Archive for December, 2010

‘Rudy’ In Disguise: Rams’ Danario Alexander NFL’s feel-good story of year

Imagine if “Rudy” Ruettiger had actually been an outstanding athlete at Notre Dame, but blew out a knee after his senior year. Now imagine Rudy as an undrafted practice-squad project for an NFL team. Any doubt how it would end? Meet Danario Alexander, a feel-good story with Hollywood potential.

Alexander, a talented rookie wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, went undrafted out of Missouri after injuring his left knee practicing for last year’s Senior Bowl. But he showed he still has legs on Sunday. Alexander had his breakout game for the Rams against the San Francisco 49ers when it mattered most – at home with a playoff berth at stake. He caught six passes from Sam Bradford for 99 yards, including three key first-down receptions – one a sensational 46-yarder to the 49ers’ 3-yard-line that set up the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter (photo to right).

Don’t be surprised if a lot more people are talking about “D.X.” after this Sunday night’s NFC West winner-take-all finale at Seattle. Why?  Everyone but the Rams gave up on Alexander, and that’s when Danario became the next Rudy.

My interest in Alexander’s story began September 2009, early in his senior season. I had attended Mizzou (School of Journalism) and later covered college and pro football for years, so I went to see the Tigers play against Nevada in Reno. It wasn’t a gimme-game for Mizzou. The Wolfpack played them tough (the nation saw the quality of the program this season in their upset of Boise State). The Tigers needed some big plays to escape with a win, and Alexander was the difference. He had nine receptions for 170 yards and two touchdowns – one a 72-yarder.  

After watching him play, I came away convinced Alexander had all the ingredients to be a top-tier pro player. First, he has good height (6-foot-5) for a receiver, an important advantage against cornerbacks in the NFL, especially on red-zone fade routes. He also had good speed even for the NFL – a much faster game than college. And coaches loved his work ethic. I also saw two other strong qualities – he caught the ball with his hands instead of body and was willing to block downfield for teammates. He simply was a complete player. The result:

  • As a senior, Alexander led the nation in receiving with 1,781 yards – averaging 15.8 yards per catch and 137 yards per game. He finished with 113 receptions and 14 touchdowns, shattering most Missouri receiving records along the way.
  • He was named a 2009 first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated among many other awards.
  • He was picked to the Senior Bowl roster, but in practice the week before the all-star game he suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury. That’s when Alexander showed he had more than great skills, but also great heart.

Alexander had surgery on the knee in February 2010, leaving him unable to work out for pro scouts at the NFL Combine or his pro day at Mizzou. Because of that, no team was willing to risk a draft pick on him. However, the Rams signed him to a free-agent contract on Aug. 22 – after the first two exhibition games. Three weeks later they cut him from the active roster, but then signed him to their practice squad.

 At the time, St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney said the team was taking on Alexander as a long-term project, not rushing his progress on the chance the long-term payoff would be worth it. While on the practice squad, he worked hard to strengthen his knee. After five surgeries, the lingering problem became muscle atrophy around his left knee – raising fears he would re-injure himself compensating. Some folks even suggested he take a year off.

“He’s moving around well, we just want to make sure that you don’t put him in a position where he’s going to injure something else,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October.

However, Alexander’s determination and the team’s playoff hunt have accelerated his progress. Measurements in October showed the left leg had caught up, and he was looking better each week on the field. When starter Mark Clayton went down with an injury, the Rams finally signed Alexander to their active roster on Oct. 11. The results: Alexander has been a major factor in three of the Rams’ victories:

  • In Alexander’s first pro game, his 38-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Sam Bradford helped the Rams beat San Diego, 20-17. He had four catches for 72 yards.
  • Against Denver, he had four catches for 95 yards – including a 45-yard reception that led to a touchdown.
  • In Sunday’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers, he had his best pro game when the stakes were highest. Using a four-receiver formation, the Rams were able to match Alexander in the slot against much shorter defenders – and took advantage. His leaping 46-yard reception was the difference.

“It was an awesome catch by Danario,” Bradford told Yahoo! Sports. “I think he always has great body position, seems like he can adjust to the ball wherever it’s thrown. He just keeps himself in good position and ends up getting the ball somehow.”

Though Alexander still looks stiff running routes compared with his college days, he loosened up as the game progressed and was able to get separation from defenders.  The league is paying attention as the playoffs near. By beating the 49ers last week, the Rams put themselves in position to win the NFC West with a victory at Seattle. Don’t be surprised if No. 84 is a big part of the game plan on Sunday. And don’t be surprised if a lot of people are talking about him on Monday. This undrafted rookie could help the Rams make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season – after going 1-15 last year.

 That’s when everyone will learn Danario Alexander is Rudy in disguise.

PS: An interesting side story involves Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who told Spagnuolo in early December he thought Alexander deserved more playing time. “He said, ‘put in some plays for Danario,’ ” Spagnuolo told the Post-Dispatch. “They’re going in now. They’re definitely going in. He’s got a lot of pull.” Alexander responded by pulling in passes.

 New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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When men were barred from women’s locker rooms

Should women reporters be allowed access to men’s locker rooms? My opinion hasn’t changed since a personal brush with gender bias as a man in a woman’s locker room 30 years ago. Simply put, players have a right to privacy until they let even one reporter of either gender in the room.

When purposely sexy reporter Ines Sainz of Mexico’s TV Azteca got more attention than she (or we) wanted from the New York Jets in September, the righteous indignation over women in locker rooms felt dated and clichéd. For me, the position was clarified in the winter of 1979-80. Weeks after watching male reporters berate a female colleague outside the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room, I was the butt of gender bias myself while covering a woman’s basketball game.  I saw the issue from both sides first-hand, and it left an impression.

As assistant sports editor of the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times in 1979, part of my job was covering Vikings home games. During that season, I collaborated on stories for the Gannett News Service with Michele Himmelberg, a terrific journalist who was covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press. The paper threatened a lawsuit to gain her equal access to the team’s locker room that season. When she went on the road, other teams were forced to change long-standing policies. That included the Vikings.

The Bucs came to Minneapolis late in the season, and Michele’s presence rankled some long-time Viking beat writers. In a hallway after the game, words became heated, and one arrogant ex-jock radio reporter got in her face. She didn’t back down. Several of us stepped to her defense – then, and later in print.

After the excitement of Michele’s visit, I soon returned to the less glamorous chores of a mid-size paper. That included covering St. Cloud State University, which was hosting an exhibition with a team from the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL). They were barnstorming the upper plains states, and I decided to attend.

To be honest, I was most interested in an appearance by the league’s poster-child, “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, a Midwest legend from Iowa. First, Molly was drop-dead gorgeous and I was a young male reporter. Hello? Second, her stats were hard-to-believe gaudy:

  • Molly’s first game as a junior in high school in Iowa, she scored 63 points on her 16th birthday.
  • She averaged 50.4 points per game as a junior and 54.8 per game as a senior.
  • Molly scored over 70 points in a 32-minute game five times and set a single game scoring record of 83 points.
  • She was the first player signed to a contract in the WPBL, which was launched in 1978 but only survived for three seasons.
  • Molly was the WPBL’s co-most valuable player in 1980, averaged almost 25 ppg as a pro, and was a fierce competitor who had a knack of playing big in all-star and playoff games. (I couldn’t begin to do justice to all her achievements here.)

Most important, Molly was tireless in promoting women’s basketball, which brought her to St. Cloud and my world. I remember the game vividly. Though Molly was attractive, her skills quickly overshadowed everything and everyone else.

I’ve seen some great players live – Bird, Magic, Jordan, etc – but I’ve never seen a display of pure shooting like I saw that night. I don’t remember her stats, only that she absolutely dominated. She’d steal inbound passes, dribble through a crowd and then smoothly drain a shot from 20 feet. Actually, she hit from everywhere on the court and almost never missed. I came out a believer and was hugely looking forward to interviewing her.

After the game, I watched Molly chit-chat with fans and autograph programs. Then she moved toward the locker room with a group of reporters. As I hustled to catch up, I realized I was the only male in the group. They all went into the women’s locker room, the door closed, and Hilga The Locker Room Nazi assured me this was as far as I was going.

I decided to roll with it, figuring they’d come out soon. They didn’t. Almost an hour later they emerged in a group, laughing and hugging as they walked toward the bus. Not wanting to be completely shut out, I hustled my way up to Molly and got a couple of cookie-cutter quotes before she left. Obviously anything personal, unique, or in the emotion of the moment was said in the locker room. And I was the only one not allowed in.

Now I had seen it from both sides. I was indignant when a football team barred a competent and experienced female colleague. I also was indignant when I had to sit outside a Minnesota college gym on a winter night simply because of my gender. These days, I’m just indignant we’re still debating it.

I understand athletes sometimes need space after laying it all out in public competition. I hated talking with anybody right after a tough loss as a wrestler. And I get that the pressure increases with the stakes. In addition, common sense says privacy trumps access concerns in a bathing and dressing area every time.

However, once you allow a reporter of either gender in that area, you’ve now declared it a working interview room instead of a bathroom. Exclusion then becomes an access issue, not a privacy question.

It’s true whether you’re an insanely sexy Latina reporter covering a football team, or an incredibly handsome young newspaper reporter covering a basketball goddess.

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: I crossed paths with Michele again a few years later at The Sacramento Bee, which filed a lawsuit to win her equal access to the 49ers’ locker room. By then I had moved from sympathizer to advocate. Blame it on Machine Gun Molly.

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Here come the NFL’s Young Guns II

In 1983, an influx of new quarterback talent in the National Football League helped to revitalize some key franchises – including Denver under John Elway, Miami under Dan Marino, and Buffalo under Jim Kelly. Most important, the Quarterback Class of ‘83 added new glamour boys playing a highly visible position.

Don’t look now, but it’s happening again. And I love it. Combining the past two NFL drafts, five quarterbacks were taken in the first round – including the last two overall #1 picks, Matthew Stafford from Georgia (Lions) and Sam Bradford from Oklahoma (Rams).  But several QBs picked in lower rounds are now also starting, sparking a youth movement in the NFL at a key skill position.

The past two classes included Mark Sanchez from USC (Jets), Colt McCoy from Texas (Browns), Tim Tebow from Florida (Broncos), Josh Freeman from Kansas State (Bucs), and Rusty Smith from Florida Atlantic (Titans) – with Jimmy Clausen from Notre Dame and Tony Pike from Cincinnati both getting time for the Panthers. Smith was picked #176 overall by Tennessee but got bumped from third string to starter last week when Vince Young went down for the season.

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Chase Daniel

And that doesn’t include sleepers like my sentimental favorite, Chase Daniel from Missouri, who quietly has worked into the backup spot for Drew Brees with the Saints – after spending their Super Bowl season on their practice squad facing the starting defense every day. (Don’t forget the undrafted Daniels’ brief stint with the Redskins included a come-from-behind preseason victory.) In addition, waiting in the wings are college underclassmen such as Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Boise State’s Kellen Moore and Auburn’s Cam Newton.

Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos

For all the expert analysis, history shows players like Tebow, not your “classic” NFL quarterback, usually end up starting – and winning – against the odds. (“Undersized” Joe Montana was a third-round pick.) Why? Certainly this current group has great athletes to start with, and most have been winners in every sport on every level.

Call it a hunch, but this crop just seems to have an unusually large number of driven and tough competitors at a key position that can change results in the NFL. These are the kind of men who have consistently made whatever adjustments and skill-building they needed to succeed, and only injuries or prison terms will keep that from happening now. Later, some will become Hall of Fame coaches, retiring to motivational seminars near you.

Unfortunately, that two-year window doesn’t even touch on young talent like the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, the Ravens’ Joe Flacco or the Bills’ Ryan Fitzpatrick – all only 25 with at least four years in the league. It must make the Chargers’ Philip Rivers (age 28) and Packers’ Aaron Rogers (29) feel like geezers. At 34, Peyton Manning may need a walker soon…

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: One notable exception to the exceptional ’83 class: Kansas City crumbled after picking Todd Blackledge #7 overall.

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The NFL’s Young Guns II have arrived

Is St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford the second coming of John Elway? Bradford was on Sunday – passing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a road victory. The last rookie to do that regardless of location was Elway in 1983. I think the comparisons are going to grow, and quickly – not just between those two players, but their respective NFL draft classes.

The 1983 NFL draft shaped the league for the ensuing 16 years. Why? There was a rare glut of quality at a key position that affects game outcomes in the NFL. The “Quarterback Class of 1983” included future Hall of Famers Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. A record six quarterbacks were picked in the first round that year, and a QB from that group won 11 of the next 16 Super Bowls.

I believe we are seeing another influx of impact quarterbacks. That is bad news for Jon Kitna fans but great for the rest of us. Just the most recent two NFL drafts could rival the ’83 class in the long run. Why? To me, they have three very clear things in common:

  • Chronic winners – This is an unusually large crop of athletes at a game-changing position who have been successful at every level. Any serious owner or GM looks at won-loss record first. So do these QBs. It’s a match made in parity heaven.
  • Given a chance to play early in college – With the limitations in scholarships these days, many were three- or four-year starters. Others chose to go to college football’s middle-tier schools rather than sit for three seasons. Most come into the league with significant playing experience.
  • Given a chance to play early in the pros – Many learned in college how to get up to speed quickly. That means they come to work prepared, interact with teammates well and know how to bounce back from losses. They have been successful because of their work ethic as well as athleticism, so even lower-round NFL picks are getting plenty of playing time around the league as first- and second-year players.                                                                                

At the least we are watching the emergence of the next generation of superstar NFL quarterbacks, especially from the last two drafts. Bradford of the Rams is the poster boy, of course. My thoughts from two earlier posts:

  • In April 2010, on Bradford being the #1 overall pick: “I think Bradford has a chance to be a top-tier pro quarterback. Most important: He can throw deep with accuracy better than anyone in many years. He’s a stud … and a great draft pick for the Rams.”
  • In August 2010, when he won his first game: “I told you he was the real deal. Not just because he’s got good size and came from a top program. The scouts all said he was a very unique blend of accuracy and arm strength. Bottom line: He can throw pinpoint passes downfield with touch. Yep, if he stays healthy (always the big question in the NFL) he’ll be a star.”

That being said, Bradford isn’t the only young gun on the scene. I’ll talk about the others in my next SportS’mores. And I’ll explain why it’s happening.

— Stan Johnston

 

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