The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL's 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven't fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
Two weeks ago, as the Bengals prepared for their pivotal Week 14 game against Indianapolis, the Cincinnati coaching staff was faced with a potential nightmare scenario this deep into a season. In the first quarter of the previous Sunday’s win over San Diego, starting left guard Clint Boling had fallen to the turf clutching his left knee. When the diagnosis eventually came, it was about as bleak as Cincy could have hoped. Boling’s ACL was torn. He’d miss the rest of the season, and the Bengals, a team almost assured of a trip to the playoffs, would have to shuffle their offensive line with only four games left.
Cincinnati was already without right guard and former first-round pick Kevin Zeitler, who injured his foot against the Ravens in November and hasn’t played since. In a way, Zeitler’s absence made the decision about how to handle Boling’s injury an easy one. With backup interior lineman Mike Pollak already starting for Zeitler, the Bengals’ best choice for dealing with Boling’s absence was to slide Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth to guard — a change Cincinnati had made temporarily when Boling was banged up earlier this year.
With the rest of this off week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, I'll be taking a look back at the playoffs (today) and the season at large (Thursday and Friday) before diving back into Super Bowl coverage next Monday. Today, I want to take a step back and look at how the reputation and perception of playoff participants have changed over the course of these past three weeks. That's right: It's time for a Playoff Stock Watch. Let's start with the players who have seen their stock skyrocket during January and work our way down to the players who've crashed and burned.
Since Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced that he will retire at the end of Baltimore's season, his quest for another Super Bowl victory to cap his Hall of Fame career has become one of the biggest story lines of the NFL playoffs. But despite his on-field accomplishments, Lewis's legacy will be tainted by the events of January 31, 2000, for some. Early that morning in Atlanta, a brawl broke out, two were found dead, and Lewis, along with two others, was charged with murder the next day. But it's been nearly 13 years since then and many have forgotten the details. Below is a timeline of the events surrounding that incident as provided by media coverage and witness testimonies.
This Saturday night, I plan on sitting in front of my television set for three-plus hours and praying that the Packers' pass protection is better than the 49ers' pass rush. Of all the variables that might possibly affect the outcome of the Packers-49ers playoff game, this by far seems the most important. And I’m sure that the pregame coverage, as well as the play-by-play announcers, will spend a lot of time analyzing it. But I also expect to hear about another story line that’s become standard for Packers games. It stars Aaron Rodgers, and it co-stars The Chip On Aaron Rodgers’s Shoulder.
If you watch the Packers every week like I do, you’ve come to regard The Chip On Aaron Rodgers’s Shoulder as an overly familiar chestnut of wisdom utilized by analysts to supposedly reveal deep truths about the reigning NFL MVP’s psyche. It is now officially the no. 1 talking point among football pundits for deconstructing Aaron Rodgers’s play and persona. What “he looks like a kid out there!” was to Brett Favre, “he sure takes things to heart!” is to Rodgers. If Favre was “the gunslinger,” Rodgers is the grudge-slinger.
The Ravens and Redskins have been two nearby teams at opposite ends of the NFL spectrum for most of the past decade. They're case studies in how to run an organization and how not to run one, respectively, a contrast between the cool approach of longtime Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and the annual frenzied idiocy of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder as lovingly interpreted by longtime sidekick Vinny Cerrato. The Cerrato era has moved on, but it wasn't until the second half of this season that the two neighbors started to look like they were swapping roles.
The Ravens went 10-6, but they slumped badly after a glut of defensive injuries that took out many of their stars, notably including legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced his impending retirement from the game at the end of the season. The Redskins went the other way to 10-6, starting slowly before igniting after their bye week with a seven-game winning streak to end the season under their new franchise player, 22-year-old quarterback Robert Griffin III. The two teams even had a game that served as a microcosm of their respective regular seasons in Week 14, a game in which the Redskins got off to an early lead, only for the Ravens to pull ahead for most of the game before Washington got hot at the end and pulled out a narrow, come-from-behind victory after Griffin suffered an injury. The Ravens limped into the postseason, while the Redskins roared.
In case you were busy coming up with a fun portmanteau to describe your post-holiday diet, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
The Seattle Seahawks came back from an early 14-0 deficit with 24 unanswered points to eliminate the Washington Redskins, 24-14, at FedEx Field. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was his typical subdued self in the postgame press conference, shouting, "YEEEEEEHAWWWWWW WOOOO WOOO WOOO PETE CARROLL PETE CARROLL PETE CARROLL!" before running around the room until he tired himself out and took a nap under the podium.
In what could have been Ray Lewis's last game, the Baltimore Ravens used a strong second half to beat the Indianapolis Colts, 24-9. The turning point came at halftime when Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh decided to stop "sucking for Luck" when he learned that strategy had been a tactic teams used to jockey for draft position last season, and not a way to exploit Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck's tendency to feel bad and take it easy on inferior opponents.
The Houston Texans topped the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-13, and will advance to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional round. Tom Brady appeared to provide some bulletin board material for the Texans, saying he was pleased with the matchup, but went on to explain he was only happy to avoid a matchup with the Bengals, who bring with them the smell of Cincinnati, a mix of bad chili and stagnant river water, that clings to his puffier garments for weeks.
Because I’m a Bears fan, and because my friends and I made a blood pact to never again discuss what transpired in the NFL on Sunday afternoon, I decided that this week’s Trenchie Awards would go a bit differently. There’s really no sense in discussing what happened in the past. We can only move forward, and in front of us is a set of lineman matchups that has me (and anyone else with pictures of J.J. Watt in his or her locker) looking forward to this year’s wild-card weekend even more than I normally would.
J.J. Watt vs. Geno Atkins
OK, so they’re not actually playing against each other, but in a game that’s otherwise uninspiring, we get a chance to watch the two best defensive players in football do their thing.
As Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote this week, if it weren’t for the historic year Watt has put together, Atkins’s 2012 would be the season worthy of all this adulation. According to PFF’s numbers, Atkins graded out almost two times better than any other defensive tackle the site has ever charted. Cameron Wake and Von Miller were the only two players, at any position, to record more total pressures. Unlike Watt, whose position varies based on Houston’s front and situation, there’s no mistaking what Atkins is. He’s a 3-technique, 4-3 tackle who happens to be one of the four most disruptive pass rushers in the league.
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.
Now is right around the time when NFL teams are supposed to be getting hot for the postseason. If there's any narrative about the postseason taken more seriously than the power of having nobody believe in you, it's the power of peaking at the right time. It's an argument that's easy to understand and ingrained in the culture of the game. Players believe it. Media members believe it. Fans believe it.
All that belief leaves just one problem: There's scant evidence that any late-season peaking effect actually exists.
In truth, there are a lot of problems with nailing down the actual argument itself. The gist of it is clear — teams who get hot at the end of the regular season do well in the postseason — but the specifics can be gerrymandered to fit just about any situation you'd like. Are teams supposed to start getting hot in Week 14? Week 16? Week 17? In a way, the narrative can become a tautology if you suggest that teams who raise their game and get hot at the right time actually do so when the postseason begins, since one team inevitably has to win the Super Bowl each year. Say that the Super Bowl winner got hot at the right time and it's going to be hard to argue against it.