Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Here are 9 of the many things we learned this holiday weekend:
1. Alex Smith is not a bust.
Most anyone who follows professional football can come up with a list of players taken with one of the top 3 overall picks in the NFL Draft who fell well short of expectations: Ryan Leaf (1998), Tim Couch (1999), Akili Smith (1999), David Carr (2002), Joey Harrington (2002), JaMarcus Russell (2007). Some of these players disappeared after a few seasons, others were given more chances than they probably deserved. None was able to overcome early struggles and become a franchise quarterback.
Prior to this season Alex Smith, the number 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, appeared to be just another Tim Couch or David Carr. In his first 6 years in the league, he twice lost his starting job, threw for a total of 51 touchdowns and 53 interceptions, and only once played an entire 16-game season. During that span Smith’s San Francisco 49ers never had a winning season, topping out at 8-8 in 2009.
But new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh gave Smith a vote of confidence prior to the season, and Smith responded.
This year he started all 16 games, threw for a respectable 3,144 yards and only 5 interceptions, and led the 49ers to a 13-3 record. Saturday afternoon Smith proved that neither he nor the 49ers were a fluke. In the final 3 minutes of one of the great Playoff games in NFL history, Smith ran for one touchdown and threw for another, giving the 49ers a 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers will host the NFC Championship Game next week, something they haven’t done in 17 years.
2. Vernon Davis is America’s new favorite athlete.
As great as Alex Smith was, we may well remember Saturday’s epic clash between the 49ers and Saints as “The Vernon Davis Game.” In a game full of great moments, none was greater than Davis sobbing as he jogged off the field after catching the game-winning touchdown pass. When Harbaugh embraced his teary tight end on the sideline, the pair melted the hearts of even the most cynical and callous football fans.
It was only a matter of time before America fell in love with Vernon Davis.
3. Tom Crean should have taken his wife’s name.
Less than 24 hours after Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers beat the Saints to advance to the NFL Championship Game, John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens held off the Houston Texans to advance to the AFC Championship Game. While the Harbaugh brothers had a great weekend, their sister Joani’s husband, Tom Crean, didn’t.
Thursday night Crean’s Indiana Hoosiers lost at home to Minnesota. Sunday, they lost to Ohio State in Columbus in a game that was never competitive. In 3 weeks Crean may very well be heading north on Highway 37 for a Harbaugh family reunion in Indianapolis. He’ll want to have things turned around by then.
4. Aaron Hernandez can run the ball too.
Everyone knows about the Patriots’ record-shattering tight end Rob Gronkowski. But New England’s other starting tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is just as dangerous. Saturday against the Broncos Hernandez added a new dimension to the New England offense by rushing for 61 yards on 5 carries. Prior to Saturday Hernandez had only 8 carries in 33 NFL games and had never rushed for more than 18 yards in a single game.
I imagine that every defensive coordinator who watched Hernandez run for 43 yards on the fourth play from scrimmage on Saturday felt the way the Rebel Alliance felt when they realized that the second Death Star was operational or the way that Harry Potter felt when he realized that Voldemort had figured out how to fly. Of course, things didn’t end well for either the second Death Star or Voldemort. So don’t be surprised if Alex Smith goes Lando Calrissian on the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
5. Missouri Valley cannibalism could cost the conference an NCAA Tournament bid.
As recently as 3 weeks ago, bracketologists were penciling in 3 or even 4 Missouri Valley Conference teams on their mock brackets. Creighton, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, and Indiana State entered conference play with impressive tournament resumes. And Missouri State had an outside chance of playing its way in. Creighton and Wichita State are still in good shape, but conference play hasn’t been kind to their MVC brethren.
Indiana State is 2-5 in the Valley and only narrowly escaped a home loss to Evansville. Missouri State and Northern Iowa are both 4-3 and both have suffered home losses to Evansville. Matters got much worse for Northern Iowa on Sunday when the Panthers handed Bradley its first conference win.
The good news for the Valley is that the conference still has 2 teams with strong at-large resumes and 8 teams have a legitimate shot of winning Arch Madness (the aforementioned 5 teams plus Drake, Illinois State, and Evansville). If someone other than Creighton or Wichita State can nab the league’s automatic bid, the MVC can still get 3 teams in the dance.
6. All hope is not lost in Green Bay.
This probably won’t be much consolation for the 104,057 residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin who are mourning the Packers’ loss last night to the New York Giants, but the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women’s basketball team is still undefeated. The Phoenix beat Detroit this weekend to improve to 15-0. With Texas Tech’s back-to-back losses this week to Oklahoma and Kansas State, the Phoenix are now one of only three undefeated teams in women’s basketball. (Baylor and Maryland are the others.) Green Bay should have no trouble running the table in a weak Horizon League. And unlike the Murray State men’s team, the Phoenix won’t have to worry about an ESPN BracketBuster game.
It will be interesting to see what the NCAA Selection Committee does with Green Bay. Despite scheduling several major conference teams, the Phoenix have only one quality win, a November 26 overtime win against Georgia Tech.
7. The Pacers have the most balanced team in the NBA.
The Indiana Pacers won 3 games in 4 days last week, including victories over the Hawks and Celtics, to improve to 9-3, tied for second-best in the East and third-best in the NBA. Seven Pacers—Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, Paul George, Darren Collison, David West, and George Hill—currently average double figures in scoring. In Wednesday’s win over Atlanta, no Pacer played more than 27 minutes; 10 players played more than 14. The lack of a go-to guy could hurt Indiana in the Playoffs. But given the team’s recent history, Pacers fans should be grateful for a winning regular season and a roster that should be attractive to free agents.
8. Chicago’s Donald Young is off to a good start in the Australian Open.
Since this is a website by and for sports fans with ties to the Midwest, it’s worth mention that one of our own advanced to the second round of the Australian Open. 22-year-old Chicago native Donald Young defeated Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk in 5 sets on Sunday. He’ll face Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko later this week.
After beating two seeded players to advance to the 4th round of last year’s U.S. Open, Young has risen to #42 in the ATP world rankings, fifth among Americans.
9. No one calls a buzzer beater like the play-by-play guy for the Lindsey Wilson Sports Network.
Lindsey Wilson College is a small, United Methodist-affiliated NAIA school in Columbia, Kentucky. Saturday the Lindsey Wilson Blue Raiders beat their conference rival Georgetown College (KY) Tigers when senior guard Chase Spreen hit a 68-foot shot as time expired. Here’s the call from the Lindsey Wilson Sports Network:
I couldn’t find the name of the Lindsey Wilson play-by-play guy. If you know his name, please leave it in the comments so that he can get credit for his fine work.