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?
10 Nov 2011
by Mike Tanier
JOSH CRIBBS: This formal meeting of the Browns Leadership Council will now come to order. Mr. Secretary, have you taken roll?
CRIBBS: Yes, Mr. Chairman. We have a quorum of members.
CRIBBS: Very well, let us proceed. We will now hear grievances against Peyton Hillis, otherwise known as The Grinch Who Stole Halloween. Read the charges, Chief Interrogator.
CRIBBS: Hillis, you have been accused of griping about your contract, missing charity events, taking games off with minor injuries, goofing off too much on the sideline before games, and generally being a tool.
CRIBBS: How do you plead?
PEYTON HILLIS: Wait, I’m confused. I thought there was supposed to be a whole council here. It’s just you, Josh.
CRIBBS: We represent the sum total of veteran leadership for the Cleveland Browns.
CRIBBS: We are legion!
CRIBBS: And we will not abide by questions while seated in the Fortress of Joshitude.
HILLIS: Fortress of Joshitude? This is a Winnebago!
CRIBBS: Hillis, there is a rumor going around that you plan to steal Thanksgiving turkeys from homeless shelters and use them as skeet shooting targets.
CRIBBS: That you play the Sigh No More LP before games to suck all of the enthusiasm and will to live out of your teammates.
CRIBBS: That since you have become famous, you have turned morose and selfish, something which has never happened before in human history!
CRIBBS: Answer the charges before all of those who stand before you now!
HILLIS: Um, okay. Well the Halloween thing was really bad, but in fairness there are many, many NFL players who have done dangerous, criminal, antisocial things who have not gotten as much flak as I got for missing a charity event. And who am I, really, except a pretty good player who had one outstanding season and suddenly became the guy on the video game box. And in terms of "outstanding" seasons, well, I finished sixth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, behind guys like Darren McFadden and LeSean McCoy who didn’t nearly receive the same amount of press as I did. Let’s face it, no one knew anything about me until before I had a few big games, but for some reason that is absolutely impossible for anyone to put their finger on, I was held up as some kind of lovable blue collar hero. And it’s very possible that I never deserved to be that person, because the label never fit me, on the field or off.
CRIBBS: He speaks the truth, Grand Interrogator.
CRIBBS: I agree, Sergeant at Arms. Perhaps our problem is one of perception. The Browns need more recognizable players than one pretty-good power runner and a legion of 200,000 special teams standouts who wear a single face and speak with a single voice.
CRIBBS: Yes, and perhaps the video-game-contest-voting public is not the best judge of a man’s character. Still, he must be punished, for the good of us all.
CRIBBS: Hillis, we sentence you to the worst punishment this body can inflict: a lucrative contract extension with the Browns. May you still be here through three coaching changes, two general management upheavals, and five quarterback controversies, until your knees are shot and your yards per carry have plummeted to 3.2.
HILLIS: No! I will do better. I will deliver toys for Christmas. And Hanukkah! I will play through high fevers and even higher ankle sprains! Don’t do this to me!
CRIBBS: So let it be written, so let it be done.
D’QWELL JACKSON: Hey! Am I late? I stopped for cheese straws. Oh, I see you started without me, Josh. And you are doing that creepy thing where there are lots of you. Well ... I’ll just leave these ... cheese straws ... over here and ... you know ... let you get back to ... whatever.
I love a good H-back as much as the next guy. I love fullback-tight end types who can motion all over the formation, block, and run short pass patterns. Delanie Walker is one of the best in the business: he has a skill set somewhere between slot receiver and blocking back, and he fits the Niners ball-control offense as a guy who can turn a power formation into a passing formation with one simple motion. Walker can even run the ball in a pinch: entering last Sunday he had eight carries for 39 yards in his career, some of them on end-arounds.
When Walker does actually carry the ball, it’s usually on an early down. The same goes for his receptions: only nine of Walker's 96 career catches have been on third downs. H-backs are more useful on early downs, because once third-and-long comes, they are best used as blocking backs. H-backs are not fast or nifty enough to move the chains in long-distance situations. End-arounds also make high risk plays on third-and-long, in part because defenders are often dropping into zone coverage and keep an eye on what happens in front of them.
Which brings us to Jim Harbaugh’s insane decision to run a Walker end-around on third-and-seven against the Redskins.
|Figure 1: Out Of Our End Around|
Figure 1 shows the Niners in an empty backfield formation during the third quarter of a still-close game. Walker (46) is split left but goes in motion before the snap. He, not some speedster like Ted Ginn (who is not even on the field) is about to take a pitch. The good news is that he will have blockers with him: Anthony Davis (76) and Adam Snyder (68) pull from right tackle and guard to block for this sweep. The bad news is that the pulling action draws London Fletcher (59) and most of the rest of the Redskins defense in the direction of the play.
The blocking receivers on the play side are Kyle Williams (10) and Michael Crabtree (15). Williams does a terrible job blocking his cornerback, DeAngelo Hall (not labeled). If only the Niners put a good open-field blocker like Delanie Walker on that side of the formation. Oh wait...
Maybe some reverse action to Frank Gore might have slowed the Redskins down ... if Gore were even on the field. This is all very wrongheaded. Even the pulling linemen are a bad idea. Maybe if they down-blocked, with Williams and Crabtree cracking back inside, Walker would have had a chance to truck Hall instead of running into a mass of bodies.
This play devolves into an open-field battle between several Redskins defenders and a player with no open-field elusiveness whatsoever. Here’s what is even crazier: Walker left the field a few plays earlier with a minor leg injury of some sort. So he was not at 100 percent, speed-wise, when he ran this sweep. It was the wrong play in the wrong situation to the wrong player, and it came at a time when the Niners hardly had their win sealed up.
I love a lot of the things Harbaugh is doing offensively in San Francisco, but some of the offensive line shifts and other subtleties may be an example of self-outsmartment. This play is another example of cleverness run amok. If you do choose a sweep or end around on third-and-7, it had better be with a speedster or jitterbug, because defenders are going to pursue the play and cornerbacks are going to get off their blocks.
Keep Walker involved in the early-down offense, coach. But please: Burn This Play!
People who claim that sports-talk radio appeals to the lowest common denominator are getting their math wrong.
The lowest common denominator is a large number, equal or larger than the given denominators in an addition or subtraction problem. We mean to say that sports talk radio appeals to the greatest common factor, a smaller number that represents a tiny commonality within the given numbers.
Let’s use ages as an example. Suppose I was trying to create a show that appeals to a 40-year-old, a 24-year-old, and an 18-year-old. The lowest common denominator is 360: I would be trying to aim my show at a 360-year-old. A vampire, perhaps. Say what you will about vampires, but they tend to be sophisticated. Meanwhile, the greatest common factor of those ages is two. Using the GCF, I would try to appeal to a two-year-old: pandering, obvious, loud, silly, and designed for a micro-attention span. That sounds more correct, right?
Okay, the 360-year-old is ridiculous. Let’s look at this another way. My interests include football, classic rock music, alcoholic beverages, and a few more esoteric pursuits, like biblical analysis and video games. Your interests might include football, indie rock, alcoholic beverages, horror movies, fitness, and collecting Hummels. Another reader might like football, heavy metal, alcoholic beverages, fishing, classic car restoration, and something really out there like the NHL.
Now, to create the greatest common denominator among us, we must be inclusive of all of the pursuits, creating a show (blog, whatever) about football, alcoholic beverages, various types of music, jogging tips, when and where the stripers are running, John Carpenter’s legacy, the best place to find parts for a 1967 Chevelle, the Merry Wanderer, and recent advances in the documentary hypothesis. What a grand, glorious program that would be ... though it would probably lack focus for even the most eclectic of us.
Appeal to the greatest common factor, and you get football and alcoholic beverages, and only the ones we all like: domestic beers. To appeal to all of our musical tastes, we could only talk about classic indie heavy metal: And Justice for All, I guess. And maybe babes, because we probably alienated the women somewhere in there. Again, this sounds right, doesn’t it?
The reason people mistake GCF for LCM is that they want to get that "least, lowest" word out in front of their statement: sports talk (or television, or whichever political movement we disagree with) appeals to people of low intellect-maturity-imagination, and we don’t want a word like "greatest" gumming up the gist of things. It’s the same reason people make the "steep learning curve" mistake: steeper things are harder to climb, and anyway, no one has studied logistical modeling very deeply. It’s a different mistake from the "he made a 360 degree about-face," which I think is just an occasional slip-of-the-tongue or an urban legend used to make us feel good about knowing extremely elementary geometry.
I don’t plan on using Greatest Common Factor as a metaphor very often, and I cannot guarantee that I will not slip and say that something appeals to the Lowest Common Denominator, because it is the kind of cliché that rolls off the tongue. Sports talk, as best as I can tell, is designed to appeal to no one: most of the people I talk to about it, from all walks of life, only listen to sports talk out of obligation or exhaustion with the boring state of modern music radio.
So it appeals to no one. And everyone knows you cannot have zero in the denominator.
We talked last week about punting averages going up, and a few people asked questions about why, in the olden times, teams might have punted on early downs. Reader Sswoods provided this very accurate answer:
In the earliest days of football -- during the 19th century -- up through the founding of the NFL in 1920, scoring a touchdown was very rare, relatively speaking. Easily less than one touchdown was scored per game for a long time. (Though, even now the average is only up to 2.2.) The game was built around field position. It was common practice to try and flip field position as opposed to trying to get a drive going. So a punt to flip it was a standard, and effective, strategy -- especially if the defense didn't have anyone back to return it. There are even examples where the offense punted on first down! Data prior to 1933 in the NFL is pretty scarce, but there is a gradual increase of touchdown scoring during the 30's, then a pretty big uptick with free substitution and a huge uptick during WWII. That just so happens to be Sammy Baugh's career -- '37-'52, I believe. Most of the early-down punting was going away during the late 20's and early 30's; early in Baugh's career it still happened enough to be normal, but by his prime years in the early 40s, offenses were too good to just give up those possessions, and it became pretty rare.
I just want to flesh these points out here and there, especially as they bear upon some historic conversations we have had around here in the past.
The forward pass officially became a legal play in college football in 1906. Footballs did not become as narrow and easy to grip as they now are until the 1920s. Players played offense, defense, and special teams until the 1940s, as Sswoods just mentioned. Early rules on forward passes were very restrictive (at first, an incomplete pass was a turnover), and while the rules slowly opened up, strategies evolved slowly. Amos Alonzo Stagg claimed in the 1950s that he had 64 passing plays ready to roll when the rules changed back in 1906. Stagg was in his 80s or 90s when he made the comment, and he was trying to refute at that point that anyone else in football history had ever invented anything, so I think he was exaggerating a bit. And even if he was not, he was Stagg, and if he had 64 plays drawn up, a less-inspired coach may have had six.
No matter how many plays Stagg might have dreamed up, the ball was difficult to grip, and football players had spent two generations running, blocking, tackling, punting, and pitching, but never throwing, so passing was incredibly rare. To picture football from the turn of the century to the early days of the NFL (the 1920s), start with the current Panthers offense. Put both running backs on the field with the two tight ends, Cam Newton, and Steve Smith. Newton is a Wildcat-style tailback, the running backs run counters and sweeps, and Smith runs sweeps, blocks on the edge, and goes out for a handful of passes per game, many of them as a decoy. Then, they all flip over to defense, Newton is a safety, and Smith is an end who plays something similar to modern-day cornerback. The football is the size of a rugby ball, and the field is a brown patch of dead autumn grass that does not drain well. There are other changes to make -- very little padding, everyone is at least 70 pounds lighter –- but this gives you a general idea.
Under those conditions, if you got the ball on your own 5, what would you do? Well, even today, you see some coaches call three runs up the middle and punt. Back in the old days, coaches might not always bother with the three runs up the middle.
That does not mean that teams would send the punter onto the field. There was no punter! I know you know that, but I am just trying to take us all back to this era. The "quarterback" (again, this guy may have been called the tailback or fullback back then) might punt, or one of the other backs might do it. He might take a step or two to his left or right and angle the punt to a sideline. This was not some surprise play, like the old Randall Cunningham "quick kicks" were. It was about as surprising, I think, as the play-action bomb from the end zone was about 20 years ago. Opponents knew it was a possibility, and may have kept a safety deep looking for it. Strategically, the threat of the punt helped the offense if it forced a defender to play a little deeper.
I went hunting through the old newspaper files, and I found a 1927 syndicated article called "Football Fundamentals" that explains the finer points of punting. "A good punter is most valuable to a football team. No eleven can be considered outstanding that lacks one," it begins. "On a well-placed punt out of bounds a team can in one play recover the ground that it has taken the opposition many downs to gain."
Note the logic at work here: the punt is almost thought of as a weapon used to neutralize the opponent’s offense. We now think of the 40-some yards a punter provides as a given, only noting when he shanks a 12-yarder or booms a 65-yarder. Back then, those yards were not taken for granted, in part because 40 yards is a huge swatch of field when an offense only moves about three yards at a time, and also because the punter was also a back, safety, and possibly a return man.
Going through other old newspaper accounts, I notice that writers say that two teams "punted back and forth" for a portion of the game. We interpret this as a series of three-and-outs, but in 1920s football, it may not have been. Even if each punt occurred on fourth down, the series were perceived differently in the old days. We would look at a sequence of, say, four straight three-and-outs between two teams as a sign of defensive dominance or offensive futility. The 1920s observer would see a duel between the punter and the return man, who might also be a punter. The punting game was a huge part of football. When you realize that players like Jim Thorpe (and later Sammy Baugh) were among the punters, and that Red Grange was back deep for the return, you understand how punting could be more of a main event than a time to hit the bathroom.
The more you pour through old newspaper accounts, the more you appreciate how important the punting game was to early football. Here is a 1916 Philadelphia Bulletin quote on Bert Bell, then a quarterback at Penn, as taken from Robert Lyons’ excellent biography of Bell. "Bert Bell played another star game. He did not fumble a punt. He used excellent judgment. He missed two field goals; but as a matter of fact, no one expected him to score with the 42-yard kick, for the wind was against him and he was way off at an angle when he made the drive. Bell’s punting was really a treat." The game itself was a 0-0 tie against Michigan. Bell was the Quakers’ quarterback, in the modern sense: he called plays, took snaps, and attempted what passes there were. But other than the note about "judgment," the entire newspaper notice is about his work in the kicking game.
An account of a season-ending 1922 game singles out Chicago Cardinals end Eddie Anderson as one of the keys to the 9-0 win over the Bears, mainly for his work on special teams, though he appears to have also "intercepted" a lateral. "Again, when Sternaman fumbled a punt just outside the side line it was Anderson who dropped on the ball. He was there ready to nail the receiver of punts at all times." This doesn’t sound like a rare mention of some Steve Tasker type: it’s how the games were reported, which means it is probably how they were perceived. Great tackles on punt returns were a major part of the game. Later accounts of Bears-Cardinals games -– with Grange playing for the Bears -– had the Cardinals consistently kicking away from Grange, to the point where the Bears sent four return men deep to increase their chances of fielding a punt.
This punt-heavy style of play eroded very slowly. In 1939, Rams rookie Parker Hall won the MVP award as a tailback-punter who later added return duties to his resume. He threw 208 passes that season (leading the league), rushed 120 times for 458 yards, and punted 58 times, including one 80-yarder that must have rolled a long way. Hall was a first-round pick out of Mississippi, and newspaper accounts called him "Pitchin’ Parker" and referred to him as a "triple threater." Hall threw 18 passes per game, so we are a long way from 1906, but we are still in the era when a great player was supposed to run, pass, and punt, not to mention sometimes placekick or play defense. Field position tactics were changing at the NFL and major college level, but I would bet that some high school coaches in the sticks still punted on early downs from deep in their own territory at that point, just as you still see some T-formations today.
This all dovetails with some of the discussions we had when talking about old quarterbacks last summer: Pitchin’ Parker Hall the triple threater was about as far back in history from Johnny Unitas as Jim Kelly is from Cam Newton. We had a few message board discussions in which it was clear that a few people thought we could go back to the eight-team leagues of 1956 or so and pretend everything else was the same: that quarterbacks started learning the West Coast Offense at the Pop Warner level, stopped playing other positions the moment they signed intent letters, received specialized training from coaches who used television and the Internet to keep abreast of new strategies or techniques, got scouted by professionalized multi-million dollar corporations with large, dedicated front offices who kept track of dozens of hours of easy-to-store digital recordings of games, then received a narrowly-defined job description upon reaching the pros as a guy who throws 35 passes per game. Under the circumstances, we could then rank them absolutely with modern statistics like quarterback rating and make firm judgments about how much better one was than another, or from the rest of the profession.
In fact, in 1956 we were only a few decades removed from a time when the newspaper accounts of two top NFL teams facing each other would focus largely on the work of the punter and the return man. How many older coaches, at the college or prep level, rejected potential tailbacks or quarterbacks because they could not punt? How many of those kids became baseball pitchers instead? How many old scouts were still filing reports on a college quarterback’s potential based on his "triple threat" status? We see how slowly mindsets change in the NFL nowadays, when old coaches still go on and on about the running game while quarterbacks throw six billion passes per season. How much more slowly did mindsets change back then, when there was no satellite feed, no email, no computer tracking of information?
Hell, it took until the early 1980s before the backup quarterback and punter stopped being the same guy once and for all. In the mid-1950s, the line between quarterback, tailback, punter, placekicker, and all-purpose super-sub was still very blurry, which is why all-time greats like Charley Trippi were still able to play three or more of the roles, young quarterbacks like Earl Morrall could fill in at punter for a year or two, and old quarterbacks like Ed Brown (coached by Paddy Driscoll and George Halas, who faced off in those old 1920s Bears-Cardinals games) could stay in the league as punter-quarterbacks even though they would today be considered bottom-rung (at best) starters at either position.
Soapbox aside, that early, punt-heavy football must have been dull at times, but it also must have been thrilling to watch a man punt a football high into the air and watch it travel 50 yards or so, only to be caught and returned by one of the best athletes the game had to offer. We now take for granted that both players are specialists, but a great punt can be breathtaking when you do not expect it, like in a high school game. And in the days when a Thorpe or an Anderson (he was also a punter) could decide a game by trading 45-yard punts for 35-yarders or angling the ball out of bounds inches from Grange’s hands, when the same guy who kicked the 60-yard roller also returned a punt 20 yards to flip field position, then ran up the middle three times, then kicked the winning field goal ... well, a great punter was a star. It was a different game, and it remained different until not that long ago.
61 comments, Last at 18 Nov 2011, 3:24pm by Dean