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?
28 Oct 2009
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: So, this past weekend for me was kind of a "relax a little" weekend, since both the Titans and the Jags (the teams I'm covering for FOA 2010) were on bye.
Mike: I'm looking forward to this week's bye because, as noted in Audibles, I'm one of those crazy pessimistic fans. If the Steelers aren't playing, there's no possibility of a loss.
Tom: This was the first week of the regular season where the Titans weren't outscored by at least as many points as they were the previous week. I was skeptical about the bye week at first, but as a fan I now kind of enjoy the break. Plus, my college roommate fortuitously scheduled his wedding for the Titans' bye a couple years ago.
Mike: It's a nice change, and it's really good for the players. Even with an early bye, it's still fewer weeks in a row to play, which is of course better for their health.
Tom: I don't like thinking about the recent concussion studies. It's too depressing.
Mike: It's especially depressing because we have all enabled it. I must admit, I didn't put any thought into player safety until I started reading Will Carroll harping on it incessantly. We have all on some level bought into the mayhem, and it sometimes even goes beyond a simple lack of sympathy for players; you often see people arguing that we should let athletes wreck their bodies with steroids because, after all, we're happy with letting them wreck their bodies without. It's like people think the human body has two modes: "fine" and "broken," and that because we've gone halfway to ruining someone's life in the name of sport, we may as well go all the way.
Tom: This column is supposed to be about the amusing and silly, and now we're talking about early-onset dementia and substance abuse problems.
|Figure 1: Brownies|
Mike: Well, they are important issues which are now somewhat coming to a head. I mean, you made brownies, man.
Tom: I feel especially bad, because I'm one of those stereotypes who was never any good at sports and never played at any level.
Mike: There's not much difference, Tom. I played a little (and was awful) when I was a kid, so I wasn't exposed to any real danger.
Tom: I guess you didn't read the part about the 17-year-old and saw that he looked like a 70-year-old Alzheimer's patient.
Mike: I think fantasy football, and by extension this column, may have some contribution to these problems. We're pretending to evaluate injuries for our teams, but it's extremely superficial. We don't have any effect on the game, or any control over the decision or the player's use or possible rehab, so we only see players as "giving us points" and "not giving us points."
Tom: I'm not really trying to claim this individual column has anything to do with it, nor am I really sure how you'd try to stop it even if you could. My father mentioned over the weekend that when he was growing up, there was no football before age 13. They had simply banned it in the area, and soccer was your fall sports option. St Louis back then was a huge soccer hotbed; I'm not sure if it produced fewer NFL players, but it may well have.
Mike: Well, we're ramming the heads of children together, heads with brains that aren't even fully developed yet. This brings up a serious problem, though, as you really can't have football without youth football.
Tom: It seems that kids are protected, as they are well-padded and can avoid most major impact injuries by those pads or their own lack of physical force. The inter-brain contact short of concussion still scares the heck out of me, though.
Mike: It is good to see Mike Ditka's foundation doing so well, at least. Things used to be much, much worse than they are now.
Tom: They may destroy their bodies for our amusement, but now there's at least more of an argument that they're compensated for the risk they take.
Mike: Well, in that case, why don't we let people sell kidneys? We obviously don't have a free-market approach to issues related to health and safety, so saying that there's a certain amount of money involved doesn't absolve anyone. It may explain why these players are willing, by and large, to tolerate it, but that's about it.
Tom: Absolutely, it's more of a post hoc justification. The guys I wonder about are the ones who really know better, and play the game all the same. If you read A Few Seconds Of Panic, linebacker Ian Gold seems like one of those guys. Even the XFL, after all, got rid of the opening scramble after they realized it was such a horrific injury risk.
Mike: Money is a powerful decision-maker, which is why everyone needs to be responsible and not driven by greed to ignore serious problems.
Tom: The shared physical struggles do seem to make the players more into one force, rather than 32 separate forces kind of working in the same direction. We see 60 minutes of hate, then guys talking to each other and whatnot after the game. I'm sure the era of labor mobility has something to do with that as well.
Mike: Players are certainly more individual now than they used to be. This can be a good thing (Chad Ochocinco) or a bad thing (Joey Porter).
Tom: I'm not sure they're that much more individual, so much as their identity as a player is less tied to a team than it is to the league as a whole. This actually came up with the Titans last week, when Jeff Fisher put on a Peyton Manning jersey for a charity event with Tony Dungy and said something to the effect of wanting to "feel like a winner." Fan reaction was split, with a sizable percentage seeing it as some sort of betrayal, while player reaction varied between "laugh it off" and annoyance. There's a strange psychology to football teams; Jim Schwartz, in the preseason, talked about how the Lions need to be a physical football team, one that stops the run and runs the ball well. Schwartz is a big fan of FO's work, so I'm sure he understands that passing and stopping the pass are more important to NFL success, but he was trying to set a particular sort of attitude for his team, not outline how you win games.
Mike: This gets into the weird area of "player motivation." Apparently players require (or we have been led to believe they require) more than just that shared physical risk to make them act as a team, as countless "bulletin board" stories have shrilly proclaimed.
Tom: I do feel like theres something to that "group identity" thing that coaches try to build. Although it is way too easy to overstate it and turn it from a positive into a negative.
Mike: I think our fandom is at a disadvantage in that, unlike hockey, baseball or basketball, we only get one game a week. That leaves us a lot of time with no news, so we obsess over things we know nothing about, or given vague intimations about, or really just make things up. If baseball is all about pitching matchups, percentages and stats, then football is more visceral, about what the fans want. All of the discussions in the media on these subjects are from the fan's perspective; what fans expect, what they want, and how the league will or may give it to them. So we see endless articles about how much risk players should shoulder, what team identity is, whether even someone is motivated or not by trash talk, all written to cater to the fans' perception of the sport rather than a critical look at the players' perspective, or an attempt at critical analysis.
Tom: Baseball has its interminable downtime during the games, football has it between games.
Mike: I guess that the upshot is: If we are concerned about safety, we (Tom and myself included) need to be better fans, fans who are less self-absorbed, more responsible and less hedonistic about how we view the safety of players, and more demanding of a media that is convinced that we would rather read six days of superficial fluff than sober analysis of the risks players face and the dangers of team culture gone awry. Football clearly has a very dark side and, while the league is making great strides in minimizing risk, we all need to take a step back from blind rooting and vicarious hatred and worry a bit more about the game as a whole and less about the meaningless nonsense and obsessions we've come to hold as the central tenets of our fandom.
Mike: I almost managed to pull off a victory in the CBS league, despite my bye week disaster. Had I done what I did in my Yahoo! league and benched Roethlisberger, I would have had a real shot. Still, you can hardly complain about a loss by 16 points when you were barely even able to field a team. Fortunately, the No. 2 team in my division lost, so now I'm sitting in the No. 1 spot ahead of two teams.
Tom: Wow, I actually beat you in fantasy this week. All three of my teams won. I ended up having to sweat out two games on Monday Night, however. I was up 18 in one league going against Westbrook and Portis, so I got to feel like a horrible person when Westbrook went out early. I was up by 42 in one league going against only DeSean Jackson and David Akers, who only combined for 35.4 points in the first half.
Mike: That's crazy. If I hadn't been winning so soundly in the Yahoo! league I would've really been put off by the Steelers' defensive prowess. It's whether you find that bizarre internal struggle fun that determines if fantasy football is right for you.
Tom: Fortunately, they only had 1.2 in the second half. If I had lost that game, I would have gone crazy, because that's the league where I'm doing well.
Mike: How are your teams doing, standings-wise?
Tom: I'm second in that league, tied 6-1 and 1.24 points behind the leader. One league is oddly spaced out: one 7-0 team, three 5-2 teams, six 3-4 teams and two 1-6 teams. I'm the No. 2 3-4 team, or sixth overall. The top eight teams in that league make the playoffs. I'm 3-4 in the third league, but am also the No. 3 of five 3-4 teams, or seventh overall, with the top four making the playoffs. That's the league where I've lost games by one and four points. I can't really complain, though; I'm seventh out of 10 in the standings. I had really great fantasy defense performances in all three of my games this week, with my worst score coming from the Packers, who gave up all of three points. You may have cursed your opponent for Pittsburgh's defense, but they were big fantasy points for me.
Mike: Well, I couldn't really curse, because I really crushed my poor sister and her (awesome Northeast Ohio Steelers Fan) husband by about 70 points. Another absolutely monster game by Miles Austin, and starting Rivers over Roethlisberger was a great decision. My draft steal, Ochocinco, also put up huge numbers, and I was pleasantly surprised by my match-up start of Buffalo defense. The only disappointments were Tashard Choice and Greg Olsen. Olsen obviously was involved in a complete disaster, and Choice was only playing because Moreno and Julius Jones were on bye, so I'm not really upset. Two points out of your No. 5 running back may be disappointing, but you have to be prepared for it.
Tom: Ochocinco and Rivers came through for me, also. I only had two bad start/sit decisions this week: Gore against the Texans over Jacobs, and Pierre Thomas instead of Sproles. I don't feel bad about Gore, since I wasn't buying the Texans' run defense's resurgence against the Bengals, but Thomas seemed to have been surpassed and Sproles was going against the Chiefs. Thankfully, I won the game by 32 points, but I'm now starting to worry about tiebreakers. Four out of six of my running backs were really disappointing this week. Steven Jackson had a decent game for his team getting pantsed, plus Benson came through again.
Mike: Nothing like lots of useless yardage to pump up a fantasy score. Am I crazy for thinking about starting Moreno against Baltimore's defense? Their run defense hasn't been anything spectacular.
Tom: Maybe, just because McDaniels seems to like Buckhalter more than most people.
Mike: The other option is Jones against Dallas, or Choice against Seattle. I'm leaning toward Moreno.
Tom: I think Choice is about at the end of his life as a viable fantasy option. Moreno's not that bad a choice given the options.
Mike: On the upside, I'm up against the top team in the league. I'm up by about 80 points or so on the league, so if I win I take the top spot.
Tom: Big matchup.
Mike: Yeah, it should be interesting. I will say that I'm really happy with my wide receivers: Colston, Austin, and Ochocinco. I even have a decent bench guy in Washington.
Tom: I'm starting to come around on Austin, really seems like he can be a useful option going forward. If the Titans do make the move to Vince Young, my guess is that Washington becomes almost worthless.
Mike: Are they talking about that this week?
Tom: Fisher closed practice during the bye for "competitive reasons." And owner Bud Adams has come out and said he'd like Young to start.
Mike: That sounds like a giant mess.
Tom: Did you hear all the caterwauling from Bears fans this week? All I had to do to shut them up was mention that, as bad as the Bears lost, the Titans still lost by 24 more points.
Mike: Hooray! You win the incompetence bowl. Sadly, someone beat me to Mike Wallace. He would have been a nice No. 4 wide receiver. I'm mostly annoyed by Steven Jackson. I don't know what to do with him. He disappears, but he's shown he can still put up No. 1 back numbers.
Tom: That's all you really need out of a fantasy player. He's the No. 1 offensive option, and it seems likely that he can get garbage yards.
Mike: True. Probably best to hang on to him, but without enough quality on my bench, I feel a bit handcuffed. Speaking of handcuffed, Cooley's injured, so I'm a bit screwed. The only other tight ends available in this league are Boss, Lewis, Scheffler and Watson. Scaife, also, I suppose. If Young plays, Scaife might be a good play in a PPR league, because Vince Young kind of sucks.
Tom: Well, Scaife sucks too, but it might be a good play if Vince Young really does start. You may want to watch the injury reports -- Rashean Mathis may not play this week, which would make wide receivers a more attractive option for Tennessee even with Young. My temptation would be to go for Scheffler. Baltimore's ranked 23rd against passes to the tight end, although I should note they're at the lower end of the targets scale.
Mike: I guess I'll do that, and keep an eye open to see who wins the pitched quarterback war in Tennessee.
Tom: knowing Fish, he'll keep everything under wraps until 90 minutes before kickoff on Sunday, and the media will cooperate, as they did in 2006 when Young was a surprise starter. I doubt Scaife would have much value outside of a PPR league, however, since he does suck.
Elias (4-3) 75, Bill (5-2) 63
Elias was nice enough to bench Vernon Davis, and I got 20 points out of the Colts defense, but the injury to Jermichael Finley and general ineptitude of Donovan McNabb made it an easy win for Elias in the long run.
Ian/Al (4-3) 128, Doug (3-4) 83
Good rule of thumb in fantasy football: When you have four players who score more than your opponent's highest-scoring player, you're going to win. Ian and Al got 20 or more from four players, including the Bengals trio of Carson Palmer, Cedric Benson, and Chad Ochocinco.
Sean (2-5) 132, Aaron (2-5) 86
Our points leader finally got a much-deserved win to make it to 2-5, as he too got four 20-point performances, coming from Aaron Rodgers, DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson, and the Jets D. Aaron was not helped by Loser League-worthy performances from Hines Ward and Brent Celek, each of whom got zeroes.
Rob (3-4) 66, Vince (3-4) 44
Tom Brady had a good day for Vince, but he had eight other players combine -- combine! -- for 24 points, led by a -7 from the Bears D.
Will (3-4) 110, Vivek (4-3) 54
Vivek, undoubtedly cataloguing vanity license plates, gets publicly shamed for leaving a bye-week Chris Johnson in his lineup. Of course, he only left 14 points between the three backs on his bench, so it wouldn't have mattered. Will's pickup of Miles Austin might be the move that saves his season.
Pat (5-2) 74, Mike (2-5) 67
It wasn't the best weekend for Mike, who had Chris Cooley break his foot and the Redskins defense capitulate early. Meanwhile, Pat got 21 points out of the Steelers defense on those two touchdown returns.
Tom: At least we get hints as to what the product might be in this commercial, in that we actually see people using Blackberries.
Mike: That's a bit of a longshot. It could be a commercial for some manner of clothing.
Tom: Or drugs, or something completely worthless, like Pepsi's commercial. Of course, Pepsi is at least smart enough to shove their product in front of your face in their commercials.
Mike: I wonder what a meth commercial would look like. It might actually be pretty cool. (Don't do drugs, kids!)
Tom: I imagine it would look a lot like this commercial.
Mike: This is at least better than the short version, which makes it look like these random dudes had written the song, which is kind of insulting to the community at large and our common sense of decency.
Tom: Small favors, but yes. "Do what you love. Love what you do." Most everyone who has a Blackberry has it for work-related purposes. Let's illustrate how this plays out in the commercial:
Mike: He was throwing away the paper to symbolize how Blackberry will free us from our horrible dead-tree-driven work environment.
Tom: That's not going to happen any time soon.
Mike: It is astounding how dead-tree-driven we all are, especially in our profession.
Tom: It's true, we are particularly bad for that kind of thing. It's not really clear that Blackberry has anything to do with this rant, so we'll continue the list.
Mike: Ooo, a montage.
Tom: Well, if you want to get really good at something really fast...
Mike: He must've done something better, the girl magically comes back within seconds.
Tom: That's another guy, who's communicating at Not A Job.
Mike: Ah. Well, whomever he is, the Blackberry has made everything better. Possibly because she realized his device had her personal information all over it, and he was about to post it to the internet in a rage. That's really what relationships are about these days: making sure nothing incriminating or embarrassing ends up on the Internet.
Tom: I hope that's not why you got married, as a sort of prisoner's dilemma situation.
Mike: As you well know, both of us are far too boring for anyone on the internet to care.
Tom: Hah, that's what you think. I, on the other hand, am famous for making alcohol hundreds of years ago.
Mike: I got to "lusty servant" and began to question what this was really a recipe for.
Tom: It sort of gives a new/old meaning to "be happy in your work."
Mike: I'd say "that's the one with Obi-Wan, right?" but I'm afraid that Sir Alec Guinness would drag himself out of the grave to get his revenge if I did.
Tom: This commercial is trying to convey a novelty that just doesn't exist. Yes, with this amazing new device you can communicate with other people. It's very revolutionary, I guess.
Mike: Maybe there's a sedative or something in hers? That would be pretty revolutionary, both for the communications and the date rape industries. I do like how the Blackberry gave this woman inspiration for whatever bizarre religious ritual she seems to be preparing for. This is good, because I'm pretty sure the loser gets ritually sacrificed.
Tom: The one I really don't get is the diner. She shows up early, which undoubtedly means she's angry with him and doesn't plan to be there long. He tries to kiss her, she rebuffs him, then apparently breaks up with him. So immediately he texts her and she, what, immediately has second thoughts?
Mike: He may have been late, as he was too engrossed in his Blackberry to keep track of time.
Tom: They could have at least tried showing that he was engrossed in his Blackberry.
Mike: That would run afoul Blackberry's goal of making a Blackberry commercial which features no actual Blackberries. The theme of this commercial is helpful, though. Next time I'm with my architect friends I'll mention that all they need is love. Screw building materials, build the tower out of love! Alternatively, Blackberries. I'm sure Research in Motion would provide you with enough to build a fortress out of them, at $300 a pop.
Tom: My favorite advancements are always the result of moments of singular inspiration. He goes and sits outside while frustrated and immediately comes upon the perfect design idea. Where if I walk to the end of the hall while frustrated and look at the window, I may become slightly less frustrated.
Mike: Maybe he stole it from someone via the Internet, using his handy Blackberry?
Tom: That would actually work.
Mike: In that vein, I think it's important to note how all the various parts of the montage fit the lyrics perfectly. Painfully perfectly. It's like they sat down with a great song and went "OK, nothing you can do that can't be done ... what are things that people can do?" And then focus-tested the crap out of everything. The end result is something that has nothing to do with Blackberry whatsoever, so I guess that's a win for us?
Tom: It's like the product of a committee of accountants and quant-research marketers. Generally I'm a fan of matching the lyrics with the actions -- I criticized Levi's for not doing that recently.
Mike: There's a happy medium you have to reach. You can't have wacky things happening that make no sense.
Tom: Here, it just feels uncreative.
Mike: Right. It would be like having a commercial to "Eye of the Tiger," and have it cut to an actual tiger's eye, then two guys fighting, then some guy hanging off a ledge over lava, or something. During each refrain. Like a really awful visual rebus puzzle.
Tom: I probably shouldn't say anything about how "Eye of the Tiger" confused me as a child because it had nothing to do with actual tiger eyes.
Mike: And this is why you're a lawyer.
Keep Chopping Wood: There are a number of ways to help your team lose a game, but one is almost guaranteed to put your name here, and that's fumbling away a punt in scoring position in a close game. This week, the culprit was Panthers' punt returner Kenny Moore, who did it in a 17-9 game with just over five minutes to play. The Bills burned over three minutes off the clock and increased their lead to 11. Now, with Jake Delhomme's performance this year, the Panthers' odds of winning had Moore held on to the ball weren't great, but there were assuredly much better than if young Mr. Moore had not put it on the turf.
Mike Martz Award: Tom Cable is several things in addition to head coach of the Oakland Raiders, but apparently a connoisseur of NFL rules is not one of them. Otherwise, he wouldn't have tried to challenge the defensive holding penalty called against Stanford Routt on third-and-5 from the Raiders' 39 midway through the second quarter in Sunday's game, claiming that the ball was tipped. Since, well, tipped balls only matter for pass interference and not for defensive holding, Cable's challenge was mooted and thus didn't hurt his team, but seriously, NFL teams, have somebody read the rulebook and have him tell the coach when he's about to do something stupid. The plays after the penalty? Two Shonn Greene rushes for a combined 34 yards and six points, and the Raiders were down 21-0 and done again.
Colbert Award: Shaun Hill just wins games. After all, entering Sunday's game he'd been 10-5 as a starter for a team that had otherwise been 5-15 since A.J. Smith become the latest general manager to implement the Peter Principle by hiring one Norval Turner after the 2006 season, leaving the 49ers once again bereft of an actual good offensive coordinator. Quarterback play unsurprisingly suffered, but Hill was looking like the bright spot. Naturally, after a sluggish first half Sunday coming off another sluggish performance two weeks prior, 49ers head coach Mike Singletary decided that it didn't matter if Shaun Hill just won games, he wanted to see if Alex Smith could do what Hill hadn't on Sunday and drive the team down the field. And Smith did, thrice. The 49ers still lost the game, and while we're still not sold Smith will be the starter again beyond this week, Singletary still gets the Colbert Award for pulling a quarterback who just wins games.
Kicker: John Kasay, welcome to Jeff Reed's World. While (as mentioned above) Carolina didn't have much of a shot at winning this week, Kasay was definitely part of the problem. His extra point after the Panthers' lone touchdown got him a few points, but an overwhelming two missed field goals gives Kasay a balance of -3 points.
Wide Receiver: Incredulity was very much in order when Miami abandoned their winning game plan halfway through Dolphins-Saints and instead went with the pass-wacky strategy that cost them what could have been a great upset victory. Why did this happen? Because the Dolphins are not so great at passing and catching the football. Davone Bess exemplified this, with a whopping -1 points off three catches, 15 yards, and a fumble. Considering Ted Ginn was close at hand at 1 point, it's easy to see how Miami collapsed.
Running Back: Ooof. Felix Jones is a fantasy favorite of many, including the preferred bench option of your Scramble writers. This was not his week, however. 37 rushing yards, six receiving yards and a fumble combine for 1 point. The favor of the fantasy football goddess is a fickle and fleeting thing. Ahmad Bradshaw snuck in with a very similar stat line, fumble and all, to tie for the lead.
Quarterback: And you thought Shaun Hill was inept. There's a reason we now use the term "JaMarcussed it." Russell threw up 11 passes this week for a measly 61 yards, and managed to fumble the ball and throw it away twice. That's -3 points. I'd say something about borrowing Samurai Mike from their neighbors, but I'm not sure that there's anyone on the Oakland team that's even capable of Just Winning Games.
nsanity: Week 8, who to drop: F. Jones or T. Choice
I've got M. Barber, F. Jones and T. Choice. Too many slots for one RB roster position. For week 8 and on, who would you drop, Felix or Tashard?
Tom: Holy roster concentration, Batman!
Mike: Yeah, that looks like a disaster waiting to happen. If I had to pick one to keep, I'd have to say Felix, despite his miserable performance this week.
Tom: I don't see how Choice gets much work if both Felix and Barber are healthy. It seems like they make up a good tandem and have at least semi-defined roles.
Mike: True, but it's still all very murky.
Tom: If you have to drop one, I'd drop Choice without thinking about it, and I'd lean toward playing Felix. Barber's production seems to be more dichotomous, based on the variability of touchdowns, even if he is the red zone guy. Although, Mike, I admit I went against your advice this weekend and played Mendenhall over Felix and came out the better for it.
Mike: Choice is clearly going to be the odd man out, which makes me sad, because I had such high hopes. Mendenhall had surprising success against Minnesota, and I am so very happy he has replaced Parker. On the other hand, I can still claim credit for advising you to draft him, so in the end I still win!
Send your fantasy questions to scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com. Other sites don't love you like we do. After all, we have brownies.
34 comments, Last at 01 Nov 2009, 11:02am by jebmak