Tebow, Thomas validate McDaniels' big draft with Broncos' OT upset
Josh McDaniels' last draft as Broncos coach paid big dividends against the Steelers
The Giants have the confidence and pass-rush ability of their '07 Super Bowl team
Tony Corrente's battle; my All-Pro Team, the Fine Fifteen; Weekly Awards; more
Not the greatest weekend for start-to-finish drama, but the Denver-Pittsburgh overtime thriller made up for those earlier 21-, 17- and 22-point playoff games. Let me get some of the news of the weekend to you first, then get on to the dramatic non-game story of the weekend: the fight to beat tongue and throat cancer by veteran referee Tony Corrente, who worked Detroit-New Orleans Saturday night.
You may have noticed Corrente with no hair or eyebrows when the camera zoomed in on him calling penalties in the Superdome. Chemotherapy and radiation have changed his appearance. Things are going to get worse for him before they get better, and the 60-year-old Corrente was realistic enough when he walked off the field Saturday night to know he had no idea when or if he'd officiate another game.
"Lord,'' said Corrente, a religious man, "if this was the last game I ever work, thank you for the opportunity.''
More to come on Corrente's stunning story, but first the headlines of the weekend:
The Tebow-to-Thomas roots run deep.
Sunday, 8:07 p.m. Eastern: In Denver, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow opens overtime with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to beat Pittsburgh. It's the first time in playoff history a game ends on the first snap of OT, spawning a stadium-shaking, ear-splitting celebration in the stadium stands.
Thomas, the 22nd player picked in the 2010 draft, and Tebow, the 25th, were scouted, identified as cornerstone players and picked by former Denver coach Josh McDaniels ... who, as you may recall, was fired less than eight months after that draft, one of the most reviled fired coaches in recent NFL history.
Sunday, 8:10 p.m. Eastern: A story is posted on the New England Patriots website. It begins, "The New England Patriots announced today that Josh McDaniels has joined the team as an offensive assistant for the remainder of the 2011 season.''
A week after the 2-14 St. Louis Rams finished their season, McDaniels, their offensive coordinator, is released from the last year of his contract and flies to Foxboro to assist in the Patriots' playoff drive.
Next Saturday, 8 p.m. Eastern: Denver at New England, AFC divisional playoff game. If I were McDaniels, I wouldn't pick my nose Saturday night. CBS will have an iso camera on him all night, wherever he is.
"Crazy,'' Demaryius Thomas said from the din of the Denver locker room Sunday night. "Just crazy. Good to see him back with a winning team. We're all just so surprised. Just crazy.''
Thomas thought for a minute. "I remember on draft day when my phone rang. It was coach McDaniels. He said, 'We're gonna take you with this pick. Congratulations. Get out here, and let's ball.' I was so excited. It was the happiest day of my life. Then, when I found out we picked Tebow, I said, 'All right. We've got a winning quarterback.' ''
On the night of that draft, in April 2010, I remember distinctly two phone conversations. One was with Tebow, who said Denver was where he wanted to be drafted, and McDaniels the coach he wanted to play for. "I told [agent] Jimmy [Sexton] all along that I wanted to play for this guy,'' Tebow said. "His whole attitude is he believes in himself, and he's going to do it his way. I like that.''
The other conversation was with McDaniels. "The reason I'm so happy about getting these two guys,'' he told me, "is they're going to be the cornerstone of what we do here, both on offense and as a team. They love football. They are such good people. Tim ... the football traits he has are the stuff you die for. They will show our core group of young players how they need to work and what it takes to succeed in this league. I just believe that so strongly. I would die to have 53 guys here who love the game as much as I do.''
Three days before the draft, McDaniels had gone to Gainesville, telling no one, because he wanted to work out Tebow and talk football with him, to see how much he knew about offensive football -- and to see if he might be worth a major investment of draft choices if that's what it came down to get him.
"We spent about seven hours together,'' McDaniels said. "Our offense is pretty complicated, and the terminology and the scheme is totally different from what he did at Florida. But about midway through my time there, we're going through plays, and he starts using our terminology. He's so smart about football that he was able to begin to speak my language and talk apples to apples. He'd already translated what he knew of our scheme into my words. There're going to be doubts about him. Great doubts -- and I understand that. Some people don't think he has the natural traits of a great quarterback. Here's what I think: Do Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods swing the club the same way, hit irons the same way? No. But they both win tournaments. There's different ways to throw, different mechanics, and you can still get the job done.''
At the end of the conversation, McDaniels said he couldn't wait to see Tebow throw the ball deep to Thomas. "He's 6-foot-3, and a legit 4.3-second [in the 40-yard dash] guy. What a weapon he's going to be. Wait 'til our fans see these guys together.''
They did Sunday, in one of the greatest games the city's ever hosted. Now, it's clear that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who has been important in Tebow's development and has been a very smart play-caller and strategist, deserves a huge hand for his work this year. John Fox has been a smart head coach, because he has adjusted to Tebow's style rather than forcing him to the play a straight pro style. But after what we witnessed on draft day 20 months ago, and the magic we saw Sunday, one question:
Still hate Josh McDaniels, Denver?
The new overtime system was in action Sunday ... for 11 seconds. In 2010, league owners ratified a new system for playoff overtime -- as an experiment to see if it'd work in the regular schedule -- and then had none of the 11 playoff games in 2010 go to OT. The system, in essence, requires each team to get at least one possession in overtime, unless the first team possessing the ball scores a touchdown. This prevents the cheapie overtime loss, with one team running the kickoff back to the 30, then gaining 30 yards or so and kicking a field goal to win.
Now if a team wins the toss and takes it the length of the field for a touchdown, it's earned a victory ... or so goes the theory. (I believe strongly each teams needs to be guaranteed a possession in overtime; otherwise, the coin flip simply takes on too much importance. In the history of OT prior to 2010, the team receiving the kick to start overtime won the game on the first possession 41 percent of the time.)
So referee Ron Winter explained the call to all Sunday in Denver, and then the Broncos won the coin flip and elected to receive. Denver took over at the 20. Great call on the first play by offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. He motioned a receiver across the formation, which signals run. On 21 of the 22 first-down plays on the day, Denver had run. So McCoy called for a pass, into the teeth of a nine-man Pittsburgh box, with Troy Polamalu down and the other safety, Ryan Mundy, creeping to the line near where Demaryius Thomas was split wide left.
"My assignment was to get on the corner and beat him inside, cutting across the middle,'' Thomas told me. "When I saw the safety come up, I knew all I had to do was get a step on the corner and Tim would find me.''
I asked him if he was shocked to see zero coverage -- no deep safety help, anywhere.
"No,'' said Thomas. "They'd been doing it all day.''
Tebow threw the ball to Thomas, who caught it at the Denver 43. At the 48-, with cornerback Ike Taylor bearing down on him, Thomas stiff-armed him away. "I know I'm young,'' he said, "but I think I've got one of the best stiff-arms in the league.'' Sure looked like it. Taylor got shucked away, and it was off to the races for Thomas, in a play that made you gasp. Eleven seconds to history.
Now Jeff Fisher takes a day to pick the Rams or Dolphins. After spending five hours at the Rams' practice facility in suburban Earth City, Mo., Sunday, the former Titans coach returned to Nashville to consider his options. By Tuesday, I expect he'll have figured out whether St. Louis or Miami is the best place for him; and his agent, Marvin Demoff, will begin negotiating with one team, or both if it's very close. Expect a resolution by Thursday.
Fisher, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is concerned about the possibility of the Rams moving to Los Angeles, and he'll want to have that concern addressed by owner Stan Kroenke before making his final call. He also has concerns about Miami, and it's expected he'll ask both clubs to clarify their positions on several matters before he decides.
As I said Saturday on NBC, I expect the Dolphins and owner Stephen Ross to be the high bidders if this comes to pitting one franchise against the other. But I also expect Fisher to go to the place he feels he has the best chance to win. In Miami, the pros are he'd have a playoff-ready defense, some good offensive pieces and an owner willing to spend whatever it takes to win; the cons are he wouldn't have a franchise quarterback, and he'd be battling Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for (just guessing) at least the next three years.
Pros in St. Louis: Sam Bradford's still likely an excellent quarterback prospect, the team is flush with cap room in the next two years, there's no franchise quarterbacks on the other three teams, and the Rams could leverage the second pick in this draft into two to four high picks. Cons: the mystery of Kroenke and what he'll spend, and whether he might move to L.A.
The other openings ... I said Saturday the Bucs want an authority figure to clean up Raheem Morris' mess, and they like former Packer and Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman ... As Adam Schefter reported, Kansas City is likely to keep Romeo Crennel as the permanent coach after he went 2-1 as the interim man. I expect that to happen as early as this week ... Jacksonville's quiet, but I expect Dallas special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to be in it at the end ... Hue Jackson (Oakland) and Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis) are in limbo until, respectively, a new GM in Oakland (Reggie McKenzie) learns the ropes and considers his options, and owner Jim Irsay picks a GM in Indianapolis.