Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
22 Dec 2011
by Mike Tanier
It’s time to play Hocus Focus. Take a look at the diagram below. What is wrong with this picture?
It is a perfectly ordinary running play. The fullback does a fine job opening up a cutback hole by kicking out the defensive end, then roll blocks the outside linebacker to boot. Those blocks, plus a quick cut and some defensive overpursuit, result in a 39-yard run. Great work, but not the kind of exotic play that I usually diagram here.
The team is the Colts. They are in the I-formation. It is not a goal line or short yardage play; it is first-and-10. That is not a backup defensive tackle playing fullback. It is a fullback playing fullback. With nothing else to lose, the Colts have decided to sometimes use a tactic that the rest of the league has been using for the last 40 years or so.
With so much talk about going winless and sucking for Luck, it was easy to lose track of what the Colts have been doing. Early in the year, their offense looked like a scaled-down version of the same thing we have seen over the last decade: single-back formations with three wide receivers or a tight end in the slot, and zone stretch running plays sprinkled among tons of short passes. According to our game charters, the I-formation made its first non-short-yardage appearance in two plays against the Browns in Week 2. It then showed up briefly in the second half of the Steelers game. The Colts used it seven times – twice in short yardage situations – against the Chiefs. On Sunday, when they were finally nursing a lead, the Colts used it a lot, but I did not chart the exact number of plays because I have Christmas shopping to do.
|Figure 1: Colts ... Power?|
The Colts now have a real fullback: Jerome Felton, who like Dan Orlovsky and Ernie Sims was a member of the winless 2008 Lions. Collecting that many members of a winless team was really just asking for it, but Felton has played very well. The Colts have dealt with injuries to skill position players for years, and at times they appeared rather stubborn for sticking the fifth wide receiver and fourth tight end on the field instead of grabbing a Felton type.
To understand how momentous this sudden embrace of the I-formation is, consider this: the Colts used it for just nine non short-yardage plays last year. Eight of those plays occurred in the fourth quarters of blowout wins. The Colts used two-back formations just six percent of the time last season, the lowest rate in the NFL -- and most of those two-back formations were shotgun sets with someone like Dallas Clark hiding in the backfield. If the Colts were in the I-formation, the ball was at the 1-yard line (and backup lineman Eric Foster was the fullback), or the game was over and no one was paying attention.
Will the I-formation remain in Indianapolis next year? There are way too many variable in play to answer that question. If Peyton Manning returns (with or without someone waiting in the wings) and the offensive coaching staff remains somewhat intact, it would be nice to see the Colts have a few traditional two-back sets. They rode their old system as far as it could go, which was very far, but there were times when it looked like diminishing returns had set in last year. Manning can still call audibles from the I-formation. Defenses need something else to think about. The occasional off-tackle plunge or iso play could breathe new life into all of those option routes in the middle of the field.
The Colts. I-formation. Get used to it. Soon, they may even employ professional, capable, punt returners. Then we will know there is really something wrong with the picture.
When you think of San Diego, you no doubt think of the rolling, verdant hills of the California wine country. And when you think of sitting down to watch Chargers football, you imagine a delicious glass of cabernet sauvignon in your hand.
Okay, so San Diego is about as far from Napa Valley as my South Jersey home is from Chicago. And even my friends with refined palates do not sit down to football with a glass of wine. There is not much to connect the San Diego Chargers to fine wine, except for Legacy, the cabernet sauvignon that commemorates 50 years of Chargers football.
Chargers wine! What will they think of next? Jaguars oatmeal? Dom Perignon bobbleheads? I have watched the Chargers for decades, but I never truly tasted them. I had to have a bottle or two.
When news that there is such a thing as Chargers wine surfaced in September, I dropped everything and began researching. Legacy is produced by Bell Wine Cellars, a family vineyard established in 1991. They are based in Yountville, California, a town established by Robin Yount after he retired from the Brewers. Here is how the Bell Wine Cellars website describes Legacy:
To celebrate more than 50 years of San Diego Chargers football, the Chargers have partnered with veteran winemaker Anthony Bell to create a limited-edition cabernet sauvignon, a full-bodied wine full of vibrant fruit flavors and toasty oak. Hand harvested grapes from select Napa Valley vineyards were fermented in stainless steel tanks with select cultured yeasts, and aged in small French oak barrels prior to bottling. The wine is deep ruby in color with rich, ripe cherry, cassis and blackberry fruit aromas. Soft tannins and sweet oak combine with a gentle hint of pepper and spice to yield a full-bodied wine with excellent balance. A touch of Syrah adds roundness to the palate, giving the wine a smooth, inviting and lingering finish.
Syrah, according to Wikipidyrah, is a strong-flavored dark-skinned grape that is often used in wine making. So this wine is made from grapes, with grapes added. Long before purchase, I was entering the Chargers mind frame. You have to love promotional copy that uses the adjective "select" twice. "Select" has no real meaning, but it hints that one particular option has been chosen over several others, which seems to be a basic prerequisite for making nearly anything. This Walkthrough was written using select words on a select computer using select software, and only the finest adverbs, which are the grammatical equivalent of yeasts.
Visions of select cultured yeasts and wild cherries danced in my head as I downloaded the tasting notes, which I have re-paragraphed slightly so they sound more like a poem:
The 2008 growing season received about 60 percent of normal rainfall.
The dry soils and warm spring led to an early bud break.
The frost season was one of the worst in 30 years,
With the total crop off by 40 percent.
Some rain occurred during bloom
And the summer was relatively cool,
A heat spell over Labor Day brought maturity
Levels along quickly and then cooled down to allow
Ah, so if the wine stinks, we can blame early bud break. Can you picture two connoisseurs discussing these matters over a carafe? "What you are tasting, there, is the delayed veraison." Pretty soon, scouting reports for rookies will read like these tasting notes. "The 1990 growing season for infants in Dade County was marked by a 15 percent rise in breakfast cereal prices that may have lowered caloric intake by future free safeties, and excessively hot Augusts around 2002 may have convinced some kids to take a year off from Pop Warner ball." Imagine A.J. Smith gathering all of these notes, cackling with evil satisfaction, and passing them off to Norv Turner, who furrows his brow at them before folding them into his favorite origami shape, the rectangle.
The tasting notes were followed by pairing notes: "Enjoy Chargers Legacy with a wide variety of foods –- hamburgers, grilled steaks, lamb, grilled chicken, pizza -– or on its own, and savor the wine’s delicious fruit flavors." This wine goes with everything from hamburgers to lamb, making it the Darren Sproles of libations. Wait, Sproles is not with the Chargers anymore. What current player can be used as a metaphor for versatility? Jacob Hester. This is the Jacob Hester of wines.
Do people really drink wine with hamburgers? I suppose they do in the age of modern cuisine, which requires that gourmet delicacies be combined with the stuff we give toddlers as a potty training reward. Truffle oil macaroni and cheese. Kobe beef sliders. Caviar on cheese doodles. A finely-polished turd drizzled with rosemary balsamic vinegar. California cabernet sauvignon and a Whopper. Ingest the irony.
But really, those pairing notes are like a palm reading: they are so vague and inclusive that you can interpret them any way you want, which benefits the wine maker, who wants to prove that his product is perfect for every occasion. I want to read pairing notes that expressively prohibit foods. "Do not serve this Chargers wine with fish, or a small parasite will spontaneously generate in your colon, grow to a length of 1,700 feet, then burst from your abdomen just before dessert." I had no intention of serving Legacy wine with burgers. I wanted to make it the centerpiece of a wine-and-cheese spread: a star, not an accompaniment.
Credit card on my lap, I worked my way through the Bell Winery website, bought two bottles of legacy, typed in my address, clicked the drop-down menu for states, and ... no New Jersey. Let me check again ... nope. Why, shipment of alcoholic beverages to New Jersey must be illegal! Why didn’t I know that? Maybe it’s because I am a rational, clear-thinking human who cannot imagine a Byzantine, bureaucratic, puritanical cluster-hump of a regulatory system that would extend its grasping arm down to $50 credit card purchases of exceedingly mild intoxicants.
I attempted to sort through the 84-page New Jersey Alcohol Beverage Control handbook, but quickly got a headache. No matter, I have several friends in Philly. I’ll just ... silly me, Pennsylvania’s liquor laws make New Jersey look like Havana under Mafia control. Every liquor store in Pennsylvania is state-owned, and all beverage purchases are made in the kind of insane bulk you need to make sure the product is available in Philly, Pittsburgh, Erie, Altoona, and some ski town in the Poconos. If the Steelers made a wine, no doubt I would be able to procure it, and it would taste like Iron City Beer, made from squeezing the grass clumps that stick to the undercarriage of your lawnmower the morning after a thunderstorm. If Legacy wine cannot make it to New Jersey, there is no way in hell it is going to Philadelphia.
Maryland: that’s the ticket! I had two bottles shipped to Brian, regular Walkthrough reader and supporting actor, last seen a few years ago accompanying me on the doomed gambling trip to Delaware. Brian collected the wine, and when it was finally convenient for both of us, drove up I-95 to drink some with me. A quick check of the New Jersey ABC handbook revealed that he was allowed to transport one gallon of wine for personal consumption into the state of New Jersey. If I had bought four bottles, we would have been breaking the law. This is the sort of thing that leads otherwise sane people to live in bunkers in Montana.
In preparation for Brian’s arrival, I headed to the Village Cheese Shop in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, and asked the nice lady there what kind of cheese pairs well with Chargers-themed wine. This woman has dealt with me before and did not find the question odd. When I clarified that it was Chargers-themed cabernet sauvignon, it did not help: pairing wine with cheese is a delicate matter that should not be left to those of us with anything else to think about. I gave all of the information I had: Napa Valley, Philip Rivers, Syrah, select wild cherries, Vincent Jackson, bud break, and so on. She proceeded to sell me exactly what she would have sold me anyway: the cheeses she was trying to get rid of.
The first cheese was an Applewood smoked cheddar from England, dusted with sweet paprika. The second was a Pyrenees with peppercorn that I bet was left over from the Tour de France. The third was something called Morbier. "Morning’s milk, afternoon milk, separated by a vegetable ash," she wrote on the card I kept so I would remember what the hell I bought for this column. In France, she said, you would be able to tell the taste difference between the morning and afternoon milk, because several extra hours of cow digestion makes even more of a difference in the taste of fine foods than early bud break makes on wine grapes. Did you know that French Oreos also always have chocolate made from left-facing cocoa beans in the morning and chocolate made from right-facing cocoa beans on the top, and that the crème is freshly whipped in a copper bowl with a mithril whisk by a virgin before each cookie is assembled, and that if you eat an Oreo upside down in a French restaurant, they brand you a philistine and only serve you baguettes that the cat licked? It’s all true! And Morbier cheese ... well, we have no chance to taste the difference between the 11:59 a.m. and 12:01 p.m. cheese in New Jersey, but I can verify the existence of some black gravelly substance between the two layers, which is in fact burnt vegetation, something that looked like it should have been flicked into an ashtray. I bought a half-pound of the stuff.
Brian arrived, and I laid out a cheese board. We opened Legacy, sat down, and let it breathe. The Applewood cheddar had a nice sharp bite, and the paprika did add some sweet zest. The Pyrenees was unremarkable, but sat well on a cracker. The Morbier tasted like the kind of thing gourmands talk themselves into eating: no more funky and rancid than a really rockin’ provolone, but something you would not buy twice unless you wanted to impress people with your tales of French milking schedules and burnt vegetables.
|Figure 2: Cheese and Wine|
And Legacy? It tasted like ... wine.
Brian and I are not wine drinkers. We are not beer snobs of either stripe, either: we don’t drive sixty miles to taste the latest IPA that tastes like every other damn IPA, nor do we uphold mass-market swill as the One True American Beverage for Non-wussies. We can tell an IPA from a lager, a stout from a dark Belgian, and Old Bushmills from Jameson from the stuff my grandfather used to mix with generic lemon-lime soda. If Legacy had some striking feature that separated it from other California cabernet sauvignon, we had some chance of finding it. But it was not there. Legacy was nice. Mannered. Orderly. We sloshed in our mouths and all that. Nothing.
My wife had a glass, but she offered little help. Then again, she claims that she cannot tell butter from margarine, and I have lived with her long enough to validate that claim. We offered C.J. a sip, but the public school health class martinets have gotten to him, and he believes even a sip of alcohol will cause the kind of irreversible brain damage that leads to a life of blogging. (Holy Communion, as you can imagine, was a blast.) We split a bottle of wine, ate much of the cheese, shrugged, called a babysitter, and went out for beers.
And then weeks passed. I wanted to report on Legacy before Thanksgiving, but there was nothing to say. The Chargers got terrible. The wine was just middling. There has been no shortage of Walkthrough topics. Meanwhile, that second bottle sat in my liquor cabinet, pleading with me to tell the world its story.
What Legacy really needed was a real wine tasting with an honest-to-goodness wine freak. Not far from where I live, there’s a high-end spirits shop with a huge wine selection. I sent the owner an e-mail and explained my story. He replied that he would be happy to help me with my Chargers wine project.
There was one small problem: we could not open the wine and drink it in his store. That is against state law. Yep, and there it is on Page 73 of the handbook: "All tasting events and samplings must be from the inventory of the licensee." What’s more, only six bottles of wine can be opened at any one time for a tasting event, and a form must be filled out and sent to the state detailing the name of the wine, the size of the bottle, and the date it was opened. Perhaps this is a good time to point out that New Jersey schools are cutting teachers left and right in the name of saving tax dollars, but the person who collates the wine-tasting paperwork still has job security.
The store owner offered to bring a bottle home, taste it, and offer his thoughts. What a coup! I wrote back to him explaining how hard the wine was to get, how part of my article would be about how crazy New Jersey alcohol laws were, and how funny it would be that the final "expert tasting" had to be held in some top-secret location!
He immediately declined to be involved with this story, for fear of being associated with something that might be construed as circumventing New Jersey alcohol laws.
Okay ... he has a liquor license to protect. I sent him one last email, asking if he could recommend some other connoisseur. I got not reply. He probably deleted his whole hard drive, set fire to his computer, then spent a few days walking the streets of Camden County smoking cigarettes and looking over his shoulder. A fugitive from the New Jersey ABC who dared to exchange correspondence with a stranger about drinking a glass of wine and discussing whether he could taste wild cherries or early bud break. The poor guy. I dragged him into this web of intrigue.
And now, I don’t know if I have broken a law or not. Brian was allowed to bring the wine to me for "personal consumption." But this is not really personal consumption, is it? This is business. I am profiting by that sale of wine by writing this! Is there something in that handbook about writing about out-of-state wine? I cannot find it. But wait ... it does say that there cannot be seats at a wine tasting. There are chairs in my kitchen. I even admitted to sitting down a few paragraphs ago. I have violated interstate alcohol control law, and I have dragged one of my best friends in as an accomplice. They are probably hauling the poor cheese lady off in handcuffs as I type this. Oh, curse you San Diego Chargers! With your plain, ordinary wine that matches your everything else. I blame you for tempting me with this ridiculous Legacy promotion!
My only hope for getting rid of that second bottle of Legacy was to serve it to unsuspecting guests. I hosted a Christmas party this weekend, and I walked around with an open bottle and two glasses in my hand asking: "Chargers wine?" This was not the conversation sparker I was hoping for, but a few guests accepted a glass, probably just to get me to move on and stop telling the story of getting it shipped from Maryland and running afoul of the ABC.
I drank one last glass myself, my palate the opposite of cleansed: Legacy was going down my throat on the heels of several beers and a variety of finger foods. But in the tipsy moment that it first reached my taste buds, I experienced something sweet. Cherries? Gentle hints of pepper and spice? Or perhaps 50 years of football: I thought I could taste Sid Gillman drawing up plays, John Hadl going deep, Kellen Winslow catching touchdowns and blocking kicks, Junior Seau freelancing, Natrone Means meaning business, LaDainian Tomlinson at the goal line, Shawne Merriman blowing up a left tackle. It was glorious, a blast of football history in a sip, though it was fleeting, and soon Legacy tasted again like an ordinary California wine, without a hint of Dan Fouts’ beard.
On Sunday morning, I poured the Chargers Legacy down the drain, and I felt like A.J. Smith.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, from the whole Walkthrough gang! I don’t have to wish you a Happy New Year, because Walkthrough will be back next week with the All-Rookie Team 2011!
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