Arian Foster gets the rushing title.
Adrian Peterson. LaDainian Tomlinson. Emmitt Smith. Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson. O.J. Simpson. Walter Payton. Jim Brown. And now, Arian Foster. With 1,616 yards, Foster, of the formerly pass-happy Texans, accomplished two things. He set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season by an undrafted player. And he joined the group of illustrious rushing champions, something that was only a silly dream two years ago, when his career was dissolving. "I ain't gonna lie,'' he told me from Houston after his 31-carry, 180-yard performance decimated the Jags. "It feels pretty good. After what I've been through, it's amazing.''
Rewind to the end of a declining career at Tennessee, when he tore his hamstring prepping for the 2009 draft. He couldn't get it healthy enough before the draft to run a good 40 time for any team. In 12 months, he'd gone from being a top-50 prospect to a tarnished one. He went undrafted. "I was distraught,'' Foster said. "My mom was crying, and I had my little pouting fest for two or three hours. My dad came in at one point and said, 'Well, there's always the Canadian league.' I told him to get out of my face.''
The Texans signed him as a free agent, but he didn't make the team in camp. Houston signed him to the practice squad, which Foster assumed meant was like a college redshirt year. Bad assumption. Foster was activated to play special teams in November, and after Steve Slaton suffered a neck injury, Foster began to see time in the backfield. In the last two games of the year, he ran for 216 yards. The Texans were 30th in the NFL in rushing last year. GM Rick Smith leveled with Foster after the season and told him Houston would take a running back in the draft, but he'd still have a chance to win the starting job in 2010.
True to Smith's word, the Texans drafted a better version of Foster -- at least in scouts' eyes -- in Auburn's 5-foot-11, 220-pound tackle-breaking Ben Tate. But the Texans left the door open for Foster. He got a letter from Kubiak, a form letter with the offseason schedule, with these words handwritten by the coach on the bottom: "The biggest jump for a player in the NFL comes between year one and year two.''
He kept the letter in plain sight in his bedroom through the offseason and, under the watchful eyes of his brother and personal trainer Abdul Foster, worked like a madman -- track workout early in the morning, weights in the afternoon, track workout in the evening -- when he didn't have Texan practice obligations. "I had a goal,'' Foster said. "I had a plan. And I executed it.''
Then Tate got hurt in training camp. Foster outplayed Slaton. He won the job. And his running style -- one-cut, get upfield, run with power in traffic -- fit Kubiak's style. On Sunday, after he won the title, I asked him what he'd do for his linemen. "I guess I need to do something, because they've been everything to me,'' he said, laughing. "But they all make more money than me. A lot more. I'll figure something out.''
There's something to admire about Morgan Cox.
A lot, actually. And he's not the only one to admire in this story. Cox is the Ravens' long-snapper. Was. Last week, early in the second quarter, he got hurt in a pileup on a Baltimore field-goal try. Hurt would be putting it mildly. Actually, 700 pounds of lineman -- Cleveland defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and Baltimore guard Marshall Yanda -- fell on his left leg after he'd snapped the ball for the field goal, and the knee concaved to the right. Cox screamed so loud, Rogers said, that he knew he was hurt severely. Somehow, Cox limped to the sideline, where he collapsed and started rolling around in pain. "An extreme amount of pain,'' he said.
At first, docs thought it was an MCL tear, but that he could return to the game and gut it out. At halftime, upon further review in the locker room, he said he was diagnosed with grade-three (severe, that is) ACL and MCL tears. "But I knew I could get the job done,'' he said. "There's lot of different ways of snapping. Some guys use their legs for power. I pretty much do it all with my arms. And I don't think it fully registered with me how serious it was. It was a big game, and I said, I'm fine to play. I went up to the guys on the line, and said, 'I'm gonna need some help. I'm gonna get the snap off, but you gotta help me after that.' So when we went back out there, I heard Michael Oher say to the Browns, 'Stay off the snapper, stay off the snapper.' ''
There's a fine line here between playing hard and being sympathetic to a wounded competitor, and Rogers did a gallant job straddling it in the second half. Rogers knew Cox was injured; he'd heard him scream in agony after the injury. On an extra point try, after the ball was over the line, Rogers saw Cox falling back awkwardly. He reached over and grabbed Cox's jersey to prevent him from falling and perhaps hurting the leg further. "Unbelievable,'' Cox said. "I felt this hand hold me up and just figured it was one of our guys, but it was Shaun Rogers. I'll never forget him for that.''
I called the Browns and asked to speak to Rogers, but he declined. He said the play was over, and he knew the kid was hurt, and it was something even major rivals would do for each other. No big deal.
I think it is a big deal. As was the game ball Cox got in the locker room. "Very courageous thing you did, Morgan,'' Harbaugh told him. "That was a thrill,'' Cox said. "An unbelievable honor. Probably the thing I'll always remember is Terrell Suggs coming up to me, surprised, during the game and saying, 'He's still snapping! He's still in the game!' But he did remind me I was still a rookie.'' After that game, I'd call Cox an honorary veteran.
Cox will be in the office of noted orthopedist James Andrews on Tuesday, with a plan for surgery to repair the ligaments.
The LeGarrette Blount story shows you can make second chances count.
Lost in the Week 17 scrum is this stat line for the NFL's 17th-leading rusher in 2010:
L.Blount, TB 201 carries 1,007 yards, 5.01 yards per carry
Crazy. This is the former Oregon running back who, in a postgame skirmish, decked a Boise State player after they'd exchanged words following a game early in the 2009 season. National TV. Big game. Iso camera on the fight, with slo-mo shots of the punch running all weekend, and for days after. "It destroyed my image,'' Blount said. "That must have been shown a hundred times on TV. I did wrong. Definitely. But I thought it was way overblown by the media.''
He thinks he "definitely, no question,'' would have been a first-round draft choice, and his preseason grade showed he likely would have been a top-25 pick. But the punch caused him to fall out of the draft altogether. Blount got signed by the Titans as a free agent and didn't make the team out of training camp because he was not a great special-teams player. Needing running back insurance, and already having shown Tampa to be a place for wayward players other teams ding because of character issues, the Bucs picked up Blount. They haven't regretted it.
Last week, he had one of the running-back highlights of the year, and showed why, if he stays on the right path, he'll be one of the best backs in the league. With Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy coming in low to take his legs out in the open field, Blount leapt over the top of Milloy and continued downfield. "There's no question in my mind I can be a really good back in this league for a long time, and that's my goal. All the other stuff, I've put in the past. It's not going to come up again.'' If it doesn't, Tampa Bay may have a contender for a rushing title.
Tomorrow, I'll have more about Charlie Whitehurst, and his magical night at Qwest Field.
But for now, here's the Seattle quarterback's take on being the first losing team to make the playoffs in NFL history. "Getting to the goal was important for us, and the goal was winning our division and making the playoffs,'' he told me, driving home after Seattle's NFC West-winning 16-6 victory over the Rams. "I understand what you're asking, but what we take away from this is we won the division, not what our record is. Would we have liked to play better, be 10-6, have won a few more of these games? Of course. But there're no records now. We're 0-0. New Orleans is 0-0.'' Whitehurst and his journey to the playoffs in his second NFL start will top my Tuesday column -- barring, of course, the kinds of things that happen this time of year in the coach-go-round.
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