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A heart condition discovered at the combine has put the Michigan lineman's career in limbo, but Hurst had the best film of any defensive tackle in this year's draft class.

30 Dec 2004

Scramble for the Ball: A Series of Unfortunate Games

by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal

Vivek: So Al, is it a privilege to report on sports as much as Chad Pennington says it is?

It was put up time for Pennington, who I've hammered along with every other member of the media the past two weeks. I'm not going to say anything about his press conference, because I chalk that up as an aberration from just being stressed. This should have been a breakout game for Pennington, playing against a depleted Patriots secondary. New England was susceptible downfield with a linebacker playing at safety, a former #1 wide receiver as the nickel corner, and safeties (playing cornerback) lining up against wide receivers. Plus, the Pats were coming off an awful loss on Monday night against Miami. (By the way, why are some New England fans coming down on Charlie Weis for accepting the Notre Dame job? Was Weis's offense responsible for the Dolphins scoring twice in the last four minutes? The Pats' coaching staff is too good to let this interfere with a Super Bowl run.)

The Jets game plan looked right from the onset, but the execution just was not there. 18 of the first 28 plays were passes (including a few that resulted in Pennington scrambling for a yard or two). Take out a 7-for-9 touchdown drive by Pennington at the end of the game, and he was an average 15-for-27 on the day, not looking comfortable with his throws all game. The bum shoulder is not ok, and you could see that with the short or overthrown balls; his receivers were frequently reaching for the completed passes. According to this week's QB Rankings on ESPN.com done by our own Aaron Schatz, Pennington's performance falls right behind A.J. Feeley and Eli Manning, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Chad Hutchinson. That speaks for itself.

This is looking more and more like a repeat of 2000 for the Jets. After losing to the Red Sox, I can't take any more choke artists this year.

At least the team isn't as disheveled as their NY counterparts. I was disgusted after reading all the anonymous quotes in the December 25 New York Post. It does show that Coughlin has lost the team. I guess the problem with the offensive line's blocking and the defense's ability to pressure the quarterback is a result of the overall lack of spine.

Al: Chad had some beautiful throws on Sunday. Rather, some throws that would have been called beautiful if there was a Jet receiver within five yards of the ball. I've never seen so many lob passes to nowhere in a game. Hopefully for Jet fans, Aaron's right and Pennington's recent ineffectiveness is being caused by a still-lingering injury. With a few months to heal, he'll have a chance next season to show that his incredible rookie year wasn't a fluke.

I have to disagree with you on the Jet offensive game plan, however. I agree that in the first half, the Jets had the right idea by passing on New England, but just failed to execute -- although, they could have thrown more passes downfield instead of to Jerold Sowell and Lamont Jordan coming out of the backfield. In the second half, though, it seemed like New York's coaching staff just conceded the win to New England. The Jets ran five times on their first drive of the third quarter, gaining over three yards just once. They started their next drive with yet another Curtis Martin run to nowhere, quickly followed by a Pennington sack and interception which pretty much ended the game. The Jets were down by two touchdowns, against a team that was down to the eighth defensive back on their depth chart, and they decided that six out of their first nine plays on offense should be rushes. And not only that, but four of those should be carries by their 31-year old running back who has logged more carries this year than he has since he was 26. Maybe you can expect Martin to be successful this late in the year against a team like Seattle, but against he looked completely outmatched against a decent New England run defense.

I thought the anonymous Giants calling for Coughlin's head story were hilarious. Has Coughlin lost the team? Probably, but they're not worth finding. Seriously, the Giants could get rid of 90 percent of their roster and not lose a beat. If I was Ernie Accorsi, I'd keep Eli, Tiki, Chris Snee, Will Allen, Gibril Wilson, David Tyree, Willie Ponder, Jeff Feagles, Osi Umenyiora, William Joseph, and maybe Shaun O'Hara if he moves over to guard. That's about it. Everyone else can be replaced. Shockey? Let him drop passes for someone else. Strahan? He's always been a bit overrated and is unlikely to be the same player he was a few years ago now that he's on the wrong side of 30 and will have to make a comeback after missing half of this season with a torn pectoral muscle. If the Giants liked Coughlin enough to give him the reigns, they need to get rid of the whiners that don't like the way he works and bring in younger players who are willing to give their head coach a chance to succeed.

So what are you doing this Sunday, Viv? I know it won't be watching football, because there's only one game that's going to mean anything this week. Of course, Fox won't be showing the New Orleans/Carolina game in NYC on Sunday, so I'll have to find a sports bar somewhere that will be showing the game on a nine-inch screen above the bathroom and deal with drunken Jets fans cursing Chad Pennington to see the only game this week that really means anything. All the first week byes and home field advantage in both leagues has been determined. Sure, there are a bunch of AFC teams that are still playing for the two wild card spots, but does it really matter which ones get in? None of them are going to beat Pittsburgh and New England on the road if they can somehow pull off a huge upset and win at Indianapolis or San Diego in the first round.

In the NFC, the only team that isn't guaranteed a playoff spot but can make some noise in January is Carolina. No one is playing better than the Panthers in the NFC. If they can beat New Orleans and get into the playoffs, hopefully getting the #5 seed and avoiding Green Bay in the first round, I like their chances to go all the way. The Panthers showed last year they can win on the road in the playoffs. The Eagles team they would face in Philadelphia would be a worse team than the one Carolina defeated there last year. No other NFC team is as good as the Rams were last season, when Carolina went into St. Louis and pulled off the upset. I've seen recent odds on the Panthers to win the NFC Championship as high as 14-1. I like those odds.

Vivek: No DeShaun Foster, Steve Smith, or Stephen Davis, but somehow John Fox's team has climbed out of a 1-7 whole into a position where we are saying that they have a good shot to go to the Super Bowl. Carolina gets all the credit it deserves, but let's not bury the Eagles like some people are already. We all know how devastating the loss of Terrell Owens is, but this team is still better than the one that went to the NFC title game last year. Both the offensive and defensive lines were killed by injuries in 2003. The team added Javon Kearse, and the trio of Sheldon Brown, Michael Lewis, and Lito Sheppard might be better than Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor from last year. Add the fact that the NFC is much weaker, and the Eagles really have no excuse if they don't make the Super Bowl.

Al: I've got a great excuse for them when they lose to the Panthers in the divisional round of the playoffs: their offense will be playing a full game together for the first time this year. I understand the Eagles' desire to rest their starters to avoid injury going into the playoffs. But you can't afford to do that when the centerpiece of your offense won't be available in the post-season. The TO-less Eagle offense will be drastically different than the TO-centric one we saw over the first fourteen weeks of the season. The Eagles will be going into the playoffs with less than a game of experience this season running a first-team offense against a playoff caliber defense without a legitimate MVP candidate lining up wide for Donovan McNabb to throw to.

What Did We Learn from Week 16?

Lesson 1 -- Week 16 was a Bad Week for Fantasy Football Finals

Vivek: No, that wasn't a massive case of Tourette's Syndrome this weekend, it was just a lot of frustrated fantasy football team owners who watched a season of hard work (or a crappy first half which resulted in better waiver positioning to get the likes of Drew Brees, Antonio Gates and Stephen Jackson) go down the tubes because of NFL teams resting starters. Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Michael Vick were the main culprits here. I feel even worse for leagues with Week 17 championships.

Al: Except for me, that is. Even with Terrell Owens and Alge Crumpler in my starting lineup, I managed to win the championship in a free league I do every year with Ian, Vivek, and assorted friends of Vivek. Thanks to Reuben Droughns making a comeback, and solid weeks from Brees and Kevin Jones, I easily won the championship. It almost made up for finishing in 6th place in the keeper league Vivek and I are in, and in 8th place in a league made up of people who have never played fantasy football before.

Lesson 2 -- Reggie White the NFL Star Has Nothing on Reggie White the Man

Vivek: It's too bad that it took his passing for many people to become aware of his out-of-football endeavors. The image of White burned into my head is the picture of him running around the Superdome with the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XXXI. Those who knew his community work remembered him as the man who helped underprivileged men and women start 400 businesses, spearheaded an effort to rebuild churches that were burned down in the mid-90s, and simply made life better for the less fortunate in wherever he lived.

Lesson 3 -- There Are More Important Things In Life Than Football

Al: The thoughts and prayers of all of us here at FootballOutsiders are with everyone affected by the incomprehensible tragedy in Asia and Africa. If you want to donate to the tsunami relief efforts, Google has a good collection of links to agencies that you can give money to.

Scramble for the Ball Mailbag

Al: Send your fantasy and other football questions to scramble@footballoutsiders.com.

Dan R sends us an update on his fantasy football championship game. Dan wrote to us last week asking whether he should start Billy Volek or Donovan McNabb:

Just thought that I'd give you an update on the "Billy Volek Experiment". As you can imagine, it was disaster. I play in a Yahoo FFL; Volek was "good" for -2 points, McNabb would have given me 6 points, so I was down 8 points for the experiment. It turns that it didn't matter because I was beaten by 25 points, mostly due for Shaun Alexander going off for 3 TDs. Thanks for answering my e-mail, though. Football Outsiders is the first site that I go for thoughtful Football Analysis.

Al: Sorry it didn't work out for you in the championship. At least our advice didn't cost you a chance at the title. When the running back you're facing drops 33 points on you, you're going to have a rough time no matter who your starting QB is.

Next, Tom from Rio Grande City asks us about the Monday Night Football schedule:

What ever happened to the proposed idea between Monday Night Football and the NFL where MNF could swap out a late-season scheduled game for a better matchup (i.e. one with playoff implications) from the same weekend? Was this ever seriously considered or am I just imagining things? If not, why are we being subjected to another Cowboys game (this time against the lowly Giants) in the last MNF game of the season?

Al: Thanks Tom. Starting with the new TV deal which goes into effect for the 2006 season, the NFL will have the option to switch seven late season games from Sunday to Monday night. So, we've got another season of pointless late season Monday night games to look forward to.

The Cowboys-Giants game this week is on Sunday night, however, so it wouldn't have been affected in any event. ABC gave up it's Week 17 game in exchange for the opening Thursday night Colts-Patriots matchup this year. As Madden and Michaels agreed during the telecast this past Monday night, it was a pretty good deal for ABC. The NFL plans to make this standard, with the Super Bowl champion always opening the season at home on Thursday night.

Vivek: A lot of readers also chimed in two weeks ago on this topic.

Keep Choppin' Wood Award

Vivek: I really wanted to give this to the NFL schedule makers for the Sunday night matchup -- Miami v. Cleveland. I was a little more excited for the 49ers-Dolphins game a few weeks ago. Instead, my selection for week 16 is Sebastian Janikowski and the Raiders coaching staff. Haven't we all learned through the years that squib kicks don't pay off? Do special teams coaches lack the confidence that their coverage team can prevent a return man from running 100 yards? There have been 15 kickoff returns for a touchdown this season, so about one per week, one every 16 games, assuming 10 returns per game -- one every 160 kickoffs, or .625% (notice the decimal point) of the time. So the Raiders decide to squib kick the ball, and even worse, to Dante Hall, who proceeds to return the kick to the Raiders 36-yard line. Enter Lawrence Tynes and game over. Janikowski has one of the strongest legs in the NFL -- send the ball into the end zone!

Al: The only time it makes sense to squib kick is if you have less than five or so seconds on the clock. Then, you avoid the possibility of the receiving team allowing the ball to roll through the end zone so that no time runs off the clock and they have time for one Hail Mary. Other than that, the squib kick has no place in football.

Loser League Update

Al: The Week 16 results haven't been tabulated as of press time, but I'd expect that with one week to go, it's still anybody's ballgame, especially with all the playing time question marks surrounding Week 17. Here are the Loser League All-Stars from Week 16:

QB: Byron Leftwich, JAC -- 1 point (14 passes, 35 yards, 3 carries, 20 yards, 1 INT)
RB: Clinton Portis, WAS -- 3 points (10 carries, 32 yards)
RB: Najeh Davenport, GB -- 4 points (11 carries, 40 yards)
WR: David Terrell, CHI -- 1 point (2 catches, 10 yards)
WR: Josh Reed, BUF -- 1 point (2 catches, 11 yards)
K: Josh Scobee, JAC -- -2 points (0-1 FG)

Survivor League Update

Al: Back in August, Ian Dembsky (ex-Scramble co-author) and I drafted 12 fantasy football teams between us for our annual Survivor League, which I had won two years in a row. Sadly, my streak is over as Ian was finally able to put together a winning team after all these years. His pre-season favorite, Off and Running, pulled out the victory, despite having only one running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, who was his team's primary ball-carrier all year. Most weeks, getting the better performance between Donovan McNabb and Marc Bulger was enough to keep the team from elimination. In the final weeks of the season, O&R's wide receivers finally caught fire, as Drew Bennett, Jerry Porter and Justin McCareins put up better numbers during the last month of the season than they produced earlier in the year.

Best Bets

Al: (3-0 last week, 27-21 overall) This has to be the worst week ever to wager on NFL games. There are only a handful of games where you can legitimately expect both teams to be going all out to win with their first team offenses and defenses on the field for the entire game. I count seven games where one team has already made the playoffs and has little to nothing to play for in terms of post-season seeding. There's no way you can predict what will happen in any of those games, especially when betting against the line. I'll just stick to the games that matter.

(Note: We use the Sheridan Odds from USAToday.com to make our picks each week. After we made our picks Wednesday, we noticed that those odds were drastically different from ones posted elsewhere on the web. We decided to stick to those odds for our picks, but if you notice that some of the lines here seem a bit off, that's the reason why.)

CAROLINA -7 over New Orleans

John Fox, Coach of the Year. Discuss.

WASHINGTON +6 over Minnesota

A perfect end to the Vikings season would be for management to grant Mike Tice his extension so they don't have a lame duck interim coach on the sidelines for Week 17, then fire Tice on Monday after the Vikings lose on the road to the Redskins and miss the playoffs. The Redskins have quietly gone 4-1 against the spread over the last five weeks and their defense hasn't allowed more than two touchdowns since losing in Philadelphia back in November.

ST. LOUIS -2 over NY Jets

If the Rams have all their weapons healthy, they're incredibly difficult to beat at home. With Curtis Martin wearing down after his most productive season in years, and Chad Pennington unable to throw the ball deep effectively, I don't see how the Rams lose this one. I can't wait to listen to WFAN on Monday to hear all the Jets fans calling for Herm Edwards' and Paul Hackett's heads after the Jets fail to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

Vivek: (2-4 last week, 24-40 overall) There are five seconds left in the fourth quarter, and I need a touchdown and a two point conversion. It's time for the Hail Mary, and a pick in every game. (The Oakland-Jacksonville game didn't have a line yet, so I left that one out.)

San Francisco +14.5 over NEW ENGLAND

Expect Belichick to keep throwing new plays, schemes, and personnel at the 49ers to prevent potential opponents from scouting.

BUFFALO -9 over Pittsburgh

Buffalo's must-win situation and the Steelers' injuries help the Bills cover.

BALTIMORE -10 over Miami

Almost the start of the Nick Saban era.

WASHINGTON +6 over Minnesota

Last year Arizona knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs. Will the Skins do the same?

Cincinnati +4 over PHILADELPHIA

No way that Jeff Blake, Dorsey Levens, and Freddie Mitchell lead the Eagles to a win.

Green Bay -2.5 over CHICAGO

Green Bay has a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl.

New Orleans +7 over CAROLINA

Best matchup of the day.

TENNESSEE +1 over Detroit

Joey Harrington needs this game to prevent a full blown QB controversy in the off-season.

ST. LOUIS -2 over Jets

How I wish Chris Chandler was starting.

HOUSTON -11 over Cleveland

Domanick Davis is back. Davis, David Carr, and Andre Johnson are going to be fun to watch in 2005.

Tampa Bay -2 over ARIZONA

Who will Denny Green start at QB? Akili Smith? David Klingler? Browning Nagle?

SEATTLE -6.5 over Atlanta

No full DVD (Dunn-Vick-Duckett) trio results in another loss.

DENVER -5.5 over Indianapolis

Payton has the record and the Colts have the third seed, so expect Manning to rest a bit this week.

Kansas City +3 over SAN DIEGO

Too little, too late for the Chiefs. Too bad they don't play in the NFC.

N.Y. GIANTS -1 over Dallas

Eli gets that elusive first win.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS -1 over Troy State

I needed one more game for a chance to get to .500, so I decided to go with the Huskies of Northern Illinois in the Silicon Valley Football Classic/Bowl. I'm just psyched to see that showdown between the Northern Illinois offensive line and Troy's defensive line.

And in a new segment, in honor of my brilliant prognostication this season, we bring you "Vivek Versus The Coin." The goal is to see if I can do better than an inanimate object made of 97.5% zinc and a hint of copper (the penny). Heads for the home team, tails for the road.

The Coin:

San Francisco +14.5 over NEW ENGLAND
BUFFALO -9 over Pittsburgh
BALTIMORE -10 over Miami
WASHINGTON +6 over Minnesota
PHILDELPHIA -4 over Cincinnati
Chicago +2.5 over GREEN BAY
New Orleans +7 over CAROLINA
TENNESSE +1 over Detroit
ST. LOUIS -2 over Jets
Cleveland +11 over HOUSTON
Tampa Bay -2 over ARIZONA
SEATTLE -6 over Atlanta
Indy +5.5 over DENVER
Kansas City +3 over SAN DIEGO
GIANTS -1 over Dallas
NORTHERN ILLINOIS -1 over Troy State

Four games different. This will finally settle the long standing debate between man ... and penny.

Posted by: scramble on 30 Dec 2004



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