McNabb, Tomlinson may be getting the last laugh on former teams
The city of Philadelphia does McNabb proud; Roddy White saves Atlanta
Baltimore moves to the top of the Fine 15, but the Jets aren't far behind
My half-marathon results, MVP Watch and Ten Things I Think I Think
NEW YORK -- Five very preliminary things I think:
1. I think I can't believe Kansas City is the only unbeaten team in the NFL on Oct. 4.
2. I think the Eagles fans did one of the classiest things I've seen in that city in -- well, in forever, when they heartily cheered Donovan McNabb.
3. I think it's entirely possible Kyle Orton's better than Jay Cutler.
4. I think the Ravens wouldn't be where they are this morning, and they wouldn't have won at Pittsburgh Sunday, without an excitable little competitor of a cornerback, Lardarius Webb.
5. I think you can be 53, paunchy, skunk-gray of the hair -- and still pull off a little bit of an athletic feat. More later about the adventures of a newborn half-marathoner in northern New England -- yes, I finished, and there was no hospitalization involved.
Now for the headlines of the day:
McNabb got what he deserved.
I'll let my buddy Don Banks cover the nuts and bolts of McNabb's return to glory, which he does quite well on SI.com this morning. But as the Football Night in America crew sat around the NBC fifth-floor viewing room watching the games Sunday afternoon, it was almost unanimous that McNabb was going to get lit up by the fans before the games. Unfairly, I might add.
McNabb never delivered the voracious Philly crowd a championship, but he played his best and he showed class for 11 years, and on Sunday the fans responded -- stunningly, I thought -- with probably 85 percent cheers when he was introduced last in the pregame introductions.
The Redskins could have done far more gloating than they allowed themselves after the 17-12 victory, but McNabb said all the right things, except the one sentence he allowed himself in the locker room when Mike Shanahan awarded him the game ball. "Everybody makes mistakes in their lives, and they made one last year,'' McNabb said in a moment captured by an NFL Films camera.
Who knows? For one day he was right, and we'll see if for three or four years he turns out to be. On this day, I thought the co-star of the show was the Philadelphia crowd.
There was a sadness in Michael Vick getting hurt, and the way he was sandwich-crushed at the goal line by two Redskins isn't a good sign for him playing this weekend at San Francisco, or anytime soon. He'll have an MRI today; X-rays last night were negative. Kevin Kolb acquitted himself well in a pressure spot, and maybe he can keep the Eagles afloat if given three or four weeks to play. But that offensive line would be tough for anyone to function behind right now. The Eagles have three games before their bye (at San Francisco, Atlanta, at Tennessee) and the way Vick walked off the field Sunday, the Eagles will be lucky to get him back for the final nine games, which includes the rematch at Washington Nov. 15.
There's no clear best team in football after four weeks, but Baltimore's the best, for my money.
Good thing it means nothing right now. Ranking the teams is an exercise in dart-throwing. And isn't that great for the NFL at the quarter-pole -- that any of eight to 10 teams might have a legit argument to be the best right now?
I pick the Ravens because I think after four weeks they can win games in more ways than any other team. Pittsburgh, with Ben Roethlisberger returning, and the Jets are close. But the way Joe Flacco played Sunday in the 17-14 win at Heinz Field showed me something.
I thought he made an awful pass on fourth-and-goal from the two with 2:44 to play and Baltimore down 14-10. Flacco waited one beat too long, then threw a fade too far to Anquan Boldin, who was being blanketed by William Gay as he tried to catch the ball past the left boundary, five yards deep in the end zone. Poor execution, I thought. I would have rather seen a higher-percentage call there. (Though when I brought that up in the viewing room, Tony Dungy looked at me like the rank amateur I am.) Hey, I didn't like it. I'd have rather seen Flacco spread the field and try to laser a ball into one of four receivers spread over the end zone. What's the percentage of a fade scoring there or drawing pass interference? Forty percent -- maybe?
But he recovered nicely. With 68 seconds left, Flacco got the ball back at the Steeler 40 in great field position after a punt, still trailing 14-10. Smart player that he is, he used the third play to set up cornerback Bryant McFadden. "We'd run some out-routes on the [right] sideline during the game, and one right before that,'' Flacco told me afterward. That pass, perfectly thrown to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, gained 10 yards to the Steeler 18. Now 34 seconds remained, and the call came in for Flacco to pump to Houshmandzadeh, who'd make a slight fake to his right, simulating the same out-route, then run a post. With any luck, McFadden would bite, and the safety wouldn't get over in time to help.
Flacco pumped just enough. McFadden bit. Houshmandzadeh had the area from the 10-yard-line into the end zone to himself, and Flacco didn't miss. Ballgame.
"You ever think you'd see a receiver running wide open in the end zone, in this stadium?'' I asked him.
"No,'' he said. "Not even close. That doesn't happen. But when he froze on the little pump, I knew it'd be open.''
The Ravens can't beat the Bengals -- Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has Baltimore's number in a three-game, head-to-head win streak -- but the Crab cakes are pretty good against everyone else. Baltimore owns two very tough road wins, at the Jets and the Steelers, in this season's first four weeks. Playing at New England, Atlanta and Houston will be tough, but no tougher than those two places.
"We always have a lot of confidence around here,'' Flacco said. "But this really elevates. There's no better feeling in the world than to win in a place like this.''
One postscript: Lardarius Webb is a very big reason the Ravens are waking up 3-1 this morning. With 10:13 left in the game and Baltimore up 10-7, Charlie Batch sent Mike Wallace deep up the right sideline into the end zone and lofted up a pass to him. Only problem was, Webb, the second-year corner from Nicholls (La.) State, ran with the speedy Wallace stride for stride. When the ball dropped down from the sky, it looked like it was right in Wallace's arms -- until Webb got involved.
"It hit both of our hands at the same time,'' Webb said. "I wanted the pick soooooo bad. Last year when we played the Steelers here, I didn't play, and it's such an exciting place to play I wanted to do something to help us win. It's such a pleasure playing here. And if I could have just intercepted that ball ... But to make the play, to stop him from catching that touchdown, was a great play. I was happy about it.''
The Steelers went on to score on the drive on a Rashard Mendenhall run, and so all Webb did was delay the inevitable. But I say Webb earned his spurs Sunday with that play and others that mark him as the kind of feisty, competitive cornerback the Ravens have been looking to restock their secondary with while turning it over.
Of all the incredible stats in the NFL this morning, the one that stops me in my tracks is this one: Baltimore's allowing 119.0 passing yards per game, stingiest in the NFL. And before the season, I'd have sworn the secondary would be such an Achilles heel for the Ravens that it would end up ruining their season. But Webb, Chris Carr and Fabian Washington are playing well, and benefiting from a good rush scheme and pressure up front. If I had an assistant coach award for the first quarter of the season, there's a good chance I'd reward secondary coach Chuck Pagano, because he has this group playing terrific football.
New York's got a new LT.
For 13 weeks this offseason, LaDainian Tomlinson got his mojo back while working out in the pastures of New Jersey. What, you don't think Jersey has pastures? Go out near the Jets' training facility in Florham Park and you'll see lots of rolling green. That's where Tomlinson spent about 13 weeks this spring, getting his strength and explosion back after nagging toe and high-ankle-sprain injuries bothered him the last two years.
"I lost a lot of strength in the last couple of years with those injuries, and when you lose strength, you lose explosion,'' Tomlinson said from a very happy team bus leaving Ralph Wilson Stadium after his Jets crushed the Bills 38-14. "So the only way I was going to get back to where I needed to be was to be all-in to the offseason program. I moved to New Jersey and was there the first day of the program and stayed all the way 'til the end in June. I missed only one week -- to move from San Diego to New Jersey. If I'd stayed on the West Coast, I'd never have been able to build the kind of chemistry I've built with these guys right now.''
In essence, Tomlinson looks like he turned the way-back machine to 2007, which is when he had his last great season in San Diego. He's fast. He can beat linebackers around the corner, which he didn't do last year. He bursts into tacklers. Very dissimilar to the last couple of years in San Diego. He rushed for 3.8 yards a clip in 2008 and 3.3 last year, and the Chargers had seen enough. We all thought we'd seen enough. Raise your hand if you thought Tomlinson was going to be anything but a relief pitcher for the explosive Shonn Greene with the Jets. I certainly thought that would be the case. But here they are, sharing the job. The vet has 56 carries, the kid 52. As a team, the Jets are rushing for 168 yards a game -- and 5.1 yards a clip.
I got a kick out of looking at the four-week rushing leaders this morning. Look who's 6 and 7:
With his 133-yard, two-TD rushing day, Tomlinson moved past Tony Dorsett into seventh place on the all-time list. And he joined Jim Brown as the only backs ever to rush for 100 yards and two touchdowns in a game 25 times. "I'm pinching myself,'' Tomlinson said. "I love this team. I love running behind such a great line. It's incredible, really, that I was able to come here.''
I asked him if he takes any delight in showing he's not washed up. "The pleasure isn't showing people they were wrong,'' he said. "The pleasure is showing people the Jets were right in the faith they showed in me. They made the right choice.''
Agreed. Now I think the Jets need to make another good choice and make sure they don't burn out Tomlinson. He averaged 258 carries a year over the past two seasons, and it'd be smart if they kept him on a pace to get around 200, so he's the real Tomlinson come winter.
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