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UPON FURTHER REVIEW - Weekly NFL coverage since 2003

Upon Further Review is a weekly column about the NFL that is written, edited and distributed by Art Irwin. Every Friday in this space Art will publish a new installment of UFR in which he analyzes the week's games and attempts to predict the winners.

Reader feedback is appreciated!

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UFR 75 - February 10, 2006: FIVE THE HARD WAY

Last Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers became the third franchise in the NFL with five Lombardi Trophies and the first ever sixth seed to win the Super Bowl. Being the sixth seed meant there would be no home playoff games for the Steelers, so they became the first team to win 10 road games, including the Super Bowl, in a single season. And while the final game might not have been “pretty,” it looked gorgeous to die-hard Steelers fans across the nation who would agree that it was a victory that was a long time coming. Regardless of the manner in which it was won, Super Bowl XL provided a stamp of validity to some who, having been regarded as good, can now justifiably be deemed great. (click here for the full article)


UFR 74 - February 3, 2006: DETROIT STEEL CITY

The Seahawks and the Steelers will contest Super Bowl XL (40) on Sunday in Detroit, a city that is just 280 miles from Pittsburgh but 2350 miles from Seattle. As those distances suggest, the Steelers will finally be playing a playoff game in a “home” type of atmosphere. The terrible towels will be out in full force, and the stands will be full of blue collar workers who’ve maxed out their credit cards, taken out a second mortgage on their house or maybe even sent their children to work illegally for Ford’s Hybrid Motor’s division. My point is this: Steelers fans are in Detroit in full force, and they’ll make their voices heard because they believe in Bill Cowher; they believe in Jerome Bettis; they believe in Ben Roethlisberger. They believe this is finally their year to win the Super Bowl again. 

 

But while Steelers fans are hoping to add another Lombardi Trophy to their mantle, Seahawks fans are hoping this will be the first of many to come. The Seahawks have never been to a Super Bowl before, so this is a milestone not only for the team and for its city but also for the NFL itself. 

 

How fortuitous for the league that in its fortieth iteration the Super Bowl has real meaning for two teams that are so very different. The nation’s premier sporting event will showcase two of the league’s longest tenured and most successful active coaches who represent two of the hungriest teams in the NFL. (click here for the full article)


UFR 73 - January 20, 2006: HOME AGAIN

Earlier this week I began thinking about the concept of home. It’s important in sporting events, and it’s a common theme in music, too. A quick search of Gracenote (the online CD database) turned up 78,842 albums that contain songs with the word “home” in the title. Phil Collins memorably pleaded “Take Me Home,” Lynyrd Skynyrd extolled the wonders of “Sweet Home Alabama,” and we all want to be “Home For Christmas.” We identify with songs about home because the concept comforts us the same way it did the songwriter. Seldom does the same calming effect accompany thoughts of the road. We might say that we “can’t wait to get on that road again” but in time we’ll find ourselves feeling unexpectedly like Ozzy Osbourne must have felt when he wrote “Road To Nowhere” and “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” 

 

For the Steelers and the Panthers, it’s been a “Long And Winding Road” from fighting for a Wildcard to the Conference Championships, but they have still not achieved their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. The road to that goal takes both teams westward where they must attempt to unseat the only two teams that finished the regular season without losing a single game at home. It’s a lot to ask of any team, but it’s an even taller order if you consider that no Wildcard team has ever won the Super Bowl. (click here for the full article)


UFR 72 - January 13, 2006: SECOND CHANCES

Rarely in sports does a team or individual get a second chance, but this weekend’s Divisional Playoffs provide just that for the Seahawks, Patriots, Steelers and Panthers. After losing to their opponents during the regular season, these teams will get a chance for revenge on a much bigger stage. But passage to the Conference Championships is highly valued and will require mastery of a two-fold challenge. 

 

  1. Correct (and expose) mistakes made in the first game.
  2. Get the upper hand by securing (and not falling victim to) the element of surprise.

This round of the playoffs has long been dominated by the well-rested home teams, but this year’s road teams are among the best in recent memory. Is there an upset in the making? I believe so… (click here for the full article)


UFR 71 - January 6, 2006: ANATOMY OF A WILDCARD

The playoffs as a whole can be the most predictable part of an NFL season, but the Wildcard playoff round doesn’t like to conform. It’s the disobedient member of the playoff family that never sits still, that plays in the rain when it’s ordered to stay inside and that laughs after throwing a curve ball through grandma’s favorite picture window. Wildcard scoffs at teams that do things right all season, choosing instead to embrace those that played hooky for entire stretches of the season but resurfaced just in time to disrupt their divisions. A Wildcard team is either an underachiever or overachiever depending on how you choose to define a team’s true potential. 

 

Five of this weekend’s eight participants were unsure of their playoff fates until the end of last week’s games, but that alone doesn’t make them underachievers. Similarly, the teams that had already secured their playoff spots are not inherently overachievers. The Redskins, Giants and Buccaneers fall into my overachiever category despite squeaking into the playoffs, and the Bengals are overachievers despite having wrapped up their division a week early. It was time for Cincinnati to be a playoff team, but no one expected their dramatic explosion of offense and defensive opportunism. Mark Brunell wasn’t supposed to be the answer in Washington, Eli Manning wasn’t supposed to be this good yet, and Chris Simms surprised everyone by getting his team into the playoffs despite a loss to the lowly 49ers. Now that they’re in the playoffs the overachievers are dangerous. They’re privileged to play without the weight of expectation, but expectation can be as much a blessing as it is a curse. Just ask the underachievers.

 

The Steelers were 15-1 last year and were expected to contend for top AFC honors this year but were instead relegated to the ranks of the desperate in the last few weeks of the regular season. Many picked the Panthers to win the Super Bowl this year, and I’m sure they didn’t envision their path would go through the Wildcard round. The Jaguars, despite winning enough games to wrap up a playoff berth fairly early, have been unimpressive and even dull for the better part of the season. And let’s not forget the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots – 2005’s ultimate underachievers. All of these teams bear the burden of expectation, but they also use it as fuel. They haven’t attained what they set out to accomplish, but their dream has been revived. They’re in the Wildcard playoffs with a second chance.

 

Will the overachievers be so pleased with themselves for making it this far that they forget that there is another task at hand? How about the underachievers? Will they make excuses for themselves or will they seize the opportunity to play for what they feel is rightfully theirs? I can’t wait to find out! (click here for the full article)


UFR 70 - December 30, 2005: THE RUNDOWN

This is it – the last weekend of the regular season! This year’s Week 17 slate of games is much more meaningful than it has been in past years. Instead of just one or two games having an impact on the playoff picture, this week’s schedule is dominated by games that will contribute either directly or indirectly to the post-season destiny of those teams that are still “on the bubble.” 

 

In the AFC Pittsburgh and Kansas City are the only teams left in contention for the final Wildcard spot. Things are simple for the Steelers: “Win and you’re in.”  With Detroit coming to Three Rivers this week, that’s the scenario that seems most likely. Should calamity befall the Steelers, however, the Chiefs can still make the playoffs (if the Chargers lose to or tie the Broncos) with a win over the Bengals. I really hope you didn’t find that confusing because this is crystal compared to the mire of the NFC picture. 

 

In the NFC there are five teams (all from the East and South divisions) with uncertain playoff destinies. The Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, Panthers and Buccaneers are fighting for their respective division titles and the two NFC Wildcard berths. (click here for the full article)


UFR 69 - December 23, 2005: ONE & DONE

That’s what I get for saving it up. I’m referring – of course – to picking the Colts to lose. I was saving that pick for this week at Seattle when I figured they’d play their second string and use only half of the play book so as not to tip their hand to their potential Super Bowl opponent. But the Chargers had more fight in them than I anticipated. They gave an inspired defensive performance that Indy’s foes will surely attempt to mimic in the playoffs. 

 

Now that the dream of a perfect season is history, I have no doubt that the Indianapolis coaching staff will treat the remaining two regular season games as pre-season games – resting key players for most (if not all) of the game while running a much shorter and simpler version of their play book. 

 

The tragic death (an apparent suicide) of James Dungy, head coach Tony Dungy’s 18-year-old son, will inspire the Colts to play well regardless of their position or rank, but they will not pursue victory this week at the expense of their ultimate goal which is obviously to win the Super Bowl. (click here for the full article)


UFR 68 - December 16, 2005: SCRUM!

The playoffs are just a few weeks away yet even we who follow the NFL closely do not have a clue which teams (with two notable exceptions) will be playing when the second weekend in January rolls around. By contrast, at this point last season the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Eagles and Panthers had clinched their respective division titles, and the Chargers had a two game lead over the Broncos in the AFC West. Only two divisions were really up for grabs: the NFC North and NFC West where the Packers and Seahawks held slim one game leads over the Vikings and Rams.

 

I’ve heard it said that there are a few good teams and a lot of bad teams this year in the NFL, but the fact is that there are a lot of good teams and a lot of bad teams. A whopping 17 teams currently have winning records, and the Dolphins at 6-7 still have a shot at their division title if New England falters. That leaves 14 teams with records of 5-8 or worse. It’s an intriguing chasm to be sure, but what does it mean about the future of the league? (click here for the full article)


UFR 67 - December 9, 2005: GROWING PAINS

Last Sunday morning I had the pleasure of watching one of the year’s most entertaining football games. It was supposed to be Ben Roethlisberger’s chance to avoid his first ever NFL losing streak. It was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s chance to assert themselves as the true rulers of the AFC North, but instead it became a coming out party for the team formerly known as the Bungles. After their home loss to the Steelers back in Week 7 the Bengals were supposed to have been exposed as a “soft” team that couldn’t stand up to an opponent’s physical defense and powerful running game. They were two point underdogs in their home stadium, but they lost by two touchdowns.

 

Early in their game in Pittsburgh last Sunday it looked like the Steelers had picked up right where they left off in Cincinnati. But this time the Bengals had an answer for everything the Men of Cowher threw at them. With a relatively easy final stretch ahead (Cleveland, at Detroit, Buffalo, at Kansas City) the Bengals should wrap up the AFC North title soon. And if Denver loses its season finale at San Diego the Bengals could end up earning a first round bye and a free pass to the divisional playoffs. (click here for the full article)


UFR 66 - December 2, 2005: PICKING FAVORITES

Every week I ask myself a lot of the same questions when picking winners in these games. Should I pick the home team? Should I pick the team with the better defense? The better running game? That knack for causing turnovers? Should I pick against a team that finds ways to lose on the road? Should I pick a team to extend its winning streak or should I pick their opponent to end that streak? Should I pick a team with playoff aspirations over one that’s already playing for the future? How about a team that’s playing for respect after its coach got fired? Or should I just pick the team with the best record?

 

There are seemingly infinite combinations of reasons for picking any one team over another in the NFL, but the one that enters into most people’s consciousness the most is, “Which team is favored?” Ultimately, each pick comes down to deciding whether to pick the favorite or the underdog.

 

Things get tricky, though, in divisional games. The teams involved know each other so well from playing twice per year in the regular season that just about anything can happen. That’s why I’m so excited about this week’s slate of games. A remarkable twelve of this week’s sixteen games are between teams in the same division, including the first four in this week’s set of features games. As the title of this week’s UFR suggests, I like the favorites in most of this week’s match-ups, but I do anticipate a few upsets. (click here for the full article)


UFR 65 - November 23, 2005: HORN O' PLENTY

I guess it’s fitting that on Thanksgiving weekend our table is overflowing with juicy match-ups. Despite having just had my gallbladder removed on Monday, I’m ready and salivating for this week’s action.

 

Denver Broncos (8-2) @ Dallas Cowboys (7-3)

Thursday, November 24, 2005 @ 4:00 PM ET on CBS

 

Finally we have a Thanksgiving Day game that’s really worth the arguments with the family over the remote control. (click here for the full article)


UFR 64 - November 18, 2005: TRES HISTORY

I guess technically history is made every time anything happens anywhere, but the kind of history that I’m talking about has more to do with setting records. In that sense, this week’s games were rich with history:

 

The injury-ravaged, scandal-engulfed Minnesota Vikings went to New Jersey and defeated the Giants while becoming the only team in the league’s storied history to ever return a kickoff, punt and interception for a touchdown all in the same game. The Vikings (who were 0-4 on the road entering the game) beat the odds by winning despite allowing 405 yards of offense while gaining only 137 yards of their own. 

 

Nathan Vasher of the Chicago Bears is now in the NFL’s record books. If you saw the game or any sports highlight show then you know that Vasher fielded an ill-advised 52 yard field goal attempt by San Francisco’s Joe Nedney (coach Mike Nolan never should have allowed him to attempt such a long kick in gale force winds) and returned it 108 yards for a touchdown – the longest play in the league’s history.

 

In yet another victory, the still undefeated Indianapolis Colts enjoyed a day rich with history. Peyton Manning completed 26 of 35 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns, while Marvin Harrison caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown, and Edgerrin James rushed 26 times for 122 yards and a touchdown. Those statistics represent several records. Manning and Harrison have now combined for 10,034 yards and 90 touchdowns on 755 completions – all NFL records. They are the only duo in the history of the league to cross the 10,000 yards mark. That’s quite an accomplishment when you consider all the excellent quarterbacks and wide receivers that have played the game of professional football, and they’re not even anywhere near retirement! Edgerrin James got in on the records, too. He’s now tied with the great Franco Harris for eighth on the all-time list with 47 career 100-yard games. But wait! There’s more! James and Harrison gained over 100 yards each in the same game for the 21st time, breaking the record of 20 formerly held by the Hall of Fame tandem of Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. 

 

OK, I’ve had about all the history I can take, so let’s get back to the future…(click here for the full article)


UFR 63 - November 11, 2005: BIRDS OF A DIFFERENT FEATHER

All this news about Terrell Owens over the last week and a half has me humming a song by Louis XIV. The chorus goes like this, “Me-me-me-me is all you say that I care about, and me-me-me-me is all I ever want to talk about.” It’s a catchy tune that describes T.O.’s attitude to – well – a T. But before we demonize Owens for his me-first words and actions, let’s put this all in the correct context. This is the NFL, a league that is in no way a stranger to controversial stars. With such a history of bad-boy stars, I would think that the media would have learned to deal with each scandal objectively.

 

Instead, they make each controversial story seem like it's the worst of its kind. I’ve seen and heard other journalists say that Owens should be barred from ever playing in the league because he’s a bad teammate and a distraction in the locker room. Online polls even indicate that Owens is less popular with fans than convicted felon Mike Tyson! Such a backlash from the public indicates not that Owens is a more condemnable human being than Tyson but that football fans are easily swayed by the media.

 

Folks, Terrell Owens may be a loudmouth and a volatile teammate, but he is not a criminal. He’s not anywhere near as bad as Tyson and not even as bad as another high profile star in the NFL. Have our attention spans been so shortened that we don’t remember the Ray Lewis sagas of 2001 and 2005?

 

In January of 2001 the Ravens beat the Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV. Their defensive dominance was such that Ray Lewis was named MVP of the Super Bowl. He was generally considered the best all-around athlete in the league, an outstanding honor for a defensive player. But it was not his great skill, confidence or arrogance that made headlines in the months following that Super Bowl victory. And it was not Lewis’s continued dominance at his position that once again put him on the front of the sports pages just this summer. Need a refresher? (click here for the full article)


UFR 62 - November 4, 2005: OFF TO THE RACES

I realize that I may be risking the wrath of whichever football god mandated that every article this week should focus on how inspired the Giants were by the passing of Wellington Mara, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. The way the Broncos ran away from the defending NFC champion Eagles got me to thinking about the playoffs, so since most teams have completed half of their season I’ve decided to examine the league for its best playoff prospects and those who could rise from the mire to rule the roost.

 

AFC East: Though the defending champion Patriots are on top, they’re still only one game over .500 and are having a hard time on both offense and defense because of injuries. The Dolphins and Bills are both capable squads, but I think they’re both too young and prone to mistakes to be around come playoff time. The Jets had all kinds of potential, but losing their offensive line is lethal for any quarterback they choose.

 

AFC North: The last couple of weeks have given us plenty of reasons to doubt the Bengals. They’re currently 1-1 in the division with 4 of their next 5 games coming against division opponents. The other game in that stretch is against the Colts, so I’d consider the Bengals a contender if they can go 3-2 and head into Week 15 at Detroit with a 9-4 record. The bad news for Cincinnati fans is that the Steelers are 2-0 in the division and face only 3 winning teams in their remaining games. The Ravens played well on Monday night, but I doubt they’ve improved enough to come back from 2-5 to make the playoffs.

 

AFC South: Can anyone catch the Colts? I used to think the Jaguars had a shot at it, but after the way they sputtered and died in St. Louis last week I’ve given the division to Peyton Manning & Co. The Jags still have plenty to play for, though. They need to finish strong if they hope to secure a wildcard berth.

 

AFC West: The Broncos are looking very intimidating at home, but they’ve shown weakness on the road. That could pose a problem as they play 5 of their remaining 8 games away from Mile High. That would be good news for the Chiefs and Chargers if it weren’t for the fact that they, too, have extremely difficult schedules ahead of them. The Raiders appear to be on the verge, but they’ll likely finish the season that way (and, I suspect, with a 7-9 record at best). The team that wins the AFC West, probably the Broncos, will probably be the most battle-tested, but it remains to be seen if that will mean they are stronger or just physically exhausted come playoff time.

 

NFC East: This one’s a doozy. No team in the NFC East will have a losing record at the half-way mark, so the division is up for grabs. (click here for the full article)


UFR 61 - October 28, 2005: THE MANE MAN-NING

Mufasa.

*shudder*

say it again…

Moo-FASSA!

                                                                                                                                *SHUDDDDDER*

 

Eli Manning.

What? No shudder? While his name (an open invitation to defenses last year) doesn’t yet carry with it the same fear factor as his older brother Peyton’s does, Eli’s performances this season have certainly caught the attention of defensive coordinators around the league. The most impressive victory of his young career was capped last Sunday afternoon by a game-tying two yard touchdown pass that Amani Toomer caught with five seconds on the clock. The extra point by Jay Feely made it 24-23 and instantly vaulted the Giants out of the ranks of the “pretty good teams who haven’t beaten a team with a winning record.”

 

Eli’s two yard toss didn’t break any records, and it wasn’t the kind of throw that makes your jaw drop, but it was the kind of pass that great quarterbacks complete in the final seconds when a game, a season or The Game is on the line. It was a pass that some might have called ill-advised. Eli was back-pedaling and sidestepping with blitzing Broncos safety John Lynch just a fraction of a second from sacking him for a nail-in-the-coffin loss when he ducked his head, extended his arm and flipped his wrist. The ball spiraled toward a crowd of foes in the end zone. “Interception!” I exclaimed. It had been a miserable day of results for UFR, so I was hoping the Broncos would throw me a bone by stifling the Giants’ comeback.

 

With just 10 seconds on the clock when the ball was snapped, I expected Eli to either throw a quick pass or throw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock. The quick throw didn’t happen, and then Eli’s off-balance pass wasn’t nearly high enough to be intentionally thrown out of bounds. I reached for my pencil to circle the X next to Denver Broncos on my tracking sheet when the shriek of “touchdown!” from my surround sound speakers snapped my head up in time to see the exultant Toomer emerge, ball in hand, from a sea white jerseys. “What the…? How did he…?” I wondered. I hadn’t even seen Toomer running across the end zone, and after replaying it a couple of times with my TiVo I was still amazed that Eli spotted his target and completed his pass despite the inevitable shot from the blitzing Broncos safety John Lynch. Thinking back on it now as I write this, I know that the coach wouldn’t have called such a slow-developing play with 10 seconds left in the game, meaning that Toomer couldn’t have been Eli’s primary target. He must have been the second or even third option on the play, and that means Eli recognized that he had beaten his defender even though the end zone was crowded with Broncos defenders.

 

That kind of confidence, presence of mind (commonly called game sense) and ability to succeed under extreme pressure are traits possessed by champions. He’s not nearly a champion yet. In fact – if you’ll allow me to continue with my Lion King theme – Eli is still a cub working on his roar, but if he continues to play at this high level he won’t have to wait long to be king. I’m not sounding the trumpets for the coronation yet, but it’s safe to say that Eli is now a Manning in his own right. (click here for the full article)


UFR 60 - October 21, 2005: PARKED

I didn’t get to see the overtime conclusion of the Giants at Cowboys on Sunday because I had set my TiVo to switch over from FOX to CBS at 4 PM to catch what I felt was last week’s top match-up: Patriots at Broncos. Fortunately, CBS first showed the conclusion of my number two game: Jaguars at Steelers. As many of you already know, the Jaguars won the game in overtime when Rashean Mathis ran back Tommy Maddox’s third interception 41 yards for a touchdown. What you don’t know is that long before that Maddox mistake I had already begun hollering at Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. What incited my tirade? Here is the chronicle:

 

“Woo-hoo! Quincy Morgan rides again!” I exclaimed. Morgan had just returned the opening overtime kickoff 74 yards to the Jacksonville 26 yard line. Overtime is sudden death in the NFL, and the Steelers have a good field goal kicker so – in my head – the game was wrapped up. Standing in my living room, I narrated my instructions to coach Cowher, “Alright, run The Bus up the middle a couple of times and kick the field goal on third down so you’ll have an extra down in case something bad should happen. Nice and safe, Bill. Quincy just won it for you.”

 

The Steelers lined up for first down, and I surveyed their lineup. “What? No Bettis?! Alright, well, Willie Parker can handle it. Just run it right up the middle to keep the ball in the center of the field for the kicker.” My irritation was mild but soon turned to indignant disbelief. “It serves you right for running a stretch play!” I scolded as I watched Parker fumble while running to the left right into a sea of Jaguars defenders. Miraculously, the ball bounced back up into his hands and he smartly fell on it for a loss of three yards. The Steelers had just dodged a huge bullet. Surely Bill Cowher would be so relieved that he didn’t just fumble away his chance to win that he’d do the right thing. He’d get the rattled Parker out of the game, put in the massive, reliable veteran Jerome Bettis and let him pound it to the right side, setting up Jeff Reed for a game winning field goal of around 40 yards.

 

The furthest thing from my mind – because of the sheer lunacy the decision would require – was that Cowher would allow Maddox (who had struggled all day and had already thrown two interceptions against the league’s 2nd ranked pass defense) to do anything other than hand the ball off to a running back. You will understand, then, why I first yelled and then laughed hysterically when – to my amazement – Maddox attempted to execute a play-action pass and wound up fumbling the ball. (click here for the full article)


UFR 59 - October 14, 2005: FULL DISCLOSURE

The question of the week is this: Is it cheating to withhold key personnel information until the last minute?

 

Both the Falcons and the Bills participated in this somewhat shady practice last weekend, and some office discussion inspired me to bring it up in this week’s column. The situations were different, so they require some examination.

 

The Falcons had listed Michael Vick as “probable” during most of the week leading up to their game against the Patriots, so New England prepared and practiced assuming that Vick would be the starting quarterback they would face. But Saturday night Vick’s status was changed to “questionable,” and at game time coach Jim Mora finally named Matt Schaub the starting quarterback.

 

Mike Mularkey, coach of the Buffalo Bills, had a similar approach, but his hand was not forced by injuries. He was simply deciding between a young, underachieving quarterback – J.P. Losman – and a veteran – Kelly Holcomb – who might give his team a better chance to win. But Mularkey also held off on making that decision until just before game time.

 

Both coaches robbed the opposition of the right to fully prepare for their opponent, but they both did so – technically – within the rules. As reader Ron Wilhelm pointed out, there was a time when coaches were fined by the league for failing to fully disclose injury information. So should Mora be fined for withholding information regarding the extent of Vick’s injury? In my opinion – yes. (click here for the full article)


UFR 58 - October 7, 2005: THE AIR UP THERE

It was bad enough that my team’s offense couldn’t find a way to score on Sunday night. I certainly didn’t need to endure ESPN’s three stooges on top of it all. Some of you are well aware of how annoying I find the three commentators who cover the Sunday night games for the aforementioned division of Disney, so you will not be surprised to discover that Joe Theismann (even more than Paul Maguire and Mike Patrick on this occasion) annoyed me to the point where I just had to put the game on mute.

 

ESPN’s producers cut to a good shot with clear audio in which McCown was talking to Kurt Warner about how differently the ball travels through the air at 7,200 feet than in the Arizona desert. Granted, it wasn’t the most eloquent explanation ever given for lack of accuracy, but it was a point that Theismann, as a former quarterback, could have absorbed, processed and commented on logically. “What he’s talking about,” he could have said, “is an even more exaggerated problem than the documented one that visiting quarterbacks have had for years at Denver’s altitude of 5,280 feet.” Perhaps he could have even appealed to his own ego while simultaneously defending him by saying something like, “I’ve won Super Bowls, but I’ve never thrown a ball through air nearly as thin as it is here in Mexico City. I can see that the ball seems to float or sail just by the fact that San Francisco’s kicker Joe Nedney launched one all the way through the opposite uprights on a kickoff.” Viewers would have connected such a statement with the visual evidence, and they would have understood that McCown had a valid excuse for his inaccuracy. 

 

Instead, Theismann dismissed McCown’s remarks as mere excuses for what he perceived as an inability to complete certain types of passes that an NFL quarterback “simply must have in his repertoire.” I was hating Theismann for ignoring the obvious and was wishing that someone would bring him down a notch when – in the very moment that Theismann asserted that McCown simply wasn’t capable of completing a touch pass to the sideline – young Josh McCown did just that. He wasn’t done, either. McCown adjusted nicely to the thin air and completed 32 of his 46 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns. And wouldn’t you know it? He completed passes of just about every kind, too – the little touch passes, the zinging quick passes and even the tricky sideline passes. (click here for the full article)


UFR 57 - September 23, 2005: PAIN TO PLAY

Injuries are a part of any sport – especially professional football. In the NFL a big part of a team’s success has to do with how it prepares for and handles injuries to its key players. Last year the Patriots won the Super Bowl despite losing a large portion of their roster to injuries throughout the season. It’s been well documented that wide receiver Troy Brown filled in on defense and that defenders like Mike Vrabel played some downs on offense. Some rookies and former members of their practice squad also stepped up their game and played better than they ever had before to ensure the team’s success. It was a true team effort, and it proved that a season isn’t necessarily lost just because some key players are injured.

Some injuries, however, are harder to overcome than others. The loss of a starting quarterback is possibly the most devastating blow that a team can suffer. I will refer again to the lost season the Falcons endured because of the loss of Michael Vick in the preseason two years ago. The Titans – were it not for Steve McNair’s tendency to sustain multiple injuries by mid-season – might have made it deep into the playoffs once or twice. And Chad Pennington – sans injuries – might have led the Jets to a Super Bowl in recent years.

For Pennington and the Jets (in the words of John Fogerty) it’s déjà vu all over again. Just seven months ago he had surgery to repair a tear in his right rotator cuff, and now he’s torn the same one again. The injury could keep him out for the remainder of the season, and judging from his performance through the first three games this season, it could also threaten to end his career. (click here for the full article)


UFR 56 - September 23, 2005: GUNSHY COWBOYS

First of all, let’s call a spade a spade. I performed horribly last week. My picks went 6-10, and for the first time ever I have a losing percentage on the season. Now, before you all lose faith in me and before – God forbid – I lose faith in myself, let’s remember that only two regular season weeks have been completed. Take heart! There is much left to be won!

That was what went through my mind on Monday Night as I watched the Cowboys, with a 10-0 lead and the ball at the Redskins 27 yard line, pound the ball up the middle three times in a row and then settle for a field goal. I stood and yelled at the TV (yes, I’m that kind of football watcher), "What are you doing?!!" Folks, you may think I’m nuts for attempting to elicit a response from a television, but I at the time I was pretty sure that I had a better chance of getting an answer from the electronics than the Cowboys had of scoring a touchdown on three consecutive Tyson Thompson runs up the middle. For the record, they went for 2, 3 and -1 yards, and Dallas settled for a Jose Cortez field goal. Turning to my buddy Mark, I said, "If the Cowboys lose this game, it will be because of that series of hair-brained calls right there." (click here for the full article)


UFR 55 - September 16, 2005: HOPE FLOATS

The city of New Orleans may have been flooded by Hurricane Katrina, but the hearts of Saints fans across the country were gladdened - however briefly - when John Carney's 47 yard field goal floated through the uprights in Charlotte last Sunday afternoon. It is a feat that - for many reasons - I find incredible. And I don't mean incredible in the typically over-used sports writer sense. I mean incredible in the sense that I honestly didn't believe they could do it. I didn't believe that the 53 men on the New Orleans Saints roster could each shift their focus from their city that lay in ruins and onto the game at hand. But perhaps I was looking at the whole thing from the wrong angle. Perhaps the Saints were able to play the way they did because of the horror that has ravaged their home city. Instead of trying to block it out of their minds, they used it to fuel their efforts on the field. They fed off the agony and anguish. They channeled all the suffering and tears. They poured it all out on the field for 60 minutes. And when John Carney's field goal granted them the victory for which they'd fought so hard, they allowed themselves to the luxury of jubilation.

There are those who say that sports don't matter in the grand scheme of things, who argue - for instance - that games should not have been played on the anniversary of September 11th. If you are one of those people, then I hope you consider the above story in addition to these three: The Washington Redskins managed a win over the Bears in memory of the attack on the Pentagon four years ago. The New York Giants also won on Sunday - and they won in a big way - in a game they played in their home stadium, in a city that four years ago endured one of the worst attacks imaginable. The recovery and rebuilding of the city of New York is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, and it should serve as an inspiration to those affected by Hurricane Katrina. (click here for the full article)


UFR 54 - September 7, 2005: A SEASON OF HOPE

Every new season ushers in an era of hope for players, coaches and fans alike. All across this nation there are "glass is half full" devotees chirping at the occupant of the closest bar stool that "the preseason means nothing." With emphatic gestures and a glimmer in their eyes they remind each other of this universally known and often repeated truth. And it is the truth.

The NFL’s preseason is not so much a measure of the teams that oppose each other but rather a measure of the individual players on the field at any given moment. By the second half – or in many cases the second quarter – the gridiron is occupied mainly by players who will see little game time once the regular season is underway. It is important for writers and television commentators to keep this in mind when analyzing or attempting to predict the outcome of this first week’s games.

That having been said, I will fill you in on my three-fold method for picking games in the first week of the regular season. 1) I look at my year-end power rankings from the previous season. 2) I carefully consider any changes that have taken place within the team’s roster and/or coaching staff. 3) I say five Hail Mary’s and three Our Father’s. OK, I’m kidding about the third one. The truth is that I like to pick home teams when it seems like a toss-up or if there are just too many unknowns. (click here for the full article)