Right. You thought James Starks would be a bigger factor in Philadelphia than Michael Vick.
What an odd formation we saw six or eight times from the Packers: John Kuhn, a 250-pound fullback, and 262-pound fullback Quinn Johnson lined up behind the Green Bay tackles, in front of 222-pound running back James Starks. Imagine the Packer playoff fate, for one day, being in the hands of John Kuhn, Quinn Johnson and James Starks -- free-agent from Shippensburg, fifth-rounder from LSU and sixth-rounder from the University of Buffalo, respectively -- and Starks, with all of 101 career rushing yards, running 23 times for 123 clock-eating yards.
"You know when your last 100-yard game was?'' I asked Starks last night.
"No ... well, I guess in my junior year at Buffalo,'' he said.
"Nov. 28, 2008, against Kent State -- 136 yards,'' I said.
"Wow,'' he said. "I am just blessed. This is all a shock to me.''
You have to credit GM Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy for their work this year. Green Bay has 15 players on injured-reserve, including running back stalwart Ryan Grant, and it averaged just 3.8 yards per rush in the regular season. The touchdown-scorers Sunday for the Packers were Tom Crabtree (exiled by Kansas City last year), James Jones (the player the Pack drafted to play receiver instead of signing Randy Moss, a burr in the saddle of Brett Favre in 2007) and Brandon Jackson (a mostly disappointing second-rounder in that 2007 draft).
And the hero of the day was Starks. Thompson and his staff looked past the fact Starks missed his senior year at Buffalo with reconstructive shoulder surgery and picked him late in April's draft. McCarthy looked past the fact he twice hurt his hamstring and landed on PUP at the start of the season and was virtually no factor all year; and he looked past some poor work habits late in the year that caused Starks to be inactive for two games. Last week, the Pack put a package of plays in the game plan for Starks, and McCarthy said it was simply a case of going with production. "He had the hot hand, and I rode it,'' McCarthy said.
Starks has some power, runs hard, and runs to contact; that's what I saw Sunday against Philadelphia. "He did a good job running after the first hit,'' said McCarthy.
He would have been just a good sidebar without an assist from cornerback Tramon Williams. On the last Eagles' play of Mike Vick's redeeming season, Vick threw for rookie receiver Riley Cooper in the end zone. Not a bad decision, but it was slightly underthrown. "Our attitude on defense is someone will make a play,'' Williams said. "We've all taken turns this year. When I saw the ball in the air, I knew I could make that play. I had to make it. We have this thing we say: Just do your job. That's what I did.'' He leapt high and caught it clean. Ballgame.
Starks takes on increasing importance for the Packers now. Their running backs were a weak point for much of the season, and his explosion Sunday is mindful of the Ryan Grant explosion late in 2007 and in the playoffs. In Green Bay's 20-17 loss to Atlanta five weeks ago, Packers backs rushed for 26 yards. Imagine Starks being The Man Saturday night against the top seed in the NFC. This time he wouldn't be a mystery.
In Jobville: I said Saturday on NBC that 45-year-old St. Louis offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was the hot name in Cleveland, and probably the leader in the clubhouse for the Browns job. That could change, but I hear they want to make a decision quickly, and Shurmur was very impressive when he interviewed with Mike Holmgren on Friday.
Shurmur points of interest: He knows Holmgren from his days hanging around the Packers occasionally when Uncle Fritz was Holmgren's defensive coordinator. He has an MBA. He coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State and Andy Reid in Philadelphia. He's tight with Browns GM Tom Heckert; they worked together for eight years under Reid in Philadelphia. He'd run the exact West Coast offense Holmgren wants run, the one Holmgren taught Reid, and the one Reid taught Shurmur. So the connections are good. We'll see this week if they're good enough
In Oakland, where a change never should have been made, Al Davis is bound to hire Hue Jackson, who impressed the 49ers in an interview Friday, hours before they hired Jim Harbaugh
In Denver, they're starting at Ground Zero, with Pat Bowlen handing John Elway football authority. "I definitely want someone with head-coaching experience,'' Denver vice president of football operations Elway told me Friday night. "Either in college or pro football. I want a great competitor. I want someone who is smart, very smart. And I want someone who can work well within a good football system. With Josh [McDaniels], we went out on a limb [in terms of giving the coach lots of powers] and not only did it not work, it turned out to be sort of a disaster.''
No Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden czar type as coach, then.
"No,'' Elway said. "Mr. Bowlen's been down that road already.''
Brian Xanders remains the GM, and Elway will have the final say on football matters.
In Tebowland: Also said Saturday on NBC, in one of the most widely misunderstood segments in Peter King TV history, the following: Elway told me, "I don't think Tim Tebow is a good NFL quarterback at this time.'' ... And that Josh McDaniels, were he to get an offensive coordinator or quarterback coaching job where there was a quarterback need, could well urge that team to trade for Tebow because he still believes in him strongly. And that in the event of a lockout in the spring by owners, until there is a new collective-bargaining agreement, no players can be traded, so Tebow would not be able to be dealt until a new CBA is reached.
That is all I said. But do I expect the Vikings or Dolphins or some such team to call Denver if McDaniels gets hired, to try to get Tebow? I do. Attention all assorted Rocky Mountain conspiracy-theorists: I never said, or implied, that John Elway was thinking or looking to trade Tim Tebow. And there you go.
Nnamdi Asomugha has the last year of his contract voided, runs from Raiders: This could be a bit of a moot point anyway. Now, don't all you free-agents-to-be panic out there. But one of the things the NFL is discussing in the event of a work stoppage that lasts 'til late in the preseason (or into the season) is the possibility of no free agency this season, and giving each free agent a premium to return to his team this year and delaying their entry into the free market 'til 2012.
I doubt this will happen -- let me make that clear -- because agents will scream bloody murder if, say, Vincent Jackson has to go back to San Diego after not being able to test the market this year, and being forced back to San Diego. But the logistics of free agency if a deal between players and owners were reached, say, on Sept. 1, with the first game set for Sept. 15, would be harrowing. How would 500 players fairly find new homes if something so grab-bag would open and (presumably) close after a few days? Assuming free agency does work somehow this year, keep one thing in mind: There's likely to be a salary cap with any new CBA. So the team that might be able to afford Asomugha is the team light on the salaries right now. Not Washington. Not the Jets. Not Dallas.
Jim Harbaugh is going to the videotape: I told Harbaugh there were old videotapes (maybe DVDs by now) in the 49ers training facility in Santa Clara of Bill Walsh explaining the West Coast Offense -- the same scheme, down to the terminology, that Harbaugh coached at Stanford. "Really?'' he said. "I didn't know that. I gotta go find those and dust 'em off. I'll definitely watch those.'' Harbaugh was a good hire, and at the right price, for 29-year-old Niners president Jed York.
Here's why York did a good job. He and GM Trent Baalke knew during the course of the year that they might be in the market for a new coach. (Might, I emphasize. They backed Mike Singletary until the end. But every team in the league researches its options while current players and coaches are in-house. Don't compare what I'm about to say to the Miami situation with Stephen Ross interviewing a coach while he had one, because it's not the same.)
So Baalke scouted Stanford a few times, which he would do normally, and got to know Harbaugh well. And York went to a couple of Stanford home games, watching the Cardinal shuffle its offensive lineup on every play and watching Stanford out-scheme USC.
After the Niners fired Singletary, they called Harbaugh and told him they didn't want to interrupt his preparation for the Orange Bowl, but wanted to tell him they'd want to speak to him about the coaching job right after that game. When the meeting finally took place, San Francisco offered Harbaugh five years and $24 million.
When there was noise about the Dolphins blowing him away with $7 million or $8 million a year, York called David Dunn, the agent for Harbaugh, and offered five years and $25 million and said that was it. Smart, because the last thing you want to do in a case like this is give an unproven coach Bill Belichick money, especially since there's a recent history of college coaches failing in the NFL. The first time you'd have a three-game losing streak, the genius millionaire coach would be ridiculed, putting unnecessary pressure on a job that's already hard enough.
In the end, the Niners paid Harbaugh very well, but didn't pay him so much that it would be a negative. Good hire. The 49ers are going to be a fun team to watch.
A few words on the shootings in Tucson.
Many of you say you don't read me for my politics, which is fine. Though I'm not about to go on any political rant here, I'll understand if you skip this section about the killing of six people and the wounding of 20 others outside a grocery store in Tucson Saturday. For the rest of you, I just ask you to do one thing today: think.
Think about our country and what kind of place it's become when a 22-year-old man can freely walk up to a congresswoman and shoot her in the head, and then kill six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11, whose parents said she wanted to have a job one day to help the less fortunate, and who, according to the Arizona Daily Star, was fond of telling her mother: "We are so blessed. We have the best life.''
The words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik should resonate for us all:
"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous. The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business ... This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in. It's not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. That's the sad thing about what's going on in America: Pretty soon we're not going to be able to find reasonable decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.''
I'm not blaming guns, I'm not blaming the right or the left. Time will sort out all of the issues about why Jared Loughner apparently targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords for death. Whatever the reason for Loughner's actions, I don't know how we can continue to listen to the incredible public fury we hear in politics and the political media without it having serious consequences for society.
Godspeed, Congresswoman Giffords, and to the 13 other victims trying to recover. My heart goes out to the families of the six who died. I hope the rest of us can just think about Dupnik's words and bring a little civility back to civilization.
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