Fan balloting came to a close on Monday and on Tuesday, NFL players and coaches cast their final votes for who they would like to send to the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl.
The results of that voting will come later this week but in this corner of the league, there is a strong belief emerging that one Rams in particular has earned the right to represent the team in Hawaii: defensive end
“I would think so,” defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. “He’s battling a little bit of an ankle right now, so he’s a little bit slow, but Chris has done a great job for us and I think this question was asked at the beginning of the season. I think Chris is on a natural progression. I think he’s gotten better every year that we’ve been here. He’s a Pro Bowl player in my mind, but I’m not the guy voting. But I certainly think he’s done a great job for us and I see him that way.”
Long’s Pro Bowl chances will probably be hindered by a loaded group of defensive ends in the NFC that includes Minnesota’s Jared Allen, Philadelphia’s Jason Babin, San Francisco’s Justin Smith, New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul and Chicago’s Julius Peppers, among others.
When evaluating defensive ends, the sack total is usually the number that jumps out the most and dictates how people view performance. In that regard, Long sits fourth among NFC defensive ends behind Babin, Allen and Pierre-Paul. His 13 sacks are tied for fifth in the entire NFL.
On closer examination, though, Long’s numbers stand up to anybody in the league. Among NFC defensive ends, Long is first in combined quarterback hurries and knockdowns with 29.5. (19 knockdowns, 10.5 hurries) according to Stats Pass.
Long posted similar numbers in knockdowns and hurries last year but was able to bring the quarterback down just 8.5. times. If 2010 was his breakout year, 2011 is his breakthrough year in which he’s announced to the league that he’s going to terrorize quarterbacks for a long time to come.
“Rightly so people have asked a lot of questions about Chris Long,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He’s in his fourth year in this league. I think he’s blossoming. I think the best thing that’s happened to him, he’s been in the same system for three years. We’ve been smart enough to keep him at the same spot and I just think he’s gotten comfortable and we’re seeing what I think everybody expected to see out of Chris Long when he came in the league.”
The always humble and self-effacing Long sees things from a different perspective than those who have heaped praise upon him.
While Long is happy to be getting home more often this year, he’s generally the first to point out that he couldn’t achieve what he has without the help of talented linemates such as
Take his 13th sack, registered last week against the Bengals as a prime example.
“It’s definitely a byproduct of my teammates were rushing the passer and we’re all just rushing the passer,” Long said. “God willing, I was able to hustle on one today and run him down.
What Long says about effort may be true but it still remains fact that nobody on that line has expended more energy or sacrificed more to help the team than Long himself.
In the Nov. 20 game against Seattle, Long suffered an ankle sprain that has slowed him down and forced him to watch practice from the sidelines for the better part of the past month.
“I knew someone was wrong with it right away and these types of injuries tend to linger,” Long said. “It bugs me not being able to practice. I’d like to be out there. With this type of deal, they try to limit the wear and tear on it. They just try to get me to Sunday and they’ve done a great job getting me to Sunday. I’ve tried to keep it rolling.”
Missing practice has been a pox upon Long’s competitive spirit but the coaching staff has done everything possible to ensure they have the services of their top pass rusher come gameday.
“The injury has been an up and down thing through the week, but Sundays are a sure thing,” Long said.
Long has indeed kept it rolling despite the injury slowing him down and not practicing during the week.
With two games remaining, Long can continue to add to his career-high total and, with just a half a sack more, will pass the best total his father Howie ever posted.
Long has always maintained there are other factors to look at when evaluating a defensive end than sacks but doesn’t deny that he can use those totals to determine if he’s getting better from year to year.
Now in his fourth year in the league, Long has improved his sack total in each season.
“I had 8 1/2 last year,” Long said. “The way I look at those numbers is a barometer of where your career is. If you can get to double figures, I'm fortunate to get to it. A lot of good things have to come together. Certainly, it's not just me. It's my D-linemates. It's some good fortune. I've worked really hard, and it's a blessing to be able to perform.”
The prospect of landing a Pro Bowl berth doesn’t really move the needle for Long much as he looks at the many talented players who play his position around the league. If it happens, he’d be grateful to many but he’s not concerning himself with the outcome.
“I don’t even like talking about that really,” Long said. “It’s a great honor, but it’s not really why I play the game. I can name four or five guys with bigger names and better careers than me who are in the NFC. It’s not really an issue for me.”
That doesn’t mean it will keep his teammates and coaches from heaping praise upon him for what he’s done in a season in which he’s played through injury and done it at the absolute highest level.
“Chris Long is a warrior and is emerging as one of our strongest leaders,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s probably the two highest compliments I can pay to him. He is battling through an ankle injury. It’s one of those that’s not getting better every week and he wants to be out there practicing. He told me the other day, “Coach, I want to go out there with my guys.’ I said, ‘Well look we want to be smart, trusting the trainers and get you to the game.’ He’s been a bright spot for us.”