NFL Nation: Marshall Faulk

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Whether it's Kurt Warner at his home in Arizona or in studio with Marshall Faulk at NFL Network, Isaac Bruce in Florida, Torry Holt in North Carolina, Orlando Pace in St. Louis, Mike Martz in California or really any other St. Louis Ram from the 1999 Super Bowl XXXIV champions, the average Sunday afternoon rarely offers much in the way of surprises.

In the 15 years since the birth of the Greatest Show on Turf, many elements of the dynamic offense that was so unique have become commonplace in stadiums all over the NFL. The Rams will celebrate that legacy on "Monday Night Football" against San Francisco when they remember the 15th anniversary of the championship season in a halftime ceremony. Most of that team is expected to attend, and the Rams will wear their 1999 throwback uniforms in homage.

Throwback uniforms aren't needed to see the lasting impact of that Rams offense. Turn on just about any game and you will see supposedly high-tech passing games with route combinations, protection schemes and athletes the likes of which have never been seen before.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceKurt Warner on playing QB for the Rams' passing offense and how new NFL rules have made it easier to pass: "I look at it like we were the first ones to do it. We did it just like that in an era where it wasn't popular or wasn't the norm."
But that is not really the case.

"All around the league you can see the innovation, the things that sprang from what we did as a group," Bruce said. "I see combinations we ran, I think just about every position coach, wide receiver coach, some offensive coordinators, guys that have been position coaches that are now coordinators or head coaches now that I’ve run into, they’ll tell me that they show their players our film, the way I ran routes, the way I came off the football, the way I blocked down the field, certain things like that. That was everything we learned in our meeting room. We really hammered that in every week as a unit to block for each other, be the fastest group, the most explosive group. I think we had the best group with the most creativity. So you see a lot of it just floating around the league. Not only in the NFL, but college as well."

The Rams were doing it in 1999, long before the league made rule changes that encouraged more passing and more scoring. Today, the NFL is viewed as a passing league, the next cycle in the evolution of the game. But , it's a cycle that started in part because of the 1999 Rams and in the years since, the "Greatest Show on Turf" has taken on a life beyond one championship season.

It was after the Rams' Super Bowl loss to New England in 2001 that the league began adjusting the rules to allow receivers more time and space to run free and put an emphasis on getting defenders to keep their hands off receivers. Like the rule outlawing the head slap trademarked by Deacon Jones, those rule changes are perhaps the most tangible way in which the Rams' offense changed the game.

"The thing you look at now is because of all the rule changes, it’s made it easier," Warner said. "What we did at a time where you could still grab and hold guys and you could still hit guys over the middle and all of those different things, now when you look at it, I think there’s a degree of success allowed in the NFL that has become a lot easier. I’m not really surprised by what guys are doing. I look at it like we were the first ones to do it. We did it just like that in an era where it wasn’t popular or wasn’t the norm."

Indeed, there was nothing conventional about how the Rams' offense went about its business. Rooted in the principles first wrought by Sid Gillman and Francis Schmidt, the Rams' vertical passing offense that sprang from the mind of Martz was a direct descendant of Don Coryell. Coryell's coaching tree would eventually include names like Joe Gibbs, Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan and, of course, Martz.

At its core, the "Air Coryell" offense operates under simple ideals intended to create open spaces and favorable matchups. The offense supplied an endless array of motions, formations and personnel groupings that would allow the Rams to spread out defenses and mix deep and intermediate passes with power running. But the passes always came first.

"I think you get exposed when you start moving guys around in matchups and you can take control of the tempo of the game," Martz said. "When you do that, you force defenses into doing something they don’t want to be. Once you find out the rules a defense has and the more complicated a defense, the more you can take advantage."

Having superior talents like Holt, Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl on the outside combined with Faulk's unique route-running ability at the running back spot nearly guaranteed Martz could get a matchup he liked on every play. Having a talented offensive line capable of allowing time to push the ball down the field and a fearless quarterback in Warner unafraid to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes made for the perfect mix of personnel and scheme.

"In terms of the depth of which we ran routes, the speed with which we ran routes, the creativity in how we ran routes, the kind of formations we posed to teams week in and week out, I feel strongly that we were a springboard to a lot of teams now and how coordinators now run the offense," Holt said. "A lot of teams don’t run full pumps and squirrel routes and running an out route then running up and running a comeback route. A lot of teams weren’t doing that, but myself and Isaac and Az and Ricky, our ability to run any route on the route tree gave coach Martz the flexibility to call anything."

And call anything Martz did. After working as quarterbacks coach in Washington in 1998 when the Redskins started 0-7, Martz realized his offense wasn't taking advantage of the best plays it had in its arsenal in a given game plan. Plays that were working well on third and long would go unused because there simply weren't enough opportunities to use them in a game.

"We’ve got these great third downs we don’t use, we started using them on first down, too," Martz said. "If we like them that much, why don’t we throw a 20-yard pass on first down, too? When we got going, the more success we had, the more fun we had, it was like throwing logs on the fire then."

The fire turned into a towering inferno as the Rams actually put up numbers more commonly seen in video games set to 'rookie' level.

That team finished first in the NFL in total yards per game (400.8), passing yards per game (272.1), scoring (32.9 points per game), and its 526 points was then the third-highest output in league history. Warner earned Most Valuable Player with Faulk finishing second in the voting and taking home the Offensive Player of the Year award.

To most members of the 'Greatest Show,' the circus ended too early, and that one championship wasn't enough to really cement the legacy that could have been built. But nobody can ever take away the title the 1999 Rams won, and if they need a reminder of their place in history, they need only to turn on the television on Sunday afternoons.

"I see a lot of plays, routes, schemes and protections offensively being run now that we ran then," Holt said. "That in itself shows you how people respected and admired what we were doing on the football field. I think our legacy is that. I think we were a springboard to this new era of offense that is now being played. The Greatest Show on Turf was the kickstarter for that."

Rapid Reaction: Indianapolis Colts

December, 15, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 25-3 victory over the Houston Texans:

What it means: The Colts didn't wait until the second half to get going offensively. They started on their first offensive series of the game. The Colts mixed up the run with the pass to go 80 yards on 11 plays on their opening drive. The drive ended with quarterback Andrew Luck finding receiver Griff Whalen for a 14-yard touchdown. That was the first time the Colts scored a touchdown in the first quarter since doing it against Denver on Oct. 20. Slow starts have been a problem the past seven weeks for the Colts, but they went into the half with a 20-3 lead. They were 5-of-8 on third down in the first half after going 0-for-6 in the first half against Cincinnati on Dec. 8. The one downside about the Colts on offense is that they started the game 5-for-5 on third down but failed to convert on their final 10 attempts.

Whalen steps up: Whalen has been an afterthought this season after having a strong training camp. He was elevated from the practice squad Saturday because of the injury to fellow receiver LaVon Brazill (foot). He took advantage of the opportunity. Whalen, a college teammate of Luck's at Stanford, caught four passes for 45 yards, returned three punts for 67 yards and a kickoff for 22 yards.

Being honored: Former Colts running backs Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk were inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at halftime. Dickerson rushed for 5,194 yards and 32 touchdowns during his five seasons with the Colts. He won the league's rushing title in 1988, when he gained 1,659 yards to go with 14 touchdowns. The Colts traded Dickerson to the Los Angeles Raiders following the 1991 season. Faulk rushed for 5,320 yards and 42 touchdowns to go with 297 receptions and 2,804 yards in his five seasons with the Colts. He was traded to the St. Louis Rams after the 1998 season because he thought he deserved a raise. Dickerson and Faulk join Robert Irsay, Bill Brooks, Chris Hinton, Ted Marchibroda, Jim Harbaugh, the 12th Man, Tony Dungy, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James in the team's Ring of Honor.

Injuries: Colts guard Joe Reitz left the game in first half after being tested for a concussion. Starting running back Donald Brown sat out the second half with a stinger. He ran for 38 yards on five carries. Linebacker Daniel Adongo (hamstring) and safety Sergio Brown (groin) also left the game.

What's next: The Colts go on the road to take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. The Colts and Chiefs have a chance to face each other in the playoffs in Indianapolis.

Colts will honor Faulk and Dickerson

October, 9, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS – Lost in the news of running back Ahmad Bradshaw deciding to have season-ending knee surgery Tuesday was that the Indianapolis Colts plan to add former running backs Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson to the Ring of Honor together during the Dec. 15 game against Houston.

They will be the 10th and 11th members of the Ring of Honor, joining Robert Irsay, Bill Brooks, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Tony Dungy, Jim Harbaugh, Chris Hinton and Ted Marchibroda and the 12th Man.

Faulk, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1994 draft, rushed for 5,320 yards during his five-year career with the Colts. Dickerson rushed for 5,194 yards during his time with Indianapolis.

The city of Indianapolis also received some good news Tuesday, as it joins Minneapolis and New Orleans as finalists for the 2018 Super Bowl. Indianapolis hosted a successful Super Bowl in 2012.
Torry HoltAP Photo/Chuck BurtonAfter years of feeling unwelcome by their old franchise, former Rams greats such as Torry Holt are making their way back to Rams Park at the invitation of St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Standing between two fields at Rams Park watching practice on Monday afternoon was a group that might as well have been a part of a reunion for Super Bowl XXXIV.

Former Rams receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce chatted it up with former Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle, who is working in the team’s coaching internship program. That trio was joined at various times by Lance Schulters, another former Titans defensive back in the internship program, La'Roi Glover, a former Rams defensive tackle and now the team’s director of player programs, and former Rams tackle Grant Williams.

The sight of former Rams is nothing new around the team’s training facility these days. Since Jeff Fisher took over as coach in Jan. 2012, he’s made it abundantly clear that he’s happy to welcome back former players who might want to offer some advice to his young team or who might just want to watch practice.

In the two weeks since camp started, other former Rams such as defensive back Aeneas Williams, safety Keith Lyle and linebacker Chris Draft have stopped by. It’s not limited to Rams alumni, either. In addition to Schulters and Rolle, former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck was also in town for a couple of days.

While it might be nothing new for Fisher to open the doors to past Rams, it does represent something of a departure from how things were in the not-too-distant past.

“This is home,” Holt said. “I should feel comfortable and good when I come here. Myself and others, we did a lot for this organization. So it feels good to be able to step back out on this field and not be looking over your shoulder or feel like you’re stepping on anybody’s toes and then to be able to provide information for guys to improve their game. It’s not about us, it’s just about sharing what we’ve learned to make this organization better and try to bring back championships to this organization.”

That’s a feeling that Holt shared with plenty of other former Rams who didn’t feel welcome or comfortable about being at Rams Park on a regular basis.

In 2011, Rams Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood told ESPN’s Arash Markazi that he didn’t feel like he had any connection to the team he once played Super Bowl XIV with while nursing a broken leg.

"We are their legacy but they forgot us," Youngblood said then. "They don't have anything to do with us, really. I find that unfortunate because you look at other franchises, even those that have moved, and they use their alumni in their marketing and in their organization. They use their Hall of Famers as an example for the players who are there today. They use their alumni, but the Rams have cut us out of the picture."

At the time, the Rams had begun to make inroads in their alumni program, which has taken off in recent years. As part of those efforts, the Rams signed Holt and Bruce to one-day contracts so each could retire as Rams. Most notably they welcomed back 20 prominent players from their past to celebrate the team’s 75th anniversary last December.

Included in that group were a number of Los Angeles Rams, including Rosey Grier, Vince Ferragamo, Dennis Harrah, Jackie Slater, LeRoy Irvin and Youngblood.

That’s just the tip of iceberg. Holt is back in St. Louis this week in preparation for his work as a color analyst on the team’s preseason broadcasts. He joins another former Ram, Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, in the booth for those duties.

Fisher’s open-door policy should come as no surprise given his experience in the league. He’s entering his 28th year coaching in the NFL and his 18th as a head coach.

Surrounded by a veteran staff with plenty of experience of its own, Fisher is undeniably comfortable in his own skin. The paranoia that can sometimes accompany first-time head coaches has long since evaporated and Fisher clearly views the opportunity to bring in any former player with wisdom to share as a positive for a team that again figures to be one of the youngest in the league.

“It feels good to be back, it feels good to be welcome and Coach Fisher gets it,” Holt said. “He welcomes us. He knows the value and the importance of the guys talking to veteran guys who have been there, done it and done it at a high level because you can gain so much from that as a player. I’m thankful that I’m able to come back and coach Fisher is an excellent coach who understands the game, understands what it takes to improve his roster and he’s allowing us to help out.”
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title during the Rams' memorable run from 1999-2001.
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most compelling teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Dynamic Teams of the Century” series. We begin with the Greatest Show on Turf -- the 2001 St. Louis Rams.

The Greatest Show on Turf won one Super Bowl, lost another and unraveled so furiously that its epitaph requires some reassembly.

Dramatic narratives have sought to explain why the St. Louis Rams fell so hard after a 1999-2001 run featuring three consecutive MVP awards, a 37-11 record and an average of 32.7 points per game.

Coach Mike Martz’s ego swallowed the team, some say. Front-office infighting poisoned the culture. Quarterback Kurt Warner’s deteriorating health precipitated a controversial and regrettable departure. Draft failures wrecked the roster. The team lost its soul when key role players departed in free agency.

Whatever the reasons, the Rams were never the same after Adam Vinatieri delivered an 48-yard field goal to put the underdog New England Patriots past St. Louis 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching one NFL dynasty at the expense of another.

Throw in spying allegations against New England as a Super Bowl subplot -- more on that in a bit -- and those 2001 Rams easily qualify on ESPN.com’s short list for "Most Dynamic Teams of the Century." They're relevant for what they accomplished and for what happened next: a 7-9 record in 2002 and just one additional winning season for the Rams to this day.

About that epitaph ...

"It's one that escapes me as to how, one, we didn't stay together and, two, how things from that point forward did not continue to roll on," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said recently.

If only the Rams could have known then what has become apparent now.

"Success is something that you have to know how you are going to deal with it before it hits you," Faulk said. "We ran into that in a sense of people wanted credit for putting the team together. Guys on the team who had roles, they wanted to move on and become the actual guy."

So, while some of the Patriots’ core players stuck around instead of chasing more prominent roles elsewhere -- Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi come to mind -- the Rams watched Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter, London Fletcher and others cash in elsewhere. And who could blame them? Certainly not Faulk, who had escaped Indianapolis via trade and became an MVP in St. Louis. Teams look out for their own interests, and players often must do the same. But free agency has proven over time that money doesn’t always buy the right fit.

"That core group of guys that might not be the highest paid, might not be the most visible guys, their roles and them understanding the roles is kind of what keeps it together," Faulk said. "They might not be the guys who make it into the Hall of Fame, but they are for more or less a lot of the reasons why a lot of games are won, multiple championships are won."

Defensive back Aeneas Williams, himself a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years, was new to the Rams in 2001. The team expected Williams to do for the defense what Faulk had done for the offense. That wasn't far from what happened.

Williams famously picked off Brett Favre twice in the playoffs that postseason, returning both for touchdowns. He clinched the Rams' Super Bowl berth by picking off Donovan McNabb late in the NFC Championship Game.

With Williams and first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, that Rams defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders almost across the board, a reversal from 2000. They were third in yards, fifth in yards per play, third in rushing yards, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, second in first downs, sixth in third-down conversion rate and seventh in scoring.

"It was one of the best seasons I had, not just the winning but the amount of talent and the amount of humility that was on the team," Williams said. "That team was special."

The Rams knew it, too. They were 3-0 and coming off a 42-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins when Smith, recently hired away from Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay, delivered just the right message. Players were reveling in the victory and newfound elite status of the defense when Smith stood up to address the team. He listed off the team's accomplishments and exulted in how good it all felt. Players exulted along with him.

Smith then delivered a message that resonates with Williams to this day.

"There are some of you who are still making the same mistakes, and I'm telling you that we are looking to replace you," Smith told the team.

Silence.

There was nothing condescending or demeaning about Smith's delivery or his message. He did not name names. But the message was clear.

"To have that sobering thought from your leader in such a respectful and honoring way, which was intentional as it relates to accountability, I'll never forget it," Williams said. "The teams that have coaches who hold the players accountable no matter how good they are will be the ones that consistently win."

And yet the way that 2001 Rams season ended, and what happened next, might always publicly define that team more than the 14-2 record or revitalized defense.

"That team was loaded," Faulk said. "But this is why we play the greatest sport. There is no Game 5. No Game 7. There is one game, and you have to get it right or it doesn't matter how great you were the rest of the year."

Williams, now a pastor in St. Louis, pointed to the Rams' relatively narrow 24-17 victory over the Patriots during the regular season in suggesting the fat Super Bowl point spread was more about perception than reality. He downplayed the Spygate angle while acknowledging that some teammates are more passionate about whatever advantages the Patriots might have gleaned through taping opponents' hand signals or worse.

"Without knowing, we can only speculate," Williams said. "I relish the moment and the other thing, once we played 16 games and two or three playoff games, rarely are you fooled by what a team does. In that game, it boils down to turnovers."

Faulk carries a different perspective as someone familiar with every aspect of the Rams' offensive plan. He questions whether the Patriots could have anticipated previously unused wrinkles without spying. He has alluded in the past to red zone and third-down plays. The Rams scored on their lone red zone possession. Pressed for specifics, Faulk cited the way New England adjusted to tweaks in the way Faulk went into motion, including on Warner's quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"It's extremely hard to tell you what it was, or what we did, but I will say this," Faulk explained. "The play that Kurt Warner scored on, Mike [Martz] drew that up in the dirt. The motion that I used on that play, I would love to show it to you and love to show you other plays how I went in motion and what I did so you could see it. It's just talk when you talk, but here is what we normally do and this is what we put into this game."

Related comments from Faulk made waves during Super Bowl week. Then as now, Faulk wearies of charges he's pushing conspiracy theories.

"I didn’t make the news, I didn’t make up the news about what happened, but it is what it is," he said. "You accept the loss. They beat us. It happens. You are going to lose games. Is Bill Belichick a great mind? Yes.

"But when a guy like Aeneas Williams sits at home and has to wonder whether he lost the Super Bowl or was cheated out of it, that is who I feel bad for."

Faulk, Warner, Fletcher, Wistrom, Carter, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little and others from that 2001 team can reflect knowing they won it all two years earlier. For some, that Super Bowl against New England would be as close as they came to football immortality. At least they can know the 2001 team will not be forgotten anytime soon.
I do not know why I have been so late to this particular party, but the "Madden NFL 25" cover vote is taking place on this very website, and you can go here and cast your vote for the football player you think should be on this year's cover. It's down to the final 16 -- eight current players and eight from the past -- and the only current one from our division is, unsurprisingly, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Having trounced Ryan Tannehill and Doug Martin in the first two rounds, RG III faces off against Baltimore running back Ray Rice in his Sweet 16 matchup. Griffin is a 1-seed, Rice a 5, and it's hard to see how even the Ravens' Super Bowl title offers him much of a chance here.

The other side of the bracket still features former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan (a 5-seed whose current matchup is against top-seeded Jerry Rice) and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, a 3-seed who's got a fascinating third-round matchup against 2-seed Deion Sanders. I wonder if this one may come down to which guy is better liked as a TV analyst?

The Philadelphia Eagles had representation, but former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham lost his first-round matchup to LaDainian Tomlinson and current Eagles running back LeSean McCoy lost in the second round to Adrian Peterson. Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant lost his second-round matchup to Ray Rice. Former Redskins running back Clinton Portis lost in the first round to Marshall Faulk on the "Old School" side of the bracket.

Anyway, go vote.
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis ColtsGetty ImagesPeyton Manning and Andrew Luck's rookie seasons as the Colts' starting QB have been eerily similar.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will always be linked as contemporaries and rivals.

No matter how much longer Brady plays, it’s unlikely he and Andrew Luck will be grouped in the same way.

At this stage, the modest Luck is level-headed when his name comes up with the other two.

“I definitely don’t deserve to be in that sentence or breath as you said,” he told a questioner in a conference call with New England media this week. “If someday I can play at a level that Peyton and Tom play at, then that’d be a quarterback’s dream come true.”

As Luck and the next-generation Colts get ready for their game against New England Sunday at Gillette Stadium, it seems like a reasonable time to compare what Luck is doing as a rookie to what Manning did in his first year, way back in 1998. (You can compare Luck to other quarterbacks at the same stage of their rookie year at this Indianapolis Star page.)

Manning had more experienced skill players, with Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, receiver Marvin Harrison and tight end Marcus Pollard, and it was run by a veteran GM in Bill Polian. Although coach Jim Mora was in his first season with the Colts, he already had 11 years of experience as an NFL head coach.

Luck’s on a team loaded with young guys at the skill positions after receiver Reggie Wayne, put together by a first-time general manager in Ryan Grigson, run by a first-time head coach in Chuck Pagano and overseen by a first-time interim coach in Bruce Arians.

A snap shot comparison of rookie Luck and rookie Manning ...

Vision: When Luck was coming out of Stanford he was routinely compared to Manning, particularly with regard to football understanding.

“The similarity is they see the field the same exact way,” said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “They are the same guy in terms of seeing the field, knowing what the progressions are, understanding the defenses. All of that is the same.”

300-yard games: Manning had four 300-yard passing games as a rookie. Luck has four 300-yard passing games as a rookie, including a rookie record 433-yard performance against the Dolphins.

No huddling: Arians was the quarterback coach for Manning at the start and is offensive coordinator (and now interim coach as well) for Luck at the start.

A key element of Arians’ offense is the no-huddle. Luck’s done very well running it.

“We’re asking Andrew to do a whole lot more than we did with Peyton," Arians said a couple weeks ago. "Peyton we gave two or three plays in the huddle, he was great at that phase of it, a lot of check-with-me's, but we didn’t do the no-huddle until his second year. He was great as a two-minute rookie, because coming out of college, those guys play in that shotgun and spread offense pretty good, and that’s usually what you do in two-minute, so it’s natural for him and the field gets a little cleaner. I think he’s a step ahead only because of what we’re asking him to do, and he’s doing it with a bunch of rookies, whereas Peyton had some really good players on that team.”

Arians said he’s caught himself looking to install some things too fast because of Luck’s ability to handle it. The coach has reminded himself he’s game-planning for four or five other rookies who regularly see time on offense, too.

On the move: As a rookie, Manning ran 15 times for 4.1 yards a carry. He didn’t score and was sacked 22 times.

Through nine games, Luck has run 34 times for 4.7 yards a carry. He’s scored five touchdowns and has been sacked 21 times.

“The biggest difference between the two is obviously Andrew’s ability to make plays with his feet,” Polian said. “... He has really good ability to make plays with his feet. He’s not dissimilar to Green Bay’s guy [Aaron Rodgers] in that regard.”

Completion percentages: Luck’s currently stands at .575. Manning finished his rookie season at .567.

Pace: In 1998, a team with a new coach and a rookie quarterback was expected to need some time to build. In 2012, a team with a new coach and a rookie quarterback is expected to need some time to build, but hardly gets the same degree of patience 14 years ago -- externally or internally.

“We don’t have time, we don’t have time,” Wayne said recently. “People like me, I can’t speak for Rob [Mathis], but people like me, I see the light. I see the light, man. So I don’t have the time to sit back and rebuild and say ‘Oh, we’ll be better at that next year or in a couple years, we should be in the hunt.’

“We need to be in the hunt now. We are in the hunt. We’re in a good situation, that’s why we want to continue to win games.”

Manning’s Colts were 1-8 through nine games en route to a 3-13 record and a fifth-place finish in the AFC East. Luck’s Colts are 6-3 through nine games, with a strong hold on second place in the AFC South and a real shot at a playoff spot.

HOF12: The experience of a lifetime

August, 4, 2012
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CANTON, Ohio -- Sights and sounds from a magical first 30 hours in Canton for festivities relating to the upcoming 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony:

Batting 1.000


[+] EnlargeCortez Kennedy
US PresswireNo doubt, Seattle's Cortez Kennedy was one of the most dominant defensive players of his era.
Cortez Kennedy was the person I hoped to see first Thursday night after unloading bags for check-in at the McKinley Grand Hotel. He was the 2012 enshrinee I'd covered years ago and gotten to know while presenting his case to the other Hall selectors. Having the retired Seattle Seahawks great step from the hotel's entrance before I could get my bags to the curb foreshadowed good fortune.

A trip to the hotel bar a couple hours later found the place mostly empty except for a couple reporters from Minnesota. I sat down with them and soon discovered Hall of Famer John Randle, Kennedy's teammate on the 1990s All-Decade team, seated across the way. Two-for-two and three full days in Canton still to come.

I'm not much of a drinker -- a six-pack lasts a year in our house -- so when tequila shots appeared unexpectedly on our side of the bar, visions of "Frank the Tank" from Old School came to mind.

My hesitance must have been easy to spot. Randle rose from his chair and looked my way.

"Hey, you in?"

Enjoying the ride(s)

Trip One to the elevator produces a five-story ride with Thurman Thomas and his wife, Patti.

Leroy Kelly, Elvin Bethea and Roger Wehrli are along for the ride on a subsequent trip.

By then, my wife, Kim, and our two sons, Derek (10) and Cade (7), have arrived via red-eye flight from Seattle to Cleveland. We'd decided to make this a family trip, a mini-vacation for them, upon learning months earlier that Kennedy had earned enshrinement.

"We were just in the elevator with Gale Sayers!" Derek announced upon entering our room.

Heading to the Hall

The lobby was packed with Hall of Famers, most wearing their gold jackets, as they assemble for bus rides (police escorts included) to the Hall for a dedication ceremony. Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. will be there when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Hall officials cut red ribbon for the new Pro Football Research and Preservation Center in Wilson's name.

Another chance meeting with Kennedy produces a lucky break. He graciously invites me to ride along in his car, along with Mark, an off-duty police officer from Las Vegas and Kennedy's friend since 1994.

The weather is already sizzling when we arrive, but it doesn't get much cooler than this: Hall of Fame corner Lem Barney, who averaged five picks per season for 11 years with the Detroit Lions, practically intercepts us as we get out of the car. He shakes Kennedy's hand. Mark and I get handshakes, too. Kennedy follows the red carpet to the special seating area for Hall of Famers.

All in the family

Mark and I wind up sitting next to Patti Thomas, Thurman's wife, in the front row of the general-seating area. Sayers and Joe Greene sit across the rope divider about six feet away. She's moved when Wilson, 93 and a World War II veteran, delivers a speech marked by self-deprecating humor after initially needing assistance to stand.

The Hall experience can be as much for the families as for the enshrinees themselves.

"I'm his wife and I'm blown away," Patti Thomas said. "These guys that you grow up watching ... my brothers come. They are huge sports fans. They're like kids in a candy shop. They've met 'em all and they're still like that, over and over again. Ninety-five percent of the guys are very outgoing. It's been an amazing thing. What a huge blessing."

Ray Nitschke Luncheon

From the Hall, it's off to the annual initiation luncheon, a chance for the new class to socialize with existing Hall of Famers in a private setting. Goodell is there, as are Hall officials, Class of 2012 presenters and some selection committee members. There are no wives or family members. And when lunch is served, enshrinees head into their own private room. No one else is allowed inside.

A microphone gets passed around, but the current class only listens. What happens beyond that, no one can say for certain.

"Thurman has so much fun when we come," Patti Thomas said. "He tells me his favorite thing of all is the Ray Nitschke Luncheon because it's only Hall of Famers, just the guys in there. And he said that is the coolest event because it's just us. Nobody else is allowed to come in there and he loves it."

A Butler and a dentist

Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Jack Butler waited 50 years for enshrinement, a record. His son and presenter, John, would give a guy the shirt off his back. John Butler did just that Friday. When one of the Hall of Famers showed up with the wrong shirt -- all were supposed to wear official blue Hall polos -- the younger Butler gave up his.

While the Hall of Famers were enjoying their privacy and camaraderie at the Nitschke luncheon, John Butler and Willie Roaf's father, Clifton, a retired dentist, sat down at the table I'd chosen in our less exclusive luncheon room.

What an honor it was for me, a first-time visitor to Canton, and the two other Hall selectors seated at our table.

I'd approached Jack Butler in the hotel lobby earlier in the day, congratulating him on his enshrinement. With Ted Hendricks, James Lofton and several other Hall of Famers gathering nearby, the elder Butler said "it's starting to have a meaning to it all."

"It's amazing, just incredible," John Butler said. "You think about it in the past, we would look at his numbers, ever since I was a kid, and say, 'Wow, his numbers match up.' But it's not like an expectation he'll get in. When it happens, it's overwhelming."

Gold Jacket Dinner

[+] EnlargeCurtis Martin
Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesBeing steady in his career and patient with his rushing attack earned Curtis Martin a Hall of Fame induction.
Kennedy, Roaf, Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman and Curtis Martin received their gold jackets during an emotional ceremony at the local civic center Friday night.

Our family purchased tickets and arrived with a group featuring Greene, Dave Casper, Tom Mack and others.

"Is that the ghost-to-the-post guy?" Cade, our youngest, asked later.

That was him. Of course, Casper accomplished much more for the Oakland Raiders than his famed overhead grab for a 42-yard gain against Baltimore on Christmas Eve 1977. A 7-year-old raised on NFL Films drama might not know that yet.

Dozens of previously enshrined Hall of Famers took their turn walking an aisle through guest tables before greeting the 2012 class on stage. My wife heard our oldest, Derek, gasp when Marshall Faulk's name was called.

The boys craned to see Warren Moon make his entrance.

The video highlight packages are what got me.

Dawson pulling from his center position and flattening the same defender twice on one play. Doleman forcing fumble after fumble with blind-side hits on quarterbacks. Kennedy beat the center and then dragging the guard into the backfield to stop a runner in his tracks. Roaf collapsing one side of the formation with devastating power. Martin setting up his runs with patience and accelerating away from trouble. Butler picking off passes, scoring as a receiver and lighting up opponents (I feared Goodell might fine him retroactively).

There were poignant moments, too. The elder Roaf hugged his son and wouldn't let go. When he finally walked away, leaving his son to sport his new jacket alone on the stage, Clifton Roaf squeezed the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb, as if to stop the tears.

The after party

Once the Gold Jacket Dinner broke, Hall of Famers and their families returned to the hotel for a reception.

My kids headed straight for the ice cream sundae bar, of course.

Not to worry, a nearby bartender offered. Bill Parcells, presenter for Martin, had done the same thing. A weekend such as this one makes all of us feel like kids.
Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk is a former teammate and close friend of quarterback Peyton Manning. That is why you have to take Faulk's opinion seriously when he says Manning will not go to the NFC and the Miami Dolphins are potential favorites.

Manning
Faulk seemed adamant Wednesday that you can pretty much cross off 16 NFC teams, including the Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins, who are both considered strong contenders to sign Manning.

"If you're in the NFC, you're out. The Mannings (won't) play a regular-season game," said Faulk, also referring to quarterback Eli Manning of the New York Giants. "They're not gonna stop each other from going to the Super Bowl. Meeting in the Super Bowl? How great would that be for the family?"

Faulk continued by saying "There's no way, there's no way, there's no way" when NFC teams were mentioned. Faulk didn't seem as sure where Manning will land but mentioned Miami as a possibility.

"Matt Flynn just doesn't do it," Faulk said. "(He's) not Aaron Rodgers, let's be honest."

If Faulk is accurate about his good friend, Peyton Manning, this is an interesting development. Teams like the Dolphins and New York Jets would basically have their competition cut in half, especially with strong suitors like Arizona, Seattle and Washington out of the mix. We will see if Faulk's prediction holds true.
Andy from Des Moines, Iowa asks whether Pro Football Hall of Famers were disproportionately early draft choices.


Mike Sando: Yes, that is definitely the case. The Hall of Fame lists them by round. I also track this information. By my count, 143 of 188 drafted Hall of Famers were chosen in the first three rounds. That is 76.1 percent. That includes 94 first-round selections, 29 second-rounders and 20 third-rounders.

No players drafted after 1995 have been enshrined to this point.

Curtis Martin, named as part of the 2012 class, was a third-round choice in 1995. The previous six drafts have produced eight Hall of Famers, and all eight were first-round choices: Marshall Faulk, Willie Roaf, Cortez Kennedy, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.

Later-round picks fared better long ago, when the draft had many more rounds. The NFL went from 17 to 12 rounds in 1977, then to eight in 1993 and seven the following year.

The chart below shows round-by-round distribution for drafted Hall of Famers since the 1983 class produced six Hall of Famers in the first round, the most for any first round.

Players drafted in first rounds tend to have more talent. They also tend to get every opportunity to succeed. The combination of those factors explains why more of them have found their way to Canton, in my view.

ManningWatch: Marshall Faulk weighs in

January, 31, 2012
1/31/12
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Retired St. Louis Rams great Marshall Faulk played with Peyton Manning and for Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

Faulk, speaking at Super Bowl media day, said he thought the back-and-forth between Manning and Irsay stemmed from the owner's unwillingness to expose the quarterback to a debilitating injury.

"It's not financial with Jim," Faulk said. "No, he has not told me this, these are not his words, but I am listening to his message. That is my job, listen to what is being said, not what is not being said, and he keeps harping on Peyton's health. That means Peyton's quality of life beyond football, being able to be the father and the husband that he can be by being healthy."

Manning's contract calls for him to receive a $28 million bonus March 8. The scheduled payment has accelerated discussions about Manning's future. As for the money itself?

"I don't think it's financial," Faulk said. "I mean, it made sense last year to not give him that kind of money. I mean, let's be honest. I love Peyton, but that's a lot of money to not play -- even if you knew he wasn't going to play half the season. That is what they were talking about: By Week 8, he'll be back. If that is the case, then I can give you eight games, too."

Faulk suggested delaying the $28 million payment could buy time if Manning decided he wanted to remain with the Colts. But he reiterated his contention that Irsay is most concerned about Manning's health, adding that the ability to draft Stanford's Andrew Luck first overall was also a secondary issue.

"I believe this would be the case if they were drafting 31st," Faulk said. "It just so happens they have an opportunity to do what the 49ers did when Joe Montana left, which was to put Steve Young in there. It's a great situation to be in. At the same time, it's an awful situation to be in."

Chargers' moves should help the Rams

January, 3, 2012
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Coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith are returning to the San Diego Chargers in 2012.

That is good for the St. Louis Rams as they pursue a head coach and GM.

San Diego, with a franchise quarterback in place and geography on its side, could have been an alluring alternative for candidates the Rams might be considering. One of those candidates, Jeff Fisher, reportedly has interest in teams with stability at quarterback.

Bernie Miklasz and I were just discussing the Rams and Fisher on 101ESPN St. Louis. Bernie asked what other candidates might appeal. An offensive-minded head coach would help insulate quarterback Sam Bradford from coordinator changes on that side of the ball. That would be one consideration from my standpoint.

And no, I wouldn't expect the Rams to consider former coach Mike Martz, now out as coordinator for the Chicago Bears. The Rams will presumably be looking toward the future, not the past, when making their next big hires (although Dick Vermeil and Marshall Faulk are part of the search process).

Fisher is the opposite of Martz: stable and consistent.

ForteWatch: Chasing Chris Johnson

October, 26, 2011
10/26/11
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Trevor reached out during Tuesday's SportsNation chat:

Trevor (De Pere, WI)

Kevin! We need a ForteWatch up in this blog! He's on pace for over 2,000 yards from scrimmage! LOUD NOISES!

Kevin Seifert (2:16 PM)

I can see that. I need four arms to keep up with all of my Watches....

Trevor must be an experienced NFC North blog reader. Any Will Ferrell movie reference gets you points with the blogger, especially if it's a Brick Tamland line. And if anything, Trevor undersold Forte's season to this point.

Forte isn't just on pace for 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards, a feat accomplished on 58 occasions in NFL history, according to Pro Football Reference. He has given himself a shot at producing one of the best seasons ever for a running back.

Check out the -- yes -- ForteWatch chart. At his current levels, Forte would finish the 16-game season with 2,493 total yards (rushing and receiving). That total would put him just 16 yards shy of the record set in 2009 by the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson.


(An aside: If there were ever a time for the Bears to break team policy and re-enter contract negotiations during the season, isn't it now? The Bears are in their bye week, and Forte's market value continues to rise.)

Obviously we still have more than half of the season remaining. Sometimes projecting 16-game performance is a silly exercise at this point in the season, but I think it's worthwhile to note that we have some NFC North players who are off to historic starts. Forte has joined Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson (10 touchdowns) and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (11.5 sacks) in deserving their own Watches so far this season. We'll obviously add and subtract as needed. (Still trying to decide how to handle Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' sizzling start.)

For those who are curious how Forte's performance compares to the best seven-game starts since 1960, Pro Football Reference's outstanding database has the answer.

Forte's 1,091 yards ranks eighth on a list that includes some pretty important names. Jim Brown totaled 1,193 yards in the first seven games of the 1963 season. Also appearing on the list are Marshall Faulk, O.J. Simpson and Terrell Davis. (Full list here.)

Related: Forte ranks fifth on NFC West blogger Mike Sando's MVP Watch this week.

McFadden has become a complete player

September, 23, 2011
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Darren McFaddenAP Photo/Joe MahoneyOakland's Darren McFadden is second in the NFL with 222 rushing yards through two games.

When the Oakland Raiders took Darren McFadden with the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2008, the general consensus was that they would be getting a Reggie Bush-type tailback.

A game-breaker at Arkansas, McFadden had the look of a player who would be a change-of-pace back who could help the Raiders in certain situations. Early in his fourth season, however, McFadden has blown past Bush on the running back pecking order. Truth be told, McFadden is closer to Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson than he is to Bush.

McFadden has developed into Oakland’s best offensive player and he is a primary reason why there is legitimate playoff hope for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2002. The New York Jets’ vaunted defense hits Oakland on Sunday, and trying to stop McFadden will be Job 1.

Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders has been around Hall of Fame running backs such as Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk in his 28-year career as an NFL coach. He thinks McFadden is one of the best tailbacks he has seen.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around some great running backs, but he’s one of those guys you put in that class,” Saunders said. “He’s a young kid that has just tremendous speed and tremendous potential, he catches the ball extremely well and I think he established what he is last year and he’s continuing to follow in that way this year.”

After his first two seasons were sullied by injuries, McFadden became a legitimate bell-cow back last year when he ran for 1,157 yards. He averaged a stout 5.2 yards per carry. McFadden is off to a fine start this season with 222 yards (7 yards behind Buffalo’s Fred Jackson for the NFL lead) on 42 carries, an average of 5.3 yards a carry. McFadden led the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more last season. He has three 20-plus runs already this season.

[+] EnlargeOakland's Darren McFadden
AP Photo/David Duprey"He is a nightmare to prepare for because, you don't know which way he is going to go," teammate Richard Seymour said of Darren McFadden.
“He’s become a complete player,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of McFadden. “I’ve become a believer.”

While McFadden will always be known for his speed, what is helping him become a special NFL player is his versatility and toughness. He's not just a fly-and-bye player. He has fine hands (he had seven catches for 71 yards in a loss at Buffalo last week) as a receiver and he has become a viable inside runner. Unlike Bush, McFadden (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) isn’t afraid to go inside.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, McFadden averaged 5.4 yards up the middle against the Broncos in a Week 1 win.

“I think people really don’t know that about me,” said McFadden, who was a star high school safety in North Little Rock, Ark. “I’m very proud of my ability to go inside. I think that is important for a back to go inside as well as outside and I like being tough and going inside.”

Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour said McFadden must rank among the NFL’s best backs because of his toughness.

“Going against him in nine-on-seven drills in camp, you can see how special he is,” Seymour said. “He goes strong inside unlike guys with his speed. But if you are waiting for him to come hard inside, he can always pop one and be gone. He is a nightmare to prepare for because you don’t know which way he is going to go.”

When he was traded to Oakland from Washington last year, quarterback Jason Campbell admitted he didn’t know too much about McFadden, who had only 217 total carries in his first two NFL seasons. However, Campbell was pleasantly surprised to find out he has a versatile back to work with.

“Nationally, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” Campbell said. “This is a complete back. He does it all for our offense. People don’t realize how tough this guy is.”

Never one to shy away from contact, McFadden’s preseason was snuffed out when he broke his orbital bone in an early-camp practice after making a big block on an linebacker. While McFadden is rough and tumble, there are durability concerns. He missed 10 games in his first three NFL seasons. But that's not going to keep him from playing running back the way he does.

“I’m a physical guy,” McFadden said. "I’m going to put my shoulder down and get after it and try to make every play I can.”

That doesn’t sound like your ordinary change-of-pace back.

Donnie Avery: Positive impression so far

September, 1, 2011
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St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney couldn't miss receiver Donnie Avery making plays while Devaney visited with the team's broadcast crew on the air Thursday night.

The timing was perfect. Avery, one of several Rams receivers competing for roster spots, has come on strong since returning from knee soreness during camp.

"Here is Donnie Avery showing up again," Devaney told analyst Marshall Faulk after being asked whether the final preseason game can force a team to keep a certain player. "He's having a helluva game so far."

Devaney also noted that rookie receiver Greg Salas had made a couple receptions.

Avery has two catches for 42 yards during the Rams' game against the Jaguars, which is ongoing. He appeared quick and nimble during a 27-yard reception featuring significant yards after the catch.

Leaving a positive impression in the final preseason game can make a difference.

"It's the last thing on your mind as you go into the final cuts," Devaney said. "You kind of focus on that last game, good and bad. You have to look at the whole game, the practices, the scrimmage, but it is a huge part of that process."

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