Friday, September 30, 2011

Josh Cribbs On the NFL's New Kickoff Rules

One thing that has been missing from NFL games this year is the excitement of kickoff returns. Gone is that feeling that anything can happen and probably will, and inserted in its place is the dreadful reality that the ball is probably going to end up getting hammered out of the endzone for a touchback. The rule change has definitely taken the spontaneity out of the play, and while it is all for a good cause -- preventing head trauma (count me in) -- it still reeks a bit of sissification (new word, bear with me).

I though Josh Cribb's interview with Jim Rome was pretty revealing about the mindset of NFL kick returners with regard to the new rules (click play above to listen). Turns out that they'd rather take their chances, risk the injury, and make the play exciting. I'm sure most fans agree, but as they say in sports-jargon "It is what it is."

Cribbs, who holds the all time NFL record with 8 kickoff returns for touchdowns, also gave some insight into the new challenges facing returners. When do you take it out of the endzone, and why?

While the new rules (in addition to moving the kick up 5 yards, defenders are only allowed 5 yard run-up, where they previously had 15) may be slowing some returners, Cribbs has still held his own, averaging over 34 yards per return, and knocking off a long of 52.

After three weeks there have been three kicks returned for TD's and 16 returns of 40+ yards.

In 2010 there were 23 kicks returned for TD's and 114 returns of 40+ yards.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who is For Real in the NFC?

The Detroit Lions are one of only two undefeated teams remaining in the NFC, but the silver and honolulu blue barely escaped against the winless Vikings in OT last week. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles, who many thought were the best team in the NFC prior to the start of the season hands-down, have been a huge disappointment.

So who is the real team to beat in the NFC?

Well, that's pretty easy to answer, since the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers have stormed to the three consecutive victories, including a thriller against the Saints in week 1. Speaking of the Saints, they look pretty strong too, but a closer look reveals that both the Saints and the Packers struggle mightily on the defensive side of the ball. Nobody has given up more passing yards per game in the NFC than the Green Bay Packers, and they are second behind only the hapless Vikings at stopping opponents on 3rd down.

While there may be no denying that Green Bay is good -- damn good in fact -- I think it's a little premature to anoint a team that is consistently allowing 400 yards per game as a shoe-in to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The same goes for the Saints, who are equally dynamic on the offensive side of the ball, but also equally anemic on D. Only the Rams have allowed more points per game than New Orleans 29.3.

There's an old saying in football: Defense wins championships. Now, I don't know if that's true anymore in this souped-up pass-happy era, but teams like the Packers and the Saints are not leaving their offense any margin for error by being so pedestrian on defense. Therefore it's not hard to picture either team getting knocked off of their pedestal in the near future.

The fact of the matter is, there are about 7 viable Super Bowl candidates in the NFC.

Here are some teams that could make it, and why:

1. New York Giants: Why is nobody talking about the Giants this year? And why is nobody mentioning Eli Manning when they have a discussion about the top 5 QB's in the game right now? Eli was magnificent against the Eagles in a week 3 trouncing, and if you don't believe me, consult his 145 quarterback rating. At 2-1, the G-Men are looking good, and with Mario Manningham and Osi Umenyiora coming back soon, they could be even better.

2. Dallas Cowboys: What a remarkable change in fortune it has been for Tony Romo in the last three weeks. He's gone from choking goat to gritty gamer, and he's done it at a time when his banged-up squad needed him more than ever. Dallas could very easily be 0-3 with Romo on the IR right now, but because of Romo's desire to prove everybody who piled on him after week one wrong, he's got his team at the top of the NFC East as they head into a huge showdown with Detroit. Dallas is the only NFC team that gives up less than 300 yards per game, and if Romo can get healthy again they promise to be formidable on both sides of the ball all season long.

3. Philadelphia Eagles: Just because they've started slowly, and Vick has been treated like a rag doll by opposing defensive lines, doesn't mean that the Eagles aren't one of the best teams in the NFC. They've got playmakers on both sides of the ball, and when Vick gets himself right, they should hit stride and rise to somewhere around the type of the conference.

4. New Orleans Saints: As we've mentioned, there offense is beyond awesome. If they're D can hold tough in the red zone, and they can develop a road identity, they could be an 12-win team.

5. Detroit Lions: The fact that the Lions have the best defense in the NFC against the pass is definitely reason to get excited. Whether or not they can continue at this level is another question entirely. Their only quality win this season was on the road in Tampa Bay, but they'll get there chance for another in Dallas on Sunday. If they succeed there, they could supplant the Bears as the team most likely to challenge the Packers in the NFC north.

The Best of the Rest:

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They are always in close games, and they tend to win more of them than they lose -- what's not to like about that?

2. Atlanta Falcons: A big disappointment thus far, the Falcons need to give Matt Ryan more time to set up and do his thing in the pocket. Ryan has been sacked 13 times already in three games, and only two teams in the NFC (Seattle and Chicago) have allowed more.

3. Chicago Bears: Same problem in Chicago as they have in Atlanta. Cutler is getting killed by opposing D-lines.

Notice how I did not mention any of the NFC West teams? Did I forget that division? No. It is just plain horrible. Sorry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flashback Friday: Barry Sanders

Every Friday during the season, we're going to take a trip down memory lane to give props to great moments and/or great players of the NFL's past. This week, in light of the Lions first 3-0 start since 1980, a tribute to the Detroit Lions of yesteryear seems appropriate. Many can only remember the Lions as the laughingstock of football, but there have been some good times in Detroit, particularly in the 90's when Mr. Barry Sanders carried the rock on a regular basis for the Lions.

Sanders was one of a kind: He was improvisational. He was electric. He could go from 0 to 60 in a flash, then slam the brakes to make a herd of hungry defenders freeze in their tracks before taking off unmolested on another gallop to paydirt.

Oh, and he could juke. He'd hit the hole, approach a defender, then throw a series of dizzying fakes to confuse defenders while taking off in whichever direction he chose. It never seemed to fail. The only way to tackle Sanders was to gang tackle him or get him while he was taking the exchange from the QB.

Barry Sanders was a freak of nature. A real life phenom. There was nobody in the history of the game that was more befuddling to defenders; nobody that was more difficult to tackle one-on-one; and nobody that was better at bringing the Lions faithful their feet.

His surprise retirement in 1999 drove a steak through the heart of all Lions fans, and the franchise hasn't been the same since. Now that the Lions are finally showing signs of life again, maybe the memories of how great Sanders was, and how devastating it was when he left without a warning, won't be so bitter anymore.

Here is just a small sample of Sander's remarkable achievements in the NFL:

1. 5 1,500 yard seasons (most ever).
2. 25 150-plus yard games (most ever).
3. 15 career touchdown runs of 50-yards or more (most ever).
4. In 1997 Sanders set an NFL record by rushing for 100 yards in 14 consecutive games while becoming only the third player in history to reach 2,00 yards in a single season.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

NFL: 2 Locks for Week 3

Hey there all. I've decided to join the rest of the world and make a few picks for week 3, but before I do that, I would like to wholeheartedly invite you all to watch the video above and laugh your ass off. Was this not the best play of week 2? I know there's a long way to go this season, and I know there are a lot of highly creative touchdown celebrators in the NFL, but seriously -- who the hell can possibly top this? Eat your heart out T.O and Ochocino.

Okay, on to the picks. I'll give two locks vs. the spread, and just so you know, this weeks picks come completely free of charge. So get in while you can, before the buzz grows and this thing blows up and I have to start charging y'all.

1. Bills (-8.5) vs. Patriots.

I think it's pretty unlikely that the Bills win for the first time in 16 games vs. the pats, and I did have to laugh when watching Tom Brady try to convince a room full of journalists that it's "always tough to play in Buffalo." I mean, yeah, any NFL game is tough -- you can get blindsided by a 270 lb. linebacker and what not -- but to call going to Buffalo a tough assignment smacks of political posturing. The Pats are always great at faking respect for their opponents and then subsequently kicking their asses, but this week is going to be different.

Why? Because the Patriots defense is horrible. It just is. And while they usually are intelligent enough -- or well coached enough -- to make big plays and come up positive in the turnover ratio (they are already +4 this year), I suspect that they'll have a tough time breaking away from Buffalo on Sunday. And even if they do, I suspect that Ryan Fitzpatrick and the high-powered Buffalo attack will find a way to get within a score by the final whistle.

Pick: Take the Bills and the points.

2. Redskins (-6.5) vs. Cowboys.

Lots of if's for the Big D, with Romo either destined to play at 50% or Kitna destined to fill in and do what he normally does -- move the ball and end each drive with a heartbreaking pick. Without Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and with Felix Jones banged up, it promises to be a long Sunday for the Dallas O.

The 'Skins, meanwhile, are surprisingly good this year. Grossman is a competent and confident QB at the moment, and the team seems to be playing inspired football now that disgruntled defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and controversial QB Donavan McNabb are gone.

Pick: Take the Redskins and the points.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Warner's Top 5 QB's Leaves Newton Out

Ex-stud-QB Kurt Warner was on the NFL network this morning talking about who he thought were the five most impressive QB's of the first two weeks of the NFL season. In addition to the usual Brady-Brees-Rogers lovefest (totally deserved), the segment gives Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills fans something to feel good about, as Warner gave props to Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick for getting off to a torrid start this season.

One player missing from Warner's assessment was the wonder rookie Cam Newton, so I figured I'd do a blog post to give the man his due.

So without any further ado, here is Newton's due:

The 22-year-old became just the 7th NFL player to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games, when he threw for 422 against the Cardinals and 432 against the Packers in weeks one and two. To do that in your first two weeks as a pro is just insane, and there's plenty more impressive stats where that came from.

In Newton's first two games he became the second and third youngest player to record 400 yard passing games. Oh, yeah, there's more.

The 6'5" 248-pounder from College Park, Ga. is the new owner of the record for most passing yards in a game by a rookie, and he's currently second in the NFL in passing yards, first in completions of over 20 yards and second in completions of 40 yards or more.

In short, the guy can chuck the rock. He can float the duck. Yup, he's good alright. Sure, he's been intercepted four times (he's just a baby after all), and he's had some trouble in the red zone too. And yes, rookie quarterbacks are having more success in general in the NFL these days, but still, I think Newton is worth some honorable mention from Warner for his achievements of the first two weeks of the NFL campaign (let's not forget the draft shortened rookie preparations, so we might see Newton's improvement accelerate in the next few weeks).

But even after all those wonderful records for Newton, he sorely lacks the only stat that truly counts: Wins. The top 5 in a statistical category is one thing, but the top 5 in wins is entirely another.

Newton will be looking for his first NFL win on Sunday when he faces fellow rookie Blaine Gabbert, who will be making his first career start for Jacksonville.

If he can throw for 400 yards AND GET THE WIN, I'm sure Kurt Warner will be talking about him next week.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dunta Robinson's Dirty Hit and the Suspension That Never Came

Take a look at Dunta Robinson's latest offense and tell me what you think. In my opinion, this is a player who has clearly gone over the line. I've been thinking about the subject a lot this week, and I've got my reasons for feeling this way, so here goes: (Robinson was fined 40k for the hit, his second such offense in two years, but in my opinion it's not enough.)

Whatever happened to good old tackling? Hey, the object of the game is to wrap the player up and take him to the ground as quickly as possible. That's football. What Robinson does on this play is just plain vicious (not to mention that it's not very fundamentally sound, but that's another story for another day). Yeah, Robinson't launching pad tackling technique accomplishes the task -- Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin does go down -- but if you cue up the video to the 1:14 mark, you can see that Robinson is clearly head hunting. He leads with his helmet right into the chin of the receiver, and that is exactly the type of B.S. that the NFL wants out of its games.

Or do they? I'd like to know: if the NFL is so serious about cracking down on hits to the head and preventing head injuries in every way possible, then why didn't they suspend Robinson? I'll answer the question for you: because Maclin was okay. If Maclin stayed down and went off on a stretcher, the NFL would have had their hands tied, and they would have tied Robinson's hands as a result.

A lot of purists think that players should be able to do whatever the hell they want to a receiver, but that's an easy thing to say from your couch when you're hiding behind a bucket of chicken wings and a six pack of Sierra Nevadas. But before you get too fat, drunk and happy to debate this, try seeing things from the vantage point of an NFL slot receiver -- a guy who is running routes and catching balls blindly while sandwiched between hungry receivers and linebackers on pretty much every set of fresh downs.

The fact of the matter is that the game has changed in a lot of ways in the last 20 years. First of all, teams throw a lot more. Second of all, athletes are bigger, faster and stronger and the equipment they wear is lighter, while today's helmets are easier to use as a weapon.

Hell, if this was the old days when men were men, would players really need those elaborate facemasks and tinted shields that they now wear? I think not.

It's bogus what some guys are trying to do to receivers these days, and I'm singling out Dunta Robinson as the worst offender that I've seen this year. His hit on Maclin was cruel and unnecessary, and if the NFL doesn't have the guts to suspend him then they should make him play slot receiver for a few games and see how he likes guys head hunting him for a while.

I'm not saying that Robinson is a bad player or a bad guy. He's obviously a stud, an intensely physical player, and an intimidating force for the Falcons secondary. I'm just saying that the NFL is letting him get away with too much. You shouldn't be allowed to try to decapitate a wide receiver, and, even if you are unsuccessful, you should be suspended, especially if you are a second-time offender like Robinson.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NFL: Which 2-0 team is the best?

There are seven undefeated teams left in the NFL after two weeks, and while two weeks is not a very large sample size to determine the legitimacy of teams like the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions, it's twice as much sample size as we had after one week.

Here's a brief look at the 2-0 teams, with thoughts on what their fast start might mean for playoff chances.

1. New England Patriots: The Pats are first in yards gained but second to last in yards given up. In other words, not a whole lot has changed for New England, who was porous at best in 2010, when they finished ranked 25th in the league in points allowed per game.

The good news for the Pats is that they find ways to win, and they find ways to get the big picks and fumble recoveries.

And all they need to do is have the ball last and their chances are good. New England hasn't won less than 10 games since 2002, and, barring injury to Tom Terrific, that shouldn't change this year.

2. New York Jets: The Jets look strong thus far, proving that they still have a penchant for winning close games and coming from behind against Dallas in week one, and proving that they have the team to dominate a decent AFC foe in Jacksonville, as they did in their 32-3 drubbing of the Jags.

The key for the Jets will be the development of Mark Sanchez, and whether or not the Jets coaching staff will let him take the training wheels off and make a difference in the game early. So far, he's been both good (4 td's) and bad (3 picks).

3. Buffalo Bills: Of the three undefeated teams in the AFC East, the Bills are probably the team most likely to drop off a bit. It's hard to say what we should glean from wins over Kansas City and Oakland in weeks 1 and 2, but we'll know a lot more once they've hosted New England on Sunday in a crucial week 3 match up. Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown for 472 yds. and 7 td's in two games, so there's no doubt that the Buffalo offense is vastly improved.

The Bills are already half way to matching their 2010 win total of 4, but the "D" -- that's the "D" that got shredded by Oakland's Jason Campbell for 323 yds. -- will have to improve if they hope to get the best of their division rivals in the upcoming weeks.

4. Houston Texans: If any team stands to benefit from the injury to Peyton Manning, it's the Texans. The Texans hammered Indy in week one, and followed up on that win with a good effort over Miami. But the schedule stiffens, with a road game in New Orleans next week, and the Steelers at home the Sunday after that.

Bright spots for Houston have been the rushing of Ben Tate, who has filled in admirably for the missing Arian Foster with 219 yds. and the always stellar receiver of playmaker Andre Johnson.

Their defense, run by Wade Phillips, is ranked 1st in the NFL in yards allowed too.

5. Washington Redskins: Don't ask me how or why, but the Redskins are undefeated, with home wins over the Giants and the Cardinals to boast about thus far. Rex Grossman has been solid for the 'Skins, with 596 yds. and 4 td's to his name, and while the Redskins might not be a playoff team, they certainly have a well balanced attack and enough skill players (Santana Moss, Tim Hightower) to create problems for anybody they play.

6. Detroit Lions: The big question mark for the Lions is still there, and will remain there for the remainder of the season: Can Matt Stafford stay healthy for a full season? Stafford has been excellent so far, using his favorite target Calvin Johnson to stretch the field, and also getting tight ends Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew and running back Jahvid Best into the passing game. We've heard a lot about big D's vaunted D-line, but if Stafford stays healthy, and continues his current play in the red zone, the Lions could find themselves 3-0 for the first time since 1980 after traveling to Minnesota this Sunday.

7. Green Bay Packers: No surprises here. The pack was dealt a big blow when they lost safety Nick Collins for the year to a head injury, but they did the injury thing last year, and they did it quite well, thank you. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers are currently the team to beat in the NFC north, and many people's pick to repeat as Super Bowl champs. They struggled early against a Cam Newton-led Carolina team last Sunday, but proved that no mountain is to tough for them to climb, coming from 14 points down to grab a victory on the road.

So, the big question is, which team will stay undefeated the longest?

My Pick: Green Bay

What's yours?