Monday, November 28, 2005

Some White Men Can Jump: Seahawks' Jurevicius Heading for Career Year

In yesterday's 24-21 overtime victory against the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Joe Jurevicius (right) caught 8 passes for 137 yards (a 17.1-yard average), with 2 TDs. That gives him 44 catches for 558 yards, and puts him on pace for a 64-reception, 812-yard season. Those numbers aren't astonishing by any means, but they'll be career numbers for Jurevicius, a 6'5," 230-lb. veteran out of Penn State now in his eighth NFL season. Jurevicius spent his first four years in the NFL with the Giants, then spent three years with the Tampa Bay Bucs, with whom he won a Super Bowl after the 2002 season. He's struggled with some injuries, however, and has never managed to assert himself into the higher echelon of NFL wide receivers.

No one's ever going to confuse Jurevicius with T.O. or Randy Moss. But the fact of the matter is that, in a season where the Seahawks are now 9-2 and threatening to establish themselves as the class of the NFC, Jurevicius looks to be the team's key free-agent pickup. Clearly, Joe J. is the tonic that the Seattle passing game desperately needed: a guy who could actually CATCH THE BALL. In their attempt in recent years to establish a passing attack with up-and-coming QB Matt Hasselback, the Seahawks kept sending wide receivers onto the field who seemed to know well enough how to get open but continually dropped passes when it counted. Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram, and Koren Robinson were the main receivers for 2004, and on paper they looked all right, especially Jackson, who caught 87 passes for 1,199 yards and 7 TDs. Yet the Seahawks also went through some frustrating periods where Hasselback would find a groove and then a case of iron hands would afflict his receiving corps at the most inopportune times. A couple of late-season games were downright ugly in this department, and even with the great Shaun Alexander running the ball and Hasselback gaining in experience, the Seahawks more or less stumbled to a wild-card berth at 9-7, then promptly lost a playoff encounter to the Rams, 27-20.

Jurevicius may not be the fastest guy on the field, but by golly he's got reliable hands. And with his height and heft, he enters traffic as a prime target for Hasselback, who got the Seahawks on the board first yesterday with a beauty of a 35-yard TD pass in which Joe J. skied high at the goal line, twisted his muscular frame brilliantly to establish position over a shorter Giants defender, then plucked the ball out of the air, simultaneously wresting it away from the defensive back and securely into his grasp. Jurevicius later grabbed a 16-yard TD toss from Hasselback, and with Alexander finally getting in gear, the 'Hawks nipped the Giants on a Josh Brown field goal.

So it's taken Jurevicius a while to find a spotlight, but he's got one now, on a hungry team with a sharp QB, a killer running back, and a head coach, Mike Holmgren, who's already won a Super Bowl with the Packers. Questions linger about the Seahawks defense, which plays aggressively enough but has yet to pass a few more serious tests. For example, they yielded 151 yards on the ground to Tiki Barber yesterday, and Giants QB Eli Manning passed for 344 yards. Nevertheless, in the absence of any other NFC team asserting its dominance, the 'Hawks look as good as any to make a serious run for Super Bowl XL.

As long as he stays healthy, Jurevicius not only has a chance to achieve career stats; he may also serve as the poster boy for a new-ish NFL trend: the tall, white receiver who can catch a pass in traffic and use his size to terrific advantage over smaller, usually faster cornerbacks and safeties. Tennessee's Drew Bennett is another one of these guys; he's also 6'5" and built very similar to Jurevicius. Bennett returned to action yesterday after missing three games with a broken thumb. He caught five passes as the Titans broke a five-game losing streak. Jacksonville Jaguars rookie wide receiver Matt Jones (left) is also making his considerable physical presence felt. Jones is 6'6" and listed at 229 pounds, but he looks more hulkish than that on television. (Older college profiles list him at 242 pounds.) Like Bennett a college quarterback—Bennett at UCLA, Jones at Arkansas—Jones is making the Jags' draft-day decision to select him as a wideout to look brilliant. He's a huge target who is extraordinarily mobile for his size and looks to have the necessary good hands to go with his position. Jones is a hugely gifted football player. At Arkansas, he proved he could throw well enough to be a first-string QB, but he also put up impressive numbers running the ball when he had to. As Jones gains NFL experience, and begins to catch more passes in traffic and on the run, he's liable to become an incredible threat with daunting YAC (yards after catch) numbers. It's gonna be like trying to tackle a Larry Csonka or John Riggins clone in full stride, except Jones is even bigger in every way, plus he has the speed to line up on the outside even though his height/weight profile would seem to equate to playing tight end.

(It'll be interesting to watch in the next few years, to see if NFL teams start looking for more size in their cornerbacks, especially, in order to combat the tall-guy trend. Some of the typical current DBs are giving away 8 or 9 inches to a guy like Jones.)

Anyway, for now, a healthy Joe Jurevicius is the leading exemplar of the trend. We may see a lot of him come playoff time.

NFL Notes
For the second straight week, a former Redskins head coach returned to Washington to lead his AFC West team to victory. Last week, it was Norv Turner, who returned to DC with his Oakland Raiders to deal a serious blow to the 'Skins playoff hopes, 16-13. Yesterday, it was Marty Schottenheimer's turn, as his San Diego Chargers beat the 'Skins in overtime 23-17. (Schottenheimer was unceremoniously released by 'Skins owner Dan Snyder following the 2001 season, after he struggled early with a rag-tag bunch and then got the team to play above its head on the way to an inspired 8-8 finish.) With LaDainian Tomlinson (left) gaining 184 yards rushing and scoring three TDs, the Chargers raised their record to 7-4, and certainly look like the best non-division leader in the league. The 'Skins, meanwhile, have dropped three toughies in a row by a combined score of 75-65, and at 5-6 would have to probably win out the rest of the way and get some help from faltering others to even have a shot at a wild-card berth.... And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—at least that's what it looks like in Chicago, where the Bears are now 8-3 after beating the Bucs in Tampa Bay, 13-10. The Bears have a popgun offense commandeered by a rookie QB (Kyle Orton, pictured at right), and it hardly challenged the Bucs' defense yesterday. But the Bears' young and aggressive defense is sporting claws sharp enough to take down two consecutive good NFC South teams (last week it was Carolina), and if there's a feel-good story coming up in the playoffs, it's gotta be the Bears.... The Vikings will try to have something to say about the Bears' NFC North divisional aspirations, having won four straight after a lackluster start. Now 6-5, Minnesota still has a shot at the post-season, and who would've guessed they'd be doing it without QB Daunte Culpepper? With Culpepper out for the year, the Vikings are relying on the 37-year-old, well-traveled Brad Johnson at quarterback, who, lest we forget, led the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title.... With their 26-16 loss at Kansas City, the Patriots have dropped to 6-5, still good enough for first place in the anemic AFC East, which also includes the Bills (4-7), the Dolphins (4-7) and the Jets (2-9). The Pats aren't likely to achieve in the playoffs, despite their mystique and the brilliance of coach Bill Belichick Their running game is currently nonexistent, and Tom Brady threw four interceptions against the Chiefs. Other AFC division leaders Indy (10-0), Cincy (8-3) and Denver (9-2) are playing well and look to be healthy, and this is not the Pats' year.... On the sad-sack front, how 'bout them Packers (2-9), Jets (2-9) and 49ers (2-9)?... Then there's Houston, now 1-10 after dropping one to the Rams in overtime, 33-27. This is a really sad situation. The home-team Texans led 24-3 at the half. Their QB David Carr had a banner game, with 25-34 for 293 yards and 3 TDs. Their talented WR Andre Johnson had 12 catches for 159 yards. The Rams were starting second-string QB Jamie Martin in place of injured Marc Bulger, whereupon the Texans sacked Martin early and put him out of the game with a case of blurred vision. In a scenario straight out of a Disney movie script, enter third-string Rams rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (left), a 7th-round draft choice—out of Harvard, no less!—playing in his first ever NFL game. Despite enduring five sacks of his own, Fitzpatrick goes 19-30 for 310 yards and 3 TDs, gets 110 rushing yards from the erratic but gifted Steven Jackson, puts up 24 second-half points to send the game into overtime, then throws WR Kevin Curtis a 56-yard TD pass to complete a story-book ending that can only be a nightmare for the woeful Texans. I'm not even sure the chance to get the #1 pick in the 2006 draft is worth all this agony for Houston. Even the league's youngest team, the Tennessee Titans, are playing better ball at 3-8, and look to have better down-the-road potential talent. Last I looked, Dom Capers is still Houston's head coach. He worked magic when he took over the expansion Carolina Panthers a decade ago, but the Texans' saga has been one of erratic free-agent talent-gathering, so-so drafting (one wonders if even Carr is the talent he was purported to be), an inability to build an offensive line of any consistency, and an overall talent level that seems to be losing steam rather than gathering it. Plus, negative karma seems to rule the day every time the Texans take the field, Sunday's game being a classic example.

No comments: