Author Archives: Brandon Fazzolari

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #18-#21

NUMBER EIGHTEEN

Wide receiver Randy Vataha was one of New England’s better players in the early-1970’s catching passes from Jim Plunkett. Vataha was a teammate of Plunkett’s back in Stanford and their chemistry carried through to the pros. Vataha’s best season came in 1975 when he had 720 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns.

Donte’ Stallworth played one season plus one game with the Patriots. In 2007, Stallworth wore the #18 jersey and contributed to one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. One of his great plays occurred in the Divisional Round game against the Jaguars. On this day, Tom Brady was absolutely on fire as he’s prone to be in big games. In a nail-biter, Brady hit Stallworth on a short pattern and #18 streaked down the sideline for a huge-gainer that turned out to be the clincher.

Stallworth came back for one game in 2012 wearing #19, caught a long touchdown on Monday Night Football and was subsequently injured on the play.

Matthew Slater is clearly the best player to ever wear jersey #18 for the Patriots. Slater is the son of the Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater of Los Angeles Rams fame. Slater has become one of the best special-teamers in NFL history. He’s been named to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and is a perennial team captian. He even correctly called the coin toss before New England’s championship drive in Super Bowl LI. Slater will go down as one of Bill Belichick’s favorite players and will live forever in Patriots lore.

NUMBER NINETEEN 

Do you remember who punted for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI? If you said Tom Tupa, you got it. The one time backup quarterback of the Phoenix Cardinals became a full-time punter when it became brutally obvious that he was better at kicking a football than throwing it. He wore #19 for the Patriots for three seasons under Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll.  

In 1999, he left New England for the Jets and in an incredible twist of fate, Vinnie Testaverde tore his ACL and Tupa was forced into emergency quarterback action. The Jets were heavily favored going into 1999 to defend their AFC East title, but once Testaverde went down, their hopes were dashed. Tupa made a decent appearance as he threw touchdown pass. He made the Pro Bowl as a member of the Jets in 1999 and won a Super Bowl as a member of the Buccaneers after the 2002 season.

The Patriots used their third round draft choice in 2009 on a kick return specialist named Brandon Tate. His only season of productivity in New England turned out to be in the Patriots 2010 season when they finished 14-2. He returned two kickoffs for scores that season before leaving for the Cincinnati Bengals. To his credit, he’s still in the league.

The Patriots got some Super Bowl championship contributions from two other players wearing #19. Brandon “Jojo” LaFell had an excellent season in New England in 2014 as he made several key plays in the Patriots march toward their first World Championship in ten years. Against the Ravens in the playoffs, he caught the winning touchdown, then scored the first points in the Patriots win over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX.

Unfortunately, he had an injury-plagued, drop-filled campaign in 2015. The Patriots moved on from LaFell and drafted a new #19. That guy’s name is Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell’s finest game as a Patriot may have come in New England’s dramatic win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Time and again, Tom Brady targeted Mitchell in the second half and Mitchell was up to the task in the biggest game of his life.

Sadly, Mitchell never saw the field in 2017, but it’s hard to say it mattered much when New England was able to throw for over 500 yards in the Super Bowl without him. However, he’ll be a welcome addition back to the fold in 2018.

NUMBER TWENTY

Only one player has ever worn #20 for the Patriots and only one player ever will. Gino Cappelletti is truly one of the most beloved of all Patriots. He played for Boston from 1960-1970 and upon retirement held countless franchise records. He was the AFL MVP in 1964 and was named to five All-Star teams.

Perhaps he is best known as a game analyst for almost 30 years. The combination of Gil Santos-Gino Cappelletti was in the booth for New England’s first three Super Bowl championships. Cappalletti also was in the booth for Boston College games. He is a New England treasure for sure! 

NUMBER TWENTY-ONE

We have quite the potpourri of players who wore #21. But, let’s face, does anybody besides Malcolm Butler really matter? Butler made the single most impactful interception in the history of professional football. When he stepped in front of Russell Wilson pass with seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX, it allowed the Patriots to win their fourth Super Bowl in franchise history.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Butler, though, was his spirit to keep playing and performing at a high level even after his career-defining play. Butler is not the greatest cornerback in NFL history, but one can never fault him for lack of effort. He plays hard on every play, tackles well and goes for the turnover. His last game with the Patriots in Super Bowl LII was shrouded in controversy, but Butler took the high road as he departed for the Titans, praising Coach Belichick despite his benching. Frankly, it will be weird and a little sad to see him in that Tennessee jersey in 2018. 

Speaking of DB’s, let’s go way back to the Parcells era when he had a #21 named Ricky Reynolds. Reynolds was exactly the kind of player Parcells loved: He was a scrappy veteran. Reynolds contributed in a big way down the stretch as he scored two touchdowns in December of the 1994 season. New England’s strong play down the stretch catapulted them to a surprising playoff spot. They were derailed by Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns.

Reynolds played another year and a half with the Patriots and retired following the 1996 campaign.

Randall Gay was another defensive back that wore #21 during his time in New England. Gay mostly played on special teams but saw extensive action in the Patriots Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Eagles. Unfortunately, Gay struggled up against Terrell Owens. Gay had a strong season as part of the supporting cast of the 2007 team that ran rampant through the NFL only to lose the Super Bowl in the waning seconds.

Gay’s best seasons were spent wearing #20 for the New Orleans Saints where he played in his third Super Bowl.

Our final #21 was a sensational player but not while he was a member of the Patriots. Fred Taylor amassed 11,000 rushing yards, including seven 1,000-yard seasons while wearing #28 for the Jaguars. His two seasons with New England were uninspiring and unnecessary.

 Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

 

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #15-#17

NUMBER FIFTEEN

We’ll start in the way back machine for a great Patriots player from the 1960’s. Babe Parilli played seven seasons for the Patriots and was a true gunslinger. The fact that he made the Pro Bowl in the same season that he threw 27 interceptions speaks volumes about the way the game was played in the AFL. The Pats achieved success in the mid-60’s with the veteran under center. They won a playoff game against the Bills in 1963 before getting crushed in the AFL title game.

In 1964, Parilli was a first-team All Pro and hooked up countless times with his paisano Gino Cappelletti forming the Grand Opera connection. Parilli made it to one more All-star game in 1966 before leaving for the New York Jets in 1968. As a member of the Jets, Parilli backed up Joe Namath on their World Championship team and was also known for being an outstanding holder on special teams. He retired just before the 1970 season and passed away in 2017 at the age of 87.

The Patriots obtained a very mediocre quarterback by the name of Marc Wilson for their darkest seasons of 1989 and 1990. Wilson had tremendous success at BYU in college and was an on-again, off-again starter for several seasons with the Raiders wearing #6. In 1985, he compiled an 11-2 record with the silver and black but was throttled by the Patriots in the AFC divisional round. He never got back to the postseason, but he retired with two Super Bowl rings as a Raider backup.

Ryan Mallett was another backup quarterback that wore #15 for the Pats. His Patriots career was brief and uninteresting. He was given the opportunity to start for the Houston Texans, but poor play and poor sportsmanship doomed him. Ironically, he lost the starting job to another Pats backup, Brian Hoyer. He was passed on to Baltimore where he plays behind Joe Flacco.

One final #15 we should mention is the current player who dons that jersey, Chris Hogan. Hogan’s is a story of persistence. It has been laughingly over documented as to how he played lacrosse in college. He tried to latch on to three teams in 2011, but did not receive a regular season pass until 2013 with the Buffalo Bills. He joined the Patriots in 2016. He scored a touchdown on his very first drive with the team at Arizona.

He has been excellent in the last two Super Bowls. One distinct memory I have of Hogan is after James White scored the winning touchdown of Super Bowl LI, he held his hands on either side of his helmet in utter joy. Hogan came back to score a touchdown in Super Bowl LII and was one of several outstanding players on offense in the loss.

Hogan’s greatest game was the 2016 AFC championship game against the Steelers. He dominated Steeler DB’s throughout the first half leading to a 200-yard performance. Hogan is a fine player, but an even better young man.

NUMBER SIXTEEN

Jim Plunkett was the first overall draft choice of the 1971 draft and paved the way for Hispanics into the NFL. He was one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time at Stanford, but struggled as a Patriot. He went on to play for his hometown 49ers, but floundered there as well. His career was resurrected by Al Davis and the Raiders.

In 1980, when starter Dan Pastorini broke he leg in week 5, Plunkett took over and had the season of his life. He led the Cinderella Raiders all the way to a surprise Super Bowl victory over the Eagles. He did it again three years later thanks to the dynamite running attack of Marcus Allen.

Matt Cassel and Scott Zolak were two other backup quarterbacks that wore #16 for the Pats. Both are memorable for different reasons. For Cassel, he quarterbacked possibly the best team ever to miss the playoffs in 2008 after Brady tore his ACL in the opener. Cassel had some fine games especially late in the season when New England was battling Miami for first place. The Patriots crushed the Dolphins and followed that up with a 47-7 win over the eventual NFC champion Cardinals.

Unfortunately, Cassel did not have the consistency of Brady and in a crucial home game against the Steelers, he laid an egg. That loss cost the Pats their season. In my opinion, the 2008 Patriots could’ve been a 15-win team had Brady not been injured. Cassel turned his season in New England as a starter into an opportunity with the Kansas City Chiefs. Again, inconsistency plagued his career. He led KC to the playoffs once before he signed on with a series of other squads. In 2017, he started in place of Marcus Mariota for the Titans but was very ineffective.

Zolak is better known for his announcing than his playing. He started a playoff game for New England against Jacksonville in 1998, but that was the zenith of his uninspiring playing career. As far as broadcasting is concerned, Zolak is a gem. He’s a complete homer and uses phrases such as “show ponies and unicorns” when he gets excited about the play of his beloved Patriots.

Zolak is not just funny, though. He is quite knowledgeable as he has garnered great respect from Bill Belichick. Belichick and Zolak break down plays of the week together shown at Patriots.com.

NUMBER SEVENTEEN

There are a lot of interesting guys that wore #17 for the Patriots, but few of them did anything special for the team. Mike Taliaferro was the most distinguished of the bunch as he made the All-star game for the 1969 Patriots. Aaron Dobson spent three injury-plagued seasons with New England from 2013-15. His best game was a 100-yarder in a home game thrashing of the Steelers.

Henry Ellard, John Friesz, Chad Jackson, Tom Owen, Greg Salas, Dedric Ward and Elmo Wright also put on #17 for the Patriots for at least one game. What a diverse collection of talent!

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a sports expert…@spot_Bills

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #13-#14

NUMBER THIRTEEN

Ken Walter was not a very good punter during the Belichick regime but does have the distinction of being Adam Vinatieri’s holder for two Super Bowl-winning field goals. In Walter’s first Super Bowl appearance against the Rams, he punted 8 times for a 43-yard average so that wasn’t too bad at all. He was very inconsistent during the 2003 campaign and was not resigned for the 2004 season by the Patriots. He played four more games for New England in 2006 when Josh Miller went down with an injury.

The great Joey Galloway wore jersey #84 for all but three games in his 16-year NFL career. In 2009, however, he wore #13 for the Pats and made seven receptions.

Tommy Hodson wore #13 for the Patriots from 1990-93 and went 1-11 as a starter during the very down pre-Parcells, pre-Bledsoe era. For anybody who thinks Tyrod Taylor or Ryan Tannehill are bad quarterbacks, they will need to watch film of LSU’s Tom Hodson. Let’s move on from one of the Pats’ worst quarterbacks of all-time to one of the best.

NUMBER FOURTEEN

Steve Grogan will not go down in history as one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history. However, he was one of the team’s five best offensive players over their first 35 years as a franchise.

Grogan’s second season may have been his finest as the Pats battled the Raiders and Steelers in the tough AFC. The Patriots lost a very controversial 24-21 game in Oakland. In that 1976 season, Grogan rushed for an NFL-record for rushing touchdowns for a quarterback with 12. He led New England to four playoff berths as their starter and one as the backup. In 1985, he got into the Super Bowl after Tony Eason was embarrassed by the Chicago Bears defense. Grogan was much better and even led the Pats to a touchdown. However, there is probably no QB that has ever lived that could have defeated the Bears on that Sunday.

In all, Grogan played 16 seasons, all in New England. He was elected to the team’s Hall of Fame in 1995.

Speaking of longtime quarterbacks, the Patriots attained Vinny Testaverde for QB depth on the 2006 team. He threw a grand total of three passes in New England in his 21-year career. He had such a prolific career, we had to mention him in our memoirs.

Tom Yewcic was a member of the all-1960’s Boston Patriots teams of the AFL. He served a lot of functions for the Pats from 1961-66, but none more importantly than punting the football. He  had an excellent season for the 1963 team that made it to the AFL championship. Guys like Yewcic simply don’t play anymore. He punted, threw passes, ran and even caught some balls over his six seasons.

Another famous Patriot punter to wear #14 was a guy by the unique name of Zoltan Mesko. Mesko was born in Romania, played college ball at Michigan and punted for New England in Super Bowl XLVI. His last game after three seasons with the Patriots was dismal as he struggled against the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens in the AFC title game.

Two very brief members of the Patriots who tried to make it as wide receivers were Chris Harper and Michael Floyd. Unfortunately, the little-used Harper is best remembered for a season-altering fumble at Denver. The undefeated Pats were leading 21-7 in a crucial late season game in the snow. The Broncos turned the fumble into points and the victory earned them home field advantage for the rematch. Denver ended up winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 2015 season.

Floyd’s reputation is not an excellent one because of alcohol issues. He did get a Super Bowl ring at the end of the 2016 season. He had two wonderful plays in a season finale at Miami and a bad drop in a playoff game against the Texans. That about sums up his career as a Patriot.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

The Transcendent 1975 NFL Draft

In January 1975, the Pittsburgh Steelers stuffed the Minnesota Vikings to win their first Super Bowl. One week later, James Harris of the Los Angeles Rams led the NFC to the win in the Pro Bowl. Then, one week after that, the NFL conducted its 17-round draft. Therefore, there was no such thing as a combine, franchise tag or NFL Network to keep fans’ attention during the spring months. It turns out that the last wintertime draft was one of the most significant in NFL history. Let’s look back at the movers and shakers of those profound two days of late January 1975 and how it impacted the NFL for years and decades to come.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

The woeful Atlanta Falcons “earned” the right to the top overall choice of the ’75 draft. They were interested in California quarterback Steve Bartkowski. Bartkowski had grown frustrated with a lawyer who had been assigned as his agent so he hired his 25-year old classmate to represent him. That agent’s name is Leigh Steinberg and he would go on to become arguably the most influential and successful sports agent of all-time. In fact, Cameron Crowe’s movie, “Jerry Maguire” was at least partially based on the time he spent with Steinberg and his clients.

Bartkowski’s rookie contract with the Falcons dwarfed previous mega-deals given to legends O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath. While his NFL career might be decent at best, Bartkowski will always be a wealthy man thanks to the deal he and his agent worked out with Atlanta. Steinberg has represented some of the greatest players in NFL history such as Hall of Famers Warren Moon, Steve Young and Troy Aikman.

THE REBUILDING DALLAS COWBOYS

The Cowboys had a great run of success from 1966-1973, but fell to an 8-6 record in 1974. Many of their greats had left the team or retired prior to the 1975 draft and the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Cardinals emerged as the NFC East’s top two teams. However, Cowboys’ management including Tex Schramm, Tom Landry, and Gil Brandt pulled off a draft so solid, Dallas was back in the Super Bowl by season’s end. The Cowboys had wisely dealt backup quarterback Craig Morton sometime earlier to grab the second pick overall from the New York Giants. With that selection, Dallas chose all-world linebacker Randy White. Eventually, White was moved to defensive tackle. White compiled a Hall of Fame career, a Super Bowl MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award.

The Cowboys obtained an insane 12 starters from the 1975 draft. Many of those guys played in three Super Bowls and were there for the evolution of the dynasty referred to as “America’s Team.” Between 1975 and 1982, the Cowboys played in six NFC championship games led by their innovative offense and suffocating defense. The ’75 draft proved that teams can build from the bottom up without renting free agent players from other franchises.

SWEETNESS

While White was one of three tremendous defensive talents taken in the ’75 draft, Walter Payton out of Jackson State was the offensive standout. For those of us privileged to watch Payton play weekly, there simply was no better running back from 1975-1987. Sure, O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson had some great seasons, but Payton’s 13-season composite compares favorably to any running back who has ever played in the NFL. His legacy lives on as each season a player that makes significant charitable contributions is awarded with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Yes, Payton was a man among men on and off the field.

BRAZILE AND DEAN

Robert Brazile deserves congratulations for the recent announcement that he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the 2018 class. Brazile also graduated from Jackson State giving the small southern college two Hall of Famers drafted with the first six picks of 1975, a borderline miraculous accomplishment. The school did not produce a lot of guys who ended up in the NFL, but the ones that did could’ve made up an All-Pro team. Brazile found immediate success with the Houston Oilers, winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year. In all, he was named to seven consecutive Pro Bowls.

Fred Dean was the only Hall of Famer from the 1975 class not selected in the opening round. The San Diego Chargers got a gift when Dean dropped to 33rd on the board. He gave them five and a half fantastic seasons. Indeed, the Chargers defense decline can be directly attributed to Dean’s contract dispute and subsequent trade. The San Francisco 49ers were pleased to acquire him during their 1981 championship season. He was an excellent pass rusher and run stuffer that also helped the Niners compile a 15-1 record in 1984 en route to their second Super Bowl championship.

HONORABLE MENTION

There was a ton of depth in that last winter draft in addition to the four Hall of Famers we’ve discussed. The Los Angeles Rams chose five players who ended up in the Pro Bowl. Pat Haden out of USC was among that crew. He was drafted in the seventh round and was an integral member of the perrenial NFC West championship teams of the late-1970’s.

Joe Fields was drafted by the New York Jets in the 14th round and became a staple of their offensive line for 13 seasons. Also, Denver’s 1977 AFC championship team was keyed by their choosing longtime defensive back Louis Wright and the fantastic kick returner Rick Upchurch. Upchurch graduated from the University of Minnesota alongside former National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Rice told Upchurch that her goal was to someday become the commissioner of the NFL!

43 years later, we can still look back at the 1975 NFL draft as a landmark in league history. Just think about this: Walter Payton, Randy White, Fred Dean and Robert Brazile became NFL players on the same day! Agent representation was a revolutionary idea that has resulted in players without a championship like Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr becoming multi-millionaires for the rest of their lives. The NFL draft wasn’t always a big deal, but the draft of 1975 turned the tide. It is now one of the big days on the annual NFL calendar as owners, players and fans can’t seem to get enough draft talk.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

Bills Looking Forward to a Big March with Combine & Free Agency

There are several key dates on the NFL’s calendar in March. The most of important of these involve teams scouting talent at the annual combine held in Indianapolis and the action-packed comings and goings of free agency. It hasn’t been easy to predict how general manager Brandon Beane and the Buffalo Bills handle things at One Bills Drive. Last season, they shocked us multiple times with trades, cuts and signings we couldn’t see on the radar.

We don’t think the Bills will do anything about their unclear quarterback situation until the draft. Let’s look instead at other positions that the Bills will give attention to over the next few weeks.

When a team finishes with the 29th-ranked offense and the 26th-ranked defense, one would think there would be needs all over the board. For the Bills, though, they’re not far away on either side of the ball as evidenced by their 2017 9-7 record. Their inability to hit big passing plays stymied their offense last season so they’ll grab a wide receiver early in the draft.

They simply don’t know what they’ve got in Kelvin Benjamin yet as he played injured down the stretch. Their other potential starting wide receiver is Zay Jones. As a rookie, Jones was inconsistent as he struggled mightily to make contested catches. Therefore, the Bills will be very interested in observing the top receivers at the combine this week.

Three names stand out at that critical position. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley might be the best of the bunch. He may lack strength, but he makes up for that with great speed and precise route-running. Unfortunately for the Bills, he will be high on every team’s draft board in need of a wideout. The alternatives to Ridley are two very different athletes. SMU’s Courtland Sutton is built like Kelvin Benjamin making him an ideal red zone target while Christian Kirk out of Texas A&M is built like Golden Tate. Kirk may be a good fit for Buffalo especially if they stick with Tyrod Taylor for another season. Kirk catches the ball which sounds elementary, but Taylor needs all the help he can get on those short to intermediate routes.

On defense, the Bills were horrendous along the interior defensive line last season. Their game at home against the New Orleans Saints was perhaps the worst exhibition of defending the run of the past decade. While Kyle Williams is a franchise darling, he simply can’t stop the run on a consistent basis anymore. The other defensive tackles that saw significant playing time in 2017 were undersized and overwhelmed. The Bills have a nice pass defense, but that will get compromised if teams run like the Saints, New York Jets and New England Patriots did against them in 2017.

If Buffalo doesn’t draft a franchise quarterback, the best choice they could make would be to select Vita Vea out of Washington. He is the prototypical run-stuffing 350-pounder that will clog up the middle. Obviously, interior linebackers benefit when a tackle like Vea takes up a double team. Vea showed so much power at Washington, he often would shed the double-teaming and still make the play. Again, Buffalo isn’t the only team that has noticed Vea is special so he’ll be difficult to acquire. Hence, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne or Michigan’s Maurice Hurst may be more realistic options. Payne might be pound-for-pound the strongest man that will be drafted in 2018. Hurst possesses good quickness and is a more flexible tackle with a Michael Bennett-type frame. Several mock drafts have shown Buffalo selecting Payne as an heir apparent to former first-rounder Marcel Dareus.

The Bills made a nice splash grabbing cornerback Vontae Davis in free agency. That move seems to indicate E.J.Gaines will be leaving Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent. Will Buffalo go after anyone else?

Brandon Beane seems to view free agency differently than former general manager Doug Whaley. Whaley made several excellent pick ups last spring including Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Stephen Hauschka. Beane has said several times that he would prefer attaining talent via the draft rather than free agency. Of course, his ties with the Carolina Panthers could impact his decisions. The Panthers have released Kurt Coleman who would provide good depth at the back end of the Bills defense and a jolt to the special teams. Likewise, Buffalo could address their defensive tackle need by signing Star Lotulelei.

Some veterans might not last the month. Buffalo could look to move or cut Charles Clay, Cordy Glenn, Lorenzo Alexander, Jordan Mills, Jerry Hughes and/or Richie Incognito. It would be stunning if all six players remain on the roster come training camp. Glenn may be the best trade bait Buffalo has available. Dion Dawkins established himself as a solid option along the offensive line so trading or releasing Glenn is very much on the table as it will salvage about $10 million toward dead cap relief.

Alexander and Incognito are still playing at a high level. However, the Bills are more likely making a run at the Super Bowl in 2019 as opposed to 2018 so saving money by cutting ties with players in their mid-30s may be in their best interest.

The Bills have until June 1st to decide on Hughes. Hughes is one of Buffalo’s best defenders so they may feel strongly about reinvesting in him. With that being said, he has the third highest cap hit on the team, so if management believes his best days are behind him or he doesn’t fit in with their “process,” they’ll release him at some point.

Like 2017, expect a Bills roster with significant turnover in 2018. Beane and head coach Sean McDermott are poised to make moves between now and the draft that could alter the franchise’s identity in a major way.

2012 NFL Draft Class Teaches us a Lesson in Unpredictability

There will be several teams endeavoring to land their version of Russell Wilson in the upcoming NFL draft. More often than not, though, teams that pick a quarterback end up with a Brandon Weeden-type instead. In 2012, the NFL draft featured eight big names on the board. It’s interesting to re-evaluate that historic group of quarterbacks. Which ones panned out and which ones have been panned?

It all started with Andrew Luck. The Indianapolis Colts were without the services of their icon, Peyton Manning for the 2011 season due to neck surgery. As might be expected, they were hideous. The gold at the end of the rainbow proved to be everybody’s projected top draft pick. Luck was groomed from infancy to be a NFL star and at Stanford, he was brilliant. He possessed all the skills and intangibles to make it at the top level. Right away, he paid dividends with the Colts making the playoffs in his first three seasons. His highlights included tremendous wins against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013 and a road upset over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in 2014. However, he couldn’t get the Colts past the perennially powerful New England Patriots.

There is no doubt when Luck is healthy that he is a top tier player. A shoulder injury and a subpar offensive line situation has stunted his recent development. New leadership in the organization will make it a priority to make Luck comfortable. They will rightfully rebuild their franchise around him. This book is not close to being shut.

The same cannot be said of the second overall choice of 2012. The Washington Redskins traded up to grab Robert Griffin III out of Baylor with the intention of rejuvenating their predictable offense. In one incredible season, he did just that. He was simply amazing as a rookie with the ‘Skins. Sadly, he turned out to be a one-hit wonder. His whirlwind style of play got him injured which hampered his mobility. As a pure pocket passer, Griffin failed. Eventually, the Cleveland Browns obtained Griffin but it was more of the same. He was injured early and often in 2016 and did not play in 2017.

The Redskins rolled the dice by drafting a second quarterback in 2012 with their fourth round choice. Kirk Cousins wasn’t highly sought after coming out of Michigan State and served as Griffin’s backup for a few years. When given the opportunity, Cousins established himself as a capable NFL performer and led the Redskins to a division title in 2015 behind gaudy passing statistics. Since then, Washington hasn’t committed to him long-term and now he hits the free agent market certain to score a huge pay day.

The third quarterback taken overall in 2012 was Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill. The Miami Dolphins were completely inept on offense in 2011 with Chad Henne and Matt Moore playing quarterback. With Tannehill under center, they didn’t improve. If the Dolphins were in pursuit of mediocrity, they got it in Tannehill. He finally had a fairly productive campaign in 2016 leading Miami to a playoff spot. Near the end of the season, Tannehill tore his ACL. Unfortunately, he sustained the same injury in the 2017 preseason. Head coach Adam Gase declared him the starter for 2018 so we shall see if Tannehill can take the next step in his inconsistent career.

With their third choice in the 2012 draft, the Seattle Seahawks took Russell Wilson. Wilson has been sensational over his six seasons with the ‘Hawks. At his current rate, the Hall of Fame is in his future. As a rookie, he led the Seahawks to a dramatic comeback at Atlanta that fell just short. In his second season, all he did was lead the Seahawks to their first ever Super Bowl championship. In 2014, the Seahawks made it back to the Super Bowl with an unreal victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game. Wilson’s defining moment occurred in the next game when he was intercepted on the goal line in the Super Bowl. He bounced back well with a fine season in 2015 and a terrific 2016 campaign. Wilson will go down in history as one of the best players taken in the 2012 draft.

Two other Super Bowl champion quarterbacks were chosen in 2012: Nick Foles and Brock Osweiler. When Osweiler stepped in for Peyton Manning admirably during the Denver Broncos championship season of 2015, he locked up a big time deal with the Houston Texans. Subsequently, he had such a poor season in Houston that they dropped him after just one year even though they made the playoffs! He ended up back in Denver after an ill-fated 2017 preseason stint with the Browns.

Nick Foles is an enigma. He replaced the electrifying Michael Vick in 2013 and thrived under Chip Kelly to the tune of a marvelous 27 touchdown, two interception season. He was traded to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford and his career came to a screeching halt. Foles even pondered retirement as a member of the Rams. During the 2016 offseason, the Rams released Foles and he was eventually signed by the Kansas City Chiefs to be Alex Smith’s backup. After spending one year with Kansas City, Foles came back home to the Eagles as they signed him to a two-year deal to back up Carson Wentz. When Wentz went down with an ACL injury, it appeared doom and gloom was on the horizon for Philly. Foles, though, was absolutely brilliant in both the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl. We aren’t sure what is next for Foles, but even if he never played another down, his legacy will endure in football lore forever.

This article would not be complete without bringing up the hapless Cleveland Browns just once more. The Browns were in full-blown Browns mode when they completed a blockbuster 2011 deal with the Atlanta Falcons. They turned the 22nd overall pick of the 2012 draft into Oklahoma State product Brandon Weeden. The Falcons used the sixth pick of the 2011 draft that they had obtained from Cleveland on Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. Is there any need to discuss this matter further? Weeden joined Griffin and Osweiler as guys from the 2012 draft that Cleveland gave an opportunity to and it didn’t work out.

It’s likely that we will again see eight quarterbacks drafted in the first few rounds of the 2018 draft. Some will turn out to have a huge impact on the NFL while others will fade away into oblivion. As we have learned from the eight names above, only time will tell the full story.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #11-#12

Before we talk about the three super popular Patriots that wore #11, it behooves me to mention Joe Kapp. Kapp played just one season in Boston, but it must have seemed like the twilight zone for him. Why? You all remember when the 2016 Patriots traded poor Jamie Collins to the winless Cleveland Browns, right? Joe Kapp went from a 12-1 record with the 1969 NFC champion Vikings to a 1-9 mark with the 1970 Patriots. He took such a beating, it was his last season in the NFL.

Tony Eason was selected with the 15th pick of the historic 1983 NFL draft. He was a rockstar with Illinois, but never panned out the way that his counterparts Elway, Kelly and Marino did. Eason was not a poor quarterback; he actually was pretty good in stretches as he compiled a 28-21 mark with the Pats.

In the 1985 AFC championship game, Eason went 10 for 12 with three short touchdown passes. In the Super Bowl, the Bears annihilated him. He went zero for six and was sacked three times. He bounced back to have his best season in the pros in 1986. Unfortunately, a return trip to the Super Bowl was not in the cards as a bad trend was established for New England. Denver beat them in the playoffs in the Mile High city, 22-17.

Eason was limited to a role player the remainder of his career with veteran Steve Grogan and enigmatic Doug Flutie outperforming him.

After Eason and Grogan left, the Patriots were flat-out awful. That all changed when they took Drew Bledsoe with the first pick of the 1993 draft. Bledsoe was one of the best college football players of all-time at Washington State. His arrival along with Coach Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft as owner one season later gave the Pats immediate credibility. They even won the division following the ’94 season in large part to the brilliance of Bledsoe.

In 1996, Bledsoe was excellent teaming up with Terry Glenn, Ben Coates, Keith Byars and the fantastic Curtis Martin to run away with the AFC East. They dominated Pittsburgh and held off Jacksonville for their second ever Super Bowl appearance. Bledsoe played fairly well in the first quarter of Super Bowl XXXI against the Packers, but struggled the rest of the way. He was sacked, intercepted and intimidated throughout the night. However, he would get a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots in his final season with the team, 2001.

The only problem for Bledsoe was he playing time was limited during the championship season due to his injury and Tom Brady’s remarkably swift ascension. Bledsoe did have a moment in the sun when Brady was knocked out of the AFC championship game at Pittsburgh. Bledsoe was workmanlike in helping New England outlast the Steelers, 24-17. His second quarter TD pass looked identical to Brady’s second quarter TD pass in the Super Bowl.

Bledsoe moved on to Buffalo and Dallas thereafter where he had a few good seasons. His lack of mobility caught up with him at the tail end of his career. Dallas coach Parcells opted for the younger, more athletic Tony Romo. Unwilling to be relegated to a backup position, Bledsoe retired before the 2007 season.

Julian Edelman is one of the most popular and exciting players ever to wear a Patriots uniform. No doubt his friendship with Brady has been a motivating factor for the former college quarterback. He was drafted in 2009 and made the roster thanks in large part due to his electrifying abilities in the return game. He played a bit of everything in his first three seasons including kick returner, receiver and defensive back. Edelman’s career has been a case of what could have been as several of his seasons have been affected by injury. When Edelman is in the lineup, the Patriots already potent offense is even better.

Edelman’s two most recent Super Bowl appearances were the stuff of legends. He played a key role in the Super Bowl XLIX victory over Seattle by notching tough third down receptions and the go-ahead touchdown. In Super Bowl LI, he struggled for the most part, but came up with perhaps the most amazing reception in Patriots history grabbing a deflected ball in triple coverage about one inch from the turf. He added a big catch in the overtime period. His preseason injury in 2017 was perhaps the low point of the season for Patriots fans. He is exactly the kind of player that is easy to root for.

How about two quarterbacks that have worn #12 for the Patriots!? Before we get to the greatest player in franchise history and probably the greatest quarterback in the history of professional football, let’s mention a journeyman backup named Matt Cavanaugh. He played his first five seasons behind Grogan from 1978-1982 before getting traded to San Francisco. Cavanaugh won the Super Bowl as a backup for the 1984 49ers and 1990 Giants as well as an offensive coordinator for the 2000 Ravens, 2005 Steelers and 2008 Steelers. So, that makes five Super Bowl rings for a Patriots quarterback wearing number 12.

Another Patriots quarterback that has won five Super Bowls wearing the #12 is the incomparable Tom Brady. As a Bills fan, there are simply not enough superlatives I can shower on Brady. First, he has whipped Buffalo for seventeen years. Second, he is not just an outstanding player, but an outstanding person and a superb ambassador for the NFL. Everybody knows about his stats, accomplishments and championships. What stands out for me is the love he has for his family. His appreciation for his parents, wife, sisters and children is to be admired. I am the same age as Tom, but I look up to him.

The other thing that stands out to me about Brady are his defeats. I am thinking about six games that he lost that proved his greatness. The Super Bowl losses to the Giants and Eagles were literally not over until the final whistle blew. In Super Bowl XLII, Brady was down, but not out. He led his team to the go-ahead score with 2:35 remaining. Even when New England once again fell behind, Brady made two amazing “Hail Mary” attempts for Randy Moss that fell incomplete. In the Super Bowl XLVI loss, Brady was not at his best. Yet, he still threw a Super Bowl-record 17 consecutive completions and was a few drops away from victory.

In Super Bowl LII, Brady was marvelous. Had he not been strip-sacked, we would have definitely been acknowledging his Super Bowl performance as the greatest quarterbacked game in football history. He was fantastic in the second half especially on chunk plays to Amendola, Gronk and Hogan.

The other three losses were championship game losses to the legend, Peyton Manning. Sometimes, people push Manning’s greatness under the rug due to his many playoff failures, but to me, he was the second best ever. In the 2006 AFC championship game, Brady was surrounded by castoffs and has-beens and went toe to toe with Manning on the road. Peyton pulled it out in the end, but Brady was phenomenal in defeat. In the 2013 AFC championship game, Denver completely overwhelmed the Patriots defense. Yet, Tom battled to the end notching two fourth quarter touchdowns in a hopeless situation. He showed the heart of a champion when the odds were stacked against him.

Of all the losses in Brady’s magnificent career, the one that goes down in history for me as his best would have been the 2015 AFC championship game. He really struggled in the first half at Denver as the Pats fell behind. The Broncos defense was simply awesome in 2015. Von Miller, Aqib Talib, Demarcus Ware, Chris Harris, etc. teed off on Brady. He seemed to get walloped every other play. He never gave up, though. In the fourth quarter, New England dominated Denver but could not come all the way back in a gutty 20-18 loss due to a missed two point conversion.

I only mention these losses because we all know about the wins. His final drive against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI would give any football fan goose bumps. His pass to David Givens in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles is the greatest short yardage pass I have ever seen. The incredible performances against Seattle in 2014 and Jacksonville in 2017 and their top-ranked defenses demonstrated that he gets better with age. And, finally, his signature win against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI in a season that started on the suspended list was according to Kraft, “unequivocally, the sweetest of them all.” We will do the history of the Patriots by jersey number till we get to #99, but we will not write about any better player or person than #12, Tom terrific.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

Four Areas of Need the Jets Must Address This Offseason

After getting humbled in their first two ball games last season, the New York Jets played strong, competitive football the rest of the way. The bad news is it only resulted in an underwhelming 5-11 record. However, several teams such as the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars proved in 2017 that the rebuilding process can be expedited with just a few crucial moves. If the Jets successfully address the following four areas of need during the offseason, they’ll contend for a playoff spot in 2018.

QUARTERBACK

The Jets got as much as they could’ve expected from the serviceable journeyman, Josh McCown, last season. But let’s face it, this team isn’t going anywhere with him in control. Thus, they absolutely have to move on at quarterback this offseason. With the sixth pick overall, they’ll certainly be in a position to draft a potential franchise quarterback, but with about $90 million in cap space, they could pursue a pass rusher in the draft and break the bank to get Kirk Cousins. Cousins would be an ideal fit in the Jets scheme and instantly give New York the second-best quarterback in the AFC East.

PASS RUSHER

There are very few options available for the Jets to obtain a top notch edge rusher. With that sixth pick, they can dream Bradley Chubb will fall to them out of North Carolina State. He’s the best pass rush specialist in this year’s draft by a country mile. I can’t see him lasting until six, so the Jets may be wise to trade up to make sure they get him. The Jets have good trade bait that may allow them to find a partner in the Cleveland Browns or New York Giants. Those squads are much farther away from contending than the Jets are and may want to pile on the talent rather than hitting the jackpot with one choice. The Jets haven’t had a solid guy on the end of the line since John Abraham and they were pathetic on the pass rush in 13 games in 2017.

If the Jets don’t aggressively pursue Chubb, they’ll be in the market for DeMarcus Lawrence. The Dallas Cowboys probably won’t give him the franchise tag which means he’ll likely be the highest paid free agent aside from Drew Brees, Le’Veon Bell and Cousins. Again, the Jets have the cash but the Cowboys won’t be easy to outbid. At a lesser price, they could go after the lesser talent, Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah didn’t have a great season compared to 2016, but a change of scenery could rejuvenate his career.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The inconsisent Jets offensive line allowed nearly 50 sacks in 2017. Therefore, they can’t pay Kirk Cousins or Baker Mayfield millions of dollars and stand pat when it comes to their O-line struggles. Kelvin Beachum and Wes Johnson are not the answers when it comes to pass protection. New York’s center Johnson is not the answer for the Jets in the running game as well. Years have gone by since the Jets last needed a center as they’ve been spoiled with the greatness of Kevin Mawae and Nick Mangold. Bradley Bozeman out of Alabama or the Baltimore Ravens’ free agent Ryan Jensen would be great options as a replacement for Johnson to shore up the middle of the line.

CORNERBACK

The Jets need a second cornerback to work alongside veteran Morris Claiborne. Buster Skrine looked to be an up-and-comer entering 2017. He exited the season exposed for not being able to cover outside receivers so the Jets need to replace him. Fortunately, the free agent market is littered with good, affordable corners this year. One or two additions to the secondary will make this a very strong unit.

Can Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan field a playoff team next season in New York? If they get Cousins, Chubb, better offensive line play and a serviceable second cornerback, the answer is yes. With their budget, this is the offseason to go for it in the Big Apple.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

The Rivalry Is Back On – Colts vs Patriots

Indianapolis Colts’ general manager Chris Ballard ended a press conference last week with the proclamation, “The rivalry is back on.” When Josh McDaniels spurned the Colts to remain with the New England Patriots, it was widely believed he did so to stick it to the team that introduced the deflated football saga to the world. While that probably wasn’t the case, Ballard’s words lit a fire among Colts nation that the plan is for Indianapolis to get back on equal ground with the Patriots sooner rather than later. Anybody who doesn’t think this rivalry is legit has never heard of Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning. Yes, the Colts were at one time every bit as good as New England so when Ballard announced that the rivalry is back on, it’s not the Pagano-Luck era he is speaking about. Let’s look back at some of the great Patriots-Colts games when the rivalry was real.

Before we dive into our brief review of the 2004 AFC championship game, it should be mentioned that the Colts and Patriots played in the same division from 1970-2001. However, the rivalry did not take shape until the Colts were placed in the AFC South division under the 2002 re-alignment. In fact, the 1981 Baltimore Colts could’ve gone down as the worst team in NFL history had they not swept the Patriots by a combined four points. Both teams finished 2-14 that season. In 1990, the Pats’ finished 1-15 while in 1991, Indianapolis compiled that same dreadful record. Most seasons were painful for Colts and Patriots during the lean years. Then, in 1998, the Colts drafted Peyton Manning with the first overall selection and things got very exciting in Indy.

The 2003 Patriots were a model of consistency. They were a veteran-laden squad that headed to the championship game on a 15-game winning streak. The Colts were an offensive powerhouse who had scored a combined 80 points in their playoff wins against the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. On this day, however, Peyton Manning couldn’t figure out Bill Belichick’s aggressive man on man scheme. Ty Law covered with such reckless abandonment that illegal contact could’ve been called on virtually every play. Belichick knew it wouldn’t be. Thus, Manning was intercepted four times in New England’s 24-14 victory. These were still the days when Tom Brady was a member of the machine called the Patriots while the Colts were utterly dependent on Manning’s greatness.

Incredibly, the Patriots were even better the following season, but so were the Colts. They met in the divisional round in what some considered the due time for the Colts offensive juggernaut to expose the Patriots. That never transpired as the Patriots physically and psychologically dominated Manning and the Colts. The Patriots used two tremendous third quarter drives to salt the snowy contest away. The Patriots went on to win their third Super Bowl in four seasons three weeks later.

The tide turned in this amazing rivalry in 2006 when Manning finally got the upper hand on Brady in a meaningful game. That occurred at the Hoosier Dome in an AFC championship game for the ages. The Pats’ jumped in front 21-3 behind some good play-calling and an Asante Samuel pick six but the Colts stormed back to tie it midway through the third. Brady with a receiving group consisting of outcasts and has-beens kept giving New England the lead. Manning, though, always found the answer to tie it. Finally, the Colts took the lead with one minute to play on a Joseph Addai touchdown run. When Brady was intercepted by Marlin Jackson on a desperation throw intended for Benjamin Watson, the entire city of Indianapolis gasped a collective sigh of relief. The Colts were on to their first Super Bowl since their Baltimore days. In the big game, Manning completely shut up his critics with a workmanlike performance in a 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears.

Indianapolis and New England also had some memorable regular season matchups during this period. In the 2007 regular season, the Patriots came back to defeat the Colts, 24-20 in a midseason battle of unbeatens. Up until this season, the argument about who was the better of the two quarterbacks pretty much went like this: Manning has amazing statistics, but Brady is a better winner. In 2007, Brady was given a plethora of weapons to work with including Wes Welker and Randy Moss. He proceeded to wreak havoc on the record book. Since that season, Brady’s stats have been every bit as good as those posted by Manning and he continues to play at a high level and win championships to this day.

Manning had another tremendous season in 2009 while Brady was coming back from an ACL injury. The Patriots weren’t intimidated when they went to undefeated Indianapolis. Brady was sharp as he hit Welker and Moss early and often. With a 34-21 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were hurt by a long pass interference penalty followed by a short touchdown run. When the Patriots got the ball back, they were held to a fourth and two situation from their own 28. Coach Belichick bravely went for it. Kevin Faulk juggled Brady’s pass right at the sticks, but did not appear to gain complete control of the pass beyond the marker. Indy held and drove the short field to an incomprehensible 35-34 win. The victory propelled the Colts to a 14-0 start and another Super Bowl appearance.

That was the last time the Colts beat the Patriots as New England has won a whopping seven straight in this series, many of those in blowout fashion including the 45-7 “deflategate” debacle. Hence, when Ballard claims the rivalry is back on, that can only be a good thing for football fans. For when the Colts-Patriots series was a rivalry, it was must watch football.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #5-#10

NUMBER FIVE

While Gostkowski and Vinatieri will go down as the two best kickers in Patriots history, Shayne Graham is a footnote of the 2010 season. When Gostkowski went down with an injury, the journeyman Graham stepped in admirably. He made all 14 of his field goal attempts in a Pats’ uniform. He is most well-known for being a Pro Bowl kicker for the Bengals.

NUMBER SIX

Ryan Allen just completed his fifth season as the Patriots punter. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and beat out Zoltan Mesko for the role. He has earned special teams player of the week honors twice and has performed very well under the pressure of playoff action. His best game was probably in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks when he blasted a record 64-yard punt. In Super Bowl LII against the Eagles, New England was so unstoppable, Allen did not have to punt one time. Allen was in the ball game, however, as he struggled to place a poor snap on a first half field goal miss.

NUMBER SEVEN

There hasn’t been a lot of great talent wearing the #7 for New England over their 58-year history so we have to discuss two mediocre quarterbacks! Hugh Millen went 5-15 over two seasons as the Patriots starting quarterback. He had a few good ball games during that period including stunners over Warren Moon and the Oilers and the powerful Buffalo Bills. He toughed out seven games (all losses) in ’92 playing with a seriously injured shoulder.

Jacoby Brissett was part of Tom Brady’s “wolfpack” as a member of the 2016 World Champion Patriots. Brissett had one solid start while Brady served his suspension for the deflated balls controversy and one miserable one. To be fair, he was playing with a severely injured thumb. After the 2017 preseason, the Patriots traded Brissett to Indianapolis for Phillip Dorseet. With the Colts, he was steady and dependable, but far from outstanding.

NUMBER EIGHT

Josh Miller punted for the Patriots for two and a half seasons including the Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Eagles. He had a solid night in that game forcing Philadelphia to attempt to drive the length of the field on several occasions. That proved to be an undoing for the Eagles as they conked out late in the game exhausted on offense. Ironically, Miller had a punt returned for a touchdown by Troy Brown as a member of the Steelers in the 2001 AFC championship game.

NUMBER NINE

We had to really do some investigatory work to find somebody who wore #9 that made an impact on the organization. We could not find anyone! In 1978, placekicker David Posey stepped in for the latter half of the season when John Smith went down with injury. And, in 1993, Scott Sisson had one lousy season as the kicker.

NUMBER TEN

Jabar Gaffney spent three seasons as New England’s third or fourth receiving option. In 2006, he had 11 receptions in the regular season but 21 in the postseason. He was easily Brady’s most dependable target during those ill-fated playoffs. In 2007, New England added Welker, Moss and Stallworth but Gaffney still made his share of big plays. None was bigger than his game-winning touchdown reception in a Monday night thriller at Baltimore. Unfortunately, Gaffney went missing for Super Bowl XLII as Brady could not connect with him on two huge second half throws. He had an uneventful 2008 campaign with the Patriots before bolting to Denver to play under Josh McDaniels.

Jimmy Garoppolo wore #10 for the Patriots for three and a half seasons and won two Super Bowls. The Patriots drafted him with their second round choice in the 2014 draft out of Eastern Illinois. With the Panthers, Garoppolo was tremendous. He broke virtually all of Tony Romo’s school records and won the Walter Payton player of the year for best offensive player in the nation.

Though his opportunities were limited, Garoppolo flashed his brilliance when was able to get in. In the 2016 season opener at Arizona, he played incredibly well. He followed that up with a first half for the ages in New England’s home opener against Miami. Unfortunately, he got rocked by Kiko Alonzo. Therefore, he missed out on playing in the other two games Brady missed.

He was moved to the 49ers midway through the 2017 season. The future looks exceedingly bright for San Francisco and their multi-millionaire starting quarterback. Patriots fans wish him nothing but the best as he was a hard worker and an excellent teammate.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills