Peyton Manning broke arguably the most important record in America's most popular sport at approximately 7:42 local time in Denver.
The ensuing kickoff occurred at 7:46 local time. The extra point occurred sometime in between, while Manning enjoyed some high-fives on the sideline.
Oh, there was some pageantry. A pretty woman with a flag reading 509 (Manning's record-setting passing touchdown total, of course) rode a white horse across the field. Fireworks briefly spurted from behind an end zone. "Congratulate your quarterback," the stadium announcer said, just in case anyone was unsure what to do. Broncos receivers played a silly game of keep-away from Peyton with the record-setting ball before Paul Horrigan arrived from the Hall of Fame to confiscate it as NFL property. (Horrigan looked solemn and a little irked, like he was retrieving the original Declaration of Independence from some kids who were using it for paper airplanes.)
The whole thing took less than four minutes. Applause during Aerosmith encores is longer, even though you know they are just going to phone in a version of "Sweet Emotion," then head for the hotel.
It's funny how the NFL is over the top and bombastic about nearly everything but its all-time records. The all-time passing touchdown record matters, but just enough for a horse and a brief crackle of fireworks. Great job, Peyton. Now get off the field so we can kick off.
The passing touchdown record is like baseball's home run record, except that it's not a scandal-marred numerical train wreck of regrets. If someone broke the home run record while passing any and all drug tests, do you think the on-field ceremony would wrap in less than four minutes? Does anything in baseball last less than four minutes? The whole Manning ceremony could have taken place between pitches.
There are good reasons why NFL records are not as revered as records in other sports. The passing touchdown record is only a few years old, and most NFL records are of recent vintage. We all know offensive totals took a leap forward in 1978 and have been slowly accelerating for nearly 40 years since. Manning enjoyed a statistical tilt over Brett Favre in recent years. Favre enjoyed a tilt over Dan Marino. Marino had two extra games per year that Fran Tarkenton never had the chance to play. The most amazing thing about the all-time touchdown list is not that Manning is now first, but that Johnny Unitas is somehow ninth despite starting his career in the era of 12-game seasons.
Unitas is not alone among old-timers on the all-time touchdown list. Y.A. Tittle is now 19th, one touchdown behind Eli Manning—a neat symmetry that ties together 50 years of New York Giants football. Len Dawson is 20th. John Hadl is still on the list. For all the increases in passing offense, the list Peyton just climbed sticks to your ribs for a generation or two. A 70-year old fan can read the list and enjoy a full lifetime of memories.
Completing that climb past Unitas to Marino to Favre is a huge, huge deal. But this is the NFL. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth had to make sure the record-breaking catch was legitimate, so there was no time for any purple mythmaking. That's the default condition of NFL fandom: First you see the touchdown, then you look for flags, then you worry about "Calvin Johnson rules" and dragged toes, then you celebrate. Manning pumped his fist and accepted congratulations from lineman Orlando Franklin before engaging in the marginally more structured ceremonies. Walk-off home runs in Rockies games generate as much hoopla.
Maybe it's Peyton. His aw-shucks, this-is-just-a-job persona makes everything look like another day at the office. A cottage industry of Peyton disparagement also tempers enthusiasm for his assault on the record books. Only one Super Bowl, Peyton. That's the only number that matters. Manning's biggest critics and Manning himself would almost certainly agree on that point. Does that make it right? Is the proper way to acknowledge a titanic, career-defining personal accomplishment, one that brought thrills to millions of fans, to just shake some hands and then prepare for the next series?
Football leaves a record-setter no choice. A home run record can be set during a meaningless September ballgame. Nothing in the NFL is meaningless. The 49ers scored a touchdown just minutes after Manning broke Favre's record, closing the gap to 21-10. A loss would drop the Broncos into second place in their division. It could put them in position to travel to Indy, Baltimore, or Foxboro for a playoff game. Manning had to keep throwing touchdowns against a fearsome defense to truly give the fans want they want from him. He obliged. The record that matters most in Denver on Monday morning is 5-1, not 510.
Winning is the only thing that matters in football; the same can be said of all sports, but losses are more tolerable in an 82-game or 162-game season. A baseball fan can head to the ballpark to watch a player pursue a record. Football fans are conditioned to almost sneer at individual accomplishments. It becomes silly at times—really, getting excited about a player doing something remarkable in a losing effort does not make you philosophically impure—but it is understandable. Football games are too important for long in-game ceremonies.
But the weeks between games are long, and they provide time to savor what happened on Sunday. Peyton Manning had another signature game while coasting past one of sports' most important records. Manning's second career with the Broncos has been something unprecedented in NFL history. Manning's record will eventually be broken, but his touchdown total will remain in the top 10 until we are all very old, just as Tarkenton survived four decades of onslaughts to remain sixth on the list. Manning's touchdowns are something that will stand the test of time. They are something to admire and be in awe of. Just like Super Bowl victories.
Let's take some time on Sunday to appreciate Manning's record for more than four minutes. In many ways, individual accomplishments do not matter. But in some ways, they matter more than anything.
Life Without Playmakers
Some teams were without their most important receivers this week, by injury or by design. Others only had their best receiver (or their extremely "best receiver-like" tight end) in a limited, decoy capacity. While the go-to receiver is almost as much an urban legend as the shutdown cornerback, offenses must adjust their strategies when a Jimmy Graham, Percy Harvin or Victor Cruz is no longer part of the equation. In some cases, including a few high-profile games this week, opponents can capitalize on that playmaker's absence.
Seahawks without Percy Harvin: The Seahawks introduced a bunch of new offensive weapons against the Rams. Speedy rookie receiver Paul Richardson finally had a regular role after weeks of inactivity, catching four passes. Powerful Marshawn Lynch surrogate Christine Michael finally took the field after six weeks of hamstring pulls and healthy scratches. Tight end Cooper Heifert also saw his first action, scoring a touchdown while compensating for an injury rash. The Seahawks offense was once again too reliant on Russell Wilson's legs (106 yards and a touchdown) and was flat for most of the first half, but there was far less option-pitch over-engineering and more conventional handoffs to Lynch and downfield passes to Doug Baldwin. The Seahawks will be able to move the ball without Harvin, who they exiled to the Jets on Friday.
The Rams beat the Seahawks, 28-26, with the help of some brilliant special teams play and another eye-opening performance from the Rams' best-kept secret, Austin Davis. No matter how short the passes are, completing 18-of-21 is an accomplishment. Nothing the Seahawks do offensively will matter if they keep making sloppy mistakes, and while fake punts and trick returns will happen when teams throw the kitchen sink at them, the Seahawks must do something about the penalties.
The Seahawks have now committed 52 penalties, their opponents just 29. They have committed 152 more penalty yards than their opponents, a 25-yard-per-game swing that becomes even bigger when you tabulate all of the Seahawks' big plays that have been negated by fouls.
An entire Seahawks highlight reel can be composed of nullified touchdowns, but the problem runs deeper than that. They get caught with 12 men on the field or get flagged for delay of game in the red zone. They face too many 1st-and-15 and 3rd-and-12 situations for a team that tries to win with ball control. The Seahawks offensive line was prone to sloppy penalties last season—they committed 27 holds and 23 false starts—but they got away with it because everything else was clicking. They have committed 11 false starts and seven holds this season (roughly the same pace), but with the defense less dominant and the offense searching for a new identity, the flags are killing them.
Righting the Seahawks ship is not about replacing a disgruntled screen-and-reverse injury case or fretting about which defender is more elite than the other defenders. It's about getting Justin Britt and Russell Okung to hold still before the snap and not hold after it.
Giants without Victor Cruz: Few teams soldier through injuries like the Giants. They slid Odell Beckham into the starting lineup (giving him many of Cruz's slot responsibilities) against the Cowboys, increased Rueben Randle's target workload, thrust former Buccaneers starter Preston Parker into the rotation, hoped no one would notice that Peyton Hillis was absorbing carries that used to go to Rashad Jennings and took heart in the fact that tight end Larry Donnell became a breakout star a few weeks ago. The Giants have survived crises of greater magnitude during Super Bowl runs.
Beckham caught two short touchdown passes, but was otherwise quiet in the Giants' 28-21 loss to the Cowboys. Parker was targeted three times on third down, but produced just one first down. Randle played well, but is not up to the "go-to receiver" task. Donnell fumbled twice in the game's final minutes. And then there was the silent killer of the Giants passing game: Hillis and fellow RB Andre Williams were thrown six passes, but Hillis made the lone catch for a running back, gaining just four yards.
Despite the mistakes and the loss, there are some reasons for optimism. Beckham is healthy, and his playmaking ability is evident. Eli Manning enjoyed a sack-free day, so the line rebounded from the Eagles collapse. Jennings returns in two weeks to turn incompletions in the flat into five-yard gains. It won't be enough to pull the Giants back into the playoff picture: back-to-back Eagles-Cowboys losses, plus the Cruz injury, closed the cabin door on that flight. But Beckham-Randle-Donnell-Williams can prove they are building blocks for whatever comes next.
Bengals without A.J. Green: The Bengals were 1-of-13 on third-down conversions in their 27-0 loss to Indianapolis. With Green, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert out of action, Andy Dalton was left targeting Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham, Greg Little and Gio Bernard on third downs. Little, true to his legend, dropped a catchable third-down pass. Gresham caught a bunch of passes in front of the sticks. Bernard got beat like the blanket the dog sleeps on.
Here's a typical early Bengals drive from Sunday, taken from late in the first quarter: incomplete bomb to seventh-round pick James Wright; dropped Sanu pass; near-sack of Dalton averted by a desperate three-yard pass to Gresham; punt. Good times.
Sanu (three catches, 54 yards) tried his hardest. Dalton pitched the ball to him for the usually foolproof option pass. Sanu pump-faked, ran a little, pump-faked again, then gave up and ran out of bounds for a loss of six. (The Colts were credited with a sack; such is the respect for Sanu's passing chops!) With so many receivers gone, there was simply no one to throw to when Sanu already had the ball.
Saints without Jimmy Graham: Graham actually played, but it was a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo: He was only targeted twice and played just 30 of the Saints' 75 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The Saints are all about redundancy on offense, so there were plenty of players to fill the void: veteran Marques Colston as the chain mover, Kenny Stills as the deep playmaker, Ben Watson and Josh Hill to provide a credible two-tight end look. Colston caught six passes for 111 yards and some clutch third-down conversions; Stills caught a 46-yard bomb and took advantage of the thin Lions secondary (linebacker DeAndre Levy had to cover him in the slot at times). All appeared to be well.
And then Stills and Pierre Thomas got hurt. Brees was 2-of-11 for seven yards and an interception on the final three Saints drives, allowing the Lions to come back for a 24-23 win. Late-game targets included Watson and fourth running back Travaris Cadet (who displayed a remarkable ability to stay in bounds with the Saints low on timeouts), as well as Colston and the limited Graham. A good offense can function without one vital starter, but even a great one is in trouble when it suddenly loses three.
The good news for the Saints is that Stills' injury did not appear serious and Graham will return to full strength soon. The bad news for the Saints is everything else that has happened this season.
Lions without Megatron: Cry the Lions a river about offensive injuries, other teams: Calvin Johnson, Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron were inactive on Sunday. Jim Caldwell could not use many two-tight end looks to compensate for his lack of depth at receiver, and neither of his running backs were playing at full capacity.
Thank heavens for Golden Tate. Tate caught 10 of 13 passes thrown to him for 154 yards and a critical touchdown. Corey Fuller caught the game-winning touchdown, and Jeremy Ross made a few great plays, but the rest of the Lions offense consisted of the usual depressing non-Megatron staple crops: Brandon Pettigrew not quite making plays and Reggie Bush using his electrifying athleticism to average 3.6 yards per touch. Tate was the difference between a typical Lions loss of old and a new-look come-from-behind victory on Sunday.
The Seahawks could really use a receiver like him.
Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!
Kenny Rogers Trophy (Awarded to the coach who does not know when to hold 'em, or when to fold 'em).
The 4th-and-1 conversion rate across the NFL entering Week 7 was 66 percent. That's about the standard rate for the last four seasons, give or take a few percentage points. Coaches go for it on fourth down more often these days because there is a two-out-of-three chance of keeping the ball, often in (or near) scoring range. It's pretty simple...unless you are Mike Smith.
The Falcons failed twice on fourth down against the Ravens. The first was a 4th-and-7 Matt Ryan sack in the third quarter. Their offensive line, which lost another starter (center Peter Konz) on Sunday, is now a bigger disaster than their defense. They are inexperienced, but they make up for it by not being physical. The team's practice motto is no longer "steel sharpens steel," but "sponge softens sponge."
OK, 4th-and-7 is a do-or-die risk when trailing 20-0; the conversion rate will not be great. The Falcons got the ball back and faced 4th-and-1, once again on the outer fringe of field-goal territory. The call? A rollout flat pass to rookie running back Davonte Freeman, who somehow managed to get stopped for no gain.
The Falcons are now 15-of-44 on fourth downs since 2011. Only some of those were 4th-and-1 situations, but still: Mike Smith is one failed sneak away from the Journal of the American Mathematical Society.
And yet Smith does not win the Rogers trophy this week. (There's no room for it on the shelf next to his lifetime achievement award.)
Mike Pettine rushed the Browns offense onto the field on 4th-and-5 at the Jaguars 43-yard line early in the fourth quarter, trailing 10-6 (the punting unit had been milling about initially). Brian Hoyer lined the troops up as Jaguars defenders hustled on and off the field. The Browns remained set while the Jaguars kept sprinting about in confusion: Some guys were racing to get off the field, while others were finding last-second alignments against receivers who stood staring at empty space in front of them for a short eternity.
Finally, after the Jaguars were safely lined up (a quick snap at any point could have gotten the Browns five more yards), Hoyer took the snap, ran to his left and option-pitched to Ben Tate. To be fair, the Jaguars were not ready for this play. Hoyer and Tate were not ready for this play. I was not ready for that play, emotionally. But you don't have to be prepared to stop something so ridiculous. The Jaguars stuffed Tate for a two-yard loss, and then went on to win their first game of the season.
True Grit Trophy (For toughness above and beyond the call of duty). Gio Bernard should replace Hugh Jackman in the Wolverine role. Last week, he suffered a hit so nasty that I scribbled "broken collarbone" in my notebook, but he returned a few plays later. Vontae Davis blasted Bernard on Sunday, causing the diminutive ball-carrier to spend several minutes on the ground. He was back on the field two plays later to take yet another hit while trying to haul in a pass, this time from Mike Adams. The way things are going in Cincinnati, even an adamantium skeleton won't help him survive the season.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Trophy (For the most unnecessary, yet fantasy-relevant, touchdown of the week). Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith connected for a 39-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-9 with 1:46 to play to give the Ravens a 29-7 lead. It was not a rub-it-in move, but a percentage play: a 56-yard field goal is on the fringe of Justin Tucker's range (he has been missing long ones this year), while a punt would only net a few yards of field position. Why not take a downfield shot? Then again, John Harbaugh may have been rubbing it in to Mike Smith that he is actually capable of converting fourth downs.
Fantasy Leech Trophy (Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your first-round pick couldn't). We'll give it to the stereophonic backup tight ends in the Giants-Cowboys game this week. Daniel Fells caught a 27-yard touchdown for the Giants to further infuriate fantasy owners who donated a kidney to acquire Larry Donnell last month. Meanwhile, Gavin Escobar got left all alone in the back of the end zone to siphon a touchdown away from Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray or Jason Witten. By Hangover law, all mentions of Escobar must include a link to his artwork, which is probably hanging all over Joseph Randle's walls.
Mysterious Touch Trophy (Awarded to the defender, lineman or specialist who got the most unlikely carry or catch of the week). Johnny Hekker, Rams punter. His fake punt toss to Benny Cunningham was an ordinary throw, but what an extraordinary call.
Ref …er, Madness (Because the officials had to be smoking something). Thanks to the ending of Rams-Seahawks, we now understand how the official review at NFL headquarters works! Rams running back Tre Mason fumbles, there's a merry scrum, the Seahawks emerge from the bottom of the pile with the football, but NFL officiating exec Dean Blandino reviews the play by remote in about one-quarter of the time it normally takes a referee to enter the peep-show booth, declares "nothing to see here," sends the information to St. Louis by telepathy and presto! Suddenly, there is no need to review anything, and these are not the droids you are looking for!
In other words, video evidence disappears into NFL headquarters and is used for a summary judgment that appears both hasty and contrary to common sense. Now there's a procedure we all trust, right?
The NFL should install a webcam in Blandino's office so we can watch him review plays; it would be in keeping with the new spirit of transparency. And heck, watching Blandino watch football would be far more interesting than watching Colt McCoy and Charlie Whitehurst play football.
Pumpkin-Flavored Last Call
The autumn chill finally has fallen upon the East Coast. Autumn is a wonderful time of year ruined by one thing: the terrible, terrible pumpkin.
Pumpkins are everywhere. The pumpkin lobby controls the American government. Jackbooted pumpkin extremists make sure the unappealing, unappetizing orange gourds are everywhere you look: in supermarkets, on your doorstep, on television, in your ravioli, IN YOUR BEER. Is nothing sacred?
So this week's last call is dedicated to fighting the continued pumpkin infiltration, while at the same time enjoying some sights and sounds of Week 7. Criticize my opinions if you like, pumpkin-munching sheeple in the thrall of the New World Gourder—it's only further evidence that you are also victims of the conspiracy.
Pumpkin beer: The only thing more dangerous than criticizing Tom Brady on the Internet is criticizing pumpkin microbrews on the Internet; mine may be an unpopular opinion, but the truth must be told. America's craft brewers insist about dumping keg upon keg of spicy, syrupy, cloying pumpkin brews into the marketplace. Most of them manage to simultaneously be too sweet, too bitter AND too weird, tasting like someone crumbled a gingerbread cookie into a Budweiser, then left it in the sun for a week. Worst of all, these nutmeg-and-hops monstrosities monopolize menus across America: Seven out of eight taps at your local tavern suddenly pour Imperial Tripel Mulled Molasses Gourd Vegetative Horrorshow each October, when all you want is something that doesn't taste like someone shoved grandma's spice rack down your gullet.
Week 7 analogy: Something that is supposed to be great but is really nasty, yet inescapable? It's Trent Richardson time!
Richardson appeared to have a good game—14 carries, 77 yards, four catches—but the devil is in the details, just as the problem with most pumpkin beers is coping with their fourth or fifth aftertaste. Richardson lost a fumble on an exchange that was charged to Andrew Luck. He got stuffed for no gain on 2nd-and-2. He got stuffed again on 2nd-and-1, though he converted the third down. On another 2nd-and-1, he caught a zero-yard pass.
All of those second-and-short runs show that the Colts are just running out of roles for Richardson. Ahmad Bradshaw handles the goal-line carries, and Dan Herron mopped up when things got out of hand on Sunday. When the Colts got stuck on their own one-yard line, they called a Luck sneak instead of trusting the ball to Richardson. The occasional decent run aside, Richardson remains a bad running back. But like pumpkin beers in autumn, you are stuck with him.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Peanuts gang's magnum opus to blind faith, theological doubt and crippling peer pressure is the holiday classic we inflict upon our kids. Happy Halloween, trick-or-treaters! Here's a lovable child JUST LIKE YOU whose entire belief system is a laughable sham! In the slapstick B-story, an adorable beagle pretends to be a pilot shot down and forced to survive during history's most brutal war. Also, another child wanders the streets in an embarrassing costume and is denied candy by the whole community. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is 30 minutes of bleak preadolescent despair that emotionally prepares our tots for the ceremonial X-raying of Halloween candy to ensure none of their neighbors secretly wish for them to swallow a razor blade.
Week 7 analogy: A regular event that is supposed to be fun but really harbors a deep-seated sadness? How about the Redskins quarterback controversy?
Colt McCoy replaced Kirk Cousins against the Titans and immediately threw a touchdown pass on his first attempt. Sound familiar? Of course: Cousins did the same thing against the Jaguars! McCoy had a statistically impressive game—11-of-12, 128 yards—against a terrible AFC South opponent, grinding out a 19-17 win. Cousins also won his first relief appearance of the year against an awful opponent.
Don't sit in the pumpkin patch waiting for the next great quarterback, Redskins fans. Demand RG3, or demand restitution!
By the way, I heard speculation several times this week that Colt McCoy might be a "better fit for this offense" than Cousins. Forget for a moment that the same thing was said about Cousins and is always said when a less talented quarterback replaces a more talented quarterback. Who on earth really knows what type of quarterback would fit "this" offense?
Yes, we know a great deal about Jay Gruden from his Bengals days, but coordinator Sean McVay is a 28-year-old who never called plays before this year. Do we really have any idea the exact system they implemented for the Redskins? It's not like we have seen the Redskins offense clicking for any extended period. Also, who knows what offense Colt McCoy "fits," besides the 2008 Texas Longhorns? Before Sunday, the guy had thrown 18 regular-season passes in the last three years.
In short, a quarterback we have not seen in years could very well be a great fit for a system we have never seen function properly before. Anything is possible. Holding a belief without a shred of evidence is the kind of thing that leaves you clutching a security blanket for 60 years.
Pumpkin patch pickin': There's nothing like taking the toddlers to Merry Meadows Farmstead out on the old state highway to pick out a pumpkin and go for a hayride. It's a shame that Merry Meadows is now wedged between a housing development and a strip mall, so the hayride takes you on a scenic tour of the loading bays behind Home Depot. Also, the pumpkin patch is full of hornets this time of year. Block out four afternoon hours for this family bonding experience, and you will soon realize that 45 minutes is too long by half. Your suburbanite children do not want to pet that smelly goat, and once you reach the patch, you learn that every pumpkin is just like every other to a child who can barely lift it.
Week 7 analogy: Running around on a rutted field brings us right back to FedEx Stadium, the most embarrassing playing surface in professional sports. Every time a player lands awkwardly with his foot between a divot and a sand dune I wonder how catastrophic an injury will have to be before Dan Snyder relents and provides his team with the kind of playing surface JV lacrosse teams in the suburbs take for granted. But Snyder is too busy trying to determine if Colt McCoy really is a good fit for the Redskins system, a decision he must make because Robert Griffin got hurt on his terrible field.
Pumpkin coffee: Combine two ounces of chain-store coffee with half a cup of heavy cream, six tablespoons of sugar, enough ice to skate a Winter Classic on and a dash of synthetic cinnamon-nutmeg potpourri. Finish with whipped cream, and sell for a 300 percent markup. Pumpkin lattes are supposed to combine the modern convenience of overpriced coffee with the folksy taste of life on a Colonial-era farmstead. If Colonial-era farmers ingested that much sugar in one sitting, they would hallucinate for three days.
Week 7 analogy: The Bears needed to lay off the sugar and caffeine and calm down after their third home loss of the season, an ugly 27-14 defeat at the hands of the Dolphins. Bears-centric Twitter feeds erupted after the game as if Johnny had just dumped Betty for Sally during the homecoming king-and-queen dance. Brandon Marshall reportedly called out Jay Cutler and Robbie Gould, Kyle Long blamed the fans for not being loud enough and various other shouts of rage and pandemonium could be heard from outside the locker room.
Really, the whole event should have just been 50 guys yelling at Shea McClellin for tripping over his own feet in the open field during a Charles Clay touchdown. It was all downhill from there.
Pumpkin pseudoscience: Anything as popular as pumpkin-flavored everything is guaranteed to prompt a backlash, not just from crotchety sports bloggers but from self-promoting, fear-mongering health food "experts." Did you know that "pumpkin spice" does not actually contain pumpkins? OMG, Wednesday Addams, and Girl Scout cookies don't contain girl scouts either. Your "pumpkin"-flavored treats might contain GMOs, non-organic ingredients, caramel color that gets lab rats sick if they are submerged in it for three years and...gasp...a lot of sugar. If pumpkin snacks somehow vaccinated your kids against dangerous illnesses, holy cow, that would just be the last straw. It's junk science (here are some facts) and just one more reason to hate all things pumpkin and faux-pumpkin: Your Facebook-addicted alarmist sister-in-law has now been whipped into a nonsensical tizzy about iced coffee.
Week 7 analogy: Some dodgy science found its way into several on-screen graphics during Sunday's games. Let's wrap the Hangover by getting skeptical!
Flight of the Falcons: A graphic during the Falcons-Ravens game tried to demonstrate just how far the Falcons will have to fly in the weeks to come. Having flown from Atlanta to Baltimore last week, they return to Atlanta, then off to London on the Kipper Express for next week's Breakfast with the Lions game, then back to Atlanta, then down to Tampa, then up to Charlotte, then back to Atlanta!
What a grueling schedule! Except that they have a bye after the London trip. Also, Baltimore, Charlotte and Tampa are all short trips from Atlanta: same time zone, same general geographic region. Atlanta-Tampa-Charlotte-Atlanta, for example, is a 1,141-mile trip; Seattle to St. Louis, a trip the Seahawks and Rams each make every year, is 1,700 miles each way. Even a coach flyer would not get too worn out by the Falcons' schedule: There are about seven million flights per day between Charlotte, Atlanta, and Baltimore.
Stedman Bailey runs 143 yards: The Rams' crazy punt-return touchdown against the Seahawks was a masterstroke of one-time-only strategizing: Tavon Austin and the other blockers pretended to set up a punt return left, while Bailey raced back from his gunner position and caught a punt that had really sailed to the Rams' right,. Then he sneaked downfield for a touchdown. A television graphic showed that Bailey ran 143 yards on the play, counting the yards with a video game-style streak as he ran up and down the field.
Yes, Bailey did. But it's not like running 429 feet is a great accomplishment for a professional athlete. And football players have to run similar distances all the time. What about gunners who race downfield, then have to chase the returner all the way back to try to save a touchdown? What about receivers who must chase an intercepting defender back up the sideline? Even a 100-yard kick return touchdown from the near corner of one end zone to the far corner of the other covers over 111 yards, just a few paces behind Bailey's there-and-back-again odyssey.
That's right, I dragged the Pythagorean theorem into this. Bottom line: the Bailey play was great because it was a great design and tremendous execution, not because Bailey took such a long journey.
Ha-ha, writers: You were wrong: The Fox broadcast team plucked the most negative offseason headlines it could find about the Cowboys defense and created a montage of them for just the right moment of the Cowboys-Giants game, like when the Cowboys led by seven in the third quarter and forced a punt after 3rd-and-19. "Could Dallas Cowboys' 2014 Defense Become Worst Unit in NFL History?" read the Bleacher Report contribution. "Cowboys Haven't Seen a Unit This Bad Since 1960," read The Dallas Morning News headline.
It turns out we were all wrong. Shame on us for seeing a defense that allowed 6,645 yards last year lose some of its highest-profile starters and play terribly in the preseason, then conclude that the defense would still be awful (with a little dash of hyperbole in the headline). Fox, which employs Cowboys great Troy Aikman, saw this remarkable turnaround coming, right?
"The defense is going to be better. They can't possibly be as bad or worse than a year ago, so it's going to be better... Is it going to be enough? It's hard for me envisioning that to be the case with the injuries... I know that as a quarterback whenever we played an opponent it was, 'OK, who do we have to focus on?' and 'Who do we have to neutralize?' either a great pass-rusher or avoiding somebody in the passing game. I don't know who that would be with Dallas right now and say, 'Wow, we have to concern ourselves with this guy.'" — Troy Aikman, June 7, 2014.
That's from a Fox Sports article by Matt Mosley. Yes, the headline was Troy Aikman: Cowboys Defense 'Can't Possibly Be as Bad' as Last Year. And yes, Aikman does specify that the defense is going to get better, because it would be impossible to get worse. That's the closest thing to a ringing endorsement you are going to get from any legitimate source this offseason, and it did not really ring.
The broadcasters weren't really trying to show up the print reporters, of course. They were just illustrating how remarkable the Cowboys' turnaround from league-worst defense to league-average defense has been by showing just how silly prognosticators can look. If Fox really wanted to rub our erroneous opinions in our faces, they would have hired Mike Goldberg to tell us what a great year Giants defenders Antrel Rolle and Jason Pierre-Paul were having under coordinator Perry Fewell.
But then, to err is human.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.