"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
11 Aug 2011
by Mike Tanier
Devin Thomas said on Monday that he sometimes hears Mike Shanahan’s voice in his head.
There has to be a medication for that.
Thomas is trying to catch on in Giants camp. The former Redskins second-round pick, who was accused of lacking dedication and effort by Shanahan (get in line) has said several times that he has a “hunger and thirst” to overcome his reputation and live up to his potential.
He has talked about his hunger several times because he has been interviewed several times. This part of camp belongs to guys like Thomas: guys fighting for a job, some of whom have an interesting back-story. Or at least, a back-story that sounded interesting the first time or two you heard it.
We are back to normal folks. We are shoving tape recorders into the faces of backup wide receivers and asking their opinions of things they don’t want to talk about, like their pasts, their competitors in camp, or Osi Umenyiora.
My God, I am sick of Osi Umenyiora, Schrodinger’s pass rusher, riding a stationary bike inside a black box.
We shouldn’t be sick of Umenyiora, or of predictable features about backups. Holdouts and canned features are a sign of a return to sweet, sweet normalcy.
Football is back. I loaded up CBSSports.com a moment ago and received this nugget of wisdom from Rapid Reporter Steve Reed in Panthers camp: “RB Mike Goodson, RB Tyrell Sutton, WR Armanti Edwards and WR Brandon LaFell are working on kickoff returns.” A four way battle for the Panthers kickoff return job! Be still my heart! Keep me posted! This is not sarcasm: I spent five months hearing about revenue sharing and rookie wage scales. I want to see Tyrell Sutton tote the rock like his career is riding on it.
This weekend, there will be preseason games. Many of you will tune in to one or two, watch for 30 minutes, and be bored. This week’s games are going to be more boring than ever, because coaches really do not want the first stringers out there with only about a week of practice (for the free agents) under their belts. When the third team hits the field, they will probably run off tackle a lot, because the offense is barely installed and coaches want to get out of the game without injury or incident.
But it’s football, folks, and it’s on schedule again. Football is supposed to bore us to tears on August Friday nights.
I am writing on Wednesday evening. It has been 16 days since the lockout lifted. Sixteen days! Less than three weeks ago, there was no guarantee we would be here. I remember that Wednesday, three weeks ago: everyone expected the players to vote, but night fell and word came that there was “nothing to vote on.” The owners voted to ratify the outline of the CBA on their end the next day, and the sky fell. That was 20 days ago.
Did you think, less than three weeks later, that the routine would have already set in?
What we saw in the days after the lockout was not quite football. It was a frenzy, a whirlwind, a kindergarten bus unloading in a playground while Arthur Blank awkwardly shifts his head in what I believe is an attempt at a dance. The trades and signings took place so quickly that you could lose your equilibrium trying to really follow and understand them. It felt like the barrage would last for weeks. Stop to think and process the depth chart? There’s no time for that! The Texans just signed Johnathan Joseph! Think fast: the Ravens released Derrick Mason! Kevin Boss signed with the Raiders? Red alert!
But suddenly, everything has slowed down. The free agents are on the field. Depth charts are starting to make some kind of sense, even in Washington. The holdouts are taking center stage, as they often do before the first two preseason games.
And Devin Thomas is hurt, nursing minor injuries, just like he is every year at this time.
We can breathe. We can be bored. Boredom is good. It resets the brain. It reminds us of how special autumn Sundays are, of what we almost lost.
Time to breathe also means time to read a good book. Or write one. Speaking of which …
So, we’re writing a book here at Football Outsiders. We are so busy writing the book that we don’t have time to talk about the book or promote the book, which is counterproductive. I am so busy finishing my parts that when the host mentioned the book during a radio appearance on Tuesday, I froze for a second. “Book? Oh yes, that thing. Well, it’s awesome, and everyone in Edmonton should buy it, as soon as it’s done, which it will be, as soon as I get off the phone.”
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 will be awesome this year, and we are hoping you will buy it. The magazine stands are littered with football and fantasy magazines talking about what the Cardinals will do without a quarterback and speculating about where Donovan McNabb will end up. In just a few days, we will produce a book that is not only updated with all of the major transactions of the last three weeks, but the most intensive analysis of those moves that can possibly be done by sleep-deprived people on a tight deadline.
As a way of promoting the book, and as an admission that I have had no time to think about anything but my book assignments and my duties as a temporary Giants reporter, I put together some teasers of the eight chapters I wrote or revised. There are few spoilers here in terms of our projections: the projections change every time there is a major move, and I do not want to report any official numbers until the thermometer pops. These are more like abstracts of the chapters, as well as reflections about what goes into writing a book when five months of planning flies out the window in about 72 hours.
The Bills are boring. Their fans probably do not think so, but the rest of us do. If you made a list of teams that you wanted to see play, given the chance to program a special Thursday Night game or something, the Bills would probably be near the bottom of your list.
Writing about them is not particularly fun, either, because there are never a lot of exciting new personalities or major changes to talk about. Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a hook for a story in the same way that, say, Cam Newton is. Chan Gailey and his offense are a lot of fun, but there is only so much to be said about a wide-open offense that finished 26th in the league in DVOA.
The Bills chapter, therefore, explores the Groundhog Day-like rut the team is stuck in, and how the emergences of stars like Steve Johnson and Kyle Williams just aren’t enough to generate real enthusiasm. I tried to make the chapter more interesting than the team, and I think I succeeded.
There’s an unpopular subgenre of Football Outsiders literature called the “Why Playoff Team X Was Not As Good As Its Record” essay. They are not much fun to write, because no one wants to throw cold water on fan optimism, and we can count on emails/blog entries telling us that we are geeks who underestimate heart and toughness. These essays are an unfortunate necessity, because it is hard to explain why a team that played in the NFC Championship Game is projected to do less this season, and that explanation usually involves things like close wins, schedule strength, and games won against teams using a backup kick returner as a quarterback.
In one paragraph, I explain how many of the Bears problems last year stemmed from the fact that they kept juggling their offensive line right up until the start of the season. I then said that while the camp line appears to be set, with Chris Spencer as the new center, that could change by the time readers get their hands on the book. Sure enough, the Bears juggled their line while we were editing, moving Roberto Garza to center so we could all enjoy the Lance Louis experience once again. There’s nothing quite like predicting something that happens immediately after you predict it.
The Lions chapter focuses on their front four, and how for the first time in a decade we can say that the Lions have a truly great something. Even with Nick Fairley limited due to injury, the Lions line has the potential to be special, and the overall prognosis for the whole team would be better if the NFC North were a weaker division.
While researching the Lions line, I noticed some Ndamukong Suh backlash from this site or that. Suh is the best young lineman in the NFL, and he has the potential to be one of the best players in the league. Some of the people who claim he is overrated may just be trying to get ahead of the curve or be contrary. Others may be making too much of his penalties. Roughness penalties may be negative plays, but they are often a sign of an excellent lineman, especially if those plays are not evidence of stupid play but just the result of a big, fast guy being a step late now and then. Fairley’s college penalties concern me, because it looked like he was lunging at quarterback’s knees maliciously, but Suh was often flagged for something that looked far worse than it was. If you use some “penalty deduction” on him, he probably comes out looking pretty awful, but he is really a special defensive lineman, one who will always incur the occasional penalty while taking over a game.
Green Bay Packers
I have written the team chapter for the last three Super Bowl champions; before that, I got to write about the 2007 Patriots, who were about as good, and as interesting, as a non-champion can be. One way to approach an essay about the champions is to break down, statistically, how they did what they did. That isn’t my favorite approach. For the Saints last year, we used a lot of numbers to break down how their offense and defense worked, which made sense because both their offense and defense were statistically fascinating. But the Packers? Sure, their crazy formations are interesting, but we have a box for formation tendencies. They were a 10-6, Wild Card team, not a team that dominated from September through February. I suppose I could break down Aaron Rodgers’ emergence, or find cool tidbits about Clay Matthews, but you don’t need Football Outsiders Almanac to tell you those guys are good.
The best champion essays, I think, provide perspective on how the team won, and how they will be remembered. Two years ago, I wrote about the Steelers’ patient, old-fashioned approach to roster development, and this Packers essay is a lot like that. I try not to spoon Ted Thompson too adoringly, but he has done an excellent job finding late-round picks and street free agents who can help his team. The Packers essay examines what really goes into finding a John Kuhn or a Sam Shields: not brilliance, but a willingness to communicate needs, allocate resources, and work within a framework of coaches, scouts, and executives. In other words, it takes management.
The rough drafts of the Vikings essay, written in May, were very pessimistic. Heck, the team didn’t even have a stadium to play in at that point. Since then, the Metrodome has been fully patched and re-inflated, and so has the Vikings roster. Donovan McNabb may be on the decline, but he’s still good enough to run a Bill Musgrave offense (hand off, hand off, play-action seven-step-drop bomb) until Christian Ponder is ready. Ponder is not an A+ prospect, but he does not have to be if Musgrave gets his Adrian Peterson-heavy attack churning in the right direction. The release of Bryant McKinnie is a case of addition by subtraction for a team that needs to demonstrate that they are moving forward and changing the way they do business.
The Vikings essay you will read still has gloomy undertones, and it starts with one of the silliest metaphors I have ever written. It explores how hard the rebuilding process can be in the NFL. It’s easy for fans to say “blow up the stadium and start over,” but what happens if the stadium actually does collapse? The Vikings are trapped between the glory of 2009 and the disaster of 2010, and it will take more than one draft and an insane off-season to dig their way out from under the avalanche.
New England Patriots
Analyzing the Patriots’ roster moves is like trying to predict tornados. There are some things you have down: the Patriots are going to stockpile second-round picks in the draft, usually by trading with needier, less successful teams. Then the team veers toward the trailer park by signing Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. On the one hand, you can claim that those moves were part of a predictable pattern that started with Randy Moss. Great. Show me someone who predicted those moves, and I will believe they were predictable.
The Patriots chapter needed major revision after the team acquired Ocho and the Tarkus, but the core concept remained: the Patriots do things differently. Not just differently than every other team, but differently than themselves. They are always adjusting their roster strategy, and if you look back over their decade of excellence, three distinct philosophies emerge. Whether the team’s latest wrinkles produce a Super Bowl is yet to be determined, but a 14-2 team added significant talent in the offseason, without incurring many losses. That alone is a pretty impressive accomplishment.
Bill Barnwell wrote the original Eagles chapter before joining Grantland.com many months ago. The Eagles made one or two moves since then, so I jumped in to add bits about the Kevin Kolb trade and Nnamdi Asomugha, and to revise the thesis into something along the lines of: “holy crap the Eagles have signed a lot of dudes!”
The Eagles don’t do this. They never have. The only thing close to a spending splurge like this was the year they brought in Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, but that was the acquisition of two key pieces, not an epic spree. It’s easy to sense some urgency in the moves, and I thought at the end of last season that Andy Reid had one more season to win a Super Bowl or seek employment elsewhere. If that’s the case, he is going down swinging.
The first 700 words of the Eagles chapter, before giving way to material from the first draft, were written in one 20 minute sitting on July 30th, in the brief free time I had before my son’s birthday party. And it shows. Seriously, though, I think the essay captures the giddiness of those few days when the Eagles tried to sign the world.
I inherited the Redskins chapter sometime before the lockout, the rationale being that no one makes fun of Dan Snyder or psychoanalyzes McNabb like I do. Compliment accepted! The Redskins chapter makes fun of Snyder and psychoanalyzes McNabb, noting that the departures of Haynesworth and McNabb were more ridiculous than their arrivals.
The chapter is already out of date, because John Beck is listed as the starter, not Rex Grossman. It does not really matter. In fact, it confirms the main idea of the chapter, that the Redskins are still operating in a weird dysfunctional bubble where owner, general manager, coaches, and veteran players all do their own thing and hope it works out.
Walkthrough will sound a little more like itself in a week or two, as the book crunch ebbs (for me, anyway) and my foray into beat writing subsides. Like every football writer on earth, I am a little gassed right now.
Walkthrough will return to its weekly schedule by the time the season starts, but I make no guarantees about next week. I will also be more involved with the New York Times soon than I have been in past years. More on that to come. The N.F.L. game previews will be back as soon as the games matter, and they will make as little sense as they ever have.
The Philly Fan’s Code is in printing. Pre-orders are available through Amazon. I am starting to line up a few tour dates. South Jersey types who attend the Collingswood Book Fair in October can look forward to seeing me there. One book at a time, though: my book will make perfect reading during baseball playoff games, when you are looking for perspective on who Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are and why they are kicking butt. The Almanac is the program you need to tell one Eagles acquisition from another.
More on that later. More on everything later.
45 comments, Last at 16 Aug 2011, 9:38am by Kevin from Philly