HOUSTON — Battle of the heavyweights here Sunday. When it was mostly first-teamers versus first-teamers through the first half, the score was the rejuvenated Saints (with some frisky new pups on defense) 17, Texans (minus J.J. Watt and Arian Foster) 16. If the Saints can play defense, they have a chance to play deep into January. If the Texans can get 16 games out of the idled Foster, they can win the Super Bowl.
Lots to focus on this week, the last week of my preseason travels and roster-whittling time around the league: The Decision Rex Ryan wishes he could have back, the OW and his friends in Jacksonville, the ugly situation between ESPN and the NFL over the concussion story, what the funky Eagles offense is going to look like. But let’s start here, with Arian Foster, the questionable man of the hour in the AFC pennant race … and in every fantasy football draft this week from coast to coast. I found him sitting on the counter of the Texans’ equipment room a half-hour after the Saints’ 31-23 win here.
The bizarrely undrafted Foster, of course, has been an incredibly productive back over the past three years, and one of the greatest values in recent NFL history. He’s averaged 95 rushing yards a game in his three starting seasons in Houston, and without him the ground-loving Texans would have to rely on Ben Tate, who they’re not sure can be a bell-cow type of back. Anyway, Foster missed most of the last three months of real football practice because of a strained calf and a sore back. He returned to practice last week amid concern he might be ready for the start of the season but not ready for a 325-carry grind. (Plus, of course, however many times he’d have to carry the ball in the playoffs.)
“I’m fine,’” said Foster. “My body feels great. I actually think all this time [off] might help.”
“Why?” I said.
“You ask any player: ‘How’d you enjoy the lockout season?’ Great time. You had a chance to train without [having to] practice every day. When you got back to training camp, everyone felt fresh. That’s exactly how I feel right now. Over the past couple of months I had the chance to just train and rehab and work on my body and didn’t have all those carries in training camp. Even during camp I got a long rest [because of the back injury]. It’s usually a grind. Now I feel fresh. I feel rejuvenated.”
Foster was treated with injections to relieve pain in his back, and he said he’s pain-free now. His doctors cleared him to resume all football activity, and he said, “They think it’s over, but you never know.”
More than nursing an injury, Foster said he thinks sitting out a month of camp will pay off over the long haul of the season. He said he’d recommend anyone who plays a physical position in football have the bare minimum of contact in the time leading up to the season. “My body feels great,” he said. “It’s because I haven’t had the grind of camp.
Think about it: During the season, you never play football six days in a row. You get your body tired and worn down during training camp. When you don’t have that on you, you feel fresh. Getting some reps in practice, it does help you get your game ready. But when you get to a certain point in your football career, you know how to play football. Football is reactionary then.”
And you can react better if you’re fresher, Foster thinks. Let the debate between old and new school begin. Don’t tell Mike Tomlin this; he thinks you have to toughen up your players in camp in order to play tough during the season. But all of you out there prepping for your drafts—you’ll have to ask yourself if you’ve got the third or fourth pick and are thinking seriously of Foster, “Do I feel lucky?”
My advice (which is usually worth a used dryer sheet): I’d pick Foster in the first half of your first round.
The opener’s only 10 days away.
Takeaways from a busy weekend:
The Eagles could run 1,200 plays. That’s 75 plays a game, and it’s nine more than the oft-frenetic Patriots ran last year. The number of plays in NFL games has increased five years in a row; offenses like to use the no-huddle to limit defensive adjustments, and smart offenses figure it’s to their advantage if they can run it efficiently without getting overly fatigued. On Saturday night in Jacksonville, the Eagles’ first unit, which played until midway through the third quarter, didn’t show anything stunning. But they continued to play fast, without huddling. Of the 45 snaps Michael Vick orchestrated, only one came with the play clock inside five seconds. Mostly, Vick snapped with between about 21 and 15 seconds left on the 40-second clock. There was an 11-play no-huddle sequence late in the first-quarter on a Philly field goal drive; Vick ran twice on it, and jogged back to the line each time, getting the play call in the helmet and snapping the next play each time with the play clock in the teens. The guy’s got to be in fabulous shape. Now, Vick threw two brainlock passes during the game—one an interception, one while he was going down for a sack that was the classic careless Vick we’ve seen at times in his star-crossed career. And this was probably his worst offensive performance of the three preseason games, though his numbers were good. “The thing I’m most proud of is I didn’t approach this preseason the way I approached the last three or four years. I came to play,” Vick said. The Eagles will struggle on defense, but they’ll be a constant chemistry experiment on offense.
Two impressive things about the Saints. One: their rookie class. Kenny Stills, the fifth-round receiver from Oklahoma, made a great catch against the Texans down the left sideline on a bomb, and first-round safety Kenny Vaccaro has fit in seamlessly and shows good instincts around the line; he made a good tackle on a run blitz. Another first-year player (technically not a rookie), wideout Andy Tanner, made a fingertip touchdown catch from ex-Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin. But I liked the two defensive linemen who shone Sunday: third-round tackle John Jenkins, who has some Wilfork-type moves for a 350-pound man, and undrafted free agent end Glenn Foster, who had a sack and a quarterback pressure. How is someone as athletic as Glenn Foster not drafted? Probably comes from a decided lack of production—four sacks in 23 college starts at Illinois—but he looked promising Sunday. Two: defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had a sack and was buzzing around Matt Schaub for much of the first quarter. Jordan and J.J. Watt were the best big ends in the 2011 draft, and he looked to have some of Watt’s quickness, spin moves and strength Sunday. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan plans to move Jordan—son of former NFL tight end Steve Jordan—around on the defense. Sort of like last year. “I was a Swiss Army knife last year,” he said after the game. “I played everywhere. I think that’s how I’ll be used again, which is fine. I can excel wherever they put me.” The Saints need the combination of Jordan, Junior Gallette and Akiem Hicks (and the rookies) to pressure the passer. It’s essential if Rob Ryan’s pressured defense is going to work.