Howie Long entered the Hall of Fame in 2000. (Frank Micelotta / Getty…)
Howie Long turned 53 Sunday, marking his 20th year away from pro football while working in the Fox studios in Santa Monica on the network's pre- and postgame shows as an NFL studio analyst alongside Terry Bradshaw.
Long, a Raiders defensive lineman from 1981-93 who entered the Hall of Fame in 2000, has a son, Chris, playing defensive line for the St. Louis Rams and another, Kyle, on the University of Oregon's offensive line.
This weekend, Fox will broadcast two NFC semifinals, starting with the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers on Saturday, a rematch of a season opener won by the 49ers, 30-22. On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks and their rookie sensation, 5-foot-11 quarterback Russell Wilson, play the Falcons in Atlanta.
Still reeling a bit from the Sunday drama of Seattle's comeback win over a hobbled Robert Griffin III and Washington?
"Seattle has been a great team to watch this season. It started at Chicago, winning in overtime on the road, you could see it changed their mind-set. And as Russell Wilson has grown, they've grown as a football team. I coached against him in high school. He was in Richmond, Va.; my two boys were in Charlottesville."
You projected this kind of player back then?
"It's not that you see it right away. You wonder how it'll progress from high school to college and college to pro. The tangible concern was the size. But what has really taken hold is that I believe we will look back 10 years from now on this season at how the way we evaluate quarterbacks changed dramatically. Yes, it's still hard to find a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady — the ball's out of Brady's hands on the third step and he's gone through his progression, knowing where he's going to throw based on a look, pump or fake. But what we've seen from Russell, Cam Newton, RG III, this pressure game, the mobility is a huge factor. What we're seeing out of the read option and pistol offense, it negates what defensive fronts want to do. Who takes the quarterback? Who takes the dive? Who's on contain? It dictates blitzes, but you still have to play man [coverage]. People lock in on receivers, but the quarterback may see a hole big enough to drive a Mack truck through. So he takes off, gains 15 yards and breaks the defense's back. Russell is one of those guys. He was 20 when he was 10, from a great family. Great character. Great poise and intelligence. All the things you want in that player. You want the guy who's left no stone unturned."
What are your immediate thoughts on this weekend's Fox games, starting with Green Bay at San Francisco?
"I'm not sure how much we can take from their first meeting, because Green Bay is healthier, has progressed in the running game, and I believe Aaron Rodgers wants to be throwing in the warm weather of San Francisco. Two of my favorite players are [Packers linebacker and defensive back] Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. The versatility Charles Woodson gives [defensive coordinator] Dom Capers is so numerous. He's great as a pass rusher, a run defender, blitzing. He's so gifted, and can come from any place. My big question throughout this season was how fast the 49ers could get [quarterback Colin] Kaepernick ready to take the next step. He's in that RG III, Wilson mold, and adds that extra dimension. They had to make that move to get where they want to be. He's had opportunities to grow and has stumbled. He's won in New England. Traveled back to Seattle and struggled. But Kaepernick is the X factor in [receiver Michael] Crabtree's evolution, and I think [tight end] Vernon Davis can get back to being an explosive player in these playoffs. You also need to look out for Justin Smith. He sets the table for San Francisco's defensive front seven, and I think is their defensive MVP. That includes Aldon Smith. I think Justin Smith was responsible for nine of Aldon's sacks."
Do you think we'll see Kaepernick's performance be like his game in New England, or the one in Seattle?
"He'll be like he's been outside Seattle. That place is so hostile. Put it on your bucket list if you've never been. It's so loud in there, I could be screaming in your ear standing next to you and you wouldn't hear me. And after flying to New England, coming home, and going into Seattle, that team was fried, wasted. Kaepernick will see a complex scheme from Green Bay, but his team is no longer what it was under [former starting quarterback] Alex Smith: six offensive linemen, run Frank Gore 25-30 times, win 16-14. Now they're looking for the explosive, dynamic play, with Kaepernick either running or throwing the ball deep, as he's proven he can do."
How about Sunday's Seattle-at-Atlanta game?