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.
03 Jul 2012
by Mike Tanier
Aldon Smith committed the worst possible NFL crime on Saturday: he was involved in a violent incident during a slow news period.
Smith received minor injuries as the result of a stab wound during an out-of-control party at his San Jose home. Two people were shot at the party, but they are expected to pull through, and Smith is not a shooting suspect, but a stabbing victim. Still, the first rule of Internet sports writing is to identify the most famous sports person involved in any scandal, then vilify him as quickly as possible. So I am four days late in saying tsk-tsk at Smith, though it is really just sour grapes because I don’t get invited to this kind of party anymore.
Didn’t Smith learn anything from the Rookie Symposium? Several early-response bloggers asked that question on Sunday, before cooler heads set the record straight. No, he did not. There was no Rookie Symposium in 2011. Remember the lockout? The NFLPA held a similar event, and 23 of 32 first round picks attended. Smith, and any other rookie with time on his hands (all of them, last June), probably should have gone to the NFLPA’s "The Business of Football: Rookie Edition" program, but none of them had the chance to go to the Rookie Symposium, which was cancelled.
If they had, they would have learned that the very first PowerPoint slide says "Don’t Get Stabbed."
Actually, the speakers tell rookies to avoid places where there are lots of guns and intoxicants, like nightclubs, parties for famous people, or any of the other places wealthy 20-somethings like to hang out. Because, otherwise, what’s the point of being a wealthy 20-something?
"Don’t host a gun-filled party" is darn good advice for anyone, of course. So is "don’t drink and drive," something Smith did a few months ago. I’m not saying Smith used excellent judgment, just that our collective tsk-tsk is a tad self-serving. May those of us who are without fault throw the first tsk. If we followed all the prudent advice we are given at various times in our lives, there would be no high cholesterol, no upside-down mortgages, no happy hour specials. I prefer to live in this world of messy people who do foolish things.
Emerging from a gun fight with a minor knife wound shows a degree of resourcefulness and restraint, I think. It is not quite like coming away from a Vegas weekend with wrist lacerations from wearing too many chastity bracelets, but if this were an actual scandal, Smith would be on one or the other end of gun violence. Some sources claim he was breaking up a fight, and some of my fellow writers have taken him to task for this, because the right thing for him to do would be to walk away. That’s on Day Two of the Rookie Symposium: suppress all human emotions and reactions.
We actually know few details about the Smith party. The police themselves asked witnesses to come forth on Tuesday, more than three full days after the event. Nothing gets society’s shadier elements in a confessional mood like hearing the police admit that they have no leads whatsoever after days of investigation. If you have reliable details of what happened at the 2 a.m. party, please come forth, though I regret to inform you that you are doing 2 a.m. parties wrong.
Smith was allegedly wounded with a pocket knife. A pocket knife? Who was hanging out at this party: Mark Trail? It wasn’t a Swiss army officer, because everyone knows that the corkscrew is the best weapon on those bad boys. In my version of events, Smith heard gunshots and immediately went to rescue two Cub Scouts who were working on their knife safety merit badges, but one of them inadvertently jabbed him. Tsk-tsk to anyone who believes otherwise.
The Smith incident, what with its gunshots, 100-person parties and pocket knives, would merit a little attention any time of the year, but it got undue play in the NFL press because there is nothing else to talk about right now. The league goes dark in late June, and desperate writers resort to gimmicks like Best and Worst Free Agents and Top Five Running Backs in Houston Texans History, often pre-written before much-needed vacations. All of us hope that Smith is okay, that the gunshot victims are okay, and that nothing else happens until after the Fourth of July, or preferably Monday, when we return to work mode.
Smith’s party took place during the quietest part of the American sports schedule, which is a good time for a football player to throw a party, if you think about it. As usual, baseball is trying to pick up the slack with the run-up to the All-Star Game, because in baseball’s paradoxical world shutting the league down for three days increases excitement.
Major League Baseball is having a hard time getting players to participate in the All-Star Game. They should threaten them by making them attend the Pro Bowl instead. All of the guys who really want to play are being snubbed by Tony LaRussa, so the leagues have resorted to gimmicks. The sport’s latest gimmick involves in-game Twitter: once players sub out, they are allowed to Tweet their thoughts.
Now, there’s an idea the NFL should steal. If Arian Foster and Chris Kluwe were Tweeting from the sidelines, I would watch the Pro Bowl. Chad Ochocinco could Tweet pre-snap if he ever makes another Pro Bowl. I would vote for players solely on their Twitter skills. Pete Carroll would coach both sides.
Baseball’s plan is doomed to backfire because the sport’s best social networker, Brandon Phillips, is being snubbed by Tony LaRussa. Baseball traditionalists hate the Twitter idea, which means I love it, because nothing entertains me more than baseball traditionalists going tsk-tsk, which is the sound they make while breathing.
If Smith had waited two days, the Tour de France might have diverted some of us from his incident, though it is admittedly hard for someone to schedule when he is going to be stabbed. Unfortunately, the Tour de France start was delayed for 45 seconds because a train was going by. Or maybe it wasn’t a train: maybe Lance Armstrong has really been hitting the stuff. French officials were very cross at the train for causing confusion and delay, but luckily, no one was hurt. Train delays are one of many reasons why there is no Tour De Secaucus.
Speaking of Twitter, North Jersey, and linebackers putting themselves close to precarious situations, Mark Herzlich Tweeted this last Friday night: "Anyone in Belmar wanna let me park in their driveway?" Surviving cancer and winning the Super Bowl are easy compared to Jersey shore parking. Day Three of the Rookie Symposium explicitly covers parking in strange driveways, if you get my drift, but Herzlich could not attend it, because he wasn’t drafted, and there wasn’t one. Tsk-tsk, Mark. Just drive down to Atlantic City and park in a casino lot. The further south you come, the less filth you are swimming in, though you probably do not want to think about that.
Speaking of swimming in filth, Olympic hopeful Nick Symmonds is dating Paris Hilton, who has weeks two through five of the Rookie Symposium all to herself. Symmonds, from Boise, was so smitten by Hilton that he asked her father for permission to date her. That must have been the greatest conversation ever, with Rick Hilton wondering who this nice Martian boy is who has never seen the Internet. Symmonds sounds like the kind of a guy who waits for the third date to go all the way, five dates longer than the usual Hilton paramour. She is probably charmed and bored by him. No word on whether Symmonds has parked in Hilton’s driveway yet.
I happened to be down the shore the day before Herzlich, when the beach was so hot it burned through the towels, the water was hot enough to melt medical waste, and the greenhead flies were big and ornery enough to brandish pocket knives. Having had my fill of that, I took the family to the Williamsburg Family Vacation Demilitarized Zone, which was actually more fun than I thought it would be. If you are going to shake me upside down until every last dime flies from my pockets, at least give my kids a fun roller coaster, me some decent food, and mention a historic event once in a while so we can pretend it was educational. The folks in the Bermuda Triangle of Water Parks and Reenactments did just that. A bear was captured outside the grounds a few days after we left, probably looking for a parking spot.
While driving through Family Fun-or-Else Land, I noticed many SUVs with stick-figure stencils on the backs. The stencils were all cute caricatures of the happy families inside, but surly after hours on the road and in coaster lines, I liked to pretend that they were all that vehicle’s victims. "Let’s see, while driving this smallish locomotive through suburban cul-de-sacs, I clipped a guy with golf clubs, a woman who wears trapezoidal skirts, some cute kids, and a dog. I also delayed the start of a bike race 45 seconds."
When couples divorce, do they fight for custody of the stencils? When the dog passes away, does dad have to go out there with a pocket knife and tearfully scrape poor Rover’s caricature from the back of the family truckster? Maybe I watch too many ironic family dramas, but I assume the happy stencil family is a sign of a miserable real family, the matriarch breaking down over her second martini at a backyard barbecue and pointing at the little white drawings while sobbing: "this is how we are supposed to be, damn it!" Or maybe I am trying to justify my sloppiness and lack of decorating skill as a sign that I am happy.
Wholesome family events are a far cry from raucous Aldon Smith gun parties. Or are they? My father liked to fire his .357 Magnum every Fourth of July. He would take my brother and me to the back of the yard and let us watch him fire it into the ground. He was a responsible man, I guess, as he did this before my unpredictable uncles arrived or the Carling Black Label was chilled. He would then put the gun back in its top-secret hiding spot, which was his sock drawer, which eight-year-old me could only reach if I got on my tippy-toes or used a stool. Those were the first parties I attended at which shots were fired.
Granted, inviting a hundred of your rowdiest friends over for a party isn’t quite the same as a father taking his two young sons to the back of a suburban yard to show them just how thrilling and fun firing a weapon can make a celebration. When you think about it, the latter is far, far stupider. Right now, I am deaf in one ear, because I got wax-and-Jersey-seatoxin sludge in there, then sent the Starship Q-Tip in to investigate under yellow alert with phasers on stun. The wax is so lodged that the nurse couldn’t remove it. She looked at me as if I were an idiot for using a ramrod-shaped implement to try to remove something from one of the two matching orifices in the male body into which we should never, ever jab something but are likely to try. And of course, I am an idiot for doing this. How can I judge anyone else?
Mining a violent incident at which several people were injured for laughs is in dubious taste. Mining the same incident for prefab moral indignation against one of the victims of the violence is in worse taste, and is also boring and unoriginal. Once you read the (scant) facts of the Smith party, do you really need someone else to provide "he should know better" contextualization?
Trust me: I take violent, alcohol-fueled incidents very seriously. Too seriously to casually blame the one person we can safely identify as a "victim," and too seriously trivialize them by folding them into a "potential distraction for the 49ers" storyline. These aren’t Aldon Smith problems or NFL problems, but human problems. Those problems are out of my jurisdiction. Everyone appears to be okay. Smith won’t even miss work. We breathe a sigh of relief, and we chuckle at our foibles. Everyone knows they should know better, with or without a symposium.
This year, there was a Rookie Symposium, and Pacman Jones told the rookies that he spent one million dollars in one weekend. I want details. And receipts. It takes a staggering amount of drinks, wagers, and loose women to spend one million dollars in one weekend. Giving Pacman 5 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday, with no sleep, that comes out to over $16,000 per hour. Forget making it rain, that’s typhoon season. That’s a movie plot: Pacman’s Millions.
Jones set the modern benchmarks for wild behavior and gun violence by associates. He is paying for it with $11.6 million in lawsuits. It’s hard to separate yourself from your rowdy friends when your rowdiest friend is yourself. If I have learned anything from this business, it’s that I get older and wiser, while football players remain 20-something dudes with lots of money and sex appeal and the commensurate judgment of 20-something dudes. Dumb things will always happen, and you’ll work your poor high horse to death if you make it gallop every time a player, or any young person, does something stupid.
But I have always been permissive on such matters. Tsk-tsk.
Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 will be out next Tuesday, and the final edits are trickling forth from HQ. Apparently, I described some player as having a "36-inch wingspan and a 10-foot vertical leap." Can you imagine such a stubby, dexterous creature? I made that correction, but that gives you some idea what stage we are at.
If you are an Eagles fan looking for something to tide you over while we terminate the grasshopper people, check out The Eagles Almanac. It contains a big chapter by me, which does not duplicate anything in our book, because I did not write our Eagles chapter. (Okay, some of the Asante Samuel stuff finds its way into the Falcons chapter, and you will recognize some Audibles rants). Other writers include Tom McAllister, author of Bury Me in My Jersey, and several of the writers for sites like Bleeding Green Nation and other Eagles blogs. It’s a fun mix of analysis, opinion, and humor, a little like our book, but it’s all Eagles. Oh, and it is cheap, and like FOA, most of the money goes to the guys who wrote it.
I just finished Chris Brown’s The Essential Smart Football and realized that I have not plugged it, and it is probably too late because you guys have been talking about it on the comment boards, so you all know about it.
Brown is one of the top football strategy experts working in the media today. He may be the top college football strategy expert of all, because he does not have to compete with Jaws and Company in the college realm. Brown follows strategic threads through history like no one else, and he can tell you which coach learned what from whom and when, while at the same time explaining the plays themselves. He also explains some over-arching football philosophies that are rarely explained to laymen.
There are not enough books like this on the market, and we need to support the heck out of all of them so publishers can see that there is an audience. Brown’s book makes a great companion to The Games That Changed the Game because Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell focus on many games from yesteryear, while Brown spends more time on recent innovators. The Essential Smart Football will help get you ready for both the college and NFL seasons.
Oh, I am supposed to keep previewing my FOA chapters, right? Here goes:
Miami Dolphins: This essay began as 1,700 words of Jeff Ireland jokes. We went back to the editing room with it because the DVOA projection for the Dolphins is not terrible, and at some point piling on poor Ireland gets a little tiresome. There is only one recent team executive I can think of who was as clueless, and as prickly about his cluelessness, as Ireland. When not breaking down Ryan Tannehill’s merits, we compare and contrast Ireland to that legendary character.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The first half of this essay was written just before the Combine, when Greg Schiano cobbled together his band of unlikely coaching misfits. There’s Butch Davis, whose job title is carefully crafted so he can double dip on his North Carolina University severance. There’s Jimmy Raye, last seen mumbling into a headset and losing a power struggle to Alex Smith in San Francisco. There’s Bill Sheridan, who was so terrible with the Giants that he was fired before season’s end in 2010 by the most patient organization in the NFL. This is one garbled mess of a coaching staff, with guys like Davis and Raye holding vague titles that all but guarantee chain-of-command questions.
The second half is more optimistic, because the Bucs had a solid draft, made wise free agent acquisitions, and appear to have a decent young nucleus in place. The coaching staff may have some hiccups, but the Bucs will be better than they were in December of 2011. To get any worse, they would have to have all the bones from their bodies removed and live on as jellyfish people.
New Orleans Saints: I spend 1,700 words scornfully condemning the Saints and offering my solemn moral judgments on the Bounty situation. Kidding! Kidding! The Saints chapter accepts the bounty penalties for what they are, and tries to move forward and really analyze the implications.
When we get down to it, the Saints lost a head coach, a star linebacker, a general manager for half a season, and some ancillary pieces. The defensive coordinator was out the door anyway, so all the sound and fury about Gregg Williams amounts to nothing. The Saints have a veteran offensive roster and an experienced offensive coordinator, so how much will really change without Sean Payton? Jonathan Vilma was nursing an injury anyway, and Curtis Lofton provides an adequate replacement.
So everything is fine and dandy, except for the matter of not having a general manager early in the season. That has bigger implications than a casual fan might think. The Saints are in a truly unprecedented situation, and no one would claim that the losses of Payton, Vilma, Mickey Loomis, and Joe Vitt don’t matter at all, or matter in a way that is easily quantified. But our best methods suggest that the biggest threats to the Saints are not bounty repercussions, but the Falcons and rising Panthers.
1. Arian Foster
A very good back, and a tremendous system fit. Those of us who don’t watch a lot of Texans football don’t think of Foster as a receiving threat, but he had three 100-yard receiving games last season, which helped him finish fifth among NFL running backs in receiving DVOA.
2. Domanick Davis (Williams)
Memory wipe! I forgot this guy existed! Williams will remain the Texans all-time leading rusher until about the fourth quarter of the Texans’ first game; he is 98 yards ahead of Foster. Davis earned Pepsi Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, was better in 2004, injured his knee late in the 2005 season, suffered complications in camp in 2006, and has disappeared. A Google search offers the option "Whatever Happened to Domanick Davis?" which I plan to use as the title of my first screenplay.
3. Steve Slaton
A plug ‘n’ play zone-stretch back in the fine Alex Gibbs tradition, Slaton finished ninth in the league in DYAR in his signature come-from-nowhere season in 2008. He then got all fumbly, and Gary Kubiak reached into the bin for the next one-cut guy.
4. Ron Dayne
Dayne actually ranked 16th in the NFL in DVOA and fourth in Success Rate in 2006, showing just how amazing the zone-stretch rushing concept can be. His 2007 season was not as good, but it was not a train wreck: 15th in Success Rate, 34 DYAR, a slightly-above-replacement performance for a guy who flirted with replacement level for his whole career.
I try not to write much about the random fact that two future first-round NFL picks sat in my classrooms when I was a teacher. I mention Joe Flacco often enough, but Dayne was in my very first homeroom when he was a freshman at Overbrook High School in 1992. He was the most amazing high school athlete I ever saw, including Flacco, and I will always remember the pudgy, silly 14-year-old who could somehow run hurdles even though he had not yet turned his baby fat into muscle (which eventually came lined with a little too much man fat, but I am trying to be sweet and nostalgic here). That I taught or otherwise supervised two future first-rounders is incredibly random, because South Jersey is not Dade County, and we don’t produce much NFL talent.
5. Ben Tate
Tate could get to No. 2 on this list in about three years while never supplanting Foster for the starting job. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry will help.
Arguably the best running back in the NFL in 2000, 2004, and 2005. He finished second or third in rushing DYAR in each of those years, fifth, fourth, and third in receiving DYAR for a running back, and his Success Rates ranged from 55 percent to 62 percent, always among the top percentages in the league.
Being a cog in a tremendous offense helped, of course. There are many great running backs who did not have great quarterback teammates: Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown (though he had some pretty good, underrated ones), Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson. There are a few greats who appear to be unduly helped by the system around them: late-era John Riggins tops the list, with Paul Hornung and Roger Craig as other possible candidates.
In between there are players like Edge, Emmitt Smith, Franco Harris, Tony Dorsett, Marshall Faulk, and many others who were paired with great quarterbacks during their best years. How you assign credit is largely a matter of taste. I tend to give Franco a little more credit for his teams’ success, Edge a little less, but if I locked myself in a room with game film and stats I might change my mind.
The next guy also had the help of a great quarterback.
2. Lenny Moore
During the Colts’ late 50’s glory years, Moore and L.G. Dupree or Alex Hawkins were listed as halfbacks, Alan Ameche as fullback. If you ever watched footage of the 1958 NFL Championship, you know that the Colts used a two-back set, with Moore lining up as a flanker on many snaps, Dupree on some others. In the 1960s, the Colts and most other teams stopped pretending that they were using a three-back backfield, and Moore was listed as a flanker, though he still carried the ball 90 times per year. By the mid-60s, Moore was the halfback, with Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr as the wide receivers, which is a hell of a receiving corps, particularly with John Mackey at tight end. Oh, and Johnny Unitas was pulling the trigger. Don Shula, the team’s coach by this point, started using some single-back sets, putting Moore in something similar to the slot so he could run up the seam.
Moore often averaged over seven yards per carry in those early sort-of three-back seasons, catching 40-50 passes in the process. He and Frank Gifford each had skill sets well suited to that brand of football, which is one of many things that made the 1958 Championship so special. In modern football, Moore and Gifford would excel as featured backs for wide-open teams. Both would fall somewhere close to the Marshall Faulk side of the spectrum from Brian Westbrook to Marshall Faulk.
Late in his career, Moore became the 60s version of a committee back and short-yardage specialist. A few years later, the NFL became so power-based that 190-pound speedsters like Moore would have a hard time standing out.
Our stats hated Colts Faulk as much as they loved Rams Faulk. He posted negative rushing DYAR in 1995 through 1997, two of them 1,000-yard seasons, and his receiving DVOA-DYAR were nothing special before 1998, even though his raw numbers were pretty good. Our stats had no idea that he was trying to supply all of the offense for an often terrible team that considered Sean Dawkins a No. 1 receiver. Faulk could easily rank fourth on this list, but that doesn’t feel right.
4. Lydell Mitchell
We are the 70s Colts Preservation Society! God save Baltimore, and Bob Irsay’s rare sobriety!
For the 1970s Colts, Ted Marchibroda ran an offshoot of the Sid Gillman offense that was almost, but not quite, as innovative and exciting as the ones Don Coryell ran in St. Louis and Bill Walsh ran in Cincy. Mitchell was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this offense, gaining over 1,000 rushing yards from 1975 through 1977 and catching 60-72 passes per season. These are incredible numbers for that era, and these years are on a par with the best Roger Craig years.
We tell 1970s Colts stories a lot at Football Outsiders. Bert Jones’ 1976 season was one of the greatest statistical seasons a quarterback ever had, though the numbers are suppressed by the Dead Ball Era. These Colts teams were very good, going 10-4 or 11-3 every year, but they always lost to the Steelers or Raiders in the playoffs. Then, Jones got hurt and Robert Irsay’s financial problems and drinking became big issues. One by one, the Colts’ biggest stars were salary dumped, including Mitchell, who was out of the NFL by the time the Colts went 1-15 and allowed 6,973 yards from scrimmage in 1981. The Jones-Mitchell-Sack Pack Colts were one of the NFL’s forgotten Really Good Teams, though we do our best to remedy that.
Mitchell and Franco Harris were teammates at Penn State, and they now run a food services business together.
Dickerson had two truly outstanding seasons for the Colts: strike-shortened 1987, when he rushed for 1,011 yards in nine games, and 1988, when he pounded out 1,659 rushing yards. As Nate Dunleavy wrote in his book Blue Blood, Dickerson was the first true star the Colts acquired after moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis; before Dickerson, the team won 12 games in three years and was still in the throes of the mismanagement that had plagued the team since the late 1970s.
As important as Dickerson was for legitimizing the Colts to a fanbase of lifelong Bears and basketball fans, he brought diminishing returns, and his constant salary demands overshadowed his production in the second half of his Colts tenure. I would rather have Mitchell or Faulk in their Colts primes than Dickerson, on and off the field.
There are a lot of honorable mentions. Tom Matte was an important all-purpose player for the entire decade of the 1960s. He played halfback, returned kicks, and even filled in for Unitas at quarterback at times. Matte started a playoff game at quarterback against the Packers in 1965, going 5-of-12 for 40 yards but rushing 17 times for 57 yards. The Packers needed a fourth quarter comeback and overtime field goal to beat Matte and the Colts 13-10 (Bart Starr was also injured for most of the game). Matte also rushed for 115 yards in a losing effort in Super Bowl III. Star-crossed career, I guess, but a very good one.
Joseph Addai was a fine player for several years and helped the Colts win a Super Bowl. Alan Ameche was thunder to Lenny Moore’s lightning. Ameche and teammate Gino Marchetti founded the Gino’s hamburger chain. In Philly in the 1970s, Gino’s was a worthy competitor for McDonalds. They served Kentucky Fried Chicken and hot dogs (unusual for fast food joints, then and now) and had an endorsement deal with the Phillies. There was a Gino’s four blocks from my house, near the youth baseball fields, and my buddies and I would go get Gino Giants and sodas after practice, assuming we could scare up three bucks each, plus some quarters to play Wizards of Wor on the game machine. Is this sounding enough like an old guy story to you? How about now: my glove was "autographed" by Dave Rader. That did it.
Anyway, Ameche will always be part of any list I make, thanks to all those Gino Giants and hot dogs. And Colts running backs clearly have a knack for the food services industry, so ten years from now we may be all pigging out at Addai’s.
80 comments, Last at 26 Jul 2012, 8:33am by bengt