Twenty Years Later, Doug Williams’ Super Bowl XXII MVP Performance Still Resonates

 January 31st will mark the 20th Anniversary of Doug Williams historical Super Bowl XXII MVP performance and the epic performance still resonates today.

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The date of January 31st maybe just another day of anticipation for many NFL fans as they count down the days toward Super Bowl XLII and the Giants quest to stop the Patriots climb to perfection.  But the date should be marked with a moment of reflection throughout the NFL and in society.  Ironically the day before the start of black history month will mark the 20th Anniversary of Doug Williams’ MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII.  The final score in San Diego, California that day may have been Washington Redskins 42, Denver Broncos 10, but the victory was one of those magical moments where sports and society collide in such a way that the explosion goes far beyond the reaches of the sports venue, making everyone take notice.  Williams stunning Super Bowl MVP performance not only uplifted the Redskins and their fans, but it meant so much more.  The former Grambling State quarterback’s effort was truly historical as he negated long held drastic misconceptions and stereotypes regarding a “black” quarterback’s ability to lead his team to the NFL’s ultimate prize — Williams even said before the 1988 Super Bowl, ”I know, some people thought we (black quarterbacks) weren’t smart enough.”

The Redskins victory that day set off a celebration around the United States especially in the African American community that still reverberates today. The Super Bowl XXII victory was a culminating event that many blacks had been praying for — I can still remember the Pastor of my church asking our congregation the morning of the game to watch and pray for Doug and his team.  Legendary Grambling State football coach the late Eddie Robinson referred to the experience of watching his prized pupil from the stands that day as the greatest moment in his career.  Coach Rob after the game through teary eyes told Williams that the win was a “Joe Louis – Max Schemling moment” and that the young quarterback would not be able to comprehend until he was much older. The venerable coach was teaching his former player another lesson this time regarding the societal significance of his feat and cementing the fact that this was not just another championship.  It meant so much more the same way the Brown Bomber’s demolition of the “perceived” German superman some forty-two years before had made everyone walk with their heads a little bit higher.

 “Joe Louis – Max Schemling” moments are so rare that sometimes everyone including the viewers and participants don’t fully understand them until they are over.  The event is usually accompanied by goose pimpled arms and lasting memories that will never fade.   Much like the “Do you believe in miracles”, 1980 United States Hockey team’s win over Russia on their way to an improbable gold medal in the Winter Olympics, memories of Super Bowl XXII and Williams efforts do the same for many people — Heck even my Mom and Grandmother who are not sports fans talk about the Doug Williams Super Bowl with glee.   January 31, 1988 will always be remembered as the day Doug Williams from the small town of Zachary, Louisiana — a place where Williams can still vividly remember the Klan parading through the town — proved that a “black” quarterback could get it done. 

What made the moment so special was that the veteran quarterback had survived a circuitous career first playing in the NFL for the volatile Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then in the USFL before reaching the mountain top.  Williams recently told my BIGPLAY Football podcast audience in an interview for the book Third a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback  (Listen to BPR #60 here), that just one year before the game he was at home figuring his career was over when Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs — a huge supporter of Williams going back to their days together in Tampa Bay — called looking for a veteran backup.  Williams almost leapt through the phone as he accepted his only chance to return to the NFL even if it meant he would have to be Jay Schroeder’s backup.  The cagey veteran sat through most of the ’87 season and then throughout the 1988 season, he watched as Schroeder struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness.  Sensing a change was needed going into the playoffs, the future hall of fame coach decided to bench Schroeder for the playoffs and started Williams in his place.  It was a risky move to some, but Gibbs and many others — It was widely known around the league that most of the Redskins locker room was firmly behind Williams — believed in the veteran leader and there was no “black quarterback” talk.

The Redskins responded by beating the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings on their way to Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos.  But with the country’s biggest game coming up many wondered if the pressure cooker of the Super Bowl would get to the first African American Quarterback to start in the game.  Leading up to the game all the talk was of the Redskins being underdogs (3 ½ points) with the expectation that the Broncos and their star quarterback John Elway would easily win the game.  Elway was cast as the “Golden Boy” and Williams of course as the “black” quarterback by a good majority of the media.  The media hounded Williams with questions about him being the first black to start in a Super Bowl game and one befuddled media member even asked him the galling question “So how long have you been a black quarterback?”, which he did not answer.  Williams decided to take the high road with the veteran mindset that the Super Bowl was a “football game first” and that he needed to prepare to win.  He told my listener audience that he approached all of the hype and pioneer talk around the game as “Winning was the only thing on his mind and that he was the quarterback of the Washington Redskins first”.

His cool veteran demeanor served him well in a game that didn’t start out as well as expected — to say the least.  Williams twisted his knee in the first quarter — I recently joked with him how everyone in my house hollered, “Get Up !!” and he said he was thinking the same thing while laying on the turf — with the Broncos jumping out to a 10-0 lead.  After instructing/pleading with the trainer to “Give him a minute” and saying “If I can stand I will be okay”, Williams took one play off and responded with a second quarter that some say was the greatest performance by a quarterback while setting Super Bowl records of 228 yards passing with four touchdowns in one quarter.  With each pass to receivers Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark, and Art Monk, I could hear Sly and the Family Stone’s song “Can You Take Me Higher” in my head as the whooping and hollering was at a fever pitch in our Philadelphia home of all places, which was deep in Eagles country and was nowhere near a Redskins haven — But on January 31, 1988 everyone was a Doug Williams fan.  The game was basically over at the half and Williams finished the game with a then Super Bowl record 340 yards and 4 TD’s in the triumph and was named the MVP. 

Williams’ victory was hailed as a defining moment in American sports, it may not have been Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it was a significant event that brought people of all races to their feet. Twenty years later, I firmly do believe that it was a watershed moment that opened the floodgates of opportunity to the quarterback position for African American players at all levels in football.  From peewee to high school to college to the NFL there are now hundreds and possibly thousands of African Americans playing the position including 19 on NFL rosters in 2007 — who knows what would have happened if Williams hadn’t won Super Bowl XXII.  All of the young African American quarterbacks that we are seeing excel today from mega high school recruit Terrelle Pryor to Vince Young ‘need to recognize’ as they all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Williams and the other pioneering black quarterbacks (Joe Gilliam, Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Warren Moon, and many others) for the path that they blazed.

Williams, now a key member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel department, said about his historic Super Bowl performance “At the time it was hard to imagine the impact when it is yourself”,  “When you look back on it, you realize that you are walking history”.

2008 Senior Bowl Review

By Lloyd Vance, BIGPLAY Football “Draft Guru”/Analyst and Senior NFL Writer

(Mobile, AL) — Every year the best place for Scouts and NFL Talent Evaluators to view players “in pads” is at the Senior Bowl (remember football is not played in t-shirts and shorts).  The weeklong event is the real first leg on the road to the NFL Draft for many prospects.  Many draft experts that I talk to put more credence in this All Star game, because usually top players choose to participate (sorry agents), there is “live” competitive in one on one drills, and NFL coaching staffs are in charge of the teams (Oakland Raiders had the North team and the San Francisco 49ers coached the South).   You can have the lesser All star games (East-West Shrine, Hula Bowl, “Flavor of the Year” All Star game) and the combine, because the Senior Bowl is the place where “football” players get to show their skills off in front of scouts, coaches, and general managers who can all be spotted in the stands.  

Overall this year’s group was talented, but with a large majority of this year’s top players being juniors (ex. Arkansas RB Darren McFadden) or seniors choosing not to participate (ex. Virginia defensive lineman Chris Long and Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long), there were some units that were not as good as in year’s past – Quarterback, Running back, or Defensive End to name a few.  Several scouts have indicated that this year’s senior group is a little lower in talent than last year’s solid group (Patrick Willis, Adam Carriker, Dwayne Bowe and others) or the 2006 can’t miss group that produced 14 first-round picks including Jets offensive tackle D’Brickshaw Ferguson, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, and others. Whatever talent that was at the event, the USC Trojans led the way sending an amazing 9 players including the unquestionable number one player in Mobile, stout defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and athletic monster linebacker Keith “Shark” Rivers. 

As for the game, well 40,000 fans filled Ladd-Peebles Stadium and they saw a snoozer with the South winning 17-16.  But at least it ended dramatically as SEC rivals Florida receiver Andre Caldwell and Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge — a last second replacement for Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm (leg injury) had passing numbers of 13-21 for 159 yards passing all coming in the second half — led the way to the winning score for the South.  Caldwell scored on a 2-yard end around off a handoff from Ainge on the final play of the game to finish a 14-play, 86-yard final drive.  Caldwell, who had one of the better weeks at the Senior Bowl said of the game-winner, “I knew I was going to get hit, I just lowered my head to get in the end zone was a great feeling.”

The two had hooked up earlier too on a crucial play in the game-winning drive as Ainge completed an 18-yarder to Caldwell on fourth-and-10 from the South’s 14.  The tall Tennessee quarterback, who had an up and down career in college also found Houston speedster receiver Donnie Avery for a 22-yarder across the middle on the drive.  South coach Mike Nolan of the San Francisco 49ers said of the last play, “On that last play, you have a chance to call anything because it’s the last play”. He added “Whereas the ones prior, he just had to keep it alive and not use up all the clock. A play like that you call it the first or second play and we never get another play off. It was a great call and it worked.”

Ainge was named the South offensive MVP, but it was Tulane running back Matt Forte who ran for a game-high 59 yards and had 38 receiving that landed the overall MVP award.  Big Michigan quarterback Chad Henne (five of nine passes for 64 yards with two passing touchdowns) was the North offensive MVP.  North Defensive MVP Ellis didn’t disappoint when he sacked Andre’ Woodson of Kentucky to record a safety.

Now that the weighing, practicing, questioning, and playing is over for the Senior Bowl, we have some observations, news, and notes from the 2008 Event.

Event Risers – These were players that we believe increased their value in at the Senior Bowl.

  • USC DT Sedrick Ellis – By far the most dominant player in Mobile. Ellis (6-1, 295) came to the event rated below LSU’s Glenn Dorsey and Virginia’s Chris Long, but he vaulted to the top group with his showing this week. Though UF’s Derrick Harvey, Dorsey, and Long skipped the event, it was their loss as Ellis dominated in one on one drills against all of the O-Lineman — unblockable at times. Much like last year’s standout Adam Carriker, Ellis was difficult to block. Displayed a good combination of strength and intelligence and also came across well during interviews. He and teammate Keith Rivers showed at the Senior Bowl why USC was dominant defensively in 2007.
  • Tennessee State CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – One of my favorite stories from the week. He came to the Senior Bowl looking for an opportunity and he seized it. The rangy defensive back (6-1, 181) showed that HBCU schools still produce several diamonds in the rough as he shined in coverage drills against bigger school receivers. The unheralded defensive back actually worked out at FS most of the week, but his future seems to lie at corner. Was right with Leodis McKelvin as the top DB prospect at the event.
  • Florida WR Andre Caldwell – With a underwhelming overall group of receivers at the Senior Bowl, Caldwell and Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins (catch everything) enhanced their draft status. Caldwell is not huge at 6’0 and 207 pounds, but he showed the best hands and route running of all of the receivers at the event. Besides scoring the game-winning TD, Caldwell showed he is a natural hand catcher and his toughness showed in his ability to get off the line.
  • Troy CB Leodis McKelvin – Another small school corner that shined at the event. Had a great week of practice where he showed a good ability to locate passes and play physical. Receivers did not catch many passes on him in practice and he showed that he is a fluid athlete. Look for the former Troy State star (5-11 190) to continue moving up draft boards as he has the speed, coverage ability and instincts to be a top flight corner plus he showed in Mobile that he is a capable kick returner.
  • Delaware QB Joe Flacco – It looks like UD alum Rich Gannon will have company in NFL circles as Flacco impressed at the event. The Blue Hen signaler caller took advantage of BC quarterback Matt Ryan pulling out of the game. Though the big pocket passer (6-5, 230) threw for only 2-of-7 for 22 yards and an interception in the game, it was during the week in practice that he shined. The one-time Pitt recruit showed a very strong arm, an ability to make all the throws out performing some of his BCS counterparts and surprising mobility.

Event Maintainers – These were players that we believe were solid and did not hurt their value at the Senior Bowl.

  • Arizona State Center Mike Pollak – Might have been the best O-Lineman in Mobile. Even though he is just under 300 pounds, Pollak is a battler that showed good feet and strength in practice and in the game. He truly was the North team’s anchor all week.
  • Notre Dame DT Trevor Laws – Trying to shake off one of the worst years in Notre Dame’s proud history will not be easy, but Laws (6-1, 297) impressed in Mobile. The dread-locked senior, who played mostly on the outside in college moved inside and dominated. Though not as athletic as Ellis, Laws showed a good burst, was always around the ball (recovered a fumble in the game), and good instincts in practice drills. Watch for him to be a sure first day pick.
  • Penn State LB Dan Connor – This PSU high-character player – led the Big Ten in tackles (145) as a senior — did not disappoint in Mobile winning the North team’s MVP award. Connor (6’3, 233) showed that he may not have the athleticism of USC’s Keith “Shark” Rivers, but he has the “football” instincts and intelligence that shined in practice. In the game, the two-time All American, who can play inside or outside, produced with by leading both teams in tackles (9) and intercepting a Colt Brennan pass.
  • Vanderbilt LT Chris Williams – Seems like another great left tackle prospect out of the SEC. Had a solid week of give and take with the D-Linemen, but probably did not elevate himself to the top 15 of the draft. Has the size (6’6, 320) and feet to be a top-flight left tackle, but will need to watch his tendency to play too high at times. Also needs to work more against the speed-rush.

Event Crashers – These were players that we believe hurt their value at the Combine and will need to make up ground going into the draft.

  • Texas A&M Center Cody Wallace – After coming into the event with a good resume, the Aggies pivot man really struggled. He had difficulty in individual line drills and defensive tackles were licking their chops for a shot at him. Wallace will need to rebound at the combine and on Texas A&M’s Pro Day to show he is worth a pick.
  • Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman – One of the bigger disappointments at the event. Bowman did well on underneath routes, but struggled with consistency (dropping passes and having difficulty with routes) as Caldwell, Hawkins, Houston’s Donnie Avery, and others had better practices. The big (6-3, 220) OSU receiver will need to do better at the combine to move up.
  • Hawaii QB Colt Brennan – After being destroyed by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the quarterback with all of the NCAA records needed to impress. Well he didn’t… first he magically was not his listed measurements (6-3, 190) instead coming in at 6-2, 185 pounds, then he showed an odd throwing motion in practice with difficulty on outs and deep balls. In the game he didn’t fair much better throwing for numbers 2-of-6 for 29 yards with an interception.
  •  USC O-Lineman Sam Baker – This maybe knit picky but we expected Baker to be the mammoth road grader as advertised. He weighed in smaller than expected at 6-4 1/2 and 308 pounds and one scout I talked to said he looked soft. Had good hand use and great arm extension, but did not look like a can’t miss left tackle.

Miscellaneous Notes

DB’s show why they are the best group – The scouts that I talked to could not have been more impressed with this group.  One guy I talked to said that at least eight to ten DB’s should go in the first round.  We already touched on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Leodis McKelvin, but other players shined as well in the back four of the North and South units including CB Tracy Porter of Indiana, CB Chris Godfrey of Iowa, CB Patrick Lee of Auburn and CB DeJuan Tribble of Boston College.

Where are all of the running backs?? – With so many juniors dominating the rankings of this position, you could clearly see that the top guys were not in Mobile (No Darren McFadden and Felix Jones of Arkansas, Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart or Texas’ Jamaal Charles). Of the backs that were here Justin Forsett of California, Chris Johnson of East Carolina, and Tashard Choice of Georgia Tech performed well, but they all seem to me to be Day 2 guys. I however did like the play of fullbacks Owen Schmitt of West Virginia, Peyton Hillis of Arkansas and LSU’s Jacob Hester.  All three showed their toughness and a willingness to help out anywhere.

Strong Linebacking Crew – This group impressed me, because they jelled in such a short period of time.  Hall of Fame linebacker and San Francisco coach Mike Singletary spoke glowingly about this group’s work ethic and athleticism. In drills you could see the quickness and athleticism of players like USC LB Keith Rivers, Virginia Tech LB Xavier Adibi, Penn State’s Dan Connor, LSU LB Ali Highsmith and Colorado’s Jordon Dizon. Rivers drew a lot of praise from Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but some guys that have work to do are DE conversion candidates Shawn Crable of Michigan and Bruce Davis of UCLA.

That is a wrap and BIGPLAY will definitely be there next year to cover the Senior Bowl again, which is now the place to be to seen.

2007 NFL Championship Round Preview

(Philadelphia, Pa) — “Championship Sunday” for the 88th season of the NFL is upon us and the match-ups interestingly enough will be a “Back to the Future” moment from week 2 of this season — it is the 16th time since 1970 that both championship games are rematches.  The undefeated New England Patriots (17-0) will be hosting the surprising San Diego Chargers (13-5) again and the upstart “road warrior” New York Giants (12-6) will be facing the historic Green Bay Packers (14-3) again this time at frigid Lambeau field (expected  game time temperatures of between 1 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit). Non-media friendly New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick summed up the upcoming weekend’s games by saying, “One team moves on.  One team goes home” — No duh coach.Whatever happens in this weekend’s games they truly are special since the conference championship trophies (George Halas Trophy for the NFC and Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC) are close enough to touch and two football teams and their fans will be realizing their dreams on Sunday of going to the Super Bowl.  But everyone especially the players need to remember Championship Sunday will end in rejoicing for the winners and the losers facing the jolting agony that their off-season has begun.  The key factor for the participants in the AFC and NFC Championship games is to focus on winning this week before looking ahead to the confetti laced on-field celebration and playing in Super Bowl XLII in Arizona. Belichick described his team’s upcoming AFC Championship Game against the San Diego Chargers as “Our whole season is at stake and so is theirs”.  The same can be said for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. 

Trust me, as someone that has experienced the ultimate high and low from Championship Sunday while following the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise from a very early age, I can attest to both potential drastic endings.  In terms of winning I can still feel the goose bumps from 1980 when the Eagles exorcised their demons against the hated Dallas Cowboys as running back Wilbert Montgomery, quarterback Ron Jaworski (Jaws), coach Dick Vermeil and the rest of the Birds finally could call themselves a “winner” and were making the ultimate trip to Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans — I have never felt a city and a team more elated and gratified by one win… too bad after the conference championship game win everyone including the team forgot about the Super Bowl and they lost badly to the Raiders, but that is another story.  I also can still feel the gut-wrenching pain from 2002 when our beloved Veterans Stadium’s last football game was a Championship Sunday loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers known as “The Day Gruden, Barber, Sapp, Keyshawn, and the Bucs Drove the Bulldozer Over the Vet”.  The loss was crushing for the number #1 seeded Eagles and the entire city, many of whom had already had their plane tickets in hand after the opening kickoff by Eagles venerable return man Brian Mitchell almost went to the house.  But it was not meant to be and the finality came extremely quick — remember the crossing pattern to Joe Jurevicous and the game ending Rhonde Barber interception return for a touchdown.

Alright that is enough remembrance of the good and bad times of the Eagles as now is the time for the Packers, Giants, Patriots, and Chargers to show their mettle.  The great thing about all of the teams playing this week they all have some kind of streak going into the weekend — We all know the Pats are unbeaten season at 17-0, San Diego has won eight in a row, New York is 9-1 on the road (no road team has ever played in a championship game with that road record), and Green Bay has won eight of its nine home games this year.  These extraordinary teams also have a combined regular/postseason winning percentage of .800 (56-14). And did I mention this Sunday’s action on the field will feature the NFL’s career leader in quarterback wins and touchdown passes (Brett Favre), the season TD-pass record-holder (Tom Brady), the season sack leader (Michael Strahan), and the running back who has led the league in rushing the past two years (LaDainian Tomlinson).

Everyone including yours truly will be pontificating on what will happen, but luckily the games will be played on the field and anything can happen — Any Given Sunday, right??  My predictions are below and I have very strong feelings on both games.  But as with any game I believe pressure on the quarterback and turnovers will be the key determinants in all of the team’s fortunes this Sunday.

Now onto my game notes and predictions.

New York Giants (12-6) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (14-3) (Sunday, 6:30 PM ET, FOX – Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Pam Oliver)   

This game is not only a rematch from a week two grudge match – BTW: In that game at the Meadowlands, Packers quarterback Brett Favre was efficient in leading the Packers to an easy 35-13 win over the reeling Giants, who fell to 0-2 — but it is also the first playoff meeting between two NFL franchises with 600 regular-season victories apiece. Green Bay has 637 victories and New York’s G-Men have 606 wins (ranked second and third, respectively on the NFL’s all-time regular-season win list, behind the Chicago Bears with 677).

This will be the first playoff meeting between the two teams since they met in back-to-back NFL title games in 1961-62 with the Packers taking 1962 NFL Championship 16-7 to win their second consecutive league title  — For the historians out there, NFL Network will be running a half-hour replay of the New York-Green Bay 1962 NFL Championship Game this weekend. 

The aforementioned week two match-up featured a pushing and shoving type game that included 14 penalties and three turnovers combined.  Old greybeard Packers Brett Favre (3 TD’s in the win) out dueled young-buck Eli Manning (1 touchdown and two INT’s in the loss) as the Giants faithful let the Ole’ Miss product have it in the bad home loss that dropped the G-Men to 0-2 for the first time since 1996.  But as Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said about the September game, “We are a different football team than we were in Week 2, and definitely the New York Giants are a different football team”.  At the time the Packers couldn’t run the ball and now that is history with the emergence of running back Ryan Grant (201 yards and 3 TD’s last week).  The Giants especially Manning (four touchdowns and no Interceptions in the Post season) have also turned the corner behind embattled head coach Tom Coughlin and they are truly road ready at 9-1.

This is definitely a new tougher version of the Giants team since week 17 when they gave the Patriots more than they could ask for. The Giants be aiming for an amazing 10th consecutive win when they enter Lambeau — already have a team-record nine consecutive road victories — and they have a family type feeling where they hunker down and know how to win in a hostile environment.  The Giants will be trying to join the 2005 Steelers (3 road wins) as improbable road wild card winners to win a Super Bowl.  We all know the key for the Giants offense will be their ability to run the ball in bad weather and limit turnovers by Manning.  But their defense coached by Steve Spagnuolo (NFL leading 53 sacks in the regular season) and led by defensive end Michael Strahan — 8.5 sacks in eight career playoff games – will need to get pressure on immobile veteran Favre.  They must get pressure from Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Strahan, because we all know about the injuries in their secondary to Sam Madison (abdominal) and Aaron Ross (shoulder). If given time Favre will get the ball to dangerous targets Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.

LV‘s Pick: I don’t care what anyone says the biggest factor in this game will be the chill in Lambeau field.  The Giants turn around has been one of the best stories of the 2007 season, but the magic carpet ride ends this week. Favre is playing a lot like John Elway at the end of his career, leaning on younger legs especially Ryan Grant.  Green Bay hasn’t had an NFC Championship game since the 1996 season, when they beat Carolina 30-13 on another cold bitter day. Favre — with a multi-TD game this Sunday can tie Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana with 14 such postseason games — loves the fans and the snowy atmosphere and you never know this could be his last game – Doubt it.  Look for “bad” Eli to show up in the cold (two picks) as the Packers head to Arizona to thaw out.  Favre and his young’ins continue their improbable run with a close 23-20 win over the G-Men.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-5) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (17-0) (Sunday, 3:00 PM ET, CBS – Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)    

This may not be Colts-Patriot II, but the two interesting combatants combined for 30 wins this year, including playoffs.  That total is tied for the second-most combined victories in an AFC Championship Game.  We all remember their week two game was supposed to be a revenge grudge match with Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson promising to pay the Patriots back for their behavior after their 2006 Divisional win, but the week two battle never produced revenge for LT (43 yards on 18 carries in the loss).  The Patriots put “spygate” and the Chargers to rest by building a 24-0 halftime lead on the way to a 38-14 blowout.  If LT and his team are to finally get their revenge, the warm weather Chargers will need to adapt to the frigid New England weather while nurse injuries to Tomlinson (knee), TE Antonio Gates (Toe), and QB Philip Rivers (knee) quickly. 

The Chargers victory led by backups QB Billy Volek, TE Legedu Naanee, and running backs Michael Turner and Darren Sproles defeated the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts ruining the much-anticipated rematch of the Super Powers.  Now they will be looking to complete “Mission Impossible” by causing the Patriots vaunted offense to turnover the ball –finished in the top 10 with 48 regular season turnovers with a league-leading 30 interceptions.  But let’s not forget that the Patriots had only 15 giveaways, best in the league with only an NFL third best nine interceptions.  The problem for the Chargers is that the Patriots are truly historic setting season records for points (589), touchdowns (75), and scoring at least 24 points in 16 of their 17 games.

The Patriots of course have a roster of future hall of famers led by Associated Press’ 2007 NFL MVP quarterback Tom Brady (completing 26 of 28 throws last week versus the Jags) and Moss (NFL season-record 23 touchdowns).  But in order to continue their easy winning ways, the Patriots must find a way to have balance in their offense by leaning on inexperienced running back Laurence Maroney and getting pressure from DE Richard Seymour, LB Mike Vrabel, and LB Junior Seau — the 38-year-old linebacker will be playing in his first championship game since 1994, when he was with his opponent this Sunday, San Diego.

The Chargers are 12-2 since starting the season 1-3 and when healthy (keyword).  They have a plethora of talent on offense led by quarterback Philip Rivers (3,152 yards passing with 21 TDs and 15 Ints), 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson (1,474 yards rushing), TE Antonio Gates (75 receptions for 984 yards and 9 TDs), and new weapon acquired at the trade deadline receiver Chris Chambers.  But if they are going to pull the monumental upset, they will need to have all of their top players available and get more pressure on Brady than the two early sacks that LB Shawn Merriman (12.5 sacks in the regular season) produced in the lopsided loss.  Another interesting battle will be Chargers Pro Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie (10 INTs in regular season) going against Patriots receiver Randy Moss (only 1 catch last week).

LV‘s Pick: Unfortunately for the beat-up Chargers, I don’t think this will be a close game.  The Patriots have proven week in and week out that they are up their with the all-time greats and I don’t anticipate this changing this week.  For starters you have all of the injuries to their starters and don’t forget that they are a warm weather team traveling many miles to play in the cold.  Did I mention that the Patriots are 5-1 in their Championship Game appearances — the highest winning percentage (.833) of AFC teams (minimum five appearances). The Patriots have won ten straight in the postseason (second longest streak in NFL history) and I don’t see this changing.  Expect the big-mouth Chargers to finally keep quiet as the fiery Rivers throws more picks (three turnovers in the first game against New England).  Look for the perfect Brady Bunch to knock on the 1972 Dolphins “Perfection” front door as they trounce the Chargers 31-10. After the win, the Patriots will surely increase their NFL Films record 500,000 feet of 16mm film for the season.

2007 NFL Divisional Playoff Round Preview

(Philadelphia, Pa) — An NFL record 226 million Americans (up from 222 million in 2006 and 195.8 million in 2005) watched NFL games in 2007 according to the Nielsen Ratings and who could blame them.  The NFL is by far the best game going and that is why this time of the year on the league’s calendar is one to savor.  Sadly we all know the season will be over soon, but to me the next two weeks are the best.  The splendor of the divisional and championship rounds of the playoffs usually brings out the best in teams before the hype and “big stage” mentality of the Super Bowl just always seems to unfortunately cause boring blowouts. The playoffs are so intriguing that presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama (D-Ill.) said “I was going back and forth between the Republicans and football,” meaning the Washington Redskins’ Wild Card game against Seattle on television was just as important to him as were his potential foes.

The final eight in the playoffs starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned.  The strongest teams from the regular season have been sitting on the sidelines with byes and they are now ready to enter the fracas.  The best part of this week is that the regular season does not matter anymore with every team having to earn their way into the next round with the contenders move on and the pretenders go home.  Most wildcard teams are given little to no chance to go on the road and win, but I caution everyone to remember that each game is one battle where anything can happen and favorites can easily be sent packing (turnovers being the key) — Remember the Super XL Champion Pittsburgh Steelers miraculous run in the 2005 playoffs where they won three straight road games on the way to Detroit. 

Many people also think that the rode to Super Bowl XLII is paved in gold for the two number one seeds the undefeated New England Patriots and America’s “supposed” Team the Dallas Cowboys.  But don’t just punch these two super powers tickets yet as home field advantage is nice, however thankfully games are played on the field and not on paper – In fact since 1990 only 17 of 34 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all.   

This year’s group in the elite eight is truly the “cream of the crop” as for only the sixth time in the past 38 seasons (since 1970) that the Divisional Playoff teams have a winning percentage of 75% or better in the regular-season record (.758).  All of the match-ups feature marquee Pro Bowl players and coaching staffs that know how to prepare a team.  A big factor in the games will be familiarity as two of the games — both on Sunday — are regular season rematches (San Diego-Indianapolis and New York Giants-Dallas) and another match-up (Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers) features two teams that have several relational ties.  I truly believe that having familiarity with your opponent helps in game planning and dissecting tendencies, which is a breeding ground for some good games.

Remember the key area to watch in all of the games is turnovers.  Nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than turnovers, especially ones that go to the house — just ask the Redskins (turned the ball over two times with one going back for a score in their loss to the Seahawks last week).

Now on to the my game capsules:

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11-6) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-3) (Saturday, 4:30 PM ET, FOX – Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa)  

The storyline for this game is the return of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (3,996 yards passing with 28 TDs and 12 Ints in 2007) to the place where he should have stuck his foot in his mouth.  In a 2003 wildcard playoff game at Lambeau, Hasselbeck proclaimed after winning the overtime coin-flip “We want the ball and we’re going to score.”  The boast backfired as the cocky quarterback threw a game losing interception to Al Harris that was returned 52 yards for a touchdown on the first series of overtime.   The former Packers back-up quarterback wants to forge the moment, but no one will let him.  Remember though that Hasselbeck is now a veteran top 10 quarterback, who knows how to win in the NFL — Led Seattle to five playoffs in a row, the last four as NFC West champions.

Other than the return of the boaster, this game is all about two teams that are very similar and closely matched. The Packers hold a slight 6-5 advantage in the all-time series and have won two out of the last three.  But the last time these two met on November of 2006, it was the Seahawks winning 34-24 as running back Shaun Alexander ran for 201 yards.   Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren led the Packers to a win in Super Bowl XXXI and now several of his players are still with the Pack as coaches and one big player.  The main leftover is 38-year old quarterback Brett Favre (356-535, 4,155 yards with 28 TDs and 15 Ints), who is having one of his best seasons ever after leading the Packers back to the playoffs and breaking several all-time NFL records including regular season wins, touchdowns, and attempts.  Favre will have to show the young Packers the way to the Promised Land as only 17 players have playoff experience.  Number #4 and his O-Line (third-fewest sacks allowed in ’07 (19) will have his hands full as Seattle’s speedy defense has the ability to rush the passer (45 sacks, fourth-most in the NFL this season).  Watch for both team’s ability to run the football (Seahawks: Shaun Alexander 716 yards, 3.5, and 4 TDs, but only 46 yards in the win over the ‘ Skins — Packers: Ryan Grant 956 yards, 5.1 ypc, and 8 TDs) as I expect it to be a cold snowy day. 

LV‘s Pick: Playing and winning at Lambeau in the playoffs is extremely difficult and don’t give me Vick’s Falcons win in 2001.  Green Bay should be hungry after not making it past the divisional round since 1997 (2-5 during this stretch).  Favre is playing a lot like John Elway at the end of his career, leaning on younger legs especially his defense and running game.  Another key factor are the Seahawks are better at home than on the road (3-5 this season).  Expect Lambeau to be rocking as Favre and his young’ins get past the Seahawks 24-20.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (12-5) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (16-0) (Saturday, 8:00 PM ET, CBS – Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)    

This is the marquee match-up that I have been waiting all week for as the NFL’s top passing offense (New England) and the league’s No. 2 rushing offense (Jacksonville) take center stage.  It is no secret that the Patriots are the biggest story so far this season going 16-0 in the regular season (The NFL’s fourth unbeaten/untied season in history and set a league scoring record with 589 points).  But Jaguars are also a dangerous dominating bunch as through the Wild Card, they own an active streak of scoring at least 24 points in 11 consecutive games. 

The tough physical Jags have shown that they can go on the road and win in front of a hostile crowd (won twice in the last couple of weeks in Pittsburgh including their come-from-behind 31-29 win last week).  They have now won 12 games so they are not sneaking up on anyone especially the Patriots.  “People think of Jacksonville as a conservative, run-the-ball, tough defense kind of team”, “They’re way past that, way past it” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.  Indeed, the Jaguars  piled up 400 yards in five of their last six regular-season games, missing by 19 yards in Week 17 of making it six straight. 

The key in this game will be the Jaguars ability to stick to their game plan of efficient passing, no turnovers, keep the chains moving, and pounding the run behind their two-headed monster of Maurice Jones-Drew (168 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in his first-ever playoff appearance) and Fred Taylor (Pro Bowl bound for the first time). Jaguars quarterback David Garrard now has some playoff experience after overcoming two interceptions last week and he better understand that the Patriots are not the Steelers — mistakes kill against the Patriots. All Garrard needs to do is ask Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller and New York Giants triggerman Eli Manning about how the Patriots capitalize on turnovers. Garrard rightfully said after the Jags’ wildcard win over Pittsburgh about facing the Patriots, “I have to do a better job of protecting the football, making my reads and taking my check-downs. If I don’t, then we’ll have problems.”  On defense they must funnel everything through huge defensive tackle John Henderson, corner Rashean Mathis will need to follow the Eagles/Ravens lead by being physical with Randy Moss and the other receivers, and they need to make the Pats aging linebackers cover using play-action.

The Patriots of course will counter with their roster of future hall of famers  led by Associated Press’ 2007 NFL MVP quarterback Tom Brady (NFL season-record 50 TD passes) and Moss (NFL season-record 23 touchdowns).  But the Patriots must find a way to have balance in their offense by leaning on inexperienced running back Laurence Maroney (835 yards) — player that I am not sold on — and getting pressure from DE Richard Seymour and LB Mike Vrabel.

LV‘s Pick: Everyone is talking about this could be the stumbling block that the ’72 Dolphins are looking for against everyone’s arch-enemy.  As much as I think the physical Jaguars can cut down on mistakes and run the ball.  But hold up — wait a minute — these are the undefeated 16-0 Patriots we are talking about (bow your head when talking about the Evil Empire) !!! The Patriots are at home where we know they are 8-0 this season and by the way did I mention that they have won nine playoff games in a row at Foxboro.  Also keep in mind Belichick/Brady’s scary playoff record of 12-2.  All that being said I see another close win for the ice water Patriots 38-28 over the game Jaguars as history keeps rolling for another week.  I think it is going to take a monumental effort to stop the Brady Bunch and the Jags don’t seem to be ready to take the next step though they are very good team.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (12-5) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (13-3) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, CBS – Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf)

Though the Chargers beat the Colts 23-21 in November of this season, this is an entirely different Colts squad.  Everyone wants to talk about the Patriots, but most people are sleeping on the 13-win Colts in my opinion.  Let’s not forget that this team allowed the fewest points in the league this year on defense (262) and they sport this year’s defensive player of the year safety Bob Sanders.  And who wants to debate me  that the Chargers are just glad to have finally won a playoff game after squeaking past the beat up Titans 17-6 after trailing 6-0 at the half.

The Colts will be looking for redemption from the aforementioned close loss and the December 2005 home loss to the same Chargers – ended the Colts perfect season.  I sure know quarterback Peyton Manning (4,040 yards passing with 31 TDs and 14 Ints) got excited at the opportunity to face the Bolts again after throwing a team-record six interceptions in the November loss with three going to NFL interception king Antonio Cromartie.  The loss also featured the crazy miss of a potential 29-yard game-winner by Colts sure-legged kicker Adam Vinatieri with 1:31 left.  Colts leader on defense linebacker Gary Brackett said of the loss, “We played poorly in all phases the last game.”

I have been told that the Colts will have their full compliment of players — had several players injured down the stretch including Tackle Tony Ugoh — after sitting most of their players in week 17 and then having a bye week.  Though Indy has learned to succeeded with players like rookie receiver Anthony Gonzales, it will be a welcome sight to see all of their veterans back including receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne (NFL receiving yardage king with1,510) teamed up again.

The Chargers will counter with their plethora of talent in their offensive attack led by quarterback Philip Rivers (3,152 yards passing with 21 TDs and 15 Ints), 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson (1,474 yards rushing), and new weapon acquired at the trade deadline receiver Chris Chambers.  One player on offense that is much needed is TE Antonio Gates (75 receptions for 984 yards and 9 TDs), but he may not play due to a bad toe injury.  Defensively the name of the game for the Chargers is to put pressure on Manning especially LB Shawn Merriman (12.5 sacks)

LV‘s Pick: Of all the games from this week’s slate I believe this may be the greatest mismatch.  As stated before the Chargers breathed a huge sigh of relief last week, but is not V.Y and the Titans that they are playing this week.  Expect the Colts when they are in the redzone to score touchdowns and Colts running back extraordinaire Joseph Addai is rested.  Expect the Colts to score early forcing the Chargers to pass playing right into the hands of the Colts underrated defense.  I see Tony Dungy getting his light saber ready as the Colts move on to face Belichick (Darth Vader) and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.  Colts 34, Chargers 17

NEW YORK GIANTS (11-6) at DALLAS COWBOYS (13-3) (Sunday, 4:30 PM ET, FOX – Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Pam Oliver)   

The division rivals have played each other 91 times with the Cowboys holding a 54-35-2 edge against the G-Men, but surprisingly this will be the first playoff game between the two.  This will be second of the two rematches on Sunday and this one will make a trilogy.  The storyline of the game will be familiarity as these hated NFC division rivals will see each other for the third time. 

It will be the 54th time since 1970 that teams have met three times in a season.  And Dallas better take note, because only 11 times has a club swept all three games.  So far the Cowboys have come out on top of the Giants this season to scores of 45-35 in week 1 (shootout that featured over 900 combine yards) and 31-20 in November.  But this game should prove to be tough as this is like when you fought your brother – both know strengths and weaknesses with neither backing down. 

This is a new tougher version Giants team since week 17 when they gave the Patriots more than they could ask for. The Giants love the road as they proved last week in Tampa Bay winning over the Bucs 24-14 driving there record 8-1 away from the Meadowlands and they have played the Cowboys on equal footing in Texas Stadium (split last 8 games in Dallas). Giants quarterback Eli Manning said  of the opportunity to face the Cowboys, “We love playing there, we love going to Dallas”.  The recently revitalized and error-free quarterback added  “There are no secrets between the teams.  It’s a tough challenge against Dallas, we know that.  We played them two times.  Maybe the third will be a charm.”

The keys for the Giants will be getting pressure from their NFL leading sack attack (53) led by veteran defensive end Michael Strahan, running the ball with their thunder and lightning combo of surprise rookie Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, and continued heady play by Manning (only 1 interception in last two games) with timely throws to big play receiver Plaxico Burress (70 receptions 1,025 yards and 12 TDs). Conversely Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (4,211 yards with 36 TDs and 19 Ints) will be watching the whirl pool as it is unknown if Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens (high ankle) will be available for the game (game time decision).  If Owens cannot play it will be up to TE Jason Witten (96 catches for 1,145 yards and 7 TDs) and the Cowboys stout O-Line (allowed only 25 sacks, 10th fewest in NFL) to carry the load on offense.  Dallas will also need to lean on DE DeMarcus Ware (14 sacks) as they try to improve on their defense that allowed over 307 yards per game.

LV‘s Pick: This is my upset special of the week as I believe that the Cowboys are ripe for the picking, because they are complacent when it comes to the Giants.  Romo was spotted studying Jessica Simpson this week in Mexico rather than his playbook and we all know Dallas head coach Wade Phillips is 0-3 lifetime in the playoffs.  As stated earlier it is extremely hard to beat a familiar foe three times in a row and the Giants look like a new team since putting up a huge fight against the Patriots.  I believe Eli Manning will continue doing his Peyton impersonation and Romo will have difficulty again dealing with the pressure that Giants D-Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will throw at him.  And I won’t mention his butterfingers routine from last year.  The Giants are 8-1 on the road as road warrior Tom Coughlin loves the “us against the world” mentality and players especially Strahan are buying into it.  Expect for a tight game where former University of Texas defensive back Aaron Ross makes a big play for the G-Men and Eli continues to silence his detractors by winning 24-21.

Vick to Enter Drug Program and Has a Chance to Get Back Early

(Philadelphia, Pa) —  It has been reported that suspended Falcons quarterback Michael Vick — previously sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for his guilty plea on charges related to dogfighting — has entered a drug treatment program in Leavenworth prison that could reduce his sentence. The mercurial Falcons quarterback failed a drug test (some say this might have been planned) while awaiting sentencing in his federal dogfighting case thus making him eligible for a federal drug treatment program known as the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP).  In the program inmates are involved in intensive treatment from six to 12 months, with a minimum of 500 hours of treatment. Upon completion of the program, Vick should be  eligibile for early release based on previous non-criminal standing (no priors).

 It is amazing to me that the Michael Vick case is still in the public consciousness even during the excitement of the NFL playoffs and the Patriots run to glory.  Recently while over a colleague’s home watching the games this past weekend some in the crowd repeatedly called Vick a “scumbag” and referred to him as someone that deserved to be punished at every opportunity including never getting a chance to put on a football uniform again.  The nature and tone of the conversation was surprising to me, because the Falcons were not playing and Vick had no association with the games that we were watching.

 I told the malcontent NFL fan who contended “they” especially Vick should all be in prison, that like it or not players are not all choir boys.  I cited numerous players in college and in the NFL that had difficulty in the past, but had been given chance after chance to turn their lives around.  I do not condone what Michael Vick did, but I understand that his profession is being a football player and who has the right to say who deserves a second chance or not. 

If Vick is given a second chance after he has served his time, it will only be given through Commissioner Roger Goodell.  In the past the “Commish” after meeting with players Tank Johnson (served 4 months on gun charges), Chris Henry, and even Pacman Jones decided that the NFL should not turn their back on these troubled young men.  And I thoroughly believe he will do the same for the disgraced former Virginia Tech star.  To his credit Vick and his legal team led by high-powered attorney Bill Martin have taken the appropriate steps to put the troubled quarterback back on the playing field in 2009.

Notice that I said the “playing field”, because there is no guarantee that Goodell will re-instate the fallen star.  Even if Goodell does not want to give Vick an immediate chance look for the speedster quarterback to play in the Arena Football League, CFL, AAFL, or somewhere upon his release.  His craft is to play football — some say is not a complete quarterback and that definitely is up for debate — but just like any other professional (Actor, Laborer, Barber, Diver – see Bruce Kimball…), if he serves his time then he deserves to have a second chance after making an ammends for his actions.  You only need to “google” former and current NFL players like Christian Peter, Leonard Little, Michael Pittman, and Dusty Dvoracek to see that there are a laundry list of second chance individuals around the league.  Vick deserves the opportunity just like the players listed many of whom have committed acts against people (I don’t even want to go into the whole air-scale comparison of these players crimes versus Vick’s highly publicized dogfighting crimes).

The drug progam is another hurdle back to his “old life” that Vick must clear along with facing dogfighting state charges in Virginia, possibly paying back his $22 Million dollar signing bonus to the Falcons, convincing Goodell, and finding a team/owner willing to take the heat from the PR nightmare of hiring a convicted dogfighter felon.  I definitely think if he can continue moving forward we will see someone take a shot on him…. Can you here me Al Davis??

Eagles 2007 Season is Over and Now it is Time to Look Toward the Future

(Philadelphia, Pa) — What a season for the Birds (Truly a head-scratcher)!!!  They were up and down overall with no consistency week in and week out (3-5 at home).  Donovan McNabb was on the hot seat all season as he came back from his knee injury to post some good numbers (19 TDS, 7 INT, 3,324 yards passing, 89.9 rating, 9 fumbles (5 lost), 236 yards rushing), but his game play was equally up and down, Andy Reid was his usual self despite his family issues (Passed too much, Ran too little, didn’t play draft picks, wasted timeouts, few in-game adjustments), Westbrook proved he was an elite back in the NFL (Eagles record for combined yards of 2104), Kevin Curtis was scrappy (over 1,100 yards), Trent Cole brought the wood (12.5 sacks) and three straight wins to end the regular season to finish 8-8 is “ok”.  But in the end it was another unfulfilling journey that ended with another parade less season for die-hard Eagles fans. 

I know that Andy and his staff will spin it that they were a play/game away here or there and that this team was as good as the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC —Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda  (Packers game punt return fumbles, Bears game last drive, Feely’s interceptions at the end of the Patriots and Seahawks games, etc) — but you could also do that with some of their wins (2nd Redskins game, Jets, etc).  The cold hard reality is that this team needs to take a long hard look in the mirror and figure out that they just did not have enough talent on their roster to be a “real” playoff team (only team in NFC East not in the playoffs).  Sure they could have squeaked in like the Titans, but who could they have beaten averaging less than 20 points in most games and not producing turnovers (-9).

It looks like McNabb will be back to the consternation of many fans —The end of his Eagles career is near, but unless there is a blockbuster (1st Rd pick plus additional players/Day 1 picks) he will be back next season.  Which I think is the right call considering there are only about five quarterbacks that are clearly better than him when he is healthy (too many Eli Mannings, Cleo Lemons, Rex Grossmans, and others).  I believe the best thing for the Birds if they want to catch the rest of the division and drive up the trade value for a healthy McNabb next off-season is to get him some help (ranked only 17th in the NFL in scoring with 336 points).  Free agency is an option (There are some names that I like Bears WR Bernard Berrian, Chiefs DE Jared Allen – likely to be a “franchised”, Rams LB Brandon Chillar, Patriots DB Asante Samuel and others — However $$$ will come into play and there are too many “David Patten” (veterans not worth a big deal) types on this year’s list), but the draft is where the team has to be built.  The Eagles will have several options in the draft armed with several picks including #19 in the first round, their own selections in rounds 2 through 6, Cleveland 6th rd pick (Center Hank Fraley trade), and Seattle’s 7th rd pick (Fullback Josh Parry trade).  Plus expected compensatory picks awarded in March for the loss of free agents following the 2006 season (QB Jeff Garcia, DB Michael Lewis, WR Donte Stallworth, and others).

Some things that I believe are needed going into ’08 are listed below, but you know that I don’t like this braintrust’s draft history.

— #1 I believe a playmaking Kick Returner is needed.  The Eagles finished near the bottom in the NFL in field position (29.08 yard line for a ranking of 25th), so this is must.  Don’t let me pull out the tape of the week 1 loss to Green Bay to illustrate my point.  This is a position is too important to forget and it can be fixed by bringing in a free agent like former Houston Texans Pro Bowl return man Jerome Mathis or a good Day 2 of the draft pick (4th or 5th rounds) or by bringing in an undrafted free agent.  I would love for them to consider a former college option quarterback for this role in the draft and the player that I love for this role is this year’s Walter Payton award winner from Georgia Southern QB/WR/KR Jayson Foster.  He is elusive, speedy, has moves, and went for over 1,000 yards passing and rushing in 2007. He is explosive and really reminds me of Browns Pro Bowl return man Joshua Cribbs when he came out of Kent State.

— Receiving TE: The NFL is now built around a lot of zone coverages “Cover Two” and the way to bust up zones is to have a player that can beat you underneath.  The prime example is Jason Whitten from the Dallas Cowboys.  With T.O getting coverage rolled up to his side every time, there is plenty of room for Whitten to operate and he did to a tune of over 1,000 yards in 2007.  I know the Eagles are kicking themselves for not taking a harder look at Bears emerging TE Greg Olsen before they traded their own pick (#26) last year to the Cowboys.  The Birds may decide to bring back LJ Smith, but they need more production from him.  I believe their best bet is to let him get a fresh start and look for a player in the draft to play along side developing TE Brent Celek.

— Front-line WR:  We all like what Kevin Curtis did this season, but he is an “effort” player that needs additional help.  Coach Reid may have called this year a “career” year for Reggie Brown, but who is he fooling???  The Eagles need to find a receiver that will scare the opposition and open up things for the rest of the offense, remember 2004 how great everyone looked with Owens on the field.  There have been whispers that premier receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Chad Johnson may be available due to cap issues or complacency, either one would look great for the Eagles – but don’t hold your breath. 

— DE (Cole is a fast starter and a playmaker, but he had no help.  With Jevon Kearse (4 sacks) and Darren Howard (5 sacks) done as Eagles and the DT’s playing better this area is a must as the Eagles produced only 37 sacks opposed to 40 in 2006)

–OLB (Spikes is a good guy, but no game changing plays.  LB’s only had 2 INTs and 3 sacks between all of them.)

— 3rd Corner (Lito too injury prone and Williams James/Joselio Hanson can’t cut it as a top nickelback)

— Younger safety to be groomed as Brian Dawkins (34 years old and 1 INT) replacement.  Sean Considine is a special teams player/backup at best and so is Quinton Mikell, so a player needs to be added to the mix.

— Replacement for Kicker David Akers (24 for 32 overall, but 2 for 10 from beyond 40 yards including 1 for 6 between 40 to 49 yards)

— O-Line: This unit was good in ’07, but there is glaring need for depth as Tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are getting older.  Definitely need to find a player to push underachieving Guard Todd Herramins (too many penalties) and light a fire under Winston Justice whose psyche maybe bruised.

I will have much more as the draft approaches and finished my full draft evaluation including attending the Senior Bowl.

The Top Moments/Performances to Remember from the 2007 NFL Regular Season (Part 1)

Every season there are moments that like the commercial says are “priceless”.  I have listed some of the moments/performances that I thought left an impression on the NFL in 2007. 

Week 1: New England Patriots WR Randy Moss against the Jets – In this “I am Back” performance, Moss showed that he didn’t need training camp.  After sitting out most of training camp and the pre-season with a lingering hamstring injury, Moss exploded on the New York Jets secondary for nine catches for 183 yards (20.3 ypc) with a touchdown in a shellacking 38-14 over the Jets.  The 10-year veteran receiver looked nothing like the malcontent that shuffled through the 2006 for the Oakland Raiders (42 catches, 553 yards, 13.2 ypc, and 3 TDs).  What impressed me the most about Moss’ performance was his deep 51-yard touchdown bomb that showed he still had game-breaking speed. He ended the season with a NFL Record 23 receiving touchdowns and he will be laughing all the way to the bank this off-season (Free Agent) with the Raiders only having a 4th round pick to show for it.

Week 1:  The Mike Tomlin era begins with a huge win over the hated Cleveland Browns – The Steelers kicked off the Mike Tomlin era with a thrashing of the Cleveland Browns 34 to 7 in Cleveland.  The game marked the first time in 15 years that Bill Cowher wasn’t on the sideline.  The star of the game was Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger who threw a career-high four touchdown passes as Pittsburgh built an early 17-0 lead and didn’t look back. The Browns had an embarrassing day of turnovers, sacks and poor play from starting quarterback Charlie Fry whose pitiful line was 4-for-10 for 34 yards, INT (benched and later traded opening the door for surprise quarterback Derek Anderson).  Steelers RB Willie Parker rushed for 109 yards as Pittsburgh continued their bruising style.

Week 2 Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre against the Giants – The tales of the future Hall of Famer’s demise were greatly exaggerated as he showed the world that the 2007 season was going to be something special for the 38-year old quarterback.  With his line protecting him, Favre led the Packers to their six straight regular season victory. The Packers got off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2001 and Favre won his record setting 149th career victory over the Giants 35-13.  In the game, the “old gray beard” threw for 29-of-38 for 286 yards with 3 TD’s and one interception. 

Week 2: The Patriots put “spygate” in their rearview mirror against the Chargers– In what was billed as the weekend’s grudge match, it never materialized as the Patriots took a 24-0 halftime lead and coasted to a dominating 38-14 victory over the Chargers in Foxboro.  The Patriots were led by QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick and I believe they wanted to show last year’s regular season champ and the entire NFL that they didn’t need to cheat in winning their 3 Super Bowls.  The players wanted to backup their coach after the NFL fined Belichick $500,000, the team another $250,000, and made them forfeit a first-round draft pick in ’08 for “spygate”.  Brady (25-31, 279 yards w/ 3 TDs) said, “After everything that went on this week, we wanted to do our best for him”.  Patriots WR Randy Moss had his second straight 100-yard receiving game including two touchdowns and big time free agent signee LB Adalius Thomas returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown.  2006 NFL MVP Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson could not back up his boasts that he wanted the Pats by running for only 43 yards on 18 carries.

Week 3: Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb against the Lions – After enduring a tough home loss to the Redskins on MNF and receiving arrows from everywhere regarding his interview with HBO’s Real Sports, Big 5 took off his knee brace and dismantled the Lions.  He was at first greeted by more than a smattering of boos from fans, but they quickly turned to cheers as McNabb led the way in a 56-21 rout.  He was pinpoint and had a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3, finishing 21-26 passing for 381 yards and four touchdowns.  I don’t know if it was the throwback uniforms, the chip on his shoulder or his repoirre with wide receiver Kevin Curtis, but it was evident McNabb came to play and to silence his critics. After the game he said about his comments, “What’s been said has been said” and “Sometimes reality hurts. Some people don’t want to accept it. Some people feel they aren’t a part of it. But I don’t take it back. I don’t regret it.”

Week 3: One of the few shining moments for the Ravens as they beat the Cardinals at the gun – In a game that came down to the final play, the Ravens showed that good defense and special teams are keys to winning the NFL taking down the Cardinals 26-23 in Baltimore. After Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner rallied the Arizona Cardinals from a 17-point deficit, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller moved the Ravens into position for a 46-yard game-winning field goal by veteran kicker Matt Stover as time expired. The Ravens only had one offensive touchdown, as KR Yamon Figur’s 75-yard touchdown punt return and Stover (4 FGs and 2 XPs) accounted for the other 20 points.  The game-winner by Stover was the 13th of his career.  The win would be one of few good moments for the Ravens in a season where head coach Brian Billick would be fired at the end and they limped home with a 5-11 record.

Week 4: Revenge Weekend – There must have been something in the air this weekend as several coaches and players had happy/unhappy reunions (depending which side you were on).

  • Raiders starting QB Daunte Culpepper – After being acrimoniously released by the Dolphins this summer due to supposed knee woes, Culpepper had this one circled on his calendar.  In an in-your face my knee is fine win, Culpepper got his roll on for 5 touchdowns (2 passing and 3 rushing).
  • Cardinals coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were both passed over for the vacant Steelers head coaching job, but they got the last laugh on their old team.  The Cardinals behind a two-headed monster at quarterback and big kick return by Steve Breaston gave the Steelers their first loss of the season 21-14 in Phoenix.
  • Browns RB Jamal Lewis overpowered the vaunted Ravens defense in a big home win.  In the game, he showed that his old team gave up on him too early rushing for 64 yards including a big 23 yarder and a touchdown.
  • Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a former Eagles coach, showed that he knew the entire Eagles game plan and weaknesses as his unit held the Birds to three little points in a home win.  By the way did I mention the franchise and NFL record 12 sacks the Giants registered.

Week 4: New York Giants DE Osi Umenyiora against the Eagles – Poor, Poor Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice as the stout Giants sack man had a game for the ages collecting six sacks setting a franchise record and came within an eyelash of tying Derrick Brooks NFL record (7).  He also forced two fumbles and I am sure that Justice (very bad first start), who was victimized for most of the sacks will not be sending him flowers anytime soon.  The Eagles offense was befuddled for the entire game and the Giants D-line was the main cause.  The unit totaled a NFL record 12 sacks and limited the Eagles to 190 net yards in a 16 – 3 win. To give you perspective on the number of sacks NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said “12 sacks in one game?  Peyton Manning was sacked 14 times all of last year.”

Week 5: The Bills almost pull of the impossible in a near upset of the undefeated Cowboys on Monday Night Football – I will say it, “The Cowboys did not deserve to win this game”. The game marked the first time since 2000 that MNF was in Buffalo.  Ralph Wilson Stadium was rocking — and there wasn’t even a hockey game in the venerable stadium – as the “hated” Cowboys came back to beat the Bills 25-24 in front of a packed house.  This was the most improbable victory I have ever seen.  The Cowboys were lucky enough to overcome quarterback Tony Romo throwing 5 INTs with two returned for TDs and 1 fumble lost.  They also had to weather key drops by receiver Terrell Owens and miraculously recover an on-side kick to setup the last second game-winning field goal.  It was the first time in NFL History that a team won a game when it was a minus-5 on turnover differential.

Week 5: Indianapolis RB Kenton Keith against the Buccaneers –The Colts once again showed the quality of depth on their roster — good job GM Bill Polian and Coach Tony Dungy — as their injury replacement for star runner Joseph Addai proved to be so much more.  The former New Mexico State and Saskatchewan Roughrider (CFL) back carried the ball 28 times gaining 121 yards with two touchdowns in the Colts’ 33 – 14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Week 6: New England Patriots QB Tom Brady against the Cowboys– This may have been a Super Bowl preview as Tom “Terrific” shined in a Pats win.  In his 100th career start, the Patriots signal caller showed why he is the hands down favorite for the MVP.  He threw a career high five touchdown passes, going 30 of 45 for 377 yards. He also went in the record books passing Steve Young to become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least three TD pass in the first six games of the season. The victory also raised Brady’s record to 24-4 as a starter vs. the NFC, including his three Super Bowl wins.

Week 6: Carolina Panthers QB Vinny Testaverde against the Cardinals – In one of this season’s most incredible stories, the 43-year old Testaverde joined the team on Wednesday and then led them to a 25-10 win over the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday.  In the game, he became the third-oldest starting QB since 1970, but he was efficient completing 20-of-33 passes for 206 yards and one touchdown.  The former Heisman Trophy winner (1986) also leapt into the record books becoming the first quarterback to have twenty-one straight seasons with a TD pass and becoming the oldest starting quarterback to win a game.

Week 7: Tennessee Titans Kicker Rob Bironas – That’s right a kicker made to my memorable moments despite my “love-hate” relationship for the smallest players on NFL rosters.  In week 7, no kicker has had a great performance ever than Bironas.  He sent an NFL-record eight field goals through the uprights in a crazy 38-36 victory over the Texans on the road.  Bironas’ kicks included a game winning 29-yarder as time expired and others of 52, 25, 21, 30, 28, 43, and 29.

Week 7:  Kansas City Chiefs Defensive End Jared Allen against the Bengals – The high-motor sometimes wacky Chiefs defensive end after serving a two game suspension for alcohol related events, showed why he is a bonafide defensive MVP candidate.  Allen dominated the Bengals contributing 8 TKLs, 2 sacks (ninth career multi-sack game), and 2 FF while chasing quarterback Carson Palmer all day.  Allen produced an NFL leading 15.5 sacks and was the main highlight for the low-light Chiefs going 4-1 with him after a 0-2 start. 

Week 8: New England Patriots OLB Mike Vrabel against the Redskins In a game that would cement the Patriots image as the “evil empire”, the veteran linebacker was everywhere (Offense, Defense, and Special Teams) in the Pats humiliating 52-7 win over the Redskins. In his primary role as the Patriots jack-of-trades linebacker (asked to cover, play the run, and rush the passer), Vrabel gave  ‘Skins quarterback Jason Campbell’s nightmares as he produced 13 tackles, 3 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles with one being recovered for a touchdown.  If that was not enough on offense, he played as a tight end in the redzone and he caught his tenth career touchdown on a 2-yard pass from Tom Brady to give the Patriots a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.  As if he didn’t do enough, the former Ohio State defensive end even fielded a Redskins onside kick in the fourth quarter.

Week 8: Philadelphia Eagles DE Trent Cole against the Vikings – The Eagles pass-rushing end told me when I visited with him in training camp “You have to get after it and you need to have the dog in you to make plays” and that is exactly what he did in the Eagles 23-16 win over the Vikings.  Cole all year was the Eagles main force on defense.  In this game he showed why he deserved high Pro Bowl consideration as he contributed eight tackles, two sacks and applying constant pressured on Vikings quarterbacks.  He finished the year with 12.5 sacks.