Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Overtime Win Helps Bears Stay Alive in Playoff Hunt

As ESPN's Mike Tirico noted, it is often said that football is a game of inches and Chicago's 20-17 overtime win versus Green Bay certainly illustrated that: the Bears scored the game tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter after getting a first down by literally an inch, Alex Brown then blocked Green Bay's game-winning field goal attempt near the end of regulation and the Bears won the overtime coin toss after the coin doinked off of Brian Urlacher's helmet before landing on the ground as the players and officials scurried to find it. The Bears hardly looked like a division champion but if they beat Houston next week and Minnesota loses to the New York Giants then Chicago will capture the NFC North title with a 10-6 record; failing that, the Bears are also alive for a Wild Card berth in certain scenarios.

The Bears and Packers have met 176 times in the regular season, more than any other franchises in NFL history. Green Bay never trailed until Robbie Gould made the game-winning field goal and the Packers led from midway through the first quarter until Matt Forte's three yard TD run at the 3:11 mark of the fourth quarter. The Packers led in time of possession (35:42-27:50) and total yards (325-210) but did not parlay those advantages into enough points. After starting out 5-5, the Packers have lost five straight games, with the last four defeats coming by four, three, four and three points. Those close losses may lead you to think that if the Packers had not replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers that they could have won those games but the truth is that Rodgers has not been the problem: his passer ratings in those games were 96.3, 104.2, 87.8 and 87.6 while throwing eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Against the Bears, Rodgers positioned the Packers to attempt a game-winning field goal with :25 left in regulation and he never had a chance to do anything with the ball in overtime as the Bears marched straight down the field. There is no rational reason to believe that Favre would have led the Packers any farther this year than Rodgers has; in fact, Rodgers has actually been more productive this year than Favre has even though Favre is supported by a better running game and a better defense.

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

*Before talking about Sunday's games, I can't let this week go by without mentioning the passing of Sammy Baugh, who had been the last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural 1963 class. He spent his entire 16 year career (1937-52) with the Washington Redskins, leading them to the NFL Championship Game five times (1937, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1945), winning NFL titles in 1937 and 1942.

Baugh was a one of a kind player who was far ahead of his time, setting records that stood for decades--and in some cases still stand to this day. Baugh excelled as a passer, punter and defensive player; he led the NFL in passing, punting and interceptions (as a defensive player) in 1943, becoming the first of just three "triple crown" winners in NFL history; the only other players who ever led the league in three statistical categories in the same season are Steve Van Buren in 1945 and Bill Dudley in 1946. Baugh's 51.4 yard punting average in 1940 is a record that my never be broken; no other punter has even averaged 50 yards per punt for a season. Baugh was the first player to intercept four passes in one game, which is still tied for the single-game record.

Baugh holds NFL career records for most single season passing titles (six; the criteria for determining single season passing leaders changed several times during Baugh's career) and most single season punting titles (four). The current passer rating system was first officially used by the NFL in 1973, but applying that formula retroactively Baugh topped the NFL in passer rating in four different seasons, including a 109.9 rating in 1945, the highest rating posted until 1960.

When Baugh retired, he held the NFL career records for total punts (338), passing yards (21,886), passing attempts (2995), passing completions (1693) and passing touchdowns (187). He still is Washington's career franchise leader in TD passes. His NFL single season passing yardage record (2938 yards in 1947) stood for 13 years; he held that mark longer than anyone other than the current record holder, Dan Marino, whose 1984 standard of 5084 yards will remain safe for another year unless Drew Brees throws for 402 yards in the last game of the season. Baugh's .703 completion percentage in 1945 is still a Redskins record and was the NFL record until 1982.

Deion Sanders was rightly praised for excelling as a defensive back and a kick returner but that does not compare with setting records on offense, defense and special teams; it is safe to say that the sport will never again see someone like Sammy Baugh.

*"Bretty and the Jets" are completing the slide to mediocrity that I predicted for them at the start of the season when I wrote: "You may have heard that the Jets have a new quarterback--some guy named Favre. What no one seems to be paying much attention to is that the Dolphins also have a new quarterback--Chad Pennington, who used to be the Jets' quarterback. A lot of people rag on Pennington's arm strength but he is the NFL's career completion percentage leader and just two years ago he started all 16 games as the Jets went 10-6 and made it to the playoffs. Won't ESPN and the rest of the mainstream media circus have a fit if Pennington has a better season than Favre? If Pennington stays healthy--granted, a big if--don't be surprised if he does just that." I wonder how many other football commentators predicted that before this season?

Any objective observer realizes that Pennington should have received an AFC Pro Bowl nod instead of Favre, who should start his next retirement early and cede that spot to the Dolphins' QB (although I'm not sure if Pennington is even the first alternate). NBC's Cris Collinsworth offered a perfect summation of Favre's season: "I think that we have to be honest here with what we're seeing over the past four games. Brett Favre has been the issue as much as he has been the solution for the Jets and, especially when you juxtapose it with what Chad Pennington is doing in Miami, it has been ugly indeed. Brett Favre in the snow, against Seattle--this is exactly why he was brought to this franchise, to be able to handle these big late game situations in the snow, in the bad weather, in the wind and thus far Brett Favre, God love him, has not delivered for the New York Jets."

The Jets have now lost three of their last four games, including an ugly 13-3 decision versus Seattle on Sunday that may have cost New York a playoff berth; during that four game run, Favre has one touchdown and six interceptions (he has thrown a league-high 19 interceptions this season). His passer ratings in those four games were 60.9, 60.8, 61.4 and then 48.7 versus Seattle. Favre now ranks 18th in the NFL in passer rating (84.0), while Pennington (96.4) is second only to Philip Rivers (104.0); Aaron Rodgers--Favre's replacement in Green Bay--ranks eighth in passer rating (91.4) .

Favre had a couple shining moments this season that briefly made me consider the possibility that I had written him off too soon but down the stretch of the season he has reaffirmed that my initial assessment before the season was correct: the Jets went for broke seeking a short term solution, while the Dolphins obtained a quarterback who is better than Favre at this stage and still has several good years ahead of him.

I recall the ESPN Countdown crew canonizing Favre when the Jets signed him, while Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter mocked Pennington's arm strength; I believe that former players often have special insight about their sport but if they don't do their homework and/or are biased against certain players or teams for whatever reason then their analysis will not be correct. That is what happened in this instance and that is also what happened with Carter repeatedly calling Matt Cassel a "high school quarterback." I wonder if some of the outlandish things that these commentators say are instigated by directors and producers who are trying to create controversy and drama? To his credit, during Monday Night Countdown, Carter admitted, "It really was a season of miscalculation for me. I miscalculated how good Matt Cassel would be in that offense in New England but also the miscalculation with what they did with the Jets and Miami as far as Chad Pennington. The Jets miscalculated Brett Favre and his inability to be in an offseason training program--what it would do to his body, because I believe his body right now is failing him. You cannot NOT train in the offseason in the NFL and walk out there and think you are going to lead a football team. The season is too long. And Chad Pennington, they miscalculated--two years ago he had shoulder surgery. It looks like that shoulder is healthy now." I can't be mad at Carter now, because he is man enough to step up and admit that he was completely wrong; anyone can make a mistake but you have to have character to admit that you were wrong: there are far too many people who constantly say and do stupid things but will never, ever admit that they are wrong (such people are to be avoided at all costs). That said, Carter and Tom Jackson both were shockingly off target about Favre, as I stated quite definitively several months ago:

Before the season began, ESPN's Tom Jackson said repeatedly that quarterbacks travel to Hawaii and prepare for the Pro Bowl in just a few days so it will not take Favre very long to learn the Jets' system. To borrow one of Jackson's pet lines, "Really?" In the Pro Bowl, the defenders basically have to count "steamboats" before they rush the passer, exotic defenses are forbidden by rule and everyone is just trying to look good and not get hurt; there is absolutely no sensible, logical comparison between learning a simplified, Pro Bowl offense and learning a full offensive playbook that a team uses over the course of a 16 game season.

In that same post, I also noted that Steve Young--who has quickly become my favorite NFL analyst--had the correct take on the situation:

He correctly predicted that the Chargers would blow out the Jets--I love how he is one of the few ESPN commentators who never buys the hype or tries to falsely build up a matchup--and he said that it will be a 10 week process for Favre to really learn the Jets' offense. Emmitt Smith then quite logically asked if the Jets brought in the wrong guy. Young replied, "I think they got the right guy; they just got him a month too late. The thing dragged on and I think they wanted to get him in early August or late July so that they could have that time before the real bullets flew."

*New Year's Eve is rapidly approaching and the Cleveland Browns have not scored an offensive touchdown since before Thanksgiving. On Sunday, they were shut out 14-0 by the Cincinnati Bengals. There is often talk about how important it is for the Browns to beat Pittsburgh in order to become a threat in the AFC North but under Romeo Crennel the Browns have not even been able to establish dominance over the pitiful Bengals, falling to 2-6 against their intrastate rival since Crennel took the helm in 2005. It looks more and more like Cleveland's 10-6 record last season was an aberration, a product of playing against a weak schedule while getting peak performances from several players who did not come close to playing at that level this year. Miami went 1-15 last year but after hiring Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano they already have 10 wins with a game to go and may very well win a division title this season--but the Browns have been puttering around mostly at the bottom of the standings since 1999. That is simply unacceptable and the problem starts at the top with the ownership, first Al Lerner and now his son Randy Lerner; neither man hired the right general manager/coach combo to build a solid football team.

I don't want to be too hard on Ken Dorsey--he is obviously a third string quarterback for a reason--but he has played horribly since being pressed into duty as a result of injuries to Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Everyone knows that Dorsey lacks the arm strength and athleticism to be a top flight NFL quarterback but he is supposed to be a cerebral player who understands the game and knows how to read defenses. That reputation is apparently grossly exaggerated, because most of his seven interceptions have been the result of terrible reads. The Browns' offensive troubles began before Dorsey took the field but their offense is a disaster area with him running the show; the Browns don't look like they could score an offensive touchdown even against the soon to be 0-16 Detroit Lions. Right now, with the players they are currently putting on the field, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. Again, this is unacceptable--and the onus is on Randy Lerner to fix this mess. After his father Al sat on the plane with Art Modell as Modell sold the Browns fans down the river, after nearly a decade of embarrassing performances, he owes this to Cleveland.

*After a season filled with twists and turns for both teams, Dallas travels to Philadelphia with the opportunity to clinch the final Wild Card berth by beating their NFC East rivals. The ironies and subplots are rich for this contest, with most of them centering around former teammates Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb. A big part of the Eagles' problems this year can be traced to them not having a game-breaking receiver--in other words, a player like Owens, who ranked third in the league in TD receptions in his lone full season in Philadelphia despite missing two games due to injury and who ranked first and third in the NFL in TD receptions in his first two seasons as a Cowboy. Owens is currently tied for fourth in receiving TDs this season, just two TDs behind leader Anquan Boldin. The Eagles unceremoniously dumped Owens in 2005 and have not adequately replaced him since that time. Meanwhile, although Owens has been productive this season (in addition to his TDs, he is also averaging 15.3 yards per catch, which is better than his career average) it is obvious that the Cowboys have not fully taken advantage of his playmaking skills. If the Cowboys figure out that it makes sense to use the one weapon they have that the Eagles cannot match then they will beat the Eagles, make it to the playoffs and have an opportunity to redeem what has so far been a disappointing season. A two or three touchdown day by Owens could help him capture his fourth receiving TD crown and help the Cowboys put up a point total that the Eagles will be hard pressed to match.

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