I had just taken my seat on my flight from Atlanta to New Orleans, one of the few Niners fans on a plane where anyone wearing Ravens gear had been given a complimentary drink ticket, when a man wearing a red leather jacket and a different shade of red jeans sauntered up the aisle. He was carrying a red duffel bag. A meaningful percentage of his zippers were gold. He stopped at the row in front of me, looked up at his ticket, and sighed. It was Ma$e. He had been assigned a middle seat.
When I decided to count down the 22 most important players in Sunday’s Super Bowl, I didn’t imagine it was going to be all that hard. I mean, there are 44 total starters; picking half of them should be doable. Then I actually started.
Let me first explain what this list is actually supposed to represent. These aren’t the 22 best players in the Super Bowl or the 22 players I expect to make the biggest impact. This is my best attempt at figuring out which 22 players matter most, and that proved to be more difficult than I’d planned.
Even with some cheating (a few guys at similar positions are listed together, so actually there are 27 players. I'm not sorry), there are some notable omissions that I don’t feel great about. Jonathan Goodwin has been one of the best centers in football this year, but for the purposes of this list, he’s out. Not a single Ravens cornerback is listed, which isn’t to say that Corey Graham and Cary Williams won’t play a part; it’s to say that how San Francisco uses Michael Crabtree doesn’t make one side or area of the field more important than another. Dennis Pitta has been invaluable for the Ravens’ offense since Jim Caldwell took over, but I still think he’s been Joe Flacco’s third most important receiver in the playoffs. With all that in mind, here are the guys who actually did make the final cut.
Grantland's Rembert Browne is in New Orleans for Super Bowl week, and he has some very specific goals in mind: (1) to chronicle everything seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt — emotionally, (2) to wake up first and fall asleep last, (3) to make his way into events he has no business attending, and (4) to somehow talk to Beyoncé. We don't exactly know where he'll be at any given time, but we've asked for at least two dispatches a day, if for no other reason than to know he's still alive.
Tuesday, January 29. 3:15 p.m. CST. Approximately 124 hours until Beyoncé.
The Scene: Super Bowl Media Day. Immediate Reaction: A zoo, but between the media and the athletes in attendance, it was unclear who were the spectators and who were the animals.
The Rules: Each team enters the arena for about an hour, with the more prominent players and coaches having personalized booths set up to sit and field questions, with the rest of the lot roaming the grounds, doing whatever they please, until someone stops them and asks to talk.
In celebration of the NFL's release of the all-22 and end zone film for the 2012 season, each week we'll be bringing you the best in offensive- and defensive-line play. For the winners of last week's Trenchies, click here.
The Deacon Jones Award for Excellence in Pass Rushing Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins, and Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
There were more important games this past Sunday, and there were better ones, but for the guy who writes this post every week, it doesn’t get much better than Dolphins-49ers. Miami’s defensive front seven is one of the best in football. The 49ers’ offensive line is the best. And each defense can claim one of the best four pass rushers in the league, each with a style uniquely his own. It was those two guys who defined Sunday afternoon, and they did it in the way they always do.
The conversation about Defensive Player of the Year, and about the league’s best pass rushers, has mostly been limited to three players: Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, and Von Miller. Mostly, this is a product of sack totals, where those three, in that order, lead the league. Coming off a three-sack game against San Francisco, Cameron Wake is fourth on that list with 14.0 on the season, but understanding just how good he’s been requires more than that total. According to Football Outsiders, only Clay Matthews had more quarterback hits than Wake in 2011, only Tamba Hali had more hurries, and no player drew more holding penalties.
This season, Wake is the league’s most productive pass rusher when it matters most. According to Pro Football Focus, on third and fourth down, no player has more total or per-rush pressures than Wake, who barely edged out Von Miller for the top spot. In situations where he can pin those ears back, no one has been better, and that’s because in a lot of ways, Wake is the classic pass rusher.
This week's podcast started with mixed emotions. For as much joy as I had for Ephraim attending his good friend Chester Pitts's wedding, it just wasn't the same without him in the studio. Colors just seemed less bright, ya know?
We powered through though, and after asking what the vibe was like in Houston following Monday's loss, we talked some J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, the uniquely developed games of the league's young pass rushers, and the dearly departed Cam Cameron. But mostly, we talked about the Dirty Bird. Inspired by this week's great touchdown celebrations, I asked Ephraim about his all-time favorites, totally forgetting his time with the famed 1998 Falcons. You'll hear the heartbreak in my voice when I learn he never Dirty Bird–ed — mostly because that means there's no video.
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
I am exhausted. Not just because I spent 40 minutes of "real time" standing-squatting-jumping-kneeling-windmilling in my living room as the last four "game minutes" plus OT played out between the paid football players representing the Chocolate and Charm cities yesterday. (BTW, no one should be surprised that D.C. prevailed — food > manners.) But also because meaningful December football is no longer part of my constitution. Like baggy jeans and land-line telephones and paying for music, the once-vital D.C. pro football team has become less critical to my daily existence for all of the obvious and exhaustively well-documented decades' worth of reasons. Of course the 2007 run after the still-unfair and still-distressing Sean Taylor tragedy was inspired. But Todd Collins was prominently involved, which means ... that Todd Collins was prominently involved. This QB and this team and this run are different. Like, once-in-a-generation different, which definitely feels like hyperbole but isn't, IMHO.