Friday, November 30, 2007

Clock Strikes Midnight for Favre, Cinderella Packers

Green Bay's fairy tale season ran headlong into reality on Thursday night in Dallas; the Cowboys knocked the seemingly indestructible Brett Favre out of the game early and then defeated the Packers, 37-27. Tony Romo completed 19 of 30 passes for 309 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception. Terrell Owens had seven receptions for 156 yards and one touchdown. Favre struggled mightily before getting hurt (5-14, 56 yards, two interceptions, no touchdowns) and the Packers actually looked better when his backup Aaron Rodgers (18-26, 201 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) played. Favre suffered an injured right elbow and a separated left shoulder when he took a big hit by cornerback Nate Jones in the second quarter; Favre experienced numbness in the fingers on his right hand and left a game due to injury for only the fifth time in his career. The Packers don't play again for 10 more days, so it is unclear whether or not his record streak for consecutive games started (249) is in jeopardy.

This was the first time that two 10-1 NFL teams met since the San Francisco 49ers beat the New York Giants 7-3 on December 3, 1990. If New England's 24-20 victory over Indianapolis was "Super Bowl 41 1/2" then this game may have been "Super Bowl 41 3/4" and it probably decided who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII. Favre and Romo had each posted five straight games with passer ratings of over 100, "the first time in NFL history that two such streaks have collided on the same night" in the words of NFL Network analyst Cris Collinsworth. I was a bit surprised before the game to hear several analysts predict a close game, including some who actually favored the Packers to win. I wrote a little over a week ago, "My suspicion is that the Cowboys will beat them (Green Bay) without too much trouble." The game turned out to be more closely contested than I expected but Dallas never trailed after the first quarter. Still, I agree with Deion Sanders' postgame assessment: "You've got to learn how to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer. When you get a team down, it's not a championship-type team if you can't put them away--and Dallas showed me today that they didn't know how to put the Green Bay Packers away."

Anyone who has watched NFL Films over the past few years has heard Terrell Owens declare, "Who can make a play? I can!" and, of course, "Get your popcorn ready." During Dallas' first possession, Collinsworth mentioned the "hocus pocus" that the Cowboys can do on offense due to all of the extra defensive attention that Owens, who he described as a "dominant" player, attracts. Only two opposing receivers had 100 yard games in Green Bay's previous 24 contests; Owens had six catches for 147 yards and one touchdown in the first half alone. He has now caught a touchdown in seven straight games. He had a quieter second half--and dropped a sure touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter--but Owens' first half production and the defensive attention that he drew throughout the game played an essential role in Dallas' win; also, as Collinsworth noted, when the Cowboys have a fourth quarter lead their modus operandi is to pound their opponents to death with the power running of Marion Barber. Owens became the first player in NFL history to have at least seven receptions and one touchdown in seven straight games and he tied the Cowboys' single season record with his 14th touchdown reception.

After the game, Dallas Coach Wade Phillips called Owens to the center of the locker room to address the whole team. The smiling wide receiver said, "We gave them the business! I like the way that we played." The sight of Phillips literally and figuratively embracing Owens is a marked contrast from how former Dallas Coach Bill Parcells kept Owens at arm's distance, referring to him as "the player." The NFL Network's Rich Eisen asked Owens how much Phillips has to do with Dallas' 11-1 record, the best start in franchise history. Owens responded, "Let me start out by thanking the Lord for giving me the opportunity just to come out and do what I did today. I couldn't do it without my teammates--Tony (Romo) and the offensive line giving him time. Wade has been very instrumental. He came in during the offseason, training camp, and he implemented his philosophy. I think that all of the guys have been very, very receptive to him and the record is a very good indicator of what he has brought to the team." Sanders asked Owens about his maturation process, exemplified by how Owens thanked the Lord and his teammates for his success: "Is that part of the 'new' TO or has that always been (part of you)?" Owens answered, "It's always been me. I think that now I have a great coach in Wade and a coaching staff that believes in me and utilizes me in the offense. We're just playing great as a team."

In a strange way it is fitting that Owens had a signature performance in perhaps the biggest game of the year but only a fraction of the NFL's fans could see it because it was televised on the NFL Network. Maybe the TV commentators and news columnists who have been riding this guy for several years now will give him the credit that they would have given Favre if he had authored a similar performance on such a grand stage--but I wouldn't count on it.

It is also worth mentioning that in addition to finally utilizing the full range of Owens' abilities, Phillips has led a defensive revival for the Cowboys. Last year, Parcells' defense leaked oil down the stretch, giving up 33 ppg and 425 ypg as the Cowboys went 1-3 in the last four games of the season, with all three losses coming at home. Overall, the 2006 Cowboys ranked 20th in points allowed per game (21.9) and 13th in yards allowed per game (322.8); coming into the Green Bay game, the Cowboys ranked 10th in points allowed per game (20.1) and seventh in yards allowed per game (299.1). Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett deserve all the credit that they are receiving for Dallas' tremendous offense but Phillips has done a good job shoring things up on the other side of the ball as well. The Cowboys' defense had a couple breakdowns versus Green Bay, including a 62 yard touchdown run by Ryan Grant on a 3rd and 1 play in the first quarter, but they came up big in the fourth quarter, holding the Packers to just a 52 yard field goal.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bill Willis' Achievements Should Never be Forgotten

Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Willis passed away on Tuesday. Willis played on Ohio State's 1942 national championship team and on five Cleveland Browns' championship teams (four AAFC titles plus the 1950 NFL Championship), all while being coached by Paul Brown. Willis played both ways but made his mark by using his blistering quickness to cause tremendous disruption as a defensive middle guard. However, just as significant as Willis' accomplishments as a player is his role in helping to integrate the NFL. Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard was one of two black players who participated in the inaugural season of the American Professional Football Association (the forerunner of the NFL) in 1920 and in 1921 he became the first black coach in league history but within a few years pro football became a segregated sport. One year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Bill Willis joined with Cleveland Browns teammate Marion Motley and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams to become the first black players in the modern era of professional football.

Bill Willis' achievements should never be forgotten--and it is heartening to see that the current Cleveland Browns' players understand that Willis paved the way for them. As running back Jason Wright said, "It's something that every player, not just the black players in the league, owes a ton of gratitude towards because one of the unique things about the football environment is that we really become a family, across racial lines, across socio-economic lines." Coach Romeo Crennel had previously made sure that his players knew about Willis and it is clear that wide receiver Braylon Edwards paid attention to the history lesson: "He (Willis) paved the way and showed that guys of our color could play. They gave him a chance and he ran with it. He did well. He basically paved the way for gentlemen like myself and I'm appreciative...It had to be hard. It wasn't just them vs. the opposition. It was them vs. players on their team, fans, organizations. To go through it and to maintain and stay focused and strong just says a lot about his character."

Willis was Ohio State's first black All-American and after he retired from the NFL in 1953 he worked for 20 years as the director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services. He retired from that position in 1983 but continued to live in the Columbus area. In 2003, Odessa, his wife of 55 years, passed away and this summer his house was broken into and vandalized and many of his mementos were stolen. Willis' son Clem told reporters that his father's Ohio State championship ring was recovered just hours before he passed away.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Real Professional Football is Being Played in Cleveland!

The record book indicates that the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 but--except for a 9-7 blip in 2002--it could not really be truthfully said that professional football was being played in the city (at least not by the home team). That seems to have changed suddenly and dramatically this season.

After a 27-17 home win over Houston on Sunday, the Browns are 7-4, which is their best record at this stage of the season since 1994. This success has been largely built on the strength of a five game home winning streak, the team's best since 1994. Derek Anderson's 22 touchdown passes are the most by a Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar also had 22 in 1987; Anderson has an excellent chance to break Brian Sipe's team record of 30, set in 1980 when Sipe won the NFL MVP.

This is a remarkable turnaround for a team that looked dead in the water after a 34-7 week one loss to Pittsburgh that was highlighted (lowlighted?) by the Browns committing four penalties on one play; that pitiful sequence and lopsided score epitomized how the Browns have usually performed since 1999 and strongly suggested that the rebuilding program being orchestrated by General Manager Phil Savage and Coach Romeo Crennel was going nowhere fast. That week one disaster convinced me that the Browns were not keeping pace with the three year time frame that Bill Walsh laid out for rebuilding a team but since then the Browns dumped Charlie Frye, installed Derek Anderson as the starting quarterback and have looked like a bona fide playoff team.

Two key differences between this year's squad and the previous teams are that the Browns now have Pro Bowl caliber players at several positions and have the depth to withstand injuries. Anderson, kick returner Joshua Cribbs, tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and rookie offensive tackle Joe Thomas are all worthy of being Pro Bowlers; they may not all make it this year because established players from previously successful teams tend to receive such honors but the important point is that the Browns have drafted, acquired and developed several players who have top of the line talent. Running back Jamal Lewis may not consistently be playing at a Pro Bowl level but he is the best running back that the Browns have had in a long time; a strong running game is essential for any Cleveland team to do well, particularly as the weather turns cold. Lewis had 134 yards on 29 carries versus Houston, scoring one touchdown and helping the Browns to literally run out the clock at the end of the game. His eight rushing touchdowns are the most by a Brown since Kevin Mack had eight in 1991. Meanwhile, Anderson has the passing game clicking on all cylinders: Edwards has 11 touchdown receptions and is on course to break Gary Collins' franchise record of 13, set in 1963; Winslow tied Ozzie Newsome's franchise record with 89 receptions last season and with 62 receptions in 11 games he has a decent chance to become the first Brown to tally 90 receptions in a season. This is one of the best Browns' offenses ever and that is saying something considering the proud history of this franchise.

The defense is obviously still a work in progress but even on that side of the ball there are encouraging signs. Houston has displayed an explosive offense this season but the Browns held them to 17 points, probably the team's best overall defensive performance this season. The Browns did this without starting cornerback Eric Wright, who was replaced by nickel back Daven Holly, which forced rookie Brandon McDonald into service to fill Holly's normal role. McDonald's first career interception came in the second half and led to Lewis' touchdown, which gave the Browns a 27-10 lead and all but assured the victory. The Browns entered the game with the league's worst defense statistically but held the Texans to seven points and 106 yards in the second half.

This may sound like something that is insignificant, but the Browns looked different during their warmups. I went to the Browns' 19-14 opening day loss to New Orleans in 2006 and one of the things that bothered me most as a fan is how lackadaisical the team looked during warmups. Edwards dropped several passes during warmups and, sure enough, he dropped several passes during the game. I told several people after the game that I had a bad feeling about the season based on the lack of crispness and sharpness in the way that the team warmed up before the game and that assessment turned out to be correct. Things looked a lot different before the Houston game. Edwards caught a short pass and, like Jerry Rice used to do, he ran all the way to midfield (the Texans were practicing on the other side, so he could not run to the endzone); Rice, like the great ones in any sport or endeavor, took practice/preparation seriously and it is nice to see that Edwards apparently is now adapting this approach.

I will always root for the Browns, win or lose, but I really like this team. This is a fun team to watch; some of the previous squads did not prepare well or play hard and it was not much fun to watch them. Maybe this is the start of something special for the Browns and, if so, I could not be happier that my initial take on this year's team has turned out to be wrong.

Give Savage credit for his acquisitions and give Crennel credit for finally getting the Browns to look organized most of the time.

Here are some other NFL games that caught my eye this week:


We saw the best and worst of Kurt Warner in Arizona's 37-31 overtime loss to San Francisco on Sunday. The "best" is that Warner completed 34 of 48 passes for a career-high 484 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions despite playing with a torn ligament in his left (non-throwing) shoulder and a rib injury that he suffered during the third quarter. Warner's yardage is an NFL single-game high for this season and an all-time record for a San Francisco opponent. The "worst" is that the 49ers recovered a Warner fumble in the endzone to score the clinching touchdown in overtime.

Warner, a two-time NFL MVP (1999, 2001), is tied with Carson Palmer for seventh in passer rating this season (90.8) but ball security has often been a problem for him. According to Yahoo!Sports, Warner has lost 32 fumbles in 89 career games. This ratio is the worst one among the NFL's top quarterbacks (based on passer rating this season): the top ranked Tom Brady has lost 27 fumbles in 107 games; number two Ben Roethlisberger has lost eight fumbles in 52 games; number three Tony Romo has lost five fumbles in 43 games; number four David Garrard has lost five fumbles in 36 games; number five Brett Favre has lost 54 fumbles in 252 games; number six Jeff Garcia has lost 21 fumbles in 110 games; Palmer has lost 12 fumbles in 56 games.

Warner is a wonderfully gifted passer who generates a lot of offense but his turnovers also help the other team put points on the board.


The Philadelphia Eagles had an excellent game plan offensively and defensively. They executed it reasonably well. The New England Patriots were not as sharp as usual, yet they still won, 31-28. Even the greatest teams have at least one close call sooner or later; rather than a "blueprint" for how to beat New England this is more likely a wakeup call of sorts and may turn out to be the closest that the Patriots come to losing all year. You just know that Bill Belichick will be serving extra portions of "humble pie" this week and that his players will devour every crumb. That process actually seemed to begin during the game; New England adjusted to the pass rush pressure the Eagles brought by shelving the deep passing game to Randy Moss and utilizing Wes Welker on short, quick hitting pass patterns. Welker's 13 receptions tied for the second most ever by a New England player in one game. Tom Brady went 34-54 for 380 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. It was clearly his worst game of the year--and he still had a passer rating of 90.0, a number that would rank in the top ten for all NFL quarterbacks this season.

Donovan McNabb is supposedly the Eagles' franchise player and he certainly deserves credit for leading the team to four NFC Championship Game appearances and one Super Bowl. However, there are questions about his ability to perform in big games and there are also questions about how valuable he is at this stage of his career after sustaining so many injuries recently. The Eagles looked better last year with Jeff Garcia at quarterback than they did with McNabb calling the signals and they certainly did very well on Sunday with A.J. Feeley (27-42, 345 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, 83.9 rating) at the helm. McNabb's rating this season is 87.3, slightly above his career average, but he has been all over the map, from a perfect 158.3 rating in a week three 56-21 rout of Detroit to a .4 rating (that is not a typo) in a 17-7 win over Miami. When Terrell Owens was an Eagle he raised some eyebrows by publicly questioning McNabb's performance down the stretch in the team's Super Bowl loss to New England; the media jumped all over Owens and McNabb called Owens' comments an example of "black on black crime"--but most of the other Eagles were conspicuously reluctant to come to McNabb's defense and some of them reportedly even privately agreed with what Owens said. Owens may have been wrong to say what he did but that does not mean that what he said was wrong.


The Pittsburgh Steelers maintained a one game lead over Cleveland in the AFC North by beating Miami on Monday in a 3-0 slopfest at Heinz Field. The lowest scoring game in the history of Monday Night Football was delayed due to lightning and probably should have been canceled due to deplorable field conditions. One punt hit the turf and came to a dead stop as literally half the ball sank into the soggy, muddy quagmire that resembled quicksand. The Steelers had their first scoreless first half at home in a regular season game since 1955. As a Browns fan I would have loved to see Pittsburgh lose but I disagree with any suggestion that the bad field conditions hurt Miami's chances of pulling off the upset; the winless Dolphins are clearly inferior to the Steelers, who spent much of the game operating in Miami territory but were unable to score until just seconds remained in the contest. Without the leveling effect provided by the muddy field, the Steelers--who have been dominant at home all season--would probably have won by three touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger set a Steelers record for single game completion percentage, going 18-21 for 165 yards. His only serious mistake was a first quarter interception by ex-Steeler Joey Porter.

Give Miami credit for fighting hard until the end. As ESPN's Steve Young noted, the Dolphins did not make many errors in terms of execution and played a lot better than one would expect from an 0-11 team. They have lost six games by three points or less but that will be little consolation if they end up becoming the first NFL team to go winless since the NFL expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978. While the game was literally an eyesore, one of the highlights of any Monday Night Football game on ESPN is hearing Steve Young's pregame and postgame analysis. Young constantly provides interesting insights based on his experiences as a top quarterback and he steadfastly refuses to hype up players, teams or matchups that do not deserve it. After the Pittsburgh-Miami game he said simply that there was nothing that happened that was worth analyzing: the Steelers are the better team and they did just enough to win but due to the uniquely bad conditions this contest told us nothing about their ability to beat New England or Indianapolis, particularly on the road, which is the challenge that Pittsburgh will likely face in this year's playoffs. I always respected Young's approach to what he terms the "craft" of being an NFL quarterback and it is clear that he takes being an analyst just as seriously.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Marion Jones' Records are Gone: Is Barry Bonds Next?

Various reasons have been supplied for why Barry Bonds' numerous baseball records cannot be removed from the books even if he is convicted of lying to a federal grand jury about using steroids. Disgraced track and field star Marion Jones is in a very similar situation to Bonds; she never failed a drug test but she has admitted to lying about her steroid use (Bonds admitted to unknowingly using steroids but has been charged with perjury because the federal government believes that he knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs). The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, has decided to completely eliminate all of Jones' results after Sept. 1, 2000. Jones, who is suspended from competing until October 7, 2009, has been ordered to return all the prize money--approximately $700,000--and awards that she received during that time period and will not be reinstated until she does so. Baseball pundits say that Bonds' records cannot be erased because this will create chaos--affecting pitchers' statistics, team won/loss records and so forth--but the IAAF seems to be completely unconcerned about similar ramifications for track and field; clean athletes who finished behind Jones will be moved up in the standings and if there are no clean athletes behind her in certain events then the gold medal position may simply be left vacated.

The IAAF solution may not be perfect but it sets a good example; cheaters like Jones try to achieve historical immortality, so the best way to dissuade future cheaters is to show that cheaters who are caught will not keep their records. What if someone who also cheated is moved up to replace Jones or Bonds? The investigation of drug use is ongoing, so just like it took some time to catch Jones it may take some time to catch other previously undetected cheaters--but just because every single cheater has not been caught and punished we should not let the ones who have been caught off the hook. The information in Game of Shadows alone presents a very compelling case against Bonds; even if he somehow skates on the federal government's perjury charges, MLB should demand that Bonds offer some explanation or refutation of the book's assertions. "Innocent until proven guilty" applies only to criminal charges; if MLB wants its record book to continue to have any meaning then it cannot afford to simply ignore the mountain of evidence that indicates that Bonds cheated and that his cheating directly correlated with an increase in his power numbers. Otherwise, MLB does a great disservice not only to the clean sluggers of the past decade but also the retired sluggers who Bonds has passed in the record book.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Lions Look Like Turkeys, Get Stuffed by Packers

Wait a second--Brett Favre just completed another pass against the Lions; when the tryptophan takes effect in Detroit, the Lions and their fans will have nightmare visions of Packers' receivers running down the field after catching passes from Favre, who set a team record with 20 straight completions en route to throwing for his most yards in a game in three years (381). Favre completed 31 of his 41 attempts, tossing three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Packers improved to 10-1 with a 37-26 victory in the traditional Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.

Detroit actually got off to a good start, scoring a field goal on the first possession of the game and then kicking another field goal after recovering a Favre fumble. The problem with kicking two field goals, though, is that one touchdown wipes out your entire lead--and that is exactly what happened after Aaron Rouse intercepted Jon Kitna and returned the ball 34 yards to the Detroit 11 yard line. Favre threw a touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on the next play and Green Bay never trailed again. The Packers kept the Lions out of the end zone until the fourth quarter, stretching their lead to 31-12 before Detroit scored a couple late touchdowns to cut the margin to 34-26. Favre sealed the win with a 10 play, 72 yard drive that led to a field goal and--just as importantly--drained most of the remaining time.

Assuming that the Dallas Cowboys beat the New York Jets today, this sets up a very good matchup for next Thursday: 10-1 Green Bay visiting 10-1 Dallas in a game that will likely decide home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tom Brady: "We're Trying to Kill Teams"

In an interview with WEEI Radio that was replayed on SportsCenter, New England quarterback Tom Brady frankly admitted what many people suspected anyway, namely that the Patriots are trying to blow out their opponents: "We're trying to play extremely well. We're not trying to win 42-28. We're trying to win--we're trying to kill teams, to blow them out if we can. You want to build momentum for each week. You don't want it to be 42-7 or 35-7 and then all of a sudden you look up and it's 35-21."

I realize that some people may have a problem with a philosophy that is so brutally aggressive and others may find it unseemly for Brady to say such things--but football is by nature a brutally aggressive game and there is no provision in the rules for the losing team to just concede defeat. New England's meticulous preparation and aggressive mindset are the reasons that the Patriots are obliterating the NFL record book. Instead of whining about what the Patriots are doing the other teams should be taking notes and fans should admire and respect a level of professionalism and dedication that has not been seen in sports since the Jordan-Pippen Bulls ruled the NBA.

I simply don't understand how fans who complain about overpaid, underachieving athletes can be mad at an organization that stresses playing hard until the final gun goes off. To put it bluntly, which team would you rather watch: the New England Patriots or the Cincinnati Bengals?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Double Doink Keys Browns Victory Over Ravens

Cleveland Browns fans do not usually think to themselves "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Usually, a more appropriate musing would be, "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" or, more concisely, "Misery." Perhaps that is finally starting to change this season: the Browns improved to 6-4 after a 33-30 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns forced the overtime with what NBC's Keith Olbermann called "the longest field goal in NFL history." Phil Dawson's 51 yarder was not even the longest of his career in terms of distance and it fell 12 yards short of the NFL record shared by Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam but Olbermann's quip refers not to yardage but to time; it took the game officials about five minutes to determine that Dawson's attempt was in fact good. The ball struck the left upright (doink number one) then hit the support behind the crossbar (doink number two) before bouncing forward into the endzone. That last forward movement led one official to signal "no good" but the other official standing in the back of the endzone realized that the kick had in fact cleared the crossbar. Technically, this kind of play is not reviewable, so referee Pete Morelli went to great lengths to explain to the crowd and the TV audience that the officials reached their conclusion by consultation amongst themselves as opposed to using a video review. In any case, they made the right ruling, a bounce (actually, two bounces) and a call actually went the Browns' way and the Browns took advantage of this second chance (they blew a 13 point fourth quarter lead) to drive downfield during overtime and convert a perfectly normal field goal to seal the win. This is their second 33-30 overtime win in the past three weeks, placing the Browns firmly in the hunt for a playoff berth and reviving memories of the old Kardiac Kids who specialized in playing games that were not decided until the final moments.

While the Browns have emerged as perhaps the most surprising team of the season, their cross-state rival Cincinnati Bengals are one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. At 3-7 they reside in last place in the AFC North. They have a talented roster and they have not suffered from an unusual number of injuries--unless you count the disease of selfishness that has apparently spread from mouthy wide receiver Chad Johnson to several other players on the team. As the team's most reliable wide receiver--T.J. Houshmandzadeh--put it after the Bengals' 35-27 loss to Arizona, "Talent doesn't win games, obviously. We're a good example of that." They say that a picture is worth a thousand words and if you are looking for a portrait of the self absorption that has led directly to the Bengals' collapse then look no further than this snapshot from the Arizona game: Johnson sitting on the field lost in thought (no doubt about how great he is), completely oblivious to the scrum directly to his left where players from both teams are fighting to recover a ball that he fumbled. The media has spent a lot of time singing the praises of "Ocho Cinco" while informing us that Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Kobe Bryant are selfish players. Last I checked, those three players are performing very well for winning teams--but I would not hold my breath waiting for retractions of the criticisms of Owens, Moss and Bryant or rewrites of the breathless praise of Johnson.

The big question at the top of the AFC North is whether or not the Steelers are for real. The answer depends on what one means by "for real." Pittsburgh is the best team in the division, owning a one game lead over the Browns that is really a two game lead because they swept the season series over Cleveland. The Steelers are dominant at home but shaky on the road. One would think that their formula of running the ball on offense while playing teeth rattling defense would travel well but that has not been the case this season. Pittsburgh will win the AFC North and will survive in the AFC playoffs until they have to go on the road, where they will be road kill at the hands of New England or Indianapolis.

Turning to the NFC--also known as the conference that will offer up a sacrificial lamb to be destroyed by the Patriots in the Super Bowl--it is hard to know what to make of the Green Bay Packers. They have been mediocre at best for several years and their best player, quarterback Brett Favre, is playing as well as he ever has despite reaching an age at which some of his greatest predecessors rapidly declined. For most of the season the Packers could not run the ball but now they have shown signs of life on the ground. The real secret with this team is that they play very good defense. I keep thinking that the whole thing is a mirage and that one week it will all collapse like a house of cards but 10 weeks into the season I have to admit that they are not a fluke. It will be very interesting to see what happens when they play the Cowboys in week 13. My suspicion is that the Cowboys will beat them without too much trouble.

Thought of the Week: I'm sick of hearing complaints that the Patriots are running up the score. In the second half of the Buffalo game--as NBC's Al Michaels and John Madden quite correctly pointed out--the Patriots were using running backs no one has ever heard of on simple plays up the middle and they were still gaining huge chunks of yardage. This is not pee wee football; there is no mercy rule. I think that the complaints are coming from fans and media members and not the teams themselves but if any player or team has a problem with what New England is doing then they should take a page from boxing or chess: throw in the towel or resign. Of course, neither of those options is available in the NFL, so both teams are required to play until the final gun.

Thought of the Week II: I disagree with how Bill Parcells used Terrell Owens last season but I like the way that Parcells handled Owens' not so veiled criticism of him. ESPN ran the clip of Owens saying that this year's coaching staff is using him better than last year's coaching staff did and then Monday Night Countdown host Chris Berman asked Parcells for his response. Parcells smiled and said simply, "I agree with everything he said. They are using him better. He is playing better." I also have no problem with what Owens said or how he said it; coaches publicly criticize players all the time and what Owens said was very measured, so much so that even Parcells himself had to admit that Owens is right.

Thought of the Week III: We have often been told that quarterback is the most important position. We also have often been told that Peyton Manning may be the greatest quarterback of all-time. It is very interesting to see that without Marvin Harrison he has suddenly become not just mediocre but actually bad--in fact, his passer rating for the past three weeks (55.5) is lower than the full season passer ratings of every single qualifier listed in the league's official rankings! In the past three games, Manning has completed just 66 of 115 passes (.574) for 716 yards (6.2 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and eight interceptions. In the first seven games of the season, he had a 97.9 passer rating, completing 138 of 232 passes (.595) for 1833 yards (7.9 yards per attempt) with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. We've seen Tom Brady win Super Bowls with receivers who could not even start for Indianapolis and this season we are seeing what Tom Brady can do with a first rate receiving corps: rewrite the record book. Now that we have a good idea of what Brady would have been doing for years if he had had Marvin Harrison, don't you wonder what Manning would have been doing if he had had Brady's receivers? Somehow, I don't think that Manning would have been winning three Super Bowls.

What does all of this mean? 1) Manning is a talented player but Brady is without question the best quarterback of this era. 2) Quarterback may be the most important position but no one player can win games by himself in a team sport, no matter what the media tries to tell you.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Terrell Owens: Future Hall of Famer

How many active NFL players can legitimately be said to be future Hall of Famers? Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Marvin Harrison immediately come to mind. Terrell Owens is a player who many fans and media members love to hate but it is indisputable that he has already put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers--and he shows no signs of slowing down even though his 34th birthday is less than a month away.

In Dallas' 28-23 win on Sunday over division rival Washington, Owens produced all four of the Cowboys' scores, tying Bob Hayes' franchise record for TD receptions in one game. Owens finished with eight receptions for 173 yards, his fourth straight game with at least 100 yards receiving. He ranks 10th all-time in career receptions (859), 11th all-time in career receiving yards (12,743) and third all-time in career receiving touchdowns (126; add in his two career rushing TDs and Owens now ranks sixth in total career TDs, just ahead of Jim Brown and Walter Payton). Owens' production this season makes it painfully obvious that he was right all along that former Cowboys' coach Bill Parcells did not involve him enough in the offense. Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones told, "From the coaches on down, all of us wanted to use (Owens) more than he was used last year. Everyone on this staff felt that way. And (receivers coach) Ray Sherman has been a difference-maker with him."

Owens is sometimes knocked for dropping passes but he also has produced a lot of big games, including 29 contests in which he has caught at least two touchdowns; that is tied with Cris Carter for second on the all-time list behind Jerry Rice (44), who ranks first in every meaningful career category for receivers. This season, Owens leads the NFC with both 1028 receiving yards and 18 receptions of at least 20 yards. Like basketball stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Owens cannot be guarded one on one and when he is double-teamed that opens up opportunities for his teammates to make plays.

People act like Owens brought down the Philadelphia Eagles when the reality is they played their best ball when he was there and they have been on the decline since he left (for a multitude of reasons, but lack of a big play wide receiver is a major one). All Owens wanted in Philadelphia was to to be involved in the offense and to renegotiate his contract so that it reflected his value to the team and recognized that he potentially risked his career by playing with a broken ankle during the Super Bowl. I guess the Eagles sure have taught him a lesson for wanting to be a big play receiver and for wanting to be compensated like one.

You cannot mention Owens' name this year without mentioning Randy Moss' name and vice versa. After Owens' four touchdown game on Sunday afternoon, Moss responded with four touchdown receptions in the first half of New England's 56-10 rout of Buffalo on Sunday night. Statistically, Moss has been the best receiver in the NFL this season, with 66 catches (fifth in the NFL) for a league-best 1052 yards and 16 touchdowns, but Owens is right on his heels in all three categories (58 receptions, 1028 yards, 12 touchdowns). I've seen various TV analysts debate which player they'd prefer to have. I would choose Owens, narrowly, for a couple reasons: (1) he is bigger and stronger than Moss, which means that it is tougher to jam him at the line of scrimmage and which also helps him be a better blocker; (2) Owens has been productive for each of the three teams he played for and with a number of different coaches and quarterbacks but Moss seemingly went on hiatus while he was in Oakland. Worse than that, Moss' comments and actions strongly gave the impression that he was not all too concerned about whether or not his team won.

Clearly, Moss has been a model citizen in New England and a perfect fit with quarterback Tom Brady but Owens seems to be tougher, more self motivated, better able to play hurt and more willing to play through adversity. Moss is playing hard now but it is impossible to forget how he almost let his career go down the drain in Oakland. I understand that he was not working with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady out there but I'm talking about effort and attitude more than his statistical production during those years. Belichick obviously did his homework and found out that Moss would indeed fit in with the "Patriot way" but Owens has been consistently productive for playoff teams in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Least of Barry Bonds' Concerns Now is an Asterisk

Barry Bonds' baseball career is likely over now that the federal government has indicted him on four charges of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice.'s Gene Wojciechowski probably put it best and most succinctly: "Essentially, Bonds perpetrated a fraud." After a thorough investigation, the government concluded that Bonds knowingly took steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs and lied about his actions to a federal grand jury that was investigating BALCO. Bonds potentially faces up to 30 years in prison but ESPN's legal analyst Lester Munson explains that if Bonds is convicted he will likely receive a one to two year sentence.

As I wrote after Bonds' last game this season, "It did not have to end this way--and Barry Bonds has no one but himself to blame that it did." That is actually true in two ways. One, Bonds has so much natural ability that he could have easily been a Hall of Famer without breaking the law (yes, folks, even if MLB's steroids rules are fairly recent, the use of performance-enhancing drugs without a prescription has been illegal for quite some time). Two, the federal government offered to give Bonds immunity from prosecution from any drug use that he might have engaged in as long as he agreed to testify truthfully. Instead, Bonds, like Marion Jones, chose to lie. Now, like Jones, he will have to pay the price for years of criminal activity and deception.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ron Jaworski: "The Polish Rifle"

During last week's Monday Night Football game, ESPN showed a highlight from one of Ron Jaworski's appearances on MNF--not as a broadcaster, the way that most young fans know him, but as a player with the Philadelphia Eagles. "The Polish Rifle," as Jaworski was known because of his ethnic heritage and rocket arm, dropped back to pass on November 12, 1979 as Howard Cosell explained that Jaworski had been in a slump recently but was performing very well on this night, a 31-21 Eagles win over the Dallas Cowboys. As Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser teased Jaworski about Cosell's backhanded compliment, something that Tirico said struck me: that clip was from 28 years ago. I had never thought about it until that moment but football fans who are college-age or younger now not only don't remember Jaworski's playing days but they weren't even born during them.

I very clearly recall Jaworksi's success with the Eagles because it coincided with one of the most exciting times to be a Browns fan, the brief but memorable "Kardiac Kids" era when quarterback Brian Sipe led the team to several dramatic wins, capturing the 1980 NFL MVP along the way. The Browns seemed to be a team of destiny in 1980 but those hopes died suddenly and brutally after Sipe's late interception in a 14-12 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders (a play call known forever to long-suffering Browns fans as "Red Right 88"). Jaworksi was the best quarterback in the NFC in 1980, leading the Eagles to Super Bowl XV, where they suffered their own heartbreak at the hands of the Silver and Black, losing 27-10 (yes, kids, the Raiders were once upon a time an excellent organization that annually produced winning teams).

The first Super Bowl that I remember--and still the most exciting ever, in my book--is Super Bowl XIII, Pittsburgh's 35-31 win over Dallas, a game that was played a few months before the old Jaworski clip that Tirico, Kornheiser and Jaworski chuckled about last week. As Tirico mentioned, that was 28 years ago. Twenty eight years prior to that takes one back before Jim Brown's career even started to when Otto Graham was annually leading the Browns to the NFL Championship Game. In 1979, that seemed like ancient history to me and as I watched the Jaworski highlight it dawned on me that to many young viewers Jaworski's playing career is every bit as ancient as Graham's was to me as a kid.

Obviously, Jaworksi was no Graham but he had a very solid career and along the way he formed the habits and outlook that shape the way that he analyzes games today. A couple weeks ago, Steve Sabol's outstanding program "NFL Films Presents" looked back at Jaworski's career, from his high school days in Lackawanna, New York to his emergence as one of the NFL's best passers to his current role as an MNF analyst.

Jaworski played for Youngstown State and he tells Sabol about a time when he and some of his college buddies went to Buffalo during a bye week to watch the Bills play against Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Jaworksi recalls thinking to himself that he could throw a ball as well as Namath did. He laughs about that with Sabol and says that whether or not he really could throw as well as Namath that he believed it at the time and it gave him confidence going forward.

Jaworksi began his career with the L.A. Rams. He only played sparingly in his first three seasons but he was the starting quarterback (12-23, 203 yards, 1 TD) as the Rams beat the St. Louis Cardinals 35-23 in a playoff game in 1975. Coach Chuck Knox did not start Jaworski the next week versus Dallas, though Jaworski did eventually play in the 37-7 loss to the Cowboys. "I think Coach Knox would have to answer that question," Jaworski replies when Sabol asks why he did not start in the NFC Championship Game. After the 1976 season, Jaworski was traded to the Eagles. Philadelphia is where Jaworski got his nickname "Jaws," a tag applied by Sixers' All-Star guard Doug Collins because, as Jaworski tells it, Collins said to him, "Your lips are always flapping. You never shut up" (ironically, both of them are now TV commentators); Philadelphia is also where Jaworski really hit his stride as quarterback, thanks to the tutelage of Coach Dick Vermeil, who was a father figure to him. Jaworski tied for third in the NFL in TD passes in his first year with the team but he also threw 21 interceptions and received the typical Philadephia greeting after each and every one of them. The fans were not convinced that Jaworski was the right man for the job but Vermeil had unwavering faith in him, as memorably displayed in two clips from the NFL Films archive. In the first one, Vermeil calls Jaworksi over to him on the sideline and tells him, "I want you to hear me when I say this: you never have to worry about me jerking you (out of the game)." The second one shows Vermeil speaking to assembled members of the media: "Guys, you might as well write this: I am not going to let the fans substitute my quarterback. They've been doing that here for years and they've never come up with a quarterback that can win for them. I've got one that can win for us." Jaworski tells Sabol, "I can't explain what a euphoric feeling it was to have the coach have that confidence in me. It really was a galvanizing moment in my career." As the saying goes, if a coach listens to the fans then he will soon be sitting next to them. Vermeil's loyalty, strength and wisdom were soon rewarded as Jaworski led the Eagles to a 12-4 record in 1980, reaching career-highs in yards (3529) and TDs (27) and earning the UPI's NFL Player of the Year award. Five years after not starting against Dallas in the NFC Championship Game, Jaworski led the Eagles to a 20-7 win over the Cowboys to earn a trip to the Super Bowl; to this day, Jaworski wears the 1980 NFC Championship ring to as a reminder of the greatest triumph of his NFL career.

Jaworski candidly admits that his goal for the 1980 season was to win the NFC Championship and that he was very happy to accomplish this but he quickly adds that this is not why the Eagles lost to the Raiders. "From my own personal standpoint, I tried too hard to make every play," Jaworski says of his performance in the Super Bowl. "I didn't let the game come to me. I tried to force things."

"Ron was such a competitor that from time to time he could be too competitive," Vermeil recalls. "'Let me at 'em, I'll get 'em, it doesn't matter what they're doing, I am going to throw this strike.'"

Jaworski is known for his perpetually sunny disposition, so it would not be completely accurate to say that he never got over this loss but it did leave a mark on him and that mark has not faded with time. "Here we are, 27 years later, and it hurts worse. It actually hurts worse," Jaworski says. Part of the reason that the pain is worse now is that in 1980 Jaworski and the Eagles expected to have more chances to win the Super Bowl. However, things quickly unraveled. First came the players' strike, which Jaworski says affected the timing and rhythm of his team more than it affected other squads; then Vermeil famously became the poster child for burnout, resigning as the Eagles Coach in 1982. Jaworksi believes that were it not for the strike and Vermeil's departure that the Eagles would have eventually won a Super Bowl.

Jaworski paid a price for his NFL success--including 32 concussions and numerous broken bones--but he displayed remarkable durability, starting 116 straight games, a record at the time for quarterbacks (Brett Favre later shattered that mark). A broken leg ended his consecutive game streak in 1986 and his Eagles career came to a stunning end after that season when the team simply released him. He later returned to the city for a preseason game as a Miami Dolphin and the crowd enthusiastically cheered him, something that writer Ray Didinger calls the city's "apology" for how much Jaworski was booed during his time there. Jaworski simply says that he appreciates the respect and that he feels that now the fans better appreciate how much toughness he showed by playing through so many injuries.

Jaworski retired after the 1989 season. Interestingly, he hardly planned on becoming a football commentator on TV. He had made some investments in real estate and golf courses but Sabol had a different idea: he wanted Jaworski to break down games for a show called "Zenith Monday Night Match-up." That eventually led to Jaworski being hired by ESPN and now, not quite two decades later, he is one of the most well known and respected football analysts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Strange Statistics Abound

Was there a full moon this weekend? Something strange was definitely in the air in several NFL stadiums and the result was some very odd statistics:

1) Peyton Manning threw a career-high six interceptions in Indianapolis' 23-21 loss to San Diego. That is the most interceptions by a quarterback in one game since Chris Chandler had six in his debut as a Rams starter in 2004. When was the last time you heard Peyton Manning and Chris Chandler in the same sentence? Manning's interception fiesta also set a franchise record and is more than four teams have thrown all season. Not surprisingly, Manning had a career-low 30.6 passer rating (nothing kills a passer rating faster than interceptions). Despite protecting the ball with all of the dexterity of Edward Scissorhands, Manning put the Colts in position for Adam Vinatieri--Mr. Reliable--to kick a 29 yard game-winning field goal. Vinatieri, who had earlier missed a field goal during a fire drill-like sequence as time ran out at the end of the first half, stunned everyone by missing again; he had made 16 of 18 attempts this season prior to this game and one of those misses was from farther than 50 yards. Vinatieri had not missed two field goals in one game since November 6, 2001 and had made 96.6 percent of his career field goal attempts of less than 30 yards prior to the Chargers game.

2) That Manning-Vinatieri duet of futility was strange but what Detroit did simply defies belief. If you simply sat in your chair and did not move backwards for three hours while watching your favorite team play on Sunday then you gained 18 more yards rushing than the Lions, whose -18 yards rushing in a 31-21 loss to Arizona is the fewest by a team in a regular season game since 1947.

3) The Cleveland Browns were outgained 401 yards to 163 by the Pittsburgh Steelers but still almost won the game. How did they do that? Easy--"hidden" yardage (i.e., yardage not included in statistics for total offense) from kickoff and punt returns, mainly by Joshua Cribbs, who racked up 223 return yards, including a 100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 90 yard kickoff return that set up another touchdown. Take away Cribbs' special team heroics and you have another typical Cleveland-Pittsburgh game in which the Steelers controlled the line of scrimmage and pounded away with their running game (159 yards on 35 attempts, leading to a 38:17 to 21:43 advantage in time of possession); the Browns had two first downs in the entire second half and they both came in the last minute. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson had a very good first half (10-15, 80 yards, three touchdowns, 114.6 passer rating) but was just 6-19 for 43 yards and a 40.9 passer rating in the second half, with most of his meager production coming when Pittsburgh was in prevent defense mode.

The Browns have come a long way this season but they are not in the Steelers' league just yet. There is also still at least some reason to question how good the Browns really are. Two of their wins came against the horrible Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams. The Browns shot themselves in the foot late in the Steelers game with some mental errors, including burning two timeouts after Pittsburgh took a 31-28 lead; the Browns used one right after the Steelers' go-ahead touchdown and lost the second one after their replay challenge of that play was not upheld. After the game, Coach Romeo Crennel explained, "I'm not sure what happened but a timeout was called on the field. And I followed it up with a challenge. Put it on me." OK, we will, because that mixup--plus a key holding penalty on the Browns' final punt return--led to the Browns having to try a 52 yard field goal that fell just short at the end of the game. In a game of inches and seconds, those lost yards and lost time made a big difference.

4) The Bengals beat the Ravens 21-7--nothing unusual there, until you realize that the 21 points came on seven field goals. Carson Palmer led the Bengals up and down the field without even once setting foot in the end zone.

5) Speaking of strange scores, Denver beat Kansas City 27-11 but for a while the scoreboard looked like it was from a Rockies-Royals interleague game: it was 5-3 K.C. before Denver hit a three run home run to make it 6-5 but then K.C. answered with a home run of their own to make it 8-6. Buffalo defeated Miami by the "normal" score of 13-10 but early in the game Miami led 3-2 before a seven run inning made it 10-2. Miami's "bullpen" blew the "save" to preserve the Dolphins' perfectly imperfect record. I bet that whoever supervises the scores that crawl across TV screens was scratching his head more than once on Sunday.

6) Boy, that Monday night game was a real barn burner, wasn't it? In keeping with the wacky numbers theme, here are some gems relating to Seattle's 24-0 drubbing of San Francisco. The 49ers remain the only NFL team to not score at least 20 points in a single game this season; they had just one first half first down and, as Mike Tirico mentioned more than once, that last second Hail Mary pass probably should have been ruled an incompletion. Their six first downs for the entire game is the second lowest total in the NFL this year, "bested" only by Baltimore's five in last week's Monday night game. Here is a nugget that should win a few bar bets (unless your mark watched the game until the bitter end--or reads this post): this was Seattle's fifth shutout on Monday Night Football, an all-time record. In fact, the Seahawks held the record prior to this victory, which is truly astonishing when you consider how often teams like the Steelers, Cowboys, 49ers, Dolphins (when they were good) and Raiders (ditto) have appeared on Monday Night Football.

The best part of the telecast was when Steve Young joined the broadcasting crew in the booth and talked about quarterbacking. Earlier, in reference to the struggles of San Francisco's Alex Smith and some of the other quarterbacks who have been drafted number one overall, Ron Jaworski said that teams spend a lot of money on scouting but that they evaluate the wrong things. Young agreed with this, noting that teams are too often wowed because a guy is 6-6 and can throw a ball 70 yards from his knees--things that have nothing to do with actually being productive in game situations. I have not scientifically studied this--and I have more direct experience talking with NBA scouts and talent evaluators than their counterparts in the NFL--but it seems to me that NBA teams are less prone to fall for a player who has a certain body type but no game or to disregard a player who does not have the "right" body type but does have game. Kevin Durant did notoriously poorly on the bench press test but still was selected with the number two overall pick in this year's NBA Draft. This is not to say that NBA scouting is perfect--obviously, it is not--but how many number one overall draft picks in the NBA have careers that mirror those of, say, Tim Couch or David Carr? Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, yet as Tony Kornheiser mentioned it seems like it is hit or miss when teams use a first round pick on a quarterback. Some of this may just have to do with differences in the nature of each sport. I remember that prior to the 1999 NFL Draft--which included Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown--more than one NFL talent evaluator publicly said that one or two of those guys would probably become a star, one or two would be decent and one or two would turn out to be a bust; the trick was to figure out which guys would fall into which category.

Young and Jaworski said that as former quarterbacks they can watch a guy and get a pretty good sense of whether or not he has what it takes to be a good NFL quarterback; prior to Young's arrival in the booth, Jaworski implored NFL teams to hire scouts who had played the position and who understand what to look for in a prospect in terms of fundamentals, technique and so forth. Young added that years ago he noticed that something was "off" as soon as he saw 49ers draft pick Jim Druckenmiller on the practice field; on the other hand, Tom Brady and Jeff Garcia have that certain intangible something that enables them to be productive. Young always speaks eloquently about what he calls the craft of quarterbacking, he steadfastly refuses to play along with either Stuart Scott's shtick or ESPN's incessant attempts to overhype things and I wish that he had a more prominent role in ESPN's NFL coverage. Nothing personal against Drew Carey, the other in-booth guest this week, but I'd rather have one more segment with Young talking about the NFL than listen to Carey.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Browns Seek to Exorcise Their House of Horror

The 5-3 Cleveland Browns visit 6-2 Pittsburgh this Sunday in a battle for first place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh has been a house of horror for the Browns for the majority of the years since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger placed the teams in the same division, first known as the AFC Central before it was renamed and reconstituted in 2002. The last season that the Browns had a really good team was 1994, when Bill Belichick was Cleveland's head coach; the Browns went 11-5 in the regular season, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the Steelers. Cleveland beat New England 20-13 in the Wild Card round and then got blasted by the Steelers 29-9 in the Divisional round. The last time that the Browns made the playoffs was 2002, when they snuck in with a 9-7 record; naturally, they dropped both regular season games with the Steelers and then lost to Pittsburgh 36-33 in the first round of the playoffs, a defeat made all the more painful because the Browns blew a 24-7 second half lead. Even when the Browns have been good, they still have had trouble dealing with the Steelers. Of course, since the Browns returned in 1999, they have generally been pretty bad and this is reflected in their particularly gruesome record against Pittsburgh since that time: 3-14 (15 if you count the 2002 playoff loss), including the past eight contests. Many of these games have been ghastly blowouts, including a 41-0 shellacking in 2005, a 27-7 loss in 2006 and a 34-7 decision in week one of this season.

The week one loss, "highlighted" by four Browns penalties on one play, was so horrible that it convinced me that the Browns would not go anywhere with Romeo Crennel as coach, and when the Browns made the seemingly knee jerk reaction to trade starting quarterback Charlie Frye to Seattle the franchise seemed to be more adrift than it had ever been, which is really saying something. I don't feel bad about being skeptical early in the year about the Browns' program under Crennel; the team has looked undisciplined during most of his tenure and it is safe to say that absolutely nobody could have predicted that after elevating Derek Anderson to the starting quarterback position that the Browns would suddenly have one of the most potent offensive attacks in the NFL and the best one that the team has had since the twilight of its glory days in the 1960s. Obviously, if Crennel had realized how good Anderson could be then he would not have been flipping a coin to decide between Frye and Anderson.

The Browns rank fourth in the league in scoring (28.4 ppg), behind only New England (39.4 ppg), Dallas (33.1 ppg) and Indianapolis (30.5 ppg) and just ahead of Pittsburgh (27.8 ppg). The Bernie Kosar-led Cleveland Browns in the 1980s peaked at 24.4 ppg in 1986 and 1987, while the Brian Sipe-led Kardiac Kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s topped off at 22.4 ppg in 1979; the only Browns teams that outscored the current squad were the 1964 NFL champions (29.6 ppg) and the 1966 squad (28.8 ppg) that went 9-5 the year after Jim Brown retired. Anderson is on track to break Sipe's single-season franchise record for touchdown passes (30; Anderson has 17) and emerging star Braylon Edwards may eclipse Gary Collins' team-record for touchdown receptions (13; Edwards has nine). Anderson, Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Jamal Lewis are the headliners on the offense but, as is often the case, their success is made possible by excellent offensive line play. The Browns drafted left tackle Joe Thomas with the third overall selection in the 2007 draft and he and his linemates have done a great job providing protection for Anderson, who attempted 48 passes in last week's win against Seattle without being sacked once.

The Browns are saying all the right things leading up to Sunday's showdown but what matters is not what is said but what is done. The Browns had never won in Three Rivers Stadium until Kosar led Cleveland to a 27-24 win there in 1986. That game, as much as anything else, announced that the Browns were serious contenders, and the team made it to three of the next four AFC Championship Games. A victory in Pittsburgh this Sunday would mean more to Browns' fans than scoring records, Pro Bowl selections or any other accomplishments that are within reach for this team and its top players; a victory in Pittsburgh could be the first step in exorcising Cleveland's house of horror and a statement that this Browns team is really going places.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Reflections on a Record-Setting Weekend

This exciting weekend of NFL action raised some questions:

1a) Will the New England Patriots put together a perfect season?
1b) Will Tom Brady break every single passing record known to man?

Games versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants seem to represent the biggest potential roadblocks but the Patriots will obviously be huge favorites in every game the rest of the way; after all, they went into the home of the reigning Super Bowl champions as favorites and won the game. It does not seem like Bill Belichick and the Patriots will shut things down even if (when) they clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs so unless injuries strike someone will have to beat the Patriots at full strength. Here is the most compelling reason to believe that the Patriots can go 16-0 and then run the table in the playoffs to finish 19-0, topping the 17-0 mark posted by the 1972 Miami Dolphins: the Patriots have already done something very similar to this, so neither outside pressure nor complacency within their locker room will affect them the way that such factors might impact a different team; the Patriots won 18 straight regular season games in 2003-04, setting an all-time NFL record (the Patriots actually won 21 games in a row counting the 2003 playoffs, but playoff games are not officially included in a regular season record). I believe that the Patriots will have a perfect season. They have the talent, focus and motivation to do so.

Brady is threatening to lap the field in single-season passer rating (131.8; the record is 121.1 by Peyton Manning in 2004) and single-season touchdowns (33 in nine games; the record is 49 in 16 games by Manning in 2005). He also could break the single-season completion percentage record (73.2; the record is 70.55 by Ken Anderson in 1982) and it is not out of the question that he could break Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5084 passing yards. If Brady does not get hurt, the touchdown record is history for sure; he's had at least three TD tosses in each of the first nine games this year (that's a record, too) and we have already seen that the Patriots have no intention of ever backing off no matter how big of a lead that they get. The main thing that kills a passer rating is interceptions. Brady does not throw many but it seems like when he does they come in bunches. He only had two in the first eight games and then he tossed two against Indianapolis. If he makes it through the rest of the season with four or fewer interceptions then he will likely rack up enough positive numbers to amass the highest passer rating ever. The completion percentage record and yardage record work at cross purposes, because the long bombs that lead to big chunks of yardage are hard to convert at a greater than 70% rate. I think that Brady will break the completion percentage record in a photo finish while winding up with about 4800 yards.

2) Would the Colts have beaten the Patriots with Marvin Harrison/can the Colts reasonably expect to beat the Patriots on the road in the AFC Playoffs?

It may be tempting to say that since the Colts came so close to beating the Patriots without Harrison that they would have won if he had played but it is not that simple. The Patriots focused their attention on Dallas Clark and basically shut him down. Joseph Addai then had a big game but his touchdown came on a check down play during which some Patriot defenders collided with each other. If Harrison had played, then Addai would have gotten fewer touches but Clark may have seen the ball more if the Patriots focused their defense on Harrison. The game would definitely have been different but the outcome would probably have been the same because in the end the reality is that the Colts had no answer for Randy Moss--and unless Harrison is going to play defensive back and shut down Moss, that is not going to change. It is only natural for the Colts' coaching staff to take a positive tone with its players and stress that New England can be beaten but the previous history between these teams is that the winner of the regular season matchup goes on to win the playoff game.

3) If Terrell Owens is such a team cancer then why have his Cowboys emerged as the best team in the NFC?

Terrell Owens had some big playoff games for San Francisco and he played a key role in helping Philadelphia make it to Super Bowl XXXIX. The season after that, the Eagles decided to get rid of him. Of course, since he plays for Dallas he returns to Philadelphia once a year. During Dallas' 38-17 Sunday night road win over Philadelphia, NBC's John Madden offered some useful reminders about Owens, who had 10 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown against his old team: "He was very good for the Eagles. They hadn't had a top receiver in a long time and he was that guy. He did go to the Super Bowl with them, so it wasn't like he was a bust here. I mean, Terrell Owens was a very good football player before he got here (in Philadelphia), he was (a good football player) here and he is (a good football player) after he was here." Then NBC ran a graphic showing that in the 21 games that Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens played in together they hooked up for 20 TD passes (1 TD for every 11 passes that McNabb threw) and a 107.1 passer rating. McNabb has played longer with other receivers but he still has thrown more TDs to Owens than anyone else; McNabb's career record in 111 games with all of his other wide receivers put together includes 61 TD passes (1 TD for every 26 passes) and a 75.8 passer rating. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, an ESPN commentator at the time, put it best when the Eagles were trying to decide whether or not to get rid of Owens; Irvin predicted that they would regret it if they did not keep him, declaring that such a move would amount to "losing their ass to save their face" (i.e., appeasing McNabb for public relations purposes but actually making the on field product worse). Think what you want about Owens, McNabb and Irvin, but the cold, hard numbers in that NBC graphic prove that Irvin was 100% correct. McNabb has never been as good as he was when he played with Owens and neither has that team. Owens potentially put his career in jeopardy to play in the Super Bowl despite a broken ankle--and he was the best Philadelphia player on the field anyway. Funny how the Eagles got rid of their alleged cancer and yet they are in terminal condition now. I realize that there are more factors at play in the Eagles' decline than just getting rid of Owens but anyone who thinks that dumping Owens made the Eagles better is deluding himself. It is not coincidental that Owens' new team is in first place and his old team is in last place. I recently read a message board comment in which an Eagles fan said he'd rather see the team go 0-16 then keep a guy like Owens--sadly for the more rational Eagles fans, the team's management apparently thinks the same way.

4) Will Adrian Peterson break Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 1808 rushing yards in a season?

Peterson set the single-game rushing record on Sunday with 296 yards, his second 200 yard game in his eight game career (which is also a record). With 1036 yards already, Peterson does not even have to average 100 yards per game in the last eight contests in order to catch Dickerson. Barring injury, it seems extremely likely that Peterson will surpass Dickerson. Peterson even has a decent shot at reaching 2105 yards, the all-time single season record that Dickerson set in 1984, his second year in the NFL. Running back is one NFL position where a talented player can make an immediate impact even on a mediocre team. Any questions about Peterson have always focused on his durability, not his skills; as long as he stays healthy there are a of records that are potentially in jeopardy.

5) What happens when your mouth writes checks that your body cannot cash?

The short answer is that your team reaches the halfway point of the season with a 2-6 record and you end up in the hospital. I hope that Chad Johnson makes a quick and complete recovery from the neck injury that he suffered in Cincinnati's 33-21 loss to Buffalo. That said, Johnson's antics are just as tiresome as those of Gilbert Arenas and it is worth mentioning that Johnson's conduct directly led to the big hit that took him out of the game. Buffalo safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Coy Wire both collided with Johnson late in the contest. After the game, Whitner said, "Everybody I talked to this week said, 'Please hit Chad Johnson.' That's how everybody feels, especially when you have a good player that talks so much."

Earlier in the game, Johnson broke into the clear but dropped a pass when he saw Whitner coming. Johnson told Whitner, "I'm going to get that," meaning that he would make the play the next time. Not everybody likes hearing about how they are supposedly going to get beaten, so Whitner replied, "OK, next time you come across here, I got something for you." Sure enough, Whitner was as good as his word.

Whitner made it clear that he did not intend to injure Johnson, just to send a message to him and future opponents as well: "I didn't try to hurt him. It was a clean, legal hit. Other teams will see that and see how physical we play...I hope he's all right...I hope he's healthy and able to play next week or the following week."

One thing that is becoming more clear with each passing week is that Johnson is not even the best receiver on his own team. That title belongs to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has at least one TD reception in each of the Bengals' first eight games, tying an NFL record. After Johnson dropped the pass in front of Whitner and bragged about what he would do the next time, Houshmandzadeh could be seen on the sidelines showing Johnson how he should have positioned his hands to make the catch. What a novel idea--focusing one's mind and one's energy on how to play better instead of on trying to be clever.

Years ago, people used to call Corey Dillon a malcontent but I always thought that was bull. He played hard and gave it his all--he just got tired of playing alongside knuckleheads and halfsteppers. When he arrived in New England, Dillon was no longer in a bad mood all the time. Same thing with Randy Moss. I once heard Chad Johnson say that he got along great with Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl and that Belichick would love to have him on his team. That may be true but there is no way that Belichick would have "Ocho Cinco" on his team, so if winning is important to Johnson maybe he needs to give his alter ego a rest for a while.

Stat of the Week I: In the wake of New England's three previous Super Bowl wins and 9-0 start this year it is easy to forget that people used to actually believe that Bill Belichick merely rode Bill Parcells' coattails to success as an assistant coach with the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets. Consider this: Parcells' record as a head coach with Belichick on his staff was 117-73-1 with two Super Bowl wins, a third Super Bowl appearance and four other trips to the playoffs. Without Belichick by his side, Parcells' record as a head coach was 55-57 in seven seasons with just two playoff appearances and no playoff wins. Coattails indeed.

Stat of the Week II: Adrian Peterson's 296 yard game broke Jamal Lewis' 2003 mark by one yard. Lewis had surpassed Corey Dillon's 2000 total of 278 yards but this record did not used to fall every three to four years; Walter Payton's 275 yards in 1977 held the top spot for nearly a quarter century. The evolution of this record since 1933 makes for some interesting reading. Jim Brown held the career rushing record for 21 years but only kept the single-game record for six years.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Fourth Quarter Rally Preserves Patriots' Perfect Record

In perhaps the most anticipated regular season NFL game ever, the New England Patriots flipped the script from their playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, mounting a late comeback from a 20-10 deficit to post a thrilling 24-20 victory; New England led Indianapolis 21-6 at halftime in last season's AFC Championship Game before losing 38-34. This time, New England did not lead in the second half until Tom Brady connected with Kevin Faulk for a 13 yard touchdown pass with 3:15 remaining in the game. Jarvis Green forced a Peyton Manning fumble on the next series, Rosevelt Colvin recovered the ball and the Patriots ran out the clock to hand the Colts their first loss and thus become the NFL's last remaining undefeated team (9-0)--and if you thought that this was just another game to the Patriots, you were wrong: Coach Bill Belichick smiled broadly and congratulated his players as if they had just won the Super Bowl--or at least clinched home field advantage for the AFC Championship Game, which this victory probably did.

Brady completed 21 of 32 passes for 255 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions; he accumulated 158 of those yards and two of those touchdowns in the fourth quarter. With seven games left in the season, Brady broke the franchise record for single-season touchdown passes; he now has 33, giving him an excellent shot to smash Manning's NFL record of 49. Brady also broke Manning's NFL record by tossing at least three touchdown passes for the ninth straight game. New England wide receiver Randy Moss caught nine passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. He had one of the most amazing one handed receptions you will ever see, snaring the ball with his body vulnerably exposed at full extension as easily as a child picking low hanging fruit from a tree. Moss tied the franchise record for single-season touchdown receptions (12). Manning--who outplayed Brady for the majority of the game but not when it mattered most--completed 16 of 27 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai was the dominant player on the field for most of the game, becoming the first player in franchise history to compile more than 100 yards rushing and more than 100 yards receiving in the same game; he carried the ball 26 times for 112 yards and he caught five passes for 114 yards and one touchdown.

This game did not follow the template of dominance that New England had forged in the first eight games of the season. Indianapolis controlled the ball for most of the first quarter but only led 3-0 after the first 15 minutes. New England capped a 62 yard drive with a four yard Brady touchdown pass to Moss to take a 7-3 lead with 12:06 left in the second quarter. Indianapolis answered with a 73 yard drive but again had to settle for a field goal. New England's next drive was short circuited when Brady's pass to Donte Stallworth was intercepted by Antoine Bethea at the Indianapolis two yard line with 1:55 remaining before halftime. Two Addai runs and a couple short passes advanced the ball to the 27 yard line. Addai then caught a short pass, made a couple tacklers miss and sailed 73 yards to score the Colts' first touchdown.

The first half statistics suggest that the Patriots were fortunate to not be trailing by more than seven. Indianapolis did not punt in the first half and the Colts had just one penalty for five yards, while the Patriots committed five infractions for 102 yards; New England eventually racked up a franchise-record 146 penalty yards, breaking the old mark of 139 that was set on November 6, 1983 versus Buffalo. The longest play that the explosive New England offense produced in the first half covered just 14 yards. Brady went 8-12 for 59 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while Manning went 9-15 for 145 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 114.6 passer rating.

After New England opened the third quarter by going three and out, Rodney Harrison intercepted Manning on the Colts' first offensive play, marking the eighth straight game that Manning has thrown at least one interception versus the Patriots. New England now had the ball on the Colts' 30 yard line but after a penalty and a sack the Patriots lost 10 yards and had to punt. The Colts then went three and out. New England marched 73 yards but had to settle for a field goal that pulled the Patriots to within 13-10 with 2:26 left in the third quarter. Brady, not known for his mobility, kept the drive going with a season-long 19 yard run on a third and seven play from the New England 41; at that point, this was New England's longest play of the game. Statistically, this was Brady's worst game of the season; he threw as many interceptions in this game as he did in the previous eight but when he had to make plays in the second half he did. Brady's performance brings to mind an old quote from Larry Bird, the three-time NBA MVP who once explained that what he lives for on the basketball court is not scoring 30 points or having a triple double but simply that moment when he has the ball in his hands and he knows that he controls the outcome of the game.

The Patriots then forced the Colts to punt but three plays later the Colts got the ball back after Gary Brackett intercepted Brady. A penalty moved the ball to the New England 32 and the Colts eventually took a 20-10 lead on Manning's one yard touchdown run. New England now needed two scores in 9:42. Naturally, the Patriots turned to Brady and Moss to save the day. Brady's next six passes were directed toward Moss, with the duo eventually hooking up for a 55 yard bomb that brought the Patriots to the Indianapolis three yard line. A penalty moved the Patriots back 10 yards but Brady completed two passes to Wes Welker, including a three yard touchdown that made the score 20-17 Indianapolis. New England's defense stopped the Colts and Brady drove the Patriots 51 yards for the winning score in just 43 seconds.

It almost seems like the Patriots and Colts have traded places. The Patriots used to be built around their physically punishing defense, while the Colts were a finesse team that relied on a precision passing game. Now, the Colts' defense is flying around the field delivering big hits, while the Patriots' passing attack is on course to obliterate every aerial record known to man. Colts' fans will no doubt take solace in the fact that their team almost won despite playing without Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison, starting left tackle Tony Ugoh and starting linebackers Freddie Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler. Also, rookie Anthony Gonzalez, who took Harrison's place in the starting lineup, dislocated his thumb on the first play of the game. The larger story is that New England acquired Moss to help win games like this; mission one is accomplished but further missions remain in the AFC playoffs and the Super Bowl; just as the Colts can cite a missing player or a pivotal play that could have swung the outcome of this game, the Patriots can cite missing players or pivotal plays that could have changed the result of the AFC Championship Game. These two teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL and we can only hope that they meet again in this season's AFC Championship Game.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Knowledge is Power

Hall of Fame Basketball coach Pete Carril's motto is the title of his 1997 book: The Smart Take from the Strong. That is true not only in sports but in life in general. It is easy to become captivated by the amazing physical skills displayed by great collegiate and professional athletes but at the highest level everyone has tremendous physical gifts, so the difference between winning and losing often comes down to preparation before the game and sustained concentration during it.

A USA Today article by Bob Nightengale explains that Boston won the World Series before a pitch was thrown thanks to excellent advance scouting. They enjoyed a similar advantage prior to their 2004 championship--so much so, in fact, that Red Sox owner John Henry recalls that GM Theo Epstein and Manager Terry Francona were "not worried at all. (They) were almost giddy" before Boston swept the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Colorado Rockies had won 21 of their previous 22 games prior to the World Series but Boston's scouts identified several chinks in Colorado's armor. For instance, they suggested that Boston's pitching staff take advantage of the aggressiveness of young hitters Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins by feeding them a steady diet of pitches outside of the strike zone, figuring that they would not have the patience to work the count. Boston pitching coach John Farrell explains, "What we tried to do was identify those hitters in the lineup that wanted to be 'the guy,' thinking they might get a little overamped." Even something that might seem like a bang-bang, improvised action is often the product of scouting: a key game two play--picking off Matt Holliday from first base in the eighth inning when Boston led by just one run--was the direct result of a scouting report that noted that Holliday tends to try to steal on the first pitch.

Good scouting also helped Boston to reach the World Series in the first place, providing the right game plans for Red Sox hitters to employ against Cleveland aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. The end result of the compiling and application of all of this baseball knowledge is that the Red Sox not only claimed their second championship in four years but they outscored the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies 99-46, an MLB record for postseason run differential.

Bum Phillips once said, "Don Shula can take his'n and beat your'n. Or he can take your'n and beat his'n." That kind of coaching mastery is only possible with meticulous preparation. Teams that pay the price on the practice court/field reap the rewards on game day. That is why Bill Belichick's New England Patriots can seemingly come up with new offensive and defensive wrinkles every week. The "mad scientist," as I like to call him, goes into his laboratory, puts his next opponent under a microscope and identifies how to use his team's strengths against that team's weaknesses. Jim Tressel's Ohio State Buckeyes show the same kind of tenacity. They trailed Wisconsin 17-10 in the second half on Saturday but they did not get rattled and did not start trying to do things out of character; they executed their game plan and ran off 28 straight points, winning a game that the John Cooper Buckeyes almost certainly would have lost.

Much is sometimes made of halftime adjustments but it is important to understand that a team cannot make an adjustment unless it practiced it prior to the game. If plan "A" prove to be a dud, then the team can go to plan "B" but it cannot just make up something on the fly in the few minutes between halves. The better prepared team not only has a knowledge edge plus the flexibility to change plans during the game but it also plays with added confidence; a confident person will always perform better than one who has doubts. That is why Epstein and Francona were "almost giddy" prior to the 2004 World Series; they looked at the St. Louis Cardinals and knew, like Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer, "You've lost. You just don't know it."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Are You Waiting With "Baited" Breath for Your Favorite Team to Get "Untracked"?

Did you notice anything wrong with the title of this post? It contains two examples of "eggcorns"--a term used by linguists for a "spontaneous malapropism" (such as misspelling "acorn" as "eggcorn"). Sports journalism is littered with eggcorns and even distinguished figures like Al Michaels--arguably the greatest active play by play announcer--use them; the normally well-spoken Michaels often refers to a player or team getting "untracked," which of course begs the question of what exactly it would mean to be "tracked" in the first place.

Here are a couple other sports eggcorns:

The use of "verse" as a verb (i.e., "We’re going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week").

The use of "wanton to do" instead of "wont to do."