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- Rookies coming of age

Sports Critic January 6, 2005
Sports Critic

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By Alex Fitzsimmons, email alexcolumn@aol.com

Old dogs might not be able to learn new tricks, but there’s nothing old about the four rookie sensations who have earned the right to a large ego, and the right to boast their ridiculously large contracts. These young rookies know all the tricks in the book, and they’re not afraid to use them.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Rams running back Steven Jackson, Cowboys running back Julius Jones and the most recently acclaimed, Giants signal caller Eli Manning, have all showed few signs of rookie nervousness, and more signs of battle-tested five-year veterans.

Though all four have showed tremendous acts of valor, it was the (at the time) winless Manning who recently grabbed center stage, recording his first career win over the Cowboys, and in stunning fashion.

After Julius Jones scored to propel the Cowboys to a three-point lead with less than two minutes to play, Eli was set up with a classic two-minute drill. First play of the drive, the composed Manning wastes little time, completing a pass as he’s hit to running back Tiki Barber for a first down. A 15-yard Dallas penalty moved the Giants into enemy territory. And five plays later, although it was Barber who scored to win the game, it was Manning who recognized and exploited the weakened Dallas front line, as he audibled into a new play, and handed the ball off to his running back who practically pranced his way to the victory. Manning went 2-2 passing on the drive, threw for 144 yards the entire game with 3 TD’s and 1 INT, and showed the entire football world that he’s here to stay.

On the flip side of the Dallas-Giants game, Julius Jones was running amok and turning heads like the Exorcist, though his performance just wasn’t good enough to edge Manning. Jones embarrassed and humiliated the entire Giants defense all night, breaking ankles and twisting hips as he cut and powered his way to another 100 yard rushing performance. In only 8 games, Jones rushed for 819 yards, averaging over 100 yards per game. Jones scored 7 times on the ground and even caught 17 passes. Reminiscent of another running back, who, like Jones, wasn’t particularly stocky but could tear defenses apart with his electrifying cuts. But that’s for another time.

After his team lost in Week 1, the untested Roethlisberger was slung into action, being forced to carry the burden of an entire team, a team that was not very good last season. Big Ben played shockingly great football, throwing 17 TD’s while completing 66.4 percent of his passes and earning a 98.1 passer rating. But more importantly, he led his team to a 15-1 record, with a perfect record as a starter heading into the playoffs.

Roethlisberger has shown tremendous athletic ability for a quarterback, and possesses the poise, improvisation skills and pure audacity to make big plays when little is given. Not only does he move well outside of the pocket, he stands tall within the confines of the stout, 300 lb lineman, and delivers a powerful, accurate and beautiful spiral. He seems to be maturing rapidly, and as long as he stays healthy and tries to win, not run up his stats, he will be a star in this league for many years.

Perhaps the most coveted running back in last years’ draft, Steven Jackson was skipped by the Cowboys who selected Jones instead. Jackson would find a comfortable home in St. Louis, and while splitting time with Hall-of-Fame-to-be Marshall Faulk, Jackson rushed for 673 yards, and averaged an astonishing 5.0 yards per carry. His most notable feat this season came against the 49ers, on December 5, when Jackson pounded his way to 119 yards rushing. One glaring omission in his short career has been receiving the ball. Jackson has shown inconsistency catching and indecisiveness when running routes, which is not tolerable. Though not the complete package yet, Jackson is an intimidating runner, and with time and experience, his receiving skills should improve, and he will be one of the most feared running backs in the NFL.

These four electrifying young stars, along with various others, are changing the face of the NFL and turning the tide of strategy to favor offense, and not defense, as in years past. Remember these players’ names; they will be remembered for their greatness and pure love for football.

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