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?
17 Aug 2010
by Mike Tanier
Five-word summaries are all the rage right now. You know how they work. You take a topic, like the Monday night Giants-Jets game, and you try to summarize it in five words. Eli bleeds, Revis plays Yahtzee ... or something like that. It's harder than hell, but it's a great writing exercise, especially for those of us who write on the Internet, where brevity died long ago.
I'd like to go one step beyond the five-word summaries to Ludlum Titles. Ludlum titles (inspired by Robert Ludlum, now-deceased author of assembly-line thrillers) have three words. "The," followed by a proper noun (either a person's name or a location), followed by a long, odd-sounding abstract noun that only partially conveys meaning. The Bourne Identity. The Gemini Contenders. The Holcroft Covenant. If Ludlum had written Macbeth, it would have been called The Birnam Deforestation. (By the way, I stole that joke from an old magazine article, I believe by Salmon Rushdie).
In just this offseason, Ludlum would have given us The Favre Indecision, The Tebow Canonization, The Bryant Protocol, The Haynesworth Gauntlet, and for Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco in Bengals camp, The Georgetown Divertissement. Ludlum novels are usually pretty dumb, but then again, so are most training camp storylines, so they deserve terse, faux hard-boiled titles.
Come up with a few of your own. While you're at it, crank out a whole Ludlum novel. He's still cranking them out nine years after his death, so it can't be that difficult.
In Sunday's preseason game against the Bengals, Owens was targeted six times, Ochocinco just once.
If you are looking for a potential scandal, you may see smoke rising here. And if you aren't looking for scandal, why are you looking at the Bengals? SportsCenter and Total Access started tracking the targets after the Hall of Fame game, hinting that a double prima-donna tantrum was just around the corner. "Stay tuned," they winked, eagerly awaiting cracks in the Owens-Ochocinco partnership.
I can't say I blame them. I'll be milking those knuckleheads for every drop of available comedy. But the "Battle for the Ball" is a stillborn issue. Owens and Ochocinco may end up fighting over reality show strumpets, they may gang up on Palmer or Marvin Lewis, but they aren't going to fight over the amount of touches they get.
Why? Because both of them have always had to share the load.
Last season, Ochocinco had the Bengals offense to himself, but Owens had to share the ball with Lee Evans in Buffalo. Owens was targeted 109 times, Evans 95. In 2008, T.J. Houshmandzadeh was targeted 137 times, Ochocinco (who was hurt for several games) 97. Owens had 139 targets for the Cowboys, with Jason Witten close behind at 120. Most of the grumbling came not from Owens, but from newcomer Roy Williams, who is a complete nitwit -- even in this company.
Ochocinco (Johnson, then) was targeted 161 times in 2007 to Houshmandzadeh's 161. Owens and Witten each had 141 touches for the Cowboys. Ochocinco had more targets than Houshmandzadeh in 2006 (152 to 132) while Owens (152) outpaced both Witten (91) and Terry Glenn (111) in Dallas. The exact numbers aren't important, but the concept is clear -- both of these guys are accustomed to sharing the ball with another top receiver or a tight end. Owens did so for nearly his entire career. As late as 1999, his fourth season in the league, he was still second fiddle to Jerry Rice, earning 98 touches to Rice's 124.
(Yes, we have target totals going back that far, and further! Check out the player pages to see what you've been missing.)
In Cincinnati, they won't have to worry about a major contribution by a tight end (Jermaine Gresham isn't getting 100 targets), and with Antonio Bryant seemingly buried, the other receivers won't eat significantly into their production. If they stay healthy, both Owens and Ochocinco will get 150 targets. Even if one has a low-target day, he probably won't complain about the other when he could instead blame the coach, coordinator, and quarterback.
A bigger worry in the preseason shouldn't be who the ball is thrown to, but how far it is going. Owens' four catches yielded just 23 yards on Sunday, while Ochocinco's long catch resulted in four yards. Palmer is averaging just 8.8 yards per completion, meaning that he has picked up where he left off last year, dinking and dunking to a fault.
If that keeps up, Palmer could target Owens and Ochocinco 200 times each and still have two unhappy receivers, plus thousands of angry fans.
So, what lunatic came up with the preseason schedule, anyway?
Thursday nights, Friday nights, games littered all across the weekend, some starting at 7:00, some 7:30, some 8:00. The major networks broadcast a few games, local affiliates take care of the home team, and NFL Network airs a seemingly random sampling of live broadcasts, plus dozens of replays. It's haphazard, inconvenient, and confusing.
This week, the two Thursday games start at 7:30 and 8:00, there's one Friday night game, and Saturday's games kick off at irregular half-hour intervals. The Vikings and 'Niners have Sunday night to themselves, just so we can choke on Brett Favre blather.
Last week, there was a Sunday game at 1:00 p.m. What a novel concept. The Eagles and Redskins played simultaneously, so fans who were curious about the debuts of Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb either had to DVR one of the games or demonstrate their ninja skills with the remote control. And recording a preseason game is a sure sign of impending madness.
The NFL, the most careful and calculating of sports leagues, lets anarchy rule for a solid month for no good reason. All the league needs to do is embrace the reverse logic of the preseason, and they can create a schedule that would be much more enjoyable to fans (casual and hardcore), but marketable as well.
The reverse logic of the preseason is second nature to the likes of us. In the preseason, the beginning of the game is more important than the ending. Also, bad teams are more interesting than good ones. The NFL and the networks refuse to embrace this logic, probably because they are still stuck in the 1960s mindset of convincing someone these are competitive football games. It's a bad strategy.
Starting games at 7 p.m. on Saturday night, as the Bucs and Dolphins did, guarantees that by the time a fan settles into his couch at 8 p.m. or barstool at 9 p.m., he's watching Josh Johnson battle Tyler Thigpen (albeit in a mud puddle, which increased that game's entertainment value). Giving the Vikings or Colts their own Monday night network game is a punishment to all but the most gullible fans. Talking about Peyton Manning while watching Curtis Painter is no fun, and we all know it. Better to give the Rams some airtime so we can get a long look at Sam Bradford.
So let's fix the system.
Here's my proposal. There are 16 games every preseason weekend. Let's break them down, Moses Malone-style -- four games on Thursday night, four on Friday night, four on Saturday night, four on Sunday afternoon.
Now, we take a page from the NCAA tournament. The kickoff for the first game is 7 p.m., second game 8 p.m., third game 9 p.m., fourth game 10 p.m. On Sunday afternoon, the first round of kickoff is at 1 p.m. and the second is at 4 p.m.
You see the advantages? Under this plan, it's always the first quarter somewhere. Just when Luke McCown enters the game for Jacksonville, the action shifts out to Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers is taking the field. (After last week, you may not want to miss McCown, but before that this sounded like a great idea). Also, Sunday afternoon looks like a reasonable facsimile of a real football Sunday now, so you can get a taste of your usual autumn routine.
As for television, the local affiliates can keep the Homer Television Network coverage, and the majors can still keep their games, but NFL Network can broadcast the rest, cutting from city to city at kickoff. So if FOX is itching to show, say, Giants-Steelers at 8, they can have the three-hour Ben Roethlisberger dissection all to themselves. The rest of us can start with Ravens-Redskins on NFL Network at 7, then switch over the FOX for an hour knowing that it will be safe to slide back to NFLN to catch Broncos-Lions at 9 and Packers-Seahawks at 10.
What if you really want to see that rookie running back in the fourth quarter? Well, NFL Red Zone is sitting idle, isn't it? Let the Red Zone guys bounce around between games, looking for rookie debuts, exciting touchdowns, or those moments that make the preseason so special, like fumbled interception returns.
Here's the thing, though. After a year or two, the networks would probably want a piece of the NFL Network's action, especially if there are only two preseason weeks in the future. A station like NBC might look at two preseason weeks with carefully staggered schedules and see a great marketing opportunity. They might buy the whole package, shut down their summer programming for two weekends (they were showing gymnastics on Saturday night, so this isn't a hardship), and advertise the preseason as a summer Football Fest. Goodbye, Homer Television Network. Goodbye, rambling Favre discussion in the fourth quarter of Bengals-Chiefs. Hello, better fan experience, plus one more revenue stream for owners and players to argue over.
It's a simple fix, and it can probably be shifted into the middle of the current contract negotiations without either side blinking. It may not be a perfect system, but it beats the heck out of the current system, which really isn't a system at all.
Rookie Victor Cruz made a name for himself with his six-catch, 145-yard, three-touchdown performance on Monday night, and you can bet that Giants fans will be rooting for the kid from Paterson Catholic to make the roster. In honor of Cruz, I thought I'd look back at some of the best preseason receiving stats of the last nine years, just for the sake of nostalgia and a little "where are they now" analysis.
Best: Randy Moss, 2001: nine catches, 296 yards, five touchdowns. Moss had a 60-yard touchdown in the first preseason game, a 59-yarder in the second, 74 and 54-yarders in the third, and a 25-yarder in the fourth. This was the beginning of the end of the Moss-Daunte Culpepper heyday. Moss caught 82 passes that season, but the team went 5-11, Denny Green gave way to Mike Tice, and Moss stopped caring for a few years.
Runner Up: Paris Warren, 2007: 15 catches, 191 yards, four touchdowns. Warren, a seventh-round pick by the Buccaneers in 2005, had a Cruz-like seven catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth preseason game of 2007. Warren appears to have played the whole game, with starters like Joey Galloway resting. He clearly started, and he also caught a 31-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Warren is now tooling around the minor leagues. After stints on the Cowboys and Saints rosters, he resurfaced with the Florida Tuskers of the UFL and something called the River City Gators.
The Reception King: James Jones, 2007: 21 catches, 233 yards, two touchdowns. Jones got a lot of preseason work in his rookie year. He caught both touchdown passes in the second preseason game, a 16-yarder from Brett Favre in the first quarter and a 7-yarder from Aaron Rodgers in the second quarter. He led the Packers in receiving in all four games. He went on to catch 47 passes as a rookie, though he has stagnated since.
Double Trouble: Derrius Thompson and Darnerien McCants, 2002: 27 catches, 501 yards, eight combined touchdowns. That first Steve Spurrier preseason started out with a bang. The Redskins won four of their five games that year by scores of 38-7, 37-30, 35-34, and 40-10. Thompson, a third-year receiver who kicked around the practice squad before Spurrier arrived, had eight catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns in a game against the Steelers. Thompson and McCants, a fifth-round pick the previous year, combined for four touchdowns in the preseason opener. Both receivers earned jobs, with Thompson catching 54 passes and McCants 21.
We can chuckle about the Spurrier era, but wouldn't it be great to see Cruz have a 21-catch season? Oh, and one of the guys throwing those touchdown passes in 2002 was Sage Rosenfels, who had three touchdowns for the Vikings last week. He's been a part of our Augusts almost as long as the boardwalk itself.
Here's a rare encore of a Walkthrough segment that ran last August on the subject of fantasy drafts. The subject of draft scheduling has come up once again in my own life, and in the last two weeks I engaged in an e-mail thread just like this one. Note that the dates and players are a year old, and yet timeless:
Culled from e-mail inboxes across America and beyond:
COMMISH: OK guys, it's time to pick a draft date. I am good Thursday the 20th, Friday the 21st, Thursday the 27th and Saturday the 29th. Are any of those dates good for you guys?
PLAYER 1: I can't make the 20th or 21st. Going antiquing with the wife.
PLAYER 2: Have to go to Wisconsin on business on the 27th.
PLAYER 3: Taking my kid to Howlin' Toddler Amusement Park the week of the 29th.
PLAYER 4: I am taking my fiancée to Antigua from the 21st through the 28th.
COMMISH: OK, one of you may have to get a proxy or draft by phone.
PLAYER 1: I can get my cousin Murray with the personal hygiene problem to draft for me.
PLAYER 2: I can give Player 4 a list for the first 10 rounds, then draft by text message.
PLAYER 3: What about loading up a chat room, listing all the picks, and I can select using my iPhone?
PLAYER 4: Look, I hate playing when I can't draft my team. Can you work around my schedule?
COMMISH: Maybe. How about a Sunday morning?
PLAYER 1: Church.
PLAYER 2: That's my only gym time.
PLAYER 3: Kids' soccer practice.
PLAYER 4: Hangover.
COMMISH: I am not sure what to do.
PLAYER 2: Don't worry about me. I have my list all ready. In Round 1, my order goes: Adrian Peterson, Brian Westbrook, Maurice Jones-Drew, Brandon Jacobs, Steven Jackson, Matt Forte, Peyton Manning, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, or Tom Brady. Then, in Round 2, if I got a running back, come back with Manning or Brady if they aren't taken, or Drew Brees or Jay Cutler, in that order, if they are. If I got a quarterback, take the top running back off the list above, or Frank Gore, Joseph Addai, or Thomas Jones.
PLAYER 4: Oh, I'm also going to the Outer Banks from August 30th through September 10th. Can you work around my schedule?
PLAYER 3: Why don't we just use an online league, and let the computer pick our rosters? Then, we can use the computers to select the lineups too. The winner of the league can get a virtual trophy.
PLAYER 1: Give Murray a chance. He's sorry about what he did to your floor three years ago, Commish. Turns out that brand of buffalo wing sauce causes him severe intestinal problems.
PLAYER 2: In Round 4, take the best available wide receiver if I already have two running backs and a quarterback. If I have three running backs or took Randy Moss then take Tony Romo or Donovan McNabb. If NOT (2 RBs AND 1 WR) XOR (1 RB AND 1 QB AND 1 [NOT (TE or Def)] then Laveranues Coles.
PLAYER 4: Can we not do nights? I don't like nights.
COMMISH: OK, this is insane. No more crazy schedules. No more online drafts, proxies, or Boolean algebra lists.
Most of us have been playing fantasy football for 15 years or longer. We know there will be drafts in late August. We know that the draft is the most fun part of a fantasy league. It's our only time to get together, the only chance we really have to meet as a bunch of guys and talk. We need this time together, and we deserve it.
Let's try to fit the draft into our schedules. Somebody cancel something. Somebody make a sacrifice. We love fantasy football, and we love spending time together. Let's stop treating fantasy football like some juvenile embarrassment that we wedge into cluttered corners of our lives. Let's embrace it, prioritize it. Now, who is free when?
PLAYER 1: Murray says he can bring lime chips and Clamato for Bloody Marys.
PLAYER 2: In Round 8, take a fourth running back if I have three, or take Dustin Keller, John Carlson, or Desmond Clark if I don't have a tight end, or ...
PLAYER 3: I have an online avatar that automatically rejects or accepts trades. The only decision I have to make now is what color my virtual helmet should be! Ooh, there's an advisor for that!
PLAYER 4: Can we squeeze a draft in during lunch on September 2nd? Oh wait, I am meeting a client that day.
COMMISH: This is my last year as commissioner, I swear.
Instead of just joking about the problem, let's try to fix it. We all want to have a fun draft -- a real-life, face-to-face draft with snacks, trash talk, maybe a few beers. We want to pick our own teams, in person. We want to see our friends, not our friends' loser brothers-in-law. And yet, our schedules are tight. What should we do?
It's simple: plan and communicate.
Try not to plan many major activities in late August. How many fantasy leagues are you in? Two? Seven? You know they will all be clamoring for your time in the last weeks of August and the first week of September. Try not to plan the two-week vacation to Alaska for those weeks.
Of course, sometimes you take the vacation whenever you can get off, and those last weeks of August are the only available times. In that case:
Tell your commissioners immediately about your August-September vacation plans. Let him know the same time you contact the day care provider and the doggie sitter. The earlier he knows about your absence, the easier it is for him to cross out potentially bad dates. While we're at it:
Tell your commissioners about any personal scheduling idiosyncrasies. Most of the guys in my leagues are in their 30s and 40s now, which means most work 9 to 5 jobs (yeah, 7 to 7). There's an assumption that on a given Thursday night or Sunday afternoon, while people might be busy, no one is necessarily working. If that doesn't apply to you, let your commish know, sooner rather than later. And while telling your commish when you can and cannot draft, please remember to …
Make Yourself Available: This has become a pet peeve of mine, because in the past I have come back from vacation for drafts, hired babysitters for drafts, and made other very minor sacrifices in the name of having fun at a draft without inconveniencing my friends. No one is asking you to give up the Jimmy Buffett tickets (heaven forbid you miss him singing his five hits for the five millionth time) or to cancel the trip to Aruba, but you can accommodate your fellow drafters a little bit.
Many of us New Jersey types take our vacations down the shore, about an hour from home in many cases. Under those circumstances, you can drive back for the draft, then return without missing anything. Chances are, you can ask your wife for a favor and skip the Apple Butter Festival to go to a draft, or work late/see extra clients/finish your article on a Wednesday to reach a Thursday draft. Also, remember that everyone else is busy with families, careers, and life as well. There's nothing worse than learning that everyone moved their schedules to accommodate one guy's Bubble Hockey League tournament. Which brings me to the last point:
Know When You've Become the Problem: You work in National Security, there's a huge deadline looming the third week of September, and you have seven kids. Maybe it's time to face the harsh reality that you won't be able to attend the draft. That's a shame, but you might be doing your friends a favor by bowing out. Find a good co-owner, not Cousin Murray but a smart football guy who can get along with your friends and draft a team both of you can live with. Or, just let the commish know in July that you have a problem, then send everyone a nice e-mail wishing them well. It's better than holding everyone hostage.
Oh, and one more thing: It should only take a minute to draft a player. If you know what you are doing, then it only takes a minute to find the guy you want. If you don't know what you are doing, it only takes a minute to pick a name that sounds good. If you have no idea who to draft, just take Kevin Smith. Robert Ludlum calls that The Millen Method.
57 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2010, 5:03pm by Kevin from Philly