an injury to happen to somebody like that.”
As Cruz stayed down on the ground, Eli Manning slowly walked up the sideline toward his best receiver. “It was tough to say anything to him,” Manning said. “I went there and patted him on the shoulder, but he was in some pain, and it wasn’t a great opportunity. Anything I would have said, he wouldn’t have heard me.” When the cart came over to drive Cruz off the field, he needed to be carried over to the bed of the cart, unable to walk or even stand up on his own, the first clue that it was something different from an ACL injury. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed as the cart drove off the field, while Byron Hansen, the Giants’ coordinator of rehab, put his arm around Cruz, consoling him. After a few seconds, Cruz looped his left arm around Hansen, too. The cart drove up the sideline, teammates one by one patting Cruz on the back or head, while he kept his face buried in his hands. Odell Beckham, Jr., the rookie receiver, told reporters he said to Cruz on his way off the field, “Big bro, I’ve got you.” Cruz was admitted to a Philadelphia hospital and stayed overnight, before planning to return to New Jersey today.
4. I think you cannot overpay football players. That’s what I thought after seeing the Victor Cruz injury.
5. I think the most disappointing facet of any team this year is Carolina’s run defense. Ron Rivera’s got to be sick about it. The exclamation point Sunday was Cincinnati back Gio Bernard’s 89-yard touchdown run through the gut of the defense and then up the left sideline for the last 40 yards or so. The amazing part of it: The Panthers have run the ball 154 times this year, and the opposition has 152 carries. Equal. Foes lead in rushing yards, 841-521 … almost the polar opposite of last year, when the Panthers controlled the running game on both sides of the line. No surprise, then, that Carolina has allowed 34 points per game over the past four weeks.
6. I think the best point made about Jets quarterback Geno Smith in the past week came from Jon Gruden, after Smith somehow got the time wrong and missed a meeting the night before the Week 5 31-0 debacle of a loss at San Diego. “You’re playing Philip Rivers, and then Peyton Manning and Tom Brady," said Gruden, referring to Smith’s foes in Weeks 5-7. “Those guys don’t miss meetings. They run meetings."
7. I think, with Tuesday being the deadline for players to opt out of the class-action settlement for concussion claims, we’re probably six months away from seeing the money being disbursed. The judge in the case refused a motion last week to extend the deadline until a Nov. 19 “fairness hearing’’ is held to discuss the merits of the $765 million pool ready to pay former players who have lasting head trauma or more severe maladies, such as ALS. There are certainly some players who don’t like the volume of the settlement and believe the NFL is getting off cheap to settle with a class of 20,000 former players. But the immediate need of some former players seems to be weighing on the mind of Judge Anita Brody. She wants to get this resolved now.
8. I think Roger Goodell should give his testimony in the Ray Rice appeal. I don’t understand why he wouldn’t. This case should be about absolute transparency. I want to know what Goodell remembers about his June 16 hearing with Rice. I don’t believe this should be the province of Robert Mueller exclusively; the sun should shine in on this process from all angles.
9. I think I marvel at Alex Mack, never missing a snap for five-and-a-third years at the center position. His absence will be felt heavily by the Browns, as our Greg Bedard explains today at The MMQB.
Have a question or comment for Peter? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and it might be included in Tuesday mailbag.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Happy 49th birthday (Saturday), Chris Spielman.
b. Happy 72nd birthday (today), Jerry Jones.
c. Happy 30th birthday (Sunday), Jenny Vrentas.
d. Happy 72nd birthday (today), Rich Kotite.
e. Now that I’m a boss, I don’t feel great about assigning Vrentas to work on her 30th birthday. But hey, it was the Giants-Eagles, Sunday night, at the Linc.
f. College note of the week: Fordham wide receiver Tebucky Jones Jr. (son of New England's former first-round pick) had a 10-catch, 203-yard game Saturday against Penn.
g. Wow. How great has this baseball postseason been?
h. Twelve straight balls from Zach Britton in Game 1 of the ALCS—and he didn’t allow a run. Britton walked the first three Royals he faced in the ninth inning—and none scored. I’m sure that has happened before, but it seems pretty darn unlikely.
i. Nick Hundley, with a great stretch and lunging grab for a force play at home to save Game 1, temporarily.
j. The Royals are marvels. Lorenzo Cain is playing like Willie Mays in his prime. It’s startling to note that Kansas City was three runs down with six out to go in the wild-card elimination game … and the Royals haven’t lost since. They’re 6-0 in the past 12 days.
k. It rained in New York on Saturday morning, so I was stranded on a treadmill. I was able to run 6.2 miles in 52:27. I have challenged the athletic (or so he tells us) Robert Klemko to match me, which he should be able to do—shouldn’t he? I am twice his age. C’mon, Klemko.
l. A superb column in the New York Times by a former NFL ball boy on what he saw, and what it should portend for the NFL’s future.
m. Coffeenerdness: Good job with that Anniversary Blend, Starbucks.
n. Beernerdness: I have found the ideal pumpkin beer, thanks to so many of you recommending it. The Southern Tier Imperial Pumking Ale is terrific—sweet but not overly so, with the perfect, non-overpowering taste of pumpkin in the brew, and a bit of vanilla (not sure, but that’s what it tastes like). I’ve always liked the pumpkin brews, but I’d say two-thirds of them disappoint because they’re either overbearing or too mild. This one shouts pumpkin but it isn’t grossly sweet or over-pumpkined ... and it has the best collection of spices of any pumpkin or Octoberfest beer that I have tasted. Great job, Southern Tier. I am a fan. I must have this in the refrigerator on Thanksgiving Day.
o. I’m glad Landon Donovan got to take a final bow with the U.S. Men’s National Team, and he’ll be happy he did it when he looks back on it. But it seemed forced and not particularly joyful.
Who I Like Tonight
San Francisco 27, St. Louis 24. Someone, somewhere, just doesn’t like the Rams. For the second straight year they play their most attractive home game of the season—a Monday nighter versus one of the league’s marquee teams—in the middle of the baseball playoffs with the wildly popular crosstown Cardinals involved. At least this year the two teams are not playing simultaneously, as they did last year. Last October, the Rams made Seattle sweat until the last minute of a 14-9 Seahawks win. I think it’s more of the same tonight, because of upstart quarterback Austin Davis. In his three starts, Sam Bradford's replacement has averaged 312 passing yards, completed 67.5 percent of his throws and had a rating of 100.6. The Rams need a stronger run defense (and should have one, with all those high picks on the defensive front) than the one they’ve shown so far. Frank Gore’s going to be a very big factor tonight.
The Adieu Haiku
It has to be said,
Though it will make some vomit.
“How ’bout them Cowboys!”
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