I've got great admiration for Rice, as a player and for how he conducts himself. At Cleveland Sunday, he had a terrific first half in the rain (17 carries, 107 yards) while the Ravens built a 10-0 lead, and a grinding second half (12 carries, 97 yards) as the Browns just got worn down. Baltimore rushed 290 yards in all, and Rice had a career-best 204.
"As a veteran on this team,'' Rice said, "you want to put your team on your back when they really need you. Today was one of those days because of the conditions -- it was going to be better to run it. In games like this, on days like this, you want to be able to demand the ball and to produce.''
Rice, like Matt Forte of the Bears, is in the last year of his contract. He wants to get a new deal done, obviously, and wants to stay in Baltimore. Why wouldn't a player want to stay where the team always contends, and where it's close to home? (Rice is from four hours north of Baltimore, New Rochelle, N.Y.) But you don't hear much from Rice about what he wants. That is so un-2011. And I like it. "I let my game talk,'' Rice said. "This isn't the time to talk about that stuff. I have the hope that when the time comes, I'll get taken care of, and I believe I will. You never want to burn any bridges, so I just don't talk about it much.''
Stop the presses!
The second-year tight end thought he'd broken the NFL record for touchdowns in a season by a tight end when he took a swing pass from Tom Brady against Indianapolis and ran it in from two yards out for his third touchdown of the game. And his 14th touchdown reception of the season. But replays showed it was actually a very slightly backward pass from Brady, and thus a lateral, and thus ruled a two-yard rushing touchdown.
Gronkowski thought he'd broken the record. He was congratulated by teammates, and the crowd gave him a hand when the record was acknowledged by the stadium announcer. It wasn't until Marv Albert told him in the postgame interview that it was a rush that Gronkowski found out he was still tied for the record, at 13.
"Well, it's still a good thing,'' Gronkowski told me. "That's the first rush of my life.''
"You mean your first running play in the NFL?'' I said.
"No -- my first rush ever, in high school, college or the pros. I never ran the ball before. And now I got a touchdown on my first run.''
The 9-3 Patriots may not have the wide receiver depth they'd like, but when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez make plays downfield the way they do, Brady doesn't have much to complain about. Gronkowski said one of the hidden benefits of playing with Brady are the lessons he learns from him about how to get open and how to shed blockers at the line.
The record will come; Gronkowski has four more games to get it. I reminded him about all the teams that graded him down because of neck and back concerns coming out of Arizona before the 2010 draft, and how amazing it is that in his second season he's on the verge of breaking a pretty illustrious record. "It's like it's not even true,'' he said. "Like a dream. I'm so honored to be able to play on this team and have the chance to do these things. And I'm glad the Patriots took a chance on me. I'm 100-percent injury-free and I plan to stay that way. I do all kinds of ab work and back work to make sure I stay injury-free.''
The Bills, prior to their game with Tennessee Sunday, held a moment of silence for the 49-year-old Buffalo News beat man in the press box. Wilson, very large and very quiet and very well-respected, died of leukemia Saturday in Buffalo, leaving behind his wife -- the paper's executive sports editor, Lisa Wilson, and a daughter, Alissa. And a lot of sad peers.
"It's so upsetting,'' former Bills coach Gregg Williams told me Saturday night, "because of the kind of family man he was, and the kind of person he was, and the kind of professional he was. I had so much respect for him. We both are very close to our families, and that was our bond.''
Wilson a former college football player at North Carolina Central, was occasionally mistaken for Bruce Smith; their hair and big chests were similar. "I'm not him,'' Wilson would tell fans, "but I do cover him.'' Most times in press boxes, he was the silent type -- but there was something about him that attracted respect. As I told Williams, "It's like he was Switzerland -- he was so impartial.'' We're in a business now in which newspaper beat people are told by their bosses in many cases to be opinionated, to interpret the news. That's important, to be sure. But it's also important to present the news when you're covering a team in an impartial way, and let the readers decide what they want to think about a story or an issue.
"You hit the nail on the head,'' said Williams. "He was so neutral. A lot of guys in your business I won't read, because I want to know facts, and I don't know what I'm getting from them. Allen, he dealt in facts. He reported what was happening, not what he thought should happen. I think there's an art to neutrality, and Allen was very good at it.''
One of the Bills Wilson covered, Takeo Spikes, reached out to me because he wanted to express his respect for him. "The best way to describe him was firm and fair,'' Spikes said. "He was up front with me, always. If he was going to write something I might not like, he'd come to me and say, 'Look, I'm writing this, And I want to get your side of it. Whatever you say is not going to make me not write it, but I want to be sure I tell your side.' When we're dealing with the media, that's all we want. He didn't come out with any bogus stories. The players respected him.''
He's the second tough but fair beat man to die this season, Tom Kowalski from Detroit the first back in August. The Lions played at Buffalo right after Kowalski died, and the Bills had a moment of silence for him too. Two very good men and reporters, gone too soon.
Today, with his teammates 0-12 and playing out the string on a remarkably bad season, Manning starts the next phase of his rehabilitation from September neck surgery. Manning may have seemed evasive when interviewed by James Brown on the CBS pregame show Sunday, and he was. But what he implied several times is absolutely true: His fate will be apparent to him, and to the Colts, in two or three months and not before. We can't know now how strong Manning will be in the first week of March, which is when the Colts have to determine whether to keep him on the team or not, because of how tenuous a surgery he had, and how difficult it is to predict nerve regeneration.
This much we know: Manning signed, essentially, two contracts last July. The first was a one-year deal for 2011, and the second a four-year deal that is due to be activated with the payment of a $28 million option bonus several days before the start of the 2012 league year. The 2012 league year begins on March 12. If the Colts pay the bonus, Manning stays a Colt. If they don't, he becomes a free agent. Because trades cannot happen until the start of the league year, Manning cannot be traded by Indianapolis -- unless he agrees to delay payment of the option bonus.
On NBC last night, Manning's former coach, Tony Dungy, said he thought Manning would play for the Colts in 2012 or not at all. In discussions with me off-air, Dungy said Manning is such a creature of habit, with intimate knowledge of his receivers' habits, that he wouldn't want to go anywhere (particularly, I noted) in an era when teams don't have offseason control of their players and Manning might not be able to get to know them well before they start playing together.
But the Colts will have one advantage none of us figured when this process started, as I reported last night: Because he is a rehabbing player, Manning is able to use the Colts' facility to work out and lift weights and do all the rehab assigned by his surgeon, Dr. Robert Watkins. Injured players may use team facilities in the offseason to do their recovery work. Manning will certainly take advantage of those conditions in January and February to get his arm and neck in optimum health. He'll have nine weeks after the Colts' season ends to work on getting healthy before Colts owner Jim Irsay and braintrust Bill and Chris Polian have to make a decision whether to keep Manning around for 2012.
Aside from the option bonus, the cap cost won't be prohibitive if they keep Manning and draft a quarterback with the first pick in the draft; Indy would have to pay Manning and the rookie QB a cap charge of about $21.2 million, with the rest of the roster earning about $100 million.
So now we wait. You can't rush mother nature.
And one more note from Sunday:
Week 17, 2007: New England (16-0) 38, New York Giants 35.
Week 13, 2011: Green Bay (12-0) 38, New York Giants 35. Said the quarterback who put up 35 points in both games, Eli Manning: "That [New England] game we lost, but I think everybody felt good about the way we played and had a little momentum going into the playoffs. Obviously it's going to be a similar feel with these next four games. They're all going to be playoff-style games where we need to win. We need to make sure that we have that attitude. I think in the locker room, guys are obviously disappointed with the loss, but there was a little sense of energy and sense of, 'Hey, we can get this thing going now.' ''
In 2007, the Giants went on to beat Tampa Bay, Dallas, Green Bay and New England to win the world title. In 2011, they'll play Dallas twice, Washington and the Jets. As happened in 2007, the Giants have their fate in their hands.
Coming Tuesday: Focusing on the Steelers and Texans.
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