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?
30 Jul 2009
by Mike Tanier
So, Minnesota, how was that lap dance?
Brad Childress must feel unfulfilled after an offseason canoodling with professional sports' most notorious commitment-phobe. How was Childress to know that when Brett Favre retired, it meant that he wasn't going to play football anymore? Favre's retirement confirmation (he took a new name, wore a stole, answered questions from the bishop) shocked many of us, but more importantly, it granted us a brief, early-August Favre-free news period, which should last all of ... two weeks?
Michael Vick's reinstatement occurred at roughly the same time as Favre's confirmation, which precisely coincided with my Jersey Shore vacation, which angers me personally. Don't these people know that I am on the beach with my sons? But there's a reason the Vick-Favre housecleaning waited until late July. Vick and Favre provide an annoying but vital service. They're the test pattern that runs after the Star Spangled Banner when the NFL is off the air, the infotainment that runs before the main feature at the movies. Some of my colleagues would starve without Vick and Favre. Walkthrough is a little more drought-proof, what with features on Strat-o-Matic and such, but thanks to Favre and Vick, I didn't have to lead with Alex Mack this week.
Mack was one of the first No. 1 picks to sign a contract. He inked a five-year deal last Saturday, headed straight to the practice field and did not sustain a career-threatening injury, a miraculous series of events for a Browns center. New Browns general manager George Kokinis was Ozzie Newsome's rookie contract mountie in Baltimore, and Kokinis once again got his man. Commenting about other first-round signings in a weekly column at the end of July is a waste of time: Four rookies will announce new deals the moment Walkthrough goes live, and the easiest way to guarantee a signing is to write that a player and team are "miles and miles apart" or vice versa. Starting with Mack and a few others, rookie signings will spread like rust spots on the rear panel of an old Monte Carlo over the next two weeks. Holdout news gets interesting when a player misses a game, or when the first "willing to sit out the season" threat is uttered sometime around August 10th.
Rookies hold out when they don't have a contract, veterans when they have one that doesn't look as pretty as it did when wrapped in a bow with a signing bonus. This week's news is filled with veterans who plan to report to camp under various degrees of duress. Brandon Marshall will come to camp unhappy. Josh Cribbs will arrive displeased. Unhappy veterans sound like high-maintenance girlfriends this time of year, folding their arms, offering the silent treatment, turning compliance into a threat. The NFL should expand its injury report to include the summer emotional states of contract-seeking veterans. A player listed as "miffed" has a 30 percent chance of holding out, "irked" has a 50 percent chance, then "disgruntled," "engraged," and finally "fuming." It will give fans something else to argue about and Bill Belichick a new report to fictionalize.
That's the rub: Unsigned rookies and angry veterans don't make great copy. Favre and Vick do. Seconds after Vick was reinstated, Vick-to-Redskins rumors hit the Internet with Pavlovian predictability. Smart sportswriters store standard Redskins headlines in autotext for easy recall; on my laptop, "Snyder Overpays Big Name Veteran" is ALT-R, "Snyder Trades Future Away Again" is CTRL-D, and "Snyder Drives Tanker Truck Full of Money Over Bridge for Fun" is CTRL-F9-DUH. The poorly-founded rumors suggest that Dan Snyder wants to run the Wildcat with Vick, regardless of what Jim Zorn thinks or the fact that there are players on the roster (Antwaan Randle El) perfectly capable of running the scheme. The Vick rumors come a few months after the Jay Cutler courtship. A beer at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium will cost eight bucks this year, but a quarter will buy you a bucket of Jason Campbell's tears.
We return, finally, to Favre -- probably not for the last time, but if it is, I feel obligated to make it count. As usual, he isn't planning a normal retirement. He plans to lay low for a few years, create some demand, wash the taste of recent failures from the public's mouth, then reboot the franchise. Chris Pine will play the new Brett Favre, with Megan Fox as Deanna Favre. Focus groups will update his backstory (A Katrina survivor? Let's see how it tests.) and the quarterback will please the new generation with edgier, sexier, reimagineered adventures. In the meantime, a black suitcase containing our national media obsession was flown to Tim Tebow's house for safekeeping. Let's hope he knows what to do with it.
Reader Dave writes:
Could you address the different wide receiver positions: split end, flanker, and slot? How are their routes different? What makes certain guys suited to one position but not others? What roles do they play in the offense? I have read that in most West Coast offenses everything is designed to funnel balls to the flanker. Why?
First, the terms: a split end is a receiver on the line of scrimmage several yards from the five interior linemen. A flanker is aligned one or two yards off the line of scrimmage and split wide. A slot receiver is aligned between the main formation and another receiver. If he is inside the split end, he is off the line of scrimmage. If he is aligned inside the flanker, he is often (but not always) on the line. A receiver can also be "flexed," placing him on the line of scrimmage and four to six yards wide of the offensive tackle. This is usually a tight end's position, but in modern offenses wide receivers are often flexed. See the figure for some default positions.
|Basic Wide Receiver Positions|
I use these terms when explaining playbook diagrams, but they are really out of date. The terms are holdovers from T-formation offenses, in which the flanker was often one of the backs who reached the flanker position via presnap motion. Modern offenses use letter names for receivers: X and Z for the starting receivers, Y for the tight end, letters like F, H, or W for third, fourth, or fifth wideouts. Different systems have different preferences. In one system, the X receiver is typically on the left, Z on the right. In others, X is usually on the line of scrimmage, Z off. As offenses become more complex, even those in-system generalities get blurred.
Instead of explaining the difference between an X and a Z receiver, which is nearly impossible, let's go over the advantages and disadvantages of each position. A receiver on the line of scrimmage can release immediately into his route, and he is in good position to block his defender at the line. On the downside, he can be jammed easily. A receiver a yard or two in the backfield has extra space to beat a jam, which is why smaller receivers are often "flankers."
The wider a receiver's split, the more space he has in which to isolate and beat his defender. However, a receiver split wide of the field numbers has little room for running out-routes and other patterns that work the sidelines. Wide spacing also creates longer throws for the quarterback, which can be dangerous. Slot or flex receivers have space to work to the inside or out, can catch shorter, safer passes, and have a better chance of getting mismatched against a linebacker, safety, or nickelback in coverage. On the downside, they are working in tighter space; a slot receiver running a crossing route quickly moves from one defender's zone to another, making it hard for him to get open.
I have heard that old versions of the West Coast Offense funneled plays to the flanker, who was usually the Z receiver in their system. I have seen some WCO playbooks from the 1980s, and one thing that is striking is how often the Z-receiver went in motion. Factor in the motion and the fact that a flanker is hard to jam, and you have the perfect short-pass target from a three-step drop. That's an oversimplification, and I think the Z receiver got so much attention because his name was usually Dwight Clark or Jerry Rice.
It seems like such a great idea. Get a couple of guys together, or maybe pack up the kids, and head to training camp. Hundreds of fans watching the team run drills, scrimmage, maybe sign a few autographs, all for very little money. Maybe get a hotel, stay a few days, bar hop or let the wife go sightseeing/antiquing/outlet shopping. Perfect vacation.
Then there's reality. Training camp is boring. Drills are repetitive. Scrimmages offer few thrills. Nothing is packaged for the public, so the 7-on-7 drill may be hundreds of yards from the bleachers. Amenities are scant, and August weather is brutal. Training camp is held, by design, as far from Bourbon Street, Michigan Avenue, or Fells Point as geographically feasible. The kids get bored. You get bored. The wife gets spendy.
It doesn't have to be that way. Training camp excursions can be fun, but they have to be well-planned and coordinated. A trip to camp should only be part of a vacation or midweek getaway. Mix a few two-a-days with some golf, sightseeing, dining, and old-fashioned small-town people watching, and you can have a relaxing, football-infused adventure.
It's not hard to plan a camp getaway. Hit the Internet, research the region where the team practices, and make a few phone calls. If that's too much work, keep reading: Walkthrough researched three camp towns for you, outlining all there is to see and do once you're done watching rookies run through tires.
First, the Bad News and the Good News:
Bad News: Most training camps are held in small college towns with almost no nightlife. You may find yourself closing the local bar before the nightly news. The definition of a "thing to do" can be a little strained, and if the idea of spending a warm August evening trout fishing or browsing small town boutiques makes you want to claw your eyes out, you may want to minimize your non-football sightseeing.
Good News: Local chambers of commerce and tourist bureaus know you are coming and want you to be happy. They'll point you to a nice hotel, a good local restaurant, or the best place to do a little fishing or golfing. Some of them set up booths just outside of training camp, making it easy to find out whether the local battlefield is worth an hour of your time.
Training Camp: Westminster, Maryland.
You Know it's Time to Leave Camp When: Ozzie Newsome hands you a pair of cleats and tells you to go play wide receiver.
The Region: This is rolling, countrified Maryland, not Chesapeake-and-crabcake Maryland. While not far from Baltimore, Carroll County is very rural. "You can climb up on one of our ridges and see for miles," says county tourism manager Barbera Beverungen. "It's like being on the beach."
Strolling Main Street: Main Street in Westminster is just minutes from training camp. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, plus antique shops and an art gallery. Harry's is famous for its chili dogs, and Ravens players are known to show up there occasionally. There's O'Lourden's Irish pub, Johannsson's microbrewery, and Wine Me Up, which offers wine tastings. For a good family meal, try Baugher's, just over the hill from the practice facility. Baugher's has a pick-your-own-produce orchard and a restaurant that serves pies baked with said produce.
Nature and History: Piney Run is west of camp on I-70 and makes a great family stop on the way back or forth from camp. Canoe and kayak rentals are available. There are 18 Civil War markers in Carroll County, eight of them in Westminster, and walking tours let you see the location of the skirmish that waylaid J.E.B. Stuart on his way to Gettysburg. "What's interesting is that a lot of the buildings from that era are still standing," Beverungen said. Westminster is also involved in a state-run Geocaching program, so grab a GPS and go treasure-hunting, or whatever the heck geocaching is.
Bottom Line: Folks on the east coast love our rural staycations, and an overnight trip to a country town with an active Main Street and some hungry Ravens sounds like a winner. Beverungen's staff runs a information kiosk at camp, and she'll make sure you get good food and a warm bed. "It's run by friendly, warm and fuzzy people who are knowledgeable about the area," she promises.
Training Camp: Georgetown, Kentucky.
You know its time to leave camp when: Your overheated children seek shelter in the cool shadows under Andre Smith's belly.
The region: Scott County is hilly, with miles of gently rolling pastures separated by stone fences. Alcorn Creek, 99 miles long and brimming with bass, bisects the county. Georgetown features Victorian architecture and some 1990s improvements, like hidden utilities. "It's one of the prettiest downtowns you'll ever see," said John Simpson, executive director of the local tourism commission.
Going Downtown: There's plenty of shopping, dining, and sightseeing in Georgetown. Many of the 19th century buildings have been repurposed: The old jail, which was still in use until the 1990s, is now a cultural center. Fava's restaurant is more than 100 years old and offers Southern style home cooking and outstanding pies. A word of warning: Georgetown is a "moist" town, meaning it is not quite dry, but close. Larger restaurants can serve cocktails, but there are no bars. Rowdiness is not acceptable, even if your last name includes Spanish numerals. Did I mention they were using a 19th century jail until last decade?
Horses and Cars: The nearby Kentucky Horse Farm is the largest park of its kind in the world, with 1,200 acres of working farm, plus a museum and other attractions. Visit Old Friends, a retirement center for thoroughbreds, and you can see 30 former champions who were rescued from euthanization. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. Drive into the country, and you'll find many working horse farms. Some offer tours, but most are booked up or nearly so, so call ahead. "Twenty years ago, folks would let you pull up, go into the barn, and see Seattle Slew," Simpson said. "It started to interfere with the work."
If you would rather see Camrys than stallions, make reservations for a tour of the local Toyota plant. "They take you everywhere except the paint shop," Simpson said. Unfortunately, you can't leave with a free sample.
Bourbon: Georgetown claims to be the birthplace of bourbon: Baptist minister Elijah Craig used the water from Royal Spring to distill the product on his 17-acre farm. The rest is blurry history. You can't get bourbon in Georgetown, but the spring still flows through the center of town, and a half-hour drive takes you to some of the nation's best distilleries: Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Makers Mark. Stop by the gift shops and bring something home to get you through the Bengals' season.
Bottom Line: Bourbon, bass fishing, bluegrass music, and Bengals: the four B's of summer fun.
Training Camp: River Falls, Minnesota.
You Know it's Time to Leave Camp When: The ghost of Herm Edwards starts speaking to you in a language you cannot comprehend: English.
The Region: St. Croix County is just west of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and River Falls is a hilly college town on the Kinnickinnic River, which is so nice they named it twice. "The University offers a nice mix of activities, and we have a lot of natural resources," said Rosanne Bump, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. Demographics Daily subscribers know that River Falls was once ranked as one of the most livable small cities in the United States.
Downtown: River Falls has a Main Street with multiple dining and shopping options, plus a River Walk along the Kinni. The Copper Kettle and West Wind offer casual dining, cocktails, and some outdoor deck seating. There are several shops and boutiques, including Riverwalk Mercantile, which sells everything from children's toys and antiques to ice cream.
Trout Fishing in the Kinni: The Kinnickinnic is a Class One trout stream, and it flows through the heart of town. Fishing licenses are available at the local hardware store, and there are plenty of access points in and around city limits. If you want to see the falls themselves, it's a short but rugged hike into Glenn Park. "You may get a few scratches," warns Bump.
Bring Your Clubs: There are two public golf courses near Chiefs camp. Kilkarney Hills offers 18 holes, a challenge rating of 71 (I have no idea what that means), and a Friday night fish fry: all you can eat beer-battered cod, fries, slaw and baked beans for $8.50. River Falls Golf Club has been in business since 1929 and offers beautiful views and affordable rates.
Bottom Line: Fish the Kinni, watch Matt Cassel, get nine holes in, then gorge on beer-battered cod. Sounds like a perfect August day in Wisconsin.
First, Steve McNair. Now, Jimmy Johnson. There's a danger that Walkthrough will become the Football Outsiders obituary page.
Johnson was the first active NFL personality I ever interviewed, back when I worked for another site. He was clear, forthright, and patient when explaining how his defense worked. There was nothing secretive about him, and he didn't scoff at any of the questions coming from the part-time football writer. He was exactly what a coach should be: strong, gruff, craggy, and confident.
Johnson was a great organizer and trainer of young coaches, so the Eagles defense will be in capable hands with Sean McDermott. The organization handled Johnson's illness as professionally as possible. His passing seems sudden, but cancer makes its own timetable, something I learned firsthand recently. Cancer arrives unannounced and kicks down the door. It makes you revise plans, then revise the revisions. It takes Friday off Monday's horizon, makes spring feel unattainable in winter. Cancer denies you the right to define your terms, to call one last team meeting, to greet the guys as they arrive for camp one more time, to say goodbye to your fans. Six months ago, we thought Johnson would be watching Eagles games on television, pictured him calling McDermott on Sunday night with advice. Six months is cancer's eternity. It wasn't meant to be.
Johnson will be remembered forever by Eagles fans, and he left an impressive legacy: a decade of Eagles successes, and successors like Steve Spagnuolo, Ron Rivera, John Harbaugh, McDermott, and others. We can best celebrate his achievements by enjoying the game, and by remembering others who succumbed swiftly, prematurely, to cancer.
21 comments, Last at 02 Aug 2009, 6:47am by js200