May 24, 2017

Redskins 45, Bears 41: The Sum of All Fears

Three weeks ago the Chicago Bears were 3-0, healthy and hopeful.  Now, after Sunday’s 45-41 loss to the Redskins in Washington, the Monsters of the Misfortune are 4-3, battered, skeptical and likely to get nothing but stale popcorn balls and black licorice for Halloween.

October, you see, has been no fun at all for the guys who wear orange and blue.

The Bears lost to the Redskins because their defense is so porous you can use it to drain spaghetti.  Then, adding injury to vacuity, the Bears lost Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs to an injured shoulder and All-World cornerback Peanut Tillman to a bad knee.  The Bears’ two best players were thus standing on the sidelines, like statues at a clown slaughter, as Robert Griffin III marched the Redskins down the field for the winning score in the final minutes.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Briggs and Tillman were healthy as the Bears couldn’t stop the Skins all day long, yielding 499 yards of offense, allowing a gentleman by the name of Roy Helu to score three touchdowns and generally looking like a defense that is aged, injured and wearing roller skates.

If it wasn’t for Devin Hester’s 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter (tying him with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for most return scores all-time with 19, actually Hester has 20 if you include the playoffs and further actually he has 21 if you include that return of a missed field goal against the Giants in 2006) and Tillman’s first quarter interception return to Washington’s 10-yard line this game might have been 59-27, Redskins, or worse.

Many will say the big blow in this one for Chicago was not the loss of Briggs and Tillman and maybe even not the loss of the game itself, but the injury to quarterback Jay Cutler.  Cutler left the game in the second quarter grimacing in pain and it turns out he has a torn groin muscle (which must be as agonizing as it sounds) and we learned Monday he will be out at least four weeks, as will Briggs.  Tillman, thankfully, should be back sooner.

Cutler wasn’t having much of an afternoon in this one anyway, going 3-of-8 for 28 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, which was returned for a touchdown.  Once he went down Josh McCown stepped in and played very well, actually played great under the circumstances considering he hadn’t played in two years, and finished 14-of-20 for 204 yards, one TD, no interceptions, a QB rating of 119.6 and kept the Bears in it until the finish.

So maybe losing Cutler really wasn’t so bad for a day.  But anyone who thinks the Bears will be better off with McCown at QB for a four-week stretch is either crazy or goes by the name “Mrs. McCown.”  To be sure, McCown is tough, smart, experienced and doesn’t make many mistakes.  He’s sort of like Alex Smith lite.  But with the Bears defense in about as good shape as the health care exchange website, the Bears are going to have to win shootouts like the one they lost in Washington to have a chance of even being 6-4 when Jay returns.

Luckily, and this is the first bit of luck the Bears have had since “Gravity” was released, Chicago is now in its bye week so at least McCown has a little more time to get comfortable in the offense and newly-signed backup Jordan Palmer, who was with the Bears in training camp, can put his football shoes back on and break them in.  Most important, the week off gives the Bears time to heal up and it means Cutler and Briggs will miss one less game.

The Bears weren’t great with a healthy Cutler and Briggs but they were good.  The Bears weren’t a powerhouse before defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins and linebacker D.J. Williams were lost for the season but they were in first place and showed glimpses of being elite.  So, what are the Bears now?  Do they have a chance at beating the Packers in Green Bay on Monday, November 4?  Does Heaven have any mercy for those who drink beer, devour potatoes, bleed blue and, lately, piss blood?

There is still a lot to feel good about.  Running back Matt Forte ran for 91 yards and three scores on Sunday on just 16 carries, Alshon Jeffery caught four passes, Brandon Marshall hauled in six, Earl Bennett caught three, Martellus Bennett made his one catch count for a TD and Hester is returning kicks like the good old days.  The offensive weapons are there and Marc Trestman seems to know how to use them.

But that defense.  Ouch.  Chicago safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright seem to have taken a step back, as they are always a step behind in coverage.  Maybe that’s because the Bears have an anemic pass rush – they recorded one sack on Sunday – and so now opposing QBs have that much more time to just sit in the pocket and wait for their receivers to get open.  Which they are doing.  Griffin’s 45-yard TD pass to Aldrick Robinson early in the fourth quarter looked like a wing and a prayer, he just heaved it up there, but he seemed to know that if he threw deep enough no one in the Bears’ secondary would get there.  He was right.

A lot goes in to winning and losing a football game and in the case of Bears kicker Robbie Gould he almost always goes into winning it.  Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and, considering he kicks at windy Soldier Field, also one of the most underappreciated.  But in the third quarter he missed a 34-yard field goal attempt that could have closed the Bears to within 24-20.  The Bears ended up losing by four, yes, but if they’d trailed 45-44 on their final drive instead of 45-41 perhaps knowing they only needed to get into field goal range would have been a boost.  Many watching Sunday’s game thought that whoever had the ball last would win (and let us not forget to say that, maybe more important than anything else, this was one hell of a fun football game) and if Gould had connected earlier that might have proven true.

It’s far too early to say the sun is setting on the Bears’ 2013 season but it might be time to put away the lawn chairs and get out the leaf blower.  They’ll play tough against the Packers in part because Green Bay, at 4-2, is good but not great (though the Pack have won three straight) and the Bears have to be sick and tired of losing to the Packers having not beaten them since 2010.  That’s six straight losses (including the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season) but, then again, being tired of losing to Brett Favre never meant much.

Get healthy.  Wrap.  Tackle.  Pass the ball and tell your receivers to run slowly to eat up the clock.  Try anything.  The ship is taking on water and no one can hear your cries through the dark.

Extra Points:

It is very sad that the football world has lost Bud Adams, Bum Phillips and Don James and let us not forget Ed Lauter.  Lauter was the stone-faced character actor who appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows and we remember him most fondly for “The Jericho Mile” and, of course 1974’s “The Longest Yard” in which he played a prison guard who played quarterback and tormented Burt Reynolds.  His character in that film was tough as nails and, at times, outright abusive.  But by the end he learned to show compassion, or at least common sense, and respect for toughness and humanity that surpassed his own.  You can learn a lot on a football field.

Garbage

Up next on the schedule for the Oakland Raiders was a visit from the Washington Redskins.  The Redskins were coming off a 27-20 loss to the Detroit Lions and the Raiders were coming off a 37-21 loss to the Denver Broncos.  Kicker Sebastian Janikowski kicked the ball through the end zone and the Redskins started at their 20.  Running back Alfred Morris carried the ball twice for two yards and a pass by quarterback Robert Griffin intended for wide receiver Santana Moss fell incomplete.  The Raiders didn’t fare much better and punted the ball right back to the Redskins.

Three plays gained one yard and the Redskins were forced to punt again.  The Raiders brought a heavy rush and the punt was blocked by running back Rashad Jennings.  Running back Jeremy Stewart recovered it in the end zone for a Raider touchdown.  Janikowski made the point after and the Raiders led 7-0 with 10:40 to go in the first quarter.  The Redskins got the ball back at their 20 and aside from an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon, they went nowhere again.  Punter Sav Rocca punted the ball away and the ball was fair caught at the Oakland 19-yard line.

Filling in for injured quarterback Terrelle Pryor was former Packer and Seahawk, Matt Flynn.  He was brought to Oakland to be the starter, but elbow tendinitis slowed him down in the preseason and Pryor was named the starter.  Running back Darren McFadden got the drive started off with a short run up the right side for three yards.  McFadden took a direct snap on the next play and gave the ball to wide receiver Jacoby Ford.  The Redskin defense wasn’t fooled and he only gained three yards.  On third and four, Flynn connected with wide receiver Brice Butler for a gain of six and a first down at the 31.  On third and eight from the 33, Flynn dumped off a short pass to Jennings who got a gain of 12 and a first down at the 45.  On first down, Flynn looked to his right and completed a pass to wide receiver Denarius Moore.  Moore ran up the right side and was brought down at the Washington 21.  Three plays later, Flynn connected with tight end Mychal Rivera for a touchdown.  Janikowski made the point after and the Raiders led 14-0 with 3:06 to go in the fourth quarter.

The Redskins started at their 20 and broke out the no huddle offense for their next drive.  Morris netted 28 yards on four carries and two completions to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson put the Redskins at the Oakland six-yard line.  An intentional grounding penalty moved them back ten yards and they would get as far as the two before settling for a field goal attempt.  Kicker John Potter had no problem with his 20-yard attempt and the Raiders now led 10-3 with 14:21 to go in the second quarter.

Starting at their 20, the Raiders went to the ground game with McFadden.  A short pass to Moore moved them to the 38.  On third down from the 43, Flynn stared down Moore from the minute the ball was snapped.  Cornerback David Amerson picked up on that, picked the pass off  and returned it for a touchdown.  Potter made the point after and the lead was now 14-10 with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter.

The Raiders got exactly eight yards on their drive and were going to punt again.  However, before the ball was snapped, they changed formation and cornerback Taiwan Jones took a direct snap and ran up the left side for a gain of 19 yards and a first down at the 47.  Nice play.  Maybe Jones could stay in and play quarterback.  That didn’t happen.  Lame duck quarterback Matt Flynn took the field again and the incomplete short passes continued.  Punter Marquette King came on and punted the ball through the end zone.

On the strength of more running by Morris, completions to Garcon and running back Roy Helu, the Redskins moved the ball to the Oakland 46.  Three runs by Morris got them seven yards and on fourth and three, they decided to go for it.  Bad idea.  Safety Charles Woodson came off the corner and sacked Griffin for a loss of ten yards.  The defense was doing their job, but the offense was downright terrible.  Injuries to fullback Marcel Reece and McFadden had the Raiders struggling to get any yards on the ground.  Not to mention Flynn was holding the ball too long and that led to a costly sack.  So, after the defense gave the offense the ball at midfield, they were forced to punt after three plays.  This would be a recurring theme.  Neither team did anything with the ball for the remainder of the second quarter and the score was still 14-10 at halftime.

More of what ended the first half continued into the second half.  Flynn wasn’t even trying to look downfield.  Every pass he completed was a dump over the middle or a screen.  This led to the Redskin defense crowding the line of scrimmage.  They knew there was no threat of the Raiders going deep.  If Flynn’s elbow was hurting him that badly, why not put Matt McGloin in?  King punted, then Rocca punted, then King punted again.  This was worse than a bad tennis match.  But, on third and nine from his own nine, Griffin hooked up with tight end Logan Paulsen for a big gain down the middle.  Even though he had four Raiders draped all over him, he decided to do his best Mark Bavaro impression and kept fighting for yards.  The ball came loose and the ball was recovered by linebacker Kevin Burnett at the Washington 42.

Now, with the defense playing so well, a touchdown on this drive would be huge.  Hey, I can hope, right?  Flynn found Moore for a gain of seven.  Jennings ran up the left side for two.  On third and one, linebacker Brian Orakpo blew up the play and Jennings was stuffed for no gain.  Instead of going for it, head coach Dennis Allen opted for a long field goal attempt.  The kick sailed wide left and the Raiders failed to increase their lead yet again.

It was becoming obvious that the Raider defense was starting to wear down.  Well, when you have an offense that can’t move the ball, these things happen.  The Redskins took over at their 42.  Some more running by Morris and a 17-yard pass to Hankerson gave them a first down at the Oakland 12.  On third and three from the five, the Raiders brought a heavy blitz.  That left Garcon matched up with rookie cornerback DJ Hayden.  Griffin got the pass off before the defense could get to him and Garcon caught it for a touchdown.  Potter made the extra point and the Redskins now led 17-14.

Now trailing, the Raiders started at their 20 and went absolutely nowhere.  Well, they did manage to complete an 11-yard pass.  After that, a holding penalty moved them back ten yards.  Then on back to back plays from the shotgun formation, Flynn was sacked.  That’s usually what happens when you don’t move around in the pocket and hold the ball too long.  King punted and the Redskins got the ball at their 36.  They got as far as the Oakland 41 and were forced to punt.

The Raiders started at their 14 and Flynn continued to dump off short passes to Jennings.  It was so frustrating to watch a quarterback not even try to throw a pass downfield against a defense that had been playing terribly in the previous three games.  Flynn ended up getting sacked again on third down and they were forced to punt.  The Redskins took over at their 24.  On third and seven, Griffin found Helu for a short completion over the middle.  Woodson hit him and the ball came loose.  There was a big pileup and safety Brandian Ross came away with the ball.  That didn’t matter.  See, there was this problem that has plagued the Raiders for years.  There was a penalty.  Defensive end Lamarr Houston had lined up offside.  Therefore that play didn’t count.  Two plays later, the Redskins punted again and the Raiders had another chance to put some points on the board.

A short “scramble” by Flynn, and a 13-yard completion to Moore gave them a first down at the 45.  On second and six from the 49, Flynn took the snap, massive pressure was coming at him from the right side and he didn’t move.  When it comes to throwing, I know he’s the right-handed version of Tim Tebow, but is he blind and deaf too?  Hey, at least Tebow knows how to escape when there’s a threat of being sacked.  This is where I lost my mind and screamed “THROW IT! THROW IT!”  I said some other things, but I can’t repeat them here.  He obviously didn’t hear me and he was sacked for a loss of eight yards by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.  To add insult to injury, the ball came loose and was recovered by nose tackle Barry Cofield at the Oakland 42.  It took the Redskins two plays to put this game away.  Griffin found Helu up the right side for a gain of 28 yards and on the next play, Helu took it right up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown.  Potter made the point after to make it 24-14.  The Raiders did make it down to the Washington 17 on their next drive, but on fourth and one, Flynn tried to run the ball up the middle and fumbled it.  My question is why didn’t they try a field goal?  They had to score twice to tie the game, right?  The Redskins took over and ran out most of the clock.  Final score:  Redskins 24 Raiders 14.

For the Redskins, Robert Griffin completed 18 of 31 for 227 yards and one touchdown.  Alfred Morris led the way on the ground with 71 yards on 16 carries.  All totaled, the Redskins rushed for 122 yards on 32 carries.  Pierre Garcon led the team in receptions with six and receiving yards with 59 and a touchdown.  It was by far the best performance of the year for their defense and they sacked Flynn seven times.  Kerrigan, Orakpo and Cofield had two sacks apiece and linebacker London Fletcher led the team in solo tackles with seven.

For the Raiders, Matt Flynn completed 21 of 32 for 227 yards, one touchdown and one interception.  Rashad Jennings had the most yards rushing with 45 on 15 carries.  Jennings also led the team in receptions with eight and receiving yards with 71.  Defensively, linebacker Nick Roach led the defense in solo tackles with six.

The win was the first of the year for the Redskins and they are now 1-3.  This loss dropped the Raiders to 1-3.   I haven’t heard the extent of the injuries to McFadden and Reece, but I sure hope they can get back in the lineup next week.  They were sorely missed in this game.  Speaking of this game, the performance of the offense can be summed up in one word: Garbage.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Raiders as the San Diego Chargers are coming to town next week.  They’re coming off a big win over the Cowboys and they’ll be looking for another win in Oakland.  Until then, take it easy.

The Raider Guy

 

Seahawks 24, Redskins 14

The fourth and final game of wildcard weekend had the Seattle Seahawks visiting the Washington Redskins.  Of all the games, I was looking forward to this one the most.  It was the battle of rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson.  To be honest, of the rookies playing in this game, the one who impressed me the most this season was Redskin running back Alfred Morris.  The Redskins won the toss and elected to receive.

Starting at their 20, the Redskins got off to a good start with runs of eight and nine yards by Morris.  A nine-yard pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon and a three-yard run by Griffin moved the Redskins to midfield.  A 30-yard pass to Garcon and an 18-yard run by Morris made it first and goal from the three-yard line.  On third and goal from the four, Griffin fired a dart to running back Even Royster for a Redskin touchdown.  Kicker Kai Forbath made the extra point and the Redskins went up 7-0 with ten minutes to go in the first quarter.

The Seahawks went nowhere on their first drive and punted.  The Redskins took over at their 46 and on third and three from the Seahawk 47, Griffin faced some pressure, but managed to complete a ten-yard pass to wide receiver Santana Moss.  A neutral zone infraction on the Seahawks and an eight-yard run by Griffin gave the Redskins another first down at the 24.  Tight end Logan Paulsen caught a 15-yard pass on third and one and the Redskins were knocking on the door again.  They found themselves in another third and goal situation from the four.  This time, they had the same result as their previous drive.  Griffin had loads of time and hit Paulsen in the end zone for another Redskin touchdown.  Forbath made the point after and the Redskins went up 14-0 with a little over two minutes to go in the first quarter.  Long after Griffin got rid of the ball, he was knocked down by defensive end Bruce Irvin and he was flagged for unnecessary roughness.  After that hit, Griffin left the field, but would return shortly.

The Seahawks started at their 20 and a 12-yard completion to tight end Zach Miller on third and 12 got them a first down at the 30.  A short run by running back Marshawn Lynch, a 19-yard scramble by Wilson and a nine-yard pass to Lynch moved the Seahawks into Redskin territory.  On first down from the 39, Wilson put up a floater and wide receiver Sidney Rice did a great job of catching it and keeping both feet in bounds for a gain of 27.  But a delay of game penalty and three incomplete passes stalled the drive at the 14.  Kicker Steven Hauschka  was brought in to try a 32-yard field goal.  The kick was good and that made it 14-3 with 12 minutes to go in the second quarter.

After giving up two early touchdowns, the Seahawk defense made some adjustments and really started bringing the pressure and forced the Redskins to punt.  The punt was fair caught by return man Leon Washington at the Seahawk 27.  Two runs by Lynch and an offside penalty on the Redskins moved the ball to the 45.  On first and five from the 45, Wilson fumbled, but the ball was picked up by Lynch and he took it down to the Redskin 36.  On second down from the 35, Wilson threw a screen to fullback Michael Robinson for a gain of 19 yards.  An 11-yard run by Wilson made it first and goal from the five.  On second and goal from the four, Wilson tossed the ball to his left and it was caught by Robinson for a Seahawk touchdown.  Hauschka made the extra point and the Seahawks closed the gap to 14-10 with just under five minutes to go in the second quarter.  Hauschka injured his calf on the point after attempt and punter Jon Ryan kicked the ball off.

The next “drive” for the Redskins ended abruptly.  On second and seven from the 29, Griffin threw a deep ball into double coverage intended for Garcon.  The ball was picked off by safety Earl Thomas.  He was brought down at the Seahawk 26 and with 3:36 remaining in the first half, Wilson went to work.  On third and five from the 31, he completed a six-yard pass to wide receiver Doug Baldwin.  On the next play, he hooked up with Baldwin again.  This pass went for 33 yards and he was brought down at the Redskin 30.  Two more runs by Lynch netted 11 yards and another first down at the 19.  On fourth and two from the 11, Hauschka limped onto the field and nailed a 29-yard field goal to end the half.  At halftime, the Redskins led 14-13.

The Seahawks picked up right where they left off on their first drive of the second half.  Lynch, Robinson and rookie running back Robert Turbin moved the Seahawks from their 30 to the Redskin 32.  A 15-yard pass to wide receiver Golden Tate and a 15-yard run straight up the middle by Lynch put the ball at the two-yard line.  On second down from the one, Lynch got the call again and defensive tackle Barry Cofield put his helmet right on the ball.  It came loose and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins came up with the fumble recovery.

The Redskins took over at their three and managed to move the ball to the 26 before punting.  On this drive, defensive end Chris Clemons was injured and it has been reported he has a torn ACL.  He will miss the rest of the playoffs.  The Seahawks got down to the Redskin 28, but on third and eight, Wilson was sacked for a loss of nine by cornerback Josh Wilson.  That took them out of field goal range and they punted.  The Redskins were flagged for holding on the return and they started from their own six-yard line.  As the game went on, it was becoming more and more evident that Griffin was playing in excruciating pain.  From the six, Griffin was sacked for a loss of four by defensive tackle Alan Branch.  He managed to complete a pass to Garcon on third and 14, but he was brought down short of the first down marker.  Redskin punter Sav Rocca came on and hit a nice 53-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Seahawk 37.  The Redskin defense did a good job and forced another punt.

A limping Robert Griffin led his team onto the field in hopes of putting some more points on the board.  On first down from their 22, Griffin took the snap and “ran” up the left side for a gain of nine yards.  That play call totally boggled my mind.  You have perfectly good running backs who could do the same thing.  After the play was over, Griffin limped back to the huddle.  Morris got the call on the next play and gained five yards for a first down at the 36.  They would only gain three more yards and Rocca punted the ball away again.  Washington fielded it at the eight and returned it to the 21.

A seven-yard pass to Tate and an 18-yard run by Lynch moved the Seahawks to midfield.  On third and ten, Miller made a nice catch and run for a gain of 22.  He was finally dragged down at the Redskin 32.  On third and five from the 27, Lynch reminded everyone why he is known as “The Beast.”  He ran up the right side for a 27-yard Seahawk touchdown.  Wilson completed the two-point conversion with a pass to Miller and the Seahawks now had a 21-14 lead with seven minutes to go in the game.

I really thought I’d see backup quarterback Kirk Cousins come into the game for the Redskins.  I was wrong.  Griffin remained at quarterback and on first down from the 24, he was sacked for a loss of 12 by Irvin.  On second and 22, it got even worse for Griffin.  A bad snap sent the ball bouncing crazily toward him.  There was a big pileup at the five-yard line and the Seahawks came away with the ball.  Griffin stayed down for several minutes as trainers worked on him.  He managed to get to his feet and walk off the field, but that was the last we’d see of him.  The Seahawks took over at the five and gained a grand total of one yard.  Hauschka made the 22-yard field goal and the Seahawks upped the lead to 24-14 with five and a half minutes to go in the game.

The Redskins got the ball back at their 18 and Cousins found wide receiver Leonard Hankerson for gains of 15 and 12 yards.  Another bad snap was picked up by Cousins and he was thrown for a loss of four yards.  After that, Cousins threw three straight incomplete passes and turned the ball over to the Seahawks with 4:16 to go in the game.  Lynch and Turbin split some carries and they ended up punting the ball back to the Redskins with a minute to go.  Cousins threw four incomplete passes and that’s how the game would end.  Final score: Seahawks 24 Redskins 14.

For the Seahawks, Russell Wilson completed 15 of 26 for 187 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions.  He also had 67 yards rushing on eight carries.  Tight end Zach Miller led the team in receptions with four and in receiving yards with 48.  Marshawn Lynch led the ground game with 132 yards on 20 carries, one touchdown and one lost fumble.  As a team, the Seahawks had a total of 224 yards on 37 carries.  Defensively, linebacker Bobby Wagner led the Seahawks in solo tackles with five and had one tackle for a loss.

For the Redskins, Robert Griffin completed 10 of 19 for 84 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.  He also had 21 yards rushing on five carries.  Kirk Cousins didn’t do much better as he completed three of ten for 31 yards.  Pierre Garcon was the leader in receptions with four and receiving yards with 50.  Alfred Morris led the ground game with 80 yards on 16 carries.  In my opinion, he didn’t get enough carries in this game.  As a team, the Redskins ran for a total of 104 yards on 23 carries.  Defensively, safety Reed Doughty led the Redskins in sacks with two and the most solo tackles with seven.  He also had two tackles for a loss and one pass defensed.  All totaled, the Redskins sacked Wilson five times.

Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is being heavily criticized for leaving Griffin in the game too long.  Griffin entered the game with a knee brace and was obviously not anywhere near 100 percent.  Yet, Shanahan left him out there despite the fact that he was in obvious pain.  That’s nothing new for Shanahan.  When he was in Denver, quarterback Brian Griese had a badly injured shoulder and Shanahan didn’t take him out.  There’s also a sound byte from Super Bowl 32 where he asked running back Terrell Davis if he was feeling okay.  Davis replied “I can’t see.  I’ve got another one of my headaches.”  Shanahan said “Well I need you to get back in there for the next play.  We’re going to fake it to you.”  Davis ended up being okay and was named the MVP of that game.  But what the hell are you doing putting a blind running back into a game?

The playoffs continue next week with Baltimore at Denver on Saturday at 4:30 eastern time followed by Green Bay at San Francisco at 7:30.  Sunday’s games will feature Seattle at Atlanta at 1:00 and Houston at New England  at 4:30.  Those are definitely some interesting match-ups!  Until then, take it easy.

 

The High-Rise and the Slurpee Cup: An Appreciation of Larry Brown

Where the NFL Hall of Fame is concerned, the past 40 years have been good times for the Washington Redskins. Over the past five years, Chris Hanburger, Russ Grimm, Darrell Green and Art Monk have been enshrined. George Allen was finally elected in 2002; Joe Gibbs in 1999; and “The Diesel”, John Riggins, in 1992. Before that, Charley Taylor was inducted in 1984, and both Sonny Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell were honored in 1983. That’s a sizable chunk of the greatest ‘Skins of my lifetime. If I have fond memories of each, though (okay, at 50, I have a hard time conjuring images of Bobby Mitchell), none of them evokes the same childhood passion as one who’s not in the Hall, my favorite Redskin of all-time, Larry Brown.

I’m not advocating for Brown’s enshrinement in Canton; I understand that next to the greatest running backs in the game’s history, his totals pale by comparison. And anyway, I don’t really care that he’s not in the Hall of Fame, nor was ever a finalist. His body of work, as they say, was relatively brief, just five productive years, so it makes sense that he wasn’t ever considered one of the greats (although during the same comparative span, over their respective first five years, Brown actually amassed more yardage than did Gale Sayers, whose career was almost identical to Brown’s career). It’s enough that Brown is in the Redskins Ring of Fame, because it’s difficult to imagine any player ever meant more to his team than did number 43.

It may be that my favoritism came from proximity. When I was a kid growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we lived not far from The Chateau, the high-rise apartment building where Brown lived, right next to the Beltway. Every time I’d pass by the place I’d imagine him inside his apartment; how he lived; the route he’d take on game days to RFK Stadium in the District, where the ‘Skins then played; even envision him at the local Safeway, where I was sure we both shopped. I once saw pictures of his living room in a magazine, with the shag carpets that were so prevalent in a bachelor pad of that era. I remember thinking it must have been cool to be Larry Brown.

I didn’t learn until years later, of course, how Vince Lombardi installed a hearing aid in Brown’s helmet after discovering that the running back, whom Lombardi had drafted in the eighth round of the ’69 draft, the 191st player taken, was hard of hearing. But as I rooted for the Allen-era Redskins (after Lombardi’s death, Bill Austin led the team to one sub-.500 season, then Allen began his legendary run), Brown’s toughness and running style came to symbolize the kind of team those Allen ‘Skins were: tenacious, resilient and tough, just so gosh darn tough. Watching Brown take a beating game after game, it was fitting that he later titled his autobiography, “I’ll Always Get Up.” He always did.

For those five years, Brown was one of football’s best runners. Beginning in his rookie season, 1969, he was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls; twice during that span he was also named First Team All-Pro. As a measure of his durability, Brown never finished worse than fourth in the league in carries, and among his two 1,000-yard seasons, he finished first in the league in 1970 and second two years later, when he rushed for a career-high 1,216 yards. The 1972 season was magical. Individually, in addition to the high-water mark in yards gained, Brown also led the league in both yards per game and yards from scrimmage, and his performance garnered a host of post-season awards, among them the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, and the Bert Bell Award as the Player of the Year. Collectively, the ‘Skins finished 11-3 but lost to Miami in Super Bowl VII, although Brown ran as hard as ever in that game, finishing with 72 yards on 22 carries. That season was the pinnacle of Brown’s and Allen’s careers.

That’s probably the year I got the Slurpee cup. Just as with the excitement of finding my favorite baseball player in a package of Topps baseball cards, I remember the same feeling when my local 7-Eleven finally brought out Brown’s cup among the Redskins’ series. I’m sure I filled it with the Coke flavor Slurpee, because that’s just about the only kind I ever gulped. That cup sat on my dresser for years. Eventually, I filled it with pennies. I’m not sure whatever happened to it; for nostalgia’s sake, I wish I still had it.

By 1973, Brown was for all intents and purposes finished. Although he gained 860 yards that season, he only averaged 3.2 yards per carry. He couldn’t overcome debilitating knee injuries after that, and carried his final twenty times in 1976. Then he retired. Allen wore him out.

Man, was Brown tough.

Thanks for the memories, Larry.

 

Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys

Welcome to Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys.  This regular column will be dedicated to covering the Cowboys, everything from free agent signings to how the arbitration case against the NFL is proceeding (see below).  So far, the Cowboys have had an interesting off-season following a disappointing end to the 2011 regular season.  So let’s get started…

The big news (other than Tebow and the Saints) this week is that the Cowboys and the Washington Redskins have combined to file a grievance against the NFL in regards to being penalized for dumping money in the uncapped year of 2010.  It seems teams were warned not to do this, although nothing was put in writing.  The problem here is that quite a few teams used this to their advantage, but only the Cowboys and Redskins were docked money against the cap ($10 million for Dallas, $36 million for Washington).  What makes this story even odder is that the NFLPA signed off on the punishment and every team but Dallas, Washington, Oakland, and New Orleans were given an additional $1.6 million in cap funds.  The NFLPA could have sued the NFL for collusion.  Secret agreements between owners that don’t have the union’s consent are frowned upon by the courts.  You might think “well no harm no foul, the additional money against the cap that the other teams received makes it even.”  The problem with that line of thinking is that not every team will spend up to the cap, but we know the Cowboys and Redskins would have spent to the max.  So once again the union loses.  This will be an interesting story to follow once the arbitration date is set.

As for on the field related news, it was known that the Cowboys were going to go hard after a cornerback in free agency.  The question was would it be Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Carr?  Well, once Finnegan signed with the Rams that question became moot and Carr it was.  Carr signed for $50.1 million over five years.  This should give the Cowboys a much better CB tandem as Carr is a huge upgrade over Terrance Newman who was released.  The Cowboys also signed safety Brodney Pool.  Pool may or may not be an upgrade over Abram Elam.  He and Gerald Sensabaugh will be the weak link in the secondary. 

The Cowboys also solidified their offensive line with the additions of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau.  They also released Kyle Kosier.  The moves give the Cowboys depth along the line, something that was sadly lacking last season.  The Boys will also switch Tyron Smith and Doug Free, which should only make the line stronger.  Center would seem to be this units biggest area of weakness.

Lets address the other signings by the Cowboys so far in free agency.  QB Kyle Orton gives the Cowboys a solid backup in case Tony Romo were to go down with an injury.  Orton is not here to challenge for the job, but every team needs a solid backup QB in this day and age.  WR Kevin Ogletree was re-signed, unfortunately Laurent Robinson wasn’t so they will still be in the market for a wide receiver.  Linebacker Dan Connor was signed to give them depth at linebacker, this also could suggest that Bruce Carter is not yet ready for prime time.  Fullback Lawrence Vickers was signed to be the battering ram in front of DeMarco Murray. It appears Dallas wasn’t totally convinced that Tony Fiametta will remain healthy.  All in all, Dallas did a good job in free agency.  They can now let the draft come to them in April.  They have the 14th pick in the 1st round.  They could still select a CB as you can never have enough of them in this day and age.  How about a safety?  Mark Barron could start right away.  A pass rushing linebacker or defensive end is not out of the picture, and they could even take an offensive lineman if that is where they believe the best value is when it is time to pick.  As always, there is rarely a dull moment in Valley Ranch.

Franchises Returning to Their Former Homes

This Sunday’s St. Louis Rams vs. Cleveland Browns game isn’t generating a lot of buzz. But the significance of the game shouldn’t be lost on the city of Cleveland.

The Rams who were originally founded in Cleveland, will be making their 11th trip back to the city Cleveland. The Rams have a record of 4-6 in Cleveland, since they left the icy shores of Lake Erie in 1946.

The Rams are one of ten current NFL teams, to have ever played an official NFL game in a city they use to call home.  These teams have a winning record of 48-42 in their former cities.

Franchises Records at their Former Home

Team Former City Moved W-L 1st Game Back
Result
Cardinals Chicago 1960 3-6 1965: Bears L 13-34
St. Louis 1988 7-3 1998: Rams W 20-17
Chargers Los Angeles 1961 7-10 1970: Rams L 10-37
Chiefs Dallas 1963 1-4 1975: Cowboys W 34-31
Colts Baltimore 1984 4-2 1998: Colts L 31-38
Lions Portsmouth 1934 1-0 1934: Cin Reds W 38-0
Raiders Oakland 1982 Didn’t play in Oakland until they moved back. ¹
Los Angeles 1995 Haven’t played in Los Angeles since.
Rams Cleveland 1946 4-6 1950: Browns L 28-30
Los Angeles 1995 Haven’t played in Los Angeles since.
Ravens Cleveland 1996 8-4 1999: Browns W 41-9
Redskins Boston 1937 7-4 1944: Bos Yanks W 21-14
Titans Houston 1997 6-3 2002: Texans W 13-3

¹ The Raiders played an exhibition game in Oakland in 1989, they lost to the Houston Oilers 21-23.

 

Tires, Tail Pipes, and American Football

It was 1985. Down in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy in the black shirt and blue jeans assessed the situation. It was more fun than anything he had studied in four years of high school. Lost in a concrete jungle of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, he still had the radio and his football magazines.

On this early summer Saturday morning, the phone rang. It was Mr. Robertson: “What are you doing here this early?”

“I was scheduled for this morning, Mr. Robertson. From 9 to 4.”

“I’ve got you down for closing.”

“Uh…no sir. Sammy scheduled me from 9 to 4. Jim comes in at 4.”

There was a silence. Then came Robertson’s voice: “If Jim doesn’t show, you’re staying.” And click. 

If he had to stay, then he had to stay. The boy was equipped and ready. He had the radio, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and his football magazines.

Throughout the course of the day, he agonized over who would be NFL champs. He knew the Chicago Bears were going to be good. He also knew they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. Super Bowl Champions? He had to go with the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Bears

He continued to ponder the issue throughout that summer: Who’s going to be the NFL Champion? The Cardinals or the Bears?

He knew the Bears were going to be good, but all was not well in the Windy City. Buddy Ryan was calling first round defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry “a wasted draft pick.” On the offensive side of the ball, Jim McMahon was returning from a lacerated kidney that ended his season the previous November. The stocker had some uncertainty about McMahon’s ability to play at full speed. 

Above all, the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

Bell was their All-Pro strong safety, and in his fifth season, he was sure to be entering his prime. Al Harris was one of Buddy Ryan’s holdovers from the pre-Mike Ditka days. He was a reliable linebacker and defensive end, playing wherever he was needed. Harris proved to be handy on special teams as well. He once scored a touchdown on a fake field goal.

Granted, Harris had a replacement. His spot would go to Wilber Marshall, the previous year’s number one draft pick and rated by some as the top linebacker in the ‘84 draft. Bell’s absence, however, was sure to be felt. His spot at strong safety was being taken over by an unknown named Dave Duerson.  Even Marshall was no sure thing, at least not yet. He missed much of his rookie training camp in ‘84, and as a result, didn’t see much action during the season.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Cardinals

The Cardinals, on the other hand, made the stock boy nervous. Roy Green scared the daylights out of him. There was considerable debate over who was the best wide receiver in football. He rated his beloved Redskin receivers as the best: Art Monk, followed by Charlie Brown. He put Roy Green right there with them. 

The stocker considered John Stallworth the best receiver on those great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the ‘70’s. He also liked the San Diego Chargers’ speedy Wes Chandler, who was a 1,000 yard receiver in 1982 while playing only eight games. He was a big fan of the man Chandler replaced on the Chargers: the Green Bay Packers’ John Jefferson, an acrobatic receiver whose career had inexplicably nosedived. There was also, of course, the Packers’ James Lofton, who had both size and vertical speed.

The stocker’s thoughts returned to Roy Green. Green scared him. Every year, he terrorized the Redskins. Every year, the Redskins had to face him–twice. Neil Lomax-to-Roy Green was a lethal combination. A combo that was surely headed for the Hall of Fame.

He considered the other weapons on that Big Red offense. Ottis Anderson was a power running back with the speed to go the distance from anywhere on the field. Pat Tilley was a fine possession receiver. Stump Mitchell was an exciting return man who provided an extra threat out of the backfield. 

The Cardinals had the best offense in football, and they scared the stocker. Yes, the Bears had a better defense–but they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. On top of that, Buddy Ryan called William “The Refrigerator” Perry a wasted draft pick. There was dissension in the ranks, and the stocker couldn’t pick Chicago.

 

Flashback: December 16, 1984

Sitting in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy remembered the last game of the 1984 regular season at RFK Stadium against the Cardinals. He was there. On that overcast December afternoon, the NFC East crown was at stake. The Redskins took a 13-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Joe Theismann to future Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk. Theismann also connected with the 6’3’’ receiver for his 100th catch of the season. Art Monk caught 100 passes in an era when players didn’t catch 100 passes.

The Cardinals woke up when cornerback Wayne Smith intercepted a Theismann pass and ran it back to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Lomax scored on a quarterback keeper. The Redskins countered with a 5-yard touchdown run by future Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. At the half, the Redskins led, 23-7.

The Cardinals flew back with a vengeance. Lomax-to-Roy Green struck not once, but twice. The first touchdown went for 75 yards, and the second one went for 18. The Redskins had enough offense left to produce two Mark Moseley field goals. 

On the last play of the game, the ‘Skins were up, 29-27. The Cardinals’ Neil O’Donohue lined up to attempt a desperation field goal: 53 yards away and the clock ticking downward, with no way to stop. The kick was up, up, and…not up enough.   

The Redskins won, 29-27, and walked away with the division title. The stocker walked out of the stadium with 55,000 other elated fans with hopes of a third straight Super Bowl.  

The Cardinals had nowhere to walk but home.

 

September 1985: The D.C. Football Fiasco

Six months later in the heart of the summer, in a mausoleum of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, the stock boy believed. The stock boy believed the Cardinals were ready to soar. They scared him–and the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

In September, with the stocker now in college, the 1985 season began. His beloved Redskins were a team to be laughed at early in the season. On September 9th, on Monday Night in Dallas, they were slaughtered, 44-14.

They returned home on September 15th and won a 16-13 squeaker against Houston. The ‘Skins’ performance was so unimpressive that the Oilers deserved to win. In the upper deck, the stock boy and his father stood and yelled for their Mack truck of a running back: “Go Riggo!!!” The people around them cheered, and a man sitting behind the father and son said, “Go somebody.”

After the game, the dad drove through D.C. as the stock boy shouted out the window. He yelled to some people in their front yard, “Red-Skins!!” One guy yelled back, “Deadskins!” The father and son laughed, because the man was right.

On September 22nd, the Redskins faced the Philadelphia Eagles. The offense was more lifeless than ever, and the Eagles won, 19-6. In that game, the Eagles seemed to have found their quarterback of the future. A second-round rookie named Randall Cunningham raised some eyebrows. 

On September 29th, the ‘Skins went to Chicago. In 1937, their first trip to the Windy City resulted in the Redskins’ first World Championship. The stock boy’s grandfather took the train to Chicago to see Sammy Baugh and the ‘Skins beat the Bears, 28-21, for the NFL Championship. Now, in their 32nd meeting, the Skins were carrying a 1-2 record and something to prove.

The Bears had eight NFL Championships between 1921 and 1963. Now, after a twenty-two year famine and a taste of the playoffs again in ‘84, the city was hungry. The Bears were off to a 3-0 start and coming off a dramatic come from behind win over the Vikings.

The ‘Skins marched up the field on their first two possessions for a John Riggins touchdown and a Mark Moseley field goal. They were looking like the Redskins of old, the Redskins of 1981 to 1983, a Redskins team that for one stretch won 36 of 42 games–one of those wins being Super Bowl XVII. 

With the ‘Skins having gone up, 10-0, Jeff Hayes kicked off. The Bears’ world-class speedster Willie Gault received the kick and sprinted 99 yards for the touchdown. The crowd erupted, and so did the team they cheered for. The Bears scored one touchdown after another. At the half, Chicago led, 31-10. In the third quarter, quarterback Jim McMahon scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

On defense, Wilber Marshall, Steve McMichael, Tyrone Keys, and future Hall of Famer Richard Dent each sacked Joe Theismann. The day was one of those occasions when The Hogs, the Redskins’ famed offensive line, fell short of excellence. The Bears also intercepted Theismann twice, with Ken Taylor and “L.A. Mike” Richardson doing the honors.   

The most noteworthy play wasn’t a touchdown, a sack, or a turnover. Jeff Hayes, the Redskins’ kickoff specialist and punter, was injured on the Gault runback. He was hurt so severely that he wouldn’t play again that season. His immediate replacement was the QB. Theismann punted once, and it became perhaps the most celebrated punt in NFL history. Theismann’s punt traveled one yard.  

Final Score: Bears 45, Redskins 10.

That game sent a message to the football-watching nation: The Monsters of the Midway were on the prowl, even without Al Harris and Todd Bell. As for the Redskins, it was looking like 2-14. To make matters worse, the St. Louis Cardinals were coming to town.   

 

‘Twas the Night of October 7th

The stock boy’s Super Bowl pick was looking good so far. The Cardinals were 3-1, and were second in the league in scoring with 124 points. The Bears were 4-0 and first in scoring with 136, but the stocker wasn’t ready to concede just yet. 

The Cards were coming to town, and the consensus was as unanimous as could be: the ‘Skins were in trouble.  Surely, the Cardinals would raise their record to 4-1 and score some points in the process. Since it was Monday Night Football, the Big Red Birds would be embarrassing the Redskins before an entire nation. 

The stock boy had a paper due the next day, but that wasn’t about to stop him from going. It would be his first Monday Night game in person. He and his father expected the worst, but they still looked forward to being there–something only a diehard can understand. 

On that night of October 7th, the Redskins surprised a nation. They came to play football. Joe Theismann ran for a touchdown in the first quarter, and he later threw touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Gary Clark and veteran tight end Clint Didier. Clark’s touchdown was his first in the NFL. Roy Green caught 4 passes for 65 yards. It was a solid effort, but on this night, the Cardinals needed more.

John Riggins and George Rogers rushed for 100 yards each, and the Redskins dominated from start to finish. The stocker told his roommate the next day: “It was incredible.” 

Final score: Redskins 27, Cardinals 10.

 

1985: The Aftermath

The Redskins turned what looked like a two-win season into a pretty good campaign. They finished 10-6. The Redskins proved to be a turning point for both the Bears and the Cardinals. With their 45-10 demolition of the ‘Skins on September 29th, the Bears established themselves as a team to be feared. The rest of the league had a reason to be afraid. The Bears went on to have one of the greatest seasons in football history.          

After being stunned by the Redskins on October 7th, the Cardinals never recovered. They won just two games the rest of the season.

The Bears went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl–without Al Harris and Todd Bell. The Cardinals finished 5-11.

 

Author’s note: Yes, I was the stock boy. Yes, my Grandfather Haddad took the train to Chicago in 1937 to watch the Redskins beat the Bears for the NFL Championship.