NFL

Were the ’85 Chicago Bears on the field in Dallas last week?

For anyone who watched last Sunday’s matchup between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, it would have appeared so.  The Cowboys defensive line played like the ’85 Bears registering 6 sacks and several pressures.  Eli Manning couldn’t throw deep to any of his receivers, rendering O’Dell Beckum Jr. (4-51), Sterling Shepard (3-24) and Evan Engram (7-67) largely ineffective… or so it felt.  His only option was short passes to Saquon Barkley, who set a Giants record for receptions by a running back (14-80).

Regarding all of the offseason talk of General Manager Dave Gettleman’s  offensive line building, the GMEN’s hog mollies looked a lot more like mollies than hogs. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).  At the end of the game, the final score was 20-13.  The O-line for the Giants was so dominated by the Dallas defense that the score might have just as well been 48-0.

Kudos to Dallas Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, who clearly deserved the game ball.  Marinelli out coached Giants coach Pat Shurmer and Offensive Line coach Hal Hunter.   Simple D-line stunts and cornerback blitzes wreaked havoc on the GMEN’s offense almost the entire game.  Eli took so many hits that he was probably rethinking his retirement with this current squad of protectors.  It appears that it will be a long season for the GMEN.

The running game was all but entirely negated as well.  Saquon Barkely had 11 carries for 28 yards.  Any gains he achieved was the result of him making multiple defenders miss tackles. There is no run blocking to be found.  Barkley is an exciting rookie with tremendous talent but can’t be expected to do everything himself.  The Giants are averaging 0.8 yards before the running back is touched, ranking last in the NFL in this statistic.  The NFL average is 2.4 yards before contact.  As much as we want Barkley to be the reincarnation of Barry Sanders, we can’t expect this to happen. At least not overnight.

Many are to blame for this monumental Giants collapse.  Let’s start with management who continues to back an aging, immobile pocket passer.   It is easy for Giants fans to drool when watching Pat Mahomes, Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold play the quarterback position.  These stars can evade defenders and still make plays downfield.  Eli’s days of finding David Tyree downfield are likely to be long gone. Fans and the analyst community are likely to believe there is cause to reevaluate the Giants decision to pass on a QB with the second pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.   While Eli Manning has several tools on his offense that other NFL teams would kill for, the question is whether he will have time to get the ball to them.  He also has difficulty beating linebackers who can cover.when he actually has time to find a receiver in the middle of the field.

As for the coaching, let’s not give up on Pat Shurmer and company yet.  It is clearly too soon for that. He has not lost the locker room as was the case with the Giants previous coaching mistake, Ben McAdoo. He has simply lost 2 games and looked awful in one of them against a team that many thought the Giants would beat.  Offensive line coach is another story. Simple stunts and cornerback blitzes can’t nullify your offense as was the case against the Cowboys.  Again, this was NOT the ’85 Chicago Bears defense that was on the field although at times, you wouldn’t have know it.  It is time for both Pat Shurmer and offensive line coach Hal Hunter to step-up their game!

Then there was fullback Shane Smith.  Or should I say ex-New York Giant full back, Shane Smith.  Smith was cut this week after missing 2 key blitz pickups against the Cowboys.  A notable statistic from the Giants game…Smith was solely responsible for 1/3 of the Giants 6 sacks.  Smith was released on Thursday following his horrendous performance which contributed largely to the Giants offensive collapse.

Still, you can’t blame a loss like this on one player. You have to site management for believing Eli could continue to thrive with this offensive line protecting him.  This is naïve or wishful thinking at best.

What Can Be Done Now?   

Any team that plays the New York Giants is going to follow Rod Marinelli’s game plan, bringing pressure early and often from several positions.  Why would you not?  The Giants must fill their holes as quickly as possible. The Giants are going to have to anticipate blitz-happy defenses and find a way to get the ball to their major weapons.

All hope is not lost at 0-2, but one can only hope that we have seen the worse of the New York Giants in 2018. It’s time for a coaches meeting that will not only identify team weaknesses but resolve or make wholesale changes.  Players that can be obtained are usually available for a reason.  Did I actually hear Will Beatty’s name being bandied about again as an offensive line addition?  Didn’t we already give him a second chance last season?

It will be interesting to see what changes are made to this team in Week 3!

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These are a few of my favorite things…

If there is any satisfaction to be gained by Giants fans during the 2018 season, it will most likely result from the plays coming from several offensive weapons.  That’s right, I said offense. A team rich in the tradition of solid if not spectacular defenses, this year’s New York Giants feature some of the games most exciting stars who are certain to win over fans who are still smarting from last season’s 3-13 finish.

Specifically, I have four players in mind that could change the outcome of a game.  Let’s start with my new favorite player, O’dell Beckum Jr.  95 million dollars (65 million guaranteed) will do a lot to improve a player’s attitude.  The Giants showed that they are indeed all-in regarding OBJ. I believe that he feels the same way.  Prior to the opening kickoff at Met Life Stadium last week, O’Dell was sprinting in front of the rest of the team trying to fire up the crowd. I love it. And I love what the most exciting receiver in the game can do for us when he is healthy.  I am expecting a monster season out of him, one for the record books.  Against the number 1 ranked Jacksonville Jaguar defense, Beckum caught 11 passes for 111 yards. Paltry numbers for him. And Eli missed him on what would certainly have been a touchdown.  Let’s see what he can do against bad defenses.

Now let’s discuss the rookie phenom Saquon “Say Gone” Barkley. That is correct, I said phenom. With no blocking last week against a stout Jaguars line, Barkley had 18 carries for 106 yards, a 5.9 average per carry.  Barkley will do that to you. Sure, prior to his 68 yard run he was bottled up with a 2 + yard per carry average, but he always has the ability, with or without blocking to spring a long one. Watching Barkley run or catch a pass, you believe that he can score a touchdown anytime he touches the ball. The last Giants player to have that type of explosiveness, let me think, was noone. I can’t remember another back with the agility and breakaway speed that Barkley possesses. Sorry David Wilson, sorry Tiki Barber.  Did I mention that Barkley can also catch and block?  Just wait until the Giants utilize all of his tools.

The third weapon that I have in mind could just as easily qualify as a second receiver alongside Beckum. I am referring to none other than last year’s first round selection Evan Engram.  Engram is a modern day version of Jordan Reed, the pass catching tight end who thrived on the Washington Redskins. If Engram can stay healthy, he has the potential to have the impact of a Jimmy Graham or even a Rob Gronkowski.  He has all of the tools to have a breakout season. Fingers crossed on the durability issue.

Weapon number 4 is wide receiver Sterling Shepard.  Against the Jaguars last week, Shepard caught 5 passes for 48 yards, an average of 9.6 yards per catch.  A very talented outside or slot receiver, Shepard will have to accept any balls not thrown to weapons 1-3.  Trust me, he will be very useful this season.

Reality Check

I have made it clear as to what I love about this team. I would be remiss if I didn’t address the unknown.  If you believe it is appropriate to refer to this season as a rebuilding or transition season (I prefer to view last season as an aberration), then we must be honest about a few things.

The offensive line could not block for Saquon last week. Granted it was only game 1 and they did play the number one ranked defense in the NFL last season.  The O-line needs time to gel.  Although they should improve game-by-game, I would not be surprised to see substitutions or replacements on the line.  Both tackles had poor games.  Fans are already calling to replace Right Tackle Ereck Flowers. If he continues to falter at this position, he could see the bench or even be released. Management owes him nothing and they have already shown (Jason Pierre Paul) that they are not afraid to break from the past.  Eli Manning was sacked twice against the Jaguars and hurried repeatedly. The offensive line has to do better if the GMEN are going to win games.

As for the defense, it is hard to condemn a team for only giving up 20 points (7 of those points came on an Eli Manning deflection). The Secondary played well, led by Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins and Eli Apple.  Curtis Riley played competently alongside defensive captain Landon Collins.

The run stoppers did their job led by Damien “Snacks” Harrison who had 6 tackles. Granted, Leonard Fournette left the game early with a hamstring injury but they played well against his worthy backup, T.J. Yeldon.  The GMEN had only one quarterback sack but that number will improve when star pass rusher Olivier Vernon returns to the lineup in week 2 vs. the Cowboys. If he is unable to play, perhaps James Bettcher’s defense should utilize more blitzing from promising rookies Lorenzo Carter and B.J. Hill.

The glass is clearly half-full in my view. The GMEN lost by 5 points to a Jaguars team that was one half away from going to the Superbowl in 2017.  Time to get on the winning side this week and beat a Dallas team that is now Bryant and Witten-less and does not appear to be as scary as in past seasons.

On a final note, as the song goes… when the final buzzer sounds, when the loss stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad!

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My thoughts about the GMEN after the first two preseason games

The 2018 New York Giants are likely to improve upon their 3-13 record from 2017. I might not be sticking my neck out very far in making this not-so- bold prediction, but there is much to support this thinking.  Although it is too early to tell whether this is a 6-win team or a team capable of winning 9 or more games and potentially making the playoffs, roster changes and the return of star power from injury alone will make this team better. Let’s begin with the offense.

This offense has star power. Saquon Barkely, the first round pick of the Giants and the second overall player taken in the 2018 NFL draft, should be a stud.  He’s a 1000-yard rusher behind a bad offensive line and possibly a 1500-yard rusher if this revamped offensive line gels as quickly as hoped. Did I mention he is a talented receiver and blocker as well?  He is one of several players on this offense who can excel at YAC-ing. (That is, getting yards after the catch). Remember, YAC-ing is a welcomed occurrence in the NFL;  and a bad thing to happen at a New Year’s Eve party.

Few players in the league are as dynamic and dangerous with their hands on the ball as wideout  O’Dell Beckum Jr. The good news for Giants fans is that he appears to be back in form.  Sterling Shepard , another Wide Receiver is a rising talent who can also turn a difficult catch into a big-play. The slot receiver, or third receiver depending upon where they move players around to appears to be Cody Lattimer who was acquired from Denver in the offseason.  Although he flashes on occasion, the jury is still out on him.

Then there is Evan Engram, the Giants 2017 number one draft pick. He’s a wide receiver at the Tight End position.  Think Jimmy Graham or Jordan Reed.  This guy is a playmaker. Let see how good he can be after having an outstanding rookie season.

Now let’s address the revamped offensive line.  Yes, the GMEN spent a lot of money on Nate Solder, the former left tackle for the New England Patriots. I suppose they were tired of hearing the boos for former left tackle Ereck Flowers and chose the best left tackle available in free agency. Who can blame them?

Solder is not an elite player. He gets beaten and looks very ordinary at times. But he is a leader in the lockeroom and should make a big difference protecting Eli’s blind side. Insert rookie Will Hernandez at left guard. Think Chris Snee with slightly worse feet.  Big, nasty mauler who should be able to create running  lanes for Saquon.  At center, John Halapio appears to be the choice over the Canadian, Brent Jones. Time will tell who wins the center position but it looks like it’s Halapio’s job to lose. Patrick Omaneh is the right guard who has played for Giants GM Dave Gettleman in Carolina.  He is somewhat of a journeyman but should still be able to open holes for the rushing attack.   Last but not least, is right tackle Ereck Flowers. It might be a reach for the Giants to think he can perform on the right side better than he did on the left. I don’t blame the Giants for giving him a shot at another position.

And then there is Eli, who looks like he can still hit the open man when protection is present.  Granted, he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he should benefit greatly from the addition of Barkley as a safety valve who can run, catch and perhaps most importantly, block.  Keeping Eli vertical will be essential for having a bounceback season.

On defense, the GMEN unloaded salary in the form of Jason Pierre Paul and let some of their linebackers and defensive backs with big salaries find other teams in free agency.  So why do I believe their defense stands a chance to be better than they have in the past few seasons?

James Bettcher, new defensive coordinator for the New York Giants excels with the ensemble cast theory. He has crafted three top- 6 defenses in the past 3 seasons.  This year could follow suit. He has acquired a group of players in addition to starter Olivier Vernon, who can rush the quarterback including Kareem Martin and Josh Mauro (players he had in Arizona) as well as Connor Barwin and rookie Lorenzo Carter.  Bettcher brings the pass rush early and often.  In the second preseason game, you saw sacks coming from various players including rookie Lorenzo Carter.  Very encouraging.

In the secondary, Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (aka Jackrabbit) and safety Landon Collins are pro bowl players.  Let’s hope that the players the Giants put next to them can rise to the occasion as well.

It might take the Rod Marinelli-like ensemble themed defense a few weeks to bear fruit, but I think they have the potential to be good.  If the offense lives up to it’s potential and the line can open up some running lanes for Saquon as well as protect Eli, the GMEN could be back in contention for the NFC East lead.  Stay tuned.

Larry Finklestein is a self proclaimed ignorantly optimistic New York Giants fan.

 

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The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #33-#34

NUMBER THIRTY-THREE

There were a lot of cool offensive players through the years to don the #33 for your New England Patriots. Let’s start, though, with our only featured defensive player with that number, Fred Bruney, who played all the way back from 1960-62. He made the All-Star team in both ’61 and ’62 mostly due to his kickoff and punt return prowess. Bruney was around the game for decades even filling in as a head coach for a week with the 1985 Eagles.

Reggie Rucker is our only #33 that played wide receiver for New England. In his rookie season with the Cowboys, he played in their Super Bowl V loss to the Colts. After being dropped by the Cowboys and the Giants,  New England grabbed him late in 1971. He had three pretty good seasons as a Patriots starter before leaving on disgruntled terms with Coach Fairbanks. He had his best seasons with the Browns including their dramatic 1980 season under Sam Rutigliano. Rucker retired after the 1981 season and became a longtime broadcaster with the Indians’ radio network among other commentating jobs.

Now, let’s talk about four popular running backs from team history starting with Tony Collins. Collins had a terrific campaign in 1983 running for over 1,000 yards averaging 4.8 per carry and 10 touchdowns. After New England drafted Craig James, Collins lost his RB1 status but the Pats benefited all around by splitting carries between the two halfbacks and fullback Mosi Tatupu. Collins career ended in a disappointing way as he was suspended for the 1988 due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Sam Gash is another guy I wrote about when I did the history of the Buffalo Bills by jersey number to also appear in this series. Gash played his first six seasons in New England and was a fine contributor to the 1996 AFC championship. He was a prototype Bill Parcells guy as he dished out a tremendous amount of punishment on his opponents fromt the fullback position. And I ask you this: Is there anything more gorgeous than seeing a fullback plow over a linebacker or safety!? Gash was the best.

Kevin Faulk was the longest tenured #33 in Patriots history playing parts of 12 seasons mostly alongside Tom Brady. Faulk was an receiving option out of the backfield. He was incredibly dependable and clutch. His 20 catches in three playoff games for the 2007 Patriots was probably his most productive statline over his long career as his stats simply don’t jump off the page. His two-pointer in Super Bowl XXVIII against Carolina was a very important play as well. Faulk was just a Bill Belichick-guy who did his job when called upon. In 2016, he was rightfully put in the Patriots team Hall of Fame.

NUMBER THIRTY-FOUR

Chuck Shonta was the first player to wear #34 for the Pats doing so for Boston from 1960-67. Shonta wasn’t a great interceptor, but he played his position tough and was even selected as an all-star in 1966 after picking off only one pass on the season. He was selected as a member of the Patriots 1960’s All-Decade team.

Ron Sellers played briefly with the Pats before having an exciting season in 1972 for Dallas. In 1969 as a rookie with Boston, Sellers made it to the All-star game. He never was able to recreate that magic with the Pats and was let go after 1971.

Prentice McCray was the next player to wear #34 for a substantial amount of time. He played defensive back with the Pats throughout the mid to late 1970’s. He had a dynamite 1976 campaign with 182 interception yards and two scores.

Tebucky Jones was a defensive back for the Patriots from 1998-2002. He’s best known for his role with the 2001 World Champions and almost scored on the play that would’ve clinched the ball game well ahead of Adam Vinatieri’s last second field goal. In the Super Bowl, in the fourth quarter with the St. Louis Rams in desparation mode down 17-3, Kurt Warner scrambled to his right. He couldn’t have run slower if he had bowling balls in his sneakers. Warner lost the ball and Jones took it to the house. Unfortunately, Willie McGinest was called for a holding penalty when he molested Marshall Faulk out of the backfield. Jones had one other huge play in his Patriots career when he picked off Kordell Stewart in the 2001 AFC championship game.

Finally, let’s talk about a guy who had so much potential but always seemed to get injured. He was off to superb start with the dynamic 2007 team before he  hurt his chest. In 2008, he probably could’ve rushed for 1,000 yards had he not missed action. Morris was able to get into all 16 games for the 2010 Pats, but only on special teams as Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead had over 300 combined carries.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

Hall of Famer Bill Polian’s Five Greatest Moves as NFL Executive

In the NFL, the head coach is often the recipient of the most praise when things go well but takes the most heat when things head south. However, there’s one time of the year when the coach takes a back seat to another member of an organization and that’s during the spring when general managers are busy putting together a team they hope turns out to be a champion. There may not have been a more popular general manager than Bill Polian. Today, the football archives looks back at Mr. Polian’s five greatest accomplishment as an NFL executive.

5) Carolina Panthers

Polian didn’t get a ton of superstars to play for the 1995 and 1996 Panthers. Yet, he helped field a team that went 12-4 in their second season as a franchise and stunningly made it all the way to the NFC championship game. The Panthers were a mediocre offensive squad led by their first ever draft pick, Kerry Collins. Polian said he wanted Steve McNair, but after he traded away the top choice to the Cincinnati Bengals because he din’t want Ki-Jana Carter, he figured McNair would be gone. Kerry Collins out of Penn State was the second highest-rated quarterback of the 1995 draft so Polian went with him. Collins had a decent career and played reasonably well for the ’96 Panthers.

The strength of that squad was defense. Sam Mills. Eric Davis and Kevin Greene were free agents Polian wooed to join Carolina and they revived their careers with stellar performances. Polian’s Panthers finally ran out of steam in the NFC championship against Brett Favre and the eventual World Champion Green Bay Packers.

4) Marv Levy

There’s so many things that Polian accomplished for the Buffalo Bills, it’s hard to narrow it down to a few of his greatest accomplishments. However, deciding to hire his dear friend, Marv Levy, to guide the ship was integral in the forward direction of the franchise. Prior to obtaining Levy, the Bills posted a 6-35 record. With Levy, they won 80 of their next 120 ball games. Marv was a master motivator and a magnificent mentor with a masterclass memory. Levy’s great leadership was put to test early in the 1990 season when the Bills seemed to always getting at each other. He held the thing together and they launched an AFC dynasty for the ages.

3) Tony Dungy

Polian picked the right man for the job again for the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy was a defensive mastermind with the talented but raw 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When they let him go ahead of the ’02 season, Polian jumped all over that opportunity. Dungy forged the Colts into a balanced football team utilizing his wise scheme with great pros like Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders. He also allowed Peyton Manning to be an offensive coordinator on the field understanding his high football IQ.

2) Peyton Manning

Polian’s decision to take Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf has been well-documented. Indeed, last week, we ranked Manning as the greatest first pick overall in NFL history. At the time, though, it was not a slam dunk because Leaf was a monster athlete out of Washington State. Ultimately, Polian listened to his gut and his friend, Peyton’s father, Archie.

1) Jim Kelly

Polian’s greatest move of all-time was convincing Jim Kelly to sign with the Bills. Let’s be real about this: Frank Reich was a nice player, but without Kelly, the Bills weren’t going to four Super Bowls and may not have even made it to one. While Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas were the team’s most skilled ballplayers, Kelly was the heart and soul. Signing Kelly away from the defunct USFL was an arduous process for Polian and his staff. Once Polian assured Kelly that they were building a winner and that he could get him extra money for working behind a young offensive line, Jimbo was reeled in. The Kelly tough era was born thanks to Polian’s dogged nature.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

Who Will be Better in 2018: Dallas or Washington?

With the draft looming and the NFL’s regular season less than five months away, it’s not too early to wonder aloud about who the more complete football team in 2018 will be between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. There’s no certain thing in pro football due to injury and roster turnover. However, it seems very likely the champion Philadelphia Eagles are the best the NFC East has to offer while the New York Giants are bringing up the rear. Let’s look at the two teams in the middle of the NFC East and who’s better at this pre-draft stage of the 2018 campaign.

OFFENSE

The Cowboys’ running game was dynamite in 2016 thanks to a historically good offensive line and the emergence of stud rusher Ezekiel Elliott. Due to injury and suspension, Dallas fell back to earth. As a unit, the Redskins were decimated as Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine all flashed brilliance briefly before heading to the injured reserve list. Still, Elliott is so ultra-talented, we must give the edge to Dallas.

Dak Prescott’s sensational rookie season was followed by a downer in 2017. This is a pivotal season for Prescott to see if his star will ascend or if 2016 was a mirage. It’s safe to say we all know what Washington has with Alex Smith. He’s played at an above average level for many seasons. He’ll never be listed among the game’s best. Yet, his won-loss record over the past few years has been quite impressive both with the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

At the moment, the Skins have the better receiving weapons. Dallas is working things out with Dez Bryant and probably will add a wideout in the draft. Alex Smith, though, will have Jamison Crowder, Paul Richardson, Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis and those fine receiving backs we named above. Thus, Washington will have the better passing game in 2018.

DEFENSE

Washington ranked dead last in rushing defense in 2017 and that’s why they finished below the Cowboys in the standings. The ‘Skins will have Phil Taylor, Jonathan Allen and free agent acquisition Pernell McPhee to shore that up for the 2018 season. Dallas lost Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber off their eighth-ranked defense with Hitchens being the huge blow. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to think that Dallas would slide below Washington in this area especially with 22-year old Maliek Collins coming back after starting all 16 games in 2017. He’s going to be a good one.

The Redskins lost a lot of their depth, but what remains is better than what Dallas has. Interestingly, Washington obtained Orlando Scandrick via free agency from the Cowboys roster. Scandrick and Josh Norman give the Redskins dependable veterans on either side of the formation. Jay Gruden has a history of coaching his secondary well, so I don’t see a drop off despite trading away future star Kendall Fuller to Kansas City for Smith.

The Cowboys have a great player on the edge in Demarcus Lawrence. In fact, I think he’s a top ten player at his position in the NFL. If there was one thing I truly enjoyed from watching the film of the 2017 Cowboys, it was reviewing Lawrence’s play to play motor. The Cowboys’ best offseason move thus far was making sure Lawrence didn’t sign elsewhere.

INTANGIBLES

The Cowboys were significantly better on special teams than the Redskins in 2017 despite placekicker Dan Bailey’s woes. Punter Chris Jones was fantastic, and Ryan Switzer offered glimpses of greatness as a return man. Simply put, Dustin Hopkins will have to be better. Extra points are not automatic any more as evidenced by the two misses in the Super Bowl, but professional kickers must make all their 33-yard kicks in a league that prides itself in parity.

Both teams also should expect more from their coaching staffs. Washington especially blew games largely due to poor game management by Gruden and company. Their opening day loss against the Eagles set the tone for the season and their collapses at Kansas City, and most excruciating, at New Orleans, were season-definers. The ‘Skins should’ve easily been 10-6 when you review their 2017 campaign.

 The Verdict: The Cowboys Should Finish Higher in the Standings

Dallas finished 9-7 in a very disappointing season. They did sweep Washington, though. Thus, as it stands, they’ll come into 2018 as the team with higher expectations. There will be more pressure on Jason Garrett in the upcoming season than ever before. If he folds under the pressure and they run into any problems with Elliott or their offensive line, their fanbase will turn on them and the season will be a nightmare. In that scenario, Washington will leapfrog them in the standings.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert..@spot_Bills

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #31-#32

NUMBER THIRTY-ONE

Fred Marion was a mainstay at safety throughout the 1980’s for the Pats. He had a phenomenal season in 1985 with seven interceptions for an incredible 189 yards. His success continued in the postseason where he picked off three more balls for 69 additional yards. He was right at home in the Orange Bowl for the AFC championship game. He played his college ball for the University of Miami and made a key interception off Dan Marino in the 31-14 victory.

Jimmy Hitchcock wore #31 during his first stint as a member of the Patriots. He played nickel back for Coach Parcells and Coach Belichick for the 1996 AFC champion Patriots. Hitchcock got a lot more playing time and a 100-yard interception return in 1997. His best season by a landslide, though, occurred in 1998 when Hitchcock played for the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings. He piled up 242 yards and three touchdowns on interceptions. He played one more uneventful season late in his career with New England wearing #37.

Brandon Meriweather was a very talented safety for New England from 2007-10. In fact, he made the AFC Pro Bowl team in 2009 and 2010. Meriweather was a bright spot on an inconsistent defense in ’09 as he picked off five passes for 149 yards. He played five more seasons with three different teams, but never got back to the Pro Bowl and never even played another full season after his time in New England.

Aqib Talib had kind of a strange tenure with New England. When he was on the field, he was lights out on the corner. The bad news for the Pats is he was knocked out early in consecutive AFC championship game defeats. In the second of those contests, it was Wes Welker that delivered the shot that eliminated Talib from the contest. Talib has recorded an unreal 10 lifetime interception return touchdowns and owns a Super Bowl ring with the 2015 Broncos.

Larry Centers was a long time member of the Cardinals and one of the all-time leaders in receptions by a running back in NFL history. Centers earned a Super Bowl ring in his last pro season with the 2003 Pats. His play of the season was a 28-yard reception versus the Colts in the AFC championship game. The Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over Carolina was Centers’ last game in an excellent 14-year career.

NUMBER THIRTY-TWO

Georgia-alum Andy Johnson was drafted by the Patriots in 1974 and played his entire nine-year career in New England. He had a fine 1976 season in which he scored 10 touchdowns and gained over 1,000 yards all-purpose.

Craig James was the next #32 worthy of mention. James came out of SMU highly touted as Eric Dickerson’s backfield mate in the “Pony Express.” James had his standout season in 1985 as he rushed for over 1,200 yards. In the Super Bowl, James was humiliated as was the rest of the Pats that night. One of the iconic plays from that Super Bowl was James getting smashed by Richard Dent, fumbling the ball and unable to retrieve it as he was being mauled by half the defense.

James became far better known as a college football analyst with ESPN.

Leonard Russell was a throwback runner for the Patriots from 1991-1993. He only averaged 3.4 yards per rush during his time with the Patriots, but carried the ball some 700 times in 43 career games so he was a workhorse. He was really good at getting touchdowns at the goal line.

Respect if you remember that Willie Clay was New England’s starting free safety in Super Bowl XXXI. His best season with the Patriots came in 1997 when he intercepted six passes for 109 yards.

Antowain Smith was a very important contributor for the Patriots’ first two Super Bowl-winning teams. In 2001, his power rushes helped young Tom Brady keep the offense on the field just long enough to score a few points. In Super Bowl XXXVIII, Smith smashed home for a huge fourth quarter TD in a win over the Panthers. He was let go after 2003 and replaced with Corey Dillon.

Our last #32 will retire as the best of the bunch. Devon McCourty came on to the scene as a rookie cornerback in 2010 and made the Pro Bowl right off the bat. In addition to playing corner well early in his career, McCourty was a solid kick returner. McCourty eventually made the move to safety where he has been one of the NFL’s best over the past 5 seasons. He has gone 2-2 in Super Bowl appearances and was selected to the Pro Bowl following the 2016 season.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

The History of the New England Patriots by Jersey Number #27-#30

NUMBER TWENTY-SEVEN

Terrell Buckley was a tremendous talent at Florida State and parlayed those skills into a long time NFL career. Buckley has the distinction of being the player with the most interceptions in NFL history to not make a single Pro Bowl. He had some sensational seasons with the Dolphins, an excellent year with Denver and two fine seasons as a member of the Patriots.

During the Pats’ 2001 Super Bowl run, Buckley was a key contributor in the defensive backfield and on special teams. He picked off Kordell Stewart to ice the AFC championship and played very well in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams.

Ron Bolton was another defensive back to last 11 seasons in the league. He intercepted 18 passes over three seasons with the Pats in the early 70’s. After the ’75 season, he departed for Cleveland and had his best seasons as a member of the Browns.

It’s bittersweet to bring up our next player. Ellis Hobbs was a fine kick returner for the Patriots from 2005-08 but was beaten for the game-losing touchdown in Super Bowl XLII.

Hobbs had a crucial 80-yard kickoff return for the Patriots against the Colts at the end of the 2006 AFC championship game and picked off passes in the 2007 AFC championship game and the subsequent Super Bowl.

He tried to revive his career in Philadelphia, but injuries forced his retirement.

NUMBER TWENTY-EIGHT

We have a trio of outstanding running backs to wear #28 for the Patriots. Let’s start with the best of the bunch going back to the 1990’s. If one was to look up running back in a dictionary, there should be a picture of Curtis Martin next to it. Martin was a phenomenal professional for the Patriots and Jets over his 11 seasons in the NFL, truly one of the best players in NFL history.

He was such a workhorse as Coach Parcells pounded him into the line play after play. New England won the AFC championship in 1996 because Martin and Drew Bledsoe were in their prime. While Martin’s best seasons were definitely in New York, his three campaigns in New England featured some amazing performances. His finest hour wearing #28 for New England occurred in a divisional playoff game versus the Steelers wear he tore through their defense for a 78-yard touchdown run in the fog and totaled 166 yards on just 19 carries.

In 2004, Corey Dillon had a tremendous season as a member of the Patriots. After a long career of carrying a hapless Bengals offense, Dillon found his paradise in New England and went off for over 1,600 rushing yards. His powerful rushing style complemented Tom Brady’s sharp passing attack and vaulted the Pats to their third world championship over four seasons.

He split carries with Laurence Maroney during his final season in the NFL, 2006, and played a strong final game at Indianapolis in the ill-fated AFC championship game.

Finally, who doesn’t love James White? His performance in Super Bowl LI is the stuff of legends. He also had a great touchdown scamper in Super Bowl LII.

Against the Falcons, other than Tom Brady himself, nobody was as instrumental in leading New England’s comeback than White. Then, from the 2-yard line in overtime, with Dion Lewis unavailable due to injury, Brady pitched right. White swept inside the two…to the one…to the goal line and as a Bob Socci said, “It was a touchdown and a title for the Patriots.” As long as there is Patriots football, the name James White will be immortalized.

NUMBER TWENTY-NINE

Sharing the backfield with White during the Patriots tremendous 2016 championship run was power back LeGarrette Blount. Blount has had a very interesting career. It started back in Oregon when he punched a guy. Then, he went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he established himself as a guy who would run over people.

When New England got him in 2013, he made a big splash in a torrential downpour at Gillette in the season finale versus Buffalo. In the very next game in the Divisional Round against the Colts, Blount scored four times and killed Indianapolis.

One season later, he started with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but didn’t jive with the coaching staff and walked out. The Patriots picked him back up and killed the Colts again, this time in the AFC championship game. In the 2016 AFC Championship game against the Steelers, Blount was at it again with a power run where he carried about eight guys to the one-yard line. From there, he scored. Therefore, Blount won two Super Bowls as a member of the Patriots. In 2017, he added another fine moment in his career with a touchdown run against the Patriots as he helped Philadelphia to a 41-33 Super Bowl LII victory.

Sterling Moore didn’t play very many games for New England, but he made the key play to get them into Super Bowl XLVI. The Pats only led Baltimore 23-20 with seconds left. Joe Flacco hit Lee Evans for an apparent championship winning touchdown only to have Moore rip it away. Moore went on to play decently in the big game.

He’s bounced around the league since his Patriots’ days came to an end in 2012.

Myron Guyton wore #29 for the Patriots for his mentor, Bill Parcells, for the 1994-95 seasons. Guyton won a Super Bowl under Coach Parcells and Bill Belichick for the 1990 Giants. Guyton was a versatile defensive back and special teamer known for his hustle.

Finally, at #29, we have to go way back to a guy who played brilliantly at wide receiver for the always competitive Los Angeles Rams of the 1970’s. Before his Rams days, Harold Jackson was a Pro Bowler for the Eagles. After he plays in LA, he joined the 1978 Patriots.

He played outstandingly for four seasons with New England. Jackson was a crafty veteran wideout by that time and teamed up with Steve Grogan to give the Pats some solid offensive production as well as a playoff spot.

NUMBER THIRTY

Mosi Tatupu was one of the first ace special teamers in NFL history and one of the most popular Patriots of all-time. Tatupu was taken in the eighth round of the 1978 draft out of USC and immediately anchored the third unit on a fine Chuck Fairbanks-coached squad. He played in New England for an incredible 13 seasons.

His son, Lofa, was a great linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. Sadly, Mosi suffered a heart attack in 2010 and died.

Duron Harmon has been a clutch player for Coach Belichick’s teams over the past few seasons and even picked off a pass in Super Bowl LII after a gratuitous bounce. He’s a closer as he’s often on the field in a dime package when teams are trying to come back.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_BIlls 

What in the World Will the Broncos do With the Fifth Pick?

The Denver Broncos are one of those teams in the NFL that seems to always be in the mix. Since acquiring John Elway in 1983, Denver has just six losing seasons over the last 36 years. Their consistency has been unmatched in the AFC West landscape.

With that said, their 2017 season and first under head coach Vance Joseph was a disaster. They compiled a 5-11 record, rotated subpar quarterbacks and finished 27th in the NFL in points scored. Even their normally magnificent defense faltered as they ranked 22nd in points allowed. Therefore, the question begs to be asked: What will the Broncos do with the fifth overall selection in upcoming NFL draft?

It’s very likely a top-rated quarterback will be available at five, but will Denver even go there? If he’s available, will Denver go after pass-rushing specialist Bradley Chubb to line up across from Von Miller? Will they opt for the best offensive lineman of the draft, Quinton Nelson, to give new quarterback Case Keenum and veteran running back C.J. Anderson some help? Finally, could they trade up to get the exact quarterback they want, or will they trade down to stockpile draft picks as teams such as the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals may want the fifth selection to get their quarterback of the future?

The Broncos are in a position where they could compete for a division championship right away if this fifth pick decision goes well. If it doesn’t work out, they could be among the worst teams in the NFL once again. Even worse, a bad draft and another poor season from coach Vance Joseph could set the Broncos back years as Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders, the Los Angeles Chargers improving defense, and the Kansas City Chiefs led by Patrick Mahomes emerge. Yes, this fifth pick is a big deal!

Broncos fans are skeptical about the quarterback position. Keenum had a fine season with the Minnesota Vikings, but his career hasn’t exactly been on the level of a superstar. Aside from a miracle, his last six quarters as a Viking were brutal. Likewise, Denver’s offensive line is nowhere near as good as Minnesota’s so that won’t especially when Keenum throws up one of those lollipops he’s been known to do.

The alternative is Paxton Lynch. When Lynch has been on the field, the Broncos offense has been stagnant. However, it’s been difficult to even get Lynch on the field due to injury. Lynch’s lack of success may be a lesson for Elway to not go after his quarterback via the draft. Even if the goal is to draft a quarterback, the guy they want might be gone by the fifth pick. Here’s how: The Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and New York Jets take Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen respectively. Then, the Browns trade their fourth pick to Buffalo who grabs Baker Mayfield.

In this scenario, Denver won’t draft a quarterback. Rather, they’ll obtain the best player on their board. Is that Chubb or Nelson? While I believe it would be one of those players, don’t discount Denver going after Penn State freak, Saquon Barkley. The Broncos only carry three running backs on their active roster: C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson. Anderson’s body could be due for a breakdown, Booker isn’t number one running back material and Henderson is a sixth-round draft pick competing for a spot on special teams. Barkley just may be this season’s Ezekiel Elliott or Kareem Hunt.

The Broncos themselves probably won’t know what they’ll do until draft day. They still might know what they’ll do until the fourth choice is made. Whatever happens, this will be the compelling move the Broncos make since signing Peyton Manning prior to the 2012 season. That move panned out well, thank you very much. Here we are six years later primed for another potential franchise-altering day for the Broncos.

 

Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills

The Top Ten Best Ever First Overall Selections in NFL Draft History

In a few weeks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will announce something like this, “With the first pick in the draft, the Cleveland Browns select…” At that point, NFL history will be made. The player who has his name announced will either be listed among the legendary like Peyton Manning or he will forever be linked with infamous draft busts such as Courtney Brown. There’s so many articles and television shows that pontificate about the latter that I have chosen instead to celebrate those who lived up to their hype and rewarded the team with this first overall pick with an outstanding career. Let’s list the top ten greatest number one overall draft picks in NFL history.

Before we dig into our top ten, let’s name drop a few players that just missed the cut. Orlando Pace was the first ever player selected during the Dick Vermeil renaissance for the St. Louis Rams. He was a seven time Pro Bowler at left tackle protecting Kurt Warner during the “Greatest Show on Turf” seasons. Billy Sims out of Oklahoma and Texas-alum Earl Campbell were two outstanding running backs from a time period when the starting running back was almost as important as the starting quarterback. Also, speaking of quarterbacks, Drew Bledsoe carved out for himself a nice career starting in 1993 for three different teams and Matthew Stafford is in the process of trying to get the Detroit Lions to the next level. Those were the best of the rest. Let’s now look at our top ten.

#10 Ron Yary, 1968 Minnesota Vikings

Yary was the first offensive lineman ever selected with the first overall pick and to this day, he goes down as the best. He was part of a Minnesota Vikings that won four NFC championships and he blocked for the likes of Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman. He was outstanding when lined up against great players like the Los Angeles Rams’ Jack Youngblood and Dallas Cowboys’ Harvey Martin. He was enshrined in Canton in 2001.

#9 Eli Manning, 2004 San Diego Chargers

Manning obviously ended up as a member of the New York Giants. With the G-men, Manning has carved out for himself a career which will likely land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s won two Super Bowls and has been named to four Pro Bowls. He’s had some poor seasons along the way, but his good days definitely have outnumbered his poor ones. He’s also been a tremendous ambassador for the game and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award recipient.

#8 Too Tall Jones, 1974 Dallas Cowboys

Ed Jones played for a long time on the Dallas “Doomsday” defense. Watch the 1978 Super Bowl if you want to see Jones at his nastiest and finest. He took one season off from football for boxing in 1979, but came back strong in 1980 and played ten more seasons. “Too Tall” is synonymous with the Cowboys “America’s Team” era and goes down as one of the franchises’ most popular players.

#7 Lee Roy Selmon, 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Selmon was the first ever player taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and they nailed it. Over the first 20 years of the franchise, he was far and away the best player to wear the classic pirate logo. Selmon was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year during the Bucs’ magical 1979 season and six Pro Bowls overall. Sadly, Selmon passed away in 2011 at the age of 56.

#6 O.J. Simpson, 1969 Buffalo Bills

Simpson was a sensation out of USC when the Buffalo Bills took him with this first overall pick. His talents were somewhat wasted over his first few seasons as Buffalo had no offensive identity. When Lou Saban took over as head coach, everything changed. In 1973, Simpson put together a season for the ages becoming the first ever runner to eclipsed the 2,000-yard plateau.

#5 Troy Aikman, 1989 Dallas Cowboys

Aikman was a key cog of Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys reclamation project. Highly touted out of UCLA, the Cowboys chose Aikman over USC’s Rodney Peete and they hit the jackpot. Aikman led the Cowboys to three world championships during his Hall of Fame career and after football, he has become a highly respected game analyst.

#4 Terry Bradshaw, 1970 Pittsburgh Steelers

Terry Bradshaw, another FOX employee, didn’t start his career on the path to the Hall of Fame. However, he developed into a championship-caliber quarterback by his fifth season. Bradshaw was not an all-time great at the position, but he was outstanding when he needed to be and a 4-0 record on the biggest stage speaks for itself.

#3 John Elway, 1983 Baltimore Colts

Elway never played a down with the Colts forcing a deal that landed him in Denver. As a member of the Broncos, Elway became the signature player in team history leading them to five Super Bowls over 16 seasons and winning it all in his final two years. He still works for the team and was instrumental in obtaining Peyton Manning prior to the 2012.

#2 Bruce Smith, 1985 Buffalo Bills

Smith was the first Hall of Fame piece acquired by the Bills ahead of their reign atop the AFC in the early 1990’s. He ended up as the NFL’s All-Time sack leader and regularly disrupted offensive game plans. Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 alongside original team owner, Ralph Wilson. It was a glorious day for the Bills.

#1 Peyton Manning, 1998 Indianapolis Colts

Manning is easily the top choice for this category. He was simply one of the best players ever to wear a uniform on a football field. Incredibly, there was much pre-draft debate about whether the Colts should select Manning or Washington State-great Ryan Leaf. General manager Bill Polian made the right choice and Manning rewarded the Colts with 13 unbelievable seasons and a Super Bowl championship. He’ll likely be in NFL record books as long as records are kept; for he is a true legend of the game.