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?
19 Sep 2005
by Russell Levine
It took two games, but I'm officially excited about this Buccaneers' season after Sunday's impressive 19-3 win over Buffalo. As I gathered with my friends at a sports bar in Ann Arbor last Sunday, I was convinced the team could go anywhere from 4-12 to 10-6 and I told myself that I was not going to get too excited about either possibility.
By 3:45 that afternoon I was screaming at the TV for the defense to make a stand and not blow the game against Minnesota. When Cadillac Williams clinched things with a 71-yard touchdown run, I took a lap around the bar with my hands up. For Week 2, back on the Sunday Ticket-enabled home turf of my living room, I had an entirely different attitude for Buffalo.
A win would give Tampa Bay its first 2-0 start since 2000 (granted, that season ended with a Wildcard meltdown at Philadelphia) and would mark the Bucs as early playoff contenders. Most of the predictions I saw picked Buffalo, but they all overlooked one thing: Monte Kiffin's history against inexperienced quarterbacks such as Buffalo's J.P. Losman, who was making his second career start. Kiffin's cover-two/zone blitz scheme is always complex, but the veteran defensive coordinator always manages to throw in a few extra wrinkles against a green QB, and the results are often spectacular. See Quincy Carter (Dallas), 2001; Henry Burris (Chicago), 2002, Randy Fasani (Carolina), 2002; Dave Ragone (Houston), 2003; etc.
Facing different looks on nearly every play, Losman looked confused from the start. Buffalo didn't register a first down until eight minutes remained in the first half. When Losman was yanked from the game for a series in the second half, he had thrown for 39 yards and taken a safety when he stepped on the end line while trying to avoid an overload blitz in his own end zone.
That safety came after what TMQ would no doubt term a fraidy-cat punt -- with the game still scoreless in the second quarter, Tampa Bay punted on 4th-and-5 from the Buffalo 38. The ball was caught on the fly at the one-yard line by Tampa Bay's Juran Bolden, leading directly to the safety; the Bucs took the ensuing free kick and scored a touchdown that gave them a two-score lead and pretty much decided the game. It's not always a bad move to play field position, particularly when your defense is dominating the game.
Although it may have been foolish for Mike Mularkey to have a confused Losman passing out of his own end zone, I applaud the Buffalo coach for both pulling his young QB and then re-inserting him in the game to run the two-minute offense against a soft defense. Doing so allowed Losman to enjoy a little bit of success on an otherwise miserable day and to avoid an embarrassingly bad stat line in the box score. Both will help his confidence in the long run.
On the other side of the ball for Tampa Bay, Williams put up an even more impressive performance than last week against a stout Buffalo defense. Often carrying tacklers for extra yardage, he had 128 yards and touchdown despite suffering a sprained foot that required a pain-killing injection during the game.
When Williams needed a rest, it was great to see Mike Alstott, two years removed from a serious neck injury that nearly ended his career, getting meaningful goal line carries and also running down the clock in the fourth quarter. Alstott has all but said he is going to retire after the season, and he was not certain to make the team in training camp. A perennial Pro Bowler at a position (fullback) he doesn't always play, Alstott has over the years gained a somewhat unfair reputation as being a creation of John Madden and Chris Berman. The truth is that Alstott was never as good as those Pro Bowl berths would have you believe, nor was he as limited as the "overrated" tag would suggest. As his career developed, he turned his blocking from a weakness to a strength, and has always been a great finisher on the goal line. Plus, he's responsible for some of the most spectacular one-yard runs in NFL history -- hitting the pile, bouncing off, hitting it again, and carrying three tacklers into the end zone.
With the Bucs game well in hand, I started monitoring some of the other early action more closely, particularly New England-Carolina and Jacksonville-Indianapolis. Although I'm feeling a little bit better about my Carolina Super Bowl pick after the game, neither team looked particularly good. If I were a New England fan, however, I wouldn't spend two minutes worrying about the result. That's what happens with a "sandwich" game ... in this case, a non-conference road game sandwiched between two more important games -- the opener vs. Oakland and next week's road trip to Pittsburgh. Even the best teams can't rise to their highest level of preparedness every single week.
The most noteworthy thing to come out of the Carolina game -- other than the solid performance of the Panthers' defense without Kris Jenkins -- was the awful work by Dick Enberg in the CBS booth. It's tough for me to criticize Enberg. He was the voice of the NFL for me during my formative years as a fan, calling AFC games with Merlin Olson on NBC. But, oh my, has he slipped. He repeatedly confused Stephen Davis and Steve Smith, mixed up the Carolina and New England punters, and made numerous other mistakes.
Of course you don't have to be old to screw up the call of an NFL game. Brent Jones, working the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game with Gus Johnson, committed a cardinal sin on the final play of the game. Jacksonville had one final snap to try and tie the game. There was an Indianapolis lineman obviously offsides at the snap, but neither Jones nor Johnson mentioned it. Instead, Jones screamed that the officials had missed an obvious pass interference against the intended receiver, Jimmy Smith, in the end zone. When a replay revealed that the defender and Smith had merely gotten their legs tangled, which is not a penalty, Jones hemmed and hawed before admitting that maybe it wasn't a foul after all. But then the pair signed off without even mentioning the offsides that should have given Jacksonville another snap. That's my biggest pet peeve about announcers -- when they miss something that is obvious to the home viewer -- and it happens too many times to count every single NFL Sunday.
Speaking of the Jags-Colts game, let me be the millionth person to admit that with the early signs from Indy's defense, it may be time to start taking the Colts seriously as a Super Bowl contender. Granted, shutting down Baltimore and Jacksonville does not exactly make a defense the reincarnation of the Steel Curtain. But when Indianapolis beats a decent team when Peyton Manning has a career low passing output, that's something worth paying attention to. If you saw the closing drive of the game, you saw an Indy defense that was attacking in a situation where many teams play prevent. Byron Leftwich took some huge hits on the final drive, as did his receivers, courtesy of the Colts secondary. It made for a classic finish despite the ugly offensive display for 3 1/2 quarters.
One last note about announcers. With the regular ESPN Sunday Night crew dispatched to work the Monday doubleheader, ESPN turned to Mike Tirico and Sterling Sharpe to work the Sunday night Kansas City-Oakland crew. If only they could Wally Pipp the Theisman-Maquire-Patrick trio, the world would be a little bit better place. Tirico is one of the most versatile and best announcers in sports TV today. He's informative without being preachy, raises his excitement level to what is merited by the play, but no more, and rarely makes mistakes. And Sharpe, a former NFL Countdown stalwart who left ESPN a few seasons ago, was excellent on the color. He speaks well, gives the players' perspective without overdoing it, and admits when he's wrong.
Sharpe, currently employed by the NFL Network, was previously scheduled to work a pair of Saturday NFL telecasts with Tirico later in the season. I wouldn't be surprised to see him end up on a broadcast crew for either CBS or Fox next season.
* * *
There was a big moment in the Levine household Sunday, and it didn't have anything to do with Tampa Bay's win. My three-year-old daughter now has a favorite team! Climbing into my lap to watch the last 10 minutes or so of the late starts, she decided she likes "the green team" (the Packers), and their QB "Breff" (rhymes with "ref," whom she likes because he looks like a zebra). "Breff," also known as "that boy with the number four," was happy, then sad, as we watched the final minutes.
Rationally I know she was just trying to postpone bedtime, but I'm not letting this moment slip by. We even made fun of mommy, who was watching the Emmys' red carpet show on E! on a second TV. When asked if she wanted to watch fashion or football, my little girl chose football. My wife, a bigger (and more knowledgeable) sports fan that a lot of men, got a chuckle out of that one. Must be in the DNA.
After book reading and before lights out, we had a little talk about the Pack. I asked her if she maybe would rather root for daddy's team, the pirate team. "No no no! I only like the green team!" I was told. Informed that daddy's team and her team would play each other next weekend and told we could watch the game together, she got very upset. "I only watch one team -- the green team. And Breff." It's a work in progress.
* * *
Not too much on the college game from me this week. Saturday was my son's birthday party, so the TV remained off until after 5 p.m. and I was barely awake until halftime of the Tennessee-Florida and Florida State-Boston College evening games.
I did see the second half and overtime of Michigan State's annual beating of Notre Dame. Michigan State looks for all the world like a scary team this season, but if there's one thing more predictable than the Spartans' beating Notre Dame, it's the Spartans' following that win by getting blown out by some lesser opponent. Will that be the case Saturday against Illinois? I'm already afraid of Michigan's visit to East Lansing in two weeks. But if the Spartans beat Illinois easily -- as they should -- I'll be downright terrified.
A healthy Drew Stanton makes the Spartans' version of the spread offense as dangerous as anyone's. Michigan State has defensive vulnerabilities -- as they showed in coughing up a 21-point lead to Notre Dame in about eight minutes, but the team appears to be gaining confidence every week.
As for Notre Dame, Charlie Weis's reaction to the loss impressed me as much as anything he's done this young season. He refused to make excuses or praise his team for the comeback, but instead criticized them for not winning the game in regulation when they had the Spartans on the run. He also alluded to his players' inability to handle the distractions of playing at home -- in other words, the hype machine got to them after two weeks of impressive road wins. I would imagine this will not be a fun week of practice for the Notre Dame players as they prepare to face Washington in the Ty Willingham Bowl next Saturday. I expect Weis to try and put the hammer down in that game and take Washington out behind the woodshed.
We're going back to college for the Martz Award this week. Tennessee's Philip Fulmer picks up the honor after his team failed on a fake-punt attempt on 4th-and-9 at its own 32 in the third quarter against Florida. The incomplete pass led directly to a lead-stretching Florida field goal. Yes, I know that the punter thought he probably saw something in the formation and called the fake punt on his own. From the looks of things, he didn't bother to tell any of his teammates. I'm still holding Fulmer responsible. The head coach cannot allow his players to misunderstand a situation like that. How is a fake punt even an option inside your own 35 in a close game?
Below is my offcial ballot in the BlogPoll college football poll, which is explained here.
1. USC (1) -- The Trojans are officially playing video-game football right now.
2. Texas (2) -â€“ October 8 in Dallas looking less scary every day.
3. LSU (3) -- Not their fault they've only played once.
4. Virginia Tech (5) -- Rolling right along.
5. Florida (8) -- And in week three, Urban proved he could win with defense.
6. Georgia (4) -- Must avoid looking ahead to the cocktail party.
7. Florida State (11) â€“- If Weatherford is actually coming around, the offense will be OK. Defense is already OK.
8. Miami (Florida) (10) â€“- Lucky to survive vs. Clemson, but they know how to win those games.
9. Ohio State (9) -â€“ Tressel can't call 12 QB draws a game with Smith in at QB.
10. Tennessee (6) -- Another team with QB issues.
11. Louisville (14) â€“- That wasn't a MAC school they just hung a 63 on.
12. Cal (12) -â€“ That was a pretty underwhelming win vs. Illinois.
13. Purdue (15) â€“- A road win vs. a BCS league school is never a bad thing.
14. Georgia Tech (18) â€“- You don't want to see your QB's name and "meningitis" in the same sentence.
15. Michigan State (NR) -- I'm trying my best to sort out the MSU-ND-Michigan thing.
16. Arizona State (19) â€“- Offense is scary good. I had them underrated the first few weeks.
17. Notre Dame (7) -- I got a little carried away with them last week.
18. Michigan (13) -- The ND-MSU result makes their loss to ND worse; hence the drop after a 55-0 win.
19. Iowa (17) -- They'll be fine if Tate is healthy.
20. Clemson (16) -- Missed opportunity to upset Miami.
21. Alabama (25) â€“- They'll have something to say about the SEC race.
22. Texas Tech (22) â€“- All 80 points vs. Sam Houston State shows is poor sportsmanship. Play somebody!
23. Oregon (NR) -- Good God those yellow uniforms are ugly.
24. Boston College (20) â€“- Hung in there after terrible start vs. FSU.
25. Virginia (21) -- Ugly win vs. Syracuse.
Dropped out: Fresno State (23), Oklahoma (24)
Games I watched: Parts of Eastern Michigan-Michigan, Miami-Clemson, Michigan State-Notre Dame, Tennessee-Florida, Florida State-Boston College.
70 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2006, 5:37am by jeff