The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
07 Dec 2011
by Mike Tanier
As you probably know, Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris dropped an F-bomb while talking about his ejection of Brian Price on Sunday. "I told him ‘go home.’ F__k, yeah."
The punctuation above is my own, and like all spoken punctuation, it is a guess. I did not hear the press conference live, and the only video of it I can find discreetly cuts out the "f—-k, yeah." When we assembled Audibles at the Line on Sunday, we only had the "f__k," not the "yeah," because we were working off a Tweet of the press conference. There is a big difference between "f__k" and "f__k, yeah" and, for that matter, "F__k Yeah!"
Most blogs and reports of the quote eliminate the "F__k, yeah," in part because some sites do not allow f__k to appear in print, even with the "u" and "c" replaced by underscores or smileys. There is no way the New York Times will let me write "f__k" when we cannot print Suck for Luck, or even S__k for L__k. The quote in the Times would read "Morris told Price to ‘go home’, then uttered an obscenity," which is no fun at all.
I am pretty sure we are allowed to write say "f__k" in all its fully-spelled glory here on Football Outsiders, but it would turn away readers if we became gratuitous and started saying "f__k" over and over again for effect. We strive for workplace-appropriate content. Also, a good humorist knows how to use "f__k" sparingly, for maximum punch. If David Mamet ever writes Glengary Glen DVOA, we will all say "f__k" a lot.
But back to the f__king punctuation. With no way to hear Morris’ comments, I am left grasping for punctuation clues, and a stray comma can go a long way. Consider:
"I told him to go home, f__k. Yeah." Translation: I told him to go home and relieve the tension that leads to unnecessary roughness penalties through healthy sexual congress. Indeed.
"I told him to. Go Homef__k! Yeah!" Translation: I instructed him to commit that foul. Let me now give a shout to my alma mater, the State University of New York at Housediddle, the Fighting Homef__k. Hooray.
"I told. Him to go home, f__k Yeah." Translation: I am Tarzan. I informed the proper authorities about Price. He plans to go back to his hut and have intercourse with a woman named Yeah, who is not as cute as Jane but loves him for who he is.
Some of the punctuation options above are less logical than others, but even the choice of punctuation options for the "yeah" can change the implication of the quote:
"I told him to go home ... f__k, yeah." I told him to go home with an expression of exasperation, and I am admitting to that now.
"I told him to go home. F__k yeah!" I told him to go home and am boastful about my decision.
Morris’ statement sounds more like the former, at least as far as I can tell from context. The latter sounds like Denny Green at full throttle. Morris sounded like the school disciplinarian after a massive cafeteria brawl, a guy whose rage is leaking out around his professionalism. One who knows a bit of profanity can, well, punctuate his point.
Hearing an NFL coach curse these days is a little like hearing a nun curse, and we all get a little kick out of it. We must also protect innocent ears and eyes, of course, because we all know how many nine-year-olds sit riveted to Buccaneers press conferences and how few of them have ever heard profanity. Morris had a few more choice words for Price on the field, according to reports, and while too many cussings out can be counterproductive, sometimes players (coworkers, fellow drivers) need to know how you really feel.
That’s fine, as long as I don’t have to punctuate it.
The typical 49ers game starts with three field goals, then unravels from there.
Three times this season, the Niners have taken 9-0 leads against opponents on three David Akers field goals. In three other games, the first three scores of the game were field goals by the Niners or opponents. The Bengals game began with two Mike Nugent field goals and an Akers kick. The Ravens Thanksgiving game was a back-and-forth Akers-Billy Cundiff battle until everyone fell asleep. The Giants game began with a whopping six field goals, four by Akers and two by Lawrence Tynes.
The list above does not include the Redskins game, in which four Akers field goals and a Graham Gano kick were interrupted by a touchdown. And then there was the Eagles game, with four field goals made, three missed, and one blocked between the two kickers. Akers also had two blocked and missed one against the Cardinals, a game in which the first six Cardinals drives ended in field goal attempts.
That is a lot of kicking.
Akers is still on pace to break field goal and attempt records, as I reported on NBCSports.com last week. He is barely on pace for the attempt record: he projects to 49.3 field goal tries, and the record of 49 is held by Bruce Gossett of the 1966 Rams and Curt Knight of the 1971 Redskins. Both teams were coached by George Allen, a man who liked to settle for three, and both kickers played in the era of 14-game seasons. Gossett attempted six field goals in two games, five in one, four in two and three in five. Knight attempted seven field goals in one game and six in another.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of field goal attempts, because nearly every team had a specialist kicker and the crossbars were still at the front of the end zone. Most of the kickers with 45 or more attempts played in that era, and most played for teams like the 2011 Niners: good teams with great defenses and grinding offenses, even by era standards. Akers is in good company, and his kicking has come to define this strange season for the Niners, a team that builds blowouts three points at a time.
Another hallmark of the 2011 49ers is the slow start. The Niners outscore opponents 32-29 in the first quarter this season. A little simple math shows that the average score at the end of the first quarter of a Niners game is 2.67 to 2.42. Three of their games were scoreless after the first quarter. Two were 3-0 games, two were 3-3 games. There have only been four first-quarter touchdowns in Niners games, two by the Niners, two by opponents. When you look at some of the 33-17, 48-3, 23-7, and 26-0 final scores the Niners have produced, the slow starts are somewhat remarkable. But then, you know how this team operates: the defense shuts opponents down while the offense flirts with the red zone. And flirting takes a while. Niners games against weak opponents are stop-motion avalanches.
There are other hallmarks of the 2011 Niners. For example, there are the clever running plays that ultimately culminate in some over-engineered play on a critical down. A few weeks ago, I diagrammed an H-back-around the Niners used on third-and-short. This week, I present a Kendall Hunter Wildcat, but I will follow up with something that worked, because it is mean (and misleading) to pick on a team that clinched its division before I put my Christmas tree up.
|Figure 1: Counter Cat|
Figure 1 shows the Niners facing third-and-2 from the 11-yard line in the third quarter. That’s Kendall Hunter (32) in shotgun, with Delanie Walker (46) and Bruce Miller (49) next to him and Anthony Dixon (24) on the far side of the trips bunch. That’s a lot of blocking beef on the right side, and Jim Harbaugh wants the Rams thinking "Wildcat-esque plunge" to the right. That would not be a bad play; the Niners were overpowering the Rams at the line, and if the play failed, a field goal would make the score 19-0.
Instead, the Niners ran a counter. A slow, slow, slow counter, with Miller, Walker, and the right guard pulling out in front of Hunter, who takes two steps right before cutting left. The design of the blocking scheme is incredibly lateral, with three blockers running parallel to the line of scrimmage for so long that it looked like something from the Vince Lombardi playbook. This is 2011, of course, so all of those big guys running laterally are just giving the defense ample pursuit opportunities. The guard lays a good block, but the others are in no position to stop the crashing safeties and linebackers. Hunter might have still picked up the first down if he cut inside behind the guard’s block: he only needed two yards, after all. But Hunter makes a rookie mistake by trying to bounce outside, and he loses seven yards.
So the play did not work, but a successful field goal made the score 19-0.
Okay, let’s back up to early in the game and see how all of these filigrees can actually work well for the Niners. We will even bring back our old pal Delanie and give him a chance to shine.
|Figure 2: Tight End End Around|
Figure 2 shows the Niners on first-and-10 earlier in the third quarter, leading 9-0. On the previous play, Ted Ginn ran an end around for 14 yards. The tight bunch formation to the right is somewhat similar to what we saw in Figure 1, though there are key differences. The quarterback is on the field, for one thing. So is Frank Gore (21). At the snap, Alex Smith turns to pitch to Gore, and Gore makes a very dramatic show of extending his arms to take that pitch and run right. I don’t know if the pantomime fooled Rams defenders any more than the blocking and run action did, but it looked cool.
This is a counter, of course, and it is a tight end around for Walker. The key block is by the left tackle on the right defensive end of the Rams. The end is crashing with the run action, so it is a simple matter for the tackle to seal him off to the inside. After that, it is up to Walker to beat the strong safety in the open field. Walker is not a great speedster, but he is strong enough to plow through a tackle in space, and he rumbles for 14 yards.
A few points about this play. First of all, note that it came on the heels of a Ginn run, so the Niners executed back-to-back end arounds, something few teams are willing to do. Second, the Niners were on the right hashmark on this play, and that is significant in that it created extra space to the "field side" to isolate Walker against the strong safety. The formation also created space to the field side by bunching everyone to the right. I rarely pay attention to hash marks when diagramming NFL plays because they don’t often appear overly relevant to the play design in many cases. The situation is very different in college, and the lower the level of competition, the more important "field side" and "boundary side" differences become. Harbaugh appears a little more cognizant of how the hashmarks affect the design of his runs than other coaches. It may be part of his overall emphasis on a more scientific running game, an emphasis that serves him well until he goes into mad scientist mode with plays like Figure 1.
The main difference between this play, the Hunter play, and the Walker sweep I diagrammed a month ago is the situation. First down near midfield is a good time for innovation. Third-and-short is not. Harbaugh must learn when to switch from wrinkle mode to blast mode.
The field goals, the slow starts, the tendency to overcomplicate ... we all know that these will become liabilities in the playoffs. For now, they make the Niners unique: they are both interesting and plodding, deliberate and somehow dynamic. This uniqueness could turn into real greatness next year or the year after. For now, it is a lot of fun, even if you are sick and tired of seeing Akers march on to the field for the fifth or sixth time.
This week, a double dose of kindling from the Vikings.
|Figure 3: Full House Harvin|
Figure 3 shows the Vikings deep in their own territory midway through the second quarter. What madness is this? There is a full house backfield with a wide receiver playing tight end, a wide receiver playing halfback, and two tight ends (assuming you consider Jim Kleinsasser a tight end) playing fullback. Fascinating. All of this window dressing is a prelude by a run up the gut by one of the most fragile, elusive players in the NFL: Percy Harvin (12).
Adding to the lunacy of sending an injury-prone jitterbug wide receiver on a plunge into the teeth of the defense is a needlessly complex blocking scheme. Devin Aromashodu (19), playing tight end for some reason, does not block the defensive end in front of him but blasts out to the second level. In fairness, the left tackle, who folds behind Aromashodu, has a better fighting chance of blocking the end (it’s Robert Ayers). Kyle Rudolph (82) also fires out to the second level. That leaves the fullbacks, Kleinsasser (40) and Visanthe Shiancoe (81) to block a defensive end and a linebacker. No one is left to block middle linebacker Joe Mays, which is a real shame, because he has a wide-open lane to Harvin, who has no maneuvering room because he is surrounded by wide bodies. Credit the Broncos for using a variation on the Wide-9 front against this tight formation: I think the interior linemen were crossed up because there were big bubbles in front of them.
Now, let’s fast-forward to the fourth quarter, with the score tied and the Vikings deep in Broncos territory. It is first-and-10, the ball is on the Broncos 20-yard line, and there is 3:54 to play. This is a good time to hand off and make the Broncos decide whether they want to burn clock or timeouts. It may also be a good time to take one crack at the end zone. And really, it is not a bad time to run a little rollout and see if you can get 10 yards, as long as the rollout does not rely on a replacement-level receiver winning a one-on-one matchup against one Hall of Famer while another Hall of Famer waits in a nearby zone.
|Figure 4: Burn This Aromathearpy Candle|
Figure 4 has Aromashodu split wide left. Where is Harvin? The last two plays were a one-yard run and a penalty, so if he needed a breather, he got one. Maybe the Vikings really want to sell a running play with their personnel selection. Anyway, Aromashodu. He’s the only player running a route on this play. There are two tight ends to the right, but neither is going to leak into the flat for an outlet pass. Nope, Christian Ponder has two choices: throw to Aromashodu, or try to run.
Aromatherapy is covered by Champ Bailey (24) one-on-one. He does not get open. Brian Dawkins (20) is the force defender to the offensive right. Once the play rolls away from him, he becomes a backside zone defender, taking away the scrambling option and prowling for tight ends who leak into the flat. Typically, a play like this makes Dawkins’ job harder by making him account for Shiancoe or somebody. With no receivers to worry about, Dawkins can patrol the space between Ponder and Aromashodu and take away options. Dawkins and Bailey have lost a step from their glory days, but this play makes it incredibly easy for each of them to do their respective jobs.
So Ponder decides that he does not want to get hit by Wolverine and tries to thread the ball to what’s-his-face. The clock stops. The Vikings attempt two more passes that eat up no time. Welcome to holiday rerun season for Tim Tebow and the Broncos.
The Vikings are guilty of numerous sins on these two plays: using Harvin in weird ways or not using him at all, getting too carried away with the multi-tight end formations, and innovating the one-receiver pass pattern. With a rookie quarterback under center and Adrian Peterson hurt, they can be forgiven for trying some new concepts. That said, they need to go back to the drawing board, after burning these plays!
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35 comments, Last at 13 Dec 2011, 12:04am by tuluse