By Jeff Risdon
$.01--If the theme of the week was rookie quarterbacks making starts, then the top story has to be Robert Griffin III leading the Redskins to the highly improbable road win in New Orleans. Griffin was masterful in executing Mike Shanahan’s offense, slicing and dicing a very dicey Saints defense for 320 passing yards, another 42 on the ground, and the highest QB rating of any thrower all week. The early 88-yard catch and run by Pierre Garcon deflated the Superdome crowd and the pervasively savvy Skins defense never let the balloon refill.
But the story here is RG3. Washington pushed everything they have into the kitty on Griffin, banking on RG3 producing precisely this sort of magic right away. Washington is a peculiar sports town, one that is prone to wildly overreacting to every little negative and casting away hope at the first sign of despair. So for Griffin to do so well under such scrutiny was not only a blessing, it was darn near an imperative. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the Redskins haven’t had even an average QB since Joe Theismann’s leg got snapped in half some 25 years ago. My friend Rafael, who is too young to remember Theismann, summed it up nicely when I asked him about midway through the second quarter how he felt: “already running around the house with my pants off”. That’s the kind of gleeful hope which Daniel Snyder has been futilely attempting to buy for years now. So many ties the Skins tried to win the offseason but failed miserably once the games started to count. It’s only one game, but it sure seems like my man Raffy might need to invest in some fashionable underwear. Griffin looks like the real deal, worth every bit of the steep trade price to get him. Getting the win is almost a bonus, because I think Skins fans would have taken RG3 looking half this good and the team losing the game.
$.02--On the other end of the spectrum, I give you Brandon Weeden. Despite a truly heroic effort by the Browns defense, their aged rookie quarterback produced a QB rating of 5.1 and embarrassingly cost the home team the stunning upset. Weeden was 12-for-35 for 118 yards, got sacked twice and tossed four interceptions. His biggest gain was his own 25-yard run, and the Browns offered a 35-yard double reverse by rookie Travis Benjamin as their only real effective play all afternoon. Weeden looked overwhelmed by the speed of both the pass rush and defensive backs.
In college, Weeden thrived on getting to his spot and throwing to another spot. He learned very quickly that in the NFL, defenses make quarterbacks move from the spot and throw to a different spot than anticipated on almost every dropback. Philly’s relentless pass rush only exacerbated the issue for Weeden. I found it very appropriate that the new Clint Eastwood movie “Trouble with the Curve” (which looks awful by the way) was heavily advertised during the game, because Weeden, a former minor leaguer, clearly struggled with the defensive curveballs thrown at him by Eagles DC Juan Castillo.
It’s only one game (keep repeating that mantra), but the cat is clearly out of the bag. Just as Tommy Kelly so eloquently summed up Kevin Kolb’s skittishness this preseason, Weeden too plays a little scared. I’m not questioning his toughness per se, but more questioning his frame of mind; he had the look of someone who didn’t believe he could succeed against the Philly defense after the first couple of drives. That’s a very scary development for Browns fans, many of whom were openly coveting a return of Colt McCoy. Weeden was indeed that bad.
$.03--The other prevailing theme I took away from Sunday was that this might be the Year of the Interception. Six QBs threw at least three of them, and that was just in the early games. Weeden, Ryan Tannehill for Miami, and Andrew Luck for Indy all had the excuse of being rookies; it’s obviously not good but they get a little slack for making their debuts. Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, Michael Vick in Philly, and Matt Stafford get no such pass, however.
Stafford redeemed himself for a very uninspiring day by engineering a masterful game-winning drive against a retooled Rams defense that is going to challenge for the lead league in takeaways (you read that here first!). Vick did the same, somehow overcoming Andy Reid’s bizarre reliance on a clearly faltering passing game and an incredibly game and physical Browns defense that harangued him all day. It’s rare that a quarterback can throw four interceptions and win, but Vick did just that. Of course the QB on the other side (Weeden) threw four too.
The one that should scare its fan base the most is Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo Bills. While the Jets defense has the potential to be very good, Fitzpatrick made it look awful easy for them. The Jets picked him off on Buffalo’s first two drives and never looked back. It was 41-7 Jets before Fitzpatrick started playing like a legit NFL quarterback, when New York was more concerned with getting the game over than worrying about playing defense. Fitzpatrick was unwilling to attack the Jets down the field, consistently throwing underneath routes and dink and dunk short plays. The pressure wasn’t overbearing either, as Fitzpatrick was not sacked and got hit just twice in the first half. The Jets simply knew what Fitzpatrick wanted to do and took it away, fronting receivers and getting into passing lanes.
Unfortunately for the Bills, their defense was even worse. The heavily maligned Jets offense, a national preseason punchline, hung one touchdown each quarter on the punchless Bills D. They also ran back an INT and a punt for touchdowns, erupting for 48 points. That was higher than the over/under for both teams and the high water mark for the Rex Ryan era. The vaunted Bills defensive line did not touch The Sanchize all day, as the unofficial early tally had the Bills D for zero sacks and a single QB hit. Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus each missed as many tackles (1 apiece) as they made. The secondary made raw rookie Stephen Hill look like Jerry Rice as a route runner. The linebackers were solid at run support but consistently failed to drop deep enough to stop Sanchez from peppering the D. They seemed preoccupied with Tebowmania, which they handled quite well, but unready to play the rest of the Jets. When the Jets humdrum offense goes 8-for-12 on third down, imagine what the Patriots or Texans will do to this Bills unit. It will be real interesting to see how Buffalo responds next week, because expectations were so high for the Bills and they were seemingly catching the Jets at the best possible time.
$.04--Dallas upset the defending champs in the Wednesday night opener, largely thanks to outstanding play from Tony Romo. The Cowboys offense looked in fine form, none more than the oft-beleaguered Romo, who niftily dodged heavy pressure and delivered strikes down the field. He took advantage of a Giants secondary missing both intended starting corners by smartly attacking even lower on the depth chart, liberally utilizing heretofore anonymous #3 receiver Kevin Ogletree. No Laurent Robinson, no problem. Ogletree continually got himself open and demonstrated he can catch throws away from his body, positing himself as perhaps this season’s Victor Cruz, an unexpected breath of receiving fresh air that becomes a significant contributor. Romo showed great confidence in the unproven Ogletree and great poise in his own right. One of the most impressive facets was how Romo handled his one ugly interception. He didn’t compound the error even after a false start ruined the next drive almost before it started. The following drive he led the Cowboys to a touchdown with a couple of nice strikes to Dez Bryant and the capper on a great throw to a wide open Ogletree in the end zone.
Speaking of Victor Cruz, he had a night to forget. Three ugly drops scuttled offensive momentum and took the wind out of the crowd. With their inability once again to run the ball effectively and with Hakeem Nicks clearly limited with a broken foot, the Giants sorely needed Cruz to be the dynamic threat he was so often a year ago. While he did pull down six catches, the Cowboys effectively bottled him up for just 58 yards. Solid play by new starting safety Barry Church and a decent debut from prized first round corner Morris Claiborne helped. The beast that is Demarcus Ware terrorizing the Giants line for two sacks and several hurries helped. A quietly strong game from Anthony Spencer on the other side helped, as did an impressive showing from Sean Lee and Bruce Carter inside (Keith & Bradie who?). This is exactly the kind of start the Cowboys, whose schedule is front-loaded with difficult teams, needed to prove to themselves they are a team to be reckoned with.
$.05--The 49ers knocked off the Packers in Green Bay in the game that was the biggest surprise of the NFL weekend to me. It’s not so much that I doubted San Francisco--though I certainly did--but I was once again puzzled by how flat and ineffective Green Bay was for the third time in their last four games. Green Bay has the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers and an armada of strong passing weapons, but the offense only sporadically looked in sync. Rodgers made more ill-advised throws in this game than I can recall all of last season.
The Packers issues go beyond Rodgers apparently not being God-like anymore. Ten penalties are what I expect from Detroit, not Green Bay, and the replacement officials could have legitimately thrown several more for defensive holding. They didn’t even try to run the ball, though running a back like Ced Benson against the defensive front of San Francisco is probably an exercise in futility anyways. The patient Niners defensive back seven had a great understanding of the Packers route concepts, basically eliminating yards after the catch and making the throwing windows a lot tighter than Rodgers is used to looking through.
Alex Smith had no such problem with dirty windows. I’m trying to decide whether the Packers defense is still that awful or if Smith is really that sharp; I’m leaning towards “both” at this point, which more credit to Smith than I expected. Smith withstood four sacks to precisely dissect an incredibly porous Packers back eight, which is completely lost in coverage beyond five yards. The Niners offensive line consistently won the battles up front, giving Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter nice running lanes and letting Smith see the field cleanly. Smith completed 20-for-26, and 16 of those completions travelled between 10 and 15 yards through the air. It’s not death by paper cut, but it’s equally demoralizing for a defense to get gashed so frequently, so easily. Give credit to coach Jim Harbaugh for knowing exactly what Packers DC Dom Capers was going to give him, and credit Smith for effectively taking it.
I’ve been more than a little worried that the Niners are going to fall back this year. Surely they cannot sustain a +28 turnover margin like they had last year. Surely opposing defenses will get savvy to Smith’s improvement, a development of which I’m still skeptical. Surely that defense cannot sustain that kind of pressure, even as talented as they are. But for the first week the Niners kept the snowball rolling down the mountain, burying the mighty Packers in their path, in Green Bay no less. Color me impressed.
Offensive player of the week goes to the combination of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, who symbiotically laid waste to Kansas City as part of Atlanta’s mighty impressive new up-tempo offense. I’m not going to say they’ve turned a corner, but the suspension and tires on the car going around that corner look good.
Defensive player of the week goes to Bears corner Tim Jennings, who picked off Andrew Luck twice and made plays on four other balls while allowing just three completions. He also made a couple of nice tackles as the Bears rolled the Colts.
Special teams player of the week goes to David Akers. Kicking a record-tying 63-yard field goal automatically wins this award, but doing it by banking it off the crossbar in such dramatic fashion is some tasty icing on the cake.
Assistant coach of the week is Browns DC Dick Jauron. He schemed his butt off and made Michael Vick look terrible. He put several inexperienced players in great position to succeed and coaxed dominating perforamnces from D’Qwell Jackson and Athyba Rubin. Not his fault the team fell short.
$.07--The Saints got humbled by Washington, but the week was not a total loss. An appeals panel ruled that Commissioner Roger Goodell overstepped his authority by suspending Jon Vilma et al for Bountygate. The panel was quite clear that they did not believe the NFL presented evidence that there was a clear intent to injure on the part of the Saints players, a crushing blow to the credibility of Goodell and the league and a rebuke of the iron-fisted power that Goodell has proudly wielded over the players.
The players’ return meant very little on the field. Only Will Smith played, as Vilma is still nursing bad knees, Anthon Hargrove got cut from the Packers, and Scott Fujita remained on the Browns exempted list. But to the NFLPA, this victory is the brightest plume in the cap they’ve pulled off since Gene Upshaw passed away. While the panel sent the suspensions back to Goodell for review, he’s a damned fool if he upholds the suspensions or tinkers with the semantics to suspend them once again. That would be a vulgar display of power that would make Vlad Putin blush. Perhaps this will soften Goodell, who is not deaf to his critics and will finally realize that his zealous efforts to protect the shield are quickly becoming counter-productive.
$.08--5 NFL Quickies:
1. The Chiefs have given up at least 40 points in Week 1 two years in a row, both at home. As much as I like the supporting cast, and as well as Atlanta played, the Chiefs are only going to be as good as Matt Cassel. And once again Cassel looks no better than a 6-10 QB.
2. Tampa Bay failed to sell out their home opener against the exciting Cam Newton and the Panthers. This happened despite a new coaching regime that has busted its butt to generate optimism and restore professionalism and pride into the team. If they can’t sell out the next home game after this impressive win, they might as well move to London or Los Angeles next year.
3. I’m not a fantasy football guy, but I still do participate in weekly salary cap games. And I can tell you without hesitation that my starting defense every week will be whomever the Rams are playing. That offensive line is terrible, and fragile Sam Bradford is backed up by UDFA rookie Austin Davis, who went undrafted for a variety of good reasons. The only alternate consideration is when the Rams play the Cardinals, who have some serious QB and OL issues of their own.
4. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that Sunday I was pretty harsh on the Rams. But I saw a couple of very real positives. First, the secondary can flat out cover. It helps that they have a strong pair of bookend pass rushers, but Finnegan & Co. looked great in man coverage. Second, rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein has the leg and talent to challenge Jason Hanson’s record of career field goals longer than 50 yards.
5. Another rookie kicker, Blair Walsh, was the hero for the Vikings in their overtime win over Jacksonville. He kicked a 55-yarder as time expired to send the game to overtime, then booted the game winner in overtime. It was really strange to see the game not end after Walsh’s kick, but the new rules dictate that Jacksonville get a chance to answer. Nice win for the Vikings, a team I predicted will get off to an unexpectedly strong start.
$.09--5 College/Draft Quickies
1. Watched Star Lotulelei of Utah in his matchup against rival Utah State. The senior defensive tackle/end is highly touted, and he showed why…at times. His club move strikes fear in baby seals everywhere, and he has great burst upon disengaging from the block. He drew three penalties and was held on at least 10 other snaps. Star has great power, a strong base, and wraps his arms like pythons around his prey. But several times he popped straight up, and he got pushed backwards more than a few times by a double team. I wanted to see more domination but he’s got plenty more opportunities to show it.
2. Mississippi State CB Johnthan Banks (yes spellchecker, that’s his name!) had himself a game against Auburn. Banks made two interceptions, one of which showed great athleticism and ability to read a receiver. With his length and polished footwork it’s hard to see Banks being anything other than a 1st round pick next April.
3. Virginia stunned Penn State thanks to the PSU freshman walk on kicker missing four of five field goals and an extra point. The scholarship kicker took his talents to Texas. Mike London’s Cavaliers team played lousy most of the day, but the negative karma clouding over Penn State proved enough to carry the Hoos to a miracle win. I genuinely feel awful for the kicker, because it’s not his fault the school willingly enabled a child predator to terrorize young men for a decade, but I have to say it made me feel great to see Penn State’s soul crushed. Sorry, I’m not bigger than that.
4. Proving that the karma police range to the south as well, Arkansas was absolutely shocked by Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock. Warhawk QB Kolton Browning carved up the Razorbacks D, while ULM knocked Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson out of the game with a concussion after several big hits. The school that sold its football soul to the lecherous Bobby Petrino got caught looking ahead to Alabama next week, and Petrino’s half-baked fill-in, John L. Smith, proved once again why Michigan State fans laughed hysterically at his promotion to coach.
5. Ohio University set an attendance record as 25,893 Bobcat faithful packed Peden Stadium to watch the undefeated home team spank New Mexico State 51-24. Frank Solich has the Bobcats as the only undefeated team in the MAC behind a balanced offense and a hard-hitting defense. I’m not sure that many fans stuck around after the halftime Marching 110 shows during my 6 falls in Athens. It’s great to see the rise of a truly dreadful program, makes this alum very proud.
$.10--Art Modell passed away Wednesday night, producing an outpouring of very divergent reactions. As a Cleveland native with hundreds of Browns fans in my family and friends circle, it has been very difficult for me to bridge those two sides. I’m a little privileged, and cursed, that I know more of the story behind Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore than most do, and it has led me to simultaneously defend Modell against some but speak out against him to others. Honestly I could produce a Master’s thesis on the decision to move; I actually started one once during a brief late 90s foray into graduate school on the subject of the viability of competitive leagues and how current NFL teams were valued. The abridged version reads something like this…
Modell had long been struggling with keeping up with the Joneses in terms of creating revenue and building value in his franchise. One particular Jones, Jerry the Cowboys owner, radically changed the playing field with innovative visions and creative revenue sourcing that left old school operators like Modell in the dust. The Browns were saddled with a dilapidated, antiquated stadium from the 1930s that had no luxury boxes, club seats, or running water in the offices. It didn’t help that Modell had no business outside the Browns; his entire personal financial balance sheet was the Cleveland Browns, making him the only owner with no other way to supplement his team.
Modell quietly tried for years behind the scenes to get Cleveland to cooperate on a new stadium. Local politicians never really took his growing pleas seriously. It came to a head when the Gateway complex came to be a reality. New stadiums for the Indians and Cavaliers in a downtown setting closer to where people wanted to spend time quite literally saved both of those franchises from relocating. But there wasn’t enough left over (understatement extraordinaire) to do anything for the Browns. Some of it was that then-mayor Mike White didn’t take Modell’s cries seriously. Some of it was Modell’s rather puzzling inability to make a profit from a franchise in a league skyrocketing in value with a rabid, vast fan base. Some of it was a general but pervasive denial that Modell would actually move the team. Some of it was some truly terrible timing and decisions on Modell’s part, from cutting ties with beloved local icon Bernie Kosar to a renaissance by the Indians and the downtown area in general that made fans extremely skeptical that Modell was losing money. If the Indians survived drawing 8,000 a night, and sometimes not even that many, in old Cleveland Stadium, how could Modell possibly lose money when the Browns filled the stadium 10 times a year with 80,000 and his lease cost exactly $1 a year? Local civic leaders and fans refused to accept that, while Modell saw fellow owners in other cities making big dollars he had no chance of matching.
As the late Cleveland sports authority Hal Lebovitz once told me, Modell felt as if his bluff was called and even though he knew he held the winning hand he still wanted to fold. But he couldn’t give up owning the franchise, the family business, and Baltimore was offering too much. If Modell was to remain in charge of something he loved so dearly, relocation was the only option. That wasn’t entirely his fault but he bore culpability. So did his son David and his $10K a month cigar tab, among other ostentatious accoutrement. The irony that Modell still had to sell the franchise relatively soon after moving, even with a sweetheart deal, says a lot about Modell’s business acumen. It’s an unfortunate byline that is grossly overplayed in Cleveland and underplayed everywhere else. It’s acknowledged that moving the team crushed Art Modell, but still having to sell it stung him deeply as well. For as visionary as Modell was for the NFL as a whole--volunteering for Monday Night Football, moving to the AFC, fiercely defending revenue sharing--he couldn’t capably run his own franchise.
That’s a good allegory for Modell. As much as so many have heaped (deserved) praise upon him, many will (deservedly) remember him as a hypocritical pariah. I’ll admit to flipping the bird every time I drove by his old estate on SOM Center Road. I’ll admit that he belongs in the Hall of Fame for all he did for the league. Art Modell will forever be remembered very differently by different people, dependent upon locale and perspective. I cannot separate the Clevelander in me from the NFL fan in me, and it makes Modell’s passing a very difficult reconciliation for me.
$.11--A Coda for 9-11
9/11 means a lot of things to a lot of people. I think it means something a little different to me than most.
Sept. 11, 2001 was my second day on the job of teaching 7th grade social studies in Petersburg, Virginia. I had just left a very decent job that I enjoyed for many years in some vain attempt to reboot my life and put my college degree to use. I was underprepared and still feeling my way around the classroom when another teacher rushed in and turned my TV on during 3rd period. We only got three channels but they were all the same pictures that day.
My initial reaction was absolute horror. My old job required extensive travel for me and many that I knew well, and my thoughts immediately went to them in hopes they were all safe. Then the second building collapsed and I could not fight the tears. Honestly, I wasn't paying too much attention to the kids, but most of them were transfixed as well. Sadly their reaction is what I remember most about 9/11 and why my remembrance of this day is not the typical "Rah Rah America!" or quiet reflection.
Those arrogant, vapid little bastards stole that sentiment from me.
A little background on Petersburg and the school...
It's a very old, urban, gang-infested, almost entirely African-American city of about 50,000 just south of where I lived in Richmond. Every kid got a free lunch--and breakfast--at Peabody Middle School. Of the 34 (yes 34!) kids in my homeroom, two had both parents living at home. Unemployment in the booming late 90s/early 00s was over 15%. Over a quarter of my students lived in public housing. It's the sort of place where if you haven't been there before, you don't stop for red lights and try to get out before anyone sees you. I was one of three white people in the building, and for many of these kids I was the first white person they'd ever actually talked to. I say that with no racist implications other than to help illustrate the extreme insularity of the community. Almost none of my students had ever left the immediate area. Washington DC and Virginia Beach were each 90 minutes away but I would venture that only 10% had ever been to either place. Dropout rates were higher than graduation rates. My 7th period class featured 5 "kids" who were all at least 16 and still in the 7th grade, only in school because of court mandate. It’s a place most Americans try to ignore even exists, even though there is a rich history and strong sense of community pride that I wish more of America had.
Back to 9/11...
Some of the kids showed genuine concern. That region of the country is full of military bases and personnel, and many of these kids had family that was in the military, and those kids mostly were scared. But two reactions in particular are what stick in my craw.
One young girl's immediate reaction was, "They better not be closing no mall because of some sh** be going down in New York". I tried to ignore it, chalking it up to youthful immaturity and being insulated from the outside world--not uncommon traits for 7th graders. Except she wouldn't shut up about it and how her day was going to be ruined if she couldn't get her nails done at some place in the mall and none of this mattered to her anyways because she wasn't ever going to NYC or Washington.
The other reaction came from a group of boys, who were yelling at the TV to show the shots of people jumping from the burning buildings, but they really wanted to see the bodies hit the ground. Here are innocent people killing themselves rather than face the horror of being burned alive, and these kids wanted to watch the actual brutal finale. They too wouldn't cease, despite my obvious anger and the pleas of some classmates.
We wound up not changing classes at the bell, so I was with these kids from 9:30 until lunchtime, which was 11:15. I couldn't look away from the screen but I kept trying to convert what was playing out into some sense-worthy lesson for these young people. A few of the kids were asking sharp, honest, thoughtful questions and I tried my best to proverbially hold their hands and try to explain what was happening and why. But the majority of the room gave up on watching after about 20-30 minutes, going back to arguing over which rapper was cuter or gossiping about other students or, astonishingly, mocking the kids who cared about what was happening. I was in angry disbelief; it took a whole lot of control to not go over and slap one girl in particular, who was openly goading a young boy whose Dad worked at the Pentagon. "Daddy ain't coming home Demarrio!". And other than a couple of his friends, the other kids took her side. I took him to a neighboring classroom, where I found half the kids playing dice while the teacher was on the phone trying to reach her sister, who worked in NYC.
Eventually we divvied up the kids. Two of the five teachers in our sector took the kids that wanted to watch the events unfolding and learn about it, while the other three essentially babysat the ones who didn't care. Think about that--more than half these kids couldn't care less about our country being attacked, about someone flying a plane into a building not 100 miles away with the purpose of causing war and killing innocent people.
I'm very thankful I got one of the rooms with the kids that cared, and I still try to remember those young people and their compassion, fear, and maturity. Many prayed. Most cried. It was somber, inquisitive, and heart-warming. These were kids that could have been from ritzy, Ivy-sponsored prep academies with their insight, mature reactions, and compassion towards me and their fellow students. I really try and remember that, but...
My lasting memories of 9/11 are the kids in the other rooms. And they infuriate me. They also make me more keenly aware of why we were attacked in the first place. So much of America was so arrogant, so flippant, so obnoxious about our place and power in the world. We flaunted our wealth, taunted those who didn't share our materialism or good fortune. We exported our lavish, violent, immoral culture all over the world and steadfastly refused to respect other cultures or the negative ramifications for our incessant chest-thumping. 9/11 doesn't make me patriotic but rather makes me wonder if our country has learned anything from it. I'm reminded of the fall of so many older empires, drunk on their own greatness and oblivious to the current rising swiftly against them. I think of those kids in the other rooms, callous and apathetic towards everything around them. I'm a big believer in the laws of karma, that how you treat others and how you present yourself will come back to you, and I'm reminded of how awfully negative America's karmic balance with the rest of the world remains today. We're still an obnoxiously wealthy, hedonistic, hypocritical, xenophobic nation full of myopic reactionary zeal instead of pensive forethought.
Most people see 9/11 as a symbol of America's greatness and how proudly we came together as a nation to heal, to console, to rise to the challenge. I see it as a reminder of all that's wrong with America, of why someone would hatch such an elaborate plan to hurt us, to spite us, to rail against us. Are we a better America to the world now than 11 years ago? Really? Are we "united" still? How have we used 9/11, the goodwill from the world, the national pride? We’re more fractured than ever before, more pandering to hate and disunity. Sadly that starts with the youth, and how we treat one another as adults is reflected in the actions of our kids. And that scares the hell out of me, because my lasting memories of 9/11 are those kids in the other rooms. And that makes me very angry. Not patriotic, not sad, not thoughtful, but mad.
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