Warner's career day in the game of the season caps wild-card weekend
Kurt Warner was near perfect in the Cardinals' thrilling win over Packers
Pete Carroll does not have history on his side, going from college to pros
More: Weekly player awards, quotes of the week and 10 things I think I think
The game of the season came when football fans needed it, because face it: There's more suspense in a three-game Marlins-Nationals series than there was in the first three games of wild-card weekend.
First, a few words about Green Bay. I feel for Packers fans this morning. That's an excruciating loss. The worst. It'll take days, weeks, to get over it, I'm sure. But that's sports. Sometimes you get your heart broken, and the only way to not get your heart broken is to not fall in love. And there is much to love about this Green Bay team. The quarterback's scary good, even if he did hold on to the ball too long on the last play of the season. (Aaron Rodgers career yards per game: 269.5. Peyton Manning career yards per game: 261.1.) Rodgers has a 22-year-old tight end, Jermichael Finley, and a 26-year-old receiver, Greg Jennings (who made the catch of his career, a one-handed catch of a Rodgers dart for a touchdown), to grow old with. There is hope on the defense. These Packers are going to be good for a long time.
Now some words about the quarterback who is singlehandedly forcing me, one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters, to act like the five-year donut hole in the middle of his career is a crack in the sidewalk and not the Grand Canyon. I don't like to judge active players for the Hall, and I won't. But Kurt Warner is a great football player, and a great pressure football player. He played the best pressure game of a career knocking on Canton's door (I mean the best 60-minute game, not the best Super Bowl quarter), and for all we know, it might have been the last game of his career had the Packers taken the first drive of overtime down for the winning points as we all thought they would.
When the game was over, and Arizona had survived 51-45, I looked at the stats online and saw this:
My God. Look hard. More touchdowns than incompletions.
I texted New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- who was in his office preparing his game plan for Warner and the Cards for their Saturday divisional game in New Orleans -- and asked him what he thought.
"It reminded me of the games we used to see Joe Montana slow his heartbeat down and play the music in his head from Bill Walsh's west coast offense. Kurt was in charge and playing a really fast game in slow motion in his mind ... The game slowed down for him and his focus was strong.''
Warner agreed. "I knew early on it was going to be a good day,'' he told me as he drove home. "Sometimes I know when I'm on, when I'm going to play well, and there were specific things I knew they were going to have trouble stopping. Like the touchdown to Steve Breaston [that gave Arizona a 45-38 lead in the fourth quarter]. From watching tape, we knew how we could get a matchup of Steve isolated on a linebacker.''
That way was to line up Breaston wide left, with another receiver in the slot, then motion Breaston in toward the formation, and at the snap of the ball have him jet upfield. The corner wouldn't follow him all the way inside, tape study told Warner, and a linebacker would pick him up. That's exactly what happen. Nick Barnett was no match for the speed of Breaston, particularly when Barnett had to turn and run with him. Touchdown.
The other play that interested me -- on the passing and receiving ends -- was Warner's touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald while getting clocked by Green Bay defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. As the 315-pound Jenkins drove him to the ground, Warner somehow threw a ball into the end zone, and Fitzgerald -- after getting away with offensive pass interference by plowing over Charles Woodson -- dove and made a brilliant one-handed catch.
"That was luck,'' said Warner. Luck? Warner was trying to throw the ball away, or at least to the far back of the end zone so it wouldn't be picked off, and when Jenkins hit him and drove him back, the ball didn't go as far as he wanted it to go. And that was the luck. Because it wasn't thrown far, Fitzgerald could corral it. Barely.
"I heard it was complete by the fans,'' he said. "I never saw it.''
As Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers told our Don Banks, "Kurt's a heck of a quarterback. When we covered, he beat the coverage, and when we pressured, he got the ball out of his hands.'' That's been the story of his postseason play. Warner's 9-3 in the playoffs, with one Super Bowl and one Super Bowl MVP. In the regular season, he compares favorably to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, with just 598 fewer yards, a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (208-128 to Aikman's 165-141) and four percentage points more accurate (.655 for Warner, .615 for Aikman); Aikman, who started 40 more games, has 27 more victories than Warner. "Very respectful & anxious to play,'' Williams texted. "Our guys are rested & ready to compete. Drew Brees is like that every day in practice.'' "It's gonna be a cat-and-mouse game,'' Warner said. "It always is with Gregg.'' I wonder if the scoreboard in the Superdome goes to three digits.
What else, aside from the Pete Carroll story, caught my eye this weekend:
Jets 24, Bengals 14: Jay Feely saves the day. When punter Steve Weatherford was kayoed from the Jets-Bengals game two minutes before kickoff due to an irregular heartbeat, Feely, who hadn't punted in a game in his nine-year NFL career, got the call. And his stats weren't good -- seven punts, 31.4-yard average, three inside the 20-yard line -- but what was great about his day was that only one punt was returned. At the end of the game, Rex Ryan gave Feely a backbreaking hug and said in his ear, "Great ----ing job!'' Which it was.
"I think it garners a kicker a lot of respect when he can do something more than kick,'' Feely told me. "All I was doing was catching it, taking one step and kicking, just making sure nothing got blocked.'' Even though every punt was basically a pooch punt, Feely directionally kicked well and did just what he was supposed to do -- not put his team in a hole. For the Jets, just one more hero on a team of them.
Cowboys 34, Eagles 14: Dallas has a lot of ways to beat you. First of all, Charles Barkley ... Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Are you serious? On the NBC air, he said, "Donovan McNabb is the most underrated player in Eagles history.'' Wow. Some statement. We're going to part ways on this one, big fella. But onto the Cowboys. In eight quarters over the past two weekends, they suffocated the Philly offense, which managed two touchdowns in 24 possessions. And with the weight of the world on them because they hadn't won a playoff game in 13 years, Miles Austin said, "We didn't really feel it. When you're playing for each other, that's not a feeling you have. You feel like someone else will pick you up. That's the way this team feels right now.'' Dallas' defensive speed will be a tough match for Minnesota Sunday on the rug in the Metrodome.
Ravens 33, Patriots 14: It wasn't that close. New England was woefully outmatched on both sides of the ball for the first time in a playoff game in the Belichick Era. I think there's trouble in Red Sox City, but the team is certainly salvageable. Tom Brady was a shadow of himself and played the worst big game of his career, inaccurate and seemingly not willing to run because of his myriad injuries. The mismanaged receiving corps (going back to Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis as the offseason solutions instead of keeping the redoubtable Jabar Gaffney) was too hurt to be a factor. But New England is too smart, with too many draft picks and too good a coach and quarterback, to be saying this is the end of an era. It's not.
Now, as for the Ravens, I was hugely impressed with their defensive game plan and the fact they could win without hip-hampered Joe Flacco being any sort of factor. They could do that because the defense played like the Ravens of old, with Ray Lewis (13 tackles), Jarret Johnson, Dwan Edwards, Domonique Foxworth, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs taking turns making big plays.
"One of our emphases this week was the middle of their line,'' said Johnson, the hybrid end/linebacker who is vital to what the Ravens do. "Not so much we saw a weakness, but Tom does such a good job sliding out of the way, that we felt like if we could get him off his spot his accuracy would go way down. I thought [defensive coordinator] Greg Mattison had a great game, mixing up the calls, not being afraid to turn it loose against Brady. He can be a scary guy to turn it loose against. Greg did a good job of staying persistent, mixing up his blitzing. I think we shocked 'em early, kind of like a fighter who gets hit early and stunned.''
Now come the Colts, who have beaten Baltimore seven straight. The Ravens had a shot to win Indy's 17-15 verdict earlier this year. Several shots, in fact. If they don't turn it over, this will be a great game.
A traffic jam at the Hall of Fame. The Hall cut the list from 25 semi-finalists to 15 by eliminating, among others, Paul Tagliabue (it was hopeless for him this year with the labor strife some voters trace back to him), Steve Tasker (I am weeping), Cliff Branch (if Lynn Swann is in, so should he) and Art Modell (I don't see it happening). Now the 44 selectors, me included, will hear the cases of the 15 modern-era finalists and the two Senior Committee nominees (Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little) Feb. 6 in Fort Lauderdale.
There's a maximum of five modern-era candidates who can be inducted each year; the two Senior men are voted on separately. With Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith sure to be first-ballot players, that will leave three spots among the 13 other finalists, and I honestly cannot give you a good feeling about who will make it. I believe Don Coryell, Richard Dent, Cris Carter and Shannon Sharpe are close, but that guarantees them nothing. Should be a dramatic day as usual when the results are announced the day before the Super Bowl.
The misunderstood MVP vote. Peyton Manning won in a walk, with 39.5 of the 50 votes cast by a national media panel (me included). Drew Brees got 7.5, Philip Rivers four and Brett Favre one. Most of the feedback I got was about two things: How could Manning win in a rout, with all the other great years had by quarterbacks in the league And how could Tennessee running back Chris Johnson, after the sixth 2,000-yard rushing season in history, get shut out of the voting?
As for Johnson, it's simple. We have one vote. He might be a close second, but unless you judge Johnson, a runner on an 8-8 team, to be more valuable than Manning, who had his second-best season of a walk-in Hall of Fame career for a 14-2 team, or more valuable than Favre or Brees or Rivers, he's not going to get any votes. I was surprised that Manning got 79 percent of the vote to be sure, but to have that good a year with a poor running team and a team with two new receivers is why he's deserving.
Three rules/officiating points from a crazy day.
1. Regarding the non-facemask call on the last play of Arizona-Green Bay: I've watched the TiVoed combination of replays six times now. Arizona's Michael Adams blitzes, dislodges the ball from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, rakes his hands over the facemask of Rodgers, then appears to grab the facemask, and the ball is inadvertently kicked by Rodgers.
The ball flies briefly into the air and is grabbed by Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby, who secures it and runs into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Adams keeps his hands on the mask as he plows into Rodgers and brings him to the ground. Adams didn't tackle him by the mask, but his hand did stay secured on the mask as Rodgers fell to the ground. (I say it that way because from the mountain of e-mails and Tweets last night, most of you think he got yanked to the ground by the facemask. It didn't appear that way to me.)
For a facemask penalty to be called, there has to be evidence not just of a hand on the mask, but of twisting and pulling of the facemask. And there is a slight pulling of it, but not in a flagrant way. To me, it's a close call. But what complicates matters is this: The referee, Scott Green, is the official on the crew with the responsibility of watching plays involving the quarterback. Once the ball has been dislodged, Green has to watch the ball, not the contact on the quarterback. He has to see if the ball hits the ground and judge if it's a forward pass or a fumble, then he has to follow the live ball until the end of the play. So Green could not -- at least, he should not -- have seen the contact on the mask of Rodgers.
Of course, the reason this is a big concern is if a facemask had been called, Green Bay would have had a first down at its 32 in a game where defense was optional. I don't see how the call could have been made any differently with the current rules and officiating assignments the way they are.
2. Re the non-tuck-rule call on the last play of Arizona-Green Bay: the ball, once it somehow became dislodged from Rodgers, never hit the ground. If the ball doesn't hit the ground, it's live, and the tuck rule doesn't apply.
3. Re the Ravens' failure to challenge a punting play in the second quarter at New England: A major gaffe by the Ravens. On the New England punt, the ball hit Baltimore's Tom Zbikowski in the back and was recovered by Patriot Kyle Arrington as he slid out of bounds. The rules for possession call for Arrington to maintain possession as he falls to the ground, and every replay showed the ball coming dislodged as Arrington slid.
I spoke with Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who told me the coaches upstairs are responsible for telling him whether to throw his challenge flag (most teams handle it this way) and they never saw the replay we saw at home. "Our coaches upstairs told me they saw the punt hit Zibby a couple of times on replay but they never saw enough to alert me to make a challenge,'' Harbaugh said. "I'm disappointed, but in the heat of battle, sometimes that happens.''
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