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27 Dec 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Holiday Feast?

By Russell Levine

Flexible scheduling is coming to the NFL, and it's high time. The league's attempt at a four-day holiday football festival was hampered by poor matchups in many of the games. Five games this weekend were (or will be) broadcast nationally, but only Green Bay-Minnesota on Friday afternoon presented a matchup with serious playoff implications for both teams. Saturday's Christmas-day doubleheader featured only one team -- Denver -- that has playoff hope,s and the Cleveland-Miami snooze-fest on Sunday night was one of the dullest games of the entire season. If the NFL was trying to keep me in the good graces of my family with these games, they succeeded, because it was hard for even me to tear myself away from holiday activities to watch.

At least the game with the most on the line -- Green Bay-Minnesota on Friday -- turned about to be one of the best of the entire weekend, as Brett Favre (this just in, TV announcers think he's pretty good) bounced back from a late interception to rally the Packers for 10 points in the final minutes and a 34-31 win. The victory gave Green Bay the NFC North title for the third straight season, and with the Terrell Owens injury, suddenly anything looks possible in the NFC.

As mentioned in a Football Outsiders discussion thread, it's hard to say which is more cliché -- the constant on-air Favre worship, or the constant in-print bashing of the on-air Favre worship. Regardless, No. 4 earned his accolades on Friday, putting the interception, which was returned 15 yards for a touchdown by Minnesota's Chris Claiborne to break a 24-all tie, behind him. He led the Packers on 80- and 76-yard drives on their final two possessions, the former culminating with a fourth-down touchdown pass to Donald Driver to tie the game, the latter resulting in the game-winning field goal.

Announcer worship or not, if you don't enjoy watching Favre operate the two-minute offense, your problem is you, not the commentators (Vikings fans excepted, of course). Minnesota is still likely to make the playoffs, but it's hard to imagine the Vikings going far with their very suspect pass defense. Green Bay is viewed as one of the teams that could take down the Eagles, given the injury to Owens. But the Packers, who were thrashed by Owens and the Eagles in Week 13, also need to tighten up defensively to have any hope at playoff success.

As for Philadelphia, which has already secured home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, we'll get our first look at them without Owens in the Monday-nighter against St. Louis, although don't read too much into anything that happens in that contest. With nothing to play for, and a team full of playoff experience, Andy Reid may choose to treat Monday's game as a sort of glorified exhibition contest.

The NFC's second-seed, Atlanta, has already had one of those -- choosing to sit Michael Vick and several other starters in Sunday's loss to New Orleans. So much for the predictions that backup quarterback Matt Schaub would step in and ignite the Falcons' passing offense. Schaub, who finished 17-of-41 for 188 yards and two interceptions (good for dead last in Aaron's QB rankings this week), is the rookie from Virginia who looked brilliant in the preseason, leading some to call for his elevation when Vick struggled to adapt to the West Coast offense. Given his first regular-season start on Sunday, Schaub discovered that NFL defenses -- even the Saints -- are a lot tougher in December than in August. Teams don't develop specific game plans in the preseason; blitzing is less frequent, and they don't do things like disguise coverages. Many a rookie has looked great in preseason, only to look like a lost, well, rookie, once the games that count begin.

Schaub's struggles should quiet anyone who believes that Falcons would have a better chance to win with him under center, but this is still a team that won't scare anyone in the postseason. Vick, who was resting a sore shoulder on Sunday, has been up-and-down all season, enjoying his most success when he leaves the pocket and scrambles. He is one of the league's most dangerous weapons because his speed, elusiveness, and arm strength make him a threat to score from anywhere on the field, but he can be contained. Teams have found that if they don't blitz, but rather just try to contain him in the pocket and force him to go through his progressions, the results are not likely to be good. Given that situation, Vick usually opts to pull the ball down and run, but with seven defenders playing underneath, his scrambling is less effective when the defense only rushes four.

If the Falcons do end up meeting Philadelphia in the NFC championship game, it will be interesting to see if the Eagles' blitz-happy defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, opts to back off from bringing extra pass-rushers in order to contain Vick.

I say "if" because I'm not sure the Falcons will make it out of the Divisional round. I don't like the fact that they have nothing to play for the final two weeks (they conclude their regular season with a road date at Seattle next Sunday) and could easily enter the postseason on a two-game losing streak. This is not a team that has had a lot of successful playoff experiences that it can rely on as it prepares. I think they'd be better served by having something to play for these final two weeks. If seeds hold, the Falcons could face Green Bay at home to open the playoffs, and at the risk of being called a Favre worshipper, I'd have to think the smart money would be on the Packers.

The team to watch in the NFC postseason could be the Carolina Panthers, who have gone from 1-7 to 7-8 and will host New Orleans next Sunday with the final NFC wildcard spot most likely on the line. Carolina has shaken off the first-half injury binge, and is playing mistake-free football. As Fox analyst Brian Baldinger put it during Sunday's win at Tampa Bay, the Panthers are playing with the look of a team that's ready for the playoffs. They don't make dumb mistakes, something that should give them the edge over the skittish Saints in their meeting next week.

Of course, most of the interest in the playoffs will be in the far-superior AFC, where the playoff seeding was clarified over the weekend. Pittsburgh wrapped up the top spot with a 20-7 win over Baltimore, and New England clinched the second seed with a statement win at the Jets.

If their ugly Monday night loss to Miami the week before raised concerns about the Patriots, the Jets game should put New Englanders at ease. The Patriots were never challenged in building a 23-0 lead. If statement games can be boiled down a single, signature play, New England's moment came late in the third quarter when it faced a 3rd-and-7 on the Jet 23. The Pats crossed up the Jets with a run, and Corey Dillon carried for eight yards and the first down; the drive culminated in a field goal that made the score 16-0. Running in an obvious passing situation -- and succeeding -- is the ultimate sign of a coach's belief in his team. If there's anyone doubting the Patriots, it's certainly not Bill Belichick. Something tells me the Patriots will not lack for confidence if they have to play the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh.

As for the Steelers, they again rode the Bus, Jerome Bettis, to victory and a 14-1 record. Bettis' resurgence this season has been nothing short of remarkable, and now that Pittsburgh has secured the AFC's top seed, the Steelers should give Jerome and his aging legs two week off -- including next Sunday's meaningless season finale at Buffalo -- to get rested for the playoffs. Sitting next to Bettis in the Steelers' locker room whirlpool should be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who left Sunday's game with a rib injury.

That's bad news for the other teams vying for the AFC's final wild-card spot, as Buffalo will likely face a very unmotivated Pittsburgh squad next Sunday.

* * *

I'm creeping up on the 1,500-word mark without touching either of the weekend's two biggest NFL stories -- Peyton Manning's setting of the new single-season record for touchdown passes and the tragic death of Reggie White at age 43.

There's been too much Manning debate on this site already, but you have to hand it to him for setting the record in style. After a pedestrian looking shovel-pass for TD toss #48, Manning broke the mark with a game-tying touchdown with 1:00 remaining in the Colts' overtime win against San Diego. Manning looked off the safety, and then fired a deep post to Brandon Stokely, who had not even begun his cut when the ball was released. The safety got caught changing directions and fell down, allowing Stokely to make an easy catch in the end zone. There are two things that Manning does better than any quarterback in the league. One is play faking, on both run and pass plays. The other is to anticipating breaks of his receivers and delivering the ball early. It's a skill that's difficult to master for most NFL quarterbacks, but Manning's timing with his receivers gives him an advantage because he delivers the ball earlier than most quarterbacks. It also contributes to his not getting sacked very often, despite the fact that he's basically a statue in the pocket.

The other big story is White's passing. I don't have much to add to the tributes of White the player and man that have been all over the news media since Sunday's news broke. But it just so happens I recently caught a fascinating NFL Films piece on religion and football in which White was prominently featured. I have never cared for the proselytizing done by White and others on the field. Whether or not I was a religious person (I'm not), I'd have a hard time believing God could be concerned about anything that happens in an NFL game. That's why I found it very interesting to hear White admit that he regretted some of the preaching he had done, such as telling the media that God wanted him to sign with the Packers in 1993. In retirement, White had begun to question the meaning of his own faith and decided if he were to truly understand scripture, he would have to study it as it was originally written. To that goal, he had been studying Hebrew and reading the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

Some of his controversial statements aside, White was clearly a good and decent person who felt he had a higher calling than to just be a star football player. He may have made some missteps along the way, but at least he was constantly seeking to educate himself.

* * *

Mike Martz Award

Oakland coach Norv Turner gets the honors this week for his decision to squib kick after a field goal had given the Raiders a 30-28 lead over Kansas City with 1:07 to play. In an effort to keep the ball out of Dante Hall's hands, Turner had Sebastian Janikowski squib the ball, but it ended up bouncing right to Hall at the 15, and his 49-yard return put the ball at the Oakland 36. With just a two-point lead, field position was the most critical factor for the Raiders. Even a properly executed squib kick often gives teams possession outside of the 30-yard line. The Raiders should have kicked deep and taken their chances with a Hall return from the end zone.

* * *

College football's early bowl games have failed to so much as raise my pulse, so instead of a breakdown of the MPC Computers Bowl, I'll offer you my take on the recent decision of the Associated Press to pull out of the BCS formula, as originally published by the New York Sun on Thursday:

It has become an annual ritual for the Bowl Championship Series to tinker with its selection formula, but the 7-year-old coalition of major bowls and top college football conferences is likely to undergo the most significant change in its history thanks to an announcement by the Associated Press Tuesday.

In a cease and desist letter to BCS coordinator Kevin Weiberg, the AP stated that, beginning in 2005, it will no longer allow its weekly college football rankings to be used in the BCS formula. The AP's withdrawal could force the BCS to scrap its formula altogether and create a selection committee to determine the matchups for its participating games -- the Fiesta, Orange, Rose, and Sugar bowls.

Fans hoping this move will lead to the collapse of the BCS and the creation of a playoff system are likely to be disappointed. The BCS, which recently signed a new television contract with Fox to televise the games through 2010, is not going away. The college presidents who created the BCS remain staunchly opposed to a playoff, so it's likely that some incantation of the BCS will continue to decide college football's "champion" through that date and beyond.

Furthermore, the AP's withdrawal may actually boost the credibility of the BCS, which has been an easy target for critics who take issue with "computer geeks" choosing college football's champion. A selection committee will bring to the BCS the one thing it has always lacked -- human logic.

From its inception in 1998, the BCS's major obstacle was in deciding how to choose its participants. The polls by themselves didn't appear to be a good option. The AP expressed concern about making news -- by helping to select a champion -- instead of reporting it. The BCS also had an integrity problem with the coaches' poll, with its anonymous ballots and a history rife with coaches doing favors for one another. In an effort to minimize the importance of either poll, the BCS created a complex formula, combining the two polls with a series of computer rankings and other factors such as quality wins and strength of schedule.

Many would argue the BCS was doomed from the start because its fundamental goal -- to match the two best teams in a single championship game, no matter how many qualified candidates exist -- was impossible to guarantee. It certainly hasn't made things easier by altering the formula every year in response to the previous season's controversy.

In 1998, 1999 and 2002, the BCS worked as intended, matching the consensus top two teams. But every other year, controversy has reigned. In 2003, after USC finished the year ranked no. 1 in both human polls but was left out of the title game, the BCS formula was changed to its current version (its simplest yet), whereby a team that was ranked first in both polls would be virtually guaranteed a spot in the title game. This season, however, a new problem arose as an undefeated major-conference team -- Auburn -- was left out of the title game for the first time in the BCS era.

After years of increased scrutiny of the human polls and their role in the rankings, the AP gradually grew less comfortable with its inclusion. Calling the BCS "a mess," the Charlotte Observer announced this month it would no longer participate in the AP poll as long as it was part of the formula.

Interestingly, the AP never had an agreement with the BCS, something made clear in the letter it sent the organization Tuesday. Calling the BCS's use of its rankings "unauthorized," the AP said its participation had harmed its reputation, honesty, and integrity. Given the lack of prior complaint from the AP, the language was surprisingly harsh.

Weiberg, perhaps sensing the AP's unhappiness with its role, suggested earlier this month that the BCS consider a selection committee as part of its annual review. The BCS knows it has an integrity problem with the coaches' poll and there isn't another ranking system with the pedigree of the AP that could replace it in the formula. The AP's pullout virtually assures that the BCS will go to a selection committee.

It is ironic that the BCS may now turn to a selection committee, which is typically comprised of athletic directors and conference presidents. The NCAA uses selection committees to determine the fields for nearly all its sanctioned championships, but it has never sanctioned a championship in Division I-A college football, because the existence of the bowls -- which date to the early 1900s -- has always precluded a playoff. So even if the BCS were to adopt a selection committee, the bowls would remain under the jurisdiction of the BCS, and the NCAA would still withhold its recognition of any "official" champion declared by the BCS.

The committee will be able to consider polls, computer rankings, strength of schedule, how teams are playing late in the season, and other factors as it sets the title-game pairing. Teams will no longer be punished, as Auburn was this season, simply because they were not highly ranked in the preseason polls.

A selection committee could also push the BCS towards a "plus one" championship model, in which it could return to traditional conference tie-ins for the four bowls, using the committee to select two at-large teams then selecting two teams from among the winners to meet in a title game a week later.

To many who follow college football, the answer to the BCS problem has always been simple: Hold a playoff like every other NCAA sport. But that argument misses the point -- college football's postseason, as currently constituted, is not run by the NCAA, as any playoff system would have to be. The power conferences control the BCS and all the revenue it generates, something that is not likely to change no matter how much the public complains.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 27 Dec 2004

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