ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Daniel Vogelbach sat in the stands of The Swamp when he watched it all start to fall apart. He had driven to Gainesville so he could watch his best friend, Jeff Driskel, play quarterback at the University of Florida.
Driskel had won the starting job and felt good about where the 2013 season might go. Then, after throwing an interception, he was dragged down — and his right fibula broke.
Season over. Everything else in doubt.
With his season as a minor league baseball player over, this was Vogelbach’s chance to be of assistance. He took Driskel to rehab and sat with him on the couch for hours, watching movies and television, doing what he could to take Driskel’s mind off what had just happened and what it could mean for his future.
“It was a really rough time for him,” Vogelbach said. “That was a year he was really looking forward to and it ended, obviously, really early.”
Driskel’s path to the NFL and starting for the Detroit Lions on Sunday was circuitous. Once a sought-after high school recruit, he came back from his injury and didn’t play as well as before. He was benched before transferring to Louisiana Tech for his final year of college football. It took nearly three seasons for him to start a game in the NFL.
Even when he signed with the Lions on Sept. 17, it was an afterthought — the latest shuffling by general manager Bob Quinn of backup quarterbacks behind starter Matthew Stafford, who hadn’t missed a game since the end of the 2010 season.
There was no reason to believe when Driskel signed he’d ever see a meaningful snap. Stafford had been playing well and is considered one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL. It would take a lot for Driskel to see a play, let alone a start.
Then Stafford took a hit in the fourth quarter against Oakland two weeks ago. He finished the game and went through the week of practice as if he would start — until Saturday, when Stafford was ruled out.
Last Sunday morning, despite receiving few reps during the week, Driskel found out he’d be the starter.
“That’s just been my mindset the whole time is, ‘Hey, you could be called on at any time,'” Driskel said. “And be ready to go.”
Driskel, in some ways, has been preparing for his current situation almost his entire career.
It started at Florida, where Driskel was often touted as the next Tim Tebow because they came from the same state, went to the same university and had a similar skill sets as runners and as passers. Driskel never discussed it much, but Tebow’s legacy was evident — a statue was built to honor him in 2011, months after Driskel stepped on campus.
Driskel always tried to remain himself, whether it was frog gigging or airboating in his free time. Florida was tough on him, though he did meet his wife, Tarin, there.
“I learned you have to be able to come back from rough times, because I definitely had them there,” Driskel said. “With not playing so well, getting benched and overcoming injuries … you have to keep moving forward and learning.
“Don’t put your head in the dirt, but learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Getting a foothold in the NFL took some time. He was cut by San Francisco in September 2016 and claimed by Cincinnati. He missed almost all of 2017 and then replaced Andy Dalton after Dalton was injured in November 2018. Starting five games, Driskel went 1-4 with 1,003 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Cincinnati cut him in September. Detroit signed him a week later and less than two months after that, he had to be the guy to replace the guy again — this time filling in for an injured Stafford against the Chicago Bears.
When Vogelbach got the call that his best friend was starting, he tried to figure out if he could get a ticket to Chicago and to the game. With a few hours’ notice, it was impossible — even for a player who became an All-Star for the Seattle Mariners this year. Vogelbach started reaching out to their close group of friends.
Jered Goodwin, Driskel’s high school baseball coach, happened to be close by. A lifelong Packers fan, he was at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, taking his wife there for the first time. Had he been alone, he might have changed his plans and driven to Soldier Field. Instead, he found himself in Lambeau early, staring at one of the Jumbotrons before the 4:25 Panthers-Packers game kicked off.
“I got to watch that one,” Goodwin said of the Lions-Bears game. “Pretty much the whole fourth quarter on one screen in Lambeau.”
He might have been the only person in Lambeau rooting for the Lions last Sunday, watching Driskel complete 27 of 46 passes for 269 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 20-13 loss.
Vogelbach said is not easy to watch games with him when Driskel is playing. He gets intense. People know not to talk to Vogelbach because he gets “more nervous and more psyched up than I do to play my own games.”
Vogelbach will be a wreck on Sunday. He’s planning on making the trip to Detroit when the Lions face the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, FOX). He understands what his friend went through to reach this point.
“A lot of people never thought Jeff would be taking snaps at quarterback in the NFL,” Vogelbach said. “And it’s just pretty cool how he’s really stuck to himself and put his head down. … We always had people who would doubt us. He always had people he would hear that said he wouldn’t play in the NFL.
“It’s pretty cool. I know how much it means to him.”
Vaughan Johnson, former Saints Pro Bowl linebacker, dies at 57
METAIRIE, La. — Vaughan Johnson, a member of the New Orleans Saints‘ legendary “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps, died Thursday night at the age of 57 in North Carolina, according to Saints Hall of Fame general manager Ken Trahan.
The four-time Pro Bowler had been battling kidney disease for several years and lung failure most recently, according to Trahan’s report for CrescentCitySports.com.
Johnson began his career with the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls from 1984-1985, before spending eight years with the Saints and one with the Philadelphia Eagles. Known as a punishing hitter, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder finished his career with 669 tackles, 12 sacks and 11 forced fumbles.
Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who was Johnson’s position coach in New Orleans, told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen: “He was a great teammate, loved by everyone. He was a ferocious hitter and great all around ILB. And feared by the RBs in the league when he played. Ask Roger Craig.”
Johnson is now the second member of the Dome Patrol to die at an early age, following Sam Mills, who died of intestinal cancer at the age of 45 in 2005.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling were the other two members of the fierce foursome, which produced a combined 18 Pro Bowl selections among them. They made history in 1992 by all being selected to the Pro Bowl together.
“He was one of the best players and best people I ever played with,” Jackson told Crescent City Sports. “He was never fighting with anyone, the most generous guy I ever knew. He loved everybody. He was the greatest teammate I ever had. He would hit so hard. He was a great player and a great man. I am truly going to miss him. He was my brother. He was more than a teammate. He was my great friend for life.”
Jets’ Le’Veon Bell returns from flu with season-high 87 yards
Coming off an eventful week that included a bout with the flu and a headline-making bowling party, Bell showed flashes of his old form Thursday night, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the Jets, 42-21 losers at M&T Bank Stadium.
Bell lost close to 10 pounds before missing last week’s game, but he showed fresh legs with 21 carries against a sturdy defense on Thursday. It wasn’t his fault the Jets lost for the ninth time, clinching their fourth straight losing season — the franchise’s longest drought in the Super Bowl era.
The Jets (5-9) were undermined by two turnovers by quarterback Sam Darnold and an inability to contain Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who threw five touchdowns and rushed for 86 yards in a performance that likely clinched the NFL MVP award.
With six starters inactive due to injuries, the Jets’ plan was to lean on Bell, who missed last Sunday’s game because of his illness. His absence became a bigger story when word got out that Bell had gone bowling on the eve of the game — only hours after being ruled out of the game.
Coach Adam Gase wasn’t happy that Bell was out instead of resting at home, but Bell laughed it off, noting he didn’t break any team rules. Adding levity to the story, Bell bragged that he bowled a career-high 251 “off the flu.” Video of Bell’s flu-game boast went viral.
Bell could’ve helped the Jets in one of the game’s pivotal moments — a fourth-and-1 from the Ravens’ 7 in the second quarter — but the $53 million running back didn’t get the call. Curiously, Gase called a pass play, and Darnold threw incomplete to a well-covered Robby Anderson in the end zone.
The Jets followed up that blown opportunity with another. On their next possession, with the ball at the Baltimore 25, Darnold was intercepted by safety Chuck Clark. The Jets missed a chance to slice a 21-7 deficit. They never really threatened again, as the Ravens pulled away in the third quarter.
It was an uneven night for Darnold (18-for-32, 218 yards), who came out strong with the first of two touchdown passes to wide receiver Jamison Crowder but eventually was rattled by the Baltimore blitz. In addition to his costly interception, he fumbled on a strip sack.
Darnold has 14 turnovers (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles), which ranks ninth among quarterbacks. He also missed three games due to mononucleosis.
In the offseason, the Jets expected the Darnold-Bell tandem to elevate the offense from mediocrity, but they have scored more than 24 points just three times.
This has been a frustrating season for Bell, who entered the game with a career-low 3.2 yards per carry. He doesn’t believe it’s his fault, claiming this week he has been the victim of circumstances — a patchwork offensive line and a lack of opportunities. He claimed he’ll “be back to what people are used to seeing” once he gets a full workload.
Bell began the night with 143 rushes, 14th in the NFL. His previous single-game high with the Jets was 70 yards.
Rams’ Todd Gurley stiff-arms QB Jared Goff’s compliment
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Last week, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley let his head coach shoulder the blame. This week, it’s his quarterback who intended to deliver a compliment, but perhaps didn’t find the right words.
“Sounds like I suck and then I made a good play,” Gurley said, straight faced with a shrug. “So, yeah, I guess so.”
Gurley, who has seen his workload increase in three of the Rams’ last four games, was referring to a stiff-arm touchdown run in which he battled Seattle cornerback Tre Flowers in a 28-12 victory over the Seahawks that caught the attention of quarterback Jared Goff.
So much so, that Goff stood at the podium after the win and lit up when asked about it. “He’s a bad dude,” Goff said. “It was vintage Todd.”
Vintage? Gurley didn’t think so … and made it known Thursday.
Against the Seahawks, Gurley rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and caught four passes for 34 yards. And that stiff arm? Nothing special. “Not my first time stiff arming nobody,” Gurley said. “Just a regular stiff arm.”
Gurley has played an increased role in the offense and indications point to the trend continuing Sunday.
“The approach for us is that Todd is a big-time player,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He’s shown that he’s feeling good and when he’s doing those kind of things — whether it be through the pass game, through the run game — good things seem to happen for the Rams.”
After averaging 14.9 touches per game through the first 10 weeks, Gurley’s touches have increased to an average of 21 over the last four games.
When asked Thursday how he felt at this point of the season, compared to last season, Gurley responded, “It’s Week 15 in the league, ain’t nobody feeling rested. It’s Week 15, no one in this league is feeling well rested.”
Gurley had a season-best 28 touches in a Week 11 win over the Chicago Bears. In a Week 13 blowout over the Arizona Cardinals, he had 20 touches and last Sunday when the Rams defeated the Seahawks, he had 27.
McVay recently shouldered the blame for not giving Gurley more opportunity early in the season.
“Me not being an idiot,” McVay said last week, when asked what caused him to get the ball to Gurley more.
Gurley offered no alternative to McVay’s explanation.
“He said it, I didn’t,” Gurley said, chuckling. “That’s all I got to say. I don’t have anything else to say.”
The Rams offense has appeared to benefit from Gurley’s increased production, as Goff broke a month-long touchdown drought to pass for four touchdowns in the last two games.
Gurley was asked Thursday if the offense and other teammates benefitted when he was in rhythm.
“I feel like we all feed off of each other. I don’t really have to explain too much, you see the results over the last couple of years,” said Gurley, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of the last two seasons, as the Rams won back-to-back division titles and last season advanced to Super Bowl LIII. “When we’re running the ball, stuff is going well, stuff is opening up – so it’s like, it’s not too much really to explain, just got to go out there and do it, whether it’s in the passing game or the running game.”
Gurley has rushed for 721 yards and nine touchdowns on 177 carries in 12 games this season. He also has caught 26 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown.
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