What a day for the tight end. When I interviewed Tony Gonzalez for an SI feature three weeks ago, the former Cal forward was eloquent talking about how being a basketball player helps him in his position. "So many of the catches as a tight end you use the same skills as you would in basketball, boxing out,'' he said. "I play basketball in the offseason against some really good players, but guys who probably aren't going to play in the NBA. And when I see a guy I think has a tight end body, I say, 'You ever play football? You should try it. You'd be perfect for it.' ''
So it was no coincidence that in the Superdome on Sunday, when a former Super Bowl champ was battling a team hoping to be a Super Bowl champ, the two biggest receiving weapons were tight ends, Gonzalez and the Saints' Jimmy Graham. Both of whom, by the way, are veterans of NCAA Division I basketball. Graham played at the University of Miami before turning to football. And did you see what they did when they scored Sunday? They dunked the ball over the 10-foot-high crossbar. The combined receiving line for Gonzalez and Graham: 18 catches, 268 yards, four touchdowns. Kudos to Gonzalez, who became the sixth man (and first tight end) to catch 100 touchdown passes. He now has 101.
Uhhh, you mean Adrian Peterson might be getting better? And in the 11th week, he rested. Adrian Peterson, with a 123-yard lead over Marshawn Lynch in the rushing race, has his bye this week, and by all accounts, you'd think he needs it. He's playing after major knee surgery last winter, and he's playing better than any back in football. Last four weeks: 153, 123, 182 and, on Sunday, 171 yards rushing. A four-week total of 629 yards, with five touchdowns and a gaudy 7.7-yard average. The crazy thing is -- as he told me after the Vikings beat the Lions Sunday -- is he's still recovering from his surgery.
"Last week in Seattle, on one run, I felt scar tissue break up around my patella tendon on one of my cuts,'' he said from Minneapolis. "That's part of the recovery, that scar tissue breaking.'' That's why he thinks he'll continue to get better. I asked him about one particular run last week in Seattle when he got caught from behind on a 74-yard run. You recall it; he was down at the 1 and looked totally spent. "That was simply poor technique,'' he said. "I was running like Michael Johnson 'til I got to the 30, and I just wasn't running open enough.'' Whatever ... Peterson's on pace for the best year of his life, and some day, some orthopedist is going to write a paper on how his body got so good so fast after such a major surgery.
An X-factor in the Sean Payton decision
As of this morning, the New England Patriots and Chicago Bears have seven players scheduled to carry 2013 salary cap numbers of $3 million or higher. The New Orleans Saints have 15, including the gaudy $17.4 milion number quarterback Drew Brees will carry based on his new five-year deal signed in July.
Cap numbers, of course, can and will change. But as of today, the Saints are in major trouble if they're going to use any avenue except the fixed-cost NFL Draft to repair their defense in 2013. The 15 heaviest contracts the Saints have, as of this morning, take up 87 percent of their 2013 salary cap. The NFL is scheduled to have a cap number of about $121 million per team next year, though that varies from team to team depending on cap credits and money carried over from the previous season.
Think of that: The Saints have 28 percent of their 53-man roster taking up 87 percent of the cap room. And they'll be at least $25 million over the $121 million cap at the start of the free-agency period.
Of course, that will have to change. But even if the Saints can re-do huge pacts like Will Smith's, and even if they make a veteran such as Jonathan Vilma or David Hawthorne a cap casualty, the front office will still find it tough to keep this team intact for the long haul. (And cutting Vilma would still incur a $2.6 million cap charge for the 2013 portion of his pro-rated signing bonus.) How, for instance, will they be able to re-sign left tackle Jermon Bushrod, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent?
As Mike Florio pointed out on NBC last night, the Saints now have a 13-week edge on the competition to get a valid contract done with Payton -- because Payton cannot be reinstated for at least 13 weeks, until the day after the Super Bowl, and thus can't speak to any other team about a job until then. New Orleans is the lead dog in the pursuit of Payton, and Dallas is a clear No. 2, though there's no guarantee the Cowboys' job will open up yet. For the record, some of the onerous cap numbers in 2013 that will weigh on Payton's decision are on the right.
Five Questions with Andrea Kremer
Kremer, the veteran TV reporter, has signed on with NFL Network for a newly created post of chief correspondent, health and safety. She's not leaving her gig at HBO's highly respected Real Sports show, just supplementing it with this new job.
Her first major contribution comes this week, when NFL Network opens health-and-safety coverage with an over-arching four-part series on, well, health and safety. Timely, especially considering the spate of concussions suffered Sunday; three starting quarterbacks left games with concussions (Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler). The series begins Tuesday night on NFL Network's Total Access, with the remaining three segments on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
I have known the dogged Kremer for a long time, and I spoke with her Saturday, mostly about her plans for doing a job that could put the league in the difficult position of exposing the underbelly of the sport it has long kept in the dark. Concussions, sordid lives after football, and the like.
MMQB: What exactly do you aim to do in this job?
Kremer: "The goal is to deal with these issues that, for whatever reason, you fill in the blank, the NFL Network has overlooked in the past. I will use the word [NFL Network vice president of programming] Mark Quenzel used when we first spoke about the job -- substantive. He said: 'We want more substantive stories on health and safety.' It's the biggest issue not just in football, but in all of sports. People are talking about how 'bigger, stronger, faster' will lead to more health problems. There are so many stories. So many. Where do you begin?''
MMQB: You've always been known as a pretty tough reporter. The NFL's now going to be signing your paychecks. Concerned you'll be able to report everything you want?
Kremer: "I have no indication whatever that we will be censored in any way. The mandate we have been given is: Just be fair. Be balanced. We're going to get calls from the league office. Just let us know what you're doing. But that doesn't bother me.
"Look, I had a built-in skepticism from day one. What I told them was, I didn't spend 30 years building my reputation, my brand, so to speak, to start doing propaganda. I don't plan to do that now. They know what they're getting from me. And we've built a good unit. Our lead producer, Arash Ghadishah, is from ABC News. He was the ABC News White House producer, a hard-news guy. Trust me: I have not drunk the Kool-Aid. I consider this a very interesting professional opportunity.''
MMQB: And so far?
Kremer: "The phrase I've used so far is I'm cautiously optimistic.''
MMQB: You think you'll be able to do all the stories you want, including some that will make the league uncomfortable?
Kremer: "Like Mark Quenzel said, 'I'll be honest with you: I don't know if our audience wants this. But we want it.' In our unit, we've nicknamed ourselves the vegetables. You have to have us on the plate, but you don't really want to eat us."
MMQB: What's your series going to include this week?
Kremer: "It's four segments, giving you a taste of what we want to do. The first part will be an overview of the health and safety series, including reporting on the [concussion and head-trauma] lawsuits, explaining what it's about from both sides. Then, Wednesday, a story at Virginia Tech, where the football team is using sensors in the helmet to determine the frequency and the severity of the hits to players' heads, to measure exactly what happens to the head when it takes a blow. My former colleague at ESPN, Steve Cyphers, is the reporter on that one.
"On Thursday, the story is following a rehabbing player after a major injury. We have been with Darrelle Revis since his [ACL] injury, and we were at the hospital with him for his surgery. We have a great scene where the surgeon [Giants orthopedist Russell Warren] walks out of the OR and briefs the family on how the surgery went. This is going to be sort of a preview for a three-part series on his rehab, that will air later in the fall.
"Then, on Friday, it's a story on youth concussions, the story we were working on when it sort of exploded nationally, about the Massachusetts youth team that had five different kids between 10 and 12 suffer concussions in one game. I talked to the kids. They were scared. The kids had no filters. The story also concerns what's at risk long-term for the sport -- maybe the kids don't want to play in the future, parents don't want them to play. What's interesting about the whole subject is what you learn about the sociology of the game.''
It'll be fascinating to see what happens when the rubber meets the road here -- when Kremer, for instance, has one of the 3,000-plus plaintiffs in the concussion case on camera obliterating the NFL. It'll happen. That'll be the big test to see if the Goodell Network is fair and balanced, and all-inclusive.
Good book coming out this week
New York Daily News NFL writer Gary Myers has some good insight and more than a few compelling stories in his book, Coaching Confidential: Inside the Fraternity of NFL Coaches, (Crown Archetype, New York) out on Tuesday. It's about the complicated lives of head coaches and everything they have to handle. There's lots of football, and some vengeance even.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Myers after the Spygate discipline came down on the club in 2007, he asked Bill Belichick: "How much did this help us on a scale of 1 to 100?'' Belichick answered: "One."
"Then you're a real schmuck,'' Kraft said.
And this from the feud between the late Al Davis -- who fired Mike Shanahan as coach of the Raiders after only 20 games, and balked at paying him the $250,000 remaining on his contract:
Prior to a Raiders-Niners game in 1994, when Shanahan was San Francisco's offensive coordinator, Shanahan admitted directing Steve Young to throw a football at Davis on the field during pregame warmups. Davis had wandered to the 49ers side of the field during warmups to check the team out. Players were complaining to Shanahan about it. Myers got Shanahan, now the Washington coach, to tell him the story inside his Redskins office recently.
"Guys, we'll win the game, don't worry about it. Don't let him bother you," Shanahan said.
The end of the 49ers' pregame drill took them back to their own 5-yard line. Davis was standing 35 yards away. "Hey, get him out of there," the players said to Shanahan. Shanahan was pissed at Davis for disrupting his pregame routine. And surely he was still pissed at him for not paying him the $250,000. "Now I started thinking. Okay, so we got one more play left," Shanahan said.
Shanahan is telling this story seated behind his desk at Redskins Park. It's a quiet spring day, but suddenly he's animated. On the sideline, Shanahan's face gets red, and it looks like the veins are about to pop out of his neck when he gets mad. Off the field, you rarely see his emotional side. But he had no use for Davis. Davis had embarrassed him by firing him almost without giving him a chance, and during that pregame Shanahan wanted to put a scare into his nemesis. Shanahan came up with the idea of how to send Davis back to his side of the field and needed one of his quarterbacks to be his accomplice. Young said he was more than happy to oblige.
"Throw a go route," Shanahan told Young. "If you happen to hit that guy in the white outfit with the ball, you won't make me mad." The receiver was Jerry Rice. He ran the go route. Shanahan didn't really want to drill Davis. But if it happened, maybe he would never stand on the 49ers' side of the field again. Of course, if he hit Davis, Shanahan would never get his $250,000. Young dropped back to pass. He threw the ball in Davis' direction. Rice, whom Shanahan did not bring into the loop on this little bit of mischief, was running downfield, looking up for the ball. He was not looking at Davis. He didn't see Davis. Shanahan saw the ball. He saw the receiver. He saw Davis. All three were about to occupy the same spot. Shanahan thought Davis saw the ball coming. He did not.
"Oh, my God," Shanahan said. "I wanted to scare him. I didn't want to kill him." The ball and the receiver were closing in on Davis. "Al realizes that the ball and everybody is coming at him about five yards before there is going to be contact," Shanahan said. "I think he's going to be run over. And he dives; he actually dives out of the way. Well, half of our players see what happens, and they are all laughing." Young drilled Davis in the leg.
It was not surprising that he found his target. Young completed 64.3 percent of his passes in his career. "Ten years after this happened, I was walking out of a stadium on a Monday night, and Al came up to me," Young said. "He told me that he knew it was me." Young told Davis that he was ashamed of himself, more so than with anything else he had ever done. He then sent him a letter of apology.
Shanahan is so fired up that he gets out of his seat to finish the story. He loves this story. It was revenge. He explains in great detail Davis diving on the grass at Candlestick Park, getting to his feet, his hair falling down in front of his face. Davis stared him down from 35 yards away and gave him the middle finger.
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
In his four years as starting quarterback for the Jets -- including this star-crossed one -- Mark Sanchez has ranked 28th, 27th, 23rd, and, this year, 30th, in passer rating. The slide well below mediocrity continued Sunday in Seattle, when Sanchez's 9-of-22 day helped the Jets fall, 28-7. He had only twodrives of more than 35 yards, and one ended in an interception.
Enter Tim Tebow. The Jets have so far used him on 10 percent of all offensive plays, just under half of those as a runner. They've also let him pass on just four occasions. And of those 55 plays, he's never been allowed on the field for three consecutive offensive plays. In this game he was brought in for 18 percent of the 55 offensive plays (including penalties). What he did in itself wasn't bad. On his eight non-penalty-erased plays, Tebow picked up three first downs and made no major errors.
The real problem was what, apparently, it did to Sanchez. The two biggest errors Sanchez made came on the next throw attempted after Tebow had come in and then departed. On the first: After driving to the Seahawks' 1-yard line, Tebow was brought in. Tight end Dustin Keller false-started and Sanchez came back in. On a no-pressure pass, Sanchez threw an awful interception at the goal line. Later, Tebow returned and the Jets picked up a first down on a penalty, and Sanchez re-entered. On the third play, Sanchez dropped back to pass, was confronted with a front-side blitz, and fumbled taking the sack.
Obviously, the Jets' coaching staff clearly thinks the way forward is not with Tebow, except as an inconsistent novelty item. But from watching the games, you see Sanchez and Tebow are not close, and Sanchez's performance to date could be a result of two things: his battered and sub-par supporting cast, and the fact he's uneasy (if not unnerved) with Tebow's presence and insertion into games as the quarterback.
The Jets either need to stick with Sanchez and keep Tebow off the field entirely as a quarterback, or they need to give Tebow an extended trial. If that doesn't work, third-stringer Greg McElroy, likely the most accurate of the three of them, should get a shot. The current scenario isn't working. At all.