October 17, 2017

Each Team’s Best

Eighty years ago there was an NFL team named the St. Louis Gunners and their best player was Paul Moss. Doesn’t ring a bell? He probably doesn’t as the Gunners were not around too long and Moss never played in the NFL after 1934.

We know about Moss now thanks largely to Leatherhead Joe Williams who reached back into the black and white annals of America’s great game to remember the tall, talented player eight decades after his playing days and 15 years after his death.

The point is every great player is worth remembering, whether he played on the sandlots during the Great Depression or in the Super Bowl in front of billions. And so the following is a compilation of not every great player ever – we don’t have quite that much time – but the greatest player in the history of each NFL franchise, including some teams that, like the Gunners, have faded into history.

You might not agree with all of our choices, but we hope you enjoy remembering them.

 

Arizona Cardinals – Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver

The Arizona Cardinals just might win the Super Bowl this season, which would be the team’s first Lombardi Trophy and first NFL title since 1947 when they were based in Chicago.

The Cardinals have had a challenging history, to say the least, struggling for fans during their years in Chicago, putting together some solid but unspectacular teams in St. Louis and continuing to be an also-ran for most of the nearly 30 years since they moved to Arizona.

Despite their often lackluster finish in the standings, the Cards have had a lot of great players including Charley Trippi and Ollie Matson from the Chicago days and Larry Wilson, Jim Hart, Dan Dierdorf and Roy Green who played in St. Louis. But our pick for the toughest bird of the bunch is a player who has blossomed in the desert and, even if he doesn’t lead the Cardinals to a Super Bowl victory, will still end up in the Hall of Fame one day: Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald seems as if he’s played for the Cardinals forever. He joined Arizona in 2003 after a stellar career at the University of Pittsburgh and has been one of the NFL’s elite receivers ever since. As of this writing, Fitzgerald has 12,025 career receiving yards and 89 touchdowns. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl eight times and, if the Cardinals had managed to get the ball to #11 a little earlier in Super Bowl XLIII, he caught two TD passes in the fourth including the (temporarily) go-ahead 64-yard score in the final minutes, the Cardinals probably would have beaten the Steelers, instead of losing a heartbreaker.

Larry Fitzgerald, the man with the long hair and sticky hands, left his heart on the field that day six years ago and he continues to do that every Sunday. He has excelled on good teams and bad, no matter who’s throwing him the ball. He’s the best player in Cardinals’ history.

 

Atlanta Falcons – Jessie Tuggle, Linebacker

Leatherhead Matt Haddad says in nearly 50 years of football, one Atlanta Falcon flies highest:

The Atlanta Falcons began play in 1966.  They have had some good seasons, but they’ve never won a World Championship.  “Not a great history,” says Falcon diehard Chris “Bulldog” Harper.

The Falcons entered the league the same season the first Super Bowl was played.  They have made the Super Bowl one time: 1998, when they finished 14-2 and, for the NFC Championship, went to Minnesota and defeated a 15-1 Vikings teams that scored a then-NFL record 556 points in the regular season. “Jessie Tuggle was the heart and soul of that team,” said Harper.

Harper and his fellow Falcon diehard, Josh King, were asked separately: “Who’s the #1 Falcon of all time?”  Both of them picked Jessie “The Hammer” Tuggle.

Tuggle grew up in Spalding County, Georgia, and went to college at Valdosta State.  In his pursuit of professional football, the undrafted Tuggle never left home: In 1987, He signed as a free agent with the Falcons and played 14 seasons.  He became a full-time starter halfway through his second season (1988).  In the second-to-last game that season, the Falcons were down, 22-0, to the Rams in Los Angeles.  In the 4th quarter, Tuggle kept his team from getting shut out by returning a Cliff Hicks fumble 2 yards for a touchdown.  The Falcons lost, 22-7, on their way to a 5-11 season.

Tuggle made a similar play ten years later–in that unforgettable 1998 season.  In a Week 11 showdown at home against their archrival San Francisco 49ers with the Falcons up, 17-6, in the 4th quarter, Tuggle returned a Steve Young fumble two yards for a touchdown and a 24-6 lead.  The points proved valuable as the 49ers scored two touchdowns to pull within 24-19.  As they did so many times that season, the Falcons prevailed, 31-19.  The game was decisive in winning the NFC West over the 49ers, who finished two games behind the Falcons at 12-4.

Harper remembers Tuggle having success against Detroit Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders–or at least more success against Sanders than most players had.  “I remember a game where Sanders faked out the camera man, and you couldn’t see where he was going,” Harper said. “Then you hear a BOOM ! ! !  And then you see Tuggle on top of Sanders.”

From 1987 to 2000, the 5′ 11″, 230-pound Tuggle played in 209 games, starting in 189 of them.  The Hammer made 100-plus tackles in 12 straight seasons–his first and last seasons were the only ones he didn’t.  He recorded a Falcons-record 2,130 career tackles, including an NFL high 1,293 from 1990-’99. Ever since the NFL began officially recording tackles on the late 1970s, Tuggle is the NFL’s all-time leader.

Tuggle recovered 10 fumbles and returned five of them for touchdowns.  He intercepted five passes and returned one for a touchdown.  He sacked the quarterback 21 times and deflected 37 passes.

Chris Harper recalls a game between the Falcons and the New Orleans Saints.  In December 1995, the 7-6 Falcons were up, 19-14, in the Georgia Dome, but the Saints were threatening late in the game.  Saints quarterback Jim Everett, needing to get a touchdown to win, threw the ball in endzone, but Tuggle intercepted and returned it 49 yards to preserve the victory.  The win proved vital to the Falcons’ finishing 9-7 and making the playoffs.

“Memories like that are priceless,” Harper said.

 

Baltimore Ravens – Ray Lewis, Linebacker

It is nearly impossible to discuss Ray Lewis’ career on the field without mentioning his troubles off the field. At least, we feel it’s inappropriate to not mention his troubles, though we realize some might feel differently.

We’ll try to be brief. Ray Lewis was accused of murdering two men in Atlanta in 2000. The charges were dropped, two others were charged and they were not convicted, either. Lewis, that same year, had probably his best season ever and led the Ravens, who had perhaps the greatest defense in NFL history that year, to a Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants.

Lewis, who joined the Ravens in 1996, the first year they played in Baltimore after leaving Cleveland and changing their name from the Browns, eventually made 13 Pro Bowls at middle linebacker, was first team All-Pro seven times, was a Super Bowl MVP for that victory over the Giants, was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and, in storybook fashion, closed his career by leading the Ravens to another Super Bowl victory, when the Ravens defeated the 49ers after the 2012 season.

Ray Lewis is now a network TV analyst, is regarded as jovial and insightful and is remembered as being one of the most ferocious, intense and greatest defensive players in NFL history and will probably be a unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame.

We recognize his greatness as a football player.

 

Buffalo Bills – Bruce Smith, Defensive End

When Bruce Smith was taken with the top overall pick out of Virginia Tech in 1985, the Buffalo Bills were thought of mostly as the team that O.J. Simpson used to play for. A few years later, the Bills would be known as an AFC dynasty and Smith was the player most responsible for this remarkable turnaround.

Bruce Smith registered six and-a-half sacks his rookie year then went on to record double-digit sacks in 12 of his next 13 seasons with the Bills, with the lone exception being 1991 when he was limited to just five games because of injury. Smith retired with 200 career sacks, still the most in NFL history.

And as the better Bruce Smith got, the better the Bills became. In 1988 Smith played in his second straight Pro Bowl and Buffalo made the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Smith would go on to reach 11 Pro Bowls and the Bills, in 1990, made the Super Bowl for the first time in team history.

We all know what happened. They lost. And, yes, the Bills would go on to lose three more Super Bowls in a row.

It was freaky, it was weird, and it was bad luck. The Bills had great teams but, once the Roman numerals started showing up, they faded. It wasn’t Bruce Smith’s fault. He led a tenacious defense that included such stalwarts as Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley while on the other side of the ball the Bills, coached by the venerable Marv Levy, had quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and a handful of other stars.

When the 6-4 Bruce Smith entered the league he weighed about 300 pounds. He quickly learned that to be mean, and more effective, he had to be lean, and so he dropped about 30 pounds and in his most dominant days he weighed around 265. There’s a story that Smith was so disciplined about keeping his weight down that once, seated next to a reporter eating peanuts, he asked for one and then picked it up, held it close to his nose and inhaled deeply, and then set it down because peanuts, yes peanuts, were not in his diet.

Bruce Smith smelled the peanuts four times in his days with the Bills but never got to take a bite. Here, Bruce, is a bag of piping hot peanuts from all of us at Leatherheads. Indulge. You are a Hall-of Famer and the greatest Buffalo Bill of them all.

 

Carolina Panthers – Steve Smith, Wide Receiver

After the 2013 season the Carolina Panthers felt that Steve Smith was too old. He is, after all, 35, which, in fairness, is like 112 in receiver years.

Memo to the Panthers: Big Mistake. It’s not a big mistake, necessarily, to let the greatest player in team history go but it is a fatal error to part ways with a player who can still bring it, no matter what his age, and Steve Smith who, a bit like Michael Jordan and many other great athletes plays better with a chip on his shoulder, is still getting it done with the Ravens.

But let’s go back to Carolina. The Panthers chose the 5-9, 185-pound Smith in the third round out of Utah in 2001 and he was All-Pro as a kick returner his rookie year. Over the next decade Smith became one of the few players to ever make the transition from returner to top receiver, and had 1,000 yards or more receiving seven times, a tally that would have been more impressive if not for injuries.

In 2003, #89 led the Panthers on their amazing playoff run, racking up more than 100 yards receiving in two of Carolina’s postseason victories along with two TDs and was also clutch in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots with four catches for 89 yards and a score.

In the 2005 playoffs, Steve Smith singlehandedly destroyed the Bears with 12 catches from Jake Delhomme for 218 yards and two scores, while also carrying the ball three times for 26 yards.

Steve Smith is fast, tough, nasty, and can flat-out catch. And run. He’ll probably play forever, the most pugnacious and accomplished (former) Panther of them all.

 

Chicago Bears – Walter Payton, Running Back

Leatherhead Bob Lazzari says that Walter Payton was “maybe the best football player I ever saw, combining speed, mental toughness, and an unmatched physical running style.  In addition, his modest nature, work ethic, and “team-first” approach may never be equaled by any NFL player.  There will never be another “Sweetness”, for sure–a man tragically taken from this world way before his time.  May he rest in peace.”

We agree with every word. But Bob’s words are as accurate as they are, for Bears fans, painful because, even 15 years later, it’s difficult for those of us who grew up watching Payton and loving the Bears to come to grips with the fact that Payton is gone.

But we are consoled with words describing another great Bears running back, Brian Piccolo. In the 1971 movie Brian’s Song, about Piccolo’s battle with cancer that would take his life at the age of 26, George Halas says Piccolo is remembered not for “how he died but how he lived. How he did live!”

When Payton broke Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record in 1984, he told reporters “the motivating factor for me has been the athletes who have tried for the record and failed and those who didn’t have an opportunity such as David Overstreet and Joe Delaney and Brian Piccolo…it’s a tribute to them and an honor for me to bestow this honor on them.”

That’s all we really need to know about Walter Payton. In the greatest moment of personal triumph in his career he did not glorify himself but rather reached out to those who died young and never got the chances he had.

Payton was an All-Pro, an MVP, a Super Bowl champ, the NFL’s all-time rushing champ at the time of his retirement and he also subbed at quarterback, was a team leader and a Chicago icon. Many football players were flashier, many won more titles. And maybe one or two were better.

But none had more class or grace.

Walter died young. He was just 46. He died with dignity. He played with courage and he lived with humor and kindness. He was, and always will be, the greatest Chicago Bear of all and those of us lucky enough to have seen him play are the better for it.

 

Cincinnati Bengals – Anthony Munoz, Offensive Tackle

Leatherhead Ronnie Foreman scores one for the “big uglies,” choosing an offensive lineman as the best player to ever wear Bengal stripes:

I will have to go off the glamour positions here as I select Anthony Munoz as the Bengals best player of all-time. Anthony played 13 dominating seasons for Cincinnati and was, in my mind and many others, the best offensive lineman ever in the NFL.

I remember watching him protect my second best player, Boomer Esiason’s backside on numerous occasions. And he is a template for younger players coming up to learn how to play the position from.

 

Cleveland Browns – Otto Graham, Quarterback  

Ronnie Foreman wears Bengal stripes as well as Cleveland’s Brown in choosing the best player in Brownies history:

As much as it pains me to go against the greatest running back of all-time in Jim Brown, I must go with the Browns greatest quarterback of all-time as their best player ever. That would be the old-timer named Otto Everett Graham, Jr.

The Browns were 114-20 with Graham playing quarterback. They made the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. They also won the championship seven of those ten seasons. Although his stats may not be as good as some of today’s modern era quarterbacks he was one of the top statistical QBs in his era and he dominated it.

 

Dallas Cowboys – Roger Staubach, Quarterback

If you were a football fan growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and you did not sometimes wish you were Roger Staubach there was something seriously askew with your brain and soul.

Roger Staubach was not just the quarterback for “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys; he was “America’s Quarterback” as his resume reads like something out of a Gil Thorp storyline.

Staubach was a star QB at the Naval Academy and won the Heisman Trophy in 1963. He was drafted by the Cowboys but instead served in the Navy, including a tour of duty in the Vietnam War before finally joining the Cowboys in 1969.

He became Dallas’ regular starter in 1971 and the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl. Staubach eventually led Dallas to the playoffs eight times and reached four Super Bowls with him as a starter, winning two of them.

In 1979 Staubach was still one of the league’s best players and had, at that time, the second highest passer rating in league history, but chose to walk away and has gone on to be a success in business and is one of the most respected players in NFL history.

Many people hated the Cowboys, but everyone loved Roger Staubach.

And Staubach could play. He is credited with 15 career fourth quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives. Staubach’s 1975 “Hail Mary” TD pass to Drew Pearson to stun the Vikings in the playoffs is considered one of the most clutch throws in playoff history.

Roger Staubach was cool, he was tough, he was a warrior, he was a winner and he was a gentleman. He was a Cowboy.

 

Denver Broncos – John Elway, Quarterback

Leatherhead Tony Williams doesn’t buck conventional wisdom when it comes to the Broncos:

As if this selection shouldn’t be obvious enough, but Elway is the greatest Bronco ever — distancing himself from other fellow Hall-of-Famers Floyd Little and Shannon Sharpe.

When Elway retired following the 1998 season, he was Top-5 in every meaningful statistical passing category for QBs, including tops in all-time wins, game-winning drives, and Super Bowl starts.

His final game is what every pro athlete dreams of — to not only win the championship, but also be named as the game’s MVP.

Elway is also arguably in the Top-5 discussion of all-time QBs, and if that’s not enough, he’s on the ascension of carving out a niche as one of the game’s best talent evaluators and personnel people.

 

Detroit Lions – Barry Sanders, Running Back

The Dallas Cowboys owned the top pick in the 1989 NFL draft and selected quarterback Troy Aikman. The Green Bay Packers were next and the debate in Wisconsin was whether they should take running back Barry Sanders or Offensive Tackle Tony Mandarich.

The Pack chose Mandarich. Ouch for them.

Sanders, the Heisman winner from Oklahoma State, was taken with the next pick by the Detroit Lions and ran his way into the Hall of Fame.

Sanders ran for 1,470 yards his rookie year and had more than 1,000 yards in each of his ten seasons. The 5-8, 230-pound hyper-charged atom ran with a frenetic, pinball style that drove defenses crazy, bouncing one way, zipping another and sprinting for the endzone.

Barry Sanders was hell on fire in a blue jersey. He went on to win four rushing titles and a league MVP and was one of the most entertaining players in NFL history.

Unfortunately for #20, the Lions could never quite build around him and, despite making five playoff appearances with Barry, the Lions never made it to the Super Bowl.

Some athletes stagger to the finish line of their career. Barry Sanders sprinted to it…then took of his shoes and threw them out. Sanders ran for 1,491 yards in 1998 then, at the age of 30, called it quits. Had he kept playing Barry Sanders almost certainly would have set the NFL all-time rushing record and might have even put it out of the reach of mere mortals.

But the whirling dervish enigma that was Barry Sanders decided it was time to sit. And so he did.

We must take a moment to say that when many NFL fans think of #20 on the Lions they think of Barry Sanders, whose number is retired. Others first think of Billy Sims, a terrific Lions running back whose career was cut short after just five years in 1984 because of injuries. If Sims had stayed healthy the Lions might not have struggled for the rest of the 80s and perhaps Barry Sanders would have become an icon somewhere else.

 

Green Bay Packers – Bart Starr, Quarterback

Leatherhead Bob Swick says that when it comes to the greatest player ever from the land of long winters and many Super Bowls, you have to go with a true “Starr.”

Bart Starr was a classic American quarterback of the 1960s who represented the best in the Green Bay Packers.  He was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls.  He had four Pro Bowl selections in his career.  He was the 1966 MVP award winner.  He is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Packers Hall of Fame.

Starr had a 9-1 playoff record playing for the Packers from 1956 to 1971 as a five time NFL Champion who came into his own under Coach Vince Lombardi. Starr was cool, calm and collected on the field, showing little emotion under some of the roughest defenses of that time period.

Bart Starr had it all and, in my opinion, out of all of the championship caliber players the Packers have produced since 1919, #15 is ranked #1.

 

Houston Texans – Andre Johnson, Wide Receiver

This year for the eighth consecutive year Andre Johnson has…made the Pro Bowl? No. Compiled 1,000 yards? No. Led the Texans to the playoffs? Wrong again.

For the eighth straight year Andre Johnson has treated at-risk children from child protective services in the Houston area to a Christmas toy shopping spree, letting these youngsters pluck whatever they would like off the shelves.

This year the spree cost “Santa” Johnson $16,266.16.

Andre Johnson is a good guy, and the best player in the Houston Texans’ brief history. He was selected by the Texans in the first round, third overall pick, in 2003, the second season of the Texans’ existence and he has been a shining light ever since.

Johnson, #80, has been voted to the Pro Bowl seven times, made All-Pro twice and has been one of the NFL’s most dependable targets even while often playing on dismal teams.

When Johnson retires someday his jersey should be retired immediately, not just for his outstanding play but his noble dedication to the franchise and service to the community. A few years from now the answer to the question of who the greatest player in Houston Texans history is the answer could very well be J.J. Watt.

But even if the Texans play another 100 years, it’s going to be tough to top Andre Johnson.

 

Baltimore Colts/Indianapolis Colts – Johnny Unitas, Quarterback, Peyton Manning, Quarterback

The man whom many think might be the best player in NFL history might not even be the best player in his own team’s history.

Are we talking about Johnny Unitas, or Peyton Manning?

Yes.

But we are only supposed to pick one so we shall do so, in our own sneaky little way.

Johnny Unitas was the greatest player in the history of the Baltimore Colts. Unitas was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round in the 1955 draft but, for some reason, couldn’t catch on with his hometown team, which went with Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda instead.

So Johnny ended up with the Colts where he cracked the starting lineup in ’56 and then proceeded to become the definition of what it was to be an NFL quarterback for his generation and all generations.

Johnny Unitas (Even his name is cool. Maybe he should have been an astronaut) led the Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and ’59 and won Super Bowl V. He won three league MVPs and still ranks in the all-time top 20 in passing yards with 40,239. Just imagine if the crew cut, black hi-tops kid had played in today’s pass happy NFL.

Unitas’ last season with the Colts was 1972 and he played one season with the San Diego Chargers. (Think Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards) A decade after Unitas left the Colts, the team broke Baltimore’s heart by leaving for Indianapolis following the 1983 season.

In 1998 the Indianapolis Colts held the top pick in the NFL draft and had a tough time, or so we’re told, deciding whether to take Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.

They chose Manning.

Manning started every single game for the Colts for the next 13 seasons, they made the playoffs 11 teams, won Super Bowl XLI, Manning won four league MVPs, shattered virtually every meaningful NFL passing record and became the model of what a player, a sportsman and a citizen should be. He is the Cal Ripken/Julius Erving/Wayne Gretzky of the gridiron.

And he’s still going…for the Denver Broncos.

Johnny Unitas was the greatest Baltimore Colt ever, Peyton Manning was the best Indianapolis Colt ever. Andrew Luck had better hope the team moves again.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars – Jimmy Smith, Wide Receiver

It’s sometimes hard to remember, or even fathom, but there was a time when the Jacksonville Jaguars were good. And in their best days their best player was Jimmy Smith.

Smith joined the Jags in the team’s inaugural season of 1995 after being cast off from the Cowboys and made an immediate impact with three TD catches for a miserable 4-12 team.

Then, something weird happened. Things that aren’t supposed to happen. Jacksonville, and the Carolina Panthers, both became pretty good in 1996, the second year of both expansion teams’ existence, and Jimmy Smith helped lead the way for the Jags with 83 receptions for 1,244 yards and Jacksonville advanced all the way to the AFC title game, losing to the Patriots.

The Jaguars made the playoffs the next three years as well, including another conference championship loss after their 14-2 season of 1999 and Smith was the catalyst, averaging at least 78 receptions per season, peaking with 116 grabs in ’99.

Jimmy Smith remained Jacksonville’s top target for Mark Brunell and later Byron Leftwich every season until his retirement after the 2005 season, another playoff year for the Jags. He still holds virtually ever Jacksonville receiving record and is currently 19th on the league’s all-time receiving list.

Not bad for a kid from Jackson State who the Cowboys didn’t want.

 

Kansas City Chiefs – Otis Taylor, Wide Receiver

Our Matt Haddad says in more than 50 years of football there is certainly a “chief among Chiefs.”

The Kansas City Chiefs started playing in 1963, after getting established in 1960 as the Dallas Texans.  Their owner was Lamar Hunt, the founder and creative mind of the American Football League.  The Texans won the AFL Championship in 1962. However, it was clear that the competition for the fans and the bucks was hurting both the AFL Texans and the NFL Dallas Cowboys.

In 1965, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Cowboys in different battle: the race for a little-known wide receiver named Otis Taylor.  The Chiefs drafted Taylor in the 4th round out of Prairie View A&M; the Cowboys wanted to sign him as a free agent. Taylor chose Kansas City.

O-Taylor’s breakout season came in 1966, when he caught 58 passes for 1,297 yards (22.4 yards per catch) and 8 touchdowns.  The Chiefs won the AFL Championship, but they lost the first Super Bowl to the Green Bay Packers, 35-10.  Three years later–in the last season before the AFL merged with the NFL–the Chiefs finished the deal.

In the first round of the 1969 AFL playoffs, the Chiefs beat the defending World Champion Jets in New York, 13-6.  In the fourth quarter, Taylor set up the winning touchdown with a 61-yard catch to the 19-yard line–a play Taylor diagrammed on the sideline and urged Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson to call.

The Chiefs went on to Oakland, where they defeated the Raiders for the AFL Championship, 17-7.  Taylor’s 35-yard catch on third-and-14 was a major play in a 98-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown.

Then came Super Bowl IV–a game seen as a victory for every player in the AFL, as an AFL team defeated the NFL’s best for the second year in a row.  The Chiefs trounced the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, with Taylor’s 46-yard touchdown putting the game on ice.  That 1969 season has, to this day, been the Kansas City Chiefs’ lone World Championship.

As a kid in the late ’70s, I knew Otis Taylor as a great wide receiver.  I read about him in the books, and I had one of his football cards.  In 2011, I was surprised to learn Taylor was not in The Pro Football Hall of Fame.

From 1965 to ’75, he caught 410 passes for 7,306 yards (17.8 yards per catch) and 57 touchdowns.  He added three TDs on the ground, and he was a 4-time All-Pro.  His numbers, however, tell only a fraction of the story.

Otis Taylor was the complete package.  Taylor had size–6′ 3″, 215 pounds–and he had speed.  He had fine moves, excellent hands, and the ability to catch the ball in traffic.  Taylor was also a good blocker.

On the website “Tales from The American Football League,” Kansas City teammate and fellow wide receiver Chris Burford says Otis had “a zest for the game.”  AFL historian Jeff Miller says in his book, “Going Long,” that after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win over the Vikings, “Otis Taylor cried for 15 minutes.”

Taylor spent his career in a run-first offense, and he played in the “bump and run” era–also known as the “bruise and batter” era.  Before 1978, defensive backs were allowed tremendous freedom to do what it took to keep a receiver from catching the ball.

In 1975, Cleveland Browns defensive back Clarence Scott, whose football cards I used to have, talked about the best wide receivers he had to cover.  Scott, who played 13 years in the NFL, said: “You’ve got the physical receivers, like Otis Taylor, who have great speed, but they’re also able to overpower defensive backs with their great size and strength.”

The ultimate accolade comes from Hall-of-Fame cornerback Herb Adderley, who won 6 NFL Championships with Green Bay and Dallas.  After the Packers beat the Chiefs in the first Super Bowl, Adderley said about Otis: “Taylor is the greatest wide receiver I’ve ever played against.”

Do you think today’s generation of football fans would not appreciate O-Taylor?  Think again.  “Sounds like a Calvin Johnson from yesteryear, ” says 21-year-old Eric Butler.  “Crazy to speculate how a guy like Taylor would perform in today’s NFL.”

 

Miami Dolphins – Dan Marino, Quarterback

Leatherhead Andrew Tuttle writes that when it comes to the history of South Florida football, one player stands tallest in the sunshine:

The best player in Miami Dolphins history is also one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Dan Marino set the bar for a passing attack long before the current rules enabled today’s throwers to achieve prolific passing stats year after year.

In his 1984 season, Marino produced an unheard of 48 touchdown passes and more than 5,000 yards passing, records that stood the test of time for two decades and have now been passed by several players.

One can only imagine what a Marino-led team with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper would accomplish in the modern era of the NFL.

 

Minnesota Vikings – Alan Page, Defensive Tackle

When you scroll through the list of the NFL’s MVP winners two names jump out: Lawrence Taylor and Alan Page, as they are the only two defensive players to ever win the honor. (Will J.J. Watt be the third?) (Oh, and let’s not forget Mark Moseley, the Redskin who in 1982 became the first, and probably last, placekicker to ever win MVP.)

The Vikings drafted Page out of Notre Dame (where he helped the Fighting Irish win a National Championship) in the first round in 1967 and Minnesota’s glory years followed. Page, 6-4, 245 pounds (he’d probably be a cornerback today) helped Bud Grant’s “Purple People Eaters” to their first-ever playoff appearance in 1968 and the Vikings would go on to become a playoff staple throughout the 1970s including reaching four Super Bowls…and losing all of them.

Page made the Pro Bowl nine times and, in 1971, was so dominant he was voted NFL MVP. In 1978, Page was cut by the Vikings and was picked up by the Bears where he continued to be an excellent player until his retirement after the 1981 season.

In 1979, Page became the first active NFL player to run a marathon. In 1987 he ran a 62-mile race. That same year he became an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Minnesota. In 1993 he joined the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Alan Page grew up in Canton, Ohio. As a high school kid he worked on a crew that built the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the very place where he was enshrined in 1988.

Tell your kids to be like Alan Page, the most valuable Viking of them all.

 

New England Patriots – Tom Brady, Quarterback

Leatherhead Mike Lynch chooses Tom Brady as the greatest player in the history of the New England Patriots and Brady, perhaps more so than any other player we’re celebrating, doesn’t really need a lot of space to make his case. We are nearly inclined to simply say that Tom Brady’s credentials are: “He’s Tom Brady.”

OK, here’s a bit more. Tom Brady has led the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning three. He is a two-time league MVP and one of the highest rated passers in NFL history. He led the Patriots to an undefeated regular season in 2007 has set numerous passing records (some of which have now been broken) and done all of this while playing most of his games in blustery Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Tom Brady is considered by many to not only be the best quarterback of his era but maybe the best ever. He is smooth, he is cool, he is precise, relentless and he looks like he’ll play forever.

In the next life don’t we all want to be Tom Brady?

 

New Orleans Saints – Archie Manning, Quarterback

Before Peyton, before Eli, there was Archie.

The New Orleans Saints drafted Archie Manning with the second overall pick in 1971 and he joined a team that had only been in existence since 1967 and never had a winning record. In Archie’s 11 seasons with the “Aints” they didn’t get much better, never finishing above .500 and never making the playoffs.

Don’t blame #8. Manning was tops in the NFL his rookie year in getting sacked 40 times. The next year Archie was again brought down more than any other NFL slinger, 43 times.   He was tops (or bottom, you could say) again in ’75 with 49 sacks. In his decade with the Saints, Archie Manning was in the top ten in getting sacked nearly every year.

Despite constantly picking bits of turf from between his teeth, Manning still managed to have six seasons with a passer rating of better than 100 and he made the Pro Bowl in 1978 and ’79. For a decade, Archie Manning was the heart, soul and guts of a team that had no arms, legs or head.

Manning left the Saints for the Houston Oilers and finished his career with the Minnesota Vikings. We remember him at QB for the Vikes in his final season, 1984, when the Vikes went 3-13. It was a chilly October game against the Bears in Chicago and Manning, wearing a full facemask, was lucky to get out of Chicago alive as the Bears registered 11 sacks. Toward the end, Bears players were actually apologizing to the 35-year-old Manning.

Archie understood. To achieve true success in life you have to have talent, desire and luck. Archie had the first two. If he had the third maybe we would remember Peyton and Eli as Archie Manning’s kids, instead of Archie as their father.

 

New York Giants  – Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker

Leatherhead Joe Williams tackled the challenge of deciding the biggest Giant of them all, and here’s what he concluded:

In 90 NFL seasons, the New York Giants have had many great players. However, it is easy to pick the greatest player in the team’s history. Without hesitation, it is Lawrence Taylor.

Yes, there are many other team legends, including Tiki Barber, Roosevelt Brown, Harry Carson, Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Mel Hein, Sam Huff, Eli Manning, Andy Robustelli, Phil Simms, Michael Strahan, Y.A. Tittle, Emlen Tunnell and many more.

Taylor stands out. He was one of the few players on defense in the history of the game who could take a game over. His combination of speed, power and ferociousness made him the most feared player during his playing days and possibly all-time. He revolutionized the linebacker position in terms of getting to the quarterback while teams created game plans to try to stop and avoid him.

L.T. made First-Team All-Pro in eight seasons, was selected to 10 Pro Bowls, was a three-time defensive player of the year and the 1986 MVP, the first defensive player to win it since 1971 when the Vikings’ Alan Page dominated. He sacked a quarterback 142 times.

I still remember his 97-yard interception return on Thanksgiving Day in 1982 like it was yesterday. He picked off a Gary Danielson pass in the fourth quarter to beat the Lions 13-6. Before he was done, the Giants became relevant again as a team to contend with which brought Giants fans their first two Super Bowl celebrations. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Honorable mention: Mel Hein

 

New York Jets – Curtis Martin, Running Back

Leatherhead Andrew Tuttle revs up the J-E-T-S by choosing a quiet legend as Gang Green’s all-time best:

Joe Namath certainly deserves credit for bringing the New York Jets their first and to date only Super Bowl victory but Hall-of-Fame running back Curtis Martin is the franchise’s best player.

Martin left the New England Patriots after three stellar years to join the Jets continuing his dominance on the ground. He remained a Jet until his forced retirement after the 2005 season thanks to a bum knee but not before logging 10 straight years with more than 1,000 yards rushing.

In 2004, Martin became the oldest player, at 31, to win the rushing title and he finished his career with 14,101 rush yards, fourth in NFL history. A very reserved and highly respected player, New York retired Martin’s jersey in 2012.

 

Oakland Raiders – Kenny Stabler, Quarterback

Leatherhead David Boyce makes the case for quarterback Kenny Stabler as the greatest player to ever wear the fabled Silver and Black:

I decided to go with the player that made me become a Raider fan in the first place.  That player is quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.  I grew up in New York and had never even paid much attention to the Raiders until 1974.  The first time I saw them was in a playoff game against the Miami Dolphins.  I was familiar with the Dolphins and knew their team very well.  But there was something about that raucous crowd in Oakland.  Those people were crazy!  But what did it for me was the quarterback of the Raiders.  He was a lefty.  Being a lefty myself, I was instantly intrigued.  That game came down to the wire and with precious time left on the clock, Stabler ran to his left and, just as he was about to get sacked, he lobbed up a pass to the endzone where it was caught by running back Clarence Davis for the winning touchdown.  Despite the fact that there were several defenders in the area, Davis still managed to make the catch.  That game later became known as the “Sea of hands.”  It was just one of many games the Raiders played that were filled with drama.

Kenny Stabler was drafted in the second round of the 1968 draft out of Alabama.  The Raiders were pretty much set at the quarterback position as they had Daryle “Mad Bomber” Lamonica.  Stabler didn’t play a down in his first two years and was used sparingly until 1973.  In that year, he became the starter and remained the starter through the 1979 season.  In his seven years as a starter, Stabler threw for 18,234 yards, 145 touchdowns and 135 interceptions.  The best thing about having him at the helm was that the Raiders started winning on a consistent basis.  In his seven years as the starter, the Raiders compiled a record of 74-27.  But with all those wins, they still couldn’t get to the Super Bowl.  The team that usually stood in their way was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1976, the Raiders finished with a 13-1 record.  They would squeak by the Patriots in the divisional playoffs and go on to defeat the Steelers in the conference title game, 24-7.  That meant after all those years of frustrating losses; they would finally get back to the Super Bowl.  Their opponent was the Minnesota Vikings and they were no match for the Raiders.  The ground game was running on all cylinders as they racked up 266 yards rushing.  Stabler had a good day as well, completing 12 of 19 for 180 yards and a touchdown.  The Raiders came away with an easy 32-14 win.

What I liked the most about Stabler was his ability to improvise.  He was always so calm and cool.  During a dramatic playoff game against the Baltimore Colts, Stabler called timeout, strolled over to the sideline to speak with head coach John Madden and said “The people are really getting their money’s worth today.”  Madden just rolled his eyes and told him to go back out there and get the win.  Naturally, he did what he was told.  He may not have had the strongest arm in the world, but he liked to throw deep as often as he could.  In those days, if you didn’t go deep, Al Davis wouldn’t let you play for him.  In addition to being accurate, he also had the ability to scramble out of trouble.  That’s what earned him the nickname “The Snake.”  As the pocket would collapse around him, he’d “slither” out of trouble and complete a pass.

Stabler said he read his playbook by the light of the jukebox.  He played hard and partied hard as well.  Another thing you have to wonder is how many games he played with a hangover.  Simply put, he liked to hang at the bar, chase girls and have fun.  He wasn’t going to let football run his life.  One of his famous quotes is “Just stay in the fast lane and keep moving.  You cannot predict your final day, so go hard for the good times while you can.”

In 1980, Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers and he looked like a shadow of his former self.  In two years with the Oilers, he threw for 5,190 yards, 27 touchdowns and 46 interceptions.  The Oilers made the playoffs in 1980 and Stabler came back to Oakland in a different uniform.  He didn’t have a good day and the Raiders came away with a 27-7 win.  After the 1981 season, Stabler was on the move again.  This time, he was traded to the New Orleans Saints.  He spent three years there and didn’t have much success.  He played in 16 games and threw for 3,670 yards, 17 touchdowns and 33 interceptions.  If you total up his career stats, he threw for 27,938 yards, 194 touchdowns and 222 interceptions.  When asked about the interceptions, he said, “Well, most of those passes were tipped.  There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Despite all those interceptions, lots of people are clamoring for Stabler to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.  I’d love to see it happen.  He made the game exciting and no matter how intense it got, he always remained calm.  All the great players that played with him said they were always confident that Stabler could get the job done.  My favorite quote about Stabler comes from Madden who said, “the bigger the situation, the calmer he got.  That was a great combination with me because I was just the opposite.  I was intense.  If everything were normal and we were ahead, he would get bored.  He had to have his ass to the fire to get focused on something.  That’s when he got really focused.  Instead of getting excited and tight, he’d stay calm.”

That’s the main reason I picked Stabler.  No matter how intense the situation was, he’d remain cool, calm and collected.  It was kind of like having James Bond under center.  He knew things were going to get intense, but he knew he had the ability to get the job done.  After he got the job done, he’d go out and have fun with his teammates.  Over the years, I have collected lots of Raider memorabilia and the centerpiece of it all is my autographed black #12 Stabler jersey.

 

Philadelphia Eagles – Reggie White, Defensive End

Reggie White won a Super Bowl with the Packers but he made his bones with the Eagles.

White was an All-American at the University of Tennessee and stayed in his home state to play two seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL before joining the Eagles in 1985.

A 6-5, 291 pound lineman with the quickness of a linebacker, Reggie notched 13 sacks in 1985 and would go on to record double-digit sacks 12 times in his career and would retire as the league’s all-time sacks leader with 198 and is still second behind only Bruce Smith.

White anchored a dominant Eagles defense and made the first of his eight first team All-Pro teams and first of 13 Pro Bowls in 1986 and won his first of two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards in 1987. The Eagles, coached by Buddy Ryan and then Rich Kotite, were dynamic, tough and good. They had a winning record every year from 1988 to 1992 and reached the playoffs four times.

Alas, once in the postseason Reggie’s Eagles quickly got plucked, and were one-and-done every time. This is especially important to note because after the ’92 season White became a free agent when free agency was new to the NFL and White was the league’s top prize. He signed with the Packers for a then eye-popping four years and $17 million paving the way for other free agents. Today’s NFL millionaires have many people to thank; Reggie White is one of them.

White is considered one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever play. Some believe the very greatest. Imagine a line with him, Bruce Smith, Joe Greene and Alan Page on it.

Sadly, this is a tough time of year to remember Reggie White. It was ten years ago, December 26, 2004, that this dominant player and NFL pioneer died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 43.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers – Joe Greene, Defensive Tackle

Leatherhead Karon Cook pulls back the Steel Curtain to reveal Pittsburgh’s greatest player:

I’m a Cali girl and a drill Instructor’s daughter, but I “grew up” with the Steelers.  Stay with me–my Dad’s from the ‘Burgh, he raised my brother and I exactly the same way: teaching us how to throw a perfect spiral, scoop up a grounder, as well as switch hit.  I credit this early education to my choosing the Sports Journalism field and falling in love with the Steelers!  Joe Greene is my pick for the best player in Steelers history.

Much has been written about Joe; here are ten facts, in random order, that you need to know:

 

  1. He was Chuck Noll’s first-ever draft choice in 1969 (that 1-13 Season gave no hint of what was to come).

 

  1. Joe Greene and Andy Russell were 2 of 5 players from that team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in SB IX.

 

  1. During the early ’70s, “Mean Joe” was one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL.

 

  1. He earned five first-team All-Pro selections.

 

  1. Joe won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.

 

  1.  He is a four-time Super Bowl champion (IX, X, XIII and XIV).

 

  1.  I consider him to be one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever play the game.

 

  1.  Joe Greene wore Black and Gold his entire career–from 1969 to 1981.

 

  1.  “Mean Joe” was part of the famous “Steel Curtain” defense–along with L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.

 

  1. Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

I realize these are just stats/facts about Joe, so I reached out to Andy Russell for this piece; I wanted something real, from a guy who was there.  In Andy’s words: Joe Greene was awesome–his strength, quickness, toughness and refusal to accept defeat were greater than I had ever seen. His first drill in training camp was the Oklahoma Drill (where an offensive lineman goes against a defensive lineman), trying to tackle a running back. It is a very difficult drill and usually the offensive player has the advantage because he knows the count, but Joe absolutely crushed his opponents (some of our best blockers–i.e. Ray Mansfield). He was clearly, in my opinion, the NFL Player of the Decade and certainly deserved the recent retirement of his jersey. I had the privilege to play with both players who have had their jerseys retired–Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.”

People outside the Steeler Nation will remember Joe for his “Hey Kid, Catch!” spot for Coke. If you Google the best Super Bowl commercials of all time, it’s listed at #2.  Also, Joe came up with the phrase “One For The Thumb in ’81” … which was accomplished in 2005.  Now we’re looking at #7!  I’ll wrap this up by sharing a tweet from Brett Keisel: Can’t get our 7th trophy without picking up that 7th regular season W    #HereWeGo #Huntfor7    

Keep the Faith, Steeler Nation, and thanks Andy!  

 

San Diego Chargers – Junior Seau, Linebacker

For many years we thought we would never see another linebacker like Dick Butkus. Then, the football Gods gave us Junior Seau, a man whose very name (pronounced “Say-Ow”) meant he was born to hit people.

The Chargers drafted Seau with the fifth overall pick in 1990 and he spent the next 20 years pounding the opposition. Seau made the first of 12 straight Pro Bowls in 1991 and was first team All-Pro for the first of six teams in 1992.

Junior Seau combined ferocity with speed, strength and football IQ to become the league’s best linebacker of the 1990s and led the Chargers to new-found glory with playoff appearances in 1992, ’94 and ’95 and the franchise’s one and only Super Bowl appearance, a loss to the mighty 49ers, after that ’94 season.

The biggest reason the Chargers were in that Super Bowl was Seau’s heroics in the AFC Championship. Facing a formidable Steelers team on a cold January day in Pittsburgh, Seau went ballistic notching 16 tackles despite having a pinched nerve in his neck.

Over the years the Chargers have had Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, LaDainian Tomlinson and now Philip Rivers. But Junior Seau was the best. He left the Chargers after the 2002 season and played three solid years with the Dolphins before joining the Patriots for four seasons, including helping the legendary 2007 team go 16-0 before a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Giants.

Seau retired after the 2009 season and committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 43. Doctors later determined that Seau had suffered repeated head injuries as a player and was suffering from a degenerative brain disease that many NFL players have been afflicted with.

After Seau died more than 200 surfers paddled out into the Pacific Ocean near the linebacker’s home and joined a circle, chanted Seau’s name and slapped at the water for an hour. A peaceful tribute to a man who thrilled millions and left us far too soon.

 

San Francisco 49ers – Ronnie Lott, Cornerback/Safety

The San Francisco 49ers are known for offense and many say Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback to ever play (or was Steve Young maybe a little better?) and others say Jerry Rice was not only the best receiver in NFL history but might actually rate out as the very best player ever, regardless of position.

But we say that Montana was great, yes, but in a great system at the perfect time and we say the same of Young and yes, even Rice. They are all legitimate first ballot Hall-of-Famers but we say the greatest Niner of them all played on the other side of the ball.

Ronnie Lott was taken by the 49ers in the first round of the 1981 draft and started all 16 games at cornerback, intercepted 10 passes three of which he returned for touchdowns, helped the Niners to a 13-3 record and their first playoff appearance since 1972 and they went on to win their first Super Bowl. (Joe who?)

Lott made the first of ten Pro Bowls his rookie year and was also first team All-Pro for the first of six teams. Montana was the Golden Boy of those San Fran teams of the 80s, but Lott was its backbone. An adhesive cover man and a ferocious hitter, #42 made 49ers’ opponents know that while San Fran’s offense got the glory it was the defense that did the dirty work – and made the difference.

Lott was the defense’s heart at cornerback and also when he switched to safety in 1985, something that’s far tougher than it sounds. With Lott, the Niners won four Super Bowls in the 80s and became one of the league’s great dynasties. You can likely name a lot of offensive players from those teams but who stands out on defense? Ronnie Lott stood taller, hit harder, dug deeper and got it done more than anyone.

If Gary Fencik had been a bit faster he would have been Ronnie Lott. He wasn’t.

Joe Montana was cool, Jerry Rice was clutch, Ronnie Lott was tough. His left pinkie finger was crushed making a tackle in 1985. Surgery would have meant he would miss the start of the 1986 season. So Lott had the tip cut off. He led the NFL with 10 interceptions that year.

 

Seattle Seahawks – Steve Largent, Wide Receiver

       Leatherhead Ronnie Foreman recalls the early days of the Seahawks and says while the team has gotten better, they’ve never had a better player:

Some may disagree with my pick here but having watched him play personally, to me he is far and above any of the other Seahawks players that have graced the Seattle sideline. Others may pick a defensive or offensive lineman as their top choice but I am selecting, from the University of Tulsa, Wide Receiver Steve Largent!

Largent, originally drafted by the Houston Oilers, before being traded to Seattle in the preseason of his rookie year, spent his entire playing career with the Seahawks. He was a great player to watch through the 1980s as he teamed first with another great Seattle player, QB Jim Zorn and then with QB Dave Krieg.

By the time his career was up, Steve Largent led almost all NFL receiving categories, including 819 receptions, 13,089 yards, 177 consecutive games with a catch and he was the first player to reach 100 career touchdown catches. HOF 1995.

 

Cleveland Rams/Los Angeles Rams/St. Louis Rams – Merlin Olsen, Defensive Tackle

Merlin Olsen was humble, sweet and loveable.

Off the field.

Olsen is known to many as an announcer who was in the TV booth for many years including several Super Bowls, as a pitchman for FTD Flowers and as an actor on Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy.

But during a football game there was nothing little about this 6-5, 270-pound tornado from Utah State and the only thing fatherly about him was the way he put others in their place. And if Merlin Olsen handed you flowers on the gridiron it was to put them on your grave.

A first round pick in 1962, Olsen made the Pro Bowl his rookie year and then every single season through 1975, only being left off during his final season, 1976.

Olsen played on the legendary Rams front four along with Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy, the “Fearsome Foursome” which terrorized offenses every Sunday. The Rams were winners nearly every season with Olsen and enjoyed playoff appearances in 1967, ’69 and ’73 through ’76 including NFC title game losses in ’74, ’75 and ’76.

The Rams always fell short in the playoffs with Olsen, but imagine if they’d been able to break through and won a few Super Bowls. They were very close and if they’d made it, maybe Merlin Olsen would have some of those rings that now belong to Joe Greene and Randy White.

Merlin Olsen died in 2010.

He is in the Hall of Fame and his #74 jersey has been retired by the Rams and probably still gives quarterbacks nightmares.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Warren Sapp, Defensive Tackle

For much of their existence the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been a bust, but Leatherhead Ronnie Foreman says one Buc not only was not a bust, he actually has a bust…in Canton:

If there is any doubt as to who is the best player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history you can just put that thought away. And, if you ask him, he will tell you that himself! Perhaps the best defensive lineman of all-time, Warren Sapp took his talents from the University of Miami (FL) across the state to Tampa as the 12th overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft.

Sapp would go on to have nine great years in Tampa Bay to establish his self as the greatest Buccaneer of all-time. He ended up with 77 sacks while there, just short of the 78.5 by early Bucs star, Lee Roy Selmon.  HOF 2013.

 

Tennessee Titans – Eddie George, Running Back

The Tennessee Titans have been around since 1997, after moving from Houston where they were known for more than 30 years as the Oilers.

Eddie George played one season in Houston before moving north to become a Titan and remained a constant for nearly a decade. If you’re looking for consistency in a player you need look no further than Eddie George. A Heisman winner out of Ohio State, George’s yearly rushing totals his first five years in the NFL were 1,368; 1,399; 1,294; 1,304 and 1,509.

George was the size of a linebacker and bruised his way through the line week in and week out, finishing his career with an average of just 3.6 yards per carry but he was a rock, rarely fumbling and rarely getting caught for a loss.

He made the Pro Bowl in 1997, ’98, ’99 and 2000, the same year that he was first-team All-Pro.

The Titans were the best team in the NFL that 2000 season, playing a bruising style of football on both sides of the ball and going 13-3, only to lose a heartbreaking, freaky playoff game to the Baltimore Ravens. This, of course, was one year after the Titans came one yard short in the Super Bowl against the Rams.

Eddie George was almost a Super Bowl champ, almost a rushing champ, almost a legend. But he is second to none when it comes to remembering the Titans.

 

Washington Redskins – Sammy Baugh, Quarterback

Leatherhead Chip Greene says a “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh was the best Redskin of them all.

Baugh joined the Redskins out of TCU in 1937, the team’s first year in Washington after moving from Boston, and would be the backbone for Washington as a quarterback, defensive back, kick returner and kicker through 1952.

Baugh’s numbers are modest by today’s standards, finishing with 21,866 yards passing, 187 touchdowns and 203 interceptions. But, like most players from his era, he was versatile and Baugh was more versatile than most. He simply did it all: running, passing, kicking and defense and he was just about the best, earning first-team All-Pro honors four times.

And Baugh’s teams were nearly as good as him. He led Washington to the NFL championship game five times and they won it in 1937 and ’42.

“Slingin’” Sammy Baugh was a member of the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class in 1963 and lived to see the NFL grow and change quite a bit, passing away in 2008 at the age of 94.

 

And just for fun:

 

Brooklyn Lions – Rex Thomas, Running Back

Leatherhead Joe Williams remembers the days when Lions roamed the borough of Brooklyn and chooses Rex Thomas as the Brooklyn Lions’ all-time greatest.

The Lions, led by coach Punk Berryman, played just one season in the NFL, 1926, played their home games at Ebbets Field, and went 3-8 and merged during the season with the competing AFL Brooklyn Horsemen.

Thomas was the star of the team and the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing yards (137), touchdowns (4), and points (25), and with four interceptions on defense.

The St. John’s University star and Oklahoma native played five NFL seasons. He unfortunately passed away in a car-truck accident in 1955.

Honorable Mention: Herm Bagby.

 

St. Louis Gunners – Paul Moss, Receiver

Joe Williams remembers the St. Louis Gunners who played one season, 1934, and had one player who topped them all:

The semi-pro team purchased the 0-8 Cincinnati Reds during the 1934 season and replaced them to play the final three games that year. A handful of Reds players joined the Gunners. In their first game they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers) before dropping their next two games.

The best player for the Gunners was Paul Moss. He led the team with six receptions for 131 yards, plus scoring one of the three touchdowns in franchise history. His touchdown reception was a team-best 56 yards.

Moss was an All-American at Purdue in 1932. He played the 1933 season with Pittsburgh and led the NFL in receiving yards with 283 while finishing tied for fifth with 13 receptions.

He didn’t play football after the 1934 season. In 1935, he played minor league baseball with the Terre Haute Tots in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.

Paul Moss died in 1999 at the age of 90.

Honorable mention: Cy Casper.

 

Staten Island Stapletons/Stapes – Ken Strong, Halfback, Defensive Back, Kicker

Leatherhead Bob Swick recalls a memorable man on a forgotten team:

The Staten Island Stapletons/Stapes played in the NFL from 1929 to 1932. They did not do well, amassing a record of 14-22-9.

Their greatest player in my football opinion was Ken Strong. Strong was an all-NFL player in 1930 and ’31 for the Stapes. He was an incredible kicker at that time also.

Strong is obviously better known for his heroics on the Giants but he provided an anchor to the Stapes in their brief existence.

 

Houston Oilers – George Blanda, Quarterback

The Oilers are, technically, gone but they’re certainly not forgotten. Leatherhead Matt Haddad says the best Oiler of all time was a guy who nearly played for all of time:

George Blanda began his career with the Chicago Bears (1949-’58)–and was even a member of the old Baltimore Colts for one game in 1950, before rejoining the Bears.  In his time with the Bears, Blanda had some great moments, and a lot of his teammates considered him a top-flight quarterback.  However, his constant conflicts with Bears owner-coach and NFL founder George Halas sent him into football exile.

Blanda sat the 1959 season out, and he drove a truck.  According to Jeff Davis in his Halas biography “Papa Bear,” Blanda promised sportswriter Cooper Rollow he’d play football again soon.  Rollow didn’t know what on earth Blanda was talking about–and Blanda didn’t elaborate.  Blanda simply said: “There’s something going on that you don’t know about.”

A new football league was in the works–and one of the charter franchises would be the Houston Oilers.  The American Football League was launched in 1960, and Blanda was ready to play. Upon signing Blanda, Oilers general manager John Breen said, “He knows how to take a defense apart.”  For the season opener, the Oilers flew to the Pacific Coast, and Blanda took the Oakland Raiders defense apart with four touchdown passes.  The Oilers won, 37-22.

The 1960 Oilers went 10-4 and scored a league-high 379 points (27.5 points per game).  Houston hosted the first AFL Championship Game against the Los Angeles Chargers.  The seesaw battle saw Paul Lowe running wild for the Chargers and Blanda throwing 3 touchdowns for the Oilers.  George also kicked three extra points and a field goal and was named Player of the Game as the Oilers prevailed, 24-16.

A number of former Oilers reflected back on those years in Jeff Miller’s book on the AFL, “Going Long.”  Safety Jim Norton said, “George was brilliant at signal calling, audibling, one of the best signal callers of all time.” Offensive guard Hogan Wharton said, “This guy was a coach on the field.”

The 1961 season saw the Oilers go 10-3-1 and scored 513 points (36.6 ppg). That point total stood as a pro football record for 22 years.  Throwing for 3,330 yards and 36 touchdowns, Blanda was named the AFL’S Most Valuable Player as he led the Oilers back to the Championship Game.

The Oilers invaded the home turf of the Chargers, who now played in San Diego.  The contest was surprisingly low scoring, but for the second championship game in a row, Blanda accounted for all of the Oilers’ points. He kicked a field goal and an extra point, and he threw 35 yards to Billy Cannon for the game’s only touchdown.  The Oilers were Champs again, 10-3.

In “Going Long, ” All-Pro offensive tackle Al Jamison said: “George Blanda was probably the single most important factor in our winning those two championships.”

1961 turned out to be the last championship for both Blanda and the Oilers.  Together they lost the 1962 AFL Championship Game to the Dallas Texans. The 1967 Oakland Raiders, with Blanda as the kicker and backup quarterback, lost Super Bowl II to the Green Bay Packers.  The Oilers fielded some interesting teams over the next three decades, but they never made it back to the final game.

After 37 seasons (1960-1996), the Oilers moved to Tennessee.   They then played two transitory seasons as the Tennessee Oilers then began a new era in 1999 as the Tennessee Titans, with Nashville as their home base.

As for Blanda, he played his final 9 seasons (1967-1975) with the Oakland Raiders.  Upon retiring, Blanda had thrown for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns.  He scored 2,002 points.  In 1981, Blanda was inducted into The Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I just missed watching George Blanda play. As a kid in 1977, I started following pro football.  One of the first players I read about was George Blanda.  I remember thinking, “He played from 1949 to 1975?????” It still astounds me today.

 

Karon Cook, Ronnie Foreman, Chip Greene, Matt Haddad, Terry Keshner, Mike Lynch, Bob Lazzari, Bob Swick, Andrew Tuttle, Joe Williams, Tony Williams

 

NFL Week 1 Highlights

The NFL is back!

Both last year’s Super Bowl and this year’s NFL 2013 opener have something in common: Baltimore Ravens witnessing a delay.

However there is one major difference during these two delays: Baltimore being demolished by the Denver Broncos 49-27 in the season opener compared to seven months ago becoming Super Bowl XLVII champions.

The 2013 NFL season went through a 33-minute lighting delay before the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens played the Denver Broncos on the road. Baltimore becomes the first Super Bowl championship team in ten years to start their season on the road since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Philadelphia Eagles in 2003.

Denver wanted to redeem last year’s divisional playoff loss in overtime against Baltimore. Not only did they redeemed last year’s loss, but they gave the Ravens the worst season opening defeat ever by a Super Bowl champion.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had a historic game, achieving several records during the 49-27 victory. Manning threw for a NFL game-tying record seven touchdown passes for 462 yards. Only five quarterbacks have thrown seven touchdowns in a game and was last achieved by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp against the Baltimore Colts on September 28, 1969. 

The Broncos are the first team in NFL history with three players catching at least two touchdown passes from the same quarterback. Manning’s first two passes went to tight end Julius Thomas, which were his first two touchdowns of his NFL career. After the Broncos blocked punt in the third quarter, Manning’s fourth and fifth touchdown passes went to newly acquired wide receiver Wes Welker. To put the game out of reach, Manning completed his final two touchdown passes to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Overall, there were 63 touchdown passes in Week 1, the most ever in any week in NFL history.

 

Other Records Achieved During Manning’s 7-Touchdown Game

-1st quarterback with three career games of 6 Touchdown Passes

-23rd career game with 4+ Touchdown Passes, tied for 1st with Brett Favre

-7th career game with 5+ Touchdown Passes, tied for 1st with Drew Brees

-Extended his NFL record with his 73rd career 300-yard passing game

-Extended his NFL record 74th career game throwing 3+ touchdown passes

 

Unique Debuts

They are other players who achieved or extended personal records and streaks during Week 1 of the NFL season. Newly acquired wide receiver Anquan Boldin for San Francisco 49ers had 13 receptions for 208 yards in the 34-28 victory over the Green Bay Packers. 

Boldin becomes the first player in NFL history to receive over 100 yards in his debut with three different teams (217 for the Cardinals, 110 for the Ravens, and 208 for 49ers). Only one other player has received for over 100 yards in their debut for two teams: Randy Moss (130 for the Raiders and 183 for the Patriots). Boldin has two career games of 200+ receiving yards, both of them occurred during Week 1 of the NFL regular season.

 

Extended Personal Streaks and Records

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne extended his streak of 65 consecutive games with at least three receptions.  Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter ranks second at 58 consecutive games with at least three receptions. Wayne is 23 receptions away from 1,000 in his career. 

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns in the Saints victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Brees has 36 career games of 350+ passing yards, most in NFL history.  He is also one of six quarterbacks with at least 100 career games of 2+ touchdown passes and ranks 3rd among active quarterbacks behind Manning and Tom Brady. 

Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson had 12 receptions for 146 yards in the Texans comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers. Johnson is the first player ever with 19 career games of at least 10 receptions.  He is the active leader for most 100-yard receiving games with 45.

 

Patriots 41, Texans 28

The last game on the playoff schedule had the Houston Texans heading up to New England to take on the Patriots.  The Texans were coming off a 19-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Patriots had a first round bye.  These teams met in week 14 of the regular season and the Patriots shredded the Texans by a score of 42-14.  The Texans won the toss and elected to receive.  That was a good idea as return man Danieal Manning fielded the kick six yards deep in the end zone and returned it to the Patriot 12-yard line.  From the 12, running back Arian Foster ran up the left side for a modest gain of three yards.  On second down, quarterback Matt Schaub threw a pass to fullback James Casey and the ball went right through his hands and fell incomplete.  On third down, Schaub looked for wide receiver Andre Johnson and that pass was also incomplete.  With such great field position, the Texans had to settle for a field goal attempt from kicker Shayne Graham.  His 27-yard attempt was good and the Texans had an early 3-0 lead.

After that possession, the Patriots punted twice and the Texans followed suit.  But with 4:29 to go in the first quarter, the Patriots put together a nice drive on the strength of running back Stevan Ridley from their 35.  Ridley had two carries for 12 yards and caught a pass for 13 more yards.  From the Texan 40, quarterback Tom Brady threw a short pass to running back Shane Vereen and he took it 25 yards down to the Texan 15.  Brady then hooked up with tight end Aaron Hernandez for a gain of 14 to set up a first and goal at the one.  Vereen took it in from the one for a touchdown.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made the point after and the Patriots led 7-3 with 1:28 remaining in the first quarter.

The kickoff went nine yards deep in the end zone and the Texans got the ball at the 20.  Completions to Johnson and Foster moved the Texans quickly to their 47.  But the next three plays gained exactly zero yards and they punted again.  The punt was fair caught at the 16 by wide receiver/return man Wes Welker.  Speaking of Mr. Welker, on third and eight from the 18, he caught a pass for a gain of 30 yards.  Then Vereen ran off left tackle for 22 more and a first down at the Texan 30.  Two more carries by Vereen got them another first down at the 16.  But, an unsportsmanlike penalty on wide receiver Brandon Lloyd moved them back 15 yards.  They managed to get down to the 19, but the drive stalled there.  Gostkowski made his 37-yard attempt and the Patriots now led 10-3 with 10:16 to go in the first half.

After another Texan punt, the Patriots started from their 20.  A 13-yard pass to Welker on third and 11 kept the drive alive and Brady found Lloyd for seven more yards.  A six-yard carry by Ridley and a 47-yard pass to Welker made it first and goal from the eight-yard line.  On first down, Brady tossed a pass to his left and Vereen caught it for an eight-yard touchdown.  Gostkowski made another extra point and the Patriots went up 17-3 with 3:38 to go in the half.

On the kickoff, Gostkowski was penalized for a horse collar tackle and that set up the Texans at the Patriot 47.  Two carries by Foster set up a first and goal from the seven-yard line.  Three more carries got them six points as Foster found the end zone from the one-yard line.  Graham made the point after and the Texans now trailed 17-10 with 1:15 to go in the half.

The Patriots netted exactly four yards on their next drive and punted.  With 24 seconds remaining, the Texans had the ball at their 38 and three timeouts.  A nine-yard pass to Casey and an 11-yard pass to Daniels had them in Patriot territory with precious seconds ticking away.  From the Patriot 42, Schaub found Daniels for a gain of five and they called their final timeout with two seconds left.  Graham came on and his 55-yard field goal was good.  That made it 17-13 as the half came to a close.

The Patriots got the ball to start the second half and started their next possession at their 31.  Two passes to Welker and two to Hernandez had them rolling into Texan territory.  From the 12, Ridley ran for a gain of four yards.  Ridley got the call again and this time he crossed the goal line for another Patriot touchdown.  Gostkowski made the point after and the Patriots went up 24-13.

The teams punted on their next possessions and the Texans took over at their ten with just under nine minutes to go in the third quarter.  A false start penalty pinned them back to their five.  Schaub tossed a short pass to Foster who took it up the left side for a gain of 28 yards.  A short run by Foster and a loss of nine on a sack made it third and long again.  On third and 16, Johnson caught a pass at midfield for another first down.  If the Texans wanted to stay in this game, they had to get some points on this drive.  Foster ran for seven more yards and Casey caught a pass for five yards and a first down at the Patriot 39.  On third and eight from the 37, Schaub had time and threw a pass right down the middle that was caught by Rob Ninkovich at the 31.  There’s only one problem with that.  Ninkovich is a Patriot.  He returned the ball to the 37.  Three carries by Ridley, and passes to Hernandez and Lloyd put the ball at the Texan five-yard line.  On first down, Brady looked for Lloyd and found him for another touchdown.  Gostkowski made the point after and the Patriots now had a very comfortable 31-13 lead.

The Texans found themselves with terrible field position again as they started at their 14-yard line.  An eight-yard pass to tight end Garrett Graham and two short runs made it fourth and one from the 23.  When you’re down big in a playoff game, desperate times call for desperate measures.  They went for it on fourth and the zebras ruled Foster made it.  The Patriots challenged the ruling, but it was upheld and the Texans had a first down at the 24.  Three plays later, they had another fourth and one from the 33.  This time, Schaub threw it deep and it was incomplete.  The Patriots will make you pay if you turn the ball over in your own territory.  Sure enough, from the 33, Brady took the snap, looked to his left and threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Lloyd.  That was entirely too easy.  Gostkowski made the extra point and the Patriots now led 38-13 with 13 minutes to go in the game.

Manning got loose on another kick return and was finally brought down at the Patriot 37.  A couple of runs by Foster got them down to the 25 and from the 25, wide receiver DeVier Posey caught a pass on the right side for a touchdown.  Initially it was ruled incomplete, but the Texans challenged the ruling and it was overturned for a touchdown.  Graham made the point after and the score was now 38-20 with 11:35 left.

The Patriots netted a grand total of minus five yards on their next possession and Mesko blasted a 64-yard punt that was downed at the Texan 21.  Completions to Johnson and Daniels and a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on the Patriots gave the Texans a first down at the Patriot 48.  A pass to Foster and two more to Daniels made it first and goal at the four.  It took four plays to go four yards, but Schaub hit Foster with a one-yard touchdown pass.  They decided to go for two and Johnson caught the pass and the two-point conversion was good.  That made it 38-28 with 5:11 to go.

The Texans tried an onside kick and it was recovered by Ninkovich.  The Patriots stuck to the ground game to kill the clock and Gostkowski ended up making a 38-yard field goal to make the final score 41-28.  That win propels the Patriots to yet another AFC title game.

For the Texans, Matt Schaub completed 34 of 51 for 343 yards, two touchdowns and one very bad interception.  Owen Daniels led the team in receptions with nine and Andre Johnson had the most receiving yards with 95.  Although he didn’t get loose many times, Arian Foster managed to gain 90 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown.  He also had seven receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown.  The only other player credited with rushing yards was Schaub and he had one yard on one carry.  So that gives the Texans a total of 91 yards on 24 carries.  Defensively, linebacker Connor Barwin, cornerback Danieal Manning and cornerback Johnathan Joseph tied for the lead in solo tackles with three.  Barwin also had one tackle for a loss and two quarterback hits.

For the Patriots, Tom Brady completed 25 of 40 for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.  Wes Welker led all receivers in receptions with eight and yards with 131.  Stevan Ridley had a good game on the ground with 82 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.  All totaled the Patriots ran for 122 yards on 24 carries.  Defensively, cornerback Aqib Talib led the team with nine solo tackles.

Up next for the Patriots is a rematch of last year’s AFC title game as the Baltimore Ravens will be coming to town.  In the NFC, the 49ers will be heading to Atlanta to play the Falcons.  Both games are scheduled for next Sunday and the NFC title game will kickoff at 3 eastern time.  The AFC title game will start at 6:30 eastern time.  Until then, take it easy.

 

Texans 31, Bengals 10

Houston Texans fans had to wait a very long time for their team to make it to the playoffs.  It was worth the wait as the Texans defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 for their first ever playoff victory.

After a 39-yard field goal by Texans kicker Neil Rackers tied the game at ten with 1:48 remaining in the half, the Bengals weren’t content to go to the locker room with the score tied.  That was a costly mistake.  With 52 seconds remaining, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton went looking for wide receiver A.J. Green.  His pass was picked off and returned for a 29-yard touchdown by defensive end J.J. Watt.  That play gave the Texans all the momentum they needed and they shut out the Bengals in the second half.

The aggressive Texans defense shut down the Bengals running game and harassed Andy Dalton throughout the game.  Dalton completed 27 of 42 for 257 yards, no touchdowns and he was picked off three times.  As a team, the Bengals finished with just 76 yards rushing.  Starter Cedric Benson had 14 yards on seven carries and a touchdown.  He spent most of the second half on the sideline.  Brian Leonard led the team with three carries for 34 yards and also had six catches for 36 yards.  A.J. Green led the team with five catches for 47 yards.  Most of those catches came in the first quarter and he was held to one catch in the second half.  Linebacker Thomas Howard led the Bengals with six tackles.

For the Texans, quarterback T.J. Yates won the battle of the rookie quarterbacks as he completed 11 of 20 for 159 yards and one touchdown.  Running back Arian Foster had a huge game with 153 yards on 24 carries and touchdown runs of eight and 42 yards.  He also caught three passes for 39 yards.  As a team, the Texans slashed the Bengal defense for 188 yards on the ground.  Wide receiver Andre Johnson made his presence known and led the team with five catches for 90 yards and a 40-yard touchdown.  Linebacker Brian Cushing led the team with eight tackles and one tackle for a loss.  The Texans ended up sacking Dalton four times.

The next game for the Texans will be at Baltimore to face the Ravens on Sunday, January 15th at 1 P.M. Eastern time.  These teams met in week six and the Ravens came away with a 29-14 win.  In that game, Foster was held to 49 yards rushing on 15 carries and the Ravens racked up 400 yards of total offense.  Will things be different when they play next Sunday?  Time will tell.

 

 

All Out Blitz

Arizona Cardinals: QB Kevin Kolb returned last week and the Cardinals won, but Kolb still didn’t play all that well. He was constantly throwing passes into the ground…..RB Beanie Wells is battling knee, thumb and hamstring injuries which has limited his practice time this week, but he still should play versus the 49ers on Sunday.

Atlanta Falcons: QB Matt Ryan has just not been able to take that next step this season. For the Falcons to advance deep into the playoffs, they will need him to do so or they will have no chance of beating the Packers or Saints…..RB Michael Turner is dealing with a groin injury that certainly seemed to slow him down last week, but the Texans’ defense may also have had something to do with his performance. This week he gets the Panthers, a much better matchup.

Baltimore Ravens: Some consider the Ravens to be the best team in the AFC, but I’m just not feeling it. I’m not sure I trust QB Joe Flacco to raise his game to an elite level when it matters. Even though the Ravens beat the Steelers twice, I still think the Steelers may be the best overall team…..LB Ray Lewis still isn’t practicing due to turf toe and is unlikely to play once again on Sunday.

Buffalo Bills: The injuries just keep coming for Buffalo as TE Scott Chandler won’t play this week due to an ankle injury and K Rian Lindell was officially placed on IR, ending his season…..LB Nick Barnett has had a very good first season for the Bills, already racking up 97 tackles. He would seem to be a must play in IDP leagues.

Carolina Panthers: WR Steve Smith’s production has been down of late even though the Panthers running game has picked up. Smith could certainly use some help to take the defense’s attention off of him. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to give QB Cam Newton another target to throw to, not to mention Smith is getting up there in age and could see a drop off in his numbers at any time.

Chicago Bears: Things just keep getting worse and worse for the Bears. First they lose QB Jay Cutler with a thumb injury, now they may have lost RB Matt Forte with a knee injury…..What makes the Forte injury even more interesting is that this is the last year of his contract as he and the Bears have been at odds all season long on an extension. It would seem business wise that it would be a good decision for Forte not to rush himself back, making sure he’s 100% healthy next season.

Cincinnati Bengals: It seems the sand may be running out in the hourglass for the Bengals as they were wrecked last week by Pittsburgh. They’re going to be a good team, but they still need time…..RB Cedric Benson is dealing with a foot injury that caused him to miss practice Thursday. He could still play though as he missed practice last Thursday as well.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns are going to have to make a decision this off-season. Do they believe in QB Colt McCoy, or do they draft a QB in the first round of April’s draft? They should have a top ten pick and could select one of the more highly rated quarterbacks that will be available. Of course they still need WRs and may need a RB also if Peyton Hillis leaves. Yeah, they don’t have many playmakers on this team.

Dallas Cowboys: Head coach Jason Garrett has been lit up this week for “icing” his own kicker. That isn’t actually what happened. You can clearly see special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and kicker coach Chris Boniol ask Garrett to call timeout…..What Garrett should be taking criticism for was not calling a timeout after WR Dez Bryant caught the pass at the Cardinals 32-yard line with 26 seconds left. Dallas had two TOs left and should have used one there so they could run a couple more plays to get in better FG range. It wasn’t like K Dan Bailey was having a great day. He missed a FG earlier in the game from 50+ and banked another one off the goalpost, not to mention the league percentage on 50+ yard FGs is 50.2. This is the reason why it’s extremely bewildering that Garrett keeps insisting that he didn’t make an error. Garrett has cost the Cowboys two games this season with conservative play calling (New England). If they miss the playoffs, the blame should fall squarely on him…..The good news is that WR Miles Austin should return this week as should FB Tony Fiammetta.

Denver Broncos: It is hard not to be a believer in QB Tim Tebow after last week’s performance. I know it came against a terrible secondary in Minnesota, but still this was the first game that Tebow had to win with his arm and not his legs…..The Broncos have to be considered the favorite to win the AFC West. Scary I know, but I still think they are one-and-done as they will most likely play Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the 1st round.

Detroit Lions: Head coach Jim Schwartz has done a great job of turning around the Lions, but he needs to get control of his team. They make way too many personal foul penalties and are playing way out of control which may be costing them games as well as yardage…..RB Kevin Smith is still being hampered by an ankle injury and is having a difficult time finishing games. He also hasn’t practiced this week which could lead to RB Maurice Morris having a bigger role this week.

Green Bay Packers: That’s 18 straight wins now for the Packers if you count the playoffs. The only team that I believe can beat them would be the Saints in a shootout. It might just come down to which team had the ball last or who had to kick a FG instead of a TD in a cold weather playoff game in Green Bay that hindered the passing attack (think Brett Favre versus the Giants when the G-Men last won the Super Bowl – it was close to zero degrees that night).

Houston Texans: The Texans just keep finding ways to win even without their best players. WR Andre Johnson’s return to the lineup was short-lived as his hamstring acted up once again and he had to leave the game last week. He has already been labeled as out for this week’s game. The Texans may want to keep him out multiple weeks to get him as healthy as they possibly can for the playoffs…..Another player who is really banged up is LB Brian Cushing who is dealing with injuries to various parts of his body. He’s not going to miss any game time, but certainly won’t be anywhere near full strength either.

Indianapolis Colts: I know the final numbers for QB Dan Orlovsky looked good, but keep in mind a good percentage of those numbers came when the game was out of hand and basically over…..The Colts have finally admitted that it is unlikely QB Peyton Manning returns this season. It seems we have known that for months, yet they still haven’t placed him on IR. It should be very interesting in early March when Manning is due a $28 million bonus. It will be decision time!

Jacksonville Jaguars: It is hard to believe that RB Maurice Jones-Drew leads the league in rushing on a team with virtually no passing game. QB Blaine Gabbert had what may be his best game of the season Monday night versus the Chargers yet was only 19 of 33 for 195 yards and two scores. That is hardly lighting up the scoreboard, but every journey starts with a first step. Hopefully, that’s what this is for the Jaguars and Gabbert.

Kansas City Chiefs: So much for QB Kyle Orton. He comes in for one play, a flea flicker, gets hit and dislocates a finger on his throwing hand. Now he is questionable at best to play this week…..My first question would be if Orton was mentally prepared enough to come in the game in the first half, why didn’t he start? Were the Chiefs really thinking Tyler Palko was going to improve?

Miami Dolphins: RB Daniel Thomas has played better of late, but RB Reggie Bush has so far proven that he can be an every down back. He’s not posting out of this world numbers, but they are solid numbers week in and week out…..LB Kevin Burnett is starting to justify his contract of late as his play has really picked up the past couple of weeks…..The Dolphins are playing great and are certainly one of the hottest teams in the NFL, but this still may not be enough to save Tony Sparano’s head coaching job.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Adrian Peterson is questionable to play Sunday versus Detroit, but Peterson came out Friday and said he is still having a difficult time cutting on that ankle. Assuming that’s true, I wouldn’t let Peterson play. He is your franchise player and you don’t need to be risking his health in a meaningless game…..WR Percy Harvin has picked up the offense with the absence of Peterson, showing why many people believe he is a threat to score anywhere on the field when he has his hands on the ball. He did however tear a ligament in his finger. He’ll play Sunday but could have a problem catching the ball.

New England Patriots: With the Patriots’ schedule for the remainder of the season, I still believe they end up with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs…..We’ve heard a lot of news this week concerning the health of WR Wes Welker as he is dealing with knee and wrist issues. He may be banged up, but it won’t keep him from any game action.

New Orleans Saints: You have to be rooting right now for a Saints-Packers NFC Championship game. If the weather was decent in Green Bay (big if), that could be a game for the ages. It would remind me of the Cowboys versus 49ers in the 90s…..RB Mark Ingram will miss this week’s game with turf toe. This guy just can’t stay healthy. What is even more annoying is that he comes off of two productive weeks where he was finally starting to show why the Saints drafted him so early.

New York Giants: You have to admire the bravado of S Antrel Rolle. After the Giants have lost four straight games, given up close to 80 points and 1,000 yards in the past two games, he still comes out and states the Giants have a great defense.  Yeah, not so much Antrel…..RB Ahmad Bradshaw returned last week. Although his numbers were not great, he should force defenses to respect the run again and not go all out to stop QB Eli Manning and the passing game…..The Giants seemed to have every call go against them last week, including a couple that maybe shouldn’t have. Even if that’s so, it just makes up for the Arizona game where a terrible call gave them the game.

New York Jets: I’m not a big Mark Sanchez fan, but you actually hear some of the talk shows in New York mention that the Jets should sign Peyton Manning (if he becomes available) in the off-season and trade Sanchez. It seems they forget that Sanchez is coming off back-to-back championship game appearances. He must have done something right and no one will know if Manning can truly come back from his neck surgery until he gets into a game, plus it’s not like he’s going to come cheap.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders look like they are in the middle of a late season collapse. They barely showed up last week, getting crushed by Miami, and now they get the Packers. Sure they have injuries, maybe even more than most, but you still have to play the game…..Speaking of injuries, RB Darren MacFadden is out once again this week. This is longest day-to-day injury I’ve ever seen.

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Michael Vick and WR Jeremy Maclin are both expected to return this week. This should give the Eagles’ offense a boost, and it will certainly be interesting to see if Vick does play with more caution as he stated he will earlier this week…..How much money has WR DeSean Jackson cost himself with his play and attitude so far this season?  Jackson is still signed for another season, but the Eagles can’t go through this again. They either need to sign him to a long-term deal and make him happy or ship him to a team that will.

Pittsburgh Steelers: I wrote earlier in this column that Pittsburgh may be the best overall team in the AFC. Well that was before QB Ben Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain in Thursday’s win over Cleveland. Ben probably won’t miss any game time as the Steelers don’t play again until a week from Monday, but Ben’s mobility will certainly be hampered…..Another concern for the Steelers is the health of C Maurkice Pouncey who also suffered a high ankle sprain in the same game.

San Diego Chargers: QB Philip Rivers looked real good Monday night. Granted it came against a Jaguars team that lacks a pass rush or a solid secondary, but it also shows what Rivers can do when all of his receivers are healthy…..Speaking of healthy, RB Ryan Mathews also looked good and could be a future star in San Diego…..I have a feeling the Chargers offense lights it up again this week against Buffalo, everyone else has of late.

San Francisco 49ers: Because of their record, the 49ers are listed as #2 in most power rankings. I just don’t see that and have a very strong feeling they are one-and-done in the playoffs. I think their record is more because of a terrible division and nice schedule. I love their defense, but in the playoffs you need to score points and I just don’t see QB Alex Smith being able to beat Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, their most probable playoff opponent.

Seattle Seahawks: You have to love the way RB Marshawn Lynch is playing of late. He’s actually making the Hawks offense somewhat interesting…..OT Russell Okung was placed on IR this week after tearing his pectoral muscle, a tough blow for Lynch and that running game…..QB Tarvaris Jackson reported this week that his arm strength is back to 100% after his pectoral injury earlier this year.

St. Louis Rams: As if the Rams offense isn’t bad enough, there is a pretty good chance that Tom Brandstater is going to start against Seattle on Monday Night Football. I’m sure ESPN is just thrilled with this game, not to mention RB Steven Jackson can’t be very happy with seeing what is sure to be an overloaded front to stop him…..WR Brandon Lloyd should probably be benched in fantasy leagues.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Here’s a stat I didn’t see coming–the Bucs have trailed for longer this season in term of minutes than any other team in the NFL, including the winless Colts…..QB Josh Freeman missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury. His replacement, Josh Johnson, suffered a dislocated shoulder on his non-throwing arm. Ouch! Now Freeman looks like he will start this week but how long he goes is anyone’s guess, not that it matters much right now.

Tennessee Titans: Tough game for the Titans this week as they host the Saints. I doubt the Titans would have a chance if this game were being played indoors, but in Tennessee in the elements and with RB Chris Johnson looking like he has returned to his normal self, stranger things have happened. Not to mention the Titans need the game much more than the Saints. Yeah, I’m not buying that either.

Washington Redskins: As if this wasn’t a dismal enough season for the Redskins, now they lose TE Fred Davis and OL Trent Williams for violating the league’s drug policy. Apparently they were supposed to be suspended for a year but were able to get it down to four games because of a technicality (the players thought there was a grace period after the lockout–like it’s even legal to do these drugs)…..Because of their dismal finish, the Skins should be in good shape to draft a franchise QB next year.

All Out Blitz

Arizona Cardinals: Hopefully the bye week will allow the Cardinals passing game to figure things out. Teams are bracketing WR Larry Fitzgerald which forces QB Kevin Kolb to search for other options, and as nice an early season surprise as Early Doucet has been, he’s just not the answer…..There are whispers in the desert that Ken Whisenhunt’s job could be in jeopardy if the team doesn’t turn this season around. How far that Super Bowl appearance must seem now.

Atlanta Falcons: With the team having a bye in Week 8 and WR Julio Jones still dealing with a hamstring injury, look for the Falcons to play it safe and keep Jones on the bench once again…..WR  Roddy White has knee and thigh issues.  Although neither one is considered a serious injury, they must be the reason for his subpar start to the season.

Baltimore Ravens: WR Lee Evans is still dealing with an ankle injury and is once again unlikely to play this week–not that it matters much since rookie Torrey Smith has filled the void quite well so far…..Rookie CB Jimmy Smith is expected to return this week. He won’t start, but he’ll fortify the secondary…..Ravens play the Jaguars on Monday Night Football. When did the schedule makers think this would be a good prime time game?

Buffalo Bills: As good as QB Ryan Fitzpatrick as been this season, those pair of interceptions he threw to the Giants Corey Webster lost the game for Buffalo last week, but that hasn’t stopped the team and Fitz from coming close on a new contract that will pay Fitzpatrick quite a few more dollars than he is making now…..With the Bills depth at WR being tested due to injuries, C.J. Spiller will remain on the outside for the time being–not like he was going to get many carries over Fred Jackson anyway.

Carolina Panthers: TE Greg Olsen has a toe injury, but it won’t keep him from the game this week…..There were some rumors that QB Cam Newton would be told to not take off and run as much as he has been, but apparently that is not the case. Still one has to wonder if that demand will be coming in the future…..I’m really starting to regret trading Newton in a dynasty fantasy league before the season began.

Chicago Bears: QB Jay Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Martz seem to be at odds over how the offense is run. Funny timing as Cutler had his best game of the week last Sunday, and that may have been partly due to Martz keeping more blockers in than usual to stop Cutler from taking a beating each and every week…..WR Devin Hester left the game early Sunday with a chest injury, but is expected to play in London this week.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals seemed to have done pretty well in trading QB Carson Palmer to the Raiders before the trade deadline, getting a 1st round pick next year, and a 2nd round pick in 2013 (could upgrade to another 1st rounder if the Raiders make the championship game in one of the next two seasons). Seems GM Mike Brown was able to extract a small fortune from Oakland due to good timing (Jason Campbell’s injury) and Brown’s stance that Palmer would never be traded. Good move for Cincinnati, they have their QB of the future in Andy Dalton, and now they get extra draft picks to build around him.

Cleveland Browns: There were plenty of rumors floating around at the trade deadline that RB Peyton Hillis could be on the block. It appears the team and Hillis just haven’t been on the same page this season and with Hillis due a new contract after the season, there was some thought they would ship him out…..CB Joe Haden is still dealing with a knee issue but it looks like he may be able to give it a go this week…..GM Mike Holmgren has stated that Colt McCoy will be the starting QB for the Browns for this season and beyond.

Dallas Cowboys: Is there anyone else that has noticed how badly outcoached Dallas seems to get every game? After throwing three picks in that loss to Detroit, it was almost like Patriots coach Bill Belichick knew that Dallas would look to play it conservative and take the ball out of QB Tony Romo’s hands and run the ball more than usual. Belichick had a strong run game plan and Dallas couldn’t get anywhere on the ground. Someone has to explain to me why Dallas coach Jason Garrett thought Dallas would be able to run the ball for a first down on that final drive. They couldn’t run the ball when NE didn’t know it was coming, more or less when they did.

Denver Broncos: Broncos fans will get what they wanted this week when the Tim Tebow era begins. You have to like the Broncos giving Tebow all the help they can by trading his best receiver, Brandon Lloyd. Hopefully the Broncos will design the offense around Tebow’s strengths, putting him in the shotgun as much as possible and letting him throw on the run. I have a feeling coach John Fox is not going to tell Tebow to curtail his running, that may be the only way they gain yardage.

Detroit Lions: RB Javhid Best won’t play this week due to suffering yet another concussion last week. There are also rumors that some believe Best should sit out the remainder of the season. While that may be the correct choice for his health, it looks like Best will play as soon as he is cleared…..The Lions tried to beef up the running game with the acquisition of Ronnie Brown, but that trade was voided due to health concerns with Jerome Harrison. Maurice Morris will handle the running load for Detroit for now.

Green Bay Packers: TE JerMichael Finley only had one reception for 20 yards last week. If you take away his three TD performance against Chicago, Finley has really had a disappointing season so far…..Green Bay is a good team, but you have to wonder if their lack of a running game and injuries to the offensive line will eventually catch up to them.

Houston Texans: WR Andre Johnson is getting closer to a return, but it won’t be this week. The Texans are hurting without their best offensive player in Johnson and best defensive player in DE Mario Williams…..WR Jacoby Jones is also dealing with a groin injury, but should be good to go this Sunday…..The Texans really need to win this week. A loss to the Titans would put them a game and a half behind Tennessee, and with Indianapolis self-destructing without Peyton Manning, this has to be the season Houston wins the division and makes the playoffs.

Indianapolis Colts: If I had an MVP vote, I would have to give serious consideration to placing Peyton Manning on the ballot. NFL experts have thought for years that the successful Colts weren’t the most talented of teams but rather a product of Manning’s greatness. That theory seems to have been proven this season. I might not place him atop the ballot, but he’d be on it…..RB Joseph Addai is battling a hamstring injury and is listed as questionable to play Sunday night, but most expect him to go.

Jacksonville Jaguars: How desperate were the Jaguars at WR to re-sign Mike Sims-Walker, a player they had no interest in re-signing this off-season…..Former Jaguars QB David Garrard will need to undergo surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, bad timing as he may have been the choice for the Raiders had he been healthy. His season is pretty much done. I’m sure he will want to compete for a starting job next season but seems ticketed for a backup job.

Kansas City Chiefs: Rookie WR Jon Baldwin has recovered from his broken thumb but will still be a game-time decision Sunday…..Fantasy owners have probably flocked to RB Jackie Battle after his big Week 5 performance, but that game may be the highlight of his season rather than a sign of more things to come…..Any kind of running game however would help out Matt Cassel and the passing game. WR Steve Breaston has been impressive of late with defenses paying more attention to Dwayne Bowe.

Miami Dolphins: If you look at WR Brandon Marshall’s numbers, it looks like he is having a solid season but it could be much better if he would stop dropping touchdown passes. By most accounts, he has dropped four this season and that doesn’t even count last week where after catching a pass and not having a defender within 10 yards, he ran out of bounds. I still haven’t heard an explanation as to why that happened.

Minnesota Vikings:  Let the Christian Ponder era begin! Good luck kid, you get to face the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers, and yeah, they are undefeated…..One has to wonder if this is the end of the line for Donovan McNabb. Sure, some team would probably take him as a backup next season, but would this possible Hall of Famer want to go in that direction…..RB Adrian Peterson is going to be facing eight man fronts constantly until Ponder proves he can beat defenses with the pass.

New England Patriots: RB Kevin Faulk, remember him, could be taken off the IR after the Pats bye. He has recovered from his ACL tear. Just what fantasy owners need, more confusion in the Patriots backfield…..I am kind of surprised New England didn’t make a stronger play for WR Brandon Lloyd. He would seem to be the kind of player coach Bill Belichick likes, a veteran who is playing for a new contract–plus he could’ve used the bye week to learn the offense.

New Orleans Saints: TE Jimmy Graham, who may be the best tight end in the NFL this season, is dealing with an ankle injury and is iffy to play Sunday night. Not good for those fantasy owners who need to set their lineup before the early games…..The return of WR Marques Colston and the continued emergence of Graham have made WR Robert Meacham more of an afterthought in the offense. He’ll still have some big games here and there, but he is rarely the go to receiver on any given play.

New York Giants: Living in New York, it’s sort of amusing to hear the Giants players feuding with former teammates Antonio Pierce and Michael Strahan. It seems the current Giants don’t appreciate their former teammates being critical of several players not playing through injury…..With the return of one of those players, DE Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul could see his snaps reduced. This would be a shame as Pierre-Paul has been playing well and is second in the NFL with 7.5 sacks.

New York Jets: The Jets are going to have RB LaDainian Tomlinson start versus his former team this week. It is safe to say LT and CB Antonio Cromartie may have a little extra motivation to beat their former mates…..With the Jets ground game being somewhat lethargic this season, there are some that believe Joe McKnight should be given a bigger role. While it’s true he is not built to take a pounding, we have all seen what he has done on special teams, might as well find out if he can add that same spark to the offense.

Oakland Raiders: Not a big fan of the Raiders trade for QB Carson Palmer. I understand you are 4-2, have a shot to win the division, lost Jason Campbell for most of the season, probably can’t win with Kyle Boller, but was it really worth a 1st round choice next season, and a conditional 1st round pick in 2013 for a QB that could have an elbow problem? If Palmer is healthy and can make all the throws, than the price is not all that exorbitant as Palmer is only 31 years old and could be your franchise QB for the next five years or so, but if he’s not, this could bury the Raiders for quite a while.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles changed up their offense last week versus Washington, using quite a few more three-step drops than usual to avoid QB Michael Vick taking all those hits. It should be interesting to see if coach Andy Reid will continue with that change in the weeks to come…..You think Lions RB Jerome Harrison owes the Eagles doctors a Christmas card. After he was traded to the team, during his physical he told the doctors that he had been experiencing headaches. The doctors then discovered a benign tumor in his head. The trade may have been voided, but without it, this tumor may have never been found. Harrison is out for the year, but his continued health is all that’s important.

Pittsburgh Steelers: S Troy Polamalu was caught making a cell phone call on the sidelines during last week’s game and was fined $10K for doing so. Polamalu said he was calling his wife–feel free to insert your own joke here…..There has been some worry that WR Mike Wallace might miss this week’s game with a hamstring injury, but he is listed as probable and should be good to go.

San Diego Chargers: TE Antonio Gates is still struggling with his foot injury but still might give it a shot this week. The Chargers need his presence in the offense to take away some of the defensive focus off of WR Vincent Jackson, not to mention he’s a pretty good TE…..RB Mike Tolbert hasn’t had any post concussion  symptoms during the bye week and has been cleared to play Sunday…..Tolbert’s partner Ryan Matthews is also completely healthy, but as we all know with him that can change after one carry Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers: Bye week comes at a pretty good time for the 49ers as they need to get their WR corps back in gear. Hopefully Braylon Edwards can return in Week 8…..Tell me you weren’t wishing that Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz wouldn’t have slugged it out after last week’s game. You have to love when the coaches act worse than the players. I’m not sure why the league insists on the coaches exchanging handshakes after the game anyway–this is bound to happen again–the teams just battled each other for three hours and there is so much pressure to win, a cooling off period would seem to be a must.

Seattle Seahawks: It’s looking more and more likely that QB Tarvaris Jackson will miss the game with his chest injury, meaning Charlie Whitehurst will make the start. It would seem that no matter how well Whitehurst plays, it’s still Jackson’s job when he returns…..K Steven Hauschka has only attempted six FGs so far this season. The offense just doesn’t move the ball, even into FG range.

St. Louis Rams: I know the Rams need WR help and Brandon Lloyd had the best season of his career in a Josh McDaniels’ offense, but the Rams are 0-5, this certainly looks like a lost season, and Lloyd is a free agent after the season who will be looking for a big pay day. Why give up any draft pick for such a player at this point in time? Perhaps they will make a big run at re-signing him…..QB Sam Bradford is doubtful to play this week with a high ankle sprain. It might be a good idea to sit out a game rather than being a statue for LBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are once again playing in England and you have to wonder if they would like to make this an annual occurrence as the Glazer family owns Manchester United as well as the Buccaneers…..RB LeGarrette Blount will once again miss the game in jolly old England with his knee injury, but Earnest Graham was more than a capable fill-in last week and should be once again…..TE Kellen Winslow is not on the injury report but still admits that his knee isn’t 100% and most likely won’t be for the remainder of the season.

Tennessee Titans: Some are wondering if the Titans are the most likely landing spot for WR Terrell Owens once he is declared healthy enough to play…..Look for the Titans to increase the role of WR Donnie Avery now that he has had two weeks to learn the offensive system…..A win by the Titans this week and they will be in the driver’s seat in the AFC South.

Washington Redskins: Not exactly a big shock that the Skins changed QBs. The Shanahans seemed to prefer John Beck in the off-season but when he was outplayed by Rex Grossman, they gave Rex first crack. Does anyone really believe Beck will be the starter for the remainder of the season? I know I don’t…..TE Chris Cooley is going to miss a considerable amount of time with a finger injury, and this might be the best thing for Washington as Fred Davis is a much better player and now won’t have to worry about Cooley stealing his reps.