Winning division didn't stop Texans from bold offseason changes
Despite 2011's success, Texans weren't afraid to make big changes this offseason
In giving Ryan Mathews a big load, Chargers will be bucking the recent RB trend
Thoughts on the Saints' alleged bounty ledger; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
Before I get to the state of the Texans, and the running back driving fantasy football players crazy, as well as a local boy in Queens having the time of his life and the latest in Bountyville, here's a preamble about the life span of the best prospects in football.
Six years shouldn't be forever in the NFL, but looking at the top of the 2006 draft is evidence that six years is more than enough to make or break careers. The top 10 players in the 2006 NFL draft have been employed by 19 teams through six seasons -- the smart teams don't stay married to guys when either the marriage isn't working or the priorities have changed.
How the mighty have moved since 2006:
Player, Position: Teams (current one in bold)
1. Mario Williams, DE: Houston, Buffalo
2. Reggie Bush, RB: New Orleans, Miami
3. Vince Young, QB: Tennessee, Philadelphia, Buffalo
4. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, T: New York Jets
5. A.J. Hawk, LB: Green Bay
6. Vernon Davis, TE: San Francisco
7. Michael Huff, S: Oakland
8. Donte Whitner, S: Buffalo, San Francisco
9. Ernie Sims, LB: Detroit, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Free agent
10.Matt Leinart, QB: Arizona, Houston, Oakland
One other note before I move on to my point about the Texans. The 2007 draft has something in common with 2006: Four of the 10 top picks in each remain starters for the teams that drafted them. And there isn't a quarterback among the top 10 in those two drafts (Young, Leinart and JaMarcus Russell in 2007) still with the team that drafted him.
But I bring you this list to make a point about the Houston Texans. They had a chance to re-sign the first pick in the 2006 draft, the man they hoped would be their defensive centerpiece and lead them to multiple division titles, Mario Williams. They let him walk. They had a chance to keep Leinart as the backup to Matt Schaub. They let Leinart walk. They had a chance to bring home Young as the backup to Schaub. They watched as Buffalo signed Young.
Instead of keeping the first pick in the 2006 draft, they chose to put their pass-rush future in the hands of the 46th pick in 2009 (Connor Barwin), the 42nd pick in 2011 (Brooks Reed) and the 26th pick this year (Whitney Mercilus). Instead of signing a high-profile backup to Schaub, they chose to put their faith in the 152nd pick in the 2011 draft (T.J. Yates), who quarterbacked the Texans to the franchise's first playoff win last season.
And instead of keeping 4-3 middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and asking him to play out of scheme in Wade Phillips' 3-4, GM Rick Smith traded the most respected Texan in the locker room to Philadelphia and signed free agent Bradie James to team with Brian Cushing and Darryl Sharpton inside.
For a team that finally won a division and a playoff game in its 10th season, the Texans certainly made a lot of changes. Two-fifths of a stalwart offensive line (right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston) were allowed to walk. The right side of the linebacker group, Ryans and Williams, are gone too. "There's no way to minimize the loss of Mario Williams,'' Smith said. "But you turn the tape on from last season, and what players were out there on the field?''
Williams missed 11 games with a torn pectoral muscle. Ryans came off the field on third downs. And Houston finished second in the NFL in team defense. In one offseason, core players like Williams, Ryans and Winston were gone; if the Texans could save $2 million on the cap going with Yates over Leinart, so be it. It's GM School 101.
"One important thing I've learned is when your core changes, you've got to be willing to change your philosophy too,'' said Smith. "Your core of players has to be a living, breathing thing, and you have to be willing to examine it all the time to be sure you're comfortable with it. The good thing about making those types of decisions is being able to be emotionally detached a bit. I don't have the attachment to the players that a coach does.''
Smith said he's studied NFL history at length, and he's studied business models of different business leaders. One that he's adopted is former GE boss Jack Welch's 20-70-10 philosophy: the top 20 percent of your employees are standouts and must be nurtured. The majority, the 70 percent, are the working class -- needed but still able to move if the right situation arises. The lowest 10 percent have to be churned and replaced, because a company always is looking for ways to get better by importing new blood. "If you have a 53-man roster, maybe you've got 10 or 11 core players,'' Smith said, "and then 25 to 30 roles players, and then you're always looking to churn the bottom of the roster.''
Smith didn't want to lose Williams, but it was a matter of economics; he had young guys who could get to the quarterback, maybe not as well as Williams. But all three combined wouldn't make what Williams was going to demand in free agency this year (he got a six-year, $100 million deal, with $50 million guaranteed). "At quarterback,'' Smith said, "the way T.J. played, we didn't have to pay market value to a backup quarterback.''
It all sounds smart, and the Texans should be favored to repeat as division champs. But isn't it amazing that a year ago, entering training camp in 2011, Ryans and Williams were the two cornerstone players on a defense being retooled by Wade Phillips, and the Texans flourished so often defensively last season without them? These Texans illustrate the way of the world in the NFL.
History lesson with Norv Turner: He likes his backs to run a lot, and he doesn't care if the rest of the league is going to this consistent two-back business. When the Chargers let Mike Tolbert go to Carolina in free agency and didn't replace him with a prominent back as complement to third-year man Ryan Mathews, that sent the message about Mathews' role to the team loud and clear. "At that moment, I knew I'd be the guy,'' Mathews said.
Look at Turner's track record. When he took over as Jimmy Johnson's offensive coordinator in 1991, Emmitt Smith's carries rose from 241 in 1990 to 365 in Turner's first year. In 2002 in Miami, the Dolphins had just acquired Ricky Williams and had just signed Turner as coordinator. Williams had his two biggest seasons for carries (383, 392) with Turner in Miami. And Frank Gore hit his career rushing high for attempts (312 carries) in Turner's only 49er season. Last week, Turner said in San Diego he was getting Mathews ready "for everything he can handle.'' Sounds very much like Mathews, if he stays upright, will get his 300 carries, and then some.
"Coach Turner's coached a lot of great backs,'' Mathews told me the other day. "He's told me I remind him of Ricky Williams, which is the kind of back I would like to be. In college [Fresno State] I was a workhorse back. I believe I can do that here. My training has really improved, and I've set high standards for myself. I shouldn't come off the field at all this year.''
That would mean Mathews, who has had 72 catches combined in his first two years, could have that many this season alone. If he plays on most third downs, particularly with Philip Rivers needing to throw hot because he could be under duress early if the new-look line struggles, Mathews could approach 400 touches. He'll have to be better with ball security after fumbling 10 times in the last two years. "I've been working a lot on that,'' he said. He'd better be.
"I really think this year's my time,'' Mathews said. "I see myself as one of the top backs in the league. Now I've got to go out and do it.''
Fantasy owners nationwide will put their seasons on the line with Mathews. I'd suggest watching reports out of San Diego in August, to make sure he doesn't get the kind of nagging injuries he's had in his first two years, and to make sure the Chargers are handling Mathews the way Turner expects to. The Chargers intend to feed Mathews as much as any back in the league. It'll be up to him to handle it.
Now, more solid evidence that players were paid off the books in New Orleans.
Let's look at the trail of evidence that Saints players got money for performance bonuses and/or bounty hits between 2009 and 2011:
In the March 12 issue of Sports Illustrated, I reported that on some Saturday nights during the 2009 NFL season, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams stood in front of his men with white, cash-filled envelopes -- bonuses for their performances the previous week. As Williams handed some of the envelopes out, some players would chant: "Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!" Some would, to increase the pot and make the stakes bigger as the season went on. I also wrote that the NFL had evidence that one Saints player, late in the NFC title game in January 2010, when Brett Favre had been helped off the field, was heard on the sidelines to say: "Pay me my money!"
Documentarian Sean Pamphilon, who was in the room during Williams' infamous speech to the team before last season's playoff game in San Francisco, had previously said Williams passed out money "for forced turnovers and big plays.'' He also said Williams rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together referring to putting a big hit on quarterback Alex Smith and saying, "I got the first one." The inference: Williams would pay for Smith being put out of the game.
Pamphilon, in a rambling blog entry the other day, described Williams passing out envelopes for bonuses. Those payments are illegal by NFL rules, whether they were for performance-based accomplishments like turnovers or for bounty-related hits. Pamphilon also confirmed how, while the envelopes were passed out, players chanted, "Give it back! Give it back!''
On Friday, Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports reported the league has evidence that the Saints kept a ledger for each player, including tracking each player's number of cart-offs ($1,000 per debilitating hit) and "whacks" (hard hits), with money subtracted for mental errors.
There are many interesting sidebars to this story, including Pamphilon lashing out against his former Saints allies, Scott Fujita and Drew Brees, for what he believes is betrayal by the players when the story got too hot for them. But in reality, there's only one thing about this story that matters: Does the NFL have enough evidence to prove the Saints had bounties out to try to injure opposing players between 2009 and 2011? We still don't have a paper trail of evidence for bounty hits, other than what the NFL alleges took place. That's what's left -- to see when and where bounty hits were rewarded, and whether the case against Jonathan Vilma can hold up to a more public microscope.
Local boy makes good.
There was a no-hitter in New York Friday night. Johan Santana pitched the first no-hitter in the 51-year history of the Mets. Which is a crazy-enough story, that a team with so many good pitchers over the years never had a no-hitter until its 8,020th game, while the rest of baseball had 131 of them. But having lived in the New York area for 24 of the last 27 years, the first guy I thought of as I listened to the end of the game on the radio was the guy delivering the radio call -- in part because his called dripped emotion and excitement, in part because I knew what it meant to a kid born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and educated in high school in Bayside, Queens, and in college at Queens College.
"Santana steps behind the rubber, tugs once at the bill of his cap, takes a deep breath and steps to the third-base side of the rubber ... ''
When Howie Rose was 8, in 1962, he remembers asking his parents excitedly the morning after the first Mets game in history, "How'd the Mets do last night?'' They'd lost. But as an 8-year-old, he felt the team had been created just for him. He followed them daily. Couldn't get enough of the lovable losers.
When he was 15, he was in Shea Stadium the night Tom Seaver took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. With one out, Jimmy Qualls broke it up. Howie was crushed. Two other times Seaver lost no-nos in the ninth as a Met, and he didn't pitch one until he'd been exiled to Cincinnati. But still Howie Rose listened, and watched. While he was a wagon boy at the Waldbaum's supermarket, walking through the parking lot to gather the shopping carts with a transistor tuned to the games, while he played stickball in the playgrounds at school.
When he was 12, he started wondering what it would be like to be behind the mike like the men he listened to every day, Bob Murphy on radio and Lindsay Nelson on TV. "My friends would fantasize about hitting the game-winning homer,'' Rose said to me Saturday. "I would fantasize about calling the game-winning homer." For the Mets.
"Santana into the windup, the payoff pitch is on the way ..."
"We have been bred with this inevitably,'' said Rose, meaning that no-hitters don't happen. So even in the ninth, he figured something would go wrong, particularly with Santana pitching to the meat of the Cardinals order. In addition, he didn't have time to be introspective, though a day earlier he'd had a great career highlight: He had given the commencement address at his alma mater, Queens College.
"The odds were always stacked against me, the same as they must have been against you,'' he told me. "There's tremendous competition in the sports media. But when I was in high school, in college, I just thought, wouldn't it be great to be a broadcaster? Then I thought, wouldn't it be great to be a baseball broadcaster? Then, a broadcaster for the Mets? I had those dreams.
And that's what I talked about Queens College: I told the kids you should never, ever, ever let anyone dissuade you from following your dreams. And now, here I was, in the ninth inning, with this seminal moment in Mets history on the line. Mind-boggling. Isn't it unbelievable how that happened?''
And so here was David Freese, the World Series hero from last fall, one strike away from being Santana's 27th out, and Rose wanted to be sure he wasn't too calculating or too rehearsed. Just tell the story.
"Swung on and missed! Strike three! He's done it! Johan Santana has pitched a no-hitter in the eight thousand and twentieth game in the history of the New York Mets! They finally have a no-hitter, and who better to do it than Johan Santana! What a remarkable story! ... "
"I felt a nanosecond of utter disbelief,'' Rose said. "I took one breath, saw them streaming out of the dugout, and the bullpen. It means plenty to me, because I've followed them for so long. But forget about me. The only thing I disciplined myself to do was try to stay under control. I just thought, describe, describe, describe, the scene on the mound, the scene in the stands. The call ... I thought about my stamping it with the date and the time. The great Vin Scully stamped Sandy Koufax's, but no one will ever be as lyrical as Vin Scully. That's his.''
"His teammates are mobbing him at the mound. The players in the bullpen are trotting in. A surreal feeling at CitiField! The first no-hitter in the history of the New York Mets!''
"There are very few days where I don't flash back to being in the ballpark in 1969,'' he said. "I'm unbelievably appreciative to have this job. When people tell me I'm this generation's Bob Murphy, I am just overcome by it. To whatever end a broadcaster can be considered part of the team, and part of Mets history in any small way because of this moment, I am very emotional about that.''
After the game, and after the long postgame show, maybe 90 minutes after the last out, Rose walked into the Mets clubhouse to see if Santana was still there. He was. He walked up to Santana and hugged him.
"I never cry on the air,'' Rose said, "but tonight I came really, really close."
"Did you cry?'' Santana asked.
"No, I disciplined myself,'' Rose said, and asked Santana to sign his scoresheet for the game.
And that's the story of a guy doing what he should be doing in life.
And next week ...
Don't buy your dad, or your favorite father, anything for Father's Day (June 17) until you read the column next week. I'll have at least six books (seven, if I get aggressive with my reading in the next three nights) for you to consider buying.
In order to get the books you want, you'll have plenty of time to order via Amazon (I do it a lot, and the books, even via regular mail, take three days at the most) or by going to your hometown bookstore (my preferred mode of book shopping). I look forward to this annual Monday Morning Quarterback rite of June. Hope you do too.
Penguins squeak past Ducks in shootout
Johan Franzen scores two as Red Wings pound Devils in Detroit