Sports Nut

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!

Announcers and sportswriters love the blitz. Fans scream, “Blitz! Blitz!” Tuesday Morning Quarterback screams, “Don’t blitz!” Never was that rule on better display than last weekend:

* Denver leads 23-20 with nine minutes left, third and 14 on the Jersey/B 47. All the Jets need is to play straight defense and get a stop—since the average NFL pass attempt yields 6.4 yards, the numbers are on their side. It’s a blitz! Six gentlemen charge across the line, and nobody’s available to cover Ed McCaffrey, who catches a 47-yard TD pass for the winning points.* Pittsburgh has Tennessee on the ropes, leading 7-6 with 2:11 left, and the Flaming T’s facing fourth and eight on the Steelers 42 with only one TO left. The Steelers get a stop, and the game’s over. It’s a blitz! Steve McNair takes a five-step drop, the blitzers don’t reach him, and he calmly throws for 17 yards, setting up the winning kick.* Winless San Diego has Seattle gasping for air, leading 15-14 with 1:21 to play, and the Hawks facing third and 16 on the SD 37. If the Bolts just take the odds with a regular defense, Seattle will end up either with a long field goal attempt or a desperation heave. It’s a blitz! Six Bolts charge across the line, including a defensive back. Bottom-quartile QB Jon Kitna hits Darrell Jackson for the first, positioning the Hawks to kick the wining figgie as time expires.

Blitzes work sometimes but more often transform long-yardage down-and-distance that favors the defense into big gains for the offense. Why? Because offenses want to be blitzed. A surprise blitz can really hurt, but a blitz in an obvious passing situation, when expected, leads to man coverage on receivers, and man coverage is what every QB nods off at night dreaming about.

Was this weekend a fluke? The Rams beat the Broncos on opening-day weekend largely on the strength of long TD passes to Faulk and Hakim when Denver big-blizted and someone was uncovered. In September’s Rams-Falcons game, the score was tied late in the first half, and St. Louis was stuck at its 20; Atlanta blitzed six and saw Torry Holt take a short flip 80 yards for six, breaking the game open. The Packers were leading Miami by 10 in the middle of the third when the Dolphins faced second and long; Green Bay blitzed six, including a DB, and Miami hit a 50-yard pass that ignited its winning rally. Und so weiter.

Defensive coordinators are blitzing more than ever because they want to “make a play” in flashy fashion: Though nine times out of 10, the single most effective D outcome is an incomplete pass clanking to the ground. It’s worth noting that of the league’s most effective defenses this season—Baltimore, Buffalo, Miami, New Orleans, the Persons, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee—none is blitz-addicted. They might send someone on occasion but rarely bring six. (When announcers erroneously say “zone blitz” to describe what the Steelers and T’s are doing, most of the time only four guys are rushing.)

Oh thou defensive coordinators, take this humble counsel—drop thine men into coverage and play for the clang! of an incompletion.

In other Tuesday Morning Quarterback advice that was inexplicably ignored, Jersey/B reached first and goal on the Denver 2, trailing by seven, 42 seconds left. Last week TMQ detailed how the plays that work at the goal line are power run, roll-out, or “jumbo” formation play-fake, but mamma don’t let your sons throw regular passes. So the Jets pounded Curtis Martin (5-yard per carry average in the game) straight ahead, right? There was enough clock for three quick rushing plays even without timeouts, and who can stop three quick runs at point-blank range? First down, the Jets play-passed from a regular formation, incomplete. Regular pass on second down—against the nickel, ideal for a run!—incomplete. Regular pass on third down, incomplete. Regular pass on fourth down, incomplete. Game over. Ye gods.

Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. Facing third and goal on the Niners 1 with 12 seconds remaining in the first half, leading 21-0, did New Orleans go pass-wacky? Thanks be to the football gods, no. Power set, Ricky Williams off tackle for six, game effectively over. You don’t know how happy it makes offensive linemen when coaches call runs, not passes, in this kind of situation.

Best No. 2. Facing second and goal on the New England 9 in the second, the Bills ran a roll-out right. Jay Riemersma, lined up as the TE right, dove forward to block and tumbled to the ground as if he’d missed his block badly. Then he leapt up and ran to the left curl zone where not a single defensive gentleman remained; Doug Flutie threw back to him for an elegant six. This fall-down fake, followed by a “drag” route across the flow, is a high-school favorite that dates approximately to the Cretaceous Period. The Patriots acted like they’d never seen it.

Best No. 3. Facing second and goal on the Chiefs 2, leading 35-24 with four minutes left, the Raiders lined up in a jumbo set, play-faked and threw to TE Ricky Dudley for the six that iced the game.

These three Best Plays demonstrate what works near the goal line—straight ahead running, roll-outs, or play-fakes from heavy formations. Oh thou offensive coordinators, take thee heed. 

Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. Facing fourth and six on the Panthers 35, scored tied at 24, midway through the fourth, the Rams had these choices: 1) Go for it with the league’s No. 1 offense; 2) attempt a long field goal with Jeff Wilkins, who is 12 for 12 on the season; 3) fake a kick, thus ensuring victory (see below); or 4) punt, running the risk that the ball sails into the end zone for a touchback and a field-position net of a mere 15 yards. The daring, fearless Rams coaches chose (4). Punter John Baker shanked it out of bounds at the Panthers 27, netting just 8 yards, and Carolina marched for the winning score.

Spoiled crowd note: When St. Louis reserve QB Trent Green was sacked out of field goal range earlier in the game, home fans booed. These Rams have only won 23 of 28 and the Super Bowl. But what have they done lately!

Worst No. 2. With first down at the Eagles 11 and the game scoreless, Cowboys coaches ignored Emmitt Smith (134 yards rushing on the day) and called a pass so badly bollixed that three Dallas receivers and six Philadelphia defenders ended up in the same corner of the end zone. Into this committee meeting Randall Cunningham forced the ball, INT.

Worst No. 3. Last Monday night, the overpaid and undermotivated Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons gave up a punt return TD to Tennessee, then stood around and watched one of the Flaming T’s run 81 yards for an interception score. On Sunday, after extremely highly paid halfback Stephen Davis fumbled at the Arizona goal line, these selfsame Persons stood around and watched Aeneas Williams run the ball 104 yards to the house, tying the longest return in league history. Most NFL teams give up two to three return touchdowns per season; the Persons gave up three in less than a week. Redeeming virtue: one step closer to the inevitable Queeg-like meltdown for Owner/Twerp Daniel Snyder.

Stats of the Week: Stat No. 1. Miami and Tampa Bay each sacked opposing quarterbacks on three consecutive snaps.

Stat No. 2. Pittsburgh has not surrendered a touchdown for five straight games yet couldn’t stop the T’s on fourth and eight.

Stat No. 3. Elvis Grbac threw for 504 yards in the Chiefs’ loss to the Raiders. Four of the top five passers on Sunday (Grbac, Trent Green, Peyton Manning, Vinny Testaverde) were losers.

Stat No. 4. In the Bucs-Falcons game, Tampa punter Mark Royals had more passing yardage than Atlanta QB Chris Chandler.

Stat No. 5. Owing to penalties, the P-Men had a sequence in which they ran four consecutive plays from the Buffalo 1, three of them first and goal. They failed to score.

Vote Nader, It’s Over: This football factoid has been making the rounds, but in case you missed it: For each of the past 15 presidential ballots, if the capital area’s burgundy-clad gentlemen won their final home game before Election Day, the party in power kept the White House; if they lost, control of the White House changed. The loss to Tennessee was the Persons’ final home appearance the election. Congratulations, National Security Adviser-elect Condoleezza Rice.

Candidate Withdraws in Swing State: TMQ warned two columns ago that the Lions were over their heads at 5-2 but never would have guessed coach Bobby Ross would resign, saying “I feel like I’ve failed” because of a two-game skid. A losing streak confined to two games constitutes success for several NFL franchises! Bring back Wayne Fontes, who’s been unemployed since Ross supplanted him in 1996. Fun fact: Fontes is both the winning-est (66) and losing-est (67) coach in Detroit history.

Great Moments in Management: Jeff Blake of the red-hot Saints was 20-26 for 275 yards and three touchdowns while Akili Smith of the cool-to-the-touch Bengals was 15 of 27 for 137 yards and no TDs. Cincinnati, which once had Blake, used the second pick overall of the 1999 draft to take Smith and later released Blake. The Bengals could have kept Blake and traded that 1999 selection to New Orleans, whose then-coach Mike Ditka offered Cincinnati three No. 1s to get into position to draft Ricky Williams. Summing these canny transactions, Cincinnati could have had the effective Blake plus three No. 1 choices, two of them high in the draft, or the floundering Smith and no picks. It opted for the latter. Ye gods.

Fashion Statement of the Week: George Seifert wore sunglasses on the sidelines of the Carolina-Rams game, which was played indoors at night.

Quote of the Week: After Oakland advanced to 8-1 with a victory over KC, Raiders coach Jon Gruden cryptically announced, “I realize we’ve got to lay a lot of bricks to reach our goals.” In sports slang to lay a brick means to play horribly.

Søren Kierkegaard, Chargers Fan: Reader Scott Shirley writes to note that when Bolts star Junior Seau signed a long-term contract extension last week—he would have been a hot free agent—e committed to an 0-9 team that is likely to be woeful for the remainder of his career. This, Shirley says, makes Seau an existential hero: “Fate put him in San Diego and he is not going to argue. He will continue to give his stellar effort in spite of the futility and utter pointlessness of it all.” Kierkegaard wrote, “The more one ponders [philosophy], the more it comes to mean that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible.” Obviously Kierkegaard had been trying to figure out the Bolts!

Histrionics of the Week: In high-pressure games between contenders, as the QB approaches the line for a big play, he motions the roaring home crowd for quiet. When Akili Smith of the Bengals brought his club to the line for first and goal at the Ravens 4, he waved his arms frantically to silence the crowd. Except—hey were already silent. It was Baltimore 24, Cincinnati 0 at the time, and hardly anyone was cheering. Combined score note: In their last three meetings, the Ravens have outscored the Bengals 86-7.

Frostback of the Week: Bills kicker Steve Christie, who had already won three games this season with figgies in the closing seconds, hit from 48 in a steady rain as regulation expired in Foxborough to force the extra session, then hit from 32 in OT for the win. In his career Christie is an astonishing 20 of 22 on kicks to win or tie in the final two minutes or overtime. Frosty, low-low-Celsius Canadian blood (Precise temperature of Canadian blood: It’s pretty cold, eh?) runs in this gentleman’s veins.

Nedney Unit Active! Kicker Joe Nedney, who has been cut by two teams this season, hit 4-for-4 for the Panthers, raising his performance to 24 of 27 on the year. Still the Earth authorities suspect nothing.

Heppner Unit Malfunctions! A few weeks ago the overpriced Chesapeake Watershed Persons cut kicker Mike Husted—he had only won games with last-second field goals on consecutive weeks—in order to sign kicker Kris Heppner. On Sunday, Heppner hooted a 33-yard fourth-quarter attempt that would have given the Persons victory over the football-like AZ-Men. On Monday Heppner was cut, the third kicker the Persons have waived this season; in a canny move, Owner/Twerp Daniel Snyder passed on the 24-for-27 Nedney.

Harmonic Convergence: The Raiders and Dolphins each had their first offensive snap on the opposition 46, and each called the same trick play, sending a WR on a fake end-around then giving up the middle to the RB behind a FB lead-block. For the Dolphins the result was a 46-yard touchdown by Lamar Smith; for the Raiders, a 37-yard gain by Tyrone Wheatly.

Hustle of the Week: It’s that time of year when office football pools get serious, and Tuesday Morning Quarterback has just one question for those who participate: Do you know anyone who’s ever actually won an office pool?

Some smiling, friendly guy in your office—one of those guys who works hard at, well, you’re not sure what he does, but he always seems busy—hands out the sheets and then collects them with your untraceable cash. Jovial co-conspirators work the building. Come Tuesday you didn’t win, but neither did anyone else you know. Even if you kept a record of your picks, you have no way of knowing if someone else did better. You never actually meet anyone who won the pool anywhere in your building, county, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, or the Northern Hemisphere. Next Thursday the guy is back, handing out the sheets, smiling. And the government’s going after Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which are supposed to be hustles, while this runs unchecked!

Hidden Indicator of the Week: One of TMQ’s laws of football (Fake Kick = Victory) was on display as the Bears, Bucs, and Dolphins all ran trick kicks and won while no losing team attempted a fake kick. (Minnesota’s wobble-pass by the holder on the field goal that would have won the Monday night game at the end of regulation does not violate this law as it was a botched snap, not a planned fake: Bad Snap ? Victory.) The relationship between fake kicks and victory is the kind of hidden indicator essential to an insider’s understanding of the game, and in this case Tuesday Morning Quarterback knows what it means but can’t understand why many NFL coaches seem not to.

Running Items Department

Obscure College Score of the Week: Lambuth 56, North Greenville 0. Bonus Obscure Score: Alfred 41, Canisius 7. (One single guy beats an entire team!) Double Bonus Obscure Score: Emory & Henry 24, Washington and Lee 10. (Was this game staged on two connected fields with 44 players attacking each other at right angles?) Triple Bonus Obscure Score: Rhodes 9, Millsaps 6, in two overtimes. All scoring came in overtime; it was 0-0 at the end of regulation. This comes tantalizingly close to what TMQ feels would be the ultimate final score, 2-0 in OT.

Obscure College Game of the Year: Indiana of Pennsylvania defeated California of Pennsylvania by the New Economy score of 24-7. Tuesday Morning Quarterback is left wistfully dreaming that next year, Indiana of Pennsylvania will play Pittsburgh of Kansas.

Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Suspended in respect for today’s vitally important candidates fated to become tomorrow’s who-dats. Though that thing with the hand puppet, followed by Miller almost falling out of the screen laughing at himself … when entertainers laugh immoderately at themselves, the end is near.

New York Times Final-Score Score: The Paper of Record goes 0-15 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score, bringing the season New York Times Final-Score Score to 0-143. Times predicted: Colts 28, Bears 17. Actual: Bears 27, Colts 24. Times predicted: Vikings 26, Packers 20. Actual: Packers 26, Vikings 20. Reader Brad Hammill’s attempt to predict a generic final score—Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14—also goes 0-15, bringing this item to 0-57 since its inception.

Honored Guest Predictions: Today’s guest is the Sporting News, which once, in the mists of prehistory (early Clinton administration), back when sports tout sheets were still delivered by the postman rather than via the Web from satellites orbiting Jupiter, had football-purist fanaticism practically to itself. These days, TSN electronically convenes a panel of seven to offer football forecasts. This commission includes three gentlemen identified by TSN as “NFL experts,” which presumably means they hold advanced degrees in the molecular biology of ice packs. One commission member is identified by TSN as a “fantasy expert.” Perhaps the reference is to rotisserie leagues, but TMQ’s fantasies lie elsewhere and immediately jumped to thoughts involving spike heels, riding crops, and a minimum of three Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in leather restraints. (After all, the subject here is “expert”-level fantasies. Novice-level fantasy: Charlie’s Angels adjust their tube tops.)

The commission of TSN experts went 9-6 picking straight up—quite a bit less challenging than trying to call the spread—predicting victories by the Colts, Lions, Jets, Persons, Rams, and Vikings, each teams that lost. It’s always reassuring when The Experts don’t do appreciably better than random chance.

Reader Animadversion (New Item): Reader Andy Hoefer protests TMQ’s description of Jersey/B tackle Jumbo Elliott as “the slowest person ever to catch an NFL touchdown pass (postwar era only).” Hoefer points out that Refrigerator Perry caught a touchdown pass in 1985, and Perry may have been the slowest NFL player of all time. But aha! TMQ’s qualifier “postwar era only” did not specify which war. Post-Gulf War, Elliott rules the nonfleet afoot.

Reader George Best protests that TMQ’s search for a cartographically correct name for those overpaid burgundy-clad gentlemen isn’t necessarily solved by the label Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons. While the Chesapeake encompasses Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, Best notes, Baltimore Harbor is also in its watershed, and Baltimore has the Ravens. Best suggests the even more cumbersome appellation Lower Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons, adding, “I like to see the word ‘drainage’ in conjunction with Dan Snyder.” Highly sympathetic, TMQ replies, “Copy that!” But the plan is to stay CWRIP for the time being.

TMQ Trivia Challenge: Fiendishly, diabolically, TMQ worded last week’s challenge so as to make it impossible to answer merely by racing to some Web-resident archive; actual book research seemed required. Would someone still post the correct answer in 90 seconds? No! Replies came in gradually over about 24 hours. Tuesday Morning Quarterback is pleased by this result: It means NFL buffs have not actually committed all league statistics and records to memory, something TMQ had begun to fear.

Here was the question:

Last week Gary Anderson became the NFL’s all-time highest scorer—despite having led the league in scoring during the season just once in his 19-year career. Name another gentleman who holds the NFL all-time mark in a major category yet led the league in that category only once during the season or not at all.

On a completely arbitrary basis, TMQ names Tim Schmidt of Round Lake Beach, Ill., as the winner for answering, as did several others, Walter Payton. Sweetness, who today sits in Asgard singing and feasting with the football gods, was the all-time leading rusher and yet lead the league in rushing yards but once, in 1977. Payton got the career mark by giving his all game after game after game. Both the way he carried the ball and the way he carried himself will always be remembered. Few pro athletes did a better job of setting an example others should actually follow or better exemplified the adage, “It’s not what happens to a person but what happens inside a person.” (Policy note: As a matter of policy, TMQ will rarely be sincere, but mention of Payton brings it out. You can hear Payton’s son Jarrett touchingly give his father’s Hall of Fame entry speech here.)

Fiendishly, the question had more than one correct answer. Reader Brent Hutto noted that Paul Krause is the all-time interceptions leader but led the league in picks just once, his rookie season. Über-trivia-meister Mark Longbrake noted that Chris Doleman is the all-time leader in forced fumbles but finished first in this category just once, in 1987. And a tip of TMQ’s maybe-it-will-exist cap to Jeff Roy, who dug deep, deep into dusty record books to note that Ted Hendricks holds the career mark for safeties with four but never led the league at all. In each of the four years Hendricks notched a safety, some lesser mortal got two.

And now this week’s Trivia Challenge, again calculated to require meticulous flipping of pages:

Among the rarest species in the NFL are players who hold all-time marks for more than one team. Last month Morten Andersen joined that elite group when he became the career leading scorer for the Falcons; he was already career leading scorer for the Saints, who dumped him as washed-up 582 points ago. Two running backs hold the all-time single-season yardage records for two different clubs. Name these gentlemen.

Submit entries to “The Fray,” titling them “Trivia Answer.” And remember to include your e-mail address in the incredibly remote chance that you win.