Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Oct 2008
by Mike Tanier
I am Hypno-Coach. Look into my bulging eyes and obey.
You thought I was just a great linebacker, Samurai Mike and all that, but I am much more. I learned the secrets of mesmerism from Mike Ditka, who learned them from George Halas, whose grandpa learned them from Franz Mesmer himself. You are falling deeper, deeper into a trance with my every word.
The 49ers are a successful franchise. They are fun to watch. They will win the Super Bowl.
You believe it. You can feel it. You have no desire to resist my dominance. You will become my pawn, my minion. Just ask my so-called "boss," Jed York:
Jed York: I serve only Hypno-Coach. I will spend money to sign great defenders so he can rebuild the 1985 Bears. I will no longer allow the team to draft quarterbacks with small hands. I will not move the franchise to Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Azusa, or Cucamonga.
Like York, you will become a marionette, bound to my will. You will say nice things about the Niners. You will buy Patrick Willis jerseys. Even the strongest-willed people have bent like reeds before my awesome power. Just ask my offensive coordinator.
Mike Martz: I will run the ball 25 times per game. I will use fullbacks and tight ends in pass protection packages. I will control the clock. I ... must ... fight ... Greatest show on turf! Four wide receivers! Bomb to Isaac Bruce!
No, no: Look into my eyes. Get lost in my stare. I am the cobra. You are the gerbil.
Mike Martz: I serve Hypno-Coach and only Hypno-Coach. Frank Gore will run off tackle on second-and-8.
When I snap your fingers, you will wake feeling refreshed, informed, and happy. Then you will read the rest of Walkthough, and all of those feelings will melt away.
Aesthetics don't matter in the NFL. But a team that often "wins ugly" may have something to hide. They may be a great defensive team with a sleepy offense, the kind that can win a Super Bowl 2000 Ravens style. But they may be the beneficiaries of bad opponents and good luck.
The Bills, Panthers, and Titans keep on winning, and they are doing it with few big stars and minimal statistical sizzle. I took a close look at all three teams, both on tape and on the stat sheet, to determine just how they are winning, and to figure out if any of them will fall back to the pack in the next month.
We can't keep thinking of them as: That team that lives on Steve Smith bombs and Julius Peppers sacks, then dies on Jake Delhomme turnovers and screens to Brad Hoover on third-and-8.
Offense: The Smith bombs and Delhomme turnovers are still here, as are the short passes to Brad Hoover, Jeff King, and other antonyms for "nifty." Both Panthers running backs posts Success Rates in the 40 percent range, a sign that the team will still face too many third-and-longs as the season wears on. Muhsin Muhammad fits the Panthers offense like old slippers; he is averaging a healthy 14.7 yards per reception on 32 catches. Muhammad and Dante Rosario have added a ball control passing element that was missing from the offense in 2006 and 2007.
Defense: The Panthers are shutting down No. 1 receivers as well as any team in the league, but they haven't been tested by any superstar wideouts. Chris Chambers, Roddy White, and the just-back-from-injury Marques Colston have been their toughest challenges. The strength of the defense lies with Jon Beason, a vacuum cleaner who sucks up everything on the second level, and the deep defensive line built around Peppers, Tyler Brayton, Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu, and others. The Panthers are playing very good team defense this year, and their discipline was evident against the Saints, who try to beat teams with misdirection and play action. The Panthers stay at home, shut down cutback lanes, and take good care of the deep zones.
Other factors: Kicker John Kasay has been perfect this year. You can't argue that the Panthers have had a soft schedule: They crushed the Chiefs, but they have fared very well against many of the league's welterweights.
Pick: I can wrap my head around "upstart Panthers" or"upstart Cardinals," but not both. Look for the Panthers defense to harass Kurt Warner, force some turnovers, and dispose of yet another middle-of-the-pack contender. The Cardinals will force also force a Delhomme interception or two, so this will be a sloppy game.
We can't keep thinking of them as: That team full of nobodies that will soon move to Toronto.
Offense: Trent Edwards is completing almost 70 percent of his passes. He needs his completion percentage to stay high, because most of his passes only travel a few yards. Bills receivers average a respectable 11.9 yards per catch, but Lee Evans makes most of the long distance calls. Robert Royal and Roscoe Parrish average below 10 yards per catch, and Marshawn Lynch (5.9 yards per catch on 19 receptions) is steady but unspectacular as a backfield receiver. The Bills running game is nothing special, and Lynch sometimes does his best running to get back to the line of scrimmage. Freddie Jackson may be the best backup running back in the league. Jackson does everything well, including block.
Defense: The Bills are the Budget Bears. Coordinator Perry Fewell is a Lovie Smith disciple, and his defense looks like Smiths', right down to the two linebackers bearing down on the A- and B-gaps on almost every snap. The Bills don't have personnel in their front seven to match the Bears, but their secondary features four talented cornerbacks and All-Pro caliber safety Donte Whitner. The Bills play a lot of Cover-2, and their corners are very good in run support.
Other factors: As usual, The Bills get a boost from their kicking game. They are fifth in the league in special teams.
Pick: Like the Panthers, the Bills are very disciplined on defense. The Dolphins' offensive DVOA ranking (third) is built on trickery and Chad Pennington's guile. The league will figure the Dolphins out soon. Maybe as soon as Sunday. Bills.
We can't keep thinking of them as: The team that invested millions in Vince Young but has nothing to show for it.
Offense: The Titans run the ball and throw over the middle. This is all they do. You know about the running game of Chris Johnson (Milli) and LenDale White (Vanilli, after eating Terence Trent D'Arby). Tight end Bo Scaife leads the Titans with 23 catches. Alge Crumpler has started to pitch in, but no wide receiver has more than 12 receptions. The tight ends catch passes on waggles and shallow crosses, usually after play action sucks in the linebackers. Kerry Collins has still only been sacked once, a testimony to the scheme, his veteran presence, and the talent of the Michael Roos-David Stewart-Kevin Mawae line.
Defense: Attack! Jim Schwartz blitzes more now than he did in previous years. He has faith in cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper, and he is calling lots of stunts and overload blitzes to exploit some of the overmatched offensive lines the Titans have faced this season (Chiefs, Ravens, Bengals, Jaguars during the injury funk). Many of the twists are designed to get Albert Haynesworth away from double-teams and into a different gap. Opponents are still adjusting.
Other factors: The Titans kicking game is solid. Their defense has allowed just nine first-quarter points.
Pick: Please do not bet the 401K on this. Actually, that's only about 50 bucks right now, so go nuts. I think the Colts defense can win this game by forcing a few early turnovers, giving the offense good field position, and forcing Collins and company to play from behind. As impressive as the Titans blitz packages are, I don't think they are ready to defeat the relatively healthy Colts.
from the AP Wire:
Researches at Cal Tech labs announced on Wednesday that they discovered a new angle in the "Fall of the Cowboys" storyline.
Previous angles -- including "T.O. is Blowing the Team Up," "Pacman Jones is One Thug Too Many," "Tony Romo Hasn't Won Anything," and "Jerry Jones Must Cut the Puppet Strings" -- have been rendered ineffective because of overuse in the last three seasons. The new angle, which has not yet been named, is expected to help thousands of beat writers, columnists, and bloggers who have suffered from CFS (Cowboys Fatigue Syndrome) in recent weeks.
"This is a real godsend," said lead researcher Amos Trask, Professor of Microbiology and Media Studies. "It's the first real breakthrough since German researches isolated 'Bill Parcells Took the Organizational Vision With Him' early in the year."
Trask's team began working on new angles after the Cowboys nearly lost to the Bengals on October 5. "I could see it coming," he said. "Reporters have always overused Cowboys coverage angles, and they starting overdosing on the Terrell Owens strain as soon as that game ended." Trask noted that readers built up a powerful immunity to Fall of the Cowboys angles last December, and that this year's football fan is highly resistant to such reasoning.
Trask's team tried using gene slicing and other advanced techniques to graft two angles together to form a super-angle. "We merged 'Tony Sparano was the Real Genius' with 'Special Teams aren't Doing Their Part,'" he said, "but the angle only survived under laboratory conditions." The addition of receiver Roy Williams gave Trask additional genetic material, but he couldn't supply angles fast enough to meet the constant demand for Cowboys chatter. "Owens-resistant readers didn't respond at all to Roy Williams therapy. Their immune systems are used to Terry Glenn, after all."
Trask believes that while his new angle will provide temporary relief, public education is the only cure for the epidemic of Cowboys Fatigue Syndrome that may plague the nation by Thanksgiving. "Columnists must learn that 'Fall of the Cowboys' angles are only effective under certain conditions," he explained. "They should never be the centerpiece of an 'around the league' column. They shouldn't be used as filler to cover a paragraph or two. And once a writer starts using an angle, he should make sure he finishes a full course of treatment. Writers pick up the 'Terrell Owens is Poison' angle and use it to make themselves feel better before a deadline. Then they stop using it the moment the deadline symptoms are gone. That just creates a more resistant strain of reader."
To best get the new angle in the hands of the public, Trask entrusted it to Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders, who will introduce the angle in this week's Walkthrough column.
Let's remove Pacman, T.O., and the emotional stuff from the equation for a second. A sober analysis of the Cowboys finds that they have:
Do you recognize them yet? The Cowboys are the 2007 Chargers! Like those Chargers, the Cowboys are suffering through an early-season confidence crisis. The Chargers spent the first half of last season questioning their coaches and one another after a series of baffling losses. But the Chargers pulled themselves together, won eight straight games, and ended up playing for the AFC title.
The Cowboys, like the Chargers, are too good to keep losing the way they have. Injuries and suspensions have depleted the Cowboys secondary, but their front seven is strong enough to keep most quarterbacks from picking them apart. Once Tony Romo returns, their offense will click again. They aren't as good as their preseason and September press. They may be closer to the .500-level team predicted by Pro Football Prospectus. They will have trouble beating good opponents like the Giants and Steelers in the second half of their schedule. But the Cowboys are still good enough to keep their nose in the playoff picture. They will play out their schedule as a high variance team, capable of beating the best and losing to the worst.
If Romo was healthy, the Cowboys would beat the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers are a very good team, but they have no receiving corps. The Cowboys' weakness is their secondary, and the way to beat them is to attack down the field. The Bucs cannot play that type of football. Luckily for Jon Gruden and friends, Romo is doubtful. The Bucs will put enough heat on Brad Johnson to turn this game into an attrition war, the kind the Bucs know how to win.
I'll omit the "T.O. Goes Bonkers" caveat, because you know all about that. Take the Bucs to win, but be prepared for the Cowboys to enjoy a Chargers-like second life this season.
The NFC South has been catching up to the NFC East in the DVOA ratings. Hence the headers for the last two capsules. The Eagles and Cowboys play in the Great Big East, which still looks like the league's toughest division. The Buccaneers and Falcons represent the southern-fried ACC (we are going back to the 1980s here, when the Big East was the glamour conference). Think of them as the Florida State and Georgia Tech of the NFL, with the Panthers filling in for Duke.
The stage is set for an easy Eagles victory. Andy Reid has never lost after a bye week. DVOA has tempered enthusiasm for the 4-2 Falcons, who may be a schedule-assisted mirage. Matt Ryan may be among the best rookie quarterbacks ever, but he's still a rookie, and the Eagles have a phonebook full of blitzes to dial up. In a strange twist of fate, the spotlight and the pressure are off the Eagles for October as the Phillies make their once-per-decade sojourn into the World Series.
Of course, I am convinced something will go horribly wrong. Jason Elam will kick a 73-yard field goal before halftime. Ryan Moats will return to the team to run the Wildcat ("What's the snap count? What's the play? WHO AM I?") The Eagles finally acquired a fullback (Navy alum and ex-Patriot Kyle Eckel), but a waiver-wire fullback is a very modest upgrade over no fullback. I close my eyes and I see Dan Klecko and L.J. Smith as the focal points of a goalline package, and I tremble. The FO gang has been giving me shock therapy to cure these nightmares, and I think I am doing better, but they still haunt me.
Take the Eagles. Now if you excuse me, it's time to moisten my temples and attach the electrodes.
Many of us have been watching the stock market and other statistical indicators intently in recent weeks. We've seen crashes and rallies, and fishy numbers now make us nervous. The Giants are ranked first in DVOA, but last in Variance and 31st in schedule strength. Are their fundamentals strong? Was their Browns loss a bull market bubble? Was last week's win against the Niners a bear market bounce? Do I have any idea what these terms mean?
The Giants schedule firms up this week, and we'll learn over the next month (Steelers, Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens) if there is any helium in their DVOA ranking. They're sure to be a little market correction. The Giants offense is ranked first in the league, but it's really not overpowering. Teams that can pass and protect their quarterback (the Eagles and Romo-led Cowboys) will move the ball against their defense.
The good news for the Giants is that there's plenty of cake beneath the Rams-Bengals-Seahawks-Niners icing. Aaron tells me that their Variance score is wobbly because their highs are so high that it makes their average efforts look low. In other words, their performance varies from awesome to above average, with one clunker. Skim some cream off those "awesome" games, and you still have a winning team. Thanks to their easy early schedule, a 2-2 split over the next month won't hurt them, especially if they can take one of the division games.
The Steelers will give up another fistful of sacks on Sunday, but they will generate a few as well, and their run defense (third in the league) will slow the Brandon Jacobs avalanche. Look for the Steelers to win this week, with the Giants bouncing back against the bipolar Cowboys the following week. The Giants may slip from their DVOA perch, but I received a few e-mails from Giants fans last season that explained to me in detail why power rankings don't matter, so no biggie.
Are you fascinated by the Philip Rivers-Drew Brees showdown? Do you wonder if the Chargers might have won a Super Bowl with Brees, or if Rivers is really the better fit for their conservative offense? Do you wonder how the loss of Reggie Bush will affect the Saints? Are you waiting to hear Jeremy Shockey sound off again? Do you want to see how the Chargers react to their latest loss?
If so, chances are you don't live in England.
I checked out the sports section of the London Times Tuesday evening and found an article about the Arsenal-Fenerbahce game (Arsenal won), a feature about a 14-year-old tennis player named Laura Robson (she lost), and an editorial about a fellow named Platini (a shiftier Bud Selig, I think). The fantasy football link took me to a soccer site where "fantasists" could get advice. (How the hell does fantasy soccer work? First team to 10 goals in six months wins?) There's mention of a "full back", but he's a rugby player, not Mike Karney. There was boxing, cricket, and cycling, but no American Football.
The Telegraph had an American Football headline beneath the sailing and horse racing links on their site. But instead of Saints-Chargers, it focused on the Mike Nolan firing.
I'm a tabloid guy, so I headed over to the Daily Star. That is my kind of paper, and I spent a long time drinking in the front page. The headlines in the sports section were fascinating but unintelligible: "Berba's Double Scotch," "Brilliant Burba is Fergy's New Air-O". I am guessing this Berba guy is the Daily Star's Tony Romo. Alas, there was no American Football, and while London has about 30 other newspapers, I think my point was illustrated.
The same thing happens when some famous soccer team plays a match in America: The local papers give them a little play, but they don't bump LaDainian Tomlinson, or even Tim Tebow, off the main page. While checking out the page six girls (who are on page one of the Daily Star), I wondered why the NFL felt the need to take a home game away from New Orleans and give it to a city that is more interested in cycling. I know I have readers in the U.K., and I don't want to take a football game away from you. But Saints fans lost their team for a whole season a few years ago, and many of them headed for the hills when a hurricane threatened New Orleans in Week 1. The Chargers, meanwhile, traveled from San Diego to Buffalo to face the Bills, then flew over the Atlantic Ocean. They are a beaten-up, jet-lagged team. If a loss here derails their season (a slim chance, considering the state of the AFC West), they'll wonder why they dragged injured players to another continent.
Last year's British Invasion produced a sloppy Giants win against the Dolphins. It wasn't good football, and I doubt it converted new fans to the NFL. This game won't push Arsenal or Berba off the front page. The Saints are three-point dogs, and I like them to win. I just want all future New Orleans home games to take place in New Orleans.
The editorial board here at FO sincerely apologizes for the following mistakes made in Walkthrough in recent weeks:
1) "Kellen Winslow is out for the season" should have read "Kellen Winslow is out for about 45 minutes, but he'll say something to earn a suspension soon." (10-16)
2) "The Colts lost to the Vikings" should have read "The Colts barely beat the Vikings." (10-16)
3) "Miami at Houston" should have read "Houston at Miami." (10-9)
4) In the diagram for the Bears' goal line stand, an Eagles player is shown blocking one of the 17 Bears defenders. This was a misprint, as no Eagles player blocked anyone on that play. (10-2)
5) Terdell Sands' name is misspelled "Turd-El," as though he was getting criticized on KryptonFootballTalk.com. (10-2)
6) "David Garrard's wardrobe is fat" should have read "David Garrard's Wardrobe is phat" (10-9).
7) "Andre Gurode is phat" should have read "Andre Gurode is fat" (10-9).
8) Brad Maynard never sold weaponized avian flu virus to the Symbionbese Liberation Army, as reported. It was Brad Moorman (10-2).
9) Secret Squirrel's sidekick was Morocco Mole, not Marquand Manuel (9-26).
10) Jim Kiick, not Rocco Mediate, is the best athlete ever to share his name with an INXS song (9-26).
11) Brad Moorman never sold weaponized avian flu virus to the Symbionese Liberation Army, as reported six lines ago. It was Bill Barnwell (10-23).
Raiders at Ravens: The schedule for this game's festivities:
1 p.m.: Ryan twin arm wrestling. The winner gets preferential treatment next time he's passed over for a head coaching position.
2 p.m.: JaMarcus Russell and Joe Flacco stand at the opposite goalposts and throw footballs at a cinderblock wall on the 50-yard line. Whoever breaks through the wall and hits the other on the head gets the cover of Madden 2010. If a cinderblock wall is unavailable, they will try to throw through Terrell Suggs.
3 p.m.: Shane Lechler stands at Fort McHenry and launches a punt that lands in a pitcher of beer in the Inner Harbor, spoiling Sebastian Janikowski's halftime ritual.
4:15 p.m.: First offensive touchdown of the game. Ravens.
Redskins at Lions: Last week, in their "close call" loss, the Lions had the ball for less than 20 minutes. Dan Orlovsky had zero passing yards until midway through the second quarter, when the score was already 21-0. The Lions' offense consisted mostly of one 96-yard pass to Calvin Johnson and two 54-yard Jason Hanson field goals, one of which was made possible by two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties by the Texans. If there was a Hall of Fame for non-predictive events, these plays would have busts. If the Redskins give up a 99-yard touchdown, commit five 15-yard penalties, and get victimized by a couple of 62-yarders, they'll only win by a field goal.
Rams at Patriots: I joke a lot about "swagger," but Jim Haslett's rah-rah tactics really have improved the Rams, at least for now. Sociologists used to call it the Hawthorne Effect. Put simply, it means that workers will perform better if they see changes in stimulus that they interpret, unconsciously or consciously, as positive. It's a controversial principle, too vague to have any predictive value, but it's easy to spot when it's working. Haslett's confidence pep talks and organization-wide luncheons are improving the climate at film sessions and on the practice field. Meanwhile, Scott Linehan's firing reminds players that no job is safe, providing some powerful negative reinforcement.
Now the bad news. The Hawthorne Effect only provides short-term gains. The Rams will soon slide back to something close to their September caliber of play. If Haslett is truly a good coach, not a guy riding a psychological principle for all it's worth, then he'll prevent that. Based on his efforts in New Orleans, Haslett is not that coach. The Patriots, who want to remind everyone that they are still kicking, will win. If they don't, we should retire Hawthorne and start talking about the Haslett Effect.
|Figure 1: Chiefs O vs. Jets D (or Jets O vs. Chiefs D)|
Chiefs at Jets: I've designed the perfect play for these teams to run (Figure 1). One receiver runs a cross, the other a hitch. The tight end runs a flat, the halfback looks for an outlet pass, and the fullback loiters aimlessly around the line of scrimmage. No one ventures more than four yards downfield. To disguise this masterpiece, everyone goes in motion pre-snap. Each team can run it 35 times. Brett Favre will finish the game 23-of-35 for 94 yards with one interception (thrown lefty sidearm). Tyler Ingles Thigmartin will finish 13-of-35 for 88 yards. Tony Gonzalez will punch Carl Peterson. And I will be watching a different game. Take the Chiefs to cover that obscene 13-point spread.
Browns at Jaguars: Derek Anderson's first half stats last week: 3-of-14, 17 yards, longest completion for six yards. Rex Grossman wants his stat line back. Jaguars.
Bengals at Texans: This is the makeup game caused by the hurricane. You are just as shocked that I remembered to include it as I am. Oddsmakers clearly read PFP, and they saw our nine-win projection for the Texans. How else do you explain a second-straight double-digit spread for a two-win team that almost fell asleep against the Lions last week? I like the Texans to win and the Bengals, who have hung around against a few opponents this year, to cover.
Seahawks at Niners: I get turnovers just thinking about this game! Take the Niners. Think Hawthorne effect.
(Note: this week's anticipated article on Old Spice Swagger has been delayed indefinitely, because the author smells too damn good.)
44 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2008, 6:13am by James-London