I know everybody still groans and laments the moment John L. Smith, in a moment predestined for infamy, cocked his head to the side at a press conference for a hard second or two, beseeched the gathered press to “SMILE!” in a manner that could best be defined as “psychotically cheery” (no, let’s go with “cheerily psychotic”), and then went about the business of jabbering about the Razorback football team he had been summoned to mismanage for a few weeks in 2012.
But this lead-in notwithstanding, I’m here to offer a special “Pearls” that proves all my misanthropic ravings of late aren’t all-consuming.
Brandon Allen toiled for multiple franchises, on and off practice squads, and had never seen the field for an NFL game. The Fayetteville native and highly productive University of Arkansas quarterback was basically reliving his collegiate experience in a way, off the radar for a couple of years. Reliable. Distraction-free. And then suddenly, fate intervened and the 2016 sixth-round pick found himself a starter for Denver when the aging and historically divisive Joe Flacco faltered and eventually got placed on injured reserve. With second-round pick Drew Lock still on IR for a few weeks himself, Allen got thrust into a start at home against Cleveland.
Allen calmly took the field and after a fruitless opening drive, caught a little fire. Courtland Sutton became a quick favorite target and Allen found him three times on the Broncos’ first scoring drive, the last of which was a pretty strike to the end zone that Allen lofted to a spot where only his rangy receiver could grab it. Later in the half, Allen found rookie tight end Noah Fant for a strike down the middle and Fant broke loose from bad tackling and raced for a 75-yard score.
Allen was 6-9 for 125 yards and two scores at that point. Denver’s defense was smothering Baker Mayfield and so even as the Browns were churning out a time of possession advantage, Allen was sharp enough early and late — he was efficient and error-free after halftime despite his production being a tad diminished — to be able to kneel three straight times and walk off the field a winner. Denver’s beleaguered fans were appreciative and Allen’s proud family, his brother Austin among them, got a lot of screen time throughout as they celebrated Brandon’s success.
It was an ironically typical game for a guy who hasn’t even seen action outside of the preseason. He was composed and resilient, and it clearly had an effect on the Broncos’ normally tepid attack. While the 24-point output wasn’t all that daunting, it was enough, and the Denver running game gave its first-time starter at QB a little bit more support in the second half.
The AFC West also boasts Hunter Henry, the tight end who was on the receiving end of a lot of Allen’s best tosses over the 2013-15 period when they guided the Hogs out of a terrible start to then-coach Bret Bielema’s tenure and ended up winning 15 games and two bowls over their final two years together in Fayetteville.
Henry’s Chargers are a mercurial group as always but he’s been remarkably consistent when healthy, emerging immediately as one of Philip Rivers’ most trusted targets. He missed the whole 2018 regular season and then had the start of this year delayed by injuries, yet in a five-game run thus far, Henry has been targeted 38 times and has a rather outstanding 29 grabs on those opportunities. Always blessed with soft hands and a great ability to run routes, he will be a huge asset as Los Angeles tries to surge in the latter part of the year again.
More impressively, Henry’s emergence as a primary receiver has also been augmented by improved blocking and leadership. The move to LA hasn’t been a safe one for the Charger franchise — with attendance at games regularly skewing toward the foe as they and the Rams await the completion of a shared stadium — but Henry’s return to health signaled optimism for a 2018 AFC upstart that had struggled so far in 2019, what with Melvin Gordon’s lengthy holdout and other organizational challenges at hand. Henry’s still young at 24, and has played in fewer than half the games in which he’s been on the roster, but his maturity and discipline have always been hallmarks and he’s showing those same qualities on a roster that’s been trending a little older the past couple of years. He’ll remain a big part of the nucleus of the roster and has a chance to carry this team into the postseason again if the dominoes will continue to fall favorably.
Eric Musselman, who didn’t take on the head basketball coaching gig with a lot of cutesy buzzwords or hashtaggery, showed off a shortened but potent roster in a season opening 48-point rout of Rice in the 2019-20 opener. Mason Jones, who was genuinely one of the biggest surprises in the SEC last year after being a lightly-recruited sophomore transfer, started his junior season with a career-best 32. His more touted backcourt mate, Isaiah Joe, chipped in with 24.
The Hogs’ defense made the real headlines just hours after two doses of disappointment came down: sophomore Reggie Chaney was suspended for undisclosed rule violations and Cal transfer and Little Rock product Connor Vanover was denied his waiver request to allow him immediate eligibility. Never you mind that Vanover’s 7-3 frame and soft shooting touch would have really been a needed asset with the Hogs boasting the “smallest lineup in the country” according to some metrics; Arkansas was starved for a commanding and versatile interior player, thanks again to the NCAA’s callous and utterly unjustifiable posture on these waivers.
Hey, wait, this is “Positive Pearls”! No more about how the Man™️ keeps anybody down here. At any rate, Rice only posted 43 against the Hogs and yes, the Owls are still one of the more mediocre Conference-USA schools, but they’re expecting to uptick again after second-year coach Scott Pera won an encouraging 13 games in 2018-19, nearly double what he had in a trying first season. And Bud Walton Arena was alive again, on a weeknight! Musselman didn’t just offer perfunctory postgame coachspeak, but dutifully dissected aspects of the game that might have outside the conventional viewer’s observation. It was refreshing, and it’s the reason that this team has promise, even if not much height.