Matthew Stafford Comes of Age
Two months down, two to go. Time flies when you’re having fun. The Lions had some fun Sunday, and the resurgent Staffords will lead the column … but some headlines first:
• Mike Pouncey might want to get lawyered up. As Pete Thamel and Greg A. Bedard reported Sunday night, the Massachusetts state police served the Miami Dolphins center with a Grand Jury subpoena after his game in Foxboro Sunday. “What’s this about?’’ Pouncey said when a gray-suited officer handed him the papers. It created a strange scene outside the Dolphins locker room at Gillette Stadium, with stunned Miami officials totally blindsided. Pouncey, too, evidently had no idea what was coming. A source told Thamel that the serving of the papers is related to the ugly Aaron Hernandez case. The source said the authorities are focusing on Hernandez’s potential involvement in interstate gun trafficking. Yikes. Pouncey is a good friend of Hernandez’s dating back to their days together at Florida. Does this mean Pouncey is guilty of anything? No. It could be a way for the authorities to build a stronger case against Hernandez, who is in jail charged with murder.
• Alex Smith: The gift that keeps on giving. Just like Clark Griswold’s Jelly of the Month Club present, the Kansas City quarterback brought more joy to two fanbases Sunday. In lifting the Chiefs to a 23-17 victory over Cleveland at home, Smith continued KC’s perfect (8-0) season. The eighth win also meant the 49ers, who traded Smith to Kansas City so he could run Andy Reid’s West Coast offense this season, would receive an improved draft choice as the second part of the trade. The original trade was Smith for a second-round pick in 2013 and a third-rounder in 2014 … but the third- in ’14 would become a second- if the Chiefs won eight games or more this season. That happened by mid-afternoon Sunday, as the Niners were trudging off the field at Wembley Stadium in London after whipping Jacksonville 42-10. As if San Francisco draft guru Trent Baalke needed more ammo, he now could be looking at six picks in the first three rounds next May: his own first-, second- and third-rounders, plus the second-rounder for Smith, a third-rounder from Tennessee from a draft-weekend 2013 trade, and a pick as high as a third-rounder as a compensatory choice for losing pricy free agents such as Dashon Goldson last spring.
• This just in: Calvin Johnson’s good. He had a nice month in three hours Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit’s 31-30 shocker of Dallas: 14 catches, 329 yards (seven away from the all-time single-game record), one touchdown. That also gives him the all-time two-game record of 484 receiving yards. Eight days, 484 yards. Eight games, 470 yards for Larry Fitzgerald.
• This just in: The Eagles aren’t. Remember the good ol’ days? Way back in the first half of the first game of the season, when the Chip Kelly offense was all the rage? The high-octane Eagles offense is averaging 67.7 plays per game. Andy Reid’s offense last year averaged 67.4. The problem in Philadelphia, which is lucky to be 3-5, is Kelly can’t hang his hat on anything in his offense.
• Be ready for anything with London. There’s nothing of permanence happening with London right now, and I’m told every option is on the table. That includes a team moving there, an expansion team, more than three games (the 2014 schedule) and perhaps even a slate of eight games, played by different teams every year. There’s some thought that because there is no “home” team in England, and selling a bad Jacksonville team (the Jags will play a game there in 2014, ’15 and ’16 at least) will be problematic right now, a good option is every team alternating. Of course, that won’t be a good option the minute you tell a Packers, Steelers, Broncos or Seahawks fan he or she has to lose a home game for the sake of expansionism. I sense frustration from some around the league that the NFL spends huge money to put on a great show in England one to three times a year, and the media there ignores it. But as one league operative told me recently: “If you guys can get 850,000 viewers for a Manchester United game on NBC Sports Network, why can’t we build a block of fans like that for football over there?”
• The Illegal Bat. I love the sound of that. It’s like a baseball slugger caught corking. It surfaced clear as day in Foxboro and still became controversial. You’ll read more about it in Ten Things below.
• Greg Jennings in the Revenge Game: One catch, nine yards, left the locker room before the media arrived following Green Bay’s 44-31 win at Minnesota last night. That’s 264 yards fewer than teammate Cordarrelle Patterson put on the board.
• Manning 6,000. I wrote last year about the possibility of a quarterback, in the not-too-distant future, throwing for 6,000 yards in a season. Aaron Rodgers, I theorized, would have the best shot. I’m not saying Peyton Manning’s going to do it this year, but let’s acknowledge the greatness of the first-half MVP here. In Denver’s 7-1 start, Manning has averaged 365 passing yards per game. Other-worldly, obviously. But let’s say he adds one medium-range skinny post per game in the final eight games. Say, an extra gain of 20 per game. If Manning averages 385 yards per game in his final eight, he’ll hit 6,000. As it is, he’s on pace for 5,838 passing yards with 58 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Yards will get tougher in December, of course. Manning’s got two home games in five days in the last month, including a Thursday nighter against San Diego Dec. 12. But who’d have ever thought throwing for 6,000 would be remotely possible so soon after 5,000 started getting hit?
Now for the Detroit story. It’s a good one.
Matthew Stafford’s coming-of-age moment.
“SPIKE! SPIKE! SPIKE!”
We’ll get to that.
First, some background. Since being the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, Matthew Stafford’s always been young for his peer group. He’s 25, and he’s midway through his fifth season; he won’t turn 26 until five days after the Super Bowl. But he had some Drew Brees, some Peyton Manning, in him down the stretch Sunday, taking Detroit 80 yards in 44 seconds to a victory they had no right to expect. Certainly, this was not Stafford's first big comeback. This was his 10th fourth-quarter comeback. But this one just felt different to me. Something about the high-tension accuracy and the big-boy decision he made with the game ticking away.
Stafford made two artful throws that he dropped perfectly into the hands of wideouts Kris Durham and Calvin Johnson on the drive, pressure throws that traveled 42 and 27 yards in the air. Those two balls could not have been thrown more to the target, which was important because both receivers were being well-covered.
Let’s start with the first one. Lions ball, no timeouts left, 2nd-and-10 from the Detroit 37, 40 seconds left, Dallas up 30-24. “Three verticals,’’ Stafford recounted, meaning, of course, he sent three wideouts downfield to varying lengths of patterns. “I think everyone in the stadium thought I was throwing the inverse route to Calvin. But they put a new kid in at safety, and I was going after him.”
Dallas made rookie safety J.J. Wilcox inactive because of injury and called up Jakar Hamilton to be active for the first game of his NFL career. Welcome, Jakar. That’s Calvin Johnson, the greatest receiver on the planet, over there. Hamilton played 16 snaps in the game as the last DB on the roster, and was in on the last drive because starter Barry Church went down with a hamstring strain. Stafford rolled to the right and looked to the right, freezing Hamilton, the deep safety, then came back left and lofted a high spiral to Durham. He beat Orlando Scandrick. Perfect throw, and Hamilton was late getting over, leading to a gain of 40.
You just feel it. Hard to explain. You just go to the line and you feel it sometimes, and I just felt: Our best chance is me taking to the ball and diving it over.
Next play, snapped at the Dallas 23: Johnson up the right seam. Hamilton late coming over again. Stafford making a perfect throw again. Gain of 22 yards and 30 inches. Ball at the six-inch line. Clock running … :26, :25 … Johnson looks at the official to see if he was getting the touchdown, but no, the ball would be marked just shy of the goal line. From the rear sprints Stafford.
Now :21, :20 … Stafford motioning to the offense to hustle up the field. “I was looking back, yelling for Riley Reiff to hurry up,’’ Stafford said … :19, :18 … Now motioning madly for Reiff to get in place, while also yelling “SPIKE” and giving the universal “spike’’ signal, the hand gesturing hard to the ground, over and over … Reiff in place, at :16.
“So I’m on the line, and everyone in the stadium thinks I’m spiking it, and that was the plan,’’ Stafford said. “The other 10 guys thought I was too. I thought I was—but then I saw a couple of their guys, almost standing up, and I just had this thought: Maybe I could make it by sneaking, or just putting the ball over the line. Maybe that was our best chance.’’
But no timeouts left. Clock running. If Stafford failed, there was a chance he wouldn’t get another play off.
“Oh, no question,’’ he said. “That was it. That would have been the last play of the game; we weren’t getting another one off. That runs through your mind. You think, ‘Boy, I’ll get a minus on the play sheet when we go over this.’ ‘’
So why? Why do it? Why not the fade to Johnson, who could win a jump ball against most of the Dallas defenders—shoot, against all of them? If it’s incomplete, another fade, or a rollout pass.
“You just feel it,’’ he said. “Hard to explain. You just go to the line and you feel it sometimes, and I just felt: Our best chance is me taking to the ball and diving it over. I mean, all we were was three inches from the end zone.”
Snap … :14 … Stafford takes the ball, grips it as tight as he can, and with much of the defensive line looking on impassively, he thrusts the ball clearly over the line and brings it back. Touchdown.
"It’s as good as it gets on a football field,’’ Stafford said. “We turn it over four times and there we are at the end, still fighting. What a game. That’s one great moment.’’
Coming later this week: More about three stars of the season’s first half—Dallas middle linebacker Sean Lee, and quarterbacks Andy Dalton of Cincinnati and Cam Newton of the Panthers.
Now it’s your time to speak on the issue of head trauma and football.
In the past week, we at The MMQB have tried to take the head-trauma debate deeper, with 19 stories exploring ideas about a safer game, the realities of playing a violent game, and the complicated issues facing youth and high-school football today.
My takeaways from the series: It surprises me that parents—and we interviewed 23 of them who spoke this way—cede the decision to play or not play high-school football to their sons. That has changed in the time since I was a (quite marginal) high-school athlete in Enfield, Conn. If my father and mother thought the sport I was playing was excessively dangerous, they’d have interceded and recommended and/or demanded I not play. But many of the parents we interviewed in 49 states said it was up to their son where he would play. I understand wanting to empower your children, but I’m not sure empowering 15- and 16-year-olds who make decisions based very often on emotion is a smart call … Also: If I were the NFL, and I read this series, I would think seriously about investing some money in trainers and equipment at some of the hotbed high schools such as those in Kansas that are too small to afford a trainer at every school … And this: I don’t think football will die. I think it needs some care; and it needs to be certain that correct form tackling be taught at the grassroots level across the country, and that there be a uniform way to deal with head-to-head hits and aftermath care of concussions.
Now for some reactions to the writing we did.
From the editor in charge of the series, Matt Gagne
When I sat down to write my final thoughts on concussions, I became engrossed in reading all of the feedback we received. There is nothing I can add in the way of opinion, and it would be disingenuous to try and steer the conversation in a particular direction. Our readers covered the entire spectrum. Some I agree with, others I can see their point, and a few seem to be pretending there isn't a problem. But it's all worth reading.
We didn't set out to do a series attacking football or telling people they shouldn't play football; the science hasn't yet evolved to say once you cross a certain threshold of brain trauma you've done irreparable harm. At the same time, the known science should have everyone asking, What's going on exactly? (The PBS documentary League of Denial should be required viewing for NFL fans.)
Playing football or even watching football is very much a personal decision, and, as we saw in our coverage last week, the issue is only getting more complex. Concussions have always been a part of the game, but as our understanding of the injury progresses, so should the conversation about head trauma in football. Of all the stories we ran last week, one line in Jenny Vrentas's piece about how football might be played in the future resonated the most. "By 2025," she wrote, "we might see the accepted timeframe to return from a concussion increasing from a seven- to 10-day window to a few weeks, on par with a high ankle sprain." In that context, how can you not wonder what's going on exactly?
From the comments sections
From “branlishan:” “There is a non-stop assault on football by SI and its writers. We get it now. Football is dangerous. If football is such a barbaric sport then why do you cover the games and bring attention to the glory of it all? SI should stop with the hypocritical garbage. Either line up behind the ‘ban football’ crowd and stop covering a sport that is so dangerous, or shut up. Because this non-stop assault never ends.’’
From “decredico,” to me: “You sat on this story for years and under reported it and you are part of the package that kept this off the radar for many years. You are a disingenuous hypocrite that should be excoriated and excommunicated and banished to writing for the local garden section of a small town newspaper.’’
From “BillRobinson:” “Incremental change has always been a part of football and any successful enterprise. The changes I've seen so far seem reasonable to me and don't in any way limit my enjoyment of the game. If we can limit the frequency and severity of injuries and maintain the elements of the game we enjoy, why not?’’
From “solidbrass79:” “Football has changed before, it will change again, and if the reason is for player safety, all to the good. Every knucklehead defending ‘football as we know it’ ignores the facts. There once was a flying wedge, but the so-called nanny state—in the form of a Republican President still invoked in convention speeches, Teddy Roosevelt—intervened. Once there were no helmets, then leather helmets, then hard hats with no face guard. The sport survived.”
From “hlmencken56:” “We're just a country full of cowards now. Everyone is a victim, and nobody should ever get hurt, or the risks always must be lowered.”
From former college and NFL quarterback Danny Kanell, now an ESPN analyst, on the Richard Sherman we-know-and-accept-the-risks-we-take column: “This is the most honest, revealing look at concussions from a current NFL player's perspective.”
“As a young reporter in high school, one of my teachers who played football through college (Division III) and was only in his early 30s let me do a story on how concussions were already affecting him. The memory loss was already bad enough that he had forgotten to pick his kids up from school several times and told me depressing thoughts came often. It's important for people to know concussions in football affect not only famous NFL players but every citizen who steps on a field.”
—Ryan, Syracuse University Class of 2016
“I've been a high school football ref in central Pennsylvania for 13 years. I've been extremely concerned about concussions for about eight or nine years. Some things have changed. Most coaches are much more sensitive to head injuries now, and I think the 'macho tough guy' element of this debate is starting to wane. However, there are still a few bad apples making it hard for the rest of the sport. Two weeks ago I watched a visiting-team player go down with an apparent foot injury. He was literally screaming in pain. The home team trainer suspected a broken foot, but the boy's coach was exhorting him to 'shake it off, we'll tape it up, you're going back in.’ The trainer stood his ground and demanded he be taken for an x-ray. I heard later that the broken foot was confirmed. I sometimes wonder why I'm still a ref. I have discouraged my boys from playing. My hometown high school coach demands year-round participation. I've seen so many injuries. They start tackling in pads at age 8 here now. It's really become too much. On the other hand, I feel that by staying in as an official and doing my part to call the illegal hits and enforce good sportsmanship and fair play, just maybe I'm doing a tiny bit to make the game better.’’
“I have been a fan of you and your MMQB column for seven or eight years now and never miss one. I was really looking forward to your new MMQB page and for the most part I have really enjoyed it. However lately I have not nearly enjoyed MMQB as much. I feel like I have been given a concussion by being beaten over the head with your concussion reports. Please go back to the reporting of fun football. You don’t have to ignore concussions completely, but man I feel like you guys are trying to ruin something that I enjoy so very much. It’s like if every time I eat something bad for me, my wife is standing behind me telling me that it’s going to kill me.”
“As a parent with a 9-year old and 14-year old playing football, and as a coach and huge football fan, I think the real problem here is all the negative publicity that is causing unnecessary concern and alarm. I do believe that efforts must continue to be made through better equipment, medical supervision and education. However the media needs to stop talking about it. Parents should be talking about it, players should be talking about it, coaches should be talking about it, medical professionals need to be talking about it but the media needs to leave it alone!! If that happens, both the safety and future of the game will be protected!’’
—Kris, Abbotsford, British Columbia
“This issue hits very close to home for me. When my son was a sophomore in high school, I was forced to re-examine it and its importance in our lives. Until August 2011, our family’s life revolved around football. Then, in a junior varsity game, it all changed. My son Drew, a linebacker/receiver for Midway High School in Waco, Texas, filled a hole at the goal line. He was hit on the side of the head by the lead fullback. He didn’t lose consciousness, but ran off the field holding his head. After the game the trainer told me he needed to go to the ER to be checked out. Drew’s eyes were dilated and he had no idea where he was, what had happened, or even his own sister’s name. Drew was out 6 weeks with residual symptoms. When he returned to practice for the playoffs, he took another shot and immediately the symptoms returned. He told Drew he may be predisposed to concussions, and it might be over for him. Standing at the elevator in the doctor office, Drew made a ‘grown man’ decision to leave the game he loved with every fiber of his being. We both cried all the way home. He’s never played again and two years later still misses the game terribly. My biggest regret as a Dad is making the game, something that can be taken away in an instant, such a big part of our lives and his identity. Two years later he’s adjusted well, but he will tell you, he still wishes he could play every Friday night. Thank you for taking a deeper look at the issue at every level. Hopefully parents will realize it’s just a game, and not allow it to fill such a large part of their lives like I did.’’
—Mark, Waco, Texas
“Thank you for the article about athletic trainers in Kansas. This is a big issue for the profession.”
—Greg McMillen, athletic trainer, Buffalo Bills. Robert Klemko’s story about a high school in Smith Center, Kans., reported the school shares an athletic trainer with 11 other high schools in Kansas and Nebraska, meaning many high-school games are played without any medical personnel present.
“The telling stats in your survey were that eight of 49 coaches have not modified training techniques and a whopping 34 out of 96 parents are not worried about football’s future health effects on their kids. This is not controversial science anymore and in fact, it probably never should have been considering that you only have to have had your bell rung once to know that it’s not healthy. Those eight coaches who have not modified training techniques seem akin to eight out of 49 nutritionists who wouldn’t advocate removing soda machines from school cafeterias.’’
—Ron, Towson, Md.
“As a high school football coach for the last seventeen years, I have had the recurring three thoughts concerning concussions:
1. If the NFL is so serious about reducing concussions, why is there such a large percentage of players in the NFL that don't even utilize mouth pieces. They are mandatory from high school down to youth leagues, but then there is no mandatory requirement beginning in college. Why?
2. With all of the testing and studying of helmets, why are so many players (any, really) in the NFL still permitted to wear the Riddell VSR4 model? Even Riddell has cautioned players against wearing the helmet.
3. When is the last time the field changed size or shape? No one would argue that players have continually grown bigger, faster, and stronger. However, the field has stayed the same size. More space would likely lead to at least fewer collisions.’’
“I was once one of the tough guys. Although I didn't have anything close to a prolific 'career,' I've played in my fair share of football games, from Pop Warner to D3 college. This was the game that we chose. One of my favorite coaches used to say, ‘In order to play this game—and play it well—you need to have at least a few screws loose.’ I would absolutely agree. But then I recently watched League of Denial and read the MMQB stories on head trauma in the game. I'm terrified for a different reason now. Seeing the stories of what has become of greats like Iron Mike Webster, and the pain of Lisa McHale was eye opening to me. I, myself, have exhibited symptoms that I fear could be CTE-related. It's a scary prospect, and one that I wish I had both expected and been prepared for earlier.’’
“My name is Shawn Boyle and I’m the president of the Black Hills Youth Football League in Rapid City, S.D. I keep hearing about leagues around the country losing players each season. We see the opposite. Our league began in 2009 with 250 participants. This season, we’re just shy of 1,000 players. We are South Dakota’s fastest growing youth sports program, and I firmly believe it’s because last year, our board voted unanimously to adopt the “Heads Up” program, brought to us by USA Football with help from the NFL. Our transformation began over the summer, when we appointed a newly designated “Player Safety Coach” from each association, packed them all up and made the seven-hour drive to Denver to participate in a weekend of training. We spent hours in groups on the field using pads and dummies, learning to teach our youth the great sport of football. “Great hit” is out. “Great tackle’’ is in. We returned to South Dakota and set up mandatory training classes for our over 200 coaches. I already see results. Last season, we had over 20 diagnosed concussions, (mostly mild as is always the case—we err on the side of caution and safety). As we enter the playoffs for this season, we’ve had fewer than 10. If you attend a game, and if you know what you are looking for, you can see a difference between the play of those young athletes implementing what they have learned through Heads Up coaching and those who haven’t been trained that way. The parents have been 100 percent on board. As their little guys mature and grow, tackling and hitting the proper way is all they’ll know.’’
—A youth league president in South Dakota. USA Football figures show that about 3 million children, ages six through 14, played organized tackle football in 2011, and that number dipped six percent to 2.8 million in 2012.
“I am not a believer in one-liners or pithy statements, but in this case it really is this simple: The column is an elegant illustration of the need to protect some people from themselves.’’
“I love the new MMQB web site. I love the work you folks are putting into it. It's been a great new resource for us football fans who can't get enough of our favorite sport. But I have concussion-story fatigue. I understand the concussion issue is a big issue. I understand that it's big news. I understand you feel compelled to cover it. I understand that this issue will inevitably change the game I love and that someday down the road this sport will not look the same, if it even exists at all. So I understand the desire to cover this news in its nascent state. But I just can't take any more of the coverage. It's too depressing.’’
1. Kansas City (8-0). I debated putting the Chiefs here, after they struggled to beat Houston and Cleveland at home in the last eight days while others up top—the Niners in particular—have been strafing the league mercilessly. There are no style points in football, though, and the Chiefs are undefeated halfway through the season.
2. Indianapolis (5-2). A solid number two, with wins over three, four and five.
3. San Francisco (6-2). Five straight wins by an average of 22.6 points. This team’s getting scary. Think of the room to grow for this offense entering the bye: In the last two weeks, the Niners have scored 73 points in two road wins a total of 10 time zones from home … and gotten only 363 yards and one passing touchdown in the process.
4. Denver (7-1). Why San Francisco over the Broncos? Because I trust the Niners defense right now. I don’t trust Denver’s nearly as much.
5. Seattle (6-1). Russell Wilson was playing minor-league baseball 28 months ago. I wonder if he was tempted to pull a hat over his forehead Sunday night and walk from his hotel in St. Louis over to World Series Game 4.
6. New Orleans (6-1). The more I watch this team, the more I think about 2009. Only with Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Darren Sproles as upgrades over their peers of four years ago.
7. Cincinnati (6-2). The win over the Jets was one of the most surprising results of this season—not the win or loss, but the 40-point margin against one of the surprise teams of the season.
8. Green Bay (5-2). Seventy-five points the last two weeks in two resounding wins … and a favorable schedule over the next four: Cutler-less Chicago and Vick-less Philly at home, at the 2-6 Giants, then the 1-6 Vikings at home. The Pack will force the Lions (a half-game behind) to be perfect to keep up before their Thanksgiving showdown at Ford Field.
9. New England (6-2). So flawed. So hard to read. So hard to think this is an impact team in January—but the defense, even without Wilfork/Mayo/Talib, is a competitive group with players like Logan Ryan who don’t know they’re not supposed to be making game-deciding plays.
10. Detroit (5-3). One premier team with one premier quarterback (Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers) left in the final eight games—unless you count Baltimore, which, right now, you can’t call a premier team. That’s why I like the Lions’ chances to be the NFC North champ or the sixth seed in the NFC tournament.
11. Carolina (4-3). You can talk about the maturation and improvement of Cam Newton, which is good and true. But this is a pretty stingy team. Panthers have allowed 12 per game in the last five.
12. San Diego (4-3). The defense is coming around—read Greg A. Bedard’s pass-rush rankings from last Thursday—as the 15 points allowed in the last eight quarters will attest. But the Chargers, coming off the bye, are about to embark on a very tough 29-day stretch: at Washington, Denver at home, at Miami, at Kansas City, Cincinnati at home.
13. Dallas (4-4). Dallasites will say no, no, no. But until proven otherwise, I say: Same Old Cowboys.
14. Chicago (4-3). Just not sure the Bears survive a month without Jay Cutler.
15. Houston (2-5). Call me crazy as I rank the Texans over Arizona, Tennessee and Baltimore (which owns a 21-point win over Houston). I say Case Keenum and that defense constitute a playoff threat still … even though Indy (twice) and Denver (once) remain to be played.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
(There are so many. I’ve picked three, but there could be 19.)
Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Detroit. Rarely does a player elevate himself above his peers the way Johnson does. He was dominant from the first minute to the last (14 catches, 329 yards—seven yards shy of Flipper Anderson’s NFL record for receiving yards in a game—one touchdown, and setting up Matthew Stafford for the game-winning TD leap with a stretch that landed the ball at the one-foot line) against Dallas. Afterward, the way Stafford talked about him, I thought he might be genuflecting over the phone.
Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. Understand that before this season, he had doubters (not disbelievers, mind you, but doubters) everywhere—inside his organization, in his own locker room, and all around Cincinnati. He went a very long way toward dispelling them Sunday against a professional defense run by Rex Ryan and the playoff-threatening Jets. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 325 yards and five touchdowns. Four went to the uber-confident Marvin Jones, proving this isn’t a one-wideout team.
Andre Ellington, running back, Arizona. I never thought the 187th pick in the 2013 draft would put the final nail in the Atlanta Falcons' season—and make no mistake about it, the Falcons, with games against Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco, would likely have to go 8-1 to sneak into a wild card spot at this point, at 2-5. But Ellington, a 5-9, 200-pound shifty back from Moncks Corner, S.C., ran through and around Atlanta for a Week-8-high 154 yards on 15 carries. Great pick, Steve Keim.
Defensive Player of the Week
Antrel Rolle, safety, New York Giants. Maybe it’s not the greatest accomplishment anymore, holding the Eagles to 200 yards. But the Giants did, and Rolle was a huge reason why. The Giants’ defensive leader had five tackles, a sack of Mike Vick, an interception of Mike Vick, and a forced fumble. His two biggest plays of the day came in succession in the first quarter, and both led to Josh Brown field goals. He intercepted a Vick pass three minutes into the game and, after Brown’s first of five boots made it 3-0, strip-sacked Vick on the first snap of the next series. Ten plays later, Brown’s second field goal made it 6-0. When you’re struggling as much as the New York offense is, it’s important for the defense to win some games. Which this one is doing.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver/kick returner, Minnesota. His 109-yard kickoff return—not to blow smoke or anything—was one of the best of this or any other season. Watch it. Look how often he makes just the slightest move to either make a defender miss or to shake off a glancing tackle attempt. His speed and slithery return ability make him a dangerous and instinctive return man.
Josh Brown, kicker, New York Giants. Not a great fan of the field goal per se (see Stat of the Week), but in the first 55 minutes at Philadelphia, these were the only points: Brown, 40-yard field goal; Brown, 44-yard field goal; Brown, 33-yard field goal; Brown, 46-yard field goal; Brown, 27-yard field goal. Those would have been the game’s lone points if Zak DeOssie hadn’t fired a snap to Harrisburg with 4:11 to play, allowing the Eagles to score a touchdown on a strange play.
Coach of the Week
Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. The Jets had the ball 13 times Sunday. On nine drives, they were held to 15 yards or less. Any owner out there listening? It’s long overdue that Zimmer get a legitimate interview for a head-coaching job. With another stifling defensive performance in Cincinnati’s 49-9 win over New York, maybe he’ll get his shot after the season in one of those places with a coach having a bad year.
Goat of the Week
Shaun Suisham, kicker, Pittsburgh. Kickers this season are making 94 percent of their kicks from inside the 40-yard line. Suisham missed 34- and 32-yard field goals, veritable extra points in today's games. The Steelers lost by three. Pretty easy call.
Quotes of the Week
“I know there’s always a lot of speculation when I’m injured. So, I’m going to go on the injured report starting now under ‘body’ and keep me there all season.”
—Peyton Manning, after hurting his ankle last week in Indianapolis and looking hobbled at times in the Denver rout of Washington Sunday.
“You have to understand the beast that's playing quarterback. Once a guy like that gets in front of the whole defense, he's a legit 4.4. It's real.”
—Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, after Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor ran for the longest touchdown in Oakland franchise history, 93 yards, in a 21-18 Raiders victory Sunday.
“I walked around our house singing, ‘Hail to the Redskins’ as a kid. So it’s something I always looked at as a very positive thing. But I understand the other side of that.”
—Commissioner Roger Goodell, asked about the Washington Redskins name Saturday in London.
“I’ve definitely put the work in, the time in and everything I need to do to be one of the elite players. It’s just that time. Third year coming around, I feel great, I feel no pressure and I’m just out there relaxed playing football. It’s just time for me to finally meet everyone in America and for my team and everyone in the NFL to know this Corey Liuget, number 94 for the San Diego Chargers, is a damn good football player.”
“There’s a lot of people that could really care less about myself right now, including myself.”
—Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, last week before the 31-13 victory over Tampa Bay.
I think he’s talking about shrugging off individual accolades, but I’m not sure. I just thought the quote came out of The Onion until I saw him say it, and I liked it.
Stat of the Week
At some point, the NFL’s going to have to acknowledge the efficiency of field-goal kickers is just too good. And the league is either going to have to narrow the goalposts or put a different point value on field goals from different distances.
When kickers are making 19 of 20 field-goal tries, on average, from inside the 40-yard line (stunning but true) and two-thirds of their attempts beyond 50 yards (and they are: 45 of 68, or 66.2%), you know this isn’t what the game is supposed to be. Kicking field goals has just become too easy.
This easy, as the season nears the midpoint:
From inside the 40-yard line: 230 of 245, 93.9%.
From between the 40- and 49-yard line: 126 of 153, 82.4%.
And the biggest waste of time in sports is the point-after. Six were missed all season last year, and this year, only two of 524 have gone awry. It is positively insane that the NFL doesn’t either eliminate the PAT, move the snap way back from the 2-yard line, or force teams to go for two. Something. Anything. For years, it’s been a nothing play, and the Competition Committee refuses to do anything tangible about it.
I know some will say, “Wait until the weather turns. Then you’ll see the percentages go down.” And they will. But by how much? The field goal is simply not challenging enough. Do we want the game to be so boring, to lack any suspense, when a kicker steps up to make a field goal? I can tell you the founding fathers of this game never dreamed the kickers would be so great that they would be good on 87 percent of their field goals through nearly half a season.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is playing well beyond his years. He is 19. He turns 20 Wednesday. The redshirt sophomore hasn’t said whether he is coming out of school and entering the 2014 draft; he’d be a candidate to be the first overall pick if he chooses. But it is worth noting that on the first day of the draft next May, Mariota will be 20 years, 6 months and 9 days old. Imagine Mariota coming out, getting picked by Jacksonville, and beating Tennessee next September. He won’t be able to celebrate with a cold beer—at least not legally.
Mariota’s almost a full year younger than any other quarterback who may get picked in the first round next year. The age on draft day next May of some of the bright QB prospects:
• Tajh Boyd, Clemson: 23 years, 7 months, 14 days.
• Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: 21 years, 5 months, 29 days.
• Derek Carr, Fresno State: 23 years, 1 month, 11 days.
• Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 21 years, 5 months, 3 days.
• A.J. McCarron, Alabama: 23 years, 7 months, 26 days.
• Zach Mettenberger, LSU: 22 years, 9 months, 23 days.
• Braxton Miller, Ohio State: 21 years, 5 months, 9 days.
• Aaron Murray, Georgia: 23 years, 5 months, 29 days.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
The MMQB's Robert Klemko had to fly from Chicago to Detroit Sunday morning to cover Lions-Cowboys, and he reported this to me when he landed:
“I get on this plane from Chicago to Detroit, and these Japanese people, five of them, boarded the plane all carrying different stuffed animals. A teddy bear in an Army uniform, another teddy bear in a pilot uniform. I’d say they were in their late 20s, early 30s. One of them was a guy, and his bear was dressed in an American desert camo uniform.
“They were clutching these animals as if they were children. So I am sitting amidst them. The flight is taking off, and they’re not panicked or anything—but they’re whispering things in Japanese to the bears as if they were children. Then they just held them for the rest of the flight.
“I mean, they were holding them like they were breathing, like they were babies. Maybe they want kids and they are practicing for it. I don’t know. But there is something strange going on there.”
Tweets of the Week
“#PatriotsTalk On Halftime Time on CSNNE.com, Troy Brown calls for Ryan Mallett to replace Tom Brady if it gets to be 24-3.’’
—@CSNNE, the Twitter account for Comcast SportsNet New England, which employs former Patriots receiver/returner/defensive back Troy Brown.
New England was down 17-3 at the half, playing dreadfully. New England scored two touchdowns in a two-minute third-quarter span. New England went on to beat Miami, 27-17.
New England did not take Troy Brown’s advice.
"Jimmy Graham > plantar fasciitis”
—@themantz, The MMQB senior producer and resident Saintsphile Tom Mantzouranis, after Graham, battling a painful heel injury, scored his second touchdown in a five-minute span of the Bills-Saints game Sunday.
“Dalton making this s--- look like pop warner.”
—@iluvTERRICKA, Terricka Cason Cromartie, the wife of Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, in the midst of the Jets’ 49-9 loss to Cincinnati, keyed by five touchdown passes from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
"I miss holding a baby – all my little guys are old.”
Yes, that Barry Sanders.
“The Immaculate Obstruction #allcopyrights #redsox #stlcards”
—@JoelSherman1, New York Post baseball columnist.
“Sitting in stands. Fans had no idea why their team won. As someone once said, most bizarre finish you’ll ever see. #WorldSeries”
—@miketirico, in St. Louis to call the Monday night game between the Seahawks and Rams for ESPN.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 8:
a. Miami tight end Charles Clay, making the Dolphins forget about the damaging loss of Dustin Keller in the preseason. Joe Philbin’s splitting him wide, playing him tight to the formation, and leaning on his versatility to be a good intermediate target for Ryan Tannehill.
b. Brandon Myers, doing his part to make the Giants forget about the tight end who got away, Martellus Bennett.
c. A 93-yard read-option keeper by Terrelle Pryor? With no Steeler taking him? What a run—through the heart of a once-dominant D.
d. Take those trade rumors and stuff ‘em, Josh Gordon says with his play every week.
e. Excellent legal use of the pick by Jason Campbell throwing to Gordon late in the half. That’s smart football, for a big gain.
f. Thad Lewis, who is very tough.
g. Look at that lunging touchdown catch by Dexter McCluster. What a talent he is, and he’s being used perfectly as an everything back by Andy Reid.
h. Kevin Ogletree, who ran 70 yards to chase down Sean Lee on the Cowboys.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 8:
a. Tom Brady, throwing behind Rob Gronkowski and getting picked by cornerback Dimitri Patterson (a very good Jeff Ireland offseason pickup), leading to Miami’s first touchdown.
b. Almost on cue, a few seconds later, Mike Vick handing the Giants an early pick with a lollygagged pass.
c. Uh, Jags? You’ve got to cover No. 49 in white there, Bruce Miller for the Niners, lined up wide right. He counts.
d. Garrett Hartley, doinking a makeable field goal on the Saints’ first drive.
e. The normally accurate Alex Smith, overthrowing a wide-open Anthony Fasano in the end zone, forcing Kansas City to settle for a field goal in the first quarter against Cleveland.
f. Geez, Tom Brady: It’s so bad you’re throwing to Rob Gronkowski in triple coverage? The good side: Officials gave the Patriots a gift defensive pass interference call on the play.
g. Throw it away when you’re under duress, Matt Barkley.
h. The Jags are one heck of an ambassadorial group for the league over in England, eh?
i. I do believe I have never seen a snap as bad as Zak DeOssie’s fourth-quarter snap. It was so bad it was out of the FOX replay camera’s view. That thing had to be 12 feet over Steve Weatherford’s head, and it handed Philadelphia its only offense.
j. Why, oh why, Chip Kelly, when you’re one score behind with four minutes to go, your defense playing well and three timeouts left do you onside kick?
k. Bad day for Davone Bess, with the muffed punt and the drop on the last Cleveland play of the game.
l. Reggie Bush did recover, but this play could have haunted the Lions had they lost to Dallas: Five minutes into the third quarter, trailing Dallas 10-7, Bush ran left and was confronted by a free-agent rookie safety, Jeff Heath. Bush moved the ball to his left hand, carrying it like the proverbial loaf of bread, and tried to stiff-arm Heath. For some reason, instead of tucking the ball under his left arm, he left it out there, Heath knocked it free, and Dallas recovered.
3. I think I’m still trying to figure out why the illegal bat call in the Miami-New England game was so controversial. It’s like the illegal pushing call last week in the Pats-Jets game: You may not like the rule. You may think it has no place in the game. But when you see it—unless you’re discriminating between penalties, or don’t think a penalty should be called at a vital time of the game because it’s a vital time of the game (which is wrong, by the way)—it’s got to be called. Now, the timing of the call killed Miami Sunday in Foxboro. The Dolphins were down 20-17 with nine minutes left in the game, with New England driving for insurance points. Tom Brady was strip-sacked, the ball fluttered loose, and Miami defensive lineman Olivier Vernon dove for the ball and struck it with his hand toward the New England goal line. The ball bounced back to the Miami 45, where Patriots tackle Nate Solder recovered. It would have been 3rd-and-29 from the 45, well out of field-goal range. But the officials threw a flag. “Illegal bat,’’ they ruled. Instead of 3rd-and-29 from the Miami 45, it was 1st-and-10 from the Miami 13. Here’s the rule, from the same NFL rule book I quoted last week: “It is an illegal bat if (a) a player of either team bats or punches a loose ball in the field of play toward his opponent’s goal line … Penalty: For illegally batting or punching the ball, loss of 10 yards … If it is a foul by the defense, it is an automatic first down.’’
4. I think the problem with yakking about the rules, or one team getting an edge, or the league favoring some team, is that when you read the exact wording of the rule in question, it usually clarifies exactly what call needs to be made. In this case, watch the replay of Vernon slapping/pushing the ball toward the New England goal. It’s pretty clear. Is the penalty onerous? In this case, certainly. But it’s a rule.
5. I think you’re not going to see more effort on any play this season than on Adrian Peterson’s eight-yard bullish touchdown run at the end of the second quarter in the Sunday night game. Show that one to your high-school backs, coaches. The man will not be denied.
6. I think for a fully healthy Peterson to have 36 carries in the last three weeks, with Minnesota struggling so much at quarterback, is absurd.
7. I think there are so many teams that could use Cleveland wideout Josh Gordon, so many receiver-needy contenders, and with the trade deadline coming Tuesday, he’s the most obvious candidate to be moved. Gordon, who is signed through 2014, will cost an acquiring team only $437,000 for the rest of the season (as opposed to, say, looming free-agent defensive end Jared Allen, who would cost $7.57 million to a team for the last nine weeks of the year). I realize Gordon could be a positive substance test away from a lengthy suspension, but if I’m the Patriots, and I still have my full load of 2014 picks, I’d offer Cleveland a fourth-round pick that could conditionally upgrade to a third- depending on performance and try to get Gordon.
8. I think the Eagles have to be the disappointment of the season. The offense in particular. They do nothing well. In the last two weeks they’ve had 25 drives in two home games, against the Cowboys and Giants … and scored one field goal and no offensive touchdowns. A Chip Kelly team first and foremost has to have consistency and efficiency at quarterback, and Philadelphia hasn’t had that all season. Which is why I think Michael Vick isn’t back next year, and why I think Kelly probably drafts a quarterback high. The Eagles, by the way, have lost 10 straight at home, by an average of 9.9 points per game.
9. I think Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver doesn’t want to be best known for flipping his middle finger at the officials after a bad call, but in this media world, unfamous coaches become famous for things like that, and that’s going to be how people remember Tarver. For now. If that’s not a deterrent to future misdeeds for a coach with a bright future, I don’t know what is.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. No more walks on the wild side for Lou Reed, who died Sunday at 71. Loved his music.
b. Memo to Darren Rovell (said with slight annoyance): The Riddell helmet/NFL divorce you wrote about, a story that was written by Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB on TheMMQB.com last Tuesday, was not written on SI.com, as you reported. It’s The MMQB.
c. Nothing against SI.com; I love SI.com. This column runs on SI.com at well as The MMQB. But the story was not written on SI.com.
d. Thanks, Florence and the Machine, for “Shake It Out.” That’s my song of the week.
e. And Macklemore … I actually have listened to a few of his songs, and he’s pretty incredible. Is there anyone who can talk faster and make some sense?
f. So … Game 3 of the World Series ends on the first walkoff obstruction call in Series history. Game 4 of the World Series ends on the first walkoff pickoff in Series history. That’s weird.
g. So … the Red Sox have lost two games in the World Series on errant throws trying to catch oncoming runners at third base. That is particularly and peculiarly hurtful.
h. The obstruction call (he said through gritted teeth), though a stupid rule because umpires cannot use interpretation, was called correctly to end Game 3.
i. Yadier Molina and Dustin Pedroia are such superior defenders. What a play Pedroia made, the diving stop and throw to home to start the weird walkoff obstruction play.
j. Quote of the Series, from Jonny Gomes to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, concerning the fact that he was only in the lineup Sunday night because Shane Victorino’s back tightened up and forced him to the bench, giving Gomes the chance to hit the game-winning three-run home run: “I had to ‘Tonya Harding’ Victorino.”
k. Google or Bing “Tonya Harding” if that one slips past you.
l. It’s only four games, but David Ortiz is batting .727 in the Series, the rest of the Red Sox .138.
m. Coffeenerdness: Had a good latte with strong espresso from an artful barista at Flat Black Coffee Company in Boston’s Financial District Friday. Recommended.
n. Beernerdness: Also had the good fortune to be at Game 2 of the Series on Thursday, and was nearly as lucky to be back in my favorite old neighborhood restaurant Picco, in Boston’s South End. Very good beer menu. Tried the Star Island Single, a Belgian ale from Smuttynose in New Hampshire, and it was almost like a light ale. Okay, and eminently drinkable, but not memorable.
Who I Like Tonight
Seattle 33, St. Louis 10. Bet you thought I'd say, "Boston 4, St. Louis 3,'' didn't you? I don't think there's much chance the Seahawks will pull a no-show tonight. That's not the way they're wired. Recall, for a moment, the Richard Sherman column on The MMQB the week before Seattle faced downtrodden Jacksonville. Wrote Sherman (with an eye on any team that is downtrodden):
"I can still remember my worst event in track at Stanford before I left the sport as a sophomore: the 110-meter hurdles. It was a difficult transition, going from the fluidity of football movements to the repetitions of the hurdles. But I do remember my personal best time—14.4 seconds. I don’t remember where I was, or who I was running against, but I’ll never forget the time. The mindset must be the same, whether you’re covering Anquan Boldin or a Jaguars rookie. That’s the way we look at football games. We remember two things: the final score, and whether we met our defensive goals. No matter who we play, we want to accomplish certain things in the red zone, certain things on third down and achieve a certain number of turnovers. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing against Boldin, Cecil Shorts or Andre Johnson—when I go up there, I want to dominate whoever is in front of me." In other words, beware Kellen Clemens.
The Adieu Haiku
I have always thought
the home for illegal batswas in the belfry.