Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Wacky Night in New Orleans Edition

Reggie Bush's record setting night was not enough for the New Orleans Saints, who dropped a 30-27 decision to the Minnesota Vikings after Ryan Longwell made a 30 yard field goal with just 13 seconds left. Bush became just the 12th player in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game. He also set franchise records for single game punt return yardage (176), career punt return touchdowns (four) and single season punt return touchdowns (three, with 11 games still remaining in the season). ESPN employed an MPH graphic that indicated that Bush reached a peak speed of over 22 MPH during one of his returns, which is remarkable, especially considering that he was wearing a helmet and pads. Adrian Peterson gained just 32 yards on 21 rushes for the Vikings but Gus Frerotte had a solid game (19-36, 222 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) and Minnesota forced four turnovers in addition to scoring a touchdown on Antoine Winfield's 59 yard return of a blocked Martin Gramatica field goal in the first half. Gramatica also missed a field goal with 2:04 left in the fourth quarter that could have put New Orleans up 30-27; instead, the Vikings drove downfield, bled the clock down and won despite being outgained from scrimmage by 105 yards (375-270).

ESPN's Tony Kornheiser said that this performance was Bush's "A Star is Born" moment but that is just another example of hype gone wild. The last player to have two punt returns for a touchdown in one game was Detroit's Eddie Drummond in 2004. Last I checked, Drummond is not a star and is probably not even as well known as Mr. Drummond from "Diff'rent Strokes." You simply don't become a star in the NFL merely by returning punts for touchdowns; you can become a phenomenon for a brief time like Dante Hall used to be or like Devin Hester is now but even if you are a great punt returner you are likely going to have fewer than 10 TD returns in your whole career. Gale Sayers was a great punt and kick returner but he earned his stardom because he was also perhaps the most electrifying running back in the NFL during his brief, injury-filled Hall of Fame career; Sayers had two career punt return TDs and six career kickoff return TDs while playing four full seasons and parts of three other seasons. Bush has yet to prove to be a great--or even significantly above average--NFL running back. He rushed 12 times for 29 yards against Minnesota. Bush is a prolific receiver in terms of number of catches--he already has 199 receptions in just 33 career games--but he is not a highly productive receiver in terms of yardage or touchdowns; he has averaged 7.4 yards per reception in his career and caught six touchdown passes. He had seven receptions for 64 yards and no touchdowns on Monday night. The most apt comparison to Bush right now is probably Eric Metcalf, who made three Pro Bowls during his 13 year career. Metcalf never became a great running back but he caught 541 passes for 5572 yards (10.3 avg.) and 31 touchdowns; he also had 10 punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns. Metcalf holds the NFL career record for punt return TDs, ranks fourth in career punt return yards (3453), 12th in career kickoff return yards (5813) and 12th in career all purpose yards (17,230). Metcalf was a very good NFL player but he was not a star--certainly not a star in the breathless way that Kornheiser means, someone who is one of the elite players in the entire league. Metcalf was a very valuable special teams performer who was also a productive receiver. If Bush continues to do well as a returner and increases his yards per reception average then he can reach the same level that Metcalf did.

During Monday Night Countdown it was great to see the footage from this weekend when the San Francisco 49ers retired Steve Young's number eight. Stuart Scott asked Young what stood out most for him from the ceremony and Young singled out two things: (1) It means a lot to him that his number is right next to Bill Walsh's name on the Ring of Honor, because Walsh believed in Young when many people didn't, told Young that the West Coast Offense was tailor-made for him encouraged him to go out and perform at a high level; (2) Young's children are not old enough to remember his playing career but now they are old enough to have some understanding of what he did, so this ceremony was an opportunity for him to share some aspects of his career with them.

Later, when Scott shifted gears and talked about today's quarterbacks, saying that there are "some great signal callers in this league," Young replied, "There are a few," adding that New Orleans' Drew Brees is "in the 'A' group because he's decided to make it his craft, his profession. He's got into the depths of the playbook and he understands the little, tiny things. Watch him tonight: he is great at being able to just make a little flick of the shoulders to move linebackers and open up lanes for the tight ends. He is ahead of the game. Most quarterbacks who leave the huddle in the NFL, they have the play in their mind, the motion and then they are going to watch the defense and react. Drew actually starts to dictate terms, like Peyton Manning, like Tom Brady. They dictate to defenses and they go after parts of the defense. You'll see that today. He is one of the best in the NFL today, no question." Young is an outstanding analyst because he does not buy into hype and because he explains specifically what a player does well or does not do well. He often speaks of quarterbacking as a "craft" and that is certainly the approach that he took toward the position when he played in the NFL. He respects and understands the nature of this craft and that is why he not only played so well but why he can explain the game with such clarity and depth. Brees, completed 26 of 46 passes for 330 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Even though his second interception was a Hail Mary fling on New Orleans' final offensive play, Brees was not as crisp or accurate as he had been in the first four games of the season. Obviously, it does not help matters that Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey are out of action due to injury. Still, Young said that this performance did not change his opinion that Brees is one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL. Young cited several plays in which Brees made subtle shoulder, head and pump fakes that very few QBs can do. He noted that Brees can make full field reads that most QBs cannot make and that many coaches will not even let their QBs try to make.

The Vikings entered this season with high expectations but, like the Saints, they are only 2-3 and just hanging around the outskirts of playoff contention. They had hoped that Tarvaris Jackson would be their quarterback of the future but after starting the season 0-2 Coach Brad Childress benched him in favor of Frerotte. Although Frerotte has led the team to a 2-1 mark as a starter, his statistics are only marginally better than Jackson's. Since it looks like both Wild Card teams will come out of the NFC East, the Vikings and Saints each will likely have to win their divisions to make the playoffs; the Vikings are tied with Green Bay and one game behind the Chicago Bears right now in the NFC North, while the Saints are in last place in the NFC South, two games behind the Carolina Panthers.

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

Early in the Indianapolis-Houston game, Dan Dierdorf said, "Anybody who says modern NFL players don't need training camp doesn't know what they're talking about. Even Peyton Manning needed it." So why do Tom Jackson and Cris Carter keep insisting that the time that Brett Favre missed before signing with the Jets doesn't matter? I realize that Favre had a great game last week and that he currently leads the NFL in passer rating but the Jets' two wins--and Favre's two best performances--came against teams that did not make the playoffs last year, though Miami and Arizona certainly seem to have improved this season. Versus New England and San Diego, Favre had four touchdowns and three interceptions in two losses and it was obvious that the Jets were using a limited playbook because Favre does not yet know the whole offensive system and is not completely on the same page with his receivers. Two weeks ago, Steve Young said that it could take until week 10 before Favre really knows the Jets' system and that assessment seems a lot more realistic than what Jackson and Carter have been saying.

Indianapolis' come from behind 31-27 win--during which the Colts scored 21 points in just 2:10 in the fourth quarter--brings to mind an idea that Dick Vermeil expressed a long time ago: late in the game when everything is on the line you simply cannot make a critical mistake that wipes out everything good that you did earlier. That is what losing players and losing teams do and in order to become a winning player or a winning team it is essential to get out of that habit. This requires concentration, focus and discipline. The Texans dominated for most of the game and led 27-10 with fewer than five minutes remaining but there is a reason that their organization has never experienced sustained success. Backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels--who started in place of the ill Matt Schaub--played very well for most of the game but in crunch time he simply did not understand what he needed to do to give his team the best chance to win. In chess, strong players know that when you have an advantage you "play against your opponent's play"; in other words, instead of trying to capture every last pawn on the board, you determine what your opponent's most dangerous piece is and you make sure that he cannot harm you with it. Similarly, the Texans did not need to score any more points or to make any heroic plays; they needed to protect the ball, run the clock down, punt if necessary and make the Colts have to traverse a long field just to score one time. Instead, Rosenfels tried to take on half of the Colts' defense during a wild, leaping scramble, was stripped of the ball and Gary Brackett returned the resulting fumble 68 yards for a touchdown. Rosenfels compounded this error with another fumble that put the Colts in easy scoring range and before you knew it the Texans lost the game.

For a good portion of the past week, many members of the media have tried to manufacture a Terrell Owens controversy out of thin air, using out of context quotes and amateur psychoanalyzing. Prior to Dallas' 31-22 win versus Cincinnati, Dallas owner Jerry Jones tried to settle things down by saying of Owens, "He's a terrific playmaker and we want to get him the ball. We'll overly try to get him the ball. There's no question about that. We should. It ought to open things up for other places on the offense." Naturally, those logical comments made several of the people on the set of ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown apoplectic. "Let's keep this simple," Tom Jackson said. "They are at a tipping point and here's what it is. Are you going to continue to force the ball to Terrell Owens and exclude people like Felix Jones and give Marion Barber eight carries in a game that you lost when you've been running the ball as well as you have? I'll say this: what else was Jerry Jones going to say? Was he going to say, 'No, we're not going to throw the ball to him as much'? Because he knows what the reaction would have been. Again, I've read the book, I've seen the ending and so has Jerry Jones."

Next, Keyshawn Johnson--author of Just Give Me the Damn Ball!--told the lovely fairy tale of how he used to be a selfish player before he saw the light and then won a Super Bowl; the fairy tale is not that he used to be selfish but rather that he became unselfish--the season after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl he was the third leading receiver on the squad when they deactivated him for the remainder of the season due to conduct detrimental to the team. Johnson was never as good of a player as Owens and he was more disruptive than Owens has ever been. As I wrote last week, "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."

Mike Ditka and Cris Carter were more restrained in their comments. Ditka simply noted that for some reason many wide receivers seem to think that they are open on every play and they also have an aversion to blocking (of course, the latter criticism certainly does not apply to Owens, as we have clearly seen on several occasions just this season). Carter said that he thinks that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo is too smart to fall into this, whatever that means.

Owens is one of the best wide receivers of all-time and a first ballot Hall of Famer, so it is a shame that so many people who should know better spend so much time speaking negatively about him. Much to the dismay of Owens' critics, he did not do anything disruptive on Sunday and in fact played an important role in Dallas' victory. Owens finished with two receptions for 67 yards--including a very important second half 57 yard touchdown--and one rush for eight yards. Although Owens had a quiet first half statistically, he made his presence felt because the Bengals had to account for him defensively. CBS' Phil Simms used the telestrator to demonstrate how Tony Romo's four yeard TD pass to Jason Witten was set up by Owens, who started out in the backfield and then ran a pattern in the right flat, attracting multiple defenders, creating a gap for Witten.

Owens became just the eighth player in NFL history to catch 900 passes and the third fastest to reach that milestone (178 games). He also moved into a fourth place tie with Marshall Faulk on the career touchdowns scored list (136).

The Cowboys jumped out to a 17-0 lead and seemed to be well on their way to routing the Bengals but turnovers--including a fumble and an interception by Romo--helped Cincinnati to get back into the game. With Dallas clinging to a 17-16 lead, the Cowboys recovered a Chris Perry fumble and that is when Owens made his big TD reception, outrunning the entire Bengals secondary after he caught the ball over the middle. The Bengals answered with a Palmer touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh but their two point conversion attempt failed and the Cowboys sewed up the win with a clock chewing drive that culminated in a touchdown reception by Patrick Crayton after the ball sailed right through Miles Austin's hands.

After the game, Tom Jackson said of Chad Johnson, "He's a good kid. A little mixed up, but a good kid." This is what I just don't get. I'm not saying that Johnson is a bad person, though I don't think that he is a good teammate--but why do Jackson and so many others look at Johnson as some kind of lovable eccentric but they speak of Owens as if he is the devil incarnate? During the game telecast, Phil Simms hit the nail on the head about Johnson when he said that teams reflect the attitude and mindset of their leaders and that Johnson and Houshmandzadeh both have to be aware that as team leaders their conduct sets the tone for everyone else. Simms mentioned that he discussed this before the game with Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis and that Lewis, while understandably careful about how he chose his words, agreed that Johnson and Houshmandzadeh must be mindful of how their actions affect the entire team--which is a diplomatic way of saying that they are not quite the leaders that Lewis wants them to be.

In his postgame standup, Owens did something great: he simply made a short statement and did not answer any questions, thus not providing anything for the media to misinterpret or take out of context; if the media is going to continue to distort his words and paint him as a bad guy then he should respond in exactly that fashion, fulfilling the bare minimum in terms of being available. For the record, here is what he said: "I'm going to make this short and sweet, man. I'm not going to answer too many questions but I've just been dealing with a lot of stuff. This was a great team win. We fought hard to get back in this ball game. There has been a lot of criticism that I have taken all week and it's more about me just giving God all the glory for the opportunities he gave me today. It was frustrating out there but I just kept with it and my teammates stuck with it. I'm about more than being number 81, it's about more than a star being on my helmet. God put me in this situation to let everybody know that I am a man of God no matter what criticisms I may take or that people may point at me. I'm standing here today just to profess my faith in God and the ability he gave me to show that on the football field today. God used me for his glory and reality is where glory resides and that's all I've got to say."

Quote of the Week, I: After Tony Kornheiser noted that Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf often listens to talk radio to get a sense of what people think about his team, Ron Jaworski declared, "Anyone who is going to make decisions based on talk radio should not be in the position of owning a team." Kornheiser responded, "Thank you. I do talk radio. So does Mike (Tirico)."

Quote of the Week, II: "Nothing sadder than a man who has lost his sole."--Greg Gumbel after Joseph Addai's shoe fell apart during Indianapolis' 31-27 win over Houston.


Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

reggie bush played great you dont kick it to him 3 times straight like that it was foolish he looked like reggie from usc he can only run wide is his problem he needs to learn how to run in between tackles he is a great specialty player but to be all time great or jordan or lebron or kobe he has to be a more convential back at least carry it 20 or more times a game.

drew brees best quarter back now he played all right that was a weird game minnesota had a block kicked and a defensive play for 14 points that kept them in game.

owens didnt say much which was smart he said what he needed to say and left it at that which was smart the anti owens network aka espn will spin it the way they want to spin it but no matter what he does as ryan stewart said he wrong when he wrong when he right he still wrong by everyone in press.

vednam said...

Reggie Bush has turned out to be a flop, even if he is a productive player. It looks like the Texans weren't complete idiots, and all the talk about Bush being the second coming of Barry Sanders was nonsense.

Speaking of running backs, David, what do you make of all the talk that Ladainian Tomlinson is declining? Certainly, LT has hit the age that most running backs start breaking down, but I wonder if it's not just a slump that he's going through (partially due to his injured big toe).

David Friedman said...


Bush may be a "flop" in terms of where he was drafted but, as I indicated in the post, I do think that he can be a productive player a la the Metcalf model. If I'm not mistaken, that was the comparison that I made when you initially asked my opinion of Bush a while back.

It certainly does seem that the "experts" who criticized Houston for not drafting Bush were dead wrong. I don't have a problem with someone expressing an opinion but some of these self appointed "experts" and draft gurus act like they are the only ones who know anything and that the people who actually do player evaluation for a living are idiots.

I suspect that we have already seen the best we will see from LT. The question is, assuming that he can get fully healthy again, how much longer can he still be a top flight back? In other words, I don't expect him to eclipse any of his previous single-season highs but if he can get healthy again I still expect that he would be one of the top two or three RBs in the league. Keep in mind that a toe injury ended the career of legendary tough guy Jack Lambert, so we have to wait and see how serious LT's problem is.