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?
18 Apr 2011
by Mike Tanier
Things to do while waiting for the metaphorical skies to part:
The Eagles hosted a "Chalk Talk" event for season ticket holders on April 11th. I am not a season ticket holder, but I know someone who is, so I headed to the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia for a tour of the Eagles practice facility, a roast beef dinner, and presentations by defensive line coach Jim Washburn and safeties coach Mike Zordich.
Washburn is new to the staff after spending 14 seasons with the Titans. He said that the Eagles defensive line would attack upfield more and read-and-react less this season. I have been covering football for a decade and following it for over 30 years, and I have never heard a defensive coach say that he is going to attack less and read-and-react more. Therefore, I take statements like that with a grain of salt.
Washburn also said that the defensive ends would line up wider than they have in previous years, particularly on first down (Figure 1). I checked the Titans game tape after the event, and sure enough, the Titans did split their defensive ends wider than the Eagles on early downs. Most notably, left end Jason Babin usually lined up off the tight end's outside shoulder, whereas Eagles right ends often lined up head-up on the tight end. Babin had 12.5 sacks last season and did a fine job turning out blocking tight ends like Heath Miller in the game tape I watched, so the wide splits paid off for him.
|Figure 1: Eagles defensive ends wide|
Washburn also talked about some of the defensive linemen available in the Draft. He compared Nick Fairley to Trevor Pryce. He joked that Phil Taylor needs some motivation -- the term "axe handle" was used -- but noted that he would like to be the one to motivate him. (Remember, this guy got the most out of Albert Haynesworth). Washburn compared Ryan Kerrigan to Kyle Vanden Bosch and got very excited when talking about him. Everybody loves Kerrigan, which is why I stuck him in the Eagles front four above, even though Washburn didn't.
Zordich diagrammed a full Eagles defensive play from last season, Echo Titan Roll, which resulted in an interception against the Redskins. "Echo" stands for the 3-3-5 personnel grouping, "Titan" for the blitz package, and "Roll" for the coverage. As shown, Joselio Hanson (21) and Quintin Mikell (27) blitz from opposite sides of the formation. The free safety rolls his coverage to the three-receiver side. Asante Samuel (22) covers Santana Moss (89) man-to-man, though Ernie Sims (50) buzzes underneath to take away any quick slants. The Eagles get so much pressure on this third-and-6 play that Donovan McNabb does not see his slot receiver get open, and that receiver doesn't turn for the football, anyway. McNabb forces a pass to Anthony Armstrong, and Dimitri Patterson jumps the route for a 40-yard touchdown.
|Figure 2: Echo Titan Roll|
It was interesting to hear Zordich describe the play to laymen. Sometimes, he lapsed into heavy-duty jargon, talking about "nasty" splits by receivers (tight splits, basically). Other times, he asked if everyone knew what terms like "audible" meant. After drawing the play on the white board, he showed the All-11 game tape, clicking and rewinding the way coaches do, and the season ticket holders were fascinated. It wasn't until the 10th or 11th rewind that he pointed to the open slot receiver, drawing "ooohs" from the crowd.
The NFL needs to offer more of this kind of analysis to fans. Shows like Playbook could be much more in depth. Highlights of old games could be jazzed up with detailed explanations of the play call, the assignments, and so on. Fans do not realize how cool things like All-11 film are until they get a taste for it, and ... I'm preaching to the choir. Never mind.
Mikel LeShoure rushed for more than 1,600 yards for Illinois last season, and I had him penciled in as a big-bodied committee back, the kind who gets picked anywhere from the late second round to the early fourth round. Charley Casserly said that LeShoure may be rising into the first round on the NFL Network the other night, so I searched my LeShoure materials for a re-evaluation.
LeShoure is a solid inside runner. He leans forward, finishes well, and usually stuffs his nose into the hole instead of bouncing outside, which is a great habit for a big guy. He waits for his blockers on off-tackle runs and squares his shoulders quickly. He moves the pile sometimes. He isn't very fast, and I saw almost nothing from him as a receiver. He can get tripped up at the line at times, which is a bad sign for a guy who is supposed to power through tackles. He doesn't have the elite leg drive out of the gates that the great inside rushers have. He gets good grades in pass protection from others.
Rashard Mendenhall attended Illinois and posted numbers eerily similar to LeShoure's. Mendenhall was a bruiser like LeShoure, though he was a little smaller, quicker, and more experienced as a receiver. The Steelers took Mendenhall 23rd overall in 2008, and it worked out well for them, but there aren't many teams who value power runners enough to make that kind of investment. The Dolphins or Giants may like LeShoure, but I don't see him going in the teens. I could see the Giants taking him in the second round. I thought of him as a mid-round guy who fit with the Ravens as a Ray Rice change-up before, but that is probably a little low.
It's a matter of style and need, not performance -- 30 years ago, a player with LeShoure's profile was a first-round pick.
I'm scouting other prospects than LeShoure, of course. Check the Extra Points section for other articles in which I talk about players like Vincent Brown and Anthony Gaitor. And look for me on The New York Times Fifth Down blog come Draft night. I will be doing my pick-by-pick thing straight from the Big Apple. I will Tweet links because, well, you know, so look for me @FO_MTanier.
At the turn of the century, football was an incredibly dangerous game. Some experts worked to prevent serious injuries, while others strove to cover them up and downplay them. Coaches and innovators tinkered with strategies they hoped would prevent injuries, and they did their best to stop players from committing violent fouls. But nothing short of presidential intervention could alleviate the problem or assuage public's concerns.
To clarify, I am talking about the turn of the 20th century, when on-field deaths were so common in college and high school games that prominent citizens like Harvard president Charles Eliot wanted the game outlawed and newspapers railed against the sport as one of society's evils. Football was in danger of going "underground" -- banned from college campuses and relegated to the back lots. Eventually, one of the game's biggest supporters and fans stepped in to save it. He was President Theodore Roosevelt.
John J. Miller's The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football takes us back to an era when team captains met before major college games to discuss such basic rules as how many players could take the field at once and how many points a touchdown was worth. Despite the fact that basic rules, strategies, and scoring systems changed wildly at the end of the 19th century, the game became incredibly popular, not to mention incredibly violent. As the sport's popularity soared on Ivy League campuses, Roosevelt grew from a severely asthmatic youngster to a dedicated outdoorsman and rising political star. Football violence became impossible to ignore once the "flying wedge" formation led to a series of on-field deaths. Harvard's Eliot and his supporters wanted the game banned, while Yale's Walter Camp tried to make the sport safer by imposing new rules, like the seven-man offensive line that eliminated "wedge" tactics. Football violence reached a crisis point during Roosevelt's presidency, and Roosevelt ordered representatives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to establish rules to make the game safer. The results of that White House summit included the forward pass, the creation of the NCAA, and a presidential blessing that saved the sport from extinction.
Robert Lyons' On Any Given Sunday: The Life of Bert Bell picks up just about where Miller's book left off. Young DeBenneville Bell, the son of old Philadelphia money, enrolls at University of Pennsylvania in 1914 with a love of football and a chip on his shoulder. He wins a starting quarterback job as a freshman, starting a football career that would span the better part of five decades. His playing career is interrupted by a stint in World War I, but after finishing his studies (not graduating), he becomes an assistant coach for the Quakers. Bell moves from Penn to Temple, then purchases the Frankford Yellowjackets, changing their name to the Philadelphia Eagles and bringing them through the Depression. Bell's Eagles are always one step away from bankruptcy, but fellow owners George Halas and Art Rooney help Bell through the lean years. Bell develops the idea of an "amateur draft" and sells his fellow owners on it, trades franchises with Rooney, and eventually works his way up to the commissioner's office. Along the way, he woos Broadway beauty Frances Upton, promotes prizefights, and keeps company with a who's-who of colorful characters.
Baseball historians have long held the patent on using their sport as a focal point for exploring larger social issues. Miller's book puts football at the center of major social and philosophical movements of the 19th century. "Muscular Christianity," a movement that mixed spirituality with physical vigor, influenced Roosevelt, Eliot, and Camp, while providing the philosophical impetus behind the very idea of physical education for young men. Eliot, while backward in his attitudes about athletic competition, helped created the modern American university system, with its focus on research and elective studies for students. Football's popularity and violence place it in the crosshairs of Progressive politics and make it fair game for muckraking journalists. In Lyons' book, the World Wars, the Depression, and Broadway's Golden Age form a backdrop for a more personal and local story. Bell, like Roosevelt, "saved" football, but Roosevelt is a figure of international significance who fixed a broken sport as a career footnote. Bell, on the other hand, could easily have entered politics (his father was a Pennsylvania Attorney General) but risked his fortune and reputation on football instead.
There is plenty of on-field detail in both books. Miller opens with an account of a Harvard-Yale game so primitive that touchdowns do not even count on the scoreboard -- it's the extra point that really matters. He shows the sport slowly emerging, with Camp's help, from a disorganized riot with rugby-like rules into something resembling the modern game. Lyons introduces us to Bell as an Ivy League quarterback in an era when punting and fielding punts is far more important than passing. The game is a back-and-forth kicking battle, and the two-way player's ability to cleanly field a punt and run with it is a major topic of discussion. Later, Lyons provides accounts of owners giving each other $5,000 no-questions-asked loans, players volunteering to forgo their salary after bad games, and meetings over cigars and whiskey that don't require federal mediators. It's enough to make you cry.
Miller's book spends a little too much time on the early Roosevelt -- we don't really need to establish that the guy was into fitness. But Eliot comes off as a fascinating character, and stories of 19th century football "hysteria," like the never-ending quest for a safer game, remind us how little has changed in 100 years. Lyons' Bell story loses a little steam when Bell's history merges with mainstream NFL history. Once he is commissioner and the league is no longer two rainy Sundays away from bankruptcy, it feels like it's time to move on to Pete Rozelle and the next chapter. Both books take readers back to a "simpler" time that wasn't simple at all, making them fine antidotes to endless Twitter feeds of mediation speculation.
I could never be a documentary cameraman. At one point in Sunday's episode of Human Planet (a BBC/Discovery Channel production in the Planet Earth vein) a father takes his two children on a five-day hike along the frozen Zanskar River in Northern India so they can attend a boarding school. The river slowly melts during their journey. At one point, the 11-year-old daughter must crawl along a tiny, cracking ice ledge over the rushing, freezing waters.
This would be me, as cameraman:
"Hey sweetie, you know what? I got to your little village by helicopter, and there's no reason my friends at Discovery Channel cannot swoop down here and get you and your brother to school in about an hour. Your dad and I can have some tea, then I will send him home to your mother. Heck, I can even put him up in a Best Western somewhere and make it look like he made the five-day trek with you. All you have to do is crawl about six inches onto the ledge so I can get the shot ... that's it. Look helpless and scared for the close-up. Good work. Here, have a power bar!"
With the poor girl's luck, the school she risked her life to attend just adopted the Everyday Math curriculum, making the whole trip worthless.
Human Planet also speaks to the universality of stupid fatherly advice. While his daughter clamors along the rocky walls beside the roaring Zanskar, the father offers suggestions like "Hold on tight!" In another episode, a 15-year-old Kazakhstani boy must capture a baby eagle by scaling down a cliff face and snatching it from its nest. Nearby, dad offers helpful advice like, "Don't step on the chicks!" The editors took out the part where the teenager turns to dad and says "Really? I could have sworn I was supposed to grind my boots into these baby eagles' heads and kill them both, bringing starvation upon our tribe! Thank you so much for reminding me to stay focused, because the jagged rocks 100 feet below and the angry mother eagle circling my head just weren't doing it for me."
It is good to know that fathers everywhere offer useless and obvious advice while children attempt difficult and life-changing tasks. I wonder what the Kazakh translation of "keep your eye on the ball" is? For that matter, I wonder if the translators are just lying. What the fathers might really be saying is "I wish the damn cameraman would give me a power bar."
If football is a little scarce, you may as well make time for priceless interactions like these:
Me: (clasping his hand) One, two, three, four, I declare a Thumb War!
Mikey: (waving thumb around chaotically) DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE!
It's time for another set of all-time franchise quarterback rankings! This week, the two NFC North teams we didn't get to before the NFC Championship game.
1. Bobby Layne. A great quarterback and a hell raiser. Whenever I watch Mad Men (or Bewitched), I am amazed at how boozed up everyone seemed to be all the time in my father's generation. Read about the great quarterbacks of the 1950s and early 1960s, and you will discover that they either loved the night life or that their temperance was something noteworthy. If I were a quarterback nowadays, I would be afraid to be seen holding a beer in public.
2. Greg Landry. Had a couple of good seasons in the early 1970s and then hung around Detroit forever, losing his job to Bill Munson, then getting back when Munson got hurt or slumped. Landry started his career as a swashbuckling scrambler but was an immobile mailbox for the last five or six years of his career.
3. Gary Danielson. The post-Layne Lions can be characterized as a half-century long quarterback controversy. It was always Landry and Munson, Danielson and Eric Hipple, Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete, Matthew Stafford and Drew Stanton. Like Landry, Danielson had a few good seasons, then hung around for years battling with a younger quarterback the organization liked a little better.
4. Scott Mitchell. Before I tape a segment of NFL's Top 10, I get a list of topics and questions so I can prepare my remarks. When I saw that the producers ranked Mitchell 10th among left-handed quarterbacks (with every other left-handed quarterback who ever played ranked ninth), I laughed out loud, then spent a few hours rebuilding my memories of Mitchell.
Mitchell wasn't that bad. He fit the Lions' run 'n' shoot offense very well, and he also helped the Lions reach the playoffs under Bobby Ross, who switched to a more conventional offense. He ran pretty well for a big, lumpy guy, though the stats don't bear it out. He played horribly in two postseason games, and I think that colored some people's perception of him as a gimmick passer who only put up big numbers because of the system. That turned him into a punch line, just like another passer we will meet in a few minutes.
In the end, I smiled and told the NFL Films guys that Mitchell had to be "better than the field," and they used that as a bump on the show, so it all turned out OK for me.
5. Bill Munson. The Lions drafted Landry in the first round in 1968, then traded their first-round pick in 1969 to acquire Munson, a 27-year-old backup for the Rams. Shockingly, the Lions spent the next decade switching back and forth between Landry and Munson. The team was not terrible during this era, but they were stuck on a .500 treadmill. In the early years, Munson started the season, then either got hurt or slumped, giving Landry a chance. Later, the roles reversed. The Lions were satisfied enough with the situation that they didn't draft another quarterback higher than the sixth round until Hipple in 1979. Danielson, a free agent, arrived in 1978 and appeared to solve the problem, but really perpetuated it.
Joey Harrington, Rodney Peete, and Eric Hipple were all in serious danger of making this list, which is a reason to move on if ever there was one.
1. Fran Tarkenton. It's ironic that Tarkenton appears to hate Favre, because he was a Favre-like character -- a scrambler and gambler who played forever, retired with most of the league's passing records, and cultivated a good ole boy persona that served him well as a spokesperson and television host. Tarkenton went 0-3 in Super Bowls, but fans and writers weren't as hung up on "winning the big one" as the absolute validator of a quarterback's existence back then, and with no blogosphere in the late 1970s, we didn't get fatigued quite so quickly by all of the "gunslinger" talk.
Tarkenton hung up his spikes when he reached roughly the point Favre reached in 2005 or 2006. He had lost his mobility and was throwing far too many interceptions, his team was in decline and grooming a replacement, and ABC television was calling. If only someone revived That's Incredible five years ago, we could have saved ourselves several seasons of false retirements.
Tarkenton has embarked on a third career as a curmudgeon-doofus. Can't imagine Favre doing that.
2. Daunte Culpepper: It's been seven years since Culpepper had a great season, and he spent so long traveling the league with a "Will Quarterback for Food" sign that it is easy to forget how good he was from 2000-05. Culpepper led some truly dysfunctional teams, sharing the huddle with Randy Moss and Onterrio Smith while taking orders from a coach who thought ticket scalping was one of his fringe benefits. Once in a while, everyone would go out on a boat and raise hell. The Vikings typically started the season 6-0 or 5-1, then faded suddenly, as if half the team had something else on its mind.
When Culpepper passed for 4,717 yards in 2004, his leading receivers were Nate Burleson and Jermaine Wiggins, because Randy Moss missed most of five games with a hamstring injury. The Vikings lost two 34-31 games that year, plus a 31-28 game, but they still made the playoffs with an 8-8 record and won a postseason game. That was a Sonny Jurgensen-type season, and the 2000 and 2003 seasons were very good. But because so many Culpepper teams finished around .500, his peak was short, and he played with some all-time great receivers, I fear his intangibles are going to get criticized. He's going to get written off as a system guy/stat compiler/choke artist. The truth is much more complicated.
3. Tommy Kramer. The Vikings of the 1970s threw more short passes and passes to backs than most other teams. Tarkenton had a lot to do with that -- he didn't have a great arm and loved to dump the ball to guys like Chuck Foreman. Even when he was in New York, Tarkenton threw dozens of passes to his backs. Kramer also threw tons of passes to guys like Foreman and Ted Brown, so his stats for seasons like 1980 (3,582 yards, 57.8 percent complete) look like early West Coast Offense figures.
Kramer took over for Tarkenton in 1979 and was stuck leading the last-gasp charge of the Purple People Eaters. Jim Marshall (at age 42) was still on the team and the secondary still included Paul Krausse (37) and Bobby Bryant (35). Kramer led the team through a long transition period in which the Vikings were always around .500 and Bud Grant tried and failed to groom his own replacement. Kramer seemed to figure it all out in 1986, then suffered a neck injury in 1987 training camp, ceding the starting job to longtime backup Wade Wilson. Like Culpepper -- heck, like a lot of these guys – he put up some amazing numbers for teams stuck forever at about 9-7.
4. Brad Johnson. Johnson, Wade Wilson, and Rich Gannon were all late-round picks the Vikings stashed on their bench for a few years, gave starting jobs with various degrees of reluctance, then sent off to have long careers elsewhere. Gannon was the best quarterback of the three, but in Minnesota he was just a sidearm-throwing scrambler who never quite wrested the job from Wilson (just as Wilson needed seven years to fully supplant Kramer). Wilson was an adequate starter during his peak but spent most of his career as a gutsy backup in various spots. Johnson joined the roster while Gannon was still active, backed up Warren Moon for a few years, and played two solid seasons before hurting his neck in Week 2 of the 1998 season. Randall Cunningham replaced him, and soon Johnson was in Tampa, where we will rejoin him in about 1,500 words.
Interestingly, after the Kramer-Wilson-Gannon "groom a passer" era, the Vikings embarked on a "grab a geezer" era, in which they lurched from Moon to Cunningham to Jim McMahon. Culpepper interrupted that trend, but when Johnson replaced him at age 37 in 2005, it was a de-facto continuation of the team's fascination with over-the-hill passers. We all know where it eventually led. Maybe Tarkenton is just mad that he never got a call.
5. Joe Kapp. One of the first Latin American quarterbacks, and probably the last player ever traded between the CFL and the NFL. He was high-strung and hard-nosed and led a power-oriented offense and took the Vikings to a Super Bowl.
Gannon or Wilson could make cases for the fifth spot, though Gannon's case is really weak if you stick strictly to the Vikings. Moon, Cunningham, and Favre can all point to signature seasons with the Vikings, as can Jeff George; the fact that all of them had similar seasons in the same time period suggests that the system had a lot to do with their success. Tarkenton played for so long that there just aren't many old-timer choices to muddy the waters.
51 comments, Last at 25 Apr 2011, 11:09am by The Other Ben Johnson