Thursday, August 30, 2012

From Gridiron Player to Grand Old Party (A Second Term)

Welcome back to our look at former NFL stars who made their marks on the political landscape as members of the Republican party.  Today I’ve also included some “honorable mentions”— players who lost their elections, or whose football careers included only a brief time in the NFL.



Regular readers of Naptime Huddle will remember Steve Largent from the wide receiver installment of our “Stars and Legends” series.  Rather than read a repeat of his impressive NFL resume, click here to read about Largent's NFL career. 

Steve Largent was part of the Republican Revolution in 1994, when the Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in forty years.  He ran to fill the seat of Jim Inhofe, who had resigned his seat representing Oklahoma’s First Congressional District to run for U.S. Senate.  Largent, who was elected to four terms, consistently voted according to his conservative Christian views, which was probably was kept him from taking the Majority Leader position from Dick Armey, which he tried to do in 1998.

Largent continued to represent the First District until 2002, when he gave up his seat to run for Governor of Oklahoma.  Though considered the favorite early in the race, he lost to Democratic state senator Brad Henry by less than 7,000 votes.  He is currently the President and CEO of CTIA—The Wireless Association, a trade association that represents the wireless telecommunications industry.



Ed Rutkowski attended Notre Dame and was a teammate of Jack Kemp’s in Buffalo, from 1963-1968. He was backup quarterback in addition to playing wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner; he earned one AFL Pro Bowl selection, in 1965.  Ten years after retiring from football, Rutkowski successfully ran for County Executive of Erie County, New York. After serving in that post for nine years, he was defeated in the 1987 election.  He reentered New York politics in 1995 when he was appointed to the position of deputy commissioner of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which put him in charge of all parks and recreation operations of Western New York, including Niagara Falls.  He held that office for twelve years.  


A graduate of Furman University where he played quarterback, Sam Wyche had a respectable career in the NFL, playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and St. Louis Cardinals over an eight-year span.  However, Sam Wyche is best known for his coaching career.  That career began in San Francisco, where he was an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1979 to 1982. In 1983, he went back to college to coach the Indiana Hoosiers for one season.

The following year, he returned to the pros for good, first as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.  Wyche was known not only as an innovative coach (he was the first to use the no-huddle, or “hurry up” offense as a base offense instead of just in the closing minutes of a half), but also an emotional one. He bonded with players and fans, and delighted in stoking the flames of rivalry—particularly with the Bengals’ in-state rival, the Cleveland Browns.

In one famous incident, Cincinnati fans began throwing beer bottles and other debris on the field in protest of a bad call from the officials in a home game against the Seattle Seahawks. When the game officials stopped play, Wyche got on the stadium speakers and said:  “Will the next person that sees ANYBODY throw anything onto this field, point 'em out...and get 'em out of here - you don't live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!”  Here’s a video of that memorable moment:


Wyche led the Bengals to two division championships and one AFC championship, losing to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.  After he was fired from the Bengals in 1991, Wyche became head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and stayed there through the 1995 season.  In 2004 and 2005 he returned to coaching as the quarterbacks coach for the Buffalo Bills. 


Sam Wyche started his political career in 2008, when he convincingly won a seat on the County Council for Pickens County, South Carolina. He considered running for the U.S. House of Representatives for South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, but decided against it…for now.


Honorable Mentions:

Craig James: 
  • Played running back at Southern Methodist University and was drafted fourth overall by the Washington Federals in the USFL draft in 1983; joined the New England Patriots in 1984 and retired in 1988.
  • Became a radio analyst for SMU games, then worked as a commentator for CBS, ABC and ESPN before retiring in December 2011 to run for U.S. Senate; he was defeated in the Texas Republican primary.

Tom Osborne: 
  • After graduating from Hastings College, drafted by Washington Redskins in 1960 as a wide receiver; retired with 49ers in 1962.
  • Coached at University of Nebraska from 1964 to 1997—first as assistant, then as head coach starting in 1973. Had a 255-49-3 record over coaching career and won three national championships.
  • Served as U.S. Representative of Nebraska’s 3rd District from 2001-2007; lost the 2006 race for Governor of Nebraska.

Jay Riemersma: 
  • Attended the University of Michigan, where he played quarterback, then tight end after rotator cuff injury;
  • Drafted by Buffalo Bills in seventh round of 1996 draft; played for Bills until 2002, then the Steelers from 2003-2004;
  • In 2010, vied to represent Michigan’s 2nd District in U.S. House of Representatives, but lost in Republican primary by only 700 votes.

Lynn Swann: 
  • Wide receiver drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in first round of 1974 draft out of USC;
  • Played for Steelers his entire career, winning four Super Bowls (was MVP of Super Bowl X) and three Pro Bowl selections; was inducted into Hall of Fame in 2001.
  • Enjoyed a long broadcasting career, from 1976 (while he was still playing football) to 2006. 
  • In 2006, ran for Governor of Pennsylvania but lost 40%-60%.
  • Served on President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from June 2002 to July 2005; currently is part-owner of Arena Football League team Pittsburgh Power.

J.C. Watts: 
  • Played quarterback at University of Oklahoma and played for the Canadian Football League, leading the Ottawa Rough Riders to the championship game in 1981. 
  • Represented Oklahoma’s 4th District from 1995 through 2003, rising to post of House Republican Conference Chair in 1998—becoming the first black Republican elected to a leadership post.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

From Gridiron Player to the Grand Old Party

Now that the Republican National Convention is in full swing, we're going to venture where few sports blogs dare to tread:  politics.  In honor of the GOP’s time in the spotlight this week, we’re taking a look at some former NFL stars who entered the political world upon retirement, as members of the Republican party (and yes, we’ll look at the Democrats during the DNC's convention next month). 

Athletes who become politicians aren’t that unusual:  many who became successful on the field have been able to parlay their popularity into a run at public office.  Many politicians excelled in sports in college, and two Republican presidents played football in their collegiate careers:  Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played running back and linebacker at West Point; and, more famously, Gerald Ford (above), who was a center and linebacker at the University of Michigan, where his #48 jersey was retired in 1994.

Below are about half of the NFL stars who served in public office as Republicans—the rest will be revealed tomorrow. 


Peter Boulware attended Florida State University, where he earned All-American honors as a linebacker.  He was drafted fourth overall in the 1997 draft by the Baltimore Ravens, whom he played for his entire nine-year career.  He earned many accolades during his time in the NFL, starting with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year; he was selected to the Pro Bowl four times, was the AFC sack leader in 2001, and was enshrined into the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor in 2006.

Boulware returned to Florida after retiring and is vice president of a Toyota dealership in Tallahassee.  In September 2007, he announced his candidacy for the Florida state house; he won the Republican primary in August 2008.  In the November election, he narrowly lost the election to Democrat Michelle Rehwinkle Vasilinda—by 430 votes.  After the election, however, Governor Charlie Crist appointed Peter to the Florida Board of Education; his term expired December 31, 2009. Here was a campaign ad of Boulware's:



Of all the players-turned-politicians, Jack Kemp’s careers in football and politics are certainly the most varied and prolific.  Kemp attended Occidental College (where he played at several positions before settling in at quarterback) and was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 1957 draft; he was cut by the Lions soon after, though, and was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He spent the next few years being bounced around from team to team—from the Steelers to the 49ers, to the Giants, to the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, then to the L.A. (later San Diego) Chargers.   

While with the Chargers, he finally gained some footing as a starting quarterback—he led the Chargers to the 1960 and 1961 AFL Championship Games.  Ironically, a football injury (to his shoulder) kept him out of the Army when his reserve unit was activated after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.  Kemp’s Chargers roommate, Ron Mix, would later recall that Kemp would need several shots of painkillers before each game, commenting:  “it sounds weird, but he could play football and not be fit to serve in the Army.”  A knee problem would later exempt Jack from service in Vietnam.

In 1962, Kemp was picked up by the Buffalo Bills when the Chargers placed him on waivers when he broke the middle finger of his throwing hand.  He would stay with the Bills until his retirement in 1969, and would lead them to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, including two straight AFL Championships.  He held AFL records in several categories, including pass attempts, completions and yards gained.  His #15 jersey was retired by the Bills in 1984.

Jack Kemp’s political career began even while he was still playing football:  he volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s 1966 campaign for Governor of California, and he served on Reagan’s staff during the 1967 offseason.  He threw his own hat into the ring in 1970, when he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives.  He represented suburban Buffalo from 1971 to 1989, after he lost his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee.  After George Bush became President, he nominated Kemp to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a post he held throughout Bush’s first term.  In 1996, rose to his highest balloting ticket, as Vice Presidential running mate to Presidential candidate Bob Dole.  He passed away May 2, 2009, dying of cancer at age 73.


Jon Runyan was born and raised in Flint, Michigan and played football at the University of Michigan, where he earned an All-Big Ten Conference selection as an offensive tackle.  Selected by the Houston Oilers in the fourth round of the 1996 draft, Jon became a starter in only the sixth game of his rookie season. He stayed with the team when it moved to Tennessee and when he left the team in 1999, he was the last active player to have played for the Houston Oilers. 

He joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000 and that was where he stayed for the most of the rest of his career (he joined the San Diego Chargers in 2009, his last season).  Runyan earned a reputation as a “dirty” player and his big hits on defenders became something to be feared.  Runyan also earned one Pro Bowl selection and was named to the Philadelphia Eagles 75th Anniversary Team.  Before a knee injury toward the end of his career, Runyan was the model of consistency and held a streak of 190 consecutive regular season starts.

Runyan wasted no time resting on his laurels after retiring in 2009.  In 2010, he beat Democratic incumbent John Adler to represent New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He serves on the Armed Services Committee, Committee on Veterans Affairs and Committee on Natural Resources.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It All Starts Here: Rookie Head Coaches

As you know, much attention is focused on rookies during the preseason—how much they’re getting paid, how hard they’re working in training camp, how they’re adjusting to the pro level, and more. The spotlight is especially bright for those rookies who are named starters at their position—particularly if their position is quarterback, like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.


Today, though, I thought we’d take a look at those rookies who get far less attention from the public on a day-to-day basis than they should, considering that they will impact the direction of their team than anyone else.  Who am I talking about? The people who find themselves in a position that everyone else in their job had a one point or other—but that doesn’t make it any less frightening.  I’m talking about the four men who are entering their first seasons as head coaches in the NFL. These days when coaches' leashes seem quite short and owners (and fans) seem less patient each year, you might wonder whether you need to bother learning about these guys. Let me remind you about the case of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh (above): as a rookie head coach last year, he was one field goal shy of taking his team to the Super Bowl.
You’ll see that each of the men below came to his current job using a different path:  straight from the college ranks as a head coach, an assistant at other NFL teams, even going back and forth between college and pro jobs.  Three are defensive-minded coaches and one is an offensive specialist.  Their backgrounds may differ, but they all have one thing in common:  none have ever before held the post of head honcho in the NFL. 


Below is each rookie head coach with his resume to this point (an asterisk indicates a reentry into the college or pro level), his team’s 2011 record and previous head coach. By the way, this is a good segue for introducing a feature that you’ll see on Naptime Huddle’s  Facebook page soon:  each day during the regular season, I’ll randomly select a player in the NFL and post his picture, vital statistics and an interesting factoid (if I can find one). He could be a household name or a no-name player who made the final roster by the skin of his teeth. Either way, you’ll have one more weapon at your disposal for impressing family and friends or surviving an office cocktail party. To meet these Players of the Day, though, you have to “like” Naptime Huddle on Facebook first!



Head Coach, Oakland Raiders

Collegiate Resume

1996-1999:  Graduate Assistant Coach, Texas A&M University
2000-2001:  Secondary Coach, University of Tulsa

NFL Resume

2002-2005:  Assistant Defensive Coach, Atlanta Falcons
2006-2007:  Assistant Defensive Line Coach, New Orleans Saints
2008-2010:  Secondary Coach, New Orleans
2011:  Defensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos

Raiders 2011 Record and Head Coach:  8-8 under Hue Jackson



Head Coach, Indianapolis Colts

Collegiate Resume

1984-1985:  Graduate Assistant, University of Southern California
1986:  Graduate Assistant, University of Miami (Florida)
1987-1988:  Linebackers Coach, Boise State
1989:  Defensive Backs Coach, East Carolina
1990-1991:  Defensive Backs Coach (1990) then Defensive Coordinator (1991), UNLV
1992-1994:  Defensive Backs and Linebackers Coach, East Carolina
1995-2000:  Defensive Backs and Special Teams, University of Miami (Florida)
*2007:  Defensive Coordinator, University of North Carolina

NFL Resume

2001-2004:  Secondary Coach, Cleveland Browns
2005-2006:  Defensive Backs Coach, Oakland Raiders
*2008-2011:  Secondary Coach and Defensive Coordinator (2011), Baltimore Ravens

Colts 2011 Record and Head Coach:  2-14 under Jim Caldwell



Head Coach, Miami Dolphins

Collegiate Resume

1984-1985:  Graduate Assistant, Tulane University
1986-1987:  Offensive Line Coach, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
1988-1989:  Offensive Line Coach, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
1990-1993:  Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Allegheny College
1994:  Offensive Line Coach, Ohio University
1995-1996:  Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Northeastern University
1997-1998:  Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Harvard University
1999-2002:  Offensive Line Coach, University of Iowa

NFL Resume

Green Bay Packers:  Assistant Offensive Line Coach/Tight Ends Coach (2003-2005); Offensive Line (2006); and Offensive Coordinator (2007-2011)

Dolphins 2011 Record and Head Coach:  6-10 under Tony Sparano



Head Coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Collegiate Resume

1989:  Graduate Assistant, Rutgers University
1990-1995:  Graduate Assistant (1990) and Defensive Backfield Coach, Penn State University
*1999-2000:  University of Miami (Florida), Defensive Coordinator
2001-2011:  Head Coach, Rutgers University

NFL Resume

1996-1998:  Defensive Assistant Coach and Defensive Backfield Coach, Chicago Bears

Buccaneers 2011 Record and Head Coach:  4-12 under Raheem Morris


Friday, August 24, 2012

Water Cooler Briefings: AFC North

Today we wrap up our look at preseason storylines around the league with the AFC North, which includes two teams that saw action last night…




The big story for the Ravens in this offseason has been the loss of 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs (left).  Suggs, who plays linebacker, injured his Achilles tendon and is not expected to return until November.  The gaping hole Suggs leaves in the Ravens defense can’t be overstated; in 2011 he had 50 tackles, fourteen sacks and two interceptions.  Besides winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, he was named to his fifth Pro Bowl at the end of last season.  Where he has been missed most this preseason is in the pass rush.  Opposing quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Matthew Stafford (Detroit) have had plenty of time to throw against the Ravens, collectively completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns.


Of course, part of the blame for poor defense goes to the Ravens’ secondary, which got a hit last night when backup safety Emanuel Cook broke his leg, knocking him out for the season. Wide receivers have been having rare stats against Baltimore this preseason:  Atlanta’s Julio Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in a single quarter and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson had a similar outing in less than two quarters of playing time. Last night, Justin Blackmon didn’t have quite those numbers, but still managed to impress by catching four passes for 72 yards. Still, second-year QB Blaine Gabbert had tougher sledding against the Ravens secondary last night:  although he managed to throw for over 100 yards, he wasn’t able to find the end zone.


NEXT GAME:  @ St. Louis Rams, Thursday 7:00 PM ET




Cincinnati was the feel-good story of the AFC North last year with the impressive body of work put together by rookies Andy Dalton (right) at quarterback and A.J. Green (below) at wide receiver.  The question this year is whether Dalton and Green will continue their pass-catch synergy and take the Bengals even further than their 9-7 record and wild card playoff spot last season.  The preseason started out well—through the first two games, the first team had a total of five drives. On those drives, they scored a touchdown and two field goals and were 7 of 10 on first downs.  Dalton and Green were connecting like last year, once on a 50-yard play against Atlanta.
Last night’s game against the Packers was a different story, as the pair only managed to connect once—for three yards—and Dalton wasn’t able to get a touchdown to his credit. Let’s hope that was just a fluke, because the running game has suffered this preseason with the loss of Cedric Benson to the Packers, and two of the running backs on the roster sidelined with injuries (BenJarvus Green-Ellis with a bad toe and Bernard Scott with a hand injury).  In fact, with 36 yards, Dalton led the team in rushing in last night’s loss to the Green Bay Packers.


NEXT GAME:  @ Indianapolis Colts, Thursday 7:00 PM ET




The big story for the Browns this summer was last month’s sale of the team to Jimmy Haslam III in a deal worth over $1 billion.  Haslam (left) is the head of the truck stop chain Pilot Flying J, but he’s also been a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2008, so he’s not new to football.  Before ordering new office furniture for Haslam, though, the Browns made a big splash in the draft, selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and Alabama running back Trent Richardson in the first round of draft. Weeden has already been named the starting quarterback and, though he still has a lot to learn, he’s been looking confident. He’ll have a good test against the intimidating pass rush of the Eagles tonight.


New blood brings new hope, but there are dark clouds inside the silver lining. On August 9th, Richardson underwent what the team called “routine” arthroscopic knee surgery. Richardson, who came in third in the Heisman vote behind Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck last year, had injured that knee in the BCS national championship game, and had already had a similar procedure done in February. They have limited Richardson’s activity in training camp to give the knee time to heal, and they expect to have him on the field for Game 1 of the regular season. Without testing it in the preseason, here’s hoping that Richardson is ready enough for pro-level play to keep that knee healthy.


NEXT GAME:  vs. Philadelphia Eagles, tonight, 7:30 PM ET




The Steelers’ offseason has been marred by the conspicuous absences of two key member of its offense:  wide receiver Mike Wallace (right) and running back Rashard Mendenhall.  Pro Bowler Mike Wallace has not appeared at training camp due to a contract dispute with the team. Back in July, the team broke off contract negotiations with Wallace, saying that they wouldn’t proceed until the receiver signed the one-year, $2.7 million tender offer they had made; they also withdrew the previous offers they had extended to him to that point. Wallace is a free agent and, therefore, isn’t obligated to reach an agreement with the team by a certain time, and won’t be fined for not participating in camp.  Fortunately, it was reported this week that Wallace plans to report in time to prepare for the final preseason game. Wallace has been a big part of the Steelers offense:  in each of the last two seasons, he has caught at least sixty passes and averaged over 1,200 receiving yards.


In the last game of the 2011 season, running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his right ACL and has been out of commission since.  He’s returned to training camp, but the word is that he won’t be ready for the first game of the season, and his absence could continue into late September.  Mendenhall took over for an injured Willie Parker in 2009 and hasn’t looked back:  that season he rushed for a total of 1,108 yards; in 2010 he ran for and incredible 1,273 yards; last year he fell just short of 1,000 yards, ending up with 928.  Backup Isaac Redman is also dealing with a nagging hip injury, though he’s expected to be on the field for the season opener. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the team’s third back, Jonathan Dwyer has had a solid preseason, running for 83 yards on ten carries so far. The Steelers are primarily a throwing team, but the idea is that having a tough runner who’s healthy and reliable will keep the pressure of QB Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line, which needs to improve from last year; the other Pittsburgh story of the offseason is how they have invested to make their O-line stronger.


NEXT GAME:   @ Buffalo Bills, Saturday, 7:00 PM ET


I hope you’ve enjoyed our review of the league’s preseason storylines.  Keep following the preseason news to see which teams will have happy endings when the regular season starts!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Water Cooler Briefings: NFC North


One of the big stories for the Bears in 2011 was the rash of injuries that hit its top players:  quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and linebacker and defensive captain Brian Urlacher all got hit with injuries late in the season that effectively killed their playoff hopes (Urlacher was injured in the last game of the season).  Unfortunately, the team is forced to face its injury demons once again, as two of their top four safeties were injured in their game against the Redskins last week.  Filling the void will be five-year veteran Craig Steltz (above) and second-year player Anthony Walters.  Although Walters has not seen much action, Steltz is familiar with the stand-in role; the Bears used him last year when, once again, they lost two safeties to injury.  Steltz, who frequently sees action on special teams, recorded 38 tackles after being called to action at safety (he had twelve on special teams).  Earlier this week, the Bears signed second-year player Mark LeGree as further backup at safety.


With their secondary in tatters, it would be nice if their next opponent could have a run-heavy offense.  Alas, they face the New York Giants, who were dead last in the league in rushing offense in 2011, but ranked fifth in passing offense.  Will the Giants look to exploit the Bears’ secondary, or will they continue to work on improving their running game instead?


NEXT GAME:  @ New York Giants, Friday 8:00 PM ET on CBS



To the extreme frustration of Commissioner Roger Goodell, and Detroit fans, the big story of the Detroit Lions this offseason has been players’ off-field antics.  Four Detroit players accounted for a staggering seven arrests in the 2012 offseason.  Here’s a list of those players and their infractions:

·   Nick Fairley (defensive tackle):  marijuana possession and, later, DUI and attempting to elude police;

·   Mikel Leshoure (running back):  marijuana possession (twice)

·   Johnny Culbreath (offensive tackle):  marijuana possession (once)

·   Aaron Berry (cornerback):  suspicion of DUI and simple assault (for brandishing a firearm)

Back in July, defensive tackle Corey Williams made a court appearance for DWI charges from 2011. In addition to the legal consequences of their arrests, the league and the Lions organization will likely impose penalties on these players—the league with suspensions and fines and the Lions with its own penalties, such as fines; they’ve already released Aaron Berry and Johnny Culbreath is no longer with the team.


As you can see, the Lions defense in particular has been impacted by this turbulent offseason, which also included injuries to key players like safety Louis Delmas; several other defensive players, including other defensive tackles, have gotten hurt during training camp. Unfortunately, Detroit’s secondary was already a concern last season, and 2012 has not done them any favors so far. Scrambling to fill so many holes on defense with human spackling, will the Lions’ D come together in time for the season opener against the St. Louis Rams their superstar QB Sam Bradford?


NEXT GAME:  @ Oakland Raiders, Saturday 7:00 PM ET (network not yet determined)



In contrast to the attention given to the Lions, Packers observers and fans haven’t had too much to wring their hands about this offseason.  One point of intrigue to follow, though, is Green Bay’s strategy when it comes to the running game.  With Aaron Rodgers at the helm (and ironman gunslinger Brett Favre before him), Green Bay has become a pass-heavy offense—they ranked 30th in the league in rushing offense in 2011.  While you shouldn’t expect that to change, but analysts think that they will try to make their running game more explosive—i.e., generate runs of twelve or more yards.  That may have been the motivation behind Green Bay’s running back Cedric Benson (above) last week.  Benson, who has had his fair share of off-the-field trouble, spent the last four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and replaces Ryan Grant, who was released by the team after last season.  Coincidentally (or not), the Packers’ next opponent is the Bengals. If he plays (and he might not), look for Benson to do all he can to show his former team what it’s missing.


NEXT GAME:  @ Cincinnati Bengals, Thursday 7:00 PM ET (network not yet determined)



With Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson still recovering from last year’s knee injury (he’s being held out of the entire preseason to make sure he’s ready for opening day), and a quarterback who was sacked almost fifty times in 2011 (that’s more than twice per game), a major issue for the Vikings has been its offensive line.  The team cut a couple of veterans in the offseason and added several new players.  There are several competitions for spots on the offensive line, which should raise everyone’s level of play.  That’s all good news for QB Christian Ponder (above), who’s in his second year in the league.  While the Vikes ranked fourth in the league in rushing last year (on the shoulders of Peterson), they ranked a below-average 28th in passing.  As a unit, they ranked 27th overall, allowing Ponder to be sacked 49 times and hit 76 times.  That’s a lot of face time with the turf for anyone, especially a rookie quarterback.  If his offensive line can keep him on his feet, Ponder will have a chance to show Minnesota fans the potential the team saw when they drafted him 12th overall in 2011.


NEXT GAME:  vs. San Diego Chargers, Friday 8:00 PM ET (network not yet determined)


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Water Cooler Briefings: AFC South


The AFC South division was created in 2002 out of the former AFC Central, AFC East and one expansion team.  Between then and 2011, only two teams had won the division:  the Tennessee Titans, winning it in 2002 and 2008, and the Indianapolis Colts, who won it every other year.  With the Colts severely weakened by the absence of its stalwart leader, Peyton Manning, the Houston Texans seized the opportunity to shoot for the top of the AFC South in 2011.  They did just that, earning the first playoff appearance in its franchise’s history.  To say that they achieved this feat in convincing fashion would be an overstatement, however:  the division championship wasn’t sewn up until Week 14, and they had to win their game against the Cincinnati Bengals and rely on New Orleans to beat Tennessee.  Other than the Titans, who finished the season with a 9-7 record, Houston didn’t have much competition for the division title last year:  the Jaguars finished 5-11 and the Colts earned the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft with an abysmal 2-14 record.

An all-too-familiar sight in Houston

This season, the Texans are out to prove that the absence of Peyton Manning wasn’t the only reason they won the AFC South.  As with so many other teams, much depends on the health and production of their quarterback.  Matt Schaub is the clear starter at QB, but his health is always a concern:  Schaub has missed at least five games in three of his five years in Houston, including the last six of last season (and the playoffs) with a foot injury (above).  He’s managed to stay healthy so far this preseason, and looked good against San Francisco this past weekend, completing 11 of 14 passes for 128 yards before letting second-year backup T.J. Yates take over in the second half. 

The Texans should also feel encouraged by the performance of Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, who is recovering from a groin injury; and a downright monster performance by Trindon Holliday, who returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown.  Holliday, starting his third year in the NFL, is battling for a roster spot at wide receiver, but like so many other young players in the league, hopes that he can earn that spot by making a name for himself on special teams.

NEXT GAME:  @ New Orleans Saints, Saturday 8:00 PM ET (CBS)



The Andrew Luck era has begun in Indy.  So far, he’s shown that he was worth the #1 overall pick in this year’s draft.  Sure, he’s made some rookie mistakes, but he’s got to learn sometime, and the preseason is the perfect time to do it.  He got off to a shaky start against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night, completing only two of his first eight passes, one of those passes being an interception that was returned 49 yards for a touchdown.  However, with the poise that many players at the position take years to develop (and some never do), Luck stayed resolute and from that point on, he completed 14 of 17 passes and got his team the lead at halftime. 

Luck is actually in an enviable position:  with a new head coach and many new starters on the team (eleven long-time starters like Jeff Saturday and Dallas Clark left after the 2011 season), Luck should find comfort in the knowledge that the Indianapolis offense is being built around his talents, and many of his colleagues on offense are growing up with him.  Still, he will probably always be the subject of comparison with the player that was selected just behind him in the draft, at #2 overall, Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III.  For years, it was “Manning vs. Brady”; this weekend, the rookies have their turn as it’ll be Luck vs. RG3* when the Colts face the ‘Skins on Saturday.

NEXT GAME:  @ Washington Redskins, Saturday 4:00 PM ET (NFL Network,



With an offense that ranked dead last in the league last year, you would think that the Jaguars would be anxious to strike a deal with Maurice Jones-Drew—a.k.a. “MJD.”  Jones-Drew (left) was the Jags’ lone bright spot on offense as the league’s leading rusher with 1,606 yards.  However, the MJD holdout continues to be the big story in Jacksonville.  The two sides appear to be no closer to reaching a deal on a new contract than they were at the end of last season.  Why?  For one thing, Maurice is still in the middle of a 5-year contract that he signed in 2009. Knowing that their star running back is still theirs for two more years gives the Jacksonville front office and rookie owner Shahid Khan (below) little reason to break down MJD’s door. 

Aside from lack of motivation, the Jags may simply feel like they can get along without their Pro Bowl back.  Although observers and fans shouldn’t place too much emphasis on preseason results, the Jaguars have managed to beat both the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants and the former Super Bowl Champ New Orleans Saints in the first two preseason games. Their second-year quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, seems to have come into his own this summer, performing well and proving to be a steady presence in the pocket (remember what I said last week about keeping an eye on second-year players?).  Moreover, the backs that are standing in for Jones-Drew—Rashad Jennings and his backup, Montell Owens—seem more than capable of filling his shoes:  Jennings has averaged 5.1 yards per carry so far this preseason, and Owens has shown his ability as a power runner, barreling through the New York Giants to score on a goal line play.

NEXT GAME:  @ Baltimore Ravens, Thursday 7:30 PM ET (network not yet available)


I was going to write about the battle over the starting quarterback job in Tennessee between second-year player Jake Locker and 14-year veteran Matt Hasselbeck, but fate intervened.  Yesterday, the Titans ended the suspense, naming Locker (right) the starter for the season opener against the New England Patriots.  Although neither gunslinger has made a strong case for himself (Locker has completed fewer than half of his passes and Hasselbeck threw two interceptions in the preseason opener against his former team, the Seahawks), Locker apparently has outshined Hasselbeck in practices and has impressed teammates with his hard work.  Don’t feel too bad for Hasselbeck, though.  He was signed by the Titans after last year’s lockout ended and knew going in that he was just keeping the seat warm for Locker.  With the lockout drastically shortening the 2011 preseason, the Titans weren’t going to adopt a “sink or swim” approach in developing their top-ten draft pick.  But now?  Let’s hope Locker’s got his floaties handy.

NEXT GAME:  vs. Arizona Cardinals, Thursday 8:00 PM ET (ESPN)

*The QB vs. QB thing is actually a pet peeve of mine.  Since the two quarterbacks are never on the field at the same time, how can it be a head-to-head battle royale?