Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: "Wide Right" Edition

The Cleveland Browns were on the verge of becoming the first team in NFL history to blow leads of at least 13 points in three consecutive games but Rian Lindell's 47 yard field goal attempt went wide right and the Browns escaped with a 29-27 win in Buffalo. Bills' quarterback Trent Edwards had a ghastly performance that included three first quarter interceptions and resulted in a 50.3 passer rating overall but the Browns only scored two field goals as a result of Edwards' gaffes. The Browns put together one sustained drive all game, an impressive 96 yard second quarter march that culminated in a two yard Josh Cribbs' TD run that gave the Browns a 13-0 lead; the Browns' other touchdown came on a 72 yard burst by Jerome Harrison, the speedy running back who many observers believe should be receiving more playing time. Phil Dawson's 56 yard field goal with 1:39 remaining--which turned out to be the game-winner--was set up by a 28 yard "drive" that stalled when Braylon Edwards dropped a third down pass that would have been good enough for a first down that would have either set up a much shorter kick with less time on the clock or possibly enabled the Browns to score a touchdown. Instead, they had to rely on Dawson making a difficult kick in Buffalo's swirling winds and then hope that a defense that had given up nearly 1000 yards in the previous two games could manage to keep Buffalo out of field goal range; as it turned out, the defense failed at this modest task but--as Denny Green might say--the Bills "let them off the hook" thanks to Lindell's miss, a rarity for a kicker who has been very dependable both from that distance and in late game situations when the score is close. In other words, the Browns won but they really did not play that much better than they played in the games that they lost this season and to suggest otherwise is to put lipstick on a very ugly pig.

Brady Quinn earned his first win as an NFL starter, though his statistics were hardly anything to brag about: 14-36, 185 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions and a 55.9 passer rating that was only marginally better than Edwards'. The best thing that can be said about Quinn right now is that in 79 pass attempts spanning two starts plus one drive in a game last season he has yet to throw an interception or fumble the ball. The Browns also are not plagued by false start penalties and some of the general sloppiness that took place when Derek Anderson was the starter. However, to be fair it must be added that Anderson was not committing those penalties and when he put up numbers like Quinn did against Buffalo many Browns fans screamed for his head; ESPN's Trent Dilfer and others insist that the Browns made the switch to Quinn precisely because the fans complained so much about Anderson. Barely a month ago, Anderson went 18-29 for 310 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 121.3 passer rating as the Browns tagged the New York Giants with a 35-14 loss that remains the only blemish on the Super Bowl champions' record this season. Then, in the next game against Washington, Anderson went 14-37 for 136 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 57.9 passer rating in a 14-11 loss. Note that Anderson's statistics against Washington and Quinn's statistics against Buffalo are virtually identical; the only difference between the Washington game and the Buffalo game is that at Washington Dawson missed a 54 yard field goal with 25 seconds left. Marcus Stroud almost blocked Dawson's game-winner against Buffalo, so the Browns are literally within a fingertip of remaining winless in the Quinn era.

There is no question that the Browns got off to a disappointing start this season but that had more to do with injuries, dropped passes and gaffes by other players than it did with Anderson, even though it is true that he did not play as well as he did last season. Anderson was a Pro Bowler in 2007 after throwing 29 TD passes--one short of the franchise's single season record held by Brian Sipe--and he bounced back from Cleveland's 0-3 start this year to post a 3-2 record in his last five games as a starter before being benched, which ironically means that Anderson and the team were playing their best football right before he lost his job to Quinn. Anderson had seven touchdowns and just two interceptions in those five games; the two losses were the aforementioned setback versus Washington after Anderson drove the team into position to attempt to kick a tying field goal and a 37-27 loss to Baltimore after the defense could not hold a 14 point second half lead. Anderson had a solid 80.2 rating versus Baltimore and even though his horrible "pick six" interception in that game has been replayed over and over on TV the reality is that if the defense had not already blown the big lead then he would not have been in a situation in which he felt desperate to make something happen--and the thought of punting the ball to Baltimore and relying on the defense to get a stop could certainly make anyone feel desperate.

I'm not trying to bash Quinn or make excuses for Anderson; my point is that quarterback play is not the team's primary problem. The Browns' biggest issue is that the team lacks focus and toughness, which is why virtually every week there is a breakdown offensively, defensively and/or on special teams. The problem is not one particular player but the general way that this team is coached. Anderson is a strong armed quarterback who provides a deep threat but is not particularly mobile; Quinn is much more mobile but primarily throws short to intermediate passes, though I think that casual observers are underestimating his arm strength. With the right game plans--and provided that receivers hold on to catchable passes, which has been a problem no matter who is throwing the ball--the Browns can win with either quarterback. Since Quinn is apparently the choice for the rest of the way, the Browns should continue to try to come up with game plans that play to his strengths. However, all of the fans who clamored for him to be the starter need to understand that he is a young player who will inevitably have to go through growing pains. The Browns fans mistreated Anderson and I hope that they don't show the same fickleness toward Quinn.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

*As you probably have already heard, prior to Philadelphia's 13-13 tie with Cincinnati in the Ineptitude Bowl, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb did not know that regular season NFL games end in a tie if no one scores during the sudden death overtime. During his postgame remarks, McNabb candidly admitted his ignorance of this rule and then wondered aloud what would happen if no one scored during overtime in a playoff game or the Super Bowl (Donovan, if you are reading this, please be advised that postseason games do not end in ties; the teams keep playing overtimes until someone scores). Monday Night Countdown devoted a whole segment to the implications of McNabb's lack of knowledge. Several people on the set of that show usually defend McNabb and throw Terrell Owens under the proverbial bus, so I was very curious to see what they would say about McNabb's error. Fortunately, everyone got it right: the bottom line is that there is absolutely no excuse for an NFL starting quarterback to not know the rules. As Trent Dilfer said, the quarterback is supposed to be the "coach on the field" who informs his teammates about the "nuances" of the game but this is not even a nuance: this is "remedial" information or, as Tom Jackson so aptly put it, "common knowledge" among not just players but any serious NFL fan.

Jackson prefaced his critical comments about McNabb by stating that everything about McNabb's life--from his time at Syracuse to the business acumen that he has displayed--suggests that he is very intelligent and Jackson said that a talk show caller who described McNabb as a "cementhead" was most likely using that term as a euphemism for something else. Jackson did not elaborate any further but the elephant in the room is obvious: McNabb is black and literally for decades some ignorant fools perpetuated the pernicious myth that blacks lack the intelligence and leadership skills to play quarterback. That is why Warren Moon spent the first part of his pro career in the CFL and why many talented black quarterbacks--such as Marlin Briscoe--were forced to switch to other positions. It is so indescribably stupid to think that skin color affects the ability to play quarterback that I am not even going to say anything else about that sordid history. What matters in this instance is that McNabb's mistake has nothing to do with being black or with how well qualified blacks are to be NFL quarterbacks, so I hope that race does not become a distraction when discussing this issue.

The question is not whether McNabb is intelligent but rather why he has not fully applied his obvious intelligence to becoming the best leader that he can be. Cris Carter rightly scoffed at the notion that the outcome of the game was not affected by McNabb not knowing the rule; of course the outcome of the game was affected. This falls into the category of "situational football." Keyshawn Johnson, Tom Jackson and Dilfer all described how the best NFL coaches go over various situations with their players so that they are prepared to deal with anything that happens. A big part of what makes Bill Belichick the best coach in the NFL--and arguably the best football coach of all-time--is his relentless focus on situational football; remember four years ago when his Patriots took an intentional safety versus Denver and used the resulting field position shift to come back and win? One of my favorite NFL Films clips eavesdrops on Belichick teaching various players the ins and outs of certain rules and specific situations; he makes it perfectly clear that if you don't understand situational football then you cannot be on the team. The Monday Night Countdown crew rightly said that even though McNabb should be held accountable that Coach Andy Reid is also to blame for not paying greater attention to detail; Jackson observed that the lack of attention to detail is also reflected in Philadelphia's poor conversion rate in short yardage third down situations.

In 2004 at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland, I had a fascinating conversation with Tom Brown, who started at safety for the Green Bay teams that won the first two Super Bowls (he also played briefly in MLB for the Washington Senators). One of the things that we discussed is what changed when Vince Lombardi was no longer Green Bay's coach. Brown told me that Lombardi knew what every single player was supposed to be doing at all times, so the slightest error by anyone in practice was immediately corrected. When Lombardi departed, that attention to detail left with him and the resulting slippage in "small" areas led to an overall decline in the team's performance. The importance of coaching is not revealed by sideline tantrums during games or witty comments in press conferences; the great coaches do their work on the practice field, outside of the public eye.

The Eagles had an opportunity to beat Belichick's Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX but their poor clock management down the stretch proved to be an important factor in New England's three point win. Owens later said that McNabb was hyperventilating in the huddle and could barely get out the play calls at the end of the game; the media pounced on Owens for that and other perceived "sins" but you may have noticed that few if any Eagles spoke up for McNabb while many of them remained on good terms with Owens. Those players know what's up, even if a large portion of the general public is content to be fooled. McNabb is a very talented player who has accomplished a lot during a fine career but there has always been something missing that kept him from ascending to the elite level of a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning--and that press conference in Cincinnati provided a glimpse of the lack of awareness, lack of focus and/or lack of preparation that has prevented a Pro Bowler like McNabb from attaining that status.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


brady quinn is a very good quarterback as we all see now but derek anderson was jobbed it's not his fault edwards cant catch and lewis looks old this year and winslow is always in trouble.

d nabb should know it i didnt know that either though and ben rothleisberger said half the league doesnt so he hardly alone in that theres only one overtime he a great quarterback he just made a honest mistake.