Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
15 Sep 2011
by Mike Tanier
Some stat lines jump off the page at you for all the wrong reasons. Jamaal Charles caught five passes for nine yards in the Chiefs’ blowout loss to the Bills. His longest reception netted nine yards, which means that the other four resulted in zero yards. He also had a six-yard touchdown catch, meaning that three catches had to result in minus-six yards.
Charles' usage is always a fascinating topic. He led the Chiefs with 10 carries for 56 yards this week. It’s great that he led the team in rushes, but 10 carries is a low total, even in a blowout. The five-for-nine receiving figures, however, are more interesting than his rushing totals. How on earth does a quick, dangerous receiver out of the backfield like Charles get stymied to the tune of 1.8 yards per reception?
It’s time to roll the tape! Been waiting months to type that.
Bills Defensive Improvements The Bills defense deserves a lot of credit for stopping Charles. Several newcomers played well. Nick Barnett was very active. Marcell Dareus made a couple of stops. Shawne Merriman was out of the game with an injury for a while but caused a little pressure here and there. The Bills appeared much more assignment-confident then they did last year, when guys were often out-of-position on routine plays. Incumbents like Bryan Scott and Jairus Byrd also had very good games.
Still, the Bills got a lot of help from a wacky Chiefs gameplan and a very rattled Matt Cassel. Cassel broke a rib in the final preseason game and did not practice much during the week. With Cassel aching and a very solid running game, you would think that Todd Haley and Bill Muir would design a gameplan to protect the quarterback. They tried, but instead of emphasizing the run, they filled the script with rollouts and screens. In the process, they managed to make Bryan Scott look like Ronnie Lott.
|Figure 1: Screen of sorts|
Bail Quickly! Figure 1 shows the Chiefs facing third-and-7 midway through the third quarter. If the level of detail in the pass routes is not up to typical Walkthough standards, it’s because none of the Chiefs receivers had time to run their routes. Cassel takes the snap and almost immediately turns to toss the ball to Charles, who is hemmed in by half of the Bills defense.
Note the protection scheme and defensive front. There is no indication that the Bills are blitzing. Kyle Williams (95) is double teamed. There’s no reason for Cassel to panic. The left tackle tries to cut-block Merriman (56), which offers a hint that the first read on this play was supposed to be a pass to Jerheme Urban (83), perhaps on a dig route or slant. Cutting Merriman would give Cassel an easier throwing lane. Nothing about the blocking suggests that this play was designed for Charles; there are no guards firing downfield, for example.
It’s hard to convey in the diagram how quickly the Bills respond. Williams abandons his pass rush almost immediately and loops around to reach Charles. Byrd (31) comes straight downhill and into the backfield. Merriman and Barnett (not labeled) are also on hand to corral Charles. The defense converges so quickly because Cassel makes the read so easy: he dumps the ball off before any of the defenders have a chance to do things like get upfield on their pass rush or commit to coverage.
|Figure 2: Picking mesh|
You Can’t Pick Your Friends Figure 2 finds the Chiefs on first-and-10 in the middle of a drive late in the second quarter. Charles caught his longest pass of the game one play earlier, a nine-yard reception in an underneath zone. Here, running the no huddle, the Chiefs try to execute a mesh play. Charles and Steve Breaston (15) are supposed to crisscross in the middle of the field. A mesh can work against both man and zone coverage. Against man, the double cross creates natural picks. Against zone, defenders may suddenly be forced to reverse field and can lose track of receivers.
It is never a good sign when two receivers pick each other off on a mesh play, but that’s what Breaston and Charles do. There is a brief traffic jam, and Charles actually makes a little juke move while trying to get around Breaston. Meanwhile, the Bills get pressure up the middle, and the zone defenders use the confusion to get situated. Cassel throws to Charles, and Scott (43) has ample time to diagnose the play and make the tackle for a one-yard gain.
|Figure 3: Flat Charles|
A Ray of Hope Luckily for the Chiefs, the drive continued, and Charles scored on a six-yard touchdown reception a few plays later, as shown in Figure 3. Lining Charles up as a fullback in front of Dexter McCluster (22) is a clever use of personnel; Charles can get into the flat more quickly and do more with the ball in his hands than a fullback. (Of course, the Chiefs have a pretty good fullback, but more on him later). Urban and Dwayne Bowe (82) drive their cornerbacks off the line, which makes space for Charles. One cornerback does nearly make a play on this pass, gunning for a pick-six and overrunning the ball and Charles completely. Still, I like this design because it puts the Chiefs’ best playmakers in odd places – Bowe tight in the slot, Charles at fullback, McCluster in the offset-I – and forces the defense to make tough coverage decisions. This is the type of play design the Chiefs should have used more often against the Bills.
The Simple Made Complicated That touchdown was as good as it got for the Chiefs passing game. By the third quarter Cassel was reduced to an embarrassing series of micro-throws, including a batted pass that he caught himself for a loss of four. There was a tiny slant to Keary Colbert for three yards, a rollout-waggle thing to Leonard Pope that lost two yards, and a bunch of screens that did not work for a variety of reasons.
|Figure 4: Sloppy checkdown|
Figure 4 shows a typical second-half passing play for Charles and the Chiefs. It is second-and-seven. We have seen variations of this shotgun trips look in other diagrams already. The receivers run deep routes. Pope threatens the seam and may run a post (he is off camera after a second or two). Charles angles out of the backfield and crosses in front of the zones. This is the kind of play that should gain five or six easy yards. So why does it lose one yard?
First, note how the Bills cover this play. The receivers are locked in man coverage. The free safety must have responsibility on Pope; the underneath coverage guys let him run through their zones. Byrd, Barnett, and Scott are playing a zone underneath man coverage. This coverage suggests that the Bills have confidence that Cassel will not find any deep receivers, either because the coverage is tight, the pressure gets there, or he just has given up looking downfield. The Bills are concentrating on stopping Charles, McCluster, and the underneath stuff, and probably spying on Cassel along the way.
Second, Cassel’s pass arrives slow and sloppy, forcing Charles to come back slightly for it. Charles is near the sideline and moving slightly backward when he catches the ball. He loses more ground trying to make a move on Scott, who once again has time to read the play and square up for the tackle.
Cassel does look downfield before dumping to Charles. He appears to be looking for Pope. Either Pope is completely covered by the deep safety, or Cassel has lost all confidence in trying to make a play down the field at this point in the game. More likely, it’s the latter. As Figures 1 and 2 show, Cassel was all-too-eager to throw short over and over again.
Simplify So how do the Chiefs fix this? A healthier Cassel will help. The Charles-Breaston mesh suggests that there are real timing problems that must be sorted out with their offense; timing was also a problem in the preseason, which is why Cassel was running around in the final game. The Chiefs now have one of those wacky play-calling systems in which coordinator Bill Muir relays signals to quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn (who always finds himself in the thick of these things), with Haley providing input whenever Haley wants to provide input. When a team is throwing nothing but two-yard passes or shorter when down by 20 points, it’s a sign that there may have been too many fingers in the decision-making broth.
The playcalling and game-planning-by-committee points to another basic problem: getting the best players on the field. Did you know that Le'Ron McClain is the Chiefs fullback? It’s true! And he was healthy and played a little against the Bills. Instead of using McClain early in the game, the Chiefs tried to spread the field with guys like Colbert, Urban, and Terrance Copper. Again, this is a team with a banged-up quarterback, a good run-blocking line, and a few capable running backs. The Chiefs buried themselves in bootlegs, screens, and spread-formation plays that did not scare the defense because no one gets scared when Copper and Urban run onto the field.
My guess is that Haley will reclaim play calling duties in a few weeks. Don’t expect that to help.
NFL pregame shows have grown so excessive that it is now excessive to even talk about the trend. Our benefactors at ESPN now broadcast a three-hour Sunday pregame show. The NFL Network produces a four-hour marathon of pregame coverage. It’s gluttonous, and pointing out the absurdity –- the huge desks filled with ex jocks that start to look like the Justice League inner sanctum after a while, the bombastic montages, Michael Irvin’s bright silver suits -– is a fish-in-the-barrel exercise. These shows are not produced to be scrutinized. They provide viewers to the network throughout Sunday morning, and just like all other programming, they are made to sell advertising.
And what advertising it is! I taped Sunday’s NFL Network four-hour Gameday orgy, then watched every single commercial and network promo, all 125 of them. Yes, assuming the average commercial lasts 30 seconds, there were about one hour’s worth of commercials during the four-hour telecast, though that estimate is a little high (NFLN runs a lot of 15-second spots, but there were also some 60-second commercials). From the Lexus commercial about high-tech crash test dummies at 9:00 a.m. to the final "NFL Red Zone Presents the Top Receiving Touchdowns of 2010" promo just before 1:00 p.m., I allowed myself to be bombarded with advertising.
Without stepping too badly on the toes of the Scramble guys (who lampoon commercials each week), here are the results of my quest. What began as an exploration of how sports broadcasting is financed and what advertisers think of football fans became a long meditation on semiotics of manhood.
Here are my thoughts on the commercials, in order of frequency:
Top Receiving Touchdowns of 2010: eight times The great-granddaddy of overplayed network promos, this montage somehow found its way into every other commercial break, even though the 2011 season was three days old and the Thursday night Packers-Saints game provided four montages worth of highlights.
Bill Belichick: A Football Life; Sound FX; NFL Playbook: six times Obviously, NFLN spends a lot of time cross-promoting its various shows. The Belichick show has gotten great reviews from those who saw previews; I am wary of in-the-moment myth-making. I have never understood the point behind Sound FX, which should be replaced with another midweek Rewind. Playbook is what it is: a chalk talk show that is too unfocused and contains too many bells and whistles.
No Huddle: five times The NFL’s latest roundtable discussion program will gather the usual suspects, like Irvin, and have them sound off extemporaneously about the week’s top stories. You know, there just isn’t enough opinion-mongering in sports coverage these days.
There were several other promos for Red Zone, NFL Rewind, and other programming. I cannot trust my counts. First of all, it is hard to tell when Gameday ends and a promo begins because all of the shows have the same hosts and look vaguely alike. "Thanks to Marshall and Michael for breaking down that Drew Brees touchdown. And now a promo for No Huddle, in which Marshall and Michael will break down a Drew Brees touchdown." The shows even have similar names: Red Zone, Rewind, Gameday, Playbook. Game Zone, Play Day, Red Book. But then, we should not complain too much: the NFL Network at least remains committed to the NFL, not to some lifestyle-branding concept. Plus, I am on once in a while.
Papa John’s Pizza: four times While Pizza Hut is the official sponsor of Gameday, Papa John is giving away one million pizzas, and he wants viewers to know about it. “Papa” John Schnatter comes across like the owner of a local furniture wholesaler in the ads: his delivery is halting and a little over-anxious, with odd little nods and inflexions. To get the pizza, you must join the Papa John’s "rewards" program on line. Who does these things? Who is so committed to chain-store pizza that they strive for "preferred customer" status? Maybe youth soccer coaches with dozens of mouths to feed after every game, or those compulsive coupon clippers who find life satisfaction in saving 75 cents on dog biscuits (as opposed to watching Jamal Charles screen passes for actualization.)
Head & Shoulders: four times All four were Joe Mauer spots, two with Troy Polamalu, two with pretty girls stroking his scalp.
Expedia: four times If there was one person that I did not expect to see four times while watching a morning’s worth of NFL advertising, it was Tim Gunn. Gunn, of Project Runway fame, is somehow more twee when talking about vacation options than he is when discussing blouse patterns; maybe having him say "major wow factor" at the end of the spot was taking things too far. Gunn provided a counterpoint to some of the forced machismo of the other recurring ads. So did Mauer and Polamalu for that matter, hanging around the locker room with their heads bowed submissively because they lied about shampoo. I always perceived a kinky subtext in yogurt commercials. "Hey, Desiree, I am down to a size 2 thanks to this new creamy foodstuff I am smearing over my supple lips. See my new belly shirt? Gosh, here we are in this big empty house with nothing else to do but marvel at each other’s figures and gratify our oral cravings!" I am sure this is purely unintentional, as is the subtext of the Mauer-Polamalu campaign.
Courtyard by Mariott and Ice Breakers: four times Two nondescript ads that ran frequently. The Courtyard ad shows a tiny hotel lobby opening up into a huge combination coffee bar/corporate work center. The giant lobby is supposed to look inviting; to me, it says "we have increased the size of our utilitarian soul traps so we can incarcerate more of you." The Ice Breakers commercials feature close ups of people with fresh breath; you can tell their breath is fresh because they are hot women.
Lifelock: four times This was a good one. Lifelock is an identity theft protection service that you can access by going to their website and entering some basic information. Irony! You don’t even get a free pizza when you do it, though you do get a document shredder, which you can use to slice your free pizza for your toddler.
The commercial features a creepy guy filling out a credit card application, getting a soap-opera-villain glint in his eyes, and deciding to use YOUR personal data, which he acquired telepathically. He then decides to splurge with your money by buying some cufflinks. Cufflinks! Why, a few minutes later, Russian mobsters and Columbian cufflink lords will have your credit card information, and they will all be waving their wrists around and scoffing at the silly American who did not protect his personal data.
But wait, Lifelock has a cute little robot helper. She looks like a padlock with arms and legs and a keyhole in the middle of her belly, which should probably be covered up for the sake of modesty, but you know privacy-protection robots these days. In one version of the ad, she shoots a laser beam at the credit card application, and it catches fire right there in the department store. Lifelock will protect your privacy, and it isn’t above using robots to burn down the entire damn mall if it has to.
NFL Ticket Exchange: three times I may have missed this one once or twice; it aired so often in the offseason that my brain no longer registers the images of the pregnant girl, the excitable boy, and the antisocial jerk who needs the prodding of all humanity to sell his damn Seahawks ticket so he can witness the birth of his child. I know I covered this ground before. What I hate most is how the wife gives the nitwit a little pat on the shoulder and leaves him to look wistfully out the window. "Oh, tragedy of tragedies, I will soon have responsibilities! Leave me, sexy woman bearing my child, to gaze into the middle distance and dwell upon my cruel fate." Putz.
Bud Light: three times I hate everything about modern light beer advertising. In fairness, the spot about the Browns fans playing football in the backyard doesn’t explicitly suggest that choosing the wrong crappy beer makes you a mincing pansy. What is amazing about this commercial is that the guys in the back yard appear to be playing 11-on-11 football. There are at least seven offensive players visible, in the I-formation, and the close-up suggests that there are receivers and cornerbacks that would be seen if we had the coach’s tape. So apparently, this party included well over 22 well-behaved, responsibly-drinking dudes in their 20s. And about five women, from the reaction shots. No wonder these guys made little spring-loaded figurines to fling their buddy across the yard. They have nothing else to occupy their time.
Hotels.com: three times This is an ugly, fake-Claymation spot in which a nitwit with a soul patch skydives with his wife, reserving a hotel at the same time. It is so cheap looking and depressing that I don’t want to make fun of it.
Jolly Ranchers: three times A brighter-than-bright candy ad that reminds me of the spots on Nickelodeon. You appreciate the advertising on sports channels more after a twirl through the children’s networks.
Chrysler: three times One Chrysler ad takes a jingoistic stab at foreign auto manufacturers before announcing that the Town & Country just won a major award. Dissing foreign manufacturers was a great marketing strategy in 1977. Chrysler is now owned by Fiat, which had two ads during the broadcast. The Fiat ads showed a sporty couple watching an old movie at a drive-in, which seemed to stress the "European-ness" of the cars. Other Chrysler commercials show Ndamukong Suh driving around to an Eminem song, a millionaire athlete and millionaire musician collaborating to stress the blue-collar nature of a Chrysler product. It’s Detroit as imagined by Fellini.
Madden 12: three times The one guy trash-talks and acts like a jerk all day, until the other guy makes a big play and shuts the loudmouth up. All of the guys are in their 20s. Like the Bud Light ad, it’s a classic example of the arrested development state advertisers like to think men are in until they are old enough to invest through E-Trade. It’s a downwardly-mobile view of early adulthood, made worse by the absence of females. At least in the old days of sexist advertising, the young dudes were out on the hunt for babes. Now, they are playing video games and staging elaborate practical jokes on each other, all while carefully instructing each other on what they seem to think are rites of manhood: choosing the correct watery beer, trash talking after video game touchdowns, and so on. These guys grow up to eventually impregnate a pretty girl and get mad when they have to sell their Seahawks tickets.
Kit Kat: two times I won’t go through every two-appearance ad, just the highlights. The Kit Kat commercial takes place in a library, where all of the unwrapping and snapping of candy bars progresses into a percussion version of the snack’s "Gimmie a Break" theme song. Because it takes place in a library, there is a brief shot of a porno librarian. She is foxy, she wears glasses and has her hair in a bun, and she looks about mischievously before indulging herself with a bite of that sweet, sweet candy, which provides a split-second eye roll and gasp of satisfaction that is not confectionary in origin.
I have never, ever seen a sexy librarian. Nor have I ever seen an adult film which prominently features a sexy librarian, even though I have seen the odd stag reel in my long life on the Internet. I even web searched "sexy librarian" just now but did not find any site serving this particular fixation. Maybe this is an underserviced market among voyeuristic niches. The only underserviced market among voyeuristic niches.
E-Trade-Craftsman-Wrangler: two times The most macho commercials on television are not beer commercials, but investment-services ads. That makes sense: 22-year-old guys really are not insecure about their manhood. Forty-two year old guys are. Luckily, we can feel like alpha males by playing the stock market, a Darwinian struggle for survival if ever there was one. The old dude in the E-Trade commercials looks vaguely like Dom Draper mixed with Kerry Collins, and he does manly things when not sitting at the computer trading stocks, like bicycling up mountains past rams rutting each other for dominance. (Subtle!) Yeah, buddy, and once the commercial ends, he takes all of that stock money home to his trophy wife, who is young and hot and has fresh breath and hangs around the library eating candy bars.
Craftsman power tool ads ran immediately after E-Trade ads twice, providing a counterpoint to middle-aged masculinity: if you don’t want to float your life savings on the stock market, build something awesome with a powerful tool in the backyard. Wrangler completed the manhood trilogy. Brett Favre appeared in one of the spots, but it is clear that the jeans company is trying to distance itself from its spokesman. The second spot starred a loyal golden retriever.
There were other "middle aged guy" advertising feats. Rogaine made two appearances with relative sedate ads: no middle manager using extra hair to get a promotion and diddle his secretary, just guys talking about their scalps. Weight Watchers aimed their ad squarely at insecure men who may not think Weight Watchers is as cool as going to the gym, bench-pressing for 30 seconds, then never going back to the gym for five months. The Lee Jeans ads with Mike Rowe appeared twice; Rowe says that his butt looks good, but we see a hot girl’s butt as she turns to ogle Rowe instead of seeing Rowe himself, which is far from a complaint.
All of the "middle aged guy" ads –- put Fiat, Mariott, and Chrysler on the list, as well as the travel and Internet protection companies –- reminded me of who was watching: me. Sunday morning pregame shows are aimed at family guys catching a half hour, hour, or four hours of television in between reading the paper, mowing the lawn, going to church, and goofing off with the kids. Mixed in are the fraternity-brother types, getting geared up for a 12-hour football blitz because they have no other responsibilities. Advertisers are casting a wide net to reach us by sending Rowe, Favre, Mauer, Suh, and Gunn into our living rooms, plus the odd sexy librarian.
It gets numbing after four hours. But no one is really supposed to watch for four hours. Except for Donald Driver, who gets to watch his highlight from last year run eight more times.
62 comments, Last at 20 Sep 2011, 9:39am by bengt