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13 Sep 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Lost Weekend

by Russell Levine

All in all, this was not my best football weekend.

Let's see, my college team (Michigan) laid an egg, my pro team (Tampa Bay) made the Redskins' defense look like the '85 Bears, my college picks (Seventh Day Adventure) were an embarrassment, and my Football Outsiders Loser League entry included Jerome Bettis' five-carry, one-yard, three-touchdown day, perhaps the worst single effort in Loser League history.

What looked going in like it would be a five-day football festival has, four days in, been a series of disappointments for me. The same cannot be said, however, of the product the NFL put on the field. Every year when the NFL season kicks off, I'm reminded anew why the sport is so popular. The quality of the games so rarely fails to deliver.

That was certainly the case with the Colts-Patriots season opener, which, come February, may still hold up as the NFL's game of the year. Sunday's slate was full of entertaining, close games, and a couple of spectacular finishes. The games that weren't close, like Eagles-Giants and Vikings-Cowboys, were full of fantastic individual performances.

The league's most noteworthy debuts -- Joe Gibbs and Clinton Portis in Washington and Terrell Owens in Philadelphia -- were unqualified successes. It's rare when all the main storylines going in are the headlines coming out (and it certainly makes sportswriters' jobs easier).

In Washington, Gibbs' Redskins were transformed from the confused, pushover teams fielded by Steve Spurrier the last two years into an attacking, energetic defense and a mauling, power-rushing offense.

The game was close because the Redskins failed to capitalize on several opportunities and because the Tampa Bay defense woke up in the second half, but it was dominated throughout by the Redskins' defense under new coordinator Gregg Williams. That's the same Williams whose blitz-wacky schemes as head coach of the Bills were the frequent target of TMQ barbs the last couple of seasons. But against the Bucs, blitz-wacky was clearly the way to go.

The Bucs are old and slow, with a patchwork offensive line that barely played together in the preseason. They lack the receiving speed to make a team pay for blitzing QB Brad Johnson and failing to get there, a problem that was made considerably worse when wideout Joey Galloway dropped a sure touchdown pass and strained his groin in the process.

The striking difference about the Redskins under Gibbs was their sheer competence, something that was completely lacking under Spurrier. The game recaps will all credit the offensive line for paving the way for Portis' 148 yards rushing, but the unit's most impressive work was in pass protection, where it completely neutralized what is still a formidable Buccaneer pass rush and kept Mark Brunell upright nearly the entire game.

As for Portis, he broke off a 64-yard touchdown run on his first carry as a Redskin, then spent the rest of the game grinding out two- and three-yard carries. In doing so, he showed that he can run it up the gut as well as any of Gibbs' beloved big backs, but he also absorbed a ton of physical punishment. He has the toughness, but I'm not sure he has the body type to withstand the beating he's going to take this year.

I'm not putting the Skins in the playoffs just yet, but there are plenty of reasons for Washington fans to be optimistic. Any questions about whether today's players would respond to Gibbs have been answered. When many of the same players who got pushed around last year suddenly become cohesive offensive and defensive line units, coaching has already had a monumental effect.

Owens' Philadelphia debut may have been even more successful, as he caught three touchdown passes from Donovan McNabb in the Eagles' easy win over the Giants. Of course, if you're reading this column, it's about 99.9% certain that you know that fact already.

The player I found most noteworthy about the Eagles was McNabb, not Owens. Two of the three TD tosses to Owens were made on the run, as McNabb used his legs to buy time and cause the defense to break down before finding a wide-open Owens in the end zone.

That's the type of play that McNabb made so frequently as he was becoming a star in the NFL in 2000-20001 and that had started to disappear from his game as his star fell a bit the last two seasons, when he was a good, but not great player. Now that he has a receiver whose abilities he can trust, McNabb can trust himself to make those kinds of plays with his legs, knowing that Owens will find the open spot and make the catch if McNabb can get the ball there.

I've always felt a quarterback that is able to use the threat of the run in order to make big plays in the passing game is more dangerous than one that just makes plays with his legs. Not only are big passing plays more frequent and dangerous than big running plays, but they're also far less likely to get the quarterback killed. It's a skill that McNabb appeared to be on his way to mastering in 2001 before getting injured in 2002 and spending a year trying to become a strict pocket passer. It's a skill that was probably best displayed by a young John Elway, and one that Michael Vick will need to learn if he's going to fulfill his vast potential.

* * *

By the time the Sunday night game rolled around -- after the combination of Michigan, Tampa Bay, my college picks, and Jerome Bettis attempted to destroy my love for the game -- I was just looking for anything of redemptive value.

And I found it, too, as I watched Denver's Quentin Griffin and Kansas City's Priest Holmes -- both in my fantasy starting lineup -- trade touchdowns, combining for six in all.

Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with details of my draft, my starting lineups or my team's performance. I just needed a lead-in to talk about the game.

At least in Week 1, Denver sure didn't look like it missed Clinton Portis, but it pays to remember that Griffin was running wild through a Kansas City defense that inexplicably returned all 11 starters from last season's putrid unit. Not even new defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and his skeet-shooting glasses can do much with this group.

Champ Bailey, the man the Broncos got for Portis, also looked good, blanketing receivers and making a leaping interception on defense. Mike Shanahan put him in on several offensive plays, where he had one reception and had one deep ball thrown his way. I'm all for putting your best 11 guys on the field, but it is Week 1 and it's a long season. Did anyone else get nervous seeing Bailey running around on offense? It almost seemed like Shanahan was attempting to justify the trade to the home fans at the start of the new season. Mike, no need. Griffin made the case quite convincingly on his own. If Bailey comes up limping after catching a pass, you'll never live it down.

* * *

The best finish of the day was provided by Jacksonville and Buffalo. The Jaguars converted a 4th-and-16 on their final frantic drive, leading to a fourth-down, game-winning, game-ending, seven-yard touchdown pass to little-used rookie Ernest Wilford. Watching this play unfold, I had a flashback to last year's Minnesota-Arizona game in Week 17, in which Arizona's Nate Poole made a game-winning catch (thanks to a dubious force-out ruling) to knock the Vikings out of the playoffs.

The referees in Buffalo also ruled a force-out, but they didn't need to. Despite being bracketed by three Bills and the end line, it appeared on every replay I saw that Wilford actually managed to get both feet in bounds. It was simply a remarkable catch.

Even though the touchdown occurred with no time remaining, NFL rules dictated that the extra-point try be held. Does anyone know why? That rule makes no sense to me. I can see it in college, because the defense has the ability to score two points on the try, but why do it in the pros? It seems to me the only purpose it serves is to expose players to a needless injury risk. Could it be that the NFL mandates the try because they don't want an un-attempted kick to factor into the point spread?

* * *

Week 1 of the NFL season always brings without some new broadcast innovations. Fox has enhanced it's "Fox Box" information bar, adding constant score updates from around the league. For some reason, the network engineers decided it would be a good idea to have the name of the team in the lead flash as each game is displayed. This annoyed me for all six hours that Fox was on the air. Every time I saw that little flash in the corner of my eye, my subconscious thought it was the penalty flag indicator. The "Fox Box" was an ingenious innovation -- you know an idea is a good one when all your competitors immediately copy it -- but it's time to leave well enough alone.

CBS doesn't get away without criticism either. The yellow first-down line is probably the single greatest improvement in televised football history. It works because it provides a valuable piece of information while maintaining simplicity. CBS, also unable to leave well enough alone, has added a blue line of scrimmage indicator, which serves no useful purpose except to clutter the screen. Any more lines on the field and the broadcasts will begin to look like Fox's glowing, comet-tail hockey puck of the mid 1990s, and we all know how successful that was.

Not to be left out of the mix, ABC broke out some new technology on the Thursday night Pats-Colts opener, telling viewers at one point that a Tom Brady touchdown pass was thrown at 50-odd miles an hour, and that it was the equivalent of a baseball pitch in the low 80s. What am I to take from this? That the two-time Super Bowl MVP is Frank Tanana?

The biggest improvement to the televised product since the first-down line has nothing to do with network innovations. It's the proliferation of Field Turf and other new-age artificial surfaces that both play like grass and look like it on television. The players love the stuff because it's a huge upgrade over the green-painted cement that was traditional Astroturf and it holds up in any kind of weather. I love it because the games look so much better on TV. With Atlanta, Minnesota and New Orleans having installed Field Turf in the past year, the NFL is down to just two traditional turf fields -- the domes in St. Louis and Indianapolis.

One other TV note from the NFL weekend. I hate to kick a guy when he's down following heart surgery, but ESPN should keep Pat Summerall on board in place of Mike Patrick. The time off has rejuvenated Summerall, who manages to tone down the volume of ESPN's three-man crew with Paul Macguire and Joe Theisman. Summerall was slipping badly in his final years at Fox, but a year off and a liver transplant have restored his abilities. In his prime, nobody was better than Summerall, who managed to add more to a broadcast with fewer words than just about any play-by-play man history.

Think about the Summerall-Madden team calling all those huge Cowboys-Niners games. How many times did you hear "Aikman. Novacek. Touchdown." No screaming -- he let Madden do that -- and just enough description to augment what you were seeing with your own eyes.

Summerall may make some mistakes on player identification and down-and-distance these days, but he's still sharp. He was the only announcer of the three last night to point out that the referees had failed to mark off a five-yard penalty against Denver just before halftime. He also shrewdly observed as kick after kick sailed into the end zone that it's much easier to kick at altitude. An obvious fact, perhaps, but one that is often overlooked by other announcing teams. It's not an accident that punters and kickers from the Broncos and the University of Colorado lead the NFL and the nation every year.

* * *

Junkie is NFL-heavy this week because it's opening weekend and it deserves it, but also because I had trouble paying attention to college ball after the beating the Fighting Irish administered to my Wolverines on Saturday.

There's not much I can say about this game. Michigan should have beat Notre Dame but doomed itself with conservative play and mistakes. Michigan fans have seen this exact game before, last year at Oregon and Iowa, 2002 at Notre Dame, 2001 at Washington, 2000 at UCLA. Michigan gets off to a good start, but stays way too conservative. Special teams mistakes crop up (on Saturday a muffed punt and a blocked punt led to two Notre Dame touchdowns) and allow the home team to gain momentum and confidence. Michigan, it seems, is always too slow to respond. By the time they take the wraps off, momentum has swung completely in the other direction and it's too little, too late.

I probably have a higher opinion of Lloyd Carr than most Michigan fans. He's won a lot of games, been very good against top-10 teams and won a national championship. I also think at this point, 10 years in, it's safe to assume he's not going to change his ways. That means sticking with the run, no matter how ineffective, and playing it safe with his quarterbacks, particularly when they're as inexperienced as true freshman Chad Henne is this year. The most egregious example in Saturday's game came right before the half, when Michigan, leading 6-0 and dominating the game, had a third-and-goal at the Notre Dame six, and ran a draw before kicking a field goal. Predictably, Notre Dame scored a touchdown right after the half, started to gain confidence, and eventually ran away with the game.

Having made the decision to cast his lot with a true freshman in a tough road environment, there's no reason for Carr to handcuff him with play-calling. As my Seventh Day Adventure co-author (and fellow Michigan grad) Vinny Gauri pointed out, Tennessee is playing two true freshman QBs and LSU is rotating one in, and you wouldn't see either of them handing off in that situation.

For that call, Carr wins Junkie's weekly "Hal Mumme" shaky coaching decision award, which has been renamed in honor of the former Kentucky coach who never met a fourth down he wouldn't go for.

* * *

Football Fashion Report

Bill Belichick got things off to a poor start on Thursday night, taking the field in a windbreaker and a t-shirt. At first I thought only a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach like Belichick could get away with a sideline outfit that would get you thrown off your local muni golf course, but by Sunday I realized the t-shirt, complete with team logo and NFL Equipment shield, is league-approved sideline gear. Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Minnesota's Mike Tice were among the coaches that dispensed with collars on the sidelines.

If there was one saving grace to the NFL fashion weekend, it was that (so far) none of the teams took the field in hideous monochrome outfits. Seattle doesn't play at home until Week 3, so the opportunity for another weekend of sanity is out there.

The college game had its own fashion struggles. On Friday night, the University of Miami continued its single-handed effort to set back college football uniforms by taking the field in slightly redesigned duds that were even uglier than the models they've worn the past few years. The jerseys inexplicably feature a stripe that cuts across the back just beneath the numerals. The pants follow suit with a stripe that goes up the leg, across the backside and down the other leg. Now I don't know about you, but I believe anything that draws attention to the ass of a 375-pound lineman who is already wearing what amounts to spandex is a bad idea, kind of like my Jerome Bettis pick and my college football selections.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 13 Sep 2004