Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Week 12 recap

On the steel heels of the beatdown Indianapolis laid on Pittsburgh on Monday night, I finished the week 13-3 in my picks. On the scale described last week, that qualifies as remarkable. Awright! I'd like to give the thumbs-up to the kickers who helped me finish 13-3: Billy Cundiff, John Hall, Jay Feely, Jay Feely and Jay Feely. And I'd like to wag a different finger at the kickers who kept me from going 15-1: Matt Bryant and Mike Nugent. What I got right, and what I got wrong:

Atlanta over Detroit: You could say that the Lions are headed straight down, but that would falsely imply that everyone on the team is pulling in the same direction. Steve Mariucci has already paid with his head. Oh, that Matt Millen could be next ... More on the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day humiliation here.

Denver over Dallas: The conventional wisdom seems to be that this was a game last year's Denver Broncos would have lost. So I guess that means last year's Billy Cundiff would have made that 34-yard field goal?

Minnesota over Cleveland: The Vikings continue their campaign to make the inevitable postseason bloodletting as painful as possible. Brad Johnson, rattling off the rust week by week, brought his "A game." The Browns, predictably, brought their C game (Trent Dilfer) and their D-minus game (Charlie Frye).

Carolina over Buffalo: When Jake Delhomme goes 20-for-27 for 191 yards, one TD and no interceptions, that's a good game, right? And they say stats don't lie. Carolina played another crummy game on the road but lucked out because Buffalo, who's always crummy on the road, played a rare crummy game at home.

Kansas City over New England: I detest the football-players-as-soldiers metaphor. It disrespects real soldiers while it aggrandizes millionaire men in hotpants. But when I see Tom Brady out there, it reminds me of the scene in every war movie where the platoon has been reduced to one guy, and he keeps on firing at the enemy until he runs out of ammo. Four of Brady's passes were intercepted by the Chiefs, sure, but that's because he hasn't got anyone left to throw to on his side.

Tennessee over San Francisco: The Titans stink, but they went into the season knowing they were going to stink, and for whatever reason they can be fun to watch. The 49ers also stink, but not without a certain scraggly appeal. So this was not the worst matchup of 2-8 teams this week. That would be Saints-Jets.

Cincinnati over Baltimore: The Bengals eased up once they were ahead 34-0. Then the Ravens, who hadn't put up 20 points all year, promptly scored three touchdowns to make it 34-21. The Bengals put their ass-kicking shoes back on long enough to put the game away, but not before a couple of very important points were made: 1) It's never enough to just have your foot on the other guy's neck. You've got to bring your heel down and break the bone. 2) There's no such thing as "running up the score" in the NFL. If you're getting stomped, it's on you to make it stop. You're a professional; act like one. Ravens Secondary Item No. 1: Deion Sanders had his first interception of the season. Ravens Secondary Item No. 2: Deion Sanders is still playing for the Ravens? Wow. Shades of Reggie White with the 2000 Panthers. Ravens Secondary Item No. 3: Will Demps tore his ACL, ending his season, when he grabbed T.J. Houshmandzadeh's face mask, wasn't able to let go, and got his own leg caught under him. As he lay crumpled on the ground, the officials flagged him for a 15-yard personal foul. Told you grabbing the face mask was dangerous.

St. Louis over Houston: With less than a minute left in this game, here's what I was planning to write: "Only one team has been sorry enough this year to lose to the Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans." Then wonderscrub quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had the greatest moment in the NFL by a Harvard graduate since J.B. was named host of the Fox studio show in 1994. All we can say now is that only one team has been sorry enough this year to trail the Cardinals, 49ers and Texans with 34 seconds left in each game. Doesn't have as much oomph, though.

San Diego over Washington: With less than a minute left in this game, here's what I was planning to write: "At some point you have to quit pointing to your tough schedule and go out and win some football games." Then the Redskins missed a field goal, and the Chargers won in overtime. So I'll save that for next week.

Seattle over New York Giants: With less than a minute left in this game, here's what I was planning to write: "I've said that there's no reason Seattle can't gain home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs, but seeing the Seahawks leave Jeremy Shockey uncovered on a two-point conversion has changed my thinking." Then the Giants missed a field goal, and another, and another, and the Seahawks won in overtime. That stuff I was going to write? Yeah, it still stands.

Jacksonville over Arizona: Jacksonville is extra-thankful today that backup QB David Garrard sabotaged his own career by signing an extension. And Kurt Warner ... where is this coming from?

Philadelphia over Green Bay: From 2000 through last season, these teams were a combined 112-48, a .700 record. Shows you just how amazing it was that this game meant almost nothing.

Indianapolis over Pittsburgh: Game after game this year, teams have brought the Full Belichick against the Colts. You know: banging the receivers at every opportunity, getting tuff after the whistle. And game after game, Edgerrin James just kills them. For two years, the question was: When is the rest of the league going to catch on to how the Patriots control Peyton Manning? Now the question is: When is the league going to try something else? Monday night, the Colts didn't beat the Steelers with finesse. They manhandled them both on offense and defense. The Colts beat up the Steelers. Think about how absurd that sentence would have sounded 11 months ago.

Tampa Bay over Chicago: After sportswriters gave us two weeks of romantic poetry in which the tender, tousle-haired naïf Chris Simms grew into America's barrel-chested football hero, it was all but inevitable that Simms would give the next game away on the third play from scrimmage. Chicago's astonishing defense continues to insulate the two-legged train wreck yclept Kyle Orton, but at some point the Bears are going to surrender 14 points to an opponent, and they won't be able to count on the opposing QB dropping the ball on his own 1 or the opposing kicker missing a gimme field goal. If the New York Giants aren't that opponent, however, I don't know who it could be in the NFC.

Oakland over Miami: *Shrug*. If this were 1974 or 1983, this would have been a hell of a game. But since it's 2005: Eh. I just noticed that the Raiders' end-zone graphics appear to have been drawn with MacPaint.

New York Jets over New Orleans: All that stuff we read about Chris Simms the past two weeks? Prepare to read it again, except about Brooks Bollinger. This was pretty exciting for the hands-down worst NFL matchup ever offered on prime-time television, including last Monday's Vikings-Packers atrocity. Thanks to Mike Nugent, I came up one yard short of 14-2!

SEASON: 118-58

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet, Ethernet, ARPANET, Aqua Net 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. Do you understand? Spaceships go to the moon with wider error margins than this. If Galileo had had science like this on his side, he'd have wiped up the floor with the lot of 'em. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. (Key: W12 = This week's ranking. W11 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)
11 Colts 100.001719Eagles 42.22
22 Bears 78.231817Raiders 40.71
33 Broncos 76.941923Dolphins 39.59
45 Chargers 76.232022Rams 37.32
54 Giants 75.102118Browns 37.28
67 Seahawks 73.652220Patriots 37.27
78 Panthers 73.232324Titans 33.78
89 Bengals 71.912421Lions 30.13
96 Steelers 67.022527Vikings 28.20
1010Cowboys 66.632625Cardinals27.23
1112Falcons 65.472726Bills 23.45
1211Jaguars 64.562828Ravens 14.96
1313Chiefs 59.522929Saints 13.84
1414Bucs 54.823030Jets 5.99
1515Packers 50.52313149ers 2.40
1616Redskins45.203232Texans 0.00

Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): None*. Teams previously eliminated: Texans, Titans, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Vikings, Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions, Eagles, Rams, Redskins.

*Though the Patriots posted their fifth loss this week, they've proved they can win the Super Bowl with an 11-5 record. So they get a pass. For now.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Revisionist history

I'll bring Martin Grammatica and Keyshawn Johnson back into the Boardroom.

When football is on the television, the network has guys who talk about the game while the men in the helmets scamper about playing it. As I understand it, the idea behind this arrangement is that viewers will learn something because these talky-talky guys are knowledgeable about the game. In practice, however, the effectiveness of the setup varies with the announcing team. When Moose Johnston or Steve Tasker is speaking, I often hear something I didn't know. When Joe Theismann or Randy Cross is speaking, I hear only high-volume blah-blah-blah. And when Bill Maas is speaking, I don't just wonder whether he's watching the same game I am; I wonder whether he's watching the same sport. (Sunday, Maas was belaboring a point about good defensive linemen keeping their "toes" pointed straight up when they're in their stance. Think about the mechanics of that. Toes, toes, toes, he said. Then he showed a still shot and circled a player's heel and said, "See these toes pointed straight up?")

Regardless, you do expect a commentator to say things that make sense, even if they're blatantly obvious (everything Theismann says) or if you have to work a little to decipher what he's trying to say (Maas). And you don't expect him to parrot a line of nonsense that many fans at home know is nonsense. Like what Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden has been peddling in production meetings. Twice in the past couple of weeks, I've heard network announcers describe Gruden discussing the "tuck rule" in those meetings.

Gruden was the Raiders' head coach when they lost to the Patriots in the playoffs after the 2001 season. That was the game, played in a blizzard, in which an apparent game-deciding fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was reversed after a replay review. The official ruled that Brady lost the ball while bringing it down to "tuck" it after a pump-fake, which means he was in a passing action, which means the "fumble" was an incomplete pass. The Patriots retained possession, scored to tie the game and won in overtime. That game was Gruden's last as coach of the Raiders. Within two months the Buccaneers signed him away, even though he had a year left on his contract with Oakland. As compensation, the Bucs had to give the Raiders two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and $8 million in cash.

With that history in mind, imagine how annoying it was to hear Fox broadcasters -- not once, but twice -- repeat without question Gruden's assertion that he had been "fired" in Oakland and had to "move across the country" because of the tuck rule.

Gruden had been at loggerheads with Raiders owner Al Davis long before that day in the New England snow. It was clear Gruden wanted out of Oakland, and it was clear that Davis wouldn't mind seeing him go, provided another team would pay Davis' price. The Bucs, who had fired Tony Dungy and been left at the altar by Bill Parcells, were that team. Gruden went to Florida and promptly took the Bucs to the Super Bowl. Gruden gained a certain measure of revenge by beating the Raiders in that Super Bowl. Yet for whatever reason, that story isn't good enough, so Gruden spins this yarn about being fired because of the tuck rule, and the Fox broadcasters wrap that yarn around their own necks and tempt me to strangle them with it.

Davis may have had plans to fire Gruden, may have wanted to fire him, may have dreamed about it, but he never actually did fire him. Even if Davis had canned him, it wouldn't have been over the playoff loss. It wouldn't have been over the tuck rule. Gruden chose to pack up his family and move them across the country, and the Buccaneers had to pay a fat price for the privilege of having him.

Gruden is a smart fellow. I'm willing to at least consider the possibility that he was kidding (or testing) the Fox crews in the production meetings when he said he was fired. Yet the announcers repeated it uncritically and unquestioningly. It's clear that even if Gruden were kidding, these guys didn't catch on. They were fuzzy about the details of the biggest story in the NFL just three and a half years ago. I can't picture any network's A team serving up this regurgitated hash, but the G team plated it right up. If Gruden can tell that story with a straight face, he ought to go into politics. On second thought, maybe he shouldn't! Ar ar.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanks for giving so little

There's a Charles Rogers 'Wiz' joke in there somewhere

Coaches at college football powers have long made it a point to tell high school recruits: You sign with our school, you'll get to play on national TV. Getting on television is so important that smaller conferences -- including the MAC, WAC and Conference USA -- are playing games on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays just so ESPN can spackle the holes in its program schedule with the likes of Bowling Green and Boise State. TV exposure gives college players more opportunities to attract the NFL's attention (see: Ben Roethlisberger). But even kids with neither hopes nor dreams of going pro still get pumped up at the prospect of playing in front of (theoretically, at least) the whole country. Everyone wants to perform on the big stage.

It's the same way in the NFL. The fact that the players are already in the pros, have already "made it," doesn't make the lights of national TV any less bright or alluring. Earlier this year, when Jacksonville beat Cincinnati in a Sunday night nail-biter, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson was inconsolable. Voice cracking and tears running down his cheeks, he said in the locker room afterward, "This is the reason we don't get Sunday (night), Monday night games." Johnson's team had botched its chance to make a statement in prime time, and he was so torn up over it he could barely speak.

Every player wants to be in the nationally televised games. If you're really good (or if the networks were hoping you'd be), you play on Monday night, or in the featured doubleheader game. But Sunday night is good exposure, too, because it's the only game on. It's the same with the occasional Thursday night or Saturday afternoon game. And, of course, Thanksgiving.

If there's one advantage to being a member of the Detroit Lions as opposed to, say, the Arizona Cardinals or Cleveland Browns, it's that you are assured of playing at least one game a year on national TV: on Thanksgiving Day. What's more, you'll get to play that game at home, because the NFL traditionally schedules the Thanksgiving games in Detroit and Dallas. Regardless of whether the Lions are any good, you know that football fans around the country will be eagerly tuning in so they can tune out the relatives they have come hundreds of miles to see for that one day. If the Lions are going to be motivated to play their best for one game a year, it'll be on Thanksgiving.

Notice I said "if."

Detroit lost this year's Thanksgiving Classic to the Atlanta Falcons, 27-7, and as we're all fond of saying, the score wasn't nearly that close. The Lions didn't just lose to the Falcons on Thursday; they humiliated themselves. And they didn't just look like a bad football team; they demonstrated a level of dysfunction that left viewers startled.

Most egregious was the quarterback situation. The Lions' starting QB Thursday was fourth-year player Joey Harrington, who has long been a whipping boy in Detroit but who now is looking more like something out of classical tragedy with each passing week. Harrington began the 2005 season as the starter only because Jeff Garcia, whom everybody knew had been brought to Detroit to take the job away, broke his leg in the preseason. As soon as Garcia was healthy, Harrington was benched. A couple weeks ago, Garcia got hurt again -- because that's what 35-year-old journeyman quarterbacks do -- so Harrington was back as the starter. Got it? Don't get too comfortable.

On their first two plays from scrimmage, the Lions gained two first downs. On the third play, Harrington "threw an interception." We say it that way because that's how it shows up on the stat sheet. What happened on the field, however, was that his receiver, Roy Williams, fell down while running his route and thus wasn't in place to catch the ball. On the first play of the Lions' next possession, Harrington hit tight end Marcus Pollard right in the numbers, and he dropped the ball. A few plays later, Shawn Bryson fumbled. On the Lions' fourth series, Harrington's protection broke down completely, and he was sacked on two straight plays.

At this point it was late in the second quarter, and Atlanta was up 17-0. The Lions' offensive line was letting Falcons rushers hit Harrington on play after play, the receivers were dropping passes, the Detroit running game was going nowhere, the crowd was booing. And Lions coach Steve Mariucci pulled Harrington and sent in Garcia.

Immediately, the questions: If Garcia was healthy enough to play in the second quarter, why didn't Mariucci just start him? And why, as Fox reported, did the Detroit coaches wait until after Garcia came in to urge their receivers to step up their game? Because the entire Lions team dynamic is geared toward making Harrington a scapegoat. The starting pitcher -- Harrington -- gets the loss. The reliever -- Garcia, Mariucci's guy -- comes in to stanch the bleeding. When Garcia throws an interception to a defensive back and there's no receiver within 20 yards of the ball ... hey, he's just trying to "make something happen"! About being benched, Harrington said after the game:
"I've had that cloud hovering over me for, I don't know, as long as I can remember, so when I was replaced I guess I wasn't surprised. But what am I going to do?"
He knows the score. Though Harrington didn't look that bad against the Falcons, I can accept that he might not, in fact, be a very good quarterback. But what we learned Thursday is that it doesn't even matter. All season, NFL fans had been hearing shouts and whispers about how Harrington is the problem in Detroit. Then, when we finally got a chance to watch the Lions, we saw a quarterback set up to fail, and a coach -- an organization -- willing to define failure any way it needed to in order to make it stick to Harrington. No wonder he (allegedly) doesn't have the confidence of his teammates.

The Lions were just getting warmed up.

In the third quarter, leading 17-0 and pushing for another score, the Falcons faced 3rd and 1 at the Lions' 36. Now, on 3rd and 1, it's the job of the defense to prevent the opponent from gaining that one yard. If the offense picks up that one yard, it means the defense has lost the battle on that play. Further, on the 36 yard line, on the cusp of field-goal range, it's absolutely imperative that the defense come up with a stop. So when Falcons running back T.J. Duckett burst across the line for 4 yards and a first down, how would you expect the Lions defenders to react?

The Detroit player who tackled Duckett came out of the pile with a wide grin, howling "Woo!" and doing a little look-at-me dance to commemorate the hit he'd laid on the runner. He was celebrating. After giving up 4 yards on 3rd and 1. The next play, Michael Vick hit Alge Crumpler for a 32-yard TD, and Atlanta was up 24-0.

Flash forward to the fourth quarter. The Falcons were leading 27-0 and were playing soft defense, letting the Lions move the ball but keeping them inbounds to chew up the clock. It was clear to all that Detroit would not win this game. Most of the fans had gone home. From the Atlanta 31, Garcia threw over the middle to Williams, who was streaking toward the end zone. The ball was tipped, first by Williams, then by a defender, before Williams pulled it out of the air and scored. It really was a remarkable catch -- the result of amazing concentration on Williams' part -- but all it did was make the score 27-6. How would you expect Williams to react?

Williams strutted into the end zone, sat down in the lotus position and struck a pose with some little hand gesture that I didn't understand, but then again it wasn't intended for me. He was showboating. After closing the gap to only three touchdowns with less than 10 minutes to play.

You can't get much more damning than what we saw from the Lions in this game. What can you say about an organization that hangs its quarterback out to dry -- a quarterback who, for all his flaws, clearly is most frustrated by being unable to help his team win -- at the same time it allows players to celebrate when the other team gets a first down? What can you say about an organizational culture that would leave a player thinking it's all right to celebrate being down by 21 points?

Lions fans are hoping some good comes out of the Thanksgiving debacle. Perhaps now that the nation has seen just how bad things have gotten in Detroit, Lions owner Bill Ford will reconsider the five-year contract extension he just gave general manager Matt Millen. Maybe. But maybe Millen will just decide the team needs more weapons. Like the ones he's already brought in. Or a new coach. Like the ones he's already brought in.

The Super Bowl is coming to Detroit in a couple months. Oh, the irony.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Week 12 picks

The Writers' Picks are posted early this week because of the Thanksgiving games. Thanks to last week's strongish showing, the updated standings have Down and Distance in a tie for ninth place out of 33. I am still walking around thinking I am a badasssss because I picked both Ravens over Steelers and Browns over Dolphins last week.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Vote frauds

Toretta for Hall of Fame!

Sportswriters, broadcasters and former Heisman Trophy winners should be making up their minds right about now on this year's recipient of the Heisman, the most coveted award in college athletics, a signature marker of gridiron excellence, and a bronze albatross that has dragged many a man's professional football prospects to the bottom of the cold, merciless sea. Under the bright lights at the Downtown Athletic Club, Heisman winners commonly declare that the day they receive the trophy is "the greatest day of my life." They usually don't add "so far." Nor should they.

This past NFL weekend gave us a matchup of two quarterbacks who have sat in the front row at the Heisman ceremony: Peyton Manning of the Colts and Carson Palmer of the Bengals. Both are now certifiable NFL superstars, but which one had the harder path to stardom? Palmer, obviously. He actually won the Heisman in 2002, which meant he would begin his pro career shrouded in the foul vapor of incipient failure. Manning, on the other hand, was the runner-up in 1997, which meant he could enter the league with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove while the vastly inferior, critically flawed player who won the Heisman had nowhere to go but down. That player: Charles Woodson, the ultimate triumph of Heisman hype over talent.

The award that I like to call the Powerade Heisman Trophy is cursed -- or, more specifically, the selection process is cursed. The curse is never more evident than when a quarterback takes home the trophy and puts it on his mantel, where he can admire it every evening when he gets home from his insurance agency, real-estate office, car dealership or work-release program. In the past 20 years, 11 quarterbacks have won the Heisman. Only Palmer and maybe Vinny Testaverde (1986) became NFL stars. Ty Detmer (1990) has enjoyed a long NFL career because he's never had to do anything but carry a clipboard and come in for two plays to kill the clock. Chris Weinke (2000) played one year as a starter and went 1-15. NFL teams didn't even consider Charlie Ward (1993) and Jason White (2003) worth a draft pick. Eric Crouch (2001) flunked out of training camp twice and washed ashore in Europe. Andre Ware (1989) and Danny Wuerffel (1996) were utter disasters. The less said about Gino Toretta (1992), the better. In this light, perhaps 2004 winner Matt Leinart was smart to stay in school another year. The NFL might forget he won the award, and the stink might blow onto his USC teammate, Reggie Bush.

Of course, as we hear every year about this time, the Heisman is not supposed to identify the brightest NFL star-in-the-making. The marketing materials make clear that the trophy goes to the "most outstanding college football player." In other words, the recipient doesn't have to be particularly good, he just has to stand out. Maybe with wicked sideburns or something. And it's college success that counts, not pro prospects. Fine, fine. But the fact that so many of these guys come out with no NFL hopes whatsoever strongly suggests that they just aren't all that good.

The college game is different from the pro game, no doubt about it. Some players who excel at quarterback in college just aren't cut out for QB success in the pros. But if those guys are great players, great athletes, they'll find a spot in the NFL. Antwaan Randle El broke every QB record Indiana could throw at him, but when he got to Pittsburgh, the Steelers decided he'd be better at receiver. And the Steelers were more than qualified to make this call, having just spent five years trying to determine whether Kordell Stewart could be a pro quarterback (answer: not really). This year's example is Matt Jones, a beast of a QB at Arkansas whom the Jacksonville Jaguars have turned into a promising wideout. Contrast their experiences with those of Crouch, whom the St. Louis Rams drafted in the third round with the intention of having him play wide receiver. Crouch pouted around the Rams' training camp for a bit, "retired" when things got rough, came back with the Packers to try to be a QB, "retired" again, and was last seen learning to play safety in NFL Europe. Kinda sad for a guy whose official Heisman-candidacy website (still online) declared him "destined for greatness."

Of late, quarterbacks win the Heisman simply by default, because they happen to be the most recognizable name on a national championship contender. (The voters, however, credit "leadership" and say he "makes his teammates better." No. QBs are leaders because they're good, not the other way around.) That's why Leinart probably won't win it this year. As good as Leinart may be, Bush is now the bigger name at USC. Further, quarterback Vince Young of No. 2 Texas is also a bigger name, so if Bush doesn't win the Heisman, Young is the next-best bet.

Palmer is the exception. Yes, he played on a title contender and was its most recognizable member, but he was also the best player on the team. Had he played at Fresno State or Minnesota or UCLA, he'd still have been a top prospect. Had Weinke or Ward played somewhere other than Florida State, you'd never have heard of them (as football players, at least; Ward is now in the NBA). Same with Toretta (Miami), Wuerffel (Florida), Crouch (Nebraska) and White (Oklahoma).

The quarterback for a college football powerhouse has to be sound, but he doesn't have to be especially good. He has the best line to keep defenders away. He has the best receivers to throw to. He has the best coaches drawing up schemes. Put me in there, I might throw you some touchdowns. This is why White's phone never rang on draft day 2004, despite all the wins he had at Oklahoma. Meanwhile, guys who had succeeded with "lesser" teams -- Eli Manning (Mississippi), Philip Rivers (N.C. State), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami of Ohio) -- were drafted in the first round. Matt Cassel, the backup to Palmer and then Leinart at USC, was drafted after throwing fewer than 40 passes in college, while White stayed home. Devastating.

What about Ware (Houston) and Detmer (Brigham Young)? Detmer teaches us the value of having a schedule full of cupcakes. He threw for thousands of yards and dozens of touchdowns in the WAC back when the WAC was whack. BYU ran up the score on chumps like New Mexico and Utah State. In the Holiday Bowl, after Detmer had taken home the Heisman, BYU was brutally exposed and royally pounded by Texas A&M, 65-14. Ware, meanwhile, had an undeniably great year in 1989 playing in a run-and-shoot offense. He was drafted by the Lions, who at the time were also playing the run-and-shoot, but he couldn't crack the starting lineup. Just as well: The run-and-shoot has yet to work in the NFL. (Not saying it can't!)

When you look at the results of the Heisman voting, you're peeking into an insane parallel football universe. In that topsy-turvy, head-spinning dimension, the 2001 NFL draft is marked by two of the biggest scouting blunders of all time -- front-office boners of epic proportions. That year, the Chargers traded the No. 1 overall pick to the Falcons, who used it on Michael Vick. The Chargers then took Drew Brees with the first pick in the second round. Which quarterback was the better choice? Trick question: neither! The right choice, of course, was Weinke, and both teams left him on the board for Carolina to snap up. No wonder the Panthers have been to the Super Bowl since then, while the Chargers and Falcons have not, hmm?

This is how it works in the Heisman Underverse. Voters beware! Those who do not learn from history (Crouch) are doomed to repeat it (White).

Week 11 recap

With the byes now behind us, we're back to 16 games per week, which means we can judge performance in the picks with the same scale we use to judge a team's performance in the regular season:
  • 16-0: impossible
  • 15-1: unbelievable
  • 14-2: improbable
  • 13-3: remarkable
  • 12-4: commendable
  • 11-5: admirable
  • 10-6: acceptable
  • 9-7 and below: wait till next week
For the week, Down and Distance was an admirable 11-5, thanks to two gut-feeling calls: Baltimore over Pittsburgh and Cleveland over Miami. So I feel a little better after last week's wipeout. A couple QB notes before we get rolling: Though Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer are popping eyes all over the place with their big fat numbers, the MVP discussion should start with Tom Brady. Sunday's game wasn't his best, obviously, but he's all his team has left, and the Patriots are still 6-4. And I'll say this again: Ben Roethlisberger should be considered for the simple reason that the Steelers can't accomplish anything with anyone else at QB.

New England over New Orleans: Tom Brady and Heath Evans and not much else ... and yet it was still more than the Saints could handle. This one's for the ol' Navy coach. Unbelievably, it took the Patriots 11 weeks to win back-to-back games.

Baltimore over Pittsburgh: How could anyone pick 2-7 Baltimore to beat 7-2 Pittsburgh? I explained the reasoning last week, and the game played out almost exactly as expected.

Cleveland over Miami: Miami's crummy on the road. Does anyone need more of an explanation? Interesting move in this game: Halfway through the second quarter, with the Browns shutting down the Dolphins, Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel decided that what his team really needed was a quarterback controversy.

Jacksonville over Tennessee: The Jaguars need to quit beating crappy teams by a touchdown or less.

Dallas over Detroit: Billy Cundiff, the only Drake alumnus in the NFL, returned to the Cowboys after an injury that kept him out for the first 10 weeks of the year (and also necessitated the gruesome Jose Cortez experiment). Cundiff hit a team-record 56-yard field goal as the Cowboys cruised. Two bits, four bits, eight bits, a dollar / All for the Bulldogs, stand up and holler. Arf!

New York Giants over Philadelphia: Tom Coughlin must be trying to teach some kind of larger life lesson by continuing to give Brandon Jacobs the ball in goal-line situations. He certainly can't be doing it to get touchdowns. Last week the Eagles were all but finished. This week, they're just finished. And Terrell Owens wouldn't have made a difference.

Denver over New York Jets: Best Bet. Duh.

San Diego over Buffalo: Duh II. Chargers are hoping Antonio Gates wasn't seriously injured in the third quarter when his team was already leading by four touchdowns. You gotta keep playing hard, but ouch.

Indianapolis over Cincinnati: The most entertaining game of the year, hands down. Remember all that talk about the Colts' anemic offense? Or, for that matter, the Colts' impenetrable defense? Seems so very long ago. For a team that got 37 points scored on them, the Colts can hold their heads up: The burden was all on them to win their first "real" test, and they did. And for a team that got 45 points scored on them, the Bengals can hold their striped heads up, too: Indy looked like it was about to run away with this one, and Cincy reeled 'em back in.

Seattle over San Francisco: Losses by both Carolina and Atlanta in the early games made this a must-win for Seattle. If the Seahawks are going to make a Super Bowl run, they're going to need home-field advantage. Why? Because when they go on the road, they do things like nearly lose to San Francisco.

Kansas City over Houston: Word up. Larry Johnson sets the Chiefs' single-game rushing record, and we hear the awesome '80s name Barry Word for probably the last time. Are the Texans dispirited? Halfway through the second quarter, Houston WR Andre Johnson fumbled when Chiefs safety Greg Wesley popped him after a 5-yard gain. Neither Johnson nor any other Texan tried to get the ball back. Yeah, they're dispirited. A half-empty stadium can't help, either. The Los Angeles Texans? On an entirely different matter: In the fourth quarter, the ESPN broadcast team started making poop jokes. I didn't need to know that Paul Maguire farts when he eats chili. I really, really didn't.

St. Louis over Arizona: Can't feel bad about missing this one. The Cardinals win at random, and you'll never get anywhere by picking them. Kurt Warner, playing his first game in St, Louis since the Rams ran him off, played his best game anywhere since the Rams ran him off. The 3-7 Cardinals have found their quarterback of the future, I guess. The Rams, whose usual uniforms are among the NFL's sharpest, came out in a regrettable all-blue ensemble Sunday. They looked like a WAC team, and they played like one.

Carolina over Chicago: Well, the Panthers clearly can't win tough games on the road, especially when their quarterback keeps turning it over. They really needed this one, but they couldn't deliver. Fortunately, Atlanta also lost.

Atlanta over Tampa Bay: Well, the Falcons clearly can't win tough games at home, especially when their quarterback keeps turning it over. They really needed this one, but they couldn't deliver. Fortunately, Carolina also lost.

Washington over Oakland: I think the Redskins saw Norv Turner on the field and lost by reflex. After last week's shootout in Tampa, I was wondering when we were next going to see the Official Final Score of the Washington Redskins. And there it is: Opponent 16, Redskins 13.

Green Bay over Minnesota: The Vikings took another step in their inspired quest to nail down the 16th pick in the 2006 draft. The Packers' defense helped out by being utterly unable to tackle, cover kicks, cover receivers short, cover receivers long or defend even uncatchable passes without grabbing on like a pervert on an escalator. The Packers' offense helped out by abandoning the run, dropping the ball when they did run and (over- or under-)throwing downfield on every play, triple coverage be damned. Will Brett Favre come back next year? Why would he want to? Why would the Packers want him to?

SEASON: 105-55

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet, Ethernet, ARPANET, Aqua Net 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? Are you ready to party, Toronto?) 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: W11 = This week's ranking. W10 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)
11 Colts 100.001718Raiders 47.42
27 Bears 81.961824Browns 45.20
38 Broncos 81.781917Eagles 43.74
44 Giants 81.542022Patriots 43.09
59 Chargers 79.582120Lions 40.45
63 Steelers 78.662223Rams 38.30
75 Seahawks 78.112319Dolphins 37.13
86 Panthers 76.082425Titans 32.46
92 Bengals 74.372526Cardinals31.53
1010Cowboys 73.002621Bills 27.58
1111Jaguars 66.762727Vikings 24.99
1212Falcons 63.372830Ravens 17.86
1316Chiefs 60.602929Saints 14.19
1413Bucs 59.673028Jets 6.46
1514Packers 56.96313249ers 4.91
1615Redskins50.653231Texans 0.00

Team eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Redskins. Teams previously eliminated: Texans, Titans, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Vikings, Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions, Eagles, Rams.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Too cool for school

The Nick Saban I know probably isn't locked in his office, peeking out from under his tinfoil hat and questioning whether he was right to leave his throne at Louisiana State University to buckle himself into the captain's chair of the rudderless Miami Dolphins. (And since you asked: No, I don't know Nick Saban.)

Truth is, it will be a while before anyone can judge whether Saban made the right choice. Through nine games, his Dolphins are 3-6, including upset victories over the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. The defense appears steady, and the running game seems to be developing. But the passing game is unpredictable, and not in a Brett Favre, risk-taking-gunslinger way. More like a whoops-I-forgot-to-set-the-emergency-brake-and-now-where-do-you-suppose-it's-gonna-go way. When Gus Frerotte heaves the ball up, you just kind of hold your breath and hope it gets caught by someone wearing the same color shirt. All we can say with confidence about Saban's new start in Miami is that he throws a mean press conference. Whenever a reporter starts in with the stupid questions -- like, "How is going today, Coach?" -- Saban puts on this look like someone farted in church. Uncomfortable.

As Saban transitions from college head coach to NFL head coach, Dolphins fans are hoping he makes out like Jimmy Johnson with the Cowboys. Like Saban, Johnson won a national championship in college before taking his act to the NFL. Johnson endured a tough first season in Dallas, improved dramatically in Years 2 and 3 and won the Super Bowl in Year 4. Those same Dolphins fans, however, are also well aware that Saban could follow the lead of Steve Spurrier. Like Saban, Spurrier won a national championship in college before taking his act to the NFL. Spurrier enjoyed a fairly successful first season in Washington, tumbled into an open grave in Year 2 and was gone by Year 3.

After nine games, Johnson was 1-8; Spurrier, 4-5. Discuss.

Spurrier. Glad I mentioned him, because this past weekend The Cautionary Tale of Steven Orr Spurrier came full circle. Descending briefly into the boozy world of college football, we see that last Saturday Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks upset the 12th-ranked Florida Gators, for whom Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 as a player and the mythical national championship in 1996 as the head coach. The game knocked Florida out of contention for the Southeastern Conference title and signaled that the Gamecocks will hereafter be part of the equation in the SEC East.

The Carolina* victory also affirms two things related to Spurrier. One is that Florida's decision not to rehire him a year ago will loom larger and larger in Gainesville. (According to lore, when Spurrier discussed the job with the Florida brass, he was invited to submit a resume. He allegedly responded by telling the Florida AD to stick his head out into the hall and look at the trophy case. If it's not true, it should be.) The second is that the college game is where Spurrier belongs, because he clearly had no business in the NFL.

Having done just about everything a coach can do in college, Spurrier left Florida abruptly after the 2001 season, put on his prettiest outfit and let it be known he was ready for NFL teams to come courtin'. There was every reason to expect they would. He'd had success at every stop -- first with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits (named in honor of co-owner Burt Reynolds), where he went 35-19 in three seasons and made the playoffs twice; then with the eternally sorry Duke Blue Devils, whom he turned into ACC champions (remember, we're talking about football here); and finally at his alma mater.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder had been writing Spurrier's name over and over on the cover of his Trapper Keeper since he bought the team. So when Spurrier finally broke up with the Gators, Snyder was at his locker the next day with an enormous contract. Marty Schottenheimer, whom Snyder had brought home to meet Mom and Dad a year earlier, got the heave-ho. (Chuckling to himself and millions of dollars richer, Marty soon accepted San Diego's invitation to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. And that's as far as that analogy will stretch.)

In Washington, Spurrier was unable to replicate the success he'd had at Florida, in part because he tried to replicate the success he'd had at Florida -- meaning, installing the exact same offense and putting it in the hands of the exact same players, including peashooter QBs Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews and lousy WRs Taylor Jacobs and Chris Doering. After two seasons and a 12-20 record, Spurrier resigned and disappeared into America's golf underbelly before resurfacing in South Carolina. Snyder, meanwhile, pulled the last rabbit out of the hat: Joe Gibbs.

(Spurrier's tenure in D.C. is a sore spot in our household. My wife, an Iowa State alumna, resents Spurrier for cutting former Cyclones QB Sage Rosenfels, whom Schottenheimer had drafted. ["He has such a big heart," Tracy says.] Rosenfels now backs up the human spray-bottle Frerotte in Miami; if he's cut again, she can hate Saban, too.)

So Saban is best advised to emulate Johnson rather than Spurrier. Of course, Johnson's run of success began with conning the Minnesota Vikings into trading away their future for Herschel Walker. Saban doesn't have that option with his Heisman-winning running back. A player is limited to one franchise-destroying trade in a career, and Ricky Williams already had his.

Spurrier's experience in the NFL looms as much more common than Johnson's. Should Saban fail, he'd be just the latest college coach to slam into the rocks of the pro game. Butch Davis left Cleveland a very unhappy man. The best you can say about Dennis Erickson is that he was mediocre (and that what happened in San Francisco last year wasn't his fault). Frank Kush turned Arizona State into a national power before his career died in a bean field somewhere between Baltimore and Indianapolis. Spurrier's predecessor at South Carolina, Lou Holtz, was so traumatized by his one season with the New York Jets, which he didn't even finish, that he never seriously considered another pro job, even after winning the national title at Notre Dame.

The allure of the NFL is understandable: the game's biggest stage, the best athletes, the most money. The coach doesn't have to find anyone to write his players' papers, and he can buy them shoes or a bus ticket (HA HA HA!) without worrying about putting his program on probation. Every coach who scores big in NCAA Division I-A dreams that he can be the next Jimmy Johnson, or maybe the next Barry Switzer, who Walter Mitty'd his way to a Super Bowl title with Johnson's players. Or at least the next John Robinson, who left Southern Cal for the Los Angeles Rams and made the playoffs in six of his first seven years there. But those dudes are the exceptions.

Saban had coached in the NFL as an assistant to Bill Belichick before dropping down to the college level to get head coaching experience. I can understand why he would grab at this chance to be The Man in the pros. Just as I'll understand when Charlie Weis leaves Notre Dame and his absurd 10-year contract when the right NFL job opens up. What I don't get is why Pete Carroll would ever consider returning to the NFL. Carroll was a middling NFL coach who had the distinction of heading the Patriots in the years after Bill Parcells took them to the Super Bowl and before Belichick took them to the Super Bowl. Now he's at Southern Cal, where he is pursuing his third straight national title and is the toast of Los Angeles. He'd give that up for what? A chance to lead the Houston Texans to an 8-8 season? To earn a wildcard berth with the Buffalo Bills? Yeah, whatever. I can't save a fool from his fool self.

While some successful college coaches move up to the NFL and get their heads cut off, some unsuccessful NFL head coaches drop down to college and prosper, because that's where their talents are the best fit. Look at Spurrier. Look at Al Groh, a disappointment as Parcells' successor with the Jets who is now thriving at Virginia. Chan Gailey -- replaced by Dave Campo in Dallas -- won a bowl game last year at Georgia Tech. Gene Stallings won a national title at Alabama after crapping out with the Cardinals. Saban's predecessor at Miami, Dave Wannstedt, wasn't an abject failure in the pros, but he wasn't exactly a roaring success, either (and Dolphins fans must still be wondering how exactly he wound up as their coach). Now he's at his own alma mater, Pitt, trying to lead a resurgence.

All of which brings us back to Nick Saban, who is not sitting there in his office, not drumming his fingers, not rocking in the corner consumed by doubt. It was a big step to leave LSU -- but one whose only real risk is to the ego. Should he succeed, he'll have himself a career in the NFL. Should he fail, he'll have his pick of college jobs whenever he wants to go back. And if I know Nick Saban, I know what's in store for him!

* I love that the South Carolina athletics department stakes as big a claim to the word "Carolina" as the university in Chapel Hill. For that matter, I also love that the University of South Carolina has no problems referring to itself as "USC."

Week 11 picks

I had a good run there at the beginning of the year. The picks were falling my way, and I was going Jimmy the Greek all over the town, except without the medallions, the pinkie rings and the self-sabotaging piehole. Last week, however ... not so much: 8-6, thanks to that punk Eli Manning. And others. Everyone but me. This week's picks are up at The Writers' Picks at The Mirl. I'm thinking to myself that if the Ravens nearly beat the Steelers three weeks ago -- in Pittsburgh, with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback for the Steelers -- why can't they beat them in Baltimore this week? Yeah, that's the sort of thinking that was all the rage in August 1914.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I don't feel so good

Cody Pickett's from Idaho, but nowhere near Montana

NFL "feel-good stories" don't have much in the way of legs. Otherwise they'd be "feel-good sagas," and there's no such thing as a feel-good saga. Sagas are full of angst and shipwrecks and Cyclopses and meddling gods. Feel-good football stories revolve around guys from tiny colleges who played in weird leagues or worked regular jobs. And those stories usually aren't long ones.

When a player "comes out of nowhere" to "explode on the scene" in "the" (stop me!) NFL, you can expect he'll return to nowhere rather quickly. That's because there's a good reason he was nowhere in the first place. Sure, a player might get on a good roll: The Kurt Warner story met "feel-good" requirements for more than three years before it was stomped to death in the Meadowlands on Opening Day 2003. But the road always leads back to nowhere. Look at Kurt Warner now.

The latest feel-good story to get taken back to the library is that of Cody Pickett, the twelfth-string quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Pickett started the past two 49ers games after Ken Dorsey went out with an ankle injury. Dorsey had been playing because No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith had sprained some knee ligaments, perhaps by spending so much time on his tippy-toes just trying to keep his head above water. And Smith became the starter, I think, because Tim Rattay was completing too many passes. (To be fair, Down and Distance had argued that if the 49ers were going to be awful anyway, they might as well run Smith out there and see whether he's really worth the $51 million they're paying him. Not that there's much they could do about it if he isn't.) Rattay has since been traded. That'll learn him.

Back to Cody Pickett. He came in after Dorsey was injured in Week 8 against Tampa Bay. Pickett attempted only one pass (complete) and handed the ball off to Kevan Barlow or Frank Gore on nearly every other play. The 49ers won the game for reasons that had nothing to do with Cody Pickett, but the emergency quarterback nevertheless became a 25-watt folk hero. We learned that he had begun the season as the fourth QB on the depth chart and played special teams just to stay on the roster. We also learned that he's a "former rodeo clown." Now, it would be just like Down and Distance to refer to someone as a rodeo clown regardless of his background (come to think of it, let's make that a D and D staple), but doing so with Pickett was just wrong. His dad was a pro rodeo rider, and he was a calf roper in high school. Calling him a clown isn't an insult. It's an honor, one that he hasn't earned. Pooh.

Nevertheless, the "former rodeo clown" angle was one everybody loved, so "former rodeo clown" it was. Pickett had a bad game against the Giants in Week 9, but everyone was still feeling good about the clown story and didn't expect him to win anyway, so they let it go. Last week, however, in the whipping winds of Chicago's Soldier Field, Pickett put up one of those beautifully awful lines you tell your grandkids about, completing just one of 13 passes, plus an interception. And just like that, the feel-good story of Cody Pickett was blown into Lake Michigan.

The 49ers announced Wednesday that Ken Dorsey will start Sunday against Seattle, San Francisco's fourth QB change of the season. Dorsey's story is sort of the reverse of the feel-good arc: In college, he played at perennial national championship contender Miami and was a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Everybody knew who he was and where he was. But after college, he slid into obscurity at the end of the bench on the most dreadful team of the past 10 years.

San Francisco fans will root for Dorsey, or Smith, or whoever the team trusses up and tosses out there as a sacrifice to Kong. But they probably won't feel too good about the story from here on out. Not for a while.

How did Pickett stack up against the other guys who took snaps for the 49ers this year? Here are game lines of the San Francisco starting quarterbacks in 2005. Remember, this is San Francisco. Home of Brodie, Montana and Young:

1Rattay 11-1616520141.9
2Rattay 13-2610703 21.3
3Rattay 21-3426932 91.4
4Rattay 11-2112601 50.9
5Smith 9-23 7404 8.5
6Smith 8-16 9201 79.1
7Dorsey 7-18 4000 47.0
8Pickett12-2110201 50.1
9Pickett 1-13 2801 7.5
TOTAL 102-2011,074513 49.7

When the Seahawks grind Dorsey into paste this weekend, may I make a suggestion? Wide receiver Arnaz Battle. A former quarterback at Notre Dame, Battle threw two passes in the season opener vs. the Rams. He completed both for 27 yards and a 118.7 passer rating. I feel good!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Week 10 postmortem

I got punished for hubris this week. Unfortunately, the people of Philadelphia, Washington and New York had to suffer along with me. Or maybe they were the hubristic ones, and my suffering was the side effect. Whoever's ultimately responsible, I went 8-6 in my picks. Three NFC East teams lost in the final minutes; one NFC East team won in the final minutes. Guess which three teams I picked. It's shite like this that shows the utter futility of gambling.

Jacksonville over Baltimore: And how bad do you have to be to make the Jaguars look like an offensive juggernaut? The Ravens are now 2-7, and it says here that they'll play the Houston Texans in Week 13. If the Ravens were to, say, lose that game, they'd have a leg up on the Texans for the No. 1 draft pick. I'm just saying. And Kyle Boller threw three interceptions in his triumphant return. Also just saying.

Chicago over San Francisco: The word "stupid" is both overused and underused. It's overused in that people are quick to declare things "stupid" simply because they don't understand them. A particular genre of movies or music, maybe, or a certain kind of comedy. It's underused in that people try to come up with fancy, four-dollar expressions when a simple "stupid" would suffice. With that in mind, let's talk about the orange "alternate" jerseys that the Bears wore Sunday. They were stupid. This was the first of several games this week that one team tried doggedly to give away. Or, rather, one person: Chicago punt return "specialist" Bobby Wade, who fumbled four times. Fortunately, the 49ers were even less prepared to win than the Bears were, and the one time a kick wound up in the hands of a Bear other than Wade, Nathan Vasher scored the longest touchdown in NFL history.

New England over Miami: Odd-numbered game. Patriots win.

Indianapolis over Houston: On the first play of the second quarter, the Colts lined up to go for it on fourth and 1 from their own 35. Peyton Manning's head fake and a shift by the Indy receivers were enough to pull the Texans offside. Manning can nail you to the wall without even snapping the ball. You know, it would have been easy to make this my Best Bet: best team in the NFL vs. the second-worst. But I'm trying to mix these up a bit ... and I get killed for it.

Carolina over New York Jets: Yeah, I thought that was Brooks Bollinger under center for the Jets. It was kind of hard to tell last week.

Denver over Oakland: Jake Plummer's line vs. the Raiders: 16-of-22 for 205 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Denver's running game is allowing Plummer to be the best quarterback he can be, rather than the quarterback he was told he should be for the first eight years of his career. That quarterback would throw 50 passes a game, complete maybe half of them for 300-plus yards, and have more interceptions than touchdown passes. Like Kerry Collins did vs. the Broncos.

Seattle over St. Louis: Another 165 yards and three TDs. One of these days, the national sports commentariat is going to have to wise up about Shaun Alexander. The Seahawks won the division with this game, and I repeat: There is no reason Seattle can't win home field throughout the playoffs.

Pittsburgh over Cleveland: If you'd have told Steeler fans when the season started that in Week 10 their starting quarterback would be Charlie Batch and the backup would be Tommy Maddox, they might have burned their tickets. Yet despite having to play them both, Pittsburgh still won going away. Says as much about the Browns as the Steelers, but a good team must win this game.

Arizona over Detroit: What is my problem with these two teams? I keep thinking both of them can win, and neither ever does, unless I pick against them, in which case they're unstoppable. Much-maligned Lions quarterback Joey Harrington had a nice game and said afterward: "You complete [passes], and people tend to keep the boos in their pocket." Which was kind of sad because the home crowd is just going to boo him again on Thanksgiving.

New York Giants over Minnesota: A funny thing happened to New York on the way to the first all-Manning Super Bowl: I made them my Week 10 Best Bet, and they let it go to their heads. The Giants are certainly persistent. They tried again and again to give the game to the Vikings, and though the Vikings politely declined, the Giants wouldn't take no for an answer. They fumbled the ball inside their own 30 twice in the first six minutes. When that didn't work and the score was still 0-0, they tried turning it over in the Vikings' end. That brought results! Whenever it looked like the Vikings were in danger of falling behind, Eli Manning would obligingly throw the ball to a purple hat or the Giants' kick coverage unit would take a play off. This was a total team effort. Other tidbits from the game:
a) This contest had the Down and Distance Vaguely Horrifying Broadcaster Exchange of the Day: Fox play-by-play man Kenny Albert noted that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was a big Giants fan who once followed Lawrence Taylor into a men's room to get an autograph. Color commentator Brian Baldinger responded: "I'm glad that it was just an autograph that he went in there for." Why would he think that's OK to say?
b) It also featured the Down and Distance Uncomfortable Broadcaster Pillow Talk Exchange of the Day: As the camera panned over the crowd to a woman holding a sign that read, "I'm Single and (Heart) the Giants," Albert said to Baldinger: "I think she's looking for you." Baldinger: "I'm not available." Albert: "That's not what I heard." It just made me feel dirty.
c) Here in the D.C. area, as the Giants lined up for a 2-point conversion to tie the game inside the two-minute warning, Fox cut away to Tampa and the scoreless Redskins-Bucs game. One word: Heidi. Thank goodness for the dish.
d) Manning capped off his perfectly awful day by throwing over the middle with 10 seconds left, no timeouts and field goal range within reach. Do something like that, a damn fool is what you are.

Kansas City over Buffalo: Oh, great. Another lesser-of-two-evils Buffalo quarterback controversy.

Atlanta over Green Bay: Unlike the 49ers and the Vikings, the Packers were able to hold on to their game the first time the Falcons handed it to them. After all the blood that was spilled this week over perceptions of disrespect of the Falcons and their fans, wasn't it just inevitable that the Filthy Birds would fumble the ball six times?

Washington over Tampa Bay: Last week, Vermeil; this week, Gruden. Next week, Jim Haslett goes for it on fourth and 12 from his own 20 in the middle of the third quarter. I've seen the replay a dozen times, and I think Alstott was down before breaking the plane. But guess what? Doesn't matter what I think, and it doesn't matter what Channel 4 here in D.C. thinks. The game should never have come down to that play. The Redskins went soft when it counted, and they paid for it. Speaking of which ...

Philadelphia over Dallas: You can pinpoint the exact moment when the Eagles lost this one: 8:02 left in the game. That's when Philly took over the ball with a 13-point lead and abandoned the aggressive style it had played to that point. The offense went timid, the defense went soft, and suddenly Dallas was back in it. Then, once the Eagles had surrendered all momentum, they tried to be "bold," and Donovan McNabb threw the season into the hands of Roy Williams. How many times do we have to watch teams lose fourth-quarter leads before coaches learn that "gutless" isn't a winning strategy?

SEASON: 94-50

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet, Ethernet, ARPANET, Aqua Net 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? Are you ready to party, Toronto? 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: W10 = This week's ranking. WK9 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)
11 Colts 100.001719Eagles 43.59
23 Bengals 77.571817Raiders 43.13
34 Steelers 76.351918Dolphins 42.83
42 Giants 75.642021Lions 42.38
55 Seahawks 75.272124Bills 38.76
67 Panthers 75.002223Patriots 37.49
76 Bears 72.882320Rams 37.08
89 Broncos 68.932422Browns 32.14
911Chargers 65.962525Titans 29.00
1010Cowboys 64.632627Cardinals23.39
1113Jaguars 63.642729Vikings 21.45
128 Falcons 61.792826Jets 14.36
1312Bucs 55.822930Saints 12.42
1415Packers 53.643028Ravens 12.21
1516Redskins48.393131Texans 2.79
1614Chiefs 48.35323249ers 0.00

Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Eagles, Rams. Teams previously eliminated: Texans, Titans, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Vikings, Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions.

Monday, November 14, 2005

30-point types

XXX? Aie-yai-yai!

With two minutes left in Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson intercepted a pass and ran it back 26 yards for a touchdown. The touchdown -- which I will not refer to as a "pick six," and neither should you -- pushed the final score to Jaguars 30, Ravens 3, which means Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio can finally move beyond the question that has haunted his dreams: "When are you guys going to score more than 30 points?"

The Jags had gone an astounding 58 straight games, more than three full seasons, without cracking 30 points. The last time they put up 30 or more was in Week 11 of the 2001 season, when they beat Minnesota 33-3. Tom Coughlin was still the Jaguars' coach then, and Mark Brunell was still their quarterback. Byron Leftwich was in his second year as a starter ... at Marshall. The Patriots hadn't won any Super Bowls. The Texans didn't exist. It was a long time ago, is what I'm saying. The Cardinals were still awful, though.

How long was the Jaguars' streak? After it ended, the team with the longest such stretch was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at just 14 games -- since a 35-3 victory over the always-good-for-ails-you 49ers in Week 11 last year. The Buccaneers would hold the distinction of having the longest sub-30 streak for less than three hours; they beat the Redskins 36-35 later Sunday.

Jacksonville's streak was truly remarkable. It's not easy to go a full season without scoring 30 points, let alone three and a half seasons. Last year's 49ers, who went 2-14 and weren't even as good as their record would indicate, topped 30 points twice, as did the 2-14 Bengals of 2002 and the 1-15 Chargers of 2000. Even the 1-15 Panthers of 2001 did it once. In the five-year period 2000-04, there were 158 teams to play a full season. Fifteen, fewer than one in 10, failed to score 30 in a game. The Jaguars had three of those seasons, as did the Bears. (Others: Cowboys 2, Cardinals 2, Texans 2, Browns 1, Giants 1, Lions 1.)

So who will reporters start bothering next? Who's got the longest streak of scoring less than 30? Glad you asked:

Browns 14
Texans 14
Bills 11
Jets 11
Ravens 9

The next challenge for Del Rio and his boys is to score 40 points. After all, it's been nearly five years since a Jaguars team did that, one of the longest such stretches in the NFL. The Houston Texans have never scored 40, but they've only been in the league since 2002. This chart (damn, I love charts!) shows the teams, besides Houston, that have gone the longest without scoring 40. Listed are the year, week, opponent and score of the last 40-point game (SB=Super Bowl):

(Don't ask me why this blank space is here. I've rebuilt the table several times, and it keeps appearing.)

Bears1993 4 Buccaneers 47-17
Cardinals 2000 10Lions 45-38
Jaguars 2000 15Cardinals 44-10
Panthers 2002 14Bengals 52-31
Buccaneers2002 SBRaiders 48-21

That isn't a misprint. Chicago hasn't scored more than 40 points in a game in more than a decade. No team comes within seven years of that mark. When we say that the Bears have been cursed with weak quarterbacking, we aren't just talking about the last few years. This didn't start with Kyle Orton (or Jonathan Quinn or Craig Krenzel or Steve Stenstrom or Cade McNown or Shane Matthews or Moses Moreno or Steve Walsh or any of the hundred other stiffs the Bears have thrown under center). One thing that doesn't show up in the chart above: The Cleveland Browns scored 48 points in a game last year, their most since they returned to the league in 1999. And yet it came in a loss to the Bengals, 58-48. That's what it means to be the Browns nowadays.

There's one more milestone to consider, and that's the elusive 50-point mark. All but three teams have scored 50 in a game. Those that haven't are the Texans (only 3 years old), the Ravens (9 years old), and the Buccaneers, who are close to 30 years old but who seem to hold most marks for historical futility. Aside from those three, what team has gone the longest? You might be surprised. This chart ranks teams in order of how recently they've scored 50 (SB=Super Bowl; PO=playoffs):

Redskins 2005 7 49ers 52-17
Packers 2005 5 Saints 52-3
Colts 2004 13Titans 51-24
Bengals 2004 12Browns 58-48
Chiefs 2004 7 Falcons 56-10
49ers 2003 14Cardinals50-14
Panthers 2002 14Bengals 52-31
Raiders 2002 4 Titans 52-25
Rams 2000 5 Chargers 57-31
Jaguars 1999 PODolphins 62-7
Vikings 1998 16Jaguars 50-10
Falcons 1998 5 Falcons 51-23
Lions 1997 14Bears 55-20
Eagles 1995 POLions 58-37
Dolphins 1995 1 Jets 52-14
Cowboys 1992 SBBills 52-17
Bills 1991 2 Steelers 52-34
Titans 1990 14Browns 58-14
Browns 1989 1 Steelers 51-0
Giants 1986 16Packers 55-24
Jets 1986 3 Dolphins 51-45
Chargers 1986 1 Dolphins 50-28
Steelers 1984 13Chargers 52-24
Patriots 1984 12Colts 50-17
Seahawks 1983 13Chiefs 51-48
Bears 1980 14Packers 61-7
Saints 1976 11Seahawks 51-27
Cardinals1963 4 Vikings 56-14
Broncos 1963 4 Chargers 50-34

When a team racks up 50 points, it often says as much about the opponent as it does about the team itself. A team that gives up 50 isn't necessarily a bad team. It's a team that's been overwhelmed, a team that falls so far behind so early that it gives up trying to stop the bleeding and just hopes to get out of the game in one piece.

So to Jack Del Rio and the Jacksonville Jaguars, relax for a week. Revel in your 30-point Sunday. Then get cracking on a 40-point game. Or kill two birds with one stone with a 50-pointer. Keep chopping wood, fellas.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Nice socks!

Beauty is a curse on the world

If I take a job at Best Buy, they're going to make me wear a blue shirt. The blue shirt is not an attempt to wipe out my individuality or to suppress my personality. It is not intended to humiliate me, degrade me or otherwise put me in my place. The company is not telling me what to think, just how to dress when I'm on the clock. If I don't like it, I can go work at Circuit City, where I ain't got to wear no blue shirt. Instead, I'll be required to wear a red shirt. Both companies believe that customers respond best to neatly dressed, professional-looking employees who project a uniform appearance.

That's why they call them uniforms.

This comes up because once again an NFL player is being fined for violating the league's very specific and very strict uniform guidelines. In this case, Redskins running back Clinton Portis has been cracked for $20,000 for wearing black shoes during a game when the rest of his team wore white and for wearing striped, burgundy socks rather than the white mandated by the league.

There are so many directions you could run with this. The most common is to bang on the No Fun League for taking such petty matters so seriously. But considering how so many players like to style themselves "warriors," you do have to wonder how the Marines would deal with a gent who refused to wear regulation black socks because he fancied burgundy and stripes. Or you could mimic the NBA dress-code debate and wonder what the hell's wrong with these kids today with their wild clothes and their wild hair and condoms and bling-bling-bling and rock 'n' roll. But either would be missing the larger point, which is: How foolish is Clinton Portis?

Portis seems like a good chap. He's putting up respectable if not remarkable numbers this year (620 yards, 4.2 yards per carry). He wears funny outfits on Thursdays to keep things loose in his weekly meetings with reporters. My biggest knock on him has been that horrid Hungry Man commercial he did with Jeremy Shockey and Warren Sapp, which doesn't just fail to make me want to eat TV dinners, it kind of turns me off on the whole idea of food. But, Clinton, do you really think it's wise to spend $20,000 on a pair of socks? There wasn't anything better you, your family, your church or maybe some poor kid in your neighborhood could have done with that kind of money?

It doesn't matter that the $20,000 will go to NFL Charities. And it doesn't matter that it's only a small percentage of the man's salary; it's still a lot of money. Donald Trump would throw down over $20,000. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, too. Oprah, definitely. Because they all know that $20,000 is real money -- and the rich respect money as much as or more than the rest of us.

Twenty bucks is an even smaller percentage of my salary than $20,000 is of Portis'. I can blow $20 in a day on beef jerky and iTunes. But if my boss told me that I was expected to wear a tie every damn day or I'd be docked $20, rest assured I'd wear a tie every damn day. To quote Jay Mohr, of all people: "You work for a corporation, the corporation wants you to dress a certain way, you dress a certain way." Again, it's not about suppressing players' individuality; it's about the league wanting its teams to present a uniform appearance. And why's that so important? Because as Jerry Seinfeld (what is it with the comedians today?) observed: In the era of free agency, it's really the uniforms people are cheering for, not the players. Portis or others may not like that fans see the uniforms first, players second, but that's how the league gets the money to pay them enough that they can afford to drop $20,000 for the sake of striped, burgundy socks.

In the end, though, what's most troubling to me about seeing a player throw away more than many people make in a year just so he can wear the socks he chooses is that he's in danger of money troubles down the road, when the big NFL checks stop coming. I don't care that pro athletes make a lot of money. NFL players in particular go through hell to get it, and with catastrophic injury always a play away, they need to cash in while they can. The average player gets about three to four years. To waste $20,000 in one day on a stupid, needless fine is just poor money management.

Some might use my argument to illustrate why such fines shouldn't be imposed at all, but that's setting up the league's Lords of Discipline as straw men. Ridiculous or not, the fines are there; the rules are clear. A $20,000 uniform-code violation is a completely avoidable fine. This isn't a mistake or an oversight on Portis' part. This isn't an end-zone celebration getting out of hand or a frustrated Jake Plummer giving the crowd the finger. Portis planned ahead of time to put on his darling striped socks, and he knew he'd be fined because it's happened before. If this is how he chooses to spend money on the field, how wisely is he spending it off the field?

But it ain't my money, so I'm done worrying about it.

Week 10 picks

We've now got both feet in the second half of the season, and picks for Week 10 have been posted over at The Writers' Picks. Check out the stone cold badass(ssssssss) tied for sixth place out of 31 with an 86-44 record. The Mirl has added a new wrinkle this week, comparing our overall winning percentage with that of the Inside the NFL crew and the ESPN experts. As it turns out, those of us who get paid zilch to do this are outperforming the professionals. Now watch me drag us all down! It appears I've crawled out on a limb with two picks: Arizona on the road over Detroit and Philadelphia at home vs. Dallas. Last time this happened, I got my ass cheerfully handed to me. One thing interesting: For the second straight weekend, the members of the "NFL Guru" division have shied away from the consensus Best Bet. I obviously don't think Houston is going to beat Indianapolis -- and in the RCA Dome, too -- but a letdown game is certainly in the realm of possibility. I'm just more confident that the Giants will kick the crap out of the Vikings.

And now I've gone and doomed us all.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The sad case of the ego-invested fan

Worst. Manners. Ever.

What the hell is wrong with people?

If there is one universal guilty pleasure in online football commentary, it is the Power Ranking. Give a man a website, a sack of HTML and some team-logo GIFs and in no time he's ranking the NFL teams from 1 to 32. You can do it subjectively, like the indomitable Dr. Z, you can draw hypnotic diagrams, like the elegant Beatpaths model, or you can do what I do here at Down and Distance, which is come up with a silly formula, shroud it in pseudoscientific puffery, and then sit back and see what happens as the season grinds along.

But however you choose to do it, you try to keep your head connected to the rest of you and understand: a) your rankings aren't perfect; b) your rankings will never be perfect; and, most important, c) we're just having fun. Never forget, we are not curing cancer here. We are not finding Osama. We are not overthrowing Castro. We are putting football teams in some sort of numerical order.

Which is why I found this discussion both amusing and appalling. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders looks at the NFL in unconventional ways, breaking down every play to determine how players and teams compare with the league average in similar situations. The goal is to develop an objective (remember that word) formula that explains past performance and gives you some indication about the future. It's a great concept, one that is reaching a larger audience than ever thanks to a content-sharing arrangement between FO and FOXSports.com.

But when you throw the doors open wide, you never know just what's gonna come through.

One of the products of the new relationship is the weekly FOXSports.com Power Rankings. The rankings are based on FO's innovative metric DVOA, which charts the performance of a player or team compared with the league average. The teams atop the rankings are way above average; the teams at the bottom, way below average. The stats FO uses take some getting used to (I'm still trying), and many readers have trouble understanding their purpose. But in the main, people either get them or they don't. People either decide that this is something they want to read, or they move on to something else. Then there are those who ... how do I explain it? Let's try this: Years ago, when I worked at the newspaper in Des Moines, one of the local crazies would call the city desk from time to time to complain that the anchors on Channel 13 were mocking him. Not people like him. Him, specifically. Right through the TV screen. His name was Al.

Al appears to have some kindred spirits reading the FOXSports.com Power Rankings.

It started earlier in the season when the Denver Broncos fell five places despite winning a game. Now, if I were a diehard Broncos fan, I suppose I would think that was dumb. And many Broncos fans wandered over to FO to say so, some of them quite colorfully. Denver eventually floated back up, and the Bronco Brigades mostly shut up and sat down. Tampa Bay fans also had a beef, prompting what remains the year's best FO flame:
And THEIR it is: "You are not giving any props to the Bucs and there fans." One sentence that lays bare (BEAR?) the thought process of that certain segment of the readership that believes power rankings exist not to stimulate discussion, not to objectively explore which team is the best, not to just have a little friggin' fun. The purpose of the power rankings, it seems, is to validate the football fan's belief in his team -- and, therefore, in himself.

This line of thinking took over the Week 10 DVOA ratings thread, as a handful of Atlanta Falcons fans arrived to protest their 6-2 team's ranking: 17th out of 32. Hey, nothing wrong with protest. It expanded civil rights, toppled communism, ended apartheid and killed New Coke. But there's more than one way to file a protest. You can do it like this:
"(I wonder) if perhaps DVOA has a tough time evaluating the Falcons because their offensive system is a bit of an abnormality among modern offenses. Therefore a tool designed to be effective for a normal offense gets funky results for one that seemingly lives by different rules ..."
Which, basically, makes the case that Michael Vick's unique skill set may confound the DVOA system, producing a flawed ranking that underestimates the Falcons. Pretty reasonable argument, I'd say, one that at least bears consideration, and even if it turns out not to be the case, it shows that someone out there is using the space between his ears for something other than storage. You can also raise your question like this:
This just proves that geeks should stick with band. Because they don’t know %^%^ about football.
Which doesn't state the case quite as elegantly, though it raises larger metaphysical questions of who's the bigger geek: the guy who applies mathematical formulas to football, or the guy who goes online and picks a fight with mathematical formulas.

What we see in this discussion is the difference between emotion and ego as it relates to fan involvement. There's nothing wrong with getting emotional about sports. Emotion drives the sports economy in this country and around the world. (Just ask my wife how I turn into a basket case when the Minnesota Twins make the postseason.) As fans, we paint our faces, put on replica jerseys and go to games. When our teams win it makes us happy, and when our teams lose it bums us out. But there's a huge difference between allowing your favorite team to influence how you feel and allowing that team to define who you are.

Once a fan's ego becomes invested in his team, the games stop being fun, and he stops being fun, too. He can't bear criticism of the team, actual or implied. If his team is ranked No. 17 on some Internet rating system, or isn't picked to win a particular game, or is forecast to lose in the first round of the playoffs, it isn't just disappointing, it's a personal affront.

If I were to say, for example, that I think the Texans will beat the Colts this weekend, I would expect an Indianapolis fan to shake his head and say, "You're crazy." And that's OK, because that's the response of a rational fan: He figures that I don't know any better -- that if I can't see that the Colts are going to steamroll the Texans, I must some kind of dummy. Presuming someone is stupid may be foolish, shortsighted and self-defeating, but it is a rational response. However, there will always be a segment of fans who presume that I know exactly what I'm talking about. They'll believe that the reason I'm picking the Texans to win is because I'm trying to insult them. Not the Colts, mind you. Their fans.

It would be pointless for me to try to explain to a fan like this why I picked the Texans, just as it's pointless to try to explain to a crazed Falcons fan on FO why the rating system put them 17th. In either case, he's incapable of evaluating the system because he can't see beyond the fact that it isn't paying the proper respect ("NOT GIVING ANY PROPS") to his team. Or, as he refers to his team, "us." He speaks in the first person because he has aligned his self-image so closely with the team that he sees himself as a member. And I don't mean "member" in some gauzy, 12th-man, we're-all-in-the-same-gang sense. I mean it in a dude-has-a-jersey-with-his-own-name-on-the-back sense.

As the Falcons discussion swept through FO like a big wheel through a cotton field, other readers would hop in to try to explain aspects of the system, cross-examine the Atlanta fans' assumptions or just try to talk them down from the water tower, all to no avail. The arguments shifted, changed, even doubled back on themselves. First, the problem with the rankings was that they didn't take into account won-lost record, "the only statistic that matters." Then the rankings were flawed because they didn't take into account something else: the fact that the Falcons' losses were both narrow, by 3 points. Then the Falcon Faithful pointed out that the Lombardi Trophy is given out based on wins, not DVOA. To which someone said: If that were the case, Pittsburgh would have been the NFL champ last year. At which point, suddenly the problem wasn't the rankings at all, just the way they were explained. "Dont make up lies about the Falcons to justify it," read one post. As the thread stretched into the hundreds of messages, it became a primer on when a fan has gone from having his emotions to his ego involved:
  • He sees conspiracy and coverup. The fact that Atlanta comes in 17th isn't merely evidence of a flawed system. It is the intent of that system. The rankings were specifically designed to screw the Atlanta fan. Further, when the creators were called out, they lied to hide what they'd done.
  • He speaks in absolutes, but discards them as needed. Wins are the "only" stat that matters, unless your losses were close, in which case the margin of defeat is important -- but not a narrow Atlanta margin of victory.
  • He makes one-way excuses. We can talk about Atlanta almost beating New England despite having its backup QB in the game, but we're not allowed to speak about the Patriots' injuries that helped keep the game close. Also, it's not fair to downgrade Atlanta because they beat a crummy Miami team by only a touchdown; if the Falcons hadn't made so many mistakes, they'd have blown them out!
  • He can't even find solace in cliche. This is America: We love the underdog. We love David. Why this insistence on being hailed as Goliath? How many times have we heard broadcasters say that an athlete or team plays better than their stats? DVOA or any other stat-based system allows a fan -- hell, invites him -- to make such a case. He's encouraged to dig up all the sportswriter chestnuts and roast them over the fire: "heart," "intangibles" and my favorite, "clutch performance" (while invoking the patron saint of clutch, St. Adam of Vinatieri). Yet he just can't do it. It's more important that he be validated.
Is Atlanta only the 17th-best team in the NFL? Subjectively, I'd probably rank them a little higher. My silly-but-objective POW-R-'ANKINGS have them as the No. 8 team after Week 9. That seems pretty good for now. But the point is, I understand why DVOA has them where they are, and I respect the reasons for it. Those reasons aren't "wrong." The formula isn't biased. The numbers are the numbers, and that's all they are.

But the rabid fan, the one who sees a low ranking as a blow to his manhood, he'll never be convinced. In one of the posts linked to above, a fan dismisses all attempts to explain the system and concludes, in an ironic and frankly sad act of projection, "Your egos are huge."

Hey, if Aaron Schatz has some of his ego tied up in his mathematical formulas, it's understandable. Those formulas put food on his family's table and shoes on his child's feet. Better to wrap your ego in your own accomplishments than in the accomplishments of 53 strangers you pay to watch.