Over the last couple of weeks, I've been defending head coaches that have been resting their starters down the stretch of the regular season in order to prepare for post-season play. Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell did the right thing when he pulled Peyton Manning and others in the second half of a meaningless game two weeks ago versus the Jets. That said, I cannot defend the actions of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after watching the Pats play this past Sunday.
In yet another meaningless game (for the Patriots, at least) versus the Houston Texans, Belichick opted to play his starters for the majority of the game, with absolutely nothing to gain. Another win would not have generated anything extra in the post season. Not another home game, nor a first round bye. Instead, what the Patriots did get, was a slew of injuries to key players. The Patriots lost Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welker for the remainder of the season, and possibly the beginning of next season with a torn ACL and a torn MCL. Why Welker was even playing in this game is beyond me, considering the Patriots have a sudden death playoff game next week at home. The Pats have now lost their biggest possession receiver heading into the playoffs.
To make matters worse, Pro Bowl QB Tom Brady suffered a broken ring finger on his throwing hand that will no doubt affect his play in the post-season. It has also been reported that Brady was already playing with three broken ribs. Why wouldn't Belichick allow his star player to rest one last week in order to heal as much as possible before entering the playoffs?
What's even stranger to me is that Belichick seemingly played all of his starters as if they were trying to win the game, and then all of sudden when New England was down 7 with 2:00 to go, he begins pulling his starters! When the game was there to be won, he began taking players out, therefore suggesting that winning the game was not the ultimate goal. So what was the point in playing the starters in the first place?
The Patriots may have handicapped themselves because of poor player management late in the season, and if they happen to lose early in the playoffs, there will be a lot of fingers pointed directly at head coach Bill Belichick.
The Team to Beat?
The Dallas Cowboys appear to be the team to beat in the NFC heading into the playoffs. Many questioned the Cowboys chances of even making the playoffs, after they continually struggled down in the stretch in the month of December in years past. After losing consecutive games to the New York Giants and the San Diego Chargers, many felt like head coach Wade Philips and the Cowboys were likely heading down a similar path again this season, but this has proven to be a very different Cowboys team.
The Cowboys enter post-season play riding a three game winning streak, and are winners of five of their last seven games. The lasting image we will all have of the Cowboys is a dominant performance versus division rival Philadelphia this past Sunday, where the Cowboys won easily 24-0 to clinch the NFC East.
What makes the Cowboys so dangerous-looking to me is the fact that they have all of a sudden become physically dominant along both the offensive and defensive lines. Offensively, the Cowboys have been able to consistently push opposing defenses off the line of scrimmage, allowing for huge holes for the Dallas trio of running backs, Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and their re-emerging 2nd-year home run threat, Felix Jones.
On the defensive side, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware have been making life on opposing ball carriers a living hell. In the last three weeks, we haven't seen an offense that was able to handle the kind of pressure that the Cowboys defense can generate, and because of it, the Dallas offense has been able to get the ball back more frequently.
Quarterback Tony Romo is potentially playing the best football of his pro career. He is easily having his best season as a pro, and has learned to stop gambling as much with the football, cutting down on his turnovers. In the last seven games, Romo has only thrown three interceptions, and has learned the value of throwing the football away, or taking a sack instead of forcing the ball into heavy coverage.
It appears as though this football team is maturing and gelling at the perfect time of the season, very similar in a lot of ways to the New York Giants team that won in 2007. The biggest question remaining is whether the Cowboys can finally win their opening playoff game for the first time since 1996. We'll find out Saturday when the Cowboys take on Philadelphia in the wild card round!
Rams on the Clock
The St. Louis Rams finished the regular season with a 1-15 record, worst in the NFL. The bad news for the Rams is that they have a long way to go if they are going to re-build a competitive team in the NFC West. The good news is that they have the first pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
There will no doubt be a lot of deliberation in the coming months leading up to April, in terms of what to do with the pick. Teams need to be very careful when selecting first overall, as they must find the maximum value possible in order to build their team, in conjunction with their needs.
After surveying the college football landscape this season, I believe the best available player in this year's draft is Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It goes without saying that most teams with the 1st overall pick tend to look at drafting quarterbacks, in part to help justify the outrageous sums of money that is now involved with taking a player with that pick. I do not believe, however, that there is a QB who is a sure-fire lock as the number one pick this season.
It is said that offenses and defenses are built along the line, and with a defensive minded head coach in Steve Spagnuolo, Suh would become a welcome addition to the Rams, and enable them to build a formidable defensive line. Suh will go down as one of the most decorated and honoured defensive players in college football history. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, and became the first ever defensive player to be voted AP Player of the Year. Suh won other post-season awards this year, including the Bronco Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik trophies as the nation's most outstanding defensive player. Suh was a unanimous 1st team All-America selection, and was named the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year.
I had the opportunity to help call two of Nebraska's games this season, and it was easy to see why Suh had become so highly touted by pro scouts. First of all, he's huge at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, but is also surprisingly quick and agile and can explode out of his stance. Suh was double-teamed for the majority of the season, yet consistently was able to beat two blockers and pressure opposing ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Suh's tour de force performance came in the Big 12 title game, where he recorded 4.5 sacks, as well as tying a school record with 7 tackles for loss, as the Cornhuskers almost upset the heavily favored Texas Longhorns.
What's incredible to me is that Suh has led his team in tackles for the past two seasons, and he plays defensive tackle! That's not supposed to happen. Suh even led his team in interceptions last season!
By drafting Ndamukong Suh, the St. Louis Rams can immediately improve their defense, and by pairing him with current starters Chris Long and former Cornhusker Adam Carriker, the Rams will be tougher to run against in the future. It's always tough picking first because as a franchise you want to avoid picking a bust and crippling the team. The Rams should not have to worry about that with Ndamukong Suh, as I think he is about as sure a pick as you will find in this year's draft.
The Pro Bowl Problem
This season the NFL decided to change the schedule of the Pro Bowl, as the game is now being played one week prior to the Super Bowl, instead of the following week like in years past. The Pro Bowl has always served as an achievement for the best players in the NFL, but has also served as a wonderful vacation for the players and their families. After their bodies get beaten throughout the grueling season, players opt to play in the Pro Bowl because they get to travel to Hawaii with their loved ones. The players can bring their families out for a week's long vacation in the sun, and enjoy time away in the frigid months of January and February. The practice schedule for the players is easy too, with workouts often lasting only one hour, with no major contact drills. The respective coaches and teams are there to have fun, not to scream and yell and beat each other up.
For years, the game has been played in Honolulu but, perhaps because of the struggling economy, the league has moved the game to the site of the Super Bowl, Landshark Stadium in Miami. As a fan, I have absolutely no problem with this. Firstly, making the trip to Miami to see the game is way easier and less expensive for fans looking to see their favorite players, as opposed to trekking all the way across the Pacific Ocean. Fans that were planning on attending the Super Bowl now have added incentive to get to Miami sooner to see the Pro Bowl, hence getting a two-for-one experience.
One problem that I do have with playing the game before the Super Bowl is that the players that have reached the championship game obviously cannot play in the Pro Bowl. If Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts reach Miami, the game's best player won't play in the NFL's annual all-star game.
I think the league is trying to lure as many NFL fans from around the country as possible to the game, especially from the cities where teams may have struggled. There is already going to be tons of fans present in Miami from the respective cites participating in the actual Super Bowl, so with the Super Bowl players not participating in the Pro Bowl, why not then invite alternate players from other teams to draw their fans to the game? It makes sense, but part of the allure of the Pro Bowl to me is watching the game's best players play each other, and more often than not the majority of those guys are playing on the two best teams in the NFL.