Stafford might be starting sooner than expected; Brees' amazing run
ESPN may have to share Matt Millen with the NFL Network
University of Texas pitcher's amazing night is the stuff of legends
My 20th anniversary at SI, an update on Anquan Boldin and more
Top of the morning to you, and here are the topics of the morning as we flip the calendar to June:
1. Austin Wood is my hero.
2. Matt Millen may be on the verge of getting another job. Aren't you Lions fans shaking your heads in amazement?
3. Drew Brees is on an incredible run that you have no idea about.
4. I have nothing new to report on those column favorites, Brett Favre and Mike Vick.
5. Matthew Stafford is on his way to winning the starting quarterback job in Detroit by Halloween, not by Thanksgiving.
6. Randall McDaniel was really good.
7. I have an anniversary this morning. It crept up on all of us.
The Austin Wood story's a good one. I'll save it for Stat of the Week/Hero of the Week, an invented column department for this one day only. Ever hear of Austin Wood? He's a college pitcher from Texas with a very sore arm this morning. Let's begin with the other nuggets of the day, opening with ...
The Matt Millen job fair. Remember I told you a couple of weeks ago how NFL Network was furious with Jon Gruden for agreeing to a deal to do color on the Thursday night games in a two-man booth, then reneging to sign with ESPN? NFL Network wasn't exactly thrilled with the worldwide leader for ripping off Gruden. Well, ESPN and NFL Network may just have to play nice now to get another deal done -- if league TV decides to make Millen the color man to replace Gruden for its eight-game slate of late-season games.
In the wake of NFL Network losing Gruden, the channel has considered a few options of analysts to pair with Bob Papa. One is Brian Billick, the quick-on-his-feet former Ravens coach who had a successful debut on Fox last season. Another would be a three-man booth, with Papa, Marshall Faulk and Joe Theismann, who, presumably, would walk to each game if the network would give him the gig. But I hear Millen is the leader in the NFL Network clubhouse.
Why no Deion Sanders? It's not out of the question, but I hear it's unlikely he'll win one of the Thursday seats. He's too much a lightning rod for the NFL suits, and though he has four or five good nuggets in most of his appearances, too many fans just totally tune him out because they think he's a clown.
Millen has already signed with ESPN to do college football games and analysis in the Monday night road studio. If he adds the Thursday duty, he'll be busier than Cris Collinsworth was in the second half of the season. Imagine doing the Monday night gig, then leaving Tuesday morning for the site of the Thursday-nighter, doing the Thursday game, and then going directly to the college game Friday morning. Good thing there won't be many December college games. That is, of course, if the ESPN job would remain the same for Millen with the NFL Network gig.
Give Drew Brees his props. In the 89-year history of the National Football League, only one player has thrown for more yards in a three-year period than Brees has thrown for in his last three years. This is Drew Brees we're talking about, not any of the very famous quarterbacks I'm going to show you in this chart. Here are the best three-year runs for QBs after 1980, ranked by passing yards:
(Worth noting: Dan Fouts threw for 4,715 in 1980 and 4,802 in 1981 and was on pace for a 5,000-yard season in 1982 before the strike.)
"It's just numbers,'' Brees said when I told him about this gaudy list Friday. "It's not a very big deal. To be mentioned in the same breath with Marino, Elway and all those guys is a great honor. Wow. But in the grand scheme of things, we don't have the ring. One of the reasons nobody would know about those numbers is, look at our record. [The Saints are 25-23 in that period.] Marino won more; I bet he was in the playoffs every year of those three years. We've made 'em once. Peyton's been in the playoffs a lot. Favre has. So winning's a big part of it. If you have numbers without the winning, it doesn't matter.''
He's right, but there's something about Brees over the last three years that I find amazing. Remember when he messed up his shoulder late in his last game at San Diego in 2005? Miami shied away from giving him the big money because Nick Saban was worried about the shoulder being whole in training camp. The Saints had faith and gave him six years for $60 million, and Brees has done everything he can to pay back Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis for believing in him when other teams wouldn't. He and Payton are a great match, and Brees knows it. "I've been given one of the best opportunities of anyone in football, and I'm loving every minute of it,'' he said.
It's beginning to look a lot like Stafford. "The last mini-camp in June, we're going to have an arms race,'' said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz. Between Daunte Culpepper and No. 1 draft pick Matthew Stafford. From the sounds of Schwartz, Culpepper needs to be really, really good to hold off the hard-charging kid.
Is it the right decision? We'll see. I've thought all along the Lions should let Culpepper take the body blows of the early season schedule (at blitzing New Orleans, followed by Minnesota and Washington at home, Chicago on the road, then Pittsburgh at home). Those are some aggressive defensive coordinators licking their chops waiting to play the rookie. I've thought for that reason plus the hazards of playing a kid, let Stafford sit, well-padded and protected, while learning. Doesn't sound like the way the Lions are thinking. If Stafford's clearly the best man, he'll play the opener.
"We've got two criteria for when Matthew will play,'' said Schwartz. "One is he'll play when he's ready. The second is when he's the best quarterback for us. But so far, whatever the opposite of buyers' remorse is, that's what we have. We knew he had the terrific NFL arm. But we've found out his release is just textbook classic.''
Apropos of nothing, here's some praise for an invisible Hall of Famer. Had Gary Zimmerman (Hall of Fame class of 2008) on our Sirius NFL Radio Opening Drive show the other day, and Randy Cross and I asked him a few Canton questions. One was about a 2009 inductee, Randall McDaniel, a former teammate of Zimmerman's. And I relay his words only because Zimmerman's hallmark is his word, according to the coaches and teammates who knew him best in Denver and Minnesota. He has not an ounce of pomposity or fakery to him. We just never knew him much because he was a sphinx to the press.
As many former teammates say when asked a question about the Hall-worthiness of a player, they lapse into things like, "He should have been a first-ballot guy." Which Zimmerman, who played with McDaniel in Minnesota, did. And then he said: "He's not only the strongest man I've ever seen. But he used to challenge defensive backs to races for $100, and they wouldn't take him up on it. If they did, he would have smoked them all. He was a phenomenal football player.''
Players and team officials question me each year about the Hall's picks. Always. But McDaniel is one guy no one panned.
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