Archive for February, 2005

Randy fucking Moss?

February 24th, 2005 Comments off

The experts’ consensus on the reported forthcoming trade of wide receiver/deluxe model asshole Randy Moss from the Minnesota Vikings to the Oakland Raiders appears to hold that the Raiders are getting the better part of the deal. In fact, in listening to Sirius NFL Radio, watching ESPN and reading the various online football sites, I’ve encountered no one who believes the Raiders are making a mistake and a solid few who believe the Vikings have fucked up royally. I beg to differ.

Let’s, for a second or two, pretend Moss has no baggage (which is so far from the truth it borders on the absurd even to entertain it as a hypothetical, but still …). Let’s look at this situation as if the Raiders were simply trading an underperforming linebacker (Napoleon Harris) and the seventh overall pick in a rather shallow draft (and, you know, a throwaway seventh round pick, which doesn’t matter anyhow), for a guy who’s arguably the most talented wide receiver in the league. That might look good on paper, but it isn’t.

The Raiders are a team that has something to the tune of $8 million in dead money under the salary cap. That is, while most teams in the league have $85 million to spend on player salaries for next season, the Raiders have only $77 million (because of stupid spending moves of the past). That’s 9.4 percent of their total cap allotment being spent on nothing. They’re also a team that just last week signed their number one wideout, Jerry Porter, to a new contract. They’ve also got some talented receivers behind Porter. And now they’ve got Moss, at something like $7.25 million a year. And, yeah, Moss is a great player, but you can’t go spending all your money on receivers, particularly when you have huge problems on your offensive line, Kerry Collins (who’s got an amazing talent for finding the open DB in any passing situation) throwing the ball, no wideouts to speak of, and a secondary that’s falling apart and that features one of the all-time great underachievers in the league in Charles Woodson (who, one can only hope, will be traded sometime between now and September). Even under the best of circumstances, this team could have done better with it’s money and its first-round pick than Moss.

The Vikings, meanwhile, (and remember, we’re pretending they didn’t just dump off a disruptive force that has hurt the team more than helped it in recent years), now have two first-round picks, one of which they can deal if they choose, a linebacker who isn’t great but who is good enough to start and can help them make the switch to the 3-4 defense, and piles and piles of money under the cap, because outgoing owner Red McCombs has been one of the cheapest in the league. If new owner Reggie Fowler plans to spend anywhere close to the cap, the Vikes can be a major force in free agency. And with receivers like Plaxico Burress (who they won’t touch, because why replace one personality problem with another), Derrick Mason and Muhsin Muhammad available on the free agent market, they can easily find someone to help Nate Burleson (who was fantastic while Moss was out injured part of last season) at the receiver position. Or they could trade for a Laveranues Coles. Or they could pick up a receiver in the draft. They’ll be OK at that position one way or the other. And they’ve still got more running backs than they know what to do with, a terrific pass-catching tight end, and a pretty solid O line. So after dealing with the gap at receiver, they can concentrate on fixing their defensive issues. I think Minnesota, if it makes the right moves going forward, should be in pretty good position to go 11-5 or 12-4 next season, which should give them the NFC North and quite possibly a home game in the playoffs.

The Raiders, it would appear, believe they can succeed with a long-ball offense. They’re wrong. This ain’t the AFL, and hasn’t been for some four decades. You also can’t succeed in the NFL these days by sinking all your money and resources into your offense. Just ask the Indianapolis Colts. The reality of NFL (and especially AFC) football right now is that if you’re gonna win championships, you’ve gotta find a way to get past New England (and probably Pittsburgh and the New York Jets, and maybe Baltimore, next season) and you’re not gonna do that by putting all your dough into wideouts.

So you almost can forget about the fact that Moss is a shithead, a guy who cares about himself and not the game, his team, or winning, because this wouldn’t be a good trade even if he weren’t. But the fact is, he is a problem. He’s a problem on the field and off. He’s a problem in the locker room and a problem on the street. And all his talent isn’t going to fix that. So unless Norv Turner has some kind of magic formula for turning Randy Moss into a committed professional and team player (’cause I guarantee you, all Al Davis sees is raw talent and the potential to put asses in seats — which is all Al, God bless him, ever sees), the guy is gonna continue to be more of a headache than any level of talent is worth.

And, not that it matters, but just a theory for those who can’t understand why the Vikings were willing to make this trade now, when the draft is still months away and when Reggie Fowler, who will be taking over the team soon, has publicly stated he’s not interested in trading Moss. Why, I’ve heard guys ask on NFL Radio, is Red McCombs making this move when he’s getting rid of the team? Why saddle Fowler with the repercussions of a move he’s said he wouldn’t make? My thought is this: Fowler knows as well as anyone that Moss is bad for the Vikings and has to go, but no one (except Jerry Jones) wants to start his term of ownership by making a move that has the potential to create a fan backlash. If by some chance the Vikings fortunes should slip, and the Raiders get some great play out of Moss, the fans in Minnesota likely would never forgive Fowler, making his term of ownership difficult to say the least. So he and McCombs make an agreement: Fowler tells the press he doesn’t wanna trade Moss, then McCombs goes ahead and makes the trade. Fowler gets what he needs for his team and McCombs, who’s getting out anyhow, takes the blame along with his $379 million in profits from the sale of the team. Everyone wins. Except, of course, for the Raiders, who, let’s face it, have once again made their own damned bed.

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Tedy Bruschi

February 18th, 2005 Comments off

So yesterday this reporter out in the Boston area contacted me asking for my thoughts on why Tedy Bruschi, the Patriots linebacker who suffered a mild stroke Wednesday, is so well loved by Pats fans. But he didn’t end up using what I had to say — I don’t know why; maybe it wasn’t that interesting, maybe he didn’t have space, maybe I got back to him too late, doesn’t really matter — so I figure I’ll expand upon my email to him a bit and just post my thoughts here.

First, though, I guess it makes sense to point out that what really matters here is that apparently Tedy’s going to be OK. I don’t mean OK to play; we still don’t know about that. I mean just generally OK. With luck, he’ll be OK to play, too, not just because he’s such a key member of the team, but because it’d be terrible for the guy’s career to end because of something like this. Tedy’s had a good run: nine years in the league (which is forever in pro football) and three Super Bowl rings. That’s something. If his doctors tell him he should give up football, he certainly won’t walk away feeling like he missed the opportunity to make big plays in big games. So that’s good. But it would still be nice if he had the chance to play until he chooses to retire. So now that we’re relatively certain his life isn’t in jeopardy, let’s hope the guy gets a chance to decide for himself when it’s time to exit the league.

That’s all sorta beside the point, though, because it’s not what the reporter asked about and it’s not what I wrote to him. What he asked about was why I think fans so admire Bruschi.

I could have told him I think Pats fans love Bruschi because he’s been a big part of why the team has won so many games (and so many big games) and I wouldn’t have been wrong. Tedy’s leadership has helped make the Pats defense the impressive unit it is. Inside linebacker isn’t an easy position to play — it demands a lot both physically and mentally — and Tedy, who was never supposed to be a great pro football player, has been a monster in the position. He’s also made more than a few of the big plays in clutch situations that the Pats D has become famous for. So I could have said that Pats fans understand exactly how much Tedy has contributed to the team, and I wouldn’t have been wrong. But I didn’t say that.

I also could have gone on about how Tedy sort of embodies the spirit of this Patriots team, noting that he’s a guy who isn’t supposed to be a superstar, and who never acts like he thinks he’s a superstar, but who plays like a superstar (better than a superstar) every time he’s on the field. Pats fans love the humility and the class their team shows, and Tedy is all about humility and class, so of course the fans love him. But I only mentioned that in passing.

What I focused on in my reply to that reporter was how the first thing I thought about when I read the reports about Tedy’s stroke wasn’t what it might mean for the team, but what it might mean for Tedy and his family. The first image that popped into my mind wasn’t his interception in the Super Bowl, but the footage they showed (can’t remember if it was before the game or at half time) of him earlier in the day clowning around on the field with his two little guys. And as the day went on, that’s the exact thing I kept hearing about from the Pats fans I talked to. They worried about the man and his family and they talked about that footage of Tedy and his kids. Some folks talked about his play in the Super Bowl and in other games; others didn’t. Some worried that the Pats wouldn’t be able to replace him easily if his career does end now; others didn’t. But they all (every single one of them) mentioned that footage. And they all said that Tedy’s health, and his ability to continue to clown around with those kids, was more important than whether he’d return to the playing field. Maybe that’s simply because something like this is so much bigger than whatever effect it would have on the Pats, but I think it also has a lot to do with the affection people have for this particular guy. And I believe that affection goes well beyond an admiration for Tedy as a player.

I think that footage of Tedy and his kids showed Bruschi to be what so many professional athletes are held up to be, and often pretend to be: a real role model. Here was a guy whose job is as physical and as aggressive as they get, and he wasn’t on the news, as too many professional football players have been, for hurting someone or doing something stupid; he was just on TV smiling from ear to ear and playing silly games with his little kids. That said a lot to me, and to a lot of fans, about the kind of person Tedy Bruschi is, specifically, that he is the kind of man you can and should admire, because he’s not just a great athlete, he’s also a good man. I think Pats fans value that. I think just about everyone values that.

I kept thinking about that later on and I got to thinking that Bruschi is sort of the antidote to the Randy Moss types who get all the attention in the NFL. He’s a guy who doesn’t spend a lot of time talking to the press about how great he is, who doesn’t expect all the attention to be on him all the time. He’s also a guy who isn’t out there treating fans and other people poorly. He doesn’t seem to be someone who believes being a star athlete excuses him from the obligation to be a decent person. He’s a guy who goes out and plays his position exceedingly well and that’s that. And then you see him with his kids and you know why he isn’t thumping his chest all over the place: He gets it. He knows what’s really important in life. He clearly enjoys playing football, and winning, and he isn’t shy about celebrating triumphs, but he doesn’t make too much of himself and he doesn’t demand that anyone else make too much of him. And when you look around the league and see a Moss here, a Freddie Mitchell there and (and a whole lot of Ray Lewises, Michael Pittmans and Samari Rolles everywhere), you can’t help but feel a connection to, and an admiration for, a guy like Tedy Bruschi.

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Lovely. Just Fucking Lovely.

February 16th, 2005 Comments off

Well, I’ll say this: It’s been a while. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve had an incidence of alleged domestic violence involving a professional football player to comment about since I started this blog (I used to write about this stuff on my other blog). That’s like six months, which has to be a new record.

This time out, we find Tennessee Titans cornerback Samari Rolle accused of beating up his wife on Valentine’s Day. Awww, how sweet. Remember, that’s accused, not convicted. Rolle remains innocent until proven guilty, which, given the way domestic violence cases tend to play out in general and the way most criminal cases against professional athletes tend to play out (except the drug cases; even pro athletes go to jail sometimes in drug cases — sometimes for as much as one fiftieth as long as they’d go to jail for the same offenses if they weren’t professional athletes, because that’ll show ’em), will almost certainly never happen regardless of whether Rolle did it. But if he did it, my, oh, my, what a wonderful way to celebrate your love for the mother of your two children. I mean, you’re a professional athlete — no, I’m sorry, it’s more than that, because you’re not a golf or ping-pong pro, you’re a pro football player, which means you’ve gotta be stronger, in better condition, and a good bit more aggressive than … well, than pretty much everybody — and you need to assert power in your marriage by beating up your wife. What could possibly be more loving than that?

And you know that if, by some odd chance, Mr. Rolle is convicted in this case, the NFL will fail to sanction, or even censure, him in any meaningful way. The league has, after all, demonstrated in case after case, with player after player, that it does not consider domestic violence a serious problem. Not like drug use, that’s for sure. Players who violate the league’s drug policies end up serving lengthy suspensions — smoke a joint and you could sit for a month. And why? Well, because football players are role models, of course. We wouldn’t want to give impressionable kids the idea that the National Football League thinks its OK to blaze a spliff and sit around playing Madden with your buddies. The very fuckin’ structure of our society is at stake. But, you know, a little bit of wife of girlfriend beating here or there, eh, what’s really wrong with that? I mean, you know, a guy rams his wife’s car or something, then you’ve gotta slap him on the wrist. But a smack here, a punch there, that’s to be expected.

What do you get for it all in the end? I don’t know. I mean, maybe one day, if worse comes to worst, a player some player or ex-player will do something like, you know, lunge out of a hedgerow and brutally murder his estranged wife and maybe even some innocent bystander or something. But, you know, even then, he’ll probably have enough money to mount a hell of a defense and get away with it. So nothing really to worry about there. Not really.

God, you know how I know I truly, truly love this game? Because if I didn’t, the behavior of some of the people who play it would have turned me against it a long, long time ago.

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This And That

February 8th, 2005 Comments off

A few post-Super Bowl observations, some of which are pretty obvious, though you’d never know it from reading the newspapers or listening to the radio:

The New England Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX. “Really?” you respond. “You don’t say. Any other news to break?” Well, that’s not what I mean. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know the deal. New England came out ahead 24-21, posting its third Super Bowl win and cementing its dynasty status. Don’t think the Pats are a dynasty? Good for you. Go get your own blog and fucking say so there.) Fair enough. But the question I keep reading and hearing is, “Did the Patriots win or did the Eagles lose?” Fuck, man, both. Of course. But the point of the question is, “By what degree may we devalue the Patriots’ victory?” And the answer is, not at all. You’re damned right the Patriots won the Super Bowl. No, they weren’t perfect. Yeah, they didn’t score every time they made it into the red zone. And yeah, the Eagles made some mistakes. Doesn’t matter. The Pats scored enough points to win the game. They completely shut down the Eagles ground game, to the point where Philly simply abandoned the run. They confused not only the Eagles players on the field (on both sides of the ball), but the coaches on the sidelines, who should have been able to see something of what the Pats were doing and make some adjustments. And more important, those Eagles mistakes didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Pats forced some of them by keeping after Donovan McNabb, and they paved the way for others by mixing up their sets on offense and defense, making constant adjustments to their game plan that even the announcers failed to pick up, and leaving Andy Reid and the rest of the Philly coaching staff standing dumbstruck as their team failed to make an effort to do what it needed to do at the end of the game. That’s a win. And fuck you, media, for even suggesting otherwise.

I believe the Patriots can become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. I’m not saying I believe they will do it — clearly, the 2005 regular-season campaign in the AFC (and particularly the AFC East) is gonna be absolutely fucking brutal — only that they can. In terms of players, the Pats should only get better. They’ll have players — like Tyrone Poole and Ben Watson — who missed much or all of this season coming back into the lineup. They’ll doubtless make some great draft picks. And recent history suggests they’ll make at least one key free-agent acquisition, perhaps shoring up their defensive secondary or offensive line (which has played brilliantly, but which could use a little help). We’ll see what happens with the coaching situation. Whether Eric Mangini sticks around to pick up where Romeo Crennel left off will be big. But either way, I expect Bill Belichick will find the right guys to be his new coordinators. And as long as Dante Scarnecchia is still around, you can expect to see the offensive line continue to play at the high level that has allowed Tom Brady and Corey Dillon to have the kind of success they’ve had this season.

I suspect that if the Patriots do make it to Detroit (Detroit? what the hell was the NFL thinking?) for Super Bowl XL, they could very well find themselves in the first consecutive-years Super Bowl rematch since Dallas stomped Buffalo in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII. The Eagles also stand to get better in the off-season. They’ve got tons of room under the salary cap and very few real needs. If they can find a running back (there are several talented guys available in free agency) and allow Brian Westbrook to catch more balls, find a decent second receiver (pushing Todd Pinkston to three, where he belongs and dumping Freddie Mitchell, who should be playing in the Arena League), they’ll be in damned good shape come next season. They’ve also gotta make some adjustments on D. Blitzing every play just doesn’t work. But they can do that. And the NFC could be an even weaker conference next season. So they should be able to get back to the show if all goes well.

I, for one, would love to see a second Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl matchup. I’d just be so happy to see an Eagles team with a healthy Terrell Owens lose to a Patriots team with a healthy defensive secondary. Then, Eagles fans would almost have to shut up about how their team “could have won, if only … .” (They couldn’t have, because they didn’t, and that’s that. But it would be nicer if there were no room to ask stupid questions.)

Super Bowl XL will be played February 5 at Ford Field in Detroit. To date, there have been three Super Bowls played in the month of February. All three have been won by the New England Patriots.

There are 74 days until the 2005 NFL draft. There are 212 days until the beginning of the 2005 regular season. I’m already champing at the bit.

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Super Bowl Pick

February 4th, 2005 Comments off

And now for something completely the same. Which is to say, here’s my official Super Bowl XXXIX pick:

New England (-7) vs Philadelphia

Let’s start with a rundown of stuff that doesn’t matter.
The overconfidence, or spoiledness, of some (many?) New England fans won’t have any bearing on the outcome of this game. Regardless of what Eagles fans looking for any source of hope and more fatalistic/gloomy Pats fans looking for some sign that the end is near may believe, the spooky shit doesn’t actually affect what happens on the field. That stuff’s all in our heads. If the Eagles manage to win, it’ll be because they play a better game than the Patriots, and nothing else.
Who knows or doesn’t know or pretends not to know whomever else’s names or numbers. It’s all talk. It’s great for hype, and it’s sort of entertaining, but it’s really just a bunch of bullshit.
Dynasty, destiny, yada, yada, yada. Not that all that stuff doesn’t make for fun and interesting pre-game conversation. It does. But no one on the field is gonna be thinking about whether the Pats are a dynasty or the Eagles are a team of destiny. They’re gonna be thinking about executing plays and winning the game at hand. That’s what got these two teams to Jacksonville and that’s what’s gonna get one of them a Lombardi trophy at the end of the day.
Which team I pick to win. Which team any given expert picks to win. Which team any given current or former NFL star player picks to win. Which team your uncle Fred picks to win. And which team you want to win. It’s good to have an opinion. It’s great to have a team to root for in the Super Bowl. But the result on the field is gonna depend only on which team executes better. That’s it.

So you’ve seen my statistical breakdowns below (if not, and you’re reading the next few paragraphs thinking, “He’s not backing this shit up,” then you should, because I have), here’s what I expect to see on Sunday:

Forget all that stuff about establishing the run on offense and stopping it on D. Yeah, you need to do that, but it’s too simple to state here. The team that will win this game will be the team that launches a balanced attack on offense and disrupts the other team’s ability to do the same.

I expect the Eagles defense to come out blitzing, not just because it’s what they do, but because they know they’ve got to keep Tom Brady from getting into a rhythm and they’re gonna believe the way to do that is to get into the backfield and maybe log some sacks early, get Brady, who has taken five sacks in the post-season to date, looking over his shoulder. I don’t see that working. The Pats’ offensive line is beyond solid. They’re gonna be looking for those blitzes. Brady is a master of reading defenses to take advantage of the kind of mismatches the blitz invariably creates. And Corey Dillon is too potent a weapon for a defense to ignore.

I see Dillon having a good bit of success against the Eagles’ weak run defense, though probably not in the first quarter. If Corey has big numbers at the end of the first period, this thing is over. More likely, though, you’ll see the Pats move the ball early on in much the same way they always do, with a mix of running plays and short, high-percentage passing plays. They won’t test the Eagles’ outstanding secondary deep until sometime around the middle of the second quarter, after they’ve spanked the Eagles for big gains on short routes a few times.

The Pats D won’t sweat Terrell Owens. That’s not because T.O.’s not at 100 percent (though, clearly, he isn’t), but because you’re not gonna play the Eagles’ strong passing game any differently because T.O.’s out, so you don’t play it differently because he’s in. The Pats will show blitz a lot and then fall back into Cover 2, just as they always do. And Cover 2 is precisely the right defense to use with the Eagles. The Pats will give up some yards in the air, but their safeties won’t fall for Donovan McNabb’s trick of scrambling, scrambling, scrambling, looking like he’ll run, then pulling up just shy of the line of scrimmage and completing the big pass. When they see McNabb scramble, they’ll fall back and trust the linebackers to do their jobs if McNabb decides to run. They might get burned a bit once or twice doing that, but it’s better than getting burned regularly (and seriously) by letting the Eagles receivers get behind them. The Pats also will concentrate on neutralizing Brian Westbrook, who can hurt you if you let him. The Pats run D is too good for Westbrook to have much of a game on the ground, so the trick will be to keep him from catching passes. And the way to do that is not to commit too much manpower to chasing down McNabb. Rushing four or five will get the job done vs. that Eagles O, and that’s just what the Pats will do.

I think the Eagles will keep it close through the first half. They’ll go into the second half trailing by three or four. Then, middle of the third quarter, when the Pats go up by 10 or 11, the Eagles will start trying to play catchup. They’ll get out of their game plan. McNabb, frustrated, will make some costly errors. The Eagles will turn the ball over twice. And the Pats will walk away with a 34-17 victory.

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Super Bowl Breakdown, Part Two

February 3rd, 2005 Comments off

So, having come away from my look at the regular season numbers feeling certain that the Patriots can only come away with a win on Sunday, I’m now gonna take a look at post-season stats to see if they change my mind (or at least make me feel like the Eagles can give the Pats a game).

As I mentioned yesterday, it makes sense to me to look at the playoffs as separate from the regular season (to whatever extent such a thing is possible) because the level of play in the post-season is so much higher. That said, I do think it’s important to put the team’s post-season performance into context. So let’s start by looking at how the Patriots and Eagles went into the playoffs, and at who they faced once they got there.

The Patriots finished the regular season 14-2 and went into the playoffs as the second seed in the AFC, a conference that included most of the best teams in professional football this season and that dominated the NFC in head-to-head play throughout. The Eagles finished 13-3 and had clinched the NFC’s top seeding (and, consequently, a guarantee of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs) by week 15. Both teams had a week-one bye. Thereafter, the Pats hosted the AFC’s three-seed, the Indianapolis Colts (who finished the regular season 13-3), then traveled to Pittsburgh to face the conference one-seed Steelers (15-1), while the Eagles hosted the NFC six-seed Minnesota Vikings (8-8) and the two-seed Atlanta Falcons (11-5). You probably don’t need me to point out that the Pats faced a significantly stiffer level of competition in the playoffs than the Eagles. So, while both teams cruised to victory in both of their playoff matches, the achievement is clearly more impressive for the Patriots.

OK, now the numbers.

The Patriots averaged 30.5 points and 323.5 yards of total offense per game in the playoffs. They averaged 168 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game on the ground, and 155.5 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game in the air. (That, by the way, is pretty much the definition of a balanced attack.)
The Eagles averaged 27 points and 360.5 yards of total offense. They logged an average of 132.5 yards and .5 touchdowns per game on the ground, and 228 yards and two touchdowns per game in the air. (That is the definition of an unbalanced attack.)

So that looks pretty good for the Pats. But let’s see how the teams achieved those numbers before we draw any conclusions.
The Patriots did it against the defenses ranked first (Pittsburgh) and 19th (Indianapolis) in terms of points allowed and first and 29th in total yards allowed. Pittsburgh was also ranked first against the run and fourth against the pass. Indy was ranked 24th against the run and 31st against the pass. (It’s worth noting, too, that Pittsburgh, which gave up only eight rushing touchdowns during the regular season, gave up two to the Patriots in the AFC championship.)
The Eagles got their numbers against the Ds ranked 14th (Atlanta) and 26th (Minnesota) in points allowed and 14th and 28th in yards allowed. Atlanta was the eighth-best team in the league against the run and 24th against the pass. Minnesota was ranked 21st against the run and 29th against the pass.
Clearly, then, the Pats earned their offensive stats under much tougher conditions, playing better squads than the Eagles, and traveling to face the best D in the league. And still they put up numbers that were at least slightly more impressive.
All told, then, the Pats come out looking much stronger than the Eagles in terms of post-season offensive accomplishment.

The Patriots gave up an average of 15 points and 332 yards of total offense per game. They allowed 104.5 yards and .5 touchdowns per game on the ground and 227.5 and one touchdown per game in the air.
The Eagles gave up an average of 12 points and 293.5 yards of total offense per game. They allowed 98 yards and one touchdown per game on the ground and 195.5 and .5 touchdowns per game in the air.
There, the numbers come out looking like they favor Philly. But, again, we need to examine where they come from.

The Patriots earned their defensive stats facing off against offenses ranked first (Indianapolis) and 11th (Pittsburgh) in the league in terms of scoring and second and 16th in terms of overall offense. Indianapolis had the league’s 15th-ranked rushing offense and second-ranked passing offense. Pittsburgh had the league’s second-ranked rushing offense and 28th-ranked passing offense.
The Eagles earned their defensive numbers against offenses ranked sixth (Minnesota) and 16th (Atlanta) in scoring and fourth and 20th in total offense. Minnesota had the league’s 18th-ranked rushing offense, and first-ranked passing offense. Atlanta had the league’s first-ranked rushing offense and 30th-ranked passing offense.
So, it appears on the surface that the competition here was just a little bit tougher for the Pats, which makes the overall picture appear closer to even (i.e. the Pats gave up more yards and more points to slightly better teams). But one still has to adjust for the fact that the Pats played their first playoff game against a team that had hosted its first playoff game and their second on the road, while Philadelphia hosted both of its playoff games, including one against an 8-8 team playing its second-consecutive road game.
More important, one has to consider — as I pointed out two weeks ago in correctly predicting that the Eagles would roll over the Falcons — that the Atlanta rushing offense numbers were deceiving. Yes, the Falcons finished the season ranked first in the league in that category, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that Atlanta has a very unusual creature under center in Michael Vick, who is by far the best rushing quarterback in league history. So the Falcons had 524 rushing attempts for 2672 yards, for an average of 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season. But look at Vick’s numbers: He ran 120 times, picking up 902 yards and averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Some of those were called running plays. Others were the result of his amazing ability to scramble on a broken pass play (and the Falcons piss-poor pass offense created a lot of those). So Vick was responsible for 22 percent of his team’s carries and fully one third of their rushing yards. And while there’s not much to be gained by focussing on the fact that without Vick’s rushes the team would have finished 26th in attempts and 20th in total yards (because it’s impossible to say how many more carries their talented running backs might have got without Vick in the mix), it is meaningful to look at the fact that Atlanta’s running backs averaged only 4.3 yards per carry. That’s still a good number, but it ain’t 5.1. In fact, 4.3 would have put Atlanta in a four-way tie for 10th in the league, along with Indianapolis, Green Bay and St. Louis (all playoff teams, but all losers by no later than the second round).
So Philly’s competition in the NFC Championship, in reality, was significantly less stiff than the Patriots’ AFC Championship competition. And there, all illusions of equality melt away. The Pats simply performed better against tougher teams in the playoffs.

One more thing to consider right now: Giveaway/takeaway ratio.
The Pats and Eagles were both quite good in this regard during the regular season. The Pats finished with a +10 while the Eagles finished with a +11. In the playoffs, however, the numbers have been entirely lopsided. The Patriots are +7. They never once turned the ball over in either playoff matchup, despite the fact that they were up against teams that finished the season at +20 (Indianapolis) and +12 (Pittsburgh). The Eagles are +2, having taken the ball away three times and given it up once. And the teams they faced were hardly formidable in that area. Minnesota, in fact, finished the regular season with a -2, while Atlanta managed to come out at +3.
Clearly, the Patriots are performing better in this area. And this could be a key factor. NFL games are won and lost on the turnover ratio. If the Pats continue their habit of taking the ball away 3.5 times per game and giving it away never, they’ll cruise to victory.

In the end, I think the Patriots will maintain their dominance in the giveaway/takeaway area, not because I believe the Eagles will collapse, but because of the specific dynamics of how Super Bowls tend to go. The reason blowouts are fairly common in the Super Bowl is that there is no next week. Teams that get behind have to take chances to catch up. And the bigger the chance you take, the bigger the potential for creating a big play, the more likely you are to make a big mistake and give the ball away. I see the Pats getting out ahead early, but the Eagles keeping it to within four points or so through the first half. I expect the Pats to extend their lead to around 11 by midway through the third quarter, however, and after that, it could get ugly. I’ll get into exactly what I think will happen in this game tomorrow when I run through the intangibles and other nonsense. But my conclusion will remain what the numbers dictate: a Patriots win.

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Super Bowl Breakdown, Part One

February 2nd, 2005 Comments off

I’ll begin by saying it seems pretty clear to me that unless the Patriots are way off their game on Sunday night, they should not only beat the Eagles but cover the seven-point spread handily. But I could be wrong. Clearly I like the Pats a lot more than I like the Eagles. I’ll be rooting for the Pats. I’ve watched the Pats all season long. Maybe I’m letting what I want get in the way of a meaningful evaluation of what’s likely. That’s why it makes sense to step back and look at what is. Let’s start with the pure stuff — the numbers. Not because that’s where it all happens — this is the Super Bowl and it all happens all over the place — but because the talk and the hype and the speculation in either direction is gonna be going on all week. Give the media plenty of time to overanalyze what Terrell Owens’ gameday status could mean for the Eagles. Then we can take a look at everything on the table and try to figure out if any of it means a goddamn thing. (It probably doesn’t).

And to make it that much simpler, let’s keep the regular season numbers and the playoff numbers separate, since they come out of completely different contexts to begin with (that is, a playoff game and a regular season game are very different animals, so let’s not try to breed them, because the offspring won’t have much chance of survival). First, the regular season.

I think rather than running down raw numbers and then looking at competition and then looking at matchups, I’ll try to do it all at once. I’ll go matchup by matchup in four key statistical areas for each team — overall offense/defense, points scored/allowed, rushing offense/defense, and passing offense/defense — flipping back and forth between teams in each area.

Overall offense/defense
The Patriots’ seventh-ranked offense, which put up 357.6 yards per game, will face the Eagles’ 10th-ranked defense, which allowed 319.7 yards per game. Meanwhile, the Eagles offense, which was ranked ninth and put up 351.1 yards per game, faces a Patriots D that was ranked ninth, allowing 310.8 yards per game.
On the surface, that’s a minor Patriots’ advantage. When you look at how all those numbers were earned, however, things start to look even better for the Pats.
The Patriots’ offense faced stiffer competition than the Eagles’ offense. Both teams faced the league’s’ best defense, Pittsburgh, but after that there’s a big dropoff for the Eagles. The Pats played half their games against teams ranked in the top 10 in the league in overall defense. The Eagles faced top 10 Ds in only four of their 16 games.
The disparity in the quality of competition faced by the two defenses is less pronounced, but notable just the same. Again, looking at the top 10 teams in the league in overall numbers, the Pats D squared off against the first-, second-, sixth- and eighth-ranked offenses, while the Eagles D faced the third-, fourth-, and sixth-ranked squads.
Looking at that, one can only conclude that the Pats overall advantage is fairly substantial.

Points scored/allowed
As has been widely reported, the Patriots and Eagles were tied for the second fewest points allowed on defense during the season, giving up 16.3 points per game. New England’s offense finished fourth in points scored, putting up 27.3 points per game, while Philadelphia’s offense finished eighth, logging 24.1 points per game.
There again, it would appear the Patriots have a slight advantage. But once again, the advantage begins to look less slight as you look more closely.
Both offenses faced the league’s top-ranked D in this category as well (again, it was Pittsburgh). And both played the sixth-ranked Baltimore Ravens. The Pats also faced the fourth-ranked New York Jets (twice) and eighth-ranked Buffalo Bills (twice). The Eagles faced the fifth-ranked Washington Redskins (twice). So the Pats put up more points while facing stingier Ds.
The Pats D, meanwhile, earned its share of the number two ranking against much higher scoring offenses. The Pats played the top-ranked Indianapolis Colts and second-ranked Kansas City Chiefs (who put up 32.6 and 30.2 points per game respectively) as well as the seventh-ranked Buffalo Bills (twice) and 10th-ranked Cincinnati Bengals. The most potent offense in terms of scoring the Eagles faced was the fifth ranked Green Bay Packers (who averaged 26.5 points per game, seven fewer than the Colts and nearly four fewer than the Chiefs), followed by the sixth-ranked Minnesota Vikings (25.3) and Cincinnati.
That clearly points to the Pats having the better part of this matchup.

Rushing offense/defense
The Patriots will put their seventh-ranked rushing offense (which put up 133.4 yards per game and scored 15 touchdowns) up against the Eagles’ 16th ranked rush defense (which allowed 118.9 yards per game and 13 touchdowns). The Eagles’ 24th-ranked rushing offense (102.4 yards per game, 10 touchdowns) will face the Patriots sixth-ranked rushing D (98.3 yards per game, nine touchdowns).
It’s not hard to see where the advantage falls there. But it gets slightly better for the Pats.
The Patriots and Eagles faced a similar level of competition in route to their offensive rushing stats. Both teams played the best run-stopping team in the league (again, Pittsburgh). The Eagles also faced the second-ranked Redskins (twice), eighth-ranked Ravens and Atlanta Falcons (the two teams tied for that ranking), and 10th-ranked Dallas Cowboys (twice). The Patriots faced the fifth-ranked Jets (twice), seventh-ranked Bills (twice) and eighth-ranked Ravens. The Eagles have a minor edge in toughness of competition there, but it’s nothing that offsets the enormous disparity in offensive rankings. That is, the Pats did much, much better while facing ever-so-slightly less difficult opposition.
The defensive disparity in this category, meanwhile, only deepens when you look at the level of competition. The Pats’ run D earned its number six ranking against a slate of opponents that included the second-, third-, fifth-, eighth- and ninth-ranked rushing offenses in the league. The Eagles run D got its number 16 ranking while facing the second-, ninth- and 10th-ranked offenses (and, in fairness, the 11th). That is, the Pats did a much better job of stopping much better running attacks.

Passing offense/defense
Here, the advantage appears to belong to the Eagles. Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked passing offense (which put up 263 yards per game and logged 32 touchdowns) will face a New England pass D ranked 19th (having given up 231.9 yards per game and 18 touchdowns). On the other side of the ball, New England’s 13th-ranked passing offense (263, 29) will face a 12th-ranked Philadelphia pass D (217.2, 16).
But the competition skews these stats back toward a level playing field.
The Eagles’ pass offense earned its sixth-place ranking against a slate of opponents that included the fourth-, fifth-, seventh-, ninth- and 10th-ranked pass defenses. The Patriots pass offense’s 13th-place ranking was earned against opponents including the league’s first-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-ranked pass Ds. (It’s also notable that whereas the Pats played the first-ranked Miami pass D and third-ranked Buffalo pass D twice each, the highest-ranked pass Ds the Eagles faced twice each were seventh-ranked Washington and the ninth-ranked New York Giants). That doesn’t turn things around, but it makes them look pretty close to even.
The Eagles fare better in close inspection of pass defense. Philly got its 12th-place ranking against teams that included the first-, fourth-, fifth- and 10th-ranked passing offenses. The Pats faced the second-, third- and fourth-ranked pass offenses. And while the dropoff from third-ranked Kansas City (which averaged 289.9 yards per game) to fifth-ranked Green Bay (284.4) is slightly more pronounced than that from first-ranked Minnesota (297.1) to second-ranked Indianapolis (295.8), and while the Pats faced somewhat stiffer competition outside the top 10, it still appears the Eagles had a tougher route to their 217.2 yards per game allowed than the Pats did to their 231.9. (Unless you want to adjust for the fact that the Eagles played 12 of their games against inferior NFC competition, which one could argue is fair, but which I’ll not do.)
So it appears the Pats are somewhat weaker in pass defense than the Eagles and about equal in pass offense.

So what does it all indicate? Well, the way I look at these numbers, the Pats clearly come out way ahead in everything except the way the Eagles pass offense matches up against the Patriots secondary, where the Eagles are arguably a few degrees ahead. Does that mean the Eagles are gonna win? Certainly not. Of course the Eagles can win. Either team can win in any game. But the passing game matchup, which many are holding up as evidence that the Eagles will keep it close and maybe pull off the upset, doesn’t ultimately amount to that much. The difference isn’t nearly as significant as the difference in the running game mismatch, where the Pats hold a clear and pronounced advantage. You can’t pass if you can’t run, and I don’t see the Eagles running on the Pats.

So for now at least, I still feel like the Patriots are headed for a double-digit margin of victory. Next up, I’ll see whether the teams’ playoff numbers change my mind.

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