The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh. What a man. My favorite mod football historian, Brian Hyland, my old boss at HBO and now at the NFL Network, texted me at 11:27 Sunday night thusly: "The dude is playing QB tonight like Winslow played in that playoff game at Miami.''
Couldn't have said it better. Playing with a separated shoulder after taking 31 significant hits the previous two weeks, Roethlisberger dodged Jags rushers all night and managed 26 completions in 41 throws for 309 yards with three touchdowns and a pick. He didn't practice all week because of his shoulder pain. Roethlisberger will go down in Steelers lore for his last six days, the improbable comeback Monday against Baltimore, then the deft, soft, arcing touchdown pass to Hines Ward with two minutes left that won this game.
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants. Is there a quarterback in recent history who's undergone so thorough a transformation in the last half-season? Think back to last December, and the final Saturday night game of the year, when Manning played superbly in defeat against New England. Since then, he's got a 16-to-3 touchdown-to-interception differential and the steadiest hand leading this team on and off the field.
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Kansas City. It's a token award, but a deserving one for a great player who will toil in obscurity all season. His three catches for 17 yards gave him 841 receptions for an NFL tight end record 10,075 yards, passing Shannon Sharpe. Amazing thing is, he's as healthy as a horse, is only 32, and could surely get to 1,000 catches, which I'm certain no forefather of this great game ever conceived a tight end would reach.
Defensive Players of the Week
Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore. I know, I know. The Ravens lost Sunday, a painful defeat at the hands of the Titans in which they let Tennessee drive the length of the field in the fourth quarter to win. But the play of Lewis over the last eight quarters simply must be recognized. In the narrow losses to Pittsburgh and Tennessee, Lewis has 20 tackles, two sacks, two passes deflected, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hits. He still hits like Mike Tyson. The other night, he broke Rashard Mendenhall's shoulders, knocking him out for the year, on a simple tackle up the gut. These two great games have come in his 165th and 166th pro contests.
Travis LaBoy, DE, Arizona. Facing the previously unbeaten Bills, LaBoy led a parade of pass-rushers to the Buffalo backfield and finished with seven tackles, two sacks, two quarterback pressures and two tackles for loss. Arizona won 41-17 -- a week after getting scorched for six touchdown passes and 56 points by the Jets.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Stephen Gostkowski, K, New England. I'm long overdue in recognizing this rising-star kicker. At Candlestick/Monster/3Com/Whatever Park Sunday, he kicked field goals of 35, 40 and 49 yards, and put four of seven kickoffs in the end zone; three were downed as touchbacks. For the year, he's hit on all 10 field goals he's tried.
Coach of the Week
David Lee, quarterbacks coach, Miami. The Wildcat formation is his, and you could argue that the person most responsible for the Dolphins wins over the Patriots and Chargers is Lee. What I like about his impact on the Miami game plan is that coach Tony Sparano is willing to fold it into what the team had planned to do from the start of the season. Some coaches, particularly those getting their first chance to pilot a team in the big leagues, would be headstrong and do what they'd planned to do throughout the offseason. Lee's wrinkle has made the Dolphins a tough out.
Goat of the Week
Sage Rosenfels, QB, Houston. Houston 27, Indy 17. Four minutes left. Texans trying to run the clock out. In their next 10 plays, Rosenfels fumbled twice, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and threw an interception. Colts 31, Texans 27. Final. "My mistakes made it much easier for them to win that game,'' Rosenfels said. "I let all 53 guys and 15-whatever coaches down.'' Duhhh!
Stat of the Week
The worst records of NFL teams over the past five-and-a-third seasons, prior to Sunday, since opening day 2003:
1. Detroit has been one-victory-per-season better than the Raiders in these past six seasons, including 2008, and the locals just ran Matt Millen out of town with pitchforks and torches. Where is the outrage and indignation in Oakland over the six coaches since New Year's Day 2002, over the miserable record and over the most dysfunctional team in football and perhaps in all of sports?
2. Not sure I've ever seen a news conference where one man lays waste to another the way Davis did to Kiffin. Clearly, Davis thought Kiffin was in this to make a quick buck, not to build a winning team with the Raiders. "He had you conned the way he conned me,'' he said to some writers after his briefing the other day.
One of my favorite passages from the news conference was Davis repeating a conversation he and Kiffin had: "[Lane] said, 'We can't win with this.' So I said to him, 'What do you mean you can't win?' And he said, 'Well, we can't win.' And I said, 'Then do the honorable thing. If you don't think you can win, resign. If you don't think you can win, resign. I don't know what you're talking about.' "
3. I have no idea what good it did to let JaMarcus Russell know Kiffin didn't want to draft him. How can that help your team?
4. Thought I'd check in with a man who had the most success with Davis, John Madden, who had a 112-39-7 record from 1969-78 with the Raiders. I asked him what the next coach of the Raiders should know and what the key was to a coach working well with Davis.
"He's got to form a partnership with Al,'' Madden said. "Don't put people between yourself and Al. That's the key. You know, it's no accident that maybe the best two coaches of all time are Paul Brown and George Halas, and look at how many people were between them and the owner. No one! They owned and coached! You communicate directly with Al. Once a decision is made, it doesn't always go your way, but you go forward as a team.''
Madden wanted to build his team with the offensive line first. Davis wanted to build with speed, particularly in the defensive backfield. "We used to argue all the time,'' Madden said. "Al doesn't always think he's right. We argued for years about Jack Tatum and Jack Youngblood.''
In 1971, the Raiders chose 19th and the Rams 20th. Tatum, the safety from Ohio State, and Youngblood, the defensive end from Florida, were on the board. Though Davis has always been a DB fan, he favored Youngblood here, and Madden wanted Tatum. Madden won, but took no victorious pride in it. He just thought Tatum fit the Raiders' defense better.
The point is, Madden and Davis sparred verbally all the time, and neither took it personally. "That's what the next coach has to do,'' said Madden.
5. As I said on NBC on Saturday, the next coach could be Jim Fassel, who gets along swimmingly with Al. Fassel ran an offense that ranked in the top five in scoring for three straight years (479, 399 and 450 points from 2000 to 2002, respectively), would have no ego about keeping Al informed about everything he's doing, and would walk to Oakland for the job.
6. Last thing: I do not like that Kiffin flirted with Arkansas last December, with three games left in the 2007 season, the same way it's detestable that Bobby Petrino walked out on Atlanta and Nick Saban jilted Miami. When you take a coaching job, there's no defense for actively trying to find an escape hatch during the season.
And you can be sure when an Arkansas booster called Al Davis in early December last year, trying to get him to let Kiffin out of his contract to coach the Razorbacks, that Kiffin was a dead man walking. Why Al didn't fire him in the offseason, I have no idea.
One of my theories on the ill-fated Kiffin Era is this: He entered the job knowing if it didn't work out, he'd collect $6 million and still be young enough and highly regarded enough to get a primo college job. Except for the money part of it, he's got all that going for him.
Back in the day, when you took a job, you didn't take it with a golden parachute attached. "You didn't even think of a college job, or any other job, in those days,'' Madden said. "But I think the difference is there was no agents or lawyers in those days looking for the next job for coaches.''