Rams are getting defensive with Steve Spagnuolo's attacking style
St. Louis has won two games in a row, thanks in part to its defense
New England Patriots relying on young players and getting results
George Blanda meant more for the NFL than he gets credit for
Three points on a very busy football Tuesday: the Rams legitimately turning it around, the Patriots going back to the future, and why you should care about the legacy of George Blanda.
St. Louis is playing defense. We're all focused on the early maturation of Sam Bradford, which is smart, because he's playing during the two-game Rams winning streak (haven't been able to write that since October 2008) like he's been there before. But the real key to the Rams becoming respectable right now is St. Louis giving up 19 points in the two-game win streak, and holding quarterbacks to a 55-percent accuracy rate, and putting some decent heat on quarterbacks (vet defensive end James Hall has four sacks in four games).
What's happening is Steve Spagnuolo is attacking offensive fronts the way he attacked them with more talent with the New York Giants three and four years ago, and he's finding he has enough talent at the corner position to feel safe in going hard after the quarterback. "Our defense is playing amazing,'' Bradford told me. "To hold Seattle to three points shows what a good defense we have right now.''
Give an assist to Bradford, too, for moving the chains enough to win. In the past two weeks, he's led the Rams to 50 points, with scoring drives of 85, 82, 79 and 60 yards. But Sunday, he was thinking more about the plays he didn't make against Seattle. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told him congratulations and that was a good win, but also told him, "You know you can play better.''
"I'm right with you,'' Bradford said he told Shurmur. "I know I can play better, and I will.'' For now, the Rams will take the bad Bradford (six interceptions through four games) with the good Bradford (he has the Rams competitive again) and know a guy as accurate as Bradford will keep them in games better than any quarterback they've had since Marc Bulger, when he was protected well.
New England 41, Miami 14. Totally unexpected. Not who won, necessarily, but the way the Patriots won. The Patriots scored 41 points last night, and Randy Moss had zero catches, Wes Welker had zero touchdowns and the only recognizable running back, Sammy Morris, ran for three yards. That game reminded me very, very much of the 2001 Patriots, when they took 17 lower- and middle-class free agents and an unknown sixth-round quarterback and won the Super Bowl.
Last night, it was an undrafted running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (76 rushing yards, a touchdown), safety Patrick Chung (blocked punt, blocked field goal, interception return for touchdown), cornerback Kyle Arrington (blocked field goal returned for touchdown), running back Danny Woodhead (touchdown catch beating Karlos Dansby in Woodhead's Kevin Faulk role), returner Brandon Tate (103-yard kickoff return for touchdown), and linebacker Rob Ninkovich (two interceptions, one sack) who proved, collectively, that the way Bill Belichick has been building his team just might be the right way after all.
I was 13 in 1970, growing up in Connecticut, and the NFL was in its first year of the merger. The AFL teams had been folded into the AFC, and their games were on NBC mostly, many of which were the late games on Sunday afternoons on the East Coast. I loved watching the Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs in those days (say, from around 1968 to 1975), because they were daring and fun and often played in wide-open games coached by imaginative coaches.
When former players and coach die, I don't always wax for paragraphs about their importance to history. But I believe George Blanda, who died last week, is a more important figure in pro football history than he's given credit for, and I'll tell you why. In 1970, the most amazing five-game stretch by a player that I've seen watching football happened. And the impact of Blanda's five-game stretch, I believe, helped grow the game in so many ways -- on TV, in the broader culture, and among women. Let me explain.
Blanda was a 43-year-old backup quarterback and kicker for the Raiders, near the end of a long and checkered career that started, incredibly, playing for George Halas and the Chicago Bears in 1949 -- with Harry Truman in the White House. He played for a 34-year-old coach, John Madden, who had two strong-willed quarterbacks (Daryle Lamonica was the other) who both thought they should be playing. Madden believed, unlike most coaches of today, that yanking a quarterback one Sunday didn't mean you were losing him for many Sundays to come. And when Lamonica wasn't playing well, or maybe had a slight nick, Madden had no problem relieving him with the ageless Blanda.
Blanda used to tell Madden he knew his role, and knew he was the reliever. "But if I'm going to have to come in and clean up the mess,'' he told Madden, "don't make the mess so bad that it can't be cleaned up.''
TV viewers all over the East Coast loved the Raiders. We got a lot of their games. They made for great TV. And a 13-year-old kid in Connecticut, and his dad, watched a lot of the Raiders in those days, and I remember the 1970 season well.
Oakland lost only one game in 1969, but the Raiders were off to a 2-2-1 start in 1970, and Lamonica was not playing well. Into a 7-7 game with Pittsburgh came Blanda, and he threw two touchdown passes to spur a 31-14 rout of the Steelers. The next week, at Kansas City, the Chiefs were up 17-14 late and the game should have ended there, when the Raiders' Ben Davidson was called for a late hit on Len Dawson on a third-down conversion; the Chiefs could have run out the clock from there ... but wait. The Chiefs were called for retaliating on Davidson, and the offsetting penalties meant the play had to be re-played, and Kansas City didn't convert the third down, and they punted to the Raiders, and Oakland got the ball into field-goal position, and Blanda kicked a 48-yarder, into the wind. A gift tie. That's two.
Number three: With four minutes left and trailing Cleveland 20-13, Blanda, in relief, led the Raiders to the Cleveland 14 and came to the sidelines for a timeout. Madden wanted to run the ball. Blanda said: "I'll tell you what, John. You give me four chances to throw slants here, and I guarantee you we'll score.'' Madden told him he didn't have a guaranteed touchdown play in his playbook, so if he felt that strongly about it, go for it. Blanda hit Warren Wells for a 14-yard touchdown. Tie game. The Raiders got an interception with 34 seconds to go, and Blanda got in position for the longest field goal he'd ever tried, 52 yards. Perfect. "George Blanda has just been elected the king of the world!'' Raider announcer Bill King told his radio audience.
"I started getting letters from women,'' Madden told me. "They'd say, 'I love George Blanda! My husband tells me he's too old to paint the house to mow the lawn, and all I have to do is tell him there's a 43-year-old quarterback winning games for the Raiders.' I'm serious about this -- there got to be so much interest about George across the board, that it increased TV ratings. With women, especially.''
At Denver the next week, Blanda relieved again, and late in the game the Raiders trailed 19-17. With 90 seconds left, Blanda threw the winning touchdown pass to Fred Biletnikoff.
That week, Johnny Carson -- who was Letterman and Leno combined in those days -- did most of his monologue one night on Blanda. The producers of the top show on network TV, Mission: Impossible, announced they were suing Blanda for plagiarizing the show. (True fact, though it was tongue firmly in cheek.)
Week 5: Chargers and Raiders tied, 17-17. Four seconds left. In came Blanda for a 16-yard field goal. Was there any doubt? Of course not. Raiders win.
"There was something about living through that that I'll never forget,'' Madden said. "What an interesting time it was. The attitude around the country was that George was a miracle-worker. No one had seen anything like it, especially at his age. Nobody played that well to that age. I think it started a lot of women looking at football and captured the imagination of the country.''
In 2008, Blanda saw Madden at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They both have busts there. At the time, there was a lot of debate about whether Brett Favre would continue playing. Blanda said, "Let me call him. I'll tell him to play 'til they rip the shirt off his back.''
I just remember thinking how amazing pro football was back then. In those days, baseball was much bigger than football, but guys like George Blanda, and periods like that amazing five-week span, helped football become the dominant game in our culture.
Now for your e-mail:
NO ONE WILL ARGUE WITH YOU HERE. "One more thought about the Nate Clements interception. After he makes the grab, there are only two ways the Niners lose the game. Either he fumbles. Or he scores a touchdown, Atlanta comes back and scores -- still over a minute remaining -- and goes for two and makes it. And then Atlanta wins in overtime. A smart, unselfish player goes down with the ball.''
-- Paul Benson, Fort Worth
Preach it, with an asterisk. All I would say is there was enough time left, and because Atlanta had three timeouts remaining, San Francisco would have been smart to try to advance the ball at least to field-goal range and either score or get the Falcons to burn their timeouts. So I don't think Clements should have simply fallen there. I think he should have advanced the ball with two hands on it and gripped tightly to his body, knowing full well the Falcons would be trying to strip it from him. The 49ers should have tried to advance the ball at least into field-goal range and gotten a four-point lead so the Falcons, whenever they would have gotten it back (with no timeouts left), would have had to go the length of the field and score a touchdown to win.
I AM ONLY ONE PERSON -- I BELIEVE. "I love MMQB and your Tuesday column, but I'm always a bit disappointed because the Tuesday edition is so short (and the Monday one can run a bit long). Have you ever considered moving the weekly awards to Tuesday, so you can also highlight the performances of the MNF teams?''
-- Drew, Tampa
It's a good thought, Drew. I should probably consider that. I'll ask my editors what they think, and if they want me to do that, I will. I've been doing it one way for a long time, so we'll see.
THE FORMER REDSKINS PR MAN ADMIRES MCNABB. "Congratulations on a successful completion of the half marathon. Your race experience was my favorite part of your column this week. Donovan McNabb was the second-best part of the column. I really enjoyed working with him -- albeit for just a few months. He has such great charisma and the all-important 'It' factor going for him.
"The Redskins needed leadership. I grew very fond of Clinton Portis -- he really is a great competitor on Sunday -- but McNabb's personality, energy, focus and professionalism is what the Redskins needed on the offensive side of the ball. Santana Moss leads by example. Casey Rabach is a smart, determined and dependable player who never misses a practice. Chris Cooley is personable and dedicated to getting better each day. But having a pro like McNabb in the huddle gives this team and franchise hope. London Fletcher has been Washington's outstanding leader on defense. But McNabb is the unquestioned Redskins' team leader. It's always good to see good people be successful. McNabb is a real gentleman.''
-- Zack Bolno, Washington
Thanks, Zack. [To the readers: Bolno was the Redskins' PR man dismissed by the team just before opening day.] Good to hear McNabb made a strong impression on you in your time together.
WHY, THANK YOU. "Love your column. I don't think sports writers get enough credit for calling upsets, so great job on that Browns over Bengals call.''
-- Daniel, Montreal
Well, blind squirrels find acorns sometimes. I make enough bad picks that it's nice to make a good one every now and then. I liked that matchup, because the Browns are better than people think and can do enough on offense and in the secondary to be competitive.
GOOD POINTS, AND I OWE THE BRONCOS A MEA CULPA. "Interesting stuff on the Cutler-Orton comparison. As a Denver fan, I honestly would not take Cutler for Orton straight up at this point. One issue I have is this comment: 'Denver has not drafted well [...] Denver didn't do a good job with those picks.' I am sorry, but that is simply ignorant.
"Robert Ayers, has been beastly against the run this season. He was a big reason Denver shut down Chris Johnson on Sunday with three tackles for loss. I hope you did more research than lazily peruse the stats and see that he has only one sack. With Chicago's No. 12 pick in this draft, they moved down to No. 22 and selected DeMaryius Thomas, who looks like a future star. With one of the picks acquired in the trade down, they selected the promising WR Eric Decker. And part of the trade-down haul put them in position to select Tebow.
"The only pick that looks 'bad' from the Cutler trade at this point is Richard Quinn, who Denver traded up for with the 2009 third-rounder. Doesn't look like a bad haul at all to me overall. Quite the opposite. Please do a little more research before making these blanket statements that make you look ignorant.''
-- Todd, Florence, S.C.
I regret writing what I wrote in that sentence in the Cutler-Orton comparison, because as you accurately point out, it was wrong. The reason I wrote it was I had it in my head that the lost Alphonso Smith pick was a part of their 2010 draft, and though technically it was, it was no reason to declare their 2010 haul a bad one. (The Broncos traded their first-round pick in 2010 to Seattle in 2009 to acquire a high second-round pick that became Smith, and the Broncos gave up on Smith after one season and dealt him to Detroit for the second-to-last pick of the 2009 draft, Dan Gronkowski.) Thanks for calling me on it.
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