Warner Underappreciated, Manning Scapegoated, Giants Imperiled

barra 0 Warner Underappreciated, Manning Scapegoated, Giants ImperiledWith all due respect to Peyton Manning, the NFL’s MVP for the 2008 season was the Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner didn’t have the best passing stats in the league, though his numbers were outstanding: 4558 yards passing, good for 2nd in the league behind New Orleans’ Drew Brees; a healthy 7.7 yards per throw; 30 touchdowns against just 14 interceptions; and a third-place finish in the NFL’s passer ranking. (This doesn’t include his 271 yards passing on 32 attempts in last Sunday’s 30-24 playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons.) And alone of all the MVP contenders, Warner is the one who did it without any help.

Arizona is, the Carolina Panthers have been hinting all week, the weakest team in the playoffs this year, and without Warner they wouldn’t have gotten close to the 9-7 regular season record they posted. Put it his way: Peyton Manning, Brees, Philip Rivers, and all the other top QBs in the league had far better blocking and rushing support (to say nothing of better coaching). Imagining Warner’s numbers if he had quarterbacked a whole season with a team like the Colts or Chargers is a little scary.

As we go to press, the Cardinals are 9 ½-point underdogs to the Panthers in this Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game, and it will probably be the end of Warner’s season. Since Warner will be 38 next year, it’s not too early to do a retrospective on one of the strangest and most remarkable careers in NFL history.

Though he didn’t get to start in the NFL until age 28, Warner, at his peak, was as good as any NFL quarterback in the last 50 years. In 1999 with the St. Louis Rams, he threw 41 touchdown passes, averaged 8.7 yards a throw, and earned a Super Bowl ring by beating the Tennessee Titans. In 2000, he posted an astonishing 9.9 YPA, the highest of any NFL quarterback since Norm Van Brocklin in 1954. To put that in perspective, think of it as a hitter in baseball with a .420 BA over a season or a pitcher posting an ERA of under 1.50. Last year, jaws dropped when New England’s Tom Brady had a YPA of 8.3 yards; that’s a mark Kurt Warner topped for three straight seasons from 1999-2001.

Injuries and the stupidity of coaches have kept Warner from becoming the same brand of household name as, say, Brett Favre – and while we’re on the subject, Warner, like Favre, has been to the Super Bowl twice and has led the league in passer rating twice to Favre’s zero.

It’s highly unlikely that a team with a defense as bad as Arizona’s is going to proceed to the NFC championship game. The Cardinals’ cheesecloth defense has allowed 35 or more points in five games this year; in three games they allowed 47 or more. This might well be Warner’s last shot at the postseason, so if you haven’t followed his career over the years, you might want to take some time this Saturday to watch what could be the last stand of an NFL great.

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The Indianapolis Colts’ 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers last Sunday – the second consecutive season in which the Colts have been eliminated by the underdog Chargers — has triggered yet another round of “Peyton Manning can’t win the big game” accusations. Let’s review:

Manning outpassed his San Diego counterpart, Philip Rivers, 310 yards (on 42 throws) to 217 yards (on 36 tosses). The Colts frittered away this domination by getting outrushed 167 yards to 64, being out-returned on punts 72 yards to 42, and allowing the Chargers a net punt return average of 51.7 yards, a whopping 20-yard difference between what the Colts averaged on their returns. And did I mention that Indianapolis committed six penalties on defense to San Diego’s none – three, including two rare defensive holding calls, during the Chargers’ game-ending overtime possession.

Now what exactly is it that Peyton Manning is supposed to do to overcome this kind of sloppy play? Is he supposed to double up by playing on defense and special teams?

This time last year, Manning threw for 402 yards in the Colts’ 28-24 playoff loss to the Chargers. In that game, Colts receivers tipped two passes into the air into the hands of San Diego defenders; Marvin Harrison, after a first down catch, fumbled the ball away at the San Deigo 22 to kill yet another scoring opportunity; and defensive back Marlon Jackson got caught with a senseless face mask penalty on San Diego’s go-ahead drive. Someone on the Indianapolis Colts can’t win the big game, but it isn’t their quarterback, and coach Tony Dungy, perhaps the most respected head man in the league, has to take the responsibility for this repeated sloppiness in big games.

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If you’re a Giants fan, and I am, you see a great many ominous signs for this Sunday’s game with the Eagles. The most obvious, of course, is that the Giants have lost three of their last four while the Eagles, including last Sunday’s 26-14 playoff win over Minnesota, have now taken five of their last six.

If you’re looking for yet another reason to feel uneasy, consider this: the Giants haven’t sacked Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb a single time in their two meetings this year. In fact, the Philadelphia defense has actually recorded more QB sacks, 48 to 42, than New York. The Eagles’ rushing defense has also been better than the Giants, allowing 3.5 yards per rush to New York’s 4.0. But the Giants have run the ball well on two other rushing defenses, those of the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings, that were better than the Eagles.

Those teams, though, didn’t have a shutdown cornerback like Asante Samuel, who could very well contain the Giants’ most reliable wideout, Armani Toomer. If he does, it’s unlikely the Giants will have anyone to pick up the slack, at least no one flanked out wide. New York will probably counter the Eagles’ pass rush by throwing more to their underrated (and underused) tight end Kevin Boss – at least when they’re backed up near their own goal line or close to Philadelphia’s.

Giants running backs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward should get the ball about 40 times between them; the Eagles will counter not by keeping running back Brian Westbrook on the ground but by sending him out of the backfield to test New York linebackers. (Westbrook beat Antonio Pierce for a 40-yard touchdown pass on December 7, when the Eagles won 20-14.) The two teams’ quarterbacks had almost identical seasons; Donovan McNabb had 23 TDs and 11 interceptions while Eli Manning was 21-10. Both had undistinguished NFL passer ratings of 86.4.

The Giants were definitely the better team over the first two-thirds of the season, but that isn’t going to help them now, and if they lose to the Eagles this Sunday, all the glow of last year’s upset Super Bowl win and the glorious 11-1 start of 2008 will be gone.