Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
01 Sep 2011
by Mike Tanier
Greetings, employee training video connoisseurs!
The NFL produced an informational video about this year’s rules changes, then posted it on the league website for fans to learn from and marvel at. The video is fascinating, both as a primer on exactly how screwed anyone who attempts to sack a quarterback will be this year, and as a satire of training videos themselves.
"This is the NFL: Rules of the Game 2011" begins with Jeff Fisher speaking directly to the camera, reading from a script and sounding as dynamic and enthusiastic as the civil servants typically dragooned into “hosting” such videos. ("I’m Constance B. Ingleplopper, Deputy Director of Park and Woodland Ecology for Festering Creek County, and I am here to tell you what to do if you are attacked by a bear at one of our seven campgrounds.") "It is your job as players to understand and respect the rules at all times," Fisher says as footage rolls of players respectfully disagreeing with referees.
Everything about the intro is pitch-perfect. Fisher’s monologue is a pastiche of bland, obvious statements: he explains that he is a former player and coach, drones on about how wonderful football is, and tries to emphasize safety and sportsmanship without using any actual emphasis. The footage combines out-of-context highlights with mundane shots of on-field conversations that look a little like "happy proletariat" films of peasants harvesting wheat in the Ukraine circa 1956. Though the clip of Terrell Suggs wiggling his arms at a ref is pretty hilarious when the sound is muted.
Fisher soon gives the microphone to a less-lobotomized narrator, who cycles through a lengthy explanation of which players are now considered "defenseless," which is nearly everyone. Like every set of instructions in every training video ever made, the redefined "defenseless" rules are laudable in theory and completely impractical. The good news is that the stentorian tones of the narrator are accompanied by NFL Films music and a montage of vicious hits. It’s like the late-night film session at the Anti-Obscenity League meeting: "We consider this pornographic. And this. And especially this. Here’s that again in slow motion."
Each illegal hit is helpfully labeled "ILLEGAL" on the screen. Frank Zombo clocks Jay Cutler: ILLEGAL. T.J. Ward drops a shoulder on Jordan Shipley: ILLEGAL. You can picture the players perking up in the meeting room: "That’s you, T.J. You made the video! Great work!"
Later, the video starts contrasting "LEGAL" hits with "ILLEGAL" hits, but because the hits look similar, and the words look similar, it is easy to get mixed up. That’s the beauty of a great employee training video: it bores you into a state of confusion that allows you to take the exact wrong message away from the meeting. The perfect employee training video is the one that is misinterpreted by everyone: the staff malcontents write the entire concept off as the work of mealy-mouthed administrators, the staff alarmists overreact as histrionically as possible, the staff morons get the few useful bits of information hopelessly scrambled, and management dusts its hands and decides that no further training on the matter will ever be needed. You can see that happening after this video: some players deciding that if everything’s a penalty then they might as well break out the spiked gauntlets, some getting hopelessly crossed up while making tackles and giving up touchdowns, referees throwing flags according to their own unique/severe interpretations of the video, and the NFL declaring a job well done.
The one thing “This is the NFL: Rules of the Game 2011” lacks is a poorly acted and produced reenactment video like this one:
LAWRENCE: Hey James, how are you doing?
JAMES: I am doing great. Congratulations on that new contract.
LAWRENCE: Thanks, man. So what do you feel like doing today?
JAMES: Today? Why, I think I will launch myself at Colt McCoy’s jaw.
NARRATOR: Now, do you know which of the newly-clarified rules on unnecessary roughness James is in danger of breaking? Write your answer in the space provided on the "Launching: the Un-American Way to Tackle" packet.
In lieu of a reenactment, the video provides a long summary by Ray Anderson, the NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Fisher presumably passed out during the explanation of the horse collar tackle, an infraction which needed no clarification because it was so uniformly and consistently penalized. Anderson says exactly what Fisher said -– football is great, safety is important -– and he does it over similar footage of polite conversations between people like Tom Coughlin and the referees. Vice president of Officiating Carl Johnson makes a cameo in the montage, writing intently on a Post-It note. Seriously. He is sitting at a desk, in a suit, writing on a Post-it Note. Does Ron Winter have a pocket stuffed with Post-it notes to keep rules straight? Most of us use Post-its, if at all, for phone numbers or messages like “call neighbor re: exploded sump pump.” Johnson is staring so intently that he can only be writing the codes that arm a nuclear warhead.
Anderson ends with a threatening reminder that players may be fined or suspended for not adhering to the rules so explicitly garbled by the video. It’s the perfect, ominous tone to set: complying with this over-legislated set of rules while successfully doing your job is nigh-impossible, but failure to comply by these rules could result in severe penalties. The only thing missing is a vaguely Soviet call to rat out your neighbors: "And if you suspect that a defenseless player was struck by the crown of the helmet, yet failed to report it, you are also guilty and have brought shame upon us all."
Give the video a look. Unlike the ones they show at work, this one may teach you something, plus it shows Jay Cutler getting creamed.
With the second overall pick in the Football Outsiders Staff Fantasy League, I had the choice of an injured running back, a malcontent running back, and a running back whose coach hates him.
On the plus side, my electricity was on and I was allowed to flush my toilets.
Arian Foster is the top-rated running back in the league according to KUBIAK projections, but Adrian Peterson left the board first in our staff draft. Foster pulled a hamstring on Saturday night; the play was shown live during the NFL Network look-ins. Foster’s injury occurred just before Comcast commandeered my television and issued a series of tornado warnings that effectively preempted programming for the rest of the night. I am grateful for the warnings, to a degree. I mean, it’s not like you can’t get up-to-the-minute weather information on television by, you know, watching television. A limping Foster was the last image I saw before a series of scary messages written in weird 320 X 200 block resolution fonts that recalled my old Atari 400 programming efforts or Emergency Broadcast System computers that were programmed in 1983 then forgotten. ("Tornado Watch in Effect for Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem Counties in New Jersey, and how about a nice game of tic tac toe?")
Foster looked very good before Hal Skynet took over, as did the Texans offense in general. After the hurricane, before the staff draft, I learned that Texans listed Foster as day-to-day. I liked Foster better than Chris Johnson, who was ranked fifth by ESPN and lower by KUBIAK. The Titans quietly became the NFL’s Arkham Asylum when no one was paying much attention: everyone is crazy, people keep escaping in search of huge bags of money, then get thrown back in for a while, only to escape later. Johnson will soon accept a payday, return to the fold a little rusty, and have a bunch of 20-carry, 48-yard games as he adjusts to the offense and the offense adjusts to itself. He'll then proceed to have two or three big games, and end the season with about 1,200 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, most of it coming when I am in last place. He did not strike me as the ideal No. 2 pick.
ESPN ranked Jamaal Charles third; KUBIAK ranks him lower, but I did not consult KUBIAK before the staff league draft because I want to avoid group-think. Plus, I shut my computer down for a while due to a hurricane. Todd Haley does not really hate Charles. Haley probably does not feel. All of the Baby Belichicks (Haley is not technically a Baby Belichick, more of a second cousin, but still) are like a giant junior high AV Club, a bunch of improperly-socialized boys who prefer machines to people and can only make eye contact with a spot on the floor three or four yards away. Charles does not compute as a full-time back for Haley, so Haley does not use him that way, and I had no intention of spending the second pick in the draft on a guy who is likely to have a 12-carry afternoon when Haley goes on one of his Thomas Jones jags.
The smart answer to this dilemma was Ray Rice: a very good player and uncontested starter on a team I watch often and sometime root for. But I was not thinking clearly. Irene got to me: spooky weather, spooked children. Worse, the ESPN rankings got to me, and ESPN had Rice ranked below the others.
Hurricane coverage and fantasy cheat sheets both operate under a "perception of authority" principle. Most adults can process weather information using good judgment: "Category One hurricane, three hundred miles away, likely to cause flooding and power outages, but I live on a hill so flooding is unlikely, time to buy some batteries and vodka, fill the bathtub with tonic water, and ride out the storm." Adults also know that the local stations will tell us to repent our sins in anticipation of a four-inch snowfall, so we have to deflate weather hype by about 200 percent to get to the truth, but when you see that a "catastrophic" storm is forecast (the National Weather Service now goes through the spiral notebooks of goth kids to find properly disturbing adjectives for storms), you start to doubt your common sense.
The same goes for fantasy cheat sheets. When I see Jamaal Charles ranked third, I doubt myself, even though I am in this industry and know how the sausages are made. KUBIAK sausage, by the way, is hand-ground according to an old country recipe, using only the tastiest parts of the finest organic, kosher hippogriff.
Facebook and Twitter do not so much alleviate doubts as much as pump them full of HGH, smack them until they are good and enraged, and turn them back at you. As soon as I gave up and drafted Foster, I Tweeted it, and someone (it may have been you) instantly replied to the effect of: "it’s a shame he’s injured." Damn! Check Google News again! Check Rotoworld! Call Doug Farrar! Foster was day-to-day, and it was August 28th, with lots of days before he had to start a game.
If you are a fretful fantasy drafter, you must learn to tune out the Hurt Guy. Every fantasy league has the Hurt Guy. Someone makes a pick, and the Hurt Guy yells "he’s hurt!" The Hurt Guy has ESPN loaded up on his laptop, and he rolls his cursor over every little red cross, cackling gleefully. Sometimes, the Hurt Guy is doing a real favor for an unprepared owner who tries to select a player who tore his ACL two weeks ago. More often than not, Hurt Guy is just sowing confusion and doubt in the minds of casual fantasy drafters, who would be better off just drafting good players and not micro-scrutinizing preseason injury reports for every tweaked hammy. So really, Hurt Guy is engaging in a form of passive-aggressive gamesmanship. "Arian Foster is day to day. Tsk, tsk. Maybe you should rethink your strategy. Chris Johnson? Why, he’s holding out, you know, and he said he is willing to sit out the next eleven years. A kicker? That’s a swell idea!"
So Hurt Guy is now on Twitter, clucking his tongue at me for taking Foster. He is a lot like Hurricane Woman, who spent Saturday night adding extra alarm to an already alarming situation. "Just shrink-wrapped the house and canned 200 pounds of preserves. All six generators are gassed and ready," she wrote on Saturday. "Tornado warnings. Going to the basement with my shotgun, locking chastity belts on the daughters" she broadcast on Saturday night. Heading to the basement is a prudent move if there is a tornado warning in your area, but announcing to the world that you are doing so is more an act of personal dramatization than personal safety. It is also rubbing matters in the face of those of us who do not own a basement. Hurt Guy and Hurricane Girl are trying to be helpful, and their information is usually factual, but they are ahead of the curve anxiety-wise, and they exist to throw you off your game. "The lights are flickering. It’s starting! It’s starting!" And it is midnight, so the lights should probably be out soon anyway.
Between the hurricane and my fantasy football drafts, I really came to understand how the decisions of others affect me. My long-time friends-and-neighbors league drafted on Tuesday night. It’s a different experience from the Football Outsiders staff league in the way that a nice dip in the backyard pool is different from diving into a shark tank with some recently-eviscerated tuna under each armpit. Our staff league may be the toughest 10-team league in the universe. Nobody slips through the cracks. The friends-and-neighbors league is my annual chance to get clobbered in the semifinals by my buddy’s wife, who drafted the Eagles’ backup quarterback last year because he was one of the few players on the board in the late rounds she had heard of.
Fantasy leagues are great markers of time. The friends league started when we were all in our 20s, single and/or childless, when we spent entire weekends tipsy and jacked into the football universe: college football Saturdays, touch football on Sunday mornings, wings and the Sunday ticket all through gameday. Our 12-team league has a 445-round draft (18, actually, which is still far too long), reflective of the pleasure we once took in outsmarting each other with our knowledge of the Rams’ fifth-round picks. Now, there’s me, some hardcore fans, and some guys who now only have time to watch the Eagles and Phillies, plus the odd wife or cousin. These are casual fans, and it is important to remember that there are such things as casual fans when you write for a site that fosters heated discussions of 1950s quarterbacks in late June.
Our casual draft started, and soon the runs came: tight ends around the seventh round, kickers around the 11th, defenses around the 12th, all very predictable and organized. Casual fans and fantasy players draft a certain way: you can set your watch by the RB-QB-RB-WR-WR rhythm, followed by a third running back or receiver, then the tight end, the backup quarterback, and so on. They always draft two kickers and two defenses, even if it is not specified by the rules, and that first kicker almost always comes after one backup has been chosen at each position and is Neil Rackers as often as not.
So Rackers goes, and then one-by-one, down the list we go, with everyone grabbing a kicker because everyone else has, even if some potentially great rookie running back is hanging on the board. It makes no sense. There are 32 kickers and, at most, 24 fantasy jobs. There is no need to draft a backup defense at all, because a defense cannot get benched or injured and you can wait until the bye week to see who the Redskins quarterback is and who he is facing. There are also plenty of flashlights and batteries at Home Depot, but your neighbor just came back from there with 50 of them, and Hurricane Girl just posted a rumor about looting on Facebook.
But then, prudence kicks in. Smart cookies avoid the runs and feast on market inefficiencies. "Yes! I snagged Roy Helu while the rest of you were clamoring over Mason Crosby!" Then, we fear our lack of preparedness. "Oh no, Josh Brown just left the board. Why, Hurt Guy just took his second kicker." Somewhere between scoffing at all of the Nervous Nellies drafting Adam Vinatieri clones in the ninth round and taking your chances with Graham Gano there’s a smart, risk-averse strategy. And somewhere between making smart-alecky remarks at neighbors filling water jugs and cowering behind the washer and dryer with rosary beads lies the best way to deal with a hurricane. And while the best strategies are situation-dependent, they are also really matters of personal choice and comfort.
I realized this on Saturday night, after Foster went down and Comcast began to broadcast fallout-shelter warnings. As the worst of Irene moved through and I surfed the Internet for weather and football news, a message from the local police informed me that the sewer pumps had failed and that we were not allowed to flush our toilets. Uh-oh. The whole family was in bed but me, and I had no urge whatsoever to go until the moment I was told I was not allowed to go. Then, suddenly, it was all I could think about. Winds were gusting, rain was pouring, and the television was flashing pixilated images of the seventh seal. Yet I didn’t dare flush.
As emergencies go, this was very minor and personal. But I have a personal comfort level to worry about, which is why I bought flashlights before Irene arrived. Flashlights are a hard-to-manage commodity when you have young sons. They love to play with flashlights. They don’t play flashlight tag. They play a game called Turn on the Flashlight, Wave it Around for Ten Seconds, Then Bury It, Light Still On, at the Bottom of a Toy Chest or Closet. We could own 50 flashlights, and we would have zero chance of finding one with working batteries in the event of a power outage. So I bought a couple, which Mikey is now having a grand time with, so I will need more soon.
I also drafted Foster, because even though I may panic a little during a hurricane, I will be damned if I start panicking about hamstring injuries during a fantasy draft.
Finally, I took Billy Cundiff in the 12th round of my friends draft. Sometimes, you have to put aside your skepticism, do what everyone else is doing, insulate yourself from a potential disaster, and weather the storm.
One more fantasy-related message: a public service announcement from someone who has played fantasy football for over 20 years:
When you draft a player, particularly in the mid-to-late rounds, please identify the player clearly by stating his name, position, and team.
You do not have to do this for Arian Foster, or for some famous mid-round pick like LaDainian Tomlinson. But if you have chosen to draft Toby Gerhart, and you do not live in Minnesota, you should announce "I select Toby Gerhart, running back, Vikings."
If there are any casual fans in your league, chances are that they start getting mixed up by about the fourth round and have hopelessly botched their efforts to cross off names by about the seventh. This does not make them bad people. It does mean that if you do not explicitly explain who you are drafting, they have little hope of identifying the player and crossing him off. You can usually count on hearing one of these casual owners piping up fifteen minutes later, saying "Let me draft this Toby Gerhart guy," wincing when the whole room laughs at him, then getting revenge by taking three weeks to decide on an alternate pick.
Announcing "Toby Gerhart, running back, Vikings" also gets you in the habit of clearly stating and annunciating your picks. Many owners mumble their choices in the same voice they use to complain about a ticket just as the cop is walking away. A fantasy draft often includes a lot of cross-talk and discussion about football players (and television personalities, and owners who could not make the draft because they are getting vasectomies). Muttering "Earl Bennett" quietly to the commissioner is a great way to ensure that 15 minutes later, some other owner will try to draft Toby Gerhart a third time.
Years of fantasy football have taught me that the more casual the fantasy owner, the more likely he or she is to lose focus after the third round, and also the more likely he or she is to inadequately identify an obscure player. That last point is ironic, because while you and I have clear images of Gerhart (Peterson’s backup, white guy, played at Stanford, burly, runs a little upright), the casual owner is simply drafting a name, position, and a team. The owner does not provide all three bits of information, perhaps because he does not know exactly how well-known or unknown the player in question is. As a result, you have a patient commissioner trying to herd all the novice owners through those later rounds, with most of them naming and renaming the same players, until someone mumbles "Quan Cosby," a name he just unearthed three seconds earlier and expects everyone else to flip to the Bengals receiver list and confidently cross off the third-stringer.
So state your choices loud and clear. Everyone wants to be out of there, or at least on the patio with a beer, before midnight.
48 comments, Last at 14 Sep 2011, 3:59pm by JefferyM