Sunday, January 29, 2012

Super Bowl Preview; Part 2: Why the Patriots Will Win

Last week, I told you why the Giants would win the Super Bowl.  Here’s why New England will do it.

1. Vince Wilfork is the quickest 323-pound man I have ever seen.  I hate writing articles in which I regurgitate the fads that are simultaneously circulating all of the sports airwaves, but in the case of Wilfork, who’s coming off a game in which he left no debate as to who is the league’s best defensive tackle, I must join the conversation.  Were it not for Wilfork’s complete domination of the Ravens offensive line this past Sunday, Patriot fans would be asking themselves whether the style of their team is one that is fit to win a Super Bowl.  Yet, here we are on the complete other side of that question. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Super Bowl Preview; Part 1: Why the Giants Will Win

The two-week period between the conclusion of the conference championship game and the beginning of the Super Bowl is an abyss of redundancy, over analysis, and anticipation.  Fans must listen to writers and the football maidens break down every centimeter of the upcoming game to the point of irrelevance.  By the end of the first week, every “meaningful” plot element will be covered.  We will know all about the player matchups, the history of the two teams, and, of course, the response to the most banal of all questions, “What is coach so-and-so doing to get his players ready for the game?”  By the end of the second week, the punditry will expand to topics as extraneous as when the players decide to arrive in Indianapolis, where they sit on the plane, the typical consistency of a pregame meal, and how the softness of hotel beds impact Tom Brady’s accuracy.  I can assure you that the endless rambling will be assuaged only with bi-hourly mentioning of Tim Tebow.  The regression and sidestepping can turn the minds of an otherwise sports-savvy individual to gelatinous mush. 

How am I going to placate this seemingly inevitable situation?  Well, the moments during this two-week period for which reaction, banter, and predictions are pleasurable and interesting are at the beginning and end.  Therefore, much like I did leading up to conference championship weekend, the Super Bowl coverage will come in three parts, only in this case there will be a strict, weeklong moratorium separating the second and third article during which the words Super Bowl will not be written. 

In order to develop a way of accurately selecting a winner, I have decided that I will devote an entire article explaining why the Giants will be victorious and another article detailing precisely why New England will not allow a Super Bowl 42 repeat.  Both outcomes seem equally plausible now.  My hope is that I will be able to devise an accurate prediction once both columns are written.

The 2011 season for the Giants was perhaps the most up and down season a Super Bowl team has ever had.  New York started the campaign by winning five of their first seven games.  Despite the 5-2 record, many wondered if the Giants were a legitimate contender since their two loses came against Washington and Seattle, two of the worst NFC teams at that point of the season.  However, New York’s week 9 victory at New England sparked what at first glance seemed like a turning point for both teams – New York on the rise and New England looking the most dire it ever has with Tom Brady.  But, as is often the case when people sense a dramatic change in the fabric of a given season, the New York victory did the exact opposite.  The G-Men proceeded to lose their next four games while New England began a winning streak that has carried all the way to the Super Bowl.  New York wrapped up the season winning three of their final four, have a five game winning streak of their own, and will defeat the Patriots for these four big reasons. 

1. Even third string wide receiver Mario Manningham is too good for any of New England’s defensive backs.  The trio of Giants wide outs, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Manningham, are the best wide receiving core in football.  They’re athletic, clutch, have great hands, and are sensational after the catch.  We have seen impressive receiver duos (or trios) emerge over the last few seasons, but none have been less flashy than New York’s committee.  Even when Nicks and Cruz turn twenty yard passes into 60+ yard touchdowns, they somehow manage to do it without slap-you-in-the-face athletic fanfare.  What I mean by this is that there’s no unnecessary flip into the end zone, dramatic spin move, or running over of the defensive back.  They simply move to the open space on the field and make opposing defenses look completely befuddled and out of position. 

Previous great wide receiver groups often come with different roles for each member.  When the Giants and Patriots met in the Super Bowl four years ago, Moss and Welker spent all season being matchup nightmares for defenses.  However, opposing teams knew what role the two would be fulfilling.  They didn’t really need to be concerned with Moss going over the middle of the field much like they could almost ignore the possibility of Welker going deep down the sidelines.

This is simply not how things work in New York.  It is often the case that the specific style a wide receiver adopts can be linked to his physique.  The three Giants wide receivers play and look so similarly it’s almost impossible to know who made the catch without seeing the name on the back of the jersey.  Just one inch and 28 pounds separate Nicks, Cruz, and Manningham, which help to explain their high versatility. 
While other receivers might do more to dazzle, the NY wideouts are
as talented as they come
The talent disparity between New York’s elite receivers and the stumbling mannequins that New England calls their defensive backs is simply too vast for Belichick, or anyone else, to create an effective way to take more than one of them out of the game, let alone all three.  The teams that have had success against the Patriots have been the ones that take shots deep throughout the entire game.  Baltimore tried this a few times this past Sunday, one of which worked to perfection in the first quarter of the game in which Flacco rolled to his right before heaving the ball downfield for 42 yards to a wide-open Torrey Smith.  New England also struggled defending Anquan Boldin who went for over 100 yards.  Boldin plays a similar style as the New York receivers in terms of his ability to catch balls anywhere on the field.  The Giants should look to throw the ball deep often and early.   

Nicks, Cruz, and Manningham have all shown the ability to make big catches, especially while covered.  Manning just needs to give them a chance.

2. As Hannah Montana says, the New York Giants, “Get the best of both worlds [thanks to Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck].”  Everybody knows that the key to New York’s success in Super Bowl 42 was the pass rush.  Everybody knows that what the Giants were able to do became a blueprint for other teams to follow against the Patriots.  Of course, just because the Giants showed the rest of the football world how to slow down Tom Brady, it does not mean doing so is an easy feat.  In fact, there is still no other team in the league that can get to Brady like the New York Giants and the reason for this is their superb defensive line. 

Few, if any, teams can generate the pass rush of the Giants using just their front four.  Pierre-Paul emerged as the teams best defensive player this season, earning AP all-pro defensive end honors.  He is now the third defensive end on the team to receive such honors.  Osi was named first team all-pro in 2005, Tuck earned the award in 2008, and both were named to the second team AP all-pro list in 2010.  There is simply no other defensive unit that can compete with the pass rushers of the Giants. 
This is an image the Giants must see more of if they want to
Aside from pressuring Brady, New York’s biggest task will be to devise a game plan that limits the New England tight ends.  As we have found out, and as I made perfectly clear as to why, this is a borderline impossible objective to fulfill, especially when you consider that the secondary is not the strong point of the Giants team.  However, since they rarely need to blitz to create pressure, they will be able to use all seven of their remaining defenders to achieve this goal.  Baltimore should be pleased with how well they contained Hernandez and Gronkowski in the AFC title game.  Do not expect the Giants to do quite as well, although if the two tight ends combine for less than 125 all purpose yards New York should feel they did about the best one could expect given the strengths and weaknesses of their defense.    

3. Eli Manning.  If Eli can play at a similar level as he has done the last three games, his 2011 postseason campaign could go down as one of the best ever.  He has thrown for 923 yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception, good for a rating thus far of 103.1. 

There is really no reason why this type of high-level football should not continue into the Super Bowl.  The concept of pressure does not seem to be one by which Manning is negatively influenced.  His fourth quarter numbers this season are staggering.  He’s also throwing against one of the worst secondarys in football.  Perhaps it was too high of a finish, but I gave Eli my second place MVP vote at the conclusion of the season.  That doesn’t look so silly now.  Manning is playing consistently, confidently, and most importantly, gutsy.  You could have played a front 9 with all the grass shoved into his helmet this past Sunday.

Is it any coincidence that under Peyton Manning the Colts were able to produce a plethora of talented offensive threats like Harrison, Wayne, and Clark and now, with Eli doing all the good things he is doing, we have seen the same thing in New York?  Great quarterback play is the only way to develop young receivers. 

Say what you will about Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, but right now Eli Manning is the premier fourth quarter, clutch-situation quarterback in the league, bar none.  Ten quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls and, of those, Jim Plunkett is the only eligible one not to be in the Hall of Fame.  A second Super Bowl championship would at least put Manning into a HOF discussion although he has a long way to go make that legitimate.

4. The Giants are the ones who have the rematch.  Only seven players who played in Super Bowl 42 are still on New England’s roster. Seldom-used running back Kevin Faulk is one of them.  Wilfork is the only defensive player.  Compare that with the Giants who have 15 players who were a part of the first bout.

The Giants have veterans at major positions including running backs Jacobs and Bradshaw, defensive ends Umenyiora and Tuck, and cornerbacks Webster and Ross.  All those players participated in Super Bowl 42.  You could make an argument that if the Giants can win the battle at those three positions than they will come out on top.  I’ve always believed that past trends, “bulletin board material,” trash talking during the week, and pretty much everything other than the coaches’ game plan and players’ execution of it are all but irrelevant.  However, in a close game we cannot overlook the experience discrepancy of the two teams.

The Giants may not have made it to this Super Bowl were it not for the mistakes of an inexperienced team.  If the game goes down to the wire, which I am essentially assuming it will, you have to consider which team is more disastrous-mistake prone.  I don’t think it is the Giants.   


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Championship Round Predictions; I Officially Know Nothing

I’ve successfully managed to beat around the bush this past week, but I can no longer delay the inevitable fact that I have absolutely no clue as to how this postseason will conclude.  Although my predictive powers are not in tact at the moment, I can safely say I know what I want to happen.  And, really, why entertain the notion of something else?  As Tim Tebow knows, if you wholeheartedly want something to happen, people will give it to you. 

Certainly predicting winners has its self-satisfying, look-what-I-did moments, but how long does such a feeling really last?  No, really, how long does it last?  It feels like it’s been half a century since I’ve made a pick worthy enough for self-applause.  I would much rather spend my time talking about things I would like to happen as opposed to things that will ultimately make me look like an idiot.  With that in mind, here are my weekend picks. 

I want the rematch; I’m ready.  It needs to happen.  As we all look ahead to possible Super Bowl matchups, the notion that we may see it again is as enticing as something that is very enticing.  Even after all the elapsed time, people still talk about the game more than any other one in recent memory.  The first bout had everything you could need: an underdog, back and forth scoring, spectacular plays, and, ultimately, one team coming out on top because, on that day, they were simply better.  The victorious team outplayed the opposition, out coached the opposition, and captured victory because of their own superior play rather than a let down from the foe.  NFL fans around the world caught lightening in a bottle the first time.

You know the game I’m talking about.  You know the rematch I want to see.  Say it with me now, loud and hostile, “Harbaugh Bowl Part 2!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

To get pumped up for this potential affair, please allow me to entice you with the chop-licking statistics from the first battle between the San Francisco 49ers and their head coach, Jim Harbaugh, and the Baltimore Ravens and their head coach, John Harbaugh. 

People say it’s a passing league.  Well, people, you had better rethink that idea because H.B.I. (Harbaugh Bowl I) had a grand total of 257 passing yards!  Who doesn’t want to see that again?  And if you think the teams covered the passing gap in rushing yards, think again!  In the 16-6 game, the two teams combined for 166 yards on 56 carries.  That’s an average of 2.96 yards per carry!  So, it was a defensive game.  I mean, the quarterbacks are Joe Flacco and Alex Smith.  Even their teammates think they’re bad! There must have been a bunch of turnovers then, right?  False once more!  There was just one! 
Loud noises!
Fan’s today don’t know anything about good football.  We’re a bunch of amateurs in a fine winery rushing to the Manischewitz.  We don’t appreciate beauty even when it’s right before our eyes (or in the case of H.B.I., the eyes of the 15 people who get NFL Network).  There were more punts in the H.B.I. than points from touchdowns.  If that’s not the definition of grungy, old school, ├╝ber-exciting football than I don’t know what is!

I know it sounds boring, but believe me it won’t be.  Us fans just need to leave what has become a comfort zone of sorts.  Five hundred passing yards and 60 combined points are great and all, but I’m telling you (because the senior citizens at ESPN tell me), defensive, snore-inducing football is so much better… 

Then again, maybe we aren’t ready to leave the offensive comfort zone…

If at this point you haven’t been able to decipher the underlying sarcastic voice throughout this entire column, you are either (A) my mom or (B) some other person that knows nothing about football or verbal irony.  So, without further delay, I can say with full not sarcasm, I am rooting so, so freaking hard for this years’ big game to be a rematch of Super Bowl 42.

A San Francisco, Baltimore Super Bowl would actually be the worst thing that could happen for my predictive reputation.  I’ve contended these are both overrated teams for much of the season.  If they meet in two weeks, I am going to have some major questions to answer, mainly from myself.  But, at this point, my opinion is already entirely wrong.  You cannot make it this far based on anything but talent and coaching.  They are both very good teams. 

Everyone is ready for the Super Bowl 42 rematch.  Patriots fans need their redemption.  They’ve had to listen to Giants fans carry on and on about their superiority to New England for the last four years.  It only increased after the Giants beat the Patriots earlier this season.  These two factors mean that New England fans would probably enjoy this Super Bowl victory more than any of their previous ones.  Meanwhile, Giants supporters are already convulsing from the possibility that they can continue on their we-own-the-best-team-of-the-decade football rant for the foreseeable future.  As for the non-biased NFL fan, this type of animosity and arrogance within two fan bases has set the stage for a Facebook status and Twitter feed battle of epic proportions.
The responsibility of keeping Gronk in check will
fall on Ed Reed.
For the above reasons, and because I believe the Giants and Patriots are the two best remaining playoff teams, they are my picks to advance to the Super Bowl.  Of course, when a gem of a Super Bowl lingers, someone is going to crash the party.  Not to mention, it seems like the entire Western World is going with the Super Bowl 42 rematch as well. 

Tom Brady must look at Peyton’s situation and think to himself about how fortunate he is to be healthy and this close to another Super Bowl because, in the crazy game of football, every snap could be his last.  He may never get this close again and I don’t think he’s going to let them lose now.  As discussed extensively in my last column, Gronkowski and Hernandez are going to decide the success New England has against the good Ravens D.  Baltimore is probably the team most capable of defending the tight end within the current schemes.  Lewis is still one of the top linebackers, especially against the pass, and behind him is Ed Reed who may very well be the best coverage safety ever.  This means the Ravens will be using Lewis in man or short zone coverage with Reed lurking behind him.  The problem is that still won’t get it done against Gronk, especially when Baltimore must also deal with Hernandez.  New England’s defense has been better lately and they’re at home.  I want the Patriots to win (my pinky just incinerated from writing that) and that’s why I’m picking them. 
Official pick: Patriots 27, Ravens 17

The Giants and 49ers met earlier in the season and San Francisco was able to pull out a close victory.  I believe the Giants will win this game because of their front four on defense, a formula that won them Super Bowl 42.  As I was watching TV Friday afternoon, Steve Young said he believed that Alex Smith has the type of confidence that will serve him well in this postseason.  However, if this is the case he needs to be careful not to get too confident.  Harbaugh should keep his team in check and make sure they don’t abandon the running game and the safe, consistent offense that brought them this far.  If Coughlin doesn’t blow the game with an overly conservative first quarter game plan, the Giants will win. 
Official pick: Giants 24, 49ers 21   

So there you go.  I suppose those qualify as predictions.  At this point, it’s as good a way to do it as any. 


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Divisional Round Reaction, Part 2: From L.T. to Gronk and Jimmy

And just like that, the future direction of the NFL is more obvious than ever. 

The 1980’s introduced a new era of football strategy and personnel.  Lawrence Taylor terrorized offenses thanks to his unparalleled and never-before-seen ability to take down opposing quarterbacks when rushing from his outside linebacker position.  A game against the Giants meant opposing offenses were going to spend all week planning against the original LT.  Unfortunately, such attempts rarely worked.  Taylor’s style of play revolutionized NFL offensive and defensive positions alike. 

As Sandra Bullock knows, offensive tackles, particularly at the left tackle position, needed to change in order to prevent this from being a regular occurrence.  You can define the NFL in two ways: before LT and after LT.  The magnitude of the widespread changes that came during and after his reign has not been seen since – that is, until now.  
Maybe Bullock should consider joining the football
maidens of CBS.
We’ve seen a fair share of new offensive developments over the past five years.  The spread offense, the dual running back system, and the Wildcat/option have all grown into favor throughout the league.  Yet, it seems as though these changes were all done in response to existing trends rather than as a reaction to a dynamic player.  The spread offense was a consequence of antiquated rushing attacks and the overuse of the I-formation.  As the emphasis on a passing game has increased, so has the demand for a running back that can rush as well as receive.  When you couple this with the overall wear and tear on an every-down tailback, it becomes obvious why using multiple running backs became favorable.  The wildcat, which has already begun to fall out of favor, was introduced as a gimmick by an inferior Dolphins team to pull a how-the-hell-could-we-have-prepared-for-that win over the Patriots.  There’s certainly nothing transcendent about one player who cannot pass handing the ball off to another player who cannot pass.

Finally, though, there is a development that will stand the test of time.  We are now entering a new age of football and with it will come a wide variety of strategic changes for teams in terms of offensive and defensive personal, play call, and draft targets.  Just as dynamic pass-rushing linebackers and agile offensive linemen have seamlessly wound themselves into the fabric of the NFL, so will the newest player progression. 

Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez made an official announcement during the Divisional Round: The tight end is the new centerpiece of the NFL offense.

There are three components to this column: the Divisional Round results, the statistical backing, and the defensive solution. 

Part 1: The Divisional Round Results
(Skip this section if you think talking about this past weekend would make me a “prisoner of the moment.”)

The four men listed above produced a whopping 544 total yards and eight touchdowns this past weekend.  If you take the top four offensive performers in any given weekend, you may not see such a staggering total. 

The numbers don’t even tell the whole story. 

Graham’s 103 receiving yards included a spectacular 66-yard go-ahead touchdown reception in the final minutes of Saturday’s game against the 49ers in which he caught the ball in the middle of the field like you’d expect a NBA power forward to bring in an alley-oop.  Brees simply lofted the ball towards his big target and let Graham do the rest, which consisted of spinning out of a poor tackle before running another 40 yards to the Baja.  Meanwhile, Davis, who already had a 37-yard game-changing reception prior to that of Graham, took over on the last drive, recording a 47-yard reception before squeezing onto an Alex Smith pass at the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.  Both Smith and Brees went to their tight ends in the clutch. 
For all the talk about Graham and Gronkowski, Vernon Davis is
probably the best athlete of them all
In the later game, New England tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, were the major reasons for the Patriots' demolition of the Broncos.  Gronkowski, as he had been all season, was Brady’s first option early in the game.  The two got in a rhythm, producing three first half touchdowns. Additionally, Belichick, who always seems to be involved in NFL phenomenons in some fashion, moved Hernandez to the backfield, which resulted in a 43-yard run.  By the start of the second half, the game was essentially finished.

The difference between this NFL-wide revolution and previous ones is that the changes are being brought about because of multiple players.  Graham and Gronkowski may be the poster boys for the domination of the tight end, but it seems as though most offenses are trying to establish their own superstar at the position. 

Slowly but surely, offenses are realizing that the tight end is the game changer.  Even the best wide receivers, running backs, and/or quarterbacks can have their impact minimized by a single defensive player who can match up talent wise.  But, there isn’t a safety, cornerback, or linebacker who has the size, speed, and man coverage abilities to run with the top tight ends. 

Part 2: The Statistical Backing
(Skip this section if you pretty much already believe everything I say and don’t need to hear about decade long trends)

To further understand the impact that tight ends have had around the league this season, I decided to see how many tight ends led their respective teams in receptions, receiving yards, and/or receiving touchdowns.  The results were telling.  Twelve teams this season had a tight end lead them in at least one of the three main categories.  Even more interesting is that only three of those teams were under .500.  Additionally, Washington tight end, Fred Davis, was the only tight end in the top-ten receiving yards for the position to be on a team with a losing record. 
Anytime someone with the number 24(a DB #)  is guarding a
tight end, something has already gone wrong
I then took my research a bit further and investigated the role of the tight end position for each of the teams to make the postseason.  The average regular season numbers for the starting tight end on a playoff roster are 62 receptions, 762 yards, and 6 touchdowns.  You might think these numbers are a bit skewed from Gronkowski and Graham (Hernandez was not included in the calculations as he is not the number one), but consider that the total numbers also include Broncos tight end, Daniel Fells, (good for just 19 receptions and 256 yards) and Jake Ballard (38 receptions, 604 yards).  To put the staggering yardage total in perspective, from 2001 to 2010, a tight end finished with greater than 762 receiving yards only 50 times.  The back third of the decade, from 2001-2003, contributed just seven to the 50.  Thirteen tight ends went beyond 762 yards in 2011 alone.

Some might argue that this is attributed to increased passing across the league.  That is simply incorrect.  Over the last three seasons, a wide receiver has surpassed 1,000 yards 53 times, 1,200 yards 22 times, and 1,400 yards six times.  From 2001-2003, receivers went over the 1,000 yard mark 59 times, the 1,200 mark 29 times, and the 1,400 yard total six times.  In other words, whereas the individual accumulation of statistics for tight ends has grown over the decade, the total for wide receivers has actually had a slight decrease.  If improved tight end play was solely because of amplified passing, you’d expect to see a similar increase for wide receivers. 

Part 3: The Defensive Solution
(Skip this section if you don’t care about the future of the NFL, in which case you have probably already wasted your time on this article)

Lawrence Taylor’s impact in the NFL would have been far less reaching were it not for the subsequent evolution, not just for teams defensively, but offensively as well.  If this tight end phenomenon is to have a lasting impact, defenses will need to adjust their entire approach to defending the position.  Actually, let me correct that statement.  If defensive coordinators have any objections to tight ends going for over 125 yards in every game, then defenses will need to adjust their entire approach to defending the position.    

Middle linebackers are not getting the job done against the tight end and the reason for this is simple; they have too much on their plate.  Inside linebackers need to be responsible for stopping the run once the running back makes it past the defensive line.  They are often forced, therefore, to add on additional weight, thereby sacrificing speed.  They’re also the defensive signal callers, which means not only are they watching the quarterback’s every move, he’s watching theirs.  If the linebacker moves over to guard the tight end in man-to-man coverage, good NFL quarterbacks will notice, at which point the best ones will attempt to exploit the mismatch.  Using the linebackers in a zone scheme is an option, except how often do teams devise only zones to shut down a wide receiver?  The best way to eliminate a wide out is to play tight man coverage with safety help, but this is something virtually impossible to do against the tight end with less shifty linebackers attempting to go man-to-man.

Defensive backs cannot match up against the elite tight ends either.  I certainly don’t need to explain what happens when a 6’ 1”, 200-pound individual gives up four inches and 50 pounds to the guy they’re supposed to be “covering.”  The results are comical.      

If you want proof of all of this, look no further than Graham’s 66-yard touchdown mentioned earlier.  The 49ers tried to do exactly what I am contending is virtually impossible against the elite tight ends.  Patrick Willis (who, mind you, is probably the fastest linebacker in all of football) was in man coverage with Graham with Donte Whitner playing safety over the top.  Graham was, essentially, covered.  But there is simply nothing defenses can do when all Brees needs to manage is an average throw in Graham’s general direction.  Willis wasn’t agile enough to turn around to the ball while in man coverage and Whitner was far too small to either (A) get in front of Graham, (B) knock the ball out once the catch was made, or (C) make the open-field tackle. 
This picture shows it all.  Even the NFL's best middle linebacker
is not yet qualified to play man-to-man against the tight end
At least in terms of shear athleticism, the most impressive and talented positions in the modern NFL are the tight end and pass rushing outside linebacker/defensive end.  I spoke a few weeks ago about the impact these defensive monsters are having in their ability to disrupt the passing game.  After all, it was LT who initiated this OLB transformation and, ironically, it is that same position that will need to evolve once again, except this time it is in response to the offense. 

It is not enough anymore to have guys like Terrell Suggs, Clay Matthews, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Pierre-Paul employed almost exclusively to rush the passer and defend the run.  Just as offensive tackles needed to become quicker during and after the days of Taylor, so do the pass rushers of today.  They are the only ones that possess the physical talents to match up with tight ends, possessing similar size, speed, athleticism, and quickness.  However, much work needs to be done in their coverage abilities but such adaptation seems easily within the realm of reason.

Everybody reading this column knows all about the creative swim and spin moves of the modern pass rusher and these can be modified into an effective physical man coverage strategy.  Pass interference and defensive holding flags are thrown about like shirts blasted out of t-shirt guns at a basketball game, but you have to think that, even in today’s game, refs will allow some extra leeway between two very physical positions.  Pass rushers are already proficient at another skill that an occasionally blitzing middle linebacker may not have: shiftiness. They need to be able to quickly change direction once a run or screen is called.  This ability is at least related to maybe the most difficult part of man coverage: turning to play the ball. 

It’s not like pass rushers never play man coverage. However, what I am calling for is more than the occasional red-zone matchup.  They need commitment to improving their coverage abilities.  The dedication that pass rushers have for recording sacks needs to be at least as great as their efforts in man coverage against the tight end.  If the ends and outside linebackers can understand and accept that they might need to sacrifice four or five sacks per season in order to reduce the impact of the tight end, then defenses would certainly be heading in the right direction.  You run the risk of spreading a player two thin, but this is the skill set that must be developed in the offseason for teams to prevent showings like the ones we saw this past weekend.   


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Divisional Round Reaction, Part 1: The G-Men Triumph

And just like that, the season is over. 

After trouncing the opposition in a record-breaking fashion, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers can add their name to the litany of teams who failed to repeat.  

Defending champs often shock their fan base in the season following their triumph.  Some limp into the postseason.  Others miss the playoffs all together.  Yet, despite the impressive regular season, this Green Bay underachievement may rank among the all time ex-champion let downs.  For 17 weeks, the superiority of Green Bay seemed unquestioned.  Even after their baffling loss to Kansas City, they were still the near unanimous best NFL squad in the mind of players and pundits.  Even when New Orleans built up the kind of momentum that would send a minivan filled with the Ryan family off the tarmac, few put Green Bay off the top spot.  Yet, for the third straight year, a number one overall seed will fail to win a postseason game. 

I can’t say the result surprised me.  A balls-ier, less hardheaded man in my position would have chosen the G-Men.  But I just couldn’t do it.  Green Bay was my team all along.  I predicted an undefeated season.  If I abandoned them heading into this past weekend’s game, what kind of statement would that say about me?  I’d be jumping ship on what was the world’s most beautifully constructed vessel, which would have been especially shocking when you look at the hurricane-endured boat in front of them. 

The Giants-Packers showdown offered a buffet of ways a game can be completely altered.  We had fumbles, dropped passes, poorly thrown balls, failed onside kicks (I actually loved the call) and, fresh off my Ranting and Raving article from last week, straight-up, heinous, shameful, downright fire-ably bad replay officiating.  But, even with all this and more, the game comes down to two plays that should have never happened.  The first, obviously, is the completed Hail Marry to Hakeem Nicks at the end of the first half.  Allowing something like that should be at the top of any blunder list (not to take credit away from Nicks.  Hail Marry’s should just never happen).  When it’s not, you know whatever took its place must be historically awful… and it was.

Success is measured by the ability to adapt to changes and unexpected situations.  This is something that goes beyond sports.  Flexibility and quick thinking is paramount to accomplish almost anything.  At the start of the second half, these traits appeared to have found their way into the Green Bay locker room.  The Giants had zero first downs in the third quarter.  Green Bay’s offense wasn’t exactly running wild, but the lead was cut to just a touchdown as the fourth quarter began. 
Nicks caught the ball just as NY Giants receivers are instructed to...
with the helmet.
Then the inexplicable happened.  With 13:00 minutes (thirteen full minutes!) left in the fourth quarter and at New York’s 39-yard line, the normally good, Mike McCarthy, called a play that we should see time and time again.  It should be at the top of the list on any NFL Films 50 Worst Coaching Decisions.  His decision to go for it on fourth and five makes Belichick’s 4th and 2 decision against Indianapolis in 2009 look about as commonplace and disturbing as road kill.    

There is no justification for what McCarthy did.  McCarthy’s decision was based on nothing one could even misconstrue as strategy.  Let me assure you, there is exactly zero hindsight bias when I say, it was, quite simply, the worst call I have ever, ever seen. It’s like McCarthy said, “You know what, I’m f-ing bored.  I’ve gotta make it home in time for the Napoleon Dynamite premier.”  Once Michael Boley dragged Rodgers down to the ground, the game was over.

It was the type of play you expect to find in the Beginner lounge of Madden 12.  Facing a clearly more prepared opponent, McCarthy believed that that fourth down play was as close as he could get to victory, a shocking notion when you consider the Green Bay quarterback.

One must be careful not to over blow the effects of a single play throughout the course of a game.  You can’t just say, “They should have gotten seven points here, which means the game would have been tied and they could have won in overtime.”  Every play impacts all the others that come after it.  But, in the case of McCarthy’s demise, a successful punt would have been game altering.    

Let me remind you that there were thirteen minutes left in the game.  Even if Green Bay punter, Tim Masthay, sent the ball into the end zone, netting just 18 yards, the Giants would have needed to produce a drive totaling over 40 yards to even think about taking a game-ending field goal.  If the defense could have limited New York to less than 40 yards, Rodgers would have had about five minutes to go roughly 80 yards.  Of course, that is a worst-case scenario. 

Masthay should have been able to pin New York inside their own ten, or at least fifteen.  Do you think Coughlin would have been aggressive with his team up by a touchdown, deep in their own territory, with nearly a full quarter remaining?  Of course not.  If the Packers could have stop what would have surely been two runs to open up the drive, they could have received the ball essentially just 25 yards deeper than when they decided to go for it on fourth down.

The more I dive into the colossal mishap, I cannot help but get even more frustrated.  Was McCarthy just impatient or was there something else at play?  Prior to the fourth down decision, the Packers suffered their biggest missed opportunity of the season.  Rodgers dropped back and missed a wide-open Jermichael Finley running across the middle of the field.  Both men seemed to indicate it was the other’s fault, but I have to think the blame falls on Rodgers.  Even if Finley made his cut a yard short of the intended route, there’s just no way that ball doesn’t get completed in Week 9.  Rodgers needed to put the ball right on his tight end’s hands.  Hubris must have been a driving factor behind the fourth down decision.  The Packers ran a perfect play to get the needed yardage on third down.  What was stopping them from doing it again? 

The future will judge where this Green Bay team ranks historically.  A Super Bowl run would have certainly cemented them among the all-time greats, especially since it would have be a repeat championship season.  But, now?  They are nothing special; a flavor of the week.  This 2011 Green Bay team will be nothing more than a vestige of a championship one that was able to ascend to the top of the rankings in a season certainly altered by a lingering lockout.  Rodgers’ efficiency will be remembered, but another Super Bowl ring would have already moved Rodgers’ into the top-10-all-time-quaterback discussion.

The next question facing this team is, where now?  Even with another Super Bowl ring, I do not know that Green Bay would have been the NFC favorite heading into next year.  Certainly the Giants have to be in the discussion, as they seem to improve every week and are still not healthy.  Among other contenders are San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, and maybe, maybe, maybe (probably not) Chicago so long as they have Forte. 

Brady and Roethlisberger achieved Super Bowl success early in their careers, but, especially in the case of Brady, these men have realized that as the seasons add up, health, among many other things, make returning to championship glory a difficult endeavor.  Am I suggesting Rodgers may never get to anther Super Bowl?  No, of course not.  There was talk all season of what it would mean for Rodgers to surpass Favre’s ring total.  He may still do it, but, at the moment, Rodgers is among the slew of 1-ring, on-the-cusp-of-legendary quarterbacks, a place he should be happy to sit but is certainly aching to exceed.            

The great tragedy of games like Sunday’s upset is that we talk about the losers first and even though Green Bay found new ways to lose at every junction of the game, all the credit goes to the G-men.  Performances like Green Bay’s don’t just spontaneously happen.  The Giants heckled, out hustled, and out played the Packers on every single ball all night long.  An inferior team would have failed to score after the Green Bay turnover on downs.  New York wrapped that drive up with a field goal and as they move on to the Conference Championship game, Green Bay is left to stew until September. 


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Divisional Round Predictions

The Divisional Round is often regarded as the best weekend of football by fans uninterested in fanfare and 5 million dollar Bud Light commercials.  This year’s matchups offer a mixture of perennial contenders and a few upstart franchises.  Let’s get right to it because I’m now just two episodes away from wrapping up the first season of Weeds and I need to have that done by the end of the evening.

Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots
At a 13.5-point spread, Vegas thinks this game will be the weekend’s largest blowout.  Tim Tebow’s lore is now at an all time high heading into this game against New England.  Interestingly enough, the same could have been said at the time of Denver’s first game with the Patriots that took place last month.  My prediction for that game was simple: New England should win by a sizeable margin, but if close in the fourth quarter, Denver would win.  I guess my stance hasn’t really changed heading into this matchup. 
A few more years of the current streak, and there's going to be a new
curse in Boston.   
Patriots fans across the country cheered as Pittsburgh, who handed New England a loss in the regular season, was eliminated.  This was the appropriate response, after all the Steelers were my AFC Super Bowl favorite in last week’s column.  Consider though how excruciatingly painful it will be for New England fans if they somehow lose.  Seeing their Super Bowl aspirations end against Roethlisberger would have been, after a week or so of mourning, tolerable.  But Denver? 

One of the most startling pieces of recent NFL information is that Brady and company haven’t one a playoff game since losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl.  How is that possible? 

In any case, I don’t know how anyone can pick against Tebow anymore.  Granted, if Denver someone manages to make it to the Super Bowl I don’t see how the end of the world 2012 prophecy isn’t correct.  None of New England’s wins this season came against a team that finished the year with a winning record.  The defense is at an all time worst.  Their offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, is already thinking about Penn State next year.  

There hasn’t been any real discussion on stats or matchups or anything like that for this prediction, but that’s because all those things have no bearing against the Denver Broncos.  Their success is unprecedented to the highest extent.  My gut tells me the Broncos can squeeze out one more postseason win, but I refuse to believe Brady allows that to happen.
Patriots 27, Denver 10

Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens
For me, this is the weekend’s most intriguing matchup.  Maybe because there was never a complete AFC team this season, the football world seemed to give Baltimore that title mostly due to their two victories over the Steelers.  My stance on those games has been that they are not indicative of either team’s true abilities.  There are so many psycho meatheads between those two that whoever can go on more of a roid-rage tear will probably come out on top.  That’s not how things work in every game.

I’m also unable to ignore the outings in which Baltimore appeared no better than a six seed.  All four of their loses came to teams without a winning record.  Baltimore also produced a downright hideous performance against the Jets and needed a 24-point comeback to top the lowly Cardinals.  Granted, they still won those two games and there is something to be said about winning ugly, but I don’t really know exactly what that thing is or how it applies to postseason football against a very complete Texans team.  If I were a Ravens fan I would also be concerned with Flacco’s abilities against one of the league’s elite defensive teams.  To me, he’s not much more than a bigger, more ugly Marc Sanchez. 

As for the Texans, they looked exceptional in their first round dispatching of Cincinnati.  Their defense was in the face of Dalton all day, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster both looked to be possibly the best at their respective positions, and T.J. Yates demonstrated that the moment was not too big for him.  If this can become a regular thing, I don’t know if anyone can beat them.  I picked it last week and had been talking about the rise of Houston well before then.  I’m not backing down now.
Texans 24, Baltimore 20 

New York Giants vs. Green Bay Packers
Is it just me or does this Giants teem seem eerily familiar to the one that won the Super Bowl four years ago?  Manning is playing great.  The wide receivers look borderline unstoppable.  The defensive line is on a 60-minute warpath.  Tom Coughlin is coaching his way into positive media favor (be it well deserved or not – I’m going with not).  All of these things were taking place then too. 
Make no doubt about it; Woodson's D-POY award ahead of Revis
in 2009-10 was a total sham, but he is an all-time great playmaker
I can’t explain it, but I am itching to pick the Giants in the stunning upset.  I know, I know – I’ve been riding Green Bay since August and have probably not written a blog article since without the words “Aaron Rodgers”, but rightfully so.  This game will be his biggest test at a repeat championship.
Pass defense is optional for both teams, which has to leave both quarterbacks feeling like they’re going to dominate.  And you know what, they probably both will.  In fact, I suspect we may see over 800 yards between the two combined.  I don’t know if that’s a postseason record but it must be damn close.

Final game prediction: Rodgers leads the Pack down for a game-leading touchdown with 1:53 left.  Manning gets it back, drives the Giants down to the Green Bay 28 yard line, and, with 0:15 left, throws a game-ending interception to Charles Woodson in the back of the end zone after having the ball ricochet off Cruz’s hands. It’s going to be a shootout, but I’ve got the dance with who I brought.
Packers 41, Giants 37

New Orleans Saints vs. San Francisco 49ers
In a classic “something’s gotta give” game, something has got to give.  No team has looked better down the stretch than New Orleans, although were it not for two dropped easy interceptions by the Lions last week they may have been eliminated.  But, in a shocking turn of events, the Lions came up short. 
Don't think for one second Vilma has forgotten about Frank Gore's
history of fumbling.  
If Harbaugh doesn’t take home Coach of the Year I will be shocked, but I cannot see his 49ers team defeating Drew Brees.  The Saints defense is underrated and Alex Smith is getting more credit than he deserves.  It’s Frank Gore’s show in the Bay Area and there’s a chance this moment may be too big for the veteran runner.  Not to mention, Jonathan Vilma is playing probably the best football of his career and is going to be committed to stopping Gore before he can get into the open field. Another interesting thing to notice is that San Francisco’s highly touted defense dominates against the run (best in the league in yards/game) but are actually middle of the pack against the pass.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  The Saints have quietly developed one of the games best rushing attacks (sixth in yards/game) but still use it as more of a change-up to the Drew Brees show. 

I’m really excited for this game mainly because (1) the two teams are so different and (2) I haven’t sat on the San Fran bandwagon at all this season and hate being wrong. 
Saints 31, San Francisco 14

I was pleased with my 3-1 record last week.  I’d take that again.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Oh... The Sorrows of Life

I woke up this past Monday with an idea for my upcoming article.  It was going to be an earth-shattering piece of crafty literature.  I wanted to give a summary of Wild Card weekend by addressing what was obviously the most interesting of the games (Denver defeating Pittsburgh) without riding the Tebow bandwagon too hard.  After my 9:15 class ended, I got to work, scribing upon my 2008 Macbook Pro perhaps the greatest single piece of sports commentary ever to be written.  Just one page in, I had already undergone an emotional rollercoaster creating it as I laughed, sobbed, and felt like, for the first time in my life, I found my reason for being on this planet.  Surely such grandiosity would have been something any reader would have experienced for as well.  My next class began at 11:35 so I packed up my computer and embarked for my lecture, hoping that the next hour would fly by so that I could continue on my literary masterpiece (I also recently got hooked on Showtime’s show, Weeds, and had already blocked off a sizeable chunk of my afternoon so I could finish watching the first season on my computer.  You will note that I said, “Showtime’s show, Weeds” to avoid any possible misinterpretation of that sentence). 

I got back to my house, ate a quick lunch, and plugged in my computer.  The only problem was that the aforementioned 2008 Macbook Pro would not turn on. 

The next two and half hours of my life were devoted to my attempts to ameliorate this most tragic situation.  “I don’t understand,” I proclaimed to anybody that cared to listen, “it was working swell this morning!”  My first attempt was to monkey with the charger.  That was a failure.  I then took out the battery and applied the N64-blow-on-it trick to any part of the computer that looked important.  If there were ever an indication that I know absolutely nothing about computers, that pathetic effort leaves no doubt.  Anyway, this heartbreaking tale ends with my computer getting shipped off for the next two weeks to undergo various operations that will hopefully end with it back in my arms and fully operational.  In the meantime, I was given a 2007(!) Macbook Pro as a replacement from the school.  The thing weighs at least ½ a pound more, which I find to be downright intolerable.

The reason I am writing all of this, besides the fact that I need a venue to bitch about my horribly unjust and difficult time, is that my broken computer and subsequent loss of recently created files means that the gem and crowning achievement of my writing career is forever lost – that is until I release my posthumous blog, Born Again: The Lost Blogs of Adam Weinberger. Until that day though, we will need to put the lost piece behind us, despite how difficult it may be.  Attempting to rewrite my article exactly would be a waste of time, as whatever I produce will lack the charming spontaneity of my first effort. 
Like I always say, "If Biggie could do it, so can I."
Here is my best attempt at a seamless transition from a woebegone tale to a more traditional column focused on sports.  Game picks for this weekend will be coming later this week.  In the meantime, here are some NFL issues that have me as heated as one can be without someone saying to you, “You realize you’re talking about sports here.”  Note: these appear in order from frustrating to downright intolerable (with the same “just sports” stipulation). 

1. The New York Jets Soap Opera
I think mostly because we’ve known this was bound to happen eventually, the imploding locker room is snagging multiple front-page stories on the ESPN and NFL websites.  First it’s Holmes, then it’s Bart Scott, and now Marc Sanchez.  They collapsed this season and quite frankly were never really any good. Maybe it’s because I have no interest in hearing about my team’s failures weeks after the season ended, but I feel like the only football stories that should matter at this point are those for the eight teams left.  The Jets have weaknesses at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and nickel back positions among many coaching ones.  Baring an unforeseen offseason pickup/trade, I don’t see this team winning more than 7 games in 2012 and by this time next year they will be all but irrelevant were they not from New York.  

2. The Review System
Just when you thought the slow-as-molasses, blatantly flawed review system of the NFL could not possibly get any worse, the esteemed minds of the league decided that every scoring play should be reviewed, adding on another 15 minutes to every game. Does the head ref really need so much exercise that he must go over to the hood to watch the replay for himself?  I mean, everyone watching the game on television usually gets to see the review of the play five to ten times before we even hear the dreaded words, “The previous play is under review.” No shit it’s under review!  We just watched it get reviewed.  In fact, we pretty much already know if it’s getting overturned or not.  But, rather than having all those guys upstairs who are supposedly watching every play just radio down to the head ref and tell him either “it’s overturned” or “the play stands”, I need to listen to another fifteen minutes of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman punditry.  But, hey, at least the duo understands that all scoring plays get reviewed.  Half the announcers still argue with one another about whether or not the coach should challenge the touchdown until one the dimwits says, “But, wait, all scoring plays get reviewed.”

Of course, the worst part of all is that thanks to absurd rules regarding what can and cannot be challenged, they still get the call wrong many times.  Two incorrect calls were made this weekend on fumbles because the refs could not necessarily say a defender would have recovered the football had the play not been blown dead. 

3. AFC West Front Office Blunders
Which California team committed a bigger mistake, San Diego for bringing back Norv Turner or Oakland for firing first-year man Hue Jackson?  Both moves are as difficult to understand as Matt Millen’s qualifications for his job at ESPN.  Coaches get scapegoated too often nowadays for team failure, as seen in Jackson’s departure.  However, in the case of Norv Turner, I believe he has long overstayed his welcome.  In a year where the AFC West failed to produce a nine-win team, it’s an absolute joke that talented San Diego didn’t take the division.  After the Philip-Rivers-botched-snap disaster, it behooved Turner to prevent his team from falling into a midseason funk.  He didn’t and his club proceeded to lose its next four games, at which point their season was all but finished. 
While understandably upset about his firing, Jackson
should be proud of his top 8 finish in the
Yet the Hue Jackson firing is even more stunning.  With a career record of 8-8 in Oakland, he has the best win percentage of the last six men to coach for the Raiders.  If I were making a list of the top 10 candidates for Coach of the Year, Jackson would have been in there.  In one week, the Raiders lost their best player in running back Darren McFadden and brought in Carson Palmer, who had been back in football for less than a week.  Prior to the McFadden injury, Oakland was 4-2.  Three of their final five losses were to playoff teams. 

4. The Use of “A”
Is something grammatically, syntactically, or otherwise wrong with the following sentences:

If the 49ers want to be a better offensive team, they’re going to need someone like a Drew Brees at quarterback.  Then again their secondary could use a Darrelle Revis or a Troy Polamalu.  In the return game, they’d benefit from a player that can be like a Devin Hester.

What the hell is “a” doing before all of those people’s names?  It serves absolutely no point accept to indicate the poor education of the person using it in such a frivolous and incorrect manner.  Yet, time and time again, the football maiden’s of ESPN, CBS, FOX and sports talk radio around the world insert the insignificant syllable and, in doing so, remove any vestiges of validity their comment may have had. 

I guess this was a preemptive topic to include because the NFL draft coverage has begun to steadily increase, which means TV’s across the country are going to be bombed with Mel Kiper, the biggest fan of the irrelevant and idiotically nonsensical “a”.  If his first grade teacher is still alive, I’m sure she busts a gasket anytime her grammatically challenged ex-student decides to show his forehead on mainstream television. 

To prove my point, I was trying to find a video in which Kiper performs this moronic sin and, what do you know, he does it literally within the first three seconds of speaking in the first video I clicked on.  As is always the case, the “a” added absolutely nothing. 

5. All Pro = Pro Bowl
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Being an all-pro player is in no way the same as being a pro bowl player.  Just to be clear, the all-pro roster is voted on by 50 sports writers, the same group of people as those who vote on the AP MVP award.  There is only one player selected for each position, with the exception of WR, CB, LB, D-line, and RB (because more than one of these are typically on the field at the same time).  Compare that to the slew of old, overrated, and/or popular bums who get voted into the Pro Bowl by the fans. 

Jared Allen explained it best this past week after he made the roster for the fourth time saying, “The All-Pro Team to me is one of the all-time accomplishments.  Pro Bowls are nice, but guys get voted in longer than they should and guys who deserve to go don't always get to… this is the honor I hold the highest.”

There are a lot of terrible commercial out right now, but absolutely none of them are as difficult to watch as this GEICO commercial. 

“You are all pro linebacker, Brian Orakpo.”
I wonder how guys like Clay Matthews, James
Harrison, and DeMarcus Ware feel about
Orakpo's label as an "all-pro"
No he is not!  Brian Orakpo has never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever made an all-pro roster.  He’s never even made the second team all-pro list.  In fact, both of his appearances in the Pro Bowl have been essentially as replacements. 

Some day I am going to call up GEICO and demand I speak to enough supervisors before I can unload my frustration on whatever careless bozo wrote such a fallacy.  The thing that really kills me about the commercial is that Brian Orakpo must know they aren’t telling the truth.  Maybe that’s the only reason he agreed to the commercial in the first place.   

It’s one thing for an insurance company to make a mistake, but I expect more from people actually involved in the football world.  During the Bengals-Texans playoff game, one of the commentators (either Tom Hammond or Mike Mayock – it’s a shame I forgot) repeatedly referred to wide receiver, A.J. Green, as an all-pro.  The rookie had a great year, but was probably not even in the top 10 at his position. 

Okay, well, my blood is sufficiently boiling.  Divisional Round picks will be out in the coming days.