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?
22 Mar 2012
by Mike Tanier
Here is how the Jaguars will win the AFC South.
The Texans are leaking talent. They have lost Mario Williams, Eric Winston, Jason Allen, and DeMeco Ryans in the last week. That’s a lot of erosion spread across the roster: the defense was hit hard, and the offensive line, which was the team’s greatest strength last season, lost a long-time stalwart. They have not acquired any significant talent, and center Chris Myers is the only key free agent they have retained so far.
Matt Schaub’s return will provide the Texans with a huge boost, and it is easy to downplay some of the trade/free agent losses: Williams was hurt much of last year, Ryans was not a great 3-4 fit and left the field on passing downs, and so on. But the Texans found themselves in cap trouble at a terrible time, just when the team turned the corner and became contenders. Salary cap management requires long-range planning, and even good planning can go awry. Just when the Texans would have liked to consolidate their gains and perhaps added a puzzle piece (like a second receiver), they are having some roster infrastructure chipped away.
The Titans have lost Cortland Finnegan and Jason Jones, two key defensive starters. Kamerion Wimbley offsets the defensive losses to a degree, but the Titans are a 9-7 team trying to work out a transition plan at quarterback and with a mess to sort out at running back. They also benefited from a very soft 2011 schedule.
The Jaguars, by their standards, have had a magnificent offseason. Laurent Robinson came with too high a price tag, but DVOA loves him (third last year), and the little scouting I did on him suggests he will be a quality starter, something the Jaguars did not have at wide receiver last year. Aaron Ross is a great fit at cornerback for a team that finished 24th in the NFL at stopping No. 2 receivers, but fourth at stopping top receivers and fifth in pass defense DVOA. Defensive lineman Jeremy Mincey and several other starters were retained from a pretty solid defense. Chad Henne takes the quarterback situation from abysmal to poor; the same goes for Blaine Gabbert if he develops and overtakes Henne.
The Texans, then, slip back to around .500. The Titans tread water at .500. The Colts rebuild at around 4-12, inflating the records of the other teams. The Jaguars face the Bengals and Raiders as their non-common opponents. The Texans face the Broncos, with their new quarterback, and the Ravens. The Titans get the Steelers and the Chargers. The Jaguars gain a game here, either by going 2-0 while the others go 1-1, or by going 1-1 while the others go 0-2. If the Texans-Ravens game were in Baltimore instead of Houston, this would be a slam dunk.
It all ends up as a sticky 9-7 morass, and the Jaguars take the crown with a bunch of 13-10 victories.
If nothing else, I think the Jaguars are a good draft pick away from hopping into the same big wading pool as the Chargers, Raiders, Bengals, Titans, and other AFC teams that hover around .500. The Jets have slid back into that pool, and the Texans appear ready to return. The Broncos may have just pulled themselves out of it. Once a team joins that pack, anything is possible.
A Walkthrough "bonus" appeared early in the week, in which I took a break from making fun of the Redskins to make fun of the Dolphins for a while. Also, I weighed in at the New York Times on our two favorite beaten-to-death stories here and here. With all of that covered, it felt like a good time to talk a little Jaguars, and a little Bears history.
The Bears Top Five I worked on early in the week grew very long, self-indulgent, and a little dull. You probably don’t need me to tell you about Walter Payton’s impact or explain who Red Grange was. So this is the beefed up (to 10 players) and cut down version which focuses on the good stuff, including a YouTube video you will absolutely flip over.
1. Walter Payton
Jeff Pearlman’s Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton is a must-read: it will tell you everything you wanted to know about the greatest running back of his generation, plus many, many things you don’t want to know. No amount of tales of extramarital affairs or drug problems (players of that era got so beat up that I am shocked that some of them didn’t become reliant on one or another form of painkiller) can sully the memories of what a delight Payton was to watch.
2. Red Grange
The Babe Ruth of football. Anyone who ever wrote a high school report on the Roaring 20’s inevitably included a few paragraphs about the first generation of national sports superstars: Ruth, Grange, Jack Dempsey, Man ‘o War, and a few others, usually in that order. Grange ranks below Payton because much of his fame came as a college player. He was an incredibly important pro player, and a great one, but he wasted part of his career on a failed "AFL" project and lost a year of his prime to injuries.
Here is some interesting stuff. First, his college statistics at Illinois. Teams played an eight-game schedule back then, and the sport resembled mud wrestling. Holy moly: imagine what 100 yards from scrimmage per game must have looked like back then. And a 60 percent completion rate on those old pass plays. And interceptions on defense.
Pro Football Reference does not have Grange stats from before 1932, but this database does. The return stats are not accurate: it is well known that Grange dropped to return punts and kickoffs, and there are plenty of complete game stories describing opponents’ efforts to punt away from Grange, with limited success. A player’s punt return record is not an afterthought in this era: as we talked about during the season, punting and returns were a major element of football in the 1920s and 1930s, and Grange’s value as a return man was arguably as important as his value as a rusher.
Speaking of punting away from people...
3. Gale Sayers
In 1967, opponents punted 77 times against the Bears, but the Bears returned just 22 of them. Sayers only had three returns, Dick Gordon (a tiny burner of a receiver) has 12, and a few others pitched in. Think opponents were giving Sayers the full Hester treatment? Or, to get the perspective right, has Hester has been getting the Sayers treatment in recent years? Sayers returned a total of eight kicks for touchdowns in 118 attempts, which is beyond amazing.
Sayers was a magnificent player for a short period of time, but I think his accomplishments are comparable to those of Terrell Davis and Priest Holmes, both of whom had exceptionally high peaks. Hall of Fame voters used to love short-career superstars like Sayers, Lynn Swann, Dwight Stephenson, and Lee Roy Selmon. It was a kind of Jim Morrison/Kurt Cobain bias. The "short career" trend has vanished, in part because Hall of Fame voters appear to be casting about randomly these days.
4. Bronko Nagurski
Here’s a little YouTube video of the 1943 NFL Championship game. Nagurski wears No. 3; you can see him block for a screen on one play and plow forward for a short touchdown on another. Sid Luckman is No. 42, and you see him not only throw a few passes and run for some significant gains, but intercept a pass as well. The T-formation was the dominant offense in football at that point, and the footage gives you an idea of how it worked, as well as some of the wacky formations which were in common use at the time.
Nagurski was nearly washed up by 1943. In his early-1930s heyday, he would take the pitch at fullback and jump-pass to a teammate, often Grange. That must have been a blast to watch.
A fine all-purpose back who stepped out of Walter Payton’s shadow to have some great seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bears history is full of great running backs who had to compensate for awful quarterbacks and out-of-date offenses. Payton endured years of Bob Avellini and his ilk. Sayers had to deal with Rudy Bukich at quarterback and a coach who still had one foot in the 1920s. Anderson played for the late-era Mike Ditka teams that considered offense something to do while the defense took a break.
Anderson was a John Madden favorite, and he was a beast in Tecmo Super Bowl. Those facts may lead fans of my generation to overrate him a bit, and I will probably rank the next guy ahead of him at the end of this year.
6. Matt Forte
The classic Bears running back is also often his team’s most reliable receiving threat: Payton was for most of his career, as was Grange in an era when "receiving threat" meant a dozen catches. Anderson was a huge part of the Bears passing game, as was Sayers. Payton is the Bears’ all-time leading receiver (in catches), with Anderson sixth, and a 50-catch season will move Forte from 12th to seventh. We will meet the current seventh-ranked running back in a few moments.
By the way, we are going to ten for the Bears because a) two ancient players make the top five a little strange and b) I never ranked the Bears quarterbacks last year.
7. Rick Casares
A great fullback of the late 1950s, Casares led the league in rushing in 1956 and then settled into a long career of very good 600-yard, 20-catch seasons.
Here is the money shot: a video of the 1956 NFL Championship, in which the Giants beat the Bears 47-7 and the Casares scores the lone Bears touchdown.
A little "unpacking" of that video:
At the 3:22 mark, with the camera focused on Giants coach Jim Lee Howell, you can see offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry conferring in the background. They are visible in a few other shots.
At 5:11, Don Heinrich warms up as the Giants quarterback. Earlier in the film, "Chuckin’" Charlie Conerly is introduced as one of the Giants’ stars. Recall that the Giants of this era used Heinrich at the start of the game to "probe" the defense, then brought Conerly off the bench. The Giants do this in the title game, and it is barely commented upon by the narrators/announcers.
At about 7:10, Mel Triplett of the Giants gets bottled up after a handoff and tries to pass. Eat your heart out, Ronnie Brown.
You get a good look at what the T-formation had evolved into by 1956 at 7:55. Bill McColl of the Bears starts out as the middle back in the "T," then motions to the left side and catches a pass. Neither team uses a three-back formation at the snap very often in this footage, but a lot of the T-formation nomenclature is still in place, so players who often line up as flankers are still called right and left halfbacks.
At 11:03, Alex Webster, who passed away a few weeks ago, scores a touchdown from a traditional T-formation after getting the Giants to the goal line with a long catch-and-run. This film is a fine document of what Webster was like in his prime. Wish I had found it before I did the Giants Top Five.
Caseras scores his touchdown at 13:17. If you are wondering about J.C. Caroline, who gets a lot of touches in the film, he soon switched to the secondary full-time.
At 18:00 the Bears, now desperately behind, switch to a "short punt" formation: a shotgun, basically. Caseras gains 15 yards on a direct snap play, and quarterback (also punter) Ed Brown completes a pass. Narrator Chris Schenkel explains that "the Bears are using this formation to give Ed Brown, the deep man, a better opportunity to pass." It’s a wonderful little bit of football evolution. The "short punt," a holdover from the era when teams often punted in early downs, is being repurposed as a passing tactic.
Another holdover from the kick-heavy era of football is the direction of the film itself. Nearly every kicking play is shown, including very routine kickoffs. Even late in the game, when the Giants are in firm control, the director chooses to include punting plays and kickoffs. Late in the video, both Brown and George Blanda throw a few passes from a conventional punting formation, and there is some exquisite alliterative ranting by the narrators to remind you of how awesome broadcasting was in that era.
8. Dutch Sternaman
Sternaman co-owned the Bears with George Halas until the Great Depression, when he was forced to sell. Sternaman was the team’s leading rusher in the pre-Grange era, when Halas played end. Here are some stats. Keep in mind that return data is incomplete/nonexistent/vitally important, NFL league games were only part of a team’s typical schedule, and that 0-0 ties were very common in that era.
9. Matt Suhey
Payton’s blocker, the seventh-leading receiver in Bears history, and a fine interior runner in an era when two-back offenses were starting to wane.
10. Thomas Jones
Oh yeah, that is why these are usually top-five lists, not top-ten lists!
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