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.
19 Jan 2012
by Mike Tanier
JIM HARBAUGH: Mrrph ... toss ... grumph ... turn ... Numbers ninety, seventy-four, ninety-nine, seventy-five, fifty-two, ninety-six, and sixteen report as eligible for the home team. Yes. Yes...
MRS. HARBAUGH: Honey? Wake up. You were installing short-yardage packages in your sleep again.
JIM HARBAUGH: Never wake me from that dream again! Do you hear me? NEVER!
The thought of a Ravens-Giants Super Bowl makes me feel incredibly old. It must make Ray Lewis feel even older.
Super Bowl XXXV was impossibly long ago: January 28, 2001. A time when I was childless, had no writing career to speak of, and had dark brown hair and a 34 waist. Thinking about Super Bowl XXXV makes me feel ancient in a way thinking about Super Bowl XV does not. I was a kid eating meatballs from a TV tray in my grandmother’s living room and throwing epic tantrums during Super Bowl XV. Childhood is childhood; we all have one. I was a full-grown adult for Super Bowl XXXV, yet it was a decade and a lifestyle ago, and the only thing worse than gearing up to watch a rerun is gearing up to play in the rerun.
Super Bowl XXXV was arguably the worst Super Bowl ever, though that is a matter of preference. Many people single out Super Bowl V, a 16-13 Colts win over the Cowboys. Having watched the television footage of that game, I can verify that it was a snoozer, except 1) it was close, 2) it was on a par with most early 1970s football, which was defense-dominated and dull, and 3) one quarter of Johnny Unitas (he was hurt early in the game) beats four lifetimes of Trent Dilfer. Also, it was 41 years ago, and if I had clear memories of it, I would feel really, really old.
Super Bowl XXXV gave us Dilfer versus Kerry Collins and 440 yards of total offense. The Saints produced 499 yards of offense by themselves on Saturday, and they lost. I think. Super Bowl XXXV was 10-0 at halftime, but it did not feel close, because ten points against the Ravens back then was like ten goals in a World Cup soccer game. The Giants were cooked, and they spent the second half resting on a countertop while their juices redistributed.
Where were you during Super Bowl XXXV? Please don’t post on the message board that you were in high school, because you will make Ray Lewis and me feel old. (Actually, post away). Try to remember the details. You did not own an iAnything. You watched in low-def, maybe on a "projection screen" television that took up an entire room and delivered ghostly images of the Giants, though you couldn't tell since they were delivering ghostly images of themselves anyway. You didn’t come to Football Outsiders to kvetch, because we didn’t exist. But you may have dialed in to America Online, then found a favorite bulletin board somewhere to post your thoughts. Only quickly though, because you then had to shut down so you did not tie up the phone line.
Let me jog your memory: the halftime show was ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly. Remember those abominable mash-ups of pop artists with one token classic rock act? Remember ‘N Sync? Justin Timberlake has gone from boy band member to highly respected actor-performer-comedian. Ray Lewis has gone from linebacker for the Ravens to linebacker for the Ravens. Where have we gone?
I keep bringing Lewis up because he made retirement noises, or anti-retirement noises, after the Texans game. In the preseason, he said he might retire if the Ravens win the Super Bowl. Now, he is having second thoughts. "Let me sum it up for all players: this is a one-time thing," Lewis said on the NFL Network. "We don’t get youth back, so there isn’t any coming back to this for me. If we go win the Super Bowl this year, what am I supposed to look at my team and say? Individually, ‘I have two, I’m done.’ Or do I look at my fellas and say, ‘Let’s scrap it up one more time, let’s see if we can make this run one more time.’ That’s all what the legacy is about: togetherness and to hoist that Lombardi with my boys. There is nothing I wouldn’t give up for that."
We don’t get youth back? Ouch. Only old people say and think that.
When Lewis talked about retirement in August, he mentioned that his son was a junior in high school and that he wanted to spend time with him. I really hate to give anyone bad news, especially someone like Ray Lewis, but ... too late. Ray Lewis III will soon be off to college, probably as a highly-recruited running back, and dad will have retired just in time to stand next to his boy at Signing Day, straighten the lapel on his prom tuxedo, help pack the SUV, and suffer from crippling empty nest syndrome. Lewis has other children, but Ray III was singled out as the impetus for retirement. Lewis should play five more seasons, then retire to help Ray III lay down the linoleum in the kitchen of that starter home.
Actually, this has the makings of a terrible sitcom. "Ray Lewis plays a retired football star who disguises himself as a high school senior so he can be closer to his teenage son." Even better: Lewis could dress in drag and pretend to be a lunch lady who dispenses wisdom and creamed corn. He needs a gay buddy, a smart-aleck precocious younger son, and a sexy wife who talks non-stop about her private parts. It could run for seven years.
The most important time for a father to be at home, in my very biased opinion, is when his kids are in the five-to-twelve range. That is the time when first peewee touchdowns are scored, when monkey bars are conquered, where lessons about self-confidence and self-discipline have some chance of sinking in. Lewis was hurt for much of 2002 and 2005, so he had a chance to be around the house for a few of his son’s most important formative years. Hopefully, he finished his three-hour rehabilitation assignments and hit the family room floor with the video game controller, or stalked the bleachers at biddy basketball, or watched SpongeBob until his eyes bugged out, then helped with Everyday Math homework until he realized that SpongeBob could design a better curriculum. If he didn’t, I would not trade places with Ray Lewis for anything, not his wealth, his fitness, or his ring.
Infancy is a close second in the fathering department: mom needs strong backup so she does not become a raging lunatic, and a man needs to clean a little poop for a year or two to reaffirm his lowly place in the cosmos. You are not the snarling general in an epic, never-ending gridiron war. You are the man holding his breath, head cocked sideways, gripping the legs of a wriggling mass of adorable non-cooperation and wondering whose bright idea the second helping of mac-and-cheese was. Toddlerhood is the best time for a father to be far, far away (for his mental health anyway, the kind probably needs him). A strapping 16-year-old? He knows you are traveling for business, dad. And next year, he will be traveling for business. And as a football player, you will be home for the prom.
It’s no surprise that feelings of fatherhood, legacy, and waning youth are all clashing in Baltimore this week. Lewis came before Tom Brady, before Patriots dominance, before social networking, before terror alerts, before iPods. He entered the NFL of John Elway, Dan Marino, and Troy Aikman as a rookie in 1996. He’s a holdover from another era of history, and to understand that you only have to look back on your own personal history. He has been on the job for lifetimes: his, his son’s, ours.
Retirement talk aside, Lewis’ Super Bowl hopes are pretty slim. He will probably scrap it up for another year or two. He’ll never get his youth back, but Lewis has done some remarkable things with encroaching middle age so far, and it will be interesting to see where he goes with it. Hopefully, not to his own sitcom.
Twitter follower nrecca writes: "I could’ve sworn that I saw first-down and two at midfield in some game this season. Scouring NFL rules, is this possible?"
Why yes, it is. Offensive holding is a spot foul when it occurs downfield, so if a blocker holds 12 yards from the line of scrimmage, the ball is marked back 10 yards from the spot of the foul, creating the rare first-and-2.
This very thing happened in the first quarter of the Vikings-Raiders game in Week 11. On first down at the Raiders 35-yard line, the Vikings ran an end-around to Percy Harvin. Harvin found an alley and raced for a touchdown. But there was a flag: holding, Michael Jenkins. Jenkins takes a lot of ribbing as the girl with the nice personality when it comes to wide receivers: we say nice things about his blocking because he is not much good at anything else. Jenkins threw a very good downfield block on this play, knocking a defender to the turf. As noted a few weeks ago in an article about the Panthers receivers, referees sometimes interpret "the receiver properly and aggressively blocked" as "the receiver clearly must have done something illegal," and Jenkins’ tacky-at-best foul nullified a touchdown.
So the Vikings faced first-and-2. The color commentator called it a "waste" down, and the Vikings wasted it. They ran another end-around to Harvin! Michael Huff dumped him for a six-yard loss.
That was the only first-and-2 play this season, and in fact there were no plays of first down and one, three, or four that were not really first-and-goal plays. That’s 388 total plays, all of them at the goal line but the Harvin reverse. Once you move up to first-and-5, encroachment becomes an issue, and non-goal line plays become much, much more common.
Another Walkthrough, another old Chargers running back. Aaron Hernandez’s rushing performance on Saturday reminded me of Rod Bernstine, the last tight end in the NFL to switch more-or-less full time to running back.
Bernstine was a fullback until his junior year of college, when Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill moved him to tight end. Bernstine initially resisted the move, but later went on to lead the nation’s tight ends with 65 receptions.
The Chargers drafted Bernstine in 1987. These were the post-Don Coryell Chargers, but guys like Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow were still around, and coaches Al Saunders and Dan Henning used a lot of single-back, H-back sets. Bernstine was the H-back, catching ten passes as a rookie and 29 passes in 1988. Bernstine suffered a knee injury in 1988, and Henning wanted to find ways to get him on the field without making him block at the line of scrimmage. In 1989, Bernstine began motioning into the backfield more often on passing downs. It was a short step from there to a role as a committee back.
"I’m a tight end in disguise," Bernstine said after scoring a 27-yard touchdown against the Chiefs early in the 1989 season. It was not much of a disguise: Bernstine’s uniform number was 82. The play was a third-and-8 draw, which Jim McMahon may have called as an audible (sources hint at this but are not clear). The element of surprise played a role, but as San Diego Union-Tribune writer Wayne Lockwood pointed out in his game story: "It was the ninth time in three games Bernstine has carried on what is, essentially, the same play. Shouldn't people be catching on by now?"
Benstine ended the season with 15 carries, 21 receptions, and more knee injuries. Marion Butts was the Chargers’ featured runner, with Tim Spencer and Darrin Nelson in complementary roles. At 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, Bernstine was too small to be an in-line tight end. Bernstine was the subject of trade rumors during 1990 training camp, when the Chargers began limiting his reps and he appeared to be a player without a position. He openly fretted about feeling unwanted.
Bernstine then earned a preseason start against the Rams at running back. He rushed for 97 yards in a half, including a 67-yard touchdown that demonstrated his cutback ability. "The thing I saw him do was make tough runs that involved not just physical play, but make a great cutback run with a great move, go over the top with great athletic ability and catch the ball as a receiver," offensive coordinator Ted Tollner said. "He just expanded his abilities."
The Chargers replaced Nelson with Ronnie Harmon, a traditional third-down pass catcher, and replaced Spencer with Bernstine. Butts was the battering ram, Bernstine the slasher. Bernstine averaged 4.8 yards per carry for three seasons in a complementary role. When he signed with the Broncos in 1993, Bernstine’s uniform number finally changed to 32, and he led the Broncos in rushing with 816 yards. He added 44 receptions. The backfield tandem of Bernstine and Leonard Russell was called "Leonard Berntine."
That was Bernstine’s last good season. He tore his ACL in Week 3 of the 1993 season and played sparingly in 1994. His legacy, besides his generation-defining inclusion in Tecmo Super Bowl, is that he was the last tight end to switch to ball-carrying running back at the NFL level. At least, he is the last one I could find. The only nearly comparable player I could dig up was Leonard Weaver, a pure tight end in college who moved quickly to fullback early in his Seahawks career and became more of a committee back with the Eagles. But Weaver never had a uniform in the 80s, played parts of multiple seasons as a tight end/H-back, or led his team in rushing.
Is Aaron Hernandez taking the Bernstine route? If so, it is truly a road less traveled. The description of those early plays is intriguing: like Bernstine, Hernandez has started his rushing career by lining up in the backfield, presumably as a blocker, and taking "surprise" handoffs. He also generated a lot of big plays in that role. There was no master plan to move Bernstine: he was a guy without a clear position who showed he was a viable running back in training camp. Hernandez is stuck as the second-fiddle tight end for a team that gives players an opportunity to redefine their roles on the fly. Could he rush for 800 yards next year?
If so, Hernandez is in good company. Bernstine was a heck of an all-purpose performer. And if a player like him only comes around every 25 years or so, it is safe to call them truly unique.
In just a few days, I will be flying to Indianapolis to cover the Super Bowl for the New York Times!
I probably won’t be able to provide links here to every little post I write there. Be sure to check in at the Fifth Down Blog from time to time during Hype Week.
Some of you have suggested/threatened locations for a meet-up. Leave serious suggestions on the message board. I don’t know my exact schedule for that week, but I am guessing that I can sneak away from the Supersweatshop for a drink on Thursday night. Please, no cigar bars. If you will be in Indy and want to be involved in an activity of this sort, follow me on Twitter.
What about the week before the week before the Super Bowl? Why, I will be in Mobile, Alabama, covering my very first Senior Bowl! I will be filling in for another of your favorite writers, covering the game for the Shutdown Corner over at Yahoo! It is part of my takeover of all media. The Senior Bowl coverage will be traditional stuff –- who looks good, who looks bad, features –- with a dash or two of my trademark silliness.
Of course, Walkthrough will be right here, as it always is. Why do anything else in the next two weeks when you can stare at your monitor and read about football?
I dreamed on Monday night that I was watching Tim Tebow and the Broncos play an unidentified team. It was third-and-long, and Tebow was sacked. The Broncos went for it on fourth-and-15 from their own 20-yard line. They ran a draw, or maybe a quarterback power play, and Tebow weaved for 18 yards. I leapt from a couch and cheered.
First of all, thank you, football writing career. I used to dream about women, you know.
Anyway, the folks on Twitter did their best to interpret my dream for me. Some wisenheimers went in the homoerotic direction. Some others suggested that Skip Bayless has invaded my dreams. Thankfully, no one suggested both.
Here’s what I think is going on. Fourth-down conversions represent the rational mind and the quest for objective truth through careful inquiry. Fourth-down conversions were a big deal when Mike Smith was demonstrating what a nasty waitress probability can be two weeks ago. They came up again when the Ravens were stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the one. Rational thought about fourth-down decisions doesn’t mean screaming "never punt" or adopting an impatient "tut, tut" stance when a team plays it safe. Rational thought does, at the very least, require us to understand that Smith and John Harbaugh weren’t making some stupid, inexcusable decision, particularly Harbaugh, who sent one of the best running backs in the NFL into battle behind one of the best offensive lines (and into one of the best front sevens, but still) in a situation where the marginal costs of failure were not too terrible.
This is the kind of discussion that we often have here, and I try to have elsewhere. It is also something that makes the eyes of the world glaze over. The huge part of my psyche that still calls itself "math teacher" perks up when it is time to discuss probabilities, and it likes to be challenged: tellingly, the situation in my dream was fourth-and-15 from the offensive 20-yard line, a circumstance in which all but the fourth-down hardliners would punt. The sleeping brain does not want fourth-and-inches from midfield.
Tebow, of course, represents irrationality. Whole books could be written about the sociological implications of the last three months, and fans of Skeptical Inquirer can apply their whole toolkit of logical and rhetorical weapons to debunking and critiquing the more outlandish claims and themes of Tebowmania. Like Mike Smith, Tebow challenged the laws of probability and had the house on the run for a while. Like the fourth-down argument, Tebow discussions require the good kind of skepticism: the open-minded, information-gathering kind, not the humbug kind. I wrote some uncharitable things about Tebow in the last two months, but I also did my best to analyze the player himself, to point out his tangible merits, and to find analogies that might actually help fans make informed judgments about his potential. The kid is not dowsing for water with a stick. He is more like holistic medicine: good when applying nutrition, fitness, and stress relief to the overall treatment of human health, not so good when trying to cure serious illnesses with backyard herbs,
So fourth down and Tebow collide as examples of measured rationality: phenomena I strive to think clearly about, for personal and professional reasons. With Tebow safely out of the playoffs and fourth-down conversions unlikely to be a major storyline this week (when Bill Belichick goes for it, everyone shrugs their shoulders and says he is Bill Belichick), my mind could re-compartmentalize these issues. Except for one little fact: the subconscious must be heard. It wants to cheer. It wants to be excited by a fascinating player making a great play on a daring call. It does not want to ponder the percentages of the move, or brace for a societal nonsense eruption if the play succeeds. It wants to have fun watching football, and to reset the parameters of real life. Family and friends are important. Football is a job, so it is somewhat important, but it is also recreation, and when it loses its power to entertain, then there’s a classroom somewhere with my name on it.
So there it is. Androids dream of electric sheep. Football Outsiders dream of scrambling quarterbacks on fourth-and-long. And may Ravens, Giants, Patriots and Niners fans dream of Super Bowl parades to come. Ray Lewis can dream about whatever he likes.
121 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2012, 6:31pm by dryheat