Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
28 Jan 2009
by Mike Tanier
Steelers Steelers Steelers Steelers Steelers Steelers Steelers.
I'm not constrained by word counts or column inches, so I can write "Steelers Steelers Steelers" as often as I want. In fact, I could just copy and paste the word "Steelers" a few thousand times, and Football Outsiders would run it. They wouldn't pay me for it, but they would run it. It would be the Metal Machine Music of Walkthrough.
No fake drama. No manufactured suspense. No "scroll down and read all 3,000 of my carefully chosen words to find my pick" coyness. I'm picking the Steelers, emphatically. I am picking them because DVOA tells me to, and because my game study shows they match up well. They can slow the Cardinals blitz. They can slow Larry Fitzgerald. Their blitzing defense won't fall for every Cardinals quick read and screen pass. I'm also picking the Steelers because, let's face it, they are the Steelers and the Cardinals are the Cardinals and the world is supposed to work a certain way.
There's no reason to feign enthusiasm. Steelers-Cardinals isn't exactly a dream matchup, especially for someone who dreamed of Eagles-Ravens a few weeks ago. These teams have little history against each other, having played one another just nine times since the merger. The Ken Whisenhunt storyline -- no doubt you are aware that the Cardinals hired him away from the Steelers -- doesn't have the legs to support the hype shoveled onto it. If you are hosting a Super Bowl party outside of Western Pennsylvania or Greater Glendale, you may need to generate some extra excitement, perhaps with a bonfire or an impromptu Civil War reenactment.
Actually, all you need is music: sweet music, everywhere. This year's Super Bowl may not be as dramatic as last year's, but it's still a freakin' Super Bowl. With the right soundtrack, you should have no trouble getting the blood vessels dilated. Faith Hill and the other pregame entertainers (selected by Milktoast Promotions, a subsidiary of Bland Channel) won't do. You need music that stirs the soul. That's why Walkthrough called in an expert.
Tom Moon knows music. He's the author of 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, and he spent 20 years as a music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also hosts a music blog at 1000recordings.com. Moon's book is an essential companion guide for anyone hoping to create a comprehensive music collection. His selections cast a wide net, mixing classical masterpieces with the best of hip-hop, Armenian duduk music with bebop, Marvin Gaye with Dvorak, Miles Davis, Abba and Eminem. You may be weary of the "before you die" trend in publishing (I am working on 1,000 Lists to Compile Before You Die), but Moon's book is more readable, and far more practical, than 1,000 Tibetan Mountain Peaks to Climb Before You Die.
Moon's book includes a series of playlists for all occasions: music for cocktail hour (Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone), romance (Jill Scott, Roxy Music), road trips (Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ry Cooder), and so on. Moon provides some "party starter" set lists, but none of them are Super Bowl specific, so I asked him to customize one for Football Outsiders readers. Here are his choices, and his comments:
We'll check back with Moon in a few minutes. In the meantime, Cardinals fans can go download some Nas.
This may not be the greatest Cardinals team of all time, but it's close.
The 1947-48 Chicago Cardinals were the best Cardinals team ever. The team went 20-4 in those two seasons, winning one championship and losing one title game in a snowstorm. The 1925 Cardinals went 11-2-1, but let's keep the discussion on this side of the Great Depression. The Don Coryell Cardinals teams of 1974-76 (31-11 record, two playoff berths) are second to the 1947-48 teams. This year's team -- a 9-7 team that looked like one-and-done playoff filler a month ago -- is third.
Who else could challenge this year's team? The Cardinals went 9-7 and won a playoff game in 1998, but this year's team, playing the way it has for the last month, would clobber that Jake Plummer-led squad. The Cardinals had some decent seasons for coach Wally Lemm in the mid-1960s (18-8-2 in one two-year stretch), and their offense featured impressive performers like Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith and running back John David Crow. Those teams never made the playoffs, so it's hard to argue that they are better than the current team. In fact, you can make a case that the current team is better than the Coryell teams, based on three excellent postseason performances in a row.
So this is the second- or third-best Cardinals team in history. But how do the individual players rank? Here's a largely subjective look at where Kurt Warner and company rank among Cardinals all-time greats. I tried to base the rankings strictly on Cardinals accomplishments, so Warner doesn't get credit for his Super Bowls with the Rams. But since these are subjective rankings, Warner and a few other veterans probably got a little extra slack.
Quarterback: Jim Hart (1970s) was the best Cardinals quarterback ever. After him, there are several challengers: Warner, Neil Lomax, Charley Johnson, Jake Plummer, Paul Christman. Plummer belongs at the bottom of this list. Christman led the Cardinals during their 1940s heyday; he was a pocket passer who put up big numbers, once averaging 16.6 yards per completion. He was a good player with a short career. Warner blows him away overall, but as a Cardinals quarterback, Christman gets the nod. Johnson was a very good passer who led the league in yards and touchdowns in 1964. Like Warner, Johnson also played elsewhere, and I'm confident ranking Warner above him for the Cardinals. Lomax put up great numbers in the 1980s, reaching two Pro Bowls. It's a close call, but I'm going to rank him above Warner. That puts Warner fourth; not bad for a guy who spent three years battling for his starting job.
Running Back: Take away his Colts efforts, and Edgerrin James isn't a great player. The list of great Cardinals runners features guys like Charley Trippi, Ollie Matson, Terry Metcalf, Ottis Anderson and John David Crow. Edge is more like Emmitt Smith, an end-of-career guy who had his moments. Other players who rank near or above Edge on the Cardinals: Stump Mitchell, Adrian Murrell, and Jim Otis, the power-running fullback for the 1970s team.
Wide Receiver: The No. 1 spot comes down to Roy Green versus Larry Fitzgerald. Green was unstoppable in 1983 and 1984 (156 catches, 26 touchdowns), then had a long career as a productive deep threat. Green's peak was about on par with Fitzgerald's 2008 performance, so I will give the 1980s star the benefit of the doubt and rank him first. By 2010, Fitzgerald should surpass him.
Anquan Boldin has a legitimate claim to the third spot, with competition from Pat Tilley (Green's partner in the early 1980s), Mel Gray (Jim Hart's favorite target), and John Gilliam, a pure burner who averaged about 20 yards per catch. Before the championship tirade, I would have ranked Boldin third. Flaking out during a championship game is a major blemish on an all-timer's resume, so Tilley and Grey (solid citizens who served the team well in lean times) get the nod over Boldin. In fact, if Boldin leaves in a huff in the offseason, history may rank him even lower, perhaps in the "flameout" category next to David Boston.
Tight End: It's Jackie Smith and everyone else. Stephen Spach and Leonard Pope rank with a long list of "everybody else" types, below "nothing special" types like Doug Marsh. Jay Novacek only caught 83 passes for the Cardinals, but he ranks far ahead of this year's crew.
Offensive Line: The current offensive line doesn't rank among the team's all-time best, either individually or as a unit. Dan Dierdorf is the Cardinals' all-time best lineman, followed by Ken Gray (six-time Pro Bowl center), Conrad Dobler (the dirty-trickster guard from the 1970s), Ernie McMillian (a four-time Pro Bowl tackle from the 1960s), Bob Reynolds (McMillian's bookend, who also reached the Pro Bowl three times), and Larry Sharpe (a solid left tackle who started for more than a decade). Others who deserve mention: Joe Bostic, Leonard Davis, Buster Ramsey (a two-way player on the 1948 team), 1960s center Bob DeMarco, and so on. Cardinals history is full of long-tenure linemen who reached the Pro Bowl in their best years, so no one in this year's pedestrian group is close to cracking the top 20.
The Gray-Reynolds-McMillan lines of the 1960s were the best in franchise history, followed by the 1970s' Dierdorf-Dobler lines. The 1980s line that blocked for Neil Lomax, anchored by Sharpe and Bostic, also tops this line, and I would rank the Davis-L.J. Shelton-Anthony Clement lines of a few years ago as about equal with this year's unit. All of that could change, of course, if this line stays together and leads the team to a few more playoff appearances.
Defense: This year's Cardinals defense is rather ordinary, and it doesn't rank close to the best defenses fielded by Wally Lemm in the early 1960s, Jim Hannifan in the mid-1980s, or Buddy Ryan in the mid-1990s. Adrian Wilson is the lone Cardinals defender worthy of All-Time consideration. Put him in a secondary with Hall of Famers Larry Wilson and Roger Werhli, with Aeneas Williams at cornerback, and you have a killer defense. Wilson would be the fourth best defender in that secondary. Karlos Dansby, Darrell Dockett and Bertrand Berry are good players, but none of them crack a history full of solid, long-tenured defenders like Larry Stallings, Eric Swann, Ken Harvey, E.J. Junior, etc.
Kicker: Neil Rackers is the second best kicker in team history, behind Jim Bakken, who spent 16 years with the team. Nobody else is even close.
In Summary: The biggest stars on this year's Cardinals team -- Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin, Wilson, Rackers – rank among the top five players in franchise history at their positions. No one else cracks the top ten. Maybe things will be different in three years, if Ken Whisenhunt keeps the team in contention and players like Dockett, Dansby, and Levi Brown blossom into Cardinals stars. At most positions, it doesn't take much to climb to the top of the franchise heap. Whisenhunt should also get his mountaineer boots on: It won't take much for him to pass Coryell and 1947-48 coach Jim Conzelman to become the best coach in Cardinals modern history.
If your team wins the Super Bowl, you don't need celebratory music. Or so I'm told. The static between two AM stations is enough to get you pumped while parading down main street with thousands of fellow fans.
When your team loses, you need the solace of music. I've drowned my Eagles sorrows with the help of albums like Neil Young's After the Gold Rush and various Roy Orbison compilations. Your choices may be different. Since Tom Moon was in the list-making mood, I asked him to create a list to ease the pain of a Super Bowl loss:
Feeling sorry for himself as a high art? Must be an Eagles fan.
The first beer of football season goes down smooth and quick, like lemonade on the boardwalk. Nothing important should happen during that first Sunday afternoon beer, just kickoffs and handoffs, catches and tackles, maybe a touchdown. Like a champagne toast on New Year's Eve, that beer celebrates rebirth, the return of the giddy splendor of football Sundays. The weather is still hot, the sun gleams into sports bars, and marathon afternoon television sessions feel novel after a summer of outdoor work and play.
There was still an inch of beer at the bottom of my glass when Bernard Pollard slammed into Tom Brady's knee. I saw the play live on a tiny corner television in a sports bar. Within minutes, the replay became viral, infecting every other screen. Patriots fans winced. Patriots haters smiled. I finished that first beer knowing that the preseason storylines were about to go on injured reserve.
The Brady injury was just one sign that things would be different in 2008. The Colts lost their season opener, then barely scraped together a win in Week 2. Peyton Manning was rusty, half the offense was injured. A series of injuries sent the Jaguars scrambling to the waiver wire for starting offensive linemen, negating their running-game advantage. The Chargers spent September brainstorming new and creative ways to lose games, though they cannot be blamed for Week 2's Ed Hochuli whistle stop. The AFC's four reigning powers started the season 3-5, and the team with two wins had just lost a Hall of Fame quarterback. It was hard to tell contenders from interlopers in September, when even the Bills looked like a playoff team. As Vince Young made his journey into the heart of darkness and out of cell phone range, even the undefeated Titans seem like a team in disarray.
It was easy to get confused as autumn began. The Broncos rode Hochuli's mulligan to a 3-0 start. Jay Cutler gained split-second golden boy status, gracing the cover of The Sporting News. No one noticed that their defense could turn the most routine screen pass into a touchdown until the Chiefs shocked them in Week 4. When the Packers hosted the Cowboys in Week 3, some called it a meeting of the two best teams in the NFL. The Cowboys won, earning the Vince LombEarly trophy (awarded to the first team declared "unbeatable" by a breathless television analyst) before getting a cold-water splash from the Redskins in Week 4.
The Giants marched through those early weeks, calmly dismantling opponents. They were defending champions who still had something to prove, and the losses of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora didn't faze them. It appeared that the Giants could overcome any injury. Their 4-0 start was overshadowed by the season's surprises. The Titans improved with Kerry Collins at quarterback, and their defense made 20 points an unattainable goal for most opponents. The Vikings promoted their own rust-bucket quarterback, tossed the franchise keys to Adrian Peterson, and ran over opponents. The Bears actually scored points with their offense. It was enough to cause vertigo.
We believed in upstarts because the contenders couldn't get traction. The Dolphins clobbered the Patriots using a Wildcat offense. Suddenly, the Patriots weren't just beatable, but aluminum-can crushable. The Steelers started the season 5-1, but every win was like a Civil War battle, and every week brought a new rash of injuries. Tony Romo got hurt, and the predictably bipolar Cowboys took a midseason siesta.
Football seasons sort themselves out, but never perfectly. By November, rookie quarterbacks are supposed to falter. Every week, I expected to see the five-interception game that landed Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco on the bench. The rookies had some scares, like the Colts' rout of the Ravens, but somehow both rookies endured and both teams stayed in the playoff hunt. November is also the time when Kurt Warner gets hurt and starts fumbling, when the Cardinals lapse into buffoonery, and when some divisional opponent (usually the Seahawks) assembles the brief winning streak that leads to an insurmountable 10-6 record. But Warner stayed healthy, the Seahawks flat-lined, and the Cardinals finally took their turn as this year's NFC West team suited for simultaneous walking and gum chewing.
One by one, teams fell off the pace. The Packers, with their paper-thin bench, endured an uncanny string of three-point losses. A blackout at Rich Stadium presaged a total Bills collapse. The Eagles, disappointment savants, hopped into their own grave with a shovel and an urge to dig. Donovan McNabb revealed his belief that football games had extra innings. Just days after the Phillies won the World Series, sending the Delaware Valley into delirium, Andy Reid benched McNabb in a still-close game against the Ravens. For a day, the change felt seismic, a city's sports history changed forever. But Reid gave McNabb his starting job back, a consolation prize for a team dead and buried, just like the Chargers, who were too far off the pace to possibly catch the Broncos.
The trees grew bare, Christmas sales began, and the Jets stayed in the playoff picture. They climbed to 8-3 with a commanding win over the unbeaten, unbeatable Titans. It didn't take Football Outsiders analysis to reveal that the Jets' line, running game, and sugary schedule propped up their faded superstar quarterback. Most good analysts were in on the secret. In mid-November, I warned of an impending Favregasm, but my warnings were premature, my fears unfounded. The Jets thudded to a 1-4 finish, tidying a very messy AFC East, and the quarterback got a well-deserved share of the blame.
The Colts shook off a 3-4 start, got healthy, caught up to the contenders and hovered in their blind spot. Two years removed from a championship, they became stealth contenders, riding in the Titans' slipstream. The Colts won nine straight to end the season, while the Patriots produced their own four-win finishing kick. In the season's final week, a Colts-Patriots playoff rematch once again seemed possible. Maybe the 2008 season wouldn't be about upstarts like the Titans and Falcons. Maybe the grizzled warriors would once again fight their way into the main event.
The stage was set for a come-from behind story; it was just a matter of figuring out who would come from behind. On November 28, shots rang out inside Plaxico Burress' sweatpants. With Cheddar Plax and injured Brandon Jacobs out of the picture, the Giants reached the tipping point, and the Eagles and Cowboys pounced on them. Albert Haynesworth injured his knee against the Texans; suddenly, the Titans defense wasn't unbeatable. The Buccaneers, hovering near the top of the NFC South all season, ran out of illusions to conceal their lack of offensive firepower. As the leaders faded, dark horses emerged: the Panthers, whose running game suddenly rivaled the Giants', and the Eagles, left for dead before Thanksgiving, who suddenly relearned how to convert third-and-1.
By Week 17, the Cardinals and Steelers had clinched the playoffs. They were playing only for seedings and to stay sharp. The two teams had little else in common. The Cardinals spent December trying to hand their division crown to any taker. Their 82-21 combined losses to the Vikings and Patriots made them the laughingstock of the playoff picture, and they needed a fiery performance against the Seahawks to lift them over .500. The Steelers, who went over a month without allowing 14 points in a game, finished the regular season with a bang; unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger's head did the banging. Big Ben's concussion weakened the team's playoff profile; the Colts, with Manning healthy, and the Titans, with Haynesworth back, looked like better choices than a defense-only team with a groggy quarterback.
The rest of Week 17 was a blur, if only because December beers aren't like September beers. The weather is colder, so the beer is darker and stronger. There are lots of incentives for one more pour: the end of the Sunday afternoon marathons, the nearness of New Year's, the Eagles devastating the Cowboys so utterly that Tony Romo has a postgame fainting spell. Somehow, the Dolphins won the AFC East, staking the heart of the vampire Patriots. Somehow, the Raiders outsmarted the Buccaneers, knocking them out of contention. Somehow, the Falcons and Ravens reached the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks. Somehow, inexplicably, karma struck the Broncos.
We know what happened next. Or do we? The Super Bowl could have pitted a 9-6-1 team against an 8-8 team. Matt Ryan could have been facing Joe Flacco this Sunday. Neither scenario was very likely, but what really happened was even more unlikely. Some things were expected -- also-rans like the Dolphins and Vikings falling quickly and quietly, the Ravens defense taking them as far as it could, Big Ben shaking off a concussion like it was just another motorcycle ride through town, a Jake Delhomme meltdown at the worst possible moment. Some things weren't -- an Eagles upset against the Giants, a 75-yard overtime drive by the Chargers, the sudden transfiguration of Larry Fitzgerald into something meta-human. And the Cardinals, their life support plug pulled in December, walking, then running, to their first ever Super Bowl appearance.
We're left with a Super Bowl none of us could have imagined, and with just a few more beers to drink during the 2008 season. I don't drink during the Super Bowl; I usually stay on the computer and chatter with the FO staff. But after the game, I have one last drink, as smooth as that first September beer, maybe smoother. It's a toast to the offseason, to Sunday afternoons with my sons and Monday nights catching up on my reading. It's a toast to the Groundhog, to the hope that comes with spring, to a few idle weeks to recharge before the draft rush and the book push. It's a toast, hopefully, to one final correct Walkthrough pick. I'm as certain of a Steelers victory as I was about the Patriots last year...
Maybe that drink won't be so smooth, after all.
Over at NFL.com, you can vote for Bruce Springsteen's halftime playlist. Springsteen will ignore the votes. In fact, he might start playing "Racing in the Street," embark on one of his long tangents about growing up in New Jersey, and keep mumbling until the third quarter of the Pro Bowl. Most likely, though, he'll play some combination of "Born to Run," "Rosalita," "The Rising," and something from the new album.
In the Walkthrough Readers message boards on Facebook, I asked readers to pick their own ultimate Springsteen halftime set. Here are some of the results, along with completely unwarranted commentary and grades by yours truly:
Mathew Hacker: "Blinded by the Light," "Spirit in the Night," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Johnny 99," "4th of July, Asbury Park," "Rosalita (Come out Tonight)," and "Born to Run." Mathew gets extra credit for calling "Rosalita" by it's full name, but I don't want to hear about a laid-off auto worker shooting someone during a halftime show. B+/A-
T.J. Serafini: "Spirit in the Night," "Seaside Bar Song," "Kitty's Back," "Jungleland," "Born to Run." Serafini's halftime show will be about three hours long. This is what Springsteen might have played for halftime of Super Bowl IX. Gotta love "Seaside Bar Song," which is the Boss' best cowbell song. A/A-
Alasdair Bates: "Atlantic City," "The Rising," "Thunder Road." Cool, but a little downtempo. Is Kurt Warner the Chicken Man? For that matter, shouldn't we include "Wreck on the Highway" in honor of Roethlisberger? And to celebrate Warner, Springsteen should rename all the female characters in his songs "Brenda." B+/A/A-
Chris Braithewaite: "Thunder Road," "Radio Nowhere," "Working On a Dream/Born In The USA," "Born To Run." Braithewaite is thinking like an A&R man, using the Super Bowl to plug the last two albums. I like the idea of making up your own medley of songs with completely different tempos and themes. Maybe he'll play that "Growing Up/Empty Sky/Stand on It/Trapped/Spare Parts/Devil's Arcade" medley I sent him charts for last year. B+/B++
That's all folks. Pro Bowl live blog next week. See you then!
36 comments, Last at 30 Jan 2009, 1:09pm by Martial