NFL Nation: Cris Collinsworth

Former NFL quarterback Phil Simms called it a good thing. Former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth called the entire mess unprecedented.

When it comes to the Washington Redskins and Robert Griffin III, there are endless opinions on what has transpired. Because both Simms and Collinsworth played the game and remain in it as broadcasters, for CBS and NBC, respectively, their takes are interesting.

Talking on Showtime's Inside the NFL, Simms said benching Griffin did not bother him.

"You could say performance wise they needed to make a change to help the football team," Simms said. "There are a lot of things, are they doing for spite? Doesn't matter. I do agree with this premise: Sit him down, let him make sure he's healthy, see what he can learn from the sidelines. I don't disagree with that premise -- if you do buy that premise."

Collinsworth then spoke to the dysfunction surrounding the franchise.

"I have honestly never seen anything like what's going on in Washington right now," he said. "I mean, since maybe the old days of the New York Yankees and Billy Martin. It is a soap opera. There are so many layers to what's going on in Washington right now, you just wonder could it ever possibly be fixed. And I guess they're just going to blow it up again and start all over again. Who knows what they're going to do? But this is as strange an end to the football season as I've ever seen."

Simms then returned the conversation to Griffin.

"He did need to step back, RG3," Simms said. "He needed to step back and it does help you… When you come back I do believe it makes you a different, and most of the time a better, player."

It will certainly make him more motivated. And what will make him better is a full offseason devoted to improving in the pocket, something he could not do last offseason. He needs to have a strong offseason to show his teammate how he'll respond to this situation, especially if Kirk Cousins continues to play well.

"The most interesting part for Washington's situation is what is happening in that locker room," Collinsworth said, "and how do those players feel about Robert Griffin. I don't know the answer to that question. I've heard bits and pieces of things, but I think Robert could do a lot in this offseason with his work ethic, with his relationship with teammates, to make this football team better next year."
NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth is clear where he stands on Mike Shanahan: He should return. He also is clear on the salary cap penalty the Washington Redskins endured: It crushed them. My guess is you'll hear a lot about this during tonight's game (8:30 ET).

It's what Collinsworth discussed during an appearance on ESPN980 Friday with Steve Czaban and Chris Cooley.

Here are the highlights (followed by my take):

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsBoth QB Robert Griffin III and coach Mike Shanahan have had to deal with great challenges as they try to get the Redskins on the winning path.
Collinsworth said the Redskin need to decide, "We have Robert Griffin III and this is the way he plays quarterback and we have Mike Shanahan and this is the way he's going to play offense and do we believe as a playmaker that you can win football games without being able to sit in the pocket and go one, two, three and read your way through a defense? I don't know that I believe that just alone the read option and the play-action against a single high safety is going to get you to a Super Bowl. People have caught up with that a little bit and like Philadelphia, you're going to have to evolve."

My take: I agree. I'm a fan of the read option, but even after last season I felt the only way for the offense to evolve was for the passing game to do so.

The hosts then asked if Collinsworth remained firmly behind Shanahan after three straight losses (he had backed him strongly on an Inside the NFL appearance last month).

Collinsworth: "If you were going to ask me what I think is best for the organization, I think what's best is to convince Robert that Mike Shanahan can take him to the next level. ...This offense has been number one, number one, number one, number one through eternity so we know it works and then you put someone with [Griffin's] physical skills into it. When I saw they made this trade I said, 'Oh my god this is going to fantastic. This is going to be the greatest offense we've ever seen.' Unfortunately, the unforeseen came into play and that was the salary cap hit. Anyone who could have foreseen $36 million taken off that team after that trade and after giving up the draft picks, so now not only are you not going to have the draft picks, you're not going to have the money to spend on free agency. Thirty six million, you're talking about at least the best six players on your team being taken off it. If you go to any team out here and take $36 million off it this late in the year when attrition starts to really kick in, I want you to find any team that will be above 3-8."

My take: When they landed Griffin, and I spoke to NFL types about the offense, no one mentioned the zone read as part of what they would do. They all felt he'd be successful because he was a good fit for what this offense has shown in the past. As for the coaches: If the Redskins finish strong and play well, then yeah bring them back.

Collinsworth continued on about the salary cap, pointing out the parity in the NFL. There's a reason the playoff teams turn over quite a bit from one year to the next. "If every team got an extra $36 million to spend, how do you think the team, the 32nd team, that didn't get it, would do? Would they win very many games?"

To which Czaban pointed out, as I would have, that the Redskins haven't always spent wisely.

Collinsworth: "You've got to hit the right players. But I thought the tough part about it was that when the announcement was made -- on the eve of free agency. You say would they have made the trade for RG3 and given up all the draft picks if they had known they'd take a $36-million hit? My guess is no. [Then you would say], ‘OK, we're going to take a $36-million hit? Fine, I'll tell you what we're gonna do. We're gonna go completely young, get rid of all our older players. And we're gonna take this core of newly drafted young key players and play with them for two years while the salary cap hit is underway and then in year three we're gonna explode on the scene.' But when they didn't know when they made the RG3 trade and they gave up all the draft picks, now you can't get the free agents to make the rest of the team. You're dead. The fact that they made the playoffs last year is much more a miracle than the fact they've won three games this year."

My take: I agree on the timing of the hit. It was brutal and would have altered their strategy and winning the division with a rookie quarterback who still has more to learn was quite an accomplishment. But, fair or not, every team in the NFL also was warned that there would be consequences if the team handled the 2010 uncapped year a certain way. Now, Shanahan could argue that wasn't his decision -- he's not the cap guy or in charge of the organization. But free agency is hit or miss; always has been (not just here). The Redskins drafted 21 players in 2011 and '12 – more than any team in the NFL during this period -- and only four will start Sunday night (a fifth would have if Leonard Hankerson had remained healthy). Only two picks from 2010 will start. It takes time for picks to develop, but there's a good chance after this season only five of the 12 picks in 2011 will be on the roster next season (assuming the same staff returns) and that would mean only seven of their 18 picks from 2010 and '11 would be around. Drafting and developing can help offset free-agency mistakes, or at least keep you more competitive until you can spend again. It will take more than free-agency spending to resurrect the Redskins.

Green questions Redskins' leadership

November, 14, 2013
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins don't have leadership. That's a conclusion drawn by former Washington Redskins corner Darrell Green. He said London Fletcher is too old to still be that guy; and Green said Robert Griffin III is not the leader on the team.

Griffin
Fletcher
Green was part of a roundtable discussion on "Inside the NFL" when the Redskins, naturally, came up. The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg has the full exchange here. I'll focus on some of the comments, starting with leadership.

"I don't know if they have a leader," Green said.

The others, apparently, brought up Fletcher.

"Well, London Fletcher is, but I've been that old player before," Green said. "And you're a moral leader, people love you and respect you, but you're really not the leader. You're not. And really, you shouldn't be. Because in my opinion, the leadership should come from the offensive side of the ball, because the game is such an offensive-based game."

It's an interesting point. Green is not around the team often, but he is a smart guy and offers a different perspective. The only problem with this assertion, as someone who covered Green and respected him and still enjoys talking to him when I see him, is that Fletcher was a stronger leader. Green was respected for his play and for what he stood for. But as a cornerback it was difficult for him to provide the sort of leadership Fletcher has during his career. Because Fletcher is the defensive mouthpiece, he's in a much different spot than Green was at the tail end of his career. You can debate his play all you want, but I wouldn't say Fletcher can't lead anymore.

Later in the show, Cris Collinsworth raved about Griffin.

"Robert Griffin is an unbelievable leader," Collinsworth said. "Teams are built now around first-, second- and third-year players. They're the great majority of the players on the team. And Robert Griffin is the guy that's gonna take them where they want to go if they just leave the whole thing alone. Next year, you'll go,'Oh my gosh, we almost blew it up, it would have been the dumbest thing ever.' "

Collinsworth, also NBC's Sunday Night Football analyst, then lobbied for Mike Shanahan to remain as coach.

"It's crazy," Collinsworth said. "You just take what the system is. It's perfectly built for [Griffin]. Let them develop him as a pocket passer; next season, they're going to be the favorite to win the division."
Because one of our players started the ball moving on what could be substantial changes to the NFL's Pro Bowl, I'll take it upon myself to track suggestions and developments in that area. It's a tough and thankless job, but someone has to do it. I'm willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Even before Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers criticized the effort level of some players in the Jan. 29 game, we passed along Patty's suggestion of scrapping the game and instituting an alternative competition -- skills, snail-eating, sludge swimming -- to benefit each player's favorite charity. To that list, we'll add a suggestion from NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who suggested a revival and tweak of the once-annual Chicago Charities All-Star Football Classic between the best NFL and college players.

Longtime NFC North/Central fans will remember that game was typically played in the preseason between the reigning NFL champions and the top rookies entering the league. It ended in 1976 for a variety of reasons, including the interruption it caused to training camp.

But what if the NFL turned the Pro Bowl into the first step of the following season by putting on display the proverbial stars of tomorrow? It would add several levels of significance to the event, including another chance for coaches and scouts to work with and observe draft-eligible players. And, Collinsworth suggests, it would provide the NFL All-Stars with more motivation.

"NFL stars would be forced to bring their A-game or get their butt handed to them," Collinsworth writes.

Part of me thinks that it's too late to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Other than damaged pride, there still wouldn't be any consequences for a veteran player taking it easy. I wonder if the Pro Bowl game has run its course.

I realize many of you don't put this issue atop your list of concerns, but I for one would like to see a more interesting and significant conclusion to the NFL season each year. We might not have hit the right idea yet, but we should keep trying. Rodgers' comments have put NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the case, so let's try to think along with him and see what we can come up with.

Giants' DBs don't feel 'secondary'

January, 27, 2012
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's tough playing cornerback for the New York Giants, where the defensive line gets all the love and the best cornerback in the league plays for the other New York team. And for much of this season, the Giants' secondary was the team's Achilles' heel -- a near-laughingstock that was famously ridiculed on national TV by Cris Collinsworth and obviously targeted by opposing offenses.

But anyone who's played defensive back in the NFL will tell you how important it is to have a short memory and a ton of confidence, no matter how much attention anyone's paying to you. As the Giants prepare to play the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, their secondary remains unbowed and as confident as ever.

[+] EnlargeNew York's Corey Webster
Andrew Mills/US PRESSWIRECorey Webster and the Giants secondary began turning the corner against the New York Jets in December.
"If you keep doing your job, the attention will come," Giants cornerback Corey Webster said Friday. "Me, I think I'm great. I think I'm the best thing out there. I'm sure Aaron Ross feels the same way, and our whole secondary feels the same way. That's how you're supposed to feel when you take that field."

There were certainly times this year when the men in the Giants' secondary could have justifiably felt otherwise. Only three teams gave up more passing yards than the 4,082 the Giants allowed. And while those three -- Green Bay, New Orleans and New England -- were among the very best teams in the league, a number like that still isn't good for your personal or professional pride. After a four-game losing streak in which they allowed an average of 304 passing yards per game, a victory over Dallas in which they allowed 305 more and a loss to the Redskins in which Rex Grossman was 7-for-10 on third downs, the Giants' secondary looked like such an easy target that Mark Sanchez and the Jets threw 59 passes against them in the Christmas Eve game.

That turned out to be a huge mistake, however, as the Giants' secondary was in the process of turning a corner. They blanketed the Jets' receivers, won that game and haven't lost since. And while the defense still lives and dies with the performance of its pass-rushing linemen, the performance of the secondary has been a big part of the five-game win streak that has landed the Giants in the Super Bowl.

"Our play speaks for itself," said Giants safety Antrel Rolle, who does more than his own fair share of speaking. "There are a lot of reasons we've played better. We're more focused. We're on the same page with our defensive coordinator. And we're on the same page with each other, and that's the biggest improvement."

The enduring images of the Giants' secondary from last Sunday's NFC Championship victory over the 49ers are the two times San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis got behind them for long touchdowns. But true to the defensive back's code, the Giants' DBs were pointing out this week that Davis only caught one other pass, that the 49ers only caught 12 total and that six of those were caught by the running back. Safety Deon Grant said the first Davis touchdown wasn't the result of Rolle getting beat, but rather the result of zone coverage that wasn't executed correctly, and that the Giants' safeties and cornerbacks relish the challenge of slowing down the Patriots' great tight ends the way they did the Packers' Jermichael Finley two weeks ago in Green Bay.

"Those tight ends are more like tight end/wide receiver combinations, so it falls right into what we do," Grant said. "We have safeties who can cover, corners who can cover. When we're matched up against these best tight ends out there, we don't want to play zone. We want to play man-to-man and show off our skills."

You can't play defensive back in the NFL without that level of confidence, whether justified or not. And the Giants' defensive backs are a case study in forgetting the bad stuff quickly. If cornerback Aaron Ross had wallowed in early-season struggles that got him benched in Week 2, the Giants would have been floundering even more than they already were on pass defense through November and early December. But Ross shook it off and helped fill the gap created by preseason injuries to Terrell Thomas and first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara.

"Aaron was a guy they drafted in the first round," Grant said. "He was a guy who was here when they won the Super Bowl the last time. And now you're seeing that same first-round guy and that same guy who helped win that Super Bowl. He's back. He's healthy. And he's the old Aaron Ross again."

Plenty of swagger and no desire to look back. That's the way these Giants' defensive backs are built. When practice ended Friday, Rolle shared a friendly handshake with Collinsworth, who'd called the Giants' coverage "amateurish" and said Rolle had been "barbecued" by Dez Bryant in the first game against the Cowboys. In the days following that game, Rolle was critical of such analysis and explained in detail what had really happened on the play in question. But on Friday, when Collinsworth showed up for practice as part of NBC's preparations for the Super Bowl, all was forgotten.

"We're cool," Rolle said. "There's no hard feelings in this league. Collinsworth and I, we've always gotten along."

The defensive back's code: What happened in the past stays in the past. And none of it matters to the Giants now.

Wrap-up: Steelers 13, Chiefs 9

November, 28, 2011
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A look at a hard fight by the Kansas City Chiefs:

What it means: The Chiefs are 4-7 after a 13-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are tied for last place in the AFC West with the San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs trail the first-place Oakland Raiders, 7-4, by three games. The banged-up Chiefs very likely will not defend their AFC West title. Kansas City has now lost four straight games after winning four in a row.

Palko’s last stand: As he did in his first NFL start, in a 31-point loss at New England, Tyler Palko had his moments. Yet, he threw three interceptions for the second straight game. Expect Kansas City to try to get newly clamed Kyle Orton ready to start at Chicago next week.

The heat is on Bowe: Kansas City receiver Dwayne Bowe was roasted by NBC announcer Chris Collinsworth after not trying to go after a pass in the final seconds of the game. The ball was intercepted. He is a free agent and this is another example of the dilemma surrounding Bowe. He has his moments when he shines, but his effort has often been questioned.

Kansas City defense plays well: The Chiefs’ defense played very hard Sunday. It kept the Chiefs in the game.

What’s next: The Chiefs’ brutal stretch continues when it plays at the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The Chiefs have the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL. Expect the Chiefs to insert Orton in practice quickly and try to have him ready to play his former team. Ironically, the Bears claimed Orton as well (as did the Dallas Cowboys) but the Chiefs were awarded him because they have the worst record of the three teams.

Cowboys-Bengals observations

August, 9, 2010
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This was a Hall of Fame Game in name only. It wasn't pretty to watch either offense, but the Cowboys have reason feel good about their defense, which provided their only touchdown. Tight end John Phillips had an excellent evening, but it was cut short by what appears to be a serious knee injury. With Martellus Bennett's inconsistency last season, the Cowboys were counting on Phillips to play a significant role in the offense. The way his knee completely gave out as he started his route was not a good sign. Now, let's talk about what stood out to me in the Cowboys' 16-7 win over the Bengals.

  • I know it was only one series, but left tackle Doug Free was outstanding in protecting Tony Romo. Antwan Odom's a pretty solid pass-rusher, but Free controlled him throughout the series. Even when he got knocked off balance on one play, he stayed in front of Odom. Before he got hurt, second-team left tackle Alex Barron did not impress me at all. The Cowboys' backup linemen made Geno Atkins look like he belonged in Canton, Ohio, on a permanent basis. And Michael Johnson also gave the Cowboys' blockers fits. John Phillips was the only player who consistently stayed with his blocks throughout the first half.

  • When I saw that Ron Winter was running the show, I knew we were in for a long evening. I know it wasn't his usual officiating crew, but he made sure they called everything. They hit Andre Gurode for a holding penalty on the Cowboys' first drive.

  • That was pretty entertaining to watch Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton match up with Adam Jones. The cornerback held his own for the most part, but Crayton and Romo fooled him on an excellent back-shoulder pass. Just exquisite timing -- especially since it's so early in camp.

  • Romo connected with Roy Williams on a crossing route during that first drive. The ball was a little behind Williams and it was high, but he snagged it anyway. That's a really good sign for Williams. I thought he and Austin made the most of their limited opportunities. Jason Garrett made it a point to get Williams involved quite a bit.

  • Felix Jones got bailed out by an offside call when the Cowboys were inside the Bengals' 10-yard line. He has to secure the ball in that situation.

  • [+] EnlargeBrandon Sharpe
    AP Photo/Ron SchwaneBrandon Sharpe of Dallas scored the Cowboys' only touchdown, returning an interception 6 yards against the Bengals.
    Through one preseason game, it doesn't look like the Cowboys have solved those red-zone issues. It was only one opportunity, but there was no reason to get bogged down inside the 5-yard line.

  • David Buehler made his short field-goal attempts, but he missed a 49-yarder by about 20 yards to the left. It was a gigantic hook, and that's something that has to concern Wade Phillips. You can handle a miss from 49 yards, but it's concerning when the ball's not even close. I Thought I was watching more "highlights" of Tiger at the World Golf Challenge.

  • I loved how defensive end Stephen Bowen played Sunday night. He was an absolute beast from the right side. He forced a poor throw from Carson Palmer by collapsing the pocket in the first quarter. The Cowboys will be just fine if Marcus Spears isn't able to make it back for the first game. Jason Hatcher and Bowen both played well against the Bengals.

  • What an awful deal for John Phillips. He was the Cowboys' best offensive player in the first half and he hurt his knee in a non-contact situation. I seriously think he was ready to surpass Bennett. He can line up in the backfield as the lead blocker and he can make nice catches downfield. He was on his way to being the best blocking tight end on the team. I really believe that. Tough, tough injury for a guy who was having an excellent camp.

  • Kevin Ogletree caught everything thrown his way, but he has to know where he is on the field. On his first catch, he sort of staggered forward and lost the first down. It was an awkward play from a normally smooth player.

  • Tashard Choice showed some nice acceleration on that 21-yard run around the right side. You have to find a way to get him more involved in the offense. He's too good to only have two or three carries per game.

  • Herb Donaldson, it was nice knowing you. You can't fumble on your first carry of the evening. Gibril Wilson made a nice play to poke it out of there, but Donaldson did not secure the ball properly.

  • I thought Cris Collinsworth made a really nice assessment of Bowen when he compared him to Jim Jeffcoat. He's obviously not there yet, but he sort of moves like Jeffcoat. He doesn't look very fast, but he always seems to be causing trouble in the backfield. Really good night for him.

  • I'm not sure what happened to third-string quarterback Stephen McGee. He looked confident early in completing his first five passes. But as the night went on, he became more and more tentative. You're going to get sacked if you hold it that long. He reminded me of Drew Henson tonight because he just took too long to process things. McGee has good athleticism and an excellent arm, but you need to unload the ball. Otherwise, a guy named Michael Johnson suddenly looks like an All-Pro linebacker. Mike Zimmer appears to be onto something with that guy.

  • It was a good night for former Texas Tech players. Jamar Wall did an excellent job in coverage. On one particular play, Chad Ochocinco could not shake Wall. And linebackers Brandon Williams and Brandon Sharpe both had big interceptions. Williams had a nice return that should've set up a touchdown. Sharpe picked off a Jordan Palmer pass and returned it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Sort of fun to see Tony Romo cut off an interview with NBC to celebrate the touchdown with a loud, "Yes!" And if I'm Carson Palmer, I'm in there tomorrow morning begging the coaches not to cut my little brother. For goodness sakes, Jordan Palmer looked nothing like an NFL quarterback. He held the ball too long, and then he made backbreaking decisions.

  • Sorry, but Robert Brewster looked like a bust on this evening. The former Ball State offensive tackle was taken in the third round in '09. He promptly tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights. On Sunday, he had no chance against the Bengals backup defensive ends and linebackers. He wasn't strong enough to anchor his body and he just got bullied the whole time he was in there. I was not impressed with anything about his performance.

  • Brian McCann's back there trying to make a play on a punt return and Brandon Ghee just nails him. I know they said Ghee was blocked into McCann, but I thought the play could've been avoided. You hate to see a defenseless player take a shot in the chest like that.

  • I thought Danny McCray had a nice outing. He had the interception, but he also was very active on special teams. The Cowboys wanted more turnovers this season, and on Sunday, they caused four. Jason Hatcher applied the pressure that led to McCray's interception. Did I mention how poorly the Bengals' backup quarterbacks played?

  • Wall had a solid game, but he got burned going for an interception on a pass to Matt Jones.

  • The Cowboys' young linebackers were incredibly active. Insider backer Jason Williams flattened one of the Bengals' running backs and Brandon Williams was flying all over the field. Also strong showings by Victor Butler and Steve Octavien. It looks like the Cowboys have a ton of depth at linebacker based on what we saw Sunday night. And rookie Sean Lee didn't even play because of a quadriceps injury that has slowed him early in camp.

  • Great special teams play by former Oklahoma standout Manuel Johnson to help the Cowboys down a Mat McBriar punt at the 1-yard line.

  • I liked how Marcus Dixon played in the second half. He was very active and he always seemed to be in the right place. If Jordan Palmer's going to hold the ball, Butler and Dixon are going to get to him. For a first preseason game, the defense was very impressive.

  • I thought Marion Barber looked quick early in the game. And he brought a ton of energy to the offense. I think the Cowboys will try to do a better job of keeping him fresh for the fourth quarter this season.

  • Former University of Texas star Jordan Shipley burned the Cowboys for a 64-yard punt return. Apparently Carson Palmer has been raving about Shipley. Shipley and Wall have faced each other several times in Big 12 play. Shipley certainly got the best of Wall with a nice move in the open field. And McBriar's one of the best punters in the league, but open-field tackling's not his strength.

  • It's probably time to end the Pat McQuistan era in Dallas. He's just not quick enough to hold off defensive tackles. And if you run a stunt against him, he's in big trouble.

  • Rookie running back Lonyae Miller out of Fresno State had his moments. He'll be a good practice squad candidate.

  • Overall, not a bad first outing. The Phillips injury is tough blow.
John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan MarinoUS PresswireJohn Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino are a part of a draft class that may be the best in NFL history.
The 1983 NFL draft might have been the best of the modern era even without Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.

It was that good.

"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."

The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.

No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.

Not that making the cut was good enough for some.

"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.

The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.

The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project Insider. The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:

  • Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
  • MVP awards (8)
  • Player of the year awards (6)
  • All-Pro first-team awards (4)
  • All-Pro second-team awards (3)
  • Super Bowl victories (3)
  • Pro Bowls (2)
  • Rookie of the year awards (2)
  • Super Bowl defeats (1)

I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.

From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.

I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.

Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.

The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.

"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."

Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.

A few key variables changed along the way.

Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.

NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.

My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.

The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?

Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.


[+] EnlargeDarrell Green
US PresswireDarrell Green was the last pick of the first round in the 1983 draft.
1983

Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.

Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)

Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)

Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).

Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.

Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.

"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."

Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.

"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."


Ray Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Lewis could be one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.
1996

Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.

Hall of Famers: none yet.

Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.

Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).

Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).

Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.

Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.

"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."

Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.

"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."


[+] EnlargeLT
US PresswireLawrence Taylor helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls.
1981

Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.

Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).

Hall of Fame finalists: none.

Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).

Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.

Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.

"You are going to Seattle?"

"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.

Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.

"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."

The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.

"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."


Joe Greene
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Greene is one of five Hall of Fame inductees from the 1969 draft class.
1969

Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.

Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).

Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).

Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).

Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.

Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.

"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."

Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.

"You never really trained for it back then," he said.


[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
US PresswireJerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history, helped San Francisco win three Super Bowls.
1985

Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.

Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).

Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).

Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).

Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.

Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.

Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.

The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.

Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.

Seau retires, says he means it

January, 13, 2010
1/13/10
5:43
PM ET
Although I believe him like I believed Sugar Ray Leonard, legendary linebacker Junior Seau insists he has retired for good.

Seau
Seau
In a taping for Showtime's "Inside the NFL," which will air Wednesday night, Seau announced Saturday's playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens will be the final game of his career. Seau will turn 41 next week.

Show analyst Cris Collinsworth asked if Seau has listened to his final Bill Belichick speech.

"Cris, I'm surfing," Seau said. "I'm going to go surf. ... It's all over with the speeches. Whatever happens, I can say -- honestly say -- that that probably was my last game."

Probably didn't sound definitive enough, so Collinsworth offered a follow-up question.

"Yeah, that ... that's going to be my last game," Seau said.

Seau played 20 NFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Patriots. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's a 12-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro.

Seau finished with 56.5 sacks, 18 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.

Seau signed with the Patriots in October. He played in only seven games, starting none.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have hired Pat Shurmur as their offensive coordinator. He also expects Ken Flajole to become defensive coordinator. The Rams have requested permission to speak with Vikings special-teams coach Paul Ferraro. Also, outgoing Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders has an interview with the Raiders.

Also from Thomas: He checks in with USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, the type of player who could help the Rams become more physical.

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com revisits what Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom said about Scott Linehan, Jay Zygmunt and John Shaw last offseason. Things change.

Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat profiles new Rams coach Steve Spanguolo, who leans heavily on his Catholic faith. Spagnuolo recounts what it took to get married at the Vatican after initially planning to exchange vows in Rome.

VanRam of Turf Show Times expects the Rams to run more than the Eagles did when Shurmur was with Philadelphia.

Niners scout Todd Brunner checks in from the Senior Bowl. He likes quarterback Pat White.

Lisa Goodwin of 49ers.com relays players' thoughts about the King holiday and the presidential inauguration.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says Jeff Jagodzinski's grounding in zone blocking schemes could make him a good fit for the 49ers as offensive coordinator.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates the 49ers' search for an offensive coordinator. Barrows: "The 49ers also have interviewed Indianapolis Colts wide receivers coach Clyde Christensen and former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski for the job. The fact that neither candidate has been called in for a second interview -- as Linehan was last Thursday -- is telling."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' search for an offensive coordinator appears stuck in neutral.

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic has some advice for Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin. She thinks he needs to strike a conciliatory tone.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says NBC's Cris Collinsworth backed off comments about the Cardinals being the worst team in postseason history.

The East Valley Tribune outlines 10 key moments in the Cardinals' season.

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind breaks down the Eagles' final two offensive plays against Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks could have a hard time keeping linebacker Leroy Hill. Farnsworth: "The club already has talked to Hill and his agent about signing a long-term deal, but all that did was show just how far apart the two sides are. And any time Hill has discussed the situation, he has sounded like a player who is eager to test free agency."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times revisits the Seahawks' and Steelers' Super Bowl lineups from after the 2005 season. 

More from O'Neil: a statistical comparison between the Steelers and Seahawks, then and now.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Cris Collinsworth made a living catching passes before he made one analyzing NFL games on TV, currently as part of the NFL Network team covering the Cardinals-Eagles game Thursday night in Philadelphia.

 
 Chris Morrison/US Presswire
 Larry Fitzgerald has the skills to become one of the all-time great receivers.

A few highlights from Collinsworth's recent conference call with reporters, focusing on comments relating to the Cardinals:

  • On Larry Fitzgerald: "Larry Fitzgerald may have the best hands that I've seen in my life and I've played against Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and a lot of guys."
  • On the Cardinals losing to the Giants: "The fact that this team was able to hang in with the Super Bowl champions says a lot about where this football team is right now."
  • On blitzing Kurt Warner: "I've never done a game where [Eagles defensive coordinator] Jim Johnson and the blitz didn't play a major role in the game, so I believe the blitz will be coming."
  • On the Eagles' offensive talent: "Other than [Brian] Westbrook, I don't see the great skill position players on this team."
  • On the NFL's best team: "The Giants are clear-cut. They are the best team in football right now."

The comment about Fitzgerald's hands resonates. A prominent former NFL receiver doesn't make that type of comment lightly. I tend to agree. I can't think of another receiver who wins matchups at the ball so decisively and snatches the ball with so much authority. I swear he's going to squeeze the air right out of the football one of these times.

A thumb injury seemed to affect Fitzgerald a bit in recent weeks, but not significantly. He has 72 catches for 1,010 yards with five games remaining. He has a legitimate chance to earn a high spot among the list of all-time great receivers.

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