Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
22 Nov 2004
By Russell Levine
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, to Atlanta fans reveling in the Falcons' 8-2 record and their win over the Giants Sunday, I offer some advice: Enjoy it while it lasts. Yes, your team is going to wrap up the NFC South title in a few weeks and may do some damage in the NFC playoffs. Yes, Michael Vick continues to make some spectacular plays with his legs -- and not quite enough with his arm. True, you don't want to mess with a winning formula, but the formula won't work if the key ingredient -- Vick -- is missing.
And Vick will be missing. Maybe not this week or even this season, but write it down: His next serious injury is right around the corner. Watching Sunday's Falcons-Giants game, the one thing that stood out was the frightening amount of punishment that Vick took.
It's not just the runs where he refuses to slide or duck out of bounds a yard or two early to avoid a hit. His unparalleled ability to keep passing plays alive with his legs sets him up for further unnecessary abuse. Don't misunderstand me -- Vick is a once in a generation talent. He brings abilities to the quarterback position that the NFL has never seen before. And there's no question that his current playing style is helping the Falcons win. Over at ESPN.com, Aaron points out in Snap Judgment that Vick actually passes better the more he runs. I'm not arguing against any of that. My only point is that the odds of Vick continuing to be able to play this way without sustaining a major injury are slim at best.
If Vick were immune to injury, I'd never suggest changing his style. But no player is immune to injury, and few players in the NFL are taking the kind of punishment that Vick is on a weekly basis. You might argue that if he's only running the ball 10-15 times a game, he's not taking nearly as much contact as a typical running back. And while that's true, that doesn't factor in the sacks (32 so far this season) or the numerous hits he takes after throwing the ball. I think it's conservative to estimate Vick has taken at least 40 hits the last two weeks, even though he's only carried the ball 24 times in that span. Vick is not built like a typical tailback. Additionally, many of the hits he takes on passing plays are more devastating than the average tackle while scrambling. The quarterback is often completely defenseless when throwing the ball, whereas a runner usually is able to brace himself for contact.
Tom Jackson could have put together an entire "Jacked Up" segment from some of the hits Vick took Sunday. There was a play in the fourth quarter when his protection broke down and Vick used his Houdini act to remain alive in the pocket, eventually absorbing a high-low shot from about four Giants at the same time. If Vick wants to survive, he needs to use his elusiveness to avoid contact -- not take more of it. Getting outside of the pocket and scrambling out of bounds or throwing the ball away are not bad decisions. There was another play -- one of the key moments of the game because it led to a drive sustaining roughing the passer penalty -- when Vick was hit by a pair of defenders while launching a desperation pass near the sidelines. He should have thrown the ball away a beat or two earlier or just stepped out of bounds to avoid the contact.
The Falcons may be able to win for a season or two with Vick throwing for 114 yards and running for 105, as he did against the Giants, but it won't last. And that's not because I think Vick needs to learn how to make more than a single read on a pass play. He doesn't need to become a classic drop-back passer, but he does need to think about protecting himself, and he needs to learn to give up on bad plays. There are plays that Vick can keep alive that no one else on the planet can, but that's not always a good thing, not when it leads to him getting leveled when he could have thrown the ball away or run out of bounds for a short gain.
There were at least two or three plays in the Giant game that could easily have produced season-ending injuries. I know backup quarterback Matt Schaub was impressive in the preseason, but I'm guessing Atlanta's postseason chances will take a severe hit if Shaub is the man calling signals in January.
Taming his natural instincts will be Vick's toughest task. He has always played the game with reckless abandon, going back to college at Virginia Tech. In 1999, his redshirt freshman season, Vick led the Hokies to the Sugar Bowl national championship game against Florida State, where he put on one of the greatest one-man performances you'll ever see. Florida State, with a vast talent edge, was on its heels much of the game simply because of Vick before pulling away late. The game shows up on ESPN Classic now and then, and if you get a chance to watch it, pay attention to the beating Vick takes.
Afterwards, Vick said, "I did everything in my power I could. I tried to get away from people, tried to make tough throws, took so many hits. I got knocked around more than I ever have in a football game."
It was a breakout performance on the national stage for Vick, one that put him on the radar screen of every football fan. Fifteen months later, the Falcons made him the first pick in the 2001 NFL draft. But I also recall reading quotes from Vick following that Sugar Bowl where he described barely being able to get out of bed the next morning and needing to learn that he couldn't do everything himself, couldn't take that much punishment. He's still struggling with that lesson, but if he wants to have a lengthy NFL career and leave an even greater impact on the game, it's one he needs to master.
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It is perhaps fitting, in a college season that is nearing the end of November with so little resolved, that the first and so far only team to officially clinch a BCS bowl berth did so following a loss to its most hated rival.
While the three top contenders for the two slots in the Orange Bowl were effectively "holding serve" -- BCS No. 1 USC was off, No. 2 Oklahoma shut out overmatched Baylor, and No. 3 Auburn held off Alabama in the Iron Bowl -- Michigan punched its Rose Bowl ticket despite a rather one-sided loss to Ohio State.
BCS No. 6 Utah completed a perfect regular season with a romp over Brigham Young, all but clinching the first-ever BCS berth for a team outside the six BCS power conferences. The Utes' bid will not become official until the invitations are handed out on Dec. 5. Utah players and fans donned sombreros after the game in reference to an expected trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., but it's possible the Utes could become a hot commodity among the BCS games with at-large bids to hand out. While the Rose will likely stick with its traditional Big Ten/Pac-10 matchup, the Sugar Bowl may opt to grab Utah.
Michigan entered Saturday's contest at Ohio Stadium with a chance to clinch the outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth and to maintain its top-10 position in the BCS standings, but left on the wrong end of a 37-21 score. That result, an upset because Michigan was 9-1 while Ohio State sat at 6-4, was only stunning to those who don't know the golden rule of college football: The emotion of a rivalry game is the single greatest equalizer in all of sports. Underdogs, playing at an emotional fever pitched fueled by the appearance of an archrival on the opposite sideline, can sometimes raise their play to levels not seen all year.
That was certainly the case for Ohio State and particularly sophomore quarterback Troy Smith. Smith took over for a struggling and injured Justin Zwick in the Buckeyes' sixth game, against Iowa, but his impact was far from immediate. He averaged just 137.5 yards passing and 45 rushing in his first four starts, with four touchdown passes and three interceptions, although the stretch saw the Buckeyes go 3-1.
Nothing Smith had done indicated he was capable of the type of game he produced against the Wolverines, as he threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, and ran for 145 and another score -- all coming against one a defense that ranked 20th of 117 Division I-A teams coming into the games. Ohio State, by contrast, entered the contest ranked 108th in total offense.
Having surrendered control of its own destiny, Michigan needed an assist from Iowa, which it got when the Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin. The win allowed Iowa to share the conference crown with Michigan, but sent the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl by virtue of Michigan's 30-17 win when the teams played in September.
Michigan's likely opponent in Pasadena is California, which had a rivalry game of its own Saturday. Cal roughed up Stanford 41-6, but the game was just 13-3 midway through the third quarter as the Cardinal gamely hung with the heavily favored Bears. Like Utah, Cal will have to wait until Dec. 5 to receive its official invite to the Rose Bowl as an at-large team, but it's difficult to conceive a scenario that would keep the Bears from their first trip to Pasadena in 45 years. USC will almost certainly play in the Orange Bowl if it wins its final two games, against Notre Dame and UCLA, giving Cal an at-large bid to the Rose if it can win its final contest, a makeup of a hurricane-postponed game at Southern Miss on Dec. 4.
Of course, all that could go out the window in the wake of Monday's new BCS standings, which contain a lurking disaster for Cal and the BCS -- as ESPN.com's Brad Edwards points out. Cal is still No. 4, but No. 5 Texas, which was idle this weekend, largely closed the gap on the Bears. Utah is still solidly sixth. The surprise lies at No. 7, where Boise State sits, setting up the two potentially disastrous scenarios for Cal.
Should Texas rout Texas A&M in its final regular-season game Friday, the Longhorns could pass Cal in the BCS, meaning Texas would become the highest-ranked team in the top four without an automatic bid, thus taking Cal's spot. Utah, if it remains No. 6, is guaranteed the other at-large bid.
Texas subbing for Cal hardly screams injustice, but consider what could happen if A&M upsets the Longhorns on Friday. Texas would drop in the BCS, potentially allowing No. 7 Boise State to move up to the sixth spot. If that were to occur, both Utah and Boise State would be guaranteed at-large berths, squeezing out Cal.
I have no problem with Utah being included in the BCS. It has played Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina and routed all three. But I have a huge issue with Boise's possible inclusion. The 10-0 Broncos played one team from a BCS conference, Oregon State, and routed the Beavers. But they also barely beat WAC doormats Tulsa (3-8) and San Jose State (2-8), giving up more than 40 points to each. Those were two of just three road games they've played, the third being a 47-31 win over UTEP. The Broncos have had a nice season, and should be praised for being undefeated, but put them on a neutral field against either Cal or Texas and I'm guessing they lose by three touchdowns or more. This is yet another case of the BCS passing a rule -- the one mandating inclusion for a top-six team from outside the BCS leagues -- and failing to fully consider the consequences. I'm sure it simply never occurred to BCS officials that they could end up with non-BCS schools filling both of their at-large bids. And if you think the Rose Bowl was upset about getting Oklahoma instead of Iowa a few years ago, wait until you hear the rumblings out of Pasadena when they have to figure out how to sell 93,000 tickets with Boise State as one of the participants.
I'm still betting on seeing Cal-Michigan on New Year's Day, but with the BCS, you simply never know.
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Assuming USC wins out and makes the Orange Bowl, the identity of the Trojans' opponent remains the sport's biggest debate. Auburn made a dent in No. 2 Oklahoma's edge in the BCS standings last week following an impressive win over Georgia while Oklahoma produced an expected rout of Nebraska. Saturday, Auburn again had the better chance to make its case for the BCS as it played at Alabama in its big rivalry game.
Alabama, with one of the nation's best defenses but a limited offense, nearly duplicated the feat of Ohio State and might have pulled it off had it been able to cash in on a couple of first-half opportunities. The Crimson Tide only generated three points out of two first-and-goal situations, and led just 6-0 despite dominating the first half. Auburn awoke after intermission, scoring on its first two possessions and adding another touchdown early in the fourth quarter. A late Alabama touchdown made the final 21-13.
Like Auburn, Oklahoma also started slowly Saturday, leading Baylor just 7-0 until a Jason White touchdown pass right before halftime. The Sooners scored on their first three possessions of the second half, allowing coach Bob Stoops to avoid the embarrassing effort to run up the score he had employed against Nebraska. With the score 35-0, Stoops -- perhaps wary of voter backlash after he had his starters running a hurry-up offense in the final minutes of a 30-0 game last week -- was content to put in backups and watch them grind down the clock.
Poll voters reacted to the wins by Auburn and Oklahoma largely with a shrug. Oklahoma widened its lead over Auburn by two points in the writers' poll, and grabbed a five-point edge over Auburn in the coaches' survey (the teams were tied last week). Both schools gained first-place votes at the expense of USC, but the margin between nos. 2-3 remains razor thin.
No matter what the human polls say, Oklahoma has thus far had the edge in the computer rankings that make up one-third of the BCS formula thanks to a decided strength-of-schedule advantage over Auburn, whose non-conference slate featured Louisiana-Monroe, Division I-AA The Citadel, and Louisiana Tech. The schedule gap has narrowed somewhat the last two weeks and will do so further on Dec.4, when Auburn plays Tennessee in the SEC Championship game while Oklahoma faces a far lesser opponent in the Big XII title match. Unranked Iowa State will be Oklahoma's foe if it can beat Missouri on Saturday.
Should USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn all win their remaining games, USC's opponent in the Orange Bowl could be determined which school is more impressive in its conference title match. Auburn will likely need to build a lead in the human polls in order to overcome Oklahoma's advantage with the computers. But if all three teams finish undefeated, the only thing that is certain about the BCS is that it will face another mountain of criticism for its failure to produce a clear-cut championship game. Of course, that's always a risk with a system that was designed to solve an unsolvable problem -- how to match two teams in a single championship game no matter how many qualified candidates exist.
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The Martz Award goes in a slightly different direction this week, as Clemson coach Tommy Bowden gets singled out not for a questionable decision during his team's win over South Carolina, but for his post-game remarks. The Clemson-South Carolina contest was marred by a sideline-clearing brawl that was nearly as ugly as what had occurred in the Pacers-Pistons tilt the night before except that fans were thankfully not involved. Asked about the fracas after the game, Bowden opted not to hold his players responsible for their involvement or apologize for its ugliness. Instead, he shamelessly blamed the endless media coverage of the melee in Detroit, saying that was all the players had seen on TV for the past 24 hours. For his reprehensible excuse making, Bowden earns this week's Martz honorific.
(Note: edited portions of this column also appear in Russell's article on this weekend's college football results in the Monday edition of the New York Sun.)