Unknown reserve players stepping up is a consistent factor for winners
Posted: Monday November 1, 2004 10:02AM; Updated: Monday November 1, 2004 3:37PM
We pause from Big Ben-mania to bring you an eternal verity of sports.
This verity has four names: Reno Mahe, Randall Gay, Mewelde Moore, Dave Roberts.
At some point during a season, in whatever sport, the bottom-of-the-roster guy has to play big for teams to win. Gay is a reserve defensive back for the World Champion Patriots who now may become a starter with Sunday's injury to Ty Law. Roberts was the fifth outfielder on the World Champion Red Sox. (Weird to type that ... weird to think that.) Moore was the 5-2 Vikings' fourth tailback a month ago. Mahe's a sub running back and return man for the 7-0 Eagles.
Their impact hit home the other night when I saw Red Sox manager TerryFrancona basking in the glow of winning the World Series, and one of the first things he said at his postgame press deal was: "If Dave Roberts doesn't steal second base in Game 4 against the Yankees, I'm home watching the World Series on TV. And everyone's saying, 'What's wrong with the Red Sox?'" Roberts, if you didn't follow baseball over the past few weeks, pinch-ran in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, with the Red Sox trailing in the series 3-0 and trailing in the game 4-3. He stole second base and scored the tying run. The Red Sox won in 12 innings, then went on to win the final three games to cap a ridiculous comeback.
And I thought: Look at the teams that have won titles recently. The Patriots have won with middle-class schmoes playing big when it counts. The who-are-they Pistons whacked the very famous Lakers. I don't know anything about the Tampa Bay Lightning, but I know the year before the Devils must have led the league in blue-collar John Does while winning the Stanley Cup. In the sport I cover, it's charming and fan-friendly to be Daniel Snyder and Arthur Blank and burst into the league and try to sign all the big free-agent stars, but what has won in recent years is the slow-and-steady, Vrabel-and-Andruzzi-chasing Patriots.
Last week, poring over statistics, I came across this one: The Minnesota Vikings are without the injured Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and the suspended Onterrio Smith, yet in Weeks 5 through 7, no player in the NFL had more yards from scrimmage than Mewelde Moore. Mewelde Moore! With 537 rushing/receiving yards in 15 days.
Then I open Sports Illustrated this week, and here's Dr. Z, the prescient PaulZimmerman, writing about Stephen Trejo, Reggie Swinton, Artose Pinner and James Hall, and quizzing readers about which team these guys helped pull off a big upset for in Week 7. Detroit. It's an epidemic, people. Schmoes rule.
Let's let the bottom-of-the-roster guys get the credit they deserve. Their four short stories:
I was face-to-face walking off the field with this little leprechaun after the Eagles' overtime win in Cleveland last week. I introduced myself, then told him how interesting it was that the Eagles have big stars like McNabb and Owens and Kearse, and here it was, an overtime game on the road, and it was Mahe and Dorsey Levens, Josh Parry and Quintin Mikell who did the most to win the game for an unbeaten team.
"As sort of a bottom-of-the-roster guy, no offense intended, does it -- " I began, and he interrupted me.
"None taken,'' he said. "I don't mind being thought of like that. Guys at the bottom always have to to be ready to play their best. That's what it'll take for me to help the team and keep my job.''
In the win over Cleveland, it was 18 yards on two screen passes, thrown his way on the game-winning drive because Brian Westbrook had broken a rib and bruised his chest earlier in the game. On my way out of the locker room, I ran into Hugh Douglas, former Philly sack leader, now Eagle backup, and he gave me a line I used in my SI column this week. "The word that best sums up this team is sacrifice,'' said Douglas.
The teams with guys who can accept that philosophy are the teams that'll win. Teams obviously need good coaching and good players, but if teams don't have the all-for-one thing going on, it's hard to win.
Good enough to start only 16 games in a four-year LSU career at cornerback, Gay found his way into NFL training camp with the Patriots and was the only college free-agent to make the roster. Not the fastest guy, but he made an impression with his consistent hustle and tackling, enough of an effort to earn a spot on the field in dime packages, when six or more defensive backs play. Last month against Miami, Gay had an important first-half interception that stalled a Dolphins drive and helped New England break the NFL's all-time record for consecutive wins. Gay started one game for LSU last year. Gay has started one game for the Patriots this year. "He's just one of the guys in this locker room who knows it's about the team,'' safety Rodney Harrison said.
Funny thing about the Patriots ... The day I covered the Miami-New England game, Gay was out of the locker room before any writers could get in to ask about it. With the Patriots, rookies are seen but not often heard.
He's got to be one of the stories of the year. Moore promised his single mom in Baton Rouge, La., that he'd get his degree from Tulane on time, in four years. And while at Tulane, the kid fell in love with numbers. So much so he decided to double-major in accounting and finance. The stress of a football career left him eight classes short of finishing work on both degrees entering his final semester of school last January. He was an NFL prospect and needed to work out in preparation for the all-important scouting combine. So he signed up for all eight classes and did something no top pro prospect ever does: He put his pre-draft workouts on the back burner. Eight classes. Do you have any idea what it's like to take, and pass, eight classes at a good school like Tulane? "While the other guys were getting ready for the combine are working out, doing speed training and eating right,'' Moore told me last week, "I'm staying up all night studying, fitting in workouts here and there. I've got to graduate.''
An excellent runner and receiver at Tulane, Moore ran a pedestrian 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash at the combine. "When he ran that 4.6,'' coach MikeTice said, "his stock really dropped. But we still wanted him badly. He's the type of versatile back I love.'' They picked him in the fourth round. Bennett got hurt late in the preseason, and Smith got his substance-abuse suspension imposed in early October. Along with an injury to Williams, a spot opened for Moore.
That spot could close when Onterrio Smith returns this week, but look for Moore to still have a big role in the receiving game.
Big Chargers fan. Lives north of San Diego. "I'll have my LaDainian jersey on Sunday,'' he told me Friday afternoon.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
I told Roberts he has no idea yet about the reach of the Red Sox. In 40 years, he'll be in line at a Wendy's with his grandkids, ordering lunch, and someone will tap him on the shoulder and say: "I want you to know how much that stolen base meant to me, my family, and everyone I know.''
There was a split-second of silence on the line, then he said: "I've got goose bumps right now.''
Roberts, a speed guy with a so-so bat, was the everyday center fielder on the first-place Dodgers on July 31 when he was dealt to the Red Sox, where he'd be used as a backup outfielder and designated stealer. He was disappointed. Not only was Roberts the leadoff man for a playoff team, but his wife was pregnant with their second child. Being uprooted was bad, personally and professionally. "A few of us on the team were regular players who had to swallow our pride and not play every day,'' he said. "It's tough, but little did I know how great this city was, and how passionate this region was for this team. Unlike anything I'd ever seen. Then I realized: Go with it. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.''
Game 4, ALCS. Yanks were up three-zip in games and with a one-run lead in the ninth, about to win the game and take the series. Mariano Rivera, classic closer, in. But he walked Kevin Millar. In went Roberts to pinch-run. "I hadn't played in two weeks,'' he said. "[TerryFrancona] winks at me, like, 'You're on your own.' I run out there. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance.''
"Were you nervous?'' I asked.
"Well, it was one of those things where one side of my brain is saying, 'Go for it!' And the other side of my brain is saying, 'Take it easy, now. If you get thrown out, you'll be exiled from this city for life. And it'll be another year of Red Sox failure.' They're doing battle. But I just thought it was something I had to do. The game depended on it. He threw over three times, and then I went. I'm not going to give away my secrets, but I had studied Mariano's move, and I thought I knew what to do. Joe West called me safe. It was close, but I was definitely safe. And DerekJeter says to me: 'I don't know how you sit in this weather for eight innings and come in and steal a bag like that. Good job.' Then Bill Mueller got the hit, we tied and won in the 12th.''
They never lost again. Eight in a row. "I think it's the biggest sports happening of our lifetime,'' he said. "I'm proud of the little role I played. You've got to have guys on winning teams who can play important roles.''
Not glamorous. Just real. Games are won as often because the Randall Gays and Reno Mahes do the little things, and because the Mewelde Moores and Dave Robertses are ready and good enough.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. Philadelphia (7-0). Some games are survival games. That's what the contest with the Ravens was. And when Donovan McNabb hit Terrell Owens (eight catches, three drops, 101 yards) in stride for a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to make it 15-3, the battle of wills had been won by the better team.
2. Pittsburgh (6-1). Nothing fluky about it. The Steelers were better in every way. This game proved the Steelers will be major factors in January.
3. New England (6-1). Pats finished the game with left tackle Matt Light, cornerbacks TyLaw and Tyrone Poole, running back Corey Dillon and wideout Deion Branch missing from the starting lineup due to injuries. This is the same team that goes to St. Louis and Kansas City in the next three weeks.
4. New York Jets (5-1). I bet there'll be more Marino and Namath jerseys, combined, at the Meadowlands tonight than Pennington/Fiedler.
5. New York Giants (5-2). If Tiki Barber isn't on your top-five MVP ballot right now, you aren't watching football on Sundays.
6. Green Bay (4-4). Favre giveth. Favre nearly taketh away.
7. Indianapolis (4-3). Swiss-cheese defense. TonyDungy's a cool guy, but I swear I could see steam coming out of his ears on the highlights last night.
8. San Diego (5-3). How do you pick the order in these standings of Indianapolis, San Diego, Kansas City, Houston and Jacksonville? Colts trounce Pack, split with Jags. Bolts beat Texans and Jags, lose to Falcs. Chiefs lose to Texans and Jags, put up a century on Falcs and Colts. Texans lose to Chargers, but beat the Jags and Chiefs. Jax pulls four out of a hat, wins at Indy, gets routed at Houston. It's all guesswork right now.
9. Kansas City (3-4). Last eight days: Chiefs have 101 points; Redskins have scored 98 this season.
10. Houston (4-3). Next three weeks (at Denver, at Indy, Green Bay) should tell the tale of the Texans' season.
11. Jacksonville (5-3). Top three teams in the AFC South are separated by a half-game. Jacksonville has the bye this week. If the Colts beat Minnesota at home and the Texans win at Denver, three teams atop the AFC South will be 5-3 at the halfway point.
12. Minnesota (5-2). Talk about defensive frauds. Vikes allowed the hardly explosive Giants to score 29 and 34 points at the Metrodome 53 weeks apart. The Jints came into the House of Moss when Minny had 6-0 and 5-1 records, respectively, and won both games by double digits.
13. Baltimore (4-3). The passing game, or lack thereof, will make it hard for them to play deep into January. But the Raves will scare someone if they make the playoffs.
14. Atlanta (6-2). Mike Vick had 110 rushing yards in Denver ... by halftime.
15. Denver (5-3). The alarming thing is in the span of two games (against two defenses that can be had (Cincinnati and Atlanta), the Broncos have scored 10 and 28 points.
THE AWARD SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger, who plays like an eight-year veteran every single week. Now 5-0 as a starter, he is resuscitating an NFL franchise. He completed 18 of 24 (75 percent) to help stun the mighty Patriots. Roethlisberger is a 70-percent passer as a rookie. Just think: A year ago, he was playing Kent State. Now he's beating the team of the decade.
Defensive Player of the Week
(tie) Pittsburgh LB Joey Porter. He had the best single game by a linebacker this year against an offense noted for its incredible mistake-free efficiency. Seven tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles. One of the forced fumbles came with New England, down 24-10, driving to get back in the game at the start of the third quarter. Instead of the Pats making it 24-17, the Steelers got the ball back, scored and led 31-10. Game over.
Washington CB Shawn Springs. Two picks, both of them difficult lungers, against Green Bay's Favre. Hope you kept at least one of the balls, Shawn -- you can tell your grandkids about those someday. The second one came late in the fourth with the Pack up 20-14 and might have led to the winning Washington score, except Mark Brunell threw a pick after a controversial illegal motion penalty negated a Redskins touchdown.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Chicago K Paul Edinger. On a relatively starless day for special teamers around the league, Edinger and that weird pinwheel style of his scored 11 points in a 10-point Bear win, kicking field goals of 52, 45 and 27.
Coach of the Week
Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. In the offseason, he did two important things. He was part of the Steeler consensus that signed off on BenRoethlisberger as the team's first-round draft choice. He saw a spark, a maturity and a huge, accurate arm from the kid. And he ordered a return to the Steelers' old power-running game. Both decisions have turned out not just good, but brilliant. Roethlisberger is the best quarterback to come out since Peyton Manning. And the Steelers decimated a very good defense, running 49 times for 221 yards in whacking the Pats 34-20. Great decisions, great coaching.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Green Bay played at Washington yesterday for the first time since 1979.
FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Midway through the third quarter of last Monday night's Denver-Cincinnati game, the Bengals had the ball. It was a running play. Decoying downfield was ChadJohnson. Jeremi Johnson lead-blocked. Stuffed for a three-yard loss was Rudi Johnson.
By Ellis Johnson.
Raylee Johnson was not in on the tackle for the Broncos, however.
ENJOYABLE/AGGRAVATING TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
Some 2,700 miles from Boston, I wore a small Red Sox-logoed fleece Sunday morning to breakfast at the Seattle Westin.
Guy in the elevator had a Red Sox cap and smiled broadly at me.
Waitress in Roy's, the equivalent of the coffee shop, said: "I couldn't get enough of that Yankee series!''
Two woman sitting nearby eyed my shirt, and as I went to the buffet line, one said, "I love Johnny Damon!'' Then she said, "Are you from there?'' I said no, but I follow the team. She said, "Is he married?'' I said no, but I understand he's getting married this offseason. She frowned.
Walking out of the hotel for the football game late in the morning, I encountered three Japanese men looking at a map in the driveway. One saw me waiting for my car. He smiled. "Schee-ling,'' he said, nodding quickly. I said, "Yes.''
I am three time zones away from Franconaville. Feels like three miles.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"We feel we're the best team in the AFC and we can compete with anybody. And we know that next team coming in here is pretty good too.''
-- Pittsburgh wideout Plaxico Burress. The Eagles come to the big Ketchup Bottle this Sunday.
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts on the NFL weekend:
a. Eagles unveil black uniform jerseys for the first time this season. Let me guess. Just in time for the holiday shopping season. I get it.
b. I'm not normally a fan of these end-zone cavortings, but I have to admit Terrell Owens imitating RayLewis after his touchdown catch was downright hilarious.
c. One year it's roses, Jake Delhomme. The next year it's dung.
d. NorvTurner's not allowing the Chargers to ring up 448 yards and 42 points, Warren Sapp.
e. Turn Kevin Jones loose, Steve Mariucci.
f. Sooner or later, teams are going to have to realize Mewelde Moore is a big, big factor.
Jake Plummer has thrown 10 INTs this season.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
g. Jake Plummer threw for 499, and he gets no plaudits here. Three picks.
h. Rod Smith caught nine for 208. Still one of the top-five all-around (catching, blocking yards after the catch) pass-catcher in the NFL.
i. Did you see Favre evade the Fred Smoot blindside sack, then throw the ball, incomplete, literally 76 yards in the air for Javon Walker? Incredible display. But his three picks almost put the goat horns on him.
j. I repeat: The Brentson Buckner Visa commercial is the worst ad a player has ever done in NFL history. I don't blame Buckner, a good guy, a glib guy. I blame the writer who thought Brentson Buckner kissing his shoes was anything but stupid.
2. I think to understand the current saber-rattling by NFLPA head Gene Upshaw and the NFL owners, you need to understand how the landscape has changed since this revenue-sharing, salary-cap deal was struck more than a decade ago. Then, all NFL teams wanted revenue-sharing, and the same kind of revenue-sharing. Which, basically, was that almost all revenue a team took in was fair game to be added to the NFL's designated gross revenue and divided by the number of teams in the league to make a fair and just salary cap for all teams. Since then, new franchises have come into the league. In Houston, Bob McNair has paid for a stadium and $700 million for a franchise fee so he could have a team. He has debt service to pay on his massive loans. Who knows what it is every year, but it's at least $30 million annually, according to an NFL source. Dan Snyder in Washington has big debt service. So let's say McNair is making $90 million more per year than the lesser teams with older stadiums, like the teams in New Orleans and Indianapolis, and let's say he owes $50 million in the year for debt service. Why should the $90 million be put into the designated gross revenue? Why shouldn't it be the $90 million minus the debt service? And whatever it is, get this: If McNair's extra money is put into the pot and divided by 32, whatever it is only makes the burden on the Indys heavier. Whatever the cap gets jacked up because of the extra stadium revenue, it doesn't mean the Colts and Saints are making more money; it means they have to pay players more because the cap has been jacked up because the haves kicked in more money.
3. I think what's amazing about the NFL is how guys get hurt, and teams move on, and it's Week 8, and the steamroller has to keep going, so let's not hear anything about the injuries. I was in Denver in late July for training camp, and I remember sitting down with Mike Shanahan to discuss the running back logjam and I came away thinking: QuentinGriffin's going to start opening day, Mike Anderson is going to be the big-back changeup back (maybe even getting a start or two against poor run-defense teams) and Tatum Bell would be the third guy, winning the starting job at some point during the season. So here we are, almost at the season's midpoint, and the Broncos played the Falcons with Reuben Droughns and Garrison Hearst. Maddening. It's got to be maddening.
4. I think the Steelers deserve all the credit anyone could give them, because they played the game of the year in the NFL so far. The most impressive thing was how they imposed their will on the Patriots all day, dictating a 43-17 advantage in minutes of possession. Not that homefield means much to the Pats, who beat Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh on the way to their first Super Bowl win, but the Steelers have the edge for that right now.
5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. As someone who grew up 93 miles from Fenway Park, and waited for last Wednesday's moment for a long time, I must say it feels pretty good to say the Red Sox won the World Series in my lifetime. My father could never say that, and he's been dead 18 years. My sister Pam is going to get a Red Sox pennant and put it on his grave. He'll appreciate that.
c. Coffeenerdness: Of all the press-box highlights in the NFL, there is none better -- well, maybe the wall of nine TVs in Nashville and Charlotte; now that I think of it, yes, the wall of TVs in those spots is quite good -- than the Tully's lattes and mochas at Qwest Stadium.
d. How can we live in America and force people to wait three hours to vote, as is happening in Florida?
e. I thought FOX was bad with shoving all those program promos down our throats in October, but that pales in comparison to ESPN's promotion of the NBA.
6. I think I don't know how you can watch the NFL and not like DaunteCulpepper ... as a player and a person. PamOliver's Culpepper feature on FOX yesterday was great, not only in getting Tice to talk about some fans' racist views of a black quarterback, but in showing what a good and tolerant person Culpepper is, and what a smart and mature quarterback he is.
7. I think the mayhem in Pennsylvania -- Eagles over Ravens, Steelers over Pats -- obscured the fact Drew Brees had a Phil Simms Super Bowl day (22 of 25) with five touchdowns and no picks. The man is having an amazing year.
8. I think it's time to be very worried about my Super Bowl pick in the AFC. Denver allowed a shaken quarterback, Vick, to complete 75 percent of his throws and a Falcon offense that had nothing the previous week at Kansas City to gain 467 yards.
9. I think the unhapppiest man in football today has to be Travis Henry. His line from the 38-14 rout of the Cards: one carry, two yards. Buffalo finally discovered the power-running game it's been missing for so long, and his name is WillisMcGahee.
10. I think, from the people I talk to and the signs in the media (a TV station here the other night projected an 84 percent turnout of registered voters in the state of Washington) there's going to be a great turnout for the election tomorrow. Last Friday, for the first time in my life, I voted absentee because I wasn't going to be in New Jersey on election day. Interesting and surprisingly efficient experience, and I wasn't alone in the Essex County Clerk's office Friday afternoon around 3:30. I got the brief ballot -- only two things to vote for besides the president -- number-two-penciled in my votes, signed and sealed the thing and dropped it in Friday evening's mail. Piece of cake. No excuse, people.
WHO I LIKE TONIGHT, AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS
How can you not like the Jets? I know that's what everyone thinks, and I think that too. But just remember a couple of things. The Dolphins have some prideful defensive players, really prideful ones. They hate the Jets. Really hate 'em. And the Jets aren't exactly a finely tuned offensive machine. I don't say that because they were held to six points in Foxboro. The Jets had their sputterings the week before against San Francisco, too. Miami's the fourth-rated defense in the NFL, and first against the pass. Earn your wings, Chad Pennington. Jets 20, Dolphins 12.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.