Sports Nut

Returns, and Many Happy

The inanity, the tediousness, the predictability of the NFL—it’s back, and what a relief. Opening weekend saw games that were monotonous (Carolina-Washington, Jets-Packers), games that were excruciatingly bad (Bolts-Raiders), and two fabulous games (Bills-Titans and Rams-Broncos) both played in prime time where everyone could see them. But mostly it saw no basic changes in what makes the NFL both lovable and exasperating, and that was the best part.

(Note: Complaints about Monday Night Football to follow at end of column.)

All summer, for instance, it was standard to hear that the NFL was about to be totally transformed by “vertical game” deep passing. In imitation of the Super Bowl champion Rams, everyone would be throwing monster long TD passes. Instead, opening weekend saw five TD passes of 40 yards or more (Warner to Hakim for 80, Warner to Faulk for 72, Banks to Ismail for 53, McNown to Robinson for 48, Chandler to Mathis for 44) vs. seven plus-40 TD passes last year on opening weekend—when everyone said the league would be swept by a vast, sweeping switch to power running, in imitation of the then-champion Broncos, and that didn’t happen either.

Much more prevalent than “vertical” passes were touchdown returns. Nine punts, kickoffs, fumbles, and interceptions were returned for touchdowns on opening weekend, a high figure. There’s nothing teams hate more than working, working, working for each hard-won meter of field position (note: TMQ is considering using the metric system, as in, “It was 2.8 meters and a cloud of dust”), only to see some gentleman suddenly sprinting untouched the length of the field. And it’s almost always a little, skinny guy who gets to do the sprinting too, driving the bulked-up, pumped-up NFL middle class crazy.

Among other vast, sweeping changes that failed to occur, it was reassuring to see that individual team makeovers turned out to be mostly puff. For instance, every summer every NFL offensive coordinator says he is going to make a commitment to being patient and establishing the running game—when he knows perfectly well the plan is to push the panic button by the middle of the second quarter. Thus Arizona and Pittsburgh, two teams that made off-season commitments to the running game, went pass-wacky immediately after their first two drives were stuffed: The Cardinals threw 49 times vs. 20 runs, while the Steelers threw 39 times vs. 18 runs, each trend beginning long before the score was one-sided. The sight of the Cardinals and Steelers attempting to pass is not something for the faint-hearted.

And every summer, every NFL defensive coordinator says his charges are going to play attacking, blitzing defense—when he knows perfectly well that the plan is to fall back into coverage to keep things from getting even worse. Thus Dallas, Cleveland, and Seattle yesterday all switched early to soft zones to guard against long scores that would turn defeat into embarrassment. (Interesting that we have Dallas and Cleveland in the same sentence as teams that stank on opening day, isn’t it?) Coverage-based strategy may make sense: Of last season’s top three defenses—Buffalo, Baltimore, and Tampa—none play a blitz-based scheme. It’s just the entertainment value of the annual, obligatory claim that this year we will have an “attacking” defense. What TMQ wants to hear is some defensive coordinator someday saying, “Our plan is to lay back, block the seams, and get incompletions.”

Best Call of the Day: At Dallas, the Eagles began the game with an onside kick. An onside kick is a desperation play, and there were 15 minutes on the clock in the first quarter. But the Eagles were desperate! They’ve been horrible for years. The gamble worked and set Philadelphia on a course for an impressive 41-14 opening-day road win. The psychological angle here is that players often would rather gamble and fail than play percentages. An onside kick or a try on fourth and short shows that you are unafraid, whereas punting on fourth and short communicates the opposite message. The Eagles started the game by telling the Cowboys that they weren’t afraid, and boy did it work. Bonus: Jerry Jones had to watch.

Worst Call of the Day: New Orleans held the visiting Lions to just 189 yards yet somehow was trailing by four as the clock wound down. (Wait, we know how—they are New Orleans.) The Saints had the ball deep in Detroit territory, third and five, about 30 seconds left. The call? New Orleans set RB Ricky Williams far out to the left like a wide receiver, hoping to draw the Lions defense that way, and then rolled QB Jeff Blake right. But Williams is such a terrible receiver he might as well stop in the middle of pass patterns to call his agent and complain about his contract. So the Lions ignored him, and Blake was smothered. On the next and final play, we saw why the Lions had ignored Williams on the previous down. The Saints called a short middle curl pass to Williams, and he listlessly jogged out (probably searching for his cell phone), then barely bothered to fight for the ball as a Detroit player made the breakup that ended the game. Tactical explanation: Defenses always shrug at heavy RBs who line up as WRs, unless it has been shown that these gentlemen can run real patterns and catch balls. Lining up a heavy RB as a flanker is the equivalent of handing out cards that say, “We’re rolling the other way.”

Best Performance of the Day: Turned in by Cincinnati, which did not lose. But then, it had the opening bye. Face it Bengals fans, your team peaked early.

Stat of the Day: Seattle, which lost 23-0, is now 6-19 all-time on opening day. Ye gods.

Pun of the Day: CB Paul Miranda just signed with these very Seahawks. Was he given a warning?

Play of the Day: Nobody seemed to notice the biggest play of the weekend, maybe because it happened at 11:57 p.m. ET Sunday night. Buffalo was about to best defending AFC champs Tennessee in a game already dubbed Home Run Payback. (Like 747 airplanes with individual names, games that merit names are the best kind.) The Bills went ahead on a field goal with a few seconds remaining, exactly as they had in the Music City Miracle game, and had only to kick off and make one tackle to start celebrating, exactly like the Music City Miracle game. Buffalo kicked. The Ts returner cut though the Bills like they were all dialing their agents and broke into the clear at the 50. The crowd fell into paralyzed silence. Would there be a Twilight Zone-esque repeat of the Music City Miracle? There might have been, except that placekicker Steve Christie tackled the returner in the open field.

The kicker saved the game—and (fun fact) he’s a Canadian! No NFL play on opening weekend was bigger or athletically more impressive, not even Az-Zahir Hakim’s Monday-night sprints. Though Christie will never get credit because he’s a kicker and because of the sinister anti-Canadian conspiracy. In an ominous sign for Western civilization, Bills fans began parking RVs and mobile homes in the stadium lot on Thursday night to get the best spots for tailgating.

Tactic of the day: Against the Broncos, the Rams both rolled up yards like Patton moving through France and ran the single sharpest-looking play design of the weekend. WRs Hakim and Terry Holt lined up in the backfield, then shifted to slot stances on each side but didn’t come to a halt. They then very purposefully exchanged positions, one sprinting from the left slot to the right and the other vice versa. It gave the impression that something important was about to happen based on where the WRs lined up, and the Broncos bought it, jumping their LBs out to the slots. Then Kurt Warner simply gave the ball to Marshall Faulk straight up the middle for a 27-yard gain. Great deception. The tentacled, silicon-based lifeforms on Warner’s homeworld obviously have studied human football tactics.

Now for the complaints about Monday Night Football. The buffoon in the dark glasses is gone, and that is to the good. You still hear him, but at least you don’t have to look at him. The shaded buffoon is so mediocre he should be delivering pints of ice cream for, not appearing on national television. TMQ had planned to propose Loreena McKennitt as his replacement.

And shots of the boys yukking it up in the booth were reduced; the first did not come until 10:14 p.m. ET. Last year they showed the booth more than the game. Less booth, too, is to the good.

But what’s up with this new premise of new producer Don Ohlmeyer that the booth has to become “entertainment”? TMQ always thought that the game was supposed to be the entertainment—last night it sure was. But if the assumption is that the game itself no longer counts as entertainment, then Spaudling Gray should do stream-of-consciousness play-by-play, the Boston Pops should be performing on the sidelines, replays should be stylized into MTV clips (we may regret suggesting that), and Cindy Crawford should strip during timeouts. Of course, TMQ thinks having Cindy Crawford disrobe is the solution to nearly any problem.

Running Items Department

Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: There were so many to choose from—Miller’s opening soliloquy in the yellow throwback blazer was incomprehensible, and his self-promotional references to being on the cover of TV Guide made strong men gag.

But TMQ goes with the fact that three days before his debut, Miller announced he would talk less. This is like Al Gore declaring he will spend less time trying to seem genuine. Someone feels his popularity will rise if he speaks less; now, what does this tell you? Reflecting our age of pseudo-precision, Miller proffered that he would reduce his verbal production by “15 to 20 percent”; he also announced that rather than interrupt colleagues, he would “let it breathe.” Fine red wine needs to breathe. What Dennis Miller needs, according to a proprietary algorithm developed by TMQ, is to talk 72.54 percent to 86.93 percent less.

Most Embarrassing Big-Media Prediction: There were so many to choose from, but TMQ goes with the New York Times and its habit, in a full-page NFL predictions package that runs each Friday, of attempting to predict each game’s final score.

Trying to call the spread is improbable enough. Remember, bookmakers’ spreads have nothing to do with projecting how many points the winner will win by—spreads are calculated so as to entice equal betting on both sides of a contest, leaving the bookmaker whole no matter what the outcome. But attempting to call an exact final score is a complete waste of time, to say nothing of statistical nonsense. Predicting an exact final score is like predicting exactly how many shots of boysenberry-almond vodka will be downed in a specific cafe in Copenhagen on April 24, 2008, but only if the Daughters of Abba are playing on the sound system. (If you’re thinking, “Hey that one’s easy, it would be zero,” then you have not been to Denmark lately.) The odds against predicting a final score are quite high, and even if you’re right, it’s a fluke, and then so what?

Thus, you won’t be surprised to learn that the New York Times went zero for 15 in its attempt to predict an exact final score. Times predicted final: Atlanta 17, SF 10. Actual: Atlanta 36, SF 28. Times predicted final: Tampa 19, Patriots 7. Actual: Tampa 21, Patriots 16. And so on.

There will be 259 NFL games this year. TMQ will track the Times weekly—in a running item to be called “New York Times Final-Score Score”—to determine if, in 259 chances, the paper ever predicts a final score.

TMQ Trivia Challenge

Tuesday Morning Quarterback wishes to announce that, according to Microsoft’s cheerful, carefree lawyers, this is not a “contest.” We guarantee you will lose time, endure frustration, and receive nothing, OK? (Just like going on a date!) Our rules are so completely incomprehensible, we refuse to explain them. (Just like antitrust law!) We make no warranties, express or implied. (Just like Firestone tires!) Each week’s winner will have his or her name published in the next column. You might get a TMQ cap at season’s end, but the final decision will be completely arbitrary and we promise nothing. We don’t even promise the season will end. If you’re a Cleveland fan, it may seem like the season never ends.

Of many, many entrants, the sole correct answer to last week’s question came from Ben Domenech of William & Mary University in Williamsburg, Va. Here was the question:

Which is not the actual name of an actual former NFL player—Fair Hooker, Wonderful Monds, Earthwind Moreland, Sheepy Redeen, or Vitamin Smith?

Many, many entrants went with Wonderful Monds, because he is a minor-league baseball player. But, aha! The baseball player is Wonderful Terrific Monds III. His father, Wonderful Terrific Monds Jr., played a season with the Niners in 1978.

Actually, all the names were actual names of NFL players. Domenech correctly choose Earthwind Moreland as the answer, because Earthwind is not a former player—he just signed with the Jets after being released by Tampa Bay.

Otherwise, Fair Hooker was a WR for the old version of the Cleveland Browns (the Browns Release 1.0). Sheepy Redeen plied his trade for the no-faceguards Minneapolis Marines in 1921. Vitamin Smith was a member of the 1951 championship Los Angeles Rams (the Norm van Brocklin team) and briefly held an NFL record for kick-return TDs.

Though the week’s challenge goes to Domenech, TMQ simply must reproduce the following entry from someone screen-named Dfos. Good Dfos fell into the Monds trap but otherwise gets a tip of TMQ’s nonexistent cap for composing his entry as a poem:

To pigskins did Sheepy aspire,
While the Bucs test young Earthwind in fire.
Fair Hooker’s gams
Helped swallow Vitamin’s Rams
But Monds never could quite get hired.

Now this week’s TMQ Trivia Challenge:

The sole player ever to get One for the Thumb was Charles Haley, who appeared in five Super Bowls and left with a ring each time. Cornelius Bennett also played in five of the big games, with the opposite result—no rings. In terms of total appearances, both these gentlemen are staring at the tail lights of the only player ever to perform in six Super Bowls. Who is he?

To enter, use “The Fray” and subject-line the reply, “Trivia Answer.” (In case of ties, first-read wins—but that’s not a rule since it’s not a contest.) If answering in verse, slug your posting, “Trivia Poem.”