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?
15 Dec 2010
by Mike Tanier
Brand new releases, just in time for Christmas and belated Hanukkah shopping:
The Girl Who Kicked The Dolphins' Knees by Stieg Hammarskjold. Lisbeth Salamander is a spooky, sexy Scandinavian super-hacker with no boobs. Join her violent, erotic journey of self-discovery as she falls in love with Sal Alosi, wartime consigliore for a mob boss known as Baby Buddy. When Alosi is accused of whacking a Dolphins special teamer, Salamander must use her video surveillance expertise and feminine wiles to uncover the truth. Don't miss the exciting conclusion, when Salamander tosses Santonio Holmes a match to light his sugar-cookie-scented candle, but the match goes right through his hands and ignites his car. $29.99
Love in the Time of Collinsworth by Gabriel Garcia Gower. It's a florid romance set against that most dramatic of backdrops: contemporary Cincinnati! Young Fermenta must choose between her childhood love, Boomer Estella, and dashing new beau Chad Ochocinco, a man devoted to modernizing the world by forcing us all to read his Twitter account. Fermenta's passion burns across a landscape of embarrassing football losses and makes the most of exotic locales in and around Ohio. $19.99
Football Outsiders Almanac and Zombies by Aaron Schatz, et al. Cashing in on the latest publishing trend (taking established literature, loading it up with winking zombie-movie tropes, and calling the result irony) the Football Outsiders team attempts to preview an NFL season after a zombie plague. The guys run dozens of regressions to show how DVOA can adjust to rule changes allowing offensive linemen to kneel with shotguns and blow off the heads of zombie defenders. Will Carroll examines the long-term effects of helmet-to-helmet dining. Will this year's book include more evidence of a Zombie Patriots bias? You can bet that we put our ... hehehe ... braaaaiiiinsss to work solving that problem! $19.99 until September 15th, then 35 cents.
A Very Special Doggie by Mike Tanier. Cashing in on an even more execrable publishing fad, I spend 200 pages writing a syrupy love letter to Rosie, my 12-year-old pitbull. Join me as I manipulate the most maudlin emotions by romanticizing the details or her adoption, training, and long descent into dotage. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll wonder why Barnes & Noble shelves are teeming with books just like this. $59.99
The Jaguars have been running the option as a wrinkle all season. They executed a few interesting option plays against the Raiders, including this variation on the triple-counter option.
|Figure 1: Jaguars' Option|
Figure 1 shows the Jaguars in a two-tight end I-formation. It is third-and-3 in the fourth quarter, with the Jaguars leading by four. Considering the situation, it is not surprising that the Raiders crowd the box with nine defenders. The Jaguars are at the Raiders' 30-yard line, so they are unlikely to pass. A run for no gain sets up a makeable 47-yard field goal, and the Jaguars aren't exactly risk takers.
David Garrard (9) pivots left at the snap and fakes a handoff to Greg Jones (33). The left side of the line, including the tight end, blocks inside-out as if opening an inside hole for Jones. The fullback fake works, freezing linebacker Travis Goethel (50), an inexperienced defender.
The right side of the Jaguars line wins the line of scrimmage battle, with the tight end sealing the edge well. Right tackle Jordan Black (77) climbs out to the second level and wipes out Goethel. That leaves strong safety Tyvon Branch (33) with a multiple-choice problem: Does he try to tackle Garrard, or does he stay wide to stop the pitch to Maurice Jones-Drew?
Officially, Jones-Drew is Branch's responsibility. Unlike basketball, in which the defender on a fast break worries about the ball first, option defenders are supposed to maintain lane responsibility. Also, Garrard almost always pitches on these option plays. I have seen the Jaguars run a bunch of options, and Garrard "thinks pitch," which makes sense when you are 32 years old and don't want to get crushed by angry Raiders linebackers.
So Branch commits body, heart, and soul to stopping Jones-Drew. Garrard executes a beautiful-but-unnecessary fake, selling the pitch with his head and body. Branch just lets Garrard run right inside of him. It looks like a Jedi mind trick, but Branch would have needed to do something superhuman to stop this play. Garrard runs straight down the sideline until free safety Michael Huff brings him down.
The Titans ran a version of this option last year with Vince Young and Chris Johnson. NFL teams have proven in the last two seasons that option plays are a viable wrinkle, and that some of the dangers of the college-style option (like an unblocked Julius Peppers body-slamming your quarterback) can be minimized with proper play design. This year's Jaguars, like last year's Titans, are trying to generate big plays from their running game, and an option is a great way to get Jones-Drew (or Garrard) on the edge with room to run. We will be seeing more of the Jaguars option in the weeks to come, and even in the playoffs.
Remember the New York Giants?
Founded in 1925, the Giants were one of the NFL's most storied franchises until the summer of 2010, when the Jets claimed territorial rights to New York City. The Giants became a wild-and-wooly barnstorming team, touring the country and winning a lot of games, until a blizzard stranded them in Kansas City. The team decided to stroll along a railroad trestle while waiting for the snow to clear, but they slipped on an icy rail and plunged, collectively, into the Missouri River. Their obituary was relegated to page 33 of the Newark Star Ledger, because the day they disappeared, a Jets quality control assistant sniped a Dolphins punt returner from the coach's booth with a potato gun.
Legend has it that the Giants survived the trestle incident, traveled by dogsled to Detroit and defeated the Vikings, but there is scant video evidence to support that theory. The game wasn't nationally televised, so it didn't happen. ESPN did run a spooky crawl beneath the pregame show for Ravens-Texans. "Breaking News: Brett Favre on the sidelines in street clothes. Favre's consecutive game streak snapped at 297. Tarvaris Jackson sacked for a loss of 12 on third-and-10 by a spectral Barry Cofield. Brett Favre on inactive list. Brett Favre is not playing. Chirs Kluwe punts to a wraith-like Will Blackmon. Brett Favre on the sidelines with street clothes."
Several eyewitnesses swear that the Giants were in Detroit on Monday night, beating the Vikings 21-3. These witnesses are of dubious trustworthiness. Many of them were Lions fans, and seeing the Vikings lose is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of theirs. According to Stub Hub, tickets for the Vikings-Someone game ranged in price from $7 to $8,588. You would have to feel pretty ripped off to pay almost nine grand for a game, only to find that the guy behind you got through the gate for three orders of magnitude less. Or free, as many tickets to the alleged game were given away. But maybe nine grand bought the right to stand on the sidelines in street clothes.
If the Giants do exist, then they must find a way of drawing attention to themselves in a trump-card world where blizzard topples dome, Favre tops blizzard, Jets top Favre (you may hate them, but you have to love them for that), and Derek Jeter will probably top Jets once he wrestles Croesus' credit cards away from some baseball owner. Maybe the Giants can take out one of those full-page newspaper ads that Academy Award long-shots use to get attention. ("For your consideration: Jennifer Aniston, Best Actress, The Bounty Hunter.") Maybe they can prevail upon the NFL to let them replace the Falcons in those Play 60 public service announcements. You know the ones: The team is on the bus, jamming to music with kids, anticipating a fun-filled romp in the fields. A shot of Matt Ryan, a shot of an anonymous Falcons player, then Mike Smith, another anonymous Falcons player, yet another anonymous Falcons player, Oh my God a desiccated corpse slumped and moldering slowly on the seat ... oh, sorry, Arthur Blank ... another anonymous Falcons player. Unfortunately, Tom Coughlin would probably order all the children to sit in silence on the bus, then make them spend the sunny afternoon doing military chin-ups and memorizing the Baltimore catechism. Assuming he is still alive.
If the rumors are true, and the Giants still walk among us, they face Michael Vick and the Eagles this week for the lead in the NFC East and an inside track for a playoff berth. It's an important game in a marquee division, yet the media coverage priorities will line up thusly: 1) Vick. 2) The Jets crisis. 3) Favre's future. 4) Where will the Favre-less Vikings play? 5) Cliff Lee, absorbing what's left of the Philly media after Vick super-saturation. 6) The Giants. In fact, I boldly predict that most Giants articles will have a "Why is everyone overlooking the Giants?" spin, just like this one.
Tune in next week when I call upon deep sea divers, paleo-cryptologists, and Doug Farrar to find evidence of the Seattle Seahawks.
The Phanatic Code is finished! Well, it is in the proofreading stage, in which I try to find all of my creative spelling choices before they slip past a copy editor and names like Sean Bradley and Chaise Uttleee make their way into permanent print. It has been a long road, but I am happy with the results, and the handful of editors who have read the rough drafts are convinced that I will sell dozens of copies.
To that end, I assembled a little FAQ about the project.
What is The Phanatic Code about?
The Phanatic Code is about 50 remarkable players and their relationship with millions of remarkable fans. It's about five decades of glory and frustration, about transcendent champions and tragically flawed heroes. It's the story of the mysterious relationship between a city and it's pantheon of heroes, a vicious love-hate cycle that has been handed down for generations. It's about a mythology of failure that has grown toxic over the last half-century and about those rare players and events that broke the cycle of disappointment allowed fans to embrace their sports stars.
So ... it's a sports book, in other words.
Yes. Lots and lots of sports.
Who are the 50 players?
I won't divulge the full list, but any Philly sports fan can rattle off about 25 of the players without thinking. Bobby Clarke, Julius Erving, Mike Schmidt, Randall Cunningham, Wilt Chamberlain, Eric Lindros ... none of those names will surprise anyone. A lot of contemporary players make the list as well, so you can see where Chase Utley or Brian Dawkins rank among the old-timers.
Is Chuck Bednarik No. 1?
Chuck Bednarik is relegated to the book's introduction. The Phanatic Code has a strict 50-year timeline, dated to the book's 2011 release. Bednarik's last great year was in 1960. Let's face it: No one under 60 has any clear memories of Bednarik, so he isn't really a player in most of our minds. He's a Symbol of Greatness. The Phanatic Code is a book about players we still remember well enough to sometimes say bad things about.
Is the book limited to Phillies, Flyers, Sixers and Eagles?
There are two boxers as well. There are no collegiate superstars, cyclists, figure skaters, etc. Leaving out college basketball stars was difficult, but once you start listing Big Five legends, you open a whole new jar of Cheese Whiz.
What about coaches?
They get their own chapter. Philly teams had such fascinating coaches that they would overwhelm the players' list. If I gave Buddy Ryan or Andy Reid (or Larry Brown or Gene Mauch or Fred Shero) his own chapter, I would lose a lot of interesting second-tier players.
Is the book a conventional history, encyclopedia, or list of biographies?
Not at all. Player essays touch on events that helped shape Philadelphia's fan perception of them. There's very little "born on the windswept plains of Flin Flon" biographical material, and many player stories are told in non-chronological sequence. In the Lindros chapter, for instance, I start when he was stripped of his captaincy, switch to an overview of his career, go through the sequence of his concussions, backtrack a few years to the Stanley Cup Finals, then end at the Spectrum closing ceremony when all of the old captains took the ice. It may sound like chaos, but it works on the page. I hope. What I wanted was to capture a little of the free-form logic of a taproom conversation about a player. "Remember the game that went on until 3 a.m.? Remember what he said in The Inquirer back in 1997? I hated him when we traded him but loved him when we got him back." That sort of thing.
Is it funny?
There are jokes in The Phanatic Code, but I don't do as many rim shots as I do in the typical Walkthrough intro. When I am commenting on some of the naturally funny moments in Philly sports history, I try to be funny. But this book spans 50 years of history and touches on topics like suicide and domestic violence, so obviously it's not a full-throttle mirth-festival. Hopefully, you will laugh about the Darren Daulton chapter, be touched by the Pelle Lindbergh chapter, and maybe get a little angry during the Eric Lindros chapter.
I am a Walkthrough reader, but I am not that interested in the Philly sports experience. Can I still enjoy this book?
If you are a Walkthrough reader, then you are sure to be interested in the chapters about Ron Jaworski, Brian Westbrook, Tommy McDonald, Terrell Owens, and other Eagles stars/characters that make up about a quarter of the book. As for the other sports, if names like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Bobby Clarke, Joe Frazier, Dick Allen, and Pete Rose fascinate you as a general sports fan, then you will find plenty to love.
I hate Philly sports books because they are filled with whining -- whining about the 1964 Phillies, about how few championships the city sports teams have won, and about all of the lousy trades and draft picks. Is The Phanatic Code just a rehash of the same stories?
There's probably a little whining, though I tried to minimize it. There are two kinds of Philly sports books: love-fests about Erving or the Broad Street Bullies, and "airing of grievances" books about all the players who let us down. I try to nod at both genres while writing something new. I take a few shots at local writers who insist on tying the 1964 Phillies and the JFK assassination together into one B.S. coming-of-age fairy tale (it's surprisingly common). Only one or two "epic failure" players get more than a passing mention. I tried to tell a different story as often as I could. I think I steered clear of most of the clichés, though you can't write about Philly sports without puckering up a bit for guys like Bernie Parent.
When will it be out?
I am not sure. Early spring I hope.
So really, what happens in the book?
Little girls are spat upon. Puerto Rican flags are thrown to the floor. Russian hockey players flee the ice in terror. State legislatures are educated on the finer points of racial differences. Backboards shatter. Practice is skipped. Television cameras capture parking lot sit-ups and "C" sewing ceremonies. Rush Limbaugh, Whitney Houston, and Pope John Paul II make cameos. Players become senators, bloggers, New Age gurus, insider traders, biblical scholars, workaday citizens, and spooky recluses. Guns flash. Cars crash. The Celtics get beaten. The Canadiens get beaten. The Yankees and Edmonton Oilers get taken to the wall. Muhammad Ali gets beaten. And just about every player in the book gets booed, at least once.
If you have never checked out the A.V. Club, you should. Loosely affiliated with The Onion, the A.V. Club features brainy articles on pop culture ephemera. If you ever long to read a 3,000-word missive on a 20-year-old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to get you through a boring afternoon at your desk, the A.V. Club is the place to go. (Right after the 3,000 word missives on football you find here, of course).
Noel Murray of the A.V. Club touched on the sad state of sports on television in a feature evocatively entitled, "Why Does Modern Sports Broadcasting Suck So Hard?" Murray raises some great points, noting that the networks may have tricked themselves into thinking that fans like jokey, hyperbolic coverage because of a quirk of the ratings calculations. Most people are more likely to watch Colts-Titans and DVR the Christmas episode of The Office than vice versa, so sports rating hold steady while all other ratings decline, creating a false impression that fans really love Joe Theismann and Matt Millen.
Televised football games are among the last of the truly "broad" broadcasts, reaching millions of people across wide demographics. Because the networks are trying to attract teenagers, casual fans, and little old ladies from Mississippi who tune in because they think Brett Favre is a handsome young fellow, I have stopped worrying about (or listening to) most announcers. Their coverage is like Ke$ha music: It isn't really targeted at me, and I am not supposed to like it, so I rarely bother criticizing it.
The NFL Network is different. By the time fans sit down in front of an NFLN game on Thursday night, they have identified themselves as willing purchasers of a premium sports cable package and as eager consumers of out-of-town football on an off-peak night when the major networks air some of their most appealing programming. In other words, the NFL Network viewer is more like you and I than, say, the Sunday Night NBC viewer. With all of the filtration that comes with a Thursday night game on a sports-tier network, NFLN should have looked through their roster of available on-air talent, grabbed guys like Mike Mayock, and created a narrowcast for hardcore sports fans. Instead, they assembled arguably the fluffiest booth trio possible. The Theismann-Millen team even defies Murray's point that on-air personalities are too busy promoting their own "brands" to analyze the games: Theismann and Millen don't sound like they are self-promoting the way Joe Buck does. They are simply yammering.
I am always searching for the small victory. Give me an insight-filled, narrow-casted Thursday Night game announced by hyper-informed extremists, and I will gladly cede all of Sunday and Monday night to forced laughter and banal remarks about the quarterback's leadership. All national sports broadcasting doesn't have to suck. A morsel of quality now and then would go along way.
70 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2010, 10:10pm by Jeff M.