Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
11 Dec 2008
by Mike Tanier
The Los Angeles Police Department just completed their annual Guns for Gifts program in Compton. Any citizen who turned in a weapon got a gift certificate to a retail store like Target or Best Buy.
That explains the .wav file someone sent me last week. The voice on the recording is clearly Antonio Pierce. "Give me that, Plax. I'm exchanging it for a Wii Fit!"
Authorities collected 987 guns and two hand grenades (now there's a personal protection item you don't bring to the club). Gift cards were distributed according to a sliding scale, depending on the lethality of the weapon. Assault rifles fetched $200 prizes, handguns $100. Dull, rusty switchblades earned $50, busted-off aerial antennas $25. Turn in a Titans wide receiver, and you got a coupon good for free fries with the purchase of a Big N' Tasty. In the past, most participants asked for gift certificates to electronics stores, but in these lean financial times, many citizens exchanged their guns for grocery coupons. In a related story, Dr. Dre's next album is tentatively titled Straight Outta Safeway.
Times are tough all over. The Cowboys are auctioning off pieces of Texas Stadium, with the proceeds going to their Free Agent Frivolity Fund. A helmet-shaped golf cart sold for $12,500. Doesn't that seem a little low for such a unique piece of memorabilia? The average golf cart sells for around $5,000, with deluxe models running as high as $15,000. The helmet cart may not have all the amenities of a deluxe cart, but think of the history. Troy Aikman might have sat in it. Jimmy Johnson might have ridden in it. Michael Irvin might have ... well I am sure they gave it an antibacterial wipedown. Plus, it's shaped like a friggin' Cowboys helmet. I would expect some Texas millionaire to plunk down $100,000 for the right to cruise the back nine in such a collector's item. Or an Eagles fan to pay the same amount to light it on fire and drive it off a cliff.
The Cowboys auctioned off several other items: various decorative stars, a stadium flag, an Emmitt-to-English dictionary, Patrick Crayton. The door to the Cowboys cheerleaders locker room earned $5,050. Sounds like the intro to a credit card commercial:
Door to the Cowboys cheerleaders locker room: $5,050.
Seat outside the locker room once the door has been removed: Priceless.
A recession, Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders ... it's starting to feel like the 1970s, isn't it? Even NFL offenses are starting to look like 8-track relics. Watching the Ravens hand off to the fullback 12 times per game makes me want to get out my old ELO albums and black light posters. There's no doubt about it: Teams are running the ball more, exchanging their passing game weapons for the grocery bag reliability of dives, sweeps, and traps.
Actually, there is some doubt about it. Read on.
With a title like "A Simple Formula: Running Equals Winning," the article had to be good. Brian Baldinger, ex-offensive lineman, penned a feature about the importance of the running game in last week's Sporting News. "In an era of record passing yardage, the most successful teams are relearning the benefits of pounding away with the run for four quarters."
Baldinger, like any old-school expert who deplores stats, has some stats to back up his argument. Nine teams averaged 130 or more rushing yards per game entering Week 14, and all of them had winning records: the Giants (11-1, 160.2), Falcons (8-4, 150.7), Ravens (8-4, 143.8), Vikings (7-5, 141.2), Redskins (7-5, 139.4), Titans (11-1, 138.7), Panthers (9-3, 133.4), Jets (8-4, 132.1), and Patriots (7-5, 130.5). Run the ball, win the game, case closed.
As a Football Outsiders reader, you know what's coming. I promise to be gentle in case it's your first time.
If you are guessing that the 130-yard cutoff was arbitrarily selected to exclude some teams that didn't fit the latest Run to Win theory, you are partially correct. The tenth team on the yards per game list (both last week and this week) is the Raiders. The Texans currently rank 12th and the Chiefs 14th, so there are some real clunkers lying just below Baldinger's "top nine." In fairness, though, the Raiders averaged just 118.5 yards per game, creating a large enough gap between ninth and tenth place to justify the cutoff.
Baldinger contrasts the top rushing teams with the "most prolific passing teams. Philip Rivers has held the top passer rating most of the year, but it hasn't translated to the Chargers winning consistently. Drew Brees is lighting up the stat sheet, but the Saints have struggled to get out of last place in the NFC South. Although Kurt Warner is right there with Brees, the Cardinals likely won't last long in the playoffs."
The Cardinals will likely last longer in the playoffs than the Redskins, who probably won't reach them. The Cardinals gained 76.4 rushing yards per game at that article's writing, dead last in the league. The Colts, now 31st (28th when the article was written), will probably last pretty long in the playoffs. If we use the term "prolific" correctly and rank the most pass-happy teams in terms of attempts, five of the top six teams have winning records: the Cardinals, Saints, Eagles, Broncos, Colts, and Patriots. Apparently, passing a lot is also a good formula for success, though there are a few teams like the Bengals near the top of the passing list.
At the risk of boring the congregation with a sermon you've heard for years, let's break down the Run to Win argument with a few bullet points.
1) Great teams often run well. Great teams usually do a lot of things well. The Giants, for example, are an excellent running team, but they are also a very good passing team with a great all-around defense and good special teams. Singling out their running game as the most important element of their success is a selection bias.
2) There's a cyclical relationship between rushing success and winning. That is, winning leads to running as much as running leads to winning. Good teams protect leads, so they run the ball more frequently in the fourth quarter, and good teams spend more time in the red zone, where running plays are a little more common. All those extra carries make raw rushing stats look better, and they create a powerful illusion that running "causes" winning.
The opposite is true for passing. Losing leads to passing, as bad teams abandon the run to play catch-up in the fourth quarter. Really bad teams often face soft prevent defenses in blowouts, allowing them to rack up impressive raw and percentage statistics. While passing well leads to winning at least as reliably as running does, there is tons of noise in the data. A statistic like DVOA can differentiate a great passing team from a mediocre passing team that fluffs its stats with meaningless drives. The official stats cannot.
3) The "run to win" phenomenon is well known to football statisticians and experts. I read about it long before I ever wrote about it, and most sportswriters instinctively know it's true. It's also a point that can get overstated. The Giants' rushing success isn't built solely on off-tackle runs at the end of 34-10 blowouts. The Titans and Ravens also win largely because of their running-and-defense game plans. A great running game contributes heavily to success.
The effect of winning on rushing statistics is subtle and varies from team to team and situation to situation. In their two most dominating wins (against the Rams and Seahawks), the Giants ran the ball 32 and 31 times. In their two losses, the Giants ran 23 times (Eagles) and 25 times (Browns). The seven- or eight-carry difference can become 30 or 40 yards for a good running team. Multiply those yards by six games or so (the victory spread between a 12-4 team and a 6-10 team) and you get a 150- to 250-yard swing. That's 10 to 15 yards per game that result directly from circumstance, give or take. Take 15 yards away from the 9th place Jets and they fall to 18th between the Packers and Jaguars -- two teams that would love to run the ball more if they weren't playing from behind so often.
There are some truly dominant rushing teams like the Giants, but there are many more teams like the Jets on the Baldinger list: Teams that got to the list because of their winning records, not vice versa. Some of Baldinger's exemplars, like the Redskins and Vikings, would certainly trade a few rushing yards for a more balanced, unpredictable offensive attack.
4) Old school analysts who believe that running equals winning are fighting a rear guard action. Ordinary fans are now savvy to the circular reasoning of the Run to Win argument. Meanwhile, teams are still passing like crazy, despite Baldinger's assertion that NFL copycats are emulating the Giants and rediscovering the run. The league's pass/run ratio is currently 57-43, same as last year. (The rushing totals include quarterback scrambles, so the ratio is really closer to 58-42 for both years.) Only five teams run 50 percent of the time or more this year: the Giants, Falcons, Ravens, Titans, and Panthers. The illusion of a rushing resurgence can best be explained by:
a) Two successful, high-profile run oriented teams (the Giants and Titans);
b) two teams with winning records that are protecting rookie quarterbacks with run-heavy game plans (Falcons and Ravens); and
c) a selection bias that labels the Vikings and Redskins as success stories while ignoring the Cardinals, Colts, Steelers, and other teams with winning records that rank near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game.
While analysis like Baldinger's will never fade away, it's getting harder to find in good magazines like The Sporting News, and you're less likely to hear that the Giants' "key to winning" is to get a 100-yard game from Brandon Jacobs. Fans are now more educated and sophisticated. Baldinger loves the running game -- all ex-linemen do -- and he can be excused for seeing a new trend when he watches the Giants and Titans run over opponents. But the formula just isn't that simple.
Now that we've punctured the Run to Win argument (again), let's admit that a lot of teams are reaching the playoffs this season because they run well. The DVOA rushing rankings include some surprising teams like the Eagles, but we'll stick to the Baldinger list for this little feature. We know the Eagles and Cowboys run well on a percentage basis, but when we think of running teams, we think of heavy infantry offenses like the Ravens and Vikings. Here are the top rushing teams in plain old yards per game, their DVOA rankings, a short breakdown of their rushing preferences, and of course, a pick for Week 15.
Team: New York Giants, 154.6 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: First.
Running Game Breakdown: The Giants are really a balanced offensive team that runs the ball extremely well. Their pass/run ratios on "running downs" like first-and-10 or second-and-medium hover near 50 percent. On second-and-6 to -10, for example, they have run 76 times and passed 74 times; most run-heavy teams hand off about 60 percent of the time in those situations. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride likes to dial up shotgun passing plays in unusual situations (like second-and-short), and anyone who watched the Giants throw into the wind on Sunday knows that they aren't wholly committed to cloud-of-dust tactics. Still, there's no better team in the league at giving opponents a case of football-to-the-larynx.
Telling Stat: The Giants average 5.7 yards per carry on first-and-10. DVOA ranks them as the best first-down running team in the NFL.
Sunday Pick: Both the Giants and Cowboys lost last week. The Giants took the loss in stride, just as they have taken every roadblock thrown their way in the last year. The Cowboys turned the team calendar to December and saw a picture of all the players pointing fingers at one another. Some things are as predictable as holiday circulars.
Team: Atlanta Falcons, 146.7 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: 13th.
Running Game Breakdown: Protect the Rookie Quarterback, Part 1. The Falcons are twice as likely to run as pass on first-and-10 (217 to 108). Ironically, all that running makes the Falcons a good first-down passing team: They're first in the league in that category according to DVOA and average 8.75 yards per attempt. DVOA also considers the Falcons the best passing team in the NFL. There's something to be said for running to set up the pass.
Telling Stat: In the fourth quarter, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood combine for 370 yards on 79 carries (4.8) with five touchdowns. That's one way to sit on a lead.
Sunday Pick: The Falcons muddy the already brackish NFC South picture by beating a Bucs team playing their second road division game in six days. The Panthers established a blueprint for overpowering the Bucs defense on Monday night: Run hard and straight. The Falcons can follow that plan.
Team: Tennessee Titans, 146.1 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: Eighth.
Running Game Breakdown: The Titans usually run from a two-tight end set, with or without a fullback. Their game-plans are full of stretch runs and counter plays, balanced with lots of play-action passes to the tight ends. The Titans do all the things a smashmouth team is supposed to do: They run 61.4 percent of the time on first-and-10, run more often than they pass on second down, and will call a few third-and-long draws (19 runs with six or more yards to go) so they can punt and let the defense take its chances.
Telling Stat: The Titans have run the ball 30 or more times in ten games. They've run it 40 or more times in four games.
Sunday Pick: Handicappers are wise to the scrappy Texans: The three-point spread makes this game tricky. Take the Texans if you must; this game feels a little like Eagles-Giants last week, a divisional trip-up for a team with one eye on January.
Team: Carolina Panthers, 146.0 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: Third.
Running Game Breakdown: The Panthers use an old-fashioned running game that features lots of sweeps and pitches. They may use pulling linemen more than any team in the league, and they like to run to the strong side behind two tight ends and a fullback; or a tight end, a fullback, and hard-blocking Muhsin Muhammad in a tight formation. There is some padding in their numbers -- 200-plus-yard rushing games against the Lions and Chiefs -- but DVOA says that the Panthers can do more than overpower patsies, and the tape of Monday night's game agrees.
Telling Stat: The Panthers are more likely to run than throw on second down with more than 10 yards to go. They've run 25 times and thrown 13 times in that situation, though there are a few scrambles in that data. By contrast, the Giants are balanced (19 to 18), and the Jets are more than twice as likely to throw (26 to 12).
Sunday Pick: The Broncos play their best football against the NFC South, but they aren't built to beat an opponent like the Panthers, who will plow their defense under.
Team: Baltimore Ravens, 144.0 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: 11th.
Running Game Breakdown: Protect the Rookie Quarterback, Part 2. Like the Falcons, the Ravens favor the run on first down by a 2-to-1 margin. They also don't mess around much in short-yardage situations; they've run 57 times with one or two yards to go while attempting just eight passes. The Ravens are strategic throwbacks, running to set up the run, running with the fullback, running with an unbalanced line like it's Yale vs. Dartmouth in 1908. The per-carry averages and DVOA rating aren't great, but the Ravens are happy to deflate footballs, punt, and let their defense do most of the work.
Telling Stat: After totaling 25, 29, and 39 carries in the first, second, and third quarters this year, fullback Le'Ron McClain has 67 carries in the fourth quarter, one of many indicators that the Ravens become even more conservative when protecting a lead.
Sunday Pick: Pick a defensive category, any category, and either the Ravens or Steelers will rank first. The Steelers won a tight 23-20 overtime game in Week 4, but the Ravens outgained them and arguably outplayed them. The Ravens have improved over the season, and they are ready to make their biggest statement yet.
Team: Minnesota Vikings, 140.6 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: 23rd.
Running Game Breakdown: Brad Childress takes a lot of heat for over-emphasizing the passing game, but he doesn't go into Andy Reid Junior mode very often anymore. The Vikings have run 30 or more times in ten games this season, and they spend a lot of time handing off to Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor from the I-formation. Many of the teams on this list have stats padded by 200-yard games against the Chiefs or Raiders, but most of the Vikings' biggest games came against good competition: 179 yards against the Colts, 178 yards against the Bears, a whopping 407 yards against the Packers in two games. Their DVOA rank is low, in part, because Vikings running backs are stuffed frequently (26 percent of the time, 23rd in the league) and they gain a high percentage of their yardage on big plays.
Telling Stat: The Vikings are 1-of-6 when trying to pass in third-and-short situations. They are also 1-of-3 when passing on fourth-and-short. The Vikings are just 14th in the league in Power Success, but they really should stick to running when they only need a yard or two.
Sunday Pick: The Vikings have questions at quarterback and disarray on the defensive line. The Cardinals have the playoffs locked up but are eyeing a No. 3 seed in the playoffs. This win will help get them that seeding.
Team: Washington Redskins, 133.5 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: Fifth.
Running Game Breakdown: Clinton Portis, an early MVP candidate, has just 54 yards in 22 carries in his last two games, and he's not happy. Portis is playing through injuries, top lineman Chris Samuels is lost for the year, and opponents have gotten wise to the team's simplified system. Jim Zorn would love to open up the offense; unlike most teams on this list, the Redskins are more likely to pass than run on 1st-and-10, and their receivers are much healthier than their backs. But Zorn is running out of time and options. This is a team that won't be among the top 10 in rushing come season's end.
Telling Stat: The Redskins are 18-of-22 when using the run to convert third or fourth downs of less than two yards.
Sunday Pick: The Redskins keep their playoff hopes alive with defense and, yes, a healthy dose of a less-than-healthy Portis.
Team: New England Patriots, 126.9 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: Second.
Running Game Breakdown: The Patriots aren't like the other teams on this list. They pass more often than they run, even on first-and-10 (213 to 157) and second-and-6 to -10 (117 to 57). They are a little more conservative than last year's Patriots, so you'll see more dives on second-and-3 than you'd expect. As their DVOA ranking shows, the Patriots are more effective than prolific, averaging 4.7 yards per game and doing relatively well in short-yardage situations. They fell below 130 yards per game last week, and their high per-game totals are aided by high-calorie rushing efforts against teams like the Broncos, 214 yards from Matt Cassel, and other pollutants.
Telling Stat: The Patriots are 9-of-10 when running to convert fourth downs.
Sunday Pick: The Raiders are the last gift on the Patriots' schedule, and they will shred the wrapping paper. Do you see a Colts-Patriots game looming in the Wild Card round? Stay tuned.
Team: New York Jets, 126.5 rushing yards per game.
Rushing DVOA Rank: Sixth.
Running Game Breakdown: The Jets are known as a wide-open short passing team. Jets fans clamored early in the season for them to run more often, and Eric Mangini eventually figured out that his team was much better at rushing than passing. Or did he? The Jets run often on first-and-10 (58.7 percent of the time), but their percentages on later downs are relatively low. The Jets may be the most "circumstance driven" team on this list; they ran just 19 and 12 times in their last two losses, a sign of a very shaky commitment to smashmouth tactics.
Telling Stat: The Jets have run 11 times and thrown 25 times on third-and-short. Their rushing conversion percentage, while not good (64 percent), is better than their passing conversion percentage (58 percent). Who would have thought?
Sunday Pick: The Jets stay alive in the wild AFC East by beating the leaky Bills.
Don't forget the Beer Feeds! Aaron Schatz and I will be at Chickie's & Pete's in South Philly on Thursday, December 18. Great food, great drink, great fun, and a tolerable football game. Tell your wife you are shopping, grab one or two gifts, then come hang out.
Packers at Jaguars: The Disappointment Bowl. If there really was a disappointment bowl, who would sponsor it? Zoloft? Packers.
Saints at Bears: The Thursday Night forecast calls for highs in the teens. That's the temperature and the final score. Saints.
Seahawks at Rams: The Seahawks now start two offensive linemen named Steve Vallos and Mansfield Wrotto. Vallos and Wrotto sound like Lord of the Rings characters; if they blocked for Samkon Gado, they could storm Helm's Deep together. I miss Robbie Tobeck and Steve Hutchinson. I bet Mike Holmgren does too. Seahawks.
Niners at Dolphins: The legend of Scrappy-Doo keeps growing. Niners fans haven't caught Shaun Hill Mania just yet, but they've been exposed to the virus in the last four weeks. "On a cold gray Sunday, the Kid From Nowhere picked apart the Jets like they were the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey, and the Great Favre couldn't find his groove with both hands," wrote Scott Ostler in the San Francisco Chronicle. Scrappy can only do so much if Frank Gore is out with a sprained knee. Check Gore's status and take the Niners if he plays. Otherwise, the Dolphins will stay in the AFC East footrace.
Lions at Colts: Peyton Manning will step to the line of scrimmage on Sunday, start pointing to coverages and potential blitzers, then suffer an existential crisis. Does it really matter where the safety is lined up if he cannot cover a receiver anyway? Why change the blocking assignments to stop a pass rusher who has no chance of reaching the quarterback? Why call plays at all? He'll spend the second half contemplating the futility of all human endeavors while Jim Sorgi mops up the blowout. Colts.
Chargers at Chiefs: I'm picking a bad division foe to cover against the Chargers for the second week in a row. The Raiders got trounced last Thursday in San Diego, but I like my odds this week. The game's in Arrowhead, the Chargers won the first game by a tight 20-19 margin, and the five-point spread is somewhat enticing. The Chargers are still mathematically alive for the playoffs, but there's a difference between real life and mathematical life. Or so my friends with real lives tell me. Chiefs.
Browns at Eagles: Overheard at an Eagles practice session:
ANDY REID: We have a new type of play to practice, guys. Donovan, put your babies down. Someone get Brian out of the Box of Protection. Dust the packing peanuts off him. Good. Now, on this play we line up with two tight ends in a heavy formation. You'll have to block on this play, L.J. Do you know how to block? What's that? You block as well as you catch? In that case, you line up on the right. The play will go to the left. Donovan, you'll take the snap and give the ball to Brian. That's right, I said give it to him. You won't throw it at all. You'll -- how do I describe this? -– sort of place the ball firmly in his belly, and he'll run. I know it's a new idea for us. What's that Donovan? Is it legal? I don't know. You're our rulebook expert. I call this play a "hand-off." No, we won't use it against the Browns. It's just something we'll use when wind gusts are over 60 miles per hour. No, these "hand-offs" won't work against bad AFC South teams. Instead, we'll throw the ball 40 times per game, allow them to stay in the game, maybe tie us. Any questions?
Last Saturday night, I took a rare break from football, teaching, and parenthood to attend a play in Philadelphia. In the play, Lenny Bruce met Groucho Marx in a diner, and they tried to teach a Woody Allen-esque comedian about the sacrifice and sadness that comes with a comedy career. I would name the play, but it wasn't very good -- maudlin, heavy handed, repetitive -- so I don't want to plug it.
The playbill advertised a upcoming drama: Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein meet and exchange bon mots of some kind. There are other plays of this type debuting every month, and many recent movies are capitalizing on the "two famous people square off" literary trope: Frost/Nixon, Factory Girl (that movie where Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol fight over the same girl), and so on.
The whole "Julius Ceasar, Salvador Dali, and Tom Wopat meet in a bar" plot device smacks of Writer's Workshop 101, but a lot of people are making money off it. Why not me? I know some people in the independent film world. If I give the concept a football spin, I can crank out a script and get moving on production.
Here are some basic ideas I hope to develop:
The Assassination of Plaxico Burress by the Coward Plaxico Burress: Jesse James and Plaxico Burress meet in an Applebee's in suburban Minneapolis during a snowstorm. During a long, bleak night, they talk about the price of fame, gun safety, and the importance of using stud finders when hanging paintings.
Misunderestimated and Debacled: Emmitt Smith and George W. Bush meet in a Starbucks in Dunedin during a hurricane. During a long, bleak night, they help a 10th-grader finish his English essay while musing about fame, Texas sports teams, and the difference between gobbledygook and "found poetry."
Contagious Confidence: Vince Lombardi and Dick Jauron meet at a plumbing supply convention in Topeka in a power outage. During a long, bleak night, they learn that they have absolutely nothing in common.
The Calling of St. Jared: Jaren Allen and 17th century artist Caravaggio meet in a honky-tonk in West Texas during a two-for-one tequila shots special. During a long, bleak night, they discuss their anger management issues, then try to kill each other in the parking lot.
Hung: Visanthe Shiancoe and 17th century artist Peter Paul Ruebens meet in a brothel in Hamburg, Germany, during a doppelbock shortage. During a long, bleak night, they compare the aesthetics of chubby naked women with the aesthetics of mediocre naked tight ends. As soon as I find another comparison between a football player and a 17th century painter, I'll have a trilogy!
Westbrook Shrugged: Brian Westbrook and Atlas from Greek mythology meet in a Dairy Queen off Interstate 80 in northern Pennsylvania when both suffer flat tires. During a long, bleak night, they try to determine which is harder: Carrying the Earth on your shoulders or carrying the Eagles.
E-mail me if you are interested in getting any of these projects off the ground. Today, Football Outsiders; tomorrow, the Tony Awards!
40 comments, Last at 14 Dec 2008, 7:29am by Mr Shush