Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Varsity Numbers: Honing in

Bill Connelly again looks at which college football teams the F/+ ratings are sure about, and which teams remain a mystery (led by Appalachian State).

25 Nov 2008

A Very Walkthrough Thanksgiving

by Mike Tanier

In the old days, teams ran off tackle, and turkeys were roasted in pans full of butter.

These days, there are a thousand ways to cook a turkey and a thousand more ways to move the football. Brining is the turkey equivalent of the West Coast Offense: It takes special equipment and years to perfect, but once you master this overly fussy technique, you'll (barely) taste the difference. Cook your turkey upside-down if you want to be the Al Saunders of chefs: The technique is simple, but the formation is complicated, and the turkey must go in motion before it's snapped out of the oven.

Deep-frying the turkey is like running the spread: It's fast, it's flashy, and it could blow up in your face. Some folks cook their turkey in the Crock-Pot, chopping the bird into pieces and rearranging those pieces into unusual formations. Yep, that's the Wildcat.

The Rams let their turkey get burnt, while the Raiders eat theirs raw. The Browns cook their turkey in a brown oven bag, but they don't trust Braylon Edwards to bring it to the table without dropping it. As for the Giants, they run off tackle, and they roast their turkey in pan full of butter. Then they jam it down your throat when you are sitting at the table.

And if you are late for dinner, Tom Coughlin fines you.

The Lion in Winter

If you are a football fan in your 30s or 40s, chances are some of your Thanksgiving memories involve Eric Hipple.

Hipple played quarterback for the Lions from 1980 to 1989. He started five Thanksgiving games during that period, posting a 3-2 record. Hipple's Lions teams usually hovered around .500 in the regular season. They made the playoffs with a 4-5 record in strike-shortened 1982 and a 9-7 record in 1983, but they rarely garnered national attention. Also-rans for much of the era, the Lions took center stage every Thanksgiving, and while running back Billy Sims was their biggest star, Hipple was usually the team's top storyline. A fourth-round pick from Utah State in 1980, Hipple earned a starting job in 1981 but spent several seasons embroiled in a quarterback controversy with veteran Gary Danielson. My memory may be tricking me, but I remember the camera cutting to Danielson every time Hipple threw an incomplete pass, just as it now lingers on Derek Anderson after every errant Brady Quinn throw (or vice versa).

Hipple is now an outreach counselor at the University of Michigan Depression Center. He's also author of the book Real Men Do Cry: A Quarterback's Inspiring Story of Tackling Depression and Surviving Suicide Loss. I interviewed him about his work with athletes and depression for a future Walkthrough, but I also asked him about his favorite Thanksgiving memories.

Surprisingly, Hipple said that the Thanksgiving games aren't among his top career highlights. "My biggest memory was beating the Cowboys in 1981. It was my first year as a starter, I threw two touchdowns, and they had 12 men on the field at the end of the game." Hipple points to another 1981 game as one of his proudest moments: a 48-17 Monday Night win against the Bears in which he threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more. "That ball went to the Hall of Fame," he said.

That's not to say that Thanksgiving games were meaningless to him. "They were different. They were national. Everybody could see what we were doing so we really put our best foot forward." Hipple fondly remembers a 45-3 Thanksgiving win against a good Steelers team in 1983. He threw two touchdowns in that contest "After the game, I was talking to Jack Lambert in the middle of the field. I just couldn't believe that I was standing there talking to a legend like him." Hipple doesn't recall the 1982 Thanksgiving game, when he was benched in favor of Danielson. Fans booed Hipple during pregame announcements and after incomplete passes; the Giants beat the Lions 13-6 when Lawrence Taylor returned a Danielson interception 97 yards. "I've been booed before," he told me. "That's really part of the job. The fans were really booing the Lions, just like they do now."

Hipple's finest holiday game came in 1985, when he threw for 269 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-20 win over the Jets. Hipple's 126.9 rating for that game was a Thanksgiving record at the time. Hipple was surprised to learn that he held the record and only mildly disappointed to find that Peyton Manning broke it in 2004. "Scratch that one off," he joked.

Hipple hosted a Lions pregame show for several years after retirement, and he still keeps in touch with several former teammates, including kicker Eddie Murray and receiver Freddie Scott. He still follows the Lions. "I think they should hang in there with Rod Marinelli. Let him have his chance for one more year." Hipple also thinks Drew Stanton will be the Lions starter in 2009. As for the team's front office, Hipple laughed when asked if he plans to run for general manager. "I'm running away from that position," he said.

Rumor has it that the NFL wants to take the traditional Thanksgiving game away from the Lions. The team has been terrible for a decade, making them a poor showcase for the casual fans who tune in while the turkey is basting. "It better not happen," Hipple said. "That's tradition. People expect to see the Lions in that game. They look for them. I hope it will always be there forever."

I agree. My childhood football memories are dominated by Ron Jaworski and Bill Bergey, plus Super Bowl heroes like Terry Bradshaw and John Riggins. But Thanksgiving memories belong to Hipple, Danielson, and Sims. They're the players I watched while lying on my uncle's floor in an old Hammonton farmhouse. Those memories should be distinct and unique. You don't watch Citizen Kane on Christmas, you watch It's A Wonderful Life. Not because it's a better movie, but because it triggers the memories that reconnect you to your childhood and remind you that the holidays are a special time.

Talking to Hipple helped me reconnect. Watching the Lions on Thursday won't feel like a chore.

Thursday's Nutshells

Titans at Lions: Tennessee's loss to the Jets didn't teach us anything new. Any run-oriented team that unveils a loopy 39-pass game-plan and endures a half-dozen dropped passes is bound to lose. The Jets proved that it is possible to run on the Titans, assuming you have a very good line and a quarterback good enough to keep the defense honest. Since the Lions have neither, we can pick the Titans and move on to more pressing matters.

Could the Lions go 0-16? There are no Rams, Chiefs, or Raiders on their schedule; most of their upcoming opponents are playoff-picture teams who will need a win when they face Millen's Orphans. If you assume there's a 90 percent chance the Lions will lose each game for the next five games, then basic probability puts their odds of going 0-16 at 59 percent. Give them an 80 percent chance of losing and their odds of going winless drop to 32.8 percent. No matter how you calculate them, the odds are pretty bad. Or good, if you like top draft picks and dubious achievements.

Seahawks at Cowboys: The "2008 Cowboys = 2007 Chargers" conceit is still in effect. The midseason swoon is over, and the Cowboys can stay on cruise control for one more week. The Cowboys will smoke the Seahawks the same way they beat the Niners: a few bombs, a few sacks, and a couple of short, turnover-assisted drives. Give them a win here, a win against the Kevin Kolb-led, Marty Mornhinweg-coached Eagles in Week 17, and one stolen victory against the Steelers, Giants, or Ravens, and the Cowboys go 10-6. They'll be one pesty team to face in the Wild Card round.

Cardinals at Eagles: Then there was the time when he performed, and nobody cried for more. Soon every time he stepped into the light, they really let him know the score. But he dreamed of the times when he sang his songs, and everybody cried for more. When all he had to do was step into the light for everyone to start to roar. And all the people cried, "You're the one we waited for."

Nobody ever really cried like that for Donovan McNabb in Philly, mind you. But he'll put up his dukes one more week before falling on the grassier verge. Then comes the genesis of the Kevin Kolb era. Until then, take the Cardinals and cringe.

Sunday's Big Games

Steelers at Patriots: After beating the Bengals last Thursday, the Steelers are enjoying a 10-day layover before battling the defending AFC champs. "It's a well-needed bye week," Hines Ward said. "We've got some guys pretty banged up. We're going to enjoy this mini little bye week."

"Pretty banged up" is an understatement. Santonio Holmes' head is still ringing at B-flat after the hit he took from Chris Crocker. Holmes' status is uncertain for Sunday, and Willie Parker may also miss the game after re-injuring his knee. It's par for the course for the Steelers, who have limped through one of the league's most challenging schedules and emerged with an 8-3 record.

Nothing comes easy for the Steelers. They couldn't travel to New England in October, when every Patriots win was a chore, sloppy losses were common, and someone named BobCarol Ted-Alice was the running back. Instead, the Steelers head to Foxboro at a time when the Patriots are channeling the ghosts of 2007: back-to-back 400-yard passing performances, point totals in the 40s, allegations of running up the score.

The Patriots may have scored 79 points in two games, but they allowed 62. They lost to the Jets, and Sunday's win was much narrower than the final score. The Patriots' pass defense cannot stop anyone, and their run defense is vulnerable up the middle. Holmes and Parker may be limited, but the Steelers can still count on weapons like Ward and Mewelde Moore. The Steelers defense, meanwhile, will halt Matt Cassel's 400-yard game streak at two.

Take the Steelers, who will coast into the playoffs if they can beat their next four opponents: the 1985 Bears, the 1966 Packers, the 1994 Niners, and the Justice League of America.

Giants at Redskins: Fans of smash-mouth football rejoice! The Giants and Redskins do things the old-fashioned way: with pulverizing defense and an unapologetic running game.

That's not to say that neither team can throw the ball. The Giants switched to a slightly more pass-oriented game plan on Sunday when armored personnel carrier Brandon Jacobs' status suddenly slipped from "probable" to "ouch" before the game. Plaxico Burress came up lame in the first quarter, but not-so-secret weapon Domenik Hixon made the most of his opportunities as a receiver and return man, and the Giants won a game in which their rushing attack was temporarily derailed.

The Redskins have an adequate passing game, though they are at their best when matriculating down the field on the legs of MVP candidate Clinton Portis. This week's Redskins are much better offensively than the team that was held to 209 yards, 11 first downs, and seven points in the season opener. Still, it's hard to imagine a cloud-of-dust team beating this year's Giants: There aren't many yards to be had in the middle of that line.

The old-school philosophy is to assume a home-and-home split between these historic rivals, but I'm picking the Giants until they stop playing well in every facet of the game.

A Holiday Remembered

I asked a handful of friends and fellow writers to share their Thanksgiving football memories. Hopefully, this article will trigger some fond memories for you as well.

The 1980s were a Silver Age: In the era of high-def television and 200-channel cable packages, it's easy to forget that Thanksgiving once offered a rare opportunity to watch out-of-town teams on a flickering old box in the living room.

Or listen to the home team on radio. Michael David Smith, Outsider Emeritus, is a lifelong Lions fan. That doesn't mean that he got to sit and watch the team before dinner. "The Thanksgivings I remember most from my childhood are actually the ones when the Lions couldn't sell out the Silverdome, so the games were blacked out and I couldn't watch," he told me. "There was nothing worse than just sitting around with my family, wondering how the Lions were doing. My mom, for some reason, wouldn't allow me to turn on the radio, even though we always had the TV on in the years the Lions weren't blacked out."

There is something perverse and cruel about preventing Lions fans from watching their team's lone center-stage appearance. That may be why the league is extending the team's deadline for a sellout this season. The fact that the Lions often played well on Thanksgiving makes Mike's story even more depressing.

In the early 1980s, Brandon Benson of the Packers Web site Acme Packing Company loved Thanksgiving as much as any football-obsessed preteen carnivore. But as a Packers fan, he has few good football memories about the holiday. "I became a football fan at age 10, in 1980, back when the Packers' annual trip to the Silverdome involved a good beating by the Lions," he told me. "So if the Packers did play on Thanksgiving, they went to Detroit and it was usually an ugly loss. I doubt Eddie Murray ever missed a field goal against the Packers."

Back then, the Lions were pretty good, but the Packers were mired in the epic drought that lasted from Bart Starr to Brett Favre. Benson said the tables didn't really turn until a 1993 Wild Card game. "Since then, I've been usually expecting a win against Detroit, such as the win last in Detroit last Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving games involving the Packers have become a much more welcomed experience."

The Lions played in a few true classics back in the 1980s. Football historian Lloyd Vance reminded me of the 1980 Bears-Lions game that ended with a kickoff return touchdown by Dave Williams. "I remember this game, because Vince Evans was at quarterback for the Bears: It was rare to see an African-American quarterback at the time. The great Walter Payton rushed 18 times for 123 yards, and I think he even threw a pass."

Payton did throw a pass in that game, as did Bears punter Bob Parsons and Lions punter Tom Skladany. Two fake punts made for some lively viewing. I have a dim memory of the Danielson-to-Sims touchdown that gave the Lions an early 10-0 lead: Sims, a rookie sensation that year, took a swing pass and broke three tackles on the way to the end zone. The Lions led 17-3 in the fourth quarter, but Evans threw one touchdown pass and ran for the game-tying score. Williams scored the first-ever kickoff return touchdown in overtime. "You know, that was the only real coaching I did today," Bears coach Neill Armstrong said after the game. "I told them to go out and win the toss."

Participation Points: Americans don't just watch football on television on Thanksgiving. Thousands of high school and college students play on the holiday. Tens of thousands of coaches, cheerleaders, band members, pep club boosters, parents, neighbors, and plain-old fans travel to the local field to support student athletes before heading home to the supper table. And families across the nation work off their annual carbohydrate overdose with a friendly post-dinner pickup game.

Vance told me about his hometown high school rivalry: Abington versus Cheltenham, a matchup that dates back to 1915. "My most vivid memories of Thanksgiving are attending the rivalry game in the early afternoon, then going over to my paternal grandmother’s house for a celebration like none other. We had turkey, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, candied yams, and many other favorites, all while having good fellowship over food. And, of course, football."

Those celebrations "like none other" happen all across the country, of course. The menu and the order of events barely changes, yet each tiny variation carries a family's DNA signature. It's what makes Thanksgiving both personal and universal.

Now that I'm a teacher, I usually spend Thanksgiving morning watching Audubon versus Haddon Township, a low-key matchup between two small schools. Steve Rizzo, one of my former students, is now a freshman backup quarterback at Colgate. "We never won a bunch of games, so for us Thanksgiving was the Super Bowl," Rizzo said. "The strong rivalry we had made it one of the most exciting games to experience."

Colgate was originally scheduled to play on Thanksgiving, but thanks to a Patriot Division championship, they'll come to Philadelphia to face Villanova in the Division I-AA playoffs instead. Rizzo will be home to enjoy his favorite holiday traditions. "My whole family plays football pools, so it brings the togetherness with my family, which is sweet."

Turkey a la Road: Not everyone gets to be home for the holiday. NFL players often find themselves on the road. The Lions and Cowboys are at home, but they are at work when most Americans sit down to give thanks. Hipple described to me long postgame drives to his in-law's home for an evening dinner; when the guest of honor is busy beating the Jets, the turkey goes in the oven late. Players like Jason Hanson and Eddie Murray, who each spent about a generation with the Lions, probably assume that 8 p.m. is the proper time to start Thanksgiving dinner.

Sportswriters often have to work on the holiday. Drew Lawrence of Sports Illustrated once had to work on Thanksgiving as an AP reporter in Indianapolis. "I spent that Thursday locked inside their downtown offices manning the desk. That one experience was enough to make me forever appreciative of never having to work on the holiday since."

I've never had to work on Thanksgiving, let alone travel. Few sportswriters are so lucky. I appreciate my blessings: a beautiful, caring wife, two healthy children, two satisfying careers, a day off that allows me to be with my family AND support my students AND watch the sport I love so much that is has become part of my life.

"It starts with the food and continues with the football," Lawrence told me, echoing a theme that ran through all of these interviews. "Like you, I'm not that old and can remember a time when Thanksgiving was the one of the few times in a football season where you'd be guaranteed two games that day. If meal prep went just right, you could snack during the first game, eat during the second, then be fully passed out by the time the womenfolk in the room start clamoring for the comatose menfolk to flip over to ice skating or the network movie of the week before knocking off."

In 1997, I traveled with my wife to the Pittsburgh area to visit her family. The afternoon game was Cowboys-Titans. The Titans took the lead, and Eddie George helped them sit on it by pounding out about a million four-yard runs (Tennessee won 27-14). My father-in-law and I watched the game, stuffed and quietly content, until my wife and her mother finished the dishes. Then the womenfolk clamored for a terrible movie in which Dolly Parton played a roadhouse barfly who died but came back to help loved ones in need. To be fair, my wife didn't clamor for it, only her mother and grandmother. It's one of my last memories of my father-in-law before he had a stroke. It's a happy memory, not just because the Cowboys lost.

A Place for Enemies at the Table: I haven't talked about the Cowboys much. Everyone knows that the Lions game is the appetizer, the Cowboys game the main course. Most of the people I talked to associated Thanksgiving football with a Lions loss and a Cowboys victory. Surprisingly, both teams went 14-6 on Thanksgiving from 1980 through 1999. Our tricky memories rewrite history: we forget the decent Hipple-Danielson-Sims Lions teams and the good Barry Sanders teams, as well as the bad Cowboys of the late 1980s and the post-Jimmy Johnson era.

Here in Eagles country, a Cowboys loss is a reason for celebration. "If the Cowgirls lose, it makes my whole day," Rizzo told me. Lloyd Vance reminded me of the greatest of all Cowboys embarrassments: the Bounty Bowl on November 23, 1989. "It left me over-the-top giddy," Vance said. His brother was a Cowboys fan, so the victory took on a fraternal significance. "The Birds won handily and the Cowboys turncoats in my grandmother's suburban Philadelphia home had to eat some crow with their turkey." There's a bittersweet element to the memory: Reggie White hoisted the ceremonial turkey leg that day.

I remember that game too, of course, but my memories are tainted by the bounty scandal that followed (Buddy Ryan offered cash rewards for vicious hits on kicker Luis Zendejas and others) and by the overall failures of the Ryan era. The Eagles play on Thursday, and I hope to revel in both an Eagles win and a Cowboys loss, albeit to two different opponents. I don't think it will happen.

Absolute Thanks: The three Fs of Thanksgiving – family, food, and football -- shuffle in significance as we grow older. The Bounty Bowl didn't mean much to me when I was a college sophomore. The family meal felt like an inconvenient obligation, and football was little more than an excuse for Sunday afternoon keg parties. Fortunately, we don't stay teenagers forever, and we become smarter about assigning priorities.

Demond Sanders of the Colts Web site 18 to 88.com comes from a huge family: 33 first cousins, plus the usual assortment of aunts, uncles, and so on. "Thanksgiving was stunning in its scope," he told me. "Fortunately, for about 7 hours most of the men could retreat together and enjoy football in an environment only slightly more intimate than the Silver Dome."

Sanders now lives in Argentina, and he usually spends Thanksgiving there. "There's no football on TV, there's no turkey in the oven, there's no family crammed into my house. It's more peaceful, sure, but I'd trade that all that peace for one more Barry Sanders run, even it means that an irritating conversation with a goofy aunt comes in the package. When you don't have Thanksgiving football, or Thanksgiving at all for that matter, even an epic Titans/Lions tilt sounds wonderful."

I've never spent Thanksgiving overseas, but six years ago I ate Thanksgiving dinner in the local diner with my father. I had baked ziti instead of the traditional fixin's. We grabbed a turkey-and-stuffing to go, then rushed to the hospital to give my wife a taste of real food. After she ate a few bites, we scrubbed our hands up to our elbows and entered the neonatal ICU. C.J. was all of 66 hours old and five pounds, wrapped in a bilirubin blanket and surrounded by monitors. We held him, fed him formula and sugar water, changed his diaper. I cradled his skull in my palm, and his feet only reached halfway up my forearm.

The Cowboys beat the Redskins in a close game. I know that because I own an encyclopedia. There was little football or turkey that day. But there was thankfulness.

Inseparable Memories: The first Thanksgiving NFL games took place on November 25, 1920. Nine NFL teams played that day, six against each other, three against non-league opponents. College and high school teams played on Thanksgiving much earlier in history. Before there was television or radio, before refrigerators to hold frozen turkeys, before the Great Depression or World War II, the sport and the holiday were inseparable.

No wonder it is such a part of our memories. It's inexorably associated with a crowded house full of cousins, with sibling rivalries, with secret trips to the radio to catch the score. It reminds us of family betting pools, pickup games, high school showdowns. We remember deaths and births, lost loved ones and new arrivals, just as we remember Reggie White, Barry Sanders, and Eric Hipple. For many of us, that post-meal slump in front of the television is deeply associated with the feeling that all is right in the world. The house is warm. The family is safe. And even though the Cowboys are winning, they'll lose next time.

Happy, safe, and blessed Thanksgiving to everyone from the Football Outsiders family.

Nutshells

Niners at Bills: The Trent Edwards funk is over. He has stopped throwing an interception per minute against bad teams. He now scores about a touchdown per minute against bad teams. It's a good thing the Bills are facing their third straight bad team this week.

If they still harbor serious playoff hopes, the Bills must beat the Niners: They start a de facto three-game road trip when they take off to the great white north to face the Dolphins in Toronto on December 5. Even with a win, the Bills face long odds, but at least their quarterback no longer needs career counseling.

Ravens at Bengals: The good news for the Bengals is that rookie tackle Anthony Collins and left guard Nate Livings held the Steelers sackless on Thursday night (the lone Steelers sack came off a blitz). The bad news: 1) The Bengals have been reduced to starting a line full of rookies; 2) Those rookies must face the Ravens defense, which is arguably more dangerous than the Steelers defense; and 3) As young as the Cincinnati offensive starters have become, none can match WR-Bengals when it comes to immaturity. Carson Palmer plans to start throwing footballs in two weeks, but that's so no one can criticize him when they see him swinging golf clubs in January.

Colts at Browns: At least Romeo Crennel is communicating a clear message to his beleaguered troops. "You would have to ask coach why I was pulled," Brady Quinn said after his two-pick-and-an-injured-pinkie effort against the Texans. "He was upset with a couple of decisions I made out there. I didn't have any idea that I was on such a short leash." It's easy, oh Lost Jonas Brother. The Browns are in "win now mode." Or is it "rebuilding mode?" Or maybe "save the coach mode." It doesn't matter. The Colts are trying to shift into "run the table mode," and they aren't about to pull a Giants and trip over this disorganized bunch.

Panthers at Packers: The Falcons carved up the Panthers early on Sunday, executing eight-, seven-, and 10-play scoring drives that resulted in 178 net yards and 17 points. Just when the Panthers caught up, the Falcons produced two more long drives. Panthers fans must hope the Falcons game wasn't the sign of things to come. There are no more Lions or Raiders on the schedule, just a bunch of teams that move the ball very well (like the Packers and Giants), plus two division foes. You better believe that the Bucs and Saints are splicing Sunday's game film together as fast as possible. Packers.

Broncos at Jets: The Jets rushed for 192 yards against one of the best defenses in the league on Sunday. The Broncos allowed 154 rushing yards to a team whose playbook resembles the Super Value Menu at Wendy's. Thomas Jones and Leon Washington will tear their rotator cuffs on Sunday by spiking the ball too often. Jets.

Dolphins at Rams: The Dolphins offer a ray of hope for the hopeless Rams. This time last year, the Dolphins were inept, disorganized, and rudderless. Now they're pesky, fun to watch, and still on the outskirts of the playoff picture. The Rams have about as many building blocks in place as the 2007 Dolphins did, and their soft division could facilitate a sudden 2009 turnaround. They only need two things. First, a creative offensive mind who can keep opponents off guard. If they hire someone like Josh McDaniels, that base is covered. Second, a master organizer and executive like Bill Parcells who can bring stability, continuity, and a clear vision to the organization. Let's see there's ... OK, there's only one Parcells. Maybe the Rams should put off waiting until next year until next year. Dolphins.

Saints at Bucs: Three weeks ago, the Buccaneers spotted the Chiefs a 24-3 lead, then came back to win 30-27. Last week, the Bucs bumbled through the first quarter and found themselves trailing the Lions 17-0. One call from the front desk later, they had a 38-20 win. The Buccaneers aren't really built for comebacks: They don't have big-play receivers or a high-voltage passing attack. For that matter, they aren't really built to allow awful teams to jump to early leads, either. The Buccaneers took an early lead against the Saints in the season opener, but they couldn't hold it because they allowed long touchdowns by Devery Henderson and Reggie Bush. Maybe they should send the ball boys out there until the Saints have a hearty 28-point lead, then win in the style to which they've become accustomed.

Falcons at Chargers: This week, the Chargers discover Unlikely Way to Lose No. 244: a 50-yard field goal by Falcons receiver/returner/phenom Harry Douglas, who will fill on for Jason Elam so the veteran kicker can work on his second novel.

Chiefs at Raiders: The Raiders threw 12 passes last week. The Chiefs called just nine handoffs. So this is what the other side of the looking glass looks like. I was expecting a few more sentient playing cards. Chiefs.

Bears at Vikings: This is the way Vikings victories are supposed to look: 27 handoffs (including a couple of end-arounds), just 20 pass attempts, great run defense, a bunch of sacks. The Vikings played their best brand of football against the Jaguars. Unfortunately, it never lasts. Brad Childress intersperses wins like Sunday's with games marred by 40-pass game plans and special teams meltdowns.

Gus Frerotte threw 40 times in the Vikings 47-41 loss to the Bears earlier in the season. To be fair, the meltdowns -- a blocked Chris Kluwe punt, a muffed punt return -- forced the Vikings to become one-dimensional. The Vikings special teams have improved. Let's see if Childress has finally shredded the old Andy Reid playbook and committed to his Adrian Peterson-Chester Taylor running game. I don't believe he has. Bears.

Jaguars at Texans: The Jaguars turned the ball over five times last week. Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor combined for 24 yards on nine carries. To continue the Raiders-Chiefs motif, I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date. Jaguars.

And a Child Shall Mislead Them

Figure 1

The peaceful, family-oriented Thanksgiving holiday is followed by Black Friday, a capitalist orgy that requires dutiful Americans to shop themselves into oblivion in the name of improving Consumer Confidence. Smart shoppers buy their gifts in mid-August to avoid the Black Friday crowds. People with children aren't so lucky: The kids are home from school, the weather is frigid, and every child-friendly indoor activity is crowded to the gills with munchkins. Try going to Chuck E. Cheese or a Discovery Museum on Friday. I double dog dare you. If you are going to get trampled, you might as well multi-task and pick up a few gifts at the same time.

On Black Friday, mall crowds are about 200 percent larger, and small children are extra-distracted by the presence of Santa, Christmas trees, large displays of new Wii games, and other kids skillfully eluding their parents. Small children can get separation from their parents on Black Friday as easily as Torry Holt against DeAngelo Hall. What's worse, they work in pairs to terrify their parents. I call them "combo routes." I swear that Tom Moore sneaks into my house when I am not there and coaches the boys on some fiendish Marvin Harrison-Reggie Wayne tactics to distract me, escape me, and enjoy some hot cocoa with the gang at mall security while I shave four years off my lifespan panicking for their well being.

Figure 1 shows one of my kids' favorite combo routes: the hook-and-distraction. C.J. (6) does something that demands my undivided attention: he does a forward roll into a Kitchen Kapers display of imported saffron, masters quantum physics, or just strikes the "Cat's In The Cradle" tone of voice he has mastered, the one that tells me he will carry anything short of a top priority daddy intervention with him as a grudge until the day the doctor asks him whether to remove my feeding tube. As I dote over C.J., Mikey (2) sprints around a blind corner. It's simple and effective: the slants-and-flats of small child misbehavior.

Figure 2

If C.J. wants to get open, he executes a linger-and-dash (Figure 2). Obviously, the six-year-old is on a longer leash than the two-year-old. If I'm not using a stroller (you only use a stroller on Black Friday if you want a portable battering ram; a large percentage of parents choose this option, but I don't), then most of my attention is focused on Mikey. As shown, Mikey takes an inside release, so I open up to his side, glancing over my left shoulder when heading for the food court for chicken nuggets (them) and stromboli (me). C.J. exploits the hole in the zone to my right, then darts into GameStop when I turn to check on Mikey. GameStop is small, and I know C.J. will be near the Mario Kart display, so there's little risk of a lost child here. Still, it's guaranteed yards.

If the whole family goes shopping, the kids have to work overtime to get open. My wife provides blanket coverage: She's Nnamdi Asomugha, I'm more of a Reggie Nelson coming over the top in deep support. But the boys are ready, even when we bracket them. Figure 3 shows a play they would run in an open space in the mall: the Food Court, or one of those pavilions outside the department stores with a few benches, a map, and a Saturn the local dealership is trying to hawk.

Figure 3

Here, the boys run a double pick. One of my wife's friends materializes, stalk-blocking her with a tragic story of marital discord or news of a 60 percent off sale at Bed, Bath, & Beyond. That leaves me in a flooded zone with two children, but they don't make their move until a hot college-age mall princess struts by to my right, demanding a brief over-the-shoulder leer. I'm a dutiful dad, so I don't take my eyes completely off my children to ogle the Gamma Phi chick while my wife tells her pal that despite her husband's Internet taxidermy addiction, he's a good man deep down. But I am distracted. So Mikey runs an elaborate option route to occupy my peripheral vision while C.J. disappears behind a kiosk full of Thomas Kinkade accessories so he can examine the lone Pokémon-a-Day calendar.

As skilled as the boys are at evasive maneuvers, I inevitably find them, which is good on a number of levels. If they really want to escape me, they need cell phones, a car, and the ability to outrun me in a straight sprint. Someday, I'll draw new diagrams with a "17" and "13" on them. Hope you are still reading, with a couple hundred thousand of your closest friends.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 25 Nov 2008

33 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2008, 11:49am by You suck

Comments

1
by joe skolnikl (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 4:43pm

wehat is this guys record on the season?

2
by Lou W (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 4:47pm

Brilliant diagrams! I just got back from the mall with my 6 and 5 year old, and on Friday, while my wife will be with us, we also have to bring the 3 year old. We generally play a prevent defense (just keep them in front of you), while mixing in some Cover-2, and an occasional Deon-esque trap play on the six year old (where we bait him by letting him follow us, so he thinks that we aren't watching, so we can swoop in and teach him a lesson when he makes a mistake).

6
by DGL :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 5:18pm

Yeah, when you have more kids involved than grownups, you have to go to a zone.

17
by MTR (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 8:50pm

I always play a deep safety and count on my closing speed. Nice article.

3
by Steve (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 4:52pm

An excellent read. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and good luck to those brave souls who venture out on Black Friday.

4
by Dean (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 4:59pm

If you're still drawing diagrams in 7 years, I'm sure we'll still be here reading them.

And you're right. Nothing soothes an Iggles loss quite like a matching one from D@!!@$$.

5
by DZ (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 5:09pm

Wow. Really great read this week. Not just because we are in it. Happy Thanksgiving.

7
by DGL :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 5:20pm

Great writing, Mike. I'll have my first Thanksgiving morning football game this week (elder son is in the band), then hop in the car for a four-hour drive and hope I hit the hole in the zone between "everyone driving to Thanksgiving" and "everyone driving home from Thanksgiving".

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there, even the Ravens fans.

8
by theprophecy :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 5:22pm

Another good one. These are becoming possibly the best feature on the site.

9
by Temo :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 5:54pm

My first football-on-thanksgiving memory is the Leon Lett Game, in '93. Somehow, that made me into a Cowboys fan.

I'm still working out how that happened.

10
by Monkey Business (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 6:19pm

My sister and I were like Marvin and Reggie against Jason David and a hole in the zone. My mom was aggressive, but had a tendency to overshoot, and I had a sick spin move. I juked her out of her shoes a few times. My sister was always more of a bruiser; she'd just run straight ahead and dare my dad to stop her. There were tackles involved.

Christmas shopping with my family involved facemasks and mouthguards.

11
by Tom Gower :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 6:25pm

Really good piece, Mike, thanks.

Neat to hear of other people's Thanksgiving memories, particularly ones with football in them. Mine are largely "turn that danged game off and spend time with your family members," which may explain why my travels this weekend take me to Ford Field to watch the Titans, rather than in the direction of kith and kin.

12
by bubqr :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 6:35pm

These diagramms were just brilliant ! Most creative/funny thing I've read in a while.

13
by E :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 6:45pm

Ditto to everyone's praise for "And a Child Shall Mislead Them" ... a joy to read, in part because it came out of nowhere in a football column, plus great writing and complimentary diagrams. Happy Turkey Day everyone!

14
by Anonymous Too! (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 7:00pm

Has anyone noticed that the name of the column has been changed from WalkthRough to just plain Walkthough (sans the "r").

Congrats to you, Mike, for making this bold change.

15
by Andy L. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 8:14pm

What's that saying about pain making an artist better? That's back-to-back great articles from Mike Tanier (last week's "Purple Village" was brilliant). Is the iron maiden muse that is the Eagle's season inspiring Mr. Tanier to greater literary heights?

16
by princeton73 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 8:16pm

well, for someone my age, the most impressive performance by the Lions on Thanksgiving was the beating they put on the Pack in 1962--the Pack's only loss that year

Roger Brown was a monster that day

(actually, Roger Brown was a monster most Sundays)

18
by Lance :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 8:59pm

Mike, the "And a Child Shall Mislead Them" was brilliant. Thanks.

19
by Sunil (not verified) :: Tue, 11/25/2008 - 9:09pm

Pure infotainment - good job Mike Sr - you have warmed the cockles of our football shaped hearts. Happy Thanksgiving to your wife, CJ, Mikey and you. Happy Thanksgiving to all the FO regulars, stalkers and first-timers too!

20
by CathyW :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 12:09am

Awesome article. My 5 year old daughter recently managed to evade me in Target for a good 10 minutes, the longest 10 minutes of my life to date. I had forgotten the basic rule of zone defense when they outnumber you.

I have to say, you are braver than me, taking your kids out shopping on Black Friday. My mom will be watching the kids while I work (yes, some of us actually have to work on Black Friday).

21
by Marko :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 1:28am

Re: Bears-Lions 1980 game: As a Bears fan, I vividly recall that game. Vince Evans' game-tying touchdown run came on a quarterback draw as time expired in regulation. I recall it being a 4 yard run that started with 4 seconds left. Then the Bears won the OT coin toss, Dave Williams ran the kickoff back 95 yards for the game-winning touchdown, and we could eat dinner happy. I'm pretty sure there have only been 1 or 2 subsequent OT games that ended on kickoff return TDs, so I'm confident this is the only game in NFL history in which a team scored the tying TD on the last play of regulation, then won the game on the kickoff return in OT.

Other vivid Thanksgiving memories for me include another outstanding game by Walter Payton against the Lions in 1977 (137 yards and 1 TD rushing, and 107 yards, including a 75 yard TD, receiving) and the two games in 1998 (the controversial coin toss in OT in the Steelers-Lions game, when Jerome Bettis called either "heads-tails" or "hea-tails," followed by the Vikings-Cowboys game in which rookie Randy Moss absolutely torched Cowboys with I think 3 long TD catches).

And a nitpick: The Bears won the earlier game against the Vikings this year 48-41, not 47-41.

22
by the K (not verified) :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 5:20am

It seems most of the time I post these days, it's mostly just to praise Tanier, who has always been my favorite FO writer. Articles like this show why.

My top memory of Thanksgiving day, like someone said above, was also the 93 Cowboys/Dolphins game. As a Bills fan, we always had trepidation about Miami back then, we had much respect for Marino and the history of hated rivaldom fueled it. Then Lett proves again he was officially The Dumbest Football Player Ever and handed Miami a win after a missed FG that would have allowed Dallas to run out the clock.

23
by GMR (not verified) :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 9:58am

Players like Jason Hanson and Eddie Murray, who each spent about a generation with the Lions, probably assume that 8 p.m. is the proper time to start Thanksgiving dinner.

Actually, the proper time for Eddie Murray to start Thanksgiving dinner would have been a month and a half prior (he's Canadian).

24
by Snidely (not verified) :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 11:21am

Awesome all around.

So, when the Justice League plays, is it just an endless series of quarterback sneaks by Superman? I guess Aquaman gets to return kicks.

25
by Dean (not verified) :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 11:30am

Dude, who says brining is difficult? You put salt, cider, spices, and a turkey into a plastic bag and let it sit for a day. That's it. I think the proper analogy is that brining is "not playing Brian Russell" since it's so easy and helpful that you're amazed that there's someone who doesn't do it.

26
by Joseph :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 1:03pm

(Understand, I live in Mexico near Mexico City)

PRAISE GOD we don't have Black Friday here. Two years ago we were in Austin for Thanksgiving and I let my wife go with her mom--AT 2:30 AM!!! At least the kids were younger then.
My kids are 6 & 5 now. In the mall, we play a simple man-to-man. Don't know what we'll do when 3rd child comes (due in May).
Finally, we 3 guys are looking forward to PLAYING football for the holidays this year. A friend from college lives 3 hrs away, with 10 & 8 year old boys. Although we're celebrating on Friday (don't ask--it's easier for both of us), our family is looking forward to the game.
And finally, I always rooted against the Boys on Thanksgiving--which isn't easy to do with my parents AND in-laws being from Texas.

27
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 3:59pm

Huh. Although Wikipedia characterises Boxing Day (December 26th) as the UK equivalent of Black Friday, I'm pretty sure I've heard the term used over here to describe the last day of school before the October half-term, on which everyone and his dog buggers off to camp in the Lake District, or visit their grandparents in Barnsley, or some such damn fool thing, turning Britain's motorways into the world's largest and worst designed car park. Then 9 days later they all go back. It's probably called Total Bastard Sunday, or something, and this year it conveniently co-incided with my the day after my brother's birthday. He lives in Edinburgh. I live in Oxford. I work Monday-Friday. That was not a fun driving experience.

28
by saintsmartyr (not verified) :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 4:28pm

Wasn't the Clint Longley game on Thanksgiving?

29
by Wait, what? (not verified) :: Wed, 11/26/2008 - 9:30pm

Brilliant as always, Mike. Your wife must be a very understanding woman, to put up with your leering at college girls and comparing her to Nnamdi Asomugha. (Certainly, being compared with the best cornerback in the league is a compliment, but not one I would try out on my significant other, I don't think.)

30
by Dice (not verified) :: Thu, 11/27/2008 - 1:18am

Clint Longley ruined turkey day before I was born. Every year, had(and still have to) hear about him beating the 'Skins, and then grandpa would get heartburn and agitated, and it was a crappy day.

31
by Phil Collins (not verified) :: Thu, 11/27/2008 - 10:13am

Many thanks for borrowing my lyrics, my attorney's will be calling your attorney's after your Thanksgiving Holiday is concluded...

32
by andrew :: Thu, 11/27/2008 - 2:24pm

The Lions appear to have solved their problem of blowing early big leads in games.

33
by You suck (not verified) :: Tue, 12/02/2008 - 11:49am

I'm not sure what's up with your hatred for the Panthers, but I always enjoy seeing you predict their games wrong. Moron.