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?
09 Dec 2010
by Mike Tanier
I thought the Falcons were boring. Then I learned about Kim Zolciak.
Zolciak is defensive lineman Kroy Biermann's paramour and soon-to-be baby momma. They just got engaged, according to a wire story that broke during the writing of this column. "He makes me a better person," Zolciak told the tabloids. "I love everything about him."Jonathan Babineaux says the same thing about Biermann.
Zolciak is one of the stars of Real Housewives of Atlanta, which airs on Bravo, a channel that used to show independent films and challenging arts programming but now dedicates itself to the most tawdry elements of American life it can find. Apparently, the first-ever meeting of Biermann and Zolciak was captured by the Bravo cameras and broadcast in mid-November. I am told that in that very special episode, Zolciak is seen studying Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 intently, preparing for the Real Housewives Jacuzzi League fantasy draft. She got to page 553, saw Biermann's write-up, and decided she wanted more than the standard IDP league owner-player relationship. Had she flipped forward one more page, she would be dating Legedu Naanee. Instead, she is with Biermann, who went from first date to second trimester pretty darn fast, even when you factor in the lag time of television production. If he got to quarterbacks that quickly, he'd have more than one sack.
Zolciak has her own Web site, where she markets her music: She has a single called "Tardy to the Party," which again could be a commentary on Biermann's pass-rushing skills, and would be a very clever title for a song by the Fresh Beats Band. Zolciak also uses her site to market fashions and advertise personal appearances. She's described on her site variously as a singer, reality television star, and socialite. How does one become a socialite? Can I be a socialite? I am on television occasionally and have been known to go to bars and parties where I interact with other humans. Does that make me a socialite? Mike Tanier: sportswriter, teacher, and socialite. Nah, I am more of a bon vivant. I think I need boobs to be a socialite.
Zolciak, of course, has ample boobs. She's pretty, in a smutty, lived-in sort of way. She looks like a barmaid of a certain age, the kind you flirt with during the fourth quarter of a Giants-Redskins blowout. She's artificial and over-adorned but somehow charming, just like my Christmas tree. She isn't the first basic-cable babe I would pursue if I were a single young athlete (that would be Kari Byron, of course), but she's of a piece with all of those other reality show women. They all appear to be made out of space-age polymers, with their cosmetics applied by the blind Henri Matisse.
Searching Zolciak's site, I found a five-minute interview with the editor of Sister to Sister magazine, in which Zolciak calls Biermann "very reserved" several times. Higher praise for the father of one's child I cannot think of. The interview itself is a funhouse mirror masterpiece. The interviewer calls Zolciak the "Marilyn Monroe of Atlanta," which is stretching things; Marilyn Monroe of Marietta, maybe. Zolciak's 13-year-old daughter (not by Biermann, who would have been 12 years old at the time of the girl's birth) sits in the background for much of the interview, her entire body language expressing one long adolescent eye roll. They even take a tour of the Zolciak Estate: a smallish McMansion with predictable décor. It's a five-minute look at one of the least interesting people ever to achieve fleeting quasi-fame, and though it made me feel like the world's most pathetic voyeur for watching it, I was just getting started.
Zolciak, it turns out, is bisexual. Or maybe not. She recorded some songs with an openly lesbian producer named Tracy Young. They appeared together at some gay rights functions, but Zolciak told the media that she was not a lesbian and that she was still involved with first husband "Big Poppa," who I assume is not Mike Smith. Young later told The Advocate that Zolciak contacted her during a brief separation from Biermann, asked Young to raise the baby with her, then dumped Young again once Biermann returned.
For the record, this kind of thing never happened to Dick Butkus.
How does someone romantically juggle a Falcons defensive lineman and a female music producer while still finding time to appear on television, raise children, and apply 11 metric tons of cosmetics each morning? At least her romantic choices tell us something about Zolciak's preferences. Young had red hair, or at least it is red in some of the photos of her with Zolciak. Biermann has hair that matches the Falcons throwback uniforms nicely. Zolciak is down with the ginger swirl.
But apparently she has her limits. One recent blog post explains that she was talking intimately with some of her Real Housewife friends (someone named Kandi, who is about to be Mrs. Dunta Robinson for all I know) about their sexuality, and you can't have an intimate talk in the reality television world without blogging it. She explains all of the things she is not into sexually, which I won't repeat in this column, but had she said "yes" to any of them, I would never be able to watch Falcons game film again.
While spending far too much time researching Biermann and Zolciak, I stumbled across a New York Daily News photo gallery of sexy celebrity-athlete couples. I don't think The New York Times will mind if I link to the Daily News on this article. The Times isn't planning to run any similar features, though I hear a glossy spread of the N.F.L.'s Most Sustainability-Conscious Spouses may be in the queue. There are 65 photos in the set, so peruse it at your leisure. There are lots of purdy ladies. The photos include:
Zolciak and Biermann appear early in the gallery, Biermann looking very reserved, Zolciak looking ready for a night on the Atlanta pseudo-Sapphic socialite circuit. Seeing their photos side-by-side gives their romance an After School Special skeeviness: He looks like the kid who got a ride home from JV practice by his friend's recently divorced aunt, and one thing led to another.
But I can't pretend to understand anything about their relationship, or any reality television relationship. Watching Kendra give Hank Baskett a lap dance, as she was doing a few weeks ago during a commercial in the Eagles-Redskins massacre, just made me sad for Baskett. He should be out there catching touchdown passes from Michael Vick, not sitting awkwardly while high-definition cameras document the precise details of his sex life. I tried to watch the Chad Ochocinco dating show, but all of the women looked the same -- tall, buxom, light-brown skinned, vaguely Persian. When I realized that Ochocinco was using the show to express his deeply repressed feelings for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, I couldn't watch any more.
And I cannot write any more. I feel like I need one of those showers you get when you have been too close to a nuclear reactor. Zolciak took me straight from the blandly successful world of Falcons football down a cougar hole of made-for-tabloid prurience. I better diagram some plays before I lose your respect. I already lost mine, but at least I found some lovely photos of Minka Kelly.
Mike McCarthy has never met a formation he didn't like. From the empty backfield to the full house, he has tried them all. With the Packers facing a short-yardage crisis in recent weeks, McCarthy dug deep into the same vault where the Packers hid their throwback uniforms and came up with the T-Formation. And Walkthrough was there to diagram it.
|Figure 1: Packers' T-Formation Dive|
Figure 1 shows the Packers facing third-and-1 from the 6-yard line. Their personnel package is as heavy-jumbo as it can be, with two tight ends and fullbacks John Kuhn (30) and Korey Hall (35) sharing the backfield with James Starks (44). The 49ers are clearly caught off guard. They switched to a 4-3 base for the situation, but not a true goal-line personnel grouping. Defenders point and shift at the line, trying to find their gap responsibilities. Free safety Dashon Goldson (38) is the force defender, and he doesn't look like he's up to the job. He's a tall, skinny player who would get plowed under if the Packers decided to run Hall off tackle behind the blocks of Starks, Kuhn, and a tight end.
Instead of steamrolling Goldson, the Packers keep things primitive. The right side of the line down-blocks, creating a double team on one of the nose tackles. Aaron Rodgers pivots to his left, gives to Kuhn, and everybody more or less smashes into the line. "A whole pile of bodies," deadpans the play-by-play announcer. Kuhn gains one yard for a first down, then the Packers go back to trying to throw the ball near the end zone, resulting in incomplete passes, a grounding penalty, and a missed field goal.
The Packers used the T-formation later in the game. The situation and the play itself were nearly identical to what I just diagrammed. It was third-and-short, and Kuhn just plowed into a pile of bodies. If you understand the T-formation, you know it is good for a lot more than just inside handoffs. The T-formation was the predominant NFL strategy for several years after World War II, and it lives on at the prep level. T-formation offenses use fake handoffs, options, trap blocks, and belly plays to force defenders to guess which running back has the ball and what gap he is attacking. T-formation quarterbacks are usually good runners, and they are always excellent ball handlers who can turn, twist, pivot, fake, and pitch like point guards. The T-formation can be a lot of fun, and it can be a useful wrinkle for a team that has trouble with short-yardage situations.
|Figure 2: Goal-line Trap Option|
Figure 2 isn't a real Packers play. It is something I dug out of an old strategy guide. It's a trap option designed specifically for goal-line plays in which there are multiple defensive linemen crowding the A-gaps. The trap block is shown in the middle, with the left guard stepping back and folding behind the center. If the defensive tackle to that side comes too far upfield, he creates a big interior hole for Kuhn. With Rodgers pivoting left and setting up a handoff, chances are that the defensive tackle crashes down the line to stuff Kuhn. In that case, this play turns into an option, with Rodgers rolling to his right, Starks helping to seal the edge, and Brandon Jackson (32, I took the liberty of giving Hall a breather) maintaining pitch position. If the defense has some 200-pound free safety trying to seal the edge, Rodgers won't have to pitch. If you hate option plays, just imagine Figure 2 as a sweep to Jackson. Instead of rolling right, Rodgers turns 90 degrees after faking to Kuhn and gives the ball to Jackson, who takes a jab-step left at the snap to freeze the defense.
There are whole playbooks full of T-formation plays like the one I just diagrammed, and McCarthy knows how to get his hands on them. Now that opponents have seen the Packers run the T-formation, you can bet they will counter with a 5-3-3 personnel package or other adjustments that can take away the simple Kuhn plunge. Here's hoping the McCarthy has some multiple-fake razzle dazzle hidden away for just the right situation. I think all of us would love to see it.
Scott Kacsmar is the Captain Comeback of football researchers. Last year, he published a study at Pro Football Reference revealing that John Elway's career comeback total -- generally listed as 47 -- is highly inflated. Kacsmar wrote a detailed explanation of the discrepancies in how comeback totals are reported and the surprising difficulties in classifying and tabulating fourth-quarter comebacks.
Kacsmar has since expanded his research. Brett Favre has led 46 career comebacks, putting him one comeback behind Elway. Or has he? Can Favre break one last record before his career ends for the fifth and final time? Will the fact that Kacsmar's research proves that this is a completely bogus accomplishment stop anyone from talking about it when if it happens?
Thanks to Kacsmar, Pro Football Reference now lists every fourth-quarter comeback for every quarterback since 1960. There's an easy-to-find tab to the data on every quarterback's page. In keeping with the spirit of Kacsmar's research, the games are listed as Game Winning Drives (for when the game was tied before the quarterback's heroics), Fourth Quarter Comebacks, and Little or No Credit games, in which the defense or special teams did all of the last-minute dirty work. There's also a link to the box score of the game, so you can get a better look at what really happened.
Are comeback stats useful? I will appear in an upcoming NFL Network special about quarterbacks, and they asked me to go through a variety of statistics and say which ones were the most useful. (They wanted Aaron, but Aaron doesn't live 20 minutes away from the studio. You now know the secret of my television career.) I find all quarterback statistics useful, even efficiency rating, when taken in context.
I don't particularly care about Troy Aikman's comeback totals (he had 16) because Aikman's specialty was throwing two touchdowns in the first quarter and letting Emmitt Smith sit on the opponent for 45 minutes. You can't come back when you are kicking the crap out of every opponent you face. But I find Brian Sipe's 1979 season fascinating -- five fourth-quarter comebacks and two additional game-winning drives. The Browns of that era were called the Kardiac Kids, and the comeback stats provide a neat shorthand that explains where the name came from. Statistics can be descriptive, explanatory, or predictive. I am 99.9 percent certain comeback stats aren't predictive, but they are definitely descriptive, which I like.
That assumes that the stats in question are accurate. Kacsmar demonstrates how illusory these comeback numbers are. To understand how crazy the situation is, let's look at touchdown passes. Peyton Manning has 390 touchdown passes, Tom Brady 252. (Here we go.) Let's say there were no official sources for these numbers, so we had to use team media guides. The researchers for the Patriots, hoping to promote their player, decide to count Brady with a "touchdown pass" every time he completed a pass inside the three-yard line but a running back punched the ball in on the same drive. Brady gets about 20 of Corey Dillon's touchdowns, a dozen or so of Laurence Maroney's, a few from Antowain Smith, and so on. With some creative accounting, we could get him up to 340 or 350. If the Colts research department, taking a cue of hardcore honesty from Tony Dungy, takes a few Manning touchdowns away (say, screen passes or one-yarder), we could easily have Brady ahead of Manning.
Ridiculous? That's essentially what happened in Denver, where Elway got credit for comebacks in games the Broncos never trailed. Favre has also benefited from some loosely defined comebacks. And as Kacsmar shows, no one ever counted the inverse scenario -- times when the quarterback had a chance to lead a game-winning drive but failed.
I've riffed long enough on Kacsmar's findings. Read the article, then decide for yourself if anyone deserves to be credited as a "comeback king."
For some reason, the Chiefs-Broncos game was on the front-and-center television at my local bar on Sunday. Maybe the bartender has Brandon Lloyd in his fantasy league; there's no other explanation for such a random game getting the coveted middle screen. In retrospect, it was a pretty good choice, because the Giants blew out the Redskins, and none of the other local favorite teams (Eagles, Ravens, Jets, Steelers) were playing on Sunday afternoon. The Chiefs' 10-6 win was at least a close game, though I think two bar patrons lapsed into a boredom coma around halftime.
If you missed this game, you didn't miss much. The Chiefs just ran the same play over and over again, so you can just examine Figure 3, imagine seeing that happen about 39 times, and get the full flavor of Chiefs-Broncos football.
|Figure 3: Chiefs' Cutback Run|
This exact play took place on second-and-2 midway through the third quarter. The Chiefs were actually on the Broncos 30-yard line, but I like the midfield background graphics in the diagram. Dwayne Bowe (82) motions across the formation from right to left before the snap. For clarity, that motion is not shown. The two tight ends to the right give the Chiefs offense a clear strong side, and you can see that the Broncos defense is shaded toward the offensive right. You can also see that the Broncos defense is set very deep, with the two inside linebackers seven yards off the ball and one safety not even in the screen. The Broncos must be worried about a deep pass on second-and-short, though I am not sure why. The Chiefs have run the ball 29 times and thrown just three times in second-and-1 or second-and-2 situations. At any rate, the deep set of the linebackers should have kept the Chiefs from gaining more than four or five yards.
At the snap, the offensive line slants hard to the right, and Matt Cassel (7) releases to the right to hand off to Jamaal Charles, who is also selling motion to that side. Tight end Tony Moeaki (81) crosses the formation for a kick-out block to the left. This is a designed cutback play, and it works to perfection. The offensive linemen wash out the Broncos defense, with both guards getting out to the second level to block linebackers. Moeaki kicks his linebacker to the outside, and Charles runs inside that block. Charles has plenty of space to run because the Broncos secondary is so far off the ball. He gains 12 easy yards.
The Chiefs ran variations on this play all day -- designed cutbacks with kick-out blocks across the formation by Moeaki. They worked to the tune of 185 rushing yards, but the Chiefs only scored 10 points because of penalties, red-zone mistakes, and some bad field position. Designed cutbacks from multi-tight end formations are a staple of their offense, and they are very good at plays like these. They need to be able to do more on offense than run cutbacks and wait for Dwayne Bowe to get open if they hope to do anything in the playoffs. The fact that we are even talking about the Chiefs in the playoffs, however, tells you just how good they are at this kind of rushing offense.
40 comments, Last at 15 Dec 2010, 1:59pm by Revenge of the NURBS