Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
12 Jan 2012
by Mike Tanier
Welcome to Walkthrough, where we are not obligated to talk about what everyone else is talking about.
You know what this upcoming Giants-Packers game reminds me of? The Giants-Patriots Super Bowl. The problem with this trite, obvious, uninformative angle is that the upcoming Giants-Packers game really does remind everyone of the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl. The parallels are so obvious that to deny them is to be contrary for contrary’s sake. It’s like the December 26th headline in the Springfield Shopper: "Christmas Occurs." Someone, somewhere, will watch a feature on David Tyree during a pregame telecast and think, for the first time, "wow, I didn’t realize how much this game is like the 2007 Super Bowl." That one’s for him. This one is not for him, because I don’t want to talk about that.
Instead, let’s talk about Arian Foster. ESPN ran an E60 documentary on Foster concurrent with the first half of the Falcons-Giants game, when it was easy for the eyes and mind to wander. I watched the documentary in a bar with the sound tuned to the Giants game, so I did not get the full impact. I got an even fuller impact: shot in Atmospheric Documentary style, the feature was full of grainy footage and artful shots that made Foster’s story appear archetypal. Foster is a Superstar Athlete Who Overcame Adversity To Achieve Excellence, as certified by the Committee to Recognize Superstar Athletes Who Overcame Adversity to Achieve Excellence.
Once I found the clip on You Tube and watched it with sound, I realized the Atmospheric Documentary treatment was just window dressing. Every tale is an epic tale if you add enough atmosphere.
Now, Foster is a fine player, and his Twitter feed suggests that he is an interesting cat. It’s just obvious that a little prefabrication had to be done to give his story a "triumph against odds" angle. As the 11-minute profile begins, we learn that Foster came from a two-parent household, so we know we are not in Dez Bryant territory right off the bat. His parents divorced when he was 14, which is sad, but so did mine. He cites an example of overt racism, but the way he tells the story make it sound like isolated schoolyard bullying incident. (Foster punched the kid who made the slur, which was probably the correct response). The neighborhood where he grew up, shot in washed-out colors in the New Mexico sunshine, looks like any other apartment complex in America, though when you shoot from a moving vehicle it is easy to create a "dangerous projects" feel. Driving through the part of my town with the tiny ranch houses, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it would be to create a "dangerous projects" shot: dead January grass, empty streets, the speed of the car suggesting gonzo cinema, "let’s get this shot and drive fast to someplace safe."
Please don’t think that I am suggesting that Foster never had it rough growing up. It’s just that ... there’s rough, and there’s Subject of Atmospheric Documentary rough. Foster sounds like his childhood was similar to those of hundreds of thousands of working class kids whose families endure rough patches and who sometimes endure cruel teasing. I cannot help but hear the director yelling "we need to punch this material up! Arian, can you go back in time and make yourself, I don’t know, poorer?"
In seventh grade, Foster’s awful, awful teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Foster said he wanted to play in the NFL, and the teacher asked him to pick something else. Apparently, she should have told him to follow his dreams. In fact, she should have handed him a football, excused him from class, and sent him out to the practice field. His high school freshman football coach did not think he was ready for varsity, and planted him on the bench. Oh, we are awful, awful adults, with our legitimate fears that tweeners who dream of NFL stardom might leave themselves with nothing to fall back on, and that 15-year-olds might seriously injure themselves when playing contact sports against 18-year-olds if they have not developed enough mentally or physically. We are just holding back future subjects of Atmospheric Documentaries with our slavish devotion to common sense and safety.
Foster now tells high school kids to ignore adults who try to dissuade them from their dreams. Thanks, man, on behalf of every teacher who has ever been told to f-off by some playground hero. This poor seventh-grade teacher, whose name Foster doesn’t even remember (that’ll teach her), gets to be the heavy in this contrived tale, perhaps because Phillip Fullmer was kind enough to participate.
Luckily for Foster, his father was a college football star in the 1970s, and through the miracle of genetics, Foster grew into a 230-pound running back. The Atmospheric Documentary features plenty of grainy footage of Foster at his San Diego high school in the early 1960s. Oh wait, that’s 2003. Atmospheric Documentary makers are running into a serious problem: we are reaching the point where even early childhood photos were taken digitally and high school games were broadcast on local television, with game film preserved as pristine .mpeg files and the like. I picture documentary filmmakers transferring crystal-clear digital footage onto VHS tape, then onto film, then back onto tape, spilling coffee on it a few times, and then finally transferring it all back to high-definition video so it looks good and distressed and vintage.
I don’t think that the Foster footage was tampered with, because high schools can still be counted upon to have out-of-date video equipment and to assign game-filming duty to some old shop teacher with shaky hands and stigmatism, but you really have to keep in mind that you are watching pictures and footage from the 1990s and 2000s when watching Foster’s Atmospheric Documentary. There are several still photographs from Foster’s childhood in the profile, all of them strangely sepia-tinted and faded. I compared them to my wedding pictures, taken at about the same time, many with disposable cameras. The Foster pictures look far older. Maybe it’s the New Mexico/San Diego sun.
Foster comes across on Twitter and in interviews as a guy with diverse interests and an offbeat personality, which meant that he was screwed when he played college football, because old-school coaches view anyone who reads books and thinks about anything beyond the gridiron as a suspicious outsider. Foster’s tenure at Tennessee was probably much more interesting than the fact that he was once called a racial slur and his juvenile dreams were politely questioned by an education professional. But the documentary shuffles its feet through the fumbles, disputed injuries, coaching changes, and weird running back rotations that hampered Foster’s Tennessee career. To his credit, Foster admits that his motivation slipped, going so far as to say that his bad attitude kept the Seahawks from selecting him late in the 2009 draft. A few moments later, Foster’s brother admits that Foster was not in top condition, even after his call up from the Texans practice squad in 2009.
These late admissions undercut a lot of the "driven to succeed" boilerplate that came before them. If Foster was still capable of sulking and letting his conditioning lapse when he was one injury away from the NFL, maybe he really wasn’t ready to start as a high school freshman. Maybe that seventh-grade teacher had more than the usual reasons to take an "aw, c’mon" attitude toward Foster’s dreams. The fact that Foster was still enduring periodic benching last season for missing meetings and the like also makes the "triumphant heart of a champion" angle a bit misleading, and those of us with an analytical bent wonder whether a profile on the Texans offensive line might take us closer to where the real warriors are. No matter: the story ends with Foster vindicated, the rushing champion who overcame something or another.
I don’t mean to be overly critical of Foster, or the E60 documentarians and producers, for that matter, who made something polished and visually striking from some rather dull source material. But the need to form Foster’s life into a tale of "overcoming adversity," complete with the melodrama that comes with having him pose against the concrete wall of faded photographs and tape the word "undrafted" onto his chest, is just inherently funny. Every NFL player overcame some kind of adversity, faced doubters, and had moments when he teetered on the brink of failure. Most adults who succeed at anything experience similar hardships. When "my seventh-grade teacher doubted me" is counted among our obstacles, our obstacles may not have been quite as great as those of others. And when everyone is the subject of an Atmospheric Documentary, then no one is, and tropes like the faded photos and tales of sad childhood lose the impact they should have when they are really needed for, say, a Jimmy Graham profile.
Maybe our biographers and profilers should note this, tone down the atmospherics, and blast our stories with something more refreshing, like humor. Foster is a funny guy, but there was no room for jokes in his E60 saga. A lighthearted eleven minutes with a quotable guy who happens to be a very good running back would have been much more entertaining. Eleven minutes with Chris Myers and the gang might have been even better. Save the Atmospheric Documentary treatment for the players with truly gut-wrenching back-stories, of whom there are dozens and dozens.
That said, talking about Foster, or those who talk about him, is much better than talking about what everyone else is talking about.
We could talk about the Jets some more, at least as soon as the Jets themselves quiet down. I read somewhere that JFK Jr.’s personal assistant has written a book about her relationship with him, even though she did not really have one: John-John’s presence in the book is as a writer of memos and leaver of phone messages, showing just how far on the outskirts of greatness this would-be biographer really was. She was not as far out as Greg McElroy, my favorite of the hundreds of Jets, past and present, who lined up to attack the team after they failed to reach the playoffs (in other words, the moment it was safe).
McElroy, the fourth string quarterbacked, fired his salvos on Birmingham radio and probably thought no one was listening. "It’s the first time I’ve ever been around extremely selfish individuals," he said. The kid must have lead a sheltered life. The highlight of the McElroy manifesto is the part no one talked about: his delusion that he will still be on the team next year after making inflammatory remarks from his incredibly secure perch as a practice-squad quarterback. "I think we’re going to regroup and I know that we’ll be a better team because of the trials and tribulations this year." Yeah, "we." Can you imagine McElroy walking into that locker room for the first OTA? "Hey, kid. Thanks for broadcasting your thoughts about the franchise. We really value that sort of talk from peripheral employees who can be replaced without anyone noticing. Here, here’s a gold medal for honesty!"
Instead of talking about that, we can talk about Paul Lowe. Only three undrafted running backs in history have rushed for over 100 yards in a playoff game: Arian Foster, Ryan Grant, and Paul Lowe. The first two you might remember. Lowe was arguably the best running back in AFL history. A fine player for a good Oregon State team, Lowe got a tryout with the 49ers in 1959 but was the last player cut. He went looking for regular work. Lowe once said that he applied for work with the LAPD, but when they performed a background check they discovered unpaid parking tickets and threw him in jail. His next stop was a banking firm owned by the Hilton family, where they threw him in the mail room. The Hiltons were primary investors in the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers, and sure enough the former college halfback found his way to the field, which was probably part of someone’s plan all along.
Lowe accomplished his 100-yard feat in the AFL’s first playoffs, gaining 165 yards in a loss to the Oilers. He attained greater stardom with the 1963 AFC Champion Chargers, coached by Sid Gillman. Lowe gets a lot of face time in The Games That Changed The Game as Ron Jaworski breaks down the exact plays Gilman used to open up the field for Lowe and counteract the Buffalo Bills’ blitzing defense. Many AFL experts claim that the 1963 Chargers would easily have won the Super Bowl that year if it existed, and I believe them. The Bears won the NFL that season with a very Bears-style team: there were a lot of 16-7 and 10-3 wins on their resume. The NFL was still stronger than the AFL in 1963, but the best AFL teams could probably hold their own against any NFL team not coached by Vince Lombardi. The old-school Bears would probably have been run all over the field by Lance Allworth, Lowe, and the Gilman offense. They would then have complained to a sympathetic media that the Chargers did not play "real football."
Anyway, back to Lowe. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1963 and 1965, and he then demanded a $50,000 contract from Baron Hilton. That was a Jim Brown-level contract, but Lowe lost all leverage soon after making the demand: the NFL and AFL merged, so league jumping was no longer an employment option. The combined draft also happened, and like many early AFL stars, Lowe began to fade at exactly the same time. That’s not to suggest that Lowe was not a very good player, but early AFL stats always come with a grain of salt. Lowe had better stats than NFL running backs like John David Crow and Timmy Brown from the same era, but I think that is the class of players he fits among, not Brown or Jim Taylor.
Why wasn’t Lowe drafted? Don’t blame race: the Niners team that gave him a long tryout had employed Joe Perry for a decade and were developing J.D. Smith, both black running backs. The presence of those two help explain why Lowe couldn't crack the roster. Oregon State played in Rose Bowls while Lowe was there, so he was on the radar in those days of less-than-precise scouting. Lowe may have suffered from some of the problems Foster dealt with: he appears to have been part of a rotation of backs, so he may have gotten lost in the shuffle. What Lowe needs is his own Atmospheric Documentary, though I am not sure even that would provide an accurate answer.
We can talk about the coaching carousel. Don’t you just love that cliché? Why not a merry-go-round? Tilt-a-Whirl? Teacup ride? You never walk alone when you use a hoary sports cliché.
Jeff Fisher is a fine coach, and he would be the first person I call if I had a vacancy to fill, but he doesn’t seem worthy of the NORAD treatment. He’s Bill Parcells on a Target budget. Having gone from Don Shula to Jimmy Johnson to Parcells and now (maybe) to Fisher, the Dolphins are experiencing diminishing returns from their all-powerful philosopher kings.
Josh McDaniels is off the market, hired back by the Patriots to replace Bill O’Brien angry-dude-for-angry-dude. McDaniels arrived in Foxboro just in time to provide super-secret information about the Broncos. "They have this quarterback, and he’s big, and his passes wobble, but he is learning to throw a pretty good play-action bomb, and apparently he’s religious or something." I picture Belichick holding out his hand, and McDaniels grasping it, then some globular morphing special effects as McDaniels’ matter and energy are slowly absorbed into the Belichick matrix to create some super-Belichick.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, Hue Jackson learns that speaking openly and endlessly about your power craving does not sit well with upper-level management. He and McElroy should attend a seminar together. After weeks of speculation and interviews in Indianapolis, Jim Irsay decided to hire the general managerial candidate with the coolest beard. But I don’t want to talk about that.
Let’s take another dip into the Football Outsiders database and talk about Matt Giordano. We keep track of how many yards are gained by the offense on each tackle by each defender. Giordano led all qualifying defenders in Yards Allowed per Tackle at 14.9. There are no official "qualifiers," of course, but Giordano made a total of 70 defensive plays, so he has the highest figure for any regular player. Jacoby Jones made one tackle for 35 yards on a fake punt this year, but he and the dozen or so rarely used backups ahead of Giordano don’t count.
Anyone allowing an average of 14.9 yards per tackle is either totally inept, spends the whole game lined up at deep safety, or both. Giordano spends a lot of time at deep safety, and though he is not totally inept, many of his partners in the secondary are. I spooled up the second Raiders-Chiefs game to have a look at Giordano on one of his most active days. The game served as a great reminder of why safeties are so darn hard to evaluate without coach’s film.
Giordano’s first two plays of the Chiefs game are tackles after five-yard runs. He is lined up deep on both occasions, and does a fine job reading the runs and converging to the ball. He covers a lot of ground and delivers a nice thump when he is defending the run, but there is only so much that you can do when you are lined up 15 yards off the ball, sometimes on the weak side of the play.
Late in the second quarter, Giordano picks up an easy interception. He squats in the deep middle of the field, in the end zone, and Kyle Orton just forgets that he exists until after the pass is thrown. At the end of the half, Giordano gobbles up a blocked field goal and runs it back for a few yards before a lineman rolls up on his ankle. Giordano appears to be hurt, but he returns after halftime.
In the third quarter, Giordano gives up a 43-yard pass to Terrance Copper. Giordano is all alone in zone coverage against Copper on a rollout pass. It appears to be a cover-2 defense, but the other safety is sucked up to the line by the play-action and shorter routes, so Giordano is forced to chase Copper completely across the field. It’s a difficult assignment, and Giordano could have done a better job of sticking with Copper, though he does make a touchdown-saving tackle.
In the fourth quarter, Giordano makes tackles on the end of 11 and nine-yard runs. Again, he is a deep safety doing deep safety things. On the next drive, Dwayne Bowe cuts in front of Giordano on a pass over the middle for a 15-yard gain. Then Dexter McCluster busts off a 49-yard catch-and-run, with Giordano knocking him out of bounds at the four-yard line.
|Figure 1: Giordano Plays Catch Up|
Figure 1 shows the McCluster (22) screen, though I took out much of the blocking detail so we can focus on Giordano. Check out the coverage on Bowe (82): this is playground-style double coverage, and you would do the same thing against the Chiefs. Giordano and his cornerback are busy jamming the daylights out of Bowe while McCluster takes the screen and starts cruising past the whole secondary, including the deep safety. Giordano reads the screen quickly enough to drop deep and set himself up to make a tackle, only to see McCluster cross to the other end of the field, to the sideline where Giordano started. It’s a footrace (the announcer says so), and Giordano makes the play. Without interpreting the stats, it looks like he was beaten for a 49-yard gain, when he was really cleaning up everyone else’s mess.
Near the end of the game, Bowe catches a 25-yard pass and is tackled by Giordano. There’s no two-man mauling of Bowe on this play: Stanford Routt has him in single coverage, and doesn’t do a bad job, but Bowe gets a half step on an in-route. A tight end and wide receiver run scissors routes in front of Giordano, which keeps him deep while Bowe cut in underneath the combo. The catch sets up a field goal attempt, which is blocked, and the Raiders won in overtime.
Was this a great game for Giordano? It was a pretty good one. Picking off a pass in the end zone is a big deal, no matter how easy the interception may look. The run tackles kept nine-yard rushes from becoming 19-yarders. The McCluster tackle required good awareness and hustle. And of course, without an extra few hours of research, I cannot be sure just how often Giordano dissuaded Orton from throwing deep. On the other hand, a top-notch safety should make a better play on the Copper pass, and some of the other tackles were just the result of basic competence.
Giordano is the reason we often use our stats for information, not evaluation. Those 14.9 yards per tackle help guide us toward understanding the player’s role, strengths, and weaknesses. Girodano is an active, hustling safety with range and good hands. He’s not a great man defender. The stats help tell us where to look for these attributes.
By the way, the safety with the lowest yards-per-tackle among regular starters is the first guy you would probably guess: Adrian Wilson, at 4.4 yards per play.
Let’s talk about Tebowmania. Oh, heck no.
Let’s talk about the heuristics of satire. That can be fun! Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes last year, and he was heavily criticized for being offensive and, more damningly, not funny. Gervais will host the ceremony again this year, and he took to the pages of Entertainment Weekly to defend last year’s jokes about Robert Downey Jr. and Sarah Jessica Parker as misunderstood satire.
Of this gag -- "[Downey] has done all of those films, but many of you in this room probably know him best from such facilities as the Betty Ford Clinic and the Los Angeles County Jail," – Gervais writes the following: "the contention here was it is outlawed in polite society ever to mention someone’s addiction." He then goes on for hundreds of words teetering between angry-sounding protests ("It’s a f---ing joke!") and obsequious log-rolling, praising Downey’s "determination" and "courage" in overcoming a "life-threatening illness."
At no time along the way does Gervais acknowledge that the joke stinks.
Gervais is brilliantly funny, but he brought his C-minus game to the Golden Globes. Betty Ford clinic jokes are not taboo. Johnny Carson made Betty Ford clinic jokes in the 1980s. They are stale. Middleweight comics can mine Downey and Charlie Sheen for decent celebrity druggie material without offending anyone’s sensibilities. Truly edgy South Park-caliber humorists can touch rawer nerves without getting hammered as "inappropriate." Going the Betty Ford route is like standing in front of an audience and saying, "hey, Robert Downey Jr. sure did take a lot of jokes, huh? Wacka-wacka-wacka!" Gervais’ Sarah Jessica Parker "airbrushed picture" joke was also obvious and dull, and reading him justify it as a satire of ageism in the film industry made me a little sad.
Here is a little secret from someone who writes lots of jokes for money: sometimes, we write material that is not that good. The 20th Rex Ryan joke is never as funny as the first two. You tighten the material, you bury the weaker joke between the two strong ones, and you put as much polish on the gag as you can, but sometimes you have to serve a microwave taco of a joke, because it is your job. Carson used to deliver obvious bombs, then wince and make funny faces to win the crowd back over. I sometimes have to smile and move quickly on to the next series of gags. Justifying everything as "misunderstood satire" is really self serving.
But Gervais is a gifted satirist, and maybe the EW article is really just a satire on the self-justifications that brilliant people make for their occasional lapses. Also, maybe the Arian Foster documentary was really just a sly satire on how inspirational sports features are crafted. The great thing about the 21st century is how everything comes with its own meta-commentary. This whole Walkthrough can be read as a satire of rambling sports features by tired writers grasping for fresh angles under deadlines. Read that way, it may work very well. Read as is, it may be an extended Golden Globes monologue gone wrong.
Either way, we have left the 4,000 word mark in the dust, and it is time to once again change the subject.
49 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2012, 5:41am by rexodatis