Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
09 May 2008
by Mike Tanier
Sportscaster babble is a little like ultra-hip teenage slang. It's used to establish pecking order and differentiate the in-crowd from the followers. You don't want to be caught using last year's clichÃ©s unless you want to be labeled a wannabe or copycat. Luckily, I'm here to guide you through this linguistic minefield.
Consider this Breaking News: "off-the-chart intangibles" is the new "swagger."
Mike Mayock and the NFL Network gang coined the new phrase in a stroke of draft day inspiration. "Off-the-chart intangibles" is simultaneously hyperbolic, oxymoronic, and vague. It's almost impossible to break three rules of clear communication with one four-word phrase, but these guys are masters. They knew they had a slam dunk, too, repeating their new coinage as a mantra whenever Matt Ryan was mentioned.
It's easy to poke fun of the phrase's lyrical inanity â€“- we've measured his immeasurables and found them, shudder, immeasurable â€“- but there's some ingenious logic pretzel-twisted into "off-the-chart intangibles." Intangibles do exist, though they don't have the all-encompassing impact they're credited for in some circles. And at Football Outsiders, we love to chart everything we can, though we prefer to stick with the tangible. If we can create an Intangibles Chart, we could then determine if some player, like Ryan or Doug Flutie, register intangible levels that leap off it.
First, we need to define "intangibles" a little better. That's easy enough. Character, Leadership, Work Ethic, and Competitiveness/Toughness are the virtues sportswriters usually invoke as intangibles. All we have to do is create a four-point holistic rubric for each parameter (notice how effortlessly I slip from football babble to educationist babble), add the values up, and presto! A completely implausible chart.
So let's create narratives and benchmarks (more educationist gibberish; it's like a second language to me) for each intangible, then see how they stack up:
SCORE POINT 3: The player bathes lepers and volunteers to clean Superfund sites in his spare time.
SCORE POINT 2: The player is a nice guy, but once got a DUI at a checkpoint after his second Applebee's margarita when he failed the Roscoe P. Coltrane sobriety test: counting down from 300 by primes. In Esperanto.
SCORE POINT 1: The player once forced 10 exotic dancers at crossbow point to make a human pyramid, then refused to tip them when they couldn't make a dodecahedron.
SCORE POINT 0: The player once sold weaponized hunta virus to an undercover agent dressed as Kim Il Jong.
SCORE POINT 3: "For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, /This day shall gentle his condition; /And gentlemen in England now-a-bed /Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, /And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks /That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day!"
SCORE POINT 2: R. Lee Ermey sometimes calls him for advice about motivation.
SCORE POINT 1: The player covers his locker with those office supply store "Excellence" posters, which inspired many a college graduate to the heights of lower-middle management.
SCORE POINT 0: Upon meeting the player, teammates become so unmotivated that they enter a vegetative state.
SCORE POINT 3: The player had a USB port inserted in the base of his neck so he can jack game film directly into his cerebral cortex, Matrix-style.
SCORE POINT 2: The player converted his recreation center into a home gym and his home gym into some kind of super gym. He also sleeps in an oxygenated chamber with a built-in elliptical runner for extra somno-cardio workouts.
SCORE POINT 1: The player has some lazy habits, like repackaging leftover Deadspin gags and using them as a Football Outsiders column.
SCORE POINT 0: Hey, he got a Retro-Fitness membership the day after Thanksgiving and he's going to start using it soon. Cut him some slack.
SCORE POINT 3: The player once completed 36 holes of pitch 'n' putt eight hours after a kidney transplant because he didn't want to give Jimmy Kimmel the satisfaction of beating him.
SCORE POINT 2: The player once played the second half of a game with a ruptured spleen.
SCORE POINT 1: The player was accused of having a soft childhood by Steve Young and of worrying too much about his press clipping by Jon Gruden. (To avoid confusion, Chris Simms gets a 1.5 in this metric).
SCORE POINT 0: The player once missed two games for "emotional exhaustion" after Nate found out about Chuck and Blair's relationship on Gossip Girl.
A worthy addition to the FO arsenal of metrics, don't you think? Ryan might certainly rate a 10 or 11 on this list, but I doubt he earns a perfect 12, and there's no way he's off the charts. Try the Intangibles Chart on your favorite player, world leader, or loved one. It's easy, fun, and deadly accurate.
As for "off-the-chart intangibles," feel free to use it in casual conversation until it cools off sometime in 2010. It's even easy to text message. If a friend writes Y U LIKE GRCIA?, you can just type back: OTCI.
It was a simpler time: 25 years ago, the day of the most important draft in NFL history. In 1983, the draft was a marathon that started on Tuesday morning and lasted until 2 a.m. on Wednesday. The league didn't dare break for sleep, because the USFL would gobble up all the undrafted talent in the interim. John Elway was the best player in the draft, and the Colts had the first pick, but Elway refused to play for a down-and-out franchise with a drunken owner. In the days leading up to the draft, teams swapped picks wildly to move up and take one of the elite prospects. The first round was a breakfast roll call of players who were superstars before they turned pro: Elway, Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner, Billy Ray Smith.
If you're bored with this year's post-draft rhetoric, here's the cure. Let's harken back to 1983 with a special edition of the Week in Quotes. All of the quotes below were taken from the days after the 1983 draft except for a few by Dickerson.
"They knew I had a royal flush, and they still called me on it."
-- John Elway, who had an offer on the table from the New York Yankees
"We listened to trade talks right up to the last minute. We never got the compensation we thought the pick deserved."
-- Ernie Accorsi, Colts GM
"I don't want to be a jerk, but I told Mr. Kush 'You've been offered three ones and a quarterback, and now you have nothing.' And then I hung up."
-- Elway. The Raiders reportedly offered 1983, 1984, and 1985 first-round picks plus Marc Wilson for the first pick. In one rumor, Marcus Allen was on the table
"Three times we told [Colts coach Frank] Kush that John wouldn't play with the Colts, and the last time was this morning after he was drafted. They don't seem to understand English."
-- Jack Elway, John's father
"Everybody says this kid was a franchise player and, if he is, then you'd better be prepared to give a franchise for him. Don't try to be cute. If this kid is the best since Joe Namath, you have to give up a whole lot. You need a rare deal. Five No. 1 choices is a rare deal. If it was any other position in the draft, or any other player, no. But five No. 1s is not unrealistic for a John Elway. There were some people who made insulting deals to them. If you're playing hardball, don't step up to the plate with a softball bat. People were trying to take advantage of the situation."
-- Mike Hickey, Jets executive
"The lesson to be learned is that you take the best value you can get for your team and not worry about it."
-- Patriots exec Dick Steinberg
"John, please Shut Up. Play baseball, play football, play the fool. Just pick one, then go out and prove you're worth these kinds of headlines."
-- Randy Galloway, Dallas Morning News
Comrades With Arms
"I really didn't expect to last that long, but I'm happy now that I was, because I'm with a quality football team,"
-- Dan Marino, who slipped to the 27th pick in the draft
"We went into the draft trying to help the run defense but felt if one of the top five quarterbacks was still available, we'd consider him. Well we 'considered' him."
-- Don Shula
"There's always apprehension with anything new you do, but I'm not nervous. It's a good feeling. I'm elated over the opportunity to come to Miami and be part of a great city and a great team with a great tradition."
"Four years ago we [Wake Forest] needed Blackledge more than we need him now. That team was in much worse straits than the Kansas City Chiefs, coming off back-to-back 1-10 seasons. And it was a two-way street back then. They have to want you as much as you want them. Here, you can want a guy and only hope that he's excited about playing with you. I think Todd is."
-- Jon Mackovic, Chiefs coach, on Penn State star Todd Blackledge
"Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge is a little ticked off at the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs made Blackledge their first-round draft pick Tuesday and have yet to call and congratulate him. Todd's agent, Ed Keating, sent word to Carl Peterson yesterday that he'll be in touch"
-- The Philadelphia Daily News. Peterson worked for the USFL Stars in those days, not the Chiefs
"Right now, I'm just leaving my options open. The NFL is a great thing; I've grown up thinking about it. But my mind is open. I would like to play for Buffalo, but if they give me no other alternative, I don't think of the USFL as second to anything."
-- Jim Kelly, two days after the draft. The Chicago Blitz sent running back Mark Rush, Kelly's college roommate, to talk him into playing in the USFL
"OK, who ever heard of Cal-Davis QB Ken O'Brien?"
-- Gary Myers, Dallas Morning News
"O'Brien played at Cal-Davis. What is that, a rock band?
-- Letter to the Ohio Chronicle Telegram
"When the Jets called me this morning, I had just woken up and I was sort of in a state of shock. I'm really thrilled to be going to a contender. It's the best situation that could have happened to me."
-- O'Brien, who was drafted 24th overall, three slots ahead of Marino
The First-Round Reach
"He does stuff that is physically impossible. He'll turn people completely around and then cut across the grain and just flat outrun folks. When he takes the field, people hold their breath, because they know something exciting is going to happen."
-- Fred Bleil, defensive coordinator of Texas A&I, on Darrell Green
"I want to start and go to the Super Bowl. I want to be a starter and a great player, not just a mediocre one."
"For a Super Bowl winner, 'Skins need help all over. It doesn't look like they got it. Darrell Green, the No. 1 from Texas A&I, is an excellent returner ... but only 5-8, which might be too small for the corner. Grade: D-Plus."
-- Gary Myers, Dallas Morning News. The Redskins also drafted Charles Mann that year
"You really stole one with Green. You can ship Nelms out tomorrow"
-- Oilers coach Bum Philips to Redskins exec Bobby Beatheard. Return man Mike Nelms soon demanded a trade
The hop-scotch kid
"Denver wanted too much. If we accepted the deal they wanted it would have been good for Denver and not too good for us. There is a limit of how many draft choices you can give up."
-- Tom Landry. The Cowboys tried to move up to the fourth pick so they could take linebacker Billy Ray Smith. They offered the Broncos Butch Johnson, Glenn Carano, and Jay Saldi
"The word is that when you trade with Dallas, you get screwed. And it's a reputation that the Cowboys seem to think they have to live up to."
-- Anonymous source quoted by Randy Galloway
"This pick is not a gamble. We feel very good about picking Jeffcoat."
-- Landry on top pick Jim Jeffcoat, whose career was far longer than Smith's
"I've always followed the Cowboys. I feel like I can give Dallas a good pass rush -- that's my strength"
"He enjoys playing the flute when he's not sleeping or fishing. He gets a kick out of watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. His favorite home-cooked dish is pig's knuckles and his favorite pastime, he says, is playing that most All-America of games and the preference of football players the continent over, hop-scotch."
-- Jim Lassiter, Daily Oklahoman, reading from Jeffcoat's press questionnaire
Necks on the Limb
"I just hope Houston makes a deal. I just hope I don't end up in Houston or Baltimore."
-- Eric Dickerson
"Hollywood. You might see me in a movie or two"
-- Dickerson, after the Rams traded with the Oilers to move up in the draft
"There's not much you can say when a team sticks its neck out on a limb"
-- Curt Warner after the Seahawks traded second- and third-round picks to move up to take him
Leagues at War
"To be honest, we didn't even consider it. It was an honest mistake. We obviously weren't aware Tom had signed with the Blitz when we drafted him."
-- Bears GM Jim Finks after learning that fourth-round pick Tom Thayer had already signed with the USFL
"I'm happier than hell. I don't care what the NFL thinks about what I did. They've done everything in their power to destroy our league. If I could find another player like Tom Thayer, I'd do the same thing all over again."
-- Blitz general manager George Allen
"I think the NFL is starting to get it through its head that it's not the only game in town anymore."
-- Philadelphia Stars lineman Irv Eatman
"They're gambling. They have been all year. They gambled on this league not being able to pull in big players and lost. And I think they're going to lose on this gamble, too."
Some things never change
"It is a tribute to the NFL's superb publicity machine and the public's football mania that the annual offseason beef auction called the college draft commands headlines for weeks and a full day's live coverage (8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a review at 10:30 no less) on ESPN ... I watched ESPN for the first two rounds, all six hours plus, until my eyes glazed over and my ears rang. Anyone who stayed the course should be given a rubber football and locked up. In my lifetime in front of the tube Tuesday, I learned the 40-yard-dash time of everyone in the Western Hemisphere."
-- Rob Rubin, Miami Herald
Something's crabby in Baltimore. First, the Ravens hired former Eagles special teams coordinator John Harbaugh as head coach. Then, they drafted South Jersey native Joe Flacco. After Flacco, they selected Ray Rice from Rutgers. Connect the dots, and you can only reach one conclusion: The Ravens are trying to entice disgruntled New Jersey-area Eagles fans to switch loyalties and root for the Ravens.
Crazy, you say? Probably. But to find out, I called in an expert on Ravens fan relations. Tony Lombardi is the founder of ProFootball24X7.com and a radio personality at ESPN Radio 1300 AM in Baltimore. He agreed, reluctantly, to humor me in this week's Five Questions segment.
1) What do you think of my theory? Am I a crank, a crackpot, a nutcase, or a misunderstood genius?
TL: Actually I think you are nothing more than a cranky-but-misunderstood nutcase. But I really think you are on to something. Ravens' owner Steve Bisciotti is pinned in geographically in Baltimore and would love nothing more than to lure neighboring fans from the north (Eagles), south (Redskins) and west (Steelers) and turn them into fans who bleed purple. Clearly the New Jersey Eagles' fan base is far more vulnerable than that of the Redskins and Steelers.
And there's more to support your conspiracy theory. I've heard from a reliable source that the Ravens are close to bringing in Harold Carmichael to help develop a couple of their taller receivers with the idea of improving red zone efficiency. Moreover, Sal Paolantonio also seems to be involved, spending more and more time at Ravens' headquarters. And don't forget about Wilbert Montgomery, who replaced Tony Nathan as the Ravens running backs coach.
2) How are you preparing your Web site for the influx of disgruntled Eagles fans?
TL: We will be offering one-of-a-kind Ravens practice jerseys with the names Flacco and Rice. Why are they one of a kind? Depending upon how light hits them (sunlight or stadium lighting) the jerseys morph from Ravens' purple to Eagles' green. Our analysts have concluded that these unique jerseys will help ease the transition for fans formerly known as diehard Eagles fans.
We will also be hosting an Eagles' jersey barbecue prior to the Eagles-Ravens game on November 23. All Eagles fans who burn their Eagles jerseys in tailgate Lot H at M&T Bank Stadium will receive a fresh turkey that was born, bred, and raised in Maryland. Those who burn Terrell Owens jerseys will also receive an added bonus: a can of cranberry sauce and an authentic signed photo of John Harbaugh and Brian Dawkins arm-in-arm.
3) I am jumping on the Ravens bandwagon. All I own that's purple is an old Elvis Grbac jersey. Should I go shopping, and for what?
You should definitely get your credit card ready. Ravens fans are known to get their purple warpaint out and complement that with Ravens camouflage pants, ProFootball24x7 Ravens tattoos, high top purple Converse sneakers, etc., etc. Bottom line: Wearing purple has been known to not only make fans genuinely happier, it has been medically proven to offset the side affects of excessive alcohol consumption and extend healthier and more vibrant living. So yes, go get your shopping shoes on!
4) What's the fan-on-the street take on the QB situation right now?
TL: Prior to the arrival of Joe Flacco, Ravens quarterbacks never wore red during practice. A high ranking Ravens front office exec once told me the reason: "All of our quarterbacks stink so we really don't care if they get hurt."
That has changed. Flacco is now wearing a very attractive red jersey adorned with his name and initials (on sleeve) along with his custom-embroidered signature just above the bottom front hem. Meanwhile Kyle Boller and Troy Smith wear purple jerseys that feature a bullseye around their numbers on both the front and back. That should tell you all you need to know.
5) Crab cakes or cheesesteaks, and why? You can only choose one.
TL: Crab cakes baby! Can you eat a cheesesteak without bread? Can you make dip from a cheesesteak? Can you top a Grade A filet mignon with a cheese steak? How about a fresh piece of grilled Florida Grouper?
Look, if something needs loads of onions, peppers and Cheez Whiz to be edible, then fuggedaboutit. However, I will admit that after a long evening of libations, most under the influence will choose a cheese steak. So the moral of this answer is: Crabcakes for the lucid, cheesesteaks for those in altered states of mind."
I am pretty sure Tony was kidding for most of this. And you can make a dip out of cheesesteaks. But while we are on the subject of Ravens quarterbacks â€¦
Steve McNair was a very good quarterback, maybe a great one. When he retired, sportswriters tried to put his career into context, but Brett Favre's recent retirement threw context all out of whack. The Sporting News tried to summarize McNair's career neatly with a statistical factoid: The only three quarterbacks to throw for 30,000 yards and rush for 3,500 yards in NFL history were McNair, Steve Young, and Fran Tarkenton.
Do you see a fishy figure in there? Where did "3,500" come from? Is that some new standard of excellence? Bill James used to joke about this brand of data mining in the old Baseball Abstract. Media guides are great at finding the only player in NFL history with 6,000 rushing, 2,500 receiving, 1,500 punt return, and 3,750 kick return yards. The 3,500 was so suspicious that I hit Pro Football Reference looking for players who were purposely omitted by using 3,500 instead of a rounder number like 3,000.
I was shocked to discover dropping the rushing requirement to 3,000 yards only added one player: John Elway. If the Sporting News editor replaced the suspicious 3,500 with a less fishy number, the McNair comparison list gets even stronger! The only player threatening to join the list anytime soon is Donovan McNabb, who is probably two years away with 25,404 passing yards and 2,962 rushing yards. I though the Sporting News list was custom-jiggled to exclude Mark Brunell, whose presence would spoil the McNair-among-greats impact the editors were looking for. But Brunell only rushed for 2,433 yards.
The 30,000-passing yard benchmark is somewhat convenient; Randall Cunningham retired with 29,979 yards, and his inclusion on a list of all-time greats would be controversial. Passing for 30,000 yards is impressive, but many not-so-greats of recent history have done it: Brunell, Steve DeBerg, Jim Everett, Kerry Collins. Rushing for 3,500 yards is much more of a rare feat, and McNair's total reminds us that he was a great runner early in his career.
As it turns out, the Sporting News factoid wasn't a media guide contraption. McNair's accomplishments really were unique. I just wish they used the 3,000-yard rushing benchmark and included Elway in the comparison. McNair didn't scramble acrobatically like Tarkenton and Young. He ran like Elway: straight ahead, breaking tackles, only when there were no other options. McNair's clearly the fourth-best quarterback on that list, but it is a heck of a list to be the fourth best quarterback on.
In the next Walkthrough: Can the move to Toronto save the Bills? A leading economist explains how the move can save both the team and the region.
62 comments, Last at 14 May 2008, 1:08pm by Max