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Bob Angelo

Thoughts On The Game
  • Writer's pictureBob Angelo

NFL Unsung Heroes

If the 2023 NFL Season ended today, San Francisco 49ers’ running back Christian McCaffrey might well be named Most Valuable Player by decree—no further discussion necessary, no formal vote required.

McCaffrey deserves the accolades. But each week, lesser mortals—NFL Unsung Heroes—impact outcomes. Today’s blog pays tribute to a handful of such men.

In Los Angeles, veteran edge rusher Khalil Mack recorded six sacks against one of his two former teams: the Raiders, now playing for Las Vegas. The unfortunate rookie passer who Mack victimized was Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, a fourth round pick making his first NFL start.

Bear in mind that Mack, a onetime NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2016), is now 32 years old. His half dozen pass pocket pulverizings came up one short of the NFL single game record of 7 established by Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas way back in 1990.

They also marred an otherwise decent debut by O’Connell, who completed 24 of his 39 pass attempts. They most certainly short-circuited enough Raiders’ offensive possessions to allow the Chargers to even their record at 2-and-2 with a crucial 24-to-17 divisional win. The Bolts now trail Kansas City in the AFC West by just a single game.

Remember my discussion Edge Rushers for Hire in the “Key Defensive Stops” portion of my very first blog this season? Probably not. But if the Buffalo Bills Von Miller can still make a living collapsing pockets and crushing QB’s, why not the Buffalo Bulls (Khalil’s college team) Mack as well? He certainly brings the same skill set and menacing measurables to the task as Miller. And in today’s NFL, premium pass rushers carry big-time price tags—even Unsung Heroes.

Speaking of pass rushers, the 2022 Philadelphia Eagles recorded 70 sacks, just two shy of the Chicago Bears all-time, single-season team record of 72, set nearly four decades ago (1984). This season, however, Philadelphia has not dropped opposing QB’s with the same regularity and relentlessness—with one noteworthy, single-game exception: linebacker Nicholas Morrow.

If anybody had told you after the season’s first month that Morrow would be the Eagles sack leader, would you have believed it? The same Nick Morrow Philly acquired from the Bears, released on Labor Day, then resigned to its practice squad a few days later? The 28-year-old from tiny Greenville College whose first five NFL seasons with the Raiders and Bears produced a grand total of 4 sacks--and not a whole lot of recognition.

Guess what? Last week against Washington, Morrow’s stat line read 11 tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 3 sacks—just 1 sack shy of his previous five-year total. It also made Morrow Philadelphia’s 2023 sack leader! Take away his contributions, and it’s doubtful the undefeated Eagles would have prevailed in overtime against the Washington Commanders—who fielded their very own Week 4 Unsung Hero:

Quarterback Sam Howell.

When Washington started the season 2-and-0, Howell received a handful of props from various pundits. Then Buffalo routed them at home 37-to-3, picking off 4 of Sam’s passes and sacking him 9 times. Surely the Eagles potent pass rush would get well and add to Howell’s misery last Sunday in Philadelphia, right?

Instead, despite Nick Morrow’s 3 sacks, Howell engineered three extended first-half scoring drives resulting in a 17-to-10 Commanders advantage at intermission. In the final quarter, trailing by seven, Howell led Washington on a brilliant 12-play possession, completing 6 of 9 passes—his last one, a touchdown pass to Johan Dotson as time expired—to send the game into overtime.

Ultimately, the Eagles won on a field goal 34-to-31. But the second year passer from North Carolina served notice that his 2-and-2 team will not be taken lightly by either Dallas or Philadelphia in the NFC East—or anybody else for that matter!

Up north on Route 295, the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Pat Mahomes exploded out of the gate at MetLife Stadium, taking a 17-to-0 lead over the New York Jets. Then Mahomes threw a deep incompletion out of his own end zone that was ruled a safety. Suddenly, Patrick could do nothing right, and Jets QB Zac Wilson could do no wrong. By the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 20.

Kansas City’s Unsung Hero proved to be running back Isiah Pacheco. Following a 48-yard TD scamper in the first quarter, the second year ball carrier from nearby Rutgers University handled the football 19 more times as a runner and receiver, amassing 158 total yards while keeping the clock running and the Chiefs offense on the field for mostly fruitless but time-consuming possessions.

Good thing, because a stout Jets pass rush and aroused pass defenders made things tough on Mahomes the rest of the evening. Late in the game, Wilson fumbled away a critical possession, then a questionable pass interference call against the Jets star cornerback Sauce Gardner denied Wilson a chance at redemption. But the bottom line: without Pacheco’s gritty performance, Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champions might very well have blown one at MetLife Stadium.

And that would have ruined the party for Travis Kelce’s mom and an entire press box full of “Swifties.”

In Minneapolis, many considered six-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith’s career to be near its end if not over. But last Sunday, Smith blitzed, sacked Panthers QB Bryce Young, and forced a fumble that Vikings linebacker D. J. Wonnum scooped up then returned 51 yards for a touchdown and a 14-to-13 Vikings lead. Carolina could not recover.

In all, the veteran safety recorded three sacks, 14 tackles, and retriggered the Hall of Fame talk that once was heard often by those close to the Vikings. His inspired play lifted Minnesota to its first win of the season—postponing for now a rumored clearance sale of aging Vikings’ veterans. Stay tuned.

Finally, my single biggest Unsung Hero, not just for this season but for his entire NFL career: Lions quarterback Jared Goff.

Let us not forget that Goff was the very first player selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. My old company, NFL Films, made the Rams their subjects for that year’s Hard Knocks series on HBO Sports. When I arrived in LA for a totally different project, I asked several Films crew members for an assessment of the big, tall, gangly rookie QB. Consensus was that he was a dreamy, wide-eyed California kid who seemed slightly unfocussed and oftentimes in awe of things.

So much for first impressions. In just his third season, Goff led the Rams to the NFC title and a berth in Super Bowl LIII (53), which the New England Patriots won 13-to-3. Late in the fourth quarter of that game, Goff tossed up a costly interception that possibly undermined his long-term status with Rams head coach Sean McVay.

After two more seasons on the Left Coast and one final unsuccessful playoff run, the Rams swapped quarterbacks with the Detroit Lions. In 2021 under McVay, former Lion QB Matt Stafford won Super Bowl LVI (56). Goff suffered through a 3-13-1 finish in Detroit. His NFL future appeared uncertain at best—from almost first to worst in three short seasons!

The 2022 Lions lost six of their first seven games. Since then, they’ve won 11 of their last 13 and sit alone atop the NFC North, due in no small part to their QB. Resilience is the mark of the unsung and the forgotten. I say, Good for Goff.

I loved watching him salute loyal Lions fans after Detroit’s decisive 34-to-20 Lambeau Field beat-down of the Packers last week. I didn’t hesitate to pick them to win the NFC North this year. So far, their No-Longer-Unsung QB is playing the kind of winning football that yields championships.

I repeat: Good for Jared Goff as well as all the other NFL Unsung Heroes who rarely find the spotlight or receive accolades or who’ve fallen from grace. May they all take comfort and find encouragement in Goff’s shining example.

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