From reality winner to upstart Bills, Week 2 boasted great stories
Reality show winner Jesse Holley helped save the day for Cowboys
Ranking the top 15 teams in the league; The good and the bad of Week 2
With a 25-6 record in picking games thus far, I like Giants over Rams tonight
Big weekend for stars. Charles Woodson schooled Cam Newton, though I have a feeling Newton's going to be doing a lot of the schooling in the coming years. Ben Roethlisberger experienced a moment of season-ending panic when his knee got caved in. Tony Romo, goat last week, played John Wayne in San Francisco. Tom Brady did it again. Matt Ryan put up. Michael Vick shut up.
I always judge the quality of the game day by the volume in our NBC viewing room, and Sunday was a pretty loud day where the Football Night in America staff watches football. For a Sunday with only a couple of marquee matchups, the day was lots of fun.
I'm going to get to the best story of the weekend in a moment, but I'm struck by how lucky the National Football League is. Here's the league, coming off a nightmare offseason, and you don't need DirecTV or the Red Zone Channel to be magnetized to the league. You can be watching the old-fashioned way and still have experienced a blazing start to the season.
The prime-time games so far:
Green Bay 42, New Orleans 34. The Saints, down a touchdown and two-point conversion, go the length of the field frantically with no timeouts. Running back Mark Ingram gets stuffed at the goal line on the last play of the game.
New York Jets 27, Dallas 24. For the first time in franchise history, the Cowboys blow a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and lose. Tony Romo melts down. The Jets block a punt and score on it, and kick the winning field goal with 22 seconds left. Much weirdness.
New England 38, Miami 24. This is the NFL's 92nd season, and never before had such an aerial show been played. Tom Brady and Chad Henne combine to throw for a league-record 933 yards. The Pats run a spread formation at their half-yard line ... and Brady hits Wes Welker on a 99-yard touchdown pass.
Oakland 23, Denver 20. Neither artistic nor great. But there were moments: a 63-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, a 90-yard punt return by Eric Decker for a touchdown, a 150-yard rushing game by the underrated Darren McFadden.
Atlanta 35, Philadelphia 31. Crazy game, Michael Vick returns to Atlanta, gets concussed, the Falcons rally with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the quarterback with the literary name, Mike Kafka, almost used literary license to drive the Eagles to the winning touchdown. But no.
It's Sept. 19, and the league's already four-for-five on ridiculously compelling national TV games -- and the fifth was at least interesting.
But I'll start with a story that, for better or worse, will feed into the Great American (NFL) Dream. It's the story of the man who won an NFL game on Sunday, Jesse Holley of the Cowboys, and the man who gave him the chance, Michael Irvin.
"After all my mess in life,'' Irvin told me late Sunday night, "God still used me to influence somebody's life for the better. This is such an incredible story no one should believe it.''
Irvin and Spike TV had this idea three years ago: give every red-blooded American who thought he could play in the NFL a chance to. Irvin got Dallas owner Jerry Jones to agree to reserve the 80th spot on his 2009 training camp roster for the winner of a reality TV show they'd call 4th and Long. Irvin would have six receivers and six cornerbacks compete against each other in a 10-show TV series, with the last man standing going to camp with the Cowboys in 2009.
First, the interested contestants -- hundreds of players -- were thinned out at a scouting combine in Los Angeles. One of those, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Holley, a former basketball and football player of little renown at North Carolina, came from a job working security and selling cellphones in North Carolina. But he made the cut to be one of the six receivers. He'd been cut by both the Cincinnati Bengals and BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, and was moving on with his life when he heard of the opportunity with the TV show. "He was tall,'' Irvin said, "and I know the Cowboys like tall receivers.''
So Irvin put Holley in competition with five other receivers (coached by former Cowboy coach Joe Avezzano) and six corners (coached by ex-Cowboy Bill Bates), while he -- Irvin -- oversaw the series and workouts. They taped 10 episodes of the show in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. "I worked them harder than they'd ever have to work in the NFL,'' said Irvin, now an analyst for NFL Network. "I wanted to see who wanted it, who would survive.
"One time I put them all at the bottom of the Cotton Bowl and told them to run the stairs," he added. "They were going to run the stairs, up to the top, down to the bottom, 'til one of them quit. I told 'em: 'Go! Go 'til someone quits!' That's how you tell who really wants something. Jesse wanted it. You know, whoever won this, the only shot they'd have right away is playing special teams. So you've got to want it.''
As Holley said via a crackling cell from the Cowboy locker room Sunday: "All I ever wanted was a chance. I thank God for Michael Irvin giving it to me. I thank God for Mr. Jerry Jones giving it to me.''
That desire won Holley the job. "There's no way I'd ever be here right now without that show,'' Holley said.
Holley got cut by the receiver-full Cowboys in 2009 and 2010, and was signed to the practice squad each year. When Dallas let Roy Williams and Sam Hurd go this offseason, Holley capitalized and made the roster as the fifth receiver. When Dez Bryant couldn't go Sunday because of a quad injury, Holley became the Cowboys' third wideout for the game in San Francisco. "I tell guys all the time, 'It's going to take all 53 on the roster to win,' '' coach Jason Garrett said.
Often, that's pie in the sky. On Sunday, it was real for Holley. He caught his first two NFL passes in the fourth quarter. And when Miles Austin strained a hamstring late in the fourth quarter, Holley was in the lineup for overtime.
"I wasn't supposed to be the guy Tony [Romo] was going to on that play in overtime,'' Holley said.
Well, you weren't supposed to even be in the stadium now, were you?
On Dallas' first possession of OT, when the safety over the top of him bit on play-action, Holley was the open man. Romo found him. Perfect throw, easy catch. If he hadn't showboated a little around the five-yard line, he'd have taken it in for a 78-yard touchdown. Instead, he was knocked out at the one-, and a chippy 19-yard field goal won it. The Cowboys, in desperate straits after blowing the game last week in New Jersey, were 1-1.
After the game, Irvin texted Holley thusly: "Man, that's an SS.''
"What do you mean?'' Holley texted back.
"A season-saver,'' Irvin texted.
As Irvin told me: "Every kid has the dream in the backyard of one day lining up and catching the big pass in the NFL. Today, Jesse lived it. I still can't believe it. Can you believe it! It's better than the Vince Papale story! [That's the story of the Philly-area Eagles fan who made the roster as a special-teamer under Dick Vermeil.] This one tops it. This guy won a game for the Dallas Cowboys! What a story! If he keeps playing and the Cowboys go on to the Super Bowl, this is a movie! This is Hollywood!''
Not so fast. But for one day in California, the kid from the reality show played in the reality sport -- and he played big.
The Bills are impossible to not root for.
The next three games should tell us whether the 2-0 Bills have a prayer of playing meaningful games in January. They host New England Sunday, then travel to Cincinnati, then Philadelphia comes to Orchard Park. If they're 4-1 after five games, they could well be a factor in the last month. For now, though, can't we just enjoy the ride?
But this is why you root for the Bills: Their most important offensive players are everymen, and they can really play. Last year, Buffalo hung up 30 on New England, 34 on Baltimore, 49 on Cincinnati ... lost on a heartbreaking dropped pass against Pittsburgh for what would have been the winning touchdown ... and after starting 0-8, won four of their last eight with nothing to play for.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, the quarterback, a seventh-round pick of the Rams six years ago, played at Harvard and is singing for his supper in the last year of his contract. The winning touchdown pass in the 38-35 win over Oakland Sunday was caught by David Nelson, an undrafted wide receiver who wasn't even a full-time college starter. Their touchdown leader, tight end Scott Chandler, was a waiver pickup from Dallas last December. And their starting running back, Fred Jackson, also undrafted (isn't everyone on this team?), went to mighty Coe College, enrollment 1,300, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There is one key receiver who was drafted -- Stevie Johnson. In the seventh round of the 2008 draft.
"I think our guys don't know any better,'' Fitzpatrick told me after the game. "They're just out there playing. And them being naive, I think, really helps. They're gaining so much confidence right now because I think they're understanding, 'Hey, it's just football.' I just try to tell them they're good and I want to them to know they're definitely good enough. By the end of this game, the confidence we had in the huddle was just unbelievable. We knew we were going to score every time we had the ball. It almost felt like invincibility.''
As the clock ticked down Sunday in Orchard Park, Fitzpatrick had the Bills at the six-yard line with 18 seconds to play. Fourth-and-one. Decisions, decisions. Of course, Fitzpatrick, who does not play shy, threw it into the end zone -- to a stunningly uncovered Nelson. "I was in disbelief,'' said Fitzpatrick. "I had to do a quick double-take. They were either misaligned or a corner got picked. I don't know. But we'll take it. Last year those are the kinds of games we lost.''
The fans have taken to Fitzpatrick in Buffalo. He got serenaded with a standing O when he left the field Sunday. He's also a free agent after the season, and I don't expect him to ever get there. The coach, Chan Gailey, loves him, and he should be fairly reasonable to sign -- if the Bills do it soon. "I hope we can work it out,'' said Fitzpatrick. "I would love to stay. I don't get caught up in any of the contract stuff, but I love the city and I love the team, and I love coach Gailey.''
Gailey made it clear after the game he wasn't the negotiator, but he'd like to see Fitzpatrick stay. Buffalo, this is the quarterback, and the team, that's made for you.
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