4. Andre Johnson goes 14 for 273, and he was not playing Madden. An amazing Sunday in Houston. This is modern football at its Monopoly-money best: Justin Blackmon and Johnson became the first two receivers in a game ever to each go over 200 yards. They combined for 21 catches and 509 yards, for a 24.2-yard average reception. I'm incredulous just writing that sentence. Where will it all end?
"It's crazy,'' Johnson told me from the Texans' locker room. "I don't know what to say. I didn't know something like that would ever happen.'' Heck, it may never again. The story in Houston's 43-37 overtime win was the crazy overtime. Houston kicked a field goal. Jacksonville kicked a field goal. Schaub threw an interception. Jacksonville -- correctly, I thought -- went for it and failed on 4th-and-10 from the Houston 47? (Really, what do you have to lose when you're 1-9 and there's two and a half minutes left to play and you're tied against the top team in the conference? Go for the win.) On the second play after that, Schaub threw a wide receiver screen to Johnson on the right side of the formation, and Johnson ran 48 yards for the winning touchdown.
Johnson said he's fully healthy for one of the first times in recent years, and he's able to practice and go through the normal drill work he's had to miss because of two knee scopes and a bad hamstring injury over the past two seasons. "My stride is opening up,'' he said. "I feel like I have my legs back, my explosion. I can't tell you how many OTAs, how many training camp practices, how many regular practices I missed. I feel like I've been battling so many injuries the last two or three years.'' Schaub threw to Johnson 19 times Sunday, and look for numbers like that to be the rule, not the exception, down the stretch.
5. On concussions and the future of playing hurt. The co-chair of the NFL's head, neck and spine committee, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, told me the problem with players being removed from games immediately after being concussed is that a concussion is often not immediately apparent. Alex Smith played most of a series after being concussed last week, as did Jay Cutler. "We've had 193 instances of the athletic trainers upstairs calling down to the sidelines this year to tell medical officials to check out a player,'' Ellenbogen said. "Regarding concussions, there is no perfect rule for diagnosing a concussion. Often times, because players on the field have so much adrenaline going, a concussion doesn't show up for some times.'' The key, he said, is not only diagnosticians looking for concussions, but self-reporting, and we know how difficult that is during the course of a game.
I asked Ellenbogen about what I find to be a smart proposal by the players association -- the adoption of a rule that would have an independent neurologist on the sidelines for all NFL games. He said he didn't like the idea, comparing it to showing up for surgery and having a surgeon you'd never met before do the operation. He said team physicians on the sidelines know the players and can best understand what is happening to them medically. Agreed, but there's also the chance that a team-employed physician is going to have the best interests of the team at heart over the player. Seems the argument over that slippery slope has been going on for years.
One other interesting note from Ellenbogen, the chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He attended a FIFA-sponsored conference on head trauma three weeks ago in Zurich and came away with respect for rules. That's right: rules. "Rules count,'' he said. "When the NFL changed the spot where teams kick off from, injuries went down 40 percent in a year. In soccer, FIFA outlawed elbowing in head-balls, and concussion rates were reduced significantly. When people say all these rules are ruining the game, I say, 'No they're not. They're making the game safer.' " Ellenbogen said to me at one point he wasn't paid by the NFL. I asked him why he did the job. "Good question,'' he said. "My wife would really like to know that. Two reasons. One, if I took $100,000 to do the job, then I lose all my credibility; everything I say, you could say, 'Well, what do you expect? He works for the NFL.' Two, the trickle-down effect. If the NFL can work with the IOC and some of these international sports federations to institute rules and programs to make games safer, then we all win. I went to Roger Goodell and [legal counsel] Jeff Pash, and I asked for $75,000 to give to the Centers for Disease Control, to put a sort of concussion [recognition] course on the site for coaches and parents. They said sure. Now that's the CDC's most hit-upon site.''
6. This Josh Freeman's pretty good. The game Josh Freeman played in Carolina Sunday reminded me of a few Eli Manning games we've seen over the years. Stink it up for the first 50 minutes, dig a hole, then find a way to coolly get out of it. "We were way too sloppy for a long time,'' Freeman said from the team bus to the airport after the game. "I was way too sloppy.'' The Bucs made up 11 points -- a field goal, a touchdown, a two-point conversion pass-- in the last five minutes of regulation, then won it on a beautiful Freeman-to-Dallas Clark pass in overtime. The play of the day, though, was the 24-yard dart from Freeman to Vincent Jackson with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter -- with 280-pound defensive end Greg Hardy steaming in on a stunt in Freeman's face, with two defenders buzzing around Jackson.
"You don't really have many options,'' said Freeman, considering the pass rush and the clock and the need for a touchdown and not a field goal and the physicality of Jackson to fight off defenders to make the catch if he needs to. "You just gotta go. It was remarkable.'' We forget Freeman is 24 years old. He's six months younger than Ryan Tannehill. He's with a new head coach, Greg Schiano; a new quarterback coach, Ron Turner; a new offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan; with a new franchise receiver in Jackson, a new tight end in the rejuvenated Clark and a new franchise running back in Doug Martin. And here comes Freeman off a terrible 2011, playing the best football of his pro life. "What we've learned so far this year,'' said Freeman, "is all that matters is battling. Games are 60 minutes, longer sometimes, and we know we've got the players to make sure we can win in the end.''
The End of the 973-650-0966 Era
Well, I did the all-time stupid thing Saturday. Thought I was direct-messaging agent David Canter on Twitter Saturday, asked him to call me, and, much to my terror, found it went to all of my followers. I bet it was up for six seconds before I took it down, but that was long enough to enable quite a few loyal Peter Kingites (and gee, thanks, Deadspin) to post the number all over the place. The final results:
Phone calls received in the five hours between posting and canceling of the number: 373.
Text messages received in that time: 255.
Angriest text message, from the 773 (suburban Chicago) area code: "You ------- skunkheaded ------. Go ---- Favre. Have a nice day."
Love my fans!
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.
Since their 1-3 start, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone 5-1 and averaged 34 points a game in doing so. On the face of it Josh Freeman's 94.6 quarterback rating and 21-7 touchdown-to-interception differential seem to indicate a substantial reason for the turnabout, but that would be too simple; Freeman's season (and his performance here) has been far more enigmatic than that.
Going deep. Freeman is a very good deep passer who has been aided hugely in that regard by the offseason acquisition of Vincent Jackson. Before this game only Joe Flacco threw deep (more than 20 yards downfield) more frequently; 17.8 percent of passes for Flacco, 15.4 percent for Freeman. But it hasn't just been quantity. Freeman's 838 yards on deep passes leads the NFL, and he'd thrown four touchdowns without being picked off entering Sunday's game in Carolina. Through 10 weeks of the season, he'd been the best deep passer in the league.
The short game. He struggles on shorter throws. When he has to read linebackers in coverage and when the space is condensed, his passer rating drops from 125.6 on those deep throws to 86.2 on throws between zero and nine yards. Compare this with Peyton Manning, who rates 95.8 on deep throws but 115.9 on those same underneath passes.
Game on the line. Freeman continued with his problems in the short game in Charlotte (rating of 73.7, including a bad interception for a pick-6) but also initially couldn't find his targets when passing deep. Of his six passes over 20 yards, the first five were either incomplete or intercepted. However, as is often the case with Freeman, with the game on the line he then made the last one count, finding Vincent Jackson with a laser in the end zone for the score, which would eventually take the game into overtime. There he completed all three of his OT passes, including the game-winning touchdown to Dallas Clark.
Freeman deserves tremendous credit for elevating his game, with the arrival of trusted veterans like Clark and Jackson. The Buccaneers have already exceeded most expectations and can go even further this season ... but Freeman's play is not without flaws. If he is to take the next step as one of the game's best quarterbacks, he needs to clean up his short game and become more efficient between zero and nine yards.
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