Blackhawks

Another award for Johnny Manziel

955877.jpg

Another award for Johnny Manziel

From Comcast SportsNetJohnny Manziel ran for almost 1,700 yards and 30 touchdowns as a dual-threat quarterback his senior year of high school at Kerrville Tivy.Who would have thought he'd be even more impressive at Texas A&M when pitted against the defenses of the Southeastern Conference?On Tuesday, Manziel picked up another major award for his spectacular debut season. He was voted The Associated Press Player of the Year. As with the Heisman Trophy and Davey O'Brien Award that Manziel already won, the QB nicknamed Johnny Football is the first freshman to collect the AP award.Manziel's 31 votes were more than twice that of second place finisher Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's start linebacker. He is the third straight Heisman-winning quarterback to receive the honor, following Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton.Manziel erased initial doubts about his ability when he ran for 60 yards and a score in his first game against Florida."I knew I could run the ball, I did it a lot in high school," Manziel said in an interview with the AP. "It is just something that you don't get a chance to see in the spring. Quarterbacks aren't live in the spring. You don't get to tackle. You don't get to evade some of the sacks that you would in normal game situations. So I feel like when I was able to avoid getting tackled, it opened some people's eyes a little bit more."The 6-foot-1 Manziel threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,181 yards and 19 more scores to help the Aggies win 10 games for the first time since 1998 -- and in their inaugural SEC year, too.Ryan Tannehill, Manziel's predecessor now with the Dolphins after being drafted eighth overall this season, saw promise from the young quarterback last year when he was redshirted. But even he is surprised at how quickly things came together for Manziel."It's pretty wild. I always thought he had that playmaking ability, that something special where if somebody came free, he can make something exciting happen," Tannehill said. "I wasn't really sure if, I don't think anyone was sure if he was going to be able to carry that throughout an SEC season, and he's shocked the world and he did it."After Manziel sat out as a redshirt in 2011, Texas A&M's scheduled season-opener against Louisiana Tech this year was postponed because of Hurricane Isaac. That left him to get his first taste of live defense in almost two years against Florida.He responded well, helping the Aggies race to a 17-7 lead early using both his arm and his feet. The Gators shut down Manziel and A&M's offense in the second half and Texas A&M lost 20-17.But Manziel's performance was enough for Texas A&M's coaching staff to realize that his scrambling ability was going to be a big part of what the Aggies could do this season."The first half really showed that I was a little bit more mobile than we had seen throughout the spring," Manziel said. "Me and (then-offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury sat down and really said: Hey we can do some things with my feet as well as throwing the ball.' And it added a little bit of a new dimension."Manziel knew that the biggest adjustment from playing in high school to college would be the speed of the game. Exactly how quick players in the SEC were was still a jolt to the quarterback."The whole first drive I was just seeing how fast they really flew to the ball and I felt like they just moved a whole lot faster," he said of the Florida game. "It was different than what I was used to, different than what I was used to in high school. So it was just having to learn quick and adjust on the fly."He did just that and started piling up highlight reel material by deftly avoiding would-be tacklers to help the Aggies run off five consecutive wins after that.His storybook ride hit a roadblock when he threw a season-high three interceptions in a 24-19 loss to LSU. But Manziel used it as a learning experience, taking to heart some advice he received from Kingsbury."He just told me to have a plan every time, before every snap," Manziel said. "Make sure you have a plan on what you want to do and where you want to go with the ball.""I feel like as the year went on, I just learned the offense more and knew exactly where I wanted to go, instead of maybe evading the blitz and just taking off running for the first down instead of hitting a hot route or throwing it underneath to an open guy and doing things a lot simpler and cleaner."The Aggies and Manziel rebounded from the loss to LSU by winning their last five games, highlighted by their stunning 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 10.By the time Manziel wrapped up a 253-yard passing and 92-yard rushing performance to lead Texas A&M to the victory in Tuscaloosa, you could hardly call him a freshman anymore."You keep growing and growing every week," he said. "By the time I played Alabama I had a much better grasp of the game than I did in the first one."The 4,600 yards of total offense Manziel gained in 12 games broke the SEC record for total yards in a season. The record was previously held by 2010 Heisman winner Newton, who needed 14 games to pile up 4,327 yards. The output also made him the first freshman, first player in the SEC and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.Manziel, who turned 20 two days before taking home the Heisman, has been so busy he hasn't had a second to step back and digest the historical significance of his accomplishments this season.He's far more concerned with helping the Aggies extend their winning streak to six games with a win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4 in the Cotton Bowl."I think it will happen after the bowl game and after the season is completely over," he said. "I'm just ready for it to die down a little bit and get back into a practice routine where we get better and hopefully do what we want to do in the bowl game."He'll have to do it without his mentor Kingsbury, who left A&M last week to become coach at Texas Tech, where he starred at quarterback not that long ago. Manziel said is happy Kingsbury got to return to his alma matter, but is still adjusting to the idea of playing without him."I'm the happiest guy on the face of the earth for him," Manziel said, speaking from California where he appeared on the "Tonight Show" Monday evening. "I think he deserves it with how hard he's worked this year to get us where we were. It's bittersweet though, because I'd like him to be here for the entire time that I'm here."Manziel is eager to get back on the field for the Cotton Bowl and is focused on helping the offense pick up where it left off in the regular-season finale."Even though Kliff Kingsbury's not here anymore, we just need to continue to get better and do what we do," Manziel said. "Push tempo, go fast and be the high-flying offense that we have been all year."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

11-22_nhl-matchup_hawks-at-lightning_blank.jpg

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

brianurlacher.png
USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.