Quick hits around the league:
You don't want to play the Bears right now. The defensive front is voracious, and even though they gained only 216 yards, the Bears scored in typical Bear fashion: three field goals, a Devin Hester punt return, two interception returns (by Charles Tillman and Major Wright), one Matt Forte run. The offensive line got hit again Sunday with the loss of left guard Chris Williams, but you just figure they'll plug-and-play Lance Louis there when Gabe Carimi comes back from his knee injury in a couple of weeks, and they'll muddle through.
"The way we're playing now is what we're capable of,'' Brian Urlacher told me last night. "We're playing fast, the way our defense needs to play. One of the reasons we've turned it around is our coaches wouldn't put up with mistakes; they held us accountable and we cleaned them up.'' Chicago, 6-3, is tied for second with Detroit now, 2.5 games behind Green Bay. I asked Urlacher if the Packers could be caught. "I don't see anyone beating them twice,'' he said, meaning he didn't see them losing two games. "It looks like a fight for the Wild Card for us, but that's fine. We just want to get in.''
The 49ers are suffocating people. San Francisco's very quietly putting together a Pittsburgh-type of run-defense season. Through nine games, the Niners haven't allowed a rushing touchdown. Think of that. Tampa Bay allowed three -- yesterday. Foes have gained 64, 45, 79, 108, 86, 66, 66, 52 and 93 yards rushing in the Niners' nine games. "It's all about our front, and about our two inside linebackers [Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman] being very active but very physical too,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "Our stoutness up front has been a big part of what we do.'' Imagine some of the playoff matchups. Niners against Matt Forte. Niners against Michael Turner ... or the Niners shutting down Green Bay's run and making Aaron Rodgers throw it 45 times. I might pay to see that one.
Belichick catches Parcells
The Patriots' victory over the Jets Sunday meant Bill Belichick tied his old New York (Giants and Jets) boss, Bill Parcells, for ninth place on the all-time coaching victories list (including playoffs) with 183. It'll be tough to catch No. 8 this year -- Chuck Knox, with 193. How Belichick and Parcells compare historically:
Brady/Belichick pass Marino/Shula
Fitting that in the Year of the Pass, one of the new legends passes one of the old ones. Tom Brady and Belichick became the winningest quarterback-coach combination of all-time, beating a familiar couple of faces.
How much should you be worried about that defense, Packer fans?
Let's ask the guru, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, heading into the Monday-nighter against the Vikings.
"I don't like the way we're playing,'' Capers told me the other day. "I like the way we're taking it away, but I don't like all the big plays we're giving up, and we need to communicate a lot better going forward if we're going to fix this. But the one thing I remember about last year was it was just about this time when we started playing well on defense. We went to New York and shut out the Jets, we held the Cowboys to seven points and the Vikings to three. Then we won our last six [including postseason] and played pretty well on defense using a lot of people. We found our niche. Now we've got to do that this season.''
So it's been done. But not since mid-2009 have the Packers given up this many points (65) in consecutive games. According to ProFootballFocus, the trio of corners who helped the Packers win the Super Bowl last year (Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, Sam Shields) allowed nine touchdown passes all of last season; they've allowed eight this year through eight games.
I watched the tape of the Packers-Chargers game, and two or three times one defensive back would turn around after a play and yap to another. Williams, on one play, lit into a couple of his mates, presumably for not providing the safety help he thought should have been there. From talking to Capers, that's what he meant by the communication problems. I saw a defense bothering the quarterback enough but breaking down badly in the back end. "Not up to our standards, but that's sort of been the pattern this season,'' Capers said. "Their long run of the game was nine yards, which is good. But they had seven pass plays of 20 yards or more. That we can't allow.''
Capers, in piloting two expansion teams, said the plan for great NFL teams hasn't changed. Build a defense, find a quarterback. In Carolina, he did it with Kerry Collins and a stingy defense built through the draft and free agency. In Houston, he tried to do it with David Carr and defense, but both weren't up to NFL averages. He looks at the Packers now and sees a team with a great quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and what should be a good defense. And he knows it's foolish to expect Rodgers to put up 40 points every week, because sometimes great offenses (see: New England, Super Bowl, 2008) have an off day. He understands the impression fans have: If the Packers are going to stay unbeaten, they're going to have to have Rodgers win shootouts.
"I understand why people would think that,'' Capers said. "We just have to stress communication with the guys, everybody being where they're supposed to be, because when they are, we definitely should make the plays. But we've done it before. Last year, Tramon and Sam covered as well as any two corners in the league. We can get back to that level. I've seen it.''
You'll get an excellent indicator tonight, with rookie Christian Ponder coming to Lambeau Field with all the distractions and noise attendant to that experience for a visiting quarterback. If the Packers struggle holding the Vikings down, you'll know it's going to be pretty tough to keep this undefeated streak alive in the coming weeks.
Retired players not pleased with Legacy Fund
The NFL and the NFL Players Association announced Thursday a plan, pursuant to the July labor agreement, to distribute $620 million over 10 years to the men who played before 1993, the players who had been getting pittances for their pensions. "Nothing the league can do can ever full express our appreciation to the players who helped build our league,'' commissioner Roger Goodell said in the league's release. "However, the Legacy Fund is a significant step, especially as the benefits apply to the older players.''
I put pen to paper over the weekend to figure out the increases for long-retired players. Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly, for instance, played 10 seasons, retiring in 1973. He is 69. Kelly had been receiving a monthly check for $176. (So low because he'd chosen to take his monthly pension at 45 instead of waiting 10 or 15 years for it to mushroom.) Under the Legacy formula, a 10-year vet who retired before 1975 will now get $1,840 per month. That's a 945 percent increase. Now, instead of getting $2,112 a year in pension, Kelly will receive $22,080 annually.
So I expected Kelly to be pretty pleased when I reached him at his home in Willingboro, N.J., Saturday.
"No comment,'' he growled. "I really have nothing to say.''
A minute later, Kelly finally said: "Anything is better than nothing, I guess. I think the [retired] guys are happy to get something more, but it's just not enough. The NFL takes in, what, $4 billion more than baseball in a year? Baseball players have a great pension. I can't understand why we can't get at least $60,000 a year for the work we've done in making this sport what it is.''
Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, who has become a spokesman for retired players, said he's heard from 12 players since the announcement, and the retirees felt the same as Kelly.
"We still have sub-poverty pensions in the NFL, and I don't just blame the league -- I blame the union too,'' DeLamielleure said. "You talk about $22,000, but that's before taxes. I emailed Roger Friday and said, 'I'm very disappointed to say the least. You told me you'd make this better. Why do you continue to punish the pre-'93 guys?' ''
DeLamielleure said the players he's spoken to are "disillusioned, angry and totally depressed'' that the pension isn't more generous. "There are days I could cry, listening to their stories,'' he said. "And now it's worse, because they were waiting for some hope, and even though this is more than they were getting, it's still nothing compared to what other sports do.''
I spoke with a baseball union lawyer, Rick Shapiro, on Sunday, and he told me a 10-year veteran baseball player who retired any season in the '70s would be getting a pension of between $112,000 and $200,000, depending on the prevailing rate of return on the pension plan's investments. Let's use $112,000. That's still $90,000 more per year than a similar NFL player would get.
An NFL spokesman emailed me Sunday and called the Fund "an unprecedented and substantial increase'' for the retirees, which it certainly is. But it still pales in comparison with baseball, and that's something that will always irk football players because football is a much more popular sport today. And I should also reiterate that DeLamielleure is as angry with the union as he is with the NFL; he believes both should be more generous with the retired players.
A few words about Penn State from a student I know well
I asked Emily Kaplan, a friend of mine from New Jersey, a Penn State junior, and a writer for the campus paper the Daily Collegian, to write something about how the campus was dealing with the Sandusky/Paterno crisis. Her report, filed Sunday night from State College, Pa.:
The origin of the iconic "We Are ... Penn State" chant, the school's signature slogan on and off the football field, is believed to have occurred the same year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. In the pre-Paterno year of 1947, SMU didn't want to play Penn State because of PSU's two African-American players and wanted to negotiate a compromise. "We are Penn State," said captain Steve Suhey. "There will be no meetings."
So began the battle cry of unity, as all Penn Staters, to this day, consider ourselves part of a special family. Suhey's son Matt starred at Penn State in the 1970s, and Matt's son Joe played fullback for the Lions Saturday against Nebraska. Walk into a crowded room and shout, "We are ... " and any Penn Stater would know how to respond. The chant represents pride, respect and tradition.
Today, we are Penn State ... but we are ashamed. We are ashamed that our leaders who preach doing the right thing and "success with honor" dishonored all of us with their inaction over an alleged child-abuse scandal. We are embarrassed by the way we are being portrayed, as a football-centric school that would let a child molester walk if that meant our name would stay clean. We read the grand jury report and we are just as disgusted as anyone -- if not more. We are praying for the victims and hopeful they will find justice. We are heartbroken that this could happen here.
But as a Penn State junior, I can tell you this: We are going to be OK. We are not going to let an assistant football coach, apparently a very sick one, or a few university suits define us. For a moment, we lost our identity. We felt sorry for ourselves. We sulked that we were the victims of media scrutiny and that this scandal tarnished our school. But we are not the victims. The children are. So we will move on, working on repairing our school, while honoring those kids along the way.
Already the scandal's ramifications are swirling around campus. Four students apparently lost their spring internships because companies didn't want to be associated with Penn State. Corporate sponsors are supposedly pulling out of THON, Penn State's annual dance marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which has raised more than $78 million for pediatric cancer. If all true, it's sad. If people don't want to wear their Penn State garb anymore, it's their decision. But this I know: We are a school with a glorious tradition, a school dedicated to doing things the right way. Our longtime father figure, Joe Paterno, taught us that.
Look, I'm no Penn State apologist. I can't condone the stupid tantrum some of my classmates threw Wednesday night after Paterno's dismissal. Nobody condones the arrogant decisions some of our leaders made. I've also heard the criticism against my school. Happy Valley is in a bubble. Penn State is too image-conscious. JoePa is too deified. The riots give some credence to that. So did the presence of 100 students at Joe Pa's modest off-campus home, many teary-eyed, waiting for him to come out Wednesday night so they could say goodbye and thank him. On the surface it seemed ridiculous. How could students still support this man who didn't do enough to help abused children?
Truth is, if not for Paterno's philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn't be here right now. If not for Paterno and his grand experiment -- creating a national powerhouse football program with high academic standards -- Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn't mean he's not a good man. When he emerged from his house Wednesday night, I was there when he addressed the gathering. One of the first things he said was, "Go study."
So we will study at Paterno Library, a place Joe and his wife made happen, we will eat Peachy Paterno ice cream and we will remember the lessons he taught us about integrity and honor. We will also remember his mistake, and make sure we never repeat it.
We will fund raise harder than ever for THON, we will work harder than ever in the classroom. Our president, our athletic director, our football coach, will not be around anymore. But we will be, and we will start to rebuild our university's shattered image. Whoever our next football coach may be next season, we will stand behind him and our players. Because we are Penn State. And like the hundreds of thousands of alumni around the country, we always will be.
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