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15 Nov 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: New York, New York

By Russell Levine

There was a period in the mid-1990s, when both the Jets and Giants were horrible -- the Rich Kotite/Dan Reeves years -- that almost killed my love of the NFL. This was in my PST days (Pre Sunday Ticket), and living in the New York TV market, I was subjected to nothing but an endless stretch of a Jets stinker at 1 pm, followed by a Giants stinker at 4. Some weeks, for variety, it would be a Giants stinker at 1 pm, followed by a Jets bomb at 4.

Because of the NFL's draconian broadcast restrictions -- they've since been eased a bit, to allow more doubleheaders to be shown in New York, the league's only two-team market -- there were only three or four weekends per season when New York viewers would be treated to an out-of-market game. The absolute nadir came in 1994, I believe, when the annual Cowboys-49ers regular season showdown was not televised in New York. Even the NFL had to wonder what it was thinking, denying the biggest game on the NFL calendar to the nation's largest TV market.

I revisit this topic because of days like Sunday, when my New York-area brethren who are not blessed with DirecTV were suffering through a miserable afternoon of Jet/Giant football. Sure, both games were close, but close doesn't always mean compelling. While the rest of the NFL viewing world was treated to one of the games of the year -- Minnesota-Green Bay -- in the late-game slot, New Yorkers suffered with Giants-Cardinals.

While other markets watched St. Louis toughen up against Seattle, Peyton Manning and Indianapolis destroy Houston, Detroit's Eddie Drummond will the Lions to overtime against Jacksonville, Michael Vick perform his standard Jekyll-and-Hyde role against Tampa Bay, or Ben Roethlisberger lead the Steelers to an 8-1 mark against Cleveland, New Yorkers got stuck with Quincy Carter vs. Kyle Boller in the early slot.

Sure, the game went to overtime, but that hardly made it a classic. For the Jets, this game was a disaster of epic proportions. Cruising along at 14-0, New York let Baltimore back into the game when Lamont Jordan threw a terribly ill advised halfback option pass into triple coverage in the end zone. Trailing, 17-14, inside the Baltimore 10-yard line with two timeouts and nearly a minute to play, New York mangled the clock so horribly that it ended up scrambling just to get the game-tying kick off. Rarely has a kick that forced overtime been met with a cascade of boos from the home crowd as this one was.

For Jets fans, Jordan's pass had to bring back bad memories of another ill-advised toss from another running back with the initials LJ. In the final game of the 1997 season, the Jets played at Detroit, needing a win to make the playoffs in Bill Parcells' first season as head coach. Faced with a first-and-goal at the Detroit 9, Parcells called an option pass for Leon Johnson, who threw an interception to Bryant Westbrook in the end zone (though replays showed he was out of bounds, helping to bring back replay to the NFL). Final score: Detroit 13, Jets 10.

Back to the Jets' clock management issues -- aren't the Jets the only team in the NFL with a clock specialist on the sidelines? That makes it even harder to understand how they could so mismanage the final minute of regulation time. The Jets had a 1st-and-goal at the Baltimore 4-yard line with two timeouts remaining and roughly 45 seconds on the clock. They only managed two plays, gaining one yard -- and burned both timeouts in the process -- before kicking the game-tying field goal on third down.

In that situation, there's simply no excuse for not getting at least three cracks at the end zone. But the Jets huddled on first down, wasting some 30 seconds, before a running play gained only a yard. They called their second timeout before an incomplete pass made it third-and-goal from the 3-yard line with eight seconds to play. There was still plenty of time to run a play and call timeout for the field goal if they didn't get in the end zone. Instead, with the play clock running down, the Jets burned their final timeout and were forced to send on the field-goal unit.

Most of the post-game commentary and newspaper reports pointed to the wasted 30 seconds, but the real travesty was calling a timeout with the clock already stopped on 3rd down. Had the Jets scored on that play, the first-down huddle would not have been an issue. Indeed, they would have left the Ravens only a second or two to attempt a final snap.

The Jets were guilty of what's fast replacing the mangled two-point decision as my favorite football pet peeve -- calling timeouts instead of taking a delay of game penalty. From the 3-yard line, the Jets certainly would have been better off taking the penalty and still attempting to score form the 8. It's not like those five yards would have pushed them out of field-goal range. Sure, they would have look disorganized and been heckled by the fans for surrendering five valuable yards on the goal line, but they still would have had a chance to win in regulation, and a pass play into the end zone might be easier from the 8-yard line than the 3.

For their clock follies, Herman Edwards and his "clockologist," Dick Curl, share this week's Mike Martz Award, narrowly edging Oklahoma's Bob Stoops (see below).

* * *

New York viewers who suffered through three three-and-out series (two by the Jets) in overtime before the Ravens kicked the winning field goal probably flipped over to the Giants-Cardinals game just as Big Blue was embarking on its second straight 80-yard touchdown march and thought, now there's a competent NFL offense.

Unfortunately, those drives were the only signs of life the Giants showed on offense all afternoon. After starting out 6-of-8 with a touchdown, Kurt Warner reverted to his PTBD (post-traumatic blitz disorder) form, suffering six sacks and directing an offense that went almost nowhere the rest of the game. Warner's solid early play was one of the feel-good stories of the NFL season in September, but in the last four weeks, Giants fans have seen the same Warner that was run out of the St. Louis -- the Warner that holds the ball for ever, gives up fumbles by the bushel, and struggles with his accuracy when pressured.

I think Warner is just punch-drunk. He took so much punishment running the St. Louis offense, with its litany of five-wide receiver sets, that he probably sees blitzing linebackers in his sleep. Knowing he couldn't outrun anyone, Warner would stand still in the pocket, deliver the ball, and take the hits. For a three-season stretch, he was as good as anyone the NFL has seen, but those hits took a toll and by 2002, he wasn't the same player. Giants coach Tom Coughlin has apparently seen enough of Warner, and will start Eli Manning next week. Nothing like throwing a kid right into the fire -- the Giants' next two games are against the two best teams in the NFC (Atlanta and Philadelphia).

If New York viewers weren't sufficiently bored to tears by the Jets-Giants doubleheader, the Bills-Patriots Sunday-nighter on ESPN surely put them to sleep. Drew Bledsoe appears to be suffering from the same PTBD as Warner, but based on J.P. Losman's brief appearance Sunday night, I can see why Buffalo isn't in a hurry to pull the plug.

I spent the early afternoon watching Atlanta post an impressive win over Tampa Bay to all but wrap up the NFC South title in Week 10. Vick was at times both awful and brilliant, but I was still struck by how much punishment he takes. Even on some scrambles when he is just looking to duck out of bounds he would absorb a shove on the sidelines that sent him careening off the field. Those hits may not look like much, but they add up. Vick scrambled nine times in the game and was sacked on five occasions. Let's say he also was hit on six other occasions. That means he took roughly the same punishment as a back that carries the ball 20 times. You never want to limit a player's athleticism, but there is no way Vick will have a lengthy, productive career if he doesn't learn to avoid some of that contact. He needs to learn to duck out of bounds sooner or slide on his scrambles, and occasionally use his legs to get out of the pocket and simply throw the ball away. Yes, it may cost him some spectacular runs, but it will also add productive years onto his career.

* * *

At least New York-area viewers were treated to an enjoyable Saturday of college football.

If the fog shrouding the USC-Oregon State game served as last week's metaphor for the BCS, this week it was power failures. A power failure knocked out a bank of lights in the Wisconsin-Michigan State game just as the Badgers' dreams of an undefeated season were being extinguished. A power failure in Laramie, Wyo., delayed the start of the Utah-Wyoming contest almost two hours, limiting the number of poll voters that were actually able to see the Utes' latest runaway win. And short-circuits in the brains of a pair of Big XII coaches cast the BCS in a decidedly negative light.

The day's brightest spotlight was on the Georgia-Auburn game, a matchup of top eight teams in the BCS standings. The stakes were higher for Auburn, which came in undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the BCS. Many Auburn fans feared that the Tigers could go undefeated in the rugged SEC and still not qualify to play in the BCS title game. What they saw on Saturday should help ease their minds, as Auburn's victory was more one-sided than even the 24-6 final score would suggest. The Tigers were in control from the outset and shut out BCS No. 8 Georgia for the game's first 57 minutes.

Auburn showed on Saturday why some consider it the nation's most complete team. The Tigers' stout defense limited Georgia to just 279 total yards, while quarterback Jason Campbell completed 18-of-22 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown. The tailback tandem of Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams combined for 152 yards rushing and another 108 receiving. Williams also threw a touchdown pass on a halfback-option play and returned a punt 40 yards to set up another score.

The Tigers' mugging of Georgia, played in the afternoon and on national television on CBS, no doubt got the attention of poll voters. Auburn picked up first-place votes at the expense of Oklahoma in both polls, tying the Sooners at No. 2 in the AP survey of writers and narrowing the gap in the coaches' poll. It wasn't enough to move the Tigers past Oklahoma in the latest BCS standings, but strength of schedule favors Auburn in the season's final weeks.

Oklahoma tried to make its own case before the voters against Nebraska on Saturday evening by running up the score, but the effort by coach Bob Stoops may have backfired. With 33 seconds remaining in the game, Stoops called a pass play on fourth down at the Nebraska 17 in an effort to add to a 30-0 lead. It was no isolated case of bad judgment, as Stoops called seven passes on the drive with the game already decided. Taking over on downs, Nebraska drove for a 39-yard field goal after calling timeout with one-second left; both the timeout and the kick would have once been considered violations of football's unwritten code of conduct. Throw in the fact that Nebraska's final drive was aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Oklahoma fans for throwing oranges on the field -- in reference to the Orange Bowl -- and it was not a banner day for sportsmanship.

Coaches who run up the score often cite the BCS formula, when in reality, the computer polls it utilizes no longer consider margin of victory. In other words, coaches run it up to impress the same human voters than have been ranking college teams for decades. Somehow, what was once poor sportsmanship is becoming acceptable behavior in the name of the BCS.

Few coaches have been as brazen about this tactic as Stoops, who admitted after an Oct. 23 game against Kansas that his decision to have starting QB Jason White throw a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left -- making the score 41-10 -- was influenced by the BCS. Stoops, a popular and respected figure in the game, offered a non-apology apology following the Nebraska game, saying he hated "to be in a position (where) we've got to be working to score at the end of the game." In other words, "I'm sorry, but the system made me do it."

The late-game follies only served to highlight the sorry state of what was once one of college football's best rivalries. Throughout the 1980s, Oklahoma-Nebraska was one of the games of every college season, but it has fallen by the wayside with the birth of the Big XII, which put the schools in different divisions, and the struggles of Oklahoma in the mid 1990s and now Nebraska. Oklahoma entered the game as 30-point favorites -- conspiracy theorists will note that Nebraska covered the spread with its last-play field goal -- and the game was bypassed by ABC and aired by Fox Sports Net.

Nebraska coach Bill Callahan may have done more to stir up the rivalry than anything his players did when he called Oklahoma fans "a bunch of (expletive) hillbillies" as he left the field. Next year's game in Lincoln should be interesting.

Conspiracy theories were on the mind of another Big XII coach Saturday, Kansas' Mark Mangino. His Jayhawks were bidding to upset BCS No. 6 Texas, but blew a late 10-point lead to lose in the final seconds. Mangino, upset about a questionable offensive pass interference penalty that stalled Kansas' attempt to run out the clock, openly suggested that the call was an effort by the officials to ensure Texas could win and get an at-large BCS bid, worth millions to the conference. To his credit, Mangino retracted the accusation almost immediately afterward, calling his remarks "inappropriate," which probably won't be enough to prevent discipline from the Big XII office.

If sportsmanship was the loser Saturday, Boston College, Utah and Michigan were the biggest winners. Utah and Michigan can both thank Michigan State for their good fortune. The Spartans destroyed previously undefeated Wisconsin, 49-14, putting Michigan in position to claim an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth with a win over Ohio State next Saturday. Utah need not worry that voters weren't awake for the finish of its much-delayed 45-28 win over Wyoming, as Wisconsin's loss should move the Utes back to No. 6 in the BCS rankings -- a position that guarantees an at-large bid.

ACC-bound Boston College moved into position to claim the Big East's BCS bid by defeating West Virginia, 36-17, its first win in Morgantown since 1990. Wins over Temple and Syracuse in its final two games will give the Eagles a share of the conference crown and a likely berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Having a departing team represent it in the BCS is a nightmare for the beleaguered Big East, which has had to defend itself against criticism that it does not deserve an automatic bid after losing Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC (Boston college will join them in 2005).

Next Saturday is another rivalry day in college football, and several games will have a major impact on the BCS. In addition to Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn faces another tough test, on the road against Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl. Texas hosts Texas A&M, and the Longhorns will have an eye on Salt Lake City, where Utah faces BYU. Unless one of the top teams is upset, Texas may need a Utah loss to grab its first BCS bid, a situation that is unlikely to change no matter the Longhorns' margin of victory.

(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.)

Posted by: Russell Levine on 15 Nov 2004