Friday, January 27, 2012

Audibles: Manning and his future

So I'm introducing a new segment this week called "Audibles", where I post some worthwhile commentary from other blogs.

First up, Yahoo's Shutdown Corner ran a good piece today summarizing the agitated relationship between Colts owner Jim Irsay and quarterback Peyton Manning, with Irsay choosing the path of most resistance. Simply, Irsay places the "horseshoe" ahead of the player.

Enough quips have been made about Irsay's fashion sense so I won't try and articulate how he clearly places the pinstripe ahead of common sense. However, I will say that this kind of statement, whether you deem it to be fair or not, is so typical of a person preoccupied with business, and less vested in football and the people who make the game what it is. Maybe Manning does retire, and as fans we'll all be worse for it. But at some point the players responsible for making your club relevant again - after years of sheer wretchedness - deserve a morsel of respect. And perhaps Mr.Irsay, in this instance, Manning - the person - should come before your proverbial horseshoe.    

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

NFL chirpy about tweeting

As the 24-hour news cycle churns through empty injury reports, mundane coaching signings and Tim Tebow's golfing schedule, one story stood out to me: the announcement that the NFL is allowing players to tweet during the Pro Bowl. Stop the press! Whoever thought such a commitment - one that has little to do with the clanging of helmets on the field - would stir so much web ink? Further still, who might have anything constructive to say after said clanging?

Some valid points have already been raised about the insincerity and oddity of players tweeting during a pro football game, especially on Mashable and Shutdown Corner, while some folks consider it just harmless fun. As potentially entertaining or intriguing or awkward as it may be for Tweeters and yes, the Twitterati, to chat with the sport's elite, I wonder whether this really adds anything to the event for genuine fans? I'm certainly more excited to see Cam Newton perform his duck and weave, then spin and hoist, than I am to get his view on the best sandwich at Honolulu's Cheeseburger in Paradise? (Side note to Cam: I like the Beach Burger, any thoughts?)

By adopting this strategy, a move that flies in the face of everything Commissioner Roger Goodell has ever enforced, it feels like the NFL is wanting show its pearly whites and spread a little cheer, more like the rather sociable NBA and Major League Baseball whose employees are much easier to personalize - largely because you can see their faces.

In this regard it's not a crazy idea, just a little forced, like a Rex Ryan grin at a post-game presser.

Rex: Not sexy option, but...

A recent post on Larry Brown Sports sets Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman straight, which is something the blogging world and media generally needs more of. The trouble is that Rex, being Rex, has a false sense of confidence due to his arm strength, which remains true. He can indeed zip it, and has done so in big games, particularly to opponents who revel in receiving his wayward deliveries.

Can the Skins really continue with Rex? It seems they will, at least in a secondary role. Though judging from some of the comments on Hog Haven this month, fans aren't thrilled with Grossman's 20 interceptions to 16 touchdowns. Despite bold predictions by Rex, nobody's winning a weakened NFC East with that output.

Ricky Allen at Rant Sports offers a sharp perspective about some of Rex's comments this month and his deliberate word choice in angling for yet another chance as the Hogs' starter.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

NY Giants: bigger and bluer, in the end

It began in sections, like the disjointed parts of a Picasso painting: angled, rounded and unusually colored. We were ushered into the NFC Championship with a rousing anthem and then drawn closer through a clouded lens. The darkened sky, sullen with gray water, rapidly descended upon Candlestick and the event became challenging, beyond its fundamental conflict, that is. The ball, soaked and looking more like a stone, suddenly slipped on the pass and bobbled on the carry. And with the game tied at seven early in the second stanza, who might have predicted the outcome of this title bout with any certainty?

The 49ers jersey seemed darker when we were kids, didn't it? It was a deep, royal red, with perfect white lettering. On Sunday, that jersey reappeared, caused by the wintry rain blanketing the Bay. On replays, in particular, the Niners' movement was striking: Frank Gore was a crimson blur chugging through the trenches. It reminded me of Roger Craig.

By contrast, the Giants white was spoiling fast, bright at a distance but muddied and paint-stained on every close up. Some might say, much like New York City itself. They defended well, the New Yorkers, superbly rushing the passer in the pocket, but equally closing the space behind the line whenever Alex Smith traversed beyond it. By second-quarter's end, the fans were drenched and the Giants, somehow, seemed to have the upper hand by virtue of their defensive presence. 

Eli Manning also threw first downs - short and sharp routes on consecutive plays. These advanced the Giants momentum, as their running game was stifled by those darkened red shirts. The Niners' Alex Smith, though not strictly employed for his running ability, carried the ball more effectively than the Giants back field, mostly because his nimble jabs are conducive to wet conditions. So Eli kept throwing, sending wobbly spirals to Victor Cruz who has better hands than Spiderman. Cruz's eight first-half receptions for 125 yards seemed to be wholly accumulated in the final minute of second. Either way, his significant contribution aided New York's ten first-half points.

And then the Niners opened the third like bulls let loose in Pamplona. They stunted the Giants first drive and won back possession. A dash by Smith and a crafty run by Kendall Hunter and suddenly San Francisco looked the better team. Soon after, Alex Smith, who had tossed just a few accurate balls this game, heaved a brilliant spinning loop to Vernon Davis in the end zone. It appears as though any time these two connect it results in a big play. He must be the fastest tight end in the game today.

The game trudged towards the end of the third. Foggy camera lenses gave the illusion that we were watching a dream - one where you can smell the surrounds so distinctly, but can't influence the action. Maybe it was indeed a dream, because the 49ers - a club we'd all but forgotten this last decade - were beating down the mighty Giants of New York. One more quarter of Jason Pierre-Paul to withstand; just a few of Eli's chance long balls yet to zip by; and only several more charges from New York's tough rushers to endure. But the Niners are masters of lingering, not so much finishing. And at some point, one of those Eli passes was going to travel the necessary distance without interruption. As some point Blue dots would dominate the landscape.

Sure enough, Manning to Manningham! - long overdue in this game –  and the Giants took the lead again. But San Francisco, equal to the task, then marched down field, once more behind Alex Smith's running. His 17-yard sprint around the edge surely prompted recollections of Playoff Steve Young across the country. Why did we all doubt this guy so much? Wasn't it evident that he had talent, just the wrong coaching? David Akers - the man with the happiest profile photo in the NFL - evened the score and there we were, facing a mouth-watering finale.  

The defenses dictated the dwindling minutes of regulation, sending their best rushers through holes and over human barriers with the desperation of cavalries making one last commitment. Both quarterbacks took their licks: Eli, by game's end, looked like distraught grade schooler, disheveled and depleted after a frenzied day in the school yard. At times, his pads jutting from his collar, and a mouth full of grass - or even his own chin strap - Manning played the part of Phil Simms in this one: tough, resilient, and able to sling the game into impossible moments. It was the sort of performance that defenders appreciate, where broken plays are extended into new sets of downs, and battered warriors can heal until their next clash.

Finally, in overtime, the whole thing had run its course, like a boxing match on its last legs, winded and woozy. It was just a matter of who could survive the last gasp blows. The Niners had done so much right, especially on the defensive end, where they affected the New York ground game by holding it under 90 yards. But in the end, the G-Men showed a durability that will serve them well in the Super Bowl. They kept coming on defense with that line that doesn't relent. It held the Niners to less than 30 minutes of possession, but perhaps more significantly, forced them into errors on more third downs than any team should endure. San Francisco converted just one of thirteen third downs, clearly an indictment of their offensive execution amid the elements.

Now the Giants return to the big one to face a Patriot team hell bent on Super Bowl revenge. But don't be so sure Brady and Co. will have all the answers for New York, who have proven time and time again, the dealing doesn't need to be pretty, it just needs to yield an opportunity for victory.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Heat: the restaurant scene, with Tom Brady and Ray Lewis

Brady: How ya doin? Whatya say I buy you a cup of coffee?

Lewis: Yeh sure. 

Brady: So...thirteen Pro Bowls, two NFL Defensive Player of the Years, one Super Bowl MVP. Is the AFC North as tough as they say?

Lewis: What are you looking for a gig at NFL Films?

Brady: You looking to be forgotten? You know I’ve ripped up so many defenses...set guys back five years in their careers...kept them out of the Hall...

Lewis: You must have worked some dipstick units?   

Brady: I’ve worked all kinds. Cover two, three, man, Tampa zone, you name it.

Lewis: You see me doing thrill seeker runs around the edge, trying to decapitate the quarterback for the hell of it?

Brady: No I do not.

Lewis: Right. I’m about results. I ain’t ever getting beat by a QB. That’s it.

Brady: Don’t play mind games with me.

Lewis: I do what I do best. I get in your head. You do what you best, trying to embarrass guys like me.

(Brady nods knowingly).

Brady: So you never wanted a regular type career huh?

Lewis: What’s that? Barbecues and Sam Adams?

Brady: Yeh.

Lewis: Just a regular type superstar, like you?

Brady: My life? No, my life isn’t always a pleasure zone. I got paparazzi following me, people calling out obscene things to my wife...and if you lose in New England, let me tell you, it’s no cake walk. Man, I spend all my time trying to conquer guys like you. That’s my life.

Lewis: Coach told me one time, don’t get emotionally attached to anyone cause on your next play, you might have to drive that son of bitch into the ground...let them feel the heat coming around the corner. Now if you’re thinking about me, watching me creep up, and you gotta step when I do you expect to cope with anything else?

Brady: That’s an interesting point. What are you a monk? (pauses) So then if you see me dropping it over your corners, you just gonna keep charging?

Lewis: That’s the discipline.

Brady: That’s pretty vacant.

Lewis: It is what it is. It’s that, or we both better go do something else pal.

Brady: I don’t know how to do anything else.

Lewis: Neither do I.

Brady: I don’t much want to either.

Lewis: Neither do I.

(They each reveal a reluctant grin.)

Brady: You know I have this recurring dream...all the captains of the defenses I ever worked are sitting in our locker room and they're staring at me....rage in their eyes cause I showed them up...just sitting their...

Lewis: What do they say?

Brady: Nothing. We just look at each other. That’s it, that’s the dream.

Lewis: I have one where I’m drowning in a quicksand football field.

Brady: You know what that’s about?

Lewis: Yeh, having enough time.

Brady: Enough time? To do what you wanna do?

Lewis: That’s right.

Brady: You know, we’re sitting here, you and I like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I’ll tell ya, if it’s between you and losing this game, brother, you are going down.

(Lewis stares for a second).

Lewis: There’s a flip side to that coin. What if your guys have me boxed out and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face yeh, but I will not hesitate, not for a second.

Brady: Maybe that’s the way it’ll be. Or...who knows...

Lewis: Or maybe we’ll never meet in a game like this again.

End scene.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The 49ers are coming

You have to appreciate the way the Giants linemen clog the middle. Whether it’s three or four with their hands in the soil, they leave the opponent no room for error. Every time Aaron Rodgers handed to a rusher Sunday, for example, behind a Packer line ploughing with all their might, the G-Men were equal to the task. They hit each man with ferocity, stunning them in the process and unnerving the quarterback - sometimes merely by their proximity. It's a heck of task withstanding New York’s bravado, and certainly most hardened locals wouldn't have it any other way. As native Billy Joel once sang, "There's a storm front coming." In other words, get outta the way!

This Sunday, the 49ers defense will also be called into duty, to a battle more savage than the last. The NFL's No.1 rushing defense will attempt to slow the newly awoken Giants offense, which is now armed – again - with a formidable running game. But this encounter is as much about matching the Giant defensive output as it is shutting down Eli and Co. And if any unit can rival the G-Men tack for tackle, it's the Niners. One of the game's most prolific passers in Drew Brees quickly discovered that last weekend, as he was hurried like a bassist trying to stay in step with Satchmo's trumpet. The Saints went marching in, but the Niners came marching out.

With Justin Smith ripping through linemen like they’re papier-maché, his perpetual motion impossible to escape, Eli will be on his toes all game. And how about Dashon Goldson and Patrick Willis, lurking about the second level with the type of snarl that makes the timid go to ground? The Niners defense is not only stout, as many writers like to label it, it's relentless, pestering and anxiety-inducing. Why would anyone want to play these guys in a sodden Candlestick with a slippery ball, and before a salivating crowd emotionally charged by the return of meaningful football?

For weeks now we’ve been told how good the Saints and Packers offenses are, and yet we know find ourselves closer to the Super Bowl and not a Saint or a Packer in sight. Instead of offense, we await the meeting of two potent defenses in this NFC Championship, a colossal duel between the Big Blue and Big Red. It'll be a tight contest, I suspect, with each offense nullifying the other in testing conditions. In the end, this will be resolved by the 49ers defense, which is not only physically energized but mentally clear. Jim Harbaugh seems to have mastered this aspect of coaching, and so I fully expect the Niners to be steely and decisive. They'll create panic around Manning who's best chance is to hop away from the rush, sometimes awkwardly so, and look long, in the hope that his talented receivers can outrun the coverage. It'll be easier said than done though, in a setting made for a San Francisco ambush, and yet another turn at the big dance.

This article is also featured on Roto Experts Xtra Point Football.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Pack and the Beanstalk

Pounding runs from behind the New York Giants line have changed everything.

The G-Men, now playing harder than James Brown at the Apollo, have returned to the run, and in turn, turned back the clock. Yes, one of the NFL's worst rushing offenses in the regular season is again a juggernaut on the ground.

It helps that guards Chris Snee and Kevin Booth can't be stopped in the pursuit of forging lanes. They don't make space, space sees them coming and lays out. Giants have that affect. But more importantly, Brandon Jacobs, as fee-fi-fo-fum as they come, cannot be toppled from his playoff perch, a magic beanstalk that he ascends when New York need him most.

Jacobs busted up the middle of the Falcons defense with the reckless, grunting style we came to know before he slowed last year. Now, inexplicably, as if fueled by the raucous New York crowd, and maybe by his inspiring defensive ends - led by another Fewell, Perry - Jacobs is again a hostile creature.

Jacobs' barge and spin on fourth and inches near the end of the second quarter against Atlanta was just brutal. The line collapsed inside, he stomped outside and then pirouetted, banged his head against a Falcon, and dove back in to pick up the necessary difference. And just like that, the Giants accumulated 75 yards in a single half, almost twice as much as they'd gained through the air. Atlanta looked more distraught than crash test dummies.

So now Green Bay's defense, merely a mid-tier obstacle for rushers, faces a rejuvenated Jacobs, who can terrify the Pack with fewer than the 92 yards he had last week. Certainly the idea of Giant Jacobs is as much a psychological issue as a physical one: Fox's Sunday half time backdrop of him pumping his fists in between Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw was testament to that. The silhouette - the impending doom - should have the Packers quaking.

Look, we all know what the Packers do on offense. We've heard more about Aaron Rodgers prowess than Kim Kardashian's marital problems, yet another record he'll lock up in 2011-12. But we also know Rodgers' club allows the opposition to score points. Against the Saints in week 1 they allowed 34; the lowly Vikings posted 27 on them; the dysfunctional Bucs scored 26 in week 11; an inept Bears offense generated 21 points against this team for crying out loud.

I'm not talking about the Giants competing in a shootout because we know "Roy" Rodgers wins shootouts. No, I'm talking about the possibility of a take-no-prisoners offensive beat down in which Jacobs churns the cheeseheads into butter. Just like in the frigid '62 Championship game between these great clubs, the Giants will be hardened for a cold contest, and perhaps motivated to avenge that tough loss, and everyone to Green Bay since.

This article first appeared as The Pack and the Beanstalk on Technorati. 

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