Who would you like to have running the ball on fourth-and-inches
with the clock winding down? Or trying to stop that runner? Who
are the NFL's best performers in crunch time, when the pressure
is the most intense? I've selected a roster of players and
coaches, even an official, who are at their best in a tight
game's dying moments.
QUARTERBACK ON THIRD-AND-LONG, WHEN THE CLOCK IS YOUR ENEMY AND
YOU'RE OUT OF TIMEOUTS: BRETT FAVRE, PACKERS
You need the gun, the ability to jam the ball into small areas,
the courage to take a chance. On patterns such as the 16-yard
comeback or the deep corner route, Favre and the Giants' Kerry
Collins can get more velocity on their passes than anyone. The
more speed on the pass, the less chance of an interception--and,
yes, a greater chance that it could be dropped. But remember,
this is third down, and there's another play left.
QUARTERBACK ON THIRD-AND-REAL-LONG (18 YARDS OR MORE): MICHAEL
August 31, 2003
The odds on completing a third-and-18 pass are slim, so you have
to have the running threat back there. Who knows what effect his
recent injury will have on his flamboyant style, but I expect he
will pick up where he left off. He can take off and go for the
first down himself--especially against a defense that's on its
heels--or take off, pull up at the line and throw. In the game
against the Steelers in which he brought the Falcons back from a
17-point, fourth-quarter deficit, Vick converted third-down
situations with 22, 23 and 24 yards to go.
QUARTERBACK ON FOURTH-AND-LONG: JEFF GARCIA, 49ERS
He'll run if he has to and dive for the first down. In a one-play
scenario, in which the margin for error is zero, I'll take Garcia
over Vick on experience.
QUARTERBACK TO RUN THE TWO-MINUTE DRILL: GARCIA
A few years ago I'd have said Favre, but over the last two
seasons Garcia has proved to be the master. I counted six games
in 2001 and '02 in which he led the Niners to victory in the
two-minute offense. During the same period, Favre had only two
RUNNING BACK ON FOURTH-AND-INCHES: ZACK CROCKETT, RAIDERS
He has made the short-yardage situation his speciality. Everyone
knows he's going to get the ball. Try to stop him. "It's so
difficult to do what he does," coach Bill Callahan says. "Whether
or not the play is blocked, he's going to try to run through
people. And he does run through people."
LINEMAN TO RUN BEHIND: HANK FRALEY, EAGLES CENTER
This depends on where you want to run the ball. I choose the
middle, rather than off tackle, to avoid having the runner make a
cut. At one time Cowboys guard Larry Allen would have been the
no-brainer pick, but last year he was slowed by shoulder and
ankle injuries, along with excess poundage. Fraley is a
straight-ahead banger with real punch, especially late in the
BLOCKING BACK TO RUN BEHIND: CORY SCHLESINGER, LIONS FULLBACK
He turned in one of the finest performances of 2002 in Detroit's
upset of the Bears last October. Playing with a cracked vertebra,
Schlesinger made All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher his personal
target, and the result was a career-high 172 yards rushing for
RECEIVER TO MAKE A THIRD-DOWN CATCH AGAINST DOUBLE COVERAGE:
MARVIN HARRISON, COLTS
Harrison led the league last season with 44 third-down
catches--14 more than his closest pursuer, the 49ers' Terrell
Owens--and most of them were against two defenders. "Anyone can
catch the ball in single coverage," Harrison says. "The fun part
comes when you have to beat two guys."
RECEIVER TO GO DEEP--A BURNER WITH GOOD HANDS, SIZE AND LEAPING
ABILITY: RANDY MOSS, VIKINGS
"Anybody knows you'd go with Moss," says Packers safety Darren
Sharper. Adds a personnel director who doesn't want to be named,
"I hate the guy, and it really pains me to pick him for anything,
but is there really anyone else?"
OUTSIDE PASS RUSHER WHO CAN BEAT THE DOUBLE TEAM: JASON TAYLOR,
DOLPHINS DEFENSIVE END
Early in the game I'd take the Giants' Michael Strahan, because
he's probably the closest to being technically perfect. But in
the late going, when fatigue kicks in, Taylor's motor won't quit.
He might appear to be blocked, he might even get knocked off his
feet, but if the quarterback pulls the ball down and looks for
that one last read, Taylor's going to be on him.
BEST ONE-ON-ONE OUTSIDE PASS RUSHER: SIMEON RICE, BUCS DEFENSIVE
He lines up very wide and takes a long, circuitous route to the
outside, which he can get away with because of his speed. Then,
when he has his blocker set up just right, he flashes to the
inside and gets the quick sack.
TACKLE TO HANDLE THE PREMIER OUTSIDE RUSHER WITH NO HELP: DERRICK
He's a tough guy, a player who'll do anything to avoid getting
beaten. Deese, at 6'3", 289 pounds, is one of the smallest
tackles in the league, but late in the game I'll take a smaller
player over a 350-pound monster whose legs will be rubbery.
PASS RUSHER TO GO FOR THE STRIP: LEONARD LITTLE, RAMS DEFENSIVE
He's not as effective against the double team, but he forced nine
fumbles last season and came close a lot of other times. He
almost changed the ending to Super Bowl XXXVI, when he reached
Tom Brady during the Patriots' winning field goal drive and
smacked the ball. But Brady held on to it and completed the short
pass to J.R. Redmond that kept the drive alive.
INSIDE RUSHER TO GET TO THE QUARTERBACK: ROD COLEMAN, RAIDERS
Last season big Sam Adams started the game, but in crunch time
Coleman was on the field applying the serious pressure inside.
Exceptionally quick off the ball, and undersized for a defensive
tackle at 6'2", 285 pounds, he still wears number 57 from his
days as a linebacker. His 11 sacks were tops for all interior
linemen last season, which is remarkable when you consider that
he started only two games.
BLITZER TO COMPLEMENT THE RUSH OF THE FRONT FOUR: BRIAN DAWKINS,
EAGLES FREE SAFETY
You've got to love this job to do it. You've got to be a
defensive lineman in a DB's body. You've got to have speed and a
killer instinct, because if you're crafty enough and time your
blitz just right, you might get a free shot at the passer. Lawyer
Milloy of the Patriots excels in this area, but Dawkins is the
INTERIOR LINEMAN TO HIT THE GAP AND CREATE HAVOC: CHRIS HOVAN,
VIKINGS DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Warren Sapp of the Bucs is good at this, but not if he has to
contend with too many bodies. The Saints' Grady Jackson is
probably the best at it, but by the fourth quarter he has the
oxygen mask on. What we need here is a burst off the ball, great
leverage and late-game fortitude. Hovan qualifies on all counts.
LINEMAN TO STAND FIRM AGAINST THE DOUBLE TEAM AND STUFF THE RUN
ON FOURTH-AND-INCHES: KRIS JENKINS, PANTHERS DEFENSIVE TACKLE
You need a big, strong guy to fight off 700 pounds of blockers,
and sometimes that guy puts on too much weight. Then his stamina
goes, then his legs, and pretty soon he's a Gilbert Brown--able
to stuff the occasional early play, but a nonfactor in the final
moments. At 6'4", 315 pounds, Jenkins is just the right size to
hold the point. In coach John Fox's beautifully coordinated
defense, which ranked second in the league last season, Jenkins
is the fulcrum.
LINEBACKER TO STUFF THE RUN ON FOURTH-AND-INCHES: EDGERTON
"The Sluggo linebacker is a dying breed," says Mike Giddings, who
runs Pro Scout Inc., a personnel service for 15 NFL teams. "It's
all speed now." And, yes, I had trouble finding the throwback
linebacker who could fight through the blocks of the guards and
center. The Ravens' Ray Lewis, the most gifted middle linebacker
of this era, runs around blocks to penetrate and make the big
play. The Bears' Urlacher, a unanimous All-Pro last year, plays
it soft in short-yardage situations. For my purposes it came down
to Hartwell, a 6'1", 250-pound fireplug, over the Broncos' Al
Wilson. Hartwell is the hardest to budge.
CORNERBACK FOR MAN-TO-MAN COVERAGE WITH NO HELP: ANTOINE
I thought the Bucs' Ronde Barber was the best corner in the NFL
in 2002, but in the nickel he went inside and Dwight Smith was
alone on the corner. Winfield, built like former All-Pro Darrell
Green at 5'9", 180 pounds, might get beaten on occasion, but
he'll pound his fist on the ground, grit his teeth, and for the
next three or four plays he'll be glued to his man. With the game
on the line there's no way Winfield would give up a completion.
KICK RETURNER: DANTE HALL, CHIEFS
Are some better than others late in the game? Yes. The good ones
have that extra burst when the stakes are highest. That's
Hall--"the best return man I've ever been around," says his
coach, Dick Vermeil.
PUNT RETURNER: BRIAN MITCHELL, GIANTS
I want a guy who won't fumble. Mitchell has been at it for so
many years (13 seasons, 434 returns), at such a high level, that
I'd feel secure with him back there. But there's another way of
looking at this situation, and that is when you have to have a
punt return for a touchdown. I'll take the Jets' Santana Moss.
He's the most gifted, the niftiest and the scariest return man of
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER TO MAKE A TACKLE: JERALD SOWELL, JETS
"You look at special-teamers," says the Jets' Mike Westhoff, who
coaches them, "and two guys might have the same size and speed,
but one of them has the knack for making the play and the other
doesn't. Sowell has that knack."
PUNTER TO HANG ONE HIGH AND DEEP FROM THE SHADOW OF HIS END ZONE:
CHRIS MOHR, FALCONS
I came up with a ranking system for this, based on the 160 games
I saw last year. Any punt from inside a team's 10-yard line with
a hang time of at least 4.4 seconds and a net gain of 40 yards or
better got a positive, and any punt from inside the 10 that
failed in either category got a negative. Mohr led my list with
11 positives and one negative. Tied for second were the Chargers'
Darren Bennett and the Bills' Brian Moorman with six positives,
and both of them had a couple of negatives.
PUNTER TO PIN THE ENEMY INSIDE ITS 10-YARD LINE: JEFF FEAGLES,
"As you get older," says Feagles, who's entering his 16th NFL
season, "your hang time comes down, but you get smarter--you get
better at placing the ball. Then, when you're all brains and no
hang time, you become a coach." With the Seahawks last year he
boomed a 50-yard, 5.09 hanger against the Giants that went out of
bounds at the New York four. Then, in the fourth quarter, his
56-yarder backed up and died at the Giants' five. New York had a
total of one yard in punt returns that day, and coach Jim Fassel
had seen enough. When Feagles became a free agent, the Giants
were first in line with a five-year, $4.3-million contract that
included a $500,000 bonus.
FIELD GOAL KICKER TO WIN THE GAME: ADAM VINATIERI, PATRIOTS
Who else but the hero of Super Bowl XXXVI? He hasn't lost his
COACH WHO WON'T PANIC: ANDY REID, EAGLES
What you want is a guy who won't butcher the two-minute drill or
get flustered with the game on the line, and who will let his
assistants coach. I think of Reid and I picture a great calm in
the midst of a storm.
OFFENSIVE COACH TO MAKE THE DYNAMIC CALLS: JON GRUDEN, BUCS
My game, my rules, so I'm allowed to count head coaches who
concentrate on one side of the ball. One personnel director
summed up Gruden best: "He's the guy you want at the end because
he'll always go to his best option. He'll always know what's
going to give him the best chance in that situation." For one
cockamamie play call, though, I'd give Steelers offensive
coordinator Mike Mularkey the nod.
DEFENSIVE COACH TO COME UP WITH AN INNOVATIVE AND EFFECTIVE
ADJUSTMENT: BILL BELICHICK, PATRIOTS
The obvious choice would be Bucs defensive coordinator Monte
Kiffin, who's very sound in his game planning. But we're talking
late in the game here--adjustments, imagination--and Belichick
always has dared to be different. "You never know what he'll come
up with in any situation," says his inside linebacker, Tedy
Bruschi. "Sometimes it's as much a surprise to us as it is to the
OFFICIAL WHO WON'T CHOKE: JIM QUIRK, UMPIRE
A ball of fire. He keeps things going, gets the ball spotted in a
hurry, keeps those annoying officials' conferences moving in
snappy fashion. He's always on top of his game.
For more analysis from Paul Zimmerman, check out Dr. Z's NFL
Insider at si.com.