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?
20 Oct 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: Maybe it is my New York pessimism, but my low expectations became a reality in Dallas on Sunday. The emergence of Eli Manning might be a wolf in sheep's clothing, because the offense has shunned the running game recently. Take Sunday's loss to the Cowboys -- the Giants did average an impressive 4.8 yards per carry, but on a meager 19 rushing attempts. On all five of the Giants' situations of two yards or less yards for a first down, the Giants opted to pass. Manning was forcing the ball to his receivers, including his new favorite target -- Plaxico Burress.
What happened to this Thunder and Lightning ground game? After six carries in Week 1 against Arizona, Brandon Jacobs has totaled seven rushing attempts during the past four games. Tiki Barber is not taking away Jacobs' touches either; he is averaging only 17.6 rushing attempts and about one reception per game. Compare that with his 23.5 touches per game from 2004, and you can see an imbalance between the passing and ground game.
Al: Thunder needs to learn how to run with the football more effectively. Jacobs is a 275 pound bruiser who runs through an offensive line with perfect posture, like he's trying to balance a book on his head. He needs to learn how to hunch over and compress his body to become an effective battering ram in short yardage situations. By doing so, he'll give opposing defenders a more difficult target to tackle and bring down because of his lower center of gravity. He'll also make it more difficult for the opposition to knock the ball out. Alleged safety Roy Williams easily caused Jacobs to lose the football on the goal line, which almost cost the Giants a chance to tie the game.
Luckily, however, the Giants had Eli behind center to lead them down the field just a few minutes later for the final score. I agree, though, that Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator John Hufnagel have relied a bit too much on Eli to carry the offense. In every game this year, he's looked both like one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a random rookie that has no business being on the field. On Sunday, Manning couldn't find a receiver in the first half, going 5-for-12 for 37 yards. In the fourth quarter, Manning marched the team down the field before Jacobs fumbled at the goal line, and less than 30 seconds of game time later he began the game tying drive where he completed two passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.
This inconsistency shows that it may still be too early to put all the pressure of moving the ball downfield in Eli's hands. Tiki Barber was one of the five best backs in football last year. The Giants need to give him an opportunity to show that he's still at that level. This year, New York has the fourth best rushing offense according to DVOA, with Barber ranked sixth in DVOA among all running backs. The Giants need to put the ball in his hands more often.
Vivek: So Eli is surpassing expectations, but let's take a look at a few other people who are overachieving and see if they will continue or fall back to earth in this segment that we callâ€¦
Al: For those of you just joining us, if we think the player won't be able to keep up their surprising production, we'll call them a mirage. However, if we think the player can keep up their pace, we'll call them an oasis. Yes, I agree it's an incredibly dumb name for a segment.
Vivek: Oasis. The Washington southpaw is this year's version of Drew Brees, averaging about two touchdowns and just shy of 250 yards per game. More importantly, he has not been making poor decisions at the helm of the offense.
I admittedly was a bit skeptical about Brunell, even after his fourth quarter against the Cowboys. Brunell was a non factor until those last scoring drives, but has maintained his arm strength and solid decision making since. What surprises me the most is his athleticism, both from his legs and his arm. I do wonder though if we would have been calling for Jason Campbell if the Redskins lost that game against Dallas.
Al: Was Brunell hurt last year? It's the only explanation I can think of for the apparent complete difference in his arm strength between this season and last. In 2004, Brunell averaged 5.04 yards per pass attempt, worst of any quarterback in the league with over 100 pass attempts. The Redskins receivers all had the lowest yards per reception averages of their careers last season with Brunell behind center. This year Brunell is averaging a respectable 7.0 yards per attempt, 14th in the league among passers with at least 100 attempts. Santana Moss is averaging 19.1 yards per catch, the highest average of his career. No reason he can't keep this up. Oasis.
Vivek: Oasis. Bledsoe has found something with Terry Glenn, as the receiver has recorded 15 of his 20 career 100-yard games from Bledsoe. It's amazing how much better a quarterback is when he is not on his back or eluding a pass rusher.
Al: I'm going to disagree and say this is a Mirage. A huge part of Bledsoe's success this year has been the great pass blocking of his offensive line. Bledsoe has been sacked 2.17 times per game this season. If Dallas can keep that up, it would be the fewest sacks in a full season for the immovable object otherwise known as Drew Bledsoe since he was 25 and defending an AFC Championship in Foxboro. The problem, however, is that I don't expect Dallas to keep this up now that left tackle Flozell Adams has been lost for the year because of injury. It looks like Adams will be replaced by Torrin Tucker, who lost his job at right tackle to sixth round draft pick Rob Petitti in training camp. With Bledsoe getting dumped more often, he'll have fewer chances to hit Glenn down field and put up big fantasy numbers.
Al: With seven touchdowns, Davis has been a solid fantasy play this year. I don't see him keeping this up. I've done absolutely no research on this, but I hate having players on my fantasy team that depend so much on scoring touchdowns for their fantasy value. In games when Davis scores a touchdown, he's been worth on average 17 points in a basic scoring system. In the two games Davis didn't score a touchdown, he was worth a total of two points, or six points if you don't subtract points for fumbles. Davis will remain Carolina's primary goal line option as long as he can stay healthy, but I don't see him keeping up his torrid scoring pace all season. Mirage.
Vivek: Stephen Davis has gotten progressively worse each week. 6.1, 3.1, 2.3, 2.7, 2.6 and 2.1 -- Davis' yards per carry for the first six games. Since the season opener, Davis has only broken off two runs of more than ten yards, both of them just 11 yards. Do not hold your breath for a string of 100-yard games. Mirage.
Al: Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la, uh huh. Right now Thomas Jones is the funkiest man in Chicago. Because when everybody loves you, oh, son, that's just about as funky as you can be. But can Mr. Jones keep up his 100+ yards and 1+ touchdown per game pace? I didn't think so two weeks ago, after both Ruben Brown and John Tait went down with injuries. However, it looks like both will be back in the lineup next week, and they weren't needed against the awful Vikings defense on Sunday when Jones scored two touchdowns. With four more games against the awful run defenses in the NFC North, and remaining games against the 49ers and Falcons, Jones should be able to maintain his status as a back you have to have in your fantasy starting lineup every week. Oasis.
Vivek: Wow, I thought I stretched for some pop culture references. Jones and the Bears face bottom of the barrel run defenses the rest of the way. Cedric Benson effectively ended his season before it started with his long holdout. He is a liability during passing plays and has written himself out of the playbook. Jones will definitely not have a Long December. There Al, we're even.Oasis.
Al: You're obviously forgetting the column where I included the lyrics to "Living on a Prayer" in each of my comments. 'Round here, no reference can be stretched too far.
Al: So far, it looks like I couldn't have been more incorrect about the Laveraneus Coles-for-Santana Moss trade. Originally, I thought the Redskins were making a huge mistake by taking a gigantic cap hit to pick up an inferior wide receiver. After watching Moss this year, I've changed my mind. Washington made only a small mistake, adding a player more suitable for their offense while taking a ridiculous salary cap hit in the process. This one is an Oasis. Moss isn't just getting his yards on long bombs from Brunell, like he did in the Dallas comeback in Week 2. In the past two games, Moss has clearly developed into Brunell's go to receiver. Over the next three weeks the Redskins' passing game has plenty of favorable matchups coming up against the 49ers, Giants, and Eagles, all of whom have struggled to stop their opponents' top receiver.
Al: The loss of Brian Griese for the season makes this an easy Mirage. Griese was maddeningly inconsistent, but he found a nice rapport with Galloway. There's no reason to expect the same to happen with Chris Simms behind center. Simms didn't impress when given the opportunity to play last season. In Week 2 against Seattle, Simms took over for Brad Johnson in the second quarter, leading two drives that resulted in field goals and two that ended because of turnovers by Simms. Starting a meaningless Week 17 game against Arizona, Simms only completed 50% of his passes, throwing two interceptions and botching an exchange with the center that would lead to half of the Cardinals' points and end the Buccaneers' last scoring chance of the game. Could he develop into a quality NFL quarterback under Jon Gruden? Sure, but I wouldn't bet on it happening too quickly.
Vivek: Mirage. Griese had a knack for forcing the ball to Galloway, overlooking his other options. That narrow focus resulted in some surprising totals for Galloway, but his numbers should drop off now that Chris Simms is taking over.
Al: Late word has Tim Rattay being dealt to Tampa. Even if Rattay starts over Simms, Galloway's numbers are going to take a hit.
You can send us your fantasy questions at email@example.com, or fill out the contact form at Football Outsiders.
Tommy S. writes in:
May you please rank the following players for my flex league: C.Chambers, C.Brown, M.Moore, and K.Barlow. Also, please tell me which Tight End would you start: Todd Heap or L.J. Smith?
Al: Nice to see that Reggie Williams' name isn't on that list. Start Chris Brown against Arizona. If a player on your roster isn't startable against the Cardinals, he shouldn't be on the roster. Next, I'd recommend Moore. If the Vikings are going to win a game it will be this week at home against Green Bay. As you would know from reading Pro Football Prospectus 2005, Brett Favre's otherworldly powers seem to disappear once he sets foot in the Metrodome. Combine that with Green Bay's poor defense, and Minnesota could actually get a lead at some point in the game, which will allow them to run the football. Kevan Barlow is a first ballot inductee to the Loser League Hall of Fame. I'd play Chambers against the below average Kansas City defense ahead of him.
At tight end, start Smith. The Bears have been especially tough against tight ends this season .
Randy P. asks:
1) Which 2 of these 4 WR's would you start this week? R.Ferguson, C.Chambers, R.Smith, and J.Jurevicius.
2) Which TE would you start, Ben Troupe or M.Pollard ?
3) I'm pretty sure I should drop the Cleveland defense this week, so which defense should I pick up off the waiver wire? San Diego, Washington, Miami, KC, Detroit, or Tennessee ?
Al: 1) Smith and Jurevicius. Smith should be able to pick up plenty of yards against the Giants' secondary. Jurevicius is Matt Hasselbeck's favorite target with Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram out and hasn't let his QB down, catching 70% of the passes intended for him. At home against Dallas, he should have a nice day.
2) Troupe. Tennessee is playing Arizona this week. Start your Titans. Plus, Cleveland has been very good against opposing tight ends early on this year.
3) I wouldn't be so quick to drop Cleveland. Playing Detroit at home is a damn fine matchup for a defense, especially if Joey Harrington gets benched in favor of "under practiced" rookie Dan Orlovsky.
Vivek: 1) Like Al said, Smith and Jurevicius.
2) Pollard over Troupe -- the other Lions receivers can't stay healthy or clean.
3) The Outsiders will definitely have to write a statistical analysis on starting a top ten defense for the entire year versus playing the matchups. Keep Cleveland and do not waste a waiver claim on anyone else.
Jason asks for some help with his lineup:
Injuries have me hurting for this week and next week.
Here is the current roster:
QB- Palmer, McNair
RB- Tomlinson, C Williams, T Jones, Gore, Tyson Thompson, Davenport (IR)
WR- Holt, S Smith, D Jackson, Houshmandzadeh, Henry
TE- Witten, Troupe
K - Lindell, Janikowski (mandatory 2)
DEF/ST- TB, CHI (mandatory 2)
With my league's scoring rules, RB's and WR's are pretty even in points. A good #1 WR will score more than an average starting RB. Starters are QB, RB, 2 WR, TE, K, DEF/ST, 2 FLEX (RB, WR, TE).
Who should I start at the RB, WR, and FLEX spots? Tomlinson and Steve Smith are the only guarantees at this point. Everyone else is questionable or worse. I can change lineups 5 min. before game time for each, as long as a spot is still open for a switch, so I should know who has been declared out before lineups are frozen.
Vivek: Have we ever had a week where one reader question is longer than the rest of Scramble? I'd go with a starting roster of Palmer, LT, Holt, Smith, Witten and then you have to do the injury report watch on Sunday. Thomas Jones had no ill effects of a bum knee last week and should be a solid FLEX start, even against the Ravens.
Al: I agree that it's not the best matchup with Jones against the Ravens, but he's your best flex option. I'd wait to see Cadillac be effective in a game situation before putting him back in the starting lineup.
Vivek: Ricky Williams looked like a shell of his former self on Sunday, literally -- just the shell without the muscle. He did little to help the Dolphins in this game, and nobody should expect him to average more than 30-40 yards per game the rest of the way. And good old selfless Ricky showed what a team player he was after the game with this gem: â€œI had a lot of fun out there. I mean we lost, but it was fun.â€? I'm sure that Nick Saban had a lot of fun too.
Al: After last week's episode of the Love Boat, with Fred Smoot playing the role of Captain Stubing, you might think things couldn't get much worse for the Vikings. But you'd be wrong. First, the team put up arguably the worst performance by a football team this season with their pitiful 28-3 loss against Chicago. Next, it was revealed that suspended running back Onterrio Smith is being sued for an alleged sexual assault of a woman with a â€œmental impairment.â€? Finally, authorities in Minnesota are now investigating whether the female â€œentertainmentâ€? on the infamous cruise on Lake Minnetonka were paid to fly into Minnesota from Georgia. That's the interstate transportation of women for the purpose of prostitution. As the folks from BadJocks.com point out, that could be a violation of the federal Mann Act, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years in a federal prison. A misdemeanor charge from a local prosecutor is one thing. Having the feds going after you for a felony conviction is much more serious.
Vivek: Tim Rattay, Toniu Fonoti, AJ Feeley and (Ms.) Cleo Lemon were the only players to change jerseys this year. Why is it that the NFL's trade deadline occurs after Week 6, when every other professional sport has a deadline much deeper into the season? NFL cap rules prohibit player movement, while the early deadline means that no team is in â€œsell mode.â€?
Vivek: Surprise, surprise -- those Tommy Maddox XFL collectors items on eBay have gone cold after his performance on Sunday against Jacksonville. His 11-for-28, three interception performance was worthy of KCW for this week
But that was not enough to clinch this awardâ€¦.
Then Maddox wasted a 71-yard kickoff return to open the extra session by fumbling at the Jacksonville 27-yard line on the first drive of overtime.
But that was not enough to clinch this awardâ€¦..
To seal the deal, Maddox had the last pass attempt of the game, and quite possibly his season, intercepted and returned 41 yards for the game-ending touchdown.
And Maddox will not be able to redeem himself, as he has been relegated to third string behind Charlie Batch.
Al: You can always count on an ex-XFL'er to come through with a Keep Choppin' Wood performance.
Al: Your Week 6 All-Loser Team:
QB: Trent Dilfer, CLE - 1 point (30 passes, 147 yards; 2 fumbles; 1 INT)
RB: Stephen Davis, CAR - 2 points (13 carries, 29 yards)
RB: Kevin Jones, DET - 2 points (12 carries, 21 yards; 2 catches, 3 yards)
WR: Kelley Washington, CIN - 1 point (2 catches, 13 yards)
WR: Amani Toomer, NYG - 1 point (2 catches, 11 yards)
K: Paul Edinger, MIN - -1 point (1/3 FG)
Week 6 saw a dominant performance by Less Cowbell, who easily won the week with 21 points. However, it's looking like the Polish Wonders are ready to run away with the first half title with a 22-point lead over Christ Punchers.
Vivek: (1-3 last week, 8-13 overall)
It is a tough week to pick games (as opposed to every other week that I'm on target) with no lines for a few matchups.
Hines Ward has sat out one game in his entire career, and that was last week. You know that he is hurting if he does not give it a go. Ward remains questionable, and even a 100 percent healthy Ben Roethlisberger needs Ward to prevent the Bengals from stuffing the box. The Bengals have not been a bad pick with the spread once this year, and they will keep that streak going.
Last week Al and I talked about the Jets' woes, especially the disappointing play of the offensive line. To add injury to insult, the team lost Kevin Mawae for the year. This is a week where Atlanta boosts its defensive rankings.
This could be the best 3-3 team ever. Seriously. There are only three teams in the NFL that have separated themselves from the rest of the pack -- Indy, Cincy and San Diego. Philadelphia was in that group, but they need to earn the respect back being manhandled by Dallas in Week 5. I'll defer any questions about Sports Hernias to Will Carroll, but from everything I've read, it's going to be a miracle for Donovan McNabb to make it through the season.
Al: (3-0 last week, 14-6 overall)
Say what you will about some of the fantasy advice I've given this year, but when it comes to best bets you can call me Scott Hatteberg. I'm a pickin' machine
When was the last time you saw a road team as this large of a favorite? When was the last time it happened and you thought the line looked way too low? The NFL record for most sacks in one game is seven by the late Derrick Thomas against the Seahawks in 1990. Dwight Freeney could have that many by the half. If your fantasy quarterback is out this week, I'd seriously consider starting Jim Sorgi. He should be good for at least two touchdown passes after taking over for Manning when the Colts go up by thirty in the second quarter.
I can't take any team seriously that is thinking about starting a rookie quarterback from UConn on the road.
The Miami defense was exposed last week against Tampa. If Michael Pittman can average eight and a half yards per carry against the Dolphins, just imagine what a healthy Priest Holmes will be able to do against them this week.
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