NFL Nation: Reggie White

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- To this day, Bob Harlan insists he's not sure what would have happened to the Green Bay Packers if they didn't start winning in the 1990s.

Maybe they would have survived. But maybe pro football in the NFL's smallest city would have eventually gone away.

[+] EnlargeMike Holmgren and Ron Wolf
Getty Images/Matthew StockmanFormer Packers GM Ron Wolf, right, helped bring a Super Bowl and staying power to the organization.
Thanks in large part to Harlan's decision to hire Ron Wolf as general manager in 1991, they never had to worry.

"I know what Ron will say: 'Without Brett, without Mike, without Reggie [the turnaround wouldn't have happened],' but that's what's great about Ron Wolf," former Packers quarterback Brett Favre said Friday in a telephone interview. "He's humble, modest, and he's a quiet guy. He's just not going to ever say that he was instrumental in that, nor should he. But the bottom line is it's the truth. Someone had to turn things around. And he did it."

Because of it, Wolf was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Harlan hired Wolf on Nov. 27, 1991. At that point, the Packers had exactly one playoff win -- in a wild-card game in the strike-shortened 1982 season -- since their latest championship under Vince Lombardi in Super Bowl II on Jan. 14, 1967.

Wolf acted swiftly when he arrived in Green Bay. Four days after he was introduced, he and Harlan sat in the press box in Atlanta, where the Packers played the Falcons. Wolf told Harlan he planned to trade for Favre, a backup with the Falcons. Back in Green Bay the next day, after a 35-31 loss to the Falcons, Wolf went to see his first Packers practice.

"He comes into my office," Harlan said, "and he says, 'You've got a problem on your practice field. This team is 4-10, and they're walking around like they're 10-4. We're going to make a change.' He had basically decided in two days on the job that Brett Favre was going to be our quarterback, and Lindy Infante was finished [as coach]."

With Wolf as general manager, Mike Holmgren as head coach and Favre as quarterback, the Packers went 75-37 in the regular season, 9-5 in the postseason and to two Super Bowls. They won No. XXXI. Holmgren left after the 1998 season, and Wolf stayed on for two more years, which gave him a total record (including playoffs) of 101-57 in nine seasons. Unlike when Lombardi left, there would be no falloff in Green Bay after Wolf retired.

"The thing that pleased me is that after 24 years of bad football, thanks to Ron and Mike Holmgren and now Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, we've had 23 years of very good football," Harlan said. "It's been a huge turnaround, but I don't know where we'd be [without Wolf]."

Even though Wolf retired in 2001, his fingerprints remain all over the Packers. He hired Thompson, the current GM, as a scout in 1992, and his son, Eliot, is the Packers' director of player personnel. Four other Wolf disciples -- John Dorsey (Kansas City), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland), Scot McCloughan (Washington) and John Schneider (Seattle) -- currently hold GM posts.

"I think it was a combination of the leadership team in place with Bob Harlan, Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren," said Dorsey, who played for the Packers from 1984-88 and then worked under Wolf as a scout. "He's a stickler for doing it the right way. He was a big part, instrumentally, in terms of changing that culture and that environment. I would say that it was a huge step in laying the foundation for where that organization is today."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Before he said anything else late Friday night, Brett Favre wanted to know this: What were the chances his old general manager, Ron Wolf, gets elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame the next day?

Favre had just emerged from two days of hunting in the woods of Alabama with Steve Hutchinson, his former teammate from his two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, and had not read or heard any of the scuttlebutt surrounding Saturday's Hall of Fame vote.

Foremost on Favre's mind was Wolf's possible induction. Wolf, the former Green Bay Packers general manger, is a finalist in the newly created "contributor" category.

"Man, I sure hope it happens," Favre said during a telephone interview. "Of course, I'm biased to Ron."

And then one of the NFL's all-time greatest talkers – and, of course, all-time best quarterbacks – spent the next 20 minutes telling stories about Wolf, the man who traded a first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons in early 1992 to bring Favre to Green Bay.

That was one of the many moves that Wolf made to resurrect a downtrodden franchise that had not sniffed an NFL championship in nearly three decades.

"People don't think about it now because I played 20 years and had a great career, but he stuck his neck out to go get me," Favre said. "To give up a first-round pick for a guy who was drafted in the second round, who didn't play and was definitely unproven, and my goodness to hand him over to Mike Holmgren, an unproven guy as far as a head coach is concerned. That was his first move, and it ended up being a tremendous move. [Holmgren was] the greatest coach I ever played for at any point in my career. And I think getting me – and I'm not saying getting me because I thought I was great – just the risk was an unbelievable move, one that no one could see but him."

[+] EnlargeMike Holmgren and Ron Wolf
Getty Images/Matthew StockmanFormer Packers GM Ron Wolf, right, helped bring a Super Bowl and staying power to the organization.
Favre wasn't even sure who Wolf was when the phone rang at his parents' home in Kiln, Mississippi, on Feb. 11, 1992. He had just hung up with June Jones, then the Falcons' offensive coordinator. It was Jones who broke the news to Favre that he had been traded to the Packers. Favre and his brother, Scott, were standing in the family kitchen still stunned over Jones' phone call when Wolf called.

"I had heard of Ron Wolf, but I don't even know if I knew he was in Green Bay at that point," Favre said. "He said, 'Look, I'm the GM in Green Bay and we just traded for you and I want you to know that we're very excited about having you and having you lead our team.'

"From Day 1, there was one thing about Ron: He was always ultra-positive with me. Of course, Holmgren, as a coach you see things a little different. You want to win football games with whoever you see fit, but he knew that Ron wanted me to play. I always felt this sense of comfort that no matter what, Ron's got my back."

Favre
The Packers, who went 101-57 (including playoffs) and won one Super Bowl in Wolf's tenure as general manager, went 9-7 in that first season with Wolf, Holmgren and Favre, who became the starter four games into that season. It was just the Packers' fourth winning season since their last NFL championship under Vince Lombardi in 1967.

In Favre's eyes, the change really began the next offseason.

"Just as importantly, he made it cool to come to Green Bay, no pun intended, and that was because he got Reggie White," Favre said. "You know as well as I do – and no one thinks about it now because everybody would love to go to Green Bay and play – getting Reggie White brought serious credibility to coming to Green Bay. It wasn't just a place to be shipped off to in order to finish your career.

"Look, the players ultimately have to play at some point. You stick your neck out there for them, you pay them lots of money, you give up draft picks for them, and there are so many debacles that you can point to in the history of this league that didn't work. But yet his did. He can't win ballgames for anyone, but he can set the table, and that's what he did. I just think when you look at where Green Bay is today – [current GM] Ted Thompson's another one, he learned from the best in Ron and I think Ted's done an excellent job – there's just a filter-down effect from what he did that makes him unquestionably deserving of a Hall of Fame induction."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This is exactly what the Green Bay Packers wanted in the mid-1990s. Two decades later, they finally have the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.

Oh, what they -- and their fans -- would have given for this in 1993.

Or 1994.

Or 1995.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Eric GayThe 1990s Cowboys dynasty ended the Packers' season three times in the decade, having enjoyed home-field advantage for each playoff win.
All three of those seasons ended with playoff losses to Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith & Co. And all three of those playoff losses were at Texas Stadium.

It became both an obsession and a frustration for the Packers' organization and its fans. If the Packers were ever going to get to another Super Bowl, they were going to have to beat the Cowboys.

Even in faraway Charlotte, North Carolina, they understood. In the playoffs following the 1996 season, it looked like it might come down to the Packers and Cowboys once again in the NFC. While the Packers hosted the San Francisco 49ers in one divisional playoff game, the Carolina Panthers had the Cowboys in the other.

"I can remember them flashing to a bar in Wisconsin someplace, and all the fans were chanting 'We want the Cowboys,'" said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was the Panthers' head coach at the time. "And somebody came in and said to me, 'Well, you disappointed the Packers fan,' because it became Carolina coming in here.

"Three years in a row they had gone down there and finally, the Packers had home-field advantage, and they wanted the Cowboys to have to come here."

No one in Green Bay will ever apologize for skirting the Cowboys on the way to Super Bowl XXXI -- the Packers beat Capers' Panthers 30-13 in the NFC Championship Game -- and there's no asterisk next to their championship, but the Packers will never know if they could have beaten Dallas in the '90s in the postseason.

"That was very frustrating to go down there all the time and lose to those guys," former Packers general manager Ron Wolf said this week. "Very frustrating."

Wolf conceded that the Cowboys "probably had better players." He called Aikman, Irvin and Smith "exceptional," but thought his quarterback, Brett Favre, canceled out Aikman. Likewise, he believed Reggie White was to the Packers' defense what Deion Sanders was to Dallas' (although Sanders played in only the 1995 playoffs). But Irvin and Smith, especially on the fast track in Texas, were too much.

"I always felt if we could ever get them on grass -- we were always playing down at their place, and they had the distinct advantage on AstroTurf," Wolf said. "It was one of those things where we were structured differently physically as a football team than they were. We were a grass team, and they were an AstroTurf team, not to diminish the quality of their players.

"When we did get them on the grass, we beat them."

They didn't just beat them. They destroyed them -- 45-17 in a 1997 regular-season game at Lambeau Field. By then, the Cowboys' dynasty had begun to crumble. They would go 13 years before they won another playoff game.

The Packers finally get the Cowboys in Green Bay for a playoff game Sunday in the NFC divisional round. Other than what they have heard or read about the Ice Bowl, the last playoff game between the teams at Lambeau Field, few of today's players have much knowledge of the playoff history between the two teams.

Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett does. Bennett, a Packers running back from 1992 to '96, played in all three of those playoff losses in Dallas.

"It's always difficult going back to reliving some of those Dallas games," Bennett said this week. "You learn from those experiences, and I think we were able to get better."

The one that sticks out to him the most is the 1995 NFC title game.

"I just know that locker room following that game in '95, I know we were a different team after that moving forward," Bennett said. "We were a different team. For whatever reason, we were a different team, and that following year we ended up winning the Super Bowl."

But they never beat the Cowboys.

"People say that," Bennett said. "We didn't really care who we ended up playing because we felt like it was more about where we were at and what we're doing."

Statue immortalizes Lambeau Leap

August, 1, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – LeRoy Butler, the inventor of the Lambeau Leap, is not in the statue unveiled outside the stadium on Friday that commemorates the Green Bay Packers' trademark touchdown celebration, and that's OK with him.

The former All-Pro safety wants the fans to be able to play his role.

The statue features four fans behind a padded stadium wall with room in the middle for the would-be leaper.

"I wanted the people to experience being me and being one of the fans," Butler said after the statue was unveiled. "You can actually take a picture on top of it and you can come around back, your family can get in it as if they're the paying fans."

[+] EnlargeLambeau Leap
Courtesy of Rob DemovskyA statue and plaque outside Lambeau Field honors the history of the Lambeau Leap.
And so it is. Visitors to the recently rededicated Harlan Plaza, which also features statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau, will be able to pose just like Butler did when he invented the leap on Dec. 26, 1993 after he scored a touchdown against the Los Angeles Raiders and jumped into the south end zone stands.

There was nothing posed or planned about the first leap, Butler said. On the play, Butler forced a fumble that was picked up by Reggie White. Although it appeared he stepped out of bounds first, White lateraled the ball back to Butler, who returned it for a touchdown.

"It was very spontaneous," Butler said. "I can't even tell a fib and say I thought about it."

While Butler started it, players such as former Packers receiver Robert Brooks took it to another level when he made a song and video about it.

The NFL has outlawed other celebrations, but the Lambeau Leap has been grandfathered in.

"You look across the league, to me it's one of the greatest traditions in the league," Packers president Mark Murphy said. "To me, it kind of personifies the special bond our players have with the fans. We thought it'd be kind of fun to have something a little different and our fans could have some fun with."

Although Butler is not depicted in the statue, an attached plaque reads: "Since that frigid December day in 1993 when LeRoy Butler made that spontaneous leap into the arms of the fans, the Lambeau Leap has become a Packers tradition. It declares that nothing gets in the way between the Packers players and their fans. In all of football, nothing symbolizes a greater connection between players and fans than the Lambeau Leap. To the fans who welcome every player with open arms, we thank you. Here's your chance to experience your own Lambeau Leap right here, right now. Make it legendary."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- No more dunking over the goal posts.

What's next, no more Lambeau Leaps?

It was worth wondering if that could be abolished after NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Tuesday the league will penalize players if they celebrate with a dunk over the crossbar.

Like the Lambeau Leap, which dates to 1993, the goalpost dunk was previously grandfathered in by the league, making it exempt from a celebration penalty.

Unlike the dunk, it looks like the Lambeau Leap is safe.

In response to an email seeking clarification about whether the Lambeau Leap could eventually join the goalpost dunk on the list of banned celebrations, NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello wrote: "The goalpost issue is the potential delay of game for having to re-set the crossbar after being knocked askew by a dunker. It has happened a few times. Not the case for the leap."

The Lambeau Leap has become expected of all Green Bay Packers players who reach the end zone during a home game. It began when then-safety LeRoy Butler jumped into the stands during a game on Dec. 23, 1993, after he scored on a 25-yard fumble return that was originally recovered by defensive end Reggie White, who lateraled the ball to Butler.

"We grandfathered in some [celebrations], the Lambeau Leap and things like that, but dunking will come out," Blandino said, according to NFL.com. "Using the ball as a prop or any object as a prop, whether that's the goalpost, the crossbar, that will come out and that will be a foul next season."
Only the members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee know why former Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene came up short again in his bid for induction on Saturday.

Greene, who stepped away from coaching last month after a five-year stint with the Packers, probably has a good idea.

Not that he agrees with it.

But given the fact that of the NFL’s top-five career sack leaders Greene is the only one not in the Hall of Fame, he seems aware of the perception that he was a one-trick pony during his 15-year career. That’s something Greene vigorously disputed during an interview late last season.

“You know this position, there’s three phases,” Greene said at the time. “To be successful at this position, you’ve got to be able to do all three. You can’t just do one, and really suck at playing the run and suck at covering people. It just doesn’t jive at this position. If you have success at one of the areas of this position, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job in the other two as well. So it is what it is.”

Greene, who was a finalist each of the past three years, leads all NFL outside linebackers with 160 sacks, and ranks third on the list behind defensive ends Bruce Smith (200 sacks) and Reggie White (198), both of whom are in the Hall of Fame.

Chris Doleman, who is fourth on the all-time list with 150.5, also is in the Hall of Fame. Michael Strahan, who is fifth on the list with 141.5, was voted in on Saturday.

Greene made the cut from the 15 finalists down to 10, but did not make the cut to the final players to be voted on for this class.

“I can tell you first of all that I truly have a peace about what I was able to accomplish,” Greene said late last season. “I know, really, inside, how I played and the time that I put in, the film that I studied. The countless hours on the field, in the workout room -- all those things. I’ve got a peace about that. It’s not something I regret. Should I have done more? Could I have done more? No. I did everything I possibly could to try to be the best at the position in all three phases of the game. Not just one phase.”
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- If it seemed like the Raiders were not addressing their defensive line this offseason in the wake of parting ways with Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Desmond Bryant and Matt Shaughnessy, there was a reason.

Oakland was about to go all in with defensive end Lamarr Houston and move him from the left side to the right.

[+] EnlargeLamarr Houston
AP Photo/ Bill NicholsLamarr Houston has rewarded the Raiders, who trusted him to anchor their pass rush.
Two games into the season and he’s been more than a disruptive force, aside from his one sack, 12 quarterback hurries and three quarterback hits, per Pro Football Focus.

“We thought last year Lamarr was probably our best defensive player,” said Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. “So we felt good that Lamarr could provide some kind of pass rush. Now, will he be that dominant Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, one of those kind of guys? We didn’t have that in mind, but we thought he could be a disruptive force for our defense.

“We just wanted to fill in some good pieces around and just complement the defense to where we can execute some things.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Houston is the third-rated right defensive end in a 4-3 formation when it comes to pass-rushing productivity.

Heading into Denver, he will face a career backup in fourth-year pro Chris Clark after three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a Lisfranc injury.

“I wish Clady a speedy recovery,” said Houston, who grew up in Colorado Springs after moving there from Sacramento when he was 5 years old.

“I train with him in the offseason, so I wish him nothing but the best. The backup Clark guy, he’s an athletic tackle. He has really good feet. He can keep up with anybody, small, big or fast. I have to get in there and watch some more tape on him and see what he’s doing and how he likes to play.”

The Raiders are already impressed with Houston’s play in his transition thus far. So much that McKenzie acknowledged he has been in talks with Houston’s agent about a contract extension. Houston, the Raiders’ second-round draft pick in 2010 out of Texas, is in the final year of his rookie contract.

“We’ll see how that works out,” McKenzie said.

Finances precluded McKenzie from going after an established pass-rusher this past offseason, so the Raiders returned only 5.5 of their 25 sacks from a year ago, with Houston having four and linebacker Miles Burris contributing 1.5, though Burris is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list.

“Now, if I had a chance to get a guaranteed 15-sack guy, yeah,” McKenzie said. “Whether I had the resources to get that done or not, probably not. But we felt good about Lamarr.”

Even if Houston, who will be the only returning starter on defense to play Monday in Denver, is still learning the nuances of the right side on the job.

“I don’t think I’m playing as well as I should be playing,” he said. “There’s a lot of mistakes I’ve been making that have to be corrected. That’s why we’re here, working and trying to get better. I think I have improved somewhat in that area, but there’s a lot of improvement for me to do.”

Like what, exactly?

“I think there’s a couple of things I have to work on mechanics wise, our D-line has to work on mechanics wise,” Houston said. “We have to execute how we want the pocket to look like. We have to keep working this week and make improvements for us as a line as a whole with our rush game to make a difference on Monday.”
Charles WoodsonAP Photo/Matthew HintonDefensive back Charles Woodson is the Raiders' lone representative on ESPN.com's top-100 list.
Today, the Raider Nation rejoices.

One of its beloved players is getting due respect. For the first time since our 100 top offensive and defensive players in the NFL project began Monday, there is an Oakland representative.

To commemorate his return to Oakland, venerable safety Charles Woodson checks in as the 68th-best defensive player in the league. Yes, Oakland gets the love its rabid fan base so hungers. Congratulations.

Don’t get used to it.

Hate to play the spoiler role, but Woodson is the first and only player to appear on either list. He is the only Oakland defensive player on the list, and there will not be any offensive players from Oakland on the top-100 list. Oft-injured running back Darren McFadden had some momentum, but he did not make the list.

One Oakland player in the top 200? Here’s a little perspective: The Raiders’ Bay Area rival, San Francisco, has three defensive players in the top 11. All four of Seattle’s defensive backs made the top 100.

Is this Raider hating? I’d doubt that’s the case. ESPN enlisted 63 voters, including former players and reporters (I was one of the voters). We graded more than 500 NFL players and the results were tabulated. I can assure you there was nothing sinister at work.

Woodson stands alone because a large group collectively thought he was the only Raider who was deserving.

It’s no shock Oakland doesn’t have much representation on this list. These have been hard times for the Pride and Poise. Oakland hasn’t had a winning record since 2002, and it is tied for the second-longest current playoff drought in the NFL.

Oakland is considered to have one of the weakest, thinnest rosters in the NFL heading into the 2013 season. General manager Reggie McKenzie, in his second season as the replacement to the late Al Davis, is basically starting over. It hasn’t been easy for McKenzie.

He inherited a terrible salary-cap situation and a dearth of draft picks because of poor decisions made in the Davis era. The result is a bare-bones team. And, yes, a roster not worthy of getting much top-100 recognition.

“It is as bad as it looks in Oakland,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said.

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. agrees. He was not shocked to see Oakland nearly get snubbed.

“I liken them to a Triple-A baseball team right now,” Horton said. “They lost so many players to free agency because of the cap restrictions and all they have replaced them with are bargain-basement free agents. It’s going to be rough there.”

Still, both Williamson and Horton believe McKenzie’s plan of starting over is the right thing to do, because he has no choice.

While the recent past has been bleak and the immediate future doesn’t show much promise, McKenzie’s plan could help infuse some more talent on the roster. The Raiders may have a surplus of $69 million in salary-cap room next year.

That doesn’t necessarily mean McKenzie will spend wildly and build an instant Pro Bowl roster. His front-office roots are in Green Bay, and he has said he will subscribe to the Packer way as he reconstructs Oakland’s roster. That means keeping his own players first. McKenzie has shown that philosophy this summer by locking up potential free agents kicker Sebastian Janikowski and long-snapper Jon Condo to long-term deals. Other players, such as injured left tackle Jared Veldheer, defensive end Lamarr Houston and fullback Marcel Reece, could also be candidates to be re-signed before they hit free agency.

While the program is clearly in tough shape, it would be inaccurate to portray this roster as talentless. There are about 1,900 players in the league, and some of the good ones do don Silver and Black.

There is promise. In addition to the above-mentioned players, Oakland building blocks include center Stefen Wisniewski, young receivers Rod Streater and Denarius Moore, safety Tyvon Branch, cornerback D.J. Hayden, offensive tackle Menelik Watson and linebacker Sio Moore.

The cupboard is not bare. But the truth is there are few established stars currently playing in Oakland. McKenzie knows it is his job to develop them.

“When I first got to Green Bay, there wasn’t a bunch of studs there,” McKenzie said. “Then we got Brett Favre and then we got Reggie White. And things started to look a little better. Right now, we have to turn some of these guys into studs and keep building. That’s the only way this thing is going to work.”

OXNARD, Calif. – As he sat with opposing players before they had to play against Larry Allen, John Madden could notice the dread.

“You didn’t sleep easy the night before, hoping you get to play against Larry Allen,” Madden said. “They knew it. There’s no pro football player that has a fear of another guy that plays on that level, but he was so doggone strong and there wasn’t much you could do against him.”

Allen will be the 14th Cowboy inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, and Madden, a Hall of Famer himself, can’t wait to see him in Canton, Ohio. He shares northern California ties with Allen and got to know him over the years.

Madden remembers Joe Greene praising Allen, even if Greene never played against him. He recalls the respect Reggie White had for Allen. And he remembers the words coaches like Mike Holmgren and George Seifert had for Allen.

Even Allen’s teammates were amazed at what he could do.

“When Nate Newton played he came in at 300 pounds, and that was a number that you didn’t want to exceed,” Madden said. “I remember those days because I coached and those 300-pound guys would be 299, and Nate always fought his weight. He said he always had to be under 300 pounds and he said, ‘Then this Larry Allen comes in and he weighs 330 pounds and they’re all bragging about it. They never let me weigh 330 pounds, and then we got this guy and I saw him and he was a different 330 pounds than I (had) ever seen.’”

What made Allen so great?

“He had everything,” Madden said. “That was the thing he had. He had strength and knew how to use it. There are a lot of guys that have strength and power and don’t use it. There are other guys that don’t have it and go and get beat. He was the type of guy that could use it at the line of scrimmage and use that in space. He could pull and get at defensive back downfield and he could block at the point of attack and pass protect. That’s what makes a great player. You don’t say he had one thing. He had everything.”

Allen made offensive line play cool, and few were cooler or better than Allen, according to Madden.

“He has to rank right up there at the top,” Madden said. “I think you have to go by the ones you’ve seen, and I’ve always put John Hanna up there as that guy. I had Gene Upshaw and he’s a Hall of Fame guard, and I put Larry Allen right there with that group. There was never a question with me whether or not he was a Hall of Famer. He’s one of the all-time great NFL players at his position, and you could make an argument that he’s the best, but you’d have to wrestle some other guys for it.”
To review: J.J. Watt’s defensive player of the year season in 2012 included 107 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback hits, 16 batted passes, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

SportsNation

Is it possible for Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt to have a better year than he did in 2012?

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    55%
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Discuss (Total votes: 2,867)

“It was the best I’ve ever seen, the best I’ve ever been around,” Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips recently reiterated.

Watt is the biggest sports star Houston has seen in some time and I don’t think he’ll let up for a second in preparing for his third year, even as he allows himself to enjoy his celebrity.

Still, one has to wonder: Can he match that enormous season or is a statistical drop-off almost inevitable?

The Titans drafted right guard Chance Warmack in part because they think he will be able to slow Watt down. The Colts also emphasized their interior offensive line in the draft. Those moves will hardly make Watt scared. They simply serve to help illustrate how big of a concern he is.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsJ.J. Watt had 20.5 sacks and 16 batted passes in 2012.
“We started seeing it toward the last of the year, they started hollering in the field, ‘Don’t let him get to the quarterback,’ that sort of thing,” Phillips said. “Teams were even drafting for him, it sounded like.

“He’s going to draw a lot of attention, but as long as you have other guys who can rush, it’s hard. We put him in some situations where he’s one-on-one and we also move him around quite a bit. We think those things will help.

“There will be more attention on him, there will be more trying to see where he is and trying to help. But I think they tried to do that last year quite a bit. He’s a great player. He’s going to do well no matter what.”

But can he match those stats?

“I don’t know if you can have a better year than last year. He had a tremendous year,” Phillips said. “I’ve never been around a defensive linemen that made that many plays. And I had Reggie White, I had Bruce Smith, I had Elvin Bethea who’s in the Hall of Fame, Curly Culp who’s fixing to go in the Hall of Fame. Nobody’s had a year like that kid had last year.

“You just don’t make that many plays. It was a phenomenal year. I don’t know if he can have a better year than that. He’s working towards it, I know that. He’s first in every drill we do, he wins every wind sprint that they run out there, he’s a leader. The sky’s the limit for that guy.”

Final Word: NFC West

November, 23, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:


Fateful QB decision: If carried out as expected, the San Francisco 49ers' move to replace Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick will be the most scrutinized decision in the NFL this week and perhaps all season.

Smith has completed 25 of his past 27 passes. The 49ers have posted a 19-5-1 record the past two seasons with Smith in the lineup. Smith has 38 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in his past 30 starts dating to late in the 2010 season. His Total QBR score has risen from a sub-average 45.8 last season to 69.8 this season. The latter figure ranked ninth in the NFL through Week 11 and would represent Pro Bowl-caliber play if sustained over a full season.

What's not to like? Smith ranks only 25th in third-down QBR at 32.0. That is up from 22.0 last season, but it's still not good enough.

Smith has done a disproportionate amount of damage on early downs, when opponents must account for the 49ers' formidable ground game. His QBR score on first and second downs has jumped from 55.9 last season to 80.8 this season. Might the lagging third-down production point to limitations the 49ers think Kaepernick can transcend?

Kaepernick hasn't played enough to draw meaning from his third-down performance. So far, though, so good. The second-year pro has completed 7 of 12 passes for 123 yards on third down. He has one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. His third-down QBR score (65.6) would mark a significant improvement if maintained over time.

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith, John Skelton
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsAldon Smith (99) is poised to become the NFL's all-time leader in sacks over a player's first two seasons.
Chasing down history: 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith needs two sacks to pass Derrick Thomas and tie Reggie White for the most sacks in a player's first two seasons since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. White had 31 in 1985-86. Thomas had 30 in 1989-90. Smith has 15 this season after collecting 14 as a rookie. Denver's Von Miller ranks sixth on the list with 24.5 in his first two seasons heading into Week 12.

Fresh-faced QBs: Kaepernick, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Arizona's Ryan Lindley had not started an NFL game before this season. All three are expected to start in Week 12. That makes St. Louis' Sam Bradford, with 36 career starts, the most seasoned starting quarterback in the division this week. The NFC West is bucking a broader NFL trend, however. Teams will have used no more than 42 starting quarterbacks through Week 12, the fewest to this point in any of the past 20 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Hitting the road: Wilson has gone 5-0 at home with 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 67.7 QBR score in those games. He heads to Miami in Week 12 having posted a 1-4 record on the road with four touchdowns, eight picks and a 47.3 QBR score. It's looking up for Wilson on the road, however. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and a 93.7 QBR score in his most recent road game, at Detroit. He's got a 70.7 QBR score for his past three road games, up from 23.6 for his first two. My feel is that Wilson has improved overall in recent weeks and that should translate to the road as long as his overall trajectory remains upward.

Welcoming back Wells: Running back Beanie Wells' return from a toe injury comes after the Cardinals pumped up their yards-per-carry average from a league-worst 3.5 through Week 8 to an 11th-ranked 4.3 since Week 9, a span of two games for Arizona. Wells faces a St. Louis run defense that has improved since he gashed it for 228 yards in Week 12 last season. The Rams are allowing 4.1 yards per carry, down from 4.8 last season. No Rams team has allowed fewer yards per carry over a season since 2002. On a side note, the Cardinals need no worse than a tie to avoid becoming the first NFL team to lose seven consecutive games after a 4-0 start.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Good note from the San Francisco 49ers this morning: Aldon Smith needs 1.5 sacks against Buffalo to break Reggie White's sack-era record for fewest games to reach 20 career sacks.

White needed 22 games. Smith has 18.5 sacks in his first 20 regular-season games.

Smith, who led the 49ers with 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011, had one sack wiped out by penalty in Week 4. He has 4.5 sacks through four games this season, putting him on pace for 18 sacks over a 16-game season.

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has taken only four sacks in 136 drop backs this season.

Additional Bills-49ers notes, from ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Fitzpatrick's 12 touchdown passes are a franchise record through four games.
  • Fitzpatrick has thrown all seven of his interceptions against teams sending four or fewer pass-rushers. The 49ers have picked off 21 passes since the beginning of last season when sending four or fewer, third-most in the NFL. Opposing defenses have sent five or more against Fitzpatrick on 35 of 136 drop backs. The 49ers have sent added pressure 20.7 percent of the time since the start of last season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. That includes 27.1 percent this season.
  • Fitzpatrick completed only 2 of 10 passes when targeting Stevie Johnson in Week 4. Fitzpatrick and Johnson have the lowest completion percentage in the NFL this season among QB-WR combinations with at least 20 targets.
  • The 49ers have 386 yards rushing outside the tackles, most in the NFL by 83 yards. They average 7.9 yards per carry on these rushes, third-best in the league. Their 18 rushing first downs on these runs rank first in the league. The team gave left tackle Joe Staley a contract extension in 2009, after Staley's second season. Right tackle Anthony Davis, who appears to be playing at a high level, is already in his third season. Not that agents would ever think of such things.
  • Alex Smith's 29-yard pass to Vernon Davis in Week 1 stands as the 49ers' longest completion in 2012. San Francisco and Minnesota are the only teams without a 30-yard pass play. Smith had 15 such plays last season. The Bills have allowed three.
  • Aldon Smith has recorded 18 of his 18.5 sacks when the 49ers sent four or fewer pass-rushers. No player has more on such plays.
Chris DolemanManny Rubio/US PresswireChris Doleman had a knack for getting to the quarterback and jarring the ball loose.
Chris Doleman was a long-armed pass rusher with the height (6-foot-5) to match up with big left tackles and the speed to run around them. He retired in 1999 with 150.5 sacks, which at the time qualified as the second-most in NFL history, while playing two stints for the Minnesota Vikings.

What you might not know: Doleman also retired with the most forced fumbles of any player since the NFL began tracking the statistic. He forced 44 fumbles in 232 career games, and on the eve of his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it might be Doleman's most enduring legacy.

As fun and momentum-shifting as a violent sack might be, Doleman was among the first to realize that pulling back a bit on the force provided a better opportunity to achieve a more impactful play.

"The era that I played in, we had some pretty good defensive linemen," Doleman said in a conference call this week. There was Bruce Smith. Reggie White. They had their own style. When I was at that defensive end position, I definitely wanted to be perceived as a pass-rusher. But would I be a speed rusher? A power rusher? A guy that takes plays off? One of the things I found I [had a knack for] was separating the quarterback from the ball.

"When you separate the ball from a running back, you just have a fumble. But for a quarterback, that's a sack and a fumble. That's a much bigger play. It wasn't about putting brutal hits on them, but controlling them and getting the ball from them."

As the chart shows, the recently-retired Jason Taylor passed Doleman on the all-time list, and the latest generation of pass-rushers have achieved a higher ratio of forced fumbles per game. Players like Taylor, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis made an art of reaching their hand toward the ball even when they're being blocked away from the quarterback. Doleman deserves his share of credit for proving the value of those efforts.
Thaisport from San Francisco wants my take on the Peyton Manning news regarding the San Francisco 49ers. He thinks this is a "win-win" situation because Manning would deliver an NFC West title to the 49ers, Manning would make every offensive player better and the team knows Alex Smith will still be there as a fallback.

Manning
"A solid core of offensive players around a decent QB can make him look good," Thaisport writes. "A great QB around a solid core of players would make them look great. I think the 49ers front office is making all the right moves so far this off season. Your thoughts?"

Mike Sando: It's clear we need to break old habits when analyzing the 49ers. They were an easy team to mock when Jed York was publicly guaranteeing division titles with an 0-5 record, Mike Singletary was dropping trou as head coach, the team was changing offensive coordinators every year, Smith was floundering and the stadium situation remained a mess.

We should not underestimate this organization. York has led a successful push for a new stadium. He went against convention when hiring Trent Baalke as his general manager, with better-than-expected results (think NaVorro Bowman, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, paying Ray McDonald instead of Aubrayo Franklin). The organization secured Jim Harbaugh as head coach when Harbaugh was the hottest and, it turns out, best candidate. Gideon Yu and Kunal Malik were also strategic additions.

Now, one week into the Manning circus, we find out the 49ers have made a very calculating move to position themselves for the quarterback's services. This strikes me as something the 49ers would not have seriously considered right after the season, when the bond between Smith and Harbaugh was strongest. This decision was easier to make a couple months into the offseason, when strategic thinking takes its firmest hold.

This is a bold move, and one an organization doesn't make without leadership at the ownership level. York presumably saw this as a rare opportunity to seize upon a championship window. Sticking with Smith would have been more comfortable. The 49ers might wind up going that route, anyway. They could have some damage control to do if that is the case. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Randy Moss' addition was another move with the short term in mind.

Smith has shown he's adept at swallowing his pride. And in this case, we're talking about Peyton Manning, not some average quarterback. I'm reminded of Arizona defensive end Darnell Dockett's public support for Manning as Kevin Kolb's replacement on the Cardinals. Dockett said he would have no trouble with someone lobbying for the team to sign a new defensive end if Reggie White or Bruce Smith were the ones under consideration.

That is how I feel about teams pursuing Manning when they already have quarterbacks in place. Those teams' existing quarterbacks might not like it, but that is too bad for them. Owners, executives and coaches have a responsibility to act in the best interests of their organizations. Looking into Manning qualifies as that type of move.
We spent plenty of time in recent days discussing the tough road for wide receivers making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the process, we ignored where the selection committee has turned its attention: pass-rushers.

Not a single receiver made the last cut to five modern-day finalists in Saturday's balloting in Indianapolis. But former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman became the third consecutive NFC North pass-rusher to earn enshrinement, following Richard Dent in 2011 and John Randle in 2010. Former Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter once again failed to make the cut, a victim of the perceived value between pass-rushers and wide receivers.

[+] EnlargeVikings defensive end Chris Doleman
AP Photo/NFL PhotosNot only was Chris Doleman a sack specialist, but the former Vikings star is also among the NFL career leaders in fumble recoveries.
At least one pass-rusher has won election in each of the past five years. Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas were part of the 2009 class, and Fred Dean was in the class of 2008.

Doleman's 150.5 career sacks rank third in NFL history, behind Smith (200), Reggie White (198) and Kevin Greene (160). Smith and White are both in Canton, and as of Saturday, eight of the 10 players with the highest career sack totals have or will be enshrined. Greene and the recently retired Jason Taylor (139.5) are the only players who have been left out.

(More on Greene, who didn't even make the cut from 15 finalists to 10, in the coming days.)

I don't want to take anything away from Doleman, who was a pass-rushing force for an extended period in the NFL. His two best seasons -- 21 sacks in 1989 and 15 sacks in 1998 -- came nine years apart. Doleman was part of four teams that finished the season with the NFL's top-ranked defense, recovered the seventh-most fumbles (24) in league history and was an eight-time Pro Bowler.

But with the exception of Greene, it's clear that sack totals are among the most reliable tickets to the Hall of Fame. Minutes after Doleman's election was announced, longtime Twin Cities sports analyst Patrick Reusse (also a colleague of mine at ESPN 1500) tweeted: "Apparently, it's all about sacks, since in his absolute prime, Doleman was 2nd best D-lineman on his team, behind Keith Millard."

To me, the definition of a Hall of Fame player is that he was one of the best of his era. Doleman was named to the NFL's 1990's All-Decade team, along with three other defensive ends. Was he one of the best players of that generation? He was if you accept that pass rushing is as important as the voting committee considers it.

But enough of that. I'm not going to diminish Doleman's big day by questioning his credentials. There is little doubt he was a great player for a long time in this league.

Yes, the beauty of the annual Hall of Fame announcement is that it produces as much debate afterwards as it did beforehand. Chris Doleman is a Hall of Fame player because the voting committee places premium value on his particular skill set. (Again, Greene appears to be the lone exception to that rule.)

Cris Carter isn't in the Hall of Fame because the voting committee doesn't value his position and corresponding statistics nearly as much. There are still only 21 receivers in Canton, the lowest total of any position other than tight end and kicking specialist. That's the deal -- no more and no less.

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