Friday, May 27, 2011

Chargers-Broncs: Kickin' It AFL-School

In the days of the old AFL, no true rivalry was more one-sided than the Chargers and the Broncos. The Chargers were good and the Broncos were bad for as long as the AFL was the AFL; almost as soon as the ink was dry on the merger papers the Chargers began careening into the Dickie Post/Steve Tensi era, while the Broncos rode Floyd Little, Bill Thompson, Charley Johnson, and Haven Moses up and over the .500 mark. The teams drew even towards the end of the decade, as the Chargers retooled behind Dan Fouts and Air Coryell, only to see the Broncos pull away again in the ‘80s.

The ‘90s was more give-and-take – Ground Marty vs. Team Elway – but always with the edge to Denver. And by and large, the 21st century has been more of the same.

In fact, if the Chargers-Broncos rivalry was a classic rock album, it’d be Houses of the Holy. Its basic riffs just keep getting recycled.

So looking at the two teams involved, who has the better riffs? Is it Jimmy Page through a Supro Thunderbolt or Bonzo Bonham bashing out the bottom end?

My first thought was to go with Bonzo … er, the Broncos. However, upon further review the edge goes to the Chargers.

The answer is in the lines. One of the mantras of this project is: Lines win games. Over time, teams with dominant offensive and defensive lines win more games than teams with top-notch skill players, or linebackers, or D-backs.

Neither team’s lines are brimming over with HOFers. Both teams have a HOFer in the O-line (Ron Mix, Gary Zimmerman); the only D-line HOFer is Fred Dean, and he made his reputation in San Fran. But San Diego’s lines are deeper. San Diego could run out a second team in both lines almost as good as its first team. Denver can’t.

Everything else – everything else – is a wash between the first teams. Denver’s secondary is better, but San Diego’s wide receivers are much better. Running backs are even. Linebackers are even. Both teams have HOFers at QB and tight end. Punters and kickers are nondescript. Returners are even. Coaches are HOFers.

So let’s take this game through to a conclusion. Sid Gillman has a high-octane game plan (devised with the help of his offensive coordinator, Don Coryell) and comes out firing, attacking the Broncos’ secondary and stripping the Broncs of their ability to run a ball-control game. Turnovers let the Broncos back in the game, as the ballhawking Denver secondary capitalizes on Dan Fouts’ miscues. However, despite being the home team and ostensibly used to the mile-high air up there, the Broncos’ lack of depth in the D-line and at skill positions catches up with them. San Diego runs out most of the fourth quarter and triumphs 31-24.

Individually, Fouts has a big day, completing 21 of 34 for 347 yards, three picks and three scores, two to Lance Alworth and one to second tight end (!) Antonio Gates. Ladanian Tomlinson runs for 87, but the big news is what everyone else does: Natrone Means rumbles for 55, Marion Butts goes for 45 and a score, and even Chuck Muncie gets into the act.

John Elway has a so-so game, going 17-for-37 for 236 yards and a touchdown, with two sacks and a pick. Terrell Davis and Floyd Little are a potent one-two punch, combining for 184 yards on 31 carries and a score. Bill Thompson returns an interception for a TD for the Broncs’ final score.

The postmortem for this game is pretty straightforward: Don’t expect to win with just your starters. If your all-time team doesn’t have depth, it’s not going very far. Think of the modern game, and place these all-time teams into that context. Fourth wide receiver? The Chargers send out Anthony Miller. The Broncos trot out Brandon Marshall. (Conversely, the Broncos’ sixth D-back is John Lynch, so advantage there.) Situational pass rusher? Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison versus Trevor Pryce and Elvis Dumervil. Second tight end? The aforementioned Mr. Gates vs. Riley Odoms.

Without question it’s arbitrary and borderline unfair to place all-time teams in a modern context where specialization rules. Bobby Bell is a great linebacker, but is he a better situational pass rusher than Clay Matthews III? Is Dick LeBeau a nickel back? The people most affected by specialization are the really good generalists. Being an all-arounder doesn’t count for near as much as it used to.

Thankfully the non-scientific nature of this exercise wins the day. Good generalists are not punished in these games. Ray Nitschke is not a liability in pass coverage. Red Grange can catch the ball out of the backfield. Don Hutson can beat anyone down the field. Johnny Unitas runs neck-and-neck with Peyton Manning.

But here’s a spoiler alert that trumps all of the above: Deep teams with good lines do well in this competition. Get used to it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Games Begin

Okay, here’s where we are in this particular bog. The whole idea of all-time teams for football teams is utterly pointless if the teams don’t eventually play each other down to a championship of sorts. It’s semi-pointless even if they do – sort of the Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things of American sport.

Determining who plays who can’t be done in terms of record … oh, wait. Yes, it can. That's exactly what I did. I ranked teams on the basis of their all-time win-loss record and then paired them off, worst with best, second-worst with second-best, and so on.

You shall argue that this is a relatively unscientific means of pairing off, and you are completely correct. But the scientific methods take too much time. They’re like playing the fictitious games without playing the fictitious games, and playing the fictitious games is the whole point. If forced to choose between arbitrary methods, always choose the more fun of the two.

So teams were ranked worst to first and paired off, creating the following matchups:

Top Bracket (years; winning percentage)

Chicago Bears (1920-2010; 57.9%)

Houston Texans 2002-2010; 38.2%)

Arizona Cardinals (1920-2010; 41.4%)

Miami Dolphins (1966-2010; 57.6%)

New Orleans Saints (1967-2010; 42.8%)

Detroit Lions (1930-2010; 45.6%)

Cleveland Browns (1946-2010; 54.9%)

Carolina Panthers (1995-2010; 46.5%)

New York Giants 1925-2010 636 524 33 0.548

Seattle Seahawks 1976-2010 262 286 0 0.478

Baltimore Ravens (1996-2010; 53.5%)

Tennessee Titans (1960-2010; 49.2%)

New England Patriots (1960-2010; 52.6%)

St. Louis Rams (1937-2010; 50.9%)

Jacksonville Jaguars (1995-2010; 52%)

Pittsburgh Steelers (1933-2010; 52%)

Bottom Bracket

Washington Redskins (1932-2010; 51.5%)
Kansas City Chiefs (1960-2010; 52%)

San Diego Chargers (1960-2010; 50.5%)

Denver Broncos (1960-2010; 52.2%)

Philadelphia Eagles (1933-2010; 48.5%)

Indianapolis Colts (1953-2010; 53.2%)

Buffalo Bills (1960-2010; 46.9%)

San Francisco 49ers (1946-2010; 54.8%)

New York Jets (1960-2010; 46%)

Oakland Raiders (1960-2010; 54.9%)

Cincinnati Bengals (1968-2010; 43.5%)

Minnesota Vikings (1961-2010; 55.1%)

Atlanta Falcons (1966-2010; 42.4%)

Green Bay Packers (1921-2010; 55.9%)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976-2010; 39.9%)

Dallas Cowboys (1960-2010; 57.6%)

Games are played in my head, again because the scientific methods don’t get you any further than the non-scientific methods, and because I just lost my APBA card of Mack Yoho. You can make a case for the occasional upset, or not. If upsets are allowed they’ll be brought into any pseudo-scientific algorithm through some brand of fake randomness, so why not make them not random at all but subject to your whims? At least the marshmallow scent of faux science is removed.

The first round has plenty of interesting matchups, starting with the all-Native American Redskins-Chiefs tussle. Two teams 30 games over .500 for their history, two teams that found success via ball control, and two teams that drifted away over time from the things that made them great.

The Redskins trot out arguably the most transformational QB ever (Sammy Baugh), three HOF wideouts (Charley Taylor, Bobby Mitchell, and Art Monk, lined up as a tight end in this matchup), two HOF running backs (John Riggins and Cliff Battles), an HOF O-lineman, and two HOFers each in the linebacking corps (Huff and Hanburger) and the secondary (Green and Houston).

The Chiefs, meanwhile, offer no HOFers in the O-line, the O-backfield, or the wide-receiving corps, and a QB (Len Dawson) widely considered to be the Trent Dilfer of HOF QBs.

It’s not a high-scoring game as it unravels in my head, despite the offensive firepower on the ‘Skins side. Baugh, continually under pressure from a combination of an aggressive Chiefs’ defense and a porous offensive line, goes 17-for-33 for 245 with two picks, a score, and three sacks; Riggins runs for 68 and Battles goes for 37 with a fumble; and Taylor and Mitchell combine to catch 11 for 187 and a TD.

On the Chiefs’ side Dawson is 18-for-29 with a score, Holmes and Johnson get a TD apiece, and Jan Stenerud tacks on three FGs at the end of short drives. Jerrel Wilson averages 45-plus yards per punt and the Chiefs win 23-17.

Good game.

So why do the Chiefs win? Because non-HOFers win football games – in reality and fantasy. Steve Young and Jerry Rice can do their Steve Young and Jerry Rice thing all over the football field, but without Keith Fahnhorst and Earl Cooper and Bill Ring they’re nothing.

In the case of Chiefs vs. ‘Skins, the quality of the Chiefs' non-HOF players is better than the quality of the Redskins' non-HOFers. Budde, Tyrer, Roaf, Shields, and Rudnay could block anything. Two of the five will be HOFers, and at least one more ought to be. They'd make golden-raisin mincemeat out of Gene Brito et. al., and Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson are more than capable of running behind that.

The Hogs have less luck moving Neil Smith, Buck Buchanon, Curley Culp, and Art Still, with Bill Maas and Jared Allen in reserve and Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, and Derrick Thomas backing the line, just like their name implies.

The pass rush rattles Baugh, not the most accurate passer even when given protection, and largely shuts down his long-bomb game. Baugh doesn’t lack for targets, but Tony Gonzalez is better than Art Monk and Charley Taylor vs. Otis Taylor is a wash, so the fact that Bobby Mitchell whips the snot out of anything KC can trot into the slot is sort of moot, especially since Deron Cherry and Emmitt Thomas are killers in coverage.

Darrell Green and Ken Houston would be doing the same if Dawson threw the ball down the field, but here’s the thing: Dawson doesn’t throw the ball down the field. The Chiefs attack the Redskins’ weaknesses. They run the ball, pass to the backs, play a field-position game, and turn it over to the defense to hold the day. The Chiefs have the punter, the kicker, the kick returner, the D, and the coach to make it happen, so it happens.

The Chiefs advance.