A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
01 Apr 2010
by Mike Tanier
I apologize for the long delay between correspondences. Rest assured that my affection for you remains as fervent as ever. But conditions here are grim, and I endeavored to shield you from the direst of my miseries. It is Day 44 of the siege at Fort McNabb, and though our commanding editors expect some resolution to the conflict soon, those of us pinned in the redoubts have grown desperate.
We arrived well-provisioned and confident that McNabb would fall soon, or that at least the battlements at Kolb or Vick might be annexed swiftly in the effort to bulwark McNabb. We were ill-prepared for this grinding siege. We lacked the news rations to survive the first weeks, so we began to subsist on spin and rumor. Soon, those stores ran out, and men began to behave as animals. Bloggers accustomed to thrice-daily postings faced starvation; I saw two fellows, one from Rotoworld and the other from Rotowire, pummel each other nearly to death over the chance to post a meatless rumor about a Niners trade. Men's eyes grow sunken, their skin ashen, their websites barren.
This is almost as bad as my summer in Hattiesburg. My fair Adeline, I do not know how much more I can endure.
You sent word of your brother in Seattle last week, fairest Adeline, and I can only hope that he is in better spirits than I. You mentioned the new quarterback they've acquired, though his name escapes me. To have a new quarterback to write about must be a great joy, even if his provenance is dubious. Give your brother my regards, and know you are always foremost in my thoughts.
For four years, Charlie Whitehurst flew beneath my radar. He left no locator pin on my GPS. Heck, he didn't even merit a contour line on my geological survey.
I was cornered for an opinion about Whitehurst two weeks ago, and I froze like a 19-year-old who forgot the middle initial on his fake ID. I remembered writing about him as a draft prospect, but nothing else. I couldn't remember what college he played for. I didn't know what roster he was on. Suddenly, the Cardinals and Seahawks both wanted to trade for him. Trade with whom? Why? Thank heavens for Google.
Whitehurst, as we all now know, is the new second starter in Seattle, the guy who will see action in a half-dozen games when Matt Hasselbeck is injured and fight for a starting job -- if not in August, then in 2011. The Chargers (my second guess!) tagged the third-string quarterback as a restricted free agent, but the Seahawks swapped second-round picks (a 20-slot slide) and gave up a 2011 third-rounder, then $8.5 million over two years, to acquire a 27-year-old from Clemson (second guess again!) who has never thrown an NFL pass.
All of which is lunacy.
No, not lunacy. In a world where Brady Quinn gets a second chance, where Jake Delhomme gets to lose count of his chances, why shouldn't Whitehurst get a first chance? Sure, there's nothing on his resume to suggest he's starter material -- there's no resume, for that matter -- but absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. The Whitehurst price-tag was moderate, and he seems like less of a risk than Jimmy Clausen, who I'm told once rode in a limo from dairy to deli at Wegmans. It's not lunacy. It's just odd.
Whitehurst appeared at a Seahawks press conference a few days later, looking like he usually does: George Harrison circa All Things Must Pass. In tonsorial terms, he is clearly the anti-Hasselbeck, and the sweatshirts-and-crew necks attire at the presser demonstrated that slacker casual is the new formal now that Pete Carroll is in charge. Carroll scouted Whitehurst extensively every time USC played Clemson, which was never. New GM Jon Schneider, formerly of the Packers, said that he scouted Whitehurst at a Clemson-Georgia Tech game back in 2005. Whitehurst completed 19 of 29 passes for 180 yards and a game-ending interception against Georgia Tech in 2005. The Yellow Jackets won 10-9. The game in Schneider's notebook must have been much more interesting in the game on the field.
The debut of the Carroll-Whitehurst-Schneider power trio wasn't very informative. We learned what we already knew: The new braintrust likes Whitehurst for reasons both prosaic ("he is such a good athlete" Carroll said) and obscure (Schneider spoke of "a new culture here"). There was even an existential moment in which Carroll said he's seen "every snap [Whitehurst]'s had about three different times." In a way, we all have.
To be accurate, Whitehurst hasn't had zero snaps. He's had zero passes. Carroll and Schneider probably broke down the four snaps Whitehurst took in 2006, three at the end of a blowout win against the Titans (two handoffs and a sneak for a touchdown) and one in a trouncing of the Niners (he knelt for a loss of one yard). That's a total of 12 viewings -- a solid 10 minutes of work. They also likely broke down Whitehurst's preseason tape. Here are Whitehurst's exhibition numbers over the last four years:
Quarterback Efficiency Rating fans, who presumably don't read this column, will note that Whitehurst's preseason rating is 70.3. Many of his 197 preseason passes were thrown against the Seahawks in the annual Chargers-Seahawks exhibition opener, which no one in the current Seahawks front office ever attended.
Preseason stats are as meaningful as biorhythms, but it would still be nice to see some more completions, yards, and touchdowns in Whitehurst's endogenous infradian waves, which often crested and beached against fellow third-stringers on hot August nights. Whitehurst's college stats are slightly more meaningful and no less troublesome. From the mid-decade archives:
Whitehurst peaked statistically back when "Milkshake" topped the charts. His stock followed his stats from there. As written in the 2005 Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide: "Scouts have called him a poor man's Drew Bledsoe but wonder, given that he has been groomed in a quarterback family his whole life, how much better he will ever get." After waiting five years and thrice reviewing the evidence, at least a few scouts think he has gotten better.
Preseason stats and yellowing old scouting reports tell us little. Dress-down press conferences tell us less. Whitehurst is as close to a black box as an employed NFL quarterback can get. Those of us in the auto-opinion business are left dining on scraps. We wonder if Norv Turner's tutelage rubbed off in four years. Norv Turner's tutelage would have helped Whitehurst's mechanic, but how much time did Saint Norv spend with his third-stringer while trying to stay out of the way of his team's playoff runs? We speculate that Ken Whisenhunt's interest in Arizona is a sign that there's more to Whitehurst than meets the eye, as there must be when the eye is so thoroughly unmet. We're left following our gut instincts, an endearing term for our prejudices, and arguing from ignorance, something of a national pastime on the Internet.
Pressed to pass some judgment, I'm negative about the Whitehurst gambit. It reminds me of the Dolphins quarterback trades from early in the decade, the ones that brought A.J. Feeley, Cleo Lemon, and Daunte Culpepper to Miami. Feeley and Culpepper cost the Dolphins a second-round pick each. Lemon cost them Feeley, plus a sixth-rounder. Culpepper was a fading star, but Feeley and Lemon were Dumpster dives from the bottoms of other rosters, guys whose selling points were a few relief wins and the promise that they were already groomed. Whitehurst can only claim the (metaphorical) grooming. That Carroll and Schneider bear a surface resemblance to Rick Speilman and Nick Saban only reinforces the illusion. The Seahawks shouldn't be wasting picks on mysterious third-stringers. They shouldn't try to outsmart the system. They should draft Colt McCoy and start the development cycle with a truly young player with recent on-field success.
No one would have blinked if the Seahawks traded for Kevin Kolb instead of Whitehurst, but the Eagles probably wanted more than a second-round swap. The Eagles also take forever to make decisions like these. Bloggers who focus on them are probably suffering right now.
False hope is worse than no hope at all, because its effect is far worse on the soul when it is dashed. The Rams rumors were just that -- rumors, swirling through the weary ranks like a March breeze. We readied our word processors, adjusted our spellcheckers to handle O.J. Atogwe, but the light of dawn found Fort McNabb still standing, Atogwe and that second-round pick dissipating like so much morning fog.
It was too much for many to bear. After a brief uprising, the men of the Seventh Bleacher Report Cavalry defected en masse, packing their saddle bags and riding to the college basketball tournament. My conscience cannot embrace desertion, yet I envy those brave bloggers in a dark part of my soul.
You sent a long explanation of Internet privacy issues in your last letter, and I am afraid that many among the infantry have read it, copied it, and passed it along. Perhaps in your follow-up you can send more information about protecting private correspondence. Rest assured, fairest Adeline, that your virtue is in no danger; that daguerreotype of you wearing but a camisole and petticoat is tucked safely away in the "Friends Only" gallery of my Facebook page.
At the risk of turning Walkthough into an Internet privacy blog, we dive one more time into the world of information access and what it means for football players and other quasi-famous individuals.
Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, enjoyed the last Walkthrough, putting him in the minority. Fertik's Internet products are designed to give users more control over their Web presence, the personal information they share on the Internet, and what is said about them all over the Web. Under the circumstances, I shouldn't have been surprised that he quickly found and read an article mentioning his company. Fertik agreed with much of what I wrote, and he's familiar with the work of experts Jules Polonetsky and Parry Aftab, my primary sources. (It's as if these people cannot possibly keep secrets from one another! I'll stop now.)
He disagrees on one point. While my article suggested that easy-to-get information, like Facebook updates, is more damaging than deep data, like a user's browsing history, Fertik has found that those who crave data can be insatiable.
"Everything leaks," he told me, outlining an emerging rule of information access. "And everything that leaks will be used, unless there's a compelling reason not to: either there's a law, or you somehow stop the leak." The more data, "the easier it is to paint a picture with that data," Fertik said, and that's what employers, insurance providers, and others (like coaches and scouts) ultimately want.
Fertik cited a real-life scenario similar to the ones I proposed two weeks ago. Capitol Hill staffers are a lot like NFL prospects: Many are rising stars about to burst on the national political scene, and while the world at large may not know the typical staffer from Carlos Dunlap, few outside the football realm know Dunlap from the typical staffer. Political bloggers are like draftniks, numerous, vociferous, and quick on the trigger when passing along new information or opinions.
Not long ago, a rumor circulated about a promising young staffer. The bloggers hit hard and fast. Just six hours later, the rumors were confirmed, but for a different politico. The bloggers switched targets, but their old posts didn't go away. Use Google to search the first guy, and you'll find the false rumor. "A mistake like that can linger for years as true on the Web," Fertik said.
That's where Fertik's products and services come in. There's Name Grab, which will troll the net and make sure your name is in your own hands. "There are entire hoards of unsavory characters who not only attack people or reserve their names," he said. Name Grab can stop some joker from grabbing Carols Dunlap's social network identities and domain names (or mine, or yours), making it easier for him to control how he communicates on the Web.
For tougher stains, there's My Reputation, which dives deep into message boards to let the player (or other client) know what is being said where. Then there's My Edge, which uses an algorithm to out-Google Google, making it possible for the client to customize what appears among the top 10 items in a Google search. A young player could use such a device to bury disparaging information, to generate buzz by moving favorable articles to the top, or to attract a sponsor by highlighting his personality or interests. "Those Top 10-20 Google results now represent your resume," Fertik said.
Fertik asserts that there's no "black hat" work involved with his company's Google manipulation. "We understand the math of the search engines," he explained. His company is starting to experiment with Google Suggest, the tool that produces "punch" whenever I type in Jimmy Clausen and "girlfriend" or "pledge" whenever I type in another quarterback prospect. The process is still cooking, but in time, Fertik or another smart cookie may find a way to make Google suggest "Awesome Football Outsiders Writer Mike Tanier" the moment you type T-A-N into a browser.
This isn't an extended commercial for Reputation Defender; it's another reminder of who we are and how we get our information. I only know that Clausen once punched someone, that Bruce Campbell once had brain surgery, and other off-field details because of the Internet. I rarely interview the players or read hard-copy newspapers. The secondary sources I talk to for scouting input often get their off-field information from the same Internet sites I use. If someone lied about the Clausen punch and somehow manipulated it to the top of Google, I would likely pass along the false information. If some player did something far worse but buried it, hundreds of us in the media might miss that data point, as might some teams when collating scouting reports with background checks.
It's all very scary for the armies of bloggers who depend on some degree of Internet news integrity to flesh out player backgrounds or tell us what Charlie Whitehurst was doing for the last four years. Without faith that search engines can sort credible information from incredible, someone covering a complex story -- say the McNabb trade rumors -- may feel like he's trapped in a foxhole, unable to survey the battlefield for himself.
My Dearest Adeline,
Every day, our numbers diminish, with some men deserting and others succumbing to starvation. What passes for nourishment would sicken even the heartiest soul. One brave lad found the husk of an old McNabb-to-Bills rumor, mixed it with some worm-ridden Terrell Owens jokes that have been stale for years, and boiled them into a watery blog. Others choke down articles about women's basketball or NASCAR. I even saw a man resort to hockey. Surely he will welcome death's tender caress.
Many of my compatriots have been reminiscing about the old days, when quarterback controversies were honorable. The older quarterback nurtured the younger for years, each knowing his place, until the time for changing the guard was just right. Those times, they think, were much preferable to our own, which are full of trades, scandals, and innuendo whenever it is time for younger quarterback to supplant the elder. I can assure you, Adeline, that those times were no different than ours, for I have in a silver box the letters between my uncle and my father during the battle of Staubach and Morton, and those "beat writers" -- for that is what they were called then -- struggled upon the battlefield for years.
I grow faint. There is talk that the Raiders will arrive. Others sleep at night dreaming of Al Davis' face. I prefer to think of yours,
Charlie Whitehurst enjoyed a four-year apprenticeship on the bench, just like quarterbacks got in the old days, days which never occurred.
The "long apprenticeship on the bench" trope is one of my favorite talking points. It resurfaces this time every year, usually hand-in-hand with the never-tiresome debate about playing a rookie versus sitting him on the bench to learn from an established starter like Bruce Gradkowski. In some bygone era, we're told, young quarterbacks aged in oaken barrels until they were properly seasoned. Like dutiful squires, they knelt at the feet of knights like Starr and Bradshaw, eagerly absorbing wisdom until they finally entered the huddle as fully-formed, Pro Bowl-caliber veterans. "Teams don’t have the luxury anymore of stashing Steve Young on the bench for three years to learn from Joe Montana," we're told, as though every NFL team once possessed a Montana and a Young, and as though Young was happy to be stashed.
The era of long quarterback tutorials coincided with the era in which quarterbacks were far superior to today's quarterbacks: the good ol' days, which never were. To illustrate, let's pick a random year -- I chose 1978 -- and determine how that year's starters were handled at the beginning of their careers.
Let's start with a list of quarterbacks who spent two or more seasons on the bench, starting only a game here and there. These quarterbacks, we'll say, were apprenticed the "old-fashioned" way. The 1978 starter list: Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler, Ron Jaworski, Joe Theismann, Gary Danielson, Mike Livingston, Bill Troup and Craig Morton.
Livingston, Troup, and Danielson were career backups who started a lot of games in 1978 because of injuries. Staubach and Theismann were both apprenticed, but neither liked it: Staubach balked at having to play behind Morton, and Theismann was a "Slash" player stuck behind two veterans who resented him. Jaworski was picked off the roster of a California team by a former Los Angeles college coach with a reputation for rah-rah tactics. Jaws even had a beard. Spooky Whitehurst resemblance. That leaves Morton, a holdover from the 1960s, and Stabler as the only examples of "long tutorial, orderly succession." Because when you think of the 1970s Raiders, you think "orderly."
But quarterbacks were never thrown to the wolves as rookies back then, right? Wrong. These quarterbacks, regular starters in 1978, started at least five games as rookies: Fran Tarkenton, Archie Manning, Pat Haden, Jim Zorn, Steve Bartkowski, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Pastorini, Steve Grogan, Joe Fersuson, Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, Brian Sipe, Ken Anderson, and David "father of Charlie" Whitehurst.
That's a much larger list, and it reveals that quarterbacks of the 1970s saw just as much rookie action as today's quarterbacks. Teams tried to protect the rookie by keeping a veteran around -- Charley Johnson stuck around to mentor Pastorini, James Harris and Joe Namath mentored/challenged Haden, and so on -- but the rookie was supposed to take over sooner than later, and most of the players on the list above were full-time starters in their second seasons.
It appears that there have been a few historic instances when great franchises (1970s Cowboys and Raiders, 1980s 49ers) had such a talent glut that they could force one Pro Bowl quarterback to wait until another neared the end of his career. Historically, however, franchises were less organized in the past than they are now, and they were more desperate to throw unprepared talent into the fire at a time when ticket sales were a larger part of team revenue. There are historic instances of quarterbacks hanging on the bench forever, like Livingston (the Todd Collins of the 1970s), but it was rare for one of those lifetime backups to grow into a quality starter.
And finally, long tutorials aren't very rare in modern times. Whitehurst had one. Tony Romo had one. Matt Hasselbeck spent two years on the bench. Matt Leinart's career has been tumultuous so far, but it may be reinterpreted in 30 years as a quiet tutorial under Kurt Warner. If Kevin Kolb starts for the Eagles and becomes an All-Pro, it will be a rare example of a phenomenon people think was once common -- one great quarterback replacing another, like kings in a constitutional monarchy.
That assumes the trade ever happens.
My fingers are so brittle from carpel tunnel syndrome that I can barely type. The weeks of waiting have made them wither. My mind is cloudy. Do the Vikings even have a second-round pick? I can no longer recall. Do not bother to send Pro Football Weekly to keep up my spirits -- the hungry jackals around me tore it asunder, devouring every morsel, even the CFL preview.
A pair of musicians are trying to keep spirits up, strumming guitars and singing sacred songs. One of them, I am told, is a punter who once fought beside Peyton Manning but was exiled to Fort Zorn, where he was badly battered during a fake field goal. He is truly a saint to endure such horrors, and seeing him sing gleefully reminds me that I must stay strong in my own convictions. This too will pass.
I provide sheet music from the duo's recordings. They call themselves "Connersvine."
Inspired by Jason Elam's novels, I will sometimes critique the side projects of football players. In this installment, I listen to Hunter Smith play guitar.
I like rock music. I am a Christian. Why do I hate Christian Rock?
Perhaps it's Jesus Christ Superstar damage. I genuinely like that musical, always have, but ever since hearing it as a kid, I have thought that Christian rock should sound like that. There should be electric guitars, feedback, groovy breaks like the ones on Jefferson Airplane albums. Apostles should yell at each other and harmonize. Jesus should get a little bit prickly when confronted by money-changers or Roman prelates. Jesus Christ Superstar is about as rockin' an overt exploration of biblical themes as I have ever heard, and that's saying something, because it's Andrew Lloyd Webber, for heaven's sake.
Most contemporary Christian rock, by contrast, skimps on both the rock and the religion. The music is usually pasteurized coffee-house noodling, with accessible, forgettable melodies. The subject matter is also non-threatening and vague, as if the band is trying to sneak a little religion past you. There's no reason that substantive modern music can't mix with real religious imagery and themes. Listen to Johnny Cash sing a gospel standard, and you'll be both entertained and moved to seek out your spiritual side. Mainstream Christian rockers are content to spout stealth-spiritual aphorisms over homogenized folk-rock, hoping for some Creed-like crossover.
At some level, I am reluctant to poke fun of Christian rockers, and not just because I fear a biblical flood in my Inbox. Christian rockers are generally nice, as are the well-scrubbed kids who buy their albums. Sure, they can be unctuous and moralizing, but they are no worse than the self-absorbed NPR folkies who lecture about globalization and organic foods as if the ability to harmonize transforms them into social philosophers. Christian rockers show up for concerts sober and volunteer at food banks in their free time, and their music is no more inoffensively offensive as the output of most American Idols. There's no real dropoff in quality from Daughty to Connersvine, and at least Connersvine sings love songs to someone admirable, not the girl the roadies wrangled to kill tour bus boredom.
Oh yeah, Connersvine. The only Christian rock band to feature a real-life NFL punter. When we last saw Hunter Smith, he was being tackled by half the Giants defense on a fake field goal attempt so ridiculous that only Jim Zorn could have called it. Smith was the Colts punter for many years, and since the Colts have a great offense that rarely needed to punt, he had a lot of time on his hands to join a Christian rock combo. Tellingly, Connersvine's output dipped sharply once Smith joined the Redskins. If the lack of inspirational music is causing an increase in the world's evil, Zorn's offense contributed to our misery in ways we cannot fathom.
Smith shares creative and guitar-playing duties with singer Chris Wilson, who is also the primary poster on the Connersvine blog, which mixes announcements, musings, and video of Smith's more successful fake field goals. Smith and Wilson are joined in the studio for the band's eponymous album by guitarist/songwriter/producer Pete Kipley, a host of session musicians, and special guest star Ben Hartsock on tambourine.
Seriously, it's in the album credits: Ben Hartsock on tambourine. That's the kind of hidden talent every backup tight end needs.
Connservine opens with "Glory Be," which sounds like a cross between "Wonderwall" by Oasis and open mic night at the local Treehouse Cafe. The engaging, jangly guitar intro grows into a tapioca arrangement of smooth acoustic chords, bland electric guitar arpeggios, mid-tempo drum beats, and gentle strings. Hartsock is criminally absent from the mix. The lyrics praise heaven with non-denominational reverence: "Glory to the hands that heal the torn/Glory to one whose feet could walk beyond the shore/Glory to voice who calls the storms/To rumble in the sky/Our hearts cry." There are moving images in the words, but there's nothing torn or stormy or rumbling in the music, so all of the power is sapped from the content.
That may be my biggest issue with so much religious rock -- the arrangements rarely match the grandeur of the subject matter. All-powerful benevolence should be evoked by something more psyche-shattering than a Redskins punter playing D-suspended-4th on an acoustic guitar. Connersvine's lyrics, while not profound, are full of images that cry out for some musical grandiosity. "You whisper to me in the thunder/A servant, and a king, and a lover" Wilson sings at the end of "Closely Far Away." This line needs something, like the Edge playing chords with the reverb and delay maxed, a gong, that System of a Down guy screaming, some faux wind effects like the ones in Ronnie James Dio albums ... something. Connersvine can't even muster a Hartsock bongo solo.
You get the idea. Connersvine songs quickly run together. "Hungerlove," with its provocative title, sounds like their play for stealth secularism. Is that an obsessed boyfriend singing, or is it Jesus proclaiming everlasting love to his flock? On regular radio, it would be hard to tell the difference. "Hero" is a downright touching ode by a father to a son: "Just know that if I had a million lives/I would want to see your eyes/On the day you were born/Because you are all the legacy/That I’ve ever prayed to leave/On the day that I'm gone." Songs like "Hosanna" are liturgical, but most Connersvine songs stick to pro-social messages sprinkled with light red-letter Christianity. Thematically and musically, that's a weakness, because after half an hour the message grows syrupy and vague. But I think a few months from now I'll reminisce fondly on the days when players like Smith expressed their beliefs in an inclusive, non-confrontational way.
So yes, the Connersvine album was bad, but it was not as comically bad as the Jason Elam novel. It was competent, almost stirring at times. Connersvine may even play in the background when mom is over for breakfast on Sunday. It's better than showing Superstar, because the bit with the tank always gets her angry.
My time grows short. My fever ebbs and breaks. I write now with the help of a laid-off Rocky Mountain News copy editor when I am lucid. I dreamt last night of McNabb in Carolina, running an option with Stewart and Williams. It was my subconscious comforting me, reminding me that though I may go to my reward, the siege will someday end, and my compatriots will return home. Grieve not for me, and know that my final thoughts were of you, and that I stayed brave, and stayed true, and never once made up my own damn rumor just to fill a few column inches, which is more than I can say for some.
Long live the Fightin' Football Outsiders' 25th Extra-Light Blogger Infantry! I grow faint now, so I will call upon Mr. Hartsock to fetch my blanket and play one last song for me on tambourine.
51 comments, Last at 11 Apr 2010, 2:14am by Roscoe