Thursday, January 15, 2009

Welcome to the NFL Playoffs, Where the Children Are the Future (and Present Apparently)

Football is a brutal sport. The National Football League is its premiere stage, where the game is played at its highest level by its finest combatants. This is the that League gave us the Steel Curtain, the Purple People Eaters, the Fearsome Foursome, Gang Green (the real one, not the New York Jets), the Orange Crush, and the Monsters of the Midway.

Everyone knows this is a man's game.

Everyone except the kids from the 2008 NFL Draft. Just who the hell do they think they are?

Take a look around and you'll be impressed.

You'll see guys like Matt Forte, who led the Chicago Bears in rushing and re-established an offensive foundation on which the team can build. You'll see Steve Slayton, who led the Houston Texans in rushing and gave them their first consistently effective compliment to Andre Johnson. You'll see Jerod Mayo, who led the 11-5 New England Patriots in tackles while the team finished tied atop the American Football Conference East (we all know a tie-breaker sent them home for the winter). You'll see Eddie Royal, who gave the Denver Broncos a second fiddle to play with Brandon Marshall.

And those are just some guys from teams that couldn't even manage to qualify for the postseason.

What's that you say? I'm insane to expect a bunch of kids in their early 20s to contribute to a contender in their first year? What a ridiculous standard against which to measure rookies?

Well, it wasn't a problem for Antoine Cason.

Cason managed 74 tackles (59 solo and 15 assisted), forced a fumble, intercepted two passes, returned one pick 59 yards for a touchdown, and defended seven passes for the San Diego Chargers (who won the AFC West and survived until the AFC divisional round). Four of those defended passes and his first INT came in the first three weeks. Translation? Opposing coaches and quarterbacks learned quickly not to test the young dynamo.

It wasn't a problem for Jonathan Stewart.

Stewart rushed for 836 yards on 184 carries for a 4.5 yards per attempt average. He scored 10 TDs, only lost one fumble, and did it all for the Carolina Panthers (a team that won the highly competitive National Football Conference South and secured a first-round bye). You could argue Stewart's young legs allowed DeAngelo Williams to stay fresh and have a break-out campaign. Oh, and Jonathan threw in 15 kick returns, 349 yards, and a 23.3 yards per return average just for good measure.

It wasn't a problem for Chris Johnson.

Johnson—apparently the fastest man in the NFL—led the Tennessee Titans with 1228 yards on 251 rushes for 4.9 yards per carry. While playing on the NFL's last unbeaten team and the AFC's top seed, he scored nine touchdowns, only lost a single fumble, and was valuable enough to garner a vote for the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

It wasn't a problem for Matt Ryan.

The young QB led the Atlanta Falcons to a Wild Card berth by throwing for 3440 yards on 265 completions in 434 attempts. That's a cool 61.1 completion percentage and 7.93 yards per attempt for a kid in his first year in football's most sophisticated environment. Toss in 16 TDs against 11 INTs and the final tally is a 87.7 QB rating that resurrected a fatally-wounded franchise (cough, Mike Vick).

Of course, these clowns are all done. Each one's 2008-2009 NFL season is dead and buried. What a bunch of losers.

You might think it's harsh to call these standouts from the 2008 NFL Draft chumps. You might think it's impossible to do anything more than what the aforementioned rooks have done. Ordinarily, you'd be right.


But if there's one thing painfully obvious about that particular draft class, it's that there's nothing ordinary about it. In this instance, it's no different.

Because there are four rookies still playing. Four rookies whose excellence still burns after all the others' flickering brilliance has been extinguished. At least one will play in the Super Bowl:

Tim Hightower—Arizona Cardinals

Hightower took over for Edgerrin James after a Week Eight loss to the Panthers and the team promptly went on to win four of its next six games, clinching the NFC West and a home playoff game in the process. His stats won't blow you away, but he did manage to score 10 TDs in Arizona's heavily pass-oriented attack without ever losing a fumble.

In the first playoff game hosted by Arizona since the Earth cooled, Hightower only rushed for 23 yards on six carries, but he did register the team's lone rushing score against Atlanta. In the stunning road victory against the second-seeded Panthers (the team that arguably ushered in the Tim Hightower Era in 'Zona), Tim rumbled for 76 yards on 17 carries and caught a score as the Cardinals advanced to the NFC Championship game.

Not too shabby for a fifth round pick.

DeSean Jackson—Philadelphia Eagles

OK, so DeSean's year got off to a rough start with that "too cool for school" premature drop on what should have been a touchdown. Remember, these are young kids and they're excited (maybe not too bright as well).

Regardless, he's atoned for that mistake and then some. Jackson has become the Eagles' leading receiver, most dangerous deep threat, and the kind of playmaker that Donovan McNabb has so sorely missed for most of his Philly tenure. He's put up some pretty stellar numbers in the process—62 catches for 912 yard (14.7 yards per catch), two TDs and no fumbles to go with 50 punt returns that netted 440 yards (8.8 yards per return) and included a 68-yard return for six.

DeSean's playoff career has mimicked his regular season one—getting off to a rough start with only one catch for 34 yards, although he did contribute five punt returns for 109 yards (21.8 yards per return) that included a 62-yard effort to set up the Iggles' first points.

But against the hated New York Giants, in blustery New Jersey winds, Jackson turned in a fine day—four catches for 81 yards (you do the math) including a 48-yard bomb that was effectively the nail in the G-men's coffin.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—Arizona Cardinals

Whoever orchestrated the Cardinals' draft deserves a big, fat raise. The only flaw in Rodgers-Cromartie's game is that criminally-awkward, polysyllabic travesty of a last name. I'm calling him Dr. Cover from now on (DRC = Dr. C + he's a cornerback = Dr. Cover).

The good doctor put up some pretty gaudy numbers in his first year—42 tackles, 38 solo, 4 assisted, 19 passes defended, 4 interceptions, and one pick returned 99 yards for six. Of course, that was all in the regular season. Apparently, he was just getting warmed up.

Dr. Cover saved his best work for the postseason. In the Wild Card Round against the Falcons, he registered a team-high 10 tackles (9 solo, 1 assisted), defended two passes, and punished his fellow rookie with an interception. In the divisional round against Carolina, he only made a single solo tackle.

Of course, Dominique did defend four passes, shutdown one of the NFL's elite receivers (Steve Smith), and intercepted a pass at the goalline. That's decent.

Joe Flacco—Baltimore Ravens

In one of the most impressive years for NFL rookies that I have ever seen, possibly that anyone has ever seen, a young man from Delaware (look, we're in...Delaware) has emerged head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Although Matt Ryan won Offensive Rookie of the Year, Flacco is the only first-year player still standing behind center. He is the pilot of the Baltimore Ravens' offense, the leader on one side of the ball for a team that is preparing to face the Pittsburgh Steelers for a third time this year. This time, though, it's in the AFC Championship game.

No, Flacco's numbers won't blow your skirt up—257 for 428, 2971 yards, 60.0 completion percentage, 6.94 yards per attempt, 14 TDs, 12 INT, five rushing scores, no lost fumbles, and a QB rating of 80.3. Those aren't fantastic stats, but they're certainly not bad.

Nor has his play greatly changed in the postseason.

Against the Miami Dolphins, Flacco took to the air for 135 yards on nine of 23 passing with no TDs or turnovers (he did cross the goalline on the ground, however). Against the Titans' vicious and well-rested defense, he went 11 of 22 (again, you do the math) for 161 yards, a touchdown, and no turnovers.

Again, nothing jaw-dropping in there. On the surface.

Look closer and you'll see the rushing score against the Dolphins proved to be the winning margin. You'll see several laser throws on the final drive against the Titans that produced the winning field goal. You'll see a rookie QB that won two road playoff games in his first rodeo.

Joe Flacco is the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games and he did it on the road. Whoa.

But look even closer.

You'll see a young, first-time signal-caller who is doing what he needs to win big games on the strength of strong defense and timely offense. You'll see confidence and poise getting the job done with mostly spare parts and a dazzling arm. You'll see a kid who nobody expected to even see on the field, let alone taking snaps as the starter.

You'll see an eerily close approximation of another young QB who rose from football purgatory to take the reins and lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. And then another. And then another.

I'm not saying that's where Joey Flacco will end up.

But I am saying he's off to a pretty good start.

Just like it is for so many of his 2008 NFL Draft class contemporaries, the future has already arrived for Joe Flacco.

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