Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
13 Jan 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Al: You know what I miss, Viv? The running game. I miss teams using the rush as an actual offensive weapon, instead of as a way to give a quarterback's shoulder a rest from throwing 35 times a game. On Saturday, we saw games involving the NFL's top two rushers, the league leader in rushing touchdowns, and maybe the greatest running back I've ever seen. Three out of four ran with the ball under twenty times. And the one who topped twenty carries needed an extra period to get there. The same thing happened on Sunday, when only Ahman Green was given a measley twenty carries. There was a playoff game in Lambeau Field, with below freezing temperatures, and the leading rusher for either team only ran the ball twenty times?
What's happening here? Now, I don't want to turn into one of those "back in my days things were better" kind of guys, but it seems like coaches are overreacting to the increased attention to defensive back penalties and are forgetting that running with the football can be a valuable offensive weapon. I'm not saying we should return to the days when John Riggins would run the ball 35+ times a playoff game, but when you have one of the league's top backs on your team and you're facing one of the worst run defenses in the league by any metric you can find, you have to put the ball in your back's hands more than 15 times.
I picked Seattle over St. Louis last week, because I thought a head coach in the National Football League would realize this. I thought that Mike Holmgren would look at Shaun Alexander, then look at the awful Rams run defense and say to himself, "You know what? Alexander's pretty good, and the Ram defense is pretty bad. I also have a Pro Bowl left tackle, and the Rams are starting someone named Tony Hargrove at right defensive end. Maybe I should let Alexander run the ball a few times, possibly to the left." Of course that didn't happen. Alexander only ran 15 times, with only three of those runs going to the left. No, instead Holmgren decides to have his quarterback throw the ball 43 times to receivers that dropped passes all season. The results were not unexpected.
So what does this mean for the future? Did you think there were ridiculous contracts given to defensive backs last off-season? Wait until you see what happens this year. It's been rumored that Ty Law's days with the Patriots are numbered, as he's due $12.5 million next year. That number is going to look like a bargain, when we see the ridiculous deals that will be handed out to second and third tier cornerbacks once free agency starts. I'd be shocked if any position is drafted more than defensive back in the first few rounds of the 2005 NFL draft. A smart team will see all this and realize that with all this money being spent on mediocre DBs, teams may be neglecting their run defense, and that smart team will let the backs carry the ball a little more next season.
Vivek: I'll tell you what happened to the running game. After last year's AFC Championship game, that Colts' President Bill Polian (who happens to sit on the NFL's Competition Committee) fought tooth and nail to get officials to enforce rules regarding defensive contact against receivers. The itself never changed, but officials began looking for defenders who make contact with receivers after the receiver is five yards past the line of scrimmage.
What a difference a year makes. In 2003, there were only two 4000-yard passers and eight 3500-yard QBs. In 2004, there were five 4000-yard and 12 3500-yard passers.
It does make you wonder, though, how quarterbacks continue to pile up all these yards with an alarming increase in drops. I haven't seen as much of Matt Hasselbeck this year, but if Saturday was any indication, his numbers should have been much better for the year if his receivers didn't drop the ball. For all of Darrell Jackson's catches, one less drop would have been huge. I counted at least five drops for Seattle on the day, including one in the end zone.
All those miscues let the Rams pull out the upset. Oh, please pass the salt because the Rams also made me eat my words from last week.
"Al mentioned that the Rams win in Seattle this year was a fluke, and I could not agree more. Do you think that Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald will burn Ken Hamlin and Terreal Bierria again?" -- Me, January 5, 2005, 12:21 AM.
Yes, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald did stick it to me, totaling 137 yards.
I don't think that last week's passing trend will end in round two either, especially in New England. How bad is the shape that the Pats are in with Payton & Friends coming to town? They went out and signed cornerback Hank Poteat on Monday. Poteat, remember, was waived by the Panthers in the preseason and has played one game since the 2002 season.
Minnesota will employ the same aerial assault as well, regardless of any Randy Moss antics. I have to comment on those. First of all, every broadcaster last week was talking about how the team rallied around Moss after he walked out on the team in Washington. How exactly do you "rally" around Moss in that situation? You rally around Brett Favre, who faced so much tragedy this year. You rally around Mark Fields, who beat cancer.
On the Moss train of thought, why is everyone killing him for the pseudo-mooning incident? I consider myself to be more old school vs. highlight reel era, but people ripping him apart, saying it was one of the most appalling things they have ever seen seems extreme.
Joe Buck on FOX: "That's a disgusting act by Randy Moss, and it's unfortunate we had it on our air live."
Steve Young on ESPN: "There's nothing that you could do that's worse."
Did I agree with it, no. Was it the downfall of the NFL and Minnesota franchise? Of course not.
Al: I love that all this outrage is over a player not mooning the crowd. Did Young actually say that? That's just ridiculous. I'd say Moss can and did do worse during the game. Fox gave lip-readers plenty of excitement when they showed Moss jawing with the crowd behind the bench. Now, I'm not much of a lip-reader, but even I could tell that Moss was yelling "Look at the m-f'ing score board" at the Lambeau faithful.
"There's nothing that you could do that's worse?" We're not that far removed from an incident where professional athletes ran into the stands and took more than a few swings at the paying customers. That's a million times worse than bending over and not pulling down your pants. You know what all of this means, though. If Randy Moss can find the end zone in Philadelphia, he's going to give Eagles fans a real show.
FO reader Dan made a great point early on in the discussion thread about the Moss "incident." What's being missed in all this discussion is the fact that someone who could barely walk caught two touchdowns in a playoff game to beat the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field. This is a performance that should be given, Willis Reed, or Curt Schilling-level reverence. Instead, all we hear about is how awful a person Moss is for bending over and not pulling down his pants.
I agree with you, though, that the pass-wackiness will continue everywhere this weekend. I even expect the Steelers-Jets game to be played mainly in the air, when logic would normally dictate a ground matchup between these two. It's going to be cold and snowy on Saturday in Pittsburgh, but a downpour didn't stop the Jets from airing it out and throwing 33 passes in San Diego last week. The Jets defense has been very strong at stopping the run, #5 in DVOA, but weak in the secondary. I'd expect the Steelers to play in a lot of three-wide sets and attack the shallow Jets defensive backfield. Or at least that's what I hope they do, since I have Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El on my playoff fantasy team.
It's good to see Hank Poteat back in the league. He was actually a decent punt returner during his rookie year. There are a surprising number of websites where you can buy pictures of Poteat. The current forecast has clear skies in Foxboro on Sunday. It should be cold, but there's no precipitation in the forecast. I expect Manning to have a huge day against the Patriots, but I can't wait to see what Bill Belichick and Romeo Crenell put together to try and stop Peyton. Zero defensive linemen sets? Tom Brady at free safety? Anything is possible.
The one game, however, where I have no idea what to expect is the Rams-Falcons matchup. The Rams end up indoors, where their offense works at its best. I don't see the Falcon defense shutting them down completely. But I don't see how the Rams will be able to shut down any of Atlanta's weapons either. If Atlanta is smart, they'll focus on the run, which will both keep the Rams offense off the field by taking time off the clock, and attack St. Louis' primary weakness. Michael Vick, T.J. Duckett, and Warrick Dunn combined for 204 rushing yards against the Rams in Week 2, and St. Louis has just been terrible against the run during the regular season. With the way things have gone so far around the league, however, 50 pass attempts for Michael Vick is more likely than 25 rushing attempts for Dunn and Duckett combined.
Al: You can email us your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. This week, we have our first email from Iraq. Major Mike writes in:
Hi Fellas! Found your site while searching for the answer to a rules question so I will start there. I have a friend who insists that the game clock does not stop when the chains are moved after a first down in the NFL. Could you please straighten him out? We are currently deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and have no easy access to the rules. (Thanks to a previous ramblings article I was able to find out the NFL does not post their rule book online) Moving on, could you please discuss the Falcons playoff prospects? I don't hold out much hope.
Al: Thanks for reading Mike, and stay safe over there. Your friend is right. The clock doesn't stop for first downs in the NFL, but it does in college. We have two sections of the NFL rulebook that deal with time outs because of an action on a field (i.e. not a team-called timeout). This is all part of Rule 4, which deals with the timing of a game.
Section 3, Article 1 of Rule 4 details the times when a game clock operator hould stop the game clock:
a) the ball is out of bounds
b) a receiver catches after a fair catch signal
c) ball is dead in touch
d) at end of down during which a foul occurs
e) whenever a forward pass is incomplete
f) at the time of a foul, for which the ball remains dead or is dead imediately
g) upon referee's signal of the two-minute warning for a half
h) when a period expires
i) when an official signals a time out for any other reason
j) when a kicked ball is recovered illegally and/or surrounded
k) upon the completion of a down involving a change of possession
The Supplemental Notes to Article 7 list situations that are automatic referee timeouts:
1) Where there is a change of possession
2) any possibiulity of a measurement for first down or in conculting a captain about one
3) any time the player who originally takes the snap is tackled behind the line of scrimmage
4) undue pileups on the runner or ball, or determining possession after a fumble during time in
5) undue delay by officials in spotting ball for the next snap
6) illegal recovery of any kicked ball from scrimmage
7) snap made before the referee can assume his position
8) injury to an official or member of the chain crew
9) captain's choice of a fair catch kick or snap after a fair catch
10) officials' cnference for a rules interpretation or an enforcement
11) repairing or replacing game equipment (not player equipment)
12) Line Judge's signal of two minute warning for a half
13) Obvious inability of the offense to hear team signals because of crowd noise.
The rule book then goes into a two and a half page description of how the crowd-noise rule provision is to be applied.
So, the clock may stop on a first down, if a measurement is needed. However, in general, the clock doesn't stop on a first down in the NFL.
As for Atlanta, I liked their chances to make the Super Bowl more before the Rams beat the Seahawks on Saturday, but I still think the Falcons will make it to Jacksonville. They match up very well against the Eagles if both teams make it to the NFC Championship game, and I just can't see the Vikings winning three games in a row on the road in the playoffs if Minnesota can get past Philadelphia. But just worry about this week first.
Vivek: I agree with Al. If one team left in the NFC can strike the fear of God in an opponent, it is the Rams. They have a very good shot at lighting it up against the Falcons, ending their run.
Al: Even though the Jets ended up pulling out the game, this one has to go to Eric Barton. No player did more last weekend to hurt his team's chances to win a game than Barton did by needlessly forearming Drew Brees. It's kind of a shame that the Jets won and that Barton would reach the legendary status of Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood.
Ian Dembsky: Hi, we're sticking the fantasy playoff draft updates here this year. If you missed it, the draft itself is here. I guess it's not surprising that I'm in first for the moment, but Vivek looks to be in the best shape for the long haul, thanks to the performances of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Everyone in red is out of the playoffs.
|IAN (65)||RUSSELL (43)||VIVEK (55)|
|QB||Manning, IND||Favre, GB||McNabb, PHI|
|RB||Dunn, ATL||Bettis, PIT||Westbrook, PHI|
|RB||Jackson, STL||Martin, NYJ||Duckett, ATL|
|WR||Driver, GB||Harrison, IND||Wayne, IND|
|WR||Parker, SD||Holt, STL||Ward, PIT|
|WR||Mitchell, PHI||Branch, NE||Bruce, STL|
|TE||Pollard, IND||Smith, PHI||Clark, IND|
|K||Reed, PIT||Longwell, GB||Akers, PHI|
|AARON (38)||AL (29)||WILL (49)|
|QB||Roethlisberger, PIT||Vick, ATL||Brady, NE|
|RB||Green, GB||James, IND||Alexander, SEA|
|RB||Dillon, NE||Tomlinson, SD||Staley, PIT|
|WR||Walker, GB||Burress, PIT||Stokley, IND|
|WR||Pinkston, PHI||Price, ATL||Moss, MIN|
|WR||Jackson, SEA||Randle El, PIT||Givens, NE|
|TE||Franks, GB||Crumpler, ATL||Gates, SD|
|K||Vinatieri, NE||Feely, ATL||Vanderjagt|
Not a good first round for running backs; Edge scored the only RB touchdown for any of us, and no RB topped 13 fantasy points. We'll start updating the best reader-chosen "best of the rest" team next week.
Vivek: (1-3 last week)
One curse was lifted this year in Massachusetts, and I think the ghost of Foxboro will be as well for Payton Manning. The end result will not come down to a last second field goal attempt this time around.
The Vikings are really living on borrowed time, and I do not think that Philly's month of meaningless games will change that. Jim Johnson's blitzes will keep the pressure on Daunte Culpepper, as the smaller Minnesota backs will have trouble with the blocking schemes. The Minnesota defense has been taking abuse all year, but I think the lack of offense here (especially with Moe Williams doubtful) will end the Vikings' season.
The Jets statistically were better than the Steelers in their Week 14 meeting... for three quarters. With Curtis Martin, New York started wearing on the Steelers defense. Turnovers from Chad Pennington, one game removed from returning to the team after missing time with that bum shoulder, sealed the Jets' fate. One throw in San Diego, the touchdown to Santana Moss, proved to me that his shoulder is fine. Expect a lot of rushes from Martin and Lamont Jordan, mixed in with short, timed passes to break down Pittsburgh.
The Falcons should still advance to the NFC Championship game, but it will be a close one. Expect the Atlanta pass rush to force Marc Bulger into a lot of quick (read: bad) decisions.
Al: (1-3 last week) So I guess regular season success doesn't necessarily translate into post-season victories. After finishing above .500 on the season, I start the post season deep in the hole. No problem. I'll just go 4-0 this week.
Man, this line is dropping quickly. It's down to 2 as of Thursday morning, but since Vivek used 2.5, I'll take it. I'm a little nervous that it seems like people are going so heavily on the Colts. This line should be much higher than it is. But I just can't bring myself to take New England. It's currently forecasted to be sunny and not that cold on Sunday in Foxboro, conditions that should allow Peyton Manning to throw the ball at will on the makeshift New England secondary. The Colts defense is better right now than it has been during any of the last three Colts losses to New England. As long as they can keep the Pats under 30, I think we'll see Indy play for the AFC Championship a week from now.
And the Colts will be playing that game in Pittsburgh. The Jets did play the Steelers tight a few weeks ago at Heinz Feild. The Jets were able to control the Chargers passing attack by loading up on Antonio Gates and daring Drew Brees to throw the ball to his wide receivers. When those receivers are Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker, you can get away with that type of strategy. Pittsburgh, however, has more receiving weapons than the Jets can handle. If the Jets load up against the run to stop Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, I expect the Steelers to move primarily to a three wide receiver set to take advantage of the Jets secondary. How do you score against the Steelers defense? I have no idea. No one has really been able to do it this year. The Giants put up 30 points in Week 14, but they were helped by some great returns that produced a TD and field position either in Steelers territory or around midfield.
I just can't pick the Eagles with all of the injuries that they're dealing with. Mark Simoneau is doubtful for Sunday with a sprained ankle. Hollis Thomas and Derrick Burgess are expected back after missing the end of the season and Brian Dawkins should be in the lineup after missing over a week of practice because of the flu. You can't expect any of those players to be at full strength. All of this is before we even start to talk about the impact Terrell Owens' absence will have on the Eagles offense. I've gone over this ad infinitum, but this offense hasn't played a meaningful game as a unit in over a year. There's no way that you can expect them to be as successful as they were over the first fourteen weeks of the season. Could the Eagles still win this game? Of course, but they don't deserve the nine points.
I can't take the Rams on the road. I just can't. The Falcons should be able to move the ball easily against the Rams if they remember that they have three incredibly effective runners and the Rams can't really stop anyone that runs. As Michael pointed out, the Rams linebackers struggled against the pass in Seattle last week. With Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler, Michael Vick should be able to exploit this weakness. I could easily see the Falcons put up 40 points in this game. Now, can the Falcons hold the Rams under 40? I think so. Atlanta's defense isn't that great, but they're better than what they call a defense in Seattle. The biggest difference is the Atlanta pass rush that lead the league in sacks and was second in adjusted sack rate. All they need to do is force Marc Bulger to throw one or two passes a little sooner than usual and the Falcons should be able to hold off the Rams.