By the Numbers - Week 14

I know this column is going to open me up to criticism for name-dropping again (it has been known to happen from time to time) but I think it’s important for me to share with you some of my experiences from being around NFL players in recent years.

I want to do this because NFL players were making headlines for all the wrong reasons again over the weekend. Following the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide of the previous week, this past weekend saw Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent arrested and charged with manslaughter after a drink-driving car crash resulted in the death of his team-mate, linebacker Jerry Brown.

With practice squad guys and athletes on injured reserve added to those on the regular 53-man rosters of the 32 teams, there are more than 2,000 players in the NFL. So it’s only natural that there are going to be some less-than-savoury characters among that group. There are also going to be some young and immature men who, while not evil at heart, are capable of making some pretty big and devastating mistakes, particularly when fast-tracked into a world of money, fans and considerable media attention.

But I want to stress that I think those who appear in our newspaper headlines in such a negative way are in the minority.

And before you guys think I’m just being an apologist for NFL players on an NFL website, let me state that is not the case. When a player has done something wrong in recent years, I have been the first to admit it and condemn their behaviour.

For example, I think the Kansas City Chiefs were absolutely right not to honour Belcher before last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers. I firmly believed that was the right decision because, despite considerable media attention being paid to him and tributes being made about his career, there was no getting away from the fact that Belcher was and will forever be a murderer.

I also have never fully bought into the rehabilitation of Michael Vick. He has said time and again that he is sorry for the dog-fighting that led to him serving a spell behind bars. But, as I said at the time of his arrest, he never stopped of his own accord. He got found out and then saw the error of his ways. If we had never publicly found out about Vick’s activities in his own home, would he still be doing them?

So I will happily speak out against players I think are acting foolishly or badly.

But I do believe the NFL is loaded with players who are good people, family people and intelligent, well-spoken people with an ability to engage with others from all different walks of life.

There are always going to be idiots like Braylon Edwards and Chad Johnson/OchoCinco who make everything about themselves and give little regard to how they are being viewed by the general public.

But there are a very large proportion of NFL players who feel a sense of duty when they enter the league and they are very aware that – rightly or wrongly – fans, particularly younger supporters, will view them as role models and follow their lead.

I remember how passionately LaDainian Tomlinson and Jerry Rice spoke to me when the subject of being a role model came up during their respective visits to London. Being a good role model was not just something they chose to be – they felt it was their duty. And it was the same way when I spoke with Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings. I want to share with you what each of those men said about the responsibility that comes with being an NFL player because a) it is good stuff and b) I don’t think they are alone in feeling this way.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “I think it’s our obligation to make sure we protect the young people who look up to us by doing the right things off the field. We have to make sure we set a positive example for them. I’m very conscious of that. It’s a privilege to play in the NFL.”

Jerry Rice: “If players want to maintain the integrity of this great sport, they have to act the right way. We want people who are going to represent the NFL in the right way. As a player who earns a big salary, you know that trouble is going to come to your door. But you’ve got to make smart decisions and if you don’t, you could find yourself out of the NFL. People like myself and Joe Montana would never get caught up in any off-field issues. That’s why we had so much success.”

Greg Jennings: “I think it’s important for guys to be role models, purely because of the platform we stand on, the voice that we can project and the influence that we carry. Obviously, we have a great influence on young people. If we’re doing what’s right, we can influence a great deal of human beings. We can make our society a much better place to be and create more humanitarians. We have to make sure we’re doing our part.”

I could go on and on with a list of the truly great people who are playing in the NFL. Alex Smith is one of the nicest guys in the world you could ever wish to meet, Ronde Barber is just as happy talking about the best theme parks to visit in Florida with your children as he is zone and man coverages, and superstars such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have a down-to-earth side to them that many fans might find surprising given their status in the NFL today.

When I prepared to interview Brady in New England this summer, I was given clear instructions from the PR staff that the interview needed to be kept short and sweet because Tom had to squeeze in lunch and some film-watching before afternoon practice.

We ended up chatting for close to half an hour in the middle of training camp and we didn’t just talk about the NFL. We talked about the Olympics in London, how Brits – myself included – got into the NFL and the upcoming season in the Premier League. In short, it was the kind of chat that two blokes meeting in a pub might have.

It was the same with Rodgers in Green Bay. He was never in a rush to get away and was actually keen to find out more about the British NFL fans.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to rule out media training when it comes to the charm offensive put on by the likes of Brady and Rodgers, but there was also a genuine side to both men. They could have sat down, churned out the interview and marched out of the room, but they didn’t and they were and are still a credit to the NFL.

And that’s my point. Through the course of dozens of interviews over recent years, I have come away most times thinking, ‘What a great guy.’

Of course, that has not always been the case. Sam Bradford, of the St. Louis Rams, was a grumpy so-and-so when I interviewed him this summer but he was nursing a sore ankle at the time… and Wes Welker was not happy when I asked him about his drop in the Super Bowl! And don’t get me started on Jeremy Shockey, who I still think was three sheets to the wind when I interviewed him in London.

But, for the most part, the NFL is full of good guys. Even those who have garnered negative headlines in the past – Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith – are good at heart and can be looked upon as tremendous role models for the NFL.

Sure, Lewis and Smith are edgy and aggressive players on the field. But away from the gridiron, they do so much to help others less fortunate than themselves and are both very keen to see the NFL continue to grow in the United Kingdom.

The NFL has its share of fools, as all sports leagues tend to have. All I would ask is that next time you see a negative headline featuring an athlete from the NFL, remember that the majority of players in the league are good people who are keen to inspire fans around the world.

They feel the weight of history on their shoulders and feel privileged to be playing the game they love at the very highest level in the world.

That has certainly been the case from my experiences, at least.

Now onto this week’s numbers…

14… That’s the number of points the Minnesota Vikings scored off interceptions thrown by Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on Sunday night. And those costly mistakes were the difference between the teams as the Vikings improved to 7-6 and climbed back into the NFC playoff race with the 21-14 win. Cutler’s first interception set up Adrian Peterson’s second touchdown of the game and his second half pick was returned 56 yards for a touchdown by rookie safety Harrison Smith. Needless to say, Cutler cannot afford to make those kind of mistakes and hand the Vikings a lifeline. Minnesota are struggling to throw the football at the moment but Chicago gifted them opportunities to take this game. Quality playoff teams don’t do that in December and the Bears are starting to show some serious cracks as they head into a big Week 15 match-up with the Green Bay Packers. The Bears still have eight wins to their name but they have lost to most of the quality opponents they have faced this term (Green Bay, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle) and have clearly benefited from a favourable schedule that saw them win consecutive games against Jacksonville, Detroit, Carolina and Tennessee.

327… I’m going to guess that New York Giants running back David Wilson is finally out of Tom Coughlin’s dog-house after his 327 all-purpose yards during Sunday’s 52-27 thrashing of the disappointing, error-prone New Orleans Saints. Wilson opened the year with a fumble against the Dallas Cowboys and was seen crying on the bench during that loss. The Giants have worried about his ball security issues and his ability to pick up rushers in pass protection, but he clearly has speed to burn and big-play potential. Wilson scored on a 96-yard kickoff return and runs covering 6 and 52 yards. With Andre Brown sidelined for the rest of the year with a broken leg, Ahmad Bradshaw is going to need help in the running game. If he can hold onto the football, Wilson appears to be the perfect answer, particularly when you consider the first round pick New York invested in him. He is fresh, keen to prove his worth and capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. That’s not a bad weapon to have in your arsenal as we approach the playoffs.

0… That’s the number of interceptions thrown by Philip Rivers on Sunday night as the San Diego Chargers emerged as 34-24 winners over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chargers clearly have a much better chance of winning when Rivers is more careful with the football. Rivers threw for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns on Sunday. Sadly for the Chargers, those kind of error-free displays have not been the norm this season. One final point on the Chargers – this will be a season to forget for the AFC West club but 2012 will go down as the year they discovered a very nice offensive weapon in the form of wide receiver Danario Alexander.

Monday Musings…

  • It doesn’t seem long ago that teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears were blazing a trail through the NFL and some pundits were claiming the NFC was the considerably stronger conference when you added the likes of the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers to the mix. I was never fully buying that argument and have always believed in the ability of the New England Patriots to get hot at the right time of the year. Now you can add the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos to the elite group in the AFC. And I would take any one of those teams against the best the NFC has to offer. Given how wide open the race to this year’s Super Bowl has become, I don’t think you can label any conference considerably stronger than the other. And by the time a Super Bowl champion is crowned, we will be able to legitimately ask: “Were they a truly great team or just the best of a competitive field?”
  • For those of you wondering why Mark Sanchez is still the starting quarterback of the New York Jets, bear this in mind – regardless of whether the Jets cut their ineffective passer or not at the end of this campaign, they still have to pay him $8.25 million in 2013. That is ridiculous and I don’t know what the Jets saw in this guy to tie him down to that much guaranteed money after this season. The Jets had a brief flirtation with Peyton Manning during this past off-season and, of course, traded for Tim Tebow. Maybe all that hurt Sanchez’s feelings because the Jets gave him a contract extension. Normally teams have get-out clauses in big-money deals but not this time. The Jets are on the hook for more than $8 million next season, which might explain why Sanchez is being given plenty of time to play his way out of such poor form.
  • Cam Newton may be in danger of disappearing up his own posterior if stories that he acted like a complete diva at the Pro Bowl are to be believed. Players from both the AFC and NFC suggest Newton would not sign autographs for fellow NFL stars and even dissed “the godfather of the NFL” in Ray Lewis. I do remember watching the Pro Bowl last year and it only really got interesting when Newton got into the game. At that time, it seemed like the NFC offensive linemen stopped blocking and the AFC defenders were playing for keeps. While his attitude leaves something to be desired, Newton is in a very good run of form and was a true star against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, throwing for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns, while rushing for 116 yards and another score. While he has all the talent in the world, I get the feeling Newton needs to fix his attitude before becoming a true superstar in the NFL.

Final Thought

I really enjoyed getting another look at Peyton Manning on Thursday night, even though his Denver Broncos didn’t really need to get out of second gear to defeat the Oakland Raiders. I came away from the game impressed by Manning’s command of the huddle and line of scrimmage (what a surprise), his arm strength and his accuracy. But most of all, I came away realising how much I missed this guy when he was out injured in 2011 and how I hope he can continue to play at this level for a few more years to come. I’m not one of these who always hopes for the upset or for the star to fail – sometimes I am quite happy to watch a great one at work, even if it results in a one-sided contest. And, in Manning, we should all be enjoying one of the very best in NFL history playing at the top of his game once more. Long may it continue.