The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
22 Nov 2006
by Bill Barnwell and Ian Dembsky
Bill: For the second week in a row, I want to start by talking about something I brought up in Audibles. In Sunday night's Broncos-Chargers game, Broncos center Tom Nalen dove at Chargers defensive lineman Igor Olshansky's knees on a spike-the-ball play; Olshansky responded by throwing a combination to Nalen whilst Nalen lay at the Ukrainian's feet. Olshansky was given an Unnecessary Roughness penalty for 15 yards and ejected from the game on a Broncos drive where they were attempting to tie the Chargers in the final minute. He was escorted from the field by Marty Schottenheimer, who emptied the contents of his gall bladder onto Olshansky with the utmost haste. For those of you who haven't seen the clip, YouTube still has it up at the time of writing here; if it goes down, I'll try and find an alternate clip.
For those of you who also might be unaware, there's history on both sides here. Olshansky's recently returned from knee troubles, while Nalen and the Broncos offensive line are famed for delivering cut blocks -- blocks below the opponent's waist and most often at the opponent's knees -- while opponents aren't looking, allowing Broncos running backs cutback lanes. Occasionally, this has the not-particularly-desirable side effect of injuring opposing defensive linemen who are in vulnerable positions.
Now, before you start writing to us, Broncos fans, I know that the cut block is a legal move. I'll get back to Nalen's block on Sunday night in a minute. The cut block as employed by the Broncos is one of those issues that skirts upon the "unwritten code" of NFL players, which in and of itself is a little ridiculous, but exists for a reason -- if players took every opportunity they had to injure each other, it's pretty obvious that the NFL wouldn't be the same league.
The most blatant recent example of breaking "the code" was probably in 2002, when then-Buccaneer Warren Sapp leveled Chad Clifton of the Packers on an interception return where Clifton and Sapp were both 20-30 yards away from the play. The hit, much like the Broncos' cut blocks, was legal -- but was it ethical? The gray area between legality and ethics is the one that the unwritten rules of football occupy -- and it raises more questions. Are there any ethics in football? How do they get created? At what point do they cease to be relevant? On fourth down? In the playoffs? Do they get established over time as players become more and more recognizant of them?
I'll use a soccer example to illuminate the last question. Over the last 25 years, it has become expected practice when a player is injured on the field to knock the ball out of bounds to allow the player to receive treatment, even if the injured player is on the opposing team. When the ball is thrown back in by the opposing team, who has gained possession of the ball by virtue of the other team's touching it last before going out of bounds, this team is expected to kick the ball back to the other team without any pressure, allowing them to regain the ball without punishment. While not an official rule, such behavior is expected -- fans will boo vociferously if players don't follow this unwritten law. Furthermore, when a player scored a decisive goal in a 1999 match where he unwittingly did not follow the rule, his manager offered the opposition the chance to replay the match ten days later, an offer that was taken up.
It's hard for me to define what is ethical and unethical on a football field without having been a player at any significant level; this is the sort of thing that pundits with actual NFL experience are useful for talking about, as opposed to stumbling through names in 30-second highlight packages for $2 million a year, but I'm stuck here talking about it.
Back to the Nalen block, though. What makes it particularly unethical and repulsive is the fact that Nalen knew exactly what he was doing. Nalen cannot claim that he didn't know it was going to be a spike play; he's the center, for chrissakes. What makes it absolutely unjustifiable is that the play was over, and Nalen knew it. If you watch the video, Nalen does not move out of his crouch and lunge at Olshansky's knees until after the ball has touched the ground for the spike. Was Nalen looking at the ball? No. Do I think he noticed when an object he's snapped tens of thousands of times bounced behind him, the way it does at the end of countless spike plays? Probably, yeah.
What's also maddening about it is John Madden's justification of it. Madden says, and I quote, "I think what [Olshansky] was upset about, he thought Nalen went for his knees, which he did, but that's ok! I mean, you know, when the center goes to block you like that, you can't punch them." To Madden, this is the same exact thing as Nalen blocking Olshansky in the middle of a play in the second quarter, which is a wonderful example of Madden's senility or the tininess of the monitors he was working off of.
Madden and Michaels' utter incomprehension of the incident wasn't particularly surprising. I think back to Joe Buck's self-righteous orgasm of indignance upon Randy Moss' faux-mooning of the crowd at Lambeau: "That's a disgusting act by Randy Moss, and it's unfortunate we had it on our air live." Of course, not only was Moss' act a not-remotely-serious response to Packers fans mooning the opposing team's bus, but he didn't actually pull his pants down. And yet, Buck's indignation was wasted upon a meaningless, not-actually-insulting-to-anyone joke, while Nalen's farcical display of professionalism was left unspoken about. This was the most disgusting thing I've seen watching football in a while, and it was one of those plays that defined for me who Tom Nalen and the Broncos offensive line are in a permanent way.
And then, when you look for football clips on YouTube, you find that someone's posted four clips of himself playing an entire target="_blank">Madden 94 game of the Cowboys at the Broncos, and it's impossible to hate football or the Broncos or life, really. I could write a whole running diary on him playing that game. Does everyone always control a defensive end in Madden? Why does the quarterback's cadence sound like it was recorded by a 15-year-old boy with allergies, and why does he also say the "It's good!" after each extra point? Did EA really use the same whistle sound effects for all their sports games? I should really stop now.
Ian: Ah, the memories of old school Madden games. I was so inspired by those movies, I dusted off my copy of the original Madden football for the SNES from back in 1991 and fired it up on my 50" TV. Nothing beats blowing up primitive graphics on the big screen. Of course, as a Tampa Bay fan, it's especially difficult to support my team on those older games, when the Buccaneers were truly terrible. I couldn't even beat the Phoenix Cardinals; apparently it was Ricky Proehl hauling in all those bombs.
Enough about Madden football though. It's time to talk about another announcer, and to give credit where credit is due.
"I've never watched a football game where while the ball is in the air, it's like watching a Michael Jordan jumpshot. You're not sure if it's going to go in, and with regard to the Jacksonville Jaguar wide receivers, you're just not 100 percent sure they're gonna catch it." -- Joe Theismann
This has to be the most random, meaningless analogy of all-time. Why a Michael Jordan jumpshot? I suppose in that regard, it's also like watching Pedro Martinez pitch -- you don't know if he's going to pitch a strike. Or waiting for the next commercial to have Peyton Manning in it -- it just might. Well said, Joe, well said. Now get back to kissing up to Tony.
Time for a crazy revelation. The San Francisco 49ers are only one game behind Seattle for first place in the NFC West. What's going on there? It's clear that their young defense is getting better in a hurry. Frank Gore has been running possessed, leading the league in rushes of 20+ yards. Alex Smith has matured quickly. He's not lighting it up, but he's generally not turning the ball over, either, smartly relying on his improved defense and the running game.
Are they for real? Can they keep it up and possibly win the division? In the NFC, almost anyone is a playoff contender, and I expect the 49ers to be competitive when it comes to the Wild Card. I don't see them catching Seattle though, despite beating them this past weekend. They capitalized on mistakes by Seneca Wallace that you're not likely to see Matt Hasselbeck make. As Shaun Alexander gets more game time he'll get better, as will the entire Seattle offense. You have to admire San Francisco though. Bill and I both picked the Under when it came to the preseason over/under line of five wins, and they've already matched that with six to go.
Speaking of over/unders ... Hey Bill, have you placed an order for my Ed Reed jersey yet? For those who've been reading for awhile, you'll recall that I was so confident in the Ravens hitting the Over on eight wins, I wagered a football jersey on it with Bill. Technically I haven't won yet, but I have a strong feeling that they'll win one of their last six games. McNair hasn't been lighting it up offensively, but he's been just what the team needed -- a veteran presence with a swagger that's affecting the offense as a whole. Mark Clayton has gained confidence to where he's stepped up as a legitimate #1 receiver. Jamal Lewis has risen from the ashes to running powerfully the way he used to. Todd "Questionable" Heap has helped to consistently move the chains. Cincinnati is having quite an offensive resurgence, but don't expect them to overcome a three-game divisional deficit and catch the Ravens before the season is out.
Bill: If by a Veteran Presence you mean a presence that sucks, then you're right. Baltimore's offense is 23rd in the league in DVOA; 14th whilst passing, 25th running. Jamal Lewis' good game last week was notable, not regular. Now, don't get me wrong -- you'll win the bet and I'll hate myself regardless -- but I was right in my methodology behind betting against you here. This offense isn't any good, McNair or not; I just didn't realize how good the Ravens defense was going to be.
Ian: Before we get to the picks later, I wanted to comment on how much I completely suck at them this season. I don't get it. I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what's going on on the football field. I typically see things before the announcers say them, and of my four fantasy football teams this season, all four of them are in first place. When it comes to predicting outcomes, though, I might as well give up. I'm in a picks pool with a season-long contest for total games correct, and of the 160 games played so far, I've gotten a whopping 68 of them right. 68! That's 42.5%. I think I'm eligible for the loser's prize in Keno. Why am I telling you this? If I'm going to brag about being right about the Ravens, I have to admit my shortcomings as well. And I continue to recommend that you pick whatever Bill predicts, and whatever I don't. When I picked the Packers, and he made the Patriots his Catholic Match Girl Staredown Lock of the Week, I might as well have let loose some black cats on Lambeau Field.
Bill: And Brett Favre would've overthrown them, too.
|Jason Beattie is off this week, so please enjoy this somewhat timely cartoon re-run!|
I'd love to give this award to Eli Manning, but we've harped on him enough already. Demarcus Faggins and his "coverage" of Lee Evans was also worth consideration. Also, Aaron Brooks's terrible interception as the Raiders were driving for a game-winning drive would've earned the award, except what else did we expect from Aaron Brooks?
No, this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award winner is none other than Seneca Wallace of the Seattle Seahawks. In a game that could've given his team a decisive division lead, putting less pressure on the return of their injured superstars, he threw three poorly-thrown, costly interceptions. Worst of all was when Frank Gore fumbled away the football while the 49ers were essentially running out the clock: It took Seneca two plays to give the ball right back, killing a huge momentum swing and any realistic chance to win the game. Congratulations Seneca, you're this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award winner!
QB: Exit stage right, Mr. McNabb. While he couldn't have been selected by many a Loser League team, McNabb's last game of the season mustered a lonely single digit; Jeff Garcia, if there was Loser League Free Agency, would be the hot acquisition of the week right about now. Runners-up include the miscalibrated JUGS machine that was Brett Favre, who looked like an Eli Manning cover band on Sunday, and Marc Bulger, who looked like a Charlie Frye cover band.
RB: Pretty obvious who the Losingest Loser Leaguer of the Week is this week. Welcome, Ronnie Brown; your -2 yards on 12 carries would be enough, but the fact that you were able to fumble one of those carries is a noble offering to the Loser League gods. A -2 from a running back is a beautiful thing, especially a legitimately excellent one like Brown. Ahman Green and Leon Washington could only muster up 2 points each in response, fantastic output by comparison.
WR: TJ Houshmandzadeh was the most prominent amongst a number of players who garnered 1 point this week; on the other hand, DJ Hackett is a Football Outsiders favorite, and Dante Hall actually had a Gatorade commercial based around him in another lifetime. "Space" is a many-splendored thing. The winner at wide receiver, though, was Patrick Crayton, whose zero left him in the same galaxy of suck that Patrick Watkins resides in.
K: If your team isn't going to score any touchdowns, you're really behooven to kick a field goal when you get the opportunity. Dave Rayner wasn't concerned with such frivolities, and his sole missed attempt tied him with Brown for-2 points on the week, low score for all. John Carney and Mike Vanderjagt, the latter of whom is strangely still employed, also had negative numbers on the week.
Bill: (2-1 last week, 22-10-1 overall)
Ian should have known not to mess with my dear lady. Of course, saying I was taking the points with Andrew Walter when I meant to say giving them jinxed Kansas City and cost me a perfect week.
I know, I know, the big news of the week is that Dallas is going to run the table and win the NFC East, the Super Bowl, and Bill Parcells is going to bathe in a peanut butter shower and life will be fantastic. Color me slightly skeptical. The difference between these teams is about 42% worth of DVOA. This line is preposterously low. Yes, the Giants are banged up. They're not this banged up. She (3-1) believes.
Ben Roethlisberger on the road. It's gotten to that point now.
David Garrard just wins, baby. J.P. Losman just ... does whatever J.P. Losman does.
Ian: (0-3 last week, 11-18-3 overall)
Of course, as soon as I announced that I want Tampa Bay to start losing in an effort to get better draft choices, they go and beat Washington. Not that I couldn't see that coming with Jason Campbell's first start coming on the road. It ends here though. Dallas' defense has been playing exceptionally well lately. Their offense has been excellent, balancing talent all over the field. Thanksgiving Day, the home field, tied for first in their division -- expect the Cowboys to win and win big.
If there's one thing we've learned about bandwagons, it's that when they come out of nowhere, they're often short-lived. The 49ers are playing great lately, while the Rams are not. Torry Holt hasn't scored since his three-touchdown outburst back in Week 6. Look for him to break out of his funk in a big way, and for the Rams to get going in a big win at home.
The Colts have only won by more than nine points twice this season. While Donovan McNabb may be out, the Colts defense is still pretty terrible, and the Eagles defense has the kind of secondary that can keep Peyton Manning in check. Look for a Colts win, but not a big one.
82 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2006, 8:03pm by Bill Barnwell