NFL Nation: Walter Payton

Roger Staubach and Drew PearsonAP Photo/Bill Kostroum
Score: Cowboys 17, Vikings 14
Date: Dec. 28, 1975 Site: Metropolitan Stadium

With nearly 40,000 votes cast, Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson was voted as the most memorable play in Dallas Cowboys' history by the ESPN.com readers.

Troy Aikman’s fourth-quarter pass to Alvin Harper in the 1992 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers that set in motion the 1990s dynasty finished second. Bob Lilly's sack of Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI was a distant third even if it propelled the Cowboys to their first championship.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Cowboys' history?

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    57%
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    36%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,414)

The voters got this one right. Staubach is the most iconic player in franchise history, and that play is frozen in time. It was one of the most iconic plays in NFL history and introduced “Hail Mary,” into the league’s lexicon. You cannot write the history of the NFL without that play.

To recap the play: With time running out in a 1975 divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys had the ball at midfield and needed a miracle. They had dominated statistically, but the Vikings had a 14-10 lead.

Staubach pumped to his left after taking the shotgun snap, in hopes of moving safety Paul Krause away from the sideline. As he pumped, Staubach said he nearly lost the ball and as a result the pass was underthrown.

Subsequently, Pearson had to pull up and either knocked Nate Wright down (Minnesota's version) or made an excellent adjustment to the ball (Dallas' version) to score the winning touchdown, pinning the ball against his right hip.

Some of you wondered why Tony Dorsett's 99-yard run, Emmitt Smith's carry in which he broke Walter Payton’s rushing record or his stiff-arm of Lawrence Taylor playing with a separated shoulder, Clint Longley's Thanksgiving Day heave against the Redskins or even Leon Lett's miscue in Super Bowl XXVII didn’t make the list.

Two of my personal favorites: Marion Barber’s run out of the end zone against the New England Patriots breaking seven tackles and Tony Romo's first-down scramble vs. the St. Louis Rams after a shotgun snap sailed over his head didn’t make the list either.

There needed to be some historic value to the play. The Hail Mary had that, so did Aikman-to-Harper and Lilly’s sack.

But there’s no question which play had the most value.
Walter PaytonTony Tomsic/Getty Images

This is the play voters and ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright picked as the most memorable play in Chicago Bears history, narrowly beating out William “Refrigerator” Perry’s touchdown run in Super Bowl XX and Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI.

Score: Bears 28, Chiefs 27
Date: Nov. 13, 1977. Site: Soldier Field

Thank you, thank you, thank you, voters. We definitely agree on this one. But as time ticked away on voting for the Chicago’s most memorable play, there certainly was trepidation about how things would pan out as Walter Payton’s rather beastly run against the Chiefs in 1977 was basically neck-and-neck with William “Refrigerator” Perry’s touchdown in Super Bowl XX as the voting deadline neared.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Bears' history?

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    36%
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    37%
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    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 46,201)

No knock on Perry, as his touchdown certainly was “memorable.” But for many Bears fans, that Perry play served as reminder that Payton didn’t score a TD in that Super Bowl trouncing, which from this vantage point, was a travesty.

As is the case with fellow Chicago icon Michael Jordan, it’s difficult to pull a top play from the many Payton blessed fans with throughout his 13-year NFL career. But this one embodied Payton as a runner, fully displaying all the attributes that made “Sweetness” one of the best running backs.

With the Bears down 17-0 in the third quarter, Payton took a handoff right, spun away from linebacker Willie Lanier and Tim Gray, cut back left and made three Chiefs miss, in addition to plowing over two others before being dragged down from behind at the Kansas City 4. In all, Payton broke seven tackles on a run that sparked Chicago’s eventual 28-27 comeback win.

“If you look at the video, I’m within three or four feet of him four times,” Chiefs defensive tackle John Lohmeyer said in the book, “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” “I didn’t give up because it was well known that you couldn’t get him down with ease, and he was an escape artist. I tried tackling him. We all did.”

Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch might hold the “Beast Mode” nickname, but Payton’s 1977 run against the Chiefs might be true definition of that moniker. Not only was Payton’s run the best play in franchise annals, it’s arguably the top run in NFL history.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Even before Friday's news that he would be listed as doubtful for the final game of the Minnesota Vikings' 2013 season, this year would have to qualify as a trying one for Adrian Peterson. The reigning NFL MVP began with talk of breaking Eric Dickerson's season rushing record after falling just 8 yards short last year, and his team had aspirations of a deep playoff run after a surprising 10-6 finish in 2012.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY SportsHistory suggests that Adrian Peterson, who will be 29 at the start of next season, may have peaked as a running back.
Only time will tell whether Peterson's 2013 season was an injury-induced fluke, a regression to the mean or the toll of a heavy workload catching up with him. And it's not like he's had a bad season. Assuming he doesn't play Sunday, Peterson will still, in all likelihood, finish among the league's top five or six rushers, despite carrying just 18 times in the Vikings' final four games. He had a shot at his second straight rushing title despite playing much of the year with nagging hamstring, groin and foot injuries that sapped his breakaway speed and made Peterson, by his own admission, run tentatively at times.

But time won't give Peterson -- or the Vikings -- this year back, and by the next time he steps onto a football field, he'll be 29 years old, gearing up for the first of two seasons outdoors. The Vikings' next indoor home game will come when Peterson is 31 years old in 2016. In light of all that, it's not hard to feel a lingering sense that Peterson's time as an elite running back might be slipping away.

History certainly doesn't play in his favor. Peterson has run for at least 1,300 yards in four of his seven NFL seasons; since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only 11 running backs have run for at least 1,300 in a season. The number of 1,300-yard seasons by a 30-year-old running back drops to nine, and by age 31, it's down to five. Only one running back since the merger -- Walter Payton in 1986 -- has run for more than 1,300 yards at age 32, and Payton is the only one even to eclipse 1,200 yards at that age.

Peterson's 1,266 yards are the 20th-most by a 28-year-old running back, behind lesser lights like William Andrews, Christian Okoye and Terry Allen. None of those players eclipsed 1,300 yards again after their age-28 season, and only Okoye posted another 1,000-yard season.

Peterson has much more in common with thoroughbreds like Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Payton, and all three had seasons between the realms of great and dominant after they hit 29; Smith hit 1,332 yards at 29 and 1,397 at 30, Payton ran for at least 1,300 yards each year from 29 to 32, and Sanders had his MVP-winning, 2,053-yard season at 29 before running for 1,491 at 30 and then calling it quits.

But let's say Peterson can do that. He'll still have to carry a Vikings team that could be breaking in another new quarterback, and he'll have to play the next two seasons outdoors, where he's averaged about a quarter yard less (4.84) a carry in his career than he has indoors (5.08), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The running back has made no secret of his disdain for playing outdoors, and while bad weather might limit passing games, it can also slow down backs looking for big gains.

These numbers won't be popular with Vikings fans -- and probably not with Peterson, who enjoys few things more than excelling in the face of long odds. But Smith, Sanders and Payton enjoyed defying the odds, too, and time eventually caught up with all of them; Payton retired after a 533-yard season at age 33, while Smith never averaged more than four yards a carry after 32.

There's strong statistical evidence that elite seasons by a running back become increasingly rare after the age of 28, and even if Peterson can crank out a few more, the Vikings can't count on him being in a stratosphere of his own for much longer. That they couldn't do more with his age-28 season has to register as a disappointment.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Adrian Peterson had just gotten done with his second consecutive game of more than 30 carries, lugging the ball a career-high 35 times in the Vikings' overtime win over the Chicago Bears. He had run for 211 yards -- the fourth-most of his career -- despite playing another game with a strained groin that again appeared to keep Peterson from breaking away when he had the chance. And as usual, Peterson wanted more.

"I condition real hard, and actually, I get stronger as I go," Peterson said. "I could have went for 50, maybe 55 carries."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsDespite battling a groin injury, Adrian Peterson had his best rushing day of the season, racking up 211 yards.
Peterson's belief in himself is almost purely based in can-do optimism, but it only crosses over into defiance when it's suggested to him that something might have been difficult. It's what made him the third-fastest running back in NFL history to rack up 10,000 yards on Sunday, in just his 101st career game. Only Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson reached the plateau sooner. And when Peterson was asked what he would have said if someone had told him at age 16 what he'd do, he said his reply would have been, "You're right.

"I would have believed it," he said. "This has been my mindset since I was young, to be the best to ever play. You have got to believe it in order to accomplish it. So if you had told me that, I would have been like, 'Hmm, he is thinking what I'm thinking."

Peterson has a long ways to go to reach the lofty records he wants to hit, but in a season where he's been hampered by leg injuries, he's got 1,208 yards through 12 games. That might register as a disappointment after Peterson talked of following up a 2,097-yard season with 2,500, but he's still on pace for more than 1,600 yards this year, and could win another NFL rushing title.

It also helps that the Vikings seem to have no plans to marginalize Peterson. They are now 5-0-1 in games where he's carried at least 30 times, and coach Leslie Frazier said, "I can't imagine ever getting away from Adrian being the featured guy in the offense, so long as we can put some more pieces around him."

Frazier played with Walter Payton, and hesitated when asked if he thought Peterson could be the greatest of all time.

"In raw numbers, sure," Frazier said, before adding, "We watched Mr. Payton play, and I've talked to Adrian about that a few times. Adrian is, in today's football, the best running back in pro football. Walter, he's pretty special. That would be a good argument to have."

Peterson seems intent on forcing his way into that argument. Has for a long time, actually.

"Jim Brown [and] Eric Dickerson are the guys that I looked up to, the guys that motivated me to be better than them," he said. "I still have a long ways to go. I've reached this mark and it's great, but I still have a long ways to go to surpass those guys, and that is what I look to do."

Steven Jackson by the numbers

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A day after the fact, Atlanta’s signing of running back Steven Jackson continues to be the hottest story in the NFC South.

I don’t see that changing anytime soon, unless the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suddenly make the trade for Darrelle Revis. So let’s feed the Jackson talk a little more with some by-the-numbers nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information.
  • The three time Pro Bowler has rushed for 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons. Only Emmitt Smith (11 straight seasons), Curtis Martin (10 straight) and Barry Sanders (10 straight) have longer streaks than Jackson.
  • Jackson also is a receiving threat out of the backfield. He has had seven seasons with 1,000 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards. LaDainian Tomlinson and Walter Payton, who each accomplished that feat eight times, are the only players to do that more than Jackson.
  • Jackson also can make things happen after contact. Over the past four seasons, Jackson has run for 2,172 yards after contact. Adrian Peterson (2,918 yards) is the only player with more yards after contact in that same span.
  • Among active running backs, Jackson ranks first with 2,395 career carries, first with 10,135 rushing yards and is tied for fifth with 56 touchdowns.
  • Also, in this Insider post, Football Outsiders takes an in-depth look at what Jackson brings to the Falcons.


As Adrian Peterson's MVP candidacy grew more realistic this season, we debated what the award means here on the NFC North blog. Should it go to the player who provides the most value to his team -- i.e., does the most to help the team win -- as the "Most Valuable Player" descriptor suggests? Or should it go to the player who simply had the best season?

As it turns out, Peterson's season was so overwhelming in every facet that the Associated Press' 50-person electorate declined to split the hairs. Saturday night, Peterson was announced as both the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. It was a fitting conclusion for the second-best season by a running back in league history, a catalyst for a team that flipped its 3-13 record last season to 10-6 and a playoff berth in 2012.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Jim MoneAdrian Peterson's dominating comeback lifted Minnesota to a huge turnaround and a playoff berth.
It was such a dominating performance that voters seemingly forgot -- or considered it moot -- that it all came within a 53-week period of Peterson tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. As such, the AP named Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, and not Peterson, its Comeback Player of the Year.

I probably overthought a set of statistics that connected the Vikings' record more closely with the performance of quarterback Christian Ponder than Peterson, whose production didn't waver much between their wins and losses. I still believe that Ponder's improved play over the final four games were a big reason the Vikings made the playoffs, but I agree with many of you that his earlier struggles would have buried this team were it not for Peterson's increasingly dominant play.

We could spend all night hashing through Peterson statistics, but there are two that I think best illustrate his season. He led the NFL with 27 runs of at least 20 yards, more than twice that of the next-highest player. At the same time, he led the league with 1,019 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Among other things, that means Peterson was by far the most explosive and the most powerful running back in the league this season. Those attributes are often mutually exclusive, but Peterson combined them both in a season that will go down in the ages.

To me, there was never a question about whether Peterson or Manning had the better individual season. Manning was the NFL's top quarterback, ranking No. 1 in Total QBR (84.1) and second in passer rating (105.8). Peterson's season qualified as one of the best of all time, and it shouldn't be diminished by comparing it only to his 2012 contemporaries.

You have to go back to a different era of football to find production that stacks up to Peterson's. For the most part, gone are the days when the running back is a playoff team's first option. But Peterson's total of 2,097 yards was the most in the NFL in 28 years, bested only by Eric Dickerson's 2,105 yards in 1984. Peterson had at least 150 yards in a game seven times, tying Earl Campbell's 32-year-old NFL record for 150-plus yard games in a season. And his average of 131.1 yards per game over a season puts him in some pretty heady company.

All four players who have had better per-game averages in a qualifying season are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Walter Payton.

Peterson provided us all with a season we won't soon forget. Sometimes, the obvious answer is the right one. I'll remember that next time.

Final Word: NFC South

November, 9, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 10 games:

King of the NFC South: The Atlanta Falcons are running away with the division. But the title doesn’t officially belong to them yet. The Saints won last season’s division title and they’ve won a lot against the Falcons in recent years. The Saints have won three straight against Atlanta and six of their past seven meetings. Over the past 12 contests, the Saints have won 10 times.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesDoug Martin could surpass Walter Payton's three-game yardage record with a big day.
Doubting the Falcons? If you fall into that category, you might like this offering from ESPN Stats & Information. Based on the current record of opponents, the 8-0 Falcons have faced the easiest schedule in the NFL. Their opponents are a combined 24-41 (a .369 winning percentage). But you should also consider that number might be skewed a bit because everyone who has played the Falcons has one built-in loss. By the way, the Buccaneers have the second-easiest schedule, with opponents combining for a .388 winning percentage.

Positive Carolina stat: These are a rarity these days, so I try to share anything positive about the Panthers that I spot. The Panthers are 2-1 against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning in his lengthy career. That’s a .667 winning percentage, which ties Carolina with Chicago and Green Bay for the best winning percentage against Manning. So the Panthers have that going for them, which is nice.

With or without VJ. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has struggled on deep throws after losing Vincent Jackson to the Buccaneers in free agency. On throws of 20 yards or more, Rivers has completed 30 percent of his passes this year, almost a 10 percent drop from last year. He also had 19 touchdown passes on such throws last year, but only one this season. But Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman is benefiting from Jackson’s arrival. Freeman already has a league-high 17 completions on throws over 20 yards. He had only 12 completions on such throws all last season.

Chasing Sweetness. Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin has 486 yards from scrimmage over the past two games. That’s the most in a two-game span since Walter Payton in 1977. Martin is within striking distance of the NFL record for a three-game span (593 yards), set by Payton in 1977.

CampTour'12: Bears Day 3

July, 29, 2012
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Some thoughts and observations on the Chicago Bears' practice Saturday night:

  • More than 12,000 fans showed up to watch the Bears' full-pads practice, surrounding a field outfitted with portable lights. I classified that attendance as yet another example of the buzz surrounding this team. It was a perfect night from a weather perspective, but keep in mind this practice was not even held in a stadium setting. As the team jogged onto the field, some fans were chanting, "Super Bowl! Super Bowl!"
  • [+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
    AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears receiver Brandon Marshall wowed observers in training camp on Saturday night.
  • By far, the star of the evening was receiver Brandon Marshall, who rebounded from an injury scare early in practice to educate the Bears and their fans on what it's like to have a true No. 1 receiver. He made spectacular catches all over the field in 1-on-1, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. The one that caught my eye was what appeared to be an ad-lib play between him and quarterback Jay Cutler, who moved in the pocket toward the right sideline before firing about across the field toward Marshall, who was running toward the left sideline about 40 yards away. Marshall leaped and caught the ball over close coverage from cornerback Charles Tillman and appeared to keep both feet in bounds on the far sideline. "He's a scholarship player," coach Lovie Smith said. "I think we can all agree on that."
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune was among those impressed. Pompei: "Marshall easily is the most talented offensive skill position player I've seen on Bears since No. 34," referring to Walter Payton.
  • Marshall's injury scare came early in the practice when he fell in a non-contact drill and flexed his legs for several minutes. Fans were hushed for a moment before Marshall finally got up and walked to the sideline. He re-entered drills about five minutes later after the initial fall. Cutler was among those who came to check on him during those tense moments.
  • I spent a good portion of my time watching the offensive and defensive lines, particularly to see what first-round draft pick Shea McClellin looked like in pads. McClellin definitely displayed a good first step and agility, but in 1-on-1 drills he was frequently run around the quarterback by his opponent. I wouldn't read too much into that, however. His best play of the night came when he knocked down a pass by Jason Campbell after penetrating the pocket in 11-on-11 drills.
  • If anyone unexpected stood out in pass-rush drills, it was defensive end Corey Wootton, whose standing on the team is jeopardized by McClellin's arrival and two previous years of minimal production. Wootton looked quick and confident on the edge.
  • I counted two fumbles by tailback Michael Bush, one in 9-on-7 drills and one in 11-on-11.
  • Receiver Alshon Jeffery made a nice adjustment on a ball thrown short in 1-on-1 drills, stopping his go route and waiting for the ball while safety Major Wright struggled to do the same.

NFC North Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Bernard Berrian, Minnesota Vikings receiver: Berrian took to Twitter on Sunday to note that he has been "open" for the past four years. I don't really care that one of his antagonists was a Minnesota state representative, one who happens to be a co-author of owner Zygi Wilf's stadium financing bill. No matter who he was speaking to, Berrian was wrong to imply that getting open means he has been doing his job. There are multiple reasons why he has been so unproductive in recent years, and they include some factors (like quarterback accuracy) that are beyond Berrian's control. I'll have more on this topic later in the week, but for now understand that Vikings quarterbacks have targeted him on 67 passes over the past 20 games. Berrian has caught 30 of them. Berrian would be well-advised to evaluate what he does, or doesn't do, to fight for the ball before drawing attention to his production.

2. Insanity in Chicago: We've hammered Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz pretty well in recent weeks for his play calling. So we should note that the Bears came to their senses in several ways last Sunday. First, they swapped receivers Roy Williams and Johnny Knox, returning Knox to his starting role. While Knox has his own issues to work through, Williams needed to be held accountable for his lack of productivity. Second, Martz called only 19 passes compared to 30 running plays. The reality is the Bears aren't in position to generate a ton of scoring on their own. Martz smartly and safely capitalized on the boost he got from the Bears' defense (one touchdown) and special teams (one touchdown, another set up and a blocked field goal).

3. Remi Ayodele, Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle: The Vikings’ new nose tackle has started four games and doesn’t have a single tackle. Nose tackles don’t typically pile up tackles, and Ayodele’s top job is to occupy multiple blockers. But you would think a nose tackle would fall on a running back at some point during a four-game stretch. Ayodele doesn’t play in the nickel, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has been on the field for only 76 of the Vikings' 259 defensive snaps. That in itself is an indictment of his contribution so far. But still ….

RISING

[+] EnlargeGunther Cunningham
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioGunther Cunningham has adapted his defensive game plan, blitzing less and allowing his back seven to drop back and make plays.
1. Gunther Cunningham, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator: I have no idea how long Cunningham is planning to coach. He's 65 and has been coaching for 42 years. But it's nice to see him having success as his career inevitably moves into its twilight. Lost in the publicity of the Lions' offensive explosion has been a defense that Cunningham has smartly tweaked to fit his personnel. When he arrived in 2009, Cunningham estimated he would blitz on 40 percent of his defensive snaps. Now armed with one of the NFL's best defensive lines, Cunningham almost never blitzes and instead allows his back seven to drop into coverage and make plays. All three of the Lions' interceptions Sunday of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo came against a standard four-man rush. Overall, Cunningham blitzed on 10.9 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps. Good coaches never get old. They adapt.

2. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers receiver: In his past 10 games, dating back to last season and including playoffs, Nelson has caught 42 passes for 741 yards and six touchdowns. He has effectively emerged as the Packers' No. 2 receiver, regardless of who starts, and absolutely earned the three-year contract extension he signed over the weekend. The Packers' top draft pick in 2008, Nelson is yet another example of a homegrown talent who worked his way through the Packers' in-house minor leagues to become a top contributor.

3. Matt Forte, Bears tailback: There are three players in Bears history to surpass 200 rushing yards in a game. One is Gale Sayers. One is Walter Payton. The other is Forte, who finished with 205 yards Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Through four games, Forte has been the Bears' best player. He is obviously their rushing leader, but he also has more than twice as many receptions as his next-closest teammate. Overall, Forte has touched the ball on 37.7 percent of the Bears’ snaps and has accounted for more than half of their total yards. Rarely do you see a player in a contract year make a better case for himself.
CANTON, Ohio -- When was the last time you heard the name Roland Williams?

What about Ernie Conwell or Ricky Proehl?

[+] EnlargeMarshall Faulk
AP Photo/Paul SakumaMarshall Faulk finished his career with more than 19,000 yards from scrimmage and 136 touchdowns.
Even Mike Martz, who is under fire in Chicago, got some love during Marshall Faulk's Hall of Fame speech Saturday night at Fawcette Stadium. Faulk credited many people and former teammates. But the Rams of the late-1990s and early-2000s mostly defined Faulk's career.

Spending most of his career under the tutelage Martz and Dick Vermeil in St. Louis, Faulk (19,154 yards) finished fourth all-time in yards from scrimmage behind Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.

Martz made Faulk into the secret weapon. Martz found ways to get Faulk the ball in the running game, out of the backfield and also lined up as a receiver. Faulk became the new gold standard for all-purpose backs.

"Before Aaron Rodgers threw the ball [39] times in the Super Bowl against a vaunted Steelers defense, and before his counterpart Ben Roethlisberger threw it [40 times]. ... we had Mike Martz," Faulk explained. "The 'Mad Scientist' is what they called him."

Faulk also thanked former Rams stars like Kurt Warner and Isaac Bruce. They are among the cogs that made the "Greatest Show on Turf" great and well ahead of its time.

Today most offenses will throw 40 times in a game at some point during the season. But none of those teams have another Marshall Faulk.
Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis joined Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on ESPN.com Wednesday to discuss the finals of the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament. The results will be announced later today.

Hillis
Hillis
Hillis is surprised he made it this far and had no idea he was this popular. Browns fans have come out in droves to support Hillis during this tournament, where he's upset four straight higher seeds to make it to the finals.

Here are some other thoughts from Hillis:

On the Madden curse:

Hillis: For people to believe in this so-called curse, I can't wait to prove people wrong. From what I believe and where I am in my spiritual life, it would be good to prove them wrong in that sense.

On his football idols growing up:

Hillis: My football idol growing up, I was named after Walter Payton, but my idols at RB were Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.

On his running style and longevity:

Hillis: When I play the game, I feel that I need to put it all into it. I don't care if I play 2 or 5 years. I just want to put it all into it. I don't think players will pick that up, they want longevity.

For the full chat transcript, click here.

Canton must wait for Reed and Martin

February, 5, 2011
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Andre Reed and Curtis Martin received bad news about their bids to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Reed and Martin were among the 15 finalists for induction, but neither AFC East star made the cut Saturday when the next induction class was determined.

[+] EnlargeAndre Reed
US PresswireAndre Reed has been a finalist five times but the former Buffalo receiver will have to wait to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The 2011 class includes running back Marshall Faulk, tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive end Richard Dent cornerback Deion Sanders and NFL Films patriarch Ed Sabol. Senior nominees headed to Canton are linebackers Chris Hanburger and Les Richter.

Reed has been a finalist five times. For the second year in a row, the Buffalo Bills legend finished ahead of Cris Carter and Tim Brown in the selection process, which pares down the group of finalists from 15 to 10. Reed made the top 10, while Carter and Brown did not.

But Reed didn't make the next cut to five. That's the group the selection committee makes a final yea or nay vote on, with 80 percent agreement required for induction. The committee approved all five.

Reed will have to wait to join his former teammates already honored in Canton: quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, receiver James Lofton, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy.

Reed made 951 catches for 13,198 yards and 87 touchdowns. He's known as one of the best yards-after-catch receivers in NFL history, perhaps second to only Jerry Rice, and among the grittiest over-the-middle threats.

Reed was a seven-time Pro Bowler. He posted 13 seasons with at least 50 receptions, tied for second all-time. He's tied for third in postseason history with five 100-yard games. His 85 postseason receptions rank third.

Martin, a star running back with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, was on the ballot for the first time. His former coach, Bill Parcells, advocated Martin be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Martin ranks fourth in all-time rushing yardage behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, a pretty good crew -- if you're into that kind of thing.

Martin rushed for 14,101 yards and scored an even 100 touchdowns, 90 on the ground and 10 more off catches. He ran for 1,000 yards in 10 straight seasons, the second-longest streak in league history. Martin was the 1995 offensive rookie of the year and made five Pro Bowl rosters.

Carter was another Hall of Fame finalist with an AFC East connection, albeit barely. Carter finished his career with the Miami Dolphins, catching eight passes over five games in 2002. His 130th and final touchdown was with Miami.

That gave every AFC East club a link to Saturday's selection process.

Should Curtis Martin be first-ballot HOFer?

January, 31, 2011
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Curtis Martin has the credentials to justify induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Martin
Tony Kurdzuk/US PresswireDo Curtis Martin's credentials qualify him for the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot?
But does the popular New York Jets and New England Patriots running back belong to an even more elite group that that?

Martin is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time and will find out Saturday whether he will join the 65 other legends who've gone straight to Canton without delay.

New York Daily News writer Gary Myers examines the possibility Martin will get the Hall of Fame call Saturday. Martin's beloved coach, Bill Parcells, asserted Martin should coast into Canton.

"If the idea is to separate yourself, you got the case right there, you can't dispute it," Parcells told Myers. "Come on. That is roller skates."

Martin played 11 seasons and led his team in rushing every time. He finished with 14,101 yards (fourth all-time behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders) and 90 touchdowns. Martin added 484 receptions for 3,329 yards and 10 more touchdowns, giving him an even 100.

Martin was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1995 and made five Pro Bowl teams.

Up to five modern-era candidates will be inducted. But with fellow first-timers running back Marshall Faulk and cornerback Deion Sanders almost certain to gain approval, essentially three spots are left.

The other 15 finalists include running back Jerome Bettis, receivers Andre Reed, Tim Brown and Cris Carter, tight end Shannon Sharpe, center Dermontti Dawson, tackle Willie Roaf, defensive ends Richard Dent, Charles Haley and Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy and NFL Films patriarch Ed Sabol.

"I haven't been an individual accolades type person," Martin told Myers. "But I have found myself thinking about the Hall of Fame more. I think that it speaks to the intangible qualities that I like to be associated with my name.

"To even be in consideration for the Hall of Fame, you've done a little more than just performed on the football field. It speaks to your dedication, to hard work, the level of competition, the way you compete. Even being mentioned is very humbling to me."

Score to settle: Seahawks vs. Bears

January, 11, 2011
1/11/11
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CutlerRob Grabowski/US PresswireIn their 23-20 win over Chicago in Week 6, the Seahawks sacked Jay Cutler six times.
The Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears needed 130 offensive plays, 18 punts and more than three hours to decide their Week 6 matchup at Soldier Field.

Sizing up their impending divisional-round playoff rematch shouldn't require so much trouble.

"I think Seattle is going to get killed," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "I’m not a believer at all."

Uh, oh. This could get ugly.

"Matt Williamson is the perfect person to offer counterbalance on the Seahawks," NFC West blog regular fundadfor2 wrote. "He couldn't think less of our team or players. Heck, he did a list showing the top 15 or 20 rookies this season, and Earl Thomas wasn't to be found. Neither was Russell Okung. Matt seems to have an axe and is looking for a grinding wheel."

Not quite.

Williamson once ranked the Seahawks 11th when our 11 other panelists had them 17th to 27th. He did single out both Thomas and Okung for praise during various installments of his weekly rookie watch. It's possible Williamson is basing his thoughts on what he saw from Seattle during its nine double-digit defeats this season.

Of course, the Seahawks did win at Chicago 23-20 in that Week 6 game. And they did just shock the New Orleans Saints 41-36 in the wild-card round, with Matt Hasselbeck outdueling Drew Brees.

"Chicago had best hope that this doesn't come down to the QB position," fundadfor2 wrote. "Matt Hasselbeck has been very good in the playoffs, and Jay Cutler -- well, I do believe this is his first sniff of the postseason. The game is different. The pressure is different. ... Cutler is up and down, and I don't expect him to have one of his better days."

This conversation began on the NFC West blog Monday when I threw open the subject for discussion. I also reached out to Williamson and ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard, the former Seahawks quarterback and current co-host on 710ESPN Seattle. Huard outlined four keys to the game from Seattle's perspective:

  • Can the makeshift Seahawks offensive line handle the Bears' front four? Huard: "Lovie Smith would love to hit and pressure with their defensive line so Matt Hasselbeck can't take advantage of one-on-one mismatches outside or beat the blitz with his quick decision-making."
  • Can Jay Cutler take care of the football and Mike Martz be patient in his play calling? Huard: "With Colin Cole back in the middle of Seattle's defensive line and Brandon Mebane playing the best ball of his career, will the Hawks be able to win in early run-down situations as they did in Week 6? If so, Martz's patience will be tested."
  • Can Seattle corners Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings make a play on the ball? Huard: "They have one interception each all season and Cutler will give his receivers a chance downfield."
  • Can the Seahawks' front seven get off the ball without the half-step advantage Qwest Field creates? Huard: "With a projected high temperature of 10 to 13 degrees, the field will slow down the game at the line of scrimmage, and a 10 a.m. PT kickoff has been a Seattle stumbling block."

The early kickoff didn't seem to hurt Seattle much against Chicago in Week 6. I don't think it's a big factor for the playoffs. Seattle is arriving Friday, just in case.

And in a surprise, Seattle has collected 22 of its 37 sacks on the road this season, including a season-high six against the Bears. Defensive backs collected 4.5 of those six sacks, however, and Seattle has become more reliant on its defensive ends to pressure quarterbacks lately.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Jerry Lai/US PresswireMatt Forte finished the regular season strong, gaining at least 90 yards in each of the Bears' last three games.
"The Bears win because of their running game and defense," adambballn wrote. "The Saints didn't have the ability to take advantage of the Seahawks' bad run defense due to the amount of injuries they suffered at running back."

No doubt, New Orleans ran out of options at running back with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on injured reserve. The Saints lacked balance. Drew Brees attempted 60 passes. That played into the Seahawks' strengths in a loud environment. Brees was good, but not good enough to match one of Hasselbeck's most impressive efforts.

"The answer is simple," jogan13 wrote. "Stop Cutler, make him make bad decisions and you will win. The Bears don't play well from behind, especially if they are throwing a lot. Keep the pressure on Cutler, throw in some zone blitzes. In the end, the Seahawks will win by 14 or more."

Sounds optimistic. Cutler actually has much better passing numbers when trailing. He has seven touchdowns and eight picks when leading, but 13 touchdowns and eight picks when trailing. Elias Sports Bureau has all the situational numbers here.

One question I have is whether Martz's pass-happy instincts will prevail under pressure.

"Too many Bears fans ignore the Martz factor," DiLune2 wrote. "NFC West teams/fans are very familiar with him. He will lose his mind in big games. He will absolutely forget he has a running back because he wants to prove how smart he is. I don't see why people expect a different result from him this weekend."

Lovie Smith hit the override button on Martz near midseason. The Bears have become much more of a running team since carrying only 14 times against Seattle. Cutler passed for seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a 107.6 rating on play-action attempts this season. That reflects a running threat.

Running back Matt Forte joined Walter Payton as the only players in Bears history with at least 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.

"Martz has changed everything he believes in and is playing in a wintry town," Williamson said. "Cutler has been very good and the line, though still a weakness, is starting to sort of jell. The defense is top three in the league behind Green Bay and Pittsburgh. They rush four, Julius Peppers is an animal, their defensive line is good, they are good at all levels, they are great tacklers, they are exceptional at causing turnovers and even though Seattle's special teams are fantastic, Chicago is the only one I have ahead of them, mostly because of Devin Hester.

"Simply put," Williamson added,"I think the Bears are a good football team."

OK, but the Seahawks just beat one of those. Hasselbeck burned the Saints' gambling defense for four touchdown passes. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards. Brees had better success against the "Bandit" packages that gave Cutler so much trouble in Week 6, but Brees is better than Cutler, so that wasn't such a shock.

"Lynch will need to have another big game," Hawkfannumber1 wrote. "Hasselbeck will need to be more concerned with turnovers against the Bears' defense, but he also won't need to score as much. I don't think either team will score more that 24 points. The defense will need a different game plan. The Bears will be ready for the 'Bandit' package this time. They will still need to get a ton of pressure on Cutler to get the defense off the field. If Cutler has time, he will play much better. Lastly, don't kick it to Hester."

We should probably mention Leon Washington in here somewhere, too. Opponents have contained Seattle's return specialist in recent weeks. He had a 42-yard kickoff return against the Bears.

That was nearly three months ago. Much has changed.

The Bears were without Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs then. Seattle was without Brandon Mebane, one of the team's best defensive linemen. Okung was making his second NFL start after coming back from ankle problems that have continued to bother him all season. His ability to match up against Peppers proved critical in Week 6.

[+] EnlargeRussell Okung
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenRussell Okung's matchup with Bears DE Julius Peppers will be critical for Seattle's offense.
"I think this game hinges on a few things, but the absolute key hinge is Russell Okung," Trynfadethis wrote. "If he can't win his matchup against Julius Peppers, then the Bears dominate. We can assume the Bears will stop the run. That's fine. The question is, if Hasselbeck has time, can they stop Mike Williams, Brandon Stokely, Ben Obomanu, Cameron Morrah and a rediscovered John Carlson? I think it's pretty simple. If the Bears don't change up bigtime on defense, then Seattle will score 24-plus points unless Hasselbeck really just tanks. So then it's on Cutler to score more."

The Bears have scored at least 31 points in two of their past three home games. All three were against playoff teams. They scored 31 against Philadelphia, 38 against the New York Jets and seven against New England.

Cutler did throw six picks over the final four games, though.

"An inexperienced playoff QB (Cutler) with a history of being a head case -- not a good combination," jeff0621 wrote.

"An old QB who hurts himself running five yards with no contact whatsoever -- not a good combination," Les_ Grossman_ countered, alluding to Hasselbeck's ill-fated touchdown run at Tampa Bay in Week 16.

Bears fans and Seahawks fans -- a good combination. Let's bring in a self-described Green Bay fan. Take it away, ZTA.

"With a couple of exceptions, the Bears have been playing solid defense," ZTAclerk wrote. "It's hard to stop the Patriots, as we've seen, and the Jets can be feast-or-famine. Seattle played a really good, balanced game against the Saints and was definitely assisted by the 12th man. If the Seahawks can put together a solid offensive gameplan around a quick Bears defense and keep the special teams from giving the Bears short field, the game can be close. If the special teams fail or the offense lets the Bears' defense dictate the game, I can't see them winning on the road."

ESPN's Trent Dilfer said he thought the Bears would probably hold Seattle to between 13 and 17 points (see video below), putting little pressure on Cutler to do anything out of the ordinary.

The score was 23-20 last time, but Seattle's Jon Ryan punted a season-high 10 times in that game. The 18 combined punts marked a single-game season high for both teams.

Hasselbeck did find Williams for 10 receptions and 123 yards. The temperature was 61 degrees that day, however, and Hasselbeck was rested coming off a bye week. His left wrist had yet to be broken and his hip, which now requires periodic draining, was healthy.

Hasselbeck has thrown 35 interceptions over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. He was hot last week, but consistency has been a problem. Hasselbeck has put together strong performances in back-to-back weeks only once in 2010, and that was after sitting out Week 9. That's why his brilliant performance against the Saints came as such a pleasant surprise for Seattle fans.

"I think what everyone is overlooking is that the Saints' defense completely collapsed in the wild-card game," goldfngr_77 wrote. "How much of that performance was a great offensive outing by the Seahawks (Lynch's eye-popping run not withstanding) and how much was the Saints' defense laying an egg? When you look at the makeup of this Bears defense, they have a lot of playoff experience and many with Super Bowl experience. I don't think you will see them implode at home the way the Saints did on the road, and that will be the difference in the game."

Sounds logical.

Of course, if the wild-card round proved anything, it's that logic doesn't always apply.

NFC West: Most indispensable players

August, 26, 2010
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A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.

This exercise was easy for every NFC West team but the Seattle Seahawks.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., writing for ESPN Insider, went with defensive lineman Brandon Mebane when putting together his Seattle choice. Mebane is a good player, but if he's in the mix as the non-quarterback Seattle can least afford to lose, the team must not have many impact players beyond Matt Hasselbeck. That is clearly the case as the Seahawks rebuild their roster.

Larry Fitzgerald
CAMORRIS.COMLarry Fitzgerald became even more important to the Cardinals' offense this offseason with the loss of Anquan Boldin.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: LARRY FITZGERALD

The Cardinals managed to win an even higher percentage of their games in recent seasons when former Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin wasn't available to them. They could always lean on Fitzgerald, one of the two or three best receivers in the league, to elevate his game as needed. Fitzgerald has 35 touchdowns over the past three regular seasons. He has nine touchdowns over the past two postseasons -- Randy Moss has 10 in his postseason career -- and has missed only one game over the past three seasons.

Fitzgerald's value has only increased now that Boldin is gone from Arizona for good. The on-field production is only part of what makes Fitzgerald so valuable. Fitzgerald also sets a standard of excellence for teammates to follow. He organizes an offseason training camp in Minnesota each summer. He constantly strives to improve the finer points of his game. This offseason, that meant working on getting better separation from receivers, something that could help him against the tougher coverages he'll likely face in the post-Boldin era.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: PATRICK WILLIS

Brett Favre's preseason debut this season lasted only four plays and Willis' violent (but clean) hit on the 40-year-old quarterback precipitated the early exit. Last season, Willis' hard (but clean) hit on Hasselbeck near the goal line left the quarterback with damaged ribs, affecting the Seahawks' overall viability.

Willis is a threat to anyone in his path on a football field. More than any other 49ers player, Willis sets the tone, making sure the team plays to the physical and emotional standards of coach Mike Singletary. The new contract Willis signed this offseason should only embolden him.

Take away Willis and the 49ers would lose some of their edge on defense. Their linebackers would suddenly look rather ordinary. Opposing quarterbacks would breathe easier (literally, in Hasselbeck's case).

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: RUSSELL OKUNG

Mebane wasn't a bad choice for Seattle, but the team's debilitating problems at left tackle last season made Okung an easy selection for me, particularly with tackle depth already thin following Ray Willis' latest knee issues.

The Seahawks fell apart last season when injuries forced them to use their projected fifth-string left tackle. Drafting Okung or another offensive tackle with the sixth overall choice bordered on being a necessity once it became clear Walter Jones' career was finished.

The ankle injury Okung suffered in the second exhibition game threatens the Seahawks more than an injury to any other non-quarterback might. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and left cornerback Marcus Trufant were also in my thoughts for this discussion, but this is a quarterback-driven sport and Okung's presence affects the quarterback more than the presence of any other player on the team.

ST. LOUIS RAMS: STEVEN JACKSON

The Rams have one Pro Bowl player on their roster and it's Jackson. The team lacks a proven backup at the position, heightening Jackson's value. Throw in the Rams' transition to a rookie quarterback and the team arguably needs Jackson more than before.

Jackson is so good, however, that he might still be the most indispensable non-quarterback in the division even if he played for the 49ers, Seahawks or Cardinals. The will Jackson showed in carrying the offense last season convinced me he's a special player, not just a talented one. The way Jackson ran against the 49ers last season while the Rams trailed 35-0 would have made Walter Payton proud.

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