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?
09 Dec 2006
by Mike Tanier and Aaron Schatz
Aaron Schatz: Last year, NFL Films guru and ESPN NFL Matchup producer Greg Cosell invited me and Mike Tanier to sit in on a film analysis session with host Ron Jaworski and the rest of the Matchup staff. It was incredibly enlightening, and the resulting Too Deep Zone was one of the most popular columns we ran all year. Cosell left us with an open invitation to come by any time -- and when we also got the opportunity to attend Monday night's Carolina-Philadelphia game, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to head down to south Jersey, grab Mike, and soak in the football knowledge.
Mike Tanier: I hope you enjoyed your first visit to Lincoln Financial Field. Contrary to media reports, Eagles fans don't sacrifice virgins in the parking lots or pummel opposing fans with baseball bats in the upper deck. Not anymore, anyway.
I enjoy being in the press box, but being there is counterproductive for us in many ways. I'm rarely asked to cover an individual game, and I need the television feed to do the kind of analysis I do for Too Deep Zone. You need the DVOA Mainframe (actually a laptop, but that sounds more impressive). Our articles aren't really reliant on post-game interviews. Even if I got two or three great quotes in the locker room, I would still have to comb the web for other quotes to use in Rundown. I'm better off sitting somewhere with the Ticket on Sunday afternoons, then working out of my home office on Monday nights, where I have all of my sources and the DVR available to me.
When I read our message boards and communicate with readers, I always sense exasperation at the way the NFL is covered: the clichÃ©s, the silliness, the need to provide "info-tainment." Then we go to NFL Films and it's obvious that the professionals there also aren't happy with the way the game is presented. So who makes the decision to put comedians in the broadcast booth and write features about how such-and-such quarterback is a "winner"? I guess the marketing people know a lot more about who is watching than the NFL people.
Aaron Schatz: There was no sacrificing of virgins, but I did enjoy the people in the section in front of us constantly turning around and giving us the finger.
This was not only my first visit to Lincoln Financial Field -- it was also my first game in the press box. (Mike had done the press box before in his previous days with Sports Forecaster.) I agree with you that it would be difficult on Sundays, hard to follow the rest of the action around the league enough to write about it the next day. Monday night made a lot more sense, with no other games to follow, and if you want to rewind and watch plays in slow motion, you just set the DVR and watch when you get home. The playoffs will fit the same pattern so I may try to hit Gillette and do a live blog or something come January.
As for the post-game interviews, well, that's definitely not my thing. The questions and answers are basically all clichÃ©s, and I just have a hard time turning that into something interesting. Having me write a game story would be like asking Julius Peppers to play offensive tackle. Sure, he would probably be good with some practice, but it isn't really a good use of his skills and there are a lot of guys who can do a better job at it.
(There was one cool tidbit in the interviews. Lito Sheppard pointed out that when the Eagles studied film, they spotted Jake Delhomme's signal for Keyshawn Johnson to run the end zone fade. When Delhomme patted his butt, the fade was on. Sheppard saw the signal, played the fade, and you know the rest.)
As for the issue of "info-tainment" and silly NFL coverage: Most people seem to think that the NFL audience is completely homogeneous, but it's not. I was on public radio a couple months ago and the host acted like football fans only like the sport because they get to see a lot of guys smacking into each other. I tried to explain that you can enjoy the game on different levels and he basically just ignored me.
There is a group of football fans that likes the strategy of the game, not just the hitting or the speed or gambling or the social aspect of watching with your buddies. That group is not the majority of fans but I think it is larger than the NFL or ESPN marketing people seem to realize. Right now, the only television show that serves that element of the fanbase is NFL Matchup. We started Football Outsiders, in part, because we felt that there were more fans like us out there, and they were hungry for more coverage at their level -- the level that is more interested in Brett Favre's read progression than Brett Favre's childhood home.
In the days of three networks and no Internet, you had to appeal to the lowest common denominator to get the largest audience. But in the modern digital media age, there can be information for everybody. Different websites can serve different elements of the NFL fanbase. So can different shows on different cable networks. Why not do a game with two broadcast teams: one that serves the larger audience, with celebrity interviews and basic explanations, and a pair of less famous names (i.e. cheaper to hire) on a second audio channel discussing the game itself from the more hardcore perspective?
OK, I'm starting to ramble.
Our second trip to NFL Matchup was much like the first -- Ron Jaworski and producer Greg Cosell and the staff all watched film and we got to watch with them. This time, we got opinions from a few other people. MNF means all the ESPN football people are in town, so Merril Hoge was in the office for the second half of the day (normally he watches film at his home in Kentucky). Former Washington and Houston GM Charlie Casserly, who now works for the NFL Network, also went in and out during the afternoon.
We received a few dozen reader questions for Ron Jaworski, but only got to ask a few of them. The NFL Matchup team was very busy, and frankly, we weren't quite as prepared as we should have been. Aaron spent so much time on Monday writing Quick Reads and the DVOA commentary that he couldn't go through the questions. So Mike was hoping to organize them during the second half of the Eagles-Panthers game, but got too caught up in the action. Anyway, even if we weren't able to ask a specific question, there were a few instances where we were able to talk at length about players or teams you asked about.
Answers written by Mike except where noted.
There were many Grossman questions, and the Matchup team wanted to get as much information on Grossman as possible because he's a hot-topic player right now. We broke down tape of the Bears-Vikings game and studied Grossman closely. Jaworski is more concerned with Grossman's decision making than his mechanics. "He's out of control," Jaworski said. "He's having a hard time differentiating aggressiveness from stupidity." I asked about the Bears offensive scheme, and Jaworski pointed out several plays that were designed to give Grossman an easy read and boost his confidence. Even on these relatively simple plays, Grossman made mistakes. "Right now, Ron Turner is calling plays not to attack the defense, but to try to get Grossman comfortable," he said.
(Aaron adds: After listening to Jaws break down Grossman against the Vikings, I am completely convinced that the Bears have to take him out of the lineup. He was missing open guys all over the field. Sometimes there would be a play designed as a quick throw to a guy in the flat, and Grossman would hold the ball for a while, unsure of himself. A good example is his first pass of the whole game. It was a swing to Thomas Jones, wide open, moving towards the right sideline. Grossman actually threw the ball so late that Jones couldn't catch it in bounds. Last year, I wrote in one of the DVOA commentaries on FOX about the fact that top defenses in the salary cap era rarely play at a high level for more than one season. Chicago has bucked that trend, with a spectacular defense for the second straight year. They aren't going to make it three. This is their shot at the Super Bowl. There's almost no chance of Grossman fixing these problems over the next four weeks. Maybe it messes him up for the future, but the window of opportunity is open now. As our buddies at BP say, "Flags fly forever.")
Many readers asked Falcons/Vick related questions. The Matchup team seems generally frustrated by all Michael Vick rhetoric. "There's nothing wrong with the playcalling," Jaworski said. Cosell spoke at length about Vick's progress, or lack thereof, and of the hot air that dominates Vick discussions. "Any NFL offense has timing or rhythm pass plays," he said. "Vick can't throw them with some measure of consistency." Jaworski and Cosell reiterated some of the points they discussed with us last season about Vick's poor mechanics and bad habits, and they confirmed my belief that the Falcons coaches have bent over backwards this year to create a playbook that suits Vick's running style. The Falcons do have a problem with dropped passes and issues on defense, but Vick is still their biggest enigma.
"On the offensive line, it's not always about talent," Jaworski stressed. "It's about communication and understanding between the five guys on the line, with the tight end and fullback working in harmony." Despite the fact that Art Shell was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and other coaches have an excellent line background, Jaworski said that the Raiders "can't transition their coaching to the playing field."
Jaworski: "Yes." Jaworski and Cosell noted that Derrick Brooks has been moved from the weak side to the strong side, an indication that he's slowing down.
The NFL Matchup team gave Young a pretty good grade. As you might expect, Jaworski and Cosell are wary of the hype that surrounds a rookie quarterback after a few wins, but they feel that Young is doing his best to succeed within the Titans system and is picking his spots to run. "Vince Young could be better than Michael Vick is ever going to be," Cosell said, stressing that the key would be for young to continue to develop as a passer, not as a runner.
(Aaron adds: I should point out that we talked about Young more with Jaworski than with Hoge, who is well known for his anti-Young stance.)
Jaworski worked with Losman this season on quarterback fundamentals: mechanics, read progressions, and so on. Contrary to Losman's reputation, Jaworski was impressed by the Bills quarterback's maturity. "Losman didn't blame anyone else for his problems last year. The coaching staff was long gone, so he could have blamed them, but he took responsibility on himself." Losman is good at recognizing coverages and was smart enough to process Mike Mularkey's dense playbook last season. Jaworski believes that Losman has made progress and can still grow into a very good player.
Merrill Hoge is very impressed by Brown, who was playing very well before getting hurt two weeks ago. Hoge believes the Brown will never be a highlight-reel type player, but that he is going to be a productive runner for years to come. Hoge likes Brown's long-range potential better than that of Cadillac Williams, Brown's college teammate.
Jaworski probably won't be in the booth again until the next time ESPN has a double-header game. He is pleased to have gotten favorable reviews for his work earlier in the season. He mentioned Brad Johnson as the type of player who would make an excellent color commentator when his playing career ends. The NFL Matchup team, like most of our readers, would like to see more serious, football-related analysis during telecasts.
Jaworski is very critical of Delhomme's decision making. We didn't have film of the Monday night game to work with, but he explained to me what happened on the Brian Dawkins fourth-quarter interception. Delhomme simply didn't account for Dawkins in the coverage and assumed he could throw the ball deep to a point where only Nick Goings could run under it. Of course, offensive line injuries are also a factor, and the Panthers cannot run the ball as often or as well as they would like to.
You are going to see a lot of the Giants defense on this week's show. Jaworski and Cosell are impressed with Cofield, but the Giants defense in general has been plagued with mental mistakes in recent weeks. Last season, Cosell and Jaworski felt that the Giants played very good "team" defense, even with several starters out. Players knew their assignments and played within the system. This year, players are making mental errors and trying to make individual plays instead of focusing on their roles. Over and over, two guys would cover the same zone while another was leftopen. Several times, Antonio Pierce was running around before the snap trying to get guys into the proper position. They may show one play where all the Giants are shifting around trying to figure out where they are supposed to be, and as Romo snaps the ball, four Giants defenders are literally lined up in an "I" in front of the center. There is a reason why the defensive four-man I-formation is not popular in the NFL.
Some more thoughts, not related to specific questions by FO readers, noted by Aaron:
The Cowboys are beginning to run a formation with Marion Barber and Julius Jones together in an I-formation with Barber as the fullback. They run Barber ahead with a fake flip to Jones. I assume on some plays the fake will work the other way around.
Osi Umenyiora has problems when he has to play in an "under" front, lined up on a tackle instead of on the edge. Mathias Kiwanuka was stuck in pass coverage way too often. It was more than just confusion before the snap; the Giants generally didn't seem to be using players in ways that fit their skill sets.
Tony Romo has the gunslinger mentality, and he's starting to get loose with the football. When you have nothing but success -- even when you do things wrong -- you get bad habits. Not to alarm anyone, but the name "Rex Grossman" came up. Romo was missing open guys, and making near-impossible throws into tight coverage, but it didn't hurt him as much as it should have because the Giants' mistakes outweighed Romo's mistakes. They think he's a good player, but Jaws and Cosell believe that at some point soon, Romo will have a very bad game. Hopefully, he learns from it, rather than having defenses around the league learn from it. The Cowboys also better hope that game comes in December and not in January.
R.W. McQuarters sucks. We didn't need to go to NFL Films to tell you this, but it was a general theme of the morning.
T.O. actually seemed to be dropping balls because he heard the footsteps of the defenders. The name "Todd Pinkston" was mentioned and no, I am not kidding.
Charlie Casserly wandered in and Jaws asked him about the game he had been watching, Bengals-Ravens. Casserly feels that the Baltimore safeties are undisciplined, and the cornerbacks have a lack of mobility. Contrary to our own Michael David Smith, Casserly said the Ravens should not put Adalius Thomas in pass coverage. He also mentioned that the Cincinnati center and right guard weren't working well together. We weren't watching this game alongside him, so I can't tell you if I agree or disagree with any of his points.
For some reason, they can't set up the camera at Soldier Field at the right height, so the all-22 film comes at a really strange angle.
Thomas Jones is not good at blitz pickup.
Cleveland fans know that we're down on Charlie Frye, but compared to the NFL Matchup crew, we're practically married to the guy. They do not think he is a professional quarterback.
I know that he looked bad early on with all the wackiness on the Cleveland line, but left tackle Kevin Shaffer is still very good and showed by Cleveland spent so much money to bring him in from Atlanta. He just destroyed Jared Allen on one play -- and we think very highly of Jared Allen, and Jaws and Cosell also think very highly of Jared Allen, so it was a bit of a shock.
Jaws and Cosell believe there is no such thing as a "coverage sack." They hate the term. According to Jaws, you've got your first read, second read, third read, and if the offensive line is holding the pocket, you should always be able to find one of them open. A "coverage sack" is really a quarterback's mistake.
Overall, it was another rewarding trip. Next year, we hope to go back for Jaws III, 3-D glasses not included.
76 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2006, 8:38pm by richabbs