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Monday Night Football returns to center stage (for a week)

By Brent Musburger  (VSiN managing editor) 

September 29, 2017 10:44 AM
Andrew Luck's injured status--along with Seattle's lackluster start--is going to make for a less than marquee matchup on Sunday Night Football.
© USA Today Sports Images

LAS VEGAS — Where is Howard Cosell when we really need him?


It used to be in the long-ago days that the Monday Night Football game on ABC was must-see TV. The schedule was written to make those matchups superb. But that is the distant past.


The best matchups now generally fall to NBC’s Sunday Night Football. However, this week the shoulder injury to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the failure of the Seahawks’ banged-up offensive line makes for a mediocre matchup between Indianapolis and Seattle.

So back to the future we go as the best game this week winds up on ESPN Monday night. The 3-0 Chiefs are giving 6 points at home to the 2-1 Redskins, with the total 49½.


Neither Alex Smith nor Kirk Cousins captures the public’s imagination. They have had to get used to being criticized almost every week of their careers. But this year they are both in the top five of the NFL’s passer ratings. The big reason Smith is number one is that he has not thrown an interception in 84 attempts this season. That is impressive.


Cousins is No. 5 with only one interception in 97 attempts, but his story goes deep into the past – even before Monday Night Football.


My friend and former Eagles and Rams coach Dick Vermeil told me that he always looked at two key stats involving quarterbacks – yards per attempt and completion percentage, especially the first one. With the Rams’ Jared Goff leading the league with 10.1 yards per attempt, Smith (9.2) is fourth and Cousins sixth (8.1). In terms of completion percentage Smith (77.4) is at the top with Cousins (68.0) sitting eighth.


So how is it that coach Vermeil came to rely on these particular numbers? A stats guru by the name of Bud Goode convinced him back in 1969, when Dick was the NFL’s first special-teams coach working for the Los Angeles Rams under George Allen.


Back in those days I got to know the Allen family, including the little boy who used to run around with his dad. You know him now as Bruce Allen, president of the Washington Redskins. The same Washington Redskins that have Kirk Cousins running the offense.


And running the offense – being a leader – is critical. Former Giants coach Jim Fassel, who lives in Henderson near our VSiN studio, dropped by this week. He got his job being a quarterback guru, and he told me about how he recruited Kerry Collins, whose drinking trouble had most of the NFL staying away from him.


“I set him up,” Jim said. “I told him, ‘Do not, do not, do not come in here and make excuses.’ I gave him every opportunity to blame somebody else. And he didn’t blame anybody but himself. That’s when I said we’ve got ourselves a quarterback.”


That was in 1999. A year later Collins was the unquestioned leader in the locker room, and he and Fassel got the Giants to the Super Bowl.


Now Cousins and Smith are in position to lead their locker rooms – and get their teams into the playoffs. Don’t take my word for it; an opinion is like a you-know-what, and everybody has one. Look beyond the opinions at the statistics. There are not too many preseason opinions that said Cousins and Smith would be top-five performers three weeks into the season.


By the way, look at the bottom of the passer ratings. We can understand DeShone Kizer being last, because he is a rookie. But look at the names that are barely above his. Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton (that shoulder is just not right), Brian Hoyer and Carson Palmer. Of the bottom six only Dalton won money for bettors last week. The numbers just don’t lie.


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If you have any affection for the game of baseball, you understand why next week marks the beginning of baseball’s Octoberfeast – yes, with an “a.”


For the second year in a row there is a favorite trying to end a historically long drought. This time it is the Cleveland Indians – at 69 years and counting.


From a business standpoint the folks at Major League Baseball headquarters have reason to be excited. Six of the top 10 TV markets have teams in the playoffs. The other four come from top-20 markets. Look at the list from Nielsen:


 1. New York – Yankees

 2. Los Angeles – Dodgers

 3. Chicago – Cubs

 7. Washington – Nationals

 8. Houston – Astros

 9. Boston – Red Sox

12. Phoenix – Diamondbacks

15. Minneapolis-St. Paul – Twins

17. Denver – Rockies

19. Cleveland-Akron – Indians


If baseball is to promote itself on the biggest stages it has had in years, October is the month to shine.


Because of the Dodgers’ September swoon, the Cleveland Indians are everybody’s favorite right now, even though they probably will not have the American League’s MVP. Houston’s José Altuve has been a steady favorite with Mike Trout and Aaron Judge making late pushes.


So what about José Ramírez? He is in the top five in batting average and WAR, but since Francisco Lindor in the same clubhouse he may not even win the vote on his own team. No Cleveland player has been an MVP since Al Rosen in 1953. That was when the Indians’ championship drought was only five seasons old.


As we look at betting the postseason, the fun comes in trying to guess managers’ pitching strategies. Like in Boston and Washington, where they big question is who comes after Sale? And what comes Scherzer and Strasburg? Left-handers will provide the answers.


In the case of the Red Sox it looks more and more like David Price will not be facing questions about his poor record as an October starter, because John Farrell is leaning toward bringing him out of the bullpen. That means the Game 2 starter against Houston may be Drew Pomeranz, who is having a career year in his first full season at Fenway. But Sox fans have not forgotten that he came in as a reliever and gave up the home run to Coco Crisp that punctuated Cleveland’s sweep of a division series last fall.


As for Dusty Baker, he figures to go with Gio González when the Nationals venture into Wrigley Field for Game 3 against the Cubs. With a career-low ERA González is having his best year since he won 21 games in 2012. But there has been a time or two this year that the old Gio – the one who would throw 100 pitches before the game was decided – has resurfaced. He has made four playoff starts in his career and has not gotten a decision in any of them.


In these short, five-game series, there is little room for error, and a lot of space for relievers to make their mark. Which brings us back to the Dodgers. If they have the lead going into the ninth inning, then it does not get much better than Kenley Jansen.


However, based on the past month, the problem is getting in position to take advantage of Jansen. Now that Yasiel Puig is back in Dave Roberts’s doghouse, there is plenty to worry about in L.A. – and in Las Vegas if bettors keep pounding the Dodgers in October the way they have all season.

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