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?
24 Sep 2009
by Mike Tanier
TUNA: Attention! Our monthly meeting of the Dolphins Board of Trustees is now in session. First item of business: the Wildcat. Some of our coaches are worried that with Chad Pennington running into and out of the game, the offense is having a hard time finding its rhythm.
GLORIA: Rhythm? That's easy. Have Pennington mambo off the field, then Ricky Williams can yambu across the formation. Ronnie Brown calls a bembe snap count, then runs the guaguanco off tackle while the offensive line starts a descarga. That will turn the beat around.
TUNA: I ... can't control myself any longer. Next item of business is the trouble our receivers are having scoring touchdowns. We have to make sure they are bringing the ball in, and that their feet aren't touching the line ...
SERENA: Their feet aren't touching the m*********ing line!
TUNA: Well, in this replay ...
SERENA: I swear to God I'll f******g take that replay and shove it down your f*****g throat!
TUNA: No offense, ma'am, but I think you need a change of attitude.
JIMMY: Or a change of latitude.
TUNA: Shut up. Now, quarterbacks coach David Lee has been getting a lot of attention, and I am worried that it may be going to his head. I don't want him trying to undermine Tony Sparano. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
MARC ANTHONY: Tuna says Lee was ambitious;
And Tuna is an honorable man.
You all did see that on the Land Shark
I thrice presented him a coaching headset
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
TUNA: I have no idea what any of you are talking about. None of you has any idea what it takes to succeed in the athletic arena!
VENUS: Excuse me?
SERENA: I'll kill you for saying that!
JENNY FROM THE BLOCK: Face it, Tuna. The NFL is part of the entertainment industry. There's nothing strange about celebrity ownership: many movie stars had stakes in the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s. We aren't here to meddle, and we won't be a distraction to your football team. Promise.
KANYE: You're good, Jenny, but Beyonce is better.
TUNA: I'm pretty sure you aren't even a co-owner. Get out of here, jackass.
Since neither of us could convince the other, we decided to make a bet based on Kolb's performance this week against the Chiefs. If Kolb posts a positive DVOA, Barnwell wins. If he posts a negative DVOA, I win. If he throws 10 passes or less, the bet's a push.
Last year, we wagered on Reggie Bush's 2008 stats, and the loser (me) had to live blog the Pro Bowl. This year, we're doing something different. The loser must purchase, read, and publish a thorough review of the worst football book we could find: Monday Night Jihad, by Jason Elam and Steve Yohn. As best I can tell, the book is a cross between Black Sunday, A Few Seconds of Panic, and the Left Behind series.
Results won't be final until DVOA gets calculated, but you will probably be able to guess who won by the end of the Eagles-Chiefs game, and I am sure one of us will do a little chirping in next week's Audibles.
I've been disappointed by books like John Maxymuk's Quarterback Abstract many times.
The name "Abstract" raises unrealistic expectations. Bill James's mix of incisive analysis, common sense reasoning, and humor is nearly impossible to duplicate -– take it from someone who has been trying for five years. Football history is a challenging topic to tackle, especially for a writer striving to be both analytical and comprehensive. Even the best-designed statistical mousetraps break when applied to Arnie Herber, and while it's easy to put John Elway in historical perspective, it's harder to do justice to Jim Everett. When published at all, abstract-style football history books are too often glib list-fests or mediocre compilations of poor research and failed statistical arguments.
So Maxymuk's Quarterback Abstract was a pleasant surprise. Maxymuk compiled stats and wrote entries on every quarterback who ever started ten NFL games. Legends like Elway get a few pages, workaday starters like Everett get five or six paragraphs, and Bobby Hoying types merit about 250 words. Maxymuk outlines each quarterback's career highs and lows: great seasons, injuries, scandals, post-career forays into coaching, officiating, and reality television. The entries on Hall of Famers like Elway contain little new information, but the medium-length entries on second-tier stars are both entertaining and valuable as a resource. Maxymuk's book is one of the few places where Lynn Dickey, John Hadl, and Tommy Kramer get half a page of individual attention; Maxymuk's research reanimates quarterbacks whose legacies are fast deteriorating into statistical columns for most fans.
Maxymuk includes some new statistical research in the Quarterback Abstract. He estimates Won-Loss records for proto-quarterbacks of the single-wing era, and he tabulates every quarterback's career comebacks. Maxymuk's meta-rating statistics don't have the horsepower of DVOA and are built on a few non-analytical assumptions, but the ratings run silently in the background for most of the book. The Quarterback Abstract is a book about the quarterbacks, not their statistics, and the book's many best-ever lists and All Time Greats arguments are provided as food for thought, not didacticism.
Maxymuk took the time to answer this email interview with Walkthrough:
Walkthrough: Otto Graham, greatest quarterback ever. How confident are you with that assertion?
Maxymuk: Moderately. Ranking quarterbacks is something of a parlor game that reveals as much about the person doing the ranking as it does the quarterbacks. I tried to rank quarterbacks according to the most important of the imperfect measures and generally accessible statistics we have across time.
Actually, there are two ranking systems in use in the book. The first is the Quarterback Proficiency Scale that I use to rank all 366 quarterbacks included in the book. The scale is based on relative passer rating and relative team points scored and is weighted by games started, years as a primary starter, and championship game appearances and victories. The second method is a variation of the first and is just applied to the 30 quarterbacks who are either in the Hall of Fame, have been finalists for Canton, or are sure first ballot candidates who are now active. It also uses relative passer rating and relative team points scored, but includes won/lost percentage, postseason percentage and rushing average.
Anyway, Graham comes out on top either way. He was the best passer of his time in the best offense of his time and led his team to 10 straight championship games. No one has a better record in my view. Somewhere above my Cleveland-born dad is smiling.
Maxymuk: Brady's passer rating is 17 percent better than the league average; Manning's is 19 percent better. Brady's teams have outscored the league average by 23 percent; Manning's by 24 percent. Although neither is much of a runner and both have been big winners, Brady has won more in the postseason. One other factor in their favor is that neither has started the decline phase of their careers yet, although that is inevitable.
The Brady-Manning rivalry is comparable to the Starr-Unitas rivalry in the 1960s and the Luckman-Baugh rivalry of the 1940s. In all three cases, the two best quarterbacks on the two strongest teams of the time met regularly in grudge matches of the utmost significance and highest drama. In the book, I sprinkled 70 top ten lists of opinion, fact and comparison. One that mistakenly was left out was Head-to-Head Hall of Fame Quarterback Match-ups. I have posted that and notes on the 240 quarterbacks who started from 1-9 games on my web site.
Walkthrough: What was your biggest challenge when comparing quarterbacks across eras?
Maxymuk: Obviously, you can't compare raw numbers since how the game is played continually changes. I try to compare quarterbacks to their peers and then compare that difference to quarterbacks from other eras.
Passer rating is clearly a flawed measure, but it does give a picture of how efficient a passer is. Since putting points on the board is the quarterback's main objective, team points shows how effective a quarterback is. Relativizing these two figures makes comparison across era possible.
Another factor to take into account is the increased level of competition over time. In other words, it is likely impossible for a quarterback today to be as superior to the average passer as Sid Luckman or Sammy Baugh were because there are so many better players today.
Walkthrough: What stats or data do you wish you had for quarterbacks of the pre-digital age?
Maxymuk: Sack data is a big gap to me. Sacks give us an idea of how quickly quarterbacks see the field and get rid of the ball, so I wish we had that further back. The data for the 1960s is very spotty and unofficial and nonexistent before that.
I've done some rough calculations on teams and their primary quarterbacks for the period from 1950-69 and those figures generally confirm the public perception that Norm Van Brocklin had the quickest release of his time and Johnny Unitas was very good, too. Y.A. Tittle and Otto Graham seemed to take a lot of sacks by contrast, but none of that is hard data. The 1940s are worse: sacks were just considered rushing attempts so that we can't get a good sense of the quarterback's running talent or rush avoidance ability. And, of course, I would love to see complete passing numbers for pre-1932 so we could conclude just how much greater than everyone else Benny Friedman was.
Walkthrough: Name a quarterback who didn't seem very interesting when you first started researching him, but became much more fascinating when you learned more about him.
Maxymuk: You mean aside from the overrated quarterback from Southern Mississippi who had some success in Green Bay, but whose name is escaping me right now? OK, I can think of five ways to respond to this question.
First, there are quarterbacks whose career arcs are fascinating like Sam Etcheverry, Tobin Rote, George Blanda and Danny White. Second, there are quarterbacks whose off-the-field activities are noteworthy: Gary Kerkorian becoming a judge, Timm Rosenbach denouncing the game as dehumanizing before trying a comeback, David Woodley's problems with the bottle and Jeff Komlo's flight from the law. Some of the best of these only turn up on the web site because they concern quarterbacks who started fewer than 10 games like Max Choboian, Perry Moss and Tom Yewcic.
Third, new light is thrown on some quarterbacks through a statistical breakdown -- Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas's careers were heavily frontloaded, Joe Namath's first five years were really spectacular, Vinny Testaverde's stats were badly skewed by his early and late seasons, and so forth. Fourth, many quarterbacks like Johnny Lujack, Don Meredith, Daryle Lamonica and Frank Ryan were underrated. Fifth, odd facts tell us something about some quarterbacks: Archie Manning's won-lost record was so bad that it took 16 combined seasons by his very successful sons to put the Manning family over .500; two of my 10 lowest ranked quarterbacks, Dan Darragh and Bruce Gradkowski, went to the same high school.
Walkthrough: You list John Elway with 48 career comebacks, Marino with 46. That makes your numbers much different than the "accepted" numbers (which give Elway a large lead) and slightly different from Scott Kacsmar's totals (which give Marino a tiny edge). How did you classify and tabulate your comebacks?
Maxymuk: My biggest regret with the book is that I used the term "comebacks" out of habit when Game Winning Drives would be a better description. Basically, I counted up all fourth quarter or overtime game winning drives led by each quarterback from line scores and press accounts. Some people are counting only comebacks, i.e, when the team is behind and not just tied. To me the important factor is the game winning drive.
Walkthrough: I wanted to write a book like this. You beat me to it. I hate you. Are you at peace with that?
Maxymuk: Mike, you will always be the B**** F**** of FO writers to me.
Disobeying Walkthrough rules is no way to get a book plug, John!
There's more to the Dolphins running game than the Wildcat. There had better be, because they are executing about 80 plays from scrimmage per game.
Even if Tony Sparano scrapped the Wildcat forever, he'd still have a playbook full of cleverly-designed runs that use unusual formations, motion, and misdirection to force defenders to hesitate. These other plays share many principles with the Wildcat; many include an inside-outside option with several possible ball carriers. These plays require defenders to make the kinds of reads they had to make in high school, reads that most are no longer accustomed to making after years at major college programs and in the pros.
|Figure 1: Brown Counter|
Figure 1 shows a long second quarter run by Ronnie Brown. It's third-and-2, and the Dolphins line up in an ace formation, with Brown offset in the backfield and Ricky Williams in the slot. This is a passing formation, and the Colts counter with one of their patented Cover-2 looks. The Dolphins probably had a pass called, but Chad Pennington can clearly be heard shouting "Kill!" With the Colts safeties deep and only two yards needed for a first down. Pennington's decision to audible into a run is wise.
Pennington taps his feet to start Williams in motion, then takes the snap and executes an inside handoff to Brown. Williams feigns receiving the handoff and runs a sweep right. Williams's motion draws a linebacker out of position, and two other linebackers blitz around the offensive left edge. That leaves the Colts in terrible position to defend an inside run. The Colts linemen slant to the offensive right to fill any running lanes, but Justin Smiley (65) does an excellent job of sealing off right end Dwight Freeney, while Jake Grove (64) scoops up the defensive tackle and takes him out of the hole. Brown has a running lane that extends deep into the secondary.
Note the similarities between the Brown counter in Figure 1 and a typical Wildcat play: motion by Williams, a fake sweep, double-teams on the interior line. The Dolphins got all of the advantages of the Wildcat on that play while still having Pennington under center. They got to use their power running and misdirection principles against a defense set to stop not a Wildcat run, but a Pennington pass.
|Figure 2: Shotgun Triple Option|
Figure 2 shows another Dolphins wrinkle: a spread triple option taken straight from a college playbook. This example was taken from a play early in the second quarter. Williams motions into the backfield pre-snap, but instead of flowing through the formation, he sets next to Brown, creating a shotgun, two-back look. At the snap, Brown fakes to Williams, who runs up the middle. Patrick Cobbs loops behind Brown and stays on his wing as an option pitch man. When Brown (wisely) decides not to blitz, Cobbs blocks the cornerback.
I watched this play carefully and determined that it is a true option. Brown reads right end Dwight Freeney while faking the handoff to Williams. If Freeney maintains containment on the outside of the line, Brown is supposed to hand off. Once Brown realizes that Freeney is crashing hard to stop the inside run, he pulls the ball back and sweeps left. This is a fundamental option principle: the playside end is left unblocked on purpose and becomes the "choice" defender on the play. As the diagram shows, the left tackle and left flanker ignore Freeney, instead sealing off second-level blockers for Brown.
|Figure 3: Inverted Wishbone|
Figure 3 is taken from a first quarter, first-and-10 play. The Dolphins line up in an inverted wishbone formation with two split wide receivers (not shown). At the snap, the Dolphins tackles and left guard set to pass block while fullbacks Brown and Lousaka Polite appear to run pass patterns. Pennington takes a three step drop, looks downfield to his right, then hands off to Williams on a delay. Brown and Polite each take on a second-level defender while left guard Smiley peels off a double-team to engage a linebacker. Williams has a wide hole and gains nine yards.
Colts fans must be screaming at this diagram. Why are Freeney and Robert Mathis charging upfield to rush the passer? It's first down, the Dolphins are a run-heavy team, and they're in the wishbone, for goodness sake: maybe it's time to play run defense? Remember that Pennington is a master of football detail, and his teams normally excel at play action, draws, and delays. The backward motion of the left and right tackle, plus Pennington's convincing drop and look downfield, make this play look like a pass for a split second. Freeney and Mathis are reacting according to the rules of their scheme, and the Colts linebackers also hesitate on the play. The Colts certainly could have done a better job defending this run (and about 20 others), but give Sparano and the Dolphins credit for sound execution.
The buzz in Miami says that the Wildcat is hurting the team; of course, whenever things go wrong, whatever's new and different draws most of the blame. I think the Dolphins could easily scale back the Wildcat and still have one of the most unique running games in the NFL. That uniqueness might not save them if their receivers don't improve and their defense doesn't learn to cover tight ends, but it can make them a power-running nightmare in a league where most defenses are designed to stop wide-open pass attacks.
Next Week: Tanier crosses the bridge to experience the glitz, glamour, and glory of legal sports gambling, Delaware style
53 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2009, 10:09pm by DaveRichters