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?
17 Oct 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: While we make a collective decision as to which coach to honor in any given week, I normally do the award writeups, and one of the things I like to harp on with the Mike Martz Award is the Marv Levy Seminar on the Wisdom of Voluntarily Settling for Long Field Goals. I watched Super Bowl XXV live, but it wasn't until I caught a rebroadcast a while back on NFL Network that I remembered that Levy wasn't forced into having Scott Norwood attempt a long field goal at the end of the game. Rather, with 29 seconds remaining, the Bills picked up a first down at the Giants 29. They were out of timeouts but had four downs to work with. Levy elected to let the clock tick down to eight seconds before having Jim Kelly spike the ball. Norwood, a questionable distance kicker that season, then missed the potential-game winning field goal from 47 yards. And it's been Norwood's name that has gone down in infamy. That's wrong. Marv Levy settled for what was probably no better than a 60 percent chance to win the game. That could have been better. That should have been better. That's his fault.
Jason Garrett has been featured in this spot before for his game management, and long field goals seem to be his bete noire. His ill-timed time out against the Cardinals last year took away a made field goal in a game his team would lose in overtime. On Sunday, he did something similar to what Levy did, only he had a timeout left. The Cowboys picked up one yard on first down on a play that began with 26 seconds remaining. Garrett let the clock run down to six seconds before using his final timeout and settling for a 51-yard field goal. Dan Bailey is not a bad kicker, but a 51-yard field goal is a dicey proposition for any kicker. Bailey unsurprisingly missed, and the Cowboys, like Levy's Bills, ended up with a loss for which the head coach bears responsibility. NFL coaches, please, stop voluntarily settling for long field goals.
Mike: While I appreciate your constant harping on long field goals, I think it's important to point out that there are other strategic decisions than late-game management. Jim Schwartz was confronted with a delightful and bizarre situation; an offsides followed by a dead-ball personal foul after a post-touchdown try. Both of these penalties were enforced on the ensuing kickoff, moving the kick from the Lions' 35-yard line to the Eagles' 45-yard line. Yes, the Lions had a kickoff set in their opponent's side of the field.
This is an amazing opportunity, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A short field on a kickoff makes a recovered onside kick incredibly valuable, and a failed onside kick is not particularly damaging. Additionally, the Eagles believed that it was coming, and lined up their hands team at the restraining line. A high kick past that line may have resulted in a good scrum, and even if it didn't, the kick may even had ended up behind Philadelphia's 20-yard line.
What did Schwartz do? He had his kicker boom it out of the end zone. Most kickoffs this year are touchbacks. Schwartz, despite his overwhelmingly favorable position in a three-point game, decided to basically burn 20 yards.
Tom: Dumb question: where do the Eagles get the ball if the kick goes out of bounds?
Mike: 25 yards from the spot of the kick or the out-of-bounds spot.
Tom: So what you're saying is Schwartz decided to trade maybe a 20 percent chance at the ball for 15 yards of field position?
Mike: I think it might be a higher percentage and a lower number of yards, but that is basically my argument. In a very close game.
Tom: And if he tries for a sideline kick inside the 20, the bad cases are (a) the kick goes into the end zone, in which case the Eagles get the ball at the 20, or (b) the kick goes out of bounds, in which case the Eagles get the ball at the 20 or the out of bounds spot.
Mike: It's understandable on some level for coaches to play to not lose, but teams have head coaches run the show on game day precisely because that is supposed to be the guy who knows how to take advantage of opportunities. Schwartz was handed a golden opportunity, and for no discernible or rational reason decided to simply throw it away.
Tom: It seems like he made the least cognitively-taxing decision, the selection that people whose mental resources are already stretched to the limit tend to make.
Mike: If your coach does not have the resources to figure out that kicking from your opponent's 45 has basically no downside no matter what crazy kick you have planned, he should not be calling the shots.
Tom: I think the argument I'm trying to make is that that a missed strategic decision is merely symptomatic of what may be a larger concern: that coaches are spending too much time thinking about other things on game day. The ideal hypothetical solution would be to attempt to outsource to some of that strategic decision-making to a mathematically-minded protege. The Jets, of course, tried that with Dick Curl helping out Herm Edwards, and my perception of it is that it was somewhat of a fiasco.
Mike: We always use that excuse for coaches, but I have no idea why. Most head coaches aren't calling plays, they aren't controlling defensive formations or coverages. On most teams, the head coach, on game day, is there precisely to make strategic decisions. That is his job: choosing to accept or decline a penalty, to give direction to the coordinators, to make non-package player substitutions, and so on.
Tom: Then we get back to the old Andy Reid argument. Reid has spent much of his tenure as a head coach calling plays. The Eagles have been very successful for most of his tenure. Reid is not a particularly good strategic coach.
Mike: And that is fine for Reid and the Eagles. But Reid is not the norm.
Tom: Perhaps not. But let's talk about Reid. He's in the headlines after the firing of Juan Castillo. On the face of it, it's a very odd end to Castillo's tenure as Eagles defensive coordinator. The Eagles' problem is the offense and particularly that Michael Vick keeps turning the ball over.
Mike: You mean his retroactive admission that putting Castillo in charge of the defense was completely insane?
Tom: It makes basically no sense. In that manner, it fits absolutely perfectly with the rest of the "Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator" experiment. It made no sense from the beginning. It started off as a disaster.
Mike: Perhaps Reid is engaging in some sort of bizarre performance art?
Tom: The decision I immediately mentally likened it to was Jack Del Rio's decision last year to install the woefully unprepared Blaine Gabbert as a starter in a terrible situation in an attempt to save his job. The Eagles are probably right now more Reid's team than they've been in his entire tenure, and with high expectations entering the season for the second straight year, I'm not sure he survives another year without a postseason trip.
Mike: I think that is an accurate assessment. I also agree that right now isn't the time to fire Castillo. Of course, I don't think having a "learn as you work" defensive coordinator on a talented defensive team is a great idea in general, but now the Eagles are completely adrift.
Tom: And of course Tuesday was also the day Jimmy Haslam's acquisition of the Browns was formally approved, meaning Reid's former nemesis/compadre Joe Banner is back in the NFL.
Mike: Did he do a pose as he was introduced as the next robot master?
Tom: I hope so.
Mike: Then all is right with the world. I think what we're seeing in general is a lot of poor decisions by Reid coming home to roost. The two most prominent of which are unwavering support of Vick and the Castillo hire. I think that he's gone unless they actually win the Super Bowl. This has the stink of a team that is pushing the old guy out the door before he forgets to lock the vault again. That is in some sense tremendously unfair to Reid, who is one of the premiere team-builders in the league, but on the other hand he hasn't done a very good job lately, and is being paid millions to do so. I can't empathize too much, especially since he will be a GM somewhere within two years.
Tom: It's very easy for me to see him following the same path as another of the Walrii, Mike Holmgren. He of course found some success in Seattle, though not as great as that he and general manager Ron Wolf had together in Green Bay.
Mike: Interestingly enough, it is his team-building that will ultimately get Reid fired, as opposed to his strategic ineptness. In fact, I can't recall any coach being fired for poor in-game strategy. Of course, Norv Turner still has a job, so I suppose the bar for keeping a head coach is really, really low.
Tom: Indeed. NORV!
Tom: So, my opponent was unfortunate enough to leave Shonn Greene on his bench this week.
Mike: I know that feeling.
Tom: Fortunately for him, he still had Andy Dalton (who outscored Autodrafted Second-Round Quarterback Matthew Stafford) and five other players who hit double-digits, including, of course, kicker Matt Bryant. Meanwhile, my team was back to their old tricks, underachieving their projection by 20. In other words, I lost again.
Mike: I think at some point you're going to have to admit the projection system is simply broken. At least for the players you are starting.
Tom: Seriously, though, how does Antonio Brown only put up two points against the freakin' Titans? They were dead last in passing defense DVOA before the game, and he has two points.
Mike: Because our genius new offensive coordinator apparently has no idea what he's doing.
Tom: Yes, my team isn't that good. Oh, Eagles fans, watch out. I drafted six running backs. Five of them, Ryan Mathews, Jonathan Stewart, Roy Helu, Ben Tate, and Rashad Jennings, have missed at least one game due to injury. LeSean McCoy is the only one who hasn't. I know it's coming. Consider yourselves warned.
Mike: I finally, finally pulled off a win in my competitive league. Honestly, it should have been better. I was shaky on Robert Griffin, so I started Ben Roethlisberger. While Roethlisberger didn't exactly disappoint, Griffin was a monster. Still, great games by Vincent Jackson and Jeremy Maclin helped ease my bye week blues, while my opponent's top performer was his kicker. Obviously, Matt Bryant had a great week, but that is still not a good sign.
Mike: My other league was much closer, although it was also a showdown between the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the league. Waiver wire all-star Andy Dalton put up respectable numbers, but the real stars were New York Football Giants DST (19 points), Ray Rice (23.1) and bye week binky Jermaine Gresham (14.3). I was in for a big scare with A.J. Green and Tom Brady, but Brady had a mediocre game and Dalton leeched points off Green. Nine points, and I'm ... still in third place. But a game out, now.
Tom: As is the case in the real NFL, all you really have to do is get to the postseason, and then you have a chance.
Quarterback: Perhaps some of us were a bit too hasty in crowning San Francisco's offense. Alex Smith had a bad week, balancing 200 yards of passing offense with a brutal three interceptions. He ended up with nearly half the points of the next-losingest signal caller at 4 points.
Running Back: In a mailbag-relevant performance, Vick Ballard threw up a disappointing 3 points. He was joined, however, by big-ticket backs Michael Turner and Stevan Ridley; Turner simply didn't get many touches (11), and Ridley just had a really bad game (roughly two yards per carry).
Wide Receiver: Guess who didn't start Titus Young. This guy! An anemic six yards on two catches avoids the penalty but garners 0 points.
Kicker: Smith wasn't the only Niner singing the blues this week, with elite kicker David Akers making one field goal and missing two for a fittingly loserish -1 points.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: Five completions in twelve red zone passing attempts. Only one first down on those dozen attempts, to go with one overthrow that resulted in an interception on third down. One intentional grounding penalty that cost his team a shot at a field goal at the end of the half. One other intentional grounding penalty that put his team in a third-and-20 situation when they were trying to salt the game away. One one-point loss to a lesser team. He did some things right, but it really was not Tom Brady's finest day.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: Jason Garrett and Jim Schwartz.
One of the hallowed moments of NFL broadcasts is the pregame meetings the announcers have with various coaches and players from the teams playing, in which these great sages impart pearls of wisdom to the broadcasters, which they then relay to us. Take, for instance, Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees, whom Brian Billick informed us "puts a high priority on success in the red zone." Shocking, that. Then again, perhaps we're better off listening to coaches spout banalities than listening to announcers say things, such as Dan Fouts' idea that of Wes Welker's 100 catches a year, 70 of them must be on third down. For the record, Dan, 26 of Welker's 122 receptions last year came on third down.
Tom: Thomas's team isn't using him. Wilson an unpopular member of a sort of committee. Jones's value depends on Murray being hurt. Ballard's on a team that can't run the ball.
Mike: All of these options are terrible!
Tom: He said "highest." Not good.
Mike: Can I just answer "No?"
Tom: And I left out Richardson, whose young legs seem to be in a timeshare with Steven Jackson.
Mike: Of that group, I think Thomas and Richardson are the only two worth seriously discussing. The potential upside argument is for Thomas, under the assumption that New Orleans will get its act together. I think it will at some point, and at that point the Thomas plays will be dialed up a bit more often. It's a windfall argument for Richardson, who is in a time-share with a decent running team and a back whose wheels are starting to fall off. If Jackson is injured more significantly, Richardson has a ton of potential. If not, he has middling-to-bad prospects. Personally, I have to say Thomas is the best of that lot.
Tom: We've talked about Thomas a bit. The Saints seem to want to use Mark Ingram. They only have two rushing touchdowns. Thomas has not been getting many goalline carries. I like Richardson better.
Tom: You picked the Patriots last week. Continuing the theme of this column, I picked the Eagles. Both teams were favored to win. Both teams lost. We are now both 2-3 on the season. As a reminder, all picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks for the week. All lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.
Mike: As I said last week, I really do not trust any team this year. Which is actually quite refreshing, if a bit disconcerting. Especially considering the cadre of normally reliable winners used to boast my Steelers as a member.
Tom: I know.
Mike: You have no idea how much you will know by the end of this season.
Tom: Your formerly reliably good team lost to my theretofore dreadful team last week. We almost made it the whole column without really talking about that.
Mike: My only hope is that the Ravens' new "some guys plus Haloti Ngata" defense is as bad as many are predicting, and the Steelers can somehow string together a strong half-season. Otherwise, I am going to be insufferable. I have spent the entire past week not really talking about that. Anyway, the Patriots are against a really attractive option, but no. Just no.
Tom: I am also now done with the Eagles, meaning I can pick from just 30 of the 32 NFL teams.
Mike: Instead, I will rely on the depletion of the already-shaky Ravens defense against a Texans team that is much better than what we saw this past week. Houston Texans -7 vs. Baltimore Ravens.
Tom: There are a couple of lines this week that stand out as interesting in comparison to DVOA. That is one of them, as the Texans and Ravens have very similar DVOA and DAVE, yet the Texans are favored by much more than the home edge. Yes, the Lardarius Webb injury is a serious blow, but does he single-handedly swing a line by that much? The Bills come out much better than the Titans by DVOA and DAVE but at home are favored by only three. The Bears are much better than the Lions, but are only six-point favorites at home. The game I'm going to take, though, is Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3 vs. New Orleans Saints. The evidence we have this year is that the Buccaneers have played better than the Saints. They are playing at home. They are underdogs. They beat the Saints at home last year. Yes, the Bucs are missing Aqib Talib, and the Saints could finally be the juggernaut Saints we've seen in the past and win by four touchdowns. But I'll have to see it first.
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49 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2012, 6:35pm by Sancho