Tag:football
Posted on: October 12, 2012 10:01 pm
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-6

Stock Slide in Packerland

Life can turn on a dime. One day you’re on top a’ the world, feeling “eight-feet tall (J. Garfield)” the next day you’re flat on your back, staring-up & hoping someone got the license of the truck that just ran you over.

That’s how the Green Bay Packers must be feeling about now. This time last year they’re reigning champs, working on perfection and making mince-meat out of opponents. The dynasty word is being bantered about, their nemesis to the West is a mess and Favre’s ghost seems pretty well exercised. Then along come the Chiefs.

KC looked harmless enough on the schedule but when it was over, the stunned & beaten Packers were…different. First came the early playoff exit (Giants), then the stumble to start 2012 (49ers) and shockers in both Seattle & Indy. This isn’t just personnel & play-calling, though, another ball-carrier, pair of hands and some O-line help couldn’t hurt.

Packers lost something at Arrowhead that afternoon and haven’t gotten it back. They still own the Bears but, c‘mon. If you know what it is, give Mike a call. It’ll mean season-tickets for life. They’ll have to ‘remove’ somebody to get ‘em, but hey, gotta’ take one for the team, right? I jest, but maybe a good chuckle is just what these guys need.

Everyone gripes now & then but elite teams don’t whine (“I think the refs are out to get us this year” / anonymous Packer / MJSO / “Flags” / Nickel / 10-9). GB won’t get swagger back pouting on the referees. But not to worry Packer-backers, remember, this is the NFC North. Vikes are a year off, Bears tooth-long and the Lions are Mr. Suh’s team. Ouch. So buy Green Bay stock now as that next Packers’ win puts their ship back on course for a division they still own.

Luck Looking Pro, RG3 Not So

It’s been a wild & crazy NFL 2012 so far, with the referee thing, game-outcomes you might just as well use a dart-board to predict and no clear front-runner for MVP. As such, these two cats are still plenty topical.

If you took a poll today Rob would win going away. But polls are popularity contests. Casual fans, marketers & media just adore the ‘athletic’ or run-QB. He’s in vogue and RG3 rules the runway with run mechanics (42 / 241 yd / 4 RTD) and fine QB rating (101). Yawn. Like Andy, the Skins’ QB was thrown into the fire and gets big points for composure. Road wins (NO / TB) are no small matter, even in today’s wacky NFL.

But Luck’s clearly adapting quicker to his new surroundings, exhibiting more the mind-set needed to develop a comfort-level and management skills within the pocket (v GB), where the NFL QB directs the action. And now is exactly the time to take those on-field gambles and throw some caution to the wind in the maturation process, making Luck’s Comp % (54) and INTs (5) of low relevancy at this early stage in his NFL career.

Nothing I’ve seen so far indicates mentor Mike Shanahan has taken an active hand in molding RG3’s development and progression towards the changeover from college runner to pocket professional. Too bad for Rob, too bad for Mike and too bad for the Redskins.

Cherry Picks Wk-6

Dallas Cowboys (2-2) @ Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (10-14 / Fox 1:00)

Cowboys are rested and will get their 9-10 wins this season but none will come in Maryland. Ravens’ Joe Flacco & Ray Lewis were feeling superior until they watched the Browns' game film.  Gulp.  But they're not about to let Tony Romo rebound in crab-cake country. Baltimore wins.

Indianapolis Colts (2-2) @ New York Jets (2-3) ( CBS / 1:00)

“Surf’s Up.” Pacific players meet on the big stage, one feeling the heat with not much wiggle room, the other feeling love (this week) with room to spare. Jets nearly pull off the Wk-5 upset against everybody’s darling Houston, so they can‘t be that far off, right? Right. Ryan gets his boys up, Sanchez matriculates like a USC QB should and Tebow’s talent agencies (WME / CAA) keep turning the screws. Jets win.

Buffalo Bills (2-3) @ Arizona Cardinals (4-1) (CBS / 4:05)

Sleeper GOTW. Everyone’s bailing on AZ, having already bailed on Bills, but both have potential and a win here is big boost. Cards’ D still stout (11) but low O-production (31). Big mysteries: how Arizona managed this long with no run game as Kolb is more a manager than matriculator, and why Bills’ Spiller is ball-poor. Both QBs played it safe in Wk 5 (0 / 1 INT) and got a FG, so expect more risk-taking. Team who establishes run-game wins the day. That's the Bills.

New York Giants (3-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (4-1) (Fox / 4:25)

Juggernaut Central. Forget prior loses & better records (ATL), whoever comes out on top in this one is NFC’s top-dog. 49ers should be defending NFC Champs but you’ve gotta’ give the G-Men their props as they did their Conference proud. Both franchises operate on similar principle: measured & balanced attack with respect for the art of tackling, most DBs excepted. Who wins? It’s a coin-flipper. Wife’s hunch (and mine) is Giants. Guess it‘s NYG.

Green Bay Packers (2-3) @ Houston Texans (5-0) (8:20 / NBC)

The book likes Houston. Me too, before they nearly lost it to an off-kilter Jets team. GB is better than their record but needs a complimentary run game, less reliance on big-play D and better protection (OL) for Rodgers. Most data says pick Texans but I don’t see Green Bay going 2-4. Packers find a way to win, keeping things topsy AND turvy in NFL 2012.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Posted on: October 4, 2012 12:57 am
 

NFL '12 Cherry Picks Wk-5

Now that the black hole that was ‘Replacement-Ref 2012’ has imploded and stopped devouring every sport-headline within its gravitational pull, we're back to the real business of the NFL: the hits, the blocks, the kicks, the passes and the runs.  Oh yeah, some flags too.

How ‘bout some cheese with that whine?

The referee roundabout had little effect on the good folk up in beer-land, or as it’s better know this season, whine & cheese country. The regulars returned to the not-yet-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field for Sunday night’s Saints v Packers contest and, if the crowd reaction is any indication, the financially-fixed referees better “fasten (their) seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy-ride (B. Davis)” for the zebras this NFL 2012 season.

Patience is a Virtue

Football fans wonder if the JetsTim Tebow was swallowed-up by a black hole as he’s barely registered a blip on the NFL radar after turning the League on its head in 2011.

With Camp Romney trying to keep it close in Election 2012, Mitt’s fraternity of friends is doing its part. Jets’ owner Woody Johnson (“very important…Romney (become) President” / B-TV / 10-1), like John Elway (Romney “proven leader” / Huff-Post / 10-2), has no qualms about airing his political laundry. Maybe related, maybe not, but now the Tebow devotees (WJ) are growing more vocal in their push for Tim’s ascension to the Jets starting-QB job.

At just four games into the season (2-2) and with Sanchez’ experience, Jets’ coach Rex Ryan knows it’s premature to bail on Plan A. But it’s a QB-league and there may come a time soon enough when Mark pays a price, not only for his own debits, but for that of his teammates as well, specifically an erratic run-game, fumbleitis and porous run-defense.

Topsy-turvy NFC

While the AFC standings are no big surprise at Wk-5, the NFC has everyone crystal-ball gazing for answers. At this juncture, phrases like “this team is for real” and “their season is on the line” are about as meaningful as a NASA mission to Mars. Not very.

Cherry Picks Wk-5

Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) (10-7 / 1:00 / Fox)

The Keystone contest. Eagles are flying, but like Pack, Pats, Jets, Giants, etc., they’re “a box of chocolates: (so far) you never know what you’re gonna’ get (Forrest Gump).” You always know what you’ll get from Big Ben Roethlisberger, the Timex® QB: “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Steelers are home, healthier, ready to play and win.

Atlanta Falcons (4-0) @ Washington Redskins (2-2) (1:00 / Fox)

Last week’s squeaker at home against a groping Carolina team makes me nervous about these perfect birds, but Mike Turner’s turned-it-on (103 / CAR) and Ryan’s been terrific. If Griffin can learn to take sacks, limit his runs (7 / TB) and get comfy in the pocket, he might turn into a title-taking pro-QB. Should be a shootout but Falcons stay unbeaten.

Denver Broncos (2-2) @ New England Patriots (2-2) (4:25 / CBS)

AFC game of the week. As both Brady & Manning are finding their footing, expect the Ds to be busy. Patriots double-fisted run-attack (Ridley / Bolden) evokes memories of old (Csonka & Morris / Taylor & Hornung) and spells trouble for foes, if it lasts, though Broncos have ground-game in McGahee (112 / Oak). Another shootout. Continentals win.

Buffalo Bills (2-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (3-1) (4:25 / CBS)

Candlestick is not where Buffalo wants to be this weekend. Oh well, what are ya’ gonna’ do? Limit turnovers, that’s what (6/ NE). Fitzpatrick (4 Int / NE) takes page outta’ Alex Smith’s playbook, playing it safe & smart. Bills RB Spiller needs the ball more while LB Nick Barnett will roam far & wide (38T). San Fran loves the breeze by the Bay and is feeling their oats after dismantling the Jets, though I’m puzzled as to why rare-target Randy Moss is still rostered (4-1-3-0 Rec). Niners hit pay-dirt.

Houston Texans (4-0) @ New York Jets (2-2) (10-8 / 8:30 / ESPN)

ESPN-Disney likes the Nielsens. Typically a ‘Snoozer-of-the-Week,’ MNF is on a roll lately with Wk-3’s surreal affair (Packers / Seahawks) and what should be a ratings-hog this Monday night. Unless Sanchez matriculates with regularity, the camera-men and sideline-gals will be obsessing with Tebow. Had Jets battled SF, or not needed OT to best Miami, I’d pick a Jersey upset. Texans need a bigger test before elite status. This NY drama club ain’t it, but expect a contest as Jets can surprise. Houston’s top D along with a ‘measured & balanced’ offense (SF) will rule the day. Texans triumph.

Dedication

This post remembers two artists who died recently and who had tremendous impact on America’s TV sport-scene during its greatest period of change. With an encyclopedic knowledge of everything racing and a grabbing voice, Chris Economaki (9/28) defined motoring for millions of viewers since the 1960s, while Steve Sabol (9/18) took father Ed’s visionary work in NFL filming and, with the cool sounds of Sam Spence, made it all masterful. Time passed them both by in this attention-deficit age of social-network media, but for those of us who reveled in their realms, they will be missed.

Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Posted on: September 28, 2012 1:55 pm
 

NFL Barometer Wk-4

Not So Fast, football America. The regular referees are back in business but there are grades to be handed out in wake of ‘Replacement-Ref Whine-fest 2012.’

Roger & The Regulars: B

Denying anyone who’s not employed in public safety the right to use all leverage in negotiating a contract (strike) would be un-American. Unfortunately, the regulars have now been vested with special status of indispensability by the same cry-babies who ragged on ‘em before their strike, bitched about the replacements during, and will piss & moan again in Wk-4.

When the firestorm over Monday night’s controversial “simultaneous catch” call flared-up this week, both the Commissioner and strikers contained the blaze by acting with due speed. And if you think the new referee deal was a result of poor job performance by the replacement referees, you need to pull your head out of…the sand. Most likely it was serious concern over the safety of the replacements that proved primary motivation for compelling both parties back to the bargaining table to hammer-out an agreement.

Fresh in their minds may’ve been recent tragic events in Libya and the Middle East, triggered by parties using YouTube to fuel the fires of ignorance & violence. With anger over the disputed Hail Mary call that ended the Packers v. Seahawks MNF contest rising rapidly during the week and becoming a national embarrassment, coupled with knowledge that more touchy-calls would result in Wk-4 games, those professionals in security who monitor such situations must’ve been speculating about dangerous acts that nut-jobs might undertake.

Replacement Referees: B+

These guys head home wondering why they ever took such a thankless job. It couldn‘t be the pay. Roger Goodell’s apology-in-appeasement notwithstanding, the replacements, as imperfect as they were, deserve commendations just for taking the field.

Golden Tate of the Seattle Seahawks: “The Man with the Golden Arm.” The left one, to be exact. It’s pretty well hidden from view in the film-replay of the infamous Hail Mary, but either his left arm and / or hand are initially on that football, simultaneously with Mr. Jennings (Packers), or it disappeared into the 4th dimension like “Tina” did in that classic Twilight Zone (“Little Girl Lost” / 1962). It’s one, or the other. Take your pick.

As for Mr. Tate shoving a Packers’ defender just before the ball arrived, don’t forget the first rule of end-game drama: never let a referee’s call decide the outcome. Before Thursday night’s Browns / Ravens contest, where the just-back regulars were extra cautious and playing-it-safe with Cleveland’s game-ending Hail Mary (flag), the regulars would’ve followed precedent on MNF, just like the replacements: no-call on the shove.

The precedent here is on point: Dallas Cowboys v. Minnesota Vikings, Metropolitan Stadium, 1975 NFC playoffs. This is the original game-winning Hail Mary. It came from Cowboys’ QB Roger Staubach and involved another decisive push-down by receiver Drew Pearson of a Vikings’ defender. Difference is, this one sent the winner to the Super Bowl and one of the referees to the hospital after getting hit in the head with a whiskey bottle thrown by an idiot in the stands. Roger & the regulars may remember.

NFL Players & Coaches: D+

The jocks and gurus must share blame for the hostility heaped upon the replacements. A few choice words, spoken at the right time could’ve quelled much of the outrage. Instead, the behavior of men like Bill Belichick (ref-grabber) and Aaron Rodgers’ (whine-pro) was typical. But in the Age of Enablement there are no grievances so small, so selfish, as to go unheard & un-redressed. I guess 'suck-it-up’ and ‘take the pain’ are old school.

The Ravens’ Anquan Boldin stated the prevailing view in post-game interview when pressed on the referee issue after Thursday night‘s Browns v. Ravens game: “I think the guys respect the regular referees.” And that was the crux of it, these past four weeks. Most of the players & coaches, it seemed, had no respect for the replacements.  A prejudice, you could say. When prejudice is the mind-set, rational thought cannot happen.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Had the players wanted to show solidarity with the regulars, the same guys they regularly berated on & off the field before their departure, they could’ve gone on strike with the zebras. But then nobody, not the owners, not the fans, not the players nor the media wanted the games cancelled, right? Right.

Sport Media & Entertainment: F

Lucky for these guys the NFL / referee contract was resolved when it was, otherwise all hell may’ve broken loose. I cringe to think.

ESPN, self-anointed “leader” in sport coverage, set a match to a highly-flammable situation. Normally neutral anchors freely weighed-in on the MNF controversy, making it clear to viewers that the field call (“simultaneous catch / Seattle TD) was pure buffoonery, while ex-jock analysts did their part to fan the flames of discontent. Post-game comments by Steve Young (“It’s an emergent situation and I pray that an emergent doesn‘t result”) and Trent Dilfer (“You get so frustrated with incompetence that it turns to anger“) are noteworthy in their poor judgment and apparent invite to fan-rage.

Because it’s unlikely ESPN acts in such manner solely on behalf of regulars refs, the best explanation might be the favored status of the Green Bay Packers’ organization. The same inexplicable hostility emerged shortly after Brett Favre’s jet hit the Twin Cities tarmac in 2009. The message here: When Packers’ fans get angry, ESPN listens.

And if ESPN’s bigwigs think “Sport Science” guy John Brenkus is a persuasive voice in photo-finish analysis, they’ll never graduate to the next grade. John’s head-spinning, sales-pitch is like that fast talking carnival barker. Before you can spot the con-job, he’s got you by the arm and going for your wallet. You could lose the smirk, too, JB.

But the regulars are back. And with the glowing comments I’ve read from players, coaches, fans and media, football America is pleased as punch. Maybe this signals a new beginning, a greater respect between players, coaches and the officials. Less on-field rage and fewer post-game crying-jags? Stranger things have happened. If this is a by-product, it’s another reason to thank the subs.

Steven Keys
Posted on: September 9, 2012 12:51 am
 

Saints Joy Won't Resonate

Congratulations go out to Saints’ linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Not for winning a vacation from his season-long Bountygate suspension he was handed by the NFL earlier this year, but rather, for his choice of celebratory shout-out.

“Victory is mine!!!! -Stewie Griffin,” texted Mr. Vilma after he received the joyous news. Classy move, Jon. Had you quoted Bart Simpson instead I would’ve been seriously disappointed in you, dude.

As for the liberation of Vilma and his co-appellants: Because I have no good basis for doubting or supporting the soundness of the appellate panel’s legal ruling on Friday (9-7), meaning, I don’t have all the facts, I’ll leave the deep analysis to the talking heads.

It was a different story last spring in the case against Ryan Braun. When Braun’s PED suspension was vacated by MLB’s 3-person arbitration panel (2-1), the facts were fewer, more clear and I felt at ease in criticizing what still seems an erroneous decision.

But Bountygate’s a different kettle of fish.

There are questions of power (Goodell vs. arbitrator), standards (CBA articles 14 & 46), pay parameters (bounty-$ vs. NFL contracts & salary caps) and what constitutes an ‘intent to injure’ beyond game rules, that all require homework this writer didn‘t hand in.

Even so, I side with the NFL and Goodell in this Bountygate travesty. Why? Because I trust them. When the NFL Suits negotiate those billion dollar deals with networks & merchandisers, I know they‘re all greedmeisters to the core and wouldn’t trust ‘em as far as I could throw ‘em. Like I wrote, Bountygate’s different.

There are half a dozen reasons why Saints’ personnel might avoid the truth and claim innocence in the face of bounty evidence. But I can’t think of one good reason why the NFL would have anything but the good of the game in mind as cause for their Bountygate investigation. The Saints and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans had become a source of inspiration for all Americans. When the NFL got wind of something terribly wrong in the Saints’ playbook, they had to take action, as over-reaching as it may have proved.

'The road to hell is paved with (the NFL’s) good intentions?' Hardly the case here. More like, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’

And I have a feeling I’m not alone in my sentiments. Apart from Saintsland and the captured media who are talking compromise today, most fans voicing a view have been in agreement with the League’s strong action prior to the recent vacation of bounty bans. The evidence aired was plenty persuasive while much of the defense played in public has consisted of only indignant denials. So what’s new?

There’s one image connected to Bountygate that will resonate long and which no panel can overturn in the minds of football fans across the nation. That’s the sight of ironman Brett Favre crumpling like a crushed Dixie cup after that wicked, over-under tackle by Saints’ defenders in the 2009 NFC title game. Whether those particular players were acting on bounty is not important, as that play has come to symbolize the nasty scheme, one that culpable players could’ve rejected. And acting on (coaches) orders often proves a poor defense in such a circumstance as this.

What is important is that a precedent, of sorts, has been set. Besides the lesson given both the NFL and NFLPA in the art of CBA interpretation, the message that bounties are wrong and will not be permitted is still crystal clear.

How the New Orleans Saints would respond to effects of Bountygate was a big question entering NFL 2012. Before the appellate panel’s decision, many believed the suspensions would be a source of motivation, something New Orleans might rally around. Non-player suspensions still remain in place but things have changed a bit. Now the bigger question is, how will the rest of the League respond to the Saints new claim of vindication?

Steven Keys
Posted on: September 4, 2012 1:12 am
 

NFL Wish List 2012

Dear Santa Claus:

     I know it’s still summertime, the season when you and the Mrs. are just getting back from your annual Elf-Awareness Conference in Puerto Vallarta, but I have a big favor to ask.
     NFL 2012 is set to kick-off Wednesday night (Cowboys @ Giants) and I have a few early requests that I’m hoping you can accommodate. I haven’t exactly been good this year, but I haven’t been bad, either. That oughta’ count for something in these times of rampant greed and selfish rationalization (PEDs), right?
     And besides, Santa, you still owe me. Remember that Denmark golf outing I arraigned in 2010 for you and your “assistant” with TW and his putting instructor Heidi? ‘Nuff said.

Super Bowl Drift

It’s all about Super Sunday, or is it? NFL brass have already set the post-season schedule Santa, but see if you can get Roger & Company to shave a week off that mood-killing, two-week dull-fest that follows Conference title games. Football’s a business, sure, but this grant to greed is taking an edge off player games and starts us dreaming of baseball. Yuck! Just kidding, Bud.

NFL Rules, Stats & Plays that Need Eliminating

On-side kick: Gotta’ be the dumbest, most un-football-like play in the book. Walter Camp or whoever hatched this turkey must’ve been on a toot. The team that just had the ball, can get it twice-in-a-row, if the oblong-spheroid takes a funny bounce and at ten yards lands in one of the kicking-team’s cozy-covered hands. Competition at its lamest.

Icing the kicker:” Letting the defense call a TO seconds prior to a FG attempt in order to mess with the kicker’s head is bad playground etiquette. Strong kids wouldn't stoop so low.

Lambeau Leap: A routine that always was a bit too comfy, a tad too needy for my taste, has now become downright hackneyed. I’m thinking Curly, Vince & Ray would've agreed.

Senseless Stats: An INT that gets hung on a QB for a pass that’s tipped into a defender‘s hands; A fumble-stat given to a carrier who had a ball stripped / punched from his grasp.

New OT Rules: No one that matters (players & fans) was complaining when a field goal gave victory in sudden-death OT. Simple case of someone in a Suit validating a job and squeezing in more commercial time. “Tanks for nothing” (Maggs / Caddyshack).”

“Calling all (fashion police) cars”

It’s bad enough football’s become a fashion runway for Nike marketing and its revolving-door of dress (uniforms), but c’mon NFL, could your unis be anymore skin-tight? The trend is towards more material, not less, so loosen up, fellas. It’s embarrassing, Santa.

These Players

Cam Newton (CAR): Would like to see Cam develop into a SB caliber pocket-passer as he seems to have the skill-set, though I’m not holding my breath. Old (run) habits die hard.

Peyton Manning (DEN) & Adrian Peterson (MIN): The great natural abilities of these two stars of the gridiron are a joy to watch (AP’s thunderous run vs. Browns in ‘09 is unforgettable) and, as such, I’m driven to root for their successful comebacks.

Randy Moss (SF): A charter-member of the Moss fan-club, admiring his unique talent and believing his moodiness misunderstood, I cancelled my enrollment after he “vomited” (Childress) on a beleaguered Vikings' team in 2010 while sucking-up to a disinterested Patriots. It’s a shame he hooked-up with the San Francisco 49ers as I’d thought before his arrival their throwback-style (Giants / Ravens) made them a nice fit for SB47. Your call, Santa.

Mark Sanchez & Tim Tebow (NYJ): “Soon the world will divide itself into two camps: pro-Boray and anti-Boray.” That’s Joan Crawford describing the up & coming violinist John Garfield in their 1946 film Humoresque. Joan could’ve been foretelling Tebowmania, but in fact, it’s only a minority of cranks and disciples who’ve gone camping. Most, like me, see Tim as a college-style (run) QB with the same vanity you find in most athletes and Jesus proselytizers. My wish: Tim finds his natural position (TE), Mark finds the end-zone and Rex Ryan finds inner peace.

The Los Angeles…

LA is a big town with a big football pedigree. As such, the City of Angels’ absence from the NFL line-up this past decade has left a serious void. I’ve always felt the Rams oughta be back in California, Cardinals back in Missouri and then the Sun Devils (ASU Forks) resurrected pro-style to fill the vacancy in Phoenix. That scenario won’t happen but the new Los Angeles franchise is already in the works.

Time to Give Blood, DeMaurice Smith

If you grant just this one wish Santa, I’ll be a happy camper: NFL blood-tests, prior to, and during the season of play, as part of a broad PED prevention policy.

After signing-on to an HGH blood-test in last year’s CBA settlement, the NFLPA has since weaseled-out of its offer, leaving the issue in limbo. Though many in the media have been ardently defending dethroned friend Lance Armstrong, waving the white-flag on PEDs, most of America, including parents, coaches, doctors, clean players and kids not looking forward to a career of injections, are not so easily misguided.

The late football great and former director of the NFLPA, Gene Upshaw, had some fine qualities. Leadership on drug-testing was not one of them. Time to get crack’in, DeMaurice.

Steven Keys
Posted on: August 26, 2012 1:20 am
 

Jared Allen Tops NFL D-List

You’ve heard it a thousand times. The NFL, it’s a quarterback league.

How the QB plays is a bellwether of his team’s progress or decline, week in, week out.

They get the glory in victory, the blame in defeat and everything else on the field is just so many props. Seems a funny evolution of the game, but that’s how it is and we seem to like it that way.

As for the guys on defense, well, the late, great Rodney Dangerfield put it best: “(They) get no respect, what can I tell ya’?”

Should we feel bad? Probably not, when you consider that a good defense is hard to find, though, in fairness, you could say the same about physicians, computer repair guys and barbers. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking college or the pros (NFL / CFL), the reliable defensive scheme seems a rare commodity in this day & age.

While the linebacker corps carries the load in the tackling department and lineman put pressure on the QB, defensive backs are working a balance of tackling & pass-deflection. But nothing is more emblematic of today’s ebbing state-of-defense than NFL secondaries.

Next time you tune into a game pay close attention to the DBs. You’re likely to see more muffed tackles and blown break-ups, even as they shadow their targets, than beer ads during the telecast. You’d think the prevent-defense was a permanent state. Ever since the days of Deion “Neon” Sanders, the art of secondary tackling has become passé while the big play (INT / LB sacks) and laying-in-the-weeds for the wicked-hit are all the rage.

I exaggerate, of course, because there are some terrific exceptions who play the backfield (Tyvon Branch / OAK / SS / 109T). But there's no debate that defense has become more an after-thought than focal point for coaches and their pre-game strategies.

These are the bright spots.

Pad-Smack, Team Style

When talking team defense, it’s the American Conference that fuels the conversation, in particular, the AFC North.

Led by ageless and still thrilled Ray Lewis (ILB / 95T), who comes back for season 17, and decorated (AP-DPY) but now-achilled Terrell Suggs (OLB / 70T / 14S / 7FF), the Baltimore Ravens get the nod as 2011’s top-D (2nd vs Run / 4th vs Pass), edging out Troy Polamalu (DB / 91T) and Ryan Clark’s (FS / 100T) Pittsburgh Steelers (1P / 8R) who picked a bad time to look porous in last season’s finale versus Tebowmania.

The Cincinnati Bengals are building a defensive foundation (10R / 9P) (Tom Howard / OLB / 99T) as their young gun learns the trade (Dalton). And don’t forget Ohio’s other team, the Cleveland Browns, who came in just behind Pittsburgh (1P @ 172 ypg) against the pass (2P @ 185 ypg), thanks in large part to the 'everywhere man' D’Qwell Jackson (MLB / 158T) and active lineman Ahtyba Rubin (NT / 83T / 5S / PUP).

With a promising but green QB (Gabbert) and a run-game in flux (Maurice Jones-Drew), the Jacksonville Jaguars, like division foe Indy, seek answers on the O-side, but also like the Colts, can boast strong building blocks in a trio of tackling mavens. Paul Posluszny (MLB / 119T / shoulder), Daryl Smith (OLB / 107T) and Dawan Landry (FS / 97T) guided the Jags to top-ten finishes against both the pass (8) and run (9) in the last campaign.

Teamwork was the talisman for the Houston Texans in 2011 as they stymied both the pass (3) and run (4) without sack-happy LB Mario Williams (out Wk 5 / Bills), and then, like the Ravens, with only one name among the top-50 tacklers in Brian Cushing (ILB / 114). What void Mario leaves in Texas will be filled soon enough.

And don’t go sour yet on the New York Jets. They may have a QB quandary, of their own making, but defense is still a Rex Ryan trademark as Gotham’s junior team made strong showings versus the pass (5P), the run (13R) and added talented Yeremiah Bell (SS / MIA / 107T).

In the NFC, it’s the Western dudes who think offense is sissified.

Former QB and still ‘rah-rah’ man Jim Harbaugh has San Francisco 49ers’ fans believing again with stout defense (1R @ 77 YPG) and sound, methodical offense. Third year ILB NaVorro Bowman set a super pace with 143 tackles in 2011, as perennial All-Pro Pat Willis (ILB) missed three and still netted 97 turf take-downs.

With solid QB play, the Seattle Seahawks will take flight as a balanced defense (15R / 11P) gives them some edge. David Hawthorne will be missed (115T / Saints / knee), but stalwarts Earl Thomas (FS / 98T) and Kam Chancellor (SS / 97T) keep it respectable.

Stick Men

Football players learn quickly about the ‘stick men.’ You find ‘em at every level: high school, college and the pros. The guys on the field who were born to tackle. They find ball-carriers like a heat-seeking missile. They can, as we would say back in the day, “really stick.” And when they strike, down you go: fast, furious and unforgettable.

While defense struggles to stay relevant in this era of pinball-like point tallies, there are men in the NFL who carry on proudly the tradition of tackling. They love to hit, hit often and hit hard. And they don’t need to lead with their helmet, Mr. James Harrison.

The NFC North won’t top the team rankings, but they showcase some of the League’s best tackling tandems (and trios). Defensive diva Ndamukong Suh looks to be more trouble than he’s worth (36T / 4S / 0FR), but the Detroit Lions are firm in the middle with Stephen Tulloch (MLB / 111T / knee) and DeAndre Levy (OLB / 109T).

The book on the Green Bay Packers used to read, defense 1st, run 2nd, pass 3rd and no donnas. Stout against the run in ‘11 (14), Packers came in dead last versus the pass (32), just behind projected SB 47? (retire the Romans, Roger) opponent Patriots. Ted rolls the dice on Mr. Enigma, Cedric Benson (RB), while Clay Matthews brought hair-spray but forgot a lunch pail in 2011 (OLB / 50T / 6S). Desmond Bishop is out (ILB / 115T / ham) and Charlie Peprah is really out (SS / cut), but Morgan Burnett (FS / 107T) sticks fine while way-rated Charles Woodson (CB / 74T / 7 INT) and A.J. Hawk look to pick-it-up in 2012 (ILB / 84T).

Though the Monsters of the Midway are long-in-the-tooth, the Chicago BearsLance Briggs (OLB / 105T) and Charles Tillman (CB / 99T) can still scare. Tim Jennings added game in 2011 (CB / 77T), big name Brian Urlacher (MLB / 102T) is hurting (knee) and Julius Peppers showed some life last season (DE / 37T / 11S). After them, there's a drop-off.

Many new faces dot the Indianapolis Colts’ O-side with departure of pros like Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday. The D-side, not as much, but loss of stick star Pat Angerer (great name / frac-foot) (MLB / 148T) will be felt, while Kavell Conner (OLB / 107T) and fellow tackling titan Antoine Bethea (FS / 139T) patrol the tundra.

Miami Dolphins hit-show took a hit when Y. Bell split (Jets), leaving Kevin Burnett (ILB / 105T) and gimpy Karlos Dansby (ILB / 103T / knee) to cover. Addition of pricey Mario Williams is icing on the cake for a Buffalo Bills’ entree that already features hit-men Nick Barnett (ILB / 130T), George Wilson (SS / 106T) and Jairus Byrd (FS / 98T).

No surprise the Atlanta Falcons stuffed the run in 2011 (5) with Curtis Lofton (MLB / 147T) and Sean Weatherspoon (OLB / 115T) holding court, now work on the pass (20).

It’s been a rough go recently in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and their arch nemesis to the east is beaming ear-to-ear. But there’s a silver lining in the Minnesota Vikings’ dark cloud. They’re staying put (stadium), 2-yr. QB Christian Ponder still has possibility and Adrian Peterson might run again. Add in, Vikes have two of the NFL’s surest hitters in Chad Greenway (OLB / 152T) and E.J. Henderson (MLB / 110T), while the best defender in all of football may take shape in the person of Jared Allen (DE / 66T / 22S / 4FF).

Quarterbacks reign supreme. But if there is a defender who can work a game nearly as well as a QB, it is Jared Allen. He perfected the sack in 2011 (22) but brings a fiery spirit to the field of play that only Ray Lewis can duplicate. And like Ray, Jared overcame a difficult past but has the added burden of staying motivated on a bottom-feeder.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give mention to these tackling dynamos: London Fletcher (ILB / WAS / 166T!), James Anderson (OLB / CAR / 145T), James Laurinaitis (MLB / 142T), Jason Pierre-Paul (DE / NYG / 86T / 17S), Jason McCourty (CB / TN / 105T), Calais Campbell (DE / ARI / 72T / 8S), DeMarcus Ware (DE / DAL / 58T / 20S) and Derrick Johnson (ILB / KC / 131T). Without these guys, the NFL would be, well, Arena.

Steven Keys

Note: This article is dedicated to those brave people allied around the globe who have given, or who today put their limbs & lives on the line in the dangerous fight against terror & extremism, defending, in face of a stealth and brutal foe, the freedom to choose and the right to reason.
Posted on: August 9, 2012 6:31 pm
 

RG3 and Decoding Shanahan

Go back to the year 1988. The Raiders are in Los Angeles, Tom Flores has been demoted upstairs by owner Al Davis and Denver assistant coach Mike Shanahan is hired by the silver & black for his first NFL head coaching job.

Now fast-forward…not too fast, just one and one-quarter seasons later. After finishing 7-9 amidst an on-going, internal clash of loyalties, a 1-3 start in ‘89 gives Davis cause to pull-the-plug on the Shanahan experiment and hand the reigns over to Raiders man Art Shell.

Not a very auspicious start to Mike’s head coaching career. But then, getting fired by Al Davis wasn’t all bad. Oddly enough, it could enhance your resume.

Well known for his hands-on style, Al’s rows with staff often put on public display traits in a coach highly-prized by GM on-lookers. Qualities like decisiveness, tenacity and just being one tough son-of-a-gun. And that’s what Mike looked like after getting the boot: a guy who could give as well as he got, and from the biggest got-guy in the NFL, Al Davis.

That’s no knock on the feisty owner. Though Al could be a thorn in your side if under his watch, for fans, excepting the City of Oakland from1982-‘94, he was a quasi-advocate, a counter-weight to the NFL’s old boy network who conduct business in golf-carts and brass-handled board rooms. And then, only Glenn Ford (Gilda), Sid Poitier (In the Heat of the Night) and Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke) were cooler than Al Davis in his early days, surveying the action from the Raiders’ sideline in those steel-rimmed sunglasses.

To Golden Gate via Colorado

Mike landed back in Denver (‘90-91) but wore out his welcome fast when he got in the middle of a Reeves - Elway rift. On the outs, he took a job with George Seifert (’92-94). Like Foxborough today, San Francisco was the place to be for coaches on the rise. As architect of 49ers’ 49-23 blowout win in SB29 (SD), Mike’s reputation grew such that he was seen around the League as a football-genius-in-the-making and then a hot commodity.

Third Time Charm

Broncos just can’t kick the Shanahan habit and this time give Mike the head coach’s office. He sticks around for awhile (‘95-08), quickly makes good on his new rep, has Denver back in the big show and this time brings home Mr. Lombardi (’98-‘99). Adding to the euphoria was the fact that Denver’s SB32 win comes against fellow West Coast disciple Mike Holmgren and his history-heavy Green Bay squad (4-1).

Happy Trails Mr. Elway

The mood on Mike starts to change after Elway rides into the sunset (SB33 / Atlanta). As he never got Denver back on top, some have argued Elway was the difference-maker in their back-to-backs. Not a crazy notion given that coaches coach and players play. But keep in mind: 1) Dan Reeves was in the NFL for nearly 40 years, played or coached in five Super Bowls but was stymied in his three Denver visits with John under center; and 2) Shanahan guided post-Elway Denver to the post-season four times, including an AFC title game and averaged 9+ wins a season. Not too shabby.

Whether or not Mike Shanahan is a football genius in league with Paul Brown, Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick is debatable. At the very least he did have something special working at Mile High in the late 90s, special enough to someday get a bust in Canton.

Resurrecting Legacies

Question now is, does Shanahan still have the Midas touch, that special something that garnered two Super Bowl wins? And if he does, can he impart it to his Redskins’ team?

So far, his brief DC tenure suggests no and no. Though he gets props for parting ways with the bill-of-goods that was Al Haynesworth and the plucky but past-prime Donovan McNabb, his inability to make real progress in his two seasons in Washington might be sign he no longer translates to today’s NFL player.

No big revelation then, that his ability to facilitate draft-dandy Rob Griffin’s development is key, not just to the team’s but his own future as well. The early word in summer camp is that RG3 is a talented and willing student of the NFL game. Welcome news to Skins’ fans who are parched for victory champagne since the days of Joe Gibbs & Company.

A concern is that in his eagerness to make good and satisfy antsy fans, Mike succumbs to the trendy but flawed belief that the athletic, muscled, running QB is the quick cure-all for what ails an offense and provides the surest vehicle for getting to the promised land. The tremendous impacts of mercury men Cam Newton (6-10) and Tim Tebow (8-8) on their respective teams in 2011 have only given amplification to the theory.

Mike Shanahan has coached two of the finest QBs of the past 30 years in Steve Young and John Elway. Though both had a flair for scamper (and could cite footwork as their most famous feats (SY: 50+ dash vs Vikes (‘88) / JE: copter-run in SB32)), making it a key element in their modi operandi, both were first & foremost pocket-passers who could air it out and thread the needle whenever necessary, taking to flight as only a last resort.

As impactful as Cam and Tim were, upon closer inspection it’s easy to see why many observers believe there’s a cap on just how relevant a run-QB will be over the long term.

Tebow’s 2011 flies in the face of that tiresome phrase, ‘numbers never lie.’ In science, that may be true (excepting false-positives), but in sport, numbers can tell tall tales and in TT’s case they’re less than sincere. While his pass-stats were paltry, his fire and dedication to game-plan were triggers in Denver‘s mid-season turnaround.

But eventually those flames of emotion must be fed with stout statistics. That can mean numbers that are huge (Rodgers), first-rate (Eli) or simply smart stats (A. Smith / 17-5 ratio) that show you have the skill & savvy to manage the offense and then matriculate with regularity in all conditions (Tom, Eli & Peyton).

As for Cam, he showed a terrific capability for passing but a tendency to take-off in trouble (14TDs). That’s a tell and it’s just what defenders will eventually feast upon.

Then there’s Vick, the man who started the trend. His ‘athleticism,’ as run-QBs are cast, has made him a star but destined him to title-oblivion. Besides two big PS wins (’02 GB / ‘04 STL), Mike’s tenure is defined in two words: boredom (duel careers in GA) and frustration (injury). Only now are he and his handlers starting to see the fallacy of flash-QB: “He wants to and works really hard to overcome his instinct, when a little something goes wrong, to take off (Mudd / PI / CBS / 7-27).” Old dog, new tricks: habits do die hard.  No pun intended.

So there you have it, Mr. Shanahan. You can put Rob on the pocket-passer pathway, the only road leading to the Super Bowl, help box-up his college habits and train him to work in the business of football (NFL / CFL), or, ride his athleticism to 9 or 10 victories (someday) and watch the big game every February at home on the big-screen TV.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 29, 2012 4:05 pm
 

Calm Before Storm Tebow

Take a deep breath. Hold it in. Breath out. Again.

Now close your eyes. Drink in the calm, the serenity. Imagine birds singing, squirrels frolicking, puffy white clouds drifting by on blue sky…wait a second. Wake up!

There’s the neighbor’s dog, doing-his-thing on your lawn. Landlord phoned, says he can’t fix the A/C ‘til next week. And today your boss put up the new schedule: you’re on graveyard now with that guy who doesn‘t believe in hygiene or teamwork. Just terrific.

Okay, so your life’s no bed of roses. But wherever you live, whatever smidgen of sanity you enjoy today, savor it, bottle it up and hide it under your bed because before you know it, Tebowmania II is gonna’ hit the fan. And when it does, it’s gonna’ be everywhere.

It’s building offshore but when Hurricane Tim makes landfall later this summer, his image will be splattered all over the consumer landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The ionosphere will be so saturated with Tim-ness it wouldn’t be crazy for ESPN to craft a separate channel to accommodate the mass of minutia generated by Mr. Sunshine’s NYC experience. Call-letters: ESPNTT; permanent host: Skip Bayless; occasional antagonist: Stephen ‘Don’t forget the A.’ Smith. Best ratings on the tube after American Pickers. I used to be an Antiques Roadshow man until some chucklehead added sound effects.

Tebow’s narrative is just one puzzler that looms large over NFL America this summer.

There are, of course, some givens for NFL 2012:

Patriots & Packers will again toy with the rest the League. Brady & Rodgers, Belichick & McCarthy: money in the bank. I’d include Big Ben in that bunch but with the beating he takes every year in Pittsburgh it’s a minor miracle if he makes it to the PS in one piece.

When fans realize draft dandies Luck & Griffin can’t walk on water, both will be given sanctuary by the fact Colts, and to a lesser degree Redskins, are major reclamation-projects.

Half-measures get you the Chicago Bears. After landing prize catch Cutler they got stingy (WR). Talent at key some positions (Cutler / Forte / Urlacher / Briggs), Chicago’s still no match for hot rivals (Vikes (’09) / GB (‘10-11)), making ‘07 SB visit / loss look like an aberration. Collapse vs Denver in 2011 was low point. Soldier Field fans deserve better, but settle for 9-7.

Then there are the perfect teams, as in, all-must-go-perfectly-or-bust: Cowboys (Romo), Eagles (Vick), Ravens (Flacco), Falcons (Ryan), Chargers (Rivers). See 2013 NFL Draft.

And if the Giants could ever defend a title like they take one, fans & media might start taking Tom & Eli into their hearts. Then again, it is the greater NYC press. Maybe no.

Here then are the biggest brain-teasers to ponder on the porch-swing before NFL 2012 lifts-off this September (9/5):

1) What flavor of quarterbacking will Cam Newton and Carolina select;
2) How will the Saints tumultuous off-season play on their 2012 performance;
3) How much life is left in Peyton Manning’s multi-million-dollar arm;
4) Was the NFC in 2011 that bad or were Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers that good; and
5) What does Rex Ryan have up his sleeve on the Tim Tebow experiment?

Flash Cam

No first-year QB has ever made as big a splash as did Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton in 2011. His unexpectedly advanced passing skills were matched only by his record-setting mobility (14 rush TD). Whether he chooses to develop into the first great, black pocket-passer since Doug Williams or follow the run-rabbit-run routine of Vick and Tebow may be the most intriguing storyline of 2012. It should be a no-brainer. Doug was superb.

The Saints

“(T)he truth will set you free.” It’s a Bible verse. It’s about as popular today as ‘Love thy neighbor.’ Not very. Like Roger, Lance, Barry, Ryan and James Harrison, Jon Vilma, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have hunkered down into a mental-bunker of denial, opting for the ‘us-against-the-world’ tact in dealing with exposure of their well-documented bounty program. The general player population has stayed out of the fray but I suspect feelings are mixed. Saints are still players in this League and likely will make the PS but the cathartic-effect of coming-clean might’ve made them great again. I’ll cry tomorrow.

Wing and a Prayer

Not a gambler per se, John Elway must have a soft-spot for QBs headed to Canton. The rumor mill aside, Manning and his handlers in Denver (and Indy) have kept the wraps on his suspect wing & neck down tight. Regardless of Broncos pedestrian pool-of-talent in receiver-corps, Peyton elevates everyone around him and, if healthy, takes them back to PS. The contract terms owner Bowlen and PM put in place per chance worst is realized (tired arm) could be curious.

Real Deal 49ers?

The team Belichick didn’t want to face in SB46. Careful what you wish. Jim Harbaugh is the off-kilter coach who’s fast becoming the next Jerry Glanville: wins games and enemies. JH brought defense back to the NFL and it’s a good thing, given how he didn’t know a lick about offense (Michigan / Bears). Rex Ryan was suppose to be this guy.

Tabernacle Tim

Answering the Tebow question isn’t paramount in NFL 2012 but it may feel that way, given the hullabaloo it generates. In rare circumstance, duel-QBs can work wonders (Waterfield / Van Brocklin).  This ain't that.  Ryan's been around the game a long time, winning a ring in 2000 (Ravens), and shouldn't be so silly as to turn his QB position into a game of musical chairs. Jets’ brass know they already have a talented, successful (4-2 PS), albeit, sometimes erratic, still maturing signal-caller in Mark Sanchez.

TT’s not in NYC to upset the apple cart. He was brought in to do what he does best: motivate. It’s his calling and he’s good at it. Tim’s mission is to light a fire under Sanchez and, as such, will get some snaps and the # 1 slot if Mark unexpectedly folds. But if Rex & Tony don’t jump-start the Jets run-game and shore-up the defense, Tim’s role is moot.

While this all weighs on Mark’s mind, Jets are wise to return Tim to his original HS spot: tight-end. God knows he likes the contact, has the speed, the hands and a nose for the end-zone. If HOF, Heisman-holding Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung can embrace the theory of evolution (QB to HB), so too can Misters Ryan and Tebow.

Steven Keys
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com