Sunday, October 30, 2005

Saturday's ESPN highlights MIAMI WORE THROWBACK UNIFORMS, ostensibly to honor the all-important 38th anniversary of the 1967 Hurricanes team that went to the Bluebonnet Bowl, but really to pump up merchandise sales. So, ESPN, tell us: What team did the uniforms, seen at right, make the Hurricanes look like?
  • Play-by-play announcer Pam Ward: Notre Dame
  • GameNight on ESPN radio: Baylor
  • College GameDay Final: South Florida
  • Stan Verrett, SportsCenter: unspecified USFL team
LEE CORSO mangled-cliche quote of the day: "Mark it down on your calendar: That Vince Young is a great football player."

Friday, October 28, 2005

Week 8 picks

Predictions for Week 8 have been posted over at The Writers' Picks. After last week's disastrous 8-6 showing, I've slid into a four-way tie for ninth place. As a result, I'm gonna dance with what brung me and go back to the just-have-a-gut-feeling school of pick-making. Winless Houston over Cleveland? Just got a feeling. Tennessee over Oakland? That feeling. New Orleans over Miami? Feeeeeling. I may not actually improve my record, but I'm not going to outsmart myself again.

On schedule

Super Bowl XL? You can't get there from here

As soon as the NFL regular season concludes, each team knows which opponents it will face the next year, because the matchups are determined by formula. But it isn't until April that the league announces the actual schedule -- who will play where and when. At that point, each team in the league reviews its slate and declares that the schedule-makers have screwed them over.

As TMQ regularly observes, someone has to get "cheated." Every week, someone has to play the Steelers. For every game, someone has to go on the road. Most of the time, when someone in the NFL is complaining about the schedule, he's just trying to lower expectations. If a team's upcoming five-game stretch is going to be the most grueling month a group of men has endured since July 1916, then they can be forgiven for winning only two or three.

But this year, at least one team has a legitimate grievance. Many, many times in the past week, we've heard the San Diego Chargers referred to as the best 3-4 team in history. In the first seven games of the season, the Chargers have had to play four teams that made the playoffs last season, including both Super Bowl teams as well as last year's AFC runner-up, the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. Nobody in the league has had to face a tougher schedule than the Chargers, right?

Well, it depends how you judge strength of schedule. Based on records from last season, the Chargers have actually played the fifth-toughest schedule so far this year. The New England Patriots, another team whose early-season schedule has been cited as particularly brutal, have faced the fourth-toughest overall slate. The Patriots have already had to play four of last year's playoff teams -- the Chargers, Steelers, Falcons and Broncos -- plus the Panthers, whom many see as a playoff contender in 2005. So who's had the toughest schedule so far, at least on paper? The Jacksonville Jaguars, definitely. They've played teams that last year combined for a .667 winning percentage, and of their six games, five have been against teams that were in the playoffs last year: the Seahawks, Colts, Jets, Broncos and Steelers. Four of those teams, all but the Jets, should be back in the playoffs this year. And the Jags' sixth game was against the Bengals, who also are on track for the postseason.

We do need to consider that the Chargers' schedule has already included road trips of 3,000 miles to Foxboro and 2,600 to Philadelphia. The Jaguars, meanwhile, haven't had any games outside the Eastern time zone, and the Patriots have had only one, in Denver. So the Chargers very well may have had the hardest schedule. Beyond the Chargers, what can we learn from looking at strength of schedule?

Two questions we need to ask: 1) Is it fair to judge this year's schedules based on last year's records? 2) Do those 2004 records really have any bearing? I believe the answer is yes to both. Before the season even started, people were pointing to the Chargers' and Patriots' schedules as tough and at the Colts' and Bengals' as easy. And those early assessments have been borne out. Sure, some teams appear to have reversed gears: The Vikings and Jets are worse; the Buccaneers and Chiefs are better. But because this season is still young, teams are just settling into their identities. Last year's performance gives us useful benchmarks by which to gauge a team's value as an opponent: whether that team made the playoffs, and whether that team had at least 10 wins, the break point for being considered "good."

One other question: Why even look at strength of schedule at this point in the season? Because divisional play is about to begin in earnest. Twenty-eight of the league's 32 teams have played two or fewer divisional games. The hardest-fought stretch of the season is about to get rolling, and this is a good time to take stock of what the teams have faced to this point.

Besides, charts, graphs and the adding together of the numbers are what we do here at Down and Distance. So here's a look at the strength of the schedule each NFL team has had to face this year. The chart lists the 2004 winning percentage of each team's opponents so far this year; the number of 2004 playoff teams ("P.T.") each team has faced; and the number of 10-win teams ("10+") it has faced. For illustration purposes, AFC teams are listed in white, NFC teams in green:

Jaguars .667 5 4 4-2
Raiders .635 3 3 2-4
Falcons .634535-2
Patriots .625 4 4 3-3
Chargers .616 4 4 3-4
Texans .604 3 2 0-6
Titans .580 3 2 2-5
Steelers .573 2 2 4-2
49ers .531321-5
Saints .527422-5
Browns .521 2 2 2-4
Broncos .518 2 2 5-2
Chiefs .500 3 3 4-2
Dolphins .500 2 2 2-4
Giants .500324-2
Panthers .500224-2
Buccaneers .490325-1
Vikings .490222-4
Jets .482 1 1 2-5
Bengals .473 2 1 5-2
Cowboys .473324-3
Seahawks .473215-2
Eagles .469224-2
Bills .446 2 2 3-4
Ravens .438 2 2 2-4
Rams .429213-4
Bears .427103-3
Lions .417113-3
Redskins .406214-2
Packers .396101-5
Colts .393 1 0 7-0
Cardinals .385202-4

Several things jump right out at you:

The AFC's dominance in 2004 is validated yet again. Seven of the eight toughest schedules and 11 of the top 14 have been played by AFC teams. That's because an AFC schedule is inherently tougher than an NFC schedule. Last year, the AFC as a whole had a .547 winning percentage. The NFC's percentage was just .453. Every team plays three-quarters of their games within their own conference, which means more tough foes for AFC teams, more "light" foes for NFC teams.

The skepticism about the Colts is well-placed. The only thing we've heard more often than "the Chargers are better than their record" is "the Colts haven't played anybody yet." While the Chargers, Patriots, Jaguars and Falcons have each played at least four playoff teams, the Colts have faced just one: the St. Louis Rams, who at 8-8 last year made the playoffs not because they deserved it but because the NFC didn't have anyone else to send. Further, the Colts are one of only four teams not to have faced a single 10-win club, and they've gotten to play the two worst teams in the NFL: the Texans and 49ers. Their toughest opponent so far: the Jaguars, 9-7 in 2004. All that said, however, it is a Down and Distance house rule that no team should ever be punished for doing all that's asked of it. The Colts can only play the games that are on their schedule, and they're 7-0 in those games. They haven't lost to any of these weaklings. So I'll be skeptical, but not yet critical.

There are good signs and not-so-good signs for the Redskins. At 4-2, Washington has been impressive this year, especially compared with the past three seasons. But keep in mind that they've played one 10-win club, the Broncos, and lost. They have three wins over significantly improved teams -- the Bears, Cowboys and Seahawks -- but those victories came by a total of six points. Their one convincing victory was over the 49ers.

A "soft" schedule doesn't guarantee a winner. The only team with a weaker schedule than the Colts has been the Cardinals, but they've won just two games, over the 49ers and Titans. The Packers haven't played a single 10-win team, either, and the one playoff team they've faced is the pathetic Vikings. They did give both Tampa Bay and Carolina a hard time, and both those teams will contend for the playoffs this year ... but 1-5 is still 1-5, Irma!

A tough schedule can explain only so much. People are willing to cut the Chargers some slack because they've lost four games by a total of 12 points (3 per game). The 49ers, with the second-toughest schedule in the NFC, have lost five games by a total of 119 points (24 per game). The Texans, with the sixth-toughest schedule in the whole league, have lost six by 105 (18 per game). When you roll over like that week after week, it doesn't much matter what your schedule looks like. You stink.

There's no direct correlation. The horizontal axis in the graph below represents the combined winning percentage of the 32 teams' opponents, ranging from .385 for the Cardinals to .667 for the Jaguars; the vertical axis is the teams' records, ranging from 0-6 Houston to 7-0 Indianapolis:


At season's end, we'll revisit these numbers, comparing this year's strength of schedule vs. final records. If we're lucky, we'll have devised a way to get rich by wagering. If we're unlucky, we'll have proved that strength of schedule is a canard, and the wheels will be in motion toward a college playoff. Bwa-ha-ha.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Mr. Mara and the value of perception

Brother, can you spare $2 billion, split 32 ways?

New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, the patriarch of the NFL, died Tuesday. Much has been and will continue to be written about Mara's role in the growth of professional football. He was a true pioneer and the league's last living link to the days of two-way players and leather helmets, barnstorming clubs and the wing-T, the Providence Steam Roller and the Frankford Yellow Jackets. For all he accomplished, however, all the history he was a part of, Mara's most remarkable legacy may be the NFL's financial structure.

Mara was a staunch defender of the league's revenue-sharing system. He believed that the fortunes of his franchise were inextricable from those of the NFL's other members. He believed that a strong league in which all teams could compete would generate far more fan support, far more wealth, than a league with a handful of winners and a slew of patsies.

The question is whether revenue sharing is the best way to accomplish that.

Whenever NFL revenue sharing is discussed, the conversation splits into two camps. One says shared revenue is the foundation of the NFL's dominance astride the American sports landscape. The other sees revenue sharing as anti-capitalistic, anti-competitive, anti-labor, anti-American, probably even antihistamine.

The pro-revenue-sharing camp's argument: By pooling all significant revenue, most notably television and licensing dollars -- and by setting a limit on player salaries pegged to the size of that revenue pool -- the league guarantees that each franchise has the same amount to spend on players. That ensures that the league will have what supporters call competitive balance and detractors call parity. For evidence, this camp points to Major League Baseball, where the New York Yankees dominate every year. In the NFL, they say, every team has a shot, every year.

The anti-revenue-sharing camp's argument: Because of pooled revenue, the successful franchises are forced to subsidize the failures. Franchises that maximize their revenue are prevented from putting together the best team they can because a significant chunk of their income is diverted and because the salary cap limits how much of their remaining income they can spend. But the worst part, they say, is that revenue sharing isn't even necessary. Shrewd management and talent evaluation are what give teams an edge. For evidence, this camp points to Major League Baseball, which this year will crown its sixth different champion in as many years. In the NFL, they say, the same team has won the Super Bowl three of the last four years.

Who's right? Would you believe they're ... both right? Well, probably not, because they aren't both right. They're both wrong.

Revenue sharing does in fact help NFL teams in smaller markets. Take the Green Bay Packers. They're down now, but the Packers have been among the league's elite for the better part of the past decade. As a professional sports franchise, the Green Bay Packers do everything right. They're well-managed and well-marketed and have a fiercely loyal fan base that covers the state of Wisconsin. But as great as Wisconsin is -- and it is great -- the entire state has 2.5 million fewer people than New York City alone. The state's population is about one-quarter that of the New York metropolitan area (and the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region is considerably richer than the Milwaukee-Kenosha-Racine corridor). Simply put, the Packers don't have access to the kind of revenue the New York Giants do. Revenue sharing helps the Packers even the playing field.

The Green Bay Packers are one thing, and the Arizona Cardinals are quite another. Arizona has about the same population as Wisconsin but is growing much faster -- and Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the country. The Cardinals get the same cut of the TV money that the Packers get. Yet the Cards, winner of the coveted Down and Distance Most Forlorn Franchise award, haven't been a factor in the NFL for 30 years. They're poorly managed, poorly marketed. They're lucky if they can get 40,000 people into their 73,000-seat stadium.

Slide over to baseball for a moment, and we see that, yes, the Yankees spend their way into contention every year. But the New York Mets, with pockets nearly as deep, assemble some of the cruddiest teams in baseball. The Chicago Cubs squeeze enormous amounts of money out their credulous fans yet are a study in mediocrity. The teeny-tiny Minnesota Twins and Oakland A's have been competitive for the past five years. This is the case, luxury tax or no luxury tax.

So revenue sharing and limited spending can -- but not necessarily will -- help teams compete. And unshared revenue and unlimited spending can -- but not necessarily will -- help teams compete. One club may take the money, use it to improve the team, increase the level of competition and fan excitement, and thus raise the value of all franchises. Another club may take the money and run. Both sides are partially right ... which means both sides are wrong.

What I see as the most critical aspect of revenue sharing in the NFL is also one of the least recognized. Revenue sharing may help level the playing field, but more important -- most important -- it creates the perception of a level playing field. When fans don't believe that their team has a legitimate shot at a championship, this year or in the future, they stop being fans. They quit coming to the game. But when they believe that "this could be the year," they buy tickets. They buy gear. They make their team rich.

In sports, as in every other aspect of life, perception is reality. Why does Rodney Harrison invest so much psychic energy in looking for disrespect where none exists? Because he plays better when he's playing with a grudge. Even if everybody gives the Patriots their due props, he'll still feel disrespected, and he'll play as if that disrespect exists. Perception is reality. (Oh, and does Harrison really play better with a grudge? Well, he thinks he does, and that's all that matters. Perception is reality.)

Back to revenue sharing. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Minnesota, and, after a 10-year Iowa interregnum, I've now lived in the Washington area for eight years. If there's one thing that Vikings fans and Redskins fans have in common, it's that both always think that this is going to be the year. The Redskins are the NFL's most valuable franchise, the Vikings are the least valuable. The Redskins own their stadium and use it like an ATM; the Vikings pay rent on a comparative hellhole. Yet the fans see the teams as equals, and year after year both teams sell out all their home games. Perception is reality.

One can argue that the real reason the Vikings have been able to compete with the Redskins is that they've made better decisions. But consider: Minnesotans know that the Twins have had more recent success than the high-revenue Baltimore Orioles because of smarter management. But that doesn't stop a Twins fan from hearing that free-agency clock ticking and wondering when the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers will sweep in and pick off whatever talent they want. (They ought to know by now that there are few things in baseball more disappointing than an ex-Twin.) That's not a fear for a Vikings fan. An NFL team, of course, can get itself in cap trouble and have to dump salary, but no NFL team is in danger of losing a player because the Giants play in a bigger market, have a larger cable-TV contract and thus can pay any price. The Giants can't do that because Mr. Mara didn't want it that way.

Mr. Mara knew perception is reality.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Brotherhood of man

Lester Nolan Holt III
NBC News second-stringer Lester Holt; San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. One of these guys is allowed to wear a suit to work.

Week 7 postmortem

I went 8-6 this week in my picks. Sigh. My once-strong position in the standings is gradually ebbing away. The worst part of the weekend, however, was that I had to work Sunday afternoon, so I was forced to choose four games to TiVo, then had to try to block out all incoming NFL information over the course of the day. I kept the TV at my desk tuned to the Redskins-49ers game, but I actually put tape over the corner of the screen where Fox runs the "out-of-town" scores. I got home, and just my luck: I recorded four games, and I got all four wrong. Canned football sucks.

Kansas City over Miami: In an admirable display of evenhandedness, the league decided this time around to screw the road team in a hurricane-rescheduled game. Fouling the plan, the Chiefs came out loose and the Dolphins were so tight they squeaked. I never fell off the Miami bandwagon; the Dolphins threw me off.

Indianapolis over Houston: I mean, really.

St. Louis over New Orleans: Wow. Yeah, this week I'll agree that the Saints got jobbed. I suppose you could make an argument that Ernie Conwell didn't have control of that ball, but it probably wouldn't be a very convincing argument. I would have understood had Jim Haslett cursed Paul Tagliabue and all his ancestors at the postgame Q&A. But having been docked 20-large after last week's (not-as-justifiable) blowup, Haslett played it cool. The NFL Primetime guys said later that the "right thing to do" would have been, I think, for the game officials to rewrite the rules on instant replay right then and there. And I'm sure the Rams would have had no problem with that. I'm going to give the Rams props for coming back after falling behind by 14 early, because no one else is going to do it.

Washington over San Francisco: The Redskins hadn't put up 52 points in a game since Joe Gibbs was the coach. Most points by Washington in a game in the past 15 seasons:
56199111 ATL56-17
522005 7 SF 52-17
501999 2at NYG50-21
481999 8 CHI48-22
451991 1 DET45-0
The only thing I can think of to make this game more satisfying for long-suffering Redskins fans would be for the 49ers to have been denied those last 10 points in garbage time. I've said before that a blowout just has more power if the losers only make it into single digits. Also, if the 'Skins had held the Niners to 7, they'd have tied their team record for biggest margin of victory. Fun fact: San Francisco has now kicked field goals when behind by 28 and 45 points.

Seattle over Dallas: Of all the nailbiters this week, this is the one that falls in my favor? In a matchup of the NFC's two most inscrutable teams, always go with the home dog. It was nice to see Bill Parcells kick someone's ass, even if it was his receivers coach. Tangent: I thought Keyshawn Johnson was insufferable. Then I saw him being interviewed by Michael Irvin on ESPN, and I was reminded what insufferable really is.

Chicago over Baltimore: The Bears' best hope for success this year is to follow the model of the 2000 Ravens: plenty of defense, just enough offense. The key will be whether Kyle Orton can play the Trent Dilfer role. Sunday's line for Orton: 15-of-29 for 145 yards, one touchdown and -- most important -- no interceptions. Dilferrific! (The Sunday Ticket was made for games like these. The Washington and Baltimore markets overlap, so we get a lot of Ravens games here in the national capital area, and most of them are hideous.)

Arizona over Tennessee: There I go again. Write something negative about a team, a franchise, a player or whatever, then watch them win the following week. First the Vikings, then Eli Manning, then the Packers, now the Cardinals.

Atlanta over N.Y. Jets: Which of the three quarterbacks in this game went 11-of-26 for 116 yards, zero TDs, three interceptions and a 16.3 rating? Was it the widely mocked Brooks Bollinger? No? Was it the ancient Vinny Testaverde, who three weeks ago was famously unemployed? No? Well it certainly couldn't be the most electrifying player in the NFL.

Cleveland over Detroit: Here's the funny part: Jeff Garcia takes over for Joey Harrington and goes 22-of-34 for 210 yards. He runs for a touchdown, he avoids getting sacked, he doesn't throw any interceptions. His performance helps open up the run game, allowing Kevin Jones to have his best day since Week 1. And Detroit still scores only 13 points and needs a 50-yard field goal in the final minute to win. A win's a win, and good for the Lions, but don't get too excited.

Green Bay over Minnesota: I thought if Brett Favre was ever going to get a gimme in the Metrodome, this would be the week. Wrong again! Vikings fans: If this win helps bring about good feelings that somehow keep the organization from being torn apart and rebuilt from scratch, you'll find the definition of Pyrrhic victory here.

Cincinnati over Pittsburgh: Someone around here believed the hype, and it was me. Well, me and a lot of others. What's funny is that I picked the Bengals with such confidence, then watched the game expecting them to lose. Here's why: When the Bengals have first down on the opponents' 25, I rub my hands together in anticipation. When the Bengals have first down on the opponents' 15, I squeeze my eyes shut in dread. Two trips inside the 20 in the first 10 minutes of the game, and they get 3 points for it? Later in the day, Greg Gumbel would say, charitably, "The Bengals led early in this one ... " Yeah, well, so did the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. The Cincinnati defense didn't quit on the offense, but it would have been understandable if it had. The Bengals have been getting away with dreadful red zone performance most of the year. Not any more. (On another topic: Randy Cross, please speak less, say more. The babbling is getting unbearable. On Cincinnati's first series, when the Steelers challenged the Chad Johnson non-touchdown, Cross argued over and over and over that the ball looked like it was "moving" as Johnson slid out of bounds, and thus Johnson didn't have control of the ball. First of all, the ball didn't really appear to be "moving" -- but even if it was, "moving" does not equal lack of control. Anyway, as Cross was whaling away at this irrelevant point, the replay was clearly showing Johnson landing out of bounds, which went unremarked-upon until the referee nullified the TD because of it. Later, Cross rambled for a while about how he doesn't understand the passer rating system. Funny enough, Randy, I understand it. A lot of people do. They may not like it or believe in it, but they understand it. Game broadcasters are supposed to be experts. If I want uninformed commentary, I'll listen to myself talk, thank you.)

San Diego over Philadelphia: If Cincinnati threw its game away at the start, San Diego threw this one away at the end. Here's when this game was lost, and it was before the blocked field goal: Late in the game, the San Diego defense stuffed the Eagles on fourth down on the Philadelphia 30. The Chargers took over on downs in perfect position to ice the game with a touchdown. But Marty Schottenheimer, predictably, went to his famous prevent offense. You know, because he didn't want to run the risk of turning the ball over and giving up a touchdown. Rather than go for the throat, Schottenheimer played it safe. It's a strategy that worked so well in the playoffs. That meek play-calling cost the Chargers the game. And since it's pile-on-CBS day, why did the CBS camera linger on Nate Kaeding after the blocked kick? He just kicked the damn thing; he wasn't the one who let the Eagles' kick-block team come across like it was Oklahoma 1889.

Buffalo over Oakland: Uh, that Pyrrhic victory crack applies to the Raiders, too. I have no idea why I TiVo'd this one. I just had a feeling it'd be a good day for the Bills and I could watch smugly. As it turned out: Not so much. This game featured the Down and Distance Most Amusing Juxtaposition of Commentary and Performance: During the Bills' first possession of the second half, CBS(!) analyst Rich Gannon was relaying what Bills coach Mike Mularkey had told him about QB Kelly Holcomb: "He's got a good head on his shoulders." The next play, Holcomb skipped chances to throw the ball away and took an 18-yard sack at his own 12.

Denver over N.Y. Giants: Piss me off ...

SEASON: 64-38

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet, Ethernet, ARPANET or any other -net. Honed by master mathematicians, lauded by football enthusiasts, the formula behind them predicted 10 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners, and 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the POW-R-'ANKINGS system. Get it? Do you read me? Unlike with other, lesser ranking systems, no opinion is involved. None. It's hard-core science screaming to be heard in a parlor full of charlatans. Poseurs! Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. (Key: WK7 = This week's ranking. WK6 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)
11 Colts 100.001715Jaguars 53.65
23 Bucs 77.631820Lions 48.50
34 Steelers76.111924Raiders 47.35
42 Bengals 74.082017Dolphins 43.24
55 Bears 72.422122Rams 41.75
66 Seahawks70.612221Patriots 39.34
77 Chargers66.222319Bills 37.20
810Falcons 65.952426Cardinals35.73
918Redskins65.722523Titans 33.97
108 Giants 63.532625Browns 33.12
119 Packers61.512727Ravens 27.70
1212Eagles 60.682828Jets 25.30
1311Cowboys59.792929Saints 18.99
1413Broncos58.513030Vikings 17.91
1516Chiefs 56.88313149ers 4.59
1614Panthers54.693232Texans 0.00

Eliminated from Super Bowl consideration (what?): Texans, Titans, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Jets

Sunday, October 23, 2005

QB, don't lose that number

Got all kinds of time ...

What I know about Friday night's game between Kansas City and Miami comes exclusively from watching the highlights on NFL Network. See, even though I had paid to watch the broadcast of this game by virtue of buying the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package, I wasn't actually allowed to see it thanks to Hurricane Wilma and some arcane broadcast rules. Now I know what it's like to suffer from a hurricane.

They were pretty comprehensive highlights, however, and I saw Kansas City quarterback Trent Green throwing one perfect pass after another. And I thought: That dude is really something. The guy is my age, for one thing, which means he's an old, old man, yet he's still one of the most reliable quarterbacks in the league. He's come a long way from the player who threw just one pass in his first five years bouncing around in the NFL. In 1999, we heard all about Kurt Warner's emergence after he stepped in for the injured Green in St. Louis. But if Warner came out of "nowhere," Green had come from next door to nowhere.

Through the first six weeks of the season, 41 quarterbacks have started games. Of them, four went undrafted out of college: Warner in Arizona; Anthony Wright of Baltimore, who's an injury substitution; Jake Delhomme of Carolina, who's had the job for two years; and Kelly Holcomb of Buffalo, who just stole that job out from under J.P. Losman (or, rather, who just fished the job out of the trash after Losman crumpled it up and tossed it away). Of the 37 other QBs who have started a game, Green is the lowest-drafted by a comfortable margin. Green was picked in the eighth round of the 1993 draft and was the 222nd player taken. The next-lowest-selected QBs to start a game this year are Tom Brady (199th), Gus Frerotte (197th) and Matt Hasselbeck (187th). Further, while both Brady and Frerotte were starting in their second years in the league and Hasselbeck was starting in his third, it wasn't until Green's sixth year that he got a chance to start (or even to play, really). Green's break came in 1998, when he was with Washington. Whom did he replace that year? Gus Frerotte. (Read more here.) And what do you know? Frerotte was the Dolphins' starting quarterback Friday night. Big circles, man. Big circles.

So the Kansas City-Miami game was a showdown between an eighth-round draft pick and a seventh-round draft pick. How often does that happen? Not very often. First of all, the draft was cut back to seven rounds in 1994, so eighth-rounders themselves are an endangered species. (Vikings backup Brad Johnson and the Falcons' Ty Detmer both went in the ninth round in '92; Doug Flutie was taken in the 11th round in '85.) But beyond that, it's noteworthy whenever any game doesn't have at least one starting quarterback who had been taken in the first round. Of the 32 teams, 19 have started a first-round quarterback this year -- and it would be 20 if Rex Grossman hadn't snapped another axle. Of the 88 games played through Week 6 of the season, 65 -- three-quarters -- were started by at least one first-rounder. And 77 -- nearly 90 percent -- were started by at least one quarterback who had been taken in the first, second or third round (roughly the first 100 picks). Only 11 games before Friday's were started by two QBs taken in the fourth round or later, or not drafted at all. Those games:

1NO Brooks (4) at CAR Delhomme (U)
1STL Bulger (6) at SF Rattay (7)
2NE Brady (6) at CAR Delhomme (U)
2STL Bulger (6) at ARI Warner (U)
3CAR Delhomme (U) at MIA Frerotte (7)
3ARI Warner (U) at SEA Hasselbeck (6)
4SEA Hasselbeck (6) at WSH Brunell (5)
4NYJ Bollinger (6) at BAL Wright (U)
5MIA Frerotte (7) at BUF Holcomb (U)
5SEA Hasselbeck (6) at STL Bulger (6)
6WSH Brunell (5) at KC Green (8)

The most famous game like this in recent years was, of course, Super Bowl XXXVIII, which featured sixth-rounder Tom Brady against undrafted Jake Delhomme. But as you can see, games like that are the exception. In fact, it's twice as likely that a game will pit two first rounders against each other: Twenty-two of the 88 games played through Week 6 -- 25 percent -- had both teams starting first-round quarterbacks. And in three of those games, the opposing quarterbakcs weren't just first-round picks; they were both No. 1 overall picks (bold):

1TEN McNair at PIT Roethlisberger
1HOU Carr at BUF Losman
1CIN Palmer at CLE Dilfer
1PHI McNabb at ATL Vick
2PIT Roethlisberger at HOU Carr
2JAX Leftwich at IND P. Manning
2MIN Culpepper at CIN Palmer
3JAX Leftwich at NYJ Pennington
3OAK K. Collins at PHI McNabb
3ATL Vick at BUF Losman
3CLE Dilfer at IND P. Manning
4MIN Culpepper at ATL Vick
4DAL Bledsoe at OAK K. Collins
4IND P. Manning at TEN McNair
4HOU Carr at CIN Palmer
5CIN Palmer at JAX Leftwich
5PHI McNabb at DAL Bledsoe
5IND P. Manning at SFSmith
5TEN McNair at HOU Carr
6JAX Leftwich at PIT Maddox
6CIN Palmer at TEN McNair
6NYG E. Manning at DALBledsoe

Including quarterbacks on current rosters and those who are out because of injuries, there are 25 quarterbacks in the NFL this year who were selected in the first round of the draft. Those first-round quarterbacks play on 22 teams. It breaks down like this (Asterisk [*] denotes No. 1 overall choice):

TEN TEAMS have no quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round (in parentheses are the draft positions of the quarterbacks on the roster, with starter in bold):
(3, 7, U)
(4, 7, U)
(3, 4, 6)
(4, 4, U)
New England
(6, 7, 11)
St. Louis
(6, 7, U)
(2, 7)
New Orleans
(4, 5, U)
Tampa Bay
(3, 3, 4, 7)
Kansas City
(2, 8, U)

SIXTEEN TEAMS have one first-round quarterback, a starter:
Atlanta (*Michael Vick) Indianapolis (*Peyton Manning)
Baltimore (Kyle Boller) Jacksonville (Byron Leftwich)
Chicago (Rex Grossman) Minnesota (Daunte Culpepper)
Cincinnati (*Carson Palmer) N.Y. Giants (*Eli Manning)
Cleveland (Trent Dilfer) Oakland (Kerry Collins)
Dallas (*Drew Bledsoe) Philadelphia (Donovan McNabb)
Detroit (Joey Harrington) San Francisco (*Alex Smith)
Houston (*David Carr) Tennessee (Steve McNair)

THREE TEAMS have one first-round quarterback, a backup:
Buffalo (J.P. Losman) San Diego (Philip Rivers)
Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers)

TWO TEAMS have two first-round quarterbacks, one of whom is the starter:
PittsburghBen Roethlisbergerstarter
Tommy Maddoxbackup
N.Y. JetsChad Penningtonstarter
*Vinny Testaverdeinjury backup

ONLY ONE TEAM has two first-round quarterbacks, neither of whom is the starter:
Washington (Patrick Ramsey and Jason Cambell)

Yes, friends, it was all leading up to this last factoid. The Steelers have two first-rounders on the roster, but they were selected 12 years apart. The Jets also have two under contract, but they were picked 13 years apart. The Redskins, in true Redskins fashion, paid first-round money to Patrick Ramsey in 2002, then turned around and paid more first-round money to Jason Campbell in 2005 ... and neither of them is the starter. The starter is a 35-year-old fifth-rounder. Who's also being paid first-round money.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Better dead than red

Ferocious little songbird!

What's the worst franchise in the NFL?

I'm not asking what's the worst team. The NFL's worst teams right now are obvious: the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers. But the Texans are a brand new franchise on solid footing; their fans have started to ... misplace their patience a little bit but certainly haven't lost it. The 49ers are at the bottom of a pit, but last year's 2-14 debacle was only their fourth losing season in 22 years.

Other teams are bad: The Detroit Lions have been a cesspool for five years, but not because Bill Ford won't spend money. Cleveland? Weak team, strong fan support. Other franchises are in trouble: The Minnesota Vikings are a stain on the league and an embarrassment to their community, but so often a team rots from the owner's box down, and the Vikings just switched owners. And despite it all, the Vikings were in the playoffs last year. One could make a case for the New Orleans Saints, but so much external is happening to that team that it's impossible to judge. Yes, Tom Benson has been making noise for years about moving the team, but even relocation is not necessarily a sign of a bad franchise, as we'll discuss below. Besides, the fans have remained passionate, and the team, as middling and aimless as it has seemed in recent years, has nevertheless contended.

To qualify as the worst franchise in the NFL requires a signature combination of haplessness on the field, hopelessness in the stands and cluelessness in the front office. If this were 2001, we would have considered the Cincinnati Bengals. But it's 2005, and today one franchise stands head and shoulders below the rest of the league for its inept on-field performance, incapable management and indifferent fans. Ladies and gentlemen of the Phoenix-Tempe-Mesa corridor, the worst, saddest, most forlorn franchise in the NFL: the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals are the oldest "professional" football franchise in the country, founded in 1898 on the South Side of Chicago and named not after the adorable little bird but after the used, faded maroon jerseys they'd bought from the University of Chicago. (The shirts wouldn't be the last thing the Cardinals bought faded and secondhand.)

How long is the Cardinals' history? The Cards, along with the Packers and Bears (nee Staleys), were in the NFL before it was the NFL. But although they have been in the league for 85 years, they have precious little to show for it. Playoff appearances, for instance. The NFL began playing postseason games in 1933. Since then, the Cardinals have played all of eight postseason games. Compare that with the other teams that have been in the league since '33:

Steelers 42 4
Packers 40 9
Giants 37 5
Redskins 37 5
Eagles 32 3
Bears 29 7
Lions 17 4
Cardinals 8 1

Eight playoff games in 72 years? The Eagles have played 10 in the last four. The Jaguars have played eight, and they're only 10 years old. The Packers have more NFL championships than the Cards have had playoff games. The Cardinals did win an NFL title, and that deserves some respect, but ... it was in 1947. There were World War II veterans playing that year -- WWII vets still in their twenties. That 1947 title reminds me of being at MCI Center in Washington and looking up at that sad, lonely banner from the 1977-78 NBA championship season, back when the Washington Wizards were still the Bullets. Similarly, when the Cards were NFL champs, they weren't the Arizona Cardinals, they weren't the Phoenix Cardinals, they weren't even the St. Louis Cardinals. They were still the Chicago Cardinals. They played in Comiskey Park. The original Comiskey Park. Why Comiskey? Because the crosstown rival Bears were using Wrigley Field.

The mention of Wrigley brings back that important distinction: bad team vs. bad franchise. The longtime inhabitants of Wrigley, the Chicago Cubs, have traditionally been a dreadful baseball team yet are one of the most profitable franchises in the major leagues. The team's owner, the Tribune Co., knows that the Cubs don't have to win to make money hand over fist, because Wrigley will still be full every game, millions will still watch on WGN and merchandise will still fly out the door. Sammy Sosa wasn't valuable to the Cubs because he hit a lot of home runs; he was valuable because he moved a lot of product.

The NFL, however, doesn't have room for lovable losers. There are 12 playoff slots every year, and you have to either get one of those slots or explain to the fans what you're doing to get one in the foreseeable future. The fans will suffer through a bad season if they can see light at the end of the tunnel. But they're not going to buy any baseball B.S. about "curses." The passion of Cubs fans actually provides a financial disincentive for the Tribune Co. to field a winner. Why spend millions to build a World Series champion when the stands are already full? In the NFL, you lose year after year, and the stands get empty.

And the Cardinals do lose year after year (after year after year). Of the past 20 seasons, 18 were losers, one was 8-8, and one -- one -- was a winning season. That was 1998, when the Cardinals finished 9-7 and went to the playoffs as a wildcard. They won their games by 14, 3, 13, 2, 2, 3, 3, 2 and 3 points. In the playoffs, they surprised the Cowboys, to whom they had lost twice in the regular season (this is actually fairly common), before getting blown out in Minnesota. The next two years, they were back to 6-10 and 3-13. The 1998 season, clearly, was a fluke. The norm for the Cardinals is 4-12, 5-11, maybe 6-10 -- trapped in a non-stop cycle of losing, never good enough to get in sight of contention, never bad enough to get a high draft pick and start rebuilding.

The Cardinals don't rebuild anyway -- not in any traditional sense. What the Cardinals do is build for a while, see what they've got, let a few parts deteriorate or fall off, then add some vintage parts that looked great back in the day but are now just dated. Look at what happened across the league last weekend, Week 6 of the 2005 season: Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman had 157 yards against the Dolphins. Ricky Proehl caught the winning TD for the Panthers against the Lions. Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer had a 134.3 passer rating in rolling over the Patriots. All are former Cardinals. (Plummer consistently burned Patriots CB Duane Starks, another ex-Cardinal for whom New England had traded a third-round pick. How on Earth did the Cardinals ever get the best of the Patriots?)

Take a look at the Cardinals' statistical leaders over the years. Since Neil Lomax retired after the 1988 season, the team has run a series of quarterbacks through the mill. There were QBs whose best years were ahead of them and somewhere far away from Arizona: Chris Chandler, Jake Plummer, Steve Beuerlein. There were QBs whose best years were behind them and somewhere far away from Arizona: Gary Hogeboom, Dave Krieg, Boomer Esiason, Jeff Blake. And there were QBs whose best years were, unfortunately, right then and there in Arizona: Kent Graham, Timm Rosenbach, John Navarre.

It's the same story with running backs since Ottis Anderson left after 1984. Michael Pittman and Garrison Hearst would do their best work elsewhere. Adrian Murrell and Emmitt Smith were done long before they arrived in Phoenix. Earl Farrell, Leeland McElroy and Marcel Shipp have had "career years" as Cardinals.

The personnel moves made by the team make perfect sense when you understand that the Cardinals don't sign players to win football games. The Cardinals sign players because they have to in order to qualify as an NFL team and thus get their share of the $2 billion a year the league gets from TV. That's the bottom line. And it's the bottom line, more than anything else, that defines the Cardinals as the worst franchise in the NFL.

Sports today is a business. Really, sports has always been a business, and there's nothing wrong with it. Some franchise owners (e.g. Mark Cuban) keep teams as a hobby; most, however, are in it as much for the money as for the excitement. And owners are entitled to turn a profit. The NFL ain't a charity. But there's more than one way to do it. One is to spend some money and try to field the best team you can. By building a winner, you draw more fans, you sell more gear. You become a community asset, and you leverage that for, say, a better stadium deal or more local sponsorship dollars. You get a good return on your investment even before your share of the TV money. Think Washington Redskins or Dallas Cowboys, or even the Green Bay Packers, who, as a publicly owned corporation, can plow all profits back into the team. This is how the league as a whole is trying to operate: It takes money to make money.

The other way to show a profit is to spend as little as possible. You let your best players go, you scrimp on scouting and coaching budgets. You don't care whether you field a winning team, because all that matters is the TV contract money. Think New Orleans Saints or Minnesota Vikings or, yes, Chicago-St. Louis-Phoenix-Arizona Cardinals. And when more successful franchises build new stadiums with new revenue streams, you go screaming to the city to give you a new stadium, or give you better terms on that lease you just signed five years ago. And if you don't get it, you'll ... move the team.

The Bidwill family has owned the Cardinals since the team was in Chicago in the 1930s. In 1960, having been totally outclassed by the Bears, ignored by the city and humiliated on the field (7-28-1 in three years), the family moved the team to St Louis. The Cardinals enjoyed moderate success there until the mid-1970s, then slid into the toilet. By 1988, after more than a decade of forgettable play and repeated dalliances with other cities (Atlanta, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Phoenix), the team had somehow failed to convince baseball-mad St. Louis that a new football stadium should be any kind of priority. So the Cardinals packed up, again, this time for the Southwest, where they became the Phoenix Cardinals (and, in '94, the Arizona Cardinals). In a delicious piece of irony, it's been 17 years and the team is still playing in a college stadium built in the 1950s. However, the Cardinals will move into a new retractable-roof, retractable-field stadium in Glendale next year. It makes you want to ask the people of Maricopa County, who approved this $450 million project: Why? What has this team done to deserve this? They came to your town, started sucking and never stopped. They averaged fewer than 40,000 people a game last year. Their home games have all been blacked out since time immemorial. And you reward them for this kind of performance?

Since 1980, besides the Cardinals, five NFL franchises have relocated. Consider:
  • In 1982, the Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles. In 1983, they won the Super Bowl.
  • In 1995, the Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis. In 1999, they won the Super Bowl.
  • In 1996, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. In 2000, they won the Super Bowl.
  • In 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee. In 1999, their first season in Nashville, the Titans reached the Super Bowl.
The fifth team, the Baltimore Colts, moved to Indianapolis in 1984. Their first decade in Indiana, they were pretty weak, but they did make the playoffs in 1987, '95 and '96 -- and came within a Hail Mary of the Super Bowl in 1995. After Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning turned the Colts into a perennial winner, the city and state got on board for a new stadium. Notice what that says, Arizona voters? The Colts got their new stadium after they showed a commitment to winning. It will be interesting to see what the Cardinals ownership does with their new park and all the revenue that comes with it. Will they use it to become a winner? Or will they do what the Bengals' owners were accused of doing, which is line their pockets with it. Remember: Hamilton County, Ohio, which built Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, threatened to sue the Bengals in 2002, claiming that they were violating their lease by not fielding a competitive team. In 2003, Mike Brown hired the hottest head coaching prospect in the league, Marvin Lewis, and finally freed up money for coaches and scouting. And what's happening? The team's winning, the stadium is sold out for every game, the city is dressed in tiger stripes. The Bengals are suddenly a successful franchise.

Back at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, the losing continues. The 1-4 Cardinals think they might have a good chance against the 2-4 Titans this weekend, which just might be all you need to know. Coach Denny Green is trying to decide whether to stay with quarterback Josh McCown, the youngster he pulled for no good reason last year, or give the starting job back to Kurt Warner, the latest used-up vet to wash up under center in Arizona. This is the team's fourth home game of the season, but only the third in Tempe, because they willingly gave up a home date to play in Mexico City in front of a decidedly pro-49ers crowd. Why? Muchos pesos, amigos. Their only win of the year was over the comedic 49ers. The only major additions to the team in the offseason were Warner, new uniforms and a new, fiercer bird logo (see the before and after at top of this item).

The people of Arizona built the Cardinals the stadium they've been looking for from coast to coast for decades. They're probably stuck with the team now. Perhaps the state's residents and the team can make this relationship work. But it won't be easy. Those Cards have been a selfish mate with a wandering eye. Like them, fine, but don't love them. They're incapable of loving anyone back.

Week 7 picks

My picks for Week 7 are posted over at The Writers' Picks. There's an interesting dynamic going on this week. Three games are unanimous: Colts over Texans, Redskins over 49ers, and, interestingly, Falcons over Jets. I'd have thought someone would have looked at the Falcons' clumsy win last week and picked the Jets in an upset. Someone besides me. that is. I learned my lesson last week about picking upsets. I'm in the minority -- just barely -- in only two games this week: San Diego over Philadelphia and Denver over the Giants, both on the road. Gone stone-cold sucka for the AFC, I guess.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

ACCidental death

Allow me a brief detour into college football. When the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it was adding Virginia Tech and Miami a couple years ago, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen spoke for many in the ACC when he said:
"I think there is no question that the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech strengthens our league from a football perspective. These are two national powers when it comes to football, and with the advances our league has made in the last few years, I believe it makes us one of the strongest conferences in college football. The only drawback I see for myself, personally, is that I really don't like playing against my close friends." (emphasis added)

Friedgen's Maryland Terrapins won the ACC football championship in 2001 -- the only time since Florida State joined the conference in 1992 that the Seminoles didn't win or share the league title. For a decade, Florida State had essentially used the other ACC schools as sparring partners to help it warm up for the national championship game. Finally, finally, after years of frustration, Maryland broke through and took the crown in 2001 (although they did it without beating Florida State).

Hope they enjoyed it in College Park, because its never going to happen again.

In 2004, the first year of the expanded ACC, the final conference standings had Virginia Tech in first, Florida State in second and Miami in third. The ACC added Boston College this year and split into two divisions. We're now seven weeks into the college football season. The top two teams in the ACC's Atlantic Division? Boston College and Florida State. The top two teams in the ACC's Coastal Division? Virginia Tech and Miami.

Is the league stronger, as Friedgen said? Oh my, yes. So strong that charter members of the 52-year-old ACC -- Maryland, Wake Forest, N.C. State and the others -- have gone from having a slim hope of winning the conference title to giving up all hope. Is it one of the strongest conferences in college football, as Friedgen said? Yep. Every year, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are in the mix when you talk Top 10 rankings. And now they'll have league games against Duke and Maryland and North Carolina to pad their records. And the drawbacks for Friedgen? True, he'll have to get used to competing against his close friend Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech. But he'll also have to get used to -- and come up with a good answer to -- a new question from administrators, boosters and fans. They used to ask, year after year, "Why can't you beat Florida State?" Now they'll ask, year after year, "Why can't you beat Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College?"

I'm not saying expansion is bad in college football. I don't really care either way. Expanding the league from nine teams to 12 means the ACC can hold a lucrative championship game and sign rich television agreements, and isn't that the point of college athletics? But I am saying that the weaker sisters (like, say, Maryland) derive very little benefit on the field.

When the Big Ten expanded, it added just one team, Penn State, with which most of the teams in the conference could compete. The addition was organic and easily absorbed. When the old Big 8 Conference became the Big 12, it didn't add four dominating programs; it added a decent range of programs: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor. Yeah, Iowa State and Kansas will probably lose to Texas, but there's no reason they can't beat Baylor or A&M. When the ACC went looking for schools to poach from the Big East, they wanted only the best -- or, rather, the BE$T -- football schools. Maintaining competitive balance wasn't of any concern. The ACC originally came courting Miami, B.C. and Syracuse, but when Virginia Tech shook her fanny, Syracuse got dropped like a bad habit. ("The whole process, quite frankly, stinks," said Syracuse A.D. Jake Crouthamel.)

The Syracuse debacle was especially telling, because the ACC had traditionally been a basketball conference, and Syracuse would have been a perfect addition for hoops purposes. The Orange had just won the NCAA men's tournament; they would have been tremendous competition not just for the other recent champs in the ACC -- North Carolina, Duke and Maryland -- but for the entire league. For the most part, the ACC had no weak basketball teams, save Florida State, which hadn't been brought into the league for basketball reasons.

But now the ACC is a football conference, first and foremost. And it's a football conference in which those teams that have been playing ACC football for 50 years have no shot. Whatever you say, Fridge!

Who's Shakira starting this week?

Beats the hell out of me. Moses Moreno? I had NFL Total Access on today as background noise. Rich Eisen was interviewing Nick Bakay, who I think can be funny when he's not trying too hard. The grounds for the interview was Bakay's performance in the NFL Network's "Hollywood Fantasy League."


"Hollywood" implies that the people involved are stars. Nick Bakay, regardless of what I think of his humor, is not a star; he's a niche figure, and it's a pretty small niche at that. I was in the middle of thinking that when Total Access threw up a graphic with the standings in the "Hollywood" league. And suddenly Bakay qualified as a star in comparison:

Wayne Fontes Division: Bakay, Paul Rudd, Guy Torry, Mike O'Malley, Regina King.
Monte Clark Division: Jeff Garlin, Jaleel White, Josh Charles, Larry Joe Campbell, Michael Vartan.

Look, I know I'm getting old. Some of the TV shows today, the movies and the music, they just aren't my "bag." But my wife subscribes to Us magazine. I know Mary-Kate and Ashley. Diddy. I know all about Jennifer and Jennifer and Jennifer. But I had no clue as to who most of these "Hollywood" figures are. Aside from Bakay, I recognized but two: Michael Vartan, who's on Alias and is an actual star; and Jaleel White, who played Urkel.

I had to go rooting around on the Internet to identify the rest of them. I'm not sure you could find a more remote collection of show-biz outliers, stragglers and never-weres in one place. Paul Rudd is a hey-it's-that-guy character actor. Mike O'Malley is an actor, too, but even less recognizable. Guy Torry is some sort of comedian and bit-part actor. Regina King was on 227 about twenty years ago. Jeff Garlin is this guy. Josh Charles was in some stuff I've seen but didn't star in any of it, and I didn't recognize him anyway. Larry Joe Campbell is an utter mystery.

What's funny about this is that our diseased culture has whipped up an entire class of celebrities who are world-famous simply for being famous. You telling me the NFL couldn't get, say, Nick Lachey? Oh, what, Mark McGrath too busy? Kelly Ripa? Sheesh, VH-1 has cultivated an entire stable of Z-list comics who have become ubiquitous cultural commentators. None of them were available? This is the NFL. America's league. My God, if all you can bring in are NHL-level celebrities, don't even bother.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Week 6 postmortem

At 10-4 for the week, at least I can say I'm back in double digits. As soon as I sent off my selections to The Writers' Picks, I started second-guessing three of them. As it turns out, those three were what stood between me and 13-1. Carolina was in the right spirit, however, and spent 59 minutes trying to give its game to Detroit. In the end, the Lions just wouldn't take it.

Atlanta over New Orleans: One of many games I either lost or nearly lost in the final minute. You explain to me how the Saint Anthony Saints get their asses handed to them in historic fashion last week, then come back -- with the late Antowain Smith in the backfield -- and nearly stuff the Falcons.

Cincinnati over Tennessee: A win is a win, but a 4-1 team shouldn't be playing from behind for 55 minutes against the Titans, even on the road.

Tampa Bay over Miami: Ricky Williams is back, but so is Gus Frerotte. Williams (five carries, 8 yards) had missed 20 games. What's Ronnie Brown's excuse?

Chicago over Minnesota: Avast, ye swabs! I feel sorry for Daunte Culpepper. And Zygmunt Wilf. And Mike Tice, even ... a little. The Vikings are trying to get Minnesota to do a deal for a new stadium, and if we were to draw up a list the things that would help make that happen, the top 10 probably wouldn't include an oral-sex-at-sea scandal. Prepare to be boarded, indeed. On the field: As former Bear Paul Edinger trotted out to try his first field goal, the Chicago crowd booed lustily, and for the first time in his career, Edinger turned Chicago fans' boos to cheers.

Dallas over N.Y. Giants: The way the Cowboys disassembled the Eagles last week, this seemed a simple call. Next thing I knew, we were in the final minutes of a game at Texas Stadium in which the Cowboys appeared to have beaten an NFC East rival. Please don't let the Dallas secondary collapse again. Please don't let the Dallas secondary collapse again. Whoops! Never guessed Eli Manning would throw it to Burress and Shockey, huh? P.S.: The Brandon Jacobs fumble on the goal line didn't mean as much as the TV told me it did. P.P.S.: Perhaps Jose Cortez's game-winner gets him off Larry Allen's death list, but the clock is ticking for the Drake Alumnus Billy Cundiff Era to resume.

Kansas City over Washington: At some point I'm going to have to start picking the Redskins again, but not ... just ... yet. I thought that, playing in Arrowhead, fairly healthy, K.C. would eke this out. Graciously, Washington helped by dropping the rock like it was buttered. Next week, the 49ers come stumbling into FedEx Field, and Mark Brunell prepares to party like it's 1999. Just for reference: The last time Washington scored more than 40 points in a game was the 2001 season.

Denver over New England: If it's an even-numbered game, this must be the Patriots' week to lose. Yet with half the team injured, they were still in it. Regardless, a few weeks ago, when I said I suspected (but couldn't prove) the Broncos were a sham? Yeah, I was wrong there. But with Jake Plummer under center, disaster's always a distinct possibility. Especially now that Plummer has lent Kyle Orton his mustache. Ew. After the game, Broncos safety John Lynch said of the Pats, "They certainly showed what a champion is all about." To which Tom Brady responded, "Oh, I won't forget that, John Lynch."

Buffalo over N.Y. Jets: This was the first time a game has featured two opposing quarterbacks who between them have played for every team in the NFL. I was just inclined to expect more from Week 2 of the Kelly Holcomb experiment than Week 2 of the Vinny Testaverde experiment. Especially when Holcomb is handing off to Willis McGahee.

Seattle over Houston: My Best Bet. Everyone's Best Bet. No doubt whatsoever. Shaun Alexander is a beast on Sunday nights. Down and Distance Two-Play Sequence of the Week: The Seahwaks had first and goal from the Texans' 9 when Houston linebacker Charlie Anderson sacked Matt Hasselbeck back at the 23. Though he was on an 0-4 team that was down 28-10 in the fourth quarter, Anderson still found it appropriate to do a little look-at-me-dust-myself-off dance after the sack. On the next play, Alexander blasted through the entire Texans defense to make it 35-10.

Indianapolis over St. Louis: Points scored on the Colts in the first three games of the season: 16. Points scored on the Colts in the first 12 minutes Monday night: 17. There was bad news for Colts fans in that their team can give up a lot of points if it gets caught napping, but there was good news in that their team didn't panic when it was suddenly down by 17.

Jacksonville over Pittsburgh: Sunday's only upset, and thus the only missed pick that I'm not kicking myself over. When the season began, the Steelers seemed to be one of the few teams with a rock-solid backup quarterback. Har-dee har har. Now, Jacksonville is a strong team with a gutsy QB and a dogged defense, and I would never in a million years imply that they didn't deserve to win this game. That said, Tommy Maddox lost this game.

Detroit over Carolina: Detroit is a crummy football team, Carolina an uninspired one. With the Lions at home and coming off an ugly, ugly win over the Ravens, I made them a "genius" pick: They win, I look like a genius. They lose by one point in the last minute of the game, I look like less than a genius, but still pretty smart. It's a win-win situation! Except for the Lions, I mean. This was the first time I watched a sizable chunk of a Detroit game this year, and I was sorry to see that all those awful things written about Joey Harrington are true. It's too bad, because he is a really nice guy and a genuine class act. But he panics under pressure, he takes bad sacks, he throws three-yard outlet passes on third and 9. When he isn't throwing behind his receivers, he's hanging passes high and getting them killed over the middle. He wouldn't be starting if Jeff Garcia's leg wasn't wonky, and he won't be starting as soon as Garcia's leg is unwonky. Is Harrington done in the NFL? No, but I have seen Joey Harrington's near future, and it looks like Jeff Blake's recent past.

Cleveland over Baltimore: Yeah, well. Trent Dilfer, blah blah blah. My bad.

Oakland over San Diego: Three daring picks, three losses. Perfect score!

SEASON: 56-32

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet or any other -net. The formula behind them predicted 10 of the past 15 Super Bowl winners, and 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the POW-R-'ANKINGS system. Get it? Unlike with other, lesser ranking systems, no opinion is involved. None. This is hard-core science screaming to be heard in a parlor full of charlatans. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. (Key: WK6 = This week's ranking. WK5 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)
11 Colts100.00 1713Dolphins47.95
22 Bengals82.76 1815Redskins47.70
34 Bucs75.74 1924Bills46.82
43 Steelers71.512019Lions46.70
516Bears70.19 2121Patriots40.09
611 Seahawks69.602222Rams37.87
76 Chargers68.112325Titans37.48
85 Giants64.50 2423Raiders35.63
97 Packers64.42 2520Browns34.17
108 Falcons61.772627Cardinals30.14
119 Cowboys61.352729Ravens30.03
1210 Eagles60.16 2826Jets29.75
1312 Broncos60.062930Saints20.93
1414 Panthers54.383028 Vikings12.19
1517 Jaguars53.41313149ers11.94
1618 Chiefs53.05 3232Texans0.00

Eliminated from Super Bowl consideration (what?): Texans

Monday, October 17, 2005

Well, that was quick ...

Every NFL season works its way up to a thrilling week when, for a select handful of teams, the entire season comes down to one game. Everything they've worked for since minicamps, every drill, every film session, is on the line. A loss ends their championship dreams for another year. A win ... well, a win gives them one more week of life. One more week to keep those dreams alive, one more week of blood and sweat and pain. And that Sunday, it's once again make or break. You know what we call that time of year ...

Week 6.

Every year at least one team goes into Week 6 with four losses, and every year at least one team comes out of Week 6 with five losses. And even though the season is just a tad over a third of the way through, that 0-5 or 1-5 team is finished. Oh, sure, they may get some inspiration and run off six, seven wins in a row. They may finish, say, 9-1 and make the playoffs. But their Super Bowl dreams? Done. Come back next year, boys. Because once you put five games in the L column, you're just playing Autumn as that White Star liner slides to a cold, briny grave.

Since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, there have been 238 teams to finish with 10 wins or better. Of those 238, some 147 -- 62 percent! -- were 10-6 or 11-5. And how many of those teams went on to win the Super Bowl? Three: the 1980 Raiders (11-5), the 2001 Patriots (11-5) and the 1988 49ers (10-6). Finish with 10 wins, and you currently have a 1-in-86 chance of being a Super Bowl champion. Is Joe Montana on your team? Throwing to Jerry Rice? No? Then forget it. Go home to Mommy and tell her to pat your head, because you ain't going to Detroit 'less you have to change planes there. Eleven wins? Congratulations, you just went from a 1.2% chance to a 3.3% I'm sure with Tom Brady as your quarterback, that's all the chance you need. What? No Brady? Well, then I suggest you skip off to the store and buy your dolly a new dress because she'll be sitting on the couch with you come Super Sunday.

Win 12 games, on the other hand, and your chances of being a Super Bowl champion more than quadruple. But you aren't going to be winning 12 games when you've already put up your fifth loss of the season, now are you, Houston Texans?

Here are the number of teams winning 10-15 games in a season since 1978, the number of Super Bowl champs among them, and how that translates into probabilities (strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons not included):

108611 in 861.2%
116121 in 313.3%
125171 in 713.7%
132161 in 428.6%
141571 in 246.7%
15 421 in 250.0%

Here's your raw data, too: The number of teams finishing with 10-15 wins every year since 1978. An asterisk (*) denotes the number of wins by that year's Super Bowl champion

1999STL22 3*1
1998DEN322 2*1
1989SF331 1*
1986NYG622 2*
1985CHI442 1*
1983LAR2 3* 1
1978PIT222 1*

Avenging David Klingler

Though apparently logy from the pregame taco bar, Cincinnati eventually got it together and beat Tennessee 31-23 on Sunday. The win ran the Bengals' record to 5-1. Purely on wins and losses, it's their best start since the 1988 Super Bowl season and the third-best in the franchise's 38-year history. By a different measure, however, 2005 has seen the Bengals' best start ever. That measure: point differential, one of Down and Distance's favorite indicators.

Cincinnati has outscored its opponents 155-84, a difference of 71 points, or almost 12 per game. The franchise's previous best after six games: 64 in 1988. Further, this is the first time in 15 years that the team has had a positive differential after six games, and only the 11th time in 38 years. A look at where the Bengals have stood after six games since the franchise began playing in 1968:

Blue is good; red is bad
1988+646-0 2000-1060-6
1974+594-2 1999-93 1-5
1975+586-0 1997-86 1-5
1976+554-2 1991-80 0-6

As you can see, the Bengals' best years before 2005 were so far in the past that your gramps is liable to spin yarns about them. Their worst years, meanwhile, ran until about six weeks ago. Are those dark times truly over? It's tempting to think so. When I think about how long Marvin Lewis had to wait for a head coaching job while someone like Wade Phillips is perennially on the NFL's short list, I can't help but root for the Bengals. Next week's game against Pittsburgh is the single most important of Lewis' three seasons in Cincinnati.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Make my vocabulary error an XL

When is 40 not 40? When it's 39!

The NFL is running a series of image advertising spots on ESPN, the NFL Network and other outlets designed to get fans all lathered up for Super Bowl XL in Detroit. The ads feature the tagline "The Road to Forty" and refer to the coming game as the "40th Anniversary" of the Super Bowl. As someone who works with the language, they piss me off. Anyone else see why?

Super Bowl I was played on Jan. 15, 1967. Imagine you got married on that day. When would your first anniversary be? In January 1968. Now, what game was played in January 1968? Super Bowl II. Thus the first anniversary of the Super Bowl would actually be the second game played. And the 40th anniversary of the Super Bowl will be in 2007, not 2006. The game being played at Ford Field on Feb. 5 is indeed Super Bowl XL, but it's only the 39th anniversary of the Super Bowl.

The designers of the "Road to Forty" campaign will of course argue that the first occurrence of something constitutes the first anniversary, which is patent nonsense. Your wedding day is your wedding day; your first anniversary comes a year later. The word "anniversary" comes to us from the Latin anniversarius, meaning "the turn of the year." By definition, it's not an anniversary unless a year or a multiple of years has passed (and no, there's no such thing as a "six-month anniversary").

A final point I could make is that, strictly speaking, an anniversary is an annual commemoration of an event in the past. Calling this game the 40th -- or even 39th -- anniversary of the Super Bowl is to say the (one and only) Super Bowl occurred 40 (or 39) years ago, and what's happening now is just a commemoration of that game. It'd be accurate to call the game in Detroit the 39th birthday of the Super Bowl. But you know what? I'll let that slide.

(I fought this same battle in 1992 as a rookie copy editor at The Des Moines Register. That newspaper holds an annual bicycle ride across the state. The first RAGBRAI (as it came to be called) took place in 1973. In 1992, we were up to RAGBRAI XX. So naturally, as copy started to come in, story after story referred to the event as "RAGBRAI's 20th anniversary." Though I was a young'un, people actually listened to my higher-math argument that 1992 minus 1973 equals 19, not 20. It was agreed that we would refer to the "20th running" or even "20th year" of RAGBRAI. I was even amenable to saying "RAGBRAI turns 20." I was flexible, dammit. Then we all got nice T-shirts, made by, I think, the marketing department, that said "20th Anniversary RAGBRAI." You win some, you lose some.