Sports Nut

Forget the Super Bowl, What About the Draft?

“After sex, all animals are sad.” (Post-coitum omne animal tristis est.)
—Roman saying, second century B.C.

“After the regular season, most fans are sad.” (Postseasonum, plerusque NFL fanaticus tristis est.)—TMQ, 2001

It’s the playoffs, the whole purpose the NFL exists—the monster contests for which an entire year of maneuvering and hype have prepared us. And already lots of fans are losing interest.

One peculiarity of sports is that the moment the postseason starts, people begin to tune out even though the postseason is the ostensible point of the whole exercise. This happens because most fans are primarily interested in their favorite teams, and the majority of teams are now dark for the year, with more shutting off the lights each weekend. No matter how horribly your favorite team plays during the regular season, there’s always next week and the hope of an improved performance. (Technical note: unless you are a fan of the Cardinals.) But once the playoffs start, there is no next week for most teams; the bubble has officially burst. In two weeks we’ll be down to the pair of Super Bowl contenders, and though all America and many ships at sea will watch them play, most fans won’t care a hoot about the Super Bowl contenders. They’ll be wondering about next year for their teams.

Already football sites such as CNN-SI  and CBS are running as much offseason speculation as playoff coverage. Already the Sporting News NFL site is prominently promoting draft articles—the draft isn’t till April, with the Chargers on the clock—while has an entire area devoted to draft speculation, including links to more than 25 mock drafts already running.

Maybe it’s modern fast-forward syndrome, but Tuesday Morning Quarterback cannot understand why there is so much focus on what might happen next season when we still haven’t figured out what will happen this season. Why should anyone care in January whether the Chargers will take Michael Vick or Deuce McAllister? We can care very, very intensely about such matters later. For now, put away your mock drafts and free agent sheets. Watch the games.

Best Plays of Wildcard Weekend: Best No. 1. Saints coach Jim Haslett letting novice QB Aaron Brooks throw deep despite his lack of playoff experience and an early injury to one of the New Orleans’ WRs. Brooks responded with four TD tosses. Journeyman WR Willie Jackson, pressed into service, caught three of them.

Best No. 2. With the score Bucs 3, Eagles 0 and Tampa’s ball on its 33 late in the second quarter, on first down Philadelphia coaches called a run blitz—blitzers press the line but do not proceed to the QB. Loss of five. On second down, Philadelphia coaches called a fake run blitz. Loss of four. For third down, see Worst No. 3.

Best No. 3. Jamal Lewis knocking over four Broncos on his game-clinching TD run. Ouch.

Worst Plays: Worst No. 1. Trailing New Orleans 17-7 early in the fourth, the Rams had the Saints facing third and long at midfield. It’s a blitz! Six gentlemen including a DB cross the line. Brooks threw 49 yards to Jackson for the touchdown that allowed the Saints to pull away.

Worst No. 2. Having come back from a 31-7 fourth-quarter deficit to just 31-28 with 2:28 remaining and the Saints quaking in their tape, the Rams onside-kicked rather than kicking away and letting their defense get a stop. Rams coach Mike Martz had so little confidence in his underwhelming defense that he took a 15 percent chance (success rate for expected onsides) rather than put his D on the field for three downs. New Orleans recovered.

Worst No. 3. Facing third and 19 on their 24 and leading 3-0 late in the second, Tampa bungled its line call, in which OLs “hand off” blocking assignments to each other. Left tackle Pete Pierson inexplicably turned inward to double-team journeyman DT Hollis Thomas, leaving DE Hugh Douglas, the Eagles’ most dangerous rusher, to be blocked by 180-pound RB Warrick Dunn. Sack, fumble, Philadelphia ball. Touchdown three plays later, Eagles take over the game.

Stats of the Week: Stat No. 1. Early in the Colts-Mammals game, Jay Fiedler had three completions and three INTs. From that point forward, he was 16 of 23.

Stat No. 2. Tampa Bay, plagued all season by conservative offense, attempted just one pass of more than 20 yards until the game was out of hand.

Stat No. 3. The first-, second- and third-ranked offenses (Rams, Broncos, Colts) all lost.

Playoff Coaching Pressure Watch: This week’s example: Colts at Miami. Jim Mora was totally outcoached by Dave Wannstedt. Most consequentially, Wannstedt did not waffle on Fiedler, sticking with him despite the early INTs, never even ordering his backup to throw on the sideline. This sent the message, “We’re tough guys, and we tough out our problems,” which is exactly what the Dolphins did—outscoring Indianapolis 23-3 from the point at which Wannstedt told the offense it was going to be Fiedler, win or lose. Wannstedt also resisted the urge to go pass-wacky with his team behind 14-0 in the third quarter, staying with the running game. Keeping the ball on the ground let the Dolphins keep Peyton Manning off the field and made Manning press when he did get chances. Too many coaches forget the run once behind, simplifying life for the defense. Wannstedt’s judgment was vindicated by Lamar Smith’s 209-yard day and bull-rush run in OT for the win.

For his part, Mora came south with nothing new in the offensive game plan, just Same Old Same Old, which the Dolphins had already seen twice this season. The Colts defense, which tries to cover its deficiencies by DB-blitzing more than any team in the league, stuck with this tactic though it has consistently backfired, and it backfired Saturday. On nine DB blitzes, the Colts produced just one sack but allowed Miami to convert four first downs, including the pass that put the Marine Mammals into the red zone in overtime, cooking the visitors’ goose.

Meanwhile Mora made one of the all-time worst tactical calls. Owing to a Dolphins penalty, he was offered this choice in OT: fourth and two on the Miami 32 or third and seven on the Miami 37. Morachose fourth down. True, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt (isn’t that some kind of peppermint-boysenberry-snickerdoodle schnapps?) is long-legged and accurate. But who in his right mind would rather have a 49-yard FG try than a medium-distance third down with a chance to continue the drive? After Vanderjagt honked the attempt, the kicker sat with his head buried in a towel for the remainder of the game, and Mora (now 0-6 postseason) never went over to Vanderjagt to tell him to get his chin up and get himself ready to go back in. Even one player acting like the team is already defeated infects all others. Coaches are supposed to nip that sort of thing in the bud.

Enthusiast of the Week: At the Superdome, a fan came dressed as a devil with icicles on his face. That is: Saints win playoff game, hell freezes over.

Dance of the Week: The Rams’ last-minute punt catch blunder deprived viewers of what felt like a buildup to a fabulous finish, but otherwise it sure was nice to see Saints owner Tom Benson do his parasol dance when the gun sounded since in 34 years he had never gotten to dance after a postseason win. The football gods must feel Benson has finally completed his penance for sins in a previous life.

Muff of the Week: When TMQ hears the word muff, his thoughts instantly turn to Jennifer Lopez—just like her dress designer! But what the Rams’ Az-Zahir Hakim did to end the St. Louis-New Orleans game was not a fumble, as the announcers declared, but a “muff”—failure to complete a fair catch. The rules difference is that a fumble can be advanced while a muff cannot. This item exists, however, solely to justify the Jennifer Lopez reference.

It’s the Bye, Stupid: If your ambitions extend to the Super Bowl, space on the playoff card is not enough: Winning a bye is required. The four bye teams, which get a week off, then open at home, have utterly dominated NFL late-season success since the current playoff format was adopted in 1977. Eighteen of the last 20 Super Bowl contenders have been bye teams while only two clubs that performed on the first weekend while the bye teams rested have ever won the big game—the Raiders in 1980 and the Broncos in 1997. What should we make of this year’s bye teams?

Jersey/A: One of the slowest successful teams in recent memory, the Giants dress like a retro ‘50s club and play like a retro ‘50s club. But they earned home-field advantage and will stay in the cold, windy Meadowlands for the NFC championship if they win this weekend, and their style of play is suited to harsh weather. Since they’ve beaten the Eagles eight straight and their following opponent would be either the Vikings or Saints, both dome teams, Jersey/A is sitting on an excellent shot at XXXV. The team’s who-dat defense quietly finished fifth—quick, name anyone from the Giants’ front seven—while TMQ’s Position Coach of the Year is OL meister Jim McNally, who molded a group of low-paid castoffs into one of the league’s most effective offensive lines.

Minnesota: The Vikings under Dennis Green have reminded TMQ of the old Nebraska veer-option teams—designed to beat up on lesser foes and compile big victory margins during the regular season, clueless when the postseason comes and the opponents are athletic, too. Yes Randy Moss is supernatural, and Duante Culpepper is both physically gifted and brainy. But this team finished 28th on defense—Green has never seemed to care much about defense, being interested mainly in having people say “holy cow!” about his offense—and that poor finish came even though the Vikes offense rushed well, keeping opponents’ offenses off the field. Green is 3-7 lifetime in the playoffs.

Oakland: “I Was a Teen-age Coach” Jon Gruden (born 1963) has never been in a playoff game, so who knows? The Raiders have talent at every position and one smart cookie in QB Rich Gannon. Despite spending a No. 1 pick on kicker Sebastian Janikowski, the Raiders have still been shaky in this department: Janikowski was just 22 of 32 and remains an accident looking for a place to happen. And the Raiders played a weak schedule, posting only two wins against teams that finished above .500. Detroit had five wins against plus-.500 teams and for its troubles got January off.

Tennessee: The Flaming Thumbtacks have the big four: talent, coaching, focus, and team chemistry. How could the football gods not love this team? The T’s wandered in the desert for three years, performing to empty houses in Houston when the move had been announced but the lease wasn’t up and to empty houses in Memphis while its Nashville field was being built. Yet the players never complained. Feet-on-the-ground coach Jeff Fisher never panicked about the development of QB Steve McNair or a dozen other young players he has patiently taught how to be stars. And despite the club’s success this season, not one loudmouth braggart in the bunch. The T’s are the clear favorite of the postseason, and deservedly so. If Tennessee wins the Super Bowl, persistence, hard work, and character—not money or ego—will be rewarded. Wouldn’t that be a nice change of pace?

We Also Admire Your Professionalism: Though the kickoff temperature was 57 F, the Dolphins cheerleaders—who rival the Cowboys cheerleaders and the Raiderettes for aesthetic appeal—came out in barely there two-piece numbers. No balaclavas for these babes! TMQ salutes the Miami cheerleaders for giving 110 percent. (To gawk at them, click here.)

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! The Ravens led 7-0 in the second and had Denver facing third and 15 at midfield. Down and distance favored the defenders. But it’s a blitz! Twenty-four-yard completion  to the gentleman the blitzing DB would have been covering, bringing the Broncos to life for their first score. Contrapositive proves the rule: Late in the second, Baltimore led 14-3 and had Denver facing third and eight. Regular coverage, Broncos fail to convert. The Ravens didn’t DB-blitz again in the game and shut Denver down.

More Rice Resplendent: Jerry Rice may never play in January again. But just as a previous TMQ item detailed the incredible proportions by which this gentleman leads all others in regular season career stats, so too does he lead in playoff numbers. Rice has 38 percent more postseason receiving yards than the next fellow, Michael Irvin; 46 percent more postseason receptions than the No. 2 player, Andre Reed; 58 percent more postseason touchdown catches than the second best, John Stallworth. Wow.

Gorzon Speaks Again!

To: bio-agent KurWar7773, “Kurt Warner.”
Form: Gorzon the Inexplicable, First Illuminate of Mithrall.Bio-agent Warner, I need not tell you how disappointed we are—seven TDs versus 13 INTs since returning from your injury, then leading the Rams to playoff elimination against New Orleans, which had never won in the postseason. Our plans to have you insinuate yourself into human culture as a sports hero are clearly set back. We will have to postpone the invasion of Earth, at least until such time as another of our bio-agents, AlGor8822, reaches a leadership position.There remains the question of your punishment. Previously, you had been told that if you failed, you would be cast into the boiling ammonia pits of Aldebaran Four. The Illuminates have reconsidered and imposed a much more horrifying retribution. You are to check into a suite at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, where you will be met by bio-agent AnnKor6622, “Anna Kournikova.” She will enter the suite not in her true, delightfully sensuous 12-tentacled form but in her repulsive, nauseating human form and immediately disrobe! We condemn you to remain in the resort hotel with a naked Anna Kournikova, looking at her repulsive body and engaging in primitive human mating rites until training camp starts next summer. Frankly, bio-agent Warner, we held a show of tentacles here, and it was unanimous that we’d all prefer a boiling ammonia pit to having to look at Anna Kournikova naked! But such is the price of failure.

Faulk Trade Balance: Marshall Faulk winning the league MVP creates a reason to do the trade balance on the transaction that sent him to the Rams. Indianapolis gave up Faulk before the 1999 draft for what seemed then, and seems now, the shockingly low price of second- and fifth-round picks. But no one outbid St. Louis. For reasons perplexing, general managers then didn’t consider Faulk a major asset though he’d already been a Pro Bowl MVP at that point. Indianapolis used the picks to draft LB Mike Peterson (A good player—did you see him cover WR O.J. McDuffie deep on Saturday?) and DE Brad Scioli. With the Rams wearing Super Bowl rings partly owing to Faulk, this makes the transaction appear weak for Indianapolis. But the full trade balance is more complicated.

A few days after dispatching Faulk, the Colts used the fourth pick overall of the 1999 draft to select Edgerrin James—himself an impact player—whom they would not have taken if they’d kept Faulk. Had they kept Faulk, the Colts almost certainly would have traded the pick to New Orleans, where the unhinged Mike Ditka was then offering two high No. 1s and additional choices for the chance to nab Ricky Williams. Suppose Indianapolis had kept Faulk and sent the 1999 fourth overall pick to the Saints for the same package received by the Persons, which traded the 1999 fifth overall pick to Ditka. Instead of James, Peterson, and Scioli, the Colts would have had Faulk, the second selection in the 2000 draft, the 12th pick in the 1999 draft, two No. 3 picks plus four miscellaneous picks, including one they could have used to take Scioli anyway. Based on team needs and who was available when the two high picks came up, the Colts would have taken Jevon Kearse and either Corey Simon or LaVar Arrington and would today have some defense to match their power offense. Instead the Colts exit the playoffs in the first round, their defense unable to hold a 14-point second-half lead against Miami’s low-voltage attack.

Combined Efficiency Post-Mortem: TMQ’s proprietary combined efficiency indicator crashed down the stretch, predicting the Persons would rebound and the Dolphins falter, the reverse of what happened. Yet the combined efficiency final standings are worth reviewing. The top five teams:

1. Buffalo, 12 (ninth offensive, third defensive).
2. Persons, 15 (11th offensive, fourth defensive).
3. Tennessee, 16 (15th offensive, first defensive).
4. Ravens, 18 (16th offensive, second defensive).
5. Saints, 19 (10th offensive, ninth defensive).

The NFL’s two top teams for combined yardage efficiency did not make the playoffs, both stumbling home at 8-8. Buffalo’s league-leading finish appears especially perplexing since its 12 final ranking is only somewhat off the figure of 7 (first offensive, sixth defensive) the Rams posted in 1999 when they ran away with the NFL, and turnovers were not the Bills’ downfall as the team finished comfortably positive in that department. So how come the Bills and Persons didn’t get to play in January? Special teams. Kicking plays determine about 25 percent of points and 35 percent of field position, and on special teams, the Bills and Persons were cover-your-eyes dreadful.

The Persons missed three last-second field goals and allowed three kick return touchdowns, a horror story. In one of his canny moves, Owner/Megalomaniac Daniel Snyder insisted the coaching staff cut return man Brian Mitchell, the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff and punt return yardage, in order to bring in Former Player/Marketing Concept Deion Sanders, over whom Snyder slavered. Mitchell had been scheduled to make $1.5 million in 2000; Sanders was given $8.5 million for the season. How did they compare? Mitchell signed with Philadelphia and finished in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt returning. He also had the season’s longest run from scrimmage, an 85-yarder. Sanders finished 24th in punt returns with a nonentity 7.4-yard average. At one point Deion was so preoccupied with mugging to the crowd and pointing at himself as the opposition boomed its punt that the ball slammed into his facemask and bounced free for a muff. As the season wound down, the me-me-me-first Sanders blamed his blockers for his poor performance. When someone who makes $8.5 million fobs off his shortcomings on the unknown, minimum-salary special teamers who block for him—and then isn’t reprimanded as Sanders was not—the babies have taken over the sandbox.

As for the Bills, last January they lost in the playoffs to the Flaming Thumbtacks on the last-second Music City Miracle kick run-back. Whether or not this play was legal, from the standpoint of Buffalo’s special teams breakdown, it was surely one of the worst single plays in NFL history. The day after, Buffalo special teams coach Bruce DeHaven was fired. DeHaven had screwed up on the Miracle (he failed to warn the coverage team to watch for a trick return though with the clock almost expired it was an obvious trick play situation) but otherwise had coached the Buffalo special teams well, keeping them in the league’s top 10 for a decade. The Bills replaced DeHaven with a gentleman who had never coached special teams at any level, pro, college, or high school. The result? Buffalo finished last in punt returns, 30th in kickoff returns, bottom quartile in punt and kickoff coverage and allowed three kick return touchdowns and had five kicks blocked. Firing the man to blame for the Music City Miracle might have made Bills Head Coach/Beanie Baby Wade Phillips feel better the day he did it, but he cut off the team’s nose to spite its face.

Hidden Indicator: When Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt won a contest in October with a last-second 45-yarder, he boasted, bragged, and preened about how he was automatic with the game on the line. Before the Eagles game, Tampa DT Warren Sapp boasted, bragged, and preened about himself while declaring Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb “basically a running back”; Keyshawn Johnson boasted that all the Bucs had to do was throw to him. Money-time results? Vanderjagt honked with the game on the line. Sapp recorded three tackles and zero sacks. Johnson dropped a well-thrown pass when Tampa went for broke on fourth down in the fourth quarter. Hidden connection? In each case, the football gods chortled.

Running Items Department

New York Times Final-Score Score: They were sweating on 43rd Street when Miami entered the Colts red zone in OT because the Times had predicted a final of Dolphins 20, Colts 17, and there it was tied at 17. Had Miami immediately kicked the field goal, the Multicolored Lady would at last have called an exact final score! Instead Dave Wannstedt ordered one more run: TD, scoreboard locks at 23-17. Thus the Paper of Record opens the postseason 0-4 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score, bringing the New York Times Final-Score Score to 0-252 for the year. Just seven chances left.

Reader Animadversion: Readers overwhelmingly said they liked the NFL playoff system as is, though reader Max Boot did suggest he would like to see the games played in prime time—Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights for the opening weekend—to prevent loss of weekend afternoons. Best supporting reasons given by readers for keeping the playoff field as is:

1. Current format is popular, as evidenced by overwhelming margin among Slate readers.
2. Supply and demand. By limiting the supply of playoff games, the NFL increases demand.
3. The small number of postseason games, coupled with the fact that only 12 of 31 clubs make the tournament, causes the majority of regular season games to have significance in the standings for at least one of the teams, preventing the NFL from turning into the NBA.

TMQ is persuaded by point three. Case closed.

Regarding the item on ESPN’s multiple preseason forecasts for the 12 playoff slots, all 15 of which turned out to be wrong, reader Cathy notes it is not correct to say there were 180 possible permutations in the ESPN meta-prediction (15 times 12). Considering that each of 12 slots per 15 guessers might have had 31 team names as entries, Cathy notes, the permutations would have been 15 x 31(!) or 15 times 31 factorial, meaning 31 x 30 x 29 x 28 x 27 x and so on, a figure soaring toward a zillion. One hundred eighty was merely the number of possible selections.

Reader “History Guy” checked TMQ’s preseason predictions and noted that it only correctly forecasts the exact final records of three teams: Baltimore at 12-4, Cleveland at 3-13, and Oakland at 12-4. Smelling pure luck, History Guy then asked, what are the odds someone could achieve this forecast via blind chance? The odds are 31 (number of teams) times two (each record has two positions) times 17! (17 factorial for 17 possible results from 0 to 16) divided by three, which works out to roughly one in 1.2 thousand trillion. So TMQ did better than blind chance. Whew.

Finally, of TMQ’s proposal that NCAA football players receive an extra year of scholarship for each year played in order to let them get an education after their pro dreams fail, J. Dragani notes this is the way the Canadian Hockey League functions. Its junior-league system “requires a major junior team to assure a player of one year of paid post-secondary school for each year played in the CHL,” Dragani says, so that when a player’s pro dream collapses, education awaits. Thus the basic idea of the system has already been favorably tested in Canada—by a commercial enterprise to boot.

TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week’s question:

Fifteen NFL teams went into the final weekend knowing they were eliminated from the playoffs and their last performance was meaningless. They might as well have forfeited. (Note: For humanitarian reasons, the Cardinals should have started forfeiting in October.) If there ever were an NFL forfeit, how, according to league rules, would it appear on the scoreboard?

If there’s one trivia item NFL fans appear to know, it is forfeit details: Though no NFL game has been forfeited in the modern era, more than 100 entrants correctly said that according to league rules, a forfeit would appear on scoreboards as a 2-0 final since two is the smallest possible score. Presumably this means a CFL forfeit would be scored 1-0 owing to the rouge, but TMQ couldn’t find a forfeit provision in the Canadian rulebook. (The CFL rulebook does, however, specify that players may not wear any “apparel, which, in the judgment of the referee, may endanger or confuse opponents.” So just take off that moose costume, No. 76!) The Trivia Challenge is awarded to the only joint/all-chick entry received from Patricia Kavanaugh and Jane Tindall of Chicago.

Here is this week’s Trivia Challenge, fiendishly designed to require pondering and flipping of pages in dusty volumes:

One team playing in the divisional round holds an all-time postseason record no club would care to have, and the record could get even worse. Name the team and its undesired place in the history books.

Submit your answers via “The Fray” titling them “Trivia Answer.” And be sure to include your e-mail address in the event someone coming back to Washington from the Ford administration names you the winner.