A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
23 Sep 2010
by Mike Tanier
I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of pit bulls cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.
I think everyone in America, or at least Philadelphia, has come down with that disorder (anterograde amnesia) from the movie Memento. We can only remember things that happened in the last 10 minutes. We all have "Mike V." tattooed on our arms, but we don't know what it means. There are also tattoos of birthday cakes, a water bottle, a map of Mexico, angry dogs, and an unopened Falcons playbook. How obscure.
Press me, and I'll admit that Michael Vick gives the Eagles the best chance to Win. Right. Now. As in Sunday. He may even have the best chance to lead the Eagles to a 10-6 record and lose in the first round of the playoffs. I can think of a quarterback who gives my team a better chance. No, wait, I can't remember him.
The next three segments take an in-depth look at three other quarterback controversies throughout the league. If you are an Eagles fan, read about the Bills, Titans, and Raiders (past and present) and wonder: Is this where we will be in three or four years? If you are a Colts, Patriots, or Saints fan, or root for any team that knows who will start at quarterback this week, and the next, and the next, read this and cherish these times.
J.P. Losman threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns in a thrilling 24-20 Bills victory over the Texans on November 19, 2006. He threw two 83-yard passes to Lee Evans early in the game, a feat in itself, then threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price to win the game in the fourth quarter. It was an exciting game. It was also the last time a Bills quarterback threw for more than 300 yards.
Losman threw for 295 yards in a win over the Bengals in 2007, but he was already swapping the starting job back and forth with Trent Edwards. Edwards' career high is 289 yards in a 2008 loss to the Jets. He has started 32 games without reaching the 300-yard milestone, and now it looks like he never will.
Now, 2006 was a long time ago. Justin Bieber was 12 years old the last time the Bills had a 300-yard passing game. He still is, but that's not a problem we need to wrestle with here. Peerless Price still existed back then. There have already been nine 300-yard passing performances this year, and there were 104 last year. As milestones go, 300 passing yards is a pretty easy one to achieve. But not for the Bills.
You probably know that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and their ilk throw for 300-yards regularly. Instead of focusing on them, I went back through the last four seasons to find the worst quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards during the Bills drought. It was a tough task. Brady Quinn had a few 300-yard games. Various McCown brothers achieved the feat. But drilling even deeper, I found the worst of the worst. As a bonus, I determined their current whereabouts.
Chris Weinke: Weinke completed 34-of-61 passes for 423 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions for the Panthers in a December loss to the Giants in 2006. His performance was a little better than the numbers suggest in the 27-13 loss, as the Panthers' passing DVOA in the game was -0.7%, just a bit below average. Drew Carter led the Panthers in receiving that day. Keyshawn Johnson caught five passes. It was a long time ago.
By the way, Weinke threw 63 passes in a 2001 game, meaning he had two 60-attempt games in his career. Tom Brady has never thrown more than 55 passes in a game. Any playbook with 60 Weinke passes in it must also have a pentagram on the front. Weinke, now 73 years old, runs the IMG John Madden Football Academy, which trains players to be better football players, not video gamers.
Quinn Gray: Gray threw for 354 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions in a Jaguars loss to the Saints in November 2007, then threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to the Texans in 2007 season finale. Quinn had many of us convinced that he could be a successful NFL quarterback before he threw six preseason interceptions while trying to win the Colts' backup job in 2008. He's currently a high school coach in Florida. His team won its season opener.
Cleo Lemon: Lemon threw for 315 yards and a touchdown in a 22-16 win over the Ravens in December 2007; it was the Dolphins' lone victory that year. The Dolphins' passing DVOA that day was 28.8%. It was a heck of a game, best known for Greg Camarillo's overtime touchdown reception. Lemon's Toronto Argonauts are 6-5.
Charlie Frye: Frye threw for 333 yards and three interceptions in a Raiders loss to the Browns last December. For Browns fans, it was a reminder that things could always be worse. Zach Miller caught nine passes in that game. I get the impression that the Raiders could hire a street performer who shoots ping pong balls out of his nostrils to play quarterback, and Miller would still catch at least half a dozen ping pong balls. Frye is out for the season with a wrist injury, which means the Raiders quarterback job is in the hands of ...
Bruce Gradkowski: Gradkowski threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns in a Raiders victory over the Steelers a few weeks before Frye's effort against the Browns. The Raiders passing DVOA for Gradkowski was 78.9%. Frye's was -57.3%.
Gradkowski is back in the news because of the Raiders quarterback controversy; he'll pop up a little later in Walkthrough. Gradkowski is the greatest awful quarterback ever. There's nothing NFL about him, but he's got the spunk-moxie-swagger thing down cold, and in 10 years he will still be jumping from bad team to bad team, earning a start or two based on how hard he practices and the snappiness of his salute on the parade grounds.
Come to think of it, he should really go to Buffalo next. He's just as unlikely to throw for 300 yards as any of the guys they have now.
(Correction: Weinke is actually 37).
Jeff Fisher benched Vince Young with the Titans trailing 13-3 in the second half against the Steelers. At the time, Young was 7-of-10 for 66 yards, two interceptions, and two fumbles (one lost). Our own Tom Gower broke Young's game down, but I wanted to look at the game myself and see how much blame Young deserved for the Titans' poor offensive showing.
I believe Young made some big mistakes, but Mike Heimerdinger should have put him in a better position to succeed.
|Figure 1: VY Looks for Receivers|
I'm not going to diagram Young's two interceptions, because they were shown on all the replay programs and broken down by several experts on television. They were bad reads, bad decisions, and bad throws. Young was having a poor game by the midpoint of the second quarter. After the second interception, though, the Titans coaches lost confidence in him. They called four running plays in one series, including the Chris Johnson touchdown that was nullified by holding. They opened their two-minute drill with a handoff to Johnson, who fumbled. They clearly wanted the ball out of Young's hands.
In the third quarter, the Titans opened with two straight running plays, plus a penalty, which left them in a second-and-18 situation. It was at this point that Heimerdinger gave up any efforts at creativity. Figure 1 shows the call. Three receivers run deep routes. I can't tell the exact patterns from the television footage, but all three are running long, slow-developing routes. The Steelers appear to be playing quarters coverage, with the cornerbacks well off the line. Johnson sets to block before running a bench route; someone named Craig Stevens (88) runs a slow crossing route. They are easily picked up in underneath coverage. Young cannot find a receiver and is forced to scramble for six yards, fumbling out of bounds at the end.
|Figure 2: VY on Third-and-12|
Figure 2 shows the third-and-12 call on the next snap. Again, we see three deep routes, with Nate Washington (85) running a comeback along the right sideline. Troy Polamalu spots the route combination and buzzes in front of Washington. Young looks to Kenny Britt (18), and it's hard to tell from the tape how well Britt is covered, but he has a cornerback running with him at the snap. Again, Young scrambles for a short gain, and the Titans must punt.
Young's final two series are more of the same. Whenever he drops to pass, the Titans send three receivers on deep routes and Johnson underneath. Young doesn't like what he sees, then tries to run, dumps the ball to Johnson, or takes a sack. Enter Kerry Collins, and guess what? The Titans keep running the same offense. Figure 3 shows Collins' interception, and the play looks like a mirror image of the one in Figure 2. The only difference is that Collins tried to force a throw to Washington.
Now, put yourself in Heimerdinger's shoes for a moment. Your three receivers are Washington (not very good), Britt (talented but immature) and Justin Gage (hello, UFL). Your tight ends are Bo Scaife and Stevens, who runs like a lineman. Johnson, for all his gifts, doesn't run the underneath route very well; he has a hard time sifting through the line of scrimmage and finding his level. In other words, you lack receiving weapons, and you are playing the Steelers, who like to put their corners in deep coverage and then blitz your face off. But here's the good news: The Steelers can't score, because they just promoted their equipment manager to quarterback. What do you do?
You could run your option plays. Maybe try a few reverses to catch the Steelers over-pursuing Johnson. You can run some smash and hitch routes in front of the deep coverage. How about a wide receiver screen or two to get Britt the ball and help Young find his rhythm? Maybe flood one side of the field with three receivers running picks and wipes. Oh, and if you do face third-and-long, you could send some receivers on crossing routes before the sticks, because a few yards of field position could matter in a punt-and-pin game.
It seems to me that the worst thing you could do was send your mediocre receivers into deep coverage, one up each sideline and one up the seam, play after play, making life easy for the defense and hard for your already rattled quarterback. That's what the Titans did, and they kept doing it with Collins in the game, which is why Collins fumbled twice, threw an interception, and committed intentional grounding on his first three possessions.
|Figure 3: Kerry Collins, Same Problems|
Collins eventually led a ridiculous 17-play, 85-yard touchdown drive, and after the Titans recovered an onside kick and nearly won, there was a lot of talk about Collins "rallying" the team. Collins played just as poorly as Young until the Steelers had a two-score lead with 4:51 to play. The Titans offense played poorly, not just Young, and I believe that Heimerdinger deserves a share of the blame. Unfortunately, Young gets to be the lightning rod.
Did Young "deserve" to be benched? I don't know, but I believe he deserved a chance to throw some shorter passes to his wide receivers, or execute some rollouts, or try some other adjustment to get the offense moving before he got the hook. And Collins deserved the same thing when he entered the game. Heimerdinger is a good coordinator, and Jeff Fisher certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt, but coaches have bad games, just like quarterbacks. Except they don't have America questioning their character and maturity when they are benched.
When I read in August that Al Davis compared Jason Campbell to Jim Plunkett, I chuckled, but not for the same reasons everyone else did. Most people just scoffed at Crazy Al for comparing a Redskins castoff to a two-time Super Bowl winner. I scoffed at Crazy Al for his selective memory.
Jim Plunkett? If you are trying to compare a young quarterback to an established starter who brought stability to the team, there aren't many worse examples than Plunkett, who was involved in quarterback controversies during his entire Raiders career.
Plunkett was the first player taken in the 1971 draft, and he won the Rookie of the Year award, throwing 19 touchdowns for the Patriots. The Patriots were an awful organization in the early 1970s, and Plunkett spent four seasons with them, mostly getting hammered in the pocket, before the 49ers traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to acquire him in 1976. Bad organizations had a habit of throwing away first-round picks in that era, usually to avoid paying rookie salaries, so the Plunkett deal wasn't too unusual. Anyway, after two mediocre seasons in San Francisco, Plunkett was released. The Raiders signed him, and he spent one season as the third-stringer behind Ken Stabler and David Humm, then a second season behind Stabler.
In 1980, Davis traded Stabler for Dan Pastorini, the Oilers quarterback who existed in the second between the snap and the handoff to Earl Campbell. Pastorini threw a nice deep ball and could punt but was truly out of place in 1980s football. Of course, the Raiders weren't going to play 1980s football, so it didn't matter. Plunkett and Pastorini had been high school rivals, and Pastorini was selected two spots after Plunkett in the 1971 draft. Davis also drafted Marc Wilson in the first round, who put up amazing numbers for the time (3,720 yards, 29 touchdowns) at Brigham Young. Plunkett saw a no-win situation and wanted out of Oakland, but Davis refused to let him go.
Pastorini broke his leg four games into the season. Plunkett threw five interceptions in his first start, then led the Raiders on a hot streak, throwing seven touchdowns and no picks in a three-game stretch in which the Raiders scored 38, 45, and 33 points. The Raiders won a Wild Card berth, and though Plunkett was erratic early in the postseason (8-of-23 against the Oilers, two interceptions against the Browns), he threw two touchdown passes to lead the Raiders past the Chargers, then threw three touchdown passes to beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Plunkett entered the 1981 season as the Raiders starter, though he had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in the offseason. After a few early wins, the Raiders were shut out in three straight games. Wilson replaced Plunkett in the fourth quarters of the last two shutouts, playing terribly (he was 1-of-8 in one game, 2-of-11 with two interceptions in the other), but Tom Flores benched Plunkett for Wilson after the third shutout anyway. "The way he was playing we felt we should sit him down a few weeks to let him get his timing back to that precision he had last year," Flores said. Wilson threw seven interceptions in his first two starts and was wildly inconsistent, but the Raiders went 5-4 down the stretch with him at quarterback.
In the first training camp drill of the next season, Flores separated the Raiders starters and reserves onto two different fields but didn't tell Plunkett and Wilson where to go. "Plunkett looked at Wilson and Wilson looked at Plunkett. Neither moved," according to one story. The starters began calling for their preferred quarterback, some for Plunkett, some for Wilson. Wilson finally suggested that Plunkett join the starters. Plunkett did, and remained the starter throughout training camp and the regular season. It sounds like one of those motivational speeches in which the presenter waves a $20 bill and asks, "Who wants it?", then gives it to the first person bold enough to walk up and grab it. It makes the presentation more dramatic, but it may not be the best way to make personnel decisions.
Plunkett was shaky at the start of camp in 1983, and he took several hard sacks in preseason games. Several players suggested that it was time to switch to Wilson, but Plunkett retained the starting job and played well to start the season. Soon, the sacks and turnovers mounted. In one loss to the Seahawks, Plunkett threw three interceptions, fumbled twice, and was sacked eight times. Wilson replaced him and played well for two games before injuring his shoulder. Back came Plunkett, once again playing well after a benching. "I feel more rested now and less beaten up," he said. "The first part of the season was pretty rough on me from that standpoint." Plunkett again led a great Raiders team to the Super Bowl.
Plunkett entered the 1984 season as the starter, and he retained the job despite a slow start that included one four-interception game. Plunkett tore a stomach muscle early in a game against the Seahawks, and Wilson replaced him, throwing for two touchdowns. Two weeks later, Wilson threw for five touchdowns to beat the Chargers, and the Plunkett era finally seemed to be over. But Flores chose Plunkett to start in place of Wilson in the Wild Card playoff game. Plunkett threw for 184 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions in a 13-7 loss.
By the 1985 preseason, Raiders fans booed Wilson whenever he entered the game. Plunkett held the starting job throughout camp but injured his left shoulder in Week 3. Wilson replaced him for the remainder of the season but was terrible. By 1986, Rusty Hilger was in the quarterback mix, and Flores declared it a three-man race in the preseason. Wilson won the starting job, played well in the season opener against the Broncos, and promptly separated his shoulder after throwing three interceptions against the Redskins. Plunkett started the third game but had a hard time moving the ball in a 14-9 loss to the Giants. The pair played hot potato with the starting job for the rest of the season. Plunkett finally retired at season's end.
Having read all of that, do you really want to compare a new quarterback to Plunkett? The surface similarity is apparent: He's another team's former top pick, and Davis wants him to come to Oakland and win two Super Bowls. Upon further review, though, we see that Plunkett was ...
Davis and Flores really wanted Wilson to develop and win the starting job, but Wilson was streaky, erratic, and didn't inspire confidence. Plunkett was usually Plan B, reliable but rickety. He didn't so much provide a spark as hold down the fort so Marcus Allen and the defense could do their jobs, and at times he couldn't even do that.
Come to think of it, the Campbell-Plunkett comparison makes more sense now than it did in August. Bruce Gradowski can play Wilson. He'll get a few starts, then get hurt or play so poorly that Campbell will ride to the rescue. They can keep doing it for five years, though the Raiders will now be battling to go 5-11 instead of 11-5. And instead of turning against Wilson, the fans will probably turn against Campbell. But Campbell shouldn't despair -- Plunkett didn't turn things around until he was 33 and on this third team. There's still time.
There's an even better Plunkett-to-Wilson comparison in the NFL now, and it's in this very Walkthrough. Collins and Young. The knock-around veteran and the kid you don't quite have faith in. Young is much better than Wilson, and Plunkett accomplished more than Collins, but story is very similar. It echoes across history, for better or worse.
58 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2010, 5:46pm by Shattenjager