by Mike Tanier
Sometime between the Saints’ sixth and seventh touchdown on Sunday night, I came up with an exciting new challenge: devise the worst possible week of scheduled NFL games.
It would be hard to top last week’s slate: a 6-3 Browns-Seahawks game is something special, almost epoch-defining. A 12-7 Jaguars-Ravens game is one heck of a capper. You would have to try to come up with a less interesting permutation of 32 teams. I spent Monday morning trying to create a special Nightmare Week, just in time for Halloween.
For Nightmare Week, we assume that all 32 teams are in their present state, so Peyton Manning is injured, Christian Ponder is the Vikings starter, and so on. Therefore, all current storylines are in play. The Broncos must be considered an "interesting" team because of Tim Tebow, for example.
We are also allowed to give four teams a bye week. That is part of what made Week 7 so special: the Patriots, Eagles, Giants, 49ers, Bills, and Bengals were on bye. So there go the mighty Patriots, the troubled Eagles, and the fast-starting Bills and 49ers, two teams we might like to watch just to see if they can sustain their success. You may think the easiest way to create a Nightmare Schedule is to give four great teams like the Packers bye weeks, but we must choose more judiciously. Forcing the Packers to play a team like the Rams results in a 24-3 snoozer that largely neutralizes the Packers’ entertainment value. It is better to eliminate a loose cannon team capable of generating headlines while only scoring 18 points. So bye-bye Broncos, you are on bye again.
The Jets are also on bye for Nightmare Week, because they can conjure up a rivalry out of nothing or just generate interest with their teammate-on-teammate sniping. The Cowboys also get a bye: no Tony Romo "will he or won’t he," no Jerry Jones postgame quotes, no national fanbase. The Steelers also have a huge national following, but the Steelers are great at beating bad teams 17-13 and not having much fun in the process, so we need them. Instead, let’s give the Eagles another bye, eliminating Dream Team speculation and Michael Vick highlights.
There can be no divisional matchups during Nightmare Week. Where possible, teams must cross conferences and maybe the country. Patriots-Dolphins has too much juice for this schedule. It’s better to send the Patriots to Seattle to face the Seahawks while the Dolphins battle the Saints. The likely results are a couple of 35-10 wins between teams with almost no mutual history. The Saints, by the way, must play on Sunday or Monday night: in the event that they score 62 points again, it must be late at night, when we are too drowsy to get excited about it.
The mutual history thing is tricky: for Nightmare Week, there can be no evocation of great games of the past, or stories of how free agent X moved between the two teams and created bad blood. Bills-Redskins sounds like a dull matchup, but it is a rematch of an old Super Bowl (albeit a blowout from 20 years ago). Plus, those two teams square off on Sunday anyway, and we do not want to be too repetitive. There is always some history between franchises, of course, but you know you have found the perfect pairing when the color commentator is forced to mention that the weakside linebacker was cut by the opponent in 2007, or when the producers create a montage showing one team’s head coach when he was the other team’s wide receivers coach.
So let’s assemble the Nightmare Week schedule. It is not perfect, so I will need your help.
Buccaneers at Bills: Two teams with very medium-wattage star power. Playing in Buffalo adds to the malaise; this time of year, there is little chance of snow to liven things up.
Giants at Titans: The Giants are solid but not particularly fun. Their defensive line is good enough to make sure any Jake Locker starting debut is spoiled. The enormous New York television market gets to see Chris Johnson run 15 times for 14 yards.
Packers at Rams: The final score was 24-3 two weeks ago. The Rams want a rematch!
Ravens at Colts: Ouch! No-no-no we cannot have this matchup. Mayflower moving vans! Angry old Baltimorians in Unitas jerseys, though moving the game to Indy takes some of the bite out of that story. Plus, there were recent playoff battles between these teams. I leave it to readers to come up with a better plan. Really, this game would be horrible, and if you are forced to talk about stuff that happened in the mid-1980s to add drama to the matchup, you know that what’s happening on the field is not worth discussing. This is the CBS "A-game."
Chiefs at Panthers: The Panthers are a lot of fun to watch right now, but many people have not caught on yet. So burying them against a dull opponent from halfway across the country will take them off the radar. You cannot pair them against the Steelers, or else you get a "Cam Newton faces his toughest test" angle.
Bears at Jaguars: The Jaguars had to be deployed strategically, because they turn any game they play into something excruciating. Matching them against a great opponent would be a waste of a precious resource; any bad team can suck the interest value out of the Packers or Patriots. Here, the Patriots neutralize the Jets of the Midwest, a team that can invent its own interior drama and foster a lot of "Can they get their act together?" storylines. As a bonus, the final score of this game would probably be 12-7, either way.
Chargers at Browns: We cannot have the Chargers in a shootout. We need them to score 20 points and start Norv noodling. That is what will happen here.
Raiders at Falcons: This is the FOX "A-game," except in New York. The Raiders might need a bye, because they bring a lot of story with them right now. If we flip-flop them with the Broncos, though, you get Broncos-Falcons: an old Super Bowl. Sending the Raiders to Atlanta takes them away from their costume-wearing fans, away from any team with an Al Davis-AFL connection, and away from any Carson Palmer connotations. The Falcons, like the Giants, can win without generating a lot of buzz.
Steelers at Vikings: The Steelers keep Ponder from looking good and getting us excited about a new guy. Yes, this is an old Super Bowl, but from about a trillion years ago.
Lions at Texans: A few weeks ago, this matchup looked a lot better. Of all the games in Nightmare Week, this may be the most watchable. It still pits two teams who have not seen the playoffs in over a decade against each other. By the way, FOX opted out of the double header in Nightmare Week to show a little NASCAR.
Bengals at Niners: Oops, two old Super Bowls, and two pretty good teams in the first half of this year. This is hard. People might find this game interesting.
Patriots at Seahawks: But here is the beauty of the Nightmare Week schedule: this game is the CBS "A-game," with Bengals-Niners only televised in the home markets. CBS wants Tom Brady, and the network doesn’t care what it does to bring him to you.
Sunday Night Football
Saints at Dolphins: Time to catch up on The Simpsons or The Amazing Race. Tune in before midnight to see if the Saints are done yet.
Monday Night Football
Redskins at Cardinals: The Colts-Ravens and Bengals-Niners matchups may have been too good for this list, but I cannot think of a better ending to Nightmare Week than forcing Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden to talk seriously about Kevin Kolb and John Beck for three hours.
There it is: the worst schedule I could devise with about an hour of thought. Would love to see some alternatives. For extra zaniness, you are allowed to play one of your games in a neutral site, and you are allowed to suspend one player for a week. Move that Colts-Ravens game to Australia! Take Newton or Matt Forte out of the equation. Have a blast, and create a schedule that all of us parents can safely skip so we can go trick or treating with the kids!
A Sunday Drive
After a week that featured some sublimely awful games, Walkthrough would like to celebrate one great drive: a well-played sequence of creative, entertaining, and successful offensive football.
The Panthers had just taken a 23-13 lead late in the third quarter. After forcing a Redskins punt, they got the ball on their own 35-yard line with 1:39 left to play in the third quarter.
In the old days, teams would sit on the ball with a ten-point lead late in the third quarter. Recently, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and it seems that teams are almost over-aggressive in situations like this: I can picture the Eagles throwing a bomb and kicking a field goal, gaining three points when a team with their defensive problems could probably use a nice seven-minute break instead. The best thing a team can do in this situation is score a touchdown on a time-consuming drive. To do that, the coach or coordinator must call a series of plays that chew clock and keep the chains moving. It is an incredibly tricky balance: throttle down a bit, but not too much.
The Panthers start out with an I-formation DeAngelo Williams run for nine yards. Unfortunately, Byron Bell holds Adam Carriker on the play, setting the Panthers back to first-and-20. A three-yard run by Johnathan Stewart on the next play suggests that Ron Rivera and Rob Chudzinski have gone to the Jason Garrett School of Pass Abandonment and are willing to play punt and pray.
|Figure 1: Esquire Cross|
But Chudzinski has not abandoned the passing game. As shown in Figure 1, he sends Greg Olsen (88) in motion from wide receiver to fullback, with Steve Smith (89) hidden in the flex position, inside of Olsen before the motion. Chudzinski then sends both the flanker on the left of the formation and Jeremy Shockey (80) on deep routes, with Smith running a cross at 15 yards and the backs running bench routes underneath. Smith runs an excellent route, first bending inside like he is running a deep seamer, then flattening out hard to get away from man coverage. Newton has time to throw, and delivers a strike to Smith for 18 yards, setting up an easy to convert third-and-short.
Notice that Josh Wilson was in man coverage against Smith, as he was all afternoon. I cannot explain the rationale behind this decision, because I am not Jim Haslett.
The fourth quarter starts, and the Panthers gain eight yards on a rollout pass to Shockey. The play-action rollout is a standard-issue "safe" pass play when leading in the fourth quarter, and this is a good time to bring it out: on first down, after some offensive success has the defense a little off balance. Williams plows ahead from the two-tight end I formation for a first down.
Now at the 43-yard line, Stewart takes two straight handoffs for three yards each, one from the two-tight end I-formation, one from a power "ace" set that Chudzinski likes, with Olsen, Shockey, and big receiver Legedu Naanee to the left side. On third down, it’s time for another episode of Defensive Coordinators Shocked by Quarterback Draws. Check out the defensive formation in Figure 2. I mean, you are anticipating the Newton draw, right? So why exactly is the middle of the field utterly devoid of linebackers? (On the plus side, Haslett does give Wilson a break from Smith, and the safety on Smith’s side is lined up 22 yards downfield). Newton gains seven yards and a first down, but he might still be running if London Fletcher (59) didn’t chase this play down from the other side of the field. Fletcher should be promoted to Redskins defensive coordinator immediately after the season. On second thought, he deserves better.
|Figure 2: Will Allen Likes This Defense|
Newton hits Shockey for a little four-yard smash route on the next play. The yardage is not great, but it is another chance to work a pass play in, generate some yardage, and eat clock. Newton throws an ugly play-action incompletion on second down, and a holding penalty threatens to take the Panthers out of field goal range. It is second-and-16, so of course it is time for Josh Wilson to draw man coverage on Smith, and get beat up the left sideline for a pass that gives the Panthers the ball at the goal line. Newton throws a teardrop on the play. This is the second time that a downfield shot has been taken on second-and-long, and I think the Redskins anticipated a more conservative strategy on these downs.
The Panthers have been a great goal line team this year because Chudzinski has been unapologetic about sticking Newton in shotgun with one of the backs and calling either a Newton run or some kind of choice-option handoff. The Redskins are at least ready for these tactics by now, and they stuff Stewart on first down. As Stewart fights for an extra inch, the game clock ticks below ten minutes. Even if the Panthers come away with a field goal at this point, they have significantly shortened the game. They are facing a Redskins opponent that wanted to play ball control football. This long drive has taken ball control tactics and thrown them out the window for the Redskins.
Of course, the Panthers cannot afford to fumble. Stewart does just that on the next play, but Walkthrough favorite Ben Hartsock drops his Christian rock tambourine and lands on it. Rivera challenges the fumble, claiming Stewart reached out with the ball and crossed the plane before losing possession. The announcers criticize the challenge, but I think of it as a challenge lottery at that point in the game. The Panthers should not need a timeout later in the game. The replay does not look plausible, but crazier plays have been called touchdowns. The challenge fails, but the Redskins’ goalline stand has become a mixed blessing, because now there is only 8:17 to play.
On third down, Newton is again in shotgun. And Smith is again one-on-one with Wilson. Are you thinking draw? Handoff option? Fade? If you answered "flat route to Brandon LaFell from the slot," you are correct. It is a simple read and throw for Newton: the Redskins are in man coverage, and it is hard to stop a two-yard pass into the flat. Twelve plays, 65 yards, eight minutes and 26 seconds.
What do I like about this drive? I love the way the weapons were used. Both backs got to grind out some carries. Smith got the bulk of the yards, but Shockey was highly involved, and LaFell did exactly what a slot receiver must do, making the most of one opportunity. Olsen was all over the formation, disguising the Panthers’ intentions. Newton looked very sharp, and his running ability was used in just the right dosage. The Panthers stayed out of third-and-long by being aggressive on second-and-long, so Haslett couldn’t attack with funky blitzes. They overcame penalties. They got a lucky break on the fumble, but these things happen. It was a controlled drive that made outstanding use of both personnel and clock.
Best of all, it showed once again how remarkably Newton is developing. He never strayed from the pocket in this drive, except for the designed run. Part of Newton’s success is how programmed the offense appears to be: Newton does not have to check down a lot. Newton’s comfort level in this low-gimmick offense is also stunning, and credit for that must go to the coordinator who is bringing him along.
When we give our awards at the end of the season, remember Coach Chud for Coordinator of the Year. I think he is the best candidate right now, by far.
Marty Like a Rock Star
Marty Schottenheimer held up a football championship trophy on Friday night. He held it high in the crisp autumn air, stadium and television lights playing along its reflective silver surface. He smiled broadly as fans chanted "Marty, Marty, Marty!"
The prize was the William Hambrecht Trophy, the league, the UFL. The season, a truncated four-game slate of games that was delayed at the start and curtailed suddenly at the end. But it was a championship, won by a great coach and relished by thousands of fans.
It almost didn’t happen. Schottenheimer’s Virginia Destroyers took a 17-3 lead into halftime and tried to nurse it for the final 30 minutes. It was classic Marty Ball, and some in the press box rolled their eyes as Dominic Rhodes took handoffs and Chris Greisen opted for safe, short throws on third down. Even in the minors, this conservative approach elicits some groans. The Las Vegas Locomotives could not do anything offensively; they didn’t complete a pass until the second quarter or pick up a first down until the third. But Greisen threw a second half interception, Rhodes fumbled, and veteran Marty watchers knew the Destroyers were one bad play from allowing the Locos back in the game.
Then a miracle happened. Late in the game, after Aaron Rouse’s third interception ended a Locos drive, the Detroyers opened up their offense. Coordinator Terry Shea (best known, perhaps, as an Al Saunders assistant with the Chiefs a decade ago) called a series of passes. Nothing too crazy, just some play-action, and one weak side hitch route. Greisen, looking as good or better than two or three of the quarterbacks I saw Sunday, delivered a few strikes, and the Destroyers ate clock and flipped field position. They punted, but the Locos were pinned in their own territory with only about three minutes left. Schottenheimer and his staff had done it. A little wrinkle –- a handful of passes on first downs when the defense expected the Destroyers to run -– made all the difference.
After the game, Schottenheimer said that winning the UFL championship was among the "top-five" experiences in his coaching career. The remark put the win, and the UFL, in its proper perspective. Schottenheimer won five NFL playoff games. Maybe winning the UFL championship is really sixth in his mind, below those games. Maybe it ranks ahead of one of them, like the 1987 divisional round win against the Colts. Coaching the 1987 replacement games must have been a lot like coaching in the UFL. It does not really matter how low Friday’s game ranks on his list of accomplishments. What matters is that it made the list at all.
Schottenheimer is treated like a king at the UFL level. He is the league’s biggest star and the first person the league investors mention when trying to assert the league’s legitimacy. Destroyers promotional materials feature pictures of an intense Schottenheimer barking orders. His face glowers from the team busses. Watching the on-field product, I thought the UFL could stand to use some exciting young offensive minds to tinker with spread-option or five-receiver offenses: the tactics in the championship game were strictly old-fashioned. Jerry Glanville was supposed to bring the run-and-shoot to the UFL, but his Hartford team suspended operations, so he serves as a broadcaster/ambassador. A little more offensive openness might help the UFL, but the league needs Marty more than it needs some Josh McDaniels-type. It needs a teacher and an organizer, someone who can get fringe players up to speed and incorporate them into his system quickly. He would probably make a great commissioner if the UFL really does survive until next year, as everyone from the investors to the lady who operated the stadium elevator swears it will.
This could all be played for laughs, of course. The coach who never won finally got a championship in the league that cannot complete a season. We could point and giggle. The problem with the joke, though, is that everyone gets it. UFL officials I spoke to know where they stand. Schottenheimer knows what level he is coaching it. The 14,000 fans knew they were not at a Redskins game. But Redskins games are far away for the 1.6 million people who live in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area, and they are expensive.
These fans got to drive 15 minutes, break out the tailgate supplies, toss the kids the football on a crisp October evening, and watch the home team win a championship. A fan who spent over $100 for the whole event, kids included, had to be trying. After the game, they got to walk on the field and meet some of the players. So who is laughing: the Destroyers fans who got to shake hands with Schottenheimer, or the guys sitting at home, calling the sports talk station to complain about the Redskins quarterback situation?
Destroyers owner Bill Mayer told me that he thinks there is no reason the UFL cannot provide a product 80 percent as good as the NFL for a fraction of the cost. It may be possible to do that, in regions like Hampton Roads and Omaha and on local Comcast channels. If we laugh that off as a pipe dream, we laugh off chances to spend inexpensive nights at small stadiums watching pretty-good football, and the chance to be treated as a customer by the team, not a necessary evil who provides background images for the television broadcast. It is fun to "big time" the little leagues, to make fun of their financial woes and goofy mascots and the has-beens who find their way onto small-league rosters. I do it, too. But after a while, we are cutting off the nose to spite the face, as sportswriters and as fans. More sports options mean more choices. Cheaper sports options mean more money.
The UFL can be a lot of fun, if you give it a chance. But don’t take my word for it. Trust Marty Schottenheimer. He knows fun. Er, well, he knows well-played, competitive football. And that is something all of us want.