At what point in a National Football League season can you begin to gauge the larger picture? Bill Parcells always used to say "you are what you are" -- which, upon further review, is the etymological forefather of "it is what it is," the current cliché du jour of the coaching nation. At any rate, Parcells' point leaves little room for excuses. If you're under .500, you're a below average team. If you're above .500, well, then, you've got a shot at the title, both literally and figuratively. All true.
But at what point are you what you are?
Conventional wisdom would identify the NFL's quarter-post (four games in -- like I said last week, you'll never have to do math here) as that crucial point of demarcation. But, as most of the regular readers of this space can attest, there's nothing done conventionally here. No, sir. Forget waiting for a fourth game to be played in order to figure out what's what in the NFL. I'm going to name that tune in three weeks. And I'm going to do it by bringing back the annual First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards!
Some may point out you can't really bring something back if it's annual. How can something be revived if it's done every year? Like I said, nothing conventional here, people. The first (and to date only) annual First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards went down in 2005. By all accounts, it was a rousing success. However, as most of you know, I made a mysterious disappearance from the NFL.com scene last year just two weeks into the season to begin writing my book (which is on sale Oct. 30, or, in the spirit of this black-tie affair, 8/17ths into the NFL Season) and thereby brought about the postponement (clearly, not cancellation) of the second annual First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards.
Get Rich, Quick
Care to add your voice to the discussion? Or cozy up to a guy with the ultimate in Total Access? Or simply register your vote in his latest contest? That's why they invented e-mail. Fire away at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But now I'm back, and so are the awards. And why not? It seems like there's an award every week in the NFL these days anyway. Once upon a time, we only had the Offensive, Defensive and Special Teams Players of the Week awards for the AFC and the NFC. Now, it's a high-praise hootenanny -- the FedEx Air & Ground Awards, the Diet Pepsi Rookie of the Week, the Motorola NFL Coach of the Week, the GMC Defensive Player of the Week ... it's getting a bit out of hand. Wait a minute. That gives me an idea…
How about the Jergen's Lotion Best Hands of the Week Award for the player with the best catch? Let's not stop there, either. Offensive linemen perennially get no love. Maybe that should be rectified by the IHOP Pancake of the Week Award?
Clearly, NFL awards season is upon us. So, roll out the red carpet and send Joan Rivers for an extra Bruce Banner-sized shot of botox, because it's time for the second annual (sort of) First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards, hosted by Ryan Seacrest! (Oh, wait a minute. It's tough to see, but apparently there's a red challenge flag out on the carpet. And it comes all the way from Down Under!)
I am a fan from Australia and to hear that Ryan Seacrest will be involved in the Super Bowl actually scares me. After waiting till 11 p.m. to watch the Emmys and to see his deplorable performance, I fear to actually watch the Super Bowl this year for that reason.
He is so boring! Get rid of him! I think your time has come Mr. Eisen, you host the Super Bowl. Now that would be a show.
But, wait. There's more!
I think that the only reason there hasn't been an outrage about this whole Seacrest (hosting the Super Bowl) thing is because not enough people know about it. This is the pinnacle of what over the past few years has been a subtle strategy by the NFL to make the league less risqué (since the "wardrobe malfunction"). But sadly it is going to backfire. First of all, what the NFL doesn't seem to realize is that it MUST first and foremost appease its base. You know the millions of football hungry madmen (and women) who thirst for football all the time; who go through withdrawal syndrome every March, and break out their various teams' DVDs and tapes, and watch NFL Network anyway. WE COME FIRST. Why? Because we are the faithful. When I think of Ryan Seacrest I don't think football. In fact the idea of Ryan Seacrest hosting the greatest show on earth makes my head hurt. This is a call to the "true" fans to stand up and fight for our league before it is too late. We MUST flood the Commissioner's inbox in protest. This may seem like a minor issue to some, but at the rate we are going, by 2020 the refs will be wearing gray and the players will be required to blow kisses and apologize for hard hits. The time to act is now.
P.S. [Roger] Goodell should fine himself $1 million for fan cruelty.*
Holy Handoff to Ladell Betts on Third and Fourth Downs, Brian! I like your moxie, but hold your horses. Please know the following, and this goes for the large portion of The Readership who this week sent in similar e-missives to email@example.com pointing the finger at The Shield for the foisting of Ryan Seacrest on the unsuspecting Super Bowl viewing public next February. The choice of Seacrest to host the pregame and halftime of Super Bowl XLII was made by the NFL's broadcast partner for the event and not the NFL. If you feel this is a blamable offense and wish to blame anyone for the selection of Seacrest, it's FOX and not the NFL. So jam the inbox of FOX. And while you're at it, do something about So You Think You Can Dance, too.
That said, I hear you. Around these parts, you control what you can control. So, Seacrest is officially out as the host of the second annual First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards. Evangeline Lilly from Lost is in. Why? Because she's smoking hot. And as long as I can choose a make-believe host for my make-believe awards show, that's who I choose. Anyone got a problem with that?
Without any further tarrying ...
Coach of the First 3/17ths of the Season:
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers. Other nominees include Mike McCarthy, who has the Green Bay Packers 3-0 for the first time since 2001 with a young, ferocious defense and Brett Favre playing like a kid, with mostly kids as support; Wade Phillips, who has done something not even Parcells could do in Dallas -- start 3-0 (yes, Chan Gailey was the last 3-0 Cowboys coach) and have Terrell Owens happy and playing his best football in years; and Gary Kubiak, whose Houston Texans started out 2-0 for the first time and nearly came back on the Colts without Andre Johnson. Bill Belichick would have been nominated. But just as NFL rules preclude any player who gets busted for using performance enhancers from winning a postseason award, Belichick gets bounced from consideration for a First 3/17th for the same reason.
A very competitive field, but Tomlin is my winner. With the whole free football world wondering what the Steelers would look like in their first Bill Cowher-less campaign in 15 years, Tomlin has the Steelers 3-0 through three games for the first time since Cowher started his inaugural Pittsburgh season 3-0 back in 1992. So, not only do the Tomlin Steelers look a lot like the Cowher Steelers, Tomlin's coaching career has gotten off to the same smashing start as Cowher's did.
Now, I already hear the naysayers. "Look who the Steelers have played, Rich -- Cleveland, Buffalo and San Francisco, a combined 18-30 in 2006 and a combined 3-6 this year." I hear you, but let's not say nay but rather give credit where it's due. While we should expect the Steelers to beat those teams -- and certainly with two of those games taking place at Heinz Field -- no one could have expected them to win these games so easily. Pittsburgh busted out the whuppin' stick on each team, tuning up the Browns, Bills and 49ers by a combined 71 points. Only the Patriots have a better margin of victory through three games with 79. The defense (ranked second overall) is humming along with mad scientist Dick LeBeau still at the controls, and the new Bruce Arians offense has the league's leading rusher, Willie Parker, running loose and Ben Roethlisberger playing loose -- and more importantly, efficiently. Plus, it's apparent Tomlin has "it." Whatever "it" is, he's got "it." And everyone knows "it" is what "it" is.
Next up for Tomlin's Steelers, a visit to Arizona, where a victory may not be guaranteed, but one thing is for sure: It will be exciting. (see next award)
The Gus Johnson Most Entertaining Games Award:
And the 3/17th goes to ... the Arizona Cardinals. For only the 27th time in NFL history, a team has played its first three games with each decided by three or fewer points. That 27th team is the 2007 Arizona Cardinals. However, the '07 Cardinals are the first such team to play three such close contests and lose more of them than they won since the 1991 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As Cardinals fans know all too well, such is life in the Big Desert. But, as Cardinals fans know all too well, at least the team won one.
In fact, Ken Whisenhunt became the first Cardinals coach to win his home debut since Don Coryell did it back in 1973! And that Week 2 game came down to a Neil Rackers field goal with no time remaining against a Seahawks team that appeared poised to boot a last-second game-winning kick of its own. Inexplicably, two Seattle Pro Bowlers collided in the backfield as Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander could not complete a simple handoff, giving Arizona the ball on the Seahawks 46. The Cardinals took the gift horse and won a squeaker… after nearly blowing a 17-0 lead.
Their losses were lulus, too. In Week 1, the Cardinals led in San Francisco with 6:46 to go after Matt Leinart and Edgerrin James engineered a sweet nine-play, 68-yard drive. But, Alex Smith had the last laugh with a game-winning 86-yard touchdown drive that nearly got derailed when 49ers receiver Arnaz Battle fumbled into the end zone with 30 seconds left. With the ball loose and rolling around, Cardinals cornerback Eric Green had a chance to win the game by merely falling on The Duke. Instead, he misplayed it. The 49ers recovered and by Holy Roller Rule took possession at the spot of the fumble. Battle ran it in one play later on an end around. Ballgame.
Then came last week in Baltimore. After falling behind the Ravens 20-6, Arizona still wound up tying the game at 23 -- thanks to an incredible comeback fashioned by, of all people, Kurt Warner. Whisenhunt flexed some courageous muscle in just his third game by benching an ineffective Leinart and going with Warner, who responded by completing 15 of his 20 passes, two of them touchdown throws to a rampaging Anquan Boldin. But Kyle Boller, of all people, went a perfect 5-for-5 on a final drive aided by a controversial 15-yard penalty on safety Adrian Wilson. The extra 15 yards came in extra handy, as Ravens kicker Matt Stover booted one through the uprights with no time left. Arizona lost the game ... but won the Gus Johnson 3/17th Most Entertaining Games Award for Arizona. See, there is a silver lining. And in case anyone is wondering why that award is named after Gus Johnson, all you need to do is listen to him call a game on CBS. Every play, he acts as if Valparaiso just knocked Ole Miss out of the tournament.
(RE: The penalty on Wilson -- that flag earned a lot of angry e-mail from Cardinals fans to the getrichquick inbox, but it wasn't even close to being the most-complained-about penalty call by The Readership this week. That distinction belongs to the clear Vernon Davis catch in Pittsburgh initially called a fumble, then mystifyingly reversed on replay to an incompletion. Did someone put my e-mail address on a 49ers blog or something? About 50 livid 49ers fans spammed me about this. Don't worry, people. I will ask Mike Pereira about it on Wednesday's show.)
Best team at 1-2 through the First 3/17ths of the Season Award:
This is a tough one, but for the second consecutive First 3/17ths ceremony, it's the San Diego Chargers. Two years ago, when the Chargers won (triumphantly!) the inaugural Best Team at 1-2 Award, it was a much simpler choice -- LaDanian Tomlinson had just come off a 246-total-yard performance against the New York Giants. This year, L.T. has only 229 total yards through the first three games. His frustration boiled over in full view Sunday, as he jawed with quarterback Philip Rivers on the sidelines ... and Rivers had started the game connecting on his first 15 passes!
It's tough to put your finger on why the Chargers' offense has struggled so mightily to start 2007, but very few offenses look good against Chicago and New England. And Green Bay's defense has proven it is, to paraphrase the great Judge Smails, no slouch itself. I think it's just a matter of time until they start teeing off. As for the San Diego defense, it has not helped one whit. You could make the case that's the unit that has struggled the most this year in San Diego and may be the ultimate undoing of the Chargers. Rod Woodson says many teams are spreading out their offenses to neutralize Shawne Merriman and San Diego's 3-4 scheme, and the Chargers are just not adjusting very well. On NFL GameDay, Deion Sanders and Steve Mariucci said it appears the Chargers are missing Wade Phillips more than anybody else. Looking at mere statistics, it's not pretty: The team that ranked seventh in scoring defense and 10th in overall defense last year now ranks 23rd and 22nd in those categories through the first three games this year.
Still, despite their exposed flaws, they're one of the most talented teams in the league, and that's part of the reason why they take home this coveted 3/17th Award. I believe.
Plus, no other current 1-2 teams truly knock my socks off.
The Bengals? That defense still frightens me (27th against the rush and pass, 29th overall) and the offense has been turning the ball over too much for my liking. Plus, Rudi Johnson may be the most frustrating player to watch the last two years. As fantasy owners know perfectly well, there has been zero consistency from him. The Jets? Perhaps. They may string some wins together, but the defense just got its first sack and first interception of the season last week -- and the Dolphins racked up 424 yards of offense in nearly coming back from 17 points down. The Giants and Eagles? Nice wins this past weekend, but both needed to show me more -- a pulse would have sufficed -- in their two losses to have won this 3/17th. Their Sunday night showdown in Week 4 is huge.
The Bears? Wow. What to make of the Bears? Lovie Smith finally pulled the trigger on Rex Grossman, whose sixth career game with at least three picks gave him an astonishing 33 turnovers (26 interceptions and 7 fumbles) in his last 17 games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl. Now it will be Brian Griese's team to run, and all the Bears fans will either be joyous or caught in the vicious NFL vortex of Be Careful What You Wish For. There's no turning back now, people. We'll finally find out for real if it was really Rex holding this team back. Or maybe it's the fault of a faltering running game, made impotent by either Cedric Benson's inability to be a top rock-toter or defenses putting 8 in the box to dare Rex to beat them. If Griese can soften that up and let Benson run with that chip on his shoulder, the Bears may just prove the awarding of this 3/17th wrong. Of course, Chicago's banged up defense, already without the perennially brittle Mike Brown for the year and Tommie Harris for the next 1-4 weeks, has its work cut out for it. Still, I like the Chargers to make some hay. And with this 3/17th Award, they clearly now have momentum.
The Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Wardrobe Malfunction Award:
A handful of teams have worn throwback uniforms through the first 3/17ths of this season, and the nominees are: San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia. The 49ers throwbacks (worn in honor of the late Bill Walsh) looked as cool as Mike Nolan in his throwback suit. So, those wardrobes functioned well and therefore can't win this award. The Redskins throwbacks, worn just last week against the Giants, looked cool -- predominantly white and yellow jerseys with gold pants containing white and burgundy stripes down the side. The helmet was yellow and more politically correct. Gone was the American Indian logo, replaced by a design apparently inspired by the great Vince Lombardi when he was their coach in 1969 -- a maroon capital "R" in a circle. Neat ... to some.
Love the column. Since you are the all-knowing football guru, I was hoping you could help me with something -- why did the Redskins have a Radio Shack logo on their helmets this week?
Hmm. Very funny. I'd make fun of Todd, but his dollar is now on a one-to-one ratio with ours, so I'll pipe down. But, still, I liked Washington's throwbacks, and therefore they don't win this award.
Now Pittsburgh's throwbacks ... they looked bizarre. I thought they looked straight out of Tecmo Bowl. Deion said the Steelers' throwbacks looked more like Grambling than Pittsburgh. But, the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Wardrobe Malfunction Award goes to the Philadelphia Eagles, whose 75th anniversary throwback uniforms were the colors of the Swedish national flag -- bright yellow and, I guess, powder blue. Now, I've heard of Pennsylvania having Dutch roots, but Swedish? Who knew? Apparently, the first owners of the Eagles did because, in honor of the 17th Century Swedish settlers of an area in New Jersey, Delaware and nearby Philadelphia called New Sweden, the inaugural Eagles uniforms were blue and yellow. So, on Sunday against the Lions, the Eagles wore the throwbacks. New Sweden became Old Sweden and the Lions defense became Swiss cheese.
Still, not even 536 yards of total offense could make the Eagles look cool in those unis. I mean, Pelle Lindbergh? Yes. The Philadelphia Eagles? No. Steve Mariucci said it best on NFL GameDay: "Those throwbacks should be more like 'Throw Outs!'" I'll second that ... with the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Wardrobe Malfunction Award.
Rich Kotite "Can We Get a Mulligan?" Award:
This was a tight one. There are so many teams that would like a do-over to the 2007 NFL season. The criteria for this award are simple: You have to start 0-3 and have a key player suffer a catastrophic, season-ending injury in the process to give you no hope of moving forward. The Buffalo Bills qualify, what with the Kevin Everett situation followed by prized rookie linebacker Paul Posluszny going down for the year with a broken arm. And with J.P. Losman out, rookie quarterback Trent Edwards gets his first career start next week against the Jets ... although some Bills fans probably think that's not a bad thing. The St. Louis Rams qualify with flying colors, losing All-Pro left tackle Orlando Pace for the season in the season opener. They're 0-3 thanks to two home losses to start the season, and now they're heading into 3-0 Dallas next week without Steven Jackson, who is week-to-week with a partially torn groin.
But the Rich Kotite "Can We Get a Mulligan?" Award goes to the New Orleans Saints. Last year's surprise team is now also this year's surprise team, but for an entirely different reason. Just 20 days ago, the Saints opened the season with Reggie Bush on nearly every TV commercial (Peyton Manning is on every TV commercial) and the team's hopes riding high, coming off a franchise-best 2006. Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees had completed all but four passes in the preseason, and the stars appear aligned. Twenty days later, the Saints are still winless and, on Tuesday's NFL Total Access, Terrell Davis stuck a fork in them for 2007. The defense can't stop anybody, and the top-ranked offense from 2006 has only four offensive touchdowns through three games.
That said, most observers thought those offensive woes could be rectified by giving the ball more to running back Deuce McAllister. On Monday night, McAllister suffered his second season-ending knee injury in three years. Yikes. Sadly, there are no mulligans in football. But there is a Rich Kotite "Can We Get A Mulligan?" Award. And this year, that award has a fleur de lis on it.
MVP of the First 3/17ths of the Season Award:
Our final award. It's like the Best Picture of the First 3/17ths ceremony. This year, it's really no contest. Sure, it's great that Brett Favre has thrown his name back into an MVP discussion for the first time in a long time. And Tony Romo has proven he's no flash in the pan. In fact, Romo's style of play and throwing motion reminds me of Favre. His ability to buy time and stay upright under pressure is uncanny. He flat-out tortured the vaunted Bears defense Sunday night and is the reason Dallas has started 3-0. But Romo doesn't win this award. And neither does Peyton Manning, who is deservedly in every MVP discussion every year.
No, the hands-down winner of the MVP of the First 3/17ths of the Season Award is New England quarterback Tom Brady. It's frightening to think that Brady could get any better, but he has. Through the first three games, Brady has missed on only 18 passes. He's 70 for his first 88! His stat line against Buffalo on Sunday was typical: 23 of 29 for 311 yards and four touchdowns. Through the first 3/17ths of this season, Brady leads the NFL in passer rating, touchdown passes, completion percentage and, most importantly, yards per attempt. It seems every time Brady throws, he's finding a different receiver ... and Randy Moss still leads the league in touchdowns. No one can look off a safety quite like Brady. Like his idol, Joe Montana, Brady seems to know where every receiver is on the field, even when he's not looking at them. What more can I say?
I'm giving this MVP award to Brady not only for running the New England offense with Terminator-like efficiency, but I'm also giving it to him because he's more likely to show up to the ceremony if he wins. And that means Gisele might be at the First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards, too. Hey, if the ESPYs can do that sort of stuff, why can't I?