Monthly Archives: November 2012

Hopelessness the worst of things for NFL fans

andy-dufresne

Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.”

     – the indefatigable Andy Dufresne in Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption

By contrast, the worst of things – if you’re a football fan – is the prolonged misery of watching your team come up short.

Under the same head coach. Under the same starting quarterback. The same painful ways. Over multiple seasons.

There isn’t a shard of hope to be found anywhere in that half-mile-long sewage pipe.

The angriest fan bases in the NFL are mired in such hopelessness. Long gone in their cities is the grace period a new head coach is afforded, or a new starting quarterback. Fans of those fresh-faced teams can rationalize the initial losses, clinging to the best of things – hope for the future.

Not so much for fans of lousy teams with established head coaches and quarterbacks.

One way to identify those in the Hopelessness club is by going back exactly one year and figuring out which NFL teams do not have a winning record in the interim.

This week there are 19.

Five are under the guidance of a new coach in 2012, trying to install new schemes and a new culture – namely, Jacksonville’s Mike Mularkey, Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano, St. Louis’ Jeff Fisher, Oakland’s Dennis Allen and Kansas City’s Romeo Crennel.

They’re all getting a pass locally – well, except for Crennel. And rightly so. His Chiefs are by far the sloppiest, least-inspired team in the league.

Then there are the four teams breaking in a new quarterback – Ryan Tannehill in Miami, Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, Jake Locker in Tennessee, and Robert Griffin III in Washington. That’s a legitimate asterisk. Yet Browns head coach Pat Shurmur is on thin ice, and Titans head coach Mike Munchak is already waist deep in the water.

That leaves 10 other teams sporting a .500 or worse record since Dec. 1, 2011 – teams that returned the same head coach and same starting QB. They are Buffalo, the New York Jets, Dallas, Carolina, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minnesota, San Diego, Cincinnati and Arizona.

With the exception of Minnesota and Cincinnati, these are the hot-seat furniture-manufacturing capitals of America. Eight teams.

Their head coaches and, in most cases, their quarterbacks are getting slaughtered by fans and the local press.

The worst of these Eight-Ain’t-Greats is Buffalo.

The Bills are 5-11 since Dec. 1, 2011: 1-4 to end last season, and 4-7 this season. Head coach Chan Gailey and his quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, if anything, are getting worse together in Year 3.

Gailey can keep restating his belief in Fitzpatrick until his beard actually grows in. Bills fans aren’t listening anymore. They don’t need a subscription to ProFootballFocus.com to see that Fitz can’t complete passes downfield like a good NFL thrower should. With the playoffs all but out of reach for the 13th straight year, sections worth of empty seats remain for Buffalo’s final three home games.

A trio of the Eight-Ain’t-Greats are 6-10 over the past 12 months: the New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. Rex Ryan expresses full faith in Mark Sanchez in New York. Ditto Jason Garrett in the Cowboys’ Tony Romo. Fans hate them for it. The Panthers’ Cam Newton, at least, still has a world of unextracted talent and upside; whether head coach Ron Rivera survives to extract it is another matter.

The two 7-9 Eight-Ain’t-Greats are Detroit and Philadelphia.

Jim Schwartz did wonders to turn the 0-16 club he inherited in 2009 into a worthy playoff team last year. But little has gone right this year for Detroit, as QB Matt Stafford has battled injuries and inaccuracy. The locals are mad. They’ve seen this act for decades: overachieving Lions team makes playoffs, then lamely returns to loser-lite status the following year.

As for the Eagles, even head coach Andy Reid and QB Michael Vick must inwardly want out of Philly by now. It’s over.

Finally, the two 8-8 Eight-Ain’t-Greats. (Say that five times.)

Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona has a helluva defence. But he’s handled his returning quarterbacks – Kevin Kolb and John Skelton – horribly.

And Norv Turner in San Diego is … not going to be in San Diego much longer. Locals have had it with him, his longtime quarterback Phil Rivers and their disappointing seasons.

All these coaches can only hope they wind up like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank – crawling through a river of you-know-what before coming out clean on the other side.

And the fans? They just want their teams to get busy living – not dying.

 

IN THE PAST 52 WEEKS …..

Teams with the worst records in the NFL since the end of Week 12 last year:

TEAM                  SINCE DEC. 1        NEW COACH?   NEW QB?

Cleveland                3-13                            No                             Yes

Jacksonville           4-12                            Yes                             No

Oakland                  4-12                            Yes                             No

Kansas City            4-12                            Yes                             No

St. Louis                 4-11-1                         Yes                             No

Buffalo                 5-11                          No                           No

NY Jets                6-10                          No                           No

Dallas                    6-10                          No                          No

Carolina               6-10                          No                          No

Tennessee               7-9                              No                            Yes

Philadelphia       7-9                           No                           No

Detroit                   7-9                           No                           No

Minnesota           7-9                            No                           No

San Diego             8-8                          No                            No

Cincinnati           8-8                           No                            No

Arizona                 8-8                          No                            No

Miami                     8-8                             Yes                             Yes

Boldface indicates teams with a returning head coach and starting quarterback in 2012.

 

Class warfare: 2nd-year QBs outplaying rookies

CHARTRookies, shmookies. The NFL’s second-year quarterbacks are putting up better numbers than their more celebrated rookie counterparts.

A comparison of the stats put up so far by the six second-year QBs who have started games this season, versus those of the seven rookie starters, offers some surprising numbers.

The second-years have thrown 356 fewer passes, but connected on 10 more touchdowns and 16 fewer interceptions – with a passer rating that’s 7.4 points higher. (See chart at right — this snap of how it appears in print looks far better than my ox-knuckled attempt to chart it up in WordPress.)

Of course it makes intuitive sense that a group of players with double the experience would perform better.

But all we seem to hear about anymore – and, admittedly, we’re as guilty as anyone – is how wonderful the rookies are, such as Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck, and how woeful the Cam Newtons and Blaine Gabberts of the 2011 class are.

As is often the case, perception belies reality.

Leading the way for the second-years is Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals.

He got off to a hot start in September, then cooled, but since late October has it together again. Dalton is up to 11th in the league in passer rating (94.0), having completed 63% of his throws for 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

Dalton and A.J. Green are as formidable a pass-and-catch combo as any in the league, having connected on touchdowns in all but two games.

We’ve documented Newton’s struggles this year, but in November the Carolina Panther seems to have finally found a groove in the new zone-read offence concocted for him by head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Newton finally is throwing more touchdowns than interceptions on the season (11-10), and is ripping open his imaginary Clark Kent suit almost as often as he did in his sensational debut last year.

If he can ever stay healthy, Jake Locker of the Tennessee Titans has shown promising glimpses. His forte is making plays outside the pocket with his speed, accuracy on the run and creativity.

After riding the bench last year behind b, Locker won the starter’s job in training camp and looked good in early September before shoulder injuries sidelined him for weeks.

Locker is back now, and with a TD-to-interception ratio of 7-4 he has a passer rating of 84.5, better than that of all rookies except RG3 and Russell Wilson.

Christian Ponder seemed to have turned the corner in Year 2 of starting for the Minnesota Vikings, but he hit a wall a month ago, reverting to his scattershot, mostly ineffective rookie form.

It says here that it’s no coincidence Ponder’s plummet began the week the Vikings lost one of the league’s most prolific and dynamic wide receivers in 2012, Percy Harvin (to a badly sprained ankle).

Observers of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Blaine Gabbert in spring workouts and summer training camp were convinced he was no longer the way-over-his-head rookie. His passes were snapping, his accuracy much improved and his confidence in the pocket actually detectable.

Then the season started.

Until he was lost for the year a week ago Sunday in Houston, Gabbert was barely better. That discarded Dolphin Chad Henne has been lighting it up the past two weeks with the same Jaguars cast is further indictment of Gabbert’s play.

Finally, there’s Colin Kaepernick.

He has started fewer NFL games than any of the second-years – two, both in the past two weeks. Yet already Kaepernick has shown more upside than most of the newbies.

That Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh would bench Alex Smith – who only led Frisco to within an overtime field goal of the Super Bowl last year – in favour of Kaepernick last week in New Orleans tells you how much his own coaches think of him.

But more than that, the second-round draft pick last year out of the University of Nevada has shown the whole league he can be special.

“I think clearly Colin has gotten better mechanically,” ESPN analyst Ron Jaworkski told reporters on a conference call last week. “He’s got incredible natural ability, but he’s got a ways to go as far as getting better, shortening his stroke, being more accurate with his throwing. (But) he’s pretty darn good right now.”

It is Kaepernick’s downfield throwing – not his mobility and elusiveness as a zone-read runner – that has given him an edge over Smith. The threat of a consistently improved vertical passing game can render the 49ers’ already potent rushing attack even more lethal.

There’s one more second-year quarterback who might get his first big career break before the season is out.

Ricky Stanzi backs up Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel in Kansas City. Asked last week if Stanzi might yet play in 2012, Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel said:
“There’s always a scenario, and we’ll have to evaluate that and see.”

Stanzi would be the 14th first- or second-year quarterback to start a game this year, and the 15th to take a snap with an outcome still in doubt. (Rookie Kirk Cousins filled in for an injured RG3 against Atlanta in September.)

The super sophs vs. the remarkable rookies might make for a captivating class warfare for years to come.

 

Sizing up NFL’s Thanksgiving Day feast

Thanksgiving

Here’s what’s on the menu Thursday for the NFL’s annual all-day U.S. Thanksgiving tripleheader. Sprinkle sage, rosemary or brown sugar to taste…

 

COFFEE-TABLE NIBBLIES

Houston Texans (9-1) at Detroit Lions (4-6)

12:30 p.m. EST (CBS/Citytv)

TEXAS CHILI: We mean the Texans, on both sides of the ball. Packs a wallop (RB Arian Foster on the ground), yet is amply sweet (the air attack led by QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson). The Bears and Jaguars were the latest to discover that if you take away one half of this killer concoction, the other just zaps your palate all the more.

MIXED NUTS: Of course, we mean the Detroit Lions defensive line. Despite the Lions’ inability to win many football games this season, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Co. have begun to take charge and realize all that potential. But they’re going against arguably the league’s best offensive line. Suh probably won’t have a stompin’-good time.

WHINE AND CRACKERS: Lions centre Dominic Raiola must be crackers to say what he did Tuesday. Evidently sick of hearing how great Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is, Raiola whined and literally told Watt to bring it on. Expect Watt and his dominating DL teammates to do just that.

HOME-COOKING SURPRISE: This is the 73rd time the Lions have played on U.S. Thanksgiving, as entrenched an NFL tradition as there is. The Lions know how to gear up for a Thursday game better than most teams. And this is the 50th anniversary of probably the Lions’ biggest Thanksgiving Day win ever – a thrashing of Vince Lombardi’s best and otherwise unbeaten Green Bay team. Detroit should be ready.

 

DINNER

Washington Redskins (4-6) at Dallas Cowboys (5-5)

4:15 p.m. EST (FOX/Citytv)

TURKEY: Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. No, it’s not like that. This time we mean he’s the main course. Seriously. Romo is 5-0 as a starter on Thanksgiving, competing 67% of his passes for 18 TDs against only 5 INTs, and a passer rating of 117.5. Now that’s a main course. Stuff that, Romo haters!

CANDIED YAMS: Yes, Robert Griffin III. The Redskins QB is the perfect complement to the plain, sleepy turkey that is Romo. RG3 returns to his home state (he played college ball at nearby Baylor), where he’s loved. You can bet he wants to impress with some sweet plays in such a marquee setting.

MASHED POTATOES: That would be both teams’ defences, whose star performers have been mashed by injuries all season. The Cowboys’ D, however, doesn’t get whipped like the Redskins’ usually does.

HALF-BAKED HAM: Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. This one makes the whole Thanksgiving analogy work.

GRAVY: If the Cowboys win, they add a little more pressure to the New York Giants on Sunday night, who play host to streaking Green Bay. A Cowboys win and a Giants loss, and they’d be tied atop the NFC East, at 6-5.

BITS OF STUFFING: Redskins rookie RB Alfred Morris has rushed for 75+ yards in 8 of 10 games … Skins LB London Fletcher had 16 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble the last time he played the Cowboys … Dallas OLB DeMarcus Ware has five sacks in his last four games vs. the Skins.

 

DESSERT TABLE

New England Patriots (7-3) at New York Jets (4-6)

8:20 p.m. EST (NBC/Sportsnet)

RUM-BRADY ICE CREAM: One of the benchmarks, often incomparable. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady rather quietly is having another ridiculously impressive season: 21 TDs vs. 3 INTs. How do you not savour that?

HEALTHY CHOICES: Rex Ryan lost more than 100 pounds this past off-season, but not much bluster. It must be killing him to go into a game against arch-nemesis Bill Belichick with a team that can’t keep up on offence, and can no longer befuddle Brady on defence. Yet the Jets almost beat the Pats in New England last month.

NO NUTCAKE: That’s right. Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski won’t play – out for a month or so with a broken left forearm. But the Pats’ other star tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is expected back from his severely sprained ankle.

PUMPKIN PIE: A lot of people don’t like it. Seldom lives up to expectations. Yet year after year it gets put out there, front and centre. Even those who like it, like it only a few days a year. We’re talking, of course, about Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.

APPLE PIE: The backup to pumpkin pie. An all-American classic. Beloved by grammas and kiddies alike. Say hello, Tim Tebow. Think Ryan and Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano have been waiting till now to fully unleash the holy terror? Neither do we.

Now there’s another thing to give thanks for, people.

 

 

How the Bills blew it at New England

Bills

Bills

Myriad shortcomings on the Buffalo Bills were exposed last Sunday on that fateful play at the end, which killed their chance at victory at New England.

Drafting, coaching, playcalling, quarterbacking, receiving – all failed in tragic synchronicity on this one play.

The situation: The Bills trail the Patriots 31-27 with 28 seconds remaining, but they have the ball on the New England 15-yard line – with no timeouts left.

Bills head coach Chan Gailey – who calls the plays on offence and is the de facto offensive coordinator – usually likes to spread the field with four or five wide receivers upon advancing deep into the red zone. It’s what he does.

In their past three games, the Bills have been woeful at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, usually from such formations.

Regardless, on this play Gailey decides to go with another five-wide empty backfield. See Photo 1 up top.  Dynamic running back C.J. Spiller (28) is flanked outside left, and star wide receiver Stevie Johnson (13) in the slot left. Gailey does this ostensibly in the hope of getting Spiller into space, or Johnson covered by a (much less agile and slower) linebacker.

To Fitzpatrick’s right are tight end Scott Chandler (84) and wide receiver Donald Jones (19) as slots, and speedy wideout T.J. Graham (11) flanked outside.

The Patriots go with a nickel package (five defensive backs), including two deep safeties. The playcall on defence is for the lone middle linebacker, Jerod Mayo, to line up deep then, on the snap, to quickly drop even further – to the goal line to become the middle safety of sorts in a three-deep zone.

Up at the scrimmage line, the other two Patriots linebackers align against the innermost receivers – with Brandon Spikes on Johnson, and Tracy White on the tight end Chandler. A cornerback faces each of the three wideouts.

So what happens? Spiller gets into wide-open space, but doesn’t get the ball.

In Photo 1, you can see by the arrows that Johnson clears out and takes both Spikes and cornerback Kyle Arrington with him, either in intended double coverage or blown coverage.

Spiller waits for Johnson to clear, then cuts hard across at the 12 – and no one picks him up. (See Photo 2, above.)

If Fitz zips a pass to him now, Spiller can turn it up and get at least to the five-yard line. With his agility, speed and ability to make tacklers miss, he might even be able to score.

But the playcall is to pass to the right. At the snap, Fitz looks left to feign throwing there, but only briefly. He then he looks right – before Spiller has had time to break across, free.

Fitz is looking all the way at Graham, running a post (that is, toward the post). The inside slots on the right both run “out” patterns, at different depths.

The play as called can still work, because the cornerback on Graham – rookie Alfonzo Dennard – lets Graham go at about the five, probably because he realizes no would be there to cover Jones on his out should Fitz throw to him.

The crucial moment: Graham – himself a rookie, and a raw one as first-year wide receivers go – screws up. Big time.

He chooses to break his route BEHIND the safety on that side, Devin McCourty. Fitz thinks Graham is going to cut IN FRONT of McCourty (see the dotted red line in Photo 3, below), and throws it accordingly.

McCourty, with Graham well behind him, then makes the world’s easiest interception, as Fitz throws it right to him. (See Photo 4 below, taken from the reverse angle.)

Afterward, Graham owned up to his gaffe. But a few days later, Johnson informed reporters that Graham shouldn’t be blamed for the error because he’d not only never run the play in a game, he’d never run it even in a practice. (!)

That’s on Gailey and his offensive coaches. Mainly Gailey. Why have Graham run the most important route of the season – to decide who wins at arch-rival New England?

Boggles the mind.

The front office’s culpability is that it knew after last season the team was desperately short of solid wide receivers. Obviously, it still is – no matter how good Graham might become. Until a few weeks ago, Gailey had been saying for months that Graham, while fast and talented, wasn’t ready to contribute.

Fitzpatrick’s culpability on the play is in proceeding with the Graham option. Presuming he never would have thrown to the blanketed Johnson, Graham was by far the most dangerous of Fitz’s other four options. Both outs on the right were available, and of course Spiller had acres of room coming across from the left.

Fails across the board.

This is what teams do that haven’t seen the playoffs in years, even with binoculars.

Bills

Bills

 

Rookie WR takes blame for ruinous Bills ending

HELMETS

It was right there for the Buffalo Bills.

An unlikely upset victory over arch-nemesis New England.

In Foxboro, where the Bills’ last victory had been one stadium and 12 years ago.

To improve to 4-5 and drop the Patriots to 5-4, and thus put Buffalo right back into the fight for the AFC East title.

And to …

Oh, why bother dragging this out. You know where this is going, so let’s just get there.

Trailing 37-31 with 28 seconds remaining, the Bills had the ball at the Patriots’ 15-yard line. Whereupon quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a dart into the end zone – straight into the waiting chest of Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

Interception, ball game, 37-31 final.

It was a tragic ending for a Bills team that, despite being flagged for an infraction seemingly every third or fourth snap, had played so much better in so many ways than it had in its demoralizing 52-28 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium in late September.

The most vexed Bills player, of course, was Fitzpatrick – he always is. He played valiantly and effectively. Until that season-crushing interception, he was 27-of-39 for 337 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

His ill-fated pass was intended for rookie wide receiver T.J. Graham who, from the right side, slanted toward the post.

“They were playing cover-2,” Fitzpatrick said. “(McCourty) was the deep-half safety (on that side). I thought I’d be able to get it to T.J., but I was unable to.”

The Bills-fan corner of Twittersphere instantly went all torch-and-pitchfork on Fitzpatrick butt at game’s end. But we tweeted at the time that it didn’t appear to be Fitzpatrick’s fault.

And it wasn’t.

Fitzpatrick sure didn’t say so – he protected Graham in his post-game comments.

And Bills head coach Chan Gailey was non-committal, saying “it depends on the look” where the receiver is supposed to take his post route in such a circumstance, so “I’ll have to watch the film to see what the depth of that thing was.”

But to his credit, Graham – the North Carolina State product with all that speed and not much polish – stood in the Gillette Stadium locker room and told reporters the gaffe was all on him.

He said he should have cut his route in front of McCourty, rather than behind him.

“That was a rookie mistake,” Graham said. “It was a good pass … I take blame for that one.

“That might be why I don’t get on the field much, I guess, (because) I make those mistakes.”

Perhaps Graham would not have even run that route had Donald Jones not been hurt on the final drive. So was running back Fred Jackson after taking a wicked hit. Gailey said he wasn’t sure what type of injury Jackson might have sustained.

Speaking of Jackson, someone must have reminded Gailey – the playcaller for the Bills offence – that he has on his team maybe the best 1-2 punch in the league at running back, in C.J. Spiller and Jackson.

Despite trailing in the second half by one or two scores, as they had a week earlier in Houston when Gailey called few running plays, this week the head coach nicely mixed in draw plays and handoffs.

Combined, Spiller and Jackson had 11 carries in the second half for 74 yards – successful enough to keep the Patriots defence off-balance and crouching up to guard against the run. That provided both time for Fitz to throw and more room for his receivers to get open.

The rightfully maligned Bills defence had set up the importance of the offence’s final drive by, amazingly, stopping Tom Brady and the Patriots offence after a long, late fourth-quarter drive – forcing a field goal that kept the Bills within six.

At this rate of improvement, the Bills defence will shut out the Pats in 2043.

To be fair, two Bills defenders appeared to play very well: defensive tackle Kyle Williams (who was credited with half a sack, three QB hits and a tackle-for-loss) and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who in a few instances of press-man coverage foiled Brady’s throws.

So now New England is 6-3, and Buffalo is 3-6.

There’s no time for the Bills to stew over this one; Miami comes to town on Thursday night.

Still, it’ll be a hard one to let go.

“I had every idea we were going to score and win the ballgame by one,” Gailey said. “I mean, that was my total thought. I knew we were going to do that.”

Scarred Bills fans, and longtooth NFL observers, correctly figured otherwise.