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.
10 Jan 2005
By Russell Levine
To complete our preseason predictions for Football Outsiders, Aaron asked each of us to forecast a surprise development of this NFL season. At the time, in August, all the talk surrounding the league was of the new emphasis on the illegal contact rules for defensive backs, and flags were flying like confetti in preseason. It was my prediction that after a spate of calls in early-season games, cornerbacks would be back to mugging receivers without fear by midseason.
(Go ahead, click on the link -- some of the other predictions are pretty funny. And if you just happen to notice whom was the most accurate prognosticator of all the Outsiders, even of all the major sports sites, well, gee, those things happen.)
Well here we are in January, the wild card round complete, and I'm happy to report I could not have been more wrong about my surprise pick. Yes, some of the fouls are touchy and at times it can be maddening to watch a team march down the field five yards and an automatic first down at a time. But the game is still being called according to the rulebook, which bars any contact with receivers past five yards from the line of scrimmage.
As everyone knows, the impetus for the rule emphasis came out of last year's conference championship games, when defensive backs from the Panthers and Patriots were extremely physical with/regularly assaulted (depending on your fan allegiance) receivers from the Eagles and Colts, respectively.
I'm not saying that I necessarily prefer the rules to so favor the offense, but I do appreciate the efforts of the NFL to ensure its games are called more consistently -- at least in this area. There are still way too many inconsistencies in the way personal fouls, particularly roughing the passer and late hits out of bounds, and other fouls are called, but perhaps those will be a point of emphasis for another offseason.
If the New England defensive backs were watching the weekend games wondering if the whistles would be put away (to borrow a hockey term) in the postseason, they now know they will not. Not to pick on the Pats, but they will be the most interesting team to watch in the divisional round for several reasons: 1) They are playing the best passing offense in football, the Colts, in a rematch of the rules-emphasis inspiring AFC title game and 2) With Ty Law and Tyrone Poole out, they will attempt to slow the Colts receivers with a group that includes Earthwind Moreland and Troy Brown.
Bill Belichick also noticed the bevy of flags this weekend and is too good a coach to try the same approach to defending the Colts he used in last year's postseason -- to slow the receivers off the line of scrimmage and disrupt their routs -- especially without his top corners. Belichick is not the type to whine that the officials have taken his best strategy away from him -- he'll just adapt. I'm sure he'll have several new schemes cooked up to confuse Peyton Manning, perhaps including some variation of the all linebacker/defensive back unit he utilized in last year's regular-season meeting.
That's all I'm going to say about the Colts-Patriots game, other than to mention that I can't remember the last time I looked forward to a non-Buccaneers playoff game as much as this one. I'm not going to offer anything that even hints at an opinion on the relative merits of the two quarterbacks and risk the wrath of the editor-in-chief, except to say to everyone participating in said debate that you'll have an answer by Sunday around 8 pm ET. Well, probably not, given the amount of logic contained in a lot of those posts.
For Manning, this game is offers a chance to beat back all his demons at once: He supposedly can't win a big game, can't beat the Patriots, and can't win outdoors in the cold. He's 60 minutes from silencing all of his doubters, and he knows it. As great as Manning is, there's no one that understands better than he does that this is the type of game that will define his legacy. The stakes are not the same for Tom Brady, whose legacy is pretty well secure with a pair of Super Bowl MVP awards, but the competitor in him will want very badly to outperform the quarterback on the other sideline, the one that got all the headlines this season. It should be fun to watch.
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The illegal contact crackdown will have implications that are felt beyond the postseason playing field. This is a lousy year for the so-called "shutdown corners" to hit free agency. Washington's Fred Smoot is the type of player who's going to feel the impact of the rule emphasis in his next contract.
Denver's Mike Shanahan believed he needed a shutdown corner after Manning and the Colts torched his defense for 41 points in a wildcard playoff game last January. He believed it enough that he dealt Clinton Portis to Washington for Champ Bailey. This year his defense gave up 48 points to Manning and the Colts in a wildcard playoff game. It was still a decent trade for Denver; Portis was going to hold out and they picked up a second-round draft choice along with Bailey. After watching what happened to Terrell Davis, Shanahan was not going to risk tying up a huge chunk of the team's salary cap in a running back whose career could be over on the next snap, not when he had the confidence that he could plug any back into his offensive system and be successful. The extra draft choice helped get Shanahan a running back to replace Portis (Tatum Bell), so maybe he can use this year's first round pick to bolster the defense -- perhaps with another corner.
The cornerback who excels at man-to-man coverage will always be a commodity, but those players stand to be devalued as long as the rules are being enforced as they are this season. Teams will think twice before investing huge free-agent dollars in a position that has been put at a disadvantage by the rulebook. Teams may switch to more zone coverage schemes and look for more versatile corners, players that can play man or zone, can tackle well, and can blitz the quarterback.
The Dolphins are one team that is sure to be affected. For years, cornerbacks Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain have excelled by being physical with receivers. It's as if they were coached to just interfere early and often and force the officials to decide if they would throw the flag. In years past, more often than not the flag would stay in the officials' pocket and Madison and Surtain would blanket receivers. But with the new rules emphasis and a new coach/GM in Nick Saban, Miami is rumored to be looking to part with one or both of them. Perhaps Saban feels that money allocated to a pair of marquee corners who are hampered by the rules enforcement could instead be spent shoring up other areas of his club.
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The best game of the weekend was the Saturday night affair between the Jets and Chargers in rainy San Diego, a game won by the Jets in overtime after linebacker Eric Barton nearly gave it away with one of the all-time stupid penalties in football history.
Maybe it's just that I live in the New York area and am subjected to the local media coverage of the Jets, but it seems as if almost nobody gave them a chance in this game, mostly because of their limited offense and quarterback Chad Pennington's shoulder injury.
Now that I have NFL Sunday Ticket, I avoid watching the Jets and Giants at all costs. It's my reaction to nearly two decades of living in this area and being subjected to nothing but their games. In any case, I really hadn't seen much of the Jets this season, though I did watch a good chunk of their game in St. Louis last week, when they learned during the fourth quarter that they had clinched a playoff spot and went on to lose in overtime.
In addition to Pennington's shoulder, many cited this loss to lowly St. Louis as a reason for picking against the Jets in the playoffs. But from what I saw, the Rams actually played pretty well last week. The Jets hung with a desperate team on the road even after they learned the game meant nothing. Pennington did look hesitant throwing the ball at times, which was certainly a concern heading into the San Diego game.
But it was evident from the game's first series Saturday night that Pennington had a different approach to his shoulder injury. He looked like a quarterback who knew that he could only let it rip a few times, so he found other ways to get the ball where it needed to go. He threw a deep ball in that first series that he sort of shot-putted down the field, but it arrived on target, even though it fell incomplete.
There's more than one way to deliver the football, and plenty of quarterbacks (Joe Montana comes to mind) have thrived without the benefit of a howitzer for an arm. Pennington has never had tremendous arm strength, and it's even more tenuous since his rotator cuff injury, so against the Chargers he floated, guided, or hung the ball when necessary. And every now and then, he reached back and put some extra zip on a throw that really needed it. Pennington appears to have needed a couple of games to get comfortable with the limitations imposed by his injury, but he's figured it out. Unfortunately for the Jets, the pair of cross-country flights and the five-quarter effort against the Chargers don't bode well for their Saturday afternoon game against rested Pittsburgh.
The travel factor cannot be underestimated. Anyone who has ever taken a red-eye flight across the country or the Ocean knows that it can take several days to recover, no matter how cushy the accommodations on the plane. I think the Jets have a better chance against Pittsburgh than they would have against New England, but sometimes teams that play a gut-wrenching playoff game one week can get blown out the next -- I'm thinking of the 2000 Dolphins, who beat the Colts in OT in the wild card round, then had to fly cross-country to play Oakland and got killed.
Then again, after the first wild card weekend in history in which three road teams won, who knows what will happen this week? Just for the sake of having predictions on record, here goes:
And if I'm wrong about that last one, and Manning throws four interceptions again, I expect all the Brady backers to be posting on the Junkie discussion thread Sunday night. Just remember, I'm a Michigan guy and Tom Brady might be my favorite Michigan player ever.
There was no shortage of candidates this week, with gaffes aplenty. You had the Rams and Martz setting a wasted-timeout record in Seattle; the Seahawks playing seven defensive backs against the Rams and failing to come close to covering the Rams receivers; San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer getting a critical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty while arguing a call; and the Jets unable to put 11 men on the field and Herman Edwards fighting with an assistant on the sideline. And that was just the Saturday games.
But the winner goes to Denver's Shanahan for his passive approach to what looked for all the world like it was going to be a rout in Indianapolis. Shanahan could have won the award for his decision to punt on 4th-and-1 when trailing 7-0, but the clincher was his decision to kick a field goal on 4th-and-6 from the Denver 14 with the Colts ahead, 21-0. At that point, it was obvious the Broncos were in serious trouble and should have gone for the touchdown, but Shanahan compounded the error by following the field goal with an onside kick. That just seems a far greater risk than going for it on fourth down. Instead, the Broncos trailed 21-3 and gave the ball back to Indianapolis on the Denver 40-yard line. Two plays later, it was 28-3 and the game was effectively over.
In a wacky weekend, Shanahan's ill-timed decisions stand out. The good news is that I still have Martz and Edwards to kick around as I try to decide next week's winner.