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?
26 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: If last week was Upset Sunday, this had to be Great Finishes Sunday. Thanks to the NFL's TV scheduling rules, I had the "pleasure" of watching the Jets/Jaguars game. It was a pretty poor NFL Sunday in NYC until about 3:55. I spent most of those first 2 hours and 55 minutes reading the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instead of watching that debacle masquerading as a professional football game. At the 57-minute mark, though, the Jets/Jags game got interesting as Chad Pennington drove the Jets 94 yards in 2:34. Luckily, that game ended early, so CBS switched to Edgerrin James' game winning TD from the one-foot line. After that, CBS switched over again and I was able to see Daniel Graham's amazing game-tying TD catch for New England.
If we learned anything on Sunday it is that the prevent defense doesn't work. The Jets only had two drives of over 40 yards over the first 57 minutes. The Jaguars had stuffed the Jets in four plays just 30 seconds before NY's final drive began. Does Jacksonville play the same defense that has worked all game? No, they play their DBs deep, and leave the center of the field open the entire drive. The Chad knew he had enough time to not be forced into throwing to the sidelines on every down. He could throw it to Curtis Martin underneath who had at least five yards between him and the nearest defender every time. Martin had five receptions for 40 yards on that last drive. He only had 12 yards receiving the rest of the game.
For yet another example of the failings of the prevent defense, we have Oakland 19 seconds away from going to overtime against the Chiefs. The Raiders were impressive all game. They didn't look like a team that was 3-7. Oakland had tied the game and had seemingly stopped KC driving down the field for a game winning score. The Chiefs faced a 4th and 14 on Oakland's 33. Since KC has a 73-year-old kicker that can't make a 50-yarder, KC needed a first down. What do the Raiders do? They leave a CB 20 yards off the line across from Mark Boerigter who walks out 15 yards, turns and catches an uncontested pass for the first down. Even Morten Anderson can hit a FG from the 17-yard line.
Ian: You mean network TV actually took you to live football worth watching? Amazing! I'm really missing my setup last year, when I had two televisions and DirecTV set up in my home so we could watch any two games. The highlight of every Sunday was definitely around 4:00 and 7:00, when we flipped to whichever game was going down to the wire. Football can be amazingly enjoyable when you get to watch the close games. This year I moved and ditched the dish (I lost reception in bad weather -- since when does the weather interrupt television?) but thankfully I live near a Rock Bottom that gets all the games and offers cheap food. For those of you that don't have the pleasure of Sunday Ticket I highly encourage you to find a friend or a drinking establishment that has it. You haven't truly experienced football till you've seen three game-winning drives, all at the same time.
Al: I haven't had a chance to check out any of the sports bars near me this season, damn school work gets in the way of truly enjoying a Sunday, but once I'm done with finals I'll be spending that Sunday drinking cheap beer and watching seven games at once. The best Sunday sports bar experience I've had was at the ESPN Club in Disney World. You have to get there by 11 AM to get a table for the 1 PM games, but it's worth it. Since it's Disney World, you have fans from every part of the country rooting for their teams. Every game has someone rooting for at least one of the teams. I'll be down there again around New Year's so I'll try to file a report.
One of the many games I wish I could have seen on Sunday was the Seattle/Baltimore matchup. How did that game end up 44-41? From the highlights I saw, the officiating looked horrendous in the final minutes of play. That being said, Seattle has no excuse for blowing a 17-point lead with only seven minutes to play. Could we have been wrong about the Anthony Wright Experience? 20/37 for 319 yards and 4 TDs is a hell of a performance from someone that was probably a first round loser league pick last week.
Ian: I'm not sure which is stranger: Anthony Wright throwing four touchdown passes, or Marcus Robinson catching four touchdown passes. Seattle's got to be feeling pretty bad after that loss. When's the last time a quarterback threw five touchdowns for a losing team? The pass interference call that handed Baltimore the game-tying field goal was a terrible play by Marcus Trufant -- there were 3 other defenders in the area and the ball didn't look like it was going to be caught anyways. Apparently Marcus has read our column and is hoping for a Keep Choppin' Wood award nomination.
I also question Seattle going for it on 4th-and-1 to try and put the game away with under a minute to play. Baltimore was out of timeouts, and it would have taken them two lucky plays to get into field goal range if Seattle had simply punted the ball to pin the Ravens deep. I know there's a macho element that says "We can get 1 yard and win the game", but they seem to have forgotten that the Ravens were stuffing the run all game; they were just getting their ass kicked through the air. I don't know that there's a defense I'd rather face less than the Ravens on 4th-and- 1.
Al: Terrible call going on 4th-and- 1. Anthony Wright may have been on fire, but I'll take my chances that he won't drive 60 yards in 30 seconds.
Speaking about pass interference calls, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a brilliant play in the Jets game yesterday. Or at least a play that would have been brilliant if it actually was intentional. Jets WR Jonathan Carter was running a route towards the sideline for a deep pass. He was clearly beaten downfield by Fernando Bryant. Carter had no chance at getting to the ball before Bryant would get there. However, Bryant took his eyes off the ball for a second. Carter saw that and ran straight into Bryant, flailing his arms. The official had no choice but to call a pass interference penalty since Bryant wasn't looking for the ball. That put the Jets into Jaguar territory. A great heads up play, if it wasn't accidental.
Ian: Not sure that there's anything that can be done about it, but pass interference seems to be taking over as the most important play in football. First off, it seems that almost every incomplete pass is followed by the receiver waving his hands in the air asking for a flag. I can understand why they do it, but I'm tired of seeing it. I wouldn't be surprised if soon the league passes a rule that players can't argue with the officials when on the field. And you know what? As ridiculous an idea as that sounds, I think I'd be for it. Receivers seem to have more initiative to go for the flag than actually trying to catch the ball. If they weren't allowed to whine after the incompletion, maybe they'd focus more on catching the ball and less on trying to win the Emmy for Best Actor. 15 yard penalty for trying to draw a flag, that's what I'd like to see. I can't imagine what the official's signal would be though, a mimicked Emmy acceptance speech?
The next big problem with pass interference is that every official seems to call it differently. Some allow a bit of jostling here and there. Some throw the flag if the defender doesn't look for the ball, even when he doesn't touch the receiver. And some will allow maulings if the ball is barely uncatchable. This inconsistency makes it almost impossible for defensive backs to learn how to play the position. Soon they'll be watching game film of games that particular official has covered, to note his tendencies. If players start relying on that, something's wrong with the system.
Lastly, as you pointed out in last week's Scramble, pass interference flags are unreviewable, even though they seem like a great candidate for reviews. It always would happen after a dead ball, so there wouldn't be the need to create a play that didn't happen, unlike disputed fumbles that are ruled down by contact. And the "Indisputable evidence" rule can still easily apply. Sure, it would mean more challenges in general, but that's what they're there for, right?
Al: Hockey already has a diving penalty. I can't see why the NFL couldn't institute one.
This is probably my favorite week of the year. I mean, does it really get any better than Thanksgiving? It's a national holiday that involves eating Turkey, watching football and drinking beer. Even when Dallas and Detroit are both terrible you always get at least one good game on Thanksgiving. This year looks to be no different. Dallas and Miami are both fighting for playoff spots. Miami's offense has struggled lately, but with Jay Fiedler back some of their woes could be ending. Dallas has traditionally done well on Thanksgiving and has been great at home this year. They haven't lost at home since the first week of the season.
Detroit and Green Bay looks like it will be pretty ugly. Green Bay has owned the Lions recently. Detroit has only one win over the Packers this century. Surprisingly, Brett Favre has been better on the road this year than at home. His QB rating is 14 points higher on the road than it is at Lambeau Field.
Ian: Favre may be better on the road than at home this season, but overall he's got a rather mediocre rating of 84.7. Obviously his thumb has been a factor, but I'm really stunned that he's passing this poorly. Why? Because the Packers have the NFL's best rushing offense! They're averaging an amazing 173 yards per game on the ground, and 5.4 yards per rush, both 1st in the NFL. When Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher come into the game, you'd never know Ahman's on the bench; Najeh's averaging 6.3 yards per carry and Tony Fisher has 5.4 himself.
So the question remains -- with a rushing attack like this, how can Favre be playing so poorly? I think teams have caught onto Brett's tendency to force the ball whenever it's in his hands. Defenses aren't committing to the run, and are giving up the 5 yards per carry, because they know that whenever Brett drops back to pass, as long as they have a pass defense ready, there's a decent chance he's gonna throw a pick. The past three seasons, Brett's had interception numbers of 16, 15 and 16. He's already up to 15 this year with almost a third of the season to go. I don't see why the Packers ever bother to pass the ball- it doesn't seem like anyone can stop them on the ground. Throw Favre's ego on the shelf and just pound, pound, pound the rock.
Memo to Jim Fassel: You're not Bill Belichick. In case you didn't watch the Bucs-Giants game to the end, the G-Men had the ball on their own three-yard line, 4th and 19. The Giants are down to 1 timeout, and the Bucs are up 4. It's the two-minute warning, and while we watch the Real Men of Genius the Giants have 2 minutes to talk about what to do. The game comes back, the Giants are in the huddle, ready to go for it, and... they use their last timeout! It's not like Collins lined up and saw the defense was in a perfect position to stop their defense, he called timeout from the huddle. What a horrible waste. After the timeout, the Giants decide to take a safety, Bill Belichick style. Now, if they'd saved their last timeout, they could have forced Tampa to run the ball, risking a fumble and regardless likely getting the ball back with about 25 seconds to go. But no, they instead have to go for an onside kick, and Tampa gets the ball and takes knees to end the game. Why not go for it on 4th and 19? You probably have a better chance at that than an onside kick. And if you're gonna take the safety, why'd they have to use their last timeout?!? Even if he suddenly decided he wanted the safety, it's not like the Giants had to line up in punt formation to do it, just have Collins turn and fire it out of the back of the end zone. Not like the Giants had much of a chance either way, but the decision making at the end there was pitiful.
Al: Don't forget, Brett Favre is playing with an injured thumb. I do agree, though, that they should ride Ahman Green more until Favre's thumb is fully healed.
You pretty much summed up my thoughts exactly on the poor clock management at the end of the Giants game. I was in awe of how horribly that situation was handled. Not only was it an onside kick, it was an onside free kick. I don't think I've ever seen a successful onside free kick. Why? Because no one is ever dumb enough to try one. You can't use a tee for the free kick, so the kicker can't kick the ball into the ground to get the typical onside kick bounce. It's bound to fail. The odds of NY connecting on a 4th and 19 at their own 12-yard line against Tampa Bay are pretty slim. However slim they are, they're greater than the less than zero odds that the Giants would have recovered an onside free kick.
Taking a time out right after the two-minute warning was inexcusable. Apparently, once the Giants went onto the field, Fassel changed his mind and realized they had no shot at converting a 4th-and-19 and called for the time out. Of course, this left the Giants without any time outs and put them in an even more impossible situation. I hope Tom Coughlin has enjoyed his year off.
Al: Remember, you can email us your questions or comments each week at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com. We'll feature some of the emails we receive each week in the column. We have a letter this week from Michael in Wisconsin:
"I have read several times, in several columns, comments of the form, if you take away RUNNING BACK A's top 2 or 5 carries, then the opposing team held him to an average of 2.5 yards or some other relatively poor number, and I was wondering what happened to the average rushing day when the backs top carries were removed from the equation."
Thanks Michael! The answer is -- it depends. We touched on this a bit a few weeks ago. The average of certain RBs like Corey Dillon or Jamal Lewis in his record setting rushing performance will be affected more than Eddie George's average would be. Yards/carry is a decent metric to measure a RB's performance, especially over the course of a season or career, but the median might be a better reflection of what a RB did in the small sample size of a game.
Ian: Using the median is a horrible idea. That means everyone's average at its finest granularity would be in 0.5 increments; hardly a handy way to compare running backs. And it can easily equate an 80 yard run equally with a 1 yard run- It devalues the good runs too much. I do agree that yards per carry is a bit misleading on a per-game basis, but then again is it wrong to "penalize" a running back because he broke off a 50-yarder? 7, 7 and 7 isn't really better than 1, 2, and 50 (but the median sure thinks so!). I don't want to give the impression I think yards per carry is a totally perfect stat, but it's easily calculable, and it's what running backs have been rated on for too long a time for us to just start discounting it. No one would ever stop counting batting average in baseball not just because it makes sense, but also because so many generations of baseball players are known for the batting averages they had.
Ian: This week's Keep Choppin' Wood award goes to someone who may be good on the piano, but sucks on the football field. Joey Harrington and the Lions were in great position to upset the Minnesota Vikings. It was 10-7 Vikings in the 4th, and the Lions defense had been shutting down Culpepper and the Vikes offense all day. So what does he do? He throws two poor passes and both become interceptions returned for touchdowns. His teammates were playing a great game, and had a true shot to upset the Vikings despite being 10.5-point underdogs, but Joey blew it, handing the Vikings 14 points on a platter to put the game out of reach. Congrats Joey, you're this week's Keep Choppin' Wood award winner!
Al: At what point does Detroit have to give up on the Joey Harrington experience? I haven't seen much of him, but his numbers don't look any better this year than they were last year. Our rankings place him in the bottom third of the league this year, right around where he was last season. Mike McMahon can't really do much worse of a job than Harrington has been doing.
Al: What do you know? Another 0-3 performance to bring my streak of winless weeks to three. Last week was particularly painful as I ended up with two pushes and lost the third game by only a point. Ian lucked into winning his Detroit pick by half a point and increased his season lead on me to 38-29 (3 pts for Best Bet, 2 pts for Very Good, 1 pt for Hunch). I'm taking a slightly different approach to my picks this week. I found three games that I liked and ranked them as I normally would. Then I reversed everything. So I'm actually going to pick the teams that I am the most confident won't cover the spread. I guess these are my Bizarro Bets. Hopefully this will change my luck a bit.
Best Bet: Jacksonville +3.5 over Tampa: How is Tampa only a 3.5 point favorite over the Jaguars? This line makes no sense. Maybe Fred Taylor will have a big day or something.
Very Good Bet: Pittsburgh -3 over Cincinnati: I love the Bengals here. The Steelers haven't been any good at home, only going 2-3. The Bengals are on a roll, winning their last three. There's no reason Pittsburgh should be getting three points here.
Just a Hunch: NY Jets +1 over Tennessee: Huh? Did I miss a memo here? Tennessee might be the best team in football. The Jets needed to drive 94 yards in the last three minutes on Sunday just to beat Jacksonville. And the Titans are only favored by one point? If this wasn't Bizarro World, the Titans would have been my Best Bet.
Ian: So I see you're going with the ol' pick reversal. Can't see why that wouldn't hurt you. I basically agree with everything you said on all 3 picks, I was all set to go with Tampa and Cincinnati in my Best Bets. No matter, I've some other sure-fire winners.
Best Bet: Kansas City -7 over San Diego: Man, San Diego has been awful this season. And the Chiefs blow out most of their weak opponents. What makes anyone think the Chargers will keep this game close?
Pretty Good Bet: Miami +3 over Dallas: Not sure I'm sold on Miami winning this game, but I do like what Jay Fiedler brings to the table. For whatever reason, Miami just plays much better on offense with Fiedler at the helm, and I'm glad to see they brought back Oronde Gadsden. He's got great size and great hands. Not sure why they got rid of him in the first place. Anyways, this game feels to me like it will go down to the wire, so I'm gonna take Miami's defense against Quincy Carter and the 3 points.
Just a Hunch: Seattle -6 over Cleveland: Seattle plays so well at home, and Cleveland plays so poorly everywhere. And that line of 6 is begging for a 7-point Seattle victory.
Al: Thanks to Patrick Ramsey's injury and Frank Wycheck finally showing up, the last remaining Ian team, To Heck with Running Backs, knocked out It Worked Last Year. Going into the Week 13 & 14 scoring period we have three teams remaining. Here they are for those of you scoring at home:
The Defending Champs
Big Dick McGee
To Heck With Running Backs
Ian has Emmitt Smith coming back this week, so all bets are off.
Ian: Is there any better feeling than having a crappy tight end starting for your fantasy team catch two touchdowns? Especially when my entire Survivor League season hung in the balance. The next two weeks should be interesting, as Big Dick McGee is without Keyshawn Johnson for the rest of the year and Troy Brown may or may not be effective at all. The advantage at wide receiver for To Heck With Running Backs may actually help to offset its obvious running back deficiencies. Then again, Michael Bennett seems to have taken over in Minnesota, and Moe Williams may be much less valuable than in the past. IÃƒÂm predicting that my last team will be eliminated this week.
Jason: This week, Ian put his confidence in the ineptitude of the Chicago offense against a fired-up Bronco D. Well, it turns out Denver decided not to attend the game on Sunday, but Ian's strategy worked anyhow, as he won Week 12 with 40 points and 5 Bear players on his roster. Paul Edinger was the only one to score in double digits, kicking 4 field goals and a PAT. But Marty Booker, David Terrell and Anthony Thomas all had mediocre days, and Chris Chandler became conveniently "injured", but only after throwing enough passes to avoid a penalty. So where was the regular Bear loser Dez White? On my team, catching one stinkin' pass for 15 yards, racking up the dreaded "Triple P" (Penalty plus points. Yeah, I just made that up. Yeah, it's stupid. Let us never speak of the "Triple P" again). With 41 points, Jay was narrowly edged out of first place. His top performers were Josh Reed (3 catches for 26 yards) and Ike Hilliard (4 catches for 43 yards), and none of his players scored over 10 points.
MVP Watch: While Curtis Martin has somehow maintained his scoreless season for 12 weeks, he unfortunately continues to rack up the yardage. Someone who doesn't have this issue is emerging Loser League stud Troy Hambrick, who has rushed 41 times for 100 yards (2.4 Y/C) and no TDs in his last three games combined. With upcoming contests against the Dolphins and Eagles, we're hoping these crappy stats continue.