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Sunday Football notes

Grogan reflects on his record-setting feet

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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Panthers rookie Cam Newton needs three rushing touchdowns in his final five games to break the season record for a quarterback, which is 12.

Newton was asked about the current record-holder.

“You don’t know anything about Steve Grogan, do you?’’

“Who’s that?’’ Newton replied.

“He’s the guy whose rushing record you might break in a few weeks. Played for the Patriots back in the 1970s.’’

“Back in the ’70s? No, I don’t,’’ Newton said. “Don’t know anything about him.’’

Back at Grogan Marciano Sporting Goods in Mansfield, the Patriots Hall of Famer wasn’t surprised.

“The young players today don’t know much about the history of the game,’’ said Grogan. “I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but we used to read books about the guys that came before us and how the game was played.

“The kids nowadays, if it’s not on a video game, they don’t know anything about the past.’’

That’s not to say that Grogan is upset that Newton will likely break his record in short order.

“He’s a tremendous athlete,’’ said Grogan, “and to be quite honest with you, I’m surprised the record has lasted as long as it did.

“Guys like Randall Cunningham and Kordell Stewart and Michael Vick . . . and now you’re getting a lot of guys that have come from college programs where they run that spread offense and run a lot. Guys like [Tim] Tebow and Newton, and there’s going to be more and more of those kind of guys coming into the league that are going to score touchdowns by rushing.

“It’s a totally different game now. It’s amazing me to that it’s lasted almost 35 years.’’

Grogan set the record during the magical season of 1976 when the Patriots went from 3-11 to 11-3 and a playoff berth under Chuck Fairbanks.

He was made aware of the record when he scored two touchdowns in the penultimate game at Schaefer Stadium against the Saints to tie Johnny Lujack (Bears, 1950) and Tobin Rote (Packers, 1956) with 11.

Grogan said he would have stayed tied if it weren’t for his offensive linemen: left tackle Leon Gray, left guard John Hannah, center Bill Lenkaitis, right guard Sam Adams, and right tackle Tom Neville.

In the season’s final game, the Patriots led the Buccaneers, 24-14, late at Tampa Stadium and had the ball at the 1-yard line.

“I was going to take a knee,’’ Grogan said. “It was actually the rest of the offensive linemen on the team that said I needed to break the record, and we ran a quarterback sneak and I scored and broke the record and Tampa got mad because we ran the score up on them.

“They were spouting off, but it was just not my record, it was the guys that were playing around me. We had a great offensive line that year and they wanted to be a part of that record. That’s how it wound up happening.’’

Grogan, a fifth-round pick out of Kansas State, was in his second season. He rushed 60 times for 397 yards (6.6-yard average) but said his touchdowns were the result of the offense the team ran and his lack of refined quarterback skills.

“I think a lot of them came on run-pass options down in the goal line area,’’ Grogan said. “I don’t recall very many of them being scrambling touchdowns.’’

There was one memorable touchdown that season when Grogan ran 41 yards against the Jets on a broken play.

“It was supposed to be a Statue of Liberty play, and Sam Cunningham didn’t statue, he just libertied,’’ Grogan said with a laugh. “I wheeled around and took his place and hit the crease.’’

Grogan also scored from 6 yards out in the same game when he advanced a fumble.

The Patriots bowed out of the playoffs with a 24-21 loss against Oakland - a team they had beaten, 48-17, in the regular season - thanks to the infamous roughing the passer call against nose tackle Ray “Sugar Bear’’ Hamilton.

“That actually should have been the first Patriots team to win the Super Bowl,’’ Grogan said. “Outside of a crazy call in Oakland, we probably would have gone on to win the Super Bowl.

“Pittsburgh was the next opponent and they were all banged up. Minnesota would have been the Super Bowl team we would have played, and they never could win a Super Bowl.

“We had a great bunch of young guys that we had gotten from trading Jim Plunkett in the offseason and a bunch of veterans that were just great leaders on that team, so it was a fun bunch to be around.’’

Grogan never received a ball or any type of commemoration from the Hall of Fame for his record, though he did have a football card made with the designation included.

A fan was kind enough to frame a classic red No. 14 jersey and have a plaque emblazoned with the record (though it says “13 touchdowns’’). It’s hanging in the store.

But whether or not Newton breaks Grogan’s record, it won’t change much for the still down-home and tough-as-nails former Patriots quarterback.

“Like they say, records are made to be broken,’’ Grogan said. “I’m happy to have had any kind of record. When I came into the NFL, I was a nobody from nowhere, and my running ability bought me time to learn the passing game and I hung around for 16 years.

“A lot of these guys that come in that are great runners aren’t able to adjust to the passing game when they can’t run anymore. It will be interesting to see how [Newton] handles the next 10 or 15 years of his career.’’

BUSTING A BRONCO

Tricky Tebow is a handful

Dropped by NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., last Monday to watch the coaches’ film of the Patriots’ win over the Eagles with Greg Cosell, the analyst behind “State Farm NFL Matchup’’ on ESPN.

We also took a long look at the Broncos’ overtime win against the Chargers to take the pulse of Tim Tebow Mania, since the Patriots will be facing him Dec. 18 in a game that will likely be flexed to “Sunday Night Football’’ on NBC.

It was eye-opening. Here are some thoughts:

The Broncos offense has been and will continue to be a problem for a lot of teams, because they do a lot of different things with personnel and formations, and the packages seem to be expanding with every game.

Teams are having so much trouble defending the read-option (when Tebow reads the defense and either gives the ball to the fullback, keeps it, or options to the running back) because it’s unlike anything they’ve defended before.

“Since that started in the middle of the season, they’re difficult to prepare for,’’ Cosell said. “It’s a run-first offense with a lot of different looks and a lot of action in the backfield, whether it’s a read-option or a receiver coming in motion into the backfield.

“There are a lot of things that happen that you have to digest mentally when you play the Broncos offense. And I think teams right now are uncertain how to translate that from the blackboard in their study during the week to the field on Sunday.’’

The Chargers, who play a 3-4 defense, made some nice halftime adjustments, where the outside linebacker would crash the fullback (regardless of whether he had the ball) and the inside linebacker would replace him and defend Tebow. But that takes a lot of discipline that most players and teams aren’t used to. You have to get it right every single time.

“Defensive linemen and outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses do not like to play against this because they have to be so assignment-oriented,’’ Cosell said. “They want to rush the quarterback. When you play the Broncos, that concept sort of goes out the window.’’

Tebow is a legitimate player in that offense. It is still painful to watch him throw because he has that same long motion from his college days - he was supposedly working on it leading up to the 2010 draft - but he can run this offense.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that offensive linemen much prefer to run-block than pass-block (center J.D. Walton was outstanding against the Chargers), but Tebow is a better runner than people think. His greatest strengths are being able to avoid the big hit and see the play as it develops.

“He’s a far better runner than he’s given credit for,’’ Cosell said. “I think he’s instinctive, I think he has great vision, he’s physical, and I think he’s a little faster than he looks. There are times where you think he’s going to be tackled, that someone may have an angle, and he’s able to avoid that.

“The question is, can that work long-term?’’

The Patriots should be able to expose the Broncos’ limitations, for a couple of reasons. The first is Tom Brady. He could get the Patriots ahead by two scores and make the Broncos pass.

Also, the Patriots have the type of versatility, in scheme and personnel, and the discipline it takes to defend the read-option for 60 minutes. Whichever way Bill Belichick wants to defend it - as a 3-4, 4-3, 5-2, or whatever - the Patriots can carry it out.

And you know Belichick will have the right plan. How many years did he watch film or practice with his father, who coached and scouted against these very schemes over his long career at Navy?

It’s a shame Steve Belichick isn’t around to see this or offer advice, but we have a feeling the son has this one by himself and will relish the old-school challenge it will present.

ETC.

Nickel package

1. The NFL is probably a little uneasy with a proposed casino directly across the street from Gillette Stadium - which makes it a little different than other close-by establishments in St. Louis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay - but the Krafts wouldn’t move forward with this idea unless they knew they could do it. After what Robert Kraft sacrificed for the new collective bargaining agreement, we have a hard time seeing anyone standing in the way of the Foxboro casino - besides the residents of Walpole, Wrentham, and Norfolk. Stay tuned.

2. It sure sounded like a shot at Colts president Bill Polian when Bill Belichick told ESPN Radio, “I’m also proud of the fact that without Tom Brady, we still won 11 games in 2008. We have a good program here.’’ Belichick has never been averse to taking subtle shots at his Indianapolis rival, but his comment was more about the question that suggested everything starts with Brady.

3. Some Patriots fans pay no attention to certain stats about the defense (still last in passing yards allowed) and point to others (11th in points allowed). The fact of the matter is, the Patriots were eighth and fifth the previous two seasons in points allowed, and that didn’t work out so well. They’re executing better, but we won’t know anything until the playoffs.

4. Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, a pending free agent, has cost himself millions with his play - or lack thereof - the past two games.

5. Bills receiver Stevie Johnson obviously shouldn’t have put his team in a bad spot with his touchdown celebration that mocked Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg. But, sorry, we thought it funny. If you’re dumb enough to put a gun into your sweatpants, you’re going to be mocked.

New England update

Will Blackmon, the Boston College product from Cranston, R.I., and Bishop Hendricken High School, is back in the NFL after some challenging medical situations. He signed with the Giants Nov. 23 and played against the Saints last Monday night, when his forced fumble helped the Giants get the ball back. Blackmon was a standout punt and kick returner in his previous five seasons, mostly with the Packers, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2006. That’s when his issues started. He broke a bone in his right foot before his rookie season, which was limited to four games. He played only nine games in ’07 because of a foot injury. In ’08, his only healthy season, Blackmon had two of his three career punt returns for touchdowns. He then tore his ACL in 2009, and after coming back in 2010, he wasn’t quite right. He was cut by the Packers and signed by the Giants before they realized his knee wasn’t right. “It didn’t fuse properly, and the Giants recommended that I do the surgery again,’’ Blackmon said. After a long rehab, Blackmon said he now feels his healthiest in two years. At no point did he ever give up hope. “Yeah, a lot of guys probably would have shut it down, but I stuck with it,’’ he said. “I’ve always been a football player, so I never thought about quitting. Football is something that I’ve wanted to do since I was coherent [as a child]. They’re going to have to carry me off because I’m not going to come off. I love being back and with this organization. It’s first-class with great people.’’

By the numbers

1: Touchdown scored by the Chiefs in their last 45 possessions. They have kicked six field goals.

3: Teams from the AFC North that would be in the playoffs if they started today - the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals. The last time three teams from one division made the playoffs was 2007 - the Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins from the NFC East.

4: Consecutive road victories by the Broncos. A win at Minnesota would give Denver its longest road streak since 1998, its second of two straight championship seasons.

7: Consecutive seasons that a team with a losing record after 11 games has made the playoffs.

View from the outside

From Aaron Schatz of Boston-bred FootballOutsiders.com: “The Patriots have recovered only 29 percent of fumbles this year (their own and opponents, but not muffed punts), which is the lowest rate in the league. Their 14 fumbles chances are lowest in the league. The Saints (33 percent), Packers (35), Chiefs (36), and Colts (38) round out the bottom five. The top five: Bears (70 percent), Cardinals (67), Bengals (64), Texans, and Jaguars (63).

Short yardage

The remaining strength of schedule for the teams battling for the top two seeds in the AFC (easiest to hardest): Patriots (8-3), .327 winning percentage; Ravens (8-3), .345; Texans (8-3), .418; Steelers (8-3), .473; Raiders (7-4), .527; Bengals (7-4), .545 . . . There is definitely a new sheriff in town for the Jaguars in interim coach Mel Tucker, who replaced the fired Jack Del Rio. Only punter Nick Harris beat Tucker to the field before the first practice. Why? “Because I think everything’s important, so I need to see as much as possible,’’ Tucker said. It was a country club-type atmosphere under Del Rio. With Tucker, all the players were on the field promptly. The tempo was so good that practice finished 18 minutes early . . . Yes, that was former Patriots tackle Steve Maneri (now a Chief) who gave Troy Polamalu a concussion when the Steelers safety tried to tackle him . . . Former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore was back at the Jets facility last week in his role as consultant. Rex Ryan talks to Moore at least once a week and exchanges e-mails, while offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer keeps constant contact. “We’d like to have him here more,’’ Ryan said . . . Browns receiver Joshua Cribbs said he is “fed up’’ with losing and seemed irked about his place in the offense. Asked if he was satisfied with his opportunities, he said after a pause, “I just won’t answer that.’’ . . . The league switched the Broncos-at-Vikings game from CBS to Fox as part of the flex scheduling plan to help boost Fox’s coverage of early games today. Fox had only two other matchups in the 1 p.m. slot, both involving teams in the South.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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