Having Fun with the AP’s Coach of the Year Award

February 3, 2011

Bill Belichick won the Associated Press’s Coach of the Year Award yesterday, the third time he has won the award. This led to me taking a Sporcle quiz on the winners of the award since the first time the AP gave it out in 1957. Unfortunately, I only knew 29 of 54 offhand. I tend to know more about the NFL than most, which explains why I knew 51 of 54 MVP Award winners. Instead of admitting defeat, I decided to write this blog post making fun of the AP for some of their Coach of the Year selections.

The AP Coach of the Year Award seems to go back and forth between a Most Improved Team Award and a true Coach of the Year Award. That explains why Marvin Lewis won last year after leading the Bengals from a 4-11-1 season to a 10-6 season and a division title even though Super Bowl coaches Jim Caldwell’s (14-2) and Sean Payton’s (13-3) had far better records. On the other hand, Todd Haley did not win this year after he led the Chiefs to a 10-6 division title after finishing 4-12 in 2009; Belichick did after leading the Patriots to an NFL-best 14-2 record. Neither one of these awards is wrong because Coach of the Year means different things to different voters. At the time, I’m sure many of the winners throughout history made sense. Yet the ambiguous award definition sometimes leads to odd results, at least in retrospect.

The first thing one notices about the list of award winners is the lack of great coaches on the list. Sure, this is probably a little unfair, since we define a great coach as someone who wins the Super Bowl. The award is voted on each year before the Super Bowl takes place. So yeah, I’m being a bit of a jerk by counting eventual Super Bowl victories against the voters. But it is my blog, after all.

Still, fifteen Hall of Fame coaches served as head coaches at some point during the award’s 54 year history. Six Hall coaches (Sid Gillman, Marv Levy, John Madden, Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, and Hank Stram) all came up empty. Stram and Gillman only coached a few years in the post-merger NFL, so that’s somewhat excusable. Paul Brown’s best days were also behind him by the time the AP starting handing out the award. Of course with that said, he won the UPI Award in 1969 and 1970.

Madden twice led the Raiders to the best record in the NFL (1974 and 1976). In 1974, the award went to Don Coryell, who turned around the Cardinals from 4-9-1 in 1973 to 10-4 division winners in 1974. Coryell was deserving – this was only his second year with the team and the division win led to the Cardinals’ first playoff appearance since 1948. The 1976 award went to Cleveland Brown head coach Forrest Gregg, who led the Browns from a fourth place 3-11 division finish to a third place 9-5 finish. The Raiders went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl. That’s called a miss by voters.

Levy somehow never won despite a record-setting four consecutive AFC Championships. Between 1990 and 1993, the AP decided to give the award to coaches who turned a team around. None of the four coaches that won the award (Jimmy Johnson, Wayne Fontes, Bill Cowher, and Dan Reeves) made it to the Super Bowl. The Cowher selection was somewhat bizarre. In his first season with the Steelers, he led the team to an 11-5 record after they finished 7-9 the season before. They were promptly pummeled by the 11-5 Bills in the divisional playoffs.

But the most egregious omission goes to four-time Super Bowl champion Chuck Noll. How Noll never won an NFL Coach of the Year Award is beyond me. The winners during Noll’s four Super Bowl seasons are ridiculously embarrassing in retrospect: Coryell, Ted Marchibroda (Colts), Jack Patera (Seahawks), and Jack Pardee (Redskins). Marchibroda and Patera both ended their careers with losing records. As I mentioned above, Coryell was deserving. So was Marchibroda, who led the Colts to a 10-4 division title in his first season after they finished 2-12 the previous season. But Patera and Pardee didn’t even lead their teams to the playoffs in the seasons they won. Pardee’s selection might have made sense at the time; now it just looks insane. He “turned around” the Redskins from an 8-8 third place 1978 season (when he was also coach) to a 10-6 third place 1979 season.

Several more Hall of Fame coaches won only one award: Vince Lombardi, Weeb Ewbank, Tom Landry, Bud Grant, and Bill Walsh. Only Walsh and Ewbank won their awards during a championship season.

Lombardi is hands down the most famous coach in NFL history. As far as I’m aware, he is the only coach to have a Broadway show based on his life. He won five championships and finished runner-up a sixth time. Amazingly, he won the award only once – his 1959 rookie season, when he led the Packers to a 7-5 record, the worst of his career. Between 1960 and 1967, Allie Sherman, George Halas, and Don Shula each won the award twice.

If you’re wondering who Allie Sherman is, that’s because you’re either a) under the age of 55 or b) not a Giants fan. The Halas and Shula picks don’t look that back in retrospect, until he realize that Halas’ 1963 season was the only one in which either won an NFL title. Halas somehow won the award again in 1965, even though the Bears finished 9-5 (fourth best in the 14-team league) two years after they won the championship. I’ll return to Shula later – he is worthy of his own thoughts.

Ewbank’s one award was probably more than he deserved. He won the award in the Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship season. But he’s pretty much the black sheep of the Hall of Fame coaches. His career record stands at 130-129-7…or just slightly worse than the career records of Hall of Fame longshots Jack Del Rio and Steve Mariucci.

Tom Landry won the award in 1966, when the Cowboys won the NFL’s Eastern Conference but lost to the Packers in the NFL Championship Game. The Cowboys finished 10-3-1 for the first winning season in their seven year history. Landry was probably deserving even though he was the coach for all seven of those seasons, so he doesn’t really get credit for a turnaround. He did not win the award any of the five times that he led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. In 1975 and 1978, the aforementioned Ted Marchibroda and Jack Patera won the award.

In 1970, Landry lost to 49er coach Dick Nolan. The 49ers have had a lot of great coaches in their history. Nolan was not one of them. He finished with a career 54-53-5 record. The record in itself isn’t terrible, but Nolan’s reign of terror continued well into the 2000s, when the 49ers hired his son Mike as head coach. Mike went 18-37 in four seasons, so Dick deserves credit for those as well.

The very next season, Landry won his first Super Bowl but somehow lost out to fellow Hall of Famer George Allen. The Cowboys won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. Allen’s Redskins finished second with a 9-4-1 record. In fairness, the Redskins started 5-0, so the voters that cast their ballots in early October probably picked the right coach.

In 1977, Landry lost out to Broncos coach Red Miller. I like to imagine that upon hearing this, Landry first said “who?” and then took out his frustration on the same Broncos team in Super Bowl XII (the Cowboys won 27-10).

Bud Grant won in 1969, which actually makes sense, because that was the first time that he led the Vikings to the Super Bowl (they lost to the Chiefs 23-7). Of course, the Vikings made it back three more times – 1973, 1974, and 1976 – and Grant came up empty each time. In 1974, Coryell won and in 1976, Gregg won. In 1973, he deservedly lost out to Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox, who led the Rams to a 12-2 record after finishing 6-7-1 the previous season.

And then we get to Bill Walsh. If Lombardi is the most popular head coach in NFL history, Walsh might just be the most innovative. He was the first to run the West Coast offense, which nearly every NFL team has incorporated into its repertoire. He turned the 49ers into a juggernaut in the 1980s, but won only one Coach of the Year Award. That was in his 1981 Super Bowl-winning season, when the voters couldn’t help but give him the award – the 49ers finished with both the best overall and most improved record in the league (6-10 to 13-3).

In 1984, Walsh’s best team won the Super Bowl. That team finished the regular season at 15-1 and is one of three teams (along with the 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears) that top the list of best Super Bowl champions ever. The award instead went to Chuck Knox, who improved his Seahawk team from a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Conference Championship appearance to a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Divisional Round appearance. Well done voters.

The only other year that Walsh had an argument for Coach of the Year was the 1987 season. Although the 49ers finished 13-2, he was overshadowed by Jim Mora, who led the Saints to a 12-3 record, back when that didn’t really seem possible.

This leads to the most stunning stat (I think). The Saints have had three Coaches of the Year and the Seahawks have had two. The Cowboys (5 Super Bowls) and Packers (3 Super Bowls) have had two. The Steelers (6 Super Bowls), 49ers (5 Super Bowls), and Broncos (2 Super Bowls) have only had one. The Raiders (3 Super Bowls) have never had one.

George Allen, Joe Gibbs, and George Halas have all won two awards each. This seems about right for a Hall of Fame coach.

That brings us to the one outlier: Don Shula. Shula won the award a record four times. He somehow won the award three times in seven years as coach of the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s…the same decade that Lombardi won zero. In case you’re wondering, the Colts didn’t win a championship until the year after Shula left, when coach Don McCafferty led them to a victory in Super Bowl V.

Shula later won the award when he led the Dolphins to an undefeated season in 1972, but the AP decided that was enough. After four awards in his first ten seasons in the league, he went 0-for-23 to close out his career.

What does all this mean? Not a thing, other than a bunch of answers fun trivia question. No one really cares about the Award, precisely because a guy like Allie Sherman won more awards than all but six of the coaches in the Hall of Fame. Sustained excellence is a lot harder to maintain than one turnaround season, but it’s just not all that sexy to voters.

Still, it’s amusing that Lindy Infante, Dick Jauron, Buck Shaw, George Wilson, Wayne Fontes, Ray Rhodes, Jim Fassel, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis all have one thing that Chuck Noll doesn’t: an AP Coach of the Year Award.

Although I’m guessing they’d trade it for one of Noll’s four Super Bowl championship rings.

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Conference Championship Thoughts

January 24, 2011

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.

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#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.


Conference Championship Games Preview

January 23, 2011

I haven’t been this excited for a set of conference championship games in years. This is largely due to the Packers’ appearance in the NFC championship, only their second appearance since 1998.

The Packers’ last NFC Championship appearance was in 2008, when they lost in overtime to the Giants. The AFC game that year was the undefeated Patriots against the Chargers. It seemed like a mere formality that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl at the time, so it was hard to be excited about that game. This time around, the Jets and Steelers are virtually dead even and should have a great game. Of course, if the Packers lose on Sunday, I’ll probably pass out angrily and miss the whole thing, but I’ll read the recap later.

The great thing about this year is that you could put forth a pretty good argument for any of the four teams. If you have to put your life on the line for one team to win this weekend, who do you even feel most comfortable with? Each year, it seems that there’s one obvious favorite – last year it was Indy over the Jets; the year before it was the Steelers over the Ravens; and so on. This year, it’s unclear.

So I suppose this year we’re not going to get a true underdog story. But at least we should get two highly competitive games.

AFC Championship Game: Jets (13-5) at Steelers (13-4, -3.5)

This is a rematch of a game that took place a month ago under almost exactly the same situations. The Steelers were also 3.5 point favorites in that game, but the Jets prevailed 22-17.

Pittsburgh dominated large stretches of that game; in fact, the difference was now-injured Brad Smith’s return touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Jets couldn’t really move the ball – the Steelers out-gained them 377 to 276. And that’s without Troy Polamalu in the lineup; he’s back for this game.

There seems to be little doubt that the Steelers will be able to move the ball more efficiently than the Jets. The Jets will try to win this game ugly. That’s what they are good at and that’s how they pulled off the first victory versus the Steelers. So the only question is whether they will be able to do it again.

I don’t think they can, for a few reasons.

#1. I’m sticking with Roethlisberger. In my prediction column last week, I said that you always go with the better quarterback when two teams are otherwise equal. Roethlisberger is now 9-2 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl victories. The guy just makes big plays.

At some point, Mark Sanchez is going to make a believer out of me. He’s now 5-1 in the playoffs and all five of those victories have come on the road. I know this, and I give him credit for it.

And then I actually watch him play. His stats really aren’t that bad, but unlike the rest of the quarterbacks still left in the playoffs, I find myself abnormally impressed whenever he makes a routine 10-yard completion. I am well aware I shouldn’t feel that way based on his track record, but I can’t shake the feeling. I’m also well aware that Sanchez just beat Manning and Brady in consecutive weeks. Call me foolish.

#2. The Jets are due for a letdown. Emotionally, I don’t know how the Jets keep this up. In consecutive weeks, they avenged their loss against the Colts in a game they spent an entire year preparing for. Then they backed up a week of trash talk by upsetting their arch rival Patriots. At some point, the streak has to end.

#3. Pittsburgh has one of the biggest home field advantages in sports in the mud bowl known as Heinz Field. Do you really expect them to lose twice to the same opponent at home in the same season? I sure don’t.

Those are my three theories and I’m sticking with them. As always, I really have no idea what’s going on in this game.

However, before you go put all your money on the Jets, I’ve been on quite the hot streak on games that I guess at; it’s only when I have a good idea about who’s going to win that I lose. The Steelers win this one 24-17. Take that to the bank.

NFC Championship Game: Packers (12-6, -4) at Bears (12-5)

Oh come on, you didn’t think I would break my streak of not thinking about Packers games, did you? If this keeps on working, I might just tune out all pre-game Packer news for the rest of my life. Packers win 24-14.


Beware of the Sixth Seed (Or How I Learned that the NFL Needs More Playoffs)

January 21, 2011

Playoffs are a tricky thing.

My favorite sporting event is the NCAA Basketball Tournament and I think an NCAA Football Tournament is long overdue. The NBA and NHL both have way too many teams in their playoffs (16 of 30) but it works because of the best-of-seven series. I don’t like the MLB playoffs because it seems odd to play 162 games and then tell a team they have to win a best-of-five series to advance.

I generally like the setup of the NFL playoffs. Single-elimination tournaments are sometimes unfair, but they are necessary for the NFL. Do the best teams make the Super Bowl every year? Of course not – both #1 seeds were eliminated before the championship games just this season. But the Super Bowl is the biggest yearly sporting event in the entire world, and that’s for a sport that is played nearly exclusively in the United States. So the NFL must be doing something right.

Prior to this season, I thought a twelve team playoff was just about right; if anything, it was too many. But I had a semi-epiphany during this year’s postseason: the NFL needs to expand its playoffs.

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The NFL expanded the playoffs to include twelve teams in 1990. At the time, there were three divisions and 28 teams; the three division winners earned the top three seeds and three wild-cards earned the fourth, fifth, and sixth seeds. The top two teams were given a bye into the second round and the #3 seed (the worst division winner) played the #6 seed (the worst wild card) and the #4 and #5 seeds squared off in the first round.

Between 1990 and 2001, playoff upsets were fairly rare. Here are each seeds’ record in those twelve seasons:

#1 seed: 38-17 (.691, 7-5 in Super Bowl)
#2 seed: 29-21 (.580, 3-4)
#3 seed: 20-24 (.455)
#4 seed: 28-22 (.560, 2-2)
#5 seed: 8-24 (.250)
#6 seed: 7-24 (.226)

Each seed performed progressively worse, with the exception of the #3 and #4 seeds. This makes some sense. In many seasons, the three division winners aren’t necessarily the three best teams in the conference. The best wild card team is often better than the worst division winner.

In 2002, the NFL expanded to 32 teams by adding the expansion Houston Texans and split into four divisions. The NFL kept the playoffs at twelve teams, adding one division winner and getting rid of one wild card berth. The four division winners received the top four seeds and two wild cards received the #5 and #6 seeds. As of the 2011 divisional playoffs, the records of each seeds are:

#1 seed: 21-16 (.568, 2-6 in Super Bowl)
#2 seed: 17-13 (.567, 3-0)
#3 seed: 14-17 (.452, 1-1)
#4 seed: 13-18 (.419, 0-1)
#5 seed: 13-17 (.433, 1-0)
#6 seed: 16-15 (.516, 1-0)

And now things have gotten weird. The #5 and #6 seeds have won two Super Bowls after never even making it to the Super Bowl in the previous twelve years. #6 seeds are the third best seed. #4 seeds are the worst. But the most striking thing is how similar the records of each seed are.

There are two obvious reasons behind this.

First, with four divisions and only two wild cards, the chances are exponentially greater that one or both of the wild card teams will be better than the weakest division winners. In this season, the four wild card teams were: Baltimore (12-4), New York Jets (11-5), New Orleans (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). They respectively played division winners Kansas City (10-6), Indianapolis (10-6), Seattle (7-9), and Philadelphia (10-6). Only Philadelphia and Green Bay even had the same record, and the Packers owned a victory over the Eagles during the season.

In the 18 matchups between #4 and #5 seeds since 2002, the #4 seed had a better record four times, the same record four times, and a worse record ten times. The #4 seed receives home field advantage, but it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that they are only 10-8 against #5 seeds since 2002. In many seasons, the #5 seed is simply a better team.

Second, the NFL is serious about parity. For years, the NFL has been hellbent on creating parity in the league. They have largely succeeded, as this graph that made the rounds on the Internet two months ago shows.

As the league expanded from 26 teams in 1970 to 32 teams in 2002, it made a concerted effort to make it fair for every team. The salary cap*, draft structure, and schedule structure all make it extremely hard for a team to start a dynasty. In the 2000s, 15 teams made it to at least one Super Bowl; in the 1990s, 13 teams made it; in the 1980s, 10 teams did; and in the 1970s, 9 teams made it.

* The salary cap discourages owners from spending like the Yankees and Red Sox by a) giving them only a certain amount to spend and b) disincentivizing big-money moves. Unfortunately for owners like the Redskins’ Daniel Snyder, this second part isn’t always clear. The current salary structure in the NFL simply isn’t set up for owners to spend a large sum of money on only one of 53 players, no matter how good that one player is.

We can debate the merits of this parity for hours. On the one hand, my old roommate from Tampa was a fan of parity when the Buccaneers won the 2003 Super Bowl after almost thirty years of pure torture for their fanbase. I’m sure all 264 Arizona Cardinals fans were a fan of parity when the Cardinals finally made their first Super Bowl two years ago. And I actually enjoyed the Saints’ first Super Bowl run last year, mostly because unlike many of these traditionally terrible teams, their fanbase is extremely dedicated and passionate.

But I think there’s something to be said for dynasties. Part of the fun of the MLB playoffs is us non-Yankee fans rooting against the Yankees, which makes Yankee fans root for their team harder, which makes us hate them more, and so on. The NFL has sorely lacked one of these teams since the Cowboys of the 1990s.

Oh, you could argue that the Patriots fit that role now, but I’m not so sure. They won three Super Bowls in four years between 2002 and 2005, but they were a product of NFL parity in the first place. The 2002 win was their first Super Bowl and they did that with a rookie quarterback in a true underdog story. Most fans didn’t get around to hating them until after their third Super Bowl win in 2005; since then, thanks to parity, they had the Super Bowl loss to the Giants to ruin their perfect 2007-08 season and…well, that’s about it.

The Colts and Steelers have both qualified for two Super Bowls since 2005 (one more than the Patriots), but they don’t really qualify as dynasties either. In those four Super Bowls, only once (the Colts’ 2010 season) was one of those teams the #1 seed in the conference. They simply were teams that got hot at the right time.

The NFC is even worse – nine NFC teams have qualified for the Super Bowl in the last nine years. If the Packers pull off a win on Sunday, they will make it ten for ten. Think about that: there are 16 teams in the NFC, and it’s possible that ten of them could win the NFC championship before any team wins a second title. And amazingly, the Atlanta Falcons, this year’s #1 seed, isn’t one of those ten. They will likely be the favorite to win the conference before next season, so it is plausible that they make it 11 for 11.

One more stat to pile on. The seven NFC teams that have not made it to the Super Bowl since 2001 (Packers, Falcons, Cowboys, Redskins, 49ers, Vikings, and Lions) combined for 27 of the NFC’s first 32 Super Bowl appearances.* This is parity taken to the extreme.

* This doesn’t include Super Bowl III, when the Baltimore Colts won the pre-merger NFL before moving to the post-merger AFC two years later.

So there is good and bad that comes with parity. Those stats are fun to look at, but they are relatively meaningless – this is the route that the NFL wants to go down, so we might as well just deal with it.

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Wow…already 1,300 words in to this article and all I’ve told you is that division winners get an unfair advantage over better wild card teams and that the NFL is focused on parity – two things you were already well aware of. Thankfully, we’re about to get to my ephiphany.

The NFL needs to expand the playoffs.

If the NFL wants to go with the whole parity thing, that’s fine. But we are getting screwed out of meaningful football because of the current playoff structure.

Thanks to parity, the first round bye for the top two teams in each conference has been rendered fairly useless. I’m sure that the week off is a nice break, but it does not provide a significant advantage. Since 2002, teams with a first round bye are only 22-14 in the divisional round (and only 12-12 since 2005). Between 1990 and 2001, they went 35-9.

Parity has essentially turned the playoffs into a crapshoot. If it is already a crapshoot, why not expand to eight teams for each conference? If we kept the current seeding structure, expanding to eight teams would have given us additional first round matchups of Atlanta vs. Tampa Bay, Chicago vs. New York Giants, Pittsburgh vs. San Diego, and New England vs. Jacksonville. All but the Patriots/Jaguars game would have been fantastic games.

By doing this, we would be getting rid of whatever advantage the top two seeds have with their bye. But really, who would care? I didn’t hear anyone complaining that the regular season is a farce after both #6 seeds beat the #1 seeds in the divisional round this year; I can’t imagine that people are going to be upset when an #8 seed beats a #1 or a #7 beats a #2.

But the current playoff structure doesn’t just screw us out of good extra playoff games. With the way the playoffs are set up now, week 17 is completely meaningless for most teams. Of the 16 games in Week 17 this season, exactly one – St. Louis vs. Seattle – had an impact on the playoffs no matter what the outcome of the game. Only nine other games (Panthers vs. Falcons, Raiders vs. Chiefs, Bucs vs. Saints, Steelers vs. Browns, Bengals vs. Ravens, Packers vs. Bears, Titans vs. Colts, Jaguars vs. Texans, and Giants vs. Redskins) might have had an impact on playoff qualifying or seeding and only one of two teams would be impacted in each of those games. That’s six completely meaningless games, plus several others that only would have mattered if things fell just right.

Let’s say the NFL expands the playoffs to eight teams in each conference and then changes the structure to remove home field advantage for division winners. The division winners still get an automatic bid into the playoffs, but teams are seeded strictly according to record. This will simultaneously get rid of the #4/#5 seed problem I described above and also reward the top two teams by having them play the two worst playoff-qualifying teams.

All of a sudden, week 17 becomes a lot more meaningful. Now three games (St. Louis vs. Seattle, Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans, and Chicago vs. Green Bay) have an impact on both teams regardless of other results. Eleven more games (those listed above, plus Miami vs. New England, Buffalo vs. the Jets, Dallas vs. Philadelphia, and San Diego vs. Denver) have an impact on at least one team. Only the Lions/Vikings and 49ers/Cardinals game would be meaningless.

That’s two simple tweaks to the playoff format, and we have created ten more exciting football games over Week 17 and the first round of the playoffs. And that doesn’t even include the teams that were eliminated early in the AFC this season. Teams like San Diego, Oakland, and Miami were eliminated before Week 16 because the conference happened to have two great wild card teams in the Ravens and the Colts.

The only two objections that I can think of to this plan are a) we want to reward the top two teams in each conference with a bye; and b) we don’t want the playoffs to be any more watered down/the regular season to be less important.* As to the reward, I already showed that the bye simply doesn’t matter any more because parity has brought teams ridiculously close together.

* Related to this, there’s the always fun argument that “Why don’t we just include all teams if playoffs are so great? Where does it end?” My answer: it ends with sixteen teams – I already told you that.

I can’t buy the watered down playoffs argument either. Just look at the NFC this season – there is one game separating the #2 seed in my plan (11-5 Chicago) and the #7 seed (10-6 Tampa Bay). In the AFC last season, the #3 seed would have gone to 10-6 New England and the #8 seed would have gone to 9-7 Houston. In the 2008 NFC, the #3 seed would have gone to 11-5 Atlanta and 9-7 Tampa Bay would have been left out of the playoffs completely.* And so on. I’m a big fan of meaningful regular seasons, but since the NFL is so concerned with parity, the regular season is fairly meaningless to begin with.

* Coincidentally, 9-7 Arizona actually made the Super Bowl from the NFC in 2008.

Whew…now we’re up to a 2,100 word rant in something I can sum up in one sentence. That sentence: “Dear NFL, if you insist on shoving this parity down our throats, the least you can do is give us some more football.”

Hey, no one ever accused me of being concise.


Perfection (an ode to Aaron Rodgers)

January 16, 2011

“Maybe I’m just so pumped up for the playoffs, but I thought there was a slight tremble in his voice when he mutterred (sic) ‘Atlanta’ in his interview after the packers (sic) win over the eagles (sic). If he’s not then he sure better be, with our defense starting to peak at the perfect time. They’ll be scraping Rodgers leftovers off the Ga Dome turf come Saturday night.” – poster War Bird, on a Falcons message board before the game

Fantastic.

Amazing.

Masterful.

Pick your superlative – they all fit Aaron Rodgers’ performance last night. Rodgers put up not only the best performance in Packers postseason history, but one of the best performances in NFL postseason history.* His 86.1 percent completion percentage was the fifth best in postseason history and only Tom Brady in the 2007 divisional playoffs threw for over 300 yards and had a higher completion percentage than Rodgers.

* And that’s not even a Packers’ fan’s subtle knock on Brett Favre. Favre and Rodgers have different skill sets. Favre’s the gunslinger; he’s just not the type of quarterback that could put together a complete clinical destruction of a team like Rodgers did last night.

31-for-36. 366 yards. 3 touchdowns. 1 rushing touchdown. 10-for-10 on third down. Touchdowns on five straight possessions against the fifth best scoring defense in the NFL. Drives of 81, 92, 80, 80, and 50 yards. Pick any stat you want – it’s all incredible.

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

“When our big dog is playing well, all the other big dogs roll behind him.  And that’s how we roll.” – Packers wide receiver Donald Driver

Rodgers got off to a rocky start. The Falcons’ pressure forced him to hurry his first pass of the game, an incompletion to running back Brandon Jackson. On the Packers’ third play, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a quick slant over the middle for thirty yards, but Jennings fumbled. The Falcons recovered and scored seven plays later, sending the already raucous Georgia Dome crowd into a frenzy.

On the ensuing drive, the Packers seemed content to run forty seconds off the play clock every play to help slow the Falcons momentum. Running backs James Starks and Brandon Jackson ran the ball on five of the Packers’ first six plays on the drive, until they faced a third-and-7 at the Falcons 41.

And then the clinic began. Rodgers was hit from behind as he tossed the ball to Greg Jennings over the middle. It didn’t matter. Jennings caught the on-target ball for the first down.

Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson with an eight yard completion on third-and-3 from the 16. On second and goal, the Falcons again closed in on Rodgers. And again, it didn’t matter. Rodgers hung in the pocket and hit Nelson for six-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.

Final tally for the momentum changing drive: 13 plays, 81 yards, 7:56 elapsed.

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“We had our (No.) 12 rolling. Man! When he’s playing like that . . . boy, he makes us a tough team to beat.” – Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings

And just like that, the Falcons stole momentum back. Pro Bowl kick returner Eric Weems took the ball two yards deep in the end zone. Fourteen seconds later, he had the record for longest play in postseason history and the Falcons were back up 14-7.

The Packers have struggled to find their own dynamic return man since the heyday of Desmond Howard and Allen Rossum ten years ago. It was painfully obvious in this game. On the Falcons’ kickoff, James Starks dropped the ball out of bounds at the eight-yard line, leaving Rodgers 92 yards away from the end zone.

Now down 14-7, the Packers decided to abandon their “control time of possession by running the ball” plan. Good decision.

Rodgers hit Jennings for six yards. Then Driver for 24. Then Jennings for 12. After a rare incompletion, Rodgers made perhaps his best play of the game. Falcons safety William Moore came unblocked around the outside. As Moore went in for the tackle, Rodgers pulled a Vick-like spin move and Moore whiffed on the tackle. Rodgers rolled out to the right and threw a perfect pass on a rope to a covered James Jones, who toed the sidelines for 34 yards. Trent Dilfer on ESPN broke the play down after the game; it turns out Rodgers was in the air when he threw the bullet.

Three plays later, the Falcons finally stopped Rodgers on third down…but only because cornerback Chris Owens tackled Greg Jennings in the end zone before Rodgers got the pass away. With new life, the Packers scored three plays later on a John Kuhn 1-yard run to tie the game at 14.

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

“Aaron was unbelievable and our whole offense was unbelievable.” Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett

The game started to look like last year’s devastating 51-45 overtime loss to the Cardinals, in which neither team was capable of stopping the other. But on the next drive, Matt Ryan caved. Already in field goal range, Ryan forced a deep pass to Michael Jenkins. The ball was underthrown and Jenkins slipped, allowing Packers cornerback Tramon Williams – the hero of the Packers’ win over the Bears to qualify for the playoffs – to intercept the pass in the end zone.

Rodgers took over on the 20 with a quick six-yard completion to Andrew Quarless. The Falcons then tried to pressure Rodgers again. And again, it didn’t matter – Rodgers took off for a six-yard scramble.

On the next play, the Falcons tried dropping eight into coverage. Didn’t matter. Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for 20 yards. He then hit Andrew Quarless for eight more. After an incompletion (gasp!), Rodgers made another highlight reel play.

Facing third-and-2 from the 40, the Falcons defensive ends got past the Packers’ line around the outside. Rodgers stepped up into the pocket and – channeling the spirit of a certain former Packers quarterback – flung the ball back across his body to Donald Driver for a twenty-yard completion.

On the next play, Rodgers threw a perfect pass to James Jones in the corner of the end zone for the 21-14 lead. Poor Brent Grimes couldn’t cover the play any better. Rodgers went into the locker room 18 for 21 for 234 yards and two touchdowns.

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“Win or lose, I’m moving Aaron Rodgers onto my Barry Sanders Memorial ‘Do Not Gamble Against Under Any Circumstances’ list.” – ESPN’s Bill Simmons on Twitter

The Packers would have been happy to go into the half up 21-14. But then Matt Ryan caved again. Ryan drove the ball to the Packers 26 before Clay Matthews sacked him back at the 35 with ten seconds left in the half. The Falcons were forced to use their last timeout.

Coach Mike Smith controversially called for a quick out pattern to pick up more yards for kicker Matt Bryant. The same Matt Bryant who once kicked a 62-yard field goal for the Buccaneers.

Of course, it’s the Falcons who would say the play call was controversial. Packers fans would use the word “thankful.” Tramon Williams intercepted Ryan’s pass and ran it back 65 yards for a touchdown to give the Packers a stunning 28-14 halftime lead.

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The Falcons tried playing zone coverage. They tried playing man-to-man. They tried mixing zone and man together. They tried blitzing Rodgers. Nothing worked.” – D. Orlando Ledbetter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the second half, the Packers took over at the 20 needing a touchdown to put the game away. As Packers fans know, putting teams away has not exactly been the team’s strong suit this season.

It started off exactly how Packers fans feared. On the first play of the half, the Falcons finally got to Rodgers as John Abraham sacked him for a ten-yard loss. Abraham, now infamously, mimicked Rodgers’ championship belt celebration. That would turn out to be a mistake.

On second and 20, Rodgers hit Jennings for seven yards. Then he pulled off some more magic. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas came around the left end unblocked. Like he did to Moore earlier in the game, Rodgers spun and left Nicholas grasping for air. He rolled out to his left and threw across his body. His dart to a covered James Jones resulted in a 15 yard gain and another first down.

Just to mix things up, Rodgers handed the ball to James Starks for four out of five plays. A few plays later, facing third and seven from Atlanta’s 32, the Falcons brought six on the rush. The Packers picked it up. Uh oh. Rodgers hit a streaking Jordy Nelson for 14 yards and the first down.

He then hit Nelson for 11 yards and another first down. On the next play, the Falcons finally had every receiver covered. It didn’t matter. Rodgers scrambled for a seven-yard touchdown run, capped off with an emphatic championship belt celebration.

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

“I know this sounds crazy, but Aaron Rodgers throws like Dan Marino & moves like Steve Young. He really does. I’m still not over it.” – Ross Tucker, ESPN.com

Now down by 21, Ryan had no answer. The Falcons went three and out on their next possession and punter Michael Konnen shanked the punt. The Packers took over on the 50. That was just too easy for Rodgers.

On third and six from the 46, Rodgers hit Nelson for eight yards. On third and five from the 33, Rodgers hit Driver for 22 yards. Finally, Rodgers hit the immortal John Kuhn from six yards out for the touchdown.

After three quarters, Rodgers was a staggering 27 of 31 passing for 330 yards and four total touchdowns (three passing and one rushing).

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

“Around the league, they will call this teaching tape. They will put on this performance by Aaron Rodgers and say this is how you play the quarterback position.” – Trent Dilfer, ESPN

On the next possession, Matt Ryan finally led the Falcons on a touchdown drive to pull back within 42-21. Poor Matt – aside from the terrible interception at the end of the first half, he didn’t play all that bad.* He went 20-for-29 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The first interception was a poor pass, but would have been broken up if his receiver hadn’t fallen down.

* Yeah, I’m aware that’s a big aside.

But he ran into a buzzsaw on this night. Rodgers made him look so bad that at least 95,000 people on Twitter made some variation of “the artist formerly known as Matty Ice” joke.

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

“Aaron Rodgers is better than your quarterback. 31-36, 366 yards and 3 scores. For the record, at least one of those was a drop.” – Stephen Douglas, The Big Lead

When it was all over, the Packers had won 48-21. The 48 points were the most that the Packers franchise has ever scored in the playoffs. And it really wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated.

This was the type of game that was so good that the team’s fans stay up late to watch SportsCenter air the same highlights over and over again. I know I did. You don’t get chances to watch perfect games that often; when it happens to a team that you follow, it’s all the better.

Rodgers might not be able to capture that magic again next week. Who really knows what will happen on any given week? Although Packers fans appreciate just how good Aaron Rodgers is, nobody could see this coming.

For one night anyway, he was perfect.

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

“I would never have imagined that happening.” – Falcons coach Mike Smith

Me neither.


NFL Divisional Weekend Picks

January 14, 2011

A fantastic weekend of football coming up in the NFL. Four matchups and not a single clunker. We have games from the two biggest rivalries in the AFC, the two best teams in the NFC, and the luckiest team in the league versus America’s adopted underdog. Here are my picks:

Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4, -3)

This game is pretty simple: one team is going to win by a field goal. Here are the results of the seven Ravens/Steelers games since Joe Flacco entered the league in 2008 (away team first):

12/5/10 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 10
10/3/10 – Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
12/27/09 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23
11/29/09 – Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 20 (OT)
1/18/09 – Baltimore 14, Pittsburgh 23 (playoffs)
12/14/08 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 9
9/29/08 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)

Five of those seven games were decided by a field goal. And even that’s deceptive. Pittsburgh won by 9 in the 2009 playoffs only after Flacco threw a late TAINT and won by 4 in the 2008 regular season on Ben Roethlisberger’s TD pass with 43 seconds left.

So basically we just have to figure out which team is going to win by three.* Let’s roll through some considerations.

* This could be the first game ever where I’d actually think about taking “push” if someone offered it.

At first I thought that Baltimore might be better than Pittsburgh this year based on their head-to-head matchups. They both finished 12-4 and the Ravens had the season series in the bag in the closing minutes in Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens had the ball facing second and five on their own 43, up 10-6 with 3:20 left. Inexplicably, Joe Flacco drops back to pass.* Troy Polamalu comes around the outside, strips the ball and LaMarr Woodley returns it to the 9-yard line. The Steelers punch it in and steal the division from the Ravens just like that.

* I like going for the win in this situation as much as anybody. But, come on, if you’ve held the opposing team to six points in the first 57 minutes of the game, you absolutely have to run the ball, punt if necessary, and take your chances that they can’t drive for a touchdown in the last two minutes.

But then I looked back to the Week 4 game. Flacco needed to drive the ball forty yards in the last 55 seconds for a last-minute touchdown to give the Ravens a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh. Charlie Batch was at quarterback for the Steelers. Yeah, I’d call the season series a wash.

Then I thought about giving the edge to the Steelers based on the home field advantage. Road teams are 3-4 in this series since 2008 and won both games this season. Another wash.

My favorite tiebreaker in these tight games is which quarterback I trust more. Roethlisberger’s playoff record: 8-2, 2 Super Bowls, 1-0 vs. Ravens. Flacco: 3-2, 0-1 vs. Steelers. Huge advantage for the Steelers. If you’re going to go down with someone, you’d rather it be with Roethlisberger than Flacco. And yes, that was a subtle Big Ben joke.

To top it off, 62% of the public is on the Ravens this weekend – the highest of any team. Enough said. Steelers win 20-17.

Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5, -10)

How quickly things change: just a week ago, fans considered Seattle a joke and I actually picked against them getting 10.5 points at home. A few poor decisions from Sean Payton and one highlight reel Marshawn Lynch touchdown run later, and suddenly the Seahawks are America’s darling and a trendy pick to upset the Bears this weekend.

It’s not difficult to see why. The Seahawks put everything together and looked incredible last weekend against the defending champion Saints. Matt Hasselbeck had the game of his life, throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That was the first time he threw more than two touchdowns in ten career playoff games and only the sixth time he’s thrown four touchdowns in a game since his career began in the late 1970s. And his best receiver was Brandon Stokley. I didn’t know Stokley was still alive. I can only assume is immortal, so that’s another huge advantage for Seattle. Then there’s the 23-20 Seahawk upset victory over the Bears on the road back in Week 6.

Meanwhile, the Bears have Jay Cutler, who holds the record for most times making an entire fan base say “are you shitting me?” in unison. In his defense, he has decreased his interception total from 26 last season to 16 this season. He has compensated for that by increasing his sack total from 35 last year to 52 this year, capped by an insane nine first half sacks against the Giants. Cutler has never won a bowl or a playoff game before. The last time he played in a playoff game of any kind? The 2000 Class 3A Indiana High School State Championship. Again, in his defense, his team won that game…but I think the Bears should pack some extra pants just in case.

This game will come down to which Seahawk team shows up for the game. If it’s the team that struggled to finish 7-9 this season, the Bears win easily. If it’s the team from last week’s Saints game, the Seahawks could actually pull off a second straight huge upset.

Again, I’ll point out the same statistic from last week – the Seahawks either win (8 times) or lose by more than 15 (9 times). Last week, I didn’t think the Seahawks could win outright, so I picked the Saints. This week, I do think the Seahawks can win outright. They’ve already done it once this season and are playing better football now. Naturally, I’ll end up way off, but for now Seattle is the pick. Seahawks win 31-21.

New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2, -8.5)

The Jets spent the week trash-talking the Patriots. Antonio Cromartie called Tom Brady an asshole and Rex Ryan called the rivalry personal. Brady shrugged it off, saying that he’s been called worse. Then wide receiver Wes Welker did this at a press conference, presumably as the entire team cracked up behind the curtain:

Call me crazy, but I think the Patriots might come out a tad bit looser than the Jets. The Patriots are already a better team than the Jets – they beat them 45-3 on this same field just a few weeks ago. Trash-talking yourself into a corner might not have been the best approach to this game, although it is certainly the most amusing.

I just can’t see any way the Jets win this game. Of course the last time I said that, I picked the Saints to dominate the Seahawks. If you’ve learned anything so far, you should immediately go put your money on the Jets. The Patriots win 41-14.

Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (12-4, -2.5)

If I couldn’t provide any objective analysis last week, I definitely can’t this week. Am I terrified that #1 seed Atlanta isn’t even favored by the standard 3 points at home? Am I even more terrified that the majority of the public is on the Packers? Am I most terrified that the Packers have become a trendy Super Bowl pick? Yes, yes, and yes. The Packers still win 24-21.


Who cares about the Giants?

January 2, 2011

Gotta love these announcers in the Green Bay Packers game and how they keep playing up the Giants game. They’ve cut to the Giants/Redskins game twice saying that the Giants are trying to keep the pressure on the Packers and sideline reporter Pam Oliver told us that the Packers wouldn’t put the score of the Giants game on the scoreboard at the stadium.

Apparently they didn’t get the memo that the Bucs win over the Saints today means that the Giants game is meaningless for Packers fans. Either the Packers win and they’re in or they lose and they’re out. Guess that’s what happens when you write up a script before the game and don’t change it when another team pulls an upset!