Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
06 Nov 2003
by Al Bogdan and Ian Dembsky
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.
Al: A lot to talk about this week. But the best story from the weekend has to be this one. The Falcons had some ATL rappers performing during their halftime show. The rappers, Bonecrusher, the Youngbloodz and Janet Jackson's fiance Jermaine Dupri may or may not have used explicit language during the show. This may be the first AP article to ever contain the phrase "Now the plasma is oozin' outta yo' cerebellum."
The AP devoted an entire article to this, which ESPN.com linked to off their front page, yet no one knows if there was actually explicit language used. They quote no one who actually claims to have heard any profanity. Does someone at the AP just not like rap music? The Falcons spokesperson didn't know if they had even received any complaints. This story is both a poor example of journalism and incredibly funny at the same time.
At least this takes some of the heat off the horrible Falcons team that some predicted would make a Super Bowl run this year. The Atlanta secondary allowed Donovan McNabb to have his first 300+ yard game of the season. It was also McNabb's first 200+ yard game of the season. It was also more than twice as many yards than McNabb had thrown against all but two opponents this year. In other words, you can throw on Atlanta.
Ian: I think the plasma's gonna be oozin' outta Dan Reeves cerebellum soon when he gets canned. In an effort to shake things up, Atlanta benched their entire secondary for the Philly game. Clearly that didn't work. It was the first time this season a Philly wide receiver caught a touchdown! That's how bad they've been, and yet McNabb threw all over the hapless Atlanta D. With the defense playing the way they have, not even Michael Vick can save this team. Speaking of saviors...
Chad Pennington is back. The Jets may have lost to the Giants in overtime, but they certainly have reason for some optimism. Chad did show some rust, throwing a few interceptions and completing only 50% of his passes, but he certainly showed he could put points on the board in a manner reminiscent of the Jets improbable playoff run of a year ago. Santana Moss is looking like a top wideout, and Curtis Martin has 2 straight 100+ yard games. Not that I'm about to anoint them as an AFC wild card, but they're only three games back . . .
Al: Pennington to Moss looked pretty good Sunday. Maybe The Chad has found a new favorite WR to replace Laveraneus Coles. The Jets aren't coming close to the playoffs. I see four wins on their remaining schedule, tops. That's giving them the victory this week against the Raiders, who have owned the Jets in Oakland. Here's something strange. Including playoff games, this will be the seventh game between the Jets and Raiders since 1999. All seven games have been played in Oakland. The Jets have managed only one victory at the end of the 2001 season. Oakland avenged that loss just six days later in the first round of the playoffs.
The Battle of Northern New Jersey turned out to be a pretty good game. A big reason for that was the Giants' inability once again to hold onto a lead in the fourth quarter. NYTD Blue couldn't hold onto a 14 point lead with less than ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Giants allowed Pennington to throw for 127 yards in six and a half minutes. They can't keep playing this poorly in the fourth quarter if they want to make a run at the playoffs. With Tampa and St. Louis struggling, the Giants have a legitimate shot at a wild card spot if they can just shut teams down in the last 15 minutes of a game.
Ian: The Giants even tried to give away the game again by missing a very makeable field goal in overtime. They still managed to hold on for the win though. It'd be foolish to dismiss them as out of the running for the playoffs -- With Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Jeremy Shockey and Tiki Barber they've got one of the best offensive arsenals in the league. And don't forget Luke Petigout. (Sorry, I couldn't resist bringing up one of the most unexpected first round draft choices of all time. It's the only thing that day that stopped Eagles fans from booing McNabb. Anyways...) It's Shockey's dropped passes, Tiki's fumbles and the pathetic special teams performances that the G-Men have to get over to make a playoff push.
Man, who can figure out the Arizona Cardinals. How dare they run the Cincinnati Bandwagon off the road so quickly! Now they've beaten the Niners and Bengals in back-to-back weeks and are only 2 games out of a wild card spot. Are they going to pull that off? Heck no! But unfortunately, it'll be hard to keep picking against them the rest of the season. Can we officially declare the Emmitt Smith signing the worst off-season pickup of all-time? Imagine if Marcel Shipp had been the starter all year...
Al: I'm going to wait until the Cardinals get to .500 before I jump on board that bandwagon. They've already won more games than I thought they would all year, thanks to Emmitt's convenient injury. Since Smith went down, the Cardinals are 2-1. They have two winnable games in a row coming up on their schedule. Neither Pittsburgh nor Cleveland has been any good at home this year. Both have only managed one home victory. If Arizona ends up anywhere near .500, forget what Bill Parcells is doing in Dallas, Dave McGinnis should be coach of the year.
Shipp is over 100 yards his past two games. If you need a second half fantasy sleeper, this is it. I don't know how many leagues he'd still be available in, but if he's out there people should be running to snatch Shipp up. His performance isn't a fluke. He's averaging 4.4 yards per carry, the exact same number that he averaged last year. If the Cardinals come close to making the playoffs but miss them by only a game or two, the Arizona front office will be the winner of the year end Keep Choppin' Wood award for pushing Shipp to the bench for the first five games of the year.
Ian: Speaking of fantasy sports, I'd like to gloat about the fact that I won my fantasy matchup this week by one point, and my opponent had Jason Elam going in the Monday Night game. For those of you who didn't see, Jason Elam mysteriously left the game early on when he injured himself (he wasn't touched) while kicking a field goal. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for my opponent to be watching the game, then all of a sudden the punter is coming in to kick the extra point... Anyone who says luck isn't an important factor in fantasy football is full of it.
Time for me to once again give some praise to the Patriots, and specifically Tom Brady. Coming into the season, one of the things I always didn't like about him was his ability to throw an accurate deep ball. Over the past few seasons, we've seen him miss wide open receivers down the field time and time again. That's completely changed. I don't know if it's a healthy shoulder, practice making him better, or taking Levitra to help him throw the ball through the tire, but Brady's been throwing an amazingly accurate deep ball as of late. On Deion Branch's 66 yard touchdown Monday Night, the ball was a tight spiral thrown right in stride to let Deion cruise to the endzone. On the late touchdown to David Givens, the ball was perfectly placed behind David's left shoulder so he could make the catch, while at worst it would have ended up an incompletion. If Brady keeps this up, I'd have a hard time imagining the Pats not winning a division title.
Al: I'm starting to get the same vibe from the Pats that I had the year they won the Super Bowl. You're not sure exactly how they're winning, but the keep doing it. There was an Antowain Smith sighting this week! Good job by New England realizing Smith was their best back to attack the weaknesses of the injury-depleted Denver defense. Smith also deserves a ton of credit for his solid performance after only having three carries in the previous three games.
In last week's discussion thread, we were talking about QBs that were sacked the most and of course Rob Johnson's and Drew Bledsoe's names came up. But surprisingly, the QB that has been sacked the most this year has been Donovan McNabb. He has been sacked at a much higher rate this year than ever before. This season, McNabb has been sacked once for every 8.8 pass attempts. Here are the numbers for the rest of his career:
McNabb hasn't been sacked this often since he was a rookie learning to play in the NFL. If the Eagles don't start doing a better job protecting Donovan, his sore back could turn into something much, much worse.
Ian: If the Eagles had anyone on their team that could get open, maybe Donovan wouldn't have to take so many sacks. Donovan's struggles have much more with the team's refusal to surround him with talent than with his lack of playing ability. Speaking of a lack of playing ability...
Ian: Congratulations to Deltha O'Neal, winner of this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award! He certainly seemed like an unlikely recipient of this week's award when he returned a punt for a touchdown in the third quarter of the game against the Pats on Monday night. But when the game was on the line, he made not one, but two clutch plays for the Patriots (who, incidentally, he doesn't play for). You all know what they were -- He misfielded the New England punt, which turned it into a 64-yarder, and then got beat by Donald "Unstoppable" Givens of all people for the game-winning touchdown.
Al: What made O'Neal's performance even better was Madden and Michaels' commentary following his punt return. They couldn't stop gushing about how O'Neal had been benched and was in Shanahan's doghouse before the return, but after returning a punt for a TD, Deltha would be back in Shanahan's favor. Maybe they should have waited a few minutes before sending O'Neal from the bench to the Pro Bowl.
Speaking of Denver, we got some flack for being so low on Denver's chances in last week's column. Specifically that "Denver is far more capable of making a run at KC than Cincinnati or Cleveland is at the Ravens." Of course, I completely disagree with that statement, but it did lead me to think we may have been a bit harsh on Denver. The Broncos are ranked #13 in Team Efficiency, even with Jake Plummer out of action the past four games. #13 is a higher ranking than two AFC teams currently in line for a playoff spot: #14 Miami and #19 Baltimore. With Jake Plummer back for the rest of the season, they could move back up the rankings and eventually catch the Dolphins for the final wild card spot.
Even after taking a closer look at it, I still don't think Denver makes the playoffs. Judging by our strength of schedule rankings, Denver has the tenth most difficult remaining schedule in the NFL, while Miami has the eighteenth. I still can't see the return of Jake Plummer being enough to overcome that gap in the difficulty of the two schedules.
Ian: Since we're talking about what our readers have been discussing, might as well bring up the rules for overtime. I think the only true equalizer would be to play out the additional period to its full time limit. No sudden death. I don't think there's any other system that would work. The main reason is that none of the other proposed solutions I've seen address the main problem with overtime as is. That problem is that if you have two offenses on fire in the 4th quarter, scoring touchdowns at will, whoever gets the ball first in overtime will win. Even if they need 4 or 6 points, the fact is that both teams are playing equally well -- they just both happen to be dominating on offense and terrible on defense. Basically, they're scoring TDs 100% of the time. If you take things to that extreme, then of course whoever wins the coin toss will win. The best example of this was last season's Patriots-Chiefs game at New England. In the 4th quarter, both teams scored 21 points, it was incredible. Everyone knew, however, that whoever won the coin toss would win. The Pats won the toss and took less than 5 minutes to race down the field and kick a winning field goal. The way things were going, they probably could have scored a touchdown if they needed to. Winning by 4 points or abolishing field goals wouldn't be fair to the Chiefs in that game.
Al: All of the OT solutions that folks, including myself, have proposed rest on a presumption that overtime is necessary; that teams have a strong interest in making sure that all games end up with a clear winner and loser. After the discussion last week I'm not sure I agree with that notion, at least in the NFL during the regular season.
In a system that bases playoff spots on winning percentage there is no need for every game to end up with either a win or a loss. A team's record is intended to be a reflection of their performance as a football team over the games they have played thus far. Allowing ties after 60 minutes and eliminating the crapshoot that is any sudden death overtime system would lead to records and winning percentages that are more accurate descriptions of a team's performance. As someone noted in the discussion thread, most OT games are determined by the winner of the coin toss. If a team battles hard and ends up with a stalemate after 60 minutes, they should be rewarded in their record with a tie. In today's system they could be saddled with a loss because they called heads instead of tails.
Of course OT doesn't work in the playoffs, so some system would still need to be developed for that. But over the course of a 16 game season, there's no need for one team to be declared the victor over another when the two teams have shown to the world that, at least on that Sunday, they are equals.
Ian: Why have overtime at all? I guess because it makes for more exciting finishes and better ratings, and that's what drives the NFL. Imagine if your team was down 10 with 2:20 to go, and you scored a TD, got the onside kick, lined up for the game-tying field goal... It's good! It's good! And you get... a tie. Everyone head for the exits, your team just pulled off a miraculous tie. Sorry, but that just isn't nearly as exciting as heading to the extra period.
Man, I just saw this update at CBS Sportsline: "The Arizona Republic reports that head coach Dave McGinnis has not said who will start at running back when Emmitt Smith (fractured scapula) returns from injury." Umm... hello??? Marcel Shipp has been one of the best running backs in the NFL the past 3 weeks, averaging 122 yards a game over that time span. They also happen to be 2-1. With Emmitt at the helm, the Cardinals were 1-3, and Emmitt averaged 48 yards a game. I cannot believe that Dave McGinnis won't name Marcel the starter for the rest of the season. That's just ludicrous.
Al: Maybe driving for a tie isn't exciting because fans have been conditioned to think that ties are not a good thing. Sure, leaving after a tie game won't be as rewarding as leaving after an overtime victory, but it will be much more rewarding than leaving after your team loses the coin toss and the game soon thereafter.
Needless to say, starting Emmitt Smith over Marcel Shipp would be an awful, awful decision for the Cardinals. Hopefully Emmitt doesn't come back this year. If he does, maybe they "ease him back" and only give Smith 5-10 carries per game while Shipp carries the bulk of the workload.
Al: I had a feeling that picking first would work last week. After getting my best bet and hunch right I've narrowed your lead to 35-29. Eight weeks is plenty of time to make up a six point difference. Unfortunately, I really don't like any of these lines. I'm not too confident in my random guesses this week.
Best Bet: Colts -6 over Jacksonville: The Colts are one of the best teams in the NFL; the Jaguars are one of the worst. This line should be much bigger than six points. Indianapolis easily handled the Jaguars in September. Jacksonville has done nothing to show that this week's result should be any different. Byron Leftwich has the second worst INT% in the NFL, behind only Doug Johnson. Byron could take the lead after throwing a few picks on Sunday.
Very Good Bet: Chicago +2 over Detroit: Shhh... here come the Bears. Chicago is 2-1 with Chris Chandler at the helm, including a win over the Lions. Anthony Thomas has remembered that he ran for 1000+ yards as a rookie just two seasons ago. I expect a big game out of Thomas this week. Start him if you've got him.
Just a Hunch: Cleveland +10 over KC: I have a strange feeling about this game. I could see an upset happen here, but most likely the Browns will just keep it close. Outside of their loss @ Baltimore, Cleveland has been respectable on the road this year. Kelly Holcomb should be back starting for the Browns on Sunday which can only mean good things for the offense (he's much higher ranked in the Football Outsiders QB ratings). William Green will be out, but I've always liked James Jackson and Jamel White. The Chiefs are coming off a bye and could be a little rusty. It's not called "just a hunch" for nothing.
Ian: I'm officially banning the Oakland Raiders from by Best Bets. I've taken them twice as a Best Bet, and been wrong both times. Is there any team in the NFL playing more below their talent level than the Raiders? In fact . . .
Best Bet: NY Jets -3 over Oakland: Pennington is back, and coincidentally enough so is the Jets offense. Guess who else is back? Rick Mirer.
Pretty Good Bet: Minnesota -5.5 over San Diego: The only team that might be playing below their talent level more than the Raiders is the Chargers. What a waste of LaDanian Tomlinson's talents. Oh, and I hear that Minnesota team is pretty good.
Just a Hunch: Tampa Bay -3 over Carolina: Tampa's games so far: W, L, W, L, W, L, W, L. They're due for a W; call it a hunch.
Al: Following a disappointing performance from Marvin Harrison and Tony Gonzalez's bye week, Dick Hatch and It Worked Last Year are tied for last place for this scoring period going into week 10. Both of those teams could survive as To Heck With Running Backs has Joe Horn and Terrell Owens on their bye weeks.
And now the newest edition to Scramble For the Ball, Jason's Loser League Update
Jason: Aaron won the week with a total of 53 points in the closest competition so far this year. Ian also scored 53, and since both teams recorded just one penalty and one touchdown, it came down to the third tiebreaker: The team with the lowest-scoring player. That honor went to Aaron's QB, Kurt Kittner, with an amazingly bad one point performance. Overall, Atlanta's backup quarterbacks have been quite kind to the Loser League this year. Besides Doug Johnson's wacky 23 point outbursts in weeks 1 and 5, the Birds' starting QBs have averaged a dismal 48.9 QB rating and 4.8 fantasy points a game. (How can I just toss two weeks of data out? Hey, this is the Loser League. We do whatever we want.) So Mike Vick, take all the time you need to heal. We can wait.
Both Lions "starting wide receivers" were selected this week, and both pulled a penalty. Az Hakim caught one ball for five yards, while Bill Schroeder did diddly-squat. So who's catching the ball in Detroit? Nobody, apparently. Charles Rodgers is still the team leader in catches, yards and touchdowns, despite being out of commission since week 5. The best wideout performance since then? Scotty Anderson's four catches for 39 yards against the Bears. It's rare a team is so bad you can't count on any receiver to catch two passes in a game, but it's happening in the Motor City.