Authored by Jeff Risdon - 19th December, 2011 - 12:51 pm
It was truly an "any given Sunday" weekend of football, with some major upsets, some tight finishes, and some strange off-field happenings. That might make you wonder why I subtracted two cents from the normal Monday morning column. The reason: I spent the second half of my Sunday driving across Texas with my family en route to riding the Polar Express. I missed the very endings of the early games and I didn't get home in front of my television until the final play of the San Diego win over Baltimore (told you so!).
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Unlike some commentators, I feel a little uncomfortable waxing poetic about games that I didn't watch, and I also spent the four evening hours I normally devote to this column in heavy traffic on I-45. I greatly enjoyed listening to the radio coverage of the games, but it's harder to draw conclusions from radio broadcasts and highlight shows. The Polar Express experience was awesome for the kids, by the way...
$.01-- Green Bay is undefeated no more, dropping a stunner in Kansas City to a Chiefs team that fired its coach during the week.
Injuries had a lot to do with Green Bay's problems. I think even Aaron Rodgers was surprised at how much the offense missed Greg Jennings. The receivers were off kilter all day long, and no Jennings meant nobody was open down the field. The safeties had more freedom to help on Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley, and the Packers receivers struggled to get separation all day long. When they did get free they had a hard time securing the ball, notably Finley, who has at least 12 drops in the last five games.
Rodgers was uncharacteristically erratic as well. Some credit has to go to the Chiefs defense, which got an outstanding pass rush from the unblockable Tamba Hali and very impressive linebacker coverage from Derrick Johnson. Hali bagged three sacks and harassed Rodgers on almost every dropback. Meanwhile, the Packers recorded exactly two QB hurries (zero sacks) against Kyle Orton in 31 pass attempt, allowing Orton to look better than Rodgers on this day.
The injuries to Jennings and the offensive line make the future somewhat cloudy for the Packers. Already without Chad Clifton at left tackle, the line suffered more injuries that really stressed the depth chart. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga left with an injury, apparently an aggravation of an earlier one that kept him out for two games. His replacement, rookie Derek Sherrod, suffered a nasty broken leg that will end his season and call into question the early portion of next year. With guard Josh Sitton already hobbled--he played Sunday but looked immobile--the offensive line is a major issue. This game proved that one great pass rusher can dominate a weakened Packers line. Guess who still sits on the schedule? That's right, Julius Peppers and the Bears and the Lions line of Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril, which knocked Rodgers out of a game last year.
As for the Chiefs, I am surprised they won but not surprised they played significantly better after being liberated from the reign of Todd Haley. They will not come out and say it, but I know some Chiefs were downright giddy that the hollow autocrat Haley got fired. His abrasive know-it-all style rubbed everyone the wrong way. Romeo Crennel was the pitch perfect tonic, a genial teacher that everyone respects and trusts that he has their best interests in mind. If upsetting the undefeated Packers doesn't get him the Chiefs job full time, it most certainly shot him to the top of some other coaching search lists.
$.02-- With no team left undefeated, it is only fitting that no team remains winless too. The Colts cracked their goose egg with a resounding win over the rival Titans, led by two sources that have been sore weaknesses all season long.
Running back Donald Brown broke out for his best game as a pro, churning out 161 yards on just 16 carries, including a team-record 80-yard TD run that iced the victory. Brown has been a disappointment since being the Colts first round pick in 2009, struggling to find holes and to stay upright after first contact. In this game, Brown ran with a decisiveness and aggression that has been heretofore absent, attacking the holes and running through arm tackles. The Titans defense has been no slouch either, led by unheralded rookie LB Colin McCarthy. That provides a glimmer of hope for Brown's future.
The other unexpected source of victory was the Colts defense. Jacob Lacey stole a Matt Hasselbeck throw and ran in back for a touchdown. The 32nd ranked 3rd down defense forced 10 failed conversions, their most of the season. They also stiffened on a late 4th down that essentially ended any Tennessee hope. Indy's D was good enough to force Matt Hasselbeck out of the game not because of his bi-weekly injury but rather his once-a-month battle with cloudy judgment and inaccuracy. They slowed down the resurgent Chris Johnson and displayed a more noticeable physicality all day long.
This loss all but ends Tennessee's playoff hopes. The Titans squandered a great chance to improve their lot, but between Hasselbeck's bad day and the Colts finally rising up, Tennessee was unable to capitalize on the Jets, Ravens, and Raiders all losing. Then again, any team that loses to an 0-13 club and their third quarterback probably doesn't belong in the same sentence as "playoffs" anyways.
$.03-- New Orleans won its sixth in a row in mighty impressive fashion, blowing out the Vikings 42-20. Drew Brees threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns, and could have had more if not for a sloppy start and a 40-yard TD pass wiped out with a penalty. He will surpass Dan Marino's heralded record for most passing yards in a season next week, barring a freak injury or New Orleans only getting the ball a handful of times.
The Saints are peaking at the right time. They did exactly what great teams do, as they trounced a vastly inferior opponent and sucked away all hope of an upset before halftime. Early hiccups--a Jimmy Graham fumble that led to a Vikings FG, a 3-and-out with two Brees incompletions--quickly faded, and from then on the Saints looked very much like the best team in the NFL. It was very interesting to juxtapose this game with the Packers/Chiefs game, which was in the adjacent box on DirecTV's fabulous Channel 702. The Saints imposed their will on the Vikings in all phases of the game, while the Packers struggled to do anything against a humdrum Chiefs team that largely dictated the action in that one. I couldn't help but think that this is the sort of performance that the Saints fans have been chirping about, their justification for why they believe Brees belongs in the MVP conversation and why they feel they are just as good as the Packers. Brees' last four games: 118-for-161, 1454 yards, 14 TDs, zero INTs, nine yards per attempt and a QB Rating of 129.8 in four Saints victories.
On the flip side, the Vikings are a complete disaster. It amazes me that a team with Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and one of the most raucous home crowds in pro sports can be so freaking terrible. I strongly question the move to go back to Christian Ponder, who once again was mistake prone and dreadful. A week after the rookie QB singlehandedly cost the Vikings a win in Detroit, Ponder put up the following line: 14-for-31, 120 yards, two TDs, one INT, four sacks, a pathetic 3.9 yards per attempt. Joe Webb nearly rallied the team to a win last week, but Leslie Frazier refused to yank the carpet from Ponder in this one. At minimum, there should be an open and fair competition for the starting QB job going forward between Ponder and Webb...and perhaps whoever the Vikings might select with the #2 overall draft pick. Then again, they might need to spend that pick on someone that can help a defense that gave up 36 first downs in this ugly loss.
$.04-- The New York Jets remain winless in their history against the Philadelphia Eagles, but none has been more meaningful or embarrassing than Sunday's 45-19 suffocation. This is the type of game Philly fans thought would be commonplace with their cadre of speedy weapons and high-profile secondary. This is also the type of game that the Jets cough up every so often.
Amazingly, the Eagles still have somewhat credible playoff aspirations. They can thank the return of a poised Michael Vick for that. Watching Vick operate this offense after seeing Vince Young stumble around has to make Andy Reid and GM Howie Roseman feel better about handing Vick that $100M contract. Vick was on target all day, completing 15 of his 22 throws. He also didn't take a sack and didn't force the issue; he ran the offense, serving as a facilitator and not a guy trying to win games by himself. That is the way Vick was so successful last year, and perhaps watching Young soil the sheets brought that perspective back to Vick.
Where Vick didn't give this game away, the Jets sure did. Santonio Holmes got stripped of the ball, which Juqua Parker scooped up and ran back 47 yards for the first touchdown of the game. After the Eagles easily marched through the Jets porous, undisciplined defense for two quick scores that made it 21-0 early in the 2nd quarter, The Sanchize did his part to give the game away. On a play that the Eagles radio crew pronounced as "confusion wrapped in disarray", Sanchez got thumped and fumbled, setting up a Lesean McCoy touchdown run that made it 28-0. The Jets showed a pulse in cutting it back a little, but the damage had already been done. Coupled with the Bengals unexpectedly close win over the Rams, the Jets gave away control of their own playoff destiny with this loss. They play the Giants on Christmas Day in a game where the loser is almost certainly eliminated from playoff contention. Survive that and they get the resurgent Dolphins. Yet I'm still pretty confident in the Jets playoff chances. Cincinnati finishes with red-hot Arizona and a Baltimore team that will need to win to secure a much-desired playoff bye. Plus, the Jets have experience in throwing out a late-season clunker like this and rebounding, witness last year's 45-3 Week 13 annihilation by the Patriots. Rex Ryan just might have his team right where he wants it, backs against the wall in desperation mode.
About the Eagles playoff chances: they're not as farfetched as you might think. If the Jets beat the Giants and then the Giants beat the Cowboys--both of which I believe will happen--the Eagles will win the pathetic NFC East by winning out against Dallas and Washington, two teams they've already beaten soundly this year. Stranger things have happened.
$.05-- Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd is now former Bears WR Sam Hurd, but not for the typical reasons teams usually part with their bottom-tier wideouts. Hurd is much more fascinating. He was sent packing because he was arrested for attempting to expand his drug trade kingdom in a way that would impress the Medellin Cartel.
It seems surreal, like the plot of a critically acclaimed cable television series: pro football player by day, cocaine and marijuana kingpin by night. That is apparently the dual life Hurd was leading. And he was no small-time crook either. Hurd got busted for trying to arrange weekly purchases of up to 10 kilograms of coke and half a ton of pot per week to distribute. Half a ton a week?!? That is some serious business, to the tune of over a million dollars a week in potential sales from the wholesale price of between $600-700K.
The story is fairly lengthy, but it appears the feds have a lot of direct evidence to implicate Hurd and lock him away for a long time. I'm neither a legal expert nor a druggie, so my interest in the story has more to do with the ramifications that are coming to the NFL. Judging by Hurd's legitimate vocation and the social circles he was involved in at work, it's fairly obvious his clientele most certainly included fellow NFL players. Few people can afford to cough up that sort of cash on a week by week basis, or have the means to keep that sort of expenditure going.
I asked one of Hurd's former Dallas teammates if he had any notion about what was going on. Off the record he said he was completely stunned, and this is someone who interacted with Hurd extensively in practice and team meetings. The Chicago beat writers have expressed much of the same surprise and chagrin in polling Hurd's newer teammates. But that doesn't mean other players were not involved, and that is where this story is going to get real interesting. I have a strong feeling we have only heard the beginning of this story, and that as more details come out we are going to learn some pretty unsavory details about some NFL players. That Hurd played in Dallas and is involved in drugs is not shocking; this is the franchise that brought us Nate Newton driving a car loaded with over 200 pounds of pot, and Michael Irvin being arrested with a brick of cocaine and two self-employed models (one of my favorite euphemisms of all time), and North Dallas Forty going way back. Perhaps a sequel to that great movie is in order, with special appearances by Tony Montana and the cast of Weeds.
1. The hit that knocked Johnny Knox out of the Bears/Seahawks game made my stomach turn. I don't know if I've ever seen a back bent at that sickening angle before. I hope he winds up being okay but it did not look good. If you haven't seen it, you probably don't want to see it. Early reports are pretty positive, which is very welcome news.
2. Houston's smoke and mirrors act finally went away, as Carolina came to Reliant Stadium and trounced the AFC South champs. TJ Yates finally looked like a rookie QB, while Cam Newton continues to not look like a rookie QB. The general feeling here in Houston is that it was a nice run that was destined to end, and a speed bump like this is probably a good thing going forward to refocus. My take: that's true of what happened to Green Bay, but this Houston team had better win its final two games if they want to taste any playoff success.
3. It is hard for me to fathom that Tom Coughlin can keep his job as Giants coach if his team misses the playoffs. This is the second year in a row the G-Men have followed up a great start with an abysmal collapse. Rex Grossman and the Ethnic Slurs were clearly the better, more prepared team in Washington's surprisingly easy victory. Nice catch, Hakeem Nicks.
4. Detroit extended their NFL record for most double-digit 4th quarter comebacks in a season, notching their fourth when Calvin Johnson firmly established himself as the best WR in the game and Ndamukong Suh blocked a Janikowski FG on the final play of the game. The Lions are now 9-5 and need only one more win to clinch their first playoff berth this century. Easier said than done with San Diego and Green Bay on the schedule, but if Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson continue to perform the way they did at Oakland, not at all unfeasible. They have to stop the asinine penalties, however, and if they miss the playoffs Jim Schwartz must be held accountable for his team's pathetic lack of discipline.
5. Arizona has won seven of their last eight games. Seattle has won five of six. Both are 7-7 and both could be 8-7 headed into their matchup the final Sunday. That is a late game that could wind up being for the final NFC Wild Card spot. If Detroit loses out, which as I mentioned above is certainly possible, these two teams will know going into that game that the winner will make the playoffs. Amazing!
6. I would be remiss to not mention Tim Tebow. New England threw some cold water on that fiery phenomenon with a convincing 42-20 win where they forced Tebow to give up the ball. Let's see how Tebow and the Broncos respond to this loss. They have eminently winnable games against Buffalo and Kansas City let on the schedule and still control their own playoff destiny.
7. San Diego beat Baltimore soundly in the Sunday nighter. I have been a frequent critic of Ravens QB Joe Flacco, but I attribute this loss not to his slow decision making process or oop-de-doop demeanor but rather his egregious display of facial hair. There's no way he can think that thing looks good, right?
-- Last week I compared Temple RB Bernard Pierce to Montee Ball as draft prospects. Pierce did not disappoint in the Owls' bowl game, scoring a pair of early 1-yard TD plunges and then grinding out garbage time yards in Temple's too-easy win over Wyoming. Pierce is not quite as slippery through traffic as Ball, but he displays a similar build, running style, and vision. But the Temple player that captivated my scouting attention was guard Derek Dennis, who routinely blasted defenders backwards and found targets in space. He was hampered by a knee injury late in the season and the offense suffered, but the massive Dennis was in fine form on Saturday and the offense responded. He's very light on his feet for a 325+ pound behemoth and he's got one of the nastiest hand punches around. Teams with power-oriented ground attacks (Washington, New York, Minnesota) would be wise to consider Dennis in the 5th round.
-- Sam Houston State knocked off Montana in one of the FCS (that's I-AA to 99.8% of the world) semifinals, a game that exposed Grizzlies CB Trumaine Johnson as an overrated NFL prospect. Montana plays Tampa-2 zone almost exclusively, but Johnson showed he could not consistently close on the ball under control, a requisite skill for corners in that scheme. He got caught flat-footed several times and gave too much room for Bearkats receivers, and he broke on the ball too high and out of balance on several occasions. Johnson, who is giant for an FCS corner at 6'2" and about 210, did play well in run support, but you have to consider he's as big as some FCS tight ends. I saw little in this game that said "NFL corner" to me, and a recent arrest makes him a character flag as well. I have seen Johnson on a couple other occasions and he played more confident and showed better spatial awareness. But small school guys cannot afford bad days when they get the exposure, and Johnson will have to do some serious damage control to keep his draft stock above free agent status.
-- Bobby Petrino has company in the club of untrustworthy jackass coaches, welcoming new Arizona State coach Todd Graham to the club. Graham left Pittsburgh after one season, less than 12 months after moving from Tulsa. I don't begrudge Graham's decision to move; the Sun Devils are in a better conference and he has roots in Arizona. But the manner in which he left Pitt is despicable, much like Petrino abandoning ship with the Atlanta Falcons after fleeing Louisville under shady circumstances.
Pittsburgh did not give ASU permission to talk to Graham, so the coach had to resign his job to make the move. That meant he had no chance to face the players he promised he would shepherd to national prominence to tell them he was bolting after one up-and-down season. He informed his players he was leaving in a text message sent from the airplane after he landed in Arizona. Classless. I would cut Graham more slack, but this is the second time he's pulled this act. He left Rice, a school he called his "fantasy dream job", after one season to take the Tulsa job. The Owls still have not recovered or forgotten. Here's hoping that Pittsburgh has a better 2012 and beyond than Arizona State.
-- Most everyone who can leave Miami has done so over the past few days, flooding the draft with Hurricanes. The two (and only two) that merit high consideration are running back Lamar Miller and DL Oliver Vernon. Miller is a top 40 overall pick, a strongly built, explosive runner that reminds me of former Hurricane Frank Gore. Vernon doesn't get the hype, in part because he was suspended half the season for taking improper benefits, but he has strong potential as an edge rusher for a 4-3 defense. He's raw and his undisciplined nature bleeds into his game at times, but if you're looking for upside Vernon is your guy in the 3rd or fourth rounds.
$.08-- Ohio University gets its own cent this week, as my alma mater captured the first bowl title in school history. In beating Utah State 24-23 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Ohio Bobcats snapped one of the most futile and inglorious streaks in sporting history. No school had been a member of the top level of NCAA football longer without a postseason victory, and the Bobcats have been among the worst programs at any level for most of the last four decades.
The outpouring of joy and reverence has been overwhelming. Ohio trailed nearly the entire game, surrendering a safety on their second offensive play and looking offensively offensive for the first half. The offense finally woke up, and just in time. When Tyler Tettleton scampered around the right side and into the end zone with 18 seconds left (after an excruciating review rightly overturned a Lavon Brazille TD catch), the Risdon house erupted in joyous cheer. So did my Facebook feed, as nearly 150 of my closest friends and most distant acquaintances came out of the woodwork to express their astonishment and relief.
And that got me to thinking. For all the negativity and anachronistic tidings surrounding the bowl system, winning this obscure bowl game brought out such an amazing and impassioned response from the Bobcat nation. The bowls are important to the schools that are in them, particularly the non-BCS schools. When Temple destroyed Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl earlier on Saturday, it was big news in Philadelphia. Just getting to perhaps the most insignificant bowl ever was enough to get Wyoming coach Dave Christensen a 5-year contract extension. My friend Joey could not be disturbed Saturday night because he was busy watching his hometown Louisiana-Lafayette playing in its first bowl game in his lifetime.
There is a place for the bowls. For fans of MAC, Sun Belt, WAC, and C-USA schools, making a bowl is still a big deal and a reason to celebrate. Even if they are just a gateway into a larger playoff, the Famous Idaho Potato, Little Caesar's, and Pinstripe Bowls all fill a need in the college football landscape. And it's money well spent by the sponsors; I celebrated the Ohio victory by buying a sack of Idaho potatoes and flushed down a shot of vodka, the only liquor distilled from potatoes.