Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Best Cornerbacks, Now and Then

We continue our discussion of the top players that are playing the game now and players that many consider the best ever.   Now, for my usual caveat:  Reasonable minds will disagree on who makes these lists and why.  I don’t claim to be the final judge.  However, these are names any respectable football fan should know.
We began this journey through history with quarterbacks.  Today, cornerbacks.


Darrelle Revis, New York Jets (2007-present):  Darrelle Revis attended the University of Pittsburgh and was drafted 14th overall by the Jets in 2007.  As I mentioned in my last post, the athleticism and skill required of cornerbacks often gives these players a bit of an attitude and cockiness other players might not express.  Revis is one example of this phenomenon.  He has nicknamed his area of the field “Revis Island”.  Last year, he famously, and successfully, held out of training camp and the entire preseason to renegotiate his contract for more money.  He has already been selected for the Pro Bowl (the NFL’s all-star game) three times and won AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.

Nnamdi Asomugha (Oakland Raiders, 2003-2011, Philadelphia Eagles, present):  Nnamdi Asomugha (pronounced NAHM-dee  AH-sim-wah) attended University of California, Berkeley, and was drafted 31st overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2003.  He has been selected to the Pro Bowl four times, and from 2007 through last season, he has allowed no more than 13 receptions each season; he didn’t allow any touchdown receptions last season.  After the 2010 season, his contract with the Raiders was up and the Eagles snagged him at the end of the lockout with a 5-year, $60 million contract.

Charles Woodson (Raiders, 1998-2005, Green Bay Packers, 2006-present):  Charles Woodson attended the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and was drafted 4th overall by the Oakland Raiders in 1998.  Woodson won the Heisman Trophy at Michigan (edging out Peyton Manning), the only player ever to do so as a primarily defensive player.  Woodson has been to the Pro Bowl seven times, won NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and was part of the Packers victory in Super Bowl XLV (he broke his collar bone in the first half).

IN THE GAP:   Champ Bailey (Washington Redskins, 1999-2003; Denver Broncos, 2004-present):  I put Bailey in a special “in the gap” category.  By “gap” I mean the gap between active and retired players.  Champ Bailey has already cemented his position as one of the great cornerbacks of all time.  He is still in the League, but I hesitate to put him in the list of “Today’s Stars”; in my opinion, some of the younger guys are just a slight cut above at this moment.

Bailey attended the University of Georgia and was drafted 7th overall by the Redskins in 1999.  In 2004 he was traded to the Broncos for a second-round draft pick and running back Clinton Portis.  Bailey has been selected to ten Pro Bowls, a record for cornerbacks.  In 2006 and in 2009, he didn’t allow a single touchdown out of the passes thrown in his direction. 


Mel Blount (Pittsburg Steelers, 1970-1983):  Mel Blount attended Southern University (Baton Rouge, LA) and was drafted by the Steelers in 1970.  He was a member of the famed “Steel Curtain” defense that Naptime Huddle readers know was one of the reasons the Steelers were able to build a championship dynasty in the 1970s.  It is generally believed that it was Blount’s physical dominance over receivers and aggressive style of pass coverage that gave rise to today’s pass interference and other rules limiting physical contact against receivers.  Blount was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Rod Woodson (Steelers, 1987-1996; San Francisco 49ers, 1997; Baltimore Ravens, 1998-2001; Oakland Raiders, 2002-2003):  Rod Woodson attended Purdue University and was drafted 10th overall by the Steelers in 1987.  He played in three Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens.  He still holds two NFL records:  interceptions returned for touchdowns (12) and interception return yards (1,483).  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, the first year he was eligible for the honor.  Woodson is currently the cornerbacks coach for the Raiders.

Deion Sanders (Atlanta Falcons, 1989-1993; 49ers, 1994; Dallas Cowboys, 1995-1999; Redskins, 2000; Ravens, 2004-2005):  As I mentioned in my last post, Deion Sanders is known for his supreme self-confidence and flamboyant style.  However, his reputation for theatrics and taunting his opponents should not overshadow his on-field accomplishments.  Sanders, also known as “Neon Deion” and “Prime Time,” accomplished greatness not only in football but baseball as well.  He went to Florida State and was drafted by the Falcons in 1989.  He also started playing for the Atlanta Braves* that year and would continue to play baseball part-time for nine years.  He is the only athlete ever to hit a major league home run and score a touchdown in the same week; he is also the only athlete to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.  Sanders won two Super Bowls and is only one of two players to score a touchdown six different ways:  interception return, punt return, kickoff return, receiving, rushing and off a fumble recovery.  This year, the first year he was eligible, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Famous for wearing bandanas, he put one on his bust at the induction ceremony.

*Braves fans already know that Deion Sanders is the man who brought the “tomahawk chop” to Atlanta.  The chop came from Florida State and continues to be used as a rallying cry for Braves fans today.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Secondary: Safeties and Cornerbacks

We have already learned about the defensive players that battle the offense at or near the line of scrimmage (LOS):  the linebackers and defensive linemen.  Today’s lesson features those players who make up the last line of defense before the end zone:  the safeties and cornerbacks, known collectively as the secondary.

·         Safeties and cornerbacks make up the secondary
·         The secondary has primary responsibility for defending pass plays but must also recognize and defend against running plays
·         The secondary can disrupt passes by blocking receivers, preventing catches and intercepting passes
·         Players in the secondary can also be used to rush the quarterback
·         These players are most likely to commit pass interference, illegal use of hands and defensive holding penalties

TERMS TO KNOW AND LOVE:  safety, cornerback, strong safety, weak safety, man-to-man defense, zone defense, interception, YAC, sack and blitz


As we have discussed, a team’s defense aims to:  prevent the offense from scoring; cause turnovers; and score points for its own team.  The players on the secondary support these goals by:  (1) preventing offensive players from catching passes from their quarterback; (2) intercepting those passes; and (3) preventing a runner from catching a pass in the end zone or running into the end zone after catching a pass.


Cornerbacks: Before the play starts, the cornerbacks (or “corners”) usually line up opposite the offense’s receivers, within a few yards of the LOS.  Under the rules, defensive players can impede an offensive player’s ability to move down the field within 5 yards of the LOS.  However, once a receiver has advanced five yards past the LOS, a defensive player is no longer allowed to keep him from running downfield.  Therefore, the corners will meet the receivers as they cross the LOS and attempt to keep them from running those first five yards by bumping or pushing them. 

Safeties:  A team might have two different types of safeties on the field at once:  a “strong safety” and a “weak safety.”  These terms are not judgments on each player’s strength or talent.  A strong safety is generally responsible for the “strong side” of the offensive formation.  For example, an offense might have a tight end and two receivers lined up to the quarterback’s right-hand side, but only one or two receivers on his left-hand side.  The strong safety, then, will be responsible for defending plays that develop on that player-heavy side of the field (which in this case is his left, since he is facing the offense).  The weak safety will take care of the other side of the offense.


When the ball is snapped, the corners will bump, or block, the receivers at the LOS (within that 5-yard zone), then run with the receivers if they continue down the field.  On a running play, the receivers become blockers for the runner, so the corners attempt to fight off the receivers’ blocks so they can pursue and tackle the runner.  Once a run play is recognized, the safeties will also converge on the runner to tackle him.
On a passing play, the secondary tries to either keep the receivers from catching the ball or will try to catch, or intercept, the pass themselves.  Generally, the secondary has two ways to do this:  (1) each player in the secondary is assigned a specific offensive player to cover, called “man-to-man defense”; or (2) each player in the secondary is assigned an area of the field to cover, called “zone defense.”  In zone defense, once a player runs out of your zone, another player on the secondary is responsible for that receiver.  There are many variations on both types of defense, but we’ll leave these for another time.
To keep a receiver from catching the ball, the defender can try to prevent the receiver from running his designated route, thus leaving the quarterback without that target.  He can also be so close to the receiver physically that the quarterback will throw the ball to a different receiver so the pass isn’t intercepted.  If the quarterback does throw the ball to his receiver, the defender can knock the ball away as it comes to the receiver (called “breaking up the pass”).
The defensive player can get an interception by either catching the ball as it comes to his receiver, or he can “break on the ball,” and run to a different spot on the field where he thinks the pass is going.  Of course, he had better be right about where the ball is going because he runs the risk of his receiver catching the ball and running free to the end zone.
If a receiver catches a pass, the corners and safeties both want to keep the yards the runner gains after the catch (called “Yards After Catch” or “YAC”) to a minimum.  Therefore, they work together to tackle the receiver as soon as possible.
Finally, one or more members of the secondary may be called upon to rush the quarterback on a given play.  This is either intended to tackle the quarterback behind the LOS for a loss of yards (called a “sack”), or to disrupt the quarterback so he is unable to complete a pass.  The use of a player from the secondary in this capacity is one form of “blitz” play.  In general terms, a “blitz” is a play in which one or more players that are usually assigned to defend the run or pass (like a linebacker, safety or corner) is committed to rushing through the offensive line to rush the quarterback.  Blitzes come in different formations and are used in a variety of circumstances, so they merit a post of their own.
As you can see, the secondary has several jobs that they must be able to perform on any given play. Therefore, as a general rule, safeties and corners are the most athletic players on a team's defense; perhaps on the entire team.  This may be why these players in particular tend to be more arrogant and outspoken.  Some corners are so successful at dominating receivers that quarterbacks avoid targeting the receivers they are covering.  A great example of one of these so-called "shut down corners" was "Neon" Deion Sanders, a.k.a. "Prime Time" (both nicknames self-given), an incredibly talented cornerback who played for several NFL teams, most notably for the Dallas Cowboys.  Though he is known for his talent as a cornerback, he played other positions including receiver and kick returner.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, the first year he was eligible for that honor.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed in the preseason, players in the secondary run the risk of committing a variety of penalties in their defense of their end zone, which can be very costly for their team.  Such penalties include pass interference, illegal use of the hands and defensive holding.  Stay tuned to this blog for a full discussion of these and other exciting infractions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Famous Fumbles

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about turnovers, I thought I would share a few examples of (in)famous fumbles in NFL history.  They feature a Brown, a Cowboy and an Eagle.  Enjoy!

Cleveland vs. Denver, 1987 AFC Championship

Our first famous fumble is courtesy of Earnest Byner, running back for the Cleveland Browns in their AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos on January 17, 1988.  The game had been a series of stops and starts for the Browns.  Having trailed the Broncos 3-21 at halftime, the Browns came back to eventually tie the game at 31.  Denver went ahead 38-31 with four minutes left in the game, then the Browns drove to the Denver 8-yard line with 1:12 left.  Browns quarterback handed off the ball to Byner, who ran toward the end zone.  At the 2-yard line, he was stripped of the ball and fumbled.  The Broncos recovered the fumble and went on to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl.  This moment in the game has since been known as “The Fumble.”*

While this fumble is famous for its fatal outcome, and its overshadowing of an otherwise spectacular game for Byner, the next two blunders are known for their abject stupidity.

Cowboys v. Buffalo, Super Bowl XXVII (January, 1993)

In the last moments of Super Bowl XXVII, the Dallas Cowboys had a commanding 52-17 lead over the Buffalo Bills.  The Bills, playing for pride, were attempting to drive down the field when they fumbled near midfield.  Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett recovered the fumble and began running toward the Bills’ end zone for a clear touchdown.  As he got to the 10-yard line, however, he slowed down and held the ball away from his body in early celebration.  What he didn’t know is that Bills wide receiver Don Beebe had been chasing him and was quickly closing the distance.  Just before Lett’s hand reached the goal line, Beebe swatted the ball out of his hand.  The ball rolled through the end zone and out of bounds, resulting in a touchback, giving the Bills the ball on the 20-yard line.  Fortunately for Lett, his showboating didn’t cost the Cowboys the game, but he will forever be known for this classic blunder.**

Philadelphia vs. Dallas, September 15, 2008, Monday Night Football

Before a national television audience, and against their division rivals, the Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson committed an error that was perhaps more moronic than Lett’s.  After catching a 60-yard pass from quarterback Donovan McNabb, Jackson was racing for the end zone to score an easy touchdown when he spiked the ball in celebration . . . at the 1-yard line!  Fortunately for Jackson, the official at the spot signaled a touchdown and none of the Cowboys players in the area jumped on the ball.  Therefore, when the Cowboys successfully challenged the touchdown, the result was that the Eagles had the ball on the 1-yard line, where they were able to run the ball into the end zone on the next play.

One might forgive Jackson, to an extent, for being a young, inexperienced player overly excited about scoring on national television.  However, he did almost the exact same thing in a high school all-star game!  Check it out:

*This is not the first time that the Broncos crushed the Browns’ hope for a Super Bowl appearance.  Faithful Naptime Huddle readers will recall that it was one year earlier that John Elway led the Broncos on “The Drive” against the Browns in the last moments of the game to win the AFC Championship. 

**This wouldn’t be Lett’s last, or even worst, lapse in judgment.  The very next season, on Thanksgiving Day, the Cowboys were leading the Miami Dolphins by one point with 15 seconds left in the game.  The Dolphins tried to kick a field goal, but the kick was blocked.  Lett tried to pick up the loose ball but muffed it, and the Dolphins ended up recovering the football.  They made their second field goal attempt and won the game.  If Lett had only fallen on the ball instead of trying to pick it up, the Cowboys would have won.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Turnovers: Interceptions and Fumbles

If the word “turnover” only calls to mind fruity pastries, then this post is for you.  Today we explore the ways that a team accidentally loses possession of the ball.
A turnover is when the team with the ball loses possession of the ball to the other team.  There are two types of turnovers:  the interception and the fumble.  Notice that I didn’t say “when the offense loses possession of the ball to the defense.”  There are two reasons for this:  (1) possession can occur during a special teams play when the teams are the “receiving” and “kicking” teams; and (2) there can be multiple turnovers on the same play, so that the offense initially loses the ball but then a scene from Keystone Kops ensues and the defense loses it after gaining possession!  What fun!

An interception occurs when a defensive player catches a pass that was meant to be caught by a player on the offense.  There is usually not much dispute over whether an interception has occurred, unless there is a question of whether the defensive player actually caught the ball.  However, there may be a question of whether the defensive player committed a pass interference penalty in the process of catching the ball.*  As you learned in my post on challenges, a judgment by the officials over whether a penalty such as pass interference occurred is not reviewable.
One quirk on interceptions:  if both the offensive and defensive player come down with their hands on the ball so that it looks like they both have possession, the offense keeps possession of the ball at the spot where the ball was caught.  In other words, to borrow a phrase from baseball, “the tie goes to the runner.”

Once a play has begun, the player that holds the ball is called the runner.  The runner can be one of three people:  (1) the quarterback, until he hands off, or throws the ball to, another player, or if he is keeping it and running down the field himself; (2) the player, usually the running back, that the quarterback hands the ball to; or (3) the player, a wide receiver or tight end, to whom the quarterback throws the ball.
A fumble occurs when the runner drops the ball before he is tackled. **  Any player can try to get the ball by diving on it or picking it up.  A fumble is “lost” if a defensive player gains control of the ball, thus earning possession for his team.  A fumble is “recovered” if a player on offense, either the runner or another player, gains control of the ball, retaining possession for his team.
Sound simple, right?  It usually is.  However, a couple of rules make the issue more complicated.  Under the rules, a runner is tackled or “down” when one or both of his knees touches the ground and he had been touched by a defensive player (in the NFL, if a player stumbles on his own, he can get back up and keep running; this is not the case in college).  Fumbles are often challenged or reviewed when there is a question of whether the runner was down before the lost the football.  If he lost the football after one of his knees hits the ground, there is no fumble. 
Another rule you will hear often is that the ground cannot cause a fumble.  It’s hard to explain what this means; it’s one of those you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it situations.  Generally, though, if a runner is being brought down, or has fallen, there is no fumble if he held onto the ball and it is only from hitting the ground that the ball came loose and out of the player’s grip.  This is also often the subject of review.

*The standards for a catch and pass interference are the same for both the offense and the defense, and will be explained in a later post.
**I should distinguish a “fumble” from a “muff.”  A muff occurs when a player unsuccessfully tries to get possession of a loose ball.  Therefore, the player hasn’t even had the ball yet.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recipe Timeout: Me-Ma's Crave-able Caramel Icing

Today I'm sharing my grandmother Me-Ma’s decadent caramel icing.  She made her caramel cake whenever the grandchildren or great-grandchildren were coming to visit.  I would eat the cake part first, leaving nothing but the frosting for the last few precious bites.  I prefer to make this with white cake, but I suppose yellow cake would be good, too.  I think it would be a bit much for chocolate cake.  I have also used this recipe to ice cupcakes.  Yum!

Fair warning:  This recipe is a little tricky.  There are only a few ingredients and the directions are pretty straight-forward.  However, the cooking requires a little finesse and gets easier with practice.
½ cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
½ cup canned milk (undiluted)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 to 3 cups powdered sugar 


Combine butter, brown sugar and canned milk in a pot and bring to a boil.  Boil slowly 3 minutes, stirring constantly.  Cool to lukewarm by placing pot in a bowl or pan of cold water.  Add vanilla and gradually add powdered sugar and stir.  The icing must be a spreadable consistency, so you may not need all three cups of powdered sugar.  Spread icing quickly before it sets!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bonus Post: Earthquakes in Football History

In honor of yesterday’s East Coast earthquake,* I did some brief research on earthquakes during football games.  I didn’t find any naturally-occurring ones (if anyone knows of any, I’d love to hear about it), but I found two games where the crowd, the “12th man,” caused a tremor during a football game:

Auburn at LSU, October 8, 1988:  Before a nationally televised audience, LSU scored what would be the winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining in the game.  The crowd’s eruption was so incredible that it registered as an earthquake on the seismograph at LSU’s Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex.

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks, January 8, 2011:  In a playoff game victory, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch broke a 67-yard run to score the winning touchdown.  The crowd goes wild!  At almost the exact moment, at 4:43 pm, an old seismic monitoring system near Seattle’s Qwest Field recorded a small tremor.

Of course, the most famous sports-related earthquake happened over 20 years ago during the 1989 World Series.  As the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants were getting ready to play Game 3 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, a 6.9 earthquake rocked the stadium and the entire area.  It was a major earthquake causing life loss throughout the city, but no one in the stadium was killed.

*We live in Northern Virginia, and it was such a nice, low-humidity day yesterday that I decided my son and I would go into Washington, DC to see some of the monuments.  We had a pleasant trip and left the city less than an hour before the earthquake hit.  We met a nice family from Minnesota and took their picture for them.  I told them how lucky they had been with the weather here this week.  I wonder if they are cursing me now for jinxing them…

Timeouts and Coaches' Challenges

Today’s lesson explains timeouts and strategies for using them, and the coach’s challenges.  You may have already seen the challenges in action during the preseason, and there are some changes to replay procedures that may affect how often you see challenges from here on out.

Each team is given three timeouts during each half of the game (i.e., three to be used during the first two quarters and two for the second two quarters).  You either “use it or lose it”; if you only use one timeout during the first half of the game, you still only get three to use in the second half, not five.  As a rule, coaches would rather save their timeouts for the end of a half, especially toward the end of the game.  They would rather not have to use a timeout at the beginning of the game because, for example, the players are confused and aren’t sure what the play is going to be.  It’s embarrassing, and they’ll probably wish they had that timeout back as they approach halftime.
Why call a time out?  Glad you asked.  There are lots of reasons.  Here a few--some that are obvious and some that are more interesting:

1.      Avoiding a delay of game penalty:  The offense has only 40 seconds after a play is over to snap the ball for the next play.  These 40 seconds are counted down on the play clock, which is separate from the game clock.  If the play clock runs out (or “expires”) before the next play starts, the offense is penalized with a delay of game penalty and loses five yards.  Most of the time teams get the next play started without a problem.  However, things can go wrong (the wrong players are on the field, there are too many players on the field, the quarterback can’t hear the signals from the coach, etc.) and the offense has to call a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty.
2.       Preserving time:  A team that is behind in the score close to halftime or the end of the game will call a timeout to stop the game clock.  If that team is on offense, stopping the game clock gives the team more plays to run, and opportunities to score.  If the team is on defense, stopping the game clock forces the team that is in the lead to make plays instead of trying to “run out the clock” by taking their sweet time between plays.  This way, if the offense fails to make a first down, the team that’s behind will get the ball back and have a chance to score.
3.       To avoid a procedural penalty:  There are other penalties beside the delay of game penalty that can be called on either the offense or defense before the next play starts.  These generally fall under the category of “procedural” penalties.  Examples include illegal substitutions, or offside, where a defensive player may still be on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.  If a coach or player sees that his team might be about to incur such a penalty, he will call a timeout.
4.       To ice the kicker:  You’ll see this happen a lot, and it is often the subject of debate as to its ethical status.  Say a team is behind by two or three points at the end of the game.  There is one second left in the game and that team has brought out its place kicker to attempt a field goal to win, or tie the score.  Even if that team has called a timeout before sending its kicker onto the field, the opposing coach can call a timeout a split second before the ball is snapped to the kicker.  This is called "icing" the kicker, and  is an attempt to psych out the kicker'  The coach calling the timeout will actually place himself right next to the official on his sideline so he can call the timeout into the guy’s ear at the exact right moment.  By the time that official has blown his whistle to stop the play, the kicker has probably already kicked the ball.  Of course, it won’t matter if the kick was good.  This tactic is seldom effective, though, and the kicker usually makes the field goal on the next play.  Unless, of course, it's a very long field goal attempt, like this instance where icing was successful:

Each coach is given two challenges to use during the game when he believes that the officials on the field made the wrong ruling about a play.  The error could concern several things, including:  whether a touchdown was made; whether a player stepped out of bounds; or whether a fumble occurred. 
When a coach thinks the officials got it wrong, he throws a red flag onto the field where the referee will see it.  The referee (who, as you know from a previous post, is the head official) will then come over to the coach, who will explain what, exactly, he is challenging.  The coach needs to be clear about what his challenge is because the referee must confine his review of the play to that issue.
Once the referee hears the coach’s complaint and determines that the challenge can be considered, he will then step over to a covered video monitor where he will watch replays of the play in question.  Note I said that the referee has to determine that the challenge can be considered.  A coach cannot challenge certain rulings, such as a penalty or an instance when a penalty was not called but maybe should have been.
    If the referee confirms the ruling, the team that raised the challenge will lose one of its timeouts.  Therefore, a team must still have at least one timeout remaining for the coach to make a challenge.  The coach also needs to decide whether it is worth the risk of losing a timeout.  If the ruling is reversed, however, the team does not lose a timeout.  If a coach uses both of his allotted challenges, and is correct on both, he will earn a third challenge for that game.
And so we come across another reason for calling a timeout.  A team might call a timeout to buy time to decide whether it should challenge the last play.  Most teams now have an assistant in their booth in the press box who will look at the replays and determine whether the coach should challenge.  A timeout gives them time to make this decision. 
Coaches may not use their challenges in the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters.  Instead, officials in the press box will review a close play before the next play starts and page the referee to let him know that he needs to review that play.  Thus, another reason to call a timeout; a coach may want to give those officials time to see the replays. 

The NFL has changed its procedure for reviews.  Starting this season, every touchdown is being reviewed by the off-field replay officials.  Once they review a touchdown, they send a page to the referee to tell him that the score is confirmed or that the referee must review it.
Two thoughts on this change.  First, this is too conservative.  In my opinion, the League is moving too far in taking the human element out of the officiating.  Most judgments made by the field officials are based on events that take place in mere seconds, and often only fractions of a second.  That there may be mistakes in the course of a game is a fact of life and teams must be able to overcome this element of chance to be real contenders.
Second, this will impact how coaches decide to use their challenges.  For example, I would expect we'll see a dramatic decrease in the number of challenges used over touchdowns.  If a coach knows that a touchdown is already getting a second look, he is more likely to save his challenges for other situations.  Also, most coaches will probably accept the call from the reviewing officials once they send their message to the referee.  To me, this takes a considerable amount of the drama out of the game, which isn’t really a good thing.
But that’s just my humble opinion.  We’ll have to see how it goes, but with this and other rules changes this year (see the post on kickoffs), I’m already missing the old days.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Greatest NFL Dynasties

Your education of NFL history continues today with a discussion of the NFL’s top team dynasties.  Generally speaking, any sports dynasty is one that dominates its sport and wins multiple championships in either consecutive years or in a short span of time.  Though this seems like a fairly simple formula, what can be considered a dynasty may be the subject of debate among experts and fans.  For example, people might say that a team was dominant only because of one star player that carried the team.  Or, a team might be considered a dynasty even though it never won a championship (one of these will be discussed below).  As with my post on great QBs in history, I don’t claim to be the final judge on the status of these teams as “dynasties.”  However, there is not much debate on most of these teams, and you should be able to recognize them if the subject arises.

1.       1940s Chicago Bears (champions in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946):  Under coach George Halas, the Bears dominated the ‘40s while also helping to develop passing in football.  In the 1940 championship, the Bears walloped the Washington Redskins 73-0.
2.       1950s Cleveland Browns (champs in 1950, 1954 and 1955):  Coached by Paul Brown, the Browns didn’t join the NFL until 1950 (until then they were in the now-defunct All-America Football Conference), so this doesn’t count the championships they earned before that season.
3.       1960s Green Bay Packers (champs in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967):  The Packers of the ‘60s benefitted from a stash of superb talent, such as QB Bart Starr, and a coach who is widely regarded as the greatest ever:  Vince Lombardi.  He is known for his vast wealth of football knowledge and wisdom which he combined with his tell-it-like-it-is, no-holds-barred rhetoric.  You can’t go into a sports memorabilia store or flip through a motivational products catalog without seeing a bevy of posters and coffee mugs with his quotations on them.
4.       1970s Miami Dolphins (champs in 1972):  OK, so the Dolphins only won one championship in the ‘70s.  However, they must be mentioned because they had three straight Super Bowl appearances (’71, ’72 and ’73).  More importantly, though, the ’72 championship capped off the NFL’s only perfect season, a feat that has not been repeated since, though the New England Patriots came very close in 2007, losing only in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.  A core group of ’72 Dolphins players famously drink a champagne toast each season when the last undefeated team in the League suffers its first loss.
5.       1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (champs in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979):  The Steelers might also be able to tout itself as the team with the greatest concentration of personalities to play football.  Just to name a few, the Steelers were led on offense by Hall of Famers QB Terry Bradshaw and wide receiver Lynn Swann.  On defense, the Steelers fielded the punishing “Steel Curtain” anchored by the legendary Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene.  Greene, you may recall, is the football player featured in the iconic Coca-Cola commercial in which he was handed a Coke by a young fan who received Greene’s jersey in return (“Hey, kid.  Catch!”).
6.       1980s San Francisco 49ers (champs in 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989):  Coach Bill Walsh dominated the League during the ‘80s with the support of Hall of Famers QB Joe Montana (architect of The Catch) and Wide Receiver Jerry Rice. 
7.       1990s Buffalo Bills (no championships in the 1990s):  This is one of those debatable additions to the list.  The Bills didn’t win a championship in that decade, but under coach Marv Levy, they appeared in four straight Super Bowls in the early ‘90s (1990-93), the only team to have ever done so.
8.       1990s Dallas Cowboys (champs in 1992, 1993 and 1995):  Built, in part, by trading away college great RB Herschel Walker, the Cowboys built an unstoppable force in the ‘90s led by Hall of Famers QB Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith.
9.       2000s New England Patriots (champs in 2001, 2003 and 2004):  Coached by Bill Belichick, widely regarded as the greatest coach currently in the League, the Patriots have built a dynasty around future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady.  The supporting cast on offense and defense has changed considerably from year-to-year, but this coach-QB combination makes the Pats hard to beat every season.
Well, there you have it.  The greatest NFL dynasties in history.  Now go forth and impress your friends with your knowledge!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Defense: Linebackers and Defensive Linemen

Today’s lesson is your formal introduction to the defense.  I’ve been putting this off because it seems so much easier to describe the offense.  The goal of offense and how it meets that goal are obvious:  it wants to score points and it does that by moving the ball forward down the field.  While the defense may just seem like a bunch of guys trying to react to what the offense does and stop the player with the ball, there is much more to it than that.

In fact, the defense has three goals:
1.       Keep the offense from scoring;
2.       Gain possession of the ball (i.e., take the ball from the offense); and
3.       Score.  That’s right; the defense can score points.  I will leave that for a later discussion.
Even though it doesn’t know what plays the offense will run (although it may have suspicions based on the situation and which offensive players are of the field), the defense still has its own plays that govern what its players will do. 

As with my post on the offensive line and quarterback, I will first focus on those players that begin each play at, or just behind, their side of the line of scrimmage (LOS): the defensive linemen and the linebackers.  I describe these positions in the context of a basic defensive formation, called the 4-3 defense, to illustrate how these players are used on the field.  Coaches use the 4-3 defense because it gives the players flexibility to adjust their positions based on the offense’s formation.  Both runs and passes are well covered, so it is up to the players to match their speed and strength with the offense. 

Defensive Linemen

Position:  Before the snap of the football and the start of the play, the defensive linemen (DLs) are positioned facing the offensive linemen on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.  The DLs are typically squatting in a three- or four-point “stance,” with both feet and either one or both hands on the ground.  If there are three or five defensive linemen in a play, the nose tackle will line up across from the center; next to him are the left and right tackles; and on the other side of the tackles are the left and right defensive ends (or just “ends”).  In the 4-3 defense, however, there is no nose tackle; only the tackles and ends. 
Responsibilities:  In general, the responsibilities of the DLs are: (1) to rush, or put pressure on, the quarterback, disrupting his ability to execute the play; and (2) stop running plays, by tackling the runner as close to the LOS as possible (or, better yet, behind it for a loss of yards).


Position:  The linebackers (LBs) are positioned behind the DLs, within five yards of the LOS.  In the 4-3 defense, there are three linebackers:  right, middle and left.  So, can you see why it’s called the 4-3?  There are four defensive linemen and three linebackers.  The remaining four players on the field make up the secondary and their roles will be described in a future post.  Linebackers are typically in a “two-point” stance; that is, with no hands on the ground.
Responsibilities:  The LBs have the same responsibilities as the DLs: to pressure the quarterback and defend running plays.  However, because the 4-3 allows the defensive linemen to carry out these functions as well, LBs are also able to drop back further from the LOS and try to disrupt passes from the quarterback to his receivers. 

The defensive players are not subject to the false start penalty like offensive players.  The purpose of the false start penalty is to prevent the offense from moving in a way that makes the defense believe that the play has started.  This would cause the defense to move forward across the LOS, committing one of a variety of penalties themselves.  Since the defense has no prohibition on moving before the snap as long as it stays on its side of the LOS, you will often see one or more LBs and DLs shifting positions and stepping up to and back from the LOS.  This is either because they are making adjustments based on the offense’s formation, trying to make the OLs flinch and commit a false start penalty, or just trying to intimidate the quarterback and the rest of the offense.
When the play starts, the DLs, and those LBs who are rushing the QB on that play, will advance toward the line of scrimmage.  When a defensive player makes contact with an offensive lineman or other player, they try to break past that player to pursue the quarterback or the runner (the player with the ball).  There are three legal ways to do this:  (1) use brute force to push the offensive player back from the LOS; (2) jam the offensive player and try to go around him, usually with a spin move; or (3) use a “swim” technique to ward off the player’s hands and push through the line of humanity in front of him.
Though most people are watching on the quarterback and the ball when a play is going on, try every once in a while to focus on the battle going on in the “trenches” between the offensive and defensive lines.  This is truly where the majority of physical struggle is taking place and you’ll wonder why they willingly get up and do it all over again just a few seconds later.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Recipe Timeout: Wally's Wonderful Chili

Two years ago today, my father, Wally, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  He served in the Merchant Marines during World War II and briefly in the Army after the war.* Dad passed away at the age of 82, having developed an inoperable brain tumor.  Naptime Huddle honors Dad today with his mouth-watering, stick-to-your-ribs chili recipe.  I hope you will enjoy it and remember to thank any service man or woman, and any surviving member of our Greatest Generation, you see.

Wally’s Wonderful Chili
1.5 pounds ground sirloin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons butter or margarine
2 large cans diced tomatoes
1 or 2 cans pinto beans (depending on your taste for beans)
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a large pan.  Cook onions in butter until they are clear and set them aside in a separate dish.  Brown meat, with chili powder, and drain grease from pan.  Return the onions to the pan and add the minced garlic.  Add all other ingredients (including additional chili powder, if desired) and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer for one hour, stirring often.

So easy your dad could make it!

*It is surprising that, despite suffering the highest casualty rate of any other branch during WWII, Merchant Marines were only recently granted the same benefits as veterans of the other branches. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Special Teams and Kickoffs

Today’s lesson explains the term “special teams.”  If you have been watching preseason football or listened to any talking heads discussing team personnel decisions, you may have heard this term several times by now.  It’s time you got the basics on what makes certain players “special.”

Generally speaking, special team refers to the group of players not involved in the offense or defense, but rather in kicking situations:  kickoffs, punts and extra point attempts.   They are “special” because they are not the players that are on the field for a typical down (or play) (although some can also be on offense or defense).  The reason special teams are significant to personnel decisions is that many players who might not otherwise make a team’s roster (usually rookies) will make the team when that team has a need on in its special team.  Over time, that player may impress the coaches enough to become a starter on offense or defense.
For this post, I want to focus on the kickoff.  Of the other types of special team plays, the kickoff looks most different from other plays, and there are some significant rule changes to kickoffs this year that you need to learn.  I have already discussed extra point attempts in a previous post.  A punt occurs if a team elects not to go for a first down on fourth down, and is very similar to a kickoff except that the formation looks more like a typical down and the kicker is called a punter instead of the place kicker.    

As I have explained previously, the first and third quarters of every game start with a kickoff.  A kickoff also occurs after a team has scored.   For kickoffs, the special team that is kicking the ball consists of the place kicker and the cover players.  The team receiving the ball will have one or two returners located deep on their end of the field where they will attempt to catch the ball; the rest of the players are blockers for the returners.  The place kicker places the ball upright on a tee in the middle of the 35-yard line.*  He will then back up about ten yards or so and raise his hand when he is ready to make the kick.  The cover players will line up along the 30 yard line and begin running forward when the kicker reaches the 30-yard line to kick the ball. 
Once the ball is kicked, one of three things will happen:  (1) a runback; (2) a touchback; or (3) the ball goes out of bounds before it reaches the end zone. 
Runback:  A "runback" is when a returner catches the ball and runs toward the opposite end zone.  In a runback, the cover players (the team that kicked the ball) will attempt to cover the distance to the returner and tackle him.  The returner’s blockers will attempt to block the cover players’ progress.  The goal for the returner, of course, is to run the whole length of the field and score a touchdown at the other end.  However, this is rare, and the spot where he is eventually tackled by the cover players, or goes out of bounds, is where his team will begin its drive toward the other end of the field.  There are, however, two players—Devin Hester (Chicago Bears) and Josh Cribbs (Cleveland Browns)—that have a particular talent for kick returns.  So much so that kickers often employ the strategy of aiming the football away from them.
Touchback:  On a kickoff, a "touchback" occurs in one of two ways: (1) the ball goes through the end zone and out of bounds; or (2) a returner catches or picks up the ball in the end zone and kneels to the ground (called "downing" the ball).  In a touchback, the ball is brought out to the 20-yard line on that end of the field and that is where the team that received the kick will begin their drive to the opposite end zone.
If the ball goes out of bounds before it reaches the end zone, and the receiving team hasn’t touched it, the kicking team gets a penalty.  Stay tuned for a further explanation of this and other kickoff-related penalties.   
You may have also heard about changes to the rules regarding kickoffs this season, and it’s important for you to understand them and their impact.  Before this season, the ball was kicked from the 30-yard line and the cover players were allowed a ten-yard head start to run before reaching the point where the ball had been.  Now, the ball is placed at the 35-yard line and the cover players are only allowed a five-yard head start.  The purpose of the rule change is to reduce the risk of injury caused by the high velocity impacts occurring as the two teams charge toward each other.  There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding these rules.  First, there is a concern that more kickoffs will result in touchbacks than ever before, which takes the excitement out of kickoffs and neutralizes the impact of players like Hester and Cribbs.  Second, the new rules may change the way teams make special team personnel decisions.  They may decide that they no longer need return specialists because there are so many more touchbacks, or that they don’t need a specialty kicker who is able to aim the ball short of the end zone. 

*Note that the ball will be teed on the 35-yard line unless either team committed a foul, such as unsportsmanlike conduct, on the scoring play that preceded the kickoff.  If that is the case, the location of the ball for the kickoff reflects the yardage penalty associated with the foul.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Best NFL Quarterbacks, Past and Present

Today’s lesson is intended to educate you on a bit of NFL history, as well as acquaint you with some of the top stars in today’s NFL.  This is the first in a series of posts where I will talk about the current stars in each position, and some of the people that have played that position in the past.  Which players are the “best ever” can be debated endlessly, and is largely subjective.  I’m not trying to do that here; I’ll leave that to your judgment.  However, there are certain names every football fan should know, and I’m hoping to enlighten you on who they are.

First up, the quarterbacks:
Today’s Stars:
Tom Brady:  New England Patriots, 2000-present.  Brady attended the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) where he (inexplicably) shared the quarterback job with Drew Henson.  He was drafted by the Patriots with the 199th pick overall (the sixth round of the draft).  He got the starting position after veteran Drew Bledsoe was injured in the second game of the 2001 season, and he’s been their starting quarterback ever since.  He has won an incredible three Super Bowls and holds the record for, among other things, the most touchdown passes in a regular season.
Peyton Manning:  Indianapolis Colts, 1998-present.  Manning attended the University of Tennessee and is the son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, and the older brother of Eli Manning, the current quarterback for the New York Giants.  Peyton’s records include the most NFL Most Valuable Player (“MVP”) awards with four.  He is also an advertising giant, appearing in numerous commercials for a wide variety of products.  It is estimated he earned $15 million in endorsement money in 2010.* 

 Great Quarterbacks in History
Johnny Unitas:  Unitas played most of his career for the Baltimore Colts and his career spanned three decades, from the 1950’s into the 70’s.  In 1958, the Colts beat the New York Giants for the championship in sudden death overtime, the first overtime game in the NFL and referred to as the “greatest game ever played.”  He set several records during his career, and his 47-game touchdown streak still stands as the best.
Joe Namath:  New York Jets, 1964-1977.  Namath attended the University of Alabama and was drafted by the New York Jets (he spent his last season with the then-Los Angeles Rams.  Namath was a brash, charismatic player.  He won two championships and is famous for guaranteeing (and delivering) a championship victory against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, 1969 (against Johnny Unitas).
Roger Staubach:  Dallas Cowboys, 1969-1979.  Staubach attended the U.S. Naval Academy and was drafted by the Cowboys in 1964 (he didn’t play until 1969 because of his military commitment).  He played under the legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry and led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories, and four total Super Bowl appearances.
Joe Montana:  San Francisco 49ers, 1979-1992 (retired 1994).  Montana played for Notre Dame and was drafted by the 49ers in 1979.  Montana won an incredible four Super Bowls for the 49ers, establishing the 49ers as the dominant team of the 1980s.  The most significant single play of Montana’s career is referred to simply as “The Catch.”  At the end of the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, Montana engineered a game-winning 89-yard drive that culminated in a pass to receiver Dwight Clark, who made a spectacular leaping catch at the back of the end zone. 
John Elway:  Denver Broncos, 1983**-1999.  Elway attended Stanford University and was drafted number one overall by the Baltimore Colts, who traded him to the Broncos.  Elway won two Super Bowls, and appeared in five.  Though he had many incredible games and statistics, his standout highlight was his execution of “The Drive” on January 11, 1987, in which he led the Broncos on a 98-yard, five-minute drive in the AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns.  The resulting touchdown tied the game and the Broncos went on to win the game by a field goal in overtime.
Dan Marino:  Miami Dolphins, 1983-2000.  Marino attended the University of Pittsburgh and was drafted by the Dolphins.  He spent his entire career in Miami, and although he never won a Super Bowl, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in history, holding at one time most of the passing records a quarterback can achieve.
Brett Favre:  Green Bay Packers, 1991-2011.  Favre (pronounced like “starve”) attended the University of Southern Mississippi and was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, but traded to Green Bay in 1992 where he was quarterback and local hero until 2007.  Favre has been the subject of much criticism in recent years.  When he retired from the Green Bay Packers after the 2007 season, the Packers moved on, grooming Aaron Rodgers to take over as quarterback.  However, just before the start of the 2008 season, Favre wanted back into football.  He was hired by the New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings.  The move to the Vikings was difficult for Packers fans as the Vikings are in the same division as the Packers and therefore a big rival for several decades.  However, no one can dispute that Favre is one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks.  Over a 20-year career, Favre won one Super Bowl, appeared in two and won an incredible eight NFC North division championships.  He holds several records, including most career touchdown passes, most career passing yards, and most consecutive starts at 297, a record which many people feel will never be broken.  Because of his sometimes reckless approach to the position of quarterback, Favre also holds the record for most fumbles and times sacked.
**The NFL draft in 1983 is often referred to as the Quarterback Class of 1983 because an incredible six quarterbacks were selected in the first round.  Despite the importance of the quarterback position, it is rare to have more than two or three picked in the first round of the draft.  This is due, in part, to the longevity of quarterbacks compared to other positions; many can play 10 to 15 years or more, while other players, like running backs, last only 5 or 7 years.