Review of Super Bowl XLI Champions DVD: Peyton Manning Wins the Big One

March 23, 2009

51sjr0-fdl__sl500_aa240_The Indianapolis Colts, after several years of Playoff frustration and failing to meet high expectations, finally won a Super Bowl when they topped the Chicago Bears in the game’s 41st iteration.

But though the team’s tale is one of success, the DVD chronicling it isn’t so great. This highlights package, which has been done for each Super Bowl for several years now, is not one of the better efforts by NFL Films.

I am sure Colts fans will greatly enjoy reliving the long-awaited championship season and will want this as a keepsake. The regular-season highlights are mostly well done, but the Playoff highlights are of mixed quality. The Super Bowl clips were, in general, very good, but a bit lacking in the emotional buildup and suspense that makes these packages a delight for fans.

But the biggest disappointment is that the disc does not have the full game on it as some of the previous editions have. Also, the bonus features are sub-par, as the montages are short and not very informative or revealing.

As with other DVDs in this series, the main feature is an hour-or-so-long highlight reel of Indianapolis’ 2006 season, featuring bits of every regular season and Playoff game and extensive footage from the Super Bowl.

But this version does only an average job of really building the suspense and emotion of the season. It simply lacked the kind of emotional drama and tension I have come to expect in these packages. There also weren’t very many close-up, on-the-field shots that bring the action up-close and personal.

Another key drawback to this production is a lack of completeness; they obscure the real story behind the games by leaving out key details. Yes, that is a complaint you can make about all the videos like this the NFL produces; in the short time span allotted to each game, important plays and turning points are often left out.

This entry in the series, however, is particularly guilty; there is one segment that leaves the viewer with a false impression of what really happened in the game. The highlights of the Colts’ 23-8 first-round Playoff victory over the Kansas City Chiefs show a story that is is only half-correct.

The Colts defense did step up and shut down one of the most potent running attacks (and offenses) in the league by holding Kansas City running back Larry Johnson to only 32 yards rushing. But the Colts offense did not have a great game, though the production extolls the virtues of Peyton Manning and his outfit. Almost nothing was said about Manning’s three interceptions and the general sloppiness and inconsistency of the offense.

Yes, the key story in that game was the Colts D, but without pointing out the shakiness of the offense in its first 2007 postseason game, the DVD gives an inaccurate portrayal of the contest. As an historical record of the Colts’ run to the Super Bowl, I find this egregious.

As noted, this highlights package is average, at best, but there are some good things about it, too. The opening montage has a few nicely understated interviews about the heartbreaking postseason losses of the team in the three prior seasons, twice to the New England Patriots and to the Pittsburgh Steelers in ’05.

The best and most revealing interview was with Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts, who said before the season (paraphrased): “We don’t want our legacy to be one of the best teams to never win a championship. Our legacy has yet to be determined.”

That was a great summation of the position the Colts found themselves in in 2007.

The disc also has a solid chronicle of the Colts’ mid- to late-season breakdown on defense; they became the regular season’s worst team at rushing defense, and this could not continue in the Playoffs if they expected to make a championship run. Scenes that follow show how the defense really turned it around in late December and beyond by shutting down some powerful running attacks, helping propel the Colts into the Super Bowl.

 Of course, Peyton Manning is the star of the show, but kudos to the compilers for featuring the outstanding play of the offensive line, rookie running back Joseph Addai, receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark, and the impact of the return of safety Bob Sanders from an injury. This more well-rounded approach is refreshing, as the film could have ended up as a simple ode to the team’s signal caller.

The recap of the Colts’ 29-17 victory over Chicago in the season’s final game was generally well done, though emotional drama was notably missing. It did show one awesome play: safety Bob Sanders before the snap, then him rushing toward Cedric Benson, the Chicago running back, and making a picture-perfect hit, tackle, and forced fumble.

It was a beautiful play and an outstanding piece of camera work and editing; the collection could have used more stuff like that. If I were a Colts fan that would have gotten me really pumped. Too bad there wasn’t more of this type of action throughout.

The bonus materials were mostly a complete waste of time. Honestly, this might be the worst I’ve seen yet in these productions.

First, as noted earlier, it didn’t have the full game broadcast, which is a big strike against it for me. It also featured the NFL Network Postgame show, featuring talking heads (mostly Jim Mora, former Colts head coach) saying not much of anything and no real analysis of the game.

There is a heartwarming profile of Colts linebacker Gary Brackett, who lost both his parents within four months of each other and his brother of leukemia about a year later after he donated bone marrow to him, as well as a profile of coach Tony Dungy. There are a few wired-for-sound segments of Manning, Harrison, and the staff in games against the Patriots, but that was nothing special.

The two quick segments on Peyton Manning’s well-known antics behind the line of scrimmage before snapping the ball and how Tony Dungy runs practice were also okay, but uninformative to the avid football fan.

There is a more extensive package for the Colts-Patriots AFC Championship game which offers more thorough highlights than that of the main feature, but this suffers from the same lack of game analysis and drama as the rest of the video.

And, of course, there are the obligatory shots of a few Colts players and Tony Dungy being interviewed during Media Day. This didn’t elicit much really, although the interview with defensive tackle Anthony McFarland talking about Tony Dungy’s coaching style was interesting.

Finally, while I could care less about halftime shows or pre-game bits, I was at first baffled that the bonus materials included the dreadful Cirque Du Soleil affair from beforehand but not Prince’s performance, which I actually found entertaining. But then I realized that Prince slipped in a phallic symbol during the show (and yes, I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose) and that that’s probably why it’s not on the DVD.

Despite the many drawbacks, I am sure Colts fans will find this very entertaining as they relive a great, well-deserved championship season. Congratulations to Indianapolis for a great season.

Disclaimer: I am an avid New England Patriots fan and this video actually made me want to puke. But it did not affect my review of the video. The fact I didn’t break down in tears or break any furniture during the highlights of the AFC Championship game is evidence enough of the general lack of drama-building and emotional tension of the presentation.

NFL Super Bowl XLI – Indianapolis Colts Championship DVD


Review of New England Patriots Super Bowl XXXIX DVD

March 4, 2009

51k8s1swyal__sl500_aa240_

Despite drawbacks, the New England Patriots Super Bowl XXXIX DVD is simply a must have for any New England Patriots fan.

Essentially, an hour-long highlight reel of the Patriot’s 2004 season, including highlights from each and every regular season and playoff game, culminating in a more detailed highlight package of the Super Bowl itself.

Sound bites from the sidelines, from players, and from coaches’ interviews done during the season are interspersed throughout the video.

The video does not do a great job of building drama through the regular season leading to the playoffs. But of course, there wasn’t all that much drama given New England only lost two games, finishing at 14-2.

It does, however, do a decent job of spotlighting the impact of the regular season loss to Pittsburgh, and the mounting injuries to the team’s defensive backs. It also does a good job of profiling Cory Dillon’s impact on the Patriots’ running game during the regular season and playoffs.

The DVD gives Troy Brown’s defensive play some much deserved airtime. Like last year, I wish the video had more highlights, more commentary, and more inside information. But overall, it was mostly a complete package.

The best part of the DVD was the entire international game broadcast. It is awesome to have the entire game on DVD as a keepsake, even though I also taped it on VHS. This year the announcers for that broadcast were Dick Stockton and Darryl Johnston,  who excelled.  It is without commercials, of course, and includes key statistics during the game and shots of fans and replays. It is surprisingly a well edited film, given the speed with which the DVD was produced.

The other special features included a number of pre and postgame interviews with New England players and coaches, which were interesting but short. Also included is the entire Paul McCartney Super Bowl halftime show, which for me I could have cared less about but it will no doubt appeal to many others. I wonder why the Super Bowl XXXVIII DVD didn’t include the halftime show? (Ha! Ha!)

I was very disappointed that the DVD did not include the ESPN NFL Matchup segment analyzing the Super Bowl, which is really a fabulous breakdown of the game. That was a really big plus for the Super Bowl XXXVIII DVD. But of course, this year’s Super Bowl was on Fox so they aren’t going to allow promotion of another network’s program.

Despite my quibbles with some aspects of the DVD, if you are a New England Patriots fan you will no doubt enjoy this more than once. I don’t think non-New England Patriots fans would like the DVD that much because it is essentially a highlight reel of the Patriots’ season and does not do any in-depth breakdown of the game or season that an avid football fan would be looking for.

Disclaimer: I am a die hard New England Patriots fan and am totally biased in this review.

Super Bowl XXXIX – New England Patriots Championship Video


Review of New England Patriots Super Bowl XXXVI DVD

March 3, 2009

5146v0rf1ql__sl500_aa240_New England Patriots fans will no doubt want to add this Super Bowl XXXVI DVD to their collection. This highlights package of the 2001 NFL football season culminated in the Patriots winning their first league championship under difficult circumstances.

As with all other NFL championship DVDs, this is a little over an hour long highlights package of every New England Patriots regular season and playoff game, along with even more extensive highlights of the New England Patriots exciting, dramatic victory over the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXXVI.

This video includes many interviews, sideline sound bites, and locker room scenes throughout the season, which really brings to life the players and coaches on this fabulous team.

While I always feel these video packages do not do a great job of highlighting the drama of specific games, including those in the playoffs, it does do a good of job of conveying the drama of this very interesting, unusual season for the Patriots.

First, many may forget the Patriots started out 0-2, and were only 5-5 at one point in the season. Few expected this team to go far, especially not to the Super Bowl.

Probably more important, the producers of this video did a very nice job of dealing with the quarterback controversy—or lack thereof—that emerged when Tom Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe, the long time New England starter. Bledsoe suffered a severe chest injury in the second regular season game against the Jets.  Once Bledsoe was cleared to play later in the season, Brady kept the starting job because the Patriots were winning and Brady was on a roll. This DVD includes in season interviews with both quarterbacks talking about their situation.  While there was a lot more tension on the team than is seen in the video or that the Patriots have ever made public, Bledsoe must be given great credit for not tearing the team apart and ruining their chances of success.  Given his long tenure as the starter and close relationship with the players on the team, he could have easily caused great dissension on the team and split apart the locker room.  But he accepted his new role with professionalism, maturity, and dignity which should endear him to most Patriots fans. Bledsoe earned his Super Bowl ring through his maturity and his great play in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh when Brady twisted his ankle early in the game.   This video does a nice job of highlighting and dealing with situation as the season progressed.

The video also does a nice job with the more extensive highlights of New England’s playoff victories. The first, against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoff game, 16-13, took place in a blizzard.  This game featured the overturning of an apparent Brady fumble, under the now infamous “Tuck Rule,” that would have cost the Patriots the game.  The game also featured some of the most amazing kicking in ridiculously bad weather by Adam Vinateri.

The Patriots 24-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh featured sterling play by Bledsoe when Tom Brady went down with an injury early in the game, and a Troy Brown return of a blocked field goal that help seal the game for the Patriots.

Finally, of course, there are even more extensive highlights of the dramatic 20-17 Super Bowl victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI on a last second field goal by Adam Vinateri.  This was preceded by a gutsy, long drive by the Patriots with less than two minutes to go after the Rams tied the score late in the game. I still get tears in my eyes watching that kick sail through the uprights to secure our first Super Bowl victory.

The Special Features on the video are also nicely done. While I was disappointed the entire Super Bowl game was not on the video, the bonus material is quite worthwhile, even if the segments are a bit short.

The bonus features include “NFL Salutes America,” showing player reactions to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as well as the halftime show, featuring U2, which I frankly have never watched.

More interesting, and important to New England fans, are the three short segments about the team itself (about five minutes a piece). First, there is a segment on the 1976 Patriots, which many consider to be the most talented Patriots team ever, which was robbed in a playoff loss against the Oakland Raiders on a bogus roughing the passer call late in the game.

A second features one of New England’s star players of the 1960s, Gino Cappelletti, who is now a broadcaster for Patriots game. And my favorite segment of all is on the tough, gritty Steve Grogan, the Patriots quarterback in the 1970s who was a role model for me as kid.

This video is highly recommend for New England Patriots fans.

Disclaimer: I am a die hard New England Patriots fan and am totally biased in this review.

Super Bowl XXXVI – New England Patriots Championship Video


The Bucs Cut Out Their Heart Today

February 25, 2009
My team lost its heart today.  Photo from TBO.com.

My team lost its heart today. Photo from TBO.com.

You know, I really shouldn’t be surprised. It happens every single year in the NFL. Some veteran player, some face of the team, gets whacked going into free agency. Fans are left wringing their hands and wondering why and teams are stonefaced and “it’s business” about it. They don’t call it the Not For Long League for nothing. Jerry Rice went to the Raiders. Joe Montana was a Chief. Legends go on, usually don’t live up to our memories, and fade into the sunset. I’ve seen it happen. I really didn’t think I’d see it happen with Derrick Brooks.

It’s not like the Bucs haven’t done this before. They let Sapp & Lynch go with nary a qualm. And at the time I wasn’t that bothered. I understood the business of it, the money being a big part of it, their ages being another. Lynch got the last word by having a few more productive years in Denver. Sapp didn’t really kill in Oakland, but now he’s on TV where he’s always belonged, so all is well there. They were part of the Big Three in Tampa; Sapp was mouth, Lynch was the brain and Brooks was the heart. I could live without the mouth. The brain was good but could be replaced. The heart though? I just can’t imagine this team without him.

In their press conference today, new coach Raheem Morris and GM Dominik emphasized over and over that this move was not about age or money. Um. Okay. Well it damn well better not be about money, since we were already $55 million under the cap. Now we’re $65 million under it, and that money damn well better get spent and spent wisely. I’m not going to support a team that’s just about cutting cost. I’d root for the Marlins if I were about that. I want a team that goes that extra mile and tries to win. I don’t know if releasing these players is about winning. It doesn’t much feel like it now.

Derrick Brooks played for the Bucs for 14 years. He went to the Pro Bowl 11 times. He was defensive player of the year in 2002. His skills may have diminished in recent years, I can’t deny that. But his smarts didn’t. His heart didn’t. A big part of Derrick’s excellence wasn’t his speed, it was his intelligence. He could read plays with the best of them. He anticipated where that ball was going to go and he got there. I watched him chase down players like Michael Vick, who should have blown by him. That intelligence is still there, he still reads that field as well as anybody.

The way they spoke, it sounds as if the Bucs are changing their style of defense. Maybe Derrick wouldn’t fit in anymore. Maybe it’s better for him that he’s on the way out and can find somewhere else where he’ll fit in. In a day or two I may feel that way. Today I don’t though. Today I feel like my team let my favorite player down. He’s given them everything, he stood by them through several shitty moves and this time he’s on the other end of it. It’s hard to digest that.

I was not overly thrilled with the regime change last month. It wasn’t that I disagreed that maybe a change was needed, but I had a bad feeling about the veteran players on the team. Sure enough, that feeling was dead on. I wish I had been wrong. I don’t usually like to be wrong but this time out I would have taken it gladly.

Regardless of how I feel, there’s nothing I can do about it. The Bucs have made their choice and we all have to stand back and see what comes next. They avoided using the “rebuilding” word but that’s what they’re doing. Maybe in a couple of years that’ll pay off. Right now it sucks. I don’t see why Derrick couldn’t have finished his career with the Bucs. He could have been more coach than player at this point. Maybe that wouldn’t have made him happy. Wherever he ends up, I will continue to support him. He was the player that brought me to the Bucs (along with Dunn, another casualty of today’s blood letting) and I will follow him wherever he goes.

According to the Bucs, today wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about age. It would have been nice if it could have been about heart. But it’s business. It’s always business. Sometimes it just shouldn’t be.


Just Call Me The Commish

February 23, 2009
Watch out Finchem, I'm gunning for your job!

Watch out Finchem, I'm gunning for your job!

While watching my daily dose of PTI (Pardon The Interruption for the non-ESPN watchers) last week I was astounded when Wilbon & Kornheiser welcomed their guest for 5 good minutes.  He was introduced as Timothy Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA.  Did you know that the PGA had a commissioner?  Have you ever heard that name before?  I honestly had no clue there was a Commissioner of Golf, or why they’d even need one.  I guess to manage the money but seems an accountant could do that well enough.  It fascinated me and I got to thinking, could there be any better job than PGA Commissioner?  I’m sure the guy makes great bank and has few headaches, right?  That got me to comparing the various sports commissioners and weighing which job was better.  Hence this blog.  I’m not going to include the BCS Commissioner because being the commissioner of a league that lets computers decide its champion is a thing of shame, not to be glorified in a blog by me.

So, from worst to first:

MLB Commissioner:  Do you think Bud Selig is having any fun these days?  His biggest star admits to doing steroids, Congress continues to cast a baleful glare in his direction, two of his former biggest stars are getting ready to go on trial for steroids and lying to Congress, the All Star game decides home field advantage in the World Series…that’s a whole laundry list of problems.  And the fact that Selig turned a blind eye to the problems in baseball coupled with his kowtowing to the player’s union for years and years makes this job rather unappealing to me.   Not to mention just waiting for the hammer to drop and other names to come out.  I get an ulcer just thinking about it.  Nope, I wouldn’t want to be Bud.

NHL Commissioner:  I had a hard time placing this one.  On the one hand, hardly anybody watches hockey so you kind of get to exist in a vacuum.  Nobody really knows if you suck, because nobody really cares.  But that has to affect profitability, right?  The fact is they have been unable to find a star with drawing power.  Wayne Gretzky left and I don’t think the sport has been the same.  I’ve heard some not so pleasant things about Gary Bettman’s reign as commish, but I also heard that he improved the game somewhat with that OT shoot-out business.  The simple fact is, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, but at least I know his name.  He lands at #4 simply because his sport is pretty irrelevant.  Oh, and it’s too long for my taste, they crown a champ and it feels like they’re back to playing a month later.  Minus points for that.

NFL Commissioner:  Ahh Roger Goodell time!  The NFL is the #1 sport in America, so the job would appear to be the best of all of them when it comes to that factor.  Profits rise every year (unless you’re Detroit) and the league enjoys a lack of public scrutiny when it comes to things like steroids and drug testing.  This is because they have had stringent tests for years, although one suspects that the players are smarter than the tests.  Nobody cares like they do in baseball though, we just wanna win!  The reason this job is not the most appealing is because of the outside elements you have to deal with as commish.  The Pacman Jones’ of the world, if you will.  With each team having 53 players, it only takes one per team to create a lot of strife.  Dealing with the Mike Vicks and Plaxico Burress’ of the league would not be fun.  Nearly weekly someone is getting in trouble for something, be it drugs or DUI or shooting yourself in the thigh.  Points deducted for the troublemakers and the sheer number of people you’re dealing with and NFL Commish falls to the 3 spot.

NBA Commissioner:  I don’t watch the NBA, but I know who David Stern is and I could pick him out of a lineup.  I could pick him out because he scares me.  I would finger some other guy for the crime and hope that Stern would reward me in some way.  Basketball players are apt to fall into the same kind of trouble as football players are, pot smoking seeming to be the chief no-no they get nailed with.  But there are far fewer players to deal with here, so there’s less to worry about.  Hell, the #1 or #2 star in the league was charged with rape years ago and that affected nothing.  Points are deducted here because the NBA remains only the #3 sport of the big 4, with no signs of ever moving up the list.  Despite having some stars with name power, Lebron and Kobe, they’re still not MJ or Magic or Bird.  Your random person doesn’t care.  So Stern only gets #2.  I hope he refrains from hurting me!

PGA Commissioner:  Yep, that’s right, the guy I’ve never heard of, Tim Finchem, gets the top spot.  Think about it, who’s the league troublemaker?  John Daly right?  And everyone STILL loves the guy.  Nobody wants him punished, they want to sit down and have a beer with him.  Sure, you have Sergio take the occasional spit into a cup, but if that’s your biggest problem then you’re sitting on gold.  Your biggest concern is to make sure Tiger Woods is happy, right?  He was on PTI to celebrate Tiger’s return and what it means to the PGA.  Your #1 superstar is never going to get arrested for beating a woman or doing drugs.  He’s the ultimate family man and world ambassador.  Stern and Goodell would laugh at Finchem if he ever called them to complain about any of Daly’s silly acts.  Timmy gets to sit back and count his coins and maybe play a round or two of golf.  Tough life.

So there you have it.  There’s no better commissioner’s job than that of the Tim Finchem’s.  I’m aware that I have no idea what kind of administrative coordination these guys do, I’m sure it’s involved and whatnot but I still figure the PGA dude has it the best.  So, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring.  I’m running for PGA Commish.  Watch out Finchem!


America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation

February 21, 2009

americas20gameAmerica’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCabridge

Review by C. Douglas Baker

MacCambridge has written an outstanding history of modern professional football known as the National Football League. The primary theme of the book is how football has eclipsed other sports, specifically baseball, to become America’s game.

The book starts out with the Baltimore Colts defeat in overtime of the New York Giants on December 28, 1958 in the National Football League championship game. The game was televised and is called the Greatest Game Ever Played, partially because it catapulted the NFL into the national spotlight and sent the league on its way to be the dominant sport in American culture.

For the most part this is a very linear history of the Nation Football League, and a very well done one. While it is about the game itself, it’s more about the business of professional football and the importance of decisions made by those who ran it leading to a thriving game and a thriving business enterprise. Much is discussed about the first commissioner Bert Bell who held a motley collection of owners together and strived for parity in the league, and Pete Rozelle who help reap millions in television revenue, fostered the revenue sharing agreement between big market and small market teams keeping competitive balance, and maintaining relative labor peace compared to other sports.

Another very interesting and pivotal part of NFL history was its competition with the American Football League in the 1960’s and how a group of maverick owners created a rival, viable league of its own and how the eventual merger of the NFL and AFL came about. Interestingly, Lamar Hunt, late owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, was the pivotal figure in both the creation of the AFL and the eventual merger. The merger, in fact, made the NFL even stronger.

There are a few key themes in this book about why professional football became the dominant sport it is today. First, and foremost, is television. The game of football, more so than baseball, is a sport made for television. Television thrust the game into the national spotlight and keeps it there. Second is parity. While there have been some dominant teams in the league and a few dynasties, the revenue sharing, scheduling, and now salary caps which keep the teams on a somewhat even playing field has helped maintain interest in the game. Third, labor peace, relative to other sports, has also helped the game thrive. And finally, the owners and commissioners who have lead the league have been visionary. In these pages you meet the legendary coaches and owners like George Halas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Wellington Mara, Art Modell, Art Rooney, and others who made the NFL what it is today.

Overall, this is an outstanding history of the modern NFL and I highly recommend it.

 America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation


The 2008 NFL Rookie Running Back Class

February 16, 2009

Some have suggested that the 2008 rookie running back class may be the best in NFL history. Whether this is true or not only time will tell but rookie running backs certainly made a phenomenal impact on the NFL in 2008. Following is a recap of 10 rookie running backs that were highly touted at the beginning of the season, how they fared, and their prospects for the future (barring injury).

 

joh127799Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (East Carolina)

Chris Johnson had a phenomenal season for the Tennessee Titans rushing for 1,228 yards and 9 touchdowns, along with 43 receptions for 260 yards and a touchdown. At the NFL combine he was timed at 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the fastest electronically recorded 40 yard dash ever. He was also selected to the AFC Pro Bowl.

Johnson is one of the fastest players in the NFL, if not the fastest, but he also has power and the ability to run over tacklers. One of the most impressive aspects of Johnson’s game, and many of the other rookie running backs in the league, is his vision. He sees the hole and gets to it quickly. This is rare in a rookie running back.

Chris Johnson will be a special player in this league for years to come. Just watch him run. He has a unique combination of speed, power, and shiftiness that makes him not only an elite rookie running back, but an elite running back period. He has had some phenomenal runs this season, none more special that the beautiful run he had against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs for a touchdown.

Chris Johnson is my rookie running back of the year.

 

for645404Matt Forte, Chicago Bears (Tulane)

Impressive! Matt Forte is another young running back that I think will be an elite running in this league for a long time. This year he rushed for 1,238 yards and 8 touchdowns. He also caught 63 passes for 477 yards for 4 touchdowns.

With Forte there are many things to be impressed with because of his versatility. He is probably the best blocker of the rookie class and is usually able to pick up and pick off blitzes. And while is not as shifty as Johnson, he too has speed, power, and sees the running lanes well. Forte is a most impressive short yardage back, which also is somewhat rare in a rookie. Even in games where his statistics don’t look great, he contributes by catching passes, blocking, and in the short yardage game.

For me two games this year stand out – both in which Forte’s stat line belies his impact on the game. In Week 4 in a 24-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Forte could get no traction running the ball against the tough defense. But he contributed with very important catches to keep the chains moving and was quite good at blocking against the Eagles blitzes.

The second was an overtime Bears win against the Green Bay Packers 20-17 on Monday Night Football. Despite a toe injury and not much of a running attack in the first three quarters, the Bears rode the legs of Forte in the fourth quarter to pull out the win. While he was not ripping off big chunks of yards, he steadily wore down the Green Bay Packers defense to allow the Bears to come back and eek out a win. This game showed me that Forte had guts, leadership, and the ability to put a team on his back.

Forte is another back who should be an elite player in the NFL for years to come.

 

sla557176Steve Slaton, Houston Texans (West Virginia)

Steve Slaton is yet another fast, elusive rookie running back who actually ended up leading all rookies in rushing yardage with 1,282 yards on 268 carries with 9 touchdowns. He also had 50 catches for 377 yards and a touchdown.

I have not seen Steve Slaton play as much in the pros as I have some of the other rookie running backs. But I did see him frequently in college and once live against the University of Maryland. Slaton, because of injuries to the other Texans’ running backs, ended up starting and carrying a fairly heavy load. In college he ended up being a bit injury prone and late this season he was reported to be banged up, sore, and a bit weary. But he certainly continued to play well down the stretch. Slaton is extremely dangerous in the open field and I would expect the Texans to use him even more as a receiver if they have a fuller contingent of quality running backs in the future.

The game that was impressive to me this year, even though the phenomenal Andre Johnson stole the show, was Slaton’s 182 total yards in a 30-17 win over Jacksonville in Week 13. Even though he was banged up he put on a phenomenal offensive performance that showed off his skills and elusiveness in the open field.

Other than durability, Slaton is not as good at blocking and short yardage situations as Johnson and Forte. But my biggest question about Slaton’s future is his durability. He held up better than I thought he would as an every down back in the NFL. But I think Slaton, long term, would be well served if the Texans’ can get a back to carry some of the load.

 

mcf084974Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders (Arkansas)

It’s a little unfair to try to evaluate Darren McFadden’s rookie season. He was the fourth overall draft choice but his season was marred by a toe injury and turmoil in the coaching ranks. He wound up with 499 years rushing and 4 touchdowns on 113 attempts. Despite being hampered by his toe injury and not getting the ball that often, his 4.4 yards per carry average is solid. He tacked on 29 catches for 285 yards. The few games I saw of the Raiders this year McFadden did not look very impressive, but neither did any other player. He did have an outstanding 164 yards rushing on 21 carries in a 23-8 Week 2 win against a weak Kansas City defense.

McFadden clearly has great potential with his size, speed, and college pedigree. I think McFadden will be fine, but whether he will be elite or not we’ll have to wait and see.

 

ste770966Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers (Oregon)

Jonathan Stewart is absolutely the real deal. He split time with the outstanding DeAngelo Williams, who carried most of the load at running back for the Panthers this year. But when Stewart had his chances he made the most of them. He rushed for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns on 184 attempts but only had 8 receptions for 47 yards.

He had his best game of the season in a 38-23 win against Tampa Bay when he rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries. He fared less well in games where he didn’t get as many chances to run the ball, but he and Williams made a dynamic duo, especially toward the end of the season when they gashed teams consistently on the ground. Together they rushed for 299 yards against the vaunted Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.

Stewart, like his fellow rookie running backs, has the size, speed, and ability to hit the hole fast and rip off big plays. I see nothing but a bright future ahead for Stewart.

 

smi461535Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions (Central Florida)

For playing on such a sorry, no account team, Kevin Smith wound up with a solid rookie season. He rushed for 976 yard and 8 touchdowns on 238 attempts for a respectable 4.1 yard per carry average. This stacks up quite well with the other successful rookie running backs this year. He also had 39 catches for 286 yards and two touchdowns.

Thankfully I only saw Detroit play once this year and Smith had a miserable day against the tough Titans defense so I can’t give a full evaluation of Smith. But he clearly has great skills to put up numbers comparable to other rookie running backs on a team that lost all 16 of its games.

From all accounts I’ve read Smith should be the cornerstone at the running back position as the Lions try to work their way out of their mess. His performance on a bad team speaks volumes about his potential.

 

ric154451Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens (Rutgers)

Ray Rice is a solid running back. He does not have the speed or skills of a Chris Johnson, the elusiveness of a Steve Slaton, or the combination of both of a Matt Forte. But he is a smart runner who can see the holes and he is a decent pass blocker for a rookie but he needs to improve in this area. He ended the season with 454 yards on 107 carries and 33 catches for 273 yards. He was mostly used as a third down back for much of the season. His best game came on a 154 yard performance on 21 carries in a win against Cleveland, 37-27, in Week 9. In Week 14 against the Washington Redskins Rice suffered a shin injury and didn’t carry or catch the ball in another game, including the postseason.

While I do not see Rice as a dominate, elite back in the NFL, I do see him as a solid starting running back that can improve and do everything well. He appears to have a good foundation for developing an all around, versatile game at running back. He admitted to having hit a rookie wall last year around the time of his injury, and sophomore seasons are sometimes even tougher for running backs. But I have a good feeling that Rice, whether a consistent starter or not, will be a contributor to the Ravens offense for the foreseeable future.

jon313929Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys (Arkansas)

Felix Jones is the OTHER running back from Arkansas and before suffering a season ending knee injury in Week 6 was having a phenomenal year on kickoff returns. He also made the most of his chances in the backfield. When he touched the ball he was scooting for yards. He ended up with 266 yards on 30 carries for an outstanding 8.9 yard per carry average. And on kickoff returns he had 434 yards on 16 returns, including a beautiful 98 yard touchdown return in a wild Dallas win against the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-37. He also had a superlative 60 yard touchdown run in Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers, and a 33 yard touchdown run in Week 5 against the Bengals. In fact, he won the NFL Rookie of the Week Award 3 out of the first 5 weeks of the season.

Before his knee injury Felix Jones proved to be a big play running back. It is impossible to tell how he would fare as a full time starter but he definitely has big time breakaway speed and the ability to break off big plays on the ground and in the kicking game. I hope he can fully recover from his knee injury and return to show us what he can do.

 

men3937021Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers (Illinois)

I smell a bust. Mendenhall’s pro career had a very inauspicious start. He had a terrible preseason and couldn’t hold on to the ball. The Steelers tried to use him as a short yardage back in the preseason but he was terrible at that too. I saw three of the Steelers preseason games and I was thoroughly unimpressed.

After Mendenhall was drafted by the Steelers in the 1st round of the 2008 draft many thought he would see a lot of carries this season to take some of the load off of Willie Parker, but instead he rode the bench barely seeing the field. When Parker was injured and Mendenhall got his chance to start in Week 4, he didn’t look good and then ended up with a broken shoulder and out for the season.

Even though it is based on very little activity, my prediction is Mendenhall is not going to make it as a solid starter in this league.

 

hig784208Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals (Richmond)

I really like what I see in Tim Hightower. He started seven games and in his first start against the St. Louis Rams he rushed for 109 yards, admittedly against a bad defense. He wound up taking the staring job from Edgerrin James for seven games but then James was reinserted into the starting lineup, most likely for pass protection purposes.

Hightower sees the holes well and hits them fast and is much better at getting to the edge of the defense than James, who seems to have lost of step. But he is surprisingly good for a rookie in short yardage situations. While he has some work to do on pass blocking, as most rookies do, he is the back of the future for the Arizona Cardinals. I think he will be a solid, if not spectacular running back. But I think he has a great deal of potential and could even work his way to elite status, although that might be hard to do on a passing team like the Cardinals.

Hightower ended the season with 399 yards and 10 touchdowns on 143 carries. While his 2.8 yard per average carry might appear to be anemic, keep in mind that many of Hightower’s runs were in short yardage situations given the Cardinals are a pass first team. He also had 34 catches for 237 yards.

Statistics and Fact Checking: NFL.COM