Archive for October 30th, 2011

Worst onside kick: Somewhere deep inside of Bill Belichick’s mind is a tiny little man wearing a hood and hovering over his tiny calculator. Basically, it’s mini Belichick, which would undoubtedly be the scariest Halloween costume of the season if you saw it lurking in the darkness tomorrow night.

When the Patriots are faced with a critical late-game decision, mini Belichick determines the correct path by using a complex formula similar to the one used by eight year olds every Christmas to track the exact position of Santa. After the Patriots scored to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 23-17 with 2:36 remaining, mini Belichick was summoned. Was an onside kick the right call, or could the defense be trusted to get a stop with all three timeouts still available?

After several seconds of intense thought and button-pushing, this is what mini Belichick produced…

You might say that it was the execution, and not the decision that should be blamed for the outcome. And in fairness, Stephen Gostkowski probably should have adjusted his skirt before his onside kick attempt. But he shouldn’t have even been put in a position to fail.

There were two potential scenarios here, both with clear risk, but one with far more than the other. The Patriots could have kicked deep and forced Ben Roethlisberger to drive a far greater distance before attempting a game-clinching field goal. Jerod Mayo was back in the lineup defensively, which should have given Belichick far more confidence in his team’s ability to stop the run.

Including the two-minute warning, New England had four chances to stop the clock, and two large humans–Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork–up the middle who had held Rashard Mendenhall to a moderate 70 rushing yards on 13 carries. The odds of getting the ball back and scoring after kicking deep were significantly more favorable than attempting a low percentage dribbling onside kick, especially since the Pats haven’t had a successful onside kick since 1994.

Yes, here we are again confused over another needless risk by a highly intelligent, defensive-minded coach who doesn’t trust the defense he’s assembled.

Worst new fad: Pogs were really cool for a while, and then we realized that playing with little pieces of cardboard isn’t something that people with actual houses and dependable incomes should do for entertainment. A fad is a delicate, fragile thing, and the second it’s overexposed it dies tragically.

Friends, I believed we witnessed the end of a viral trend today. Rest in peace, Tebowing.

It was cool when Tebow was Tebowed.

But then the meme met its demise in that same game when tight end and former Bronco Tony Scheffler briefly bowed to the heavens too.

Hopefully today’s overexposure on national television has indeed killed Tebowing. If we learned anything from planking, it’s only a matter of time until someone gets hurt…

Least surprising eight-week trend: Sometimes we undercover surprising stats that are unique and compelling. Then there are other times when we embark on an adventure down the statistical rabbit hole and find exactly what we thought we’d find. This is definitely the latter, but it still shows just how painfully average the Browns’ passing game has been.

We’re now two games shy of being through eight weeks of NFL football in 2011, meaning we’re also one week away from the official halfway point of the season. So there’s been plenty of opportunities to throw footballs, catch footballs, run with footballs, and score with footballs. And yet still the Browns haven’t had a single 100-yard receiver in a game.

Pinning the inadequacies of the Browns’ passing offense on one element is both difficult and unfair. The support from the running game has been inconsistent with Peyton Hillis either hobbled or unhealthy. He missed his third game today, and Montario Hardesty has been effective at times during what’s essentially his rookie season, but he’s still averaging only 3.3 yards per carry.

But the true source of Cleveland’s passing debacle is Colt McCoy, or more accurately, his arm. The Browns still don’t trust him to throw deep, and plays are rarely designed to stretch the field and establish anything that resembles a deep attack putting stress on opposing secondaries.

McCoy is asked to throw plenty, and has had four games with at least 35 passing attempts, and one with 61 attempts back in Week 4. But despite the volume of attempts, he’s still averaging only 5.5 yards per attempt.

When trust dies in a relationship, the end is near. Pat Shurmur doesn’t trust McCoy, and that disconnect is wasting the speed of Josh Cribbs, Greg Little, and Mohamad Massaquoi.

The Bills played in Toronto today for the sixth time in four years, but this might have been the first game north of the border that the Bills can look back on fondly.

Not only did Buffalo rebound from a tough loss to the Giants by becoming the first team to shut out a Mike Shanahan-led offense, but the Bills were finally able to feel at home on foreign soil.

The Rogers Centre crowds were close to bipartisan in the previous installments of this series, but that wasn’t the case at all on Sunday. The crowd was almost unanimously behind the Bills, and the team rewarded those 51,579 fans with their first-ever regular-season victory in the city of Toronto.

It was hard to find a flaw. Ryan Fitzpatrick had just six incomplete passes, Fred Jackson rushed for 120 yards, the defense smothered John Beck, recording two picks, and Washington had a grand total of 26 rushing yards. A team that had just four sacks all season took Beck down nine times.

The final score: 23-0. And now the Bills are back in first place in the AFC East.

That, of course, leads to the question: Is the team’s recent run of surprising success the reason they’re receiving better support in Toronto? As superficial as that is, it’s definitely a factor. It also helps that they didn’t play the Dolphins, Jets or Bears, all of whom arguably have more fan support in Southern Ontario than the Redskins do.

That said, I think time has played an important role. The Bills claim their Ontario-based season ticket numbers have increased markedly in recent seasons, which leads me to believe that the fan base has grown in Toronto. There was a lot of animosity from football fans in both markets when this series began in 2008, mainly because savvy people seemed to be vexed by insanely high ticket prices and the stale, corporate feel surrounding the pact between the Bills and Rogers Communications.

But it now seems some of that tension has faded. It doesn’t hurt that tickets have become significantly cheaper (especially on the secondary market) and that the team is actually decent. Either way, Toronto finally appears to be embracing the Bills as a home team.

The absolute worst place to be driven out of bounds: Luckily the joker, Shrek, lady Robin, and that orange-haired creature are all on Torrey Smith’s side since they live deep in the bowels of the Ravens’ home field and only come out once a year.

Little known facts: Shrek is actually Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, and the Joker is actually Ray Lewis.

(via Mocksession.com)

Best retro performance: It felt like 2006 in St. Louis, and not just because the Cardinals are World Series champs again.

At the age of 28 Steven Jackson is rapidly approaching the rocking chair phase of his career, a time when formerly routine performances become special and exceptional. That’s pretty much what happened today when Jackson finished with 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, leading a Rams rushing offense that made the Saints defense do its best Rams impersonation while trying to stop the run.

Most disgusting start to a season in the all-time history of the NFL, and possibly of sports and life: Chris Johnson still sucks, and there’s no conceivable or believable excuse. The Titans held a lead throughout their win over the Colts, and at one point the gap was 20 points. Johnson was running against a defense that prior to today was only ahead of the Rams in terms of stopping the run, which means they’re woefully and tragically awful (the Colts were allowing 150.9 yards per game against the run). And as far as we know he’s fully healthy.

There’s no reason why a player with such tremendous burst should be this bad for this long, and after eight games we’re also far past the point where Johnson’s training camp contract holdout is an acceptable crutch. At one point in the second quarter today he had just one yard on four carries, which prompted the only logical move for Tennessee’s offense in the second half.

Late in the game the Titans needed a reliable runner to grind down the clock and put the sleeper hold on Indianapolis, and the ball wasn’t placed in Johnson’s hands as it has so often over the past few seasons. Instead Javon Ringer’s number was called, and a running back who’s usually buried as Johnson’s backup received 10 carries in the fourth quarter, while Johnson only had one.

The boxscore will reflect an even distribution, with both runners getting 14 carries apiece. But Ringer nearly doubled Johnson’s production (60 rushing yards to 34), while ascending to become the Titans’ fourth quarter battering ram. We’re actually reaching a point where a platoon situation in the Tennessee backfield isn’t an outlandish or preposterous idea.

Poor games were once an anomaly for Johnson, but now the opposite is true. In Week 4 he had 101 rushing yards against Houston, and now in Tennessee’s other six games combined he has just 201 yards for a meek average of 33.5 yards per game.

Most depressing first half in the all-time history of the NFL for running backs: Forget about Johnson’s start, and his continued struggles. Sure, they’re notable, which is why we noted them, but that’s a continued trend of terribleness. What’s surprising is that Adrian Peterson nearly equaled Johnson’s abysmal first half with just 14 yards on eight carries. For those keeping score of such random matters, between Johnson and Peterson two running backs who both averaged over 85 rushing yards per game last year combined for just 27 first half yards.

Of course the glaring contrast between the two is that we still have faith in Peterson’s ability to turn around a poor first half, or at the very least find other ways to contribute if he’s being stymied as a pure rusher. Today, he did both.

At first when he was stone-walled by a usually weak Carolina run defense Peterson turned to the air, showing his versatility by becoming a reliable safety valve for rookie Christian Ponder out of the backfield with three receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Then, after consistent pounding, the Panther wall finally crumbled, and Peterson had 73 second half rushing yards.

Worst guy to sit behind: Big Bird is a kind, lovable, and bright character who has taught kids how to count and properly sing songs about the letters of the alphabet. But football is far too violent for a mutant bird. (again via Mocksession.com)

Most senseless score: Originally this award was titled “most boring score,” because since we’re so diligent and dedicated we often work ahead before a game has concluded, and at the time the Saints/Rams game was the perfect remedy for insomnia. Unbelievably, with only a few minutes left in the first half there were zeros on the scoreboard for both teams.

Thankfully, we don’t write damning statements on rock-like surfaces around here, because in the last six minutes of the second quarter St. Louis scored 17 points, leading to a score that was far from boring, and an improbable 31-21 win by a team with A.J. Feeley as its starting quarterback.

It was as though these two teams switched personalities for an afternoon. Over their last three games the Rams had given up 586 rushing yards, rounding out to a pretty gruesome 195.3 yards per game over that stretch. But today they held New Orleans’ three-headed monstrosity to just 56 yards on the ground. Meanwhile Jackson had his aforementioned adventure in his time machine, and the dominance of St. Louis’ defensive line was highlighted by Chris Long’s feats of strength.

A usually sound Saints offensive line that was averaging 1.8 sacks per game watched as Drew Bress crumpled to the ground six times today, three of which were while he was in Long’s grasp.

Easiest opportunity for an obvious statement: Patrick Peterson sure seems to be riding this whole athletic, electrifying thing quite well…

Three thoughts on the Week 8 early games, starting with the most shocking final score of the season thus far…

What the hell just happened in St. Louis?

The big joke all week was that the Saints scored more points against the Colts Sunday night than the Rams had scored all season. New Orleans-St. Louis was, like, the mismatch of the year. And then the Rams went out and not only beat the Saints, but dominated them.

This is almost impossible to explain, but we’ll try to do so by stating that the Rams had a darling game plan. They simply ran Steven Jackson down the throat of a defense that had surrendered a putrid 5.4 yards per carry. By building an early lead against a team missing its top back in Mark Ingram, they were able to force the Saints to be one-dimensional. This is what teams did against New Orleans when all of their running backs were hurt last year, and it worked quite often. Then they dialed up the pass rush on Drew Brees, recording a season-high six sacks (didn’t even have to check that stat). The rest is history.

It’s a huge loss for the Saints, who now have to deal with tough division rivals Tampa and Atlanta in back-to-back weeks. They only have two games remaining against teams with losing records, so they can’t afford to lay eggs against terrible opponents.

Updating the Suck for Luck sweepstakes

The St. Louis win hurts the Rams in the race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Considering that they already play in the NFC West, they might be out of contention before long. That leaves Miami and Indianapolis, both of whom lost during the early slate of games. Both the Dolphins and Colts remain winless, but I’m giving the Suck for Luck edge to the Colts, who have one more loss under their belt and who appear to be getting worse as the season progresses.

In the Dolphins’ defense, they’ve jumped out to early leads in back-to-back games, and they nearly beat a decent Giants team coming off their bye. They’re competing. The Colts aren’t. Indy was outplayed badly by the fairly bad Titans, one week after getting demolished by the Saints. If they can’t beat Jacksonville and/or Carolina in their next two games, they’ll be heavy favorites to land the top pick, which would almost certainly see them land Andrew Luck. And if the Colts don’t win one of those next two games, there’s a decent chance they find themselves in company with the 2008 Detroit Lions.

Sign of trouble in Baltimore

The Ravens once again looked lame against an inferior opponent, but this time they survived. By my subjective measure, Baltimore has played four below-average teams this season: Tennessee, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona. They’re 2-2 in those affairs, and they had to come back from a 17-point deficit to sneak past the Cardinals today.

Here’s the good news for Ravens fans: You won’t have to deal with mediocre teams in January. The question, now, is whether this team can make it to January. While it wouldn’t be surprising to see them win in Pittsburgh next week, they’ll be underdogs. And beyond that, the schedule is very weak. The Ravens “benefit” from playing the AFC South and NFC West this year, which means Seattle and Indianapolis lie ahead, as well as weak division opponents Cincinnati (twice) and Cleveland (twice).

If Baltimore can’t learn to stop taking bad teams lightly, it’ll have a real tough time earning a playoff spot in the AFC.

It's poor timing for Buffalo to have a home game that isn't really a home game.

Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens

The concern about Joe Flacco and his regression is already at threat level orange, and it’ll continue to grow if he can’t consistently move the Ravens’ offense forward today against a talented but inexperienced Arizona secondary. His current completion percentage (52.1), is well below his career average, which could partly be the product of increased pressure due to a weak left side of Baltimore’s offensive line.

Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers

A few weeks ago this would have been a quarterback matchup pitting the old guard against the new era, and a dinosaur against some strange, dominant jungle creature who quickly silenced the doubters. Now there’s another rookie first-round quarterback opposite Cam Newton today, and in just one start he’s already drastically altered Minnesota’s offensive approach.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans

The Texans have three members of the 2008 Arizona Cardinals in their locker room, a team that barely made the playoffs in a weak division and then started a surprise run to the Super Bowl on the strength of Kurt Warner’s arm. All three are feeling deja vu all over again.

Miami Dolphins at New York Giants

In an exclusive interview with Dan Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this week, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross admitted that he needs sleep medication to get his billionaire beauty rest after his team losses. Before the labor agreement was resolved the list of potential lockout casualties was long and random, but now we can add pharmaceutical companies.

New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams

Always known for their habit of spreading the ball around, the Saints have seven players with at least 200 receiving yards, while no other team has more than five.

Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans

The Colts continue to be involved in historic feats of awfulness this year, and the latest will come this afternoon when they team up with Tennessee to play the first game since 1986 between two teams that lost by at least 34 points the previous week.

Washington Redskins at Buffalo Bills

The Toronto market has always been viewed as a lucrative and appealing destination for a Bills franchise trying to maintain financial footing in Buffalo. This year’s Bills Toronto Series game was pushed back to a 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff to enhance fan intoxication enjoyment. More pre-game festivities have been added, leading to an event that wraps around the Rogers Centre and started five hours before kickoff.

But for the first time in the history of the series, what happens inside the stadium matters to the Bills and their playoff aspirations, making a neutral site game in front of NFL fans–not Bills fans–far less than ideal.

Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos

The poor protection Jay Cutler receives from the Bears’ offensive line is the first example we reach for when discussing a quarterback who’s being restricted from reaching his potential due to constant blows. Tim Tebow has taken a beating in his first four career starts too, but it’s been worse, and it isn’t solely the result of poor protection.

Tebow’s mobility is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness, and his inability to remain in the pocket has led to a sack once in every 10 passing attempts. Cutler’s pace is once in every 12 attempts.

Good luck against Ndamukong Suh today, Tim.

On the other sideline Matthew Stafford has reportedly confirmed that he’ll be playing today.

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers

We have good news for Mike Wallace fantasy owners, and bad news for everyone else who doesn’t play in the world of football make belief. When he didn’t practice all week it was expected that Hines Ward wouldn’t be able to play, and those expectations were confirmed this morning along with word that linebacker James Farrior will also be out.

While the loss of Ward’s possession skills will hurt, the Steelers add speed with Emmanuel Sanders likely sliding in to replace Ward. Wide receiver is a deep position in Pittsburgh, and with Ward out they’ll still have no problem exploiting the league’s worst secondary that’s playing its first game after cutting Leigh Bodden, and with rookie starter Ras I-Dowling now on the IR.

When Bodden was cut Friday we wrote that it’s hard to fake being confused about a Bill Belichick move, only because confusion implies an element of surprise, and nothing is surprising any more about Belichick’s abrupt dealings with veterans. We can still heavily question his judgment, though, and we’ll all get a crack at that today when Ben Roethlisberger and Wallace absolutely torch a secondary that’s now solely comprised of struggling and/or inexperienced young players.

Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks

The Bengals have found their sacred Nostradamus, and his name is Ron Jaworski, the ESPN analyst who’s correctly predicted every Cincinnati win so far this season. This natural skill is only a few rungs above stupid dog tricks in terms of its usefulness.

Cleveland Browns at San Francisco 49ers

They need to tighten up against the run, but the fourth-ranked Browns defense is still the lone bright spot on a team that’s a fake 3-3. If the NFL’s newest captain check-down—a.k.a Colt McCoy–could muster some consistency on the other side of the ball, maybe we’d all start to take this team a little more seriously.

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

As exciting and historic as DeMarco Murray’s 253 yard day was last week, Dallas’ decision to cut Tashard Choice puts a massive burden on the rookie’s shoulders, and is an unnecessary risk.