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?
22 Jan 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.
Al: Pretty disappointing weekend for football overall. Neither game was that interesting. The Patriots had the win wrapped up after they were able to take Peyton Manning out of the game in the first half. After throwing two interceptions in his first two possessions, I didn't notice Manning calling his twenty seconds worth of audibles before every play in the second half.
One thing I haven't read or heard much about is the poor play by Colts center Jeff Saturday. Jean (the soon to be Mrs. Al for you readers) noticed this early on Sunday. Every time Manning was in the shotgun Saturday's snap was off-line, usually high and to Manning's right. It's understandable that the snap would be off in wet, snowy conditions -- as the Colt long snapper Justin Snow also showed -- but Saturday was particularly bad on Sunday. Manning had enough trouble dealing with the Patriot pass coverage. Having to spend an extra second recovering from a poor snap couldn't have helped.
And what was up with that awful onside kick attempt at the end of the game? I didn't mind the Colts using the element of surprise by quick kicking before getting into an onside kick formation. But why did Mike Vanderjagt then kick the ball directly at the Patriots who were also huddled in the middle of the field? That play could have worked if the Colts had one or two members of their coverage team sprint to one side of the field as Vanderjagt kicked to that side. Maybe the Patriots don't react quickly enough and the Colts end up with the recovery. But there's no way that Indy ends up with the ball if you kick it directly into a group of eleven players standing directly in front of you.
Ian: Two things wrong with Indy's onside kick attempt: 1) The Patriots weren't lined up with men spread across the field. Thus, as you pointed out, they ended up kicking the ball right in the middle of an ocean of Pats special teamers. 2) The kick was simply a bad kick. Vanderjagt kicked the ball much too hard. Ideally it would travel just over 10 yards and stop. This kick traveled 15 yards quickly and went right into the arms of a Patriot. Mike never did miss a field goal or an extra point, but he sure "honked" that onside kick attempt.
It's a shame that we often can't see what makes the Patriots defense as good as it is -- and that's downfield coverage. Manning's protection wasn't all that bad, but how many times did he look at every receiver, determine they were all covered, then either take a sack or throw an interception as he was running for his life? This Patriots team kept the clamps down on a tremendous set of wide receivers against the Colts, and that certainly bodes well for them against Carolina, a team that usually doesn't win without a big play or two from Steve Smith or Muhsin Muhammad.
Al: Marvin Harrison did nothing against New England. Three catches for 19 yards from the best WR in football is unacceptable when you're trying to win a conference championship game. The Patriots did a great job covering him, but Harrison had to get himself open a few more times if the Colts were going to have a chance at winning that game.
Carolina's secondary also did a good job on Sunday, but it's not like they really needed to. Even when the Panthers blew their coverage and left an Eagle receiver wide open Philadelphia just didn't catch the ball or decided to make up their own routes. That's probably where not having Brian Westbrook around hurt the Eagles the most. That long dropped pass to Duce Staley would normally have gone to Westbrook had he been healthy enough to play. According to DPAR and DVOA, Westbrook was only a slightly better receiver than Staley this year. I'd like Westbrook's chances of coming up with that ball more than Staley's, though.
Speaking of Staley, I don't understand why the Eagles didn't run the ball more. Staley, Correll Buckhalter and Donovan McNabb rushed 26 times for 136 yards, an average of 5.27 yards per carry. The Eagles were having such success running on Carolina, so why did they attempt 36 passes, especially with an injured McNabb and backup Koy Detmer in the game? It's not like the Eagles have all of these weapons at WR that they have to take advantage of. In the third quarter the Eagles ran nine times for 42 yards, a solid 4.66 yards per carry. They threw nine times for 22 yards and two INTs. You don't need to be the Russian girl with X-Ray vision (I still can't believe that story) to see the Eagles should have been running the ball more than they were throwing it.
Ian: That game by the Eagles was the worst display of a group of receivers I've seen in all my years watching football. The Eagles threw four interceptions (three by McNabb, one by Detmer) and every one of them was the receiver's fault. First: McNabb throws a pass to a streaking James Thrash up the sideline. Does James try to catch the ball? No. Does he even reach out and try to knock the ball out of the defenders hands, like Troy Brown did against the Colts? No. He turned his head, saw the ball coming in behind him, and just kept on streaking up the field. Second: Todd Pinkston sees a blitz by Carolina and begins to cut in for a hot route slant. Donovan concurs that this is the right play and throws the slant. But Todd was just faking people out, he cut off the slant and began to run upfield. Well, he faked out his own quarterback as well, and McNabb threw the ball right at Ricky Manning Jr. Third: McNabb hits James Thrash right in the numbers upfield for 17 yards. Just after he catches the ball, James takes a shot from an incoming defender, but rather than protect the football, he lets it squirt up in the air and right into the hands of Ricky Manning Jr., giving him a gift third interception. Fourth: Eagles driving late with a chance to pull within one score of Carolina. It's 3rd and 3, and the call is for Duce Staley to run a 4 yard curl in front of Dan Morgan, the linebacker for Carolina. But as the play develops, Duce sees that the safeties have vacated the zone behind Morgan, so he ad-libs a fake curl and heads for the endzone. Apparently he did not learn his lesson from Pinkston's error before, as he fakes out his own quarterback who throws the ball right into the arms of Dan Morgan for the game-ending fourth interception. All season the Eagles have had problems with their receivers; it truly showed in their season-ending game. Way back in our over/under predictions for the season you had this to say about McNabb: "Donovan McNabb will go down in sports history with Patrick Ewing and Alex Rodriguez as great players who never had the supporting cast around them to win a championship." Another season has clearly proven that to be true.
Al: Well, speaking of Philadelphia's need for a WR, let's take a break from Super Bowl talk until our super-sized Super Bowl preview next week and look at some of the potential free agents and try to figure out where they're going. Let's look at the free agents featured in the Football Outsiders Off-season Contest now that all the entries are in:
It's tough to predict what's going to happen with player movement in the NFL without some knowledge of the NFL's salary cap and free agency rules. Askthecommish.com has some very good articles explaining both. I'd recommend their Salary Cap FAQ and their Free Agency FAQ for a quick overview. Also check out this list compiled by John Clayton which lists each team's current standing under the cap. Not that it really makes that much of a difference anyway. My understanding of the NFL's cap is that any team can get under the cap for any season with some well timed player cuts and contract renegotiations. They'll just get screwed over a few years from now. A team can push back their cap obligations, but sooner or later they'll need to bite the bullet and suck for a year or two to get back into good cap shape.
First on the list is Champ Bailey, who is an unrestricted free agent free to sign with any other team. That is unless the Redskins use their Franchise or Transition tag on Bailey. Quick explanation time (info courtesy of the Ask the Commish): If the Skins tag Bailey as their Franchise player (they're only allowed to label one player a year as their Franchise player) they are making a one year offer to Bailey at the average salary of the top five paid cornerbacks in the NFL. If they label Bailey as a Transition player (one per team, or two per team if there is no Franchise player) it's a one year offer at the average salary of the top ten players at each position. Bailey could still negotiate with other teams, but those teams would have to give up two #1 draft picks for the right to sign him. Needless to say, you don't see Franchise or Transition players moving around because of those draft picks. I believe the team also retains matching rights for any contract offer that the player receives from another team for both Franchise and Transition players. Readers -- please correct me if I'm wrong down in the comments section.
Here's an article from the Washington Post from the end of the season on Bailey's situation. Bailey rejected a nine-year, $55 million deal with a $14.75 million bonus in the pre-season. I'd be shocked if the Redskins don't use their franchise tag on Bailey. He's only 25 years old and is regarded as a shutdown corner. He's exactly the type of player that a team would be willing to give up two first round draft picks just to sign him. Especially teams like Atlanta who could be a contender if they can improve their 27th ranked pass defense according to DVOA. The Falcons currently have cap room and should be able to clear some more by getting rid of the dead weight in the secondary that Bailey will be replacing.
Ian: No one's giving up two first round picks for Champ Bailey. First round picks are insanely coveted in the NFL these days, and Atlanta has four holes in their secondary, not one. The more picks, the better for them at this point. Here's a silly thought -- What if every starting cornerback in the NFL was given the transition tag at the same time? Would they all be forced to make the average salary of the top five backup cornerbacks in the league? That'd be damn funny. $480,000 apiece. You know, if every team owner got together on this, they could all save a whole lot of money...
Al: The owners would also be guilty of collusion and be sued for all they're worth by the players' association. That is assuming the NFLPA doesn't roll over and let them do it.
Ian: Next on the list is Mark Brunell, who pretty close to being finished at this point. He was quite a warrior for a long time there, and I have a lot of respect for him, but I think it's time for him to move into a Vinny Testaverde-type role; a fill-in if necessary but mainly a mentor to a younger QB. Who's in need of such a man? How about Arizona? There's a team likely to draft a quarterback with a future, and they could use a veteran not named Jeff Blake.
Al: There are rumors of Mark Brunell replacing Jay Fiedler in Miami. I could see Marino make a change at QB in Miami, but Brunell isn't the answer. Brunell and Dallas will get mentioned a lot in the off-season, but that's not going to happen. Mike Francesca, a good friend of Bill Parcells, insinuated on Mike and the Mad Dog at one point this season that Parcells wouldn't be interested in Brunell since he didn't get along with Tom Coughlin. If he can't get along with Coughlin, he's probably not going to work well with Parcells. Arizona might be a good fit. I think the Josh McCown era will be over if the Cardinals can snag either Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger at #3 in the draft. Brunell would be a nice player to plug in as a starter for a year or two while the young QB learns the offense. I'm not sure if Brunell is ready to step into that role, however, after doing that in Jacksonville. He is only 34, which isn't that old for QBs in today's NFL. I think he'd be a good fit in Detroit if they decide that the Joey Harrington era is over.
Another QB that could be changing teams this off-season is Tim Couch. Couch isn't a free agent, but is set to make $7.6 million in 2004 and $8 million in 2005. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in predicting that the Cleveland Browns will not be paying Couch $15.6 million over the next two years. The question remains whether the Browns will cut Couch or renegotiate his contract. They could theoretically trade him, but I don't know too many teams that would be willing to take on Couch at that price. My money is on renegotiation. Couch has expressed interest in staying in Cleveland and Kelly Holcomb didn't exactly light Cleveland on fire this season.
Ian: I agree that renegotiating his contract is the most likely path for Tim Couch. He hasn't shown enough that any other team would interest fans by saying "We've got Tim Couch this year!" That's not selling any tickets. But he's likely to get playing time in Cleveland, which is as much as he can hope for at this point. If last year's quarterback controversy with Kelly Holcomb didn't motivate him to play at a higher level, I'm not sure what will.
Keyshawn, Keyshawn, Keyshawn. What will the NFL do with that guy? A great talent on the field, and a lazy, arrogant, selfish guy off of it. Mandatory practices are not mandatory to Keyshawn. Still, in the NFL, it's what you do on the field that speaks more than anything, and he's shown that he's a very useful wideout. Let's see... What team is in desperate need of wideouts? Perhaps some team that missed out on the Super Bowl because they suck? If Philly doesn't try to get Keyshawn, I'm not sure what the heck they're thinking.
Al: Philadelphia has needed a wide receiver for the past few off-seasons. Philadelphia has had a huge amount of salary cap space the past few off-seasons. Philadelphia hasn't signed a WR the past few off-seasons. I don't see them doing it this off-season either. Sure their need for a WR has been magnified after the NFC Championship game, but the Eagles management has shown no willingness to pay big contracts to free agents, especially those on the wrong side of 30. Philadelphia is more likely to draft a WR or two and sign some second tier free agent receivers like unrestricted free agents Marcus Robinson and Dez White or restricted free agents Drew Bennett and Justin McCareins.
As for where Keyshawn will end up, what about Minnesota? Could you just imagine Randy Moss and Keyshawn on the same team? Being a Viking beat writer would quickly become one of the easiest jobs in the world. Johnson would be a great complement to Moss. The Vikings have been lacking a possession receiver since Cris Carter left Minnesota after the 2001 season.
Moving to the other side of the ball, Jevon Kearse is an unrestricted free agent this year. Luckily for Tennessee, they don't have too many other candidates for their franchise tag. I don't think they'll use it on Erron Kinney. If the Titans can't sign Kearse to a long term deal, I fully expect them to franchise him. However, Tennessee is currently $16 million over the cap, the most in the NFL. Realistically the Titans will have to knock off $25 million or so to get far enough under the cap to re-sign Kearse and fill out their roster. That doesn't sound like an easy thing to do. Washington could use an upgrade over Renaldo Wynn and the retiring Bruce Smith at DE. Plus they have cap space and their owner has money to burn.
Ian: Ty Law is another player that could potentially move to another team, but why would he? The Patriots are jelling as a team lately, and he's been one of the major reasons. Watching the Pats play, you get the sense that they truly like playing alongside each other, and it's unlikely any Patriot will want to leave town. I'm sure New England will pony up and give Ty Law what he deserves, since he's been as good as any cornerback in the NFL.
Al: Only in the NFL would a team consider cutting Ty Law after a Pro Bowl year and an AFC Championship game where he did nothing but catch three interceptions and turn the best receiver in football into a non-factor. However, under his current deal, Law has cap figures of $9.5 million in 2004 and $12.5 million in 2005. As good as Law is, I just can't see the Patriots committing that much cap space to a single player. And as they showed this year with Lawyer Milloy, the Patriots aren't the most sentimental team in the NFL when it comes to keeping longtime Patriots if the team doesn't feel the player is worth the money. There are a good number of teams with cap room and obvious needs in the secondary. Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, Washington, San Diego and the New York Jets were the seven worst teams in pass defense DVOA and are all under the cap. I think the Patriots and Law will come together and find a way to renegotiate his deal to make it more cap friendly. If for some reason they don't and Law gets out into the open market I could see him ending up in Dallas starting opposite Terrence Newman. No one will be able to pass on the Cowboys if that happens.
The San Francisco 49ers risk losing arguably their two best players to free agency LB Julian Peterson and WR Terrell Owens. They are going to franchise one of them, effectively forcing that player to stay in San Francisco. Reports out of the Bay Area are mixed as to whether the 49ers want Owens back at all, before even considering whether he'd be worth a huge salary and cap hit. The market for Peterson actually might be stronger than that for Owens considering Terrell's reputation and the dearth of top flight linebackers on the market. I'd bet that the Niners use the franchise tag on Peterson and let Owens go elsewhere. The Eagles are of course an obvious choice, but as I noted before I don't see them making a big free agent splash to sign a 30 year old WR. Seattle is $11.6 million under the cap and could potentially lose Darrell Jackson as an unrestricted free agent. Owens would make a great replacement and would thrive with Matt Hasselbeck throwing darts to him.
Ian: Terrell Owens is a love him/hate him kind of player, thanks to his antics off the field. Personally, I'm on the "love him" side of the fence. I was watching the game against Seattle when he pulled the Sharpie out of his sock; that's still the greatest sports celebration I've ever seen, and I doubt anything will top that. He's got to be among the hardest to tackle wide receivers in the NFL, and he's got pretty good hands as well. I'd take him as a starter on my team anytime.
That being said, there are plenty of people on the "hate him" side of the fence, and for that reason, there's a good chance that San Fran lets him go. I think it'd be a huge mistake, but I suppose it's a lot easier to root for a guy like Terrell when he's not on your sideline yelling at the coaches and other players.
Julian Peterson isn't going anywhere -- he's a homegrown talent who's finally come into his own, and he's got virtually no downside at this point in his career. The 49ers defense isn't a defense that can afford to let good players go, and I'm certain that Julian will work something out with the team.
Warren Sapp is an upcoming free agent, and as a Bucs fan I get a lot of questions asking whether or not I'd like to see him stick around. The simple answer I give them is "no". But not because I don't like the guy. It's all because of money. A player of Sapp's reputation is gonna command a huge salary on the free agent market, and I don't want to pay a huge salary for him. If he can be brought back in the $5-7 million range, perhaps it's worth it, but I can easily see a team overpaying around $9 million for the guy. Every position in the NFL is important -- if you're very weak anywhere, it'll kill you. It's hard to afford $9 million for a guy who was at the center of a defensive line that got killed by other teams running up the middle all year.
Al: I've been down on Warren Sapp this year, but he's going to get a ton of interest on the market. I predicted that Sapp would end up in Cincinnati a few weeks ago and I'm sticking by that prediction. The Bengal defensive line was #27 overall in Line Yards and dead last in Line Yards up the middle. They have plenty of cap room and one of the best defensive minds in football running the team. It seems like a perfect match as long as Marvin Lewis can convince the Bengal owners to open up their wallets.
If the Rams decide to get rid of Kurt Warner it won't be for financial reasons. St. Louis will take a significant hit regardless of whether Kurt plays for them or for someone else. If I was answering this a few weeks ago, I would have predicted that the Rams would move Warner elsewhere so they don't have another year with an unhappy backup QB and his radio talk show host wife. After Marc Bulger's playoff performance, however, I can't see the Rams letting Warner go. In fact, it's more likely that Bulger doesn't return next year in St. Louis. Bulger is a restricted free agent. I can see the Rams tendering a lower offer than they normally might have so the cost to other teams of signing Marc is only a first round draft pick, instead of a first and a third. If I'm wrong and the Rams do unload Warner instead of Bulger there will be a fierce bidding war between Dallas and the Dolphins. Mrs. Warner has already indicated her interest in Kurt becoming a Cowboy so Dallas would have to be considered the favorite there.
Ian: St. Louis needs to shore up its offensive line, first and foremost. It doesn't matter who they have back there at quarterback if he's got a man in his face every time he drops back to pass. That aside, it looks like the Rams will bring back both quarterbacks and have an "open competition" to determine the starter next year. In practice, I'm sure both will look great, as they both have tremendous accuracy when given time and space to throw the ball. And that's what this offense needs. But with the protection the way it is, it's important for the Rams to keep both players, since whoever's the starter will probably go down with an injury at some point this season.
Al: I don't see Charles Woodson staying in Oakland next year. The Raiders are only $1 million under the cap and have 15 unrestricted free agents, including Woodson. Never say never with the NFL salary cap, but it looks to me that the costs of getting under the cap to sign Woodson don't outweigh the gains of having him on the team. Woodson is originally from Ohio, so if the Bengals lose out on Sapp, Woodson could be a good fit there. A dark horse candidate that makes sense to me for some reason is Houston. It would make perfect sense for the Texans who are in desperate need of beefing up their pass coverage. Woodson is just entering his prime and would be a cornerstone that they could build their defense around.
Al: We have a huge email this week from frequent poster ToddCommish on a subject near and dear to Ian's heart, defensive timeouts. If I had a nickel for every time Ian's talked about how teams never use their timeouts properly on defense late in the game while we played video game football I'd have at least a dollar or two by now. Here's ToddCommish's email:
"OK, here is something that's been bugging me for years, proper use of defensive timeouts in the NFL. It isn't complete, but I believe the strategy and reasoning is sound.
Some basic assumptions:
Synopsis of defensive timeout strategy (assumes ALL three timeouts available):
Possibility A -- Offense - run, run, run. Defense -- timeout after every running play beginning at 4:00 to go on the game clock.
Possibility B -- Offense -- run- run, run. Defense -- wants to save at least one timeout (for example, if they are down by a field goal)
If offense can't get a first down (timeouts after first and second down at 3:50, 3:40), third down snap at 3:40, punt at 3:00 or so, defense gets ball back at 2:50 with ONE timeout left.
If defense yields a first down on the first play, three options:
If defense yields a first down on the second play (meaning you burned one timeout at 3:50):
If defense yields a first down on the third play, you're pretty much screwed.
Al: Great analysis Todd! Thanks for the email. It seems like most teams use their timeouts before the two-minute warning on defense like most baseball managers use their closers in tie games -- they don't. The theory being that you might need the closer to pitch with a lead in extra innings. The problem is that your best bet for getting into extra innings is using your best relief pitcher now to stop the other team from taking the lead and ending the game. Otherwise Mariano Rivera is sitting in the bullpen waiting to close out a lead that will never happen because Jeff Weaver just gave up a home run to Alex Gonzalez. Defenses don't use their timeouts before the two-minute warning under the theory that their offense will need them. If the other team's offense is at least somewhat successful, the defensive team will get the ball back with so little time on the clock that it won't matter if they have 20 timeouts.
Ian: It's plain and simple why it makes sense to use timeouts while the other team has the ball -- they're gonna let the play clock run down all the way, while the offense knows it needs to hurry up and won't burn so much time between plays. Plus, offenses in a hurry often seem to play better than they had been the rest of the game -- the mantra of the Tampa Bay Bucs early this season seemed to be rush the ball and punt in quarters one through three, then in the fourth quarter air it out and score a lot of points. Look at what the Cardinals pulled off against the Vikings with almost no time left -- and they'd been horrible the entire game until that point.
Al: We have another email this week from Joe in CO directed to Ian. Joe writes:
In Week 7's Scramble/Open Thread you talked about onsides kick rules and how they pertained to the Indy-Tampa Bay game. At the time, Monday Night Football cited a rule that they thought had been violated on the "pop-up" onsides kick that Indy recovered during their comeback. Question is, was it truly a blown call and what are the onsides rules?
We've got a debate going in the Two Carolinas forum. I'm maintaining that for the kicking team to recover without an opposing player touching it first, the ball needs to hit the ground. Several others believe pop up kicks are perfectly legal, but aren't used because the receiving team can defend them by calling for a fair catch. I think the fair catch point is besides the fact because Tampa clearly didn't try to fair catch the kick but Monday Night Football still thought it was an infraction.
Inquiring minds want to know... for sure!"
Al: I don't have my copy of the NFL rules handy, so I'll let you handle this one.
Ian: When you're kicking off in the NFL, the basic principle is that you've just scored, so it's the other team's turn to have the ball. Hence, you have to let the opposing team catch the ball. However, in an effort to make games more exciting down the stretch (which it certainly did), the NFL added the onside kick rule, basically stating that the kicking team can get the ball if it travels 10 yards and either a) touches a receiving player or b) touches the ground. This does not entitle a team to pop it up in the air, run under the ball, and then catch it before the receiving team even has a chance.
The opportunity to call for a fair catch only serves to allow the receiver a chance at not getting pummeled after he catches the ball. Regardless of whether he signals for the fair catch or not, he's entitled to try and catch it without the defense going after the ball if it hasn't touched the ground yet.
Al: I pulled out 7 points last week to your 5, giving me a 13-10 playoff lead. No Best Bets until next week when we unveil the Scramble for the Ball Super Bowl Extravaganza where we attempt to analyze virtually every single bet that you could possibly make on the Super Bowl.