Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
28 Aug 2008
by Mike Tanier
If there's one thing I like better than football, it's food. Specifically, I love juicy, smoky, artery-clogging meat snacks.
Slow-roasted chicken legs from a roadside stand. A pan-seared steak, marbled with fat, smothered in onions and mushrooms. Sweet-and-spicy chili nestled next to a hot dog and topped with melted cheese inside a torpedo roll. Thick slabs of scrapple, crisp on the outside, spoon-soft in the middle, piled next to a pair of eggs over easy. Bratwursts and sauerkraut, both boiled in a dark lager. A Philly cheese steak wit', dripping in oil, plastered with Cheese Whiz, oozing from a bun so soft it slides down your throat. And my personal favorite, the Italian hoagie, loaded with capicola and funky aged provolone and other meats whose names I cannot spell.
I love tailgate parties, of course, though I don't get many chances to attend them these days because you can't track four games and take notes while drinking in a parking lot. But there's something extra special about tailgate food, something that goes beyond the taste, the ambience, and the fact that I've usually hoisted a few. When I'm powering down a sausage-and-pepper sandwich from the gate of a Ford F-150 in the parking lot of a South Philly Holiday Inn, a sense a powerful kinship with my inner Cro-Magnon. I look at my friends and family and imagine caveman ancestors cooking around a campfire, telling tales of the great hunts of yore. Or I feel connected to the ancient Romans, most of whom no doubt had a fatty snack before heading off to the Coliseum to enjoy their favorite sporting event.
Are my beer-induced fantasies accurate? I don't know. I'm just a football writer, so I haven't studied the eating habits of ancient Romans. To learn about them, I'd have to talk to, say, a nutritional anthropologist.
Dr. Deborah Duchon, nutritional anthropologist and television personality: Actually, Mike, I wouldn't call what happened at the Coliseum "sport." It was bloody spectacle.
Tanier: Oh wow, that trick actually works for people besides Alton Brown! So the goings-on at the Coliseum don't quite qualify as sport. But what did the Romans eat in the stands?
Dr. Duchon: You must realize that one third of the population of Rome was poverty stricken, and the streets were overcrowded. The Coliseum was a way of giving the masses something to do, and it was a way to feed them. They shipped in these poor animals from Africa, they killed them, and then they cooked them. It was one of the only places for a poor Roman to get meat. They never actually ate the Gladiators, but they stopped just short of that.
Tanier: I can relate; I've never seen anyone cooking a Cowboys fan at an Eagles tailgate party. While you're here, maybe you can answer some other questions about the history of food and sports. Has alcohol always been part of the live sports experience?
Dr. Duchon: Always. It had to do with the ale in ancient Rome. The Romans had very good wine, but only for the rich people. They had endless quantities of ale. It was a great way to purify the water, and it was portable and easy to distribute. It also kept everyone happy, because the goal of the games was to give a rowdy, dissatisfied public an outlet for their frustrations. Of course, ale is very ancient, it goes back to the Sumerians and before. One theory says that it's the reason we settled down. You can't be a hunter gatherer and brew ale.
Tanier: Wow, rowdy, frustrated, dissatisfied crowds. No wonder I feel like an ancient Roman when watching the Eagles. Do grilled meats typically dominate the "sports food" experience?
Dr. Duchon: You need foods that can be prepared and then brought to the location. Grilling is the best way to portably cook meat. It doesn't require a lot of equipment or technology. You could make an impromptu grill before there was metal out of green sticks. The hibachi dates back thousands of years and is still great for tailgaiting today. Grilling for sporting events is truly international. In South Africa, for soccer and cricket matches they'll grant licenses to tribal ladies, who will bring their portable grills to the game to cook and sell meat dishes. It's a tradition whose roots go back before colonial times.
Tanier: What if we move forward in history from the Romans. When I am dragged, kicking and screaming, to a Renaissance Faire, I see a bunch of people munching on roasted turkey legs while enjoying a joust. Is this total BS?
Dr. Duchon: Total BS. There were no turkeys in Europe in the Renaissance. And of course, a lot of what you are watching at those fairs is medieval, not Renaissance-era, though jousting didn't finally fade away until the advent of firearms in the 16th century. But a peasant in ancient times might very well sit on the lawn and enjoy some grilled meat while watching games.
Tanier: At least I can recognize the turkey leg as a foodstuff. What unusual sports foods have you encountered?
Dr. Duchon: I had crickets and grasshoppers in southern Mexico. They're everywhere, they just have barrels of them, like you might see barrels of beans in a supermarket. They're pretty good! I think it's more interesting that you're seeing things get more complicated in the United States. As consumers become more sophisticated and adventurous, and with the latest wave of immigration, you're seeing a lot more diverse ethnic foods at games. In Los Angeles, for example, they sell hummus at the ballpark.
Tanier: Is there anything that ties all sports foods together, from ancient times until today and around the world?
Dr. Duchon: It's all food you can eat with your hands. It's not haute cuisine, and it doesn't require special equipment. It's hand food, not finger food. You won't find soup, even if you like soup, because it just isn't convenient. It's usually high in fat and carbohydrates. Sports food is fun food. When you go to a game, it's like a little vacation from everyday life.
Tanier: Maybe that's the best thing about football season: Great sports plus great food can make the next 17 Sundays feel like mini-vacations.
Last week, Lions running backs rushed 29 times for 128 yards against the Browns. Good stats, except that two of the runs gained 35 and 40 yards. Set those two plays aside, and Kevin Smith, Brian Calhoun, and the rest rushed 27 times for 53 yards.
You can argue that, all in all, the Lions had a pretty good day running the ball. You can't just remove the two long runs out of their performance. It was a boom-or-bust day, but there were two booms that led directly to scores. A bunch of the runs came at the end of a 26-6 blowout, when yards are less important than seconds on the clock. Somewhere between the domination suggested by 29-for-128 and the futility of 27-for-53 is a passable performance.
But you can't argue that a high percentage of those 27 carries that went nowhere were somehow worthwhile. Those 27 carries didn't wear out the defense to produce the two long runs. They didn't "establish the run" and force the Browns to play honestly, even acknowledging that it was a preseason game and there wasn't much heavy game-planning going on.
Those 27 carries were, for the most part, failures. When the Lions drove 53 yards at the start of the game, the rushing game accounted for exactly one yard. When Kevin Smith was given the ball in the red zone on first and second down, the Lions quickly faced a third-and-11. When Smith got the ball on first and second down later in the quarter, it led to third-and-12. Smith's lone good run of the first quarter came on second-and-1, after a 9-yard catch by Calvin Johnson.
If I didn't know better, I would say the pass set up the run!
Rod Marinelli would probably correct me quickly. "What I want to do is punish the defense," Marinelli said after the game. "I want to take the legs out of them so they can't rush." Marinelli is from the old school, as is new coordinator Jim Colletto. The two coaches opened the game with a no-huddle shotgun offense that produced several big pass plays and only stalled when they switched to the running game. But they still think in terms of wearing the defense down, beating them up, taking out their legs, and then setting up the pass.
There are only about a dozen things wrong with that logic. Two straight no-production handoffs don't slow the pass rush. They bring about third-and-long, which increases the pass rush. Modern defenses constantly juggle their personnel on the line, so that 320-pound run stuffer you punished on first and second down is sipping Gatorade on third down. And of course, strings of 2-yard gains result in three-and-outs, meaning the opponent most likely to be worn out by halftime is their punt returner. Most critically, this isn't 1977, and not many games end 13-10, so there's no time to spend the first quarter "establishing" anything except success. If you spend the first half spinning your wheels and trying to tire out your opponent instead of hustling downfield and scoring, you can find yourself down 24-3 at halftime.
"That's how the running game is, it's 2, 3, negative-2, nothing, then all the sudden the big one hits," Jon Kitna said. "The running game is like that boxing match where a guy keeps hitting a guy in the body and it doesn't look like much early, but later on they get tired of getting hit in the body and they let their guard down."
Kitna and Marinelli's opinion of the running game is still common in NFL circles, and it persists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One of Aaron's first statistical projects was a convincing proof, based on play-by-play evidence, that handing off a bunch of times early in the game promotes neither winning nor later offensive success. Successful teams like the Patriots and Colts clearly build their running games as counterpoints to the passing game. Great running teams like the Jaguars don't waste a dozen early carries trying to wear out the defense. They balance their game plans from the start, and they usually enjoy rushing success early in the game.
Perhaps that's the problem. It's certainly true that a team that runs well early has a better chance of winning the game. It's also true that a team's chances improve if they are passing well or stopping the run well or blitzing well or whatever. Doing things well leads to winning; it's pretty simple. The magical thinking comes in when a team starts justifying a treadmill running game as part of a grand plan to overwhelm the opponent. Last week's Lions victory was the kind of game that propagates the myth of establishing the run. The Lions passed better than they ran (at least when Kitna was in the game), their first two scoring drives were set up by big pass plays, and they were aided by a disorganized opponent that couldn't score. Their running game produced two big plays but also contributed to stalled drives and did little to eat the clock in the second half. Yet the Lions won, and they ran the ball a lot, and their stats looked good, so clearly it makes sense that they beat the Browns because they established the run with a series of no-gains.
That logic could kill the Lions this year. Heck, something has to kill the Lions. But don't let it seep into your analysis. "Establish the run" is a more pernicious form of "Run to Win," a less obvious way of saying that 25 carries and 100 yards lead to success, a more subtle inversion of cause and effect. Teams need to run, and they need to have some balance in their offense. But no-gainers in the first quarter aren't the sign of better things to come. They are a sign that the running game isn't working, and that coaches had better fix it or get ready to abandon it.
You probably know how this football season will play out. You will watch a ton of games, some at home, some at the stadium, some at your favorite sports bar. You'll leave fantasy lineups and check stats on Sunday night. You'll read Football Outsiders three or four times per day, plus your other favorite blogs, and maybe even the local paper. You'll argue with co-workers, watch pregame shows, place the occasional wager, curse at the screen. There will be chances to cheer and hug your buddies, but the odds are stacked against you doing so on February 1, so a point will come in the season when you'll turn away from the game in disappointment.
As fun as all of that sounds, it's easy to get stuck in a football rut. Hang with the same guys in the same places week after week, and Sundays won't feel quite as special. The football experience can feel stale and perfunctory, something you do until your team is eliminated. Dr. Duchon described a trip to a stadium as a mini-vacation, and a trip to the bar or your basement couch should feel the same way.
Are you watching football more and enjoying it less? If so, shake things up. Here are ten suggestions to enhance your football experience. They'll take you to new places, sometimes with new people, and they'll make football viewing a more organic part of your life. Try them this year, and you'll have some great football memories, even if you don't get to attend a Super Bowl parade.
1. Visit a high school game: That regional high school on the highway can be a money trap that sucks up your property taxes, or it can be a place where young men and women learn, grow, play, and achieve, plus a fun place to spend Friday night or Saturday afternoon. It's all a matter of perception, and a trip to a high school game allows you to see your local district and the kids in your neighborhood in a whole new way. Visit a game, and you can support the football team, cheerleaders, color guard and band, pig out on some good snacks, and get to meet your neighbors. You'll probably spend less than 25 bucks for the whole experience, even if you have an extra smoked sausage. Oh, and you'll be surprised: The level of play can be pretty darn high.
2. Visit a small college game: If high school football isn't your bag, try visiting a local college that plays at one of the lower competition levels. Where I live, it doesn't cost much to see Penn, Villanova, or Rowan take the field, and the crowds are relatively small and well-mannered. It's another cheap opportunity to support grass-roots football and feel a connection to the guys on the field; even at a Penn game, you're likely to sit behind the linebacker's mother. After the game, you can stroll through the leafy campus greens and stop for a beer at a trendy little college bar. You might hesitate to bring a wife or girlfriend to an expensive, noisy, impersonal NFL game, but a trip to the old University for a little football and a snack makes for a date everyone can enjoy. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.
3. Watch a game with kids: Not just your kids, a bunch of kids. And not just the 10- to 14-year-old boys who know what they are watching, but the pre-choolers, too. Call the buddies and have them bring their kids to the house for a game. The tots can bring toys, even their little handheld video games, but allow no children's television, just football on the big screen. Load them up with their favorite snacks, chips and chicken tenders and sodas, just as you and your buddies gorge on wings and pizza. Keep the food near the television room and try to keep the kids where the game is. Some kids will watch, some will consider it a giant playdate, but everyone will equate football time with fun time. Is this a good way to watch an important playoff game? No, but there are plenty of Sundays where the game doesn't matter that much. Use those Sundays to get the kids involved.
4. Call the guys in your fantasy league: And when you do it, talk about something besides the big Steven Jackson trade you are engineering. Chances are, your fantasy buddies are like you: They are stressed out at work, they don't get many opportunities to talk or hang out, and they have other interests besides football. Talk a little about the families, the career, music, or auto repair if you think the conversation is veering into dangerously "unmanly" territory. Fantasy football is our excuse to keep talking to each other as we reach the age when children and responsibilities fill all the time once occupied by bar crawls and co-ed softball leagues. Let's make the most of that excuse and talk about more than just injured running backs and waiver pickups. Then, when you do talk about football, you are talking to a friend, not one of the "other owners."
5. Tailgate the right way: There are 30-pack and hot dog bun tailgaters, and there are guys who hitch a full commercial kitchen and fully stocked bar to the back of their trucks. In between those extremes is a sweet spot, where the food and drink are delicious but the effort isn't outrageous. Pick a day, pick a few close friends, and get organized. Bring beanbags, washers, and other backyard games. Mix Bloody Mary's and Irish coffees in the morning, then switch over to good beer around noon. Grill steaks or kabobs instead of wieners, and bring some fresh salads. Go co-ed: A good tailgate party doesn't have to be a guys-only affair. And don't put too much pressure on yourself to go to the game: This kind of tailgate works best for games that don't matter, because the fun doesn't have to end (or even relocate) at kickoff. Try this in conjunction with suggestion No. 2 above for a breezy, fun Saturday. And bring a designated driver!
6. Watch a Game in Slow-Mo: Here's your opportunity to be like Mike. Tape a game on TiVo or DVR, then watch it again on Wednesday or Thursday. Watch it dispassionately, fast-forwarding through the slow parts but pausing, rewinding, and going frame-by-frame through the interesting plays. You'll soon discover that interesting plays aren't always big plays: A 50-yard touchdown up the sidelines may have little to offer upon repeat viewing, but a 5-yard run might reveal a dozen little secrets. Soon, you'll see the same linebacker bite on play-action three straight times, you'll see that none of the receivers got off the line cleanly when the quarterback was sacked, and you'll see the center knocking out second-level defenders on play after play. You'll feel like an expert, but you'll also learn how much you don't know. Unlike the other suggestions, this one doesn't force you to spend time with your family or your community. Sometimes, you have to satisfy your inner recluse.
7. Turn off the pregame shows: Pregame shows have become unwatchable, and yet we watch and watch and watch. We're like the patrons who complain about the restaurant food that's awful and comes in such small portions. Turn them off. You don't need that last-second injury update, and if you do you can get it at 12:50. If you must fill Sunday morning with football-related activities, get some guys together for a catch, play a video game, or spend an hour on the porch reading a great book like A Few Seconds of Panic. You only have so many hours per week to budget for watching football, and the hours before kickoff on Sunday are empty calories. Replace them, and you won't feel guilty about a Wednesday night game film session.
8. Write a letter: Send an e-mail to the program director of your local sports talk station. Tell him which personalities you like and which ones you don't like. Tell him want you want: More analysis, more expert opinion, more sports-intensive coverage, less shock talk, less drunken road rage diatribes. At least, that's what I assume you want, because you are about 2,000 words into an article at Football Outsiders that started with Food TV humor. Make the e-mail polite and reasonable, with minimal cursing and plenty of praise for what the station does well. Your e-mail will be ignored, but you may get a bumper sticker, and you could even get a polite, personalized response if you are in a smaller market ("I'm sorry you don't like Buttcrack and Potato Skin in the morning, but many of our listeners find them funny, and some of them really do see a point to having strippers as guests on a radio show."). The e-mail may also help you clarify your likes and dislikes to yourself: After citing 200 examples of why you hate Wolfman in the Afternoon, you may be forced to admit to yourself that you actually like the show's controversial nature.
9. Have a football orgy week: Say goodbye to your loved ones and delve headfirst into a one-week football bender. Pick a college football Saturday and just start watchin'. Log 12 solid hours on Saturday, then come back on Sunday for 1 p.m.-to-midnight action. Spend Monday surfing the net for stats and spin, watch the Monday night game, then watch the NFL Replays on Tuesday and Wednesday night. Fill the down times with magazines and video games, or by filling our message boards with your deepest thoughts. Keep the buzz going by visiting a memorabilia shop or sorting through some old football cards. By Thursday, there will either be a pro game or some WAC conference shootout for your entertainment, and of course next week's previews will be on the net to enjoy (plus an all-new Walkthrough!). Devote Friday night to your local high school, and you've officially eaten and slept football for a week. Mix suggestions 1, 2, and 6 with this one for a truly transcendent experience. (Note: If you already do this every week, then you either have a problem or you are Michael David Smith. Or both).
10. Have a football free week: Pick your home team's bye week or some game that has only marginal interest to you. Pick a week in October or November when the weather is cool and crisp. Then ignore football for a week. Spend Sunday with your wife or girlfriend. Take care of the yard on Saturday. Don't make it a cold turkey situation: You can leave fantasy lineups, watch one highlight show, read the local paper and Football Outsiders (the advertisers made me say that). But put the game on the back burner and enjoy the other great things about autumn. You'll earn family brownie points, and you'll love the game even more when you return.
I'm told this last one works; I haven't taken a football Sunday off in seven years. If you do, send me an e-mail about how wonderful it was, and how much you hate Buttcrack and Potato Skin in the Morning.
Somewhere in Greece...
Michael: Mmmm, this souvlaki is delicious. It slides right between my front teeth.
Tiki: Souvlaki is a delicious Greek dish. Have you ever had it before?
Michael: I lived in North Jersey for a decade. Every diner is run by Greek immigrants. Ever think I tried a damn souvlaki?
Tiki: Well, it's just that you aren't as worldly and cultured as I am. And you have to admit that souvlaki tastes better here in Greece. Really, Michael. it's great to be here with you. The Greeks contributed so much to Western Civilization. Do you know that they created the modern alphabet?
Michael: (wiping yogurt sauce from chin) No, it was the Phoenicians.
Tiki: Are you contradicting me? I'm the expert here. You know who told me that the Greeks invented the alphabet? George Stephanopoulos. You know what nationality he is? Greek. He's a political expert. I hang around with political experts, you know.
Michael: Maybe you need to hang out with some Phoenicians so they can tell you they invented the damn alphabet. (Ringtone) Lemmee get that. (On phone) Yeah, I heard. I dunno yet. Hit me when I am back in the states. (Hangs up) That was Coughlin.
Tiki: The guy I ripped for being a lousy coach?
Michael: Yeah, the guy who won the Super Bowl. Osi got hurt. They may need me to come out of retirement.
Tiki: Oh, I know how that goes. They called me every day for six months.
Michael: No they didn't. Coughlin stuck his cell phone under an electromagnet in a junkyard so he could permanently lose your number. We all hated you. Probably because you said I was selfish and money-hungry and Eli was some kind of joke, all so you could kiss up to your media friends. It backfired a little, didn't it?
Tiki: What do you mean? My career is awesome. I'm not the one contemplating risking my health to earn a few more dollars and chase a second piece of jewelry. I am a well-respected broadcaster.
Michael: Except for that stunt you pulled at the Olympics.
Tiki: Did you say stunt?
Michael: Yeah, and it's something you have to confront, you little runt. You may not have the career you want and you may be out of the hunt for better jobs. It may stunt your progress. Hell, you may have to punt and grunt your way through a job as a sideline reporter because you have to bear the brunt of the fact that you couldn't go a year on television without saying something that sounded like...
Tiki: It was a faux pas! Do you hear me, a faux pas! That's French. You can't accuse a guy of being vulgar when he casually slips French phrases into his conversations.
Michael: Whatever. I don't think I am going back to the Giants. The money isn't right.
Tiki: Ah, that's the Michael I know and love. You were all about the money five years ago and you are all about the money now. Some of us are more refined. I knew it was time for me to leave the gridiron for my new vocation. I understand the big picture.
Michael: The big picture? Let me see if I can see it. I left the game at the height of my success, at a time I could still play. I know what my buddy Brett went through when he decided he wanted to come back. And I know what you went through when you went from a Pro Bowl football player to a pretty boy Regis Philbin impersonator, and what Emmitt when through when he was no longer a Super Bowl champion and just became some guy with marble mouth.
You might have thought you were bigger than the game, but you weren't, as great as you were, and with your four-letter faux pas and your rips on Eli, you spent the last year proving that you are pretty small. Even Brett wasn't bigger than the game, and he's so big that there may not be much of a life for him anywhere else. I know I'm not bigger than the game. It made me rich, famous, and respected. It also took a lot away from me. I can go back on the field, or I can protect my health, start a new life for myself, within the game. Maybe I'm John Madden in 20 years. Maybe I win a second Super Bowl if I go back. Either way, I can't pretend that the money doesn't matter, that I can take it or leave it, do it all for the glory of Giants football.
Your decision was easy. Too easy. Mine isn't. But just because money's involved doesn't mean I don't respect the game, don't respect the fans. I just have to start my new life. Is that a good understanding of the big picture?
Tiki: No. I was rolling my eyes and chuckling under my breath when you gave the speech.
Michael: Good. The last guy you did that to helped me win a Super Bowl. It's a sign I'm doing something right.
Next week: Actual football, including a healthy dose of Week 1 previews!
42 comments, Last at 02 Sep 2008, 8:38pm by Geo B