Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
13 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: I'm still in shock at how poorly the Giants played Sunday. It doesn't get much worse than that. The two things that have killed the Giants all season cost them a game against Atlanta: the offensive line and turnovers.
For all intents and purposes, the Falcons shut down NY's passing game. 202 yards is Kerry Collins' second worst passing output of the season. The announcers pointed out eagerly and often that the Falcons were making up for their previously weak secondary by having seven or eight players drop back into pass coverage almost every time NY tried to pass. What the announcers didn't mention is the reason Atlanta doesn't do this every week. Every other team in the NFL has an offensive line that can stop only three or four pass-rushers on most downs. Not the Giants. Even when rushing only three down linemen Atlanta was able to regularly get to Collins.
If the Falcons are going to keep dropping eight men back, the logical response would be to run the ball. The Giants did that to a limited extent and were successful. Tiki Barber gained 120 yards on only 16 carries. He was able to almost run at will against the Falcons. Why did he only get 16 carries then? Because he can't hold onto the damn football!
Barber's second fumble may have been the worst-looking fumble I have ever seen. Tiki caught a pass out of the backfield and was stopped at Atlanta's four-yard line. Tiki was clearly in the grasp of Keion Carpenter when he decided, "You know what, I could just fall down right now, but that wouldn't be interesting. What would really be exciting is if I dropped the ball. I'm not going to wait for someone to actually hit me and jar the ball loose. No, I'll just drop it here on the three- yard line and see what happens."
The Giants were able to run the ball against Atlanta. If Fassel wasn't confident enough in Barber's ability to hold onto the ball to have him run more than 16 times, then he should have put Dorsey Levens in the game. Instead, Fassel decided to have Collins keep trying to throw the ball into double and triple coverage, leading to two interceptions. Four giveaways + zero takeaways = one loss.
Ian: Teams have this odd habit of giving up on the running game once they fall behind. If it's the 4th and you're down three scores, by all means it's time to go to the air. But in a game when you're obviously running all over your opponent, there's no reason to panic in the 3rd quarter; it plays right into the opponent's hands. After a first half in which Barber rushed 9 times for 86 yards (that's an average of over 9 yards per carry!) the Giants had a pass/run ratio in the second half of 25:7. In football, when something's working, you keep on doing it till the opponent stops you.
Another thing teams do that drives me crazy is pass on 3rd and short when the running game is working. [Ed. Note: I believe this is known to TMQ readers as "Worst Pass-Wacky"] In the Bucs/Panthers game, field position early in the game was crucial. On the first two plays from scrimmage, Michael Pittman rushed for 4 yards to the left side. On third down, what to do? Drop back and succumb to the Panthers pass rush. On the Bucs second possession, what to do? Pass, pass, pass, interception returned for a touchdown. On the Bucs third possession, they were at 5 carries for 33 yards, an average over 6. 3rd and 2, what to do? Roll out Brad Johnson and let him try to outrun the Panthers defense for the first. The guy running against the zebra in Man vs. Beast had a better chance of winning the race.
Football is a game of strengths and weaknesses. There's no reason to have any mercy. I remember attending a Brown University home game against U. Penn. The Brown rush defense wasn't all that good that year; frankly, they stunk. In an insanely high-scoring game, Penn realized that Brown couldn't stop them from rushing the ball to the right side, so they did it often. EVERY PLAY of the second half, in fact. And they scored a touchdown every possession. Of course, Brown exploited the Penn pass defense by going five-wide every play of the second half and eventually winning on a late TD pass, but both offenses did what they had to.
Al: I can't believe you just pulled out an Ivy League football game as your example.
Passing on third and short is a huge pet peeve of mine. Teams don't run enough in that situation. Of course you have to mix it up with the occasional play action pass, but consistently dropping back and throwing a 15-yard pass on third and two won't lead to success.
Speaking of Tampa's poor performance, how do you let Jake Delhomme pass for 78 yards in only six plays in a minute and a half? Jake Delhomme!?! The Bucs had to win that game on Sunday. With Stephen Davis on the sidelines, Carolina had no business winning that game. Instead of being only one game out of the division lead, Tampa is in a six way tie two games out of the wild card spot. The defending Super Bowl champs shouldn't be only one game up on the Cardinals after week 10.
Normally I'd be writing off Tampa's Bucs chances to make the playoffs but no one wants that sixth spot in the NFC. Seattle is handing the NFC West to St. Louis and will be handing the wildcard over to someone else if they keep losing to the Bengals and Redskins. Patrick Ramsey has been getting pounded all year. Four different teams have sacked Ramsey four times in a game, but Seattle couldn't register a single sack on Sunday. Detroit @ Seattle doesn't look like the slam dunk win for the Seahawks that it did a week ago.
Ian: Great, so you'll be leaving Seattle for me to take in this week's Best Bets?
I don't know how Tampa let Delhomme beat them like that. I can't keep blaming their troubles on injury though. Sure, the offense might have played better with Alstott there, but the fact is they got beat for the third time this season when handing a lead off to the defense. It's very strange, because they've been generally decent on defense throughout most of the games, but it's just protecting leads late that's killing them. Their matchup vs. Green Bay this week is practically a playoff elimination game.
I'll tell you something that drives me crazy -- coaches throwing the red flag on plays that AREN'T challengeable. It seems that at least one time every game, a fumble ruled "down by contact" is challenged by the defense. Challenges can not create playing time past the whistle, so don't challenge it! I seriously think the NFL should charge a timeout to coaches who attempt to challenge a play that can't be challenged. Why do officials have to keep explaining over and over again to coaches what can and can't be challenged? Know the rules, dammit!
Al: I can't blame the coaches too much. It's not like the NFL makes their rules readily available or easily readable in general. I did a decent search of NFL.com and the only explanation of the instant replay rules I could find was a press release from 1999 touting the new system and giving an extremely brief overview of the types of plays that can be challenged . I was able to find a more detailed set of rules on a message board post. I don't know how accurate this list is, but here are all the plays that can be challenged according to this post:
Reviewable Plays: The Replay System will cover the following play situations only:
(a) Plays governed by Sideline, goal Line, End Zone, and End Line:
(1) Scoring Plays, including a runner breaking the plane of the goal line.
(2) Pass complete/incomplete/intercepted at sideline goal line, end zone, and end line.
(3) Runner/receiver in or out of bounds.
(4) Recovery of loose ball in or out of bounds.
(b) Passing Plays:
(1) Pass ruled complete/incomplete/intercepted in the field of play.
(2) Touching of a forward pass by an ineligible receiver.
(3) Touching of a forward pass by a defensive receiver.
(4) Quarterback (Passer) forward pass or fumble.
(5) Illegal forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage.
(6) Illegal forward pass after change of possession.
(7) Forward or backward pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage.
(c) Other Detectable Infractions:
(1) Runner ruled not down by defensive contact.
(2) Forward progress with respect to first down.
(3) Touching of a kick.
(4) Number of players on field.
There's nothing that mentions the "dead ball rule". It's a standard that's developed, not something specifically enumerated in the NFL's rules, at least not from what I see here. It's case law, not statutory law.
I've always liked the idea of a replay system, but I haven't seen one yet that I like in practice. I'd like to see a system where every play is reversible, including so-called judgment calls or penalties. Instant replay should be used to ensure that bad calls don't happen. Why shouldn't a referee be allowed to overrule a pass interference call if he sees after a replay that there wasn't any real interference?
Ian: It may be tough for us to know the NFL rules, but I'm certain the teams each get a copy of the complete rules of the NFL at the beginning of each season, and I'm sure it clarifies what can and can't be challenged. It's like when I was confused about the onside kick ruling -- none of us could truly know until the NFL came out and verified that the kick was, indeed, illegal. It's all part of a strange conspiracy to keep us from being able to be more than or at least as knowledgeable about the league as the officials are.
As far as the "dead ball" rule, we see it come up every Sunday, at least a couple of times a game. The ball comes out as a runner hits the ground, and the referees jump in blowing the whistle to say he's down by contact and that there's no fumble. That can't be reviewed. Any NFL coach who says they weren't aware that that play in particular can't be challenged is lying his ass off. He's just taking the free opportunity to tell the official that he's unhappy about the call, but it wastes everyone else's time.
Talking about instant replay brings to mind Brian Billick's rant on instant replay from around three weeks ago . For those that didn't see what happened, a catch initially ruled a touchdown for Todd Heap was reversed when Denver challenged that Heap didn't maintain possession as he fell to the ground. Citing that and other examples, Billick has decided that the whole replay system sucks and that the NFL should Ã¢â‚¬Å“dumpÃ¢â‚¬Â? it. I think Brian Billick should shut the hell up. What's wrong with the replay system as is? The official reviewed whether or not Todd Heap caught the ball, and determined it wasn't a touchdown. If you want to gripe about anything, complain about the official who you believe made an erroneous call. But it's a rare occurrence, in my view, that officials go to replay and then make the wrong call. And I think it's a good thing that they generally give reasonable explanations as to why they ruled the way they did.
Al: I know that the NFL doesn't give the public the complete rules on their website. The post I copied purported to be straight out of the NFL's official rule book. At least Billick complained about replay after a game that the Ravens won. Like I said before, every play should be reviewable.
I'm sure Jason will mention this at the end of the column, but an event this monumental can not be mentioned enough. Neil Rackers, the worst kicker in the NFL last year and a first ballot Loser League Hall of Famer, has just signed a one year contract to play for the Arizona Cardinals. The planets of suckitude can not align better than this. Rackers on the Cardinals! I'm speechless. Rackers' career high FG% is 83% from last year. In 2001 he kicked at a 60% rate. In 2000, he was 57%. And he's going to Arizona!
Ian: Neil Rackers going to Arizona would be like Kordell Stewart being brought in to quarterback the Bears. Oh, wait...
By the way, I hope that everyone didn't pile out off the Bengals bandwagon too quickly. With Anthony Wright at the helm, the Ravens could be in a lot of trouble. Pittsburgh did have a bit of a resurgence last week, but that was against Arizona, and with the way Rudi Johnson is running and Chad Johnson is receiving the Bengals are definitely a team on the rise. Then again . . .
This week Chad Johnson became the latest moron to "guarantee victory". In this case, however, he's guaranteeing that the Bengals will beat the undefeated Chiefs. Wow. The guy's a great player, I'll give him that, but it's a bit of a stretch to think that the Bengals will take down the best team in the NFL.
Al: Anthony Wright with Ray Lucas as the backup!?! That should solve Miami's defensive problems this week. With the return of Rackers and Wright, Week 11 is turning out to be the Loser League Pro Bowl. All we need is Lamar Smith to sign on somewhere.
Damn Joe Namath for starting all this guarantee nonsense to begin with. Everyone makes guarantees these days. Every year at the Super Bowl someone is dumb enough to guarantee a victory. Patrick Ewing was always the worst. He'd make a guarantee about seemingly every Knicks playoff game. The only memorable time where a player lived up to his guarantee was Mark Messier with his hat trick in Game 6 against the Devils in 1994. I can't remember another player in my lifetime guaranteeing a win and then leading his team to a victory.
I would have thought an upset against KC was possible before Johnson opened his mouth. Cincinnati could have snuck up on the Chiefs and really surprised them. Even if he's makes the guarantee, Johnson should at least wait until later in the week to do it. Wait until Saturday. Now he's forced KC to pay attention to Cincinnati and given them an angry week to prepare. I'm expecting a blowout.
Any thoughts on where Kevin Johnson ends up (hopefully nowhere before this article gets posted so we don't sound like morons talking about where he's going when he's already somewhere)? (Ed. Note: D'oh!) Philly is the obvious choice. They have plenty of cap room and obvious needs at WR. It's such an obvious choice that I don't see it happening. My random guess is that he ends up with the Rams. St. Louis has been without a viable third WR since Az Hakim. Torry Holt has 1016 yards, Isaac Bruce has 705, while Dane Looker comes in third with only 283. Adding Johnson could be enough to return St. Louis' offense to the top of the league, where it was just a couple of seasons ago.
Ian: Philly was the first team that came to my mind as well. But, as you've pointed out in the past, the Eagles have some affection for leaving millions of cap space unused every season.
Dane Looker may not have many yards, but with Torry Holt catching the ball the way he's been, who needs him? I've actually seen Looker make some key catches in Rams games I've watched, so I don't think Kevin Johnson is needed there.
Another team that could really use his services is the Minnesota Vikings. After Randy Moss' 63 catches, guess who their #2 receiver is? Yup, it's Moe Williams with 35. After him is Nate Burleson with only fifteen catches. Jim Kleinsasser has more receptions than any of the Vikings' wideouts not names Randy. With Randy demanding at least double coverage on him every play, and Moe Williams doing a great job of receiving out of the backfield, a second legitimate wideout would likely get single coverage on many plays and have a good chance to step up and contribute.
Ian: There were several good candidates for the Keep Choppin' Wood award this week, but the winner has to be the entire Ravens offense. The Rams won the football game by scoring 33 points with only 121 net yards of offense. Coming in to this week, Torry Holt was averaging 122 yards a game! Despite a great performance by the Ravens defense, the Rams were able to run up the score and come out with a win. 20 of the Rams' 33 points came off of turnovers, thanks to an astounding seven of them given up by the Ravens. Even Jamal Lewis, who had a strong game with 111 yards rushing and a touchdown, fumbled the ball away twice to contribute to the team's misery.
Al: Although I initially disagreed with this choice, upon further review Baltimore is the clear winner. The Ravens took a 22-21 lead five minutes into the third quarter. Here is a summary of their drives over the last 25 minutes of play:
They only had 3 drives of 10 yards or more and all three ended in a turnover. That's just horrible football.
Although Baltimore was the winner this week, we have to give out two Honorable Mentions. First, to Tiki Barber who single-handedly killed two scoring drives for the Giants with fumbles. Those two missed touchdown opportunities were the difference in the game.
Our second Honorable Mention goes out to Joe Muscarello, the "Carolina Prowler". No, that's not the name of a serial killer terrorizing the poor citizens of Raleigh. He's a Panther fan that dresses up as a cat. It seems the Prowler won some contest and was given the opportunity to say something over the PA. He proceeded to call out Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp. Rice recorded sacks on two of the next three plays and the Bucs quickly regained the lead. Thankfully for the Prowler, the Panthers were able to retake the lead and won the game. If they hadn't the Prowler might have had a hard time making it back to his jungle lair unharmed.
Al: Remember, you can email us your questions each week at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com. We have a fantasy football question this week from Scott in NJ:
"I can't believe I'm actually considering this, but should I start Ricky Williams against Baltimore or Eddie George against Jacksonville? Williams has really hurt my team the past few weeks and I don't know how much longer I can keep playing him. I know George isn't that good anymore, but he has scored a few TDs recently and he's playing the Jaguars. What should I do?"
Ian: Hey Scott, thanks for the email. You've got a real tough decision on your hands. On one hand, you've got the running back who was often being drafted #1 overall as the season began. Ricky was a machine last year, but thanks to the lackluster play of Brian Griese and the Miami offensive line, he's been a mediocre fantasy performer as of late. He's also going against Baltimore, who've held Priest Holmes and Clinton Portis without scores this season. Eddie George has three touchdowns in the last two games, and six touchdowns in his last three games against the Jags. It seems he's getting the call at the goal line lately, probably to save McNair from taking a pounding as he crosses the stripe. But the yardage just hasn't been there -- he's only topped 100 yards once this year, and only topped 60 yards twice.
If Baltimore had any kind of offense, I'd say to go with Eddie George -- but it's time for the Anthony Wright era to begin in Baltimore. This is a guy who was let go from Dallas after five starts over two seasons with a combined quarterback rating of 50.8. Miami's defensive strength is their run defense, especially when the other team is having trouble passing the ball. Look for them to create turnovers and create offensive opportunities in the red zone; I'd start Ricky Williams.
Al: After 10 weeks, you still have the lead 35-29 (3 pts for Best Bet, 2 for Very Good, 1 for Hunch). Astute readers will notice that we had the exact same score going into Week 10. That's right, we went 0-6 last week. Hopefully someone will get a game right this week.
Best Bet: Miami -6 over Baltimore. Anthony Wright is starting for Baltimore. That's good enough for me.
Very Good Bet: Carolina -6 over Washington. Washington is still a mess, even though they had a big win against Seattle. Unlike the Seahawks, the Panthers have a pass rush. Even without giving up a sack against Seattle, Washington has allowed more sacks than any other team in the NFL save Philadelphia. Carolina's defense is in the top 10 in sacks and have the league leader in DE Michael Rucker. Should be an easy win for the Panthers.
Just a Hunch: San Diego +8 over Denver: It's too early to start betting against the Flutie magic. Denver is banged up. Jake Plummer is just coming back from his multiple injuries. Who knows how rusty he will be or if he's still feeling any pain. Jason Elam is "questionable" with an injured groin. You can never trust Mike Shanahan's injury classifications, but if Elam is not 100%, it's a huge blow to Denver. Mike Anderson getting busted for "secondhand smoke" could have a huge impact if/when Clinton Portis gets banged up. I wouldn't be shocked at an upset, but Flutie should at least keep this one close.
Ian: Damn you for taking Miami from me. Baltimore's weaknesses play right into Miami's strengths.
Best Bet: Minnesota -4.5 over Oakland: I'm so annoyed at Oakland, I may be picking against them with my Best Bet for the rest of the season. The Vikings clearly are having some problems. Having been destroyed by the Chargers last week, they've gone from 6-0 to 6-3, including a loss to the division-rival Packers. Nothing says Ã¢â‚¬Å“end to a losing streakÃ¢â‚¬Â? like a matchup against Oakland though. The Raiders haven't won since Week 4, and have recently lost to the Lions, the Browns, the Bears and the Jets. A frustrated Raiders team means even more penalties against the Vikings; give Minnesota the W.
Pretty Good Bet: Buffalo -7 over Houston: You won't see me picking Drew Bledsoe often. But after a week in which everyone's beginning to doubt if he should still be the QB in Buffalo, I look for him to respond at home with a win. The Bills are 3-1 at home with an average margin of victory over 7, while Houston is 1-4 on the road with an average margin of defeat of over 11. No reason for a change.
Just a Hunch: Seattle -10 over Detroit: I would've made this a Best Bet, but then I saw that the line is 10 points. Seattle's 5-0 at home, but the only time they won by 10 or more was a win over the Saints in week 1. Still, they're definitely a better team at home, and Detroit's 0-4 on the road. I'm taking the Ã¢â‚¬ËœHawks.
Al: And then there was one. There's only one Ian team left after Dick Hatch was eliminated over weeks 9 and 10. Charlie Garner's no-show against the Jets destroyed whatever chances Dick Hatch had of making it to the next round. The last Ian team left is To Heck With Running Backs. Befitting the name, that team is relying on a RB crew of Trung Canidate, Emmitt Smith and Moe Williams to stave off
elimination for the rest of the season. I'm liking my chances.
Jason: Ian torched us all this week with a mere 38 points. It wasn't even close, as nobody else scored fewer than 62. Ian's top performer was Dez White, whose two catches for 18 yards bolstered his lofty status amongst loser receivers. The worst performer of the week, however, was Aaron's kicker, the Cards' Tim Duncan. A botched extra-point try contributed not only to a -2 point Loser score, but to a pink slip as well. Hey, Duncan's loss is our gain, because guess who was signed to fill in for him? That's right, the unofficial Loser League mascot, Neil Rackers! We're all just so proud Neil made it back to the NFL, and to an even more embarrassing franchise than the one he used to play for! (That would be the Bengals, in case you haven't followed his career as closely as I have) I'm getting a bit choked up here just thinking about it...So let's just move on.
Well Donovan McNabb woke up and realized he didn't suck quite so much after all. So now that one superstar has hopped off the Loser League wagon, there was an opening for a new candidate in the "What the hell happened to this guy?" seat. The new man for that position? Miami RB Ricky Williams. Aaron was the brave soul who first selected him this week, and he was rewarded with a mere 5 points. But really, Ricky's numbers have been pretty lousy for a while now. He hasn't rushed for over 100 yards since week 3, and his 3.3 y/c are lower than the likes of Antowain Smith and Troy Hambrick. So what's wrong with the dreaded one? Well I dunno, but I hope it lasts for at least one more game, since I drafted Ricky in Week 11.