Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
04 Oct 2004
By Russell Levine
I'm getting too wrapped up in this college picks thing (with my Seventh Day Adventure partner, Vinny, every Thursday). Saturday was a great day of college football, full of important match-ups if not necessarily great games: LSU-Georgia, Purdue-Notre Dame, Auburn-Tennessee, Ohio State-Northwestern. But it was lowly Rutgers-Syracuse that captured my attention.
Syracuse pulled out a back-door cover that just about ruined my day. Rutgers (+6.5) led by four in the final minutes, yet gave up two late touchdowns to lose the game and the cover. Had Rutgers hung on to win or lose by just three, I would have finished 6-4 on the day and finally gotten over .500 for the season.
There are a couple of lessons I take from this game. One, never back Rutgers under any circumstances. Two, it's healthier to talk about gambling than to actually gamble. It was frustrating enough to watch the comedy of errors that eventually cost Rutgers the cover. Had I actually had money on the game, I might be shopping for a new TV today.
The back-door cover is a special kind of pain and disappointment that only the gambler can truly understand. Often it occurs on an otherwise innocent play that has no effect on the outcome of the game, only the point spread. It was a concept I first learned of when a co-worker covered a large bet in some third-tier bowl game on an intentional safety. I never wanted to experience that feeling, and games like Syracuse-Rutgers are the reason why.
Consider the excruciating series of events that allowed Rutgers' in-the-bag cover to slip away. Leading by four (or 10.5 to gamblers), the Scarlet Knights surrendered a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in 1:03 that left them trailing by three with 2:24 remaining. At this point, I still wasn't worried about the cover. Sure, Rutgers had blown a winnable game, but I had predicted they'd "stay close enough to cover the spread" so I was confident that I'd look like a genius whether or not the Knights rallied. My biggest fear was that they'd come back to force overtime, not because it would put the point spread in play, but because the game was sharing a pay-per-view channel with the Michigan-Indiana contest that had already kicked off. Overtime in Syracuse would cause me to miss a good chunk of the first half.
After taking over at their own 21-yard line, Rutgers tried a shotgun draw for a loss of two. That was followed by an incomplete pass that made it 3rd-and-12. That's when things started to get bad. Had they just thrown two more incompletions and turned the ball over on downs, Syracuse would probably have killed the clock. But sure enough, Rutgers remembered it was Rutgers. A false start was followed by another incompletion, making it 4th-and-16 from the 15-yard line. Suddenly, a covering touchdown for Syracuse seemed possible. Rutgers completed a miraculous pass for a first down, only to have it called back on a touchy holding penalty. Uh oh: 4th-and-24 from the eight. Rutgers threw in another false start for good measure before a final incompletion turned the ball over to Syracuse on the Rutgers five. I didn't even have to watch to know what would happen next. Syracuse's Damien Rhodes went in untouched for the game- and point-spread clinching score. Needing only four incompletions to most likely preserve my cover, Rutgers instead put together a four-play minus-16 yard drive to hand the cover to Syracuse.
At least my kids' college funds are safe. As far as actual wagering goes, I stick to fantasy football and my weekly $5 NFL pool. I've got enough stress in my life without sweating the Saturday performances of a bunch of college kids.
The merciful end of the Syracuse game (after just under four hours) kept Michigan-Indiana from getting on the air until nearly 10 minutes into the first quarter as I fell victim to DirecTV's ESPN Game Plan channel-sharing plan. Sadly, three-and-a-half hours is just not a long enough window for a college game. Out of curiosity, I checked the other Game Plan channels, and sure enough, every 12 p.m. game overlapped the 3:30 p.m. kickoffs.
The NFL has done a great job over the years of ensuring that a regulation game will be completed in just around three hours. College is in desperate need of similar measures. I love the sport as much as anyone, but if a regulation game can't be completed in under 3:30, something is very wrong.
A few small tweaks of the college rules could alleviate the problem. The NCAA should switch to the NFL's 40-second play clock that begins as soon as the whistle blows ending the previous play, rather than the current 25-second clock that doesn't begin until the ball is spotted. Second, the clock shouldn't stop to move the chains except in the final two minutes of a half. Third, the clock should start after the ball is spotted on out-of-bounds plays with more than five minutes left in a half. Those changes alone would probably shave 10-15 minutes off the average game time, and keep the clock running in the frequent blowouts you see in college.
On the topic of blowouts, two of the biggest statements made on Saturday came from Auburn and Georgia -- the winners of the day's two big SEC clashes. Georgia, unimpressive thus far this season, finally put it all together in a 45-16 home rout of LSU, which is clearly nowhere near as good as last year's national champions.
Auburn went into Tennessee and completely took apart the Volunteers in a 34-10 win that wasn't event that close. I would just like to apologize, again, to Auburn. I began the year complaining that the Tigers had done nothing to deserve their lofty ranking and hadn't won a big game since the Bo Jackson era. Well, Auburn has now beaten LSU and Tennessee and with tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams nicely complemented by senior QB Jason Campbell, the Tigers' offense looked unstoppable against Tennessee.
Auburn and Georgia appear to be headed for a clash of unbeatens on November 13, with the winner a good bet to take part in the Orange Bowl national championship game.
The other huge statement this weekend -- other than my two year old abandoning her Dora video, coming down to the basement and asking "Daddy, can I watch football with you?" -- came from Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton, who put himself firmly in the Heisman Trophy lead with a surgical performance at Notre Dame. Orton looks like he's playing video game football, completing 69% of his passes with 17 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Yes, you read that line correctly. The Boilermakers have a favorable remaining schedule, with Michigan and Wisconsin both coming to West Lafayette. At this point, you'd have to make Purdue the favorite in the Big Ten, especially with Ohio State losing in overtime to Northwestern Saturday night.
Purdue has some defensive issues -- but don't read too much into the fact that Notre Dame's Brady Quinn threw for more than 400 yards. The Irish were behind the whole game and Quinn threw 46 times and produced just 16 points. The Boilers will need to tighten up the pass defense before Michigan comes to town in three weeks. (You didn't really think you'd get through this entire column without a Michigan update, did you? The odds were better on the Rutgers cover.)
Michigan found itself buried deep in the top 25 and largely written off after being manhandled by the same Notre Dame team that Purdue shredded on Saturday. But the Wolverines, who start true freshmen at quarterback (Chad Henne) and tailback (Mike Hart), have shown improvement every week since that loss and finally got a laugher against Indiana. More importantly coach Lloyd Carr showed confidence in Henne by allowing him to throw downfield more, resulting in three long TDs against the Hoosiers, two to Braylon Edwards.
Edwards is showing that his decision to return to school for his senior year was a wise one. He might have been a late first-round pick in last year's receiver-deep draft class, but looks like the nation's best wideout this season. He has cut down on his drops and catches a deep ball for a touchdown just about every week. If Carr trusts Henne to throw deep to Edwards against a quality opponent like Purdue, it could mean good things for the Michigan offense.
There was one other statement made on Saturday, but it wasn't a good one. West Virginia pretty much announced to the world that the Big East is a joke. The Mountaineers were undefeated and ranked No. 7, yet were underdogs at 2-2 Virginia Tech.
Not to toot my own horn, but the Hokies' 19-13 win was exactly what I expected. Virginia Tech, which will be a middle of the pack ACC squad this year, is better than the best the Big East has to offer. That the Big East and its watered down lineup kept its automatic BCS bid was an outrage. I just look forward to seeing West Virginia get pasted by one of the BCS at-large teams, most likely in the Fiesta Bowl -- which has last choice in the selection process this year.
The loss to Virginia Tech was another game that wasn't as close as the final score. West Virginia was being blanked until Hokies QB Bryan Randle threw a terrible interception that was returned for a TD, making the score 16-6 in the final minutes of the third quarter. Since I'm about as likely to get through this column without railing against a two-point decision than President Bush is to get through a debate without using the phrase "resolve," you should know what's coming next.
West Virginia went for two to try and get within eight. I didn't agree with the decision because there's too much time remaining, and missing the two-pointer could have worse consequences if Virginia Tech scored again. West Virginia scrambled to get its offense on the field, barely got the play off and looked disorganized in missing the try. Two-pointers following a defensive score can be particularly difficult, because the offense isn't expecting to be on the field. The announcers were screaming for West Virginia to take timeout, which would have been an even greater mistake. When you're trailing in the second half, timeouts are like gold. You can't afford to waste one with the clock stopped on a two-point attempt.
If anything, West Virginia should have taken the delay of game penalty and attempted the try from the eight-yard line. Given that most teams treat two-pointers as an automatic pass play, attempting to score from the eight vs. the five is not really a hindrance. The offense has more room to operate.
Knowing when to take a delay penalty and save a timeout is one of those little "Belichick" things (like understanding the intentional safety) that only a coach who drills his team on every game situation, particularly the infrequent ones, is prepared for.
* * *
The NFL is at it again -- we're four games into a new season and the list of undefeated, once-beaten, one-win and winless teams is full of surprises. The Giants are 3-1. The Packers are 1-3. Jacksonville is 3-1. Tennessee is 1-3. Atlanta, 4-0. Tampa Bay and Miami, 0-4.
Of course, for me that last one is the most painful. When the wheels come off like they have for Tampa this season, there's not much you can do but sit back and await the next cruel twist of fate. The Buccaneers looked poised to finally get in the win column on Sunday except for one tiny detail -- every time they made a big play, they followed it with a critical mistake.
I've accepted the fact that it's going to be a long year in Tampa Bay. I was OK with Jon Gruden's attempt to plug holes with aging veterans to take one more shot at the postseason, even though the experiment has failed. At this point, the only thing that will really upset me -- since I'm still within the five-year exemption from fan complaint that goes with a championship -- is if Gruden and his rubber-stamp GM Bruce Allen pursue the same strategy this offseason rather than take a batch of TNT to the ancient roster. It's time to start over -- and that means playing what young guys they have this season. Yes, that means you, Chris Simms. He's likely to be the starting QB the next time the team is competitive, so they might as well start getting him some experience.
On the other side of the ledger are the 3-0 Patriots, who survived a game upset attempt by the Bills on Sunday. Buffalo looked for a while like it might pull out the win, thanks in part to a slight alteration of one of my favorite football strategies -- the deep pass after a turnover.
Buffalo went deep not after a turnover, but after a broken punt play that resulted in a scramble by punter Brian Moorman and a first down at the New England 41-yard line. Drew Bledsoe hit Eric Moulds for a touchdown on the next play. The moment just after a turnover or an unexpected big play leaves the defense emotionally deflated and susceptible to a big play, even though any team that studies tendencies should know to expect the deep ball in that situation.
* * *
Elsewhere, Indianapolis rallied to hand Jacksonville its first loss in a game that should give both teams plenty of confidence moving forward. Indianapolis was able to run the ball successfully against the Jacksonville defense, leading to some easy completions for Peyton Manning, while Jacksonville proved it can play with a top opponent.
The other big news coming out of Jacksonville is that Don Criqui is alive! Criqui, who two decades ago was one of NBC's top play-by-play announcers, has been in the NFL announcer's version of the witness protection program the last few years. In other words, he's been calling nothing but Texans and Bengals games on CBS with partner Steve Tasker, so this represented a plum assignment. But I'm not sure whether it says more about what CBS thinks of Criqui or what the network thinks of the Jaguars.
One last TV update -- Junkie has spoken and Fox has listened. A few weeks ago, I remarked on the annoying flashing score updates on the "Fox Box." Well I can happily report that the updates are flashing no more. Now if we could just do something about the fact that the graphics take up about a third of the screen.
* * *
Green Bay's home loss to the Giants on Saturday left the Packers 6-6 in their last 12 games at Lambeau Field, a stunning number given their home dominance over the last decade. The Packers were also left with a woozy Brett Favre, who came out for two plays after sustaining a concussion, then either talked his way or was sent back onto the field by coach Mike Sherman. In typical Favre fashion, he returned for one play and threw a touchdown pass on fourth down, then ran into the end zone to celebrate with Javon Walker like a schoolboy -- perhaps injuring himself further in the ensuing dog pile.
I know it makes for a great story and adds to the Favre legend, but I was appalled that he was able to re-enter the game without being cleared by the team's medical staff. Sherman admitted after the game that he sent Favre back in without checking with the doctors after the QB said he was OK. How is it that in this day and age of medicine, when the risks of concussions are so well known, when every team has the latest in medical technology at its disposal, that a player can go back in the game when the team doctor doesn't believe he should? Suppose Favre, pretty much a civic treasure in Green Bay and across the NFL, had taken another big hit on that one snap and been more seriously injured? Sherman would be hiding with Criqui in witness protection.
For that shaky coaching decision, Sherman gets this week's Mike Martz Award, edging out the leading college candidate. Alabama's Mike Shula earned consideration for calling three straight runs from the Alabama 35-yard line while trailing South Carolina, 20-3, midway through the fourth quarter. Anyone who was surprised by that sequence clearly isn't a Buccaneer fan. Yes, the game was most likely out of reach, but this is Alabama (playing at home, no less), not some directional patsy. Alabama doesn't run up the middle to kill the clock when it's losing. I know Sylvester Croom is having a rough go of it at Mississippi State, but Tide fans already growing weary of Shula are going to be kicking themselves that 'Bama didn't hire Croom when it had the chance.
* * *
Martz is a frequent target, but I have to give him credit for something I picked up in the Sunday night game. He has some of the best goal-line play-calling in the NFL. Facing a fourth down at the San Francisco two, Martz had the Rams line up in the "heavy jumbo" goal line formation. But instead of handing off to Marshall Faulk, Martz opted for the quick hitter to fullback Joey Goodspeed, who plowed through the surprised 49ers for the score. Martz has also been known to hand off to the tight end coming in motion in that situation, which actually provided the winning points for my fantasy team one week when waiver pickup Ernie Conwell rushed for six.
Talk about a back-door cover.