Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: "Who Can Make a Play? I Can!" Edition

Marion "the Barbarian" Barber rushed 18 times for 63 yards and one touchdown and caught four passes for 51 yards and one touchdown as the Dallas Cowboys won a dramatic 41-37 shootout over the Philadelphia Eagles. Barber's one yard touchdown run with 4:35 left in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winning points. Tony Romo went 21-30 for 312 yards and three touchdowns but he had a costly first half fumble in his own endzone that resulted in an Eagles touchdown. Romo also threw an interception that led to an Eagles touchdown drive. Donovan McNabb went 25-37 for 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions but he made two fourth quarter errors that seriously hurt the Eagles: a fumble on a bizarre double pump attempted hand off to Brian Westbrook at the Dallas 33 with the Eagles up 37-34 with just 8:59 left in the game and an overthrow of a 3rd and eight pass to a wide open Westbrook with 3:30 left and the Cowboys up 41-37. The first mistake led to Dallas' winning touchdown drive and the second mistake ended the Eagles' best chance to retake the lead (they got the ball back one more time deep in their territory but never got past midfield).

Terrell Owens finished with three catches for 89 yards, including two touchdowns. He had all of his production in the first half but he still had a major impact on the game in the second half, as ESPN's Steve Young--one of the best football analysts on television--noted after the game: "TO makes the big plays early, he gets open and I think he forces the whole defense to move in his direction. Great offenses in this league really have that second or third receiver, like Dallas Clark in Indianapolis. Jason Witten is a guy who gets open a ton of times (for Dallas)." As ESPN showed the highlights of Owens' two touchdowns, Young added, "These are the kinds of plays that open ballgames, these big touchdowns that affect the defense the rest of the game. When you get by the goal line, it's tough to score in the NFL. Well, let's put 10 guys on one side and TO on the other side. Did you see what happened the second time they ran that play? TO could do anything he wanted and they had to foul him (a pass interference call against Asante Samuel) to get to the one. That's the kind of player you need, supported by other great players, like Jason Witten." After that pass interference play moved the ball to the one yard line, Barber scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Emmitt Smith also noted that after Owens' two scores the Eagles were forced to double-team him, which created opportunities for Witten (seven receptions, 110 yards) and Barber. If you don't like Young's technical explanation of Owens' value, then you can always fall back on one of Owens' catch phrases from back in his 49ers' days: "Who can make a play? I can!"

With the Eagles leading 3-0, Owens opened the scoring for the Cowboys with a 72 yard touchdown reception, moving past Cris Carter into second place on the NFL's career touchdown receptions list (131). As Mike Tirico pointed out, Owens trails Jerry Rice by 66 touchdowns, so if Owens stays healthy it is not impossible for him to break the all-time record. Of course, maintaining a high level of production in one's mid to late 30s is very difficult for any player, let alone a wide receiver, which is what makes Rice's mark so incredible; I think that 197 will remain the target for quite some time and that Owens will not match it, but he may put the second place number all but out of reach for anyone who comes after him.

At one point early in the second quarter, Owens had 85 yards from scrimmage and the remaining Cowboys had -1 yard from scrimmage. After several fine runs by Barber put the Cowboys in scoring position, Owens scored Dallas' second offensive touchdown of the game on a nice four yard slant, putting the Cowboys up 21-20, enabling them to retake the lead after Romo's fumble on the previous possession. Owens is now second in NFL history with 30 2+ touchdown games; naturally, Rice (44) holds that record, too. Since Romo became Dallas' starting quarterback, he and Owens have hooked up for more touchdowns (28) than any other NFL tandem. That litany of records surprised Tony Kornheiser, who candidly admitted that he did not realize that Owens is that good. See how much you can learn if you actually watch the games and read the game notes instead of being obsessed with covering off field nonsense? Kornheiser said that controversy has "masked how good Owens really is" but who is responsible for that? Yes, Owens has exercised poor judgment in certain situations but I seem to recall Kornheiser and his Pardon the Interruption partner Mike Wilbon repeatedly praising Chad Johnson as some kind of lovable, harmless entertainer while at the same time relentlessly bashing Owens; those storylines reflect their biases, not any objective reality. If Kornheiser does not know that Owens is one of the greatest receivers ever he has no one to blame but himself.

As I've repeatedly indicated in this space, I grew up reading great articles by Kornheiser in magazines like Inside Sports back when Kornheiser was a great journalist who wrote insightful, in depth pieces. He is also capable of writing entertainment columns that are laugh out loud funny but the combination of his irreverent humor with his sports coverage often rubs me the wrong way now; I miss the Kornheiser I grew up with but I suppose that ESPN provides him several million reasons to prefer what he is doing now (not for nothing was the title of one of his books--a hilarious read, by the way--Back for More Cash).

After Owens' first half aerial heroics, Barber and Witten did serious work in the second half; Barber pounded the Eagles with tough runs and some timely receptions out of the backfield, while Witten found plenty of room to roam in the middle as Owens occupied two defensive players on the edge.

Despite the late mistakes, McNabb looked better than he has looked in quite some time. He broke tackles, made good reads and was very accurate with his throws. As Young said after the game, McNabb seems to have moved back into the elite category of NFL quarterbacks. Stuart Scott did a voiceover for a graphic that showed that McNabb has been an excellent September quarterback for the past several years, so we'll wait and see if McNabb stays healthy and productive for the entire season.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

While some "experts" predicted doom and gloom for the New England Patriots sans 2007 NFL MVP Tom Brady, Matt Cassel played very solidly (13-23, 165 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions) as the Patriots beat the New York Jets 19-10 to improve to 2-0 and extend their NFL record regular season winning streak to 21. In his first home game as a Jet, Brett Favre went 18-26 for 181 yards and a touchdown but he threw a costly third quarter interception in his own territory that Cassel and the Patriots quickly converted into New England's only touchdown to give the Patriots a 13-3 lead. If Favre continues to throw the ball up for grabs against good teams, his interception totals are going to go up and his passer rating is going to go down. It is early, but based on what they have shown so far there is no objective reason to believe that the Jets are going to be a playoff team this year, let alone a Super Bowl contender; they squeaked by a weak Miami team and trailed almost the entire game against a New England team that some people thought would be vulnerable without Brady.

Of course, you cannot mention Favre without also talking about his Green Bay replacement, Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay is 2-0 now after a 48-25 victory over Detroit in which Rodgers went 24-38 for 328 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating for that game was 117.0, even better than the 115.5 he posted in week one. Rodgers ranks sixth in the NFL in passer rating (117.8), while Favre is eighth (104.1). Obviously, there is a long way to go in this season but Rodgers seems to have the necessary tools to be a very good NFL quarterback, so it is understandable why Green Bay's management elected to stop riding the Favre "I'm retiring/I'm not retiring" carousel. Prior to week one, ESPN's Tom Jackson and Cris Carter seemed to almost gleefully predict doom for Rodgers but, to his credit, Jackson has now completely changed his tune. During the "Whiteboard Breakdown" segment on Monday Night Countdown, Jackson said that after two games Rodgers has been the best player in the league and he called Rodgers "a naturally gifted passer."

The most exciting game of week two took place in Denver, where Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (36-50, 350 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) and Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers (21-33, 377 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) engaged in an old fashioned, AFL-style shootout as their teams combined to produced 942 yards of offense. Denver made the winning score with just :24 left as Cutler hooked up with Eddie Royal for a four yard touchdown pass and then Denver Coach Mike Shanahan boldly went for the two point conversion, which also turned out to be a Cutler-Royal connection. NFL coaches usually go the safe route in that situation; this is just the third time that a team has won a game with a two point conversion since the NFL instituted the two point play in 1994.

Unfortunately, the ending of this game was marred by a bad call by Ed Hochuli, the usually reliable referee who has become famous for his prodigious "guns" and detailed explanations of calls. Two plays prior to the final touchdown, Cutler rolled out to pass but lost control of the ball. It was pretty obvious that he fumbled but Hochuli blew his whistle and ruled that this was an incomplete pass, nullifying San Diego's recovery. Once Hochuli realized that he had made a mistake there was nothing he could do because the play is dead as soon as he blows his whistle, as Hochuli explained after the game: "All we can do to fix it is put the ball at the spot that it hit the ground, which is why we moved it back to the 10-yard line and the down counts and it becomes third down."

Stat of the Week: Kurt Warner had more touchdown passes in the second half of last season (21) than any other NFL quarterback. In case you're wondering, 2007 league leader Tom Brady had 20 of his NFL single season record 50 in the second half of the season. Throwing a lot of touchdowns is nothing new for Warner; his 41 touchdowns in 1999 ranked third on the NFL single season list at that time and that is still the fifth highest single season total in NFL history.

This season, Warner is picking up right where he left off last year: after completing 19 of 30 passes for 197 yards and one touchdown in Arizona's 23-13 week one victory over San Francisco, he compiled a perfect passer rating (158.3) in Arizona's 31-10 destruction of Miami, completing 19 of 24 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns. This is the third time that Warner had a perfect rating in a game, tying Peyton Manning's NFL record. Warner started the game 9-9 for 221 yards.

1 comment:

madnice said...

NFL refs are a joke and a disgrace to the profession.

For some reason the Eagles didnt rush Romo. Romo has done nothing against Philly the last few games. They gave him way to much time.

Kornheiser is a great columnist, great on the radio and on PTI. But in the booth he has to say something. Do I like it? No. But thats the ESPN machine. They feel like they need some humorous element during games. I still think their best combo was Vermeil and Jaws during a season opener double header.

A lot of times these analysts, sports radio guys and fake experts let the little controversies blind actual on field performance. For Owens to be that close to Rice in touchdown receptions is mind boggling.

The NFL passer rating of 158.3 is dumbest thing in sports. Ive seen the formula of how its calculated. Its stupid and hasnt been changed or challenged in 30 years.