Rodgers, Tebow respond with the pressure on in Week 13
Packers, Broncos keep winning behind their unbelievably good quarterbacks
The waiting game on Peyton Manning continues; Colts face big financial decision
Fine Fifteen; Offensive Rookie of the Year Watch; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
The longest winning streaks in the NFL right now belong to Green Bay at 18, with the unflappable Aaron Rodgers at quarterback; Houston at 6, with third-stringer T.J. Yates calling the signals; and the surprising Denver Broncos with Tim Tebow leading them to five in a row. Football is a funny game.
Week 13 opening thoughts
1. You know I'm not exactly the president of the Donovan McNabb fan club, but the Bears need to call the unemployed McNabb today. Their quarterback situation is about to ruin a team with a real chance to be a factor in January.
2. It's been years since I've seen a team as undisciplined and as angry as Detroit.
3. If there's been a story like Tebow's in the 27 years I've covered the NFL, I'm having a hard time recalling it.
4. If the playoffs began today, Cincinnati and Chicago would be in. That's why I'm glad the playoffs don't begin today.
5. The NFL will decide in the next 24 hours what game is played on Sunday night, Dec. 18. Currently, Baltimore at San Diego is scheduled for that night. Little secret for flexing games: The NFL would prefer to sub an AFC TV game for an AFC TV game -- as this one is -- if it flexes out of this Sunday night game. And there's really only one AFC game worth flexing to: New England at Denver. It'll be surprising if Tebowmania doesn't come to Sunday night football in 13 days. Brady-Tebow. Belichick-Tebow. Mega-ratings for NBC.
Week 13's compelling people
Mike Martin (and the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals).
Chances are -- unless you root for the Bengals -- you don't remember Martin, a seven-year return man and receiver for Cincinnati a quarter-century ago. But he's the centerpiece of a six-month project Sports Illustrated did that will appear in this week's "Sportsman of the Year'' issue, which comes out tomorrow.
Last spring, I got this idea that everything we know and think about the physical and mental health of former NFL players is anecdotal. Dave Duerson, depressed, kills himself, so we think a vast number of hard-hitting defensive players are similarly afflicted. Harry Carson has lingering head trauma, so we think thousands of old linebackers must feel the same way. And many do, certainly. But what about the rank-and-file who don't make the headlines, who just melt away into life after football? I thought, Let's take a team from 25 years ago, and find out what happened to every player on it. So we did.
We took an average team from the 1986 season, the 10-6 Bengals, and examined their mental and physical lives a quarter-century later. I worked with a dogged team of reporters -- staffer Matt Gagne (never takes no for an answer) and summer interns Joan Niesen from Missouri (so determined she took the work with her when she left SI and kept calling players) and Lizzy Pierce from Princeton (an all-Ivy outfielder who interviews as well as she hits) -- to contact the players from that team. Thirty-nine of the 46 living Bengals answered our eight-question survey. They range in age from 62 (quarterback Ken Anderson) to 46 (linebacker Joe Kelly, who turns 47 this week). Two of the seven didn't cooperate because of possible litigation over lingering injuries against the NFL.
We believe it's the first time a roster of players was surveyed to determine the mental and physical toll (and benefits) of the sport decades after the players played.
"I'm so glad you're doing this,'' said Cris Collinsworth, in his sixth of eight NFL seasons in 1986. "The NFL can't forget these guys. I'd like to see a study done of all former players and how they're doing long after they leave the game.''
We used Martin because he seemed an average player. He played seven years, 1986 was the midpoint of his career, and his age, 51, was in the middle of the 48-man team. And his injuries seem about average too. "I take Aleve every day for joint and muscle stiffness,'' Martin told us. "It's my best friend.''
Gagne writes about two players, safety Bobby Kemp and linebacker Emanuel King, whose lives were forever altered by football; Kemp's story I feel will shock even his former teammates, many of whom don't know what happened to him after he left football. I write about Boomer Esiason, who seems to have played with an angel on his shoulder pads. Now 50, Esiason said: "Nothing hurts.''
The findings of our study will surprise you a bit, and I hope you take some time this week to digest our nine-page report.
An aside to Bronco Nation: Still furious at the McDaniels Era? He is, after all, the man who drafted the best story in sports. Shoot, and maybe the best story overall.
After another Sunday of yelling at the Denver game on one of the TVs in the NBC viewing room -- believe me, it's a weekly occurrence -- the digestion process began. What exactly are we watching here, other than the nuttiest story in recent sports history? Tebow has started seven games this year. The Broncos were blown out in one, by Detroit. They never trailed in beating Kansas City. In the other five, well, here's what happened:
|The Comeback Kids|
|Broncos With Tim Tebow as Starter|
As the Denver manager of media information, Patrick Smyth, said to me while I waited for Tebow to come to the phone after the game, "This is routine.''
Denver, three games out of first place when Tebow took the starting job in Week 7, now leads the AFC West with a 7-5 record by virtue of a tiebreaker edge over 7-5 Oakland -- because the Tebow-led Broncos scored the last 24 points in the win at Oakland on Nov. 6.
I spoke with Tebow, who is the most polite interview in NFL history while at the same time spilling zero beans, after the game. I asked him if he felt what was going on around the country right now, with people from everywhere zoned in on his incredible, quirky, starry and winning run. "You know, I'm not sure,'' he said. "I know the Lord has blessed me and blessed our team. Some of what is said out there can be motivating to me. But every game is the opportunity for me to live my dream of being an NFL player. I think we'd all rather be ahead 15 or 20 in the fourth quarter. But the feel on the sideline, trusting each other and knowing we can do it every week, has been a special part of this team.''
"We feel it a little bit,'' Champ Bailey told me, "but the thing is, we're not caught up in it. We just do it. At crunch time, for some reason, and it's so hard to explain, nobody bats an eye. We're used to it. We love coming back.''
This game seemed different. Three or four times, Tebow threw over the Vikings' leaky (to put it mildly) cover-two zone, and he finished with a much better passing day (10 of 15 for 202 yards) than usual. "We had the opportunity to go downfield,'' he said. "I felt we did some good things in the passing game.''
Before I let Tebow go, I asked him if anyone after the game -- coaches, players, execs -- had said anything memorable to him. "Everybody was happy,'' he said, "but I'll tell you one thing that happened during the week that I remember ... ''
Good, I thought. John Fox, maybe, sidling up to him and saying something sportingly profound like, "Son, we're going to ride that left arm and those legs to the Super Bowl.''
" ... I had an opportunity to talk with a kid named Blake Appleton, from Florida, on Thursday. He's a leukemia patient who's just been moved to hospice. And after the game, when I was being interviewed on TV, I got to say his name. That's what I'm proud of today. I let him know people cared about him. I let him know God has a plan for him."
And that was the end of the Tebow interview. He had to rush to get on the bus to the airport. Except ...
"Have a good day, Mr. King. And God bless you."