Four weeks into 2009 season, some NFL truths beginning to emerge
How late-night beers in January helped turn the Saints defense around
Pat Tillman wanted to play football again; he would have had myriad options
New leader in Fine 15, my book ranking of the current QBs and 10 Things I Think
Football Insiders: Check out Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime.
NEW YORK -- So we're a quarter of the way through the season, except for those four luckless teams that had the dumb Week 4 byes. Here are your 2009 NFL verities:
1. The Giants might or might not be the best team in football, but I can tell you this: They're the deepest.
"Jerry Reese is a psychic, I think,'' Justin Tuck said from Kansas City, where the Giants had ho-hummed a 27-16 win over the Chiefs. It's the second straight week New York toyed with a bad team, and the Giants have won their four games by an average of 11 points.
Reese, the Giants' GM, made two good decisions in the offseason. He fortified the defensive line beyond what seemed to be smart, going seven strong players deep. "So early in camp, when we lost [defensive tackle] Jay Alford, who was going to have a breakout year, we didn't panic,'' Tuck said. "And we've been without some of our best players -- [safety] Kenny Phillips, [cornerback] Aaron Ross, [defensive lineman] Chris Canty -- and today was [corner] Kevin Dockery's first game. When we get most of our guys back, we're going to be really good.''
But that's the thing -- in the NFL, you never have a full complement of players. Or very rarely. That's why Reese built, in my opinion, the best 53-man roster in the league, and Tom Coughlin has no fear in playing young players to develop them.
On offense, Reese eschewed dealing for a veteran receiver like Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards, knowing that dealing for either would not only have cost a high draft choice, but also about $10 million a year. The Giants instead have a productive quarterback, Eli Manning, playing smart football and have three budding receivers -- Steve Smith (24), Mario Manningham (23) and Hakeem Nicks (20) -- who have combined for an average of 197 yards and two touchdown catches a game ... with none of the Plaxico Burress headaches that came with that star. We'll start to find out how good the Giants are Oct. 18, when they visit the Saints, with New Orleans coming off its bye. Tough place to play, at a tough time.
2. The Saints look like the best team in football. The Giants, Colts and Vikings might be too, and Denver and Baltimore and New England ... well, proclaiming a best team is a foolish pursuit on Oct. 5. But if the Saints are the best, I credit a decision Sean Payton made on Jan. 13, sitting by the firepit in his backyard in Louisiana with a cold beer in his hand.
At the time, he really wanted to hire Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator; Williams had a history of making chicken salad out of chicken feathers, and Payton knew his talent on defense was decent but limited, particularly in pressure packages. Payton knew where the Saints' offer was -- a little over one million (I can't be sure precisely what it was) -- but he also knew Williams was on the way to Green Bay after a great visit with the Saints, and he knew the Packers would offer him more than New Orleans did.
"So I had a couple of beers in me,'' Payton told me over the weekend, "and I start thinking, 'I make enough money. We really need this guy. I'm going to offer some of my own money to try to make this happen.' So the next day, I walk into [general manager] Mickey Loomis' office and say, 'Mickey, take $250,000 of my salary, add it onto our offer for Gregg and let's get this thing done right now.' Mickey called [owner] Tom Benson, they discussed it, and they agreed. So we upped the offer.''
One other thing: Payton knew it was important to Williams that he work with his son, Blake, an aspiring football coach who prepped at Princeton, and so the Saints brought him in as an offensive assistant working with the line. Williams saw the welcome mat. He took the three-year coaching offer, and the match has been perfect. "It's the perfect place for me,'' Williams said. "You're allowed to coach the way you coach here, and the only way I know how to coach is to get after the offense every day in practice. I know we give Drew [Brees] fits, and I hope that makes him better, because I know it makes us better, going against him every day.''
So what have the Saints got for their money? Last year, New Orleans was 26th in the league in scoring defense. This year, it's seventh.
3. Feel-good story of the year? Denver. I'm looking at notes from a couple of interviews I did with Josh McDaniels -- one on the weekend the Jay Cutler story was blowing up in March, then next from training camp seven weeks ago today. "If we win, none of this will matter, and if we lose, then we blew it,'' he said in March. Five months later, he said, "We just need to start playing games. Whoever's on your team, all that matters is winning or losing.'' I guarantee you that's the vibe he sent to his team.
Whether Denver's a championship team or not -- and allowing an insane 6.5 points per game through four weeks suggests they'll battle San Diego for the AFC West title -- there's one thing you have to love about the Broncos: They've got a Patriot way (what a coincidence!) of tuning out the outside crappola and focusing on the only thing that matters -- the next play. They tuned out the Jay Cutler thing. They tuned out the Brandon Marshall distraction. That's not easy in an NFL-crazy market like Denver, but McDaniels did it. "DO YOUR JOB'' is the gigantic wall art in the Broncos' team meeting room, something McDaniels brought with him from New England and his mentor, Bill Belichick. And it's what his players are doing.
Now let's do a mini-analysis of the biggest decision of the off-season, Denver dealing Cutler for two first-rounders and Kyle Orton. It reminds me of the Patriots dealing Drew Bledsoe in 2002 and handing the quarterback job long-term to Tom Brady. Bledsoe, the independent-thinking mad bomber; Brady, the caretaker who'll follow the gameplan to a T. Just substitute Cutler for Bledsoe and Kyle Orton for Brady and you've got McDaniels' line of thinking. Now, I'm not saying (and McDaniels wouldn't either) that Orton's going to morph into Brady, but the amount of negative plays at the quarterback position has been exactly what McDaniels has preached: zero interceptions, zero lost fumbles, six sacks. If Orton continues on his present pace -- 3,624 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, 59 percent passing (that should be a tick better) -- the Broncos will be playing in January.
4. The Titans have lost as many games in 24 days as they did in five months last year. They're 0-4. They're lifeless on defense -- where's the chip-on-the-shoulder, Raven-esque attitude? -- with no leader on the sidelines or the field to get them out of a ridiculous slide. Tennessee's allowed 34, 24 and 37 points in its past three games. Only once last year did the Titans allow 24 points or more in a game. Pass defense is a major issue; they're not scaring any quarterbacks, and allowing a 68.5 percent completion rate means defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil simply has to be more aggressive. His predecessor, Jim Schwartz, would be dialing up blitzes from all over.
On offense, the kneejerk reaction is to change quarterbacks (Jeff Fisher told me last night he's staying with Kerry Collins), which I wouldn't do for one more week. Simple reason: This game against Indianapolis at home Sunday night is the Titans' season, pure and simple, and I don't want the latest on-the-job-training game for Young to come in a game that is positively a playoff games for Tennessee. That, plus the fact Collins has been more productive (51 more passing yards per game) and just as accurate as he was a year ago. If the Titans lose to go 0-5, Fisher's got no choice but to see if Young can give the team a spark. "I don't know what to say, other than we're going to keep plugging away,'' Fisher said from Jacksonville. "We have to. We've got Indy, and then we go to New England.''
How can you not love this game tonight?
One of the keys to Minnesota-Green Bay, obviously, is the Vikings sticking to the type of football they've played in their 3-0 start. Minnesota's on a 54-46 run-pass ratio, and why not? The Vikings are averaging 4.8 yards per rush, and Brett Favre has been an efficient caretaker so far, making one ridiculous play (the touchdown throw at the end to beat San Francisco last week) and lots of conservative ones in his first three weeks on the job.
I asked veteran Packers outside 'backer Aaron Kampman what he saw when he looked at Vikings tape. "What jumps off the tape,'' he said, "is the running back [Adrian Peterson],'' he said. "He's playing as well as he ever has, obviously. He challenges the containment on every run. The addition of Brett gives them a different option at quarterback, because you know what Brett can do. But from what we've studied, he's doing a smart job of running the offense efficiently. He's happy with the checkdown. I haven't seen him doing what's he's done for so long -- squeezing the ball into tight spots. With that offense, he doesn't have to.
"You also see the difference Percy Harvin has made. He's a real different option for them. Running the Wildcat is a smart use of him, because you can have a tight end, three receivers and two backs on the field at the same time and it really increases the options of what they can do. And [tight end Visanthe] Shiancoe is playing well. So when I look at the Vikings, I see a lot of different options.''
That's the big thing Green Bay's nascent 3-4 defense will have to deal with. Who's going to hit the home run on a given play? You can't take away the Favre drama tonight in Minneapolis, but the football's going to be really exciting.
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