January 7, 2003

Blitz happens

POST #    532

Blitz happens
By Gregg Easterbrook
Page 2 columnist

If you would know one thing about the 2001 NFL season, know this! In November 2001, the Patriots played the Rams, blitzed 39 times and lost. Two months later in the Super Bowl, the Patriots played the Rams, blitzed eight times and won. Of course the blitz sometimes works -- mainly when unexpected, such as on first down. But as Tuesday Morning Quarterback has relentlessly emphasized this season, the blitz usually backfires when expected, such as on third-and-long.

All season TMQ has been offering examples of blitz-expected plays in which blitzes led to big gains for the offense, whereas straight defense might have led to a stop. Readers have protested that these may be isolated examples. TMQ responded by promising that, once the postseason rolled around and yours truly obsessively watches every play of every game, that I'd chart the blitz versus straight defense. This weekend I did and the evidence leads to an irrefutable conclusion: Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!

TMQ's incredibly scientifically advanced methodology was as follows. I charted every snap on which a blitz is expected -- third-and-long (four yards or longer, considering that in the modern NFL many teams line up in the shotgun on third-and-one); second-and-10 or longer; and goal-to-go if five yards or more. For the Colts-Jets and Falcons-Packers blowouts, I stopped at the end of the third quarter, on the assumption that stats in the late stages of blowouts don't mean much. For the awesome Browns-Steelers and Giants-Niners tilts, I logged every snap.

Through the weekend's four games, there were 93 blitz-expected downs. Teams blitzed on 33 of these snaps. The 33 blitzes resulted in eight stops, meaning incompletions or completions short of the marker; one interception; no sacks; six touchdowns for the offense; 16 offensive first downs; and a total of 357 yards passing. That's nine positive results for the blitzing defense and 22 positive results for the blitzed offense. (Results don't add up exactly to the total snaps owing to plays that resulted neither in drive stops nor first downs.) Overall, in expected-blitz situations, offenses averaged 10.8 yards per pass against the blitz.

Teams played straight defense on 60 of the snaps in expected-blitz situations. The 60 straight-defense snaps resulted in 34 stops; five sacks; three interceptions; four touchdowns for the offense; 11 offensive first downs; and a net after sacks of 313 yards passing. (Again, totals don't exactly add up.) That's 42 positive results for the straight defense and 15 positive results for the offense against a straight defense. Overall, against straight defense in expected-blitz situations, offenses averaged 5.2 yards per pass play.

James Farrior
Obviously someone on the Steelers reads TMQ.
Breaking these stats down, the blitz was 60/40 positive for the offense and allowed 10.8 yards per passing attempt, almost double the 2002 league average of 6.5 yards per attempt. The straight defense was 70/30 positive for the defense and allowed 5.2 yards per passing attempt, somewhat less than the 2002 league average.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

In other NFL news, this is the moment the whole season has built up to -- eight teams left, seven games left, someone will snatch the One Ring from Sauron -- and you'd think fan interest would be peaking. But at this point each year, interest begins to decline.

During the regular season, no matter how badly any game goes, each team's backers can dream that next week will be better. (Note: does not apply to Bengals.) Now for most there is no next week, with 24 of 32 cities out. Most fans are already dreaming of next year, already scanning draftnik web sites and free-agency lists. A week from now all but four cities will be out. By the time the Super Bowl kicks off, in theory the biggest football event of the season will be happening, but in practice the faithful of 30 of 32 teams -- 94 percent of the NFL fan base -- won't really care that much. Hold the draft! Start training camp! That's what millions are already thinking. Note: does not apply to Bengals.

Playoff Coaching Pressure Analysis No. 1 -- Colts at Jets: TMQ loves Tony Dungy, but the guy is the new Marv Levy when it comes to the postseason. Like Levy, Dungy believes a playoff game is just another game. They emphatically are not just another game. Dungy teams have been blown out in their last three playoff appearances, losing by a combined 93-12. TMQ wrote in his preseason AFC preview, "Some harmonic force has drawn Dungy, who can't win in January, to the NFL's current exemplar of can't-win-in-January syndrome, the Horsies having honked both their postseason appearances with Peyton Manning." Peyton has now honked three of three. Dungy is now 2-5 lifetime once it's money time. Ye gods.

Like Mike Sherman (see below), Dungy stood impassively as his team imploded in the game the entire season had been leading up to. Like Mike Sherman (see below), Dungy seemed not to have prepared for the fact that his quarterback has a history of pressing in playoff games, and like Mike Sherman (see below) had nothing special in the way of a game-plan for the Jets. How about a rushing game-plan to take the pressure off Manning? In the first half, the Lucky Charms passed 17 times and ran nine times. True, the run wasn't producing much, but the run often starts off poorly on the road. Indianapolis went into all-passing panic when it was only the second quarter; the rest was silence.

Peyton Manning
Manning's chicken dance is available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
That Dungy prepared nothing special was shown especially in Manning's pre-snap arming flapping, which against Jersey/B reached the point of seeming a Monty Python sketch. Manning looked like an inebriated chicken approaching center. How about preparing a game-plan surprise by having Manning not do any chicken dancing? The Jets spent all week rehearsing switching their defense at the last conceivable second, after Manning finished flapping -- and anybody who simply reads the New York newspapers knew the Jets were rehearsing this. Had Manning not danced, Jersey/B would have been taken by surprise. Instead the Colts did exactly what they'd done in every recent game, which played into Jersey/B's hands.

Manning's chicken-wings act actively backfired on the down that sealed the Colts' season. The Jets leading 17-0, Indianapolis faced third-and-one with 2:21 remaining in the half. Before the snap, Manning waved and flapped like one of those 19th-century loons who pasted feathers on his arms trying to fly; Manning then walked up and down the line whispering a fake audible to every lineman. Snap, and Edgerrin James is dropped in the backfield for a loss; the Colts punt; the Jets score quickly and it's a depressing 24-0 at the half. Not one but two Jersey/B defenders came through untouched by human hands to maul James. Blockers have to make their reads and concentrate before the snap; Manning doing his impersonation of a chicken served only to distract them on this play.

Worse, as things went downhill, Dungy simply quit. See "Why Are You Punting?" below.

Playoff Coaching Pressure Analysis No. 2 -- Falcons at Packers: Just 10 days ago, Green Bay looked like the team to beat. Coming off a monster Week 15 win against the Niners in San Francisco, and a win against Buffalo a week later, the Packers were 12-3. They controlled their destiny for home-field and had never lost a playoff game in the state of Wisconsin, where they were guaranteed at least one date. Now the Packers are a blasted hulk, outscored 69-24 in a six-day period, defeated at home in the postseason for the first time, embarrassed at home. TMQ likens the Pack to the Russian battleship Suvorov, lying on its side after going from glorious flagship of a vast imperial fleet to flaming derelict in just 45 minutes of the battle of Tsushima Straight. (For tips on how to build a model of the Suvorov, click here.

True, Green Bay was beset by injuries. In retrospect one reason Sherman must have gotten so mad about the legal-but-nasty hit by Warren Sapp late in the Packers-Bucs game is that he knew the teams that do well in the postseason are the ones that have good fortune in avoiding injuries, and the loss of tackle Chad Clifton on that play seemed to begin an injury cascade for Green Bay.

Mike Sherman
"Hello, Delta? What's the fastest flight out of town?"
But injuries are a fact of life in football, and where was Sherman's response? He had the Packers totally unprepared for their date in Jersey and the chance to win a bye and critically needed rest for the injured. Green Bay came in acting like victory would be automatic over a dejected Jersey/B squad that would have learned, just before kickoff, that it had been eliminated from the playoffs. Sherman seemed not to have considered that New England and Cleveland might pull upsets, and the Jets would learn before kickoff that a victory would put them into the postseason. When the Meadowlands crowd went berserk just as the Green Bay-Jersey/B game was about to begin, Sherman had a look about him of, "I had no idea this might happen." He should have been prepared for a worst-case scenario.

And where was Sherman's determination? The punt-muff when it was Atlanta 14, Green Bay 0 in the second quarter sums it all. Sherman didn't challenge though replays showed the rock hit a Falcon first. At first the Green Bay coach claimed a zebra told him the play, which was reviewable, could not be challenged. After the zebras denied saying this, Sherman blamed the no-challenge on his own upstairs staff.

Whatever the zebras or booth guys said or didn't say, Sherman rolled over. He should have thrown his flag and pushed his button and demanded a challenge regardless, because if Atlanta gets the ball deep in Green Bay territory and has a chance to go up 21-0, the Packers are pretty much finished. TMQ's experience watching coaches work the sidelines -- and working the sidelines himself in the county league -- is that if you doggedly, passionately insist on something the officials will almost always listen, so long as you don't use curse words. (This later was what the insult-spewing Tom Coughlin never figured out.) Green Bay's season turned on whether Sherman would doggedly, passionately demand a review of the punt-muff call and he just stood there, mute. Atlanta got the ball deep in Green Bay territory, went up 21-0 and the Packers were pretty much finished.

Green Bay coaching breakdown footnote No. 1: Scoring on the first possession of the second half to make it Atlanta 24, Green Bay 7, Sherman should have onside kicked. Sure it's a gamble, but trailing by 17 in the playoffs, you've got to take chances. The Falcons were not in an onside formation, expecting the Packers to kick away. They did and Atlanta went on a 13-play clock-grinding drive that killed seven minutes and made it 27-7. Even the football gods sending snow couldn't help Green Bay at that point.

Attention Seattle fans!
Green Bay coaching breakdown footnote No. 2: In both its last playoff appearances, Green Bay has resembled the Russian fleet at Tsushima. In these games, defeats by the Rams and Falcons, the wonderful Brett Favre has thrown eight interceptions. Knowing that Favre's Achilles' heel is pressing and throwing picks under postseason pressure, Sherman might have come into a Wisconsin-in-January bad-weather contest with a running game plan. (Ahman Green was hurting, but so were the Pack receivers; William Henderson was available to run, and in good health.) Instead in the game's opening drives, the Packers threw 11 times and ran just eight times. By going pass-wacky early, Green Bay quickly fell behind, and everything after that was desperation.

Green Bay management breakdown footnote: In my preseason preview of the Packers I wrote, "TMQ's concern is turmoil in the receiver corps. Green Bay let go Antonio Freeman, Corey Bradford and Schroeder to replace them with Terry Glenn, Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker, who rang up a combined 14 professional receptions last year. You tell me why." Walker played pretty well, but Donald Driver, who ended up the go-to guy, was perpetually injured. Against Atlanta, Robert Ferguson was cover-your-eyes awful, dropping four passes, two of which should have been touchdowns. Green Bay management ditched an efficient if aging receiver corps to bring in a guys who drop passes in big games. On Saturday, the chickens came home to roost.

Cheerleader of the Week: The TMQ ESPN Cheerleader of the Week is Hailey of the Seattle Blue Men Group, who has caught the eyes of many readers because, according to her team bio, her profession is "company director for Victoria's Secret." Hailey majored in business administration and has 13 years of dance experience. Obviously, she knows how to suck up to a bureaucracy: on the Sea Gals team page she declares that the most influential person in her life is, "Our Sea Gals director." She also says she would like to visit "Italy, or any place with sunshine and white sand." Hailey, Iraq has sunshine and white sand.

Forget the Colts, Karen would have been captain if she suited up in Seattle.
Check out Ms. Fitness USA, Hawks cheerleader Karen. By the looks of things, the Colts could have used her at linebacker against the Jets.

Playoff Coaching Pressure Analysis No. 3 -- Browns at Steelers: Butch Davis came in with a very aggressive game plan. He expected the Steelers to choke up against the run; they did, and Davis was ready. Cleveland passed often on first down and attempted 20 throws of 20 yards or more, with several long completions. Davis was not about to go down quietly, which the football gods admire. His charges were also stoked for the hostile Ketchup Field environment.

So Davis prepared well by TMQ's playoff yardstick, which holds that the farther into the postseason you go, the more important game plans and psyche-ups become. But achieving a big lead in the fourth, Davis erred under the pressure. First, he kept passing even once the moment had come that the opponent was not the Steelers but the official timekeeper. Cleveland got ball with 8:40 remaining and a lead of 33-21. From that point on the Oranges ran on five snaps and passed on 10, including five incompletions that stopped the clock. Aye caramba! Had Cleveland in the final 8:40 simply rushed up the middle for no gain on every snap, keeping the seconds ticking, Pittsburgh would have run out of time for its last-minute comeback. Davis either authorized or failed to stop this blunder by his offensive coordinator.

Davis also either authorized or failed to stop a blunder of similar magnitude by his defensive coordinator. The error had nothing to do with blitzing. Many sportswriters and bobbleheads decreed that the Steeler comeback occurred because the Browns had been blitzing through the first three quarters but backed off in the fourth. This shows how little attention certain professional sports nuts pay to what's actually happening on the field. TMQ, who charted the game, can assure you the Browns blitzed just twice on long-yardage downs throughout the contest, once in the first half and once in the second. A principal reason Cleveland was in good shape untill the end is that it played straight defense, resisting the urge to blitz.

But at the end, everything changed. The Steelers got the ball with 5:30 remaining, still trailing 33-21. To that point the Browns had allowed 229 yards in the game's first 54:30. Everyone groan in unison: Cleveland shifted to the prevent defense. For the remainder of the game, except on two goal-line plays, Cleveland rushed just three, allowing Tommy Maddox to scan the field. After giving up 229 yards in the game's first 54:30, Cleveland gave up 138 yards in the final 5:30. All the prevent defense prevents is punts!

Butch Davis
"Sorry if I don't make eye-contact. I'm already drunk."
In the game's final minutes, what Cleveland needed was conservatism -- running to kill the clock, and straight defense instead of the dreaded fraidy-cat prevent. Davis failed to see this. Some coaches can manage sideline decision-making under pressure and some can't.

For his part, Bill Cowher adjusted by having his offense switch to no-huddle after falling behind 27-14; immediately things got better. Cowher did make one deeply puzzling call. Trailing 17-7 on the first possession of the second half, the Steelers faced third-and-one at their 38. Cowher sent in the always-injured-in-big-games Jerome Bettis, who had not appeared to that point. Looking sluggish, Bettis took the handoff and lost two. The Oranges scored on their ensuing drive to make it a 24-7 lead. Bettis was immediately yanked, this being the sole snap on which he appeared. If not for the Steeler comeback, purists would be pointing to putting in an injury player for a critical play an incredible boneheaded move.

Mega-Babe Update: Ads for ABC's new show "The Bachelorette" aren't shy about displaying its mega-babe subject, dancer Trista Rehn, looking scrumptious in a bikini. Rehn was runner-up in "The Bachelor." You mean to say that Alex "The Bachelor" guy chose Amanda, the event planner from Kansas over Trista the mega-bod because he was actually attracted to Amanda for her mind? Talk about lack of realism!

(ESPN.com and ABC are owned by the same corporate parent. TMQ shamelessly sucks up to ABC and considers this fine so long as it's disclosed. Watch "The Bachelorette" season premiere Wednesday at 9!)

Stats of the Week: On Sunday, the home teams fell behind by a combined 71-35, then came back by a combined 40-0.

Stats of the Week No. 2: In a six-day period, Jersey/B scored 83 points.

The Bachelorette
How many guys are on this show? Um, no thanks.
Stats of the Week No. 3: In a three-week period, the Lucky Charms lost to Jersey/A and Jersey/B by a combined 85-27.

Stats of the Week No. 4: Jersey/B, which in a six-day period beat the Packers and Colts by a combined 83-17, two weeks earlier lost to Chicago.

Stats of the Week No. 5: Indianapolis finished just 17 of 28 on third-and-one snaps on the year.

Stats of the Week No. 6: Five players finished the 2002 season with a passer rating of 158.3, highest possible under the NFL's cryptic formula. All were non-QBs who threw a single pass, complete for a touchdown. Who finished with the highest rating among starting quarterbacks? Chad Pennington.

Stats of the Week No. 7: Of the 33 games Butch Davis has coached for the Cleveland Oranges (Release 2.1), 20 have gone down to the final play.

Stats of the Week No. 8: The new streak for playoff victories when the game temperature is below freezing is held by Atlanta.

Playoff Coaching Pressure Analysis No. 4 -- Giants at Niners: Steve Mariucci fell behind big at home. Was his team overconfident? Unprepared? TMQ had been warning in recent weeks that the Squared Sevens looked unfocused. But whatever mistakes Mariucci made in preparation, he compensated for by an outstanding sideline performance.

Jeff Garcia
Hottest dancing in Cali since Mark Madsen.
Once the Niners were behind 38-14 in the third and a full-bore emergency was in progress, Mariucci didn't shrug and concede as Tony Dungy did in a comparable situation. (See "Why Are You Punting?") Mariucci and his assistants made two significant adjustments. First, they let the offense go no-huddle, and immediately it snapped out of its funk. The tempo of no-huddle seemed to cure whatever had been ailing the Niners' attack. San Francisco even went no-huddle when the clock was stopped, several times rushing to the line for a quick hike after an incompletion. The Giants seemed incapable of sustaining such a pace -- it helped that their bodies were three time-zones off. By the mid fourth quarter, the Jersey/A front seven was sucking air, visibly exhausted.

Mariucci and his staff made a significant shift on defense as well. The Niners opened in a man-to-man, crowding the line to stop the Jersey run, about which San Francisco was concerned -- Tiki Barber was the only top-10 rusher to make the postseason. In the first half, the Giants reacted correctly, throwing against the man. And despite the fact that San Francisco has carpeted-bombed the cornerback position with high draft picks (three No. 1s and two No. 2s in recent years), Niners corners needed only butter and jam to make toast. All six Giants' scoring drives came against man defenses. Late in the third, the Niners switched to a two-deep zone. This made Jersey/A passes more difficult, and the Giants failed to score again in the game. Of course, the two-deep has its own weaknesses; see below. At any rate Mariucci's two tactical changes sparked a 24-0 run and the second-best playoff comeback in the known history of the universe.

As for Jim Fassel, he obviously has done quite a bit right. From the early-November point at which he took over playcalling, and at which Fassel is clearly gifted, the Giants went 7-3, made an improbable playoff run and came within a botched snap of glorious victory on a distant field. Fassel, like Butch Davis, also came into a hostile stadium with an aggressive game plan and executed it well through the first three quarters.

But like Davis, Fassel did not adjust as game conditions changed. When the Niners shifted to a two-deep zone, they offered the visitors the run. Leading by 24 points with only a little more than a quarter remaining, a deep zone against which to run should have been exactly what the Giants wanted. Rush! Grind the clock!

Jim Fassel
"Hey! My offense still scored 38 points!"
Yet from the point that Jersey/A took its 38-14 lead with 4:30 remaining in the third, until the Giants began their frantic final-minute drive to recover from the collapse, Fassel called seven passes and five runs. Had the Giants simply run up the middle for no gain on every one of those snaps, they probably would now be preparing to play Tampa. Yet Fassel seemed incapable of doing the obvious and simply grinding the clock. He appeared so in love with the thought of running up the score and getting praised for another offensive-genius performance, so eager to see Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer dance and finger-point anew, that he ignored one of the most basic premises of football tactics: when ahead late, go boring and run. And he ignored this basic premise when the Niners were showing a run-friendly defensive look. Ye gods.

The killer stat about the mother of all playoff comebacks, Buffalo rallying from a 35-3 deficit in the third to beat the old Houston Oilers, was that from the point at which the Oilers took their 35-3 lead, they passed 22 times and rushed six times. This was in the pass-wacky "run-and-shoot" era, when Houston did not even have a tight end on the roster. Still, had the Oilers simply rushed up the middle for no gain on every snap after taking the 35-3 edge, Buffalo would have run out of time, and the mother of all comebacks would not have happened.

Sunday's daughter of all comebacks was different, as Fassel did make some attempt to rush after attaining the big edge. But the dynamic was the same: neither the Oilers, ahead by 32, nor the Giants, ahead by 24, could accept that the timekeeper was now their opponent, and the way to defeat the timekeeper is by going boring. The Oilers of 1993 and the Giants of 2003 each seemed obsessed with more points so there would be more to boast about in the morning; each kept putting the ball in the air; each paid the price, and the football gods chortled.

Giants coaching breakdown footnote No. 1: Leading by five with three minutes left, Jersey/A faced fourth-and-one at the San Francisco 24. The Niners were down to two timeouts.

Matt Bryant
Somewhere, Scott Norwood is laughing hysterically.
Normally you'd say kick for an eight-point lead and two chances to win the endgame: first by stopping a touchdown, second by stopping a deuce try. But the Giants have had shaky kicking all season, and changed long snappers last week owing to an injury. In his heyday, Trey Junkin was one of the best snappers ever, lauded in TMQ's disquisition on snappers. But Junkin is also a 19-year vet who retired after the Cowboys released him in training camp. He was awakened from a sound sleep last Tuesday morning with an offer to report to the Giants on Wednesday. Junkin was such a recent arrival that the team's official roster for the Niners gamelisted him as a "rookie" and was blank on college and age.

At any rate the options Fassel faced were try for the first -- at least a 50/50 chance -- and the game is probably over; or kick and hit; or kick and miss and the Niners get good field position. Since the run was going well, the Giants averaging 4.1 yards per carry, going for it seemed attractive. Instead, Fassel kicked and missed, following a bad snap. The memory of the failed fourth-and-one in the Giants' season opener against the Niners must have been in Fassel's mind. But that was then and this was now. Knowing, as Fassel did, how bollixed his snapper situation was, why did he take a long-shot chance on a field goal that only somewhat helps, rather than a 50/50 chance on victory?

Best Loss of 15: With Cleveland leading 14-7 and two minutes left in the half, second-and-goal, Oranges wideout Kevin Johnson got the ball on a trick play that was supposed to be a pass back to the quarterback. Black-clad gentlemen in his face, Johnson simply took the sack, losing 15 yards. "What a great play!" TMQ exclaimed. Most trick-play men in this situation heave-ho a crazy pass. As it was, Cleveland notched a field goal on the possession and had a solid 10-point lead when the boys went in for hot cocoa at the half.

Best Self-Actualization: Three weeks ago, the Squared Sevens lost to the Packers in part because Jeff Garcia passed rather than running on several key downs. TMQ wrote, "The ethos of the quarterback -- enforced by sports pundits and bobblehead comments -- is that passing yards somehow count more than scramble yards. Though the gentleman in question scrambles effectively, you could almost see Garcia mentally calculating that it is more impressive to throw for the deciding gain than to run for it. Oh, how the Niners would later wish he had run." The item concluded, "Memo to Jeff Garcia: come to terms with yourself. You like to run. That's okay. Just run."

In the Niners' daughter of all comebacks, Garcia ran seven times for 60 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown off the naked boot. Jeff Garcia has come to terms with himself. He likes to run. That's okay. Just run.

Tony Dungy
No, Tony it isn't the swamp. It's your team that stinks.
Why Are You Punting?Trailing 27-0 in the middle of the third, the Colts faced fourth-and-eight from their 43. There's no tomorrow. There's no ranking computer that takes into account margin of victory or defeat. Indianapolis has no choice but to go for it! Instead Tony Dungy calls a punt. TMQ writes the words "game over" in his notebook, and for emphasis the Jets score on their ensuing possession. Sure fourth and eight is a long shot, but trailing by 27 you've got to take some chances, and this is a chance at midfield. Bad enough that NFL coaches, more concerned with avoiding criticism than going all-out to win, punt when trailing big late in regular-season games. But in playoff games there's no tomorrow! Why are you punting?

Why Are You Kicking? Behind 27-7 at the end of the third quarter, the Packers faced fourth-and-ten at the Atlanta 26. There's no tomorrow. There's no ranking computer that takes into account margin of victory or defeat. Green Bay has no choice but to go for it! Mike Sherman calls a field-goal attempt, and TMQ writes the words "game over" in his notebook; outraged, the football gods push the try wide. Even had the field goal hit, the Packers still would have trailed by three scores. Bad enough that NFL coaches, more concerned with avoiding criticism than going all-out to win, listlessly order field-goal attempts when trailing big late in regular-season games. But in playoff games there's no tomorrow! Why are you kicking?

Also, Pepsi Blue Would Be Great Without the Blue: Over the holidays, the Official Family of TMQ sampled new Vanilla Diet Coke. Official Brother Frank exclaimed, "This would taste pretty good if they took out the vanilla." Hey -- what a marketing concept! Coke, are you listening?

Music City Miracle; Candlestick Memory Lapse G-Person fans are groaning on this admission from the league that offsetting penalties should have been called on the final play of the Niners-Giants game, allowing a re-kick. And it's worse than the league admission makes it sound. Check the official Game Book, and you will see that guard Rich Seubert, who had reported eligible, was the one flagged for being illegally downfield. He was a legal receiver and should have drawn the pass-interference flag. Another Giants OL was downfield illegally, which is why the correct call would have been offsetting penalties and do-over for Jersey/A.

This is a reason why OLs should not play end in field-goal formations. Zebras are human beings, and they judge who's allowed downfield by the numbers on their jerseys. Some coaches believe you should never have linemen in the end positions for field goals, have tight ends or fullbacks there -- because if they do wind up downfield, by human nature the zebras might not remember which one was supposed to be eligible. This problem doesn't happen on tackle-eligible trick plays, because there's only one OL reporting as eligible and the fact that he is reporting is unusual and sticks in the officials' minds. Linemen reporting eligible on field goal attempts, on the other hand, are routine events and 99.9 percent of the time mean nothing to the play. The one time it did, the zebras forgot.

Bonus measure of human nature: none of the Fox bobbleheads who talked about the replay on and off for 15 minutes noticed this, either. Most telling, even the Giants coaches did not notice! Fassel did not protest to officials at the time that Seubert was eligible, and no Giants coaches mentioned it in the immediate aftermath of the game. Only after reviewing film did the Giants' own staff realize their man was eligible. Like many teams, the Giants before kickoff told the officials they would have linemen in eligible positions on every field-goal play; by the time the crunch happened almost four hours later, both officials and Giants staff had forgotten. Teams should avoid this problem by having gentlemen with eligible numbers in eligible positions on field goals, and lining up blockers as eligible only on trick plays.

TMQ Non-QB Non-RB MVP: The Associated Press MVP award has gone to Rich Gannon. Or rather, one should say the Associated Press Best QB/RB award has gone to Gannon. The AP trophy, generally recognized as the official NFL MVP designation -- the league itself treats it this way -- has been handed out to 47 gentlemen over the years. Just five were neither quarterbacks nor running backs: Gino Marchetti, Joe Schmidt, Alan Page, Mark Moseley and Lawrence Taylor.

The Sporting News NFL Player of the Year award, due soon, should likewise be called the Sporting News Best QB/RB award. This prize has gone to 53 gentlemen over the years and a mere two, Taylor and Lou Groza, were not offensive backfield glory boys.

Which brings us to the really big award of the season, the TMQ NFL Non-QB Non-RB MVP.

Rich Gannon
You don't win an MVP without someone making sure you don't end up eating turf.
TMQ is a purist and views "most valuable" through the lens of meaning: Whose loss would have hurt his team most? Linebacker Derrick Brooks, the only non-QB non-RB to receive a vote in this year's MVP balloting, would be an attractive choice. He led the Bucs defense to a No. 1 finish, and scored three touchdowns on pick returns. Jason Taylor was a legit Non-QB Non-RB MVP candidate until he went mental in the closing minutes of Miami's collapse at Disposable Razor Field, but then the entire Marine Mammals team went mental along with him. Pittsburgh's Joey Porter is also a legit candidate. Lance Schulters might have meant more to his defense than any other player in the league this season, including Brooks; he was the main reason Tennessee's defense rebounded from an awful year in 2001 to monster status in 2002. The Philadelphia offense would have been going nowhere fast without Tra Thomas. Same for Jersey/B without Kevin Mawae.

Worthy as these gentlemen are, the 2002 TMQ NFL Non-QB Non-RB MVP is Lincoln Kennedy of the Raiders. Oakland finished first in offense in part because no one bothered Gannon while he sat back watching those crossing routes and "rub" patterns develop. Everybody knew Oakland was pass-wacky; everybody knew another pass was coming; nobody could put a sweaty hand on Gannon's jersey. Fine line play was the key to the Raiders' success this season. Kennedy was the best Raider lineman, maybe the best lineman of 2002 period, and is the TMQ NFL Non-QB Non-RB MVP.

'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Than Never to Have Rushed at All No. 1: Leading 33-28 with the Pittsburgh comeback in progress and the Ketchup Field crowd generating afterburner-decibel noise, the Cleveland Oranges (Release 2.1) had the ball at their 23 with 3:06 remaining and the Steelers holding two timeouts. The Oranges went run, incompletion, incompletion, punt; Pittsburgh got the ball back at 2:35 remaining, Cleveland having burned a paltry 31 seconds - and left the Steelers holding a timeout, since the incompletions stopped the clock.

Both Cleveland incompletions were drops beyond the first-down marker; had either been caught, the Oranges probably would have won. Especially here, had the Oranges simply rushed up the middle for no gain on all three plays, the Steelers might have run out of time. At the least, Pittsburgh would have been nervous about the clock on the closing plays. As it was, the Steelers arrived in the shadow of the Cleveland goal line with a minute left, sufficient time to feel confident.

TMQ, Grammar Snob:"It looks like we'll have cold temperatures tomorrow." Weather-bobbleheads constantly use this construction. But temperatures are mathematical concepts. Temperatures can be high or low, weather can be cold or warm: there cannot be cold temperatures.

Genie costume
I think it's safe to say we all dream of genie now.
TMQ Is Better Than Other Football Columns Because It's Raunchier: Officials of Frederick's of Hollywood, which is attempting a comeback, recently told the Wall Street Journal their wares are better than those of Victoria's Secret because Frederick's is "raunchier." Hailey of the Sea Gals, you'd better discuss with the marketing department the need to get raunchier. This is, after all, a long-term national trend. Check the latest in erotic corset technology here. For the holidays, any babe would look like a present in a genie-themed teddy. Frederick's naughty French maid's costume is much better than the one in the Budweiser ad, but is the model holding a duster or a whip? Frederick's signature feather boa now comes in four colors.

In another sign of the decline of Western civilization, the company has begun selling men's apparel too. Female and nontraditional male readers, check out the washboard abs of the hunk displaying the tiger kimono robe.

'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Than Never to Have Rushed at All No. 2: Trailing 21-0 in the second quarter, the Packers had first-and-goal at the Falcons' one. Did Green Bay pound, pound, pound for the 99-percent likely score? Passes on two of four snaps, both incomplete, turnover on downs, ye gods. "Why is Green Bay passing so much from the one?" asked Grant, an Official Child of TMQ. To which TMQ could only reply, "Because they plan on ending their home playoff winning streak."

Maybe It Could Be Steven Spielberg's The Park at Candlestick Directed by Steven Spielberg: "Here at the -- what is this stadium called?" Joe Buck asked while broadcasting the Giants-Niners. The other bobbleheads couldn't answer, and several times through the broadcast referred to the mystery of what the field is called now.

3com Park
Forget the scoreboard, the name on the park should be digital.
Once it was Candlestick Park, one of the storied names in sports. Then it was 3Com Park, a storied name in tech stocks just long enough to bilk thousands of investors. The Visa card commercials (the ones that show a Garcia touchdown pass) still call it 3Com Park, and the Niners official site does too. When, however, 3Com stopped payment on its checks, the San Francisco City Council renamed the venue The Park at Candlestick Point. Please! The new name sounds like a condo development, or a fern bar with chardonnay at $12 the glass. Why not just revert to Candlestick Park, one of the storied names in sports?

From now until it gets a real name, TMQ will refer to this facility as Ye Olde Parke at Candlestick Pointe.

Two Cheers for Terrell Owens: What to make of Terrell Owens? After the Niners scored to take a 39-38 lead with a minute left, he committed personal fouls on successive downs -- first taunting, then a late hit. Either might have given Jersey/B excellent field position for a field goal to win, had not the Giants' Shaun Williams each time jumped in and committed an offsetting, equally boneheaded foul in retaliation against Owens. Williams ended up the Dwayne-Rudd-esque idiot of the game.

But imprudent as TO made himself seem, TMQ must note that when the Niners scored to make it 38-20 with barely more than a quarter remaining -- it's over, right? -- Owens went absolutely nuts, exhorting his teammates, screaming at them on the sidelines that they had to pull it out. He continued to be emotionally pumped throughout the contest, going nuts after almost every play. Owens' emotion might have helped the Niners more than any of his catches or deuces as the daughter of all comebacks proceeded. The football gods might not approve of dumb penalties Owens committed, but they smiled on his commitment. Great comebacks start with someone who refuses to lose.

Antwaan Randle El
Thanks to Antwaan, you'll have to take the Browns to the Super Bowl in private.
Sweet Play of the Day: Scoring with 54 seconds left to take the lead at 34-33, the Steelers wanted a deuce -- when the endgame is clear, even TMQ favors the 40 percent deuce try. Tommy Maddox sprinted off the field. Hines Ward lined up at quarterback, then went in motion. Antwaan Randle El took the direct snap and rolled right, then threw to Jerame Tuman for two. What a sweet play. But -- can't anyone on the Steelers use standard first-name spellings? ("Jerame" is pronounced "Jeremy.")

Maybe the Jets Line Should Be the Non-QB Non-RB MVP: As TMQ endlessly notes, screen passes, which should be high-percentage plays, often wheeze out because linemen charge downfield as if they themselves were running for touchdowns, neglecting to paste the first guy they can put a pad on. Often screen blockers end up hitting no one, so intent are they in charging downfield as if they themselves were running for touchdowns. Also, screen blockers tend to ignore pursuers behind the ballcarrier, though screen runners are often caught from behind.

Game scoreless in the first, on Jersey/B's first possession Richie Anderson took a screen 56 yards to the house owing to perfecto blocking. Guard Randy Thomas and center Kevin Mawae led the play. Thomas pancaked the first gentlemen he could put a pad on -- screen blockers, never try to guess where the play is going, just take out the closest guy and let the runner make the decisions. Mawae saw a gentleman coming up from behind, peeled back and pancaked him. Beauty-to-behold blocking.

Aging, knees-creaking Jets guard Dave Szott also pulled and pancaked Colts DE Brad Scioli at the corner on Lamont Jordan's second-quarter touchdown. Other Jets' blocking was consistently outstanding, Chad Pennington having that clean, freshly-pressed-uniform look throughout the contest. The Jets put up one of the best blocking games TMQ has ever seen.

Or Maybe Scott Gragg: Though Jeff Garcia dropped back to pass 48 times, the Giants sacked him zero times. All-boasting Jersey/A end Michael Strahan, who has celebrated his mega contract by taking much of the season off, never got close enough to advise Garcia to use Rogaine. Strahan was a non-factor - no sacks, two tackles - despite the Niners' line missing two starters during the furious fourth-quarter comeback. Strahan was neutralized by the almost-tastefully named Scott Gragg, who pushed Strahan around as if the extremely overpaid gentleman were a practice squad player. And when TO danced after the touchdown that made it 38-20, Strahan did an act too, screaming at Owens to look at the scoreboard. Strahan, however, did not back his boasting with play; Owens did.

Hidden Play: Sometimes the biggest downs don't show up in the box scores, but sustain or stop drives. Jersey/A 38, San Francisco 30 with 10:36 remaining, the Squared Sevens faced fourth-and-one on the Giants' 29. A stop by Jersey/A and the furious Niners' comeback might wheeze out. Jeff Garcia play-faked, then eyed his primary, then checked off to his secondary, then checked off to Tai Streets over the middle for a junky-looking four-yard gain. The Niners score a field goal on the possession and go on to win by one. This junky-looking four-yard gain was the biggest hidden play of a fantastic NFL weekend.

Also, note that the Niners took a chance on fourth-and-one in the fourth while the Giants did not in nearly identical circumstances. And whom did the football gods smile upon?

Dippin' Dots
They can invent this, but I can't get a signal on my cell phone.
In Star Trek, the Ice Cream of the Future Has Been Altered by Time Travel: Many sports facilities now sell Dipping Dots, "the ice cream of the future." TMQ is content to eat the ice cream of the past.

Football Gods Make Good a Debt One man was involved in both the Mother of All Comebacks, Buffalo-Houston in 1993, and the Daughter of All Comebacks, San Francisco-Jersey/A on Sunday. Bruce DeHaven was special-teams coach for the Bills in 1993, and is for the Niners now. DeHaven has now twice had the out-of-body experience most coaches never have, that of seeing his charges overcome an impossible lead while feeling the energy of a home crowd going nuts.

DeHaven was also the Buffalo special-teams coach for the Music City Miracle play; he was fired the following day, which is why he now toils in San Francisco. Pretty much everyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line continues to feel the Music City Miracle should have been flagged as a forward lateral. But if the football gods were cruel to DeHaven then, they repaid him Sunday as another blown call enabled DeHaven's kick defense unit to stop the Giants on the final play.

Harmonic Convergence: The last two playoffs games at Giants Stadium have both ended 41-0 for the home team.

Running Items Department:
Fiesta Bowl Bonus Coverage: Both of Miami's passing touchdowns came on big-blitzes by Ohio State, while the Buckeyes' third-and-10 interception, and several other third-and-long stops, came with Ohio State playing straight defense.

Reaching first-and-goal at the Ohio State one in the second overtime, needing a touchdown to ensure a third extra session, did Miami simply pound, pound, pound for the 99-percent likely six? Two runs and two incompletions, Ohio State is national champion. "Why is Miami passing so much from the one?" asked Grant, an Official Child of TMQ. To which TMQ could only reply, "Because they plan on ending their winning streak."

Ken Dorsey
To sum up, TMQ is always right.
The final play, fourth-and-goal from the two, was governed by TMQ's immutable law of the goal line, Regular Pass = Defeat. At the goal line, the defense has so little territory to defend that you can power-run, play-fake or roll out, but you can't regular pass. What did Miami call on fourth-and-goal from the two? Regular pass, and to top if off, Kenny Dorsey sprints backward. The defensive set, in which linebacker Cie Grant forced Dorsey into throwing the ball into the turf, might have looked like a big-blitz but wasn't. Four gentlemen pass-rushed.

Between the Miami-New England NFL game and this, Miami the city has been involved in two mega games in two weeks, and come out on the losing end of both. As fantastic as the BCS finale was, however, TMQ continues to believe the event in Tempe should be renamed the Fiasco Bowl.

New York Times Final-Score Score:. The Paper of Guesses returns to its habitual 0-4 in its triumphant attempt to predict an exact final score, bringing the New York Times Final-Score Score to 1-779 since TMQ began tracking.

Reader Animadversion: Quasi-suspended this week as TMQ did not read email over the holiday break. Though in our continuing coverage of the vital public-policy issue of the Eagles' cheer-babes lingerie calendar, many readers have asked to see the pose by Michelle, whose team bio says she is a professional dancer who is studying for her degree in elementary education. Once again unlike any teacher you or I ever had! Buy the calendar, which arrives in plain brown wrapping, here.

Got a comment or a deeply felt grievance? Register it here.

I believe Van Halen said it best: "I'm hot for teacher."
TMQ Challenge: Last summer TMQ and the Official Wife of TMQ dined in Aspen, Colorado, on the tab of the super-respectable Aspen Institute, at the ultra-chic Pacifica restaurant. We do not know if our presence caused those sitting nearby to cease feeling ultra-chic.

One item on the menu: a dessert of white chocolate jalapeno mousse. Chocolate jalapeno! Wacky or pretentious combinations of ingredients have taken over restaurants; TMQ expects to see reduction of blueberry-alioli-asiago-seaweed compote on the menu at Denny's soon. A few years ago, I began to think that every possible weird combination of food ingredients had already been used. Evidently I was wrong.

What's the most wacky or pretentious thing you've seen on a restaurant menu lately? Submit here, identifying the establishment by name and city and including a Web address if the restaurant has one.

A final note. According to my contract, negotiated for me by Jon Kitna, I get a huge bonus if this column runs just six words longer. So, Happy New Year to -- .

{To ESPN.com editors from ESPN corporate management: please delete the word "you" at the end of the Easterbrook column.}

Posted by tien mao in TMQ at 5:12 PM



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