After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
11 Sep 2007
by Ned Macey
The Jaguars and Titans finished last season tied for second in the AFC South with 8-8 records. DVOA saw them as light years apart, with the Jaguars ranking sixth and the Titans 24th. This off-season saw what already seemed an enormous divide between the two widen into a chasm. The Jaguars returned with much the same team intact, and star defensive end Reggie Hayward returned from injury. The Titans lost their best defensive player, Pacman Jones, to suspension, while their leading running back and receiver left in free agency.
So, naturally, the Titans go into Jacksonville and win on opening Sunday, 13-10.
The Jaguars made headlines by releasing their appointed starting quarterback the week before the regular season started. The debate over who is a better quarterback between David Garrard and Byron Leftwich has probably consumed too much virtual ink. Neither is more than an average quarterback and debating their relative merit is like debating between Miller Lite and Bud Light. Neither tastes particularly good, but both can get the job done when surrounded by a solid supporting cast of hamburgers, chips and, six hours of football.
Garrard played as effectively as can be expected and was certainly not the primary problem for the Jaguars. In most contests, the game is won by the team with a superior passing attack, but this game was clearly won on the ground.
The Jaguars were supposed to feature the dominant rushing attack with the two-headed monster of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. The Titans upstaged them with their own duo of Chris Brown and LenDale White. Brown was the star of the game with more than 190 yards on the ground. This was the same Brown who failed in 2005 as the presumptive heir to Eddie George. This past off-season, Brown was a free agent for ages before the Titans seemingly reluctantly re-signed him in June. Apparently LenDale White had spent too much time with the aforementioned hamburger and chips while opting against light beer for the real stuff.
Brown's big day against the Jaguars run defense was shocking on its face. The Jaguars ranked seventh in DVOA in rush defense a season ago. Three separate theories could explain Brown's success. First, the Titans may be developing a dominant offensive line. Michael Roos is a developing Pro Bowler at left tackle, and Kevin Mawae is the necessary crafty veteran at center. The line returns intact from 2006 and has clearly developed as a stout run-blocking unit. They dominated the vaunted interior duo of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, neither of whom ever seemed to get any penetration.
The second theory is that the presence of Vince Young opens up the running game for the backs. A running quarterback must always be accounted for by the opposition, and the possibility of bootlegs requires that defensive linemen contain the back side of the play. As a result, cutback lanes are there for the taking.
A season ago, Travis Henry emerged as a solid starting running back after spending his career posting poor DVOAs. Henry's DVOA was still a below-average -2.4%, but that was the highest mark of his career. His success, however, was not a season-long endeavor. Henry played 14 games on the season. In his first two, with Kerry Collins at quarterback, he totaled 82 yards on 30 carries, an average of 2.7 yards per rush. For the rest of the season, with Young at quarterback, he totaled 1,129 yards on 240 carries, an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
Sample size issues and minor injuries to Henry make this less than conclusive proof of the phenomenon. Further, the best analogy to Young as a running force is Michael Vick. Warrick Dunn was much more successful in 2003 with Vick hurt than he was in 2002 or 2004 with Vick healthy. However, it remains notable that throughout Sunday's game the defensive end would have to play contain, allowing Brown and White opportunities to make big plays.
The final reason could be the changing Jaguars safeties. Donovin Darius was released before the season due to his declining speed. Deon Grant was allowed to leave for Seattle. To help replace them, the Jaguars drafted Reggie Nelson in the first round and imported the aging Sammy Knight. Gerald Sensabaugh, a third-year veteran, started opposite Knight.
For whatever reason, the Jaguars continually left the safeties back deep. The three safeties made all their tackles down the field. They made only one play on a run of less than six yards, a half-tackle by Knight on a first-and-goal run by White.
What was the point of this strategy?The Titans ran for 282 yards and controlled the ball for almost 37 minutes. At the same time, the Titans only scored 13 points. The 13 is somewhat misleading considering the Titans twice had the ball inside the five-yard line and failed to score a touchdown. On one of those series, White fumbled on a fourth-and-goal run. Against an explosive offense like the Bengals, the Jaguars' strategy is understandable, but were the Jaguars really worried about a Vince Young-to-Brandon Jones long bomb? The good news is that with this alignment, the Titans' already poor passing game was rendered nearly useless.
Still, the Jaguars clearly believed they could stop the Titans run offense with just their front seven. They were wrong and strangely reluctant to adjust their game plan. For a team that finds itself in far too many close games against poor teams, the lack of mid-game adjustment was notable.
Offensively, the Jaguars game plan was equally bizarre. The two teams were never separated by more than a touchdown, but the Jaguars only called running plays to their two backs 13 times. Meanwhile, David Garrard attempted 30 passes, and more of his five runs were scrambles than designed runs.
Sure, Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth dominated at times, but the Jaguars are a running team. After they came out throwing on four of their first six passes, ending with a 47-yard touchdown to John Broussard, the Titans adjusted. The Jaguars' first drive of the third quarter included 13 plays and only four handoffs. They led 10-6 at the time. The Jaguars got the ball back trailing by three points with more than eight minutes remaining. Garrard proceeded to throw three incomplete passes. The Jaguars were stuffed more than they usually are, but if the Jaguars have no patience with the running game in this situation, what will they do if they fall behind early?
Perhaps the Jaguars' fears are based on the least-reported important injury of the preseason, the broken foot of center Brad Meester. Mawae dominated the offensive line for the Titans, while Meester's replacement Dennis Norman was overmatched. Meester hopes to return in October, and the Jaguars offense could take off at that point. Until then, the Jaguars may have to feature Jones-Drew on outside runs and deemphasize Taylor.
The Jaguars can console themselves with a variety of explanations. They played the game without their kicker, Josh Scobee, who was injured in pregame warm-ups. The Jaguars had to go for a fourth-and-10 in field goal range (a play where they inexcusably called a shovel pass that never had a chance of working.) Also, Jones-Drew fumbled late in what would have been the go-ahead drive. They have excellent run defenders who maybe just had a bad day.
Still, the Jaguars have to be concerned. The Titans are simply not a very talented team, but they still dominated the Jaguars on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The coaching decisions were questionable at best. Their chosen quarterback appears at best to be average, and the Jaguars passing offense will certainly not be dynamic. The only good news is that the Jaguars get to take their frustration out on the hapless Falcons.
For Tennessee, however, this game was as encouraging as a Week 1 game can be. Franchise player Vince Young was hardly spectacular, but the Titans identified a winning formula: Control both sides of the line of scrimmage and deemphasize the skill positions. They lack talent at the skill positions and in the secondary. Still, they do feature solid offensive and defensive lines. Young will likely endure growing pains, but he may be able to steal a game here or there if the lines keep the game close.
The Titans get a reality check with a visit from Indianapolis and then a trip to New Orleans the next two weeks. Win either one and they could be on their way toward a winning season -- and likely back in this space. Thanks to a good offensive and defensive line, this week may not be their last surprise.
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.
36 comments, Last at 14 Sep 2007, 1:08am by Gilman