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?
13 Jan 2011
by Mike Tanier
It's winter. Are your cupboards bare? Do you have enough provisions? Some teams entered the playoffs short on supplies and improperly winterized. It cost them.
The Chiefs were running low on wide receivers after the season finale, so they plucked Kevin Curtis off of waivers, suited him up against the Ravens, and even threw two passes to him. Curtis, as you may know, had a rough year. He had an orchiectomy in September, got back to playing speed quickly enough to spend a few weeks with the Dolphins in December, then was waived before the season finale. He didn't expect to play again this season, and he probably didn't expect to be thrown onto the field with just two days of preparation. Curtis knew very few plays, but Todd Haley explained that the Dolphins (Curtis' employer for about two weeks) are similar "philosophically" to the Chiefs. Forget the fact that the terminology is totally different: If you have Nicomachean ethics down, Matt Cassel will find you.
Chris Chambers would seem to be a better option than Curtis, but Chambers was a healthy scratch against the Ravens. Dwayne Bowe spent the week battling some undisclosed illness, then was held without a catch or target on Sunday. Welcome to the Haleyverse. The Chiefs never revealed Chambers' infraction, and there were few specifics of Bowe's ailment, which may have landed him in the doghouse and minimized his role in the game plan. So it follows that Curtis got two passes thrown to him, and Chambers and Bowe got zero.
Without the All-22 tape, I cannot tell if Bowe was running soft routes, was plagued by rolling coverage (as he claimed), or was simply ignored during the six minutes the Chiefs possessed the ball. But I do know that the Chiefs sometimes lined up in two-tight end, two-back, one-receiver sets on third-and-long, which is no way to attack a defense in which the cornerbacks are the biggest weakness. I thought some of the Todd Haley criticism this season was overblown, but after reconstructing what happened on Sunday, I believe that Charlie Weis is dancing around his new office right now in a grass skirt with a parasol cocktail, the happiest man on earth. Except maybe for Curtis, who beat cancer.
While Curtis cracked the binding on the Chiefs playbook, DeShawn Wynn reacquainted himself with the Saints Concordance of Unusual Formations. Wynn spent some time in Saints training camp but lost his job to Chris Ivory and was released in mid-September. The Saints kept Wynn on speed dial through their season of running back injuries. He rejoined the team briefly midseason but could not separate himself from the Julius Jones-Ladell Betts-Vaughn Dunbar morass. Wynn surfaced briefly with the 49ers, disappeared again, then came back to the Saints when both Ivory and Pierre Thomas landed on Injured Reserve.
The Saints still had Jones and Reggie Bush at their disposal, plus Drew Brees and a more-or-less full complement of receivers. Say what you will about Bush, but the Saints have learned to live with him, and he knows the system. Jones played better than anyone could expect against the Seahawks, though his 120 yards and two touchdowns were offset by a fumble, a fourth-down stuff, and other reminders of why the Seahawks soured on him.
Most coaches can get through one game without calling upon their newly-acquired third-string running back in a critical situation, assuming the other backs are healthy and the Pro Bowl quarterback has someone to throw to. But Sean Payton is different. Bless his pointy head, he decided to give Wynn a carry. On a two-point conversion. Late in the fourth quarter of a close game.
|Figure 1: Wynn's run|
You all saw the play, but I had to diagram it to point out the staggering inanity of Payton's call. Look at Figure 1. Who are these guys? Tory Humphrey (84)? Really? Does putting Zach Strief (64) at tight end instead of, say, Jeremy Shockey (who can really block), with Colston in Shockey's split-right position, make any sense? Heath Evans at wide receiver? Evans, you may recall, was a pretty good short-yardage runner for the Patriots. I never really thought of him as a guy to line up at wide receiver while Marques Colston watches a do-or-die play from the sidelines.
Humphrey and Strief don't even block very well on the play, and the design of the play leads all the linebackers and the strong safety right to Wynn. The most depressing thing about this play, besides the fact that a waiver wire running back got the ball, was that it allowed the Seahawks to use their base defense and put eight defenders in the box. Split Colston or Lance Moore or even Bush wide, and an extra defender goes with him, and maybe there's room for Wynn (or Evans or somebody) to run that little draw. This is a great example of a great coach outsmarting himself.
By the way, if you ever think that it's a bad idea to rest your starters in Week 17, consider the fate of Chris Ivory. The Saints were playing for seedings in the final week, so Ivory was battling for a good cause when he got hurt. Without him, Jones got stuffed on fourth-and-1, Wynn took a critical two-point conversion handoff, and a Saints drive stalled at the eight-yard line on an incomplete third-and-2 pass to Bush. (Granted, that last play might still have happened with Ivory healthy.) Ivory would have made a difference on Saturday. Imagine if he got hurt because Payton didn't want to risk "rust" or "momentum" or "swagger" or something. Intangibles may have their place, but the thought of DeShawn Wynn taking meaningful snaps is tangible enough to keep my best players off the field in meaningless games.
No discussion of rummage-bin players on losing teams would be complete without a mention of Dominic Rhodes. Rhodes probably has a special ringtone for when Bill Polian calls. It might be "Money (That's What I Want)," "I Can't Quit You, Baby," or "The Bitch is Back." Rhodes is on his third stint with the Colts, having spent autumn playing for the Florida Tuskers. Unlike Wynn and Curtis, Rhodes had a few weeks on the Colts roster to get back into the swing of things, which may be why he had such a key role on Saturday. He was the Colts' short yardage back and their kickoff returner. He even gained nine yards on one third-and-7 carry. He had a fine game.
If only the Colts could find a kickoff returner on the Tuskers roster. But then, if the Colts suddenly paid attention to their special teams, I would run out of things to write about.
Do you like balance? If so, check out the Bears' pass distribution this season:
|Bear's receivers||Player||Targets||Johnny Knox||100||Devin Hester||73||Matt Forte||70||Greg Olsen||70||Earl Bennett||70|
Spooky, isn't it? We always thought Mike Martz was a little odd. It turns out that he is just like Kathy Bates in Misery. "Seventy targets. No more, no less. Or else I shatter your freakin' ankles."
The closer you look, the creepier it gets. Only Knox was targeted 10 or more times in a game. Only Olsen was targeted nine times in a game -- once. The goal of the Bears offense appears to be to get the ball to each receiver precisely six times. Forte was targeted for five-to-seven passes seven times, Hester nine times, Bennett nine times, and Olsen six times. It's a quota system.
The perfect Bears game plan would feature about six passes to Knox and 4.5 passes each to the other four primary targets. Do not worry about the half pass; Martz can find a way. No game reached that level of equity, but a few came close. In the Week 6 meeting with the Seahawks, Forte received seven targets, Bennett six, Olsen four (he was held without a catch), and Devin Aromashodu joined the party with five, filling in for Hester, who had just three. For maximum balance, Forte rushed just eight times, and Cutler was sacked six times. Knox got greedy with 11 catches, but the graph above shows that Knox is first among equals at this round table. With Martz's ledgers properly balanced, the Bears could lose to the Seahawks safe in the knowledge that they scored their points the way they were meant to: Hester punt returns and Robbie Gould field goals.
But seriously, the Bears offense has been much more effective since that Week 6 loss, and the Riddle of the 70 Targets may be part of the reason. According to Martz's pretzel logic, Knox can be both the designated deep threat and the go-to receiver. His Catch Rate is terrible, but the air length of his average pass is 14.6 yards, so it's not like he is dropping screen passes. Hester has become a middling possession receiver, a Formula One racer refitted with wood paneling for trips to the mall. Bennett is all hitches and smash routes. Forte ran more 15-plus yard routes (eight) than Bennett (seven) this season, which gave him something to do during those eight-carry afternoons and further subverted traditional roles. Olsen did tight end-y things, bucking the trend of using every player in an unusual way (he does split wide a lot, but that is common for tight ends nowadays).
All of this strangeness was carefully, deliberately spread among five players, making it hard for defenses to scheme for tendencies. Who do you double cover? Which way does the coverage roll? Do you risk a linebacker on Forte? Chance a safety on Bennett? There's no Roddy White to take away. Double cover Knox on every snap, and Cutler still knows where about 24 of his passes are going to go. For a team that gives up too many sacks and turnovers, a little diversity has to help.
By now, you probably have noticed that those target totals are a little low. The Bears finished dead last in the NFL in pass attempts. Mind boggling. They finished 21st in the league in rushes. Cutler had 51 carries (many of them scrambles), and the Bears gave up 56 sacks. If you jiggle the numbers, the Bears were more like 28th in rushes and certainly higher than teams like the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Titans in pass attempts. (I don't feel like sorting out scrambles and adding sacks and scrambles to pass attempts for all the relevant teams.) The Bears finished 29th in the NFL in total plays, a remarkably low figure for an 11-win team. The Falcons and Jets, successful teams with methodical offenses, ran 1,097 and 1,087 plays in 2010. The Patriots ran just 986 plays, so the correlation between plays and offensive success isn't that great. But we think of Martz's offense as a non-stop onslaught. In reality, the combination of sacks, interceptions, and an unreliable running game turned it into a trickle.
A trickle that dripped precisely 70 milliliters of productivity into each bucket, and was just good enough to help the defense and special teams reach the playoffs. The Bears offense never quite equals the sum of its parts, but at least with all of the 70s, Martz kept the addition easy this time.
By now, I thought the Jets would be over their Brad Smith Wildcat-Pistol fascination. Mark Sanchez doesn't need training wheels anymore, Damien Woody is (somewhat) healthy again (or at least, he was near the end of the season), and the Jets have enough quality receivers and backs to beat most opponents without rummaging through playbook rarities and B-sides. Smith got a lot of snaps during the meaningless season finale, but I interpreted that as an opportunity to get everyone involved while Mark Brunell read his AARP literature. I didn't expect the Jets to get fancy in the postseason.
So naturally, Smith waltzed onto the field and into the pistol formation numerous times on Saturday, often in critical situations. On one play, the Jets ran their Pistol Counter Option, and LaDainian Tomlinson bobbled the pitch from Smith -- it's almost as if the guy hasn't taken many option pitches in the last decade. Tomlinson hauled the pitch in, but the momentary juggling cost him a step in the backfield, and the play netted just three yards. "Well, that's that," I thought. As soon as Rex Ryan and Brian Schottenheimer saw the potential for a fumbled pitch, they would pat Smith on the head and send him back to special teams.
Nope. The Jets needed to run the clock out at the end of the game, and guess what they called? The same Pistol Counter Option.
|Figure 2: Pistol, Take 2|
Figure 2 shows the play as the Jets ran it late in the fourth quarter. There's an unbalanced line, two running backs, a specialist quarterback, and pre-snap motion. Did you miss anything, Schottenheimer? Maybe some Cirque du Soleil contortionists in the slot? Could you get Wayne Hunter involved somehow? How about a neon sign flashing: "Watch out for the Counter Play"?
With all of the extra blockers and motion to the left, there's nothing to tip off the Colts that this play will go to the right. Except that the Jets ran it earlier in the game. And Shonn Greene(23) is in position to take a fake handoff to the left, and the Jets never really give the ball to Greene on this play. So, yes, this is a counter to the right, and the Colts know it.
It is best to run wacky stuff like this against overaggressive defenses. This play may work well in Jets practice against Ryan defenses. I can see Antonio Cromartie on the edge, charging into the backfield and ignoring Tomlinson and losing containment on Smith to the outside. But the Colts are always in fat-free vanilla mode, so when Jerricho Cotchery (89) goes in motion, Jacob Lacey (27) slides into the force position, and Antoine Bethea (41) slides behind him.
Lacey and Bethea nod and point to each other before the snap. In international sign language, their nod and point translates as: "Oh, this is that corny option. I have the quarterback. You have the pitch man. Oh, but don't worry too much about the pitch, because it is late in the fourth quarter, they are at their own 32-yard line, and only a lunatic would risk an option pitch from a special teams gunner to a veteran running back who already bobbled one pitch earlier in the game in this situation."
That's the problem with this play: There is absolutely no substance behind the window dressing. Smith is not going to risk a pitch with the game on the line in Jets' territory. He isn't going to throw, either. The Colts know that the Jets are trying to run out the clock, of course, so they are expecting the run. Why make it so easy for them? With Sanchez in the game, a bootleg or rollout pass is possible. With 2:57 to play, in fact, most of the playbook is still open, and the Colts must respect the threat of a game-killing play-action bomb or some other jugular strike. Once Smith enters the game, the Colts know they just have to stop Smith. Lacey does so easily.
I criticized the Jets for the amount of "junk" in their playbook earlier in the year. Trick plays and wrinkly formations have their place in the NFL: They can prop up a rookie or unprepared backup quarterback, and they can be very effective if they flow naturally from the design of the rest of the offense. The Raiders got away with all kinds of pistol and reverse plays this year because that was the design of their offense -- misdirection, rollouts, and creative ways to get the ball to fast players on the edge of the defense. The Jets should stop trying to graft trickery onto an otherwise conventional offense that has ample talent to attack opponents directly. While Sanchez is still up-and-down as a quarterback, he's more capable of handling the snap in a critical situation than Smith.
A Smith end-around now ... and then? Great. A little pistol package for use with the backup quarterback or midseason shock value? Maybe. Unbalanced-line, counter-option nonsense in close playoff games? Burn This Play.
I am a huge fan of The Onion, and I can get past professional jealousy enough to enjoy the Onion Sports Dome Internet gags. Their headlines are usually laugh-out-loud funny, and I am always careful to read them after my weekly articles are written, lest I get tempted to steal a gag.
So I was disappointed by the series premiere of Onion Sports Dome on Comedy Central on Tuesday. I loved the premise: A simultaneous parody of the world of sports and the headache-inducing clichés of modern sports coverage. Unfortunately, the satire that is so sharp in written form fell flat as a 30-minute program.
Sports Dome mocks SportsCenter, complete with flashy sets, endless on-screen graphics, and catchphrase-obsessed hosts with indecent private lives. One of the running gags of the premiere had one host, just back from suspension, constantly hinting about his sex-obsessed personal life. When he Tweets back to a flirtatious fan with a screen name like PartyGirl97, the co-host warns that the "97" probably means she's 14 years old. "Maybe she's just a big Jeremy Roenick fan," the lothario replied.
The Roenick joke saved an otherwise tired (and creepy) Internet predator gag, but one problem with the horny host routine was that it was unfocused. Television sports hosts are usually in hot water for harassment of interns or coworkers, not deviant behavior. There's an order-of-magnitude difference between putting overaggressive moves on a coworker and texting innuendo to a child. By sliding from one to the other, Sportsdome sacrificed good satire for a cheap laugh.
The horny host gag was one of several missteps in the program. An opening gag about the Miami Heat had its moments, with a series of funny pictures describing the childish new rules LeBron James and friends want imposed on the NBA (if you find the treasure buried under the court, you win 20 games). But the routine ran long and felt stale. Summer was the time for Heat jokes, and the "James is immature" routine has limited shelf life in a league full of young, self-promoting superstars. A gag about Alex Rodriquez producing a Broadway musical felt lazy and amateurish. Many of the skits suffered from Saturday Night Live syndrome -- one gag, stretched to maximum length to fill space.
The two biggest missteps were a running gag about insane ex-NFL players escaping from an institution and a Pardon the Interruption parody called "Who Would You Kill?" The joke that retired football players with head injuries must be institutionalized is not very funny, and the writers made the mistake of setting the skit in Philadelphia, which reminded me immediately of Andre Waters. The show kept returning to the skit as "Breaking News," though the comic beats were just scenes of burly men acting crazy in parking lots.
"Who Would You Kill?" lapsed immediately into a back-and-forth contest to find out which of two pundits could describe the most graphic murder of an athlete. That may have been a commentary on the current state of sports pundrity -- there are lots of successful personalities whose entire game is character assassination -- but the world of talking head programming is so rife for parody, the writers should have done more than string together snuff jokes.
To be fair, some bits killed. Highlights of meth addicts battling imaginary snakes were hysterical, and they had the tone just right. The joke wasn't on the druggies, but on a sports culture willing to nonchalantly package everything with macho-snarky commentary. (A quick flash of the "Meth League" logo was a throwaway hoot.)
A profile of a UFC boxer with titanium prosthetic hands who thought he was a victim of discrimination was also spot-on: the pretentious camera work, the mindlessly simplified approach to the subject matter, and great lines like "I have a secret weapon: optimism" delivered while smashing a cinder block. One of the hosts kept trying to shorten "details" to "deets," to the chagrin of the show's straight-woman, an accurate take on the reason so many of us mute our sporting events and get our news from the Internet.
Onion Sports Dome has potential, but a show that parodies the laziness and excess of sports programming cannot afford to be lazy and excessive. The jokes need to be more layered, the targets less obvious. Whenever I write an extended joke about a player or team, I always ask one question before publishing: Where can I go from here? If I load a Walkthrough with druggie jokes, pervert jokes, and ultraviolent gags, do I drive straight into a dead end? Onion Sports Dome became repetitive in the first 30 minutes. The ARod immaturity jokes were just variations on the LeBron immaturity jokes, and the meth addict crazies made the unfunny head injury crazies redundant. Forced to expand biting-but-brief Internet jokes into a 30-minute format, the writers may have driven into a dead end. It's a pretty funny dead end, but it will get old if they don't change direction quickly.
With a snowstorm forecast for Tuesday, I decided to do my grocery shopping on Monday afternoon. While waiting in the deli line, I listened to a woman whose shopping cart looked like a hoarder's basement complain about how everyone else in the store was suffering from pre-blizzard panic. "They are calling for three to six inches, and everyone around here is acting like they will be snowed in for a month." She laughed, piling batteries and MRE rations into a cart that already contained a spare generator, two freeze-dried sherpas, and a Tauntaun.
Irony is beautiful.
No one actually panics about six inches of snow in the northeast, except perhaps Roger Goodell. We just accuse everyone else of panicking. The "yokels" rush to the store for emergency provisions, but we don't. We stocked up on organic produce and artisanal cheeses from Whole Foods days ago. When it snows, we take self-congratulatory drives through town, marveling at how lovely and peaceful the world looks, especially from the vantage point of the culvert we just skidded into.
I am guilty of taking unnecessary snow joyrides, but I also join the throngs in the supermarket, and I don't assume that everyone else in the checkout line fears a six-inch Armageddon. Some always shop on Monday. Some, like senior citizens or parents of small children, really do need to move up their weekly shopping trip, because it is unsafe or inconvenient for them to be on the roads in a storm.
(Try dressing two kids for winter weather, loading them into the car, taking them to the store, undressing them enough to they don't baste under layers of coats and gloves, redressing them, reloading them, and bringing them home, all the while listening to their complaints and Pokemon soliloquies, which always get louder the moment the car in front of you fish-tails through an intersection. You will become one of the yokels pretty fast.)
A few, like me, also find working at home a little quiet at times and want to be part of the bustle. Snow and the Eagles are the only things strangers can talk about in my region, and we share a love-hate obsession with both. The Eagles were toast by Monday morning, so all we had was snow, the great equalizer, to joke about as I grabbed the last bag of chicken tenders and Marshawn Lynched my way through the aisles to the checkout line.
I should point out that there was no great run on milk and bread. The "milk and bread" joke is a staple of bad morning radio show hosts, another variation on that "everyone is silly but me" attitude toward snow. Paul Fahri of the Washington Post investigated the milk-and-bread phenomenon years ago, interviewing a supermarket manager who revealed that many other items fly off the shelves before a storm: "bacon, scrapple and eggs, along with fruit, water, soda, infant formula, Kool-Aid and boneless chicken breasts." Damn, I thought I was the only one who bought four pounds of scrapple and enjoyed a good Kool-Aid-vanilla vodka-Enfamiltini while watching the flakes fall.
Fahri speculated that there's a primal instinct behind the bread-and-milk myth. "Symbolically, they're easy to decode. Bread is the host, the staff of life, a palpable object of survival. Milk is a no-brainer, too -- it's the sustenance that a mother provides an infant, a biblical promise ('a land flowing with milk and honey'), a smooth and nutritious foodstuff (except for the lactose-intolerant)." Fascinating, if a little overanalyzed.
My theory is that there are a handful of items most consumers buy when shopping, and milk and bread are among them. We all stock up in our own way, but most of our subsets intersect at milk and bread. Factor in the snow-day lifestyle for those of us with children -- we are suddenly providing lunch and a more leisurely breakfast for hungry little crumb-crunchers -- and the desire to have extra bread and milk around has little to do with wide-eyed panic and everything to do with family fun. We aren't hoarding milk and bread for fear that we will end up like Otzi the Iceman after a dusting. We want to have toast and eggs (and scrapple) with our kids when school is closed. And we couldn't shop on Sunday, because the Eagles were losing.
It is now 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, six inches have fallen, the roads are cleaner than the floor of my office, and my whole family is off from school. It's time to finish Walkthrough and do what I always do when the fridge is stocked with goodies -- walk to Wawa for lunch.
64 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2011, 6:27pm by NickM