Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Impact of the NFL's Kickoff Rule Change

After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?

09 Oct 2008

Walkthrough: Deja Vu

"To summarize this week's Walkthrough, Peyton Manning rulez, screw the Cowboys, and stats are for geeks who don't watch football. Peace out!"

Posting ...

You have activated FO Goggles. Our software indicates that you may have been impaired while writing this week's article. Please answer the following questions to verify your identity and/or sobriety. What is the cosine of 5 pi divided by six?

Negative square root of three over two. If you are going to ask trig questions, we'll be here all day.

What is the difference between a bootleg and a waggle?

A waggle has a tight end or fullback running into the flat in front of the rolling quarterback. C'mon, Deep Thought. Let me post my article and get back to Happy Hour!

The Eagles just lost a 42-10 game to the Central Florida color guard. What, inexplicably, is their DVOA rank the following week?

Fifth. But we are sure they will drop with the next loss!

Eli Manning gets sacked and fumbles. The ball is picked up by DeMarcus Ware, who laterals to Ken Hamlin. Brandon Jacobs pulls Hamlin's facemask and the ball comes loose. Plaxico Burress drives onto the field in a rental car and runs over the ball, popping it. Adam Jones picks up the flat football and runs for a Cowboys touchdown. What is the correct call?

Um, touchback?

I'm sorry. Ed Hochuli was the referee, and the play was blown dead before the ball came loose. It's just a sack. I must delete your horrible column and notify your wife about your whereabouts.

This stuff never happened when I was working for the Australians.

The Last Days of Mike Shanahan

If the Lane Kiffin firing gave you a feeling of déjà vu, you are not alone. We have all been here before. Back in 1989, Mike Shanahan was fired under eerily similar circumstances.

When Al Davis hired Shanahan away from the Broncos in 1988, it was the first time the Raiders hired a coach from outside the organization since Davis himself arrived from San Diego. Davis was initially thrilled to hire away the 35-year old offensive coordinator: it was a move both to strengthen the Raiders and weaken the archrival Broncos.

Shanahan's honeymoon was brief. Players complained about their new coach's rules – no sitting on helmets during practice, stiff fines for lateness – at Shanahan's very first minicamp. When Shanahan's first training camp was tougher than Tom Flores' camps, the veterans balked. "A camp like this will take a couple of years off your career," defender Bill Pickel said. At the end of an August scrimmage against the Cowboys, Davis and the players boarded a bus and stranded Shanahan at the practice facility. You can bet that never, ever happened to Bill Parcells.

Davis began grumbling about his new hire. After the first game of the 1988 season, Davis acquired quarterback Jay Schroeder. The strong-armed ex-Redskin was better suited to Davis' vertical game than to Shanahan's West Coast system, but Davis wanted the new passer inserted into the offense immediately. Schroeder took the helm in a Monday night game against Denver, and when he struggled to make his reads and execute short passes, Davis ranted in the press box about his team's new "high school offense." Shanahan compiled a 7-9 record in 1988, shuttling between Schroeder and rookie Steve Beuerlein at quarterback.

Shanahan wanted to fire several coaches after the 1988 season, but Davis would not allow him to fire offensive assistants Tom Walsh and Joe Scanella. After ordering Shanahan to keep Scanella, Davis fired the assistant for making disparaging remarks toward fellow coach Art Shell. At the March owner's meetings, Davis told reporters that Shanahan went "in a direction I didn't want to go," and made it clear that the second-year coach was under strict orders to bring back the deep passing game.

The 1989 preseason was a disaster for the Raiders. The team lost all four games. Safety Stacey Toran died in an August car accident; police reports revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.32. The team's new "attack defense" was getting picked apart. Their offense wasn't much better. In a 37-7 exhibition loss to the Niners, Schroeder completed just four-of-13 passes, three of them dump-offs to the fullback, and suffered two interceptions. Still, Shanahan stuck to the party line. "There's no question we're going to stress the vertical game," Shanahan said. "We've got the receivers. We've got Jay. It's what we've been working on."

By the end of the preseason, beat writers reported that Shanahan would lose his job if the Raiders lost the season opener. Several writers witnessed Davis at an August practice, crouched in a three-point stance, showing some defensive linemen the finer points of their craft. Vegas wiseguys gave Shanahan 15-to-1 odds to be the first coach fired; John Walton of the Jets was a 5-to-1 favorite to get canned first. Experts drafted a short list of replacements for the Raiders: Barry Switzer of Oklahoma, incumbent defensive coordinator Dick Adolph, other flotsam. Will McDonough of the Boston Globe reported in early September that the real frontrunner was Art Shell, who would be the first black head coach in modern NFL history if he got the job.

The Raiders bounced back from their winless preseason with a convincing 40-14 win in the season opener against the Chargers. "Our backs were up against the wall," Shanahan said; it was probably the only time a coach ever uttered those words in Week 1. "There was so much heat on everyone, from the coaches right on down to the equipment boys," defensive end Howie Long said. "And you could feel it; you could sense it." The win came at a high price: receiver Tim Brown tore knee ligaments and was lost for the year.

After their Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, Davis scoured the Raiders locker room, discussing the team's play calls with "his guys" – veteran players and inner-circle assistants. "Gee, could it be that Shanahan is under the gun again?" asked Eric Noland of the Los Angeles Daily News. "Does that still rank as news?"

Despite his obvious desire to make a change, Davis didn't fire Shanahan after that Chiefs loss. He held off for two more weeks, as the Raiders fell to the Broncos and Seahawks. At one practice, writers saw Davis in a white shirt and bell-bottoms (the black attire came later) giving Schroeder pointers on his footwork and talking to the wide receivers. A local columnist explained Davis' delay. "Davis is known in football as a man who vacillates on even the most minor decision. If the trading deadline is 1 p.m., Davis is usually waffling at 12:59. With the Shanahan decision, he probably first made it a month ago, talked himself out of it, then made it and reversed it countless times in the first four weeks of the season."

In the Monday meetings after the Seahawks loss, Davis told Shanahan that he was "probably" going to make a change, but that he needed more time to think. Davis made up his mind at 6:00 AM the next morning. When he arrived at team headquarters at noon, he learned that Shanahan left to pick up the coaches' lunch orders. Shanahan returned, and Davis allowed him to have one last sandwich before firing him. Art Shell became the head coach. Because he lacked playcalling experience, Davis gave Tom Walsh authority over offensive gameplanning.

"When I originally made the determination to hire Mike," said Davis, "...it was predicated on the feeling our organization needed a fresh implementation of ideas to go along with what we were doing: To add to it. While I have resisted change in my lifetime, I never resisted modification or adjuncts. And I felt that what was happening at this time is we were not going in the direction of addition, but in a direction of total change." When asked if he was meddling too much in his coach's business, Davis bristled. "Let me clear this up right now. I will look at it as assistance. I think I would be crazy if I did not try to tap into that wealth of knowledge."

Davis would later contend that he had to make a move to stave off a full-scale uprising in the locker room. That may well have been the case; with the Raiders, veteran players expected to be part of the decision making process, and many resented playing for a man with minimal on-field experience. "It was the players against the coaches against everybody else," linebacker Linden King said. "You should be willing to listen to the older players who have been around. You should listen to them, because unless you've been out there getting your ass kicked, you don't know what it's like." Not all of the players had a good riddance attitude. "It's been like a cloud hanging over this camp for some time," Long said. "I think, for Mike Shanahan's sake, the situation was never positive for him, with it hanging over his head. I don't think he was readily accepted." Most of the players learned of the firing from television reports or through phone calls. "I hope something positive happens for everybody, for Mike and for the organization," said safety Vann McElroy. "Maybe in the long run, for Mike, this will be the best thing."

The press, always fascinated by Davis but generally cowed by him in the 1980s, praised him for promoting Shell but questioned the wisdom of firing Shanahan. "Davis is a preoccupied man these days," wrote Ron Rapoport in the Daily News. "He spends so much time scheming over the fate and the worth of his franchise that he has, for the first time in his life, done a very foolish thing." Columnists referred to Shell as a man with puppet strings. "Al Davis runs the show here," wrote Mike Fish of the St. Petersburg Times. "The coach is just a well-paid babysitter." Shanahan's pay was at least guaranteed: The club honored the remainder of his three year contract.

Matt Millen, one of many veterans released by the Raiders in training camp in 1989, tried to put the Shanahan firing in perspective. "I don't think anybody who is not in the organization could understand what the organization is like," he said. "That's a peculiar situation down there. You have to be in the situation to understand it, and you have to understand it to be in it. All I know is that any time you win, you always have control, real or imagined. And any time you lose, you never have control, real or imagined."

(note: those are, by far, the wisest words Millen ever uttered.)

We know how Shanahan (and his financial package) turned out, and we know that the Raiders had some success under Shell. Davis grew more inflexible over the years, though he loosened up briefly when he hired another wunderkind, Jon Gruden, who actually had the autonomy to install a West Coast offense that brought the Raiders to the Super Bowl.

It's easy to see where the déjà vu feeling came from. There was a young coach, a preseason filled with rumors, a month of waffling. There was a rookie quarterback and a hastily-acquired veteran (Daunte Culpepper instead of Schroeder) getting force-fed into the system. There were high-profile coaches who sometimes bickered and columnists who made the same jokes about the 60-year old Al Davis that we make about the 79-year old. Shanahan wasn't fired "with cause," but Davis stated several times that he deviated from their initial agreement, and there were conflicting reports of a divided locker room. Even the tone of Millen's statements parallels the remarks that Warren Sapp and others have made in the past week about the Raiders culture.

I had lots of Al Davis jokes ready to roll when he finally canned Kiffin, but a little research has shown me that those jokes are 19 years old. They are no longer funny. Davis is no longer a caricature of the 1960's playboy millionaire or a clever Machiavellian schemer. He's bitter, paranoid and random, Howard Hughes meets King Lear. The Raiders will give us plenty to laugh at on the field. You'll excuse me if I avert my eyes from the owner's box.

How to Win Games without Actually Scoring

You don't need a great offense to succeed in the NFL, though it really helps. The Ravens proved at the start of the decade, and the Bears verified two years ago, that it's possible to reach the Super Bowl with a below-average offense. A few things have to break right for that to happen. The offensively-challenged team must win the field position battle. The offense can be bad, but it shouldn't be turnover-prone. The team can't kill itself with penalties. A high-percentage kicker is a must. Throw in a little luck and you have the formula for a deep playoff run, with or without glittering offensive numbers.

The 2008 Bears are better offensively than most of us thought they would be. Kyle Orton has grown into a capable custodial quarterback, Matt Forte is a rookie of the year candidate, and Ron Turner has built a user-friendly little scheme that doesn't wow anyone but takes what the defense offers. Still, the Bears offense needs all the help it can get. The Bears' average starting field position is the 32.7 yard line, fifth-best in the NFL. Brad Maynard has already pinned opponents inside the 20 fifteen times on 31 punts. Robbie Gould is 5-of-6 on 40+ yard field goals. The Bears turn the ball over a little too often and are around the league average in penalties, but little advantages have meant a lot during the team's 3-2 start. The BEARS defense will carry them over the Falcons in the battle of surprising upstarts this week. The Bears offense will do just enough to not lose.

The Ravens have plodded along without an offense for most of the decade since their Super Bowl run. This year, at least, they aren't pretending to run some Brian Billick masterpiece. John Harbaugh is doing what he can with a rookie quarterback and inexperienced offensive line against a gauntlet of the league's toughest defenses. The Ravens turn the ball over too often to win consistently without offensive firepower; Joe Flacco is still learning on the job and gives up too many interceptions and fumbles. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Matt Stover is 0-for-3 beyond 40-yards, with a costly miss in last week's 13-10 loss. Kicker Sam Koch is booming the ball, but the Ravens rank just 14th in starting field position and 30th in opposing field position. As usual, their defense is a sledgehammer, but the Ravens will dither around .500 until the offense starts to sustain drives long enough to end in field goals or pinning punts. The COLTS are not the irresistible force they were two years ago, but they'll produce enough points (some of them turnover-assisted) to prevail.

The Buccaneers are a science experiment: give a team zero offensive weapons, make them move the ball purely on scheme, and see what happens. Earnest Graham is a nice little player, Warrick Dunn is a faster St. Francis of Assisi, and Antonio Bryant is an interesting reclamation project, but these are not players you scheme to stop, so the Bucs must suffer for every inch of turf. Luckily, there's a support system in place. Their average drive starts on the 31.9 yard line (ninth), while opponents start on the 28.3 (eighth). Three yards don't seem like much, but they add up over dozens of drives. Matt Bryant, kicking through personal tragedy, is a perfect 10-for-10 on short field goals. Brian Griese's interceptions nearly sunk the Bucs against the Bears and Packers, but the team has fumbled only twice all season, so their turnover ratio isn't as bad as it looks. With Jeff Garcia replacing Mr. Bumbles, the Bucs offense will provide more support for their defense. That will start this week, when the BUCS beat an overvalued Panthers team coming off a sand-in-the-face victory against a bad opponent.

We think of the Jaguars as a defense and ball control team, but DVOA shows that they currently rank 13th in offense and 28th in defense. Still, they have all the earmarks of a team that can win despite a shoddy offense. They rate a huge edge in starting field position: 33.7 (third-best) to 25.0 (second-best). They are among the least penalized teams in the NFL with just 25 flags in five games. Kicker Josh Scobee is 10-for-11 and a perfect 4-for-4 on 40+ yard field goals. Five turnovers aren't a high total for a team that has faced the Steelers and Titans. The Jaguars have only faced one weak opponent (the Texans), and they still haven't played in a game that was decided by more than a touchdown. Despite Sunday's lose, I think they are improving and will soon turn on the heat. Still, the BRONCOS have home field advantage and an offense that can pick apart the Jags' faltering defense. Unless Natrone Means returns, the Jaguars will have to wait one more week.

The Titans are on bye, but they fit this bit of analysis. Oddly enough, their field position and penalty stats are nothing special, and they have a high propensity for turnovers. Rob Bironas has been an 8-for-8 asset, but the team's best "hidden stat" is one that I didn't mention above: Titans quarterbacks have been sacked just twice all season. The sack totals are impressive, but the Titans lack the peripherals to keep winning despite a station-to-station offense. If you still think they'll switch places with the Jaguars by season's end, you are not alone.

Wild Hogs Can't Be Broken

Everybody's running a direct-snap-to-halfback offense these days, and everybody's calling it the Wild Something. Houston Nutt called it the Wild Hogg at Arkansas, but it's also called the Wildcat and Wild Squirrel (when run by a small, shifty halfback) in other systems. Here are some of the other variations I have heard:

Wild Cherry: Direct snap to Brian Leonard or some other white boy who can play that funky music.

Wild Horses: Direct snap to Jagger, who fakes to Richards.

Wilde, Oscar: Direct snap to Da' Relle Bunbury.

Wildwood: Direct snap to an underage drinker at the Jersey Shore.

Wild About Harry: Direct snap to Al Jolson.

Wild Thornberry: Direct snap to Nick Toon (Al Toon's nephew).

Wild Orchid: Direct snap to Mickey Rourke

Wild Orchid 2: Direct to video.

(I am working on some Wildcat diagrams for ESPN. Will let you know when and where they appear.)

They Aren't Who We Thought They Were

We projected the Packers to be great. Ditto the Eagles, though our mainframe clearly has a compu-crush on the Eagles. The Seahawks were supposed to once again be the above-average cork floating atop the NFC West swamp. The Texans were supposed to be pesky, the Chargers contenders.

Some of the best laid projections of mice and DVOA spreadsheets have gone awry, and while it's too early to give up on these teams, it's time to take a hard look at why they are underachieving. I enlisted a little help for some of the analysis, and because frustration isn't easy to articulate, I provided some quotes by angry local columnists who speak for disgruntled fanbases across America.

Seattle Seahawks
What's Gone WrongDoug Farrar filled me in on the Seahawks woes. 1) Receivers? Who are they? "Mike Holmgren runs an execution offense," Doug told me. "It requires precision from each player, and the complexity lies in that precision. Players must know their routes. They must know the tempo, which is ruthlessly fast at its best." The Seahawks have been forced to patch together their receiving corps all year, and now Deion Branch is once again hurt. 2) The secondary has gone from a strength to a weakness. Farrar singled out Brian Russell as the primary culprit. "The best analogy I can come up with for Russell's timing on pass plays is Billy Rosewood, Judge Reinhold’s character in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. In every film, they'd do the bit where Axel Foley and the other cops arrest the bad guys, cuff them and start rounding them up into the cars. That's when Billy screams in, guns blazing, demanding that everyone drop their weapons and put their hands over their heads. Brian Russell is Billy Rosewood." 3) The transition from Mike Holmgren to Jim Mora has the team going in two directions at once. "In my mind, this is the main problem. Half the front office is wrapping it up, and the other half is looking forward to next year. Tim Ruskell's doing both. Without a united focus, you will get your ass handed to you in the NFL."
Angry Local Columnist Speaks Art Thiel, Seattle Post Intelligence "As a bedraggled group, the Seahawks used the bye week to work up as dull, dreary and lifeless a game as they have produced in a long while."
Pick:Mike Holmgren's last face-off with his former team should be more glamorous than this. The PACKERS should carve up that bad Seahawks secondary, even at Qwest.

Green Bay Packers
What's Gone Wrong:Brandon Benson of Acme Packing Company came aboard to help me with these bullet points. 1) Injuries, and more injuries. "Eleven starters were listed on last week's injury list," Benson said, "including Cullen Jenkins, who then went on the IR, and Aaron Rouse, who has started the last two weeks for Atari Bigby. Hawk, Woodson, and Rodgers didn't practice all week but still started. Chad Clifton has been listed every week this season, usually sitting out at least one practice a week, and he finally had to take a seat mid-game vs. Atlanta." 2) Poor run defense has allowed teams to sit on the clock late in games. "It's basically the same front seven as last season and not loaded with a bunch of veterans in decline, so I'm at somewhat of a loss about it." 3) The running game is not holding up its end of the bargain. "They missed center Scott Wells. He was out the first three games, so he might help if his back is improving. McCarthy denied it in a press conference, but they might be better off without Clifton right now. They're also missing starting fullback Korey Hall."
Angry Local Columnist Speaks Wisconsin columnists don't appear to be very angry. That's because a) They are an accommodating bunch; b) they blew most of their rage neurons during the Summer of Favre; and c) their attention this weekend was focused on the Brewers. Speaking of the Brew Crew, how's this for a pay-per-view spectacle: Prince Fielder vs. Gilbert Brown in an eat-off.

Houston Texans
What's Gone Wrong1) The Texans defense isn't generating big plays: the team has just two interceptions and five sacks in their first four games. 2) Opponents have outscored the Texans 31-9 in the first quarter. As bad as Sunday's late collapse was, the Texans wouldn't be 0-4 if they got off to faster starts. 3) The Texans started their season with three road games and a hurricane-mandated bye week. The early-season slate featured three granite defenses (Ike preempted a fourth tough matchup against the Ravens), and the Texans offense never found any rhythm until halfway through the Jaguars game.
Angry Local Columnist Speaks Richard Justice, Houston Chronicle: "Wouldn’t you love Bob McNair to start holding people accountable? Wouldn't you love it if he acted like he cares as much as all those people who write the newspaper and phone the talk shows? Do you think he understands he’s why this football team stinks? In the end, he’s the guy in charge and every stinking loss starts with him."
Pick: The TEXANS are the best 0-4 team I have ever seen. They should be able to make summer sausage out of all of this Wild Hog business.

Philadelphia Eagles
What's Gone Wrong 1) The Eagles leave the tunnel like gangbusters, but after their first 15 scripted plays, they fall into a rut of shotgun passes and stretch runs. 2) David Akers has become useless outside of 40 yards (three-of-14 in the last two seasons), but Andy Reid keeps giving him opportunities. Opponents are getting great field position after 50-yard misses and turning them into points. Meanwhile, all field goals are good against the Eagles: opponents are nine-for-nine against them this year, with three 50+ yarders. 3) Brian Westbrook's multiple injuries have once again exposed the lack of playmakers on the Eagles offense. Wrong Way L.J. Smith should no longer be employed within 100 yards of a professional football stadium, yet he remains a go-to guy in the Eagles offense.
Angry Local Columnist Speaks John Smallwood, Philadelphia Daily News: "For a coach who likes to tell us, 'It's my responsibility that we play better,' Reid doesn't seem to know how to live up to that. If Reid really had answers, wouldn't he have delivered them before his team fell two games behind all three division rivals? Doesn't it stand to reason that if Reid really could 'get our guys in better positions to make plays,' this would not have been the fourth straight game that his offense checked out with at least 30 minutes to play in a game? If a coach actually knew how to 'make sure that plays get made,' would his team really have failed to gain less than the yard it need at the goal line in the fourth quarter for the second straight week?
Pick: Okay, let's try this again. The EAGLES should rack up a half dozen sacks. They should torch the Niners secondary. Something will go wrong. But that's the pick.

San Diego Chargers
What's Gone Wrong 1) Fate played its hand against the Broncos, and important starters are falling one-by-one like extras in an Aliens movie. Chris Chambers is the latest front-line starter to suffer an injury that will either shelve or hobble him. 2) Norv Turner's scheme is at its best when the Chargers can pass for an early lead, then run to wear out opponents. The Chargers have been outscored 86-58 in the first half, and while they've done a great job of roaring back in a few games, that's not their style of play. 3) The Chargers are 26th in the NFL in DVOA against the run, and opponents are averaging 4.4 yards per rush against them. That spells trouble when you are spotting leads to your opponents.
Angry Local Columnist Speaks Tim Sullivan of the San Diego Union-Tribune wants to remind us that there's a difference between using injuries as an excuse and an explanation: "Maybe if we all clap our hands and shout, 'I do believe in fairies,' Shawne Merriman will magically return to menace quarterbacks. Maybe, if wishing could make it so, LaDainian Tomlinson's problem toe and Antonio Gates' tender hip could heal on command. Maybe injuries wouldn't matter if they didn't matter so much."
Pick:This is one of the games I circled as a likely Patriots loss the moment Tom Brady got hurt. Now, it's less of a sure thing. With most of the Chargers best players limping around, they won't be able to exploit the Patriots secondary. Take the PATRIOTS, in a game that will be a far cry from last year's playoff matchup. You'll get five or six points to sweeten the deal.

Breet Petite

Every time Ed Hochuli blows his whistle, an angel gets its wings.

No wonder Early Ed blows so many plays dead so early. His staff may not be great at catching Chad Greenway twisting Reggie Bush's helmet through the 270 degrees of articulation, but you can count on Team Hochuli to turn an Adrian Peterson fumble/schoolyard lateral play into a boring old "down by officiating fiat."

Hochuli is a veteran ref who knows his stuff, and no one wants a man of his esteem and experience drummed out of the league. What he needs is assistance: an occupational aid, perhaps, or a 12-step program for Whistlaholics. Some of the devices or protocols listed below would turn Hochuli from a go-to gag for lazy bloggers (Hello!) and a lightning rod for controversy into one of the league's best officials.

Seven second delay: The best solutions are the easiest. Hochuli's whistle should be rigged to one of those delay buttons that they use to keep drunks from cursing on talk radio. Hochuli blows right before a ball comes loose, but no one hears anything until a few second later when the play is resolved.

Bitter Apple: When my beloved pitbull thought our wicker furniture was a four-course meal, the vet suggested that we use a noxious spray to ward her off. It worked, though my friends also stopped coming over because my porch smelled like rotting vegetation. A little Bitter Apple on Hochuli's whistle would turn "Impulse … Breet!" into "Impulse … pucker face … shake it off … breet!"

Old School Coaching Techniques: When a rookie fumbles, he carries a ball around practice the following week, and veterans try to swat it from him when his guard is down. When Hochuli makes an error, other refs should follow him around all week, blowing whistles at inopportune times. Ten minutes before the alarm clock? Breet! Five minutes into dinner? Breet! Sweet release in five, four thrBreet!!! It's guaranteed to make anyone a little whistle-shy.

Aversion therapy: After the Broncos-Chargers mishap, I was shocked to see Hochuli's team officiating on Monday night. When I screw up and teach a course poorly, I find myself with six low-level classes and extra hall duty the next year. When I write substandard columns, Aaron buries me on Thursday afternoons and relegates me to twice-a-month chats on ESPN. (Wait a minute …) Hochuli's crew should be forced to cover nothing but Rams and Lions games until they go three weeks without a controversial call.

That's a simple and practical solution. Given the options, though, Hochuli may opt for the whistles or the spray.

The New Twist-Off Helmets

Reader Dave Lewis writes: "It seems to me I've been seeing a lot more facemask penalties this year than I have in previous years -- and definitely a lot more 15-yard facemask penalties. Part of this is clearly due to the elimination of the "incidental facemask" five-yard penalty. Is it possible that in past years players were quick to let go of a facemask, knowing that they could get the call downgraded to a five-yard penalty, but this year they figure, 'What the hell, I'm getting flagged for a fifteen-yard foul anyway, I might as well hang on and pull the guy down?' And if so, is it possible that the outcome of the rule change is the exact opposite of the intent of the committee: to reduce the risk of injuries due to grabbing of facemasks?"

After watching Reggie Bush's cappa nearly get de-tated on Monday Night, I asked Aaron to run the facemask penalty stats for the last three years. It turns out that 2007 was the Year of the Twist. So far this season, there have been 35 facemask penalties. There were 45 through five weeks in 2007, 34 of them 15-yarders. In 2006, there were 36 facemask calls in five weeks, 24 of them personal fouls. In 2005, there were 37 flags, 30 of them for personal fouls.

So facemask penalties aren't on the rise. What we have seen this season is the rise of the no-call facemask. In the past, running backs who stiff-armed the facemask earned a no-call, but defenders inevitably got at least a five-yard flag. This year, I've seen numerous defensive no-calls, some of them blatant, dangerous, and potentially game-changing like the Bush tackle on Monday night. There's no excuse for these no calls.

I thought the five-and-fifteen yard options were fair and created a sliding scale of punishment that encouraged defenders to let go the moment they felt a fingerfull of crossbar. I have advocated in the past for five-and-fifteen yard variations on Roughing the Passer; the smaller penalty (Running into the Passer) would catch defenders who don't quite pull up in time but avoid head or knee shots. In general, I think referees should have more judgment opportunities and fewer rules to enforce. Many of these head-scratcher calls (the forgotten facemasks, Adrian Wilson's helmet-to-helmet shot, all manner of when-to-whistle shenanigans) arise from referees trying to interpret paragraph-slash-subsection legalese instead of watching what's happening and applying a mix of football expertise and common sense.

Let me wrap with a pick here: SAINTS over Raiders. I know interim coaches sometimes give their team a short term boost; any change is good change, and all that. I don't think that dog hunts in early October.

NUTSHELLS

Cowboys at Cardinals: Kurt Warner texted his wife Brenda two weeks ago, saying that he planned to retire after overthrowing the pass that exposed Anquan Boldin to a potentially career-threatening blow. Warner has quite a conscience. Little did he know that when he texted, his fingers set off tiny atmospheric vibrations which caused a cascade of disturbances, resulting eventually in the worst tsunami in the history of Bhutan.

Terrell Owens, meanwhile, said after the Cowboys' unnecessarily tight win that "God used me today for his glory." Can you hear me, God? It's me, Mike. Please send a sign that you are not using Owens for your glory. Wait there's a sign, not in the heavens but on the stat sheet. Two receptions! My faith is renewed. COWBOYS.

Redskins at Rams, Giants at Browns: The beatings will continue until morale improves. The fluffing of the NFC East powers will return after they're done playing Godzilla against these two cardboard Tokyos. I'm not ready for the Redskins as two-touchdown favorites, though. GIANTS to win, RAMS to cover.

Lions at Vikings: The Vikings should have gone in that segment about good teams with no offense, but I was hypnotized by the replay of Chester Taylor's touchdown pass, which looked like it was thrown by my five-year old. It only traveled about 50 feet in the air, yet it seemed to hang for 30 minutes and wobble on 12 different axes in some mind-bending trans-dimensional oscillation. The Vikings will win despite their passing game, but I hate this spread more than the Redskins-Rams spread, so I will take the LIONS to cover. With any luck, Lions' interim doofus Tom Lewand will provide more Millen Without Charisma quotes about Rod Marinelli's job security. I need more material.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 09 Oct 2008

17 comments, Last at 13 Oct 2008, 10:02am by Stephen Hawking

Comments

1
by dryheat (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 1:06pm

Warrick Dunn is a faster St. Francis of Assisi

And there's an early contender for line of the year. The Wild bit was funny too

2
by RowdyRoddyPiper :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 1:19pm

Any Tsunami in Bhutan would likely be the worst in it's history. As a landlocked highland country they are pretty unlikely to have experienced one. A Tsunami in Bhutan would also likely be the worst in the history of Bangladesh as it would probably wipe them completely and totally out. Gonzo. India would have some problems too. Burma (Myanmar) would also be investing heavily in swim trunks and snorkels. I know you're a math teacher, but I had to pick on something and couldn't find anything else wrong.

3
by zlionsfan :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 1:43pm

I like my walkthroughs with one L, but maybe that's just me ...

I'll take the Vikings and give you 20 points.

I don't think the decrease in penalties is as much from interpretation (isn't that part of the reason they did away with the 5-yard penalty?) as from not wanting to have as much of an impact on the game. It's the same with any penalty, really: if refs are concerned about calling it too often, when they call it less often, players figure that out and do it more often (holding, for example), creating more opportunities for the refs to call it.

I don't think that will change any time soon, either. I suppose Goodell could work with the refs during the preseason and instruct them to call every facemask penalty they see until people stop doing it, but I doubt it would carry over to the regular season, and I don't know how you're going to stop those plays without penalizing all of them.

I suppose another option would be to completely redo the head-protection system. While it may serve to prevent some injuries, it also does two things it was never meant to do: it works extremely well as a weapon, and it provides a convenient handle for tackling. Maybe someone will be able to devise a helmet that provides protection against incoming contact without adding force to outgoing contact.

4
by Anonymous (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 2:16pm

Mike,
You rely heavily on starting field position and opponent starting field position. It made me curious as to how significant of an effect turnovers (which are essentially random, right?) have on those numbers and if there might be an opportunity for a new stat, something like "Starting Field Position Absent Turnovers" to remove those effects.
Great article!

10
by tuluse :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 4:00pm

Turnovers are not random. Recovering fumbles is random, but even then, if you force enough fumbles, you should recover some.

5
by Dean (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 2:24pm

Wasn't the old Jest coach Joe Walton, not John?

Otherwise, great stuff, as usual.

8
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 2:36pm

Crap, musta been reading while you posted. Sorry for redundancy, though I did feel a need to chant Joe Must Go! a few times anyway.

6
by ThisGuy (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 2:27pm

It's Rams @ 'Skins, not Skins @ Rams. Maybe the two touchdown spread isn't so far-fetched after this news?

7
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 2:34pm

That's JOE Walton of the Jets, of "caught nose-picking on TV" and "Joe-Must Go!" fame. Yes, the fans had their own cheer for the coach. No, it was not pretty. I grew up a Jets hater and I loved it.

John Walton was the sweet kid during the Depression who had the Breesesque mole on his cheek. g'night, Johnboy.

9
by ErrantNight :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 2:36pm

Think anyone will notice that Jets/Bengals wasn't covered? If they do.... will anyone care?

11
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 4:27pm

MT,
tsunami in Bhutan--awesome. I've heard of big waves, but, well, 12,000 feet above sea level is bigger than big, it's stronger than strong. It's... Gigantor!

12
by Jimbob (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 7:17pm

What's your take on Favre vs Palmer this week?

13
by The Ninjalectual :: Fri, 10/10/2008 - 1:04am

Jimbob FTW

[/Redskins homerism]

14
by CharlieH :: Fri, 10/10/2008 - 2:47pm

I don't get the statement about Houston, they are 30th in combined DVOA, with DAve or without him. Would opponent adjustments make that much of a difference?

15
by Stephen Hawking (not verified) :: Fri, 10/10/2008 - 8:39pm

Let's see, we have the tsunami in Bhutan, the JOE Walton, and the Rams @ Skins mistakes covered. So I'll take the fact that the cosine range of anything is from -1 to 1.

And you're a math teacher? No wonder this country can't produce engineers anymore.

16
by Matt Chase (not verified) :: Sun, 10/12/2008 - 3:28pm

and negative square root of three divided by 2 is between -1 and 1. I misread what he said too.

17
by Stephen Hawking (not verified) :: Mon, 10/13/2008 - 10:02am

Yeah, I realized it right after I posted. I read it as - square root of 3/2 or 1.5.