Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
04 Feb 2010
by Mike Tanier
If you are a Colts fan who freaked out after the Colts pulled their starters in Week 16, I have bad news: You aren't allowed to watch the Super Bowl.
If you returned your season tickets, flooded Bill Polian's radio show with hostile calls, or devoted hours to trolling message boards and chat rooms, decrying the Colts' "disrespect" for fans, season ticket holders, or the game itself, your viewing rights have been rescinded. You have to watch something else on Sunday. I recommend Puppy Bowl VI on Animal Planet.
This is not punishment. It's penance.
I've been empowered to enact and enforce this blackout by the Society for Improving the Fan Experience. SIFE is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing some of the negativity and general idiocy associated with American football fandom; not surprisingly, SIFE is located right here in Philly. As chairperson of their Media Ethics Committee, it's my job to make some tough rulings. This is my first one.
SIFE has already cross-referenced the addresses of people who returned season tickets or demanded refunds with local cable and satellite accounts. On Sunday, those households will find the telecast blacked-out. It's also a simple matter to trace a phone call, so if you called 1070 AM screaming "How dare they charge me full price for a game, then pull Peyton Manning?" you will also be blacked out. Angry e-mailers and message board posters will be tracked down by your IP addresses.
Of course, blacked-out fans may try to watch the game at bars or at the houses of friends. That's why we're spreading the word, here and elsewhere. Anyone caught harboring a Week 16 Deserter at a Super Bowl party risks a television blackout for the entire 2010 season, and bars risk losing their liquor licenses. Friends don't let friends sneak peaks at unmerited Super Bowls.
This is a one-game ban: those who comply will be allowed to watch all future Colts games, attend any upcoming parades, and go to Manning's Hall of Fame ceremony in 15 years. They can even watch a recording of the game once the ban lifts, 30 seconds after the final gun.
The ban does not apply to fans who cursed and grumbled when they saw Curtis Painter enter the game, stomped their feet angrily when the Jets came back, or expressed short-term, temporary rage at a lost chance at an undefeated season. Such measured expressions of disappointment are healthy. The ban only applies to those who took action, who acted personally hurt or economically damaged by the game, who rationalized the decision to take out starters into some grand scheme to bilk honest people out of money or an affront to some ad hoc definition of sportsmanship.
During the Super Bowl, while they are watching Yo Gabba Gabba with their three-year old nephews, Week 16 Deserters are expected to ponder the joys of Colts fandom. Peyton Manning. Super Bowl XLI. Seven straight 12-win seasons. They should weigh those joys against the relatively minor inconveniences of December "pull the starters" games. They must recognize the plight of Lions fans, Browns fans, and other fans who would kill to be 13-0, wondering on the drive to the stadium whether the backups will get a look that day. They should ask themselves how anyone who has watched Colts football for the last decade could be surprised, let alone outraged, when the starters hit the bench that day. If they wrote on some message board that the game "killed playoff momentum," they must sit down and write that phrase 500 times.
By performing this penance, the Week 16 Deserter removes the sin of scorn from his fan history.
The football fan experience is temporary in many ways: we watch on Sunday, it affects us on Monday, we reset our expectations by next Sunday. But championship eras are permanent. Grandfathers tell their grandchildren about championship eras, recounting exactly where they were when Unitas beat the Giants or the Dolphins went undefeated. Win or lose Sunday, the Colts and their fans are in a championship era. Colts fans, you will explain Peyton Manning to your grandchildren someday.
But Week 16 Deserters will have to cast their eyes downward when talking about this season. They will be like World War II vets talking about interment camps. "We did dark things then, son. In 2009, just weeks before the Super Bowl, I spent 45 minutes on hold to a talk radio show so I could accuse Bill Polian of fraud."
If they skip the Super Bowl, the deserters will receive total absolution. They can look those grandchildren in the eye. They will earn the right to root for their team again.
It's hard to find something new to say about the Colts, particularly on offense. They have been doing the same thing for the last decade. You know all the principal characters. Diagramming their plays for an audience of hardcore fans is silly, because you can probably diagram your own Colts plays at this point.
So let's focus on one tiny aspect of Peyton Manning's game this week: the second window pass.
When running routes against zone coverage, a receiver often gets open more than one time. When he enters a defender's zone, he's usually open for a split second before that defender can get into position. The receiver gets open again when that zone defender trades him off. That second window is hard for many quarterbacks to find. Some quarterbacks give up on the receiver once he's covered. Others stare that receiver down too long, and the defender isn't going to peel away while the quarterback is looking his way. Some passers just don't have the accuracy and timing to thread a pass into that tight window.
Manning, of course, is the best quarterback in the league (possibly ever) at using his eyes and pump fakes to move defenders around in their zones. Those fakes create second-window opportunities. In the playoffs, I found two great examples of Manning finding receivers in the second window and hitting them for important gains.
|Figure 1: Garcon Slant|
Figure 1 shows the Colts facing second-and-10 late in the second quarter against the Ravens. The route combinations are typical of the Colts offense: the inside receivers run out routes at 12 yards, Austin Collie (17) runs a post, and Pierre Garcon (85) runs a short slant. The Ravens only rush four defenders, blitzing an inside linebacker but dropping the lineman on the other side to join Ray Lewis (52) in zone coverage. Behind Lewis and the linemen, the Ravens are in man coverage. The Ravens expect the Colts to try to work the middle of the field on this play, hence the underneath zones.
Garcon releases of the line very well, working inside his defender, stemming upfield for a four steps, then slanting. Garcon would be open if not for Lewis, who reads the route combination at the snap. The Colts love to send Dallas Clark on deep routes, then bring a receiver underneath, and Lewis knows it. As soon as he sees Clark release deep, he looks for Garcon. When Manning pumps to Garcon, Lewis reacts to jump the route.
Manning, of course, only pump-faked to move Lewis out of the way. Garcon has inside position and is a step ahead of his defender. Once Lewis moves to his left, Manning has a clear passing lane for Garcon, who catches an 11-yard pass.
Figure 2 shows the Colts facing third-and-2 against the Jets in the second quarter. Despite the short distance, the Colts don't pretend that they are going to run, and the Jets don't pretend to care about the run. The Colts are in one of their tight bunch formations, and Jets anticipate crisscrossing receivers. The Jets have six defensive backs on the field, and the pre-snap read suggests Cover-2 defense, with as many as six defenders underneath.
|Figure 2: Collie Slant|
The Colts do exactly what the Jets expected. Garcon runs a short smash route. Clark and Joseph Addai (29) attack the flats on the left side. Wayne initiates contact with his defender to create space for Garcon before running the lone deep route. Collie runs a short slant. Just as Ray Lewis read the slant three weeks ago, David Harris (52) read it in this game. Once again, Manning turns and pumps to get Harris moving. Collie bends his route across the middle, and the rest of the Jets zones have been pulled apart by the Clark and Addai routes. Collie catches the pass with running room, and what starts as a short third-down conversion and turns into a big play.
Manning, of course, does a million little things right, and it often looks like he's beating opponents with smoke and mirrors. Second-window passes are just one of the ways Manning has turned the five-yard pass into an art form. The Saints are an aggressive defense; Darren Sharper likes to gamble for interceptions, and Jonathan Vilma, like Lewis and Harris, can sit in zones and diagnose route combination. Manning can turn that aggressiveness and film knowledge against defenders. That's why the Saints will be just as frustrated as every other opponent to face the real Colts has been this season.
It's time to start an irrational Manning versus Brees debate.
Last year, I picked an All-Time Cardinals team on the eve of their first Super Bowl appearance. One of the hardest decisions was selecting the quarterback. I only wanted to count Cardinals accomplishments, so I chose Jim Hart and Paul Christman, the quarterback of the great 1940's Cardinals, over Warner. After this season, I would probably rank Warner first, though I would still have to give Hart a long look. Of course, there's no comparison if you count the Rams years.
I planned to pick an All-Time Saints team this week, but I realized the team would consist of the 2006-2010 Saints, with the Dome Patrol (Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, and Vaughn Johnson, for readers under 25) at linebacker and Morten Andersen kicking. There's no interesting competition at any other position but quarterback. Like last year's Cardinals, the choice for the Saints comes down to a '70s legend versus a contemporary player whose resume for his current team is short.
I think most people, when selecting an All-Time Saints team, would choose Archie Manning at quarterback. I would choose Drew Brees. And I don't think it's close.
Let's rewind Archie Manning’s career briefly. He was the second pick overall in the 1971 draft, after Jim Plunkett. He joined a terrible Saints team just four years after their inaugural season, in an era before free agency and favorable rules gave expansion teams a jump start. Manning took over the starting job as a rookie and held it until 1982. His record with the Saints was 35-101-3.For the Saints, he threw 115 touchdown passes and 156 interceptions. His best record as a starter was 8-8, in 1979.
Drew Brees' record as the Saints starter is 38-25. Yes, Brees has won more games for the Saints in four years than Archie Manning won in 11. I won't compare their other statistics, because Manning played most of his career in the 1970s, when quarterback statistics were far lower, both as totals and percentages. You can make a million little adjustments to correct for this -- trust us, it's what we do around here -- and you aren't going to make Manning's best years look as good as Brees' last four seasons. And don’t even try it with Manning's worst years.
So Drew Brees has a far better record than Archie Manning, and he has better stats. What is there to argue about?
Older fans will tell you that Archie Manning was far better than his record: This is true. Of course, it has to be true to consider him anything but one of the worst quarterbacks in history. Manning played for dreadful Saints teams. His best receivers were guys like tight end Wesley Childs until the Saints drafted Wes Chandler in 1978. The Saints typically ranked 20th or below in defense in a 26-28 team NFL. In 1980, they fielded one of the worst defenses of all time and finished 1-15 despite 3,716 yards and 23 touchdowns from their quarterback. Peyton Manning would have a hard time going 8-8 for many of those Saints teams.
Fans and media of the 1970s knew Archie Manning was better than his record. I knew it, even though I was eight or nine years old, because announcers would talk about it whenever the Saints were on television (not often). Manning made two Pro Bowls, in 1978 and 1979, after he threw for over 3,000 yards each season and led the Saints to 7-9 and 8-8 records. Fans and writers weren't overwhelmed by the "not a winner" mentality back then. Read contemporary records of Manning, and you'll find opponents and writers praising his talent and his toughness.
So Archie Manning was much better than his record, but his "better than the record" reputation took on its own life. Some people now think he's an all-time great, an Ernie Banks type who played at a Hall of Fame level on teams too dreadful to support him. He wasn't nearly that good.
Let's look back at those two Pro Bowl seasons. The 1978 Pro Bowl quarterbacks were Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese, and Manning. He won some first-team All Pro consideration, and Griese was slipping, but I think anyone from that era who was asked to rate the best quarterbacks in the league based on more than one season would rank Manning fourth on that list. Fran Tarkenton led the league with 3,468 passing yards that season (Manning was second), and I think many people would have ranked Tarkenton ahead of Manning that year. So let's say Manning was the fourth or fifth best quarterback in the NFL in his best season.
In 1979, Staubach, Bradshaw, Fouts, and Manning were again the Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Griese was still in the league but declining, so let's rank Manning ahead of him that year. But who should we rank Manning behind? Joe Theismann finished second in the NFL in passer rating. Ken Stabler was fourth, Ken Anderson fifth. Manning was 10th, behind Ron Jaworski. The AP and UPI sources listed in the ESPN Football Encyclopedia give second-team honors to Theismann and Brian Sipe, not Manning. I would call Manning, charitably, the fifth best quarterback in the NFL in 1979.
Archie Manning doesn't get any Pro Bowl attention in any other season. We're left with a two-year high water mark, during which Manning peeks into the discussion of the league's best quarterbacks. Compare that record with Brees, who was a first-team All Pro in 2006 and has been among the four or five best quarterbacks in the league since. Like Manning with Bradshaw and Staubach, Brees faces a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady barrier at the top of the quarterback discussion. Unlike Archie Manning, Brees sometimes pierces it, and he can stake legitimate claim to being the third-best quarterback in the NFL over a four year window.
You can argue that Archie Manning would have won four Super Bowls with the 1970s Steelers, give him all sorts of credit for passes he didn't complete and teammates he didn't have. You have to give him a mile of extra credit to reach Brees. The only reason to prop Manning up that much is for nostalgia: he was a very good player when we were young, he was loved and respected, and his sons became superstars, so he somehow just has to be better than his accomplishments show.
In today's terms, Archie Manning isn't Drew Brees. He's Jon Kitna: a smart, tough, savvy survivor who put up big numbers for terrible teams. He could frustrate opponents, pick them apart on his best days, and earn their respect. He just couldn't beat them very often. If the Kitna comparison is too cruel (I think Manning was better than Kitna), you can take it up to Tony Romo: a gutsy, fun-to-watch scrambler who can put up big numbers and make things happen on the field, a guy whose talent-to-victory ratio is a little too low and whose big-game record is paltry. That's as high as I can rank Archie Manning. He's nowhere near Brees.
|Figure 3: Walkthrough Team Photo|
Archie, of course, will get lots of face time on Sunday, and he earned it. I loved watching him when I was a kid, and I love watching his children play now. He was very good, about as good as Jaworski and Sipe, Steve Grogan and Joe Ferguson, almost as good as Theismann and Ken Anderson in his best years. But when I want to see the best Saints quarterback of all time, I will have to watch the action on the field.
The arrival of the offseason is a reason to celebrate here at Walkthrough headquarters. Writing a weekly football column is a joy and a privilege, but is also very difficult, and the fatigue that starts to set in late in November goes critical in late January. I didn't plan to take last week off, but a stomach virus had plans of its own, and my winter "honey-do" list wouldn't fit on most flash drives.
I'll be back in two weeks with more NFL excitement, and of course the whole Football Outsiders gang will be helping you put a bow on the 2009 season and prep for the 2010 draft. Before I sign off, I wanted to pose for a picture with a bunch of the personalities who made this year's Walkthrough so memorable (Fig. 3). Stay loose, enjoy the Big Game on Sunday, and think about something besides football for a few days. When you are ready to talk pigskin again, we'll be here!
148 comments, Last at 17 Feb 2010, 1:56am by tuluse