Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
26 Jan 2007
by Bill Barnwell & Ian Dembsky
(Ed. note: We're suspending the "no Brady/Manning talk" rule in this thread, since that is the subject of much of the article. We are not responsible for the lunacy that is sure to follow.)
Bill: My faith in the media has been shaken, Ian. Take the play of each of the quarterbacks in the Colts-Patriots game from Sunday and reverse it. Imagine that it was Brady who threw the early interception, organized the comeback, and that it was Manning who threw the pick on his final drive with a chance to win the game. Wouldn't that make more sense?
Theoretically, the role of the media in sports is to report on the events that have occurred and, with an educated pen that has access to and understands things on a different level than the layman, provides a context for and interprets the results of a contest. The role, from what I'm able to tell, should not to be to point out bits that would be obvious from a cursory analysis of the box score and offer their opinion in as loud as a manner as possible.
How much of Tom Brady's skill in the clutch has been ascribed to him by journalists? How much of that is because the story of a good-to-very good quarterback mixing some luck (the fumble luck against the Chargers, John Kasay's out-of-bounds kickoff in the Super Bowl) with effective performances in a very small sample size has been told previously?
And likewise, why has Manning's story become, so blatantly, the guy whose all-world skills go away in the clutch? Maybe it's because his defense is worse. You think? You can make points about Manning's salary cap hit and how that hurts the Colts ability to sign players, and it's relevant, but it's not the whole story -- and Brady isn't surviving on chump change, either. Is Manning the third generation of quarterback to get that story told about him? Manning, Marino, Tarkenton. Was there a guy who "just couldn't win the big games" before Fran Tarkenton?
Has Tom Brady lost his clutch ability? He's lost two playoff games! And, on the other hand, has Peyton Manning found his by overcoming the Pats? Does he need to beat the Bears to solidify it?
I'd like to propose an alternate idea. Maybe, all along, it wasn't any magic beans that Tom Brady had or inferiorities that Peyton Manning suffered from. Maybe it was just the media interpreting the results of five minutes or ten minutes of football incorrectly.
A lot of the criticism of sabermetric analysis revolves around the idea that sabermetrics and sabermetricians don't really care about the game, that they reduce the players to paper and are math nerds who don't really love the game and don't want it to be fun. Some of this criticism is from fellow fans, and some of it is from the more traditional media types (I won't name anyone; all I will say is that his name rhymes with Baron Van Raschke). The thing about sabermetrics and about quantitative analysis is that it adjusts for context, looks at performance in a truer, more objective light, and explains what will happen most of the time. Some of the most exhilarating moments of being a fan of any sport occur when things happen that no one could expect -- the famous "Explain how Willie Mays caught that ball, then" criticism -- even sabermetricians.
What the larger media does, in trying to explain these moments, is ascribe simple qualities to players that aren't so simple. Tom Brady's clutch, Peyton Manning's not. David Ortiz is clutch, Alex Rodriguez is not. Sabermetricians offer up a different answer: Tom Brady is a very good player who happened to be in more possible "clutch" situations. Once he was there, he was assisted by some things that are quantifiable as lucky and random, and then from there, anything can happen in a small sample size. One drive out of 170 in a season. Five at-bats out of 700. They don't tell us anything. They're exhilarating, glorious, magical, or miserable and unbearable to think about the next day.
In reality, Peyton Manning isn't any more "clutch" today than he was yesterday, the day or weekend before, a year ago, or when he was eight years old. Tom Brady's not any worse, either. They're simple stories for situations that, in some cases, require a much deeper analysis not feasible on short deadlines; in other cases, though, they're stories created to sell newspapers when the answer is much more simple and wouldn't offer any "insight."
Sometimes, it's just chance and luck.
Ian: Your point is well taken, but I do think it's tough to say that the concept of "clutch" doesn't exist. It's kind of like "being in the zone." Teams hire psychologists to try and figure out what exactly puts a player "in the zone," hoping to keep him there. Remember Michael Jordan's three-point barrage, followed by him shrugging his shoulders as if to say "I don't know why, but I simply can't miss!" These mental things do happen, but at this point, no one really knows how or why. I suppose that a way to define clutch is to say that added pressure on a certain person increases his chances of being in the zone. Quantifiable? Heck no. But do these attributes really exist? I'd venture to say "yes."
One quarterback who needn't be in the zone to carry his team is Rex Grossman. All he has to do, really, is not screw up. He played well for essentially one drive last Sunday, but it's all his team needed to put away the Saints' momentum and their chances of reaching the Super Bowl.
It's truly astounding how erratically Rex plays. His coaches specifically put short passes in the playbook early to ease him into the game action, but he tends to airmail those passes anyways. What I want to know is, how come we're not hearing more talk about Bernard Berrian? The guy is the unsung MVP of this Bears offense. He's got blazing speed and the hands to make you pay if you don't respect his ability to go long. He also makes nice cuts downfield, turning deep coverage into an "easy" 15-yard gain, Reggie Wayne style. Have you noticed that the vast majority of Rex's accurate passes are thrown in Berrian's direction? It's because he knows he's got a reliable stud out there who'll create separation, and thus reduce the defenses chances of swooping in for a pick. Every time a pass is completed to Muhammad, it's usually in relatively tight coverage, and the throw isn't terribly accurate either. Receiver separation is a quarterback's best friend.
One team I would like to give a lot of credit to over the weekend is both officiating crews. There was very little to complain about in either game; it seems that the vast majority of the time they got things right. And in the wake of the Colts' thrilling victory over New England, we're not discussing ridiculous officiating calls. We're discussing how the players on the field performed, which is what this is all about.
Now that I've been nice to all you officials out there, can I make one teeny request? When a player appears to fumble the football, can you guys make up your freakin' minds about what you think happened? One truly disturbing trend in football is that officials never seem to blow the whistle at the end of plays anymore. How many times have we seen a player go clearly down, but the whistle doesn't blow, and when a defender knocks the ball out of the ball carriers hands when he's already on the ground, he goes off running with it in case it's a fumble. Only, it obviously wasn't, but the official didn't bother to blow his whistle to call the play dead. It's strange; the new rule about a fumble after the whistle being recoverable if it's clear who got it should make the officials feel better about blowing the whistle than in the past. Now, even a whistle that was blown incorrectly has the chance to be overturned properly. When a play is over, blow the whistle!
Bill: I'm thinking about the Super Bowl and I'm not really sure if this is a real good matchup for Manning and the Colts offense. The Bears secondary is pretty deep -- in Ricky Manning, they have one of the better (if bitter) nickel backs in the league, and while Marvin Harrison can beat Nathan Vasher, it's not as if Vasher is chopped Roc or anything. In the middle of the field, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher can handle Dallas Clark -- Indianapolis is going to have to try really hard to get Clark up against Hunter Hillenmeyer. Alternately, I could see Chicago using five defensive backs in their base defense a lot of the time as they did last week against Reggie Bush.
Ian: When the Bears offense gets on the field, the first thing they should do is not bother with the flare patterns to a fullback, or a quick hitter to the tight end. Rex can't throw them, so don't bother. The Colts are likely to stack up against the run, however, as they usually do. Early on, for reasons I've discussed above, they need to establish Bernard Berrian. Hit him for a few decent gainers, or go long if you wish. Let the Colts know that you're willing to stretch the field, if they're gonna stack the line. Once they help out on Berrian, you've either got Muhammad and Desmond Clark with room to run, or you've got Bob Sanders defending the pass instead of the run. That's when you start pounding with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, and when you'll truly be in control.
For the Colts defense, you need to disrupt Berrian's timing by being physical with him up near the line, and giving safety help deep. Take your chances with Rex throwing to Muhammad and Clark early. Stuff the run, stuff Berrian, and you'll have Grossman and the rest of the Bears offense exactly where you want them.
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Paging Reche Caldwell ... Paging Reche Caldwell ... This is a pretty obvious choice. Reche's first drop was horrible, but he got bailed out by Jabar Gaffney's amazing catch in the back of the end zone (and for those of you wondering, it was completely clear that his heels never touched the out-of-bounds line). The second catch cost the Patriots dearly. The way the defender was sprinting to Caldwell because of the lack of coverage would have made it easy for Reche to cut back to the inside and cruise in for a touchdown. Instead, a pathetically dropped pass killed the Patriots' momentum at the time and led to Indy's winning points at the hands of Joseph Addai. Caldwell is, without a doubt, this week's Keep Choppin Wood Award winner.
|2007 Football Outsiders Playoff Fantasy Teams|
|RB||14||Jones, CHI||42||Addai, IND||32|
|WR||Harrison, IND||12||Muhammad, CHI||5||15|
There look to be two possible winners in the "Best of the Rest" competition among the readers, who posted their teams in the discussion thread of the original draft article.
Geoff (comment 27) has 102 points, but his only remaining players are Cedric Benson and Desmond Clark. However, Andrew/A.B. (comment 18) has 99 points, with Rex Grossman, Benson, Clark, Mark Bradley, and Indianapolis defense all left. So he's the probable winner.
Next week, Scramble returns with the Annual Prop Bet Extravaganza!
245 comments, Last at 08 Feb 2007, 1:12am by Jim G