Here's our Week Six NFL wrap-up, with a smattering of college highlights and a series of etiquette tips you won't find in Ladies Home Journal.
Public service announcement
The 225 Club
Research Council has determined that your average overweight, unhealthy and mildly alcoholic middle-aged male can consume 31 deep-fried Buffalo wings
in a single sitting before suffering major chest pain – 35 wings if you're a little liberal in your definition of "major chest pain."
Woe are the Football Gods
Missed the end of the Jacksonville-Pittsburgh game Sunday, a 23-17 overtime win by the Jaguars?
You missed one of the most inept displays of football in recent history – a true battle of who wanted it less. The game began to unravel with 3:32 left in regulation, when Pittsburgh placekicker Jeff Reed botched a 46-yard field goal that would have given the Steelers a 20-17 lead.
Jacksonville's final drive in regulation, meanwhile, was marred by four incomplete passes, a sack, a roughing the passer penalty and, finally, an interception by Bryant McFadden in the end zone with 19 seconds to play (on third down, no less), which killed Jacksonville's chances at a game-winning field goal attempt.
And then it got ugly.
Here's a play-by-play breakdown of overtime, with the sad, sorrowful lament of the Pigskin Sirens as they watch two teams unravel before their very eyes.
Special teams, long Pittsburgh's Achilles' heel, came through with a clutch performance as Quincy Morgan returned the opening kickoff of overtime 74 yards, giving the Steelers the ball in easy, game-winning position at the Jacksonville 26.
1st and 10 – Willie Parker fumbles and falls on the ball for a loss of 3
2nd and 13 – Parker carries for 2 yards
3rd and 11 – Tommy Maddox fumbles the snap, Jacksonville recovers at its own 36
1st and 10 – incomplete pass
2nd and 10 – Matt Jones runs a reverse, loses 7 yards
3rd and 17 – Jacksonville whistled for false start
3rd and 22 – incomplete pass
4th and 22 – Jacksonville whistled for illegal man downfield on punt
4th and 27 – punt to Antwaan Randle El gives Pittsburgh the ball at its own 35
1st and 10 – incomplete pass
2nd and 10 – Maddox tosses an interception to Rashean Mathis, who returned it 41 yards for game-winning TD
Deadpanned NBC announcer Dan Dierdorf: "Maddox had just about as bad a day as a quarterback could have." Maddox went 11 for 28 for 154 yards with 1 touchdown, 3 INTs and a lost fumble
Deadpanned the Cold, Hard Football Facts: "What kind of grown man still goes by 'Tommy'?"
The Jaguars committed 11 penalties for 106 yards in the victory. In the last three games, they've been flagged 36 times for 323 yards and, over the course of six games this season, 58 times for 468 yards.
Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward, by the way, had never missed a game in his career – dating all the way back to youth football – before Sunday's loss to Jacksonville.
Every team suffers injuries in the NFL, and many times they suffer catastrophic injuries. Sometimes, however, the same team suffers so many injuries over such a long period that it's no longer fate or bad luck. There comes a time, then, when fans, reporters and the team itself must look inward to see if the problem is systemic – that is, if there's a problem with the way the team operates its strength and conditioning programs, its off- and on-season training regimens and even its practices.
New England has reached that point.
Week after week – for three long years – the New England injury list has read like a D-Day casualty report. This is the same team, of course, that famously won Super Bowl XXXVIII fielding 41 different starters, the most ever by a Super Bowl champion.
In Sunday's 28-20 loss to Denver, the team's top two ballcarriers were out with injuries: Kevin Faulk missed his second straight game, while Corey Dillon was in uniform, but was for all intents and purposes a gameday scratch. He never stepped on the field.
Starting left tackle Matt Light, of course, is out for the season.
All-World defensive lineman Richard Seymour missed yet another game and has appeared in just five of New England's last nine games. (He's also missed each of the last two games the Patriots have played against the Broncos, a team with famously questionable offensive line tactics.) Backup defensive lineman Marquise Hill has missed half the season.
The defensive backfield, meanwhile, is once again decimated – even worse than it was last year when, in the Super Bowl, it started undrafted rookie free agent Randall Gay and fielded nickelbacks Troy Brown, a converted wide receiver, and Hank Poteat, who was picked up off the street just days before the 2004 playoffs began.
Now, certainly, some injuries are clearly the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rodney Harrison, who tore every ligament in his knee when a player rolled up on his leg, clearly falls into that category. But one year of an unusually high number of injuries is bad luck; two years is a coincidence; three or four years is a trend. A disturbing trend.
One place to look is at the strength and conditioning program. When Belichick joined the Patriots in 2000, he got rid of strength coach Johnny Parker (now with San Francisco) and replaced him with Mike Woicik. Now, Woicik's credentials are impeccable – he owns six Super Bowl rings, three with Dallas and three with New England. But, clearly, the Patriots are a team that's prone to injuries and, on a team that prides itself on internal accountability, it's time to ask if the problem is systemic and not just the result of three-plus years of "bad luck."
Historic, league-wide injury data is hard to come by, but we're going to dig up as much as we can to see how New England's three-year spate of major injuries compares to other teams. We're guessing it's rather abnormal. But, if it's not, we'll tell you if our hunch is wrong.
Public service announcement
It's considered gauche in some circles to double-dip the blue cheese using a denuded Buffalo wing bone as a scoop.
It's worse than you thought
New England led the league in scoring defense in 2003 (238 points allowed) and finished second in scoring defense in 2004 (260 PA).
As of Monday, Oct. 17, 2005, New England is 31st in the league, surrendering 164 points in just six games (27.3 PPG). Only New Orleans (173 PA) is worse.
The Patriots have surrendered more than 20 points in eight straight games, dating back to the AFC title game. It's just the second time in franchise history that the Patriots have surrendered 20 or more points in eight straight games – and remember, until 2001, this was one of the most sorrowful franchises in sports. In 1972, the Patriots surrendered more than 20 points in 13 of 14 games, including the first 12 games of the season.
The year 1972, by the way, was one of the low points in the history of an organization that has had many. The team went 3-11 and coach John Mazur, after a 2-7 mark, was replaced midseason by interim coach Phil Bengston, who proceeded to lead the team to a nifty 1-4 mark. (Bengston was then replaced before the 1973 season by University of Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks.)
The 1972 Patriots had the worst defense in football that season, by a wide margin. They surrendered 446 points (or 31.9 PPG). And remember, this was in pro football's great "dead ball" era
, a period when defenses ruled the day. Considering the context of its time, the 1972 Patriots defense was one of the very worst in NFL history. By comparison, the Houston Oilers, who had the second worst defense in football that season, surrendered a relatively solid 380 points (27.1 PPG).
It's sad, but that's the company in which the once-proud New England defense currently finds itself.
St. Louis, which plays Indy on Monday Night Football, has surrendered 148 points this season and could bump New England out of the 31st spot if it gives up more than 16 points tonight. Not a good sign when a defense is hoping it can break the Top 30.
Doubling up on the D
The Patriots have surrendered 32.3 PPG in the three contests since the loss of Rodney Harrison. In the previous 36 regular season games in which Harrison played for New England, the Patriots surrendered 16.0 PPG.
As of Week Six, the Broncos are the team to beat in the AFC, with a 3-0 mark against quality opponents
. And, no, that doesn't include Denver's domination of New England. The Patriots are now 3-3 and do not currently qualify as a quality opponent.
Denver, 5-1 overall, is undefeated against 3-2 Kansas City, 4-2 Jacksonville and 3-2 Washington.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, is the most battle-tested team in the NFL after six weeks. The Jaguars are the only team in football that has faced five quality opponents, and they boast a rather solid 3-2 mark in those games. Only three other teams have at least four games against quality opponents: New England (2-2), Washington (2-2) and San Diego (1-3).
The making of a coach – and history
David Halberstam is one of America's great historians, probably best known for his seminal look at the Kennedy years, "The Best and the Brightest." He has also built something of a cottage industry writing sports histories, with baseball books such as "Summer of '49" and "October 1964."
His newest book is his first major foray into football. "The Education of a Coach" is a look at the influences on Bill Belichick. Excerpts from the book are published in the latest edition of Sports Illustrated (Oct. 17, 2005 – the issue with Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman Dwight Freeney on the cover).
The excerpts are interesting for two reasons: One, because of an oversight by us and, two, because of an oversight (possibly) by Halberstam.
We reported last season
, and again this past weekend
, on the short five degrees of separation between Knute Rockne, arguably the greatest coach of all time, and Bill Belichick, the best coach in contemporary pro football. Of course, one of the linchpins connecting Rockne to Belichick is none other than Vince Lombardi himself, arguably the greatest coach in pro football history.
It's compelling football history, of course, that there's such a close connection between so many of the greatest names in coaching over the past 80 years.
Well, according to Halberstam, the connections are even closer than we realized: in fact, there are just three degrees of separation between Rockne and Belichick, despite the several decades that stand between their coaching careers. (Rockne died in 1931, 21 years before Belichick was born, and last coached in 1930, 61 years before Belichick landed his first pro head coaching job.)
In the Sports Illustrated excerpts, Halbestram reports that one of the most profound influences on Belichick's coaching career – after his dad, Steve, a former Navy coach – is his prep school coach Steve Sorota.
Sorota coached at Fordham, under head coach Jim Crowley. What Halberstam does not report (at least in the SI excerpt) is that Crowley played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame.
Even the most ardent contemporary football fan might not know the name Jim Crowley, but the most casual observer has heard of him and his three college backfield mates: together, they were known as the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, the most famous, and arguably the greatest, offensive backfield in college football history.
Halfbacks Crowley and Don Miller, quarterback Harry Stulhldreher and fullback Elmer Layden played together from 1922 to 1924. Miller was a 1923 All-American. Crowley, Layden and Stuhldreher were All-Americans the following season. The Notre Dame team of 1924, the year in which the term "Four Horsemen" was coined by sportswriter Grantland Rice, remains the only team in
college football history to field four All-Americans in the same backfield.
We traced the possible Rockne influences on Belichick here
. However, the connection as reported by Halberstam is pretty damn short and tight – shorter and tighter than we realized: Rockne coached Crowley at Notre Dame, who coached with Sorota at Fordham when it was a national power, who coached Belichick at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
That's just two men between Rockne and Belichick, each coach the best of their era, and one of the links in this very short chain is one of the greatest legends in football history.
Public service announcement
After several weeks of neglect, the Troika Tracker
will return tomorrow. We thank those of you who wrote to colorfully express your displeasure with us for failing to update it in recent weeks. You'll be giddy like a school girl tomorrow after seeing our chronicle of yet another embarrassing effort by ESPN's Sunday night broadcast crew of Paul Maguire, Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann.
Dwight is right
Indy's surprising defense (5.8 points allowed per game through Week Five) is the subject of the aforementioned SI cover article.
The cover offers a quote from Colts sackmaster Dwight Freeney: "Ever since I've been here, people have gone crazy over the offense and said that the defense sucks. Well, guess what?"
Here's what: ever since you've been in Indy, Freeney, we've been with you, buddy. We've been telling the seedy underworld of online pigskin trolls that it's the Indy offense that sucks – at least in the postseason – and that it's the Indy offense that has cost your team one playoff win after another. We grew quite sick of listening to all the hype about the leaky postseason water pistol of a fradulent offense you've had to play with, and can imagine that you were even sicker about it.
Now, this year, the Indy defense just might have enough to lead the Colts to the Super Bowl – provided it can overcome the most chokeaholic offense in NFL history. To do so, Freeney and company may have to hold the opposition to fewer than six points per game. After all, the Indy offense has scored just 5.7 points per game (yes, that's not a misprint) in its last three postseason losses.
Now that sucks.
Public service announcement
While ESPN has cornered the market on fulltime sports broadcasting, we have long felt that its print magazine fell woefully short of the standards set by Sports Illustrated.
Apparently, you agree. In a CHFF Troll Poll we conducted earlier this season, Sports Illustrated topped the list as your favorite sports magazine, garnering 41 percent of the vote. Big 'Uns came in second, with 36 percent of the vote from those of you who consider imaginary boobies in a fictional magazine a perfectly legitimate form of sports coverage.
ESPN the Magaizne earned just 7 percent of the vote, putting it in a tie for last place with plucky little Football Digest.
Off the sauce?
Those of you in the Boston area know that local legend Bob Lobel has become something of a comedy act in the New England sports world. He repeatedly fumbles and stumbles as he attempts to hold together the Patriots postgame show. His on-camera gaffes have fueled widespread rumors about alleged drinking and womanizing habits that have landed him time and again in Boston gossip pages.
Well, you gotta give credit where credit's due, and Lobel was truly on top of his game yesterday, nailing one witty one-liner after another.
In a postgame interview, New England safety Eugene Wilson told reporters that it was up to cornerback Duane Starks to make plays during the game (Starks was burned for two long passes by Denver receivers). As the interview ended and the show was tossed back to the studio, Lobel responsed by saying: "The team may be getting on the bus, but Starks was thrown under it."
Earlier in the show, he referred to Belichick's famously dour press conferences as a "tour de force in stoicism."
Line of the week
Lobel's material was great ... but nothing topped what pint-sized former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said to beefy former NFL offensive lineman Mark May during ESPN's college wrap-up show Saturday night.
Another former Notre Dame coach-turned-ESPN broadcaster, Bob Davie, was in the booth at halftime of the Florida State-Virginia game and was talking to Holtz and May in studio. The topic, of course, was USC's epic 34-31 victory earlier that day at Notre Dame.
Davie said that USC quarterback Matt Leinart was aided into the end zone by an illegal push from running back Reggie Bush and that the refs should have called a 15-yard penalty on the offense. Replays show that Bush clearly aided Leinart into the end zone.
Holtz made the same comment to May earlier in the broadcast.
This prompted May to jump all over Holtz and Davie: "What's with you former ND coaches?" he said, apparently annoyed.
Holtz simply shot back: "Ever been whipped by a 5-10, 152-pound old man?"
May, of course, is no pushover. He was one of the famous "Hogs" on the Redskins offensive line in the 1980s. But even he quickly backed down from the puny and pugnacious old coach.
NBC's cross marketing
The USC-Notre Dame instant classic even made it into NBC's Saturday night broadcast of NASCAR's UAW-GM Quality 500 from Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
Michael Waltrip was being interviewed in his car during a red-flag stop late in the race. After touting virtually ever sponsor in the history of NASCAR, he said, "Hey, how about that USC-Notre Dame game?!"
NBC, of course, counts NASCAR and Notre Dame among its biggest sports partners.
Public service announcement
It's considered gauche in some circles, especially in your own home, to hide Buffalo wings from your wife by sticking them in between the cushions of the sofa. It's considered especially gauche to forget about them for three weeks.
San Antonio adopts New Orleans
More than 65,000 fans packed the Alamo Dome in San Antonio to watch their adopted New Orleans Saints battle Atlanta.
The crowd was vociferous in its support of the Saints. Unfortunately, they experienced a classically embarrassing ending for a struggling, second-rate and homeless franchise once dubbed the Aints and that, even before the hurricane, basically had to beg its hometown fans to come out for its games.
The Saints out-battled the Falcons for much of the game. However, Atlanta turned three New Orleans turnovers into 21 points, and the teams were locked in a 31-31 tie with just six seconds to play.
That's when Atlanta kicker Todd Peterson lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt ...
... and missed.
But then came the flag. Saints defensive lineman Tony Bryant was whistled for defensive holding (a very rare call), apparently for grabbing an opposing blocker. It had little to do with the outcome of the play – Peterson's kick simply sailed wide left. But the Falcons were given another try, and Peterson made good on his chance at redemption.
It was a sad-sack ending for a sad-sack franchise that can't seem to shake its history, even when playing 550 miles from its former home.
But credit the fans of San Antonio. They came out in full force, cheered the Saints throughout the game, went wild when Peterson missed his first kick – and then booed lustily when the refs stole a chance at victory out of the hands of their adopted team.
But that's just part of the deal for long-suffering Saints fans. Welcome to the club, San Antonio.