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?
19 Jan 2011
by Mike Tanier
I don't think he's great. I don't think he's terrible. I don't think he is overrated or overhyped. I don't think he's unfairly dismissed or criticized. I don't think his supporters are uninformed. I don't think his detractors are unjustified.
I don't think he gets too much credit for the Jets' success. I don't think he gets too little credit for the effectiveness of the Jets offense. I don't think he's disrespected. I don't think he's over-scrutinized.
When it comes to Sanchez, I just don't think.
I don't disagree with those who claim he's not ineffective. I won't criticize those who claim his inaccuracy is overblown. I don't find arguments that his leadership is overstated to be unpersuasive. If you are unimpressed with his playoff accomplishments, I refuse not to differ with you.
I'm a not-unreasonable person.
While watching the Jets-Colts game two weeks ago, some friends asked me my opinion of Sanchez. I said that he "has his moments," that he "does some things well," and that he's "developing." These are not my proudest comments as an NFL analyst: a full-house backfield of noncommittal generalities. But I meant every one of them.
When Sanchez threw an interception before halftime, one of my friends asked me if I wanted to "revise" my opinion. Did I really express an opinion? I never thought of "developing" as the kind of gushing praise I would have to eat after one interception. I needed to be more aggressively wishy-washy. I should have piled on some double-negatives, maybe with some misplaced adverbs. Sanchez is not terrible. Extremely not terrible.
Maybe I need to revise that.
Sanchez is that guy right now. He's the lightning rod. The player to overreact about. The latest object of our backspin/counter-spin obsession. Heaven knows I am not the person who can stay ahead of such a squiggly curve. I have no idea if he's overrated or underrated because I don't know how he is rated, or who rated him there. I don't know what anyone else thinks of him, but I do know what everyone else thinks about everyone else's opinion of him.
Everyone believes that everyone else has misjudged Sanchez, for better or worse. That makes me suspect that everyone is on about the same page and merely reacting to some warped perception of what "the masses" think. "Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, but I know better." ... "No one will give him his props, but I will." There's no bandwagon, and there are ample props. There's no consensus, just a lot of people reacting to a perceived consensus, which in a way is its own consensus. Everyone agrees to disagree.
Everyone but me, because I don't have an opinion on Sanchez.
I don't want one, and I don't think I need one. You don't need me to have one, do you? You have your own, and I wouldn't possibly impose on you to accept mine, if I had one. If I have to talk about Sanchez during a radio appearance, I will borrow one of yours. Or I will just recast the obvious into something that sounds meaningful. "The Jets can definitely win football games with Sanchez." ... "They need Sanchez to have a strong game to beat the Super Bowl." ... "Mark Sanchez definitely exists."
Wait, that all sounds like faint praise, and faint praise is an opinion. A damning one, no less. Sanchez is a quarterback you can win with. That's an insult, right? Well, he's proven that he can lead the Jets to wins. Uh-oh. String "proven," "lead," and "wins" together, and it sounds like I am arguing from intangibles to make him sound better than I think he is. Even though I am not sure how good I think he is.
Not that I think he's bad. He may be pretty good. Not incredibly pretty good, but slightly pretty good.
I can't wait to switch to draft coverage.
The Packers full house backfield is old news.
I realized this when I searched my diagram archives looking for old Packers plays I could modify or recycle for this week. I found a real beauty, a quick slant near the end zone to Greg Jennings.
The quarterback was labeled "4." That dates the diagram to 2007. Old news.
In the playoffs, the Packers full house has become more than a wrinkle. They ran the ball regularly out of the formation against the Eagles, then mixed full house running and passing against the Falcons. They are running plays just like the ones they used back in 2007, but they have also added a few twists. So let's take yet another look at the formation to see what the Bears can expect on Sunday.
|Figure 1: Old full-house cutback|
Figures 1 and 2 look somewhat identical, but Figure 1 is based on a play from 2007, while Figure 2 was taken from the Packers-Eagles game. It's a simple cutback run. One of the advantages of the full house is that it puts both fullbacks in great position to make second-level blocks on linebackers. One fullback can lead block while the other cuts off pursuit. This takes pressure off the offensive linemen, who can concentrate on double teams or sustaining blocks without worrying about climbing up to the second level.
The defense can counter by putting eight or nine defenders in the box against the Packers, but most defenses don't. The Packers wide receivers are too dangerous, and as we will see, the Packers have a few passes in their full-house package. (The defense in Figure 1 also only has 10 men on the field. Trust me: The other safety was just playing really, really deep.)
If you are doing the "Spot the Difference" routine with the two diagrams, you will notice some obvious differences (Figure 1 includes a tight end and Ryan Grant), plus some subtle changes in the interior blocking scheme. Offensive line blocking assignments are based on the defensive front. The Packers are facing a four-man line in both diagrams, but the line is shifted right in Figure 1 and left in Figure 2.
|Figure 2: New full-house cutback|
A typical blocking scheme would call for a double team on whichever defender is covering the center. The guard who isn't double-teaming will typically have the three-technique tackle on his outside shoulder. In both figures, that guard blocks inside-out on the three-tech. And so on. Many teams, particularly 3-4 teams, use unusual fronts: six-man lines, stacked fronts with defenders head-up on the center and both guards, and so on. Those fronts can disrupt the blocking assignments on plays like this. The Bears usually stick to predictable defensive fronts.
Figure 3 takes us to Sunday. It's second-and-6, and the game is still close. The Falcons are showing blitz, with two linebackers on the edges of the line of scrimmage. The Falcons have not been fooled into thinking run by the full-house formation. Unfortunately, by showing blitz, they make it clear that they are in man coverage, making Rodgers' read easier.
Man coverage against the full-house backfield should be easy to execute -- the outside linebackers take the fullbacks, the middle linebacker or a safety takes the running back. With two slow guys releasing out of the backfield, the defense has a lot of time to react and adjust. That's one of the weaknesses of using a full-house formation and personnel. But by blitzing, the Falcons limit their coverage options.
|Figure 3: Kuhn's quick catch|
Pre-snap, Rodgers reads blitzes by the outside linebackers. That means Curtis Lofton (50) must be in coverage with one or more of the safeties. No one is in position to cover a quick pass to the flat, which is where John Kuhn (30) is headed. As soon as Rodgers confirms that the linebacker is coming, he makes the safe, smart throw to Kuhn for nine quick yards.
Note the seven-man protection scheme by the Packers. The offensive line fans right, while James Starks (44) and Quinn Johnson (45) block left, with Starks to the outside. Jennings (85) runs a slant and is probably the primary receiver on this route. Lofton is responsible for Kuhn, while William Moore (25) appears to have coverage duties on whichever back releases to the offensive left. The Falcons weren't looking for a pass to a back from this formation. They were ready for a slant to a wide receiver, but not an outlet throw. Plays like this give the Packers just enough versatility from the full house to keep opponents from keying on one or two tendencies.
Figure 4 shows what happens if the defense plays soft coverage against the full house. It's first down in the third quarter, the game is getting out of hand. The Falcons are reeling. Moore sneaks up toward the line before the snap, so the Falcons appear to be run-blitzing. Moore and the linebackers crash the gaps hard, beat the fullbacks to the holes, and either crunch Starks or find Rodgers. But both cornerbacks are about 10 yards off the ball, and Rodgers, Jennings, and Jordy Nelson (86) all see it. At the snap, both receivers jab-step, then turn and look for the ball. Rodgers takes a one-step drop and fires to Nelson, who shakes off Brent Grimes for a significant gain.
|Figure 4: Nelson's smoke route|
Regular readers are probably familiar with the "smoke" call: a quarterback-and-receiver change at the line of scrimmage to exploit soft coverage. This was almost certainly a smoke play, as Starks looks a little confused when he sees Rodgers stop to throw. It's a great call for first-and-10 with a two-touchdown lead -- gain a few safe yards, give the defense one more thing to worry about. It's another great play from a full-house formation, because there are no extra defenders out on the perimeter. The full-house formation pulls the linebackers inside the tackle box, creating a lot of extra space for slants like the one Jennings ran in Figure 3.
No discussion of the Packers' full-house tactics would be complete without looking at Figure 5, Kuhn's goal-line plunge behind the blocks of Johnson and defensive tackle B.J. Raji (90). The formation is interesting, with Johnson and Raji bunched over the right tackle and guard, closer to the line of scrimmage than conventional fullbacks.
|Figure 5: Raji is the fridge|
One problem I have with using some 300-pounder as a goal-line fullback is that these guys don't block very well on the move. It's one thing to slam into the guy 18 inches from your face, and another to get a clean shot on a crashing linebacker after moving forward three or four yards. Raji is only about two yards behind the line of scrimmage on this play, and he is given the easier assignment. Johnson must find and neutralize an unblocked linebacker in the C-gap, while Raji can run straight into a double team and just hit things. Raji does a good enough job of nailing Lofton, and he helps the right tackle with his block along the way.
The Packers could easily replace Raji with Korey Hall and make this formation more versatile. I am certain there's a counter to the left in their playbook, and at least one rollout. Still, there's something to be said for stacking a bunch of huge men behind each other, telling them to run forward, then running behind them.
After years of executing plays from the full-house formation, the Packers have a very logical progression of plays at their disposal. The full house is a well-integrated part of their offense, and they can run or pass from the formation without becoming predictable. It's also a fun formation to diagram and write about. If the Packers unveil some kind of full-house trick play on Sunday (Kuhn to Raji Option Bomb!), you will read about it here.
Last Sunday, I wrote an offbeat historical article for The New York Times about Bears quarterbacks. While writing it, I felt the need to rank the best Bears quarterbacks of history. It helps to keep my tone just right if I remember that I shouldn't bash Jim Harbaugh or Billy Wade too badly. I based the rankings solely on Bears accomplishments, so Harbaugh and George Blanda don't get credit for what they did elsewhere. Here are my unscientific rankings:
First: Sid Luckman.
Second: Jim McMahon. By the time McMahon was a household name, he was already an injury-plagued wreck who threw wobbly passes. It is hard to separate the player from the mythos. I think he was much better than his numbers from 1983-85, then entered an overrated phase during which he got undue "leader" points for defense-dominated victories. He was terrible in 1986, but good when healthy in 1987 and 1988. His statistics would be a little more impressive if opponents ever scored more than 10 points per game against the Bears and forced McMahon to throw a little more.
Third: Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was part of a carousel for years and was never really appreciated when he won the starting job. When Harbaugh looks at Alex Smith, he may see a younger version of himself
Fourth: Billy Wade. I called him the "Kennedy Era Trent Dilfer." Remember that Dilfer started 113 career games and went to a Pro Bowl. Wade may rank ahead of Harbaugh, based only on Bears performance.
Fifth: Jay Cutler, probably. The competition includes Ed Brown, Johnny Lujack, one-year wonders like Erik Kramer, and guys in the Rex Grossman-Mike Tomczak class. After two years and one deep playoff run, Cutler easily ranks among these players. Lujack was a great two-way player who might have been in the Chris Harris class as a safety, but once you start that argument, your All-Time team gets bogged down with 220-pound two-way tackles in leather helmets. By the end of next season, Cutler will rank second on the Bears' all-time passing touchdown list. He belongs here.
That was fun! Let's do it with the other three remaining teams.
First: Brett Favre.
Second: Bart Starr. Some people will flip these first two. Knock yourself out.
Third: Artie Herber. As I said a moment ago, I am always wary of these leather helmet guys. Give me a guy who started for eight years during my lifetime and led his team to a few 10-6 seasons over someone whose encyclopedia position entry reads TB-LB-QB-P-ZV and threw 124 passes per year. The old guys were undoubtedly tough, exciting to watch, and multi-talented, but the comparisons become more like "apples to giraffes" than "apples to oranges" the further you go into the era of two-way players. Still, Herber's a Hall-of-Famer, and the next few guys do not exactly have overwhelming resumes.
Fourth: Lynn Dickey. An intermittently successful quarterback who put up big numbers in the 1980s. I rarely saw him play, because the Packers were never televised back then, so I don't know if he's really better than Rodgers. He never had a winning record as a starter.
Fifth: Aaron Rodgers. This is Rodgers' third full season as a starter. Do you know how I remember that? By counting Favre Years. I noticed a friend doing the same thing last week. He was trying to remember if this was Rodgers' third or fourth year as a starter, so he started counting on his fingers: "the Jets year, the good Vikings year, this year, yep, that's three."
Tobin Rote was an excellent quarterback in the mid-1950s, but the Packers always seemed to go 3-9 with Rote starting. You have to be careful when you see impressive passing statistics from any era before 1978: Sometimes you are looking at an innovative coach and a great quarterback, but you are just as likely to be looking at a bad team that threw like crazy to catch up. The good-quarterback-bad-team statistical profile was more pronounced in the old days. Cecil Isbell was a contemporary of Herber. They shared the backfield with Hall of Fame fullback Clarke Hinkle, and it was a kinky three-way, with everyone throwing passes to everyone else. I will stick with Rodgers.
First: Terry Bradshaw.
Second: Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger may soon close the gap on Bradshaw. If you want to make your brain hurt, research the Steelers of the 1970s and try to determine how much credit should go to each player or unit. Try to figure out how much Bradshaw was helped by the receivers, how much the receivers helped Bradshaw, how much the running game and defense contributed to the success of everyone else. It's like trying to figure out what role each pebble played in the avalanche. You won't learn much about Bradshaw or the Steelers, but you will discover a lot about yourself.
Third: Neil O'Donnell. Oh no, a sheer cliff. Too laaaaaaaaaaaaaate.
Fourth: Like, Kordell Stewart, maybe.
Fifth: The end-of-the-line Bobby Layne? I will take him over Mark Malone.
First: Joe Namath. An uncool choice in statistical circles. When Namath threw for 4,004 yards in 1967, it was like communicating across the country via satellite. No one guessed that a decade later, everyone would be doing it. Super Bowl III and The Guarantee made Namath a cultural icon, and his fame far outstripped his performance for the final two-thirds of his career. (McMahon was similar in many ways, but on a much smaller scale.) It is silly to compare Namath to Johnny Unitas or Peyton Manning; he is more like Kurt Warner, minus the late career surge. Or Tony Hawk, the one household name in a sport that had not yet reached the popularity it now enjoys.
That being said, we are comparing Namath to guys like Sanchez, not Unitas, so he comes out on top.
Second: Chad Pennington. Give Pennington back one or two of his odd-numbered seasons, and he might come out on top. If we base our arguments solely on numbers, and adjust for every last detail, Pennington might have been a better quarterback than Namath, and Namath can't exactly counter with the "better health" card. Namath had the higher peak, and there was more to his moxie-spirit-leadership reputation than just New York mythmaking. Plus he called his own plays. And won a Super Bowl. He wins.
Third: Ken O'Brien. A solid quarterback who always played in the shadow of division rivals Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. The O'Brien/Mickey Shuler/Al Toon/ Welsey Walker Jets offense was a lot of fun to watch.
Fourth: Vinny Testaverde. One thing this little exercise taught me is that once you get past the top two or three quarterbacks per franchise, the list often gets ugly fast. Testaverde is here because of his great 1998 season and a couple of years when the Jets finished with winning records and he threw for a lot of yards.
Fifth: Richard Todd. Moody, angry guy who threw for 30 interceptions one year and 26 another year. The 1970s sports scene was full of guys like Todd who didn't have the impulse control to handle the increasingly aggressive media. If you ever wonder why old sportswriters treated Julius Erving like Gandhi, it's because Erving didn't curse at them, shove them into lockers, or act like five minutes of locker room interviews were as painful as root canal.
I have no problem ranking Sanchez ahead of Todd, or even Testaverde. If you want to place Sanchez fourth on this list, now or in three weeks, I won't argue with you.
Because, as I said, I DON'T HAVE AN OPINION.
159 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2011, 10:52am by Spielman