Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 Feb 2005
by Aaron Schatz
The "notebook" column is a classic sportswriter cop-out, but will that stop me? No! I'm tired and need a couple weeks off, so I'm going to empty out the notebook with some comments from the Super Bowl and a transcript of my chat Monday at ESPN.com. I'll have a mini-column later today about New England's rank in history, and then I'm taking two weeks off, except for tallying the FO Awards balloting. Don't worry, the rest of the guys have all kinds of new content, including the debut later this week of our new feature Four Downs, taking a monthly look at each division to keep you informed during the offseason.
I'm a little surprised that in all the post-Super Bowl roundups, I haven't seen much discussion of the WORST COIN TOSS EVER.
The New England running backs were doing a great job of picking up Philadelphia blitzers, even though the blitz did have the Pats off their game in the first half. Dillon took out Trotter on a vicious block in the first series that allowed Brady to complete a 15-yard pass to Branch. Patrick Pass also did a great job taking out Brian Dawkins in the third quarter on two straight Dillon runs.
On the other hand, there was one sack -- I think the one where Vrabel got McNabb for 16 yards -- where Josh Parry just got completely bulldozed.
Our friend Jamie Hayward pointed out that every time one team would complete a long pass or a third down, the FOX announcers would say they were dominating the game. I believe Philadelphia and New England each were dominating the game roughly 17 times.
At Ian's house we were joking that if Philadelphia won, the MVP would be Deion Branch's butt. Not only did he miss one pass when it bounced off his butt -- as it turned out, the only pass to him that he didn't catch -- it also seemed like every time he tried to cut to go up the field, he slipped and fell on said backside.
Mike Tanier, our new writer and Eagles fan, told me before the game that they worry in Philadelphia that L.J. Smth has bad hands. L.J. Smith fumbled. Nice call, Mike.
During the regular season, the Patriots ranked 31st in our "stuffed" rating, stuffing only 20% of runs against them by running backs. In the offseason, they "stuffed" 15 of 55 runs, or 27%, which would have been in the regular season top ten.
If the Patriots had lost, one of the most-discussed coaching decisions would have been Bill Belichick's choice to decline an illegal formation penalty right before the touchdown pass to L.J. Smith, giving the Eagles 3rd-and-goal from the six-yard line instead of 2nd-and-goal from the 11-yard line. According to my numbers, it was the right choice. From 2001-2003, red zone plays from 3nd-and-6 got a FD/TD 36% of the time. Red zone plays from 2nd-and-11 got a FD/TD 42% of the time.
At some point next year, there will be a play where the ballcarrier is tackled, his knee hits the ground, he loses the ball, the opposing team returns it for a touchdown, then we all go out for milk and cookies, get a good night's rest, come back the next day, and that point the officials will decide that gee, wasn't that guy's knee down?
There was something really goofy about the pit of screaming teenagers whooping it up for Paul McCartney, who is roughly 137 years old. I mean, I love Paul, but the teenagers like that Jay-Z.
As I note in the transcript to the ESPN chat below, McNabb had a day mixing great passes with awful ones. The ball was sailing on the passes to Pinkston, but Pinkston saved McNabb on one of those to get the 40-yard gain. I doubt McNabb meant to throw the pass where Pinkston had to jump that high to get it.
Also, a couple of times McNabb just had a guy completely wide open on the right side but because he was rolling out to the left, he didn't see him. It was Owens once, and Westbrook once, if I remember correctly. I wonder if that's just a fluke thing, or if McNabb often has trouble seeing open guys on his right.
Brian Westbrook was very good early in the game, but I think he started to crumble at the end. There was one pass where he had roughly 40-50 miles of open grass in front of him, I think he could have run to Pensacola, but he dropped the pass. Then at the end, as the Eagles were trying to come back, why the hell does he catch the ball for one measily yard, letting the clock continue to run?
As a Patriots fan, there is nobody I trust more than Kevin Faulk to hold onto the ball while running out the clock. (end sarcasm)
Seriously, New England's final drive gives a good example of why I think complaints about clock management not being considered in DVOA are a bit overrated. Faulk ran for two yards and three yards, which set up 3rd-and-5 at the Philadelphia 36-yard line. Taking time off the clock and forcing the Eagles to use their last two timeouts is nice, but a first down would have ended the game entirely. On 3rd-and-5, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for something tricky like a Branch end around. The Eagles knew there was going to be a run up the middle. The run up the middle was not going to get the first down. Yes, an end around has a chance of fumbling, but so does any play involving Kevin Faulk, including when Faulk eats a hamburger or puts a quarter in the parking meter. Most importantly, if the Eagles blow up the play and tackle Branch for a loss, what have the Patriots lost? A few yards, they were going to punt anyway, and the clock keeps on running. Instead, Pats just ran up the middle for no yards. It didn't matter in the long run, but I thought it was awfully uncreative.
Thanks to the folks at ESPN for having me for a chat, and for allowing me to reprint the transcript.
JJ Ramsey, NJ: With Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel leaving who are the front runners to replace them? Are they goint to promote from within or bring people from outside the organization?
Aaron Schatz: First of all, hello to everyone, and thanks to ESPN.com for inviting me to SportsNation... Let's take some questions on the Super Bowl, the Pats' place in history, even the 2005 season. If I'm a little slow, that's just me getting used to the ESPN chat software...
To answer this first question, the front runners seem to be offensive line assistant/tight ends coach Jeff Davidson as offensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini as defensive coordinator. Everyone seems to feel the Patriots would rather promote from within than bring in someone from outside who would have to get used to the Patriots' way of doing things. The one wrench in the works is that the Patriots do not pay very high assistant salaries, and there are some rumors that Mangini might go to Miami or follow Romeo Crennel to Cleveland rather than stay in New England.
Matt (Charlotte): Who is your sleeper NFC pick to make it to the Super Bowl newxt year?
Aaron Schatz: Washington. I think we may have all jumped on the bandwagon a little early, but their defensive rise over the second half of the season is a very strong statistical indicator for 2005, and their offense also improved over the second half. Plus, they get to play the NFC West next year, and I don't see the NFC West really getting any better. A non-sleeper pick would be Carolina, after their second half I doubt anyone considers them a "sleeper." And there's no reason to think the Eagles won't be great again.
Chad O'Donnell (VA): Do you think the colts can finally get over the hump?
Aaron Schatz: Sure, if they understand that you need a balanced team in order to win a Super Bowl. They need to let Edgerrin James go -- not because there's anything wrong with him, per se, but because that's the one nice big salary that can be freed up to get some defensive players, particularly at linebacker.
Blake (Columbus, OH): If Brady retired tomorrow, is he a Hall of Famer?
Aaron Schatz: If Brady retired tomorrow, he would be an idiot.
Aaron Schatz: To give a real answer, I can't imagine how bad Brady would need to be for the rest of his career to blow his shot at the Hall of Fame. He'd have to have 5-10 years of just Krenzelian crumminess.
Jason (Boston): Do you consider the Pats a dynasty? And when will sports fans and media give the Patriots there due?
Aaron Schatz: The issue of "giving the Patriots their due" is complicated by the fact that you are talking about two different teams in this "dynasty run." The 2001 Patriots were a team on the way to being built as a dominant force that somehow miraculously stumbled into an early Super Bowl title. But the 2003-2004 Patriots were the best team in the NFL, no questions asked. So you end up in a situation where some fans still think of the Patriots as that somewhat lucky team of overachievers from 2001, which they are clearly not. And that horrible "nobody respects us" complex of the Patriot fans comes from that 2001 year when, well, nobody did respect them, but now everyone else does respect them -- if not every other NFL fan, at least every other NFL team.
Aaron Schatz: Here's the other thing -- this is the team the Patriots wanted all along. This is the team they were building towards, and there's no reason to see it collapsing. So the Patriots dynasty is really going to be 2003-2006 or 2007, not 2001-2004. I would not be surprised to see them win another Super Bowl in the next couple years. But 2001 was just kind of kooky.
Daniel (Lawrence, KS): Did the Eagles get the most out of Brian Westbrook last night? It seems like Andy Reid out-Martzed himself. Can Westbrook handle 20 carries a game?
Aaron Schatz: Westbrook was very good as a receiver last night. The Patriots have had a clear weakness all year, being one of the worst teams in the league defending passes to running backs, and the Eagles took advantage. The best question about why the Eagles didn't run more isn't where was Westbrook, but where the heck was Dorsey Levens? Levens was actually a better runner this year -- more consistent from down to down -- and he ran the ball a grand total of once. Mistake.
Jeff (Denver, pa): Will Big Ben lead the Steelers back tothe superbowl next year?
Aaron Schatz: My statistical projections right now seem to feel the Steelers will be a very good team again next year. But subjectively, I think there's some set up here for disappointment. We know that defenses finally found ways to confuse Big Ben later in the year, and that he wasn't as good without Burress in the lineup. If Bettis retires, and Staley misses his usual half a season to injury, the running game could be nonexistent. You could end up with one of those teams where a great defense is constantly trying to drag a struggling offense to wins, like this year's Bills and Ravens.
Blake (Columbus, OH): Are the Bengals finally ready to get over the 8-8 hump?
Aaron Schatz: This goes in conjunction with the previous question. I would not at all be surprised to see the Bengals go 10-6 next year. Second half improvement was strong, especially by the offense. Palmer had a much better first year than people think, his statistics were heavily weighed down by a difficult schedule of opposing defenses. I'm begging the Bengals to get rid of those horrible uniforms if they make the playoffs.
Mike (Fresno, CA): What was your take on the lack of urgency on the part of the Eagles in the 4th quarter last night?
Aaron Schatz: Honestly, I don't have one, because it doesn't seem like there is any explanation. At the Super Bowl party I attended, we were all chanting, "tick, tick, tick" as the Eagles huddled up. Making this even more confusing is the fact that running a no huddle is a very good way to take on the Patriots, because it prevents them from constantly shifting their defensive personnel. This is going to be one of those Super Bowl mysteries for a long time.
Big L (Rialto,Ca): Do the Patriots have any big name free agents that they have to sign back??
Aaron Schatz: Adam Vinatieri, although I cannot imagine they will not sign him to the top kicker contract in the NFL. David Patten is an UFA, but they could afford to lose him. Guard Joe Andruzzi, and I think Pass the fullback, and then some special teams guys. Of course we all know Ty Law is going to be cut for salary cap reasons, and Troy Brown is also going to be a salary cap problem, though I imagine they'll figure out a way to keep him here. As much as people think the Patriots have a ton of older veterans, they really have become a very young team except in the LB corps, Harrison, and Dillon. The defensive line averages something like 25 years old and consists of three 1st round picks.
Glenn (Brown '79): Aaron, I know you'll answer a question from a Brown grad and FO reader ... As good/courageous an effort as TO had, dont you think his output, helped a lot by a couple big YACs on underneath routes, was part of the Pats plan? I didnt get a sense at all that anyone was worried about TO getting behind the DBs to catch a bomb on the fly because of his injury. Remember, it was Belichick who coached the Giants D in the Super Bowl and told them he wanted Thurman Thomas to get 100 yards, and he said he would quit on the spot if Thomas did and the Bills still won.
Aaron Schatz: Glenn, between me and Chris Berman we're going to take over football analysis with Brown grads. Not to mention we got Fritz Pollard into the Hall finally. I do think that the Patriots played off Owens yesterday and allowed him to catch some of those eight-yard outs, but that doesn't make his performance any less remarkable. The play I reference in Snap Judgment, where he spun on his left ankle because he couldn't cut left on his right ankle, was just phenomenal, and the fact is that it took a huge amount of pain tolerance to go out and play that entire game. The Patriots game planned Owens well, and Owens played well. Both are true.
Ian in Boston: Your numbers suggest that Edgerrin James was one of, if not the top runningback in the league this season. Why then do you think that getting rid of Edge will make the Colts so much better next season? His PAR was pretty high this year, and their play-fakes are important to their passing game.
Aaron Schatz: I have no idea of course if this is Ian whose house I was watching the Super Bowl at... if so, hey Ian... It isn't an issue of whether getting rid of Edge will make the Colts better. The problem is that when they resigned Stokley and Harrison, that left Edge. Letting him go is the only way to free up money to pay for free agent defensive players. They could keep him, but they'll just end up with the same unbalanced team they have now and they'll just lose in the playoffs again. By the way, for ESPN folks who don't know, PAR is Points Above Replacement, a stat we use to measure players at Football Outsiders.
Gary Hillery (Little Rock, Ar): Where do you see Ricky Williams landing at next year?
Aaron Schatz: Either Reed College or UC Santa Cruz. Go Banana Slugs!
Rich (Arlington, MA): Aaron -- Givens is an RFA now. I think they'd like to keep him.
Aaron Schatz: Yes, I was addressing just the UFAs... Givens is a RFA, so is Jarvis "Richard who?" Green, Tom Ashworth (right tackle lost halfway through the year and replaced with Gorin) and the infamous wrestler-turned-guard Stephen Neal.
Todd (Detroit): Are you annoyed by the "hypothetical situation" argument? So many people discount the Patriots or Tom Brady's accomplishments with arguments like 'if Brady played for, if Manning had a defense, if the Eagles didnt mismanage the clock' then Tom would lose, Manning would win, the Eagles would win or a host of other biased arguments. Sure, it could happen. But couldn't it also happen exactly the opposite?
Aaron Schatz: I believe that a man once said that if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his booty. Then we booed him out of town and forced him to move to Houston.
Tim (Boston): Ty Law for Randy Moss?
Aaron Schatz: Uh, didn't the Pats just have a wide receiver win Super Bowl MVP?
Gary Hillery (Little Rock, Ar): Do you think McNabb lost the game for the Eagles
Aaron Schatz: That's a tough question. I'm not generally someone who thinks that a quarterback wins a game on his own, so I'm not generally someone who thinks that a quarterback loses a game on his own. In addition, I don't know who the heck is responsible for the two minute offense that took six minutes, McNabb, Childress, or Reid. What I took away from last night's game is that at no time did you really say, "Wow, Tom Brady, what a quarterback" or "Wow, Tom Brady, what on earth was he thinking there?" But with McNabb, you definitely said both a few times. He had some just amazing throws, and then he had some that were just absurdly off-target. It was like the quarterback version of a DeShaun Foster game.
Scott (Chicago): How do you think Romeo and Charlie will do in their new jobs?
Aaron Schatz: I think people in Cleveland need to give Romeo time to get his system in order and build a team with the players he wants. I doubt they'll stumble into a Super Bowl title the second year. Charlie Weis, gee, I have no clue. I don't follow college ball closely but who knows what Notre Dame wants out of him. Do they want to do what it takes to be a winning football program year after year or do they still want to hold themselves out as some sort of separate/higher standard? They play that absurd schedule filled with strong teams and no nice conference pushovers and then get angry when they don't go 11-1.
Gary Hillery (Little Rock, Ar): McNabb threw a INT and got it flagged. He got a second chance and threw another INT. Does that go down in Super Bowl history as the biggest oops?
Aaron Schatz: You know, the 1972 Dolphins had this kicker...
Gregg (Minneapolis): Is anyone willing to give the Vikings what they want for Moss?
Aaron Schatz: Well, there's a reason we call the site "Football Outsiders," I don't really talk to many folks in the NFL. Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton know the answer to this better than I do. But I wonder if Dillon's success in New England is making teams more willing to take on supposed "problem players" like Moss? The guy is a great receiver, no question there.
Big L (Rialto,Ca): Where do you think Randy Moss will end up next season?
Aaron Schatz: I cannot imagine that there is any team more desperate for a game-breaking wide receiver than the Baltimore Ravens, and if I remember correctly Billick was Moss' offensive coordinator his rookie year, so perhaps he believes that he can get the most out of Moss. But another question asked about the Ravens getting Moss and a QB, and I'm not sure they would need another QB. I used to make fun of him but Boller really did get better this season. Like Palmer, his stats are somewhat depressed due to the difficult schedule of defenses in the AFC North (including playing the AFC East). Boller isn't great, but he's not a black hole at this point.
Aaron Schatz: Just to make clear -- I don't KNOW what the Ravens would be willing to give up for Moss, or how badly they want him. But as an analyst, when you look at teams that really need a wideout, they really stand out.
Caleb Coats (Arkadoo): My job sucks, how can I get yours?
Aaron Schatz: It helps to work for a large international Internet company and then get laid off, leaving yourself lots of free time.
eric (vegas): pennington and moss reunited?
Aaron Schatz: Yeah, I don't think this makes sense. Unlike the Ravens, the Jets already have two strong wide receivers and so I'm not sure that it is worth giving up what Minnesota would want in order to get an upgrade.
Kyle Levy (Palm Harbor, FL): Give me a good reason Rodney Harrison did not win the Super Bowl MVP...
Aaron Schatz: I have the UTMOST RESPECT for Rodney Harrison.
Aaron Schatz: Seriously, I just bought an old Harrison San Diego jersey on eBay for nine bucks. Next question is very FO-related but it is gonna take me a second to run some numbers...
Trogdor (Toledo, OH): The Eagles were supposed to have a special teams advantage over New England, especially in the punting game. How did that play out, and what was the difference in expected points due to field position?
Aaron Schatz: This will be my last question I'm guessing...
Aaron Schatz: OK, using the infamous Football Outsiders special teams computations, the Patriots gained 3.86 points worth of field position on punts compared to NFL average. The Eagles gained 0.81 points more than average. Kickoffs were basically even at zero for both teams.
Aaron Schatz: That Josh Miller, what a mensch. He had an incredible game punting. Thanks for reading everyone, and please visit FootballOutsiders.com over the offseason.