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?
21 Jan 2009
by Vince Verhei and Ben Riley
Yes, it's time again for the annual All-Keep Choppin' Wood team. Since this column is roughly as long as footnote 110 to David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, let's get right to it.
Quarterback: J.T. O'Sullivan, SF
We're tempted to go with Dan Orlovsky here just for the "free cannoli" safety he gave up to the Vikings in Week 6, but he actually finished up around league average as a passer. O'Sullivan was last in DYAR by a significant margin, and this came after Mike Martz suggested O'Sullivan could be the best passer Martz had ever coached. He was wrong.
Running Back: Chris Perry, CIN; Tim Hightower, ARI
In a normal year, Hightower (next to last in both DYAR and DVOA) would be something to celebrate. But this is no ordinary year. This is the year of Chris Perry, whose stat line reads like something you'd get on Madden after downing a fifth of vodka. -139 DYAR! -39.5% DVOA! 29% success rate! 2.6 yards per carry! And to top it off, Perry was also last among running backs in receiving DYAR with -79! Sadly, Perry was benched for Cedric Benson a third of the way through the season, so we never got to see the depths to which Perry could have sunk. When it was over, Perry's impact on the DVOA era rang loud and sour:
Can there be any doubt about the KCW MVP?
Wide Receiver: Braylon Edwards, CLE; Jerry Porter, JAC; Justin McCareins, TEN
Edwards was supposed to lead the Browns back to the playoffs. Instead, he led the league in dropped passes and total incompletions. Jerry Porter: $10 million, 11 catches. A poor investment, that. McCareins finished last in the league in DYAR, and was just one target behind Justin Gage for the team lead. If he had been just average, the Titans may have overcome the mistakes they made against Baltimore and gone on to the Super Bowl.
Tight end: L.J. Smith, PHI
Smith wasn't the worst tight end in the league -- seven tight ends posted worse DYAR totals, including Buffalo's Robert Royal and a pair of Bengals -- but none of those players took up a chunk of the salary cap like Smith did. The Eagles franchised Smith. Franchised! They paid him a top-5 salary and got a bottom-10 performance. Here be the wood, and here it is chopped.
Left tackle: Kwame Harris, OAK
The Raiders were actually pretty good running to Harris' side -- sixth in runs to left end, ninth in runs to left tackle -- but we can't ignore Harris' 15 penalties and 7.5 sacks allowed. He committed 11 false starts in only 11 games started. That's bad.
Left guard: Jacob Bell, STL
Rams were 23rd rushing to left tackle and 25th up the middle. Bell committed five penalties and allowed 2.5 sacks.
Center: Jake Grove, OAK
Penalty and sack numbers for centers all look pretty similar. Grove's three penalties and 2.5 sacks allowed don't really jump out at you -- until you realize he started only 12 games. The Raiders were also 30th in rushing up the middle.
Right guard: Richie Incognito, STL
As noted, the Rams were 25th at rushing up the middle. They were fourth in rushing to right tackle, but that can't overcome Incognito's individual numbers -- 11 penalties, 6.5 sacks allowed.
Right tackle: Willie Colon, PIT
This is likely the first time a lineman on the All-KCW team will play in the Super Bowl, but Colon's appearance is well-justified. The Steelers were dead last in runs to right tackle, 19th to right end. Colon committed 11 penalties and allowed 5.5 sacks. Other candidates include Alex Barron (nine penalties, 7.5 sacks allowed) and Jeremy Trueblood (ten penalties, six sacks allowed).
Defensive end: Turk McBride, KC; Tamba Hali, KC
The Chiefs surely expected that the effectiveness of their pass rush would diminish after trading Jared Allen and His Incredible Growing Mullet to the Vikings. What they did not expect, however, was setting the ignominious record for fewest sacks ever recorded in a 16-game season: a whopping total of 10 (!). Not only is that three fewer than the previous record holder, the 1981 Baltimore Colts, it's also one sack less than the strike-shortened record set by the Indianapolis Colts in 1982 -- thus begging the question: just how bad was the Colts' defensive line in the early years of the Reagan Presidency?
Well, not as bad as the Chiefs in the final year of the Bush Era. Tamba Hali was invisible, whether lining up on the left or right side -- Herm Edwards liked to move him around at random -- and Turk McBride was just as ineffective before going on Injured Reserve. It'll be interesting what new Chiefs Czar Scott Pioli decides to do with these apparent first- and third-round busts.
Defensive tackle: Cory Redding, DET; Tommy Kelly, OAK
You could nominate virtually the entire Lions lineup for the All-KCW team (with the exception of Megatron, of course) but Detroit's defensive line was particularly inept, giving up a league-worst 5.38 yards per carry to opposing running backs. While the loss of Shaun Rogers certainly hurt, Cory Redding continued his ongoing quest to play the role of the "Invisible Man" in the forthcoming Disney remake. It may be worth reminding you at this point that Redding is the highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL. (Cue Matt Millen joke No. 9,792.)
Not to be outdone by Detroit's finest GM, during the 2007 offseason Al Davis decided to get involved in the "Who Can Overpay More For a Washed Up DT?" Sweepstakes by signing heretofore ineffective Tommy Kelly to a five-year contract with $18.25 million guaranteed money. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kelly remained ineffective. As an added bonus, he also managed to get himself arrested for driving under the influence in September. No word yet as to whether raiderjoe was in the passenger seat.
Linebacker: Ernie Sims, DET; Cato June, TB; Vernon Gholston, NYJ
Matt Millen made Ernie Sims the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft, apparently under the misconception that he was a wide receiver. (Look, the window for Millen jokes is rapidly closing -- cut us some slack.) Sims played poorly last year and pretty much eviscerated his billing as "the next Derrick Brooks," but perhaps our new favorite head coach Jim Schwartz can get him back on the right track.
As for Cato June, here is what Bill Barnwell wrote in last year's All-KCW team: "In a year with a relatively innocuous group of linebackers, June's DUI charge in November made him the somewhat unfairly-named linebacker in this group. He actually had a fine year on the field." This year, June managed to avoid any additional arrests (no mean feat under a Gruden-coached team -- Hey-O!), but he did not have a fine year on the field at all.
It would be too easy to make some sort of lame "Just take out the L and you have Ghost-on!" joke here, so instead we'll just list the numbers for the sixth-overall pick in last year's draft: Zero Sacks. Zero forced fumbles. Zero interceptions. Thirteen tackles (five solo). Do you think it's safe to say the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense is not working well for this former defensive end?
Cornerback: DeAngelo Hall, OAK/WAS; Lito Sheppard, PHI/Bench; Kelly Jennings, SEA/Hole in Zone; Leigh Bodden, DET/Broken Hearts of FO Staff; Pacman Jones, DAL/Spearmint Rhino
What a horrific year for cornerbacks -- which is to say, what a great year for KCW cornerbacks! You have 1) DeAngelo Hall, who managed to pocket $8 million for his eight games with the Raiders before he was cut (and ended up wasting space on the Redskins to end the season); 2) Sheppard, who whined about the Eagles signing of Asante Samuel in the offseason and ended up being demoted to fourth-string defensive back; 3) Seahawks first-round draft pick Jennings, who lost his starting job to munchkin Josh Wilson and gave up more yards per target than any other corner in the league; 4) former -- and we can't emphasize the former enough -- FO-favorite Leigh Bodden, who played like garbage as Shaun Rogers tore through offensive lines for Cleveland; and 5) Pacman Jones, who remained Pacman Jones. They all deserve to make the All-KCW team and so all they shall -- call it our "Five Crappy DB" defense or something.
Safety: Brian Russell, SEA (free); Marquand Manuel, DEN (strong)
We've run out of unique ways of mocking Brian Russell, free safety for the Seahawks. Not so for Brian Russell, sculptor from Tennessee: Dude, your stuff is totally Chihuly-derivative, plus you sound like a total douche when you say things like "I create works that will live harmoniously in the world as independent functionaries of society ... I want people to use my sculpture as an excuse to mentally shift to another level of consciousness, above the daily hubbub, even for a moment, and to reconnect with themselves via that primal, emotional, cortex-controlled spasm of an encounter with an unexpected oasis in a visual desert." Whatever. Try reconnecting yourself with the cortex-controlled spasm of a Brian Russell arm tackle.
As for Marquand Manuel, he couldn't hack it as a safety for the (Brian Russell-led) Seahawks, and it turns out Denver's mountain air didn't fix the problem.
Kicker: Nick Novak and Connor Barth, KC
No, they're not a mid-'70s streetwise TV cop duo, they're a pair of incompetent kickers who chipped in Razzie-worthy performances for the Chiefs. Novak started the year as the kicker, but was just 6-of-10 on field-goal attempts and was let go after missing a pair of kicks against Tennessee in Week 7. In stepped Barth, who was an upgrade in field goals (going 10-of-12 on the year), but a complete disaster on kickoffs. His 58.6-yard average was dead last among anyone with more than 10 kickoffs, and nearly 10 yards worse than league leader Josh Brown's 68.1-yard average. Add it all up, and Kansas City finished next to last in kicking for points this year, and dead last in kickoffs.
Punter: Ryan Plackemeier, WAS
The worst punting team by our numbers was Minnesota, but that has more to do with poor punt coverage and four touchdowns allowed on returns than it does with Chris Kluwe. Washington was the next worst team in punting, and Plackemeier ranked 31st in gross average, and among players with at least 32 punts, only San Francisco's Andy Lee had a worse ratio of touchbacks to punts downed inside the 20.
Kick returner: Brandon Middleton, DET
The Lions had the worst kickoff return team in the league, largely because their defense kept giving up scores, which meant the lousy return team had to take the field over and over again. Aveion Cason averaged just 23.3 yards per return and fumbled once, but that's still better than Middleton, who averaged only 22.2 yards per return and fumbled three times. Each man managed just one return of 40 yards or more -- and even there, Cason edges Middleton, 46 to 42.
Punt returner: Keiwan Ratliff, IND
We'd like to list Adam Jones here with his 4.5-yard average and pair of fumbles, but we can't ignore the contributions of Ratliff, who averaged 5.6 yards per return, none over 20 yards, and fumbled four times -- in only 16 returns. A punt returner who fumbles 25 percent of the balls he gets his hands on is the definition of choppin' wood.
Head coach: Brad Childress, MIN
In a year that has seen so many head coaches fired already, it may seem odd to give the KCW coaching award to someone who still has his job, and even managed to get his team into the playoffs. Unless you're a Vikings fan, that is. It would be impossible in the space of one Scramble column to summarize the many, many frustrating decisions "Chilly" made throughout the year, such as his penchant for leaving Adrian Peterson on the bench in key situations, or his on-again, off-again love affair with Tarvaris Jackson. So instead, relish this choice description of the final seconds of the Vikings' Week 17 contest against the Giants, with Minnesota trailing by two points (courtesy Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis-St.Paul Star Tribune):
Childress feared leaving the Giants time for their own last-minute drive, so instead of running a no-huddle offense, he moved methodically. With 36 seconds remaining and the ball on the Giants 30, Adrian Peterson, who would win the NFL rushing title, took a handoff and unadvisedly tried to veer to the outside, losing 2 yards.
Time passed. And passed. And passed. That play ended with 29 seconds remaining. The Vikings held one timeout. Childress seemed to freeze as special teams coach Paul Ferraro and running backs coach Eric Bienemy gestured angrily at one another, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier put his hand on Childress' back, as if to urge him to action.
Jackson gazed at the sideline for the next play, and Childress finally called his last timeout with nine seconds remaining, erasing any realistic chance of running a productive play.
Based on this, commenter "jimm" would later ask (with sincerity) if Childress is "mentally challenged." We think so, jimm, and that's why he's the KCW Coach of the Year.
|Check out the Football Outsiders comics archive and Jason's wacky Gil Thorp blog.|
Down 16-7 in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship game, Baltimore scored to make it 16-14, then forced a quick three-and-out, with a Terrell Suggs third-down sack forcing a punt. Jim Leonhard returned the punt to Baltimore's 39-yard line, leaving the Ravens only two or three first downs away from attempting a go-ahead field goal. But there was laundry on the field. Turns out that Daren Stone and one of the Steelers on punt coverage ended up five yards out of bounds on the play, and it was there, five yards out of bounds, that Stone grabbed said Steeler, spun him around, and threw him to the ground. The penalty put the ball at the 14, costing the Ravens 25 yards of field position. They would get one first down before Joe Flacco threw a pick-six to Troy Polamalu, ending the Baltimore season.
Stone suffered a concussion on the game's opening kickoff; perhaps he was still feeling the effects when he committed his foul. Quintin Demps has no such excuse. With 1:31 to go in the first half of the NFC title tilt, Kurt Warner hit Anquan Boldin for an innocuous 5-yard gain. Long after the ball was in the air, Demps came running up from behind Warner, passed him, and then changed direction to give him a shoulder charge. Fifteen yards, automatic first down. The Cardinals went on to kick a field goal on the drive.
No obvious choice this week. John Harbaugh challenged his team to convert on a few fourth downs, but abandoned the innovative play-calling that brung the Ravens to the dance in the first place. So, almost by default, the award this week goes to Ken Whisenhunt for refusing to go "pass-wacky" (as TMQ would say) during the Cardinals' game-winning fourth-quarter drive. He repeatedly called for power runs in short-yardage situations. It's hard to resist the siren call of Larry "Lowercase god" Fitzgerald, but it was the right move.
Hopefully the Super Bowl will be more dramatic than this contest.
|FO Playoff Fantasy Standings|
|1||Bill Barnwell||200||K.Warner, N.Rackers|
|2t||Ned Macey||135||L.Fitzgerald, H.Ward, PIT D|
|6||Vince Verhei||84||A.Boldin, H.Miller|
The only way Bill Barnwell loses this thing is if Kurt Warner gets knocked out in the first series, then Larry Fitzgerald and Hines Ward combine for 300 yards and six touchdowns. A better question is this: Can Fitzgerald by himself outscore Vince's entire roster? It's pretty likely; 80 yards and one touchdown would do it, assuming Anquan Boldin and Heath Miller are shut out.
In BotR competition, two teams are within screaming distance of Barnwell: Superbears (147 points, Ben Roethlisberger and Nate Washington remaining) and BigCheese (142 points, Willie Parker and Washington remaining).
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