"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
23 Dec 2010
by Mike Tanier
It is time to close look at one of Sunday's most fascinating games, a close contest filled with intrigue and drama and controversial special teams decisions.
I refer, of course, to the Panthers' 19-12 win over the Cardinals.
Were you expecting Eagles-Giants? Well, anyone can comment on that game. I watched it twice, once sober, and took copious notes, which were much more legible and less beer-stained after the Tuesday replay. But that game was the most talked-about sporting event of the week. I went to the NFL Game Rewind looking for the least talked about sporting event of the week. Cardinals-Panthers fit the bill. The two worst teams in the NFL, according to DVOA. I had to use the cursor to brush away cobwebs from the link before clicking. I spent a few hours on Tuesday and Wednesday watching this meaningless game start to finish.
This time of year, games like Cardinals-Panthers are ignored by everyone except the local fans and media. Heck, the game doesn't even have much fantasy football juice. Even if Larry Fitzgerald is your top wide receiver, you aren't going to stay glued to the screen waiting for him to make a play. I am not supposed to ignore games. As a Football Outsider, it is my sworn duty to know every backup guard for every team. Still, my attention wanes by December, and I realized that I knew almost nothing about the Panthers or Cardinals, two teams from small markets that quietly disappear when they are bad, unlike the Redskins or Cowboys.
It was time to do some homework, to scout John Skelton and Jimmy Clausen a little bit, to see if any young players leapt off the screen, and mostly to generate some observational humor from a terrible game just before Christmas.
After the opening kickoff, Fox runs a canned sequence with John Lynch interviewing John Skelton during warm-ups. Here is a word-for-word transcript (not quite, but it is pretty close) of the conversation.
Lynch: How you feeling? Good?
Lynch: Good, that's good. The weather's good.
Skelton: Yeah, it's good.
Lynch: Just like Fordham! Hahahaha! Because, you went to college in a really remote location -- the Bronx!
Skelton: Haha! Yes! Your out-of-context name drop of my alma mater made this awkward exchange much more convivial and natural!
Lynch: Good. Well, good luck.
The interview is the highlight of the quarter. The announcers have Fordham on the brain. When Skelton scrambles, Ron Pitts says "There goes Fordham."
An exciting 71-yard punt return by Captain Munnerlyn is called back by a penalty. The announcers call it a "microcosm" of the Panthers season. Because when I think of the Panthers problems this year, I think of penalties during punt returns, not the fact that Brian St. Pierre threw 28 passes.
On the Panthers' first possession, they march downfield quickly on a Jonathan Stewart run and a screen-and-run by Brandon LaFell. On third-and-5, Panthers running back Mike Goodson lines up split wide, with no one covering him. The Cardinals point and argue for a while before dispatching Daryl Washington to cover Woodson. Jimmy Clausen takes forever to get the play off, missing an opportunity to flick the ball to the uncovered Woodson. At the snap, Goodson runs a quick slant in front of Washington, but the pass is too low, and Goodson cannot scoop the ball up. It is much more of a microcosm than the punt return.
Before a commercial break, Pitts says: "More Skelton coming your way." If I were an advertiser, that would not make me happy.
The Cardinals execute a little drive. Cue a Skelton highlight montage from college, which consists of a screen pass, a wide-open touchdown in the back of the end zone, and a scramble. Then, cue a montage of famous Fordham grads: Vince Lombardi, Wellington Mara, Vin Scully, Skelton. Montage-wise, the broadcast has all bases covered. The announcers list more famous grads. Denzel Washington! Captain Kangaroo! Clausen, of course, went to Notre Dame. A Notre Dame montage would be longer than the game itself, and much more interesting.
The Panthers get the ball back and drive. Steve Smith catches a bomb but lands out of bounds. He gets up and celebrates along the sidelines for 10 seconds, thinking maybe if he celebrates with enough vehemence the officials will assume they were wrong and award him a catch. It doesn't happen.
The Panthers still have a solid offensive line, and they can still run the ball. Stewart is tough, and Tony Fiammetta is an excellent blocking fullback. The Panthers would probably have gone 6-10 with Jake Delhomme at quarterback, but that isn't the sort of thing you want to encourage them to do. A Panthers' drive stalls after a draw play on third-and-12. A field goal gives the Panthers a 6-0 lead.
Panthers fans hung signs around the stadium thanking John Fox for all of the good times and wishing him good luck. How civilized. How genteel. Apparently, it is possible to react to a bad football season with something other than blistering rage. Maybe I will retire in the Carolinas. Or try to interview for Fox's job. Fox has not officially been fired yet, so there is a chance that the banners were meant to be ironic, a faux-polite way of saying, "Hey, please clean your desk out as fast as possible." But I don't think so.
Beanie Wells drops a five-yard pass. Skelton draws the Panthers offside on third-and-8, but LaRod Stephens-Howling falls on a sideline route on third-and-3. Lynch says "adept" a lot in the booth. It reminds me of the phrase that makes me want to take hostages whenever I hear it: "struggled mightily." Mike Tirico says it a lot. Bloggers use it a lot. I found it a few times in our own Football Outsiders Almanac, including one or two times in sections I wrote. It's a horrible phrase. We take "struggled," itself an exaggerated and meaningless term, and we try to emphasize it with an adverb better suited to he Iliad than a discussion of the Bears offensive line. It comes across as vague and cute, and I hate it. I have tried to avoid the word "struggled" altogether this year; I may run all of my Walkthroughs through the "find" function and see how I did. In spoken word, it is harder to avoid "struggled" because sometimes you just want to say that a team is doing something badly, and you want to say it quickly. But in writing, it is better to determine what caused the struggle -- or just say that a team or unit is bad or weak or last in the league -- than to slather extra adverbs onto a meatless verb.
But I digress.
Another Skelton montage, this one with highlights from the Broncos game. Lynch praises his athleticism and fundamentals, comparing him to Ben Roethlisberger. Ken Whisenhunt demonstrates his confidence in Skelton by calling three straight running plays. A few plays later, there's a graphic comparing Skelton to Roethlisberger. According to the cartoon bathroom scale on the screen, they are the same height and weight. That settles it; they are the same person. Hide your daughters.
Skelton has completed five passes at this point of the game but has already been celebrated with four montages. In production meetings before the game, the producer and director must have realized that most viewers of this game would live in Arizona and that Skelton was the closest thing to an up-and-coming star the Cardinals have, especially after he led the team to a win over the Broncos. So they threw all-in with Skelton graphics and Fordham montages, hoping the kid would look pretty good and provide a hook for the broadcast. Unfortunately, Skelton didn't do much, and the crew burned through all of the features early.
|Figure 1: Cardinals' Belly Draw|
Skelton then throws an interception. "That's his first career mistake," Pitts says. Good, that means they cannot possibly have a mistakes montage.
One play later, Clausen hits Jeff King for a touchdown. It's the game's only real highlight. It's an ordinary little touchdown: Clausen play-fakes, King blocks at the line and leaks out on a crossing route, and a Cardinals linebacker (who is out of position anyway) slips while trying to cover him. King is one of those boring Panthers tight ends who hangs around Carolina for nine years catching 35 passes per year at 8.3 yards per catch. When Fox leaves, I hope the Panthers draft a tight end who can run 10 yards without an oxygen break. Can I fit that on a banner?
Much of this game's action consisted of rolling punts. The Cardinals' time of possession was about 23 minutes. The Panthers controlled the ball for 32 minutes. The other five minutes consisted of Munnerlyn watching punts roll slowly down the field.
Early Doucet drops an easy pass, the second drop by the Cardinals. The Cardinals then mount a drive. Larry Fitzgerald catches a pass, and Stephens-Howling gains a few yards on a creative draw-belly play (Figure 1). Skelton does a fine job shaking off Marcus Hudson on a blitz and running for a first down, causing Lynch to invoke Roethlisberger again. Fitzgerald catches a third-and-10 pass to put the ball at the five-yard line. But Beanie Wells gets stuffed, Tim Hightower drops a middle screen (it is thrown too hard), and Skelton throws a near-pick. Jay Feely kicks a field goal, and after some more rolling-kick silliness, halftime comes.
The Cardinals execute a sad little surprise onside kick to start the third quarter. Jay Feely pushes the ball with his foot, and it goes about seven yards. Feely hovers over the ball, vainly trying to move it three more yards by telekinesis, then drops to his knees in despair. Jordan Senn of the Panthers pounces on the ball. The onside kick was a desperate move, but I think it tied together the "ball rolling around" theme of the game nicely. The Panthers drive for another field goal.
The Cardinals waste a great kickoff return by Andre Roberts on the next series. Skelton retreats about 20 yards before throwing the ball away on first down. An Early Doucet hold negates a Tim Hightower run, and the Panthers only rush three defenders on third-and-16, but Greg Hardy runs right around Jeremy Bridges to strip Skelton. Obviously, the Roethlisberger talk is over. Doucet is really bad. He has 26 catches this season, but it looks as though he had a lot of blowout production against the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are trying to hide Fitzgerald in the backfield and motion him around, but there is only so much they can do when the Panthers are not worried about anyone else on the field.
Tyrell Sutton makes a great block on a Munnerlyn punt return. With both teams punting a lot, I get a long look at the special teams units.
Clausen scrambles on second-and-long, and he doesn't see Steve Smith get open deep against a safety. Smith fumes, and he hits the bench on third-and-21. Is anyone in the market for an over-the-hill loudmouth receiver? I am looking at you, Bengals.
"Reggie Walker got a little too close to the kicker," Pitts says as Jason Baker gets flattened. "Came in with full body force into the upper body, knocking him to the ground," says referee Tony Corrente. Actually, Walker lowers his helmet. It is one of the most flagrant roughing-the-punter penalties I have ever seen. The Panthers get good field position once again, and they crawl down the field an all fours. Clausen throws a sharp pass to Smith on a comeback route, but otherwise the drive is just a bunch of Stewart and Goodson runs. Fox and his staff can be conservative in the best of circumstances, but with a rookie quarterback and a safe-looking lead, he is one step away from putting 10 linemen and Stewart on the field and just running up the middle on every play.
I dozed off for a few seconds and missed a Cardinals three-and-out. Skelton is laboring strenuously to get something going. (Hear how terrible it sounds?) The Ben Graham punt is partially blocked, and the ball rolls, rolls, rolls to midfield. After a ridiculous fake-reverse screen pass, a handoff and a nine-yard reception on a little waggle by Dante Rosario, Fox goes for it on fourth-and-1. Fiammetta bulls forward on a fullback give. Unfortunately, they run almost the same play on third-and-short a moment later, and Fiammetta gets stuffed. Luckily, Goodson bounces outside to convert on fourth-and-inches. Two fourth-down conversions!
At least John Fox knows how to burn the clock. There are just more than eight minutes left to play in Carolina when a Game Break shows Jeremy Maclin's touchdown to cut the Giants lead to 24-10 at the end of the third quarter. Think of how much football was left to play in that game. There is much less football left to play in this game, which started at the same time. Unfortunately, Stewart fumbles, so Fox cannot run out the final minutes by gaining exactly 2.51 yards on every play.
Skelton now gets to work against softer coverage, and he looks pretty good. He finds Fitzgerald on a dig route, then catches the Panthers in Cover-2 and throws a deep sideline pass to Steve Breaston. Then comes the signature Cardinals play: Hightower catches a pass and fumbles, but Breaston recovers the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. That's seven fumble recovery touchdowns on the year for the Cardinals and 10 "return" touchdowns to go with nine passes and eight rushes for touchdowns. Hightower runs up the middle but fails to make the two-point conversion. He should have at least tried fumbling to see if someone else could make it.
|Figure 2: Panthers' Sweep|
The Panthers, it should be noted, are ready for an onside kick after the Breaston touchdown. The Cardinals kick deep. Stewart then drags a recliner on to the field and gets comfortable. Fox calls the same Panthers sweep three times in a row, with guards pulling, Gary Barnidge kicking out the defensive end, and Rosario slicing through the alley to find the force defender (Figure 2).
I realize how much I like John Fox. Sure, I got sick of writing about Brad Hoover and Nick Goings and all of those slow-footed tight ends for eight years, and the team's loyalty to Delhomme went from admirable to counterproductive to a fetish, but I like a coach who is unapologetic about running the same play over and over again and finds real roles for players like Fiammetta. Clausen is a marginal prospect and unprepared rookie, and the Panthers have the worst record in the NFL, but the Panthers still play Panthers football, and there is no sign of that "everybody quit" mentality that other teams exhibit when they know the coach is out the door.
The last two minutes of the game take six hours to complete. The Panthers cannot convert on fourth down after another clock-crunching drive. Skelton once again finds the Panthers napping in Cover-2 and throws over cornerback Charles Godfrey to hit Fitzgerald. The Cardinals cannot punch it in, but a Feely field goal sets up an onside kick opportunity. The Panthers call timeout after they see how the Cardinals special teams is aligned. Pitts refers to it as a "basketball timeout" before an in-bounds pass, which is a fair analogy. It is also a much more sensible strategy than icing the kicker on a field goal.
After the stoppage, Feely makes a huge pantomime about preparing to kick to his right, pointing and waving to various teammates. He approaches the ball, quickly turns, and kicks the ball straight ahead. For all of his efforts, Feely takes a wicked shot from Senn as the Panthers recover. Fox can now kneel on the clock, which has been his strategy since the second quarter. During the field goal and onside kick sequence, I believe the Eagles scored 21 points.
So what did I learn? Skelton is not Ben Roethlisberger. He's not an embarrassment, either. He's just a tall replacement-level quarterback. Clausen is a C-minus prospect who isn't demonstrating any "star in the making" mojo. The Cardinals are very talent-poor. After years of focusing on teams like the Eagles, Patriots, and Colts, I forget that most organizations cannot shrug off the losses of Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and others. The Steelers or Patriots always have the next guy ready on the bench. Most teams don't. The Cardinals certainly didn't.
Farewell for another year, Panthers and Cardinals. Next time I see the Panthers, they will have a new coach and a new philosophy. The Cardinals will at least have a new quarterback. One name comes to mind, and it makes me shudder, but he would at least be an upgrade over the Skelton crew. Maybe. Now it's time to focus on the good teams again, at least until the Combine!
Walkthrough can get a little light around Christmas. As you might imagine, things are hectic here at the headquarters, with unwrapped presents everywhere, Yukon Cornelius firing his guns in the sky, and tight early-week deadlines for those of us who want to be ankle-deep in egg nog by Friday night.
A visit to Comcast to appear on Daily News Live on Wednesday night made the schedule even tighter, though in a good way. I will be appearing on a few end-of-year segments on Comcast Sports Net here in Philly next week. When I have the particulars, I will post them here or Tweet them @FO_MTanier. Also, The New York Times preview capsules and other articles will appear here on FO as soon as I remember to post them, which is usually within 120 hours of publication.
On behalf of me and my family, Merry Christmas. For a writer, being read and enjoyed is the greatest gift of all.
35 comments, Last at 29 Dec 2010, 12:20pm by Dean