Saints’ Payton Violated NFL’s Image, Gets One-Year Ban

Because Sean Payton and Gregg Williams' "bounty program" with the Saints damaged the image off of which the NFL makes billions, the league had to come down hard against them. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

As punishment for his complicity in the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty program,” Saints coach Sean Payton received a one-year ban from the NFL Wednesday. Roger Goodell also banned St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2011 – indefinitely, Saints GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six. The NFL also fined the Saints $500,000 and stripped them of their next two draft picks.

A harsh penalty, to be sure, but what did the Saints expect? They not only violated league rules by encouraging players to injure opponents – they violated the image the NFL tries to sell the public.

And that’s a crime the NFL couldn’t let go under-punished.

The National Family-Friendly League

The NFL has convinced us all that football, more than any other sport, is a game that speaks to our “values” as Americans. Sunday afternoon and Monday Night Football have become ritualized viewing experiences involving everyone from the very young to the very old.

The NFL wants us to think that not only can we be entertained by football, we can also identify with football. And that loose mental association between our own identities and this televised sport helps the NFL snatch up billions of the fans’ dollars. Marketing, not quality of product, has made the NFL the most profitable league in the world. The NFL understands that to get our wallets they need to go through our “souls,” and they’ve done it.

Of course, this is all a farce. And the only way to preserve a farce is to never do anything that portrays the NFL as anything other than the family-friendly, “American values” ritual Goodell needs to keep everyone rich.

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A Nation Divided Makes Great Football

The Saints' Drew Brees is just too good a passer, with too many great receivers, to be contained by the 49ers in Saturday's divisional-round playoff game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Eight division winners will fight for spots in the AFC and NFC Championships this weekend. The last time no fifth- or sixth-seed teams won their Wild Card playoff games was 2007.  Since the 1978-79 NFL playoffs – the first season with Wild Card playoff births (albeit just one per conference) – the higher-seeded teams have never won all their first- and second-round games.

At least one of the better-rested teams will very soon enjoy a much longer respite. Who will it be? Here’s my preview.

Saints vs. 49ers

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at San Francisco

San Francisco has a very strong defense: first in rushing yards per game, second in points per game, fourth in total yards. Notice which category I left out? That’s right: passing yards per game. And they’re taking on New Orleans – the best passing team in the NFL. Drew Brees can shred even good secondaries like confetti. There are far worse pass-defenses (including New Orleans’), but the 49ers’ biggest weakness plays directly into the hands of the Saints’ greatest strength.

Meanwhile the 49ers average over 10 fewer points per game than the Saints. The 49ers’ offense is horrendous: their best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, has caught just four touchdown passes, while QB Alex Smith is an untested, above-average quarterback who can only be used sparingly (just 197 yards per game). Frank Gore runs well, but the Saints defend against the run far better than against the pass.

San Francisco can’t match New Orleans’ scoring, so they’ll have to win it by forcing turnovers. Only problem: the Saints showed last week against the Lions that they too can intercept passes.Pick: Saints.

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Wild Cards, You Make My …

The Texans beat the Bengals in week 14 of the regular season. Expect the same result when they open up Wild Card weekend Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Finish the line yourselves, sickos. Here’s my preview for this weekend’s NFL Wild Card games.

Bengals vs. Texans

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at Houston

Neither quarterback for this game terrifies opposing defensive coordinators. T.J. Yates, Houston’s starter since Matt Schaub went down with a shoulder injury in Week 12, has matched Schaub’s accuracy – 61.2 vs. 61.0 percent – but he’s coming off an injury. He also lacks Schaub’s decision-making skills, throwing three picks and fumbling four times in just six games. Cincinnati, meanwhile, counters with Andy Dalton, a less accurate passer who in his rookie year has thrown a troubling 13 interceptions, despite the 20 touchdown passes.

Fortunately for the Texans, they have one of the most elite running backs in the game: Arian Foster, whose 94.2 yards per game ranks second in the NFL. Houston can overcome a weak passing game with their juggernaut rushing attack.

Defensively, the Bengals are good, but the Texans are better. Texan linebacker Connor Barwin is tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks, and the Texans have the third best pass-defense in the league. They also have the fourth best run-defense and allow the fourth-fewest points per game. Supposedly, defense and running the ball wins in the playoffs. If conventional wisdom holds, the Texans beat the Bengals. Pick: Texans.

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Rob Gronkowski Has Returned the Tight End to the NFL

Gronkowski's unique combination of size, strength and sure-handedness presents a model by which the tight end might survive in the speedier 21st century NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As strength and conditioning training has gotten better and better over the years, NFL players have become stronger and faster. Running backs like Adrian Peterson can both bust through lanes without a lead-blocker and also break tackles on short-yardage runs. Slot-receivers like Wes Welker can slip into the middle of the field, then burst for big gains after the catch.

Slower, strength-based offensive positions like the fullback and tight end are becoming redundant. Teams just don’t need as much talent at these spots because they have other position-players who can match the muscle without sacrificing speed. And when teams need muscle, offensive linemen (think Nate Solder) have become fit enough to double as blockers.

With only two marquee tight ends in the NFL through the first decade of the new millennium – Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates – the position was in danger of extinction.

Then Rob Gronkowski arrived, and with him a second renaissance for tight ends.

Fullback Fading Away; Tight End, Too

A look at Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees shows how the league has moved away from certain positions. Gale Sayers was the last halfback to make it to the Hall of Fame, and his career ended in 1971. The fullback seems headed that way as well: Larry Csonka – whose career ended in 1979 – was the last fullback inducted.

The tight end, meanwhile is the third-least-represented position in the Hall of Fame, trailing just place-kickers and the near-extinct fullbacks. Only eight modern-era tight ends are in the Hall of Fame, and the only one who played in the 1990s or later is Shannon Sharpe. Of the remaining seven, most played in the 60s and 70s.

Y2K Almost Killed the Tight End

Though tight ends had hung around longer than the fullbacks, the NFL looked by the mid 2000s like it was sending the position the way of leather helmets.

From 2001 to 2010, a tight end only finished among the top 10 receivers in yardage once: Gonzalez, who finished seventh in 2004. Otherwise, the top tight end – Gonzalez or Gates in eight of those 10 years – averaged a below-18th final ranking in the NFL. Tight ends have been decent scorers, however, finishing among the top 10 for touchdown receptions nine times during that decade, and six times placing among the top five.

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Former Patriots FB Heath Evans Retires to NFL Network

Heath Evans rushes for a two-point conversion against the Dolphins on Nov. 13, 2005- his first and best game with the Patriots. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans tweeted Tuesday that he has decided to retire, trading in the helmet and shoulder pads for a necktie and microphone on the NFL Network.

Evans played 10 full seasons in the NFL with four separate teams. The Patriots signed him on Nov. 1, 2005, after the Miami Dolphins released him a week earlier. Evans stayed with the Patriots through 2008, never missing a game.

Evans played his last two seasons with the New Orleans Saints but was rarely used. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Saints after the 2009 season, though a knee injury ended that season for him in an October 25 game against the Dolphins.

Evans finished his rushing career with 579 yards, a 3.5 yards-per-carry average and four touchdowns. He recorded 439 receiving yards, posting a 7.7 yards-per-catch average and four receiving touchdowns. He also returned for 247 yards, bring his all-purpose total to 1,265.

Before the Dolphins, Evans spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks.

Evans in Foxboro

Evans’ best years unquestionably were with the Patriots. Over three quarters (453) of his career rushing yards were gained with the Patriots, as were over half (229) his receiving yards. Evans finished his career with eight career touchdowns, and half came with the Patriots (three rushing, one receiving).

As a fullback, Evans struggled to carve out a niche in a league that is quickly moving away from the position. Quicker and stronger running backs no longer need fullbacks to clear out blocks. Shooting the gap and turning the corner are requisite skills for RBs now, so players with the bulk to clear space aren’t as crucial.

The emergence of Kevin Faulk as Bill Belichick’s go-to third-down back in the last few seasons further diminished Evans’ usefulness to the Patriots, and the Saints never found a way to work him into their system.

Knowing When to Call it Quits

Faulk caught just seven passes and rushed only twice in 2010, and with the new kickoff rules for 2011 killing the need for quality special teams players, Evans likely saw his chances of ever getting serious playing time again (even by his standards) fading.

Evans had the chance to retire healthy and handsome. He had already established himself as a good quote-man in the locker room, and now he could go on t.v. and make some decent money without leaving football entirely. Totally sensible move.

A Measure of Revenge

Evans played 54 regular-season games with the Patriots. His best came on Nov. 13, 2005. Though it came against the Dolphins, the team who had cut him less than three weeks earlier, it was also Evans’ first with the Patriots, and the only 100-yard game of his career, rushing for 84 yards on 17 carries while adding 18 receiving yards on three catches. Evans may have set the bar too high too early.

The Patriots beat the Dolphins 23-16 that game, with Evans running in the two-point conversion with just over two minutes to play to put the Patriots up a touchdown.

After the game, Tom Brady said, “I remember the first day at practice when we thought, `Why did somebody release [Evans]?’ We thank the Dolphins very much for letting him go.”

The Memory of Evans Will Likely Fade Away

Evans missed by a year the Patriots’ three-title dynasty. From 2005-2008, the Patriots lost in each successive round of the playoffs (divisional round after ’05 season, AFC Championship after ’06, Super Bowl after ’07) until missing them entirely in 2008.

Other than a minor contributing role on the 18-1 2007 Patriots (in which he rushed for all three of his Patriots rushing touchdowns), Evans leaves virtually no mark in the annals of Patriots history. There won’t be a statue, a parade or even a discussion of his greatness. Evans simply didn’t do enough to merit any of that.

Evans legacy will be only that he played three and half of his 10 seasons in New England. He could very easily leave a far more indelible mark as a broadcaster, if only because his time as a player was so nondescript as to make a less memorable broadcasting career virtually impossible.