Christmas isn’t for two days, but Sunday saw three major gifts given across the league—a likely division title and thrilling comeback for Carolina, a record for Peyton Manning and a landmark win for Bruce Arians and the Cardinals
So it’s the final football game at Candlestick Park tonight, Falcons at Niners, and I am strongly recommending my Factoid of the Week, which is about the Beatles, and Candlestick and Cincinnati and St. Louis. I know it’s not altogether football, but it’s a stunner. You’ll find it on page 4 of the column. Anyway, this from 49ers CEO Jed York: “You know, it’s not the most beautiful place. We know that. But the history there is so great. Willie Mays and Joe Montana and Jerry Rice played there. The Raiders, I think, played a year there. [True: 1961.] The Beatles played there. The Pope had a mass there. So many people have such great memories of the place.” Then a pause. “We have to get people to realize they can’t rip out the seats and take them home Monday night. Because there’s still a chance, a slight chance, we could host the NFC Championship Game. We need Candlestick to stay intact after the game.” I told him I’d pass along the message. So seat vandals: Be forewarned. You can’t have take-home souvenirs Monday night.
* * *
Before we start on the three big events of the weekend (by my estimation: Panthers slay the Saints, Peyton Manning makes history, Arizona shocks the world), let’s talk about My Favorite Tiebreaker. That would be for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
For a moment, let’s say in Week 17 we have the following four results: Jets over Miami, Cincinnati (which has but a vague hope of getting a bye) beats Baltimore, Kansas City over San Diego, and Pittsburgh over Cleveland. That would create this logjam for the sixth seed:
|New York Jets||8-8|
In a five-way playoff tie, you first break ties within divisions. The Jets would eliminate Miami by virtue of a better division record (3-3 to 2-4). Pittsburgh eliminates Baltimore by having a better division record (4-2 to 3-3). That narrows it to Pittsburgh, San Diego and the Jets.
We go to conference-games tiebreaker. Pittsburgh would be 6-6. San Diego and the Jets would be 5-7. That’s it. And Pittsburgh would make it … after being 2-6 at the midway point, losing to Minnesota in London and Oakland in the Black Hole, and giving up 55 points to the wounded Patriots. Crazy league.
* * *
Cam, Kuechly, Carolina climb Mount Payton
Time was drawing short for Cam Newton to justify why he’d been the first pick in the 2011 draft, and why the Carolina Panthers made him the franchise cornerstone 32 months ago. In the last 20 minutes of the NFC South title game Sunday in Charlotte, he’d gone three-and-out four straight times. Four series with the division on the line, 16 yards. Playing at home. Losing, 13-10, the only touchdown coming on a 43-yard run by DeAngelo Williams. Sitting there at NBC, I’d seen enough. I tweeted: “Has Cam Newton made a play today? One?” Then: “Carolina drafted Newton first overall for games like this, and he’s failing them miserably today.”
Which he was—until the final minute happened. Handcuffed to 157 yards over the first 59 minutes, the Panthers got three clutch completions from Newton, the last a 14-yard touchdown throw on which street free-agent Domenik Hixon made a good diving catch. One of the marks of great quarterbacks is playing big when it counts, and Newton’s 65-yard, 32-second, no-timeouts drive to all but win the division (the Saints need to beat the Bucs and have the Panthers lose to the Falcons in Week 17) was as big as it gets, and on this day, it showed that the Panthers’ faith in Newton in 2011 was well-placed.
“It’s kind of frustrating when you don’t put up the performance that you want to,” Newton said afterward. “But this was a big team win. We got the job done.”
Good for Newton, who has morphed from a quarterback too reliant on his running ability to a good all-around quarterback who can make the biggest plays when it counts the most. On Sunday he got a ton of help from a defense that found the Saints’ Achilles heel—first-time starter Terron Armstead at left tackle, beating him for three sacks and nearly a fourth—and pounded Drew Brees for six sacks. No linebacker combination has played a better game in the NFL this year than Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (38 tackles, two timely interceptions—Davis’s a ridiculously athletic one).
“Luke Kuechly, with 24 tackles,” said Newton. “That’s unheard of.”
If Kuechly’s the game’s most instinctive linebacker, Davis is close. One of the amazing and least-celebrated stories in football is Davis’s coming back from ACL tears in the same knee three years in a row; now he’s playing at a clear Pro Bowl level. “Thomas is an incredible player,” Kuechly said. “A couple of times in the game, we just looked at each other and we didn’t have to say anything; we knew exactly what the other was going to do on that play.
“What is so great about this game is all three phases worked. We got the big touchdown drive from Cam at the end. It’s what he’s done all year when it counted—the San Francisco game, the Miami game, the New England game. We got a great game in the kicking game. Our punter [Brad Nortman] pinned them back [twice inside the 5-yard line] and helped control the game. And I thought we played pretty well on defense.”
Pretty well. What’s better than a 24-tackle game? Kuechly said he’d never had 24 tackles before. I wonder: Who has?
* * *
Peyton Manning thinks his records are temporary.
They probably are. Manning threw his 51st touchdown pass of the season with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter in a 37-13 rout of Houston Sunday, breaking Tom Brady’s six-year-old record. If he throws for 266 yards next week at Oakland (he’s been held under that total once in 15 games this year, in Week 12 against the Patriots), he’ll break Drew Brees’s two-year-old record for passing yards in a year. Manning, as it is, is the first player in the 94-year history of the league to exceed 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in the same season.
Now about that record-breaker …
The Broncos found the weak link, and his name was D.J. Swearinger.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase sent in the play, with first down at the Houston 25. This would be the last series of the game the Broncos would try to score, and Gase thought of a smart one. Five receivers. Four split wide to the left—Andre Caldwell, Montee Ball, Jacob Tamme, Eric Decker—straight across outside the left tackle, and one receiver to the right, tight end Julius Thomas.
“Adam and his creativity,” Manning told me after the game from Houston. “When he sent that play in, I smiled.”
No fooling around on the snap; all five running for the end zone. “The defense has to figure out who to cover with who,” Manning said, “and not everyone can have a corner or safety on them. So Julius gets a linebacker [Darryl Sharpton] and, you know, that’s not really fair, a linebacker on somebody as athletic and fast as Julius. They had a single safety …”
Swearinger was playing centerfield on the fateful throw. Peyton Manning has made a living of freezing safeties for a second with his eyes, and he did it with Swearinger this time.
“I held the safety for a second and let it got for Julius,” he said. Thomas had beaten Sharpton by a step and a half, and the rainbow was perfect, right in Thomas’ hands.
Thomas wasn’t too worried about the ball. “Knowing Julius,” Manning said, “I wouldn’t have been surprised if he traded it with a cute girl for her phone number.” In fact, he dropped it on the sidelines, and Decker scurried over to capture it, and gave it to a Broncos’ equipment guy, telling him to put it away.
“I will enjoy it while it lasts,” the 37-year-old Manning said. “I’m such a fan of the game, a student of the history of the game. So obviously this is a big thing for me. But personally, I feel all these passing records are going to fall. [Tom] Brady will probably break this next year. And you look at the colleges spreading the field and throwing it all over the place, and you see that style being played in the NFL now, and you’re going to see numbers like this happen a lot.
“What I think I amazing is Dan Marino throwing 48 back in ’84. That record lasted for 20 years. That’s amazing to me.
“For me, it’s hard to take much time to think about it now, but I did take a moment on the field, when everybody was congratulating me and I was thanking them right back for making this new transition so great. I told them, and I’m serious, how important they all have been in making this happen. And I thought for a second about what’s happened—how no doctor two years ago could give me any guarantee about anything. It really is a rewarding thing.”
Manning, being the history guy he is, will give the ball to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For now.
“When someone breaks the record,” he said, “I hope they’ll give it back.”
Stats I think mean something.
1. In the most storied passing season by a quarterback ever, Peyton Manning could lose out in passer rating to a guy who was a second-stringer the first month of the season. Nick Foles has a 5.7-point lead (118.7-113.0) over Manning entering Week 17.
2. Denver, the presumptive top seed in the AFC, has four players with at least 60 catches and at least 10 touchdown catches. Seattle, the presumptive top seed in the NFC, does not have a receiver with 60 catches, and does not have a receiver with 10 touchdown receptions.
3. I agree the buck stops with the head coach, and Jim Schwartz is very likely to take the fall for the Lions’ going 1-5 down the stretch and falling out of the NFC North race they once owned. But Matthew Stafford has been awful down the stretch—undisciplined, not focused, clearly not as attentive to Calvin Johnson (four targets in five quarters against the Giants on Sunday) as he should be. Stafford’s being paid like a franchise quarterback, and he’s performing like a quarterback who should be benched for David Carr. In the five recent losses Stafford has completed 50.7 percent of his throws, with three of those games in the perfect conditions of Ford Field, and thrown 12 interceptions. The worst thing you can say about a quarterback is that he’s careless in the big moments. That’s exactly what Stafford has been.
4. Manning broke the touchdown-pass record Sunday against Houston, with Wade Phillips in charge of the Texans defense. Manning previously broke the touchdown-pass record held by Dan Marino in 2004 with his 49th against San Diego, with Wade Phillips in charge of the Chargers defense.
5. How times are changing (thanks to Elliott Kalb for reminding me of these): Seven years ago Manning led the NFL with 31 touchdown passes. Andy Dalton has 31 this year, with four quarters to play.
* * *
Bruce Arians is one heck of a football coach
Coach of the Year is a mystery to me this morning. Bill Belichick is doing one of his best coaching jobs going back to being a $25-a-week gopher for Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore; 41-7 over the Ravens, Gronkless, in Baltimore? Amazing. And you know the other candidates, all good ones—Ron “Relevant” Rivera, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Chip Kelly, Joe Philbin. But Bruce Arians has to be on any list. The Cardinals, 58-0 losers at Seattle last year, broke the Seahawks’ 14-game home winning streak. Perhaps more important for the rest of the NFC, Arizona burst the bubble of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest invincibility. We all thought the Seahawks would breeze to the Super Bowl in New Jersey with two easy home wins. Now they’re not even guaranteed the top seed in the conference; two San Francisco wins and a Seattle loss at home to the Rams Sunday would make the Niners the top seed and Seattle No. 5.
Not likely, of course. But possible, because of the Arizona Cardinals.
“What I told the team this week was I didn’t care about the record, I didn’t care about winning the division,” said Arians from Seattle after the 17-10 upset of the Seahawks. “I cared about winning both lines of scrimmage in this game. And we did. The Seahawks and 49ers are both big, strong, physical teams on their fronts. They’re bullies. That’s football. And that’s what we have to learn to be. I think we showed today we can be big and strong and physical. We can beat the No. 1 seed in the league. We can beat the best team in our division. And we did.’’
I asked Arians about the odds his team faces to make the playoffs, and whether that has impacted the last two or three weeks. For Arizona to make the playoffs now, even at 10-5 this morning, the Cards must beat San Francisco at home Sunday and have one of two other things happen: The Niners must lose to 4-10 Atlanta tonight, or the Saints must lose to 4-11 Tampa Bay at home next Sunday. Not … likely.
“I stopped worrying about that crap about three weeks ago,” said Arians. “Once I learned we could get to 11-5 and we might still not make it, I said, ‘Screw it. Let’s just get to 11-5 and let the chips fall where they may.’ Whatever happens, we’re letting everyone in our division know we’re a team to be reckoned with.”
Arians is a funny play-caller. If Carson Palmer throws four interceptions, as he did in Seattle, Arians is going to tell him to keep firing. Down 10-9 at the Seattle 31 with just under six minutes left, the Cards wanted to isolate one of their receivers on cornerback Byron Maxwell, who just became a starter earlier this month. Arians called 81 Go, with three receivers running for the end zone, hoping to get one of them singled. On this play it would be Michael Floyd, on Maxwell. The Cards kept seven in to protect against the Seattle rush, Palmer had time, and, in Arians’ words, “If it was a fielder’s choice, I wanted Carson to take Floyd.” And Palmer did, throwing a beautifully placed ball into Floyd’s arms on the left side of the end zone. Touchdown.
“What’d you say to the team after the game?” I said.
“Not much,” said Arians. “ ‘Merry Christmas. Great team win.’ ”
* * *
* * *
Variable ticket pricing could come to the NFL in 2014.
At the NFL meeting in Dallas earlier this month, a cadre of teams met to discuss something other sports have taken the lead on: pricing tickets to a team’s 10 games differently, depending on the quality of opposition and whether it’s a preseason or regular-season game. In the past week I’ve spoken to executives of three teams about it, and one told me: “I’d say as many as half the teams in the league are thinking about instituting it for 2014.”
I do not, however, see this solving the problem of the NFL charging full prices for preseason games. It is possible that a team charging, say, $750 for a full-season ticket (eight regular-season games, two preseason games) would still charge $750 next season. But the team could put a face value of $50 on the two preseason games, $100 on the most attractive two home games and $75 on the six remaining regular-season games.
None of this is set in stone. Team are still discussing it, and the NFL will not make a hard-and-fast policy about what any team does with tickets. But the way this was explained to me by a source with knowledge of several teams’ plans is that it would address the value of tickets on secondary markets like StubHub and Ticketmaster. A preseason game, rightfully, would have a lower base price than a decent game in November. And the best games would start from a price point much higher than preseason games.
Here’s the way it could work—and we’ll use Kansas City for an example. Let’s say a good Chiefs’ season-ticket costs $1,000 for 10 games in 2014. The Chiefs have an attractive home slate next year. They could take visits by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and the cross-state Rams, call them Tier 1 games and put a face value of $150 on those tickets. They could make the next four most attractive games Tier 2 at $100, and then call the final regular-season game and two preseason games Tier 3 at $50. (Those are my approximations, no one else’s.) This would really help teams with a lot of single-game tickets to sell. A team like Buffalo, for instance, could put a premium price on the Patriots game and a much lower price on a game involving a less desirable team.
“I think you’ll see teams experiment with different price points the next couple of years,” said one executive of a team that will likely change pricing next season. “Then I think you’ll see the real final product in two or three years, when teams find out from their fans what they want the most.”
1. Seattle (12-3). It’s only one game, against a variable Cardinals defensive front that changed things up on Russell Wilson consistently. I wouldn’t be too worried. But the Rams come to town Sunday. Home-field in the NFC is on the line. When the Rams and Seahawks met in St. Louis in October, Seattle struggled to win—and to score 14 points. Somebody better block Robert Quinn.
2. San Francisco (10-4). Smart play by the Niners this year, resting stalwart defensive end Justin Smith regularly. In the first 14 games, he’s sat 9, 15, 15, 24, 15, 9, 25, 26, 13, 11, 18, 29, 10 and 18 snaps. January insurance.
3. Denver (12-3). A win at Oakland Sunday and the Broncos would have a duplicate of 2012: a 13-3 record, top seed in the AFC, and a playoff game at home in the divisional round … and it still is mathematically possible that the game could be against Baltimore. But the Von Miller loss is a dagger.
4. Carolina (11-4). Great win. A franchise-changing win. And may I say that the three most important players in the NFC South championship game (barring a major upset of the Panthers Sunday by Atlanta) have something significant in common? Linebacker Thomas Davis, linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton were all first-round draft picks by fired former GM Marty Hurney, who apparently did something right in his tenure.
5. New England (11-4). As stunning as 15- and 19-point playoff victories by Baltimore in Foxboro were in the last four years, that’s how stunning a 34-point New England win in the Inner Harbor was Sunday.
6. New Orleans (10-5). I wouldn’t throw the season in the dumpster just yet, Saints Nation, but barring a stunning upset by the Falcons Sunday over the Panthers with a Saints win over the Bucs, New Orleans will have to win four games away from the Superdome to win the Super Bowl this year. Points scored in the last three road games: 7, 16, 13.
7. Arizona (10-5). The Cards are in tiebreaker hell because of 12- and 24-point losses to the Niners and Saints earlier this year, and a 6-5 conference record. But they can take solace in winning the 2013 Teams Are Petrified To Meet Them In The Playoffs Award.
8. Cincinnati (10-5). The Bengals have had 49-, 41-, 42- and 42-point explosions in the last two months. This is a very interesting playoff team right now, and the first time in franchise history that Cincy has made the playoffs three years in a row.
9. Indianapolis (10-5). The season’s long. Week 3: Colts travel to San Francisco and crush the Niners 27-7. Got crushed a few too many times since. But this is two straight weeks that the defense showed up and looked like it did that day by the Bay. There may be some January hope for this team.
10. Kansas City (11-4). The potential return match in Indianapolis in the Wild-Card round in 12 or 13 days looks a lot worse than it did 24 hours ago.
11. Philadelphia (9-6). Just when you think you’ve got the league figured out, a week after giving up 48 point to the Minnesota Vikings the Eagles go and beat the Bears by 43.
12. San Diego (8-7). Road wins over Kansas City and Denver in the last month, and the feeling that you do not want to face Philip Rivers (69.7 percent passing, 29-10 touchdown-to-interception differential) in January.
13. Pittsburgh (7-8). Seven weeks ago the Steelers were 2-6. Just a friendly reminder that the season’s 17 weeks long.
14. Miami (8-7). This is not the morning, Dolfans, to remind me that you won at Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Not after that goose-egg-laying to the Bills.
15. Chicago (8-7). I’m open about who to put at No. 15. Ideas?
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver. Manning pooh-poohed the touchdown passes record on the phone afterward, saying it would be broken as early as next season. Could well be. But two years after missing the season and not being able to throw the ball much at all because of four neck procedures, Manning became the first player in NFL history to exceed 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in a season. And the Broncos moved within a win at Oakland Sunday of clinching home-field in the AFC.
Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. In the first 59 minutes of the NFC South title game at Charlotte, Newton was totally unimpactful as the Saints ground out a 13-10 lead. Then he drove the Panthers 65 yards, completing three of five passes, including the final 14-yarder to Domenik Hixon for the winning touchdown in a 17-13 victory. This was the biggest drive of Newton’s three-year career, and if he’d failed, the criticism would been weighty. But coming through in the final minute of huge games is what franchise quarterbacks do, and give Newton credit: He came through in the biggest moment of his career.
Defensive Player of the Week
Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Carolina. Never on any level of football—in nine years of high school, college or pro—has Kuechly had the kind of day he had in the biggest game of his pro career Sunday: 24 tackles and an interception in the 17-13 victory over the Saints. He had help from Thomas Davis, his partner at linebacker, and some excellent pass rushing too. But Kuechly was the big star of a threatening defense in the game in which that unit arrived.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Brad Nortman, punter, Carolina. Into the teeth of a torrential downpour in the third quarter of the NFC South championship game, Nortman, Carolina’s sixth-round pick last season, nailed a beauty downed at the Saints’ 2-yard line. On the next stalled series, Nortman booted one 57 yards to the Saints’ 3. For the game, he punted eight times for a 50.8-yard average … with a 47.0-yard net. On a day like that, Nortman was a huge player for the Panthers.
Coach of the Week
Bruce Arians, head coach, Arizona. (See above.) The Cardinals are 10-5 playing in the toughest division in football, and just handed the best team in football its first home loss in two years. This pick’s easy.
Danny Smith, special teams coach, Pittsburgh. Made the call of the day, with the game on the line in the third quarter at Green Bay, and the Steelers punting from their 44, trailing 14-10. Out of the punt formation, Smith had punter Mat McBriar roll right with the snap and throw a perfect ball, a 30-yard pass to fourth-string tight end David Paulson for a first down. A gutsy call, and a great throw. Who knew McBrian had it in him? On the next play, Ben Roethlisberger ran for a 13-yard touchdown, and the Steelers went on to win 38-31. Cool story for Smith, a Pittsburgh native and Edinboro (Pa.) State grad who is in his rookie year coaching the kicking game for Pittsburgh.
Ron Rivera, head coach, Carolina. With the Panthers 1-3 and Rivera’s job certainly in jeopardy, Rivera fretted how irrelevant the franchise had become. Even after they won a couple of games, he was bugged by how much the Panthers didn’t matter. Well, they do now. Carolina’s won 10 of 11 since the 1-3 start, and the Panthers clinched a playoff spot Sunday and will win the NFC South with a win at Atlanta or a Saints loss to the Bucs. Amazing stuff.
Goat of the Week
Nick Perry, linebacker; Don Barclay, tackle, Green Bay Packers. With the Steelers lined up at 31-all to kick a go-ahead field goal with 90 seconds left, Perry got called for encroachment. This gave the Steelers a first down and allowed them to score a touchdown instead, forcing the Packers burn their final timeout along the way. Then, after a 70-yard Micah Hyde kickoff return, the Packers drove to the Steelers’ 1-yard line and were in position to tie the game in the final seconds. But on second down, Barclay committed a false start with 22 seconds left, causing a 10-second runoff, and Green Bay was able to run only one frenetic play down the stretch instead of a possible three. The Packers lost this one as much as Pittsburgh won it.
David Robinson, state climatologist, New Jersey. On the CBS Sports Network’s That Other Pregame Show, Robinson gave one of the dumbest weather predictions in meteorological history. He said there is about a 10 percent chance of snow during the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in New Jersey. “We’ve never had a big snowstorm on February 2, looking back at 80 years of records, over in Newark,” Robinson said. “But just two days after that, back in 1961, there was 15 inches of snow on the fourth of February.” A nonsensical point, David. Feb. 2 does not have some magical, mystical significance, and because it didn’t blizzard for a long time, that has no bearing on whether it will snow or rain or sleet or be 58 and perfect on the day of the Super Bowl.
Quotes of the Week
“Shoot. I must have left a couple out there on the field.”
—Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, on the phone from Charlotte after the 17-13 win over New Orleans, referring to a couple of missed tackles. Gee, that’s a shame. Kuechly only had 24 others, plus an interception.
“Candlestick’s a dump. But it’s our dump.”
—Former 49ers receiver Dwight Clark, who had the single biggest football play, The Catch, in Candlestick Park history, the touchdown catch from Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC Championship Game to slay the Cowboys and start the 49ers’ run of greatness.
“One of the great moments of my life, before a game my rookie year, I’m sitting there at my locker, praying, and I hear Willie Mays, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, saying, ‘What the hell are you praying for?’ He said, ‘Man, look, Bob Gibson throws at my head all the time. You’ve just gotta go out there and play.’ And you know what? He was right. You can pray, but you’ve gotta play.”
—Former San Francisco safety Ronnie Lott, in a very good piece by NFL.com’s Mike Silver, reminiscing about the end of Candlestick Park.
“Not tell anybody.”
—Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, to Ravens.com, on what he would do if he won the Mega Millions Lottery, which was at $648 million last week. Flacco stopped in a 7-Eleven to buy a ticket, and said he plays the lottery when it gets over $100 million. Flacco, of course, signed a $120.1 million contract last offseason.
“You know you can’t control destiny? Destiny is predetermined set of events. Therefore, if it’s predetermined, you can’t control it.”
—Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly.
Stat of the Week
I’m not so stupid that I cannot learn. In the wake of the success of so many running backs picked outside the first round, and after seeing the production (or lack thereof) of Trent Richardson since his trade for a first-round pick to Indianapolis, the lot of the running back in the modern NFL should teach us all one thing: Do not use a very high draft pick on one.
Let’s go back to the 2008 draft to see why. Those backs have had time to play and prove the point, for better or for worse. I’ll separate the draft’s backs into top 40, next 40 and undrafted guys.
|Pick||Player||Original Team||1,000-yard seasons||Comment|
|4||Darren McFadden||Oakland||1||Always hurt|
|13||Jonathan Stewart||Carolina||1||Always in a job-share|
|22||Felix Jones||Dallas||0||Regularly hurt, then cut|
|23||Rashard Mendenhall||Pittsburgh||2||Nice back, not special|
|24||Chris Johnson||Tennessee||5||Premier player|
|Pick||Player||Original Team||1,000-yard seasons||Comment|
|44||Matt Forte||Chicago||4||Terrific, durable threat|
|55||Ray Rice||Baltimore||4||Down year, but a great back|
|64||Kevin Smith||Detroit||0||Just a guy|
|73||Jamaal Charles||Kansas City||4||2013’s best all-around back|
|Among the Undrafted|
|Pick||Player||Original Team||1,000-yard seasons||Comment|
|—||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||New England||2||Reliable, not great|
|—||Danny Woodhead||New York Jets||0||Smurfy do-it-all guy|
|—||Mike Tolbert||San Diego||0||Solid 243-pound load|
Study draft history and you’ll see down-the-line backs having consistent success. Arian Foster, an undrafted free agent, won the rushing title in 2011, and 2012 sixth-rounder Alfred Morris was second in the league last year. Then study all the top guys who were just okay, or less than that, and you’ll see it makes as much sense to draft running backs down the line, or not draft them at all.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The last Beatles concert of all time was at Candlestick Park some 47-plus years ago, on Aug. 29, 1966. Tickets were $4.50 and $6.50, and only 25,000 of 43,000 tickets to the show were sold. The Beatles told no one this was the last show ever, but they knew it. They played 11 songs, including, “I Feel Fine,” “Nowhere Man,” “Yesterday,” and “Paperback Writer.” They finished, nondescriptly enough, with “Long Tall Sally.”
“Long Tall Sally.” Last song ever played by John, Paul, George and Ringo in concert. Now that’s … a letdown.
After the concert, the Beatles were driven to San Francisco International Airport and flew to London. The end.
The North American leg of their final tour was rather amazing. They performed 14 shows in 18 days. The first eight days, the Beatles played a show a night—in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston (at the Suffolk Downs Race Track) and Memphis. They were supposed to play on a ninth straight night, in Cincinnati. But it rained so hard and the electrical equipment couldn’t be totally shielded from the rain at Crosley Field that night, so the promoter postponed the show. But 35,000 fans wanted to see the Beatles, and so the show went on the next day—at noon. It had to be at noon, because the Beatles had a show that night in St. Louis, 360 miles away. So when the show was over, around 1:30, the stuff was packed up and loaded onto an airplane, along with the Beatles, and they flew to St. Louis, where the Beatles played that night at 8:30 at the old Busch Stadium.
The Beatles played a doubleheader. In two baseball cities 360 miles apart. On the same day.
A site called Beatlesbible.com claims that was the day Paul McCartney was convinced the band should stop touring. It rained hard again in St. Louis that night, and who knows how safe it was, so the boys just thought the touring business was crazy (well, maybe they could have had a saner schedule and not fried themselves), and that tour was it.
So tonight, when the 49ers play their 350th games at the old ballyard, and you hear the poetic waxings about what great history happened in the place, you’ll know there was no greater history—not even The Catch—in the place than the night the Beatles played their final concert in the foggy chill of Candlestick Park.
Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker, who has practiced and performed opera in high school and college, sang “O Sole Mio,” a tune more associated with Pavarotti than placekicking, at the Ravens’ rookie talent show.
“Got some applause for it,” Tucker said on The MMQB Podcast With Peter King this week. “Some of the guys couldn’t believe their eyes, or their ears.”
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
You know me. I’m not one to complain about little travel situations. (Oh really!) And on the scale of grand travel maladies, this would rate pretty low. But I present it to you for your delight.
Last Tuesday, returning from Sports Illustrated’s presentation of Sportsman of the Year to Peyton Manning in Denver, I was fortunate to be upgraded on my Delta flight, a good thing because I had a ton of writing to do. So when I sat down for the 8:30 a.m. flight, I thought it only slightly odd that the 40ish man next to me, informally dressed, said to the flight attendant: “Jack and Coke, please.” When it was delivered, he drank it like a man being handed a thimble of water in the Sahara. Gone in an instant. Then he asked for another. So … two stiff drinks before 8:30 a.m. I see.
A half-hour after takeoff he got a third. Then breakfast came. He had the Raisin Bran. Three whiskeys and then a bowl of cereal: breakfast of champions! I assumed he’d be falling asleep at any time, but he was awake the entire flight.
Then, for about an hour, he belched. Not the loud kind of belch; rather, the modest kind with lots of air let out. Aromatic air. And I don’t mean aromatic in a good way. Every six or seven minutes, there’d be a slight guttural sound, a verbal whoooooosh, and a scent approximating a landfill. What did this guy eat Monday night? Deep-fried skunk?
And that is my travel note of the week. Happy tidings of the season! Merry Christmas!
Tweets of the Week
“Peyton Manning has thrown more touchdown passes this season (51) than his dad threw in his first five seasons combined (47).”
—@LATimesfarmer, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, after the Manning record was set Sunday afternoon.
“I’d like to see Mike Zimmer as a candidate for Detroit. If the job becomes available.”
—@Lojack94, former Detroit defensive end Lawrence Jackson, tweeting about the Cincinnati defensive coordinator.
“The toughest decision I have to make over the next several weeks… What color to go with! pic.twitter.com/v4hoi5n22F”
—@khuber10, Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber, attaching a photo of … well, you’ll see. He had his jaw broken on a vicious block eight days ago in the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game.
“Congrats to all my fellow classmates who graduated tonight! Good luck to everyone as we all part ways and take on the real world! #L1C4″
—@tdeddyb_h2o, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, upon graduating from the University of Louisville Thursday.
“Sacrificed a lot of personal glory for the people around because I’ve always been a part of something much bigger than myself. It’s my time.”
—@teddyb_h2o, Bridgewater, on Friday.
In divining whether Bridgewater will declare for the 2014 NFL draft, I present two vague clues for your perusal. It’s widely considered that Bridgewater, a possible first overall pick, will enter the draft.
“A 2-year-old tantrum is the greatest force of nature in all humankind. No warning and no weakness. Just ride it out.”
—@damonhackgc, the Golf Channel’s Damon Hack, father of triplet boys. The man speaks the truth.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 16:
a. Great open-field tackle on dangerous Denver punt-returner Trindon Holliday, Justin Tuggle.
b. Double-move of the year: Minnesota wide receiver Jarius Wright, from the Bengals 36, runs up, outside, and stops; former first-round corner Dre Kirkpatrick lunges for it, and Wright darts up the right sideline, wide open, for a perfect 36-yard TD toss from Matt Cassel.
c. Kenny Stills is going to be good for a long time—and what value, averaging 18-plus yards per catch. He was the Saints’ fifth-round pick last April.
d. Pierre Garçon, with the catch of the day, laying on his back and grabbing one of his 107 receptions for the season. Great catch.
e. And congrats to Garçon for breaking the Washington team record of 106 catches, set by Hall of Famer Art Monk in 1984. And good for the magnanimous Monk, congratulating Garçon thusly: “Having set the record myself, I understand how exciting it is, so I’m excited for him. Records are meant to be broken. I didn’t expect to have it as long as I had it, but I’m glad the pressure is off of me now.”
f. Great hit by Josh Wilson, forcing the fumble that led to the Garçon touchdown catch in Washington.
g. Antoine Bethea, one of the most overlooked players in football. Always shows up, always hits the way a safety’s supposed to hit.
h. Robert Quinn, you’d come off the board in the top three of my fantasy pass-rushers list.
i. Superb camera work in the FOX game at Charlotte, showing a family in the stands enjoying the game pre-rain … then showing the same family getting drenched so hard it was hard to see them.
j. Le’Veon Bell, 124 tough yards on the Tundra.
k. Carson Palmer made his share of gaffes (share is putting it nicely), but he did come through when it counted, finding Jake Ballard (remember him?) for 17 yards to convert a key third down with the game in the balance at Seattle.
l. Imagine if Will Hill concentrated all his energy on football. See his pick-6 of Matthew Stafford at Detroit?
m. The Giants, showing up in Detroit.
n. The Chargers, the team with the longest winning streak (three) in the AFC.
o. Offensive rookie of the year: Eddie Lacy or Keenan Allen. Who’ve you got?
p. LeGarrette Blount will be a tough target to haul down on a New England (or Denver, or East Rutherford) day in the playoffs.
q. Great athletic deflection into an interception by Pats linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
r. Unless something quite strange happens, Julian Edelman (96 receptions, 991 yards) is going to have a 100-catch, 1,000-yard receiving season. Raise your hand if you had that in your office pool out on Cape Cod in August.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 16:
a. Punters as consistently defenseless players. I’ll be the 473rd person to ask: How can a defenseless player make a tackle?
b. You’ve got to pick up the corner blitz, Pierre Thomas.
c. You’ve got to block Greg hardy around the edge, Terron Armstead, though I also think Drew Brees shouldn’t be taking a sack and taking his team out of field-goal range either.
d. Sometimes, watching the Washington special teams, you wonder whether they practice during the week.
e. No taunting in the NFL, Kenny Vaccaro. This is your 15th game. You’ve got to know that.
f. If you’re trying to draw the defense offside on a fourth down, Thad Lewis, you don’t get up from under center and walk down the line.
g. The flop out of bounds was Geno Smith’s best play of the day against Cleveland.
h. Just what the Texans, and Matt Schaub’s confidence, needed: a dropped touchdown pass right in the chest of Andre Johnson.
i. I do not use this word lightly, but the Cowboys sure make some stupid plays. The late hit by safety J.J. Wilcox, waaaay after Washington’s Santana Moss was down, handed Washington a field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter … putting Dallas down by nine.
j. What a terrible, horrible injury for the Broncos, the apparent torn ACL for Von Miller. That’s going to play a big role in the AFC pennant race over the next month.
k. Seven three-and-outs for the Seahawks. At home.
l. Steven Hauschka clanging a 24-yard field goal try. At home.
m. I didn’t think the interception that officials said clanked off Doug Baldwin clanked off him. Looked like it hit the ground to me.
n. It’s this kind of year for the Ravens: Ray Rice can’t convert a 4th-and-1 run in the red zone, down 20-0.
3. I think the story I hope you all remember from Week 16 is what the Jaguars did with retiring center Brad Meester, playing his 208th game with the team. Coach Gus Bradley and the staff wanted to do something special for Meester, one of the great citizens of any team in the NFL. And so Meester reported as eligible on a 2nd-and-8 play from the Titans’ 13-yard-line (centers do not report as eligible but once a career—maybe), and quarterback Chad Henne threw him a nine-yard dart to convert the first down. Crowd went nuts. Teammates went nuts. Watching the highlight, you can see how much the Jaguars respect the working-class Meester. “You talk about memories you’ll take with you for the rest of your life,” Meester said. “That’s one I’ll always remember.” As will those who saw it.
4. I think the Jets should not fire Rex Ryan. Period. End of story. A 7-8 record with a game to go, with that team? Hardly a fireable situation. Extend Ryan one year (his contract is up at the end of next season) and push this decision off until the end of 2014. Ryan, and Jets fans, deserve that.
5. I think that was a great onside kick call by Sean Payton, despite the loss in Carolina, and it was executed by a man who does the kick as well as anyone in football, punter Thomas Morstead.
6. I think the leader in the NFL clubhouse to replace Ray Anderson as the league’s executive vice president of football operations is Merton Hanks, who currently rides herd on player conduct as executive VP of operations. The football ops job oversees all aspects of player conduct, safety and game competition. Hanks is the former 49ers safety.
7. I think you’ll enjoy this little chunk of my interview with Justin Tucker, the record-setting Baltimore kicker, from this week’s podcast:
What’s your longest field goal—high school, college or pro?
“It’s 79, pregame, in Denver, in altitude. Realistically, no head ball coach is going to send you out there in the first quarter of a game.”
What happened on the 61-yarder in Detroit?
“I hit one from 70 in pregame that hit the crossbar and went in. I knew if we got to the middle of the field area, we’d have a shot … I made it a point to kind of get up there [with special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, kicking coordinator Randy Brown and coach John Harbaugh] when they were discussing it. I just jumped in and interjected and asked for the opportunity: ‘I got this. Gimme a chance.’ ”
The NFL’s got to do something about kickers. [Entering Sunday’s game versus New England] You’re 65 of 70 in your career. You’ve made 33 in a row. You guys are just getting too good. Kicking’s too easy.
“I don’t think so. I think the guys around us are getting so much better. Kickers are getting more specialized. Long-snappers are snapping it back at 12 o’clock [with laces straight toward the posts]; the ball can basically hold itself. We don’t need to narrow the goalpost. That might be a discussion for someone who plays eight games in a dome. But when you’re playing out here in the AFC North, or a guy like Stephen [Gostkowski], when he kicks [in Foxboro] is so good … We’re paid to make it look easy, but it’s definitely not. I don’t think it needs to be modified at this point.”
And I hear you met your fiancée at a bus stop in Austin, Texas.
“I was waiting for a bus and saw a friend from high school with a bunch of her girlfriends walking by, including this girl Amanda. I was smitten right away. Like anyone in this modern day and age, I Facebook-stalked her for a good time, and I kept bugging her … She’d be the first to tell you she didn’t like me at first. Maybe too much personality to handle.”
Listen to the whole podcast, also featuring Peyton Manning, here:
8. I think this was a smart take on the differences between college and pro football from Chip Kelly: “The difference between college and the pros is that every single week is a challenge. You can look at some of the games you’ve played in college and you may hype them up that way. But in the back of your mind you know what the outcome of the game will be before it’s played because there is such a big discrepancy. In this league there is no discrepancy. You’ve got to come to play every week. The team that executes the best usually ends up the team that’s on top. But in terms of a surprise, nothing that’s really come out that’s been like, Well, I didn’t think that was ever going to be that way.” Finally, a college coach admits he knew he was going to beat Norfolk State 66-3.
9. I think if the NFL won’t give America a Thursday night game in Week 16, the NFL needs to give America a Saturday game. Afternoon or prime time, I don’t care. But Week 16 is too naked without an extra nationally televised game. I loved the late-season Saturday afternoon games the league used to have, but realize the ratings for them wouldn’t be what a prime-time game’s ratings would be. So put it in prime time Saturday night in Week 16.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I have no proverbial dog in the fight, because I’m not a college sports guy, but are you sure you hired the right man for athletic director, University of Texas people? This Oregon writer presents a pretty damning case against Steve Patterson.
b. Loved this Grantland story on Tony Gonzalez by Robert Mays.
c. Filled with sadness at the death of Claire Davis, the 17-year-old Arapahoe (Colo.) High School senior who was minding her own business Dec. 13 when a classmate shot her in the head for no reason whatsoever. Utter madness.
d. Michael Cecere, you deserve our respect and a lifetime of good karma.
e. None of the five New York City-area winter pro sports teams—Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Devils, Islanders—has a winning record. They’ve played a total of 142 games and won 58.
f. Coffeenerdness: Diner breakfast Sunday in New York. Coffee-flavored water. Miserable. Who drinks this swill?
g. Beernerdness: Had a couple of Fire Island Red Wagon IPAs last week at The MMQB’s holiday party in the city. Very good find. Strong IPA with a distinctive malt taste. Really liked it. Never knew there was such a thing as the Fire Island Beer Company, but I’ll be looking for its offerings.
h. The thing I hate about this time of year: The 20 or so coaches and families who are on the edge of their seats wondering if they’ll have to move in a week. Sort of takes away from the joy of the season, totally.
i. Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it. I hope it’s a wonderful week for everyone.
Who I Like Tonight
San Francisco 30, Atlanta 10. The Niners have another milestone to think about, not just the one concerning the 350th and final (most probably) football game in Candlestick Park. Frank Gore, who is as beloved to the Niners of the last decade as Roger Craig was to his Niners, is 144 yards from 10,000, and it’s a goal the current team would love to see him reach. Said offensive coordinator Greg Roman: “Frank’s just an amazing person, an amazing player. You kind of wish everybody, all the fans, could be around him just to see how special a guy he is, how committed he is to his team and it’s from the heart. It’s not a bunch of fake rah-rah. This guy lives it, breathes it, and it means so much to him. A lot of those yards have been tough yards, really tough yards. Coming to work with Frank is an honor. We’d love to see him get to 10,000 here.”
The Adieu Haiku
So long to The ’Stick.
Seems every step I took there,
I stepped in a bog.