Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
29 Nov 2004
By Russell Levine
I may have to start thinking about a move to the West Coast.
What brings about this drastic thought? Simple: I have reached the stage in life when I can no longer stay awake for Sunday and Monday Night Football or a Saturday night college game. It's not for lack of trying -- I never actually go to bed before the games are over. But I've got two kids, at least one of whom is up well before 6 am almost every day, and by 10:30 or 11 pm, the eyelids start getting awful heavy.
The quality of the game doesn't seem to matter, although I did fall asleep about two plays into the Dolphins-Jets Monday-nighter a few weeks ago. I didn't make it to the finish of last week's Brett Favre comeback vs. Houston or this week's Raiders-Broncos snow bowl. I have yet to suffer the ultimate indignity -- falling asleep before the completion of a game involving any of my favorite teams -- but I fear it could happen soon. The day it does is the day I start checking the real estate listings in the Pacific time zone.
Sacking out in front of the TV does have its advantages. Saturday night, I awoke just in time to catch a pretty good finish in Northwestern-Hawaii at about 2:30 am ET. I often wake up just in time to get the game wrap-up on SportsCenter, and check my fantasy scores on the laptop that's still on in front of me. Sadly, fantasy football is one of the few things -- apart from the involvement of either Michigan or Tampa Bay -- that can keep me awake through an entire night game. I made it through last week's Patriots-Chiefs contest simply because I needed David Givens to score fewer than seven fantasy points in order to win my game. I'm not sure what that says about me, but I'm quite certain it's not good.
I'm not proud of this unwelcome development in my game-watching habits, but I'm also pretty sure I'm not alone. I've also learned to anticipate my slumber. If there's an important night game in college football, I always TiVo it so I can actually write about it with some knowledge, as was the case with Notre Dame-USC this week.
* * *
I wish I had made it through the Sunday night game in Denver, because there's nothing more fun than watching football in the snow. When the game kicked off, you had the sense that the Broncos, who should be used to those weather conditions, would have their way with Oakland. Jake Plummer even broke out the Grizzly Adams beard for the occasion. But I saw enough of the game -- I made it to the early part of the third quarter, a pretty good performance for me -- to tell that wasn't going to be the case.
Unfortunately, that also means I got to listen to two-plus quarters of Plummer receiving the Favre treatment from the ESPN crew. Did I miss something? Yes, I know the Broncos have won a lot of games since he joined the team. But how many of those wins would you directly attribute to Plummer? More importantly, how many of the losses fall directly at his feet (although, admittedly, not this one)?
Denver continues to be the most confounding team in the NFL not named "Saints." They should be a dominant team, but instead are merely a good one. Every time you think they're ready to go on a roll and build some momentum for the postseason, they drop a game like they did to Oakland -- at home, at altitude, at night, in the cold and snow, to a California team that was 3-7 and out of the playoff race. Yes, it was a rivalry game, but that doesn't mean nearly as much in the NFL as it does in college. There's really no excuse for Denver to drop that game.
For the Raiders, the win is a very good sign. By this time last season, the Oakland locker room was full of infighting and the team had quit on Bill Callahan. But in the last two weeks, they've played some of their best football of the last two years against the top two teams in the AFC West, San Diego and Denver, and might have beaten both if not for a dropped pass by Ronald Curry last week.
Curry, who had an incredible touchdown catch after I was snoring on the couch Sunday night, is one of the better stories in the NFL this season. He was the top high school prospect in both football (as a quarterback) and basketball (as a point guard) coming out of Hampton, Virginia in 1998. Curry chose to attend North Carolina and play both sports, which he did for a couple seasons before dropping basketball to concentrate on football. He was never the dominant player that he was expected to be (as a prep, he was rated a better quarterback prospect than Michael Vick, who is from Newport News).
Curry was selected by the Raiders in the final round of the 2002 draft, and was released twice before making the active roster full-time in 2003. This year, he's becoming a regular producer at receiver, a pretty remarkable journey for an elite athlete who has been dealt more than a few setbacks along the way. If it were possible to have a feel-good story on the Darth Raiders, Curry would definitely be it.
* * *
The most interesting development of the NFL weekend came on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. You really have to wonder what's going on in the Cowboys front office after the actions of Bill Parcells against Chicago.
The Cowboys were reeling coming into the game, having lost three straight and six of seven, but Parcells had resisted the calls for him to start 24-year old rookie quarterback Drew Henson, instead sticking with Vinny Testaverde. Parcells had his hand forced last week when Testaverde got banged up in a loss to Baltimore and was relieved by Henson, who led Dallas to a late touchdown. As Aaron pointed out in a New York Sun article (subscription required), the Cowboys' struggles are not really Testaverde's fault, but at 3-7 and going nowhere it seemed like the right time to give the rookie a start. Parcells protested cryptically all week that he didn't want to start Henson if he wasn't going to be in a position to succeed, but ended up acquiescing when Testaverde was unable to practice.
So Henson started -- and struggled. After leading Dallas on an early touchdown drive, the offense stalled. He threw a horrible interception that was returned for a touchdown. Luckily for Dallas, the Bears were equally inept and the halftime score was 7-7. So it came as a shock to nearly everyone at the game -- most of who booed lustily -- when Testaverde played the second half, throwing a terrible interception himself before eventually leading Dallas to two late touchdowns and the win. Yes, the win allowed the Cowboys to remain alive for a wild-card spot at 4-7, but what is served by going back to Testaverde? How is Henson going to improve if all he gets is 30 minutes to prove himself? Parcells is talking like he's going to stick with Vinny for the rest of the season.
I'm guessing that not all is well in the Parcells-Jerry Jones relationship, and inserting Testaverde at halftime was Parcells way of raising a giant middle finger towards the owners' box. Jones hasn't made a secret of his desire to see Henson in the lineup, and Parcells was offering the owner a not-so-subtle reminder of who's in charge of the on-field decisions. It could be that I'm completely misreading the situation, but these could also be signs of the friction that many predicted when Parcells agreed to work with the hands-on Jones. All the Patriots fans that read this site know how well things worked out he last time Parcells worked with a hands-on owner. Perhaps Parcells is trying to be just insubordinate enough to force Jones' hand. The team is floundering and the roster is not exactly young. Parcells hasn't proven himself to be the most adept handler of the draft, either, so maybe he's trying to force his way out in order to take on another reclamation project, one with plenty of talent and maybe in need of just the right leader -- sound like any team you know? Like one in Miami, for instance?
* * *
After the holiday weekend failed to shake up the standings, BCS officials are most thankful that there is another Saturday of football yet to play before bowl invitations are handed out. All three of the major-conference unbeatens, USC, Oklahoma and Auburn, play next Saturday, allowing a final opportunity for one of them to lose and provide the BCS with a controversy-free title game for just the fourth time in its seven years.
While they're at it, BCS officials might consider sending a thank-you note to Texas, which beat Texas A&M on Friday, heading off the possible inclusion of Boise State as an at-large team. Boise, which completed an undefeated regular season with a rout of Nevada, could have moved up to no. 6 in the BCS with an A&M win, thereby guaranteeing a spot.
As irony would have it, Texas will probably get shut out of the BCS bowls for the seventh straight year unless no. 4 Cal is upset at Southern Miss next week. No. 5 Texas might have jumped Cal in the polls had a single play just before halftime gone differently. Quarterback Vince Young attempted to jump over the pile from the two-yard line, but had the ball knocked out of his hands and returned 98 yards for a touchdown by the Aggies, representing a 14-point swing. A final margin of victory of 27 points instead of the 13 would have looked better to the voters.
Others giving thanks include officials from the ACC, who get to witness a de facto championship game between Miami and Virginia Tech next week after the Hokies dispatched Virginia. The fact that both those schools are new additions to the conference this season (from the Big East) also vindicates the decision by the ACC to expand. For its part, the Big East is thankful it won't have to suffer the indignity of seeing departing Boston College represent the conference in the BCS after the Eagles were humiliated by Syracuse at home. Of course, it's a good news/bad news scenario for the Big East, which now has to endure criticism of its BCS representative -- either Pittsburgh (7-3) or Syracuse (6-5), depending on the final BCS standings. Help is on the way for the depleted league, however. One of the 2005 additions, Louisville, will just miss out on a BCS berth this year and could be the favorite to win the league in its first season.
An upset of one of the top three teams remains unlikely as all three will be solid favorites next Saturday -- USC against UCLA, Oklahoma against Colorado in the Big XII championship, and Auburn over Tennessee in the SEC title game. Auburn, currently the odd team out of the Orange Bowl picture, probably faces the toughest test of the three, which is a good thing because it has the most to prove to the voters and computers that determine the BCS standings. Should USC and Oklahoma win, Auburn's best hope for moving into the no. 2 spot in the BCS would be to destroy Tennessee while Oklahoma struggles with Colorado. Such a performance just might convince enough voters who have been putting Oklahoma no. 2 to jump the Tigers over the Sooners.
Unfortunately for Auburn, Tennessee will arrive at the SEC championship a wounded team. Down to its third-string quarterback, Rick Clausen, the Volunteers have struggled to wins over SEC laggards Vanderbilt and Kentucky by just a combined 11 points the last two weeks. Auburn, needing to prove itself against the toughest opposition possible, would no doubt prefer to see a team coming into Atlanta on a roll.
A roll is what USC is on after destroying Notre Dame 41-10 Saturday night. Playing on a rainy home field for the first time since 1987, the Trojans took a little time to get adjusted to a Notre Dame team that looked more like the one that upset Michigan and Tennessee earlier this season than the one that had lost four of its other eight games. The Fighting Irish led 10-3 in the second quarter before USC unleashed a 38-0 onslaught that showcased the skills of its two Heisman Trophy contenders, quarterback Matt Leinart, and tailback/receiver/return man Reggie Bush. Leinart threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, including a 69-yard strike to Bush that made the score 27-10 late in the third quarter.
USC felt it needed an impressive performance against the Irish after losing a total of six first-place votes in the two polls to Auburn and Oklahoma while it was idle last week. That may have motivated coach Pete Carroll to call a fake punt with a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter. The play resulted in a pass-interference call and was followed by Leinart's final touchdown pass on the next play. The play was not as brazen as Oklahoma's attempt to run up the score on Nebraska two weeks ago, but was still dubious, and provided the latest indication that sportsmanship has suffered at the hands of the BCS.
USC's win followed its recent pattern against the Irish. In each of the last three seasons, the Trojans have beaten Notre Dame by exactly 31 points, starting slowly in all three contests before closing the games with uncontested scoring binges -- 34-0 in 2002 and 31-0 in 2003. Leinart has been at the helm of the last two wins, and he's hoping that like former Trojan Carson Palmer, a big performance against Notre Dame can springboard him to the Heisman. Despite playing for the top-ranked team -- one of the most storied programs in college football history -- and in a major media market, Leinart hasn't had the same media exposure as the other top candidates. The Notre Dame contest was just the second USC game on national network TV this season, and the first since its opener in August.
Leinart has displayed remarkable consistency, throwing for 58 touchdowns and only eight interceptions in USC's current 20-game winning streak. His primary competition for the Heisman appears to be last year's winner, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White.
White and the Sooners were off this weekend, but finally learned their opponent in next week's Big XII title game: Colorado (7-4). Although Colorado is a weaker opponent for Oklahoma than Tennessee is for Auburn in the SEC, at least the Buffaloes have been a prominent team on the national scene in recent years, and probably carry more sway with the voters than Iowa State would have.
Iowa State, which opened the season as a betting underdog to Division I-AA Northern Iowa, would have faced Oklahoma in Kansas City next week had it been able to capitalize on two gold opportunities to defeat Missouri. With 1:02 left in a 14-14 tie, Iowa State kicker Bret Culbertson missed a 24-yard field goal attempt. Then in overtime, Iowa State had a first-and-goal at the Missouri three and the chance to win the game with a touchdown. But two rushing plays lost three yards before Bret Meyer threw an ill-advised timing pattern that was intercepted, ending the game.
BCS officials can only hope that one of their top three teams similarly fails to cash in on an opportunity next Saturday.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden is a double-nominee for the Martz Award this week, once for sticking with kicker Martin Gramatica despite his struggles the last season and a half, and once for running the ball on 3rd-and-6 in the final two minutes of a tie game against Carolina, putting the game in the hands, or rather feet, of Gramatica, who promptly missed his third field goal of the day. But Gruden is the same coach who has squeezed pretty decent offensive production out of a reclamation project (Brian Griese), an offensive line full of aging turnstiles, and a receiving corps that features a rookie (Mark Clayton) and a bunch of fading (or faded, in the case of Tim Brown) veterans, so Gruden gets a pass this week. Besides, this week's winner from the college ranks made an error so egregious that no further consideration was needed.
He's Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, who not only managed to lose track of the downs in the most critical moment of his team's game against Georgia, but also mangled his management of the clock while doing so. Out of timeouts and trailing, 19-13, Georgia Tech had a 2nd-and-10 from the Georgia 21 when quarterback Reggie Ball was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Ball hit the turf with 57 seconds remaining and scrambled to get his team back to the line of scrimmage. The cameras flashed to the sideline, where Gailey was seen nodding his head as an assistant motioned for Ball to spike the ball, even though the spike left the Yellow Jackets with a 4th-and-21 play. In their confusion, Georgia Tech not only spiked the ball, but also allowed 20 seconds to run off the clock in the process, so even if they had made a first down, they would have been scrambling to score before the clock expired. Even with all that time ticking off, nobody realized it was fourth down and Ball's final pass was thrown harmlessly out of bounds. Gailey sounds like a candidate for the Mike Holmgren school of time management.
1 comment, Last at 11 Mar 2007, 3:01am by Kasino