Evidently, Chris Henry was growing up.
Maybe he just had a lover's blind spot. We don't know. I'm always skeptical of the stories about a troubled person that, in death, show him to be either a wonderful guy or a guy who was turning his life around. But Chris Henry, who died bizarrely last Thursday after being thrown from the bed of a pickup truck during an argument with his fiancé (the driver), had taken steps in that direction.
Henry and his former Bengal teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh were not particularly close as teammates before Houshmandzadeh left for Seattle in free-agency. But they talked periodically after that, with Henry seeking a sort of elder to run life and football decisions past as he tried to straighten out his life.
"The way he acted in recent months, I knew he was going to make it,'' Houshmandzadeh said the other night from Seattle. "In the past, he never cared what you'd say. He never cared about next week, or even the next day. But this year, he'd call and ask for advice. Like, 'Hey T, I want to be a family man like you.' And, 'T, what do you think I should do about my [football] future?' I told him, Cincinnati's the place for you. Mr. Brown [Mike Brown, the owner] loves you, Slim, and they're going to do right by you. Stay there. Make sure you keep doing what's right. And he'd tell me, 'T, I ain't doing that stuff anymore. I'm going the right way.' ''
We haven't talked much about Henry (who was on IR with a broken arm suffered in November) as a football player, but the one thing I'll always think is that he could have been Alvin Harper. Harper was the field-stretcher for Troy Aikman for four seasons, averaging 20 yards a catch with 18 touchdowns opposite Michael Irvin. Opposite Chad Johnson/Ochocinco, Henry averaged 15.3 yards a catch with 21 touchdowns in significantly less playing time.
But the way the Bengals receivers stacked up, there wasn't a deep threat of the future on the Cincinnati roster. If a physically and mentally rehabbed Henry came into camp at 27 next year, without many scars on him, he'd have been no worse than the third wideout on the team. He'd have had 25 snaps a game in 2010.
"The one thing about Chris that was unique is he could maintain top speed for longer than most receivers could,'' Houshmandzadeh said. "Carson [Palmer] would throw him a long ball and you'd think it was overthrown, but Chris would keep going at top speed and catch up to it, play after play.'' Not that it should even be in the same paragraph with the loss felt by three children and a future wife left behind, but the Bengals have lost a significant piece of their offensive future.
The only lesson here, I think, is that some players, particularly those with troubled pasts or those who didn't have great mentoring growing up, need the structure and discipline that well-run pro organizations can provide. Not saying it's an elixir for everything, but it's a shame that Henry was away from his team on injured-reserve and didn't have the peers and tough-love coaches like Marvin Lewis around to talk through some of his problems.
Lewis handled his team well in the past few days. He told them in his pregame message in San Diego that Henry was a playmaker, and the best way to honor his memory would be for every player on the field to be a playmaker against San Diego. Ochocinco started in the first half by snaring a perfectly thrown 49-yard touchdown pass from Palmer, then falling to a knee in the end zone and sending a prayer to Henry. Palmer had his first 300-yard passing game in 24 months. (Now there's a stunning sentence.) The defense made a few stops. And the Chargers, the hottest team in the league west of Indianapolis, had to rally with a 52-yard field goal in the last seconds to win. If ever a team won by losing, it was Cincinnati on Sunday.
Is Daniel Snyder actually changing?
Time will tell. But talking to those who know him, they're shocked the fiery Redskins owner whacked close friend Vinny Cerrato and hired Bruce Allen -- and even gave Allen the authority of a real, live GM. But I want to see it work for a while.
I talked to Snyder on Friday and asked if this was finally going to be the time the Redskins were like most teams -- with the owner sitting above the fray as a checks-and-balances guy, entrusting most of the football decisions to a coach or GM or both. When Snyder introduced Allen last week, not much was said about who has authority over the big football decisions.
"Who's going to have final say on the coach -- you or Bruce?'' I asked.
"He is,'' said Snyder. "He's going to do it. I think he knows what fits here, and I trust him to make the right decision. We're not hiring anyone Bruce doesn't want.''
Allen is very careful with his words. When I relayed this and asked him the same question I asked Snyder. Allen said: "That's a fair assessment.''
So we'll see, as I said. As for now, I expect the Redskins to hire Mike Shanahan, and for Shanahan to bring in his own coaching staff -- including, as Chris Mortensen reported over the weekend, his son, current Houston offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, as offensive coordinator. I think Mike Shanahan would be energized by the Redskins and by working with Allen, a man as secretive and with the kind of football pedigree he likes, even if it means he has to use this year's first-round pick to find a quarterback instead of building the offensive line, which the Redskins definitely need to do.
I continue to think the only other place that makes any sense for Shanahan is Chicago. It was interesting to see GM Jerry Angelo say over the weekend that coach Lovie Smith will be evaluated at the end of the year. The Bears (21-26 since Super Bowl Sunday 2007, with no playoff wins) have been an abominable disappointment this season, and they lost their eighth game in the past 10 Sunday at Baltimore. The Jay Cutler trade, an abject failure. The offense, pathetic. Does it make sense to clean house, or just to fire the offensive staff? Something will be done, and watch Shanahan. He won't make any commitment until he knows which way the wind is blowing in Chicago -- unless he absolutely has to. Meaning that he'll keep his options open until given an ultimatum by a team.
Josh Cribbs had a nice day for himself in Kansas City -- and an eloquent one afterward.
Rodney Harrison said it best on "Football Night in America'' Sunday night: When's the last time the best player on a team has been a special-teamer or a return man? Cribbs set an NFL record with his seventh and eighth career kickoff returns for touchdown Sunday, and they were both telling. The first, a 100-yarder in the first quarter, was a combo platter of moves and speed and physical play, with Cribbs breaking two tackles. The second, a 103-yard darter in the second quarter of Cleveland's 41-34 win, was a speed race up the left sideline.
We're watching a return man very nearly the equal of the best return man of our time, Devin Hester (though his prime was short), and a special-teamer who's physical and willing. And he's rapidly becoming Eric Mangini's favorite player.
Because everything in Cleveland is so politically charged right now -- with two friends of Mike Holmgren telling me over the weekend they expect him to take the czar job after turning down a late rush from the Seahawks Saturday -- and Mangini's future in doubt, you have to take everything players and coaches say there cautiously. But the Browns have looked lively and breakneck in the last two games, beating two suspect teams, Pittsburgh and Kansas City (and that's putting it kindly in the case of the Chiefs).
With that as a backdrop, I asked Cribbs Sunday after the game: If you polled all the players on the team, what would be the vote on whether to keep or get rid of Mangini?
"I think it'd be unanimous,'' Cribbs said. "I think the guys would definitely want to keep him. You can't judge coach Mangini on one year. The camaraderie in the locker room is great. You hear things in the media about coach Mangini being too tough on us. But I think we're building something here, and I think the players are behind him.''
Cribbs is a smart kid. I'm not saying a calculating kid, but he does know what makes a team go. He must have talked for five minutes Sunday about his kickoff-unit protectors, Lawrence Vickers and Blake Costanzo and Jerome Harrison. (Harrison also had the 286-yard rushing game Sunday at Arrowhead, the third-biggest rushing day in NFL history. How ridiculous, by the way, that that's a parenthetical.)
Cribbs said he hasn't made his contract a big deal this year -- he's making $620,000, 30th-highest on the team -- because of something club legend and adviser Jim Brown said to him: "I was told by the greatest, Jim Brown, to just play, and everything would take care of itself,'' Cribbs said. "He said when he played, all he worried about was playing, and he figured if he played to the best of his ability, they'd have to pay him. If that's what the great Jim Brown did, I think it's smart for me to do it too. I am confident I will be taken care of.''
Interesting story Cribbs told me about halftime in Kansas City. Mangini told the team, "Josh Cribbs cannot keep bailing out this team by himself. He needs some help.'' And Harrison, a total roster afterthought, told Cribbs he was going to do something about it.
Harrison, a fourth-year back from Washington State, rushed for 60 yards in 2006, 142 in 2007, 246 in 2008 and, in the first 13 games this year, 301 yards. Cleveland trailed 24-20 at the half, and in the second half, Harrison rushed 22 times for 208 yards, with touchdown of 71, eight and 28 yards. I guess Harrison was right -- he did do something about it.
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