Wednesday, January 25, 2023

G.O.A.T. Return Specialist Devin Hester Gaining or Losing Momentum?

 By John Turney 
Last year Devin Hester became eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame having waited the mandatory five years and he zoomed through the semifinalist list of 25 and Final 15 into the Top 10 like he zoomed through punt and kick coverages during his 11-year NFL career.

Will he advance this year to the top five and get 80% affirmative votes to be inducted in 2023? 

Unknown at this point.

What we do know at this point is that he's generally regarded as the top punt return specialist of all time and the top overall return specialist of all time.

Even big fans and supporters of both Rick Upchurch and Bill "White Shoes" Johnson would probably agree. Both Upchurch and Johnson were big-time return specialists with Hall of Fame credentials themselves. Upchurch was the First-team returner on the 1970s All-Decade team and Johnson was the same for the 1980s. 

Johnson led the NFL in punt return average in 1975 and 1977 and Upchurch in 1976, 78, and 82.  Johnson was First-team All-Pro in 1975, 77, and 83. Upchurch held the same honor in 1976, 78, 79, and 82.

For his career, Johnson averaged 11.7 yards on punt returns and Upchurch 12.1. Johnson took six punts to the house and Upchurch eight. 

Combined they had 14 touchdown returns.

Fourteen. That's how many Devin Hester had. He had four more than anyone else on the all-time list. On a play that is extremely hard to achieve, a punt return for a touchdown, having four more than the next guy is really impressive. For comparison, on kickoff returns the all-time leader, Cordarrelle Patterson, is ahead of the next player on the list by a single touchdown. It's close. With Hester's total, it's not close, relatively speaking.

In total kick/punt returns for scores, it's the same narrative. Hester has 19. The next closest is Brian Mitchell with 14. Hester has five more.

Is Hester the best kickoff returner of all-time? No. That would be someone else but Hester was a great kick-returner nonetheless. The numbers, in context, show he was excellent at kick returns as well.

First, he took five kickoffs back for touchdowns which is the most important number for a returner. It is what makes them a threat to opposing teams and a nightmare to opposing special teams coaches. Only eight players in NFL history have more than Hester (he's tied for ninth).

Second, it's how Hester had to achieve his numbers and this can only be proven through the eye test, not what is on paper. Teams avoided kicking the ball to Hester for much of his career. Dribble kicks, directional kicks, and semi-squib kicks. You name it. 

When watching Bears games, many times Hester would have to pick the ball up at the say, five- or eight-yard line and try to make yards with just a fraction less time than if he could field the ball in the air. 

This happened on kickoffs far more than punts because the way to deal with a dominant punt returner is through hang time or kick the ball near a sideline or even out of bounds.

You can't kick out of bounds on a kickoff because you'll get penalized and adding additional hangtime is tougher on a kickoff than a punt so the way to deal with a dominant kick returner is to kick a touchback or to try to break his routine—make him chase or field an unusual ball, anything to allow your coverage to get closer to him than on a normal kick. That is what happened scores of times with Hester.

There is little doubt that Hester was an extraordinary game-changer even among his peers and kicking to him too often would get you burned. Burned badly.

All things considered, it is reasonable to believe he's the G.O.A.T. of return guys overall when taking into account the volume of kicks. There are some players back in the day with higher averages but they did return punts and kicks as a specialty, they did it as part of their overall job in an era that didn't really employ specialists.

And there's the rub. 

Will voters ever vote for a player who was just a returner? It's a philosophical question, not one of who the returner should be that gets in the Hall of Fame first but a question of if a return specialist should be in the Hall of Fame at all.

That specialist question has been answered in terms of kickers and punters, specialists themselves when kicker Jan Stenerud was inducted in 1991. Ray Guy, a punter,  and Morten Andersen, another kicker, followed suit later on. It's presumed that Adam Vinatieri will perhaps join them at some point.

But a returner? One who was not a Gale Sayers or Jack Christiansen? Those are two players who would be in the Hall of Fame even if they were not tremendous return men. 

With Hester, he wouldn't. He was not a star at defensive back or receiver, though, for a few years, he got snaps at receiver and averaged about 40 catches and 500 yards and three touchdowns a year in that role. It's not great but it's not a failure either. 

No, it's clear Hester is in the Final 15 for the second year in the role as a specialist alone, as White Shoes Johnson and Rick Upchurch would have been had they ever gotten a shot since they were both so-so receivers with their clubs, averaging roughly similar receiving numbers per year as Hester.

The "is a return specialist worthy of a Gold Jacket" debate is one the voters may have for more than two years. Maybe more than that.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "On the One Side, Truth Towers Like a Cliff"

By TJ Troup 


Once upon a time, there was a magical sound coming out of LA. The sound of McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker sure caught my attention, and the harmonies and voices of the singers in the Byrds catapulted them to stardom. 

The title of today's narrative comes from a song David Crosby and Graham Nash wrote, and the night they performed at the Greek Theater under the stars in 1976 was just damn awesome. 

Speaking of truth, will begin with my tried and true—the defensive passer rating. 

The Cincinnati Bengals for the first time ever led the league with a mark of 80.1. There have been many a secondary that took the field with one stellar defensive back, yet his secondary mates were less than capable of covering anything but their own ass and were strafed by opposing quarterbacks. 

This is a TEAM efficiency stat, and the Cincinnati secondary has improved during the year. Can and will they stop or limit Mahomes? Does Chad Henne ride to the rescue? 

Stay tuned. 

The Chiefs secondary finished with a mark of 95.3 in this category (the league average was 89.1) thus Bengal fans believe young Mr. Burrow will continue to shred the Kansas City defense. Especially since opposing passers threw 33 touchdown passes against Kansas City. 

As someone who once upon a time played defensive back, and was bailed out by a fierce pass rush; will the Chiefs pass rush pressure Burrow? 

 Dak Prescott learned why the 49er secondary was ranked fifth in the defensive passer rating last Sunday, and of course they will be challenged by the Eagles passing attack. 

Mr. Jones of NYG finished last weekend's game with a passer rating of 53.8, and the Philadelphia secondary which finished 3rd in the league with a mark of 81.6 looks forward to taking on young Mr. Purdy and his talented teammates. 

Every team looks to improve their roster in the off-season, and when the Eagles signed James Bradberry for 2022 an area of weakness became a strength. Slay is rock solid, yet for me sure enjoy watching Bradberry play corner more. 

Since both the Eagles and 49ers can move the ball on the ground we may have a game that finishes under three hours? 


Since the merger, Philadelphia and San Francisco have played twenty-five times, and of course, will meet again next year. The one time they met in the playoffs the Niners dominated as Steve Young had one of his strong performances both running and passing, while the San Francisco defense led by Bryant Young throttled Detmer and the Eagles. 

 They first battled in 1951, but the game that really intrigued me was opening day at Kezar in 1953. Both teams had winning seasons in '52, and both thought they could win a division title in '53. The 49ers led 17-7 at the half as Joe Perry behind an excellent o-line ran through, and around the Eagle defense. Write-ups of the game mention that it was "chippy" out on the gridiron that afternoon, as tempers flared. 

The legendary Hardy Brown delivered the "Tulsa Hump" into Toy Ledbetter's cheekbone. Bobby Walston and Charley Powell engaged in fisticuffs, and Joe McTigue and the 49er band not only played the National Anthem in an attempt to calm everyone down, the horn section also joined in the merriment. The final score was 31-21 49ers. 

Will end this narrative by going back in time 75 years to the first Eagle team to advance to the title game. 

From 1944 through 1946 the Eagles played winning football, but could not win the game they needed to for a division crown. The Bears dominated the Eagles in '44. 

The late-season loss to the Giants in '45, and the three-game losing streak in November of '46 had convinced the Eagle faithful they just were not championship material. Would relish listing all the starters on both sides of the ball for the '47 Eagles, but just don't have enough film to do justice in evaluation. 

Byron Saam does a fine job narrating the Eagle highlight film and watched the November 2nd, 1947 film over and over. 

So who played well for the Eagles in 1947 you ask? And was there a difference-maker in '47? 

You want answers? 

Here we go! The league is still single-platoon football, though many men come off the bench to play both ways due to fatigue. Twelve rookies make the team in '47, but almost all of them are substitutes or don't finish the year with Philadelphia. 

Neill Armstrong was selected with the 8th pick in the draft, and the swift rookie rotates in with veteran left end Black Jack Ferrante. They combine to catch 35 passes for 538 yards and 6 touchdowns. 

Baby-faced lean defensive end Johnny Green comes in to spell Pihos on defense and demonstrates he will be a factor for years to come. Skinny lightning-fast Pat McHugh flashes ability both running the ball, and range at safety. 

The Philadelphia o-line has unique line splits as there is a vast space between some and only a sliver of daylight between others, but it works. When you have the best runner in football you are motivated to give that man running room. Lindskog, Kilroy, and Wistert are all skilled blockers. 
Al Wistert
When evaluating film of Rosey Brown of NYG in the '50s was astonished at how often, and how well he pulled from his left tackle position. Brown was truly the best ever at this technique (Gifford was quoted many times about how fast Rosey was), yet Al Wistert was pulling from his right tackle post, and leading Steve Van Buren sweeps in'47. 

Wistert was quick, agile, and would cut block defenders right off their feet. Al played defensive right end, and he continually knifed through blockers to pressure passers, and pursue. Why this man is not in the Hall of Fame is a mystery? Bosh Pritchard and Van Buren besides lugging the leather played corner on defense. They were adequate on defense, but we all know of their offensive exploits. 

On October the 5th in the win over the Giants twelve men carry the ball—TWELVE! Everyone gets a few carries, though Van Buren is gonna get the bulk of the carries. None of the backs distinguish themselves at the corner position, but swift Ernie Steele shines at safety.
Steve Van Buren
If the league chose an All-NFL defense Steele would most likely have been a First-team selection. Ben Kish and Joe Muha play fullback and left linebacker, and they both are hard-nosed quality players. Additionally, Muha is an excellent punter. 

Earle "Greasy" Neale aligns his defense in both a 6-2, but also for the first time a 4-man secondary—the beginning of the 5-2-4. This of course means the linebackers have to shed blocks quickly, pursue, and disrupt pass routes when aligned on a flexed offensive end. Alex Wojciechowicz came from the Lions in '46, and now in his first full year in Philly he must lead the young Eagle defenders. 

Hugh "Bones" Taylor of the Redskins has a monster opening day in the heart-stopping 45-42 blockbuster win over Washington as he caught 8 for 212 yards. 
Hugh Taylor
In the rematch Wogey aligns on Taylor's nose and as such Bones catches just two for 29! Though Roy Zimmerman had his moments as an Eagle, the man who runs the Philly T-formation attack is Tommy Thompson, and he is probably the most improved player in the league. Superb at ball handling, faking, and his touch on play-action passes is top-notch. 

The Eagles are no doubt a running team, yet the passing attack with Thompson's accuracy helps produce 350 points. Finally the answer to the above question—was there a difference maker and who was he? 

Drafted by the Eagles while he was in combat in Europe under General Patton, rookie Pete Pihos gives Philadelphia a man who relishes blocking and does this so well it allows Wistert to pull, and his quickness coming off the ball gives Thompson another weapon in the Eagle arsenal. 

Pihos scores the first and last regular season touchdown for the Eagles in '47, while also playing left defensive end. During the November 2nd victory over the 'Skins he makes the special teams play of the year as he literally takes the punt off of Sammy Baugh's foot and dashes 31 yards for a touchdown (league scoring manual lists at 26... oops!) 

During the playoff victory over the Steelers, he again blocks a punt to set up a score. 

Melissa, are you listening? Your dad was the final piece to the Philadelphia championship puzzle. Seems like just yesterday that the DVD on Eagles history was popped into the player (2004), and have watched it many times, and an aspect of the history is the poignant, insightful, and fun lines by Mr. Ray Didinger, "All the legitimacy of a floating crap game". Ray your lines are treasured. 

Didinger discusses the beginning of the tight end middle screen, and Pihos's ability to rumble downfield with the ball. His unique style of catching the ball above the waist not putting his little fingers together, but backhanding the ball with one hand while cupping the ball with the other. 

Are you ready for an NFC championship clash between these two hard-bitten teams? 

I sure am.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Jared Allen—The Next Edge Rusher in Line?

 By John Turney 
Of course, anything is possible but it is impossible to think of a scenario where DeMarcus Ware does not receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame Gold Jacket this Summer. He had a chance to be a first-ballot guy last year but fell a bit short, making the final ten but not reaching the final five to make the final stage of the yes-no 80% vote. We've predicted he is a virtual lock to make it this year. We'll see.

Jared Allen has been on the Final 15 three times but has stagnated, never making the final 10. That may or may not change this year—last month, in our annual prediction post, we guessed he'd make the top 10 this go around. Again, we'll see.

Aside from Ware, who will take up all the edge rusher oxygen in the room, there is first-time eligible edge rusher  Dwight Freeney who will certainly have support among the voters which will compete with Allen. In fact, Hall of Fame voter Bill Polian drafted him and another Hall of Fame voter Tony Dungy coached him. That will help him.

But, Allen will have his chance. Probably not this year, but perhaps next year if he does advance to the top 10.

He's certainly qualified.

However, looking back it is a minor miracle his career made it past his first few seasons. During that time he had a serious problem with alcohol abuse that led to a pair of DUI arrests and a suspension for violation of the NFL's substance abuse/alcohol policy. 

His career path was not unlike that of current Raider edge rusher Maxx Crosby except Crosby's DUI suspension was at the collegiate level and only occurred one time. Like Crosby, Allen persevered and turned things around, but again, unlike Crosby, it was not in college. 

Allen was off to a terrific start as a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was an All-Rookie pick in 2004 and led the team in sacks and came back for an even better second season forcing six fumbles and recording eleven sacks and 54 hurries.

In 2006 he was named to the USA Today All-Joe team, a team that recognized players who were outstanding but not named to any Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams. Allen had 7.5 sacks, forced five fumbles and had 10.5 run stuffs that year and another stuff on a pass play.

His breakout year was 2007. It was the season he was suspended and missed the first two games but still led the NFL in sacks with 15.5 and was First-team All-Pro. 

After that season Allen and the Chiefs were unable to agree on a contract so he was given the franchise tag and was traded to the Vikings (first a first-round and two third-round picks and change) and for a while was the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, signing a six-year, $73 million deal in 2008.

In Minnesota, Allen did not disappoint. In six seasons, he was All-Pro three times (twice consensus) and went to four Pro Bowls. He was voted the NFL Alumni Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2009 and was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 by the Kansas City Committee of 101 and Sporting News.

He was an ideal fit as an edge rusher to pair with the Williams Wall - interior linemen Kevin and Pat Williams that were tremendous run pluggers. They took care of the middle and Allen got after quarterbacks and the Vikings were playoff contenders for the first few years Allen was with the team.

Allen averaged 14.3 sacks a season in Skol country, leading the NFL with 22.0 in 2011, his second-league title in five years most followed by his iconic calf roping celebration. All of which led to his inclusion into the Vikings Ring of Fame along with other great Vikings defensive linemen Alan Page, Carl Eller, John Randle, Chis Doleman, Jim Marshall, and Kevin Williams.

After his deal expired with Minnesota his career wound down with the Bears and a stint with the Panthers, ending his twelve-year career during which he was the quintessential blind side rusher that was arguably the best in the NFL and if not the best, clearly in the top two.

He played from 2004-15 and during that span no one in the NFL had more sacks or QB hits and that includes DeMarcus Ware. During his peak years from 2005-13 (which eliminates his rookie year and his wind-down years) he also had the most sacks and QB hits.

No matter how the numbers are sliced Allen comes out on top in his personal era.

Along the way, Allen recovered 19 fumbles and picked off six passes, and had six defensive scores including four safeties to go with his 136.0 sacks which rank as the 12th-most in NFL history (since 1982 when sacks became an official statistic), 32 forced fumbles, and 58 deflected passes.

When scouting reports are added it further enhances the 6-6, 270-pounders case. One scout's report stated, "First five years a top initial all-around start for 40E. Blue rusher, blue pursuit & neutralize run blocks. Remained blue rusher through 2014."

So for Allen, it is a matter of timing for his call to the Hall. There is some competition with Ware and Freeney and also with Julius Peppers becoming eligible next year but with his resume, he will eventually get the recognition he deserves for his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Career stats—

Career honors—

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Playoff Judgments

By Clark Judge 
Patrick Mahomes
Credit: NFC/NFC Game Pass

It can’t get much worse for Kansas City than Patrick Mahomes suffering a high-ankle sprain. But it just did.

Cincinnati and Joe Burrow are coming to town.

The Bengals beat the odds Sunday by also beating … no, by burying … Buffalo to reach the AFC championship game for the second straight season vs. top-seeded Kansas City. That’s good for Cincinnati; not so good for Mahomes or the Chiefs.

The reason: Simple. Burrow and the Bengals are 3-0 vs. Mahomes.

Plus, they won all three in the same calendar year when the Chiefs’ quarterback wasn’t playing on one leg … and that’s more than unusual. It’s downright extraordinary. It makes Burrow the only quarterback to face Mahomes multiple times and not lose. It also makes him one of only two quarterbacks to win three games vs. the presumptive league MVP.

The other is Tom Brady (3-3).

I think you get the idea. This is no ordinary Joe we’re talking about. It’s Mahomes’ kryptonite, and more on that later.

First, the central question in front of everyone is: How damaged is Mahomes? Answer: No one really knows how much of St. Patrick we get now. High-ankle sprains are serious, normally sidelining injured players several weeks. Nevertheless, Mahomes insists he’ll play next Sunday.

That should come as no surprise. But how comprised will he be? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there are no mysteries about Burrow and the Bengals. They just dominated a Bills’ team that also beat Mahomes & Co. this season, and they did it from start to finish – outscoring, outplaying and outcoaching their overwhelmed opponent.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, not only because Buffalo hadn’t lost a home playoff game with Josh Allen at quarterback (4-0), but because the Bills seemed driven by the Jamar Hamlin story. But it did, and it did because the Bengals had the better quarterback, the better offensive line, the better defensive line and the better game plan.

In short, the better team.

“If this was a boxing match,” former quarterback and CBS analyst Phil Simms said, “we’re not going to the scorecard. This was a knockout.

Oddsmakers make the Chiefs a 1-point favorite next Sunday, and that doesn’t make sense. Mahomes is hurt. Burrow is not. History isn’t with the Chiefs. It’s with the Bengals. Plus, Kansas City’s not the hottest team in the AFC. Cincinnati is. The Bengals won their last 10 and are 14-2 over their last 16 starts.

Oh, and one more thing: Cincinnati also won its last three road playoff games. One was at Arrowhead.

“Anyone who doubts this team needs to have his head examined,” said Bengals’ offensive line coach Frank Pollard.

I’d pay attention. This marks the fourth time in franchise history the Bengals advanced to the AFC championship game. They won the previous three.

SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED THIS WEEKEND

1.       Jalen Hurts is more than OK. He went into last weekend saying he was “less than 100 percent” with an injured right shoulder. OK, well … tell that to the New York Giants. Hurts sliced, diced and spliced what was supposed to be a decent defense, throwing for two TDs and running for a third in a game that was over by the half. Bottom lin: He looked like the MVP candidate that he is. “To have him out there,” said coach Nick Sirianni, “it’s like having … I know I shouldn’t even go there … but is like having Michael Jordan out there.” He’s right. He shouldn’t go there. Jordan won six league titles. Hurts hasn’t been to one … yet.

2.       Playoff seeds held. Three of the top four seeded teams (Kansas City, San Francisco and Philadephia) advanced to conference championship games, with Cincinnati the only outlier. But full disclosure: The Bengals were the AFC’s third seed and were last year’s champion. Now, good luck to top-ranked Kansas City and Philadelphia … because history tells us they’re going to need it. Only two of the last eight No. 1 seeds advanced to the Super Bowl (Kansas City in 2020 and San Francisco in 2019).

3.       Don’t sleep on Chad Henne. Jacksonville did, and you saw what happened. He led the Chiefs on a 98-yard TD drive, the longest in franchise playoff history. With Mahomes hurt, there’s a chance … maybe even a likelihood … we see his backup again. All I know is the last two times Henne made playoff appearances, he saved a victory two years ago vs. Cleveland and helped win Saturday’s game vs. the Jags.

4.       In a passing game, running still matters. The NFL is supposed to be all about the quarterbacks, and it usually is. But not so much in the playoffs. An effective running game still makes a difference … and this weekend’s winners were the proof. Philadelphia shredded the Giants for 268 yards. Cincinnati had 172. Kansas City dissected Jacksonville for 144, while San Francisco put up 113 on Dallas -- including 86 in the second half. The four averaged 4.97 yards per carry, with only one more TD passing (6) than rushing (5).

5.       Cincinnati’s offensive line is deeper than advertised. The Bengals were supposed to be crippled up front by the loss of three starters. They weren’t. In fact, they dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage from beginning to end. But the surprise was how well Burrow was protected by his subs. A year ago, the Bengals’ offensive line was a major headache, with Burrow sacked 70 times (including the playoffs). On Sunday, he was sacked only once and hit three times. Time for Frank Pollack, Cincinnati’s offensive line coach, to take a bow.

THIRD AND 20

1.       According to reports, the NFL is considering neutral sites for future conference championship games. Please tell me they’re wrong. As former Packers’ exec Andrew Brandt pointed out on Twitter, “it sounds preposterous and a money grab by owners.” Check. Not only is it a poke at hometown fans; it’s a competitive disadvantage for higher seeds. There should be a reward for finishing with the best regular-season records, and home-field advantage is that reward. That makes sense. This idea does not. However …this is the same league that ships games overseas each year, another blow to competitive advantage and hometown support. So don’t say you weren’t warned.

2.       Key number for San Francisco rookie quarterback Brock Purdy: Zero. He’s had no turnovers in the playoffs and none in his past three starts. But now comes the hard part. “There’s no tougher place to play than playing in Philadelphia,” said Hall-of-Fame quarterback and FOX analyst Terry Bradshaw. He’s right.

3.       As shaky as Brett Maher was, the kicker wasn’t the story for Dallas. The quarterback was. For the sixth time this season, including the fourth time in the last seven games, Dak Prescott threw multiple interceptions. He had two, including one at the San Francisco 12 that not only short-circuited a sure Dallas scoring drive but led to a Robbie Gould field goal.

4.       Tell me again why Joe Burrow couldn’t start for Urban Meyer at Ohio State.

5.       Don’t let people tell you there’s no place for defense in today’s NFL. The NFC’s top two defenses this season were San Francisco and Philadelphia.

6.       When the NFL went to replay as an officiating tool it was never meant to overrule something like that Ja’Marr Chase “touchdown” catch. In most universes where they play football, that’s a score. Replay was supposed to correct egregious calls, not dissect minutiae. So do it.

7.       George Kittle or Travis Kelce?

8.       Now you know why coaches emphasize ball security. The weekend’s four winners committed one turnover (San Francisco). Their opponents had six.

9.       Look at it this way, Cowboys’ fans: You now have time to join owner Jerry Jones on Terry Bradshaw’s Getaway Vacation.

10.   I’m beginning to get the feeling that Lamar Jackson will push Aaron Rodgers for Best Actor in an Offseason Drama.

11.   Coming soon to FOX’s “Alert: Missing Persons Unit:” The entire Buffalo Bills defense.

12.   Quote of the day goes to Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. Asked what he thought of last week’s sale of tickets for a Buffalo-Kansas City neutral site, he said: “Better send those refunds.”

13.   How come we don’t hear more about Lou Anarumo? He’s Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, and he just put the kibosh on Josh Allen. Of course, that begs the question: If the Bengals can hit Allen eight times, what happens when they attack Patrick Mahomes on one leg?

14.   You gotta feel for Tony Pollard. That might be the last time we see him in a Cowboys’ uniform.

15.   What’s the deal with Kansas City’s Chris Jones? One of the game’s fiercest pass rushers, he still doesn’t have a sack in 13 playoff games. You can look it up.

16.   Stefon Diggs left the locker room in a huff, and I don’t blame him. He had one second-half catch for 8 yards Sunday and only four receptions and no scores for the afternoon. That makes it no TDs in Diggs’ last five playoff games. Stefon. Diggs. Hard to believe.

17.   Just wondering: Is “Knock at the Cabin” a movie about the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s incoming Class of 2023?

18.   Now more than ever, Minnesota’s playoff loss to the Giants looks worse.

19.   The NFL’s definition of delay of game should be canned. This isn’t exactly rocket science, fellas. If the clock strikes zero, it’s a penalty. Pretty simple.

20.   Saquon Barkley says he can’t “envision” Saturday’s game as his last with the Giants. Maybe that’s because the Giants can’t either.

SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET STATS

n  Robbie Gould hasn’t missed a field-goal attempt in the playoffs. Ever. He’s 29 for 29.

n  Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor is 5-1 in the playoffs.

n  The 49ers haven’t lost a game since Christian McCaffrey took over as a starter. They’re 12-0. According to ESPN, three of the previous four teams to enter conference championship games on winning streaks of 12 or more won the game.

n  This is the fifth straight year that Kansas City hosts a conference playoff game, the longest streak in NFL history.

n  Mike McCarthy is 0-4 vs. the 49ers in his playoff history.

SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES

n  “No excuses. They beat us. They ‘out-physicaled’ us.” – Buffalo coach Sean McDermott.

n  “Our goal is to win a Super Bowl or world championship, and we didn’t accomplish that. So everything that happened in the season is kind of null and void in our minds, and it sucks.” – Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen.

n  “Joe started 9-for-9 in his sleep. What more could you ask for?” – Cincinnati’s Ted Karras on Joe Burrow.

n  “Go win it.” – Buffalo cornerback Tre’Davious White to Burrow after the game.

n  “We’re sick. Just sick.” – Dallas owner Jerry Jones.

n  “Playoff football is never easy, but we’re moving on.” – San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Former Center Recalls the Worst Stadium Field Surfaces

By Joe Zagorski 
Wayne Mulligan played seven years in the NFL as a center from 1969 to 1975, the first five in St. Louis with the Cardinals, and the final two in New York with the Jets. During his time in the league, he had seen and experienced a portion of the game’s growth in national popularity across the nation. Mulligan also got a chance to play in many of the NFL’s stadiums during that era, and he quickly realized that some were better than others.  

A particular portion of Mulligan’s attention, and indeed of the attention of many of his counterparts in pro football during the 1970s, involved the playing surfaces of the fields being used across the league at that time. The advent of artificial surfaces made their initial appearances in football and baseball in the mid-to-late 1960s. 

By the time Mulligan played the final game of his pro career, the NFL had 16 stadiums that used one of three different versions of artificial turf. Those turfs went by the names of Astroturf, Poly-Turf, and/or Tartan Turf. 

The original idea behind using artificial turf field fields was twofold.  One, it gave the sport a cleaner and more colorful appeal for the growing television audiences. Two, because many of the stadiums that employed an artificial surface were also stadiums that were multi-sports facilities, meaning that both baseball and football were played there. Having an artificial surface made the transition from a baseball to a football configuration much easier for the stadium personnel and ground crews.

But undoubtedly the main opinion regarding artificial surfaces that Mulligan and his teammates and his opponents held about the “plastic grass” involved the specter of injuries. It became quickly observed that numerous injuries increased as soon as these new turf fields proliferated the game. 

Many of the players who took their stances during the 1970s will attest that they still must deal with the effects of a wide variety of continuous injuries to their various joints and muscles, to their knees, ankles, and feet, among other body parts. There are several reasons as to why, one of the most common and obvious of which was playing the game on artificial surfaces.

“Artificial turf…Astroturf…was terrible,” expressed Mulligan in a 2022 interview. “You were playing on asphalt, and it was destroying both joints and careers…like mine.”

The basic plan for how an artificial turf field was developed was similar, regardless of the stadium that used it. The plan began with a ½-inch to a 1-inch thick pad of rubber, which covered nothing but pure cement. On top of the padding was some brand of glue, spread evenly across the rubber padding. Then came the actual green “fake grass” field surface to top things off. The glue was supposed to keep the fake grass from shifting or moving around during the normal wear and tear of a typical season of games.  

But there were a few problems with this plan. One, the constant wearing down of the field surface and its padding from thousands of footsteps and falling bodies during a year would eventually thin both the turf and the padding, often to a point to where the players were playing on little more than green cement. Two, in a multi-purpose stadium, cutouts or divots for the baseball diamonds were left stitched in overlapping of the field surface, which meant that some sections of the field were dangerously uneven. The number of injuries caused when football players got their cleats caught in those uneven sections were numerous, to say the least. 

Then came one more factor which did a fair share of damage to the players and to the fields themselves…the weather. If a stadium was not a dome stadium, hot weather during the first couple of months of the season often caused the artificial surfaces to be slick and slippery, whether it rained or not. This was especially true of the Poly-Turf field at Miami’s Orange Bowl. That South Florida humidity had an adverse effect on the lifespan of that field, and by the time Super Bowl X was played on that field in January of 1976, the Orange Bowl turf was slated to be ripped up and replaced with a natural grass field. There were more than a dozen different needle and thread sewing repairs made to that field just prior to Super Bowl X.

Then there was another stadium in the nation’s Midwest.  Wayne Mulligan’s years in St. Louis forced him to deal with another artificial field surface at Busch Memorial Stadium. That field certainly took its toll on the young offensive center.

“I was a starter in my second year at St. Louis,” Mulligan said. “Besides the actual home games, we even practiced on that turf every day.  That’s five years of practices and games.  Many injuries thanks to that, even in practice.  I injured my right ankle during that time.  I missed games because of it, and I had to have my ankle surgically repaired.  Then in Cincinnati…another stadium that had artificial turf (Riverfront Stadium)…I had a shoulder separation there, and again, I required surgery to repair it.”

Another factor that hurt the players who played on the artificial turf fields were the skin abrasions that they got from them. It often did not matter how much padding a player wore on his arms. It was hard – and often impossible -- to escape those skin grazes and cuts. Countless were the hours spent in whirlpools and on training tables by the players of that era following the games and practices.  Countless also was the number of icepacks that were distributed among the players who fell victim to the artificial surfaces during the 1970s in the NFL.

“Artificial turf certainly impacted my longevity,” admitted Mulligan. “When I was healthy and when I was playing, no one beat me out of my starting position, in St. Louis or in New York.  Shea Stadium was a natural grass and dirt field, but it was just terrible too. Combining both football and baseball together on one field did not work…at least for football.  It was lousy.  It did not seem to have its own identity.”

The growth of stadiums that used artificial surfaces in pro football were undeniable during the 1970s.  Despite the corresponding growth of player injuries during that era, the league as a whole – for whatever reason and for better or worse – was going to keep the artificial turf fields.  Outside of perhaps placekickers, you would be hard-pressed to find at least one pro player from the 1970s who played on artificial surfaces who will have anything good to say about them.  

Sources:
Author interview with Wayne Mulligan on December 22, 2022.
Bortstein, Larry.  “Pro Stars Rate the Playing Fields.”  Football Digest, November, 1976, 30-36. 

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He has written several books about pro football and its personalities. His upcoming book The 2,003-Yard Odyssey: The Juice, The Electric Company, and an Epic Run for a Record, will be published by Austin-Macauley Publishers (New York) later in 2023.  He is currently writing a biography on former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame offensive guard Larry Little.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Channeling John Madden for the '2022 All-Madden Team'

 By John Turney 
John Madden Thanksgiving Sticker

Last year we lost Hall of Fame head coach and broadcaster John Madden and among the many iconic things he did in his incredible career was picking his annual All-Madden teams. It was anticipated by many every season as it always unveiled surprises and funny commentary accompanied by excellent NFL Films footage.

As an homage to those classic All-Madden teams, we are picking a 2022 version narrated in his voice and chose guys we think he might have picked were we lucky enough to still have him around.

*****************************

OFFENSE
Offensive line
My guys are the offensive linemen. They get nasty, dirty, sweat, and spit. You won't see them on the cover of magazines or making commercials. They just get hard work done. 

The center I like is Jason Kelce. He's a leader and he can run, he can lead sweeps, and he gets downfield like Jim Otto used to. He's like a lot of those old centers in the 1970s who could run, Len Hauss of Washington or Rich Saul of the Rams. Kelce sets the tone for that Eagles offense no one can seem to stop.

My big nasty guards are Ben Powers of the Ravens, who looks like a phone booth, and Mike Onwenu of New England who is a road grader. Powers is 310 but looks like he's 330 and Onwwenu is listed at 350 and looks like he's 370. Both are par'ful and can be nimble, too. There are guys that I love, too, guys like Zack Martin who is an All-Pro's All-Pro and who is going to the Hall of Fame but I want Powers and Onwenu this year.

Trent Williams is like Art Shell was, a man-mountain that moves like a cat. Penei Sewell is the same. He can block the run he can pass protect, you can line him up as an extra tight end or a fullback and if you want, he can run a pass route from those spots not just lead block. Those are my tackles.
David Quessenberry
Any team needs backups, even if you have a star-studded offensive line. And when you do the guys stepping in may not be as good as your starters but they need to be versatile and tough. David Quessenberry fits that bill. He can play guard, or either tackle and he can play through pain. Even on national television, he gutted it out. 

One thing about playing left tackle is you can get embarrassed in a hurry. And that is when you are a top draft pick and healthy. If you are not both of those things the odds of embarrassment go up and you have to have the courage to face both the possibility of those odds and to me, Quessenberry did just that. He's my backup lineman this year. 

In addition, when healthy he's a pretty good player. He worked his way into being a starter last year with the Titans after being a sixth-round pick of the Texans and being on the bench for a couple of years. Welcome to the All-Madden team, David.

Tight end

George Kittle
I had a tight end named Dave Casper who was a tackle at Notre Dame. The Steelers had a tight end named Larry Brown who they converted to a tight end. Down to coast from me, in Los Angeles, the Rams had a guy named Bob Klein, who became a dentist, but there was a serious conversation about him being moved from tight end to tackle. They won't do that with George Kittle but he fits that mold of a player. 

George reminds me of All-World tight end Russ Francis who played tight end in a running offense in New England. He was a 4.5 guy, liked to surf big waves in Hawaii, and could catch anything you threw to him. The problem was the Patriots didn't throw much and when they did it was deep to guys like Standley Morgan and Harold Jackson and God rest his soul Darryl Stingley. So that made Russ more of a decoy.

Later in Big Russ's career Bill Walsh traded for him but used him more as a blocker than a receiver. But Russ did as he was told and blocked like Casper, Brown, and Klein. 

But boy, oh, boy if played today he'd be like George Kittle. He'd run wider receiver routes, he'd run the pipe and split cover-2 defenses, he block defensive ends, he'd be like George Kittle now.

There are tight ends with bigger numbers than Kittle. And they are great, great players who will be in the Hall of Fame with Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzales someday but I want a throwback tight end who blocks like a tackle and catches like a receiver. That's George Kittle.

Receivers
Today's game is a passing game and you have to have the sleek fast guys that can get chunks of yards against multiple coverages the defenses throw at him. You got man and zones, shells and quarters. You have dime and nickel packages, penny fronts and every coin in your change purse and Tyreek Hill is one of those who can take all your money. His nickname is "Cheetah" and it's perfect for him. He has the speed of a Cliff Branch and the Dolphins use him in a variety of ways. Short, deep, in the slot, on the move, on sweeps. Just everything.
Justin Jefferson
The Vikings Justin Jefferson is another of my wideouts. You gotta have a glory guy, someone who can make defensive backs look bad and Justin is that guy. He can catch balls that should have been intercepted, just takes 'em away from the defender.  Some people said the Vikings were frauds. I don't know about that but Justin Jefferson sure wasn't. I know that.

If I had him I'd write myself a note to remind me to throw him the ball about four to five times a quarter.

Terry McLaurin of Washington reminds me of Gary Clark. Just a tough guy who plays wide receiver. You always have to have a third wide receiver like him. No, he does not have eye-popping statistics. But when you watch him your eyes pop.

Quarterback
Jalen Hurts
Jalen Hurts is my quarterback this year. He's confident, he makes plays with his legs and arm. He's probably going to be the NFL MVP this year and gives the Eagles a chance to win a Super Bowl. He also has a great name for the All-Madden teams, "Hurts" and that is what he does to defenses. And remember if your feet hurt then you should try tough-acting Tinactin™. Nothing works better for athlete's foot.

In the NFL you need a backup quarterback and you need a pretty good one so I will go with Brock Purdy. he's the guy you need when your guy goes down. Actually, in Purdy's case, he's the guy the 49ers needed when the guy who replaced their guy went down. So he's THAT guy. And when that guy can get you to the playoffs and not lose a game along the way, that guy is purdy good, even if he hands the ball off backward in Mexico. 

Running backs
Derrick Henry has the best stiff arm in the league and he's the Titans entire offense. When someone can put a team on his back and carry it then he's an All-Madden type of back.

When Henry needs a break and we need a guy to throw to out of the backfield or who can also carry the ball I want Deebo Samuel of the 49ers. If he were a full-time running back he'd run for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes. If he only played wide receiver he'd get close to 2,000 yards receiving. He never lets one guy tackle him to the ground. He's only 215 pounds but he looks like he's 230. Lemme tell you Deebo is a problem for defenses. He's the All-Madden all-purpose receiving back.

My team has to have a fullback. Maybe more than one. Patrick Ricard plays tight end, he's played defense in the past, he lead blocks and blocks on the edge as a wing or tight end and if you want, he can play defensive line. 

Kyle Juszczyk is not as big but he does all those little things, too I have to have both of them. Juszczyk is a Swiss Army Knife. Like Ricard, he plays fullback, but he can carry the ball and catch passes better, he can motion into the quarterback position and take a snap and sneak for a first-down in short yardage. I bet he could throw a pass if he had to. 

And when a new guy like Christian McCaffrey comes to the team he can tell the new guy where to line up. And that happened. In a game against the Rams McCaffrey went to the slot then didn't seem sure, Juice-check pointed to the spot and said, "Right here". And that is where McCaffrey went. 

That's part of the Swiss Army Knife-guy's job. Directing traffic.

DEFENSE
Defensive tackles
In 1985 I picked seven nose tackles for my All-Madden team. This year I am going to pick guys who play inside. They all are my kind of guy. Quinnen Williams and Dexter Lawrence are both tearing up Gotham City for the Jets and Giants.

Sexy Dexter is a member of B.U.B.B.A.—the Brotherhood United of Bad Bodies of America. He 6-4, 342 (so the roster says) and he's a rock in the middle of the Giants defense. He's a throwback to Michael Carter, one of the seven nose tackles I chose in 1985. An immovable object. And people forget that Carter had seven sacks that year. Big Dex also has seven so he does a pretty good job as pass rusher, too.

Quinnen is like that, too. He just messes up blocking schemes and frustrates opposing offensive coordinators by messing up their game plans.
Christian Wilkins
Another inside guy that is a classic All-Madden guy is Christian Wilkins. You gotta have a guy who makes tackles. I mean, it's tackle football, right? He made almost one-hundred tackles and a bunch were in the backfield. No, not a lot were sacks but that is what your ends are for. Wilkins is for making tackles.

No, I am not done with my big guys. You gotta throw in a glory guy at tackle and no one is better at that than Chris Jones. Earlier this season, Chris had one of the best strip-sacks in the history of the game where he made a great move, got to the quarterback, stole the ball on the way down, braced himself so he didn't use his full body weight so as to not draw a flag, and he got penalized anyway. I'm all for protecting the quarterbacks. 

We should have done it more in my day, but doggone it, that was one of the best plays I have ever seen a defensive lineman ever make and it didn't count. Something's got to be done about these roughing calls. Too many flags for things that are not fouls, even under current rules.

So Chris is the "Big Daddy Lipscomb" of this year's All-Madden team—tall, rangy, quick, and when he turns it on, he's just unstoppable

Defensive ends
Yeah, I said defensive ends, not edges. Edges are for shaving. And for shaving I like Gillette™. Smooth, safe, and comfortable, that's an edge I can understand.
Maxx Crosby
As I was saying ends and I like defensive ends who can rush and play the run. Maxx Crosby is that guy. He has sacks and also has tackled the running back eleven times for losses. He's blocked a kick and gets held about 10 times a game. His nickname is "The Condor" because of his long arms or wingspan and when he gets a sack he flaps his arms like one. Hey, my team needs a little flair.

In today's game, some people think defensive linemen don't need to stop the run. Lemme tell you they still do. In these 4-2 or 5-1 or even 3-3 fronts with six guys in the box you have to have linemen who are conscientious about stopping the run and Mad Maxx is one of those kinda guys. He could be one of two guys entering Thunderdome and be the one who leaves.

Nick Bosa is like Crosby but he moves around more. He's a speed guy, he's a power guy, he's a hands guy. He's a good-looking guy. He's like Howie Long and you have to have that around, you can't just be a bunch of big uglies, you need a PR guy, someone that says, "Hey, we look good." Bosa's a classic All-Madden guy and if he keeps going he may get a Super Bowl trophy. He's a shoo-in for the Defensive Player of the Year. That's a lot of hardware for Bosa. Speaking of hardware when you have a tough job to do make sure you go to your local Ace Hardware™ store. They make your hard work a little easier with the right tools for your job.
J.J. Watt
We also have to pick J.J. Watt who is retiring after twelve NFL seasons. Someone ought to make a poster of "Mr. Football" and this guy outta be on it. If a Martian landed in my yard and asked, "What is a football player?" I'd go get J.J. Watt. The NFL will miss J.J., that is for sure and for certain.

Linebackers
As you can tell I like guys who can do more than one thing and Micah Parsons is one of them. he plays inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive end, heck, he could probably play defensive back. He's like Bobby Bell, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chiefs. We could never do anything against that guy. We'd think he's covering and he'd blitz. We'd think he's going to blitz and he drops into coverage. 

Fred Warner of San Francisco and Tremaine Edmunds of Buffalo are my inside linebackers. We didn't have guys like them in my day, not playing inside that is. There were a few guys like them playing outside, tall, rangy, fast, but Warner and Edmunds could play power forward in the NBA, they run, get their hands up so you can't throw over them, they cover so much ground you can't run around them. You can't do anything. Both are like heat-seeking missiles . . . they hone in on their targets and close fast and smack you.

Another guy I want is Isaiah Simmons. He's a linebacker, a free safety a strong safety, and slot corner. He could be a defensive end, too, if you asked him to be. 

Secondary
Talanoa Hufanga of the 49ers is a monster. Makes plays in the backfield, causes turnovers, and can give you a lick. He's special. he's a cross between Troy Polamalu and Ronnie Lott.

As my other safety, I am going with the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu of the Saints. I love the way he plays football. He can play like a ball hawk type safety, he can play slot, linebacker, whatever you want, he can do it.

You gotta have guys who can cover. Sauce Gardner, he's going to cover you with sauce. The kind of sauce I like is the special sauce on a Big Mac®, and boy is that stuff good and remembers people, nobody can get you a great hot meal faster than McDonalds™. Anyway, Sauce is a lot like my Willie Brown was.
Jalen Ramsey
My other corner is Jalen Ramsey gave up some touchdowns this year but he was a thumper in the run game and could blitz and if you wanted to cover a big guy, like a D.K. Metcalf or DeAndre Hopkins or guys like that, Ramsey is your guy. he plays outside and also plays a "star" position, a slot corner, but I like the sound of "star". Your corner needs to be a star and Ramsey is a star. He can track a ball, pick it off, run with it after he catches it, and can rush and knock down a pass that way, he rushes from the edge on kick block units, and he also is a jammer sometimes on punt returns. He's another football player who can do a lot of things for me on my team.

Some people were offended that Jalen Ramsey gave the Seattle fans his middle finger in the season finale. Sure, it's not good for kids to see that, but you have to remember this is still the NFL and men will stand their ground sometimes. I could tell you some of the things I have seen and heard in my years in the NFL and trust me, you cannot repeat them in church. So, sure, Jalen got frustrated so he just gave the Seabird fans a bird of his own. Seems fair to me. I like his game.

All-Purpose players
Marcus Jones, Patriots. You always need a guy who can contribute in many ways and Jones is one of those. He can catch a pass and take it all the way, and he can deliver a hard hit like he did on Monday Night Football against the Cardinals. He can take a punt back on you and can run back kicks as well. heck, he is another guy who could probably throw a touchdown pass on you as well.
Taysom Hill
Another guy who can do a ton of things is Taysom Hill. He can run the ball, catch it throw it. He plays special teams. He could probably drive the team bus if you asked him to. I woulda loved having him on my team. I would wonder, though, how can a tough guy be so nice? I mean, he probably teaches Sunday school in the off-season. Taysom can kind of makes up for Jalen and his obscene gestures so it kind of evens out, wouldn't ya say? Hill evens out your karma. 

Kickers
The Ravens kicker Justin Tucker didn't have his best year but he's still a kicker who belongs on my team any day. he can kick darn near a 70-yard field goal or sing an aria, whatever that is, I guess it is some kind of opera, but you have to have some culture and Tucker brings that to the All-Madden team to go along with his big leg.

Johnny Hekker of the Panthers is like Ray Guy was. He nails teams inside the twenty-yard line more than anyone which creates long fields, he's a good athlete, can throw a pass for you on a fake punt or even as a holder on a fake field goal and though there may be guys with a better gross average what we looked at when I was coaching was he net average and hang time. That's what matters and that is what Johnny Hekker brings you. 

Special teamer
Josh Metellus 
Josh Metellus of the Vikings didn't make as many tackles as some other special teams players but he did block a pair of punts and that matters. Blocked punts can be devastating and often lead to points either directly or on short drives. They are invaluable to a team and a guy who can get them is too.

*********************************

Well, that's my 2022 All-Madden Team. I think I can coach them to a few wins with them. We can run the ball down the opponent's throat and throw it around the field. We can rush the passer and stop the run. We can kick it, block your kicks, we got guys who can play multiple positions so you never know who is going to do what. 

We're versatile, we're smart, we're tough and ornery. We got a Cheetah and a Honey Badger plus a Condor. We have an opera singer and a "we look good guy". We've got throwbacks and keepers. We have it all. 

They're my kinda guys.

After the game, we'll sit down and have a Miller Lite©, which tastes great and is less filling than your regular beer. Everyone will enjoy that, I think. Well, except Taysom, he'll have a Fresca© or something.