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?
27 Oct 2006
by Mike Tanier
I knew I was being followed as I left work that foggy night. A shadowy figure tailed me until we reached the Football Outsiders parking garage. He revealed himself as I stood beside my gold Escalade, finger on the panic button. He was a Peter Lorre or Steve Buscemi type: a suspicious character in a black trench coat, scarf, and fedora. He wore no silver at all, not even silver lining.
"You don't know me," the shifty fellow said, his eyes darting about. "But I represent a football team that I'm not at liberty to name. Let's call them 'The Craters.'"
"And what should I call you?" I asked, reaching for my trusty pen knife but finding only one of my son's Power Ranger action figures. Can't bludgeon anyone into submission with that, I thought. "Deep Throat?"
"Too prosaic," he replied. "Call me Swervin' Mervyn." I struggled to recall the reference. And the meaning of "prosaic." Mervyn kept talking. "My team needs advice. They're 1-5, but that's not the problem. The problem is that several people in the organization have lost hope that things are going to get better. Believe me, if my boss knew I was here, he'd..."
"Cast you into a lake of eternal fire, where you would rend your garments and gnash your teeth while buzzards pluck out your eyeballs until judgment day?" I offered.
"Yes, that's the termination clause in my contract," Mervyn replied. "Verbatim."
I told Mervyn that I wasn't presumptuous enough to provide the Craters with any long-term answers: who to hire, who to draft in 2008. His team had problems that couldn't be solved in an evening or encapsulated in a 4,000-word essay. But I did have some ideas to help them salvage something of the 2006 season. "I'll take anything you can offer," he said.
Mervyn was clearly in dire peril, as were the Craters. I had to help. But first, we had to get out of the parking garage. It was off to the Football Outsiders commissary for stuffed pork chops and a long talk about a football team on life support.
Mervyn started by telling me that the Craters didn't know what to do about their two malcontent wide receivers. "It's like Terrell Owens in stereo," he explained.
One of the receivers, whom Mervyn called "Jerry," was currently in the midst of a four-game suspension. Among his other offenses, Jerry parked in the owner's private space. Judging from the owner's reputation, that registered on the Common Sense o' Meter somewhere between tugging on Superman's cape and spitting into the wind. But this player, who had been inactive since the start of the season, had other offenses on his rap sheet: he wore a middle-finger tee-shirt to practices, demanded trades, and publicly questioned the coaching staff. Most damning of all, he was seen rooting against his own team during a season-opening blowout. Jerry was clearly trying to force his team's hand. He doesn't know much about his coach or his owner, two guys who took a dislike to Marcus Allen and let the Hall of Famer rot on the bench for three seasons.
The other receiver, a superstar named "Randy," saves his defiance for a radio show, during which he channels the evil Paul Harvey. He regularly hints that his coach, coordinator, and quarterback aren't up to his standards. For variety, he accuses Howie Long of taking steroids or engages in some other charming patter. During practice, Randy follows his own routine, playing catch while his teammates stretch, stretching while his teammates run drills. During games, he curses, feuds with his quarterback, and broods. During post-game interviews, he's usually mute.
Jerry's punishment for his indiscretions was a suspension. Randy's punishment has been ... nothing.
"Coach had to suspend Jerry," Mervyn explained over a second plate of sashimi. "You cannot let malcontents like him rule the roost, can you?"
"Of course you can't," I replied. "The coach had to suspend Port ... um, 'Jerry' after he openly refused to play linebacker on the scout team. But here's the question: why was the second-best receiver on the team asked to play linebacker on the scout team?"
Mervyn shrugged his shoulders. "Probably as part of his punishment for the other stuff he did."
I nodded. You don't have to be a professional athlete or coach to understand the Jerry situation. I have taught high school for almost 15 years. I've seen lots of ineffective "disciplinarians" turn their classrooms into hostile environments, alienating the good kids while making incorrigible kids worse. They needle kids and provoke them, then punish them for fighting back. These so-called tough guys use punishment to humiliate, and they never wipe the slate clean. What's worse, they are inconsistent with their punishments: they play favorites, or they wait until problems have festered for days before dealing with them. All the while, these insecure "leaders" act as if negative reinforcement is the only form of motivation and any sign of compromise is really a sign of weakness. I haven't been hanging around Craters camp, but from what I've read the coach seemed to fit a very familiar profile.
"First, your coach and your owner need to realize that they have ignored about 20 opportunities to solve the Jerry problem. They could have traded him or clarified their expectations for him the first time he screwed up. At the very least, they should have let him back in the lineup a few weeks after the opening day incident. Asking a player like him to perform menial tasks on the scout team is basically picking a fight. What does that solve?
"Second, if this coach is really a disciplinarian, then he has to apply the same standards to everyone. If he's going to go after Jerry with both barrels, he has to at least admit that Randy's a problem. Everyone in the locker room can see that there's a double standard at work."
"So the next time Randy sounds off on the radio we should suspend him too?"
I chuckled. "Yeah, suspend your two best offense players. Then, your second-year quarterback has no one to throw to, and every veteran on the team gets the message that it's time to break out the golf clubs. Look, the Craters are going nowhere this year, but it doesn't help anyone if they go belly up and have a 3-13 season."
"We could draft Brady Quinn if that happened," Mervyn said hopefully.
"Brady Quinn will pull an Eli Manning or John Elway and refuse to play for your team if you don't show some kind of managerial competence. You have to get Randy and Jerry back on the field, and you have to get them to play at something within a country mile of their peak performance. That may require some people higher up at the organization to swallow their pride and give a little ground. Play Let's Make a Deal with these guys: no more tee-shirts or talk-radio disrespect from the players, no more suspensions and public dirty laundry from the team. In January, the Craters set Jerry and Randy free, after they give the quarterback a chance to prove whether or not he belongs and the offense a chance to crawl off its back. Randy and Jerry are smart, and they know their next paychecks are at stake if they don't at least go through the motions."
Mervyn was taking notes, but he was also shaking his head. "We could back down a little," he said. "We could swallow some pride. But that's not The Crater Way."
We ordered seconds on our ratatouille, but the smell of the vegetable stew was spoiled by a lingering aroma wafting from Mervyn's coat. I was too polite to say anything at first, but my eyes were watering. Mervyn noticed. "I'm sorry," he said. "There's a lingering funk hanging over the Craters franchise. I guess it has seeped into my clothes."
Many observers in the media had already commented on the funky fragrance. An Oakland Tribune columnist wrote that the team stunk "like a standing pool of water." National reporters also smelled something strong. "The stench â€¦ was awful," wrote Karen Crouse of the New York Times. "A gaggle of migrating Canada geese commandeered their field last month, creating another mess for the team to address."
Stagnant water? Goose droppings? That's not what I smelled. That same Times article quoted a player who said he could smell the owner's cologne in the hallways, a smell as noticeable as the scent of failure. That cologne smell was what reeked on Mervyn's jacket. A grandpa smell. Mothballs and moldy rhetoric.
The smell reminded me of a story from the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago. The Craters were facing their arch-rivals, who are coached by Mike Shanahan. Shanahan coached the Craters for a season and a half in the late 1980s. The current Craters coach was an assistant on Shanahan's staff, but Shanahan tried to fire him at the end of the 1988 season. Big mistake: you don't fire a Craters legend.
"I had to restore ... I don't know what you want to call it, order," the Craters owner said two weeks ago, explaining that he overruled Shanahan, brought the assistant back, and eventually promoted him. The quote shows that the owner plainly struggles with words like "order"; if he tried to say "law" his tongue would catch fire. But it also shows that the owner has no qualms about airing grievances after nearly 20 years: that quote wasn't taken from a 1989 interview. The owner was still talking about the Shanahan mutiny two weeks ago. Talk about a moldy beef.
"The best thing for a lingering smell," I said, "is to let some fresh air in."
Mervyn waved me off. "Stop right there. Everyone involved with the Craters has heard that one too many times. 'Bring in new coaches with new ideas.' We read the Tribune and the Chronicle too. I didn't come to Football Outsiders looking for stale advice like that. The fact is that we are committed to our head coach for at least one more year, that the owner isn't going to sell or step down, and no new personnel guru is coming in to shake up the front office. Anyway, it's easy to say 'fire everybody' from your media pedestal, but it's a lot harder to actually do the work involved."
"Fair enough," I replied. "The coach does deserve a fair shot. But the Craters can make other changes. They can change their slogans. They can stop using the same old clichÃ©s. They should put together a public relations plan to show fans and reporters that they are moving forward instead of reliving the 1970s again. Put a moratorium on the coach's "back when I was a player," speeches. No more bouquets at the feet of Ken Stabler and Jim Otto. No more distance spitting contests between the owner and Shanahan or Lamar Hunt, one-way feuds that only make your organization look silly and unprofessional."
Mervin rolled his eyes. "New slogans? New public relations? What good will that do?"
I had to admit that it wouldn't make an immediate impact. But the long-term advantages, while subtle, were significant. "First, it will make it harder for sportswriters like me to take potshots at the Craters. Second, the changes would send a message to agents and coaches that your team is finally ready to take its head out of its own butt.
"This week, your team is facing the Steelers. Ken Whisenhunt is their offensive coordinator. He could have been your head coach, but something scared him off at the last minute. Maybe he remembered the Shanahan story: the story of a gifted young coach who was treated as an outsider, who was chopped off at the knees by his owner, who was fired in mid-season. It's easy to remember that story when your owner keeps bringing it up and trying to justify the move 20 years later. Opposing coaches read this stuff. So do veteran players and their agents. Most NFL players want to join a franchise, not a hunting lodge or a wrestling federation. But that's the image that the Craters project.
"One way to change the way you think is to change the way you talk. It might even change the way you smell."
Mervyn nodded. "That does make some sense. Our image could use some tweaking. But that's not The Crater Way."
Mervyn and I retreated to the Football Outsiders library, where we sat by the fireplace with Deepar, the company Irish setter. Mervyn was drinking Bulleit Frontier Whiskey straight from the bottle. "I'm impressed," he said, slurring a bit. "I thought only the Cold, Hard Football Facts guys had good bourbon. Anyway, all of this advice is so general. Don't you have some big statistical formula that can make all of our problems go away?"
I told him I was sorry. Statistically, everything we predicted came to pass. The offense was terrible, the schedule brutal, the promising defense reduced to average because they never had time to rest. Our stats showed that the veteran quarterback they signed in the off-season was pretty terrible, but a blind bushman could have told the Craters that. In fact, there was nothing on our spreadsheets that contradicted anything that astute observers already knew.
"What about our quarterback situation?" Mervin asked. I replied that Dave Lewin's research for Pro Football Prospectus 2006 indicated that 'Marques' had almost no future as a starting quarterback. Our methods don't tell us much about 'Andrew,' but we haven't liked what we've seen so far.
"What about Tree House Tom, our offensive coordinator?"
"What about him? Players complained 17 years ago that he was out of touch. Yes, smart alecks like me made wisecracks about the time he spent away from football, and some of the criticism might have been a little premature and unfair. Then we were fed lines about how he was actually breaking down film and drawing up plays in his mountain resort. Only Joe Theismann bought that claptrap. Then, finally, we actually saw the offense, and our suspicions were confirmed.
"Look, the running back was a good player before he got hurt. Randy is a good player, even when he's counting the days until January. The offensive line is full of veterans and high draft picks. The quarterback is inexperienced, but he isn't a rookie. Even the guys subbing for Jerry are pretty good. There's no excuse for averaging 12 points per game. A bad offensive coordinator can ruin a quarterback's development. If he's as bad as every indicator -- from his resume to his performance -- says that he is, then he must be stripped of his headset before he slows the growth of every young player on the team.
"And the offensive coordinator isn't the only problem. In the New York Times article, someone asked assistant strength coach Bill Hughan if a stuffed coyote that was standing on the field was the team's new dog. 'You mean our quarterback?' he replied. Did that really happen within earshot of a national reporter? Is that the coach's idea of a 'tight ship?'"
I was pacing around the room now, Mervyn and Deepar following me with their eyes. "You wanna' save the Craters? Start by having the owner say two words: 'I'm wrong.' Have him admit that his personnel decisions have been wrong and that his management style has been wrong. Issue a giant organizational mea culpa. You'll be amazed at what that can do for the work environment. Once the team admits that its whole business plan is faulty, then the owner and the coach can start working on fixing problems. Until then, all you guys are doing is trying to justify mistakes."
"Admitting mistakes," said Mervyn, "is not The Crater Way."
"The Crater Way? The Crater Way is a bumper sticker. It's not the teachings of Confucius. It's not a business model. The Crater Way is the single biggest obstacle between your team and contention. The only time your team has been good in the last ten years was when Jon Gruden scrapped The Crater Way and started implementing a modern organizational structure. Your owner responded by trading Gruden for draft picks, and two seasons later everything he built was torn down. Now all that's left are all of the silly slogans, and they sound more hollow every time you repeat them.
"You know what the scariest thing of all is? I've read two months of news stories about the Craters, not to mention the hours of research I did on them for PFP06. The only person in the whole organiztion who makes any sense when he talks is Warren Sapp. He's your voice of reason. That's downright terrifying."
I slumped in my chair. Mervyn finished his drink and glowered. We were getting nowhere. Saving the Craters was like trying to help an alcoholic who hasn't quite bottomed out yet. They don't know they have a problem. Heaven forbid if the Craters go on a three-game hot streak or win two of their last three games at the end of the year. They'll declare their problems solved and return to business as usual. We'll still be hearing about the Commitment to Excellence and Just Win Baby a decade from now.
What will it take for the Craters to change their culture? A first-round pick refusing to sign? Jerry punching out receivers coach Fred Biletnikoff? (His fist would probably stick to the guy's shirt). A 2-14 finish on the heels of two 4-12 finishes and a 5-11 finish? Maybe the owner must finally realize that no one fears or loathes his team anymore. We smirk at them and pity them. Soon, we'll ignore them.
Mervyn slipped his notebook silently into his pocket, donned his smelly overcoat, grabbed the nearly empty bottle of booze, and slipped out into the foggy night. He was forlorn: a man who knew that changes had to be made but was powerless to make them. I knew my advice would go unheeded in the Craters offices; smarter people than myself have tried and failed to help this storied franchise.
Mabel the cleaning lady was vacuuming under my feet. Daybreak was coming soon; the company server was cranking out DVOA, and the cooks were preparing kippers for breakfast. There was no sense in going home, so I started writing. The NFL needs good villains. Al Davis (yes, I dare speak his name) was once the best villain in the business. He also proved in the off-season that he can still be a visionary, whipping younger owners into line to break the collective bargaining stalemate. But now he's a caricature. If he figures out how to Save the Craters, he can emerge as a hero in the final reel.
And heroes always know when to ride off into the sunset.
22 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2006, 6:24pm by LostInDaJungle