The SEC co-defensive player of the year and hero of this year’s Cotton Bowl, Michael Sam, appears on the cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (2/14/14)—on newsstands NOW. On Sunday, Michael Sam came out to The New York Times and ESPN just as he knew the NFL scouts were doing their usual due diligence in preparation for the draft. Saying he wanted the team that drafts him to have no doubts about his sexuality, Sam is now poised to become the league’s first openly gay player.
Sam has faced a number of hardships in his life but has always found solace in the sport of football. Growing up he had two things going for him, a body of a football player and a sense of confidence. Now, with the NFL draft on the horizon, he has the opportunity to make the NFL “ready” for everything he represents. SI’s S.L. Price writes, “Remember: Baseball wasn’t ‘ready’ when Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, running wasn’t ‘ready’ when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, pro tennis wasn’t ‘ready’ when King was outed in 1981. No one is ever fully ready for the new. Yet both sport and the republic survived, then thrived, in the aftermath of those advances, and the NFL will too. It has no choice. Michael Sam- and everything he represents- has arrived.’” (Page 37)
His coaches and teammates have no doubt he’ll be a valuable asset to any team that drafts him, noting his tenacity and determination both on and off the field. After the news broke on Sunday, Sam declared every intention of switching mental gears and focusing on getting ready for the scouting combine that begins on February 22. “I see myself as an individual who is trying to train for the NFL,” he says, “Jason Collins is an activist; Wade Davis is an activist, I see myself as a football player.” (Page 36)|SI Senior Writer, S.L. Price
Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos’ star running back whose monstrous tears during the national anthem at Denver’s Dec. 1 game against the Chiefs shocked the world, is one of three regional covers for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. On the surface it would appear that Moreno wouldn’t have much to cry about in the Mile High City: 2013 was a breakout season in his five year NFL career. He ran for a career high 1,380 yards, including 224 yards on the road against the Patriots in Week 12, and ten touchdowns during the regular season. Still, Moreno’s super-sized tear ducts and over-the-top emotions were a sight to behold. Writes SI senior writer Tim Layden, “You saw those tears and you wondered, What makes a player cry like that before a game? Especially a player like Knowshon Moreno, who is finally thriving in the NFL. In addition to his rushing stats, he caught 60 passes for 548 yards, by far the best in his career, and three more TDs. And he did this for a team with 13 wins and home field for as long as it survives in the AFC playoffs—Denver will face the Chargers on Jan. 12—peaking- with a 37-carry, 224-yard game in the bitter cold against the -Patriots on Nov. 24. ‘He’s been our bell cow,’ says coach John Fox, evoking the bovine metaphor that coaches lovingly employ to describe the most reliable of running backs. Moreno has earned Manning’s trust and respect, and there is no more valuable currency in the Broncos’ locker room—or in any locker room west of Foxborough. ‘He’s a horse,’ says Manning, opting for the equine metaphor. ‘I love his passion. I love his intensity. I love having him standing next to me back there. It’s a very comfortable feeling.’” (Page 50)
The respect and admiration that coaches and teammates have for Moreno is unmistakable. Even guys he competes with for playing time praise his leadership and professionalism. So given all that, and the fact that a new contract is looming once the season is over, why the tears? “Not uncommon at all,” Moreno says. “It’s always been that way for me, all the way back to high school and college. During the anthem it’s always quiet and still, so I take in the moment and say a little prayer. Usually there’s no camera on me. I thank the Lord for letting me play the game. I thank Him for everything. I run through my whole life right there at that moment. Even the bad stuff.” (Page 50) | SI senior writer, Tim Layden
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who led San Diego to a 27-10 upset of the Bengals in the AFC Wild Card, appears on one of three regional covers of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. Since throwing an interception in a 17-10 loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 1, (the last time San Diego was defeated), Rivers has thrown 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, completed 68.3 percent of his passes and had a passer rating of 104.0 or higher on four occasions. NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “People snickered when Mike McCoy said last May that Philip Rivers could connect on 70% of his passes in the Chargers’ new spread offense. Turns out the first-year coach was prophetic—almost. Rivers had an NFL-high 69.5% completion rate and 32 TDs (fourth in the NFL), earning his fifth Pro Bowl invitation and quieting speculation about his future in San Diego.” (Page 21)
Benoit believes that fans shouldn’t be so quick to write off the Chargers as they enter Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff at top-seeded Denver. While the Broncos are a 10-point favorite, there is some vulnerability there. The two teams split the season series with the Broncos winning in San Diego and the Chargers getting a 27–20 surprise victory in Denver on Dec. 12. In that game Rivers led the offense to points on five of its eight possessions, including two touchdowns. In making the case for the Chargers as a dark horse Benoit writes, “Few imagined that the Chargers, who on Dec. 1 were 5–7 and still had the Broncos and the Chiefs remaining on their schedule, would be among the NFL’s final eight. In fact, few had believed in the team when it opened camp with mostly the same roster that had stayed home the last three postseasons. The offense seemed particularly uninspired. Rivers had not been impressive since 2010, when he threw for 4,710 yards and 30 TDs; the running game had gained only 91.3 yards per outing in ’12 (27th in the NFL); and the O-line, revamped in three of five spots this season, was short on athleticism and experience. But the beauty of a spread system like McCoy’s is that it can dilute weaknesses. Athleticism and experience are less important along the line when the QB is getting rid of the ball on a three-step drop, which is the norm, as wider formations make passing lanes and defensive schemes easier to identify before the snap. Run blocking is less about moving an opponent than about neutralizing him just enough to maintain preexisting spacing. The spread can’t succeed with a terrible line, but it can with one whose best assets are undersized center Nick Hardwick and monstrous (if lead-footed) rookie tackle D.J. Fluker.” (Page 21) | NFL analyst Andy Benoit
NEW YORK – (December 10, 2013) –There’s a lot of brotherly love going around in Philadelphia for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who appears on the regional cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (12/16/13)—on newsstands NOW— and the feeling is mutual. Foles has been about as close to perfect as one can be since replacing the injured Michael Vick. Not only has he helped spark a 1–3 team to an 8–5 record, but he’s also thrown for 1,970 yards and 20 touchdowns, with just one interception. SI senior writer Michael Bamberger believes Foles has become the new leader in Philly, one that fans have quickly come to believe in. Writes Bamberger, “The 2013 Foles highlight reel includes a handful of successful bombs—nine of them TDs of 25 or more yards—that took away our breath, as well as many, many downs of no-huddle offense that have left opposing defenses sucking for air. It includes the record-tying seven touchdowns he threw against the Raiders in Week 9. It includes the whole of his November, when he had the highest calendar-month passing rating, 152.8, in NFL history. Who knows what other gaudy numbers he’ll put up before December is over, when the Eagles’ regular season concludes in Dallas?” (Page 53)
Philly was supposed to be the place where Michael Vick redeemed himself. Over the past 4-½ years, fans vested deep reservoirs of emotion in Vick, who was trying to rebuild his career and reclaim his standing after serving 19 months in federal prison for running a dog-fighting ring. For a while it looked promising. However, injuries and Father Time have taken their toll on Vick, sidelining him during crucial moments for the franchise and opening the door for Foles. Writes Bamberger, “This whole season could easily have gone another way, and the city’s mood with it. More than the cracked bell, the Phillies, Rocky and all the rest, the football team is the thing that binds Philadelphia. This latest potential franchise quarterback, with his blond hair and XXL hands and earnest manner, is doing more for the city than he could possibly know.” (Page 53)| SI Senior Writer, Michael Bamberger
Seven Texas-bred passers (Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Christian Ponder, Ryan Tannehill and Matthew Stafford) started last week in the NFL, making up 21.9% of NFL QB1s. With 12 more backup and practice-squad quarterbacks hailing from the Lone Star State, Andrew Perloff asks in this week’s SI: Why are so many NFL quarterbacks from Texas?
While some of the Texas-bred passers have different styles, such as Stafford, a classic dropback passer, and RG3, a new-breed mobile QB, Perloff writes that “they share a few traits: comfort working out of the shotgun, an ability to improvise and total confidence that they can make the big play even after a mistake—all virtues that they developed playing high school football in Texas, a hypercompetitive world that is increasingly leaving its mark on the NFL.” (PAGE 32)
Many of these traits are learned in seven-on-seven football, an organized brand of touch football that is growing in popularity in Texas. “That’s what we do in Texas,” Stafford said following Detroit’s 27–20 win, beaming with a grin not unlike the one he wore after leading Highland Park High to the 4A Division I state title in 2005. “We throw so much, it’s not a big deal when we get to the next level. It’s year-round—off-season workouts, spring football and definitely seven-on-seven.” (PAGE 32)
Perloff went to the Texas State Seven-on-Seven Championship tournament in Leander, Texas in July to get a glimpse of how future NFL quarterbacks are developing. There he saw young quarterbacks pass downfield in a game that resembled the spread game found throughout college and the pros. There are no running backs, no blocking and no pass rush. Perloff says, “Most important in the development of a young passer is the rule that he cannot take off running, which forces him to read the field and find somewhere to throw.” (PAGE 33)
Some high school kids in Texas compete in more than 50 seven-on-seven games during the summer, giving quarterbacks more opportunities to get in extra passing reps. Tannehill, for example, also played baseball and basketball and was a defensive back during his sophomore season in high school. “Seven-on-seven was huge for me,” says Tannehill. “Without it, I’m not sure I would have had the chance to develop as a high school passer the way I did. It gives you a chance to work on fundamentals like footwork and timing in a game setting. I wouldn’t have gotten that elsewhere.” (PAGE 34)
For decades Texas was known as a running state, producing backs like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas and Ricky Williams. Then, in the late ’90s, the football landscape shifted. Perloff says a lot of that had to do with Stephenville High coach Art Briles. The current Baylor coach, Briles, oversaw RG3’s 2011 Heisman season. To compete with bigger players and budgets, Briles developed his version of a spread offense, and it took off. Stephenville won four state titles between ’88 and ’99. “I was just trying to figure out something each year. We were having trouble with bigger players, and we started spreading the field to counter that. We kept developing it from there,” says Briles. (PAGE 34)
Now, NFL coaches are turning to college and high school coaches in Texas for advice and are adjusting their offenses to their quarterback’s skill sets. The Redskins, for instance, lined up in shotgun or pistol 76.8% of the time last year with Griffin. Says Briles, “With seven-on-seven and all the [evolving] passing attacks, Texas is going to keep churning them out. Other states will catch up in some ways. But they’ll never match the passion in this state. We’re going to keep pushing the envelope. And we’re definitely going to keep passing.” (PAGE 36)
In 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)
Sports Illustrated is set to premiere Pro Football Now presented by John Hancock, a new live, weekly talk show for SI.com, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 10:30 a.m. EST. Host Maggie Gray and lead analyst and Super Bowl Champion of the New York Giants Amani Toomer will be joined on set by SI writers and experts for provocative discussion on the latest football news as well as preview the upcoming week’s games. For the premiere episode, Gray and Toomer will sit down with New York Giant Victor Cruz to preview the upcoming season. PFN will broadcast from Time Inc.’s new state-of-the-art Manhattan studio, which debuts on Thursday. After each weekly episode premiere, the show will be available on-demand at SI.com/video.
“We’re excited to expand our digital video portfolio with the addition of this new live video talk show,” said Paul Fichtenbaum, Editor, Time Inc. Sports Group. “Sports Illustrated is a leading source of in-depth NFL coverage and we believe our top-notch reporting will translate very well to PFN.”
“I’m excited to join the broadcast team at Sports Illustrated,” said Toomer. “I think the viewers are going to enjoy our candid conversation. We’re going to have a lot of fun this season.”
PFN adds to a growing number of original SI live productions created in 2013. Others include SI Now powered by Ford – Time Inc.’s first live daily talk show, which debuted in June, SI Swimsuit Live from Las Vegas – a 30 minute red carpet and 3D video experience and specials devoted to the NCAA college basketball tournament and NFL draft. These productions are also part of Time Inc.’s company-wide commitment to growing digital video offerings across its portfolio.
“The new Time Inc. video infrastructure with its cutting-edge studios and robust distribution network is an important statement to the advertising community that we are going to be a major player in the video space,” said Mark Ford, Time Inc. EVP, President Sports Group. “We have proven our ability to create award-winning and popular video as our Underdogs series and Swimsuit videos demonstrate. Now, we can offer the marketplace significantly more original content and audience scale which is a major differentiation to our clients.”