By Bill Campbell
Have you ever seen worse quarterbacking than we did on Sunday?
The Eagles-Browns game was dominated by interceptions – eight of them. Four by our guy, Michael Vick, from whom much was expected; four by the other guy, Brandon Weeden, a rookie in his first NFL start from whom little was expected. Watching the turnovers as well as the play-calling, you had to wonder what the Eagles’ coaches talked about during the off-season. Was there a language barrier? Did they look at any of the 2011 film? Even the President of the United States has advised Michael Vick to slide to avoid injury. If Obama knew it, why didn’t they?
The ninety-yard drive that salvaged the game in the fourth quarter was almost a give-away. On the second drive, Michael Vick floated a pass right through the arms of Cleveland linebacker L.J. Fort. Vick also fumbled the ball at the end of one run and recovered it only because none of the Browns’ defenders could see it. The Eagles should be thankful that the game was played in Cleveland rather than in Philadelphia. At Lincoln Financial Field the crowd would have been screaming for Vick’s removal and probably that of Andy Reid too during that performance. Watching four Vick throw-aways would have had the fans calling for Nick Foles to make his regular season debut.
Vick, who had taken just twelve pre-season snaps, was hit 16 times on Sunday. This was due to many factors: atrocious play-calling, poor pass blocking, too many drop-backs and constantly well-covered receivers. He threw 56 times – a stunning total – completing just 29 for a run-pass ratio of 33 to 8. There were 10 hits on the QB in the first half alone and 6 more in the third quarter. If those factors weren’t enough to call for a quarterback change, what would be? Vick took more hits and made more moves as he dropped back to pass than his NFC counterparts combined on Sunday – 95 snaps in all, resulting in 12 penalties. It was an incredibly bad game plan, almost completely pass happy. You’ve got to wonder how the offense can continue this format with fifteen games to go. And how long can Vick survive it?
The Eagles defense did a pretty good job though, limiting the Browns to 210 yards in total offense and keeping them from scoring more than field goals for most of the game. Cleveland’s only touchdown came on a TD interception return and all 16 of their points followed Eagle turnovers. If the Birds’ defense can remain solid against better offenses, which it was unable to do last year, it will show marked improvement. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said after the game, “That’s something that last year we weren’t able to do in some of those close games.” Yes, we remember. But as a general statement, one of our local papers got it right with the headline, “Vick Looks Neither New nor Much Improved.” Foles had better tune up.
Which brings us to the head coach: after listening to Andy Reid post-game and again on Monday, I was impressed at his consistency, if nothing else. No matter how the game had gone, how blatant the errors, Reid sounded like the same guy we’ve listened to for the last fifteen years about “Doing a better job” out there. There are fifteen more games on the schedule and, as the coach said, “The turnovers were too much and the penalties.” Andy was stating the obvious and we’ve heard it all before. Adding to the defects, the Eagles may be without the services of Jeremy Maclin next Sunday due to a hip injury, which called for another classic Reidism, “You know with hip-pointers they hurt a lot more two or three days later than when they actually happen.” Really?
A note about a familiar player: David Akers, now of the San Francisco 49ers. Akers opened the season by bouncing a ball off the cross-bar and through the uprights from 63 yards on Sunday, tying an NFL record set by Tom Dempsey in 1970 and tied by Jason Elam in 1999 and Sebastian Jankowsky in 2011. It was Akers’ third field goal of the game, helping the 49ers to beat the Green Bay Packers 30-22. I’m happy for Akers, a class act all the way. I wish he was still here.
For the Eagles, Baltimore is up next on Sunday. Kick-off at 1:00 p.m.
NFL Replacement Officials
Concern has been expressed in some quarters about the NFL’s use of replacement officials. The first week of the season seems like the time to examine the question.
This is not the first time replacement refs have been used on the pro football field. It happened in 2001 and, as far as I know, took place without major problems. But the media is even bigger now and the level of scrutiny it imposes upon its object is significant. Fans always have been quick to blame officials for a poor call and that couldn’t be truer than here in Philadelphia, even in pre-season games. Now, with increased media focus and the use of instant replay, the officials figure to be working even more “under the gun”. I found the recent comments of the Eagles’ defensive end Jason Babin interesting. He said, “I’m certain that all are making sure that all of us, players and coaches, realize that these new people are working to the best of their ability but more non-calls are on the inside and some players are thinking that the officials will be inclined to make sure and hesitate with the penalty flags.” So Babin suggested that players may feel that the new refs may lack some confidence. He continued, “A slot receiver plays mostly in traffic in the middle of the field. He’s a player who could be more at risk but he could also find a way to get away with more than usual.” Babin concluded, “I’m not concerned too much about it. I’m just here to do a little pushing off myself.” Sounds like he just plans to play as usual. As far as the replacement officials’ calls go to date, there haven’t been any glaring problems. Hopefully, that will stay true as the season unfolds.
One additional note on this topic: on Sunday afternoon, Shannon Eastin used her left hand to tuck her ponytail under her cap and prepared to work. She did her job separating the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions squads after a play and holding them back. And as she did so, she became the first woman to serve as an official during the regular football season, working as a line judge during that game. “It’s a great milestone,” said Detroit coach, Jim Schwartz, “but during the game we didn’t think about it at all.” Eastin, who has accumulated sixteen years of officiating experience, has worked as a referee in the Mid-Eastern College Conference. Don’t be surprised if you see her again in the future with the NFL.
The Bounty Business
Do you understand the NFL bounty business? Four players – Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove – were suspended by the NFL over their suspected involvement in and cover-up of an alleged bounty program with the New Orleans Saints from 2009 to 2011. Now they have had their suspensions vacated by an appeals panel. The decision prompted the league to immediately reinstate the players until Commissioner Goodell can hold an expedited hearing to further clarify the basis for the suspensions. What’s the source of the confusion? I was pretty clear they’d been suspended for the bounty program, weren’t you?
Goodell could reinstate the suspensions but, apparently, he must be more specific in stating the basis for imposing this sanction on the players. According to the appeals panel, it was unclear to them whether Goodell and the NFL had disciplined the players for salary-cap violations or for conduct detrimental to the league. There is a program which reviews “intent to injury” concerns but it does not consider salary cap issues. Those fall under the purview of a special master, Stephen Burbank, who acts as an arbitrator for player-management disputes. So the final word seems to rest with Goodell.
Saints linebacker Vilma, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, is out with a knee injury. Smith is healthy but sidelined until Goodell acts. Hargrove is a free agent. Fujita is now with the Cleveland Browns but is unable to play unless the sanction is lifted. He’s remained pretty quiet on the issue but Vilma wrote “Victory is mine” on his Twitter account when he heard the latest news. I guess he’s pretty hopeful that he and the other three guys will be playing again soon. Maybe the average football fan isn’t interested in all this. But I have to ask what good it is to suspend players for such behavior only to likely reinstate them for good a week after the season begins.
The appeals panel’s decision does not affect any of the Saints’ coaches or general manager who were suspended over the bounty issues. Since coaches and management are not bound by the players’ collective bargaining agreement, they are not affected by the appeals’ ruling. Coach Sean Payton remains out for the 2012 season, defensive coordinator Gregg Willis is out indefinitely and the GM, Mickey Loomis, also is out for six games.
There’s no comparison between the significance of a bounty program aimed at taking out quarterbacks and the potential effect of stand-in referees on the game. But both topics keep us reading and thinking about football. And as I write this I hear that the NFL has announced that the four players noted will no longer be suspended. The appeals panel ruling has put these guys back on the field. Surely the officials – seasoned or not – should keep a close eye on them.
Forbes Magazine reports that the Dallas Cowboys have become the first American sports franchise worth more than $2 billion. The NFL’s most valuable team for the tenth straight year saw its overall worth increase 14% to $2.1 billion since last year. That’s about a billion more than the average NFL team value of $1.11 billion, up 7%. Only Manchester United of the English Premier Soccer League is valued higher – $2.24 billion, according to the Forbes survey. And Manchester United’s owners also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are worth slightly more than $1 billion, ranking eighth in the NFL. Every franchise except Cincinnati increased in value over the last year. The Bengals’ value remained the same at $871 million, ranking 26th overall. Rounding out the top are New England, Washington, the New York Giants and Houston. The Eagles are seventh at $1.16 billion.
The Effect of Head Injuries
This may be a rather grim concern to raise just after another pro football season has begun. However, studies of former NFL players are finding that more of them are prone to dying from degenerative brain diseases. The latest indications say that repeated blows to the head may cause severe problems later in life. The death rate from Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig disease was about three times higher than that of the general population. Prior research had suggested that football players were unusually prone to these diseases.
Researcher Everett Lehmann of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently published an article in the journal “Neurology” with his findings after reviewing the death certificates of more than 3,400 NFL players with at least five playing seasons in the league from 1959 to 1998. His team compared the death rate from various causes to that of a comparable group of American men.
Of the 334 player deaths prior to 2008 that were reviewed, Alzheimer’s was found to have been an underlying or contributing factor in seven and Lou Gehrig’s disease in seven others. The rate for the general population is two in each category. The frequency of Parkinson’s disease as a cause of death was similar between the players and the general public.
This study separated players into “non-speed” positions, such as linemen, and “speed” positions where high-speed collisions are more prevalent. Those in the “speed” group were found to be three times more likely to have died as a result of a neurodegenerative disease than those who were not. In light of these findings, not to mention the scores of lawsuits filed by the players’ families whose fathers or husbands are disabled or dead allegedly due to these play-induced conditions, the NFL just has announced a donation of $30 million for medical research to the Foundation for the National Institute of Health. Commissioner Goodell said that this research could benefit areas of study such as concussion management and treatment of Alzheimer’s, etc. later in life. Sadly, it’s too late for some great guys who’ve paid a very high price to play the game.
Saluting Art Modell
Art Modell was a central figure in the NFL for a long time. He’s the former owner of the Cleveland Browns who caused much anguish in that city when he fired head coach Paul Brown in 1963 and later took the team to Baltimore in 1995. The Browns became the Ravens and Modell became a hero in Baltimore, which had been mourning the loss of its Colts. But Cleveland still hasn’t gotten over it or forgiven him. Modell was a visionary guy who predicted the growth of the NFL into the giant it is today and who foresaw the impact that expanded television coverage would have on the league. He died last week and was remembered at a ceremony at M&T Bank field in the city he had adopted and made his own.
Incidentally, Ralph Wilson, the ninety-three-year-old Hall of Fame owner of the Buffalo Bills, is at home after being released from the hospital for reasons which the Bills have not revealed. We wish him well.
After all this football talk, the Phillies have won 6 in a row, are finally playing .500 ball and are 4 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for a wild card slot in the playoffs. Wasn’t it Tug McGraw who said, “You gotta believe”? It should be a fun week for sports fans in Philly.