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?
19 Feb 2009
by Mike Tanier
Got a few dozen hours to kill? Go to Google News and enter "Houshmandzadeh."
On Sunday morning, a news search yielded well over 15 pages of articles, many of them clumped together as "related articles." There were 22 stories announcing that the Bengals wouldn't apply the franchise tag to their free agent wide receiver. Thirty-two stories suggested that Hooch could land with the Bears. In one transcript of a Chicago-area radio show, Hooch told Tom Waddle that he "kinda likes Rex Grossman." Grossman is also a free agent; the duo could visit teams together and call it Incompletion Tour 2009.
Google lumped 97 Houshmandzadeh-to-Eagles fantasies under one heading, but other related Hooch-Eagles articles got their own categories. Hooch said on ESPN that "if the Eagles are interested in me, let's put it like this. If they'll be interested in me, I'll be interested in them." Eagles fans have pined for a "big-time" wide receiver for so long that they haven't noticed that the current receiving corps is pretty good, or that both offensive tackles are aging free agents. The Philadelphia Daily News dutifully put Hooch on the back cover last week but explained that he isn't a good fit: He's not tall enough. Excellent point; the Eagles really should try to retrieve Billy McMullen instead.
Pro Football Weekly reported that the Seahawks are interested in Hooch, which makes sense, since they lined up supermarket baggers at wide receiver last year. An article about the Jaguars' needs at wide receiver kicked off a 33-article list summarizing this year's Big Three at wide receiver: Hooch, Anquan Boldin, and Antonio Bryant. Yes, Bryant. Free agency is like Let's Make a Deal, and you can bet Bryant is the flatulent goat hidden behind Door Number Two.
The Bills Report says the Bills should pursue Hooch. Niners newspapers and blogs think Hooch should come to the Bay Area. Houshmandzadeh is almost as newsworthy as Nadya Suleman. In fact, if he turns out to be the sperm donor for those octuplets, it will solve a lot of problems: Eight teams could draft one each (even the girls), and everyone who wants a Houshmandzadeh can be satisfied. Of course, none of the octuplets would be a good fit for the Eagles. They aren't tall enough.
Such is life as an NFL writer in February, when news is scant and speculation is an amateur's game. It's hard to put much spin on the news that Chris McAlister or Deuce McAllister were released, though I hope both retire so I won't have to worry about the one-"l"-or-two issue anymore. Late winter is the season to assemble paper dream teams, to imagine that with so much cap room and so many big names on the market, your team could land Hooch and Boldin, plus Julius Peppers and LaDainian Tomlinson via trade. They could then draft B.J. Raji in the first round and the kid running a 4.30 40 in Indy as you read this in the second round. In a few weeks, those paper dreams will be in the wastebasket, and we will get on with the reality that all the home team did in free agency was lose five important players while signing Antonio Bryant.
Speaking of Julius Peppers, make sure you type his full name when you Google, something you don't have to worry about with Houshmandzadeh. Type in "Peppers," and you will get salmonella news and manicotti recipes along with your free agent gossip. The Seattle Times posted a long feature titled "America's Love Affair with the Chili Pepper Grows Hotter," and while it talks about benign masochism, capsaicin, and the thrill of a burning mouth, there's not a word about how great Peppers would look in Jim Mora's defense.
Peppers would look great in Seattle. So would Hooch. But any further speculation would border on benign masochism.
The armchair speculators have plenty of ammunition in this year's crop of free agent quarterbacks. The Cardinals used their franchise tag on Karlos Dansby, not Kurt Warner. With Warner potentially hitting the market, it's easy to concoct dream scenarios. Imagine Warner replacing Brett Favre for the Jets. Warner mentoring Brady Quinn. The Browns netting a first round pick from the Buccaneers for Derek Anderson. The Vikings or Bears reaching the Super Bowl with Jeff Garcia. Rex Grossman or J.P. Losman getting a second chance as a starter for the Jets or a backup for the Panthers or Seahawks. I've read all of these scenarios, and I've even written about one of them.
It's easy to get carried away when playing yenta for available quarterbacks. Instead of ranking free agent passers as five-star acquisitions, blue-chip signees, or whatever, we should organize them by category. Every quarterback goes through several distinct career phases. By picking what phase the quarterback is in, we can determine whether he meets a given team's needs. We can also figure out how his career is likely to advance.
The Quarterback Career Flowchart is shown in Figure 1. Take a minute or two to absorb it in all its brilliance. Follow the arrows carefully, and you can chart the career course of every quarterback in history.
All quarterbacks start as a Prospect or a Camp Arm. There's a small gray area in between, a place where middling prospects like Brian Brohm lurk, but usually Day One draft picks are Prospects, and everyone else is a Camp Arm.
|Figure 1: Quarterback Flow Chart|
After a year or two, Prospects who have enjoyed considerable success become Young Stars. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco entered that stage at the end of last year. Guys who spend two or three years on the bench without getting a shot, or guys who get a shot but play terribly, become Fading Prospects. Alex Smith is a Fading Prospect. Kellen Clemens is almost there.
There's a middle path: The young passer mixes success with failure, but he doesn't show a pattern of improvement that marks Young Stardom. He becomes a Tweener. Eli Manning was nearly a Tweener in December of 2007, but he pulled into Young Stardom instead. Drew Brees performed the same trick in his final year with the Chargers. Jason Campbell and Trent Edwards are currently Tweeners.
Many Tweeners come from the ranks of the Camp Arms. Shaun Hill is a tweener. Tyler Thigpen is a low-end example. Aaron Rodgers is the borderline case: Any 24- to 28-year-old quarterback better than him is a Young Star, anyone worse is a Tweener. Derek Anderson is a Tweener who looked like a Young Star for a few months in 2007. Tweeners don't fetch much in trade value, in part because there are plenty of them. The journey from Camp Arm to Young Star is not well traveled; we'll call the red dotted line in the figure the Line of Romo.
It's possible for a Young Star to lose some luster and slip back into the Tweener category. But usually, once Young Stardom is established, the quarterback whose play slips simply becomes a Veteran. If he maintains his stardom, the Young Star becomes a plain-old Star. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are now stars. Veterans have enough of a track record that they are automatically thought of as starters and usually get two or three benefits of the doubt before they hit the bench. It's common for quarterbacks to go from Star to Veteran as they age: Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, and Marc Bulger did it in recent years.
Tweeners also become Veterans, but Tweeners are more likely to lapse and become Fading Prospects. Joey Harrington and David Carr took this path. From there, all it takes is one banana peel pratfall for them to become Baggage Guys. Not all Baggage Guys are troublemakers in the Jeff George-Michael Vick mold. Some have too many injuries, or arrive with unrealistic expectations or bad reputations. Rex Grossman is a Baggage Guy at this point in his career; teams look at the fumbles and mistakes and figure that his bad habits are too entrenched. Teams love to sign Baggage Guys in March then cut them in August, just to see if they still have the goods that made them Prospects once. A Fading Prospect with a good attitude can work his way back into Veteran status, so there's hope for Harrington. He just needs to follow the orange dotted Dilfer-Testaverde Line.
Stars grow into Legends like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, to name two active quarterbacks. Veterans who hang around after they lose their starting jobs either become Mentors or Future Offensive Coordinators. The difference is a mostly a matter of playing time. Old quarterbacks who always claw their way back onto the field, like Garcia or Collins, are Mentors. Old quarterbacks who average about three passes per year but stay in the league, like Charlie Batch, are Future Offensive Coordinators. The dotted blue Line of Blanda from Mentor to Legend is rarely crossed, but Kurt Warner crossed it in January. Sometimes, a Camp Arm skips all the intermediate steps, hides in the corner of the locker room for 12 years, and emerges as a Future Offensive Coordinator. J.T. O'Sullivan followed that path, which was blazed by Jason Garrett. In an odd case of rock-paper-scissors wisdom, a Legend who changes teams simultaneously becomes a Baggage Guy, though I can't think of a recent example.
Once you understand the flowchart, you can make sense of what teams really need:
The Browns have a Prospect in Brady Quinn who is about to go Tweener or Failed Prospect. They need a Mentor. The Jets are in roughly the same position. It would be wrong for these teams to pursue a Tweener like Losman, because a team can only commit so many resources to developing a quarterback. Divide your energy into two projects, and you are likely to wind up with two Failed Prospects.
The Buccaneers are getting rid of a Mentor in Jeff Garcia, and they don't have much else. With no Stars available, they need a Prospect. They also need a Tweener or Veteran to handle shock duty until the kid is ready.
The Vikings, a playoff team with Tarvaris Jackson firmly in Fading Prospect land, may be the team most likely to gain from pursuing a Legend. In their circumstances, a good Mentor like Garcia could be enough to make them real contenders.
The Panthers and Seahawks have Veteran quarterbacks who were once Stars. They should pull the trigger on Prospects now. Barring that, the Panthers should take their chances with a Tweener or even risk a Baggage Guy who could quickly be discarded in August if he doesn't pan out. The Seahawks have a Tweener in Seneca Wallace, but they could do better.
The flowchart reminds us of an obvious-but-important fact: It's very hard to acquire a quarterback on the left side. Matt Cassel was the only player who approached Young Star status; he was franchised. Prospects come almost exclusively through the draft. It's easy to see why teams take chances on young quarterbacks with a high risk of becoming Baggage Guys. We can criticize teams for investing heavily in Matt Leinart or Vince Young, but we must accept that there aren't many alternatives. Ignore the rookie sweepstakes completely, and you may be forced to overpay for Derek Anderson two years later.
At the start of the playoffs, I developed a series of play diagrams for the New York Times. The Times then animated the plays and added some of my brief captions. The result was Inside the Playbook, a popular feature which ran for several weeks and drew a lot of attention.
Assembling the plays for Inside the Playbook took weeks; I spent many hours in December rolling through game tape, scribbling pictures and jotting notes. My biggest problem was that I did not know what teams would reach the playoffs. I started after Thanksgiving with a list of 15 likely playoff teams, which seemed like enough to cover my butt. It wasn't, and I spent the days between Christmas and New Year's drawing up plays for the Chargers and Eagles.
Now that the 2008 season is over, I find myself with a handful of unused play diagrams and a bi-weekly column to fill. In the next few Walkthroughs, I'll be amortizing the leftover play diagrams of the near-miss teams. We'll examine them with an eye toward 2009. What can these plays from last year tell us about what will happen next year?
Devin Hester In-Route: The play in Figure 2 was taken from Bears-Saints in Week 15. It shows the Bears in an alignment and personnel grouping they used frequently last year. There are two tight ends in the game, but Desmond Clark (82) is in the slot, and Kyle Orton is in shotgun.
|Figure 2: Devin Hester vs. Saints|
The Saints show a Cover-2 shell before the snap, and they drop into classic Tampa-2 zones once the play starts. That leaves Orton with an easy read. There's nothing fancy about the Bears' route combinations. Clark and Brandon Lloyd (80) run slants-and-flats on the right side. Matt Forte (22) runs a bench route to keep the cornerback to his side honest. Greg Olsen (88) runs a quick hitch at seven yards; this also freezes the underneath coverage.
Devin Hester (23) runs an in-route at about ten yards. It's a simple route, but Hester runs it very well. He stems inside at the snap to get a clean release, then cuts sharply when he is past the underneath coverage. Most importantly, he amps down his route and stops instead of cutting across the field. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is the Tampa-2 defender; he is playing deep and looking to take away Hester's route. If Hester tries to cross the middle, he'll enter Vilma's zone. Orton and Hester are on the same page, so Orton delivers a strike to Hester just after he makes his cut, and Hester can turn upfield for additional yards.
This play illustrates some things that surprised many of us last year. Orton turned into a quarterback who could read defenses and deliver the ball on time. Hester became a receiver who could do more than run streak routes. Olsen and Forte became great possession options in the passing game. The Bears offense wasn't great, but it kept them in games, and Ron Turner's simple, well-executed game plans matched the personnel well.
The Bears need more weapons on offense, starting with a quality all-purpose receiver to complement Hester. They'll try to upgrade the firepower, but the principles of their offense won't change much. Olsen is becoming a poor man's Jason Witten, so he'll spend a lot of time in the slot-flex position in the shotgun set. The two-tight end formation will still be a big part of the Bears' offense. And Hester's quickness will turn a few in-routes into downfield adventures.
Jets Empty Quick Out: This play comes from the Jets' Week 14 loss to the Niners. The Jets face third-and-4, so they line up in shotgun with three receivers and a tight end. Leon Washington (29) then motions into the left slot, leaving the Jets with an empty backfield. It's a daring strategy on third-and-medium, particularly against a team showing blitz: No backs mean no extra protection and no threat of a draw play. Eric Mangini did this sort of thing regularly last year. On this play, it paid off.
|Figure 3: Jets' Empty Quick Out|
The Niners are in man coverage, and Mangini wanted last year's quarterback to quickly find the mismatch and exploit it for a first down. Laveranues Coles (87) and Jerricho Cotchery (89) run deep to clear the cornerbacks out. They aren't primary receivers, but with the slot receivers running double-outs, Coles and Cotchery need to make some room along the sidelines. Washington and Chansi Stuckey (83) run the outs. Tight end Dustin Keller (81) runs a quick hitch at five yards.
The quarterback has two open receivers on this play: Both Washington and Stuckey flash open when they make their cuts. The throwing lane to Stuckey's side is clearer because the Niners blitz a safety and stunt their defensive end to the inside. The pass is perfect; Stuckey catches it in stride and has room to turn upfield. Cotchery turns a key first down into a big play with a great block after the catch; he bottles up his defender, allowing Stuckey to race up the sideline for a 24-yard gain.
Mangini is in Cleveland now, and Browns fans had better brace for empty backfield sets on third-and-short. The Jets will become more conservative on third down: they may still throw on third-and-4, but Brian Schottenheimer will probably be told to emphasize protection now that he works for defense-minded Rex Ryan. Shotgun sets and empty backfields are still on the rise in the NFL, so plays like this will become even more prevalent in 2009. Even an inexperienced Brady Quinn or Kellen Clemens can read man coverage and make these throws, which is why coaches like Mangini feel spread-principle plays are worth the risk.
The flight was booked. The bags were packed. The press pass was secured. The children were hugged. The wife was appeased with Valentine's Day gifts. I was almost in Indy when a personal issue made the trip impossible.
Two years ago, I lamented my status as a Combine homebody in the blog Football Outsiders used to write for another media outlet. I wanted to sit through the endless, boilerplate interviews with owners and executives, to listen to the inarticulate musings of 21-year-olds afraid that one false word will affect their draft status. I wanted to have conversations like these (taken from that old blog) with my journalistic brethren:
Me: Hey, Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders. Pleased to meet you.
Other Writer: Bubba Jones, Frog Creek Courier-Bugle-Times. Charmed.
Me: Who's on the podium next? Bill Polian? A.J. Smith?
Other Writer: Dunno. Lost track two hours ago.
Me: I see ... so, is there any place to get a decent drink around here?
Other Writer: There's a flask of Early Times in my breast pocket.
Me: I must not have made myself clear. I was looking for a decent drink.
Other Writer: Like it or lump it, Jersey Boy.
(I take flask, gulp, and sigh)
In reality, I won't miss the press conferences or the interviews. The fly-on-the-wall rumors you hear in Indy are juicy, but they are all on the Internet an hour later, so I won't feel uninformed. Doug Farrar is at the Combine, so the Football Outsiders will be well represented.
But I will miss the chance to meet other writers, to network, to go out to dinner with Doug and others, to talk football over drinks with guys as obsessed as I am. There's something about the inconveniences of travel -- dreary hotels, long flights and train rides, stale continental breakfasts -- that makes me feel like an honest-to-God writer. The Combine wasn't meant to be this year, and while I will actually be more productive and creative from my television-side perch, I'm feeling just a twinge of sour grapes.
Wait -- what's the weather forecast for Indianapolis? Snow showers, winds, highs in the 20s? A Saturday night low of ... ouch ... a nipple-crystallizing 14 degrees?
Have fun, Doug. When they move the Combine to New Orleans, I'll join you for that beer.
38 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2009, 1:16am by yakul