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?
21 Jan 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: I apologize to the state of New York, the town of Hempstead, and all the displaced Jets fans across the country. Feeling cocky in the waning minutes of Saturday's game against Pittsburgh, I decided to see what Jets paraphernalia I could present the next day to my girlfriend's brother-in-law, a life-long Steeler fan. Faster than you can say Scott Norwood, I was eating my words, and I drowned out my sorrows in a chick flick (after the late game with my girlfriend, of course.)
It was the second time this season (in a way) that the Jets had knocked off the Steelers. The Ketchup Gods seemed to be with the Jets in Pittsburgh's home stadium that day as Reggie Tongue returned an interception to put the Jets up by a touchdown, Jerome Bettis fumbled at the Jets 23-yard line and then David Barrett picked off Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh territory. Everything was going right ... and then we all got to second guess the Jets' play calling.
Everyone has beaten to death the fact that (now-former) New York offensive coordinator Paul Hackett decided to settle for a 40+ yard field goal try instead of even attempting to gain 10-15 more yards for a higher-percentage try -- a revival of "Marty Ball." Those decisions might have spelled the end of Hackett's tenure with the Jets. Maybe new coordinator Mike Heimerdinger can unleash the potential of the Jets offense, instead of being someone who tries to mold the passing attack into something it is not -- a long ball threat. Heimerdinger needs to make sure that he does not confuse his trademark aggressiveness and creativity with constant deep attacks.
Well, at least pitchers and catchers report in a month.
With the Jets eliminated from the playoffs, I firmly turned my support to Indianapolis in Sunday's AFC playoff game. Confidence turned to shock within minutes, as the first "Manning face" appeared on the TV. You all know exactly what I mean -- the look of utter frustration. We saw that face again and again as six of the Colts' ten drives went for five or fewer plays, including three three-and-outs. I keep waiting for some obstacle to be too great to overcome for a Bill Belichick team, but it just will not happen. Even my point of ridicule last week -- Hank Poteat -- contributed last week. I hear that Rohan Davey might start at strong safety next week. It just might work. Belichick should finally get his due as one of the best game-scripters ever.
Al: Last week's games were terrible. Only one game was interesting past the first half and the Jets blew it in too many ways to adequately go into here. Let's just get going on the good stuff, like the All Keep Choppin' Wood Team.
Vivek: The six-year run of the "Greatest Show on Turf" might be done, and ownership should start the recriminations with Mike Martz. After three straight wins, Martz preached that the team was coming together, gelling, everything was falling in place -- then after Saturday's loss to Atlanta, he cried that "there is a long way to go." How about fessing up that he throws the ball too much? That he refuses to come down hard on his team? How about learning when to call for a replay challenge?
Al: Put Mike Martz in as offensive coordinator for the Jets, and maybe they're playing this weekend.
Al: No, I don't mean that they're both head coaches who won a Super Bowl and held onto coaching jobs for years of mediocrity solely because of the reputation gained off that one win. Billick isn't at that level quite yet. No, what I'm talking about is a head coach whose staff of assistants turns into a head coach factory. Seven Holmgren assistants have gone on to stints as NFL head coaches. Billick now has two former assistants among the head coaching ranks and more are likely on the way. Marvin Lewis is already in Cincinatti. Mike Nolan was just named the head man in San Francisco. Donnie Henderson has done an amazing job as the Jets defensive coordinator and will be a very strong candidate for a head coaching job next off-season if the Jets defense can have another successful year. Jim Fassel is on the Raven staff and should find his way back into a head coaching job in the next few years. If new Raven defensive coordinator Rex Ryan does a halfway decent job at his new post, he'll be a natural head coaching candidate because of his pedigree.
Al: You can email us your questions and comments to email@example.com. Veronica R. writes in criticizing our position last week on the whole Randy Moss incident:
You're making the same mistake that the rest of the media is making. Mooning is not the issue. The issue is that he then went and rubbed his butt on the goalpost almost as if he was cleaning his ass. That was the disgusting part, not the mooning.
Al: I'm not exactly sure how you clean your rear, but I've never heard of bumping against a goalpost being anyone's preferred method. I think that's a bit of a stretch.
Vivek: If anyone needs to ask who last week's award went to, that person either did not watch any of the Jets-Steelers game, or has a strong affinity for place kickers. Doug Brien, however, did see his value skyrocket to almost $100 million.
Al: This was a no-brainer. Now for some real tough decisions...
Al: For those of you just joining us, we started giving out the Keep Choppin' Wood Award in Week 9 of the 2003 season in honor of Jacksonville punter Chris Hanson, who ended his season by slicing his foot open with an axe. Coach Jack Del Rio had placed a tree stump and axe in the Jaguar locker room as a motivational tool. The stump and axe were a symbol of the team's motto "Keep Choppin' Wood." We've given out the award every week since to the player who does the most to help his team lose. Last year, we compiled a season-long list of the players that hurt their team's chances of winning the most and named the 2003 All Keep Choppin' Wood Team.
This year, to make sure we didn't leave any deserving players out, we solicited suggestions from our readers, the Outsiders staff, and my former partner-in-crime Ian Dembsky. Without further Apu, Scramble for the Ball brings to you the 2004 All Keep Choppin' Wood Team.
Vivek: Eli Manning. Go back to the morning of November 21, 2004. The Giants were 5-4, and very much alive in the playoff hunt. Heralded rookie/franchise savior Eli Manning was slated to take over the reigns of the offense from Kurt Warner. Three wins in the final seven contests could have gotten the G-Men into the playoffs. Manning, however, pulled a reverse Roethlisberger and proceeded to lose six straight games. The rookie finished the year completing less than half of his pass attempts and recording two touchdowns for every three interceptions. That only looked impressive compared to his passer rating (0.0) against the Ravens.
Al: Eli definitely wasn't ready for prime time. He was #36 in DPAR and #37 in DVOA. Granted, he wasn't put into an ideal situation, playing behind a below-average offensive line against some of the league's best defenses. But Eli just wasn't ready to be an NFL quarterback when he was inserted into the starting lineup against Atlanta. His receivers were criticized for dropping a ton of passes that day, but Eli was lucky that his receivers were able to get their hands on the ball. Manning's throws were all a bit to high, or a bit too low, or a little too much behind his receivers. Maybe you can get away with that when you're throwing against Kentucky, but against NFL defensive backs, that's a recipe for disaster. To his credit, Eli did seem to improve as the season wore on, so there is hope for 2005 and beyond. For 2004, though, Eli is clearly deserving of the spot under center for the All Keep Choppin' Wood Team.
Also in consideration: Mark Brunell; Any Dolphins QB; Drew Bledsoe; Aaron Brooks.
Al: I don't want this to become all-Giants, all the time, but my choice is, of course, Ron Dayne. Where can we begin with Dayne? With his 3.4 yards per carry? With his complete inability to convert a third-and-1? With his amazing lack of field vision? How can this player have gained so many yards in college? Did Big Ten defensive linemen not know how to tackle in the late 90's?
Also in consideration: Kevan Barlow (32nd in DPAR); Clinton Portis (26th in DPAR); Eddie George (ten carries in the last eight games); Edgerrin James, for costing the Colts a victory against New England in Week 1 with two lost fumbles, which in turn ultimately cost the Colts a home playoff game; Ricky Williams; Lamar Gordon, who after only 35 carries (and a third-round draft pick) had his season ended by a shoulder injury.
Al: Darrell Jackson was fourth in the league in passes not caught, second in passes dropped and #45 in DVOA. Unofficially Jackson led the league in passes that bounced off of a receiver into the hands of a nearby defensive back to be turned into an interception.
Who else could we have line up on the other side of the field from Jackson than his teammate Koren Robinson? As Ian points out, "It's not like he was getting it done when he wasn't getting himself busted for drug use."
Also in consideration: Amani Toomer; Ike Hilliard; Freddie "I stole The Rock's nickname" Mitchell; David Terrell (who led the league in penalty yards by a "skill position" player); Bobby Wade; Peerless Price; Josh Reed.
Vivek: Boo Williams looked like a breakout candidate for 2004 after recording 29 catches for 347 yards and four touchdowns in the last six games of 2003. Well, he matched those numbers, but unfortunately for the Saints that was over a full 16-game season (33-362-2). The lack of another under-coverage target forced the Saints to rely more on an obviously hobbled Deuce McAllister through the heart of the season.
Also in consideration: Jeremy Shockey; Anthony Becht.
Al: We're going to give out the offensive and defensive line spots to an entire unit, because it's often difficult to identify where exactly on a line the awful performance is coming from. Based on reader Jimmie M.'s suggestion and some penalty numbers Aaron gave me, I'm giving this one to the New Orleans Saints. The infamous Aaron Brooks pass to nowhere was as much the fault of Victor Riley completely missing a block as it was Aaron Brooks' ineptitude. Plus, Riley and his teammate Wayne Gandy tied for the second-most false start penalties in the NFL with seven apiece. Riley had 11 penalties overall, costing his team 80 yards on the season.
Also in consideration: San Francisco; Chicago; Miami; N.Y. Giants.
Al: The Houston Texans have drafted only one defensive lineman before the fifth round in their short history. Maybe they should start thinking about changing that strategy. What are the tasks of a defensive line? Rushing the passer and stopping the run. The Texans did neither of these particularly well. No team sacked quarterbacks fewer times than Houston, even when you adjust for things like opponent, down, and distance. The Texans allowed 4.4 yards per carry on the ground and the defensive line was #22 in adjusted line yards allowed.
Also in consideration: San Francisco; New Orleans; Oakland.
Al: Very tough call here, but we'll go with Aaron's suggestion and give this to Robert Thomas of St. Louis. A first-round pick three years ago, Thomas has done little to nothing this year to show that he was worth that high of a selection. Thomas played so poorly for the Rams that one St. Louis columnist half-jokingly suggested that he should have been replaced in the playoffs by Jeff Wilkins. Thomas managed to tackle someone only 56 times this year, despite starting the vast majority of the season for the Rams in the middle of their defense, ranking him a solid #92 among NFL linebackers.
Also in consideration: Ray Lewis; Eric Barton; everyone on the Colts.
Al: One spot has to go to Terrence Newman. Whenever I saw a team really throw the ball well against the Cowboys, the strategy seemed to be "throw to whoever Newman is responsible for." If you threw the ball within five yards of Newman, you could count on the fact that he was going to try for an interception instead of playing his man. Newman had 61 solo tackles this year with only four assists. What does that mean? That most of the time he was tackling the receiver he was supposed to be defending after the receiver came down with the ball.
Lining up against the #2 receiver is Ahmad Carroll. Despite not being inserted into Green Bay's starting lineup until the middle of October, first-round pick Carroll managed to finish second in the NFL among defensive players in penalty yards and tied for fourth in number of penalties. The Packers finished the season #30 against the pass in DVOA. They were in the bottom third of the league in passing yards allowed per game, were second to last in interceptions, and allowed more passing touchdowns than any other defense in the league.
Also in consideration: Marcus "Is that a Rams receiver that just ran past me?" Trufant; the entire Oakland Raiders secondary.
Al: Shane Lechler of Oakland had the least touch of any punter in the league this year. He'll get some positive recognition for leading the NFL in yards per punt at 46.7. However, almost 20% of his punts ended up falling into the opposing endzone. Opponents averaged over eleven yards per carry on a Lechler punt, the third highest average return yardage allowed for a punter. If you need someone to kick a ball really far, Lechler's your man. If you need someone to give your team good field position or put air under the ball to allow the punt coverage team time to stop the opposing team's return man, maybe you should look somewhere else.
Also in consideration: Derrick Frost (solely for his seven yard punt from his own endzone against Baltimore); Todd Sauerbrun (for his ridiculous feud with the Gramatica brothers and for drunk driving); Sean Landeta.
Vivek: 2003 foreshadowed the fall of Martin Gramatica, as he finished the year with a 61.5% success rate on field goals. His career hit a low point after an 0-for-3 day in Week 12 against Carolina, missing from 26, 37, and 39 yards. With the Bucs still alive for the wild card spot, Gramatica could have put his team ahead with less than two minutes left to play. Instead, the missed field goal left enough time on the clock for Jake Delhomme to engineer the game winning drive for Carolina, effectively ending the playoff race for Tampa Bay.
Also in consideration: Cole "Laces Out" Ford; Future CFL star Mike Vanderjagt, who 1) missed a potential game-tying field goal in the season opener against the Patriots and 2) ate his words ("I think they're not as good as the beginning of the year and not as good as last year") after Sunday's loss to the Patriots. Vanderjagt was the reader favorite.
Vivek: The Rams' combo of Arlen Harris (20.2 yards per return) on kickoffs and Shaun McDonald (4.8 yards per return) on punts gets this year's award. I find it amazing that Harris did not go for more than 29 yards on a single return during the season. Even worse was the fact that if you take away McDonald's longest return (39 yards), you are left with a pathetic 3.8 yards per return average.
Al: I'm always amazed that kick returners can keep their job when they only average 20 yards a return. What's the point?
Al: Dennis Green cost his team a division title this year by playing musical chairs at quarterback. The Cardinals could have won the NFC West if they had just kept Josh McCown in as their starting quarterback for the entire season. Just think about that last sentence again for a minute.
Vivek: Yes, but Green did keep us on our toes by throwing in Shaun King or John Navarre when we least expected it.
Also in consideration: Mike Sherman; Mike Martz; Butch Davis.
Ian Dembsky: Time to update the standings in our playoff fantasy football contest. Everyone in red is out of the playoffs.
|IAN (3 left)||129||RUSSELL (4 left)||92||VIVEK (6 left)||144||DE ANGELO's||161|
|QB||Manning, IND||51||Favre, GB||6||McNabb, PHI||22||BEST OF THE REST|
|RB||Dunn, ATL||26||Bettis, PIT||16||Westbrook, PHI||17||ALL-STARS|
|RB||Jackson, STL||6||Martin, NYJ||19||Duckett, ATL||12||Culpepper, MIN||58|
|WR||Driver, GB||7||Harrison, IND||9||Wayne, IND||35||Faulk, STL||18|
|WR||Parker, SD||9||Holt, STL||26||Ward, PIT||16||Bell, DEN||13|
|WR||Mitchell, PHI||16||Branch, NE||1||Bruce, STL||4||McCareins, NYJ||16|
|TE||Pollard, IND||2||Smith, PHI||5||Clark, IND||19||Robinson, MIN||17|
|K||Reed, PIT||9||Longwell, GB||6||Akers, PHI||9||Moss, NYJ||25|
|AARON (5 left)||84||AL (6 left)||86||WILL (4 left)||96||Elam, DEN||6|
|QB||Roethlisberger, PIT||12||Vick, ATL||21||Brady, NE||17||Green Bay||0|
|RB||Green, GB||9||James, IND||22||Alexander, SEA||6|
|RB||Dillon, NE||15||Tomlinson, SD||13||Staley, PIT||5|
|WR||Walker, GB||2||Burress, PIT||2||Stokley, IND||9|
|WR||Pinkston, PHI||4||Price, ATL||8||Moss, MIN||24|
|WR||Jackson, SEA||18||Randle El, PIT||0||Givens, NE||8|
|TE||Franks, GB||9||Crumpler, ATL||8||Gates, SD||14|
|K||Vinatieri, NE||8||Feely, ATL||9||Vanderjagt||10|
Safe to say that Viv's in the driver's seat, and unless Atlanta beats the Eagles pretty bad, he's going to take home the title. My team did better than I thought, thanks to big games from Warrick Dunn and Freddie Mitchell. But I've got the weakest team left, so it's all downhill from here. The Pittsburgh-New England matchup will probably be a low-scoring one, so it's unlikely that Will or Russell will make a big push anytime soon. Aaron could make a decent push if the Pats win big, but he's got a ways to climb. The best bet to unseat Viv is probably Al, since he's got all of Atlanta, and a crushing of the Eagles would go a long way towards bringing him the title.
The "Best of the Rest" contest has become a bit of a runaway, with El Angelo hitting it big with Culpepper, Santana Moss, and a complement of solid support from his other players to total 161 points thus far. Though he has no players left, his closest competitor has 125 points, and unless David Patten blows up, there's very little left to help anyone else catch his lead. Gotta love Scottnot for picking Terrell Owens, though. Maybe he'll score 7 touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
De Angelo -- 161 (none)
Kibbles- - 125 (none)
Moe -- 124 (Patten)
Sid -- 122* (Patten, Levens, Graham)
Ken -- 97 (Patten, Graham)
Jimkimber -- 93 (Levens, Patten, Finneran, Graham)
Warehall -- 77 (none)
Kuato -- 76 (Graham)
Tony -- 69 (Patten)
Scottnot -- 61 (Levens, Patten, Owens, Graham)
MRH -- 54 (Levens, Patten, Graham)
Teximu -- 53 (Levens, Greg Lewis, Chad Lewis)
*Submitted his team after the first round games had already ended, and still losing.
Vivek: (2-2 last week, 3-5 in the postseason)
Even without TO, I still stand by my preseason statement that this is the best Eagles team of their four year run. The one most glaring weakness is the run defense, and Atlanta is not the team you want to face with that problem. Atlanta will run the ball down the throats of the Eagles' defense, but Michael Vick will not be able to put it all together to lead the team to the Super Bowl. The Falcons need more than a 12-for-18, 82-yard game from Vick, and I don't see that happening against such a skilled and athletic Philly secondary.
Apparently I'll never learn my lesson about betting against a Belichick-coached team, but home-field advantage for Pittsburgh makes my choice here. This time around, however, will not be a repeat of their regular season matchup, in which Kevin Faulk (five rushes for four yards) was the feature back in Corey Dillon's absence. Expect Jerome Bettis to pound and pound the ball inside and Duce Staley to bounce to the outside as the Steelers eat up clock.
Al: (1-3 last week, 2-6 in the postseason) My s*** doesn't work in the playoffs.
The Atlanta offensive line played as close to a perfect game as an offensive line can play against St. Louis last week. Before the snap on the play where Atlanta scored their last touchdown, a Ram defender was jumping up and down, pointing to Atlanta's left guard, screaming "they're running it here" for a good five seconds. What did Atlanta do? They ran it exactly where the Ram defender was pointing and T. J. Duckett walked into the end zone untouched. The Rams defense knew the exact running play that Atlanta was going to execute and had enough time to adjust their defense to account for this, yet were powerless to stop the Atlanta offensive line from imposing their will. There's snow and wind forecasted for Sunday in Philadelphia, meaning we should see a premium placed on the running game. If Atlanta's offensive line can play as well against the Eagles as they did against the Rams, the Falcons should be able to control the game and walk out of Pennsylvania with a win.
How could you possibly pick against New England? There's no "I" in "team" but there is one in "Pittsburgh." These Patriots are the greatest team in the history of teams. Better than the Jordan's Bulls, Ruth's Yankees, or Gretzky's Oilers. They're better than Skywalker's Rebel Alliance, Hannibal's A-Team, Robin Hood's Merry Men, or Jesus' Disciples. Were there even teams before Bill Belichick came to New England? Before the Belichick Patriots graced Foxboro with their presence, football, nay, professional team sport in general, was played purely by groups of greedy individuals who cared nothing about winning, only their own personal goals. Tom Brady could throw for 60 touchdowns a season if he didn't concentrate so much on being part of a team ... and on his actress girlfriend ... and on his endorsement contracts with The Gap and Nike.
The no-name defense that doesn't get any respect, led by recent Sports Illustrated cover boy and feature article subject Tedy Bruschi, can't be stopped. The defense's selflessness knows no bounds. I have it on good authority that they plan on spending their bye week putting the Earth's crust back together -- as a team. When they're awarded the Nobel Prize for their contributions to humanity, and football, they plan on refusing the awards unless the Prize is given to them not as individuals but as a collective unit.
Just look at Corey Dillon, who arrived in New England after demanding that Cincinnati trade him somewhere else so that Dillon did not have to live up to his remaining two-year contractual commitment to the Bengals. Dillon wasn't a bad guy when he was throwing his teammates under the bus by calling one of the offensive linemen that had blocked for him for six years a "bum." Nor was he a bad guy when he said he would refuse to share carries with Rudi Johnson if that's what his coach thought was in the best interest of the Bengals. No, he just wanted to play for a real team -- the New England Patriots.
Right now, the AFC is a 5 point favorite over the NFC in the Super Bowl. Run, no, sprint to the nearest legal bookmaker in your area and wager all your earthly possessions, and your non-earthly possessions if you have any, on the AFC. After the Patriots dismantle the Steelers on Sunday, they'll march down from Foxboro to Jacksonville -- as a team -- and destroy whatever group of individuals wearing similar jerseys the NFC sends as their representative by at least 45 points. It's the Patriots' world, we're just lucky to live in it.