The Philadelphia Eagles' selection of USC quarterback Matt Barkley in the fourth round of this year’s draft appears, by any logical measure, to be a great value pick. At one time, Barkley was talked about as a high first-round pick, and there's no doubting his precise footwork or his accuracy on short and intermediate passes. That’s saying nothing of his personality and whiteboard smarts, which coaches and scouts have raved about since he started as a true freshman at powerhouse Mater Dei High School.
Barkley steadied USC through the loss of Pete Carroll to the NFL, NCAA sanctions that limited scholarships and depleted the Trojans roster, and the often bizarre antics of his coach, Lane Kiffin. Barkley’s final season at USC, one in which the Trojans began the season ranked no. 1 in the country before finishing 7-6, was one to forget. His play was inconsistent, and he finished the year on the sideline after suffering a shoulder injury against UCLA. But for Chip Kelly and the Eagles, grabbing such an accomplished player in the fourth round should qualify as the quintessential "value" pick.
The NFL offseason is fundamentally about one thing: hope. The mantra of "Any Given Sunday" is expanded to "Any Given Season," and the new — new rookies, new facilities, new schemes, new management — is the stuff those dreams are made of. But the most powerful offseason story lines, both in depth and on-field potential, are ones of redemption. Alex Smith's impending trade to the Kansas City Chiefs to play for Andy Reid offers that chance for both men.
Smith's story is, by now, well known. A former no. 1 overall pick by the 49ers, he, like the rest of the organization, stumbled around for several years until Jim Harbaugh became the head coach before the 2011 season. That year, Smith flourished in a game-manager role as the 49ers won 13 games and were a few special teams miscues away from playing in the Super Bowl. In 2012, Smith was better in almost every statistical category — completion percentage, yards per pass attempt, an impressive 104.1 passer rating — until he got hurt … and never regained his job, as the young, fleet-footed, strong-armed Colin Kaepernick took over and led the team to the Super Bowl.
Smith isn't yet 30, and a marriage with new Chiefs coach Andy Reid's offense seems — on the surface, at least — like it has the potential for sustained success. Reid is a stalwart of the old West Coast offense, the one developed by Bill Walsh and then carried throughout the NFL by protégés like Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, and, of course, Reid, who spent the last 14 seasons as head coach of the Eagles. Smith seems like the model West Coast offense quarterback — smart, accurate on underneath throws, with good feet and quickness. The scouting report on Smith sounds a lot like one for another great West Coast offense quarterback — Joe Montana.
"The running game in pro football has gotten so boring," former 49ers coach Bill Walsh remarked some years ago. "There's just four or five plays they can run. I think the whole thing is headed in the wrong direction, and it's really unfortunate." Even after his passing in 2007, Walsh’s observation had held true for some time. That is, until now. And fittingly, it's the 49ers leading the way.
The Pistol read option plays aside (we’ll get to those), the 49ers' multifarious running game uses many of the same blocking schemes Walsh taught for nearly four decades. Jim Harbaugh deserves much of the credit — the vision for these 49ers is certainly his — but the mastermind behind the 49ers' weekly game plans and the coach who deserves credit for taking Walsh’s criticism to heart is San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
After a decade of mostly familiar names, Super Bowl XLVII is set to provide some welcome new blood under center. Sunday will mark the first title game in five years to feature two quarterbacks who’ve never been here before, but that’s about where their similarities in experience end. For Colin Kaepernick, this start in New Orleans comes barely three months after the first of his NFL career. For Joe Flacco, it’s the next step in his playoff success. But even with all the pressure young Kaepernick is set to face, in my mind, and in terms of scheme, support, and circumstance, there will be more of it placed on Flacco.
Like the 49ers, previous versions of these Ravens relied on a bruising running game and great defense to buttress a young quarterback as he improved from week-to-week. This year, those areas of strength have lagged. After a long stretch of dominance, Baltimore's famed and historic defense fell to the middle of the pack in nearly every category, and although the Ray Rice–led running game is still formidable, its efficiency and production took a step back.
This means that for the first time, the Ravens have become Joe Flacco’s team, and more than ever, Baltimore has relied on its passing attack. Ray Rice has been a steady bailout option for most of Flacco’s career, but it’s Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta who will be the keys come Sunday night.
Manti Te'o finished the 2010 season, his second in South Bend, as already one of the most decorated linebackers in Notre Dame history. A former five-star recruit, Te'o finished his sophomore year with 133 tackles (good for 21st nationally), was a finalist for both the Butkus and Bednarik awards, was named a second-team All-American by CNN/SI, and, against Stanford, had managed 21 tackles. There was just one problem: He could've played a lot better.
"He had a lot of production he left on the table," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who is also Te'o's position coach, recently recalled. Fortunately for both the Irish and their star linebacker, Te'o, as Diaco puts it, "longs to be coached." That offseason, Diaco put together a DVD from the season — a lowlight reel of sorts — and gave it to Te'o with an accompanying message: "If you really want to take the next step in your game, here are the 83 plays you will be able to make next year.” The response was, in hindsight, predictable. "He studied that thing," Diaco said. "He broke the film studying that thing."
With Tom Brady and Peyton Manning still dissecting defenses, this weekend’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins might not produce this year’s Super Bowl winner, but it may still be the key to the NFL’s future. Since their 3-6 start, the Redskins are on a seven-game winning streak, during which their already potent offense stabilized into one of the best in the league. Seattle, on its own five-game winning streak, has coalesced into arguably the best team in football. After outscheming the Chicago Bears en route to a dramatic overtime victory, Seattle pulled off one of the greatest three-game stretches in league history by bludgeoning the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers, a stretch during which they outscored their opponents 150 to 30.
Among similar dominant stretches in NFL history, one that comes close was by the 1940 Chicago Bears, whose streak culminated in a 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the NFL Championship. That record offensive output followed totals of 47 and 31 points in the previous two weeks. The success was the direct result of a switch in offensive scheme by legendary Bears coach and owner George Halas, a switch that helped turn a 7-3 Bears loss to the Redskins earlier that season into the most lopsided championship game in any major professional sport. Halas, frustrated by his offense, turned to good friend and Stanford coach Clark Shaughnessy for help.
At the time, every NFL team ran the single wing offense, a shotgun-based attack with an unbalanced line where the ball was typically snapped directly to the tailback. Shaughnessy — first at the University of Chicago, where he and Halas became friends, and later at Stanford — had revived the old T-formation, which placed a quarterback directly behind the center. Shaughnessy updated the T to include a variety of motions and misdirection to buttress the running game and bolted on an all-new passing attack. The combination made the offense nearly unstoppable — at least in college. Even as late as 1940, most pro coaches viewed the T formation and its reliance on the quarterback making fakes and dropping back to pass as a bizarre gimmick. That is until Chicago ripped through the latter part of its schedule, and, with Sid Luckman as the prototype for a new era of "T-formation quarterbacks," built a dynasty.
It can’t be overstated just how impressive Stanford's 17-15 overtime victory over Oregon was. Stanford almost entirely shut down Oregon and its record-setting offense, the same offense that shredded the Cardinal 53-30 last season. Last year, Oregon's victory kept Stanford out of the national championship conversation. This year, the Cardinal might have returned the favor.
Last week, I described how Oregon's flashy offensive attack is, at its core, truly about old-school, fundamental football. Stanford's defense — Stanford’s entire program — is unequivocally about the same. On offense, the Cardinal are a power football team, with most of their passing game based on play-action. On defense, they use a "one-gapping," attacking 3-4 system — the same system brought to Stanford by current San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio just a few years ago.
Peyton Manning's return to the NFL has not exactly been a fairy tale. His team sits at 3-3, they've routinely fallen behind early in games, they average a paltry 93.8 rushing yards per game, and Manning's top receiving targets include young but inconsistent players like Demaryius Thomas and the ageless but hardly explosive Brandon Stokley. It’s not just those around Manning who have come in for criticism. Manning is still recovering from his neck injury, and there have been whispers — some quieter than others — that his arm strength isn't, and will never be, what it once was.
Maybe so. Yet, for those still craving some of that old Manning magic, those moments when Peyton shows us all what quarterbacking is all about, Monday was proof that the 36-year-old can still deliver.
There are only three undefeated teams left in the NFL: the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans, and — wait for it — the Arizona Cardinals. Not only is Arizona's record a surprise, but to get there, they knocked off preseason favorites New England and Philadelphia, as well as a Seattle team with wins over Dallas and (however controversial) Green Bay. Most of the credit for Arizona’s perfect record has to go to its defense. Although the smart money remains against their ability to keep up this success, going 3-0 is extremely difficult in today's NFL, and Arizona deserves respect for that alone.
The main concern about Arizona going into the season was its offense, and although they haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard, whether it was Kevin Kolb's off-the-bench comeback drive to beat the Seahawks in Week 1 or their get-the-lead-and-hold-on performance against a normally resourceful Patriots team, the Cardinals have made just enough plays to win. Last weekend against Philadelphia was no different: Arizona was actually out-gained by the Eagles, but they made enough key plays on offense to put pressure on Michael Vick and allow their defense to force three turnovers (including a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown) on the team’s way to victory.
In Week 1, the Carolina Panthers’ listless offense turned over the ball twice, gave up three sacks, and registered a grand total of 10 — yes, 10 — rushing yards. Last week against the Saints, Carolina exploded for 35 points and 219 yards on the ground while Cam Newton averaged an amazing 12.7 yards per pass attempt. The Panthers looked like the offense it was for much of last season, and they did it by getting back to what is, for them, basics — the read-option running game.
Newton is a one-of-kind offensive weapon, and his abilities to both be a threat to run the ball and make accurate run-game reads make everyone on the Panthers offense better, including his wide receivers. Steve Smith had Carolina’s biggest play of the day — a 66-yard catch in which no one on New Orleans's defense was within 20 yards of him. As Newton explained after the game, Smith was the direct beneficiary of Carolina's dynamic rushing attack: "Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person,” Newton said. “But that is what type of pressure the zone read gives us."
Going into the preseason, all of the attention at New York Jets camp was focused squarely on Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Following the first couple preseason games — and, in particular, Saturday's 26-3, seven-sack drubbing at the hands of the New York Giants — the spotlight hasn't exactly shifted, but it has broadened to include a wider swath of suspects. Namely, it’s been on the offensive line, and even more specifically, whoever happens to be at right tackle. Wayne Hunter got the first crack on Saturday and was promptly abused by Jason Pierre-Paul. His backup, Austin Howard, didn’t fare much better. If the Jets have any hope of success — regardless of who their quarterback is — they need better play along the offensive line.
The Heisman Trophy is won on the field, but that hasn’t stopped Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley from going about his campaign a bit differently. Instead of just sending out awkwardly filmed DVDs to Heisman voters, Barkley has gone the high-tech route with ploys like designing an iPhone app and answering questions on Reddit.
Along with giving USC’s director of social media something to do, the Reddit Q&A also elicited some information we might not normally get from the Heisman favorite. One intrepid Reddit user was particularly helpful when asking Barkley what his favorite play was. "Be honest," MrShift4 admonished. “None of this 'spreading the ball to my teammates' stuff." So Barkley was, replying: "Solo Personel [sic]. 'Z Mo to Trouble Right 82 Stay Sluggo Z Win.' On Two. TD."
By almost any rational measure, the San Francisco 49ers significantly overachieved last season on offense. The Alex Smith–led attack finished in the bottom third of the NFL in yards, yards per play, and passing yards. Even the vaunted 49ers rushing attack was more a function of quantity over quality. San Francisco’s top-10 finish in rushing yards came on just 4.1 yards per rush, 19th best in the league. Under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, this was a team that let their defense do the talking — as well as the winning.
Hip-hop artists want to be basketball players and basketball players want to be hip-hop artists. This isn't a theory; this is a fact. A law, even. While the past two decades have given us prime examples of this, there has been a considerable lean toward the crew of basketball players convinced that, in the offseason, they have the green light to pick up a microphone and record a track that — every now and then — has lyrics that rhyme.
Although there aren't as many of them, musicians who want to ball have undoubtedly left their mark on athletics and/or my lifelong commitment to laugh at people. There are the cute ones, from father and son Percy Miller and Bow Wow's flashes of hardwood brilliance in Like Mike, to the actual hoopers like the greatest high school basketball teammates of all time, Cam'ron and Ma$e. The latest installment in the saga is an interesting one, part Rock N Jock, part And1 mixtape, as this past weekend the two demographics of entertainers joined forces on the same court to completely embarrass five really bad basketball players. Who are they, you ask?
This was a very odd game — with a very dramatic finish.
Early in Sunday's Super Bowl, the New York Giants — aided by New England quarterback Tom Brady's safety — looked unstoppable. The Giants had a huge advantage in both momentum and yards, but despite all this, they only scored nine points. Then Tom Brady and the Patriots became, well, Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Brady went 16-for-16 with two touchdown passes sandwiched around the halftime show, and New England looked like it might simply run away with the game. And then I'm not even sure.
The Giants kicked a couple field goals, Brady roughed his shoulder up on the turf, and then — with about four minutes left in the game — the Patriots had one of the most heartbreaking sequences in franchise history: Brady and Wes Welker, who know a thing about throwing and catching, failed to connect on a throw up the seam, where Welker was essentially uncovered. Then New York quarterback Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham on a nearly impossible throw down the sideline for a huge 38-yard gain. By now, you know the rest. The Giants scored the game-winning touchdown after Patriots coach Bill Belichick smartly let them, and Brady failed to make good on his desperation drive with a late Hail Mary. Giants win, 21-17.
Let's compare those two game-changing pass plays: the failed pass from Brady to Welker and the play of the game, Manning's fantastic throw to Manningham down the sideline.