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NFL – How The Cleveland Browns Saved Pro Football

01 Feb

The beginning of the growth of the National Football League into the popularity monster that it is today goes back to the 1960s and the birth of the AFL/NFL Championship game, orchestrated by the league’s commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle. A true visionary, he refereed the battle between the old guard NFL owners and the renegade AFL owners, and out of the battle came the merger of the 2 leagues. The agreement spelled out that beginning immediately the rival leagues would hold a common draft of college players, thus ending the bidding war for players that had been going on. Another of the stipulations was that also beginning immediately, the champions of the 2 leagues would play an ultimate title game to decide who was the “world champion”. The merger agreement was made in 1966, but the actual merger itself didn’t begin until 1970. At that time, there were 16 NFL teams and 10 AFL, so 3 of the old guard clubs had to be transferred into the new American Conference. The Pittsburgh Steelers, longtime NFL doormats who perhaps saw an opportunity for more success among the AFL clubs, volunteered to go. Two franchises that had joined the NFL from another league, the old All America Conference, were natural clubs to make the move  – the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns. Browns’ owner Art Modell balked at the idea, however, but eventually agreed when Rozelle promised him that his team could host the inaugural Monday Night Football game in that first merger season of 1970.

It wasn’t Modell’s agreement to shift that saved pro football though. It was the Browns team of the late ’60s that had a hand in moving the game forward, in a very weird way in fact. The Browns were a proud, winning franchise in the NFL since joining the league in 1950, and were regular participants in the playoffs most of the decade of the 1960s. In fact, they were in the NFL title game the last 2 seasons before the leagues joined together in 1970. That’s where their contribution to saving the NFL comes in to play. The NFL had always boasted that they were the superior league, and that the AFL was a “Mickey Mouse” league full of castoff players who couldn’t make it in the older league. When the Green Bay Packers dominated the best the AFL had to offer in the first 2 AFL/NFL Championship games, doubt began to creep in on whether the merger was a good idea. The NFL owners’ “Mickey Mouse” comments were appearing to be true, that is, until Joe Namath’s New York Jets and the Hank Stram-led Kansas City Chiefs won the next 2 title contests in what were considered to be massive upsets. Those games gave the AFL a bit of legitimacy, but were they really that great of upsets? Part of the reason the Colts team that Namath beat, and the Minnesota Vikings squad that the Chiefs dominated were considered powerhouses was because they had manhandled the proud Browns franchise in the NFL title games. The Colts shut the Browns out 37-0, and coach Don Shula’s defense was expected to totally crush what was considered to be an inferior Jets’ team in the Super Bowl. The next season, Bud Grant’s Vikings, with CFL reject Joe Kapp at quarterback, completely demolished the Browns in the title game. The final score was only 27-7 but the Vikings controlled play the entire game on a bitter cold day in Minnesota.

So even though the Colts and Vikings had very successful seasons on their way to those Super Bowls, it was their dominance of the Browns that established them as heavy favorites against their supposedly weaker AFL competition. Realistically, though, the Cleveland franchise was in the beginning stages of a gradual decline at that point. Jim Brown, considered the greatest player of all time, had long since retired. LeRoy Kelly had replaced him and was a very good back, a future Hall of Famer in fact, but he wasn’t Jim Brown. More importantly, the quarterback who had guided the Browns to the 1964 title, Frank Ryan, was also gone, forced to retire due to injuries. His replacement, Bill Nelsen, was a gamer who played through injuries and was enough of a leader to get his club into the playoffs, but he wasn’t an elite signal caller. The Browns’ offensive line was aging at the time also, and their defense was a mixture of aging players and  inexperienced rookies and young players. So, in a strange way, credit is due to the Browns for making the Colts and Vikings appear to be unbeatable behemoths, who would easily crush, as Vince Lombardi’s Packers had, their AFL opponents. What those Baltimore and Minnesota clubs didn’t realize was that the AFL was already in its’ ninth and tenth years of existence, and the Jets and Chiefs had been built into true championship contenders.

 

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Browns’ QB Bill Nelsen (Getty Images)

 

 

 

NFL – Five Super Bowl MVPs That Never Were

30 Jan

Sometimes the choice of a Most Valuable Player in the Super Bowl is an obvious one, like Nick Foles in last year’s game or Terry Bradshaw in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1970s dynasty’s last win in Super Bowl XIV. More often than not, though, the choice is controversial, a lot of the time with the winning team’s quarterback being picked instead of another player who really deserved it more, as in Super Bowl LI, when New England’s Tom Brady won over his teammate who had a dominating performance, running back James White. There are so many unfair choices over the years that it was hard to pin it down to 5, but here are our choices for the Super Bowl MVPs who never were:

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  1. Max McGee (Super Bowl I) – technically it wasn’t a Super Bowl, it was called the AFL/NFL Championship Game in the beginning, but even in the first one ever played their was a controversial choice. The Packers won over the Kansas City Chiefs handily, 35-10, and the team’s stellar quarterback, Bart Starr, was named MVP. Starr played brilliantly so it wasn’t a bad choice, but McGee may have been even better. He was a little-used past his prime veteran at the time and didn’t expect to play, and was hung over on game day after partying with a couple of stewardesses the night before. McGee was forced into action when Boyd Dowler separated his shoulder early in the game, and wound up catching 7 passes for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win.

 

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2. Matt Snell (Super Bowl III) – since Joe Namath had guaranteed that his New York Jets would defeat the highly-favored Baltimore Colts and then delivered on his guarantee, there was no way anyone but Broadway Joe was going to win the MVP Award in Super Bowl III. But running back Matt Snell had a strong case to be the game’s top player also. He rushed for 121 yards on 30 carries and his team’s only touchdown as the Jets ran a ball control offense to shock the Colts 16-7.

 

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3. Clarence Davis (Super Bowl XI) – this Super Bowl was a shining moment for the Oakland Raider franchise as they won their first championship after being one of pro football’s most winning teams for a decade, yet failing to “win the big one”. They manhandled the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 to give coach John Madden his first title. Running back Davis could easily have been picked as the game’s MVP. He rushed for 137 yards on 16 carries as the Raiders crushed the aging Vikings with a bruising run game. It wasn’t even a case of Davis being overshadowed by a quarterback. Ken Stabler played a fine game also in leading the Oakland attack but he wasn’t chosen as MVP either. The honor went to wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who made a series of key receptions during the game among his 4 for 79 yards, not exactly overwhelming statistics.

 

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4. Thurman Thomas (Super Bowl XXV) – the precedent was set in Super Bowl V, when the Colts defeated the Cowboys but Chuck Howley of the losing team was chosen as the game’s MVP. Super Bowl XXV, between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills, was one of the most exciting ever played, and Buffalo’s Thurman Thomas, with 135 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and another 55 yards on 5 pass receptions, was the dominant player in the game. When Scott Norwood’s last second field goal went wide right, giving the Giants a 20-19 victory, MVP voters decided that the Giants’ Ottis Anderson deserved the award instead. Giants’ coach Bill Parcells had employed a grinding rushing attack to eat up time on the clock and keep the Bills’ high-powered offense off the field, and Anderson was the main guy doing the damage, with 102 yards rushing and a TD. Still, Thomas’ performance was dynamic and one for the ages.

 

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5. Dwight Smith (Super Bowl XXXVII) – there’s no question the MVP of this Super Bowl should have been a defensive player. For one thing, the quarterback duel was between a pair of journeymen, Oakland’s Rich Gannon and Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson, not exactly a marquee matchup. For another, the Buccaneer defense absolutely dominated Gannon and the Raiders, forcing 6 turnovers, with 5 of them being interceptions, in a 48-21 rout. So Tampa safety Dexter Jackson, who had a pair of picks, was named MVP. Deserving, I guess, but not when you consider that his secondary mate, Smith, also had a pair of interceptions, but he returned both of his for touchdowns. The reason for the snub is that the second of Smith’s pick-sixes came with just a few seconds left in the game, when the MVP voting was likely already completed.

 

 

 

NFL – Five Forgotten Super Bowl Winning Coaches

29 Jan

It’s officially Super Bowl week and we here at Rayonsports  wonder, on media day, how many more new questions can reporters have for the New England Patriots after 9 appearances in the Belichick/Brady era? We like to look at different angles having to do with the big game, so for starters we’ll revert to a staple of our site, the “list” post. Here is our list of five head coaches who in the 53 years of the game’s existence, despite winning football’s ultimate prize, have largely been forgotten:

 

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  1. Don McCafferty, Baltimore Colts – the Colts’ loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III was so shocking and embarrassing to the old guard NFL that it led to the firing of Don Shula as Colts’ head man. McCafferty, the loyal assistant coach, was promoted into the top job and in his first season rewarded team management with a win over Dallas in Super Bowl V. He guided the Colts to the playoffs again the next year but lost to the Miami Dolphins, coached by Shula, in the conference championship game. His third season started out badly, however, and McCafferty was fired. He had a short stint as coach of the Detroit Lions but passed away of a heart attack in 1974. It was a relatively short head coaching career but one that left him with a shining moment that a lot of successful coaches never achieve-a Super Bowl win.

 

2. Barry Switzer – when Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys and fired legendary coach Tom Landry, there was an uproar among Cowboy fans. That quieted down when Jones’ hand-picked replacement, successful college coach Jimmy Johnson, won a pair of Super Bowls in the early 1990s. Jones and Johnson both had huge egos, however, and the pair clashed to the point where Johnson left to coach the Miami Dolphins. Jones replaced him with another former successful college coach in Switzer, who guided the Cowboys for 4 seasons, including a win in Super Bowl XXX, giving Dallas their third championship of the decade and sealing them as the team of the ’90s. The Dallas dynasty of that decade is largely remembered as a product of Johnson’s “genius”, with Switzer’s success largely forgotten.

 

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3. Brian Billick – after a very successful run as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Billick was hired as the Baltimore Ravens’ head coach in 1999. He lasted 9 seasons and won the franchise a championship in Super Bowl XXXV. The Ravens’ success that season was largely due to their dominating defense, however, and that success landed the team’s defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, a head coaching job. Despite being a Super Bowl winning coach, when Billick was eventually fired by the Ravens he never was given another opportunity to coach again in the NFL, even though he interviewed many times for multiple organizations over the years. He works in broadcasting for the NFL Network these days, apparently giving up on trying to coach again.

 

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4. George Seifert – this is a coach that was part of 5 Super Bowl winning teams in San Francisco, including 2 as head coach in 1989 and 1994. It’s hard to imagine a guy who won multiple championships as a forgotten coach, but unfortunately Seifert’s accomplishments are marred by 2 things: 1. He was overshadowed by the genius of his predecessor with the 49ers, Bill Walsh, and even though Seifert won 2 titles, it was largely assumed that he just inherited a team built by Walsh and that anybody could have won with those players. 2. He coached the Carolina Panthers after leaving the Niners and had a mediocre 16-32 record there, including a 1-15 season in 2001.

 

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5. Gary Kubiak – after a successful career as an assistant coach at various stops, Kubiak served as head coach of the Houston Texans in their formative years for 8 seasons, producing mostly mediocre results. He revived his reputation as offensive coordinator in Baltimore after Houston fired him, and that led to his hiring as head coach of the franchise he had spent a large part of his career with, as both a player and assistant coach, the Denver Broncos. He was blessed with the addition of legendary quarterback Peyton Manning to his roster, and guided the Broncos to a Super Bowl win in the game’s 50th anniversary contest in 2015. Health issues forced him to step down as coach after only 2 seasons, however, and although he has returned to the game on a limited consultant basis, he will likely not be able to handle the stress of a head coaching position again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

10 Jan

The fourth and final edition of our Buffalo Bills’ 2018 season-ending review is our favorite section of the series, where we play general manager and explore what the team needs to add, position-by-position for areas of need, in order to improve and truly become “playoff caliber”, as coach Sean McDermott likes to preach, in 2019. The Bills have 10 picks in the college draft and lots of cash to spend in free agency now that they’ve cleared room under their salary cap, so they should have an active off-season. Here is our list of possibilities, not necessarily in order of the most need:

 

Running Back

 

Whether they keep LeSean McCoy around or not, the Bills have to upgrade their running back stable for next season. GM Brandon Beane has already stated that he plans to spend the large amount of cap money he has wisely, and that he doesn’t expect to go after the “big splash” free agents. That would rule out any attempt to lure Le’Veon Bell, who wouldn’t be a locker room fit anyway since coach Sean McDermott preaches a “team first” mantra and Bell appears to be a “me first” player. New Orleans’ Mark Ingram is also a free agent, but with McCoy expected back, the Bills would be more in the market for a complementary back who is reasonably young. A few possibilities who fit that description are Detroit’s Zach Zenner, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon and Seattle’s Mike Davis. NFL teams today seem to have a “dime a dozen” attitude toward running backs, so the Bills could look to the middle rounds of the draft for one. Keeping in mind that they would expect the drafted player to be the heir apparent to McCoy, as opposed to a free agent complementary back, they could go as early as the third round for a back. Players expected to be available in the mid-round range include Stanford’s Bryce Love, Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. and Devin Singletary of Florida Atlantic. L.J. Scott of Michigan State and Cal’s Patrick Laird are late round possibilities.

 

Wide Receiver

 

Buffalo is in dire need of what is considered a “#1” wide receiver, and if that is truly what they are targeting, the free agent pickings are slim. However, they need more than just a single addition to the receiving corps and a possible gem in free agency, who fits the “fairly young” and “team first” requirement of the Bills, is Adam Humphries of Tampa Bay. Another possibility is Carolina’s Devin Funchess, given the Beane/McDermott Panther connection, but the team’s fan base would see him as another Kelvin Benjamin fail. In the draft, this isn’t considered a banner year for receivers, but there are quality guys available in the early rounds who could help the Bills, including J.J. Arcega-Whiteside from Stanford, Hakeem Butler of Iowa State and Deebo Samuel of South Carolina. In the later rounds, Collin Johnson of Texas is a large, red zone target at 6’5. Would the Bills consider drafting the University at Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson? He has fallen as far as the fifth round on some draft boards, and Buffalo should have a good inside scouting report on him.

 

Tight End

 

Charles Clay’s days are numbered in Buffalo, and he never was the top tier tight end they thought they were getting when the Rex Ryan regime signed him. The Bills desperately need help at this position, and it would behoove them to find a consistent, play-making “security blanket” for Josh Allen. The top free agent TE available is Oakland’s Jared Cook, but he is 32 years old and will require overpaying, so the Bills should avoid him. In the 2 years he’s been here, Beane has rolled the dice on a particular type of free agent – one coming off a major injury who could possibly have a huge upside if healthy. Jordan Poyer worked out tremendously as he has stayed healthy and provided stability at safety. Last year, it was edge rusher Trent Murphy, and although he never was fully recovered from various injuries, the jury is still out on him now that he will have a full year of recovery time. If Beane decides to go this route again, a perfect target would be Bengals’ tight end Tyler Eifert. He is a former first round talent from Notre Dame who hasn’t made it through a full season healthy in about 3 years. If the Bills’ staff is comfortable that he is fully recovered from his latest injury, a broken ankle, he would be a great addition at only 28 years of age. In the draft, if Iowa’s Noah Fant or Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. somehow slip into the second round, the Bills would certainly grab either one. Possible mid-rounds diamonds in the rough are Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad and Josh Oliver of San Jose State.

 

Offensive Line

 

This is the area where Beane and his scouts have the most work to do. The Bills could possibly part ways with up to 6 of their current O-linemen in an attempt to improve, so reinforcements have to be found. If they decide to not bother trying to attempt to re-sign free agent starters/contributors like John Miller, Jordan Mills and Ryan Groy, they have to make sure they’ve done their homework and the replacements they bring in are actually upgrades. On the free agent front, Chicago tackle Bobby Massie is mentioned as a possibility, but he’s 30 years old. Darryl Williams of Carolina, also a tackle, fits the mold of a Beane signee on 2 fronts – he is coming off an injury and is a Panther. Oddly enough, there is also a player named Darryl Williams, a guard from Mississippi State, who is a second round prospect in the draft. There’s a very real chance that the Bills use their top draft pick, # 9 overall, on an elite tackle. Two players, Jonah Williams of Alabama and Greg Little of Ole Miss, fall in the top 10 range. If the Bills wait until the middle rounds to draft linemen, as they did last year with Wyatt Teller, some possibilities are tackles Andre Dillard of Washington State and Jawaan Taylor of Florida, and guards Chris Lindstrom of Boston College and Penn State’s Connor McGovern.

 

Edge Rusher

 

This isn’t necessarily an area of need with Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and Shaq Lawson on the roster, and they wouldn’t likely pursue a free agent for this spot. However, if an elite one fell into their hands at the ninth pick of the draft, like Josh Allen of Kentucky or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, they might consider taking him. This could open up a possible trade scenario involving Hughes for either an extra pick or maybe a veteran player who fits a need elsewhere.

 

Cornerback

 

Again, this isn’t a real position of need if the Bills feel Levi Wallace can hold onto the starting corner role opposite Tre White, but I would consider it a possibility for the team to draft one if an elite one is available at the ninth spot, or if they trade down and pick later. Two candidates are Byron Murphy of Washington and DeAndre Baker of Georgia.

 

Defensive Tackle

 

Kyle Williams’ retirement opens up a hole in the defensive tackle rotation, although the Bills may feel like Harrison Phillips, a third round draft choice last year, can fill the void. Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett is an attractive free agent target. He’s only 26 and is a highly productive player, but there will likely be a lot of teams bidding for his services, including the Falcons, who have made it a priority to try to re-sign. A couple other under-the-radar young FA prospects are a pair of Patriots, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton, although Shelton so far in his career has been an underachiever. It’s a long shot considering their many needs on the offensive side of the ball, but the Bills could consider a top defensive tackle with their first round draft pick, like Michigan’s Rashan Gary or Jeffrey Simmons of Mississippi State. It’s more likely they’ll wait until the middle rounds and look at prospects like Daniel Wise of Kansas or Virginia Tech’s Rickey Walker.

 

Linebacker

 

It would seem like a top priority for the Bills to bring back Lorenzo Alexander, a 35 year old starting ‘backer and locker room force who is a free agent. Another possible scenario might be to take a look at an old friend from Beane/McDermott’s Carolina days, the recently released Thomas Davis, to see what he has left in the tank. He’s a past Walter Payton Man of The Year Award winner who would bring the same leadership to the locker room as Alexander and, if he hasn’t slowed down much, would fit into the starting lineup. Buffalo could use some depth here, so they could use a late round draft pick trying to find a diamond in the rough like they did with Matt Milano a couple of years ago. There’s Devin Bush of Michigan and a pair of MAC prospects on that list – Buffalo’s Khalil Hodge and Northern Illinois’ Sutton Smith.

 

It’s worth noting that the “positions of need” for the Bills that we listed this year include every spot except quarterback and safety. That’s the challenge Beane faces this off-season, and will likely put him in the position of drafting the “best player available” in April’s draft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

09 Jan

In part 3 of our review of the Buffalo Bills’ season, we’ll scrutinize the special teams, woeful in 2018, and the defensive side of the ball, which was the strength of the team overall but still has lots of room for improvement. The team was among the league’s best in yards allowed and was strong against the pass, but had some weaknesses too. They were not very good in red zone defense, had various games where their run defense was gashed, and at times couldn’t seem to get a stop at crucial times. The result – a 6-10 record despite having a respected defensive unit. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier did a decent job overall, but at times wasn’t aggressive enough, to the point where head coach Sean McDermott actually took over the play calling duties during a game. The Bills, in 2019, need to strive to elevate their defense from a “respected” unit to an elite, dominant one. Here is our position-by-position look at the 2018 Bills’ defense and special teams:

 

Defensive Line

 

The team employed a revolving rotation along the line, and the best of the players was Jerry Hughes, despite a drop in his sack numbers. Hughes consistently applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks and was fairly solid against the run. If he can find a way to stop letting those QBs escape when he has them in his grasp, his sack total will go up. Free agent Trent Murphy gets an incomplete grade here due to his inability to stay healthy and contribute regularly. At times he looked like a gamebreaker but just didn’t do it consistently enough. A highlight of the 2018 season was the growth shown by Shaq Lawson, who emerged as a force and may be due for a breakout year in 2019. The retirement of Kyle Williams leaves a hole on the interior line and in team leadership, and Harrison Phillips, Williams’ heir apparent, still has a long way to go to match Kyle’s production. Star Lotulelei didn’t produce any numbers at the other tackle spot but the coaches seemed pleased with his play as a run stuffer. Jordan Phillips was brought in during the season after being waived by Miami and provided a dose of enthusiasm, along with some pretty solid play as a backup tackle. Eddie Yarbrough is the other backup at end, and his playing time seemed to be reduced by season’s end. Mike Love earned a promotion from the practice squad late in the season and got some valuable experience that should help him in fighting for a roster spot in 2019. There are a pair of prospects on the practice squad who will get a look in training camp also – Kyle Peko and Robert Thomas, who had a short stint on the active roster earlier in the season.

 

Linebackers

 

The Bills will have 3 solid starters at linebacker next season provided they re-sign veteran Lorenzo Alexander, who is still performing at a high level at an advanced age. The other 2 spots are manned by possible future Pro Bowlers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Both showed flashes that they are going to develop into consistent playmakers, and their development is a huge key in this defense, already a respected unit, growing into an elite one. As for LB backups, Deon Lacey has mostly contributed on special teams in his tenure here, and with the bomb squads totally bombing in 2018 the Bills could look elsewhere for a replacement for him. A pair of youngsters, Julian Stanford and Corey Thompson, look like keepers. Both filled in late in the year due to injuries and didn’t look out of place, and Stanford is also a special teamer. There’s one ‘backer on the practice squad about which little is known, Richard Jarvis. He is a graduate of an Ivy League school, Brown, so one can assume he’s an intelligent player.

 

Defensive backs

 

Buffalo was solid in defending the pass in 2018, and a factor in that was the stability of the lineup in at least 3 of the starting spots in their secondary. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who were 2017 free agent gems signed by Brandon Beane, manned the safety positions and although their turnover numbers were down, their play was consistently good. Backups at safety are Rafael Bush, a seasoned veteran, Dean Marlowe, a Carolina Panther retread, and rookie Siran Neal, who came on late in the season to show some spark, especially on kick coverage teams. Lockdown cornerback Tre’Davious White is a future Pro Bowler, while across from him a revolving door developed, starting with the abrupt halftime retirement of Vontae Davis in the second game of the year. The Bills tried a number of options at the spot as the year went on, with Ryan Lewis, Lafayette Pitts and Denzel Rice all getting a shot. The revolving door closed when the Bills promoted undrafted free agent Levi Wallace from the practice squad later in the season. He moved into the starting job opposite White and quietly played well to secure the position, winding up as the top-rated rookie cornerback in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. Another rookie, Taron Johnson, won the important nickel corner job, considered basically a starting position in today’s NFL, and was a revelation. He was also ranked among the top 5 rookie cornerbacks until a shoulder injury ended his season. He is definitely a building block moving forward. Pitts did a good job on special teams and when called upon to play corner, while Lewis’s up-and-down play makes him a question mark to make the team in 2019. Rice is pretty much an unknown entity who will get a better look if he’s brought back next year, as are practice squad members Xavier Coleman and Josh Thornton.

 

Special Teams

 

The disaster that was the Bills’ special teams in 2018 resulted in the ouster of ST coordinator Danny Crossman, who had survived in his position since the Doug Marrone regime. Even the most reliable part of the special teams, placekicker Stephen Hauschka, was inconsistent near the end of the season after being blindsided on the return of a blocked kick. The Bills went through 3 different punters in 2018, and after cutting Colton Schmidt a couple of times it’s safe to say the current regime is done with him. Matt Darr, who finished the year as the punter almost by default, was terrible and likely won’t return to compete for the job next season. The coaches seem to be high on the pair of punters who wound up on injured reserve, Corey Bojorquez, who they snatched off waivers from New England, and Corey Carter, who was injured in training camp. That pair will fight for the job in camp. The Bills got almost nothing from their kick return units, and their kick coverage teams were worse. Taiwan Jones, before he was hurt, Marcus Murphy, Isiah McKenzie, Deonte Thompson, Ray Ray McCloud, Micah Hyde and Victor Bolden all took turns returning kicks and none of them did much to win over the coaches, although Hyde was pressed into duty there mainly because there was no one else capable. The coverage teams need a major overhaul in both coaching and personnel. The firing of Crossman got half of that accomplished.

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

08 Jan

This is part 2 of our four-part series dissecting the just-completed 2018 Buffalo Bills’ season. In this section, we’ll examine, position by position, the team’s offense, which was a major anchor on any chance of team success. Here’s our assessment:

Quarterbacks

 

From opening day until the season’s completion, the quarterback position underwent a complete overhaul in 2018. Not even counting the trading of Tyrod Taylor before the season, the QB room at season’s end looks nothing like it did at the beginning. A.J. McCarron, signed as a free agent to mentor rookie Josh Allen, failed in that role and also failed to win the starting job he was expected to, so the Bills cut bait on him and traded him to Oakland. Nate Peterman actually won the job in the preseason and the plan was to play him while Allen sat and learned. Peterman totally washed out, was waived and Allen took the reins sooner than expected. He had an up and down year but showed continued progress as the year went on and looks to be ready to take major strides in 2019. More importantly, GM Brandon Beane finally got the quarterback order right, bringing in seasoned veterans Derek Anderson and Matt Barkley in-season to mentor Allen. Both Anderson and Barkley have signed extensions to stay with the team, so, entering 2019, for the first time in years, the Bills’ QB situation appears to be stable.

 

Running Backs

 

The failure of the rushing attack was a major disappointment in 2018, resulting in the firing of running game coordinator/offensive line coach Juan Castillo. LeSean McCoy, really through no fault of his own, had the worst season of his pro career. Also, there was little effort to include McCoy in the passing attack, where he can be a dangerous weapon. Fullback Pat DiMarco is little used as a runner but his blocking ability is still valuable. The Bills insist McCoy is part of their plans for next season, and he can be a force to reckon with if the team can improve it’s offensive line play. The backups here are fairly dependable if not spectacular. Chris Ivory is a good short yardage power back, and Marcus Murphy can contribute, although he had injury issues this season. Keith Ford didn’t show much after being promoted from the practice squad for the last few games, and was even inactive for the finale. Taiwan Jones will return after finishing the year on injured reserve, but he’s almost strictly a special teamer. The Bills almost certainly, whether they keep McCoy or not, will look to upgrade the running back stable in the off-season.

 

Receivers

 

Just like the quarterback position, the wide receiver spot changed dramatically as the season progressed. The Bills parted ways with Kelvin Benjamin, a big target with little appetite for fighting for contested balls or even catching easy ones. They also released Andre Holmes, an aging veteran whose main contribution was on special teams. They infused the receiving corps with some youth and speed by signing Isiah McKenzie from Denver’s practice squad and promoting undrafted free agent Robert Foster from their own practice squad. Both helped Allen put some life in the passing game, especially Foster, who emerged as a major deep threat. McKenzie made most of his noise on jet sweeps in the running attack but also had his moments as a receiver. His production waned a bit at the end of the season but he certainly earned a chance to battle for a 2019 roster spot. Zay Jones progressed nicely as the year went on, developing a good chemistry with Allen and showing he will be a big part of the team’s future plans. He does need to work on being a more consistent performer, so 2019 will be a big year for him. The rest of Buffalo’s receiving corps consists of 30 year old free agent to be Deonte Thompson, a stop-gap fringe player who won’t be back, late round draft pick Ray Ray McCloud, who wasn’t much of a factor, and a group of street free agent signees that includes Victor Bolden, Da’Marri Scott, Cam Phillips and Tanner McEvoy. Is there another hidden gem among this group? McEvoy stands out in that he has some past NFL experience, including on special teams, where these guys will have to earn their way onto the roster. The Bills also recently took a flyer on a player who is the top receiver in the Canadian Football League, signing D’haqille “Duke” Williams for next season. He had a troubled college career at Auburn but apparently cleaned up his act while playing up north for the Edmonton Eskimos. At tight end, the pickings are even more slim. Veteran Charles Clay has been a big disappointment, to the point that he was a healthy inactive at the end of the season. He is an almost certain candidate to follow in Benjamin’s footsteps and be released. The only other players at this position are developing projects – Jason Croom, who shows the most promise, Logan Thomas, a converted quarterback who flashed signs of progress at times but was a penalty liability on special teams, and practice squad members Kyle Carter and Keith Towbridge. This is another position that sorely needs an upgrade if Josh Allen is going to be able to continue on an upward trend in his development.

 

Offensive Line

 

This is an area of the team that is in the most need of improvement of any position group, through positive progression of young players and the addition of better options through the draft or free agency. OL coach Juan Castillo was fired shortly after season’s end so the team clearly sees a need for not only better play on the line but better coaching/teaching also. Looking across the team’s line, there is need for improvement at every position. Left tackle Dion Dawkins, who had a solid rookie season in 2017, regressed this past season. The team has to decide whether he needs better coaching or if he needs to be moved over to right tackle and a better option found to man the left side. Rookie Wyatt Teller displaced Vlad Ducasse at left guard as the season wore on, and he showed enough promise there to be expected to hold down the job, especially if a better line coach is brought in to speed his development. Free agent Russell Bodine, signed to replace Eric Wood after a neck injury forced him to retire, wasn’t anything spectacular and ended up the year on IR. Backup Ryan Groy is a free agent, as are the other starters on the right side, guard John Miller and tackle Jordan Mills. We can easily see the team moving on from all 3 of them to try and upgrade the offensive line play and depth. The line play was so inconsistent in 2018 that the backups got plenty of opportunity to show what they had to offer at various times. Ducasse, for one, likely played his way off the roster. He was a healthy inactive late in the year, a clear signal the team is ready to move on from him. Jeremiah Sirles saw playing time at guard and tackle and also as an extra lineman on running downs. He is also a free agent, and it’ll be interesting to see if the coaches thought enough of the versatility he showed to bring him back. Conor McDermott has been a fringe player as a backup guard/tackle for a couple of seasons now, and will be in a major battle to hold his spot again in training camp. Ike Boettger fought his way into the lineup at the end of the season also, putting himself in position to earn a spot next year. There’s one lineman on the practice squad, Andrew Lauderdale, who also figures in the mix. There really is not one standout player among the offensive linemen on the roster, so the Bills will clearly be adding new faces to this group entering 2019.

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

07 Jan

The 2018 Buffalo Bills’ season ended recently with an expected result. After deciding to jettison quarterback Tyrod Taylor last year in order to draft their franchise QB, the Bills took a step back while hoping to take 2 steps forward next season, now that a year of taking the lumps that go with playing a rookie signal caller is over. This is part 1 of our annual four part series reviewing the Bills’ season, starting with the management and coaching. GM Brandon Beane was aggressive in the draft, using draft capital obtained in trades to wheel and deal and pick up 2 important future pieces for the franchise – quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Beane also grabbed a couple of other useful players in Harrison Phillips and Taron Johnson, with the jury still out on the later round choices. In free agency, Beane hoped to repeat the success he had in 2017, signing a player coming off a major injury in Jordan Poyer, who became a solid defensive contributor. The 2018 model, edge rusher Trent Murphy, didn’t deliver the same result as he fought off injuries all year. The team got mixed results from the likes of Rafael Bush, Russell Bodine, Star Lotulelei and Ryan Lewis. The decision to bring in AJ McCarron as a “bridge” quarterback was a mistake, although Beane managed to fix the error by dealing McCarron for a draft pick.  The GM has a huge task ahead of him to replenish the roster this off-season as the expectations will rise considerably next year.

Speaking of expectations, coach Sean McDermott has to produce a winning club on the field in 2019. “Trusting the process” will only fly for a certain time with ownership and the fan base and the young coach, who I believe is the right person for the job, must produce wins next year. As Bill Parcells used to say, you are what your record says you are. In two complete seasons, McDermott’s mark is 15-18, including the playoff loss in Jacksonville last year. That lumps him in with other head coaching mediocrities the Bills have cycled through over the years. Also, there are 2 other glaring weaknesses in the coach’s resume so far. One is his record against the AFC East measuring stick, Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. McDermott’s Bills are 0-4 and produced only 1 garbage time touchdown, in the late-season encounter  this year, in the 4 meetings. The other is the team’s penchant to suffer blowout losses. Although there were a lot of tough circumstances to explain some of the beatdowns, like the quarterback carousel and injury issues, McDermott has to start winning regularly next year now that he has his young QB in place. His record may line up with the other coaching failures we’ve had here in Buffalo, but I do believe McDermott has firm control of his locker room and has fostered a solid team-first attitude among the players. He and Beane appear to be on the same page with a good plan, but that must translate to wins in 2019.

 
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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Rex Upsets The Hoodie

27 Dec

On this, the final week of the National Football League’s regular season, two old rivals who date back to 1960 and the arrival of the American Football League square off – the New York Jets and New England Patriots. Our final Throwback Thursday post goes back to a divisional round playoff game these 2 franchises played on January 16, 2011. It was one of the few postseason setbacks the mighty Patriot dynasty suffered in the last 20 years, as the Jets and their bombastic coach, Rex Ryan, pulled off a 28-21 upset right in the Pats’ backyard at Gillette Stadium, where they’ve been practically unbeatable over the years. It was the game of a lifetime for Jet quarterback Mark Sanchez, at the time a bright, young prospect who was expected to become the team’s savior, the next Joe Namath. He threw for 3 touchdowns – to Ladanian Tomlinson, who was closing in on the end of his Hall of Fame career, to Braylon Edwards, another rising star at the time, and to Santonio Holmes, who would go on to have a memorable Super Bowl moment later in his career with Pittsburgh.

The real story of the game was Ryan’s Jet defense, which shut down the New England ground game and forced Pats’ QB Tom Brady to pass. Although that never turns out to be a negative result for the Patriots, on this day Brady, arguably the greatest signal caller of all time, couldn’t match Sanchez when it counted. New York sacked him 5 times and intercepted him once. Ryan, who had a habit of tweaking his nose at New England coach Bill Belichick, the dreaded evil genius in the hoodie, with lines like “I respect him but I’m not gonna kiss his Super Bowl rings”, was the surprise winner on this day. The Jets couldn’t sustain the success, however. They lost the AFC Championship game to Pittsburgh 24-19 the following week. Also, Sanchez regressed to the point where his Jet career ended with an embarrassing “butt fumble” play in later years, Tomlinson retired and both Holmes and Edwards became divas who were run out of New York for their attitudes, although Holmes, as previously noted, revived his career later on with the Steelers.

 

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Tom Brady wasn’t the GOAT in the AFC Championship game for the 2010 season

(photo from NFL Memes)

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Dan Marino’s Demise

20 Dec

The 2018 season is winding down for the National Football League, and on this, the second-last week of that season, a pair of Florida-based teams meet on the schedule, the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars. For this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, we’ll venture back to an AFC playoff game played between these 2 teams on January 15, 2000. This game would turn out to be the final one in the illustrious career of Miami quarterback Dan Marino, but on this day the Jaguars didn’t exactly give him a royal sendoff. Marino retired after this game holding most of the league’s passing records, but he certainly didn’t add anything positive to his resume in this contest. Coach Tom Coughlin’s Jaguars dominated the game from the opening kickoff. Mark Brunell threw a pair of touchdown passes, to Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor, and Taylor added a 90 yard scoring run. The Jags’ defense got in the act, also, with Tony Brackens returning a fumble 16 yards for a TD. In what amounted to a complete steamroll, Jacksonville piled up a 41-0 first half lead before Marino salvaged a little pride with a touchdown toss to Orande Gadsden to cut the margin to 41-7 at the half.

The Jaguars didn’t let up in the second half, even though they replaced Brunell with backup QB Jay Fiedler. The second-stringer added 2 more touchdown throws and Chris Howard scored on a short run to continue the carnage. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson mercifully pulled Marino from the game in the second half and the Dolphins’ backup, a non-entity named Damon Huard, was subjected to the same abuse as the future Hall of Famer he replaced. After the wreckage was cleared, the result was a monumental one-sided blowout. On offense, the Jags wracked up 520 total yards. Taylor carried the ball 18 times for 135 yards and scored twice, on the long run and a pass. Smith, the team’s top receiver, grabbed 5 catches for 136 yards and 2 scores. The defense dominated also, holding Marino and company to a paltry 131 total yards. They also sacked the Miami QBs 5 times, held the Miami rushing attack to 21 yards on 18 carries, and forced 7 turnovers. The final result on the scoreboard was as bad as the difference in the statistics – Jacksonville 62, Miami 7.

To be fair, for the 1999 season at least, this wasn’t an evenly matched game before it even started. Jacksonville was one of the AFC’s strongest teams, entering this game having amassed a 14-2 regular season record, while Miami limped into the playoffs at 9-7. Still, with a Super Bowl-winning coach in Johnson and an all-time great passer in Marino leading the offense, a defeat this epic in scope was a total shock.

 

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For Dolphin QB Dan Marino, it wasn’t a pleasant goodbye

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Return of The Dutchman

13 Dec

The Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams meet on this week’s NFL schedule, and our Throwback Thursday feature for the week is a game played between these 2 franchises on November 22, 1959. The game is significant in that it was the first and only time that future Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, a Ram star in the 1950s, played against his former club as a Philadelphia Eagle. He had led a powerful Ram attack for most of the decade, but decided to retire after the 1957 season. He later changed his mind, but the Rams had moved on and instead of bringing him back for the ’58 season, traded him to the Eagles. It wasn’t exactly a “return” for the player nicknamed “The Dutchman”, as the game was played at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field and not in L.A., and it also wasn’t exactly a triumphant display by Van Brocklin in the game either. The Eagles did win, 23-20, to improve their season record to 6-3, but it was a struggle against a Ram club that had won only 2 games all year. The Rams produced more offensive fireworks, as halfback Jon Arnett included an 80 yard run for a touchdown among his 108 yards rushing, while Ram QB Billy Wade fired a TD throw to Red Phillips.

Van Brocklin was efficient enough, completing 19 of 38 passes for 260 yards, spreading the ball around to all his favorite targets – Bobby Walston, Tommy McDonald and Pete Retzlaff among others, but the Eagle TDs came on a 3 yard run by Clarence Peaks and a defensive score on a fumble recovery in the end zone by Jerry Huth. You could actually make the argument that a more important contributor to the Philly win was another ex-Ram who had been exiled and found a home with the Eagles, kicker Paige Cothren, who booted 3 field goals, including a short 14 yarder in the final quarter which proved to be the game-winning points.

The Eagles did go on to finish the ’59 season in second place in the Eastern Division, a vast improvement over a 2 win record in 1958, then won the NFL championship in 1960 in The Dutchman’s final season. The Rams, meanwhile, didn’t win another game, finishing 2-10 after posting an 8-4 mark in ’58. That led to the departure of head coach Sid Gillman, who moved on to the American Football League’s Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, where he was highly successful.

 

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QB Norm Van Brocklin, “The Dutchman”