Monday, January 28, 2008

Super Irish

Cry not for the national media. Though they were deprived of two layup Super Bowl XLII storylines (Patriots-Cowboys, also known as Battle of the Diva Girlfriend Network Stars, and Patriots-Packers, also known as the Shrine to Brett Favre's Childlike Love of the Game), they moved right along to the next big thing when putting out copy for Patriots-Giants.

Yes, there's that whole perfect season thing with the Patriots. And Tom Brady's mysterious trend-setting in the world of footwear. But the early clubhouse leader for "story which is nice but will slowly drive us all insane by the time kickoff comes Sunday" is the heart-warming tale of Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas and Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck (Notre Dame class of '05). The two hail from a dusty briar patch of a county in the middle of Alabama, Coosa County, a place with few stoplights, no street names, and more branches on the Tuck & Thomas family tree than can be counted. The pair are officially cousins and stay in touch regularly during the season, but neither is exactly certain what their relation is (insert gratuitous side-joke about intertwining Southern lineages here). But no matter what, Coosa County goes home a winner from Glendale with two of their favorite sons playing a big role for the big game. USA Today and the NY Times have full cover stories on the criss-crossing path each followed to the ultimate junction point.

Tuck isn't the only Irish alum who'll stalk the Big Blue sidelines on Sunday. His classmate, tight end Jerome Collins, is back in the Super Bowl for a second straight time in his three-year career. A reserve with the Colts last season who mimicked opposing players during practices (he was also active for two games), Collins fulfills the same duties in New York and is one of only two Giants with past Super Bowl experience. It's a long-shot at best for him to see any game action, but it's nice to see a little ink for one of those players who does nothing but toil to get the big stars ready for the show.

A fourth Domer, cornerback Mike Richardson (Class of '06), remains with the Patriots on injured reserve after making a strong showing during training camp and three preseason appearances. If that weren't enough...
Richardson, a cornerback on injured reserve, is a graduate of Notre Dame, and hasn't he already suffered enough from Dana Jacobson's diatribes? I mean, the man hasn't stopped crying for a minute.
Permit me a sarcastic, "Ha-ha". I would interject with my own thoughts about Ms. Jacobsen's recent behavior at a painfully unfunny Atlantic City "roast" honoring ESPN Radio Hosts Mike (Greenberg) & Mike (Golic), but let us harken back to the words of Mark Twain and draw a curtain of charity over the rest of that scene.

Returning to the business at hand: even without the possibility of Super Bowl ring, Tuck had plenty to be proud of in his third NFL season, registering a career-high 10 sacks without the benefit of starting, since he split time at end with Michael Strahan & Osi Umenyiora aside from moonlighting at tackle. The Giants recently locked him up with a contract that could ultimately be worth $30 million - $16 million guaranteed, an astronomically high figure for a player who's technically not starting. Tuck's super season had us in a reflective mood about the NFL Irish - in a year where so little went right for the boys in the gold helmets, how did those who came before do at the next level?

Chinedum Ndukwe, FS Bengals -- Those intimately familiar with Ndukwe's Notre Dame career can't decipher if his success for Cincinnati reflected an undervalued player who elevated his game and work ethic in the face of stiff odds, or simply an indication that Cincy's defense is so bad that Ndukwe wound up being one of their star players. 'Nedu' racked up 45 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, and had a fumble return for a touchdown - not too shabby for any rookie, let alone one who was a tail-end draft selection given nothing better than a long-shot chance at making the roster. He's also, without question, benefiting from his upbringing and the environment at Notre Dame in contrast with most of the Bengal locker room, which deteriorated so fast this season Marvin Lewis reamed his players within earshot of the press after a Week 4 blowout loss to the Patriots. Shortly afterwards, Lewis summed up his team thus:
"My job is to get the junior college guys to act like they've gone to Notre Dame and Michigan," Lewis said. "As we go, we'll continue to get more of those stable guys. But unfortunately, that's what we're dealing with — a bunch of junior college guys."
That not-so-subtle dig at showboaters like Chad Johnson reflected Lewis' desire to bring in more players with a solid grip on life on and off the football field, the kind of guys who have had their act together at top-level universities. At least there's one member of the Cincinnati secondary who won't need to act the part.

Arnaz Battle, WR 49ers -- After a week one victory in which Battle took a reverse in for the winning touchdown with 22 seconds to play, it seemed like the fifth-year pro could be heading for a breakout season. A little stability at the quarterback position would've gone a long way, because Battle and the rest of the Niner offense stayed in neutral most of the year. For the season Arnaz essentially matched his 2006 output, pulling in 50 catches for 600 yards & 5 TDs (on par with 59/686/3 from a year ago). It'll be interesting to see how (and if) Battle fits into the plans of new 49er offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

Anthony Fasano, TE Cowboys -- The second-year Cowboy put up a near-identical season to his first one, catching 14 passes for 143 yards to go along with his first career touchdown, scored during Dallas' showdown against Green Bay. The pickings are pretty slim for a third-stringer behind Jason Witten in the Cowboy offense, but Fasano could emerge as attractive second option and earn a chance to shine in his own right when he hits the free agent market after 2009.

Allen Rossum, CB/KR Steelers -- Most figured Rossum, at 32, was ready to be put out to pasture after five seasons in Atlanta & nine overall. But the Steelers liked what they saw in the special teams department, and Rossum rewarded them with a solid display highlighted by a 98-yard kickoff return TD against the 49ers. For the year Rossum averaged 23 yards per return; Pittsburgh returned to the playoffs.

Maurice Stovall, WR Buccaneers -- Stovall matched Fasano with his first TD catch in his second season, but he was (somewhat mystifyingly) unable to crack the regular rotation at receiver for Jon Gruden's Bucs. Just 10 catches for 86 yards in an almost exclusively late-game capacity. He did, however, perform like gangbusters on special teams, earning the nickname "Gunner Stovall" from Gruden. His season ended prematurely with a broken forearm suffered in Week 16; the Bucs followed quietly two weeks later versus the Giants in the Wild Card playoff round.

Bryant Young, DE 49ers -- The elder statesmen of NFL Irish, the 36-year old Young came back for one final go-round with the only team he's ever played for and acquitted himself well, collecting 34 tackles and 7 sacks in his last campaign. Disappointed that the promise shown by a young team in 2006 failed to translate to better results (San Fran was a disappointing 5-11), Young decided to hang up his cleats after concluding his body could no longer stand up to the punishment of life in the trenches. Winner of the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1994 as part of the the Niners most recent Super Bowl team, the former All-American retires a four-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro selection, and the winner 1999's Comeback Player of the Year. He finished his career third in 49er team history with 89.5 sacks and clearly #1 in the hearts of many fans and members of the organization, who carried him off the field after a victory in his final home game.

Ryan Grant, RB Packers -- OK, raise your hand if you saw this coming. Ryan Grant, who split time with Julius Jones and then Darius Walker in his final two seasons under the Dome. Ryan Grant, who seemed lead-footed next to the refocused Jones in 2003 and unsure of which way was forward in 2004. Ryan Grant, an undrafted free agent who missed out on a chance to make an NFL roster because of a freak accident that gashed an artery and left him fighting for his life. Yes, that very same Ryan Grant led the NFL in rushing over the final 10 weeks and the playoffs. After a breakout sophomore year in 2002, Grant seemed like a monument to unrealized potential when his four years were finally up in South Bend. When the desperate Packers traded for him to be their fourth-string running back just before the season started, nobody thought much of it. Then DeShawn Wynn, Brandon Jackson, and Vernand Morency all struggled/went down with injuries, and in stepped Grant to start a Week 8 Monday Night contest against Denver. He reeled off 104 yards. Two weeks later, 119 against Minnesota, the best rushing defense in the league. Performances of 101, 94, and 156 followed in successive weeks, highlighted by a 62-yard gash through all 11 members of the Cowboy defense in Week 12. Then came his masterpiece, born from the depths of despair - after fumbling twice in his first three carries, Grant ripped off a Packers playoff record 201 yards to go with three touchdowns in a 42-20 divisonal round win against the Seahawks. Nobody except LaDanian Tomlinson rushed for more yards in the final 10 weeks of the season. Nobody, period, rushed for more from Week 8 onward when you count the playoffs. Congratulations Mr. Grant - you've arrived.

Julius Jones, RB Cowboys -- At the same time the player he once supplanted is surging, Jones finds himself on the short end of a replay of his 2003 senior season (minus the 38-0 losses to Michigan). Though secure in his position as the starting running back, JJ found himself increasingly upstaged by Marion Barber III, culminating in a changing of the guard for Dallas' first playoff game - which they lost to the Giants, though one could hardly fault Barber's productivity. It'll be interesting to see where Jones lands in free agency, but he probably won't get the kind of money a back who started every regular season game for a 13-3 team should expect, since he had his weakest pro season. But for teams in desperate need of a real running back, he could be the answer.

Darius Walker, RB Texans -- DWalk's decision to pounce on his solid performance in an otherwise forgettable 2007 Sugar Bowl and pass up his senior season for the NFL looked like a disaster when he went undrafted, then cut by the Texans in training camp before being re-signed and exiled to the practice squad. Through November, his most notable achievement was using his considerable charm as the host of a weekly web video segment on TexansTV, "Wednesdays with Walker". It was enough to make Notre Dame fans wonder, "Aren't there better things Darius could be doing? Like maybe helping the Irish avoid being the worst running offense in Division I football?" His former team managed to climb out of that pit on its own (barely), and Walker bided his time in Houston before getting the call in Week 14. Over the season's final four games he was used as an effective change-of-pace back next to Ron Dayne and rushed for 264 yards plus a touchdown as Texans set a franchise record for wins (only 8, yeah, but you gotta start somewhere). With Houston's backfield crowded but not star-studded - Dayne, Samkon Gado, an aging Ahman Green, & Adimchinobi Echemandu - he might have an opportunity to earn a bigger role in 2008.

Brady Quinn, QB Browns -- Upon the conclusion of 2007, Brady is most likely the only player in the NFL who currently has more commercial appearances than live downs played in his career. The matinee-idol looks netted TV advertising deals with Subway, Gilette, & EAS for the 22nd pick in the draft, and it sure looked like the Browns were heading for the meltdown which would essentially force Romeo Crennel into playing Quinn early when, among other embarrassments, they got flagged for four different penalties on one play early in the season-opening blowout loss to Pittsburgh. But surprise QB of the season Derek Anderson righted the ship and led the Browns to 10 victories, though his inconsistent play down the stretch was a prime factor in Cleveland missing the playoffs. For the year, Quinn led just one drive, an end-of-the-first-half field goal march in Cleveland's finale versus San Francisco as Anderson injured his hand; he went 3 of 8 for 45 yards. By offering Anderson a maximum contract, Cleveland GM Phil Savage is following the San Diego "Brees vs. Rivers" playbook, electing to keep the restricted free agent in a Browns uni (and, by extension, keep Quinn on the bench). But like Rivers before him, Quinn will be a starting quarterback , somewhere, before long in the NFL - it'll be a question of what he does with that opportunity once it comes.

Other Irish NFL alums of note in 2007...
  • Sean Mahan, C Steelers - Natural guard spent all season out of position at center for the playoff-bound Steelers.
  • Derek Landri, DT Jaguars - Rookie tackle found playing time sparse behind John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, but he came up huge when it counted by subbing for Henderson in Jacksonville's Wild Card playoff win over Pittsburgh. How huge? He netted the rare defensive lineman hat trick with a sack, fumble recovery, and an interception.
  • Jeff Faine, C Saints - Struggled with injuries this season but again displayed his toughness by not missing a start (he has started every game since being a first-round choice in 2003). A Pro Bowl alternate last season as part of the Saints' feel-good rebound, he's an unrestricted free agent.
  • Rocky Boiman, LB Colts - Not many non-special teams players last six seasons in the NFL despite having less than a handful of starts. Boiman's not like many other NFL players. In his second season in Indianapolis, Boiman set a career-high in tackles (54) and nabbed 2 interceptions.
  • Mike Gandy, OT Cardinals - You might not know it, but Gandy has racked up 80 starts in the NFL since leaving Notre Dame after the 2000 Fiesta Bowl season. He's firmly established as the Cardinals #1 protector on the blind side.
  • Bert Berry, DE Cardinals - 10th year veteran had only 2.5 sacks before being sidelined for the year with a torn triceps after 9 games. Slated to make $4 million in 2008, the final year of his deal with Arizona, Berry's likely to be cut but says he's not thinking retirement.
  • Corey Mays, LB Bengals - Mays started as a special teams player with the Patriots in 2006 and made one appearance for New England this season before being released, then was claimed by Cincinnati off waivers when their whole linebacking corps got injured. For the year he notched 15 tackles.
  • Deke Cooper, FS Panthers - Sixth-year player had arguably his best pro year in returning to Carolina, recording 59 tackles and 3 interceptions. Carolina had a respectable defense but putrid offense (29th in yards and passing, 26th in points) did them in.
  • Glenn Earl, FS Texans - The fourth-year player fractured his foot (technically a Lisfranc sprain) during the preseason against Chicago and was done for the year. Look for him to be back with a vengeance and build from his solid 2006, when he had 74 tackles and 2 sacks while starting every game.
  • Victor Abiamiri, DE Eagles - Second-round choice saw action in six games and had three tackles, but could be poised to make a move considering three of Philly's top four ends (Darren Howard, Jevon Kearse & Juqua Thomas) are pushing 30 and beyond.
  • Jordan Black, OT Texans - After starting all 16 games for the Chiefs in 2006, Black spurned a richer offer from the Raiders for the chance to play in his home state, where he appeared in 8 games as an offensive line reserve.
  • Anthony Weaver, DE Texans - Weaver continued to be a fine role-player for the Texans D, but recording a career high in tackles was offset by failing to notch a sack - Houston was 25th in the NFL defending the pass.
  • Renaldo Wynn, DE Saints - 11th-year veteran moved to New Orleans after five seasons each with Jacksonville & Washington. He was a regular in the defensive rotation for the Saints in the second half of the year, backing up Will Smith & Charles Grant in passing situations. Finished with 13 tackles & 3.5 sacks.
  • Hunter Smith, P Colts - "The Most Accurate Holder in Football History" had a decent year for the Colts, but his numbers for punting average & net punting were the lowest of his nine-year career.
  • John Carney, K Chiefs - The 44-year old Carney was still booting it during 2007, first for Jacksonville and then Kansas City. For the season he was 12/14 on field goals and 27/28 on extra point attempts. Unknown if he'll return for a 20th NFL season.
Tomorrow - A look at how potential NFL Irish are faring in the drive towards the 2008 NFL Draft...

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