Monday, September 17, 2007

A Lake Erie Shootout and a New England Blowout

It's alive! The Cleveland Browns' offense, which has been in deep hibernation seemingly for decades, exploded for 51 points in a six point home win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns had not scored this many points since Bud Carson coached Cleveland to a 51-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first game of the 1989 season. Derek Anderson, who became the Browns' starting quarterback after Charlie Frye--last week's starter--was traded to Seattle on Tuesday, went 20-33 for 328 yards and five touchdowns (tying the franchise's single game record and doubling his career total) with only one interception. He started the game 0-5 and got away with some shaky throws but 51 points is usually about a month's worth of work for the Browns so those minor blemishes are easy to overlook. The Browns had two 100 yard receivers (Braylon Edwards, 8-146 with 2 TDs and Kellen Winslow, 6-100 with 1 TD) and a 200 yard rusher (Jamal Lewis, 28-215, including a 66 yard TD); Cleveland had never before had a 300 yard passer, a 200 yard rusher and two 100 yard receivers in one game. The Bengals' Carson Palmer also had a big game (33-50, 401 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions) and this was just the fourth time in NFL history that two teams combined to throw at least 11 touchdown passes in one game; the last time this happened was in 1969 when Billy Kilmer of New Orleans (six) and Charley Johnson of St. Louis (six) tossed a single game record 12 touchdowns.

The best news for Browns fans is that the team did not look disorganized and disinterested. Granted, giving up 45 points and 531 yards on defense is not great but the Bengals offense contains a lot of Pro Bowl caliber players. However, the question that remains to be answered is whether the Browns offense is really this good or if the Bengals defense, which was considered suspect before the season began, should in fact be on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so Romeo Crennel should be applauded for preparing Cleveland to beat a squad that is widely expected to make the playoffs. Of course, that is Crennel's job and the win will seem meaningless a month from now if the Browns are 1-5. One thing that we learned for sure from this game is that this edition of the Browns has a lot of playmakers: not only Winslow, Edwards and Lewis but also Joe Jurevicius and Josh Cribbs. That means that we should never again hear from Crennel and General Manager Phil Savage about how they inherited a team whose cupboard was bare. That is ancient history now and if in the coming weeks it turns out that Anderson cannot consistently get the ball in the hands of the team's playmakers then it is Crennel's job to prepare rookie Brady Quinn to do just that.

While the Lake Erie shootout was equally wild and unexpected, the Boston Massacre that happened on Sunday night was predictable to anyone who carefully watched and listened to this week's events. After days of media overkill regarding the "Patriotgate scandal", anyone who understands how real competitors react to adversity is not surprised by the 38-14 beating that the New England Patriots gave to the San Diego Chargers. Prior to the game, NBC's John Madden made an excellent point when Al Michaels asked him if the Patriots were distracted by all of the controversy that has been swirling around Coach Bill Belichick; Madden noted that he watched Belichick conduct the Patriots' practices and that the team seemed completely focused but that San Diego seemed to be very preoccupied with discussing all of the allegations about Belichick. It did not take long after the game started to see which team was well coached and well prepared--and which team was coached by Norv Turner. I know that Troy Aikman speaks highly of Turner's work as Dallas' offensive coordinator during their Super Bowl runs in the 1990s but Turner's resume as a head coach is most unimpressive.

I laughed out loud when NBC's Andrea Kremer reported before the game--with a grave look on her face--that Turner banned all New England locker room attendants from San Diego's locker room, closely guarded his playbook and communicated his pregame instructions to his team verbally in order to not leave any written records that the Patriots might steal. All Belichick had to do was watch San Diego's game last week versus the Chicago Bears and it would be pretty obvious that there is nothing in Turner's playbook to worry about. Turner had a 59-82-1 record as a head coach prior to Sunday's game, so it is very doubtful that Belichick worries much about Turner's brainstorms, which turn into slight drizzles by the time they reach the field. Yes, the Chargers have some very talented players--foremost among them LaDainian Tomlinson, the 2006 NFL MVP--and Belichick designed a very effective game plan to neutralize those players. Anyone who thinks that coaching does not matter should watch what Turner does this year with a team that Marty Schottenheimer led to a 14-2 record last year.

New England led San Diego 24-0 at halftime and the game seemed out of hand even earlier than that. The Chargers managed to produce a slight flicker of hope early in the fourth quarter when they scored a touchdown to pull within 31-14 and then recovered an Ellis Hobbs fumble of the ensuing kickoff. The Patriots immediately snuffed out that flicker, sacking San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers for ten yard losses on back to back plays and forcing a punt, in effect saying, "Thank you for playing our game and here are some lovely parting gifts for your flight back to California."

During the game telecast, Michaels provided a very lucid explanation of the difference between what the Patriots filmed in last week's game against the Jets and what is permitted by the NFL. In the process he showed--perhaps unwittingly--how ridiculously overblown this whole "controversy" is. Michaels pointed out that it is legal for teams to film from an endzone view above the field and that it is legal for teams to film from a 50 yard line view above the field. The offense that the Patriots committed is stationing a cameraman on their own sideline and having him point his camera at the Jets' coaches on the other sideline. In other words, if the cameraman had been positioned a bit further up in the stadium and from a slightly different angle then there would be no problem. The Patriots did not "steal" anything; they did not go into the Jets' locker room and take private property. The Patriots, in essence, used the wrong camera angle to record something that anybody in the stadium can see. Yes, the NFL issued a memo about this prior to the season and the Patriots deserve to be punished for breaking the letter of this rule--but it is amazing that anyone could try to equate this with taking illegal performance enhancing drugs or committing an actual theft. Everybody in the NFL tries to read the other team's signs; that is why coaches cover their mouths when they speak into their headsets and why they have assistant coaches issuing dummy signals at the same time the real signals are being sent out.

Madden added that Belichick is not just the best coach in the game today but one of the best of all-time and Madden described the very real practical difficulties in using any information that the Patriots may have gleaned from their filming. He attributed Belichick's actions to a combination of paranoia and the obsessive attention to detail that characterizes coaches, particularly those who, like Belichick, are defensive specialists. Sadly, this story does not seem likely to die any time soon. Commissioner Goodell has ordered Belichick and the Patriots to turn over to him all records and files pertaining to any such filming that they have done, with the threat of more sanctions looming if the team does not comply. Also, Kremer reported that the Jets want the NFL to investigate whether or not the Patriots were intercepting the Jets' radio sideline radio communications. If that were to turn out to be true or if the Patriots engaged in conduct that could truly be classified as stealing then I certainly would completely condemn that--but the fuss over what has actually been proven is absurd.

I understand why Commissioner Goodell has to lay down the law against anyone who breaks any rule but it is interesting to ponder why this case attracted such a media outcry. Michaels answered that question near the end of the game when he mentioned that Belichick "is not exactly a media friendly guy." That is what this is really all about; Bill Belichick does not fill reporters' notebooks up with juicy quotes during his press conferences, so covering him and his teams is not always easy. This "scandal" is an opportunity for payback against an unpopular figure whose overwhelming success made him all but bulletproof to criticism in recent years. If all of these self-professed champions of justice are so concerned that the Patriots' Super Bowl wins might be tainted then why did they not pursue with greater vigor the story about the players from the Carolina Panthers' Super Bowl team who used steroids?

No comments: