Sports Nut

Presidential Point Spreads

Bengals Romp, Jets Come Back From 30-7, Ralph Nader Elected in Landslide

The team cruises to an easy victory, smashing yardage barriers while a running back wearing No. 28 has a record afternoon. Another day at the office for the other-worldly St. Louis Rams.

But wait, this was Cincinnati! The Bengals: 0-6 when Sunday dawned, worst overall record in the past decade, the Yugo of NFL franchises. These selfsame Bengals pasted a very respectable Denver team. They piled up 408 yards rushing, close to the all-time team mark of 426 set by the Lions in 1934. Back Corey Dillon, who wears that Marshall-Faulk-ish No. 28, ran for 278 yards—most ever in an NFL game, eclipsing the 275 accomplished by the sainted Walter Payton.

Sure, a few things never change: In one of the best performances in team history, the Bengals nevertheless managed to complete just two passes. But still!

Could the game be confirmation of the Brownian-jump theory? This idea holds that since all atoms constantly vibrate randomly in Brownian motion, if by chance every atom in an object vibrated in one direction, when it vibrated back the object would spontaneously move—a brick could fly into the air for no clear reason. The effect is so improbable that physicists estimate that throughout the history of the cosmos, no object above molecular size has ever actually spontaneously propelled itself. Yet Sunday, inexplicable physics-defying motion was the rule for the Bengals. Perhaps they could be renamed the Cincinnati Brownians.

Corey Dillon management footnote: This gentleman now owns two of the top five rushing days in NFL history, Sunday’s effort and a 246-yard performance in 1997. Last winter, when the Bengals were trying to jaw down Dillon’s signing request, the team posted a lengthy article on its official Web site criticizing his skills as a runner. Dillon responded with a contract maneuver that makes him a free agent after the season, ensuring he will leave Cincinnati. Congratulations to those heady personnel managers at the striped-helmet franchise.

Presidential Point Spread: The Tuesday Morning Quarterback line: Bush giving 2 percent. Over/under: 45 percent voter turnout.

Subway Series Note: New York City owns baseball this year, but resplendent New Jersey owns football, with Jersey/A Giants and Jersey/B Jets a combined 11-3. (California teams a combined 8-14, Florida a combined 10-12.) If the Giants and Jets meet in January’s Super Bowl, an appellation will be required. How about the Swamp Series?

Jets Comeback Note: The Dolphins had outgained Jersey/B by 207 yards to seven yards in the first quarter; they led 20-0; the Jets didn’t record a first down until 6:56 left in the half. Yet TMQ stared at the Marine Mammals on his TV set and cried aloud with full confidence, “Thou art doomed, doomed!” You are just going to have to believe that.

Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. The Jets’ lineman-eligible trick pass to 300-pound tackle Jumbo Elliott to tie the Dolphins and send a great Monday Night game into overtime. Not many teams are willing to risk throwing to a lineman; when was the last time someone did this with 42 seconds to play and the game on the line? Elliott now replaces Tampa guard Randall McDaniel, who caught a lineman-eligible earlier in the season, as the slowest person ever to catch an NFL touchdown. (Postwar era only.)

Best No. 2. Twice against the Rams, Chiefs QB Elvis Grbac got big gains—a 30-yard touchdown and a 36-yard pass interference penalty—by not just play-faking but using “crouch fakes.” In a crouch fake, the QB bends over the ball momentarily after feigning the handoff. Few quarterbacks do this, yet those who do (Boomer Esiason was a master) know regular success. So, why aren’t all QBs coached to crouch-fake? The movement is unnatural—from coaches’ boxes above, it is a dead giveaway of a play-action pass—but effective at hiding the ball from the defensive front. The fact that coaches in a skybox can see what’s going on with the crouch fake seems to prevent most from remembering that what matters is not what they see, but what the defense sees.

Best No. 3. Trailing the heavily favored Bucs 11-3 with seconds remaining in the first half, the Lions had the ball on the Tampa five. Surely they wouldn’t dare run against the fearsome Bucs defense. Detroit sent James Stewart up the middle (on a trap, no less) for the touchdown, then ran again on a similar play for the deuce to make it 11-11 at intermission and start the Lions on their way to a 28-14 road upset.

Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. The Patriots were leading the Colts 16-7 midway through the third, Indianapolis pinned on its own 22. Colts coaches called a fly pattern for Marvin Harrison, one of the best deep receivers. New England was in a nickel. Harrison streaked down the field, man-covered though three auxiliary DBs stood in the deep center of the defense. No one came over to help on Harrison. The single-covered gentleman caught a 78-yard TD pass that turned the momentum toward Indianapolis for its eventual win; the three DBs got a fine view of Harrison’s back.

Worst No. 2. Looking at fourth and 11 on the Raiders 31 in the first half, the Seahawks went for it rather than attempting a 48-yard field goal. The pass was incomplete (technical term: “clang”), and soon the rout was on. The problem was that Seattle has no confidence in its field-goal kicker; in the offseason, Hawks coach and general manager Mike Holmgren cut veteran Todd Peterson to make a small salary cap savings. Peterson had only set a Seahawks all-time scoring record, 134 points, in 1999 and is only No. 5 all-time in kicking accuracy.

Worst No. 3. With the score Chiefs 13, Rams 0 in the first quarter, St. Louis punter John Baker lined up. Punters normally take two steps and boom on the third; though the snap was fine, Baker broke into a little five-step number that looked like the latest hip-hop club move and didn’t boom until his sixth step. The punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown, setting in motion the big KC win. Six steps before punting? But then being with the Rams, Baker doesn’t get much practice. Including Sunday’s game, the Rams have punted just 17 this year, versus, say, 47 punts for the Browns.

Florida Teams Spiral Toward the Water, Part One: Jax is now 2-6 and 2-7 stretching back to last season (including 1-4 at home) since the most disastrous event in franchise history, the Jaguar’s 62-7 playoff win over Miami. Reader Rogers Cadenhead, a dismayed Jax fan, writes in to remind that late last season, several Jacksonville stars took time out to record “The Jaguars Super Bowl Song,” complete with a music video in which they strutted and preened. The song, which boasts that the club is “Super Bowl bound,” played nonstop in Jacksonville after the 62-7 game—and it’s been downhill ever since as the football gods punish the rodomontading franchise. As for “The Jaguars Super Bowl Song,” as late as last week you could still hear this portent of doom on Suddenly it’s disappeared.

Florida Teams Spiral Toward the Water, Part Two: What to make of the Buccaneers, 3-4 after four straight losses? Unlike the bloated, overrated Jax, Tampa Bay seemed the genuine article: Top defense, stellar coaching, team chemistry. Into the test tube was dropped a chemical contaminant, Keyshawn Johnson, now known inside the league as Me-Shawn. The most indulged and expensive player in Bucs history, Johnson has done little on the field but lots off, shifting the Tampa Bay story from team cohesion to Me-Shawn self-promotion. Me-Shawn has called personal press conferences—yes it’s a free country, but players who call personal press conferences ought to be mulched—and even when the Bucs were winning complained loudly about how he personally wasn’t getting enough star treatment. Put “The Buccaneers Super Bowl Song” on hold.

Combined Yards of the Week: TMQ has long favored the “combined efficiency” hidden indicator, the mix of a team’s offense and defensive rankings. Year in, year out, teams strong in one category and weak in another fall by the wayside as the season progresses while Super Bowl winners sport solid units on both sides of the ball. Last year the clear leader in combined efficiency was the Rams, at 7—1st offensive, 6th defensive. And last season when Seattle was 6-2 at the midpoint and being widely hyped, closer analysis showed the Hawks were doomed, doomed by a combined-efficiency number that was fourth quartile.

Right now in combined-efficiency ranking, the Rams are a mediocre 29—1st offensive, 28th defensive. This suggests St. Louis may be vulnerable down the stretch. Another team that may have to wake up and smell the frozen shade-grown double decaf kiwi-walnut latte is Detroit. Though 5-2, the Lions have a disturbingly low combined-efficiency number of 48—29th offensive, 19th defensive.

Minnesota, sole remaining undefeated team, looks good at a ranking of 18—5th offensive, 13th defensive. And please don’t be alarmed, but the team that seems have the statistical Super Bowl armament at the moment is the 6-2 Maryland Indigenous Persons, at 12—6th offensive and 6th defensive.

Then there is the No.1 team in the NFL in combined-efficiency terms: the Buffalo Bills, at 11—7th offensive, 4th defensive. This figure not only leads the league, it is only slightly off the 7 rating achieved by the Rams in 1999 when they ran away with NFL stats. Buffalo is even positive in turnover differential. Yet the Bills’ record is 3-4, which means players can start looking at brochures for early January resort reservations. How can you be tops in overall efficiency, positive in turnovers, and still struggling at 3-4? Oh, ye of little faith in the football gods! They are punishing Buffalo for how it treated Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas.

Genome Uncertainty of the Week: On Sunday, Kurt Warner went down in obvious pain, shielding his left hand. He came off the field clutching his left hand. A broken finger; Warner will miss the four to six games. But the broken finger turns out to be on his right hand. When you’re a shape-shifted, silicon-based, normally tentacled lifeform, these human sensory inputs can be really confusing!

Stats of the Week: Stat No. 1. The Flaming Ts defeated the low, low, low-scoring Ravens—no TD since Sept. 24, 246 clock minutes without entering the end zone—despite recording just seven first downs.

Stat No. 2. Even without Kurt Warner, the Rams ran up 428 yards and 34 points.

Stat No. 3. After being outscored 118-19 in the first quarter last year, Arizona has been outscored 56-3 in the first quarter this year. On Sunday, the Cardinals trailed Dallas 24-0 before the Cowboys completed their first pass.

Favor of the Week: These selfsame Cardinals firing coach Vince Tobin. A large disclaimer should be erected over gates to Sun Devil Stadium reading, CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN FOOTBALL-LIKE SUBSTANCE.

Combined Score of the Week: The Cowboys, Raiders, and Steelers defeated the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Browns by a combined 101-10. Ye gods.

Crowd Blunder of the Week: In the Ravens-Tennessee game, Baltimore had the ball at midfield, trailing 7-6, closing seconds of the first half. Fragile-confidence Ravens QB Tony Banks threw a conservative short checkoff, and the crowd responded with vigorous booing. This is the Ravens’ first winning season, and the crowd is already so jaded it’s booing individual QB reads when the team only trails by a point with two quarters remaining! Banks seemed so shaken by the nasty intensity of the boos that he looked up at the stands bewildered. When the third quarter started, Banks proceeded to throw INTs on three straight possessions, honking the game.

All This Assumes We Want To Look at Him: One occupational hazard of being a multimillionaire NFL owner is that the networks flash scenes of you in your box, frowning at fumbles by some gentleman to whom you just signed a hefty bonus check. Camera pans of your box are just one of those things you learn to live with when you’re a multimillionaire sports owner.

But not if you are Owner/Twerp Daniel Snyder of the Indigenous Persons. Snyder’s minions recently sent letters to the networks that telecast the NFL, demanding they not show his box to protect his “privacy.” Lawyers will giggle at the thought of someone asserting a right of privacy at a nationally televised event being held in an 80,000-seat public accommodation that was constructed precisely for the purpose of attracting attention. (In law, people have a privacy interest regarding images of themselves in their homes, offices, and so on, but generally surrender this protection when attending public events; those who “seek the limelight,” as Snyder has, broadly surrender privacy rights.) Note that Owner/Twerp Snyder only asks that his own punim receive a special privacy right. He doesn’t ask it for the paying customers in the stands. But then, Snyder is the first owner in NFL annals to charge admission to watch training camp, so we already know what he thinks of the fans.

Bonus great moment in customer respect: For the recent Battle of Maryland, Ravens versus Persons at FedEx Field, many Baltimore residents were in attendance. The Snyder-employed FedEx Field announcer actually shouted into the stadium PA system during pregame festivities, “Ravens fans suck.” How festive!

Little Guy of the Week: With a late FG Sunday, Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson became the all-time leading scorer in NFL annals, notching 2,004 points. Anderson has been cut or not re-signed four times in his career—let go by Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In lieu of the man who would become the league’s all-time leading scorer, the Bills kept Greg Cater; the Steelers kept Norm Johnson; the Eagles kept Chris Boniol; and the Niners kept Wade Richey. Congratulations to the personnel managers who made these heady decisions.

Corey Dillon Historical Footnote: Dillon broke Payton’s game mark of 275 yards, set in November 1977. On that day the Bears beat the Vikings 10-7 as Chicago, with the clock ticking down, passed on a chance to kick a last-second field goal in order to give Payton the extra carry he needed to best the previous record, which was 273 yards.

This stab at the record books turned out to sabotage Chicago’s season. The Bears and Vikes were going down to the wire for a postseason slot. Previously in the season, Minnesota beat Chicago by six. Had the Bears, trailing by three in the Payton record game, kicked the figgie and won by six, it would have washed the net-points calculation between the two teams (at that time an important tiebreaker) and, a month later, activated another tiebreaker that would have given Chicago a home game in the 1977 playoffs. Instead Payton ran, the Vikes finished with the playoff tiebreaker edge, and Chicago got sent to Dallas where it was creamed, 37-7. Somehow the Bears braintrust went into the November 1977 game unaware of this calculus. TMQ, watching that game at Soldier Field, remembers screaming “NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” as Payton trotted out for the final carry and Bears fans screamed “Yeahhhhhhhh!!!!!!” Would Bears faithful have been better off with the memory of that Payton record or with the postseason home game they missed? Only the football gods can say.

Hidden Indicator of the Week: Four of the weekend’s top five passers (Brian Griese, Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie, and Mark Brunnell) played in losing efforts while four of the weekend’s top five rushers (Corey Dillon, Tyrone Wheatley, Ricky Williams, and Edgerrin James) played in winning efforts. This is the kind of hidden indicator that is essential to an insider’s understanding of the game, and it’s pretty obvious what it means.

Running Items Department

Most Embarrassing Don Ohlmeyer Moment: Just what exactly did Ohlmeyer change about MNF? Well, the producer’s name is now prominently the first credit we see when the shows rolls. And that producer’s name is—hey, Don Ohlmeyer!

Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Suspended for humanitarian reasons. Though that three-second shot of a Web page showing both Miller’s punim and a disquisition on the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH was one of the great “huh?” moments of television history.

Obscure College Score of the Week: Baldwin-Wallace 52, Muskingum 7.

Bonus Obscure Score: Cortland State 42, William Paterson 3. Well, of course an entire team will beat one single person! Note: may not apply to hypothetical future exhibition matchup of Kurt Warner against entire Arizona Cardinals.

New York Times Final-Score Score: Once again the Paper of Record goes 0-14 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score, bringing the New York Times Final-Score Score to 0-113 for the season. Times predicted: Tampa 23, Detroit 13. Actual: Detroit 28, Tampa 14. Times predicted: Raiders 28, Hawks 23. Actual: Raiders 31, Hawks 3. Times predicted: Jets 13, Marine Mammals 10. Actual: Jets 40, Mammals 37.

Brad Hammill Final-Score Score: Reader Brad Hammill’s attempt to pit a generic final score prediction—Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14—against the considered judgment of the experts also goes 0-14, bringing the Brad Hammill Final-Score Score to 0-28 since its inception.

Honored Guest Final-Score Score: The Multicolored Lady of New York City is not the only paper that engages in quixotic attempts to predict an exact final score. This week we check in on the Newark Star Ledger, queen newspaper of New Jersey, published in America’s resplendent football state.

Like the Times, the Star Ledger went 0-14. Star Ledger predicted: Chiefs 28, Rams 27. Actual: Chiefs 54, Rams 34. Star Ledger predicted: Jax 23, Indigenous Persons 21. Actual: Persons 35, Jax 16. In the case of the Star Ledger, there is no chance these predictions are covert attempts to signal the point-spread since the paper prints the spread on the same page as the predictions. Openly printing the spread is probably mandatory under New Jersey law.

Does your favorite newspaper engage in a quixotic attempt to predict an exact NFL final score? Let TMQ know, and we’ll add the paper to all this gay frivolity. Send an entry to “The Fray,” titling the entry “Guest Nominee Newspaper.” Note: Realistically, it should be a newspaper that posts its predictions on the Web.

TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week the column stopped observing its own rules—kind of like the NFL refs stop calling pass interference in the final two minutes—and decreed that each winner would not be the first posted, correct reply but the first one the judges decided to read. TMQ hoped this would cause entrants to draw attention to their submissions by attaching JPEG files containing nude modeling by Cindy Crawford: still need some of the early-years pics to complete the collection. Sadly, nothing but entries politely headlined “Please read first.” Decorum continues to rule the Trivia Challenge.

(Technical note: TMQ is considering switching its standard daydream from Crawford to Jennifer Lopez. The spike-heels and leather-with-buckles aspect is unlikely to change, however, experts predict.)

For the fourth consecutive week, Chad Hart of Ames, Iowa, filed the first correct reply, this time giving it up by including in his message a line disclosing his favorite trivia-confirmation online source. What is that source? No chance we’ll say.

The winner, first-read on a completely arbitrary basis, was Kate Urquhart, who correctly replied “Jim Hardy” to the following question:

This week future Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman of Dallas heave-hoed five interceptions against the Giants. Not good, but careful ball management compared to those QBs who have thrown even more INTs in one game. The NFL record for picks in a game is eight. Below is a list of those who have thrown either seven or eight INTs in a single game. Which gentleman was guilty of the all-time worst eight?

Zeke Bratkowski, Chicago Bears; Steve DeBerg, Tampa Bay; Jim Hardy, Chicago Cardinals; Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders; Bob Waterfield, Los AngelesRams.

Reader Mark Longbrake gets a tip of TMQ’s maybe-it-will-exist cap for this outstanding trivia addition: Though Bratkowski peaked at a mere seven INTs in a pro game, he once threw eight picks in one afternoon at the University of Georgia.

Now this week’s Trivia Challenge:

On Sunday the spiraling-toward-the-water Cleveland Browns recorded just five first downs. Pretty depressing, but a Herculean effort compared to those times in NFL history when teams have managed no first downs at all. Of the four games listed below, which is not an actual instance of a team finishing a game with zero first downs?

Giants vs. Green Bay, 1933

Eagles vs. Lions, 1935

Broncos vs. Oilers, 1966

Saints vs. Steelers, 1995.

Submit your answers to “The Fray,” slugging them “Trivia Answer.” First-read correct reply might win a TMQ cap at season’s end.