With all due respect to Robert Griffin III, it's hard to top a rookie record that's sandwiched pregame and postgame speeches given by a cancer-stricken coach.
While Griffin, the No. 2 overall pick, remains the odds-on favorite to win offensive rookie of the year honors, the performance of No. 1 pick Andrew Luck on Sunday, and his steadiness throughout the season have suddenly made the discussion far more interesting.
And when you pull on heartstrings the way coach Chuck Pagano did Sunday, well, you have a show-stopper.
The Indianapolis Colts, a team most prognosticators saw as being in the primitive stages of rebuilding going into this season, improved to 5-3 with a 23-20 win over the Miami Dolphins on the strength of Luck's 433 yards passing, a rookie record.
As impressive as that was, it was Pagano who put it all in focus with his passionate promise after the game.
"You refused to live in circumstances," Pagano said, his breath short after being treated for leukemia for nearly a month. "You decided consciously as a team and as a family to live in a vision. That's why you bring things home like you brought [Sunday].
"I got circumstances. I understand it, you understand it … [but] I'm dancing in two more weddings and hoisting that [Lombardi] trophy."
Against that emotional backdrop was the stunning play of Luck, who completed 30 of 48 passes and tossed two touchdown passes. He would have had a third TD and another 39 yards if rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton had caught a pass toward the end of the first half.
But that was the story of the day. Don't let circumstances get you down. After the drop, Luck barely reacted as he turned to look for the next play call from interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
"I don't think I heard the first couple of sentences that came out of his mouth," Luck said, referring to Pagano's pregame speech. "I was just excited to see him there and then I started listening because that's the head coach talking. He spoke on circumstances as opposed to a vision. Making sure we don't get down by circumstances whether it's our head coach dealing with his circumstances or injuries, but realizing your potential, understanding the vision, trying to get wins and going out there and doing it.
"I'm realizing no one cares about your record at this point of the season. It's all about making it to the playoffs. Obviously, it was a step in the right direction. I am proud of that, but we haven't accomplished the end goal by any means. We realize it's a long process."
To that end, Luck has been everything advertised coming out of Stanford, from the pinpoint throws to the subtle things that most fans never notice. This is what happens when a team has a competent quarterback who doesn't make constant mistakes. Instead of consistently coming up short as the Colts did last season when Peyton Manning was out for the year, the Colts have started to win these games.
For example, in the first half, Luck adjusted a pass protection as Miami showed a blitz, moving tight end Dwayne Allen into the fullback spot to create a clean pocket for a completion and a first down. Throughout the game, he was able to manipulate coverages with his eyes to help his receivers get open against a questionable Miami secondary.
Where Griffin is singularly brilliant as an athlete (and is starting to suffer from overuse by Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan) who must develop his game-management skills, Luck is a chess master with his ability to get his team into the right play on a consistent basis. As many have hoped and predicted, Griffin and Luck look like the NFL's answer to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who came into the NBA as rookies in 1979.
Statistically, Griffin has completed 172 of 262 passes (65.6 percent) for 1,993 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He has also run for 529 yards and six touchdowns. His team stands a 3-6 and looks to be in trouble in the top-heavy NFC.
Luck has completed 190 of 336 passes (56.5 percent) for 2,404 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has also run for 148 yards and three touchdowns. His team is 5-3 and in contention in the largely mediocre AFC.
And while the other quarterbacks (Ryan Tannehill was pretty strong in defeat for the Dolphins and Russell Wilson won again in Seattle) and running backs such as Trent Richardson and Doug Martin could make this interesting, the fact is that Luck and Griffin are doing everything that everyone expected to make this a fantastic ROY race.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 9:
• Congrats to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who got his team back on the right track with a scoring pass and a rushing touchdown in a win at Washington. But winning was just part of the issue for Newton, who was facing Redskins counterpart Robert Griffin III. Newton desperately wanted to win this game and outplay Griffin because of all the attention Griffin has generated this season. While Griffin put up slightly better overall numbers, Newton made the critical plays to win the game, which is what truly matters.
• For the third time this season, the Chicago Bears came up with two non-offensive touchdowns in a game. They blocked a punt for a touchdown and linebacker Brian Urlacher returned an interception for a score in a 51-20 rout of the Tennessee Titans. Perhaps even more impressive is that cornerback Charles Tillman forced four fumbles.
• Best wishes to Cleveland Browns VP Bryan Wiedmeier in his recovery from a brain tumor. Wiedmeier, who is one of the classiest and most ethical men in the game, is still awaiting a diagnosis. However, just a week after having the surgery to remove the tumor, Wiedmeier returned to his office to speak with co-workers and then attended Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
• Ravens safety Ed Reed became the 10th man in NFL history to reach 60 interceptions in the regular season when he sealed the victory over Cleveland with a pick in the fourth quarter. But the best part of this pick was not the numerical achievement, but the fact that the 34-year-old Reed, who is in his 11th season, made such a wonderful, subtle adjustment to the pass while on the move after leaving his feet. That's great athleticism for a guy who has had plenty of injuries over the course of his career. By the way, Reed has a chance to move from No. 10 to No. 6 by the end of this season with four picks over his final eight games. Ahead of him on the all-time list are Dick LeBeau and Dave Brown with 62 picks and Ronnie Lott and Darren Sharper with 63 each.
• After a solid-but-unspectacular first six games, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin is backing up the billing he got as the next Ray Rice. Martin rushed for 135 yards and caught three passes for 79 yards against Minnesota in his last game. On Sunday, he torched Oakland for 251 rushing yards and four touchdowns while catching four passes for 21 yards. Among Martin's runs were 67- and 70-yard touchdowns. As much as people fawn over Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson (justifiably), Martin is having a far bigger impact lately.
• Coming into this season, Green Bay Packers tight end Tom Crabtree had a total of 99 yards receiving in two seasons: 61 yards as an undrafted rookie in 2010 and 38 yards last season. So far this season, Crabtree has had scoring catches of 48 and now 72 yards after getting his career-long catch in Sunday's win against the Arizona Cardinals. That catch was the clinching score in Green Bay's fourth straight win.
• Congrats to Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure, who scored three touchdowns in the romp over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Leshoure had one touchdown coming into the game after missing his rookie season in 2011 with an Achilles tendon injury. While his production Sunday was vital, Leshoure's importance became even more critical this week when it was announced that running back Jahvid Best would miss the rest of the season because of concussion symptoms. The Lions are at a point where they must have an adequate complement to their passing game.
[Y! Sports Radio: Tom Crabtree on his memorable birthday]
• Dwight Freeney came into Sunday with only one sack in the five games he has played, mostly because of an ankle injury he suffered in the season opener against Chicago. On Sunday against the Dolphins, Freeney looked like his old self in the first half. He had a great spin move on Dolphins left tackle Jake Long that resulted in a sack of Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill also fumbled, although Long recovered and ran with it for a 2-yard gain. Later in the half, Freeney bull-rushed Long practically back into Tannehill and then finished his first half with a straight speed rush that beat both Long and running back Daniel Thomas (the two were obviously confused about who was supposed to pick up whom) for another big hit on Tannehill. This was vintage Freeney.
• On the flip side of the Dwight Freeney performance, Jake Long looked awful at times. That's not good as Long, who could be franchised, possibly heads into free agency. Long just doesn't look like the player who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four years. Long continuously was trying to give ground on certain plays or was getting overpowered at other times. In the second half, Long was bull-rushed by Colts outside linebacker Justin Hickman, an undrafted rookie out of UCLA. About the only thing that went well for Long is that a holding penalty on Miami's final offensive play was wiped out when the Dolphins came up short of the first down on a desperation fourth-down attempt.
• The brutal season for Buffalo and free agent defensive end Mario Williams continued when the Bills lost to Houston, 21-9. While Williams had one sack against his former team, he didn't get the revenge he was seeking after a bitter free-agent negotiation. Williams went to Buffalo after he said he was told repeatedly by the Houston coaching staff that the team would make an offer to keep him. That offer (or even a phone call from Houston general manager Rick Smith) never came and Williams leftt hoping to turnaround the Bills defense. Instead, Buffalo got run over for 374 yards in their latest loss.
• I've said it before, but it bears saying again after Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark's latest personal foul, this time on New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz: Clark is a dirty player. It's sad because Clark is a good person and a good player in so many ways, but this is getting beyond ridiculous. Clark wasn't attempting to make any play on the ball and was simply going for a shot at Cruz after the pass had already been broken up by Ike Taylor. Simply unacceptable.
• There are reasons that quarterbacks, particularly old ones, shouldn't attempt to tackle defensive players on interception returns. First, quarterbacks shouldn't risk the chance of getting injured. Second, quarterbacks simply have no idea about how to tackle. The second reason was evident Sunday when Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck had an interception returned 46 yards for a touchdown by Chicago's Brian Urlacher. While Urlacher wasn't running fast enough to be considered dangerous, Hasselbeck's attempt to go for Urlacher's legs was simply not very good, to be polite. At 37, Hasselbeck should have saved the energy.
• Seattle Seahawks veteran return man Leon Washington somehow thought it was a good idea to return a punt from two yards deep in his own end zone against the Minnesota Vikings. While the situation became negligible when Washington got the ball back out to the 20-yard line, it was really not a smart play. In essence, Washington put his own guys at risk on a play he had very little chance of turning into something really big. That's not playing smart.
• Jacksonville Jaguars rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, managed to score his first touchdown in Jacksonville's latest loss. But the score was an inconsequential catch with 50 seconds remaining in the game. Blackmon finished with five catches for 32 yards and has 23 catches for 225 yards for the season. That's a far cry from what the Jaguars were expecting from a guy who looked like the most complete receiver in the draft. Then again, there's a reason why some coaches and scouts were comparing Blackmon to talented fellow former Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant before the draft. The book on Blackmon, as with Bryant, is that he's a guy who lacks the focus needed to be great.
• Armed with a 20-17 lead and showing signs of life with a pair of interceptions against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, the Cincinnati defense went into serious regression in the fourth quarter. On back-to-back touchdown drives of 80 and 56 yards, Manning went six for six for 69 yards and two TD passes in Denver's comeback victory. The Bengals also committed a 29-yard pass interference call. The Bengals have now allowed 24 points or more in six of eight games. The only teams the Bengals have contained this season are Jacksonville and Miami. Not exactly résumé-worthy stuff.
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