Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Week 8: The sins of Spurrier, repaid

This makes me feel a little better: 11-2 in this week's picks. Things are really tightening up, as there are nine of us within three wins of the lead. Neato.


Indianapolis 31, Carolina 7
The Colts start slow again and pull away late. Sure, it works against the NFC South, whose teams start slow and finish slow. For the Patriots, however, "starting slow" means scoring a field goal on the opening drive before reeling off three unanswered touchdowns by the time the first quarter is out. Thirty-one points ain't going to cut it.

Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 13
Wasn't it cool how Steelers-Bengals games briefly meant something again, because both teams were good at the same time for the first time since, like, the early '80s? Good times.

N.Y. Giants 13, Miami 10
When the commissioner dreamed up the idea of sending two NFL teams to play a real game in London, I don't suppose he envisioned jet-lagged players slopping their way to a 13-10 finish, in the rain, on a soccer pitch that was coming apart less than five minutes into the game. Neat robot, though.

San Diego 35, Houston 10
Last week, Texans backup QB Sage Rosenfels came in for the injured Matt Schaub and brought Houston back from a four-touchdown deficit to take the lead. This week, Texans backup QB Sage Rosenfels came in for the injured Matt Schaub and brought Houston back from a five-touchdown deficit to ... a four-touchdown deficit. And on the last weekend of October -- what a perfect time to turn back into a pumpkin!

New England 52, Washington 7
Signs of excessive violence, literally overkill, on the body of a murder victim indicate that the killing was highly personal -- that is, not a random or cold-blooded act. This may help us explain what happened to the Washington Redskins on Sunday. I hope to God it does, because if this sort of carnage were inflicted cavalierly, it would suggest that there's a madman on the loose. At this point, it's becoming scary what the Patriots are capable of. Washington had a top-10 defense, and New England just kept stabbing it, pushing the knife in all the way to the handle, twisting it, ripping out little chunks of soul. What explains it? Well, remember how before the game we heard about how Tom Brady had beaten every team in the NFL except the Redskins? He's only played them once before, in 2003, and the result was a 20-17 loss in which Brady threw three interceptions. The Patriots wouldn't lose another game for a full calendar year, but for that year, they heard over and over that the last coach to beat the Patriots was Steve Spurrier. That's the kind of humiliation that drives you not only to kill a man, but to rape his ear canals beforehand and take a hammer to his body afterward with such ferocity as to leave no piece larger than a deck of cards. If you prefer, here's a stat: The Patriots have outscored their opponents by 204 points. Only two other teams in the league have scored more than 204 points total, and just barely (Dallas with 227 and Indy with 224).

New Orleans 31, San Francisco 10
After three straight wins, it's tempting to say the Saints are back to their 2006 form. I prefer to think they're back to their 2000-2004 form: beating bad teams, losing to good teams, and splitting the difference with the teams in the middle.

Green Bay 19, Denver 13 (OT)
I'll take it, but let's just say that Green Bay can't count on another team fumbling a snap on the 1-foot line (other teams' unforced errors are non-predictable), while it probably can count on its own players taking more stupid penalties at the 1-foot line (lack of discipline is predictable).

Philadelphia 23, Minnesota 16
Cleveland 27, St. Louis 20
Tennessee 13, Oakland 9
Buffalo 13, N.Y. Jets 3


Jacksonville 24, Tampa Bay 23
This close to giving up on the Buccaneers.

Detroit 16, Chicago 7
A quarterback wins two games in three weeks by leading his team on game-winning drives in the final minutes. Then he goes out and throws three interceptions in the end zone, costing his team the game. If you're Brett Favre, a 17-year veteran with a history of winning games with guile, they call that "the risks you have to accept when you have a gunslinger out there." If you're Tony Romo, a relative newcomer with a history of winning games with guile, they call that "evidence of the confidence that could make this kid great with a little more experience." If you're Brian Griese, a 10-year veteran with a history of losing his job to assorted flavors of the month, they call that regression to the mean. Actually, that's what they call it for any Chicago quarterback. Somewhere, Rex Grossman is laughing. Oh, wait, he's right there behind Griese. And Kyle Orton's next to him, also laughing.

SEASON: 76-40 (65.5%)
(2006 through Week 8: 70-44, 61.4%)
(2005 through Week 8: 74-42, 63.8%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK8 = This week's ranking. WK7 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
11 Patriots 100.001714Panthers 40.93
23 Colts 91.35185 Redskins 40.89
32 Steelers 86.971920Chiefs 39.65
44 Cowboys 67.652021Raiders 38.27
56 Packers 63.602124Lions 37.86
611Chargers 63.232217Texans 36.47
77 Seahawks 60.252322Bengals 35.21
88 Giants 59.742427Saints 33.46
910Titans 58.852523Bears 32.03
109 Jaguars 56.452629Bills 25.96
1112Eagles 56.312726Dolphins 22.74
1213Bucs 51.492825Jets 22.55
1315Ravens 48.362928Broncos 20.11
1416Vikings 43.143030Falcons 17.44
1519Browns 43.11313149ers 8.54
1618Cardinals 41.873232Rams 0.00
Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Bengals, Texans, Raiders, Bears, Vikings, 49ers. Teams previously eliminated: Dolphins, Rams, Jets, Falcons.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Speaking of college football ...

Dissertation title: "Tyrone Willingham vs. Charlie Weis: A Study in the Social Dynamics of Coaching the Notre Dame Fighting Irish"

By PCS, Ph.D. candidate

Down and Distance Kollege of Football Knowledge

Willingham: 2002-2004
Weis: 2005-present

Willingham: 10-3 with players recruited by someone else.
Weis: 9-3 with players recruited by someone else.

Willingham: Pat on the back.
Weis: Contract extension.

Willingham: 5-7, no bowl berth.
Weis: 10-3, bowl berth.

Willingham: 6-5, bowl berth.
Weis: 1-7, no bowl berth.

Willingham: Willingham.
Weis: Willingham.

Willingham: 20-13.
Weis: 20-13.

Willingham: Fired, despite three years left on contract. First Notre Dame coach ever fired with time remaining on his contract.
Weis: We can't fire him! He's got seven years left on his contract!


Nebraska as leading indicator

Let's talk about college football for a second. The story of the year has been upsets. Top-10 teams are falling left and right, and not just to each other. Southern Cal lost to Stanford, LSU to Kentucky, Michigan to Appalachian State and everyody else. South Florida, an enormous commuter school that didn't even have a football program until a decade ago, arrived in the top 5 with much gnashing of teeth by the purists, but the Bulls didn't even have time to take a dump before losing to Rutgers.

Meanwhile, out here on the Plains, the story of the year has been the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the way their slow decline has accelerated into free-fall. In the wake of a blowout loss to Texas Tech, the university fired the athletic director (what, is the AD calling plays in Lincoln now?), and it's only a matter of time before coach Bill Callahan gets his walking papers. Former coach Tom Osborne is back as interim AD, and it's his job to make everythig right again.

Yeah, good luck with that.

The Cornhuskers aren't coming back -- not in the way Nebraskans are accustomed to, in which they contend for the national title every single year. Those days are over, just as they are for the likes of Florida State, Penn State, Notre Dame and all the other big-conference football factories that monopolized talent and exposure for decades. A team may still get on a good run for several years -- witness Ohio State and Southern Cal of late -- but it will eventually get reeled back to the pack. Why? One word: Television.

Time was, the NCAA had monopoly control over all college football on television. The NCAA decided which schools played on TV and which didn't, and what schools played on what networks. It made sure that the Big Ten and Pac-10 played on ABC, that the SEC played on CBS, that Texas, Notre Dame and the "Big 8" got a game here and there, and that everybody else -- if they were lucky -- played on local TV or on those sad little regional "networks" like Raycom and Jefferson Pilot. Why would the NCAA do something like that? Because it was controlled by the power conferences. Duh.

Eventually, in 1984, the Supreme Court called bullshit on the whole setup (thanks to a lawsuit filed by the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia), and schools and conferences were freed to negotiate their own television contracts. (The power conferences immediately tried to stuff the genie back into the bottle by banding together in the "College Football Association," but that effort fell apart after Notre Dame bolted to sign an exclusive deal with NBC.)

Before the court swept away NCAA control of TV, only power schools in power conferences got to appear on television, and that gave those schools an immense and entrenched recruiting advantage. If a high school kid got scholarship offers from both Ohio State and Kent State, there was no doubt where he'd go: Ohio State, because he'd seen them play on TV. Kent State, if he'd heard about it at all, was just that place where those soldiers shot those hippies. It's all different now. Smaller schools from the Mid-American Conference, Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Big East are on the ESPN networks every week -- every night for some stretches of the year. More kids see more schools, and are therefore willing to consider playing for more schools.

The changes in the TV system didn't reshape the college football landscape overnight, obviously. What we have today is the result of cascading effects in the two decades since the court ruling. When more schools got on television, it didn't just increase exposure for the teams; it increased exposure for the players on those teams. In 1970, if the quarterback at Miami of Ohio put up impressive numbers, he'd be a big star on campus, and maybe some NFL team would take a flier on him with an eighth-round pick in the draft. Nowadays, he's a first-round pick. With that in mind, high school players today ask themselves: Do I want to go to a huge football factory, where I'll ride the bench for at least two years, probably three, before getting a chance to compete for a starting job? Or do I want to go to a smaller school, where I'll have a chance to win the job as a sophomore -- maybe even a freshman? Coupled with restrictions on scholarships, this equality of exposure has all but killed the ability of the power schools to stockpile players. Kids today want to play more than they want to play for Nebraska or Florida or Georgia Tech or whoever. The power conferences are trying their best to unring that bell -- witness the rigged BCS system -- but they'll fail.

So that's the handwriting on the wall for Nebraska fans. Osborne could come down from the AD's suite and coach the team himself -- and coaches do retain a certain amount of recruiting pull -- but he can't turn back time. In his day, he had starting-quality players three deep on the roster. Today it's just starters and scrubs, because the kinds of kids he used to stash away as backups are now starting for East Carolina or Connecticut or Nevada on Thursday night on ESPN2.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Week 7: Heard about this Manning guy?

For a minute there, I thought I'd feel good about myself for going 9-5 in this week's picks. Then I looked more closely and determined that with the exception of one person, everybody went 9-5 or better ... and 11 out of 17 did better. I'd have done better, too, if I could figure out why I picked the Raiders. I meant to pick the Chiefs. Really.


Indianapolis 29, Jacksonville 7
One nice thing about the Colts winning the Super Bowl last year was that it took the remaining air out of the long-running Manning-vs.-Brady debate. At this point, all but the most pathetically ego-invested fans are willing to acknowledge that both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can win the Super Bowl, and that both guys can put up phenomenal regular season numbers. That means we can finally move on to something else, right? Not just yet, it seems, because Tony Kornheiser has a whole sheaf of Manning-vs.-Brady monologues prepared, and he's not going to let them go to waste. Which is why, early in Monday night's Colts-Jaguars game, Kornheiser advanced the absolutely preposterous assertion that Peyton Manning was going to use this nationally televised occasion to say, "Here I am." Because if there's one guy in the NFL who's got something to prove -- who at this point really needs a "statement game" to be taken seriously as an elite player -- it's Peyton Manning. Among the other dead horses severely beaten by Kornheiser this week: The Colts lost a lot of players in free agency; "everybody" is talking about the Pats but "no one" is talking about the Colts; Jack Del Rio not only benched Byron Leftwich but cut him. Next week: That passer rating stat sure is hard to understand! Bonus dumbass know-it-all comment of the week: Mike Tirico asserting that the Colts made it to the AFC Championship Game in 2005, when in fact they lost to the Steelers in the divisional round.

Dallas 24, Minnesota 14
I hope other viewers were as horrified as I was by the play in the second quarter in which Tony Romo fumbled on a sack, and Minnesota's Kevin Williams returned the ball 84 yards for an apparent touchdown (though it was called back on a penalty). Once he reached the end zone, Williams dropped to one knee and removed his helmet. Ordinarily, taking off your lid after scoring is grounds for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. But Williams wasn't mugging for the cameras. He was overheated and suffering respiratory distress. A Vikings assistant came onto the field and began pouring warer over Williams' head. The player was eventually helped to the sidelines, where he received supplementary oxygen, and then was taken to the locker room before halftime, presumably to get an IV. Keep in mind that Williams is a professional athlete. It doesn't matter that as a defensive tackle, his job description doesn't include breaking 80-yard runs. It doesn't matter that the temperature was in the 80s. The man is a professional athlete. If his conditioning is such that an 80-yard run nearly kills him -- literally -- then the Vikings should be very, very concerned. It's not like they aren't aware of the danger.

N.Y. Giants 33, San Francisco 15
In this game, we saw Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora strip the ball from Trent Dilfer, recover the fumble, and run 75 yards downfield at top speed for the touchdown. Yes, Umenyiora is listed as 50 pounds lighter than Kevin Williams. And yes, the play came on the first series after the halftime break rather than at the end of the first half. And yes, Umenyiora is primarily a pass-rusher while Williams is a run-stuffer. But still it should be noted that Umenyiora sprinted the whole way and didn't need medical attention afterward.

Tennessee 38, Houston 36
New England 49, Miami 28
Washington 21, Arizona 19

The fourth quarter of Sunday's Titans-Texans game should be required viewing for all sportsmanship fundamentalists, as it illustrated once again Down and Distance's long-held contention that in the NFL, there is no such thing as running up the score. Tennessee led 32-7 going into the fourth quarter. According to Gregg Easterbrook and his ilk, the Titans should have pulled their starters at that point, put in their reserves and coasted. Fine -- but only if the team on the short end of the score agrees to quit trying, too. Houston didn't quit, however, and Sage Rosenfels, the big-hearted Iowa State alumnus and official favorite QB of Mrs. Down and Distance, led touchdown drives of 70, 98, 75 and 66 yards to give the Texans the lead. The Titans were able to get their act together in the final two minutes to win on Rob Bironas's record-setting eighth field goal, but the episode demonstrates the folly of ever assuming that an NFL game has been won before the final gun. (Bironas's eighth FG, by the way, broke the record of seven shared by five kickers, most recently Billy Cundiff, the only Drake University graduate in the NFL.) With the Titans-Texans game in mind, perhaps we shouldn't be too hasty to condemn the New England Patriots for putting Tom Brady back into the game after they saw their lead over Miami trimmed from 42-7 to 42-21 in less than a minute, thanks to an interception thrown by backup Matt Cassel that was returned for a touchdown. I mean, someone has to remember that game in 2004, when the unstoppable Pats took their foot off the throat of the crummy Dolphins and wound up losing an 11-point lead in the last four minutes. Right? Bill Belichick remembers it. Joe Gibbs apparently does not, because the Redskins packed up their offense after the third quarter and decided that the surest course to victory was to try to nurse a 21-13 lead for 15 minutes against a Cardinals offense with big-play capability, albeit one with a one-armed quarterback. They succeeded only because Arizona ran a stupid, no-hope gadget play on a two-point conversion that could have tied it, then Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers pushed the potential game-winning field goal wide. These three games make it crystal clear that once you shut down the afterburners, it's not always easy to get them fired up again. Tom Brady usually can do it. Kerry Collins usually can not. (One other thing that the Titans-Texans and Redskins-Cardinals games had in common was that each game featured a successful onside kick by the comeback team in the final two minutes. In the Tennessee-Houston game, the Texans recovered their kickoff after the requisite 10 yards, but they were flagged for being offsides and for an illegal formation, so they were pushed back 5 yards and had to rekick. Can someone explain to me why that second kick also had to go only 10 yards before the Texans could recover? Why not 15? In every other situation in football, when you are penalized a certain number of yards, you have to make up those yards in order to keep the ball.

Seattle 33, St. Louis 6
It isn't even funny any more. The Rams have scored more than 16 points only once in seven games, and have been held to touchdown or less four times. This is the last time I will say this: The St. Louis offense is not "explosive."

Cincinnati 38, N.Y. Jets 31
Big whoop.

New Orleans 22, Atlanta 16
There's some great irony, or poetic justice, or something in here somewhere, but you have to kind of dig it out. Byron Leftwich gets cut by Jacksonville after coach Jack Del Rio gets fed up with his constant ankle injuries. He comes to Atlanta, where Joey Harrington is (as usual) being blamed as much for things that aren't his fault as for things that are. Bobby Petrino eventually benches Harrington and names Leftwich his starter. And Leftwich promptly injures his ankle. Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, Leftwich's replacement, David Garrard, injures his ankle. The Falcons and Jaguars both lose.


Chicago 19, Philadelphia 16
The fact that these two teams looked so awful for so much of Sunday's game speaks volumes about the NFC. The Eagles and Bears are a combined 5-8, and yet it's not at all preposterous to say it's possible that they could meet in the NFL Championship Game. I'm sure Bears fans, at least, are ready to punch their tickets. Random thought: If teams refuse to punt the ball to Bears return man Devin Hester, if they're willing to give up 20, 30, 40 yards of field position on punts rather than run the risk of Hester taking the kick all the way back for six, why don't teams just punt it through the end zone every chance they get? Or, better yet, why don't they just go for it on fourth down every time they're beyond their own 40 yard line? It's not like the Bears defense is scaring the crap out of anyone this season. You run a play on fourth-and-5 ten times, you'll probably convert half the time. Even if you fail and turn the ball over, it's just the Bears offense. What are they going to do?

Kansas City 12, Oakland 10
You could look at the fact that the Chiefs are now leading the AFC West and make a joke about signs of the apocalypse, except that there are actual signs of the apocalypse in San Diego, and it's not so funny.

Denver 31, Pittsburgh 28
This, just when I started obnoxiously referring to the Steelers as my sleeper team for 2007.

Detroit 23, Tampa Bay 16
Buffalo 19, Baltimore 14
Sometimes all you can do is shrug your shoulders and conclude that the Buccaneers might not be as good as they looked last month and that the Ravens are definitely not as good as they looked last year.

SEASON: 65-38 (63.1%)
(2006 through Week 7: 64-36, 64.0%)
(2005 through Week 7: 64-38, 62.7%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK7 = This week's ranking. WK6 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
12 Patriots100.001717Texans 49.35
21 Steelers 93.381818Cardinals47.10
33 Colts 92.861919Browns 45.53
46 Cowboys 73.112021Chiefs 44.86
55 Redskins 70.992120Raiders 44.68
67 Packers 68.372222Bengals 43.10
716Seahawks 65.652323Bears 39.76
812Giants 65.002424Lions 38.91
94 Jaguars 63.782526Jets 30.20
108 Titans 63.402625Dolphins 27.37
1111Chargers 59.762729Saints 26.41
1210Eagles 59.612830Broncos 24.79
139 Bucs 58.472931Bills 23.88
1414Panthers 57.973028Falcons 22.45
1515Ravens 53.66312749ers 18.32
1613Vikings 51.673232Rams 0.00

Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): None. Teams previously eliminated: Dolphins, Rams, Jets, Falcons.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cause and effect

A couple days ago, during Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, Fox color man Tim McCarver fell into a sports-commentary fallacy that's been annoying me for some time. McCarver was discussing the bottom of the fifth inning, in which the Indians scored seven runs. The 7-0 lead they built was more than enough to withstand the back-to-back-to-back home runs that the Red Sox would hit in the top of the sixth. The bottom of the fifth went down like this:
  • Casey Blake homers. CLE 1, BOS 0. Outs: 0.
  • Franklin Gutierrez singles.
  • Kelly Shoppach is hit by a pitch; Gutierrez advances to second
  • Grady Sizemore hits into a fielder's choice. Shoppach is out at second. Gutierrez advances to third. Sizemore is safe at first. CLE 1, BOS 0. Outs: 1.
  • With runners at the corners, Asdrubal Cabrera hits a shot up the middle. Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield knocks the ball down with his glove but can't catch it. Had Wakefield caught it, or let it gone through to the second baseman, there would have been an easy double play, and the inning would have been over. Instead, Cabrera legs it out for an infield single. Sizemore advances to second, and Gutierrez scores.CLE 2, BOS 0. Outs: 1.
  • Travis Hafner strikes out. CLE 2, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Victor Martinez singles. Sizemore scores, Cabrera advances to second. CLE 3, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Jhonny Peralta hits a three-run home run. CLE 6, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Kenny Lofton singles, then steals second.
  • Blake singles. Lofton scores. CLE 7, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Gutierrez walks. Blake goes to second.
  • Shoppach strikes out. CLE 7, BOS 0. Outs: 3.

Later, after the Sox scored three runs in the sixth, McCarver looked back on the ball that Cabrera hit. If Wakefield doesn't knock the ball down, he said, Cleveland would have been out of the inning with only one run instead of seven, and the Red Sox would have ended up leading 3-1.

Or maybe not. While the Indians were putting together that seven-run inning -- which also included a time-consuming pitching change by Boston -- Cleveland starting pitcher Paul Byrd had to sit in the dugout for more than a half-hour, his arm getting cold and his rhythm deteriorating. When Byrd finally came out in the top of the sixth, he didn't have any of the stuff that had blanked the Sox for five innings, and he served up home runs to Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz. He was pulled for reliever Jensen Lewis, who then gave up the third home run to Manny Ramirez (who, after he hit the ball, threw up his arms in triumph, having ... pulled his team to ... within four; quite the cause for celebration).

Had the Indians' fifth inning ended on Cabrera's at-bat, Byrd's arm never would have grown cold. Further, if he'd been working with only a 1-0 lead rather than a seven-run cushion, he would have approached Youkilis and Ortiz entirely differently, less reluctant to challenge them with heat right over the plate and more willing to nibble at the edges. Boston may have never hit those home runs. And as the game progressed, the Indians would have played entirely differently -- focusing on grinding out insurance runs rather than eating up outs.

I don't want to pick on McCarver -- am I the only one who doesn't mind him? -- because all announcers do this: They assume that the game flows in an entirely linear fashion, that events in the ninth inning or fourth quarter are somehow independent of events in the first inning or first quarter. How many times have you been watching a football game, and it's tied at the two-minute warning, and one team is trying to score, and the announcer (think Dan Dierdorf) says, "How BIG is that missed field goal in the second quarter NOW?" Sure, it's big. Missed scoring chances always are. But there is absolutely no way of knowing how the game would have unfolded had the field goal been successful. So much of sports -- particularly football -- is situational. Play-calling, defensve schemes, clock management -- they're all heavily influenced by the score.

It's funny, because announcers love to bag on coaches when they go for a two-point conversion too early in the game. "You never know what's going to happen between now and the end of the fourth quarter," they say, and they're usually right. And yet those same announcers will look back at the end of a game and assume that the previous 30 minutes of clock time would have played out precisely the same regardless of the score. In other words, they assume that effect is entirely independent of cause.

Announcers, of course, aren't the only ones to fall into this trap. Fans do it all the time, as do franchises. Show me a football team that hangs goat horns on its kicker for missing one field goal, and I'll show you a team that's going nowhere. Because good teams have the mindset that if everyone was doing his job, the game wouldn't have been close enough that the entire thing was riding on one guy's foot -- whether the kick came in the first tem minutes or the last two. (Now, if the guy misses kick after kick ... then, yeah, get rid of him. Remember how the Colts got rid of Mike Vanderjagt? It wasn't because he missed the tying field goal against the Steelers in the playoffs. It's because they had lost faith in him to perform in the clutch, and that lack of faith affected the way the team played the entire game. So the Colts went out and got Adam Vinatieri. He's not perfect -- he has missed three field goals in Super Bowls -- but he instills enough faith in his teammates that they can play their game without worrying about him letting them down.)

Sports fans can be disappointed when their teams fail early, late or somewhere in the middle. But if the game is tied in the fourth quarter, then that's when they'll lose it, not in the first.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Week 6: I'm out of popcorn

At 8-5 in the picks, we had a so-so week. I just wish there had been some hype leading up to the weekend's games.

Cleveland 41, Miami 31
Another stellar game for Derek Anderson against another awful team. You can see it coming: At some point the Browns are going to have to commit to either Anderson or Brady Quinn. As soon as they do, the QB they don't choose will become a "distraction," his name chanted by the fans whenever Cleveland falls behind by more than a touchdown. Eventually the team trades him away for a draft pick (if it's Quinn, a second-rounder; if Anderson, a third). As soon as he's gone, the QB who remains goes down with a knee injury. Or just starts sucking.

N.Y. Giants 31, Atlanta 10
Remember our standing feature "The 5 Dumbest Things Peter King Said This Week"? It might make sense to resurrect it as The 5 Dumbest Things Tony Kornheiser Said This Week. Kornheiser has now crossed over from merely annoying to utterly aggravating, and it seems Ron Jaworski is as fed up as I. On at least two occasions during Monday night's game, Jaworski interrupted a Kornheiser dissertation to tell him to shut his fool ass up. The first came early in the game, after Eli Manning had put together two fairly decent drives. Kornheiser began unspooling a (clearly rehearsed) monologue in which he asked whether this would be the game that will prove that Manning is worthy of sharing his brother's last name. Shut the fuck up, Tony. He's playing the Falcons. There's nothing to prove when you play the 2007 Falcons. Then, later, Kornheiser began throwing dirt on Bobby Petrino's tenure as Atlanta's coach. Jaworski, incredulous, tried to point out that it's only the sixth week of the season, and that the one player around whom the entire Falcons franchise was built is unavailable because he's going to prison, so it's way, way too early to declare Petrino either a success or a failure. Kornheiser was having none of it. Of course he wasn't. See, Kornheiser is a talking head. That means that when he asks a question like "Is Petrino finished?" he doesn't actually want to know the answer. The point is to throw open a controversy that can be discussed ad nauseam. Not only is the question more important than the answer; the answer is absolutely meaningless. Poor Jaworski. All he knows is the correct answer.

New England 48, Dallas 27
Remember back in 2004, when Peyton Manning was pursuing Dan Marino's touchdown passes record, and every time he threw a short TD -- like, 1 to 5 yards -- he was accused by Tom Brady partisans of just padding his stats? Well, Brady had a 1-yard TD pass Sunday. Just sayin'. After the game, Terrell Owens declared that the Patriots are not, in fact, the best team in the NFL. The Steelers and Colts are pleased that T.O. has their back.

Green Bay 17, Washington 14
Tampa Bay 13, Tennessee 10
Jacksonville 37, Houston 17
Baltimore 22, St. Louis 3
San Diego 28, Oakland 14

Minnesota 34, Chicago 31
Here's what I'm so tired of hearing: "When will teams learn that they should never kick to Devin Hester?" Hell, if the rest of the Bears keep playing like this, there's really no harm in letting Hester score a TD or two. What was funny about this game was that just six days after the Bears came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Packers, about half the crowd at Soldier Field just gave up and left when the Bears were down by 14 to the Vikings with four minutes left. Front-runners. Sure enough, the Bears came back to tie, greatly assisted by a Vikings secondary that must have thought they saw a naked lady in the Bears backfield, because they were standing around staring as Hester blew right past them for the tying touchdown.

Kansas City 27, Cincinnati 20
It's been a few years, but these are the Cincinnati Bengals we all remember. It's interesting how, when a team isn't winning anymore, wide receivers' colorful antics suddenly aren't do funny anymore.

Philadelphia 16, N.Y. Jets 9
I don't know. I just had a gut feeling.

New Orleans 28, Seattle 17
The lesson we should take from this is not that the Saints are "back" to their 2006 form, but that the Seahawks are "back" to their form from just about every year except 2005 (and maybe that year, too). Still, this is the NFC we're talking about, so whose to say these two might not see each other again in January?

Carolina 25, Arizona 10
Sure enough: Kurt Warner had the Cardinals' starting job less than seven minutes before suffering one of his patented hand/wrist/arm injuries that might not end his season but will probably end his team's. I hate to say I told you so. Arizona should have signed Vinny Testaverde. I hear he was available.

SEASON: 56-33 (62.9%)
(2006 through Week 6: 58-29, 66.2%)
(2005 through Week 6: 56-32, 63.6%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK6 = This week's ranking. WK5 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
1 1Steelers100.001711Texans 42.52
2 2Patriots 94.531814Cardinals40.26
3 3Colts 79.511920Browns 38.43
4 6Jaguars 75.282016Raiders 38.02
5 5Redskins 66.102122Chiefs 35.87
6 4Cowboys 63.952221Bengals 31.26
7 8Packers 60.462323Bears 30.11
8 7Titans 59.512424Lions 27.32
9 9Bucs 56.582527Dolphins 23.24
1012Eagles 55.542625Jets 21.47
1115Chargers 52.16272849ers 15.89
1217Giants 52.052826Falcons 14.56
1313Vikings 50.652932Saints 12.49
1418Panthers 50.443029Broncos 9.65
1519Ravens 49.473130Bills 9.59
1610Seahawks 44.993231Rams 0.00

Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Jets. Teams previously eliminated: Dolphins, Rams.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Monday night mea culpa

Down and Distance has made no secret of it's disdain for Joe Theismann, the quarterback-turned-analyst who spent close to two decades making NFL games all but unwatchable on Sunday nights and, for one season, Monday nights. I stand by all that criticism and will continue to do so: Theismann was an average quarterback who parlayed his good fortune -- playing alongside John Riggins, behind a legendary offensive line, in an organization that won Super Bowls regardless of who was the quarterback -- into a reputation as a savvy football expert. But I fear now that my white-hot hatred for all things Joe-T blinded me to other problems with the ESPN version of Monday Night Football. Specifically, Tony Kornheiser.

Last season, I complained that Theismann was talking all over Kornheiser. Every time Tony opened his mouth, Joe jumped on him, dismissing his questions and observations out of hand, always with an I-played-this-game-and-you-didn't arrogance that made me want to hurt his family, bad, and make him watch. This season, however, Theismann has been replaced by Ron Jaworski, hands-down the most insightful and thoughtful game analyst working NFL broadcasts -- a guy whose authority in the booth stems not from simply having played the game, not even from having played in the Super Bowl, but rather from having spent years breaking down game tape and explaining what he sees to the lay audience on NFL Matchup. I thought having him as part of the Monday Night Football crew would elevate the level of discussion significantly.

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened, and the MNF booth remains a place where one personality seeks to dominate another by belittling his contributions and patronizing him personally. The twist in 2007, however, is that the asshole is Kornheiser. Like a high school student who was harassed and bullied as a freshman, or a rookie who was hazed at training camp, Kornheiser is using his newfound seniority to make things tough for the newcomer, Jaworski. Jaws, of course, is a good-natured guy and certainly man enough to take some ribbing. That's not the problem. The problem is that we have to watch this pathetic display week after week.

I hesitate to say that the act has reached its nadir, considering we're only five weeks into the season, but it's safe to say it found a new low Monday night in Buffalo. From his moronic opening essay (Trent Edwards has the same first name as Trent Dilfer and Trent Green!) to his relentless carping on the one thing he knows about Buffalo (it's near Niagara Falls, and people go over Niagara Falls in barrels!), Kornheiser was more than annoying. He was utterly infuriating. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating when I say that more than once, I instructed the television: "Oh God, shut the fuck up!" Kornheiser on MNF is an embarrassment. He was supposedly brought in for his wit and his worldview, yet he isn't funny, and he isn't incisive.

Kornheiser absolutely obsesses over old news. During Mondays Cowboys-Bills game, he returned over and over to last season's wildcard playoff round, in which Tony Romo cost Dallas the game against Seattle by botching the hold on the go-ahead field goal. Sure, that was a big story -- in the offseason. But Romo's phenomenal performance in the first four games of the season made clear that the mistake doesn't haunt him and hasn't affected his confidence. If it doesn't affect him, it's just not a story anymore. And yet here we have Kornheiser, blah blah blah botched snap blah blah blah. Romo had an awful game Monday, turning the ball over six times, and seemingly every time he did, it was another chance for Kornheiser to bring up the screwup in Seattle. Let it go already. Similarly, Kornheiser couldn't let go of the Tony-Romo-is-like-Brett-Favre meme. This storyline got a boost in Week 4 against the Rams when Romo's scrambling turned what should have been a 30-yard loss on a fumble into a 4-yard gain. But by week's end the Romo-Favre story wasn't just tired -- it was exhausted. On NBC's Sunday night game between the Bears and Packers, Al Michaels recounted how Brian Urlacher had described Favre as an "old Tony Romo," clearly a reference to the inane chatter of the preceding week. That signaled as well as anything that there was nothing left to say on the subject, and yet Kornheiser said it anyway. Oh, and did you know that these teams played in the Super Bowl in the 1990s? Not once but twice! And Dallas won one of those games 52-17! That is a lot of points for a team to score!

When Kornheiser does this, he is adding nothing to the broadcast. All of us at home are aware of what happened in Seattle. We've all heard the comparisons to Favre. There is nothing Kornheiser is saying that we couldn't say ourselves -- that we haven't already said ourselves. So why do we need this clown to say it? He's wasting our time.

And the way he responds to Jaworski ... just nauseating. Jaworski is from the Buffalo area (born in Lackawanna) and was understandably excited to be there covering a game. He wasn't over-the-top -- not gushing or anything, and certainly not fawning over the Bills. He was just pumped up to be back home. But every time he said something positive about the team, the city, the ownership, whatever, there was Kornheiser, riding him like a little shit, teasing him about being in the bag for Buffalo. And God forbid that Jaworski, who is actually an effective speaker, should ever garble his words or get his names mixed up. Kornheiser, remember, used to be a writer, and he displays his wordsmithery every week with trite commentaries in the MNF introduction. So when Jaworski calls a guy "Jim" rather than "John," you can be dead sure that Tony is going to point it out -- not by simply correcting him, but by spinning the mistake into a big production: "What did you call him!?! MARSHA Lynch!?! Not 'Marshawn'!?! MARSHA? Is that like Marcia Brady!?! is he married to Tom Brady!?!" (The dialogue is hypothetical, but you get the gist. Also, he'd have pronounced "Tom" as tawm.)

While all of this is going on in the booth, we're seeing stuff happening on the field that we'd really like explained. You have a guy like Jaworski do the broadcast so he can explain to the viewers why something is remarkable (by definition: worthy of a remark). Everyone knows that a circus catch is a great catch; we need Jaworski to show us why a seemingly pedestrian catch is great, too. But he can't do that if Kornheiser is yammering about the Ringling Brothers and their circus. We need Jaworski to show us a quarterback's footwork and tell us how that footwork translates into the ball being on- or off-target 50 yards downfield. He can't do that if Kornheiser is dusting off his Arthur Murray jokes.

I had high hopes when they added Kornheiser to Monday Night Football in 2006. I loved his radio show when I lived in Washington, D.C. He was on local television there, too, and was great. And he's fantastic on Pardon the Interruption, where he plays the foil to the guy, Michael Wilbon, who really should be sitting in the MNF booth. But in all of those forums, he has great control over the subject matter. That means he can prepare his thoughts and arguments in advance, and they don't sound out of place. As part of a broadcast team, however, he has to react to the events on the field. His canned comments fall flat because they're almost always situationally inappropriate. And he's not getting better.

So I was right about Theismann but wrong about Kornheiser. Dump him. Dump Mike Tirico, too. Keep Jaworski. Lure Chris Meyers back from Fox, and you'd have a team that could be the next Michaels and Madden. Or just put Stuart Scott in the booth; at least then we'd know for sure that ESPN didn't give a shit about the viewers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

That's not old

I snapped this photo during last week's Giants-Eagles game, then promptly forgot about it:

Turns out that screw-ups by the research staff aren't limited to the preseason after all. Not only was Jeff Feagles not the oldest player in the NFL as of last week, he's more than five years younger than the actual oldest player, Falcons kicker Morten Anderson, who just turned 47.

Assuming Feagles was in fact the second-oldest NFL player last week, now he's the third-oldest, as the Carolina Panthers, hoping to prop up the wreckage of their season, found themselves a well-aged 2-by-4 in Vinny Testaverde, who turns 44 next month and will be the oldest non-specialist in the league.

Coach John Fox says Testaverde could end up starting at quarterback against the Cardinals this Sunday, as first-stringer Jake Delhomme is out for the season with an injury, second-stringer David Carr is ailing (and is David Carr), and third-stringer Matt Moore appears to have made the roster by winning a contest. Says Fox: “Both mentally and physically, he's a guy we were fortunate enough to find at this point in the season.”

Notice how "mentally" came first. No Alzheimer's. Yet.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Week 5: Redemption

Well, that's a little more like it. After last week's history-making plunge to that dark hole at the bottom of the toilet bowl, Down and Distance made a 180-degree turn and went 10-4 in this week's picks. Not great, of course, but better than even and much better than 7-7. Not that anyone went 7-7. And even after last week's disaster, we're still doing only four games worse than the best of them.


Dallas 25, Buffalo 24
How badly does your team have to suck to lose a game in which the opposing quarterback turned the ball over six times, in which the other team hand-delivered two touchdowns and graciously stepped aside and held the door open while you took care of a third one yourself?

Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 0
What did the Steelers show us in this game, ridiculously presented as a "rematch" of Super Bowl XL? They showed us that their early-season dominance (before the hiccup in Arizona) was not solely the effects of the ever-popular Cupcake Diet (Cleveland, Buffalo and San Francisco). I mean, Seattle is supposed to be good, right? Or, at least, "good enough" to win the NFC West year after year ... which might not be so good after all. Still, with all the Steelers starters who were injured, Pittsburgh showed us that they can still go out and kick more ass than a team of ass-kicking ass-kickers. What did the Seahawks show us? Nothing we wanted to see. Nothing at all.

Baltimore 9, San Francisco 7
A couple weeks back, I sputtered and stammered and couldn't come up with the words to describe how unattractive I found the matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Arizona Cardinals. Ravens-49ers was only marginally better looking forward, and even worse looking back. Would the 49ers have won had Alex Smith been playing rather than Trent Dilfer? Maybe, but probably not. By the way, I think I've nailed down the problem with Smith. It's not that he's an awful quarterback. He's getting better every year. It's that they're not getting anything close to value for what they're paying him. When the crummy Colts had to pay No. 1 draft pick money to Peyton Manning in 1998, they at least got a sure-fire superstar QB. When the crummy Bengals had to pay No. 1 draft pick money to Carson Palmer in 2003, they, too, at least got a sure-fire superstar QB. But when the crummy 49ers had to pay No. 1 draft pick money to Alex Smith, they got an average quarterback. A young Gus Frerotte.

New England 34, Cleveland 17
My wife has been pleading with me to mention something about "Deadbeat Dad Tom Brady." It all has to do with his relationship with baby-mama Bridget Moynahan and the "confusion" over whether their son was named Jonathan Brady or Jonathan Moynahan. Since I don't have anything original to say about Sunday's slow-starting but ultimately predictable beatdown of the Browns by Brady's Patriots, I thought I'd try out some SportsCenter-esque play calls that integrate the Brady-Moynahan saga:
  • "Brady's under pressure, and he throws the ball away like a pregnant starlet!"
  • "The pocket collapses, here comes the rush, and Brady runs from it like it's responsibility!"
  • "There's a lot of motion by the defense. Brady looks like he's changing the play at the line of scrimmage, much as he's changing his story about being an involved father ..."
  • "The Patriots are huddling up now. Brady's giving them the play, his teammates gathering around like spectators in family court."
  • "Brady's going downfield! ... Moss is wide open! ... He hits him for the touchdown! And there's pandemonium on the field! There's no fucking way I'm giving you any more money!"

Arizona 34, St. Louis 31
Obviously, you know what happens next. Now that the quarterback-rotation experiment has ended with Matt Leinart's broken collarbone, and the Cardinals have no choice, the Kurt Warner who got himself booed out of St. Louis and New York will surely make an appearance. Or maybe he's already here: two fumbled snaps in as many weeks.

Washington 34, Detroit 3
N.Y. Giants 35, N.Y. Jets 24
Houston 22, Miami 19
Tennessee 20, Atlanta 13
Indianapolis 33, Tampa Bay 14


Carolina 16, New Orleans 13
Carolina fans, I'm afraid I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your Panthers are 3-2 and are keeping pace with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South. The bad news is that the three teams they have beaten are a combined 1-13. New Orleans fans, I have good news and bad news for you, too. I'll start with the bad news. Actually, you already know the bad news, right? So, I'll go to the good news. OK, I lied. There is no good news. Back to the Panthers: If you really are a fan of this team, then the worst part about Jake Delhomme's season-ending injury is not that it means the Panthers won't go anywhere this year. It's that it means the Panthers will once again have injuries to blame for not getting it done on the field. In the past three years, no team in the NFL has shown as wide a disparity between expectations and performance as Carolina. Not to say the Panthers are a bad team; they certainly aren't -- they were in the NFC Championship Game just two years ago. (Then again, the Saints were in the NFC Championship Game last year.) It's just that ever since their surprise run to the Super Bowl in 2003, Carolina has been the fashionable pick to go all the way, and every year they fall short of the mark, and every year they say, "If we just could have avoided injuries ... " It's the NFL, ladies. No one avoids injuries.

Chicago 27, Green Bay 20
You're not a big, sophisticated football analyst like me, so I expect you to miss hidden indicators like this: If you thoroughly dominate the first half of a game, but are leading by only 10 at the break because you can't hold onto the ball and because you give the other team first downs in the red zone with dumbass penalties, then you will not win. (Listening, Buffalo?) If I were a Packer fan, what would have me climbing the walls is not that James Jones allowed Charles Tillman to strip the ball away in Bears territory. It's that on the very next drive, James Jones allowed Charles Tillman to strip the ball away in Bears territory.

Jacksonville 17, Kansas City 7
I don't know what I was thinking with this pick. I was feeling like I'd been too hard on the Chiefs, expecially after their convincing win over the Chargers last week. And, as usual, you can never trust the Jaguars to beat anybody bad or lose to anyone good, so I rolled the dice. Snake eyes.

San Diego 41, Denver 3
I don't know that there's anything to say about the AFC West, except that Oakland is now in first place with a 2-2 record. This game may signal that the Chargers are ready to pull out of their early-season funk. Or it may just signal that the Broncos are falling apart.

SEASON: 48-28 (63.2%)
(2006 through Week 5: 49-25, 66.2%)
(2005 through Week 5: 46-28, 62.2%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK5 = This week's ranking. WK4 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
12 Steelers 100.001719Giants 45.26
21 Patriots 99.871816Panthers 44.57
35 Colts 80.191920Ravens 40.16
43 Cowboys 79.342018Browns 35.03
513Redskins 74.502122Bengals 34.53
69 Jaguars 69.902221Chiefs 30.06
78 Titans 65.702328Bears 29.88
87 Packers 62.502417Lions 29.75
94 Bucs 57.682525Jets 25.21
106 Seahawks 54.952624Falcons 24.75
1110Texans 54.762727Dolphins 24.59
1211Eagles 53.73282949ers 18.70
1312Vikings 52.982923Broncos 12.68
1414Cardinals 49.223030Bills 12.62
1526Chargers 47.863131Rams 8.72
1615Raiders 46.853232Saints 0.00
Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Dolphins, Rams.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Perverted fantasy

I'm not playing the fantasy football this year. After trying it last season, I discovered that it requires a commitment of time and energy that I just don't have, what with a baby to take care of and my self-employed status, which means I don't get paid if I'm not actually working (as opposed to a regular job, where you get paid for down time, assuming you have any).

Though I'm not a big fantasy-head, I understand the system pretty well -- well enough to realize that the TV networks that broadcast NFL games don't really have a grasp on how fantasy football works. The most obvious effect of the fantasy game on NFL telecasts is the "real-time" stats that clutter the screen after every play. In Sunday's Panthers-Saints game, we were given instant updates as second- and third-string Carolina quarterbacks David Carr and Matt Moore ground their way to 119 and 43 yards passing, respectively. Does anybody have David Carr on their fantasy team? Well, then, does anybody have Matt Moore on their fantasy team? Is it even possible to have Matt Moore on your fantasy team? Similarly, midway through every game, we often get some kind of "fantasy tracker," which compares the performance of the QBs. It's not a terrible idea, but it often leads to ludicrous visuals that assume that at this point anyone is starting Joey Harrington or Damon Huard or Tarvaris Jackson (or Kelly Holcomb).

According to people who frequent sports bars, however, the worst thing about these on-screen graphics is that they provide nonstop bitching fodder for the yammering fantasy hordes who are determined to pound every last ounce of spectator joy out of football by announcing after each play that they need Desmond Clark to just catch one more pass, or who scream in pathetic, impotent rage when a team runs one more play to get closer for a field goal, turning a 52-yard kick (worth 5 points in some leagues) into a 39-yarder (worth only 3), or who cheer when a player who breaks off a punt return for 90 yards gets tackled at the 1 yard line, because it means the running back on their team will now come in and get that last yard and the TD.

Indeed, one of the most legitimate criticisms of fantasy football is that it distorts fans' understanding of the real game. It tells people that the most important player on the field is the running back who scores a lot of touchdowns, as opposed to the other 10 guys who move the ball up and down the field. And it rewards quarterbacks on crummy teams who put up big numbers against prevent defenses in the fourth quarter, when they're down by four touchdowns. This is all true, but I tend to believe that people who allow fantasy football to shape their understanding of real football aren't real fans anyway.

The TV networks, though, take this criticism one step further by actually distorting fans' understanding of fantasy football. As Sunday's late games were getting underway, CBS gave over a corner of the screen to its "FANTASY UPDATE." Here's what we saw:

M. Schaub HOU29401
D. AndersonCLE28723
T. Brady NE 26530
G. FrerotteSTL26233
D. Brees NO 25202

So these, supposedly, were the best passers in fantasy football in Sunday's early games? Ranked by what? By passing yards, clearly. But as any fantasy-head can tell you (and will tell you, repeatedly), yardage is just part of the equation. The real money comes from maximizing touchdowns and minimizing interceptions. Under a typical fantasy scoring system -- 1 point for each 20 passing yards, 4 points per passing TD, -2 points per interception -- here's how these five quarterbacks actually performed:

M. Schaub 10.70
D. Anderson16.35
T. Brady 25.25
G. Frerotte19.10
D. Brees 8.60

So Matt Schaub, supposedly the best fantasy quarterback of the early games, was actually a middle-of-the-pack special. All those yards don't mean a thing if you can't get your team in the end zone (one point on which fantasy and real football are somewhat in agreement). Once we adjust for the fantasy effect of touchdowns and interceptions, here are the fantasy passing numbers for the primary quarterbacks in Week 5's early games. (For the sake of simplicity, we're only counting passing stats, not rushing stats or fumbles. Jon "Two-Lost-Fumbles" Kitna should be glad.)

T. Brady NE 25.25
J. Campbell WSH20.40
G. Frerotte STL19.10
D. Anderson CLE16.35
E. Manning NYG15.30
D. Garrard JAX14.90
B. Roethlisberger PIT14.30
K. Warner ARZ11.50
M. Schaub HOU10.70
C. Pennington NYJ9.45
D. Brees NO 8.60
D. Carr CAR7.95
D. Huard KC 7.80
C. Lemon MIA5.55
M. Hasselbeck SEA3.80
J. Harrington ATL2.35
V. Young TEN1.85
J. Kitna DET1.30

According to CBS's graphic, Matt Schaub was the best passer in the early games. And yet, if you'd started Tom Brady, Jason Campbell, Gus Frerotte, Derek Anderson, Eli Manning, David Garrard, Ben Roethlisberger or Kurt Warner, you'd have done better than Schaub. Five of those guys didn't even make the CBS chart, including Campbell, who had a better day than all except Brady (whom CBS listed third). Those players didn't make the CBS chart because they didn't have as many passing yards. Campbell, with 248 yards, was 4 yards shy of Brees and thus didn't make it, even though he threw 2 touchdowns and had no interceptions.

It comes down to this: If you're going to clog up my Sunday afternoon viewing with this attempt to pander to the fantasy crowd (most of whom are using the Web, not TV, to check their progress anyway), then get it right. If I -- someone who doesn't play fantasy football -- can tell at a glance that the fantasy information you're putting on the screen is bullshit, then what do you think a regular fantasy player is thinking?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Week 4: Wipeout!

In the three years that I've been picking games in competition with other websites, rarely have I had a weekend in which I didn't pick more winners than losers. The worst I had ever done was 6-8. But this weekend, I didn't just beat that mark; I utterly blew it away, going an astounding 4-10 as one underdog after another rose up to topple their insect overlords. Detroit over Chicago. Kansas City over San Diego. Cleveland over Baltimore. Arizona over Pittsburgh. When I wasn't finding myself on the wrong side of an upset, I was ruing the picks that I had made in haste without thinking them through. Now, exactly why did I pick the David Carr-led Panthers over the Buccaneers? Or the Trent Green-led Dolphins over the Raiders? All in all, it was an ugly, ugly weekend that made me quite glad I'm not a betting man.

(Actually, if I were a betting man, I'd have cleaned up this weekend, because college football offered the surest thing I'd seen in quite some time: the Tulane Green Wave, playing at home in New Orleans against the No. 2-ranked Louisiana State Tigers. LSU came into the game as a 40-point favorite, and even Tulane coach Bob Toledo all but conceded that the Tigers were going to roll to victory. But there was no way that Louisiana State -- Louisiana state -- was going to run up the score on Tulane -- New Orleans-based Tulane -- to that extent. Not with all the Tulane students who wound up on the LSU campus after Katrina. Not with the Tulane campus still struggling to recover two years later. To go out and lay 50 points on a clearly inferior team from within your own state that had suffered so much would have been beyond the pale. The final score indicated a rout -- LSU 34, Tulane 7 -- but it could have been much worse. LSU didn't take a dive. No, not at all. It just followed a game plan that ensured decisive victory without unnecessarily humiliating an opponent.)


Green Bay 23, Minnesota 16
You may think you know what's killing newspapers -- and, to an extent, magazines, television news and other "old media" -- but you don't. It isn't the Internet. Really. Rather, it's the old media's continued adherence to the concept of the "news cycle." They believe that news occurs, and therefore can be reported, in discrete chunks. For newspapers, those chunks are one day long. For most magazines, one week. For TV news operations, maybe one hour. When a news event happens -- say, Brett Favre setting the career record for touchdown passes -- media outlets pursue it and report it on their various cycles. Thus, CBS and Fox cut into their games to show the record-setting TD pass almost as soon as it happened. Then they showed it on their halftime reports. Then they showed it on their postgame reports. Then NBC showed it on Football Night in America. Then ESPN led every hour of SportsCenter with it. Then your local news did the same. Then it was the lead segment on SportsCenter's NFL "Blitz." By bedtime Sunday, every football fan in America had seen the pass a dozen times, watched Favre be interviewed a dozen times, and heard a dozen commentators run down how much Favre means to us all with his longevity and childlike enthusiasm and blah blah blah. (Chris Berman topped them all with his nausea-inducing opinion that "rooting for Brett Favre is like rooting for America." So, if you think Berman is an ass-kissing blowhard whose act grew stale more than twenty years ago, I guess you just hate America.) And then, on top of all that, you get your morning paper, and the headline is some crappy pun informing you that yesterday Brett Favre set the career record for touchdown passes. And a few days later, Sports Illustrated shows up, and Peter King has gotten his lipstick smeared all over Brett's pole.

This all helps explain why, no matter how much you admire Favre and respect his accomplishments, you are so sick of hearing from him and about him that you are ready to scream. At some point, the media would be well-served to understand that everybody -- everybody -- had seen the touchdown and that the audience would like to see, hear or read about something else. And it's not like there weren't angles that could have been covered. Like, how long will it be before Peyton Manning breaks the record? Or, who else (Carson Palmer) might threaten the record? You don't see too much of that kind of stuff because it's hard to produce. Well, not really, but it's certainly harder that just rerunning the video of the TD for the umptwelfth time and throwing yourself to the floor in front of Holy Brett Father of God.

The worst part, however, was that amid all the celebration, what went totally unrecognized was that the Minnesota Vikings were wearing "throwback" uniforms. After less than a season and a half in their stupid new uniforms, the Vikings put on the beautiful duds of their glory years in honor of running back Chuck Foreman, whom the team was inducting into its hall of fame, or ring of honor, or whatever they call it. Oh, and the Packers are 4-0! I bet that if you asked Favre, he'd tell you that that's more important than the record!

Dallas 35, St. Louis 7
Speaking of "having heard more than enough about Brett Favre," I'll take this opportunity to say that I've heard more than enough about how Tony Romo is the new Brett Favre. It seems Romo grew up in Wisconsin idolizing Favre. Well, there's one thing Favre didn't do. Yes, Romo is a playmaker, a QB with incredible pocket presence, and a whole lot of fun to watch. The botched snap on which he turned a 35-yard loss into a four-yard gain and a first down was the second-most-replayed moment of the weekend, and probably will be of the 2007 season. But Romo just isn't the "new Favre" -- can't be the new Favre -- and it has less to do with how he plays than where he plays.

Favre plays in Green Bay, which is ostensibly the league's smallest market but, when you consider that the team represents all of Wisconsin, is really somewhere in the middle. (Now, Jacksonville? There's a tiny market unable to support a team.) However, that perception of "tiny Green Bay" allows the Packers, no matter how good they are or how much they're paid, to project the image of scrappy underdogs. The fact that the team is "publicly owned," as opposed to the property of a rapacious billionaire like Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones, only reinforces the little-guy image, even though that public ownership means the team is under no pressure to return anything like a profit and can therefore pour all revenue back into operations. I'm not saying the ownership structure gives the Packers a leg up on the rest of the NFL, but it does provide an advantage over teams in similar-size markets. (Think about how cheaply the Vikings were run under Red McCombs.)

What does this have to do with Favre? He stars for a franchise whose entire media-generated ethos is that of the scrappy Little Team That Could. When Favre does good things, he's praised because he's David taking on Goliath. When he makes poor decisions, he's excused because he's David taking on Goliath. Romo, meanwhile, plays for the Dallas Cowboys, aka Goliath. Had Sunday's botched snap turned out badly for the Cowboys, Romo would have been roasted for not just falling on the ball. Plus, he doesn't have 15 years' worth of things-like-that-working-out-OK that would silence his critics. Of course, Favre has learned that being David rather than Goliath cuts both ways. Favre's work ethic -- be it offseason conditioning, film study, or just the way he pushes his teammates -- also gets short shrift because that's not the sort of thing a "gunslinger" is supposed to require. (On this score, Romo and Favre do have something in common.)

Then there's the legacy factor. Favre was instrumental in reviving the Packers after a quarter-century in the toilet. (Well ... Favre and Mike Holmgren and free agency and the salary cap and revenue sharing.) For this he is beloved, not only by the people of Wisconsin but also by Berman and King and others in the sports media who pine for the days when Lombardi roamed the earth and no one wore their hair long or had cornrows. Romo plays for a storied franchise, too, but the Cowboys' time in the wilderness in the late 1990s is nothing like what the Packers endured. And while there's a huge gap between Bart Starr and Favre on the continuum of Packers QBs, Romo is just the latest in a line that extends, with only brief breaks, from Don Meredith to Craig Morton to Roger Staubach to Danny White to Troy Aikman -- not all superstars, of course, but all of whom were capable of carrying the team to 10-win seasons and into the playoffs.

The point is not to denigrate Romo. Like I said, he's a joy to watch, and it's clear that his teammates admire and respect him -- even Terrell Owens(!) says he's happy to just clear out coverage for other receivers if it means the Cowboys will keep winning. The point is that in their frantic rush to find the next Good Ol' Gunslinger before the current one hangs it up for good, the sports media is determined to pound a Romo-shaped peg into a Favre-shaped hole. That's not fair to Romo.

Oh yeah, the Rams. They suck. Any team whose coach refuses to sit his starting quarterback, even though that quarterback has broken ribs that are obviously hurting his game, pretty much sucks by definition. Coach Scott Linehan, in explaining why Marc Bulger will start next Sunday despite those broken ribs, said, "He's won a lot of games for us. He played extremely well for us last year, and we haven't got him off and running yet this year. I take responsibility for that." Off and running? He can't run. He has broken ribs! At this point, I pray for the Rams to finish 3-13 so we can finally stop hearing about that high-powered Rams offense that isn't.

Indianapolis 38, Denver 20
After two humiliating playoff losses to the Colts earlier this decade, the Broncos invested heavily in their secondary, to the point that today they have the best cornerback tandem in the league -- and maybe the best ever -- in Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly. Sunday, it all paid off as the Broncos, who surrendered 41 points to the Colts in the 2003 playoffs and 49 in the 2004 playoffs, held the high-powered Indianapolis offense to just 38. Excellent work!

New England 34, Cincinnati 13
I'm back to feeling sorry for Carson Palmer again. That such a fine quarterback has to wear such stupid clothing and play for an organization that appears to have lost its way is a damn shame. But this game wasn't about the Bengals, who somehow held New England to 17 fewer points than they gave up to Browns. It was about the Patriots. For all the ink spilled over the fact that the Cowboys are averaging 37.75 points a game, the Pats are averaging an even 37 -- and have surrendered just 48 points compared with 72 for the Cowboys. The real highlight of this game came when Matt Light was called on to "introduce" the Patriots offense for the ESPN broadcast. Aside from anything Kornheiser says, these intros are among the most annoying elements of the new Monday Night Football, as players stumble their way through a bunch of stupid nicknames ("And playing sheriff on the end is Javon Kearse, aka the Stone Cold Freak"). Light didn't even bother; he just described what the offense thought it was going to have to accomplish to beat the Bengals. It was awesome, and I was totally disappointed a little later when Adalius Thomas, introducing the Pats defense, pulled out the same old "aka" shit. I'd hoped this was another subversive Belichick maneuver, like having the Patriots introduced as a team at the Super Bowl, rather than one by one.


Oakland 35, Miami 17
Remember last year, when the Dolphins visited Detroit on Thanksgiving, and quarterback Joey Harrington, who had been unfairly blamed for the Lions' chronic problems, led Miami to a convingcing victory? Vindication! This week it was Miami's turn in the barrel as one of their own maligned former quarterbacks, Daunte Culpepper, led his new team, the Oakland Raiders, into Dolphins Stadium. Culpepper, in case you hadn't heard "had a hand in five touchdowns," two passing and three rushing, on Sunday. What you didn't hear is that he was 5-of-12 passing for only 75 yards. What you didn't hear is that Justin Fargas did all the work. What you didn't hear is how those five touchdowns came about:

1. After an interception, Raiders begin drive on the Miami 11 yard line. Culpepper throws 7-yard TD pass.
2. Raiders begin drive on their own 42. Culpepper attempts only one pass on the drive (incomplete) and gains 4 yards on a scramble. Running backs gain the other 52 yards before Culpepper scores on a 2-yard run.
3. Raiders begin drive on their own 30. Culpepper attempts only one pass on the drive (incomplete). Fargas gains 65 yards, including a 48-yard run with a 9-yard, half-the-distance penalty tacked-on, before Culpepper scores on a 5-yard run.
4. Raiders begin drive on their own 27. Culpepper gains 11 yards on two runs. Running backs gain all the other yardage before Culpepper throws 27-yard TD pass.
5. Raiders begin drive on their own 18. Fargas gains every single inch as Oakland goes 79 yards before Culpepper scores on a 3-yard run.

It must have felt good for Culpepper to stick it to the Dolphins, but what really killed Miami was its own run defense. With perhaps the exception of the fourth TD, there isn't anything here that Josh McNown couldn't have done. Or Marques Tuiasosopo or Andrew Walter, for that matter. Or JaMarcus Russell. Culpepper should pay special attention to that last one, because that's who'll be starting for the Raiders by the end of the year, and Culpepper will be on the pavement, again, looking for a new team, preferably one with Oakland on the schedule in 2008.

Atlanta 26, Houston 16
Interesting that we just talked about Harrington in regard to "revenge games," because Culpepper wasn't the only QB the Dolphins tossed over the side last offseason in order to appeal to Florida's immense senior population by bringing in Trent Green. Harrington, despite that fine revenge-game showing in Detroit, was also cut loose, winding up the accidental starter in Atlanta because of some unpleasantness with dogs and "rape stands." Falcons fans, I gather, would have preferred that the team had held onto Matt Schaub for one more year rather than trade him to the Texans, but there he was on Sunday, playing in the Georgia Dome in a Houston uniform. There was some talk in the press that this might turn out to be a revenge game for Schaub, though I can't image what for. Surely not because the Falcons traded him; that's what allowed him to finally become a starter. Maybe because they didn't trade him sooner. Whatever. Anyway, Harrington looked Georgia peachy against the Texans, while Schaub soiled his own otherwise fine numbers by fumbling twice inside his team's 25 yard line. So, are the Falcons now Joey's team? Don't look now, but that's Byron Leftwich sitting behind him on the bench. At least Atlanta has already played the Jaguars this season.

Detroit 37, Chicago 27
I'm pretty sure that's not what the fans had in mind when they were calling for the Bears to replace Rex Grossman with Brian Griese. Chicago could have gotten three interceptions, including one that came back for a touchdown, even without the switch. And what's beautiful is, if they go with Kyle Orton next week, they can still get it! I was rather surprised to see more than one football commentator say, rightly, that this bad outing by Griese isn't necessarily indicative of his ability. First of all, it's been a couple years since the guy played at game speed. Second, the Chicago Bears, regardless of who's at quarterback, have no business throwing the ball 52 times. Third, they had to throw so much because their defense and their running game, supposedly strengths, are getting worse by the week. I expect Griese to improve, but unless the rest of the team does, too, it won't really matter.

Cleveland 27, Baltimore 13
Buffalo 17, N.Y. Jets 14
Seattle 23, San Francisco 3
Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 7
Kansas City 30, San Diego 16
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14
N.Y. Giants 16, Philadelphia 3

SEASON: 38-24 (61.3%)
(2006 through Week 4: 37-23, 61.7%)
(2005 through Week 4: 38-22, 63.3%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK4 = This week's ranking. WK3 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
12 Patriots100.001719Lions 44.40
21 Steelers 89.171821Browns 43.38
33 Cowboys 83.941923Giants 40.89
45 Bucs 77.942015Ravens 40.76
54 Colts 76.102128Chiefs 39.03
612Seahawks 72.472216Bengals 37.39
76 Packers 70.952318Broncos 33.29
810Titans 64.322430Falcons 29.30
911Jaguars 62.912526Jets 29.23
107 Texans 55.752625Chargers26.87
118 Eagles 54.682724Dolphins26.04
129 Vikings 54.002827Bears 24.22
1314Redskins 51.50292249ers 21.90
1417Cardinals49.983032Billls 7.51
1520Raiders 48.493129Rams 1.06
1613Panthers 44.423231Saints 0.00