Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Terrible Towel Overtime Edition

As a Cleveland Browns fan, watching Pittsburgh play Baltimore is a "good news/bad news" proposition: the good news is that one of the teams will lose but the bad news is that one of the teams will win (a scoreless tie would be nice but unrealistic even for these two defensive-minded teams). Although I root against both teams, I have a confession to make: I greatly respect the Steelers' organization and I wish that the Browns would use that franchise as a template for how to build a team. The Steelers believe in playing physical football on both sides of the ball and their players are disciplined, tough and focused. The Steelers have had three head coaches during my lifetime: Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls, Bill Cowher won one Super Bowl and it would not surprise me if Mike Tomlin--who is only in his second season as Pittsburgh's head coach--wins a Super Bowl at some point. Intelligent, tough minded leadership translates into winning and that is why the Steelers are regularly a playoff team and often a Super Bowl contender. The Steelers don't panic, whine or make excuses; they just get the job done. I wish that the preceding sentences could truthfully be said about the Browns.

Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-20 in overtime, the Steelers' 14th straight home victory on Monday Night Football, extending their own NFL record. This was Baltimore's fifth straight MNF loss, which is tied for the third longest active streak. The Steelers' offense looked horrible during the first half and Baltimore led 13-3 late in the third quarter. Two Steelers--including first round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall--suffered season-ending injuries during the game and the Steelers were forced to use fourth string running back Mewelde Moore but they stayed true to their formula of physical, disciplined football and turned the game around in a 15 second span. First, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes for a 38 yard touchdown pass to cut Baltimore's lead to 13-10. Then, James Harrison forced Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to fumble and LaMarr Woodley scooped up the ball and rambled seven yards into the endzone to put Pittsburgh up 17-13. Pittsburgh later extended the lead to seven before Flacco led Baltimore on a 76 yard scoring drive that culminated in a two yard Le'Ron McClain touchdown run to tie the score at 20. After stopping the Steelers, the Ravens had an opportunity to go for the win in a two minute drill situation but they elected instead to play for overtime. The Ravens won the toss but went three and out, after which the Steelers quickly moved into field goal range and Jeff Reed slid a 46 yard kick just inside the left upright.

Baltimore finished the game with more total yards (243-237), more first downs (16-11) and more time of possession (34:22-31:43) but the Ravens committed eight penalties for 72 yards while the Steelers only had five infractions for 29 yards. One penalty in particular really hurt Baltimore: Jarret Johnson committed a personal foul after an eight yard run by Nate Washington just three plays before Roethlisberger's touchdown pass to Holmes. The Steelers had not done much on offense up to that point but those big 15 yards tacked on to the end of the run gave them some momentum and put them in scoring range.

ESPN's Monday Night Countdown show focused on a lot of nonsense but while we are drowning in an ocean of hype and biased commentary, Steve Young provides an oasis of rational analysis. Prior to the game, Stuart Scott tried to hype up the so-called bulletin board material that Steelers running back Mendenhall supposedly provided by sending a text message to his friend, Ravens running back Ray Rice, who promptly revealed the contents of the message to the rest of the Ravens. When Scott asked what Mendenhall should learn from this, Young rightly dismissed the whole issue as a non-story, declaring, "I'll tell you what he found out: that Ray Rice is not his friend. That's what he found out. He didn't say this to the press. He didn't say it to the media. He said it to his buddy in a text message, which can be all kinds of hyperbole that they do between friends. To have your friend send it to Ray Lewis seems a little bit over the top." Scott interjected, "But why take the chance?" Young responded, "Who cares? It's just between friends. It's just for fun. Like he said, 'I would never say that publicly.' Of course he wouldn't, because he's not that stupid. Here's the bottom line, though: I always laughed at teams that would say, 'Steve, we're going to really try to kill you this week.' Really? It's the NFL; it's the fastest game in the history of sports. You can't be any faster; you can't want it any more. Everybody is paid a bunch of money. All this bulletin board stuff, I think, is college stuff. Pro football, especially the Ravens, they are going to come 100,000 miles an hour (anyway). It doesn't matter."

Steve Young is right. Talk doesn't matter. Hype doesn't matter. The Steelers are just a little tougher and a little smarter and that is why they beat the Ravens and took over first place in the AFC North. If Ray Lewis needs some text message from a rookie to get hyped up for a game then he is not as tough or smart as he wants everyone to think that he is. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons and won one Super Bowl during that stretch, while Baltimore has made the playoffs just once in the past four years, so anyone who knows that history is not surprised that Pittsburgh found a way to win this game. Mendenhall's comments had nothing to do with the outcome of the game.

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

This was not the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl or even the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl. No, it was the Ineptitude Bowl, hosted by the winless Cincinnati Bengals and won 20-12 by the previously winless Cleveland Browns. With apologies to Gene Rayburn and "The Match Game," "How inept was it?" It was so inept that the teams combined for 15 penalties (nine by Cleveland, six by Cincinnati) and seven turnovers (two by Cleveland, five by Cincinnati). At the end of the game, the Browns received a delay of game penalty when they could not figure out how to get the right 11 players on the field to go into "victory formation" for a kneel down; to be fair, this is not a formation that the Browns have used very often recently. One play epitomized the mutual ineptitude that characterized this contest: late in the first half, Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick--playing in place of injured starter Carson Palmer--was intercepted by Eric Wright, who apparently thought that this was his opportunity to showcase his open field running skills and ability to choreograph blocking schemes; while Wright ran around and gestured to indicate what his blockers should do, Cincinnati running back Chris Perry rocked his world and knocked the ball loose. Chad Loco Cinco (who was a non-factor with just three catches for 28 yards, though he did catch his first TD of the season) recovered for the Bengals at the Cleveland 45 yard line for a gain of five yards and a first down. Cincinnati then advanced the ball 17 yards in seven plays to kick a field goal to take a 6-3 halftime lead. The Browns scored two third quarter touchdowns and then hung on for dear life to avoid falling into the AFC North cellar.

Browns' fans continue to call for quarterback Derek Anderson's head. Granted, Anderson has hardly distinguished himself this season but last year he was 10-5 as a starter and was selected to the Pro Bowl. He had the best season that a Browns quarterback has had since Bernie Kosar was in his prime. Anderson has the necessary physical tools to be a top of the line NFL quarterback. Yes, he needs to improve his decision making and his accuracy but if you carefully examine NFL history you will find that many championship-winning quarterbacks struggled to some extent before putting everything together. Eli Manning is a good example of this. I'm not saying that Anderson will definitely become a championship-winning quarterback but it is silly and counterproductive to focus so much wrath at him when the Browns are underperforming in so many other areas. Anderson struggled in the first half against the Bengals but in the second half he made some nice throws and led the team on the scoring drives that won the game. Roethlisberger did not look great for much of the game against Baltimore but he got it done when it counted. John Elway used to do that, too; think about it: you don't set records for fourth quarter comebacks unless you made some mistakes earlier in the game to fall behind in the first place. The thing that I hate most about the Browns' quarterback controversy is that it seems like some Cleveland fans are rooting against Anderson just so that they can crow about being "right" that Brady Quinn should be the starter. I want to see the Browns win and I would never root against the team's starting quarterback, whoever he may be. The Browns need to get everyone healthy and back on the field and then they can more fairly evaluate Anderson's performance. Right now, all that can honestly be said is that Anderson can make some throws that few other NFL quarterbacks can make but there are still some rough edges to his game that need to be smoothed out. By the way, Terry Bradshaw did not throw more touchdowns than interceptions in a season until his sixth season and he ended up leading Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles. The Browns have done a pretty good job of providing players and/or coaches for Super Bowl winning teams in the past two decades (Earnest Byner, Keenan McCardell, Matt Stover are just three of 59 former Browns who have participated in the Super Bowl since Tony Grossi became the Plain Dealer's beat writer for the Browns in the 1980s), so before they cast Anderson aside they better be sure that he is not going to be the next Jim Plunkett (a so-called bust for New England and San Francisco in the 1970s who led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins).

The Washington Redskins earned an impressive 26-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas as Jim Zorn became the first Washington coach since George Allen to win his first game in Texas Stadium. Naturally, whenever Dallas loses the "experts" look for excuses to either blame Terrell Owens or assert that Owens is "selfish." Owens finished with seven receptions for 71 yards and one touchdown, plus two rushes for 11 yards. As usual, Owens not only made plays but he attracted extra defensive attention that opened up opportunities for his teammates. Dallas' problem was not on offense--the Cowboys gained 344 yards and converted six of 12 third down plays--but rather on defense: the Redskins gained 381 yards and controlled the ball for 38:09. Clearly, when the Cowboys had the ball they were productive but their defense was not able to get enough stops. Yet, instead of speaking this simple truth, the Monday Night Countdown crew devoted a whole segment to nothing but bashing Owens. Tom Jackson and Chris Berman both said that they have "read this book before and know how it ends," suggesting that Owens will soon be feuding with quarterback Tony Romo. This echoed an earlier Trent Dilfer lament that instead of talking about how well Washington played they were forced to discuss Owens. Guess what, Trent? No one is forcing you to do anything. You are one cog in the machine that calls itself the "Worldwide Leader" and you and that machine can focus your massive resources on whatever you choose to talk about, so nothing is stopping you from devoting a whole segment to what Washington did well as opposed to what Owens is supposedly doing wrong.

Isn't it interesting how Jackson and Cris Carter spent the first month of the season campaigning for the Jets to open up their offense and throw the ball more to take advantage of Brett Favre's talents but they think that it is a bad thing that Owens wants the Cowboys to open up their offense to take advantage of his skills? Owens has more touchdown receptions than anyone in NFL history other than Jerry Rice and the Romo-Owens tandem has produced more TD receptions than any other duo in the league since Romo became a starter. The bottom line is that the Cowboys should have Owens run the deep routes that he wants to run and that when he is single-covered or beats the defense Romo should throw him the ball, whether that is five times a game or 25 times a game; if the defense reacts by double-teaming Owens, then Romo should go elsewhere--but the onus is then on Romo and whoever is "elsewhere" to be productive. Berman, Jackson and the others on the Monday Night Countdown set made a big deal that 19 or 20 of the Cowboys' offensive plays versus Washington involved Owens but that number is meaningless without context. What really matters is how many times Owens was open, how many of those times he got the ball and how productive he was. If Romo threw Owens the ball when Owens was not open, that is not Owens' fault. Owens has said all along that he doesn't care how often he gets the ball as long as the team is winning, so if someone else is open then Romo should throw that guy the ball and keep the chains moving. Owens is not saying that the Cowboys should force the ball to him; he is saying that he wants to run certain routes so that he can get open more easily against the way defenses are covering him, thus enabling him to make more plays. Why is that a bad thing? How is that any different than the Jets opening things up to take advantage of Favre's arm strength? Why is Favre everyone's hero but everyone thinks that it is OK to crap on Owens night and day? I would not suggest that I know more about football than the former Pro Bowl players on the Monday Night Countdown set, so one is forced to assume that at some level they know that what they are saying is not true; they go after Owens either for reasons of personal animus or because the show's producers think that controversy makes for better, more entertaining television. Owens is not perfect--no one is--but you cannot convince me that he deserves even a fraction of the negative coverage that he receives.

Also, who the hell is Keyshawn Johnson to say that if the ball were thrown to him 20 times he'd make 20 catches and his team would win? Johnson also repeatedly said that Owens does not care about winning. The truth is that Owens owns the NFL single game reception record with 20, while Johnson was never the deep threat or reliable scoring option that Owens is, so the only place that Johnson is catching 20 balls is in his overactive imagination. Owens worked hard to rehab a broken ankle and was arguably the best player on the field during Super Bowl XXXIX, catching nine passes for 122 yards as his Philadelphia Eagles lost to the New England Patriots 24-21 as Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb ran out of gas down the stretch. Johnson did play on a Super Bowl championship team in 2002 with Tampa Bay but midway through the next season he was the third leading receiver on the squad when Coach Jon Gruden suspended him for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team. Based on skill set and attitude, Johnson is quite possibly the last person on Earth who should ever open his mouth to comment about Owens' abilities, work ethic or commitment to winning. As for Cris Carter, unlike Johnson he was a great player but it is a little tiresome to hear Carter lecture Owens about character and commitment. Carter is a former drug addict whose off field problems came close to ruining his career; I give Carter all the credit in the world for straightening his life out but as far as we know Owens has never been in trouble with the law and he has always worked extremely hard to develop his God-given talents to the fullest. Owens is a self-made man who should be admired for his work ethic and dedication. Maybe he has not always said the right things but he has always done the right things on and off the field to be the most productive football player he can be. Give me a locker room full of guys like that and I'd gladly go to battle fully expecting to contend for a Super Bowl title every year. One of the reasons that Bill Belichick is so successful is that he ignores what the media says about players and he makes his own judgments. According to the media, Corey Dillon was supposedly a bad guy, a malcontent, but Belichick recognized that Dillon was just frustrated by the unprofessional atmosphere in Cincinnati (as opposed to one of ESPN's favorite receivers, Loco Cinco, who is a major factor in why that atmosphere is still unprofessional) and Dillon went on to be a major contributor to New England's Super Bowl winning team in the 2004 season. I guarantee you that Belichick would sign Owens in a heartbeat if Owens were available.

Isn't it amazing that the same guys who are killing Owens have nothing but good things to say about Steve Smith, a player who on two separate occasions assaulted one of his teammates? Smith has serious anger management issues and he should either be in jail or at the very least be receiving appropriate counseling but instead he is back on the field and the ESPN guys are falling over themselves to praise Smith because after he scored a touchdown he gave the ball to his most recent assault victim, Ken Lucas. If one of your co-workers broke your nose but he gave you a souvenir would you feel satisfied? Would you think that this gesture proved that he was a great guy? What hurts a team more: asking that the offensive game plan fully utilize your abilities or injuring a starting player on your own team and getting suspended? I'd love to hear the full version of what questions Owens was actually asked and the full version of his answers, because a classic mainstream media propaganda technique involves "creative" editing of soundbites; it "works" for everyone from "60 Minutes" to "SportsCenter."

This weekend was sheer heaven for ESPN's crew because they not only seized the opportunity to create a Terrell Owens controversy out of thin air but Brett Favre had a performance for the ages, throwing a career-high six touchdown passes (he had five TDs in a game on three previous occasions, most recently in 1998) as the New York Jets defeated the Arizona Cardinals 56-35. Favre had been hobbled during the week by a left ankle injury but he once again showcased his amazing durability and proved that he still has a lot of ammunition left in his rocket arm. Favre's Arizona counterpart, Kurt Warner, helped out the Jets with a schizophrenic performance that included 472 passing yards, two touchdowns--and six (!) turnovers: three interceptions and three fumbles lost (Warner fumbled a fourth time but Arizona retained possession). Favre rightly cautioned that after this win the Jets should not start printing up playoff tickets or Super Bowl tickets; he understands that Arizona has historically been a horrible road team--particularly on the East Coast--and that you cannot count on forcing seven turnovers (Anquan Boldin lost a fumble in addition to Warner's miscues) every week. The Jets' defense is leaky--giving up 35 second half points--and it remains to be seen if New York can beat high quality, tough minded teams. Nevertheless, when a soon to be 39 year old future Hall of Famer like Favre can add yet another line to his personal record book that is impressive, even if all of ESPN's crowing about Favre is going to look silly by the end of the season when the Jets don't make the playoffs.

Quote of the Week: "Two more flags and you would have had an amusement park."--Ron Jaworski after four penalty flags hit the turf following the opening kickoff of overtime during Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime Monday Night Football win over Baltimore.

No comments: