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 Dec 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: Am I crazy, or do the Baltimore Ravens have a shot at winning the Super Bowl this year? Their defense is among the best in the league, both by conventional measures and by Football Outsiders' innovative VOA (Value Over Average) system . The only thing that has been holding Baltimore back has been their putrid offense and poor QB play. According to VOA, Baltimore has had the second worst offense in the NFL, sandwiched between Arizona and Detroit. I think those numbers will start increasing very soon, now that the Anthony Wright era has begun. Over the past three games, Wright and the Ravens have averaged 39.7 points per game. Wright has found a favorite WR in Marcus Robinson, rejuvenating a career that was in risk of ending just a few weeks ago. Wright has given Robinson at least another three years in the NFL based just on the last three games. Wright deserves at least 10% of whatever deal Robinson signs after this season. But, I digress. If the Ravens can keep this offensive performance up, I don't see any glaring weaknesses in their team. Baltimore is getting 15-1 odds right now to win the Super Bowl. That looks like a pretty solid bet to me.
Ian: When the Ravens made the playoffs four years ago I had a feeling that their dominating defense and solid running game could carry them to a Super Bowl title, and I won $1,000 on it by betting on them early in the postseason at 5-1 odds. This team isn't quite as dominating defensively as the squad from 2000, but their offense has been a bit better thanks to the inspired play of Anthony Wright. But I'm not as big a fan of the Ravens with a slightly better offense and worse defense. When it comes playoff time, Anthony Wright cannot be counted on to protect the ball on the road at New England or Kansas City. I wouldn't bet any significant amount of money that he can lead the Ravens to four straight playoff wins, especially when two of those will be at the opponents' home stadiums.
Besides, no matter who you think of as a potential Super Bowl champion, they'd have to go through the New England Patriots. Who's gonna beat these guys? They rush the passer. They intercept passes. They stop the run. They don't run the ball very well, but well enough. They've been hitting long passes at clutch times, and they connect on the short ones when they need to. And their schemes are incredible. You never know what they're gonna do on defense. Speaking of the Pats defense, I wanted to expand a bit on Bruschi's interception returned touchdown. The play was a wonderful one, and it's the same one Ronde Barber used to seal the Bucs trip to the Super Bowl against the Eagles last year. When a linebacker blitzes, the slot receiver on that side is instructed to do a slant in, as that part of the field is now vacant. Often this works very effectively for an 8-10 yard gain. But what Bruschi did (and he did the same thing against the Lions during last year's Thanksgiving game) was to fake the blitz at the snap. Things happen so fast, that the quarterback instinctively fires it to the slanting receiver, but by faking the blitz, Bruschi (and Barber) were able to drop in the passing lane for an easy pick and touchdown return. I'm surprised I don't see this tactic more often; at worst you give up a first down. (Aaron: Isn't this the same thing Aeneas Williams did against Cleveland that was mentioned in TMQ? He also got a touchdown out of it.)
Al: The Falcons pulled a similar play against the Giants earlier this year. They actually had set the play up a quarter before. A Falcon blitzed from the corner and Kerry Collins threw the hot route slant to the WR the blitzing DB was lined up against for a first down. The next quarter, a Falcon DB blitzed again, but CB Tod McBride was expecting the slant and stepped right into the route. Four plays later, the Falcons were up by 13 points.
New England has to be the favorite in the AFC, but Baltimore might be the team that matches up the best with the Patriots. The Patriots' strength on offense is their passing. New England is #10 in passing VOA and #31 in rushing. Baltimore? They have the second best passing defense in the league. I wouldn't be too quick to discount Baltimore's chances just because of their quarterback. It's not like Johnny Unitas was slinging passes when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000. Of course, Baltimore could still miss the playoffs completely, but at 15-1 they look to be the best Super Bowl futures bet right now.
I guess I didn't miss much living in NYC and not being able to watch a game of any importance on either CBS or FOX. For all of the hype coming into the week, only one game could be considered close and exciting. The Pats/Dolphins game was close, but was watching two teams punt to each other in the middle of a blizzard really that exciting? 360 yards of combined total offense! Three points scored in the first 50 minutes of play! 11 punts! The NFL, it's FAAAAN-TASTIC!
It looks like Sunday's best game was in Tennessee. I'm pretty surprised that the Colts were able to pull this one out on the road. That should all but lock up the division for Indianapolis, with only two winnable home games and a road game in Houston left on their schedule. Maybe the Colts will get lucky and the Titans will lose a couple of more games to fall into the #6 seed. I always like the chances of a team in the playoffs playing a team they've already beaten twice that year. Maybe that's how Dungy and Manning finally find their way out of the first round.
Ian: What was that? Don't tell me you've finally given Indianapolis a shot at winning a playoff game, have you? Wow, I guess anything's possible. I certainly wasn't surprised that the Colts won last week, it helped me maintain my slimming lead in our Best Bets competition. With Edge running as powerfully as he has been, and Manning passing the ball the way he has, the Colts are never out of any game. They've shown that twice this year, in Tampa and against New England. How about taking the Colts to win the Super Bowl at 7-1 odds?
Actually, the line I really like right now is St. Louis at 7-1. They look to be on their way to home field advantage in the playoffs, especially with Marshall Faulk playing like... well, Marshall Faulk. And we all know how good they can be at home. Bulger's tendency to throw interceptions is a bit worrisome, but the Rams overcome that with great defense. Not only do they lead the league in takeaways, but they're as far ahead of #2 Kansas City in that department (40-32, an eight turnover difference) as Kansas City is ahead of the #13 teams (Atlanta and Jacksonville, with 24 each). The ability to create turnovers is a key to playoff success, and no one is better at it than the Rams.
Al: I really like those 7-1 odds for the Rams. I don't see why the Eagles are 4-1 and the Rams are only 7-1. I guess it's because Philadelphia would have home field advantage if the season ended today. New England is getting way too much love at 3-1 odds. I like their chances to win it all, but that's way too low.
We've had our first coaching casualty of the season. Dan Reeves was told that he wouldn't be retained next year, so he asked for an extra three weeks off for the holidays. I can't say I blame him for wanting out now. Nor can I really blame the Falcons for letting him go. Is Reeves the reason Atlanta only has three wins? Of course not. But someone needs to take the fall for the Falcons' disappointing season. If he's still interested in coaching, I think he'll get another chance next year. I'll guess he ends up in San Diego and the Chargers make the playoffs next year.
Ian: You think Reeves will coach in San Diego? Man, I think it's time for him to retire. Coaching again may get him some more commercial opportunities for heart-attack medicine, but I can't imagine he'll be much of an improvement over Marty Schottenheimer. Then again, isn't anyone an improvement over Marty Schottenheimer?
I totally agree on you about the Patriots Super Bowl odds... Who would make a bet on them at 3-1 odds with so many more games left to go? It's not like the odds will change all that much from now till the end of the playoffs. If the Pats are at home vs. Kansas City in the AFC championship game, the odds for them to win the Super Bowl might still be 3-1.
Ian: We've got a couple of emails from the Scramble Mailbag; remember you can email us just about any football question at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com. Vivek from New York writes in with this question:
"In two leagues, I have Tiki starting with Bettis on the bench. Bettis goes against the Jets D this week, and we all know how effective the Jets D has been against the run. With the Giants pretty much out of it, I'm worried that Fassell will finally pull Tiki, or at least max him out at like 70 yards and no goal line carries. Should I make the change or go with what got me here?"
Ian: Well, Tiki certainly has been lacking in goal line carries, thanks to his fumbling habit and Dorsey Levens' ability to cross the stripe. But looking at how the Saints have done at home against opposing running backs, I can't imagine benching Tiki. Warrick Dunn: 23 carries, 162 yards. Stephen Davis: 31 carries, 178 yards. Anthony Thomas: 21 carries, 96 yards. Kerry Collins might not play this week, and if Jesse Palmer takes over, he'll probably look to dump the ball off to Tiki whenever he drops back to pass. Tiki's got a good shot at scoring on a screen pass or something along those lines.
Al: Thanks, Vivek! I don't think Fassel will pull Tiki to save him or to give his young players a shot. He said this week that he was still going to play the players he thought would give NY the best chance to win, instead of playing the young players just to see what the Giants have. I don't really agree with that reasoning, it sounds like Fassel is just trying to get a few futile wins in a last ditch effort to save his job. I agree, play Tiki over Bettis.
Our second email is from Greg:
"Here's the deal. I have searched long and hard and have sent many emails to many 'experts' and have yet to hear an answer to my question. Hopefully, you can help.
"It's a rules question, kind of. And I want to know what I propose is illegal, and if it isn't, then why the hell have I never seen someone pull this off. And if they did it successfully, would they not be hailed as a hero. Let me paint the scenario.
eam driving for a tying/winning score. No time outs left. Pass over the middle to a receiver, there's no way he can get out of bounds to stop the clock, too far to make it to the end zone. So why doesn't the receiver simply chuck the ball out of bounds. Pass it to the guy holding the parabolic microphone. Anything. Just fling the ball to the sidelines. Wouldn't that be considered, technically, a fumble? And I know that the ball couldn't go forwards (Dave Casper rule) but why not sideways, or slightly backwards? After all, if David Patten, two years ago, can be unconscious, but still out of bounds with his head and touching the ball with his foot, why is this not illegal, unless it's already in the rule book as a "delay of game" type of thing?
"I need to know if this is illegal. And if it's not, can you guys start campaigning to make this play known? Because I think it would be smart as hell. But that's just me. Thanks."
reat question. I've never understood why players don't intentionally fumble the ball out of bounds more often. I think I'll be finding a copy of the official NFL rulebook in my stocking this Christmas, but until then I'll have to go by NFL.com's abridged version of the rules. NFL's fumble rules state that "a fumble that goes forward and out of bounds will return to the fumbling team at the spot of the fumble unless the ball goes out of bounds in the opponent's end zone. In this case, it is a touchback." I don't see anything in the abridged rules that would make what Greg is suggesting illegal.
One problem may arise if the throw out of bounds is considered a "forward pass". The abridged rules don't give any specific definition of "forward pass". It does say, however that the offensive team is only allowed one forward pass per play. A second forward pass results in a five yard penalty.
Even if the play is legal, it would be very dangerous to try. Presumably a WR would only try this if there were defenders blocking his route out of bounds. If the WR tries to throw the ball past these defenders, he runs a huge risk of turning the ball over which would probably worse result than just not being able to stop the clock.
Ian: This is a very good idea, and frankly, I don't foresee any problem. If the receiver is about to be tackled, I can see it being a risky idea because of the chances of him fumbling the ball as he attempts to do this. But when a player is trying to stop the clock, firing a lateral out of bounds behind him ought to be a successful way to do it. Of course, the only true way to know whether this is legal or not is to wait until a team actually does it, then wait for the NFL to release a statement letting us know what the actual rule is. They're secretive like that.
Ian: This week's Keep Choppin' Wood award goes to Eddie Berlin, who spent about three-quarters of one game as the starting kick returner for the Tennessee Titans. He fumbled the ball on two kickoffs, keeping McNair on the sidelines in a game that was dictated by offense. An honorable mention here goes to Justin McCareins, who made sure Eddie's legacy would not be forgotten, as he replaced him and fumbled the Colts punt with under two minutes in the game, preventing McNair and the Tennessee offense one more shot at pulling off the comeback win. Given the way the game was going, they probably would have done it, too. Eddie's lucky he doesn't play soccer for Columbia, he'd probably be dead by now.
Al: You can't fumble three kicks during a game and expect to win.
Al: Shhh... Here comes me! I've made up ground in this contest for two weeks in a row. I won last week 5-3, getting my top two picks correct while you were only able to cover your best bet. You still have the lead at 44-38 (3 pts Best Bet, 2 pts Pretty Good, 1 pt Hunch) but it's a small enough lead now that I can tie things up this week with good picks and a little luck. THE SYSTEM! worked well for me last week so I'm sticking with it.
Best Bet: Cincinnati -2.5 over San Francisco: San Francisco is awful on the road. The Bengals are pretty good at home. Not too tough of a pick here.
Pretty Good Bet: New England -7 over Jacksonville: I know Jacksonville has been a bit resurgent, but they still haven't won a game on the road this season. The Pats are undefeated at home. The over/under on Byron Leftwich turnovers is 4.5. I'll take the over.
Just a Hunch: Chicago +1.5 over Minnesota: The Vikings are 1-6 against the spread over their last seven. Chicago is 5-1 against the spread in their last six home games. I've been a bit too high on Chicago recently, but I'm going to stick with them one more week.
Ian: Yeah, yeah... Enjoy your little resurgence while it lasts. You're running out of time to catch up, and I've gotta come through with some solid picks to make sure things stay the way they are.
Best Bet: Green Bay -5 over San Diego: I'll give you gamblers out there some advice: Bet against San Diego the rest of the year. Marty Schottenheimer is known as a coach who works players too hard, and basically pisses them off because of his insanely intense style of coaching. His job is almost assuredly gone after this year; do you really think his players are gonna play tough for him? They want him gone! And they're sure not gonna stop a Green Bay team that needs to win to keep pace with the Vikings.
Pretty Good Bet: Carolina -6 over Arizona: Not too much thought behind this one; Carolina needs a win badly and Arizona is awful, even if they are playing at home.
Just a Hunch: Detroit +14 over Kansas City: Somewhat of a Trap Game for Kansas City, since it's sandwiched between road trips to Denver and Minnesota. Then again, they got plastered by Denver, so I don't know if the Trap Game applies. Either way, any time I can get a 14 point spread for my Just a Hunch I'm taking it.
Al: It's all over but the crying. Your 2003 Scramble for the Ball Survivor League Champion is me! The last remaining Ian team, To Heck With Running Backs, fought valiantly, but in the end they couldn't withstand the relentless assault of The Defending Champs and Big Dick McGee. BDM dominated the two week period, topping 100 points in both week 13 and week 14. Clinton Portis and Jamal Lewis were enough last week to outscore THWRBs all by themselves. TDC edged out second place behind strong week 14 performances by Trent Green and LaDanian Tomlinson. Ultimately, To Heck with Running Backs was hurt by, you guessed it, their running backs. Trung Canidate and Moe Williams combined for only 30 points over weeks 13 and 14. Clinton Portis had 30+ point weeks himself in both of those weeks. Which one of my teams will end up winning it all? Does anyone really care? I know I don't. I've already won!
Ian: Damn. This was a season filled with injuries and weekly absences that doomed otherwise good teams. But in the end, you deserved to win, as you simply picked the better running backs for your teams. Stephen Davis and Jamal Lewis both played well above expectations this year, so it's not surprising to see them in the final two teams. That makes you 2-0 in our Survivor League, but you're going down next year, I guarantee it!
Jason: Jay is on a hot streak, winning for the second week in a row, on the strength of Losers Jay Fiedler (3 turnovers, no TDs), Ike Hilliard (2 catches for 15 yards) and Corey Dillon (11 rushes for 45 yards). But Ian maintains a substantial lead in the overall standings and will be tough to catch with only three weeks to go. As a slight aside, (but still having to do with total losers), I just have to say that after watching Ashley Lelie for nearly two seasons now, the boy could not catch a bus if it pulled up in front of his house and sat there for an hour honking the horn.
Now that Emmitt Smith can't even supplant Marcel Shipp (27 carries for 64 yards over the past two weeks) for the starting job in Arizona, we need a new future Hall-of-Fame player to kick around the Loser League. How about Jerry Rice? This season he's recorded only game over 100 yards (against the Chargers in Week 4), one TD and one week pulling penalty. Tossing those 3 weeks out, because I feel like it, he's averaged a paltry 4.2 fantasy points per game. With Rick Mirer throwing to him, he continues to make a solid weekly Loser pick. Watch out Jerry, Ashley Lelie now only needs 21,292 more career receiving yards to surpass you.