The Pro Game: Strange days, indeed

Posted Jan. 17, 2013 @ 12:47 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

One time Walt Michaels, the old New York Jets coach, was flying back with his team from a game in Denver. The week before he had been shattered at home, 55-14. Now he was a conqueror, the author of a wild comeback victory over the heavily-stacked Broncos.

“If you live long enough, you’ll see this again,” he said, staring out the little window into black sky. “And you’ll see stranger things.”

I’ve seen some strange things myself over the years. I watched a guy chug a whole liter of Coca-Cola for $20, wondering if I should take cover in case his sinuses or esophagus blew out.

I’ve seen a guy rip the bangs out of his head and stomp on the hair after losing a one-on-one basketball game.

In football I saw a Detroit quarterback, trailing by four, chuck the ball into the stands on the last snap of the game to avoid taking the sack.

And last Sunday I saw what appeared to be an onside kick by a team with the lead … and eight seconds left to play.

That was the Falcons. The Falcons are becoming one of the great playoff short-circuiters. They have a growing museum of blown games and strange performances. Kicker Matt Bosher’s dinkerball at the end of the Seattle game was the strangest of all.

“We did not execute exactly how we wanted,” was the Mike Smith explanation. “These things happen in a ballgame.”

Hearing that reminded me of an international incident that happened about 10 years ago, when a group of British marines set out to attack the beaches of Gibraltar on a full-out training exercise. Apparently their GPS didn’t execute correctly because they ended up invading Spain.

“An embarrassing and unfortunate incident,” was the British Ministry of Defence statement.

I thought about calling Atlanta’s Ministry of Kickoffs and asking more questions, on how that whole absurd non-execution came to be. Then I thought about it some more.

Never mind … I think I’ll … just … leave this one alone.

  •  •  •  •

Here’s another strange thing. Jacoby Jones somehow sneaks behind two deep Bronco defenders, and the Ravens bless us with Hail Mary II. The original was Staubach to Drew Pearson, 2nd-and-10 from the 50. This time it’s Joe Flacco, 3rd-and-3, bombing from 70. Memories and voices from December ’75 came rushing back.

“I kept asking Pearson if he could beat [safety Nate] Wright on a streak,” Staubach said after putting his lance through the Vikings. “He said yes but he was tired and asked me to wait a bit. So we ran another play. Then we came back to Pearson.”   

“When the defense is playing deep in a prevent,” said Tom Landry, the Dallas coach, “you just have to throw it up there and hope the receiver can out-jump the defense or just get lucky. [Pearson] did.”

Staubach got lucky when the officials didn’t tag Pearson for offensive interference. Flacco’s fortune came when the Bronco defenders — Rahim Moore and Tony Carter — got all twisted and razzled up in their coverage.

“I started to step up in the pocket and I kept my eye on the safeties’ depth,” said Flacco. “I felt I had a shot of maybe getting it over them. … You have to start taking shots at some point.”

Once I had a chat with Jack Patera about his memories of Hail Mary I. Patera was the Vikings defensive line coach that day, and he sure didn’t heap all the blame on Wright. He said the real problem was the Vikings' pass rush had turned soft late in the game. Yep, the glorious Purple People Eaters. The names were Marhsall, Lurtsema, Page and Eller.

“I don’t think our defensive line rushed the passer nearly as well as it could have,” Patera said. “I don’t think anybody gave a big effort. That was probably the most disappointing performance by the defensive line that I had seen during my entire time in Minnesota. We barely messed with Staubach. It was almost like being in high school for those guys, thinking, ‘Well, I’m tired now. Maybe somebody else can get the quarterback.’ That was exactly my feeling while I was watching that game.”

Another parallel between I and II — defensive pressure. Flacco bit the dirt only once all day.

  •  •  •  •

Peyton Manning cocks back to throw then changes his mind. The defense swarms, the ball spills out, Baltimore recovers.

Fumble? Incomplete pass? God forbid, the Tuck Rule? Dan Dierdorf, the CBS commentator, was convinced it applied and the Broncos would keep possession.

Wrong. The replay booth upheld the ruling — fumble, Ravens’ ball.

It was the right call, in terms of basic football sense. I always like John Madden’s litmus test — it’s either a fumble or it’s not. Our eyes told us clearly it was. Common sense, not some murky bylaw, prevailed.

Prayer to NFL Competition Committee — please, annul the Tuck Rule. Strike it down. Put an end the most ambiguous rule on the books. Things are complicated enough out there.

  •  •  •  •

Back to Atlanta, where the Falcons took a mush rush approach to handling Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. Mush Rush — human netting meant to coax the passer into sticking around the pocket; to be employed against hot-legs QBs, the pure escape artists.

We saw a lot of it back in the early times of Michael Vick, when he was first electrocuting the league. One of the defenses to have success against Vick was Arizona’s, and in a 2004 game they used five down linemen and a mush rush to tranquilize him. A fellow named Frank Bush was the Cards’ linebacker coach that day.

“The goal was to keep Vick where we wanted him,” said Bush. “It was a controlled rush, one designed to force him to move up into the pocket. From that point we had a pretty good idea of where he would go if he decided to take off. The worst-case scenario with Vick is when he gets out into space and you lose track of him. From there it’s anything goes …”

On Sunday the Falcons rushed four, and often only three, with one lineman lingering back as a spy. Yes, they lost DE John Abraham for the second half when his ankle fell apart, but Abraham rarely does anything magical in these postseasons anyway. In his last 14 quarters of playoff football he’s delivered two sacks. He disappears a lot. And Wilson was getting plenty of throwing time in the first half, anyway, when Abraham was on the field.

The problem was the Atlanta scheme was too mushy, particularly for a guy like Wilson, who scares you with his legs but is also a sharp downfield passer. Vick was a sprayer, a let-it-fly type. Defenses wanted him putting it up. You might get a prize.  

But Wilson craves pocket time. Throw a cozy mush rush at him and he’ll slit you to ribbons. In that second half, he slit the Falcons to ribbons — 14 complete for 241 yards in a scorching comeback.

“He’s got some legs on him,” said Kroy Biermann said of Wilson. “He’s small. He’s shifty. That’s kind of his MO, to extend plays by scrambling around. He did a good job of it.”

So he kills you with the arm or you die by the feet. Remind me to get Falcons’ coordinator Mike Nolan on the phone this summer, to discuss his choice of poison.       

  •  •  •  •

49ers (-3) at Falcons — A home underdog in a championship game? Lord, that got me flipping back through the old sports pages. Ok, maybe not so far back … only to 2010, when the Bears were home dogs to the Packers. And lost.

Is there any way the Falcons can keep it close? Why, yes, by running the ball. I mean, running it a lot, more than they tried against Seattle, the 24 carries Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers used to soften the Seahawk line.

Atlanta needs to manage how much time Crazylegs Kaepernick spends practicing those wind sprints. I doubt they can catch him. They’re better off seizing the clock and cooling his ass off on the bench. Matt Ryan needs to stretch this thing late into the fourth quarter, to the point when either side could be lining up for a game-winning FG.

Mike Francesca of WFAN had a good line on his New York radio show the other day. He and Phil Simms were discussing the Kaepernick dilemma. 181 rush yards against the Packers. Simms asked innocently, “How do you defend him?”

“You put him in the hospital,” said Francesca.

This one could turn into a slaughter if the Niners show up in gear. Better players everywhere. You don’t trust Atlanta to stay smart and disciplined and patient for an entire game. It’s not their nature. They get itchy. We could get Matty Ice Cream here.

But, hey, the Falcons just picked off Seattle, a team that whipped SF by 29 just before Christmas. Do you honor the theory of common opponents? I do, occasionally. So I’m offering Atlanta another shaky benefit of the doubt … and a somber push for the bettors. 49ers 27, Falcons 24

  •  •  •  •

Ravens at Patriots (-9)Patriot injuries. Gronkowski done. But they’ve lived without him before. Danny Woodhead, iffy with that thumb. Fingers always grim news for ball carriers. Brady’s hair got messed up a bit. Other than that, it’s biz as usual for New England.

You like what backup Shane Vereen provided. He’s the Woodhead replacement. Some fine shake-and-bake that bedazzled the Texans. They weren’t ready for him. Where’s he been hiding?

For the Ravens, well, they’ll write poems and sonnets about their day in Denver. A day of glory, one for the gladiators. But at what cost? Double overtime … all that effort in oxygen-shy conditions … the searing cold.

And thus I leave you with my all-time favorite expression on weariness. No, not Lombardi’s “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Please, how cliché.

Rather, “He who runs in front of the truck is tired; he who runs behind the truck is exhausted.”

I say that the Ravens are both. Patriots 24, Ravens 10