$.01--If Week 1 was all about interceptions, Week 2 was all about the officials. I’ve been a fairly staunch defender of the replacement officials, but this week’s performance was completely unacceptable in several games. From phantom pass interference penalties to egregious downfield holding and illegal contact by defensive backs that goes almost completely uncalled to timekeeping and spotting errors, it was truly embarrassing and indefensible.
This had to be what Mike Pereira dreams about at night, a series of ponderous calls that turned Twitter into a Million Man March against the officiating debacle. The Rams/Skins game and Eagles/Ravens games in particular are just as memorable for the horrid refereeing as for the dramatic finishes. Missed calls and questionable flags are one thing, and we’ve seen plenty enough of that from Pereira’s darling regular officials. But so many replacement crews misinterpreted rules, botched game management, and let the timbre of the battle get louder than regular refs would allow. One scab even had to be replaced because he was tailgating in support of one of his assigned teams just weeks ago, an unforgivable sin for officials.
The killer for me was an incident in the Tennessee game where punter Brett Kern got knocked down. The referee, whose sole responsibility on punting plays is to watch the punter from the snap to the end of the play, was not looking at the punter when he got hit and never threw a flag. That’s egregious!
Your move, Roger Goodell. There is a real opportunity here for Goodell to earn some good will back for his league and his own tattered reputation. It is time to bring back the regular refs. I’ve tried real hard to accept these scabs, and a handful of them absolutely belong, but if Goodell is serious about player safety and protecting the shield this nonsense must end. Acquiesce to a couple of the key demands, namely allowing all current refs to keep their “day jobs” for up to three years. All new officials must be fulltime NFL employees as the league desires, but grandfather in the existing 119 officials and give them three years to either go fulltime or keep their regular jobs, many of which pay more than the NFL does. While the officials’ demand for a lucrative pension is antiquated, their desire for a more functional and secure retirement plan is legit. Improve the long-term health care benefits and guarantee that the payout level on whatever plan they decide has a clearly defined floor. Get it done, Mr. Commish!
$.02--The New York Giants showed their championship mettle with a stirring comeback victory over the improved Buccaneers. This game was a classic case of a team that knows how to win beating a team that is still learning how to win, a team with a clear identity emerging over a team with an emerging identity.
It took over 500 yards from Eli Manning, almost 300 of those in the second half, for the Giants to secure the win. Hakeem Nicks hauled in 199 receiving yards while Victor Cruz notched 179 on his own, as both made several big catches that brought the G-Men back from a big deficit. The second half of the game was essentially New York almost flawlessly catching up and the Bucs desperately clinging to a lead the Giants staked them.
There was a definite tipping point. Just before the end of the third quarter, Josh Freeman threw an interception to Corey Webster that led to a quick Giants field goal. The next Bucs drive sputtered as the Giants defensive line woke up, and two plays after the punt Eli found Cruz for a 80-yard TD. That got the Bucs wobbly, and the 2-point conversion really bloodied the nose. Josh Freeman was visibly tight on the next Bucs drive, a quick 3-and-out, and the Giants showed no mercy. It takes a Herculean effort for a team to score 25 points in a quarter, but that’s what New York did. They needed every one of them too, because Freeman gathered himself nicely and hit Mike Williams with a long TD strike of his own and had the Bucs in Giants territory before Michael Boley’s sealing INT.
And that’s when this game got really interesting. The Giants were certainly excited, but they were not obnoxious or unprofessional about their amazing accomplishment. Tampa acted otherwise, hammering Manning on a kneel down play that caused Tom Coughlin to say more than a few harsh words to greenhorn Bucs coach Greg Schiano. Postgame comments made it clear the Bucs were acting on the command of their coach and weren’t necessarily proud of it. It was a bush league move that casts a negative tone over what has been a pretty impressive start by the Buccaneers. What makes it completely hypocritical and pathetic is that in the exact same situation at the end of the first half, Schiano had his players just run to the locker room as Eli knelt down. It’s what you expect from a hotheaded high school coach, not a professional, and it threatens Schiano’s progressive work in Tampa. You can bet other coaches will not hesitate to send messages of their own to put Schiano and his scant NFL experience in his place. From what I know of Schiano, he won’t give a crap about any of that. What remains to be seen is if his players will when they are the victims of cheap shots and messages intended for their coach.
$.03--Arizona stayed perfect by stunning the 13.5 point favorites in New England. They did this thanks to a swarming, attacking defense that dominated the Pats OL and just enough plays from their own offense. But they also received a great deal of aid from the Patriots coaching staff, who appeared to have no clue how to handle it.
This is not a new development for Belichick & Co., as Team Hoodie has consistently struggled when made a double digit favorite. According to the good folks at StatFox, Belichick-coached teams are now 5-23 against the spread when favored by more than 10 points (another gambling site had it at 9-26 and I don’t know who to trust here) and have dropped at least three of them outright. It’s a truly ponderous failing on his part because he’s the best coach that ever lived for games where the line is 3 points or less one way or the other. They were blatantly outcoached by Ken Whisenhunt and the Cardinals in this one.
I’ll give Belichick some slack for losing primo target Aaron Hernandez early with what looks to be a multiple-week injury. But playing Julian Edelman over Wes Welker just doesn’t make sense. Nor did the offensive tempo, which was flat and uninspired. Rob Gronkowski, arguably the toughest matchup in the entire league, went drives at a time without seeing the ball. They had no answer schematically for the Cardinals’ crushing pressure up front until the drive that closed the score to 20-18. Patrick Peterson intercepted Brady’s first pass and it appeared Brady never really recovered. I expected a lot more out of New England; they were 13.5 point favorites, after all.
That’s not to take anything away from the 2-0 Arizona Cardinals. They have now won nine of their last 11 dating to last year, and over that time frame they have the second-best QB rating allowed defensively. Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton has playmakers at all three levels of the defense and isn’t afraid to unleash them with his aggressive, creative play calling. This game epitomized what the Cardinals hope to do: control the game with their defense and counterpunch just enough offensively and special teams to eke out wins. So far they have smothered the trendy (guilty myself!) Seahawks and escaped Gillette with a close shave of a win. It’s not pretty, but 2-0 beats the alternative.
$.04--In the Thursday night game, Green Bay whipped Chicago in a game most notable for some truly dreadful offensive line play for both teams. That line play revealed the biggest difference between the two quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler.
Rodgers got sacked five times and hit on at least seven other attempts, while Cutler was sacked seven times and hit on 12 other throws. Both quarterbacks had a handful of good throws that were dropped by receivers, and both threw interceptions on miscommunications with their targets. Neither had much of a dedicated running game to lean upon. The difference in the game was how the two QBs responded.
Rodgers persevered. Cutler imploded. That is probably an oversimplification, but anyone who watched the game would be hard-pressed to argue. Sure, Rodgers got in James Jones’ face when they weren’t on the same page and Rodgers threw an interception. But those kinds of things are fairly commonplace; I saw Matt Schaub and Tom Brady both do similar things on Sunday. Rodgers figured out how to adjust his game, and his patience was rewarded on a beautiful TD strike to ageless Donald Driver. He threw shorter passes with a lesser degree of difficulty.
Cutler miserably failed to adjust either his game or his attitude. Rodgers sensed what his team needed from him as a leader, rallying his team and reminding them how they won 15 games last year. Cutler led by throwing open the hydrant and blasting his teammates with a high pressure hose full of whining, finger pointing, and aggrieved insouciance. Whereas the Packers looked like they wanted to win the game for Rodgers, the Bears appeared to just want the game to end so they wouldn’t have to deal with Cutler’s act any longer.
This is not a new development; there’s a very good reason why Denver so willingly gave up on both Cutler and Brandon Marshall, who was also dumped by Miami despite incredible physical gifts. You can find ample stories about Cutler and his troubling persona that go back to his early Vanderbilt days, but that’s not as pertinent as what happens to Cutler on the field when things aren’t hunky dory. His fundamentals break down. He throws with a lowered arm angle off his back foot. He stares to where he is throwing. Every throw comes out at maximum velocity even if it’s a three yard dump pass. It’s very much like watching my 7-year old on the basketball court when he’s frustrated, a sniveling, hysterical mess of negative energy and selfish errors. I hate that behavior from my Layne, but he’s at least got the legit excuse that he’s seven. Cutler is almost 30 and gets paid millions to be a role model and team leader. Good luck with that, Chicago…
$.05--More than half the league sits at 1-1, and the loser Monday night will make #21. Two entire divisions, the AFC East and the NFC North, have all four teams at .500. There are five teams--Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, and Houston--that sit comfortably at 2-0, and they will be joined by either Atlanta or Denver (I picked Atlanta). The Texans just might have already clinched the weakling AFC South, which features the winless Titans and Jaguars, neither of which were expected to contend. Expectations were pretty low for the winless Browns and Raiders as well, and probably should have been for the hapless Chiefs, another 0-2 team.
The one real outlier of the winless teams is the one in the most trouble. The New Orleans Saints have dropped both of their games without Sean Payton on the sideline, getting literally run over by the Redskins and Panthers. Saints fans can make the argument that facing RG3 and Cam Newton back to back is a lousy draw, but that ignores the bigger issue here. New Orleans has major problems on both lines, and it has negatively impacted Drew Brees. The unquestioned leader and reigning passing champ is completing just 54% of his passes, down from 71% a year ago. It would be one thing if Brees were trying to strike more downfield, but the opposite is true; his yards per attempt are down from 8.3 to 6.6. He has thrown a matching number of TDs and INTs, unthinkable with Payton calling the shots.
More to the point, the Saints have the aura of a team that is shell-shocked. They spent so much effort and expended so much energy trying to convince everyone that the kids are alright without looking in the mirror and realizing that maybe the kids need more guidance. They lost a couple of offensive regulars in Carl Nicks and Robert Meacham and neither has been even close to satisfactorily replaced. The defense has lost its trademark swagger they sported so proudly under Gregg Williams. They’ve never been the most talented group on D but they found a way to thrive by creating chaos with great energy, opportunistic playmaking, and smart scheming. All of that has been lost under passive-aggressive defensive coach Steve Spagnuolo. I do think Brees will right his own ship, but the softness up front on both sides of the ball is not going to go away. It’s still very early but if the Saints don’t pound the bumbling Chiefs next week in the Superdome, there is a very real chance the Saints completely bottom out. Five of their following six games are against teams that will be in the top 10 of just about every power ranking you’ll find.
$.06--Titans fans have to wonder if this Jake Locker experiment is worth it. A week after an uneven debut against the Patriots, Locker was positively overwhelmed by the Chargers in Week 2, a lopsided 38-10 loss. While Locker wasn’t the only issue, he is certainly the most correctable with Matt Hasselbeck waiting in relief.
The Tennessee offense had absolutely nothing going on, gaining just 10 yards on their first three drives as Locker misfired and Chris Johnson continued to look tentative and soft. They got just eight first downs for the entire game and went 0-8 on third down. Locker consistently struggled to handle even token pressure from the San Diego front, looking skittish and wildly inaccurate with the ball. These are not new developments, and it is disappointing that he has failed to progress further than he has.
Which begs the question, is it worth throwing away 2012 as a developmental year for a quarterback that hasn’t made much progress since he arrived as an overdrafted first round pick a year ago? Matt Hasselbeck is inconsistent but he clearly gives the Titans a better chance to win now. It’s a very difficult balance, made more complicated because there are times where Locker legitimately looks good. But the AFC playoff picture looks to be wide open this year, and the Titans have the horses to seize one of those spots with even solid QB play. Hasselbeck gives them that eight weeks out of 10, while Locker might (might!) give it to them for five. The players are not blind, and it absolutely weighs on them to know they are sacrificing a better shot at winning now for developing a quarterback that might never be the answer. If they lose again next week and Locker is once again hovering around the 50% completion mark and under 6 yards per attempt, it will be very hard for Mike Munchak to not make a change. A resurgence by Chris Johnson would certainly cure a lot of what ails both Locker and the team, but it appears that ship has sailed.
Offensive Player of the Week--Reggie Bush. The Dolphins running back reminded everyone of his (vacated) Heisman career at USC, where he was the most dynamic threat in college football. Bush ran around, over, and past the sloppy Raiders D for 172 yards and two touchdowns. As a side note, his replacement in New Orleans, Darren Sproles, has yet to carry the ball in 2012.
Defensive Player of the Week--Clay Matthews. If you somehow missed Matthews tour de force performance Thursday night against the Bears, do yourself a favor and find a way to watch it. It was as dominating a pass rushing performance as I’ve ever seen, and he did it with more than just speed around the edge.
Special Teams Player of the Week--Malcolm Smith. The Seahawk blocked an early Dallas punt that effectively snuffed out any hope the Cowboys had of coming back. Jeron Johnson recovered the block for an easy touchdown and the game was over almost before it started.
Assistant Coach of the Week--Ray Horton. The Cardinals Defensive Coordinator dialed up the pressure on Tom Brady in New England and it forced one of the worst games of his illustrious career. Horton did a great job of mixing rushes and coverages that kept the Arizona defense a step ahead of the New England offense all day--no easy task.
Unsung Hero--D’Qwell Jackson. The Browns linebacker had three sacks, an interception, and forced a fumble in Cleveland’s loss at Cincinnati. This comes on the heels of a dominating performance against the Eagles in Week One. No linebacker in the league means more to his team.
$.08--5 NFL Quickies
1. During the latter part of the week, Plaxico Burress was on every conceivable media outlet promoting his wares. In a league where much less deserving people (Tanard Jackson, Pacman Jones) get multiple second chances, I find it baffling that Plax can’t get a job. He was decent with the Jets last year and should be in better shape now. One team that could use him: Miami, which needs a big wideout who can help Ryan Tannehill on 3rd downs.
2. At what point will everyone stop hyping Packers TE Jermichael Finley as a great player? I don’t care about his freakish athletic potential anymore, because he has proven time and again it just doesn’t translate into being a great football player. Two more drops and a fumble Thursday night only solidified his status as the most overrated player in the NFL today.
3. 12:34 Central time was a bad minute for tight ends. As Aaron Hernandez was being tended for his injury in New England, Martellus Bennett, Jimmy Graham, and Coby Fleener all dropped touchdown passes and Marcedes Lewis got called for a false start.
4. Texans DE JJ Watt batted down six passes at the line in the first six quarters of the season. I’ve played high-level volleyball with middle blockers that aren’t that proficient. After #5 he followed up with a sack two plays later on a bull rush that would make Reggie White smile. I love Justin Smith in San Francisco, but Watt is on the precipice of being the best 3-4 end in the league.
5. Andrew Luck engineered the first win of his career thanks to a savvy hard count that sucked the Vikings experienced D offsides, putting the Colts into Adam Vinatieri’s range for the game-winning field goal. Because it’s apparently obligatory to link the two, RG3 failed to rally the Redskins to victory in St. Louis thanks to boneheaded Josh Morgan taking the Cortland Finnegan bait and pushing the Skins out of field goal range. Suffice to say I think both teams are still damn happy with their 1-1 rookies.
$.09--5 College/Draft Quickies
1. Once my early favorite to be the #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, I would now strongly advise Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas to stick around Blacksburg for another season. After watching his early games this year, Thomas is an uneven talent that needs more maturity and experience as both a passer and a decision maker. The ceiling remains very high, but the elevator is barely half way up the shaft right now. For the Hokies, losing to the worst Pitt team in my lifetime is inexcusable.
2. Stanford stunned USC by playing some decidedly un-PAC 12 football. The Cardinal kept punching the Trojans in the mouth, something that must have reminded Lane Kiffin of his brief SEC tenure. The primary takeaway from this game is that it’s about time the runaway jury on USC QB Matt Barkley got corralled a bit. I said it last year, I Tweeted it on Saturday and I’ll say it again right here with conviction: If you want a scouting report of Matt Barkley, just cut and paste from Brady Quinn’s scouting reports in 2007. They are the same quarterback and will have similar NFL careers.
3. Spent some time breaking down Western Michigan QB Alex Carder, culminating with their game against Minnesota on Saturday. Carder has a very live arm, good mobility, and great confidence and leadership. At times he makes pinpoint throws, hitting receivers in stride and displaying good touch. But too often he is a half-count late with his delivery and it throws off the accuracy, and he forces some ponderous throws into heavy coverage. I see Carder as a poor man’s Jake Locker with better hair, a late-round prospect at best. The better WMU prospect is RT Dann O’Neill, who has the look of a 5th-6th round draft pick.
4. Bad year to be a Big 10 fan. Notre Dame thumps Michigan State, while Utah State misses a game-ending field goal that would have produced a win at Wisconsin. Indiana lost to MAC chump Ball State for the third time in four years. Iowa has struggled with two different FCS programs, sandwiching a punchless loss to Iowa State. Over half the wins in the conference are over non-BCS programs. I’d like to think this is just the bottom of a down cycle, but there just isn’t a great deal of younger talent that will allow the B1G to rise anytime soon.
5. A week after getting stunned by Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas lost 52-0 at home in the rain to #1 Alabama in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final margin would indicate. Losing future NFL QB (if he can stay healthy) Tyler Wilson certainly ruined any chance for the upset, but the effort under interim joke, err, coach John L Smith was unacceptable. That’s what happens when you sell your soul to the likes of Bobby Petrino. For what it’s worth, ULM nearly upset Auburn this week.
$.10--Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The NHL has locked out its players as of Sunday morning, unable to reach a new agreement to extend or replace the CBA that ended the last lockout just seven years ago.
You might recall that work stoppage wiped out an entire season. Or you might not, because that lockout very nearly eradicated the NHL from the collective sports consciousness. It certainly ended my passion for the sport, a sad terminus for this once-fervent NHL fan. Just when I started to come back, Commissioner Gary Bettman pulls this latest PR disaster.
I’m not a hockey expert, but I can say with confidence that Bettman is the worst commissioner in pro sports. There’s a reason he gets booed unmercifully in every arena, even when he’s giving the Stanley Cup to the victor. Bettman has no clue about public relations. Hockey is a beautiful sport but it has limited national marketing cache. It is incumbent upon Bettman and hockey owners to actively promote the sport and exploit every opportunity to get attention, but they seem hellbent on only generating negative attention.
It’s depressing to me that hockey is failing. Television ratings have crept up thanks to gimmicks like the outdoor games and the best All Star weekend in sports. It is without question the best sport to see in person. But when most people think of the NHL, they think of two things: violence and oddball franchises. The violence is a double-edged sword that predates Bettman’s reign, but the expansion into markets like Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Anaheim was a blatant, short-sighted cash grab by greedy owners looking for the quick expansion fee buck instead of worrying about the long-term impact of paying for all those newly created jobs over time.
I worshipped hockey in the 1990s. If you knew me in college, you know I sported a collection of NHL jerseys (personal favorite: my Joe Sakic blue Nordiques #19) and could tell you the third line defensive pairing of every team. I played Sega Hockey and fantasy hockey so much I nearly failed classes. One of the first things I did after buying my first house was ordering NHL Center Ice, and I attended both NHL and minor league games whenever possible. The sport had marquee stars, strong offensive emphasis, and exciting rivalries. The league understood how to promote all of those.
Now hockey is a mess. The on ice emphasis is sluggish defensive struggles. There are few names anyone not in a local hockey market would recognize. Media attention focuses as much on the gruesome injuries and isolated atrocities, not the graceful speed or awesome action. I can’t name a single New York Islander, but I can tell you the team is dreadful and has woeful attendance. What should be a marquee franchise, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is instead a national punchline in Canada thanks to enabled poor management.
And now this latest lockout, the third in the last 20 years. If the NHL is truly serious about containing costs, here’s a novel concept: shrink the workforce. They need to contract at least 2 franchises, preferably four but feasibly 6. There are not enough legit NHL talents to stock so many rosters, and the fans just aren’t spending their sports dollars on seats and merchandise in markets like Tampa Bay, Raleigh, and Dallas. In a nod to public relations and common sense, they need to replace Bettman as commissioner as part of a settlement. Even then the NHL might not make it back into the “major” sport category outside of Detroit, Montreal, Minnesota, and the Northeast.