August 17, 2017

Ravens 30, Steelers 17

The second game of wildcard weekend had the Baltimore Ravens heading up to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers.  These teams are division rivals and are very familiar with one another.  Kicker Josh Tucker sent the opening kickoff deep into the end zone and the Steelers started at their 20-yard line.  They took 6:27 off the clock and moved into Baltimore territory, but they came away with no points.  Instead of trying a 55-yard field goal, head coach Mike Tomlin decided it would be a wise decision to punt.  Brad Wing’s punt was downed at the Baltimore seven-yard line.  The Ravens ran three plays and punted the ball right back to the Steelers.

Starting with good position at the Pittsburgh 40, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed an eight-yard pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown.  That was followed by a five-yard carry by rookie running back Josh Harris.  Harris got the call again and he was thrown for a loss of two yards.  Roethlisberger went to the air again and two completions to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant netted 29 yards.  That set them up with a first down at the Baltimore 20.  Unfortunately for the Steelers, the next three plays would lose seven yards.  Kicker Shaun Suisham came on and his 45-yard field goal attempt was good.  That put the Steelers up 3-0 with 1:29 to go in the first quarter.

The Ravens started at their 20 and quarterback Joe Flacco went deep on first down for wide receiver Jacoby Jones.  The pass was incomplete, but safety Mike Mitchell was flagged for a helmet to helmet hit.  That moved the ball to the 35.  Flacco threw to his right and the pass was caught by tight end Owen Daniels for a gain of 18 yards.  Two carries by running back Justin Forsett netted another first down and the Ravens were in Steeler territory.  From the 36, Flacco hooked up with Daniels again for a gain of ten yards.  That was followed by two more carries by Forsett and that gave them a first down at the five-yard line.  Two plays later, running back Bernard Pierce took it in from five yards out for a touchdown.  Tucker made the point after and the Ravens led 7-3 with 12:28 to go in the second quarter.

Return man Markus Wheaton fielded the ensuing kickoff five yards deep and decided to run it out.  Not a good idea.  He was brought down at the 14-yard line.  From the 14, Roethlisberger completed an 18-yard pass to Brown.  On third and ten from the 32, Roethlisberger found tight end Heath Miller for a gain of 30 and a first down at the Baltimore 38-yard line.  The next three plays netted nine yards and Suisham was brought into the game for a field goal attempt.  But the Ravens were flagged for having 12 men on the field.  That gave the Steelers a first down at the 24.  Roethlisberger completed a short pass to Tate on first down.  But another flag was thrown and the Ravens were flagged for unnecessary roughness.  That moved the ball to the ten.  The Ravens brought some pressure and Roethlisberger was sacked for a loss of nine by defensive tackle Brandon Williams.  That was followed by a short pass to Brown and a 12-yard pass to Bryant.  That set up a fourth and goal from the four.  Suisham had no problem making his 22-yard field goal attempt and the Ravens now led 7-6 with 5:40 to go in the second quarter.

The Ravens started at their 20 and Flacco hooked up with wide receiver Steve Smith for a gain of 23 yards.  A four-yard pass to wide receiver Kamar Aiken and an eight-yard run by Forsett moved them into Pittsburgh territory.  Add another personal foul penalty on the Steelers and the Ravens had a first down at the 30.  From the 30, Flacco found Daniels for a gain of 19 yards and a first down at the 11.  But they would only gain one yard on their next three plays.  Tucker was brought in for a 28-yard field goal attempt and the kick was good.  That put the Ravens up 10-6 with 2:41 to go in the second quarter.

Another short kick return by Wheaton had the Steelers starting their next possession at their 18-yard line.  Roethlisberger got his team to mid-field with an 11-yard pass to Miller, a 14-yard pass to Bryant and a seven-yard pass to running back Dri Archer.  A six-yard pass to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and an 11-yard pass to Wheaton netted a first down at the 33.  The drive stalled at the 29 and Suisham came on for a 47-yard field goal attempt.  The kick was good and the Ravens led 10-9 at halftime.

The Ravens started their first drive of the second half at their 16-yard line.  On third and 14, Flacco looked his right and found wide receiver Torrey Smith for a gain of 17 yards.  A seven-yard completion to fullback Kyle Juszczyk and a short run by Forsett had the Ravens in a third and short situation.  Instead of trying to run it up the gut, Flacco went deep for S. Smith.  The pass was incomplete, but some more yellow laundry was thrown onto the field.  Unfortunately for the Steelers, they weren’t terrible towels.  They were penalty flags.  Defensive pass interference was the call and the Ravens now had the ball at the Pittsburgh 31.  On first down, Flacco was sacked for a loss of 13 by linebacker Sean Spence.  The ball came loose, but the Ravens recovered it at the 44-yard line.  A short pass to Jones and a 14-yard pass to Smith put the Ravens back in field goal range.  Tucker’s 45-yard field goal attempt was good and the Ravens went up 13-9 with ten minutes to go in the third quarter.

The Steelers punted on their next possession and the Ravens took over at their 31-yard line.  Two completions to S. Smith quickly moved them down to the Pittsburgh 23.  A nine-yard pass to Juszczyk and a five-yard scramble by Flacco moved the ball down to the nine-yard line.  Two plays later, Flacco lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone and it was hauled in by T. Smith for a touchdown.  Tucker made the point after and the Ravens increased their lead to 20-9 with 4:13 to go in the third quarter.

The Steelers couldn’t get moving and after eight plays netted just 14 yards, they punted again.  The Ravens took over at their 17 and a completion to S. Smith and some good running by Forsett moved them to the 42-yard line.  On third and eight from the 44, Forsett caught a pass and was brought down just short of a first down.  Flacco took it up the middle on fourth down and gained two yards for a first down at the Pittsburgh 47-yard line.  From the 47, Forsett ran up the left side and the ball came loose.  Defensive end Stephon Tuitt recovered the fumble and that gave the Steelers the ball at the 45-yard line.  Roethlisberger went deep for Brown on first down and it appeared he made a 45-yard touchdown catch.  But replay showed he was down at the one.  That was followed by a false start that moved them back to the six.  From the six, Roethlisberger threw to the right and Bryant caught it for a touchdown.  They decided to go for two, but the pass intended for Brown was picked off by safety Matt Elam.  With 11 minutes to go in the game, the Ravens led 20-15.

Jones returned the kickoff to the 22, but the Steelers were flagged for unnecessary roughness.  That moved the ball to the 37-yard line.  The next two plays lost three yards and that put the Ravens in a third and 13 situation.  If the Steelers could get a stop here, they’d be in position to take the lead.  That didn’t happen.  Flacco found Daniels across the middle and he gained 23 yards on the play.  That gave the Ravens a first down at the Pittsburgh 43-yard line.  From the 43, Flacco hooked up with wide receiver Marlon Brown for a gain of nine.  On third and one from the 34, Flacco went deep for S. Smith, but it was incomplete.  Tucker came on again for another field goal attempt.  His 52-yard attempt split the uprights and the Ravens went up 23-15 with 8:47 to go in the game.

The Steelers still had a shot to tie the game up.  But on third and four from the 26, Roethlisberger felt the pressure and dumped off a short pass to Tate.  The ball hit his hands, but he couldn’t handle it and it was picked off by defensive end Terrell Suggs.  The Ravens wasted no time in getting another score as Flacco dumped a short pass off to tight end Crockett Gillmore and he took it the rest of the way for a 21-yard touchdown.  Tucker made the point after and the Ravens led 30-15 with 7:56 to go in the game.

The Steelers knew they had to score quickly.  But they were anything but quick on their next drive.  Granted, they moved the ball well, but they weren’t using the no huddle offense consistently.  To top that off, Roethlisberger left the game after getting his bell rung.  He was replaced by Bruce Gradkowski.  Gradkowski completed two of three passes for 22 yards.  On second and ten from the Baltimore 14, Roethlisberger came back into the game and promptly threw a pass that was picked off by safety Darian Stewart.  That pretty much sealed the deal.  The Steelers did manage to block a punt late in the game for a safety, but that was way too little way too late.  The Ravens came away with a 30-17 win.

For the Ravens, Joe Flacco completed 18 of 29 for 259 yards and two touchdowns.  Steve Smith led the team in receptions with five and receiving yards with 101.  There wasn’t much of a ground game to speak of for the Ravens.  They totaled 49 yards rushing on 25 carries.  Defensively, linebacker Daryl Smith led the team in solo tackles with nine.

For the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger completed 31 of 45 for 334 yards, one touchdown and two very costly interceptions.  Antonio Brown led the team in receptions with nine and receiving yards with 117.  Like the Ravens, there wasn’t much of a ground game to speak of.  As a team, the Steelers rushed for 68 yards on 19 carries.  Defensively, safety Troy Polamalu led the team in solo tackles with five.

Up next for the Ravens is a trip to New England to face the Patriots.  That game will be on Saturday at 4:35 eastern time.

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

 

49ers 23, Panthers 10

The third game of the divisional playoffs had the San Francisco 49ers heading east again to play the Carolina Panthers.  The 49ers were coming off a 23-20 win over the Packers in frigid Green Bay and the Panthers were coming off a bye week.  There was nothing frigid about the weather in Charlotte.  It was sunny and in the mid 50s with a light breeze.  Carolina kicker Graham Gano sent the opening kickoff through the end zone and the 49ers started at their 20-yard line.  On third and ten from the 20, quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked to his left and found wide receiver Quinton Patton for a gain of 20 yards.  A five-yard carry by running back Frank Gore and an eight-yard pass to Gore netted a first down at the Carolina 44.  On third and six from the 40, Kaepernick threw to his right for wide receiver Anquan Boldin.  The ball was tipped and fell incomplete.  However, safety Mike Mitchell was flagged for unnecessary roughness.  That got the 49ers a first down, but they went no farther.  As a matter of fact, Kaepernick was sacked for a loss of seven yards on third down.  Kicker Phil Dawson came on and his 49-yard attempt was good and the 49ers led 3-0 with 9:12 to go in the first quarter.

The Panthers started at their 20 and on second and eight, quarterback Cam Newton completed a six-yard pass to wide receiver Steve Smith.  On third and two, Newton completed another short pass to tight end Greg Olsen for a first down at the 34.  From the 34, Newton hooked up with wide receiver Brandon LaFell for seven yards.  On second and three, Newton looked for LaFell again but the pass was thrown behind him and picked off by linebacker Patrick Willis.  There were three Panthers in the general area of the pass, but Willis still came away with the interception.

The 49ers had good field position at the Carolina 46.  On second and eight, Kaepernick dumped off a short pass intended for tight end Vernon Davis.  The pass was incomplete, but linebacker Luke Kuechly was flagged for defensive holding.  That gave the 49ers a first down at the 44.  The zebras weren’t done throwing their flags either.  On the next play, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was flagged for unnecessary roughness to give the 49ers yet another first down at the 20.  The drive was halted at the 15 and Dawson was called on again.  His 33-yard kick was good.  With 4:33 to go in the first quarter, the 49ers led 6-0.

Dawson kicked the ball short and it was fielded at the Carolina 18 by running back Kenjon Barner and returned to the 34.  Newton went deep for Smith on first down and that play was good for 28 yards.  A seven-yard carry by running back DeAngelo Williams and a 14-yard pass to Ted Ginn moved them down to the 17.  Newton ran up the right side for 11 yards and the Panthers found themselves with a first and goal from the six-yard line.  Big fullback Mike Tolbert got the call on first down and gained three yards.  Newton kept it on the next play and gained two more yards.  On third and goal from the one, Tolbert once again was unsuccessful at finding the end zone.  The Panthers decided to go for it on fourth and about one foot from the goal line.  The attendance for this game was 73,784 and I’m pretty sure all of them knew that Newton was going to run the ball up the middle.  Add 11 more people to that number.  When the ball was snapped, every player in a white jersey did their best to clog the middle and stop Newton from scoring.  It worked and he was stopped short of the end zone.  Why not try a bootleg?  Maybe sell a play fake and toss it to Olsen?  Unimaginative play-calling led to zero points for the Panthers.

The 49ers went three and out and punter Andy Lee hit a nice 52-yard punt that was fielded by Ginn at the Carolina 45 and returned to the San Francisco 31-yard line.  On first down, Newton fired a perfect strike to the left for Smith who caught it in stride for a touchdown.  Gano made the point after and the Panthers led 7-6 with 13:40 to go in the first half.

The 49ers gained 20 yards on their next possession and punted again.  Ginn fielded it at the 17 and tried to escape, but could only get three yards on the return.  Three scrambles by Newton and a six-yard pass to LaFell moved the Panthers to the 47.  A 35-yarder to Olsen, a nine-yard pass to Smith and a short run by Tolbert had the Panthers knocking on the door again.  Newton ran up the left side and was brought down at the one-yard line.  On second down, Newton was stuffed for no gain.  Before the ball was snapped on the next play, linebacker Ahmad Brooks did his best impression of a bird as he jumped over the line and Newton.  That was an obvious offside penalty and moved the ball a little closer to the goal line.  Tolbert had no luck gaining any yards on third down and the Panthers decided to try a field goal on fourth down.  A delay of game moved them back five yards, but Gano had no trouble making a 25-yard field goal and the Panthers led 10-6 with 3:41 to go in the first half.

The 49ers started at their 20 and a five-yard carry by Gore and a 12-yard pass to Boldin moved them to the 37.  On second down, Boldin caught another pass for 14 yards.  Wide receiver Michael Crabtree got in on the act and hauled in a pass for 20 yards and a first down at the Carolina 29.  Another five-yard run by Gore and a 15-yard pass to Boldin made it first and goal from the nine.  After that play, safety Quintin Mikell was injured and did not return to the game.  Every time Boldin made a catch, he talked a little louder.  After that previous catch, he started chirping again and slammed his helmet into Munnerlyn’s helmet.  Doesn’t that qualify as a head-butt?  Shouldn’t there be a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct?  Taunting?  Guess not.

On third and goal from the nine, Kaepernick floated a pass to the right side of the end zone for Boldin.  The pass was incomplete, but cornerback Drayton Florence didn’t turn around to look for the ball.  As I saw that, I started to count.  5…4…3…Boom! There’s the flag!  It was now first and goal from the one.  Gore was stopped for no gain on first down.  On second down, Kaepernick rolled to his right and tossed a pass to Davis in the end zone.  Initially it was ruled incomplete, but replay showed he had possession and got both feet down for the score.  After the pass was ruled incomplete, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh stormed the field in protest of the call.  He was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct that was enforced on the kickoff.  Harbaugh, didn’t you have a procedure done last year for an irregular heartbeat?  It was inside of two minutes and that means that every play will be reviewed from the booth.  Just calm down and stop whining.  You’re acting like a damn child.  If you keep having these emotional explosions, you’re going to be in a straightjacket before the game is over.  After all that went down, Dawson made the point after and the 49ers led 13-10 at halftime.

The Panthers needed to get back on track with a good drive to start the second half.  That didn’t happen and punter Brad Nortman got off a 51-yard punt that was fair caught at the San Francisco 23.  Some more tough running by Gore and a 16-yard pass to Boldin moved the ball to the Carolina 47.  Kaepernick looked for Boldin once again and he hauled it in for a gain of 45.  On first and goal from the two, Gore and Kaepernick weren’t on the same page during the exchange and the ball came loose.  Gore pounced on it and the 49ers retained possession.  I’d hate to see what Harbaugh would have done if Carolina recovered the fumble.  On second down, Kaepernick kept it and ran up the left side.  He dodged a couple of defenders and made it into the end zone.  Dawson made the point after and the 49ers increased their lead to 20-10 with nine minutes to go in the third quarter.

The Panthers really needed to get some points on this drive and they started at their 24-yard line.  Passes to LaFell and Olsen and some scrambling by Newton had them moving in the right direction.  On second five from the San Francisco 48, Newton went deep for Ginn, and the pass fell incomplete.  But the 49ers were flagged for defensive holding.  That moved the ball to the 43 and gave the Panthers a first down.  On third and one, Newton completed a five-yard pass to LaFell and the Panthers were looking good.  They were looking good until the 49ers stepped up their pass rush.  After an incomplete pass on first down, Newton was sacked by linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a loss of eight yards.  On third down, Newton had room to run up the middle, but didn’t move quickly enough and he was sacked by Brooks for another eight-yard loss.  That put them out of field goal range and really hurt their chances of getting back into the game.  They had control of the ball for 8:20 and came away scoreless.

Nortman punted and the 49ers took over at their 12.  Another score would most likely put the Panthers away.  On third and two from the 20, the Kaepernick and Boldin connection came through again and Boldin caught another pass for five yards and a first down at the 25.  Two carries by Gore netted nine yards and on third and one, Gore got loose for a gain of 39 yards.  He was finally dragged down by Mitchell and Florence at the Carolina 27.  The drive would stall at the 15, but they held on to the ball for almost eight minutes and took precious time off the clock.  Dawson came on again and made his 33-yard field goal attempt.  With 7:35 to go in the game, the 49ers led 23-10.

All the Panthers could do now was hope for the best and cope with the rest.  Starting at the 23, Newton completed passes to LaFell and Ginn, but he was also sacked two more times.  They moved down to the San Francisco 28, but when Newton looked for Olsen, his pass was picked off at the nine by safety Donte Whitner.  The Carolina faithful started to head for the exits as that pretty much ended any hopes of the Panthers heading to Seattle.  The 49ers ran out the clock and advanced to the NFC championship game for the second straight year.

For the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 for 196 yards and one touchdown.  He added a rushing touchdown and finished the game with 15 yards on eight carries.  Anquan Boldin had himself a good day and led the 49ers in receptions with eight and receiving yards with 136.  On the ground, the 49ers rushed for 126 on 34 carries.  Frank Gore led the way with 84 yards on 17 carries.  Their defense came up huge when it needed to with two big goal line stands.  Defensively, they sacked Newton five times and Bowman, Willis and Brooks tied for the lead in solo tackles with five apiece.  Brooks also had 2.5 sacks.

For the Panthers, Cam Newton completed 16 of 25 for 267 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.  He also led the team in rushing with 54 yards on ten carries.  Ginn, Smith, Olsen and LaFell each had four receptions and Ginn had the most receiving yards with 104.  As a team, the Panthers rushed for 93 yards on 24 carries.  Defensively, linebacker Thomas Davis led the team in solo tackles with four.  They had plenty of opportunities in this game.  Simply put, they couldn’t find a way to score from the one-yard line on two different occasions.

Whenever the 49ers and Seahawks get together, you can expect an intense game with lots of trash talk.  I expect that’s what will happen Sunday when they meet at 6:30 eastern time to determine the winner of the NFC.

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.

Bearable

We learned, or re-learned, several things in Sunday’s 34-29 victory by the Chicago Bears over the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field.  Among them:

1. Devin Hester is Batman.

2. Batman is alive and well.

3. Cam Newton is Elvis.

4. Elvis is just as alive as Batman and possesses a much brighter future.

5. Matt Forte has super powers but Carolina’s defense has no kryptonite and their special teams have no clue.

6. The Bears are so-so, the Panthers are less than.

The Bears gave up 543 yards to Mr. Newton and his tattooed cats but still prevailed thanks to Hester, Forte and a porous but plucky defense whose primary plan for most of Sunday afternoon was to let Newton pass, let Steve Smith catch, and hope they both got tired from doing so.

The Bears defense was saved by two things: the clock, which reached zero before Mr. Newton proved again that gravity works better against him than tackling, and D.J. Moore – the little cornerback who could.  Moore’s interception of Newton and subsequent 20-yard sprint for a score gave Chicago a 10-3 first quarter advantage that they would desperately need as the second quarter turned into a ping-pong death match of yardage and yucks with the teams combining for 31 points.  Newton – who was conceived in a solar-powered laboratory on Mars – led his NASCAR country rascals on three scoring drives in the second, including two touchdowns which Cam (rhymes with “Damn!”) took into the endzone himself at the end of drives in which he ran and passed as he pleased, looking sort of like one of those guys from “Real Steel” but much cooler.

In between, the Bears scored twice.  The first came in the form of a 17-yard scamper from Forte who brought in da noise and brought in da funk to the tune of a career-high 205 yards in this one which proves that there is nothing Matt Forte can’t do…as long as he plays the Panthers.  Forte’s score was set up by a nifty return from Hester who must have fooled Carolina into thinking that he’s actually Jacob Hester because the Panthers had no fear of kicking the ball his way. Several moments later Devin took a Carolina punt 69 yards for a score aided by poor tackling, a Moses-like tendency to find a way, and Carolina’s failure to read the memo that Devin Hester is the greatest return man alive…but he’s not always the sharpest claw on the Bear paw.  Hester, upon scoring his NFL-best 11th career punt return TD, got all Nadia Comaneci-like and did a bunch of flips in the endzone which resulted in a 15-yard un-NFL-tightass-conduct penalty.  It’s dumb, but Hester – Fast and Foolish – couldn’t help himself and so the Panthers had a short field and – guess what? – Newton hit Smith for 38 yards and the Panthers were on their way to their old friend, the goal line which featured Bears defenders holding open the door and telling the gentlemen to enjoy themselves.

The second half was a little less pinball-like as both teams spent the third quarter staying away from the scoreboard and instead just seemed to enjoy the beautiful fall day because, hey, life goes quickly and offenses shouldn’t sweat the small stuff like sustained drives, touchdowns and field goals.  The Panthers should have scored a TD in the third, well actually they did on a 22-yard connection from Newton to the NFL’s ageless scalawag, Jeremy Shockey, but Mr. Shockey was flagged for pushing off (he wouldn’t!) and the play was called back.  It was not a good call. This is football and let the boys touch each other.  So, the beloved Bears got lucky there but give them credit as Julius Peppers blocked Olindo Mare’s field goal attempt.  Yes, Olindo Mare is still alive…and kicking.

Matt Forte – have you heard he wants a raise? – matriculated downfield for a 40-yard run late in the fourth setting up a three-yard score by Marion Barber that put the Bears up 34-23 and pretty much sealed it.  At least, so they thought.  That rascal Newton insisted on his pushing his team down the field in the final minute for another TD – a pass to former Bear Greg Olsen – which made the final score look closer than maybe it should have…or is it that the final score should have gone the other way?

The Bears were outgained in this game 543-317.

Cam Newton threw for 374 yards. Jay Cutler passed for 93 (honestly).  The Panthers had the ball for 33 minutes, 29 seconds; the Bears had it for 26:31.

The Bears won because the Panthers aren’t that good, Newton can’t do it all and Forte and Hester are even more soulful than Yarbrough and Peoples.

Chicago also has a gutsy coach who must be relishing this victory over his former assistant, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, whom Lovie Smith is accused of running out of town and sending the Bears defense into a tailspin from 2007-2009.  Lovie let the Bears go for it on 4th-and-1 near midfield early in the fourth keeping a drive alive and getting eventually rewarded with a 24-yard field goal from Robbie Gould.  Lovie isn’t loud but he’s not afraid to make the tough call at the right time.  Matt Forte was doing medieval things to Carolina’s tacklers all day long and if the Bears line failed to come through on that critical play it would have been their fault, not Lovie’s.  But the hole was there, Forte found it and many a Bears fan took an extra sip of Old Style.

So, the Bears are 2-2 and safely seated on the train of respectability and have 12 more games to steer that train away from the ugly land of mediocrity.  What does this team hang its hat on?  Can they rely on the defense to score and Hester to be freaky all season long?  Not likely.  And, with complete and appropriate respect to Matt Forte, there is no way he’s gouging any other defenses for a 200-spot this season, especially not Chicago’s next opponent, the 4-0 and very angry and thorough Detroit Lions.  And who is the only other team in the NFL with a 4-0 record?  It’s another NFC North resident, the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers who have already fleeced and shamed the Bears once.  Luckily, one of the league’s still winless teams is the Minnesota Vikings so this will at least be a four-win season in Chicago.

The Bears are giving up 24.5 points and an average of 425 yards a game, second worst in the NFL.  Who’s the worst?  That would be the New England Patriots, a team that has given up the exact same number of points as the Bears but capably counters such a deficiency by leading the league in offense to the tune of 507 yards each time they take the field, more than 50 yards better than their next closest competitor, the Cincinnati Bengals.  As for the Bears offense, it’s 26th in the NFL, compiling a modest 307 yards per contest.  Chicago’s offensive line once again gets the big foam fingers pointed its way for this as the big uglies upfront are ranked as 31st best in the league. At least the front five are keeping Jay Cutler alive as he was sacked just once against Carolina and had few moments where he seemed or looked as if law school would have been a better choice.

All season long, many of us Bears backers have been pointing to the return of running back Marion Barber from injury as a harbinger of all things good and yardage bearing and maybe we were right.  Barber carried the ball just five times for 17 yards and one score against Carolina but his first run of the game, a ten-yard jaunt in the first quarter, seemed to pump life into the Bears and the crowd.  We’re certainly not going to see the Bears – or any NFL team – go to an old two-back attack in which each guy carries 20 times a game – are we? – but if Barber can get five to ten touches per game it will keep the offense balanced, Forte rested (and motivated), the defense fresh, and, since the Bears passing game still doesn’t quite resemble that of New England, New Orleans or Stanford, might be what the Bears have to do to have a chance.

Oh yeah, they still need cheerleaders, too.  Really leggy ones.

 

VARIOUS NFL THOUGHTS:

Michael Vick’s “Dream Team” is 1-3.  Rex Grossman’s football team is 3-1.

Jim Harbaugh’s NFL team might be as good as the college team he coached last year.

Wes Welker is on pace to have more than 2,400 yards receiving –not going to happen, 20 TD’s – might happen – and 160 receptions – good bet to happen.

Only 41,142 people were at the Bengals-Bills game, and Carson Palmer wasn’t one of them.

The Bengals had lost to the Bills ten straight times before winning Sunday.  This came one week after the Bills beat the Patriots after having lost to them 15 straight times.

Jeff Pearlman ought to be ashamed of himself.

 

All Out Blitz

Arizona Cardinals: Well the first game in the Kevin Kolb era went well as Kolb looked like he could be the answer to the Cardinals QB question…..How on Earth did the Cardinals pass defense allow QB Cam Newton to throw for over 400 yards against them in his first NFL game? That does not bode well for the future…..There has been no word out of Cardinals camp as to why prized free agent LB Stewart Bradley hardly saw the field Sunday.

Atlanta Falcons: Losing the first game of the season is not a big deal, but this loss comes after getting blown out in the playoffs at home last season and losing all four preseason games. Now ex QB Michael Vick comes to town…..If QB Matt Ryan doesn’t play well against Vick on Sunday, it should be interesting to see how the home crowd reacts…..The Eagles had a hard time stopping the run in Week 1. Look for a healthy dose of RB Michael Turner in this one.

Baltimore Ravens: That was a good old-fashioned butt whipping the Ravens put on the Steelers last Sunday…..WR Lee Evans was in a walking boot this week, but it looks to be more of a pre-caution than anything else and he should be good to go this Sunday…..Rookie CB Jimmy Smith has a high ankle sprain and will miss the next couple of weeks.

Buffalo Bills: WR Steve Johnson has been dealing with a groin injury for about a month and missed practice Thursday. He is still likely to play Sunday…..That was quite a game Buffalo played versus KC on Sunday. Perhaps, they could be a surprise team this season…..TE Scott Chandler has been a popular pickup in fantasy leagues after his big game.

Carolina Panthers: After having what could conservatively be called a bad preseason, Cam Newton came out firing in Week 1, throwing for over 400 yards and two TDs. Perhaps, he is just the type of player that plays best when the bullets are live…..WR Steve Smith must be thrilled to playing with a QB who can get him the ball down the field. He can finally use his speed again…..Enough with the praise of Newton, the Panthers had better be able to run the ball efficiently. Those kinds of games are usually few and far between for a rookie QB.

Chicago Bears: LB Brian Uhrlacher rejoined the Bears Thursday after leaving the team to attend to the passing of his mother earlier this week…..RB Matt Forte showed in Week 1 why he is deserving of a big contract…..Still have no idea why the Bears haven’t anointed Johnny Knox to the starting lineup, but they may have no choice this week as Roy Williams is dealing with a groin injury and may not be able to go.

Cincinnati Bengals: QB Andy Dalton looks like he will be able to go Sunday after suffering a wrist/hand injury in Week 1…..RB Cedric Benson rushed for 121 yards. If he can keep that up, he would be a rookie QB’s best friend…..Rookie WR A.J. Green may have had only once catch in his debut, but it was a big one–41 yards and a TD.

Cleveland Browns: Some thought that Cleveland could be a surprise team this season with a soft opening schedule, but a loss to the lowly Bengals may have most rethinking that position…..WR Mohamed Massaquoi is dealing with a hamstring issue but should be able to play Sunday…..CB Joe Haden is quickly proving himself to be one of the better corners in the game.

Dallas Cowboys: Secondary was a major weakness in the Dallas defense last season and it’s proving to be so again this year. They played a good part of Sunday’s game against the Jets with their 4th and 5th string CBs as Terrance Newman missed the game with a groin injury. Orlando Scandrick suffered an ankle sprain early in the game and is out until October. Mike Jenkins was in and out of the game with multiple injuries. Newman won’t play this week either.

Denver Broncos: You have to love that there is a group of fans in Denver that are going to take out an ad on a billboard stating they want Tim Tebow to be their QB. Do they really believe that it will change John Fox’s or John Elway’s mind if they pass a billboard on their way to and from work?….WR Brandon Lloyd (groin) and RB Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) are both questionable to play Sunday. If neither can go, it could be another tough day for QB Kyle Orton and the chant for Tebow may only get louder.

Detroit Lions: QB Matthew Stafford once again showed what he can do if he is able to stay on the football field. The Lions are a dangerous team…..WR Calvin Johnson has an ankle injury and isn’t practicing, but is expected to play Sunday…..DT Nick Fairly still isn’t practicing with the team after undergoing surgery in early August.

Green Bay Packers: Green Bay proved in Week 1 that you didn’t need to organize off-season workouts during the lockout to be effective…..Big question for fantasy owners is who is more valuable at RB, James Starks or Ryan Grant Best guess is, as the season rolls along, Starks sees more and more of the action…..Rookie WR Randall Cobb showed why he is considered a dangerous return man bringing back a kickoff 108 yards for a TD. He looked good running routes as well. Makes you wonder if the Pack regrets re-signing James Jones.

Houston Texans: RB Arian Foster missed Week 1. Not a shock as the team didn’t want to push him to play, figuring they could beat Indianapolis without him. He is slated to start this week. Good thing too as Derrick Ward could miss the game with an ankle injury…..Do you think QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson are licking their lips knowing they are playing the same secondary this week that was lit up for over 500 yards passing Monday night?

Indianapolis Colts: Here’s a question: Do you think QB Peyton Manning could win the MVP this season if the Colts finish the season with four wins or less, proving just how valuable Manning is to the team?…..The Colts just aren’t built right now to win without Peyton. The running game is not very good. Neither is the offensive line. The defense is built to attack the QB, assuming the other team is playing from behind. This is a recipe for disaster.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The good news is that RB Maurice Jones-Drew looked good rushing the ball last Sunday, easing the doubts of fantasy owners who thought he may not be fully recovered from past injuries. The bad news is that for the first time in 67 games, MJD did not catch a pass…..TE Marcedes Lewis has missed practice this week with a calf injury. Luke McCown’s safety blanket may not be able to go Sunday.

Kansas City Chiefs: Wow! That was not a good start to the season for KC, getting their brains beat in by Buffalo at home…..S Eric Berry is gone for the season with a torn ACL. This is a huge blow and one the defense may not be able to recover from…..QB Matt Cassel is not on the injury report. Perhaps, he and WR Dwayne Bow will have a better game this week–they better.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins were expected to have one of the better defenses in the NFL this season, but they were absolutely torched by the Pats in Week 1…..RB Daniel Thomas missed his first game with a hamstring injury. Although he should play Sunday, the carries are still expected to fall heavily into Reggie Bush’s favor, but Thomas could get a majority of the goal line work…..QB Chad Henne played pretty well himself Monday, throwing for over 400 yards. It’s nice to know he can do that, but the Dolphins can’t rely on that week in and week out. They are not built to win games through the air.

Minnesota Vikings: That’s not a misprint you saw on Monday, QB Donovan McNabb only threw for 39 yards in the Vikings loss to the Chargers on Sunday. Teams are going to load up the line of scrimmage to stop RB Adrian Peterson until Minnesota proves they can throw the ball…..Christian Ponder is the number two behind McNabb.

New England Patriots: That was some display of offensive football the Patriots displayed on Monday night. If you can’t put pressure on Tom Brady, it’s all over; he will carve up your defense no matter how many defenders you put out there…..Not everything was perfect however, OT Dan Koppen fractured his ankle and will miss the next 6-10 weeks…..WR Chad Ochocinco was criticized pretty heavily for tweeting that he was in awe of the Pats offense. I’m not really sure what the big deal was and wonder if this would even measure on the Richter scale if it wasn’t Ochocinco who said it.

New Orleans Saints: The loss of WR Marques Colston to a broken collarbone was a huge blow, especially with Lance Moore still not being at 100%. This should mean more consistent looks for Robbie Meacham and TE Jimmy Graham…..The Saints and QB Drew Brees still have a long way to go on a new contract, but it doesn’t really matter if the Saints can’t sign him to a long-term deal. They will most certainly use their franchise tag on him in the off-season.

New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks is questionable at best to play Monday with a knee injury. He plans on practicing Friday to see how it goes…..The Giants stated this week that they don’t want to have to rely on QB Eli Manning to win games. Translation: they will run the ball more with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs…..DE Justin Tuck is questionable to play Monday with a neck injury. He missed Week 1 and is playing it cautious, but the injury is muscular, not structural.

New York Jets: The Jets pulled out a miracle versus Dallas Sunday and know they have to play better if they want to win on a more consistent basis…..QB Mark Sanchez was dinged up during the game and given a concussion test afterwards, but all tests came back negative and he will be good to go this week.

Oakland Raiders: RB Darren McFadden tweaked his neck during the game Sunday. Actually a Broncos defensive player trying to rip his head off tweaked it and he has been slowed this week in practice…..WR Louis Murphy (groin) will not play this week and Jacoby Ford is not looking too good this week either…..K Sebastian Janikowski tied an NFL record with a 63-yard FG on Monday. The Raiders are petitioning the NFL that it was actually a 64 yarder.

Philadelphia Eagles: It shouldn’t surprise anyone if QB Michael Vick is a little more amped up than normal Sunday in his first game back in Atlanta. It might even take him a quarter or so to return to normal…..Eagles coaches want to get WR Jeremy Maclin more involved in the passing game this week. He was on the field more than any other receiver in Week 1, but still only caught one pass…..CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played in the slot on Sunday, meaning he was only in on 18 plays. Seems Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha are the starters.

Pittsburgh Steelers: After the beating the Steelers took last week, I wouldn’t want to be the Seahawks…..The weakest part of the Steelers team is the offensive line, and the loss of Willie Colon certainly won’t help matters any…..The Steelers are going to use a no huddle offense at times this week to keep the Seahawks guessing defensively.

San Diego Chargers: The Chargers lost K Nate Kaeding for the season on the first play of the game with a torn ACL. They signed Nick Novak to replace him…..RB Mike Tolbert suffered a knee injury during the game that looked serious at the time, but turned out to be minor. He will be good to go this week…..RB Ryan Matthews also had a good game as the Chargers look to have a two headed monster at RB.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Ted Ginn Jr. took a pay cut the week before opening day and may have taken his anger out on the Panthers with both a kickoff return and punt return for touchdowns. He may not be able to catch the football consistently, but he can sure run with it…..WR Michael Crabtree is still not close to 100% and is limited in practice, but may play this week versus Dallas…..The 49ers have encouraged QB Alex Smith to scramble–a good idea with their offensive line. He may be running for his life against DeMarcus Ware this week.

Seattle Seahawks: Hard to take this team seriously on offense until they get a real QB, fix the offensive line and get WR Sidney Rice healthy. A better RB than Marshawn Lynch wouldn’t hurt either. How exactly did this team make the playoffs last season–and beat the Saints?

St. Louis Rams: The Rams were crushed with injuries in Week 1: QB Sam Bradford missed part of the game with a finger injury after hitting a helmet on a pass attempt, RB Steven Jackson will miss this week’s game after suffering a quad injury on his touchdown run, and WR Danny Amendola is expected to miss quite a bit of time after dislocating his elbow. Talk about a MASH unit…..S Ronald Bartell was placed on IR after suffering two small fractures in his neck.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I know the Bucs were down for a good part of the game Sunday, but how can RB LeGarrette Blount only receive five carries? The problem is that Blount is not a good blocker and can’t catch the ball which means he is not likely to play in passing situations or when the Bucs are trailing. Earnest Graham could have a bigger role on this team than first thought.

Tennessee Titans: RB Chris Johnson is expected to get close to 20 carries and 25 touches overall this week as the Titans didn’t want to overuse him last week…..Kenny Britt has court dates September 20 and 27. Neither one should land him in jail, and it doesn’t seem like either one will land him in trouble with the NFL either.

Washington Redskins: Sexy Rexy came out and played last week against a depleted Giants defensive line. He could be a good fantasy play this week against a Cardinals defense that was absolutely shredded by Cam Newton…..Good news for Tim Hightower owners, Mike Shanahan came out this week and stated that he has no plans to monitor Hightower’s touches. Of course with Shanahan’s past history, he has no problem benching him on a whim either…..TE Fred Davis played more than TE Chris Cooley last week.

All Out Blitz

Arizona Cardinals: Safety Adrian Wilson has started practicing on a limited basis and will continue to try and play through a torn biceps. I have a hard time seeing that last all season…..Great news for the Cardinals and their fans that WR Larry Fitzgerald signed an eight-year, $120 million contract…..RB Beanie Wells will once again get another shot at proving to Arizona that he deserves the full-time gig with the season ending injury to RB Ryan Williams.

Atlanta Falcons: DE Ray Edwards has been battling knee problems this training camp but will play this weekend…..RB Michael Turner revealed this week that he played last season with a special wrap to protect his groin. The injury has healed now and Turner is expected to get back that burst he didn’t have last season…..Some scouts believe WR Julio Jones may be ready to play a major part in the Falcons offense this season, not just take away coverage from WR Roddy White.

Baltimore Ravens: WR Lee Evans has made his presence known for Baltimore. Perhaps, he can be that deep threat the team has been looking for…..OT Bryant McKinnie was signed to provide depth along the offensive line. It’s a gamble, but if McKinnie is in shape and wants to play, he can still help a team…..Big things are expected of RB Ray Rice this season with FB Vonta Leach leading the way.

Buffalo Bills: While LB Shawn Merriman has looked like his old sack machine self at times, he is still getting nicked up more than one would like…..LB Kirk Morrison signed with the Bills this week. It is hard to see where he fits in with this defense, but he does have experience playing both the inside and outside…..RB Fred Jackson is getting frustrated with his role in the Buffalo offense, as he is not sure why he isn’t the starting back.

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton may have been the first overall pick in the draft this past April, but anyone who watches him play can clearly see that he is not yet ready to play in the NFL as a starting QB. Problem is though, the Panthers don’t have anyone else on the roster who is…..WR Steve Smith hasn’t come out publicly and stated anything, but you have to wonder if he is a powder keg ready to explode and would prefer to get out of Carolina and play for a contending team.

Chicago Bears: I’m still bewildered that the Bears somehow think they will be okay at WR with Devin Hester and Roy Williams. They need an upgrade there…..LB Lance Briggs is out for the remainder of the preseason with a knee injury. As of right now, he is not expected to miss any regular season time…..Have a feeling the Bears won’t be in the playoff hunt this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Speaking of a feeling, one of the two Ohio teams should be in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes come the end of the season…..The Bengals offense showed some signs of life this week as RB Cedric Benson and rookie WR AJ Green looked good during their preseason game versus Carolina. Problem will be during the regular season.  Weeks like this may be few and far between…..The Bengals traded for S Taylor Mays from the 49ers. Well someone had to trade for him! It shows that Mays was literally one and done for San Francisco.

Cleveland Browns: QB Colt McCoy continues to impress for the Browns. He’s never going to be a gunslinger in the pocket, but rather someone you can count on to lead the team and find a way to win…..Smart move by Cleveland in locking up OT Joe Thomas. He’s one of the best and they don’t want to lose him…..RB Brandon Jackson is out about six weeks with turf toe.

Dallas Cowboys: If the Cowboys offensive line can hold up and give QB Tony Romo time, Dallas is going to score quite a few points this season…..Problem though, unless their secondary improves an awful lot, they are going to give up quite a few points as well…..RB Felix Jones is having a monster preseason. If he can just stay healthy, he could have a monster regular season, as defenses will more than likely be  more worried about the Dallas passing game.

Denver Broncos: The Broncos finally made it official that Kyle Orton will start at QB. Not really a shock considering how poorly Tim Tebow has played. He might be lucky to be the backup and not third string…..WR Brandon Lloyd has missed some practice time this week with some swelling in his knee…..RB Knowshon Moreno looks to be the starting back, but remember, coach John Fox likes to use more than one back and Willis McGahee was a touchdown vulture last year with Baltimore.

Detroit Lions: The Lions are playing it cautious and smart with RB Javhid Best and his concussion, holding him out of this weekend’s game. One has to wonder if this will hinder him as the season rolls along, not like a RB can avoid contact to his head…..WR Calvin Johnson is also dealing with an injured shoulder, although his injury shouldn’t be of any concern once the season starts.

Green Bay Packers: There are rumblings that RB Ryan Grant could lose his starting job to James Starks. Neither one had a great game Friday, although neither one touched the ball all that much. It doesn’t seem like the coaching staff is all that concerned, and who could blame them with QB Aaron Rodgers and the plethora of targets he has to throw to each week. I wouldn’t want to take it out of his hands either.

Houston Texans: The Texans are looking more and more like the team to beat in the AFC South…..RB Steve Slaton is still battling a hamstring injury and is unlikely to make the final roster. This is not a surprise, but his injury has made it highly unlikely that the Texans could trade Slaton for a draft pick…..LB DeMeco Ryans could miss the remainder of the preseason with an elbow injury.

Indianapolis Colts: The signing of QB Kerry Collins tells you two things; first, there is a pretty good chance that Peyton Manning is going to miss a game or two, and second, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky aren’t the answer…..The Colts are built to win with Manning at QB. I’m not sure it would matter who was behind center, without Manning, they are a considerable underdog.

Jacksonville Jaguars: As if there was any doubt, David Garrard was named the starting QB. Blane Gabbert is going to be a good one, but it’s best that he learn behind a veteran for now…..The Jags coaching staff believes Rashard Jennings is ready for a bigger role in the offense this season. This is also not a surprise, as we started to see that last season.

Kansas City Chiefs: Kind of surprised that the Chiefs announced that Dexter McCluster will only be used as a running back this season. I’m not sure you want to feed any mouths other than Jamaal Charles in that backfield…..LB Derrick Johnson looks like he might be ready to take that next step this season…..TE Tony Moeaki still hasn’t fully recovered from off-season surgery. It might be time to get a little worried with the season just two weeks away.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are growing more and more concerned with RB Daniel Thomas’ unwillingness to hit the line of scrimmage hard in practice, so much so, that Reggie Bush may become a bigger part of the offense than first thought…..The Dolphins haven’t named a starter opposite WR Brandon Marshall. In other words, they aren’t very happy with Brian Hartline and have even given Davone Bess reps on the outside in practice even though he excelled last season in the slot.

Minnesota Vikings:  QB Joe Webb, who is listed 2nd on the depth chart, has also been taking reps at wide receiver…..It looks like DT Kevin Williams will only be suspended two games instead of four in the StarCaps case…..WR Percy Harvin returned to practice this week. He still has bruised ribs, but that shouldn’t hinder him in the regular season, and at least it’s not migraines.

New England Patriots: The Patriots have come out this season like they are on fire, dismantling teams in the 1st quarter. They are already regular season ready…..Rookie RB Stevan Ridley missed practice this week with an undisclosed illness and won’t play this weekend….DT Albert Haynesworth returned to practice this week. One still has to wonder if he has the will to play football at the level he is capable of, even for Bill Belichick.

New Orleans Saints: Saints are dealing with some injury issues; RB Mark Ingram has a knee problem, WR Lance Moore a groin, and WR Marques Colston has knee issues of his own…..Like Kevin Williams of Minnesota, there is a chance that Will Smith’s suspension will be reduced to two games…..I would love to grab TE Jimmy Graham late in my fantasy drafts.

New York Giants: The Giants are being crushed with injuries to their secondary, suffering four season ending injuries so far. They did sign Brian Williams for depth purposes this week…..RB Ahmad Bradshaw is dealing with a back injury that is starting to worry the team. They believe it might linger into the regular season…..Speaking of RBs, Brandon Jacobs stated this week that he would like to play another 3-4 seasons; good news for the G-men who can always use a battering ram in the backfield.

New York Jets: WR Plaxico Burress made his presence felt in his first game for the team with a touchdown reception. If he is actually back to the player he used to be before ending up in jail, the Jets could have a dangerous offense…..With Hurricane Irene threatening the east coast this weekend, the Jets and Giants moved their game to Monday night, which means these two teams will play their final two preseason games in four days.

Oakland Raiders: Someone has to explain to me the Raiders philosophy of running a football team. You let your two best players leave in free agency (Nnamdi Asomugha and Zack Miller) but then spend a 3rd round pick in the supplemental draft on Terrelle Pryor, a player who may be a great athlete, but who no one believes will be a top NFL QB. They don’t have a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th round pick in next year’s draft. Exactly how is this team going to get better?

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles may have defeated the Browns in their preseason game Thursday and put 24 points up on the scoreboard, but they are going to get QB Michael Vick killed if they don’t fix that offensive line. I believe last week I put the over/under of Vick’s games played at 13.5. I’m starting to think double digits might be a more accurate line. I can’t see how anyone in fantasy leagues can take Vick as the number one QB, more or less the 1st player taken overall.

Pittsburgh Steelers: I’m a big Cowboys fan, but the game I am looking forward to seeing most on the first Sunday of football is definitely Pittsburgh-Baltimore. The hatred these two teams have for each other is for real, and a joy to watch…..The Steelers would like to see a big game out of QB Dennis Dixon on Saturday, possibly to showcase him for a trade as they have plenty of backup QBs on the roster…..The Steelers have also let it be known to teams not to salivate over the possibility of S Troy Polamalu becoming a free agent next season. They will franchise him if they can’t come to an agreement on a new contract.

San Diego Chargers: WR Malcolm Floyd, who did suffer a concussion last week, returned to practice this week, so all seems to be well there…..RB Ryan Matthews has redeemed himself in his coach’s eyes but may still share the spotlight with Mike Tolbert…..Fantasy wise, I think I’d rather have Tolbert. Sure, Matthews will catch more passes out of the backfield, but Tolbert is more than likely to be the man at the goal line.

San Francisco 49ers: RB Frank Gore is getting more and more frustrated with his contract situation and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if this comes to a head before the season starts…..WR Michael Crabtree seems more and more unlikely to play in Week One as he is not running yet. However, he is out of the walking boot…..The back to watch if Gore were to miss any time is Kendall Hunter. Even if Gore plays, Hunter should have a few plays designed just for him.

Seattle Seahawks: Kicking news, it looks like Jeff Reed has won the starting job for the Hawks…..LB Aaron Curry agreed to restructure his contract this week. So far Curry has looked like a pretty big bust in the NFL…..Still no word on the severity of TE John Carlson’s shoulder injury, although initial word is that the injury could be pretty severe.

St. Louis Rams: It seems TE Lance Kendricks has quickly become a favorite target of QB Sam Bradford, so much so, that he could be Bradford’s favorite target on 3rd downs and in the red zone…..RB Steven Jackson no longer looks like a top NFL back as he no longer possesses the elusiveness he once had. Oh he can still be productive, but it’s more of a hit the hole and then run over someone type.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Aqib Talib met with the commissioner this week to discuss his run in with the law this past offseason. Depending on whom you believe, the commissioner may have his rulings challenged by the union once he doles out what he considers is the proper punishment…..WR Arrelious Benn is scheduled to play this week. It seems he will likely open the season as the number three WR as Dezmon Briscoe has looked awfully good in camp.

Tennessee Titans: WR Kenny Britt is in the same situation as Aqib Talib and could face a suspension. He is also dealing with a hamstring injury that has cost him most of the preseason so far…..RB Chris Johnson met with Titans officials this week to discuss a new contract. No dice! Both sides still seem to be pretty far apart on what his next contract should be worth. If this heads into the regular season, Tennessee is in deep trouble.

Washington Redskins: John Beck and Rex Grossman are still battling for the number one job. The Skins know what they have in Grossman, a gambler who will either hit big or miss big. Beck may be the one that requires less Pepto Bismol on a regular basis…..RB Tim Hightower has looked nothing short of awesome so far this preseason leaving some to predict that a huge season is on its way.

All Out Blitz

After taking last week off to deal with an illness, Lyme Disease, I’m back to go over some more news and notes for each team throughout the National Football League. Of course the best news is that it looks like the lockout could be coming to an end as early as today, Friday at the latest. Teams would then have three days to go over the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and sign their own free agents, before free agency would start in earnest next week. Most teams have about 40 players under contract and would need to bring that number up to about 90 for training camp. That would mean there would be about 1600 player moves in about a two week span. The transaction wire is going to blow up.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cards are still the favorite to land QB Kevin Kolb once free agency/trading begins, instead of draft picks they are rumored to be making CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie available to trade as the Eagles want players rather than picks for Kolb…..Don’t be surprised if Beanie Wells or Tim Hightower is traded once training camp is underway.

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons still feel the biggest need of their defense is to put more pressure on the QB, they will be in on DE Ray Edwards and are still looking for ways to make DL Jamaal Anderson, 2007 1st round pick, a better pass rusher.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens secondary is still sort of a work in progress but S Ed Reed should be full bore for training camp…..It’s looking more and more like Marc Bulger will be re-signed to backup QB Joe Flacco…..The Ravens seemed to want to become more of a throwing team last season with the additions of WR Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmandzadeh, will they go back to more of a ground and pound this season?

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers will have a couple of interesting personnel decisions to make once the lockout is ended…..Do they re-sign DeAngelo Williams even though, with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson on board, RB is a position of strength and perhaps that money could be wisely spent elsewhere…..What to do with WR Steve Smith? He might fetch a considerable return if they put him on the market.

Chicago Bears: The Bears are one of those teams that are said to be interested in the services of WR Steve Smith, should the Panthers make him available…..How will the fans react to QB Jay Cutler after some questioned the validity of his knee injury that took him out of the NFC Championship game in January…..Look for the Bears to use Matt Forte even more this season as he could easily touch the ball more than 300 times should he stay healthy.

Cincinnati Bengals: With the new salary cap floor expected to be at least 95% of the cap, the Bengals are one of those teams that will be forced to spend money as they have been historically, hhhhmm, let’s say thrifty with their payroll…..Pacman Jones is in legal trouble again, I’m shocked…..RB Cedric Benson is also in trouble with the law after being charged with assault, not the best timing for the free agent to be…..The Bengals are said to prefer signing CB Leon Hall to a long term contract rather than Jonathan Joseph.

Cleveland Browns: Montario Hardesty, who had ACL surgery, is said to be ready to go once camp opens. He will still be the backup to RB Peyton Hillis…..The Browns would like to get the ball into the hands of WR Joshua Cribbs as much as possible, but he is far from a polished receiver and may see his role in the passing game reduced as a result…..S Abram Elam could be a hot commodity once free agency opens.

Dallas Cowboys: DL Stephen Bowen is going to draw a lot of interest in free agency…..Dallas is one of those teams that will have cap problems and may not be the big players in free agency that everyone expects them to be, which would seem to put them out of the running for CB Nnamdi Asomugha…..LT Doug Free should be the top priority of the Cowboys, followed by at least one safety, possibly two if Gerald Sensabaugh finds big money elsewhere.

Denver Broncos: The Broncos keep stating that the QB competition will be wide open between Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton, but it’s Tebow’s job to lose, and if the Broncos are offered at least a 3rd round pick for Orton, he will be playing elsewhere…..Keep in mind that under new head coach John Fox, the Broncos are not expected to run as many three WR sets as they have in the past; this should be a boon to RB Knowshon Moreno.

Detroit Lions: If QB Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for what the Lions might accomplish on offense this season…..RB Javhid Best will probably touch the ball more, but rookie Mikel Leshoure could be the goal line back; thus vulturing short TD runs…..Even though Dave Rayner impressed the team with his kicking last season, Jason Hanson is expected to once again be the Lions kicker this season.

Green Bay Packers: Don’t overlook WR Jordy Nelson in your fantasy drafts…..James Jones is probably going to depart in free agency…..Donald Driver is slowing down and might not be able to stay healthy…..Opposing defenses already have their hands full with Greg Jennings and TE JerMichael Finley…..If the Packers need to clear salary cap space, LB Nick Barnett and his $4.4 million salary could be the first to go.

Houston Texans: RB Arian Foster stated this week that he played most of last season with a torn meniscus in his knee; makes you wonder what he will do on two healthy knees…..In an expert fantasy draft that started this week, Foster was the 1st overall selection, and WR Andre Johnson was the 1st receiver taken, 5th overall…..Back to Foster, he also stated that he won’t holdout this season despite only making $480,000 this season.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Anthony Gonzalez, remember him, should be ready to go once training camp opens, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not he will be the same player he was before he suffered two season’s worth of knee injuries…..The Colts insist that Peyton Manning will be ready for the regular season…..2010 1st round pick DL Jerry Hughes was arrested for public intoxication; he won’t be suspended, but if it happens again, all bets are off.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars plan to use the franchise tag on TE Marcedes Lewis once the lockout ends…..With the lockout and the loss of OTAs, any chance that Blaine Gabbert starts over David Garrard are slim and none…..The Jaguars deny it, but it would make sense to limit Maurice Jones-Drew’s carries week in and week out, especially coming off knee surgery.

Kansas City Chiefs: LB Mike Vrabel retired, not a big loss in the overall scheme of things to the Chiefs defense…..The addition of WR Jonathan Baldwin should help the Chiefs offense, but could hurt WR Dwayne Bowe’s production as now there is another mouth to feed plus TE Tony Moeaki could also see the ball more.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins could be one of the bigger players in free agency as they will need at least two QBs and a RB to split the load with rookie Daniel Thomas…..Apparently Vince Young will not be one of those that will be brought in, and Tyler Thigpen is likely to get a bigger offer elsewhere…..Speaking of players not returning to south Florida, Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown won’t be brought back.

Minnesota Vikings: WR Sidney Rice may want a big contract but it seems like teams may only be willing to offer incentive laden contracts in order to protect themselves from his injury history…..RB Adrian Peterson is in the last year of his deal and is threatening to hold out, but odds are the Vikings will sign AP to an extension, it would give AP the money he wants, and the Vikings valuable cap space.

New England Patriots: Could WR Randy Moss end up back with the Pats? They do need a WR who can get deep…..The lockout may be about to end but G Logan Mankins still wants out of town and may be holding up the agreement to make that happen

New Orleans Saints: Unless RB Reggie Bush agrees to restructure his contract, he is as good as gone in New Orleans…..The Saints are going to be in a dogfight all season in the NFC South with Atlanta and Tampa Bay, which might be the best division in football; although the NFC East may have a say in that also.

New York Giants: The new “soft cap” when it comes to veterans could make it easier for the Giants to sign RB Ahmad Bradshaw…..DE Osi Umenyiora is expected to hold out once the lockout ends, as he believes GM Jerry Reese broke a promise to him to redo his contract. Considering Umenyoria was benched for part of the 2009 season for his inability to play the run, it seems odd that the Giants would’ve made some kind of promise.

New York Jets: CB Antonio Cromartie has stated that he won’t give the Jets a hometown discount, which will probably lead his way out of town…..WR Braylon Edwards could also find another team, as Santonio Holmes is expected to be the Jets top priority…..Gotta love that the NFL scheduled the Ryan brothers to face each other opening weekend. I’m sure there won’t be any press conferences leading up to that game.

Oakland Raiders: The owners ratified the CBA 31-0 with one team abstaining. Guess which team that was?…..The Raiders are almost $12 million over the salary cap, just another reason they have no chance to re-sign Asomugha

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Kevin Kolb is so sure that he will be traded to Arizona once the lockout is lifted, that he has been looking at real estate in Arizona. He has also been working out with WR Larry Fitzgerald…..The Eagles have money to spend in free agency and could be in the market for a CB if they don’t get one in a Kolb trade; or also for pass rush help. Did someone say Ray Edwards?

Pittsburgh Steelers: LB James Harrison may be playing his way out of his house with his mouth. Criticizing the commissioner is one thing, but when you start to turn on your teammates, it’s another thing altogether…..You have to love the rivalry between the Steelers and Ravens. WR Hines Ward gets arrested, and the Ravens start making fun of him on Twitter. The two games next season between these two teams are must see TV.

San Diego Chargers: Like Logan Mankins of the Patriots, WR Vincent Jackson is also said to want more out of his lawsuit than just a new CBA…..Don’t be surprised if RB Mike Tolbert carries the ball more this season than you might think; even if Ryan Mathews is healthy…..The Chargers would like to keep WR Malcolm Floyd, but it seems likely that he will leave during free agency.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks don’t seem to be convinced that Charlie Whitehurst is their QB of the future, but they do seem to be convinced that it is time to move on without QB Matt Hasselbeck…..I know the Hawks made the playoffs last season, but would it really surprise anyone if they finished this season with a record of 4-12.

St. Louis Rams: WR Donnie Avery is healthy and could be the big play man in the Rams offense…..RB Steven Jackson seems to have lost a step and it would do the Rams some good if they could find a complementary back…..The Hall of Fame game between the Rams and Bears has been cancelled, let’s hope that is the last game cancelled.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs may be a better team this season, but due to a tougher schedule and teams not taking them lightly anymore, their record may not reflect that…..It looks like the Bucs will now keep CB Aqib Talib and his legal troubles, but it would be a suprise if he wasn’t suspended…..RBs Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams may have played their last down in a Tampa uniform.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans are now rumored to be the new landing place for QB Matt Hasselbeck…..RB Chris Johnson is expected to hold out until he gets a new contract…..WR Kenny Britt is another player who could be suspended once the lockout is lifted…..So let’s see, your top RB is going to holdout, your top WR could be suspended, and you don’t have a QB right now. There is no sweet music playing in Tennessee right now.

Washington Redskins: This is a scary thought, the Skins are predicted to have plenty of money to spend under the cap as they dumped a truckload of bad contracts into the uncapped season of 2010. Owner Dan Snyder might go completely nuts with a WR and a CB topping his wish list…..They need a QB also, but aren’t expected to be players in the Kevin Kolb sweepstakes. No matter how much money they may spend, if you don’t have a top QB, it just won’t matter.