Authored by Jeff Risdon - 5th December, 2011 - 10:54 am
$.01 -- Even though the game was Thursday night and seems like eons ago even though I am writing this on Saturday, one of the most consequential games of the weekend happened in Seattle between two 4-7 teams. The host Seahawks dominated the mistake-prone Eagles 31-14 in a game that could have long-lasting ramifications for the future.
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This game exposed several truths about the Eagles, issues that must be addressed going forward. Foremost is the defense, where Offensive Line coach, err, Defensive Coordinator Juan Castillo is in way over his head. Their personnel is badly mismatched to the scheme, and Castillo lacks the knowhow and acumen to make the necessary changes. This is easily the worst tackling team in the league, as evidenced by the incredible 15-yard TD run by Marshawn Lynch where he was surrounded by Eagles and facing the wrong direction only to wind up bursting through wimpy, half-assed arm tackle efforts and into the end zone.
Lynch ran though several tackles throughout the game, nearly all thanks to poor technique, bad angles and slow help from teammates. The linebacking corps is badly undersized but also lacks range, a lethal combination. The safeties, notably former Buckeye Kurt Coleman, consistently arrive late and come from poor pursuit angles. Rare is the Philly defender that wraps on a tackle; almost every tackle attempt from a non-lineman is a dive or push or lowered shoulder with the head down. They need major changes, in coaching, in system, and in talent upgrades.
Then there is the baby of coach Andy Reid, the offense. Not having Michael Vick obviously hurts, but if they were depending on Vick playing 16 games they deserve to suffer. The bigger mistake was arrogantly believing Vince Young could handle the backup position. Young could not master the complexity of the two-read playbook in Tennessee, yet Reid thrust him into his sight-based read system that requires excellent accuracy and precise timing. Young has some legit quarterbacking skills, but those are not on the list, not even close. The pass that Michael Hawthorne picked off and returned for a touchdown is inexcusable for a high school QB, let alone an NFL multi-millionaire. Even when Young played the role of team leader and conscientious quarterback, he was rebuffed by lone wolf DeSean Jackson, and that sums up the depth of problem in Philly.
Jackson is a very talented player that the Eagles offense absolutely needs, a game-breaking speedster that strikes fear into defenses. But he has proven the last two weeks to be a completely selfish chicken-shit loser. I know my editors (and my mother) will not appreciate that description, but there is no more eloquent way to describe Jackson. He is the Ricky Davis of the NFL, the guy that shoots at his own basket to try and massage the stats to get himself better glory, the guy that told Cavs management they did not need LeBron James because he was better than LeBron could ever be, the guy that taunted his own coach loud enough to be heard in the upper bowl at then-Gund Arena.
Jackson is absolutely that guy, cocky to the point of absurdity but unwilling to consistently back it up with his play. He alligator-arms every pass over the middle, which cost him a touchdown and a long gain in New England and another first down here when the game was still a game. When Young tried to encourage him or communicate with him after they were on different pages, Jackson refused to look at Young and ignored him. As much as they need his considerable talent, they cannot win with him being a selfish jackass.
I still think Andy Reid is a very good coach, but Philadelphia needs a major change. And unfortunately for Reid, it is a whole lot easier to change a handful of coaches than it is to wipe out an overpaid, underachieving roster of semi-guaranteed contracts and players with less value on the open market than they have in Philly. I will respect the Eagles if they keep Reid around, but if they do not dump the likes of Jackson, Young, and Asante Samuel, he will never get this team pointed back in the right direction.
$.02 -- Houston proved they are able to overcome major adversity, riding 3rd string QB T.J. Yates to a somewhat surprising victory over the visiting Falcons. That win is made more impressive when factoring in that Andre Johnson left the game early with an aggravation of his hamstring injury.
Yates was not great, but he did not have to be. Arian Foster followed the hogs up front for over 100 yards on 31 bruising, time-killing carries. Johnson shone early before leaving the game, picking up some key 3rd down conversions and giving Yates a reliable safety blanket. Those third downs were integral for Houston as they held the ball for 10 minutes longer than Atlanta, which could never get into rhythm. Right after Johnson left, the Texans responded with a 19-play drive where Falcons offensive players were visibly antsy and frustrated on the sidelines.
Yates was also definitively better than Matt Ryan, who had an awful day. 20-for-47 for 267 yards and two interceptions to go with a touchdown is not the stat line that wins games. Ryan had a handful of throws where the receiver caught the ball but could not stay inbounds. Some of that is a function of solid coverage, but Ryan was not sharp at all. The Houston defense deserves a lot more attention than they get, particularly when you consider how historically bad they were just one year ago. For this defense to be atop the league is amazing, a real testament to Wade Philips as a defensive guru. Sunday was the 7th time the defense allowed one touchdown or less all season, a feat they accomplished just once last year. They have held opponents under 20 points in nine different games, tied with San Francisco for tops in the league.
There is little reason to think the Texans cannot keep this up. The defense has adjusted to life without Mario Williams just fine, as the likes of Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed continue to mix up pass rushes while Jonathan Joseph -- the best defensive free agent signing last summer -- and the secondary simply do not have breakdowns. Glover Quin has been fantastic in the transition from torched corner to coverage safety, and the communication on the back end has been exemplary. Even with Yates running the offense, this team should not be discounted in a very muddled AFC playoff picture.
$.03 -- This whole Tim Tebow thing is seriously getting out of hand. I mean, how many weeks in a row will I be forced to write about yet another heroic comeback led by Tebow? It would be terribly cliched if it was not so continually amazing.
Tebow actually had a pretty strong day, completing 10-of-15 for over 200 yards despite a miserable start that included a safety. The accuracy was a startling development, but just as important was how well he read and manipulated the defense. Tebow is improving at throwing the ball on the move and at evaluating his options while scrambling. It is still not very aesthetically pleasant, but the exaggerated windup is slowly going away. Also improving is his touch on the ball. When he came out of Florida one of the early scouting knocks (there were many) was that Tebow threw the ball at maximum velocity on every pass. He displayed the ability to take something off and make life easier for his receivers. Demaryius Thomas certainly appreciated it on the short tosses in this one.
A few weeks ago, when this whole Tebowmania was just starting to fester, I opined that every win bought Tebow more time to develop as a passer. What strikes me now is that he continues to win even though the development is not as rapid as man would prefer. The players around him are developing as well, and they believe. Here is what this winning streak has done: the players not only believe in Tebow, but it is evident they believe more in themselves now. Contrast that attitude and confidence with what emanated from the other sideline, where the Vikings played very hard but never really looked like they believed they were going to win. Christian Ponder might be a better thrower of the football, but he made the critical error that Tebow has thus far avoided like a Kardashian avoids discretion. The Broncos play loose, and that is a very good thing. This was the first time I witnessed the other team fearing the evidently inevitable Tebow magic, and it was Andre Goodman and not Tebow that made the biggest play. Look out, people, this Tebow thing is not going away.
Even though I am not a believer in the moral victory concept, New York can build off this. In fact, they have done this very sort of thing before and it catapulted the Giants to a Super Bowl title. Four years ago the G-Men were limping to the finish line of their season, locked into a Wild Card spot but playing very shaky football down the stretch. Their finale was against the undefeated Patriots, who were absolutely gunning for a perfect season. The Giants played their butts off and lost a close 38-35 contest, a game that demonstrated to the players that they could in fact play with anyone. Riding that confidence and swagger, New York turned up the defensive intensity and showed more trust in Eli Manning as they ripped off three straight wins to make the Super Bowl. There they met the Patriots once again, and I think you know what happened.
I can see a similar outcome to this season. The Giants are reeling, losers of 3 in a row to drop them to 6-6. But they got a lot of help, as every other second-tier NFC playoff contender lost as well. Heads were high in the Giants locker room, and I sense they will bounce out of this close loss and get on a nice run. Win at Dallas next week and, to quote George Costanza, " I am back baby!"
Nobody will give the Giants much of a chance in the playoffs, but that is a grave mistake. With their passing offense and strong defensive front, they can play with anyone. Any Given Sunday has been happening an awful lot in recent playoffs, and the Giants know that perhaps better than anyone. Packers fans will dismiss the Giants, preferring to play them in January rather than any other possible NFC playoff combatant except maybe Detroit. But I would not want any part of this New York team again if I am, Green Bay. History is on their side.
$.05 -- Detroit continues to implode in spectacular fashion, dropping a penalty-plagued contest to the Saints where the Lions mistakes overshadow an otherwise solid game. The defense played pretty well considering they were missing three of their top 5 starters, including a man named Suh. After yet another slow start, Matt Stafford and the offense moved the ball effectively and kept the Lions in the game. That is, when they were not taking themselves out of the game...
At some point Coach Jim Schwartz is going to have to answer for their ongoing lack of discipline and penchant for stupid mental mistakes. Even though I found the three offensive pass interference penalties on Nate Burleson quite nitpicky, the Lions consistently commit an alarming amount of penalties that show an inattention to detail and lack of mental preparation. There were other plays where the attention to detail and focus were lacking as well. A run by Mo Morris where Gosder Cherilus did not know his blocking assignment and Burleson ran his defender towards the tackle is a play where the coaching is just not evident.
The icing on the coaching lack of control cake came late, when Brandon Pettigrew got flagged for making contact with an official as he jawed with a Saints defender. Given what happened last week, that is completely unacceptable. It reflects poorly on Pettigrew, but even worse on Schwartz. The Lions coach has lost the respect of many of his peers, many in the media, and many Lions fans. Just as important, he is losing games because of it.
There should be no shame in losing to the Saints in New Orleans. Drew Brees has already topped 4,000 yards passing, and in this game he kept the completion percentage over 70 and put the TD mark over 30. That is in 12 games folks. The Lions focused on taking away Jimmy Graham, so Brees sent more balls to Robert Meacham and Marques Colston. Graham still managed to pull down 8 receptions for nearly 100 yards despite often facing de facto triple teams, with man coverage plus zone underneath and shadowed help over the top. There should be no shame, but I feel ashamed of my team as a Lions fan. It would be one thing if the outlaw culture and playing over the edge were bringing wins, but as the team devolves into an undisciplined band of idiots, the wins have stopped and the losses continue to mount. That will not stop until Schwartz -- or his replacement -- gets control of this team.
By way of comparison, Tampa coach Raheem Morris has got the right idea. Morris sent DT Brian Price home after he committed a stupid personal foul that salted away the game for the Panthers. And Morris was unapologetic about it afterwards. That is precisely the kind of thing Schwartz needs to do.
$.06 -- Chicago is in trouble. It is not so much that they lost to the Chiefs -- an upset called almost exclusively by yours truly -- but how inept they looked in doing so. Caleb Hanie once again appeared dazed and confused in relief of Jay Cutler, displaying an alarming inability to anticipate with his throws or the accuracy to threaten the defense. He got little help from his wideouts, notably Roy Williams bobbling what could have been a touchdown but turned into a John McGraw interception. The Bears wideouts struggle with running routes, and Hanie lacks the innate sense of how to throw a guy open like Cutler had developed with guys like Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox.
The Bears still had a chance to stay vital by riding Matt Forte offensively, but now that is no longer an option. Forte is out at least two weeks with a sprained knee and is probably lucky that it is only a sprain after the hit he took. Unofficially, Forte is gone for the year as there is no way the impending free agent rushes back to the field. Having Cutler and Forte masked a lot of woes with the offensive line, and now that unit is being relied upon to carry the offense. Between their lack of agility and the inadequate pocket presence of Hanie, Kansas City bagged seven sacks. Word is now leaking out that Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz will not return, which is not exactly surprising but also does not inspire the players to try and rally around him.
Brian Urlacher and the defense can only do so much. They played very well against Kansas City and their backup QB and backup RB, but when the Chicago offense is so inept they have to darn near play a perfect game. One error, a Hail Mary that Urlacher spiked right into the hands of Dexter McCluster for the only touchdown, was one more than the Bears could afford.
That figures to be the case the rest of the season. A trip to Denver and the surging Tebows comes next, followed by a visit from an improving Seattle team with a very strong pass defense. After that, the Bears finish on the road at Green Bay and Minnesota. In their quest to make the playoffs, Chicago almost certainly needs at least two wins. Given their recent losses, both personnel and on the field, I do not see one.
$.07 -- Donovan McNabb, thy end is nigh. After being granted his release by the Vikings during the week, McNabb suffered the indignity of going unclaimed on the waiver wire. This comes just a week after several teams desperate for veteran quarterback help claimed Kyle Orton, and the same week the panic-stricken Texans signed Jake Delhomme off his rocking chair.
When you find yourself lower on the pecking order than Jake Delhomme, it is time to hang up the cleats. No offense to Delhomme, but Jake the Snake was brought into Houston with the implicit hope that he never sees the field. McNabb has now been sent packing by three teams in two years, each one progressively worse than the last. Minnesota benched him after McNabb guided the team to a 1-5 start, deciding his complete inability to throw the ball beyond 15 yards and reluctance to even try were just not worth it anymore. Washington, his team last year, correctly decided that the Rex Grossman/John Beck package was superior to McNabb. You could make an argument that Philly erred by getting rid of him so hastily, but McNabb would be behind Mike Kafka as well as Michael Vick had he stayed an Eagle.
McNabb is younger than Peyton Manning and the same age where Kurt Warner resurrected his sagging career with the Cardinals, but nothing gives any indication that McNabb can make that kind of triumphant comeback. His legs appear shot, both as a runner and as a base of power for throwing the ball with velocity. Unlike Warner and Delhomme, McNabb is not typically viewed as a mentoring type for a young QB; he is much closer to Jeff Garcia or Brett Favre in that manner. His ego dictates, much as Garcia did a few years back, that he will only accept bigger paychecks for legit chances to still remain a starter rather than lesser cash for a backup/mentoring role. That is why I would advise McNabb to announce his retirement and transition gracefully into broadcasting, where he definitely has a bright future. If he walks away now, people will be more apt to remember him as the popular field general that led the Eagles on many playoff runs. If he vainly tries to come back, people will think of him as a guy that overstayed his welcome and bounced from team to team, each stop a little more pathetic than the last.
$.08 -- 5 NFL Quickies
1. There was talk this week, initiated by fanboy Peter King, that Peyton Manning deserves voted for NFL MVP in a season where he will not play a snap. Hogwash. That presumes that the Colts would be demonstrably better with Manning, and that is a presumption I refuse to make. Their injury-plagued, undersized defense and underwhelming offensive line would doom even Peyton Manning to no more than 3 or 4 wins thus far.
1A. I talked to a Colts insider, someone inside the building that has seen Manning in the training room, and he told me this week he believes Manning is at least 20 pounds over his playing weight and looks "doughy." That is not real surprising, considering Manning has never belonged on a fitness magazine cover and has been unable to exercise for months. But take that as final confirmation that Peyton Manning will not play in 2011.
2. On the MVP front, any vote for anyone other than Aaron Rodgers is dishonest. In a normal year, Drew Brees would be a runaway winner with the season he is having, but he is really not that close to Rodgers. After Rodgers and Brees, my top five would include Tom Brady at #3, Lesean McCoy at #4, and Calvin Johnson #5. Jay Cutler has proven his value as the Bears are awful in his absence, but he did not play enough. Coming on strong: Tim Tebow.
3. Raiders LB Rolando McClain was arrested on Thursday in Decatur, Alabama on several charges stemming from an incident where he fired a gun next to a rival of a friend. If it is true, he is an idiot. But I also question how McClain had the time to get to Decatur during a game week. He plays in Oakland, the game was in Miami. You might fly over Decatur en route, but getting there is another matter. That shows a lack of focus and maturity on his part, and I question why the team would give him permission to make such an off-route stop.
4. Congrats to the San Francisco 49ers on winning the NFC West with four games left to play. As I predicted, they pitched the shutout on the Rams to wrap up what is, incredibly, an improving division outside of St. Louis. The challenge now is for the Niners to avoid what happened to Tennessee and Baltimore in recent years where they surprised everyone with 13+ wins keyed by a great defense, only to get upended in their first playoff game. In recent years the playoffs have been all about scoring more than the opponent, and I still would not take Alex Smith at QB over any opponent they might face. Sorry.
5. I do not get the vitriol directed at Cowboys coach Jason Garrett for calling a timeout, a move that ostensibly iced his own kicker. First of all, the concept of icing the kicker is terribly overplayed. Second, the play clock was winding down and maybe Garrett saw something he did not like with the protection. But anyone who rails against Garrett here had better strongly advocate every coach icing the other kicker in every crucial situation. Bad loss for Dallas, but Arizona played well ... as someone here told you they would.
$.09 -- College/Draft Quickies
-- Houston blew their chance at BCS glory, falling at home to Southern Miss in the Conference USA title game. They also cost the conference tens of millions of dollars, as now they must settle for a mid-tier bowl instead of getting pasted by Michigan or Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. What I took from the game pertains to the NFL future, or lack thereof, of Cougars QB Case Keenum. It was windy and humid in Houston, and Keenum struggled all day getting a clean spin on the ball and having accuracy beyond about 10 yards from where he was releasing it. By way of comparison, Robert Griffin III had little such issues against Texas in a game played in windier, moister, cooler conditions some 250 miles northwest in Waco. Keenum is the 2011 Colt Brennan, albeit a more mentally acute and mature one.
-- Kudos to Washington State for taking a chance on former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. He is precisely the cult of personality they need in Pullman to attract recruits and media attention to perhaps the most anonymous BCS program in the country. His sophisticated passing attack should work well in the defensively challenged Pac 12 too. How much you want to bet TTU wishes they would have kept Leach and his annual 9+ wins over malcontent reserve Adam James and giving up 66 points twice in their final three games to finish 5-7?
-- Wisconsin outlasted Michigan State in a very exciting inaugural Big 10 Championship game. I watched this game hoping to see more reasons to like Badgers RB Montee Ball and Spartans DT Jerel Worthy as NFL prospects, and I was not disappointed. Ball continued to display an uncanny nose for the end zone. That in and of itself is not necessarily important to NFL scouts, but I like how he scores; Ball attacks the hole but has good wiggle once he is in it, and though he runs high, defenders seldom get a clean shot on him. He has some Pierre Thomas to him and I believe Ball will be drafted as such, a 2nd or 3rd rounder expected to share the backfield.
Worthy looked very good against an excellent Wisconsin line, consistently beating the double team by beating it to the punch. His quickness and disruptiveness as a one-gap tackle will make him very appealing to teams utilizing that scheme. Worthy looks like a 25-40 overall draft pick. MSU QB Kirk Cousins continued his impressive late-season work, throwing the ball with better zip and more confidence and spotting the ball better. I have vacillated on Cousins much in the way I did with Christian Ponder a year ago. At times I see a first rounder, at times I see a mid-round career backup.
-- That Big 10 Championship game featured perhaps the worst announcing team in the history of television. Gus Johnson should never be allowed near a football stadium, or at least be forced to take a sedative or two before getting on-air. His hyper calls take away from, and dominate, the game. He is a play-by-play man that thinks he is the reason to watch, not the game itself. I know some people like his overcaffeinated, screaming delivery, but the primary function of a play-by-play man is to accurately describe the action on the field. Johnson constantly botched player names, down/distance calls, and overpowered his color man, Charles Davis. Davis knows his stuff but struggled to finish his comments between waiting for Johnson to stop hyperventilating and the next play starting. He offered very little that my 6-year old son could not point out on his own. Extra commentator Tim Brewster needs to stick to coaching.
-- I do not have a Heisman ballot, but I would vote my final top 5 like this: 1. Robert Griffin III, 2. Trent Richardson, 3. Montee Ball, 4. Andrew Luck, 5. Matt Barkley. Without Griffin the Baylor Bears might have 3 wins, maybe. Take Richardson off Alabama or Ball off Wisconsin and those teams are still in BCS bowls. That is the difference.
-- My Ohio Bobcats lost the MAC title game to Northern Illinois despite dominating the first half, taking a 20-0 lead into halftime. The team apparently forgot to come out for the second half, showing zero pulse as the Huskies rallied for a stirring win. Now it is off to Boise for a bowl game that tens of fans might attend, while NIU travels to Mobile, a pretty decent place to spend a long weekend in January. I like the Bobcats to finally win a bowl game this year and to avenge the 5-0 loss to Utah State back in 1994, a game I attended on my 22nd birthday where the Bobcats performance was more vomit inducing than the pitchers of brainstomper from The Greenery I drank the night before. That is for you, Forquer!
$.10 -- LSU proved they are #1 by thumping Georgia after a sluggish start. So that leads to who should face the Tigers in the BCS Championship game. Is it Alabama or Oklahoma State? Look at the best wins for each team:
Alabama: won at Penn State (#22 in current BCS) 27-11, blew out #6 Arkansas, and won at Florida against the worst Gator team since the Zook era. They have just 3 wins against teams that wound up over .500.
Oklahoma State: thumped Baylor (#12 in current BCS after crushing Texas) 59-24, blew out #14 Oklahoma, beat #8 Kansas State, won at #24 Texas. They have 7 wins over teams that wound up over .500.
There is no way anyone could argue that Alabama has proven they are better than Oklahoma State. They played a vastly inferior schedule and wound up with the same record. The only argument the Tide has is its loss was to #1 LSU whereas OSU lost at 6-6 Iowa State. But losing on the road should be less damaging than losing at home. I give that a wash, and the strength of schedule goes to the Cowboys. So does the fact that we have already seen Alabama/LSU and the game was terrible. Alabama had their chance at home and lost.
If you are as steamed about this rematch as I am, you do have some power. Do not watch the game. Do not complain about it on talk radio or message boards. Shun it away like a naughty Amish schoolboy. I will not watch one second of the game, and this will be the last time I write about it other than picking the final score. I strongly encourage you to do the same. If the first meeting was any indication, you are really not going to miss anything.