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?
22 Jan 2009
by Mike Tanier
At an airstrip somewhere near Dallas...
CAPT. SULLY: Good morning passengers. Welcome aboard the Spruce Caboose, the first airplane ever designed by Jerry Jones. I'm Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, the only pilot capable of flying this unique aircraft. We're about to begin the Cowboys charter flight to the Super Bowl in Tampa -- as spectators, of course. We'll be taking off in a few seconds.
COACH WADE: Captain, we can't take off yet. Some of the guys are late.
CAPT. SULLY: Late? But they were scheduled to arrive an hour ago. I walked the length of the cabin twice to make sure everyone was settled.
COACH WADE: Sorry, captain. Some of the guys aren't good with alarm clocks. Or rules. Or staying focused. Oh wait, here they come.
T.O.: Hey coach, sorry I'm late. I was ... hell, who am I kidding? I'm not sorry I'm late.
COACH WADE: Now, Terrell, let's make sure this doesn't happen again. Otherwise, I'll have to tell you to "make sure this doesn't happen again" again.
JERRY THE BOSS: Coach, Terrell, I don't like the way you are handling this situation.
COACH JASON: (fingers crossed) Fire them fire them fire them fire them fire them...
JERRY THE BOSS: Lucky for you two that I am suddenly fiscally responsible. You guys are too expensive to get rid of.
COACH JASON: Gahhhhhh!
CAPT SULLY: OK, we are cleared for takeoff. We are now climbing to an altitude of ... wait, something's wrong. All 12 engines just cut out simultaneously. Mr. Jones, how much do you really know about aviation engineering?
JERRY THE BOSS: Just as much as I know about running a football team.
CAPT SULLY: Gotcha. Attention passengers, our engines are on fire and there are no airports within 50 miles. Luckily, someone left a Legends of Jazz commemorative postage stamp in a cornfield over there. We'll be fine. I just have to touch us down between Miles Davis' eyes.
T.O.: I can't die. I have 11 million reasons to live.
COACH WADE: I don't want to die.
COACH JASON: I'm strangely at peace.
JASON WITTEN: Guys! Guys! Tony just passed out in the bathroom from all of the stress.
T.O.: How do you know?
JASON WITTEN: Umm...
CAPT. SULLY: Alright passengers, we have now landed safely. While I was landing, I made coffee and filed all of your tax returns. Please exit the cabin in an orderly fashion.
JERRY THE BOSS: Say, captain, have you ever considered coaching? I could create a vacancy for you really quick.
CAPT. SULLY: No thanks. In the airline business, a crash is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Cowboys crash every December.
If this year's All-Rookie Team took the field, their strategy would be simple: Air it out.
Most All-Rookie teams are weak at quarterback. This team has two playoff-caliber passers, one in the lineup and one on the honorable mention bench. The receiving corps is solid, one of the running backs is a major asset in the passing game, and the two tackles combined for just three sacks allowed (according to some estimates) in 16 starts each. Even if this pass-happy offense stalls in the red zone, it can still count on an accurate, dependable kicker to produce points.
We'll need those points, because the All-Rookie defense is lacking. The linebackers are good enough, and there are some prospects in the secondary. But the defensive line won't provide much pressure, so opposing quarterbacks will have plenty of time to wait for rookie mistakes. This All-Rookie Team would probably struggle to reach .500 in a good division, but it would provide its share of exciting 31-28 shootouts.
The Walkthrough All-Rookie team is selected by yours truly, with input from the rest of the Football Outsiders staff. I don't look at any similar selections by other publications until I have made my choices, and then I only check for glaring omissions. If you think I missed someone, feel free to comment or send an e-mail.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Falcons, Offensive Rookie of the Year. In any other season, Joe Flacco (honorable mention) would be the consensus ROY. Thanks to Ryan, Flacco barely got any attention for much of the year. DVOA and our other stats say Ryan had one of the best rookie seasons ever, giving him such an edge that even Flacco's championship run can't close the gap.
Running Back: Matt Forte, Bears. As a running back, Forte endured some rough patches, including a four-game midseason stretch in which he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and a battle with the rookie wall in December. As a receiver, he was excellent all season, finishing second in receiving DVOA while lining up all over the field. No rookie running back had greater responsibilities than Forte, who became the featured runner and one of the team's top receiving threats the moment he was drafted. Forte delivered.
Running Back: Chris Johnson, Titans. There isn't much separating Johnson from Steve Slaton (honorable mention). Their rushing stats -- conventional and DVOA/DYAR -- are nearly identical. Both were inconsistent in the passing game. Slaton spent more time as an every-down back, but Johnson was more integral to his team's offense. Take away Slaton, and the Texans could still beat you with Andre Johnson. Take away Chris Johnson, and the Titans had no way of gaining more than six yards on a play. Just ask Baltimore.
Fullback: Tie: Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester, Chargers. Hester is the all-purpose back who can line up at tailback and provide some short-yardage pounding. Tolbert is an old-fashioned thumper who can catch the odd pass. Tolbert had this selection all but locked up before getting hurt midseason. Now, he must share with his better-known teammate.
Wide Receiver: Eddie Royal, Broncos. Royal's strong finish was impressive. He caught 33 passes in his final five games, chipping in a 71-yard run against the Bills and 11 receptions against the Chargers in must-win games. A good route runner who is creative on tunnel screens (both as receiver and blocker), Royal will play the Wes Welker role in Josh McDaniels' offense.
Wide Receiver: DeSean Jackson, Eagles. Jackson almost became a folk hero in Philly on Sunday, bobbling-but-catching a touchdown that gave the Eagles a brief late-game lead against the Cardinals. Jackson's touchdown wasn't enough to carry the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and some of his season lowlights (the drops against the Redskins, the premature spike) made him the player who most frayed the nerves of Eagles fans. But Jackson gave the Eagles the big-time slot receiver and return man they needed.
Tight End: John Carlson, Seahawks. Carlson led the Seahawks in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Good for Carlson. Bad for the Seahawks. Dustin Keller gets honorable mention.
Tackle: Ryan Clady, Broncos. Clady was named a second-team All-Pro, but he was snubbed in favor of Jake Long as the Pro Bowl replacement for Jason Peters. We can argue Clady vs. Long all day, but one thing is clear: Both of them were a lot better than Peters this season.
Tackle: Jake Long, Dolphins. Long was a full-year starter for the Dolphins, playing left tackle but sometimes moving to the right side in Wildcat formations. He played through a sprained ankle at the end of the season and didn't commit a penalty until December. He was the cornerstone player the Dolphins hoped for when they made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. The only downside: As good as Long was, Clady may have been just a bit better. Brandon Albert and Jeff Otah get honorable mention.
Guard: Jeremy Zuttah, Buccaneers. The opening-day starter for the Bucs at right guard, Zuttah started a total of five games and played parts of seven others.
Guard: Mike Pollak, Colts. Pollack took over at right guard in Week 5 and ended up starting 13 games. Pollack could stay at guard or challenge Jamey Richard at center if Saturday leaves.
Center: Jamey Richard, Colts. Richard filled in for Jeff Saturday twice during the regular season, starting a total of seven games. He played so well that the Colts may let Saturday leave via free agency. Richard's season highlight was his fumble-recovery touchdown in Week 17, a play that recalled Saturday's playoff touchdown three years ago. "I give him a C-plus, B-minus for the spike," Saturday said of his protégé's first-ever score. "Didn't have enough 'Wham!'"
Defensive End: Chris Long, Rams. Nothing went right for the Rams defense this year, and Long didn't make the immediate impact the team was hoping for. Still, he was active, made some plays against the run, and showed flashes (like in his two-sack effort against the Patriots) of the player he could soon become.
Defensive Tackle: Glenn Dorsey, Chiefs. The Chiefs expected more than one sack from Dorsey, but he did the job in the running game, leading all rookie linemen with 46 total tackles.
Defensive Tackle: Eric Foster, Colts. Only the Colts can grab a 265-pound undrafted rookie, stick him at defensive tackle, and still field a credible defense. Foster was rock-solid in 11 starts before getting hurt, and his goal-line stop against the Steelers was one of the Colts' defensive highlights this year.
Defensive End: Clifford Avril, Lions. Avril started the season slowly but finished with five sacks and four forced fumbles after Week 8. He started to make more of an impact as a run defender late in the season. Avril is one of Jim Schwartz's few defensive building blocks and may even head up next year's PFP "Top Prospects List."
Linebacker: Curtis Lofton, Falcons. Matt Ryan got most of the attention, but the Falcons rookie class was sensational, with Lofton starting all 16 games and Sam Baker emerging as a starter at left tackle. Lofton, who had 94 tackles, had the benefit of learning from veteran defenders like linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, as well as safety Lawyer Milloy. Milloy called the rookie class "a group of guys that I think is going to be around for a long time because they just get it. You never know what you're going to get, as far as character issues. We're just fortunate that we got it right."
Linebacker: Jared Mayo, Patriots. The Defensive Rookie of the Year, by a landslide. Mayo registered 139 tackles, set a team record with 23 tackles in one game against the Jets, and started 16 games in one of the NFL's most complex defenses. "We've asked a lot of him, and from Day One he's really been a well-prepared, very mature player who can do a lot of things: play the running game, play in the passing game, blitz, helps us in the kicking game," said Bill Belichick of his top draft choice.
Linebacker: Keith Rivers, Bengals. Rivers was off to a great start before getting hurt in Week 6. His efforts –- 37 tackles, an interception against the Cowboys -- were enough to make him the runner-up in the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting. OK, so it was only with one vote...
Cornerback: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cardinals. DRC ran away from the competition in the playoffs with an interception against the Falcons, a shut-down effort against Steve Smith, and a solid effort (despite one burning by DeSean Jackson) against the Eagles. In the future, every All-Rookie Team will include at least one token Rodgers-Cromartie.
Cornerback: Brandon Flowers, Chiefs. Scott Pioli is no fool. The Chiefs had a tremendous draft in 2008: Flowers, Dorsey, Brandon Albert, Jamaal Charles, and Brandon Carr. That's two cornerbacks, a defensive tackle, an offensive tackle and a running back, all of whom have the potential to be high-level starters. The turnaround in Kansas City could be very quick. Carr and Dwight Lowery of the Jets earn honorable mention.
Safety: Kenny Phillips, Giants. Phillips couldn't beat James Butler for a starting job, but he saw a lot of action as a nickel safety, finishing the year with 67 total tackles. Butler will probably leave this year; Phillips should be ready to make the leap from center fielder to impact player.
Safety: Chris Horton, Redskins. Horton said he broke out in a sweat when he learned he would be starting against the Saints in Week 2. The perspiration must have led to inspiration, as Horton finished the game with two tip-drill interceptions and a fumble recovery. Horton had other big games last season, including an interception against the Cowboys and double-digit tackle games against the Rams and Giants.
Kicker: Dan Carpenter, Dolphins. An 84 percent success rate on field goals, no short misses, a perfect extra point record, and respectable kickoff stats (including seven touchbacks). What more do you want from a rookie kicker?
Punter: Brett Kern, Broncos. There wasn't much competition here, but Kern was solid, with a gross average of 46.7 that was only helped a little by the altitude. His road gross was a respectable 43.8.
Kick Returns: Leodis McKelvin, Bills. The Bills special teams can make an ordinary return man look great, but McKelvin's pure speed makes him a major threat in the kicking game. He scored one touchdown and had seven returns of 40 or more yards.
Gunner: Spencer Larsen, Broncos. Larsen played on both the coverage and return units. He also started at linebacker and fullback; he even started at both positions in the same game. That makes him our All-Rookie Super Sub.
Next week's Walkthrough is the last of the regular season. It will feature the obligatory Super Bowl preview, a brief look back at 2008, and lots of Bruce Springsteen references. There will also be a special guest: Tom Moon, author of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, will provide a list of the best music to get you psyched for the Super Bowl.
Be sure to stop back during the Pro Bowl for my live blog. Just because I lost a bet with Bill Barnwell doesn't mean we can't have fun. We'll talk draft, coaching changes, free agency, and mixed drinks. We may even mention the game once or twice.
Walkthrough goes bi-weekly after that, and I am starting to line up stories and guests for the offseason. For additional updates and interaction, you can join the Facebook group Walkthrough Readers. I haven't done much with the group yet, but it's free, and worth every damn penny.
65 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2009, 12:10pm by bravehoptoad