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?
16 Dec 2009
by Mike Tanier
Every year, Tanier enlists the help of Hermey the Playoff Scenarios Elf to explain tiebreaker procedures. This year, unfortunately, is no exception.
Tanier: It's good to have you back, Hermey. It's a shame I can't use you during the rest of the season.
Hermey: It's the life I've chosen. As a Playoff Scenarios Elf, I am only relevant in mid to late December. It's no different than being a Santa Elf, though the pay is worse. The Heisman Prognosticator Elves have the same problem. I feel sorry for my friend Jangle, whose been touting Colt McCoy for three months. The poor guy has lost a lot of credibility.
Tanier: Ever thought of going back to the North Pole?
Hermey: I'm not really welcome there anymore.
Tanier: Really? I thought after you, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius saved Christmas, it was all smooth sailing.
Hermey: Oh, for a while Rudolph's droppings didn't stink, so to speak. Then it all went south, not that there a lot of directional options up there.
Rudolph married Clarise, and they were happy for a while. But Dasher and the others threw very wild, very literal stag parties. And Rudolph was the star, between the red nose and the deep, throaty groans he could emit from his throat sack. The things that went on ... well, they were animals, of course. It was inevitable that he would wind up face down in the driveway like he did. Then Clarise was spotted in Cabo with Fireball and the tabloids went nuts.
Tanier: What about Cornelius?
Hermey: You remember that gun he kept in the front of his belt? He shot himself in the leg accidentally at a nightclub. I had to drive him to the hospital. I was so scared that I signed in under an assumed name.
Tanier: Antonio Pierce?
Hermey: How did you know? Anyway, I talk to Rudolph once in a while, and he says he's reformed. Bros before does, and all that. I am just trying to rebuild. Nowadays, there are Draft Day Elves and Injury Report Elves. We all have our niche. We can all survive the economic downturn.
Tanier: Have this season's playoff scenarios hurt you financially?
Hermey: When the Colts and Saints clinched early, it spoiled my dreams of paying off that 2005 Nissan in the parking lot. The NFC West has been an annual source of frustration. Three years out of the last four, you could pencil the division winner into a playoff berth in October and write everybody else off. Sure, the 49ers are making a little run, but they aren't doing anything interesting, tiebreaker-wise. They swept the Cardinals -– everybody understands a sweep.
Two-team races also provide very little jingle for me. The Chargers and Broncos will probably both make the playoffs, the Chargers as the champ and the Broncos as a Wild Card. No one needs an elf to explain that to them. Thank goodness there are ten 6-7 and 7-6 teams running around. They are keeping me in business.
Tanier: Let's talk about those 7-6 and 6-7 teams in the AFC.
Hermey: It all starts with the Dolphins. They are 7-6 and have three 6-7 teams on the upcoming schedule. They can knock the Titans out this week, then take care of the Texans (who play the Rams on Sunday) the following week. That should put them in such a good position that they can even lose to the Steelers and make the playoffs at 9-7. They have a head-to-head win against the Jaguars and a sweep of the Jets on their resume, so they are in great position to rise above the other mediocre teams.
Tanier: Even though the Colts clinched, they can have a major effect on the AFC race.
Hermey: They have the Jaguars Thursday night and the Jets in two weeks, so by the end of the week we will know how they did against the Jaguars. If the Jaguars win, they go 9-7 at least, with Cleveland facing them in Week 17. It's then a matter of who else is 9-7. Remember that it's not just the Jets, Ravens, Dolphins, Titans, or Texans: The Broncos or the Patriots could also be there. If you give the Jaguars wins over the Browns and either the Colts or Patriots, that's an 8-4 conference record, which will help if the wind up battling a team they haven't played, like the Ravens or Broncos.
As for the Jets, all of those tight losses are deadly: the Jaguars loss, the Dolphins losses. The Jets hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Titans and Texans, but those are crazy scenarios. If the Colts keep battling for a 16-0 record, they can knock both the Jets and Jaguars off the pace, paving the way for a team like the Ravens to sneak in.
Tanier: Has the NFC East picture cleared up for you?
Hermey: A little. The Eagles did a good job of beating NFC teams, and their 4-1 division record puts them in good shape. But here's a nightmare scenario for you: Say the Cowboys lose to the Saints but win their next two games. The Eagles beat the Niners, lose to the Broncos, then lose to the Cowboys. The Giants win out. That puts everyone at 10-6. It's a three-way tie, but the Giants swept the Cowboys, the Eagles swept the Giants, and the Cowboys, in this scenario, swept the Eagles. All three teams are 2-2 in the head-to-head.
It would then go to the divisional record. All three teams would be 4-2. Next come the common games. The Giants and Cowboys would be 5-3 in out-of-division common games: 2-2 against the AFC West and 3-1 against the NFC South. The Eagles would be 4-4 (remember, we penciled in a Saints win over the Cowboys and a Broncos win over the Eagles). That eliminates the Eagles.
Tanier: My head hurts.
Hermey: Once the Eagles are eliminated, the league reverts back to the two-team tiebreakers. That gives the Giants the division on the strength of their sweep of the Cowboys. The Eagles and Cowboys then go into the Wild Card tiebreaker pool. If it's just the two of them at 10-6, then the Eagles win because of their sweep. If the Packers are also 10-6, they gum everything up, because they only have a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Cowboys.
It gets so complicated that my initial analysis was wrong; thanks to Pat and other readers who caught my calculation errors.
Tanier: Loony scenarios aside, it sounds like this has been a bad year for football elves. Is there a bright side?
Hermey: Well, on-field elves are doing very well. Drew Brees is having one of the best elfin seasons in years. Elvis Dumervil is another ... you know that the name "Elvis" is derived from the word "elf"?
Tanier: Etymologists disagree. They think the word comes from the Scandinavian legends of the dwarf Alviss.
Hermey: That's not what the Etymology Elves think, though they may be biased. At any rate, this is the year of the elf, not the dwarf, though Dave Campo did make some midseason headlines.
Before I go, let me remind Football Outsiders readers that I am available to talk elf at any time, just email me through Tanier. I also have a Facebook account, and you can become my fan, though I use social networking mostly to sell Hermey dolls and shirts, not playoff scenarios.
Tanier: Thanks as always, you little son of a gun. It's time to talk about another vertically-challenged superstar.
|Figure 1: Thomas Double-Pump Seamer|
The Saints offense is beyond the scope of a typical Walkthrough. I could devote a whole season to nothing but Saints plays, and it wouldn't scratch the surface of what they do.
This week, I want to focus on how the Saints are using two- and three-tight end personnel groupings to disguise their tendencies and keep opponents from defending them with nickel and dime defenses. We think of the Saints as a wide-open team that's always in three- or four-receiver sets, but while the Saints do spread the field frequently, they are just as likely to confuse opponents with power personnel in unexpected formations.
Figure 1 shows a play the Saints used just before the two-minute warning in the second quarter against the Patriots. On the surface, it looks like a conventional tight end seamer, with the receivers running sideline routes and the backs leaking into the flats. But Sean Payton adds several layers of wrinkles to the basic play design.
First, notice the personnel grouping: three tight ends (Jeremy Shockey is 88, Darnell Dinkins 80, and David Thomas 85), one back, and one receiver. The Saints have been using Thomas and Dinkins as fullbacks for several weeks, but it's impossible to tell by the personnel grouping what the formation will be, and a split backfield with Shockey at wide receiver is a unique look for this package. The Patriots are forced into their base defense, and the heavy offensive personnel forces them to think run.
Next, note the pump-fakes. Brees pumps to Marques Colston (12) on a slant, then turns and sells a screen pass to Mike Bell (21) on the opposite side of the field. The Saints run lots of screen passes, and they often use misdirection in their screen game. The Patriots defense certainly game planned for misdirection screens, so when Brees pumped one way, then turned to Bell, several defenders reacted quickly.
|Figure 2: Meachem Post|
The personnel grouping also sells the fake screen. With Shockey and Thomas on the right side, the Saints are in great position to block for Bell. Thomas even squares to block, and right guard Josh Evans pulls to the outside. No wonder the defenders bite so hard on the fake. Thomas shows discipline while feigning his block, waiting over a second before running his seam route. By the time he runs the route, the underneath coverage has been cleared away, and he gains 25 easy yards.
Figure 2 shows the very next play. Even though the Saints are in their two-minute offense, they keep their three-tight end package on the field, with Robert Meachem (17) filling in for Colston. They line up in a two-tight end I-formation, with Dinkins running an orbit (that's when a tight end goes halfway across the formation, turns, and returns to his starting point) pre-snap. The Patriots are forced to think pass because of the situation, but everything about the formation and personnel suggests a run.
This play is as simple as the last one. It's a play-action pass with seven-man protection. Meachem runs a post, Shockey a deep dig, and Bell a flat route. What makes the play so effective? First, design of the protection. The offensive line fans to the left (not shown), allowing Dinkins and Thomas to handle pass-blocking duties on the right. The scheme guarantees Brees a clean pocket.
Second, there's the real threat posed by Thomas and Dinkins as receivers. The figure shows a strong safety stepping up in coverage, and you may wonder why that safety would let Meachem run past, considering the threat and the situation. The strong safety has coverage responsibility on either Dinkins or Thomas, both of whom released to the offensive right side. And of course, the multi-tight end set keeps any nickel and dime defenders on the Patriots sidelines. It adds up to a one-on-one matchup between Meachem and an inexperienced cornerback (Jonathan Wilhite), and a Saints touchdown.
|Figure 3: Rollout to Devery Henderson|
The Saints ability to twist simple personnel groupings into unusual shapes forces opponents to make compromises. Against the Falcons, the Saints used fewer three-tight end packages, but they often split Thomas as a wide receiver. Figure 3 shows Thomas and Shockey on the left side of the formation, and the Saints run a play-action sweep to that side. The Falcons are clearly in man coverage, with both cornerbacks aligned over wide receivers and a safety covering Thomas. The Falcons must respect the likelihood of a run to the left, so when Brees rolls right, he has two receivers locked in single coverage on cornerbacks. Falcons cornerback Christopher Owens does a good job sticking with Devery Henderson (19), who works inside before running an out-route, but Brees has a clear lane and throws a perfect pass.
Just two plays later, the Falcons are forced to make another compromise when the Saints line up in a bunch formation (Fig. 4). Thomas motions toward the sideline, and the Falcons adjust by splitting a cornerback to cover him and moving a linebacker into position to cover Colston. There are mismatches everywhere, but it's second-and-4 and the Saints are in Falcons territory. Brees wants an easy first down, and the Falcons are in soft coverage on Meachem on the far side. Brees and Meachem run a short smoke route to pick up an easy first down. Again, an opponent is forced to cover the Saints passing game with base personnel, and a unique formation allows the Saints to spread the field in search of mismatches.
|Figure 4: Quick Smoke|
The multi-tight end sets are also beneficial in the running game, of course. The Saints ran frequently from the I-formation against the Falcons, with Thomas or Dinkins at fullback. They usually motioned into the I-formation, with the eventual fullback starting in the slot. It's a simple wrinkle used by every team, but the Saints have such an unpredictable offense that simple wrinkles just compound opponents' problems. Imagine game planning for the Saints. You worry about Brees, about Henderson and Meachem burning you deep, about reverses, screen passes, stack formations and three-tight end personnel groups. There's almost no time to address old-fashioned I-formation tactics.
Just when you think the Saints are out of wrinkles, they unveil an I-formation set like the one they used against the Falcons in the fourth quarter (Fig. 5). Yes, your old fantasy guide is finally right: Colston is a tight end! Colston tries to block John Abraham, which doesn't really work, and the Saints do nothing fancy on this second-and-1 play. What the diagram doesn't show is the Falcons pre-snap confusion. Defensive linemen had to shift positions, and a linebacker slid over to cover Shockey at the last second. I think there was some weak side/strong side confusion, though the offensive left appears to be the strong side of this formation no matter where Colston lines up. You can imagine Payton drawing up some future seam route to Colston, hoping to isolate him against a linebacker.
|Figure 5: Colston is a Tight End!|
There's much more, of course, but you get the idea. We all knew Colston and Henderson would play major roles this year, but few of us expected David Thomas to become a major part of the Saints offense. It's just one more way Payton keeps defenses guessing and finds new ways to deploy players with unique skills. All the diversity makes the Saints fun to watch, and we will probably be watching through January.
Part Three of a series on football-related holiday gifts, most of which are awful. This week: apparel
The Touch Collection: The on-line NFL Shop is a confusing, poorly-organized jumble of a portal. Click the Holiday Gift Finder advertisement you find on the side of your screen while surfing NFL.com, and the site will ask you your favorite team, then suggest you add a catalog to your cart for $0.00. It reminds of the Spongebob episode where Mr. Krabs convinces Squidward to work extra hard by showing him a brochure of a vacation getaway. It turns out that the prize for winning Employee of the Month is ... the brochure! Maybe the special Eagles fan in my life really wants a catalog so he/she can select his own darn gift. If so, the NFL Shop is a helpful tool.
NFL Shop is made worse by the presence of Alyssa Milano, who was much more appealing before I learned just how much teen steam she let out in the Dodgers locker room. Milano has designed the Touch line of strumpet-ware, perfect for the woman hoping attract the middle reliever of her dreams.
Now, nothing is more enticing to me than a beautiful girl in an Eagles jersey, whether it's midnight green or pink, and a flattering Eagles t-shirt is almost as good. But Milano's Rivalry Hoodie, while fetching when she's wearing it, looks as impractical as a tailgate bikini. I picture a comely lass donning one, stepping out into the chill of a November morning in the parking lot at 12th and Pattison, then quickly grabbing a parka so she can reach kickoff without hypothermia. It reminds me of the Elvin Warrior Halter-Tops worn by female characters in fantasy fiction: A chain mail bra doesn't do much good when the neck, shoulders, and torso are exposed to every barbarian with a broadsword.
Hermey: In fairness, elf girls dress like that all the time. It's a miracle we accomplish anything.
Tanier: You're still here?
Hermey: I have no place else to go. Can we talk a little about the Packers Wild Card scenarios? Please?
Tanier: No. I am glad Milano designed a double pocket so the female fan can hide her malt beverage and pepper spray, warming her hands while the wind whips across her plunging neck lines.
Milano also designed a Black Glass Bead Metal Logo Pendant, which looks like a cross between a Junior Achievement art project and a control collar for a rotweiller. Again, Milano's past comes back to haunt an innocuous-if-ugly bit of costume jewelry. I can imagine young teen girls in their friendship-bracelet stage getting a kick out of a team-centric necklace – team apparel is tres chic in many high schools. Unfortunately, when I look at the thing I keep seeing a super-tight black collar with a dogtag reading Property of Barry Zito around Samantha Micelli's neck.
The fact that Milano herself is the model in 75 percent of the Touch Collection photos adds to the creepy, fetish-like quality of the line. Buy these for your girlfriend, and she'll fear you have some Who's The Boss-Charmed-Console Brad Penny after a Loss fantasy up your sleeve. Of course, if that's how you roll, go nuts.
Throwbacks: The rule of throwbacks and "legacy" apparel states that the more obscure the reference, the better. I can relate, because that's how I write. A Villanova Brian Westbrook jersey just won't cut it for the true throwback aficionado: he needs a Westbrook high school jersey, Pop Warner jersey, or pull-up diaper. The same goes for old players: Anyone can wear a legacy-style Tom Brady jersey, or pull out a Drew Bledsoe or Steve Grogan jersey for ironic old-school appeal. Real lunatics insist on game-worn Hugh Millen.
Remember when Chiefs running backs were eccentric in the Progressive Rock Keyboardist way, not the Angry Text Messenger way? The Chiefs fan in your life may want a Priest Holmes throwback jersey. They cost about $100 on Amazon, but check the eBay auctions: there was a black one listed at $4.99 a few weeks ago, and several traditional jerseys listed in the $20-$30 range. This site is a clearing house of team paraphernalia available on eBay and elsewhere: there's an autographed Christian Okoye jersey under auction for $78, a signed Deron Cherry 8X10 photo for ten bucks, and so on. Larry Johnson items are still available, including a toddler jersey for $10. The Johnson toddler jersey should say "Ask my dad!" It only takes a little surfing to find similar sites for every team, and the memorabilia available is as diverse, random, and weird as you can imagine.
If you don't like to shop at auction, Mitchell & Ness are makers of well-crafted, insanely overpriced throwback items. Their $250-plus jerseys make great husband/father gifts, but they run a little steep for casual giving. Some items are more practical, affordable, and nostalgic. The Huddle Up Hoodie costs just $60 (it was $40 with a special promotion in late November) and looks great, with classic team logos integrated into the design. The Browns hoodie is particularly sharp; give it to the person who wants to pretend he's Bill Belichick circa 1993.
Once you buy the Huddle Up Hoodie, you can huddle up with a girl in an Alyssa Milano Rivalry Hoodie, play your NFL Films music MP3s, dab some Nittany Lions Cologne on your person, and occupy the little ones with some Barber brothers fiction. It can be a football-filled holiday season for you and your loved ones. Of course, if you are still seeking gift ideas by the time you read this, you are probably too late.
50 comments, Last at 22 Dec 2009, 3:48pm by Neoplatonist Bolthead