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.
28 Oct 2010
by Mike Tanier
Picture for a moment the typical on-field referee conference.
Derrick Mason falls out of bounds, his tippy toes brushing the line and his hands juggling the football. Or Ben Roethlisberger comes within a yard of the end zone with the ball in his general vicinity. It's conference time. The zebras gather. What did you see? What did you see? What does the rulebook say? Does anyone have one?
It's primitive, like cavemen trying to recreate the mammoth hunt from memory. Especially compared to what we are doing -- watching slow-motion replays from 30 angles, some on the high-def television, some on our high-tech telephones.
Portable, reliable, hand-held devices that provide instantaneous information. What an idea.
I finally upgraded my cell phone to one that does things like Tweet, check e-mail, and play video. Those features are probably old hat to you, but I find them amazing. The video quality on my phone isn't great, but if I had spent an extra hundred bucks I could have gotten a bigger, clearer screen. My phone plays the NFL Network and NFL Red Zone. With a wave of the commissioner's hand, it could easily stream the video of a game in progress. That would grant fans and reporters instant access to replays in the stands, the press box, the car while driving, and everywhere in the world except the field itself, where they can actually do some good.
So, why can't referees use this technology?
I propose a new device: the iRef, or the RefBerry if we don't want Apple to have a monopoly. Basically, the iRef/RefBerry is a smart phone customized for football officials. No more conferences based on faulty memories of split-second plays. No more trips under the hood to consult the magic dragon. No more challenge sequences like this one, straight from the Gamebook of the Browns-Saints game:
(Shotgun) D.Brees pass short left to M.Colston to CLV 22 for 4 yards (E.Wright). FUMBLES (E.Wright), and recovers at CLV 23. M.Colston to CLV 23 for no gain (E.Wright). After the play, the Saints attempted to rush a field goal attempt, as Cleveland through the CHALLENGE flag, asserting that Colston FUMBLED and the ball was recovered by Cleveland. This challenge was DENIED, as the play was not reviewable. After the third quarter ended, the Saints then challenged the ruling that Colston was down by contact. New Orleans challenged the runner was down by contact ruling, and the play was REVERSED. (Shotgun) D.Brees pass short left to M.Colston to CLV 21 for 5 yards (E.Wright).
My proposed iRef has a screen the size of a Kindle, high-def feed, and a searchable rulebook Wiki built in. The Wiki is voice activated, so when the official says "Possession in the end zone," the relevant page in the rulebook appears. The video feed runs on a 15-second delay, about what television feed runs on (delay varies from seven to almost 45 seconds). So when Mason catches a ball on the sidelines and it's not clear where his feet were, one official can whip out the device and get a second look almost immediately. If he thinks the live call got botched, he can correct it quickly. If he needs to, he can call a quick meeting and show the other refs another replay. He can even show it to the coaches to explain his decisions.
The RefBerry can dial straight into the satellites to provide officials with every possible camera angle, even ones television didn't show. The line judge and umpire can be tuned to the cameras that follow the trenches. Did the Packers hold? Let's double check on 15-second delay. Yep. Throw the flag.
Did that linebacker lead with his helmet? Check the replay immediately. Yep: 15-yard penalty. Suddenly, there's more safety and less controversy.
The iRef/Refberry wouldn't make officials technology-dependent. It would just make them more like us. Officials need instant information to make instant decisions. We've all seen referees peek at the Jumbo Screen while conferring, but the league frowns on it, and the home team is only going to show the most favorable angle on a controversial play. The iRef frees officials them from an outdated system. It gives them the same advantages we have. Doesn't that make basic sense?
Would it slow the game down? You would have more 30-45 second stoppages while officials checked the feed immediately on the field, but fewer five-minute delays while they ran back and forth from the mystery hood for every play after the two-minute warning. Instead of back-and-forth challenges, officials could point to a screen shot, point to a line in the rulebook, and resolve conflicts fairly. Heck, they could even upload the feed to the jumbo screen and the television satellite and point out to us why they made the call, instead of standing around scratching their elbows nervously.
The iRef. The RefBerry. It's time to take officiating out of the Stone Age.
Every once in a while, the Giants do something terrible that doesn't involve a punt, a Brandon Jacobs mental error, or a tipped pass. When that happens, Walkthrough is there.
Midway through the second quarter, the Giants trailed 13-7, thanks mostly to a tip-drill interception and a Jacobs fumble. Tony Romo had just been knocked out of the game, and the Giants wanted a big play on first down from the 20-yard line. They dialed up a deep play-action pass to Hakeem Nicks to test the vulnerable Cowboys secondary. Sounds simple enough.
|Figure 1: Giants triple-team Ware|
The Giants had no intention of letting DeMarcus Ware get to Eli Manning on this play, so they did four things to stop him (Fig. 1). First, they kept Kevin Boss (89) in to block. Second, they rolled Rich Seubert (69) to his left to double-team Ware. Third, they had Ahmad Bradshaw (44) try to chip Ware after taking the play fake. Finally, Manning rolled right, away from the guy they were triple-teaming.
Ware responded by shedding Boss, taking one step to the outside, then dipping and cutting inside. Both Seubert and Bradshaw were protecting against an outside move. Three blockers, and Ware gets inside all of them.
Manning only has two receivers. The pre-snap read was a two-deep zone, and the Cowboys cornerbacks were clearly in man coverage from the snap. Mike Jenkins stayed over the top of Nicks, and Alan Ball got excellent position underneath the receiver. It's hard to be more covered than Nicks was on this play, but Manning had nowhere else to go with the ball, and Ware is closing in. The pass fell incomplete, but it could easily have been an interception.
In summary: Three-on-one blocking is a little excessive, and if you are going to do it, it had better work. If you are sending a receiver on a post pattern against man coverage with safety help, send a nifty-shifty guy, not a possession-type like Hicks. And when you're out of the pocket and no one's open, you can throw the ball away. Or, you can just burn this play.
The punter sneak may replace the surprise onside kick as the "cool" special teams trick after Reggie Hodges rambled 68 yards for the Browns on Sunday.
Fake punts aren't that unusual -- teams run about one per year -- but most fake punts aren't punter sneaks. Designed fakes are usually direct snaps to the personal protector, who is often a running back. The occasional punter pass gets sprinkled in, because many punters were quarterbacks in high school. The punter sneak is easier to execute and camouflage than either of these plays, and most punters are pretty good athletes. Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said Hodges ran "like a logging train on an uphill grade," but that was a little poetic license. Hodges ran like an average quarterback, not as well as Vince Young but much better than Philip Rivers.
Look through punter rushing stats, and you can see just how rare punter sneaks are. It's hard to find a successful punter with significant positive rushing yardage. Here are the rushing statistics for the top five punters in history by yardage, plus a few other legendary punters:
|Rushing Stats for Punters|
I am not sure how Chris Gardocki got through an entire career without a single "carry," since punter runs are mostly aborted plays and "run backward for a safety" plays, in addition to the odd sneak. While fumbled snaps and blocked kicks fall into other categories, plays where the punter is just overwhelmed and forced to crumple account for a large number of their carries and huge chunks of negative yardage. Feagles is at minus-11, for example, because he lost 15 yards on one play in 2002 when he was swamped before he could get rid of the ball.
While looking up the rushing stats I also checked out the passing stats. Feagles was 0-for-8 as a passer, while Johnson was 5-of-6 with two touchdowns. Johnson's touchdowns came as a field-goal holder, and many punter rushes also come when they are forced to tuck and run while holding. In other words, we're in a fascinating little statistical junkyard. Every punter carry is a play where something happened -- good, bad, embarrassing, nutty, or straight from the fertile imagination of Jim Zorn. Walkthrough favorite Hunter Smith has four carries for 42 yards and two touchdowns, plus a touchdown pass. He's the only modern punter I could find with three touchdowns, certainly the only one with three touchdowns and a music career.
Steve Weatherford of the Jets is the league's most well-known sneak artist, besides Hodges and Smith. A former high school decathlete, Weatherford has 47 yards on three carries in his career and was given the green light to sneak a few times last season. Like many Rex Ryan innovations, the punter sneak was inherited from dear old dad. Eagles fans remember John Teltschik well: seven carries, 91 yards, and three 23-yard sneaks. Teltschik was also 1-of-3 as a passer. Teltschik couldn't punt with any consistency, but his tendency to sneak without warning (sometimes, it wasn't a called fake, just a wild hare) added to the chaos of Buddy Ball.
The last punter to gain more than 60 yards was Tom Wittum of the 49ers in 1973. Wittum's 61-yard run wasn't a designed sneak. From the newspaper account: "The snap was high and when he came down he saw that New Orleans had rushed the middle, the flanks were open, and he took off. 'I was just going for the first down, but I had a lot of blockers so I kept going,'" Wittum reached the four-yard line but was tackled when he "ran out of blockers."
Wittum was a good athlete. The White Sox offered him a baseball contract, and the Niners later let him catch and throw a few passes, in addition to running two more times, once for 13 yards and once for a loss of 10. The newspaper article from 1973 noted that Wittum had a higher per-carry average than O.J. Simpson (one carry for 63 yards will do that). Wittum's career per-carry average of 22.0 has to be among the highest in history once you strip off the per-carry minimums, though Hodges is higher for the time being. One or two near-blocks will bring him back to earth.
The punter sneak is an easy play for the special teams coach to install mid-week. If he sees the opponent's return unit bail at the snap on film, ignoring the punter while blocking the gunners, he can put it in the game plan. He can call the play if the situation is right, and the punter can audible out of it if the opponent surprises him by going for the block. Because it is so easy to check out of, a fake punt is low risk. A look at the stats suggest that it's also low reward, but maybe, like the surprise onside kick until recently, it has been underutilized. And once the opponent is on notice that the punter might run, the gunners may have an easier time getting downfield.
So let's get these guys some carries. Well, all of them except Matt Dodge. That poor kid has enough to worry about.
I demand a ban on political advertising during football games.
It's bad enough to sit in a sports bar and see the same light beer ad flicker from one satellite feed to another, forcing me to look at men in rainbow Speedo shorts who didn't "man up" and order the proper light beer. But when the same stupid, accusatory political ad runs seven or eight times in a row, it turns a beautiful autumn Sunday sour. Instead of wondering how good Roddy White has become, I get mad at how my intelligence is being insulted.
To be clear, I demand a ban across all parties and affiliations, including and especially those vague Americans to Promote Justice and Goodness groups who accuse candidates of canary fondling. In our local campaigns, one guy is accusing the other of funding a front for a terrorist operation. Seriously. Not to be outdone, his opponent accuses him of sending jobs away to China. The ad comes complete with Bruce Lee-style lettering and a fortune cookie, just in case you didn't catch the casual xenophobia. At least I think these guys are opponents; the ads make it clear who to vote against but not to vote for, so I get mixed up about who is challenging whom. Ban them, ban them all.
There's even an ad that goes like this: "My Opponent, Mike Poopyface, claims that he created 9,000 jobs for Bumblehump County. Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth." Really? Nothing? What if he claimed to create nine million jobs? Assuming your point is that he didn't create any jobs (he sold them all to ring wraiths), wouldn't logic dictate that creating 9,001 jobs be "further from the truth" than creating 9,000? Can we at least get the internal logic of a 30-second ad correct? Nope. So ban them all.
I argued in the New York Times baseball blog that political advertising should be banned from the World Series, and I really think Congress should act on that one. The World Series is a time for Americans to come together, not get torn apart by sectarian politics. Kids are watching, and parents shouldn't be subject to questions about why the senator hates humankind. World Series ads should be about things we can all agree upon: dumb police dramas, insurance-providing reptiles, and a deodorant strong enough for a man but Beachwood-aged for extra Fahrvergnügen.
Banning political ads during football may be harder: We're talking about hours of television stretching across weeks, and the local affiliates have to make money. So I propose a limit on the type of advertising. Here are some suggestions:
I'm just trying to improve the fan experience here. We can grit our teeth through one more week, but we shouldn't have to go through this next year. Ban them. Ban them all.
69 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2010, 4:38pm by Jacob Stevens