Tuesday, October 4, 2022

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "Starts With a Whistle, and Ends with a Gun"

By TJ Troup 
Alan Ameche

This past Sunday would have been Steve Sabol's 80th birthday, thus the title of this saga in his honor. Since Steve's favorite team was the Baltimore Colts. Let's journey back to the night before his 13th birthday for a night game between the defending western conference champion Lions, and the vastly improved Colts. 

There have been teams that suddenly became contenders due to the draft, and the Colts rookie class of '55 was one of the best of the decade of the '50s. 

Alan Ameche exploded on opening day against the Bears as he gained 194 yards—including a 79-yard touchdown run down the left sideline, and now in his second game as a pro, he pounded out 153 yards against Detroit. 

Leading 14-6 in the second quarter Ameche takes off on a long trap play to the right against the Lions 5-2-4 defense. Superb blocking opens a gaping hole, and the Horse has again busted loose. 

Jack Christiansen is the best left safety in the western conference, but today he is not on the field and his replacement in his final season is Doak Walker. The Doaker is out of position, and Ameche dashes into the end zone after a 57-yard run. 
Jack Christiansen
He is the first fullback in NFL history to have a run of over 50 yards in his first two games as a pro! Baltimore wins easily and though they would endure growing pains during the season, this is a group of men that eventually would take their place in the annuals of great teams. 

Since Steve was a fullback, there is no doubt he relished seeing Ameche run with the ball. 

Last Sunday went to a Sports Bar to watch my beloved Bears take on the Giants. Still not sure how strong New York is, yet winning early sows the seeds of belief. Chicago on the other hand is not going to be a contender for the NFC North title. The game on the screen next to the Bears game was Jacksonville against Philadelphia. Andre Cisco dashes 59 yards down the sideline to put the Jaguars on the scoreboard, and they add to that to lead 14-0. 

Historically when a team scores on an interception return they win about 80% of the time. Thus the Eagles only have a 20% chance of winning? 

Right? 

Oh, wait, no so fast! 

Philadelphia was relentless on offense the rest of the game as Miles Sanders gained 134 yards rushing. When one team has a 100-yard rusher, and the other does not......the team with the 100-yard rusher wins 77% of the time. 

This upcoming Sunday the Eagles travel to the desert to take on the Cardinals. These two long-time rivals have been knocking heads since the mid-'30s, and as such there have been many hard-fought and fascinating games between the two teams. 

October 2nd, 1966 was one of those games. During 1965 NFL Films referred to the game of the week as NFL Play by Play Report, but in '66 the talented folks at Films featured every game, yes EVERY game as "Game of the Week". 

Joe Kuharich is in his third season as head coach of the Eagles, and though he has not yet had a winning campaign, they are a tough team to play. The Cardinals after excellent seasons in 1963 & 1964 stumbled back in '65. 

Charley Winner in his first year as head coach has St. Louis playing top-notch football and leads the East with a record of 3-0. Philadelphia has won 2 of 3, and are at home at Franklin Field. 

Studying the film we see the Cardinals are one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league, and their constant blitzing by the Redbird linebacker corps, and a hard-charging defensive line takes down Norm Snead nine times in the game. 

The player that stood out in film study is right defensive tackle Chuck Walker, but he sure had plenty of help from his Cardinal teammates. St. Louis leads at the half 17-10, and the key plays came from rookie Johnny Roland as he returned two punts for 111 yards, the second was an 86-yard scoring scamper as he followed precision open field blocking. 
St. Louis will gain just 147 yards in total offense (the Eagles gain 230), thus when we see a final score of 41-10 you cannot help but wonder where all the points came from. Strong safety Jerry Stovall disguised his coverage, darted in front of Retzlaff and intercepted, and weaved his way 18 yards to score. Late in the game Snead lofts the ball up the left sideline towards halfback Timmy Brown. Free safety Larry Wilson has man coverage on Brown, and ranges to his right and goes up and pilfers the ball one-handed. 

The lean hard-bitten hitter dashes down the sideline as the teammates escort him 91 yards to the end zone. St. Louis returns interceptions 119 yards as a team in this game, and when a team returns interceptions over 100 yards in a game—they win 91% of the time. 

The Cardinals with the win look like they just might dethrone Cleveland in the East, but stumbled down the stretch to finish 8-5-1. The Eagles with the loss to the Cardinals are now 2-2, but somehow, someway win seven of their last ten, and though Dallas wins the East. . .Philadelphia earns a playoff bowl game.

Nick Bosa and the Lack of Holding Calls Drawn

By John Turney 
Nick Bosa 
Credit: ESPN
Today, Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area, posted a piece titled, "Shanahan hopes officials improve with holding calls against Bosa."

It details the fact that Nick Bosa has not drawn a single holding call despite the fact he appears to be held with some frequency. Maiocco reported that the 49ers "regularly send video to the league office" to make their case. 

Though it is hard to be sure about any football play from a still shot, one can get a pretty good idea in these shots, but it looks a lot like holding by the tackles.

Credit: ESPN
In the next few weeks, we will see if the video sent to the NFL for review makes any difference on the field.

In this day and age officials just don't call holding that often and the cliche of 'you can find holding on every play in the NFL' is accurate but still, one would expect at least one call on any great pass rusher after four weeks.

For years Aaron Donald has been held multiple times a game and he does not get a lot of calls. Sometimes it happens away from the play, on the backside rather than at the point of attack. Others may have simply been missed by officials. But many times it looks like flagrant holding and it does not get called.

It's an old story. Offensive linemen routinely mock defensive linemen who scoffingly say, "defensive linemen think they are held on every play." Yes, they do. Often they are right.
In the late 1960s, Tom Landry was just as frustrated as Shanahan. He sent a reel of film to the league office that was titled, simply, "Holding fouls against Bob Lilly" but it's not known if it did any good.

Landry contended, like Shanahan, that Lilly was being held far more often than it was being called. Lilly was a dominant player who was often double-teamed and when he was single-blocked it was a tough assignment for a guard, so much so that they had to grab on to keep their quarterback alive. 

Few remember that offensive holding was a fifteen-yard penalty—it was a big risk and could ruin an offensive drive so offensive linemen were coached not to do it. It helped that they could not extend their arms or use their hands.

The NFL, in an effort to open up the game, changed the yardage for the penalty from fifteen yards to ten. Lilly, sarcastically said, "Why not make it five?" Since that rule change took place in 1974 it did not affect Lilly's career very much.

In 1978, in another attempt to open up the game, the NFL liberalized hand usage to the extent that linemen could use their hands and extend and keep extending their arms. There was an intermediate step between 1974 and 1978 that allowed offensive linemen to extend their arms but they had to pull them right back. 

Defensive linemen referred to the 1978 rule changes as the "holding rule". They saw that after the implementation they were being held, in their minds, "on every play" whether they were or not is a matter of debate. Offensive linemen argued that the playing field was leveled in that defensive players were always allowed to use their hands to defend blocks.
There was a time in the 1980s that some defensive linemen draw plenty of holding calls or illegal use of hands calls. 

In 1983 Howie Long said, "I can buy a sack . . .but I lead the league in holding calls." In 1985 in a Washington Post article it was suggested by Broncos right tackle Ken Lanier that Long had a knack for getting the holding calls, "He knows how to draw penalties. He uses the 'rip' where he comes up with his arm under your armpit. . .he comes with his arm straight up under my armpit and when the refs see that they call me for holding."

The year before in the Los Angeles Times, it was reported that Long estimated he drew twenty holding calls but he surmised that if all the times he was held were called the number would have been forty. About one tilt with the Seahawks, "(Jim Tunney) gave me three holding calls. It could have been nine. It was blatant."
In 1986, according to the Washington public relations department, Dexter Manley drew twenty-three penalties with sixteen of them holding calls to pair with his 18.0 sacks and 31 hurries that season. Manley was All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl but one wonders how many sacks and hurries he might have had were it not for getting held so often because it's clear that many infractions are not flagged.

Film/video study shows that from 1981 through 1984 Jack Youngblood drew 80 penalties of various forms—holds, illegal use of hands, false starts on the player over him (John Madden was keen to point out that usually is a player concerned about his assignment)—and two-thirds to three-fourths of those were holding calls.

On note is that for Long, Manley, and Youngblood and all players a few of the called penalties were declined because the defense may have gotten a sack or an interception or recovered a fumble. Still, it was almost always an action by an offensive lineman to prevent a sack or hit on a quarterback and a net positive for the defense.
After a game when a rookie left tackle was called four times for penalties while trying to block Manley, Dan Dierdorf gave the rookie a tip, "You are better off taking the holding call than giving up a sack." But he further explained that a holding call early in a game can cause a lineman to become concerned about getting another and then changing his style and becoming "ineffectual" for the rest of the game. 

But the same can likely be said of giving up a sack early, so it's damned if you do or damned if you don't.

For defensive linemen in this era tales of when a center, guard, or tackle held he'd get called for cannot be of any comfort. Now the holding rules are underenforced and it is with little doubt that this is a calculation by the NFL to not have games slowed and becoming less watchable. 

The NFL's product is wide-open offenses, that is what sells the game, drives fantasy football, and puts butts in seats. No one wants to watch a penalty fest. It seems the only penalties that are strictly enforced are defensive pass interference and defensive holding and that, too, is calculus to keep the receivers from being covered too closely. 

In our view, offense pass interference is the only penalty that is as under called as offensive holding. It's what defensive backs have to live with, the apparent de facto repeal of OPI.

Perhaps Bosa who is leading the NFL in sacks (6), quarterback hits (16), and hurries (30—per PFF) and also having the ole' goose egg in penalties drawn will give the league office some pause and create some fairness for him and the Aaron Donalds and the Maxx Crosbys out there who are whipping blockers' butts and getting strangled rather than getting a sack or hit on the passer. 

Monday, October 3, 2022

Making Hay, Aaron Jones Hits 6K for Green Bay

 By Eric Goska

Vince Lombardi would have approved of Green Bay's
rushing effort (199 yards) against the Patriots.

Aaron Jones is the Packers’ 6,000-yard man.

Jones, one half of Green Bay’s impressive ground-gaining tandem, led all runners Sunday at Lambeau Field. In surpassing 100 yards from scrimmage in the Green and Gold’s 27-24 overtime victory against New England, the elusive back gained entry into a highly select group.

Jones, and running mate AJ Dillon, again powered the Pack on the ground. The two hewed out 183 of the team’s 199 rushing yards with Jones earning 110 on 16 totes.

As usual, Jones also chipped in on the receiving front. He picked up five yards on three catches.

Against the Patriots, Jones secured seven of Green Bay’s 10 rushing first downs. He popped off five runs of 10 or more yards.

Never was he more vital than on fourth down early in the third quarter. With his team trailing by three and needing a yard at the New England 28, Jones scooted for 17.

That effort was a key component in a 10-play, 81-yard advance that put Green Bay up 14-10. It also helped fuel an uptick in yards – 238 in the third and fourth quarters following a meager 125 in the first half – that kept the Packers plugging away until Mason Crosby’s 31-yard field goal sealed the deal with no time remaining.

In amassing 115 yards from scrimmage, Jones surpassed 6,000 in his career. He joins Ahman Green, Jim Taylor, Gerry Ellis, John Brockington and Dorsey Levens as the only running backs in team history to accomplish that feat.

And, with 73 just games under his belt, he got there quicker than all but Green (51) and Taylor (73).

When Jones reaches 100, the Packers usually win. He’s done it 23 times in the regular season, and Green Bay has lost just twice – against the Saints in 2017 and at Seattle in 2018.

In fact, the team has won its last 19 straight when Jones breaks that grass ceiling.

This season, yards have come in chunks for Jones. Twelve of his 48 carries (for 327 yards) have stretched for 10 or more.

As such, his average per carry (6.81) is higher than it has ever been after four games. It ranks third best in the league behind that of the Lions’ D’Andre Swift (8.56) and Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson (8.54).

In general, this part of Jones’ game (average per carry) has registered large throughout much of his career. It has been said – in this column if nowhere else – that No. 33 can spot daylight in a solar eclipse.

That has helped propel Jones into fourth place on the Packers’ all-time rushing list. He trails Green (8,322), Taylor (8,207) and Brockington (5,024).

But those three backs carried far more often than he. Looking solely at average per carry, Jones’ number (5.16) is tops in team history (minimum 500 attempts), more than a half yard better than second-place Ellis (4.58).

Moreover, that robust average ranks among the best all-time regardless of team. His output against the Patriots moved him past Mercury Morris and into seventh place in league history (minimum 750 attempts) according to Pro Football Reference.

In the last 100 years, just six players did more with the opportunities afforded them than Jones. For now, at least, he is ensconced behind Michael Vick (7.00), Randall Cunningham (6.36), Russell Wilson (5.51), Jamaal Charles (5.38), Nick Chubb (5.32) and the immortal Jim Brown (5.22).

That’s some pretty heady company. The Packers can only hope Jones continues to run with that fast crowd.

Grass Guzzlers
The six RBs in Packers history who gained 6,000 or more yards from scrimmage in the regular-season.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Judgements IV

 By Clark Judge 
The Baltimore Ravens have a problem, and they know it.  It’s called defense, and it once was the backbone of the franchise.

Not anymore.

At least not through the first four games this season, and nowhere was that more apparent than Sunday’s 23-20 loss to Buffalo. It marked the second time in three games the Ravens blew a lead of 17 points or more, and it caused coach John Harbaugh to make a controversial … and fatal … decision late in the fourth quarter.

You know the scenario. Tie game. Four minutes left. Ravens sitting fourth and goal at the Buffalo 2. Harbaugh can kick the go-ahead field goal or go for the touchdown. He went for the TD, and he failed.

Worse, the ball was intercepted in the end zone.

“I felt like it gave us the best chance to win the game,” he said later.

The decision provoked a cascade of criticism, but it’s not hard to follow Harbaugh’s logic. It comes down to this: He didn’t trust his defense vs. Josh Allen, and can you blame him? Two weeks earlier it failed to protect a 21-point fourth-quarter lead vs. Miami and surrendered four TDs in 12 minutes. After falling behind early, Buffalo strung together 17 consecutive points, and there was no reason to think the run would stop there.

So Harbaugh gambled and lost. Now you know why.

“That shows me that coach Harbaugh has no confidence in his defense,” said Hall-of-Fame coach and NBC analyst Tony Dungy.

And why should he? In two home games, Baltimore has given up 65 points – or an average of 32 per.

“This is one of the worst defenses I’ve seen with the Baltimore Ravens,” said NBC analyst and former safety Rodney Harrison. “Missed tackles. Penalties. Lack of discipline. Not keeping the edge. Time and time again. Just disappointing.”

And historic. The loss makes the Ravens the second team in NFL history to suffer losses after leading by 17 or more in their first four games (the 2011 Minnesota Vikings are the other). It should also compel Harbaugh to take another “long, hard look” at what’s going on with his team.

And what’s not.

SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED

1.       The Bills scored two heavyweight victories. Most people know that they conquered the Ravens and Lamar Jackson after falling behind 20-3. In Baltimore, no less. But they also beat the odds. They had been 0-7 in their last one-score games since Week 9 of 2020. Not anymore.

2.       Maybe we overrated Tampa Bay. The Bucs were supposed to be one of the teams to beat in the NFC because they have Tom Brady, they play in the NFC South and because they have what Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes said was the best defense in the league. Then Mahomes and the Chiefs came to town, and the Bucs dropped their second straight at home. But that’s being kind. They got torched, 41-31, in a game where the Chiefs didn’t punt until the last minute, converted 12 of 17 third downs and produced more points than in any game where Todd Bowles was a defensive coordinator or head coach. Where the Bucs allowed just 27 points the first three games, they were ripped for 28 in the first half alone. In short, they looked … well, like a vulnerable team that makes a raft of mistakes on both sides of the ball. I know, it’s early, but beware. The signs are disturbing for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

3.       Kenny Pickett’s time is now. Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin says he’s non-committal about his starting quarterback, but I don’t buy it. You don’t roll a rookie out there for a half, have him score your only two TDs, then send him to the bench again. Granted, Pickett also threw three second-half interceptions, but there was an energy to the offense with him that was missing with Mitch Trubisky. With Pickett, the Steelers have a lot of upside. A future. With Trubisky, they don’t. Now that Pickett has been unleashed, I can’t see the Steelers sitting him for anything but an injury. It’s called on-the-job learning, and it worked for a rookie first-round pick in 2004.

4.       Charles III isn’t the only king of England. He’s been joined by the Minnesota Vikings, now 3-0 in London and one of only four unbeaten teams (minimum two games) in Britannia. That’s the good news. The bad: No NFL London game featured two teams that each advanced.

5.       The NFC East is top heavy with winners. No, that’s not a misprint. The Eagles are 4-0, the Cowboys 3-1 and the Giants 3-1. That’s a combined record of 10-2. No other division is that strong at the top, and this from a division two years ago that was so weak that nobody finished with a winning record.

THIRD AND 15

1.       In the wake of the Tua Tagovailoa fiasco, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-New Jersey) asked “how seriously the NFL is taking its commitment to player safety.” It’s a good question for a league that schedules Thursday games, 17-game seasons and just put a young quarterback at risk.

2.       Then there’s this: Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate on Sunday night took a violent hit to his head, left the field, then returned … only to be ruled out at halftime with a concussion. What in the name of Roger Goodell is going on here? Someone? Anyone?

3.       A GM I trust measures quarterbacks by how they respond under duress in the last two minutes of games. Well, then, consider that a big step forward for the Jets’ Zach Wilson. He completed 10 of 12 fourth-quarter passes, including all five on the Jets’ game-winning drive.

4.       Welcome back Austin Ekeler. Until Sunday, the Chargers’ running back topped the Missing Persons list. Then he scored his first touchdown of the season. Correction: He scored his first three. He had 20 a year ago.

5.       Jerry Jones once said he’d welcome a quarterback controversy in Dallas. Sure. He won’t have one, of course, when Dak Prescott returns … but he could. The Cowboys are 3-0 A.D. (After Dak) this season with Cooper Rush and 4-0 with Rush in two seasons. So what? So Rush is the first Cowboys’ quarterback to win his first four career starts.

6.       To channel Aaron Rodgers … Relax, New England fans. Granted, it’s the second straight season where the Patriots started 1-3 (they had none 2002-20). But look what’s ahead: Detroit next week … Cleveland after that … then the Bears … the Jets … Colts … Jets again.  I think you get the idea. R-E-L-A-X.

7.       Now, let’s get something straight: The Pats go nowhere if they don’t clean up their mistakes. Their nine turnovers are the most through the first four games of any season since 1994.

8.       Somebody introduce Trevor Lawrence to glue, Velcro or Lester Hayes. Lawrence lost four fumbles, and look no farther for why Jacksonville couldn’t survive the Eagles. According to ESPN Stats and Info, it’s the first time this century where anyone in the NFL lost four fumbles in one game. An interception brought his turnover total to five that led to 23 Eagles’ points. Result: Ballgame.

9.       So the Raiders finally won with Josh McDaniels, now 2-10 in his last 12 games as a head coach. I would’ve rehired Rich Bisaccia. He deserved nothing less after what he did as the team’s interim coach last year.

10.   Can’t wait to hear what Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner has to say to Terry McLaurin. It was last week that he assured the Commanders’ wide receiver that “he’s not being overlooked.” Then Sunday happened. McLaurin had two catches for 15 yards.

11.   Nobody scores more than Detroit (140 points), and it’s not close. So why are the Lions 1-3? Because nobody leaks more than Detroit. The Lions have surrendered 141 points.

12.   Another sign that it’s never been easier to play quarterback: Geno Smith’s 77.3 completion percentage is, according to ESPN Stats and Info, the highest figure of any quarterback through the first four games of a season (minimum 125 attempts). Geno. Smith.

13.   For those counting at home, that’s seven straight regular-season wins for Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. He’s 11-2 in his last 13 starts.

14.   With Sunday’s win in Carolina, Arizona is 10-1 in its last 11 road games. Just sayin.’

15.   Through their first four games Russell Wilson and Geno Smith each are 2-2. Wilson has completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 980 yards, with four TDs, one interception. Geno Smith, meanwhile, completed 77.3 percent of his passes for 1,037 yards, with 6 TDs and 2 interceptions. Advantage: Geno.

SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET STATS

When the Giants (3-1) and Packers (3-1) meet next week in London it will be the first time both teams in an NFL London game have winning records.

Mike Evans’ second-quarter TD catch was the first offensive touchdown for Tampa Bay in the first half this season.

Tampa Bay’s 3 yards rushing are the fewest by any Tom Brady quarterbacked team.

Home-field advantage is alive and well in Green Bay. That was the Packers’ 15th straight regular-season win there, upping their record to 24-2 at Lambeau over their last 26 games.

According to CBS Sports, New England quarterback Bailey Zappe is the first player ever to make his NFL debut at Lambeau Field and throw a TD pass. Lambeau opened in 1957.

Tennessee won its last nine divisional road games, a franchise record and the second longest streak of its kind (13 by Kansas City).

SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES

“It’s frustrating losing to people that you know you’re better than, more talented than.” – Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick after the Steelers’ 24-20 loss to the Jets.

“In the end, Aaron Rodgers was just too good.” – New England coach Bill Belichick.

“I don’t think anybody can beat us right now.” – Philadelphia running back Miles Sanders.

Bucs One-Dimensional—Six Rushes for Three Yards Sure Seems Like It

By John Turney
In tonight's game in Tampa, the Kansas City Chiefs made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one-dimensional or the Bucs made themselves one-dimensional by getting behind and being forced to give up trying to run the ball.

For the game, the Bucs ran the ball six times for three yards. Six runs and 53 pass plays. Maybe not the recipe that will make a play-action passing game work.

It tied the franchise mark for fewest yards allowed, in 1961 the Dallas Texans also allowed three yards. before tonight nine was the fewest against the Texans/Chiefs franchise.

For the Bucs franchise, the three rushing yards were the third-fewest in a game, ever. On October 10, 2021, they ran for minus one yard and on November 11, 2013, the Bucs offense managed just two rushing yards.

The six attempts did set the Bucs record for the fewest in a game, however. 

Even for this pass-happy era, this is quite an abandonment of the running game. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Name One NFL Record That Won’t Ever Be Broken. This Ex-NFL Exec Just Did

By Clark Judge 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: To listen to Upton Bell, click on the following link: https://www.spreaker.com/user/fullpresscoverage/eyetest-20220927-1128)

When we talk about epic achievements in pro-football history, look no farther than what one backup quarterback did 71 years ago Wednesday: He set the NFL’s single-game passing record for yards.

And that record still stands.

On Sept. 28, 1951, the Rams’ Norm Van Brocklin – starting only because Bob Waterfield was hurt – threw for 554 yards in a 54-14 demolition of the New York Yankees. Since then, nobody – not John Unitas, not Dan Marino, not John Elway, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady – has eclipsed it.

Surprising? No.  Downright astonishing.

Van Brocklin didn’t just break the existing record. He obliterated it, besting the previous mark of 468 yards, set by Johnny Lujack two years earlier, and raised the bar so high that it has withstood 71 years of rules changes and close calls by Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks.

To appreciate how rare his performance was in 1951, know that Van Brocklin did it in a season where only two quarterbacks – Bobby Layne and Otto Graham – threw for over 2,000 yards. And he did it in a season where he had only two … you heard me, two … starts.

“Unless the NFL finds a way to manipulate it,” said former NFL executive Upton Bell on this week’s “Eye Test for Two” podcast, “I don’t think that record will ever be broken. When it happened, it reverberated all around the NFL.”

As it should have.

Remember: This was when the NFL played 12-game seasons, only one quarterback (Layne) threw for more than 17 TDs and just four of the top-rated quarterbacks completed over 50 percent of their passes. It was unlike anything in the NFL today, with teams so inclined then to run first that only two -- the Yanks and Green Bay Packers – threw more than they ran.

You can look it up.

“No shotgun then,” said Bell. “T-formation. You dropped back and you threw. You had to get rid of the ball in like 3.2 seconds. No matter how bad the opponent might be (and the Yanks were 1-9-2), to be able to set it up and throw for hat amount of yardage still -- to me -- is one of the great modern feats of the NFL.”

Bell should know. As the son of former NFL commissioner and Hall-of-Famer Bert Bell, he’s been in and around the NFL all his life … and he soon turns 85. He saw Van Brocklin play. He saw Waterfield play. He was with the Baltimore Colts when Unitas ruled the league. He was the GM of the New England Patriots. And he is a historian with a keen eye for the best and brightest in the sport.

So how, he was asked, would Van Brocklin’s achievement translate to today’s game? Six hundred yards? Seven hundred? Layne led the league in 1951 with 2,406 passing yards, and Van Brocklin’s total – on 27 completions, no less (an average of 20.5 per) – is 23 percent of that figure. So how would it play in today’s league?

“Well, today,” said Bell, “probably about 1,000 yards. Now that may sound like an exaggeration, but think about it.”

We have. Played over a 17-game season, Van Brocklin’s 554 yards in one game would result in 9,418 for one season – or a 42 percent increase over Peyton Manning’s league record of 5,477 in 2013.

“All the great quarterbacks that I’ve seen with great arms,” said Bell, “starting with Sammy Baugh, right through to Dan Marino and John Elway and many of the magicians you have today – (I’d say) that Van Brocklin probably was one of the best long distance throwers. I mean, he could lay that ball out there, either on the line or over the top, at 50, 60 yards .

“Think about that: 1951. No training program. No quarterback coaches. No sent-in plays. Nothing. And yet this guy tore the Yanks apart.”

He wasn’t alone. Three receivers, including Hall-of-Famers Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears, each had over 100 yards in receptions. Van Brocklin threw for five TDs. The Rams had 34 first downs (then a league high) and produced 735 yards in total offense, which – like Van Brocklin’s record -- remains the NFL’s platinum bar 71 years later. Furthermore, L.A. would go on to beat Cleveland 24-17 in the NFL championship game on a 73-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass thrown by Waterfield’s replacement.

You guessed it. Norm Van Brocklin.

“Most teams played man for man,” said Bell. “They didn’t play a lot of zone. Even if the defensive backs were not that good, they ran with you all the way. There was no penalty for hitting somebody after five yards. None of that. It was a running game, which makes (the record) more extraordinary. Because the average quarterback threw maybe … maybe … 20 times a game.

“All the things you see today, where the records have been obliterated because there are so many more games, the game is wide open, you’re penalizing the defense … all of those things, to me, add up to what I think are a lot of phony statistics.

“Great. The quarterbacks are better, all of the things that you can say. But if you were to go back then and say that this person was going to throw for way over 500 yards against a team – whether they were good or not – was just an amazing feat. I really hope that people will understand how great Van Brocklin really was.”

Friday, September 30, 2022

Jeff Lageman—Worth Remembering

 By John Turney 
"With the fourteenth pick of the 1989 draft the New York Jets take . . . Jeff Lageman, University of Virginia."

"Who?" "Booooooooooooooooooooooooo."

That was Jeff Lageman's introduction to the NFL. He was a disappointing surprise to Jets fans attending the draft. He was also a surprise to the media, "He's a third-rounder at best," wrote Will McDonough of the Boston Globe. He was even surprised himself, "I didn't expect to be taken until Round Two. It was an incredible shock when the Jets called."

He simply was not on many people's radar for the first round. He'd been a fine collegiate player—He was All-ACC as a senior and led the Cavaliers in tackles his junior and senior season, but he was not the typical All-American-type prospect many think of when they conjure a first-rounder in their mind. 

But the Jets saw the 6-5, 250-pounder as something others didn't:  A rush backer. Lageman had been an inside linebacker at Virginia but with his height, he didn't project well at that position. But he could run and had a lot of length, good traits for a 3-4 outside linebacker Jets brass reasoned. It was a gamble.

The gamble did pay off but it took until Lagaman's third year to do so.

He was okay as a rush backer but nothing spectacular. In his rookie year, he showed some promise but nothing to indicate he'd live up to his draft status. 

Then Lageman got a break. 

Head coach Joe Walton was gone, and in came Bruce Coslett. Out went the 3-4 scheme and in came Pete Carroll with his 4-3 Eagle defense.

Carroll had been a secondary coach with the Minnesota Vikings and they had some excellent defenses in his tenure there under defensive coordinator Floyd Peters, who was a "4-3 only" guy. He believed in defensive linemen getting up the field and creating havoc and playing the run on the fly and Carroll's aim was to build a front four modeled after the one in Minnesota.

Jeff Lageman was going to be the "Chris Doleman", the blind side rusher and fellow 1989 draftee Dennis Byrd was to be the "Keith Millard", the "Eagle tackle" (three-technique). Playing on the center was Scott Mersereau whose role was that of Henry Thomas. Eventually, Marvin Washington was going to man the left end but was the designated pass rusher that first year. 

Initially, only Byrd lived up to his designed role but Lageman and the others learned and showed some progress. The team's total of sacks rose from 28 to 38 and the Jets thought the plate was set for many years with a young, active front four. 

"In this scheme, I am kind of happy," Lageman told the media. "I didn't want to be in a position where I would drop all the time. I like coming in on the quarterback from the blind side." 

Carroll was liking a lot of what Lageman did but did tell the papers that he was "not a highlight pass rusher. From that position . . . we are counting on that position to be a factor and we need to improve on that."

Lageman got the message. In the off-season, he worked on getting bigger (he went from 253 to 266 with his body fat reduced by twenty-five percent) and stronger (bench press jumped as did his squat numbers), and faster. With the added weight and strength his forty times dropped as did his ten-yard and twenty-yard splits.

The next season he came into his own, leading the team with ten sacks and recording three forced fumbles and five pass deflections. In addition to improving his athletic ability, he worked on his techniques, learning to use his hands better, using "some quickness and a little finesse" rather than getting whatever pressure he got, "from his bull rush and from my strength."

But 1991, only two years into the plan, was the last year the four were together. The wheels came off the following season. First, Lageman blew out his ACL and then, at midseason, Dennis Byrd was tragically paralyzed, ending his career. The soon-to-be-great foursome didn't get to gel and mature and become the force envisioned by the Jets.

The next couple of seasons the Jets struggled and Lageman was oft-injured (in addition to the knee he played with a separated shoulder and a herniated disc in his neck) but was very good (led team in sacks both seasons 8.5 in 1993 and 6.5 sacks and 29 hits/hurries in 1994) but averaging eight sacks a season he was not great, not exactly what the club envisioned. 

He played more like a second-rounder than a 14th-overall pick. Oh, he'd give full effort, one hundred percent hustle was his strong suit but in a city that had seen Mark Gastineau rack up 19, 20, 22 sacks in a season, Lageman just didn't measure up.

Still, the Jets wanted to re-sign him when he became an unrestricted free agent in the 1995 off-season. They offered a three-year deal with about $5.35 million but Lageman chose the expansion Jaguars whose offer that was slightly higher in total bit significantly higher in the upfront money. 
An injured foot ended his season early in his first year with Jacksonville (3 sacks and 30 pressures) and the next year it was an injured knee that felled him and he missed four games at midseason. However, he recovered in time for the surprising but glorious late-season run that vaulted the Jaguars into the AFC Championship game. 

After the bye, the club went 6-1 and then beat Buffalo and Denver in the playoffs before succumbing to the Patriots, one game short of the Super Bowl. 

Along the way, the Jaguars did some interesting things on the defensive line. On passing downs, they often went with four defensive ends with former starter Joel Smenge coming in as a defensive tackle and starting right end Clyde Simmons (Lageman moved to the left end to accommodate Simmons who they has added that season) moving from end to tackle with super rookie Tony Brackens manning the right edge. 

It was the forerunner to Tom Coughlin's "NASCAR" front he deployed with the 2007 Giants when Justin Tuck and starting strong-side linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka would play inside joining ends Osi Umenyiora and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. That lasted about ten games into the year—until  Kiwanuka got hurt but it was effective. 

It is hard to know for certain if the Jaguars were the first to use four defensive ends in nickel situations but it likely was. Regardless, it was unique for that era. 

In 1997 the Jaguars improved their record from 9-7 to 11-5 but got booted from the playoffs early, losing to the Broncos. Lageman didn't have great numbers but had several notable games and contributed to a defensive that upped its sack total from 37 to 48. 

Lageman's three-year deal has expired but was not a free agent long signing a one-year $2.3 deal to stay in Jacksonville. But he didn't stay long—he only played one snap, injuring a biceps on the play and that put him on injured reserve for the year after which he was a free agent.

By April, the papers were reporting that Lageman was likely to retire and in June he made it official.

Even though Lageman may not have lived up to his draft status, or maybe he did, he's right on that cusp, he did have a good career, one worth noting. 

He was a leader, a tough guy who played through injuries and showed a good motor and certainly with remembering. 

Career stats—