The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
01 Nov 2005
by Ned Macey
After surviving the toughest early season schedule of any team in the league, the Jaguars played in St. Louis their first of six consecutive games against teams with losing records. Plus they were facing a Rams team that was missing its starting quarterback, two starting receivers, and its best defensive player.
The Rams were sitting at 3-4, hounded by controversy surrounding head coach Mike Martz, and just praying to get to the bye week without incident and come out healthy on the other end. With all this in its favor, it seemed that Jacksonville should have steamrolled the battered Rams. Instead, the Jaguars lost 24-21.
But the Jaguars did not play poorly. They simply suffered the inevitable fate of a team with a propensity for close games.
Counting the Rams game, the Jaguars have had five of their seven games this year decided by a touchdown or less. A season ago, the Jaguars played eleven games decided by less than a touchdown. In the first seven of these 16 close games, the Jaguars were 6-1. In the most recent nine, they are 5-4. Close games are apt to be decided by a few crucial plays, and eventually the bounces will even out.
Why does Jacksonville play so many close games? A deficient offense that despite major investment remains a substandard unit. Over the past three seasons, the Jaguars have used all three first-round picks and two second-round picks on offensive players. They have been added to veteran stalwarts Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor. Despite these additions, according to our advanced metric DVOA (which measures each play and compares it to the league average based on the situation and is further explained here), the Jaguars have an average offense, ranking 16th in the league.
Last year, the Jaguars had a disappointing season using Bill Musgrave's version of the "West Coast" offense. In the off-season, the Jaguars brought in Carl Smith to implement a run-heavy offense with a vertical passing game. This new offense was designed to help disappointing 2004 first-round pick Reggie Williams and 2005 first-round pick/uber-athlete Matt Jones. Quarterback Byron Leftwich has a rifle for an arm, making this vision all the more appealing.
Vision is not reality, however, as the Jaguars have been unable to get competent play from their young receivers. By our measurement of DPAR, which measures the points contributed above a replacement player, Jones and Williams have combined to be 3.2 points below replacement, i.e. worse than a theoretical backup player. The problem is not Leftwich, who by our measurements is having a season roughly equivalent to the more-heralded Eli Manning. Williams missed some time on Sunday with an injury, but when in the game, he caught a grand total of zero passes. The fact that Ernest Wilford, a little-used fourth-round pick, starred with 145 receiving yards in Williams' absence is all the more damning. Jones, for all his vaunted speed, caught only short crossing routes and a touchdown that resulted from a blown coverage rather than any particular skill on his part. For the season, "Speedy" Jones is averaging 9.2 yards per reception and has yet to record a catch of even 20 yards.
The Jaguars still have the aging Jimmy Smith, whose decline would be more obvious but for the fact that he still is clearly the best receiver on the team. Smith has an above-average DVOA of 9.7 percent, which is a solid number. Smith has only caught 47 percent of the passes intended for him, however, and his decline was never clearer than on a fourth-and-1 play from the 25-yard line where Leftwich looked for Smith streaking down the sideline but found him with no separation.
On defense, the Jaguars rank among the league's best by both traditional measurements and our DVOA rankings. This defense is very talented, but the Jaguars have benefited from several breaks along the way.
In Week 3, they played the Jets in the game where Pennington's shoulder actually disintegrated, leading to a 9-of-19 performance with two interceptions. Despite this, the Jaguars had to pull the game out in overtime. In Week 6, they got the Steelers' Tommy Maddox game. In one of the worst performances of the year -- non-Alex Smith division -- Maddox was 11-of-28 with three interceptions, including one in overtime that was returned for a touchdown by Rashean Mathis. This week they got the Rams without Bulger, Torry Holt, or Isaac Bruce.
The Jaguars schedule has still been tough, with games against healthy Colts, Bengals, Seahawks, and Broncos teams, but their ridiculously demanding schedule was certainly eased by injury. Had they faced healthy quarterbacks, they could easily be 2-5.
For the Rams, the early results of the Joe Vitt era have to be encouraging. Taking over in the chaos of Mike Martz's medical condition and the ensuing rumors that Martz has coached his last game for the Rams, Vitt has brought stability. Going into undefeated Indianapolis, Vitt's crew jumped out to a 17-0 lead before an injury to Bulger completely changed the complexion of the game. Missing Bulger, Bruce, and Holt the past two weeks, Vitt has guided the Rams to consecutive victories â€” the first two games Jamie Martin has won as a starting quarterback after 13 years in the NFL.
Despite his limitations, Vitt and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild have asked Martin to make some plays so that Steven Jackson has room to operate in the running game. Jackson pounded away for 97 yards a week ago against the Saints before exploding for 179 yards on 25 carries against the Jaguars. As an added bonus, Jackson made the biggest play of the fourth quarter on a 19-yard screen pass, rumbling through for a touchdown that gave the Rams the lead. It was Jackson at his best as he ran through a series of defenders while showing enough elusiveness in small spaces to slip into the end zone.
For the season, Jackson has been the third most productive running back when used as a receiver according to DPAR. Increased use of Jackson in the passing game is a wise move. A year ago, in very limited opportunities, he was productive when catching the ball. He has enough speed to make plays in the open field, and he is too physical for defensive backs to bring down by themselves.
One final key for the Rams this season is the sudden turnaround of their special teams. In this game, it was obvious thanks to a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. For the season, the Rams rank a mediocre 16th in Special Teams DVOA. Some might call this middle of the road, but in St. Louis it is cause for celebration. Last year, they ranked last, and the 31st ranked Buccaneers were closer to 16th place than to the Rams. Special teams on a game-to-game basis are not always consistent, but the massive disadvantage the Rams faced a season ago has been mostly eliminated this year.
On a per-play basis, Jacksonville actually outplayed the Rams in this game. A handful of huge plays made the difference. The blocked punt is the biggest example, but the Rams also connected on an 83-yard pass to Kevin Curtis, who was covered by Rashean Mathis. For every other play of the game, Mathis dominated the Rams, picking up two interceptions and deflecting a ball that led to another interception, but on this play, he mistakenly thought he had safety help, and Curtis scored a touchdown. In a three point loss, Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee missed two field goals. The biggest bright spot of the game for Jacksonville was the emergence of Wilford, but the one ball he did not catch the whole game was deflected into the arms of Mike Furrey, whose return set up Jackson's game-winning touchdown.
Even with these plays, the Jaguars had the ball with a chance to win and over four minutes remaining on the clock. After a couple of first downs, however, Leftwich had nobody open, and in a nice microcosm of the season, Leftwich finished the game with three incomplete passes intended for Matt Jones. With Wilford's emergence, the time is ripe for the Jaguars to insert him in the starting lineup opposite Smith. Williams, Jones, and the entire Detroit Lions receiving corps are combining to cost Santonio Holmes heaps of money after next year's draft. A decision to start Wilford would signal to the team that performance, not pedigree, is what Jack Del Rio values.
Even with Williams in the lineup, the Jaguars are likely to make the playoffs. The only team with a winning record that remains on the Jacksonville schedule is Indianapolis, and the Jaguars always play well against the Colts. Ten wins would be a disappointment with this schedule, but no amount of wins the rest of the way makes the Jaguars an elite team.
The Rams will come out of their desperately needed bye week with a make-or-break game in Seattle. After losing a close decision at home to the Seahawks, the Rams need the win to have any shot in the NFC West. With seven teams in the NFC East and South sporting winning records, an 8-8 record will not be enough this season for a wild card. The game in Seattle will be Vitt's first chance to have most of his team together. What he was able to accomplish without so many of his stars was truly impressive, so St. Louis fans are eagerly anticipating what he will do with a complete Rams team.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
19 comments, Last at 07 Nov 2005, 1:13pm by NELPHONIOUS OF pENNEFIELDE