NFL Nation: Ollie Matson
A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 9.
I'd be OK renaming this award for the Arizona Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling if his name would fit in the headline.
Perhaps we could simply hyphenate the "High Energy" part in his honor.
A seventh-round draft choice from Pitt in 2009, Stephens-Howling broke a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Minnesota in Week 9, giving Arizona needed life right after the Vikings took a 7-0 lead. The Cardinals had lost the early momentum after Kerry Rhodes failed to protect the football during the final stages of an interception return, ultimately losing the ball as he approached the goal line for what should have been a Cardinals touchdown.
Stephens-Howling caught the kickoff just inside the Cardinals' left hash and cut to his right. He crossed the right hash at the 15, hit full stride inside the yard-line numbers near the 30 and then cut back toward the right hash as Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell flailed at him helplessly. There were key blocks -- safety Hamza Abdullah and linebacker O'Brien Schofield on Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley, defensive end Alan Branch on Vikings cornerback Chris Cook, fullback Jason Wright on Vikings cornerback Asher Allen, tackle Jeremy Bridges on Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, tight end Jim Dray on Vikings safety Husain Abdullah, Hamza's brother -- but the little guy with the football made them all look good.
"He’s obviously a dynamic player," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. "He does a lot of things very well for us. We all see the kickoff returns, but he does some other things for us in coverage and those aspects that are invaluable to us. We really have a good young player in LaRod."
Stephens-Howling has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and three in his career. Only Ollie Matson has more in franchise history (six between 1952 and 1958). Only Stephens-Howling, Matson and Les Goble have scored more than once on kickoff returns in the same Cardinals season. League-wide, Stephens-Howling is one of three players this season with multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns, joining New England’s Brandon Tate and Seattle’s Leon Washington.
The Seattle Seahawks are back, too -- not all the way or even most of the way, but enough of the way to win home games and contend for the NFC West title in a flawed division that nonetheless went 3-1 Sunday.
The hard part after the Seahawks' 27-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers was finding players in the winning locker room with enough roster tenure to remember what it was like the last time this team was good enough to make its crowd a decisive factor.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck remembers. He was there when Seattle was going 7-1 at home in 2007 and 8-0 there in 2005. Those teams were better, but this team doesn't need to be as good.
"For years we have dominated at home and people hated to come up here," Hasselbeck said after Washington's two return touchdowns helped deliver Seattle's second victory in three games this season. "Because we weren't a very good team for two years, we sort of lost that. It's going to be real important to get that back."
It might be back already.
The Seahawks have beaten two division favorites in two home games thus far in 2010. The San Francisco 49ers fell first, committing delay penalties and generally imploding on offense amid the noise. The Chargers succumbed Sunday, their offense jumping early and failing to beat the play clock in critical situations.
"I heard all kinds of glowing comments about what it's like to play here," first-year Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Then I was surprised on the first time out against the Niners. This game goes beyond expectation."
"That is good to see," said Seahawks safety Jordan Babineaux, who has been with the team since 2004.
Babineaux didn't need his Southern Arkansas University education to do the math.
"You sweep home, you could split on the road and that is a 12-4 season," he said. "That's a good year. The biggest challenge for us now is playing the way we play at home on the road. We have to."
Not necessarily. Not in this division.
The preseason favorite 49ers are 0-3 heading into a Week 4 game against Atlanta, their third road trip in four games this season. The Arizona Cardinals are tied with Seattle atop the division, but they barely beat St. Louis and Oakland in getting to 2-1. And in listening to the Cardinals-Raiders broadcast Sunday, there were times when fans supporting the Raiders seemed to make the most noise.
Hasselbeck complained of seeing Chargers jerseys in the stands Sunday.
"Our fans are still amazing," he said. "It's probably that stupid ticket-exchange commercial."
If San Diego fans made any noise of consequence, I couldn't hear it. While Hasselbeck's voice resonated during his postgame news conference, Rivers sounded hoarse.
"Most of the screaming is in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage because it's' definitely loud," he said. "It's like most road games."
Like most road games, times two. Seattle opponents had committed 96 false-start penalties at Qwest Field since 2005. Minnesota's Metrodome was second at 86, followed by stadiums in Tennessee (78) and Chicago (70).
Babineaux was at least partly right when he said the Seahawks need to figure out a way to win on the road. Beating the 1-2 St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 4 would give Seattle one of the precious road victories it might need to post a winning season for the first time since 2007.
Crowds cannot win games by themselves. The home crowd matters again in Seattle because the Seahawks have improved almost across the board. Their draft-day trade with the New York Jets for Washington paid for itself, and then some, when Washington returned kickoffs 101 and 99 yards against the Chargers. He nearly had another return touchdown, but he slipped while trying to elude the last defender.
Washington's team-record two kickoff returns for touchdowns were the difference. Those returns left Seattle's defense on the field and the Chargers finished with 518 yards, but with rookie safety Earl Thomas picking off two passes, including one at the Seattle 5 with 6 seconds remaining, it felt like old times at Qwest Field.
"When you have a returner that has faith in the guys in front of him, he can hit it hard and fast and like I did in New York," Washington said.
A player from another NFL team asked Hasselbeck about Washington during the week.
"I talked about how great he's been and how we love him and he's going to break out here," Hasselbeck said. "I don't think anyone imagined that it could have been like that."
Washington now has six kickoff returns for touchdowns during his career, tied for second in league history with Ollie Matson, Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Mel Gray and Dante Hall. Only Josh Cribbs has more, with eight. Washington's 101- and 99-yarders rank first and second in Seahawks history.
Seattle turned over its roster more than any team during the 2010 offseason.
The changes produced questions. We're starting to get some answers.
The Seahawks' special-teams units are hitting harder than they have in my memory covering the team (since 1998). That reflects improved personnel. Rookie fifth-round choice Kam Chancellor forced a fumble during a Chargers return. Rookie seventh-rounder Dexter Davis recovered. Rookie second-rounder Golden Tate, chosen 60th overall with a pick acquired from San Diego, had a 31-yard punt return and caught all four passes thrown his way.
Most improbably to me, the Seahawks are playing well enough on their offensive line to give Hasselbeck a chance -- even with rookie first-round left tackle Russell Okung sidelined by injury for the first three games.
The offense remains in its formative stages, sometimes appearing lost. But Seattle was very close to scoring at least two more touchdowns. The Chargers forced Deion Branch to fumble at the 1 after a 41-yard gain. The Seahawks inexplicably let the game clock expire after driving to the San Diego 2 right before halftime.
"I'm not going to overlook that," Carroll said of how close Seattle came to a first-half rout.
There can be no more overlooking the Seahawks at Qwest, either. Their remaining home opponents -- Arizona, the New York Giants, Kansas City, Carolina, Atlanta and St. Louis -- will have a hard time winning here.
That's what we've learned about Seattle in the first three weeks.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Jay Cutler would have been "all wrong" for the 49ers. Cohn: "He is not a winner, has a losing career record: 17-20. Did you know that? You don't build a winner around a loser. He has a big mouth and he sulks. He has a reputation for being undisciplined and for coming unglued precisely when a quarterback is supposed to stay glued. Say what you will about [Shaun] Hill's limitations, he is supremely poised -- poise is his main virtue. The Broncos gave up on Cutler precisely because he's immature bordering on goofy and unstable."
David Fucillo of Niners Nation wonders if Dashon Goldson will stay healthy long enough to realize his potential as the 49ers' free safety.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com checks in with the Cardinals' cheerleading tryouts because, hey, someone has to do it. This handy photo gallery is probably setting an NFC West offseason record for page views.
Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 looks at some of the greatest fullbacks in Cardinals history. Ernie Nevers, Ollie Matson, Jim Otis and Larry Centers are part of the conversation.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams made a smart move in signing Kyle Boller as a backup quarterback. Looking ahead to the draft, Miklasz sees evidence the Rams will select an offensive tackle with the No. 2 overall choice. At the same time, can they really go into the season with Keenan Burton as a starting receiver?
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Boller's deal with the Rams, initially reported as a two-year contract, is really for one season.
Turf Show Times' Tackle Box examines the Rams' running backs while looking at available free agents and potential late-round draft prospects. The conclusion? "So, at this point, I really want the Rams to take a strong and long look at Warrick Dunn. I think with him in the fold, the Rams' offense becomes absolutely powerful. Plus, adding him takes away from our lack of experience at the WR position since you'd have the possibility of Steven Jackson, Warrick Dunn, and Randy McMichael running routes which would definitely keep defenses honest and should free up Donnie Avery deep."
Dan Arkush of Pro Football Weekly says Seahawks defensive line coach Dan Quinn is "very excited" about the team's versatility at defensive tackle. Arkush echoes the general feeling that Seattle will not seriously consider a defensive tackle with the fourth overall choice in the draft. The Seahawks have not drafted a defensive tackle among the top 20 overall choices since selecting Sam Adams eighth in 1994. The team has drafted five defensive linemen in the top 10: Steve Niehaus (1976), Jacob Green (1980), Jeff Bryant (1982), Cortez Kennedy (1990) and Adams. All but Niehaus played in at least 167 regular-season NFL games.
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