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?
07 Sep 2004
by Russell Levine
"Ninety feet between bases may be the closest man has ever come to perfection."
Watch enough baseball games called by Tim McCarver and you'll probably hear that phrase about our national pastime.
Not only is it tired and trite, it's also wholly inaccurate. If you're talking sports -- and let's be honest, nothing that's covered by ESPN should rate over, say, the discovery of penicillin anytime soon -- the closest thing we have to perfection is the football season.
That's particularly evident this time of year, when most baseball teams are playing out the string, when basketball and hockey are months away from starting up and even further away from becoming really intriguing. Early September brings the dawn of a new football season full of possibilities.
For me, the first full weekend of college football is a holy time. Now that the NFL has put off its annual openers until after Labor Day, the college game has the holiday weekend spotlight all to itself. And boy did it take advantage of the whole weekend, with games Thursday through Monday (although Monday's scheduled Florida State-Miami tilt was pushed back to Friday by Hurricane Frances).
Just because I don't approve of college football on Fridays, Sundays or Mondays doesn't mean I wasn't watching. Hey, it's the season's first full weekend, I figure I'm entitled to a little leeway after doing without meaningful football of any sort for six months.
* * *
Conservatively, I figure that I watched a significant chunk (at least a quarter) of 10 different games between Thursday and Sunday, and spent at least a few minutes observing numerous others -- including the channel surfer's delight, the midnight ET kickoff of Florida Atlantic (coached by Howard Schnellenberger, who knew?) at Hawaii. FAU pulled off the upset in overtime, which, given Hawaii's clock-stopping run-and-shoot attack, means that the game probably ended around 4 a.m. Eastern (and body time for the victorious FAU Owls). Sadly, I was long since asleep.
Games like this one are why I love college football. In the middle of the night, 5,000 miles from the East Coast, FAU and Hawaii played an absolute classic. For drama, you had FAU stepping up to Division IA in just its fourth season of intercollegiate football. You also had Schnellenberger, the man who led Miami's rise to prominence in the early 1980s, reminding everyone why he eventually rubbed people the wrong way at Miami, Louisiville, and Oklahoma when he said of his young program, "This one is different than Miami and Louisville because we had to give birth to this one. We had to have foreplay, conceive, and give birth to this program. Now our son is growing. "
Despite Schnellenberger's football birds-and-bees analogy, the win was a memorable one. FAU trailed 28-22 until QB Jared Allen hit tight end Anthony Crissinger-Hill with a 31-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining. The TD pass, on 4th-and-11, looked like it would allow FAU to escape with a win in regulation time, except that Hawaii blocked the extra-point attempt to send the game to OT. FAU scored a touchdown on its possession, then stopped Hawaii on its chance for a 35-28 win.
It's doubtful many tight ends have ever enjoyed a better day than Crissinger-Hill, who, in a performance that was positively Kellen Winslow (Sr.)-esque, pulled in 15 passes for 183 yards and two TDs.
* * *
As tired as they were, the FAU players no doubt enjoyed their flight home. That's more than can be said for a couple of other teams and in particular, their kickers.
On Thursday night, Northwestern opened its season with a trip to TCU. The game was a barn-burner, with 1,152 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns, but it was decided by the kickers -- particularly Northwestern's Brett Huffman, who missed five-of-six field goals, including two in overtime.
Huffman would have the worse kicking line of the week if not for Oregon State's Alexis Serna, who missed all three of his extra-point attempts in a 22-21 loss to LSU, including one that would have sent the game to a second overtime.
You had to feel for Serna, a redshirt-freshman kicking in his first college game. His struggles spoiled a remarkable effort by Oregon State, an 18-point underdog looking to make a statement by stepping up its non-conference competition.
Oregon State should have won the game. The Beavers outplayed the Tigers, and held on to a slim lead until the final minute despite spending much of the fourth quarter in the shadow on their own goal line.
Serna's miscues also allowed LSU coach Nick Saban to get away with a few questionable coaching decisions. Saban had used both his quarterbacks, Marcus Randle and JaMarcus Russell, throughout the game, but it was Russell that was more effective moving the team in the second half. When he came up with leg cramps on the Tigers' next-to-last possession, Saban went back to Randle, who completed a couple of passes to move LSU to a 4th-and-goal on the Oregon State 2-yard line with 2:53 left and the Tigers down by eight. At that point, LSU called timeout to consider the critical play, and Saban came back in the game with Russell, who had been on the bench for several minutes. Russell missed a wide-open receiver on a roll-out pass, a play that looked like it might cost LSU the game if Oregon State could grind out a few first downs.
When LSU forced another three-and-out, using its final two timeouts in the process, Saban made another shaky call. With Oregon State backed up, Saban called for an all-out, 11-man punt rush. Now, I can see that move with just seconds remaining, where a blocked punt might be the best chance for victory, but with nearly two minutes left? Even with no timeouts, that's plenty of time, especially with first downs stopping the clock in college. Field position is so precious in that situation, why not at least send a return man back to field the punt, even if you rush the punter with 10? The difference between rushing with 10 and 11 isn't that great, if the snap is clean and the blocking good, the punter is still just as likely to get the kick off.
Oregon State punter Sam Paulescu did get the kick off, and with nobody back to field it, it rolled all the way to the LSU 36-yard line, for a kick of 54 yards. That LSU came back to score and eventually win the game still doesn't make the 11-man punt rush a good decision.
* * *
Saban wins Junkie's first "Dubious Coaching Move of the Week" of the season if only because his team is the defending co-national champs and he's been tagged with the nickname "genius" -- in other words, he's held to a higher standard. It's not like there weren't other candidates.
Other noteworthy bonehead calls came from Michigan State's John L. Smith and Colorado State's Sonny Lubick. Facing a 4th-and-5 and at the Rutgers 25-yard line and trailing by five points, Smith and the Spartans called a timeout to discuss the critical play.
Readers of this column from last year know that among my favorite pet peeves -- misuse of the two-point conversion at the top of the list -- are plays that call for the ball to go backwards when yardage is the most critical (fourth down). Coming out of the timeout, Smith had his QB roll out to the left, then attempt a throwback screen to the tight end all the way on the other side of the field. TE Eric Knott made the catch a full 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and managed only a two-yard gain, effectively ending the game. You need five yards, why make the tight end (not even a quicker receiver or running back) run 15? Misdirection and trickery have their place in football, but you can count on one hand the number of times they succeed in a critical fourth-and-short situation. Sometimes, you just have to line up and block and tackle better than the guys across from you.
Colorado State's Lubick faced a similar situation. Trailing Colorado by three in the final minute and out of timeouts, Lubick's Rams reached a first-and-goal at the Colorado 1 with about 30 seconds left. From that point, it was a horribly botched sequence. Rather than try a QB sneak or a dive on a quick count on first down, the Rams spiked the ball to stop the clock. When a second-down run was stuffed, they could either spike the ball again and kick on fourth down or attempt a pass and probably get two shots at the end zone if they wanted to play for the win. Lubick did want to play for the win, and I applaud him for that decision, especially as a road underdog in a non-conference game. However, once he made that decision, he had to give his team the best chance to win. By passing, he'd have two attempts, by running, only one. So calling a run of any sort was bad decision number one. But what makes a bad decision awful is the type of run Lubick called -- a pitchout. You need one yard, why pitch the ball backwards five yards and attempt to run outside? Predictably, the call lost two yards and ended the game.
* * *
The college fashion statement of the week was made by Kent State and Iowa, who met in the "Throwback Game" in Iowa City. Both teams wore "retro" uniforms, as did the game officials, ballboys, the chain gang and even the cheerleaders. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Iowa's Kinnick Stadium, fans were given straw hats and fedoras as they entered to help them dress the part. Even the field had a throwback look -- there was no writing in the end zones, just simple diagonal lines, and no logo at the 50-yard line. The yard-line numbers were much smaller than those in use today. Generally, these "retro" events are nothing more than a money grab, but at least Iowa did this one right.
* * *
Just a few days now until the pros finally play some games that matter.
Has anyone mastered the "less is more" concept better than the NFL? In an age when the rest of our sports have been crammed down our throat to the point we become disinterested (see college football Wednesday nights on ESPN2), the NFL has resisted the impulse to do the same, leaving its fans hungrily awaiting each new all-to-brief season, each packed-with-meaning regular-season game.
In an era where most basic-cable subscribers have a weekly offering of 20 or so baseball games, each NFL season is full of incredibly meaningful games that much of the nation doesn't get to see. Parity has created out-of-nowhere success stories like the 1999 Rams, the 2000 Ravens, the 2001 Patriots and the 2003 Panthers, but because national TV games are doled out based on, among other things, success in previous seasons, many of these teams rose to power with little or no national TV exposure until the postseason.
Only about 2 million people in the U.S. get to watch (in their own homes) games other than what their local CBS and Fox affiliates offer on Sunday afternoons. In most markets, no more than five of the week's 16 games will be televised -- two early and one late game on Sunday, plus Sunday and Monday Night Football. In others, such as New York, the number is often limited to four due to blackout restrictions.
Those two million -- subscribers to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package -- get every game other than ones that are blacked out in their home market. For the rest of you (I'm in the exclusive group, an expense I can now consider "business-related" thanks to Football Outsiders!), the only way to see other games is to head to your local sports bar.
Is this a good thing? For the individual fan, the answer is "no." If you live in a place where you can't get DirecTV, or if the expense is prohibitive, of course you'd like to be able to see the games of your choosing. If the team in your home market is terrible, but you're still subjected to their games because of broadcast regulations, you probably agree. If your local team is excellent, but doesn't sell out, you're out of luck for half their schedule.
But the NFL has achieved its status as the most successful sports league in the U.S. by thinking more about its product as a whole than the wants of the individual fan. Clearly, the league's executives were paying attention to the Economics 101 lesson of "supply and demand." It was a C+ in that same course, by the way, that led to my majoring in history, which is probably why I'm writing this column and scheming to deduct Sunday Ticket from my taxes instead of working for the NFL. But, back to the point, the NFL has created unprecedented demand for its product by placing strict controls on the supply.
That basic principle of economics runs through everything the league does. They won't let you watch the local team if you have the option of buying a ticket to the game. Fans in every market are force-fed the games of their home team, which keeps local interest strong. And since people that live in Southern New Jersey are more likely to buy Eagles tickets than those that live in Southern Utah, that makes sense.
Fans don't get to see out-of-market teams play more than a handful of times every season, so when those teams arrive in the playoffs, there is a greater demand to see them at a time when TV ad rates are at a premium.
The Sunday Ticket package, of course, is a threat to that structure, which is why the NFL has been happy to keep access to it at a minimum by selling it exclusively to DirecTV.
There's another reason to keep Sunday Ticket to a manageable number of subscribers, and it has to do with the NFL's broadcast agreements with over-the-air networks Fox and CBS. One of the reasons why the NFL's TV packages are so valuable to the broadcast networks is that the local affiliates can command premium dollars from local advertisers who know that their message will be seen by a large block of local viewers. For example, if you're a Kansas City car dealer and you buy and ad on the Chiefs broadcast on the local CBS station, you know that a large chunk of potential customers (local residents) will see that ad, because nearly everyone watching a football game at the time of the Chiefs broadcast will be watching that game -- they won't have a multitude of other choices.
Sunday Ticket subscribers in Kansas City, however, might be watching the Vikings or the Titans or some other team instead of the Chiefs -- and they won't see the car dealer's ad, since the commercials that are shown on Sunday Ticket broadcasts are either national ads or DirecTV or NFL promotional spots. With two million subscribers nationwide, no single market is losing a lot of eyeballs on its local ads. DirecTV has around 12 million subscribers overall -- even if every single one of them were to take the Sunday Ticket package, the number still wouldn't be a tremendous threat to the local advertisers. But if Sunday Ticket becomes available on digital cable -- which is already in 26 million households -- the number of subscribers could grow exponentially and that represents a real threat to local advertising, which in turn reduces the value of those games to the networks.
The NFL didn't achieve its success by being stupid. The league is well aware that revenue it receives from extra Sunday Ticket subscriptions (at an average of $200 a year) could more than make up for the reduced value of local advertisements. It's just a matter of either figuring out how to compensate the networks for lost eyeballs on local ads (using the Sunday Ticket revenues) or coming up with the technology to insert local ads on Sunday Ticket broadcasts -- meaning the fan in Kansas City watching Giants-Cowboys on Sunday Ticket would still see the local car dealer's commercial.
Because it will require cooperation from the networks to make this possible, the NFL did a very smart thing in its most recent contract with DirecTV, which was signed before the 2003 season. The DirecTV/Sunday Ticket deal has always existed apart from the network broadcast agreements, but provisions in last year's deal will bring it into concert with them. DirecTV was given complete exclusivity for Sunday Ticket for three years, meaning no other carrier will be able to offer the package through the 2005 season. That means Sunday Ticket could be available on digital cable in 2006 -- which will be year one of the league's next broadcast agreement with the networks. The NFL can probably figure out in the next two years a way to appease the networks and deliver Sunday Ticket to the masses.
Of course, there's no guarantee the league will make Sunday Ticket available on digital cable just because the issues become solvable. It's possible the league will decide that its product is best served by limited distribution -- the same "less is more" philosophy it has followed for decades. My guess is that the NFL won't go that route, but will rather choose to embrace the new revenue streams that bringing Sunday Ticket to the masses will make possible. Even with every game to choose from, over-saturation will be tough to achieve in a sport that only plays once a week.
1 comment, Last at 26 Jul 2005, 5:15pm by Rob