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?
22 Sep 2004
By Michael David Smith
One catch, 11 yards, a broken leg.
Not exactly a good day for Kellen Winslow, right?
Actually, it was.
The broken leg part was unfortunate, of course, and Winslow is expected to miss at least the next eight games. But I watched Winslow on every play of the Browns' loss to the Cowboys Sunday, and I saw a tough, competitive, hard-working player who did everything his team needed him to do. Despite the injury, I expect him to become an All-Pro player.
Unfortunately, it was that quality of doing everything his team needed him to do that will cost him most of his season, as he broke his leg when he made a key hit to allow teammate Anthony Henry to recover an onside kick on the game's penultimate play.
Winslow would have put up huge numbers if Jeff Garcia (who turned in what must have been the worst performance of his career) could have gotten him the ball. By my count, Winslow was Garcia's intended receiver seven times, and on all six incompletions, Garcia deserves the blame. Garcia overthrew Winslow several times, although he decided to compensate by badly under-throwing Winslow on a ball that Dat Nguyen intercepted.
At least four other times (maybe more; sometimes it's hard to tell with TV camera angles) Winslow got open and Garcia didn't see him. Phil Simms, who usually speaks favorably of the fellow members of his quarterbacking fraternity, sharply criticized Garcia after he failed to see Winslow for the third time. Playing with a quarterback who was on top of his game, a tight end running routes the way Winslow ran on Sunday could easily gain 100 yards receiving. Winslow's numbers in this game don't show that he played badly; they show that no receiver can overcome an incompetent performance by his quarterback. And incompetent is the right word for Garcia's day, which could also be described as inept, putrid, or dismal, whether you want to judge it using standard statistics (8/27, 71 yards, 0 TD, 3 INTs) or the advanced Football Outsiders stats (-13.8 PAR).
But even if Garcia didn't notice him, I saw Winslow do some great things on Sunday. First, let's get one thing out of the way: Like his Hall of Fame father, Winslow isn't a tight end in the strictest sense. He doesn't always line up on the line of scrimmage next to the offensive tackle. He sometimes plays as a split end, and on his one reception he lined up in the backfield and went in motion. I could envision the Browns using Winslow at just about any skill position, depending on the situation. He's that versatile.
But what surprised me most is what an efficient blocker Winslow is when he does line up as a pure tight end. In the first quarter he shoved Cowboys cornerback Pete Hunter eight yards down the field on a William Green run. Winslow made the key block to spring James Jackson's 38-yard run, the Browns' most impressive offensive play against the Cowboys, which set up a field goal at the end of the first half. Winslow was effective staying in on pass protection, too, lining up as a tight end on the left side and looking like a skinny left tackle in keeping the Cowboys' defensive end, Kalen Thornton, away from Garcia. I thought Winslow was just a big receiver coming out of college, but I was wrong. This guy can block with the best of them.
And, like his father famously did in a playoff victory over the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl on January 2, 1982, Winslow can block kicks. OK, so he hasn't actually done it yet, but Winslow lines up on the left end of the line on the punt return team, and he appears to have enough speed coming off the edge that it's only a matter of time before he blocks a punt, something he did himself at the Orange Bowl when he was in college at Miami.
Winslow must be devastated not only because he won't get to compete for the next two months but because a clause in his contract that gave him a $5 million bonus for playing 35 percent of the Browns' offensive plays is now in jeopardy. The Browns should be disappointed about Winslow's broken leg, but they should take solace in this: In 1979 a young, athletic tight end was playing well as a rookie before a broken leg cut his season short. But he rehabilitated, became a Pro Bowler the next year, and ended up in the Hall of Fame.
His name, of course, was Kellen Winslow.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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