Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
21 Sep 2004
By Russell Levine
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a crisis in our midst and you can make a difference! For a cost equivalent to the GNP of many third-world countries, you could help the state of Florida rebuild -- not the damage from Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan -- but the offenses of its three NFL teams.
All kidding aside, what is going on in the panhandle state? Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa Bay have combined to score 56 points so far this season, an average of a little over nine points per team per game. (Want fancy Football Outsiders stats instead? The three teams are ranked #28, #31, and #32 in offensive VOA through two games.) Miami and Tampa Bay are both 0-2, while Jacksonville has somehow managed a 2-0 start.
All three teams feature stout defenses (75 points allowed in those six games) and absolutely no clue on the other side of the ball.
My Sunday football viewing was limited to just the Seattle-Tampa Bay game and the Miami-Cincinnati Sunday-nighter. After watching those two displays I wish I had taken the entire week off.
Tampa Bay faced Seattle coming off a pitiful offensive showing against Washington in a Week 1 road loss. Tampa's offense looked old and slow against the Redskins, which is not really a surprise because most of the players are, well, old and slow -- a problem made worse when the team's only deep threat, receiver Joey Galloway, tore his groin while dropping a sure touchdown pass.
When I went over the Bucs schedule before the season, I figured 10 wins was probably a best-case scenario, but that included getting off to a 2-0 start. So this home game against Seattle, a 2003 playoff team with a dynamic offense, was a critical early test.
Tampa Bay got off to another slow start in the passing game. After Seattle turned a Brad Johnson interception into a 10-0 lead, Johnson badly misfired on a screen pass on the next series, leading to a three-and-out and chorus of boos from the home crowd.
During the ensuing commercial break I thought that Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden might consider bringing in the backup QB. The offense looked completely out of synch and even in the second quarter of Week 2, it might be time to push the panic button.
Coming out of the break, the cameras were focused on backup Chris Simms, who had his helmet on and was getting a pat on the head from a teammate, an obvious sign that he was preparing to enter the game. Of course, this was completely missed by Curt Menefee and Tim Green in the Fox booth who both seemed completely surprised as Simms jogged into the Tampa Bay offensive huddle.
If there's one cardinal sin that nearly all football announcers commit, it's not looking at the TV monitors in front of them. While Menefee and Green were staring out of the booth, the monitor in front of them showed all they needed to know about a pivotal moment in the game. The cameraman and the director had the foresight to put the camera on Simms -- it was an obvious possibility that he would play given Tampa Bay's offensive struggles over the season's first five quarters.
Yet the announcers in the booth caught none of it. I don't know whether that's the director's fault for not telling them, but I do know it makes for a frustrating viewing experience. I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to announcers. Outside of the ESPN crew, there aren't many of them that bother me too much. But there's nothing more annoying to me as a viewer than an announcing team consistently failing to spot or to mention what's right there on the screen for the whole world to see.
Menefee/Green had about as good a day as the Tampa Bay offense. They spent nearly a minute debating whether Simms was "in the grasp" (a rule that no longer exists) before throwing an incomplete pass, all the while failing to realize that the clock was rolling and the ball had been spotted five yards back, meaning the officials had ruled a sack after all. They failed to even question Gruden's strategy when, trailing 10-3 with 4:40 left, he decided to kick a field goal rather than try to score a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the 9 yard line.
I'm not saying it was definitively the wrong call, but it's at least one that needs to be debated. Tampa Bay had barely moved the ball all day, but was within 10 yards of tying the game in the final minutes. By kicking a field goal, the Bucs still needed a touchdown, though it would be to win not to tie. Had they gone for it and msissed, they would have at least left Seattle pinned deep and probably had better field position when they got the ball back. As it turned out, Tampa Bay did get in position to score the winning touchdown thanks to a series of penalties on the Seahawks, including one that wiped out a game-clinching interception.
Two plays later, Simms apparently realized that for the Bucs this qualified as a big game along the lines of Texas-Oklahoma and threw a pass to no one in particular while falling down. The ball was intercepted, effectively ending the game.
So the Bucs sit at 0-2, and it seems they've gone right back to the Tony Dungy days -- a championship caliber defense, but too empty an offense to stay afloat. And now they've got a QB controversy on top of it. Gruden announced Monday that Johnson would start in Week 3 at Oakland, most likely because of the hostile environment the team will face in Oakland and Gruden's unwillingness to throw an untested QB into that situation. If Tampa Bay was at home this week, I'm guessing that Gruden would go with Simms.
Down in Miami, things aren't much better for the Dolphins, who lost to Cincinnati Sunday night in what was, for three and half quarters, one of the worst football games ever played. Neither team could execute so much as a three- or five-step drop without their quarterback getting killed. When the quarterbacks did get passes off, they were more likely to hit defenders than receivers. Cincinnati's lone touchdown came on an interception return of an ill-conceived A.J. Feeley pass. Miami's came when Feeley threw a ball right to a Cincinnati defender in the end zone, only to have it bounce off his hands and into the arms of Chris Chambers for the score.
Feeley was horrible all night, as was his counterpart, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer. At least Palmer was going up against a top-flight defense, which Miami has. Cincinnati's defense may be improved, but this is the same unit that was shredded by the Jets in Week 1.
As bad as the Bucs have been on offense the first two weeks, this game was something different, something much more terrible. It truly put the "offensive" into offensive football. It wasn't just good defense, despite what Joe Theisman would have you believe; it was complete ineptitude on the offensive side of the ball. Neither team could run- or pass-block. They struggled to execute any kind of a pass play, including screens. Miami tailback Lamar Gordon showed why the Rams were happy to get rid of him, as he continually danced behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for non-existent holes to open before being hit for loss after loss.
Although it would be unfair to pin it all on the quarterbacks, particularly in Miami's case because of the woeful performance of the offensive line, you still had to wonder just what was going through the minds of the backup signal-callers, Miami's Jay Fiedler and Cincinnati's Jon Kitna. While not the prettiest performer, Fiedler has done nothing but win in Miami, yet lost his starting job after one bad half in the season opener. Now that Dave Wannstedt has cast his lot with Feeley, he really can't go back to Fiedler without risking losing the team. Kitna, on the other hand, had a career year in 2003, yet lost his job without a competition to Palmer because Palmer was the first pick in the 2003 draft and needs to start earning his signing bonus.
In Jacksonville, meanwhile, the Jaguars are somehow 2-0 after wins over Buffalo and Denver -- the latter a 7-6 snooze-fest in the Jags' home opener on Sunday. Jacksonville has the defense to make a playoff run, but it will have to get more production, or even some production, out of Byron Leftwich and the passing game to get there. Until then, they will attempt to bludgeon opponents with conservative offense and attacking defense, which has worked so far.
All three of the Florida teams are overloaded on one side of the ball. While the circumstances are somewhat different for each, you don't need to look too hard to figure out how they arrived in this situation: age, injury, an affection for the bong, salary cap, poor drafting.
It seems that in today's era of salary-cap football, it can be difficult to build on both sides of the ball at the same time. That is where the Bucs have run into trouble -- they have paid a princely sum to retain their best players on defense, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Anthony McFarland among them. Don't be confused by the fact Tampa Bay released John Lynch and allowed Warren Sapp to sign with Oakland. Those were personnel decisions more than financial ones. Tampa Bay still has spent a larger portion of its salary cap on the defensive side of the ball while signing nothing but moderately priced offensive free agents, names like Joey Galloway, Todd Steussie, Derrick Deese and Charlie Garner.
The most important thing in managing the salary cap is learning when to say "no." Nobody has done a better job of this than New England in recent seasons (think Lawyer Milloy and Ted Washington), choosing to place confidence in its ability to draft, develop and sign players with potential at the spots it needs to fill rather than pay exorbitantly to retain them.
Of course, even the most shrewdly run teams will run up against the cap eventually. New England has done a masterful job to this point but it will be interesting to see how they navigate the cap in the next few seasons, particularly if players like Tom Brady begin to look longingly at the superior contracts that have been signed by inferior players such as Carolina's Jake Delhomme.
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Speaking of Carolina, the Panthers had one of the weekend's more impressive results as they came into Kansas City and left with a 28-17 victory. Staring at an 0-2 start, the Panthers arrived in Kansas City without two of their best weapons, running back Stephen Davis and receiver Steve Smith.
Aaron's favorite whipping boy, DeShaun Foster, answered the backfield call with 172 yards on 32 carries. But those results must be taken with a grain of salt. This is the same KC defense that made Denver's Quentin Griffin look like the second coming of Barry Sanders last week. Rolling up huge numbers against the Chiefs' defense is like holding a lot of Canadian currency -- the results must be devalued.
The other noteworthy performance of Week 2 was turned in by Atlanta QB Mike Vick, who threw for 179 yards and ran for 109 more in the 2-0 Falcons' 34-17 rout of St. Louis.
There's no question that a healthy Vick is the most dynamic, dangerous and exciting force in the NFL. But watching his Week 2 highlights, including a helicopter spin he endured after being hit at the goal line, I was struck more by Vick's continued recklessness than his output.
Vick will lead Atlanta to plenty of wins playing that style, but he'll also miss plenty of games with injury. It's spectacular to watch, and makes every Atlanta game a "go-to" channel during commercial breaks of your favorite team's contest on Sunday Ticket, but Vick simply cannot stay healthy taking that many hits. He needs to learn to harness his explosiveness, to trade a few less yards for a few less hits, before he will be able to lead Atlanta deep into the playoffs.
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If we learned anything from this weekend's college action it's that the SEC is clearly the nation's strongest conference. Auburn edged defending co-champ LSU and Tennessee did the same to Florida in a pair of classic games. All four of these teams could be top-10 worthy, but they will probably suffer too many bumps and bruises navigating the SEC schedule to finish there.
What is with the extra-point karma in the SEC? First, LSU survives an upset bid by Oregon State after the Beavers miss three extra points, including one in overtime. This week, Auburn scored late to tie LSU, with an extra point to win. The kick was missed, but Auburn gained another chance when an LSU defender was called for leaping and making contact with an opponent. It's an obscure rule -- the same one that tripped up Tampa Bay in the Colts' memorable Monday Night comeback win last season -- but the correct call. And for those that say "how can you make that call in that situation?" I wholeheartedly disagree. If the rule is in the rulebook, it needs to be called. No matter how painful to LSU fans, it was the correct call, giving Auburn another chance to kick the winning extra point, which it did.
Extra points were also an issue in the Florida-Tennessee game. After the Vols scored to pull within one in the final minutes they missed the extra point, which looked for a time like it would hand the victory to Florida.
Instead, Tennessee got a three-and-out on defense, helped mightily by the Florida play-calling. The key call of the game saw Florida, leading by one, faced with a 3rd-and-3 at its own 38 in the final minute. Florida quarterback Chris Leak, who had been masterful in this game and led the Gators on 96- and 90-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, is quite possibly the single most dangerous player in all of college football. But rather than put the ball (and the game) in Leak's hands on a run-pass rollout option, Florida and offensive coordinator Larry Fedora called for a run up the middle. When DeShawn Wynn was stopped for a 1-yard loss, Tennessee had a second chance.
That the SEC officials called only Florida for a personal foul on an obvious offsetting-penalty situation, then further mangled the situation by failing to run the clock, played a large part in Tennessee's comeback. However, a better play call from Fedora might have rendered the point moot.
For that call, Fedora gets Junkie's Hall Mumme award for the shaky coaching call of the week, although I would be remiss if I didn't mention St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz. Martz attempted a replay challenge of an Atlanta defensive touchdown, despite the fact that defensive lineman Brady Smith stripped the ball from Marc Bulger, grabbing it right out of his hand in the end zone for a touchdown. What Martz intended to challenge, I'm not sure, but this is the same man who admitted he wasn't aware of the score at the end of an August preseason game against Oakland. Come to think of it, perhaps the shaky coaching call award should be renamed in his honor. As Football Outsiders' buddy TMQ would say, "Mr. Data, make it so!"