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?
04 Nov 2005
By Aaron Schatz
Unlike last year, 2005 will not see any 8-8 teams make the NFC playoffs. Seven of the eight teams in the NFC South and NFC East have winning records, and only four will make the postseason. Two intra-division matchups this weekend provide contenders with a chance to better their own position and knock down a competitor in one fell swoop.
Carolina was a popular Super Bowl pick in the preseason, but the team was written off by many observers after a 1-2 start. Ignored by everyone, the Panthers reeled off four straight wins. Now they sit in a five-way tie atop the NFC along with New York, Seattle, and division rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
The Bucs had that place to themselves until they were upset by the league's worst team, San Francisco. Upsets happen in the NFL all the time, but the Bucs cannot write this one off as a fluke, because it was clearly tied to two players: quarterback Chris Simms, who took over the starting job when Brian Griese tore his ACL in the previous game, and running back Cadillac Williams, who has been rendered ineffective by a foot injury.
The defense did its part against San Francisco, despite the suspension of defensive end Simeon Rice for missing a team meeting. The Bucs held San Francisco to 50 yards passing, and while they allowed 186 yards on the ground, those came at a reasonable clip of 4.1 yards per carry.
But the 49ers -- a team that had previously allowed an average of 35 points per game -- intercepted Simms twice, sacked him four times, and forced a fumble as Tampa was trying to come back in the final two minutes. Williams, who began his career with three straight games over 125 yards, gained a measly 20 yards on 13 carries. Tampa's only touchdown came on a 78-yard pass to Galloway that was actually a three-yard pass with 75 yards after the catch.
If this was the output against San Francisco, how will Tampa fare against the above-average defense of Carolina, which hasn't given up 30 points yet this season? Adjusted line yards, a metric for measuring offensive and defensive line blocking, ranks Carolina's front seven as the NFL's best run-stoppers.
Of course, Tampa's front seven ranks just behind in second place, and Carolina running back Stephen Davis is averaging a dismal three yards per carry. But the Panthers have a colossal advantage in the passing game, where Steve Smith has been the best receiver in the league. Carolina's other receivers are subpar, and defenses can focus on Smith, and it doesn't matter. Smith leads NFL wide receivers with both 797 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 71 percent of the passes thrown to him, the second highest total among receivers with at least 40 passes.
Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) â€“ which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent â€“ also measure a team's defense against specific receivers. Tampa Bay's pass defense ranks 11th overall, but just 15th against no. 1 receivers and 26th against no. 3 or 4 receivers. They'll have problems covering Smith, and if all the safeties are concentrated on helping the cornerbacks stop Smith deep, it frees things up for a big game from venerable slot receiver Ricky Proehl.
Carolina will be able to score. Without a steep improvement in the performance of Chris Simms and the health of Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay will not.
The Eagles, expected to run away with the NFC East, find themselves in a struggle just to make the playoffs. The Redskins, expected to sit in last place, are happy to be involved in that struggle as well. Both teams are trying to recover their dignity after the Broncos thrashed the Eagles 49-21 and the Giants stomped the Redskins 36-0.
But Philadelphia is not built to take advantage of the Washington holes exposed by the Giants. The Redskins had trouble when they blitzed on the right side and the Giants handed the ball to Tiki Barber going left. But will the run-shy consider actually handing the ball off?
Washington's offensive line couldn't contain the Giants pass rush even though they rarely blitzed. With tackle Chris Samuels hurting, 42-year-old veteran Ray Brown -- who started his career in St. Louis for the Cardinals -- was forced into action, and was awful. But Philadelphia's pass rush isn't as good as years past, and the complex blitz schemes of coordinator Jim Johnson have led to just 15 sacks.
The defensive line is also just one of many areas where the Eagles are hurting badly. Three defensive linemen are listed as questionable, including pass rush specialist Jevon Kearse. Star wide receiver Terrell Owens is questionable with a sprained ankle. Punter Dirk Johnson, the only strong point as the rest of Philadelphia's special teams collapsed, is now out for the year with a hamstring injury, replaced by rookie Reggie Hodges. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is trying to play through bruised ribs and a sports hernia without missing games to regain his health, and he's suffering badly. His ability to scramble is gone, making him easier to game plan, and many of his throws are off-target.
The Eagles shut down San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson two weeks ago and then were mauled by Denver's Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, so it is hard to tell how Washington's Clinton Portis will fare. But Philadelphia's clearest defensive weakness plays right into Washington's favor: the Eagles cannot contain the opposition's best receiver.
Remove San Francisco's Brandon Lloyd, and opposing no. 1 receivers average 91 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia while catching 78 percent of passes. Making things even worse, cornerback Lito Sheppard played last week despite a knee injury, and was repeatedly burned deep. How will the Eagles stop Washington's Santana Moss, whose 777 receiving yards are more than anyone except the aforementioned Steve Smith?
The Redskins have built their winning record on some lucky breaks, and last year's Eagles would have been just the team to bring them back to earth. But these are not last year's Eagles, and advantages in both health and home-field give Washington a clear edge.
By Michael David Smith
Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil has always valued loyalty, a trait that has won him almost universal admiration from his players. But this season, it could end up costing Kansas City a playoff spot.
Vermeil exercises his loyalty by giving the bulk of the team's rushing attempts to a trusty veteran, Priest Holmes, instead of a superior player, young backup Larry Johnson. Last week's loss to the division rival San Diego Chargers was the latest demonstration of how Johnson runs more effectively but Vermeil sticks with Holmes. Johnson gained 55 yards on six carries, but Vermeil's game plan called for Holmes, who ended up with 38 yards on 14 carries, to get the lion's share of the playing time.
Vermeil became Kansas City's head coach in 2001, and signing Holmes as a free agent from Baltimore was one of his first personnel moves. He planned to use Holmes the same way he used Marshall Faulk in St. Louis: as the focal point of the offense as both a runner and a receiver.
For three years, it worked. Holmes averaged more than 1,500 yards rushing from 2001-03, added more than 600 receiving yards each year, and scored a league-record 27 touchdowns in 2003. But two things happened in 2004. First, Holmes hurt his knee and missed half the season. Second, Johnson, Kansas City's first-round draft pick in 2003, emerged as one of football's most promising backs. Now Holmes is 32 and on the downside of his career, while Johnson is 25 and in his prime. The only thing separating Holmes from the bench is Vermeil's loyalty.
Vermeil plays Holmes for the first two offensive series of each game, Johnson for the third, and they alternate using that two-to-one ratio for the rest of the game. Not surprisingly, Holmes loves this game plan because it keeps him in the starting role and while giving his worn-down body some rest. But Johnson has made no secret that he thinks he deserves to be the team's top option.
Johnson might get a chance to prove the point when 4-3 Kansas City takes on the Oakland Raiders Sunday, as Holmes is doubtful with a concussion. Johnson runs faster than Holmes, and when he gets into space, only the speediest defensive backs can catch him from behind. Holmes, meanwhile, has lost his speed the way so many running backs do when age and injuries catch up with them. He can still find creases in opposing defenses, but he's no longer the explosive back of a few years ago.
This season, Johnson has 75 carries for 399 yards, for 5.3 yards a carry. Holmes has 119 carries for 451 yards, for 3.8 yards a carry. Holmes has a reputation for more consistently getting into the end zone and gaining first downs, but this season Johnson and Holmes have identical numbers in that regard: both have scored on 5% of their carries and gained first downs on 24%.
Before his injury last season, Holmes was especially valuable because of his skill as a receiver. But he has lost the speed to turn screen passes into long gains. Last Sunday, both backs caught three passes, but Holmes had only 15 receiving yards to Johnson's 28.
Kansas City chose Johnson after a senior season at Penn State in which he gained more than 2,000 yards. Many questioned why the Chiefs, who had glaring needs on defense and a stud at running back, would take another runner in the first round. An unhappy Johnson ran only 20 times in his rookie season, and early in his second season, Vermeil criticized Johnson publicly, saying it was time for him to "take the diapers off." But since getting his first extended playing time shortly after that, Johnson has excelled. He's the only young blood on the Chiefs' aging offense, and he'll play a significant role in the franchise's future.
But he ought to play a bigger role in the franchise's present. Instead, Vermeil, who is expected to retire at the end of the season, will go out as a coach who shows fierce loyalty to his older players. That makes it less likely he'll go out a winner.
These articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
22 comments, Last at 12 Nov 2005, 10:09pm by Jerry