"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.
11 Nov 2010
by Mike Tanier
EmperorJerry.blogplace.com, cached on Wednesday, November 10:
Morning. Regular breakfast of poached dodo egg and batter-fried passenger pigeon. Swedish massage, followed by Norwegian fellatio, followed by Danish. I need to relax.
Wade is long gone. His office is so clean you could perform plastic surgery in it. But dang, I am still ticked off. Madder than a hungry fox in an empty chicken coop. And y'all know that the madder I git the more countrified I sound. Any more losses and ah sweah ah soun' jus' like Dollah Pahton. Or Lil Abner.
Gotta focus. This blog is about my true feelings. Maybe I should cut Roy Williams. Nah. Maybe if I just ...
Web Manager: I'm sorry, Mr. Jones. You didn't renew your rights to this domain name. I'm afraid it has been sold to the Amish.
Jones: The Amish? I thought technology was against their cultural norms!
Brother Isaac: Pardon me, English. Brother Ezekiel, kindly move the water wheel thusly so yonder Venetian fountain can power the servers.
Jones: This is madness. I will pay you a million dollars for the domain name.
Brother Isaac: Sorry, English. Money is the root of all evil. Perhaps if thou spared a prize hog that we might butcher into scrapple.
Jones: Rats, Flozell is in Pittsbugh now. Where's my son? He's supposed to be in charge of these things.
Jerry Jr.: Yeehaw! Check out what's goin' on in the 10-gallon-hat-shaped Jacuzzi, daddy! Turns out there's this thing called Rumspringa, and ...
Jones: Son, how can you do this to me? How could you forget something as simple as registering a domain name?
Jerry Jr.: Sorry daddy. It's just the culture around here. Doing a good job doesn't really matter. Guys like Roy Williams keep their jobs because they have an inside track to you. Jason Garrett, well hell daddy, he might be more responsible for the mess the team is in right now than Wade ever was, but now he's the head coach. I just figured I could do whatever I wanted, because I'm your son, and if you won't cut a malcontent receiver or fire a former third-string quarterback turned career yes-man, you sure as hell won't fire me.
Jones: This makes me so mad. Dang ol' su' nuff got me theh boy, I say. Reckon we jus' chow down on sum chit'lins.
Jimmy Raye: Hey, that made sense to me! Are you taking resumes?
Brother Isaac: Chitterlings? Giveth me that prize hog and I shall show thou chitterlings.
Our friend Wes Welker is currently on pace to catch 88 passes for 710 yards. That works out to fewer than 8.1 yards per reception.
No wide receiver has ever averaged just 8.1 yards per catch with so many receptions. Pro Football Reference lists 277 player seasons with more than 82 catches. Of those, only two were wide receivers averaging less than 10 yards per catch: T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2008, who had 92 catches for 904 yards (9.8 yards per catch) and 163 DYAR, and Troy Brown in 2002, who had 97 catches for 890 yards (9.2 YPC) and 30 DYAR.
Hooch and Brown are similar to Welker in a few ways. All three receivers had a knock-around stage early in their careers as unheralded slot receiver/punt returners. All three then became shifty possession targets, each recording a 100-catch season or two. All three of their "Less than Ten" seasons came on the heels of a 100-catch campaign, a sign that defenses were taking away a few of their bread-and-butter routes and diminishing returns were setting in for all of those screens and hitches. Hooch, like Welker, played second fiddle to a big-name, big-play receiver. Brown and Hooch tailed off quickly after their Less than Ten seasons, though Brown hung around for years as an all-purpose player and Hooch is still making a small contribution in Baltimore. With his ability to kick extra points and provide other services, Welker will probably stick for years as a 40-catch player, like Brown.
If Welker stays on his current pace, his season won't really be all that similar to the other two. It won't be as good: He's more than a yard per catch and around 200 total yards below the others. That puts him into a class with one of the NFL's other receiving oddities: fullback Larry Centers, who still ranks 19th on the all-time receptions list with 827. Here's a list of Centers' Welker-like seasons, plus some other seasons by running backs that fit the mold.
|Centers and others|
We'll get back to Centers in a moment. Washington (Colts), Brown (Vikings), Young (Vikings), and Cooper (49ers) all played in early iterations of the West Coast Offense. They either played for Bill Walsh, or for coaches like Ted Marchibroda, who inherited the same general concepts as Walsh. Loville and Richie Anderson played in the death throes of the two-back era, when most teams had stopped pretending their fullback was anything more than an extra blocker and emergency receiver. You can see the birth and death of a tactic in this list. From 1978-80, opponents are surprised by running backs catching 80 passes, but by 2000, they are surprised that the Jets are still trying to make it work.
Back to Centers -- all roads in Walkthrough lead to Buddy Ryan, and Centers accomplished his 101 catch feat for Ryan's 4-12 Phoenix Cardinals. Centers caught 80 or more passes for three different teams -- the Cardinals, Redskins, and Bills -- but none of the teams he did it for had winning records. As you might guess, he had a lot of dump-off production in blowouts. In 1995, he caught nine passes in a 24-3 loss, seven in a 34-20 loss, 12 passes for 172 yards in a season-ending 37-13 loss. DYAR was kind to him in his 80-catch seasons -- 370 (1), 287 (1), 147 (7), 149 (5) -- but DYAR might not be able to account for the uniqueness of his situation.
Centers and Welker are similar only because there is no one else quite like either of them. I think both of them are destined to be evolutionary left turns in the history of NFL strategy. In Centers' case, coaches abandoned the idea of using a blocking back as a five-catch-per-game weapon. In Welker's, the Patriots found the limit of how many tunnel screens and five-yard smashes a team can run per game. The Patriots have been retreating from that style of offense, and the other teams that run similar schemes (like the Broncos) have reached the saturation point of what can be accomplished by some spread-type plays.
Will Welker stay on his historic pace? The season is still young, and one 80-yard catch-and-run would raise his yards per carry to 9.6. That's still not great, but it's out of Centers territory. He may climb out of the Less Than Ten club, but it's certain that his days in the More Than One Hundred club are behind him.
The Raiders have become one of the best running teams in the NFL, for several reasons. They have two good running backs and an exciting next-generation fullback. Their offensive line has finally stabilized after years of confusion and disappointment. It is filled with huge veterans who can drive-block, making it a little like the Cowboys line of 2006-08.
Another big reason for their success has been a kitchen-sink approach to running the ball. The Raiders use reverses, direct-snap plays, unbalanced line formations, and any other wrinkle they can think of to gain an edge at the line of scrimmage. Those wrinkles are catching opponents off guard and helping the Raiders compensate for their scaled-back passing game.
|Figure 1: McFadden Power Sweep|
Let's look at a sequence of plays from the first quarter of the Raiders victory over the Chiefs. Figure 1 shows the Raiders in second-and-3 from their own 30-yard line. Darren McFadden (20) is in shotgun as a "Wildcat." The backs are Michael Bush (21 because of a labeling error) and fullback Marcel Reece (45). Tight end Brandon Myers (89) is aligned as a flanker outside of receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins (15) on the right, with Jason Campbell (8) trying to stay out of the way on the left.
This play is more of a variation on the old power sweep than anything from the Wildcat family of plays. Guard Cooper Carlisle (66) and tackle Langston Walker (70) pull as lead blockers. Reece also lead blocks -- this is no option play, and he doesn't wait for the pitch. Myers seals the inside linebacker, while Higgins takes on the toughest assignment on the field, blocking the outside linebacker long enough for McFadden to get wide. Higgins does a tremendous job, sustaining the block even after McFadden has passed.
For clarity, I marked kick-out blocks in red and seal blocks in blue. Carlisle helps to seal, while Walker and Reece kick out. The Raiders have linemen and fullbacks blocking safeties and cornerbacks, giving McFadden a wide lane to run through. The play gains eight yards, but would have gained more if Reece did a better job on his defender.
|Figure 2: McFadden Pistol Option|
On the next play, the Raiders line up in a pistol formation, with McFadden handing off to Bush for a seven yard gain (not diagrammed). The Raiders use a similar pistol look for the following play, as shown in Figure 2. Note the unbalanced line, with Walker playing as a covered tight end and Myers aligned at left tackle. The unbalanced line and slot-left formation forces the Chiefs to commit defending the offensive left side. The diagram gives a good indication of how much empty grass there is on the right, with the force defender (cornerback Brandon Flowers) like a lone scarecrow in the cornfield.
The Raiders execute an option play which was set up by the previous handoff to Bush. McFadden fakes to Bush (now wearing the correct jersey), freezing the Chiefs defense. Myers down-blocks, leaving the outside linebacker unattended. This is a basic option principle: It is up to the "quarterback" to read and elude that unblocked player. Because the linebacker (Mike Vrabel) pursues Bush after the fake handoff, McFadden doesn't have to worry about him. Reece stays in option-pitch position, which forces Flowers to stay near the sideline to defend a possible pitch. McFadden doesn't mess around -- he plows straight ahead as soon as he sees daylight, picking up eight more yards.
The Raiders are not the Jets. Last week, I criticized the Jets for running too much junk, and I don't want to contradict myself here. There are a lot of differences between what the Jets did against the Packers and what the Raiders did against the Chiefs:
The Raiders emphasized this package because they were compensating for injuries to playmakers like Zach Miller. The Jets were healthy and had plenty of available offensive talent. Every Jerricho Cotchery reverse or Brad Smith trick takes the ball away from Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson, Mark Sanchez, Dustin Keller, and so on. The Raiders aren't really taking the ball out of anyone's hands when McFadden fields the snap or they run an end-around.
Finally, let's be frank. The Raiders are a desperate team that has been bad for years. They are finally having some success, but they are still grinding out wins by playing field position football, making plays on special teams, and gaining any tiny edge they can. Campbell has played well in the last few weeks, but they still haven't settled on him as their quarterback, and while Jacoby Ford looks like a fun player, their receivers are still just a bunch of sprinters. In educational terms, a little remediation and scaffolding can help them succeed. The Jets are a better team and should be less reliant on chicanery. And when they do use it, they should apply it properly so it doesn't disrupt their offense and take touches away from their best players.
The direct snap package is a sound strategy for the Raiders because it makes the best use of the odd talents of their available personnel: McFadden is a great ball handler for a running back, Reece is probably the fastest fullback in the league, and the receivers hustle and block. When Miller returns and if players like Ford develop, the Raiders offense won't need as many reverses and Pistol formations to move the ball. Until then, they've given opposing defenses something else to think about -- and given us something fun to watch.
80 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2010, 12:02pm by Shattenjager