The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
14 Oct 2010
by Mike Tanier
Coach Singletary: Alex and David, I am glad both of you are here. Obviously, there's been a lot of drama lately about our quarterback situation, with me yelling at Alex on the sideline and sending both of you into the huddle by mistake at one point. I have done some thinking, and I have come to a decision. David, you are my starter. Alex, you're benched.
David Carr: Yes!!!
Alex Smith: That's a bad decision, coach. Put me back in there, and I will show you that I deserve to be the starter!
Singletary: Very good, Alex. I was just testing you. I knew if you had anything in you, you would have something to say about your benching. That proves you are a worthy starter.
Smith: I'm glad that's settled.
Carr: Wait a minute. I think you just made a bad decision, coach. Give me the starting job, and I will prove that I deserve it more than he does! See? I just proved that I have the mettle to be a starter by speaking up about my demotion, just like he did. By your logic, you are forced to start me.
Singletary: You make a compelling case, David. You're the starter.
Smith: That's not fair! He knew it was just a test. He's just trying to play the system.
Carr: Oh really? Coach, what makes you think that Alex didn't know it was a test in the first place? Maybe he only spoke up about his benching because he knew you were waiting for him to speak up about his benching.
Singletary: I hadn't considered that. Alex, did you object to being benched because you didn't want to be benched, or because you thought I wanted to hear you say that you didn't want to be benched?
Smith: I didn't want to be benched!
Carr: But that's not the reason why you spoke up. You just spoke up to try to keep your job, right?
Smith: Of course not! I mean, of course! I mean ...
The Chargers are really trying to improve their special teams. They have been signing new personnel like Quinton Teal, cutting youngsters who make coverage mistakes, and using starters on the kick and punt teams. Sometimes, all of that personnel turnover can cause more harm than good, particularly on special teams, where new players get few practice reps to master their assignments and mesh with teammates.
|Figure 1: Chargers Blocked Punt|
Figure 1 shows the first of the Raiders' two blocked punts against the Chargers. The Chargers' lineup on this play: Randy McMichael (81), Kevin Burnett (99), Antwan Applewhite (90), Ethan Albright (64), Mike Tolbert (35), Kris Wilson (88), and Legedu Naanee (11). Jacob Hester (22) is the personal protector, and Mike Scifres (4) is the punter. The gunners, not shown, are Teal and C.J. Spillman, who was released on Monday. Four of the players on punt coverage are starters, but three come with extenuating circumstances: Applewhite starts in place of injured Shawne Merriman, Naanee replaces holdout Vincent Jackson, and Tolbert earned a promotion when Ryan Mathews was hurt. Tolbert and McMichael are also sometime starters, but it's not unusual for fullbacks and second tight ends to play special teams. It's not like Antonio Gates or Shaun Phillips is being asked to cover punts.
Now, you can probably spot the mistake in the blocking scheme yourself. Here's a hint: When assigned to fan left, fan left, and never follow a defender who is bailing out.
The Chargers' best bet in the weeks to come is not to juggle special teams personnel any more, but to get the current players comfortable in their assignments. That means they will have to devote even more practice reps to special teams. Since the kicking game is about to cost them their season, they probably recognize the urgency.
The Vikings had the right idea when they opened up the Monday Night game with a reverse to Randy Moss. Getting Moss an early touch makes sense. So does making the Jets think twice about over-pursuing. It was a tense week. Run a little junk right away and everyone can get loose. It's all fun and games until Brett Favre decides he's an eligible receiver.
|Figure 2: Ineligible Favre|
Figure 2 shows the first -- and probably last -- pass Moss will ever throw to Favre. The two-tight end, wing-back, empty backfield formation is unique, and it definitely forces the Jets to think pass. Percy Harvin (12) runs the a jet sweep, Moss takes the reverse handoff, then things go awry.
Moss wants to throw to Visanthe Shiancoe (81), but Shiancoe is covered, and as is often the case on option-reverse passes, he's the only eligible receiver running a pattern. Luckily for Moss, one ineligible receiver runs a pattern, and Moss hits Favre racing along the sideline as if they've been practicing that play together all their lives.
I want to poll the comment threads here: How many people knew before this play that the quarterback is an ineligible receiver when he's under center? It's an obscure rule, and I don't think it's the rule at the prep or college level. I was in the press box of an Eagles-Vikings game in 2004 when a similar receiver-to-quarterback event occurred, though that was more of a broken play. There was a lot of confusion in the box, because a lot of us weren't sure about the rule, but the play was called back. Moss was at that game. So was Brad Childress, the Eagles offensive coordinator at the time. Favre wasn't, but you would think that after 20 years, he would know that he cannot catch a pass, cannot run downfield to block, cannot do anything when he's under center -- except hand off and throw.
Let's give Childress the benefit of the doubt and say that he didn't draw up an illegal play: Favre wasn't supposed to run a route or block down the field, he was just supposed to lead block if Moss decided to run. Brett Favre. Lead Blocker on a sweep. First play of the game. Against the Jets. On second thought, let's give Childress the benefit of the doubt and say that he drew up an illegal play instead of sending a 41-year old man on a suicide mission.
On third thought, let's just burn this play!
Singletary: I have a solution. I will chop the starting job in half. Each of you can quarterback a series. What do you think of that?
Smith: No! That would be horrible for the team. If that's your decision, I would rather if Carr just won the starting job.
Singletary: Very good. In that case, Carr gets the starting job.
Smith: What? I thought that was the Wisdom of Solomon test! By saying I was most willing to give up the job, I was proving that I was most deserving of the job.
Carr: Nope, you just said you were willing to give up the starting job, which no quarterback should ever say.
Singletary: Correct. You are no longer the starting quarterback, though you are worthy to babysit my niece.
Smith: So I am benched?
Smith: In that case, I object to being benched! Put me back in the lineup, and I will prove what a great job I can do.
Singletary: Very good, you are the starter.
Carr: What? No fair. OK, try this. (Scribbles on paper, hands it to Singletary)
Singletary: (Reads note). Alex, you are benched, and you are not allowed to speak out against your benching.
Carr: Haha! I have you now. If you don't speak out, it proves you lack mettle. But if you do, you are directly disobeying the coach, which is worse than not speaking out! I'm the starter! I'm the starter!
Smith: I object to not being able to speak out against my benching.
Carr: You can't do that!
Smith: Yes I can. I can't speak out against my benching, but I can speak out about not being able to speak out against it. That isn't disobeying anyone, and it certainly shows some mettle. Right, coach?
Singletary: It sure does, starter Alex Smith.
Carr: No! Must ... attempt ... logical ... checkmate ...
Max Hall, an undrafted rookie from Brigham Young, earned his first start on Sunday. Hall's stat line (17-of-27, 168 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks, two fumbles) won't be sent straight to the Hall of Fame, but he did one or two things right. Hall got the football to Larry Fitzgerald seven times and executed a few field-goal drives against a very good defense. Throw in a lot of fumble luck and some Saints mistakes, and he helped the Cardinals to a win.
It's rare for an undrafted rookie to start a game at quarterback. In fact, our editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz found just eight examples in the Football Outsiders database from the last 30 years. In honor of Hall's accomplishments, I decided to rank the best debuts ever by undrafted quarterbacks in their rookie seasons and to examine what circumstances thrust these unknowns into starting roles. I kicked two 1987 replacement players, Erik Kramer and Ken Karcher, off the list. As it turns out, Hall's performance against the Saints falls roughly into line with these other gems:
The Game: Neither the Panthers nor the Seahawks scored in the first three quarters. Moore drove the Panthers 44 yards to set up a 53-yard John Kasay field goal early in the fourth. When the Seahawks tied the game, Moore led a 41-yard field-goal drive. After a Matt Hasselbeck fumble, Moore handed off three times to DeAngelo Williams, who ran for a 35-yard touchdown on the third carry.
The Rest is History: Moore is now trading the starting job back and forth to Jimmy Clausen. The Panthers are still trying to win games by not scoring for three quarters, then hoping Kasay and Williams can save them.
Circumstances: Jerry Jones was in full Crazy Emperor mode in 2002. He believed he could make a quarterback out of anyone back then, and he had a particular fetish for former baseball prospects. Hutchinson was the guitar-strumming ex-pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who replaced Quincy Carter, a Jones rehabilitation project gone horribly wrong, in midseason.
The Game: Why are the Seahawks involved in so many of these stories? Hutchinson completed just 3-of-9 passes in the first half, but the Seahawks only took a 7-0 lead late in the first half on a Shaun Alexander touchdown. Hutchinson answered with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway, who appears to hold the record for most touchdown catches from undrafted rookies in their first starts. The Seahawks followed with a 74-yard touchdown drive, but Hutchinson answered again, completing three passes on an Emmitt Smith-heavy drive that ended with a game-tying Smith touchdown. The Seahawks got the ball late in the fourth quarter, and with the help of unnecessary roughness and pass interference penalties by the Cowboys, drove for a short field goal.
The Rest is History: Hutchinson later started a few games for the Bears. According to the Stanford alumni site, he works for a financial consulting firm now.
The Circumstances: A frustrated Dan Reeves demoted Chris Chandler to third string for the 3-10 Falcons. Danny Kanell flunked an earlier test as the starter, so Reeves turned to Johnson, who, like Hutchinson, had tried his hand at baseball (he was a career .215 hitter in the rookie leagues) before returning to football.
The Game: Jon Kitna led the Seahawks (these guys again?) down the field after the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Johnson threw a pick-six to make the score 14-0. Johnson finally got the Falcons on the board late in the second quarter with a 64-yard field goal drive, but a 71-yard Kitna pass to Darrell Jackson set up a short Ricky Watters touchdown. A Johnson interception to start the second half set up a Seahawks field goal. A Johnson strip-sack set up another field goal. Finally, it was 30-3, and Johnson was allowed to compile some stats, throwing a 19-yard touchdown to Reggie Kelly.
The Rest is History: Johnson earned another start before Chandler returned to finish the season. The Falcons drafted Michael Vick, but Johnson hung around for a few more years, going 1-7 as a starter in 2003.
Circumstances: Warren Moon had cracked ribs. The Seahawks were 6-8. Head coach Dennis Erickson was on the hot seat. Kitna was a local hero (raised in Tacoma, attended Central Washington University) who had starred in the World League. Why not give him a look?
Game: Kitna threw his two interceptions early, and the Raiders built a 21-3 lead on a rainy day in Oakland. Kitna got hot in the second half, completing 16-of-22 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown to Joey Galloway. The Seahawks stopped the Raiders on fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks 17-yard line in the fourth quarter, and Kitna threw six straight completions to set up a game-winning field goal.
The Rest is History: Moon started the next game and stayed in Seattle for one more year. Erickson also held on for one more year. Kitna went on to start for the Seahawks, Bengals, and Lions. He's now in Dallas.
The Circumstances: Randall Cunningham got knocked out for the season in the opener. Jim McMahon took over but also got hurt. The Eagles coaxed former Jets backup Pat Ryan out of retirement, but Ryan could barely throw a football 25 feet. The Eagles had the best defense in the NFL, and if only they could find somebody to complete a few passes ...
The Game: The Eagles took a 13-0 lead on a pair of field goals and a Seth Joyner touchdown return after Wes Hopkins and Reggie White strip-sacked Testaverde. But the Eagles' game plan consisted exclusively of handoffs and dump passes. Heath Sherman carried the ball 35 times in the game, but by the fourth quarter he was going nowhere. Chris Chandler relieved Testaverde, and he led two touchdown drives in the final four minutes, one set up by a bad snap on a punt. "This is the worst, man," Joyner said after the game. "This is the worst by far. I've been associated with football since I've been nine years old, and I've never been associated with a loss this bad."
The Rest is History: Rich Kotite immediately named Goebel the starter for the next game, then backtracked the next day. How familiar. Goebel did make one more start before McMahon returned. By the end of the season, Jeff Kemp was the Eagles starter, and the team finished 10-6 and wondering what would have happened if they had won one of Ryan or Goebel's starts. Goebel appears to be doing quite well these days as a ranch and resort realtor.
The Circumstances: Jim Hart had cracked ribs. For some reason, Loyd and fellow rookie Rusty Lisch were the only backups for the 36-year-old Hart on the roster. Without a full-court research press, I could find out very little about Loyd's college career; the fact that pro-football-reference.com lists him with three colleges (Kansas, Missouri Southern, and Tulsa) suggests there's quite a story there.
The Game: The Cardinals didn't complete a pass until there was 3:39 to play in the third quarter. By then, Lisch had replaced Loyd, and he managed to complete what was described as a "four foot" pass to a fullback. Loyd replaced Hart one week before his lone start, completing 4-of-15 passes for 44 yards and an interception in a 17-3 loss to the Eagles.
The Rest is History: The Cardinals drafted Neil Lomax the next year, giving them a worthy heir to Hart. Loyd is now a high school football coach in Florida. He doesn't appear to be related to Mike Loyd Junior, a controversial college basketball player.
In Summary: Notice how many of the guys on this list were "old" rookies. Kitna played in the World League, Hutchinson and Johnson spent time in the minors, and Hall had a missionary stint. It stands to reason that these guys were more emotionally prepared to start than the typical low-tier rookie because of their age and (in several cases) experience in another professional setting.
The real takeaway is that only Kitna had a serious NFL career (Erik Kramer too, if you count the strike guys). Not only are you lacking other starters on the list, but you don't even have quality backups besides Moore, who is playing his way out of the "quality backup" category. Hall is a long shot to be anything more than a guy who hangs around for a few news cycles.
By the way, the Cardinals face the Seahawks in two weeks. Ken Whisenhunt should have waited until then to give Hall the start. Kitna, Galloway, Chandler, and Testaverde should have been invited to witness the event. There were some weird synchronicities on that list.
Singletary: Alex, you are my starter.
Carr: (Half asleep). I object. Something, something ... best man for the job.
Singletary: In that case, it's you.
Smith: (Eyes bloodshot). No, coach, yada, yada ... prove myself.
Crowd outside: We want Carr! We want Carr!
Carr: : Hear that, coach? They are calling for me!
Smith: No, they are yelling, "We Want Carbs! We Want Carbs!" They've been living off a California diet of organic produce for too long, and they are demanding macaroni and cheese.
Carr: That's a lie. They want me!
Smith: Coach, if you pick David just because the fans like him better, I will object like I have never objected before, and you will be forced to start me.
Singletary: I am getting confused.
Steve Young: Gentlemen, what seems to be the problem?
Singletary: Oh Steve, I am glad you are here. I want my starting quarterback to have the pluck to speak up for himself when he is benched, but every time I bench one of these guys, he speaks up for himself, and I am forced to give him the starting job.
Young: Really? That's what it has come to around here? I mean, didn't you have a whole training camp with these two? Hasn't Alex Smith been here for six years? The only thing separating these guys right now is which one acts the most like a tough guy when you try to bench him? That's the sum total of your coaching acumen at this point?
Young: (Sigh) OK. Alex, do you not agree that you wouldn't accept being benched if you didn't think you weren't the second most qualified quarterback on the roster. Yes or no?
Smith: Wow. That is the clearest communication I have heard from this franchise in six years. No Steve, I don't.
Young: Very good. David, you're the starter.
Carr: : Yes!
Young: How do you think I got Joe Montana to leave town? Peace out, fellas.
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