Insider Friday Report: The Cheese Stands Alone

Whenever organized sports are played, the rules and regulations governing the games usually beget certain expectations in those both participating and observing. For instance, football is almost defined by designations, along with the assumptions accompanying them. Numbers are a great example. Those holding down the trenches are identified differently than their teammates at skill positions. The divergent approaches, body types, and usually, personalities, separating these individuals should be enough, but numbers punctuate the dividing line. Number 99, at the professional level, is never a receiver. Don’t expect a center rocking number seven anytime soon.

Indeed, attributes can be suggested by the bestowment of jersey digits. And if positions were also thrown into the analytical mix, well, opinions can be formed.  Number 15, slot receiver? The guy must be a straight-line burner, perhaps a punt returner…

Of course, the entire exercise would be rendered a bore without exceptions. And though numbers can be revealing, they are just a cosmetic detail, positions telling a far more solidified tale. There are certain areas where tight ends are supposed to excel, and specific deficiencies to be acknowledged. Quarterbacks face the most complicated task, lineman the toughest. A coaches’ primary duty is in discovering and accepting specific impossibilities for certain players, and to never ask for miracles. Yes, it takes a talented individual to fit a mold.  But it takes someone special to shatter the clay.

Playing Madden is practically an American pastime. The long running video game series has become a cultural staple, friends and siblings opposing each other annually, always a new edition to test. My brother and his friends used to have basement tournaments back in the day, serious business over beers. Just like in football, and life, there just had to be certain expectations. Facing fourth and long in the first quarter? The player punted, lest he quite unrealistically converted, whereupon his tactics would be labeled “cheese.” Ah, cheese. It was an equalizer. An organized movement contained between a group of friends in Queens, and probably practiced by countless others nationwide.  Biggie Smalls made a song called “What’s Beef?” These guys could have made a cover version entitled “What’s Cheese?” Cheese is affecting a ground and pound, clock killing strategy in a videogame. Cheese is picking an unstoppable outfit when pitted against a foe utilizing lesser forces. [Back in the halcyon days of 2002, the quintessential mismatch would have definitely been Rams-Bengals.] Cheese is throwing bombs on every play after picking said unstoppable outfit. [Warner goes deep] Cheese is recovering a fumble late in the fourth quarter and taking a circuitous route to the end zone as the seconds ticked away. In that vein, Cheese is also running backwards with the tail back for fifty seconds in order to secure a win. There were plenty more. And it may be 2010, but these simple guidelines still apply.

Yet, there was also cheese that presented a philosophical conundrum. Nothing quite best illustrated a cheese paradox like virtual scrambling quarterbacks. Surely it was cheese to scramble with Michael Vick on every passing down, as a polygonal Peerless Price got jammed at the line. But wasn’t this example of cheese kind of… real? In effect, by carrying the Falcons to the playoffs a few times while scrambling like a madman, wasn’t the real-life Michael Vick being straight-up cheesy? And for Daunte Culpepper to have a rocket arm and killer wheels pre-knee surgery; didn’t that reek distinctly of cheese? It brings forth a personal epiphany. Greatness is cheese. Is there any doubt that the Jets wanted to hit reset on the AFC Championship game as Peyton Manning aerially assaulted their defense? Greatness, no matter how consistent, or fleeting, makes your jaw drop with a mutter, “That’s not fair.”

Should halfbacks even be eligible receivers? It’s an accepted aspect of the modern game, but leatherheads may have definitely taken issue. Doesn’t seem proper, for a player to possess that many dimensions, to be so dangerous. But then again, that is the inert greatness of the halfback position. It’s a fundamentally cheesy position, confounding expectations. Combines running, blocking, pass receiving, pass catching. Backs possess the most potential for displaying total football skill, why, some of them even can throw when called upon. They may be issued numbers, like all the other players, but their strengths and weaknesses are never so immediately perceptible, according to position or appearance. Some are above average receivers and speedsters, but struggle between the tackles. Some are superb blockers, but lack burst. Some can do it all carrying that rock, but just can’t catch it. The possibilities are endless. For someone to reach a level where they can do nearly everything? Ridiculous. Ray Rice.

Multiple threat halfbacks have shined throughout the League’s history. When Bill Belichick and his staff tried finding a way to stop the Rams’ greatest show on turf at Super Bowl XXVI, they discovered that Marshall Faulk, a brilliant runner and pass catcher, was the primary tempo setter, the protagonist within their entire theatrical operation. Guys like that are invaluable. And Rice appears to be jetting straight up, toward those elevated grounds. The Rutgers product snatched seventy-eight catches while also rushing for 1,339 yards in 2009, these fantastic statistics garnered at the tender age of 22. When the aforementioned Faulk was 22 and playing for the Colts, he notched 1,078 yards and 56 catches. It’s true; the Ravens possess an outlandishly talented offensive line. But Rice’s sheer production is impossible to ignore. Here is a tenacious downhill runner with blistering speed who can collect catches like a true scat-back. A player worthy of the highest compliment: Cheese. And just how do the Jets go about stopping him?

Bart Scott may be smiling here, but he and his teammates know that dealing with Ray Rice will be no laughing matter.

Bryan Thomas imitated a slight of hand throwing motion, as if a magician conjuring body English for a trick. “You see Flacco… just…” said Thomas, trailing off with a sigh, a man who had seen one too many films of infuriatingly successful little dump-off passes. Thomas and the Jets are well aware of the challenge awaiting them in Rice. Capable of turning broken, nothing plays into goldmine offensive strikes, Rice is the type of threat who can mess with even a veteran’s approach. But Thomas was resolute. “You have to study those things out there,” he said when asked if the unpredictability of Rice’s touches would affect his usual playing style. “You can’t let that offense dictate. You can’t let any team dictate what you’re doing out there,” though moments before, he had conceded, “It’s difficult, [those types of backs] create plays for themselves.”

Bart Scott seconded that motion. “He’s a complete back,” said Scott, referring to Rice. “His ability to hit the corner… he’s like a Jones-Drew. He can take a dump-off pass 20-30 yards. He’s Flacco’s outlet.” Head Coach Rex Ryan also echoed those sentiments. “He’s tough,” said Ryan of Rice. “He’s tremendous… Double R, as we call him, really is a target. He’s effective. He’s also effective in the screen game. He’s effective in running draws. The kid at Jacksonville is similar. He’s that kind of guy. And Maurice-Jones Drew carved us up last year.” Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine thought his unit’s core Defensive values and style made them less susceptible to deadly dinks. “That’s something we’re going to have to pay attention to,” Pettine said, regarding the Ravens’ propensity to utilize Rice and other tailbacks in the passing game. ‘We’re not a big zone drop team anyways, so I think a lot of those yards occur when the undercoverage gets too deep and that creates some separation,” he added optimistically, saying the aim of Jets’ defenders, playing mostly man, is to “hug up” potential receiving threats with tight coverage.

Notes:

Special Teams Coach Mike Westhoff seemed genuinely excited about rookie cornerback Kyle Wilson’s punt returning potential. “He’s explosive… an incredible athlete… he’s wanted to do this the whole time.” Despite the holdout of Darrelle Revis, which forced Wilson to line up with the starting unit throughout much of Camp, Westhoff made sure that the rookie was getting in his special teams reps. “Every single day, since the day he’s arrived, he’s returned punts.”

Head Coach Rex Ryan revealed that Brodney Pool was limited in practice. Pool is fighting an ankle issue.

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