19 Sep 2006
by Ned Macey
This year the AFC East was supposed to be a real battle. The Patriots were not going to waltz away with the title the way they had the past three seasons. A true challenger would emerge, and they would start by dominating a division rival last Sunday. Little did we know that the supposedly rebuilding Buffalo Bills, rather than the much-hyped Miami Dolphins, would emerge as a potential challenger to New England.
The Bills made a series of off-season moves that turned the team into an easy punch line. They hired 81-year-old Marv Levy as their general manager. They hired Dick Jauron as their head coach despite a career record of 36-49. They reached for safety Donte Whitner with the eighth pick on the draft. In doing so, they passed on Matt Leinart and decided to proceed with the disappointing J.P. Losman. Coming off a 5-11 season, this looked like a team that would be battling for the first overall pick, not a playoff spot. (In fact, four of the FO writers picked them to be the worst team in the league, including myself.)
The Dolphins, meanwhile, finished last year with six consecutive wins to finish 9-7. They imported Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper to replace Gus Frerotte. Ricky Williams' continued drug problems freed the Dolphins from that potential headache. With the well-respected Nick Saban leading the way and an easy schedule, the playoffs seemed a foregone conclusion.
The first problem for the Dolphins is that, despite a solid record, they were only an average team a year ago. Their DVOA of 3.2% ranked 13th in the league, ninth in the AFC. The offense ranked 21st in DVOA. The six-game run to end the season only included one impressive victory, a win at San Diego. Expecting a jump to Super Bowl contender was asking for a major improvement.
More importantly, placing all their eggs in Daunte Culpepper's basket less than a year since a massive knee injury appears to be a short-term mistake. Quite simply, on a day when Ronnie Brown played well and the defense was solid if unspectacular, Culpepper thwarted the Dolphins' chances to beat a supposedly inferior opponent.
Correlation does not equal causation, but it is often good enough for radio talk show hosts and Internet pundits. Culpepper had one of the great seasons of all-time in 2004. Last year, Culpepper played a couple of terrible early season games before being injured. Brad Johnson took over, and the Vikings were a much better team. Johnson mostly feasted on inferior defenses, and -- more importantly -- the Vikings own defense improved radically.
The seeds of doubt about Culpepper were laid, and the first two weeks of 2006 have done nothing to rehabilitate his image. In Week 1, he played solidly before melting down with two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter, costing the Dolphins a game they led after three quarters.
On Sunday, it was worse. Culpepper was sacked and fumbled on consecutive plays on the game's very first drive. He was sacked again on the second and third drive, both plays eventually forcing the Dolphins to punt. He finally stayed upright on the fourth drive only to throw a terrible interception inside the Buffalo ten-yard line after a well-executed 14 play drive. Culpepper threw the pass even though there were two Buffalo defenders standing directly between him and the receiver, right in his line of sight. The second half was just as unproductive, although Culpepper did a better job of avoiding the pass rush. The Dolphins finally managed a score with less than two minutes left when they were already down by 16.
After the 2005 season and the first two games of this year, it is too easy to write off Culpepper as an overrated quarterback. Such analysis ignores two crucial facts. First, Culpepper was one of the best quarterbacks in football in 2003 and 2004. Second, he suffered a massive knee injury last year, a devastating blow for a quarterback who relies on his mobility. Improvements in ACL surgery got Culpepper and Carson Palmer on the field after short recoveries. Still, ACL injuries linger without fail in the first year. Expecting Culpepper to flash his trademark elusiveness from the start is unreasonable.
One of the dumbest reactions from announcers is surprise when a supposedly "mobile" quarterback is sacked. Mobile quarterbacks are sacked all the time because they always believe they can escape the pocket. Often they do, but they also get taken down more than an aware pocket passer. Mike Vick and Culpepper were both sacked 46 times in 2004. Ben Roethlisberger, also an elusive quarterback, has been sacked at above the league-average rate in both of his first two years in the league.
Given the number of sacks these people take when they can move, what would happen if one of them suddenly had Peyton Manning's quickness? The answer is apparently getting sacked seven times in one game. Three sacks came at the hands of Ryan Denney, a player you have to admit you had never heard of when you woke up on Sunday.
The confidence in his ability to evade rushers has led to Culpepper developing bad habits. He holds the ball even longer than Drew Bledsoe. Culpepper is not currently able to break out into the open field when nobody is open. On nearly every sack on Sunday, he had a chance to at least throw the ball away, and on several he tried to escape and was caught.
In his five full seasons in Minnesota, he averaged over four runs per game and more than two first downs on the ground. On Sunday, he scrambled one time, for seven yards on third-and-8. Given his propensity to hold the ball and an offensive line that is pedestrian at best, Culpepper may be getting sympathy cards from David Carr by the end of the season.
Culpepper is being forced to play like Peyton Manning when he has spent his whole career playing like Daunte Culpepper. Eventually, Saban and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey will rein Culpepper in. This scaled back offense will leave the Dolphins with a game plan fitting Brad Johnson and a quarterback ill-suited to perform it.
While the Dolphins are in a hole because of erratic play by their quarterback, the Bills are taking extraordinary steps to make sure their quarterback has no impact at all on the outcome of the game. J.P. Losman was overwhelmed as a first-year starter in 2005. On Sunday, he played the role of scarecrow quarterback to perfection. Losman made one big play on the day, and even that was not a completion. Instead, it was a 50-yard pass interference call on a pass intended for Lee Evans. The Bills converted the opportunity into their only touchdown of the game.
The other nine points came on field goals that were attributable in equal parts to the Bills' three strengths: the running game, defense, and special teams. The first scoring drive could have had me at quarterback. Losman threw one incompletion and then handed off eight straight times to Willis McGahee and Anthony Thomas, who drove the Bills into field goal range.
The next two field goals were both set up by special teams plays. The first came after Roscoe Parrish returned a punt 26 yards to the Buffalo 44-yard line. The final field goal came after a blocked punt that left the ball on the Dolphins 17-yard line. All told, Losman was 1-for-3 for 8 yards and no first downs on the three field goal drives.
The success of the Buffalo special teams is nothing new. Buffalo has ranked first in special teams DVOA both years since special teams coach Bobby April arrived in 2004. After two weeks, the Bills rank second in special teams DVOA behind Chicago. One key cog in that performance has been punter Brian Moorman, who probably earned a game ball on Sunday. Moorman punted six times. Five ended up inside the Miami 20 with no return.
The incredible punting helped put the Bills' young defense in favorable positions. The Dolphins started four drives inside their own ten-yard line. Only once did they start a drive past their own 40-yard line. As a result, Miami actually had more first downs and outgained the Bills 282-171 in yardage, but managed only one touchdown.
Nonetheless, the Buffalo defense did play at a high level. Coming on the heels of holding the Patriots to 19 points, Buffalo is rightly excited about their young defense. While the Bills are likely much improved on a year ago, however, the defense still has holes, particularly against the run. New England running backs gained 180 yards on Buffalo, and Miami running backs averaged over five yards per carry. For all the praise rookie safeties Whitner and Ko Simpson are receiving, their presence is clearly not felt in run defense. The return of Takeo Spikes from injury will certainly help, but one player is not a panacea.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is doing an excellent job, but special teams and a mistake-free offense have made the defense look better than it is. The defensive game plan was to keep all the receivers in front of the defenders and make the Dolphins move patiently down the field. Poor field position forced the Dolphins to put together a series of first downs to get into scoring position. They would start moving the ball on the ground and through short passes, but eventually a sack or penalty would cripple the drive.
All is not lost for the Dolphins, who still have the easy schedule that many thought would propel them to the playoffs. The inept Tennessee Titans are coming to Miami on Sunday, followed by a trip to woeful Houston. That gives them two weeks to figure out an offense featuring this year's version of Daunte Culpepper before a huge road game in New England.
For Buffalo, the hope is to continue to mimic last year's Chicago Bears squad, all the way into the playoffs. Winnable home games against the Jets and Vikings loom over the next two weeks. The Bills will need to jump out to early leads to play their conservative brand of football. Falling behind would allow the opposition to run the ball and require Losman to throw, two things the Bills want to avoid. If the Bills can win both of their next two games, contending may be a possibility. More likely, they will look a great deal like the 2005 Dolphins: a good defensive team capable of pulling the upset. Given last year's debacle, the Bills should be satisfied with such an improvement and a record between 7-9 and 9-7.
Right now, Miami's upside looks a lot like the 2005 version of themselves as well. But Miami expected to build on its 2005 season, not spin its wheels in place. Given the high hopes that accompanied the start of the season, 8-8 would be a severe disappointment.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
51 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2006, 8:56pm by dave whorton