Shorts and Shells: Week Five

Posted Oct. 10, 2011 @ 3:42 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

I try not to write maudlin, saccharine columns about Heaven and Earth lining up in weird, wonderful ways, especially not when it comes to the actions on a football field.

After all, after the opening kickoff, are the players really thinking about anything but what is happening in front of them?

With that in mind, it's hard not to think that the Raiders were following some kind of strange guiding light Sunday in Houston.

The death of Al Davis was not shocking, given his failing health. And it's not stunning that the Raiders played with such effort the day after they found out about Davis' death.

But it's so incredibly fitting that they beat the Texans, 25-20, the way they did Sunday.

Not just because it was a comeback. Not just because it was on the road against a good team. It was because the players whom Davis brought in were some of the ones Davis hung his hat on.

Three 50-yard-plus field goals from Sebastian Janikowski, Davis' stunner of a contrarian first-round pick in 2000.

Darrius Heyward-Bey with a catch-and-run touchdown, maybe his best score as a pro.

Richard Seymour, wrecking the Texans' offensive line with two big sacks.

And the topper — a last-minute, game-ending endzone pick by Michael Huff, the former first-rounder whom Davis threatened to cut in 2009 if he didn't play better. Sunday he did.

Throw in a fourth-quarter fake punt, some gutsy coaching and a shorthanded but game defense playing through the whistle, and this victory was vintage Al.

Davis did it his way, baby, and the NFL will never have another innovator/rogue/titan of the same ilk — ever.

If you want a great view of Davis, read PFW publisher Hub Arkush's fine piece on his dealings with Davis. And to understand the effect Davis had on the league, read Glenn Dickey's equally excellent take on the complex man.

I never met Davis in my 10-plus years covering the NFL, but I saw him many times at league events, and I always remarked at the man's sheer presence. Few people have that: the ability to change the atmosphere in a room.

He did that when Davis visited the memorial service of Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum at the Combine in Indianapolis back in 2003. There were some heavy hitters in the room that day: Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, Ernie Accorsi, plenty more. Davis outshone them all by a mile.

Even as his health failed, his voice still boomed. I can remember walking around the corner in Boston at the site of the owners' meeting in 2009 when Davis and Patriots owner Robert Kraft were talking, away from the other NFL owners. Even though Davis needed assistance walking, his voice boomed over the din of the room. And he felt it was his duty to attend NFL events, even if he frequently sparred with other owners, NFL officials and coaches. He knew no differently.

I don't want to suggest that this Raiders team is going to adopt his spirit this season and that by the force of some eerie, magical force, it will make them a Super Bowl team. Heck, rookie Denarius Moore admitted the other day that he had not even met Davis yet but that he hoped to soon.

He'll never get his chance, but you can bet that Davis had his eye on the fearless and fast rookie receiver and knew that the Raiders were still made in the owner's mold.

Sunday might not have been a commitment to excellence by the Raiders with a sloppy, gritty contest, but it most definitely embodied the other half of that coin: They just won, baby.

Is it cliché? Yeah. But Al Davis made it cliché with his years of putting out that distinct Raiders product on the field and changing the design of the league. He had that power. The NFL is far different without him.

 

Controversial call of the week

This week's edition goes to Capt. Slow Hook, John Fox, who made a QB change — and Broncos fans rejoice!

John Fox appeared to resist the move all season. It was clear he didn't think Tim Tebow was ready to step in for a struggling Kyle Orton. He resisted making a change with Jake Delhomme, who was playing worse in 2009 than Orton had been this season.

But Fox had to make a change Sunday. Even if he didn't think Tebow was the more finished product, the Broncos have paid the guy nearly $7 million to this point this season, and they were not going anywhere with Orton, who had become the scapegoat. (An aside: Don't you think the Broncos and Dolphins wish that trade had been consummated in the preseason? Hindsight and all ...)

And as has been the case in his brief NFL career, Tebow's statistics were not that pretty. He finished Sunday's relief appearance only 4-of-10 passing for 79 yards and a score. But that was worlds better than Orton's miserable performance (6-of-13 passing, 34 yards, one INT), and more than that, Tebow gave the team some life.

He lifted the Broncos up — cue celestial music — and gave them a chance to win. So we'll ignore the fact that 28 of his passing yards came on a screen pass that was almost entirely the result of Knowshon Moreno's terrific effort and that Tebow's running was again his best asset.

Right now, Fox can't go back. The fans would egg his house. They'd stop caring. (Kidding.)

But the coach now has an obligation to see what Tebow can do. The game plan will have to be altered. A lot of seven-step drops will be dropped. It probably won't be pretty for four quarters. But you have to think he'll do enough good things to outweigh the bad.

The Broncos will have the bye week to figure out their future, and their present, at quarterback.

 

The wow factor

This week's edition goes to the Titans, despite their play in Week Five.

It wasn't their day Sunday, as they were throttled by the Steelers, but the Titans can be proud of what they have done so far this season.

While teams such as the Eagles and Seahawks went hog-wild in free agency, cleaning up on the big-name players on the market in the aftermath of the lockout, the Titans sat back and plucked starters, some at bargain-basement rates, one by one.

"I think we approached it like we normally approach it," Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt said by phone last week. "We spend a lot of time evaluating our own team and really figuring out what our strengths and weaknesses are, the different players at each of those positions, and tried to target 2-3 players at each of those positions."

One of those positions was quarterback. Vince Young already had burned his final bridge, and Kerry Collins was set to retire. The Titans knew they had to restock the position with a starter and a player for the future. The draft netted them QB Jake Locker with the eighth pick, and though the Titans loved Locker, Reinfeldt knew it would be asking a lot of the rookie — after a lockout, no less — to guide the Titans with a new head coach and a new offense.

So the GM reached into his past with Matt Hasselbeck. Reinfeldt had been in Green Bay when Hasselbeck was drafted to back up Brett Favre and was in Seattle when the Seahawks and Mike Holmgren pulled off the deal to make Hasselbeck their franchise QB. He became a free agent this past offseason after the Seahawks had let him know on the first day of free agency that his services no longer were needed there.

Yes, the Steelers harassed him a bit in Week Five. But with Hasselbeck dicing up the NFL through five games and Locker learning the system at a cozy, natural pace, the Titans have a QB situation that would be very desirable to a lot of other teams around the league.

"He was the perfect man and quarterback to mentor Jake," Reinfeldt said of Hasselbeck. "Let alone, he's still a very productive player. He has played really, really well. For us, it was a win-win with Matt: We get a great player and a great person."

As for the rest of the free-agency period, the Titans waited patiently as the market developed and they watched some of their own players — Young and Jason Babin to the Eagles, Stephen Tulloch to the Lions and Bo Scaife to the Bengals — sign elsewhere. Some big names, including Randy Moss and Tony Brown, were released. David Thornton retired, and Moss later joined him.

The Titans didn't make any writers' "best offseason" lists, but they quietly had one of the best in the NFL. The quality they found, Reinfeldt said, was in the players fitting the system well.

"They didn't have to be the biggest headlines," he said, "just guys we thought would be good fits for what we were trying to do."

They added players such as MLB Barrett Ruud, DT Shaun Smith and TE Daniel Graham. Glue guys. All three have made big contributions. Ruud and Smith start, and Graham caught the game-winning TD against his former Broncos team.

The draft was productive, too. The Titans didn't make any trades on Draft Day. They just sat back and plucked players they liked and who fit their system.

Reinfeldt should be pleased. The Titans might have lost Sunday and fallen to 3-2, but they are right in the thick of the AFC South race after the Texans lost at home Sunday and the Jaguars fell again. Don't say that they don't realize the strange circumstances that are going on in the division.

"I think we've realized that there is a unique opportunity that has happened this year in the division," Reinfeldt said. "We've got a chance now, and we have to step up. We didn't know we'd have this unique opportunity two months ago."

Neither did most people.

 

Entertainers and icons

This week's edition goes to one man, Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who was a riot leading up to Patriots-Jets and who was surprisingly upbeat after the 30-21 loss to the Patriots.

We laugh at his antics, but Jets head coach Rex Ryan really is a smart man and a good motivator. His team is off the rails a bit now, especially with the offense and the report from the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta that the "Three Musketeers" (Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) approached Ryan about offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's system.

Asked about the report, which the Jets denied in an official statement prior to the game, Ryan used humor to defuse the situation.

"That's 'Ripleys' to me," Ryan said. "If it is, then maybe I got hit in the head or something. I don't remember that."

But Ryan has to know Sunday after the loss that his team is really not that far off from the Patriots. Two big reversals of calls in the red zone were killers that went against the Jets and for the Patriots.

"Well, obviously they are the better team right now," Ryan said.

It's always the endgame with Ryan. He knows they get the Patriots once more in the regular season, and if they get better, maybe another time in the postseason. Why not play them up, just as he did following the 45-3 ripping the Patriots handed them last regular season. We know how much the story changed in the playoffs.

It can go that way again. But the Jets need to find themselves. This is what they pay Ryan to do.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week Five:

1. I am very scared, all of a sudden, for the Texans. Losing Mario Williams to a torn pectoral, as is rumored, would be a huge loss. Paging Brooks Reed — the second-rounder all of a sudden would be thrust into the spotlight in a huge way. And who would the favorites be in the AFC South? The Texans looked surprisingly shaky in key situations against the Raiders.

2. I wrote last week that the Vikings needed to shake things up some way if they were not going to replace Donovan McNabb. I suggested deactivating or cutting Bernard Berrian. Leslie Frazier no doubt read my column and did just that, replacing him with Devin Aromashodu, who had two big catches Sunday, including a 60-yarder to set up a field goal that probably finished off the Cardinals. The interesting part of the deal is that Frazier said he benched Berrian for "discipline reasons." Question now: Does the coach cut him? This story is far from over.

3. Four-hundred-yard passers are so passé. We're up to 10 now for the season (two by Cam Newton) after Sunday's pair of four-billers: Eli Manning and Matt Schaub. Interesting that both lost. The record for 400-yard games in a season? Thirteen twice, in 1986 and 2004. That record is going down. But is it a good thing? The combined record for 400-yard quarterbacks this season is 3-7. Throwing a lot doesn't always mean winning a lot.

4. There is little denying the toughness, mental and physical, of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. He will go down as one of the great warriors of his generation, and his improved maturity and poise around his teammates have been evident. Sunday was a classic gut-it-out effort against a good football team. Memo to Warren Sapp: The Steelers are not dead yet.

5. Am I ready to eat it yet on the 49ers? Why, yes, I am. Their 48-3 thrashing of the Buccaneers struck me as just as indicative of how much-improved the 49ers are as of how unimpressive and utterly flat the Bucs were. If you want an indication of how much the teams have changed from last season (and yes, I know the Bucs are currently 3-2), then look no further than the 21-0 Tampa Bay win in the Bay last season. What has impressed me the most so far about Jim Harbaugh, my Coach of the Year through the 5/17th mark of the season, is that he's not trying to make this a pass-first, pass-second outfit right away. He's playing to the strengths of the team. Thirty-six of the 58 offensive plays were runs, and they broke the will of the Bucs rather early. At 6-7 yards a clip per punishing run, that's bound to happen.

6. The offside penalty by Eagles DE Juqua Parker, an 11th-year pro playing in his 137th pro game, is just inexcusable. Part of me wants to blame the coaching for that. Part of me wants to blame Parker. All of me just wants to say that this Eagles team, while long on talent, is just not good. Maybe it is a bit snakebitten; quirky things like this tend to happen when things are going badly. But I can tell you that the discipline on this team is horrible right now.

7. The Falcons were doing everything right early against the Packers: controlling the clock, getting physical, hitting Aaron Rodgers. The game plan was being executed with aplomb. And then ... they got away from it. This is partly how good the Packers are. If they smell even the slightest opening, they will bury you. But part of it is the Falcons' doing. They got away from all of that stuff they did well in the first half — at one point, when it was still a one-score affair, throwing seven straight times. Can't blame this one on Brian Van Gorder, Falcons fans. This one is on Mike Mularkey and Mike Smith. Want to beat the Packers? Stick to what is working.

8. I find myself rooting for Chiefs RB Jackie Battle. Sometimes nice stories emerge from tough seasons, and Battle, the big fourth-year back, had 19 impressive carries (for 119 rumbling, tumbling yards) after having carried the ball only 51 times in his previous 37 NFL games. "We did a good job wearing them out," Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said of his team's impressive 17-point comeback. Battle was a big reason why. On the Chiefs' drive that cut the Colts' lead to 24-21, Battle had runs of 11, 11, two, eight and nine yards. He added a huge 24-yarder right before the two-minute warning. Watch Battle: He's always falling forward. Hard not to root for the kid.

9. I wonder if Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff told GM Mike Tannenbaum that he could let Brad Smith walk in free agency because he had a secret weapon already on the roster. Joe McKnight might almost have been cut last season, but he's an essential piece on the roster now following his 88-yard kickoff return. Every game this season, McKnight has made a crucial special-teams contribution. The offense might be a mess and the defense is too soft vs. the run, but the Jets have a real weapon in McKnight.

10. Not sure how you have a better game as a safety than George Wilson did for the Bills today. He had a team-high 11 tackles, an interception, a pressure that led to an interception, a tackle for loss, a hit on Michael Vick and three passes defended. And besides that, he and Jairus Byrd made sure that Eagles WR DeSean Jackson didn't get behind them in the middle of the field. All in all, a terrific game for the 4-1 Bills.

 

Early Week Six teasers

 The top five story lines heading into next week: