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?
11 Sep 2003
by Ian Dembsky and Al Bogdan
Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where we discuss all things football. We'll have commentary on the latest NFL stories, as well as our Best Bets of the week and updates to our Survivor League (check the Scramble archives for full details). Al's a long-time Giants fan originally from Long Island, and Ian is a long-time Tampa Bay fan originally from Jersey, and we're both NFL and fantasy sports addicts. Look for Scramble updated every Thursday afternoon during the NFL season, and feel free to email us with any thoughts at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Ian: Well, one week done in the football season, and Tampa still looks like the team to beat. I was guessing they'd play well enough to beat the Eagles, but I sure didn't expect them to flat-out destroy them! Tremendous game by the defense and the Tampa passing game, especially Joe Jurevicius. Those two catches were among the best I'd ever seen, especially that second one. Did he really tip the ball to himself over a defender?!? That's just ridiculous.
Al: The only catch that I've seen that comes close to Jurevicius' second catch is the play from a Monday night game a few years ago where Antonio Freeman fell down, caught a pass that bounced off of his back, got up and ran 30 yards for a game winning TD against the Vikings. Jurevicius looked like he was playing playground basketball on an AND1 mix tape.
The Tampa defense looked better than ever on Monday night. Even with the game squarely put away late in the fourth quarter, they still went after McNabb as hard as they did in the first quarter. If they can keep that intensity up all year, and stay injury free, Tampa should have an easy walk into the playoffs.
Tampa might have been the most impressive team in week 1, but easily the least impressive team has to be the Miami Dolphins. A Super Bowl contender doesn't lose to the Houston Texans at home in September. Kudos to the Texan offensive line who allowed zero sacks for the first time in franchise history. It was a very poor showing by Miami's defense. They couldn't get to Carr and let him drive the Texans into field goal range twice in the fourth quarter.
Ian: When I was listening to score updates on the radio, and I heard that Houston beat Miami, I almost had to pull off the highway I was so shocked. Who would've seen this coming? Lots of people are blaming this on Miami "looking ahead to next week's game", and maybe they're right. I used to never believe that motivation was a huge part of a football player's performance; as far as I can tell, a player goes on the field and plays his hardest every week (as long as his name's not Randy Moss). It's got to be due to something else. I feel a theory coming on...
It's the Michael Jordan Theory! Basically, when a veteran player who's been an All-Star for a lot of his career joins a team in an effort to put them over the top, it backfires, and the team is worse off without him. Washington may have finished with a better record thanks to Jordan playing for them, but tell that to Kwaeme Brown -- now that Jordan's gone, the team is filled with a bunch of youngsters who spent all last year watching him hog the ball. Here's some other worthwhile examples of the Jordan Theory:
Is Junior Seau the next example of the Jordan Theory at work? We've got a long season to find out.
One thing we don't need a long season to find out is whether or not the Detroit Lions are for real. It was nice to see them start the season against a hapless Arizona roster, and to see Joey Harrington and Charles Rodgers get off to such a nice start. But Arizona's gonna be at the losing end of a lot of games this year; the Lions shouldn't get too excited.
Al: The Lions/Cardinals game went just as expected. A five win team should always roll over a one win team.
Your Michael Jordan theory does have possibilities. I'm not sure the Mets fit in, though. I'd go for examples like Miami Dolphin Thurman Thomas, Orlando Magic Patrick Ewing, or Los Angeles Dodger Rickey Henderson. Of course Colorado Avalanche Ray Borque would throw things into disarray. We'll need to work on it a little more before it reaches the status of the Ewing Theory.
Speaking of the Ewing Theory, watch out for the Rams. It's Bulger time! The Rams medical staff should be fired for clearing Kurt Warner to play in the second half on Sunday. I wasn't high on Warner this year to begin with, but I can definitely see Bulger lighting a fire under the sleepy Rams offense. I'm going to stand by my wild prediction in one of the blog discussion threads that Warner starts less than 5 games this year. The NYTD Blue offense was not as consistent as I hoped it would be, but the defense was top notch. It's tough to tell how much of that had to do with playing against a concussed QB, though.
Ian: "NYTD Blue"? That's horrible.
I heard that the Rams were complaining about headset problems, as Kurt Warner couldn't hear the plays they were calling in. Turns out the headset was fine, and it's just his head that wasn't! That couldn't possibly bode well for his performance in the game. And while we're on the topic, why is it ok for the coaches to have headset access to their quarterbacks? Why not make them signal in the plays like they do in all the other sports? Letting a team stall the game because their headsets aren't working is a waste of a LOT of people's time.
Kudos to the Giants defense though; despite a woozy Warner they still needed to get great pressure up front to cause so many fumbles, and they did just that.
As you'll soon read about, I cruised to a 3-0 record in our Best Bets of the week. My Best Bet was Pittsburgh to beat up on Baltimore, and I was dead on. The Ravens defense, once a team to consider benching your best fantasy starters against, is now nothing special. And the Steelers offense is looking real good; starting Amos Zereoue over Jerome Bettis in their pass-oriented offense was a no-brainer.
Al: NYTD Blue is an awesome nickname for the high-powered Giants offense. Credit to the NY Post, the first place I saw the nickname. I'll be sure to use it for the rest of the season.
That Tommy Maddox trade we made almost bit us in the ass. He's going to be pretty good this year. Thankfully Tampa pitched a shut out to help us go 1-0 in our auction league. From just looking at the stats, it seems like Baltimore's problem was its pass defense. They allowed only 3.0 yards per rushing play against Pittsburgh, but 7.5 yards per pass.
My picks weren't as good as yours were last week, but the game we both got right was Buffalo demolishing the Patriots. It's too early to start driving the Bills bandwagon or to jump of the Patriot train, though. Lawyer Milloy played the inspired game that everyone expected. Should the Bills defense be given credit for the shut out or should Charlie Weis and Tom Brady be blamed for the total lack of scoring on the part of New England? Probably a little of both. Brady has one of, if not the, worst arms for long passes in the NFL. There's no reason he should be throwing more than 15 yards downfield more than once or twice a game.
Ian: Jeez, I wonder how long it's been since the Bills were alone in first place. If you'd bet on that happening any time this whole *season*, I bet you'd have gotten great odds. It's really nice to see Takeo Spikes playing for a winner now; he deserves it.
As far as the Pats go, I predicted they'd have a pretty poor year, and they started off even worse than I expected. There's of course a media battle going on between people saying "That's it, the season's over" and others saying "those of you who say the season's over, shut up -- it's just one game". Count me among the people saying "the season's over". You're dead-on about Brady -- he misses way too many deep-ball opportunities. Too bad 2 of the 3 best wide receivers the Pats have are guys who specialize in burning defenses deep.
One team whose season is far from over is my predicted division winner Minnesota Vikings. Green Bay rallied well in the fourth quarter, but came up short against a motivated Vikings squad that's thankful they had to make their annual trip to Green Bay in September. Moss had a phenomenal game, as did Daunte Culpepper who rushed for 50 yards and threw 3 TDs vs. 0 interceptions.
Green Bay needed awhile before they woke up in this game, and when they did they finally showed signs of being the team projected to win the NFC North. But Favre continued to show he's getting past his prime by throwing four costly interceptions. Does anyone force the ball as much as he does nowadays?
Al: Brett Favre losing in the season opener at Lambeau against the Vikings is not a good omen for the Packers' chances this season. There was very little said or written about Randy Moss this off season, compared to years past. I'm starting too think that this was a very good thing. 9 catches, 150 yards. Maybe we'll finally see the Randy Ratio in full effect.
If the Pack plays like this all year, Minnesota is a virtual playoff lock, especially with the horrid Chicago Bears offense. As FBO reader and Bears fan JBC has noted, the Bears have lost four starting offensive linemen since the end of last season. Other than Brian Urlacher and Marty Booker, I can't think of too many Bears that would be valuable contributors on most other teams. Chicago did nothing against San Francisco to indicate they won't be the last place team in the NFC North.
I'm not sure we really can learn a lot about the 49ers from their blowout of Chicago. They performed exactly how you would expect an average or above average team to perform against the Bears. This week against St. Louis will be a good test to see where the Niners stand in the NFC.
Ian: Man, I knew Kordell was bad, but how in the hell did he get walloped by that atrocious 49ers pass defense? I mean, when Ahmed Plummer picks you off twice, it's time to go back to quarterback school. It's a shame they're so bad, since Urlacher and Marty Booker are two very likable, very talented players. Oh well, at least they can hang out at R.W. McQuarters after the game...
Well, my biggest prediction of the preseason was that Seattle would win the Super Bowl. A bit of a stretch? Absolutely. But predicting that Tampa's gonna win it all isn't very interesting, now is it? The good thing is that Seattle's off and running with a 27-10 win over a strong New Orleans team. So much for Shaun Alexander getting off to a slow start, eh?
Al: I'm pleasantly surprised at Alexander's good game. I don't know how, but Alexander and Seattle's offensive line had the best week 1 performance of Alexander's career. Seattle's defensive success was also a bit of a shock. New Orleans has some pretty nice offensive weapons themselves. Holding them to only 10 points is a nice accomplishment. I'm starting to regret not hopping on the Seahawk bandwagon when I had the chance.
Did anything interesting happen in the Indianapolis/Cleveland slobberknocker? I'm just glad I don't live in Indiana or Ohio so I didn't have to sit through this horrible game.
Ian: Now reaching its destination... the Kelly Holcombe Bandwagon... Everyone off...
Now departing... the Carolina Panthers Bandwagon... Everyone on...
What a game for the Panthers! They may have only been playing Jacksonville, but the comeback they mounted was rather impressive. And they won on 4th down with only 15 seconds to go in the game -- that's gonna go a long way for the motivation of this team; it's a "we're never out of it" mentality. Of course, a lot rests on their matchup @Tampa next week, which should be one of the most entertaining 2-0 games ever...
As for Jacksonville, it's a shame that Brunell played so well against a much-improved Carolina defense and they still came up short -- all because they couldn't stop Jake Delhomme. It's gonna be a looong season in Jacksonville.
Al: I'm glad the Rodney Peete era has finally come to an end. I've been all about Carolina this year. I don't think they'll beat out Tampa, but they should be a strong wild card team. Stephen Davis had a very nice game. He's my favorite for comeback player of the year.
Davis' old team had a decent showing against the Jets in the season opener. I was impressed with the Redskins' ability to change the focus of their offensive attack mid-game. In the first half, Patrick Ramsey could do no wrong, going 12 for 13 with 156 yards passing. After the Jets concentrated on defending the pass, the Redskins shifted gears and rushed Ladell Betts 10 times for 48 yards and Trung Canidate 10 times for 40 yards. Add in two Ramsey scrambles for 27 yards and you have a dominating rushing attack that ate up a significant amount of time.
As for the Jets, it's going to be a long season. I'm just hoping they re-sign Marquel Blackwell, so he can regain his title of having the best name in the NFL.
Ian: I agree with you on Washington. The Jets started bringing heat from the outside to pressure the 'Skins, so they started pounding the ball up the middle with a lot of success. The ability to move the ball downfield with mostly running plays is not only tiring for the opponents, but demoralizing as well.
I also have to give credit to Patrick Ramsey for his huge completion to Laveraneus Coles up the sideline... What a throw! First of all, it was a great job of avoiding the sack. Then, it didn't even look like he had time to look downfield to see if Coles was open; he just trusted his best WR to be there and got rewarded for it. Helluva play.
On the other hand, I can't say enough bad things about Quincy Carter. I had the misfortune of being forced to watch the Cowboys-Falcons game last Sunday, and man, was he awful. When he could have run with the ball early, he didn't. Then, when he finally did, he hardly held on to the ball, and fumbled it away. And whenever he went back to pass, he just lobbed it deep to Galloway. It worked sometimes, but also resulted in interceptions, which you can't constantly risk by just flinging the ball downfield to a covered receiver.
Al: Dallas' defense looked pretty good in the first half, holding Atlanta to only 3 points. The Cowboy D could only hold back Atlanta for so long, though. When your offense only has one drive over four minutes for the entire game and none longer than two and a half minutes in the second half, you can't expect your defense to last forever. Dallas needs to find a running game to eat up the clock so the Cowboy defense isn't worn out by week 4.
Even though the Falcons won, you can't be too confident in their chances over the next 3-4 games until Vick comes back based on their week 1 offensive performance. Other than Alge Crumpler, I wasn't very impressed with any anyone on the Atlanta offense.
Speaking of less than impressive offenses, the Bengals were a big disappointment in getting blown out by Denver. You can't expect to win when you can only muster 51 rushing yards at home. Bronco fans can't be too excited about the debut of Jake the Snake. 115 yards and 3 INTs won't win you any ballgames against a team that has a decent run defense.
Ian: We all know Marvin Lewis will be a good coach; but even Vince Lombardi couldn't turn around the Bengals franchise quickly. It's gonna take time, but I'm still confident that the Bengals are a team on the rise. In the meanwhile though, they still suck.
Oh, and is Clinton Portis good, or what?? Some of those runs he broke off against Cincinnati were downright sick. Too bad they didn't have Takeo Spikes patrolling the middle of the field; his loss was evident in that the Broncos won despite Jake's horrific performance.
One of the few running backs that you could argue is better than Portis right now is Priest Holmes. Injured hip? What injured hip? Not only was he a monster yesterday, but he looked like he was having fun all game too -- as if he was toying with the Chargers "defense". "Paging LaDanian Tomlinson... LaDanian Tomlinson, please report to the football field... LaDanian, are you there?"
Al: LT was very disappointing. Either KC's run defense has greatly improved, or he's getting off to an unexpected slow start. Just a bad game overall from San Diego. Josh Norman, no matter how high he ranked in Aaron's TE rankings from last year, can't be your #1 receiver against a Super Bowl contender.
Finally, the Titan/Raider game. Tennessee was very lucky that they have a punter that knows how to kick a field goal. With Joe Nedney gone for the year, they've just signed 44 year old kicker Gary Anderson. Last year, playing his home games in a dome, Anderson was only 4/9 on FGs longer than 40 yards. With a kicking game that weak and no rushing attack to speak of, Tennessee is becoming too reliant on Steve McNair's arm and legs. He's already banged up after week 1. If McNair misses any significant time this year, the Titans are done.
Ian: It's hard to underestimate how tough the loss of Joe Nedney could be to this team. Remember how Oakland a few years back was a great team, but missed the playoffs due to repeated misses on clutch field goal attempts? This could be the way things are for Tennessee this year. Craig Hentrich looked so good kicking field goals; why not just have him do it? Are the extra 4 or 5 kicks a game gonna tire him out?
Last week, I cruised to a 3-0 start by taking Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Al did not have quite as good of a week; getting only Buffalo right but failing on Carolina, his Best Bet, and Cincinnati, Just a Hunch. That makes the season score 6-2 me (3 for Best Bet, 2 for Pretty Good Bet, 1 for Just a Hunch). Not to gloat, but Al, your picks sucked last week. Care to put up a fight this one?
Best Bet: Carolina +9.5 over Tampa
I'm shocked the line is this high. I may be a big Bucs fan, but I'm sure not overlooking the talent Carolina has on the defensive side of the ball. It's not like the Tampa offense is high-powered or anything. I like Tampa to win, but in a close defensive struggle. If you have a bookie that let's you bet over/under on punts in a game, take the over here.
Pretty Good Bet: Green Bay -6.5 over Detroit
The only reason this line isn't 13 is because Detroit got to beat up on the hapless Cardinals last week. They let Jeff Blake throw all over them, and couldn't tackle anyone - -- If you have any Packers on your fantasy team, play 'em this week.
Just a Hunch: Miami -3 over NY Jets
It's amazing that Miami's only getting three points here. I guess it's because they looked so flat against Houston and it's a division rivalry, so you never know what will happen. But Ricky Williams has more talent in his right pinky toe than the entire Jets offense right now; gimme Miami.
Al: I was just giving you a little head start last week. I'll be back in the lead soon enough.
Best Bet: Seattle -4.5 over Arizona
I just don't understand this line. The Seahawks beat a playoff contender by more than two TDs in Week 1. Arizona lost by two touchdowns to the Lions. And Seattle is favored by less than a TD? It's not like the Cardinals have any kind of homefield advantage to speak of that would drop the line this low. It's almost too easy of a pick that I am hesitant to make it, but I just can't resist. Ladies and Gentleman: Start Your Seahawks!
Pretty Good Bet: Tampa -9.5 over Carolina
I was originally with you and thought 9.5 was way too many points for Tampa to give up in a game that might not have 9 points scored by both teams combined. Then I started looking at Tampa's numbers at home last year. In their regular season home victories, Tampa never had to squeak one out. They won by at least 2 TDs in every single home victory. I think Tampa will win this game, so I started to lean away from Carolina and wasn't going to play this game at all. Then I read the following quote from Carolina defensive tackle Brenton Buckner:
``I don't know their other end [Greg Spires] besides Rice, but he's not better than Ruck. For sure, Jenks is better than Sapp. I don't even know the other tackle [Anthony McFarland], but he's not better than me.''
That pushed me right over into the Tampa camp for this week's game. Claiming that your no-name defensive line is better than Warren Sapp and Co. is just begging for Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis to be eaten alive this week.
Just a Hunch: Houston +8.5 over New Orleans
I was very impressed by the Texans last week. The explanation du jour is that Dom Capers is just a great coach for home openers. I'm not sure if I buy that logic. The Texan offensive line was light years better last week than at any point last season. I think they can at least keep it close against a New Orleans defensive line that allowed 151 rushing yards in week 1.
Survivor League Update:
The first casualty of the 2003 season was Ian's second team Made With Real Meat. Big weeks out of Tommy Maddox and Shaun Alexander were not enough to overcome a combined 4 points from David Boston, Donald Driver, Itula Mili and David Akers.
My second team, Big Dick McGee, won immunity this week. Jay Fiedler and Clinton Portis provided 20+ points each and the surprising Denver defense pushed the team over the top with an 18 point performance.
Ian: I didn't expect David Akers to score nothing Monday night, but as a Bucs fan I'll happily trade a Survivor team for a dominating Bucs victory. But I would like to see the team with Michael Vick, James Stewart and Jimmy Smith get knocked out of the league before some of those guys come back.
That's all the Scrambling for this week... Remember, if you have any comments, questions or whatever you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're happy to give you fantasy trade advice as long as you provide enough detail to give us context. Till next Thursday...