Teams unafraid to play for future are finding immediate success
The good teams plan for the future while trying to win today
Matt Ryan asserts himself as the Rookie of the Year favorite
A statistical look at just how bad the Lions have been this season
Look at Sunday's big winners and tell me what they have in common.
Baltimore, Tennessee, Arizona, the New York Giants, Atlanta, Indianapolis and New England. Yes, New England, even after an 18-15 loss to the Colts in Indianapolis.
I'll give you a clue. It's a quote, actually, from Baltimore rookie running back Ray Rice, after he ran for 154 yards in the Ravens' 37-27 win at Cleveland. I asked him why he was able to have such a big day against a run defense that had been playing significantly better in the last couple of weeks.
"I have to make plays,'' Rice said. "It's what's expected of me. Me and Joe [Flacco] are two rookies out there, growing every week. I think we're going to be pretty good players here.''
"When they get drafted by the Baltimore Ravens,'' coach John Harbaugh said, "we expect them to play like that.''
My take on this week, and the first half of this NFL season, is this: The good teams, and the pleasant surprises, are the teams that plan for the future while trying to win championships today. The teams I worry about -- Oakland (with a willy-nilly, wasteful-spending approach to free-agency), Dallas (which has gone seven years without drafting a quarterback to develop), Detroit (a constant disconnect between the drafters and the coaches) -- don't have the same sort of profitable farm system developing players teams are going to need over the course of an injury-filled NFL season.
Take 5-3 Baltimore's personnel staff, led by GM Ozzie Newsome, director of college scouting Eric DeCosta and director of pro scouting George Kokinis. Only two of their 22 starters Sunday in Cleveland (Trevor Pryce, Derrick Mason) are monied free-agents from the big-money winter market. The totally rebuilt offensive line that cleared the way for 191 rushing yards to wear down the Browns has four draftees and a plug-the-gap old warhorse, Willie Anderson, starting. You shouldn't start a rookie quarterback, particularly one who was playing at Delaware a year ago. But Flacco is a precocious, unafraid kid completing 62 percent of his throws and, as Rice says, is growing into the job. The Ravens now have three backs -- Rice, Willis McGahee and La'Ron McClain -- with at least 330 rushing yards, and the kid of the group, Rice, is the explosive one, running for 4.8 yards a carry.
You can't be afraid to play kids, and to play them in important situations. We've killed the Cards over the years for poor drafting, but give GM Rod Graves and his play-the-kids coach, Ken Whisenhunt, credit. Arizona has supplanted veteran Edgerrin James with a pile-driving rookie, Tim Hightower, from Richmond, and invented a third option in the passing game, Steve Breaston. Hightower and Breaston came from the fifth round of the last two drafts.
Tennessee has made a couple of major drafting gaffes -- Adam Jones and Vince Young -- but the Titans hit a home run with 2008 first-rounder Chris Johnson. And look at the no-names past the first round who've made it big for them: starting tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart and soon-to-be Pro Bowl corner Cortland Finnegan.
The Giants won the Super Bowl last year with every 2007 draftee playing in the postseason; their pass-rush is so deep with youth that they could afford to lose Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora this year and still lead the league in sacks.
New GM Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta gambled on draft day -- quarterback Matt Ryan over franchise defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, and he reached for tackle Sam Baker -- but now both picks look like gold. You'd have to go back to Peyton Manning to find a rookie quarterback as poised and full of promise as Ryan.
The Colts are battered, and Manning isn't the same after his two summer knee procedures. They've started two rookies at guard for much of the first half of the season and been without reigning defensive player of the year Bob Sanders for half of the first half. They are waaaaay too light at defensive tackle and won't be able to fix that until 2009; they will most likely play with a patchwork secondary for the rest of the year. But the Bill Polian administration finds the kind of fast-twitch linebackers Tony Dungy wants to play with -- Gary Brackett and Tyjuan Hagler combined for 20 stops of the Patriots on Sunday night -- and the Colts are 4-4 and breathing.
I include New England in this group for a simple reason: Tom Brady has played for eight minutes in 2008, and the Patriots are 5-3. There are lots of good stories in the first half of the season, but none are as surprising as New England sharing the AFC East lead with Matt Cassel playing quarterback for 31 of the team's 32 quarters. The Cassel story illustrates why the Bill Belichick/Scott Pioli way is so effective. Remember the hue and cry to go get Chris Simms, Daunte Culpepper or Tim Rattay when Brady went down? The Patriots said: No, we'll stay in-house for our quarterback, because how can a Simms or a Rattay learn the offense as much as Matt Cassel, who's been here four years? If we've trusted Cassel to back up Brady, why don't we trust him to play?
And I believe this: If Cassel gets hurt at some point down the stretch, or when he leaves in free-agency after the season, the Patriots will put 2008 third-round pick Kevin O'Connell under center, or use him to back up Brady. The quarterback is develop-able. That's the New England mantra. Brady got developed. Cassel got developed. And O'Connell will too.
The Patriots, uncharacteristically, played a stupid fourth quarter last night. Belichick left his team without a timeout for the last 11 minutes, which haunted the team late. Jabar Gaffney dropped a potential winning touchdown pass. David Thomas had a dumb unnecessary-roughness penalty that cost New England three points. Reverse any of those, and New England might be 6-2 this morning. But that's not the issue here. My point is, the way the Patriots have been formed, and the team-first mentality at the heart of everything they do, are the reasons we're so attracted to football. When you send your kid to play high school football, you just hope he gets those unselfish team values drilled into him.
Look at the NFL in the first half of 2008. Those are the values we're seeing come home to roost.