After signature playoff weekend, labor cloud hangs heavy over NFL
Jets have won four playoff games since Rex Ryan became coach; Patriots: zero
No Super Bowl has ever featured two No. 6 seeds; Packers, Jets are still alive
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PITTSBURGH -- Labor turnoff interlude to a great weekend of football, keeping in mind that the real work in a labor dispute gets done in the smaller meetings and secret phone calls and not in the showy big room, but still understanding that the meetings in the showy big rooms have to happen for a deal to get done:
National Football League owners are due to lock out the players in 46 days, on March 4.
The last full meeting between players and owners was 56 days ago, Nov. 22.
While owners meet in their monthly labor-strategy session Tuesday in Atlanta, about 35 new player representatives and alternate player reps (Patrick Willis, Aaron Kampman, among others] will meet for orientation in Washington at NFL Players Association headquarters, then move on to meet and lobby key politicians on Capitol Hill, in case they need friends in high places when the two sides are at impasse and Congress debates getting involved. The sabers are rattling.
Playoff fever! Catch it!
I want the men in suits to meet Pittsburgh Phil, a 40-year-old claims adjuster from Monroeville, a few burbs east of Pittsburgh, and friend of a very good friend of mine. They watched the Steelers-Ravens game together Saturday in a bar in Monroeville, drinking Stout. In the fourth quarter, when it was anyone's game, Pittsburgh Phil, who is one superstitious guy, whipped out his cell phone and called up a photo of Steelers founder Art Rooney, The Chief, a black-and-white job of him ... he's smoking a cigar. And he began to chant to the photo. "Please Chief,'' Pittsburgh Phil said to the visage on his phone, his voice pleading. This was no joke. "Do not let us down! You built where we are! You were Pittsburgh! Your legacy endures now and forever! DO NOT LET US LOSE THIS GAME! PLEASE!''
I want the men in suits to meet Rob Bonatucci, a supplier for Bombardier Transportation, a Pittsburgh-based company that builds train cars. Bonatucci, traveling for business in China, watched the game at a Steelers bar in Shanghai, at 5:30 in the morning Sunday. "There's a bar in Shanghai called The Camel where I'd say about 125 of us watched the game,'' Bonatucci said from China. That's right: There's a Steeler bar in Shanghai. "Chinese girls dressed as cheerleaders, Terrible Towels and all these expats or people traveling on business dressed in Steeler stuff. If you're a Steeler fan, you're not missing this game. When they came back in the second half, it was just like you'd get in the states -- people jumping up and down, high-fiving, going crazy. These people live for these moments.''
I want the men in suits, and the players, to know that's what they're fooling around with here.
Many things on the docket, from the games to what is really worrying Congressman Runyan to my Gumby Player of the Weekend to the Power of Seven to just how ridiculously good Aaron Rodgers is to the Patriots' Super Bowl drought reaching Year Six, to this: If you think the 33rd meeting between the Ravens and Steelers was pretty good, what do you think the 182nd meeting between the Packers and Bears will be like?
But we can start in one place only this morning: with the New York Football Jets, and their coach, who is unlike any other.
Rex Ryan and his Democratic form of government.
"I knew I'd get one shot to do this in my life,'' the man of the hour said from one of the Jets' team buses Sunday night, on the way to the airport and a joyous flight back to New Jersey. "One opportunity. I'm just an average guy. I'm not for everybody. The only thing I know how to do is coach. For a while, no one had the guts to give us a shot. But [owner] Woody Johnson and [GM] Mike Tannenbaum did, and you know it hasn't been easy. I'm not perfect. I've put them through some hard times this year; you know that. I'm not going to apologize for who I am.''
You are what your record says you are. In two years, Ryan is 24-13. That includes a 4-1 record in the playoffs, with postseason wins at a No. 1 seed (New England, 2010), at a 2 seed (San Diego, 2009), at a 3 seed (Indianapolis, 2010) and at a 4 seed (Cincinnati, 2009), all in the last 54 weeks. And it now includes two consecutive conference-championship game appearances, the first time in the 50-year history of the franchise that's happened.
Since Ryan has taken over as coach, the Jets and their arch-rivals, New England, each have 24 wins. Playoff wins in the last two seasons: Ryan 4, Bill Belichick 0.
What I thought was the most telling part of Sunday's 28-21 win in Foxboro was watching Tom Brady stand in the pocket (when Shaun Ellis wasn't chasing him) and look at his options --1, 2, 3, 4 and maybe back to 1 -- and pat the ball, and then throw it away or dump it for a miniscule gain he didn't want. I have never seen Brady, at least for the first three-plus quarters, survey the field and take so much time and see so little open. It was stunning, really.
"Did you know,'' GM Mike Tannenbaum said this morning from New Jersey, "we dressed 11 defensive backs for this game? Eleven out of 45 players. That's pretty amazing.''
Let's count them. The Jets started in nickel. Eric Smith and Brodney Pool at safety, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie at corner, with Drew Coleman the extra corner. That's five. Three extra corners dressed: Kyle Wilson, Dwight Lowery and Marquice Cole. That's eight. Three extra safeties: James Ihedigbo and United Football League refugees Isaiah Trufant (the UFL defensive player of the year this season) and Emanuel Cook. They all played, combining for 36 tackles, and they contributed to clogging the lanes and forcing Brady to pat, pat, pat and throw gopher balls.
It was no secret that Ryan felt the Jets lost the AFC title game last year because of poor depth in the secondary, particularly at corner. It didn't take him long to lobby for help -- just 24 hours. On the day after the season, he and Tannenbaum were standing at the baggage carousel in Mobile, Ala., waiting for their luggage; they were in town to scout players for the draft at the annual Senior Bowl. "If we're going to beat Indianapolis and New England,'' Ryan told Tannenbaum, "we're going to need more speed and athleticism. It's that simple. If we don't have more speed and athleticism, all the other stuff won't matter.''
"Mike took it on himself,'' Ryan said Sunday night. "He went and got us what we needed.'' Cromartie, a risk, in exchange for a second-round pick from San Diego; and Kyle Wilson in the first round of the draft.
One other thing came into play Sunday, and that's a goulash form of game-planning. Last time these teams met, Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-3 win. "We listened to every suggestion known to man about scheme and coverage,'' Ryan said. "When I hire coaches, I want coaches who work with me, not for me. Last week, I challenged every coach. Come up with a plan. Help us find a way.
"We got help from players too. Jimmy Leonhard [a starting safety now on injured-reserve] even came up with a concept we used tonight involving quarters coverage and a little wrinkle we used. I really leaned on [coordinator] Mike Pettine and [secondary coach] Dennis Thurman to get it all straight. We kept mixing 'em all day. Sometimes we'd play standard stuff, then we'd change up. We probably were more multiple than they'd seen, by anybody.''
The Jets seemed content to put Revis and Cromartie out wide, mostly in single coverage all day, and Deion Branch and Brandon Tate didn't do much against them until semi-garbage time. They didn't blitz much, preferring to bring a safety down to stop the Patriots from doing what they do so well -- get Welker or one of the rookie tight ends the ball on a quick route of some kind, then make a bunch of yards after the catch.
Since trading Randy Moss in October, the Patriots haven't had the kind of big receiver to threaten the edges; and Branch, Tate and Welker didn't do that Sunday, nor did they grow to be 6-3. The Patriots kill teams with the catch-and-run plays, and if Brady couldn't get the ball to the good after-the-catch guys, or if they got felled immediately by the omnipresent Eric Smith down near the box, that way of moving the ball down the field all of a sudden won't work. Those 11 defensive backs just made the picture cloudy for Brady underneath all day.
The hue and cry around Ryan this year almost seems to bring the best out in his players. He says he's put Johnson through a lot this year, flipping off a fan at a fight in Miami, being hugely off-color in HBO's Hard Knocks and, of course, the whole foot-fetish thing, which -- and this is just an educated guess -- will never, ever die. See the front page of the New York Post Sunday, prior to Pats-Jets? Picture of Ryan, a huge bare foot with toenails painted "GO JETS'' and the headline, "LICK 'EM.'' But if anything, stuff like that just makes his players more defensive about him. I do believe Bart Scott is still yelling in defense of him at this hour.
It was a brilliant day for Ryan and Pettine. Now they've dispatched Manning and Brady. Next is Big Ben Roethlisberger, the third straight Super Bowl winner who will get to play the Jets at home. Those who've bet against the Jets have lost a lot of money and a lot of face this year. Roethlisberger had better do his homework this week -- not that it will do a lot of good with the changeup pitches Ryan's going to plot for him.
It's not over for the Patriots, but they need some help for Tom Brady.
New England's past three playoff games: 0-3. Brady's quarterback rating in those three: 74.3. Pats' points per game: 16.3. The Ravens embarrassed them in Foxboro a year ago, and the Jets undressed them Sunday. The Patriots got the game to within 14-11 late in the third quarter Sunday, but did you ever feel they could do enough right to win the game on offense? I didn't.
The blame has to fall on lots of shoulders. But a great quarterback just has to play better than Brady's played in the past four postseasons. I thought there were an alarming number of throws -- four, maybe five -- he made Sunday when the intended receiver either never turned around or the ball was thrown to a side the receiver wasn't expecting. That might happen once or twice late in the year. It happened too much Sunday. It shouldn't happen with a quarterback that good. Maybe it was the Jets frustrating him, but Brady's got to make more plays, even against a brainiac defense, than he made Sunday.
New England will have three picks in the draft between the 17th and 33rd picks to reload. I expect they'll be in the market for a big receiver (or two); a DeMaryius Thomas-sized young receiver's a desperate need. And I expect Belichick will fortify his offensive line. He may look to replace 10-year-vet left tackle Matt Light and fortify the guard spots, where age, injury and free-agency are issues.
Much will be made of the Patriots missing Randy Moss in this game, but they didn't miss Moss. They missed the player Moss used to be. Belichick, as it turns out, was wise to dump him for a third-round pick three months ago to Minnesota. But you can be sure they won't enter 2011 -- whenever the season begins -- without a threat at wide receiver.
Brady will turn 34 in August. He's healthy and says he wants to play into his 40s. Unlike Peyton Manning, who's a year older and has one title in 13 years, Brady (three in 10) doesn't have to worry about his legacy. He has to worry about getting more potent on offense.
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