Walkthrough: For Real
by Mike Tanier
Lynch and Jackson put the "cover" in Cover-2 at the turn of the century. They helped make the Buccaneers defense one of the league's best by taking away the deep pass, jumping routes over the middle, and delivering blows that had receivers more concerned about YOUCH than YAC. A decade after they helped make the two-deep zone a cliché, the Buccaneers have been reduced to starting a Hollister mannequin and one of those guys who dresses up like Abe Lincoln in front of the bank at free and strong safety.
Forget Cover-2; the Bucs now run a Cover-negative-1. Safeties Cody Grimm and Sean Jones helped reanimate Zombie Charlie Batch last week. "Batch Shows He Still Has It," read the tagline to the NFL.com highlight clip of the Steelers win over the Buccaneers. "It" may refer to "a functioning spinal cord," "an NFL job," or "a knack for throwing shotputs over the heads of incompetent safeties." Grimm was the guy you saw flailing helplessly on Mike Wallace's first touchdown catch. Look carefully, and you can see Jones in the corner of the screen, sizzling on the spot on the grill where you hide the extra burnt burger. Jones is a journeyman who washed out of Cleveland and Philly, Grimm a seventh-round pick who was a one-year starter as the "whip" linebacker at Virginia Tech. The "whip" is a hybrid safety-linebacker, not a political organizer or the guy assigned to dole out punishment after losses to James Madison.
The Brothers Grimm weren't starters entering camp. Sabby Piscitelli played his way out of the starting job when a tackling dummy broke away from him for a 60-yard run in late July. Piscitelli then complained that he wasn't given a fair chance to compete for the starting job. Having seen Jones play a few games, I can sympathize with Raheem Morris for ending the competition quickly so he didn't have to watch any more gruesome game film.
Piscitelli also alleged that the Bucs coaches demoted him by text message, which makes the Bucs staff sound more like angry girlfriends than professionals. "BTW U R Benchd." Hopefully, Piscitelli answered "k." My younger, single-r friends tell me that you can tell a girlfriend is ticked off when she responds "k." The exchanges go something like this:
Guy: "m going out 2 watch MNF n drink"
This doesn't happen in my house, because my wife doesn't text, and when she does, she really butchers it:
Me: "m staying l8 at library 2 finish walkthru"
Karen can be forgiven for some text messaging irregularities. She has had bronchitis for three weeks. The doctors gave her some special cough medicine. She's still coughing, but she can now overthrow Darrius Heyward-Bey by 20 yards.
Tanard Jackson, the other starter at safety for the Bucs, earned a one-year suspension for his third violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Even when Jackson was playing, the Panthers secondary was vulnerable. In Week 1, Mohamed Massaquoi caught a pass over the middle of the field, then raced for a 41-yard touchdown. The next week, Steve Smith scored on a nearly identical play: the kind of crossing route that would have netted 12 yards, at best, in the Jackson-Lynch heyday. The Buccaneers pass defense looks respectable on paper -- they've allowed just a 54.8% completion percentage, five touchdowns, and six interceptions -- but they have faced Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, various Browns and Panthers backups, and Zombie Batch. They face the Saints in three weeks. Drew Brees could throw for a parsec.
Having bad safeties in deep coverage isn't like having an empty police car in the median of the interstate. Teams don't see the safety and say, "Well, he appears motionless, but let's not throw deep, just in case." Bad safeties are worse than no safeties at all. At least if Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib turn and see empty space behind them, they know they have to keep covering their receivers. If the Bucs can't find a better solution at safety than Jones and Grimm, they may want to just bring the safeties up into the box and start blitzing more. There's only so much you can do wrong when you are blitzing, though Piscitelli would have found a way to miss a tackle on Jimmy Clausen.
What's most amazing about the Buccaneers safety dilemma is that Piscitelli is still employed. After getting benched in favor of a cardboard cutout and a seventh-round pick, then talking smack on his coaches, he's still on the roster. He could teach Jimmy Raye and Trent Edwards a thing or two about professional preservation. The non-communicative 49ers offensive coordinator and the Stanford educated Bills screen machine both got the boot this week. Imagine if they met in the unemployment line. It would go something like this:
RAYE: Scribble mop-lump botta fraggle.
EDWARDS: What's that? You say that Gloria Estefan is trapped in a Chilean mine?
RAYE: Nop snotta fraggle. Botta fraggle
EDWARDS: Oh, she's trapped in a luxury suite. Let's go rescue her! Lucky for me I have read In the Land of Invented Languages and can understand you. I can't think of another coach in professional sports who is so successful despite a complete lack of clarity.
CHARLIE MANUEL: Dang ol yemma yall dohstuck.
RAYE: Chappa! Gratchalacha divisha crowl.
CHARLIE MANUEL: Dang ol yup.
EDWARDS: I'll leave you two to catch up.
Come to think of it, maybe my wife learned to text message from Raye.
Edwards was a pale imitation of an NFL quarterback, just as Piscitelli, Jones and Grimm are pale imitations of Lynch and Jackson. But nobody does pale imitations like the Patriots. You know where this is going, right? The new guy in New England is Danny Woodhead, who is a real fan fav ... wait, he's got to get in line for that one. Who's next in the Patriots huddle, Pat Boone?
I play the "fan favorite" card because I knew the Boston media could be counted upon for some carefully coded post-game features on Woodhead. Ron Borges said he could "become what New England loves best -- a pint-sized folk hero." Borges cited Woodhead's "steely determination," "unusual patience," and "unusual quickness." He quoted Bills linebacker Andra Davis comparing Woodhead to "a Welker in the backfield." If you have underdog, folk hero, praise of intangibles, expressions of shock about actual physical ability, and comparison to another white guy on your card, feel free to shout Bingo!
While Woodhead was playing Welk-Welker-Welkest with his three carries, BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried 16 times for 98 yards and a touchdown, but with far less pluck-moxie-bullsnot. Credit to Rich Garven at the Worcester Telegram for actually hitting the nail on the head by noticing that the two new Patriots running backs have different "looks." "BenJarvus Green-Ellis is thick, dark and muscular with long dread-like braids," he wrote. "Danny Woodhead is short, pale and lean with a Midwestern-approved haircut." Palm-sweating acknowledgments of race aside, Green-Ellis still plays in the shadow of his uncle, legendary 1970s Patriots running back BobCarroll Ted-Alice, whose political leanings destroyed his career: He was a leading figure in the Key Party movement.
At least no one in the Buccaneers secondary endured the ultimate embarrassment of the digital age. That distinction goes to Rex Grossman. When blogger Billy Rios discovered a glitch in the ESPN Fantasy Football site that made it easy to make changes to his opponent's roster, he tested his ability to hack the system by making a fellow owner pick up Grossman. Hilarious. It's like making the computer in "WarGames" start a global thermonuclear war, only worse because it's Grossman. You would think there are hundreds of safeguards in place to ensure that no one ever signs Grossman, but Rios was able to slide right past them. (He reports that ESPN, our beloved benefactors, have fixed the link before Barnwell could make me start Brock Huard). Up next for Grossman: To prove the vulnerability of the Children's Television Workshop computers, he'll be digitally edited into a Sesame Street video, wearing a skimpy dress while cavorting with Elmo.
Yeah, it was one of those weeks in the NFL: coaches fired, quarterbacks cut, safeties toasted, short white guys overexposed, owners trapped in their own suites, computers hacked, and Grossman disrespected for our amusement. But none of that matters. The only thing that matters is who's for real.
The Falcons had just beaten the Saints, and I was listening to sports talk while driving home from the sports pub in my non-sports car. "The Falcons may be fuhreal," one commentator said. Later in the same show, another announcer asked, "Are the Falcons fuhreal?"
This time of year, there's a lot of talk about who is and isn't fuhreal. As best I can tell, "fuhreal" is derived from the English words "for" and "real." It's a rather juvenile term, used by children who are still learning the difference between reality and fantasy ("Daddy, is Spider-Man for real? No? What about Joyce Carol Oates?") and by people casually incredulous of the behavior of others ("Is the person who wrote the memo condemning the cherry tomatoes in the salad bar for real?"). It represents an oversimplified distinction between merit-based and circumstance-based achievements, which makes it a great term for use in sports commentary. The antonym of "for real" is "fraud," a term with horrible connotations that suggests a team should apologize or only accept a half a win for beating the Bills or scoring on a few kickoff returns. All teams that go 3-0 or 2-1 are, by law, either for real or frauds, because the middle ground is for sissies.
The binary analysis that distinguishes the "for real" from the "for not so real" after three games makes me a little nervous. That's why I work here. At the same time, I am sometimes asked to weigh in on the realness of a team like the Falcons. It's not always practical, convenient, or lucrative to point to the 2,000 words I wrote about them in Football Outsiders Almanac. It's also not always expedient to point out that they beat the Saints after a missed overtime field goal, that they were a playoff team two years ago that was torn apart by injuries in 2009, or that "for real" is a vague, arbitrary term. Sometimes, I gotta say "The Falcons are For Real!" and get my point across in about 100 words, which is the amount of time I usually spend setting up a Jimmy Raye joke.
When faced with a quick smash-or-trash assignment, I don't want to think. That's why I developed the following rules to determine where or not a team is "for real." Once I work my way through this short checklist, I can be certain that my opinion is in line with conventional wisdom, keeping me safely among the herd:
Rule 1: All 3-0 teams are for real, even if they played Valdosta State, the 1976 Buccaneers, and a Pop Warner team with an injured quarterback to start the schedule. That 3-0 record is our cue as writers to gloss over all of the team's flaws and start gushing, even about the Chiefs. "This is real," Sam Mellinger wrote in the Kansas City Star. "The Chiefs will be talked about nationally now as the NFL's surprise playoff team." (We were doing that in July!) The Bears also have For Real status, thanks in part to some rulebook fundamentalism and about 400 yards of Packers penalties.
It's the job of local columnists like Mellinger to provide some extra enthusiasm. Fans deserve to enjoy a hot streak without someone pointing out that the Browns are terrible and Philip Rivers melts in the rain. In fact, no one wants to read cold-bath criticisms of a team on a three-game winning streak, so few of us bother writing them. If anything, we qualify our remarks by saying that the Chiefs and Bears may be for real, but not "fuhreal for real."
Rule 2: All 2-1 teams are for real if they have won a Super Bowl recently or have a "winner" quarterback at the helm. No one asks if the Saints are for real, despite two close wins and a loss. No one asks if the Patriots are for real, despite the fact that they lost to a division opponent and almost let the Bills sneak back into the game. No one asks if the Colts are for real, but that brings up another point:
Rule 3: Order matters. If a team loses the opener but wins two straight, they are for real. If they win two straight but lose the third game, they are frauds who just got "exposed." Imagine if the Texans had lost to the Cowboys, then beat the Colts and came back to beat the Redskins. We'd perceive their season very differently. There's something to be said for attaching more meaning to recent games as injuries pile up and schemes are figured out. But three weeks into the season, we're really looking at an immediacy bias, making an impression based on what's freshest in our minds. Hooray for immediacy bias!
Rule 4: If the team has one star with sizzle, they are for real. That's sizzle, not syzzurp, JaMarcus. We all know that football is a one-man sport, and that the best way to analyze the game is to point to one exciting star, anoint him the difference maker, and fold your arms in satisfaction. The Packers are for real because of Clay Matthews. The Cardinals are for real because Larry Fitzgerald keeps them in every game. There is sometimes the related question about whether the player himself is for real. When that happens, it's best to fall back on that philosophical workhorse, the circular argument: You know the Packers are for real because Matthews is such a great player, and you know Matthews is a great player because of what he has done for the Packers.
Rule 5: The Chargers and Cowboys have absolutely no past. These two teams must be judged solely by their last game. When they lose, they are frauds who cannot live up to their billing. When they win, they have demonstrated their ability to overcome the problems that plagued them earlier. The Jets and Giants sometimes fall into this category because the New York media is overheated, and the Jets are so annoying that no one wants to think about them.
Rule 6: Teams that don't play in prime time don't exist. When in doubt, just call the Seahawks and Buccaneers "frauds" because only their fans have seen them play. At best, you may want to say that they are becoming "pesky" or "spoilers," because that brings less hate mail. No matter what, don't talk too much about them, because casual fans will tune out.
So, what about the Falcons? They don't have a winner quarterback or any real star with sizzle. They haven't played in prime time, and they haven't mastered the art of turning every game into a grudge match. At the same time, order matters, and they have won two straight games, and a dramatic win against the Super Bowl champs gets almost as much attention as a prime-time win. They are on the borderline of "for real," which makes them like King Arthur. In a few weeks, we'll revisit them when it's time to separate Contenders from Pretenders.
Burn This Play
Every once in a while, you see a team execute a play that looks like it was designed during dollar Jell-O shot night. Here are two examples of plays that should be torn out of the playbook and thrown into the nearest fireplace:
|Figure 1: Jets Pistol Mess|
Jets Fake Pistol: In the second quarter against the Dolphins, the Jets came out of a timeout with Brad Smith (16) lined up as a pistol quarterback, Shonn Greene (23) at tailback, and Mark Sanchez (6) split wide left. The Dolphins appear to be confused by the formation, with Channing Crowder directing his teammates about where to line up. The stage is set for some Wildcat buffoonery. But wait! Smith motions to the right as a flanker, leaving Greene as the lone setback. The entire Dolphins defense shifts (two of the adjustments are shown in Figure 1), and you can almost see them licking their chops as they clamp down in their new formation. Goodbye, threat of pass. Farewell, fear of option pitch. The Jets tipped their hands that Greene was just going to run off tackle. Sure enough, Crowder and the force defender attack straight into the backfield, disrupting what (on paper) looks like a well designed blocking scheme. If the Jets want to run a play like this, they should at least use LaDainian Tomlinson as a tailback, because Tomlinson is a well known passing threat. Better yet, they could just hand off.
|Figure 2: Titans Veer|
Titans Veer: It was great to see the Titans open their offense up a bit after that ugly game against the Steelers. It also makes sense for them to try a few option plays now and then. But in the first quarter against the Giants, the Titans tried to run a veer option. Figure 2 shows Vince Young (10) and Chris Johnson (28) each starting to his left while the Titans block as if they are running a zone play or option to that side. Young and Johnson quickly turn after one step and reverse field while the Titans tight ends try to seal the backside of the play. Young and Johnson do a fine job of quickly redirecting the play, but there are two problems. First, Justin Tuck (91) beats his block easily. Second, force defender Terrell Thomas (24) is unblocked. The root problem is that defenses are wary of Titans option plays and Johnson cutbacks, so they typically maintain good back-side discipline. If the Titans are going to run the option, they should run it quickly to the strong-side of the defense. Let the Division III colleges have their veer plays.
It's impossible to do justice to George Blanda in a few hundred words. Blanda was like a cross between Kurt Warner and Morten Andersen, plus a dash of Brett Favre. He wasn't as good as Warner or Andersen, but you have to agree that a hybrid that preserves about 75 percent of each player is an impressive beast, and Blanda set the standard for old-guy media adulation that Favre strives for. There will never be another player with a career remotely like his. After learning of his death at age 83, I searched through some newspaper archives for a few quotes from Blanda's long, remarkable career:
"He is much farther advanced than any other rookie I've ever seen, including both [Sid] Luckman and [Johnny] Lujack," Bears executive Frank Korch, August 23, 1949, before a Bears intrasquad scrimmage. Blanda went on to complete 6-of-13 passes from the Bears' T-formation offense in the scrimmage, beating Lujack's half of the team.
"It's not George Blanda's fault that the Chicago Bears aren't leading the national Football League's western division ... the rugged 197-pound pass and kick expert from Kentucky University, enjoying his greatest of six seasons with the Bears, appears on his way to win the league's all-star quarterback berth," The Associated Press, November 1, 1954, after Blanda threw four touchdowns and kicked a field goal to beat the 49ers.
"For a pappy guy who was supposed to be washed up a month ago, George Blanda is mighty active in professional football." The Associated Press, November 20, 1964, after Blanda's seven-touchdown game for the AFL's Oilers. The washed-up Blanda was only getting warmed up.
"If Hollywood script writers tried to sell the real George Blanda story to the American public, they would be laughed out of the business as a bunch of daydreaming fools," United Press International, November 9, 1970, one day after Blanda replaced injured Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica, led a touchdown drive, then kicked a game-winning field goal to beat the Browns.
"That guy gets a lot of respect. He has the ability to play all of the time, anytime. We never considered him just a kicker. He has the mental and physical ability to come in and bring a game under control," Raiders coach John Madden, December 19, 1971. Madden used the 44-year old Blanda in relief of Lamonica in several games that year, including one game in which Blanda threw a touchdown pass to bring the Raiders within three points of the Chiefs, then drove them down to the goal line. Madden ordered the field goal unit onto the field, but Blanda tried to wave them off. Madden won the argument, and Blanda tied the game with a field goal, but many players grumbled after the game that the Raiders should have gone for it.
"At 49, you can't speculate about where you are or what you will be doing. If they want me back, I certainly will be available and ready to play. I think I can do the job," Blanda, January 7, 1976, after the Raiders loss to the Steelers in the playoffs. Blanda made just one field goal longer than 40 yards all season and attempted just three passes. He would not play again.