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.
14 Jul 2011
by Mike Tanier
If football never returns, we can at least watch another violent contact sport in which the participants wear helmets: bicycle racing.
The Versus channel aired what appeared to be a documentary on World War I battle atrocities on Sunday night. There were endless shots of wounded young men writhing in agony by roadsides in the shadows of Gothic cathedrals in France. Upon further viewing, it turned out to be Stage Nine of the Tour De France, a kind of picturesque, Gallic Death Race 2000.
At one point, a French television car swerved to avoid a tree and instead hit Spain's Juan-Antonio Flecha, who then crashed into Dutch racer Johnny Hoogerland in the greatest conflict between those two nations since 1561. Hoogerland tumbled off the road into a barbed wire fence. There's something you never see in an NFL Sunday. Clay Matthews hits hard, but he isn't a car, and even old Veterans Stadium didn't have barbed wire along the sidelines. I couldn't find any footage from the camera car of the crash; it was probably very jumpy and immediate in the fine tradition of the New Wave. L'arbre escaped harm.
Flecha and Hoogerland stayed in the race. Camera crews (responsible ones) caught Flecha receiving medical attention by a doctor on the back of a motorcycle. A mobile physician, they called him. What medical school offers that degree: John Harley Hopkins Davidson? What HMO covers mobile surgery? And what other services can be offered from the back of a motorcycle? "It appears that Mark Cavendish is having trouble with his wisdom teeth with eight kilometers to go before the sprint, but a mobile dentist has arrived on the scene with his hygienist in a side car. Meanwhile, Alberto Contador is being audited about the expenses he claimed as he approaches Luz-Ardiden, but his mobile accountant has arrived on a Vespa and ... oh no, there are receipts flying all over the countryside! Poorly played by Contador and his financial staff!" Hoogerland was still racing on Wednesday with 24 stitches in his leg; his name not being Dutch for "Cutler."
There were other major crashes on Sunday. Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov took a curve badly, struck some other cyclists, and fell down a wooded hillside. He was taken by helicopter to a hospital. Another cyclist, Contador I think, crashed head-on into a barrier while entering a town. A close-up of the Peloton (a word I am dropping into casual conversation whenever I can) revealed that another racer made a swift, aggressive move just before the crash. It may have been just a quick swivel of the head to see where other cyclists were, but on the replay it looked a little more sinister. Race officials responded by flagging Ndamukong Suh for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Sudden moves in a crowd of cyclists are both dangerous and highly frowned upon. Versus channel airs occasional spots about bicycle safety, law, and etiquette by a guy who calls himself a "bicycle lawyer." That's right, a mobile lawyer! So if you suffer malpractice at the hands of your mobile physician, you can sue without breaking stride! The guy's spots contain good-natured common-sense advice about sharing the road, but I started to resent them, because the last thing anyone wants to hear right now is another lawyer talking about sports.
The Tour de France took Monday off, and it sounded like everyone needed a rest. Still, the timing was bad: Two major American sports are locked out, one is in the All-Star break, and the fourth is hockey. We need something to watch, even if it is a sport few Americans really understand. The cycling world can make it up to us by helping to hasten the NFL labor negotiations. Send a French television crew to drive around the negotiating table in a tight, tight circle. That should heighten the sense of urgency.
With the NFL lockout slowly drawing to a conclusion (knock on desktop), the league released "Transition Rules" on Monday, a truncated schedule of offseason business activities that would allow training camps to open more-or-less on time. The schedule is tight -- a three-day window for teams to re-sign their own players, a four-day window to match free-agent offer sheets, some two-hour windows for sleep.
Still, the transition schedule could have been even tighter. An unnamed, unverified, probably nonexistent source leaked a proposed schedule that allows teams to conduct all of their offseason activities in just 18 hours! In the event that talks stall yet again, general managers may have to get six months of work done in one whirlwind day:
It's off to the AFC West and four historic AFL franchises! We will break them up two-by-two.
1. John Elway. Elway is the Hank Aaron of quarterbacks. Like Aaron, he had a long career in which he was among the best players in his sport, but was usually a notch below a few other greats. Then, both Elway and Aaron had late-career spikes that gave thrust them into a higher echelon of all-timers. Aaron's Braves moved from a cavernous stadium in Milwaukee to a smaller one in Atlanta in 1966, and Aaron won two straight home run titles. Mike Shanahan took over as Broncos head coach in 1995, bringing rookie Terrell Davis and others to the lineup, and Elway posted a career-high 26 touchdowns, then matched that total in 1996 and threw 27 en route to his first Super Bowl win in 1997. The closest quarterback comparison to Elway, when you factor in career shape, is probably Y.A. Tittle, but Elway was more Aaron-like than Tittle-like.
Like Aaron, Elway is a hard guy to place on All-Time Great lists. He doesn't have a natural peak. The Super Bowl success and best statistical years don't line up with the comeback heroics and period when he was one of the best all-around athletes in sports, so appraising him is like appraising two different people. I have seen experts list Elway as one of the three or four best ever, but that gives too much credit for postseason performances and overstates the case that Elway's statistics and record were hurt by his skill-position talent. At the same time, Elway's postseason performances were pretty impressive, and his skill-position talent really was weak, so it's not entirely fair to throw his low completion percentages around as a reason to heavily downgrade him. I usually cram him wherever he fits in the Top 10, somewhere near Roger Staubach, who also did some of his finest work when he was a little older.
2. Craig Morton. Not many teams have this big a drop off between quarterback No. 1 and No. 2. The Bears did, I think, though this drop is greater. Morton would be most people's choice for No. 2, but there is not much separation between him and the guys ranked below him when you judge strictly on Broncos accomplishments. Morton led the Broncos to a Super Bowl in which the Cowboys pulverized them. The Broncos threw 313 passes and rushed 523 times that year, so they were not an aerial juggernaut even by 1977 standards, but Morton was very good until the Super Bowl. He then battled injuries for a few years, came back and had a solid 1981 season, and bowed out.
3. Jake Plummer. Plummer, Morton, and Brian Griese all finished within a few hundred passing yards of one another on the Broncos' all-time list. They finished as Broncos with values of 46, 45, and 42 in Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value statistic. Morton and Plummer each have something to recommend him as the Second Best Broncos Quarterback Ever: Morton has the Super Bowl appearance, Plummer a 4,000-yard season and a 13-3 season. Griese is a notch below them, but he had his moments (a Pro Bowl appearance and an efficiency rating crown in 2000) and hung around a lot longer than you might remember. None of them blows you away as a candidate, and I think most of us will agree that this is the right order.
4. Brian Griese. Mr. Bumbles. When I first started writing about football, Griese was my go-to joke, a guy who could be counted on to get injured (probably punched) at a barbecue or crash his car into a funeral possession. His career stat line in Denver doesn't reflect how unreliable he was.
5. Frank Tripucka. Tripucka was drafted in the first round by the Eagles in 1949 then waived. He bounced around benches for a few years before heading to the CFL. Tripucka reappeared in the AFL in 1960, leading the league in yards (3,038) and interceptions (34!) in its first year. He made the AFL All-Star Game in 1962 as a 35-year-old in brown, vertically striped socks. It is perfectly reasonable to rank Jay Cutler or Charley Johnson above Tripucka, and some people would rank Tripucka above Griese and-or Plummer. He, Plummer, and Morton (and Johnson) are similar in that they were second-chance guys who gave the Broncos a few decent years.
Assuming Tim Tebow becomes the Broncos' quarterback of record in the near future, he does not have to do much to overtake Tripucka -- two or three successful seasons should do it. After that, it's not long before he reaches the Griese-Plummer-Morton Peloton. Any quarterback who can put together a sustained peak of a few seasons can lay a reasonable claim to be second on the Broncos list. Claiming first place requires a bit more work.
1. Len Dawson. Dawson was the best quarterback in AFL history by a wide margin. He led the AFL in touchdowns four times and quarterback rating (retroactively) six times. His stat lines are the only AFL figures that look like modern quarterback's numbers on a consistent, year-to-year basis. If you look at numbers of a guy like Babe Parilli in 1964 -- 3,465 yards, 31 touchdowns, 27 interceptions, a completion rate of 48.2 percent -- you can tell that you are in some wacky statistical hinterland. Dawson's completion rates hung around 57 percent for most of his career, and he usually recorded 20-30 touchdowns and 10-20 interceptions. He also played at a high level until the early 1970s, unlike many of the early AFL stars, who started to slip when the leagues began to achieve equal footing.
The Steelers selected Dawson fifth overall in the 1957 draft but buried him on the bench behind Bobby Layne and Earl Morrall. The Steelers, of course, drafted Johnny Unitas in the ninth round in 1955 but lost him in the training camp shuffle. In 1956, they selected Gary Gaylen Glick, a star quarterback at Colorado State who moved to safety and kicker in the NFL. So the Steelers drafted two of the three best quarterbacks of the 1960s and spent two-straight first-round picks on quarterbacks, yet by the mid-1960s were stuck trying to move the ball behind Ed Brown and Dick Shiner.
2. Trent Green. The most amazing thing about Green's numbers from 2002-2005 is that his wide receivers were Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton. Tony Gonzalez is amazing, of course, but you don't throw for 4,500 by locking on to the tight end. Green distributed passes to Gonzalez and his backs, found Dante Hall in the slot, threw deep to the wideouts now and then, and played quarterback as if he were a point guard dishing the ball to anyone with a little space. It was fun to watch and very effective for several years.
3. Bill Kenney. Chiefs coach John Mackovic decided suddenly to open up the Chiefs offense in 1983 after the tragic loss of star running back Joe Delaney, who drowned that offseason. Mackovic did his best Don Coryell impersonation, introducing a lot of two-tight end and three-wideout looks and calling 603 passes. Kenney, a spot starter in his first three seasons, suddenly threw for 4,348 yards and 24 touchdowns. Back then, a 4,000-yard season was a big deal, and for years Kenney was on a short list of Namath-Fouts types who had ever thrown for so many yards in one season. Kenney would never throw for more than 3,000 yards or start more than 10 games in a season for the Chiefs again, but he hung around the way veteran quarterbacks tended to do in that era, stepping on the toes of an unprepared replacement (Todd Blackledge) and proving without a doubt that his great season was a fluke.
4. Joe Montana. In two seasons, Montana led the Chiefs to a 17-8 record, took them to the playoffs twice, and made Willie Davis and J.J. Birden (with Keith Cash at tight end) look like a viable receiving corps.
5. Steve DeBerg. DeBerg was 36 when he had a ridiculous 3,444-yard, 23-touchdown, four-interception season in 1990, throwing to receivers almost as bad as the ones Montana targeted a few years later. (At least DeBerg had the aging Stephone Paige, a viable deep threat.) DeBerg was also very good in 1989 and again in 1991 and can make a strong case for being a better Chiefs quarterback than Montana. This just seems like the order they belong in.
Marty Schottenheimer had a fetish for former 49ers quarterbacks. He started with DeBerg, then landed Montana himself, then started to act like an addict when he brought in Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac. Bono and Grbac each helped the Chiefs to a 13-3 season, but that was pure Marty Ball, with tight defense, good special teams, an archconservative passing game, and a playoff loss. Mike Livingston was Dawson's backup for seven years before finally becoming the Chiefs' starter in the mid-1970s. He was terrible, but the organization was a mess, so Livingston hung around for years.
Matt Cassel started on the road to cracking this list in 2010, and judging DeBerg and Montana strictly as Chiefs, he doesn't need to do too much to make a case. One or two more productive seasons, plus a little playoff success, can get him onto the Top Five.
60 comments, Last at 22 Jul 2011, 10:29pm by BigCheese