- David Fleming, ESPN The Magazine
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Sure, he now has his own signature salsa TD dance and, of course, a Chunky Soup commercial featuring his "mom" (or, rather, an actress playing his mom), but Victor Cruz didn’t truly become a household name until he entered the most powerful star-making machine in our culture: the NFL playoffs.
A year ago Cruz capped a breakout season (82 catches, 1,536 yards) with a killer 99-yard TD catch on Christmas Eve in a pseudo-playoff game and followed that up with 10 catches for 142 yards in the NFC Championship Game. And the next thing you know, the demand for the former undrafted rookie free agent from FCS school UMass was so great he was given his own podium at Super Bowl Media Day in Indy.
A few days later Cruz took his final step into the zeitgeist when a record audience of 111.3 million watched him salsa dance in Bill Belichick’s face after catching the first TD pass of the Super Bowl from Eli Manning.
The NFL playoffs have become so popular that every January at least one player goes on a dizzying meteoric rise from relative obscurity to superstardom in less than a month. (It works both ways, of course -- just ask last year’s Championship Game goats Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams.)
So, on the eve of the NFL playoffs, using the 10 most typical star-making vehicles of the postseason, the Flem File attempts to handicap for you which players are the most likely to become this year’s Victor Cruz.
1. RIDE THE BUS
This is a form of playoff insta-stardom best illustrated by former Steeler Jerome Bettis. (For hockey fans, it’s also known as "The Ray Bourque.") It’s when a team goes on a heartwarming mission to get a beloved veteran player one last shot at a Super Bowl ring.
• This year's nominee: Yes, London Fletcher, 37, already won a ring (with the Rams) but the Redskins’ ageless linebacker -- who makes all the calls on the field and averaged almost 10 tackles a game during Washington’s seven-game winning streak -- is, in my mind, one of the most underrated players of all time and deserves all the attention he can get. Even though we all know most of it will go to rookies Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III, who was in third grade when Fletcher was an NFL rookie.
• Also in the running: Future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez of the Falcons has 1,242 catches in 16 seasons but just 16 catches in five playoff games. If Gonzalez’s career receptions represent one 60-minute football game, his catches in the postseason add up to 48 seconds. And a last-second entrant: The Ravens’ 13-year vet Ray Lewis, who announced that he will retire when the playoffs end for the Ravens.
2. "THE GOOSE"
Before the 2000 playoffs, Tony Siragusa was a rotund 340-pound nose tackle for the Ravens who had spent a decade in the trenches with very little to show for it. Then, in the AFC Championship Game, Goose steamrolled Raiders QB Rich Gannon, knocking him out of the game and helping the Ravens, and their historic defense, capture their only Lombardi trophy. With two weeks on the world’s stage leading up to the Super Bowl, Siragusa parlayed the Gannon play and his super-sized personality (and appetite) into a mini post-career empire of TV work, books and acting. Every playoff since has turned NFL fans and media into a collection of chubby chasers, looking for the next big, lovable, nasty nose tackle -- e.g., B.J. Raji, Casey Hampton, Vince Wilfork -- to emerge from the trenches and steal our hearts and our hamburgers.
• This year's nominee: Right now I’ve got my eye on Isaac Sopoaga of the 49ers. The 330-pound defensive tackle from American Samoa plays in a top defense and has just the kind of oddball star power to become a household name.
• Also in the running: The Ravens’ tandem of 350-pounders, Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Haloti Ngata.
3. TEDY SIX-PACK MODEL
If former Pats LB Tedy Bruschi doesn’t work for you, try former Steelers linebacker James Farrior or former Colts defensive captain Gary Brackett. With fewer games to follow and more coverage in the playoffs, we can finally watch close enough to appreciate the smart, quiet, driven players who don’t normally get a lot of attention even though they make up the heart and soul of their defense and always seem to make the big plays in the biggest moments.
• This year's nominee: The Patriots’ Rob Ninkovich led the team with eight sacks and also registered 58 tackles and five forced fumbles. He’s got a bad hip, though, and the Patriots’ front line just isn’t the same without his calming influence up front.
• Also in the running: Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway is having a monster seventh season, leading the team with 148 tackles. He recently got into a bit of trouble for saying fans needed to drink heavily before the regular season finale against Green Bay. Oh, please. I’ll tell you when Greenway should apologize for telling fans to drink heavily -- right after Roger Goodell gives back the $1.2 billion the league got from Anheuser-Busch.
4. PEYTON’S PLACE
During his first five years in the league, Brandon Stokley set his career high for TD receptions in a season with three in 2003. With Peyton Manning as his quarterback, he matched that number in just three playoff games in 2003. Manning elevates his game in the playoffs to a level that makes good receivers look like Hall of Famers. Seriously, at times it looks like they are just running downfield and, thanks to Manning, the ball just appears in their hands, as if teleported. You know when this happens because a small part of you thinks: Jesus, I could make the Pro Bowl as a wideout in the Broncos offense. It started with Stokley in 2003. Then Dallas Clark in 2006. And Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, both in 2009.
• This year's nominee: Broncos wideout Eric Decker just gets Manning. And by that I mean he sees the same things and makes the same pre-snap reads as Manning does and, oh yeah, he almost never drops the ball. (Peyton hates that. I once saw him cuss a little under his breath when a kid at his summer camp dropped a perfectly thrown ball in the end zone.) Decker was targeted 36 times in his last five games and caught 31 (86 percent, if my math is correct -- and there’s probably a 47 percent chance that it isn’t.)
• Also in the running: It just so happens Stokley is on the Broncos roster. Tight end Jacob Tamme also has a shot if Manning decides he trusts him beyond just first and second down.
5. THE SCOTT NORWOOD EFFECT
It’s not always a good thing to become famous during the NFL playoffs. Case in point: Norwood, the Buffalo kicker who missed wide right on a last-second field-goal attempt in 1991 that would have won Super Bowl XXV. More recently, ex-Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, who missed a kick that would have sent last year’s AFC Championship Game to overtime, as well as the 49ers' Kyle Williams, who fumbled twice in the NFC title game, found out how it feels to get burned by the postseason spotlight.
• This year's nominee: Yeah, I’m not exactly a softie or anything -- ask Jay Cutler -- but there’s no way I’m predicting who might disgrace themselves in front of 111 million people during the next month. No way.
• Also in the running: But I will say it’s either gonna be Beyonce, a defensive back, a kicker or a quarterback. Ever heard of Steelers QB Neil O’Donnell? Exactly.
6. THE LARRY FITZGERALD METHOD
During the Cardinals’ run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season Fitzgerald became a household name (and set himself up for one of the most lucrative contracts in NFL history) after catching 30 passes for 546 yards (not a misprint) and seven TDs in four playoff games. In the pass-happy NFL, at least one receiver makes a name for himself in every postseason.
• This year's nominee: Snubbed by the Pro Bowl after hauling in 94 catches for 1,434 yards (15.3 YPC) and 10 TDs while quickly getting up to speed in Peyton Manning’s offense (no small task), Denver’s Demaryius Thomas is going to make the Pro Bowl look like an even bigger joke -- if that’s possible.
• Also in the running: The Bengals can’t win without throwing the ball to wideout A.J. Green. I mean that literally. Cincinnati is 2-6 when Green is held below 50 yards receiving and the team’s best back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, has a bad hammy. So the stage is set for Green.
7. STEEL CURTAIN MODEL
This could just as easily be named after the PURPLE PEOPLE EATERS, the ORANGE CRUSH or even the NO-NAME DEFENSE. The old adage "Defense Wins Championships" no longer applies to the NFL. Last year’s Super Bowl between the Giants and Pats featured two of the worst defenses in the NFL and this year, half the teams that qualified for the playoffs rank in the bottom half of the league in defense. But nasty defenses with great monikers that bully their way to the Super Bowl can still become household names, I’m sure of it. We love this plot because it makes us look like more authentic, tough-guy football enthusiasts.
• This year's nominee: Seattle’s Legion of Boom. Okay, the name needs work, a lot of work, but this defense sure doesn’t. Ranked fourth overall, this unit features amazing rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner, who leads the LOB with 140 tackles. But most of the Boom and all of the ’tude comes from Seattle’s nasty trio of DBs: Richard Sherman (eight picks and an NFL-best 18 passes defensed); safety Earl Thomas and former CFLer Brandon Browner, who’s back after serving a four-game suspension for banned substances.
• Also in the running: The Atlanta Falcons have a vastly underrated secondary but no nickname. Denver has the No. 2-ranked defense and, now that pot is legal in the state, we could change the nickname to The Orange Kush. Or, we could go with Houston’s Electric Company D (No. 7) led by -- wait for it -- J.J. Watt.
8. GRONK INC. METHOD
After a monster playoff run in 2011, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was everywhere, including naked on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue. Who doesn’t love a big, physical, sure-handed knucklehead who keeps drives alive with clutch catches on third down and is an impossible matchup for defenses in the red zone? In last year’s playoffs, of the 10 highest scorers at receivers, five were tight ends.
• This year's nominee: Well, this is odd. But, really, the most likely player to recreate the amazing playoff run of Gronk ’11 is Gronk ’12 (11 TDs), who should be rested and ready to go after hurting his hip and missing five weeks with a busted forearm.
• Also in the running: The Texans’ Owen Daniels is 6-3, 250 pounds, has 62 catches and six TDs and has a knack for finding soft spots in coverage, especially when teams roll coverage toward Andre Johnson. But he may be too chill to get sucked into the NFL’s star-making machine. I also think the Ravens’ Dennis Pitta, who lit up the Broncos for 125 yards and two TDs on Dec. 16, could also become a household name if he helps Joe Flacco make a long playoff run.
9. MANY HAPPY RETURNS
The uber-violent, super-high-speed and explosive nature of kick returns for touchdowns make them one of the most exciting, game-changing plays in the postseason. After practically reinventing the position, the Bears' Devin Hester opened Super Bowl XLI with a 92-yard TD return before the smoke from the pregame fireworks display had even cleared off the field. The thought that the league might outlaw kick returns due to player safety concerns makes it even more likely someone could ride this storyline to stardom in the next month. (But don’t worry about kick returns going bye-bye. No way owners who have recently invested millions in returners will vote to abolish kickoffs.)
• This year's nominee: With his 98-yard TD return against Miami in Week 12, Seattle’s Leon Washington tied the NFL record with eight kickoff returns for a touchdown.
• Also in the running: Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones leads the league in kick-return average (30.7 yards) and has returned two kicks and a punt to the house. Maybe Jones and Washington could recreate the epic kick-return duel between New York’s Ron Dixon and Baltimore’s Jermaine Lewis in Super Bowl XXXV.
10. THE ADAM VINATIERI PLAN
It’s OK to admit that you don’t pay any attention to kickers until the Lombardi trophy is on the line -- we all do the same thing. (Don’t even get me started on what a blatant lie it is that special teams are somehow 1/3 of the game.) But thanks to unprecedented parity every year, it seems several playoff games come down to the foot of some little guy in a Halloween-costume football uniform that no one’s ever heard of. Take last year’s championship games: Billy Cundiff chili-dips a 32-yard field goal and the Ravens fall short of the Super Bowl while Lawrence Tynes nails a 31-yarder in OT to punch the Giants’ ticket.
• This year's nominee: In the year of the rookie, it figures that the best kicker in the postseason is the Vikings’ rook Blair Walsh, who is 10 of 10 from beyond 50 yards.
• Also in the running: With the 49ers’ kicking game in shambles, there’s a chance for a major redemption story here. If he survives his bake-off in San Fran, it could still be David Akers. Or, how about this storyline: Cundiff wins the job in San Fran and this time he beats the Patriots in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on a 32-yard field goal.