As we do every week, let’s take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of random things…
So, what’s been up?
1. The Buccaneers have a serious challenge today in facing the Cowboys, but they will have some big-time weapons to use. One of them is blue-chip receiver Vincent Jackson, a monstrously tall former Chargers star who was the prize of this free agent class. He has nine catches for 175 yards in two games, and QB Josh Freeman seems to have already built a connection with him. As Cowboys CB Brandon Carr was telling me, Freeman is already following the lead of Chargers QB Philip Rivers. “They both have the same mentality,” Carr said. “They’re going to throw it up, go up and make a play.” Even when Jackson is covered, he’s open. But one thing I thought was really interesting this week came up in conversation when Jackson and I talked on the phone. I wondered how he had bonded so quickly with Freeman. Turns out, Jackson moved to Tampa permanently. It’s his home. That helps explain why he’s immediately become a team leader, being voted a captain already. He is there for the long haul.
“The fact that it hasn’t stopped since we got here,” Jackson told me, when I asked what has been the best thing about bonding with Freeman. “I showed up here in March, and we’ve been together ever since. I moved out here, this has been my permanent home since OTAs and offseason training. I’ve been out here full-time. This is home for me. As much as we spend time together here at work, we’re able to hang out, go check out a Rays baseball game, go grab dinner, just hang out and chat and grow personally off the field and for our relationship. We’re talking on and off the field, as far as matchups. We’re watching the same football games are home, he’s calling me, texting me, ‘Hey, you see that play?’ Just stuff like that. It’s just kinda fun. He’s a great young QB, and I think he has ultimate potential to be a great QB in this league for a long time. It’s great working with him. He’s competitive, he’s hungry like me. He has a drive to be really good, so it’s exciting to play with him.”
2. We checked in with Ravens S Bernard Pollard earlier in the week, as he put a smiley face on his role as one of the Patriots all-time villains. But, just for me, Pollard also relived his experience in the AFC title game loss. No, he wasn’t pleased about it. “They capitalized on some plays and we didn’t,” Pollard told me. “It sucks to have to relive that. It sucks to have to have gone through that.” In the next breath, though, Pollard hit on an interesting similarity between Baltimore and New England. As he noted, Baltimore needs to understand who it is playing tonight. Pollard believes there is serious respect for the Patriots, who have been “dominant for a decade.” Allow Pollard to explain his respect.
“Coach (Bill) Belichick … the dude has a great mind,” Pollard told me. “He knows how to put guys in great positions, he knows who to get. He’s not going out to get the best players, he’s going out to get somebody who fits his team. And that’s kinda the way the Ravens are. So, you got two teams who don’t ever draft high. They’re looking to trade out of their pick, they’re looking to pick a guy up that fits their system. Like other teams go in and want to get the best guy and want to trade up for the number one pick, number two and three. They want to get the best guy for their system. … It’s going to be a great game.“
3. The Eagles have a ridiculous number of D-linemen, often boasting as many as nine. They rotate liberally, and thanks in part to Jim Washburn’s expertise as D-line coach, they often dominate. So, how do they do it? What is the method to their madness? In kind of a cool moment late in the post-game locker room for the Eagles last Sunday, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo explained in an in-depth manner how they rush. He was doing so in response to a question about how well rookie Fletcher Cox has come along. “It’s understanding the blocking schemes, you know?” Castillo said. “And then understanding the technique here. Because it’s not just, everybody thinks it’s just rush the quarterback. But what it is is, you rush, then you crush, then you close. What do you mean by that? Well, when you rush, when you get off the ball, if it’s a pass, you continue rushing the quarterback. If it’s a run, and the offensive linemen block you. Now, you’re trying to take that offensive linemen right back to the back. All right, if you rush and the offensive linemen blocks down, then you have to be able to react and close. Well, you know, that’s not easy. They’ve been working on that really hard.”
4. One interesting storyline here in Dallas this week has focused on TE Jason Witten. The perennial Pro Bowler has four drops in two games, with three coming last week. Though he did battle through a horrific spleen injury, showing insane toughness in doing so, his play is still being questioned. When you never make a mental error and have few physical errors, a couple in a row may be cause for concern. In fact, a story in the Dallas Morning News (that has now disappeared) wondered if his time was running out. That seems to be nonsense, really. He’s still getting open. The TE still had 58 yards receiving against the Seahawks, while so few others were open. He just had some drops, which may mean he’s rusty from not practicing, as opposed to being old. It’s amazing how brutal it is out there when a few drops lead some to wonder if you’re on the way down. Of course, if this is a down year for Witten, as one sage reporter pointed out to me this week, the Seahawks game will be the game we point to as the beginning of the end. But I don’t see it like that. Neither does passing coordinator John Garrett, who called his drops “an anomaly. … I’ve noticed, others have noticed that he’s playing faster than he ever has,” Garrett said. “Look at tape this year compared to last year, my God he’s so much faster. A testament to the offseason, how he continues to stay in great shape as he plays year after year in the NFL.”
5. It’s getting to the point now, for the Giants, where we might want to ignore any injuries. I mean, what’s the point? Fans kind of freak out about who is out, reporters spend all this time researching and reporting and trying to figure out what it means and who is where. And none of it matters. They perform the same. It was that way last year, when they were hit hard early, hit hard late, hit at tight end in the Super Bowl… and then won it all. Well, more of the same against a Panthers team I thought would give them a really good game. Before they played the Panthers, word came the Giants would be missing WR Hakeem Nicks, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, OL David Diehl and CB Michael Coe. Whatever. It was dudes like WR Ramses Barden and RB Andre Brown tearing it up while filling in, even if no one besides the most hardcore Giants fan had ever heard of them. When safety Antrel Rolle went out, another guy I’d never heard of named Stevie Brown made the pick. Are you kidding? So, anyway, I’m done. Unless it’s Eli Manning going down, I am never caring about another Giants injury ever again. They sure don’t.
6. Another thing I need to ban myself from? Deciding that a player is a bust before, at least, we see him in Year 3. I remember thinking Bills RB C.J. Spiller was a bust after Year 1, with him being mostly a non-factor with just 283 rushing yards. It’s like they couldn’t decide whether he was a back, receiver, or what. And they already had RB Fred Jackson, so where did he fit? And last year, while Spiller showed flashes, was there any evidence that Spiller would fulfill his calling as a Top 10 pick? Maybe how he ran last year against the Dolphins and Broncos, but because the Bills were out of it, we weren’t even paying attention. Well… we are paying attention now. Spiller has been the breakout star of 2011, gaining 10.1 yards per rush in two games. The Bills are a real contender to make the playoffs, and Spiller has a key role. See, with all the focus on QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, if Spiller can continue to be nasty and that D can begin to come together, Fitzpatrick can just be average and they’ll get in. At this point — I hate to say this — but they are looking better than the Jets, even though the Jets beat them. I wish I didn’t think that, because it doesn’t quite make sense. But I think the Jets will finish behind the Bills. And the electric former Clemson star will be a reason why. So, anyway, if you’re keeping score at home: Not a bust.
7. Speaking of the Jets (kinda), what in the world happened in the locker room when LB Bart Scott and a reporter from JetsConfidential.com tried to fight each other? I mean, I know what happened, but come on, guys! On one hand, I get Scott’s annoyance. It’s common courtesy not to take a picture of a player without a shirt. And if a reporter is getting shut out of interviews, it’s not that cool to take a picture of Scott talking with another reporter to try to show him up. At some point, we all get shut out by some guy or another. It’s part of being critical. Sometimes, the people you rip don’t like you. What can you do? On the other hand, Scott needs to stop being a little kid. Boycotting the media is lame. Throwing a fit in a locker room surrounded by cameras is lame. If you really are a leader, just be a leader. If you don’t like what the media is saying about you, however true it is, stand up like a man, step to the microphone, and tell them they are wrong. Hiding behind a ridiculous, self-imposed boycott is what you do if you can’t handle the criticism. If you aren’t tough enough in the toughest media market. Yet Scott dishes it out. Why can he not take it? And how will that look to the younger players, especially those who put themselves in the line of fire after a bad loss? I mean this with all the respect in the world: Everyone needs to grow up and be professional.
8. The replacement officials have been in the news a ton over the last few weeks, and our dude Albert Breer has been all over it. I don’t have much an opinion on the labor dispute, mostly because it’s always on both sides when you can’t come to an agreement. And I’m a pragmatist. The reality is, the replacement officials are here for now, so that’s what it is. We deal with it. But I do have one very specific point to make, first discussed by Rams CB Cortland Finnegan. I kinda like what has happened on pass plays, with defensive backs being allowed to play. Seems like everyone is being allowed to play more. I like how the DBs have taken a little back from the receivers, as it seems contact downfield has become more acceptable. That’s not an argument for replacement refs. That’s just a comment in that I like this style of play. It’s simply not realistic to be hands-off the entire play for a defensive back and still have a shot. Bump-and-run, if you ask me, is closer to the way it should be. Of course, there are more holding penalties allowed, so that’s the other side. And that probably negates the advantage for a defense. But the game has become a little more physical downfield, which has been fun to watch. It’s allowed the shutdown corner to actually return to the world. I wouldn’t mind if that stuck around when the real refs arrive. But hey, that’s just me. I also favor option football, so what the heck do I know?
9. One bizarre story that came out a week ago after the Dolphins win over the Raiders revolved around GM Jeff Ireland. Reportedly, he got into it with a fan, calling him an expletive and storming off during the game. Yikes. It was ugly all around. As a team official, Ireland needs to have better self-control and awareness than to curse out a fan. In reality, he probably shouldn’t even be walking around where fans can grab him during a game, just to avoid any possibility of this happening. He should know, by now, that essentially everything he says is on the record. However… there is a certain kind of person that walks up to your face, in person, and tells you you’re terrible at your job. There is a certain kind of person who thinks it’s OK to berate someone by walking right up to them and doing so in public. I don’t want to give Ireland an excuse. If you are a public figure, I guess that’s part of the deal. But have some human decency. Have some respect for a man who has a job. No, Ireland hasn’t been all that great at it. The Dolphins are bad. But he is no less of a human being. Maybe it made the dude feel better to curse Ireland out. I don’t know. But just because a team is bad, doesn’t mean fans are allowed to become subhuman. At least, I hope not.