Celebrating America’s Game (Conclusion)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: September 7, 2008

NFLPHILADELPHIA – Every year certain coaches and their teams know that the headman better get off to a good start and win or it will be curtains.

With Super Bowl Champion coach Bill Cowher lurking in the weeds, coaches in tenuous situations better watch their back.

Mike Nolan, San Francisco 49ers – Entering his fifth season as the Niners head coach they have been a miserable 16-32 under Nolan. Even though he is the NFL’s best-dressed coach — he wears a suit in honor of his late father and former 49ers head coach Dick Nolan — the walls are crumbling around the former Ravens assistant. The Niners have already relieved him of personnel duties back in January, so his coaching job could be next. I won’t even mention that Mike Martz is breathing over his shoulder as offensive coordinator and Nolan/Martz have put their team’s hands in NFL Europa quarterback JT O’Sullivan.

Lane Kiffin, Oakland Raiders — After a laughable off-season where Al Davis drafted a resignation letter for Kiffin, you know this will be a fun season. The 32-year old Kiffin understands that the Raiders head coaching job is usually temporary, but coming off a 4-12 season this could be a make or break year for the NFL’s former wonder kid. Especially with Al Davis’ favorites defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and receivers coach James Lofton already looking over Kiffin’s shoulder from places on his the staff no less.

Scott Linehan, St. Louis Rams — Entering his third season, Linehan better win some games. Sure there have been a lot of injuries on the Rams the last couple of season, but an overall record of 11-21 (8-8 followed by a 3-13) with no playoff appearance may spell his doom if things don’t change. Linehan also has to impress new owner Chip Rosenbloom. The team already had Linehan make a bunch of moves this off-season including removing a handful of coaches and stripping offensive coordinator Greg Olson of his play calling duties.

Wade Phillips, Dallas Cowboys — Anytime an owner of Jerry Jones caliber invests tons of money in a virtual All-Star team (13 Pro Bowl players in ’07), there is going to be pressure on the head coach to win. Sure they won 13 games in ’07, but losing at home to the New York Giants in your first playoff game is unacceptable to Jones. Phillips is a “Players Coach”, but I have heard whispers that he is a bit too soft at times on his team. Anything other than a couple of playoff wins – BTW: Phillips is 0-4 for his career in the postseason – may usher in Assistant Head Coach/offensive coordinator/Coach in-waiting Jason Garrett taking over in 2009 as Jones opens his new palace of a stadium.

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals — One of the NFL’s best stories from 2005 (won Division after many years) has quickly soured for head coach Marvin Lewis (42-38 for his career with an 0-1 record in the playoffs). Lewis has been the coach that has had to deal with problematic player after player. He has a ton of offensive talent in QB Carson Palmer and receivers Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry, but some of these guys are very selfish in nature. The NFL’s smallest scouting staff (3) and an owner/general manager have not helped Lewis much especially when bring back a player like Chris Henry. Also Lewis was supposed to be a defensive guru from his Ravens days, but his team has never been ranked higher than No. 19 in defense (high mark in 2004 and a low of 30th in 2006)

Impact Rookies to Watch

RB Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers

OT Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs

QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

TE Dustin Keller, New York Jets

WR DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

LB Jarod Mayo, New England Patriots

DT Sedrick Ellis, New Orleans Saints

LB Keith Rivers, Cincinnati Bengals

DB Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo Bills

Records to Watch entering the 2008 season:

– Brett “The Jet” Favre playing in Gotham for the New York Jets can further all of his NFL records including most career NFL touchdown passes (442), most career NFL passing yards (61,655), most career pass completions (5,377), most career passing attempts (8,758), most career NFL interceptions thrown (288), and his “iron man” most consecutive starts quarterback streak (253 and you can make it 275 if you include the playoffs)

– It will be interesting to see if the Indianapolis Colts can extend their NFL record for consecutive seasons with 12 wins or more (5). They are currently tied with the Dallas Cowboys from 1992 to 1995, so the team wants the mark to themselves. But there are question marks with Peyton Manning missing most of training camp with a knee problem and Tony Dungy entering his last season. This will definitely be a great storyline to watch throughout the season.

– Chicago Bears kick returner Devin Hester needs two kick or punt returns for a touchdown to tie former tough return man Brian Mitchell’s record of 13. Did I mention that Mitchell’s record was set over 14 years and Hester has scored 11 touchdowns in only 152 returns over two seasons. Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said of his mercurial returner extraordinaire, “Its an event every time Hester touches the football”.

– Vikings second year running back Adrian Peterson after being named NFL Rookie of the Year after a 1,341 yards on 238 attempts with a remarkable 5.6 yards per carry average and averaging 95.8 rushing yards per game has set his sights on a mythical record. Peterson and his big offensive line led by Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson wants to surpass Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record of 2109 yards, which just happened to be set in his second season for the Los Angeles Rams.


The NFL is a copycat league, so every team will be studying ways to mimic the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and other successful teams.

Pressure, Pressure, and More Pressure – The Giants showed in their victory over the seemingly invincible Patriots that defensive pressure from your front seven can disrupt any passer (hit Tom Brady 16 times and sacked him 5 times). The Giants used a rotation of athletic D-linemen, who led the way to an NFL high 53 sacks in ’07. The Giants huge move in the Super Bowl was defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo moving athletic defensive end Justin Tuck to defensive tackle on passing downs.

Two headed monsters in the backfield – Every team is now looking for at least two strong running backs on their roster to keep defensive coordinators guessing. Some teams may go with a “big” back and a speed back like the Giants (Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw), but one thing is evident you need two guys because you can fill more vital characteristics (inside power runs, match-ups, mismatches, hands, blitz pickup, etc). By splitting carries running backs are more healthy and fresh. In 2006, the Colts (Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes) proved two backs are better than one 380 plus carry back, combining for 1722 yards, a 4.1 yards per carry average, and 12 TD’s.

Spreading the field on offense – The NFL game is now all about match-ups on offense. Offensive coaches now know that if they can get a player like Brian Westbrook (RB with speed and hands) in a foot race with a safety or linebacker they will almost find a big play every time. They are willing to put four wide receiver sets on the field causing a defense to use all of their DB’s in coverage leaving the running back one on one. This trend can work, but it can also fail if your running back cannot pick a blitz or your quarterback doesn’t get the ball out in rhythm.

Versatility from linebackers – The NFL defenses are now built on hybrid players and schemes at the LB area. 4-3 teams often incorporate 3-4 coverage and pass rushing, because the 3-4 has come back in vogue in the NFL due to pressure. 3-4 defenses rely on interchangeable players, who can rush the passer and cover (Patriots LB unit), so defensive coordinators want guys that can play all three positions (SAM, MIKE, WILL). The key is an athletic player with the ability to stay on the field for all 3 downs (Think new Patriots LB Adalius Thomas).

Coaches announcing their retirement a year early – Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy and Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren have announced that 2008 will be their final NFL season. I guess it is good and bad that everyone knows the coaches’ plans, but you have to wonder how team chemistry will be affected. The Colts have name Assistant Head Coach Jim Caldwell as Dungy’s successor and the Seahawks went with Defensive Backs coach Jim Mora Jr.


Inside the NFL is back – The venerable NFL Films show has landed at Showtime with Phil Simms, Cris Collinsworth, James Brown and Warren Sapp as their on-camera team.

NFL Prime Time is back sort of — For nearly 20 years, NFL football fans every Sunday got their wrap up on NFL Prime Time hosted primarily by Chris “Boomer” Berman and Tom Jackson, but in 2005 ESPN dropped the show. Now, NFL Prime Time is coming back (sort of) as Boomer, Jackson, and John Saunders (original group from 1987) will be doing their “Prime Time” thing on the 7 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter each Sunday during football season.

The Boss to rock the Super Bowl – While I am eating or doing anything else, my buddy Kirk and all of Bruce Springsteen’s fans will be rocking out as the Boss and his E Street Band will be center stage at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, FL.

Dan and Keith back together – The old ESPN SportsCenter team of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick will be reunited on NBC Sunday Night Football as the already crowded set got bigger. The team will consist of Bob Costas, Jerome Bettis, Tiki Barber, Peter King, Patrick, and Olbermann.

Strahan brings his mouth to FOX – The NFL on Fox studio show got bigger this off-season as Michael Strahan went from a Super Bowl victory with the Giants to the FOX set. Not even an offer of $8 Million dollars from the Giants after Osi Umenyiora’s season-ending knee injury could draw him back. Strahan joins Curt Menefee, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson, and Terry Bradshaw on the show.

Future Hall of Famer Joins ESPN – Cris Carter joins host Chris Berman (Swami turns 30 this year), Tom Jackson, Mike Ditka, Keyshawn Johnson and Steve Young on ESPN’s NFL Countdown.

NFL Film’s America’s Game series grows – NFL Films Emmy Award-winning series America’s Game has added a 42nd addition. The forty-second show documents the 2007 season of the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants with Coach Tom Coughlin, quarterback Eli Manning and recently retired defensive end Michael Strahan telling the story of the G-Men’s remarkable run. The show even added Mr. New Jersey himself, James Gandolfini as the narrator. The show premiered on September 3rd.

New Coaches a plenty – There are three new head coaches Mike Smith (Atlanta), Jim Harbaugh (Baltimore), and Tony Sparano (Miami)


Bye, Bye Bryant — NFL Network crew will now be Cris Collinsworth, Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk, and Tom Hammond. Former lead commentator Bryant Gumbel stepped away at the end of the ’07 season.

Emmitt Got “Debacled” – Future hall of famer and sometimes NFL wordsmith Emmitt Smith will not be part of ESPN’s NFL Countdown as Cris Carter moves into his spot.

Coaches that fell off the merry go round – Brian Billick (Former Ravens Coach is now a FOX commentator), Cam Cameron (former Dolphins head coach is now the Ravens offensive coordinator) and Bobby Petrino (Quit on the Falcons to take the head job at Arkansas).

Must See Games

There are 256-regular season games, but here are some of my favorites.

Sept. 14, Patriots at Jets (CBS) – Sounds of “CHEATERS” will fill the Meadowlands as the Patriots return to the scene of the “Spygate” crime and the game has the interesting storyline of Brett “The Jet” Favre facing Bill Belichick. Also need to watch the post-game handshake between Belichick and Jets coach Eric Mangini.

Sept. 15, Eagles at Cowboys (ESPN) – This is one of the rivalries that fuels the NFL. As some who has grown up in Philly I assure you that the whole team will be juiced for T.O and Cowboys on Monday Night. This is an early match-up that could go a long way in fighting for the NFC East.

Sept. 21, Jaguars at Colts (CBS) – If the Jags want to be the number one team in the AFC South they need to go up to Indianapolis and take care of business. We will see if the Colts defense can stop the physical Jags rushing attack.

Oct. 5, Steelers at Jaguars (CBS) – The Steelers will be looking for revenge (lost to Jags twice in less than a month at end ’07) after the Jags won a dramatic playoff game in Pittsburgh.

Oct. 12, Patriots at Chargers (CBS) — Can the Chargers finally make the leap to the NFL’s elite by beating the Patriots. Last year, a beat-up Chargers team lost in the 2007 AFC Championship Game to the Pats. There is still bad blood between L.T and the Patriots after some antics following a 2006 Patriots playoff victory over the Chargers.

Oct. 12, Packers at Seahawks (FOX) – Mike Holmgren faces his old team for the final team. It will be interesting to see the Seahawks can finally beat the Packers after losing to them in the playoffs multiple times including last year’s dramatic playoff loss at Lambeau field.

October 26, Chargers vs. Saints (CBS) — For the second year in a row t he NFL invades Merry Ole England in the regular season as the San Diego Chargers face the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

Oct. 27, Colts at Titans (ESPN) — In this AFC South battle, Monday Night Football returns to Tennessee as former favorite son Peyton Manning brings the Colts in for a showdown with V.Y and the Titans. This is a key game for dominance in the NFL’s toughest division.

Nov. 2, Cowboys at Giants (FOX) – The Cowboys will be looking to erase bad memories of the Giants dominating them in the ’07 playoffs. This is a tough road game that will tell you everything you need to know about Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and head coach Wade Phillips.

Nov. 2, Patriots at Colts (CBS) – The AFC’s best rivalry from the 2000′s returns as Tom Brady gets another shot at Peyton Manning this time in Lucas Oil Stadium. This possible AFC Championship Game preview shouldn’t have all of the hype of their Super Bowl 41 ½ battle from last year.

Nov. 23, Colts at Chargers (CBS) – Another potential AFC Championship Game as the Colts will look for revenge from their ’07 home playoff loss to the Chargers.

November 27 – NFL Thanksgiving Day Games with TEN @ DET, 12:30 PM (CBS), SEA @ DAL, 4:15 PM (FOX), and ARI @ PHI, 8:15 PM (NFL NETWORK)

Nov. 30, Saints at Buccaneers (FOX) – Round two of this heated NFC South rivalry. This game should be a key divisional game with playoff implications.

Dec. 7, Dolphins at Bills (CBS) - This game is a sell out as the Bills and Dolphins invade the Rogers Center in Toronto as the NFL plays their first regular season game in Canada.

Dec. 18, Colts at Jaguars (NFL Network) – Thursday Night NFL Network football features round two of a heated AFC South rivalry. This game surely will have playoff and division title implications. As I said earlier if the Jags want to take the next step they need to beat the Colts.

Dec. 28, Cowboys at Eagles (FOX) – You know this game will have huge playoff and NFC East division implications. The Cowboys come into Lincoln Financial Field as Birds fans will be waiting for the Hard Knocks poster boys.