Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
08 Oct 2009
by Mike Tanier
The NFL will soon crack down on end zone meta-brations.
Chad Ochocinco scored a first-quarter touchdown against the Browns last week, then headed toward the infamous Dawg Pound. Ochocinco leapt into the throng of socially maladjusted Browns fans a few years ago, but lineman Anthony Collins grabbed him this time. He bear-hugged the demonstrative receiver and appeared to warn him not to taunt the rowdy fans. Ochocinco complied and followed Collins to the sidelines.
After the game, Collins revealed that the whole scene was staged. Ochocinco never planned to leap into the Dawg Pound; he told Collins and the other linemen to grab him and make an elaborate show of stopping him. That means that the act of stopping the celebration was, in fact, the celebration. A meta-bration.
Ochocinco's meta-bration was clever and entertaining, which is why the league must stop anything like it from happening in the future.
The Ochocinco-Collins skit disobeys many of the league's end zone celebration rules. It was premeditated. It involved teammates. It had all the earmarks of an illicit celebration except the actual celebration. There's no way Roger Goodell will leave such a pesky loophole unfilled. Next year, the rulebook will include language like this:
Meta-brations: Any premeditated act of excessive celebration that involves the deliberate abstinence from excessive celebration will be penalized as if it is an actual excessive celebration: 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.
Further language will prohibit second, third, or nth degree meta-brations: Teammates cannot prevent teammates from preventing other teammates from celebrating if such prevention appears designed to enhance the overall illusion of celebration prevention.
In this way, the league will completely eliminate subjectivity from officiating.
While deliberating on meta-brations, Goodell and his party posse will develop other rules to help curb the pandemic of spontaneous work-related pride that's eroding our society. The league will also outlaw:
Quasi-brations: Celebrations where the player crinkles his nose and half-heartedly spikes the ball. Quasi-brations cheapen the touchdown experience.
Retro-brations: Celebrations that pay homage to the Funky Bunch or Billy White Shoes Johnson, even if such celebrations somehow fall within the pinky-hold fissures in existing rules. End zone dancing has been around for 40 years, but that still doesn't make it right, dammit.
Gamma-brations: Celebrations involving the Hulk smashing puny humans. Actually, banning these is a good idea.
Anti-brations: Instances where the player hands the ball back to the referee with such nondescript humility that he calls attention to his own nondescript humility, thereby making us all feel guilty about our petty egos and provoking a shameful hatred of the player and his showy modesty.
Eventually, NFL psychologists will determine what level of enthusiasm is appropriate after scoring a touchdown. Youth players across America will then condition themselves to respond appropriately, starting at age 10. Spontaneity will be replaced by carefully-modulated displays of socially acceptable self-satisfaction. Creativity will be stifled in the name of narrowly-defined rules of sportsmanship.
It will be a glorious future. But not too glorious.
It's hard to say how good the Saints defense really is. DVOA ranks it as the best in football, but DVOA doesn't know about extenuating circumstances. One thing's for sure: The Saints defense is a lot better than it was last year.
New coordinator Gregg Williams came to New Orleans to implement the heavy-blitzing defense he used so successfully in Washington and Jacksonville. The Saints also upgraded their secondary, adding veteran safety Darren Sharper, the NFL's active interception leader, veteran cornerback Jabari Greer, and others. Williams's schemes have the Saints blitzing much more and playing more man coverage than they did last year. The presence of Sharper and Greer gives Williams the confidence to call the defenses he wants to run.
In addition to a new scheme and new personnel, the Saints have a new mindset. The Saints took Gary Gibbs' read-and-react philosophy too far last season. They sat passively in their zones, and too often lapses in coverage led to big gains or long pass interference penalties. Williams has done a fine job of implementing the new defense, and Saints players appear to know their assignments perfectly. That's a must when a defense takes as many chances as the Saints do under Williams.
|Figure 1: Saints Screen Contain|
In Figure 1, the Jets line up in an ace formation with three receivers (who are not shown). The Saints crowd linebackers Scott Fujita (55) and Jonathan Vilma (51) into the A-gaps, with Scott Shanle (58) head-up on the tight end. The Saints are clearly showing a blitz up the middle, which suits the Jets just fine: they plan to set up a screen to Leon Washington (29).
Williams calls a lot of blitzes, but they aren't very exotic. This is a standard fire blitz. Vilma takes on the center, while Fujita loops behind him. Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele (92) attacks the guard's outside shoulder, creating a lane for Fujita. Fujita gets pressure, but that's to be expected when the offense calls a screen. Several linemen release their defenders so they can block for Washington, who feigns pass protection for a moment before releasing into the flat. For clarity, the motion of his blockers isn't shown.
The Saints blow up this screen because of the discipline of their front seven. Three defenders react immediately to the screen. Tackle Sedrick Ellis (98) engages Washington and slows him down (Ellis gets away with a little defensive holding). Sharper (42) races down from the free safety position to take away Washington's running lane. Slow-moving Ayodele hustles laterally to clog any cutback lanes. The timing of the screen is disrupted, and Mark Sanchez has nowhere to throw the ball, so he dumps it to the sidelines.
This kind of defensive discipline was evident throughout the game. Sanchez's first interception was thrown against basic man coverage with Sharper as a deep safety. There was nothing diagram-worthy about the defensive call, but the defenders covered their receivers tightly, and Shaper read the play and jumped. Sanchez's end zone fumble in the second quarter was the result of excellent coverage and relentless pursuit by the pass rush. Coordinating a defense isn't just about designing blitzes: coaches like Williams must stress pursuit, coverage responsibility, and play recognition. The Saints defense, terribly mistake prone in 2008, did have some lapses in the first two weeks of the season. Those lapses disappeared in the last two weeks.
|Figure 2: Saints Safety Blitz|
Facing third-and-10 on the next play, the Jets switched to the shotgun and Williams crowded eight defenders on the line. Pre-snap, it appears that Sharper will blitz from the offensive right side while safety Roman Harper (41) covers the tight end, but Williams has a wrinkle for the rookie quarterback. Harper, end Will Smith (91), and tackle Tony Hargrove (69) run a three man stunt. Hargrove sacrifices himself by attacking the left tackle, Smith loops inside, and Harper blitzes wide.
This stunt confounds the blocking scheme, but it comes at a price: Tight end Dustin Keller (81) releases, uncovered, into his route. To compensate, Scott Shanle replaces Harper in man coverage, while Sharper buzzes underneath the routes of the tight end and two receivers who aren't shown. Had Sanchez read the clean release, he might have thrown a completion ... or an interception to Sharper if he reacted too late. Instead, a rushed Sanchez locks onto receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who is well covered by Greer.
Williams is able to call so many blitzes because he has confidence in his man coverage defenders. Neither Greer nor Tracy Porter is a shut-down corner, but they limit their mistakes. Sharper, of course, gives him one of the league's best ballhawks, a safety who is a step slow in man coverage but is second only to Ed Reed at watching the quarterback's eyes and feasting on errant throws. Williams is also helped by the fact that the Saints offense so often forces opponents to play catch-up.
|Figure 3: Saints Blitz Eight|
When the Jets were down 24-10 late in the fourth quarter, Williams saw no reason to switch to a prevent defense. Instead, he sent an 8-man blitz on second-and-10 (Figure 3). Technically, this is a six-man blitz, as it appears both Harper and Porter have coverage responsibilities for the players in the backfield. When both safeties attack the line at the snap, both backs set to block inside defenders. This is a simple case of overwhelming numbers, and Charles Grant (93) easily gets the edge to net a sack. On the next play, the Saints rushed just three defenders on third-and-21. A confused, out-of-options Sanchez had no where to throw the ball, and the opportunistic Sharper netted his second interception of the day.
So far this season, the Saints have played two rookie quarterbacks, a third quarterback making his first start (Kevin Kolb), and a Bills team that fired its offensive coordinator a week before the season started. You're going to generate some turnovers against inexperienced, unprepared quarterbacks, so the Saints defense probably isn't as good as it currently looks.
The Saints defense, however, doesn't have to be great to complement the offense. There are more suspect quarterbacks in the team's future: Chad Henne in two weeks, two games against one of the Joshes in Tampa Bay, and two games against Jake Delhomme or his inevitable replacement. The Saints now know their defense is good enough to force turnovers and shut down bad offenses. If it is good enough to hold better offenses to about 24 points, the Saints offense should win many games going away.
JaMarcus Russell's completion percentage is currently 39.8.
That's a staggeringly low number, the equivalent of a baseball player batting about .125. It's like getting 22 percent correct on an A-through-D multiple choice test. Shouldn't you reach 25 percent just by circling C? Shouldn't a quarterback complete 39.8 percent of his passes just on screens and dump-offs to the fullback? If you throw close your eyes and heave a football haphazardly onto a patch of grass, won't it get caught about 40 percent of the time? Russell's numbers seem worse than random chance allows.
Russell is just 12-of-40 on first down attempts (30 percent), which is incomprehensible, because defenses can't sell out on pass defense on first down. Because of three interceptions, his quarterback rating on first down is 10.0, far lower than the rating you get just by throwing incompletions. (If you throw nothing but incomplete passes, your rating is 39.6. His first-down DVOA is -66.4%). Russell is 10-of-24 (41.6 percent) on second down and 18-of-40 (45 percent) on third downs, although only 10 of those third-down completions netted first downs. He is 3-of-4 on fourth downs, with a 57-yard touchdown against the Chargers. Those numbers suggest a new role: Russell could become the NFL's first ever fourth down specialist quarterback.
Russell completes 44.3 percent of his passes in the first half but just 34 percent in the second half, when the Raiders are far behind and everyone has changed the channel. He's 19-of-57 (33.3 percent) on the road and 2-of-5 in the red zone. In short, he's consistent.
It's rare for a modern quarterback to complete far fewer than half his passes; those who do rarely get 108 opportunities to embarrass themselves. Ken Dorsey was as bad as a quarterback can be last year, but he completed 47.3 percent of his 91 passes for the Browns. Bruce Gradkowski replaced Dorsey in Cleveland and completed just 7-of-21 passes (33 percent, as you probably calculated). Gradkowski is now Russell's backup, putting us at the intersection where poetic justice meets job security. Ironically, Gradkowski's two completions on two attempts are the only things keeping the Raiders' team completion rate above 40 percent.
Thanks to Gradkowski and Dorsey (and Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards and so on) the Browns completed just 48.8 percent of their passes last year. Before them. the last team to post a percentage below 50 percent was the 2002 Lions. Mike McMahon completed 62-of-147 passes (42.2 percent) that year, while Joey Harrington barely cracked 50 percent. McMahon thought he could scramble, so he was also sacked 12 times. For this performance, he was rewarded a job as Donovan McNabb's backup, and he started seven games in 2005, completing 45.7 percent of his passes. McMahon moved from Philadelphia from Toronto, where he started a few games for the Argonauts, competing 39.5 percent of his passes in 2007. He is currently the quarterback of the California Redwoods of the UFL. His odds of breaking even are going up.
Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell combined to complete 45.6 percent of their passes for the 2000 Bengals. That's the lowest figure of the last decade, though it is 4.7 points higher than the Raiders current percentage. Smith completed just 44.2 percent of his passes that year. The Steelers completed just 49.2 percent of their passes that season, but Kordell Stewart (52.2 percent) wasn't the primary suspect. Kent Graham threw 148 passes that year but completed just 66 of them (44.6 percent). Early in his career, Graham threw 172 passes in three seasons for the Giants but completed just 44.2 percent of them, but he rebounded to post a completion percentage of 51.8. We're plumbing some cavernous depths here, but even Akili and Graham managed to keep their rates in the mid-40s. It must have been those meetings they didn't skip or that surf 'n' turf they didn't gobble.
To reach below the Russell line you have to reach back in history. Kim McQuilken has always been one of my favorite bad quarterbacks. McQuilken completed 48-of-121 passes (39.7 percent) for 450 yards with two touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and 17 sacks for the 1976 Falcons. McQuilken's career NFL completion percentage was also 39.7 percent, in 272 attempts. The 1976 Falcons completed just 44.6 percent of their passes, with Scott Hunter and an inexperienced Steve Bartkowski pitching in their incompetence. McQuilken eventually went to the USFL, then wrote a book about called The Road to An Athletic Scholarship, which no doubt offers valuable advice for youngsters who hope to make college affordable (Chapter One: Be Totally Awesome at Sports).
The 1976 Falcons would be a good comparison to today's Raiders -- they were awful, had a pretty good defense and some talented running backs, and had just fired a coach who threatened to stack chairs and beat up reporters -- but there's a big difference between a 40 percent completion rate in defense-dominated 1976 and the same rate in the era of the spread. Gary Marangi went 82-of-232 (35.3 percent) for the 1976 Bills in relief of Joe Ferguson, whose completion rate was a princely 49 percent. The Bills finished 2-12 despite the fact that O.J. Simpson rushed for 1,500 yards. Marangi is now a school headmaster, which is more than we can say for his running back.
The NFL record for low completion percentage was set by the 1936 (you guessed it) Eagles. Backs Dave Smukler, Don Jackson, and John Kusko, plus a few others, combined to complete 39 of 170 passes (22.9 percent) for three touchdowns and 39 interceptions. The Eagles ran a single-wing offense that year, finishing 1-10 for coach/owner Bert Bell.
Smukler, who completed 30.9 percent of his passes in that record-setting season, was apparently quite a player. According to my Eagles Encyclopedia, Dynamite Dave was compared to Jim Thorpe and Ernie Nevers as a collegian, and he was widely regarded as the Eagles best player at fullback/proto-quarterback/linebacker/return man. After a few seasons, Smukler grew "fed up with the whole thing" and retired to become a leather glove cutter.
Comparing a modern player to a 1930's player is ridiculous, of course. Smukler had to play five positions and work an off season job, while Russell (theoretically) gets to spend the whole off season preparing, can throw tunnel screens, and plays 30 minutes per game against a prevent defense, which didn't exist in 1936. It stands to reason that Russell's completion rate would be almost nine points higher.
Nine points! Sure, Russell is throwing to two rookie receivers who drop two passes per week each and often fall down when cutting. Sure, every Raiders play includes at least one missed block. Sure, Russell has a work ethic that would have led quickly to starvation in 1936. But Russell's completion percentage is just nine points higher than that of a single-wing fullback for a 1-11 team that set the record for futility 73 years ago. And you thought comparisons to Akili Smith and Mike McMahon were damning.
If all else fails, though, Russell can always go to the UFL. Or write a book. Or cut gloves.
74 comments, Last at 14 Oct 2009, 9:00pm by Lou