by Mike Tanier
The Drive, The Fumble, The Halftime Bankruptcy
Ah, those hallowed, storied epicenters of the football universe. Lambeau Field. Canton, Ohio. South Bend, Indiana. The Sportsplex in Virginia Beach.
Not familiar with the Sportsplex? It’s the site of Friday’s UFL championship between the Virginia Destroyers and the Las Vegas Locomotives. And I will be there for what UFL executives want to make abundantly clear will not be the last game in UFL history.
The UFL postponed the start of its season, then truncated the finish, fast-forwarding straight to Friday’s finale by canceling the few remaining games. The story of a sports league, dangling over the ledge of insolvency, sticking its chin out and holding a championship in the face of mounting debts is compelling, but there’s a football story beneath the "business of football" story: Marty Schottenheimer is head coach of the Destroyers. Which means he is trying to win a championship. Which means anything could happen, except possibly Schottenheimer and the Destroyers winning a championship.
I kid, of course. Schottenheimer is a great coach. But if Destroyers running back Dominic Rhodes fumbles at the goal line, or if a Chris Greisen pass to Cortez Hankton is ripped from Hankton’s hands by a defender, where else in the football world would anyone want to be?
And Mike McMahon is Greisen’s backup! It will be like watching the 2005 Eagles!
On Saturday after the game, you will find me at the Treehouse Coffee Shop on Merchant Street in Audubon, New Jersey, signing copies of The Philly Fan’s Code. The Treehouse is home of the bacon brownie, plus other delicious baked goods which are far less extreme. I will be talking about the Dream Team, the Phillies, the UFL, and other frustrations.
Not Him Again
I am about to make a position statement on Mark Sanchez. These never go well, and I apologize if this becomes another boondoggle, but I have to weigh in on Sanchez every month or so to keep my New York Sorta Sports Personality license.
Clearing my throat. Ahem.
Sanchez is totally discombobulated.
More specifically, his timing is way off. He is rushing his reads and throws. What appears to be poor accuracy is really poor timing on many throws: he is throwing to a spot on the field too early. What appears to be poor decision making is really rushed decision making, which is almost the same thing, but at least explains what flavor of "poor" we are talking about.
Here are two diagrams from Monday night’s game to help illustrate my earth-shattering point about discombobulation. They are taken from the Jets’ third-quarter field-goal drive, when Sanchez had his act together, not the first quarter, which I never want to witness again as a fan of professional sports. (I root for neither team. It was just aesthetically offensive.)
|Figure 1: Santonio Alone|
Figure 1 shows the Jets on third-and-2 after two straight handoffs. I hate Brian Schottenheimer’s habit of calling two straight runs, then a pass on third-and-short. He did it several times in the early part of the Patriots game, and I believe it puts stress on a pressing quarterback at exactly the wrong time. Anyway, Sanchez is in the shotgun, LaDainian Tomlinson (21) is in motion, and the Dolphins are crowding the line in man coverage on the left side, anticipating some kind of slant.
There’s coverage confusion on the right side, with Kevin Burnett (56) motioning to a safety after Tomlinson moves across the formation. I believe that the Dolphins are in man coverage based on the release of the receivers on the offensive right: cornerback takes the outside man, safety the inside man should Santonio Holmes (10) and Dustin Keller (81) crisscross. With the running back in the equation, it’s now a three-man job: linebacker Burnett gets the receiver who releases inside, cornerback the receiver who releases outside, safety the middle man. Or something like that. The Dolphins screw it up so royally that I don’t want to worry about it much.
As shown, Holmes runs a drag, Tomlinson releases into the flat, and Keller runs a corner route. The safety and cornerback both cover Tomlinson, leaving Burnett to Keller. Keller gets open easily on the linebacker, and Sanchez delivers a fine pass. Most importantly, he waits for Keller to get free, pumping to Tomlinson and staying set in the pocket.
It was such a fine play that only a nitpicker would point out that Holmes was left completely uncovered over the middle on third-and-short. The higher-percentage pass would have been a better decision, but Sanchez does find, and connect with, an open receiver.
|Figure 2: Locked On|
Unfortunately, we saw little of that quarterback on Monday night. Figure 2 shows the Jets on third down near the goal line. Sanchez is now under center, but the principles of this play are similar to what we saw a moment ago. Holmes, Keller, and Tomlinson are about to run a crossing route combination, with Holmes on the drag. If two Jets receivers can get wide open using this concept, Schottenheimer might as well dial it up again.
As shown, the safety in the middle of the field is absolutely certain Holmes will get the ball, so he chases Holmes on the drag. Maybe he is making up for the last play by providing super-duper coverage; Holmes is crossing through linebacker zones, and a drag on third-and-goal from the 10-yard line is not going to net a touchdown in most circumstances, so he does not warrant the extra attention. The Dolphins again appear to be trying to bracket their man coverage on the right based on how the receivers release, with the cornerback handling whoever releases outside. Again, this interpretation is more an article of faith than anything else. The cornerback stays near the sideline as Keller bends his route slightly outside, then just stays there as Keller turns inside, covering no one.
Keller is again wide open, and this play would be an easy touchdown if Sanchez showed the same patience he used a few plays ago. But Tomlinson runs an angle route, and Sanchez sets and fires as soon as the running back makes his cut. Unfortunately, Tomlinson is covered, and the throw is rushed: too hard, too fast, beyond Tomlinson’s grasp. Sanchez is not under pressure, but he hurries his read and throw. It is something the Jets have seen a lot of lately.
The Jets are doing a better job of pass protection than they were a few weeks ago. They must now get Sanchez back in sync. They ran several screens and shovel passes on Monday night, which help. The quarterback draw was a great goal-line call, because scoring a touchdown always provides a confidence boost. The run-run-run philosophy may be counterproductive, because the Jets are not tearing it up on the ground and Sanchez is too often throwing his first pass of the drive on third down, but when facing teams like the Dolphins, eating clock and letting your defense do most of the dirty work is a wise gameplan.
In the long term, the Jets must come to grips with the fact that their quarterback occasionally comes unglued and starts rushing things in the pocket. It is a trait the team, and the fans, may have to live with. There are going to be cold snaps and stalled drives. Sanchez is not an upper-tier quarterback, no matter how much some people in the media have tried to talk him up as one. That does not make him terrible -– he does some things very well, like make throws after the initial play breaks down –- but it makes him like about a dozen other starters in the league: a guy who mixes highlights with headaches, and always will.
The Football Educator
I have two lengthy NBC articles in the queue this week, so look for them. Longtime friend to FO Ted Sundquist was a big help with the articles, providing some inside information about how big the jump from coordinator to head coach can be.
Sundquist’s insights on front office and football business topics can now be found on the web at The Football Educator. The latest post discusses the real relationship between agents, general managers, and teams, as opposed to the sensationalized "Team A does not want to do business with Agent B" tales we like to spin during the March signing period.
I think that the next great frontier for football coverage is a look inside the black box of scouting and personnel management. Sites like ours now give you a pretty granular look at what is going on statistically, and Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, and others are making readers and viewers far more strategy-savvy than we were even 10 years ago. Experts like Sundquist can give us a better idea of what is really being talked about during a pre-draft scouting meeting in mid-March, or during the 13th phone conversation between a coveted player’s agent and the general manager.
Last Days of Sparano
Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald captured just the right tone for discussing the long, slow decline of a coach’s career in his Tuesday morning blog. To paraphrase: Salguero hates being assigned to what has become Sparano Death Watch, because Sparano is a good man who, while he has made some mistakes, is not an inept coach who deserves blame for all of the Dolphins’ misery.
Sparano cannot be blamed for the personnel decisions that led the Dolphins to this point. He cannot be blamed for Chad Henne’s injury. But he and his staff can be blamed for some of the lapses we saw in the last two diagrams. They can be blamed for the staggering ineptitude of the Dolphins red zone offense.
The Eagles are frustrating in the red zone, but the Dolphins are frustrating in the exact opposite way. The Eagles have 700 schemes and riddles up their sleeves once they reach the eight-yard line. On Sunday, they lined up in the I-formation and handed off to LeSean McCoy off tackle, and I almost fell off my barstool. Thank heavens McCoy scored, or else we would never see that play run again. Anyway, the Dolphins have no schemes or riddles. They only have one idea: try to get Brandon Marshall the ball, somehow. It is not a terrible idea, but it is their only one. They run off tackle now and then, but no one is threatened by their running backs, so then they turn to Marshall, who drops the rare pass that arrives on target. It looks like a red zone plan devised by a guy who has Marshall on his fantasy team.
If bad red zone strategies were a hanging offense, Reid would have disappeared six years ago. Sparano’s bigger problem has been a lack of vision. Not to get too deep into intangibles here, but a coach has to stamp his team with something. There has to be a long-range plan for improvement that is more concrete than the old Millen "get better." Four years ago, the Dolphins appeared to be the team that were going to win with a multi-faceted running game. They had the Wildcat. They drafted Pat White, which was a mistake in execution but not in conception. They wanted to do something similar to what the Raiders are doing right now. All of that offensive personality slowly disappeared, and it has not been replaced with anything tangible, just the idea that Marshall and Reggie Bush need to get the ball more, even if they don’t do all that much with it. Defensively, they are the team that does not apply pass rush and blows basic man coverage.
Salguero reminds us that a coach is a man with a family, and that Sparano is not the kind of arrogant know-it-all who seems to have it coming. But Sparano is also a man who knows the nature of his profession. He will be fired by the end of the season. He is partially at fault, making him more at fault than most people who lose their jobs these days. I hope he lands on his feet. And I am glad I am not the one who has to cover his story daily.
Random Thoughts That Fit Nowhere Else
My son’s team finished in second place in their third grade gym soccer league: one win, won loss, and four draws.
I am not going to dump on soccer here. I have been covering baseball for a few weeks, and the experience has hammered home the realization that "No One Likes Your Sport" articles are rarely interesting and usually obnoxious. Draws (ties, I call them) are a part of soccer at every level. Soccer fans extract value and meaning from them, the way NHL fans did a few years ago, the way football fans did until the early 1970s.
But four ties in six games in the third grade? There’s no highly-trained goalie cutting off angles and making amazing saves. There are no expert defenders making slide tackles. These are eight-year-olds chasing each other around, trying to kick the ball between two orange cones. The goalies are traditionally chosen from the most winded and least coordinated, or at best, from the available deck hockey goalies, who defend the crease they see in their mind’s eye so maniacally that no one tries to score. The final scores of these games must be 17-17, but they are still ties. The gym teacher must be trying to generate them.
I would investigate, but they look at me funny when I hang around the elementary school too long.
I was at the gym on Saturday morning, and Black Hawk Down was showing on FX. A great Saturday morning selection, by the way: there is nothing like some realistic war carnage to get you moving a little faster on the Stair Master. It’s not like kids watch television on Saturday morning.
Wait ... I complained about this once and got yelled at. It is my job as a parent to have a complete understanding of the parental control functions and an almost telepathic prescience about which networks show which adult fare at exactly the times my children might be watching. Broadcasters must be held to exactly zero responsibility and cannot be asked to show a modicum of common sense or discretion. FX shows the Star Wars saga all the time, often late in the evenings, but it also shows bloody (if exceptionally well made) films on Saturday mornings.
Asking the network to do otherwise makes me some kind of histrionic reactionary who wants to impose a nanny state. Oh, by the way Comcast: Nickelodeon is still channel 33, and Adult On Demand is still 333, but we wouldn’t want to inconvenience anyone both horny and stupid enough to buy smut on cable (it’s free here on the Internet, I am told) by asking them to learn a three-number sequence more difficult than the one a five-year-old can accidently key in.
Where was I ... oh yes, at the gym, watching Black Hawk Down. FX made it clear during every commercial break that the movie they were showing was called Black Hawk Down, and most people would recognize the film, based upon an award-winning, much-talked-about best seller, even if they had never seen it. There are soldiers, helicopters, and war-torn African cities in every frame. It is not My Little Pony and the Adventure in Castle Rainbowgumdropia. A woman behind me, in her 50’s, on a treadmill, watching the film intently, commercials and bumps and all, watched the scene where the helicopter first got hit by a bazooka-type thing. She gasped. "Oh, my God!" she said, almost breaking stride on her treadmill. Some people are easily surprised. I mean, let’s forget that the movie is called Black Hawk Down for a moment. You are watching a movie. All of the main characters are in a military helicopter. It is early in the film, and there has not been a lot of obvious conflict yet. What do you think is going to happen? They are all going to land, and Katherine Heigl will be there, and she will have to choose between two of them as they cavort through the streets of Mogadishu? Even if it’s an Adam Sandler movie, I am waiting for the helicopter to get shot down. If Winnie the Freakin Pooh gets in a V-22 Osprey and starts hovering over the Hundred Acre Wood, even if it is just a recon mission to find Eeyore’s tail, I expect some Care Bears to round the corner with an RPG and blast his orange ass out of the sky, then maybe napalm a honey tree. But this woman was not down with the "down" part of Black Hawk Down. She was genuinely surprised when that tail started smoking. I chalk it up as a credit to the visceral way the film is shot -– the helicopter emergency is jarring and upsetting even when you know it is coming -- but also to the ability of women of a certain age to not fully grasp the subject matter of the films they choose to watch. This is a real problem for my mother. I wanted to create a website of her film reviews a few years ago, because her slightly-more-urbane friends (there are cloistered nuns more urbane than my mom) always drag her to Oscar bait, and she always comes away disappointed or angry about something she really should have anticipated when going in. My mother, on The Wrestler: I didn’t like it. There was more wrestling than I expected. My mother, on Brokeback Mountain: It was good, except for all the parts with the gay cowboys having sex. So I can guess this woman at the gym was a kindred spirit: I liked Black Hawk Down, except for the part when the helicopter got shot down and the soldiers had to fight for their lives. Then again, woman of a certain age are not the only ones easily surprised. Rex Grossman threw four interceptions on Sunday. Yet none of us saw it coming. I mean, the back of the uniform clearly reads "Grossman."
A woman behind me, in her 50’s, on a treadmill, watching the film intently, commercials and bumps and all, watched the scene where the helicopter first got hit by a bazooka-type thing. She gasped. "Oh, my God!" she said, almost breaking stride on her treadmill.
Some people are easily surprised.
I mean, let’s forget that the movie is called Black Hawk Down for a moment. You are watching a movie. All of the main characters are in a military helicopter. It is early in the film, and there has not been a lot of obvious conflict yet. What do you think is going to happen? They are all going to land, and Katherine Heigl will be there, and she will have to choose between two of them as they cavort through the streets of Mogadishu? Even if it’s an Adam Sandler movie, I am waiting for the helicopter to get shot down. If Winnie the Freakin Pooh gets in a V-22 Osprey and starts hovering over the Hundred Acre Wood, even if it is just a recon mission to find Eeyore’s tail, I expect some Care Bears to round the corner with an RPG and blast his orange ass out of the sky, then maybe napalm a honey tree.
But this woman was not down with the "down" part of Black Hawk Down. She was genuinely surprised when that tail started smoking.
I chalk it up as a credit to the visceral way the film is shot -– the helicopter emergency is jarring and upsetting even when you know it is coming -- but also to the ability of women of a certain age to not fully grasp the subject matter of the films they choose to watch. This is a real problem for my mother. I wanted to create a website of her film reviews a few years ago, because her slightly-more-urbane friends (there are cloistered nuns more urbane than my mom) always drag her to Oscar bait, and she always comes away disappointed or angry about something she really should have anticipated when going in.
My mother, on The Wrestler: I didn’t like it. There was more wrestling than I expected.
My mother, on Brokeback Mountain: It was good, except for all the parts with the gay cowboys having sex.
So I can guess this woman at the gym was a kindred spirit: I liked Black Hawk Down, except for the part when the helicopter got shot down and the soldiers had to fight for their lives.
Then again, woman of a certain age are not the only ones easily surprised. Rex Grossman threw four interceptions on Sunday. Yet none of us saw it coming. I mean, the back of the uniform clearly reads "Grossman."