Phil Sheridan: A script that's perfect for prime time

Posted: November 21, 2010

The guiding principle of his revolutionary, aggressive defense was to "find out who the second-string quarterback was," Buddy Ryan once said.

In those days, Ryan made no bones about trying to break bones. The 46 defense was created to confuse and fluster and pressure quarterbacks. Its architect considered injuring the starting QB a legitimate strategy, a way to win the game.

Things are just a little different now. The NFL has been on a crusade against big hits all season. If a player so much as taps a quarterback's helmet, as Trent Cole did to Peyton Manning two weeks ago, there's more yellow on the field than in a Van Gogh landscape.

The league is so polite and dainty now, the commissioner's office felt the need to "investigate" allegations that Washington players spit on Eagles center Mike McGlynn and taunted DeSean Jackson about knocking him out with another concussion. It was like an episode of CSI: Landover.

In this atmosphere, the New York Giants' defense has managed to knock five quarterbacks out in the first nine games of this otherwise genteel season. Sunday night, that defense will be lined up across from a man who just delivered one of the most dominating performances by any quarterback in league history. Michael Vick vs. the No. 1 defense, statistically and in sheer nastiness, in prime time?

The guys writing the scripts for Roger Goodell will have a tough time topping this one.

It is tempting to suggest that the Giants won't play with the same apparent lack of enthusiasm or passion as Washington did Monday night. If you've seen the widely circulated video clip of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth lying facedown, visibly unmotivated to pursue Vick anymore, you know what we're talking about.

"To you it looked like we played with ease," Vick said in response to a reporter's question last week. "But this game is tough. Nothing comes easy. It's not going to be easy against New York. It wasn't easy against Washington. It may have looked easy, but it wasn't."

What's missing is the role Vick and the rest of the Eagles' offense played in draining that enthusiasm and passion from their opponents. Just a few minutes after boisterous players started shoving and trash-talking during warm-ups, Vick fired that rocket for an 88-yard touchdown to Jackson. Then the touchdowns just kept coming.

"I couldn't wait for the game to be over," Haynesworth acknowledged afterward.

There is a danger in reading too much into any one game, however. As Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan pointed out, sometimes games get out of control for whatever combination of reasons. Both coaches have been on both sides of the snowball rolling downhill. There can be some carryover - the Eagles' confidence almost couldn't be higher right now - but it takes only a play or two for momentum to shift dramatically.

And there is no play more likely to accomplish that than one involving a hit to the quarterback. It was Ryan's guiding principle a generation ago, and it remains a less openly discussed fact of life today.

"Buddy Ryan said it best," said Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator for the champion New Orleans Saints and a Ryan disciple. "It's hard for a quarterback to throw with tears in his eyes."

In their season opener, the Giants sent Carolina quarterback Matt Moore to the hospital with a concussion. They sacked Bears QB Jay Cutler nine times - in the first half alone - and knocked him out with a concussion. Cutler's backup, Todd Collins left the game with a neck stinger.

It was the Giants who broke Tony Romo's clavicle, the Giants who broke Detroit QB Shaun Hill's left arm.

A little research revealed no postgame claims, by players or the media, that any of these were dirty hits. They all came within the flow of the game, on legitimate defensive plays, as the Giants amassed 24 sacks in their first seven games.

"I don't know if maybe as much is being said about that as it was a few weeks ago," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

That's because the Giants still have 24 sacks after nine games. They never did get to Cowboys QB Jon Kitna (although it's probably not a bad strategy for a defense to try to keep Kitna in the game) in a 33-20 loss last Sunday. That stunner dropped the Giants from their perch as hottest team in the NFC.

The Eagles, thanks to Vick and that vulgar display of scoring, replaced them, at least in the eyes of many experts. To get back on top, the Giants will have to find a way to get to Vick and to hit him.

It all makes for an especially fascinating NFC East grudge match. It's precisely the kind of game Buddy Ryan loved most.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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