Drew Brees moved 323 yards closer to breaking Dan Marino's single season passing yardage record (5084 in 1984) as his New Orleans Saints cruised to a 51-29 win over the Green Bay Packers. His performance--completing 20 of 26 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions--is made even more remarkable by the fact that he put up those numbers against one of the league's top secondaries, a ballhawking group that had intercepted 16 passes prior to Monday night, returning six of them for touchdowns. With five games remaining, Brees already has 3574 yards and is on pace to finish with nearly 5200 yards; Arizona's Kurt Warner is also on pace to throw for more than 5000 yards. Aaron Rodgers helped the Packers nearly match Brees score for score in the first half but he was not nearly as sharp in the second half, finishing 23-41 for 248 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. New Orleans improved to 6-5, while Green Bay dropped to 5-6. Ironically, Green Bay still has the better postseason prospects because the Packers have a shot to win the mediocre NFC North, while New Orleans is in last place in the NFC South and probably will have to earn a Wild Card in order to make the playoffs.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Packers took advantage of good field position to take an early 7-0 lead on a one yard run by John Kuhn. It did not take long for New Orleans to answer--one play to be exact, a 70 yard TD pass from Brees to Lance Moore and then the rest of the first half was an old fashioned shootout. A 24 yard Garrett Hartley field goal just before halftime put New Orleans up 24-21 and at that point it seemed like whichever team had the ball last would win. However, the Packers simply could not keep up the pace in the second half. New Orleans took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 6:26 to push the lead to 31-21 after a 16 yard TD pass from Brees to Billy Miller. Rodgers threw an interception on the second play of Green Bay's next possession and Jason David's 42 yard return put the Saints at Green Bay's three yard line, setting up a Deuce McAllister TD run. McAllister set the franchise record for career touchdowns (54) on that play. The Packers never seriously threatened after that point.
Even with the bad performance (interceptions kill a passer rating very quickly), Rodgers still ranks 10th in the NFL with a 90.5 passer rating (he had been in the top five prior to this game). Naturally, with Brett Favre leading the New York Jets to a victory over previously undefeated Tennessee to remain in first place in the AFC East there will inevitably be comparisons between New York's record and Green Bay's record. Favre ranks sixth in the NFL in passer rating (94.1), though Rodgers was slightly ahead of him until the Saints game. Last year, Favre had a similar passer rating (95.7) as the Packers went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game, where his interception was the decisive error that enabled the New York Giants to advance to the Super Bowl. Would the Packers be a 13 win team this season if Favre were still their quarterback? Not necessarily. The fact is that Rodgers has been nearly as productive this year as Favre was last year but the team has noticeably declined in other areas; the Packers gave up 291 points in 16 games in 2007 but have already conceded 260 points in 11 games in 2008. ESPN's Mike Tirico made an excellent point: the Packers' choice of Rodgers over Favre should not be evaluated on a week to week basis; after all, just a few weeks ago the Jets looked like a mediocre team while the Packers were 4-3 after a convincing 34-14 win over Indianapolis. Green Bay decided that Rodgers will be their quarterback not just this season but for the next decade or so, while Favre is a short term solution--and someone who retired and did not seem to be mentally up for the long grind of an NFL season.
Obviously, Favre has shown that he is still fully committed to being a top notch NFL quarterback. The Jets made key acquisitions at several other positions and decided to roll the dice that the 39 year old veteran would be the right man to lead them back to the playoffs. Earlier in the season, Steve Young said that it would take until week 10 for Favre to get fully acclimated to the Jets' offense, which Young thought would be too late to make a difference this season. Young's week 10 prediction was spot on--Favre posted a 117.7 passer rating in week 10 after having ratings of 76 or worse in the previous four games--and the Jets have been rolling ever since.
We'll never know how the Packers would have done with Favre this year--or how the Jets would have done with Chad Pennington, who has played quite well for Miami. What we do know is that Rodgers appears to be someone who can be a very good quarterback for years to come and that is something that the Packers could not have known for sure if Favre's presence had kept Rodgers glued to the bench. This may literally be a win-win scenario for all of the involved parties--or a win-win-win scenario if you consider that Pennington arrived in Miami because of the chain reaction that started with Favre leaving Green Bay for New York.
Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:
*During the much hyped Deion Sanders interview of Terrell Owens (which aired Sunday morning on NFL Network), Sanders asked Owens if he is the same player now that he was before. Owens insisted, "I'm definitely the same guy. All I can say is I'm doing what is asked of me. I'm running my routes. It's not like I'm not open." Sanders then asked why the Dallas coaching staff does not make a point of featuring Owens in the game plan. Owens replied, "I don't think that it is difficult at all to get me featured...If I get in this interview and say 'I need the ball more and we need to do this and we need to do that' then the heat is going to be on me. So I've just been quiet." Sanders acknowledged this and said that everyone in the media has been waiting for Owens to "blow." Fellow NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci--who coached Owens in San Francisco--told Sanders that Owens cannot be happy with his lack of touches. Owens admitted that this is true, adding, "He's right. I don't like it. If (offensive coordinator Jason) Garrett is smart enough to know what has made me successful in all my years he'll go back to the offense and the type of formations and the things that I did that were successful in San Francisco. Look what I did in Philly. The difference is, in Philly and San Francisco, I was very much involved in the offense. It was a West Coast Offense where I was a priority...When I came here it was with the idea and the notion that we have a chance to win a championship. I want to bring a sixth Super Bowl championship to the city of Dallas. To have the numbers I have, to not really be involved--it is discouraging, it is frustrating." Owens emphasized that his top priority is winning a championship, not on putting up great individual numbers but he very sensibly noted, "You can't obtain that championship if I'm not involved in the offense. I think that a lot of people see that. When I get my hands on the ball, things happen. I can't throw it AND catch it. I can only do one thing...I think everybody knows my playmaking ability. It's not that I can't play. It's the system I'm in that's not allowing me to do the things that I did." Sanders said to Owens that the Cowboys used the same system last year but Owens countered, "You have to understand that teams have game planned us all summer...These defensive coaches have studied us all summer. They saw how we beat them. We're not getting the same routes. We have to go back to the drawing board."
After having his say with his words, Owens spoke even louder with his play in a 35-22 Dallas win over San Francisco, hauling in seven receptions for 213 yards and one touchdown. This is the second best yardage total of his career (he had 283 yards in a 2000 game when he set the still-standing all-time NFL single game record with 20 receptions), the fourth best single game yardage total in Dallas history and the most yards gained by a Dallas receiver since Tony Hill had 213 yards in a 1979 game. As Owens is fond of saying, "Who can make a play? I can!" Owens put it a different way after this particular game: "They unleashed me today." He also reiterated what he said to Sanders: "I've been telling you guys all along, it's not anything wrong with me. Performance-wise, I can play...It showed." Owens is 35 years old but he looks as fast and as strong as ever.
ESPN's Tom Jackson always says that Dallas should feature running back Marion Barber and should not cater to Owens' whims--but it makes no sense to suggest that a team's best player should not be featured. Jackson is right that it is important for an offense to establish a running game and to have good balance between running plays and passing plays, but Barber is a bruiser, a short yardage back, while Owens has the ability to make plays that dramatically shift field position--like his 75 yard touchdown early in the San Francisco game. Barber had 59 yards on 19 carries--with a long gain of just nine yards--and the Cowboys won anyway. Barber's longest gain of the season is just 35 yards, so he is obviously not a home run threat. In contrast, Owens ranks second in NFL history with 136 receiving touchdowns and he has led the league in that category three times; even during this "down" season he ranks fourth with seven receiving TDs, just one behind Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson for second place. If the Cowboys use him properly during the final five weeks of the season then Owens could very well catch up to leader Anquan Boldin, who has 11 TD receptions.
*For a brief moment it seemed as if Chad Johnson may have finally figured things out. He told Deion Sanders of the NFL Network, "OK, this is what I learned the most. This is for anybody else that is coming along after me and for anybody that is playing on the other 31 teams: as an individual, no matter who you are, no matter how good you are, unless you play quarterback you will never dictate or run any organization ever. So don't ever pull what you saw me pull in the offseason, because you will lose." Alas, Johnson was just experiencing "spasms of lucidity," to quote Ferdie Pacheco's memorable line about Riddick Bowe. Prior to Cincinnati's game on Thursday versus Pittsburgh, the Bengals deactivated Johnson due to his insubordinate conduct; he reportedly was late to a team meeting, did not pay attention once he arrived and then got into a confrontation with Coach Marvin Lewis. Anyone who has closely followed Johnson and the Bengals knows that this is nothing new; Ocho Loco has often feuded with coaches and teammates. Where are all the people who have bashed Terrell Owens but said that Ocho Loco's antics are cute? The reality is that Owens has been a key performer on playoff teams for three different franchises, while Johnson has been a vocal distraction for a team that is perennially awful. His words and conduct do not set a good example for his teammates. Coach Lewis explained, "I think that any time you have to sit a player down, it sends a message to players because that's the only thing they get and understand. I don't know how many times I've said that. Money sometimes isn't as important to players as people would think it is. But playing time is important."
*Brady Quinn went 8-18 for just 94 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 21.3 in Cleveland's 16-6 home loss to Houston, who had lost eight straight road games; Derek Anderson--who Quinn replaced as the starter two games ago--came in for Quinn late in the third quarter and played the rest of the way, going 5-14 for 51 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 17.3. Anderson's bad numbers should be considered in context: he had no practice reps with the first team this week, he is a notoriously slow starter who needs a quarter or so to get into rhythm and he was victimized by several droppped passes, including a potential touchdown that Braylon Edwards muffed. I think that Quinn could develop into a good quarterback eventually but he does not give the Browns a better chance to win now than Anderson, a 2007 Pro Bowler, does. That is why Quinn started the season on the bench. Unfortunately, the rudderless Browns organization apparently has rabbit ears, the latest example of this being General Manager Phil Savage's profane email exchange with a fan. The fans clamored for Anderson to be benched and the Browns obliged but making Anderson the scapegoat for all of the Browns' failures has hardly helped to right the ship.
Rich Gannon, a former NFL MVP, had some interesting observations during the CBS telecast. He blasted Edwards for lacking concentration and for not finishing a slant route on the pass that became Quinn's second interception; Gannon noted that Edwards made a similar mistake a few weeks back when Anderson was the starter. After Edwards dropped a gorgeous stick throw from Anderson, Gannon exclaimed, "That wasn't a good throw. That was a great throw! Watch him stick here right into this tight coverage. Look at him (Edwards) coming out of the break. He's lackadaisical coming out of the break. You have to come out of the break with a sense of urgency. Y0u have to expect the ball. He's lollygagging coming out of these breaks, the quarterback's throwing it in there and he's not even expecting it. I tell you what, Kevin (Harlan), I wouldn't even throw it to him. I hate to say that but if the guy's not going to put in the effort you need--I don't like picking on anybody and I think Braylon Edwards is a great guy, a Pro Bowl guy, but he's putting some things on film right now that bother me. We talked about his focus, attention to detail and it's shown up all season long."
Gannon said that he attended Cleveland's Friday practice, the final one before the game. That is when teams really want to be sharp and set the tone for what they are going to do on Sunday. Instead, Gannon saw dropped passes and miscues, so it did not surprise him that Cleveland's offense struggled against Houston, which is hardly a powerhouse team.
*Matt Cassel--who Cris Carter repeatedly has called a "high school quarterback"--passed for 415 yards in New England's 48-28 win over Miami, becoming just the fifth player since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to have consecutive 400 yard passing games. His performances enabled the Patriots to accumulate more than 500 total yards in both of those games, the first time the franchise has accomplished that in the post-merger era. The one weakness in Cassel's game this season had been his inability to deliver the deep ball--which made Randy Moss a nonfactor after his record setting 2007 season--but on Sunday he hooked with Moss eight times for 125 yards. Tom Brady has had one 400 yard passing game in his entire career so far; it is obviously way too soon to say that Cassel is better than the 2007 NFL MVP but it is not too soon to at least suggest that at this stage of his career Cassel may be better than Brady was at a similar stage of his career. The common denominator for both players is the "mad scientist," Bill Belichick. Brady and Cassel deserve full credit for their talent and their work ethic but Belichick is the one who is designing the game plans that enable not only them but the whole team to shine. Remember when not too long ago some people suggested that the Patriots would flounder without assistant coaches Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel? To paraphrase Bill Russell's reply when someone asked how well he would have done against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that question is phrased the wrong way. How exactly are Weis and Crennel doing without Belichick? It is also worth pointing out again that most of Bill Parcells' coaching success--including both of his Super Bowl wins--came when Belichick was on his staff. Greatest coach of all time is a subjective, nebulous distinction but there is a small group of people who could be considered worthy of that title: Paul Brown from the 40s and 50s, Vince Lombardi from the 60s, Chuck Noll from the 70s and Bill Walsh from the 80s are the standard bearers from their respective decades and Bill Belichick's accomplishments in the 2000s rank right alongside what those coaches did.