Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Miami's "Perfect" Season is Over, but New England's is Still Going Strong

The Miami Dolphins "ruined" their "perfect" season by beating the Baltimore Ravens 22-16 in overtime to post their first win in 14 games. Think about how far and how fast the Ravens have fallen--from an AFC North division title and a 13-3 record in 2006 to a 4-10 mark this season, including an eight game losing streak. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots continued the NFL's real perfect season, improving to 14-0 with a 20-10 victory over the New York Jets. While many people assumed that the Patriots would wreak vengeance on Jets Coach Eric Mangini, ESPN's Steve Young correctly predicted that the Jets would not be blown out; he said that a focused, well prepared NFL team should never be routed and that he expected the Jets to be very focused considering how much outside attention was being focused on this game. Of course, the harsh weather conditions greatly limited the passing game, which obviously hurt New England a lot more than New York.

If the Dolphins had not won then next week's New England-Miami game would have involved the bizarre, unprecedented symmetry of a 14-0 team facing an 0-14 squad. Even with Miami finally entering the win column, this matchup still features a 13 victory differential, a first in NFL history. Maybe the weather will conspire to keep things close but a bigger factor will likely be what Young talked about: a focused team should not be blown out. The Dolphins could go one of two ways with this--they might be energized by their victory and enthusiastic about their opportunity to spoil New England's perfect record (and at the same time preserve the 1972 Dolphins' place in history) or they might be so relieved/content about their win that they simply play out the string and get ready for the offseason. My hunch is that Miami will play hard at the start but as soon as New England puts the hammer down the Dolphins will give in mentally and get blown out; a lot of the comments from Miami players before and after the Baltimore game centered around the embarrassment of possibly going 0-16, which makes me think that the Dolphins' main goal was simply to get one win to avoid that fate.

Several interesting storylines emerged in the Dallas-Philadelphia game. Dallas defensive back Roy Williams is the main reason that the "horse collar" rule exists yet he continues to be the primary practitioner of this dangerous (and dirty) maneuver in which a tackler grabs a ball carrier by the back of his collar and yanks him to the ground; Terrell Owens, then with the Eagles, suffered a broken leg after a "horse collar" tackle by Williams in 2004, and Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb is fortunate that he did not suffer a similar fate after a "horse collar" tackle by Williams during Philadelphia's 10-6 win over Dallas on Sunday. That was Williams' third "horse collar" tackle this season. Thankfully, the NFL has responded swiftly against Williams, suspending him for a game without pay because of the McNabb play.

Most of the media coverage after the Eagles' upset victory focused on how Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was allegedly more preoccupied with the presence of Jessica Simpson in the stands than with what he was supposed to be doing in the game. The reality is that the Fox broadcasters were the ones who were preoccupied with her; there never was any indication that Romo interacted with her during the game, was distracted in any way by her presence or even knew that she was there. Instead of wasting so much air time talking about her, it would have been nice if Fox bothered to actually analyze what Romo was doing wrong--was he not reading coverages well, were his mechanics breaking down, was his injured thumb affecting his grip on the ball or was it a combination of all of these things? ESPN did not do any better, as its postgame coverage focused much more on Simpson than on the game. Are we supposed to believe that Romo is the only quarterback in the NFL who has an attractive lady friend who sometimes goes to games?

One thing that was very obvious is that Romo was not throwing the ball accurately. He completed just 13 of 36 passes and most of the incompletions were poorly thrown balls. Of course, since Terrell Owens only caught two passes for 37 yards but was the target of some passes that were intercepted there has been much talk about whether Owens is going to become disruptive to the team and if Romo is forcing the ball to Owens. There has been no indication that Owens is whining or griping (unlike the constant, highly demonstrative gestures that Cincinnati's Chad Johnson has been making all season long), so the disruption issue is just wishful thinking by people who don't like Owens. As for forcing the ball, there are two sides to this issue. First, Owens is the best offensive weapon on the team, which means that if he is open he should be getting the ball and if the design of the offense is not getting him open then different plays should be run (I've yet to hear anyone suggest that Owens is dogging it by not playing hard). Second, if Owens is not open because he is double covered then it is up to Romo to make that read, find the open man and deliver the ball to him. During the telecast, Troy Aikman pointed out that the Cowboys' best offensive play against the Eagles, a 53 yard reception by tight end Jason Witten, was made possible because the way that Owens ran his route forced the safety to cover him, leaving Witten wide open. As long as Romo accurately delivers the ball to whoever is open then Dallas' offense will be fine, because teams cannot double cover both Owens and Witten without leaving huge running lanes for Marion Barber. The problem for the Cowboys was not Jessica Simpson or Terrell Owens but Romo's inaccuracy, the root causes of which must be discovered and corrected as soon as possible.

I have heard announcers say that a player should kneel down instead of scoring a touchdown late in a close game in which his team is ahead, thus enabling his team to run out the clock without giving the ball back to the other team--but I cannot recall seeing this happen until Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook did it. In this era of me-first thinking, his selfless act truly stands out, even if offensive lineman Jon Runyan deserves some of the credit for suggesting this tactic to Westbrook in the huddle before the play. How many guys would so blatantly sacrifice personal statistics for the good of the team? To all of you fantasy football players who are whining about this, all I can say is, "Grow up." The most important thing for a player to do is win the actual, live game, not worry about personal glory or his statistics.

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