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?
15 Nov 2006
by Bill Barnwell & Ian Dembsky
Bill: I feel like I should start with discussing my comments in this week's Audibles where I said some rather mean, nasty things about Eli Manning. In case you aren't aware, I am, in fact, a Giants fan -- I'm not the most hardcore of Giants fans, but I've tolerated some pretty miserable Giants football to get to where they are now, and I feel like I have the right to complain. I've referenced the Danny Kanell jersey I own in the past, and maybe some people thought I was joking, but I can confirm that I do actually own a Danny Kanell jersey, purchased at a Boston-area thrift store for $3 several years ago and worn with pride to this day. I do have a Chris Calloway jersey sitting in storage somewhere.
I grew up watching barely-ambulatory Giants passing attacks grope their way toward mediocrity, only to fail miserably in the fumbles of Chris Calloway and Thomas Lewis, the bizarre affection offered Dave Brown and Kent Graham. The Giants had no concept of how to develop an offense in the early 90's -- they'd throw high draft pick after high draft pick at a skill position player, only to find that the players they were picking were farces. How many teams would draft a running back in the first round two years in a row? (The answer: two. The Giants with Rodney Hampton and Jarrod Bunch in 1990 and 1991, and the Rams with Barry Redden and Eric Dickerson in 1982 and 1983.) The Giants followed with first-round selections of TE Derek Brown in 1992, QB Brown in the first round of the 1992 Supplemental Draft (which cost them their first rounder in 1993), Thomas Lewis in 1994, Tyrone Wheatley in 1995, Amani Toomer with their second rounder in 1996, and Ike Hilliard and Tiki Barber in 1997.
Now, I'm not implying that the Giants were awful at drafting in general -- they made some excellent picks in later rounds, especially on defense -- but their comical excessive skill-position player lock in the earlier rounds of the draft was a sad commentary on how poor they were at actually determining talent at those positions. Sure, Barber turned out to be a stud -- anyone who's seen an Escalade commercial this year knows that the Giants weren't counting on that actually happening, a fact only furthered when you consider the Giants drafted Ron Dayne in the first round and Joe Montgomery in the second round to be feature backs before they gave Tiki the bulk of the carries.
The point is that I'm always a little skeptical of the Giants picks at the skill positions; I have total faith that Mathias Kiwanuka will turn out to be a player, but none whatsoever that Sinorice Moss will be useful. When it comes to Eli Manning, well, I've always been a little bitter at the price the Giants had to pay to get him. I'd sure love to see Shawne Merriman becoming a star in New York right now -- he'd be getting the "LT 2.0" treatment, even down to the drug suspension. Heck, I mean, we could even be seeing the Nate Kaeding-Mike Nugent highly-drafted kicker war, and I would be fine with that too. But I can't change the past. The Giants made the trade, and I've come to accept that.
When it comes to criticism of Eli Manning, I think the people who read FO, watch Eli play, and bash us for running Eli through the wringer are warranted in their opinion, certainly. I also think our criticism is sometimes misunderstood -- I, for one, know Eli Manning is a much better quarterback than the guys I mentioned above. What makes Eli so frustrating to watch, though, are three basic tenets:
Ian: I have a shorter version of why Eli Manning is so frustrating to watch. He seems like one of those players who only turn it on when he wants to, like Kobe Bryant. Early on in games, he's just going through the motions, waiting for the time when he has to turn it on or lose the game. On occasion, we get a glimpse of "Super Eli," leading the Giants to a heroic late comeback, or sealing shut a win with key accurate passing. It needs to happen much more often though. When Peyton lines up in the first quarter, you can sense his focus and determination on every play. With Eli, it's much more like he's waiting to figure out how the game will go before he really begins to try. Until he can turn it on from the get-go, he's not going to be among the elite players in the league.
One of the elite players in the league, Donovan McNabb, got significant help from an unlikely source this past Sunday -- the running game! Was it me, or did the Eagles actually run a balanced offense this weekend? Brian Westbrook was handed the ball 22 times, and he took advantage by averaging over five yards per carry. Controlling the clock and the ball helped keep their defense rested so that they could continually torment Mark Brunell and the Redskins offense, holding them to a mere three points. If the Eagles can continue to run the ball with success, it will open up the passing game even more, which will make Donovan McNabb a bigger threat -- a scary thought, indeed.
The Colts are still undefeated -- barely. The Buffalo Bills played them surprisingly tight by doing the same thing teams were doing against the Colts early in the season: defend the pass like crazy, and when on offense, pound the rock. Early in the season this was a method used by many teams to keep games close; you have to wonder if we'll be seeing more of it in the coming weeks. Watching Anthony Thomas rack up over 100 yards, Patriots fans still have to be wondering why Brady was so intent to pass downfield on the Colts last week...
As a Tampa Bay fan, I'm officially rooting for better draft picks. Due to personal time constraints I was only able to watch the second half of Monday Night's tilt between Tampa Bay and Carolina, and it's a good thing I did because the first half might have given me some hope I would have regretted. This Buccaneers offense is completely inept. Fumbling the ball away from light contact. Dropping easy short completions over and over again that force the team into third-and-long situations. Nowhere for Cadillac to run. I'm not all that disappointed in Gradkowski; for a rookie he's been handling himself pretty well. The offense is doing nothing to help the team, though, and it's depressing to watch. The offensive line still needs help and the defense needs to get younger. Here's hoping for future losses (sigh).
One of the stranger stories going on right now is the resurgence of Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Oh, what a difference good offensive line play makes! The running game is working, and Brett Favre's interceptions are plummeting. Yet another example of why the offensive and defensive lines are the most important units in football. Put a veteran quarterback behind a great offensive line, and he'll look very good. If the issue of the importance of line play ever went to court, we all know what Exhibit A would be: Drew Bledsoe.
QB: Speaking of the devil, guess who had zero points this week? Our boy Eli! No opponent adjustments in Loser League; three turnovers and 121 passing yards earned Eli low score of the week. At least he's in better shape than runner-up Mark Brunell, whose 4 is likely the last time he'll have a score below 15 for the remainder of his Loser League career. Those teams who selected him in the midseason redraft might not want to bother checking their team's progress the rest of the way out.
RB: One guy who's remained highly regarded despite showing up repeatedly in and around this section of Scramble is Laurence Maroney; while no one can doubt that he's an exciting player, sharing time with Corey Dillon and some average performances (note Maroney's -1.6% DVOA, 29th in the league) have held him to pretty low numbers most weeks. His 3 this time around earned him a tie for first place with Tatum Bell, whose turf toe injury is clearly curtailing his explosiveness. After gaining 27 yards on 14 carries against Indianapolis in Week 8, he missed the Steelers game and then picked up 37 yards on 14 carries against Oakland. Knowing how these injuries can nag, I'd normally recommend Mike Bell as a potentially undervalued player in trade, but his deactivation for this week's game leaves me befuddled. Mike Shanahan's geniusosity is clearly two steps ahead of me right now. Julius Jones also made a strong no-showing with his 4, as he continues to look like the lesser of Dallas' running back tandem vis-a-vis Marion Barber III, who leads NFL running backs in DVOA at a whopping 47.0%.
WR: I am officially giddy. My Loser League wide receiver trio of Joe Jurevicius (0), Peerless Price (1), and Eric Moulds (1) may have had the lowest combined score for any three wide receivers in Loser League history. A two! How awesome is that! If only one of them could have missed an extra point. And to think, I was so sad that Amani Toomer's injury made me re-pick my team. If you like speedy slot wide receivers, too, this was another good week: Shaun McDonald finished with a zero, while Ronald Curry had one point. On the bright side, he didn't tear any ligaments in his knees; on the dour side, I don't think he actually has any left to rip. Oh well. Small victories.
K: Rob Bironas continues to make his run toward Loser League MVP, going 1-for-3 this week to end with a 2 and cost the Titans a game they should have won. Kris Brown's 3 at least came in a win for the Texans. He missed field goals from 52 and 32, but I'm sure Jack Del Rio will come up with a way to blame Byron Leftwich for Brown's missed kicks. Yes, I know they play for different teams. Jack Del Rio is special.
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Not the best week for the Keep Choppin' Wood Award. The vast majority of games were decided by good plays, not bonehead ones. Roethlisberger didn't turn the ball over, Philly-Washington turned out the way DVOA said it should have, and Drew Bledsoe isn't around to tank Dallas' chances anymore (man, do I love picking on Drew). In the end, three worthy candidates emerged. Jon Kitna should have had a much better game against the 49ers; his pick, fumble, and average play in general helped San Francisco to a surprising road win. The Giants special teams, who fell asleep against Chicago while Devin Hester returned a field goal 108 yards, also deserved consideration.
This week, the award goes to a duo that might never qualify for the award again. This week's Keep Choppin' Award winners are none other than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. In a game that could have sealed up the division, the Patriots' game plan simply wasn't effective against the Jets. In sloppy conditions, the Pats (and I also said this in Audibles) should have gone to the shotgun just like they did against Oakland in the Tuck Rule game. When they finally did, they flew down the field and scored, but it was too late. All game Brady was making poor passes, and in an unusual development, Bill Belichick and crew didn't seem to make any halftime adjustments to help. Throw in the performance of these two last week against Indianapolis, and it's clear they deserve this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award.
Ian: (2-1 last week, 11-16-3 overall)
I guess I jumped on the Lions' bandwagon too quickly; picking them to beat up on San Francisco was my only block to a 3-0 week last week. Who can figure out the 49ers? I'm staying away from them until I have a clue how they will perform from week-to-week.
I'm definitely a fan of the direction Dallas is headed. Tony Romo looks like the real deal, which is keeping T.O. and the Dallas fan base happy. I don't see them putting an end to the Colts' undefeated season though; Manning has proven he can play well in close games as well as blowouts. In what should likely be a high-scoring game, I'm picking the Colts to remain unbeaten.
Am I the only one noticing that New England is struggling mightily, while Green Bay is playing some great ball right now? I'm surprised to see the Packers getting six points at home this week. I'm not sure who will win, but it feels like a close game to me, and the six points are too much to give up.
Okay, so we've fixed the flat tire, and the blinkers don't work, but I'm sticking with the Lions' bandwagon for now. Especially going up against Arizona, who just can't seem to do anything right at the moment. My, how the Cardinals have fallen since that third quarter against Chicago...
Bill: (2-1 last week, 20-9-1 overall)
Just to clarify since it's come up a few times in the discussion threads -- Ian and I do, in fact, purposely chose different games from each other when it comes to our weekly bets. For the first half of the season, I chose games first; this will be Ian's third week now going first. Now, back to my regularly scheduled backpatting: while Indianapolis underperformed against the Bills and cut my win streak down at six, I did predict the Steelers win and margin of victory (a touchdown) against the Saints. As for the Catholic Match Girl Staredown Lock of the Week, well, I did predict Eli's long night against the Bears, keeping CMG healthy and wealthy enough to not have to whore those precious eyes out on the site for another week.
Andrew Walter on the road, doo dah, doo dah, Andrew Walter on the road, I'll take the points.
If Aaron Brooks starts ... then I get to bet against Aaron Brooks on the road. That works too.
Pittsburgh's resurgence continues. Cleveland's secondary is banged-up, and while they were able to stop Michael Vick I don't think they'll be able to stop the Steelers.
I didn't think New England was going to lose two in a row. I'll put the Catholic Match Girl Staredown Lock of the Week (2-1 for the season now) on them not losing three. I know we said that we don't pick the same games, but we're picking against each other, and Catholic Match Girl has a feeling about this one.
130 comments, Last at 21 Nov 2006, 1:40am by Stu