Saturday, January 20, 2007

Rookie Impacts

In a year in which the Texans have the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year (DeMeco Ryans) and it’s not their first overall pick, its not surprising that this weekend’s final four all have one thing in common: rookies have played an integral part in their success. In the NFL it’s certainly been the year of the rookie, five of which will still be playing and likely making significant contributions on Sunday.

Of the four finalists, the NFC Championship game features the two teams that have perhaps benefited most from their rookies.

The 13-3 Bears won games because of their stellar defense, a unit that often had to compensate for the much-publicized struggles of Rex Grossman, and because of Devin Hester. He won two games on his own (Arizona, St. Louis) and sparked the comeback against the Giants with his record setting 108-yard field goal return. His effect on games has evolved to the point that last week the Seahawks squib-kicked almost all of their kickoffs, forfeiting the 30 yard line instead of tempting Hester with the end zone.

As for the Saints, Sean Payton has been able to construct the most eclectic offensive schemes in the NFL in large part because of the diverse talents of Reggie Bush and Marques Colston. Colston, at first just a complement to Joe Horn and Devery Henderson (how much could be expected from a 7th-rounder?), has emerged as the Saints best receiver. Bush’s gifts (speed, patience, vision, unbelievable cutting ability) are well documented and after a slow start he’s now consistently showing flashes of the brilliance we all saw at USC and on the YouTube high school highlight tape. But what has made him particularly valuable is that his skill set is such a perfect accompaniment to what Deuce McAllister can do. Payton has exploited these complementary parts to create innovative and oft-changing offensive sets, often playing the two backs simultaneously, sometimes both in the backfield, other times with Bush split wide.

While the Pats and Colts have relied less on their respective rookies, the AFC game has a second layer of rookie-focus within it beyond a personal measured impact.

The widely held belief is that back in April the Colts had targeted Laurence Maroney with their first round pick, only to watch the Pats trade up and snag him, and then had to settle for Joseph Addai. Addai has been no slouch (1,081 yards, a 4.8 avg., and 8 TDs), but the glut of first-year awesomeness and the year long disrespect of the Indy running game has left Addai and his rookie-leading rushing yards in the shadows of Vince Young, Maurice Jones-Drew, and even Maroney.

So what about Maroney? Has he just been coasting on reputation and plays that make Sportcenter more often than Addai’s? He’s played fewer games than any of these guys, missing two due to a back injury, but his impact can’t be understated. In a year in which the Pats offense had a sudden dearth of offensive weapons and lacked a home-run threat, Maroney was just that. It isn’t that he just took the pressure and additional pounding off of Dillon, but he also added that extra kick of power and speed too.

None of these guys will win Offensive Rookie of the Year, because that will probably go to Vince Young, as the QB position will likely be the trump card. Even without Young, the above five candidates would have plenty of competition from the deepest rookie class in recent memory: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Marcus McNeill, Jones-Drew, Leinart.

But one of these standouts will get themselves a Super Bowl ring. So let’s think of things within that context, how these rookies will impact Sunday’s games.

At the pace Bush and Hester have been going I’m expecting one “wow!” play from each. Bush now understands when he can afford to dance around and when to run straight ahead. Hester hasn’t had a TD in more than a month and had one called back last week. It feels like he’s due. Of course both of these things can be mitigated respectively by the Chicago defense (since Bush turned the corner only Washington’s D has stopped him) and Hester’s penchant for nervous muffs (how come no one mentions this?).

The best thing about this match-up is that it’s strength vs. strength, the Saints’ O vs. Bears’ D, and while Bush and Colston are part of their team’s strength, Hester can be the tie-breaker. Do I have a little hometown bias? Yes. In the end, it’s too tough to pick against the Bears at home in the winter time, global warming or not.

The rooks in the AFC game are a smaller part of the big picture, only because of the recent playoff history between these two teams. But it could still be a showcase to confirm or disconfirm popular perception about the two backs. Both the game and the RB battle will come down to this question: Have the Colts actually been stopping the run or have they been playing against inept offenses? For all of the attention focused on Manning and Brady, their performances will be a function of the successes or failures of their respective team’s rushing attack.

The return of Bob Sanders from a knee injury has widely been touted as the key to Indianapolis’ defensive surge. However, he was in Foxboro on November 5th making 11 tackles. In that regular season meeting Addai stumbled to a 2.4 avg. compared to Maroney’s 4.8. The Colts ran for 53 yards to the Patriots’ 148. Once you discount the Sanders factor, there’s little reason to expect a difference this time around.

The Pats lost that game because of Brady’s four interceptions. Brady has never had more than two 3+ interception games in one season (playoffs included). That second game came last week against the Chargers. I’m taking Maroney over Addai, Brady over Manning, and a rematch of Super Bowl XX.

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