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 Sep 2008
by Mike Tanier
Minutes from a meeting of the Angry Boston Sports Fans Association, Marlborough Chapter.
Shane O'Malley, Chapter President: Order! Order! First item of business, we had some trouble finding pahhking spots last week, but the good folks at Shaw's Supermarket said we could use the back of their lot. All in favor?
O'Malley: Now for more important business. A lot of you fellahs were booing the Pats last week when they lost to the Dolphins. As you know, we have a lot to boo about. The Pats have lost two games in the last two years. We Boston fans haven't watched a championship parade in almost four months. And of course, the national media still disrespects us.
Club: Hear, here!
O'Malley: Trouble is, you fellahs weren't doing a good job of booing. We've gotten out of practice. So I brought in a consultant. Tony Del Buono is a South Philadelphia resident and an Eagles season ticket holder for 25 years. He's graciously agreed to be our booing coach. Tony, take the podium.
Tony: Yo! How youse doin'?
Club: Wicked awesome!
Tony: Just so you know my credentials, I booed Mike Schmidt, I booed Ron Jaworski, and I wake up in the middle of the night booing Donovan McNabb. I boo my friends, I boo my mother, and when the Four Horsemen come for the Apocalypse, they better bring four Lombardi Trophies, or else I am booing them too. Now, lemme hear one of your boos. You, the red-haired dude with glasses. No, the other one.
Sean: Booo! You guys are terrible! You're the reason New York fans look down on us despite all of our years of success in three sports...
Tony: Whoa, whoa. What the f*** was that? That wasn't booing. It was whining. You need more rage, and it has to be directed at your own players. Let's pick a guy -- Ellis Hobbs, the kid who got beat at the end of the Super Bowl. Now, somebody boo him. You, in the Dropkick Murphys tee-shirt.
Patrick: Boo! I hate you Hobbs! You are too short and get beaten too easily by double moves!
Tony: Oh man, that was bad. Don't use logic! Booing isn't about logic. Listen to how Hobbs reacted to youse booing him in the Boston Globe: "It amazes me, amazes me, how people react. You would think that this organization hasn't won as much as they've won and hasn't been successful in the years that they have." What do you say to that?
Patrick: It's a reasonable and measured response?
Tony: Hell no! He's a whiner! He's too sensitive! He can't take criticism. He's got an atty-tude problem. A guy like him will never win anything. How many Super Bowls have the Pats won since Hobbs joined the team? Zero! Now repeat after me, and make sure the word "sucks" comes straight up from the bottom of the diaphragm. Booo! You suck Hobbs!
Club: Booo! You suck Hobbs!
Tony: Better, better. Now let's work on vilifying Laurence Maroney. But first, a question from the back. You, the guy with the fuzzy beard and the Harwich Mariners cap.
Aaron Schatz: I think this whole exercise points out two things. First, the Crazy Booing Eagles Fan is really a stereotype. Fans in every city boo, scream, and react negatively, even after years of success. Secondly, the booing at the Dolphins game reflects a pervasive negativity in the sports media. Newspapers, radio stations, and Web sites spend too little time savoring success and too much time dwelling on failure, and that negative attitude rubs off on the fans. In the long run, it takes away much of the joy of being a sports fan.
Tony: Are you calling me a sterotype? Who the f*** let this clown in? Get outta here! The rest of you have an assignment: Give me 10 reasons why Josh McDaniel should be fired. You have five minutes.
After three weeks of football, patterns are beginning to emerge. When the Broncos blow huge leads every week and still win, or when the Steelers keep subjecting Ben Roethlisberger to the full fury of the opposing defense, we're inclined to think these trends cannot last forever. Or can they? Let's analyze:
Pattern: The Broncos take a big lead, cough it up, then win on an unlikely series of plays and a bad call at the end
Why it's Happening:Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are the best pitch-and-catch duo in the NFL right now. The Broncos secondary weapons (Eddie Royal, Selvin Young, Brandon Stokley) are tremendous, and their zone-running and spread-passing offense gives opponents two distinct styles to scheme against.
Their defense is another matter. Gil Whitely of the Denver Daily News worked overtime on his metaphors, so let's pass him the microphone: "The Broncos defense can't stop an old lady with a shopping cart ... The Broncos defense would starve to death if they had to catch a cow in an open field ... The defense, for the most part, looked a lot like 11 helpless puppies trying to lick an intruder to death."
As for the calls, the next logical step for the Broncos is to line up 17 defenders on a critical third-down stop without a single official noticing. The commish will probably remind future Broncos refs to mind their whistles, mind their offside penalties, and generally mind everything.
When it Will Stop: Jim Armstrong of the Denver Post recommends that the Broncos trade for an impact defender. Unfortunately, their biggest need is a top defensive lineman to pair with Elvis Dumervil, and nobody trades good linemen in midseason. The Broncos keep making mistakes when covering/tackling fast backs out of the backfield. If you can't cover Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush, then your best bet is to get after the quarterback and force those backs to stay in and block. Maybe coordinator Bob Slowik can use this week's game against Southwest Missouri State to work the kinks out.
Pick for Sunday: Broncos, naturally.
Pattern: Every Steelers game features about a dozen combined sacks.
Why it's Happening: If it weren't for miscommunication, the Steelers linemen might not speak to one another at all. Against the Eagles, they often did a fine job picking up the blitzing linebackers and safeties, only to forget about the linemen standing right over them. AOL Fanhouse blogger J.J. Cooper blames center Justin Hartwig for three of the nine sacks the Steelers gave up on Sunday, noting that Hartwig couldn't figure out who to block when the Eagles stacked linebackers in the A-gap. I haven't scrutinized the tape yet, but Cooper's numbers sound right. "They re-introduced the NFL to the Steelers' Achilles' heel," wrote Mike Prisuta of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the Eagles' blitz-intensive game plan. Other teams will take notice.
As for the Steelers defense, it still has the scheme and the manpower to cause Monday morning traffic jams at the MRI machine. You'd think the offensive line would be better after practicing against that defense every week.
When it Will Stop: Not on Sunday. The Ravens love to bring the heat, and the Steelers have protection issues that can't be solved in a few practices. Ravens defenders would love to see a repeat of their 27-0 blowout of the Steelers two years ago, when they sacked Ben Roethlisberger nine times and forced the backup in to finish the game. (Actually, the Ravens can see a repeat of that defensive performance by watching the Eagles-Steelers game film.) On the flip side, John Harbaugh will use every protection scheme in the book to keep his rookie quarterback upright, but the Steelers will get their due.
Pick for Sunday: Yes, the Ravens lead the league in DVOA. No, they aren't that good. Monday night in Pittsburgh will be rough for Big Ben but even rougher for all those youngsters on the Ravens offense. Steelers.
Pattern: The Giants toy with weaker opponents before icing them.
Why it's Happening: John Carney has kicked field goals of 22, 24, 25, 26, 26, 33 and 39 yards this year, in addition to a couple of long ones. Meanwhile, Brandon Jacobs has carried the ball three times -- three -- inside the red zone. There appears to be a correlation between inappropriate use of a top power runner and the number of short field goals attempted. Kevin Gilbride has gotten a little cute at the goal line, dialing up pass plays and runs by other backs. As a result, the Redskins lingered and the Bengals forced overtime. Even the lowly Rams were in the game at the start of the fourth quarter in Week 2, thanks in part to two "settle for it" field goals (to be fair, one was kicked as time expired in the first half).
When it Will Stop: Gilbride will soon remember that he has a 265-pound running back. The post-bye schedule features three teams the Giants should beat (Seahawks, Browns, Niners) before a trip to Pittsburgh. The Giants will start out 6-0 if they can trade a few more of those threes for sevens.
Pick for Sunday: Bye.
Pattern: The Saints throw the ball 30 to 40 times per game, win or lose.
Why it's Happening: The Saints aren't built for power running, and their defense is leaky. That means they are going to throw the ball early to compensate for the absence of Deuce McAllister and late because they are caught in shootouts. Sean Payton is a connoisseur of "extra long handoff" pass plays, and Drew Brees' arm will stay attached as long as many of his passes travel 96 inches before landing in Reggie Bush's hands. But Brees set a record for pass attempts last year, and no one in New Orleans wants the Saints to pick up where they left off in 2007.
When it Will Stop: McAllister will return soon, according to Payton. "Deuce's playing time is coming. At the same time, it has to come at the right time when I feel like he's ready. I think he's healthy, I think he's free from the pain of his injury and I think he's moving around well." Cornerback Mike McKenzie returned on Sunday, so the Saints defense should soon start to float up from the sea floor. The convergence of these two trends should soon make the Saints a little more balanced offensively. But not this week.
Pick for Sunday: Payton vs. Mike Martz? It's raining footballs. Saints.
Pattern: The Titans and Vikings will try to win the old fashioned way: running, defense ... did I mention running and defense?
Why it's Happening: The Vikings gave up on Tarvaris Jackson. Vince Young gave up on himself. Replacements Kerry Collins and Gus Frerotte belong on VH1's I Love the '90s between Crash Test Dummies and Party of Five. Compounding the quarterback situation is the fact that both teams think the best way to upgrade their receiving corps is to sign ex-Bears.
When it Will Stop: Collins and Frerotte -- particularly Frerotte -- are duct tape and bailing wire passers. They read defenses better than the players they replaced, but both are immobile, and both tend to throw the ball a beat late because they've lost some mph on their fastballs. Returns will start diminishing in the next few weeks, and both Jeff Fisher and Brad Childress will have to make difficult decisions. Both teams have the capacity to stay in the playoff chase despite weak passing attacks, the Vikings because of their trench fighters and Adrian Peterson, the Titans because of Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, and other no-name defenders whom we ought to start naming.
Pick for Sunday: Vikings, to cover at least. The over-under is at 36; go over because some defense-assisted touchdowns are likely.
The LombEarly trophy is awarded every year to teams that prematurely assume a Super Bowl championship and are only rewarded with comeuppance. The Patriots won the LombEarly last year, but they shared the award with the Cowboys, who started the season 12-1 before heading straight to tequila shooter night.
The Cowboys are the most impressive team in the NFL right now, and Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw wants to crown them with the LombEarly. "You play the best football for three weeks in the postseason, and you can celebrate with the Lombardi Trophy," he wrote on Tuesday. "You play the best football for the first three weeks, and, well ... Dallas Cowboys, come on down and collect your award. The best unbeaten football team three weeks into the season is officially you."
For Cowboys fans, early success brings a dose of trepidation. Is September good news the new bad news in Dallas? After the Redskins, the Cowboys hit a soft patch that includes the Bengals, Cardinals, and Rams. They could coast to a 6-0 record, but Wade Phillips doesn't want his team coasting. It's only slightly crazy to suggest that some early-season struggles might help some of the team's flightier individuals stay focused. I'm not talking about the mythical "good loss" here -- football games are too precious to be used as life lessons -- but a few more nip-and-tuck battles like the Eagles game might keep Terrell Owens' brain from crawling out his ears and going on walkabout in mid-December.
Cowlishaw notes that last year's late collapse had the earmark of a crisis of character. "You overcome that by growing, by making it clear to your opponents that you are going to be more difficult to beat the next time around," he concluded. The Cowboys showed some growth by coming back against the Eagles and controlling the Packers game for most of the second half. They can show more growth this week by beating a stronger-than-expected division foe. The Redskins bounced back from an awful Week 1 performance; their offense is now ranked fifth in DVOA (I'm pretty sure that will go down in a week or so) and their defense is good enough to overcome the absence of Jason Taylor.
The Cowboys rate a big edge in skill-position talent and defensive depth. Their coaching staff is more experienced and their system is more established. I'd pick a rout in this game if it weren't for the NFC East/historic rivalry factor. As long as the Cowboys are playing this well, we should let last year be last year and focus on the here and now. Don't hand them the LombEarly just yet; it's too early to assume these are the same old, playoff-allergic Cowboys.
Every few weeks, I plan to write some in-depth notes about a team that hasn't gotten a lot of national television time. This week's focus teams are the Panthers and Bills, quick starters who slipped through the cracks in my football viewing schedule until this Sunday.
The Panthers started the season 2-0 without Steve Smith, putting together decent offensive performances against good Chargers and Bears defenses. Smith returned last week, so I expected him to be integrated into a rebuilt offense that included new running back Jonathan Stewart, free agent receiver D.J. Hackett, and developing tight end Dante Rosario.
Much to my disappointment, the Panthers offense looks no different than it has for the past three years. Stewart is very good, and he made an impact on kick returns on Sunday, but he was stymied by the Vikings run defense. Hackett and Rosario didn't do much. Coordinator Jeff Davidson tried to get Smith involved early, calling a quick smash route and a fake reverse before taking the obligatory shots downfield. Smith had a 29-yard catch and made a few other plays, but too much of the offense flowed through him, just as it has in the last two seasons.
Two of the Panthers' biggest offensive problems are back. 1) The team's third down percentage is just 25.6. The six-yard pass to a non-playmaker on third-and-10 is still a big part of the game plan, and the Vikings scuttled most attempts to run up the middle on third-and-short. 2) Jake Delhomme still makes mind-bending, game-changing mistakes. He misreads coverages and dawdles too long in the pocket. I was shocked when the Panthers ignored their quarterback problem in the offseason. Delhomme played well against a good Chargers defense in Week 1 but has regressed for two straight weeks, and he was mostly terrible last Sunday. He's part of the offensive problem in Carolina, not the solution.
Defensively, the Panthers were solid but unspectacular against a team with no quarterback. They contained Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor early but wore down late. On the line, Tyler Brayton appears to be playing better than Julius Peppers: he's more active and is doing a fine job of disengaging from blocks in the middle. The Panthers front four isn't nearly as good as it was in the Peppers-Mike Rucker heyday, but the defense overall is sound. The Panthers should easily take down the Falcons in Carolina, and they could be 4-1 after next week's trip to Kansas City. Unless they improve offensively, they'll be one of the league's most realistic-looking mirages.
The Bills often come across as the NFL's generic brand, so their 3-0 start surprised me, especially since their first two victories came against presumed powerhouses. In their come-from-behind win against the pesky Raiders, the Bills lived up to their sturdy-but-pedestrian, no-frills image.
The Bills' lack of star power isn't just a by-product of their small market and tight purse strings. Marshawn Lynch is a determined runner who generates lots of yards after contact, but he is often contacted two yards behind the line of scrimmage, limiting his big-play potential. He will also drop some passes. Lee Evans is a serviceable deep threat, but no Steve Smith. New coordinator Turk Schonert wants to make Evans more of an all-purpose receiver, but Evans still does most of his work along the sidelines, and the Bills still lack a real playmaker over the middle.
On defense, Chris Kelsey is an excellent all-purpose defender but not a sack machine, and Paul Posluszny makes plenty of plays between the tackles but delivers few knockouts. The secondary looks sound, though they haven't faced a truly good receiving corps yet.
The Bills are like a cover band that plays workmanlike versions of your favorite band's greatest hits, only branching out into solo material on special teams (another of their don't-look-now fake field goals was sniffed out by the Raiders on Sunday). A good cover band can fill small concert halls, and a team with no glaring weaknesses (but no overwhelming strengths) can get to 10-6 after a hot start. The still-improving Bills will make short work of the Rams (one of the worst teams in recent history) on Sunday, and they'll hit the bye as the one 4-0 team nobody expected. Their overall schedule looks easier now that the Patriots are mortal and the Browns are bad. Playoffs in Buffalo? Hey, it's been a decade. Why not?
Are you bored with the Lane Kiffin Dethklok? Same here. Instead of dwelling on Al Davis' neuroses in this Chargers-at-Raiders preview, I thought I'd diagram a play the Chargers have used several times in the last few weeks. In the coaching guides, it is often called "Texas."
In a Texas pass play, the tight end and a back, usually the fullback, run a route combination. The tight end runs a seamer or some other deep route, and the fullback runs an angle route. The fullback should leave the backfield as if he is running into the flat, then quickly snap his body toward the middle of the field and await a short pass. The tight end's deep route usually forces the linebackers to drop, leaving plenty of space in the middle for the fullback to make a catch.
Against the Jets, Norv Turner called a variation on Texas in which LaDainian Tomlinson started out in the backfield but motioned to a flanker position to the right (Figure 1). That left fullback Mike Tolbert (35) as the lone setback. Antonio Gates, flexed on the right side, ran a 10-yard out. The Jets were in man coverage, with two linebackers to the Gates-Tolbert side of the field. Gates created a traffic jam, and when Tolbert appeared to be running a flat route, outside linebacker Calvin Pace tried to stay wide of Gates and his coverage defender. Tolbert snapped inside, and Pace had to work through traffic to get to him. The result was a modest 5-yard gain, but on second-and-6 in the red zone, 5 yards aren't easy to come by.
Tolbert had more success running a Texas variation against the Broncos (Figure 2). Tolbert starts the play split wide, then motions into his fullback position. This is a common Turner tactic that dates back to the Moose Johnston era in Dallas. At the snap, Gates runs a seamer with Tolbert running the angle underneath. LaDainian Tomlinson slips into the left flat. Tomlinson's route is critical; the linebackers appear to be in zone coverage, and two of them cheat to the offensive left in anticipation of a swing pass while the third takes a deep drop before passing Gates off to a safety. Tolbert slips into a big void in the middle of the field and makes the catch. Not shown is his long run after the reception; Tolbert was behind the Broncos linebackers who focused on Tomlinson, and he rumbled 67 yards before being tackled.
Texas plays are effective for teams that have a great tight end and an athletic fullback. Lorenzo Neal and Andrew Pinnock, the Chargers fullbacks last year, were great blockers who lacked the athleticism to quickly snap upfield on a route like this. Tolbert is faster than Neal and Pinnock, making him a more appealing target on non-flat passes. The Texas route combination is a great way for Turner to use players like Gates and Tomlinson as decoys while diversifying the attack.
Oh, the pick: The Chargers will beat the Raiders, though I will take the points if the spread climbs over seven.
Browns at Bengals: In last year's 51-45 home run derby, Carson Palmer and Derek Anderson combined to throw six touchdown passes in the first half. So far, they've thrown three touchdown passes all year, which is why Brady Quinn is getting extra rubdowns and super-sized appetizers at team meals. This game will either be the Liquid Plumber that unclogs each team's offense, or it will be 60 miserable minutes that prove once and for all that Anderson isn't that good, WR-Bengals isn't that motivated, and that neither Romeo Crennel nor Marvin Lewis had a sound plan for maintaining their team's brief success windows. As badly as the Browns are playing, they have better defensive personnel, and the quarterback shake-up should do them good.
Eagles at Bears: Brian Westbrook is day-to-day with an ankle strain. Eagles fans are day-to-day, too. Was Westbrook limping? Is he wearing a boot? Did he practice -- no wait, don't make him practice; he must be fresh for the game! A safe could land on fullback Tony Hunt's head and Eagles fans would climb over the safe to make sure Westbrook's cuticles are trimmed properly. The Eagles need a healthy Westbrook to compete with the Bears, a team that beat them last season by hanging around until the fourth quarter and completing a couple of bombs. A healthy Hunt would also help; fullbacks are a big help in pass protection, and he's the only one the Eagles have. The Bears offense is surprisingly existent, with Matt Forte turning heads as an all-purpose player and Brandon Lloyd doing more catching than kvetching. This game will look a little like Eagles-Steelers last Sunday: slug, slug, sack, punt. Pick: Eagles with Westbrook, Bears without.
Packers at Bucs: A friend sent this Nostradamus quatrain. Should we be worried?
When the Son of the Undefeated slings 67 arrows,
And the Unwanted Old Cowhand is struck with a half-score,
As the Duck Walker scowls from the battlefield's edge,
The Hour of Judgment is close at hand
Pick: Packers. (Note: I made the pick, not Nostradamus).
Cardinals at Jets: All Jets stories are Brett Favre stories. Brett Favre wins! He loses! He's injured! He faces Kurt Warner! Maybe Eric Mangini's plan was to focus attention away from his team's poor pass defense and lack of skill position talent. Mission accomplished. Favre's status was unknown at press time, but I've spent my whole career assuming that Favre will play, and it has never let me down yet. The Jets will bounce back at home, and maybe we'll see Brad Smith running the Wild Hog (c'mon, Brad, everybody else is doing it).
Texans at Jaguars: The Texans were 1-of-6 inside the red zone last week, with one touchdown, two field goals, two fourth-down stops and a turnover. Their red zone DVOA is -84.2%, 30th in the NFL, dead last in passing. Their new running back, Steve Slaton, stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 195 pounds with 20 copies of Pro Football Prospectus under his arms. We named our fantasy projection system after the Texans coach. Something is very wrong. Pick: Jaguars.
14 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2008, 8:53pm by TomC