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?
05 Feb 2004
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.
Ian: New Englanders rejoice, as the New England Patriots are now the World Champions for the second time in three years. That's right, "World Champions". I was reading the paper on the way to work this morning, and there was an irate letter from a reader who was unhappy with the moniker "World Champions", since technically it's only "American Champions". Dude, get a life. You go find a country that can line up and kick the Patriots' ass, and we'll start calling the Patriots the American Champions. I can see it now... "Your final score, folks: Patriots 142, New Zealand 0. New Zealand looked like they were threatening to gain yardage in the second half, but Ty Law intercepted his 13th pass to seal the game."
Al: There's a reason American football isn't in the Olympics -- we're the only people who play it, other than the Canadians.
So, the Super Bowl's over and most everything about the game has been discussed at length elsewhere by now. For the record, I was all for Carolina's two point conversion early in the fourth quarter, and didn't see anything wrong with taking the time out late in the fourth or not taking more time off the clock before the Panthers scored their final TD. If you need a TD to stay in the game you should be worrying about getting the ball in the endzone, not taking time of the clock. But overall it was a great game. The Panthers played much better than I thought they would. Jake Delhomme moved up three to four rounds in fantasy drafts next year based on his Super Bowl performance alone.
Ian: For the record, I was not in favor of Carolina going for two early in the fourth quarter. Their offense was clicking by that point; it's not like they should assume that they'd never get the chance to score again. On the other hand, I couldn't agree with you more about the timeout that Carolina took with about 1:40 to go. Carolina was down by seven points. There was less than two minutes to go in the game. When you're currently losing, you should try to preserve as much clock as possible. Suppose on the snap after the timeout, Jake got pressured and picked off. At least they could use their remaining two timeouts and have a shot at another drive. If they ran the clock down for a bit, then turned the ball over, New England could take knees and kill the game. 20/20 hindsight may say that they should have run down the clock more, but you've got to look at it from the perspective of when they were currently losing.
You think Jake Delhomme moved up three to four rounds in fantasy drafts? Great thing I'll be competing with you next season! He may be a quality quarterback, but look at all the QBs likely to be taken ahead of him next year: Peyton Manning. Daunte Culpepper. Michael Vick. Donovan McNabb. Steve McNair. Matt Hasselbeck. Brett Favre. Tom Brady. Trent Green. Maybe you mean that instead of the 15th round, he should be taken as a backup in the 12th round. By the way, this proves that next season you should once again wait until much later in your draft to grab a quarterback and fill up on top-tier running backs and wideouts first. In my auction league this past season, I spent the majority of my money on Ricky Williams and Shaun Alexander. Ricky wasn't great, but he was good enough. Shaun was excellent. I won the title, not really thanks to them, but thanks to my $3 Matt Hasselbeck. Peyton may have earned his $41, but I'll take a $3 Hasselbeck over a $41 Manning easily.
Al: I'm guessing Delhomme outperforms Favre, Brady and Green next year if the Panthers re-sign Steve Smith and don't lose anyone on their offensive line.
So are you excited for the Pro Bowl this weekend? I don't know why they even bother with that game. Half of the players originally selected don't bother to show up because of injuries or "injuries." The game is dull because players are cautious of not injuring themselves or each other so it's played almost at half speed. It just leads to an unbearable game that no one watches since the season is already over. We just saw the two teams play a game for the ages. Why would we want to see a group of players from random teams trying not to hurt each other?
Ian: There's a Pro Bowl for football? Really, they should just name the "Pro Bowl Roster" each year and not bother to play the game. I've never watched it, even though I'd stay up to midnight to watch a crappy NFL game during the regular season. Injuries are way too big a part of football to put all the NFL's best players on the field for another week of football. The real reason for the game is probably because of the free trip to Hawaii for so many people involved.
Back to the Super Bowl for a minute. You had to love the gutsy performance of Jake Delhomme. When the game is on the line, Jake is at his best. How many quarterbacks have finished the first quarter of a game with just 1 yard passing, and then finished the game with over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns? Unlike Drew Bledsoe, Jake is a guy who makes plays when the game is on the line, not to mention he's clearly the opposite of Drew. He lifts up his teammates rather than just playing only as good as they let him play. Delhomme can quarterback my team anytime.
Al: Just not your fantasy team. If the Cowboys had offered Delhomme more money than Carolina, maybe Dallas would have been playing New England last Sunday. 198 yards in the fourth quarter is pretty amazing.
Ian: No, not my fantasy team. He's a fiery guy who brings intangibles to the table, but strong fourth quarter performances don't always make for strong fantasy football performances. Besides, maybe I really want to draft Delhomme as my starter next year, and I'm just lowering the bar...
Ian: Various players took a stab at winning the first ever Super Bowl edition of the Keep Choppin' Wood award. John Fox's coaching decision to go for two was certainly controversial enough to merit him consideration. Asante Samuel's "coverage" of Ricky Proehl on the Panthers' game tying touchdown was bad enough that he had to be in consideration. Even Adam Vinatieri took a shot at the award with his heinous shank in the first half, though he certainly redeemed himself. But in the end, the award goes to none other than John Kasay, for making the inexcusable mistake of kicking the kickoff out of bounds to the Patriots with the game tied and under a minute to play. How can you kick it out of bounds there?!? Apparently John Kasay has been working out with Giants kicker Matt Bryant, who allowed Dallas to pull off a ridiculous tie-turned-overtime-victory by kicking out of bounds back in week 2.
Al: The second Kasay kicked it out of bounds I knew the game was over. A squib kick hurt the Pats at the end of the first half by giving Carolina a shortened field to get into field goal range. You'd think that the Panthers would have realized this and have Kasay just kick away instead of trying to get cute and kick it down the sidelines. I hate squib kicks. Just kick it deep and let your special teams make a tackle.
An honorable mention has to go to the Panther defensive line that everyone had crowned the best in the NFL leading up to the Super Bowl. You'd think that the best D-Line in the league would manage a sack against an offensive line that has a combined salary less than any one player on the Panther D-Line. Did the Panthers even get a shot in on Brady? It's a lot easier to complete 67% of your passes when you don't have to worry about getting sacked.
Ian: Good point. New England's offensive line played an amazing game, to the point where they might have been considered as the game's MVP as a unit. But zero sacks by a team that's depended on pressure from its defensive front all season? They were terrible.
The question many football fans have been asking each other lately is this one -- "Are the Patriots a dynasty?" It's a very interesting question. Certainly, they're not a dynasty like the Steelers teams that won four Super Bowl in a reasonably short time span. But are they a modern-day dynasty? When your team becomes the best, the players on it often expect salary increases. All of them. Back in the 80's and 90's, no problem -- the extra revenue from winning the Super Bowl could easily afford to keep a championship team together, as long as they stayed healthy. Then came the salary cap, and now it's tougher and tougher to keep a good team together. Winning two Super Bowls in three years is truly an outstanding accomplishment. Since the Salary Cap started in 1994, only two other teams have won two Super Bowls -- the Cowboys, led by Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, and the Broncos, led by John Elway and Terrell Davis. Dallas was on the tail end of a dynasty, having also won the Super Bowl the year before. Denver never really reached dynasty status, mainly due to Elway retiring and Terrell Davis' knees giving out on him. If the Patriots can make a strong showing this next season, I think they qualify as a dynasty. They know what it takes to stay competitive from year-to-year in this age of high salaries and free agency -- let your quality veterans that want to be overpaid go, and be sure to draft well and bring in not the big-name free agents, but the ones that come reasonably priced and that you're confident can step in and do a solid job. No one's done this better than the Patriots over the past few seasons, and I don't see them stopping now -- especially with seven draft picks in the first four rounds this season.
Al: Way too early to call the Pats a dynasty, especially since they've only made the playoffs twice in Belichick's four years as coach. They did pretty well when they made the playoffs those two years, but to be considered a dynasty, you need at the very least consistent excellence. The early 90's Cowboys won a playoff game for six consecutive years. The Montana/Young 49ers made the playoffs 16 out of 18 years including 13 division titles. At the very least the Pats have to make the playoffs the next few seasons to even be mentioned in the same sentence with the word "dynasty."
To completely change topics, it's getting way out of hand in the NFL with all of these "consultants" and "assistant head coaches." Joe Gibbs just hired an assistant head coach - offense, an offensive coordinator and an offensive consultant. Not to mention an offensive assistant and quality control coach/offense. Jim Fassel was hired by Baltimore as a senior consultant. What happened to the days of a head coach, two coordinators and some position coaches?
All this has done is make it more difficult for assistants to get promotions by moving to other staffs. The NFL used to allow an assistant to break his contract to go to another team if he would be getting a promotion. An offensive line coach could move to another team to become their offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator could become a head coach, etc. But with these new murky assistant positions, it's near impossible to tell what is really a promotion and what is just a fancy name change in the title of a job. Now the NFL only recognizes three tiers - GM, head coach, assistant. If a team wants another team's offensive line coach to become their offensive coordinator they have to get permission from the O-Line coach's team to speak with him. That makes it much harder for coaches to move up in the world and a reason that the salaries of top coordinators have skyrocketed recently. If only teams would just keep things simple, this could all be avoided.
Ian: It doesn't surprise me that teams are hiring more and more coaches to help out. Head coaches spend endless hours preparing their teams for games, and I'm sure they wouldn't mind lightening their load a bit. There's no salary cap for coaches, so basically it's replaced the players as the place you can spend more money to try and gain an edge on other teams. It's true though, the ridiculous number of titles they've been inventing for these guys is getting out of hand. Why not just name everyone an Assistant Coach? If you have 4 guys to help with linebackers, have one Linebackers Coach and three Assistant Linebackers coaches. Simple.
Al: But who's really in charge when you have an assistant head coach - offense, offensive coordinator and special offensive consultant? If you don't have a very strong head coach to manage all these people/egos, having all of these coaches could be more trouble than it's worth.
Did you watch Playmakers? I caught the first episode and never watched again. Anyway, ESPN has bowed to pressure from the NFL and decided not to bring back the series for another season despite garnering ratings five times higher than it had previously received in the same time period. Now, I completely understand ESPN wanting to keep the NFL happy, but this leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable. What if ESPN runs a story or investigation that one of the leagues doesn't like? Will it be willing to bow to pressure again? Do their broadcast partners now have editorial control over what ESPN produces? It sounds far-fetched, but after this it's not implausible.
Ian: I think the important thing here is that Playmakers was all scripted -- written by some random guys who wanted to give their interpretation of NFL life. That's not news, it's sensationalism. Of course, since ESPN is making up the stories, many people feel this is an accurate portrayal of what the NFL is like. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but the NFL is gonna want evidence that things are as crazy as that show makes it seem before it allows ESPN to present it to viewers. It's too bad, really. I thought it was a terrific show.
Al: This just in, Maurice Clarrett has been declared eligible for the NFL draft. For those of you in the NYC area, the St. John's University School of Law and the Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law section of the New York State Bar Association will be hosting a sports law symposium this Saturday in Queens. Clarett's attorneys Alan Milstein and Jeffrey Resnick will be panelists at the symposium. The NFL is very likely to appeal this ruling, but this could turn into a nightmare for the league. I haven't read the actual ruling yet, but from reading the article it appears that if the ruling stands we could see players entering the draft right out of high school. Arguably the entry of high school players in the NBA draft has hurt both the pro and college games. While I agree with the ruling I don't like the impact this could have on the NFL and college football.
Ian: Unfortunately, there's nothing to bet on right now, since this season's over, and it's waaaaay too early to have Vegas offer us bets on next season. Wait, it's not! Yup, you can already place bets on who's gonna win next year's Super Bowl title and become the World Champion. Here are the odds:
New England Patriots 8-1
Kansas City Chiefs 12-1
Indianapolis Colts 12-1
St. Louis Rams 12-1
Philadelphia Eagles 15-1
Minnesota Vikings 15-1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 15-1
Tennessee Titans 15-1
Atlanta Falcons 20-1
Carolina Panthers 20-1
Baltimore Ravens 25-1
Denver Broncos 25-1
Miami Dolphins 25-1
New York Giants 25-1
Dallas Cowboys 30-1
Green Bay Packers 30-1
Jacksonville Jaguars 30-1
Seattle Seahawks 30-1
Washington Redskins 30-1
Cincinnati Bengals 35-1
Buffalo Bills 35-1
New Orleans Saints 35-1
San Francisco 49ers 35-1
Chicago Bears 40-1
New York Jets 40-1
Pittsburgh Steelers 40-1
San Diego Chargers 40-1
Cleveland Browns 50-1
Oakland Raiders 50-1
Arizona Cardinals 100-1
Detroit Lions 100-1
Houston Texans 100-1
See, at some point in the season, even the Arizona Cardinals are only 100-1 long shots to win it all. That's the modern day NFL for ya; you never know. Here are our top three favorite lines, keeping in mind that what we're picking is based on the odds to win vs. likelihood to win. Don't think we're idiots for not picking the three most likely teams.
Best Bet: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 15-1: Sure, I'm a Tampa fan, but don't think this is a pick based on that. In fact, I'm probably jinxing my team more than helping them. But Tampa's season was full of "unlucky" wins according to Aaron's statistics, and I'm a believer that a bit of luck and a healthy Mike Alstott (I never realized just how important he is to that offense) can lead them to the title. At 15-1 odds, they're my favorite pick.
Pretty Good Bet: New York Jets, 40-1: No, I'm not saying the Jets are my favorite to win the Super Bowl, but at 40-1 odds, I'd bet on them. I love Chad Pennington. He plays a lot like Tom Brady -- Master of the dink-and-dunk passing game, and great in the clutch. I also like Herm Edwards as a coach; he usually does a great job of managing a football game. The Jets are the team I can see sneaking in a wild card spot, then getting hot at the right time and winning it all.
Just a Hunch: Indianapolis Colts, 12-1: Tony Dungy is a defensive-minded coach. His first year in Indy, the defense was horrible. This past season, they played well enough to let the offense carry them to the AFC title game. I imagine the Colts will use the majority of their draft picks on defensive talent this year, and finally become an above-average defense, one that can let the offense carry them to the Super Bowl.
Al: Awesome! I love Super Bowl futures this ridiculously early in the year. How do the NFC Champs have the same odds as a team that went 5-11?
Best Bet: New York Giants 25-1: Yeah, I'll go with a homer pick for my Best Bet also. NY was one of the favorites last year before falling apart because of offensive line troubles and turnovers. Tom Coughlin should help in cutting down on the turnovers. The #4 pick in the draft should help with improving the offensive line. If the G-Men add a nice big back to complement/backup Tiki Barber (Stacey Mack?) they could run over the NFC.
Very Good Bet: Cincinnati Bengals 35-1: Cincinnati plays in one of the worst divisions in football and was only one game away from making the playoffs. They have plenty of cap room to improve their already improving defense. The Bengals could have the best offense in their division with Rudi and Chad Johnson. Jon Kitna is solid, but even if he falters Carson Palmer could step and juvenate the offense. There are 32 teams in the NFL, so if talent was distributed equally across all of the teams, a random team would have 32-1 odds of winning the Super Bowl. There's no way the Bengals should have worse odds than a random team.
Just a Hunch: San Diego Chargers 40-1: This pick is based on the possibility that Marty Schottenheimer won't be the Charger coach next year. Profootballtalk.com has been reporting that even though Schottenheimer was given a vote of confidence from the San Diego GM that he will be returning next year, the Chargers might still replace him with Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis or Pete "Fredo" Carroll. If either Weis or Crennel get the job, I love these odds. San Diego has one of the best backs in the NFL and the top pick in the draft. I thought they'd do well last year in the AFC West. They're my preseason pick for the surprise team of 2004.