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?
20 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 guess we better start talking about teams that aren't the Giants and Bucs. And of course they both fall of the cliff the week before they play each other. This would have been a great column if they were both in contention. We would have spent the entire article on the Bucs/Giants matchup analyzing and trash talking. Instead we're going to end up talking about Kelly Holcombe.
I thought NY's performance against Atlanta was some of the worst football I've ever seen played, but the Philadelphia game was somehow even worse. If I didn't know it was an important game for the Giants going into it, I never would have guessed it from watching NY play. Usually I discount crap like "one team just wanted it more than another" or "the team didn't have any heart." But on Sunday, it looked like the Giants just wanted to be anywhere except on a football field. I'm getting ready for the Tom Coughlin era to begin.
Ian: Nice of you to propose we stop talking about the Giants and Bucs, then write two paragraphs about the Giants. I will also stop talking about the Giants and Bucs.
I don't think it's right to fire Jim Fassell, but that's the way sports goes in big-market cities. Fassell's done a solid job in his time in New York. He can't personally make Tiki hold onto the ball, or heal Shockey so he can play again. I'd fire the special teams coach for sure, but give Fassell a season to recover from this year's disappointments.
Should the Bucs fire Jon Gruden? Of course not! But he's having a year very similar to Fassell. Many people are asking "What's wrong with the Bucs?" My question is actually "What's right with the Bucs?!?" Let's see... They can't run the ball (though Thomas Jones did break off two very pretty runs, take those away and the Bucs rushed 16 times for 42 yards; that's a 2.6 average). They can't pass the ball until the 4th quarter. They can' return kicks, and they can't cover kicks. They can't consistently make field goals or extra points. They play good pass defense in general, but seem to always fail in that department when they need it most. They sure as hell can't stop the run. And the penalties... my god, the penalties. They won it all last year; that's all I keep telling myself.
Ok, I think I'm done not talking about the Giants or the Bucs.
Al: Yeah, you have five years not to complain.
So who else can we talk about? How about the 49ers? Where has that team been all year? I was extremely impressed by their victory Monday night. They were dominant in every aspect of the game. Hearst and Barlow were effective on the ground. Terrell Owens had a huge day including a great downfield block on Barlow's big TD run. The 49er defense shut down whatever attempts the Steelers made at running the ball.
The most impressive 49er, though, was Tim Rattay. 21/27 with 2 TDs. Rattay is 2-0 as a starter since Jeff Garcia went down. I don't see how Dennis Erickson can put Garcia into the starting lineup next week, even if Garcia is healthy. I don't take Rattay out of the lineup until he starts to struggle.
Ian: Well, before we give Tim Rattay too much credit let's recognize that it's the offensive line of the 49ers that were the real MVPs of the game. With a running game that was working, and a complete lack of a pass rush to bother him (he wasn't sacked once last night, and I don't remember him ending up on his back too many times either) most any quarterback can have a good game. The throws to Owens and Beasley were fabulous, I'll give him that, but it's not like a healthy Garcia wouldn't have shredded the Steelers as well. In the game against the Rams two weeks ago, Rattay was only sacked once and the offense had 165 yards rushing.
But why is everything working so well all of a sudden? Hard to tell. Maybe the team didn't like Garcia all that much and is rallying around Tim; I seem to recall Terrell Owens calling for Rattay to be the starter earlier in the year. Then again, Terrell would probably like me as the starter if I just threw it deep to him every play.
Another quarterback we'd better get used to giving credit to is Jake Delhomme. Everyone likes to talk about the defense in Carolina and the running of Stephen Davis, but how about the command being shown by Jake? Carolina keeps winning close games, and often it's a come-from-behind win engineered by him. The throws he made against Tampa two weeks ago on the game winning drive were among the best throws under pressure I've ever seen. There's a reason Steve Smith has become a weekly fantasy starter, and it's not because of Julius Peppers.
Al: I'm not sold on Delhomme just yet. Maybe Carolina isn't blowing teams out and has to scratch out wins each week because they've been relying on Delhomme so much. He's only had two games this year with a QB rating over 90. According to our rankings, he's a below average QB . Hand Stephen Davis the ball 30 times, give DeShaun Foster 10 carries and let Delhomme throw play action passes on every other down. If the Panthers do that, they'll be in the Super Bowl. If they don't, Delhomme will cost them a game they can't afford to lose.
So how about them Raiders? Shock of shocks, four Raiders were caught using THG, including Bill Romanowski and Barret Robbins. The most surprising part of all of this for me, though, is that the Raiders in question might actually be suspended by the NFL. If the NFLPA was worth anything, they'd be able to stop these four players from being suspended. How can the NFL suspend someone for doing something that wasn't against the rules when they did it?
Ian: I hate the Raiders. Especially because of the havoc they wreak on picks pools each week. Are they horrible or not? And does the word "wreak" ever get used without the word "havoc"?
Speaking of wreaking havoc, how about that Patriots defense. Well, I suppose they're not really wreaking havoc, but they simply shut down opposing offenses. During their six-game winning streak, the only teams that have been able to score points against them were Tennessee and Denver. With McNair at the helm, no one's stopping the Titans from scoring points, though the Pats did shut him down when it counted in the 4th. And Denver scored most of its points off of a turnover deep in Pats territory, a punt return touchdown, and the intentional safety.
Watching the Patriots play defense is a thing of beauty. It's just astounding that no matter what the other team does, the Pats seem to have the right personnel on the field and the right defense called. Willie McGinest has been hooked up to the juvenation machine, Richard Seymour is tearing up the middle once again, and no one's fighting Ty Law and winning. November 30th, New England @ Indianapolis, what a matchup. If Manning can throw for 400 yards without Harrison or Pollard, can anyone stop him?
Al: The Patriots looked great, but they were going up against Quincy Carter and Troy Hambrick. It's not like they were shutting down the 1985 49ers with Joe Montana and Roger Craig in the backfield.
Dallas has definitely been exposed after being shutout twice in the past month. If you have a good defense and can mix up your coverage to confuse Carter, the Cowboys will struggle to score any points. Keep making Carter throw to Richie Anderson eight times a game and it won't matter how few points Dallas' defense gives up. Even if they hold their opponents to only a field goal, Dallas isn't winning that game.
I'm not going to worry about the Colts until they get out of the first round of the playoffs. Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James could combine for 600 yards a game over the rest of the season and I still wouldn't be convinced that Indy will win a meaningful game in January. Tony Dungy hasn't had a playoff win this century. Peyton Manning has never won a playoff game. Put those two together and you can make a whole lot of money in the first round of the playoffs this year.
Ian: The Colts seem to be on their way to a home game in the playoffs. If they can beat out the Titans for the division title, they'd be in great shape, as they'd potentially have home-field advantage till the Super Bowl. Their receivers thrive on turf the way the Rams used to thrive with Kurt Warner at the helm. I wouldn't put too much weight into past performances; Manning has been unbelievable this year and will lead the Colts to a playoff win. If you want to make tons of money betting against the Colts, I'm happy to make tons of money taking your bets.
I want to point out here that Madden football online is one of the greatest things to happen to video game football since, well, Madden football. I plugged my PS2 in to my cable modem, and now I can play a human opponent anytime. With the headset feature, I can even talk trash with opponents- and when I'm up against friends who live far away it's like a free phone call to boot. It was simple to set up, it plays amazingly smoothly, and it's quite addictive; I highly recommend it.
For those of you that play it online, I have a question for you. What do you do to stop an opponent that just goes deep to Randy Moss or Plaxico Burress all the time? I call double coverage on those guys all game and they still catch TD bomb after TD bomb. Thanks for the input. I love Madden football; it's so realistic it's almost scary.
Al: You can have home field advantage. I'll take "chokes in the playoffs" any day of the week.
Al: Remember, you can email us your questions, comments, etc. at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com. We'll print your letter and our answers or comments right here in the column. This week's email is from Evan in New Jersey who isn't exactly a big fan of Mike Martz:
"As I watched the end of the Rams/Bears game, a simple thought passed through my mind.
Mike Martz is an idiot.
Last minutes of 4th quarter
Marc Bulger converts a 3rd and 4 pass to Ike Bruce for a first down at the Bears 14 yard line. All they need is a field goal to win it. STL out of time outs, Bears have one remaining. Seems to reason you should be able to run the clock down pretty low and then kick a field goal.
No. Instead, first and ten, Bulger spikes the ball, stopping the clock when time is clearly not an issue. While I'm not sure if Bulger was told to do this or what, but if you're on the 14 yard line with around a minute to go and all you need is a field goal, you don't need to spike the ball.
Second down and ten, Faulk runs to the right for one yard. Presumably to draw out the last Chicago time out. Which it does. Around 45 seconds to go. This may be one of the only times you will see a team spike a ball to stop the clock, and then on the very next play call a run that looks like it is designed to gain zero yards yet stay in-bounds.
Third and ten. Clearly you take a knee or something to get the clock moving. Of course you don't want to give the Bears a chance to kick a field goal. We all saw how the Cowboys did it with what, ten seconds earlier this year. No, Martz calls for the field goal unit on third down. How many times has this call (in case of a botched snap) actually benefited a team? Wilkins predictably makes it, and a big return on the kickoff gives the bears 38 seconds to move 22 yards for a 50 yard game winning field goal.
The fact that this FG did not happen is largely irrelevant. If Chandler were not so awful then the Bears can go on and win this game, illuminating the public as to how badly Martz managed the last minute or two of the game. Two obvious moves not made. Do not spike the ball when you are planning on running the next play anyway. Do not give the other team 45 seconds when you could give them 15."
Al: Thanks for the email Evan. I agree that the play calling there makes no sense. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the end of the Giants/Cowboys Monday night game. There, at least the Giants took the clock down to under 15 seconds before kicking the FG on 2nd down.
The worst call in that entire sequence is Bulger spiking the ball on first down. You have first down at the 14 with just under a minute left. You're virtually guaranteed to score from that position of the field. Jeff Wilkins hasn't missed a field goal that short all year. Chicago is definitely going to use its last time out so you could even get a little greedy and give your RB two shots at getting in the end zone. Especially if your RB is one of the greatest of all time and hasn't fumbled the ball once this year.
The smart thing to do in that spot is to hand the ball to Marshall on first down and have him run into the line to center the spot of the ball for a FG. Chicago calls its time out. Bulger then takes a knee and you send the FG unit onto the field for 3rd down. You try the kick with 10 seconds or so left on the clock to avoid a problem with a possible botched snap. You kick the FG and Chicago only has time for a return and a Hail Mary into the end zone.
Ian: Personally, I'm not all that opposed to kicking the game-winning field goal on third down. Sure, it seems likely that Wilkins is gonna hit the field goal, almost automatic. But when almost automatic takes a turn for the worse, the results can be catastrophic. Just ask the Giants from the playoffs last year against San Fran. The NFC West is shaping up to be a tight race for the NFC West division crown, as well as the wild card spots. A single loss can easily wind up costing a team a playoff bid.
I'd say the optimal time to try a field goal for the win is 3rd down with 7 seconds left. If there's a problem, as rare as the case may be, the holder should have time to throw the ball away (can he just stand up and spike it?) so they can try the field goal again.
Al: Our winner this week is Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper matched his season INT total with three picks on Sunday against the Raiders. Oakland was in the bottom half of the league in INTs before Daunte handed them the ball three times. Thanks to Culpepper, the Raiders are now tied for 12th. Culpepper's 3 INTs lead to 14 Raider points. Oakland won by ten points. You do the math.
Ian: You're actually selling Daunte short -- he also fumbled 3 times, and lost 2 of them! One lost fumble was at his own 10-yard line, and was immediately followed by a touchdown run. The other was at the Oakland 12-yard line. Never have I seen a player with so much talent take such crappy care of the football; it's as if Daunte was auditioning for the Choppin' Wood Award.
Back when we had our Survivor League draft, I said this about taking Culpepper in the first round: "When wondering why I'm taking Culpepper here, one only has to realize that we don't penalize points for interceptions and fumbles, which was his biggest problem last year. Not a problem in this league." Never was that more true than this week, and it couldn't have come into play at a better time. More on that later in the Survivor League Update.
Al: If you pick games for money, or just pick them for fun, whatever you do, don't pick them based on my suggestions. I'm awful at this. After another o-fer last week, I'm on a 0-6 streak. Luckily Ian got one game right, so we aren't working on a combined 0-12 run over the past two weeks. Ian increased his season lead in our overly complicated scoring contest to 36-29 (3 pts for Best Bet, 2 pts for Very Good, 1 pt for Hunch). The way we've been picking lately, I can still get lucky and be right back in this thing. Time is running out.
Best Bet: Indianapolis -3 over Buffalo: The Bills lost to Houston at home, yet their only three point dogs against the Colts at home? I don't get it. I'm picking Indy every week until the playoffs roll around.
Very Good Bet: Tennessee -7 over Atlanta: I haven't been picking the Titans enough this season. They're 4-1 against the spread over the last five weeks. Last week was the first time this season that Tennessee has won and not covered the spread. This one should be pretty ugly, especially with Doug Johnson back in the saddle for Atlanta.
Just a Hunch: Carolina +3 over Dallas: Carolina matches up very well with Dallas. They should be able to mix things up on defense to keep Carter on his toes. There's no way I'd actually watch this game, though. If either team breaks double digits I'd be surprised.
Ian: It's not pretty when my lead on you grows, but I only got my Hunch right last week. What's going on? My mojo from earlier this season has dwindled, as I haven't had a strong week in awhile. Time to turn things around in time to put you away before the end of the season draws near.
Best Bet: NY Jets -4 over Jacksonville: The Jaguars are having a lot of trouble right now. At least they're sucking it up and going with somewhat of a youth movement by starting Byron Leftwich, but that doesn't bode well for their fortunes this season. The Jets are a team on the rise; you'd think Pennington never missed a game. I'll take the team getting better to beat the team getting worse.
Pretty Good Bet: Detroit +10.5 over Minnesota: Which team will show up for Minnesota -- the 6-0 team, or the 0-4 team? It doesn't matter, as Detroit went up against the 6-0 Minnesota team earlier in the season (2-0 at the time) and lost by 10. I'll take them +10.5 to cover against the Vikes.
Just a Hunch: Denver -10.5 over Chicago: Denver seems to be pretty excited to have Jake Plummer back at the helm, as they utterly destroyed the Chargers last week. Ashley Lelie makes a nice fantasy play this week, and the Broncos make a nice pick.
Al: The lone remaining Ian team is trying to make a contest out of this. To Heck With Runningbacks put up 89 points with more than half of that coming from Daunte Culpepper and Terrell Owens. Since we don't count INTs or fumbles in this league, Culpepper has been incredible the past two weeks putting up 38 and 35-point weeks. My squad It Worked Last Year is in last place going into Week 12. With Marvin Harrison hurting and Randy Moss and Patrick Ramsey struggling lately, I might be down to two teams come Monday morning.
Loser League Update
Jason: I won Week 11 with a total score of 45 points, thanks in part to Kurt Kittner's feeble quarterbacking (8 of 27 for 80 yards passing and 2 picks, with a QB rating of 8.7. Wow, that really sucks!) Pat's 51 points were good for second place. His top picks included Donald Driver with 2 catches for 12 yards, and li'l Billy Cundiff, who didn't even get to attempt a kick.
Seems whenever we call out players too vocally here they break out of whatever crappy slump they were in. In last week's update, I talked about Ricky Williams, who proceeded to rush for over 100 yards, Dez White, who then caught a rare touchdown, and our boy Neil Rackers, who connected on both his field goal attempts on Sunday. So I want to be very discreet in my mention that Curtis Martin is sneaking up on 1000 yards from scrimmage this season without scoring a touchdown. Please nobody mention this to Curtis, as it might hurt his feelings. Plus we really like drafting him every week.