The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
07 Nov 2006
by Ned Macey
21 years ago, the Miami Dolphins beat an undefeated Chicago Bears team with the winning quarterback throwing three touchdowns. On Sunday, the Dolphins again beat an undefeated Bears team with their quarterback throwing three touchdowns. Rest assured, the similarities end there. These are not the same Dolphins, these are not the same Bears, and Joey Harrington is definitely not Dan Marino.
The Bears were the consensus best team in football coming into Sunday and the presumptive NFC representative in the Super Bowl. Despite numerous pre-season predictions to the contrary, the closest the Dolphins are getting to the Super Bowl will be as guests at a party in South Beach.
The Bears' run to 7-0 included an improbable win over Arizona where they were able to overcome a dreadful offensive performance. Rex Grossman was abysmal in that performance, and unfortunately, he matched that level of play in the second half on Sunday. A fumble on a punt return and struggles both running the ball and stopping the run made this poor performance impossible to overcome.
The obvious goat of the game was Grossman. In his first year as the full-time starter, Grossman has exceeded expectations and provided Chicago with the potent passing offense they lacked a season ago. Entering the weekend, they ranked among the ten best passing offenses in football according to DVOA. A matchup against the mediocre defensive secondary of the Dolphins, in Chicago no less, seemed like a certain blowout.
Things in the NFL do not always go according to plan. Conventional wisdom was wrong for two reasons. The first is the much-reported story that Grossman struggles against pressure. The second was an injury to deep threat Bernard Berrian.
As the game progressed, it looked like the Dolphins' base defense was to rush five defenders. Grossman was flustered throughout the second half, consistently throwing wildly and off his back foot. The two second-half interceptions were terrible throws. Grossman was sacked three times after being sacked only six times in his first seven games.
Grossman definitely needs to improve his composure in the face of a rush, but his cause was hurt by the injury to Berrian on the Bears' first offensive play. Berrian is not the best receiver in the world, but he can stretch the field. The Bears had numerous opportunities to connect on deep pass plays against the Dolphins' suspect secondary. Grossman hit some of them, including a nice catch by Muhammad on the team's only touchdown. Despite some success, numerous big play opportunities were left on the field.
Without Berrian, Justin Gage became the second receiver. Gage caught only two of the six passes intended for him and fumbled after one of his receptions. Gage is not a bad receiver, but he is much more of a possession guy than Berrian. The speedy Rashied Davis is an intriguing player, but he is not prepared to be a consistent contributor.
With or without Berrian, Grossman needs more help from the Bears running game. Despite huge strides forward in the passing game, the rushing offense is no more potent than a season ago. Both starter Thomas Jones and backup Cedric Benson are averaging less than four yards per carry. Benson is not playing at a high level, but his performance is adequate and should keep Jones fresh for the stretch run.
The Dolphins running game is more than adequate because Ronnie Brown is developing into an elite running back. A year after splitting carries with Ricky Williams, Brown has the running game all to himself. Brown has 151 carries. The next highest running back on Miami is Sammy Morris with nine. After struggling to run consistently the first five weeks, Brown has two 100-yard games in the last three weeks, averaging over five yards per carry in both.
Brown's previous big game was against the Jets, a team with a poor run defense. His fine performance on Sunday is worth noting, as the Bears run defense is among the best in football. Brown had particular success running to the outside, away from the teeth of the defense and linebacker Brian Urlacher. On his 12 runs up the middle, Brown gained 35 yards and had only one run over five yards. On the 17 runs to the edge, he gained 122 yards.
The Dolphins were particularly effective running behind right tackle Vernon Carey, and they have been successful running in that direction all season. The Dolphins have been able to run outside in both directions since the insertion of erstwhile guard Damion McIntosh as the left tackle against the Jets. A year ago, the Dolphins ran extremely well behind McIntosh down the stretch, but for some reason they imported L.J. Shelton at the beginning of the year. Moving McIntosh to guard and starting Shelton at left tackle was an enormous mistake. Shelton has now safely moved inside to guard, where he has played better.
The Bears defense gave up four runs of at least 15 yards to Brown, and the easy explanation is the injury to Mike Brown. The Bears' longtime safety is gone for the season, replaced by Todd Johnson. Even with Mike Brown, the Bears have been susceptible to outside runs and have given up a fair number of long runs. Admittedly, Johnson was invisible on Sunday, unless you count watching him consistently being pushed out of plays. The Bears will miss Brown's knack for making big plays, but this minor problem in run defense is more often the result of linebacker overpursuit.
One final problem for the Bears is that much of their early success has been the result of an extraordinarily high level of special teams play. They have excelled in almost all aspects up to this point, creating enormous field position advantages for both their offense and defense.
That is a problem because it is simply unsustainable. Only one team since 1998 has had a full-season special teams DVOA over 7.8%. Before the Miami game, the Bears' special teams DVOA was 13.7%. They had even further benefited from things outside of their control, like opposing teams' kickoff and punt distances.
Their DVOA started to drop early in the second quarter. Devin Hester fumbled a punt inside his own 10-yard line. Three plays later, Miami took a lead it never relinquished. The Bears special teams did make some nice plays, blocking a field goal and generally providing good coverage. But they also fumbled a kick return that they recovered and dropped another punt that did not count because of a procedure penalty. Special teams will continue to be a strength for the Bears, but they will not be as potent as they were through the first half of the season.
The Hester muff started about as bad a sequence of football as has been played all season. One play after Harrington converted Hester's muff into a touchdown, Grossman was picked by Jason Taylor, who brought it back for a touchdown. The Bears fumbled the ensuing kickoff but fortunately recovered it. Seven plays later, Grossman was sacked and fumbled on another big play by Taylor. It was a superb overall performance by Taylor, who proved he still is capable of making the big play at 32. He remains one of the top defensive linemen in football.
The bleeding stopped thanks to a Harrington interception on an exceptional individual effort by Alex Brown (another great defensive lineman). Harrington, in fact, did everything he could to keep the Bears in the game. The one thing that can be said in his favor is that he avoids sacks. This is in large part because he seems to throw more passes behind the line of scrimmage than past the first-down marker. His first two touchdowns were nice throws, but his third one was nearly intercepted. The three drives covered a total of 42 yards.
The Joey Harrington era is only likely to last the season, as either Daunte Culpepper will get healthy or the Dolphins will start form scratch. The rebuilt offensive line has shown the ability to free Ronnie Brown. The defensive front seven, while aging, is still a venerable group that excels against the run. If the Dolphins get average play from Harrington, and the pass rush can protect the mediocre secondary then ... well then the Dolphins may win six games.
More likely, the Dolphins will get inconsistent play from Harrington and watch their secondary get exposed by everyone from Damon Huard to Jon Kitna. This victory highlighted some of the pieces that made Miami a chic playoff pick. Unfortunately, the pieces that have them 2-6 are likely to be featured on a regular basis going forward.
For the Bears, the most important question is what Rex Grossman's real level of play is. Grossman's overall stats rank among the middle of the pack in starting quarterbacks. However, he has been very good to excellent in every game but two. In those two games, he has been beyond terrible. These two performances have helped make the Bears' offensive performance the most inconsistent in football.
What can we expect from Grossman going forward? In all honesty, your guess is as good as mine. There is no precedent for a player spending 75 percent of the time as one of the game's best quarterbacks and the rest of the time as the second coming of Ryan Leaf. His overall stats say he is an average quarterback, but he has not played one game at an average level.
The second half of the season presents more difficult opponents than the Bears have faced to date, but it is not exactly a gauntlet. So far this season, the Bears have faced one team with a winning record and only one top-10 defense, as measured by DVOA. The last eight games bring only two games against teams that are currently over .500 and two games against top-10 defenses.
The Bears will likely cruise into the playoffs with around 12 wins. The problem is whether or not bad Rex will reappear in the playoffs. The Bears should spend the next few months finding a way to get Grossman to provide average production when he is off his game. They also need to work on dealing with opposition blitzes, which they will see a lot of each week until they prove they can handle them.
This team is nowhere near the quality of the 1985 Bears, but they do have the chance to be better than the 2005 Bears. Minor problems in the run defense do not mean this is not an excellent overall defense. They are almost guaranteed to be the first Bears team in over a decade to post consecutive winning records. Whether they win their first playoff game since 1994 or make their first Super Bowl since 1985 likely rests on whether or not Grossman can deliver.
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.
48 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2006, 5:08pm by TomC