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Manning Makes The Broncos Contenders

In NFL on September 13, 2012 at 12:53 am

In what is set to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable NFL seasons to Denver have elected to put all their money on one of the few sure things left in the game. Last night’s opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers showed that their acquisition of veteran Peyton Manning, following his release from Indianapolis after fourteen years, could be the most significant move of the NFL season.

Manning

Dealing with veteran quarterbacks is always a tricky thing. Manning was the heart of the Colts for so long that choosing the right time to let him go was always going to be difficult. He had to go at some time but finding that perfect window of opportunity for player and team is never easy. That window was crowbarred open with Manning’s last season for the Colts cut short with injury and the requirement of four separate surgeries on his neck. Most felt that he would never reach those heights again, that whoever did acquire him was taking a gamble.

Denver on paper had no reason to take that gamble. At the time Colts were making their difficult decision they were in possession of one of the hottest properties in the game, namely the born-to-win Jesusfreak Tim Tebow. The youngster, despite constant criticism about “faulty mechanics” and dubious politics took the Broncos and turned them from a toothless team sinking straight to the bottom of their conference into play-off contenders. It was surely his team to show what he could do.

Whatever lead the powers that be to decide to bring Manning to Denver and ship out Tebow to the Jets, the opener must have seen plenty of alka-seltzer passed around the private box. After all, if it all backfired they’d be the people that let a Heisman Trophy winner slip through their fingers in favour of a 36 year old who is one big hit away from the end of his career. It would almost certainly spell doom for whoever could have the most blame apportioned to them in the aftermath of that potential future, a point made in the press with gusto.

Those that envisioned such a fate are the same sort of people who never speak about Peyton Manning in the same breath as the greats. After 611 days without a game the quarterback showed just why Denver were right and silenced the doubters with a master class that will today see him compared to the greats as he set records that eclipsed their own.

Throwing for 253 yards the first of his two touchdown passes saw him hit the 400 TD pass milestone in 209 games, which was faster than Brett Favre and Dan Marino. These are the sort of statistics that always get lost in favour of that other benchmark of greatness – championship rings. His own brother Eli, nowhere near the standard set by Peyton, has one more with two and this always seems to keep him down the pecking order.

Yet away from the statistics, there are the performances like last night that show he is one of a very few elite quarterbacks still playing the game. It was illustrated beautifully as he went up against a much improved Ben Roethlisberger whose often criticised style seemed more polished than it has been in a Steelers jersey. Either side of half time two lengthy drives showed the everything good about Roethlisberger whose efficiency on the third down kept the ball out of Manning’s hands for round about an hour. When he did finally get a touch of the football it only took 36 seconds to throw for a touchdown pass. That is the tangible difference between “good” and “great”.

The Broncos already had the bones of a potentially good team and their ability to stifle a running offence will serve them well this season. Defensive monsters such as Von Miller, who stepped up late in the game to shut down any hope of Roethlisberger upstaging the great one, keep quarterbacks up at night. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas already proved his value last season when he returned from an achilles injury to become the outlet for Tebow. What the team lacked, a reliable quarterback with an on field presence that transcends hype, they have found in Manning.

He will face sterner tests as the season wears on and there will always be question marks about his ability to stay fit. There are plenty of defenders who, in their own perverse brans of logic, would like to be the one that finally snapped Manning and forced him to retire. Yet, any notion that his ability had been dampened by time on the sidelines was laid to rest with faultless efficiency and, unlike his Pittsburgh counterpart, no interceptions.

The disparity in points in this 31 – 19 triumph doesn’t show the gulf of class that was evident for all to see. He read the game perfectly in a way that few can and left the Steelers defence dejected, so much so that in the post-match press conference they didn’t even want to talk about the Manning factor. It was, like death and taxes, depressingly inevitable they conceded. Those hangdog expressions from the assembled Steelers players will lift Denver going into week two and if triumphant against Atlanta then you can expect more and more to be talking them up. After all, if Tim Tebow was cause for such hysteria, how much faith will people be willing to place in a man up their with the quarterback gods?

The man himself will be quietly pleased. It’s unlikely he’ll add to his championship ring haul at Denver. There are stronger teams, teams that have already shown that they have a bit more razzle dazzle than the slow and steady Broncos. It is unlikely for sure but Manning’s presence alone does not make it impossible.

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A Coach’s Victory; A People’s Story

In NFL on February 8, 2010 at 4:56 am

Despite what sportswriters would have you believe there are actually only a few genuine moments a year that resonate with poignancy and an almost poetic rightness. Generally they are spoiled by people’s attempts to predict them, so by the time they come around they are all talked out, enough column inches filled to the point where every pub bore can regurgitate the broad strokes of the storyline as if it were a soap opera. The ones that really shake you, the ones that mean the most to the true sports fans of the worlds are the ones you never really dare to predict; the ones that you don’t see coming. When they do it is hard not to get sucked in to the swirls of raw emotion that surround such moments and it is tattooed onto the memory with ink so potent it barely fades with time.

I have just finished watching the superbowl and felt myself sucked in to one of those moments and it is better for the lack of starry eyed optimism in the build-up. Nobody really dared to say that New Orleans could win it, those that hinted it might be possible did so tentatively and only then once they had made it to the superbowl itself. Even during the play-offs everyone was so focused on the possibility of seeing the sporting statistician’s wet-dream in the form of a Peyton Manning and Brett Favre head-to-head that few were even concentrating on the Saints story. Even in victory the match was somehow still about Favre, but that is just the nature of the business.

Yet in the early hours I witnessed one of the most fantastic superbowls I have seen for a good while, an affirmation that the beautiful game can be played on the big stage in what was an almost flawless performance from both teams. It was easily one of the most error-free finals of all time, with both solid defence and flowing offence was on display. It also featured an unlikely comeback and high drama in the fourth quarter and in the end the winners were worthy. At the moment of victory you realised who you had been routing for all along and you’d be hard pushed to find anyone that felt any different. Of course, as has been said, New Orleans were the underdogs, their first appearance at a superbowl in their entire history and they were led by Drew Brees who was himself the epitome of the underdog having been discarded by San Diego on the  grounds they didn’t think he’d make the cut… Yet there’s even more to it than that.

New Orleans is a city still far from healed, the devastation from Hurricane Katrina leaving deep scars in a community that is desperately trying to rebuild almost virtually on its own. It is not just a literal rebuilding that is taking place, many of the residential areas still without houses and local businesses still not returned, but a spiritual one also. The memory of those who died and the way that certain parts of the media handled the disaster are still fresh and the pride that the people of New Orleans have in the way they have come together to deal with such problems is deserved. There is a quiet dignity about the way the city has laid down new foundations and while it will never erase the memories of what happened, something that was unthinkable then and still remains almost unbelievable now, for the first time since those dark days New Orleans is back in the world spotlight.

What a way to turn a corner. And while the Saints have handled themselves admirably all season, they owe this victory in the biggest match to their coach whose belief in his team and ballsy plays are the real reason they turned round a 0 – 10 defecit against one of the most consistent teams in the NFL to outscore them 31 – 17. At times the calls looked needlessly gutsy, such as the fourth down running play that saw them shut out and without a field goal, but in the end they worked. Yes, Sean Payton understands the SAS motto “who dares wins” more than most and what a refreshing change it makes to the “safety first” mindset or spoiling tactics that seem to go hand in hand with winners. There is no bigger testament to a coach’s faith in his team when he is prepared to gamble everything in the unwavering belief that they will come good, and he did that. The bond he will now have with his players as a result will be stronger than it ever was and Payton is a coach that is already blessed with some of the best man management and motivational skills in the league.

The game turned on that pivotal onside kick, which saw the Saints take back possession and I think it was only then that people outside of New Orleans began to believe that it would happen. Up until then the talk was of the future hall-of-famer Peyton Manning and what he was going to do. After that the talk was about Brees who put on a masterclass, equalling Brady’s completion record in a superbowl and throwing for almost 300 yards. When Manning threw the only intercepted pass of the final straight to Tracy Porter, himself from New Orleans, he returned it the full distance and it was over. And there’s your story, the day that the great weren’t great enough and the underdogs were close to perfection. But they were elevated to that high-point by a coach that came into this game unafraid and convinced that he was a conduit for destiny.

Self-belief and confidence are huge factors in any sport and they flow through the bloodstream of champions, which is why winning generally becomes habitual and losers remain in the mire. Yet it has to start with someone before it can spread through a team and Sean Payton injected it into a group of players that may have, in the back of their mind, been humble enough to have accepted second place given what they had already achieved. Certainly if they had glanced at newspapers before the game they would have been forgiven for thinking that the Colts had a God-given right to lift the trophy. The calls made by their coach underlined that they were equals, capable of winning and the light of understanding that showed in the intensity of their performance.

New Orleans winning a superbowl is a headline you never think you’ll read. For it to come while Hurrican Katrina is fresh in the mind makes it all the more moving. Tomorrow will the talk be of Drew Brees, the rightful MVP, and a possible place for him in the hall of fame in years to come? Will they be about an almost telepathic link between coach and quarterback that is a fundamental building block in any successful franchise? Will anyone even dare to bandy the word “dynasty” about? Probably not… Instead they will talk at length about what the victory means to the people, a worthy and beautiful story to focus on for sure, one that would speak to anyone about the ties between sport and the society it serves. For me, though, if they print one thing it has to be that Payton showed that if you really want something you can take it – all it takes is courage. Incredible to think then that the feel-good sports story of the year, and probably for some years to come, all comes down to the decisions of one man. This was a coach’s victory in the truest sense, but we all come out of it feeling like winners.

At Last – A Worthy Chief For The Redskins

In NFL on January 7, 2010 at 9:57 am

The news that Jim Zorn was being fired with immediate effect from the Washington Redksins will have come as a shock to very few, not even Zorn himself. After having been stripped of his right to call plays in October and rumblings about interviews for the non-vacancy taking place under his nose, it will have probably been a blessed relief when he was told that it was over. A relief for Zorn, sure, but also a relief for the D.C. fans who had to endure a rotten run under the beleaguered head coach, one that saw them lose eighteen of their last twenty four games. No, Zorn will not leave behind many friends and fewer fans as he moves onto pastures new, although I would expect a prolonged hiatus after prolonged exposure to such toxic failure.

Of course, Zorn was always a risky appointment and in truth it is just one in a series of wretched appointments from the owner Dan Snyder since he took over in 1999. Not one of his coaches ended their tenure with a positive winning ratio and many spent most of their time trying to implement radical changes in playing style that left the team directionless and unrecognisible from season to season. When Snyder made the announcement regarding Zorn’s future he himself said that he had to “accept responsibility for mistakes that I have made” of which there were many. He seems to be someone who lacks fundamental understanding of the nature of the game. How else can you explain his inability to grasp the concept that having your offensive and defensive co-ordinators having the same ethos as your head coach is one of the fundamentals to success? Yet in 2006 he appointed the former Chiefs offensive co-ordinator on a huge contract despite the fact that the head coach, Joe Gibbs, wanted to play a completely different way. Naturally this lead to problems on the field and it showed with their inconsistent form.

He has also authorised huge payments to free agents simply so he can be seen publicly to have “got his man” yet rarely have these players delivered on the field in a manner befitting their paycheque. To boot, it has caused dressing room disharmony if the insider reportage on the sports pages is to be believed. He is someone all too keen to use his considerable financial standing to take shortcuts to success, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a problem if the shortcuts all too often didn’t take the franchise down some cul-de-sac before simply having to turn around again and go back to the beginning of the journey. With such sense of direction you’d have to say that Dan Snyder is no more a true footballing mind than he is a taxi driver.

However the announcement of Mike Shanahan should be met with scenes of rapture and it represents the best decision Snyder has yet made since he was put in charge. Perhaps more importantly is the absolutely explicit statement that Shanahan will have the “ultimate authority” on all footballing decisions, something that implies – as many suspected – past coaches were not afforded this luxury. Indeed, it is not just a matter of going from someone with little coaching pedigree to bringing in a former Superbowl winner, although that in itself would be cause for any fan to start getting optimistic. But it is not this alone that should give Redskin fans fuel for wild dreams of glory. It is what Shanahan embodies – for he is, in the purest sense, a builder.

Put aside what he did as offensive co-ordinator for 49ers, which is no small feat considering they are heralded by many as the greatest offense of all time. But when he came into the head coach spot at the Broncos in 1995 there was still plenty to do. But his eye for talent, his ability to get the best out of his players, and the relationship he enjoyed with the legendary John Elway all played their part in creating one of the most successful NFL teams. Their achievements read like statistical pornography for anyone who loves the game – A record of 46 victories for 10 losses in a three year span, back to back Superbowls, an NFL record for first quarter points that still stands to this day, a string of individuals delivering huge rushing and receiving yardage… He has taken names that no-one had heard of and late round draft picks and turned them into world-beaters. At the end of his tenure, the wheels may have come off a little bit, but all good things have got to come to an end and had he left on a high, maybe in 2006 after they beat the Patriots, then things may have been a little different, he would come to Washington with more of an aura. But make no mistake – he is a winner and knows exactly what is required to turn the franchise around.

Having already instilled his son as offensive co-ordinator bodes well too. His former team, The Texans, might have blown hot and cold but as a student of his father’s teachings he will be relishing the opportunity to put it into practice with a head coach he knows will be on the same page. It is the foundations on which another great NFL offense can be built and you would expect clashes to be kept to a minimum.

So, with Snyder now set to take a back seat and the appointment of a real leader it simply comes down to one question – how long it will take before the Redskins are marauding the play-off plains? Maybe a season could be too soon, the five year contract belies the size of the task in hand… For me though the smart money has to be on D.C. being serious contenders sooner rather than later though. History shows us by two seasons a Shanahan team will be running at full steam and I’m sure when that time comes he will receive all the plaudits. And while every line written will be doubtlessly true and deserved, the real congratulations should go to Snyder. It takes a big man to recognise a bigger man is required to succeed. It may have took a while, but the Redskins have found someone worthy to be their chief.