The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
23 Oct 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: What the hell is wrong with the Giants? They've outplayed their opposition the past two weeks but blown key scoring chances in both games by turning the ball over. They're second worst in the league in both giveaways and turnover differential. They weren't anything special in either category last year, but they were at least middle-of-the-road. How can a team go from average to terrible in turnovers in the span of one season with pretty much the same offensive skill position players? Kerry Collins is on pace to throw more interceptions than he ever has before in his career. Tiki Barber is on pace for a career high in fumbles. The only explanation I can think of that doesn't involve both players just declining is the poor play of the offensive line. Maybe if Collins had an extra second per pass attempt, he wouldn't throw the ball to players in the wrong colored jersey as often. Maybe if Tiki wasn't getting hit in the backfield as much he'd be able to get a better grip on the ball before breaking downfield. I'm grasping at straws here. Something is definitely wrong with the Giants and I'm not sure if any of Jim Fassel's patented second half magic will be enough to get New York back into the playoff hunt.
Ian: Chris Berman used to joke that Tampa Bay would always "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory". That's kind of like what's happening to the Giants this year -- They're just finding ways to lose. Kick the ball off inbounds and don't kick a returnable punt to the Eagles, and the Giants are tied for first with a 4-2 record. That's football for ya. On the other hand, they've certainly been beating themselves up with turnovers. You need to take their opponents into account though. 5 of Kerry Collins' interceptions came against Miami and Dallas, currently the #1 and #2 defenses according to FootballOutsiders' DVOA (Adjusted Value Over Average) rankings. The other 4 interceptions he's thrown were against New England in a maelstrom. So while he's been bad, he's had really difficult matchups as well.
Al: The Giants didn't have any of those problems on Sunday, though. They just couldn't hold onto the ball. Jeremy Shockey made a bad decision right after the two-minute warning in the first half. He was stopped on first down with a nine-yard reception. Instead of going down, saving time on the clock and keeping possession of the ball, he fruitlessly fought with Nate Wayne for an extra yard. Of course another defender swooped in and knocked the ball out of Shockey's hands. Collins had two horrible fumbles in the Eagles' territory that cost the Giants points. In the first five minutes of the game, he fumbled the ball on the Eagle 43. Luckily the Giants were able to recover, but they were left with a 2nd and 30, killing their chances of gaining the early lead. He hurt NY even more in the 4th quarter when he dropped the ball after being sacked only 5 yards from the end zone. They're a horribly frustrating team to try to watch. It's looking like I'm going to have a crappy year from all my NY sports teams. The Mets were a disaster, the Giants keep shooting themselves in the foot and the Knicks and Rangers are in a competition to see who can have the worst contracts on their rosters. I think the Mutumbo signing moved the Knicks into the lead. But, I digress.
What was up with Tampa this week? They allowed 117 yards rushing to Garrison Hearst? That might be the most surprising stat line this week.
Ian: San Francisco's win at Tampa was beautiful football. For the 49ers, anyways. Let's get one thing straight -- Injuries have been killing Tampa. The offense misses Mike Alstott really, really badly; his receiving out of the backfield often helped the Bucs move down the field. Brian Kelly's torn pectoral muscle has him out for the season, and we've already seen Marvin Harrison eat up the Bucs with him out of the game. And Shelton Quarles breaking his forearm before the season started has been a huge blow to the Bucs run defense. Not to make excuses though; the Bucs did get their asses handed to them on Sunday. And San Francisco did it so well; I have to give them a lot of credit. For anyone who's ever wondered why a good running game can be a key to winning football, just watch the Bucs-Niners game from this weekend. Here's the play-by-play of San Francisco's opening drive (courtesy of NFL.com):
G.Hearst up the middle to TB 32 for 6 yards.
G.Hearst left guard to TB 26 for 6 yards.
G.Hearst right guard to TB 24 for 2 yards.
J.Garcia pass to T.Owens to TB 7 for 17 yards.
G.Hearst right tackle for 7 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Ok, so they were pretty effective running the ball that drive. Here's how their third drive went:
G.Hearst up the middle to SF 23 for 4 yards.
G.Hearst right tackle to SF 41 for 18 yards.
J.Garcia pass to G.Hearst for 26 yards.
K.Barlow left end to TB 37 for 1 yard.
K.Barlow left guard to TB 25 for 12 yards.
K.Barlow left guard to TB 18 for 7 yards.
K.Barlow right tackle to TB 14 for 4 yards.
J.Garcia pass to T.Streets for 14 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
In those two drives, they ran 10 times and passed only 3. They gained 6.7 yards per rush. Clearly, their running game was dominant. So what does Tampa do? They bring an extra man or two in the box to stop the running attack. That leaves man-to-man coverage on the outside, which leads to this:
J.Garcia pass to T.Owens for 75 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
They controlled the middle of the field, forced Tampa to stuff the middle, then spread the ball outside -- a beautiful example of strategic football at its finest. If Terrell Owens didn't drop two touchdown passes he could have caught, the final score would have been a lot uglier than it actually was.
Al: For an example of a bad game plan last week, you need to look no further than Carolina. The Panthers had been one of the best rushing teams in the NFL with a suspect passing attack. What do they do on Sunday? Run Stephen Davis/DeShaun Foster only 13 times and have Jake Delhomme throw 49 passes. I know the Panthers fell behind quickly, but you can't give up on the run if you're Carolina. Delhomme just isn't good enough to carry an offense on his own.
I'd be shocked if the Panthers didn't run the ball 35 times this week against New Orleans. The Saints' DLine is in the bottom third of the league in adjusted line yards and #30 in stopping runs to the left. Even after their poor performance against the Titans, Carolina has the best rushing OLine in the league and are #3 blocking to the left side. If Davis/Foster don't have 250 yards rushing in Week 8, something is wrong with the Panther game plan.
Ian: You might think that Delhomme's high passing numbers were strictly because the Panthers fell behind early. Nope, they never even bothered to establish the run. 1st drive: run, pass, pass, punt. 2nd drive: run, pass, pass, punt. 3rd drive: pass, pass, pass, punt. That's seven passes and two rushes in the first three drives for a team that beat the Colts the previous week thanks to their studly rushing attack. Terrible game plan, and a loss deserved.
On the topic of game plans that work though, if you're playing Atlanta, just throw the damn ball. Aaron Brooks had been terrible coming into this past Sunday's game, topping 200 passing yards just one time in six games. Enter the Atlanta Falcons defense, who have held just two opponents under 30 points. Brooks had 278 yards and 3 touchdowns- at halftime! Just like the Giants playing terrible offense with the same effective team from last year, the Falcons defensive woes are baffling.
Al: There was a pretty good discussion on Football Outsiders about the Falcons passing defense woes last month. Theories presented included the lack of a pass rush, a poor draft, and Ray Buchanan's increased age. Even with Vick hurt, the Falcons shouldn't be this bad. We'll be seeing Dan Reeves on Sunday NFL Countdown this time next year. The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for Atlanta.
So who gets canned first: Reeves, Fassel, or Marty Schottenheimer? I'd be surprised if any of them got tossed during the season, but all three will probably be gone one January rolls around.
Ian: I'm gonna go with Marty Schottenheimer first. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it happens during the season. The Chargers have a lot of talent, and they're just not winning. Obviously most of David Boston's problems are David Boston's fault, but when a player of his salary is not playing for inexcusable non-football reasons, it's an embarrassment to the team. Someone's gotta take the fall, and that's gonna be Marty.
I think Dan Reeves has a shot at getting the axe during the season as well. Basically, if Vick comes back and the team keeps losing, the owner will be doing something before the fans leave and don't come back. He's already apologizing to them, but apologies alone won't get it done for the fans. I agree that Fassel won't lose his job during the season. Fassel has a history of coming back from unlikely scenarios to make the playoffs, so they'll certainly give him a chance again this year. The Giants are 2 stupid plays from being 4-2 and tied for 1st, so it's not time to panic.
Al: Mailbag time. We have a long letter this week from frequent emailer Dan from Virginia:
Injuries are just a part of football. That's all there is to it...or could there be more. Relief pitchers, pinch runners, pinch hitters...Why is baseball one of the only sports where the key ball thrower is taken out before he is worn out or gets hurt? Why do coaches continue to play their QBs well after he's taken one too many beatings? With the decency of backup QBs (Doug Johnson aside) in the ranks of late, why can't we have rotational relievers for QBs or any other position. (For the sake of the analogy, I'll stick to QBs for now, but it should apply to RBs, WRs, and linemen)
Yes, yes, yes, football is not a sport for sissies and all are held up to iron man standards. But does strategy dictate you play your stars all the time? It's not true for other sports or even fantasy football, why should it be any different in the NFL?
Why not change it up on the defense? If Culpepper is slowing down against a tough defense early in the 3rd, why not throw in Ferrotte for a quarter and then bring back Culpepper for the finish? Plummer's getting pummeled early in the first half, send in Steve Beuerlein for a quarter, then bring back Jake the snake if needed, otherwise, toss in the 3rd string for final relief. Last night Gannon took 2 huge hits to put him out of commission for the game. And perhaps a bit too late, for reliever Marques Tuiasosopo did a good job of keeping Oakland's hopes alive. Now imagine if the coach had brought Tuiasosopo earlier in the 2nd quarter. Gannon would be fine, KC would have to adjust defensively to a new QB, Oakland would have a fresh arm, and Gannon could have returned late in the 2nd to seal the deal.
Am I missing something obvious here? Wouldn't relievers and substitution go a long way towards extending the playing careers as well as the competitiveness between teams? Sure this would wreak havoc on fantasy leagues but I'm sure fantasy league rules can change to adapt. And what's up with that! How about getting rid of that stupid roster lockout at game time rule and allowing a dynamic bench!
OK, that was a long one."
Al: I've actually thought about this before. A QB-by-committee approach has been used in college, usually when there isn't a clear starter available. I'm aware of very few cases where a QB has been used regularly in a relief type role. The early years of Kordell Stewart's career and Ray Lucas' use as a goal line QB are the two that pop into mind.
I agree that QBs are not pulled in blowouts or meaningless games quickly enough. The problem with the NFL, though, is that it's very rare when a blowout is sufficient enough to pull a QB in a regular season game in the third quarter. As we've seen this season, a 20+ point lead by the defending Super Bowl champs with five minutes left in the game isn't necessarily safe. After seeing that, it's tough to argue that you should pull your starting QB when you're down 17 points to the Cardinals.
However, in-game substitution works at every other position of the field, so I don't see why it wouldn't work at QB. It's extremely rare that a player is on the field for every down that his unit is on the field. The biggest stars in the league that aren't QBs get plays off every game. Teams have third down running backs and different defensive lineman for running or passing downs. WRs aren't on the field most times a team puts in a big lineup for 3rd and short. In theory, QB substitution should work, but there are two big factors standing in the way: time and ego.
For the system to be effective, second and third string QBs would need to get time during the week working with the first team on his designated set of plays. A team only has a few days of practice each week to prepare for the upcoming game. It would be inefficient for a team to have its best QB sitting on the sidelines while the lesser QB gets repetitions in practice.
Coaches would also have to deal with the blow to the ego of their starting QB. Taking Peyton Manning out for a series or a few plays in the second quarter so another QB can run the offense could easily be interpreted as a knock on Manning. The coach is saying: "Peyton, the other QB will do a better job than you will in this situation." Is that something that will affect the psyche of the man you have to rely on run your offense on the field? Maybe.
Ian: I don't think it should be too hard to get a backup QB more reps in practice; the starting QB can always get some off-the-field practice in with regards to fundamentals and other crap like that. Given how much injuries impact the sport, especially with quarterbacks, I'm surprised backup QBs don't get more practice than they already do.
The ego thing is another issue entirely, and it's not without merit. Star NFL players get treated like royalty all their lives, and they get pissy if they don't. Benching them for the backup QB is hardly a show of loyalty to a QB. One more reason QBs aren't benched more often is that they don't exert as much energy as other players do. On half the plays, they just hand the ball off and become a spectator. On most of the other half, they drop back and throw the ball and that's it. So fatigue is rarely an issue at the quarterback position.
Dan also asked about locking roster positions versus having a dynamic bench. That's actually exactly what we do in our Survivor League- you just get the points for whoever does best on a given week out of all your players. It's not totally fair though, since having a bench player on a bye becomes a significant disadvantage.
Al: Fatigue is a great point about QBs. As far as I know, QBs don't become less effective the more passes they throw, or at least when looking at the few number of passes a QB throws in a game (sounds like a study for Aaron). It's become accepted in baseball that a pitcher can become less effective the more innings/pitches he throws. Maybe if it could be shown that QBs are less effective as the number of passes they throw increases, QB closers or middle relievers will come into vogue.
(Aaron: Alright, that becomes #19 on my list of "studies to do when I get time," heh heh)
One last thing we haven't mentioned about QB substitutions is the restrictive QB roster and use rules the NFL has instituted. You can only freely change between two QBs during the course of a game. Maybe if coaches were allowed to carry/use as many QBs as they wished, substitutions or QB committees would be more common.
As to fantasy rosters, I'm a fan of setting the rosters before kickoff, but there's value to both systems. There's a bit more knowledge and skill needed in the set roster model. You have to keep track of injuries and playing time battles more if you have to decide which of your WRs to start every week. A dynamic bench makes running a team much easier. As we've shown in the Survivor league, you really don't need to do anything over the course of a season if you've been lucky and/or drafted well. A dynamic bench league might be a bit easier for new fantasy players to get their feet wet in the game.
I'd guess the dynamic bench leagues are not as popular mainly because they are tougher to administrate. Writing a computer program, or manually running a league with set rosters is much simpler than a dynamic bench league. There are fewer players that need to be scored and there's no need to figure out the top scorers at each position on the team.
Ian: One quick point before we head to Best Bets- It's time for me to give credit to the Patriots and the Cowboys. The Patriots are just finding ways to win. I'm always critical of Tom Brady's ability to throw a deep ball, and then he goes and throws an 80-yard strike to Troy Brown to win it in overtime. And kudos to the Pats for choosing the side of the field in overtime that would have Olindo Mare kicking out of the dirt. Seems like something that could have been easily overlooked.
The Cowboys are playing great defense, and are not asking Quincy Carter to win games for them. They're doing a great job of playing the field position game, and it looks like they're on their way to an improbable division title.
On to this week's Best Bets...
Ian: Nice to see I earned myself a bit of breathing room last week. Despite my lack of faith in Cincinnati, Minnesota and Kansas City came through to help me go 2-for-3 last week. Al, you couldn't take Washington forever; they finally lost a game that wasn't close. The Jets late touchdown salvaged a 1-for-3 week for you. I've jumped out to a 28-22 advantage.
Best Bet: Tennessee -3.5 over Jacksonville. The Titans have been absolutely unstoppable lately. A week after dismantling a previously undefeated Carolina Panthers team, they're only 3.5 point favorites... over Jacksonville? I just don't get this line.
Pretty Good Bet: Chicago -3 over Detroit. I'm not happy to be placing any of my Best Bets with Chicago, but I think Brian Urlacher could cover the Lions offense 1 on 11. The Bears should be able to handle the Lions at home.
Just a Hunch: St. Louis +1.5 over Pittsburgh. The way the Rams are firing on all cylinders, Bulger should tear up the shaky Pittsburgh secondary.
Al: My theory right now is that you pick first knowing that I can't really take the same teams you do if I have a shot of making up any ground. You then take the most obvious line of the week (Tennessee in this case) leaving me scrambling for a best bet. Next week I'm starting out the column with my picks.
Best Bet: Carolina +2 over New Orleans: What am I missing here? One team is 5-1; the other is 3-4. The 5-1 team beat the 3-4 team just a few weeks ago. How is the 3-4 team the favorite in this matchup? That Titan loss scared people off the Panther bandwagon. But c'mon here! The Saints aren't any good. They've played three above average teams this year and lost to every one of them. If the Panthers run the ball 45 times like I've suggested, they'll have no problem with the Saints.
Pretty Good Bet: Seattle -1.5 over Cincinnati: Again, what's going on here? The 5-1 team should be favored over the 2-4 team by more than a point and a half. Especially when the 2-4 team is the Bengals. Cincinnati beat Baltimore last week, but they gave up 300 yards passing to Kyle Boller. If Boller throws for 300+ yards, Hasselbeck could throw for 500.
Just a Hunch: Dallas +6.5 over Tampa: You may be noticing a theme in my picks this week. I just have a feeling Parcells keeps this one close. The Bucs have shot themselves in the foot at home twice this year. They'll do it again this week.
Ian: Nice theory. It's good that you're already starting to come up with excuses.
Al: We're starting the time of the season where eliminations are based on two weeks of results. Dick Hatch was the worst team in Week 7, with only 76 points. However, it's still anyone's game for this period. All six of the remaining teams are within 20 points of each other. Hatch has one point in its favor this week -- only Alge Crumpler will be out of action because of a bye.