Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Reflections on a Record-Setting Weekend

This exciting weekend of NFL action raised some questions:

1a) Will the New England Patriots put together a perfect season?
1b) Will Tom Brady break every single passing record known to man?

Games versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants seem to represent the biggest potential roadblocks but the Patriots will obviously be huge favorites in every game the rest of the way; after all, they went into the home of the reigning Super Bowl champions as favorites and won the game. It does not seem like Bill Belichick and the Patriots will shut things down even if (when) they clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs so unless injuries strike someone will have to beat the Patriots at full strength. Here is the most compelling reason to believe that the Patriots can go 16-0 and then run the table in the playoffs to finish 19-0, topping the 17-0 mark posted by the 1972 Miami Dolphins: the Patriots have already done something very similar to this, so neither outside pressure nor complacency within their locker room will affect them the way that such factors might impact a different team; the Patriots won 18 straight regular season games in 2003-04, setting an all-time NFL record (the Patriots actually won 21 games in a row counting the 2003 playoffs, but playoff games are not officially included in a regular season record). I believe that the Patriots will have a perfect season. They have the talent, focus and motivation to do so.

Brady is threatening to lap the field in single-season passer rating (131.8; the record is 121.1 by Peyton Manning in 2004) and single-season touchdowns (33 in nine games; the record is 49 in 16 games by Manning in 2005). He also could break the single-season completion percentage record (73.2; the record is 70.55 by Ken Anderson in 1982) and it is not out of the question that he could break Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5084 passing yards. If Brady does not get hurt, the touchdown record is history for sure; he's had at least three TD tosses in each of the first nine games this year (that's a record, too) and we have already seen that the Patriots have no intention of ever backing off no matter how big of a lead that they get. The main thing that kills a passer rating is interceptions. Brady does not throw many but it seems like when he does they come in bunches. He only had two in the first eight games and then he tossed two against Indianapolis. If he makes it through the rest of the season with four or fewer interceptions then he will likely rack up enough positive numbers to amass the highest passer rating ever. The completion percentage record and yardage record work at cross purposes, because the long bombs that lead to big chunks of yardage are hard to convert at a greater than 70% rate. I think that Brady will break the completion percentage record in a photo finish while winding up with about 4800 yards.

2) Would the Colts have beaten the Patriots with Marvin Harrison/can the Colts reasonably expect to beat the Patriots on the road in the AFC Playoffs?

It may be tempting to say that since the Colts came so close to beating the Patriots without Harrison that they would have won if he had played but it is not that simple. The Patriots focused their attention on Dallas Clark and basically shut him down. Joseph Addai then had a big game but his touchdown came on a check down play during which some Patriot defenders collided with each other. If Harrison had played, then Addai would have gotten fewer touches but Clark may have seen the ball more if the Patriots focused their defense on Harrison. The game would definitely have been different but the outcome would probably have been the same because in the end the reality is that the Colts had no answer for Randy Moss--and unless Harrison is going to play defensive back and shut down Moss, that is not going to change. It is only natural for the Colts' coaching staff to take a positive tone with its players and stress that New England can be beaten but the previous history between these teams is that the winner of the regular season matchup goes on to win the playoff game.

3) If Terrell Owens is such a team cancer then why have his Cowboys emerged as the best team in the NFC?

Terrell Owens had some big playoff games for San Francisco and he played a key role in helping Philadelphia make it to Super Bowl XXXIX. The season after that, the Eagles decided to get rid of him. Of course, since he plays for Dallas he returns to Philadelphia once a year. During Dallas' 38-17 Sunday night road win over Philadelphia, NBC's John Madden offered some useful reminders about Owens, who had 10 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown against his old team: "He was very good for the Eagles. They hadn't had a top receiver in a long time and he was that guy. He did go to the Super Bowl with them, so it wasn't like he was a bust here. I mean, Terrell Owens was a very good football player before he got here (in Philadelphia), he was (a good football player) here and he is (a good football player) after he was here." Then NBC ran a graphic showing that in the 21 games that Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens played in together they hooked up for 20 TD passes (1 TD for every 11 passes that McNabb threw) and a 107.1 passer rating. McNabb has played longer with other receivers but he still has thrown more TDs to Owens than anyone else; McNabb's career record in 111 games with all of his other wide receivers put together includes 61 TD passes (1 TD for every 26 passes) and a 75.8 passer rating. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, an ESPN commentator at the time, put it best when the Eagles were trying to decide whether or not to get rid of Owens; Irvin predicted that they would regret it if they did not keep him, declaring that such a move would amount to "losing their ass to save their face" (i.e., appeasing McNabb for public relations purposes but actually making the on field product worse). Think what you want about Owens, McNabb and Irvin, but the cold, hard numbers in that NBC graphic prove that Irvin was 100% correct. McNabb has never been as good as he was when he played with Owens and neither has that team. Owens potentially put his career in jeopardy to play in the Super Bowl despite a broken ankle--and he was the best Philadelphia player on the field anyway. Funny how the Eagles got rid of their alleged cancer and yet they are in terminal condition now. I realize that there are more factors at play in the Eagles' decline than just getting rid of Owens but anyone who thinks that dumping Owens made the Eagles better is deluding himself. It is not coincidental that Owens' new team is in first place and his old team is in last place. I recently read a message board comment in which an Eagles fan said he'd rather see the team go 0-16 then keep a guy like Owens--sadly for the more rational Eagles fans, the team's management apparently thinks the same way.

4) Will Adrian Peterson break Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 1808 rushing yards in a season?

Peterson set the single-game rushing record on Sunday with 296 yards, his second 200 yard game in his eight game career (which is also a record). With 1036 yards already, Peterson does not even have to average 100 yards per game in the last eight contests in order to catch Dickerson. Barring injury, it seems extremely likely that Peterson will surpass Dickerson. Peterson even has a decent shot at reaching 2105 yards, the all-time single season record that Dickerson set in 1984, his second year in the NFL. Running back is one NFL position where a talented player can make an immediate impact even on a mediocre team. Any questions about Peterson have always focused on his durability, not his skills; as long as he stays healthy there are a of records that are potentially in jeopardy.

5) What happens when your mouth writes checks that your body cannot cash?

The short answer is that your team reaches the halfway point of the season with a 2-6 record and you end up in the hospital. I hope that Chad Johnson makes a quick and complete recovery from the neck injury that he suffered in Cincinnati's 33-21 loss to Buffalo. That said, Johnson's antics are just as tiresome as those of Gilbert Arenas and it is worth mentioning that Johnson's conduct directly led to the big hit that took him out of the game. Buffalo safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Coy Wire both collided with Johnson late in the contest. After the game, Whitner said, "Everybody I talked to this week said, 'Please hit Chad Johnson.' That's how everybody feels, especially when you have a good player that talks so much."

Earlier in the game, Johnson broke into the clear but dropped a pass when he saw Whitner coming. Johnson told Whitner, "I'm going to get that," meaning that he would make the play the next time. Not everybody likes hearing about how they are supposedly going to get beaten, so Whitner replied, "OK, next time you come across here, I got something for you." Sure enough, Whitner was as good as his word.

Whitner made it clear that he did not intend to injure Johnson, just to send a message to him and future opponents as well: "I didn't try to hurt him. It was a clean, legal hit. Other teams will see that and see how physical we play...I hope he's all right...I hope he's healthy and able to play next week or the following week."

One thing that is becoming more clear with each passing week is that Johnson is not even the best receiver on his own team. That title belongs to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has at least one TD reception in each of the Bengals' first eight games, tying an NFL record. After Johnson dropped the pass in front of Whitner and bragged about what he would do the next time, Houshmandzadeh could be seen on the sidelines showing Johnson how he should have positioned his hands to make the catch. What a novel idea--focusing one's mind and one's energy on how to play better instead of on trying to be clever.

Years ago, people used to call Corey Dillon a malcontent but I always thought that was bull. He played hard and gave it his all--he just got tired of playing alongside knuckleheads and halfsteppers. When he arrived in New England, Dillon was no longer in a bad mood all the time. Same thing with Randy Moss. I once heard Chad Johnson say that he got along great with Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl and that Belichick would love to have him on his team. That may be true but there is no way that Belichick would have "Ocho Cinco" on his team, so if winning is important to Johnson maybe he needs to give his alter ego a rest for a while.

Stat of the Week I: In the wake of New England's three previous Super Bowl wins and 9-0 start this year it is easy to forget that people used to actually believe that Bill Belichick merely rode Bill Parcells' coattails to success as an assistant coach with the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets. Consider this: Parcells' record as a head coach with Belichick on his staff was 117-73-1 with two Super Bowl wins, a third Super Bowl appearance and four other trips to the playoffs. Without Belichick by his side, Parcells' record as a head coach was 55-57 in seven seasons with just two playoff appearances and no playoff wins. Coattails indeed.

Stat of the Week II: Adrian Peterson's 296 yard game broke Jamal Lewis' 2003 mark by one yard. Lewis had surpassed Corey Dillon's 2000 total of 278 yards but this record did not used to fall every three to four years; Walter Payton's 275 yards in 1977 held the top spot for nearly a quarter century. The evolution of this record since 1933 makes for some interesting reading. Jim Brown held the career rushing record for 21 years but only kept the single-game record for six years.


vednam said...

Peterson must also be on pace to break some sort of yards-per-carry record. Right now he's averaging a whopping 6.6 ypc! That's a full 2 yards more than Dickerson's 1983 average. His average will likely drop some, but it's still stunning.

What is your take on the way the Patriots have been seemingly running up the score during "garbage time"? Is it unclassy, or no big deal?

David Friedman said...

Beattie Feathers held the single season ypc average (8.44) for 72 years (!) until Michael Vick narrowly broke it last season (8.45). My understanding is that Feathers' total is looked upon with some suspicion, though, because it likely includes all of his touches that season, including returns.

Peterson's 6.6 is truly remarkable because if that number holds up and he leads the league in rushing it would be the best average ever by a single-season rushing leader other than Feathers, narrowly beating Jim Brown's 6.4 average in 1963, the best season of his career (a then-record 1863 yards in a 14 game season).

I think that Bill Belichick is not popular in a lot of circles. That was pretty obvious when he coached in Cleveland. Three Super Bowl wins shut a lot of people up but the overblown videotaping saga has emboldened a lot of people to come out of the woodwork.

The Patriots are so much more well prepared than most of the teams that they are facing that it inevitably is going to look like they are running up the score. I believe that it was Bill Parcells who said that sometimes coaches are in a no win position; he mentioned a game when a team kneeled down four straight times rather than trying to score and then the other coach said that he felt humiliated. If you kick a field goal, then you are scoring more points but if you run a play from scrimmage and score a touchdown then people will criticize that, too. This is the NFL, not pee wee football, so I think this is much ado about nothing.

A real example of running up the score is when Sam Wyche called a timeout in order to kick a field goal so that his Bengals could beat Jerry Glanville's Oilers 61-7. If I am not mistaken, after the game Wyche said something to the effect that he would have scored 100 if he could have and he wanted to score so many points that Glanville would be fired. Belichick has not done anything like that; the Patriots just play all out from opening kickoff to final gun.