Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stephen Neal: From the mat to the Super Bowl

Undersized Patriots Are Shedding Their Anonymity


January 31, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Offensive linemen are regarded as the most cerebral of players, charged with quickly sizing up a defense while also understanding the complex offensive playbook. But the Patriots’ linemen seem bent on a more colorful reputation. They have grown hockey-style playoff beards, giving them the look of overgrown members of ZZ Top. Light, the left tackle, wears his long hair in an unruly ponytail. Guard Stephen Neal sports a bushy Fu Manchu mustache. During the playoffs, they wore T-shirts that read: “The Bearded brothers: as hairy as they wanna be.”

Neal is a former N.C.A.A. champion wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield who did not even play college football. He landed with the Patriots only because he made a telephone call to the sports agent Neil Cornrich, who is a close friend of Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ coach. Neal has a wrestling move named for him, the Neal Double, which is a takedown in which one wrestler pulls the legs of another out from under him, taking him to the mat. When Neal arrived at the Patriots’ camp in 2001 as a defensive end, he was so raw that Belichick once said of him, “We’re starting from below scratch.”

Eventually, the Patriots decided that Neal could not recognize a trap block. But they did see that the skills that allowed him to flourish as a wrestler — balance and the ability to recover — were too good to give up on. So they switched him to offense, which did not make Neal happy at all.

“Then I found out I got to know the play and the snap count,” he said Wednesday.

Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots’ offensive line coach, spent extra time tutoring Neal, pounding into him that most wrestling techniques would draw a holding penalty in football. Neal said that learning what blocks to use with which play was like learning two foreign languages at once.

He missed the finale against the Giants, when the entire right side of the offensive line — Neal, right tackle Nick Kaczur and tight end Kyle Brady — was out. Not surprisingly, the Patriots averaged only 1.7 yards a carry that night.

If they have another night like that on Sunday, Light will have to work overtime on his part-time job: making everyone laugh in the huddle to keep them loose. It also falls to Light to keep Brady, who rewards the linemen with gifts that Neal was reluctant to divulge, grounded.

“I just take the magazine covers around and say, ‘I know this guy,’ ” Neal said. “Nobody believes me.”

Monday, January 28, 2008

Kampman to receive Red Smith Award

By Brad Zimanek

January 6, 2008

Green Bay Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman could have a busy week on the horizon.

Kampman will receive the Red Smith Award during the 43rd annual Red Smith Banquet on Jan. 15 in Appleton.

If the Packers win their NFC divisional playoff game, Kampman will also be preparing with his teammates for the NFC Championship game to be played Jan. 20.

"I looked at that," Kampman said. "It's quite an honor so, hopefully, we'll make it work if that happens."

At first, Kampman did not know exactly what the award meant.

"I have to be very honest with you, I didn't know very much about it," Kampman said. "As I've been filled in, I get more and more humbled by the fact that I've been selected for that award. It should be a very nice night and I've heard a lot of positive things about it."

The award is presented annually to the individual who has contributed or continues to contribute to sports either on or off the field throughout the state of Wisconsin.

Winners include former Packers greats Ray Nitschke (1981), Max McGee (1985), Paul Hornung (1987), Willie Davis (1990), Jerry Kramer (1993) and LeRoy Butler (2003) among others. Other state sports figures who have been honored include Andy North (1983), Don Nelson (1988), Robin Yount (1996), Paul Molitor (1999), Herb Kohler (2004) and Barry Alvarez (2006).

"It's a distinguished list," Kampman said.

Kampman's role in the community is nearly as extensive as his being named to back-to-back Pro Bowls as a player.

Last January, he and his wife, Linde, spent two weeks with the Gospel of Asia Christian ministry. He also previously traveled overseas with the Christian organization Unlimited Potential Incorporated. He has worked with the Packers' All-Pro Dad event in 2006 and volunteers extensively with the Green Bay Community Church youth group.

"I've done a lot of different things, speaking to different groups and just seeing what God is doing in different areas," Kampman said. "I enjoy speaking to kids. I have a degree in elementary education and just the opportunity to be an influence in people's lives, because regardless of what people think — right, wrong or indifferent — that's the responsibility you have."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mangino wins "Bear" Bryant Coach of the Year

January 17, 2008

Associated Press

Kansas coach Mark Mangino won the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award on Thursday as the college football coach of the year. "I'm honored to win Coach Bryant's award," said Mangino, who coached the Jayhawks to an 11-1 record and a win in the Orange Bowl. "It's a reflection on the people who made our program great, the players, the assistant coaches and others in the school.

"I'm the head coach but it takes a lot to have a successful program. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm smart enough to know you've got to get good people around you to win."

Mangino never met Bryant, but said, "when I was younger, I watched him on TV and I read everything I could read about him and tried to figure out what he did, how he did it to win all those games."

Mangino was also the AP's coach of the year and won the Eddie Robinson Award handed out by the Football Writers Association of America.

Kansas set school records for wins in a season and highest ranking, when Kansas was ranked No. 2 in the nation in November.

The Jayhawks were among the nation's top teams in scoring offense, total offense, scoring defense and total defense and led the nation in fewest penalties and turnover margin.

Mangino took the award over seven finalists including Les Miles, who coached LSU to the national championship, Missouri's Gary Pinkel and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech.

Michael Johnson a standout rookie

By Jarrett Bell

January 17, 2008

Michael Johnson, S, Arizona, seventh (224th): Logged five starts for injury-thinned secondary; showed blitz knack with pressure at Dallas.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tauscher flawless against Seattle

Packers seek more strong blocking vs. Giants

By Rob Demovsky

January 14, 2008

Even Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin wouldn’t sugarcoat the way his offensive line run blocked in the Packers' Week 2 win over the New York Giants.

What was one of the biggest question marks for most of the season turned into one of the dominant units in the 42-20 rout of the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in the NFC divisional playoff round.

Behind an offensive line that had been in flux at the guard positions all season, first-year running back Ryan Grant ran for a team playoff-record 201 yards and scored three touchdowns, even after fumbling twice on his first three touches against the Seahawks.

Highlighted by a near-flawless individual performance by right tackle Mark Tauscher, who essentially shut down Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney, it was perhaps the best collective performance by the Packers’ offensive line all season.

“I would say it was one of the best (performances) of the season,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “Definitely one of the best.”

With little or no help, Tauscher all but dominated Kerney. Much of the focus last week was on that matchup, especially after Kerney had a field day in the Seahawks’ wild-card win against Washington. Kerney had 14½ sacks in the regular season but never got close to Favre.

“I don’t know about perfect, but Mark played an exceptional game,” Philbin said. “There was a lot of hype, a lot of talk about the matchup he was up against, but Mark’s a professional, a consummate team guy, and I thought he did his job very well.”

For Tauscher and left tackle Chad Clifton, the assignment only gets tougher against the Giants, whose defensive end combination of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora combined for 22 sacks during the regular season. Neither got to Favre in the Packers’ 35-13 win at Giants Stadium on Sept. 16, but Strahan was just rounding into shape, because he skipped training camp while deciding whether to play this season. Tauscher likely will face Strahan, who typically plays the left defensive end spot.

“He consistently matches up well against the better defensive ends in the league,” Campen said of Tauscher. “To limit Kerney to no tackles, no sacks and no pressures – and Kerney’s a fine football player – for what we asked him to do schematically in that game, he did an outstanding job.

Tauscher dominates in Packers' playoff win

January 15, 2008

By Dave Begel

Here we go. One game left before going to the Super Bowl.

The Packers in Lambeau Field against the New York Giants.

Lots of not-so-random thoughts:

Although we don't want to spend too much time looking back at last week, it is impossible to praise Mark Tauscher enough. He took Patrick Kerney out of the game and maybe out of Lambeau Field. It was an unbelievable performance by a great pro. I can hardly wait until his weekly "Tuesdays with Tauscher" appearance with Homer this week.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mark Tauscher earns SI's Offensive Player of the Week

January 14, 2008

The Awards Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Green Bay T Mark Tauscher. Strange pick, given that Green Bay had a back rush for 201 yards on Saturday and Brett Favre played as good a bad-weather game as I've ever seen a quarterback play.

Here's why I picked Tauscher: The storyline going into the game centered around the quick Seattle defensive front seven because wild-card weekend had featured an indomitable performance by left end Patrick Kerney. And Kerney always had good success pass-rushing against Favre, with four career sacks of him.

On Saturday, matched man-on-man all day with Tauscher, Kerney's line was: zero tackles, zero assists, zero quarterback pressures. Obviously the weather was a huge help to Green Bay. "Torque and leverage are so important to a pass-rusher's speed,'' Holmgren had told me Friday. "They love a fast track.'' They didn't have one, certainly, but even in run plays Tauscher got low and had excellent leverage; on one of Grant's long runs, replays showed Tauscher burying Kerney.

Said Grant: "There were so many times I didn't get touched until the second level [the secondary]. Those guys up front did a phenomenal job.'' Particularly the right tackle.

Kampman makes SI's All-NFL team

January 14, 2008

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Three NC Sports Clients make AP All-Pro Team

January 9, 2008

Outside Linebackers
Mike Vrabel, New England.

Phil Dawson, Cleveland.

Aaron Kampman, Green Bay.

NC Sports clients Vrabel, Dawson make Pasquarelli's All-Pro Team

By Len Pasquarelli

January 4, 2008

Outside linebacker

Mike Vrabel (New England): The offseason acquisition of Adalius Thomas allowed Vrabel to move back outside where he is more effective, and he responded with a Pro Bowl year. Vrabel played the run tough, as usual, but he also had a career-best 12 ½ sacks. He is the hybrid-type edge defender whom Belichick defenses traditionally have featured, but he is a heck of a player with great instincts. And, for good measure, he is a solid part-time tight end in red zone situations.


Phil Dawson (Cleveland): There were kickers with more points, a few with better field goal conversion rates and many with more touchbacks. But the Browns' nine-year veteran missed only four of 30 field goal tries all season and made some huge kicks under adverse weather conditions.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

My Favorite Player on the Bills: Donte Whitner

Reported by: Mike Catalana

January 7, 2008

S Donte Whitner. My favorite player on the Bills. I have very high hopes for Whitner. This weekend watch Bob Sanders of the Colts. That is the type of impact player that Whitner can be. He has made great strides in two years on the field. I think he can be in the Pro Bowl next year (a few more interceptions would help). For the Bills to be a playoff team, Whitner needs to become a superstar.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Pierre Woods a standout on special teams

Special players

By Mike Reiss, Globe Staff

January 3, 2008

Second-year player Pierre Woods has yet to earn extended playing time at outside linebacker, but he's carved out a niche on special teams. His 22 tackles on coverage units led the club this year.

In playing all 16 games, Woods was flagged for just one penalty, an illegal man downfield infraction against the Ravens Dec. 3.

"I'm just trying to work and keep showing progress so I'm not regressing," Woods said in the final weeks of the regular season. "You just try to take the coaching, be coachable, and hold yourself accountable."

Friday, January 04, 2008

USA Today recognizes O’Brien’s graduation rates

January 2, 2008

When the NCAA released its annual report on graduation rates for college athletes in October, President Myles Brand proclaimed that "in the athletic culture, the idea of academic performance is taking hold." He couldn't have been thinking of the universities profiting so handsomely from the current lineup of bowl games.

As usually is the case in college football, most of the teams that are doing best on the field aren't exactly shining in the classroom.

A handful of schools have proved that needn't be the case. Michigan and Penn State, huge state schools that are not exactly slouches on the field, graduate better than 70% of their players.

Boston College, which was ranked second in the nation in October and lost the Atlantic Coast Conference championship to Virginia Tech, had a graduation rate of 93% for football players and 90% for African-American players. Former coach Tom O'Brien, who coached BC for a decade, was known as a disciplinarian who emphasized education, even talking up the graduation rate when wooing recruits.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

NC Sports Clients Vrabel and Dawson Named to Peter King’s All-Pro Team

I think, as a sort of Fairness in Voting deal, I am going to list my ballot for the annual All-Pro Team that the Associated Press has 50 members do each year. The AP recommends we vote for a left and right tackle, strong and free safety, et cetera. My team, with comments where appropriate:

OLB: Mike Vrabel, New England. One of the best free-agent signings ever.

K: Phil Dawson, Cleveland. This year's Vinatieri.

Bo Pelini is a superstar

Big Ten has the Bucks, but SEC coaches pull in the big bucks

December 31, 2007

Doug Lesmerises

Columbus -- As Ohio State's defensive coordinator, Jim Heacock leads the No. 1 defense in the country. As LSU's defensive coordinator, Bo Pelini leads the No. 2 defense in the country.

Heacock won the Broyles Award this year as the nation's top assistant college football coach. Pelini won an even greater reward -- he will leave after the BCS National Championship game to coach Nebraska.

What will separate them when the Buckeyes and the Tigers meet in the New Orleans Superdome in a week? How about $161,000 in base salary.

Pelini made $400,000 in base salary this season as part of a package that a source said pushed him over the $500,000 mark. Heacock made $239,000 and earned an extra month's bonus, worth about $20,000, for OSU's Big Ten title and another for the Buckeyes' bowl appearance.

"Bo is a superstar," said his agent, Neil Cornrich of Beachwood-based NC Sports, who represents many top head coaches and assistants. "You look at where he's gone and what he's done, it's unbelievable."

After sliding to college from the NFL, Pelini succeeded at Nebraska in 2003, winning a bowl game as interim coach when Frank Solich was fired. Moving on, he reached the national title game as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma the next year, then was hired by LSU. He is compensated as a hot commodity.

Vrabel as a replacement for Brady?

December 30, 2007

By Jim Donaldson

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- "Mike Vrabel is a guy who I'm not surprised by anything he's able to do."

So said Richard Seymour, after Vrabel put the finishing touch on the Patriots' perfect season by cleanly catching Lawrence Tynes' onside kick at the New York 41 with just over a minute remaining, preserving New England's historic, come-from-behind, 38-35 victory.

The players sent on to the field when an onside kick is expected are known as the "Hands" team. And, if you're surprised that a linebacker would be on it, well, you haven't been watching Vrabel in his seven seasons with the Patriots.

Vrabel has a great pair of hands, as he's demonstrated time after time playing tight end in goal-line situations.

He has caught 10 passes for the Patriots over the years, and all of them have been for touchdowns. Two of them have come this season, and two others were in Super Bowls -- one against Carolina, the other against Philadelphia. He once had two TD catches in one game -- against the Jets in 2005.

But it's on defense that he primarily earns his paycheck. He leads the team this year with a career-high 11 1/2 sacks. Although he doesn't have an interception this year, he has had 10 since coming to New England from Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2001.

"He's a football player," Seymour said. "He makes a lot of plays. If Tom Brady were to do down, he could probably step in and play quarterback."

He also has 10 career interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

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