2018 First round mock draft

That wonderful time is upon us. In less than 48 hours, the 2018 NFL Draft will commence. I’ll write a little addendum article to the mock draft where I’ll deal with a draft-related issue in depth, but this one is the mock and only the mock. So here we go.

  1. Cleveland Browns: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC: There has been buzz surrounding Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield at this spot, but I don’t buy it. I think Darnold is (wrongly) seen as the sure thing in this draft at quarterback, and Cleveland needs a sure thing here. One plus for Darnold: I think his learning curve is being underestimated by scouts, so spending his rookie year behind Tyrod Taylor would help.
  2. New York Giants: Bradley Chubb, Defensive End, North Carolina State: I think the Giants take a mighty long look at both Saquon Barkley and a quarterback here, but then set their mind on Chubb, the draft’s best and most polished pass rusher. Olivier Vernon is a really nice player whom the Giants are paying a king’s ransom, but he’s best suited to being a team’s second best pass rusher, and Chubb’s arrival means this happens. Dealing Jason Pierre-Paul to the Bucs accentuates the need for this pick, and Chubb is very much worth it.
  3. New York JetsBaker Mayfield, Quarterback, Oklahoma: It comes down to one belief on my part: the Jets are going to screw this up. I think Mayfield is a ludicrous pick here. I know he has a “Noo Yaawk” kind of mentality, but I see Mayfield’s athletic skills, whether it’s size, arm strength or mobility, as being just good enough to crush it in college, especially in the Big XII where many programs’ defences are actually an abstract concept, but not in the NFL. Good for the Jets if I’m wrong.
  4. Cleveland BrownsSaquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State: Even the Browns can’t mess this up. Barkley is the best player in the draft. He’s the latest in the line of spectacular prospects at his position in the last few years at the top of the draft, and the Browns have a need for his dynamic skill. Don’t overthink this, Cleveland! I know you got this… Maybe…
  5. Denver Broncos: Josh Rosen, Quarterback, UCLA: This pick is key, and its fate depends on one question: does Denver still think Paxton Lynch can make it? Sure, he was always going to have a steep learning curve, coming from the bubble screen heaven that is Memphis’ offence, but what’s he shown you in two years? Case Keenum is there, but there’s no way he’s a long-term option (it’s likely he was their backup plan after they whiffed on Kirk Cousins in free agency), and this QB class is too strong at the top to pass on a QB unless you’re just about certain Lynch can pull through. If they still hold out hope for him, the Broncos become a prime candidate to trade down a few spots and let a team desperate for a quarterback grab one here. I don’t see it happening. Not since Aaron Rodgers has a first-round quarterback been given more than two years before being named the starter, but Rodgers was backing up Brett Favre, whereas Lynch couldn’t get on the field despite starter Trevor Simian having a really rough season last year. Hell, even “The Heist” himself, Brock Osweiler, got playing time ahead of Lynch last year! You know what, screw this, I just talked myself into Rosen for Denver. So will John Elway.
  6. Buffalo Bills (trade with Indianapolis): Josh Allen, Quarterback, Wyoming: Every member of the Buffalo top brass would be willing to sell their family into slavery in exchange for a top quarterback at this point. With Allen still on the board, the Bills package their two first rounders to go get him. I think it’s a fairly terrible plan. Unless Kelvin Benjamin shapes up, Buffalo has an underwhelming receiving corps and has dealt Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland just before welcoming the top 4’s least pro-ready quarterback. Allen has obvious tools, but he has significant red flags in his game. So much of a quarterback’s fate is dictated by circumstance and, in this regard, I’m not sure Allen could do much worse than Buffalo.
  7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Safety, Alabama: Here’s what I want to answer: who cares? This offseason, the Bucs decided that going nowhere as a franchise was fun as they retained Dirk Koetter, one of the league’s three worst head coaches, which dooms them to anonymity once again in the otherwise strong NFC South. Still, Fitzpatrick is a tremendous player who fills a huge need and instantly becomes the best player in their secondary.
  8. Miami Dolphins (Trade with Chicago): Denzel Ward, Cornerback, Ohio State: In their roster management, the Dolphins are usually the wrong kind of aggressive, although in this case, it pays off. Ward is clearly a steal at this point, and helps bring star power at a position where the team could really use it.
  9. San Francisco 49ers: Roquan Smith, Linebacker, Georgia: There’s no weapon for Jimmy Garoppolo worth selecting here, so the 49ers deal with another problem, namely grabbing a guy who has the ability to either play next to or replace ticking time bomb Reuben Foster. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds is ranked higher than Smith by most draft analysts (which boggles my frickin’ mind), but Smith is more experienced and a proven character guy on a National Championship finalist.
  10. Oakland Raiders: Tremaine Edmunds, Linebacker, Virginia Tech: The Raiders will gladly take Edmunds to help with their lack of athleticism at inside linebacker. Edmunds is very young and, in my opinion, a bit overrated at this point, but his athletic upside is considerable and undeniable, so this makes tons of sense for the Raiders.
  11. Chicago Bears (Trade with Miami)Derwin James, Safety, Florida State: This is a really nice tool for creative DC Vic Fangio to play around with. James is terrific in coverage, physical against the run and can (I kid you not, I’m an FSU fan, I watched him) rush the passer. OK, fine, don’t believe me? Watch him Reggie White the Florida right tackle at 9:53. https://youtu.be/ByWss9Wl9S4?t=9m53s He instantly becomes a mainstay on that Bears defence.
  12. Indianapolis Colts (Trade with Buffalo): Quentin Nelson, Guard, Notre Dame: After trading down, the Colts can’t believe their luck. The best college guard in years drops to them at 12 after they trade down. Andrew Luck is smiling ear-to-ear after this pick, and the Colts’ running game is improved by this pick as well.
  13. Washington Deadskins: Vita Vea, Defensive tackle, Washington: The nose tackle position in Washington is currently being shared by a committee of first-round busts. Vea brings tremendous size and power along with deceptive athleticism to the position. A slam-dunk pick here.
  14. Green Bay Packers: I imagine the war room deliberation in Green Bay might go a little something like this… Packers GM: “So, uh, guys, we’ve got Aaron Rodgers coming out publicly and saying he wasn’t thrilled that we cut Jordy Nelson without talking to him. This could be trouble…” Other Packers’ staffer: “Trouble?! Try a PR shitstorm and a disaster! We’ve got to do something about this…” Packers GM: “We did sign Jimmy Graham. I mean…” Packers staffer: “Tremendous, and I’ve just seen this trailer for this movie called “Suicide Squad.” I think it’s going to be really good! Oh, wait… What year is this again?” Packers GM: “Your sarcasm is getting us nowhere, Bob.” (Sighs) “Well… I find this Calvin Ridley guy is pretty good.” Packers’ staffer: “Agreed. I say we take him.” Packers GM: “Hey, I make the decisions around here! Now, where was I? Right, Calvin Ridley! Everybody good with us taking him?” The entire room nods vigourously. The pick: Calvin Ridley, Wide receiver, Alabama
  15. Baltimore Ravens (Trade with Arizona): Marcus Davenport, Edge Rusher, UTSA: Arizona suckers Baltimore into coming up one spot to secure Davenport under the threat that teams in need of an edge rusher, such as Seattle, might come up because they supposedly like Davenport much better than Harold Landry. Davenport is more of a developmental guy than his draft status suggests, but his physical tools are impressive, and he would get to learn a thing or two from Terrell Suggs before no.55 calls it a career.
  16. Arizona Cardinals (Trade with Baltimore): DJ Moore, Wide receiver, Maryland: I think the media are just starting to get wind of how much teams like Moore, a complete receiver stuck in the anonymous wasteland that is Maryland’s passing attack. His all-around skills are a great addition to a receiving corps whose best asset is still the immortal Larry Fitzgerald. As great as Fitz is, the Cards really need to work on his succession now.
  17. Los Angeles Chargers: Mike McGlinchey, Offensive tackle, Notre Dame: The Chargers did some pretty serious work on their interior offensive line. This time they get an improvement over average-at-best starting right tackle Joe Barksdale. McGlinchey is the antithesis of a flashy pick, but it’s a solid get for the Chargers, and there is no overprotecting an immobile quarterback in his mid-30s like Philip Rivers.
  18. Seattle Seahawks: Mike Hughes, Cornerback, UCF: The Legion of Boom is close to dismantled, and the departure of Richard Sherman leaves a huge void. Hughes won’t talk like Sherman, he probably won’t play like peak-Sherman, but he’ll do well and his physicality fits how Seattle likes their cornerbacks to play.
  19. Dallas Cowboys: Da’Ron Payne, Defensive tackle, Alabama: The Cowboys need a replacement for Dez Bryant, but they like no one enough to draft one here. Therefore, they give their run defence a serious shot in the arm by grabbing Payne, who instantly step into the nose tackle spot on their defensive line.
  20. Detroit Lions: Harold Landry, Defensive end, Boston College: Beyond Ziggy Ansah, the Lions have nothing in terms of pass rush, and even Ansah is a streaky player, which means the Lions of long spells of putting next to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Landry fixes that problem, as his technique, motor and consistency are a huge addition for the Lions.
  21. Cincinnati BengalsWill Hernandez, Guard, UTEP: You can almost always count on the Bengals to make the boring move except, in this case, it makes sense. Their interior line was woeful last year, and Hernandez is one of many terrific, physical interior linemen with first-round grades. This is seventh heaven for Marvin Lewis.
  22. Indianapolis Colts (Trade with Buffalo): Jaire Alexander, Cornerback, Louisville: Grades seem all over the place on Alexander, and the Colts need cornerback help. Ergo, they grab Alexander to pair up with Malik Hooker and give themselves half a good secondary.
  23. New England Patriots: Josh Jackson, Cornerback, Iowa: After losing Malcolm Butler, the Patriots need help at cornerback, and they take advantage of a draft pool that features several mid teen-late 20s corners. Jackson is a Pats kind of guy, smart and tough. A good fit for the Pats here.
  24. Carolina Panthers: Derrius Guice, Running Back, LSU:  After losing Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers need a power element to their running game to go along with the all-purpose skills of the speedier Christian McCaffrey. Guice fits the bill as a power back with just enough of a burst to be an occasional big-play threat. He’ll remind Panthers’ fans of Stewart, but he’s less injury-prone.
  25. Tennessee Titans: James Daniels, Centre, Iowa: Despite hype from 2016, the interior of Tennessee’s offensive line disappointed last season, and an upgrade could be beneficial. The drafting of Daniels would allow current starting centre Ben Jones to slide into (most likely) Quinton Spain’s left guard spot. Overall, it’s a net win for Tennessee, who will finally ditch that ridiculous expression “exotic smashmouth” in name, but not in playing style.
  26. New York Giants (Trade with Atlanta)Kolton Miller, Offensive tackle, UCLA: The Giants need pass protection in the worst way, and they trade back into the first round, in front of the Patriots, to grab Miller, who fits the physical model established by GM Dave Gettleman in Carolina. Besides, the Giants really, really need a left tackle to replace the slow-footed Ereck Flowers, who’s been getting Eli Manning killed the last few years.
  27. New Orleans Saints: Hayden Hurst, Tight end, South Carolina: The Saints haven’t had their customary production from the tight end position since they traded Jimmy Graham, and now a pretty loaded offence gets another weapon. Drew Brees is a happy man.
  28. Pittsburgh SteelersLeighton Vander Esch, Linebacker, Boise State: What happened to Ryan Shazier last season was an absolute shame, and it forces Pittsburgh to shop for an insurance policy in case he can never return or be the player he was if he does. Vander Esch is a big, fast, rangy player who’s a terrific fit to play inside in Pittsburgh’s 3-4.
  29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, Louisville: So let’s not kid ourselves and think Blake Bortles, despite his improvement last year, is the answer. This leads the Jags to make one of the draft’s most intriguing picks with the polarizing Jackson, a multidimensional quarterback who will add additional spotlight on the suddenly trendy Jags.
  30. Minnesota Vikings: Rashaan Evans, Linebacker, Alabama: This Vikings team is looking pretty loaded, and they add athleticism at the Will linebacker position by replacing incumbent starter Ben Gedeon with Evans, a smart, tough typical Alabama product at the position.
  31. New England Patriots: Connor Williams, Offensive tackle, Texas: With Nate Solder’s departure, the team needs an athletic left tackle to keep Tom Brady upright on the rare occasions when he keeps the ball longer than 1.3 seconds. Williams is not the heaviest player, but he’s a smooth mover who fits what the Pats are looking for.
  32. Philadelphia Eagles: Sony Michel, Running Back, Georgia: The Eagles are so loaded this is a luxury pick, but it gives the Eagles improved depth at the position, which they need, and Michel is the quintessential modern all-purpose back that every team needs in 2018.
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NFL Draft Top 10 storyline overview, or an exercise in overthinking

The 2016 NFL draft is in 10 days and, as usual, the storylines are legion. Taking up most of the spotlight are the Rams, who have acquired the first overall pick in a blockbuster trade with the Titans that had people thinking back to 2012, when the Rams traded out of the second overall pick and allowed Washington to grab Robert Griffin.

We should be thankful that we’ve heard the last of the Rams telling us they’re confident in their ability to win with Case Keenum at quarterback. They are taking a signal caller with the first pick. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t picked the best season to swing for the fences on a QB. Their choice is between North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and California’s Jared Goff.

In an ideal world, both of them would sit next year, although we all know that’s never going to happen. Conventional wisdom suggests a significant adjustment period awaits the two of them. Wentz played FCS football, so we can imagine the speed of the game will be another universe for him. However, the system he played at NDSU is recognized by most as rather similar to what he’ll be asked to do in the NFL. Meanwhile, Goff has faced top competition in the Pac-12 Conference, but comes from an Air Raid offence that features very different reads from those he’ll have to make at the NFL level.

Ultimately, there are two lenses through which to view the Goff/Wentz debate. The first is about upside. Here, most people agree the nod goes to Wentz. Goff has terrific pocket presence, a quick release, and a good arm. However, Wentz has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles because of his large build, big arm, and sneaky running ability. Some have even made parallels between Wentz and Cam Newton (a strong exaggeration, at least in terms of running ability).

The second is about the aforementioned learning curve. For some, playing in the Pac-12 has prepared Goff to deal with the speed of the NFL. Moreover, the beating he took during three years of bad O-Line play at Cal while still making great throws is an enticing prospect for teams looking to stick him into a bad lineup. On the other hand, Wentz backers care more about the adjustment to an NFL system, which they say, favours the NDSU product. It’s fairly clear Wentz would be the uncontested no.1 in the eyes of most people had he played in the FBS, so how much does the level of competition really matter if Wentz checks out all other boxes? If the passing concepts, the reads, and the audible systems are similar to what he’ll see in the NFL, does the jump in level of play become somewhat overstated?

The information coming out of L.A. seems to indicate it’s going to be Goff. Given that Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the Rams’ head coach and GM, are trying to save their jobs, picking Goff makes sense if we accept that the Cal pivot is the most pro-ready of the two top quarterbacks. However, smokescreens are key during draft season, and this is just my gut, but I can’t help but think there is an appeal to an all-ball guy like Wentz to someone like Jeff Fisher. As they say on television, to be continued…

The two best players

Meanwhile, the trade at the top of the draft also creates some uncertainty for the draft’s top offensive lineman and my second-rated prospect, Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil. He is the best blend of size, strength, and athleticism to enter the NFL at the tackle position in several years. Before the trade, draft experts were almost unanimous in their belief that Tennessee would take him first overall. Now, it’s a virtual certainty the Rams haven’t traded up to get him, and Cleveland – who owns the second overall pick – isn’t in the market for an offensive tackle unless they trade Joe Thomas.

That leaves the Chargers, holders of the third overall pick, as the likeliest team to pick Tunsil, but it’s not a given. They could very well go in the direction of my favourite player in the draft, Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey. I’m not saying this just because I’m an FSU diehard. Ramsey’s ability to play at a high level at both cornerback and safety means that the only potential limit for him will be his defensive coordinator’s creativity. As Charles Woodson retires, Ramsey could become the new Woodson: a guy who redefines how NFL defensive backs are used.

The Chargers are tough to read on the Ramsey front, though, because they have Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett at cornerback, they’ve brought in Casey Heyward as a potential nickel and they have Dwight Lowery at free safety. Stick Ramsey anywhere in there, and he’s an upgrade. Yet, whether San Diego decides to go with him or not depends what the plan for him would be, which is what makes evaluating Ramsey’s draft prospects so hard. Meanwhile, Tunsil would serve as an upgrade over King Dunlap at left tackle. Dunlap’s improvement during his NFL career has been nothing short of spectacular, but he still struggles a bit with the league’s elite edge rushers. If the Chargers go with Tunsil, Dunlap would be an improvement, athletically at least, over Joseph Barksdale at right tackle.

Dallas doesn’t need Tunsil at all, but is a strong suitor for Ramsey given their need for help in the secondary. If they were to go in another direction, Jacksonville would surely have a hard time passing on a player who could help revitalize a secondary that was subpar at best last season. With the release of Sergio Brown, the Jags are likely buyers in the defensive back market. They couldn’t find a better one than Ramsey. However, they are far from certain to get him at five.

The Jags’ fifth pick becomes a real point of interest for the neutral fans (and a point of depression for Jags’ fans) if Ramsey is gone but Tunsil is still there. This situation would force the Jags to think long and hard about their confidence in Luke Joeckel as their starting left tackle. After being picked second overall in 2013, Joeckel struggled mightily early in his career, but has looked increasingly competent ever since. His lack of upper-echelon athleticism will likely prevent him from becoming the force he once was projected to be, but if the Jags think they can win with Joeckel at left tackle, they’re getting into coin-flip territory in terms of whom they pick. Do you go for the draft’s other versatile defensive dynamo, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who’s coming off a season-ending injury, or bring in even more D-Line help with Joey Bosa? Or do you trade down a few picks with someone who wants to leapfrog Baltimore for Tunsil and try to grab Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the bottom half of the top 10? (Note: If Laremy Tunsil falls to Baltimore at six, Ozzie Newsome is doing celebratory backflips in the Ravens’ war room.)

The interesting case of Dallas

Dallas sits at four. They need Ramsey… something fierce. Their secondary is atrocious, and if he’s when Dallas pick, it has to be Ramsey.

UNLESS…

Do we know, and I mean KNOW, that Dallas ISN’T in the market for a quarterback in the first round? We know Jerry Jones has said so, but again… draft and smokescreens, brother and sister… The quarterback is such a perfect fit for the Cowboys’ current predicament. With a high draft pick, an ageing-and-injury-prone-but-not-yet-washed-up quarterback, and a roster that’s better than their pick in the draft would indicate, especially on offence, you couldn’t find a better scenario to pick a quarterback that would benefit from sitting out a year or two. Avoiding a dropoff because they’ve prepared Tony Romo’s successor before Romo retires has to be on the cards for Dallas.

One big problem, though: St.Louis trading up, coupled with the increasingly widespread rumour that Cleveland is looking to trade down, is a paradigm changer for Dallas. When Tennessee was picking first, there was no way Goff and Wentz were going one and two. Suddenly, that scenario becomes a probability. Therefore, if Dallas wants the quarterback the Rams don’t take, they very well may have to become Cleveland’s trading partner at two. If you’re Jerry Jones, do you pull the trigger on that trade given your (many) needs on defence?

Besides, that quarterback could be a guy like Michigan State’s Connor Cook or Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in the second round. Hackenberg’s case is especially interesting. The physical tools are outstanding, but mentally, whichever team takes him will have to rebuild him from the ground up. Dallas may decide they can afford to go defence in the first round and groom a player like Hackenberg behind Romo.

However, the risk with a guy like the former Penn State star is far greater than with Wentz or Goff, both A+ personalities. Some talented college players go through rough patches and never recover, and there’s something about Hackenberg that emits that sort of vibe. As for Cook, there’s no guarantee he’s a better player than Kirk Cousins. I can’t say I’m a fan.

If Cook/Hackenberg doesn’t work out, that means you’re going back to the drawing board and drafting a rookie to start, and we all know the perils of that situation. Take Jacksonville as an example. The Jags were encouraged by the improvement of Blake Bortles last season, but he still made too many mistakes for them to be a playoff contender, and let us avoid reminiscing about his god-awful rookie year. Besides, if Dallas were to put a rookie in Romo’s place two years from now, that rookie may learn on a similar curve to that of Bortles, but he could also be the new Blaine Gabbert.

If they go defence, Dallas could also opt for Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, although the risks of that proposition have been listed by yours truly in a previous post. If neither Baltimore nor Dallas takes Bosa, it could set up the former Buckeye for a mini-fall.

Afterwards…

Baltimore is the ultimate best-available-player team, so the only question is, what does their draft board actually look like? Oregon’s DeForest Buckner makes a lot of sense for them, given their lack of both depth and quality on the defensive line, but projections like this one can go out the window if a player like Ramsey or Tunsil slips to six.

Baltimore could also accelerate the run on offensive tackles (there is a big dropoff after the top four at the position) if they take Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley at six. Tennessee not picking first overall (and likely drafting Tunsil) would seem to hurt the chances of it happening, but if the Ravens do pick the Notre Dame standout, we’re probably looking at Michigan State’s Jack Conklin slipping into the Top 10. That would leave Ohio State’s Taylor Decker as the only tackle worth taking in the teens with several teams picking in that range who could use him. Lots of interesting trade prospects there at that point.

So, 1,800 words later, all I can think of is Stewie Griffin tapping Brian on the leg repeatedly, and shouting, “Oh, this is fun!” I’ll see you in a few days with my mock draft, dear readers.

 

 

A word on Peyton Manning, and a question about Charles Woodson: was he better than Deion?

Into the sunset

This year’s retirement season is brutal on the NFL, and on us as fans. Peyton Manning has retired as the league’s most statistically decorated quarterback and, in my opinion, the greatest one it has ever seen. I don’t wish to go at length into the reasons why I believe this to be the case, but let’s just put it this way: what do those who disagree have to hang their hat on? The amount of Super Bowls won by Brady and Montana. Let’s not kid ourselves: both of them are top 5 quarterbacks as well. However, the rings argument for their superiority over Manning is as overstated and simplistic as it is problematic.

In fact, it’s not so much an argument as it is an unsophisticated cliché. And if we are willing to cast aside this cliché, and agree that there is more to a player’s greatness than if or how many times he was on the winning team for the last game of the season, the question becomes this: when it comes to the quarterback position, who has ever played it at a higher level than Manning? The answer: no one.

Just how great was Charles Woodson?

Still, this offseason also forces us to say goodbye to Charles Woodson, the Raiders’ star defensive back who retires after a season in which he still played at a fairly high level. The depth of his link to Manning is really quite stunning. They are the last members of the 1998 draft class to retire. They both came into the league as high first-round picks (Manning was first overall; Woodson went fourth). Before their respective pro debuts, Woodson became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Who was the preseason pick to win it, but wound up finishing second in the voting? Manning. Both of them came into the league with the potential to revolutionize their respective positions, and they both did.

The ways in which Manning changed the quarterback position (another reason why he’s the greatest ever) are well documented. As for Woodson, the changes to defensive back play he has ushered may be more subtle, but I’m not convinced they’re any less significant. That’s why I consider him to be the greatest defensive back I’ve ever watched.

I shall now pause to give the Deion fanatics among my friends the chance to climb back down from their living room curtains.

Just a moment…

Almost there…

And we’re back.

Yes, I’ve seen Deion play. Yes, he’s the greatest cover corner in history. So what, then, would make him inferior to Woodson? My take on the Deion-Woodson debate is that Deion’s era-specific advantages are hard to ignore. Sure, the tape suggests his pure speed is better than Woodson’s, and that his “loose man” skills are as well. His interception numbers are also gaudier.

But my thinking goes as follows: put rookie Woodson in a time machine and send him to 1988, playing in an NFL when you could get away with corners who were relatively uninterested in tackling and assuredly awful at it (as Deion was) because the bubble screen game hadn’t yet forced corners to acquire the shed-and-tackle skills of a linebacker. In those times, could Woodson have been, say, 98% of what Deion was? No question, and some, even back then, would have taken Woodson because he was a more complete player.

Put rookie Deion in 1998 and have him face what has become the NFL of today. Is he 98% of Woodson? It’s a murky proposal. Sure, in terms of man-to-man skills, we’d speak of him the way we speak of peak Darrelle Revis. But how would his disdain of zone coverage affect the perception of him by coordinators (There was a guy who could never in a million years have played for a coach like Bill Belichick)? Would his horrendous tackling and overall aversion to it not diminish his value to coaches and GMs?

How would his value compare to what it was in the late 80s-early 90s? 85%? 90%? 95%? How would he fare in the run game or against hitches, jailbreaks and bubble screens getting off blocks from the likes of Andre or Calvin Johnson? How would he do if a modern DC matched him up against a Rob Gronkowski? Is that even feasible?

And there is more. Because of his superior technical skills and overall ability, late-career Woodson was able to become a safety who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game and whom DCs could bring on a blitz with excellent results (as Dom Capers did during Woodson’s stint as a Green Bay Packer). Meanwhile, look at what happened when Deion’s skills eroded (which just so happens to coincide with Dallas letting him go): he fell off a cliff when he arrived in Washington, and instantly became a liability. I think that means something.

It’s also worth mentioning that there has been something “Tim Duncan-esque” about Woodson’s excellence. Deion was the very definition of flash (not always to his benefit) with gem quotes such as , “I don’t love the camera; the camera loves me!” Meanwhile, Woodson has pissed excellence in silence (and on several mediocre Oakland teams) for pretty much his entire career, and you had to watch him to see just how amazing he was. It reminds me of the Duncan-Kobe discussion. Have a basketball conversation with a casual fan, and he’ll probably tell you the notion that Kobe was better than Duncan is beyond debate. And he’ll be wrong.

It’s kind of the same thing with Woodson versus Deion. Sanders has the support of legions who nostalgically remember his days as a man coverage ayatollah, and the young people know him because he’s on television. Woodson only has the connoisseurs’ support, and that of those who saw him crush it on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay. Woodson’s reputation has also “suffered” from him playing at the same time as several truly legendary corners like Champ Bailey (mortal lock as a Hall-of-Famer) and Chris McAlister (who would be discussed in similar terms had he played long enough). Aside from maybe Rod Woodson, who did Deion have to compete with? Old Ronnie Lott? Dale Carter? Aeneas Williams?

Between Woodson’s incredible athletic talents, the sheer completeness of his game, and the way he reinvented himself when his physical skills began to fade, he would have been a Top two or three player at his position for his entire career in any era. His versatility allowed for the modern use of the star defensive back who gets moved all over the field to prevent top receivers from creating mismatches. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey is a highly-touted all-around prospect in this year’s NFL draft a DB, mostly because of his ability to line up all over the field. People describe him as another Patrick Peterson; I think he’s another Woodson, and that’s why defensive coordinators salivate at the thought of having him on their team. Whatever multitude of ways Ramsey will be used as an NFL player, he’ll owe part of it to Woodson.

As for Deion, put him in today’s NFL, and he’s essentially the Washington Post or the New York Times: still great, still a reference in many ways, but not necessarily as memorable. And that’s what sets Woodson apart from Sanders, for me, despite Woodson’s fatal flaw of not being interesting enough. Heck, by the time my friends finish this post, they’ll probably have resumed thinking about Richard Sherman. For Woodson, it’ll be another day of being overlooked. It seems even his retirement can’t save him from that.

 

 

 

Chip Kelly’s firing: lessons from a gutsy experiment

I was surprised by Chip Kelly’s firing from his twin post of head coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, but I cannot say I was shocked. My surprise came from the fact that the team’s decision to sack him went against everything we were hearing in the days that preceded it. And while even his most energetic defenders (of which I am one) wouldn’t dare say the firing was unjustified, hence the absence of shock, his firing, much like his hiring, carries the potential of league-wide ramifications. Knee-jerk reactions were legion, but it matters for the NFL that its notoriously conservative boys’ club of coaches draw the right lessons from his firing.

One rather large problem for both Kelly and any team thinking of hiring him is that there are very few organizations for which the former Oregon prodigy coach is actually a fit. One of the reasons why this is the case is because it is rather necessary that he be hired as a head coach. Allow me to explain. Some people have suggested that an NFL team should hire Kelly as an offensive coordinator. In abstracto, this makes sense. After all, why not limit him to a role that more rarely demands the leader-of-men qualities Kelly so obviously failed to display as a head coach in Philadelphia? Upon further scrutiny, however, this idea carries its share of potential pitfalls.

The most obvious one is the following: if Kelly is not the head coach, then the team’s entire coaching staff must be unequivocally on board with the changes that Kelly’s hurry-up, no-huddle offence entails. You see, I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a mere hurry-up offence; there are only hurry-up TEAMS. Having the hurry-up as your base offensive M.O. forces coaches on both sides of the ball to alter their coaching methods to the extent that anyone who has coached in a more traditional setting will find themselves profoundly challenged by this new format. The odds are that, while some coaches may embrace the opportunity to innovate, most will not. The way hurry-up college teams practice would be heresy to many seasoned NFL coaches. A few years ago, I had the privilege of coaching a football camp with former Montreal Alouettes receiver Shaun Diner, who played for Kelly at New Hampshire. At the time, Kelly was starting to become a household name at Oregon, and Diner told me the biggest thing for Kelly was always that everyone buy into what the team was doing. Nothing kills the hurry-up, no-huddle’s chances of success faster than coaches and/or players who let their skepticism affect their preparation. If Kelly is the head coach, then he gets to pick assistants who believe the system can work. If he’s not, he has to win over a staff he hasn’t chosen, in which case his odds of stumbling into colleagues who are refractory to his methods increase dramatically.

There is more. Within the NFL community, two highly problematic viewpoints about Kelly’s system appear to persist:

  1. The system has become so intimately associated with Kelly himself. Is it possible that Kelly simply lacks the man-management skills required to connect with the group of narcissistic and capricious millionaires known as NFL players? Of course. However, it would be both dangerous and intellectually inept for the larger football community (Yes, I’m looking at you, media!!) to create an amalgam between the system he brought to the league and the way he interacted with players as well as with his unequivocally disastrous decisions as personnel director. Whatever one thinks of Kelly’s system, though, it would be hasty to condemn it along with the coach himself given that so many other factors went into the Eagles’ struggles this year. If the NFL community refrains from hiring a coach who runs a similar offence just because Kelly “failed” in Philadelphia, then his firing will be a tremendous setback for the mere idea of offensive innovation in the NFL. (P.S.: So two 10-win seasons and a playoff berth in three years is failing in the NFL, now? I’m sure the likes of Ron Rivera, Jason Garrett, and John Fox are glad they weren’t held to that same lofty standard. Makes you wonder why, though.)
  2. It’s still often associated with the expression “The Spread”, and with option quarterbacks. Coming into the NFL, Kelly had enjoyed plenty of success spreading the field, and combining his hurry-up, no-huddle with a lethal read-option game at Oregon. Unfortunately, though, it seems that seeing so much option coupled with spread formations, the hurry-up, and the no-huddle has convinced many people, including several journalists that all these things go together and cannot be dissociated from each other. Without getting into the tactical minutiae of why this idea is problematic, let’s just quickly separate these notions from one another. Not all spread attacks carry pure run-run option plays (in fact, on aggregate, few of them do). Moreover, we really have to rethink of what we include in the definition of the  “option” play, because to think of it as strictly a running play that puts the quarterback in jeopardy, nowadays, is inadequate; the run-pass option, which usually keeps the quarterback in the pocket as a passer, is such a huge part of college football now that many offences use it as the foundation of what they do. Also, just because the quarterback is in the shotgun doesn’t mean his team runs a spread offence, nor does his being under-centre prevent the offence from being a spread (to the latter’s effect, the system Drew Brees ran at Purdue comes to the mind). Even if your quarterback is in the gun, if the rest of your personnel includes a fullback, a tailback and a tight end, you’re not in a spread alignment. Too many people who comment on the NFL have internalized these amalgams (along with the idea that spread offences can’t work in the NFL though they have now become the norm in the league today), and it’s a problem.

Looking at things as they stand today, it seems obvious that many people around the NFL are delighted that Kelly has “failed.” Unfortunately for those of us who badly want to see his brand of offence succeed in the pros, his detractors have on their side a few undeniable points:

  • The fact that, for the reasons we’ve just covered at length, he HAS to be head coach if you’re going to hire him. 
  • Making his offence work is going to be a high-maintenance balancing act from a personnel perspective: If the player personnel director isn’t on the absolute same page as Kelly, the organization risks assembling a team of square pegs for round holes. Therefore, the easiest thing would be to put Kelly in charge of personnel… except the Eagles tried that, and the results were nothing short of atrocious. In the span of what amounts to a year-and-a-half, he managed to a) cut two key starting offensive linemen and replace them with scrubs; b) get some players to state publicly that he can’t relate to stars, and that he doesn’t like black players (the latter is most likely untrue, but the damage is done); c) make other really, really puzzling roster moves – i.e. 1) let Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson go, but re-signed Riley Cooper, 2) traded Brandon Boykin for what amounts to Big Mac leftovers, 3) spent a first-round pick on the invisible Marcus Smith, 4) spent big money on free agent bust Byron Maxwell, a press corner who, from the very beginning, might as well have come from Seattle with the expression “product of the system” tattooed on his forehead, and then played him at free safety, where he’ll never get to press, 5) signed BOTH DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews to play running back, neither of whom were really going to work because the O-Line was neglected, and Murray flopped badly; d) replaced Nick Foles (not a great fit for Kelly’s offence) with Sam Bradford (an even worse fit for his offence). The condensed version of this train crash? Kelly has proven himself unworthy of controlling personnel.
  • The offence may be a tough sell for many NFL veterans. We’ve blamed Kelly, the person, for many of his Eagles’ struggles. Journalists have speculated ad nauseam about whether his way of handling players might only be suited for the college game. However, the system does require an unusual level of commitment from players, especially when it comes to the way they practice. I want to blame Kelly’s failings on his inability to be the diva whisperer most pro coaches have to be and on his blunders as a GM. Still, we have to account, at this point, for the possibility that the system itself might be as tough to accept for players as Kelly’s personality. I hope it’s not true, and I don’t think it is. But we can’t rule it out.

That said, NFL GMs and owners would also do well to contemplate the following facts, which show Kelly in a more favourable light:

  • The notion that his system has proven itself fundamentally unsound for the NFL is a misconception: No, it didn’t look pretty this year with the wrong personnel, and yes, it does put pressure on the defence when they fail to at least gain a few first downs. Yet, Kelly himself will have to wonder not only what possessed himself to make all these reprehensibly dumb personnel decisions, but also why he so bastardized the offence that worked so well in his first year. In fact, one could make the argument that he coached against ghosts, and anticipated that opposing coaches would “figure it out” instead of testing whatever so-called solutions DCs would have for it. He was roasting the NFL with his run-pass option plays his first year. Why did he get away from that? What would happen if a coach, Kelly or someone else, stuck to that gameplan and combined it with Kelly’s trademark tempo? Take the read option, for example. Tune in to the NFL Network, and you won’t have to wait long to hear some meat-head ex-player triumphantly claim that NFL coaches have figured the read option out. No, they haven’t! There is no “figuring it out.” You either ask one guy to play both potential ball carriers, or you assign a player for each one. Both ways have their strengths and weaknesses but, in the end, it’s a sound football play that carries its share of counters depending on how the defence plays it. And in any case, athletes will make plays on it, or they won’t; just as is the case with any other play, really. Kelly’s tempo just makes it harder for defensive players to muster the concentration required to defend it properly.
  • If it’s not Kelly, it’ll have to be someone else because… at all other levels of football, neither the spread nor the option are going away, people. Used to be, high school teams would take their best athlete and put him at running back, because if you’re running a pro-style offence, it’s the best way to get him a higher number of touches. But with the spread came the realization that while putting the great athlete at running back meant he touched the ball a lot, putting him at quarterback means he touches the ball every single play. It’s simply too advantageous a proposition to pass up. And since spread systems with lots of run-pass options (which mean lots of short throws to left-alone receivers) are now the norm in the NCAA as well, several players who would have played receiver or running back in the past because of their marginal passing skills now play quarterback despite the fact that they can’t make every throw because they’ll still be dynamite as dual-threat guys. Before Marcus Mariota, a legitimate first-round NFL prospect, those are the kind of guys (Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas) Kelly turned into college superstars. And no, none of Mariota’s predecessors would have been suitable starters for the NFL, but that’s the nature of the beast; some spread option products will be good enough for the NFL, and most won’t be. Yet, how is that any different from products of NCAA pro-style offences? Need we really reminisce about the likes of Jimmy Clausen, John David Booty, Jordan Palmer (Carson’s brother), Matt Leinart, or the immortal Mark Sanchez? In any case, spread passers outnumber the Andrew Lucks of the world by a stronger ratio every year, even now. UCLA has a dynamite pro-style prospect, Josh Rosen, who played the 2015 season for the Bruins as a true freshman. What did he run at UCLA this year? All run-pass option stuff. It baffles how quick we are to dismiss the likes of Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin as being finished as NFL starters because they don’t work when handcuffed in a traditional offence. Yet, we seem to think it’s OK that thoroughly limited players like Andy Dalton, don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferers like Jay Cutler, and good-stats-on-a-bad-team guys like Matthew Stafford are on $100-million contracts, holding their teams hostage because said teams don’t want to risk “winding up in quarterbacking hell.” Instead, these teams are stuck in QB purgatory, and I hope for their sake that their fans learn to enjoy it, because that’s where they’ll remain as long as these mediocre passers remain on their roster, eating up cap space like offensive linemen eat up carbs at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Something’s gotta give, so unless the NFL is willing to start its own minor league system, the league’s largely inflexible coaches will need to start doing a better job of tailoring their offence to the abilities of dual-threat quarterbacks.

Moreover, there is another reason to want Chip Kelly, and his brand of offence, to succeed: the sheer spectacle of it. Watch Oregon games from Kelly’s time there, or even the very first game he coached for the Eagles. It is fun, man! College football has spoiled us in terms of system diversity to the extent that I often find it tedious to watch 32 teams run variations of the exact same offence. Seriously, I watch NFL offences play, and most of the time, the only thing that allows me to tell them apart is their teams’ uniforms. Potentially, Chip Kelly could change that. There were even times in Kelly’s three years in Philadelphia when it looked as though he just might have pulled it off. For the sake of the “watchability” of its offensive football, the NFL needs Kelly, or someone else like him, to succeed. Since Kelly is already here, the NFL might as well give him a real go. Lots of things have to be in place within a team’s infrastructure for it to work, and for goodness’ sake, Kelly mustn’t be put in charge of personnel. None of it, however, alters the fact that the main thing I hope to learn about the Kelly experiment in the NFL is that it isn’t over.

 

 

The case for Marshall Faulk as a Top 5 all-time running back

After watching Marshall Faulk’s “A Football Life” episode on the NFL Network, it dawned on me that he’s in danger of winding up historically underrated. Reading this, it might occur to you that I’m being hyperbolic. After all, the man is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely recognized as a great in the sport’s history, and so on.

And yet…

Ask anyone to give you a Top 5 running backs list, and see how many of them will have Faulk in there. Now, I wasn’t born to see OJ or Jim Brown, I was too young to remember Payton and I missed the first third of Emmitt Smith’s career. But however great these players were, I am making the argument that Faulk belongs on any Top 5 list.

Watching the episode brought historical context to things I barely remembered about him, and even taught me a few things I didn’t know (I must confess feeling selfishly relieved that the Miami Hurricanes lacked the vision to recruit him as a running back. Faulk playing for the Canes? Help us all!).

Statistically, Faulk numbers leave little to be desired. He is one of only three players to have rushed for 10,000 yards and caught for 5,000 (Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber being the others). He is the fastest player to reach 16,000 and 17,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Only he and Jim Brown have ever reached 1,000 yards rushing in six games. Only he and Ladainian Tomlinson have accumulated 10 seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns. Consider the following receiving numbers: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, five touchdowns. Not a bad year for a receiver, right? Thing is, those are Faulk’s numbers from 1999.

One of the clichés we have in sports is that a player’s statistics “speak for themselves.” However, in Faulk’s case, it feels as though they do not. Not quite. As great as his stats are, Faulk’s true greatness doesn’t lie in his tangibles.

Watching the “A Football Life” episode, it struck me that they could have taken away the interviews, the music, the human interest stuff, and simply rolled game footage for an hour, and it would have been enough. Between my days as a player and a coach, I’ve been involved in over 200 games of football, and I’ve watched who knows many more. Football often leaves me impressed, but seldom in awe. Marshall Faulk left me in awe. A lot. Even as I watched the episode, as it replayed moments I could still remember, my jaw dropped several times as I watched him wiggle his way out of piles that would have been impossible to escape for anyone else not named Barry Sanders. If Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” then Marshall Faulk was “Magic.” Unlike several great backs, Faulk wasn’t just great; he was memorable.

But that’s part of the problem. One of my theories as to why Faulk risks being historically shafted to some degree is that nobody seems quite sure what to make of him. We know he was great, but how great, exactly? His rushing numbers are indeed impressive, but they are topped by backs who have managed to play longer. In a way, Barry Sanders may have helped his case by retiring so early, because the fact that he only played eight years will serve as a caveat to justify his not having the numbers some of the other greats have. Fans relish their memories of Walter Payton, for whom running looked so effortless. Most people, for whom running back should be runners above all else, might prefer stallions types with an unnatural combination of length, speed and power, such as Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. And, of course, there are the technical masters, who would never take a step wrong, like Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith. 

How much should we value the fact that Faulk is unquestionably the best receiving back of the modern era, or any era, for that matter? Even that last claim is bound to be contested. Some day, some stat geek born in 2002 or something will crunch the numbers and say that Ladainian Tomlinson was pretty much as a good a receiving back as Faulk. And he’ll be wrong.

Still, if we’re being honest, we must examine whether Faulk benefited from era-specific advantages. This is an especially salient question when we look at his receiving numbers. His prime took place in the last era when a linebacker lighter than 240 pounds was considered too small to play in the middle, 250-pound, 4.9-running Sam linebackers defended tight ends, and virtually all strong safeties were Kam Chancellor types who stank in coverage. Of course, Faulk was matchup hell for these guys. But what about now? It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be the best receiving back in the league, but would he be quite the same matchup nightmare working against guys like Lavonte David, or Thomas Davis, or DeAndre Levy? Does he pull off his receiving stats from 1999  in today’s NFL? Does he even get enough snaps, given that the running back-by-committee approach is now the norm in the NFL?

They’re not invalid questions, but even if we concede all these points, there are also things in today’s NFL from which he would surely benefit. Would he not be even more of an assassin as an inside runner in today’s zone schemes? Would a lighter workload not allow him to prolong his career? Would the imports from inventive college passing attacks, such as the Air Raid, not compensate for the fact that modern NFL linebackers and safeties are closer to matching him athletically?

I would argue that he would still be a monster receiver because a) today’s linebackers and safeties might be much better athletes, but they still aren’t good enough in coverage to stay with Faulk, and b) in today’s NFL, a bright coordinator would have schemed his way into making Faulk uncoverable. If Dion Lewis can look unstoppable in the Pats’ offence, imagine how Faulk would do. Moreover, given that he was surprisingly durable in an era when front 7 players were much bigger than they are today, it’s safe to assume that lesser workloads would have prevented him from “losing a step” overnight as he did, much like Tomlinson and Eddie George, and would have allowed him to extend his career in much the same way as Emmitt Smith did. Imagine the numbers he would have posted then.

And just in case you remain unconvinced, allow me to give you the bullet-point presentation of why I rank Faulk in my Top 5 running backs of all time, and you should too:

  1. He exuded “X-factorness” (not a word, I know. Sue me.) : We have already discussed this at length, but again, this cannot be overstated. Faulk is one of those players you had to see to truly grasp just how exceptional he was. Look at Emmitt Smith or Tomlinson’s stats, and you pretty much get the picture. Not true with Faulk. He was one of those players who pushed back the limits of what we thought running backs could do. I think that counts for something.
  2. He was a complete, total, utter matchup horror show: You would have needed one of your starting cornerbacks to cover him (and even then, I can think of several stiff starting corners who wouldn’t have had a prayer of staying with him). But you couldn’t have gotten away with that because a) he never lined up in the same spot, and b) because even if you did red-dog him with a starting corner, that would have meant assigning a safety or a nickel corner to cover either Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt (translation: suicide). And while he wasn’t a physical runner, he could wiggle out of tight spaces better than anyone other than Barry Sanders. Your typical NFL linebacker is faster now than he was back then but, with moves like his, Faulk could still leave most modern backers in the dust. One more thing: as a blocker, his cerebral prowess allowed him to excel against linebackers as big as modern defensive ends. Against today’s smaller players, he’d be a world-beater as a blocker. If you want a modern comparison for the kind of mismatch nightmare he was, think Rob Gronkowski. Different athletes; same gameplanning impossibility.
  3.  He turned the moribund Rams into a Super Bowl team: While the media was having a field day signing the praises of Kurt Warner because he was the cuter story, Marshall Faulk was busy being the actual catalyst for the Rams’ turnaround. It’s not that Warner’s performance was without merit, far from it, but ask yourself the following questions: Could the Rams have won that Super Bowl and gotten to another one two years later with Trent Green at quarterback instead of Warner? Probably. Could they have done it without Faulk being the terror that he was, and creating tons of favourable matchups for Bruce and Holt? No, not a chance. 1999-2001 Faulk was, along with Randy Moss, the most dynamic offensive weapon in the NFL. Warner was an unusually smart and accurate quarterback. Deprive him of an offensive star in peak form (Faulk in St.Louis; Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), however, and his limitations become much more apparent.
  4. Given my tendencies as a fan, I should have hated him, but I didn’t: I have a confession to make. I hate media darlings. And when the media caught on to the fact that they might have, in the ’99 Rams, an amazing Cinderella story in both Kurt Warner and the Rams in general, they couldn’t stop feeding it to us. When I was younger, that drove me even crazier than it does now. There are many players I dislike not because of anything they did, but because I couldn’t take the media marveling over them anymore. I despised Kurt Warner, and I was never too fond of Bruce and Holt. I couldn’t help but like Faulk. I was not very far advanced in my football fandom at that point, but I could tell this was a historically great player having a historically great season. And he was so magical to watch that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

I realize no one would dare argue that Faulk is overrated, and that nobody is questioning his status as an all-time great. Still, however, I will state until I’m blue in the face that this isn’t enough. There are many names one could put on a list of the greatest running backs of all time and get an argument from no one, but you would get one from me if you were to put five names ahead of Marshall Faulk.

Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

The Suh question

An interesting piece on Grantland asks the following: Would you want soon-to-be free agent defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh on your team?

My response: “Is that a trick question?”

To me, it deserves to be the subject of one of those silly-question Geiko ads. It ranks alongside gems of idiocy such as “Did the Lakers give up too much in the 2008 trade for Pau Gasol* ?,” or “Was it really wise for the Broncos to sign Peyton Manning to replace Tim Tebow?,” or even the ESPN First Take clanger “Would you take Tom Brady or Tebow as your quarterback with two minutes left and the game on the line?”

Yeah, but Turp! That tells us you’re passionate about your answer, not what your answer actually is! Point taken, so here goes. Yes, I would sign Ndamokung Suh, and I would do so in less time than it would take anyone to say “the best since Sapp.” For crissakes, not since Reggie White has such a dominant defensive lineman hit free agency at the peak of his powers! Sapp was almost completely over-the-hill when he went to Oakland, and though Julius Peppers arrived in Chicago with quite a bit of gas left in the tank, he was already starting to decline a bit.

That said, I have to acknowledge my bias. Yes, I struggle to hate great players at my position. Yes, I find something cathartic in watching a defensive lineman beat up on quarterbacks in a league where they are so ridiculously overprotected compared to their fellow players at other positions, in a league that so deliberately handicaps defence to favour offence. And yes, I’m the guy whose delight when he sees quarterbacks take a pounding just might be described as Joker-esque.

In other words, it’s impossible for me to hate a guy who can pull off shit like this (the whole thing’s impressive, but the tackle starting at 1:59… Oh my!) :

Or this sack of notorious don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferer Jay Cutler (P.S.: Forget the regrettable injury and watch the play):

However, what I would now like to submit is that, while my love of Suh has an emotional component to it, so does a large part of the vitriol aimed in his direction. Not since Terrell Owens at the peak of his petulance has the league’s best player at a given position been so universally reviled. And even then, I think Suh takes the cake.

Today, Suh is not only one of the NFL’s most despised players, but also one of its most under-appreciated. Of no other player of such talent would CBS’ Pete Prisco say, in a calamity of a column, that he’s the league’s most overrated player. Is it really fair that a player who

  1. grabbed the title of best at his position during his rookie year,
  2. single-handedly alters offensive gameplans,
  3. plays with the kind of abandon that we wish all pro athletes would display,
  4. has seemingly never been anything but a model teammate, and
  5. has never said a wrong thing in the media

would have an asterisk put on his greatness by such an overwhelming amount of people in the media and in the viewing public? No, but so far, this is Suh’s legacy, and there are no signs of that changing anywhere in sight. People have just made up their minds about him.

I’m not surprised to see a guy as bright and as composed as Suh deal with his heel status by pretending he doesn’t actually have it. What impresses me a lot is to see that he hasn’t taken offence to people suggesting, both implicitly and explicitly, that his style of play diminishes his value or his greatness as a player. Do we dare put Gerald McCoy, as talented as he is, in the same conversation as Suh unless we’re trying to diminish Suh’s stock? I have my doubts. McCoy is terrific, but anyone who actually watches Suh on tape, instead of relying on the box scores, knows that his on-field dominance is so profound that the only other defensive lineman who can hope to impact games in such a way is JJ Watt**. Suh and Watt simply operate in another dimension. There are other Pro Bowl-level defensive linemen in the NFL, namely McCoy, but they belong in the “everybody else” conversation. We’re starting to see some analysts recognize that (better late than never) after Suh did a better job of harnessing his intensity this season, but it’s taking time.

But Turp! You’re conveniently leaving out that he’s such a dirty player! It’s funny how selective our memories get when it comes to these things. James Harrison caught more flack for publicly insulting Roger Goodell than for his multiple attempts at maiming opposing players. Rodney Harrison was an artist at ending seasons (see: Green, Trent) with knee-level hits, but he’s one of the best in history at his position, so we can chalk that up to intensity and to the fact that, back when Harrison played, dirty hits didn’t carry such a stigma. Bernard Pollard ended the seasons of two quarterbacks, including America’s Darling Tom Brady, but we know him as a “physical, run-stuffing safety” even though he’s the football equivalent of the fourth-line goon. And don’t even get me started on Deacon Jones. Using his patented headslap, he probably shattered more eardrums than the last 40 years of boxers and MMA fighters combined. He got away with shit 10 times worse than anything Suh would dare attempt. But the NFL Network still ranked him as the best pass rusher ever (despite the fact that it’s unclear how he projects in today’s game), and to this day, his dirty play is revered, not frowned upon.

So what’s so different about Suh? Well, the era for one. In the cartoonishly violent NFL of 12-15 years ago, he would have been a demigod. But that was then and this is now. The league now has to fake concern for player safety in the hopes of avoiding more lawsuits by former players. But I can’t help but feel there is more to it than that. I’ll concede without resistance that some of the things Suh has done (the stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the kick to Matt Schaub’s groin) cannot be defended.

However, he has received penalties (and sometimes, subsequent fines) that betray the fact that officials have been instructed to flag him when in doubt. I’m in complete agreement with the analyst on this one:

And that’s just one example. The facile argument that his reputation now precedes him cannot possibly constitute a valid justification for his getting zero benefit of the doubt on the field. You can justify giving him larger fines because he has “proven” to be a “recidivist.” What you can’t do is decide that an act which would not have been considered a transgression had another player committed it suddenly becomes a transgression because it is Suh’s doing. This push is probably a 50/50 call if it’s someone other than Suh doing it, and it’s almost a guaranteed non-call if it happens to a non-quarterback. It has come to a point where Suh is now basically getting flagged for hitting too hard. Strictly speaking, many though not all of Suh’s “dirty” plays are within the rules, but given his ferocity and raw power, well… we’d best try to get him to rein it in a bit.

Another valid question pertains to where Suh’s aggressiveness (or out-of-control play, according to some) stems from. Every defensive player is told to punish ballcarriers. Few actually do it on a regular basis. They hear their coaches talk about “imposing their will,” take them with a grain of salt, and tackle players however they can. But what if you had someone with unusual ability, combined with the most pure upper-body strength of any defensive lineman since Reggie White, and who played as though he actually took the coach’s speeches 100% seriously? Would you not want that guy on your team? Would you not go out of your way to have him on your team?

Now, as for the price, well that depends. Detroit couldn’t use the franchise tag on him, which would have forced them to sign Suh to a deal that would’ve counted for nearly $27 million against the cap next season. It’s not a matter of whether he’s worth it, but giving a player such a cap-killing contract makes no sense regardless of the player’s identity. It’s a playoff-chance crippler. However, if I were advising the Lions, I would urge them not to play hardball with Suh and do everything they can to re-sign him before the start of free agency. His impact is such that a Suh-less Lions’ defence would be unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Moreover, there are lots of teams with lots of cap room who will seriously consider making a run for him. If you’re the Lions, do you really want to get into a bidding war with them, which would lead you to having to pay Suh a lot more than you’d like***?

Again, though, I’d take him on my team in a New York minute. I’ll even make a bet with you, dear readers. If he signs with my hapless Jaguars, I’m buying his jersey. Of course, he won’t, because he’s neither that stupid nor that desperate for money. If you’re going to get paid a king’s ransom wherever you go, you might as well pick a spot where you have a chance to win something. And I hope he signs with a team that’s good enough to win a Super Bowl, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award he’s completely capably of. And that he just keeps giving the Manning-like “I just play with intensity” speech so the haters can spend even more energy spewing in a kettle of their own bile. I say this even though, quite frankly, part of me wishes he’d pull off the complete heel turn and go completely CM Punk on the NFL and its entire fanbase. Goodness knows we’ve all earned it.

* For the record, the trade was Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick going to the Lakers in exchange for 2008 and 2010 first-round picks, draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc, Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie and the immortal disaster zone Kwame Brown heading to Memphis. I can’t think of three more hideously one-sided trades in modern sports history. 

** My friend Gabe Flewelling, an incurable Titans homer, will be irate at me for not mentioning Albert Haynesworth. It’s true that, at his best, Haynesworth was as routinely unstoppable as Suh. His ability to take over games was quite spectacular indeed. But he also could never be bothered to give a shit unless he was playing for a contract, didn’t so much take PLAYS off as he took GAMES off, and outdid himself by taking a mammoth shit in Washington’s hands after Dan Snyder gifted him the first $100-million contract to a defensive tackle not only through his poor play but also by failing a conditioning test. I can’t take such a guy’s resume seriously, regardless of how periodically dominant he was capable of being. Even Shaq thinks Haynesworth was lazy. (Seriously! How are you a pro football player and fail a conditioning test? That’s like a high school teacher turning up for his class naked. It’s that egregious!)

*** A few hours after I published this article, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Suh had agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins. In related news, this raises questions about the point of free agency start date if people can agree contracts before said date. Or perhaps more to the point: what legally stops Suh’s agent Jimmy Sexton for using the now public terms of the Dolphins’ offer sheet to leverage another team, or the Phins themselves for that matter, into giving him more? If the deal gets done, though, it makes the Dolphins’ defensive line a monstrous unit provided Cameron Wake doesn’t take a plunge in terms of production. Doesn’t solve their offensive problems, but hey, they’ll hunt quarterbacks like nobody’s business. 

Why I still would take Manning over Brady… and will never change my mind

Everybody respected Ivan Drago’s talent, but very few people, if any, wanted him to beat Rocky. How could they? The boxing machine from the Evil Empire could not possibly hope to find a sympathetic soul among an American audience trained to detest and fear the USSR and communism, and to find nothing more haunting than the thought of one of their own losing to one of the bad guys.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The analogy doesn’t totally work. It’s not meant to, except to this extent: could it be that the reason why so many people would say Tom Brady is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning might come down to human interest?

A good story

Hear me out. You can’t deny that, on the scale of human interest likability, the Tom Brady story ranks as highly as any in the history of professional sports. Journalists absolutely love stories like this. Of course they do. Brady is a story to which all of us can relate on some degree. He started out as a scrawny Californian. He backed up Drew Henson at Michigan (don’t repeat that sentence too often to yourself or your brain might liquefy). He showed up at the NFL Combine skinnier than an emo high schooler, and ran that slow-ass 40-yard dash with the flappy t-shirt that had us all wondering if Brady would lift off like a kite. His body wouldn’t have caught Gisele’s attention at the time, much less impress an NFL scout. The Pats nearly opted to take Tim Rattay, one of several boogeymen who haunt the nightmares of 49ers’ fans, instead. Nevertheless, he was a sixth-round pick in a draft where the only quarterback picked in the first round was Chad Pennington, and where the likes of Chris Redman and Giovanni Carmazzi went in the third.

He got to the NFL and worked his way into being worthy of a starting job. And when Drew Bledsoe forgot to get out of bounds and paid for it with a collapsed lung from Bryan Cox, Brady seized his opportunity and never looked back. He outclassed most other NFL quarterbacks (including many a roasting of Pennington’s Jets), was a member of three Super Bowl teams in four years, married the woman of his (every man’s) dreams and became the face of the NFL’s newest most likable franchise. (Stephen A. Smith goes as far as saying they have taken the nickname of America’s Team from the Dallas Cowboys.) He was not just a good-looking, polite, humble, and worthy champion. He was the NFL’s equivalent of a self-made man, the kid who started out with absolutely zero fanfare, but built his career and his reputation from scratch, maximizing his talent with grit, determination, and class. Even his name is tailor-made for marketing departments to sell. Tom Brady. Short, simple, rolls right off the tongue. This story is so American you might as well have “America The Beautiful” playing in the background during the documentary on Brady’s life.

Sure, none of it would have mattered had he been deprived of certain gifts, namely an NFL arm. The guy just so happens to have a tad more talent for throwing a pigskin around than 99.9% of us. Still, we can like Brady for no other reason than because we think we’d show the same kind of dedication to mastering our craft if we were given the same opportunities. Or something like that.

Rehash this story in your mind, then answer me this: compared to that, who the hell could possibly hope to relate to Peyton Manning? The son of one of Mississippi and New Orleans’ greatest football darlings, Manning was pretty much guaranteed at least a look in the NFL, provided he didn’t: a) suffer a career-ending injury, b) drop out of school, c) fall victim to a substance-abuse problem or d) all of the above.

How many people can say they were born and bred, pretty much from the day they were ejected out of their mother’s womb, to play quarterback in the NFL? To ask the question is to answer it. This story, in complete contrast to Brady’s, has more potential for schadenfreude than any improbable tale you or I might come up with. The trade-off of Manning’s privileged upbringing seems to be that any success he would have in the NFL was bound to be somewhat thankless. “Wow! Peyton Manning has really lived up to the hype!” Well, of course, he has! His father is Archie Manning, Big Easy folk hero and undeniable good guy! His younger brother was also a first overall pick. He fell into the quarterbacking Kool-Aid when he was a kid. How could he not have all the right stuff? Sure, he works harder than any quarterback on the planet, but hey, he can thank his genetics too.

Let’s face it: as much as (if not more than) we like to see people who “come from nothing” succeed, we sure love to see people who appear to have it all fail. Upsets aren’t just great because the little guy gets to win every once in a while, they’re great because the big guy loses. And don’t we ever love seeing the big guy get a reality check?

So, Turp, uh… What was the point of psycho-analyzing the universal appeal of David vs Goliath? My point is this: as much as we recognize Manning’s skill, work ethic, and greatness, there is still a large portion of us that takes all of it for granted.

Taking Manning for granted

Exaggerating, am I? I really don’t think so.

How many times must a Super Bowl champion, and a player who so routinely makes playing the quarterback position look as simple as playing it in the Madden games, be told that more is needed in order for us to finally admit that no one has ever played the quarterback position quite like him? But maybe his continued dominance has been the problem all along. Again, we expect it of him, and we always have. Mississippians expected it of him in high school because he was a Manning. We expected it of him in college because he is a Manning. Then we expected it of him because he was a National Champion and a Heisman Trophy finalist. Then we expected it of him because he was all those things and a first overall pick. And at every stage of his career, from college to the draft process to the NFL, there have been quite a few of us who have had the gall to tell him that it wasn’t enough.

Defensive players don’t edge top offensive players for the Heisman trophy. They just don’t. But wait… it happened to one dominant quarterback. Care to guess who? That’s right. Manning is the butt of the joke and the exception that proves the rule, having lost the 1997 Heisman to Michigan’s Charles Woodson. (Delightful irony: The year Manning lost the Heisman to Woodson was also the year voters stupidly named Karl Malone NBA MVP over Michael Jordan, for no other reason than their desire for something new. Is there a parallel with the NCAA media feeling that Manning, having won the 1996 National Championship, was yesterday’s news? Crazier ideas have been voiced. Now, awarding the Heisman to Woodson over Manning is not the crime scene that was picking Malone over Jordan. I love Woodson; I think he’s one of the best defensive backs ever to play the game. But again, defensive players NEVER win the Heisman. I always bemoan it. But they just never do.)

Then came the draft process. Sure, Manning is good, but there’s this hotshot out there called Ryan Leaf who just might have more upside. Maybe Leaf should be the first pick. Those who dared utter those words should have been forced to seek political asylum, but for Peyton Manning, it was just another getting-taken-for-granted day at the office. Then, people started asking for Super Bowls while conveniently ignoring the sheer mediocrity of the defences he was asked to compensate for.

Consider Manning’s second season (1999). The Colts finished 13-3, up from 3-13 (not too shabby, just sayin’…), but when the playoffs came around, they were unfortunate enough to stumble onto another 13-3 team, the Titans, who had Eddie George S&M-ing bad defences into admitting they didn’t deserve to live. In what universe is a 13-3 team a wild card squad, you ask? In a universe where the Jacksonville Jaguars are 14-2, but I digress (I had to put that in. I just had to!). Now, just look at this shit soufflé of a Colts defence from top to bottom: Chad Bratzke, Ellis Johnson, Cornelius Bennett (solid starters); Mike Peterson as a rookie, Tyrone Poole, Jason Belser (Passable starters); Bernard Whittington, Shawn King, Mike Barber, Chad Cota, Jeff Burris (stiffs).

Project that over the bulk of Manning’s Indy career, and while there were a few upgrades (replacing Bratzke in the role of main pass rusher with Dwight Freeney, Mike Peterson maturing into a fringe Pro Bowler), the overall level of the Colts’ defence always remained comparable to that of 1999’s meddling unit. (Even Bennett had a subpar year in ’99; only Bratzke and Johnson played at a truly high level.) Later, Peterson left for Jacksonville, and the Colts never replaced him or their lesser players at linebacker. Nor did they ever put it together in the secondary, where they seemed allergic to any cornerback over 5-9 during the whole of Tony Dungy’s tenure as head coach of the Colts. In the meantime, Manning was busy making Brandon Stokley into a 1,000-yard receiver, not to mention fooling the world into thinking that you could get away with starting guys like Blair White and Hank Baskett at wideout. But hey, he just hasn’t won enough Super Bowls.

Compounding this narrative is the infamous Super Bowl loss against the Seahawks, for which Manning routinely gets blamed. I remember Michael Wilbon on PTI saying, “I don’t wanna hear about the O-Line; Manning had a bad game.” That should have gotten Wilbon banned from getting to talk football ever again. Sure, you can blame the loss on Manning… if you accept that:

  1. Part of his job description includes catching snaps that go six feet over his head.
  2. He should be able to throw touchdown passes while blocking for himself and his running backs.
  3. He should have singlehandedly rescued Eric Decker from Sherman Island.
  4. He should have managed to rematerialize Demaryius Thomas, who was getting his ass shut down, before the game was lost. (Don’t give me the offended face and his final stats. Watch the game again. How many of his receptions were in garbage time? How many went for over 10 yards? That’s right, case closed.)
  5. He should have played both ways and singlehandedly made up for the no-show from Denver’s defence.

So yeah, Wilbon, you might think Manning had a bad game. If you had a head injury.

Meanwhile, the way he plays quarterback is both an art and a science. Words fail to do it justice. He dissects defences like no other quarterback in history. And it took him about three years to become his team’s de facto offensive coordinator. Recently, there was a pundit who talked about how Emmanuel Sanders suddenly looked like a man possessed and said that it was an important signing because he really fit Peyton Manning’s offence. It was not a bad way to phrase it at all. Peyton Manning has long been not just a quarterback, but an offence. I might be wrong, but I think this means something. It’s representative of what has always been asked of him, and of what he expects from himself. Brady deserves credit for adapting his game to what his many coordinators wanted to do, but we can’t forget that it was convenient for him to do so. 2007 aside, the effect was always that it took tons of pressure off him, while Manning assumed that pressure head-on because, again, that’s how much of a contributor he expects himself to be.

Then again, another one of Manning’s problems is that he’s about as anti-Hollywood as it gets. And trust me, I remember the young Manning; he’s far better at looking human for the media than he once was. Look back to Manning as a rookie. He’s practically looking at the camera like it’s one of those alien tripods from War of the Worlds and he fears getting get zapped into dust. Great attribute to keep one focused on getting better on the field, sucks for a league that’s trying to sell a product, and the media trying to sell heart-warming human interest stories, off it.

I’m not saying Manning never had a bad game; I’m not saying he never had a bad moment in crunch time. But every time his defence gets pounded by an Eddie George, every time his offensive line goes MIA, every Willie McGinest sack-fumble, all of it is blamed on him. He has been a monster at the position at both the micro and the macro level, yet he’s almost systematically greeted with a “yeah, but…” This would be OK, I suppose, were the NFL fanbase not so vastly more indulgent with Brady.

Pro-Brady double standards abound…

While everyone constantly asks Manning for more, they tend to look at Brady through pink-tainted glasses.

Everyone talks about the superiority of Manning’s offensive weapons for most of his career compared to Brady’s. It’s not a meritless argument. I’d take Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne any day over the likes of Troy Brown, David Patten or David Givens. However, anyone who’s watched enough football will tell you that it’s much easier to disguise your athletic shortcomings with scheme on offence than on defence. Charlie Weis, whatever appropriate criticism anyone may have of him, can really draw up and call a play. On defence, you can do certain things to confuse the offence, sure. But with defence being a game of reaction, you have much less control over what the matchups are when the ball is snapped. Whatever weaknesses your defence has, they WILL stick out like a sore thumb, especially against good coaching. Thus, while Brady does get props for getting good production out of the likes of Deion Branch, he did benefit from a superior defence that decided many of his tougher games.

Also, when did having a good supporting cast become an argument to diminish someone’s accomplishments? No one dared question Joe Montana’s spot atop the QB pyramid until Brady showed up, and Joe had the benefit of playing with a pre-salary-cap juggernaut, which, of course, included the greatest receiver of all time. Moreover, did we forget that the one year when Brady was statistically transcendent, he had Randy Moss to throw it to, not to mention the fact that they were passing as much as a run-and-shoot team? And, just to be sure, did I mention Randy Moss? Seriously, Harrison was great, so was Wayne. None of the two is Moss. Ochoquatro just be might the most talented receiver to ever play in the NFL. Give that dude to Brady along with Wes Welker as a perfect complement to his skills, and Moss destroyed the NFL and stopped just short of claiming ownership of it. Oh, so Brady only had Moss at full-strength for a year? Yeah, and he only had a season like 2007 with Moss on the field. I know this is supposed to prove he could do about as well as Manning with a superior supporting cast, and it does. But let’s not pretend he set the world alight in a similar way when Moss wasn’t there.

On another matter, everyone wants to slam Manning for so-called bad performances in playoff games, but it’s not as though Brady has been completely immaculate in the playoffs, either. Before this year, the Pats had not won the Super Bowl since 2004. This is not a coincidence. Brady has had less-than-stellar moments himself, only most of the time, his teammates didn’t take the kind of dump in his hands Manning was subjected to. Remember when Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck turned Super Bowl 2008 into a pass rush party? Well, by Wilbon’s logic and by that of Manning’s detractors, we should hold this against Brady. I don’t, but you know,  just sayin’… Nobody does. The Giants D-Line had Brady so rattled he threw two separate one-hoppers on screen plays. Then, when the Pats faced the Giants again in the Super Bowl, Brady had a game-losing overthrow intended for a wide… ass… open Wes Welker on fourth down. So while Brady-acs can’t stop talking about the horrendous interception Manning threw to Tracy Porter in the Super Bowl against the Saints, they can’t look me in the eye with a straight face and tell me Brady’s clutch overthrow didn’t damage his team’s chances to win as much as Manning’s pick. And two years ago, when Brady faced Manning with Peyton’s team being the strongest, Gisele’s husband looked as helpless as Manning would look two weeks later, only Brady got hit less. But he wasn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. People conveniently forget this.

And don’t even get me started on the football gods inventing the stupid tuck rule to help the Pats weasel past the superior Raiders, or about the fact that Brady was named Super Bowl MVP against the Rams. Watch Ty Law’s game again. 7 tackles, a sack, and a pick-6, on a defence that limited the “Greatest Show on Turf” to 17 points while the Pats’ offence was stagnating? I don’t want to hear about the last drive! Giving the award to Brady is a scandal. Again, people conveniently forget this.

Also, remember when people were saying Manning was kind of a hard-ass with offensive teammates, while Brady was supposedly all smiles and his teammates loved him for it? And remember how that somewhat swayed the intangibles comparison in favour of Brady? Well, maybe the part about Brady was true when he was a second-year guy and would have been out of place to call out some of the more seasoned vets, but after that, he was every bit as much of a hard-ass as Manning was, so there goes that theory. But what chance does reality have against a myth?

Want the most egregious example of this double standard? Bill Simmons, the notable Boston homer, had the nerve to compare Brady-Manning with the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain debate. Let us not waste much time over this calamity except for one thing: Celtics fans revere Russell because he was the quintessential team player, a guy who always focused on being whatever his team needed him to be. He won 11 titles in 13 years in the 50s and 60s. So New Englanders make the easy connection: Wow! Brady really is a lot like that.

I’m even willing to grant it to them. But let us make no mistake: the buck stops there. While Manning has been a model teammate and leader who instantly turns his team into a Super Bowl contender, Wilt was a ridiculously talented but seriously misguided self-destructive coach killer who never had a clue what team dynamics are about. Any comparison with Manning is positively ludicrous. But Brady-acs love it, because it allows them to paint Brady as the intangibly perfect myth of a quarterback while Manning is concurrently the stats machine who is tangibly as close to perfection as possible, but somehow intangibly flawed.

It is a complete farce. But I am positively staggered by the number of people who seem to actually believe it.

In the end…

There is positively no doubt in my mind that we are talking about two of the best three quarterbacks ever to play the game. What decides it for me is something Simmons’ buddy Chuck Klosterman so eloquently wrote when making a case for Wilt as being superior to Russell. The beauty of sports icons being credited with possessing intangible greatness, he wrote, is that fans can make them into whatever myth they want because their imagination is not, in such cases, restricted by reality. It makes for a beautiful fantasy, but it is by no means a path to the truth. There is no comparison between the two when we pick the better human interest story, but unless we agree to look at sports through no other lens than that of the media, we cannot allow this fact to play a role in our final verdict.

So let’s get back down to earth for a second. If we agree that Manning’s statistical superiority, thanks to his mostly superior receivers, is moot, then so is Brady’s title count, for he usually had the better overall team. Therefore, it is problematic to point to Brady’s four (cue to Raiders’ fans losing their shit) Super Bowls, even as a tiebreaker, because none of them were all down to him. All that remains is what we should have been doing from the beginning, which is to look at these two players’ individual performances. Then, we should ask ourselves this question: if we forget the simpleminded notion that nothing matters in sports except for the winner of the last game of the season, in a vaccum, which of these two giants was actually better at playing the quarterback position?

It’s close. I would pick Brady over a ton of people. But I wouldn’t pick him over Manning.

One sentence per pick

Here are my NFL picks for Week 3. I’ve limited myself to one sentence each.

  • Texans over Ravens: The Ravens defence is not what it was, and JJ Watt and company harass Flacco and Rice enough to book the win for Houston.
  • Giants over Panthers: Though we appear headed for another season of supreme inconsistency for the GIants, their overall superiority over the Panthers gives them the win in this one.
  • Bengals over Packers: I like the Bengals’ D-Line to harass Aaron Rodgers, and the Bengals’ O does the job vs a suspect Packers defence.
  • Cowboys over Rams: Much as I’m suspicious of the Cowboys, desperation will factor in and we’ll get additional proof that the Rams are not there yet.
  • Vikings over Browns: The Browns have tanked their season, and Adrian Peterson will do his thing.
  • Patriots over Bucs: The Bucs already appear to be in too much disarray to take advantage of the disastrous situation at receiver for the Patriots.
  • Saints over Cardinals: The Saints’ offence will be too strong for the Cards’ D to stifle, and the Cards won’t score quickly enough to keep up.
  • Titans over Chargers: I need more than two games to believe that Philip Rivers has become Philip Rivers one again, plus I hate the rest of that Chargers roster.
  • Lions over Redskins: Robert Griffin doesn’t look 100% and the Skins’ D is horrific: a bad combo vs the Lions.
  • Falcons over Dolphins: The Falcons are much better than the Dolphins, and since we’re in the regular season, we shouldn’t expect them to choke. (Yes, Falcons fans, I am enjoying this.)
  • Bills over Jets: This week’s wake me up when it’s over game, with the Bills showing themselves to be not quite as putrid as the Jets.
  • Seahawks over Jaguars: Picture a hummer running over a cat…
  • Niners over Colts: Just another phase of the “back-down-to-earth” descent for the Colts.
  • Bears over Steelers: The Bears aren’t fantastic, but the Steelers simply aren’t very good.
  • Broncos over Raiders: The Raiders are working admirably not to be the laughing stock I expected them to be, but they’re out-manned in too many places against the Broncos.

Last week: 10-6

Season: 23-9

My NFL picks this week

No time for five questions this week, but I will give you my picks for the NFL.

  • Rams at Falcons: If they can keep their new acquisitions healthy, the Rams qualify as a vastly improved team. However, they don’t match up especially well against the Falcons. The Birds are vulnerable against the inside run, and St.Louis’ interior offensive line is not particularly impressive. Moreover, Sam Bradford’s receiving options are underwhelming and Atlanta’s secondary is pretty strong. Only way the Rams win is if they keep it close by piggybacking off a monster performance from the defensive line stuffing Steven Jackson and harassing Matt Ryan (not impossible). If it’s still close in the fourth, anything can happen. Pick: Atlanta
  • Browns at Ravens: If I had to use one phrase to describe the Browns, it would be “so close, yet so far.” The Browns are not many players away from being a good-to-scary team. But they are missing players at positions where you so desperately need quality to succeed in the NFL. Case in point: What is it about the Browns offence that stops you from playing 10 guys in the box to stop Trent Richardson? The answer: Absolutely nothing. Their quarterback was going through what should have been his NFL prime in college, not that he’s all that good to begin with, and the receivers are just nothing to write home about. Too bad, because the Ravens are as defensively fragile as I can remember them. Shame the Browns don’t have the elements to scare them. Pick: Baltimore
  • Panthers at Bills: Wake me up when it’s over. Frankly, neither team is very good, but I see the Panthers putting some pressure on EJ Manuel and forcing him into making a few mistakes. Pick: Panthers
  • Vikings at Bears: The case for the Bears: Until Christian Ponder can make the Vikes’ passing game worth preparing for, their offence remains one-dimensional, plus Julius Peppers and company don’t make it easy on anyone’s pass protection. The Bears’ offensive line is at least somewhat better than it was last year, and the once destructive Minnesota D-Line doesn’t quite dominate like it did 3-4 years ago. Meanwhile, the Bears did pull off a win against a Cincinnati team that’s actually not half bad. The case for the VikingsPicking against Adrian Peterson makes me nervous. There’s always a chance he takes the team on his shoulders and singlehandedly carries them to victory. The Bears’ offensive line is better, but not by much, and the big-but-slow Bears wide receivers can’t separate, consistently leaving Jay Cutler a sitting duck in the pocket. That being said, I still think the Bears are an overall better team, and I like them at home. Pick: Bears
  • Redskins at Packers: So, Aaron Rodgers, how does it feel to know you’re going to spend another year trying to overcome your team’s defence? Seriously, look at what these guys did last week. I like Colin Kaepernick. I think he’s one of those guys who is a prototype for the “quarterback of the future” in the NFL. But, as a passer, I never confused him with Dan Marino. Not many NFL defences are bad enough to make one confuse Kap with Dan Marino. But guess whose is?????????To quote the immortal John McKay: “We can’t stop a pass or a run. Otherwise, we’re in great shape!” That how Green Bay is right now. And Robert Griffin is the wrong quarterback to be playing in this situation. Plus, Green Bay might have better running backs, but the offensive line isn’t much better than last year, and that was before they got another date with the injury bug. Now, the Skins are nothing to write home about defensively, but the Pack’s running game is so inept, that they basically have to beat a passing game. I still expect Aaron Rodgers to carve up this Redskins defence a bit, and I really hope I’m wrong, but I think the Pack lose a shootout at home to Griffin and the Skins. Pick: Redskins
  • Titans at Texans: I think the Texans are overrated and the Titans have lots of good elements, as evidenced in their game against the Steelers. However, the Texans’ offensive line is far better than that of the Steelers, which should mean that Jurell Casey won’t look like a Pro Bowler for a second consecutive week, and Pittsburgh doesn’t have an Andre Johnson playing receiver either. Moreover, the “bust alert” sign is now fully on Jake Locker’s shoulders, and unless he significantly picks up the level of his play this week, I can’t see the Titans winning this one. Oh, and did I mention JJ Watt is going to be on the field? Pick: Texans
  • Dolphins at Colts: Oh my! What shall we call this game? Wake me up when it’s over pt.2 ? The battle of the overrated? Whatever it is, I’m barely interested. You’re looking at the two teams who got the worst bang for their buck in free agency, through no one’s fault but theirs. As a result, each fanbase is looking at some serious disappointment at the end of the year. I guess it’s a good thing one of these teams is winning this one. The case for the Colts: Andrew Luck. What else? Andrew Luck or bust. The case for the Dolphins: Colts’ owner Jim Irsay, apparently looking to win the prestigious “quickest-NFL-owner-to-become-a-caricature” award, was already freaking out at his players and coaching staff on Twitter about the pass protection because the oh-so-defensively inept Raiders sacked Andrew Luck four times last week. Unless this wildly inappropriate Twitter rant somehow miraculously struck the right chord with the players, it won’t get better against a Miami front that can bring some pretty serious heat. The Phins might be overhyped after they paid way too much for their “high-profile” free agent signings, but they’re still better than the Colts. Pick: Dolphins
  • Cowboys at Chiefs: If the Cowboys are going to be anything more than a cumbersome tease, this is the kind of game you have to win. The case for the Cowboys: On paper, they’re a better-rounded team than the Chiefs. The receiving option appear to be more than the Chiefs can handle and running back DeMarco Murray adds to that. If Tony Romo plays how he can, he pick apart this Chiefs defence, which is good, but not there yet. Alex Smith is taking on Betty White in an arm-strength competition next week, and he’s not a sure bet to win. Let’s see Mr. 1st overall pick trying to block D-Ware. The case for the Chiefs: For starters, Arrowhead is a wild place to visit. Then, there is a constant risk that Tony Romo will have the kind of game that will have fans thinking back to this: Image                                                               The Chiefs defence is really quite good, and as a team, they were so supremely unlucky last year that they really are much better than they appeared. Alex Smith is going to spend all day dumping screen passes to Jamaal Charles, which will slow down Ware and the pass rush in the process. The Cowboys O-Line is not that good and Tamba Hali and company can rush the passer. I have so little faith in the Cowboys that I’m picking the Chiefs to solidify their status as a legitimate playoff contender in that terrible division of theirs. Pick: Chiefs
  • Chargers at Eagles: Potentially the biggest massacre of this week. The Chargers are just plain awful, especially if we get the Philip Rivers of the past two years. Meanwhile, the Eagles took the Redskins to the shed with Chip Kelly’s hyperactive offence, and the Skins never really recovered. Considering the crassness of that San Diego team, including the fact that SD’s offence is not as good as the Skins’, I can picture that poor Chargers defence not getting enough breaks and getting worn out fairly quickly. There are those secretly (or not-so-secretly) hoping that Chip Kelly is the new Steve Spurrier and that, after one strong game, his offence will fizzle out in the same way, but I can’t see it. Pick: Eagles
  • Lions at Cardinals: The battle of the teams that must be just so frustrating to their fans. On paper, I like the Lions, mainly because I like their D-Line to put serious pressure on Carson Palmer, who has to work behind an average offensive line. I’m not a fan of Rashard “Missing-three-weeks-with-a-twisted-upper-lip” Mendenhall, and so the running game is not much improved from previous years. So a one-dimensional passing game behind an average offensive line is going to keep Nick Fairley and Ndamokung Suh (provided he’s not too busy cut-blocking offensive linemen on interception returns)? I like Patrick Peterson a lot, but I don’t think he and the Cards secondary can simultaneously keep Calvin Johnson quiet and prevent Reggie Bush from being a painful mismatch in the passing game. Pick: Lions
  • Buccaneers at Saints: The Bucs have lots to prove to me after their loss to the Jets, from which I’m still slightly reeling. Unless Josh Freeman stinks out the joint (a distinct possibility), the Saints don’t have the defensive manpower to stop the Bucs from putting up some points. The problem is, the reverse is also true. Sean Payton is back, and so is the Saints’ offence. And what are the odds of Drew Brees being the second best quarterback on the field in that game? I see lots of points, bad defences, and the Saints winning. Pick: Saints
  • Broncos at Giants: Perhaps this week’s most interesting matchup. The Manning derby. The Giants do have the offensive manpower to score against Denver, especially with Von Miller still suspended. However, the Giants are so maddeningly inconsistent and the Broncos offence is so deadly that I don’t see how the Giants keep up. After week 1, somebody put an interesting idea to Bill Simmons on Grantland: “What if John Elway had uncovered an Evil Manning button?” A Manning who wants to obliterate every opponent in every game, throw for 65 touchdowns and 5,500 yards. My goodness, do I like the sound of that. Not sure about those numbers, but I do think both brothers play well, and that Peyton wins this round.
  • Jaguars at Raiders:  Oh, dear! My “Blaine-Gabbert-just-might-get-over-the-hump” theory lasted all of one game. He got injured again and now Chad Henne is taking his place. Translation: Gabbert’s Jaguars career is over. He would be one more reason for Jags’ fans to find out where Jack Del Rio and Gene Smith now live and send them dead rats for Christmas… if only they cared enough. Did I ever mention this team should move to L.A. ? Meanwhile, the Raiders looked surprisingly good on defence last week against the Colts. And by that, I mean the four sacks of Andrew Luck. And guess what, they’re facing one of two teams whose week 1 opponents got more sacks than they did. The Jags gave six to the Chiefs last week, partly because of Gabbert’s apparently innate tendency to hold the ball…FOREVER!!!! But there is also the fact that Justin Blackmon’s not there, and that in his absence, no one is there to take the double coverage off Cecil Shorts (don’t get me started on Marcedes Lewis). I had the Raiders ranked last in my power rankings because that defence is just so terrible on paper. But the Jags are so inept everywhere that they’re not walking out of the black hole with a win. Pick: Raiders
  • Niners at Seahawks: We can outsmart ourselves here, but let’s keep it simple. The 49ers are a better team. They’re better-rounded, more physical, they have better options virtually everywhere on offence AND Colin Kaepernick wasn’t forced into running the read option in week 1. I think it’s safe to assume we’ll see more of it in week 2. Plus, I like the matchup of San Fran’s front 7 versus that Seattle offensive line. And if you think Jim Harbaugh hasn’t spent the week reminding his team of how they were victimized by the Hawks in Seattle last year, you’re wrong. Plus, San Fran is a West Coast team, and it’s early in the season, which means it’s not as if a Florida team was walking in jetlagged with temperatures near the 0-degree mark. The two things Seattle has going for it: the game is in that nuthouse they call their home stadium, and there’s the chance they force Kap to turn into the inaccurate passing nightmare everyone seems to keep waiting for him to turn into. It’s not happening, folks. Pick: 49ers
  • Steelers at Bengals: This game is unfortunately not the fixture it would usually be. This Steelers team is on the brink of being flat-out bad. No running game, no pass protection, less-than-stellar receiving options and an ageing defence. And what are they facing? A team with one of the league’s better defensive lines (translation: another incoming beating for Big Ben), and an intriguing offence with Randy Moss 2.0 a.k.a AJ Green killing the opposition despite the lack of a solid wide receiver opposite him to go along with two serious receiving threats at tight end. The Bengals are just too good for the Steelers. (From a historical perspective, when was the last team you heard yourself say that?) Pick: Bengals

Last week: 13-3

Season: 13-3

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