"Any given Sunday" happened yesterday. That's what you call it when lesser teams smite greater teams in the NFL. If the old adage is a cliche, then so be it. But it's nice to be reminded once more why pro football is a reliable religion and television its well-attended church.
Yesterday's FOX and CBS broadcasts helped us learn some new lessons all over again: That experience and leadership definitely count at quarterback; that a major part of football's allure is its violence; and that the game continues to offer choice opportunities for nobodys to become somebodys.
All of this was in evidence in the Green Bay-Atlanta matchup. The Packers entered the game at 1-7, probably headed for their worst finish, and their first sub-.500 record, since 1991 (4-12). Pop quiz: Who was the Packers' coach that year? Give yourself a gold star if you said Lindy Infante. That's right: Lindy Infante. You could look it up. '91 was also the last year Brett Favre was NOT the Packers quarterback. The legendary figures who shared the duties that season were Mike Tomczak and Don Majkowski, two names that Pack fans are happy not to hear.
The Packers have done quite well since then, with eight double-digit-win seasons, mostly under Mke Holmgren and current coach Mike Sherman, including 10 trips to the playoffs and two Super Bowl appearances. How such consistency has been achieved in an isolated podunk Wisconsin town would seem elusive to determine. It's cold up there. It's not a glamorous place to live. The Packers don't throw money around like Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. And despite its time-honored tradition as the home of a storied NFL franchise, Green Bay just isn't very sexy, nor are there sunny beaches anywhere nearby (certainly not in the wintertime).
Which maybe explains why the talent level on the Packers never seems that impressive. There've had decent players through the years, of course, and the late Reggie White was much more than that. But generally these teams have been devoid of marquee, Hall of Fame-caliber players. Except for Brett Favre. While the otherwise competent cast of characters keeps changing, Favre (left), 36, keeps chugging along. There's been plenty of talk lately that his days are numbered, that it's time to consider his retirement, or that he needs to possibly agree to a trade to a team that can use his abilities immediately. But Favre is still a great QB, and his performance Sunday brought his skills into stark relief, especially in comparison with his opposite number, the too-ballyhooed Michael Vick, who referred to Favre as "Brent" during a mid-week interview.
Now in his fifth season, Vick (right) still has all those marvelous skills that fill up miles of highlight reels, dating back to his college days at Virginia Tech. He's a sure bet to win any Punt, Pass & Kick competition. But by now, Vick should know more about NFL quarterbacking than he showed against the Packers in a 33-25 defeat on his home field. Vick had a capable statistical day, much better than his usual. Entering the 2005 season, Vick was sporting a mediocre career QB rating of 76.9, so when he went 20-30 for 209 yards (2 TDs, 0 INTs) against the Packers, he was certainly exceeding his typically confounding numbers. Vick has tremendous running help with the gifted Warrick Dunn and the bruising T. J. Duckett in his backfield. His receivers aren't all-world, but there's some talent there, including the excellent tight end Alge Crumpler. The Falcons also have an aggressive defense capable of shutting down good offenses. And yes, the team is 6-3 with the playoffs in sight.
Yet there were a few boos in Atlanta. And why not? Vick showed Sunday why there's so much more to his craft than having a golden arm or running a 4.3 40. Sometimes Vick captains the Falcons' offense as if it were a Chinese fire drill, balancing his occasional brilliance with panicky back-pedaling, poor defensive reads, and some clueless maneuvers that a lot of less-gifted rookies wouldn't even try. At one point, in the grasp of a Packer defender, Vick heaved a mindless, targetless pass into the near stratosphere—and not out of bounds—and only pure luck prevented it from being picked off. Vick poses a threat as a runner, but he mostly spends his time trying to decide whether to pass or run, the result being that he excels at neither. In addition, his scrambling antics expose him to potential injury far more than other QBs, and in fact his health hasn't really been very good during his career. If Vick is trying to transition to a pocket passer, he seems no further along than he was two years ago. He almost looks worse, since back then he was at least fairly blatant about his running skills, and the one-man-show approach yielded some tremendous football and the promise of surprise victory. On a day that the Packers put up 33 points against a good Falcon defense, Vick was statistically sound. But he needed to do more, and he simply looked unable when it counted.
Which brings us to Favre, a guy who has made lesser athletes look great for more than a decade. Yeah, the Packers are now 2-7 with the win. The miracle is that this team didn't have a major collapse a couple of years ago. Favre is capable of willing his team to victory, but it's gotten tougher to do when the talent is suspect to begin with and then major players go down with injury. Favre doesn't have Dunn and Duckett. He doesn't even have talented but fumble-prone Ahman Green, who's been injured (as are his usual, occasionally effective replacements). Instead, Favre's running back yesterday was Sam Gado, a little-known rookie celebrating his 23rd birthday by gaining 103 yards on 25 carries and scoring three touchdowns (one on a toss from Favre). Favre can still fling a sharp accurate pass, he can still roll-out to deceptive effect, he still plays with gutty instinct. His numbers weren't glittering (26-39, 252 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), but he took a 1-7 team, decimated by injuries, on the road to the house of a 6-2 division leader, and he showed a national TV audience what will and winning are all about.
The Packers don't figure to improve much this year. If they finish 6-10, they might be grateful. And possibly Favre will have to make a tough decision about his future fairly soon. But any number of teams would love to have him. Right now. that includes the Miami Dolphins, who matched the New England Patriots for intensity and hard-hitting desire yesterday, but came up short in Miami, 23-16. The Pats are another team already banged up by injury, and they lost RB Corey Dillon early in this game. With a 5-4 record, these are not your Super Bowl-winning defending league champions. Not by a long shot. But they still have Tom Brady (left), who himself "pulled a Favre": He took a battered team onto the road, put up some efficient numbers (21-36, 275 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) and caught an aggressive defense napping with nifty play execution, including a couple of gutsy scoring passes to tight end Ben Watson. Brady's complementary running back? A fifth-year journeyman named Heath Evans, whose busiest previous season in the league was 2002 with Seattle, when he amassed a grand total of 17 carries. He got 17 in this game alone, and he gained 84 yards, providing enough of a ground attack so Brady could work his magic.
The improving Dolphins (now 3-6) were poised to win this game, which was a compelling, rock-'em/sock-'em affair, and was actually a lot closer than the score indicates. The Fish were clearly hungry to knock off the longtime-rival Pats, and they played tough D throughout. They also got flashes of good running from rookie Ronnie Brown and some fine play from underrated wide receivers Marty Booker and Chris Chambers (2 TDs). The big QB numbers even belonged to their own Gus Frerotte (25-47, 360 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), a veteran with some moxie if not all the talent in the world. It's easy to root for Frerotte (below), 34, who once started for the Redskins but since 1999 languished as a part-timer for the Lions, Broncos, Bengals and Vikings, before getting a chance this year to resurrect his career with a rebuilding, QB-needy Dolphins squad under new coach Nick Saban. Yesterday, with 93 seconds to play, Frerotte had five downs within the Patriot 15-yard-line to tie the game. He completed two passes for a net gain of 0 yards, and he misfired on three others. There were no heroics left apparently. Maybe because the savvy Brady had used them all up.
And before we start anointing Peyton's little brother as the next great QB—there's been talk of an all-Manning Super Bowl—let's not forget that Eli is still learning. His New York Giants were yet another home team betrayed by its quarterbacking, though that wasn't the only reason the Minnesota Vikings clipped the Giants 24-21. If you look at the stats, you'd guess the Giants had won this game in a romp, as they piled up a net 405 yards on offense. Meanwhile, for the Vikings, Michael Bennett led them in rushing—with 16 yards in 19 carries (!?). The well-traveled 37-year-old Brad Johnson (left), taking over for injured Viking QB Daunte Culpepper, completed 17 of 30 passes for only 144 yards and no TDs. The Vikings scored three TDs—one each by punt return, kickoff return, and interception return—then held on for dear life as Paul Edinger kicked a game-winning field goal with 10 seconds left on the clock.
The Vikings—now a surprising 4-5 in a season where they started badly, lost their star Culpepper and have had strange internal goings-on creating incredible distractions—looked aggressive if not particularly polished. Big plays carried the day, and while Manning the Lesser (right) put up some interesting numbers for the Giants (23-48, 291 yards, 1 TD), the youngster also threw four interceptions. Yes, the Giants' special-teams coverage wasn't very good, and fiery head coach Tom Coughlin was fit to be tied about that. Even so, the Giants could have won this game, and the Manning turnovers were equally responsible for the Giants' downfall. Now 6-3, New York missed a golden chance to work their home-field advantage and gain a win against a team generally considered inferior. Yet more disappointment looms, if only because Eli, clearly pretty talented, is still learning what reading a defense is all about. Few will ever do what Brady did in his second (and first full) season: Win a Super Bowl. If Sunday is any indication, Eli isn't quite ready for that.
Obvious talent and big numbers can be deceptive things, and good quarterbacking is still assessed by intangibles and what's in the "win" column.
It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a leader to direct a pro football offense.