Conference Championship Thoughts

Rooting for a professional sports team is completely irrational.

By the end of every NFL season, there’s a 31 out of 32 chance that you will be unhappy as a fan (32 out of 32 if you root for the Vikings or Lions). I know going into the start of every single season, that there’s a 97% chance that I’m going to be unhappy at the end of it. That’s borderline masochism.

But there’s always that 3% chance, and well…I’ll be doing this move for the better part of the next two weeks:

Unless you’re also a Packer (or Steeler) fan, you don’t care about that. And I certainly don’t want to jinx the Packers by writing about my own feelings. I also can’t really write a coherent article without sounding like a homer, so instead I’ll go with a few stray thoughts from the weekend.

******************

#1. Aaron Rodgers picked up right where he left off last Saturday. Rodgers was 4-4 for 76 yards on the opening drive as the Packers drove right down the field against the Bears defense to take a quick 7-0 lead. Every Packer fan breathed a sigh of relief after this drive, because the team had been able to move the ball on the Bears this year, but just couldn’t score. In the first two games against the Bears, the Packers offense had 663 total yards but could only muster 27 points combined. So the opening touchdown was a very good sign.

Rodgers scored on a bootleg from the one yard line. I always find it strange that teams think the best way to score from inside the 2 is by running the ball up the middle four times. Why would anyone think running it right at all eleven players on the other team is the best way to go? Especially considering that two goal line plays – the fake hand-off/quarterback bootleg and the tight end fake block/release into the end zone – work something like 114% of the time.

I think it goes back to my theory that all coaches are scared of getting fired all the time. If a team calls a run up the middle four times and it fails, the coach won’t get called out for it because that’s what every team does. But if they try something off the wall and it fails, then the fans will be calling for the coach’s head. This is reason #2,943 that an NFL team needs to hire Les Miles. The entire league will open up, because every coach will be able to say “at least I’m not as crazy as that guy.”

#2. I love when NFL announcers latch on to a talking point that bares little, if any, relation to reality. The ongoing theme about why the Packers offense has been so good in the playoffs is the emergence of James Starks at running back.

Starks stats for the playoffs: 70 carries, 263 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, 1 touchdown
Packers running backs in the regular season: 421 carries, 1,606 yards per carry, 3.8 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns

And it’s not like Starks has been going against the best rushing defenses in the league. In yards per rushing attempt allowed in the regular season, the Bears ranked 6th, the Eagles 14th, and the Falcons 27th.

But I suppose “the sixth round draft pick out of Buffalo suddenly emerging in the playoffs after rushing for only 101 yards in the regular season” is a fun story, even if we have to ignore statistics.

#3. I don’t know how hurt Jay Cutler was, so far be it for me to question his toughness. In fact, I’m an anti-tough it out guy. The outrage at Cutler not going back in the game is an example of the biggest obstacle to player safety. It’s nice to crack down on the helmet-to-helmet hits, but those are small potatoes compared to the “Durrr…get out there and tough it out” mentality that both fans and players have. If it turns out that Cutler has a mild sprain, by all means, go to town on his toughness. But until we know the extent of his injury, there should be no questioning his toughness.

The more interesting story is Cutler’s reaction on the sidelines. Prior to the game, he was already the least self-aware person in the league. This is a guy who complained on the bench that the other team’s quarterback was getting too much screen time on the Jumbotron during a game that he was wearing an NFL Network microphone for their Mic’ed up segment. That’s just ballsy. I personally wouldn’t want the entire world to know that I was jealous of my Jumbotron screen time, but that’s just me.

Apparently Cutler just doesn’t have that off switch that the rest of us have. Most people have that little voice in their head that says things like “maybe I shouldn’t be standing up on the sidelines if I don’t want people to question my knee injury.” Not Cutler. It’s actually admirable in a way. He not only doesn’t care about what other people think – he seems to actively try to be the biggest jerk he can be.

#4. Thank you Lovie Smith for giving us two series of Todd Collins before putting Caleb Hanie in the game. Apparently Collins’ two appearances in the regular season didn’t show Lovie that Collins was a washed-up 39-year old quarterback. In two games, Collins threw 27 passes. He completed 15 of those 27 passes, but five of those 15 were caught by the other team. Predictably, he went 0-for-4 in this game. Unfortunately for the Packers, they couldn’t intercept any of the four passes because none were in the vicinity of anyone.

Meanwhile, Caleb Hanie wasn’t terrible. Raji’s interception looked bad, but I give him a break there. Raji had only dropped into coverage a total of five times all season – hard to fault a third-string quarterback for missing that read. He only played in one quarter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a crappy team brought him in to compete for a starting job.

#5. Why, oh why, can’t the Packers just put a team away? It’s inconsiderate to your fan base. Don’t they understand how many brats and beers were consumed by Wisconsinites yesterday? Talk about a heart attack waiting to happen.

The Packers were thirty yards away from one of the more epic collapses in football history. How the Packers almost blew that game is beyond me. They were up 21-7 with six minutes left and the Bears had their third-string quarterback in.

I think it goes back to the conservative coach syndrome that I explained above. Every other NFL coach would have gone with the prevent defense/run the ball up the middle and punt. So that’s what McCarthy called…never mind that the Packers can’t run the ball and that it might be a good idea to put pressure on the guy with eight career passes.

#6. I somehow nailed the Steelers/Jets pick. From now on, I’m going to throw out random theories when I pick games and hope one of them sticks. Yesterday, I predicted a Steelers win because of Roethlisberger, the potential letdown for the Jets, and home field advantage.

I was way off on Roethlisberger. He went 10 for 19 with two picks and one fumbled snap in the end zone that led to a safety. Sanchez went 20 for 33 with two touchdowns. The Steelers were completely unable to move the ball in the second half as they almost let the Jets comeback to win the game. Sanchez, while not exactly brilliant, probably had the best performance for a quarterback this weekend.

#7. The home field advantage probably helped some, but the real reason the Jets won was the emotional letdown. They came out flat and could never recover.

The Steelers coaching staff came out with a brilliant game plan. The first drive was a 15 play, 92 yard scoring drive that ate up 9:06 off the clock. That was the game. The drive was perfect – the Jets were demoralized right off the bat. The Steelers converted all three third downs.

Roethlisberger made the play of the game on third and 12 from the Jets 25. Finding no one open, he scrambled 13 yards for the first down. Not only did that keep the eventual touchdown scoring drive going, but a 42-yard field goal try on the Heinz Field grass is no gimme.

#8. Speaking of conservative coaches, Rex Ryan probably should have been conservative at the end of the half. What was he expecting to happen on third and 17 on their own 26 with 1:20 to go in the half? Do the right thing – dump the ball off to your running back, pick up some yards, pin Pittsburgh in their own territory with no timeouts left, and go into the half down 17-0.

Instead, Sanchez dropped back to pass and was stripped of the ball. The Steelers’ William Gay picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. The Jets lost the game in the last minutes of the first half. They were just two minutes away from going into the half down 10-0. Instead, because Ryan got greedy, they entered the half down 24-3. Game over.

#9. The Jets blew their chance to get back in the game late in the fourth quarter. Down 24-10, they had first and goal at the two-yard line. They ran the ball for a yard on first down. On second down, for one of the few times ever, the tight end release play didn’t work. After another incompletion on third down, the Jets faced fourth and goal from the 1.

Up to this point, I applaud Ryan for not falling into the conservative coach trap. But why in the world would you run up the middle on fourth down? That might be worse than running it up the middle four straight times. If that’s how you want to score, isn’t it better to try it four times instead of two? Just a dumb play call.

#10. I loved Mike Tomlin’s play call on the last drive of the game as much as I hated Ryan’s fourth down call. Facing third and six on the Jets 40 at the two minute warning, the safe move would have been to run up the middle, punt, and leave Sanchez to drive at least eighty yards in 1:10 with no timeouts.

Brilliantly, Tomlin put the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands on a rollout play. First, the ball is in the hands of the team’s best player – that seems like a good thing to me. Second, the rollout is a great call here. It gives Roethlisberger the option to pass to an open receiver or take it himself if nothing is there. This isn’t really any riskier than a run up the middle and the potential payoff is huge.

As it turns out, rookie receiver Antonio Brown was open, Roethlisberger’s throw was on the money, and the Steelers moved on to the Super Bowl, where they will hopefully lose to the Packers.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: