As far as impacting a game’s outcome, is Nick Foles’ performance for Philadelphia on Sunday the best by a former Arizona player in the NFL?
Foles completed a 1-yard touchdown pass — a play that he called despite his rookie status — as time expired to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win at Tampa Bay. It capped a 381-yard performance with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He became only the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 350 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a game.
Arizona has featured many former players who have played exceptionally in the NFL, mostly on the defensive end with Tedy Bruschi, Lance Briggs and Chris McAlister, to name a few. The top offensive performers include Vance Johnson — a member of Denver’s “Three Amigos” receiving unit in the 1980s — and Dennis Northcutt, Trung Canidate and Rob Gronkowski.
Bruschi’s NFL exploits are documented well by Kerry Byrne of CoolHardFootballFacts.com. Out of the top 10 games listed by Byrne, the game that stands out the most for Bruschi (in my opinion) was on Dec. 7, 2003 against Miami. Byrne’s description:
With the Patriots clinging to a 3-0 lead, Bruschi picked off a Jay Fiedler pass and returned it 5 yards for a TD with 8:55 remaining. After the touchdown, the hearty fans memorably celebrated by tossing fistfuls of powdery snow into the air, timed to the beat of Gary Glitter’s stadium anthem, “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (the “hey” song). The Bruschi-inspired celebration in the snow remains the enduring image of the NFL’s 2003 season. It was Bruschi’s fourth consecutive interception-return touchdown, making him the only player in NFL history to accomplish that feat.
The Patriots won that game 12-0 to clinch the AFC East title.
Another popular former Wildcat with the Patriots — Gronkowski — became the first rookie in New England history (and the youngest rookie in NFL history) to catch three touchdown passes in the Patriots’ 39-26 win over Pittsburgh in 2010. Madden NFL 12 has a “Rob Gronkowski Award” for players who have a tight end catch three or more touchdowns in a single game.
Last season, Gronkowski broke the NFL record for touchdowns scored in a single season by a tight end when he had the second three-touchdown game of his career in the Patriots’ 31-24 victory against the Indianapolis Colts. He finished the season with 18 touchdowns, the most by a tight end in league history. In the Patriots’ first playoff game, a 45–10 rout of the Denver Broncos in the divisional round, Gronkowski tied an NFL post-season record, catching three touchdown passes as part of a 10-catch, 145-yard effort.
Earlier this season, Briggs and teammate Charles Tillman intercepted passes and returned them for touchdowns in consecutive victories over Dallas and Jacksonville. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Briggs and Tillman are the first teammates in league history to each return an interception for a touchdown in consecutive games.
Canidate rushed for 195 yards on 23 carries in St. Louis’ 34-14 win over the New York Jets in 2001. Canidate achieved this feat by the time he was taken out with 11 minutes still remaining. That was the most yards by a first-time starter in the NFL since Gerald Riggs ran for 202 for Atlanta in 1984. Entering the game, Canidate had career totals of 17 carries for 53 yards.
”I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be,” Canidate, playing in place of the injured Marshall Faulk, told the press afterward. ”Early in the game, I noticed I was rushing a couple of things. But I felt good out there.”
I scoured the NFL record book for more possibilities involving former Arizona players and some names appeared but nothing that impacted a game’s outcome.
Foles’ 381 yards are a rookie record for the Eagles. His 51 attempts without an interception do not come close to the NFL-record mark of 70 thrown by Drew Bledsoe for New England against Minnesota on Nov. 13, 1994.
Here are the former Arizona players in the NFL record book:
— Josh Miller had seven punts downed inside the 20 for Pittsburgh against Cincinnati on Dec. 20, 1998. He is tied with two other punters for third behind the record of eight held by two punters.
— Theo “T” Bell had 10 punt returns in a game for Pittsburgh against Buffalo on Dec. 16, 1979. He is tied for second with three other players with that mark behind record-holder Eddie Brown of Washington who had 11 punt returns against Tampa Bay on Oct. 9, 1977.
— Michael Bates had nine kickoff returns for Carolina against Atlanta on Oct. 4, 1998. Bates is tied with many players for second with that number behind two players who had 10.
— McAlister had a 107-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown on Sept. 30, 2002, against Denver when he played for Baltimore. That was an NFL record at the time, but it has since been passed by three players. Antonio Cromartie of San Diego has the longest return of 109 yards against Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2007.
The most impressive out of these performances is Miller’s punting against the Bengals and McAlister’s uncommon return off a missed field goal.
Miller kicked seven of his eight punts inside the 20 against the Bengals, but the Steelers lost that day 25-24.
McAlister’s return in Baltimore’s 34-23 win over Denver on Monday Night Football was changed from 108 to 107 yards two days after game when the Elias Sports Bureau reviewed tape of where Jason Elam’s badly missed goal landed. The return was still the longest play in NFL history until 2005 when Chicago’s Nathan Vasher returned a missed field goal 108 yards against San Francisco.
Following a highlight-reel block by Ray Lewis on Keith Burns at the Baltimore 5, McAlister ran to his left and cruised toward the end zone. He began celebrating at the Denver 35 and high-stepped into the end zone before a stunned Broncos team and coach Mike Shanahan.
“That’s actually how we set it up,” McAlister was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “You go back and get them to try and go to sleep. Then you go ahead and bring it to our sideline, and everyone sets up a nice wall.”
Former Arizona safety Al “Bubba” Gross was also involved in NFL history, the subject of the league’s first use of the instant replay in 1986. On the third play of the Chicago-Cleveland game, referee Ben Dreith called for a view of the instant replay to determine whether Gross recovered a Bears’ fumble in the end zone.
The replay showed that Gross had possession of the ball before leaving the end zone, giving the Browns a touchdown in their 41-31 loss to the Bears.
The late Bell, Arizona’s best receiver before the Wildcats joined the Pac-10 in 1978, caught two passes for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIII against Dallas. They were in the third quarter, one of which resulted in a first down. They were not game-deciding receptions by Bell in Pittsburgh’s 35-31 triumph, but catching a pass in football’s biggest stage is worth noting.
Game-winning field goals of note belong to Nick Folk, who was a place-kicker at Arizona from 2005-2008, and whose name sounds very much like Nick Foles.
Folk made a last-second 32-yard field goal in the New York Jets’ 17-16 wildcard playoff win over Indianapolis in 2011. Veteran announcer Al Michaels made the calls of the historic plays made by McAlister and Folk.
Longtime announcer Dick Stockton called Foles’ memorable game against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Those kind of announcers add to the achievements because of their stature and the way they called the plays.
Folk also was responsible in beating Miami 23-20 in September with a 48-yard field goal in overtime.
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner