Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 PFJ All-Pro Team

By John Turney
It has been a year of injuries. Plenty of good players missed the entire season or chunks of the season and those injuries affected our annual All-Pro team. Quite a few players missed two, three, even four games. All on our star-packed team played at least 12, though, 75% of the scheduled games. It is the standard Sports Illustrated's Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman set back in the day and of course, we observantly follow it.

So, following Coach T.J. Troup's axiom of going "linear and logical" let's start with the receivers.
Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins are the clear First-team wideouts. They are the two best playmakers in the game right now. The Second-team was a tougher decision. Julio Jones and Keenan Allen got the nods over Adam Thielen who is our honorable mention at receiver.

Brown has a good case for not only Offensive Player of the Year but also MVP. Had he not been injured the last two weeks the numbers he would have put up may have justified those awards in a year where there is no clear-cut choice for those awards, in fact, he gets our vote as the Offensive Player of the Year.

Brown was on his way to a near 1800-yard season. As it his he finished the season with 101 catches for 1533 yards (15.2 avg.) and 9 TDs. Hopkins led the NFL in TD receptions with 13 and also acrobatic catches (the second claim is editorial, the first is factual); he finished the year with 96 receptions and 1,378 yards.

Thielen ran great routes and was very close to being on the Second-team. Jones had a small issue with drops and Thielen has a small issue with fumbles. It was that close that we had to get into the minutia to try and separate them. But finally, our eye-test picked Jones so Thielen falls to honorable mention, even though he ran steller routes we felt Julio was a hair better. Jones ended the year with 88 receptions for 1444 yards 16.4 avg and  3 TDs. The three touchdowns are low but Thielen had just 4 to go with his 91 catches and 1276 yards (14.0 avg.). Allen, our #3, had 102 receptions for 1393 yards for a 13.7 average and six touchdowns.
Rob Gronkowski edged Travis Kelce as the First-team tight end. The two honorable mention is Zach Ertz. In 14 games Gronk made 69 receptions for 1,084 yards (15.7 avg) and 8 TDs. in 15 games Kelce totaled 83 catches for 1,038 yards 12.5 (average) and also 8 TDs. The difference is Gronk is a better blocker and can get deep. 

Injuries affected our offensive line picks as some of very top linemen missed time. Often, we would break ties with who was able to avoid or play through injuries. But most of this years' best had to set out a few games.
Brandon Linder of Jacksonville is the First-team center. He can drive people out, is strong as the proverbial ox and smart and a great pass protector. He didn't allow a sack and was flagged just once for holding. Our Second-team pick is Rodney Hudson of the Raiders. There were a slew of good centers this year and we have four honorable mentions—Travis Frederick, Alex Mack, Jason Kelce, and Matt Paradis of Denver. We know, Kelce is the most fun to watch and what he does is special, operating in space, seeking and destroying targets, but he cannot dig people out like Linder and Hudson some others.

Rodger Saffold of the Rams and Larry Warford of the Saints are our top two guards. Saffold was particularly good in the screen game and in pass protection, but when Rams ran power plays, it would go his way and he'd lead very well. Saffold gave up one sack (on a very long end-tackle game where he picked up Calais Campbell and lost his block) and wasn't called for holding at all.

Warford, who was dinged a couple of times this year, was dominant every time we saw him. Good drive blocker, powers, pass protection. We felt he was a key cog in the Saints dominant run game and like Saffold, he gave up just one sack (to Dontari Poe) and was not flagged for holding.

Our Second-team guards are Joel Bitonio of the Browns and then David DeCastro and Zack Martin who tied for the final slot. Bitonio often gets overlooked due to the lack of success the Browns have had the last few years. DeCastro started, we felt, hot and then cooled and Martin was the opposite, starting a hair slow then heating up towards the end of the season.
Three outstanding players are the honorable mentions at guard Kelechi Osemele of the Raiders. Joe Thuney and Brandon Brooks of the Eagles. We had Thuney very high, maybe even First-team until he struggled a bit lately. He's a bit smaller than most guards and maybe lacks some ballast—no ass, as some coaches/scouts might say. But technically he was excellent this season.
Our starting tackles are Taylor Lewan, Ten, and Lane Johnson, Phi. They are backed by a left tackle who missed time but also played great— David Bakhtiari, GB. Jordan Mills, Buf, takes the Second-team slot behind Johnson.

Lewan was dominant most of the year, though he had his struggles last week versus Robert Quinn. He got called for a hold and should have been called another couple of times. Johnson did get flagged against the Raiders but we agree with Johnson,—a couple were bogus.

Russell Okung of the Chargers, Alejandro Villanueva of the Steelers, the Los Angeles Ram left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the Titans right tackle Jack Conklin, are our honorable mention tackles. Okung and Villanueva were steady all year and the Chargers pass protection was top notch. Whitworth looked dominant early on but struggled some later in the year giving up sacks and hits on the QB. Whitworth, though provided tons of leadership and steadiness, so even when he was beat it didn't ruin his game, he just moved on and did his job. Conklin was not-so-steady early and came on toward the end of the year to the level of last year.
Our First-team quarterback is Tom Brady and our Second-team pick is Carson Wentz. The honorable mentions are Alex Smith and Russell Wilson. Wentz going down with a knee injury was tragic. He was performing at a high level and though Eagles fans might like us saying this but we think their Super Bowl chances likely went down with him.

Brady had thrown 8 picks in the last five weeks after throwing just two in the first eleven games but his team is 13-3 and his passer rating is 102.8. If the standards he set were not so high it wouldn't be a question about who is the MVP. But since it's not a "Brady MVP-type" season there is hope for others. His final stat line was 385/581 got 66.3% and 4,577 yards for 32 TDs and 8 interceptions.

Wentz was 11-2 and his passing stats were 265/440 (60.2%) for 3296 yards and 33 TDs and 7 picks for a 101.9 passer rating.

Honorable mention is Alex Smith who was 341/505  for a 67.5 completion percentage for 4042 yards 26 TDs,  5 INTs and a 104.7 passer rating good for the passing title. This season he silenced some critics for being efficient in his deep passing. We also pick Russell Wilson as an honorable mention for doing lots with little.

For time immemorial All-Pro teams consisted of two running backs. Even after the addition of the 'fullback' position the AP, for example, still chose two running backs. And last year, with the advent of the 'flex' position, it went to a running back. We are fully aware there is only one runner and one blocker in 21 personnel. We are going to choose two running backs anyway. It's just how these things are done and no amount of revisionist history can change our minds. 

Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell are the First-team running backs. Call Bell a 'flex' if you must. But these two are the top backs and are three-down backs who do it all. They could both finish in the top three of the AP MVP race and also in the AP Offensive Player of the Year race. Bell ended the year with 1,291 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns paired with 82 catches for 655 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Gurley led the NFC in rushing with 1305 yards and added 788 yards receiving and had 13 rushing touchdowns and six receptions for touchdowns.

Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs and the Bears Jordan Howard are the backups. Hunt, the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year had 1,327 yards rushing (led NFL) and a 4.9 average and 8 touchdowns and 53 catches and 3 TD receptions for a total of 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. Howard was not as active in the passing game as the top three but did surpass 1,100 yards rushing and had 9 rushing touchdowns.
Kyle Juszczyk is the First-team fullback. He is a fabulous lead blocker and caught several passes downfield on wheel routes and was pretty impressive doing it. The Second-teamer is James Develin who played a lot of snaps (relatively speaking) and was very versatile, as were all the Patriots backs.

Our third (non-starter) wide receiver goes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Keelan Cole of Jacksonville. Schuster had to start some due to injuries and other issued but his role was as the third receiver most of the season and he produced well with 58 catches 917 yards for a 15.8-yard average and seven scores. Cole totaled nearly 750 yards receiving and almost an 18-yards a catch average.

Our third-down back specialist is Alvin Kamara of the Saints followed by James White of New England. Kamara is a Pro Bowler and not only excelled as a third-down back but also in spelling Mark Ingram as a "1B" back. And, like a Darren Sproles or a Dave Meggett, who were great third-down backs, he can take a kick back all the way for a touchdown. He's quite a threat and quite large for a back who has this role in an offense and is likely in a neck-and-neck race for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Duke Johnson is the honorable mention as third-down back. Chris Thompson of Washington was on his way to this slot but was felled by an injury. In ten games he scored six touchdowns and was on pace for 800 receiving yards.

Our 40 end position was extremely tight. No one stood out among the others and went down to the wire. We watch lots and lots of NFL Game Pass to make this decision.

Cameron Jordan had 13 sacks and 11 passes deflected. When you figure an average pass attempt is 7 yards then Jordan saved, in theory, 77 yards. A sack is, on rough average 7 yards. Add in the average pass of seven then a sack is worth 14 yards (in theory). So, his pass deflections are really worth, in yards, 5.5 sacks. And if you assume that the average defensive lineman deflects two in a season he still is "gaining" 4.5 sacks at it were. He is a power rusher, often makes an inside move and plays a lot of snaps, in fact going into the final weekend he led all NFL defensive linemen—playing 93% of the Saints defensive snaps. He's hard to ignore, he played both sides and was sometimes a stand-up defensive end when the Saints gave an Okie look on defense.

Calais Campbell was a big-time spark for the Jaguars defense, a terrific signing. He has 14.5 sacks but ten of those came in the first half of the season. Campbell plays the closed (away from tight end) in base defense and reduces to tackle in sub defenses (nickel/dime). He's always been stout against the run but this year didn't make as many plays on running backs in the backfield as he usually does,

Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen are essentially bookends, with Lawrence on left and Griffen on the right. They are both speed/outside, arc-rushers that both will counter inside with a spin move and various other counter moves. Both play the run okay, and both get up the field. Griffen's production slipped some due to him playing with plantar fasciitis for a few weeks. Lawrence ended the season with 58 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 14.5 sacks, and over 40 hurries according to Stats, LLC. Griffen was right behind him, statistically, with 46 tackles and 13 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Joey Bosa and Brandon Graham are also part of the mix. Bosa, though, played on a defense that just could not stop the run whereas Graham's defense was good against the run. Graham played outside at defensive end in base, but in sub defenses, Graham would reduce to tackle. We eliminated Bosa because he just had too many penalties (nine) called on him and four of them were 15-yarders. For comparison, the next most of our group was Lawrence with seven called on him on plays from scrimmage and none were 15-yarders. (He did have one 15-yarder—leverage, on a special teams play).

In the end, we went with Jordan on the First-team and tied Campbell and Lawrence on the Second-team. It was hard leaving Griffen off but top honorable mention is where he'll have to be. Graham and Bosa are also worthy honorable mentions.

Our 30 end position (3-4 DE) is filled by Cameron Heyward (First-team) and Akiem Hicks of the Bears (Second-team). Michael Brockers of the Rams is the honorable mention. All three of these players start as 3-4 ends but in nickel, they play defensive tackle most of the time, though Brockers will take some snaps on the edge in nickel. If he had more wiggle he'd have been on the First- or Second-team. Hicks plays similarly to Brockers, he stands guards and tackles up, and sheds with a jerk move or swim and makes the tackle.

Heyward ended the year with 45 tackles, 12 sacks, 6 run/pass stuffs and a pair for forced fumbles. In the base defense he was the right end, in their sub-packages he was an inside rusher—defensive tackle and provided lots of push up the middle
Our rush tackle (3-technique) is Aaron Donald of the Rams. He's backed by Geno Atkins of the Bengals. Donald finished with 41 tackles, 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, and 6.5 stuffs and 32.5 hurries (according to Stats, LLC). And it was a fine year, but having looked at lots of Donald film over the years, 2017 is his maybe second or third-best year. Again, it's a very high standard but as good as he was, he's been better. Atkins finished with 9 sacks and that narrowly put him into the second slot. It's not that Atkins wasn't good, he was. It's just he wasn't great. And the same is true for our honorable mention.

Fletcher Cox, Phi, and Ndamukong Suh, Mia,  are next in line followed by Kawann Short, Car, Jurrell Casey, Ten, and Grady Jarrett, Atl, Mike Daniels, GB, and Malik Jackson, Jax all as honorable mentions.
On the center shade, we have Damon Harrison of the Giants followed by Timmy Jernigan of the Eagles. Snacks Harrison played on a defense that struggled but we didn't see him struggle. He was involved in lots of plays and stayed in a big on passing downs, at least for a nose tackle. Jernigan didn't play on a lot of passing downs with Brandon Graham reducing to defensive tackle and Fletcher Cox moving to right tackle (often over the center) in those situations but he was stout in the run game and part of an excellent run-stopping defense with 9 run/pass stuffs and 28 total tackles.

The three honorable mentions at nose are Linval Joseph of the Vikings, Domata Peko of Denver, and Dontari Poe of the Falcons, who played some fullback, too.
At rush backer, we chose Chandler Jones of the Cardinals followed by Jadeveon Clowney of Houston. But rushed the passer well and made plays in the backfield on run plays. Jones just gets it done. He doesn't look particularly athletic, at least compared to some others at his position, like say Clowney. But he seems to make play after play and is a superb technician who uses his long arms well and has a nice inside move. Jones ended the year with 17 of the team's 37 sacks (46%), 11 run/pass stuffs (NFLGSIS gave him 1 more) and led the NFL with 33 QB hits (source NFLGSIS) all on a defense that allowed less than 90 rushing a game and 3.5 yards a rush, both among NFL's best.

Clowney, when you watch him, just exudes athleticism. He blows up blockers, makes blockers miss, delivers a big hit. He moved around more this year, even rushing from a stand-up position behind the defensive tackles or even in the A-Gaps, but his best work was done rushing from the edge. His season totals were 59 tackles (13.5 were run/pass stuffs) and 9.5 sacks.

The list of great players who are honorable mentions begins with Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Terrell Suggs, Brandon Graham, and Melvin Ingram. The Cardinals call Jones a "SAM", the Texans call Clowney a "JACK", Broncos list Miller as a "Will" this year, the Raiders call Mack a "DE", the Ravens list Suggs as "RUSH" and the Chargers list Ingram as "LEO". We use the Lawrence Taylor term "rush backer" and are sticking to it. All had good seasons. 

Bobby Wagner got the nod as First-team middle linebacker edging Luke Kuechly. Deion Jones of the Falcons is the "sleeper".Wagner was (and maybe still is) a Defensive Player of the Year candidate but late-season nicks hurt his play to some degree. He ended with 133 tackles (13 were run/pass stuffs), two picks, 1.5 sacks, six PDs and a safety plus 13 QB hits.

Kuechly had 125 tackles (10 were run/pass stuffs), 3 fumbles recovered, one FF, a sack and three picks. Deion Jones had 11 run/pass stuffs (6 of which were on pass plays which led the NFL) among his 138 tackles and three picks and is our lone honorable mention at middle linebacker.

At 3-4 ILB we chose C.J. Mosley, Bal and Ryan Shazier, Pit. The honorables are Blake Martinez, GB, and Wesley Woodyard, Ten. Mosley was better versus the run than the pass but he was a key in the good Ravens defense. His stat line was 11 run/pass stuffs among his 132 tackles, two picks (one for a TD) a sack, two forced fumbles, two recovered and eight passes deflected.

Shazier would have been the top ILBer but his injury sidelined him and Moseley kept on doing his thing, and we gave the nod to him. In his 12 games, Shazier totaled 5.5 run/pass stuffs, 99 tackles, three picks, two forced fumbles, one recovery and 10 passes defended.

Martinez had 9.5 run stuffs and 142 tackles a sack, an interception, eight passes defensed, a forced fumble and a pair of recoveries while Woodyard's stats included 121 tackles and 10 run/pass stuffs, four sacks, two fumbles recovered (one for a score). 
For the 4-3 "cover" backer he selected Telvin Smith, Jax just ahead of Lavonte David, TB. Smith was active in coverage with three picks and returned one for a score and had another touchdown on a scoop and score. He had 11 run/pass stuffs to go with his 102 tackles and sack. Had he not been nicked for a few games he had a shot at Defensive Player of the Year. David forced five fumbles and recovered five as well as being a menace in backfields (8 run/pass stuffs). 

Sean Lee of Dallas is our exception to the 12-game rule, he only played 11 games but had 13.5 run/pass stuffs (tied with Clowney for the NFL lead) and 101 tackles in those games is an honorable mention along with  Anthony Barr, Vikings (5 pass stuffs as a strong side linebacker),  K.J. Wright, Seattle (who moved from SAM 'backer to WILL this season),  Christian Kirksey, Cleveland. Kyle Van Noy is on our All-AFC team as a Second-team pick, he was good all year (until hurt the final month) in making plays in the backfield, sacks, stopping sweeps, stuffing runs or passes and was good in coverage.
Casey Hayward, LAC, and Xavier Rhodes, Min, after lots of study, took the top cornerback spots. And Micah Hyde, Buf, as strong safety and Harrison Smith, Min, at free safety round out the starting four of the secondary. Rhodes would usually take the top receiver of the opponents and was seemingly always in good position. Hayward was great all season except for maybe the game in Kansas City where he bit on a double move and got beat by Tyreek Hill. However, everyone gets beat from time to time and Hayward was also playing nicked.

Safeties are getting harder to distinguish these days. Both safeties have to do so much that strong and free safety positions are melding together more than ever. You can watch Harrison Smith and he's in the box, near the line of scrimmage quite often. Lots of "strong" safeties play the Will backer in nickel defenses (Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins to name two) and several have been converted to linebackers, such as Mark Barron, Deone Bucannon, and Eric Reid.

But we felt Smith was the best overall and Michal Hyde was the best of the strong safeties. 
The First-team secondary is ably backed by Jalen Ramsey, Jax, and Marshon Lattimore, NO, at corner and Reshad Jones, Mia, and Kevin Byard, Ten as strong- and free-safety Second-teamers

At corner, the honorable mentions are Darius Slay, Det (8 picks), and A.J. Bouye of Jacksonville (6 picks). The list of honorable mention safeties begins with  Eric Weddle, Bal, Earl Thomas of  Seattle, Glover Quinn of the Lions, Adrian Amos of the Bears, Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles (Our Second-team All-NFC pick), and Jahleel Addae, the Charger strong safety. Another honorable mention safety is the up-and-comer, Sean Davis. We originally had him penciled in on the Second-team but the blown coverage in the Patriots game dinged him. It may not have been the best scheme in that we question why there wasn't some help, but even though he's been quality in the run game, he did struggle a bit too much in the passing game to be All-Pro this year. Addae is an in-the-box safety and is another who spends time as a linebacker in nickel/dime/dollar (7 DBs) defenses. Thomas is a truly free safety as is Quinn. Neither of them spends much, if any, time near the line of scrimmage.

Our extra DB (non-starter) is Kendall Fuller, Washington, on the First-team and Desmond King, Chargers, on the Second-team. Earlier in the season, we liked Lardarius Webb, Ravens, but there was a time in the middle of the season they were not using him much and wonder what was happening there. Fuller picked off four passes, defensed nine, and forced a fumble. King played the slot, mostly, and totaled over 60 tackles, had a pick-six and recorded four sacks off slot blitzes. 

The designated rusher, though he did start a few games in a pinch, is Julius Peppers or Carolina. Peppers had 11 sacks (and lost one due to a slow whistle) and forced a pair of fumbles.

The Jaguars Dante Fowler took Second-team nod over Adrian Clayborn of the Falcons. Clayborn just had too much of his production in one game (6 of his 9.5 sacks) and not consistent throughout the season. Fowler would play end in the Jaguars sub-packages when Calais Campbell would reduce to defensive tackle and was more consistent week-in and week-out than Clayborn and ended with 8.5 sacks, 3 fumbles recovered (one for a TD) and two forced fumbles.

Chris Long, Phi, Carl Lawson, Cin and Elvis Dumervil, SF, all deserve special mention as the nickel rusher spot. Long lost at least two sacks to penalties and really come on late in the season with his sack/forced fumbles sealing two wins for the Eagles.
Justin Tucker, Bal, edges Greg Zuerlein, LA for the top kicker spot. The honorable mentions are Robbie Gould, SF, and Stephen Gostkowski, NE. Zuerlein was the top kicker but was another player who was felled by injury and he played with a painful back versus Seattle a couple of weeks ago and missed a PAT and had a kickoff go out of bounds but we didn't hold that against him. Tucker just came on strong and like Hekker, 2017 may not be quite as good as 2016 but he's still the best kicker in the game.

Tucker ended up hitting on 34/37 field goals and didn't miss a PAT and was 5 of 7 from 50 yards and beyond. Zuerlein was 38/40 on field goals (and one miss was from 63 yards) but did shank a couple of PATs and kicked a couple of kickoffs out of bounds (Tucker had none). But Zuerlein gets a pass from us on 1 missed PAT and one muffed kickoff in that he did it in a game where he had a severe lower back injury.

On kickoffs Tucker had 12 (13.3%) end up inside the 20 (a key stat) while Zuerlein had just eight inside the 20 (8.4%) and the two we mentioned that trickled out of bounds. It was clear that the Rams preferred to get a touchback most of the time rather than risk a touchdown return against them (Zuerlein had a 77% touchback rate) and Tucker's percentage was 61.1%.  So, it was so close we looked at everything and we have Tucker a hair ahead.

If the AP, PFWA or SN poll differently, we are fine with it, Zuerlein would be a worthy All-Pro. But in our view, Tucker is, too. And, the exact same thing goes for the punter position as well (read on).
Johnny Hekker, LA, edges Brett Kern, Ten. And the honorables for punter are Chris Jones, Dal, and Justin Vogel, GB. We prefer punters who limit returns and three of these four excelled in that area. Kern led in gross punting and net, but it was close.

Hekker can do the 'extras' like run a fake punt and a key tackle on a return, things like that. However, he didn't have the year in 2017 that he had in 2016. He missed too many "greens" this year and flew a few too many if you will. He had several punts just outside the 20-yard line and more touchbacks this year. However, that is going by the unbelievable standards set in 2016 which was likely the best season any punter ever had so we may be being too critical.

Hekker ended the season with 30 inside-the-20 and 4 touchbacks for a 7.5-1 IN/20-TB ratio and allowed just 152 return yards and none were blocked and none were returned for touchdowns and his net punting was 44.3 yards. In the end, it was these "control stats" that edged Hekker's name over Kern's.

Kern's gross average ended up 49.7. He'd held a plus 50-yard average until the final game of the season. He dropped 28 kicks inside the 20-yard time and had just 5 touchbacks for a 5.6 ratio and his final net average was just ahead of Hekker at 44.6. He did allow 286 return yards, far more than Hekker (and Vogel for that matter). How much of that was outkicking coverage? How much was that a product of covering errors? That would take some study.

In addition, with the race so close, we considered Hekker's 2 for 3 in passing and his 3 tackles on returns on his own punts and those were two more small "pluses" for Hekker.

Jones ended the season with a 41.4 net average and a 34 to 5 In-20/TB ratio and was, like Hekker, a threat to run a successful fake punt. Vogel allowed only 164 return yards and had a final net average of 41.6

Pharoh Cooper of the Rams is the #1 kick returner and the Lions Jamal Agnew, is the top punt returner. Cordarrelle Patterson of Oakland is the Second-team KR and Michael Campanaro of the Ravens is the Second-team PR.

Agnew returned two punts for touchdowns and we put a premium on that over return average, but his average was stellar 15.4. Cooper averaged 27.4 per return and also took one to the house. He was second in the NFL with 932 return yards which is saying something in an era where so many kicks are not returned.

Technically, Patterson didn't qualify for the league leadership due to too few returns, but with today's rules, that bar needs to be lowered. He averaged 28.3-yard per return average on 19 attempts.

Cooper is an honorable mention punt returner and Bobby Rainey, Bal, is HM at KR. If there were only one returner for both the kick return and punt return position it would be Cooper.

For core special teamer we went with Budda Baker or the Cardinals on the First-team and Cory Littleton, LA, as the Second-teamer. Littleton blocked two punts (one short of the Rams record) narrowly missed a third, was a key blocker on the kickoff return team and was second on the Rams in special teams tackles. Baker

The honorables for special teams are Tyler Matakevich, Pit, and Keith Smith of Dallas.

MVP—Tom Brady, NE
OPOY—Antonio Brown, Pit
DPOY—Chandler Jones, Ari
OROY—Kareem Hunt, KC
DROY—Marshon Lattimore, NO
Comeback—Jared Goff, LAR
Coach—Sean McVay, LAR

Here are our All-Conference teams:
Address all complaints to the author. All we can say is we did our homework, watched a lot of All-22, talked to pro scouts and assistant coaches in our quest to do our best.

MVP—Tom Brady, NE
OPOY—Antonio Brown, Pit
DPOY—Chandler Jones, Ari
OROY—Kareem Hunt, KC
DROY—Marshon Lattimore, NO
Comeback—Jared Goff, LAR
Coach—Sean McVay, LAR
Executive—Howie Roseman, Phi

Position Awards:
Offensive Lineman of the Year—Lane Johnson, Philadelphia
Defensive Lineman of the Year—Aaron Donald, Los Angeles
Linebacker of the Year—Chandler Jones, Arizona
Defensive Back of the Year—Harrison Smith, Minnesota
Running Back of the Year—Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Receiver of the Year—DeAndre Hopkins, Houston
Returner of the Year—Pharoh Cooper, Los Angeles Rams
Special Teams Player of the Year—Budda Baker, Arizona
Kicker/Punter of the Year—Johnny Hekker, St. Louis

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Ed Healey Booklist

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

     “He was as good a tackle as I’ve ever seen. Oh, how Healey loved to come downfield under a punt! He was an absolutely vicious football player,” recalled Red Grange, former Bears teammate.
Ed Healey, Chicago Bears
On this date (Dec. 28th) in 1894 Ed Healey was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. The six-foot, 210 pound linemen attended Dartmouth and then played eight years in the NFL for two teams- the Rock Island Independents (1920-1922) and the Chicago Bears (1923-1927). While playing for Rock Island, Healey made such a strong impression playing in a game against the Chicago Bears, that Bears owner and starting end George Halas, paid one hundred dollars to buy his services.

Healey was highly regarded as one of the best linemen in the early days of the NFL. Routinely making All-Pro at tackle, he was selected to the 1920’s All-Decade Team and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964.

Although Healey does not have a book written about him he is featured in one chapter of Myron Cope’s fantastic oral history book of early pro football titled “The Game That Was,” published in 1970 (The World Publishing Company).

The Game That Was

The Game That Was, coffee table version, published in 1974
A very entertaining and insightful chapter, Ed Healey is a rousing story-teller for Cope.

22 pages in length Healey talks about a variety of subjects, such as growing up on his family farm in Springfield; playing football and attending school at Dartmouth; how George Halas bought him from Rock Island; playing with the great Red Grange and his manager C.C. Pyle; and retiring from the NFL after getting married in 1927.

Ed Healey chapter in The Game That Was
One of the stories in The Gane That Was has Healey telling the story of negotiating his salary with Bears co-owners George Halas and Dutch Sternaman:

“But I went to Chicago and talked to Halas and Sternaman in their ‘private’ office, which was the lobby of the Planters Hotel. They offered to pay me seventy-five dollars a game. I said, ‘I wouldn’t sit on your bench for seventy-five dollars a game.’ So after a discussion of remuneration which lasted about two hours, they agreed, and rightfully so, to pay me a hundred bucks a game. “

Celebrate Healey's birthday by reading the chapter of him in The Game That Was.

Monday, December 25, 2017

End Zone Remains Impassible for Hundley at Lambeau Field

By Eric Goska

Brett Hundley is the Jerry Tagge of Generation Y.

Neither quarterback threw a regular-season touchdown pass at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers failed to pierce the end zone in a 16-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings Saturday night. It was the second time Minnesota has blanked Green Bay in the series and the second time the Packers have been shut out at home this season.

Hundley, who has been filling in for the injured Aaron Rodgers, has been playing like Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde. On the road, he has posted a respectable passer rating of 97.6 At home, his rating is a miserable 50.6.

Against the Vikings Saturday night, Hundley was again ugly. He completed 17 of 40 passes for 130 yards with two interceptions (30.2 rating) and no touchdowns.

So ineffective was he, that on each of Green Bay’s first five drives, the team never moved beyond its 47-yard line. Not until Play No. 22 – a 24-yard scramble by Hundley – did the team cross midfield.

Only twice did the Packers penetrate Minnesota’s red zone. Hundley was intercepted by safety Harrison Smith on the first journey there. On the second trip, the young quarterback failed to connect with tight end Lance Kendricks and receiver Michael Clark on third and fourth down from the 13.

Hundley’s longest completion of the evening was merely 19 yards. With the Vikings allowing very few yards after the catch, those two red-zone possessions were Hundley’s best opportunities to end his touchdown drought at Lambeau.

Oh, yes, the drought. Hundley has yet to throw a regular-season touchdown pass at Lambeau Field.

Little wonder, then, that the Vikings joined the Ravens (23-0) in shutting out Green Bay this season. Little wonder, then, that Minnesota held the Packers scoreless for the first time since blanking them 3-0 at Metropolitan Stadium in 1971.

Hundley’s woes at home have been well documented. He has struggled as no Packers quarterback has in more than a generation.

In fact, one must be older than Hundley himself (born June 15, 1993) to recall such angst-ridden days.

This season, Hundley has attempted 162 passes at home without a touchdown pass. Add to that his three attempts as a rookie, and that’s 165 straight without reaching the end zone, a Lambeau Field record.

Third down has been a challenge. Hundley has completed 20 of 40 passes for 149 yards with two interceptions (38.4 rating).

He hasn’t completed a pass longer than 15 yards on third down at home. That “long gainer” went to Davante Adams against the Ravens.

Only eight of Hundley’s 40 third-down pass attempts resulted in first downs (20 percent). The elusive quarterback has done better when he takes off running as seven of his eight third-down scrambles moved the chains.

The red zone and fourth down have been nightmarish. His rating in regard to both is zero.

He’s 1-for-6 on fourth down with an interception. He’s 2-for-9 in the red zone with two picks.

It’s no secret. Hundley has been frozen out at home.

If there is one quarterback who can empathize with Hundley, it might be Tagge. Tagge played three years for the Packers (1972-74) and never threw a touchdown pass (in 93 attempts) at Lambeau Field.

Tagge’s rating at the stadium was an anemic 25.9. It remains the poorest by a passer there with at least 50 career attempts.

Passing at Lambeau Field has been a source of pride for the Packers over the past 25 seasons (1992-2016). Only three times did the competition earn a higher passer rating than the Packers (2000, 2004 and 2006). The Green and Gold finished on top in each of the last 10 seasons.

That streak has ended. Green Bay’s passer rating at home this year was 72.7. Opponents compiled a rating of 96.3.

That’s a difference of 23.6. Not since 1991 have the Packers (50.1 rating at Lambeau Field) been outgunned to such a degree by the competition (90.6).

Shooting Blanks
Players who attempted 50 or more passes at Lambeau Field without throwing a touchdown pass.

Atts.    Player                   Career Rate at LF
165      Brett Hundley                49.7
93        Jerry Tagge                    25.9
88        Charlie Batch                42.4
77        Rodney Peete                44.7
56        Mike Phipps                  33.9
50        Dave Brown                  48.7

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Aaron Donald Gets a Big Gift for Christmas and One Small Lump of Coal

By John Turney
The Los Angeles Rams traveled to Nashville and took on the Titans and also took away a victory and a NFC Western Division Crown. That is Donald's "Big Gift" this season.  The lump of coal is the official scorer took away a sack from Donald.

Yes, I know, there is something about no more miscellaneous yardage in the NFL anymore or some such thing but for all intents and purposed Donald sacked Marcus Mariota late in the Second Quarter but was given credit only for the forced fumble but not the sack.

It went down like this:  On nd and nine on the Rams 21-yard line dropped back to pass and before he could get the pass off to his running back Aaron Donald hit his arm and the ball flew a bit forward. There was a mini-scrum for the ball and eventually, Mariota picked up the ball and ran with it for three yards (to the Ram 19 yard-line) before being tacked.

Since the play took place in the final two minutes of the half Mariota was the only one who could legally advance the ball, which he did. However, since he was able to get it past the original line of scrimmage it was no longer a sack. Mariota was credited with a three-yard gain.
But here is the fumble recovery yardage for the game:
Here are stills of the sequence, all credit to NFL GamePass

Over the years I have had several discussions with Seymour Seywoff of Elias Sports Bureau about what is and isn't a sack. His main contention always was that there had to be an attempt to pass for a play for qualify for a sack. But what about a run? Shouldn't the same rules apply?

Mariota had no intent on a run play, he attempted to pass and was stripped of the ball. And by a chance recovery, he is credited with a run for three yards? Please. It was a sack and the yardage given to Mariota as rushing yards should be credited to him a fumble recovery yardage for the simple reason it was not a run, it was a fumble recovery.

Does THIS look like a rushing attempt? Picking a ball off of the turn then rolling and getting up for three yards? Again, it's fumble recovery yardage.

The Rams coaching staff can appeal to the NFL but they will likely lose, just like they did in 2014 but a fluke scoring by a fluke rule really cannot dissuade fair observers that Donald, a possible NFL Defensive Player of the Year by AP, PFWA, and SN, will be shorted one sack. It won't make tons of difference, but if Siwoff's policy for Elias all those years is "to be right" then this is a chance to get it right. It was a strip sack and a fumble recovery for three yards.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Chesapeake Fog and a Miracle over Miami

Great Games of the 1970s
By Joe Zagorski
The Baltimore Colts began the decade of the 1970s in the greatest fashion that any team could hope for—by capturing the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl V. The following year (1971), they managed to return to the playoffs as the wildcard entry in the American Football Conference. For the next three seasons, however, they had become good at only one thing, and that one thing was losing.  The Colts were in a series of transitions, make-overs, rebuildings, and annual visits to the blackboard during the 1972, 1973, and 1974 seasons. They accumulated the grand total of only 11 wins during those three years. Their fortunes appeared to look no better in 1975. They had a rookie head coach who had plenty of experience as an assistant coach in the NFL. But Ted Marchibroda was new to the fraternity of head coaches in the pro ranks, and for a team that had very little experience on their roster, his work was certainly cut out for him. 
 The 1975 Colts began the year in the fashion that most onlookers expected, losing four of their first five games. They appeared to be done. Stick a fork in them, packing it in, and dealing with another head-scratching off-season. Then out of nowhere, the Colts offense suddenly woke up, and the team scored six touchdowns in a 45-28 win at New York against the Jets. A miracle came into their huddle, and they became a completely different team from that point on. The Colts strung together eight straight wins, and their offense scored an average of 35 points per game from weeks six through 12.  The Colts were now poised on the precipice of winning the AFC Eastern Division crown.  But before they could earn the title of division champions, they had to knock off the defending division champs – the Miami Dolphins—on December 14th, 1975.
Miami had experienced more recent success than any other team in the NFL in the early 1970s. But in 1975, they were dealing with more injuries to key players than they had ever had to deal with before. Dolphins head coach Don Shula had to plug quite a few young and inexperienced players into his starting lineup when nine of his veteran starters on defense were lost for the season to various injuries. Nevertheless, Shula had his team vying for another division title by the 13th week of the season. A victory over the Colts on December 14th would give Miami their fifth straight division championship.

The Dolphins would definitely not be taking the Colts lightly. They had lost to the Colts in their earlier meeting on November 23rd at the Orange Bowl by a score of 33-17. In a game that was emblematic of Baltimore’s entire 1975 season, the Colts came from behind in the second half and dominated the Dolphins in that first contest. This rematch in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium would give Miami a much-desired chance for revenge. 

The Colts would certainly go into the make or break game versus the Dolphins with a healthier overall lineup on both sides of the ball. They had the momentum, and they had the home field advantage. Yet it was Miami’s defense which really outdid itself, especially when one considers how many of Coach Shula’s rookies and reserves were starters in this game. The No-Name Defense limited the explosive Colts offense to zero points through the first three quarters. Baltimore’s dynamic halfback Lydell Mitchell would once again earn a hero label in this game, but during the first three quarters, he was effectively stifled by the Dolphins defense. Colt quarterback Bert Jones was similarly stumped by the resilient pass rush from Miami’s front four, and by the determined and aggressive zone and man-to-man coverages from the Dolphins’ defensive backs. Jones—who was playing with injured ribs – would account for 206 net passing yards in this game, but he was having more difficulty than usual at putting points on the scoreboard.
This defensive battle was scoreless at halftime. Then Miami, led by third-string quarterback Don Strock, mounted a scoring drive late in the third quarter.  A key third-down pass from Strock to punter and reserve wide receiver Larry Seiple gave the Dolphins a much needed first down deep in Baltimore territory. Miami tailback Mercury Morris then ran a sweep to his left, and beat the Colts’ cornerback Nelson Muncie to the flag for a touchdown.  If the Dolphins could hold onto their 7-0 lead for one more quarter, the AFC East title would be theirs once again.

But Baltimore head coach Ted Marchibroda knew that he had a key weapon on his side. He described his young team as such: “This is the most emotional, spirited pro team that I’ve ever seen,” Marchibroda claimed. “We have something everybody wants...enthusiasm.”

The Colts would display that enthusiasm on one particular offensive possession late in the fourth quarter. Starting from their own 14-yard line, the Baltimore never-say-die offense converted on several third downs. Bert Jones threw to setback Lydell Mitchell in the flat for 13 yards and a first down to ignite the drive. On the next play, Mitchell caught another Jones swing pass for 11 yards and another first down. Veteran Baltimore tight end Raymond Chester would catch two more passes as time wound down, placing the ball at the Miami 11-yard line. Two pitchouts to Mitchell resulted in the tying score. Mitchell plowed through Dolphin defenders Jake Scott and Jeris White from six yards out for the Colts’ first and only touchdown of the game.  
Neither team could score again during the remainder of the fourth quarter. The struggle went into overtime, where the first team to score would be declared the winner. Also making an appearance as the game delved into the early evening hours was a chilling fog off of nearby Chesapeake Bay. The visibility diminished to just a few yards downfield. Baltimore’s defense played strong once again, limiting the Dolphins to just one first down. Baltimore’s offense then put together another crucial drive. They once again converted on several third down situations.  Colts fullback Bill Olds ran up the middle for 11 yards and a first down. Then Bert Jones connected with Raymond Chester on a third-and-15 for another first down.  Two more key catches by Baltimore wide receiver Roger Carr placed the pigskin at the Miami 34-yard line. Colt running back Don McCauley then ran off right tackle for 13 yards.

All during these tense moments, it became increasingly obvious that this game would come down to a field goal attempt to provide the winning points. Miami placekicker Garo Yepremian had missed two field goals earlier in the contest, while his counterpart on the Baltimore sidelines, Toni Linhart, had failed to make one earlier field goal.  Linhart would now have a chance to redeem himself.  Just prior to his 31-yard attempt, Linhart tried to psyche himself his own particular way.
“I separated myself from the rest of the team and concentrated,” Linhart said. “I stretched a little bit.  You feel the pressure when you kick the ball. You hear the sound and you know if you kicked it good or not.”

The sound of the kick was definitely heard, but from the Baltimore sideline, the scene was difficult to view, thanks to the increasing amount of fog covering the field. “We could hardly see our kicker Toni Linhart lining up to kick the winning field goal,” recalled Colts linebacker Jim Cheyunski. “It (the kick) sounded real good,” said Linhart. “It was a beautiful kick.  It was a big thrill.”
Hundreds of Colts fans invaded the playing field as soon as the referees signaled that Linhart’s kick was good. Baltimore had with their clutch 10-7 victory over Miami taken a big step towards winning the AFC Eastern Division. Even in defeat, Miami head coach Don Shula had to admit that the better team won on this December day. “They (the Colts) deserved to win,” Shula said. “We didn’t take advantage of our opportunities.”

Baltimore head coach Ted Marchibroda beamed in the glow of victory, and happily lauded his players. “I’m very proud of our guys. They came back against the champions in the last quarter.  They never lost faith. This was a great football game. We beat a great Miami team.”  The Colts would go on to beat the New England Patriots the following week to claim exclusive ownership of the division championship.  But it was the victory in the fog over Miami that the players on that Colts team remember the most.

“This is the biggest thrill of my life,” pronounced Lydell Mitchell after the game.  It was one of the biggest thrills of Baltimore’s miracle season of 1975. 

Carnicelli, Joe.  “Colts ‘Never Lost Faith’; Vikings, Raiders Falter.”  Fort Pierce (FL) News Tribune, December 15, 1975, 5.
Goff, Tom.  “Colts’ Comeback Fogs Up Dolphins’ Hopes.  Fort Pierce (FL) News Tribune,
December 15, 1975, 5.Whitfield, Tom.  “Linhart: Initial Loot Boot.”  Fort Pierce (FL) News Tribune, December 15,1975, 5.
Zagorski, Joe.  The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade.  Jefferson, NorthCarolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2016, 201-202.

Pro Football Reference.  Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Colts – December 14th, 1975.

About the Author:
Joe Zagorski, a long time member of the Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA), is also the author of the book The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football's Most Important Decade, published by McFarland and Company, Inc., in 2016. It was ranked as one of the top ten football books in 2016 by The Library Journal.  He has written numerous pro football articles over the years for The Coffin Corner, the official newsletter of the PFRA. He was also a former sportswriter for The Coatesville Record (in Coatesville, Pennsylvania) and The Evening Phoenix Newspaper (in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania). In his free time, he does volunteer work on several charitable causes for the Tennessee Chapter of the NFL Alumni Association. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.