Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
18 Aug 2004
by Michael David Smith
During Super Bowl XXXVIII, announcer Phil Simms discussed the Patriots' behemoth defensive lineman, Ted Washington, and said that because of his presence, "Both teams know that Carolina is not going to have tremendous success trying to run up inside."
Earlier on Super Bowl Sunday, during the ESPN pre-game show, announcer Michael Irvin said, "Take out a dictionary -- take out the Bible -- and look up run stuffer and you'll see a picture of Ted Washington."
Irvin reads a different Bible than I do if the one he reads has definitions of football terms (actually, I like his better), but I'm not at all convinced that Washington is as impressive at stopping the run as the announcers would have us believe.
Why? Because I actually sat down and watched Washington on every play during the Super Bowl. I plan to do that a lot this season -- watch one player on every play of a game -- and report back here on my findings. When it comes to Washington, I've concluded that the Patriots, who let him go in free agency, won't miss him a bit.
Sometimes it's difficult or impossible to isolate one player when watching a game on TV because the networks decide that they'd rather show us a close-up of the quarterback's helmet than an angle that actually allows us to see the play develop. But Washington, as a nose tackle, is always near the ball, and during the Super Bowl there were enough replays that I didn't have a problem getting a good look at him.
Let me be candid about the first thing I noticed: Washington stinks against the pass. He can't rush the passer to save his life. On pass plays Washington consistently failed to cross the line of scrimmage. His pass rush technique consists of standing in front of the lineman blocking him, raising his arms, and hoping an errant pass hits him in the hand. This is not exactly Bruce Smith.
Nevertheless, Phil Simms and Greg Gumbel had a storyline they wanted to follow, and they certainly weren't going to let what happened on the field change their minds. So with about three minutes left in the first quarter, they launched into an obviously pre-planned discussion of Washington's greatness, even though on the previous play Panthers center Jeff Mitchell easily blocked Washington. Washington didn't get anywhere near Jake Delhomme on the play.
But judging Ted Washington on how well he plays against the pass is kind of like judging Pamela Anderson on her novel: It's part of the job, but far from the most important part.
Washington is on the field to stop the run, and in evaluating him, my main focus was on how well he did that. Carolina had 58 offensive plays in the Super Bowl. Washington was on the field for 34 and on the sidelines for 24. With Washington on the field the Panthers ran 12 times for 57 yards. With Washington out they ran four times for 35 yards. By those numbers it certainly appears that Washington made a notable difference in the running attack, but with such a small sample size stats aren't the best method of evaluation because two outliers skew the numbers: DeShaun Foster's 33-yard touchdown with Washington in the game and Stephen Davis' 21-yard run with Washington out of the game.
The best time to watch Washington was on Carolina's first two second-half series because Washington played every down of both series. Perhaps most revealing: On 1st-and-10 with 5:53 remaining in the third quarter, Stephen Davis ran toward his right guard, and Washington dove to his left to force Davis into a pileup and limit him to a two-yard gain. But on 2nd-and-8 the Panthers called essentially the same play, Washington again dove to his left, and this time Davis was ready for it and had no trouble getting past Washington for a five-yard gain. That's what I noticed again and again as I watched Washington. He'd follow a successful effort with the exact same technique, and, of course, it never worked as well the second time.
The official stats credit Washington with zero tackles and zero assists, but many of Washington's supporters say the stats can't measure his value. His value supposedly comes in his ability to occupy so many blockers that he frees his linebackers and fellow defensive linemen to make the tackle. Sorry, but it's not true. Washington was single-blocked on the majority of his plays. Even when the Panthers ran Stephen Davis right up the middle -- the plays when Washington is supposedly such a force -- the Panthers usually let Mitchell block him alone, and Mitchell usually won the battle.
Of course, Washington has size, and his size is helpful when running backs go right at him. Washington's listed weight might not be accurate, so let's just say that he is heavier than the Japanese Yokozuna Takanohana, but lighter than these people.
With girth comes a lack of speed, and that hurts him when a running back makes even a slight move to elude him. The most obvious example is Foster's 33-yard touchdown run. Foster took the handoff and ran directly at Washington before making a quick cut to the left and blowing past him. No defensive tackle can catch Foster from behind, but plenty could wrap him up before he got to full speed. Washington never stood a chance.
So what can we expect from Washington this year? Not a whole lot. I think the Patriots made the right decision in letting him sign with Oakland. There aren't any good stats for defensive linemen, but I'll leave you with two: 36 is Washington's age, and 365 is his listed weight. A close look at his play last year reveals that he's already too slow to be effective. It won't be much longer until the rest of the world has figured that out.