In that race, Plaschke's Law obviously is still applicable. A recent ABC News program reflected the Eastern U.S. bias in the Heisman voting that Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote about last week.
On the same New York-based broadcast, two ABC analysts mentioned in passing Palmer's four touchdown passes that day. But the player they promoted for Heisman recognition wasn't Palmer but the Penn State guy. After Penn State beat Rutgers. To most Easterners, the West is another planet.
Must See: Pennington vs. Gannon
IN THE WEST, sports fans are more likely to look at the whole country. For one thing, they know who quarterback Chad Pennington is. They've had him in their e-mail sights since Pennington came out of nowhere in early November to rescue the New York Jets as Vinny Testaverde's replacement. And they know he'll be in Oakland Monday night to duel Raider quarterback Rich Gannon. Old vs. new. Their teams have both come off losing streaks to launch November winning streaks. At 37, Gannon, like George Blanda before him, is now throwing and winning with his head, and doing it sensationally.
At 26, Pennington seems to be proving, also sensationally, that the Jets guessed right when they named him in the first round of the 2000 draft. He's also proving that you can rise to stardom in New York from Marshall, which plays in the Mid-American Conference. This year, there are two or three more promising quarterbacks in that conference, among them Byron Leftwich of Marshall and Ben Roethlisberger of Miami of Ohio. What's happening around the country is that high school coaches now are producing more good quarterbacks than the I-A conferences can handle. What's happening in New York is that Pennington is teaming with runner Curtis Martin to give the Jets the two-way threat needed to win pro games. Trouble is, Oakland has that too.
Luck of the Schedule: It's Big
OF ALL THE Super Bowl contenders, the Jets have the toughest remaining schedule. Their 31-13 conquest of Buffalo in Week 12 was their fourth straight in a run that included a win over Miami; but even if Pennington and Martin stay hot, they could spend the rest of the year as underdogs with only one possible breather, and that's on the road, against the Chicago Bears.
Otherwise for the Jets, it's Oakland, Denver, New England and Green Bay. Thus in this season of parity, the key question is getting to be, Whom do you play when?
The San Diego Chargers, to name one unlucky team, ran into Miami quarterback Ray Lucas in Week 12 after Lucas, a reliever for injured Jay Fiedler, had recovered from a series of starts so ragged that he couldn't even stand to look at the tapes of himself. With the Chargers in town, Lucas suddently became a 194-yard passer, which made Ricky Williams a 143-yard rusher and San Diego a 30-3 loser.
The luck of the schedule--whom do you play when?--also punished the Rams in Week 12. They bumped into the Washington Redskins on the very day that Steve Spurrier, Washington's famous new passing coach, finally learned that you also have to run the ball to win NFL games.
Spurrier overdid it, running Stephen Davis 31 times (while calling only 23 passes), but that's another story. The Week 12 story is that St. Louis was still defending against Spurrier's usual passing game while he was running the ball to win, 20-17, ending the Rams' five-game winning streak, and smashing their playoff hopes.
Warner or Bulger Next Season?
THE REDSKIN GAME also settled the long-term quarterback question for the Rams: In the salary-cap era, which of their two multimillion-dollar passers should they keep next year: Kurt Warner or Marc Bulger? The answer now, surely, is, "Not Warner."
As great as Warner is--coming back from injury Sunday, he completed his first 15 passes--Bulger is similarly accurate as a passer and more mobile. And in these times when mobility is increasingly required of an NFL passer, it's a big difference. Though Bulger isn't a sprinter, either, he moves well in a collapsing pocket. Warner doesn't.
As the Rams' last play Sunday illustrated, Warner, with 17 seconds left, can be sacked on an opponent's six-yard line when his team is losing by only three points with the tying field goal imminent.
The call by Ram Coach Mike Martz was, contrary to his own statement, a good one. To rely on an overtime coin toss would have been chancy against Davis and Spurrier's wise old quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, who can't throw much, but who does throw straight.
In such a crisis, Martz had every reason to expect a two-time NFL MVP to take one look at his A receiver in the end zone, whoever that was, and throw him the ball or throw it away, leaving plenty of time for a kick. Instead, like a rookie quarterback hoping to make something happen, Warner stood there until the game was lost.
The next crisis for Martz is whether to use Bulger, either as starter or in relief, before his bad finger completely heals. The danger is that Bulger will be permanently damaged if he plays prematurely. A ligament injury can do that.
Martz Minus Three Best Players
FOR THE RAMS, this is now a season that apparently can't be saved. Although next year could be wonderful for Martz, Bulger and the Rams, they have been done in this season by too many serious injuries.
The Rams went into Washington last week minus their three best players--Bulger, running back Marshall Faulk and cornerback Aeneas Williams--and they will most likely be without all three again in Philadelphia Sunday.
Although, as the coaches say, all teams have injuries, these are three particularly hard losses for Martz. Faulk and Williams are the heart and soul of their respective units. And Bulger's injury denied the Rams any thought of him entering in a relief role to continue the winning ways that led them back to 5-5 after an 0-5 start.
The Rams did have their MVP quarterback in Washington. But after his long injury layoff, Warner wasn't as sharp as he wanted to be.
In next Sunday's game, the Eagles will also again be without their great player, quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was a candidate for NFL MVP when he went down two weeks ago. The Eagles, though, don't have much to beat in the NFC East. In a 16-14 game last Sunday, the New York Giants (Philadelphia's foremost rival) couldn't even get past the expansion Houston Texans.
Vick Belongs on National Television
FOR MICHAEL VICK, the Atlanta quarterback who is showing the football world that there's a new way to play the NFL game, the next challenge will come Sunday in Minneapolis. Though the Vikings can't win for losing on the road, they're tough indoors at home, where, when Vick has the ball, the noise level will be more than he ever dreamed of.
Which is a reminder that it's about time for the Fox network to show the country what Vick is. On Sundays in Los Angeles, the Channel 11 people keep putting on the same old teams, which usually isn't a bad idea. But it would be a better idea to occasionally present Vick to those viewers who still rely on network TV.
Speaking as a jury of one, I've never seen a football player who could do what Vick does routinely--throw long and straight if that's open or sprint like a running back if a run is preferable.
Even so, escapability is probably Vick's long suit. In a pocket-passing situation, he's so fast and quick that, if he puts his mind to it, he might never be sacked or hit. His option to escape a hit--by darting out of bounds on a run, or sprinting out of danger when the pocket breaks down--will always be there once he learns to take it.
What Vick does is hard to imagine because nobody else has ever done it.
Five Guesses on Week 13's Big Games
Denver to win by three points at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. It's not true that the Chargers are slumping. This is just another in a series of hard-to-win games.
St. Louis by three at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Eagles were playing erratically even before they lost McNabb.
San Francisco by two at Candlestick's 3Com Park over Seattle. Is this three losers for me with two to go? Is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck the Seattle answer after all?
Tampa Bay by five at the Louisiana Superdome over New Orleans. The Saints have the talent to give me four for four.
Oakland by a touchdown on Monday night at Network Associates Coliseum over the New York Jets. It won't be easy for the Jets' Pennington to pass this test.