Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Eat, Pray, Tebow

Tim Tebow eats up a challenge, prays on the sideline, and loves the spotlight. In summary, he's the Julia Roberts of the NFL. Maybe not as leggy.

It's a familiar tale: a pilgrimage of self-discovery transpiring amid confusion and controversy. None of which is real, mind you, just the echoes of our hyperactive minds. But just like the narrative of the well known chick flick, we wonder if Tebow can adequately calm his soul despite the noise? And more importantly, will this journey feature a weird old guy in a bandanna who refers to him as "Groceries"?

Actually, good quarterbacks play with a full bag of groceries. Tebow's operating with less than 10 items. That's not a knock on his intelligence but his skill-set, which notably lacks an accurate mid-range or deep throw. Oh sure, against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday he completed a few longer balls, including a nice 18-yarder to Eric Decker for a score. But as his 9 for 18 completions indicate, Tebow passes usually finish like a clean-up on aisle three.

The truth is, we need to forget the stats - even ones that show Tebow's protecting the ball, and his passer rating as a decent 80.5 (as of week 12). What have been conventional quarterback measures for the last 50 years are no longer relevant - didn't you get John Fox's memo? It's not about style points, it's about wins. And Tebow is redefining "winning" football. As a result, it's quite possible we've been overrating the quarterback position altogether. Tebow, after all, is doing less quarterbacking than we've ever seen from a signal-caller, and his defensively-minded Denver Broncos are reaping the rewards. Even The Denver Post this week published that if Tebow earns his club a playoff berth, then he must not only be considered a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate, but also the NFL's most valuable player. Mercy!

Tebow's success - and the hype that follows it - feels like a sharpened iron poking at our collective sides. Yes, his personality is divisive, but so is his style. It's so unnatural it's making our heads explode. So how do we resolve the issue of a player we can't accurately label? How do we rationalize this football phenomenon when his perpetual positivity and seemingly endless luck - see faith - supersede the gaping holes in his quarterbacking repertoire? And what are the parameters for defining a winner anyway? One win? Five wins? Twenty minutes in the confessional?

There's no science to this. We know Tebow is a winner because high profile people tell us so, and because he's taken more end of game knees than Johnny Lawrence from Cobra Kai. And yet, recounting his faults has become a national pastime. We know Tebow can't throw, but he makes plays. He doesn't look down field, but he rumbles across it like a John Deere mower. He doesn't hang tough in the pocket, but is hard enough to take an Elway helicopter spin. He doesn't let plays develop, but his teammates are developing a powerful belief in him. He can't play four quarters, but he nails the fourth. He talks about his faith too much, but never stops believing. And though we keep talking about him, he doesn't hear it.

Just what to do with a case like Tebow?

We probably won't know until the journey ends, when he's hoisting the MVP trophy above his haloed noggin, and we've all attained a mile high worth of enlightenment.

This article first appeared on Technorati. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Swimming against the current on Andrew Luck

"Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends."
- The Old Man and the Sea

The Miami Dolphins have scuttled their chance at Andrew Luck, and how do you think Fins Nation is coping? I guess they're feeling betrayed or bewildered, to paraphrase Nathan Lane's Birdcage alter ego.

But unlike most Fish fans, I'm actually on board with Miami's new penchant for victory. Am I Ray Finkle crazy, you ask? Just maybe. But there's something about winning that defuses all pessimism, chases away the bats in the belfry, and turns the masochistic notion of self-inflicted defeat on its head.

Why - no matter what's at stake - would anyone want to lose professional football games anyway? Don't we have any pride or integrity anymore? Apparently, the alleged "Suck for Luck" campaign is far more enticing than doing the right thing. And, I guess, Miami haven't done the right thing at quarterback for a long, long time.

So whether the Dolphins intended to suck or not, the Luck conversation has taken its talents from South Beach to Indianapolis, a club whose lack of depth makes Paris Hilton look like Thomas Friedman. You have to feel for Colts fans, right? Without Peyton Manning in the line up, their team looks more like the 1986 iteration that lost its first 13 games than the championship-caliber squad No.18 usually commandeers. You see, so many questions churn through the mind of the hopeless fan: Do I even watch the game on Sunday? Are we really giving up, simply to secure one player in the next draft? Can Peyton and Andrew Luck co-exist anyway?

At least Colts owner Bill Polian appears at ease with the hopelessness: "The bottom line is that if the right person is there (in the draft), and it has to be the right person, then now is the time to make that choice," Polian said on his weekly radio show this month. "Peyton and I have spoken about that, and he's OK with that."

Well sure he is. Nobody's replacing one of the game's greatest ever quarterbacks as long as he's healthy. I don't care if you're Andrew Luck or the second coming of Johhny U. Peyton's job is safe for now, and that might just be enough to keep Colts fans from bolting naked across the prairies. The thing is, we'd get it if the fans surrendered altogether, wouldn't we? If they started burning throwback jerseys and lobbing horseshoes at each other. It's difficult to stay committed to an NFL season once your team is in a 0 - 3 hole, let alone 0-11.

Look, I've also watched my Miami Dolphins spiral this season, from a team that boasted a potential top five defense, and dynamic tailback ready for real superstardom, to an easy 'w’ for every opponent. Three games in, and the Fins were drowning. The offense sputtered, the defense floundered and the team's most important player, its quarterback, never warmed up more than, well, during the warm up. Suddenly, being a Dolphins fan really did suck. While other fans hovered excitedly around TVs and tailgates to cheer on their respective clubs, being a Finatic was nightmarish.

But thanks to the papers, bloggers, and constant chatter of social media, Dolphins fans were invited to rekindle interest in the season by supporting a losing cause. Sucking was the new planking, or something. Problem was, Coach Tony Sparano refused to sleep with the Fishes, and together with his staff, rescued Miami’s season against the odds. Sure, it won't be a playoff year, but suddenly things are looking, let’s just say, respectable.

In week 9, unloved back-up Matt Moore played perhaps the best game of his career in a 31-3 drubbing of the Kansas City Chiefs. Moore was 17 of 23 for 244 yards and three touchdowns, which was good for a 147.5 passer rating - the best in the NFL that weekend. Stats aside, it was Moore's new command of the offense and accuracy that wowed fans. His cross-field toss to Anthony Fasano after a fake roll out to the right was Brady-esque. It was the first win for Miami in 2011, and the onslaught was enough to earn Moore AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors from the NFL.

The consensus is that Moore isn't the long-term solution in Miami, but who cares? In week 10, he completed 20 of 29 passes for 209 yards, en route to a Fins 20-9 defeat of the Redskins. “Dolphans” haven't had this much fun since Chad Pennington showed up Brett Favre in the last game of 2008. Great Miami moments - save Fergie belting out national anthems and the occasional tennis star sighting - really feel like they're every three years or so now. But with Moore in the mix, the optimism needle is on the move. Last week, he kept the pedal down and threw 14 for 20 with three TDs. What's next, jumping the Jets in the AFC East? Well, as wide receiver Brandon Marshall told The Miami Herald after the Skins game, "Anything is possible."

So what if we don't get Luck. We've competed, and yes, conquered. Our season, which was close to being completely void, now has some meaning. Instead of asking what might have been, we can focus on what's happening - today. Our defense alone, led by the rampant Karlos Dansby, is worth the price of admission. In fact, as of Sunday, that group had gone twelve straight quarters without allowing a single touchdown. How do you like that action Rex Ryan?

Real Fins fans, the kind that care about their team each and every contest, are feeling pretty fortunate right now - big shot prospect or not.

So good luck to you Indy. But remember, fortune, as they say, favors the brave.

Article first published as Swimming against the current on Andrew Luck on Technorati.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What's wrong with Rivers and the Chargers? Nothing

While every broadcaster under the sun gushes over Aaron Rodgers and how he might be the greatest quarterback the universe has ever seen - despite the fact that players like Joe Montana, John Elway and Johnny Unitas dominated the game in the same way and during an era when the QB was less protected - Phillip Rivers and his Chargers deserve some credit.

Rivers has been under the microscope for weeks now, mostly because his San Diego Chargers are on a four-game skid, and Rivers is turning the ball over more than usual. But football people on TV also have a tendency to be melodramatic when it comes to mid-season player assessment, and as we all know, if there's one position that receives unwarranted scrutiny, its the man playing behind center. 

Rivers is the latest scapegoat story in the NFL, especially for a football team that has raised a few doubts about its consistency and ability to perform under pressure. You see, if the Chargers fall short of matching it with the likes of the Green Bay Packers - who won the last Super Bowl by the way - then Rivers is clearly slipping. At least that's the conventional thinking on such matters. The stats that seem to sway most critics in these instances are the dubious "passer rating", and of course, the touchdowns to interceptions ratio. For those keeping score, Rivers posted four TDs against the Pack, along with three interceptions. His passer rating was 85.9. Against the Raiders it dropped to 72.5 - but he was sacked and hurried more than I can recall.

Despite the numbers, Rivers has played well. He took command in a tough contest against Green Bay and marched his group up and down the field with aplomb. Yes, San Diego was defeated, but they went down swinging. Some of Rivers throws in that game, in fact, were superbly swung deep balls - well designed and perfectly placed. Just ask Vincent Jackson. For the statistically-minded, Rivers was 26 of 46 and amassed 385 yards in the air, while Rodgers notched 247. He generated 28 first downs to Green Bay's 21. And his team lost by just one touchdown. Is there really cause for concern here?

If you want to pick at the Raiders game, don't. He played pretty well in that one too, despite a few miscues and an oddly confused home crowd. And his ability to bring the Chargers back into games is uncanny.

The bottom line is that Rivers is a warrior. He plays hard and his team responds to his energy and leadership. He clearly loves to compete, and obviously win. Hey, sometimes the games don't go your way, and that's all there is to San Diego's current funk. They're still in the AFC West and suitably placed to seize control of it. And while we can talk about "pick-sixes" and turnovers and broken plays, the Chargers have the talent and the fortitude to bounce back. Their defense is strong and the offense can tally points faster than a Charger Girl high kick. Again, for the statistically-minded, that's fast.

And while Mike Tolbert isn't fast, he's like a Mack truck with Ferrari power steering. If the Chargers keep feeding him and Ryan Matthews the ball, it'll only open up their potent passing game and generate more success. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cassel: King for a day

Let's be honest, Matt Cassel has never really wowed us. He's more of a middle of the road quarterback - a player with a good arm that isn't always on target, or on time. We saw these flaws during Monday night's game, especially with a few overthrown balls and some poor communication with both team mates and the sideline. As a result, the Chiefs first two drives, which did include some third down conversions, amassed only three points.

But there's something about Cassel and these Chiefs. At least when they play at Arrowhead, with the crowd rocking like its an ACDC concert. Throw on the lights of Monday night, a few salivating maniacs in Halloween costumes, and you've got yourself a recipe for an AFC classic. Cassel threw some tidy balls Monday: there were a few  lasers over the middle, a couple of textbook play actions, some effective lobs out to the flat, and even a few bombs. His first quarter 39-yarder to Jon Baldwin was a beauty.

When Cassel settles in the pocket, loads, steps up and follows through, he looks like Tom Brady. Of course, that doesn't always happen, and it does help to have Jackie Battle ripping holes from the backfield. Good backs can make inept QBs look good. But certainly Cassel can impress when it counts. Maybe it's time we took former Patriots understudy more seriously. He did complete 19 of 32 passes, after all, and rallied the Chiefs to hit 50 per cent on their third down conversions. That meant an additional 20 points and equated to two more key down conversions than Phillip Rivers, who looked a shadow of his former self.

Cassel also kept his eyes down field, sensing the Charger corners pushing up on his receivers and accurately finding aerial paths to launch the ball into. At times, his passes looked high, or too far to the right, but then on second glance they were thoughtfully placed away from swiping hands of defenders.

Cassel isn't perfect, we know this. But he inspires confidence in his peers and is gutsy. His penchant for challenging coach Todd Haley is testament to this. But more importantly, he's a young quarterback who seems to be ascending. He doesn't need to wow us really, as long as he keeps the win column ticking over.

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