NFL Preview and Notes
Today is one of those 90-degree August days in New York City (actually it’s 73 and rather cool but we took a few days to post this –the editors) that has prompted many a sportswriter to note the incongruity of talking about football—the sport of the harvest while anticipating the inevitable winter freeze. Yet there is always room for football at our national roundtable. Don’t kid yourself: If you follow the NFL, you were clicking on headlines in March about free agency, in April for the draft, in May for minicamps and other miscellany, and in June and July for whatever scraps you could scavenge. Now come the dog days, which means you are preparing your fantasy roster, brushing up on your team’s schedule, and reading about men with million-to-one shots of making any team’s cut. It’s August!
The past few weeks brought us two major stories from the NFL, both sad, both for different reasons.
The Michael Vick Dogfighting Saga
By now you’ve read about the allegations against Atlanta’s star quarterback. The story transcends the sports pages and has become part of the national conversation, and rightly so. Vick has pleaded not guilty to dogfighting conspiracy charges. He is alleged to have sponsored fights, to have raised dogs to fight, and to have killed, sometimes by electrocution or drowning, dogs that lose. (A co-defendant, Tony Taylor, has already pleaded guilty.)
First, I’m not going to waste space explaining what a disgusting practice dogfighting is. Second, I’m not going to waste space explaining that Vick is still innocent and has yet to be tried. Both points have been hammered to death already, and really don’t need to be argued here.
What mystifies me is the backlash, the inevitable implicit defense of this practice from Vick’s peers and other groups and individuals. There should be nothing wrong with stating your opinion in this country, but you better be ready to have that opinion analyzed (which is what I am going to do). Let’s start with another former Falcon, Deion Sanders, who wrote this in the Fort Myers News-Press while trying to take all of us “inside Vick’s mind”:
"I believe Vick had a passion for dogfighting. I know many athletes who share his passion. The allure is the intensity and the challenge of a dog fighting to the death. It’s like ultimate fighting, but the dog doesn’t tap out when he knows he can’t win."
Fascinating, stuff, Mr. Sanders. In fact, I think I can apply this line of thinking to other heinous acts. Let’s try rape. I believe rapists have a passion for rape. The allure is the intensity and the challenge of a woman who doesn’t want to have sex with you. It’s like consensual sex, except the woman can’t say “no” when she’s not in the mood. There now, hopefully you understand where rapists are coming from.
“Who shot Darrant Williams? Remember the Denver Bronco cornerback? I’m just more concerned about bringing to justice someone who killed a human. Or finding out who broke into Miami Heat forward Antoine Walker’s home, tied him up and robbed him at gunpoint. We’re attacking this dogfighting ring the same way a teenager attacks his MySpace page after school (by the way parents, make sure you monitor your kids). We should have the same passion for man that we have for man’s best friend.”
I can say with certainty that given the ultimatum of having to shoot a person or a dog, I would shoot the dog. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prosecuting crimes that don’t involve murder. The “there are bigger problems to worry about” argument is a hollow one. Should we stop pursuing the man who shot Darrant Williams because Osama bin Laden, who has murdered thousands, is still on the loose?
The Passing Away of Bill Walsh
In a famous episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer goes back to college and boards with three geeks. Lisa tells Homer that nerds can be found in all walks of life and include popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher, rock star David Byrne, and Supreme Court Justice David Souter. She might have easily included Bill Walsh, an eggheaded coach who looked and spoke more like a college professor but nevertheless led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, not enough attention was given to former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who died July 30 of leukemia at age 75. I know plenty was written, but when you’re looking at news stories on the Internet and all you see is dogfighting stories, the misadventures of Lindsay Lohan, and the endess debate about steroids in baseball, the story of the congenial Walsh’s passing just doesn’t seem as sexy. It’s a shame, not just because Walsh’s fingerprints are all over the professional game as a coach and talent evaluator. Walsh also represented a kinder, gentler side of the NFL that isn’t emphasized very often in the media today.
Walsh’s football upbringing began as an assistant to Sid Gillman in Oakland and continued with Paul Brown in Cincinnati. Both of these men are in the Hall of Fame for their offensive innovations, particularly in the passing game. Walsh would equal them with his own offensive innovations, which would spread all over the league and earn him the tag of “football genius.”
But anyone who ever listened to him in an interview could tell Walsh’s intelligence went far behind football. In today’s era, coaches try to earn their street cred by speaking like half wits, scowling and acting tough, and regurgitating tired clichés to the point where we wonder if they’re even listening to what they say. (Tony Dungy excepted). Walsh, with his considerable eloquence and calm demeanor, spoke in a placid, paternal tone on camera. I have no doubt that he was as tough on his players as any coach. But among his achievements, Bill Walsh helped perpetuate the notion of professional football as a thinking man’s game rather than just brutal collisions and uncontrolled testosterone.
Now that I’ve gotten those two items out of the way, let’s take a brief look at each team. Bear in mind I don’t go to training camps, play fantasy football, or do much of anything besides watch and read about football, so if you’re looking for “expert analysis,” may I suggest John Clayton. What I can give you is blithe, minimally- researched comments on the state of each team.
“Somehow, Brett Favre is still the best quarterback in the division.”
Even though they are still the best team in the division, it’s like saying Joe Perry is the best looking member of Aerosmith. The Bears showed some courage when they finally dumped troublemaker Tank Johnson, but I’m guessing their defense will continue to carry the team. That’s an easy claim to make when the quarterback is Rex Grossman.
Will I be the 58,000th guy to predict the Lions will turn everything around this season? Well, is Matt Millen still in charge? He is… ok then, no. The Lions will fool a few teams early with their all-wide receiver formation. Who’s gonna throw?
Green Bay Packers
Mike McCarthy, the NFL’s first lazy-eyed coach, got these guys to win four in a row to close out 8-8 last year. I think they beat San Francisco, Detroit, Minnesota, and Ball State in that stretch. GM Ted Thompson told shareholders last month, “I think we’re going to be fine. We’re going to win some games.” Roll over, Lombardi.
Are you as excited as I am to watch the development of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson under head coach Brad Childress? Which is to say, not very. Hey Viking fans, you’ve also got Brooks Bollinger and Drew Henson on the roster. Well, there’s always the Timberwolves, who just traded Kevin Garnett for a Snickers bar and some Garbage Pail Kids.
Wait. This team won the division last year? Man, it has been a long offseason. Apparently the Eagles won five straight to finish 10-6, all with Jeff Garcia under center. They then lost in the divisional round to the Saints. With Donovan McNabb returning, is there any reason to believe any other team in this division will win it?
Now I’m starting to remember things… Tony Romo botched a hold on a field goal and went from hero to goat in the playoffs. Parcells did what Parcells does and retired. Wade Phillips is at the helm. I’m pretty sure Terrell Owens still plays for Dallas, but he’s been pretty quiet lately, hasn’t he? I smell disappointment this season.
New York Giants
This is a frustrating team to watch and read about. Somehow, they got into the playoffs at 8-8 last year. What’s that? Oh, right, they play in the NFC. After a predictable loss in the wild card game, they kept coach Tom Coughlin to kick around some more. Something about watching Eli Manning, Jeremy Shockey, and Plaxico Burress takes all the fun out of watching football, although every so often they will dazzle you. But not often enough.
Will it be a breakout year for quarterback Jason Campbell? Will Joe Gibbs justify his return to coaching with a playoff run? Will any of the Redskins games be watched by me? Doubtful.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were the most exciting team in the conference. I salivated at the possibility of them taking on the Colts in the Super Bowl. They probably would have lost, but not in as embarrassing a manner as Chicago. Now the question is, will they still be America’s sweethearts, or are we sick and tired of them yet? I say, we’re still smitten.
Big disappointment, this team. They got off to a slow start at 0-2 and finished 8-8. I guess you could say they went on an 8-6 run, but that’s not very impressive, is it? The ‘Thers cut ties with Keyshawn Johnson and don’t have much beyond the amazing Steve Smith in their receiving corps.
Even if Vick was returning, and right now that looks unlikely, I am just not high on this team. Simply put, Vick has been trying to prove himself since 2002, and outside of breaking out for 40-yard scrambles, he never looks like he is ever in control of the game. The Falcons may place their fate in the hands of one Joey Harrington. Yep, that one. With all the negativity, here’s a positive note: At least expectations won’t be so high.
Who else is in this division again? Oh yeah, the…
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I remember Chris Simms nearly died during a game. After that, I’m not sure. Did this team play out the rest of the season? Right, they took Chicago to OT in week 15 – that was exciting. The Bucs signed two quarterbacks in the offseason: Jeff Garcia, who presumably will play for them, and Jake Plummer, who won’t.
San Francisco 49ers
What do you suppose is going through George Siefert’s mind these days? The man did win two Super Bowls. Nobody ever brings up his name when talking about coaches, and it’s unlikely he’ll be in the Hall of Fame. True, the first title came on the heels of Walsh’s retirement, but Siefert got the second one in his own right five years later.. Anyway, the ‘Niners looked good last year when they knocked Denver out of the playoff race at Mile High. Good meaning they had their act together.
It’s the 88th season for this franchise, which can best be described as “not particularly storied.” Their new coach is a guy named Ken Whisenhunt, former offensive coordinator for the Steelers. That makes him the 36th head coach in team history. Thirty-six! On average, the Cards hire a new coach every 2.44 years. Start making plans for early 2010, Ken.
Mike Holmgren has been with the Seahawks nine years now; he was in Green Bay only seven. Time is ticking on these fellas, no? Shaun Alexander is 30, Matt Hasselbeck is 32. They went 9-7 last year, like they always seem to do, except in their brilliant 2005 campaign. Seattle started 3-0 before being throttled by the Bears and they never really recovered. I’m sensing that other teams in this division are passing them by.
St. Louis Rams
Football’s loss is broadcasting’s gain as Marshall Faulk hung up his cleats this offseason. The Rams are the “sexy” pick in this division. What’s sexier than the name “Bulger?” How about six years, $62.5 million, $26.5 million guaranteed? That’s what the Rams ponied up for their quarterback. He’s worth it – take a look around the league, there are a lot of mediocre starting quarterbacks out there.
“Just Admit It. You Love Tom Brady.”
New England Patriots
The Pats traded for Randy Moss, all-star receiver, during the draft. They also got Randy Moss, tortured soul. Doubters worry about Moss’ propensity to tear the team apart (his team, the Patriots) and get into trouble. I think it will go the other way. It’s amazing how a successful program can shut someone up. Remember Corey Dillon? To me, the Patriots are the Super Bowl favorites. But I’m just a guy on a laptop.
New York Jets
Eric Mangini has one of the more creative nicknames in sports, “Mangenius.” In a sports world littered with nicknames like “A-Rod” and “Big Ben,” that’s not saying much. Why didn’t they go with “Genie Man”? Maybe when he grants Jets fans their Super Bowl wish, ha. OK, Jets fans, not this year… but this team is going back to the playoffs.
Let’s see, how was their offseason? Nick Saban bolted for Alabama after a 6-10 season that was supposed to be, depending on whom you asked, somewhere between 12-4 and 15-1. The Fish hired former Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who fans can only pray was restrained by Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego. Their big free agent prize, linebacker Joey Porter, was arrested in Las Vegas after an altercation with Levi Jones of – who else? – the Bengals. Actually, Miami’s recent arrest record might make any Bengal blush: Defensive tackle Fred Evans (assaulting a police officer), wide receiver Kelly Campbell (drug possession), and wide receiver Chris Chambers (driving while impaired). They drafted, in essence, a return man (Ted Ginn, Jr. of Ohio State) with their first round pick. And, to top it all off, they pursued and acquired 37-year-old quarterback Trent Green, who in between hospital visits was running Kansas City’s offense last season. But hey, it’s August—every team has a shot, right?
“And I won’t choke like the Buffalo Bills,” boasted Ice Cube a decade and a half ago in his song “Wicked.” Would that the Bills could play well enough to choke these days. Yet, their 2006 wasn’t so bad; they fought in a tough division to 7-9. Now the Bills have an improving team with the one thing every fan, GM, and owner must love: A promising rookie running back. Marshawn Lynch of California should sell plenty of tickets and provide plenty of hope for Bills fans. I don’t know if this team can make a playoff run, but I think they will scare the ruling class in the AFC.
“More blue in our uniforms than any division in football.”
News flash! This team is looking to improve. They cut David Carr and traded for Atlanta’s backup QB, Matt Schaub. They signed Packers halfback Ahman Green for nearly $6 million a year. As my friend Brian would say, they got “took” – Green just turned 30 and hasn’t churned more than 4 yards per carry since 2004. The Drew Carey Show was still on in 2004 – that should put it into perspective. Who’d have thought Drew Carey would be hosting The Price Is Right? What a country.
They’re the Super Bowl champs. You know what that means: more Peyton Manning exposure than ever before! Watch as Peyton consoles a stranger suffering from erectile dysfunction. See a Peyton Manning cameo as a caveman in that new Geico TV show on ABC. Marvel as Peyton joins the McLaughlin Group to discuss the situation in Iraq. Vomit as ESPN.com uses the jokey headline “Peyton Place” on its web site for the billionth time.
Since 1995, their inaugural season, the Jaguars are 61-35 at home. That’s pretty amazing. You always hear about home field advantage based on cold (Green Bay, Buffalo), crowd noise (Kansas City, Minnesota), even altitude (Denver). What about humidity? Isn’t it easier to keep moving in the cold than in oppressive, stifling heat? What about Arizona, you say? Well, that’s a dry heat.
I love alliterative football teams. You know what else I love? Vince Young. If you saw the Titans’ comeback game against the Giants last season, you know what I mean. I’m also a big Jeff Fischer fan… what can you say about a coach who gets his team to 8-8 with a rookie QB after an 0-5—that’s 0-5—start? Young has a new target to aim at in WR Eric Moulds. It won’t exactly be Arnie Herber to Don Hutson, but it will be exciting. And yes, Pacman Jones is suspended for the season, but would you really want him playing with all the trouble he’s caused?
“Our teams keep troublemakers off the streets.”
Just to give you an idea of how unpredictable the NFL is, the Bengals won this division in 2005 (11-5) and were expected to be world beaters last year. They finished 8-8 and out of the tournament. Part of that was due to the loss of two good linebackers, Odell Thurman (suspension) and David Pollack (neck injury). Their rush defense was up and down all season (85 YPG in eight wins, 148 YPG in eight losses). So they dumped DT Sam Adams and at least got a guy five years younger in Kendrick Allen. Allen had two tackles in only two games, while Adams had just eleven tackles in sixteen contests. Somebody warned me once of the folly of statistics of small numbers.
Brady Quinn, the Browns’ heralded, then not so heralded, quarterback out of Notre Dame, held out, presumably for better money than a #22 pick generally would get. Meanwhile, he’s been shilling out autographs at $75 a pop at a mall in Cleveland. He’s off to a real flying start in Cleveland. It’s enough to make Browns fans nostalgic for the halcyon days of the late 90s, when this kind of thing simply didn’t happen.
I honestly believed the Ravens were going to pound the Colts in the playoffs. The scenario was perfect: Rabid Baltimore fans would let loose on the team that spurned them, as a bone-crushing defense smacks Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison to the ground and crushes the ballyhooed Horseshoes. Unfortunately, I forgot that Steve McNair is currently running on a five second tape delay, and quite possibly is colorblind. They did the right thing and said farewell to beaten down RB Jamal Lewis (surprise—Cleveland picked him up!). Now they have Willis McGahee, who is a considerable improvement. With a better running game, McNair won’t be forced to make so many mistakes. We hope.
The era of Cowher Power is over in Pittsburgh. Let the Mike Tomlin era begin. The Steelers finished 8-8 last year. Did everybody finish 8-8 last year? I suppose, in theory, the entire league could finish 8-8. As I write this, the Steelers lead New Orleans, 17-0, at the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. So I don’t even need to preview them, they’re already playing… and they’re doing great!
“CBS loves us.”
What can I say? This team is always good. Except in the final game last season, against the 49ers, Denver needed only a tie—A TIE!—to make the playoffs. The game went into overtime, and the Niners kicked the game winning field goal with just under two minutes remaining. Goodbye, playoffs. Perhaps I am just rubbing it in the faces of Bronco fans, but this team deprived America of a good playoff match-up when it let the Chiefs sneak in and get pounded by Indianapolis.
Kansas City Chiefs
Thirty-three year old running back Priest Holmes has reported to training camp. He hasn’t played since he was knocked out of a game in 2005 with a head and neck injury. Chiefs President Carl Peterson envisions 12 to 14 snaps per game for Holmes. Meannwhile, RB Larry Johnson is a holdout. I read in the Philadelphia Daily News that Johnson wants to be the highest-paid running back in football. Does anyone think Larry Johnson, good as he is, is better than LaDainian Tomlinson?
San Diego Chargers
Whatever happens, you can’t blame it on Marty anymore. Norv Turner… Wade Phillips? No, I’m pretty sure it’s Norv Turner who is taking over. But it might be Ted Marchibroda. I’m also pretty sure I could coach this team to nine or ten wins, so Turner shouldn’t have any problem getting to 12 or 13. Right? I mean, they have Tomlinson, Michael Turner, and Lorenzo Neal in the backfield and an experienced Philip Rivers at quarterback. To say nothing of Shawn Merriman at linebacker and Antonio Gates at tight end. What could possibly go wrong?
This team always makes headlines in the offseason, but during the regular season it’s the closest thing to a guaranteed “W” as most opposing teams will find. They must love it when the Silver and Black show up on their upcoming schedules. In case anyone noticed, the Raiders went 2-14 in 2006. In case anyone remembered, they were coached by Art Shell (again). And in case anyone cares, he was fired. Now comes the fun part: Oakland hired Lane Kiffin, who is 31 years old. In other words, he’s my age, but instead of writing sarcastic comments on a Web site, he’s actually going to be coaching an NFL team. They drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell—smart move—and signed Indy running back Dominic Rhodes. They will play a bunch of equally inept teams this season (including Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Houston, and Minnesota). It’s the best possible scenario for a team coming off a terrible season: Young, hungry coach, rookie blue chip quarterback, and creampuff schedule. Don’t make plans for the playoffs, but anything’s possible, isn’t it?
Opening image: Greg Mills www.gregmills.com