Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
15 Mar 2012
by Mike Tanier
LOCAL NEWSGUY: Good afternoon, Redskins fans, and welcome to Landover, Maryland on a beautiful day in mid-March. Thanks for joining us for the 12th annual Redskins Premature Celebration Parade. We will be broadcasting live for all of the excitement, all of the marching bands and floats, and of course the presentation of the Vince LombEarly Trophy.
With me again for all of the pageantry is Football Outsiders senior writer and noted Redskins skeptic Mike Tanier. Mike, it seems like only yesterday that we sat here and watched Donovan McNabb lead the parade as Grand Marshall.
ME: That’s right, whatever your name is. But that was nearly two years ago. And I say "nearly" because this is the earliest premature celebration parade since 2002, when Steve Spurrier was Grand Marshall. Typically, the Redskins wait until they have signed some free agents before scheduling the parade. This is the first year that a draft pick has ever been Grand Marshall.
NEWSGUY: And here comes the Grand Marshall’s float now! It is made from over 300,000 genetically engineered maroon-and-gold roses. Dan Snyder is waving to the crowd, and he is holding up this year’s symbolic Grand Marshall, a Styrofoam "2" with a crowd on top of it.
ME: And listen to the hundreds in this crowd roar with approval. Of course, they all know that the number two will likely become Robert Griffin on draft day. Most of these folks knew nothing about RG3 a few weeks ago, but they are now 100 percent certain that he is going to be their franchise quarterback for the next decade. For now, they are just happy to see Snyder proudly displaying his number two.
NEWSGUY: The float certainly does look beautiful. It was originally outfitted to say "Welcome Peyton" along both sides, but the designers did a great job covering those spots at the last second. As the Grand Marshall’s float passes, we enjoy the Glen Burnie High School marching band’s musical tribute to DeAngelo Hall.
ME: What a talented group of youngsters. Notice how the color guard girls keep trying and failing to intercept each other’s batons. That’s excellent choreography. Hall came to the Redskins in midseason of 2008, so he never got to be an honored guest at this parade. He did ride on the Grand Marshall’s float when Albert Haynesworth had that honor in 2009.
NEWSGUY: Who can forget that? And of course, a percentage of the proceeds from this year’s Premature Celebration Parade will go to the victims of the Haynesworth float crash. Coming up next is the coaches float, and the parade will pause for a very special ceremony. The Pro Football Writers Association is awarding Mike Shanahan with the Meaningless Achievement Award for beating the Giants twice last season.
ME: That’s right. The Meaningless Achievement Award is given each year to the team that accomplishes something that is essentially random but can be creatively interpreted as important. Typically, the award goes to a team that ends the season with a winning streak, but by beating the world champion Giants twice, the Redskins created some superficial justification for claiming to be close to contention and mortgaging their future for one rookie quarterback.
NEWSGUY: The Redskins haven’t won this award since 2001, when they won their last two games under Marty Schottenheimer. Do you remember those early parades, Mike?
ME: Oh, they were much smaller then. Back when Deion Sanders or Bruce Smith was Grand Marshall, there was a real sense that the Redskins might host an honest-to-goodness Super Bowl parade the following February. That was before they started focusing all of their energy on having the most exciting possible offseason and stopped pretending that there was some kind of coherent plan to build a sustainable, winning football program. These parades have gotten much better since they became self-conscious celebrations of short-sightedness.
NEWSGUY: As the Irish clog dancers approach the main staging area, I have to ask: why are you so pessimistic? Robert Griffin is going to be a great quarterback, right?
ME: He has franchise quarterback potential. Deion Sanders was a great player. Clinton Portis was great. It should be noted that the Redskins have made some outstanding draft choices on the rare occasions that they have focused on the draft. The problem with this team has never been star power, but the other 40 roster spots. Every time they trade four potentially great players for one potentially excellent one, Redskins fans should cringe, because the team is never in position to give up red chips for a blue one. They never have enough red chips.
No, this is classic Redskins pie in the sky. We’re not even penciling in a development period for RG3 with this move. Everyone is expecting a Cam Newton season, followed by a John Elway career. Let me ask you this: what if RG3 is not Elway, but McNabb? McNabb was better than 98 percent of the quarterbacks in NFL history. But would you trade three first-round picks and a second-rounder for him, even in his prime?
And as for all of those receivers, the Redskins did not need three so-so wide receivers. They needed one good one. As usual, younger players who could help the team will get lost in the shuffle once it comes time to dole out practice reps.
NEWSGUY: Interesting points. Of course, the Premature Celebration Parade is no time for such talk. RG3 will be better than Elway and Steve Young combined, the Redskins will pick incredibly well in later rounds, and the league was evil and vindictive for imposing a cap fine that prevented the Redskins from surrounding RG3 with Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson, Eric Winston, Carl Nicks, and Cortland Finnegan. This offseason is completely different from all the others, as we say every year.
And with that, here comes the final float with the LombEarly Trophy. Because of the new cap restriction, the float is just a 2004 Nissan Ultima with the roof cut off and some streamers stapled to the side. Hoisting the LombEarly this year are Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon. They will be adding their names to the list of random players the Redskins acquired over the last decade who are no better than the mid-round draft choices good teams develop, but cost much more. Their names will go right beneath Tim Hightower’s, Joey Galloway’s, Brandon Lloyd’s, and ... well, there are too many to mention. The LombEarly Trophy is a beautiful sold gold statue of two players holding up a smaller version of the trophy, which of course includes a tinier statute of tinier players holding a smaller trophy. It’s a model of recursion, Mike.
MIKE: And so are the Redskins! This has been as much fun as ever. Same time next year?
NEWSGUY: You can count on it!
The best moves at the start of free agency are usually the smallest ones, and they are often re-signings.
The Giants re-signed injured cornerback Terrell Thomas hours before the opening bell on Tuesday. Thomas is recovering from an ACL tear. The deal is modest, with most of the $17.4 million in reported money coming in the third and fourth years of the deal. Assuming Thomas returns to form, the Giants added a high-level cornerback to their Super Bowl defense for an incredibly low price.
The Thomas signing was reminiscent of last offseason, when Giants GM Jerry Reese reacted to his team’s cap woes and the lockout chaos by busily re-signing role players. While the Eagles and Redskins redskinned everyone they could find, Reese quietly brought back Deon Grant and Dave Tollefson, made what peace he could with Osi Umenyiora, and restructured contracts so Ahmad Bradshaw could return. Reese took criticism for not making a "sexy splash" (words he used about a dozen times in one hilarious press conference). Instead, he acquired system fits who were familiar with the Giants playbook and culture, all for reasonable prices.
The Thomas signing was just another example of that kind of move. It was easy to overlook because we are busily tracking Brandon Carr’s movements around the country. Thomas is every bit as good as Carr.
The Seahawks re-signed Red Bryant on Tuesday, a hulking defensive end who is an incredible fit in their defense but would be a square peg in many others. Pete Carroll spoke at length during the Combine about what a revelation Bryant was after moving over from defensive tackle to more of a five-technique (outside the tackle or over the tight end) type of player. Bryant had just one sack, and our numbers credit him with just six total Defeats, two of them on interceptions. Watch the tape, though and you see teams trying to string out running plays to his side of the field and going absolutely nowhere as he disrupts the left side of the offensive line. Carroll is an outside-the-box thinker on defense, and Bryant is an outside-the-box player.
Had some other team acquired Bryant, there would be a press conference, Bryant would hold up a jersey, and we would all write "impact" articles while the local press profiles the new defensive behemoth. For a team like the Texans, Bryant would probably then develop into a force. For about a dozen other teams with less inspired defensive coordinators, he would get shifted back to the three-technique and become slightly better than just another guy. The Bryant signing was a minor headline; had he changed teams, it would be bigger news but less of a story.
The Saints retained Marques Colston, which was another smart move, though it got more attention because Colston is a fantasy football star and the Saints are eager to do something non-stupid right now. A lot of wide receiver fur flew on Tuesday, which was great for Football Outsiders –- we can start running projections! –- but many of the acquisitions are probably going to prove disappointing. Brandon Marshall and his traveling bar brawl in Chicago? Randy Moss in San Francisco? (Probably the best place for a noted food snob, but anyway.) The Redskins Lilliputians? Drew Brees to Marques Colston will look comforting to Saints fans when the team moves forward under bounty penalties.
The Carlos Rogers re-signing came over the wire as I was editing this. Another smart move: a great system fit in San Francisco, and a guy who came into his own when he arrived there. The story was overshadowed by questions about whether the Bears knew about Brandon Marshall’s barroom incident. They did. They sure do drive a hard bargain.
As free agency marches on, don’t forget about the re-signings, extensions, and restructurings. They aren’t evidence of a general manager sitting on his hands. They are evidence of a general manager managing.
As for the Mark Sanchez extension, well, nobody’s perfect.
We continue our weekly series on the best running backs from each franchise. The Eagles had a lot of fine running backs during their mostly pointless history. The very best of the bunch played long, long ago.
1. Steve Van Buren
Author Will Bunch recently released a book about Van Buren called Give it to Steve!, which is available wherever e-books are sold. Using the 1948 NFL Championship Game –- which Van Buren nearly missed because he thought the game was cancelled due to a snowstorm –- as a framing device, Bunch weaves a tale of Depression and World War II-era football. Van Buren, a Honduras-born descendant of British pirates, spent his early life in New Orleans, dropped out of high school to work in a foundry, returned to school long enough to impress L.S.U. recruiters, spent most of his college career blocking for future baseball manager Alvin Dark, and got drafted by the Eagles, a perennial doormat of the preadolescent NFL. With the help of a quarterback with no depth perception (Tommy Thompson was blind in one eye), a head coach with a World Series ring (Greasy Neale, who helped the Black Sox beat themselves), and a bunch of returning World War II vets, Van Buren gave Philadelphia two of the three football championships in city history.
Like any good sports history book, Bunch’s biography touches on the issues of the time, from the war to the Depression, civil rights and economic changes. It’s also full of vintage Philadelphia flavor: lots of Bookbinders and Shibe Park. If you are looking for something to bundle The Philly Fan’s Code with, pick up Give it to Steve!.
Van Buren was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher when he retired. He may be the only figure from ancient history who will top one of these Top Fives. Most of the teams that have a true contender from the Dark Ages, like the Bears, also have a more obvious top pick from recent history.
2. Wilbert Montgomery
Montgomery and Westbrook were alike in many ways. Both were primarily speed backs. Both were outstanding receivers. Both battled injuries constantly, and Eagles fans were more likely to obsess about Montgomery’s or Westbrook’s health than their own. Montgomery was overused in his early seasons, because it was 1970s football and he looked like Tony Dorsett Junior, and by the end of his career he was often spotted in important situations when he was healthy enough to play. Andy Reid underused Westbrook to a fault early in his career, then asked too much of him in lost causes like 2007.
Westbrook’s 2006 and 2007 seasons rank 31st and 36th on the DYAR top-50 list without factoring in receiving value. Montgomery’s 1979 season would rank very high in just about any statistical list worth making, and both 1978 and 1981 are nearly as good. Both Westbrook and Montgomery led the NFL in yards from scrimmage once. Westbrook made several of the most famous plays in Eagles history, including his punt return against the Giants and his kneel at the goal line. Montgomery made the greatest play in the last 50 years of Eagles history: his 42-yard run against the Cowboys in the 1980 NFC championship game.
Westbrook is a little overrated in Philly because someone had to get credit when the offense played well, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the quarterback. Montgomery got lost in the shuffle a bit because when he was in his heyday, Philly fans could watch Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Harold Carmichael, Ron Jaworski, Julius Erving, and so on. And yeah, we griped about it.
The best argument for ranking Montgomery ahead of Westbrook is that he is still the Eagles all-time leading rusher, even though his career was cut short by injuries. Westbrook spent several seasons as a committee back, then had a handful of seasons as the focal point of the offense, but Montgomery still out-rushed him. And it is not like Montgomery was a slouch in the passing game. Still, it’s a judgment call.
4. Timmy Brown
The Eagles won the NFL Championship in 1960, were very good in 1961, and then burrowed into a deep awfulness that lasted about 16 years. Early in that run to nowhere, the team was loaded with talent: Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback, Pete Retzlaff at tight end, Tommy McDonald at wide receiver, and Brown at halfback and return man. Brown was a 180-pounder with track speed. His best year was probably 1965, when he rushed for 861 yards and six touchdowns on 158 carries, and also caught 50 passes. He led the league in kickoff returns and yards for several years, but that will happen when the opponents score a lot. He returned five career kickoffs for touchdowns.
Unfortunately, the Eagles had terrible management and coaches that ran the gamut from insane to idiotic for most of that era. Brown started his career as a sub on a team with Norm Van Brocklin at quarterback and Chuck Bednarik at center and linebacker. He ended it for a team that used a three-quarterback mystery rotation; coach Joe Kuharich would not tell anyone which of three quarterbacks was starting until kickoff, not even the quarterbacks themselves. Yeah, it was that kind of era.
5. Duce Staley
Powerful, dependable all-purpose back who provided nearly all of the offense for two of the worst Eagles teams ever: the 1998 Eagles (last year of Ray Rhodes) and 1999 team (Andy Reid’s rebuild). He stuck around for the good times as part of the Three-Headed Monster with Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, catching 114 passes and doing most of the power running in 2001 and 2002. That’s right, children: Andy Reid gave a regular role to a 240-pound running back. For several years.
Those who know me know that Ricky Watters was not making this list. Watters is the beneficiary of the greatest whitewash in Philly sports history: some people want to make "for who, for what" into an overblown isolated incident. Great, except that it overlooks the time Watters and his girlfriend yelled at Jon Gruden about his playing time in front of reporters after a game, the time Watters sulked under a parka with the defensive backups when he was replaced for a few plays (Gruden could not find him to bring him back on the field), the numerous closed-door meetings with Gruden and Rhodes, and so on.
We can make a lot of statistical arguments about how good Watters was, but please keep in mind that no one cared more about Watters’ statistics than Watters. Charlie Garner was averaging over five yards per carry off the bench through Watters’ Eagles tenure, but Rhodes and Gruden couldn’t exactly count on Watters taking it in stride if they gave Garner an increased role. Head to Seattle, and we see Ahman Green stuck on the bench for two years so Watters can rush 300 times at 3.7 yards per carry. This is a guy who would tell coaches how often he wanted the ball, or have his paramours do it, and he was just good enough when he got his carries -– and just childish enough when he didn’t –- that coaches would give him what he wanted for a year or two. So we have this parade of pretty 1,200 yard seasons, most of them for teams that went nowhere, teams that would have had better running games if the No. 2 back played more.
Screw him. Watters goes behind Keith Byars, a terrible running back but outstanding blocker and receiver, on the honorable mention list. And LeSean McCoy will pass him in late September. We will talk about Herschel Walker in the Vikings segment, or maybe give him his very own category.
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