Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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11 Nov 2009

Walkthrough: Larry Land

by Mike Tanier

Someone named Dominic Baronet allegedly "friended" a dozen women on Facebook, then impregnated them.

Dude must have one hell of an Internet connection.

According to reports, Baronet knocked two women up in the same day, a feat of reprehensible morality, enviable stamina, and amazing scheduling. The women felt betrayed and violated by the passionate -- but unsettlingly brief -- relationships. George Kokinis can relate.

Kokinis may not have been much of a general manager -- he never got the chance to do anything generally managerial -- but at least he wasn't the Browns GM who started the NFL's flame war fad. That honor goes to Phil Savage, who had the vocabulary right but lacked Larry Johnson's homophobic flair. Thinking outside the inbox got Savage fired, but at least he got to empty his desk; Kokinis didn't have time to fill it.

The Browns deny reports that Kokinis was escorted by security from team headquarters. It's more likely the Browns just deactivated his security chip, everyone's favorite petty, over-officious post-firing security measure. (Granted, it has to be done eventually, but doing it four seconds after the employee huffs out of your office is a vindictive cubicle dictator move). Shutting off access to the company email is almost as overdramatic and humiliating, though in cases like Savage's it's was a wise move. The Browns had to be cautious: they couldn't risk Kokinis sneaking out with a copy of the offensive playbook, which like most depressants has a high street value.

With the Kokinis threat neutralized, Eric Mangini is free to act as paranoid as he wants. He wouldn't reveal that Brady Quinn was his starting quarterback until Wednesday, forcing the Ravens to prepare for Quinn, Derek Anderson, and/or Brett Ratliff, preparations akin to childproofing the family room.

If my tone two paragraphs ago suggested that I've been on the business end of a few "forced resignations" then I've probably said too much, although Savage, Johnson, and Baronet might disagree. It's one of the Internet's many evils: it eliminates the important personal distance between general managers and cocky fans; running backs and guys with poorly-chosen profile pictures; vulnerable women and the jerks who stalk them; sportswriters and people who couldn't care less about their personal life. I'm as guilty as the next guy of sharing my breakfast choices and Covington rants with social networkers, though I somehow avoid the curses and slurs, even when reviewing Jason Elam or quoting Eminem. Mangini may be right: It's better to say nothing and be thought a fool. Though it's probably better to say nothing, win a Super Bowl, and be thought a genius. Or to win a Super Bowl, say everything in a wise, authoritative tone, and be thought Tony Dungy.

Dungy is back in the news; I missed the press conference in which he was appointed to a cabinet position, but why else does everyone still listen to him? Dungy thinks Michael Vick, professionally unfulfilled by his two-draw-play-per-week workload, should play for the Bills next year. Dungy's words briefly dominated the Bills blogoverse, though that could be misleading: the only Internet hotspots in greater Buffalo are the student union at the SUNY campus and a Barnes & Noble on Elmwood Avenue.

Do we really care about Vick's job satisfaction? Shouldn't he be thankful just to be out of the license plate business? Still, Our National Conscience may be on to something: Vick may still have sins to repent, and the Siberian gulags outside Orchard Park are perfect for penance. I've seen Vick shiver under a Himalaya-grade parka on ordinary winter days; A few Buffalo Decembers would make him so contrite that even PETA would forgive him.

So the Internet begot Savage, who begot Johnson, and it also begot Baronet, who is guilty of a dozen cases of Internet begetting, which should be at least twice as illegal as Internet betting. On the plus side, it begot my writing career, and at least Baronet isn't affiliated with the NFL. Yet. Any more injuries and the Seahawks will have to hold open tryouts. Baronet is the kind of guy who knows how to score an event invitation.

Electric Larry Land

I didn't pay much attention to the Cardinals in the first month of the season. I wrote them off after they lost to the Niners and Colts in the first three weeks, figuring that they would either flat-line or end the season as one-and-done token representatives of a bad division. Granted, that's what they looked like last season, too, but there seemed to be even less magic in Arizona this year than last.

They've gone 4-1 since then, beating some pretty good teams along the way. It's clear that they are going to win the NFC West, that they may once again clinch early, and that while they are still unpredictable, they are in good position to be playoff noisemakers.

With the Cardinals playing well, it was time to get caught up on my homework, I watched the Cardinals-Bears game tape, focusing on the Cardinals offense, specifically Larry Fitzgerald. With Anquan Boldin hurt (physically and emotionally), Fitzgerald has become even more important to the Cardinals offense than he was last year. I wanted to see what the Cardinals were doing to protect Fitzgerald from double coverage: special formations, unusual route combinations, pre-snap motion, or some other wrinkle to keep defenses from loading up against a receiver with 87 targets.

It turns out that the Cardinals aren't doing anything special. They are splitting Fitzgerald wide, running simple plays, and allowing him to use his exceptional athleticism and technique to get open.

Into the I

Last year's Cardinals used more four-receiver sets than any team in the NFL. They only used tight ends on 58 percent of offensive snaps, by far the league's lowest rate. They used single-setback formations 68 percent of the time (7th in the NFL) and ran a higher percentage of draw plays than any other team. They were, in short, a single-back team with a pass-oriented offense.

That's why I was surprised to see the Cardinals in so many offset I-formations against the Bears. Fullback Dan Kreider got a lot of playing time, and tight ends Ben Patrick and Anthony Becht were on the field for many snaps, alone or together, even on passing downs. The run-oriented personnel groups were partially a response to the loss of Boldin -- the Cardinals used more three-receiver sets early in the game against the Panthers two weeks ago -- but they also reflected Ken Whisenhunt's commitment to improve a poor running game.

Figure 1: Cardinals Full House

The Cardinals were so determined to run the ball that they sometimes used a full-house backfield (Fig. 1), with Patrick (89) and Kreider (35) lead blocking for Beanie Wells (26). The Cardinals ran simple isolation plays from the full house, though they certainly have some full-house passes in the playbook. The Cardinals ran effectively against the Bears, though most of their successful runs came from great individual effort by Wells, not from the blocking or the system.

I-formations and base personnel groupings also benefit the passing game by keeping the opponent's base defense on the field. For some teams, base-on-base matchups favor the offense: the Chargers, for example, can isolate Antonio Gates on a safety or Darren Sproles on a linebacker from their base package. The Cardinals don't get much of a matchup advantage from their tight ends and backs. What they do get is a compressed field: with a tight end and two backs in the backfield, they can open up a lot of real estate between the formation and receivers Fitzgerald (11) and Steve Breaston (15). All of that empty space forces cornerbacks to cover receivers with little underneath help, and with base-on-base, there are no extra defensive backs available for exotic coverage schemes. The formations make it easy to isolate Fitzgerald in single coverage.

Let's look at several variations on the same theme from the Cardinals game tape. In each of these plays, Fitzgerald runs a medium or deep route along the sidelines, while the other receivers essentially stay out of the way. The Bears are caught in some variation on man coverage in each play. The design of the plays is very simple; it's the execution that makes them special.

Figure 2: Cardinals Fitz Post

In Figure 2, Fitzgerald runs a skinny post. Breaston runs a deep cross to occupy the safety, while Becht (84) and Krieder run very shallow crosses. The Bears appear to be in Man-Free coverage: the free safety covers the deep middle, and the strong safety lurks in an underneath zone, but everyone else is in man coverage. Fitzgerald beats his cornerback with a sharp inside release and a smooth cut. The timing of his route and Kurt Warner's throw are excellent: Fitzgerald doesn't bend the route too far inside (where the safety can intervene), and Warner delivers the ball while the safety is still worried about both Fitzgerald and Breaston.

Figure 3: Cardinals Fitz Deep Comeback

Figure 3 shows a nearly identical play from a similar formation. Once again, Breaston runs a deep route, with Becht running an in route at about 15 yards. Krieder runs a short midfield curl, and Wells a shallow cross. Against zone coverage, these would be "hold level" routes designed to keep linebackers from backing up into deeper coverage. Against man, they have a similar purpose, opening up passing lanes for the deep receivers. Fitzgerald runs a comeback along the sideline at 18 yards, and his cut is so crisp that a good cornerback -- Charles Tillman -- has no chance of staying with him. Once again, Warner's pass is on time and on target.

When diagramming these plays, I shut off the "curved lines" feature for Fitzgerald. His cuts are so sharp that they have to be represented by angles, not curves.

If Figure 4 looks like a flipped version of Figure 3, that's because I used the software's Mirror function before making minor changes. The figure shows a short completion on a comeback to Fitzgerald in the second quarter; the defensive coverage was much tighter, but Fitzgerald made a diving catch. All of the principles of the Cardinals' offset-I passing game come into play in Figure 4: Fitzgerald is isolated on his side of the field, Breaston and the tight end run deep routes, the backs run short "level" routes. Fitzgerald and Warner can do this to you all day.

The Bears got caught in man coverage time after time against the Cardinals, but they tried to give Fitzgerald's defenders help. Tillman and the other Bears cornerbacks usually had high safety help, but a deep safety doesn't do much good against comeback routes along the sidelines. The Bears were shorthanded defensively and couldn't effectively run many elaborate zones.

Figure 4: Cardinals Fitz Deep Comeback Part II

They were also on the wrong side of the scoreboard: the Cardinals took an early lead and could dictate terms on offense, all the while adding to it. That's why the Bears weren't able to do what the Panthers did two weeks ago. Early in that game, the Cardinals had some success executing their somewhat-balanced offense. A Julius Peppers interception of a flat pass (from the offset-I formation) and a few big running plays, however, gave the Panthers a 28-7 lead in the second quarter. The Cardinals switched to the shotgun and the no-huddle, and once they started pressing, Warner started making mistakes. Most teams won't be able to build 28-7 leads on the Cardinals –- it's shocking that the Panthers did -– so opponents need a more viable anti-Fitzgerald plan.

The Uneasy Answer

The textbook way to stop Warner and Fitzgerald from picking you apart is to flatten Warner. The Bears didn't blitz much against the Cardinals, mainly because they were low on manpower with Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and several others out (including safety Al Afalava, who left the game early in the second quarter). When the Bears did try to blitz, they got burned.

Figure 5 shows Fitzgerald's second-quarter touchdown in the front corner of the end zone. The Cardinals are in another personnel grouping they had little use for in 2008: a two-tight end set, with Ben Patrick in the slot. Again, this grouping keeps the Bears in a base package, and the pre-snap read suggests Man-Free coverage. The strong safety is the only wild card; from his position, he could cover Becht or the back, drop into a zone, bracket Fitzgerald in double coverage, or blitz.

The safety blitzes, but the Cardinals have a max-protect blocking scheme in place. It's another advantage of two-back or two-tight end sets: extra protection. The three-route combination should look familiar: Breaston runs deep, Patrick runs a post to attack the high safety. Fitzgerald starts by running a post, but bends back into a post-corner route. His defender reacts hard to the inside move, and the free safety stays in the middle of the field to defend the post. Warner maintains discipline, watching the safety and only turning to Fitzgerald when it's time to throw. It's another simple play, designed to get the ball to the best weapon on the field.

Figure 5: Cardinals Fitz Double-Move Touchdown

Everything Fitz

Fitzgerald may be the best route-runner in the NFL right now. He always gets a clean release, dictating to the defender how he'll get off the line of scrimmage. If he wants the inside shoulder, he gets it; if he wants to work the sideline, he'll get outside his cornerback. Fitzgerald stems his routes very well, with sudden moves at the top of each route. Factor in his ability to make tough catches away from his body and scoops off the ground, and it's easy to see why he's targeted a dozen times per game.

When Boldin returns, three-wideout sets will also return, but the Cardinals no longer have to spread the field to beat opponents, and they don't have to keep Boldin happy to stay competitive. Their offset-I system, two tight end formations, and wishbone wrinkles give them a viable power game. They are no threat to power out 150 rushing yards against the Vikings, but they can run well enough to move chains and squat on the lead against the Seahawks, Lions, and Rams (twice). Those four opponents should get the Cardinals to nine wins; a .500 record against the Vikings, Niners, Packers and Titans could get them a home playoff game.

As for Fitzgerald, the only cornerback with a chance to slow him on the upcoming schedule is Coutland Finnegan. The Packers will try to neutralize Fitzgerald by blitzing Warner, the Vikings can get the pressure they need from their front four. Every other team will either tie its defense in knots to stop one man or simply accept the fact that Fitzgerald is going to do some damage.

Lost Numbers

The Packers have allowed a league-high 225 yards on 37 sacks this season. The NFL mean is this year 118 lost yards. The Packers have therefore lost 107 more sack yards than the average team.

The Packers have committed a league-high 62 penalties for 509 yards, the second highest total in the NFL (the Ravens are first). The NFL mean this season is 410 lost penalty yards. The Packers have therefore lost 99 more penalty yards than the average team.

The Packers allow 13.4 yards per punt return. The NFL mean is 8.45 yards per return. That means the Packers lose 4.95 more yards of field position on punts than the average team. Spread across 22 punts, that’s 108 more yards of lost yardage.

Add up the sacks, penalties, and punt returns, and the Packers have given up 314 more "hidden yards" than the average team. Prorate for the season and that comes to 628 yards: the contribution of a good slot receiver, or a pass-catching tight end. Or about a game and a half of total offense. That's what the Packers are handing opponents.

No wonder the Packers have a great offense and defense but a 4-4 record.

The sack problem is easy to correct. Like the Steelers, the Packers have a quarterback-line codependency. The line isn't very good, and Aaron Rodgers holds the ball forever. Mike McCarthy uses a lot of six and seven-man protection, so read progression is more an issue than scheme. Rodgers must stop sampling the Randall Cunningham highlight reel when the pocket collapses: three-yard dumpoffs are good, sideways scrambles aren’t.

Problems with the return game are also easy to correct. Kick coverage is all about assignment discipline and energy. Special teams coach Shawn Slocum should be allowed to draft a few more starters and run a few more practice reps to make sure the Packers don't give up any more 80-yard kick returns at the end of close games.

Penalty problems are the hardest to cure. Football Outsiders research suggests that few penalties correlate from year to year, but the Packers were flagged 110 times last season, so they can't wait for outside factors to take the penalties away. One great cure for holding penalties is a quarterback who dumps off three-yard passes instead of scrambling sideways. Maybe the Packers can kill two birds with one stone, assuming Rodgers doesn't hold onto the stone too long.

McCarthy is certainly emphasizing these "lost yardage" plays during the practice week. He may ultimately be judged by how well he solves these problems. The Packers are good enough to compete for the NFC North, but they are fumbling through their second straight season of missed opportunities. Many factors that affect a team's record are out of a coach's control: injuries, strength of schedule, the luck of the bounce. Penalties and special teams gaffes can be controlled. If McCarthy can't do it, the Packers will find someone who can.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 11 Nov 2009

54 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2009, 6:37am by countertorque

Comments

1
by Eddo :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:17pm

Great article, Mike. While I appreciated last week's humor-laden Walkthrough, this week's football-heavy one was better.

The detail on Fitzgerald's route-running ability is not something you hear about from any mainstream sites; it's great to read about it, finally. I had wondered what separates Fitz from other physical studs like Andre Johnson, and I think I got my answer.

41
by Mr Shush :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 11:07am

If your implication is that Johnson is clearly not as good as Fitzgerald, I don't think that's true. They're actually incredibly similar players in almost every way. Neither of them has any substantial flaw - they're both big, powerful, fast, tough, great route runners with superb hands. If anything, Johnson is maybe a little faster and Fitzgerald has slightly better hands. They're the two best receivers in football, but which of them is number one is a very tough question to answer.

45
by Eddo :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 1:36pm

Nah, I didn't mean to imply that Fitz is much better than Johnson, though I would take him if I were picking first in some sort of WR-only draft. My impression matches yours, but a little more in Fitzgerald's favor; I feel that the difference in hands is greater than the difference in speed, and that having good hands is more important than being fast, so I give the nod to Fitzgerald over Johnson.

51
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 11/14/2009 - 9:09am

Picking first in a WR-only draft, Fitz is a no-brainer over AJ due to the age difference (though Megatron might be a better bet than either), unless you're getting them with their current contract in place, Madden-style, in which case you might appreciate the fact that Johnson is locked up for longer for cheaper. Subjectively, I think I just about agree with you, but looking at the numbers for last season, Johnson had a better DVOA on more targets with a worse quarterback and worse complementary receivers. Like I say, it's an incredibly tough call.

2
by jmaron :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:27pm

"The sack problem is easy to correct. Like the Steelers, the Packers have a quarterback-line codependency. The line isn't very good, and Aaron Rodgers holds the ball forever. Mike McCarthy uses a lot of six and seven-man protection, so read progression is more an issue than scheme. Rodgers must stop sampling the Randall Cunningham highlight reel when the pocket collapses: three-yard dumpoffs are good, sideways scrambles aren’t."

Are you sure this is easy? My gut says this isn't a coach-able thing. Are there examples of QB's that had sack rate north of 10% that learned to reduce that rate substantially over their career? If it was easy wouldn't the Rob Johnson's and David Carr's who had so many other wonderful skills have figured it out?

I think that kind of decision making happens a level in the brain that can't really be coached. It's like trying to turn a free swinger in baseball into taking walks. Can't do it without screwing up everything else they do well.

5
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:38pm

This reminds me of the endless debates about whether it's better to harp on Romo's turnovers or to just let him play. Luckily, it seems like he's finally figured out a way to play great without making dumb plays. Maybe it just takes time and experience. Both Rodgers and Romo sat multiple seasons before starting. I think Romo's development this season bodes well for Rodgers improving down the road as well... and that's scary.

Were Carr or R. Johnson ever as good as Rodgers? I don't think anyone ever talked about either of them the way people have recently been talking about Rodgers.

Is it a stretch to say that Rodgers is playing (or at least trying to play) like he's Big Ben? The only problem is that Rodgers is not quite as physical as Ben.

6
by jmaron :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:52pm

When I watch Roethlisberger I see a guy holding onto the ball with a plan. It's all happening in seconds but you can see him quickly reviewing options - and making quick decisive decisions. Not always right but always thinking and making decisive and often great choices. He's also has a great sense of the rush - he is sacked a lot because he's buying time for the big play (and his line hasn't been great).

with Rodgers you can see his brain just freeze. You can see options staring him in the face and you think dump it off, run - but he just freezes. He's also a heck of a lot easier to sack and doesn't have a great sense in the pocket.

I would be very surprised if you don't see a few big interception/turnovers games out of Romo at some point in the season. He's a gambler with not the greatest accuracy. He runs around in the pocket in such a way that fumbles will happen. I still like him as a QB but he will always struggle with turnovers in my mind.

9
by MJK :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 1:01pm

When I watch Roethlisberger, I see a guy with a near suicidal disregard for his own health or well being. You know, the kind of guy that would drive a motorcycle 180 mph in a city without wearing a helmet. He's a great QB, and that reckless disregard for himself is definitely an asset to the Steeler's passing game, but he's going to get himself killed by a blitzing LB someday, and if he ever does suffer a big injury, even on a freak occurrence (i.e. Brady or Palmer) and lose his confidence, he'll instantly turn into one of the worst QB's in the league.

15
by steve (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:05pm

mjk

well I guess for now, Ben will just have to be secure that he has more SB
trophy's since 2004, then any other quarterback.

17
by dryheat :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:08pm

That's an awesome statistic.

19
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:23pm

Self-confidence is fueled by even the most misleading statistics that confirm one's own awesomeness. So for Ben, that stat could actually mean something.

29
by Matt (not the registered one) (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 3:05pm

Tried to reply here, but it wound up at number 28 below.

54
by countertorque :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 6:37am

... except that he's bigger than most linebackers.

14
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 1:33pm

Well, we've already seen that in the NYG/DAL game... but since then he's really minimized his gambling. He seems a lot more patient now, and he also has improved his grip on the ball (holding with two hands instead of one), which has drastically reduced his fumble rate.

I'm not saying he's perfect yet, but he does seems to either be on a really great hot streak or maybe even has turned a corner with his game.

And good point about Ben vs. Aaron. Rodgers does seem to lack pocket awareness and also does tend to display utter brain freezes at times.

10
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 1:20pm

I haven't done the film studies to confirm it (Mike Tanier, please pick up the white courtesy phone!), but I think the biggest factors in Romo's improvement this year are, in order, much better pass protection, and not having a preconceived notion, prior to kickoff, as to how the ball should be distributed.

20
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:24pm

This is true. Getting glimpses of Cory Procter filling in at Center during that Philly game only cements that first point.

24
by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:41pm

I question whether Romo has improved. His interception rate is much better this year (last year it was a then-career-best 3.1% while this year it's 1.9%), but his sack rate is considerably worse (the last two years he was at 4.3% and 4.4% while this year he is at 6.0%) and he's continuing a somewhat disconcerting trend of reducing his completion percentage every year (it was 65.3% in 2006 and is now a below-average 60.2%). His adjusted net yards per attempt is up a bit, but so is the league average. However, his DVOA and DYAR are up considerably from last year (and even up noticeably from 2 years ago). I'm not sure what to make of all that data, but it makes me wonder whether he actually has improved.

26
by tuluse :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:56pm

Sounds like he's holding the ball longer and making safer throws, ie putting it were only the receiver can get it. It means the receiver is getting to it less, but so are defenders.

I wonder if this is wise though. It seemed to me that party Romo's value was his risk taking.

16
by mrh :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:07pm

Warner's sack rate climbed to over 8.5% his last 2 years in STL (admittedly only 9 games total) and then 12.3% in NY. It dropped to 5.8% and 7.7% the 1st two years in the desrt and has been under 5% the last three seasons (his career lows). Not sure this proves anything and they are very different players, but it demonstrates that a QB can go thru periods of taking a lot of sacks and come out of it.

22
by jmaron :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:27pm

I've always had the sense that Warner is a really good QB in the right environment (good receivers - good pass blocking line) and a god awful one if he's on weaker team.

Most QB's will fall under that umbrella on some level - but Warner great accuracy on a really good offensive team makes him a star. His tendency to hold the ball at times, no mobility in the pocket and fumblitis makes him a disaster on a weak team.

37
by Podge (not verified) :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 6:43am

I think the last 2 games are kind of Warner: Defined. When he's on his game he's nearly unstoppable picking apart the defense to march his team down the field. When he's off his game he's also nearly unstoppable, picking apart his own offense to march the other team down the field.

3
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:32pm

"...but a deep safety doesn't do much good against comeback routes along the sidelines."

It does allow the corner to take chances and jump routes though, correct?

Great stuff. Next week focusing on Andre Johnson would be sweet.

4
by Brent Hutto (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:34pm

How do Fitzgerald's numbers at this point in his carry stack up against the great Jerry Rice? He seems to share superb route-running ability, sure hands and general body type along with perhaps even greater athleticism. And in Warner he benefits from a precision passer who can at least belongs in the same discussion with the ones Rice played with, doncha think?

12
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 1:26pm

People sometimes forget how much better Rice became at catching the ball, compared to what his hands were like when he entered the league. By contrast, Fitzgerald was much more polished in this area upon entering the league. This is not a knock on Rice; it is in fact a tribute to his work ethic.

13
by ABW (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 1:27pm

He's the closest any one has ever been. At the moment according to PFR Fitz has 482 receptions for 6607 yards and 53 TDs - not too shabby for 5 and a half years. But at the end of Rice's 6th year in the league, he had 446 receptions for 7866 yards and 79 TDs. In other words, Fitz has a reasonable shot at the receptions and yardage records(assuming he stays healthy and has an epically long career like Rice), but will need to have a couple of huge TD scoring years to catch up with Rice for TDs.

52
by Vince Verhei :: Sat, 11/14/2009 - 3:45pm

Check your copy of Football Outsiders Almanac, page 346: "Thanks to the early start to his career, [Fitzgerald] may be the only player with a shot to break Jerry Rice's records. (He's 226 catches and 2,400 yards ahead of where Rice was at the same age."

That was written before the season started, obviously. At age 26, Rice caught 64 passes for 1,306 yards. So far this season, Fitzgerald has 56 catches for 632 yards. So by the end of the year, Fitzgerald will be pulling far away in catches, although Rice will probably be "catching up" in yards.

53
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 11/14/2009 - 8:58pm

Moss still has a non-trivial chance of breaking the career receiving touchdowns record (though TDs from scrimmage is probably beyond him). He has 140 TDs through 8 games of his age 32 season. Rice had 131 at the end of his age 32 season. Obviously Rice's longevity was astounding, but Moss's height will probably allow him to be a red-zone threat even when his speed declines, in a way that Rice wasn't. I'm not saying I expect it to happen, but I don't think it would be astonishing if it did. Certainly I think it's more likely than Fitzgerald catching Rice for career yardage. Single season receiving yards, of course, is the one record of Rice's that is pretty much guaranteed to go at some point in the not absurdly distant future. An NFL team hiring Mike Leach would probably do the trick in a hurry, for starters. Leach's offense or something like it making it into the league might also be the only way anyone will catch Harrison's absurd single season receptions total.

7
by I am excellent at making love (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:56pm

One barrier to reducing Packers' penalties is that the defense is taught to molest the hell out of the receiver at the line of scrimmage, and McCarthy even accepts that sometimes they'll get flagged (a la Hawk's nullified interception against the Tampa Bay Juggernauts).

Now that the refs are watching for a regular mauling, and calling it a bit more aggressively, McCarthy's stuck between sticking with the original philosophy, or telling the "D" to back off--which of course brings on a whole host of unintended consequences.

But there's something wrong with this team. They have more talent than their record for the post-Ol' Wrangler Butt era would suggest (10-14, with the only wins in the last 12 months coming against Detroit, the Rams, Cleveland, the Bears, etc.). My guess is that the older guys (Driver, Woodson, Harris) aren't great with the whole leadership thing, and the younger ones aren't good enough to stand up and say what's what.

Apparently they had the dreaded "players only" meeting this week, so we'll see if that changes anything, or leads to an upset of the Cowboys.

11
by ammek :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 1:22pm

True about the DPI penalties, but we've come to accept those over the years. Also, as this site has frequently argued, defensive penalties don't hurt a team nearly as much as offensive and special teams penalties.

And that's where the Packers are hurting themselves. They've had at least one special teams penalty in seven games this year. The offensive line keeps getting flagged — before, during and after the snap. Add a few horsecollars, headbutts and roughing the passers and you're confronted with a problem that's as vast as it is deep-rooted.

And the root cause might be: the players are overmatched.

33
by I am excellent at making love (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 8:40pm

Okay, you're smart and paying attention to this team. I'm completely befuddled by several things happening over the last two seasons:

1. Whose fault is it: McCarthy's coaching or Thompson's personnel moves?
2. Their losses have been relatively close, but many of their wins have been by double-digit margins. Are they just unlucky, or not good enough to win close games?
3. How will they quickly rebuild the offensive line?
4. What will they do with Aaron Kampmann?
5. If the team returns to an extended period of mediocrity (a la the Infante years), will the fans still come out in force, or have they been spoiled by the success reached from 93-07?
6. Other than Rodgers and maybe Matthews and Jennings, is there one good younger player upon whom this team can rely?
7. I see few free agents who can help this team in the offseason (not that Ted would sign many/any). How do they get back on track before their aging quality players (Driver, Woodson, Harris) lose the will and ability to play?
8. Do you see them making the playoffs this year?

38
by ammek :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 7:21am

Owch, those are painful questions. Smart or no, I'm as befuddled as you about the team — as Mike Tanier points out, it has a prolific offense and a solid defense, and DVOA is chipper. So why is it headed for two straight years of 6-10? I wish I knew.

1) Hard to say. The defensive and special teams coaches carried the can for last year's underachievement: the thinking was that the talent was in place, but the schemes and coaching were not. So Green Bay returned 20 or 21 of its starters. I think that was complacent. The only real competition in training camp was at right tackle, between two unready late-round draft picks.

2) Many of their wins have been over the Lions. One thing the Packers have done consistently well is intercept passes, and the big wins over Indy and the Bears owed a lot to defensive TDs at crucial moments. Many of the close-ish losses have only been close because the Packers hung in after falling behind early. They are consistently slow starters, with I think 2 TDs on their opening drive in 24 games.

3) Not quickly enough. They have concentrated on improving the run-blocking (Tauscher was terrible last year) at the expense of pass protection. Thompson has drafted a lineman every year, but so far only Josh Sitton has proven to be a bona fide starter. Half of the current personnel will be released in the offseason (Clifton, Tauscher, Colledge, maybe Wells and Spitz too); instability = sacks.

4) Try to trade him for a pick. He insisted on playing on the weak side, and it isn't working out.

5) The attitude has changed, you're right. Fans will still come out, just as Chiefs and Browns fans do, but they're already more impatient than they were in the 1980s. And the Milwaukee ticket might have to be strengthened (ie, more divisional games) to keep the big-city (sic) folks coming. Also, Packer fans are very scared about losing the CBA.

6) No. There is lots of potential — Ted Thompson just loves him some potential — but it's striking how few of his draft picks are starting (or deserve to be). There is no depth behind the veterans at CB, OLT or DE. Thompson has often traded down on draft day, but hardly any of his low-round picks have contributed much beyond whiffing on blocks and getting flagged on special teams. Bad picks? Poor player development? Hard to say. But the 'Steelers template' won't work if you change your defensive and your offensive-line schemes every three years.

7) I … see … only … darkness … and … despair.

8) We'll know in two weeks' time. They can afford to lose to Dallas, but it will have to be a tough, well-played loss rather than the usual gaffe-prone hara-kiri, or else the vultures will circle over 1265. San Francisco is a must-win. With two clean games (managing to correct the errors Mike Tanier identified), at least one of them a win, and more Eagles/Giants self-harm, the Packers are still just about alive.

40
by I am excellent at making love (not verified) :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 11:04am

Wow-pretty good (you should send this to the editor of Packer Insider at jsonline--maybe they'll replace that yahoo Baranczyk with you. And if you ARE that yahoo Baranczyk, please accept my apologies).

Yes, as strange and disappointing as the last 1 1/2 seasons have been, it certainly wouldn't surprise me for this team to squeak in as the 6th seed, and then go all Arizona-ey in the playoffs.

The shadow of Ol Wrangler Butt still looms large over Rodgers (whom I really like, despite seeming kind of weird). It's ironic how, while with the Packers, Favre was never sacked, but threw lots of picks. Rodgers never throws picks, but is sacked constantly. Some of that is a decline in the line, but I think more of it is A-Rod trying to avoid the trait of Favre's that drew the most criticism.

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by ammek :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 12:35pm

Thank you. I'm not Baranczyk, and am probably not even a yahoo. Whether I am excellent at making love is sadly unverifiable, though I *am* excellent at making cannelloni.

I think the Packers are too flawed to go far in the playoffs. One upset victory would not be beyond them, though, if they get that far.

Interesting angle on Rodgers. Of course Favre was sacked quite a bit at the beginning of his career, but his pocket awareness got better as his mobility declined. Are there any QBs who have been good enough to play on into their 30s, and remained healthy, but whose pocket awareness didn't ever improve? Bledsoe?

I like Rodgers' weirdness too.

48
by alexbond :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 4:52pm

It should be made clear that FO hasn't argued that defensive penalties don't hurt teams - they obviously do. Their argument is that defensive penalties are indicative of other good things - roughing passer means you have guys getting to the QB, DPI means you have close coverage on receivers which occasionally crosses the line, offsides = gaming the snap count and getting a first step, etc. A team shouldn't try to commit DPI, but it should try to get close coverage, and the occasional DPI is the price you have to pay. I think that the Packers DBs have committed so many more DPIs than anybody else, including DBs who play coverage just as close as Harris and Woodson, that there is a problem there, and they need to talk about what exactly the problem is.

8
by MJK :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 12:58pm

I second. Great article. I like humor. I love very football heavy articles, with just enough humor to keep it from being dry (never a Tanier problem).

Question for Cardinals fans. Are Breaston and the other good WR's good enough to burn you if you forget about the high safety and single cover every one of them? It seems like the way to deal with Fitzgerald is to do what teams have been doing to Randy Moss for years...have one CB (not your best one, but your most physical) do everything in his power to disrupt the release by contacting him at the LoS, and dedicate a second higher man who's good in coverage to picking him up after he inevitably runs by the first guy. Single cover everyone else, and come after the QB with everybody else in exotic overload blitzes. If you can disrupt Fitzgerald's release, you can theoretically get the QB to throw it before he has time to get buy the second guy. The weakness is that you're setting yourself up to get burned by hot read throws to one of the other guys, but that only works if the other guys are good enough to beat tight man coverage quickly.

21
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:26pm

Hence why they have Anquan Boldin.

27
by dryheat :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 3:01pm

Former critique cheerfully withdrawn after another careful reading.

18
by Keasley (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:12pm

Rice vs Fitz

Rice joined a Superbowl team as a rookie and had Joe Montana in his prime throwing the ball. They played together at a high calibre for almost 10 years. When Montana left, Steve Young -- in his prime -- stepped in and they enjoyed a number of good years together.

Larry Fitzgerald caught alot of passes from Josh McCown and Matt Leinart his first few years. He's really flourished the last couple years with Kurt Warner but how much longer will Warner play at this level?

If Larry Fitzgerald is to approach Jerry Rice's numbers it's likely he'll have to do so with Matt Leinart for much of his career.

Seems unlikely.

23
by ammek :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:28pm

Your solutions to the Packers' mess are all eminently sensible, and a decent head coach would surely have tried them already. The problems are thus:

— The Packers desperately, desperately lacked a running back who could catch passes (or, to a lesser extent, block) until they re-signed Ahman Green. It's not just a question of hands: Ryan Grant never makes a defender miss, and Brandon Jackson never seems to make up his mind whether he should hang back to block or trundle into space as a receiving option. Also, the line flat out cannot block a screen pass: it has tried, but the results have been scary — and the linemen have enough difficulty remembering to block Jared Allen without adding anything as fancy as a screen pass.

— Several offseason personnel decisions were explicitly made on the basis of special teams. John Kuhn, he of the whiffed assignment against Ronde Barber, would not be on the team otherwise. Hard to justify keeping 3 FBs without playing them on special teams.

34
by Key19 :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 9:24pm

The Packers have 3 FBs? I find that impossible to justify regardless of special teams usage.

42
by ammek :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 12:22pm

Yep. Three fullbacks. And only one very old left tackle.

25
by Sophandros :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 2:42pm

Read the article on Baronet, and the comments were golden. The Brits have some great insults, I tell you. "Gormless twonk" was used. Redundant, but good nonetheless.

-------------
Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

28
by Matt (not the registered one) (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 3:04pm

Your "180 mph" foolishness is assinine, yet still manages to be the closest thing to accurate of anything you said. Roethlisberger is reading the whole field and picking defenses apart. The ridiculous claim that if he suffers a major injury he will become one of the worst QBs in the league is beneath contempt and unnecessary to answer, since it's mere speculation based on your faulty observations.

39
by Mr Shush :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 10:58am

MJK's post is certainly speculative, but I'm not sure it's assinine. Roethlisberger is in some ways not a dissimilar player to pre-injury Daunte Culpepper, and it's hard to think of a more dramatic injury-related fall-off than Culpepper's. Obviously there's no guarantee that the same thing would happen to Roethlisberger, but it does seem at least plausible that it might.

As for the "180 mph" thing, I think MJK was a little threatened by Roethlisberger's two Superbowl rings, and so availed himself of some hyperbole.

Geddit?

Geddit?

(tumbleweeds, silence)

I'll get my coat.

46
by Temo :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 1:49pm

They may look and play somewhat similar, but there's a key difference between Roethlisberger and Culpepper: Roethlisberger is actually good, and not just the product of a stacked offense.

50
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 11/14/2009 - 9:01am

I think you're being a little unfair on Culpepper. Remember that during his awesome 2004 season, Randy Moss was banged up and clearly not RANDY MOSS. But no, Culpepper was never as good a player as Roethlisberger now is. I still don't think it's crazy to suppose Roethlisberger might lose a lot if he suffered an injury that severely and permanently impacted his mobility.

30
by jmaron :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 3:46pm

Kevin Seifert just posted an article in which someone timed all of Rodgers sacks to the tenth of a second. The average came out to 3.4.

How accurate is the info? Who knows. I wonder if 3.4 is a long time for an average sack?

9 of his sacks took longer than 4 seconds - which I'm fairly certain is an eternity in pass blocking time.

32
by ammek :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 5:14pm

Without context, the numbers don't tell us much. And nothing we don't know.

Half of the sacks took place in less than 3 seconds. Ergo, the offensive line is bad.
One-quarter were over four seconds: those are on Rodgers and/or the receivers.
Only ten (27%) were on third-down: Rodgers can get rid of the ball when he knows he'll need to.

31
by Gruntled (not verified) :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 4:31pm

Very good article.

Maybe we need a new award category: The "don't come back" player/executive of the year - a modest trophy in the shape of a cardboard box.

35
by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 11/12/2009 - 9:52pm

Dominc Baronet= facebok Tarvis Henry

Electirc Larry Land make think of electriv Football. Wrote abut game in July when Tanir talk about football board games. Electric football fun crazy game especialluy when play alone when drinking. Still have one.Nothing better than drinking some Sierra Nevada and doing some electivr football watching guys go in all directions and bounce into eacgh other like chiefs and brncos

36
by I am excellent at making love (not verified) :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 1:21am

"Nothing better than drinking some Sierra Nevada and doing some electivr football watching guys go in all directions and bounce into eacgh other like chiefs and brncos."

I'm adding this one to the Bucket List.

Thank you, rj.

47
by TomKelso :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 2:33pm

And once again Tanier exposes the Velvet Underground of the NFL --

Whoops, was sure that Electric Ladyland was Lou Reed. Consider me Experienced now.

44
by Snack Flag (not verified) :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 1:12pm

Nice Butthole Surfers reference

49
by Kevin from Philly :: Fri, 11/13/2009 - 5:12pm

What are you talking about? I didn't see any mention of Joe Buck.