NFC South: Bruce Springsteen
Your stadium is mentioned in Bruce Springsteen’s new single “We Take Care of our Own."
You can listen to it here. The mention of the Superdome comes pretty early in the song. I think this song might have been written before the naming rights were sold and the stadium became the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But I doubt anyone’s going to hold that against “The Boss," especially since the Superdome is mentioned in a very complimentary way, sort of like an American landmark.
Special thanks to AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky for letting us know about this. Largely due to our geographic roots (Kuharsky’s a New Jersey guy and I’m from a part of Pennsylvania that’s not far from New Jersey), we both are big Springsteen fans. Springsteen already had a song all about a stadium “Wrecking Ball’’ (about the old Giants Stadium), but as best as I know this is his first mention of an NFC South Stadium, although I believe he has played in at least several of them through the years.
His frequent quotes about “the process’’ aren’t all that enthralling and, like most NFL coaches, Smith isn’t going to give you a lot of information about injuries or his plan for an upcoming game. That’s why it was kind of surprising to look at the transcript of Smith’s meeting with the media on Monday and see a pretty good line.
Smith was asked if he’s feeling the excitement around the Atlanta area that’s come with the Falcons’ 12-2 start.
“Driving from Suwanee to Flowery Branch at six in the morning and 10:30 p.m. or dark thirty in the evening, I don’t get a whole lot of opportunities to really feel or see the buzz that’s going on here in the city of Atlanta,’’ Smith said. “I’m just glad that we’ve got the support that we do. I think you definitely see it every Sunday when we go to the dome when we come out as a football team you can hear the crowd and the passion that they have and the support that they give us.”
That made me think about the brutal hours coaches put in. I remember former Carolina defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac once, almost tearfully, telling me how he only got to spend time with his children on Fridays during the season. Trgovac said, on all the other days, he would walk into the rooms of each of his children and give them kisses as the slept when he got home at night and as he left in the morning. Trgovac also talked about how he tried to make up for that by spending extra time with his children in the offseason.
There is no question the life of a coach is a tough one and a lot of these guys go through life (or, at least, the season) with blinders on. Smith and the rest of the current NFC South coaches do about as good a job as possible at balancing their lives and they all stay plugged into the outside world to some degree.
It’s not that way everywhere and it’s been that way for a long time. There’s a legendary story about legendary Miami coach Don Shula, who might have been more disconnected from the outside world more than any coach in history.
Back in the 1980s, when “Miami Vice’’ was in its heyday, actor Don Johnson came out to watch the Dolphins practice in training camp one day. After practice, the actor went up to Shula and introduced himself and it went something like this, “Hey coach, Don Johnson from Miami Vice.’’
According to multiple eyewitnesses and repeated telling of the story through the years, Shula warmly embraced Johnson and thanked him for the work he and his colleagues did in protecting the city. Johnson, not fully realizing the road he was going down, then asked Shula if he’d like to come out on a “shoot’’ sometime.
Shula politely declined, telling Johnson that was too dangerous for his tastes.
Writers who covered the Dolphins during the Shula years, used to try to subtly test the coach on pop culture and current events. One of my favorite stories in this area comes from a former Dolphins’ media relations employee.
According to him, during a casual conversation one day, a writer made reference to musician Bruce Springsteen. Yeah, you guessed it. Shula asked who Springsteen was.
Eager to do our part, we locked NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who analyzes the Saints for ESPN.com, and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky, who tracks the Colts, in a room and asked them to talk through several of the top issues.
We’re sure to revisit many of them in the week to come, so consider this a tasty platter or appetizers. Tuck a napkin in your collar and dive in.
How much of a factor is it that the Colts have a recent Super Bowl championship on their resume, while this is the first Super Bowl appearance in a not-so-glorious franchise history for the Saints?
Pat Yasinskas: I’m not going to even try to bluff my way through this one or downplay this aspect. This is a huge factor and the Saints are clearly at a disadvantage here. By my count, they’ve only got four players who have even appeared in a Super Bowl (with other teams, of course). That’s safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Randall Gay, fullback Kyle Eckel and long-snapper Jason Kyle. Gay is the only one of those guys with a Super Bowl ring.
If you really want to pad the list, I suppose we could throw in tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas, who were on the injured-reserve list when their teams went to Super Bowls, and fullback Heath Evans, who went to a Super Bowl with New England. But Evans won’t play in this one because he’s on injured reserve. That’s it. Not a long list of guys who have been there and done that.
The Saints haven’t been here before, but they have to act as if they have. They’ve got strong veteran leadership in players such as Sharper, Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma. They’ll have to follow their lead. Just as important, the coaching staff has to set the tone that the Saints shouldn’t stroll into Miami with their eyes wide open. They need all eyes focused only on winning the game.
Paul Kuharsky: I’m not expecting the Saints to be overwhelmed or unfocused by the hype or events of Super Bowl week. They were smart to get their game plan drawn up and installed during the week after winning their conference, same as the Colts did.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday itself that can prove to be the big difference. It’s great to have people tell you about the unnatural start time, the long delay between warm-ups and pregame festivities and the extended halftime to make room for The Who. It’s another thing to go through it yourself. Edge: Colts. Not only have they done it, they’ve done it in this very venue.
I also think the adrenaline that shoots through guys when kickoff finally arrives can make it hard for them to settle down. Indianapolis will be better prepared for that, and if the Colts settle down more quickly than the Saints, New Orleans has to hope by the time its feet hit the ground it’s not facing a two-score deficit.
Understandably, the first thing people talk about with these two teams is the passing game. But both the Colts and the Saints can run the ball a little bit. Which team has the better running game?
They realized they already had some good backs in the building with Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell and they added Lynell Hamilton for a bit of depth. They had a good offensive line already in place, and Payton altered his play calling to have a more balanced offense that allowed the Saints to protect leads and run out the clock.
New Orleans doesn’t have one dominant back. Thomas can do a bit of everything, Bush provides speed and a receiver out of the backfield and Bell and Hamilton give the Saints some power. This makes for a very solid combination.
PK: I like the Saints' running game better as well, but as we’ve discussed thoroughly in the AFC South blog this season, the Colts aren’t looking for conventional production in this department. They need their runners to pick up blitzes, put together some efficient runs, work well in play-action, and not put the team in bad spots with runs for losses. The home run plays are far more likely to come out of the passing game.
It’s important to note that the Colts, the NFL’s lowest-rated running team in the regular season, just out-rushed the Jets, the league’s top ground game, in the AFC title game. Indy has survived a lot of quality running backs too, including the Titans' explosive 2,000-yard runner Chris Johnson. While he torched the rest of the league, averaging 5.8 yards a carry, he managed 4.1 and 147 total rushing yards against the Colts in two Tennessee losses.
The Colts may give up some yards, but overall they are more than capable of containing Thomas, Bush, Bell and Hamilton well enough to win.
The quarterbacks are obviously the marquee names in this game and they will be dissected all week.
PK: I have a great deal of appreciation for Drew Brees, but even if he wins this game, we’re not going to be calling him Peyton Manning’s equal. Both quarterbacks are excellent leaders. Both are supremely accurate. Both have a quality stable of weapons.
But things begin to stray from there. Manning has four MVPs, including this season’s, and he won it over Brees, who finished second. Manning has a lot more big-game experience and a title on his resume. And while he wasn’t always at his best on the playoff stage, he’s playing at a level right now where a lot of people feel, reasonably it seems, that he may just be unstoppable.
In the AFC Championship Game, against the Jets and the NFL’s top-rated defense, he needed some time to figure out what New York was trying to do. Once he did, he shredded the Jets with 377 yards and three touchdowns. His in-game adjustments, with help from coordinator Tom Moore, are unparalleled. And like a lot of defensive coaches before him, Gregg Williams is talking about sending people at Manning and hitting him. These days, it very rarely works out the way against Manning and the Colts, as it did against Brett Favre and the Vikings.
PY: Paul, let me start by saying I respect the heck out of Manning and all he has achieved. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, quite possibly, the best quarterback ever. And I’ll gladly agree that he probably is playing at his highest level ever right now.
That said, why can’t we call Brees his equal if the Saints win this game? Seriously, I believe the only thing really separating Brees and Manning right now is a Super Bowl ring. Look at Brees’ numbers the past few years. He’s right there with Manning. I honestly remember watching him in training camp last year and thinking, “This guy is the closest thing to Peyton Manning I’ve ever seen’’ and Brees has only continued to improve since then. He has carried a franchise on his shoulders and that franchise is the New Orleans Saints -- enough said about that.
As for the MVPs, that’s a wonderful thing. But I think some of that is overrated and the Manning name carries a lot of weight in elections. I’m not trying to tear down Manning at all. But I think you have to at least let Brees in the same sentence if he can win this game. I’ll offer a compromise here. If the Saints win this game, can we at least say the two best quarterbacks in the league are from teams in the South?
PK: Well, beyond four MVPs to none, if the Colts win Manning will be up two Super Bowls to none, and while he’s only three NFL seasons ahead of Brees he has led his team to the postseason 10 times to Brees’ three. Lots of cushion there in my eyes. But I’ll go with you on the South divisions ranking one and two if Brees gets his hands on that Lombardi Trophy.
We talked quarterbacks, of course we have to talk pass rushes. How much will the guys chasing Manning and Brees influence this game?
PK: For a long time the Colts' defense was at its best when the offense got a lead and made the opponent one-dimensional. That did a lot to get the run game out of the mix against a defense keyed around speed, not size, and put Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in those maximal pass-rushing situations.
It doesn’t have to be that way now. This version of the Colts is still fast, but the defense is a bit bigger with Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir manning the middle of the line. It has a second big-hitting linebacker in Clint Session to go with Gary Brackett and boasts defensive backs who can come up and hit as well as run and cover.
Jon Stinchcomb (against Mathis) and Jermon Bushrod (against Freeney) will be dealing with some serious speed. If Freeney's ankle injury holds him out or limits him, that will hurt. Raheem Brock is a quality third end, but he won't necessarily prompt the Saints to help Bushrod with a tight end or back, so the vaunted Saints passing attack may not have to sacrifice a weapon in protection. If the Colts bring a fifth rusher to help, as they have much more often in Larry Coyer’s first season as their defensive coordinator, the timing up front can get all out of whack no matter who's at end.
If either defense can prompt some happy feet, it could be an edge.
PY: Absolutely. The pass rush is going to be a deciding factor in this game for both teams. No doubt Indianapolis has a great pass rush and that’s a challenge for the entire New Orleans offense, particularly Bushrod. He is a backup who has been forced to play all season because of an injury to Jammal Brown.
Bushrod has his limitations. But he has held up all right against players such as Julius Peppers and John Abraham. DeMarcus Ware has been the only guy to really tear him apart. Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with the rest of this offense more than it does with Bushrod’s skills. The Saints account for him on every play and they’ve been able to cover him because the rest of their offensive line is so good. They’ve given him help from tight ends, fullbacks and running backs and the offense is designed so that Brees rarely takes deep drops and he gets rid of the ball very quickly. Plus, it’s tough to fluster Brees.
Sure, it’s tough to fluster Manning too, but that’s not going to stop the Saints from trying, and their pass rush is better than a lot of people think. Defensive end Will Smith is one of the most underrated players in this game and Bobby McCray’s a pretty good pass-rusher too. With Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove, the Saints are capable of getting a push in the middle and Gregg Williams is not afraid to bring the blitz -- although I don’t see him doing it a lot in this game. The Saints beat up Favre and Kurt Warner in their two playoff games. I know Manning is seen as sacred by a lot of people, but I don’t think Williams and the New Orleans defense view him that way.
PK: However it unfolds, I root for a classic. We should have good seats, I want the good storylines too.
PY: I’m with you my friend. Nothing better than the Super Bowl -- good football, good weather and good entertainment. Remember how great Bruce Springsteen’s show was at halftime last year? Oh, that’s right, you didn’t make it. Hope The Who helps make up for that.
PK: Could be another tricky day for you and the team you’re following. But it’ll be fun to join together to see how it unfolds.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Humorous moment out here in the media room at One Buccaneer Place this afternoon.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who is not known for being one of the more colorful interviews in the NFL, ran into legendary Tampa Bay radio (WDAE-AM) reporter Whitney Johnson, who is one of the more colorful characters I’ve ever met, on the conference call.
Johnson, as is his tact, waited until all the other reporters had asked their questions to turn to his off-beat questions. Johnson asked Coughlin if he was celebrating Bruce Springsteen’s 60th birthday Wednesday.
That actually drew a laugh from Coughlin, who then revealed it’s also the birthday of Giants assistant coach Chris Palmer.
Johnson then asked Coughlin if he was planning on attending Springsteen’s upcoming concert at Giants Stadium.
“I think my night is occupied,’’ Coughlin said.
Eli Manning's about to do his conference call with the Tampa Bay media. We'll see if Johnson asks him about "The Boss."
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas.
There's a report out there that Bruce Springsteen will play at halftime of Super Bowl XLIII. The Tampa Tribune hasn't been able to get anyone to confirm it yet, but the speculation is that The Boss will be at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 1.