What We Learned About Football

A few thoughts about this past weekend’s slate of NFL contests.

First, as always, go read Peter King at SI if you actually want to know more useful info about the games.  He gets paid to do this stuff, and is much better at it than I.

Okay, first off, the NFL is not a fairy tale league.  Although much has been made of the topsy-turvy nature of the playoffs, and how a 6-seed has won the title two of the last three years, this really isn’t a league where neophytes win championships.  Both the ’05 Steelers and the ’07 Giants were fundamentally strong teams, with a playoff pedigree and a lot of experience, both on the field and in the coaching booth.

The two best feel-good stories of this season were the Falcons and the Dolphins.  Rookie coaches, with largely turned-over rosters and new QB’s, trying to pick up the pieces of disastrous coaching decisions.  Atlanta’s woes are well known – Bobby Petrino was brought in, the big name from the college ranks, but promptly lost his starting QB, Michael Vick, to criminal dogfighting charges.  The season went rocky, and Petrino bolted before the year was done.  A new coach was brought in, who went out and drafted a rookie QB, and they had unbelievable success for such a combo, going 11-5 and one game out of a division championship.  The Fins had similar woes following the horrible Nick Saban affair – Saban left after one season to return to the college ranks, leaving the team in great flux.  Cam Cameron had a poor year in ’07, and the team went 1-15.  Bill Parcells was brought in to clean house, which he did, firing Cameron, bringing in his man from the Cowboys, Tony Sporano, and turning over a big chunk of the roster.  The addition of QB Chad Pennington, run out of New York by the Bretty Favre Express, sealed the Dolphins as a real feel-good story.

But both squads ran out of juice this weekend, the Falcons falling to the Cardinals, and the Dolphins falling apart against the Ravens, whose defense will do that to you.  Neither QB looked as good as they did during the season, especially Pennington, who threw 4 picks in a real ‘throw up in your mouth’ special.  The Ravens D has really shown an ability to rejuvenate and bring new players into the mix, while keeping a healthy dose of experience onboard as well.  This feat is particularly remarkable in light of what happened to the Tampa D, the other dominant defense of the early ’00s, this season.  The Bucs aged before our very eyes, reminding me of nothing more than Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Clearly, the Ravens have continued to choose wisely, at least thus far, although one of these days Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will lose that step.

Speaking of people who continue to amaze, the Eagles’ Brian Dawkins continues to play like a man possessed.  He is just a ballhawking, slobberknocking whirling dervish of destruction.  His ability to wreak havoc with opposition offenses really impresses me to no end.  I know it will cost a lot for the Birds to keep him in house after this season, but I think of him as the absolute leader of the D, and worth overpaying for that reason alone.

Larry Fitzgerald is, ummm, really good at catching things.  Especially footballs.  I would really like to have him on my team.

I will stand by my belief that Brian Westbrook is still the best open-field player in the NFL, especially after his roundabout game-sealing screen pass TD yesterday, but Darrin Sproles is certainly nipping at his heels.  That dude is crazy-fast.  From Peter King, his line on the weekend: Rushes: 23 for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Receptions: five for 45 yards. Punt returns: three for 72 yards. Kickoff returns: four for 106 yards. Total yards: 328.  And when he hit the hole on the game’s last play, did anyone think he wasn’t going all the way to the house?

Speaking of the Bolts, I have no idea if Mike Scifres is the best punter ever.  I only know that this was the single best punting game I’ve ever seen.  In a defensive struggle, he absolutely murdered the Colts’ ability to get any momentum by pinning them, time and again, to their own end zone line when they took possession.  Again from King, the starting field position of the Colts’ offensive possessions: their own 10, 19, 3, 33, 7, 20, 26, 9, 20, 21, 1, and 19.  Every single possession with at least 65 yards for a touchdown, and 4 with at least 90.  His 67-yard mortar round which hit at the 5 and bounced almost straight up into the air is possibly the single most game-changing punt I’ve ever seen.

Finally, although I agree with the general media consensus that Tony Dungy may be one of the best men in football, and I love the way he coaches his team to work hard out of respect rather than fear, the fact that he’s gone out in the first round three of the last four seasons, with that talent level, combined with his December and January failures in Tampa, I think seals for me the idea that he’s just really not that great of a football coach.  I dunno if Indy can do any better, necessarily, but there’s something not right about how that team rolls in January, its one Super Bowl title aside.

As King noted, yet again, it’s pretty exciting that all of this weekend’s games are rematches of barnburner regular season games.  I’m glad I’m not a professional NFL gambler this week, that’s for sure.  We’ll have some previews of the games later in the week, I’m sure…

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