Monthly Archives: January 2011

FR: Super Bowl 45 Storylines

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisbe...

Ben Roethlisberger (left) will be on the spot at Media Day. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, the buildup to the Super Bowl is full of storylines. Some are hype, some are funny, some are ridiculous, and some actually mean something. So on the eve of the spectacle known as Media Day, we’re going to do what we do each year and break down the storylines using our Football Relativity comparison. The 10 level marks the storylines that you’ll hear the most; the 1 level is the storyline that will barely make a ripple.

If you have ideas we overlooked, suggest them via comments and we’ll add them to the comparison.

10 – Big Ben’s redemption – This story is old, because it’s been a full season since Ben Roethlisberger’s legal questions in Georgia, and several months since his league-mandated suspension. But Roethlisberger will be peppered with questions about his past and his future throughout the week. Armchair psychologists will try to determine if he has changed, if he has learned his lesson, whether women have forgiven him, and a multitude of other questions. With Big Ben giving pat answers to such questions all seasons, we can’t expect any revelations or public soul-searching, but the questions will undoubtedly be there.

9 – Aaron Rodgers’ place among the elite QBs today – Rodgers can break the glass ceiling of NFL quarterbacks if he wins this Super Bowl, much like Drew Brees did last year. Before New Orleans’ Super Bowl win, Brees was fighting for inclusion with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning among the league’s best QBs. Now Brees has turned the duo into a threesome. If Rodgers leads the Pack to a win Sunday, he’ll make it a quartet. He already has the regular-season numbers, but a Super Bowl win would vault him over Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and the other good quarterbacks into the land of the great – at least in terms of national perception. This storyline will be a talking-head go-to this week.

8 – Big Ben’s place among the elite QBs all-time – While Rodgers is out to solidify his ranking among the quarterbacks of today, Big Ben has history at stake. If he gets another Super Bowl win, he’ll join the Troy Aikman/Brady class with three rings, trailing just Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw on the all-time list. The list of QBs with two rings includes many greats – John Elway, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese – but also Jim Plunkett, a good but not great. Roethlisberger can cement his lasting legacy (and strengthen his Hall of Fame case) by moving from the two-ring to the three-ring club.

7 – Packers IR controversy – Maybe it was the lull of the bye week, but the story about how the Packers were treating their 16 players on injured reserve blew up last week and will linger into media day. A quick review: First, the Packers announced that their IR players wouldn’t arrive in Texas until Thursday, which would leave them out of the team photo that happens Tuesday. Nick Barnett and JerMichael Finley took to Twitter to protest being left out, and the Packers rescheduled the photo until Friday. Then Rodgers publicly criticized players who were doing their rehab away from Green Bay, even though that’s a fairly typical decision for players. Again, Barnett and Finley (among others) took offense. The Packers will claim the waters have been smoothed over, but questions will persist all week and especially when injured players are available to the media later in the week.

6 – Looming lockout – Because both commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith will hold press conferences this week, the looming lockout will be front-page news. There will be plenty of posturing, and both sides will try to win the battle of public perception. Who knows who will win; but we do know for sure that headlines will be forthcoming.

5 – Hines Ward retirement – Some stories have percolated suggesting that Ward, the long-time Steelers receiver and Super Bowl 40 MVP, might retire were the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. But Ward has said his third ring won’t be enough to transition him out of the game. Still, reports are out there enough that Ward will have to declare he’s coming back more than once to the media onslaught this week.

4 – Steelers injuries – Both teams have injuries, but the Steelers’ are higher profile. Reports say that Pro Bowl rookie center Maurkice Pouncey is out, although the team hasn’t officially ruled him out. Star defensive end Aaron Smith faced an early-week MRI that will determine whether he’s able to play. Former first-round pick Ziggy Hood has played quite well in Smith’s stead, which could allow the Steelers to bring Smith back in a limited role. But Pouncey’s replacement, Doug Legursky, will be a pretty significant drop-off from Pouncey’s level of play. That makes this an on-field issue worth talking about this week.

3 – Clay Matthews’ stardom – Aside from Rodgers, the Packer with the most to gain from a marketing standpoint this week is Matthews, the star outside linebacker and third-generation NFL player. Matthews has a distinctive look and two fine pro seasons, and that will make him a popular target of questions, especially by the non-traditional media. It’ll be interesting to see if Matthews can become a breakout star this week.

2 – none

1 – Packers injuries – While the Packers would like to have either OLB Frank Zombo or Erik Walden available Sunday to start across from Clay Matthews, this isn’t a make-or-break proposition for the Packers. However, it is an excuse for us to declare once again that Zombo is the best surname in the NFL. It’s a name fit for an X-Man or a wrestler, and it’s his real last name. We want him to be a star just so we can hear ZOMBO more often.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL games, NFL organizations, NFL playoffs, Super Bowl

FR: Pro Football Hall of Fame 2011 Class

Deion Sanders (left) and Marshall Faulk should lead the class of 2011

Each year on FootballRelativity.com, we compare the 17 Hall of Fame finalists in terms of whom we think should be elected. So here’s a look at this year’s contenders for enshrinement in Canton. (Here are links to a comparison of last year’s finalists, and thoughts on the class that was elected.)

Jerome Bettis– Running Back – 1993-95 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1996-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (first year eligible)
Tim Brown – Wide Receiver/Kick Returner – 1988-2003 Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (repeat finalist)
Cris Carter – Wide Receiver – 1987-89 Philadelphia Eagles, 1990-2001 Minnesota Vikings, 2002 Miami Dolphins (repeat finalist)
Dermontti Dawson– Center – 1988-2000 Pittsburgh Steelers (repeat finalist)
Richard Dent – Defensive End – 1983-1993, 1995 Chicago Bears, 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1996 Indianapolis Colts, 1997 Philadelphia Eagles (repeat finalist)
Chris Doleman– Defensive End/Linebacker – 1985-1993, 1999 Minnesota Vikings, 1994-95 Atlanta Falcons, 1996-98 San Francisco 49ers (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Marshall Faulk – Running Back – 1994-98 Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2005 St. Louis Rams (first time eligible)
Charles Haley – Defensive End/Linebacker – 1986-1991, 1999 San Francisco 49ers, 1992-96 Dallas Cowboys (repeat finalist)
Chris Hanburger– Linebacker – 1965-1978 Washington Redskins (seniors candidate)
Cortez Kennedy– Defensive Tackle – 1990-2000 Seattle Seahawks (repeat finalist)
Curtis Martin – Running Back – 1995-97 New England Patriots, 1998-2005 New York Jets (first year eligible)
Andre Reed – Wide Receiver – 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills, 2000 Washington Redskins (repeat finalist)
Les Richter – Linebacker – 1954-1962 Los Angeles Rams (seniors candidate)
Willie Roaf– Tackle – 1993-2001 New Orleans Saints, 2002-05 Kansas City Chiefs (first year eligible)
Ed Sabol– Founder/President/Chairman – 1964-1995 NFL Films (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Deion Sanders – Cornerback/Kick Returner/Punt Returner – 1989-1993 Atlanta Falcons, 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1995-99 Dallas Cowboys, 2000 Washington Redskins, 2004-05 Baltimore Ravens (first year eligible)
Shannon Sharpe – Tight End – 1990-99, 2002-03 Denver Broncos, 2000-01 Baltimore Ravens (repeat finalist)

Let’s play relativity. 10 points will be an automatic yes vote, 1 point is someone who should not be a finalist again.
(By the way, all links to players are from the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, which is home to an incredible trove of research. Consider this a recommendation.)

10 – Deion Sanders – Sanders wasn’t the most complete corner ever, but he may have been the best cover man of his or any era. Combine that with his electric returning ability, and you have a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Sanders’ career was a bit strange because he played both in the NFL and in Major League Baseball, and because of his prodigous ego and love of the spotlight he bounced around quite a bit. But there was plenty of substance beneath the flash. The accolades are there – a member of the all-1990s team, eight Pro Bowl appearances and six All-Pro nods, and two Super Bowl rings – but the fact that Sanders at his apex was the scariest player on the field is enough for us. Some voters might be put off by Sanders’ bombastic nature or his unwillingness to tackle, but even those issues won’t be enough to keep Sanders out of the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

9 – Marshall Faulk – Of the three running backs on the ballot for the first time this year, we believe Faulk is the clear-cut leader of the group for first-year enshrinement. Faulk was the ideal running back for the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis because he was just as deadly catching the ball out of the backfield as he was running the ball. He won league MVP honors in both 2000 and 2001 and was part of two Rams Super Bowl teams. And that St. Louis dominance came after an incredibly productive five-year stint with the Colts. Faulk played 13 years, and his rushing total of 12,279 place him 10th all time, below fellow nominees Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis. But Faulk added another 6,875 receiving yards, which is the reason we put him ahead of those two nominees. In yards from scrimmage, Faulk is fourth all time, behind only Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton. That elite company better reflects Faulk’s career. We believe Faulk deserves enshrinement right away, even if it comes at the expense of Martin and Bettis in 2011.

8 – Cris Carter – We don’t get it. For the last two years, we’ve endorsed Carter as a Hall of Famer. In our minds, he’s an easy choice over fellow finalists Andre Reed and Tim Brown at the position, as well as a narrow choice over receiving tight end Shannon Sharpe. But apparently that clump of receivers in the final 17 have kept Carter out. Instead, seniors candidate Bob Hayes and no-brainer Jerry Rice have been enshrined the last two years. Carter will still need to clear Brown and Reed, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Carter has 1,101 career catches to place third all-time. That’s seven more catches than Brown (despite playing one fewer season) and 150 more than Reed. And Carter was always on the list of the five best receivers in the league throughout the 1990s, as shown by his all-decade team accolades. At some point, voters will have to admit the next receiver, and Carter should be the guy.

7 – Ed Sabol – Sabol has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for many years, but he finally crossed into finalist territory this year. He’s become a cause celebre of Peter King and others for his role in creating NFL Films. For nearly 50 years, NFL Films has promoted and propagated the popularity of the NFL. Sabol started NFL Films and worked there until retiring in 1995. It’s hard to compare a contributor like Sabol to a class otherwise filled with players, but if ever a contributor deserved one of the seven Hall of Fame spots, it’s Sabol. Our hunch is that there’s enough momentum behind him that he’ll be inducted now that he has finally made it to finalist status.

7 (con’t) – Richard Dent – We’ve endorsed Dent for enshrinement the last two years, but he’s been passed over for Derrick Thomas in 2009 and John Randle last year. Dent was a dominant force for the classic Bears teams in the 1980s, and he won Super Bowl 20 MVP honors. He has 137.5 career sacks, which doesn’t live up to the total Chris Doleman posted but doesn’t reflect Dent’s dominance. Dent has been a finalist every year since 2005, and at some point he has to get over the hump. Given the defensive crop this year, it may be now or never for Dent. We believe it should be now.

7 (con’t) – Chris Hanburger – It’s never easy for us to evaluate the seniors candidates, but history indicates that most of them win election if they make it past the seniors committee. That bodes well for Hanburger, who started at linebacker for the Redskins for 14 years in the 1960s and 70s. With four All-Pro selections and nine Pro Bowl nods, Hanburger has the resume to merit election, and the fact that he started 135 straight games during the prime of his career is a good sign as well. He had a great career given the fact that he started out as an 18th-round draft pick, and it now appears that this career could well end up in the Hall of Fame.

6 – Shannon Sharpe – Tight end isn’t a prolific position in terms of producing Hall of Famers, and that plus the surplus of receivers have worked against Sharpe in his candidacy thus far. Like Dent, we have endorsed Sharpe the first two years of this post, and we’re doing so again. He merits inclusion, because he was the perfect West Coast offense tight end. He wasn’t an outstanding blocker, but he was effective, and he played a key role on three Super Bowl teams – two in Denver and one in Baltimore. But Sharpe is 250 catches (and counting) behind Tony Gonzalez, which isn’t helping his cause. But Sharpe’s high level of play for championship teams is something Gonzalez can’t rival. Sharpe deserves induction.

6 (con’t) – Les Richter – Richter, already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, played his entire nine-year career for the Rams, who had acquired him in an 11-for-1 deal. He debuted two years after being drafted, after serving in the military, and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons as a linebacker. He also served as a placekicker and even played some center for the Rams. No wonder he was first- or second-team All-Pro in each of his first six seasons. Now that Richter has made it past the seniors committee, the late Richter should find his way into the Hall of Fame.

5 – Curtis Martin – Martin was rarely a great, but he was very good for a long time for the Patriots and Jets. As a result, his accumulated totals put him in the pantheon of the all-time greats. But Martin made just five Pro Bowls in his 11 seasons, and he was an All-Pro just twice and led the league in rushing just once. That makes his candidacy wobbly, despite the fact that he’s currently the fourth all-time rusher in the league. Martin’s going to be an interesting case, because he (like Bettis and future nominee Edgerrin James and Fred Taylor) have monstrous numbers but rare moments of dominance. That, to us, means that Martin doesn’t pass the smell test, at least in his first season. Faulk must go in ahead of Martin, and while Martin leads Bettis, we don’t see room for more than one running back in this year’s class. Maybe Martin will sneak in in the future, but this shouldn’t be his year.

5 (con’t) – Dermontti Dawson – We moved Dawson down a level from last year, because while we would still vote for him, we don’t have a good feeling about his chances. Dawson played 13 years and was a six-time All-Pro, which clearly established him as the best center of the 1990s. He had a long career and was dominant at his position. For Dwight Stephenson a decade before him, that meant induction. But Dawson needs to get in soon, before other linemen like Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, and Jonathan Ogden start hitting the ballot. Otherwise Dawson’s wait will be prolonged.

4- Charles Haley – Haley’s an interesting case, because he was such a big factor for two dynastic teams – the 49ers and the Cowboys. As a result, he has an unprecedented five Super Bowl rings. That’s the cornerstone of his Hall of Fame candidacy. He also played well both as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker, which is a credit to his ability. but his sack numbers – 100.5 – pale in comparison to Richard Dent and Chris Doleman, making it hard to justify choosing Haley over those players. It wouldn’t be a travesty to put Haley in the Hall of Fame, but there are more deserving guys in the group of finalists this year.

4 (con’t) – Cortez Kennedy – When Kennedy first showed up on the Hall of Fame radar, we wrote off his candidacy, but he seems to be a legitimate borderline candidate. He was a dominant defensive tackle for years, although the fact that he played in Seattle his entire career kept him under the radar to some degree. Still, he earned eight Pro Bowl berths and three All-Pro nods, made the 1990s All-Decade team, and won defensive player of the year honors in 1992. Kennedy’s position keeps him from having numbers to bolster his case, but he was a dominant force, and that may be enough to sneak him into a class as a compromise candidate.

4 (con’t) – Willie Roaf – Roaf played in a golden era of tackles, yet he still carved out a niche as an elite left tackle. He wasn’t quite the pass blocker that Walter Jones or Jonathan Ogden were, but like Orlando Pace he was a good pass blocker who also handled his business in the run game. The question is how many of those tackles will get into the Hall of Fame, because Roaf is probably third or fourth in that elite group. With six first-team and three second-team All-Pro nods,  Roaf clearly belongs among those four, and the former Saint and Chief also made the all-decade team for both the 1990s and the 2000s. And coming up for election before the other three guys could help him, since the ballot isn’t as crowded at this point. We could see Roaf getting in, but our sense is that he should probably wait until at least Jones and Ogden of his contemporaries get in first.

3 – Tim Brown – Brown was a terrific player for many years, and the former Heisman Trophy winner is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame based on his Notre Dame career. But we believe he falls just short of the level required to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Brown has 1,094 career catches, placing him fourth all-time. He was also a dynamic return man for much of his career. But Brown never was the dominant receiver of his era – while he was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a 1990s All-Decade player, he wasn’t ever a first-team all-pro. So to us, Brown doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer. We won’t start a riot if he gets in, but like Curtis Martin, Brown falls just below the standard to us.

2 – Jerome Bettis – Bettis is perhaps the trickiest of any of this year’s first-time nominees, because he had a strange career. Here’s the good of his candidacy: He is fifth all-time in rushing yards, thanks to eight 1,000-yard seasons with the Rams and Steelers. He’s also a unique player – the first big back to be a full-time runner instead of a short-yardage specialist. But Bettis made the transition to short-yardage specialist late in his career, and in his last eight years he averaged more than four yards a carry just once. He declined pretty quickly after age 30, and he also had two below-par years early in his career. So while Bettis had four great seasons and impressive career statistics, to us he is not a Hall of Fame back. He certainly falls below Marshall Faulk in the pecking order, and we’d prefer Curtis Martin as well. Bettis’ gregarious nature will help his chances, but ultimately he feels like a lost cause in terms of Canton.

2 (con’t) – Andre Reed – Reed was a great receiver for the Bills’ teams in the early 1990s, and his career total of 951 receptions for more than 13,000 yards is impressive. But he’s not a Hall of Famer. He was never an All-Pro – considered one of the top two receivers in the league in any given year. He was a second-team all-pro just twice. He did make seven Pro Bowls, and he was a key part of Buffalo’s AFC dynasty. But compared to other receivers like Cris Carter, Shannon Sharpe, and even Tim Brown, he doesn’t measure up. That’s why we’ve moved Reed down our comparison vs. last year. Reed belongs in the Hall of the Very Good, not the Hall of Fame.

1 – Chris Doleman – Doleman has been eligible for several years, but he moved into the realm of the finalists for the first time this year. And his chances are tied almost solely to his sack total. He had 150.5 career sacks, good for fifth all-time, and parlayed his ability to get to the quarterback into three first-team All-Pro selections and eight Pro Bowl berths. We’d prefer Richard Dent to Doleman, but strange things have happened in the pass-rushing category in recent years, so we can’t write Doleman off completely. Still, for our tastes he was too much of a one-dimensional player to merit inclusion in Canton.

So who will make it in? We believe Sanders and Faulk are shoo-ins, and we also think Richter and Hanburger will get thumbs up. That leaves three spots. Sabol gets one of those spots, while the other two should go to Carter and Dent. We’ve been wrong on those last two for two years running, but we’ll assert once again that this should be their year.

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Filed under Football Relativity, preja vu, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Titanic change

Jeff Fisher

Image via Wikipedia

We thought the NFL head-coaching carousel had stopped spinning, but the Titans had a surprise in store Thursday as they announced they were parting ways with longtime head coach Jeff Fisher.

Fisher had been in charge of the Titans since their final year as the Houston Oilers, way back in 1994. Since leading the franchise through an extended location switch that included a stopover in Memphis, Fisher has put together a solid 142-120 regular-season record and been the most successful former interim coach in the last two decades. Fisher’s run included six playoff berths and a trip to Super Bowl 34, the first such trip in the franchise’s history. Fisher was a picture of stability – never changing his hardnosed style. He’s had strong running games and aggressive defenses – spurring former coordinators Gregg Williams and Jim Schwartz into head-coaching jobs. But Fisher clashed with owner Bud Adams this year over quarterback Vince Young, a favorite of the owner. Young is reportedly still on the way out, but that clash made the specter of a lame-duck contract year in 2011 untenable for both Fisher and the Titans. Now he’s on the way out, leaving the Titans without the figurehead who has defined them for so many years.

The timing of Fisher’s departure, after the other seven head-coaching vacancies were already filled, means that he won’t be coaching this year. That may have been the plan, since the Titans are on the hook for his 2011 salary anyway. Don’t fret for Fisher – he’ll have options in 2012 if he wants to return to coaching. He’s also been incredibly media-friendly over the years, so landing a job with a network – even for just a year – is possible as well. (To show you Fisher’s media-friendly ways: When I was at Pro Football Weekly, I was doing a story and wanted a quote from Fisher. I called the team’s PR staff to ask them to ask Fisher one question and forward me the answer. Instead, Fisher preferred to call me for a quick conversation on the topic. No other head coach ever went that far to be available to an ink-stained wretch like me.) Fisher will land on his feet, and will have a chance to build on a resume that’s pretty dang impressive even if it doesn’t feature a Super Bowl ring.

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Palmer’s plan

Carson Palmer under center against the Pittsbu...

Image via Wikipedia

Last week, we created a post about quarterbacks who might be available on the open market this offseason. Over the weekend, reports emerged that added Bengals QB Carson Palmer’s name to the list. Palmer demanded a trade from the Bengals, threatening to retire if he isn’t.

Given that demand, we thought we’d look at Palmer’s worth and who he might be an answer for.

Palmer, the top overall pick in the 2003 draft, has been a seven-year starter for the Bengals. He’s played well at times, but since he suffered a torn ACL in the playoffs following the 2005 season, he hasn’t played at the same level. This season, he threw 20 interceptions but also threw 26 touchdowns, and his play after Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco were out for the year, he played better down the stretch.

The Bengals say that they won’t trade Palmer and won’t even listen to offers, and owner/GM Mike Brown is just stubborn enough to make that statement stick. But if Palmer threatens to retire – which is his only real leverage, given that he is under contract till 2014 – the Bengals may have no choice to back down. That could be awkward, because Carson’s younger brother Jordan is the Bengals’ backup right now.

Palmer is no longer an elite quarterback, but he’s still able to play at an above-average level. In a vacuum, that means he’s worth a price just below what the Eagles got for Donovan McNabb last season – a second-round and fourth-round pick. While a team in desperate need of a quarterback might be willing to pay that reasonable price, taking on Palmer’s high-ticket contract for the next four seasons is going to be untenable for most teams.

So that high price, plus the Bengals’ stubbornness, makes a Palmer deal look unlikely. And that means for Palmer’s plan to come true, he must play hardball and make retirement look more like reality than an attempt for leverage.

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AFC Conference Championship Thoughts

Rashard Mendenhall breaks through the Jets for his first-quarter TD

We’re looking back at the two conference championship games individually. In this post, we focus on the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets. (For the NFC thoughts, click here.)

*Ben Roethlisberger did not have a pretty game, but he did a few things that make him such a dangerous quarterback in the postseason. First, he ran the ball well – running for 21 yards and a touchdown, and notching a couple of key first downs in the process. Secondly, even though he was not sharp throwing the ball on the whole, he completed key passes to Heath Miller and Antonio Brown that allowed the Steelers to run the clock out when they got the ball back with three minutes remaining. So even though he was 10-for-19 for 133 yards with two interceptions (one of which came on a deflection) and a couple of other dicey throws, Roethlisberger gets a gold star for this game.
*Mark Sanchez didn’t win, but he showed an immense amount of toughness for the Jets. He was absolutely battered in the first half, culminating with a sack that led to a Pittsburgh defensive touchdown that extended the Steelers’ lead to 24-0. But Sanchez rallied and played well in the second half, throwing touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery and nearly leading the Jets back from a huge deficit. Sanchez is a winner, and as he develops as a passer his gifts as a leader will continue to really emerge.
*The Steelers completely controlled the game in the first half, starting with a nine-minute drive on their opening possession. And the defense held the Jets to a single net yard over the first 29 minutes of the game. While Pittsburgh didn’t keep that pace up throughout the game, the first half was where they won the game.
*We’ve never been huge Rashard Mendenhall fans, but he had perhaps his finest game Sunday. He ran for 127 yards, and he did it with a style that was both physical and shifty. We’ve never though Mendenhall had the ability to make things happen on his own, but he did just that against the Jets, especially early on. He would give ground and then successfully retake it, and that is something that we haven’t seen from him. Good for him for stepping up at a key time.
*The Steelers have hit on a lot of first-round picks in recent years on defense, even if it took those players time to develop. Ziggy Hood, who’s done a fine job filling in for Aaron Smith at defensive end, had two early stuffs to help to set the tone for the defense, and Lawrence Timmons led the team with 10 tackles from his inside linebacker spot. Adding those guys to dynamic players like S Troy Polamalu, NT Casey Hampton, and OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley makes the defense even scaries. That defense dominated the first half and stepped up in the second half with a goal-line stop in the middle of the fourth quarter.
*The other Jet who we have high praise for is WR Santonio Holmes, who had a 35-yard touchdown catch to continue his trend of strong postseason play. Holmes also ran a beautiful route to create a pick play that Cotchery exploited for the Jets’ final touchdown. Holmes doesn’t have huge numbers, but he plays as a No. 1 receiver every year in the playoffs. The Jets must re-sign him.
*The Maurkice Pouncey injury is a big one for the Steelers. They really need their rookie Pro Bowl center to recover from his high ankle sprain and return against the Packers, who have incredible athletes up front in their 3-4.

Santonio Holmes another big playoff play – always steps up at key times

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NFC Conference Championship Thoughts

B.J. Raji celebrates his interception for a TD

We’ll look back at the two conference championship games individually. First up, the rivalry game in the NFC, in which the Green Bay Packers advanced to the Super Bowl with a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears.

*Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the superhuman that he had been in the first two playoff games, but he did enough to get the job done for the Packers. He threw two interceptions (detailed below), and while he didn’t throw a TD pass, he did throw for 244 yards and run for 39 yards and a score. And now Rodgers is a Super Bowl quarterback, with the chance to rightly join the game’s elite with a win in two weeks.
*Obviously, the big headline from this game from the Bears’ perspective is the Jay Cutler knee injury. He had to leave the game early in the third quarter due to an injury that he didn’t remember, and the Bears soon had to turn to third-stringer Caleb Hanie after Todd Collins reminded everyone he was not only old but ineffective. It’s not a good performance by Cutler, who was just 6-for-14 for 80 yards, including an interception late in the second quarter that cost the Bears a scoring chance. The fact that Cutler left the game will obviously be the cause of much consternation from Bears fans, but the fact that Cutler didn’t have his helmet after being pulled may indicate it wasn’t his decision. Regardless, it wasn’t a franchise quarterback performance from a QB for whom the Bears paid a premium.
*Hanie played well in relief of Cutler and Collins, leading the Bears’ first scoring drive thanks to a beautiful 32-yard pass to Johnny Knox that set up Chester Taylor’s one-yard TD run. He also threw a great pass to Earl Bennett that turned into a 35-yard touchdown. Hanie finished the game with 153 yards passing, and definitely provided a spark. But Hanie also threw a Cutler-esque interception to B.J. Raji, a nose tackle who had dropped into coverage on a zone blitz. Raji took the ball 18 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7, and that touchdown proved to be the difference. And Hanie’s fourth-down interception to Sam Shields cemented the game for the Packers.
*The Packers got off to a quick start with three 20-yard-plus passing plays, all to the same spot on the field. Rodgers picked on the seam in the zone behind the undersized Tim Jennings and in front of safety Chris Harris, who was playing despite a hip injury suffered last week. Those three plays – two to Greg Jennings and one to Jordy Nelson – set up Rodgers’ one-yard TD run for the game’s first score. The Packers exploited that spot at least three more times for big gains throughout the game. It was clear early on that they wanted to test Harris to see just how soft that spot in the zone would be.
*The Packers have stars on defense like Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, but it was the lesser known guys that really starred in this game. Cullen Jenkins produced a ton of pressure, especially early, notching half a sack and two tackles for loss. Nickelback Shields had a sack and forced fumble on Cutler to stop one drive in the second quarter, and then he picked off Cutler to stop the Bears’ last drive before the half and picked off Hanie to salt away the game in the final minute. And Desmond Bishop was also a nice factor for the defense with eight tackles, including a key tackle for loss on the next-to-last Bears snap of the game. Those performances show just how deep the Pack is.
*For the Bears, the defensive star was no surprise – Brian Urlacher. Urlacher piled up stats in several categories – a sack, a tackle for loss, and an interception near the goal line to stop a Green Bay scoring pass – and seemed to be the guy stepping up to make big plays over and over again. Julius Peppers didn’t fill up the stat sheet nearly as much, notching just two tackles, but he provided pretty consistent pressure and drew a holding penalty that was as good as a sack. However, Peppers also got a 15-yard personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Rodgers.
*James Starks had a good game for the Packers, but the best running back on the field was Matt Forte. Forte thrived throughout the game, despite Chicago’s QB problems. Starks ran for 74 yards and a touchdown, while Forte ran for 70 yards and had 90 receiving yards on 10 catches.
*The Bears’ lone glimmer of hope in the first half came on a fluky play, when Donald Driver bobbled a low pass, and then Lance Briggs caught the carom off Driver’s foot for an interception. The play, which was reminiscent of how Seattle’s Mike Williams caught his second touchdown against Chicago’s Charles Tillman in the divisional round, gave Chicago a chance at a two-minute drive, but Cutler threw an interception to quell that rally. Still, the deflection was Rodgers’ first interception this postseason.
*It’s hard to imagine a team having a better fourth receiver than Nelson, who had eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta and followed it up with another big day against the Bears with four catches for 67 yards against the Bears. Rodgers has a lot of trust in Nelson, even though he’s down the depth chart from Jennings, Driver, and James Jones.

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Quarterback problems for 2011

Can Colt McCoy be the answer to the Browns' QB problems?

As a companion to our piece on potential quarterback solutions for 2011, we’re breaking down the NFL teams that face quarterback problems in the coming season. We’ll analyze what the problem is and what kind of quarterback might be a solution. Teams are listed alphabetically.

Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals fell off the map this season in part because of horrific quarterback play. Derek Anderson, who got a three-year contract in the offseason, proved to be far too mistake-prone to balance out his strong arm, while rookies John Skelton (a late-round pick) and Max Hall (who was undrafted) proved they are not ready for prime time. Hall or Skelton (or both) could still develop, but the Cardinals have to upgrade from Anderson in the veteran department in case that development remains slow. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Buffalo Bills – The Bills may have at least a short-term answer at quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 starts this year. So the Bills’ best move is to add a mid-round draft pick who could develop into a starting-quality guy in 2-3 years. Suggestion: Add a developmental rookie

Carolina Panthers – Matt Moore plummeted from late bloomer to mere backup, so he’ll be allowed to leave via free agency this offseason. The real question for the Panthers, then, is whether Jimmy Clausen is a potential quarterback answer. Clausen has talent but hasn’t been able to perform when put under pressure. The new coaching staff must decide whether Clausen will grow in that area or not. And with Andrew Luck returning to school, the Panthers probably don’t have the luxury of taking a chance on a rookie quarterback with the first overall pick. So the move right now is to add a competitive veteran, or at least a placeholding veteran, and make Clausen develop enough to win the job outright. If he can’t do so this year, then it’s time to start completely over. Suggestion: Add a competitive or a placeholding veteran

Cleveland Browns – The Browns got a promising performance from rookie Colt McCoy last season, and Jake Delhomme is still around. While we still question whether McCoy can be a long-term answer, the Browns’ best move at this point is to add a competitive veteran and see if McCoy can really seize the job. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Miami Dolphins – Chad Henne had a bad year, losing his job at one point and struggling at many points. And Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen are both free agents. The Dolphins can’t go into the season depending on Henne alone. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Minnesota Vikings – After the Brett Favre experiment went 1-for-2, the Vikings have to start over at quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson is a free agent, and Joe Webb, while promising, is merely a developmental prospect. The Vikings need to add franchise quarterback of the future this offseason if possible, and then bring in a placeholder veteran to serve as starter during the youngster’s development. Suggestion: Add an elite rookie and a placeholder veteran

Oakland Raiders – New head coach Hue Jackson’s mission is likely to turn Jason Campbell into a winner, but with Bruce Gradkowski a free agent, the Raiders may want to add a competitive veteran to ensure Campbell doesn’t collapse. Keeping Gradkowski would suffice. Suggestion: Keep Gradkowski or add a competitive veteran

Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles are deep at quarterback with Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb, and developmental 2010 rookie Mike Kafka, so their problem is an embarrasment of riches that leads to future planning questions. Vick is a free agent, but there’s no way the Eagles let him leave the nest. The question is whether to keep Kolb or get a ransom of draft picks for him. That largely depends on how advanced Kafka is, which is a question only those who have seen him in practice can answer. So the safest move is to re-sign Vick and keep Kolb for one more year. Suggestion: Keep Vick

San Francisco 49ers – The Niners vacillitated between Alex Smith and Troy Smith last year, and now both are free agents. If they can bring in a veteran like Matt Hasselbeck or Donovan McNabb, that would be the ultimate move. If not, they need to add a young prospect and a veteran who can play well enough to force the prospect to take the job instead of merely having it handed it him. Suggestion: Bring in a starter

Seattle Seahawks – Matt Hasselbeck is a free agent, and given the Seahawks’ investment in Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason, it’s hard to see them giving Hasselbeck a multiyear contract to stay as their starter. We believe the best investment is to let Hasselbeck leave and bring in a cheaper veteran to compete with Whitehurst, who played well in his final start of the 2010 season. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran to replace Hasselbeck

Tennessee Titans – The Titans want Vince Young out of town, and veteran backup Kerry Collins is a free agent. Rusty Smith struggled terribly in his lone rookie start, which means he’s nothing more than a development project right now. The time is now for the Titans to add a high-round rookie and a veteran to mentor him. Collins could serve as that mentor if the Titans want to keep him around. Suggestion: Add an elite rookie and a placeholder veteran

Washington Redskins – Rex Grossman is a free agent, and Donovan McNabb is under contract but out of favor. Ironically, the Redskins’ best move is to let McNabb go and keep Grossman, while adding a rookie who can develop into a starter. Redskins ownership will have to fall on their swords and admit bringing McNabb in was a mistake for this to happen, but wisdom dictates they must do so. Suggestion: Re-sign Grossman, trade McNabb, draft a developmental rookie

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