Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Strange Statistics Abound

Was there a full moon this weekend? Something strange was definitely in the air in several NFL stadiums and the result was some very odd statistics:

1) Peyton Manning threw a career-high six interceptions in Indianapolis' 23-21 loss to San Diego. That is the most interceptions by a quarterback in one game since Chris Chandler had six in his debut as a Rams starter in 2004. When was the last time you heard Peyton Manning and Chris Chandler in the same sentence? Manning's interception fiesta also set a franchise record and is more than four teams have thrown all season. Not surprisingly, Manning had a career-low 30.6 passer rating (nothing kills a passer rating faster than interceptions). Despite protecting the ball with all of the dexterity of Edward Scissorhands, Manning put the Colts in position for Adam Vinatieri--Mr. Reliable--to kick a 29 yard game-winning field goal. Vinatieri, who had earlier missed a field goal during a fire drill-like sequence as time ran out at the end of the first half, stunned everyone by missing again; he had made 16 of 18 attempts this season prior to this game and one of those misses was from farther than 50 yards. Vinatieri had not missed two field goals in one game since November 6, 2001 and had made 96.6 percent of his career field goal attempts of less than 30 yards prior to the Chargers game.

2) That Manning-Vinatieri duet of futility was strange but what Detroit did simply defies belief. If you simply sat in your chair and did not move backwards for three hours while watching your favorite team play on Sunday then you gained 18 more yards rushing than the Lions, whose -18 yards rushing in a 31-21 loss to Arizona is the fewest by a team in a regular season game since 1947.

3) The Cleveland Browns were outgained 401 yards to 163 by the Pittsburgh Steelers but still almost won the game. How did they do that? Easy--"hidden" yardage (i.e., yardage not included in statistics for total offense) from kickoff and punt returns, mainly by Joshua Cribbs, who racked up 223 return yards, including a 100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 90 yard kickoff return that set up another touchdown. Take away Cribbs' special team heroics and you have another typical Cleveland-Pittsburgh game in which the Steelers controlled the line of scrimmage and pounded away with their running game (159 yards on 35 attempts, leading to a 38:17 to 21:43 advantage in time of possession); the Browns had two first downs in the entire second half and they both came in the last minute. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson had a very good first half (10-15, 80 yards, three touchdowns, 114.6 passer rating) but was just 6-19 for 43 yards and a 40.9 passer rating in the second half, with most of his meager production coming when Pittsburgh was in prevent defense mode.

The Browns have come a long way this season but they are not in the Steelers' league just yet. There is also still at least some reason to question how good the Browns really are. Two of their wins came against the horrible Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams. The Browns shot themselves in the foot late in the Steelers game with some mental errors, including burning two timeouts after Pittsburgh took a 31-28 lead; the Browns used one right after the Steelers' go-ahead touchdown and lost the second one after their replay challenge of that play was not upheld. After the game, Coach Romeo Crennel explained, "I'm not sure what happened but a timeout was called on the field. And I followed it up with a challenge. Put it on me." OK, we will, because that mixup--plus a key holding penalty on the Browns' final punt return--led to the Browns having to try a 52 yard field goal that fell just short at the end of the game. In a game of inches and seconds, those lost yards and lost time made a big difference.

4) The Bengals beat the Ravens 21-7--nothing unusual there, until you realize that the 21 points came on seven field goals. Carson Palmer led the Bengals up and down the field without even once setting foot in the end zone.

5) Speaking of strange scores, Denver beat Kansas City 27-11 but for a while the scoreboard looked like it was from a Rockies-Royals interleague game: it was 5-3 K.C. before Denver hit a three run home run to make it 6-5 but then K.C. answered with a home run of their own to make it 8-6. Buffalo defeated Miami by the "normal" score of 13-10 but early in the game Miami led 3-2 before a seven run inning made it 10-2. Miami's "bullpen" blew the "save" to preserve the Dolphins' perfectly imperfect record. I bet that whoever supervises the scores that crawl across TV screens was scratching his head more than once on Sunday.

6) Boy, that Monday night game was a real barn burner, wasn't it? In keeping with the wacky numbers theme, here are some gems relating to Seattle's 24-0 drubbing of San Francisco. The 49ers remain the only NFL team to not score at least 20 points in a single game this season; they had just one first half first down and, as Mike Tirico mentioned more than once, that last second Hail Mary pass probably should have been ruled an incompletion. Their six first downs for the entire game is the second lowest total in the NFL this year, "bested" only by Baltimore's five in last week's Monday night game. Here is a nugget that should win a few bar bets (unless your mark watched the game until the bitter end--or reads this post): this was Seattle's fifth shutout on Monday Night Football, an all-time record. In fact, the Seahawks held the record prior to this victory, which is truly astonishing when you consider how often teams like the Steelers, Cowboys, 49ers, Dolphins (when they were good) and Raiders (ditto) have appeared on Monday Night Football.

The best part of the telecast was when Steve Young joined the broadcasting crew in the booth and talked about quarterbacking. Earlier, in reference to the struggles of San Francisco's Alex Smith and some of the other quarterbacks who have been drafted number one overall, Ron Jaworski said that teams spend a lot of money on scouting but that they evaluate the wrong things. Young agreed with this, noting that teams are too often wowed because a guy is 6-6 and can throw a ball 70 yards from his knees--things that have nothing to do with actually being productive in game situations. I have not scientifically studied this--and I have more direct experience talking with NBA scouts and talent evaluators than their counterparts in the NFL--but it seems to me that NBA teams are less prone to fall for a player who has a certain body type but no game or to disregard a player who does not have the "right" body type but does have game. Kevin Durant did notoriously poorly on the bench press test but still was selected with the number two overall pick in this year's NBA Draft. This is not to say that NBA scouting is perfect--obviously, it is not--but how many number one overall draft picks in the NBA have careers that mirror those of, say, Tim Couch or David Carr? Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, yet as Tony Kornheiser mentioned it seems like it is hit or miss when teams use a first round pick on a quarterback. Some of this may just have to do with differences in the nature of each sport. I remember that prior to the 1999 NFL Draft--which included Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown--more than one NFL talent evaluator publicly said that one or two of those guys would probably become a star, one or two would be decent and one or two would turn out to be a bust; the trick was to figure out which guys would fall into which category.

Young and Jaworski said that as former quarterbacks they can watch a guy and get a pretty good sense of whether or not he has what it takes to be a good NFL quarterback; prior to Young's arrival in the booth, Jaworski implored NFL teams to hire scouts who had played the position and who understand what to look for in a prospect in terms of fundamentals, technique and so forth. Young added that years ago he noticed that something was "off" as soon as he saw 49ers draft pick Jim Druckenmiller on the practice field; on the other hand, Tom Brady and Jeff Garcia have that certain intangible something that enables them to be productive. Young always speaks eloquently about what he calls the craft of quarterbacking, he steadfastly refuses to play along with either Stuart Scott's shtick or ESPN's incessant attempts to overhype things and I wish that he had a more prominent role in ESPN's NFL coverage. Nothing personal against Drew Carey, the other in-booth guest this week, but I'd rather have one more segment with Young talking about the NFL than listen to Carey.

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