Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Aug 2010
by Mike Tanier
Nothing terrifies the fanbase like news that a star player was “carted off” during some routine training camp drill. You’re still trying to sort through all the baseball trading deadline news, and you still haven’t stuck one toe in the ocean: it’s too early for superstar cornerbacks or receivers to wind up on the PUP list!
Some of the veteran reporters at Eagles camp were joking this week about the phrase “carted off”. When we hear it, we all get the same mental image. A player writhing in agony, or worse, eerily motionless. The medical staff springing into action, immobilizing him and strapping him onto a gurney while his teammates kneel silently. The player staves off death’s embrace long enough to give the Mike Utley thumbs-up, and the hushed crowd stops praying long enough to provide encouraging applause. Then, it’s onto the cart, which goes straight to the ambulance, which goes straight to the helicopter that will take the player to Bethesda for the world’s first full-body transplant.
Most "carting-offs” are not like that.
During camp, no one wants to take a risk with even the most minor injury. The cart is sitting there. The cart driver is bored. The locker rooms are often a field or two away. It’s hot. And everyone loves a good cart ride. Often, the injured player can be seen sitting next to the driver, sipping a drink while (wisely) gingering an injury that even Aunt Gladys would soldier through if she had to. He’ll be back in a day or two, and if this was the playoffs, he wouldn’t leave at all.
The term "carted off,” then, is accurate without being precise. We may be better off saying that the player “left” the field unless there was evidence of something more serious.
But that wouldn’t be very dramatic, and if we removed the drama, someone might get wise to the fact that all we are doing is watching other men exercise.
I spent two days at Eagles camp this week, preparing a Kevin Kolb feature for The New York Times while soaking up as much Eagles knowledge as I could absorb. Here, in no particular order, are my non-Kolb related notes.
King Dunlap is just crazy huge: 6-foot-9, 330 pounds. He towers over the other linemen, which isn’t really a good thing: remember that on the line, the low man almost always wins.
Eldra Buckley broke off a few nice runs against the backup defense. Buckley saw some action as a goalline back last year, but is fighting for a roster spot this season. Charles Scott also had a good run up the middle, breaking a bunch of tackles. Mike Bell showed some wiggle on inside runs and caught a few passes. This is the unfettered optimism of camp: when these guys are stuffed, it’s the defense that looks great.
The team ran a “field goal for the win” drill near the end of a Sunday practice. Kolb threw a short pass over the middle to Jeremy Maclin (uncontested, really; the defender backed off for the sake of the drill), then the offense ran up and spiked the ball. The kicking team then had to get onto the field without a timeout and kick a field goal for the win. The drill went off without a hitch. Akers nailed the kick.
Mike Kafka has been having a rough camp, according to the scuttlebutt. During one 11-on-11 drill, he threw a pass over the middle that Macho Harris should have intercepted, but the ball went through the safety’s hands. Monday drills were no different, with Kafka overthrowing a few receivers.
I watched the special teams drills with interest, in part because they were right in front of me. At one point, Quintin Mikell, as the gunner, fought through the block of some rookie and gave Jeremy Maclin a rough shove. “C’mon, brother!” shouted Maclin. Jason Avant hits hard during special teams drills.
Kelley Washington, new to the squad and with a reputation as a great special teamer, looks rusty. In an afternoon drill, Tracy White -- another special teams ace that the team released and then re-signed -- absolutely flattened Washington. “T-White is back, baby!” yelled Asante Samuel. Washington spoke at length about the importance of special teams in post-practice interviews on Monday. He knows it’s his calling card.
New special teams coach Bobby April, an FO favorite, called a variety of kick return plays during the full-team return drills. Some were tackle-trap plays, in which one of the outside blockers looped inside to block a defender in the middle of the field.
Some plays I saw the team work on against “air” (no defense): an option-pitch play with Kolb tossing to Shady McCoy, a reverse to Maclin, and a shovel pass from a trips-bunch formation.
Cornelius Ingram, who missed all of last season when his repaired ACL didn’t heal properly, ran with the second-team offense and looked healthy. Third tight end Clay Harbor is an impressive-looking hombre; at one point, Marty Mornhinweg coached him on the finer points of how to properly go in motion. Harbor is a small-school receiver still adjusting to the tight end position; I hope to get a look at him in some fourth quarters. Ingram is one of the best camp interviews. He joked on Monday about trying to prove himself as a fourth-string quarterback, if only to get out of some blocking drills. “I am so tired of seeing Trent Cole,” he said.
False start, Jason Peters!
Kevin Kolb threw an interception to Nate Allen during the afternoon blitz drills. It’s hard to tell from the field what his mistake was; it looked like a bad read, with Allen lurking in the middle. Overall, Kolb looked sharp. Vick still throws that beautiful, NFL Films-quality deep ball, even though it’s often off target, and he threw a couple of wobblers once the ball got slippery in the Sunday afternoon drizzle.
You can pick up a little of the substitution package terminology during 7-on-7 drills. “Pony” is a two-halfback backfield. “Tiger” is two tight ends, one running back. “Buffalo” is a three-wideout set with Leonard Weaver as the back. None of this is unusual, top-secret terminology – you can find much of it in coaching manuals – but it’s always instructive to hear it used in real life.
A Monday morning linebacker drill: the linebackers start off in a “cave,” basically a flat piece of canvas about five feet off the ground. Other linebackers, imitating an offensive line, get into three-point stances about seven yards away, with a coach behind them impersonating a running back. At the “hike,” the “offense” runs a play with a set blocking scheme – right, left, pull, draw, and so on. The linebackers must fire out of the cave, staying low, and calling the blocking scheme. Linebacker coach Bill Shuey reminds them that the Will linebacker, with the best view of the formation, must make the call loudest.
A Monday morning defensive line drill: coach Rory Segrest works with the defensive ends on how to react to different kinds of blocks. He works hard on the “down” block, which leaves the defensive end free. The unblocked end must take three short steps across the line of scrimmage but keep his shoulders square and watch the backfield action. Once he’s sure there’s no reverse, he can attack. Coach Segrest works hard on the finer points of foot and hand technique for other blocks. “Good contact, good pad level. Once you get there, lock your arms out,” he tells Ricky Sapp.
Sapp, Brandon Graham, and Daniel Te’o-Neisheim get a lot of extra reps during the defensive line drills. Trent Cole performs one or two reps, more as a demonstration.
Blitzing linebackers drill against blocking backs later on Monday morning. Shady McCoy gets too far upfield and misses a block, drawing some criticism from the coaches. A kid named Martell Mallett is knocked on his butt by another kid named Jamar Chaney, then gets beaten to the inside when given a second try. Leonard Weaver makes no such mistakes.
Full-team field goal drills. David Akers is wide right from 45 yards, then makes his second attempt. The team practices a fake: a shovel pass to Brent Celek. It needs work.
Full-team scrimmages: Here’s a quote from Kevin Noonan on the CBSSports.com Rapid Reports page: “Hit of the day: FB Leonard Weaver (250 pounds) ran a sweep at CB Macho Harris (200), and it should have been a mismatch. But Harris stood him up and drove him out of bounds, to the delight of the fans.” Weaver nearly crashed into me on this play, which would have hurt. To be precise, this was a little shotgun-option play, with Kolb pitching to Weaver after sliding along the left sideline. The Eagles worked a lot on these misdirection/option/reverse plays while I was there.
Ernie Sims has been hitting guys hard. Too hard. He was taken aside by coaches after an overzealous tackle, and the other reporters told me that the same thing happened on Saturday. Everyone who has been interviewed about Sims in camp has used the term “aggressive.” That’s fine, as long as you don’t hurt anyone in camp.
Winston Justice jumped offsides on two straight plays in a Monday full-team scrimmage. Dunlap replaced him for a few plays. J.J. Arrington, so new to the team that his name is not yet on his jersey, got some reps with the second team because Mike Bell was hurt. Arrington fumbles once, then drops a pass. Or, for a more positive slant: Trevor Laws did a nice job penetrating and forcing an Arrington fumble.
Was there a “fresh” atmosphere? A sense of optimism? An overall aura of championship-caliber confidence? You know better than to ask me. The fans appear excited about the post-McNabb world, and most of the writers – myself included – are glad to have some new people to write about. The players were players: guys exercising in the Pennsylvania hills, preparing for a long season. Any suggestion that they possessed or lacked optimism, confidence, or swagger is purely an act of projection.
We move from the Eagles to the Colts for a moment to talk to our good friend Nate Dunlevy of 18to88.com. Nate has written a book called Blue Blood, which is not an attempt to cash in on the vampire craze, but a history of the Indianapolis Colts. Blue Blood follows the slow rise of the Colts: from a franchise-in-exile trying to capture the attention of Bears-and-basketball obsessed Hoosiers into one of the NFL’s best and most respected franchises. Dunlevy talked to me about the book a few weeks ago:
The book is more than just an Indianapolis Colts history, it's a story of Indiana sports over the last quarter century, and the story of changing sports allegiances in a region.
Without question, basketball ruled Indiana in 1984. Blue Blood is the story of how the NFL took over the state. I realize that the dominance of the NFL over all other sports in America unquestioned, but when you see the degree to which football has conquered even a basketball crazy place like Indiana, you have to be struck by the power of the league.
Blue Blood is an informative book for fans of any expansion/relocation team. While Peyton Manning certainly had a lot to do with the popularity of the team in Indiana, the book makes it clear that there were other factors at work too. Ultimately, it all started with the vision of Jim Irsay to make the Colts a regional power rather than just a local one. He also knew the team would have to 'convert' the first generation of fans who grew rooting for the Bears, Packers, Lions, Browns and Bengals. There was no naiveté on his part that people would flock to the Colts just because they played in Indianapolis. Fans of many franchises will find that process enlightening.
The book is very sympathetic toward Robert Irsay, who moved the Colts out of Baltimore in 1984.
One man's villain is another man's hero. I tried not to sugar coat the reality of Bob Irsay. No one thinks he was a saint. However, it's also too convenient to make him the sole scapegoat for the team leaving town. The Maryland Legislature tried to take the man's team. They left him no choice but to leave. Bob made a lot of mistakes, but he did prepare his son well to become one of the finest owners in sports. The bottom line is that Bob Irsay brought the NFL to Indianapolis, ultimately expanding the influence of the league in the Midwest. That is a significant accomplishment and deserves recognition. St. Louis and Nashville both have teams now, and I wonder if they would had the Colts not come to Indianapolis.
So Jeff George once signed an autograph for you…
The funniest part of researching the book was running down the obligatory "Jeff George has changed" article written every two years throughout his career. The teams changed, but the teammate quotes all sounded the same. Even today, I've been told by many people that Jeff George is a nice guy. He was certainly kind to me when I was a kid leaning over the railing for a preseason game looking for him to sign my football card. Make no mistake, the George years were an abject disaster in Indianapolis, but in the end, the trade of George netted the Colts a first-round pick in 1996. They took Marvin Harrison. So when you sum it all up, Indy came out ahead.
I still wonder what George's career would have looked like had the team handled the Eric Dickerson holdout in 1990 differently. If George has a solid personality like Edgerrin James in the locker room with him, maybe he learns different lessons in his first training camp. Instead, he saw that the way you get what you want in the NFL is to whine and hold out. Maybe that spoiled everything.
Many fans may want to skip ahead to the Peyton Manning era, or at least the Jim Harbaugh era, when reading the book. Give them reasons not to.
The past teaches us about the future. If you want to understand Jim Irsay the owner, you have to learn about Jim Irsay the GM. Why did he go out and sign Bill Polian as his first act as owner? The answer is found in 1987. Will the Colts resign Joe Addai after this season? Do you want the Colts to swing a big trade of draft picks for some established star? Go find out what happened when Irsay the GM dealt for Fredd Young. All this has happened before, all this will happen again.
I found the contrast between Bobby Knight and Tony Dungy interesting. Do you think the transition between two different coaching "heroes" represented a change in the values or philosophies of the fans?
I think that change had already happened in many parts of the country, but Indiana was still fighting to hold on to the past. Most places would have ceased to tolerate Knight's antics long before Hoosierdom. In the same way, there was resistance to Tony's laid back style. Once he won the Super Bowl, however, all doubt was banished. No one can question that Bob Knight was a great coach. In the end, Tony Dungy was also a great coach AND a great person. Personally, I count him as a hero and a role model, and I think most fans would much rather have their kids coached by a Dungy than a Knight. Fifteen years ago, that wasn't the case, at least not in Indiana.
What's the most interesting fact you uncovered while researching the book?
There were lots, but I had blocked out of my mind just how awful Jim Mora was as a playoff coach. So much of the undeserved rep Peyton Manning gained as a bad playoff quarterback was earned thanks to lousy coaching by Jim Mora. In researching the playoff loss to the Dolphins after the 2000 season, it was stunning how many stupid mistakes Mora made (including a botched fake field goal). He finished his career 0-6 in the playoffs, making him the worst playoff coach in history.
Tell me about the novel you are writing.
The novel is entitled Invincible, Indiana. It takes place in 1996-1997 and covers the final year of single class basketball in the state high school tournament. As I talk about in Blue Blood, the decision to destroy the corner stone of Hoosier identity still leaves a psychic scar across sports fans around here. The novel is a reexamination of the 'myths' of the movie Hoosiers and traces how one small town deals with the ways that 'progress' and change disrupt their lives and traditions. In the end, the book comes freakishly close to some of the real life events that occurred to the Butler Bulldogs in this past NCAA tournament. I wrote the book a year before the Butler run, and the main character was (very) loosely inspired by Butler coach Brad Stevens. All I can say is that I swear I had the book 100 percent finished and in the hands of my agent well before anyone had ever heard of Gordon Hayward.
Thanks, Nate. Blue Blood is available on Amazon.com and makes a great bundle with Football Outsiders Almanac 2010!
Don’t get caught using last year’s acronyms!
Football coverage is getting more advanced, and as fans become more educated, new acronyms seep into the lexicon. While some editors still frown on calling Jason Garrett “OC” or referring to Darrell Dockett as a “3T,” other magazines embrace the new lingo, or at least use the abbreviations in charts and tables.
In an effort to stay one step ahead of the curve, Walkthrough proudly unveils a new batch of acronyms designed to clarify the roles players fill in today’s NFL. Just as no team would be without a LS for field goal situations or an RS to field punts and kickoffs, no roster would be complete without the following specialists, for better or worse.
RM: Resident Malcontent: Roy Williams-Albert Haynesworth types. The RC plays an important role on the squad. He’s the lightning rod for criticism, and by making for easy copy he keeps the local columnists off everyone else’s back. He also provides disenfranchised teenagers with a jersey to wear.
PA: Passive Aggressive: The guy who fans the flames of every controversy with a series of carefully crafted loaded statements or backhanded compliments. “Backup Quarterback really gave us a spark we needed,” the PA might say while starting quarterback dangles by a thread. “Maybe I was healthy enough to play with that sore shoulder, maybe not,” he’ll say after a bad game. The PA usually serves as the backup RM and must always be ready to slide over in a pinch.
0T: Zero-technique tackle: Not to be confused with the guy who lines up directly over center (which is rare these days), the 0T is a tackle with no technique whatsoever.
PR: Painful Reminder: The first round pick from two years ago who never panned out. The PR is eating so much cap space that the team is reluctant to cut him, so he hangs around the roster, performing some menial on-field tasks while reminding coaches and scouts of their hubris.
UW: Unused Wildcat: The college spread-option quarterback drafted in the third round as part of the team’s effort to incorporate the Wildcat offense into the playbook. After diddling with the strategy throughout the spring and summer, the coaches call exactly three half-hearted direct snap plays to the UW in September, gaining a total of six yards. After that, the UW becomes just another fifth wideout.
TWG: Plucky, team-focused, lunchpail-carrying fan favorite.
NR: No Role: A player with no role whatsoever, usually a second-round running back or receiver from two years ago who never won a starting job. The NR was a superstar in college who never learned how to play special teams, so he’s just kind of there, though he often doubles as the team’s PR.
PD: Pass-Rushing Disappointment. The defensive equivalent of the UW. The PD was a small-school defensive end with 18 sacks in his junior year, and the scouting department convinced themselves he was Demarcus Ware Junior. After a few practices, they learned they had an undersized end who is a step too slow to generate any sacks. Once projected as the focal point of the pass rush, he now only plays in the defense’s 1-4-6 Angry Muskrats blitz packages, which is used exclusively on 3rd-and-21.
CL: Camp Leg: The kicker brought to camp to give David Akers or Joe Nedney someone to talk to, handle fourth-quarter preseason extra points, and hang around the phone after camp in case of a kicker emergency. CLs are fun to research, and I make it a point to investigate them for the special teams comments of Football Outsiders Almanac. Most of their resumes start at Hardscrabble State college, then cycle through a dizzying series of training camps, practice squads, CFL seasons, AFL seasons, UFL seasons, and two-game cameos with the Chiefs or Redskins, plus a half-season selling Winnebegos and a mysterious 18-month gap that can only be explained by an incarceration. Piecing together the life of a CL is a challenging bit of detective work, but you ultimately wind up feeling sorry for the poor guy: in 2008, while you were in your comfortable home, raising your family, earning a steady-enough income, he was trying out for the Harrisburg Stampede and wondering if he should get his gym teacher certificate.
I will be at the Collingswood Public Library on August 12th talking about football and my upcoming book The Phanatic Code at 7:00 PM. For those of you in Philly, it’s a short walk (or a ride in a golf cart if you are Asante Samuel) from the PATCO station. Hope to see you there!
Check out my camp notes in the Sunday New York Times. Also, some of my stat-related musings will start appearing in Rotoworld next Monday.
Oh, and Brett Favre retired while I was writing this, but I’m not going to fall for that again.
34 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2010, 6:05am by Jack Russell Terror