By Jeff Risdon
$.01-- The Indianapolis Colts have hit the quarterback lottery twice. Andrew Luck shattered Cam Newton’s year-old rookie passing record with 433 yards and two touchdowns in leading the upstart Colts to a 23-20 win over the equally upstart Dolphins. There might not be a better rookie QB performance regardless of the yardage feat. Luck was incredible when he had to be, converting 13 of 19 third down attempts.
Some will have you believe he was perfect, as the Twitterverse was practically proclaiming sainthood during the game. Luck was not perfect; Karlos Dansby dropped a sure pick-six on a play where Luck stared at Dwayne Allen from the second he got the snap until he threw it, and he badly missed behind Reggie Wayne on the play before the ultimate game-winning field goal, another pass that should have been picked off. Even the TD throw to TY Hilton was more Luck getting lucky, as Sean Smith inexplicably pulled up a step in coverage when he had an easy interception. But otherwise, Luck deserves the praises you are no doubt hearing and reading from anyone who is anyone in the football cognoscenti. His ability to extend plays with his legs and consistently make the right decision with the ball is exceptional. Luck is the rare kind of quarterback that raises the level of his teammates just by being himself, not unlike a certain #18 who Colts fans know and love.
Miami has every reason to feel very good about its own rookie QB. Ryan Tannehill has exceeded even this ardent supporter’s expectations so far. He has demonstrated strong poise, good accuracy, and a nice feel for the pro game. It’s not too fast for him even though two years ago he was playing wide receiver at Texas A&M. Tannehill fought valiantly in this one, putting up almost 300 yards despite being questionable with a knee and quad bruise. It was really neat seeing two strong rookie quarterbacks duel for the first of what could be many significant games between these emerging teams.
And then there’s Chuck. Coach Pagano made an emotional appearance in the victorious locker room as he fights leukemia. The speech he gave was great, and I strongly encourage you to find a way to watch it. Playing for their leader who is literally fighting for his life is a very powerful intangible for these Colts. 1-2-3 Chuck!
$.02--In an outcome that quite frankly surprised me, the Pittsburgh Steelers found a way to beat the Giants in storm-ravaged New York. It’s not that I don’t respect the Steelers or believe they lacked the talent to win, but I really felt like the emotions of the day would carry the Giants.
The New York and New Jersey area remains devastated by the storm. People there are not accustomed to being helpless and powerless, and the desperation shows in the interviews and heartbreaking shots of destroyed houses and lives. The Giants embrace their role as a team of the people and a source of immense civic pride. Their play and their efforts in the wake of 9/11 were heroic, and New Yorkers have not forgotten. So I went into this game believing the Giants would once again play the role of community savior, rising to the challenge of giving people something to feel good about for the first time after an epic disaster.
Pittsburgh rained all over those sentiments, pulling off the win despite a rash of injuries and a slow start. They also overcame a bizarre call on a fumble and one of the most ill-conceived fake field goals you’ll ever see, plus a couple of big penalties. Isaac Redman rushed for 147 yards as the Steeler line mauled the vaunted Giants DL, while Pittsburgh’s own run defense snuffed out any threat from Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants. Eli Manning seemed out of sorts, missing on throws he normally completes. The Giants couldn’t answer the bell physically against Pittsburgh, nor could they answer it emotionally for their beleaguered community. Give credit to the Steelers for earning the win despite altered travel plans and having little answer for the Giants pass rush. As good as the Pittsburgh line was at run blocking, they were soundly whipped in pass protection. This is a very strong win for the Steelers, the one AFC team that seems to consistently win against the NFC.
About the Roethlisberger “fumble”: I thought it was an incomplete pass. If the officials thought it wasn’t a pass then the tuck rule should have applied. But the officials chose Option C, the fumble. That’s a terrible call.
$.03--Chicago 51, Tennessee 20. In Nashville. It takes a good team taking advantage of good opportunities to lay that big a whipping on a competent opponent, and that’s exactly what the Bears did Sunday.
This one was over almost as soon as it started. Charles Tillman willed the ball away from careless Kenny Britt on the first play of the game, and the Bears defense was just getting started. They scored their first touchdown when Corey Wootton recovered a blocked punt and ambled into the end zone after Tennessee’s next possession. After a Titans safety thanks to an end zone holding penalty, Chicago poured it on. Check out this sequence of events:
-Devin Hester returns a punt to the TEN 8-yard line. Matt Forte runs into the end zone on the next snap.
-Darius Reynaud returns the kick to the 24. After Matt Hasselbeck finds Kendall Wright for a nice gain, the next pass is picked off by Brian Urlacher, who returns it 46 yards for a touchdown
--After a touchback, Charles Tillman strips Chris Johnson of the ball on 1st down. Chris Conte recovers at the TEN 16. Two plays later Cutler finds Marshall in the left corner for a 13-yard TD.
That all took place in less than two minutes of game clock time; three touchdowns scored, and the rout was on.
Tillman would force four fumbles on the day, as Tennessee turned the ball over five times. The Titans could not stop pulling the trigger on the shotgun pointed at their own feet, and the final margin looks more respectable thanks to a garbage-time Chris Johnson 80-yard run. The Bears have now forced an absurd 28 turnovers in 8 games, and only the 49ers have allowed fewer points. They have more INTs (17) than over half the teams in the league have total takeaways.
It almost gets buried by the lead, but Brandon Marshall had a magnificent game. Jay Cutler found his favorite target for a career-high three touchdowns, and they both were all smiles most of the day. Cutler did have a brush-up with QB Coach Jeremy Bates, but the differences were quickly resolved. Winning big helps smooth those things over pretty easily.
$.04--This game was far down the marquee on the Sunday slate, but the Tampa Bay-Oakland contest turned into a very entertaining affair. The fourth quarter alone featured more offense than Jacksonville or Kansas City fans will see all season, with 36 total points. But this game will go down in the annals as Doug Martin’s star-making turn on the stage.
The rookie running back was phenomenal in the second half. He broke James Wilder’s team record of 219 yards in that half alone, finishing with 251 and that factors in that he lost 14 on three clock-killing plays at the end of the game. Martin torched the Raiders for four touchdowns, three of which were dialed from long distance. In fact, Martin became the first running back in NFL history to have three touchdown runs of at least 40 yards in the same game. He one-upped that by making it three runs of more than 45 yards in one half, a record that will be very hard to break. My preseason pick for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year did me proud, almost singlehandedly turning a humdrum late afternoon B-side into an unexpected smash hit.
Oakland proved a big part of the excitement as well. Carson Palmer threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, leading a furious comeback by the denizens of the Black Hole. With absolutely no running game to help, thanks in part to Darren McFadden leaving yet another game with yet another injury, Palmer got the arm warm and uncorked big pass after big pass. He wound up with 414 yards and the four TDs, bringing the Raiders back from the depths of a 28-10 deficit to 35-32. With the ball and just under three minutes remaining, it appeared the Raiders were going to pull off the improbably huge comeback. But Palmer would throw three more passes in the game, and the Bucs caught two of them. EJ Biggers interception with 1:38 left sealed the game for the visiting Bucs.
Tampa Bay has found its footing in winning three out of its last four games. In those games they have put up 38, 28, 36, and now 42 points thanks to Martin’s impressive running and Josh Freeman’s renaissance at quarterback. Granted the level of difficulty has not been great (KC, NO, MIN, OAK), but this young team desperately needed pelts on the wall and it has them. They could bag a few more in the coming weeks with a very favorable schedule for a hot team, hosting San Diego and then travelling to Carolina the next two weeks. They will be favored in both, and wins would put them at 6-4 and squarely in the picture for a NFC Wild Card. As long as Martin can keep running like this, they have a chance.
$.05--In what had to be the quickest game played all year, the Lions crushed the Jaguars 31-14. Don’t let the score fool you, as it was 31-0 before Jacksonville decided to show up. This is precisely the kind of game the Lions needed, a dominating victory over an inferior opponent. That is the hallmark of a good team, beating the stuffing out of turkeys on the schedule. While the Lions might not be a real good team yet, this game is a good sign that they are not the same team that sputtered out of the gate at 1-3.
Detroit is now 4-4, playing their way back into the NFC playoff picture by cutting back on mental errors and playing more efficiently on offense. This game was all about the running game. Mikel Leshoure ran for 70 yards on 16 carries, but three of those wound up in the end zone. Joique Bell again impressed, putting up 73 yards of his own on just 13 carries, also scoring once. I don’t have the advanced stats yet, but I venture that at on at least 20 of those carries there was no contact before three yards downfield, a testament to very strong OL play from the Lions. Matt Stafford was calmly effective, something that can rarely be said about him. He made the strong throws when needed, spreading the ball around to seven different receivers. His third down numbers were great: 10-for-13, 140 yards, 9 conversions plus a pass interference conversion. What I also liked was that the Lions ran patterns that achieved the first down without relying on yards after the catch, real progress for Scott Linehan as a play caller.
This is a real confidence builder, but it’s a fragile confidence. The next three weeks will tell the ultimate story of the Lions season, with trips to Minnesota and Houston sandwiched around the Turkey Bowl against Green Bay. The Lions have to win two of the three to have any realistic shot at the playoffs. The Detroit team of the last six quarters can do that. Let’s see if they can maintain the confidence and momentum.
$.06--Green Bay survived yet another uneven performance to send the reeling Cardinals to their fifth defeat in a row. Aaron Rodgers was a lot better than the stat line, as once again his receivers repeatedly let him down. Fortunately for the Packers, one of those receivers proved very capable.
That would be Randall Cobb, and the second-year Kentucky product is quickly emerging as a star. Cobb scored twice (the first two Packers TDs) on his three receptions but also lined up several times in the backfield and rushed for 29 yards. He also racked up almost 150 return yards, including a strong punt return that was one missed block from going the distance. Rodgers threw his direction nine times, clearly favoring Cobb over his less reliable mates. Cobb is electrifying with the ball in his hands. He reminds me a great deal of Eric Metcalf in his Belichick-era Browns heyday, a shifty speedster that works best as a hybrid RB/slot receiver. Cobb’s mere presence dictates defensive alignment, and Rodgers is savvy enough to know how to exploit what he sees. The catch numbers say Cobb caught just three of his nine targets, but he facilitated almost everything positive that happened for the Packers offense. On the dagger in the game, a 72-yard seam catch and run to Tom Crabtree, Cobb was lined up outside and brought the safety out of the middle of the field. Crabtree slipped behind linebacker Paris Lenon and because of Cobb there was nobody back there to help.
It wasn’t all great for Green Bay, however. Rodgers had some timing issues on some throws, and the Packers receivers dropped at least four passes. They lost Clay Matthews to a hamstring injury and Bryan Bulaga to a hip issue, leaving the team perilously thin at both linebacker and tackle. The running game wound up with 172 yards but was very hit and miss, with a handful of lengthy scampers outweighing several quick nothings. Almost all the rushing productivity came early, when the Cardinals were overplaying the pass. I like the re-emergence of James Starks, who ran at times like his job depended on it, but he fumbled early and needs to thank Rodgers for saving his bacon there. The Packers get to their much-needed bye week with a four game win streak, but the overwhelming dominance they exhibited so consistently last year remains largely scattershot.
The Cardinals also hit their bye week, and their early season good vibes have crashed like the waves Superstorm Sandy thrust upon the Lake Erie shoreline. Five losses in a row have sunk the Arizona ship, and this one has to hurt because they had opportunities. Cardinal receivers dropped at least 6 passes. Their defense blew several tackles and potential sacks. Their offensive line remains a natural disaster, as it takes a true level of lousiness to concede a sack to the likes of Mike Daniels (on a very well-designed twist). A first and goal at the Green Bay two wound up as a momentum-sapping field goal thanks to their inability to run at all. The Crabtree touchdown ensued and that was the game for all intents and purposes. That is also the end of the Cardinals once-shining playoff aspirations for all intents and purposes as well.
Offense: Andrew Luck. See $.01, and factor in that the Dolphins defense has been upper echelon all season. Doug Martin had a hell of a game in keeping his own Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign strong, but chicks dig the quarterbacks.
Defense: Charles Tillman. See $.03. There is some dispute about the last defensive player to force four fumbles in a game, but there is no disputing how awesome of a performance it takes to do so.
Special Teams: Trindon Holliday. The tiny Broncos return man ran back the opening kick of the 2nd half 105 yards for a game-altering touchdown, pushing the lead from 7 to 14 and quickly blunting the Cincinnati crowd. Not bad for a guy cut by the Texans a month ago.
Assistant Coach: Rod Marinelli. Chicago’s Defensive Coordinator preached turnovers all week, and his charges listened and complied. Marinelli has added some variety to his beloved base Tampa 2, and it’s paying off. In the rout over Tennessee the defense could do little wrong.
$.08--5 NFL Quickies
1. Reggie Bush has taken a lot of crap, much of it deserved, but his 18-yard TD scamper vs. the Colts is an example of why so many people expected so much of him coming out of USC. There aren’t many backs in the last 15 years that can pull off a run like that.
2. Mario Williams did well in his return to Houston, getting a nice sack and five total tackles, but the Bills offense could do nothing against Williams’ former defensive mates. The Bulls on Parade kept the Bills out of the end zone, carrying the day when their own offense moved the ball well but didn’t score a lot either. Three touchdowns beats three field goals. And the boos that Mario Williams claims rained down on him were about as loud as the middle of a Dan Fogleberg concert; his claims of double teams and fan hatred ring more hollow every passing week.
3. Mike Shanahan’s seat has to be uncomfortably warm after his flat, undisciplined Redskins lost their homecoming game to the lowly Panthers. Washington just might be the best 3-6 team in the league, but opponents are adjusting to RG3’s penchant for throwing the ball no further than 5 yards while taking advantage of a lousy Redskins secondary. I like to think Shanahan gets another year with RG3, but if the losing doesn’t stop after their bye next week, well, Daniel Snyder has never been a patient owner.
4. The Vikings are crashing back to reality, in no small part thanks to the rapid decline in the play of QB Christian Ponder. I didn’t see more than three plays of the game, but when the box score says 2.9 yards per attempt and his second sub-70 yard passing game in three weeks even when Adrian Peterson runs for over 170, it mustn’t have been pretty for Ponder. Another uninspiring loss like this one (30-20 to Seattle) and you can look for changes in Minnesota. Desperation, thy name is Joe Webb.
5. Atlanta remains undefeated halfway thru their schedule after a lackluster win over the faded Cowboys. Matt Bryant missed two field goals but booted four others and the Falcons avoided mistakes, and Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers each notched one good play. That was enough as the Cowboys couldn’t muster points and couldn’t convert 3rd downs. Tony Romo was very good in defeat, but Dallas fans are probably more than a little tired of that statement.
$.09--5 College/Draft Quickies
1. Alabama nipped LSU in a defensive slugfest when AJ McCarron found TJ Yeldon on a screen pass for the game-winning TD with under a minute left. It felt more like LSU lost the game with numerous special teams gaffes, but give credit to McCarron for the final drive; he was fantastic when his team needed him most. McCarron even had his signature Heisman moment, scoring a touchdown on a QB keeper and celebrating in very photogenic fashion. This win all but ensures that McCarron will be a Heisman finalist and that Alabama is going to play in the BCS title game even if they happen to lose in the SEC title game.
2. Kansas State stayed unbeaten, though they did lose Heisman front-runner Collin Klein to a concussion. Klein is the straw that stirs the drink in Manhattan, and losing him for any time could prove catastrophic for the Wildcats. I still would like to think that an undefeated K-State, representing the deepest conference in the country, would earn a shot in the BCS title game, but they’re going to need all the style points they can muster. It’s also a blow to his Heisman hopes, throwing an underwhelming race wide open.
3. I spent some time breaking down a couple of local products from the University of Houston. Redshirt junior RB Charles Sims did very little in the blowout loss to East Carolina, but the Cougar has notched some strong efforts earlier this year and could be a surprise early entrant. He is very shifty for his size (6’0” and a legit 215) and runs with very good balance and pad level. In games against UTEP and Rice I watched, Sims exhibited consistent vision and great acceleration through the hole. He’s also got very good hands and quickly transitions from receiver to runner. He looks like a legit member of a NFL backfield-by-committee, not dissimilar to Ahmad Bradshaw.
As much as I liked Sims as a potential 5th-7th round pick, I really liked senior CB DJ Hayden. NFL scouts are going to really like him the more they see him as well. Hayden has great length at just over 6 feet tall and he understands how to use it. He is very active and aggressive at attacking the football. Hayden also has pretty fluid footwork and loose hips in coverage, with a decent burst augmenting his ability to click and close. He flashed the jets with a 95-yard pick six against UTEP. He’s a bit high-risk as a tackler because he tackles the ball and not the carrier, but he does have an uncanny knack for producing fumbles as a result. I see a future NFL starter, perhaps a very good one, in DJ Hayden.
4. Oregon ran around, over, and past USC 62-51 in a game where the final score doesn’t do justice to the offensive fireworks. I intently watched Ducks RB Kenjon Barner, who had caught my eye earlier this year. I was not disappointed. Barner raced to a school-record 321 yards with an explosive blend of short area quickness, open field agility, and long speed. Properly evaluating Oregon skill position players is always difficult because of their exotic offense, with the wide splits and frenetic pace, but Barner certainly appears to have legit NFL traits. His ability to make tacklers miss in tight quarters is very good, and he has some natural vision that Ducks predecessor LaMichael James (2nd round pick of the 49ers) lacks. I see a lot of Jahvid Best in Barner, a speed back useful for 10-12 carries and 3-5 receptions per game in the NFL but not built to be a feature back and not someone who is going to be effective every week.
5. As I have frequently stated on Twitter (@JeffRisdon), this is a terrible draft to need immediate help at quarterback. Geno Smith remains the best QB prospect, but in comparing him to last year’s class I would rate Smith no better than 5th, and he would be in line with Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert from the prior year. Matt Barkley will get lots of run, but he’s less equipped to take over a NFL team than Mark Sanchez was, and with a lower ceiling. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the QBs come off the board come April. One under-reported factor that makes me even more pessimistic about this class: the lack of quality veteran NFL backups who can serve as mentors and stopgap starters while the kids learn on the job. This is a direct unintended consequence of teams rushing to carry only two QBs on the roster, and it’s going to inhibit young QB development even worse than it is already.
$.10--I was going to go political here, but I’m completely sick of all things politics and I live in Texas, where the Presidential campaigns haven't spent $25 on advertising. So instead, I’m going to vent a little here on another touchy subject: racism.
This past week a Minnesota civil rights advocate named Tyrone Terrell opined that the local NBA team was too white. The Timberwolves, who have been also-rans for almost their entire two decade existence, have just five black players on the roster in a league where roughly four of every five players are black. His insinuation is that the team management has made a conscious decision to pander to white fans by fielding a team that won’t scare them with blackness.
Numerous voices immediately shouted him down, including people from both the basketball and political worlds. Michael Wilbon, who is the black half of the PTI duo with Tony Kornheiser, retorted with a scathing on-air beat down from a well-traveled African-American perspective.
I wish there were more and more prominent voices shouting Mr. Terrell down, but there seems to be a general media taboo against calling a black man a racist. But that is precisely what Tyrone Terrell is, a racist. By insinuating that white people are unqualified to make up a competitive basketball team, he shows his racial intolerance and hatred. Never mind that Kevin Love is one of the ten most talented players in the world regardless of skin color. Never mind that Ricky Rubio, who is Spanish, is one of the most exciting young point guards in the world. Twenty other NBA teams would happily trot out that twosome and their fans and teammates would be ecstatic. Apparently, Terrell either doesn’t know much about basketball or doesn’t believe that non-blacks can field a competitive team. Either should disqualify him from talking about the Timberwolves.
I’ve had some experience with black racism of my own, and it’s just as ugly as the white racism I see far too often. I taught at a middle school in Petersburg, Virginia where I was one of three white people in the building. I had several parents who, upon discovering I was white, immediately appealed to the principal to have their children pulled from my class. They did not want their children learning from the white man, and they weren’t afraid to tell me so, often in very harsh and derogatory tones. Some parents refused to meet with me just because of the color of my skin. I attended Virginia State University for graduate courses, a HBCU where I was one of less than a handful of whites in just about every class. I dealt with the same stares, not-quite-behind-the-back insults, and overt shunning that I witness far too often happening to blacks.
Ironically, it was basketball that helped me gain acceptance with many of my peers, both at VSU and at school. I’m 6’5” and reasonably skilled at basketball (just don’t ask me to dribble!), enough that I earned respect once given a chance to show what I could do. Even though I was older than most students and had a limited repertoire, once the other guys in the rec center knew I could play I was quickly accepted and rarely had to sit out games. Without basketball, this very white guy would have had a much more difficult time in the overwhelmingly black environ I chose to work and study in. Basketball was an equalizer, a common denominator that helped integrate what was a pretty insular community. It didn’t end some of the racism I experienced, but it absolutely helped. For Mr. Terrell and folks like him to perpetuate the pervasive stereotype that non-blacks cannot and should not be given equal access to the sport is just as hurtful and patently racist as those who wonder how a black man could possibly hold a management position, or hold their own on the volleyball court. Race-based hate is wrong, no matter the skin color of the perpetrator.
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