by Mike Tanier
Previously, on Walkthrough...
at the Millen Game Reserve
FAVRE: So when you guys blitzed the safety, we always countered with 60 protection and Delta Gun Right Jet Smoke Smash Tunnel. It worked every time. I think it should really help the Lions beat the Packers, Matt. Matt? Are you listening?
MILLEN: Shhhh. Be vewy vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits. Hehehehehe.
TERRELL SUGGS: Darn, I just spilled Gatorade all over this workout equipment. I need some paper towels. What kind of towels are those, Ray?
RAY LEWIS: Why, they're Bounty towels.
THE COMMISH (leaping from behind a laundry hamper): Gotcha! Gotcha! I heard everything! You are going to be suspended! Fined! I will make an example of you! What? Paper towels? Oh crap. Never mind. Forget you saw me. (scuttles away)
TERRELL SUGGS: Weird. Anyway, we should rent a movie tonight. Let's get that old one where Mel Gibson is the first mate and he leads a mutiny on that ship. What was that movie called?
RAY LEWIS: I believe it was called The Bounty.
THE COMMISH (crashing through window): Got it! Got it on tape! Suspensions! Tough talk! A crackdown! Wait ... old movies? Damn it. Never mind. I wasn't here.
TERRELL SUGGS: This is fun. What do you call it?
RAY LEWIS: Goodell Tetherball. Now help me bend the connections on this Taser so they will fit perfectly around Hines Ward's thigh.
in the isolated African nation of Wakanda
T'CHALLA: My people! We are a proud nation! We have grown wealthy and powerful by selling our precious supply of vibranium. I have fought beside Captain America and the other Avengers to save not just our nation, but the entire world! Who would dare challenge me for the throne? What claim do you have to the birthright of Wakanda?
H'ASLETT: I seek the birthright! Do you think it will get me around the Rooney Rule?
The Sliding Scale of Respect
Remember when you were a teenager and you wanted your dad to help you pay for a car? "Gotta get the grades up, son," he said. You found a tutor and improved your grades. "Gotta get a job to help pay for it." You started mowing lawns by day and bussing tables at night. "Save $1,000 of your earnings to prove you are serious and responsible." You did. Then he found other excuses.
The Titans can relate. They ripped off some early-season wins. "Let's see if it lasts," America said. They took the lead in the AFC South. "The schedule has been easy. Let's see them beat the Colts." They beat the Colts. "They play divisional rivals tough. Let's see them beat some unfamiliar opponents, like the Packers." It's a sliding scale of respect, built of skepticism. Your dad was certain you would drive on the beach with six of your closest friends, destroying your precious investment. Many analysts (like me) believe that Kerry Collins will undergo a bitter cold snap, the Titans defense will slump, and the team will slide back to the pack.
With each week, skepticism fades. The Titans sit near the top of most power rankings, and DVOA pegs them as the best team in the AFC. The Collins slide could still occur, but the defense was good enough to beat the Colts without Kyle Vanden Bosch in the lineup. At 7-0, the Titans have built a buffer against minor slumps. The next three games will be tough -- the Packers this week, then a road trip to Chicago and Jacksonville -- but the Titans could go 1-2 and still maintain their lead in the AFC South. Survive the trip, and they get winnable games against the Jets and Browns at home and the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving. The Titans should have 10 wins by Week 14.
The Packers are coming off their bye week. They are healthier than they have been since the start of the season, and Al Harris may actually return from the spleen injury that threatened his career. Harris will have minimal impact against a team that never throws to its receivers. The Packers need a big week from their run defense, which is ranked 29th in the NFL in DVOA. If they cannot find a way to stop Tubby Thunder and Greased Lightning, they'll get lulled into a downtempo game where one big play by the Titans defense could turn the tide.
I'm still a Titans doubter, but I like their matchup this week. Let's see if they can do it again next week. If so, maybe we'll buy them that car.
He Said, He Said
This isn't a tabloid newspaper or a rumor blog. Give Football Outsiders the choice between a long dissertation on the Titans' third-down efficiency and an article about leaked text messages between a player, his coach, an agent, and a stripper, and you know which one we'd choose. Of course, we'd link to the player-agent-stripper story, and all of us would read it, but you get the idea. Stats are our business, not scandal.
When a "scandal" story reaches a certain level, we can't ignore it any longer. I can't play ostrich while Brett Favre gives the Lions classified information. Steroid stories aren't my forte, but I can't write 2,500 words on the NFL without mentioning the players facing suspension. And when Condoleezza Rice and Al Sharpton make football news -- in the same glorious week! -- I'd be crazy not to snatch the fruit from the bottom branch.
Here are some teams dealing with controversy, innuendo, skullduggery, and miscellaneous drama. Behind the gossip-column headlines, there's still some real football to write about.
Team: New York Giants
Distraction: Plaxico Burress, the meeting-missing, The Coughlin-dissing focal point of the Giants passing game. Burress' flaunting of team rules has rankled coaches and teammates alike. "It's just a bad situation all around," Amani Toomer said on Sunday. "We want him out there, but we do have team rules." Adding chaos to the proceedings are Lawrence Taylor, who accused Burress of being selfish, and Sharpton, who attacked the New York Post for using racially-insensitive language in their coverage.
On the other hand... The Giants beat a strong opponent on Sunday to remain atop the Great Big East. As long as the team holds a 26-6 edge over opponents in sacks and can churn yards out on the ground, they'll be able to win games, even if Burress spends first quarters in Coughlin's Thinking Chair.
Distraction Index: Low. Coughlin now has the benefit of the doubt that comes with a Super Bowl ring. His benched-for-a-half punishment was a little collegiate, but he has buy-in from his veterans. Al Sharpton's arrival to the party actually shifts attention away from the team and onto the media itself, which should help the Giants.
Pick: The Cowboys know a thing or two about distractions, but injuries are the big story in Dallas right now. Tony Romo is out, and Jason Witten swears he'll play through a rib injury that is causing breathing problems. Romo and Witten are the two most important players on the Cowboys offense. If they're out or playing at 60 percent capacity, this will be a surprisingly easy win for the Giants.
Team: New York Jets
Distraction: Brett Favre, Double Agent. Favre's skull sessions with Matt Millen are a conspiracy theorist's dream. Not surprisingly, his wife's attempt to blog the problem away only made things worse. If Deanna Favre and Wilma McNabb ever design a Web site together, they could bring the NFL to its knees.
On the other hand... The Jets just finished a 2-1 stretch against three of the worst teams in the league. DVOA sees them as an average defensive team with a solid running game and a mistake-prone passing attack. Eric Mangini wants to pass-pass-pass despite the team's impressive 4.6 yards per rush average.
Distraction Index: Very low. The Jets don't care about what Favre said about his old team. In New York, nobody notices anything until Al Sharpton fulminates.
Pick: Last week's turnover festival aside, the Bills are a better team. They'll overcome defensive injuries to earn a win.
Team: Cleveland Browns
Distraction: Kellen Winslow's staph infection launched a disaster-movie style cover-up. "Don't tell anyone why you are sick. Let the media speculate wildly. Say you got it from a car door. A toilet seat. We'll punish you if you talk! The pathogen is not airborne. Repeat, the pathogen is not airborne!" Next thing you know, Braylon Edwards and his dog are hunting caribou in Times Square.
On the other hand... The Browns have beaten two good teams in three weeks. Derek Anderson's passing stats look like numbers that would get Mike Phipps benched in 1975, but the Browns are getting just enough big plays from their passing game and interceptions from their secondary to keep most games interesting.
Distraction Index: High. The Browns need a healthy, happy Winslow to get Anderson's completion percentage over 50 percent and add consistency to the offense. The Browns coaches and front office don't have a high degree of credibility with players and fans, so they can't afford a public spitting contest.
Pick: The Giants and Jaguars wins were impressive, but the Browns allow 4.7 yards per rush, they've gotten some fumble luck (eight fumbles, one lost), and their quarterback is below the Mendoza line. The Ravens will win one of those 19-13 games that features 60 handoffs and ends at about 3:25 Eastern Time.
Team: Minnesota Vikings
Distractions: The diuretic scandal may hit the Vikings hard: Defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams could face four-game suspensions. By the way, did you ever think you would read the words "diuretic scandal" without being confused?
On the other hand... Brad Childress brought out the gumdrops and sunbeams when discussing his 3-4 team during the bye. "I see a ton of good things," he said. The defense hasn't been as stout as advertised, but Childress sees progress there. "Our defense usually makes you bleed slowly and sweat it out, but they had some stops when they needed to." Childress thinks the Vikings will win their share of close games in the second half of the season, despite their weak passing game, mistake-prone secondary, and clumsy punting unit.
Distraction Index: Low. Steroid suspensions are part of life in the NFL, so the Vikings won't be thrown into turmoil. When Williams and Williams are eventually suspended (they are appealing, of course), the Vikings defense will tumble into the septic system. You can count the number of teams that can absorb the loss of two starting defensive tackles on zero hands.
Pick: The Texans have re-learned how to pass. Andre Johnson looks like an All-Pro again, and Kevin Walter is the best no-name receiver in the NFL. Their young defense will still make some mistakes, but they can use eight-in-the-box strategies to contain the Vikings and curtail Childress' optimism.
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Distractions: Mike Singletary's tirade. Vernon Davis' benching. J.T. O'Sullivan's benching. The mysterious emergence of Jed York, Boy Owner. And (I never thought I would type this name in an NFL article) Condoleezza Rice.
On the other hand... There's so little happening on the field that it is easy to get swept up in the Niners soap opera. Their front office and coaching structure now resembles Arrested Development. Singletary will soon learn that there's plenty of money in the lemonade stand, and O'Sullivan will lose his throwing hand to a loose seal.
Distraction Index: Very high. Stay tuned to see if Singletary keeps blowing gaskets, if Mike Martz stages a coup d'etat, or if weird Oedipal things happen between York and any former cabinet members.
Pick: It's the bye week. I just had to mention the Niners somewhere!
The Numbing Constancy of Colts vs. Patriots
Much of my adult life has been spent writing Patriots-Colts previews.
It's one of those activities that sits in deep grooves in my brain. Changing diapers. Teaching the 30-60-90 triangle. Writing about Patriots-Colts. When I'm 90 and in a nursing home, unable to recognize my loved ones, I will probably reflexively churn out 500-word Colts-Pats capsule summaries four times per day.
This is the ninth Colts-Patriots preview I have written in my career. That's not that many: I've written between 12 and 14 previews of every division rivalry in the league. But most division rivalries don't cause the mental anguish that Colts-Patriots causes.
Take Chiefs-Raiders. When I started writing weekly previews late in the 2001 season (for another site), the Raiders were a marquee team and the Chiefs were on hard times. The Chiefs slowly rose and the Raiders quickly fell; most of their matchups pitted a contender against a bad team, so they didn't merit Big Game status. The personalities kept changing, from Rich Gannon to JaMarcus Russell, Priest Holmes to Larry Johnson, Norv Turner to Art Shell to Tom the Cable Guy. There was always someone new to write about. When I write about Chiefs-Raiders in three weeks, I won't stress about the storyline. The whole nutshell may take up two lines. Heck, I don't even remember writing about them two weeks ago.
By contrast, every Colts-Patriots game I have written about has been important. Three of them were playoff games. The core personalities haven't changed in years. It's still Belichick and Brady (or The Ghost of Tom Brady) against Dungy and Manning. Supporting players like Marvin Harrison, Ted Bruschi, and Richard Seymour have been constants. The schemes and storylines arrive vacuum-sealed from a half-decade ago: The Colts run the same offense, the Patriots the same defense, and fans in New England and Indy still scream at each other about which quarterback is the best.
Every Colts-Patriots preview feels the same when I write it, yet each one is under tremendous scrutiny. There's pressure to stay fresh, be precise, and make an accurate prediction, year after year.
I searched my hard drive and found a game preview from 2003. "Any Colts-Patriots meeting brings up one of our favorite matchups: Peyton Manning vs. Bill Belichick. Belichick's schemes proved to be too much for Manning earlier in the passer's career, though the days of 50-attempt, three-interception nightmares are long gone. Manning has a better arsenal at his disposal these days, and he also has a coordinator he can trust in Tom Moore, who can game-plan almost as well as Belichick. This game is sure to determine who gets home games in the playoffs, and the Patriots need their frigid climates come January almost as much as the Colts want to host a game in their cozy, noisy dome."
That was November, 2003. My son had just started walking. Football Outsiders had about 80 readers, and I was not yet one of them. Just about everything in that last paragraph is still true. The Colts and Patriots did meet in the playoffs that year. The Patriots were at home, and they won. By 2003, Manning-vs.-Patriots storylines already felt tired, and I can hear a note of exasperation in my own words.
By 2006, I was writing Rundown for FOX. A Colts-Patriots lead feature was a must, and standing out from the crowd was nearly impossible. For novelty, I interviewed a guy named Graham Walker of the Rock-Paper-Scissors Society to talk about the round-robin nature of Colts, Patriots, and Broncos games. After the silliness, I broke down the nature of the matchup: "The Colts passing game is built around Manning's ability to call plays at the line and make quick adjustments to the defensive alignment ... In the past, Manning would audible himself right into a trap ... Manning, older and wiser, is less likely to fall for Bill Belichick's trickery." Not exactly groundbreaking, but at least I was bucking the "Colts can't win" trend that was still popular at the time. And the Colts did win.
Two familiar faces were back in the AFC championship game after the 2006 season, and I was back at my desk writing a lengthy preview. "Ho-hum. Another January, another Patriots-Colts playoff preview. It seems like we write one every year." When it comes to this matchup, every well gets revisited, even the "I've gone to this well too many times" well.
That 2006 playoff Rundown was a carefully crafted history lesson about the Manning-Brady rivalry. It was a jeremiad against labeling teams or players as "winners" because they happened to win games on fumbled interception returns. It was clever, in-depth, and passionate. It earned me dozens of (mostly negative) e-mails. After the Colts' dramatic victory, I wrote in Audibles at the Line: "I will be the first to state that I am thrilled I will never have to hear about how Manning cannot beat Brady in a big game. And I will be the first to state how much I enjoy watching both quarterbacks, how great they are and their teams are, and how much I look forward to 5 to 10 more years of duels between them."
I was lying. I was burned out on Patriots-Colts. Still am.
Brady's absence helps a bit. But Brady still looms over everything written about the 2008 Patriots. The relative weakness of both teams takes much of the pressure off, but it's not like I could have hidden this game beneath Bucs-Chiefs in Nutshells. Even if both teams were 0-8, the fact that two great teams were suddenly 0-8 would make this game a major story.
As I look back over all those old previews, I take solace in the fact that I didn't say anything dumb. Even before I joined FO, I knew better than to fall for the saw about Manning's inability to win. I didn't make any credibility-dashing Lord of the Choke remarks. I just feel like I said it all. And I haven't written about this week's game yet.
It's too early to slam the door shut on the glory years of this fascinating rivalry. Still, one look at the churning, mistake-prone Colts on Monday night proves that we aren't watching the powerhouse of years past. Joseph Addai's absence is part of the problem, but the Colts have plugged in running backs in the past without grinding a gear. They've battled great defenses to a draw in the past, but the great Colts teams chewed up the clock with short passes against top defenses. They scored enough to hold the lead and kept their own defense on the sidelines. The new Colts punt and suffer interceptions, and their defense doesn't generate enough turnovers to compensate.
The Brady-less Patriots, meanwhile, are feeling their way down a dark corridor. They can still reach the stairwell, but they'll stumble, and the journey isn't as easy as it once was. They count on their pass rush and receiving corps to compensate for their secondary and their backfield. Guys like Ben Jarvus now get meaningful carries. Wait, sorry: Ben Green? Jarvus Ellis? Ben Vereen? Bret Eaton- Ellis? No, that last one has less than zero chance of being correct.
If the Patriots' defensive line, receivers, and schedule make them a playoff team, then their secondary makes them a likely one-and-done team. Peyton Manning is off his game, but he'll find plenty of mismatches to exploit. The Colts defense isn't that bad, and they can keep Randy Moss and Wes Welker from gouging them.
And if this is the beginning of the end of an era, well, at least the previews will be easier to write.
William Shakespeare's Redskins Press Conference
O'HALLORAN: Draw thy tool! Here comes of the house of Snyder!
DALY: I will frown as I pass by. Let him take it as a question of his clock-management.
O'HALLORAN: Nay, as he dares. I will roll my eyes at him, which is a disgrace to him, as he bears it.
ZORN: Do you roll your eyes at me, sir?
O'HALLORAN: I do roll my eyes.
ZORN: Do you roll your eyes at me, sir?
O'HALLORAN: (to Daly) Is the law ours if I say "ay?"
DALY (to O'Halloran): No. Picked up by the blogs shall we be, and ridiculed by the Fanhouse of AOL.
O'HALLORAN: No, sir, I do not roll my eyes at you sir. But I roll my eyes, sir.
ZORN: Do you quarrel with my clock management, sir?
DALY: Quarrel sir? No sir?
O'HALLORAN: But if you do, sir, I am for you. I write for the Washington Times. I am no Post knave like Kornheiser.
ZORN: Draw, then, if you be men. For I have answered all thine questions!
(long swordfight with poor Masterpiece Theater production values)
DALY: Lo! Hence comes one they call the Tiptoe Burglar!
ALEXANDER: Prithy put away thy swords! Such forceful contact with the body will no doubt entreat me to stumble thus upon the field of play, stricken by such blows to be quelled for a three-yard loss.
ZORN: And lo! The day of this press conference is truly spent. Let us speak no more of my clock management.
The only thing the following games have in common is that there will be few surprises. There's a reason it's called "conventional" wisdom.
Game: Steelers at Redskins
What Will Happen: The Steelers will play devastating defense and hold the Redskins under 20 points. Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger will get sacked at least five times, and the Redskins will record a safety on defense or special teams. In other words, the Redskins will follow the Giants-Eagles template.
Value-Added Quote: "James [Harrison] does everything for us," defensive end Brett Keisel said, defending last week's interim long snapper. "He should be making $25 million a year." The Steelers signed snapper Jared Retkofsky on Tuesday. Keisel just signed on as Manny Ramirez's agent.
Game: Eagles at Seahawks
What Will Happen: The Eagles will blitz Seneca Wallace like crazy, and Wallace will find that 60-yard touchdown passes to fullbacks are hard to come by against a good defense. The Eagles will get stopped at the 1-yard line a few times (they have now officially tried everything, and nothing has worked), but they'll score a few times from the 10-yard line, and Brian Westbrook will gain at least 150 yards from scrimmage. For old time's sake, A.J. Feeley and Lofa Tatupu will play catch on the sidelines.
Value Added Quote: Eagles linebacker Omar Gaither was covering the punt that bounced off Adam Jennings' aura in the fourth quarter. "Being on the field and being really close to him, I heard it hit him. I heard it hit his hand. You know how the ball makes a sound?" After being pressed for a second or two, Gaither came clean. "No, I didn't hear it hit him."
Game: Jaguars at Bengals
What Will Happen: The Jaguars will play precise, fundamentally-sound football for 60 minutes. They'll try to establish the run. David Garrard will make smart, prudent decisions. And they'll score 24 points, tops. Meanwhile, the Bengals will continue their swan dive to through the trapdoor at the bottom of the standings.
Value Added Quote: Marv Lewis: "We don't have many options. We have to find a way to get these players better." Excuse me while I start the car and close the garage door.
Game: Buccaneers at Chiefs
What Will Happen: The Bucs will run the ball. Jeff Garcia will spray the ball around, throwing to septuagenarian receiver Joey Galloway and other players who don't remember the Truman Administration. The Chiefs will attempt to run the spread offense. There's nothing quite like adopting an entirely new philosophy in Week 9.
Value Added Quote: "This is a blue-collar team that's going to fight you all the way," said defender Chris Hovan. "I think we're on the verge. Hopefully, we'll peak when the time is right."
Random thoughts about Falcons-Raiders
1. Shane Lechler is the best punter I have ever seen. Everything that people say about Ray Guy really applies to Lechler. Guy was a great punter on an exceptional team. Lechler is an absolute weapon who would make a difference if he didn't play for a traveling sideshow.
2. Remember when return men were smart? Brian Mitchell, Allen Rossum, Dave Meggett -- these were bright guys. Johnnie Lee Higgins, DeSean Jackson, and Devin Hester seem like the kind of guys who think IQ means "interesting questions." They only have to remember a few rules, like "don't backtrack from the five-yard line" and "don't field a kickoff, then step out of bounds." They just can't quite master them.
3. The Falcons passing game isn't hard to figure out. You have to cover Roddy White, folks. Nnamdi Asomugha can do it. DeAngelo Hall cannot.
4. Speaking of DeAngelo, by the time you read this he will have shot his mouth off four or five times about his former team. I had a vice-principal at an old job to whom I was physically incapable of listening. My ears couldn't pick up the register at which he spoke. Everything he said sounded like: "When checking dress code make sure BUUUUUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ." Hall is like that vice-principal. When I try to read his statements, I am temporarily blinded.
5. The Raiders run defense isn't very good: They are ranked 28th in DVOA, and the Ravens proved last week that you can beat them with a little misdirection and a lot of hard running. It's a sell-out defense: They pursue like crazy and get a few stuffs, but the cutback lanes are open, and every counter is a surprise. The Falcons may have a hard time feeding White the ball, but they'll use their Wal-Mart Wildcat (Jerious Norwood takes some snaps) and some Michael Turner stretch runs to take the life (such as it is) out of the Raiders.
Dolphins at Broncos: Rookie Ryan Torrain may return to the fold this week; it wouldn't be a Broncos season if a random running back didn't rip off a few 120-yard games ... The Broncos gained ground by watching their division rivals lose during the bye. They would dominate the AFC West if they never had to play. I hate picking sloppy over pesky, but the Broncos should torch the Dolphins secondary.
Lions at Bears: Defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the Deep Throat in the Favre-Millen saga, thinks the Lions are close to turning things around. "The effort is there, but the above-the-neck stuff is sometimes not there," he said. "We have a little lapse mentally, a missed tackle here or there ... I mean, around the league you see those things happen. It just seems, for whatever reason, it's intensified with us. When we screw something up, instead of it being an 8- or 10-yard gain -- bam! -- it's a 60-yard gain." In an unrelated note, Emeril Lagasse is the frontrunner to replace Barry next season. If I get the general manager job in Detroit, I'll immediately fire anyone who uses the phrase "for whatever reason" after a loss. Bears.
Cardinals at Rams: Even a loss cannot stop the Haslett Express from rumbling through the countryside, slamming common sense to the sidings with it's cow-catcher. "Haslett has almost overnight turned around a franchise that I once figured was incurably dysfunctional and transformed the same team that once had no life, no hope and no promise under Scott Linehan into a unified organization that is working for the single and suddenly attainable purpose of winning," according to Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ironically, overnight turnarounds never happen overnight: They take good drafts and good schemes and good luck, not magic words and a few team luncheons. The Rams' offensive line is still a mess, and the Cardinals are one sack away from making the Rams' purpose unattainable again. Kurt Warner's return will be bittersweet for Rams fans.
MRS COTTRELL: Honey? It's Chip Rosenbloom from the Rams. They heard that you were fired. They want to interview you.
TED: It's just a Rooney Rule thing, honey. Hang up.
MRS COTTRELL: Honey? It's Tim Ruskell from the Seahawks. He's worried that Jim Mora will take the University of Washington job, and they will have no one to replace Mike Holmgren.
TED: Rooney Rule. Hang up. When they are serious, they call Lovie or Romeo or Mike Tomlin. When they are just going through the motions, they call me. It's my burden in life. They should change its name to the Yank Cottrell's Chain Rule.
MRS COTTRELL: Honey? There's a small child on the other line. I think he said his name was Jed York.
TED: Unplug the phone, dear.