Keeping the Passers Protected
It was a weekend of great play and controversy (and, oh yeah, crazy weather). But whether it was Denver's line stepping up or the refs speaking up for Drew Brees in two games with big playoff implications, Week 11 made it clear again: The QB is sacred
CHICAGO — We have great and controversial events to discuss, and we shall. But there are great and controversial events every week in pro football, and I’ll get to the rise of a battered Denver offensive line, to the 113-minute weather/tornado-threat delay, and to a foul that, in today’s football, simply must be called. But first …
Friday is the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It is also the five-year anniversary of the first of three strokes suffered by a great and irascible football writer, Paul Zimmerman, who was the king of the hill when I got to Sports Illustrated in 1989. A week never goes by that one of you, either on email, through Twitter or seeing me in an airport, doesn’t ask, How’s Dr. Z? Or, When will Paul start writing again? This week, you’ll find out. NFL Films dispatched ace Ken Rodgers to produce and actor Tom Wopat to narrate the current story of 81-year-old Paul Zimmerman, and it airs beginning Tuesday night at 10:30 Eastern on NFL Network, and a few hours later on ESPN2 (Tuesday, 1:30 a.m. Eastern).
I’ll never forget getting Paul on the phone the day after the first stroke, and all I heard was the syllable that has become his constant companion: “When when when when,’’ in rapid-fire and urgent tones. Not much has changed, as you’ll see in this touching and real story of Zim. “We all disappear into history,’’ Rodgers said the other day. “But Paul was really great, and people should know that. He doesn’t deserve to be covered in dust in the library of sports history yet.”
Wopat speaks as Zim might, and at the end of the piece, as Zimmerman’s motorized chair takes him down the stairs at his New Jersey home, Wopat/Zim says: “The film crew packs up, the voiceover guy goes back to the city, you change the channel, and I enter my sixth year of silence. But please: feel no pity, send no consoling letters … Time marches on. Don’t waste it.”
A lesson for us all.
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Five guys rose to the occasion in Denver.
The final score Sunday night: Denver 27, Kansas City 17, Peyton Manning sacks 0, Peyton Manning knockdowns 0.
When you wear the kind of brace on your right ankle that Manning did against Kansas City, and when you’re facing the league-leader in sacks (36 in nine games coming in), and when your line is as leaky as Denver’s has been, you expect Manning to take some punishment. He took none.
I counted two significant pressures on Manning in 40 dropbacks. Two. Consider that his left guard, Zane Beadles, had allowed 30 pressures, sacks or significant hits by Pro Football Focus’ count entering the game. Defensive tackle Anthony Toribio beat center Manny Ramirez for one, on Manning’s only touchdown throw of the night, but Manning still got to make the throw exactly on time to Julius Thomas. Later, Justin Houston steamrolled right tackle Orlando Franklin back into the path of a Manning throw, and his ball fluttered. Derrick Johnson burst through a hole in the second half to sprint at Manning on another pass, but he was three steps from Manning by the time Manning got rid of it. No harm, no foul. In terms of significant disruption to Manning (and really, I’d hardly call those significant, seeing that they didn’t result in any damage), that was about it.
Mostly, Manning did what he did on a 33-yard wait-wait-wait-’til-the-receiver-clears throw to Eric Decker. He took the shotgun snap, and with his five-man line giving him a clean cone of protection, Manning bounced back to his left once, twice, three steps. He had plenty of time to find Decker, and Decker had enough space to create the biggest play on the Broncos’ last touchdown drive. That was late in the third quarter, and Kansas City wasn’t making up a 24-10 deficit after that.
Denver came in with a plan: Run the ball enough to take time off the clock and take pressure off Manning; throw the ball quickly, before the heat can hit home. Manning’s had many better days in the NFL, but an interception- and sack-free game? Against the ball-hawking Chiefs? He’ll take it. “The guys up front had a great challenge against an excellent defense and an excellent pass rush,” Manning said afterward—presumably without the Frankensteinian boot/contraption armoring his right ankle. “It was critical to the game.”
Said interim coach Jack Del Rio: “A big part of it was keeping him upright and not letting [Kansas City] be as disruptive as they’re capable of being. So you’ve got to tip your hat to the offensive line, the backs, the tight ends. Everybody is a part of it, even the wide receivers that are running the correct routes so the quarterback can deliver the ball on time.’’
Denver doesn’t get to be fat and happy for long. Two more emotional games await in short order: at New England Sunday night (Manning-Brady XIV happens in Foxboro), and a rematch with the Chiefs in Kansas City seven days later. The Chiefs have to be careful. They’ve got San Diego and Denver coming up, then finish with three of their final four on the road. They’ve gotten just one sack in the past three games. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has to figure a way for Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, particularly, to disrupt the quarterback more.
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The NFL needs more games like this one.
Thing I thought I’d never see on an NFL game summary, which I saw for the Ravens-Bears game in Chicago Sunday:
My first thought, for much of the first four-and-a-half hours of the game, which had a 113-minute delay in the middle of first quarter because of severe weather (an estimated 70 tornadoes touched down in the Midwest Sunday), was that this was Exhibit A for postponing a game for a day. Check out the first photo I tweeted out from the press box Sunday, the early-afternoon one that made the day seem like night. The rain sheeted across the region, and the sky was black. After a short rain respite, another big storm, also with lightning, came through. The delay got so long they stopped selling beer in the stadium, the concourses jammed with fans taking cover. I thought: Send these poor people home. This is no day for football, with tornadoes leveling neighborhoods in central Illinois and players and officials waiting around for two hours. At one point in the third quarter, I looked down at the pea soup of a field and saw ref Gene Steratore fold a briefcase-sized piece of turf back into place. And at one point, umpire Bill Schuster had to leave the field to get his leg taped after slipping on a divot breaking up a scrum; he’d strained a hamstring.
But with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, I went down to the field to watch the rest of the game from a tunnel. The wind was howling, with gusts up to 40 miles an hour. Players ran carefully, so as not to slip and fall. The field was a cow pasture, and players, officials and (during TV timeouts) the grounds crew tried to tamp down the turf after the torrential rain ruined it. And I thought: How great it is to see a game in the elements like this. You hate to make the fans wait out a two-hour delay, but would it have been more inconvenient, say, to reschedule the game for Monday at noon? Of all the games I’ve covered, only a Giants preseason game at foggy, rainy Cleveland in the ’80s, at the old Cleveland Stadium, was like this one. I was looking for the ghost of Jim Brown that day; and Sunday, I wondered how many of these games Luckman, Sayers and Butkus played in.
The Bears won in overtime, and Josh McCown made a big throw down the stretch to make it happen. He realized the significance of a game like this one—he knew that none of the players on the field Sunday, players in a buttoned-up, well-coiffed-turf NFL, would likely ever play in a strange game like this one again. Someday they’ll be retired and flipping the channels, and NFL Films will have clips from the 2013 Bears Mud Bowl. “You have opportunities in life, rare opportunities to do some special things,” McCown said. “We had that today.”
Our Robert Klemko wandered into the Bears’ locker room and found another oddity: Some players slept during the break. I asked him for the scene in there, and this is what he wrote: When lightning struck and winds in excess of 40 mph whipped through Soldier Field, players were relegated to their locker rooms, tasked with staying loose and focused for an undetermined amount of time. The Ravens lunched. The Bears passed around granola and Gatorade. They plugged in headphones or called their wives or told jokes to liven the mood. Bears veterans like Brandon Marshall and Roberto Garza worked the room, keeping everyone awake and focused with encouragement and hype. “I couldn’t sleep,” said tackle Jermon Bushrod. “I wanted to. I was yawning. But we were just passing time because we didn’t know how long we were gonna be in here.” At least two Bears gave in to the urge, and what they did next kept Chicago in the NFC North hunt. Backup quarterback Josh McCown, starting in place of the injured Jay Cutler, laid down and began visualizing plays, and before he knew it he was asleep. “I closed my eyes and just tried to think about the game,” McCown said, “and I think I dozed off.” Reserve defensive end David Bass did the same: “I napped for 15 to 20 minutes. It was refreshing.” Bass came out after the interrupted first quarter and picked off a Joe Flacco throw before it passed the line of scrimmage, returning it for a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter. And McCown woke up to lead the Bears on a game-winning overtime scoring drive to improve to 6-4. Gentlemen, sleep psychologists everywhere salute you.
The more the NFL can hark back to a simpler day, a muddier day, the better.