I was watching the 2005 NFL draft (I know it may sound crazy but I like watching drafts, especially the NFL and the NBA) and I remember this particular draft focussed on two quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers, and which would be selected first overall. The San Francisco 49ers had the pick and they were looking to find the next Joe Montana or Steve Young to lead them out of the wilderness and a return to glory. The Niners, and offensive co-ordinator Mike McCarthy, chose Smith to be that guy.
And then I watched as Rodgers fell down the draft order. Teams kept passing on him. It wasn’t overly surprising since the teams that followed the 49ers thought they had their quarterback already and were looking to fill other more gaping holes. But he kept dropping. It was like watching the ball drop on New Years Eve. The more he dropped though the better his chance would be to fall to the Packers at number 24. Now Green Bay (my team if you haven’t been following me) had a hall of famer already at QB, and one who never, ever missed a game. Why was I so keen, asked those, also completely nuts, who were watching the draft with me, to want Rodgers at 24 when Green Bay had so many other holes to fill? At some point the Packers are going to have to find the replacement for an aging Brett Favre and if there is a chance to get a player considered to be the top player in the draft then you thank the football gods and take him.
The Packers did take Rodgers at 24, and he sat behind and watched Favre for three seasons and watched a hall of fame quarterback play the game. After the NFC Championship game loss in January 2008 Favre announced his first of many retirements and the Packers confidently handed the reins of the team over to Rodgers. Favre changed his mind on retirement and wanted to return but the Packers had moved on. Rodgers is now the consensus favourite for the MVP and is halfway toward one of, if the not the, greatest seasons in football history. And he’s already won a Super Bowl. When good fortune falls into your lap you have to be smart enough to recognize it.
Interference…At some point in the off-season the NFL rules committee got together and decided that defensive backs were getting away with too much, and that if the league wanted to continue its growth in popularity more offence was needed. So now DB’s aren’t allowed to put a finger on a receiver at any time after five yards. What this has led to is a flag football style of officiating where QB’s know that they just have to throw the ball up and two good things can happen—a catch and a penalty. In previous years when officials were conflicted over whether an infraction had occurred they chose not to throw the flag, but now if there is any question involved the flag hits the ground. This is a rule they will need to address in the off-season because all offence and no defence is not professional football.
Surprises…There is no bigger surprise in the NFL than the Cincinnati Bengals. Here is a team being led by a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton—and a second rounder at that—to the top of one of football’s toughest divisions. Granted the Bengals have taken advantage of a soft early season schedule–they will be facing some tough inter-division games coming up starting with the Steelers on Sunday. But for a team that was initially believed by many experts to be among the worst in the game, especially losing their veteran starting QB in the off-season when Carson Palmer balked at playing with the team anymore, being 6-2 constitutes a great surprise.
Other surprises—how about Buffalo. The Bills are tied for first place in the AFC east with perennial Super Bowl contenders New England and the New York Jets, and have proven, in the early going, to have the offensive talent capable of staying in games against the elite. The loss on Sunday at home to the Jets was huge as the Bills now go on the road for three tough games in Dallas, Miami and at the New York Jets. If they are going to be a playoff contender they are going to have to win two of those games—if they don’t they could quickly fall off the pace. The other surprise is the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners have taken a stranglehold on a very weak division and by playing consistent, fundamentally sound, error free football they have moved into a position to not only win the division but be the number two seed in the conference. Not bad for a team that was looking for both a head coach and a starting QB in the off-season.
Suck for Luck…The problem with this whole process is that Andrew Luck is being considered not only to be a franchise-style QB but also a team saviour as well. Luck is still in college and has flaws to his game but the hype surrounding him is so immense it percolates above this year’s struggling teams. The Dolphins would have been the perfect fit for Luck since they haven’t had a franchise QB since Dan Marino retired, but winning this past Sunday may have opened the road to Luck for the winless, and seemingly hapless, Indianapolis Colts. Of course the conversation becomes—what will the Colts do since they already have Peyton Manning? The Colts are an aging club and may be better served to, as the Packers did(sort of) before them, deal Manning, if they remain the league’s worst team, and start over with Luck. But how do you deal a Hall of fame QB who has been an ambassador for the game and the face of the team for a decade? And are you certain that Luck will become Aaron Rodgers?
Rookie QB’s…The previously mentioned Dalton, the newly installed starter Christian Ponder in Minnesota and Carolina’s Cam Newton are proving that rookie QB’s can be successful in the NFL—not counting the struggles of Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville or the fact that Tim Tebow is not technically a rookie and not technically succeeding. But with the information available, video, and coaching it is not that surprising that young QB’s are finding success in the league. With Rodgers having moved into all-time elite category and the fact that he sat and watched for three years gives impetus to the luxury of keeping young QB’s in learning mode for a time, but with the money being thrown around at top draft picks it is unavoidable for someone like Newton not to immediately take the reins of the team. And with a bounty of QB’s in the upcoming draft look for several more teams to hitch their wagons to the arms of young and inexperienced men.
Dream team…Remember it was a back-up QB, Vince Young, who, after Philadelphia made their slew of free agent signings, called the Eagles the new dream team. After an incredibly slow start the Eagles are starting to look like the playoff calibre club that they, and their back-up QB, had expected. It took more than a quarter of the season for the new pieces to of the defence to mesh and apparently it was an episode straight out of an Oprah show where each day one defensive player stood and opened up in front of the others. They began to understand each other and now play well together. It worked—just like in nursery school.
Unbeaten season…The Packers completed the first half and are undefeated. Can they follow the ’72 Dolphins and the ’08 Patriots and complete an undefeated season? Despite the otherworldly performances of Rodgers and the deep and talented offensive juggernaut they have built in their offence unless they get their pass defence to improve an unbeaten season is unrealistic. Then again Rodgers and company could continue to put up 30 plus points per game—then they might have a shot at it.
…In other news the NBA and the players association have walked together, hand in hand, to the edge of the cliff. Will they jump? Or will they simply and clumsily fall off the edge.
…The Toronto Blue Jays are actively seeking a closer this winter. It’s not surprising, given how much GM Alex Anthopoulos likes to talk, that they are part of several trade discussions. It seems as if the Jays actually believe they can contend next year if they make the necessary additions.
…In the hard to believe category the Toronto Maple Leafs are in first place overall in the NHL standings. Not only is that shocking but on Saturday night they actually skated onto their home ice bulging with overconfidence to face the defending champion Boston Bruins. And got waxed 7-0. Sorry guys, your record this early in the season does not depict a championship calibre team. The Leafs are better this year and should compete for a playoff spot–but they are still far away from being among the elite.
…Goodbye to Smokin’ Joe Frazier who lost his last fight with liver cancer on Monday. Frazier will be remembered mostly for the three fights he had with Muhammad Al, specifically the Thrilla in Manila when Frazier had his mouthpiece knocked out in the thirteenth round. He wanted to go out for the final round but his corner men refused. Frazier was beaten and bloody, couldn’t see, and the entire inside of his mouth was shredded. Ali was thankful—he said afterward that sitting in his corner before the final round was as close to death as he ever felt. Rest easy Joe.
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