$.01--Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the end of the Eagles as we have known them. Their sloppy home loss to the equally sloppy Cowboys will likely be remembered as the final nail in Andy Reid’s coaching coffin for his Philadelphia career. Michael Vick might have very well taken his last snap as Eagles quarterback in this game too, as he was largely ineffective behind a truly awful offensive line before leaving with an injury.
Foles looked like a rookie project in his first appearance. He threw a terrible interception to Anthony Spencer that was taken away thanks to an equally terrible hold by Morris Claiborne, who could legitimately get flagged for holding every time he is in straight man coverage. A few snaps later he threw a pick six to Brandon Carr, ending a season-long drought of turnover production by the porous Dallas defense. A late fumble as he tried escaping the end zone resulted in another Dallas defensive touchdown, and Foles clearly needs to quickly develop a sense of the backside rush. He did do some things well, and like Vick you have to give him credit for doing anything positive behind a line that is missing its best three starters and features four players that almost certainly won’t be back next year. He nicely found Damaris Johnson while scrambling for a late 4th down conversion, and he reliably hit receivers that were open with throws that showed a live arm and good mechanics.
He showed enough that merits a longer look as the potential starter of the future. Vick will not be back next year, so it’s time to find out if Foles can handle the task. If Reid won’t make that switch, and his postgame comments indicate he is not yet ready to do so, then it is incumbent upon ownership to make the change for him.
$.02--Just as the Eagles have crossed the line from playoff longshot to prepping for a top-10 draft pick, so have the New York Jets. The loudest team in the league also fell to 3-6 in a punchless 28-7 loss in Seattle. Unlike the Eagles, who appear to have some talent but unable to properly utilize it because of holes in key spots, what I took away from watching the Jets is that they really lack talent. There was a huge divide in the overall skill level and depth between the Seahawks and the Jets, and it did not favor Rex Ryan’s squad.
New York has the weakest set of skill position players in the NFL. Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow were both prominent among the “most overrated players” list as voted by their peers, and both earned their spots in this one as the Jets offense was held scoreless. Sanchez tossed one of the worst INTs this side of Philip Rivers, while Tebow did nothing (again) in very little field time. Shonn Greene as a runner is a complete product of his blocking; when it’s good he can churn out yards, but he cannot make anyone miss and doesn’t have the skills to create for himself. Jeremy Kerley flashes some playmaking ability, as he did with a beautiful spin on a double move that produced a long gain, but remains wildly inconsistent and undependable with his hands. On a good offense he’s the #4 receiver and playing solely in the slot, but right now he’s the best outside weapon the Jets have.
They also lack playmakers on defense, even though they did score a defensive touchdown in this game. Muhammad Wilkerson scored that touchdown on a fumble return, a rare impact play from the defensive front. They have a solid collection of functional players but nobody that really alters schemes or consistently threatens offenses with sacks or turnovers. Because they are the Rex Ryan Jets we are forced to pay inordinate attention to them, but the plain truth is this team is exactly who the 3-6 record says they are.
$.03--Somewhere in oblivion, Mercury Morris and his insufferable teammates from the 1972 Miami Dolphins are popping champagne corks. They remain the only team to go through an entire regular and postseason undefeated after the Atlanta Falcons lost to New Orleans.
It’s really an amazing accomplishment what those '72 Dolphins did. Of course that was the year of my birth so I can’t speak firsthand, but when no team can make it to double digits this year it speaks to the remarkability of what they did. Atlanta was the last this year and they made it to 8-0 by the skin of their teeth, with nail-biting wins over the Redskins and Raiders, not exactly the force majeure of the NFL. The luck ran out in New Orleans when Matt Ryan couldn’t get the ball in the end zone on four tries from inside the five, the last pass batted away as Ryan leapt off his back foot to avoid pressure that wasn’t all that ominous.
With the Saints suddenly heating up and the Buccaneers continuing to roll, Atlanta had better not get comfortable even at 8-1 and with a three-game lead in the NFC South. They desperately need to secure home field advantage for the playoffs, and they still have to play Tampa Bay twice and square off with these explosive Saints again. With the top of the NFC really jumbled with the San Francisco tie and both Green Bay and Chicago built to last, the Falcons must take care of business next week against fading Arizona. To do that they will need to get more from their front lines, both of which are alarmingly soft for a playoff contender. It cost them their undefeated season in New Orleans.
$.04--In increasingly inclement weather, Houston and Chicago squared off Sunday night in the marquee matchup of the weekend. It turned out to be one of the lamest, thanks to a series of turnovers and the inability for anyone to get sound footing on the Soldier Field turf. Houston prevailed 13-6 thanks to strong running from Arian Foster, who was able to gash the Bears for over 100 yards and was always falling forward.
For all the hubbub surrounding a legitimate potential Super Bowl preview, there is very little to take away from the game. Jay Cutler left the game at halftime with a concussion, and as long as it’s not a long-term issue the Bears will be fine. Cutler was not sharp while in the game, but neither was Texans counterpart Matt Schaub. The teams combined for less than 500 yards of offense, as receivers were slip sliding away and cutting sharply was impossible. It’s really a downer because this should have been a great game. I expected a defensive struggle, but not the utter inability of either offense to do much of anything.
The best storyline here was the Texans beating the Bears at the turnover game. Everyone knows the Bears are exceptional at extricating the ball from the opposing offense, but the Texans doubled up the Bears in takeaways. A vicious hit by former Bear Danieal Manning on Chicago’s first drive set the tone, rocking the ball away from Kellen Davis and setting up the Texans for an early field goal. It was fun to watch the defenses go at one another and after the ball with such aggression, if only the offenses had been threatening enough to produce more opportunities.
It’s worth noting that Cutler went down about this time last year, and the Caleb Hanie experiment sent the Bears from playoff front-runner to incompetent mess overnight. This is why Chicago went out and got Jason Campbell and it’s why I buy flood insurance: when the unthinkable happens, it’s better to have something that gives you proven results instead of just blindly hoping for the best. Cutler should be fine, and so will the Bears.
$.05--Cam Newton and Von Miller were the first two picks in the 2011 NFL Draft. Newton was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, while Miller captured the Defensive honor. Sunday saw Newton’s Panthers hosting Miller’s Broncos.
Miller dominated the individual battle, while the Broncos blitzkrieg rolled over Carolina. The signature play was Miller stoning Newton in the backfield on 4th & 1 as he swooped in unblocked off the edge and flattened the giant quarterback. Miller was phenomenal, leading an outstanding defensive effort by Denver that completely overwhelmed the inadequate Panthers line and turned Newton into an oversized tackling dummy. It was one of the most impressive individual performances by a defender you’ll see all year, and it was made better by the fact he got some help from his friends. Safety Mike Adams recorded a safety by sacking Newton in the end zone with Miller closing in quickly.
That score made it 29-7 Broncos early in the fourth, and they accomplished that despite having just one offensive touchdown, an early TD throw from Peyton Manning to Brandon Stokley. A punt return TD from tiny Trindon Holliday, a pick six from Tony Carter, and a couple of Matt Prater field goals provided that cushion. The Denver defense didn’t allow a single third down conversion. This is proof that the Broncos have a lot more to offer than just Manning. Not that Peyton had a bad day: 27-for-38, 301 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. Still, cruising to an easy road victory without needing Manning to be special has to really build the confidence in Denver.
On the other sideline, Panthers coach Ron Rivera had the forlorn, resigned look of a man who knows he is not long for his job. His prized asset Newton continues to struggle a whole lot more than he should, and right or wrong that falls on Rivera. Empty seats equal coaching vacancies, and some of the crowd shots I saw from Charlotte had no more than 50% of the seats filled after halftime.
$.06--The Colts pummeled the host Jaguars 27-10 in the Thursday night affair in a game that strained the viewing loyalty of even the most devoted NFL fans. Andrew Luck continued to build upon his sterling reputation, running for two more touchdowns and completing 18-of-26 for 227 yards. He did not throw a touchdown and did turn the ball over twice, showing he is human and not quite as ready for deification as the hyperbolic heads at ESPN would have you believe. But the presence, the touch, and the ability to create when his initial read (which he still stares down far too often) isn’t there all belie his rookie status and merit a lot of respect. Luck is at his best in pressure situations like 3rd down or facing an unblocked rusher, an attribute that cannot be coached.
For all the absurd amount of love Andrew Luck gets, the Colts defense is the bigger story to me. They are switching from a speed-based 4-3 to a power-based 3-4 and changing the coverage behind the front from almost entirely Cover 2 and Cover 3 to a variety of man techniques and more intricate zones. They played this game without both regular starting corners, Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers. That left them with starting corners and defensive ends wouldn't start for almost any other team with more than 2 wins. It’s always a difficult process to change defensive schemes because so many players are rendered misfits by the change, but the Colts are making the transition much better than expected. They're doing this with the architect of the defense, Head Coach Chuck Pagano in the hospital for leukemia treatments. It's not a great defense, don't get me wrong, but it should be a terrible defense and it's far better than that.
Offense: Adrian Peterson. The Vikings RB was held in check for the first three quarters before exploding on the Lions. Just after the Lions closed the gap to a touchdown, Peterson took over. Two carries, 75 yards, touchdown, game over. Just for good measure he ripped off 21 yards on the first play of the next drive. That’s how you finish an opponent! Andy Dalton’s 4 TDs were tough to beat, but AD trumped it.
Defense: Von Miller. See $.05. 6 tackles, one sack, one TFL, one forced fumble but the numbers only begin to illustrate his dominating performance. Adam Jones gets a deserved mention for the best game he’s played in years for the Bengals.
Special Teams: Sam Koch. The Ravens punter scored a touchdown, and that automatically merits at least a tie for this award. He scooted through the line on a beautifully executed fake that put the Ravens up 48-17. The play was identical to a Koch 2-pt conversion against the Steelers last year, also in a game that was already handily decided. To quote a tweet from a buddy of mine (Hi Chris!), “Them Harbaugh boys ain’t much for winning with class is they”. Sadly the author of that tweet has a Master’s degree in Earth Science from Duke…
Assistant Coach: Jerry Gray. The Titans Defensive Coordinator stressed pressure and takeaways leading up to the game with Miami, and his troops responded. The Titans got four turnovers, two sacks with numerous QB hits, allowed just 4 runs for more than 3 yards, and notched the first time all year they blanked an opponent in the first quarter. Last week they gave up 51 and looked lost. Nice turnaround, coach!
$.08--5 NFL Quickies
1. Loved the Sam Koch TD run in Baltimore’s evisceration of hapless Oakland. Koch is the Ravens punter, and I’d like to give the Ravens more credit for the pounding, but to me the game was much more about how awful Oakland was than anything Baltimore did. Wow.
2. Tim Ryan continues to befuddle as an analyst. After the Rams had already converted two fake punts in the game and were preparing to field a kick, Ryan uttered “The Niners have great special teams all year, except they really struggle covering kicks for some reason.” Meanwhile David Akers is having a terrible year kicking field goals. Are you watching the game you’re calling there, Tim?
3. I’d like to say more about the Bengals crushing the Giants, but somehow DirecTV decided that was my local game…here in Houston? It was blacked out on both the Game Mix and the Sunday Ticket and I didn’t see a single snap of live action even though that wasn’t the game on either the local Fox or CBS affiliates. Fret not, Giants fans, you’ve ridden this roller coaster before. Eli will get back to being very good in time for the playoffs, and you’ll make those playoffs by winning the pathetic NFC East with 8 wins as long as one of those wins is Dallas.
4. Quote of the week comes courtesy of Seahawks WR Sidney Rice, who caught a touchdown pass from fellow WR Golden Tate on a gadget play. “His throwing motion was the worst. I thought we traded for Tebow for a second.” The fact it came against Tebow’s Jets makes it even more awesome. Rice is quietly putting together a very nice run here, and the better he is the more dangerous Seattle becomes approaching the playoffs.
5. I was impressed with Colin Kaepernick in relief of the concussed Alex Smith (who also played well) for San Francisco. Although the game wound up a tie, I thought Kaepernick made good decisions and showed the great arm that led me to rate him the #2 QB in the 2011 Draft behind only Cam Newton. Kudos to the Niners for keeping Smith and doing Kaepernick right by bringing him along slowly, which is far easier said than done these days.
$.09--5 College/Draft Quickies
1. I picked one of the top two teams in the nation to lose this weekend. Alas, I picked Kansas State to lose at TCU, not Alabama to lose in Tuscaloosa to Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel firmly inserted himself into the Heisman conversation as a freshman in directing the stunning upset for the Aggies, who were the faster and better-coached team in this game. Alabama can still salvage a trip to the BCS title game with the loss, but they’re going to need either Notre Dame or Kansas State to lose. And you can kiss AJ McCarron’s Heisman hopes goodbye.
2. University of Houston senior corner DJ Hayden was a rising star in draft circles, a great athlete with good length and very good ball skills. On Tuesday morning I wrote a scouting report on Hayden where I gave him a 3rd round grade with the chance to outplay that at the next level. So imagine my shock and horror when the news broke about 6 hours later that Hayden nearly died on the practice field in a violent collision. The impact tore the interior vena cava, an injury common to car crash victims and one that a local surgeon interviewed by one of the local TV stations said is fatal within 10 minutes 95% of the time. Hayden remains hospitalized and his football career is secondary to staying alive. Get well DJ!
3. The D-III playoffs will start this week and as my friend Jeff Duncan pointed out, Wisconsin Whitewater will not be in it for the first time in what seems like forever. Three-time defending champ WW and Mount Union have played in the Stagg Bowl every year since 2005, with the Warhawks winning four titles to the Purple Raiders’ three. I’m rooting for Franklin College, where I lived in the mid-80s, but I’m predicting a Mount Union/Linfield final, with Mary Hardin Baylor in the mix as well.
4. Senior Bowl invites are starting to leak out, and one confirmed participant will be BYU DE Ezekiel Ansah. Quick scouting report: Very raw but incredibly athletic. BYU plays him all over the front (including NT!) but at 6’6” and about 270 he’s a natural 4-3 DE. Uses his arms and hands very naturally, still needs lots of technical cleanup and better footwork. Good nose for the ball. Can win with speed or power but doesn’t really have moves yet. Naturally draws comparisons to Jason Pierre Paul but I think Ansah isn’t quite as quick or powerful in the lower body. He will be a first round pick with his tantalizing potential.
5. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson continues to mystify my scouting eye with wildly dramatic swings within games. He has a great arm and when he keeps his mechanics sound he is the best natural thrower in this draft class regardless of who comes out. The ability to stand tall and rifle perfect strikes all over the field are reminiscent of Matt Stafford at his best, but like Stafford, Wilson often inexplicably gets lazy and struggles for no reason. In the loss to South Carolina, Wilson threw a terrible INT to DJ Swearinger and held onto the ball too long several times. But he also threw some passes that make scouts salivate. He’s my #2 QB behind Geno Smith but is a big boom/bust risk.
$.10--The Los Angeles Lakers fired Head Coach Mike Brown this week after sputtering to a 1-4 start. It was only Brown’s second year with the Lakers, and the first year ended in disappointment. For the Lakers, not winning the Western Conference is considered a major disappointment. But Brown’s cardinal sin was running an offensive system that did not play to the strengths of the two prominent offseason additions, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Lakers owner Jerry Buss had seen enough and pulled the trigger on Brown.
Many people were taken aback by the suddenness of the move. Were five games really enough to know it was not going to improve? For Buss and a teeming throng of Lakers fans, it was more than enough. It was more than enough for me as well.
I wish more NFL teams would quickly pull the plug on coaches that are obviously not up to the task. That sounds hypocritical because I also staunchly advocate stability, but stability forged by fear of change is franchise paralysis. The plain fact is that sometimes the players and coaches are not compatible, or the coach is clearly out of his league. I use Rod Marinelli and the Lions as an example. Marinelli is an exceptional defensive line coach and an above-average defensive coordinator, but he was hopeless as a head coach. Sure he didn’t have a lot of talent to work with (thanks Matt Millen!), but after about 6 games it was pretty clear that Marinelli was just not head coaching material. The same is true of Norv Turner in San Diego, who somehow remains employed as a head coach to the utter mystification of, well, everyone.
I admire when an organization takes corrective measures in-season to address issues. Andy Reid was right to fire Juan Castillo as the Eagles Defensive Coordinator a couple weeks ago, though it was Reid’s own fault for moving him into that position in the first place. I thought Reid deserved to finish the season until it was clear the game plans aren’t working and the players aren’t listening.
Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville has the same issue, and owner Shahid Khan would be justified in ending the failed experiment before it gets any worse. It would send a signal to the dwindling, unenthusiastic fan base that he cares and that he sees what they know already. Mularkey’s failure is not all his doing; similar to Marinelli in Detroit, he has been greatly hampered by the lousy job of his GM. Khan would be wise to fire him as well, as Jerry Richardson did with Marty Hurney in Carolina. Lame duck regimes are never a positive situation, be it football or Congress or corporate takeover.
The Lakers may or may not achieve their lofty goals this season, but they definitely were not going to achieve them with Mike Brown as their coach. It’s the cold reality of the business, but coaches know that going in. The NFL coaches know that too; remember that when people like me call for their heads.