Running backs calling the plays and taking snaps? Just another Sunday
NEW YORK -- A really interesting Sunday. What do you want to hear about first? The origins of the Wildcat play, which has carried the woebegone Dolphins to wins over the two AFC Championship Game teams from last year? The future of Kerry Collins, who, in a month, has gone from a washed-up backup to one of the NFL's 20 most important players? The incredible case of Matty Ice? Plaxico Burress' future with the Giants?
None of the above, though I'll get to them all. My choice: The first play-call of Clinton Portis' life.
The Redskins are turning into one of the great stories of the year. They looked inept in a flaccid opener against the Giants. They've looked like the '67 Packers since. They won their fourth straight, 23-17, at Philadelphia on Sunday, and afterward, I couldn't quite believe what Jim Zorn told me.
"Clinton called that fourth-down play,'' Zorn said.
Clinton Portis what?
Fourth-and-one at the Eagles' 38, 2:48 left, Washington up 23-17, Philly out of timeouts. Tricky call here. If Washington gets stopped, the Eagles take over with about 2:40 left and 62 yards to travel for the winning score. If Washington makes it on a running play and stays inbounds and plays its time-strategy cards right, the 'Skins should be able to run out the clock by kneeling three times and going home with a dramatic win.
Zorn had his thinking cap on, with Jason Campbell and Portis and a couple of the coaches on the sidelines. "I called the formation first,'' he said, "and then he called the play. He thought we should run a draw. I didn't say anything, and I looked at my plan. It was going to be very hard to run. But I thought about the play, and it was a good call. And he's a veteran. If a rookie had said anything, I'd have told him to shut up. But the call made sense. We ran it. He had to really hammer it out.''
The draw's a great call there, with the expectation that a strong back would either wham into the line, or the quarterback would throw a sure thing to either the back or tight end. The momentary element of surprise may have given Portis the sliver he needed to plow for three yards. Ball game.
Portis was a monster in this game -- 29 carries, 145 yards -- against a D that had allowed 54 yards rushing per game in the first month of the season. Imagine how he felt, calling the last meaningful play of the game. Imagine the respect he felt from his coach. Imagine the ownership he feels in his team this morning, knowing the new coach, an offensive maven, thought enough of his brain and gut feeling that he could get the yard he needed.
There's a lot to like about these Redskins and their coach right now.
The other angles of the day I really liked:
The Miami Wildcats. The Chargers came to Miami confident the four-touchdowns-in-six-plays experiment by the Dolphins against New England wouldn't work against them. The Wildcat is Miami's formation that calls for a direct snap to running back Ronnie Brown, who then picks a hole and runs, or hands off to Ricky Williams, or throws a pass, or ... who knows? "There's quite a bit more coming off it that we haven't shown yet,'' coach Tony Sparano told me after the game. "Stay tuned.''
Miami ran the formation 12 times against San Diego, and Brown's winning five-yard touchdown run (Miami's final points in a 17-10 victory) came off it. The formation didn't produce the explosive plays Miami got in New England, but Sparano will take 4.3 yards a clip, which is the per-rush average the Wildcat produced, on runs from Brown or Williams.
With the Wildcat in Miami, necessity was the mother of invention. The Dolphins had practiced the play but hadn't used it in the first two debacles of the season. Flying home from Arizona following a 31-10 loss, Sparano called quarterbacks coach David Lee to the front of the plane to talk. Seems Lee had used the formation last year as the play-caller at Arkansas, with Darren McFadden taking direct snaps in the backfield and Felix Jones on the field. "For us,'' Sparano said, "it was all about getting two of our best players on the field, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. This was a way to do it. After the Arizona game, I was looking for answers offensively, and we decided to give this a try.''
The best thing for Miami is how adept Brown is at taking snaps and using play-fakes and even throwing the ball. What could be next? My guess is something involving a lateral throwback to Chad Pennington on the right flank, followed by a Pennington pass. As Sparano said, stay tuned.
Ice Ice Baby. "You don't realize the stadium's right in the middle of a neighborhood,'' Matt Ryan said over the cell phone with a bit of impressed wonder Sunday. He'd just walked into Lambeau Field on his fifth professional start and stunned the Packers 27-24. He was 16-of-26 for 194 yards, with two TDs, one pick and no sacks, and he finished the game with two kneeldowns. We're now going to have to take this kid, and this team, seriously.
Ryan plays the part of an NFL quarterback perfectly. He says all the right things. He looks like a bank vice president 25 minutes after the game, in a neatly pressed suit with not a hair out of place. If Peyton Manning had a second younger brother playing this game, Ryan would be him.
There's been much debate over the years about the wisdom of a first-round pick starting at quarterback from opening day on, and Ryan is defying every bad thing we think should happen to a kid in his position. "There's no right or wrong way to break in a quarterback,'' he said. "I'm convinced of that. When you're in the middle of the situation, you can't worry about it or wonder if it's right or wrong. You just have to go out there and play the best you can.''
The best has been good enough for a 3-2 start.
Kerry Collins is back, and he's not going anywhere. I don't know how many quarterbacks in the NFL today can go on the road, play the most fearsome defense in football, take a mugging for three-and-a-half quarters, then drive his team 80 yards in 11 plays to win the game. How many, really? Four? Five? I don't know. I do know Kerry Collins did it Sunday, driving the Titans to a 5-0 start, and we now must re-think what Collins, at 35, is.
He knows what he isn't -- a No. 2 quarterback. He took great pains with me to say all the right things after the game, and he meant every one of them -- about how he loves this team in Tennessee, fits so well with Mike Heimerdinger's offense, and how this was the biggest win he'd been a part of in years. But he also said, "I just don't feel I can go back and accept being a backup anymore.''
Collins will be a free-agent after the year. Vince Young, the troubled one, has three years left on his contract. Next year, Young makes $2.16 million. In 2010 and 2011, Young will make a combined $24.5 million, if the Titans choose to keep him. They can cut him after 2009 and owe him nothing. Interesting dilemma. Collins has lost 20 pounds and is now a relatively lithe 229. He's sober. He's a little more athletic than he looked playing for the Giants near the beginning of the decade. Even though he'll be 36 at the end of the year, if he continues to play this efficiently, it'll be extremely hard for the Titans to let him go.
I figure the Titans will try to re-sign Collins, bring him to camp next year and let the best man win the job. Will he go for that? Depends what other options he has. For now, sit back and enjoy the resuscitation of a compelling player's career. "I'm so excited to be here,'' he said on a noisy Titans' bus to the airport after the game. "I still have a lot of confidence in myself as a player, and I've got the kind of opportunity that I've been waiting for.'' He's not blowing it either.
The Giants are a pretty deep team. What must Plaxico Burress have been thinking in Miami or New Jersey, if he had his TV on Sunday? There was his sub, Domenik Hixon, rushing and receiving for more than 100 yards in the first half against Seattle before going out with a slight concussion, and there were the Giants, crushing the Seahawks 44-6, with their best receiver serving a one-game suspension.
"Today showed one person doesn't make the Giants,'' center Shaun O'Hara said afterward. Football's that kind of game. Even the loss of a premier player can be compensated for, if a team is deep enough. The Giants clearly are. When Hixon went down, here came Mario Manningham and Sinorice Moss to add a combined five catches. Those three receivers, previously in mothballs, combined for nine catches for 153 yards. So will all be forgiven when Burress, habitually late and and a no-show for a day two weeks ago, comes back? Yes, O'Hara said. "There won't be a hangover. We won't hold a grudge. But it's all up to him.''
The Giants hardly needed him against Seattle because of Eli Manning's flawless play and Brandon Jacobs running like an in-his-prime Jerome Bettis. O'Hara couldn't say enough good things about Manning, and anyone's who watched much of the Giants this year sees what O'Hara sees -- the maturation of a kid who doesn't get flustered by anything. "Sometimes," O'Hara said, "Eli calls three plays in the huddle, and he'll read the defense at the line and, depending on what he sees, he calls one.''
Five weeks into the season, the stories are so much different than we thought they'd be.