Who's buried in Grant's grave? Not the Packers' running game


The Week 10 schedule may have appeared a little bland, especially after the hype of Week 9's Patriots-Colts showdown, and the games certainly started slow. Nine teams failed to score at all in the first quarter of Sunday's games. Six more had to settle for field goals. But by the time the 13 games were over, we were treated to just about every scoring play imaginable.

Two-point conversions? Check. Safeties? Check. Kick return touchdowns? Check. Punt return touchdowns? Check. Throw in interception returns, fumble returns, runs and passes ... We even had the rare uncontested touchdown.

With just over two minutes to play and trailing by 1, the Redskins let Eagles running back Brian Westbrook score from 10 yards out -- better to get the ball back right away and try to get a touchdown and two-point conversion than to let Philadelphia run down the clock. (The strategy didn't pay off, though, as Washington couldn't cross midfield on the ensuing drive.)

Sunday's action ended in truly bizarre fashion, as the Colts survived the first five of Peyton Manning's six interceptions, and survived the loss of a potentially game-changing play due to an inadvertent whistle -- and looked like they would overcome a 23-0 deficit to be the 10th road team to win yesterday. But then a replay reversal took away a first down at the Chargers 6-yard line, and Adam Vinatieri -- a future Hall of Famer and one of the NFL's all-time clutch kickers who has made more than 80 percent of his career attempts -- missed the potential game-winner from 29 yards out.

Go figure.

Who is Ryan Grant?

Last season, everyone wanted to learn more about this Tony Romo guy who was playing quarterback for the Cowboys, and now he's got Dallas sitting atop the NFC East. Well, maybe we should examine a key player who looks to be a factor for the other 8-1 team in the NFC -- Green Bay running back Ryan Grant.

Rich Kane/U.S. Presswire
Ryan Grant has emerged as a legit feature back for the 8-1 Packers.

Grant rushed for 80 yards in the first quarter against Minnesota and finished with 119 yards against the NFL's second-ranked rushing defense. For all the troubles the Packers have had with the run game, Grant has emerged as the answer. And while he seems to have come out of nowhere, his pedigree isn't bad at all.

Grant was USA Today's New Jersey high school player of the year, a sprinter on the track team and a very good basketball player. He went to Notre Dame, where he played as a true freshman in 2001 and then started 13 games in 2002, rushing for more than 1,000 yards. In 2003, he ended up splitting time with Julius Jones. Injuries shortened his 2004 season, though he still was a part-time starter. At the 2005 combine, Grant checked in at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds and ran a 4.52 40. He was not drafted, but he signed a free-agent deal with the Giants -- for whom he spent 2005 on the practice squad and 2006 on injured reserve.

Give a lot of credit to Ted Thompson and John Dorsey in Green Bay's front office. Obviously, they remembered Grant from what he did at Notre Dame. The Packers initially offered kicker Dave Rayner to the Giants in a trade, but ended up giving New York a late draft pick for Grant. It's shaping up to be a big steal.

Big win for Jaguars

Some games meant a little more than others this week, as teams such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Arizona won games they absolutely had to have. Yet perhaps the most significant win of Week 10 came at Tennessee, where Jacksonville earned a split of the season series with the Titans and both teams now sit one game behind the Colts in the AFC South.

Adding a division win is critical for the playoff tie-breakers, and what's even more notable is the manner in which Jacksonville won this game. Tennessee ran all over them in Week 1, but this time around, it was Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew who ran all over a Titans squad that ranked tops in the NFL in run defense.

Of course, that had a lot to do with Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth being out with an injury; if anyone hadn't realized how valuable Haynesworth had been this season, the loss to Jacksonville proves it.

Meanwhile, here's another reason this game was so important: A few weeks ago, it might have looked like Tennessee and Jacksonville could both be wild cards. That would be the case if the season ended today, as both are 6-3. But Cleveland (5-3) will have a say here. Of the Browns' seven remaining games, six are against teams that currently have sub-.500 records. The Jaguars still have games against the Steelers, Colts and Chargers; the Titans still play the Colts and Chargers.

Josh Cribbs (16) had the league's 15th scoring kickoff return this season, hours before Darren Sproles would add No. 16.

Many happy returns

Through the first nine weeks of the season, there had been 14 kickoff returns for touchdowns this season -- four short of the single-season record set in 1998. The total is now at 16 after scoring runbacks by Cleveland's Josh Cribbs and San Diego's Darren Sproles. In fact, Cribbs would have had two on Sunday but he was tackled at the Pittsburgh 3 on a 90-yard return.

Lamar Hunt would have delighted in all these returns. The late Kansas City Chiefs owner, who passed away last year, once described the kickoff return TD as the most thrilling play in football, and he lobbied hard to move the spot of kickoffs back from the 40-yard line to the 35-yard line ... and then he lobbied again to move it back to the 30-yard line, where it is today. That, of course, is a big reason for the increase in big returns.

Another legendary owner, George Halas of the Bears, played a part in making the return game more important. When his Bears featured a dangerous return man in George McAfee in the early '40s, he changed the ruled about kickoffs going out of bounds. They used to be marked at the spot they went out, like for punts. Halas lobbied to penalize teams for kickoffs going out of bounds, a penalty that has increased over the years.

Before all these changes, most teams had their third- or fourth-string running backs returning kicks. Now, of course, return specialists like Cribbs and Sproles and Devin Hester are the norm.

Remembering Nolan

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Dick Nolan, the former 49ers head coach and father of current 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who passed away yesterday at 75. I have fond memories of Nolan from his years as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys.

As a player, Nolan was a teammate of Tom Landry with the New York Giants. He joined Landry in Dallas as a player-coach in 1962 and was there until going to San Francisco in 1968. Mike Nolan was one of six children in his family, and I'll always remember that it was a ritual in those years that I would go to the Nolans' house on Christmas Eve and we'd assemble all the kids' toys.

Nolan told some great stories. One of my favorites was about the time he "trash-talked" bruising running back Tank Younger. This was in the '50s, when the goalposts were still planted on the goal line. The 225-pound Younger ran head-first into the goalpost and fell back, dazed. When he finally got up, Nolan went to Younger and said, "Next time you try to come through, I'll really hit you!"

Nolan had a habit of referring to a hard-nosed player like Younger as "a tough egg." Truth be told, Nolan was a pretty tough egg in his own right.

Extra points

» Jaguars RB Fred Taylor became the 21st player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards. This is his 10th NFL season and he's the only one in that group of 21 players that has never made it to the Pro Bowl.

» Dallas WR Terrell Owens, with two TDs against the Giants, has a career total of 124 touchdowns -- 122 receiving and two rushing. That puts him eighth on the all-time TD list -- one behind Walter Payton and two behind Jim Brown. His 851 career receptions ties him with Irving Fryar for 10th all-time.

» Brett Favre became the second player to surpass 60,000 career passing yards. Dan Marino holds the record for most yards with 61,361. Favre needs 1,104 yards to break Marino's record. He is on pace to do it on Dec. 9 at home vs. the Oakland Raiders. (He'd be closer if not for the first completion of his career -- a deflected pass he caught himself for a 7-yard loss.)

» Detroit finished with minus-18 rushing yards in its loss to Arizona. Coincidently, the Lions hold the NFL records for fewest rushing yards (minus-53, in 1943) and most rushing yards (426, in 1934).

» In the 93rd all-time meeting between Green Bay and Minnesota, the Packers notched the first shutout by either team in the series.

» The six teams that had the worst records in 2006 are now a combined 27-27 this season. Four of the six -- Cleveland, Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Washington -- have winning records (the other two are Arizona and Oakland).

» The season series between the AFC and NFC currently stands at 20-20.



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