Monday, December 29, 2008

Week 17 Quick Hits: Eagles Soar, Favre Misfires, Browns Stink

Last season, the New England Patriots became the first NFL team to post a 16-0 regular season record. They lost 2007 MVP Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of their first game in 2008 but rallied behind Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Matt Cassel to post an 11-5 record. Incredibly, that is not good enough to qualify for a playoff field that includes one division champion with an 8-8 record (San Diego) and another division champion that is 9-7 (Arizona).

Of course, New England's disappointment and frustration does not compare to Detroit's; this year the Lions "achieved" a dubious form of record setting "perfection," becoming the first NFL team to post an 0-16 regular season record.

The adoring media tried their best to turn 2008 into some kind of coronation for Brett Favre but his on field production simply never measured up to the hype and his season in New York ended exactly as I predicted it would: without a playoff berth.

Here are some quick hits about some of the Week 17 games:

*The Patriots concluded the season by beating Buffalo 13-0 on the road in a game that featured winds that were strong enough to literally bend goal posts. During the pregame reports, I thought that ESPN's David Amber was going to be whisked off to the Land of Oz; I've never understood why weather reporters and sports reporters file their reports from outside no matter what. In both cases, we know exactly where they are reporting from so why do they literally have to risk life and limb? Would you not believe that it is windy in Buffalo unless you saw Amber and his cameraman being tossed around Ralph Wilson Stadium?

Obviously, the blustery conditions all but eliminated the passing game; Cassel was an efficient 6-8 for 78 yards, which may not sound like much but translates into a 105.2 passer rating. Coach Belichick took the wind after the Patriots won the opening coin toss and he preserved that advantage by using his timeouts when the wind was at New England's back. Late in the game, he surprised the Bills by having Cassel unleash a 57 yard quick kick on third down and that huge shift in field position helped to seal the win. This is what is called "situational football": planning ahead so you know what is the right call no matter what situation develops (as opposed to what the Cleveland Browns do, which could politely be called "snafu football"--not planning ahead and thus being clueless about what to do even in situations where the right call should be obvious).

In order to make the playoffs, the Patriots needed the Jaguars to beat the Ravens or the Jets to beat the Dolphins. Neither of those results happened, so Belichick and company failed to qualify for postseason play for the first time since 2002; New England went 14-2 and won Super Bowl titles in each of the next two seasons, so whether Brady or Cassel is at the helm in 2009 the Patriots figure to be back in the playoff mix.

*Dallas-Philadelphia has been a heated rivalry for decades and the temperature for this week's matchup turned up a few degrees when events lined up to turn the game into a "win or go home" situation for both teams (when the day began, only Dallas had been in position to clinch a playoff berth merely by winning but that changed in light of the results of some of the 1 p.m. games). It would not have been surprising to see either team win an intradivisional matchup with playoff implications--but it was surprising to see one team basically roll over and die to the extent that early in the second half the announcers were already talking about the Eagles resting their starters for next week's playoff game.

The Cowboys committed five turnovers--including two fumbles and one interception by Tony Romo--and numerous mental errors in an embarrassing 44-6 loss. It sure looked like Terrell Owens (six receptions, 103 yards) was the only Cowboy who really showed up to play--and that is why it is baffling that in the first half, with the outcome still very much in doubt, the Cowboys inexplicably tried to feature receiver Roy Williams, who apparently does not even know how to properly run pass patterns; Williams had one reception for -4 yards (that is not a typo) in the first half. Do you think it might have made more sense to find more ways to get the ball in Owens' hands?

Despite being poorly utilized this year by the Cowboys, Owens still finished with 69 receptions, 1052 yards (15.2 yards per reception average) and 10 touchdowns. This is his eighth season with at least 1000 yards and 10 TD receptions. Here is the list of receivers in NFL history who have compiled more such seasons than Owens: Jerry Rice (nine). Owens is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history and he is still highly productive but, make no mistake, his numerous enemies in the media will be sure to spin the story of Dallas' collapse--not just in this game but throughout this disappointing season--so that Owens is the primary scapegoat. When someone says that Dallas lacks "chemistry" that is usually a code word to mean that Owens "poisoned" the locker room. Guess what? The Shaq-Kobe Lakers lacked "chemistry" but they won three championships and made it to the Finals a fourth time; the 1970s Oakland A's lacked "chemistry" but won three straight World Series titles. What you need to win championships is talent (obviously) and a group of players who are committed and focused. The Cowboys are not committed to playing winning football and many of their players obviously lack focus.

The more I watch Dallas play, the more I am convinced that Coach Wade Phillips is a big part of the problem. The record shows that he has coached seven full NFL seasons and parts of two others without winning a single playoff game. Even more disturbingly, he's the "genius" who watched Doug Flutie lead the Buffalo Bills to 10 wins in 15 starts in 1999, then ostensibly rested him for the 16th game before benching Flutie for Rob Johnson in the playoffs. Johnson looked like a quarterback out of central casting (6-4, strong arm) while Flutie--generously listed at 5-10--did not. The only problem is that Flutie could actually play, while Johnson only looked the part on the sidelines but consistently came up short under fire. I've never completely trusted Phillips as a coach after that horrible lapse in judgment but Dallas' 13-3 record last year made me think that maybe he had become wiser with age. However, the undisciplined, disorganized team Dallas put on the field this season has Phillips' fingerprints all over it. During the Eagles game, Phillips had a dazed and confused look that has not been seen on NFL sidelines since Bruce Coslet was coaching the Bengals so ineptly that Corey Dillon refused to even go back into a game and participate in the farce (Bill Belichick, a real NFL coach who made Dillon a key player on a Super Bowl winning team, demonstrated that Cincinnati's problems had more to do with Coslet than Dillon).

Dallas owner Jerry Jones pledged before the Eagles game that he would not change coaches no matter what happened in that contest. Do you think he might want a mulligan on that one?

*The Browns finally fired General Manager Phil Savage, giving him the ax shortly after the team finished a 4-12 season with a 31-0 thrashing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coach Romeo Crennel will soon follow Savage out the door. Savage and Crennel arrived in Cleveland amid much hype about how they would run the organization better than Butch Davis did. Here's the bottom line: the Browns were 24-40 with no playoff appearances during the four year Savage-Crennel regime, while the Browns were 25-39 with one playoff appearance during the previous four years. Savage is a legend in his own mind as a talent evaluator but as Mary Kay Cabot notes, Savage's Cleveland legacy is a roster that not only lacks talent at key positions but is filled with overpaid underachievers; Savage also depleted the Browns' supply of draft picks through trades that hardly turned the Browns into a contender for anything other than NFL records for futility, such as their ongoing streak of 24 straight quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown; even the legendary 0-26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and this season's inept Detroit Lions were not that impotent offensively.

Miami and Atlanta proved this season that rebuilding a football team does not have to involved enduring years and years of futility. Cleveland owner Randy Lerner owes it to the many loyal Browns fans to hire a real General Manager who actually understands how to build a football team and then Lerner must let that GM hire a coach who is on the same wavelength with him so that the management is not signing players who the coaching staff does not want to or know how to use. That sounds simple and obvious but for some strange reason Savage was bringing in players that Coach Crennel did not think fit into his game plans. Crennel took the high road publicly at all times, while Savage openly said that he had built a good roster and it was up to the coaching staff to get the most out of all of the wonderful players he had signed. It is pretty clear now that Ozzie Newsome, not Savage, is largely responsible for building Baltimore into a Super Bowl team previously and into a playoff contender once again; the Ravens sure have not missed a beat since Savage left the organization. If I owned the Browns, I'd basically write a blank check to Newsome to come back to Cleveland and help save the team for which he was a Hall of Fame tight end.

*The irony of the Brett Favre-Chad Pennington situation is so thick you could not cut it with a machete: before the season, the New York Jets cast aside Pennington like yesterday's newspaper in order to bring in Favre, a 39 year old quarterback whose offseason training program consisted of throwing some passes with some local high schoolers. Pennington proceeded to outplay Favre over the course of the season and then, with the AFC East title on the line in a game played in Favre's new home stadium, Pennington outplayed Favre decisively to help the Miami Dolphins to a 24-17 victory, winning the division and closing the door on New York's playoff hopes. Pennington went 22 of 30 for 200 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 113.2. This is the fourth straight game that Pennington has posted a passer rating of at least 100 and the Dolphins won each of those contests; he had a passer rating of at least 100 in eight of Miami's 16 games and finished the season with a rating of 97.4, second best in the NFL.

In contrast, Favre went 20 of 40 for 230 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a passer rating of 45.1 versus Miami. He did not post a passer rating higher than 61.4 in New York's last five games, four of which they lost, and he finished the season with a rating of 81.0, 21st out of the 32 passers who had enough attempts to qualify for the leaderboard. In those five games, Favre had two touchdowns and nine interceptions. Favre has recently been dropping not so subtle hints that he has a shoulder injury that may be affecting his passing. I realize that his consecutive games streak is precious to him--and that record is mindboggling--but the old saying is that if you are hurt you can play but if you are injured then you should sit out; if Favre is hurt, then he should have played without complaint (like just about everyone in the league is doing by this time of year) but if he is injured then he should have sat on the bench until the injury healed.

Pennington led the league in completion percentage and was among the league leaders for lowest percentage of pass attempts that were intercepted, while Favre led the NFL with 22 interceptions, four more than any other quarterback. Pennington also ranked sixth in the league in yards per attempt (7.67)--belying his reputation for not being able to connect on deep passes--while Favre was 22nd in the league (6.65) in this category.

It is an injustice that Favre--a mediocre quarterback at best this season--received a Pro Bowl nod but that Pennington did not. Perhaps Favre will rest his injured arm and give Pennington the opportunity to go to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Overtime Win Helps Bears Stay Alive in Playoff Hunt

As ESPN's Mike Tirico noted, it is often said that football is a game of inches and Chicago's 20-17 overtime win versus Green Bay certainly illustrated that: the Bears scored the game tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter after getting a first down by literally an inch, Alex Brown then blocked Green Bay's game-winning field goal attempt near the end of regulation and the Bears won the overtime coin toss after the coin doinked off of Brian Urlacher's helmet before landing on the ground as the players and officials scurried to find it. The Bears hardly looked like a division champion but if they beat Houston next week and Minnesota loses to the New York Giants then Chicago will capture the NFC North title with a 10-6 record; failing that, the Bears are also alive for a Wild Card berth in certain scenarios.

The Bears and Packers have met 176 times in the regular season, more than any other franchises in NFL history. Green Bay never trailed until Robbie Gould made the game-winning field goal and the Packers led from midway through the first quarter until Matt Forte's three yard TD run at the 3:11 mark of the fourth quarter. The Packers led in time of possession (35:42-27:50) and total yards (325-210) but did not parlay those advantages into enough points. After starting out 5-5, the Packers have lost five straight games, with the last four defeats coming by four, three, four and three points. Those close losses may lead you to think that if the Packers had not replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers that they could have won those games but the truth is that Rodgers has not been the problem: his passer ratings in those games were 96.3, 104.2, 87.8 and 87.6 while throwing eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Against the Bears, Rodgers positioned the Packers to attempt a game-winning field goal with :25 left in regulation and he never had a chance to do anything with the ball in overtime as the Bears marched straight down the field. There is no rational reason to believe that Favre would have led the Packers any farther this year than Rodgers has; in fact, Rodgers has actually been more productive this year than Favre has even though Favre is supported by a better running game and a better defense.

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

*Before talking about Sunday's games, I can't let this week go by without mentioning the passing of Sammy Baugh, who had been the last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural 1963 class. He spent his entire 16 year career (1937-52) with the Washington Redskins, leading them to the NFL Championship Game five times (1937, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1945), winning NFL titles in 1937 and 1942.

Baugh was a one of a kind player who was far ahead of his time, setting records that stood for decades--and in some cases still stand to this day. Baugh excelled as a passer, punter and defensive player; he led the NFL in passing, punting and interceptions (as a defensive player) in 1943, becoming the first of just three "triple crown" winners in NFL history; the only other players who ever led the league in three statistical categories in the same season are Steve Van Buren in 1945 and Bill Dudley in 1946. Baugh's 51.4 yard punting average in 1940 is a record that my never be broken; no other punter has even averaged 50 yards per punt for a season. Baugh was the first player to intercept four passes in one game, which is still tied for the single-game record.

Baugh holds NFL career records for most single season passing titles (six; the criteria for determining single season passing leaders changed several times during Baugh's career) and most single season punting titles (four). The current passer rating system was first officially used by the NFL in 1973, but applying that formula retroactively Baugh topped the NFL in passer rating in four different seasons, including a 109.9 rating in 1945, the highest rating posted until 1960.

When Baugh retired, he held the NFL career records for total punts (338), passing yards (21,886), passing attempts (2995), passing completions (1693) and passing touchdowns (187). He still is Washington's career franchise leader in TD passes. His NFL single season passing yardage record (2938 yards in 1947) stood for 13 years; he held that mark longer than anyone other than the current record holder, Dan Marino, whose 1984 standard of 5084 yards will remain safe for another year unless Drew Brees throws for 402 yards in the last game of the season. Baugh's .703 completion percentage in 1945 is still a Redskins record and was the NFL record until 1982.

Deion Sanders was rightly praised for excelling as a defensive back and a kick returner but that does not compare with setting records on offense, defense and special teams; it is safe to say that the sport will never again see someone like Sammy Baugh.

*"Bretty and the Jets" are completing the slide to mediocrity that I predicted for them at the start of the season when I wrote: "You may have heard that the Jets have a new quarterback--some guy named Favre. What no one seems to be paying much attention to is that the Dolphins also have a new quarterback--Chad Pennington, who used to be the Jets' quarterback. A lot of people rag on Pennington's arm strength but he is the NFL's career completion percentage leader and just two years ago he started all 16 games as the Jets went 10-6 and made it to the playoffs. Won't ESPN and the rest of the mainstream media circus have a fit if Pennington has a better season than Favre? If Pennington stays healthy--granted, a big if--don't be surprised if he does just that." I wonder how many other football commentators predicted that before this season?

Any objective observer realizes that Pennington should have received an AFC Pro Bowl nod instead of Favre, who should start his next retirement early and cede that spot to the Dolphins' QB (although I'm not sure if Pennington is even the first alternate). NBC's Cris Collinsworth offered a perfect summation of Favre's season: "I think that we have to be honest here with what we're seeing over the past four games. Brett Favre has been the issue as much as he has been the solution for the Jets and, especially when you juxtapose it with what Chad Pennington is doing in Miami, it has been ugly indeed. Brett Favre in the snow, against Seattle--this is exactly why he was brought to this franchise, to be able to handle these big late game situations in the snow, in the bad weather, in the wind and thus far Brett Favre, God love him, has not delivered for the New York Jets."

The Jets have now lost three of their last four games, including an ugly 13-3 decision versus Seattle on Sunday that may have cost New York a playoff berth; during that four game run, Favre has one touchdown and six interceptions (he has thrown a league-high 19 interceptions this season). His passer ratings in those four games were 60.9, 60.8, 61.4 and then 48.7 versus Seattle. Favre now ranks 18th in the NFL in passer rating (84.0), while Pennington (96.4) is second only to Philip Rivers (104.0); Aaron Rodgers--Favre's replacement in Green Bay--ranks eighth in passer rating (91.4) .

Favre had a couple shining moments this season that briefly made me consider the possibility that I had written him off too soon but down the stretch of the season he has reaffirmed that my initial assessment before the season was correct: the Jets went for broke seeking a short term solution, while the Dolphins obtained a quarterback who is better than Favre at this stage and still has several good years ahead of him.

I recall the ESPN Countdown crew canonizing Favre when the Jets signed him, while Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter mocked Pennington's arm strength; I believe that former players often have special insight about their sport but if they don't do their homework and/or are biased against certain players or teams for whatever reason then their analysis will not be correct. That is what happened in this instance and that is also what happened with Carter repeatedly calling Matt Cassel a "high school quarterback." I wonder if some of the outlandish things that these commentators say are instigated by directors and producers who are trying to create controversy and drama? To his credit, during Monday Night Countdown, Carter admitted, "It really was a season of miscalculation for me. I miscalculated how good Matt Cassel would be in that offense in New England but also the miscalculation with what they did with the Jets and Miami as far as Chad Pennington. The Jets miscalculated Brett Favre and his inability to be in an offseason training program--what it would do to his body, because I believe his body right now is failing him. You cannot NOT train in the offseason in the NFL and walk out there and think you are going to lead a football team. The season is too long. And Chad Pennington, they miscalculated--two years ago he had shoulder surgery. It looks like that shoulder is healthy now." I can't be mad at Carter now, because he is man enough to step up and admit that he was completely wrong; anyone can make a mistake but you have to have character to admit that you were wrong: there are far too many people who constantly say and do stupid things but will never, ever admit that they are wrong (such people are to be avoided at all costs). That said, Carter and Tom Jackson both were shockingly off target about Favre, as I stated quite definitively several months ago:

Before the season began, ESPN's Tom Jackson said repeatedly that quarterbacks travel to Hawaii and prepare for the Pro Bowl in just a few days so it will not take Favre very long to learn the Jets' system. To borrow one of Jackson's pet lines, "Really?" In the Pro Bowl, the defenders basically have to count "steamboats" before they rush the passer, exotic defenses are forbidden by rule and everyone is just trying to look good and not get hurt; there is absolutely no sensible, logical comparison between learning a simplified, Pro Bowl offense and learning a full offensive playbook that a team uses over the course of a 16 game season.

In that same post, I also noted that Steve Young--who has quickly become my favorite NFL analyst--had the correct take on the situation:

He correctly predicted that the Chargers would blow out the Jets--I love how he is one of the few ESPN commentators who never buys the hype or tries to falsely build up a matchup--and he said that it will be a 10 week process for Favre to really learn the Jets' offense. Emmitt Smith then quite logically asked if the Jets brought in the wrong guy. Young replied, "I think they got the right guy; they just got him a month too late. The thing dragged on and I think they wanted to get him in early August or late July so that they could have that time before the real bullets flew."

*New Year's Eve is rapidly approaching and the Cleveland Browns have not scored an offensive touchdown since before Thanksgiving. On Sunday, they were shut out 14-0 by the Cincinnati Bengals. There is often talk about how important it is for the Browns to beat Pittsburgh in order to become a threat in the AFC North but under Romeo Crennel the Browns have not even been able to establish dominance over the pitiful Bengals, falling to 2-6 against their intrastate rival since Crennel took the helm in 2005. It looks more and more like Cleveland's 10-6 record last season was an aberration, a product of playing against a weak schedule while getting peak performances from several players who did not come close to playing at that level this year. Miami went 1-15 last year but after hiring Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano they already have 10 wins with a game to go and may very well win a division title this season--but the Browns have been puttering around mostly at the bottom of the standings since 1999. That is simply unacceptable and the problem starts at the top with the ownership, first Al Lerner and now his son Randy Lerner; neither man hired the right general manager/coach combo to build a solid football team.

I don't want to be too hard on Ken Dorsey--he is obviously a third string quarterback for a reason--but he has played horribly since being pressed into duty as a result of injuries to Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Everyone knows that Dorsey lacks the arm strength and athleticism to be a top flight NFL quarterback but he is supposed to be a cerebral player who understands the game and knows how to read defenses. That reputation is apparently grossly exaggerated, because most of his seven interceptions have been the result of terrible reads. The Browns' offensive troubles began before Dorsey took the field but their offense is a disaster area with him running the show; the Browns don't look like they could score an offensive touchdown even against the soon to be 0-16 Detroit Lions. Right now, with the players they are currently putting on the field, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. Again, this is unacceptable--and the onus is on Randy Lerner to fix this mess. After his father Al sat on the plane with Art Modell as Modell sold the Browns fans down the river, after nearly a decade of embarrassing performances, he owes this to Cleveland.

*After a season filled with twists and turns for both teams, Dallas travels to Philadelphia with the opportunity to clinch the final Wild Card berth by beating their NFC East rivals. The ironies and subplots are rich for this contest, with most of them centering around former teammates Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb. A big part of the Eagles' problems this year can be traced to them not having a game-breaking receiver--in other words, a player like Owens, who ranked third in the league in TD receptions in his lone full season in Philadelphia despite missing two games due to injury and who ranked first and third in the NFL in TD receptions in his first two seasons as a Cowboy. Owens is currently tied for fourth in receiving TDs this season, just two TDs behind leader Anquan Boldin. The Eagles unceremoniously dumped Owens in 2005 and have not adequately replaced him since that time. Meanwhile, although Owens has been productive this season (in addition to his TDs, he is also averaging 15.3 yards per catch, which is better than his career average) it is obvious that the Cowboys have not fully taken advantage of his playmaking skills. If the Cowboys figure out that it makes sense to use the one weapon they have that the Eagles cannot match then they will beat the Eagles, make it to the playoffs and have an opportunity to redeem what has so far been a disappointing season. A two or three touchdown day by Owens could help him capture his fourth receiving TD crown and help the Cowboys put up a point total that the Eagles will be hard pressed to match.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Eagles Fly Over Inept Browns

The Philadelphia Eagles thrashed the Cleveland Browns 30-10 and the beating was truly worse than even that lopsided score suggests; if the Eagles had any kind of red zone offense they could have easily dropped 50 points on the hapless, helpless, hopeless Browns, who are still mired in the longest stretch of time without an offensive touchdown in franchise history. Donovan McNabb completed 26 of 35 passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and one interception en route to a 105.7 passer rating, his third highest single-game rating this season. He sat out most of the fourth quarter or he could have easily notched a 300 or even 400 yard game. "This is like seven on seven (practice drills with no linemen)...Donovan is getting no pressure on him," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said early in the third quarter.

You could not conceive of a bigger contrast than the one between the Eagles' offense--at least until they reached the red zone, when things got a little dicey--and the Browns' offense, "led" by third string quarterback Ken Dorsey, who completed 11 of 28 passes for 156 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, accumulating a 28.3 passer rating on the heels of his 49.6 passer rating last week in his first start of the season, a 28-9 loss to Tennessee. Dorsey has a peashooter for an arm and absolutely no mobility; his strength is supposed to be his ability to read coverages but that was hardly evident during this game. He totally misread a coverage and threw a pass that Asante Samuel intercepted and ran back for a touchdown late in the second quarter, extending Philadelphia's lead to 17-3. Dorsey's second pick also looked like it was the result of a terrible read and he could easily have had two more interceptions if Eagles' defenders had held on to the ball.

Here's a bizarre stat for the Browns: they have started six different quarterbacks in their last six Monday Night Football appearances, each of whom faced some kind of adversity either in that game or soon afterwards, beginning with Bernie Kosar in 1993 (waived by the Browns later that season) and then continuing with Eric Zeier in 1995 (started just one more game for the Browns), Kelly Holcomb (2003, benched during that game and did not play for the rest of the season), Derek Anderson (2008, benched three weeks later and then suffered a season-ending injury) and Brady Quinn (2008, broke his finger and is now out for the season). It is safe to assume that Dorsey does not have too many starts left in his future, either.

The Eagles effortlessly marched 64 yards on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. The Browns answered with their only productive drive of the game, going 63 yards before stalling at the Eagles' nine yard line and settling for a field goal. The Browns' offense did not reach Eagles' territory again until the second half.

Even when the Browns made a big defensive play they found a way not to score. After McNabb and the Eagles used horrible time management during a two minute drill near the end of the first half, McNabb threw a pass into the end zone that Brandon McDonald intercepted. Often, such picks are run back for TDs because the offensive players are so spread out. McDonald took off down the sideline but Brian Westbrook and Hank Baskett did not give up on the play, combining to run McDonald down as time expired. McDonald's 98 yard return is the longest interception return in regular season NFL history that did not result in a touchdown. Either McDonald is slow, Westbrook is really fast or the Browns are just cursed.

McDonald must have been destined to score in this game, though, because after McNabb went to the bench in the fourth quarter McDonald picked off Eagles' backup Kevin Kolb and raced 24 yards, somersaulting into the endzone to avoid a tackle attempt. That ended the Browns' touchdown-less streak--which had extended to 15 quarters--but the Browns' offense has not reached the endzone since Cleveland's 29-27 Monday Night Football win over Buffalo on November 17. Oddly, the Browns went 2-1 on Monday Night Football this year, beating the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and a Bills team that looked pretty good in mid-November. McDonald had at least one interception in each of Cleveland's three MNF games this year, an MNF first.

Braylon Edwards has been terrible for most of the season--leading the league in dropped passes after making the Pro Bowl last year--but even with the weak-armed Dorsey at the helm he caught five passes for 102 yards, thereby exceeding the 100 yard plateau in each of Cleveland's MNF games; only Jerry Rice and Torry Holt have had three 100 yard games in three MNF appearances in the same season.

Although a few individual players shined, this game was a microcosm of Cleveland's disastrous season. "It's really an embarrassment for Cleveland," Tony Kornheiser said after McNabb stood in the pocket unmolested for seemingly an eternity before throwing the TD pass that put the Eagles up 30-3. "It's everything that they've spent the whole year being: collapsing on offense, collapsing on defense, making no effort."

In many ways, the Browns resemble an expansion team now and, although injuries to the top two quarterbacks have played a part in that recently, the team did not look great for the most part even when Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn played. The Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 after the skunk Art Modell moved the original Browns to Baltimore and it must be said that virtually everything that has happened with the Browns since 1995--the team's final season in Cleveland--stinks. It started with Modell's underhanded moves that resulted in one Super Bowl title for his Baltimore Ravens and three Super Bowl wins for the New England Patriots, who smartly hired Bill Belichick a few years after Modell unceremoniously dumped the last Browns coach to win a playoff game. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that when Modell signed the deal to move the team Al Lerner--who later became the owner of the "new" Browns--was literally right by his side. If you believe in conspiracies, you could say that things worked out perfectly for the two good friends: Modell got to move his team, received a pile of money and even managed to get his long coveted Super Bowl championship, while Lerner got the opportunity to be the majority owner of the Browns, something that otherwise would never have happened because Modell was determined to keep control of the team in his family (ironically, he again got into financial trouble in Baltimore and had to sell controlling interest in the team). The only people who got screwed are the loyal Browns fans. Al Lerner has since passed away and his son Randy now owns the team but he seems more interested in the fate of his soccer team. I think that it is fair to say that Randy Lerner owes it to the Browns fans to put a much better and more professional product on the field. He has largely gotten a pass from the media and fans but the actions--and lack thereof--of he and his family have a lot to do with the sorry history of the Browns since 1995.

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

*Everyone has offered his or her two cents' worth about the drama in Dallas but I only heard two objective voices who made sense: Steve Young and John Madden. It is unfortunate that Young has such a limited role in ESPN's coverage because he is by far their best NFL analyst. Prior to Dallas' 20-8 win over the New York Giants, Young offered his prescription for the Cowboys to move forward: as the quarterback, Tony Romo should publicly take the blame for misreads/poorly thrown balls but in private Romo should assert himself when necessary and make sure that the lines of communication are open between he and all of the other offensive players. Young said that is the best way to defuse any potential controversies; considering that Young played with Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and other receivers who wanted to have a lot of passes thrown in their direction, he definitely has a lot of credibility to explain how a quarterback should nourish his relationships with his teammates.

Madden made two interesting technical observations:

1) He watched the game film of the Dallas-Pittsburgh game and determined that Owens was indeed open but did not receive the ball, which has been Owens' contention (and which many other Dallas players also believe, despite the media's attempts to portray Owens to be a troublemaker).

2) During the New York game, Madden noted that a screen pass to Owens' side of the field is very effective because Owens attracts so much extra defensive coverage.

The bottom line is that Owens is a playmaker and he is a competitor who wants to be involved in the offense. The Cowboys should want to get the ball in his hands as much as possible; I've never heard it suggested of any other future Hall of Famer that he should not want the ball or that his team should not try to get him the ball. That is just ignorant. People can say that Owens destroys teams but the 49ers were a playoff team during five of his eight seasons in San Francisco and have not once been a .500 team since he departed after the 2002 season. The Eagles were a Super Bowl team with Owens and have barely been above .500 overall since they got rid of Owens. The Cowboys missed the playoffs two years in a row before Owens arrived but made the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the team and are on the verge of qualifying for the playoffs again this year.

As Madden indicated, Owens not only makes plays but he attracts so much coverage that he enables less talented teammates to have opportunities to make plays. I just laugh when I hear people talk about how the Eagles need a game-breaking wide receiver to make their offense complete. They had one in Terrell Owens and Owens helped them to reach the Super Bowl but because McNabb is sensitive and the owner was too cheap or stubborn to pay Owens what he was worth--after Owens risked his career to come back from a devastating injury to have an MVP-level performance in the Super Bowl--the Eagles can derive temporary joy from beating the Browns before they are eliminated from postseason contention next week or in the final game of the season.

Most commentators took the easy route and bashed Terrell Owens in a variety of ways. I have said it before and it must be said again: the last person on Earth who should say anything about Owens is Keyshawn "Just Give Me the Damn Ball" Johnson, a player who was let go by a Super Bowl champion due to his insubordination and who--as Owens has rightly noted--is a commentator now at the age of 36 (just one year older than Owens) because Owens took his spot in Dallas. Talk about combining hypocrisy and conflict of interest in one sound bite! When Johnson talks about how a wide receiver should properly deal with his quarterback I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Johnson criticizes Owens' route running skills but Owens ranks second in NFL history in touchdowns, sixth in receiving yards and seventh in receptions, so this reminds me of the late, great Ralph Wiley's response to critics who said that baseball great Rickey Henderson did not always play hard: if a guy can put up those kind of numbers without playing hard (or, in this case, despite supposedly being a bad route runner) how great must he really be?

The problem here is that most people apparently cannot distinguish between athletes whose bad attitudes bring down their teams--like Chad Johnson--and athletes who are intense and passionate about winning and get frustrated when things aren't being done properly. I remember when then-Bengals running back Corey Dillon sat down on the bench in disgust and would not go back in the game because Coach Bruce Coslet's team was so undisciplined and unprepared. The media killed him but I always said to Bengals' fans that I hoped that the Browns would get Dillon because he was a great back on a sorry team. Bill Belichick saw through all the media nonsense and signed Dillon, who became a key contributor on a Super Bowl champion. In the NBA, Dennis Rodman may have seemed to be eccentric or worse but he had an extremely high basketball IQ. When he had high IQ basketball coaches like Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson he helped his teams win championships but he did not have patience for teammates and/or coaches who were soft or unprepared. One time, he was in the locker room when a coach was diagramming a defensive scheme and Rodman just went off, saying that the whole thing was BS, that Jackson's Bulls never played that kind of defense and it just won't work. Certain players just cannot be in situations that are not structured properly. Since coming to New England, Randy Moss has proven that even though he blatantly dogged it at times on previous teams he can be a winning player with the right structure around him.

Another aspect of the whole Owens situation that is strange is the "thrown to" numbers that have suddenly proliferated out of thin air. That is not an official NFL stat and I don't know how "thrown to" statistics are compiled; the numbers that have been bandied about in the past few days that purport to show that Owens has been "thrown to" more than Jason Witten this year seem bogus to me, unless "thrown to" includes balls that are thrown away and are uncatchable; the number of catchable balls thrown in Owens' direction this season has not been nearly as high as it should be (yes, Owens has dropped some catchable balls, too, but he has a track record of making big plays when he gets enough opportunities to do so).

By my count, here is the breakdown for Owens and Witten in the New York game:


1) Dropped deep pass on 3rd and 10.
2) 25 yard reception on 2nd and 13.
3) Six yard reception on 1st and 10.
4) Overthrown ball on 1st and 10; illegal contact called on Giants, resulting in a five yard penalty and an automatic first down. If Owens had not been held, he likely would have had a huge gain on the play.
5) Seven yard reception on 2nd and eight.
6) Overthrown deep pass on 2nd and 13.

Owens finished with three receptions for 38 yards and drew one penalty that resulted in five yards and an automatic first down. He dropped one catchable pass and two of the balls thrown in his direction were not catchable.


1) Off target, incomplete pass on 2nd and 10.
2) Dropped short pass on 3rd and 13.
3) Three yard reception on 1st and 10.
4) Five yard reception on 2nd and six.
5) Overthrown pass on 3rd and 11.
6) Underthrown pass on 1st and 10.
7) 12 yard reception on 1st and 10.
8) 13 yard reception on 2nd and nine.
9) 11 yard reception on 3rd and nine.

Witten also committed a false start penalty. Apparently, the second ball thrown to him was not "officially" recorded as a drop but the ball hit him on the hands and then hit the turf before he could control it. If that is not a drop then I am not sure what is.

After the game, Witten and Owens both told NBC's Andrea Kremer that their supposed feud had been blown completely out of proportion. "It was a lack of professionalism on (ESPN reporter) Ed Werder's behalf," Owens insisted to Kremer. In his postgame press conference, Owens added, "I don't know where he (Werder) got his information but it was a lie. It's unfair. I had to deal with this all week. I don't know where he's getting his sources from but whatever his source was, they told him a blatant lie." ESPN anchor John Buccigross said that the network stands by its story.

*"Bretty and the Jets" were bailed out by Buffalo's boneheaded playcalling but that does not change the fact that neither Brett Favre nor his team are performing well down the stretch. Favre had passer ratings over 100 in three straight wins to help the Jets improve to 8-3 but since that time they have limped to 9-5 as Favre threw four interceptions and just one touchdown pass while compiling ratings of 60.9, 60.8 and 61.4. At least he is consistent. Yes, Favre's old Green Bay team has crashed and burned this season but that has little to do with the performance of Favre's replacement, Aaron Rodgers, who has nearly duplicated Favre's 2007 stats and is having a better season this year than Favre is: Rodgers ranks eighth in the league in passer rating (91.8) and has thrown 23 TD passes while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt and only tossing 12 interceptions. In contrast, Favre ranks 15th in the NFL with a passer rating of 86.5 and he has 21 TDs, 17 interceptions--the most in the NFL--and is only averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, tied for 20th out of the 32 quarterbacks who have thrown enough passes to qualify for the league rankings. Last year, Favre had a 95.7 rating, 28 TDs, 15 interceptions and a 7.8 yards per attempt average.

New York's 31-27 win over Buffalo was a gift--the Bills had the lead and the ball with barely two minutes remaining before J.P. Losman inexplicably rolled out to pass and fumbled the ball, enabling the Jets to score the game-winning touchdown. The Jets have won three other games this year in which Favre had passer ratings of 76.0 or worse. Even though the Jets control their own destiny due to a favorable tiebreak situation, don't be a bit surprised if they end up right where I've said all along that they will be: sitting at home when the playoffs begin. Meanwhile, as I predicted in my season preview, ex-Jet Chad Pennington has gone to Miami and had a better season than Favre (though I was not bold enough to also predict that the Dolphins would improve their record as much as they have): Pennington ranks fourth in the NFL with a 95.1 passer rating and he has 14 TDs compared to just six interceptions. He is averaging a robust 7.8 yards per attempt (the same that Favre averaged in 2007 when he was considered an MVP candidate and one yard per attempt better than Favre this year) and he has 35 completions of at least 20 yards, two more than Favre in 32 fewer attempts. The knock on Pennington was that he does not have a strong arm but this season he has had more success throwing downfield than Favre has. Isn't it strange that Miami has the same 9-5 record as New York and that Pennington has had a better year than Favre while playing for a team that had been much worse (although the Jets were 4-12 in 2007 they were a playoff team in 2006, while the Dolphins were 1-15 in 2007 and 6-10 in 2006) but Favre has received much more media attention and praise than Pennington? If you go strictly by the numbers--not just passer rating but also completion percentage, yards per attempt and other key stats--then Philip Rivers, Pennington and Peyton Manning should be the AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks this year. It will be interesting to see if Favre gets the nod instead due to how much the media pumps him up.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dallas Drama: Media Tries to Divide and Conquer Cowboys Locker Room

It is very interesting to watch the latest Dallas Cowboys drama unfold, particularly in terms of how the national media slants the coverage; the story that the media wants to tell--regardless of the truth of the matter--is that Terrell Owens is, as the already cliched phrase goes, "throwing his quarterback under the bus," as he is alleged to have done previously. That is the only story that sells, from their perspective; any other story is not nearly as interesting to them.

The most important thing to note is that no outsider--including ESPN's breathless reporters--are privy to whatever was said in any closed door meetings that the Cowboys may have held in recent days. That means that anything that any reporter says about such meetings is hearsay--second or third party information that may have been spun in any number of ways, whether by that reporter or by someone with an agenda who told something to the reporter.

What I found fascinating about Ed Werder's SportsCenter report is that he felt compelled to preface the fact that the Dallas defensive players support Owens by saying "Believe it or not." That is an editorial comment, not a fact based report. Furthermore, why should anyone be surprised that Dallas defensive players want their future Hall of Fame receiver to get the ball more often? Don't most teams in any sport figure out ways to get the ball to their best playmakers?

Another thing that is fascinating about this story is how ESPN has hastened to supposedly calculate exactly how many times Romo has thrown to Owens and to tight end Jason Witten. I'd like to know how those numbers are derived, because a pass that is "thrown to" Owens that sails four feet over his head and goes out of bounds hardly constitutes a reasonable attempt to get him the ball. The suggestion that Romo has recently thrown to Owens more than he has thrown to Witten does not pass the eyeball test for anyone who has watched the games--and whether or not Romo threw to Owens more often than Witten one year ago is irrelevant to the Cowboys' current situation.

Here are some indisputable numbers:

1) Terrell Owens is the active career leader in TD receptions with 138; he ranks second on the all-time list to the incomparable Jerry Rice.
2) Owens has led the NFL in TD receptions three times and ranks second this year despite being underutilized.
3) Owens has a career 14.9 career yards per reception average and is averaging 15.4 yards per reception this season.
4) Owens has 55 receptions for 848 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
5) Witten has 24 career receptions in his six season career--which is 13 fewer than Owens has caught in his three seasons in Dallas.
6) Witten has never caught more than seven TDs in a season.
7) Witten has a career 11.5 yards per reception average and is averaging 12.0 yards per reception this season.
8) Witten has 64 receptions for 771 yards and three touchdowns this season.

What those numbers show is that Owens is a playmaker--he makes big plays, both in terms of yardage and in terms of putting points on the board. He has been significantly more productive in those areas this season than Witten has despite having fewer opportunities. Owens' speed and ability to break tackles stretch the defense, which opens up the middle for Witten and opens up running lanes for the running backs. There is no reason for the Cowboys not to put the ball in Owens' hands as much as possible. The Dallas defensive players--who don't have an agenda other than wanting to win games--understand this and that is why they want Owens to get the ball more often.

You may recall that during the whole Owens-Donovan McNabb situation the media tried to make Owens the bad guy but you never heard any Philadelphia players criticize Owens or take McNabb's side; even after the Eagles got rid of Owens that never happened. Think about that for a moment. The media want you to believe that Owens is some kind of locker room cancer but the guys who are in the locker room with him--other than the specific player who he rightly criticized for not performing up to par in the Super Bowl--won't say anything bad about him on the record, even after he is no longer on the team. What does that tell you?

We all know that on Sunday NFL Countdown, Keyshawn and the boys will line Owens up in their crosshairs and fire away with both barrels. Before you join that firing squad in spirit, look at the numbers and think about what Owens' teammates have said--and have not said--publicly. Don't be swayed by "anonymous sources said" reports. Only believe what you see and hear with your own eyes and ears. That is the real story--and here is a great quote to consider, from Dallas defensive back Terence Newman: "I don't know why people want to kind of bash TO about being the bad guy and complaining about not getting the ball, because he hasn't said one word to anybody. There are more players on this team who have went to TO and said, 'Why aren't you getting the ball? Why is Witten getting all the balls' rather than TO saying (that). If you ask me as a defensive player, I like to see TO get the ball because it excites us and we know good things are going to happen. If you look at all of our games this year, when TO gets the ball we win football games and if he's not catching the ball then we struggle a little bit."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Panthers Run Over Buccaneers, 38-23

The Carolina Panthers bludgeoned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a powerful and speedy running game, chewing up 299 yards on the ground in a 38-23 win. DeAngelo Williams gained a franchise single-game record 186 yards on 19 carries and Jonathan Stewart added 115 yards on 15 carries; each running back also scored two touchdowns. They are the first teammates to gain 100 yards in the same game while each scoring at least two touchdowns and each averaging at least seven yards per attempt. Although Jake Delhomme did not have a great performance (two interceptions, 73.5 passer rating), Steve Smith caught nine passes for 117 yards and one touchdown, his 23rd 100 yard game since 2005, the most by any NFL player during that period. The Panthers deserve a lot of credit for their game plan, their blocking and their running but this is a shocking setback for a Tampa Bay defense that held them to 40 yards rushing in a 27-3 Buccaneers rout in week six.

Carolina's stunning success on the ground overshadowed a brilliant aerial performance by Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia and Antonio Bryant. Garcia completed 24 of 38 passes for 321 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 107.5 passer rating, while Bryant caught nine passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Garcia and Bryant were teammates on the 2004 Cleveland Browns. Isn't it interesting how many players have success before and/or after being Browns but don't reach their full potential in Cleveland--or play well in Cleveland (as Bryant did, catching 69 passes for 1009 yards in 2005) only to end up on other teams? This is an indictment of how badly the team has been mismanaged and how poorly it has been coached, not just by the current Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel regime but dating all the way back to when the Browns rejoined the NFL in 1999.

Most of the Super Bowl talk this season has been about the New York Giants and Tennessee Titans but if the 10-3 Panthers win their final three regular season games--including a showdown with the Giants--then they will be the number one seed in the NFC playoffs. Meanwhile, the 9-4 Buccaneers have a one game lead over the contenders for the first Wild Card spot and could still claim the NFC South title if they win out and the Panthers stumble.

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

*It is not much fun to be a Cleveland Browns fan right now; not only will many ex-Browns players, coaches and executives be participating in the playoffs while the Browns will be home again in January but the team is lousy and is getting worse as the season goes along. After a Kerry Collins interception set the Browns up at Tennessee's 25 yard line in the first quarter, Cleveland had a four play, two yard "drive" for a field goal in their 28-9 loss to the Titans. That's not a drive. That's not even a Sunday stroll. That's just...pathetic. Other Cleveland "drives" in that game included three plays for two yards (punt), four plays for nine yards (punt), four plays for zero yards (punt) and, my personal "favorite," three plays for negative four yards (interception). I wonder if all the morons who cheered as Derek Anderson writhed in pain last week after suffering a season-ending injury enjoyed watching third stringer Ken Dorsey struggle to throw the ball farther than 10 yards--not that their classlessness would be justified if Dorsey could actually play but being happy about Anderson's injury is not only cruel but does not even make sense at any level when you know that his replacement simply does not have the arm strength to be an NFL quarterback. I will never understand what Anderson did to become the object of such hatred; last season he became the Browns' first Pro Bowl quarterback in two decades and, based on how this team is managed and coached, it might be two decades before another Browns quarterback plays in the Pro Bowl. The fans have all but run Anderson out of town; it would not surprise me at all if he became a Jim Plunkett-type, achieving success with another team. He is tough and has a strong arm and it would be interesting to see what he could accomplish on a team that has a good coach and a supportive, championship-level environment.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that the Browns are considering the idea of bringing back Marty Schottenheimer as a replacement for Romeo Crennel. People may mock Schottenheimer for his less than stellar postseason record but at least his teams actually qualify for the playoffs; he sure has gotten a lot closer to the Super Bowl than the Browns have since they fired him 20 years ago. I'd much rather hear him say "There's a gleam" than hear Browns coaches talk about guys who played really hard--and then got their heads kicked in by the Steelers and pretty much everyone else on the schedule. One Cleveland columnist has already bashed the idea of hiring Schottenheimer, saying that the Browns need a long term solution, not a 65 year old retread. Yeah, why would the Browns want to hire a respected, successful coach? Ever heard of Dick Vermeil, who never won the "big one," left the NFL as the poster child for "burnout" and then came back from a long stint as a broadcaster to lead St. Louis to a Super Bowl victory?

Of course, it is important to remember that the football writing "experts" in Cleveland played a role in running off Schottenheimer--and later Bill Belichick--in the first place.

*"Bretty and the Jets," as Chris Berman refers to them, may be in the process of crashing to Earth and finishing with pretty much the record that I originally predicted that they would have. We all know that 99% of the members of the media love Brett Favre and after the Jets beat Tennessee and New England in consecutive games you would have thought that a lot of those writers and broadcasters had died and gone to heaven--but now the Jets have lost two straight games, including this week's 24-14 defeat at lowly San Francisco. Brett Favre went 20-31 for 127 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 60.8 passer rating versus the 49ers; Favre had a 60.9 passer rating last week in the Jets' 34-17 loss to Denver and did not have a touchdown pass in that game either.

Favre currently ranks 13th in the NFL in passer rating (88.2), trailing both the quarterback the Jets traded to Miami to make room for him (Chad Pennington, 93.7 rating, fifth in the NFL) and the quarterback who replaced him in Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers, 92.1 rating, eighth in the NFL). Favre is tied with Gus Frerotte with a league-high 15 interceptions, already matching his total from last year with three games to go.

*Meanwhile, "high school quarterback" (as Cris Carter called him) Matt Cassel and the New England Patriots are tied for first place (with the Jets and the Dolphins) in the AFC East with three games left in the season. Cassel bounced back from a tough game against Pittsburgh to complete 26 of 44 passes for 268 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a solid 84.3 passer rating in New England's 24-21 win at Seattle. The Patriots have had to overcome not only Tom Brady's season-ending week one injury but also a season-ending injury to starting running back Laurence Maroney and a string of injuries to defensive starters.

*It was a bizarre Sunday for the Dallas Cowboys. They blew a 13-3 fourth quarter lead at Pittsburgh to lose 20-13--but still moved up into the second Wild Card slot because the Atlanta Falcons (who are 8-5, just like the Cowboys) lost to the New Orleans Saints and thus have a worse NFC record than Dallas does.

In most sports when a team has a Hall of Fame a caliber player he is the central focus of their attack. Looking at the Cowboys, Terrell Owens is the only offensive player who I'm sure will be a Hall of Famer--and even though he turned 35 on Sunday it's not like he's lost a step: he is averaging 15.4 yards per reception this season (a half yard better than his stout career average) and he is tied for second in the league with nine touchdown receptions, including the Cowboys' only TD versus Pittsburgh. Owens caught three passes for 32 yards in the Pittsburgh game and it is befuddling that Dallas does not utilize him more frequently.

Usually, the Monday Night Countdown crew is pretty hard on Owens but even they realize that Owens should be a bigger part of Dallas' offense. Cris Carter noted that for years Owens has been a player who makes big plays and that it is vitally important to produce points out of the passing game. Point blank, Carter said, "You have to get him the football...When Santa Claus is coming around (i.e, in December games), Tony Romo is passing out losses and turnovers." Tom Jackson, normally one of Owens' harshest critics, said that Owens will likely finish second on the career list in all of the important receiving categories so it is strange that Tony Romo seems to go away from Owens at the end of games. Keyshawn Johnson offered a slightly different perspective, saying, "I don't think that Tony Romo has as much trust in Terrell Owens as in Jason Witten in those situations." He added that Romo and Witten are roommates on the road, while Owens has sometimes taken public shots at Romo (I don't remember that; it seems to me that Owens has defended Romo in public, including the famous time that Owens cried after a playoff game and pleaded with the media to not blame the loss on Romo). If Romo is truly making decisions about who to throw the ball to based on being his buddy--and not based on football skills--then the Cowboys are in serious trouble, but I'm not convinced that Johnson's analysis is correct.

Johnson also said that quarterbacks are "selfish" in the sense that they want to throw to guys who make plays for them; Romo's first two interceptions in the Pittsburgh game were thrown in Owens' direction, so Johnson believes that Romo was hesitant to throw to Owens after those plays. That does not really wash, because Owens made both his touchdown reception and a first down catch on a drive that led to a Dallas field goal after those interceptions happened. Also, if Romo and Witten have such a "bond," as Johnson claimed, then why were they so out of sync at the end of the game? Pittsburgh scored the game-winning touchdown on Deshea Townsend's interception return after Romo threw a pass in Witten's direction. Dallas' final offensive play wa a Romo pass to Witten that fell incomplete as Witten did not even turn around to try to catch the ball; if Owens had done that you can bet that his gaffe would be headline news. ESPN's Trent Dilfer said that reviewing the tapes of those plays, he concluded that Romo bears some responsibility but that protection breakdowns up front caused Romo to rush the throw that was intercepted and to "freelance" on the incompletion, a play that was designed to go to Patrick Crayton, who was open.

This just should not be that complicated: when Owens is single covered, the ball should be thrown his way; when Owens is double covered, he should take his defenders deep and thus leave a hole in the middle of the defense in which Romo can make an easy completion to someone else.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Rise and Fall of O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson, football legend and alleged double murderer, may spend the rest of his life in jail as a result of trying to forcibly reacquire memorabilia and property that he claims belong to him; Las Vegas Judge Jackie Glass handed down a complex sentence to Simpson as a result of his conviction on multiple kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon charges: the 61 year old Simpson could be required to serve up to 33 years in prison and apparently will have to serve at least nine years, unless his conviction is overturned on appeal. Simpson's life has devolved from a football hero's triumphant saga to a bizarre tragedy rife with bitter irony.

I am too young to remember Simpson's great NFL career, though of course as a student of sports history I became quite familiar with his dazzling highlights and remarkable accomplishments. My first memory of Simpson is an image of his battle scarred knees that was shown during an NFL Today feature about him roughly 30 years ago when he was on the last legs of his career--literally--as a San Francisco 49er. In his first year as San Francisco's coach, Bill Walsh hoped to squeeze a few more yards out of the "Juice" but Simpson managed just 460 yards with a 3.8 yards per attempt average in 1979, his NFL swan song.

In his prime with the Buffalo Bills, Simpson won four NFL rushing titles in a five year span (1972-73, 1975-76). Simpson's offensive line was called the "Electric Company" because they let loose the "Juice." As a teenager, Simpson boldly walked up to Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and declared that he was going to break all of Brown's records. Brown's career rushing record of 12,312 yards survived Simpson's onslaught (only to be later broken by Walter Payton) as Simpson retired with 11,236 yards (second on the career list at the time) but Simpson did break Brown's single season rushing record (1863 yards in 1963) by becoming the first NFL player to break the 2000 yard barrier (2003 yards in 1973). Simpson also shattered the single game rushing mark (once held by Brown, then surpassed by two other players prior to Simpson) by gaining 250 yards in a 1973 game and then again by gaining 275 yards in a 1976 game (Payton broke that record a year later with 277 yards and Adrian Peterson is the current record holder with a 296 yard outburst).

Simpson parlayed his football success into a pathbreaking career as a pitchman, including his famous Hertz ad when he ran through an airport and a series of spots with Arnold Palmer. If you grew up watching "Be Like Mike" ads then it may be difficult to believe that there was a time not too long ago when endorsement opportunities were few and far between for even the best black athletes. In the 1970s, Simpson and then Julius Erving became the first so-called "crossover" athletes, black athletes who were considered to have an appeal that "transcended" race (I am simply using the terms that were used at that time, as antiquated as those concepts seem in an era when Tiger Woods and LeBron James openly speak of becoming billionaires largely on the strength of their endorsement opportunities).

Simpson later became a member of the Monday Night Football booth, wearing one of those trademark yellow ABC jackets and after that he worked as a sideline reporter at NFL games, donning some gloves and shoes that would become infamous in a different and much more grisly context.

The popular Simpson seemed to have it all going for him but it is interesting to recall one person who never had a high opinion of him: Jim Brown always spoke derisively of Simpson, basically calling him a fake and a sellout who did nothing to help the black community. Simpson was a gang banger as a youth and Brown always intimated that despite the smiling facade that Simpson showed to corporate America on the inside Simpson never really abandoned those thuggish roots. It was easy to dismiss Brown's comments as sour grapes directed toward someone who broke some of his records and achieved greater financial success but in hindsight it seems that Brown was quite correct in his character assessment of Simpson.

The famous double murder in 1994 that claimed the lives of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman was apparently the culmination of a long history of domestic violence directed at Brown by Simpson; yes, Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges in a highly contentious, racially charged trial, but if a higher level of motive, opportunity and physical evidence were necessary for a murder conviction than what existed in that case then no one would ever be convicted of murder except in cases where the crime was captured on videotape. Subsequent to the criminal trial, Simpson was found liable for $33.5 million in damages in a civil case related to those killings (the burden of proof is lower in a civil action).

Simpson pledged to hunt for the "real killers" but he spent most of his time playing golf and hiding his assets from the Brown and Goldman families, who legally could not touch his luxurious Florida house or his sizable NFL pension. The Yiddish word "chutzpah" is sometimes defined as killing both of your parents and then asking the court for mercy because you are an orphan; Simpson's picture should be next to that word in the dictionary after he decided to write a ghoulish book titled "If I Did It," in which he denied committing the murders and yet laid out how he would have done them if he had been the killer. Is it possible to imagine a more ghastly way to try to make a buck than to trade on a double murder involving the mother of your children in which you were the primary--and still only--suspect?

Simpson's name popped up in the news a few other times over the years, including his attempt to illegally provide free satellite television for himself; that cost him a $25,000 judgment payable to DirecTV in 2005, plus more than $33,000 to cover DirecTV's legal fees.

His current legal problems stem from a bizarre incident in a Las Vegas hotel last September. Simpson apparently found out that some former associates of his had obtained memorabilia and property that Simpson considered to be his. So, Simpson gathered together a few people and barged into the associates' hotel room, drawing a gun and bellowing "Don't let nobody out of this room!" It's one thing to pay your way out of a satellite TV dispute and there were no surviving witnesses to the double murder but unfortunately for Simpson there were several witnesses to his hotel room shenanigans, plus a tape recording of the whole episode.

Before Judge Glass decreed Simpson's sentence, Simpson made a statement to the court. Not surprisingly, he failed to take any responsibility for his actions. When he said that he's sorry, what he meant is that he's sorry he got caught. Simpson bizarrely claimed that he did not know that he was committing a criminal act when he barged into someone else's hotel room with a loaded gun and he said that all he was doing was asking some old friends to return his property. Simpson talked about how long he has known these guys and their wives and their children. I don't know about you, but if I am going to ask an old friend to return something he borrowed I am not going to roll up on him with a loaded gun. Why exactly would you need a gun to communicate with trusted friends?

O.J. Simpson's athletic gifts provided him a golden opportunity to better his life, the lives of his family members and, if he had chosen, to make a positive contribution to society by using his name and influence to support a greater cause, like Jim Brown has done with his Amer-I-Can foundation. Instead, Simpson left a trail of misery and destruction culminating in the possibility of spending his final days on Earth locked behind bars. What a pitiful, tragic waste of human potential.


In addition to seeing Simpson featured in that NFL Today piece, watching his highlights and reading about him in various books and magazines, I later encountered Simpson in, of all places, the epigraph for David Halberstam's great basketball book, "The Breaks of the Game"; it is particularly poignant to read this passage not only considering what Simpson has done with his life but also because author Paul Zimmerman recently suffered a couple strokes; hopefully, Zimmerman will make a fast and complete recovery.

Here is the epigraph from "The Breaks of the Game":

"Fame," O.J. said, walking along, "is a vapor, popularity is an accident and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character. "

"Where'd you get that from?" Cowlings asked.

"Heard it one night on TV in Buffalo," O.J. said. "I was watching a late hockey game on Canadian TV and all of a sudden a guy just said it. Brought me right up out of my chair. I never forgot it."

--From an article by Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated, November 26, 1979, on O.J. Simpson

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Texans Topple Disappointing Jaguars

In September, the Jacksonville Jaguars were considered to be Super Bowl contenders; in December, after a 30-17 loss to the Houston Texans dropped them to 4-8, the only thing that they are contending for is the title of most disappointing NFL team of 2008. Houston's rookie running back Steve Slaton rushed 21 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Sage Rosenfels completed 14 of 24 passes for 200 yards and one touchdown but his most important statistic is that he only had one interception; the Texans have moved the ball effectively this season but shot themselves in the foot with turnovers, usually committed by quarterbacks Rosenfels or Matt Schaub. Andre Johnson caught seven passes for 75 yards and one touchdown; he is so frequently being called "underrated" that he may be close to actually getting the recognition that he deserves as arguably the best receiver in the game today. ESPN's Steve Young, a Hall of Fame quarterback, said that Johnson's approach to the "art form" of football--something that Young also refers to as learning the "craft" of the game and that he holds near and dear to his heart--reminds him of the great Jerry Rice, Young's teammate for many years in San Francisco.

Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard put up similar numbers to Rosenfels--25-35, 287 yards, one touchdown, one interception--but he lost a fumble and on a few occasions he literally tripped over himself (or his linemen) as he dropped back to pass. In recent years, the Jaguars have been a big, physically powerful team that featured a dominant running game but this season the Jaguars are running the ball much less often and much less effectively than before. As ESPN's Ron Jaworski noted during the telecast, the decline in the effectiveness of Jacksonville's running game has negatively impacted the Jaguars' passing game as well by lessening the effectiveness of the play action fake.

Before the game, Young said that Jacksonville's subpar season indicates that there is a lack of mature leadership on the team; the players bought into the preseason expectations and did not work hard enough to turn those expectations into reality. After the game, Young offered these comments: "I got to be honest with you, it's hard to describe much about the Texans when in my mind it was really, really was about the Jaguars' inability to do anything but let's talk about the Texans for a minute. This is a young football team. When they're healthy, they look like a team that could turn the corner and really start to dominate. They have a great defense. They need another corner(back). They've got this young back (Slaton), if he can stay healthy--he's smaller, and that's a real risk. They've got this West Coast Offense and both quarterbacks seem to be able to handle it. When Matt Schaub gets back, I think that they are an above .500 football team." The Texans are 5-7, so a playoff run this season is not likely but the future seems to be bright for this franchise.

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

*The Baltimore Ravens handed yet another embarrassing defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals, who dropped to 1-10-1; the final score was 34-3 but could have even been worse considering that Baltimore controlled the ball for almost 39 minutes and rolled up 451 yards of offense. At least the Bengals are consistent: they gained 155 yards in this game, nearly matching the 154 yards that they totaled in their season-opening 17-10 loss to Baltimore. Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis neatly summed up the game and the season: "When you get your head kicked in like that, there's not much to say."

*New England's playoff chances took a hit in a 33-10 home loss to Pittsburgh. The Steelers forced five turnovers and those field position shifts helped them to score 30 straight points. Matt Cassel had thrown for more than 400 yards in two straight games but he completed just 19 of 39 passes for 169 yards and two interceptions versus the Steelers; he also lost two fumbles. Perhaps Patriots' fans can take solace in this obscure statistic: the last time that New England gave up 30 straight points--in a season-opening 31-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills five years ago--the Patriots went on to win that season's Super Bowl. In other words, it is possible for a good team to be thoroughly dominated in a game but still be a championship caliber club when it counts; for now, though, the Patriots have to concentrate on simply qualifying for the playoffs.

*After all of the tumult about whether Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn should be the starting quarterback, season-ending injuries to both players will force the Cleveland Browns to put Ken Dorsey at the helm of their anemic offense. Anderson's statistics in a 10-6 loss to the Colts were nothing to write home about (16-26, 110 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions) but the Browns led 6-3 in the fourth quarter before his pass protection broke down, first leading to a strip sack fumble that Robert Mathis returned 37 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown and then resulting in another sack during which Anderson suffered a season-ending knee injury. Similar to Jacksonville, the Browns entered this season with high expectations that they will not even come close to fulfilling. Since the Browns rejoined the NFL in 1999 they have never established an identity, something that they consistently do well; they should take a cue from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and build their team from the inside out by assembling dominant offensive and defensive lines. Last year, the Browns seemed to be on track toward putting together a good offensive line and in the offseason they made some moves to bolster their defensive line but they still need to improve in both areas. Of course, they also have to find--and stick with--an effective quarterback, whether he is already on the roster or has to be acquired from elsewhere.

For some inexplicable reason, the Browns have a history of not only playing the Colts very tough but shutting down their usually high powered offense; the last time the Colts failed to score an offensive touchdown was a 9-6 victory at Cleveland in 2003.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Saints Go Marching In Edition

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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: "Wide Right" Edition

The Cleveland Browns were on the verge of becoming the first team in NFL history to blow leads of at least 13 points in three consecutive games but Rian Lindell's 47 yard field goal attempt went wide right and the Browns escaped with a 29-27 win in Buffalo. Bills' quarterback Trent Edwards had a ghastly performance that included three first quarter interceptions and resulted in a 50.3 passer rating overall but the Browns only scored two field goals as a result of Edwards' gaffes. The Browns put together one sustained drive all game, an impressive 96 yard second quarter march that culminated in a two yard Josh Cribbs' TD run that gave the Browns a 13-0 lead; the Browns' other touchdown came on a 72 yard burst by Jerome Harrison, the speedy running back who many observers believe should be receiving more playing time. Phil Dawson's 56 yard field goal with 1:39 remaining--which turned out to be the game-winner--was set up by a 28 yard "drive" that stalled when Braylon Edwards dropped a third down pass that would have been good enough for a first down that would have either set up a much shorter kick with less time on the clock or possibly enabled the Browns to score a touchdown. Instead, they had to rely on Dawson making a difficult kick in Buffalo's swirling winds and then hope that a defense that had given up nearly 1000 yards in the previous two games could manage to keep Buffalo out of field goal range; as it turned out, the defense failed at this modest task but--as Denny Green might say--the Bills "let them off the hook" thanks to Lindell's miss, a rarity for a kicker who has been very dependable both from that distance and in late game situations when the score is close. In other words, the Browns won but they really did not play that much better than they played in the games that they lost this season and to suggest otherwise is to put lipstick on a very ugly pig.

Brady Quinn earned his first win as an NFL starter, though his statistics were hardly anything to brag about: 14-36, 185 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions and a 55.9 passer rating that was only marginally better than Edwards'. The best thing that can be said about Quinn right now is that in 79 pass attempts spanning two starts plus one drive in a game last season he has yet to throw an interception or fumble the ball. The Browns also are not plagued by false start penalties and some of the general sloppiness that took place when Derek Anderson was the starter. However, to be fair it must be added that Anderson was not committing those penalties and when he put up numbers like Quinn did against Buffalo many Browns fans screamed for his head; ESPN's Trent Dilfer and others insist that the Browns made the switch to Quinn precisely because the fans complained so much about Anderson. Barely a month ago, Anderson went 18-29 for 310 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 121.3 passer rating as the Browns tagged the New York Giants with a 35-14 loss that remains the only blemish on the Super Bowl champions' record this season. Then, in the next game against Washington, Anderson went 14-37 for 136 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 57.9 passer rating in a 14-11 loss. Note that Anderson's statistics against Washington and Quinn's statistics against Buffalo are virtually identical; the only difference between the Washington game and the Buffalo game is that at Washington Dawson missed a 54 yard field goal with 25 seconds left. Marcus Stroud almost blocked Dawson's game-winner against Buffalo, so the Browns are literally within a fingertip of remaining winless in the Quinn era.

There is no question that the Browns got off to a disappointing start this season but that had more to do with injuries, dropped passes and gaffes by other players than it did with Anderson, even though it is true that he did not play as well as he did last season. Anderson was a Pro Bowler in 2007 after throwing 29 TD passes--one short of the franchise's single season record held by Brian Sipe--and he bounced back from Cleveland's 0-3 start this year to post a 3-2 record in his last five games as a starter before being benched, which ironically means that Anderson and the team were playing their best football right before he lost his job to Quinn. Anderson had seven touchdowns and just two interceptions in those five games; the two losses were the aforementioned setback versus Washington after Anderson drove the team into position to attempt to kick a tying field goal and a 37-27 loss to Baltimore after the defense could not hold a 14 point second half lead. Anderson had a solid 80.2 rating versus Baltimore and even though his horrible "pick six" interception in that game has been replayed over and over on TV the reality is that if the defense had not already blown the big lead then he would not have been in a situation in which he felt desperate to make something happen--and the thought of punting the ball to Baltimore and relying on the defense to get a stop could certainly make anyone feel desperate.

I'm not trying to bash Quinn or make excuses for Anderson; my point is that quarterback play is not the team's primary problem. The Browns' biggest issue is that the team lacks focus and toughness, which is why virtually every week there is a breakdown offensively, defensively and/or on special teams. The problem is not one particular player but the general way that this team is coached. Anderson is a strong armed quarterback who provides a deep threat but is not particularly mobile; Quinn is much more mobile but primarily throws short to intermediate passes, though I think that casual observers are underestimating his arm strength. With the right game plans--and provided that receivers hold on to catchable passes, which has been a problem no matter who is throwing the ball--the Browns can win with either quarterback. Since Quinn is apparently the choice for the rest of the way, the Browns should continue to try to come up with game plans that play to his strengths. However, all of the fans who clamored for him to be the starter need to understand that he is a young player who will inevitably have to go through growing pains. The Browns fans mistreated Anderson and I hope that they don't show the same fickleness toward Quinn.

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

*As you probably have already heard, prior to Philadelphia's 13-13 tie with Cincinnati in the Ineptitude Bowl, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb did not know that regular season NFL games end in a tie if no one scores during the sudden death overtime. During his postgame remarks, McNabb candidly admitted his ignorance of this rule and then wondered aloud what would happen if no one scored during overtime in a playoff game or the Super Bowl (Donovan, if you are reading this, please be advised that postseason games do not end in ties; the teams keep playing overtimes until someone scores). Monday Night Countdown devoted a whole segment to the implications of McNabb's lack of knowledge. Several people on the set of that show usually defend McNabb and throw Terrell Owens under the proverbial bus, so I was very curious to see what they would say about McNabb's error. Fortunately, everyone got it right: the bottom line is that there is absolutely no excuse for an NFL starting quarterback to not know the rules. As Trent Dilfer said, the quarterback is supposed to be the "coach on the field" who informs his teammates about the "nuances" of the game but this is not even a nuance: this is "remedial" information or, as Tom Jackson so aptly put it, "common knowledge" among not just players but any serious NFL fan.

Jackson prefaced his critical comments about McNabb by stating that everything about McNabb's life--from his time at Syracuse to the business acumen that he has displayed--suggests that he is very intelligent and Jackson said that a talk show caller who described McNabb as a "cementhead" was most likely using that term as a euphemism for something else. Jackson did not elaborate any further but the elephant in the room is obvious: McNabb is black and literally for decades some ignorant fools perpetuated the pernicious myth that blacks lack the intelligence and leadership skills to play quarterback. That is why Warren Moon spent the first part of his pro career in the CFL and why many talented black quarterbacks--such as Marlin Briscoe--were forced to switch to other positions. It is so indescribably stupid to think that skin color affects the ability to play quarterback that I am not even going to say anything else about that sordid history. What matters in this instance is that McNabb's mistake has nothing to do with being black or with how well qualified blacks are to be NFL quarterbacks, so I hope that race does not become a distraction when discussing this issue.

The question is not whether McNabb is intelligent but rather why he has not fully applied his obvious intelligence to becoming the best leader that he can be. Cris Carter rightly scoffed at the notion that the outcome of the game was not affected by McNabb not knowing the rule; of course the outcome of the game was affected. This falls into the category of "situational football." Keyshawn Johnson, Tom Jackson and Dilfer all described how the best NFL coaches go over various situations with their players so that they are prepared to deal with anything that happens. A big part of what makes Bill Belichick the best coach in the NFL--and arguably the best football coach of all-time--is his relentless focus on situational football; remember four years ago when his Patriots took an intentional safety versus Denver and used the resulting field position shift to come back and win? One of my favorite NFL Films clips eavesdrops on Belichick teaching various players the ins and outs of certain rules and specific situations; he makes it perfectly clear that if you don't understand situational football then you cannot be on the team. The Monday Night Countdown crew rightly said that even though McNabb should be held accountable that Coach Andy Reid is also to blame for not paying greater attention to detail; Jackson observed that the lack of attention to detail is also reflected in Philadelphia's poor conversion rate in short yardage third down situations.

In 2004 at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland, I had a fascinating conversation with Tom Brown, who started at safety for the Green Bay teams that won the first two Super Bowls (he also played briefly in MLB for the Washington Senators). One of the things that we discussed is what changed when Vince Lombardi was no longer Green Bay's coach. Brown told me that Lombardi knew what every single player was supposed to be doing at all times, so the slightest error by anyone in practice was immediately corrected. When Lombardi departed, that attention to detail left with him and the resulting slippage in "small" areas led to an overall decline in the team's performance. The importance of coaching is not revealed by sideline tantrums during games or witty comments in press conferences; the great coaches do their work on the practice field, outside of the public eye.

The Eagles had an opportunity to beat Belichick's Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX but their poor clock management down the stretch proved to be an important factor in New England's three point win. Owens later said that McNabb was hyperventilating in the huddle and could barely get out the play calls at the end of the game; the media pounced on Owens for that and other perceived "sins" but you may have noticed that few if any Eagles spoke up for McNabb while many of them remained on good terms with Owens. Those players know what's up, even if a large portion of the general public is content to be fooled. McNabb is a very talented player who has accomplished a lot during a fine career but there has always been something missing that kept him from ascending to the elite level of a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning--and that press conference in Cincinnati provided a glimpse of the lack of awareness, lack of focus and/or lack of preparation that has prevented a Pro Bowler like McNabb from attaining that status.