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17 Jan 2005

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Can't Anyone Here Coach This Game?

By Russell Levine

What did we learn during the Divisional round of the playoffs?

If you read a lot of sports sites and message boards, including the ones on Football Outsiders, you might have gleaned the following:

  • Tony Dungy can't win the big one.
  • Herm Edwards can't manage the clock.
  • Mike Tice is a moron.
  • Mike Martz is completely out of his mind (but we knew that already).

Yes, you might have also picked up an opinion or two on Peyton Manning. I know. I'll get to it -- I promise. But I want to stick with the coaching theme for the moment. Going back to last week, we also learned that Marty Schottenheimer chokes in the playoffs, Mike Holmgren's teams are chronic underachievers, Mike Shanahan can't win without John Elway, and Mike Sherman isn't fit to be a GM.

Why stop there? If you listen to enough fans and writers, just about every coach in the NFL is terrible and needs to be fired. In fact, of the coaches that have been in their current positions for more than one season, I can think of only a handful that do not regularly here calls for their firing from fans and writers. The shortest list probably contains only one name: Bill Belichick (a.k.a. the genius; clearly at the top of the coaching heap right now). Others perhaps worthy of inclusion are Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Baltimore's Brian Billick, and Carolina's John Fox.

Outside of Belichick and Billick, there are six other active head coaches who have won a Super Bowl: Shanahan, Holmgren, Jon Gruden, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil. Three of them -- Shanahan, Gibbs, and Gruden -- have won Super Bowls with their current team (though it was prior to a long layoff for Gibbs), but even that hasn't protected them from hearing plenty of criticism.

Is it really possible that most of us think there are only a handful of good coaches in the entire league? That's my suspicion, but I'm curious what you think. To that end, I've created a quick online survey that I hope you don't mind filling out. It asks you to simply rate each current NFL coach (other than the coaches who or will be new this offseason) on a scale from 1-5. It only takes a couple of minutes to fill out, and when you're finished you'll be automatically redirected back to this page. To take the survey, click this link: http://www.CustomInsight.com/survey/ and enter the survey name "coaches" and password "outsiders" (without the quotes). If I get enough responses, I'll publish the results in a future column. Please consider each coach as if he was the head man of your favorite team and try to set aside biases that arise out of rivalries, etc.

Let's get back to the game that got me thinking about the relative merits of the league's coaches in the first place -- Indianapolis vs. New England. I sense that deep down, a lot of New England fans are not the least bit surprised at the way the Patriots dominated the Colts, but the rest of us most likely are. To most analysts, including me, the game seemed to boil down to a question of whether the Patriots' secondary, missing both starting corners, could slow down the Colts' receivers. The most amazing thing to me about the game is that Belichick managed to completely neutralize this perceived weakness. Watching the broadcast, I can't recall more than a few instance when the announcers even felt the need to mention who was covering which receiver. That's because the Colts so rarely were able to test the Patriots down field. Manning instead repeatedly threw screen passes or checked the ball down to running backs -- plays that were usually gobbled up by the Patriot linebackers.

The game was such a bizarre non-event, so one-sided in the Patriots' favor that it could be best described as a mugging. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the way the New England defense completely shut down one of the most potent offenses in NFL history, just a brutally efficient effort from every man on the field. Peter King offered an excellent description in his Monday Morning Quarterback column when he said that the Patriots have more pride and hunger than any organization in professional sports. It wasn't just the defense that offered that type of effort, either. Tom Brady took apart the Colts in the second half in the same calm, efficient manner to which we have all become accustomed, while Corey Dillon attacked the Indianapolis defense with eight years of Cincinnati-induced pent-up frustration.

The Colts had no answer for a team that was better than they were in every phase of the game -- from pregame stretching to special teams. It was a team loss for the Colts as much as it was a team win for the Patriots, and to lay the entire debacle at the feet of Manning would do a disservice to New England's all-around brilliance. The Indianapolis defense managed to hold back the damn for a half, but was physically whipped in the third and fourth quarters. The receivers and tight ends looked like they wanted no part of the cold, snowy conditions or the heavy-hitting Patriot secondary. Edgerrin James was too patient, too often waiting for holes that would never open rather than lowering his shoulder and attacking the defense.

And Manning? On a day that he needed to be fantastic, he was average at best. He got no help from his receivers, but he also did nothing to impose his will on the New England defense. Where was the passing attack that befuddled NFL defenses all season? Manning looked confused and frustrated, never once putting the defense on its heels. He rarely changed plays at the line of scrimmage. He let the defenders dictate to him, taking checkdown after checkdown rather than attacking a suspect secondary. Was he awful? No. Last year he was awful in the AFC title game. This year, he was just another quarterback, and was manhandled by a superior defensive team.

No matter how much of the blame Manning deserves, he knows that he is the player that will have to bear the brunt of this defeat. It's an albatross that he will carry until he delivers a signature performance on one of the sport's biggest stages. That comes along with record-setting seasons and $34 million signing bonuses. Clearly, Manning needs more help on the defensive side of the ball to take that step. Getting home-field advantage and a postseason bye would help too, as would avoiding a physical defensive team like the Patriots in the playoffs. I still believe that Manning will get there in the next few years -- just as I still believe he's still the overall best quarterback in the NFL. But he may be, as Boomer Esiason suggested on the CBS postgame show, his generation's Dan Marino (a remark that drew an icy stare from Mr. M himself, sitting two seats over on the CBS set).

The Brady vs. Manning argument is a silly one, because while a solid case can be made for either player as the superior quarterback, when it comes to rating the Colts TEAM vs. the Patriots TEAM, it's simply no contest. Until the Colts are in the same league as the Patriots from 1 to 54 on the roster, it will be impossible to truly say who's the better player. If I had to guess, I think if you put Manning on the Patriots the last four seasons, he'd almost certainly have a ring or two, while Brady on the Colts would probably still be struggling to overcome his team's limitations.

After watching this weekend's games, there's nothing that can convince me that the Steelers have much of a chance to win on Sunday. The opening line on the AFC championship game of New England (-3) certainly looks like an attractive option to me (then again, you may want to check my record in Seventh Day Adventure before heeding any of my advice).

It's odd to talk about a 16-1 team, playing at home, as having little chance, but the Steelers, who have a lengthy history in the Bill Cowher era of losing postseason games at home, were terrible against the Jets and lucky to advance. Certainly the Steelers are a more physical team than Indianapolis and won't get pushed around the way the Colts did, but Ben Roethlisberger was downright awful in the Jet game and now faces a defense that just made one of the most prolific passers in NFL history look like a confused rookie. It's being kind to suggest that Roethlisberger, who is a rookie, could be in for a long day. If the Steelers fall behind and have to rely on the pass, they're in major trouble. Expect plenty of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley in the early going as Pittsburgh tries to establish the run and keep the pressure off Big Ben.

New England, with plenty of players who were part of the team that won the 2001 AFC title on Pittsburgh's home field, won't be rattled at all by the conditions. I just can't see the Patriots losing unless they have some bizarre bounces go against them. If the coach were anyone but Belichick, the natural concern would be that the team could be flat after gearing up for two weeks to face Indianapolis, but Belichick is too good a coach to let that happen. With two rings already, and having just turned the NFL's flavor of the year into an expansion team, the Patriots are hunting something more than another title. They're hunting immortality -- something that is two wins from their reach.

* * *

I really don't know what to expect in the NFC championship. I'm going to pick the Eagles, but an upset wouldn't shock me. It's hard to know how much to take from either team's Divisional round win. The Vikings and Rams hardly gave strong accounts of themselves, with Minnesota giving its classic "we've played our one good game, now we just want to go home" effort and the Rams offering their "we don't care about defense, turnovers or special teams, our offense is good enough" routine against Atlanta. St. Louis' defensive effort in the Falcon game was as embarrassing a performance as I've seen a team give in the postseason in quite some time. Their defense showed no interest in tackling, pursuing, or gaining any push along the line of scrimmage, and their special teams were a joke.

I just don't see how the Rams can go into another season with a coach, Martz, who is so deficient in so many areas. He's had five years of trying to prove that he's smarter than every other coach and GM in the league, and it's been five years of mostly failure. He's a gifted offensive mind and play-caller, and will certainly land on his feet as a coordinator if the Rams let him go, but he's just not cut out to be a head coach.

The big story in the Atlanta-St. Louis game was the running of the Falcons and Michael Vick in particular. I've written plenty about Vick this year, and I think any time anyone questions anything about his game, it tends to get misinterpreted, so I'll state my position on him one more time. He's a brilliant athlete and from snap-to-snap may be the most dangerous player in the NFL. He's certainly the most exciting. His passing game is below average, but the Falcons have proven they can win without him putting up big passing numbers. Vick's freelancing gives Atlanta its best chance to win. I just hope people enjoy it while it lasts, because his next major injury is right around the corner. He takes too much punishment playing that style and the law of averages suggests it will land Vick back on the sidelines at some point. But it might just land him in the Super Bowl before then.

The Eagles looked a little rusty in the Minnesota game after basically taking a month off. McNabb bounced a few early throws, but overall, the Eagles still have to be pleased with the effort of their much-belittled receivers. Atlanta's defense offers a far greater challenge than the Vikings, and I'm curious to see how Atlanta will defend Philadelphia's do-everything back, Brian Westbrook.

I also think we'll see McNabb do a little more scrambling in this game because the Atlanta pass rush will get to him. On defense, Philadelphia should forget about blitzing Vick and seek to contain him with its linebackers. That's been the formula for success against Vick the last few seasons, and Philadelphia has enough speed to pull it off. The Eagles also have to accept that they will give up a big play to Vick here and there, and not to let it bother them. One or two big plays are not enough to win the game, but if they over-commit to stopping Vick and allow Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler to get loose on them, that could spell defeat.

I'm guessing the NFC game will be more competitive than the AFC. As bad as the NFC was this season, at least the best two teams have made it to the championship game. That's also the case in the AFC, but based on what I saw this weekend, I'm smelling a rout in Pittsburgh.

Mike Martz Award

I'd love to give Martz his award this week for his team's putrid overall effort in Atlanta, but there was no single moment of futility that stood out. Tice is a candidate for the Vikings' bumbled attempt at a fake field goal against Philadelphia. But the clear winner is Edwards, for his final series of regulation against the Steelers, when he curiously settled for a 40-plus yard field goal despite: A) tricky conditions B) the fact that his kicker had just missed from 47 yards and C) the fresh memory of winning a game the previous week when the opposing coach settled for a 40-yard attempt. Edwards' decision to have Chad Pennington take a knee to ensure that the kick would be the final play of regulation needlessly added two yards to the attempt and kind of summed up the Jets' season-long futility with things like clock-management and two-point conversions. For that, Edwards earns the Martz Award.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 17 Jan 2005

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