By the Numbers - Week 5

It has long been stated that offensive linemen are the most intelligent players on the football field each weekend.

Having never been inside an NFL huddle, I’m not sure I’m in any position to fully support that claim. But over recent seasons, I have met and worked alongside many offensive linemen, including Mark Tauscher of the Green Bay Packers, Matt Light and Nate Solder of the New England Patriots and Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens. And you can add our old friend from the NFL Network to that list in Brian Baldinger.

I came away from the time I spent with each of those men very impressed by them as players, analysts and, most importantly in this case, human beings.

Although I have never met the man, I now feel the same way about Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Winston following his passionate and heart-felt rant in the locker room following Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Most of you will have seen the footage by now as Winston berated Chiefs fans for cheering as struggling quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked from Sunday’s game with a concussion.

Winston admitted that he was “sickened” and “disgusted” and I tend to agree with everything he said.

I don’t care if Matt Cassel has thrown seven interceptions in a game and the Chiefs are losing by 45 points – fans should not be celebrating the fact that a man with a family and a life away from the gridiron has been knocked senseless due to the fact a violent hit has sent his brain rattling around in his skull.

It is sick and it should be something the Chiefs address with their supporters in the coming weeks.

Winston certainly didn’t shy away from the issue and was very direct with reporters at the start of his impromptu media session. He looked each reporter in the eye and told them, very firmly but very politely, that if they did not print or air what he was about to say, it would be the last time he would speak to the media.

Fortunately, not one media member felt it was worth arguing with the 6-foot-7, 302-pound man-mountain and why would they? When a player begins his post-match media session with a warning like that, any journalist with an ounce of news sense would have guessed that something juicy was coming.

Interestingly, Winston went beyond football X’s and O’s during his speech and suggested this kind of win-at-all-costs, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach that comes with a complete lack of sympathy for the players is a societal problem.

I can see where he is coming from. Fans look at NFL players like gladiators and they fail to look at them as human beings. They look at NFL quarterbacks as men who throw for 600 yards and six touchdowns every time they play the Madden computer game so some of the more naive among them cannot comprehend a performance where their passer throws for 150 yards and three interceptions.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that being a good quarterback in the Madden NFL world simply requires the adept pressing of the X and R2 buttons every now and then. To thrive as a passer in the real NFL, you have to read defenses moving at high speed, hit sprinting wide receivers in stride in the blink of an eye and avoid the pounding from 300-pound defenders.

Of course, the other factor that comes into play here is that Cassel earns around $10 million per year and it is probably a harsh economic reality that some Chiefs fans are struggling to make ends meet at the moment.

The fans who cheered Cassel’s injury on Sunday will argue that they paid their money and can voice their opinion any way they wish. They will also argue that the money they pay towards tickets is going straight into the pocket of their under-performing quarterback.

But being in a position that others might covet and being paid to perform in that role should not make you fair game for a complete lack of compassion from the general public.

To step away from the NFL for a moment, it now seems that being in the public eye means that everybody is allowed to have a pop at you. It is supposed to come with the territory and Twitter trolls are becoming a part of everyday life, as the likes of Tom Daley and Gary Lineker have recently discovered.

Negative feedback is fine when it comes to being critical of someone’s work and most people who work in the public domain do rightly accept that it comes with the territory. If you are in the public eye, it is only natural that some people will like what you do and others will not be able to stand the sight of you.

But there has to be a line drawn here and to openly cheer when somebody’s health is in danger is just wrong.

It might have been a case of gallows humour from the Chiefs fans but I see nothing funny about brain injury. Every time I see an NFL player lying unconscious on the field, I feel a little bit sick and worry about the guy’s future.

And if you think that is being over-dramatic, spare a thought for Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best, who still has not returned to the playing field since suffering a concussion last October.

And what about former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon? He recently admitted that he opens text messages from friends, reads them and then closes them down. Then when he goes to reply a few minutes later, he cannot remember who he should be texting.

That’s not funny. That is scary.

These players we adore and revere may be gladiators for three hours every Sunday, but they’re still people. We wouldn’t laugh and cheer if we saw a man attacked in the street and left lying unconscious on the floor.

So we shouldn’t do it to NFL players, no matter how much we might be frustrated by their form. And Winston was right to call out his own fans on this subject.

Now onto this week’s numbers...

94... Someone needs to remind Bill Belichick that the NFL is supposed to be a passing league. Over the past two games (wins over the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos), the Patriots have run the ball 94 times through the impressive combination of Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden. That ground attack has allowed the Patriots to dominate the opposition and control the games. In those two outings, the Pats have racked up 498 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. The only worry is if Ridley continues to have fumbling issues. If he can overcome that, he has the skills to be the best running back New England has had during the Tom Brady era. With improved offensive balance, Brady will become even more devastating in the passing game. As the Wembley game draws ever closer, the Pats are starting to have the look of a genuine Super Bowl contender once more.

580 and 621... The Buffalo Bills have to be embarrassed about their defensive effort in back to back losses to the Patriots (52-28) and San Francisco 49ers (45-3). The Bills gave up 580 total yards to the Patriots and 621 to the 49ers. That is quite an effort, or not... in this case! The 621 yards racked up by the 49ers was a team record and while I like Alex Smith a lot, we have to remember that this is a club that has featured legends such as Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice among its playing ranks. For the Bills to give up that many yards and points in consecutive weeks, there must be something very wrong because there are some talented individuals on that side of the ball. The Bills are either playing very badly from an X’s and O’s point of view and that will heap pressure on defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, or they’re simply giving up. It could be that the defenders are frustrated by the constant turnovers being handed to the other team by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Whatever the problem, it is going to take quite a lot of fixing and quickly. The Bills are heading in the wrong direction in a hurry.

2, 3 and 4... Those are the respective win totals of the Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings. All three have either matched or surpassed their win total for the entire 2011 season and they are fast becoming the feel-good stories of 2012.

362 and 2... Andrew Luck was so impressive in leading the Colts to a come-from-behind 30-27 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday and it was hard to imagine that being just his fourth NFL game. Luck never shied away from the intensity of being down 21-3 to a Packers side led by reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. In fact, he relished the challenge and threw for 362 yards and 2 touchdowns. He even rushed for a score and constantly put his body on the line for his team. Reggie Wayne was immense at wide receiver and the Colts were most definitely the better team in the second half and deserved to win the game. As for Luck, I think we’re really going to enjoy watching him play over the next decade and a half.

Monday Musings...

  • Steelers safety Ryan Clark often moans about offensive players being too protected and suggests quarterbacks and receivers are the glamour boys of the NFL. But Ryan can have no arguments about his latest penalty during Sunday’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles and if he receives a fine in the mail this week, I don’t think he can complain about that either. When you put both your arms by your side and lead with your head as Clark did in trying to knock down Brent Celek on Sunday, you’re going to get flagged and you’re going to get fined. Where is your attempt to tackle or wrap the guy up when your arms are by your side?
  • The new Michael Vick intent on taking care of the football lasted just one week for the Philadelphia Eagles. Vick was back to turning the ball over in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers and while he continues to be the source of good plays for his team, he is also the main culprit for the most damaging mistakes each weekend. I think we now have to accept that Vick is always going to be an up and down quarterback capable of big plays and big mistakes in equal measure. The problem with that is that it is unlikely to ever make the Philadelphia Eagles a Super Bowl team. Turnovers will kill you every time in the NFL, particularly in the playoffs.
  • I like a lot of what the Arizona Cardinals have done this season and still think they are a team heading in the right direction. But their offensive line play has been brutal over the past two weeks and they’re going to get quarterback Kevin Kolb hurt unless they improve dramatically. The Cards have given up 17 sacks in two games against Miami and St. Louis. It’s hard to consistently win games when you’re that bad at protecting the quarterback.

Final Thought

Congratulations to Drew Brees for throwing a touchdown pass in an NFL record 48th straight game, breaking the mark previously held by the legendary Johnny Unitas. More importantly for the Who Dat Nation, Brees led the New Orleans Saints to their first win, coming from behind to see off the San Diego Chargers with four touchdown strikes. Brees is the perfect example of how a quarterback can overcome a lack of height and arm strength with outstanding accuracy and anticipation. But finally, I want to end with a nod to Johnny U. For him to have held the record in the first place was a stunning achievement. He played in the 1950s and 1960s when men were men and quarterbacks were nervous. Passers were pummelled on a weekly basis, they received very little protection from officials and receivers were allowed to be legally mugged all the way downfield. For Unitas to shine in such an era reminds us all that he was one of the all-time greats and a true innovator of the position that now dominates today’s NFL.