Kick In The Pants
DeSean Jackson just made Christmas a whole lot bitter for the New York Giants and their fans. Jackson returned a punt 65-yards on the final play of the game, to lift the Eagles to a huge 38-31 win for the outright lead in the NFC East division.
I wrote last week how I watched Nathan Vasher take a missed field goal 108-yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half when I was playing for the 49ers. I have never seen anything like what happened at the New Meadowlands on Sunday. A punt return touchdown to win the game. That's something out of a movie! In fact, it's the first time in NFL history that a game has been won on a punt return touchdown on the last play from scrimmage.
A lot of people are going to be pointing their finger at rookie punter Matt Dodge for not kicking the football out of bounds. Head coach Tom Coughlin said after the game that Dodge was instructed to directionally punt the football out of bounds, a result that likely would have sent the game into overtime. Instead, Dodge kicked the football straight, and what's worse, kicked a line-drive to arguably the most dangerous return man in the game. Line drive-punts don't allow the coverage unit to get downfield to cover the punt and surround the returner, forcing a fair catch.
It's hard to defend Dodge on this one. Yes the snap was a bit high, which forced Dodge to change his rhythm on the punt. And yes the Giants have 10 guys covering the punt, so somebody is expected to make a tackle. Kickers and punters always complain about not getting any respect, but the rebuttal is always the same: they have one job to do. And they get to practice that one skill all week long. They only play a finite amount of snaps every game. When they're called upon to make a play to help win the game, they're expected to do so. If you're told to punt the ball out of bounds, kick it out of bounds. End of story.
Because of that mistake, the Giants not only gave the game away, they most likely gave the NFC East division away as well. The Eagles need to only win one of the two remaining home games to clinch the division, or they need the Giants to lose one of their final two away games. Matt Dodge's mistake is the type of thing that will prevent anyone from talking to him in the locker room this week, if he's still on the team after Monday.
Every offensive lineman dreams of football glory. They dream of one day actually being able to touch the football in a real game, when it counts. They dream of rumbling down the field, like we see in every football movie that Hollywood produces, in order to score the game-winning touchdown for their team.
Well that almost happened on Sunday.
New England Patriots offensive tackle Dan Connolly recovered a kickoff and rumbled 71 yards versus the Green Bay Packers. It is believed to be the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL history. It is without question the most remarkable thing I've ever seen an offensive linemen do in a game. I have memories of watching Jumbo Elliot catch a ''tackle eligible'' touchdown pass versus Miami at the Meadowlands. I remember his facial expression watching the replay on the jumbotron. He looked like a kid staring under the tree when he wakes up Christmas morning.
I once threw a touchdown pass to my offensive guard, unintentionally, in a game in college after it was batted down at the line of scrimmage. I was howling last night watching the Steelers versus Jets game. In the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger fumbled the football, and it was picked up by offensive tackle Flozell Adams, who tried to put the ''shake-n-bake'' move on Dolphins DE Jason Taylor. There was Adams, holding the football in one hand like a loaf of bread, shaking (or jiggling) his 338 lbs frame back and forth, trying to deke out the much more athletic and much more agile Taylor. The end result was an easy tackle, albeit a painful one, for Taylor to make.
It's easy to forget how good of athletes the offensive linemen in the NFL are. Remember, all of these guys probably were star players on their respective high school football, basketball and baseball teams. Some of them were probably recruited to play tight end or defensive line in college, but just kept getting bigger and bigger before making the position switch to the o-line. Connolly is a good example of why you shouldn't ever under estimate what offensive linemen are capable of. Very rarely to linemen get a chance to live out their dreams. I guarantee that Connolly did just that on Sunday.
Always On The Run
The Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens went back to the run this past weekend, and both won because of it.
I believe that it is very easy today for teams to abandon the running game, not just for one game but sometimes for weeks at a time. Offensive football has changed a lot in the past decade. We are seeing more and more ''spread'' varieties of offense, more shotguns and more speed personnel on the field, leading to more 4-and-5 wide receiver sets. You must throw the football to score points in the NFL. It's as simple as that. Sure, many teams have won Super Bowls playing close to the vest on offense by running the ball and playing great defense, but today's game is more exciting. Play callers have found more inventive ways to get the football to their playmakers in space, putting tremendous stress on opposing defenses. Take the swing pass to the running back for instance. It's really just an extension of the sweep play. It is no different when Peyton Manning spits the football out to Austin Collie on a bubble screen. Bubble screens, tunnel screens, slip screens: all different ways to get the football into the hands of faster, more agile wide receivers on the perimeter of the field. Each throw is very low risk because the football doesn't travel that far in the air, and it allows the football to get outside in a more timely fashion than if they were to hand the football off to a running back.
Let's be clear, not every team in the NFL can throw the football efficiently. You better have a special player under center if you are going to abandon the running game, ie. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees. Defenses today try and make opposing offenses one-dimensional by stacking the box and taking the run threat away. But I still think it is the teams that can run the ball late in the season that have the best chance of reaching Super Bowl championships because when the weather gets bad, particularly come playoff time, you have to be able to run the ball to win games. The best offenses in the NFL are the ones, in my opinion, that can line up and get a yard when they need a yard. The Colts and Ravens proved on Sunday that they can win important games by running the football, and that's a good sign for them considering we are now just three more weeks away from sudden death playoff time.
The NFL needs to reconsider its playoff format. The Seattle Seahawks and St Louis Rams are currently tied atop the NFC West Division at 6-8, with the San Francisco 49ers not far behind at 5-9. One of these teams will ultimately host a Wild Card playoff game in three weeks, which needless to say, is utterly ridiculous.
Being granted home field in the post season is a reward. It's a reward for players because they get the advantage of playing at home during the post-season, in front of their home crowd and loved ones. It's a reward for the franchises because they are permitted the opportunity to capitalize financially on ticket sales, concessions, parking etc. The Rams have beaten one team this year with a winning record, the Seahawks have beaten two. How can either team be rewarded with a home playoff game when there is the chance that a 10 win team from the NFC will be left out of the playoff hunt!
I could easily argue why a team that finishes outside of the top six in each conference should be excluded from the post season, but to get home field advantage for a Wild Card game because they won their division with a .500 record at best is preposterous! The Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints are all more deserving teams in the NFC to host the Wild Card game. Why should they be forced to travel across the country to play in the backyard of an undeserving opponent from the NFC West?
There is something fundamentally wrong with the current system, but fortunately it's taken a very strange NFL season for this glaring oddity to become transparent. Hopefully commissioner Roger Goodell and the competition committee will address this issue at this year's league meetings so that we can begin having the best teams in the NFL compete in the post-season for football's ultimate prize.