Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Conundrum of Carson Palmer

Only a few years back, Carson Palmer was sitting pretty in Cincinnati. He had his team on the brink of playing in the Super Bowl, which would have been their first since the Boomer Esiason era. The Bengals were playing for an AFC title against their division rival (and eventual champion that year) Pittsburgh Steelers, and Palmer was looking to blow the game open with a 66-yard bomb to then-rookie wide receiver Chris Henry.

But then he was hit low (albeit untentionally, according to the official NFL ruling) by Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, sustaining tears to multiple knee ligaments and provoking a rule change forbidding intentional contact with quarterbacks below the knees.

Even after he recovered from said injury, he came back with a vengeance in 2006 to throw for 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, becoming the first Bengals signal-caller to make two consecutive Pro Bowls since the aforementioned Esiason in 1988-1989. He capped off a great comeback year with Pro Bowl MVP honors. One may have thought he was poised for stardom, about to take his place amongst the league’s elite passers.

Since then Palmer has taken a tumble; 2005-2006 was the last season that he recorded a season total 2:1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. While his play has been reasonably productive, the Bengals have only made the playoffs once since then: a one-and-done appearance in which Palmer completed 18 of 36 passes for a paltry 146 yards, one touchdown and one interception (posting a passer rating of 58.3). Some days, I thought Carson and his backup (younger brother Jordan Palmer) could have switched jerseys and no one would notice.

Apologies, that’s not really fair to at least one of the Palmer brothers. Jordan is more mobile than Carson.

Their ultimate capitulation occurred this past season, in which the Cincinnati club posted a 4-12 record and earned the fourth overall pick in the draft. In context, only the 2-14 Carolina Panthers held a worse record, but Denver and Buffalo also went 4-12 and pick ahead of the Bengals. Now Carson wants out, and is threatening to retire if the Bengals don’t trade him to another team.

The reasons for Palmer’s struggles throughout this period are varied, ranging from tragic to just plain puzzling. The unfortunate passing of Chris Henry, who was in the midst of a potential breakout season after a troubled early career, sent shockwaves through the Bengals offense. The addition of the 36 year-old Terrell Owens to accompany an already eccentric and aging Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson at wide receiver produced more highlights on their “TO & Ocho” television show than on the football field. A wildly inconsistent defensive unit (over the course of games and entire seasons) didn’t help matters even when the Bengals were winning, let alone when their offense began to lose productivity. It must also be noted that while the AFC North division is home to the equally lowly Cleveland Browns, it also holds the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, two perennial playoff contenders featuring top-ranking defensive units. None of these spell a recipe for success.

It seems little surprise, then, that Carson Palmer wants out of Cincinnati. Maybe he’s tired of having a different offensive line every year (or, perhaps worse, the same wideouts). He could also just not like getting clobbered by Pittsburgh and Baltimore year-in and year-out. Whatever the reason, he has threatened the organization with retirement, admitting that he has at least been frugal in his investments by saving 80 million dollars. There’s also the lingering possibility that he may retire and attempt to sign with another team in an imitation of Brett Favre. Whatever the case may be, the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, and a host of other teams would be likely to jump at the chance to sign Palmer, who can probably make a decent sales pitch if he just blames all of his problems on the Bengals.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's Up With All These Rematches?

On Sunday, the Chicago Bears will host the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field to battle for the National Football Conference Championship. This will be the third time this season that the two division rivals--both of the NFC North--will clash.

On the other side, the New York Jets travel to Pittsburgh to decide who will play the winner of the Bears-Packers contest in the Super Bowl. No problems there, right? Except that both the Jets and the Steelers played a divisional opponent (the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, respectively) in order to reach their current position.

So why are there all these rematches? Why are teams from the same divisions ousting other divisional champions in order to play each other for a third time? Are these divisions just that much better? Maybe.

In the AFC North, both the Ravens and Steelers posted 12-4 records in the 2010-2011 regular season; as one may guess, this did not bode too well for the other two teams that share their division. The Cleveland Browns went 5-11 while the Cincinnati Bengals were a lowly 2-14. Despite the weaknesses of the declined Carson Palmer and washed-up duo of Terrell Owens and Chad “Ochocinco” in Cincinnati, the fact that Browns were actually able to post five wins in a division boasting the Steelers and the Ravens is a testament to their actual ability. Cleveland was one of only two teams (along with the Jets) to beat Tom Brady and the number-one seeded Patriots, underlying the core of potential they possess in quarterback Colt McCoy and running back Peyton Hillis.

The NFC North possesses a similar situation as its AFC counterpart: two dominant teams in the Packers and the Bears who have almost continually asserted their authority over the other two teams this season. That said, it is difficult to deny the potential ability of the Minnesota Vikings, who were approximately seven Brett Favre injuries away from perhaps having a decent run at the playoffs themselves. It’s not just the Vikings, though; on talent alone, the NFC North is perhaps one of the most loaded divisions in the NFL. Even the Detroit Lions, historically the laughingstock of the league even before their winless 2008-2009 season, possess the likes of quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and one of the league’s most dynamic players in Calvin Johnson. When your division rivals count Devin Hester, Adrian Peterson, and Greg Jennings on their rosters, that title counts for a great deal.

Potential obviously does not make the playoffs, but the ability for division leaders to play week in and week out against challenging division opponents hones their skills for the playoffs. This helps them against teams from weaker divisions, such as Seattle (the fact that they won their division with a 7-9 record tells you everything you need to know about the strength of their opposition) and Indianapolis, who were a multitude of injuries away from likely coasting to another AFC South title but instead had to fight through a tough stretch to clinch their playoff berth.

But a big question remains as to whether it is beneficial or detrimental from an entertainment perspective for two teams from the same division to play each other a third time. Sure, intra-division rivalries stew up a high level of anticipation from the fans of the participating teams, but from a neutral perspective such a contest excludes a great deal of potential markets by limiting the league’s representation to only a select few divisions.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shootouts Mark Week Seven

It's said that offenses are usually slower to develop than defenses. Rythym is critical, and with the NFL's constant player turnover it usually takes weeks for the proper chemistry to develop between offensive linemen, quarterbacks and their recievers.

It seems that time has come.

Of the first nine games played today, five of them had at least one team score 30 points. Kansas City led all teams so far with 42 points (a farcry from the woeful team that graced Arrowhead Stadium last season), with Atlanta and Tennessee coming up just short with 39 and 37, respectively. Titans wideout Kenny Britt had three touchdowns after playing in only three quarters against Philly, almost doubling his season stats with 225 receiving yards on seven grabs and setting an inauspcious record for the most points ever scored by an individual player against the Philidelphia Eagles.

Not all offenses played well, though, and the points came from the offensive side of the ball. The lowly Cleveland Browns took advantage of four Drew Brees interceptions (two returned for touchdowns by veteran linebacker David Bowens) to upset the defending champion Saints. The Chicago Bears turned the ball over six times in a loss to Washington, allowing Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall to tie the NFL record (with eight other players) for the most interceptions by a single player in one game.

Lastly, the Bills seems to have finally found a quarterback in that other guy from Harvard, Ryan Fitzpatrick. In seven games this season, Fitzpatrick has a quarterback rating of just under 100, having thrown for 969 yards, eleven scores, and only four interceptions. Keep in mind that this is the Buffalo Bills offense, so thriving in it to probably only just short of miraculous.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bears Illusion Fools Cutler, Not Giants, On Monday Night

I am proud to say that as a football fan, I have managed to spread the appreciation of the game to my parents. So when my mother told me about a conversation she had with one of her coworkers about the most recent Chicago Bears fiasco, I was compelled to listen in.

This particular dialogue concerned the Bears offense, which her colleague described as being a holgram that was actually non-existent. In a time where it would not have suprised me to hear quarterback Jay Cutler say "Help me, offensive line, you're my only hope", it appeared that he and not the New York Giants was the one fooled by the Bears' lack of offensive presence.

Despite being sacked nine times by a Giants team that was missing its leading pass rusher in Mathias Kiwanuka, Cutler held onto the ball incessantly and stubbornly refused to check down to his backs when the game was on the line. Particularly strange given that Matt Forte is the Bears' leading reciever.

The refusal of both Cutler and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz to make halftime adjustments, as well as head coach Lovie Smith's stoicism throughout the affair, seems to indicate who has the power in Chicago. Everyone's been taking about the cohesiveness between Cutler and Martz, but Lovie Smith may have been made the unwitting victim in a situation featuring two men that can best be described as absolutely convinced of the superiority of their own methods. Lovie has never been known as a strong leader; he is often presented by the media as a soft-spoken player's coach--well-liked by his guys but not renowned for his ability to rally and motivate a team in crunch time.

It's painfully clear that Martz and Cutler have yet to work out all of the problems with their offense; they have consistently had trouble establishing the running game with a patchwork offensive line that is still missing left tackle Chris Williams; regrettably, it seems doubtful that they would be much better even with Williams in the lineup. What the Bears need now is consistency, and they may find a measure of respite against Carolina, who have looked poor even after substituting Matt Moore for rookie Notre Dame product Jimmy Clausen. If the Bears can go several games without being forced to shuffle their lineup, they may find some solidarity in their offense to accompany a defence that was forced to play alone throughout the game at the Meadowlands.

Hopefully things will improve on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Week 2 Sobered by Death of Broncos WR Kenny McKinley

As much as I would like to talk about how the Bears managed to trump the Dallas Cowboys this week (I still had to get it in edgewise), the most important story this week is that of Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley, a second-year pro who was found dead in his Englewood, Colorado home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound according to espn.com. This has obviously come as a shock to all around the league, especially after McKinley's positive interviews this season concerning his hopes for a burgeoning role in the Denver offense. McKinley was placed on Injured Reserve, but hopes were still high that he could eventually become a regular contributor to the Broncos.

McKinley died yesterday on September 20. He was 23 years old.

Rest in peace, Kenny McKinley, 1987-2010.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quarterbacks Get Clocked In Week 1, Defense Dominates

I would have doubts about the sanity of anyone who didn't cringe watching the hit that Bears defensive end Julius Peppers laid on Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford on Sunday. Peppers came around Stafford's blind side and delivered a crushing blow that separated the former first overall pick's shoulder, ruling him out for four to six weeks. Even without Stafford, the Lions were still only one bullshit rule away from defeating Chicago (I'm not complaining, but I can still admit that it was legitimately stupid).

But Stafford wasn't the only quarterback to get knocked out of the game for less-than disastrous results for his team. Eagles starter Kevin Kolb left Philly's game against the Green Bay Packers with a concussion after one dismal half, probably meeting a merciful end at the hands of Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. His replacement, three-time Pro Bowler Michael Vick, looked sharp, completing 16 of 24 passes and rushing for over 100 yards. This may be a blessing in disguise for Andy Reid's team; since Kolb is ruled out for presumably at least next week, Philly can start him and keep starting him when Kolb comes back. So long as he keeps winning.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

QB Chaos Ensues in Arizona, New England

The Cardinals have (finally) cut ties with former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart. Now we can all release that breath we were holding, or we could shrug our shoulders and ask why we should care about Mr. Leinart. His release honestly shouldn't come as a surprise; the former first-round pick has only played in 29 games since being drafted in 2006, twelve of which came in the 2006-'07 season before current Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was hired. Throughout that time, he has been bested in his quest for Arizona's starting spot by a resurgent Hall of Famer in Kurt Warner and now a one-season wonder in former Browns signal-caller Derek Anderson. In hindsight, losing a quarterback battle to Warner is understandable, but losing out to Mr. Anderson (despite his select merits) is less so. Especially for a quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy at a program known for producing successful NFL players. But when you assume a job is yours and don't work for it, as Mr. Leinart did, you can never expect to remain employed for long. With the current NFL emphasizing work ethic and character, those few who believe themselves entitled to a position are quickly being winnowed out, as seen with former Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell and now Leinart. The USC man, however, has been significantly more fortunate than his LSU counterpart; while Leinart was signed by the Houston Texans to back up Matt Schaub a day after his release from Arizona, Mr. Russell has been arrested on charges of possession of codiene syrup (also known as "purple drink") and is still without a job.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady has caused heads to shake with a comical haircut that has been relentlessly compared to teenage pop singer Justin Bieber (who, according to , even personally voiced his appreciation for the new do). The Patriots star got into a car accident early this morning (maybe his overly long locks interfered with his vision), but was fortunately unharmed and attended practice later in the day. Fully taking Bieber's comments into account, I think New England's head coach Bill Belichick should force Brady to cut away his tresses. Long hair may work for Drew Brees of New Orleans, but this car accident should be enough of a red flag to prove that it does not do the same for Brady. I don't really have any grudge against long hair, but honestly, an endorsement from Justin Bieber is not positive press. If he doesn't cut it, perhaps an incident reminiscent of Troy Polamalu getting dragged down by his own mane (now insured for one million dollars) will convince Mr. Brady to return to his usual cleaner cut self.