We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
15 Jul 2009
by Mike Tanier
Forgive me, Matt Millen, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last Walkthrough.
I am heartily sorry for having offended you. While covering the draft, I watched a parade of security guards lead a young man in a suit through Radio City Music Hall. The well-dressed kid carried a Lions baseball cap encased in what appeared to be bullet-proof plastic.
A lovely blonde girl followed the procession, and she smiled warmly and approached me after catching my eye in the crowd. There's a kind of woman who finds a New York Times media credential irresistible. A publicist. "Yes, that's the new Reebok Lions hat, and it will be worn by the first player taken in the draft," she said, handing me a press release, which said the same thing.
"Does it really have security guards?" I asked.
"Yes it does," she perked.
"Does Matthew Stafford have security guards?"
"I don't know. I work for Reebok."
Stafford's bodyguards are now the Lions' offensive linemen, a cause for insecurity if ever there was one. Stafford can't even reassure himself by looking at the Lions depth chart, because Jim Schwartz isn't using one until the first preseason game. In its place, Schwartz will either use either:
Schwartz claims that he's trying to avoid complacency, but really wants to spare his players the self esteem-crushing reality of placing third or lower on the Lions depth chart, their legs dangling over the giant spinning Cuisinart julienne slicer of professional extinction. Prospects who look to the left just before the strength in their fingertips gives out can see where Aveion Cason keeps his cell phone charger.
Even if there was a depth chart, Stafford might not be listed at the top. This is Year Four of Daunte Culpepper's comeback, which is interesting because the productive part of his career lasted only five years. Since 2005, Culpepper has thrown 17 touchdowns and 26 interceptions and has thrown for more than 300 yards in just one game. During his long comeback, Culpepper has moved steadily north, from Miami to Oakland to Detroit, while the quality of his employers has moved south. Canada is the next logical stop, given his career projection, but first Culpepper must slide to the bottom of Schwartz's nonexistent depth chart.
Stafford-vs.-Culpepper wasn't the only rookie-vs.-has been quarterback controversy that gripped the football world before the pre-camp lull. Buccaneers quarterback coach Greg Olsen criticized Byron Leftwich in mid-June -– "We call him the slug. He's got slow feet, a slow delivery," said Olsen, the silver-tongued flatterer -– and suddenly the rest of the football media noticed for the first time that Leftwich bends down to tie his shoelaces before every throw. Some of us have been making Slowpitch Leftwich jokes since Culpepper was good, so taking shots now feels like piling on. Rookie Josh Freeman could easily beat Leftwich for the starting job, sophomore Josh Johnson is also getting some reps, and Luke McCown is wondering why the Bucs didn't sign his brother Josh to complete the set. As for Leftwich, he prepared a strongly worded statement to the press. He will release it sometime in August.
At least Damon Huard knows where he stands. Unlike Jim Schwartz, Mike Singletary uses a depth chart, though it contains more fiction than the typical Stephanie Meyer novel (there's an abstinence vampire listed as the long snapper). Singletary has Huard chiseled in the No. 3 spot while Alex Smith and Shaun Hill battle for Nos. 1 and 2. "I told him basically he was the third guy," Singletary said of Huard. "There wouldn't be a lot of reps, there wouldn't be a lot of time." Huard must also forage for food and cannot use the big, fluffy towels when showering.
Despite the depth chart flux, Hill will start while Smith gets fattened for the slaughter. Smith just turned 25, but he's about to embark on the Walk of Shame, following in the footsteps of Tim Couch, Rick Mirer, and dozens of other overdrafted quarterbacks. Napoleon had Wellington and Waterloo; overdrafted quarterbacks must settle for Kelly Holcomb and Berea.
JaMarcus Russell hopes to avoid a similar fate. The Raiders quarterback created his own top secret passing camp at an undisclosed location this summer. The line between flash mob and OTA has always been blurry in Oakland, but the guest list for Camp Loadsashortribs is pretty exclusive. "Everybody that plays receiver and wears the (Raiders) uniform." Russell said. "Bring bottled water, pacifiers, and glow sticks," he didn't add. Al Davis isn't invited, and Jeff Garcia got a lukewarm invite, though he's charging his GPS to crash the party Principal Rooney-style. Garcia's efforts to find Russell's Rave may be thwarted by his own newborn, who can enjoy about two years of love and safety before Garcia starts lobbying in the press to take his starting toddler job.
(A headline in the June 16th Contra Costa Times read "Garcia returns after birth of son." Who would want to keep it in the first place?)
Garcia has always been charmingly subversive, like Che Guevara, or the blonde in accounting who caused all those sexual harassment seminars last autumn. Garcia only wants what's best for the team –- Team Garcia –- and his open lobbying to replace Russell (setting the Raiders back 10 years in the process; at this point, Vasco de Gama will soon sail around their horns) is only amusing because it's the Raiders. The solution to everyone's problems would be to have Garcia win the starting job for both the Raiders and 49ers, allowing him to kill two birds with one stone. Three, if you think Alex Smith can still fly.
If you think having one quarterback start for two teams will cause a scheduling conflict, you haven't been watching much football lately. The Raiders and Niners can simply run the Wildcat while Garcia helicopters between stadiums. The Wildcat fad went pandemic quickly in the offseason, with nearly every team adopting some variation on the innovation. The Jets are ironing out their version of the wrinkle with Brad Smith at quarterback. The Chargers have their own interpretation, with LaDainian Tomlinson and Legedu Naanee taking turns as the guy who takes the snap. Norv Turner swears he only drilled the offense in the Wildcat so the defense could practice against it. Implausible: The Chargers defense should have no trouble stopping Legedu Naanee no matter where he lines up, except maybe the cockpit of a Black Hawk helicopter. Knowing Turner, though, it's probably true. Other copycats have turned up all over the NFL, with faux quarterbacks like Roscoe Parrish (scaredy-cat) Matt Jones (arrest-o-cat) and Percy Harvin (Fritz the Cat) taking their turns on the hot tin roof. The Elton John joke is left for the audience.
The proliferation of Wildcats has spawned the obligatory premature blog-o-riffic backlash. "The only wildcat I want to hear about in terms of football, is the film staring Goldie Hawn" wrote blogger Vonda Menard at Associated Content in a minority opinion (a Ted Grant reference would have been hipper. Which is saying something). The most interesting Wildcat story took place in Cleveland, where Josh Cribbs ran the formation in a handful of games last year after the Browns moved down to Division I Midlands. Cribbs won't have time to wear the bell this year. Eric Mangini compared Cribbs to Laveraneus Coles as a receiver, then gave him some minicamp reps as a nickel defender. For good measure, he made Cribbs the main speaker for the team's rookie symposium. There's no word whether a non-Cribbs is trusted to restock the salad bar. Cribbs, already the team's return man and top special teams gunner, held out of OTAs, justifiably expecting a higher salary, or salaries.
Not all NFL news in recent weeks involved quarterbacks or their feline imposters. In Pittsburgh, the Rooney family is enjoying a smooth transition of power now that Dan Rooney has left the team to become ambassador to Ireland. His appointment was a political move; had John McCain won the election, Lynn Swann would have become ambassador to the People's Republic of Overratia. Jerry Jones also wanted a political appointment, but it turns out that there's no such nation as Stripperslovakia. The Steelers are great at developing late-round draft picks, but John Stallworth's rise from fourth-round pick to co-owner is ridiculous even by Steelers standards. At the rate we are going, Hines Ward will be emperor by 2024.
Ambassadorships are great, but nothing gets fans excited like a kicker controversy. There's a corker brewing in Kansas City, where rookie Ryan Succop will battle incumbent Conner Barth. Succop knows how to fight for a starting job, having beaten out Sammy Syncophant at University of South Carolina. Succop was Mister Irrelevant, the final player taken in the draft and the guest of honor for one of football's strangest traditions, a budget-friendly week of mild Bacchanal that predates reality TV by several decades but shouldn't. Mister Irrelevants of the 1970s were 17th-round picks whose signing bonuses were half-pounds of thinly sliced tavern ham, but Succop signed a contract worth a reported $1.2 million, which no doubt made Barth increase the resistance on the machines in his home gym.
Succop didn't merit a writeup in Pro Football Weekly's draft preview. Russ Lande didn't profile him in GM Jr., either, though Lande did scout Wake Forest kicker Sam Swank, who needs no porno name. Succop tried to kick through an abdominal strain as a senior, missing six-of-nine field goals in one stretch, including four straight against Kentucky. Barth is lobbying to get the team's training camp moved to Churchill Downs. Barth was 10-of-12 last year, but he made just one field goal longer than 40 yards and his kickoff average (58.6 yards) wasn't very good. As for Swank, he was signed but quickly released by the Eagles, who feared the kicker would disrupt team chemistry by starring in a video with Hank Baskett's fiancée.
I originally planned to end this diatribe with Kendra, no last name necessary (though Wilkinson will do), who currently has a Baskett in the biscuit ... a biscuit in the ... she's having a No. 3 receiver's baby. The future Mrs. Baskett has been promoted from sidehooch to headliner in the reality TV world. I saw her sliding her not-yet-showing figure around a stripper's pole in an ad on -- get this -- NickToons, making it a fairly odd departure from Fairly Oddparents. There's something about the uniform number 84 that turns Eagles players into D-list celebrity magnets and reality TV loiterers. Someone please retire the number before I see Keith Krepfle snuggling Lisa Kelly while she drives a rig on Ice Road Truckers. It will make me jealous.
Luckily, Jessica Simpson arrived early in the week to blow Kendra off the tabloid map. Tony Romo dumped Simpson just before her birthday, dropping her like she was a football in the season finale. Simpson had a Barbie-themed party planned, but Romo apparently balked at the prospect of becoming her plastic fantastic lover. One too many Ken jokes, I think, or the possibility that DeMarcus Ware would show up dressed as G.I. Joe. It's been a rough offseason for Romo, whose practice habits have been called into question: now he must search for an even more inane bubblegum blonde girlfriend, perhaps one who has Rainbow Brite-themed pajama parties. Good luck, Tony: Taylor Swift just hired Trent Cole as a bodyguard. Luckily, Disney mass-produces potential Romo babes, and with all of the legal-age Jonas Brothers and Hank Baskett off the market, there's little competition. As for Simpson, she can skip the Barbie party and have what she really wanted: an NFC playoffs-themed party. It will be very authentic, since Romo won't be there.
After Derrick Mason announced his retirement, we ran three-year similarity scores for Mason's 2006-08 seasons. Here are the results:
The list suggests Mason picked the right time to hang it up: Most of these receivers declined sharply after the seasons listed above. J.T. Smith, coming off an 83-catch season, caught just 62 passes in 1989 and 18 in 1990. Drew Hill followed his 90-catch season in 1991 with 60 catches, then 34, then retirement. Mathis caught 81 passes in 1999 but just 57 and 51 in the next two seasons. The Ravens shouldn't have counted on another 80 receptions from Mason, though they would probably rather have a 60-catch decline year than what they currently have at receiver: practically nothing.
The Mason similarity list contains an interesting group of players. Many of them, like Mason, were small receivers: Mathis was 5-foot-10, Hill 5-foot-9, Blades 5-foot-11. Most spent their first few seasons in a slot receiver/return man roll, as Mason did. Several became go-to receivers after several seasons in the league: Tony Martin had his first 1,000-yard season at 30, Drew Hill at 29, Mathis and Rod Smith, like Mason, at 27.
There seems to be a "Derrick Mason type" of career. A small receiver starts out returning punts, catches 20 to 30 passes per year for his first few seasons, grows into a role as a crafty possession receiver who uses his quickness to work underneath, has a few 80-catch seasons, then eases back into a slot or No. 2 role late in his career. Troy Brown also followed this path, though he didn't make the Mason similarity list. It's not clear whether these undersized receivers develop slowly into precision route runners, or coaches warm slowly to the idea that a 5-foot-10 receiver can handle an 80-catch workload. Both are probably true: the Masons need a year or two to translate their quickness into tight route-running, and coaches need a year or two to realize that a possession receiver doesn't have to be 6-foot-3.
There's a next generation of Masons in the league: guys like Josh Cribbs and Brad Smith, short, shifty guys who currently make their mark as return men. Both Cribbs and Smith are college quarterbacks, and both are top Wildcat options right now. Maybe that will be the role for future Masons: 70 to 80 catches, plus a handful of direct snap carries and a pass or two.
Every year, during the book crunch, Aaron Schatz (the guy who runs this site) compiles a spreadsheet containing every penalty from the previous NFL season, sorted a million different ways. Some of the data from the spreadsheet finds its way into Football Outsiders Almanac. Most of it doesn't, because most penalty data is random and meaningless. Contrary to popular belief, penalty totals don't correlate with winning, negatively or otherwise, and only a few infractions (like false starts) have any year-to-year correlation. The Browns led the league in illegal shift penalties, with four, but that factoid/tidbit has no meaning and very little interest value, except to tell us that Braylon Edwards doesn't know where to line up.
Some of the data about last year's 3,325 penalties is interesting, like the fact that there were 3,325 of them, 6.5 per team per game, for 22,849 yards, 44.6 yards per team per game. The numbers were 3,378 and 23,010 in 2007, so teams can expect a constant level of penalization, no matter how much coaches stress mistake-free football. Raiders tackle Kwame Harris was the most penalized player in the league last year, amassing 17 of them: 11 false starts, five holds, an illegal formation and a facemask. Another Raiders lineman, Robert Gallery, paced the league with 17 penalties in 2007; Gallery slacked off with just three flags in 2008. Hyper-penalization is a Raiders birthright.
Regular readers know that Rams tackle Alex Barron is always in the running for the flag title, and Barron had 11 penalties in 2008 after notching 16 in 2007. Barron didn't lead the Rams this year: Ritchie Incognito had 13 fouls. Incognito has an advantage: Barron is just a false start machine, but Incognito is a hothead who can pepper his resume with unsportsmanlike conduct, facemask, and unnecessary roughness penalties (one each, plus four holds; Barron also had a facemask foul).
Offensive linemen usually lead the league in penalties, thanks to all the false starts, but defenders lead the league in penalty yardage, as a little pass interference goes a long way. Roman Harper committed 133 yards worth of penalties last season, 83 of them on three pass interference penalties. As I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac, Saints defenders had a bad habit of committing 40-yard pass interference penalties at the worst times, like overtime, and Harper was joined on the flag club by the always reliable Jason David (61 yards on three penalties) and Kevin the Substitute Kaesviharn (57 yards on three penalties), plus offensive lineman Jamal Brown, the league leader with eight holds. Trent Cole finished second in penalty yards with 98, and they weren't all roughing the passer calls (cheesy roughing the passer calls, Eagles fans would insist): Cole jumped offsides five times to pad the figures.
Speaking of roughing the passer, it was called 60 times in 2008, 62 times in 2007, though few of the fouls looked anything like the footage you see on NFL Films. Most roughing penalties now involve an inattentive/uncoordinated lineman failing to pull up or change direction at the exact femtosecond the quarterback releases the ball; my guess is that less than half the hits are dangerous, and far fewer than that are malicious.
There are no repeat offenders or cheapshot artists in the league when it comes to roughing. No defender was flagged for it more than twice in 2008. The defenders with two fouls -- Thomas Howard, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Terrell Suggs, Clint Ingram, James Wilkinson, Turk McBride, and Trent Cole -- are a mix of blitzing linebackers incapable of stopping their momentum to a referee's liking (Howard, Ingram) and sack specialists for whom the penalty is just residue from dozens of incursions into collapsed pockets (Vanden Bosch, Cole, Suggs).
More than half of all roughing the passer penalties are called after a completed pass. Only nine were called on third down incompletions/turnovers in each of the last two years, though those are the plays that stick out in our minds. You know the situation: third-and-23, the pocket collapses, the quarterback throws a duck, but Linebacker Larry takes an extra step and bumps the passer, turning a great defensive play into 15 yards and fresh downs for the offense.
We groan when that happens (unless it's a flagrant foul), but it doesn't happen that often, and only the Titans had two third-down stops erased by roughing fouls last year. I often suggest that there should be a "running into the quarterback" penalty, just like the one used for kickers: "running-in" results in five yards and a repeated down, so the offense still has to convert third-and-18 if a defender gets clumsy on third-and-23. It would probably prevent a few game-changing penalties per year, but the NFL doesn't like referees making judgment calls (that's why they fixed the five-yard facemask rule, which wasn't broke), so it's not going to happen.
Speaking of judgment calls, intentional grounding turns referees into psychics, determining the quarterback's intent when he tossed the ball three yards in front of the fullback with two defenders trying to gouge his spleen out. The problem, of course, is that intent is hard to determine. Peyton Manning has been known to skip passes off Joseph Addai's ankles to avoid sacks. Rex Grossman could miss a receiver by seven yards while trying to avoid a sack, no grounding intended. Worst of all, a quarterback could be jostled, wrenched, or otherwise manhandled just as he's about to throw a sharp completion to an open teammate. The redirected ball flutters onto a nearby patch of turf, and the referee channels his inner Charles Xavier, accusing the quarterback of trying to pull a fast one.
Officials called 36 intentional grounding penalties in the regular season last year. Tony Romo earned four flags, Matt Schaub three, and no other quarterback was penalized more than twice. Peyton Manning wasn't flagged at all, a sign that he gets the Ted Williams strike zone treatment: If he threw the pass, then it HAD to be accurate. Intentional grounding fouls resulted in 349 lost offensive yards, but take away some offsetting penalties and the average foul occurs a hair over 10 yards in the backfield, making it a very costly infraction.
Quarterbacks ground the ball to avoid sacks, and the spot-of-foul, loss-of-down grounding penalty essentially gives the defense the results of the sack it was denied. There's one major exception: intentional grounding in the end zone, which gives the opponent two points and the ball in favorable field position even though the defense didn't quite seal the deal. Three intentional grounding safeties occurred in the regular season last year, one in the playoffs. All three occurred in close games and had an impact on the results:
Week 3 Steelers vs. Eagles: On third-and-11 from the five-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger dropped into the end one, then rolled left to avoid the Eagles' pass rush. With Trent Cole wrestling him to the ground, Roethlisberger attempted to throw a short pass to Mewelde Moore in the middle of the field. Jaqua Parker knocked the pass to the ground in the end zone. The safety gave the Eagles a 12-6 lead. They won the game 15-6.
Week 10 Packers vs. Vikings: On second-and-20 from the 10-yard line, Kevin Williams stripped the ball from Aaron Rodgers as Rodgers set to pass. Rogers chased the ball into the end zone, grabbed it with one hand, then flicked it in the direction of a receiver along the right sideline. The penalty, coupled with another safety later in the quarter, gave the Vikings a 14-10 lead. The Vikings held off a late rally to beat the Packers 28-27.
Week 13 Chargers vs. Falcons: Facing third-and-long from the five-yard line, Philip Rivers dropped into the end zone but was flushed from the pocket by John Abraham. He tried to scramble up the middle, found no room, and tossed the ball to an unoccupied area about 10 yards downfield. The safety gave the Falcons a 15-7 lead, forcing the Chargers to attempt a two-point conversion on their next touchdown, which failed. The Falcons won 22-16.
Divisional Playoffs Eagles vs. Giants: Donovan McNabb dropped to pass on second-and-9 from the six-yard line when the pocket quickly collapsed. His pass, attempted with Justin Tuck and another defender grabbing him, traveled about 15 yards toward the right sideline. McNabb argued at length with officials, pointing out that Kevin Curtis was not far from where the pass landed, but the penalty cut the Eagles' lead to 7-5. The Eagles held on to win.
None of the intentional grounding safeties were horrible calls. But of the four passes, only one -- Rivers' heave into the middle of the field -- had no clear target. The official rules state that grounding occurs if a quarterback throws a pass with no reasonable chance of completion, but Ben Roethlisberger's definition of reasonable is different from yours, mine, or a referee's. Roethlisberger can be seen in the replays staring at Moore and trying to aim for him: he thinks he's going to complete a pass. McNabb is set, cocked, and in the act of throwing to Curtis when the Giants spindle him. Rodgers is stumbling to the ground, but his pass comes within a few yards of its destination, so it's not unreasonable to think that there was a slim chance of it landing in a receiver's arms. The last Packers quarterback made a career out of observations like that, and he has become the official ESPN test pattern.
The folks who run the latest upstart football league, the UFL, plan to relax the intentional grounding rules. They shouldn't take it too far, but I think a quarterback should have every leeway possible for getting rid of the ball in the end zone to avoid a safety. When in doubt, referees should force the defense to make a play, or the quarterback to do something flagrant, before they put points on the board.
When all else fails, referees can disqualify a player who does something dangerous or unsportsmanlike. There were only seven disqualifications last season. Four of them were mutual infractions, with one player on each team hitting the showers for fighting: John Henderson vs. Andre Whitworth in Jaguars-Bengals, and Matt Lyght vs. Channing Crowder in Patriots-Dolphins. Gibril Wilson, Kris Deilman, and Moran Norris were the other players to get disqualified last year, Norris after a scuffle with a Vikings defender that resulted in offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Some guys just don't know when a fight is over.
There were only two disqualifications in 2007, and I don't see many examples of referees looking the other way when players cross the line. Football is a relatively clean game, and refs, for all the criticism we lay on them, maintain order. They do it without throwing out every player who argues a call or looks at them askance, something baseball umpires have never figured out. Football players have learned to treat refs with basic respect, to avoid unnecessary fights, and to sack quarterbacks without applying a tire iron to the kneecap. If they can just learn to avoid false starts, they'll make football even more exciting.
48 comments, Last at 07 Aug 2009, 6:25am by CornerBlitz