Monthly Archives: September 2014

Bad play call and bad no-call cost Colts

INDIANAPOLIS — Let’s get this out way: The officials missed the call when Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin held Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton as the Indianapolis Colts were trying to extend their seven-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Everybody saw the hold except the officials. Colts coach Chuck Pagano didn’t hide his anger when he saw the replay on the video board inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night or when he talked about it during his postgame media conference following the 30-27 loss.

“I think I had the same view as you did,” he said.

Hilton added, “Yeah, he pulled me down, but they missed it, so it’s cool.”

OK, that’s taken care of.

The real issue on the play was the Colts’ decision to put the ball in the air when it wasn’t necessary. They had the ball third-and-9 at Philadelphia’s 22-yard line with the clock running.

These weren’t the Colts of the past year who needed quarterback Andrew Luck’s arm to win a game. They had success running the ball Monday night. Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 149 yards on the ground. Indianapolis could have run the ball on third down, killed some more of the clock and then kicked the field goal to push its lead to 10 points with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.

That wasn’t good enough for them.

“We knew we had the field goal in the bag,” Pagano said.

The Colts spent the week planning for different situations, but Philadelphia’s quick-fire offense obviously put some fear into them, so they got greedy in an attempt to go up by two touchdowns.

“Touchdowns are better than three points,” Luck said. “We had been running the ball obviously very well. But I thought we also converted some big third downs throwing the ball. If we can convert that, then we had a good chance.”

Greediness ended up getting the best of the Colts.

Luck thought he had Hilton open, but Boykin grabbed the receiver as he was making his cut on the play. No flag was thrown, and Malcolm Jenkins picked off the pass.

“I think everyone saw what happened on the play,” Pagano said. “The last thing we said to the quarterback was take care of the ball. If the guy gets tackled, drug down, whatever it was, there’s nothing the quarterback can do about it. Our thinking was wrong.”

In a matter of one bad play call and a no-call by the officials, the Colts went from looking like they were going to pad to their lead to staring at the back of Darren Sproles’ jersey as he took a short pass and raced 51 yards to put the Eagles in the position to tie the game with less than four minutes remaining.

The Colts have played two games and failed to take advantage of their opportunities in each of them. Now they sit 0-2 with their odds of making the playoffs at only 12 percent.

“There’s no falling back on ‘We’re a young team and we’re still learning,’” Colts tight end Dwayne Allen said. “The whole ‘young’ title is out the door. We’re a football team, and we’re an experienced football team. We’ve proven we can win football games, and these first two games are something we’ve proven that we can win and we just haven’t done that. All we can continue to do is work on our craft.”

49ers ‘smart’ but Bears WRs too physical

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Strolling through a dark hallway in the empty visitor’s locker room at Levi’s Stadium after a 28-20 win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall stopped to lean his rolling bag against the wall.

“I can’t tell you everything, man,” he said.

Chicago overcame a dismal opening half in which San Francisco’s defensive backs — armed with the knowledge Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were hobbled all week by injuries — sat on every route, basically daring the Bears to try to throw it deep. The game plan worked beautifully early on for the 49ers, given Marshall and Jeffery weren’t at full speed and never improved. Yet Chicago found a way to overcome it.

The Bears made subtle adjustments in the way quarterback Jay Cutler targeted his outside threats, and the club took advantage of short fields provided by Kyle Fuller’s two interceptions. The result was that the receivers were able to outmuscle San Francisco’s defensive backs as Marshall caught three touchdown passes in one game for just the second time in his career.

“They were mixing it up,” Cutler said. “They were sitting on our stuff — 8, 10, 12 yards — they were kind of sitting out there. They were showing shell, matching up underneath. They had a good game plan.”

With reports circulating all week of Marshall’s right ankle injury and Jeffery’s strained left hamstring, not to mention all the drama in pregame warmups regarding whether they’d play, San Francisco’s defensive backs knew Chicago’s receivers wouldn’t just run right by them to haul in deep balls from Cutler. So they sat on routes, ready to jump short throws for potential interceptions.

“They were smart about how they played us,” Marshall said. “We knew that if we did end up throwing it deep, it would just be a jump ball.”

San Francisco corners Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver limited Marshall and Jeffery to a combined one catch for 4 yards on three targets in the opening quarter. By the end of the first half, the duo had caught a combined three balls on nine total targets for 30 yards and Marshall’s first touchdown.

“They did a good job game planning us defensively,” Bears coach Marc Trestman admitted.

But Marshall one-handed a 17-yard touchdown pass over rookie free safety Jimmie Ward with just 18 seconds left in the first half. That scoring strike ignited the offense, Trestman said. That drive, which spanned 80 yards, allowed Cutler to work his chemistry in the red zone with Marshall, who in turn was able to outmuscle safety Jimmy Ward.

Niners safety Eric Reid admitted the size of Chicago’s receivers gave his team problems, adding that “Cutler made some good throws in the red zone, [and] they made some good catches.”

Jeffery’s final numbers were modest — three catches for 47 yards — but his 29-yard grab over Culliver set up Marshall’s final touchdown. Marshall pointed out he finished the game with just 48 yards receiving and that his last two TDs came from 5 and 3 yards out in the fourth quarter. He added that “it’s not like me and Alshon got any better” in terms of their physical condition.

Marshall declined to discuss whether Cutler adjusted throws to target his back shoulder, which would allow him to use his physicality. But the receiver admitted San Francisco “knew” he and Jeffery weren’t at full speed, “and they were smart to play us like that. You’ve got to give them credit.”

“I was really frustrated,” Marshall said. “I tried to stay positive and it worked. We just stayed in it and believed if we could get in the end zone just once, we’d be able to build off that.”

That’s precisely what transpired Sunday.

Expect More Touches for Jamaal Charles Against the Broncos

Missing two defensive starters is not the way Kansas City hoped to head into a matchup against Peyton Manning, who shredded the Chiefs in a pair of Denver Broncos’ victories last season.

Coach Andy Reid is confident Kansas City can overcome the unfortunate circumstance, but he’s also likely focusing on how to get Jamaal Charles more touches during Sunday’s matchup in Denver.

The Chiefs lost linebacker Derrick Johnson and tackle Mike DeVito to ruptured Achilles tendons in last week’s season-opening 26-10 loss to Tennessee, forcing Kansas City to make some roster moves.

It signed tackle Kevin Vickerson, who spent the last four seasons with the Broncos and could start immediately, and promoted linebacker Jerry Franklin from the practice squad.

Reid said he isn’t sure how much either will play Sunday, but he knows his team can’t dwell on the injuries.

“The other guys haven’t had as many reps. I hate to get into that because it sounds like you’re belly aching up here and that’s not what we do,” Reid said. “The next guy, we expect to come in and play.”

Stopping Manning will be difficult no matter who is on the field. He threw for 323 yards and a touchdown in a 27-17 victory over previously undefeated Kansas City on Nov. 17 and 403 yards and five TDs in a 35-28 win Dec. 1.

Manning has thrown 11 touchdowns while winning all four matchups with the Chiefs since joining the Broncos, but he still believes he’ll have a tough task ahead of him.

“You hate to see what happened to DeVito and Derrick, those are two excellent players,” Manning said. “But they’re going to have guys step up like all well-coached teams do.”

The Chiefs enter as a heavy underdog after last week’s loss, when Charles had seven carries for 19 yards and four catches for 15. Charles finished fourth in the NFL in offensive touches last season, and Reid expressed regret for not getting his primary threat the ball more.

Quarterback Alex Smith didn’t have much of an explanation, either.

“We just failed to get him the ball. Absolutely. One of our biggest playmakers, if not the biggest playmaker,” Smith said. “Certainly need to get him involved more. That’s on all of us, though. For me, I’m kind of worried about executing and doing my job.”

Charles averaged 4.9 yards per carry against Denver last season, and he’s expecting to play a big role this week.

“I want to see the ball more and coach knows that,” Charles said. “It’s a long season, just one game. We can get worse or we can get good. My job is to get the team good.”

Kansas City also could benefit from the return of receiver Dwayne Bowe, who served a one-game suspension last week for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

“We’ll ease him back in,” Reid said. “He really hasn’t done much for a few weeks. He had the quad (injury) there before his suspension.”

The Chiefs may need plenty of offense to keep pace with the high-powered Broncos, who jumped out to a 24-point lead before hanging on to beat Indianapolis 31-24 in their season opener last Sunday night.

Manning threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns — all to tight end Julius Thomas in the first half — but Denver gained only 87 of its 361 yards in the second half.

“We’ve got to find a way to play all four quarters as an offense,” Manning said. “Thank goodness the defense picked us up when the offense wasn’t doing their job quite as well.”

Denver’s only second-half score came on a 3-yard run from second-year back Montee Ball, who finished with 67 yards on 23 carries. It marked Ball’s first career start after playing last season behind Knowshon Moreno, who left for Miami.

“I thought Montee ran really hard,” Manning said. “I just kind of liked the look in his eye in his first start. I think he’ll just keep getting better all season.”

Facing the Kansas City defense again might inspire Ball. He rushed for a career-best 117 yards in the last meeting, including a 45-yard scamper that helped him average 9.0 yards per carry.

Another solid performance from Ball certainly would help, especially in an important early season matchup with an AFC West rival.

“I think our division is the toughest division in football,” Manning said. “You throw what happened last week out the window. It’s a division game, two teams very familiar with each other, physical football and that’s how we’re going to have to play on Sunday.”

Ben Roethlisberger has to elevate his play

Ben Roethlisberger Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense were out of sync against the Ravens.

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers, in spite of themselves, hung around on a sticky Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

They trailed the Baltimore Ravens by just a touchdown, and the offense was on the move near the end of the first half when Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass that sailed over the head of 6-foot-5 tight end Heath Miller.

The Steelers punted instead of getting a fresh set of downs inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line.

And that errant pass defined their dismal night as much as the three turnovers they committed and the nine penalties that also had coach Mike Tomlin fuming during a terse postgame news conference.

The Ravens beat the Steelers 26-6 at M&T Bank Stadium. What should be most troubling to Tomlin, who is 17-17 in his past 34 games, is that Pittsburgh has been outscored 50-9 in its past six quarters.

True, the defense may actually be worse at stopping the run than it was last season, which was considered an outlier. But the offense was expected to carry the defense until the young players got more experience and the new players got a grasp of the system.

Roethlisberger, after looking shaky in the second half of the Steelers’ 30-27 win over the Browns, was pedestrian in his second start.

The 11th-year veteran completed 22 of 37 passes for 217 yards against the Ravens. He missed three open receivers when the outcome still hung in the balance.

Roethlisberger didn’t lose the game, but he didn’t come close to conjuring up some of the magic that he has before in Baltimore.

Four years ago, Roethlisberger played through a broken nose and late in the game he held off Terrell Suggs long enough to throw away a pass. The next play he threw for the game-winning touchdown. Two years before that, Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a 12-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to beat the Ravens.

Those games seem like they are from a bygone era.

And maybe they are with all of the turnover of personnel that has taken place since the Steelers played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10.

Roethlisberger though is the one player who holds the Steelers together and gives them hope, and his wide receivers could have given him a little more help Thursday night.

Maybe Justin Brown was supposed to stop in the middle of the field on a third-down pass that Roethlisberger threw behind him in the second quarter. Maybe Markus Wheaton and even Pro Bowler Antonio Brown could have done a better job fighting for balls that Roethlisberger gave them a chance to catch.

But the reality is that Roethlisberger has to raise the level of play of everyone around him, not the other way around.

And he has to start with himself if the Steelers are to have any chance of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons.

No Abraham would be a blow to defense

TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s a good thing Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians doesn’t have any hair.

If he did, he’d pull it all out after this week.

Arians got more bad news Tuesday about his defense, the foundation for last year’s second-half run. John Abraham, who suffered the first reported concussion of his 15-year career during Monday night’s victory over the San Diego Chargers, took a leave of absence Tuesday. He has five days to decide if he’ll return to the team or hang it up for this season and possibly for good.

There’s a personal side to this that renders football meaningless. A man who dedicated his life to the sport has been plagued by memory loss for more than a year, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

And, of course, there’s also a football side. Without Abraham, the Cardinals’ defense takes another hit, having already lost a pair of inside linebackers, Daryl Washington (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (free agency) and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (injury). Through one game, Arizona’s ability to absorb the losses has been impressive.

Take those four and add safety Yeremiah Bell, whom the Cardinals didn’t re-sign during the offseason, and Arizona has lost 49.9 percent of its tackles from a year ago and 56 percent of its sacks.

Losing Abraham for the year might be the knockout punch.

With him on the field last season, opposing quarterbacks had a completion percentage of 57.5 percent compared to 62.9 percent when he wasn’t on the field. The Cardinals had 42 sacks, 20 turnovers and 16 interceptions with Abraham and five sacks, seven turnovers and four interceptions without him.

Sam Acho will be charged with filling in if Abraham decides not to return. With Alex Okafor still recovering from a thigh injury, the Cardinals are thin at outside linebacker. Behind Acho and fellow starter Matt Shaughnessy will be Thomas Keiser and Marcus Benard, who was added with the roster exemption given to the Cardinals in Abraham’s case. Beyond that, Arizona also could use Lorenzo Alexander, who started the first three games of last season at outside linebacker but was replaced by Abraham when he got injured in Week 3.

“It’s the next guy in there,” Arians said. “Each guy is individual. John has his moves, which they’ve been pretty good for a long time. Sam has his and Sam has a high motor. Matt, even Marcus got around the quarterback during camp, so that’s something that doesn’t change anything you do.”

Keiser, who saw more playing time Monday after Abraham went down, will have a larger role in New York against the Giants, Arians said. When a player of Abraham’s caliber is on the field, Keiser said teams tend to game plan for them, which in turn helps other pass-rushers.

Combined, the group that’s up next combined for 11 sacks last season — a half-sack less than Abraham. That needs to improve if Arizona has plans of playing in January. The Cardinals were held without a sack in Week 1 for the first time since the 2013 opener, a run of 15 straight games.

“We just need production,” Alexander said. “Everybody’s going to be a little bit different. You don’t have a whole bunch of John Abrahams just walking around here.

“Whether I get three or four sacks, Marcus gets three or four sacks, as long as we get that same type of production whether it comes from one guy or five guys, that’s all that matters.”

Bisciotti moves Ravens in right direction

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The apologetic letter by owner Steve Bisciotti is a step in the right direction for the Baltimore Ravens.

He acknowledged the Ravens made mistakes in how they handled the domestic violence incident with Ray Rice. He was critical of the organization for not pursuing the video more vigorously.

The only way the Ravens can truly move past this black mark on the franchise is by finally saying, “The Ravens messed up.” Bisciotti took accountability for not getting his hands on the biggest piece of the Ray Rice puzzle. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could learn something from the letter.

“We did not do all we should have done and no amount of explanation can remedy that,” Bisciotti said in the letter.

Bisciotti did attempt to provide full disclosure and did so in intricate detail. After writing “you deserve an explanation,” Bisciotti followed that with 887 words of explanation.

The question that needed to be answered is how the Ravens never obtained the video of what happened in the elevator. Bisciotti explained that the team was denied a copy of the tape by the casino, the New Jersey State Police and the prosecutor’s office.

Instead of saying the Ravens did all they could to get the video, Bisciotti explained how they stopped trying to seek a copy after the charges against Rice went from simple assault to aggravated assault. The team decided to let Rice’s situation play out in court.

“We halted our fact-finding,” Bisciotti wrote. “That was a mistake on our part.”

Even after the Ravens did the right thing in releasing Rice, Bisciotti never said so. The tone of the letter was about not doing enough.

“Seeing that video changed everything. We should have seen it earlier,” Bisciotti wrote. “We should have pursued our own investigation more vigorously. We didn’t and we were wrong.”

Where Bisciotti and the Ravens fell short is how they communicated this message. Fans deserved more than a letter a full day after the Ravens released Rice. This should have been said in front of cameras as soon as Rice’s release was announced, not written and handed out to season-ticket holders, suite owners and sponsors.

Still, the highest-ranking official on the Ravens came out and acknowledged that the franchise had erred. He takes responsibility for failing to get the most critical piece of evidence regarding Rice.

The Ravens aren’t going to move past this embarrassing incident for some time. But Bisciotti started the process of going forward by taking accountability.

Giants with nothing to like about opener

DETROIT — The worst part for the New York Giants was that they didn’t have anything they could feel good about. Week 1 is supposed to be about optimism and looking forward with hope. But after a 35-14 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Monday night, the Giants couldn’t come up with anything positive to say about their performance.

“No excuses. We played very poorly,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “We don’t have a lot to be proud of here. It was a nightmare performance.”

Coughlin wasn’t happy about the pass protection, as the Lions registered two sacks and nine hits of Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He was unhappy about a running game that gained 53 yards on 22 carries. He was upset about the breakdowns in pass coverage that allowed Calvin Johnson to perform like the video-game version of himself to the tune of seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns, and that allowed Golden Tate to gain 44 yards on a key third-and-11. He was unhappy about Manning’s two interceptions and the inability of receivers Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle to make plays.

Everybody was unhappy. We even asked defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, who had a good game stopping the run, whether he felt good about that at least. He did not.

“Right now, I don’t feel like I did a good job of anything,” Jenkins said. “I feel like we could have made it a lot easier on our secondary if we’d played better up front.”

Safety Antrel Rolle said “there definitely wasn’t enough fight” in his team in its first game of the season. And after the mess they made of last season, all of the changes they made in the offseason and the grief they took from outside critics in the preseason, you would have thought that wouldn’t be a problem.

Instead, those who endured last year’s 0-6 start seemed to be experiencing a sick and familiar feeling as they dressed and packed and headed for the plane.

“We shouldn’t be talking right now about comparing the way we lost to last year,” Jenkins said. “We should be talking about what we learned from last year, and how that made us better.”

But they weren’t, and the reason was the familiarity of the overmatched feeling they felt on the field. The Lions came at them with star players at wide receiver, running back, defensive line and, of course, quarterback. The Giants looked like a patchwork science project of a team whose pieces aren’t good enough on their own to scare anyone and don’t yet fit together in any kind of productive way.

“How are guys that you don’t know going to respond to adversity now?” linebacker and newly minted team captain Jon Beason asked. “We have a new group of guys here. Owning up to what you did wrong is the first step, and it’s an important one.”

Tuesday and Wednesday aren’t going to be fun days for the Giants as they review what went on in their first game of the season. To make sure the feeling doesn’t repeat itself, they must correct the mistakes and start playing better. The long-term problem is that they may not have enough quality players on this roster to allow them to do that. The short-term problem is that Monday night’s opener didn’t offer any evidence to the contrary.

Tez eases into captaincy; Andre probable; Dennard questionable

Vontaze Burfict, thought to be the youngest captain Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has ever had, is also one of the most ready even though he’s three weeks shy of his 24th birthday.

In fact, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get one up on Burfict since he usually shows up to work at Paul Brown Stadium by 6 a.m.

“I don’t have to change the way I am, but I do want to make sure I’m crisp on what I do in practice,” Burfict said. “There are guys who have been in the league nine, 10 years that are looking up to me. I have to be on my A game.”

He certainly deserves the title of captain since his teammates voted on it earlier this week. Really, no surprises. De facto captains Andrew Whitworth on offense and Domata Peko on defense joined the four quarterbacks, Burfict on defense, Andy Dalton on offense and Cedric Peerman and Vincent Rey on special teams.

“Hard work pays off. I lead by example. I just have to watch what I do because everyone’s watching me,” Burfict said. “It’s not surprising because I felt like I am the captain of the defense. I feel like I’ve earned it and I feel like I’ve to be a role model for the young guys and lead by example.”

Young guys?

Burfict may be just 23, but he’s got enough skins on the wall to cover the study of an accomplished veteran at the top of his profession. He’s already got 30 NFL starts, two more in the postseason, nearly 400 tackles, an NFL tackling title, a Pro Bowl berth and he calls the signals for the NFL’s No. 3 defense that solved four Super Bowl championship quarterbacks last season.

Carson Palmer, another young captain, didn’t make his first NFL start until he was 24.

“(Burfict has) played a lot of football since he’s been here,” Lewis said. “He’s one of the guys that we have. They grow up very fast when they’re young. I guess, as they say, as more is given, more is asked, or however that goes. He’s been given the responsibility and we ask a lot of him.”

Burfict has a daily routine at the office that is certainly worthy of following if anyone can stand it. On the days the Bengals work, he’s in his car by 5:45 a.m. and at PBS by 6 a.m. He works out, gets in the cold tub and basically gets his mind right by about 7:30, 7:45. Then he runs back home, gets a home-cooked breakfast, and is back for morning meetings.

Call it Tez Time.

As the only guy in the locker room at that ungodly hour of the morning, he’s listening to gospel. While getting his ducks in a row, he’s listening to his music and not everyone else’s and he says whatever it is, it’s slow. Much of the time its gospel and often Kirk Franklin.

“I get to think before everybody else thinks,” Burfict said. “I wake up, pray, listen to my Bible verses, get in the cold tub, work out. I get my stuff done.”

The kids are watching.

ANDRE PROBABLE: After Friday’s practice, Lewis sounded like right tackle Andre Smith (concussion) is going to start Sunday’s opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) in Baltimore even though he didn’t play a preseason game. And he was officially listed as probable on the injury report.

Before the injury report came out, Lewis was asked about Smith’s ability to hold up and he said he’s worked every snap of practice the last two weeks but was ruled out of the last two preseason games. Without saying he’s playing, Lewis said it won’t be a game-time decision and the practice pace isn’t much different than a game.

“It’s a little bit different, but not much the way we practice,” Lewis said. “He’s going to be playing against good guys. He’s played against good guys out here. He’s played against Carlos (Dunlap), Margus (Hunt), and Robert (Geathers) and Wallace (Gilberry) out here the last two weeks. He’s played football, but he hasn’t had to finish football, but he’s played football.”

The Bengals held their last full-scale workout before Sunday’s game on the Paul Brown Stadium field Friday morning. The turf is similar to the M&T Bank Stadium surface in Baltimore, where the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio is calling for temperatures in the lows 80s under partly cloudy skies with no chance of rain and light winds out of the northeast at six miles per hour.

All looked good up front, where the left side of the offensive line returned from Thursday’s veteran rest day. With linebacker Sean Porter (hamstring) and wide receiver James Wright (concussion) still nursing injuries and listed as doubtful, here is a guess at Lewis’ inactive sheet that must be produced 90 minutes before the game:

Wright, Porter, wide receiver Marvin Jones, running back Rex Burkhead, defensive end Will Clarke, and offensive linemen Tanner Hawkinson and T.J. Johnson.

Dennard (hip) didn’t practice for the first time this week Friday after being limited, but even though Dennard virtually hasn’t played since the opener, Lewis said he wouldn’t have a problem playing the first-round pick.

“Darqueze is a very good football player. I don’t need to see him do anything else. He did it all this spring. I have no reservations about his ability whatsoever,” Lewis said. “If we have Darqueze up and active, he’ll be ready to go.”

Geno’s turnaround began against Raiders

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The play that changed it all for Geno Smith occurred Dec. 8 against the Oakland Raiders.

Granted a reprieve after a halftime benching the previous week, the low point of his rookie year, Smith returned to MetLife Stadium for a game that had season-defining potential. It started badly, a first-quarter interception (his 20th) that resulted in boos and a stern, nose-to-nose lecture from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Facing the possibility of another benching, Smith trudged out for the next series.

Then something magical happened — a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley, who made a twisting adjustment and caught the floater with his back to the goal post, falling down. It was like a plunge into a cold swimming pool on a summer day. Actually, it was a jump-ball situation, with five players in the area — three Oakland Raiders defenders, Kerley and Santonio Holmes, who was in the neighborhood because he ran the wrong route. Kerley, only 5-foot-9, soared above them all. They all went down like bowling pins, five guys crashing to the turf.

The normally reserved Smith celebrated with two flying chest bumps. It was his first touchdown pass in six games — six! — and, in retrospect, it was a turning point. Over the final three-plus games, he threw only one interception in 108 attempts, convincing the Jets’ brass to give him another season.

“To come back from that interception, it was just a big confidence boost,” Kerley said Wednesday, reflecting on the low and the high of Dec. 8. “All that momentum, all that adrenaline, he rode the wave of it. Hopefully, that wave hasn’t stopped.”

Fittingly, Smith will begin his 2014 surfing against the Raiders, who return to New Jersey for the season opener. The expectations, of course, have changed. Even though he’s still developing at the position, Smith is expected to develop and win. The honeymoon is over. Another 8-8 season isn’t good enough. Yes, Michael Vick is lurking in the background, but the feeling around the team is that Smith won’t be yanked at the first sign of trouble. Rex Ryan believes in him.

“The whole team has confidence in him,” Ryan said. “Take off from where you left off. That’s all he needs to do.”

Ryan has emphasized the “take-off-where-you-left-off” theme with Smith, hoping he can build off his strong finish. It’s a natural storyline for us folks in the media, but Smith wasn’t buying into it. Oddly, he refused to answer any questions about last season, not even the softball questions about how much he has improved or how his confidence has grown. There was an edge to him as he stood in front of his locker, addressing reporters.

“I don’t want to talk about last year,” he said several times during the interview session — or a variation of that.

We can give Smith the benefit of the doubt, assuming he already is wearing his regular-season blinders. You know, game face on. Thing is, there’s no way to tell the Smith story without referencing last season. Even Ryan didn’t mind going there, recalling his emotions as he prepared for the 2013 opener with a neophyte at quarterback.

“Come on, running game, just run that ball,” Ryan said, laughing.

Ryan’s counterpart, Dennis Allen, probably is thinking the same thing as he prepares to embark on a season with rookie Derek Carr at quarterback. Carr played well in the preseason — Smith didn’t last summer — but none of that matters anymore. The preseason was elementary school, the regular season is grad school. The fronts are ever-changing and the coverages are confusing.

No one knows this better than Smith, but he wasn’t in the mood to share his thoughts on what Carr could expect during his NFL indoctrination. Remember, Smith is looking forward, not backward, although he acknowledged this much about himself:

“There’s a different level of maturity in myself and in all of us, that’s just life. You’re going to grow, you’re going to get older, you’re to get better if you work at it, and I’ve been working hard. My teammates, I think they respected me last year, but the respect factor has gone up.”

Ryan said he wants Smith to “just do your thing.” They expect to see a new Geno, a quarterback who found a wave — and maybe himself — with a jump-ball pass that found the right guy in December.

Perfect fit: America’s Team and Michael Sam

SamJoe Robbins/Getty Images

A struggling Cowboys defense could use Michael Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year.

IRVING, Texas — If there were ever a team built to add Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, it’s the Dallas Cowboys.

Sam, expected to join the practice squad if he passes a physical Wednesday, will fit right in.

Just like Deion Sanders did. And Bill Parcells did. And Terrell Owens did. Hey, this is America’s Team, the NFL’s most polarizing franchise.

No other franchise is even close.

That’s why they’re still a regular part of the league’s prime-time television package even though a generation has grown up in north Texas with no clue the Cowboys used to rule the NFL.

Love them. Or hate them. You can’t live without them, which is why whatever the Cowboys do — even signing a player to the practice squad — still makes big news.

While other teams might’ve been reluctant to sign Sam because they feared his presence would be a distraction that’s a non-factor in Dallas where Jerry Jones believes the more mini-cams the better.

These players are used to having a locker room full of media every day during the season. Five, 10 or 20 more isn’t going to be a big deal.

Remember, Jerry is a marketing genius who believes every word written or spoken about the Cowboys, positively or negatively, is good for business.

Jerry’s approach is among the reasons the Cowboys have one of the world’s most recognizable logos.

Remember there’s an article in the current edition of ESPN The Magazine in which Jerry bemoans the fact he didn’t draft quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, “because it would’ve kept the Cowboys relevant for 10 years.”

See, to Jerry, a player who keeps the Cowboys in the headlines is as important as a player who helps them win. A player who can do both is invaluable.

Frankly, there’s no one who can tell you absolutely why Sam is getting an opportunity in Dallas.

The Cowboys didn’t like him as a player as they researched him leading up to the draft. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants a defense built on speed and quickness, which is not Sam’s forte.

The Cowboys had the 16th, 23rd and 33rd picks in the seventh round and passed on Sam each time.

Maybe, the Cowboys’ perspective has changed because the defense has the potential to be the worst statistical unit in NFL history. Then again, he could be joining the Cowboys’ practice squad because it’ll help Jerry sell even more Cowboys’ jerseys than he does now.

After all, Sam’s jersey has been among the highest-sellers since the Rams took him in the seventh round.

Those of you who deal in conspiracy theories will find it interesting that news of Josh Brent’s reinstatement — he’s eligible to play Week 11 — arrived a couple of hours after news broke that Sam would potentially be joining the Cowboys’ practice squad.

If Sam can contribute to the Cowboys’ raggedy defense then great, but Jerry is always beyond thrilled anytime he can create one more reason for folks to talk, write or lead their sportscasts with the Cowboys.

It’s no accident Forbes recently valued the Cowboys at $3.2 billion, making them the NFL’s most valuable franchise. Imagine, how much the Cowboys would be worth, if they actually won some games?

The Cowboys are 136-136 with one playoff win since the start of the 1997. They’ve missed the playoffs each of the past four years and most people think coach Jason Garrett will be fired if the Cowboys miss the playoffs again.

The Cowboys are expected to have one of the NFL’s worst defenses, so giving last year’s SEC defensive player of the year a chance to earn a roster spot isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

The Cowboys gave up 27 points and 415.3 yards per game last season, and they’re without their top three players from that unit. DeMarcus Ware (Denver) and Jason Hatcher (Washington) left via free agency and Sean Lee tore his ACL and is out for the year.

The current unit is filled with journeymen, youngsters trying to make a name for themselves and veterans determined to reclaim their careers.

Since Saturday, the Cowboys have traded a conditional pick to Tennessee for defensive end Lamar Evans and signed Jack Crawford and linebacker Korey Toomer to the active roster.

Sam, trying to prove he can play in the NFL after a great college career, should fit right in.

One way or the other.