Monday, November 10, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Kurt Warner for MVP Edition

Kurt Warner went 32-42 for 328 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 29-24. The 49ers jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead after Allen Rossum returned the opening kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown; the Cardinals trailed the rest of the way until Warner connected on a four yard TD pass to Anquan Boldin with just 4:16 remaining in the game for what proved to be the decisive score. Both teams made numerous errors in the fourth quarter and the outcome was not determined until the Cardinals stopped Michael Robinson on third and goal from the two yard line as time ran out. As usual, ESPN's Steve Young summarized things best: "For a while I thought whoever screwed up last would lose the football game...It was exciting but rather inept football."

This game contained many interesting storylines/subplots above and beyond being a matchup of division rivals:

1) A young Arizona team emerging as a viable playoff contender under the leadership of graybeard--literally, before he wisely shaved off his facial hair--quarterback Kurt Warner.
2) In contrast to the quarterback position--where Warner won the job from the presumed heir apparent Matt Leinart--at running back the Cardinals have turned to youngster Tim Hightower, apparently signaling the beginning of the end of the career of Edgerrin James.
3) Mike Singletary's vocal attempts to whip his 49ers into being some semblance of a competitive team.

The 6-3 Cardinals now enjoy a four game lead in the anemic NFC West, with the 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams tied for second (or last, depending on how you look at it) at 2-7. The Cardinals have improved on both sides of the ball but Warner is clearly leading the way by playing at an MVP caliber level; in fact, as the Monday Night Countdown crew discussed, if Warner had not already done enough to merit consideration as a Hall of Famer he is putting the finishing touches on his Canton resume with his performance this season. Warner ranks first in the NFL with a 106.4 passer rating, which would be the 12th best single season rating of all-time if he can maintain it (his 109.2 rating in 1999 is tied for the seventh best all-time). Warner ranks second behind only Steve Young in career passer rating and he has now thrown for at least 300 yards in 45.1% of his career games (46 out of 102), by far the highest such percentage (with a minimum of 100 games) in NFL history (Hall of Famer Dan Fouts is a distant second at 28%). Warner already owns two regular season MVPs (1999, 2001), one Super Bowl ring (1999) and one Super Bowl MVP (1999) in two Super Bowl appearances. Tom Jackson rightly noted that there are already quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame who did not achieve all of those things. Warner ranks first all-time in passing yards per game, second in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt, a statistic that many people consider to be the most important measure of a quarterback's effectiveness. Frankly, I think that Warner has already done enough to be a Hall of Famer but this season he seems intent on removing any possible doubt from the equation.

Only a few months ago, Warner was considering retirement but when the Cardinals told him that he would be given a legitimate shot to win the starting job from Matt Leinart he jumped at the opportunity and ran with it. Warner told Young after the game that the NFL is not always fair, that a lot of political things go into decisions about who plays and that it frustrated him to sit on the bench last year when he knew that he was good enough to start. The 37 year old Warner is proving that age is just a number, not something that should define or limit a person's opportunities, and it is wonderful and fun to watch him be a full time quarterback again. As Ron Jaworski said during the game, the most important aspect of being a good quarterback is accuracy and Warner is one of the most accurate passers ever.

It is ironic that at the same time that Warner's star is ascending again four-time Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James--the leading active rusher and the 13th leading rusher of all-time--has been replaced as Arizona's starter by rookie Tim Hightower. When running backs lose it they often lose it quickly and they rarely get it back. James averaged at least 4.1 yards per attempt in six of his first seven seasons but in 2006 and 2007 he averaged 3.4 and 3.8 yards per attempt respectively with a long gain of just 27 yards; this season he is averaging 3.5 yards per attempt with a long gain of 16 yards. Meanwhile, Hightower had 109 yards on 22 carries in his first start, a 34-13 win at St. Louis last week, but he only rushed for 25 yards on 11 carries versus San Francisco. Warner said that he knows exactly how James feels but that James is continuing to be a great teammate and a great presence in the locker room.

During the game, Tony Kornheiser mentioned that Singletary views the locker room as almost a sacred place, takes a "paternal" interest in his players and views the team as a family unit. Kornheiser asked if players will buy into Singletary's approach in an era of high salaries and free agency. Anyone who understands human psychology and what it takes to be a good head coach realizes that this is a naive question: no matter what is at stake financially, most people want--no, crave--to be part of something bigger than themselves, something that they find to be intensely meaningful. Good players will embrace the changes that Singletary is making in the culture surrounding the 49ers and the bad players who don't will be promptly shipped out. Singletary and the 49ers' management have to use the second half of this season to find out which players they can build around and which players are not skilled enough and/or not focused enough to be part of a winning program.

As the 49ers tried to come from behind in the waning moments, Kornheiser attempted to make the outcome of this game into some kind of referendum on Singletary's chances to be the long term answer at head coach--but that is preposterous. This is only Singletary's second game as head coach and it would be asinine to make such a huge, franchise transforming decision on the basis of one game, win or lose. Singletary should be judged on the body of his work throughout the remainder of the season and he should have the opportunity to discuss with management his vision of how to turn the team around.

Singletary's passion and dedication are evident and admirable but by the same token he has to be held accountable to do his job effectively just as much as he rightly holds the players accountable to do their jobs. Young mentioned that Singletary must improve at game management, particularly clock management. Young also noted that the 49ers put inexperienced quarterback Shaun Hill in some precarious situations on several occasions with questionable play calling--and the final play call, running Michael Robinson up the middle with the game on the line, simply made no sense. After the game, Singletary said that offensive coordinator Mike Martz thought that there would be a "cavity" through which Robinson could run but the only "cavity" concerning that play is the hole in the head of anyone who thought (1) this would work and (2) it was the best possible call in that situation. Why not use Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore? Why not roll Hill out with a pass/run option? Whether or not Martz made the Robinson call, ultimately it is Singletary's responsibility to know his personnel and to veto calls that make no sense. I suspect that if Singletary is retained as the head coach he probably will want to hire a different offensive coordinator, one whose mindset more closely matches his own. That is not to say that Martz is a bad coach but Singletary seems to have a different philosophy than Martz does and for a team to be successful the coaching staff needs to have the same ideas about how to play the game.

Singletary certainly seems to understand both what he needs to do and the standard to which the players must hold themselves accountable: he candidly admitted that the 49ers' late game clock management was poor and when someone asked him if he was "happy" that the players displayed energy and intensity he scofffingly replied that happy is not the right word--he expects his players to have energy and be intense and he believes he should be sent home if it ever gets to the point that they don't display those qualities. Singletary is a rookie head coach who will make some mistakes but he is also a breath of fresh air because of his passion and candor, so I hope that he will be provided a full and fair opportunity to build a team in his image.

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

*The Browns lost to the Broncos 34-30 on Thursday, blowing a two touchdown second half lead at home for the second consecutive game. Cleveland's defense seemed to have improved early in the season but now it is an unmitigated disaster area, giving up 564 yards versus Denver; that is the third worst total in the 803 game NFL history of the franchise, dating back to 1950 when the Browns were one of three All-America Football Conference (AAFC) teams that joined the more established league. The Browns have surrendered 993 yards in the past two games, the most that the team has ever allowed in consecutive contests--and considering how bad the Browns were right after they returned in 1999 that is really saying something.

Running back Jamal Lewis, who played for Baltimore's Super Bowl championship team in 2000, is disgusted by the attitude of some of his Cleveland teammates: "This is the NFL, you can't call it quits until the game is over. But it looks to me like some people called it quits before that. Denver was down, but they didn't call it quits. They kept their heads up and they finished. We didn't do that two weeks in a row--at home. Some people need to check their egos at the door and find some heart to come out here and play hard. This is a man's game. The way we went out there and played two weeks in a row, finishing the same kind of way, it's not there. I think there are some men around here that need to check their selves, straight up. That's it. Honestly, I've never seen anything like it ever in my life as long as I've been playing. I'm not cut from this kind of cloth. I play physical football, and I come out here and give it my all. I give it my all all week. To come out and be up by whatever--this is the NFL. You can't call it quits until the game is over."

Although Lewis' terminology may not have been quite correct--it would be more precise to say that the Browns lost focus, rather than to say that a team that was leading "quit"--but his overall message is right on point and a most telling indictment of a team that had several Pro Bowlers last season but lacks mental toughness and discipline. I'd go into battle with Lewis, Josh Cribbs, Joe Thomas and a few others but there are too many Cleveland players who clearly do not prepare properly during the week or focus on the task at hand during games.

The headline story for the Browns prior to the Denver game was about Brady Quinn replacing Derek Anderson as the starting quarterback. Quinn played well (23-35, 239 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) but from a team standpoint there was no difference: with Anderson at quarterback the previous week versus Baltimore, the Browns built a big lead and lost; with Quinn at the controls the Browns did exactly the same thing. In other words, quarterback is not the central problem for the Browns. I think that the Browns can win with either quarterback but it has also become sadly apparent that they can lose with either quarterback. One obvious difference with Quinn at the helm is that the Browns looked a bit crisper, committing fewer false start penalties and seeming to be more organized. The NFL Network's Deion Sanders said that the Browns used a simplified game plan that enabled Quinn to be effective and that it also helped Quinn to play against Denver's weak defense, so the jury is still out until Quinn plays well against some tougher teams. Marshall Faulk wondered aloud why the Browns did not come up with a similar game plan to help Anderson shine--and that is a very good question, because Anderson definitely has the skills to be a very good quarterback. Barring injury, Quinn will almost certainly be the starter the rest of the way and Anderson will most likely be traded in the offseason--but I have the feeling that if Anderson lands on the right team, which is to say a team with a competent coaching staff, he will become a very productive quarterback. I have visions of him coming back to Cleveland wearing a different uniform and throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns as his new team stomps the Browns.

The Browns' organization is flawed from the top down and until that is straightened out the team will not be successful. Bill Walsh used to always say that it should only take a well run team three years to become competitive. The Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 and have made the playoffs one time. During that period they have never been competitive for a sustained stretch--there was a one and done 9-7 playoff year in 2002 followed by four losing seasons and then a 10-6 campaign last year followed by this season's 3-6 showing. That is pathetic and inexcusable decade and reflects poorly on the ownership: the Lerner family has yet to hire the proper football decision makers capable of building a winning team.

*During Sunday evening's SportsCenter, John Saunders said that after Tom Brady suffered his season-ending injury in week one, "Most people thought that New England's season went down with him," adding that "nobody" thought that Matt Cassel--who Cris Carter keeps referring to as a "high school quarterback"--could competently take his place. Saunders needs to spend more time at BEST, because I have repeatedly said that with Cassel at the helm the Patriots can still be a dangerous playoff team, a point that I emphasized in my recap of New England's 41-7 victory over Denver and in last week's Monday Night Football Quick Hits, when I noted the similarities between Cassel's production so far and Brady's statistics right after he took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001:

Cassel cannot match the record breaking standard that Brady set last year but it is useful to remember that in Brady's first year as a starter--when, like Cassel, he was an inexperienced player stepping in for an injured veteran--Brady was not Brady either or at least he was not the Brady of recent vintage: the Patriots closed the 2001 season with six straight victories en route to winning the Super Bowl but in those six games Brady had just six touchdowns and five interceptions, compiling a passer rating below 64 in three of those contests (his passer rating overall that season was 86.5); during the three game playoff run Brady had one touchdown pass and one interception, accumulating passer ratings of 86.2, 84.3 and then 70.4 in the Super Bowl. I'm not saying that the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl this year--but given Bill Belichick's track record it would be foolish to totally dismiss their chances.

Some people speculate about what Belichick's career won-loss record would have been like without Tom Brady but it is just as valid to ask what Brady's career would have been like without Belichick; Belichick did an outstanding job of coaching Brady and bringing him along from being a backup quarterback to a solid starter to a Pro Bowler to an MVP. It is obviously far too soon to say what kind of player Cassel will ultimately become but any objective person can clearly see that Belichick and his staff have done an excellent job of coaching Cassel.

The Patriots will face the New York Jets on Thursday night with first place in the AFC East on the line. The Jets demolished St. Louis 47-3 on Sunday but their defense--and St. Louis miscues--set up a lot of those scores. Brett Favre threw for just 167 yards and one touchdown, though he did complete an outstanding 14 of his 19 attempts. Favre has put up decent statistics in his first year in New York but his replacement in Green Bay--Aaron Rodgers--and the quarterback that the Jets sent to Miami--Chad Pennington--are both having better seasons than Favre is. Pennington has rallied the 1-15 Dolphins to a 5-4 record, placing them just one game behind the Patriots and the Jets. While it is true that Green Bay has slid from 13-3 last year to 4-5 this season, that has much more to do with their leaky defense than with the quarterback change: Favre had a 95.7 passer rating last season, while Rodgers has a 93.3 passer rating this season. Favre's rating as a Jet this year is 89.8 and he leads the NFL in interceptions with 12, while Rodgers only has five interceptions.

Look for Favre to toss three interceptions versus New England as the Patriots beat the Jets to take over clear first place in the AFC East. The Jets have a better record than I expected them to have at this point but 6-3 could become 6-6 very quickly: after traveling to New England the Jets visit Tennessee and then face a Denver team that is fighting to stay on top in the AFC West.

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