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Goal Line Stand - The Rob Newell Column

14.02.2016
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If you are reading this column, I assume it is not going to be news to you that the Denver Broncos are the current World Champions having beaten the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.  Denver were the designated “Home” team for the game but chose to wear their White uniforms instead of the more traditional Orange home strip due, to their previous Super Bowl record whilst wearing Orange, Spoiler Alert!  It is Not Good.  However, if like me you have seen the game already, you will know that on that day, Sunday 7th February 2016 at the Field of Jeans, Santa Clara, California, and Denver could have worn White, Orange, Black or Purple with Green spots and still have taken home the Lombardi trophy with them.  Thanks to one of the more dominant defensive performances in Playoff history.   I say Playoff history as ever since the Post-Season started the Denver defence has been operating on a different level, which cumulated in their Super Bowl showing.  Bearing in mind this was already the number one ranked defence at the end of the regular season, to find even more is a huge compliment to the Defensive Co-Ordinator Wade Phillips and the realisation of a two-year odyssey for Broncos legend John Elway.  Following the embarrassing defeat to Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48, Elway set about rebuilding his team with a Championship calibre defence, something he has realised in spades. So just how good is this defence?  Where does it rank when compared to the all-time defences that are always recalled at these times.  The Steel Curtain, the 85 Bears, the 86 Giants, the 2000 Ravens and the 2013 Seahawks?  There are also some great defences in the league today, the Carolina Panthers themselves are an incredibly tough defence built around the driving force that is Luke Kuechly, the Houston Texans are built around the unique abilities of now 3 times Defensive player of the year JJ Watt, but this Broncos unit excel both individually and as the sum of their parts.   Von Miller was the number two pick in the draft in 2011 and since then has shown to be one of the better defensive players in the game, but in these playoffs he has elevated to a new level that even Watt struggles to compete with, making key plays at key times in the games, and at times making it look like that every opponents’ possession is an opportunity for the Broncos to score.  He has simply imposed his will on whoever has guarded him and has made upper echelon quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Cam Newton at times fear for their health.  Opposite Miller there is of course DeMarcus Ware who himself is still playing at an all-pro level, making the decision for Offensive Linemen about who to double team just about impossible.  Ware appears to have a lot left in the tank as well as fulfilling a mentorship role. The front 3 are probably the most underrated components of this defence, Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson have shown that all so important ability to be able to stop the run and still get pressure through the centre thus trapping opponents QB’s between themselves and Miller and Ware coming off the edges.  Usually teams with a good front 7 struggle at the back end and so rely on the pass rush to influence throws as much as the skill set of the defensive backs.  Not so this defence, in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris the Broncos have one of the best cornerback pairings in the league and if you try to go over the middle the linebackers, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan along with the safeties TJ Ward and Darian Stewart are tackling machines and will have no problem hitting you and hitting you hard, over and over again. If the Broncos can keep this unit together in this age of Free Agency and can afford to pay Von Miller the sort of money he is rumoured to want, then this could very easily be an all-time defence that could just as easily be in with a shout of another Denver back to back championship next year.  What is really impressive is that they have made this run with next to no real help from the offense, which when you have Peyton Manning at QB feels like sacrilege to say.  The game plan from Denver was to pin the opponents back with a punt, trusting the special teams units to do their job (as a certain Patriots coach might say), then send the defence out there to force short fields.  Then it was either a run or a slant route throw, if need be take the Field Goal and repeat. In this era of crazy passing yardage and media insisting it’s a quarterbacks league, this Broncos team showed a differing template, one of real dominant defence and ball control, what we do know is that this is a copycat league so expect to see even more premium on pass rushers and defence in the next year or so.  Those other great defences mentioned above, most of them had some more help from their offences than this Broncos team have had, the Bears had Walter Payton for example, meaning that this Broncos defence is on the field for a lot longer than those teams and yet still maintained its high standards. In 2016 there is every chance that we will not see Peyton Manning back (trivia nuts need to remember it was Benny Fowler who caught Manning’s last throw, a 2 point play) and in some ways that might just open up the passing game a little more.  Can you imagine the Broncos with that defence and an offence that moved the ball better? the prospect could well be frightening.  Maybe games where they go 1 of 13 on third down will be a thing of the past, and then this defence can have a breather for once. If the Broncos do keep this team together here is one prediction for you in the 2016 regular season, JJ Watt will do well to earn a fourth defensive player of the year award.  Von Miller time is coming!  In White, Orange or Blue it won’t matter to Broncos country.
02.12.2015
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Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler, owner of one of the strongest arms in the game, but also one of the more questioned attitudes in recent times.   He has perhaps unfairly garnered a reputation as a “coach killer” as the Bears have remained in the shadow of their long time rival Green Bay Packers since Rex Grossman of all people managed to take them to a Super Bowl. Admittedly since then the Packers have had in Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers two of the all time greats at the QB position, which perhaps only serves to highlight the comparison with Cutler.  Having said that there are not many franchises that could compare with Green Bay’s quarterback transition, the Indianapolis Colts from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck perhaps, maybe a few years ago the San Francisco 49ers from Joe Montana to Steve Young possibly, but no other franchise is so deeply rivalled with the Packers as the Bears.  A succession of Bears coaches have introduced themselves to the media with a pledge that they will find a way to beat the Packers, and as coaches have come and gone in recent times Cutler has remained.  True the backup of the time has had the odd look as coaches try to grasp at straws but inevitably Cutler gets the role back.  This year of course the Bears have a new coaching team again, John Fox came over from Denver and bought with him offensive coordinator Adam Gates, these two have had a few years working with Peyton Manning of course, something that has not been lost on Cutler. This year Cutler has been stripped of nearly all his supporting cast for vast majorities of the season, Brandon Marshall has of course gone to the Jets, Alshon Jeffrey, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett have missed long periods of action due to injury, rookie Kevin White has yet to see the field at all and Cutler himself even missed the Seahawks game (which is the only game this year the Bears have not been competitive in).  Despite the lack of recognised talent around him there can be no doubt that Cutler has stepped his level of play up, and most of the credit for that goes to Gates. Cutler is reported to have asked questions of the coaching staff for details of how Manning would do certain things, both in game situations and practice, and has looked to incorporate some of those ideas and thoughts into his own game.  Is this then a better, more mature, more focused Jay Cutler? Time will tell, but the Bears are coming off a Thanksgiving win over the Packers at Lambeau Field no less, the first win there since Cutler has been in Chicago. That win does keep the Bears firmly in the Wild Card race, had they held on in the close defeats to Minnesota, Detroit and Denver they would even be in the divisional mix too.  The Bears defence has been improving all year, but the Bears were supposed to be one of the teams fighting for the number one pick, and most “experts” would have told you that pick would be used on a QB to replace Cutler, but right now this new improved Cutler is looking likely to be back in Chicago and at the helm of a genuine playoff contender.  Just don’t expect him to smile!  
17.11.2015
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Not for one minute would I suggest that anybody should feel bad for former NFL employee Ray Rice, but if I was to put myself in his shoes for just a moment, I would be more than a little peeved by the way the NFL is now treating Greg Hardy. Rice it seems is untouchable, yet Hardy is out there playing for perhaps the best known team in the league in terms of worldwide recognition, in the Dallas Cowboys.  Having had a ten game ban reduced to four games, Hardy, you would think would be wise to keep a low profile and in New England parlance, just do his job. Not the case however, Hardy has participated in a bust up with an assistant coach, knocking his clipboard out of his hands and having to be separated before any further actions could be taken.  Now, photographic evidence has surfaced showing the extent of the damage he caused, in the assault that he was found guilty for. In the Rice case, it was photographs and video evidence of his domestic assault that has just about seen him blackballed from the NFL.  Rice has gone through therapy and issued statements of apology, individually and together with his now wife, but despite expressing his desire to play, there have been no takers. Hardy so far, a player that Jerry Jones has called a leader on the team and someone the Cowboys want to resign, has not expressed any such regret for his action (even if like myself you would question the sincerity of Rice`s statements, at least they were offered).  In fact Hardy has even called into question the female involved. So over to you Mr Goodell, all that talk following the Rice case last year, all that PR being seen with leading females in the fight against domestic abuse.  You eventually took action with Rice, what are you going to do this time with Hardy?  Given what happened and the fact that the court of law found him guilty should it really take social media for further action? What of the Cowboys fans, they are used to having some of the highest character players of all time, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith to name a few, in  recent year they appear to have had success with helping Dez Bryant get on track.  It must feel awkward seeing Hardy with that star on the helmet, more so when Jones talks about him in such glowing terms.  Here`s hoping the league finally step in and do the right thing!   
At the half way stage of the season, it is only natural to look back and what has happened before, and to look at what may be to come.  There are three unbeaten teams left, and three teams who seem to be dominating the column inches, and only one of those crossover between the two. It is no surprise that New England in their great Brady Revenge Tour would be unbeaten so far, the media have been racking up the stories about the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers, and what was wrong with Peyton Manning and how the hell did the Broncos hold Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing.  Meanwhile, Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers are sitting there undefeated, and both seemingly still underrated. The Bengals with AJ Green and Jeremy Hill, and that defence perhaps not as big a surprise, but the form of Andy Dalton certainly has been a surprise, could it all be down to the secret hair care product he refuses to identify.  But in terms of this piece I want to pay particular focus to Carolina. The NFC South was the worst division in football last season, and we all know of course that Carolina won it last season with a losing record.  Think of Carolina and you think of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and of course Cam Newton.  To be fair to the Panthers they had certainly hit some form at the end of last season, but to carry that on to this year, who was ready for that. DeAngelo Williams moved on to Pittsburgh in the offseason and then star wideout Kelvin Benjamin suffered the injury curse and was lost for the year in preseason.  When that happened most experts basically wrote off their season.  However, that doesn`t allow for Cam to be Cam.  Yes he is doing this with Tight End Greg Olsen as his premier option with rookie Devon Fuchness and Ted Ginn jnr as other receiving options, but Cam is not just beating you with his arm, although he has now proven he can. Newton has had several opportunities to bust out the Superman pose this year and Jonathan Stewart has remained healthy at Running Back, giving the Panthers an identity to hang their hats on.  Obviously the defence is keeping them in games anyway and Cam has got enough to find enough points to get the job done. They have won these games in every way you can too, late comebacks against the Seahawks, front running against the Packers, and the Panthers have suddenly found themselves unbeaten and with a 2 game lead in the race for the number one seed in the NFC.  For a team that should be going nowhere, those experts from preseason are now suddenly very quiet. If the formbook plays out we are looking at a Panthers v Patriots / Bengals Super Bowl, if this was to occur whichever AFC team makes it out that conference that would be a great matchup.
01.09.2015
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After the third preseason games each year, all 32 NFL teams have to go through the process of reducing their playing roster down to 75 people, and following the fourth game further cuts take them down to the required 53. Big name cuts are unusual at this time, but this year there was one that was that took the wider NFL audience by surprise, and that was Fred Jackson.  Jackson has spent 10 years in Buffalo and till now survived several coaches changes, in that time the wider community has taken Jackson under their wing and at this time he was probably the face of the franchise in many people's eyes. What makes this even more surprising was in the Steelers game, Jackson looked really good, to the extent that Bills fans were talking about how many TD’s and goalline carries Jackson might take away from LeSean McCoy.  True there are other running backs on the Bills roster, and probably cheaper ones too which in all likelihood has a impact on this decision.  From the BillsMafia viewpoint though, with Jackson already the oldest non QB skills position in the league, the hope that he would see out his career as a Bill was a strong one.  The thought that he may now play a season or two as a Jet or a Patriot in particular is a bitter pill to swallow. I think a one day contract with the Bills may be in his future and retirement when it does come if that day is not now, should be in Buffalo, before he moves into the next stage of his career.  At least Jackson had a decent career in the NFL, the same can not be said of everyone who enters the NFL draft of course. The big news of the day is that Kirk Cousins has been named by Jay Gruden as the Washington Redskins starting QB in week 1 and probably beyond.  This comes just weeks after RG3 was apparently looking sharp entering his option year, but now the question becomes is the RG3 experience over?   Gruden and RG3 have not appeared to have had a positive relationship from the moment Gruden took over in Washington to say the least, the popular opinion is that Dan Snyder has been the main supporter of the QB he agreed to give up 3 first round picks to acquire, whereas most observers have felt that Cousins (from the same draft class) is more suited to Gruden’s offensive scheme. A lot of the media experts are also in agreement that Robert Griffin needs to move on from Washington, for the sake of his own career.  It feels like Gruden has been fighting a battle within the organisation and it may well be the NFL’s concussion protocol that finally gives him the freedom to move on with the offence he wants to install.  Given how quickly this announcement gave from the Redskins front office, it is safe to assume that Griffin is not going to be in Washington next year, given all that was given up, how ironic would it be if he was on the Rams roster in 2016?
17.08.2015
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Let's start with the good news, football is back, actual NFL football, albeit preseason games played mainly by players struggling to flesh out the bottom end of NFL rosters throughly the league, but NFL football nevertheless. Against this backdrop of games we have the ongoing Tom Brady saga, as they used to say in Seinfeld - Yada, Yada, Yada! But this week we had the additional story of Geno Smith!  Who has had to have his jaw wired shut after apparently being sucker punched by a teammate over $600. Two things stand out here, apart from the now departed Jet is probably set to be the team MVP for this season.  There is obviously a whole lot more to this story, as $600 to starting QB salaried players is a drop in the ocean.  The second takeaway from this is quite simply, what the hell! The story of this incident goes that it happened in the locker room and the offending player walked up to Smith and punched him.  Now a sucker punch would (correct me if I am wrong here) be one you don’t see coming.  Are we believing that a starting QB whose livelihood depends on being able to operate in a spirt where people are paid big money to hit you and hit you hard, did not notice someone walking up to him and punching him? Are the reactions of this supposed NFL starter so bad that he couldn’t have avoided or blocked him? What about Smith’s teammates who are supposed to have the QB’s back regardless, did none of them not notice this happening?  You think anyone gets near Drew Brees in this manner, or the aforementioned Tom Brady? Not a chance.  I am not condoning the violence involved here of course, but as unappetising a prospect as Ryan Fitzpatrick may be, I think this may actually work out in the Jets favour and we probably see that team rally round Fitzpatrick in a way they never did with Smith.  Don’t forget Fitzpatrick has previous experience and arguably the best years of his career with the new offensive coordinator. On the field things were little better for the Jets, going down to the Lions whilst only scoring 3 points, things will improve on the field whilst the Lions could be a sneaky pick this year.  They had big plays from Golden Tate and rookie Ameer Abdullah and didn’t even need Megatron in this one. Around the rest of the league the offseason from hell ended in defeat for the 49ers at the JJ Watt-less Houston Texans but at least it signalled actual on field action, and for all they have been through there were signs that this Niners team may yet have some life.  Meanwhile those of you watching Hard Knocks will have noticed two things, Bill O’Brien is not afraid to drop a F bomb or two, and you can not fail to appreciate the work ethic and character of Watt.  Vince Wilfork can play hoops too.  I can just see a play in red zone where Wilfork and Watt are both on the field and one of throws a TD to the other. Now one preseason game does not a football season make, is what Shakespeare might have said if he had seen this wonderful game we all live so much, so whoever is your team, regardless of if you won or lost, remember the proper season is just a few weeks away.  All our teams have that short space of time to figure out their depth charts etc…just enjoy the next few weeks as a chance to see your team, hope no one gets injured and maybe that rookie you were unsure of turns into a star.   Have fun, guys!
10.08.2015
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When a player is labelled a coach killer, it usually means that to borrow a phrase from Jerry Glanville, that for that player NFL stands for Not For Long, I say usually as in this modern age the money invested in certain players does tend to tip the balance back towards the player rather than the coach.   In recent years there have been two examples of this, I present the careers to date of Robert Griffin III and Jay Cutler.  Both have shown great promise and possess extreme natural talent of that there can be very little argument, but both have so far failed to really deliver on that ability and promise at the expense of their coach, as the respective owner / GM is more reluctant to admit mistakes at the QB position over the coach.   Let's look first at the two seasons Marc Trestman had in charge of the Chicago Bears, Trestman has been an offensive coordinator and QB coach both in the NFL and in Canada and although largely unheralded as a head man, it was thought he could be the man to get the best out of the big sulk himself (Cutler).  Trestman’s first season actually went quite well and the Bears had a chance at a Wild Card till reasonably late in the season.  I remind you though that for much of the season Josh McCown was the Bears QB after Cutler went down.    McCown played well enough in that half season under Trestman to win himself a big payday as the starter for Tampa Bay last season and is expected at this time to be opening day QB 1 at Cleveland this time around.  None of that would be possible without the influence of Trestman.  Yet when Cutler returned last year, the Bears fell to their worst record in years.  So who was the problem the coach who performed magic with the backup the previous year or the starter who didn’t seem to be on the same page with his options.  The team had chosen to reward Cutler with multi million $ contract when they let McCown go, therefore when sifting through the rubble of last season, Trestman was let go.   The Ravens have inherited Trestman now who reverts to a coordinator role once again, I have heard some Raven fans worry what they are getting because of the Bears last season.  As Aaron would say R-E-L-A-X!  Joe Flacco is much more a McCown type than a Cutler.  The Ravens will be just fine and have a great shot at the AFC North this year.  As for Cutler he has inherited Adam Gates as his new coordinator in Chicago.   Gates has worked with Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning and won playoff games with both, Cutler certainly falls somewhere in the middle of those two, but will we see an improved Cutler in 2015, I just don’t know.    RG3 came in as the number 2 pick overall of course and Washington gave up 3 first round picks to St Louis to get him.  That debut season was one for the ages and the Redskins made the playoffs on the back of the arms and legs of RG3.  One injury to his knee and the RG3 hype train came to a shuddering halt.  Trying to find that form has cost Mike Shanahan his job already and Jay Gruden’s relationship with the QB is far from comfortable.   Griffin returned physically but not mentally in my opinion.  The supreme confidence he had in his own ability was shaken by the injury and robbed of his physical abilities Griffin played nowhere near the level expected of him.  Free of injury now, Griffin has managed to get through offseason and conditioning and looks from all accounts to be very sharp in camp.  Whether he is back to RG3 rookie season good remains to be seen when the games actually matter.   Injury to DeSean Jackson certainly won't help Griffin’s cause, but Dan Snyder seems to still believe in him so Gruden will be hoping for big things from Griffin, pulling QB’s like last season may just cost Gruden his job as well.   Out of the two, I think RG3 has the best chance of shaking off the negativity surrounding him, sorry Bears fans but I think despite the money invested you will need a new QB next year, for your sake I hope I am wrong!
09.08.2015
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In recent weeks there has been much discussion about just who is the best Wide Receiver in the NFL.  Pouring fuel on the flames of this discussion would be the recent contract extensions given out in Dallas and Denver respectively, (did they collude? So what if they did?, maybe it's more probable than not, is that all the proof NFL investigators need these days?)   Let's just get one thing out of the way very early on here, the best receiver in the NFL right now is Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.  Megatron reigns supreme over all the would be kings at this position.  There are several very good receivers, don’t get me wrong, out of that bunch the one currently closest to Megatron for me has to be Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The next tier is where you should find, your Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, AJ Green, and Demaryus Thomas.   Most of the time I think NFL players know who the best of the best actually is, the Maverick to their IceMan if you will.  The recent NFL players top 100 poll showed quite clearly that Megatron is still regarded as the best, being the only receiver to make the top 10.  The one player who seems to have a problem with this natural order of things is Dez Bryant.   The Cowboy can not keep himself out of the news, be for fights at training camp, contract disputes, or his own outspoken statements comparing himself to Johnson.  Dez, I am sorry but you are not consistent within one game, frequently disappearing from the game plan for chunks at a time.  When the pressure is on, your own QB looks at his tight end not towards you.   Johnson on the other hand is model of consistency, racking up 1,000 yard seasons, even when like last year he only saw meaningful action in 8 games.  It was Johnson who broke Jerry Rice’s single season record, no one else has got that close.  Also Johnson has achieved what he has when just about everyone knows the ball is coming to him and still can’t be stopped, even at times by triple coverage.   Brown is the youngster emerging from the pack, he has the benefit of having Le;Veon Bell in the backfield to loosen some coverages, but when Big Ben drops back, Brown is the man he is looking for, proven by the streak of games with at least 5 catches, which the Steelers were at pains to continue at times last year.  Brown is leading the charge of the smaller, faster receivers and can expect a big payday soon.   But Calvin Johnson is still the class of the field, who else could play 3 or so games as basically a walking distraction and still draw double coverage, as happened in the 2014 season.  They say it is a QB league and a passing league, but to pass the ball the QB needs a target and Megatron provides that better than anyone else.   The NFC West is normally regarded as the best division in football, maybe that's true when you add in the defence too, but the 3 best offensive players in the league at the 3 main offensive skill positions all belong in the NFC North. With apologies to Bears fans   Best QB.     Aaron Rodgers, Packers Best RB.     Adrian Peterson, Vikings Best WR.    Calvin Johnson, Lions   Will be a fun division to watch for sure, best Tight End at least is outside of the North, in the AFC East in the shape of Gronk.