Thursday, January 20, 2011

Truth And Heresy, But Mostly Heresy

Since I have been flamingly wrong with my playoff predictions in a manner not seen since last Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, and since I can disarmingly offend with at least as much panache as Ricky Gervais, I herewith present my AFC and NFC championship picks.

To dispense with the undercard, Pittsburgh will beat the Jets because Pittsburgh can shut down the run like nobody’s business, and the Steelers’ success is even less predicated on offensive prowess than the Jets’. The Steelers are perfectly comfortable winning a game 9-7, and feel no compunction to push that nine to a 12 or a 16. The Steelers will simply not care what the Jets do defensively, and if there’s one thing the Jets can’t handle, it’s the guys on the other side of the ball shrugging their shoulders.

In their sloth-like fashion Pittsburgh will catapult the Jets into that dark night of the soul they so richly deserve. Ever see a 58-minute 78-yard drive? You might Sunday.

Now, onto the main event. The Packers-Bears game is creating a furor in these parts that has never been seen since the Creation (or, if you prefer, since unicellular organisms became so last epoch). The early line is that it will be the most-watched non-Super Bowl game since the infamous Heidi game, which was witnessed by all of North America south of the Arctic Circle, including an estimated 9.8 million fans who would not be born for another six years.

The Packers are favored, largely on the strength of running around and over a collection of cardboard cutouts wearing Atlanta Falcons uniforms. The problem for the Packers is the Bears are not the Falcons, Soldier Field is not the Georgia Dome, 18 degrees on the Chicago lakefront is cold, and no one on the other side is going to be made of wood pulp.

Now you could argue convincingly that the Bears are highly illusory as well. Their offensive line is a work in progress the same way that the reconstruction of Chernobyl is a work in progress. Jay Cutler is the spiritual descendant of James Thurber’s anti-hero Pal Smurch (from “The Greatest Man In The World”). Brian Urlacher is in line to be the most undeserving Hall of Famer since Lynn Swann, and Mike Martz hasn’t found a big game yet he can’t screw up.

But assuming that both teams have their reality goggles on, who will win?

The Bears.

Here’s why: There are three basic situations any football team eventually faces in the course winning or losing a game: way ahead, way behind, or late-and-close.

The Packers are adept at winning one of those three: way ahead.

Coming back from a significant deficit has not been the Packers’ forte in 2010. The deficits they erased (including one against the Bears) have been small and early. Get ahead of the Packers two touchdowns and their defense, which functions like a sheaf of swords stabbed into a magic box, ceases to frighten.

Failure to finish in late-and-close situations cost the Packers almost every one of their losses in 2010 – New England, Washington, Miami, Detroit, and yes, Chicago.

Figure that because this is an evenly matched game there’s a 30 percent chance the Packers will be way behind. There’s a 30 percent chance the game will be late-and-close. And because the Packers are favored, there’s a 40 percent chance they will be way ahead.

60 percent of the scenarios have the Packers losing. 40 percent of the scenarios have them winning.

60 percent beats 40 percent. The Packers lose.

I realize this is about as scientific as your shoe and as simplistic as a CCR song. But sometimes we make football into something that’s equal parts Machiavelli and motherboard repair. It’s a game, and in more than half the ways the game can play out the Packers lose. So what do you want me to say?
All right, I’ll say it: Pittsburgh-Chicago Super Bowl. Bank it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Leonardo Chryst Strikes Again

I don't watch a lot of football, pro or college, for someone who writes and talks about football as much as I do. Mostly I watch the Canadian Football League because it's what's on at 5 in the morning when I'm working out, only now it's a bummer because it's January in Wisconsin and the last thing you want is scenes of western Canada. Regina in November does not engender warm, fuzzy thoughts of crocuses, pastel gift bags, Starburst jelly beans, and pulling half-digested Easter grass out of my cat's posterior for a month.

But I digress. Unproper admiration for Weston Dressler notwithstanding, my comparative lack of America-football viewing pays dividends because when I do watch a football game start to finish I see more than people who spend their weekends on the couch with a bag of chips watching something other than the recent Courtship of Eddie's Father marathon.

New Year's Day is an exception. I love watching football on New Year's Day – the more football the better. I even love the Ticket City Bowl, though I'm confused. I never knew Dallas was the Ticket City, but if it's not, why hold the Ticket City Bowl there? And if you're telling me the Ticket City Bowl is held somewhere other than the Ticket City and played in a stadium other than the Ticket City Bowl, I'm betting George W. Bush is behind the whole thing.

Watching football was particularly important this year because the home team was playing on New Year's Day. The University of Wisconsin had earned a No. 5 ranking on the basis of the off-tackle play. It had won a share of the Big But It Isn't Really Ten by virtue of the off-tackle play. So Wisconsin gets on the biggest stage of the year in the biggest game of the year if you're a Big 10 Or More fan, and what does it do?

That's right. Wisconsin establishes it can run the off-tackle play – and not just run the off-tackle play, but gain seven yards a pop running the off-tackle play – and then it stops running the off-tackle play until it absolutely has to score to stay in the game, whereupon it runs the off-tackle play right down the field, scores a touchdown and chokes on the two-point conversion, which is – you guessed it – not an off-tackle play.

In the time between Wisconsin alternated between giving up points and running wide, with the occasional slow-developing sidearmed pass.

The A-number-one problem with offensive genii and their offenses at any level is that they outsmart themselves. They're Michaelangelos who think they ought to be Leonardo da Vincis. Michaelangelo may have been the greatest painter ever, but he never invented a helicopter. Paul Chryst, the Wisconsin offensive coordinator, wanted to invent the helicopter. He wasn't content running the ball up the middle 50 plays and gaining seven yards a pop doing it. He wanted to prove to the world he could throw the skinny post, and the tight-end bubble screen, and the toss sweep, and all manner of offensive fish and fowl that wasn't the off-tackle play.

Well, he couldn't – not against TCU, anyway. And in the process, he lost the most important game of his life.

If a football team is very good at one thing – like the Wisconsin Badgers are at running the football up the middle – it should be Michaelangelo. You do that one thing, and you do it and you do it and you do it and you do it and then you die, and they put all your stuff in a museum.

In the specific case of the Badgers, they were gaining seven yards every time they ran the ball up the middle, and last I checked you only need to gain three and one-third yards per carry to keep the chains moving forever.

Okay, so the other team figures out you're running the ball up the middle all the time and devotes all its resources to stopping you. If the defense's adjustments mean you're only half as effective running the ball as you were, you gain three and one-half yards per carry. And the chains still move.

Let's get real funky and suppose the other team's adjustments are super-ooper-duper effective and you only gain two and one-half yards per play. This is one area where the CFL has it over the NFL. If it's fourth and a yard or two almost anywhere on the field, the Canucks run it. They bring in their 230-pound quarterback and sneak it up the middle.

Now, there are some differences in the size of the neutral zone up there – hey, all of Canada is a neutral zone, if you want to play that game – but the point remains that if you can run a football two and one-half yards every time, you can still keep the chains moving forever.

The diversified offense is the hobgoblin of small minds. Having the courage and faith to do what you do well regardless is the mark of a great offense – pro, college or high school.

This is one area where small schools and teams with otherwise diminished means have it all over the well-endowed cheerleaders of the football world. Think Navy gives a rip that the bubble screen is not a part of its offensive repetoire? Think Appy State feels sorry for itself because it doesn't have the personnel to play smash-mouth with Big Approximately 10 teams? By Odin's wicked beard, no. They do what it can with the resources they have on hand, and c'est vrai, baby. When life gives them lemons they make the wingbone. Or the run 'n' shoot. Or the pistol.

As we head into the NFL playoffs and a whole new round of offensive-coordinator chest-beating, the lesson is simple: Forget about being Leonardo and inventing the helicopter. Do what you do best, over and over and over again. Run the damn ball --or, in the case of the Green Bay Packers, not.