by Mike Tanier
While watching the Eagles' loss to the Steelers last Thursday from under my bed, I was reminded of the Inverse Ninja Theory, a principle which may spoil the Eagles’ season.
The Inverse Ninja Theory states that the greater the number of evil ninjas attacking a hero, the weaker those ninjas are. The theory has been proven in hundreds of action movies and video games. If Bruce Lee, Wolverine, or Kung Fu Panda is surrounded by waves of ninjas, he can take them all out with one or two strikes each. But when a lone ninja appears, he’s suddenly a much more formidable threat.
The corollary to the Inverse Ninja Theory asserts that the theory also applies to stormtroopers, killer robots, and any other assailants who attack in droves. I fear that it may also apply to NFL free agents.
The Inverse Ninja Theory is a close cousin of a principle proposed by Roger Ebert many years ago: the Law of Evil Marksmanship. Cowboy villains, the Nazis in World War II movies, and Star Wars stormtroopers cannot shoot straight, even when they have lasers or machine guns. Why do they have such poor accuracy? There must be something inherent in evil itself that effects aim. It explains the first half of Michael Vick’s career fairly well, and the effect of evil on aim may linger for years or generations afterward. Take Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation as an example. Worf was a good guy, but the Klingons were formerly an evil empire, and as a result of his ancestry Worf couldn’t hit the broad side of a Romulan Bird of Prey.
But back to the ninjas: Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Vince Young, and the rest. There’s one legitimate reason to worry that adding multiple free agents could actually hurt the Eagles: in a lockout-shortened offseason, those newcomers could fail to learn the playbook, be confused about their roles, and lack the timing needed to mesh with teammates. Some of those factors may have come into play on Thursday, though most of the worst performers against the Steelers were draftees or incumbent players.
I would be worried more about the "failure to mesh" if the Eagles brought in a new quarterback or a whole new receiving corps, or if more of the new acquisitions were expected to jump into starting roles. Asomugha does not have to really mesh with anyone, and an all-new defensive line can succeed despite less-than-perfect timing in a way that an offensive line cannot. Some of the biggest names the Eagles acquired on offense, like Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith, and Young, are expected to play minor roles anyway, at least early in the year. I’m not one to worry much about team chemistry. I’m also not one to overreact to one preseason game. Yet here I am, under my bed, watching yet another NFL Network replay of the Steelers game. Please make it stop!
All of the Eagles’ free-agent signings made it hard to talk intelligently about the team because of a principle I call the Law of Conversations about the Heat. When a team’s roster move or moves makes that team a prohibitive favorite to win the championship, all discussions of that team are polarized, with one side stating the obvious and the other being contrary for its own sake. So when talking about the Eagles, we are stuck pointing out just how much talent they added to an already talented roster and stating that, well, that makes them the best team in the league on paper, or lapsing into "they still have to go out and play" or "there’s only one football to go around" or "my God, Casey Matthews is terrible" hand-wringing.
They do of course have to go out and play. There is only one football, which should not matter because the biggest upgrades were on defense. While Matthews looks woefully unprepared, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo assured us on Monday that the linebackers "will be ready to win the Super Bowl." His statement reminded me of Spongebob running to school to get his boating license: "I’m ready! I’m ready! I’m ready!" Put a long blonde wig on Spongebob and he could outplay Matthews right now. But it was only one game (which didn't count), and if the defensive line and secondary are as good as they should be, the linebackers can be a little weak.
The Law of Conversations about the Heat has an addendum called LeBron’s Lemma: some segment of the population will assert, against all common sense and contrary evidence, that the addition of a great player will actually hurt the team that signed him. Now, we must be careful of this lemma, because a new arrival can hurt a team, either because he is a bad apple or a bad fit or, yes, he disrupts team chemistry. Team chemistry is a huge deal in basketball, a sport that requires a lot of verbal and non-verbal communication, plus some ego sublimation because there is only one ball to go around. It can be a big deal at some positions in football. It is mostly meaningless in baseball, though ironically baseball people make the biggest deal about it, thinking that the guy at the plate won’t try as hard because he doesn’t like the guy on second, or something.
So LeBron’s Lemma does not cover legitimate questions of whether, say, Chad Ochocinco will cause headaches if he does not get the ball enough or the Raiders will disrupt their offense if they try to find work for Terrelle Pryor this year. (The Raiders offense has been due for a little disruption for years, but you get the idea). Nor is it a contradiction of the Redskins Rule: grabbing a bunch of free agents is no substitute for having a long range plan. LeBron’s Lemma is the trumping up of a minor charge or a non-issue into something major, simply for the sake of concocting a contrary argument. "The signings of Asomugha, Jenkins, and the others actually hurt the Eagles because they fostered an institutional complacency, put a target on their backs, or angered some fickle competitive balance deity who will smite them for their impudence."
The Law of Conversations about the Heat and LeBron’s Lemma are being tested and retested on local talk radio right now. As those of you who do not live in Philly might imagine, our local talk show hosts do not know what to do with themselves, with the Phillies clobbering everything in sight and the Eagles acquiring Tiffany lamps for the locker room. One of our more, um, difficult to ignore personalities is actually stepping down soon, probably because there is not enough negativity to go around and he is a vampire who needs to sleep in the dirt of failure to survive. Thursday night’s game was manna from heaven for these guys; before Thursday, the gang at WIP was reduced to this storyline: "If the Eagles disappoint us this year, will it be Andy Reid’s fault?" No reason to enjoy success when you can rush straight to the anticipated disappointment.
A loss like last week’s brings into play the Grand Unification Theory of Fandom: for every early-season or preseason action, there is an unequal and opposite overreaction. By the third quarter of the Steelers game, I let my wife turn on Project Runway because there was a chance that fashion designers and runway models would hit harder than the Eagles defense. But the reality and the clichés set in quickly: it’s a meaningless game, this is a good time to suffer a bad loss because it gives everyone something to work on, and so on. Most fans I talked to were in the same place, and even most of the talk-radio discussion moved past the hyperventilation stage quickly. Invoking the Inverse Ninja Theory was just a manifestation of the Grand Unification Theory, and in turn a gross example of LeBron’s Lemma creeping into an otherwise rational thought process. The Eagles will be very good this year, and they will be pretty darned interesting if we can get past the pre-packaged theories and start focusing on their real strengths and weaknesses.
But for the record, I am still pretty worried about Casey Matthews.
Football Outsiders Almanac is now on sale, but you knew that.
Advance copies of The Philly Fan’s Code are also out. I have one. It is cute and slender and filled with Philadelphia sports memories and arguments.
Please buy both books. Thank you!
Kevin Kolb: The game may never slow down enough for Kolb. Watching him against the Packers, I saw too much of what I saw from him last preseason. Too often, he drops back, fails to find a receiver, then drops further and rolls desperately to his right. Kolb isn’t fast enough to make plays outside the pocket, so the rollouts end in incomplete passes or sacks. There’s a chance that no one was open in the first place on these rollouts, of course, but it’s hard to tell from preseason television tape. My guess is that he is late reacting to receivers who flash open, or that he is reluctant to throw into tight windows in space. On one play, he took a three-step drop and had two receivers running crossing routes, yet still wound up rolling right. On plays like those, a quarterback should be able to dump a short completion somewhere in an underneath zone.
Kolb did complete a few short curls along the sidelines and fired a sharp pass over the middle to convert a third-and-8. He’s far better than what the Cardinals had last year, of course.
Ben Tate and J.J. Watt: I wasn’t a big Ben Tate fan in college, and I pretty much forgot he existed when he got hurt last year. He looked very good against the Saints: quick out of the backfield, decisive on cuts, tough when finishing runs. The knock on Tate was that he was a straight-line runner, but he looked very shifty and capable of finding cutback lanes in the Saints game. He could earn a 5-10 touch role behind Arian Foster, which makes him a good "fantasy handcuff."
J.J. Watt was another player who didn’t excite me in college. He has not appeared in the stat sheet much, but he is winning a lot of battles on the defensive line, and he looks like an excellent fit in Wade Phillips’ defense, which does not require exceptional quickness from the defensive ends. He holds the point of attack well and gets his hands up, so he will swat down some passes.
No mention of the Texans this preseason is complete without bringing up Chris Ogbonnaya, who carried the ball 32 times in two games. Who averages 16 carries per preseason game? A third-string hang-around guy who has bounced around the league for three years, that’s who. Ogbonnaya’s main job is to get things over with. I don’t watch the second halves of preseason games much anymore, because it makes more sense for me to go back and re-watch a taped first half, or read the Almanac chapters I didn’t write, or live my life. Checking the gamebooks, I see that Ogbonnaya rushed five straight times early in the fourth quarter against the Jets and ate up three-and-a-half minutes. Go, Chris, go!
Lance Louis: Seriously?
Jaquizz Rodgers: He’s alarmingly short, but his thighs are so thick that I am certain their combined circumference is greater than his height. He looked like one of those "powerful little guy" runners in the Jaguars game, and he should turn into the runner Jerrious Norwood could have been. He’s a great fit in Atlanta.
Julio Jones: Jones has caught four passes, but Jones looks like an amazing athlete just running around and jogging back to the huddle. That doesn’t mean much, because the same can be said of both players named Roy Williams, but when Harry Douglas ran for a touchdown against Jacksonville (Douglas looks like he has his wheels back), I rubbed my eyes and wondered who was running next to him looking for someone to block. That’s not Michael Jenkins! No, no it isn’t.
Reggie Bush: He’s Michigan J. Frog. He only sings and dances when I am watching him. When I run to tell someone that Reggie Bush looks good, he starts dropping passes and running backwards with punts.
Eli Manning: I have no idea if Eli is the fifth best quarterback in the league, or the tenth best, or the 20th best. He is not the best or second best, nor is he the 30th or 40th best. If you want to make a top ten list to prove Eli belongs, you can make one without juggling reality too much. If you want to make a top ten list to prove that he does not belong, you can do it without juggling reality too much, though when Darren Woodson tried it on ESPN he elevated Josh Freeman to the number 10 spot, which struck me as “grabbing a guy to prove a point.”
I don’t know what an elite quarterback is or what that means. "Elite" is one of those wiggle-words we use to dole out left-handed criticism or backhanded praise. Does Manning belong in a class with Tom Brady? He is already in several classes with Brady: NFL quarterbacks, Super Bowl MVPs, players who have thrown for over 20,000 career yards, and so on. Is he as good as Brady? No, but no one ever, ever said he was.
So this is where Eli Manning ranks: He ranks among quarterbacks who should not have to justify themselves. He shouldn’t have to sort his way through loaded questions, then spend two days handling spin control. He has accomplished enough to earn some benefit of the doubt after a bad season and a certain degree of respect from fans and writers who understand that "where do you rank" questions are leading and bogus.
Really, there was enough going on in the NFL last week that we didn’t need this manufactured controversy.
Thoughts While Watching NFL Network
Would it have killed the guys at NFL Network to edit together more than one promo for Red Zone? The "Top Five Passing Touchdowns of 2010" was great the first thousand times I saw it. Why didn’t they edit together the top five rushing touchdowns, the top five sacks or big (legal) hits, or just five fun plays? Putting together eight or nine different promos could not amount to more than a day or two of work for one tape editor, and it would have made the network much more watchable for people like me who are sometimes tuned in for hours on end.
One funny result of the fact that they showed the same five passes two or three times per hour for five months is that my wife kept asking the same question over and over again during the Donald Driver highlight. "What team is that?" she asked at least four times in the last month. (The Packers, you may recall, were wearing funky throwback uniforms that week.) She probably turns large portions of her brain off while I am watching preseason games, which is a smart survival mechanism.
While we are on the subject of NFL Network promos, it is time to buy new jerseys for all of the Seahawks fans in that commercial for the NFL’s ticket resale program. Both the moody soon-to-be dad and the hyperactive little boy are wearing Matt Hasselbeck jerseys. We should get them some Tarvaris Ja … no, some Charlie Wh … Largent throwbacks! We should get them some Largent throwbacks!
I always hated the dude selling his ticket in that ad. His hot wife is 39 weeks pregnant, but she still needs to nudge him and offer moral support so he will give up a few Seahawks games in the name of being a responsible human. The guy couldn’t even bother to shave. The good news is that the commercial is now so old that the baby is about two-years old.
And the little tyke who got the tickets, who is surely on Ritalin now, is old enough to have that surly, tempered version of enthusiasm boys acquire in their preteen years and girls are born with. "Yay! Daddy bought me Seahawks tickets! Let me jump up and down! Yay! Oh wait, Tarvaris Jackson is our starting quarterback. And we’ll be lucky to go .500. Ahem. Leave me alone, dad, I am going to the basement to listen to Avenged Sevenfold and play Black Ops for 36 straight hours. Call me before kickoff and I will sit sullenly in the back of the car with my ear buds in all the way to the stadium."