Inside This Week’s Sports Illustrated: The Undefendable Back-Shoulder Pass

Back Shoulder PassIn this week’s SI, senior writer Tim Layden takes a look at how today’s best freestyling QBs, including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford, are blowing the lids off defenses with an old-school weapon: the back-shoulder pass. Layden writes, “It simultaneously exploits defensive backs’ fear of giving up long touchdown passes and rules changes that have steadily eroded defenders’ ability to control receivers with their hands without being penalized.” (PAGE 52)

Layden notes that the technique has been around for a long time but has exploded in popularity over the last five years, matching increasingly sophisticated throwers with powerful, athletic receivers. “It’s an amazing weapon,” says Colts backup quarterback and 15-year NFL veteran Matt Hasselbeck. “If it’s properly executed, the defender can’t be right.” (PAGE 53)

The back-shoulder pass is used almost exclusively against single coverage, and offenses use it to take advantage of defensive backs who do not want to give up a deep ball. Saints quarterback Drew Brees says, “If my guy is obviously not getting over the top, then there’s going to be a lane for the back-shoulder throw.” A receiver’s perspective: “If the corner stays over the top of me,” says the Ravens’ Torrey Smith, “we’re going to throw it back shoulder, where I can see the ball and he can’t.”  (PAGE 53)

The play is rarely called in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. “It’s something you read,” says Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, “and then react to.” When asked about the back-shoulder throw, veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall of the Redskins nods his head. “That’s a play where if they do it right,” he says, “it’s tough to stop.” (PAGE 53)

Layden also looks at the evolution of the back-shoulder pass and who in the NFL does it best today. “Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees,” says Jon Gruden, “and Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson.” (PAGE 59) Layden says that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning throw it less frequently, though that could change. Who are the best receivers? Layden lists Anquan Boldin (49ers), Hakeem Nicks (Giants) and Calvin Johnson (Lions) as some of the best back-shoulder pass-catchers. Says Flacco, “The back-shoulder throw has really redefined what open and covered mean.” (PAGE 59)


London Fletcher Is Here To Play

LondonIn this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Tim Layden profiles 38-year-old Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who has made a career of far exceeding his undersized expectations and is closing in on the NFL’s defensive iron man streak.

After 15 years, Fletcher is tied for the fourth-longest consecutive games played streak in NFL history with 240. In the story  he reveals that he has suffered many concussions over the years and admits that he is well aware of the risk that a long career’s worth of head blows brings but doesn’t let it stop him from playing. “I’ve seen the situation some guys are in,” he says, “but this is what I signed up for.” So how many concussions does Fletcher thing he has had? Single digits? “Probably not,” Fletcher says. “I’ve been playing a long time.” (PAGE 36)

The linebacker also has experienced his fair share of other injuries – from his hamstring to his right elbow – over the past few years but continues to play despite the pain might be he in. “Nobody made me do it,” says Fletcher. “I asked the questions I needed to, and then, when I was convinced wasn’t putting myself at risk, I did it. It’s not fun, but I couldn’t imagine myself not being out there on Sunday.” (PAGE 36)

His fearless attitude and passion to succeed is something Fletcher’s teammates recognize and admire. “Everybody talks about how they get after it, but how many guys can say they gave everything they had on every play?” says former linebacker Mike Jones, who played alongside Fletcher in St. Louis.  “Almost none. It’s a trait few guys have. London has it.” (PAGE 36)

In order to keep up with the physical demands football requires of its players, Fletcher engages in an intense six-week training regimen before the season starts, one that pushes his limits and exemplifies his devotion the game. “When I’m not playing football,” he says, “I’m thinking about playing football, the new chess matches for every opponent.” (PAGE 37)

Despite his aging body and the possibility for more injuries on the forefront, the Redskins hope to squeeze one more productive year out of the linebacker, while Fletcher looks forward to one more season playing the game he loves with the people closest to him. “Those 60 minutes every week with my team and my teammates,” he says, “that’s what I love.” (PAGE 40)


Here Comes Mary Cain

Mary CainLast Saturday, 17 year-old Mary Cain’s second place finish at the USA Track and Field national championships in Des Moines, Iowa secured her a spot on the U.S. team for the world championships in Moscow this August, making her the youngest U.S. athlete to qualify for a world’s team since the event began in 1983.  In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Tim Layden (@SITimLayden) profiles Cain, a self-described nerd from Bronxville, NY, who is undeniably one of the most talented female mid-distance runners in U.S. history.

In the 1,500-meter run, she was able to outlast everyone but her training partner, Treniere Moser, who, at 31, is almost twice her age. Cain’s performance is just another transcendent accomplishment she can add to her list. In 2013 alone, she has broken six high school and/or junior records. She became the first high school girl to break two minutes in the 800-meter and ran a 4:04.62 1,500-meter, a time that, Layden says “puts her on the cusp of challenging the best runners in the world.” (page 48)

Despite her growing reputation around the country, Cain is still just an average teenager trying to get her way through high school. Layden says “she is caught for now in a giddy limbo, with one foot stretching into an adult athletic and media world and one foot hanging back in high school… After a trail of transcendent races and records, the 17-year-old Cain is both suddenly famous and suddenly stunned by that fame.” (Page 48)

“It’s so weird that people tweet about me,” says Cain (page 48), who doesn’t even have her own Twitter account. She also admits she doesn’t keep up with Facebook because it’s too overwhelming. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings by not accepting their friend requests, so I don’t accept anybody.” (Page 48)

In her free time, Cain likes to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald while balancing two AP classes with her busy training schedule. “I am a complete nerd, I am not cool at all,” Cain says of herself (Page 48).

Regardless of what she believes now, there is no question that Cain has the potential to become idolized. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time U.S. 5,000-meter champion, says that if she can overcome the presence of physical changes and maturity that linger ahead, she will be successful. “Mary is an incredible talent. Probably works her butt off. She’s going to have a great, long career, and she will have some challenges and injuries along the way.” (page 49)

Although Cain experiences the occasional pre-race jitters, she doesn’t seem to have any worries for her future. “Even if this is the best year I ever have in my life, I’ve experienced a hell of a lot. But I don’t believe that’s what it is. I’m surrounded by people who know what they’re doing. I know I’m not done and I’m not meant to be done.” (Page 49)


SI NCAA Tournament Preview Features Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk and Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams on Four Regional Covers

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Sports Illustrated predicts that Louisville will cut down the nets as the NCAA basketball champion in the March 25, 2013 issue of SI, on newsstands Wednesday. In her bracket in this week’s SI NCAA Tournament Preview, senior writer Kelli Anderson says that Miami, Gonzaga and Georgetown will join the Cardinals in the Final Four, with Louisville defeating Miami for the title.

Anderson writes: “It’s true: Defense wins championships. The Cards’ path hasn’t been easy, but guard Peyton Siva & Co. make it look like so much fun.” (PAGE 36)

As part of the SI NCAA tournament preview, senior writer Tim Layden profiles Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who is featured on one of four regional SI covers this week. Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk and Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams are featured on the three additional regional 13COVv8_KAN_Promocovers. This marks the 16th time Indiana and Kansas have been featured on an SI cover, the seventh time for Syracuse and fifth for Gonzaga.

In his profile, Layden describes how Oladipo’s journey from overlooked recruit to one of the best players in the country could be due in part to his odd relationship with his father Chris. Layden writes:

“The effect of this father-son relationship is impossible to fully know. He is very close to his mother and three sisters, all of whom text him constantly. He has improved dramatically as a player, and some suggest that this is partly because of his odd relationship with his father.” (PAGE 46)

13COVv8_GON_PromoChris Oladipo, who is from the African nation of Sierra Leone and met his wife Joan in Nigeria before moving to the United States, tells Layden in an exclusive interview that he has in fact seen his son play a few games and that his style of parenting simply differs from most Americans. He says, “I believe what the father should be is an anchor, to keep the ship from running away. He should be a stabilizing influence in the child’s life.” (PAGE 44)

Victor denies that his father has ever seen him play, but says he loves him and understands that he instilled a tough love culture in the Oladipo household.  His mother Joan, who did attend most of Victor’s games, tells Layden: “I know Victor really missed that his father wasn’t at the games.” (PAGE 44)

13COVv16_SYR_PromoNo matter what has led to Oladipo’s meteoric rise, an NBA scout tells Layden:

“Here’s a guy who was just barely on [the NBA’s] radar at the start of the year, probably not even in the top 100 in the country. Now he’s probably going to go in the lottery. It’s very unusual to make a climb like that in one year.” (PAGE 40)


No Couch Can Hold Her

VonnWhile future Olympians are carving down hills, gliding on ice and soaring through the cold winter air in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, who tore her ACL and MCL and fractured her femur and tibia while competing in a Super G race in Austria on February 5, is nestled away in Vail, Colorado with the heavy goal of walking before skiing. Senior writer Tim Layden took a trip to the snowy Vail valley to check in on Vonn as she looks forward to rehab after successful surgery. Just a few seconds changed Vonn’s entire season outlook from world cup domination to rehabilitation.

“When I was in the air, I looked to where I was going to land and I could see that snow was broken up and soft, almost like it was wet. I thought, Oh, s­­­,” said Vonn when recounting her fall. “Then when I landed my right ski literally stopped.” (PAGE 44)

The sheer velocity of Vonn’s body and the stalling of her ski sent her falling down the mountain. Race video shows the tumbling Vonn’s knee bend inwardly.

“Lindsey’s right ski stopped, but her body was still going forward and turning left,” said Bill Sterett, Vonn’s surgeon since she was 14. “So the MCL went first, which allowed the knee to begin dis­locating, and then she tore the ACL, which allowed the knee to completely dislocate.” As the knee rebounded, Vonn’s femur slammed against her tibia, creating nondisplaced fractures on the surface of both bones.” (PAGE 44).

 Vonn returned to the U.S for surgery on the ravaged leg and to begin an accelerated rehab program that would allow her to be back in action as early as September. Layden finds that Vonn, 28, has maintained her dominance over the women’s alpine skiing world despite adversity on the slopes and off. She suffered a concussion in 2011 and missed chunks of 2013 with a still undiagnosed intestinal illness.

Her private life has proved to be challenging as well—in 2011 Vonn ended her four-year marriage to Thomas Vonn, who coordinated much of her career; she was estranged and later reconciled with her father; she admitted to suffering from depression; and her alleged new formed relationship with Tiger Woods is all over the tabloids.

With competition biting at her heals(Tina Maze of Slovenia has since taken the alpine skiing world by storm this season scoring a 2,254 points and winning an overall title) Vonn won’t allow the idea of not competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics to even surface.

 “I would not accept that. There is plenty of time between now and the Olympics,” said Vonn. “Plenty of time.” (PAGE 45)


South Carolina Defensive End Jadeveon Clowney on Regional Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

09COVv26Clown_PromoAlso appearing on a regional cover of this week’s SI is University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a 6’6”, 273-pound All-America standout who many consider to be the first-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. This is just the second time a South Carolina player has even been featured on an SI cover.

In “The Hit”, senior writer Tim Layden (@SITimLayden) takes a deeper look at Clowney’s bone crushing tackle of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith at this year’s Outback Bowl that shook the football world and made his name even more of a household name.

Down 22-21 to the Wolverines in the 4th quarter on New Year’s Day, Gamecocks senior linebacker Damario Jeffery turned to Clowney after a tough call gave their opponent a controversial first down and said: “Just make a play.” Clowney responded: “I’m with you.” (PAGE 36)

On the next play, Clowney exploded untouched into the backfield, launching Smith’s helmet into the air and the ball onto the ground (Clowney recovered the football and South Carolina went on to score on the next play and eventually won the game). The hit played on a constant loop on TV and clips online have topped well over four million aggregate views. Layden writes: “The hit was a last breath of football sanity for Clowney.” (PAGE 40)

The assumption is Clowney will leave for the NFL after one more season and has some in the media speculating he may consider sitting out his junior year to avoid injury. Clowney told Layden he plans to play next season and work hard to improve. Jon Gruden says:

“He runs gassers with the defensive backs. That’s the kind of speed he has He’s the perfect player against today’s offenses. You want to run that read option? Clowney will tackle the back, and if he doesn’t have the ball, he’ll go get the quarterback. He’s the number 1 pick whenever he comes out.” (PAGE 40)


You Got It, Or You Don’t

copingHow do I get a franchise quarterback? This is the nonstop question every NFL team must ask if they don’t believe their signal caller can win it all. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Tim Layden (@SITimLayden) examines the most prized currency in the league and explores… “When do you cut loose a quarterback and start over?” (PAGE 47)

Bill Polian, former Vice Chairman and General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts says,

“You never forget what it feels like to not have a quarterback…It’s an ongoing thing. Every single minute you don’t have that guy, you think about it” (PAGE 46)

The pressure intensified for General Manager’s in 2013 because of the immediate success of rookie QB’s Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and second –year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took the 49ers to the Super Bowl this season. Because of their instant success this season, front offices and fan bases hope the draft can now help them find the next great quarterback who can succeed right away.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Andrew Perloff (@andrewperloff) complements the article by listing five current quarterbacks in which he feel’s won enough to tease and lost enough to have their G.M.’s consider change: Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills), Tony Romo (Cowboys), Matt Cassel (Chiefs), Josh Freeman (Buccaneers), and Mark Sanchez (Jets).


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