Good Guy of the Week
Tight end Mark Bruener. If there were any video crews available in Houston on Sunday, they could have done worse than to shoot good Samaritan Bruener and his Missouri City, Texas, neighbors cleaning up each other's property after Hurricane Ike. "I'll be cleaning up debris on my property, then going to help the neighbors for the rest of the day,'' Bruener told me Saturday night.
Bye weeks are gold around the NFL, and players look forward to them for weeks, sometimes months. They make plans to go to Aruba or Disney World with the family. Baltimore and Houston were supposed to play Sunday at Reliant Stadium, then take their bye weeks later in the year; but commissioner Roger Goodell rescheduled the game for November, eliminating their midseason byes, when Ike hit Texas and damaged the community and stadium. The Texans spent their bye weekend trying to get back to normal, and Bruener wasn't the only Texan reaching out to help neighbors and family in need. I use him as a metaphor for his teammates, many of whom cleared debris and lent helping hands to neighbors and friends, which is what we do as a country when things like Ike strike.
For much of Saturday, I was on the side of the Ravens, who wanted to play their game with Houston somewhere -- New Orleans if not Houston -- tonight. That's the message Baltimore player rep Matt Stover conveyed to Goodell late Saturday afternoon. Then I talked with Bruener.
"To not have the bye makes it really, really a long year,'' he said via cell phone Saturday night. "But you'd have to see what's happened here to believe it. We have people in the area who literally have had homes washed away. I've never been in a hurricane before. There were trees in our neighborhood, and in our yard, that were uprooted, and other trees that just snapped. I think if we had been asked to leave town and play a game somewhere else, it'd have been hard to have our minds in the right places, especially for guys who had to leave families behind while we left to play a football game. I think Roger made the perfect decision.''
The Way We Were
The second in a year-long (or longer) series .
Adrian Peterson vs. Walter Payton.
I thought of this Sept. 8, when Peterson, of the Vikings, ran over Green Bay's Al Harris on the left sideline on one romp and cut across the grain for a 34-yard scamper, leaving Packers defenders grasping. I know, I know. Payton did it for Chicago for 12 years. Peterson's done it for one. This new element of my column is not intended to say I think the modern guy is as good as the former guy. It's designed to compare a star from today to a star from yesterday in terms of style of play, greatness and personality.
I compare these two because of the similarities of style, mostly. Peterson's faster. He's probably slightly more physical, but not much, and two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. Those are big numbers in the world of running backs, but here's what they have in common: Payton was a physically imposing running back who had one of the best stiff-arms in history; he never shied away from contact. Peterson needs to learn the art of the stiff-arm, but he loves physical play too.
"Walter's who Peterson reminds me of the most,'' Mike Ditka told me the other day. "The one edge he has over Walter is breakaway speed, but otherwise they're pretty similar runners. I think Peterson ought to run a little meaner, and he definitely needs to learn the straight-arm. When Walter played, he'd get hit hard for a few plays, but then he'd turn around on the next run and absolutely kick the crap out of someone.''
Ditka, in fact, is preparing some footage for ESPN on Payton and Peterson, and he'll point out how he thinks Peterson needs to do less steamrolling of defenders and more stiff-arming.
Talking to Peterson last year, I liked the fact that rushing 20 times for 224 yards at Soldier Field meant something to him because he was doing it on Walter Payton's turf. Most young players don't appreciate history, but Peterson not only knew who Payton was, he knew he ran something like him. In my opinion, a lot like him.
The Awards Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Jay Cutler, QB, Denver. An amazing performance by an emerging star, who came back from throwing a costly interception in the fourth quarter, deep in San Diego territory -- allowing the Chargers to take a late lead -- and drove Denver the length of the field (aided by Ed Hochuli) for a touchdown pass to Eddie Royal with 29 seconds left. That made it 38-37, Denver. Shanahan (as noted earlier) chose to go for two. Then, cool as a cuke, Cutler bounced on the balls of his feet three times, a la Joe Willie, and fired a completed conversion pass to Royal between three Chargers. This folks, was as exhilarating as Carolina's last-second win over the Chargers in Week 1. For the day, Cutler was 36 of 50 for 350 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver. He might have locked up player of the week honors with two quarters of work, when he had 10 receptions at halftime. But finishing with 18 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown is special. Marshall has become a terrific go-to guy, who can get open deep and reliably on the sidelines. He's about to have a monster year.
Matt Cassel, QB, New England. A workmanlike day (16 of 23, 165 yards, no touchdowns or picks), but let's realize what this man did. In his first start in the NFL, and his first start at quarterback since a high school playoff game in 1999, he jogged onto Favre's new home field Sunday in New Jersey, and beat one of the top 10 quarterbacks of all time. Pats 19, Jets 10. Read Sports Illustrated this week (the big tease) for my take on how he got to the Patriots and who got him there. Cassel wasn't outstanding, but he was calm, he was efficient, he didn't try to do too much, and he never made the big mistake that often plagues inexperienced players thrown into the cauldron.
Defensive Player of the Week
Chris Horton, S, Washington. The seventh-round pick from UCLA, playing because of an injury to Redskins starter Reed Doughty, had two interceptions and recovered a fumble, accounting for three takeaways in Washington's narrow win over the Saints. Washington doesn't usually get much credit for its drafts, but Horton played the biggest role of any defender in helping repel the prolific Drew Brees at FedEx Field.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Darrell McClover, LB, Chicago. In the first quarter at Charlotte, McClover, the left end in the Bears' punt rush, dodged a block attempt by Panthers running back Nate Goings and deflected a Jason Baker punt into the sky. Brandon Lloyd came down with it, and the resulting touchdown should have spurred the Bears to a 2-0 start. But Delhomme had something to do with that.
Tim Jennings, cornerback, Indianapolis. You simply cannot down a ball near the goal line better than Jennings did in a crucial spot with 1:51 left in the Colts game at Minnesota. Jennings sprinted downfield late in the fourth quarter on a Hunter Smith punt, and about eight inches from the goal line, batted the ball into the air, regained his balance, and caught it to down it on the half-yard line. The Vikings couldn't do anything with it, had to punt the ball back to Indy with the score tied at 15, and Manning drove the Colts to the winning field goal.
Darren Sproles, RB, San Diego. A 103-yard kick return when your team's getting blown out would be enough. But Sproles added 53 rushing yards, 89 more kick-return yards and 72 receiving yards. On a day of amazing performances around the league, Sproles stood out.
Coach of the Week
Mike Shanahan, Denver. A gimme. When you're at home, with a crowd rocking the house, and a quarterback as hot as Cutler is, the coaching book says play for overtime. Shanahan, wisely, burned the book, went for two and won one of the most exciting games of his life, 39-38, over San Diego.
Goat of the Week
Ed Hochuli, referee. Hate to do this because I never credit Hochuli for a game well-officiated, which I should. We all should appreciate the work of the officials more than we do. But Hochuli put San Diego into a gigantic hole in its bid to make the playoffs with the whistle he blew on the obvious Cutler fumble late in the fourth quarter of Denver-San Diego. The whistle negated the Bronco fumble and enabled them to win in regulation.