Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Varsity Numbers: Honing in

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

13 Nov 2008

Walkthrough: Return of the King

by Mike Tanier

Jeff George told Sirius radio last week: "I find it hard to believe there isn't a place in the game for me."

I find it hard to believe there's a place on satellite radio for Jeff George.

George sighs heavily while watching the NFL these days. Peers like Gus Frerotte and Kerry Collins are leading successful, even undefeated teams. Why not George? Sure, he was a bigger tool than Paul Bunyan's crowbar when he played. But Collins had a drinking problem and used racial slurs in Carolina, but he landed on his feet after a few tricky bounces. George was a vicar by comparison.

George is 40, but he claims to have the arm of a 25-year-old (though hopefully not Brodie Croyle). George's legs have endured four decades of wear, but technology may offer a solution. Honda announced that it will soon unveil robotic legs that will allow the disabled to walk and the immobile to buy time in the pocket. I plan to purchase three pairs and tear through the streets like Doctor Octopus. George could afford a pair. Heck, he could upgrade to the Acura models, which have built-in MP3 players and cruise control.

George isn't the only '90s quarterback thinking comeback. A rumor rumbled through the bowels of the Internet recently that Kordell Stewart plans to come back to the NFL as a wide receiver. The 36-year-old Stewart is no older than Joey Galloway, so don't laugh the rumor off.

OK, now you can laugh it off. Stewart is the sewer alligator of football. He's a walking Urban Legend; Snopes.com should have its own Kordell Stewart category. During his playing days, Stewart was the subject of salacious, slanderous rumors that were as plausible as the average Wal-Mart abduction story. I traced the latest tall tale back to a wishful thinking interview that Stewart gave in September. Stewart said he would like to come back. And I would like to have six robotic Accord EX legs. Neither is happening.

I'd like to see Stewart return; the dude was fun to watch. If he staged a successful comeback, NFL Films would have to assemble a highlight reel. There's only one album in the world that would make a worthy soundtrack: Chinese Democracy. Lo and behold, Guns 'n' Roses' latest album is coming out next week. The folks at Apple want me to make an advance purchase. Why? Do I have to be first in line to download? Will they run out of MP3s? It may not matter. I heard the title track already. It sounds like two garage bands arguing over who spilled Natural Ice on the PA system.

Still, one can dream. Kordell Stewart and Guns 'n' Roses. Axl and Slash, reunited at last.

Unfortunately, there's no place in that game for Jeff George.

Upon Him Does the Sun Rise and Set

Let's say the Jets finish the season 10-6 or 11-5. It's very possible when you look at their long-term schedule, which features the Broncos, Niners, and Seahawks, three foes who could easily vault them to nine wins. A break here or there gives them double-digits.

Let's say the Packers keep diddling around .500, ending the season at 7-9 or 8-8. Again, that's plausible: Give them a split with the Bears, plus a loss at either New Orleans or Jacksonville, and they're one loss away from .500 with only one gimme (the Lions in Week 17) on the schedule.

Imagine the Jets in the playoffs, maybe with a first-round bye, while the Packers are home for the holidays. You know what the storyline would be. Heck, I'll write it for you now, complete with the sentence-as-paragraph affectation columnists use when they think they are revealing some cosmic truth.

Brett Favre made all the difference.

He took a ragtag collection of second-fiddlers in Gotham and turned them into winners.

In His absence, the Packers melted like an ice cream sandwich in the midday sun.

The Packers rejected their favorite son, but Favre shook the dust from His sandals as He left town. He took with him His moxie, His competitive spirit. His leadership. His precious male essence.

He gathered up the things that made the Packers winners, stuffed them into a carry-on bag, and flew to JFK airport. Once safely in the Big Apple, He unzipped the bag, and all those intangibles floated out like a genie from an old oil lamp.

I could continue, but you are probably retching already. You can already smell the bouquets that will be heaped at Favre's feet, you can imagine prose so purple that Prince would wear it. The inconvenient facts -- the millions the Jets spent on Alan Faneca and other free agents, the Packers' injury problems and awful run defense -- will either be ignored or retro-fitted to be more Favre-friendly:

The Packers were adrift in the wilderness. Without Favre's leadership, their defenders could no longer tackle.

The Jets already had veterans on offense. Favre made them better. When He faced the Rams, He simply stared across the line at them, and their defense wilted like a geranium during a two-month drought.

(The mixed metaphor back there was deliberate; please no e-mails.)

Now that I've set up a straw man argument and congratulated myself for tearing it down, it's time to do some real work. We all know that a sprinkling of magic Favre Dust didn't turn the Jets into winners. But he did make them better. Or did he? On the flip side, his release didn't take away the Packers' ability to win, run the ball, or stop the run. But can you really say they are better off with Aaron Rodgers, particularly after Sunday's double-safety fiasco?

Let's examine the situation from a variety of angles.

Favre vs. Pennington: When evaluating the Jets, you have to remember not to compare Favre to Rodgers. Favre replaced Chad Pennington. Statistically, Pennington has Favre beaten a dozen ways this season: in DVOA (22.1% to -3.3%), DYAR (623 to 141), and EYards (2353 to 1792). Pennington has thrown for more yards on fewer attempts and has a higher passer efficiency rating (92.6 to 89.8).

It's hard to argue that Pennington has a better supporting cast than Favre. The Dolphins have better running backs, but the Jets have better receivers. The Dolphins have a young, improving offensive line, but the Jets have a mix of high draft picks in their third seasons and millionaire free agents. The Wildcat scheme has defenders on their heels against the Dolphins, but Eric Mangini is pretty creative in his own right, and it's hard to see how Wildcat running plays are affecting Pennington's passing numbers. It's safe to assume that if Pennington stayed in New York, he would have produced passing stats at least comparable to his Dolphins statistics. Therefore, while his hypothetical Jets numbers might be shaped differently than Favre's (fewer touchdowns and interceptions), they would probably be better.

Maybe Favre has an edge over Pennington that isn't measured in conventional statistics or DVOA. Favre is a better deep passer; maybe his ability to throw long is stretching defenses. The Jets lack explosive playmakers, so they need Favre to force some passes to generate points. Pennington's risk-averse, high-percentage passing is great when you have a superstar running back or receiver, but it would only lead to stalled drives with the Jets. Favre may throw more interceptions, but he makes up for it with his daring touchdowns.

This is the famous gunslinger/game manager argument, and it can make you chase your tail. The differences between Favre and Pennington as deep passers are exaggerated, and even if Favre gets some derring-do points, he has a lot of DVOA and DYAR ground to cover. Follow this line of reasoning in search of credit for Favre, and you'll soon arrive in "he's a winner" territory.

Another way to compare Favre to Pennington is to analyze the Jets on a game-by-game basis. Let's assume either quarterback would have beaten the Bengals and Rams (awful teams) the Chiefs (an awful team that stayed close because of Favre interceptions) and the Bills (who were beaten mostly by the Jets defense). Both quarterbacks would have lost to the Patriots and Chargers. That leaves the Dolphins, Cardinals, and Raiders games.

Favre threw six touchdowns against the Cardinals. Let's assume Pennington isn't capable of that kind of output. The Jets beat the Dolphins on the strength of a pair of deep passes by Favre. One bomb was an easy throw to a wide-open receiver, but the other was a crazy fourth-and-long prayer. Let's generously say that Pennington wasn't enough of a gambler to make the plays needed in that game (of course, if Pennington played for the Jets, the Dolphins wouldn't have been competitive, but never mind). By that accounting, Favre gave the Jets two extra wins this season.

But there's a problem: the Raiders game. Favre threw two interceptions in that game, one in the red zone. He also was sacked and fumbled three times, though the Jets recovered all the fumbles. If we give Favre gunslinger credit, then we should concede that Pennington would have taken better care of the ball against a terrible team. With Pennington under center, the Jets beat the Raiders.

At best, we can give the Jets an additional win, thanks to Favre. At worst, we could point to Pennington's overall statistics and conclude that not only would he have beaten the Raiders, but the Cardinals and perhaps the Patriots as well. My hunch is that Favre has helped the Jets slightly, but that Alan Faneca and an easy schedule has helped far more. One thing is certain: The Dolphins were big winners in the August quarterback sweepstakes. They wouldn't be 5-4 with John Beck or Josh McCown.

Favre vs. Notfavre: Conventional stats and Football Outsiders metrics also show that Aaron Rodgers is having a better year than Favre. Rodgers bests Favre in DVOA (14.8% to -3.3%) DYAR (495 to 141) EYards (2,194 to 1,792), as well as corny old passer efficiency rating (93.3 to 89.8).

The metric differences here aren't as extreme as they are between Favre and Pennington, and the Packers appear to have a stronger overall offense than the Jets, so I'm not willing to conclude that Rodgers is having a superior season. Peripheral stats could close the gap. For example, Rodgers has been sacked 21 times in 288 attempts, Favre 16 times in 282 attempts. The Adjusted Sack Rate differences between the two teams aren't strong enough to conclude that Favre has better protection. Favre endured just 15 sacks last season behind a Packers line that was healthier than this year's version. After watching the Packers lose to the Titans and Vikings, I would conclude that the Packers pass protection has fallen off, but that Rodgers has made some of his own trouble. Favre has much better pocket presence.

There are some intangibles that should at least be talked about. The Packers lead the league in penalty yards, with 655. They commit a lot of line penalties. Let's (very generously) suggest that Favre could reduce offensive line penalties: his snap count might be more regular, he could use his experience to spot an illegal formation, he gets rid of the ball before holding penalties occur. Favre might even get some "superstar" treatment when it comes to penalties. Rodgers' illegal forward pass from the end zone on Sunday might have been interpreted as a gutsy veteran play if Favre had thrown underhanded on two hops to Donald Driver. Favre is legendary for over-selling ball fakes, so maybe we could give Ryan Grant a few more yards because Favre is channeling his inner Lee Strasberg after the handoff.

If we heap all of these intangibles on Favre's side of the scale, what do we get? Probably a win over the Vikings, though I have a funny feeling that Favre would have traded Rodgers' two safeties (four points) for at least one no-look interception from the goal-line (six points). To give Favre difference-making abilities in the Falcons and the Titans games you must overlook the fact that A) Rodgers played well in those games, and B) the Packers run defense was culpable in both losses.

There's one other game Favre might have won: the Buccaneers game. Rodgers injured his shoulder against the Bucs. The Packers trailed 21-20 when he left. Backup Matt Flynn was ineffective, so Rodgers came back in, only to throw the interception that allowed the Bucs to pull away. If the Packers had both Favre and Rodgers, one of them could have come off the bench, played well, and helped the Packers win a game that the Bucs were trying hard to give away. That doesn't make this a game where the Packers needed Favre, just a game where they needed someone better than Flynn.

Conclusion: If the Favre Saga never happened, I believe the Packers would be 5-4. The Jets would probably still be 6-3 and one of the league's pleasant surprises. The Dolphins would be belly-up. The balance of power didn't change much when Favre was traded. It changed when the Jets signed Faneca and Damien Woody, when the Packers lost run-stuffer Corey Williams, and so on. Favre was a medium-sized pebble, not an avalanche. When you read one of those Almighty Favre columns that are sure to arrive in the coming weeks, trust your gut instinct. It's about 90 percent bunk.

Unless he really does have the magical power to make the defense better.

Nutshells, Part 1

Jets at Patriots: Rivals. Heroes. Controversy. Accusations. Hype. More hype. Favre. Mangini. Belichick. Law. Ben. Jarvus. Green. Ellis. Slightly-above-average teams with inflated records. Patriots.

Cowboys at Redskins: It all started back in Week 4, when the unbeatable Cowboys lost to the Redskins in Dallas. They lost because they could not stop Santana Moss or Clinton Portis and because they abandoned the run too early. The loss touched off a downward spiral that featured major injuries, panic-button trades, and rumors that Wade Phillips might join the Scott Linehan-Lane Kiffin-Mike Nolan-coffee klatch. Tony Romo is back in the huddle for the Cowboys, but they are still beaten up, and the temptation to unleash another doomed 47-pass game plan will be great. Still, I'll buck common sense and take the Cowboys, especially with Portis' status in question.

Bears at Packers: Rex Grossman wasn't very impressive last week, but if the Packers don't do something about their pass protection, the Bears will win this game 4-0. I still see the season series as a split, so I'll pick the home Packers to win the way they almost beat the Vikings: lots of interceptions, a healthy dose of hope.

Texans at Colts: Sage Rosenfels wants to redeem himself for his fourth-quarter fumble against the Colts in Week 5. And his other fourth-quarter fumble in Week 5. And his fourth-quarter interception in Week 5. And the interception he threw in the red zone at the end of the third quarter against the Vikings. And all of the passes he threw right into Ray Lewis' chest last week. And ... well, he'd like a mulligan for all of 2008, if that could be arranged. Colts.

Rams at Niners: Mike Singletary and Jim Haslett now have a scarlet letter "I" burned on their chests. Actually, Singletary's is on his ass. Niners.

Lions at Panthers: Jake Delhomme is adhering to a rigorous schedule this year: two good games, then one awful game. He was pretty good in Week 1, good enough to win in Week 2, then got sacked five times in Week 3. He kicked butt in Weeks 4 and 5 (530 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) but threw three picks in Week 6. He posted great numbers against the Saints and Cardinals, then made the Raiders secondary look like Lester Hayes, Willie Brown, Jack Tatum and Nnamdi Asomugha (he looked like himself) with his seven-completion, four-pick masterpiece last week. Delhomme will lead the Panthers to an easy win against those lovable Lions. His problem weeks will be Week 12 at Green Bay, Week 15 at the Giants (that makes sense), and in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, which is bad news for anyone who thinks the Panthers will do great things in January.

A Few Minutes with an Andy Rooney Impersonator

Don't ya' just hate it when teams empty the backfield in short-yardage situations?

It's a well-known fact that the best way to convert on third-and-short is to run the ball. That applies not just to third-and-1, but third-and-2. It's even a good percentage strategy on third-and-3, even though teams are as likely to run the ball on third-and-3 as to admit they pulled their seventh-round pick's name out of a gumball machine.

That doesn't mean teams should run off-tackle every time they face third-and-short. A little play-action can be a dangerous thing when the defense has nine players in the box. But teams should at least make it look like they are going to run. Even on second-and-1, when many teams throw deep, it makes sense to keep a back in the backfield so defenders will respect the run threat. The same goes for goal-to-go situations inside the five: The threat of a handoff keeps linebackers close to the line, which opens up opportunities in the back of the end zone.

You would think this is common sense, but offensive coordinators don't agree. They can't resist sending that running back in motion before the snap, taking away any chance for a run. Sure, the quarterback could run a draw or sweep, but no one really thinks Kerry Collins is going to bust up the gut on third-and-goal from the four-yard line.

Figure 1: Empty Backfield TD Pass to Forte

Sure, there's some logic to emptying the backfield. It's easy to isolate a receiver against a linebacker in man coverage, and those linebackers usually aren't quick enough to jam a receiver off the line and prevent a quick slant. If the defense is in zone coverage, one of those five receivers at the line of scrimmage will come off the ball uncovered: another easy pitch-and-catch. Teams like the Bears and Eagles throw a lot of passes to their running backs, and an empty backfield allows backs like Matt Forte or Brian Westbrook to quickly get into their pass routes. Figure 1 shows an empty-backfield play the Bears used on Sunday near the goal line. Forte scored easily by forcing a Titans linebacker to chase him on a double-move.

Back in the old days, teams never used empty backfield sets. Even if they did, they wouldn't dare use them near the goal line or on third-and-short. Teams used two-back offenses in yesteryear, and the go-to guy when you needed a yard or two was the fullback. Near the goal line, teams deployed I-formations or split backfields. The defense had no idea who would get the ball, so they couldn't key on one back. The big fullback often plunged for the touchdown or first down.

Figure 2: Standard Fullback Trap

The fullback dive is alive and well in the NFL. Usually, the halfback runs a sweep, and the quarterback fakes a pitch to him, either before or after the handoff to the fullback. It's a useful play, but it's no fun to diagram. The fullback trap is more interesting (Figure 2). On this play, the guard (whose block is shown in red) slips behind the tackle and traps the first pursuing defender, usually the defensive end. The fullback takes the handoff and runs counter to the flow of the offensive line. To further sell the illusion that this is a halfback sweep, the right tackle fold blocks on the right side. Most of the defense follows the halfback right, and the fullback gains five or six yards running left. The Ravens are the only team I've seen using this exact play, and they are more likely to use it on first-and-10 handoff than in short yardage. But the Ravens run a variety of fullback handoffs. It seems to be working for them.

If you ask me, I think offensive coordinators should junk all the empty backfield plays and stick to old-fashioned football when it comes to getting tough yards.

Of course, the Bears did score on that empty-backfield pass to Forte. The Packers used a five-receiver set to get Donald Driver open for a big gain on third-and-short.

Meanwhile, Ahmard Hall fumbled on a fullback dive for the Titans at the goal line. Le'Ron McLain also fumbled a fullback give. Mike Cox of the Chiefs got stopped on a fullback dive at the goal-line in the final seconds. Halfbacks had it tough in short-yardage situations this week, too: Check out Westbrook on Sunday night and Frank Gore and Michael Robinson on Monday.

Maybe both strategies have their merits. Maybe the right call depends on personnel and offensive philosophy, not just on the predilections of a crotchety old sportswriter who thinks football has gone downhill since the day Rocky Bleier retired.

Nah. I'll just ignore contradictory evidence. Fullback dives are good for short yardage conversions. Empty backfields are bad. Change is scary.

(Ed. Note: Not that an empty backfield every so often is a bad thing, but I should point out that our research shows that in general, teams do have more success in short-yardage situations when they run the ball. Of course, a sweep to Brian Westbrook may not be best specific run play to call... -- Aaron Schatz)

Nutshells, Part 2

Dolphins at Raiders: Yep, it's been three weeks since the Raiders scored a touchdown. Yep, they are averaging seven points per game over their last five games. Yep, they were 2-of-17 on third down conversions last week. Yep, I could cite eye-popping offensive stats for about three pages. Nope, Tom Cable isn't on anyone's head-coaching short list. He has taken over play-calling duties, but if he fails, plays will be called by Ouija board and one of those glass birds that dunks its head in the colored liquid. Dolphins.

Browns at Bills: Now that Chris Perry has been benched, the battle for NFL's Worst Starter is a four-man race. It's down to Robert Royal of the Bills, L.J. Smith of the Eagles, Josh Bullocks of the Lions, and Brandon McDonald of the Browns. McDonald is the new face. He earned national attention for his amazing coverage of Eddie Royal on Thursday night. The highlight was a 93-yard touchdown that came bundled with International Sign Language narration, courtesy McDonald's gestures. "Hey, I can't cover this guy. I need safety help. Crap, there's the snap. I'm beat! Where's the ball? Oh no, where's Royal? Maybe if I wave at him I can cause a mighty cyclone to emerge from my arms to tackle him from afar!"

I watched the Ravens pick on McDonald a few weeks ago. I know other teams did, because he has a lot of six- or seven-tackle stat lines. Most cornerbacks earn high tackle totals by making stops after 15-yard passes, not by supporting the run. McDonald had an interception against the Giants, but it's looking more and more like the Giants were just getting it all out of their system that night.

The Bills can beat the Browns by picking on McDonald, by making Brady Quinn prove he can match Thursday's performance, and by running hard against a defense with tackling issues. The Bills may be on the long, slow slide to mediocrity, but when they get there, they'll find that the Browns have already ordered appetizers.

Saints at Chiefs: Reggie Bush hopes to make his triumphant return this week. It's a good thing: The Saints just need him to return punts, run the ball, catch it, punt, kick, and play safety. The Saints have tried to build their short passing game around Pierre Thomas and Aaron Notbush (also called Stecker), but for all his faults, Bush is the guy who turns those swing passes into big gains. The Saints win this week because Herm Edwards will give up on the kicking game entirely, going for every fourth down, going for two after touchdowns, and hiring Jeanette Lee to shoot kickoffs down the field with a pool cue. The worst part is that Sean Payton will take notes.

Ravens at Giants: The Giants will lose at least once, maybe twice, in the next four weeks. They should win this one, but I like the Ravens to cover that 6.5-point spread. I live about 70 miles from the Meadowlands, but when Ray Lewis hits Brandon Jacobs (or vice versa), I may be able to hear the pop.

Titans at Jaguars: The Jaguars were making fun of the Lions during their blowout win on Sunday. "You suck," a Jaguars player would say. "Your mom sucks," the Lions player would respond from the fetal position. "No, you suck," came the witty retort. "Your face sucks," came the stiletto-sharp rejoinder from the Lions player limping off the field to make room for the punting unit. A lot of folks smell Jaguar upset here, and the Titans are only field-goal favorites. I'm sticking with the Titans because the DVOA disparity is wide and the Jaguars run defense isn't very good.

Three Safety Opera

The Vikings recorded two safeties against the Packers on Sunday. The NFL record of three safeties in one game was set by the Rams against the Giants in Week 5 of the 1984 season. This is the story of that game.

The Giants were a surprise team at the start of the 1984 season. Second-year coach Bill Parcells was quickly building a contender from scratch. The Giants hadn't won more than nine games in a season since 1963, but Parcells turned the team around from a 3-13 campaign in 1983, leading the Giants to a 3-1 start. Fourth-year linebacker Lawrence Taylor was the team's biggest star, but the rebuilt Giants offense was a bigger story. Oft-injured quarterback Phil Simms was off to the best start of his career. New faces like rookie receivers Bobby Johnson and Lionel Manuel, and rookie linemen Karl Nelson and William Roberts, gave the Giants their best passing attack since the days of Fran Tarkenton.

The Rams, coached by John Robinson, were 2-2 when they traveled to the Meadowlands. Quarterback Vince Ferragamo broke his hand in Week 3, but Jeff Kemp stepped in to lead the Rams to a win over the Bengals in Week 4. With Eric Dickerson at running back and a defense led by stars like Jack Youngblood and Gary Green, all Kemp had to do most weeks was manage the game.

This game proved strange from the opening kickoff. Ali Haji-Sheikh of the Giants kicked to A.J. Jones of the Rams. Jones lost the ball in the sun and allowed it to roll past him into the end zone. A stunned Phil McConkey pounced on it for a Giants touchdown. Haji-Sheikh missed the extra point, setting an ominous tone for the way the rest of the afternoon would play out for the Giants.

After a few short drives, the Rams forced the Giants to punt from their own 8-yard line. The Rams got excellent field position, and they capitalized by pounding the ball up the middle with Dickerson and fullback Dwayne Crutchfield. Crutchfield gave the Rams the lead with a 1-yard touchdown. Later in the second quarter, Giants punter Dave Jennings came up short on a punt, one-hopping the ball to Henry Ellard. "I was lucky it took a nice bounce right to me," Ellard said after the game. "Once I got over to the right, I saw it was only me and Jennings. I thought about cutting in, but I saw him just shuffling along, so I went down the sidelines and he missed me." Ellard's touchdown gave the Rams a 14-6 lead.

On the ensuing kickoff, Norwood Vann hit McConkey, jarring the ball loose. The Rams recovered the fumble at the Giants' 24, setting up a field goal. After the kick, the goalpost mysteriously drooped to the ground. An upright was caught in the field goal netting, and as the net dropped, it took the goalpost with it. It was that kind of day.

The second half started with a holding call on the Giants' kickoff return. Youngblood and Reggie Doss each sacked Simms, forcing Jennings to punt from the 1-yard line. Ivory Sully, one of the best special teamers of his era, broke through the line and blocked Jennings' kick through the back of the end zone. "I noticed their guy did not block me on the previous punt," said Sully. "I told Gil (Haskell, the special teams coach) I thought I could get one." It was Sully's fifth blocked punt in six seasons.

Just two minutes after the Sully safety, the Giants were once again deep in their own territory. Simms dropped to pass and tried to elude Youngblood and Doss. Simms appeared to get away, but the referees said he was in the grasp. Simms disagreed vehemently. All quotes from that era were censored, but you get the idea. "It was a bleep call, a bleep call," Simms said. "That's bleep, totally absurd. A sack? My bleep. I'd been in the same situation the whole game and they didn't call it. Why that time? Bleep."

(Younger readers may not know this, but in the mid-1980s officials called many more in-the-grasp sacks than they do now. Many of them were debatable: Strong, mobile passers like John Elway or Randall Cunningham would slip through an arm tackle and start to scramble, only to discover that they had just been "sacked." Sack totals of the mid-1980s are extremely high, in part because of the in-the-grasp call, but also because of Taylor, the Bears' defense, the Eagles' offensive line, and other factors. When you see a clean-looking sack arbitrarily turn into a 15-yard offensive play, you are seeing the same phenomenon in reverse.)

The Giants were reeling. The running game was not their strong suit, but it was particularly dreadful against the Rams, gaining a total of eight yards on 13 carries. The Giants committed nine holding penalties. Three of the holds negated first-down passes. Different sources give different counts of dropped passes, but there were at least eight. One third-quarter offensive series featured three drops, one each by Williams, running back Rob Carpenter, and tight end Zeke Mowatt.

The Rams scored quickly after the second safety kick. Kemp completed a long pass to Ellard, then hit tight end David Hill on a three-yard touchdown to make the score 28-6. The Rams extended their lead with a field goal after another Giants three-and-out. Late in the third quarter, Jennings once again found himself punting from his own end zone. Norwood Vann blocked the kick, which was recovered in the end zone by Giants linebacker Gary Reasons. "That's the first time I've ever blocked one, even in high school," Vann said.

One quarter. Three safeties.

The Giants did not have a comeback in them. They scored a meaningless late touchdown, but Haji-Sheikh provided a fitting end to the day's special teams blunders by missing his second extra point. The Rams won 31-12. Simms finished 24-of-48 for 276 yards, many of them in garbage time. Dickerson ran for 120 yards. Kemp completed just 8-of-17 passes, but Youngblood finished with three sacks. Linebacker Jim Collins had 13 solo tackles. Cornerback Gary Green deflected five passes.

"We just got outplayed in every area," Parcells said after the loss. "Both the players and coaches will have to take the blame for what happened today. We're not as poor a team as we showed today. That's all I have to say." Parcells was right. The Niners trounced the Giants 31-10 the following week, but the Giants won three of their next four games, then hung around to finish 9-7. The Rams finished 10-6. When the two teams met in the Wild Card round, Kemp and the Rams were the ones trying to escape an overwhelming defense. The Giants forced two fumbles and held the Rams to just 214 yards of total offense in a 16-13 win.

We may see three safeties in one game again, but I doubt we'll see three in one quarter. There are two morals to this tale:

  • A team can recover from an embarrassing game to win in the postseason and become champions a few years later.
  • Next time someone asks me about Steve Tasker's Hall of Fame credentials, I will talk about Ivory Sully.

Nutshells, Part 3

Broncos at Falcons: Tatum Bell is back in Denver, Ryan Torrain is out for the year. The Chargers signed Michael Bennett for no other reason than to keep him from the Broncos. Sammy Winder is waiting for Mike Shanahan's call. Falcons.

Eagles at Bengals: The Angstrom equals 0.1 nanometers, or .0000000001 meters. It's a convenient unit for measuring atoms. The picometer measures .01 Angstroms, or one-trillionth of a meter. It's the smallest unit of measure most scientists ever work with. But physicists have defined another unit of measure equal to .01 picometers. They've called it the Kleckometer. It's used to measure the distance from which the Eagles can safely convert in short-yardage situations. Eagles.

Cardinals at Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck is a stranger in a world he never made, like Howard the Duck or Klaatu. Take the Cardinals and the encouraging three-point line.

Chargers at Steelers: The Steelers' top-ranked defense (in DVOA) faces the Chargers second-ranked pass offense. That's a stalemate. The Chargers defense ranks 29th, but the Steelers offense ranks 26th. That's a stalemate. The forecast once again calls for cold weather and snow showers. The chess board just froze. Steelers.

Vikings at Bucs: Jon Gruden is thrilled that Cadillac Williams could return to boost his team's sagging offense. "It's almost like Christmas is here. Christmas is Wednesday, I hope," Gruden said early in the week. Actually, Wednesday was the birthday of Bahá'u'lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, which has an estimated five million adherents. Wrong religion, Jon, but an honest mistake. Don't put up a tree.

The sparkly new "DVOA picks games" system in our Premium section has this as the only "red" game this week, and I agree. No pick.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 13 Nov 2008

48 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2008, 1:39am by the silent speaker

Comments

1
by DM (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 1:35pm

While I mostly agree with you on the Favre fiasco (Rodgers and Pennington have been clearly better this year) I think one item you overlook is how good Favre was last year, particularly in the beginning of the season. The Packers did not have a running game at all in the first (I believe) 7 games or so, and Favre really did keep the team in several games. I think you're absolutely right that the Jets would be no worse (and honestly quite possibly better) with Pennington. I do think though that the Packers beat the Vikings and Buccaneers with Favre (unfortunately being a fan I watched both those losses, and as impressed with Rodgers as I've been all year he was brutal in both of those losses, even before the injury in Tampa).

My real question is: why did the Jets expect anything different from Favre? He spent 16 years in largely the same West Coast offense in Green Bay. Frankly I'm amazed he hasn't been an utter disaster in New York with lesser players surrounding him in an offense that he clearly doesn't understand.

16
by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:13pm

One metric where the Jets expected something different from Favre over Pennington: $$$. I assume that in New York, all games sell out no matter who is under center. But how about #4 jersey sales? By having Favre at QB, regardless of whether he is an actual upgrade or not, the common fan's perception of the team's ability to win is likely higher. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser, other than a few diehards, but associating oneself with a percieved winner is gold. I also think it's reasonable to assume that the team ownership would prefer a good profit to a few W's in the standings.

20
by JasonK :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:51pm

I'm fairly certain that merchandise revenues are shared, so the Jets would only get 1/32nd of the profits on all those #4 jerseys.

The better argument along these lines is that the Jets are currently selling Personal Seat Licenses to help finance the joint Giants/Jets stadium currently under construction. The fan excitement that Favre brings to the franchise might conceivably help convince a few waffling season-ticket holders to fork over the cash to keep their seats in the new stadium. I don't think this is particularly likely, but what is the probable truth and what Jets ownership believes aren't necessarily one and the same.

19
by Josfan :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:50pm

The Jets are also moving into the new Giants stadium soon, and have lots of highly priced PSL's to sell. Having a Future Hall of Famer at QB, vs. the guy your fans wrongly blame all of the teams failings on, sure makes it easier to extort boatloads of money from your fanbase.

2
by tuluse :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 1:58pm

"his release didn't take away the Packers' ability to... run the ball,"

Are you sure about that? Favre has always had the ability to make offensive lines look better than they are. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Packer's line is struggling while the Jets became the 4th best running team in the league. I don't think one aging guard makes that much of a difference.

3
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:04pm

"The Jets lack explosive playmakers"

I strongly disagree that Cotchery and Coles aren't playmakers.

4
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:06pm

"The Jets lack explosive playmakers"

I strongly disagree that Cotchery and Coles aren't playmakers.

9
by Temo :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:40pm

And Washington.

13
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:55pm

Now thats really interesting (double post). I got the captcha wrong the first time and it still posted.

6
by Travis :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:15pm

At worst, we could point to Pennington's overall statistics and conclude that not only would he have beaten the Raiders, but the Cardinals and perhaps the Patriots as well.

Pennington went 10 of 20 for 112 yards in the Dolphins' game against the Cardinals, and was benched down 31-3 in the 4th quarter. I don't think it's reasonable to conclude that he would have beaten the Cardinals if he were still on the Jets.

5
by Eddo :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:14pm

I'm confused about the three-safety game. Did the second safety occur on the Phil Simms in-the-grasp sack? Do I need to work on my reading comprehension?

17
by White Rose Duelist :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:22pm

Yes. When the "in the grasp" rule is invoked, the play is dead and the quarterback is considered to be down in the spot where he was when the call was made. In this case, it was the end zone, so it was a safety. it was intended to protect QBs, but more often resulted in two-hand-touch sacks.

31
by Eddo :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 9:49pm

Thanks. I understand that "in the grasp" results in a sack, but it wasn't clear from the article that said sack occurred in the end zone.

7
by qed (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:30pm

The Standard Fullback Trap looks like a great way to get numbers at the point of attack, since it calls for 12 offensive players. I think there's an extra right guard in the diagram.

38
by debilliet (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 11:23am

It seems FO has cracked this short yardage business - have one more man on the field than the defense (yes, both diagrams).

8
by dryheat (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:34pm

Rodgers' illegal forward pass from the end zone on Sunday might have been interpreted as a gutsy veteran play if Favre had thrown underhanded on two hops to Donald Driver

Sadly, this is almost certainly true.

10
by Ben Riley :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:43pm

The battle for NFL's Worst Starter must include Brian Russell. Must.

11
by Tball (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:51pm

I know concept of statistics to back up arguments rather than contrarian anecdotes is a bit esoteric, but is there statistical evidence to support that a pass play run on third and short with a RB in the backfield is more likely to succeed than a pass play run with an empty backfield? Maybe sliding the running back out of the backfield causes the safety and others to take a step back to defend the pass instead of the run opening some passing space.

I don't want to insinuate that professional coaches are more familiar with how to gain a needed yard on a pass play than online pundits, but when they disagree with you and the anecdotes disagree with you, you may turn to the stat and realize what you regarded as obvious is actually untrue.

14
by Tundrapat (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:12pm

Maybe sliding the running back out of the backfield causes the safety and others to take a step back to defend the pass instead of the run opening some passing space.

You might have to explain this one to me (yes, I am that slow). How would 'stepping back to defend the pass, end up opening up passing space?

I could see how, with a mobile QB, it might open up running space for a short gain. And maybe, if the RB ran a really, really shallow route across the middle (not smart, given the necessary trajectory and the height and reach of most DTs) there might be room.

On a related note to the success of the short-yardage handoff, I give you professional the short-yardage specialist:

"If you need one yard, I'll get you three. If you need five yards, I'll get you three."
- Leroy Hoard

28
by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 7:35pm

It took me a few minutes to figure out what a "pass play run" was.

12
by Tundrapat (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 2:52pm

You know about Singletary's scarlet letter? Wow - you must have been present for the 49ers halftime show a couple weeks ago.

The system really has the Vikings-Bucs tilt as 'red'? Can you explain why (as a long-suffering Vikes fan, I like to be protective of my optimism)? The Bucs have a higher overall DVOA (check), although not appreciably higher in any category other than 'special teams' (wouldn't be the first time a team beat the Vikes due to special teams play - hello, week 1 Packers; hello, week 7 Bears). Bucs are at home (check). Frerotte likes to play catch with guys in the wrong jerseys (boy howdy).

I don't understand the 'too close to call'.

15
by dcpackerfan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:13pm

I have mixed feelings about the article on Favre. I am a major fan and just enjoy watching him play. He brings such excitement to the game and it translates to the fans. I find Rodgers boring and uninteresting. He not only played poorly since he signed his mega-contract, but had TWO game killing interceptions. I do think that Brett may have underestimated how difficult it was to learn a new system, but I think he has brought intangibles to the Jets. I so wish that they could win tonight, but I worry that the Pats just have the Jets' number. Favre has energized the Jets, just as his leaving has demoralized the Pack. No matter what McCarthy says, the Pack are not the same team without him.

36
by ammek :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 5:29am

Rodgers has thrown only five picks all year. Sure, two of them were in the fourth quarter, on third-and-long, with his team trailing; is that so unusual? Was Favre immune to throwing an interception in those circumstances? Would Rodgers' task have been easier if the Packers hadn't given up 200 yards rushing in each of those games? If they had been able to run the ball with a semblance of competence?

Rodgers is obviously a downgrade from Favre; he's a first-year starter. But if you want him to become your franchise QB, you've got to start him sometime. It's too early to say whether the fat contract he just earned was merited or not.

The Packers' gross error was not trading Favre, but failing to sign a veteran back-up quarterback -- and overlooking the offensive line's longstanding problems.

18
by Marko :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:32pm

"I'd like to see Stewart return; the dude was fun to watch."

Not in his incarnation as Chicago QB.

Re: Bears-Packers: You do realize that Orton (not Rex) is likely to play this week, don't you? And that the Bears pass rush recently has been spotted less often than Bigfoot? And that the absence of a pass ruch, combined with the Bears' inability to cover opposing receivers, has led to field days for opposing QBs? So while the Packers may be having problems in pass protection, the Bears seem incapable of taking advantage of that. The Packers certainly can win this game without "lots of interceptions, a healthy dose of hope."

21
by Kurt :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 3:51pm

Nitpick: The Giants actually finished 3-12-1 in 1983. If you ever do a story on the absolute worst Monday Night games ever played, the tie is sure to come up in the discussion.

22
by Telamon at work (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 4:04pm

I gagged on the Favre stuff, it was so long, but otherwise a good article as always.

23
by CaffeineMan :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 4:43pm

Slightly-above-average teams with inflated records. Patriots.

It's a deal! Wrap it up, I'll take it with me.

Wonder what happens to the division-winning probabilities of the Pats and Jets if the Pats win? Unanswerable question, I guess, since it matters how they win.

25
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 5:25pm

"I'll take it"

Yeah, definitely. They've trended up pretty much every week since week 3 too. (well, other than miami). So theres a good chance theyre better than the DVOA says, and it just hasn't caught up yet.

(The weighted is lower because week 1 and two were really high ... more a statement on KC than anything else)

24
by jimm (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 4:50pm

I get sick of all the fawning over Favre as well, as a Viking fan, from a purely observational standpoint, I'm glad to see Favre out of GB. Rogers holds onto the ball too long and while he looks great from time to time he just doesn't get the ball out the way Favre always did.

To my eye Rogers is a very run of the mill QB because he doesn't make quick enough decisions.

In the two games played this year against Minnesota I'm pretty convinced that Favre would have rung up more points than Rogers did.

Favre averaged 7.4 yds per attempt last year
Rogers average 6.4 yds per attempt this year

I know it's one year later so think aren't the same but this is exactly what I expected. Rogers sack rate this year is more than double Favre's last year (6.8 vs 2.7). I think the Packers made a mistake choosing Rogers (presuming they had a choice)

26
by Tim R :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 6:31pm

Comparing Rogers, in his first season to a hall of famer is a bit unfair. Rogers to me seems to have done a pretty solid job in his first year as a starter and shouldn't be judged too harshly, its not his faultthe Packers run defense sucks. The biggest reason the Jets are better than last year is Kris Jenkins making an atrocious run defense into a competent one, then Faneca helping to give them a competent running game.

27
by Phillies Fan (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 7:11pm

"Favre was a medium-sized pebble, not an avalanche."

Pebbles still make ripples, albeit small ones, but you are right. In the grand scheme of things, the effect it had was mostly about the surprise/sensationality of it all and how people just couldn't believe things would happen the way they did. We all had to tune in everyday to see how it unfolded, and ultimately how it would end. But now that it's actually over, we still can't help but over-analyze and ask ourselves 'what if?'

But like I said, you are right, by next year it will be just a memory and then we can see for ourselves that it was never really a big deal after all.

30
by Tundrapat (not verified) :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 9:25pm

"Sensationality" - sounds like one of the words that open up during the Colbert Report. Like 'superstantial'.

Regarding Favre - I have revised my initial assessment, and now would be happy to have him under center in Minnesota. Yes, I understand that this is less an endorsement of Favre and more of an indictment of 'QB Minnesota', since I now find myself dreaming of other notable QBs such as Byron Leftwich and Elvis Grbac (not too old, right?).

29
by CathyW :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 9:07pm

I can't stop laughing from the idea of the robot legs. Well done, Mr. Tanier. Well done!

32
by Eddo :: Thu, 11/13/2008 - 9:53pm

Since someone brought up the Jets moving into the new Giants Stadium above, I figure this is as good a place to ask this nagging question as any:

What would the NFL do if both the Giants and Jets were hosting their respective conference championship games? Those occur on the same day, consecutively. Would the NFL schedule one game at 1 PM EST and the second at 8:30 PM EST, much like a day-night doubleheader (usually the conference championship games are at 1 and 4 PM EST)?

46
by TomC :: Sat, 11/15/2008 - 11:59am

Someone at the Old Grey Lady has been curious about the same thing:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/15/sports/football/15playoffs.html

33
by Packer Pete (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 12:08am

Would we be having the Favre - Rodgers discussion if the Packers defense hadn't given up long end-of-game drives the past two weeks, allowing both the Titans and Vikings to take the lead and win? A bit more stout and a 3 and out and the Packers are 6-3 this week.

Rodgers has held the ball a bit long at times, but after nine games, I think he has a promising future. He certainly has the arm strength and he throws a more accurate deep ball than Favre. He's taken a few more sacks than Favre this year, but he's thrown a good half-dozen fewer picks. I've seen a few Jets games and Favre is still chucking it up like he did at his worst in Green Bay.

The bigger issue in Titletown is the decline in Clifton and Tauscher and the inconsistent play of the young guards. And while the Packer secondary may be the best in the league (most picks, most TD returns, lowest QB rating, lowest completions percentage) the run defense has been run over. None of the linebackers have played very well.

Bottom line: The Packers should have made the Super Bowl at least twice in the past ten seasons, but our playoff runs typically ended with an ugly Favre pick. We love him here, he's an all time great, but it was time to move on.

40
by DM (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 12:28pm

I don't think that it's fair to compare Rodgers to Favre this year, as Favre is in an entirely new offense. The better comparison is Rodgers to Favre in '07. I think Rodgers has a very bright future and has been very impressive for a first year QB. Also, as someone mentioned, the move to Rodgers had to happen at some point. But this year it has clearly been a downgrade. Clifton and Tauscher weren't very good last year either and Favre was not sacked nearly as much as Rodgers has been.

Favre certainly lost playoff games (the divisional playoff against the Eagles is particularly glaring) but he was also instrumental in getting to those games. Obviously the Packer's struggles can be largely attributed to their poor run defense, but their offense has regressed significantly and the only real change has been Favre for Rodgers.

41
by I am the world's greatest lover (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 2:01pm

Packer Pete: I agree with your assessment of Rodgers--deliberation is a strength and a weakness. I also think that, within a year or two, the decisions will come faster, and he'll get rid of the ball quicker, and get sacked less. Hopefully for the Packers he will also acquire Favre's ability to exploit a safety in the box, thereby freeing Grant for better than below-average run production.

Also, your comments on the Packer O-line and D-line are right on. I've never seen a team that is so bad in the trenches, and so good everywhere else. I'm not sure the scheme or players are right for this team on offense, and they REALLY need Justin Harrell to become a 2-down run-stopper.

34
by Utvikefan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 2:02am

So the packers D is the reason ARodgers is ok. And Favre is the reason they weren't ok, not the D? Hmmmmm.

35
by jacksup :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 4:49am

I agree that, before last night's game, Favre probably hadn't added anything to the Jets and might've even cost them a little. But any article that tries to explain the Jets' improvement this season without mentioning Kris Jenkins, is hard to take seriously.

37
by Jets fan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 9:46am

It's funny how you stat guys always want to diminish Favre's impact on a team, but can never explain why he's had 1 losing season in 18 years. Guess he's doing something right..

Speaking of winner's, I'd strongly argue that Parcells and Sparano coming to Miami had far more to do with their turn around then Chad Pennington. You think Pennington has a good season with Cam Cameron there? Think again.

Pennington has been good and efficient, but the Dolphins are continually better coached then the teams they are facing. Dolphin fan's have reason to be excited about the future down there, but it has nothing to do with #10..

Finally, no way Pennington wins that game last night. That's +2 in the Favre column by your count.

42
by A Nony Mouse (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 3:51pm

Winners is a plural word and and doesn't require an apostrophe.

43
by Jets fan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 4:26pm

--"Winners is a plural word and and doesn't require an apostrophe."

"and" needs not be duplicated to be effective..

Clown

48
by the silent speaker (not verified) :: Sun, 11/16/2008 - 1:39am

That sentence is perfectly grammatical if his point is that "an'd" is wrong.

39
by Noah of Arkadia :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 11:40am

I believe there might be semi-hard evidence to support the "winner" tag. You see, a team leader with a strong magnetic personality, who expects to win, and a long history of success, might affect the attitude of an entire team, thereby improving performance.

The Patriots, for example, have such an aura of invincibility that you can't beat them without a whole bunch of confidence in yourself and your teammates. And while everyone always speaks about having confidence in themselves and their teammates, it's hard to truly have it when your team/yourself have a history of losing.

So, I'm pretty sure that's helped the Jets this year -not just because of Favre, but because of guys like Faneca as well -or don't they routinely say he's helped the entire OL? I believe that.

And there's your overachiever right there.

44
by DangerGnat :: Fri, 11/14/2008 - 4:43pm

I want to know where I can purchase some of Brett Favre's precious male essence.

45
by TomC :: Sat, 11/15/2008 - 12:29am

Well I'll be a son-of-a-gun, Wednesday really was Bahá'u'lláh's birthday. I thought for sure you'd made that up.

(In fact, if I didn't live within 20 miles of the Bahá'í Temple, I would have thought you'd made the whole damn religion up.)

47
by scottyb (not verified) :: Sat, 11/15/2008 - 10:23pm

The Jets have already scored more points this season than they did all of last season. They've won almost twice as many games, too.

Pennington often gets hurt; when was the last time Brett missed a game? Having Favre makes it sooooooo less likely we see the still very green Kellen Clemens in meaningful minutes.

Pennington is a good guy and quaterback, but the fact is that the Jets staff had little confidence in him. By acquiring a QB the coaches have confidence in allows them to gameplan much differently.

Thomas Jones had a subpar year last year because the safety was always up. Jone sis now the leading rusher in the AFC.

Listen, I know Favre is over-rated. But you are over-eacting to the man-love he receives from NFL commentators and really missing the boat if you think Pennington or Rodgers are better quarterbacks in 2008-09.