Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Dec 2009
by Mike Tanier
Jon Runyan represented the Eagles for a decade. He now wants to represent my state in Washington.
Runyan, currently on the Chargers, announced during my bye last week that he will retire after the season, then run for Congress representing the third district in New Jersey. That's not quite my district –- I live in the first district -– but it's close enough that most of my friends and family will be mulling a Runyan decision in 2010, assuming Runyan wins a party nomination.
Per Football Outsiders rules, I cannot delve too deeply into politics. Runyan likewise didn't delve too deeply either when announcing his plans: "Something has to be changed. I mean, you talk about career politicians and the way this country is going, you've got to try something different because it's not working."
"Career politicians" make the perfect ironic enemy of someone planning a political career. It's a given that career politicians are evil and career referees are good; watching the Eagles this year makes me long for the days when they employed career tackles. As a career teacher, I am pleased that readers are willing to settle for less than a career sportswriter, though there's a difference between composing Jake Delhomme jokes and deciding public policy during a lunch break from your day job.
The Third Congressional District covers a region from the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean, making it one of the widest, stoutest districts in the state. That would normally lead to a series of fat jokes about the 330-pound Runyan, but I tread lightly on such weighty matters. Governor-Elect Chris Christie is big enough to protect the blind side, and weight-related cheap-shots became a campaign issue: Opponent John Corzine got carried away with the "fat cat" and "pork barrel" humor. Christie's victory makes New Jersey safe again for Taft-shaped statesmen; the Trenton statehouse is now fronted by a billboard of James Gandolfini reading "you must be this heavy to legislate."
Runyan may be New Jersey's heaviest politico, but he's not the first ex-Eagles personality to pursue a political career in the Garden State. Like Runyan, many former Eagles choose districts of a familiar shape. Todd Pinkston ran for office in a long, skinny district along the shore; his opponent jammed him in the primary and he couldn't break free. Hank Baskett is planning to challenge in the two circular districts that were artificially implanted in North Central Jersey. Mike Mamula planned to run for governor but couldn't get the paperwork done on time: He was one step away when the office closed.
Other local sports heroes may try their luck in New Jersey politics. A special New York-area district was created just for the Giants quarterback; the process is called Elimandering. It's in the Eastern part of the state, but when he ran, he inaccurately targeted his campaign in the West. This year's Giants secondary was asked to canvas the region with flyers, maximizing their range and covering as much ground as they possibly can. They will get to the other side of the cul-de-sac by Saturday.
Sports heroes like Lynn Swann and ex-Flyers forward Brian Propp have lost regional elections in recent years, proof that even in the sports-obsessed era, fame doesn't equal political success. Football stars like Runyan go directly from college to the top tax brackets. They don't have to fill out job applications or go on interviews. They don't work in cubicles or classrooms, let alone machine shops or junkyards. They aren't just political outsiders, they are reality outsiders. While some have gone to great political careers –- Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, New Jersey's own Bill Bradley -– most start to demonstrate their limitations once they start speaking on topics that range beyond Michael Strahan's pass rush ability.
Case in point: Runyan's response when asked why he still loves football. "It's mostly stupidity. You've done this for so long, what else are you going to do? That's kind of why politics has kind of come in. It's something that I'm interested in and something I have a lot to learn about, but it would definitely take the beating off my body." Honesty is refreshing (and a sure sign of political inexperience), but you don't reach Washington by saying a) you are stupid, b) you don't know what you are doing, and c) you are only doing it because you can no longer do anything else. Actually, that's a great way to reach Washington, but only as a head coach, not a congressman.
This is something other than a Runyan endorsement, but my concern is less with his party affiliation than with his team affiliation. Does an Eagles player know how to win a close legislative vote? If the House is tied, and it's a short-yardage situation for a key bill, will Runyan convert? Will he get pushed back by a smaller opponent? Worst of all, will he take a cue from the Andy Reid playbook and try to shovel-pass his deciding vote to an aide instead of powering it into the ballot?
If Runyan does reach political office, it won't be a disaster. After all, he's not Curt Schilling.
Remember the Giants defense? Remember the Four Aces, Michael Strahan running amok, Osi Umenyiora flattening quarterbacks, Justin Tuck destroying the Patriots line, Steve Spagnuolo shuffling personnel and designing blitzes to thwart any protection scheme?
Strahan is retired. Spagnuolo is the Rams' head coach. And the Giants pass rush, despite the presence of Tuck, Umenyiora, and other talented players, has fallen on hard times. I watched the Giants-Broncos game looking for reasons why the Giants pass rush has slipped. The Giants recorded just one sack in the game, on the Broncos' first play from scrimmage. After that, Kyle Orton spent most of the evening passing from a clean pocket.
The problem? Poorly-executed, poorly-designed blitzes.
|Figure 1: Giants Overload Blitz Fails|
Figure 1 shows a first-and-10 play midway through the first quarter. The Giants, as they often do, have rotated backup linemen Chris Canty (99) and Mathias Kiwanuka (94) into the game in place of Tuck and Umenyiora. Canty and Kiwanuka are solid players, so the Giants lose little with this personnel package. Coordinator Bill Sheridan calls an unusual defense: an overload blitz with man coverage behind it.
Linebackers Michael Boley (52) and Chase Blackburn (57) are the blitzers. Regular readers know that I usually explain blitzes by pointing out which defenders sacrifice themselves to create lanes for their teammates. On this play, it's hard to tell who is sacrificing for whom. Kiwanuka slices inside to attack the guard, Boley works outside, aiming straight for the running back, and Blackburn rushes between them, right into the right tackle. There's an execution error somewhere; my guess is that Kiwanuka was assigned to attack the gap between the guard and tackle but stepped too far inside. Whatever the mistake, the three defenders are in an awful hurry to get blocked.
Opposite the formation, Canty is forced to cover Tony Scheffler (88). This is interesting for two reasons: 1) It's a terrible idea. 2) Sheridan said he would seldom asked linemen to drop into coverage. Here's a quote from last April:
“We're definitely going to have the pass rushers rushing as much as we can, When you get into zone (blitzes), you have down guys dropping. And you're never going to get away from that, but as much as we can, we're going to try to orchestrate so that our pass rushers are rushing because that's our strength.”
Keep in mind that Canty isn't dropping into a shallow zone. He's man-up on a very fast tight end. As best I can tell, the Giants are playing man coverage with a high safety and double coverage on Brandon Marshall (15). In such a scheme, the back is uncovered; the high safety may actually be responsible for him, or he may be unaccounted for. (Some schemes do leave the back uncovered; neither Boley nor Blackburn shows any indication that they are responsible for him). Canty is no match for Scheffler, Orton has time to throw, and the Broncos get 15 easy yards.
|Figure 2: Giants Corner Blitz Fails|
Figure 2 shows a blitz from the second quarter. It's second-and-9, and Umenyiora (72) and Tuck (91) are back in the game against the Broncos' three-receiver package. On this play, the Giants will rush six, with Blackburn and cornerback Terrell Thomas (24) blitzing from the offensive left.
The overall design of the blitz itself is sound; the linemen slant to their left (offensive right), drawing the protection away from the blitzers. Once again, the design suggests that two defenders will sacrifice themselves to create a blocking lane. It doesn't happen. The back reads the corner blitz and picks up Thomas. The left tackle slides over to block Blackburn, who is late hitting his gap. Orton again has a clean pocket.
The Giants again play man defense behind the blitz. Here, safety Michael Johnson is responsible for slot receiver Jabar Gaffney. Johnson is in no position to cover any short route; to disguise the blitz, he's aligned as a deep safety. Gaffney runs a shallow cross, and he's wide open for a nine-yard gain, which becomes a 24-yard gain once a facemask penalty is tacked on.
The use of man coverage behind these blitzes is questionable -- it was a simple matter in both cases for Orton to find and exploit the coverage mismatch -- but execution is a bigger problem. Giants defenders aren't creating lanes or sticking to their blitz assignments. Linemen aren't occupying blocks, and blitzers aren't taking proper angles. These are experienced players -- most of the names I mentioned should be familiar, and old friends like Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins were also on the field -- but they aren't executing with the discipline they showed under Spagnuolo.
The Giants are also ragged off the snap; at times, one or two defenders will still be in their stance a split second after the ball is snapped. Orton may have been varying his cadence, but the Giants also looked slow off the blocks against the Eagles. A split-second delay gives the blockers the upper hand and it can throw off the timing of a blitz: If the defensive end hesitates before slanting inside, the guard can scoop him up so the tackle can take the most dangerous outside blitzer.
Sheridan deserves some blame for the state of the Giants defense, but in fairness, he is trying to compensate for a very bad, very injured secondary. The man coverage schemes behind blitzes may reflect his distrust of his defensive backs in zone coverage. The Giants do have 23 sacks, although 11 came against the Raiders and Chiefs and just seven have come in the last four games. The team's fundamentals have slipped in all facets of the game, and the poor pass rush is just one element of the collapse.
It's hard to correct fundamental mistakes and technique lapses in December. Tuck, Umenyiora, and the others are good players, and they can bounce back once they refocus on technique and details. They may not get the opportunity until July, and they may be doing it under a new coach. As of now, the Giants don’t have enough pass rush to threaten good quarterbacks.
In order to maintain Walkthrough's delicate balance, I cannot make fun of one politician without taking shots at someone from the other side of the red-blue divide. In that spirit, I give you the creepy Play 60 public service announcement featuring Drew Brees, DeMarcus Ware, Troy Polamalu, and Barack Obama:
|Figure 3: Brees to Obama|
Figure 3 shows the play; the field color has been changed to a disturbing ultra-green to reflect the over-saturated slow-motion dreamlike quality of the PSA. A little girl (LG) runs a post pattern, but she is well covered by a little boy (LB). Brees also sees a Secret Service agent covering the deep middle (Danny Amendola, uncredited, plays the agent), so he checks down. Had the little girl flashed open, this 90-second ad would show the President as a decoy receiver.
Obama runs a drag at what appears to be five yards. In the Saints playbook, the little girl is Devery Henderson, and Obama is Marques Colston. In fact, Obama is still considered a tight end in some fantasy leagues. A little boy runs a shallow drag in front of the President to create a mesh and get some face time. Off-camera, the boy briefly considers wiping Troy Polamalu, thinks better of it, and runs an elaborate wheel route. None of this is visible, but after 50 viewings of the PSA I am certain it happens.
Obama keeps moving hard to his right (interpreting this politically will get your comment deleted, so just let it go). The grinning Brees spots him, wonders how Willie Gault got onto the White House lawn, and hits the president in stride. Obama alligator-arms the pass slightly -- understandable because he is about to run into Ware, who has a little girl fastened to his head -- but he snags the ball, avoiding a politically-damaging "for who, for what" controversy.
The jubilant President knows he will soon get trucked by Polamalu (who would then be shot by Amendola), so he quickly switches sports and attempts a lay-up. No, wait, it's a hook-and-lateral! Ware's little friend catches the pitch. She briefly considers running for a touchdown, or at least digging her spurs into Ware's chest so he starts running, but everyone is too happy. Too darned happy.
I don't know what any of this means. But if Runyan wins a spot in Congress, I expect to see him on that lawn in 2011, pancaking little kids and protecting Brees. Or the President. Whoever had a better year.
Part 1 of a three-part series on football related gift ideas, most of which are horrible.
Musical Gifts: The MP3 is a wonderful invention. It revived the "single" as a viable unit of purchase, so if my seven-year old gets a Weezer song stuck in his head, I don't have to plunk down $17 for 50 minutes of their grating, tongue-in-cheek bubblepunk. Internet shopping has made the obscure easily available; just by typing in Fairport Convention I have access to all of the violin-driven alt rock I could ask for, and much more. For the gift giver with access to a loved one's iPod, the MP3 offers a wide range of price options, a few singles for a child or sibling, a boxed set for a spouse or dear old dad.
Autumn Thunder: 40 Years of NFL Films Music is the definitive boxed set for fans of the rolling, bombastic tunes that played behind John Facenda and Harry Kalas for four decades. The problem is that no one likes NFL Films music that much. Face it: You aren't going to spend three hours listening to songs like "Knight in Cracked Leather," and you don't need a $90 collection of groovy '60s jazz jams and melodramatic faux opera.
Luckily, there's a short version: Selections from Autumn Thunder is available on iTunes for $9.99, and it's just the right length at 15 songs and about 45 minutes. Sam Spence, one of the three major NFL films composers (with Tom Hedden and David Robidoux) has two additional compilations available on iTunes. All three composers serve up the same stuff -- catchy soundtrack music perfect for chase scenes and rides off into the sunset, as well as touchdowns -- so the Autumn Thunder sampler should satisfy all but the completists.
If there's a frat boy with questionable musical taste on your shopping list, the iTunes Essentials "Football" compilation could be a winner. For $26.85, you get all the Gary Glitter, Queen, and House of Pain standards you can stomach. Yes, it's an awful amalgamation of cliché music, but you were 17 once, and fist-pumping to songs like "Enter Sandman" was your favorite pastime. Regular iTunes users know that the company also offers "Deep Cuts" versions of their compilations; the football Deep Cuts feature a song called "Tom Brady" by The New England Football Band. It's the only song I have ever heard that references Reche Caldwell, which isn't quite a recommendation.
College football fight songs are like NFL Films tracks: it's more fun to say you like them then to like them, and they are best in one-minute intervals, not as hour-long listening experiences. Chances are that special someone's alma mater's fight song is available for 99 cents or less on the Internet, and it's not something he's going to download for himself. The Florida State band recorded The Best of College Fight Songs in 2007, and it has a good selection: 33 songs, from "Notre Dame Victory March" to "Step to the Rear", for just $6.99.
"Step to the Rear" is the South Carolina fight song. Write your own joke.
There are many alternative arrangement albums of college pep music available. If you always wanted to hear the Notre Dame fight song played on distorted guitars, Free Minstrel has a short, inexpensive EP available on-line. The Dropouts have a longer album of punchy power-pop versions of fight songs, from the ubiquitous Victory March to odder choices like Vanderbilt Dynamite. Pick and choose, and you can give that Notre Dame or Texas fan a buffet of arrangements of his favorite fight song, all for about six bucks. Beware, though, of tinny, MIDI and synthesizer versions of the songs, which will only appeal to fans of both college football and Manheim Steamroller.
Most of the music choices on this list are pretty awful. MP3-player skins make more practical gifts than songs. After a quick search on Skinit.com I found an Eagles skin for my iPod for $14.95. Skins for handheld game machines, phones, and laptops are also available. Perfect for the guy who plasters that team logo absolutely everywhere.
Fragrance: Surprisingly, no one has marketed a Cowboys cologne, a Tom Brady cologne, or even something unlikely like DeAngelo Hall cologne (smell unsportsmanlike!). A fragrance company tried to market an NFL fragrance a few years ago, but the scent didn't attract a following for some reason. Worry not: There are plenty of college-scented colognes on the market.
Here's the advertising copy for Penn State Nittany Lion's Men's Cologne: "The fragrance exudes Penn State blue and signifies masculinity, passion and honor. The fragrance opens with the freshness of Italian bergamot and chilled gimlet accord. The middle note combines the coolness of blue cypress with the subtle spice of cracked pepper vapor. The base notes end with a deep black amber and cool moss. A new classic for the proud Penn State man."
Can't improve on that, though I am afraid to Google South Carolina's Step to the Rear Cologne.
The same company makes cologne for a few other schools. The ad copy for Tar Heels cologne: "The fragrance opens with fresh Sicilian lemon and bergamot. The aromatics extend with lavender and the subtle spice of sensual white pepper. The base notes combine a soft white amber and tonka bean." You get the impression that the company had some bergamot lying around the didn't know what to do with, so they mixed it with some pepper and other junk, slapped a team logo on it, and charged $60 for a glorified variation on Old Spice.
Speaking of Old Spice, I started wearing Swagger a year ago in preparation for a gag Walkthrough I never wrote. As it turns out, I like it, and so does my wife, as well as others forced to smell me on a regular basis. Brian Urlacher fans and Football Outsiders readers would appreciate the irony and practicality of a stocking full of swagger.
(Next week: children's books for the budding NFL fan.)
34 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2009, 2:54am by Bobman