Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Mud And The Blood And The Bears And The Steelers

On to the second round, and arguably the marquee matchup: Chicago-Pittsburgh.

Hoo doggie. You can smell the concussions from here. And you don’t even have to close your eyes to picture the scene: 38 degrees, wind off the lake, occasional showers, lights on, grass in the end zones only, no heaters on the benches, Papa Bear storming up one sideline and Chuck Noll cooling it on the other, capes for everyone, Grantland Rice and Red Smith up in the press box banging it out for their respective papers, Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier up in the TV booth for CBS and Lindsey Nelson on the radio side, wearing a sport coat in a natty DNA pattern.

And then the game itself: Two teams almost completely of different eras going at it.

No kidding. The most amazing thing about this matchup is that it’s nearly devoid of overlap. Of the Bears’ top 25 players, only six date from the ‘70s and later, with only one (Walter Payton) on offense. Of the Steelers’ top 25, 20 date from the ‘70s and later, with none playing before 1950. If you’re looking for head-to-heads, you’re pretty much reduced to Sweetness vs. the remnants of the Steel Curtain, with Kevin Butler around to kick field goals.

So how does one go about evaluating such an out-of-phase matchup?

One goes to the eternal places: the lines and the defense.

The Bears have had a disproportionate share of the game’s best linemen of whatever era they happened to be playing in, except now. That is not to say that Bulldog Trafton is better than Jonathan Odgen. Can’t be said, can’t be compared. Any linemen comparison works its way around to the size of one versus the size of the other, and you’re forced to conclude that bigger and great is better than smaller and great.

The Steelers have had good offensive linemen over the last 40 years, including two Hall of Famers. They have had good D-linemen over the last 50 years, including two HOFers.

Defensively the Steelers prefer to emphasize linebackers, and have produced two HOFers at the position. They back it up with three HOF-caliber D-backs – Mel Blount, Rod Woodson, and Troy Polomalu – and an HOF defensive coach.

The problem is that the Bears can trot out two nearly complete sets of HOF O-linemen, D-linemen, and linebackers, and they throw in a couple of HOF D-backs (albeit two-way players) for good measure.

How do you get around that? More specifically, how do the Steelers get around it?

They can’t. They simply cannot.

The Steelers can’t because they don’t have enough offense to negate the Bears’ tangible advantage in the lines. Terry Bradshaw is a wobbly QB. Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris are merely Bettis and Harris, not Jim Brown or Barry Sanders. Throwing on the Bears is never a bad idea regardless of the reality level, but it’s Terry Bradshaw throwing to Stallworth and Swann and, oops, Gary Ballman, and even Red Grange, who had to be on his toes for five passes a game, can shut that down. And, heaven forbid, if the Steelers went completely against type and spread the field, they’d be trotting out Hines Ward and Roy Jefferson, and they don’t exactly overmatch the motely assortment of short Ivy leaguers and slow cover corners that have been favored by the Bears through the generations.

Which is not to say the Bears have it sussed on the offensive end. Sid Luckman is the best QB on the field and ditto Payton for the running backs, and Gale Sayers delivers speed and versatility, but the passing targets are woeful and depth is an issue. Grange and Bronko Nagurski are HOFers more on legend than performance, and the third and fourth wide receivers are the worst you’ll find anywhere. I would honestly take Kevin Walter and Jabar Gaffney over Morris and Kavanaugh, and they’re the K-cars of second-string wide receivers. The all-time Bears would be better off splitting out George McAfee and Devin Hester than trotting out Morris and Kavanaugh on third down, and they’re the bloody second-string kick-returners.

For any other team the Steelers’ secondary strength would put them in a pickle. For the Bears, it just plays to their strength. Does it really matter than Rod Woodson shuts down Harlon Hill? Nope; Luckman wasn’t going to throw to him anyway.

So all signs point to a defensive struggle – a misnomer, since it’s the offenses that struggle. Even Lindsey Nelson, as gifted with the tongue as Gale Sayers was with the hips, is struck dumb by the stupefaction produced by this game. Three yards and a cloud of mud is treating this game too kindly.

Ah, but something happens eventually. George Halas falls asleep on the bench. No! Running a two-minute offense consisting of over-the-middle dumps to Mike Ditka and incomplete passes heaved in the direction of Bill Hewitt, Luckman throws a screen pass to Gale Sayers, who gets wide and takes it 34 yards for a score. Butler misses the extra point, and the Bears go into halftime with a 6-0 lead.

And then the defenses really get stingy.

Bradshaw and Luckman are content to run sweeps and dives. The sweeps work better for the Bears, who have the superior speed to the outside. The dives don’t work for anyone.

As time winds down in the fourth the Steelers are forced to throw the ball. Passes to Swann and Stallworth work the ball down to the Bears’ 24, where two incomplete passes and a Dick Butkus sack bring up fourth and 17.

Bradshaw drops and lofts a wobbler in Gary Ballman’s direction. Ballman goes up, Dave Duerson goes up, the crowd rises to its feet, the ball nestles in Ballman’s hands, the two men collide, and Ballman falls to the turf cradling the ball … nine yards short of a first down.

Luckman takes a knee three times and the game ends.

The stats are woeful. Luckman goes nine-of-14 for 113 yards and the only score. Bradshaw is 13-for-27 for 163 and a pick. Bettis carries 12 times for 26 yards; Harris rushes 18 times for 39. The Bears are led by Payton with 81 yards rushing and Sayers with 57. Sayers is also the leading receiver, with five catches, and sets up the lone touchdown with a 54-yard punt return.

There’s nothing that says that the higher up the ziggurat you go the better the football games automatically get. This one is ugly as they come. But as Tom Brookshier would remind you, neither team would have it any other way.

(Incidentally, after I wrote this I ran it past one of my more football-savvy friends, and he was vehement in asserting that not only would the game be more high-scoring, but that Pittsburgh would win. His argument was something along the line of the Pittsburgh teams of Terry Bradshaw’s day were offensive powerhouses, and after that it trailed off into invective.

Interesting assertion, invective notwithstanding, so I checked it out.

First, as a previous column pointed out, Bradshaw ranks with Joe Namath and George Blanda as the worst HOF QBs ever.

“Aha!” you exclaim. “Blanda’s with the Bears!”

Yeah, but Blanda’s not getting anywhere near the field in this game. Jim McMahon and Ed Brown and even Sleepy Jay Cutler are going to hit the turf before Blanda sheds the cape.

Second, Bradshaw’s teams were the league’s top offense exactly once, in 1979. Most of the time they were between fifth and seventh. And even in that magical year of 1979 Bradshaw threw 25 picks against 26 TDs and finished with a decidedly mediocre passer rating of 77.0.

Now, the interesting thing about Bradshaw vs. Luckman is that the two QBs finished their careers with similar passer ratings (79.0 for Bradshaw; 75.0 for Luckman). But Luckman’s bad numbers came after 1947, when players were back from the war, the AAFC teams were integrated into the NFL, the Bears were less talented than Chad Hutchinson, and opponents were hip to their offense. Furthermore, passer rating is not era-corrected. A 75 rating in 1943 is equivalent to a 110 rating today. Sammy Baugh was a 72.0 passer over his career, and he was the Peyton Manning Peyton Manning has yet to become.

Looking at the two QBs’ numbers and studying the way their teams played, eventually you come to understand the key difference between Bradshaw and Luckman. The Bears were an effective offense because of Luckman. The Steelers were an effective offense in spite of Bradshaw.

What I told my friend still holds: Can you conceive of a scenario where Pittsburgh would win? Only if the Bears self-destruct – and the Bears under Halas almost never self-destructed. Given that – given all that – the original judgment stands. The Bears win 6-0.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rams vs. Pats: Good Now Vs. Previously Good

One of the unfortunate aspects of the current wave of sports narcissism – come to think of it, they’re all unfortunate aspects – is that it trivializes the past. This is totally true in basketball, slightly less true in football, and somewhat true in hockey and baseball, though baseball in particular will claim otherwise.

Compare this to non-sports history, which trivializes the present. Time will show that the 2000 election was a watershed moment in American politics, 9/11 a foreign-policy turning point and George Bush a barmy gink the likes of which haven’t appeared in a leadership role since George III, but right now feeling our way through with all three.

This whole dichotomy comes to the fore when dissecting the first-round matchup between the all-time CleLaStl Rams and the all-time BostoNe Patriots.

The Patriots have been the most successful NFL franchise over the last 15 years. The Rams have been feeling their way for most of the last decade.

Both teams have known fairly equal measures of success and failure over their history and are near .500 only by virtue of several sizable spurts.

The difference between the two teams is the timing of their spurts. The Rams’ spurt occurred in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Patriots are spurting right now.

Because the Pats are spurting and sports memories are short the instantaneous response would be that the Patriots’ all-time team would wallop the Rams’ all-time team in a head-to-head matchup. And nothing would be further from the truth except for this book (sent my way by the ever-helpful John B. Seals): The Bush Boom: How a Misunderestimated President Fixed a Broken Economy.

The Pats are a curious team in that their recent successes have been accomplished largely without the aid of talent. Outside of Tom Brady, who is marvelous in much the same way that Penelope Cruz is marvelous (though not nearly as pregnant), what do the Pats bring to the table? Vince Wilfork? Several tight ends? Logan Mankins? BenJarvus Green-Ellis? New Boston is the definitive whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts team, because the sum of this team’s parts is null-point-seven.

What Bill Belichick PLC has accomplished is admirable, but admirable and five bucks get you a Fatte Latte at Starbucks in this man’s game. The bald fact is that when New England lines up its contemporary talent against the Rams’ historical talent, the Pats fall over dumbstruck.

For all their accomplishments, the Patriots have had four HOFers, none of them exactly top-shelf talent – John Hannah, Nick Buoniconti, Mike Haynes, and Andre Tippett. They have two more sure HOFers in the pipeline in Brady and Belichick.

The Rams trot out six HOFers on offense – Bob Waterfield, Eric Dickerson, Tom Mack, Tom Fears, Jackie Slater, and Elroy Hirsch – with one (Marshall Faulk) in the pipeline for sure and a possible in Torry Holt. They add five more HOFers on defense (Deacon Jones, Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen, Les Richter, and Night Train Lane) plus one on special teams (Ollie Matson). They augment this with a couple of possibles (Kevin Greene and Maxie Baughan) and perennial All-Pros in Ed Meador, Leroy Irvin, and Larry Brooks. Dick Vermeil may be no Bill Belichick, but he’s going to be an HOF coach someday.

Depth counts for a ton in these games, and the Rams are all about depth. Where the Pats have Steve Grogan backing up Tom Brady and then, oh all right, Drew Bledsoe, the Rams have Bob Waterfield – and behind him Norm van Brocklin, and behind him Kurt Warner, and behind him Roman Gabriel. The Rams bring in Lamar Lundy, Hacksaw Reynolds and Roger Brown as situational pass rushers; the Pats throw out Tedy Bruschi and Jesse Richardson into the meat grinder known as Dennis Harrah and Rich Saul. When the Rams go to five wides the five are Fears, Hirsch, Holt, Isaac Bruce, and either Henry Ellard or Harold Jackson; the Pats counter with Irving Fryar, Stanley Morgan, Terry Glenn, Randy Moss (all three-plus years of him), and, yes, Darryl Stingley. The fifth defensive back for the Rams – not a team abounding in D-backfield talent by any means -- is Jerry Gray or LeRoy Irvin; the Pats offer up – who? Don Webb? Tebucky Jones? The more you look at the Pats, the less there is to see.

Given the setup, the conclusion is inevitable. The Pats’ only real hope lies in bad weather at Foxboro, and when that doesn’t materialize the BostoNe bench hangs its collective head and the groundskeeper reattaches the mower deck. The Rams spread out the Patriots, tucking Marshall Faulk in the slot, and it becomes immediately apparent that all of King Belichick’s horses ain’t nearly enough. Mark Haynes does fine, but the other D-backs – Ray Clayborn, Ty Law, and Asante Samuel – struggle against the Giulietta Alfas and Lancias that are the Rams’ wideouts. Defensively Merlin Olsen et cie. dismantle the Pats’ undermanned O-line, shut down a running game that was asking for it, and force Tom Brady into throw after ill-advised throw, turning Captain Cool into Spec Four Favre.

Once the Rams get a lead, the Greatest Show on Turf makes its astonishing transformation into Ground Chuck, riding Eric Dickerson and his mates straight out through the fourth quarter and on to the next round.

This one’s a rout, over almost before it begins. Waterfield and van Brocklin go a combined 24-for-39 for 327 yards, four TDs and a pick; Hirsch, Holt, Faulk, and Fears each get one; the Rams’ backs rush for a combined 187, pushing the team-total-offense total over 500 yards. Brady throws for 292 with a TD and a pick, but it’s not nearly enough. Rams 48-10.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Rest Of The Rest

If you've been following the first round matchups in our all-time head-to-head playdowns,  you're no doubt wondering what happened in all the non-marquee games. You know, the games Kevin Harlan and Randy Cross call every week.

Wait no more. Here are the results, shorter and sweeter than Christina Aguilera on a stick.

Chicago Bears vs. Houston Texans: All the history in the world vs. no history. Mario Williams bites Sid Luckman on the ankle and Matt Schaub avoids death, but to no avail. Bears 47-6.

New Orleans Saints vs. Detroit Lions: Which is to say, the 2009-10 New Orleans Saints versus the Lions. The Lions lack a quarterback but don’t lack for anything else, especially in the secondary. Barry Sanders runs for 187 and the Lions triumph 31-10.

Cleveland Browns vs. Carolina Panthers: That would be the old Cleveland Browns, plus Joe Thomas. Cleveland piles up 354 yards rushing, and Cam Newton makes a cameo as the kicking-tee retriever. Browns 37-7.

New York Giants vs. Seattle Seahawks: Closer than you might think, since the Seahawks are pretty good everywhere. But real good beats pretty good 27-17.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans: If the Ravens were allowed to be the Browns this would be a different story. As it is, Munchak and Matthews neutralize the Ravens' front seven, Earl Campbell rushes for two and Warren Moon throws for one, and the Ravens still don’t have an offense. Baltimore bows 24-10.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Fifty years of backstory a/k/a everything prior to Chuck Noll doesn’t help the Steelers much. But they don’t really need the help. Steelers 20-6.

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Indianapolis Colts: See above. Pete Pihos and Alex Wojciehowicz don’t add much to the bottom line. Peyton Manning throws for 346 in a 37-20 shootout.

Buffalo Bills vs. San Francisco 49ers: Too much San Fran offense makes up for a so-so defense. San Fran wins the Battle for O.J. 31-20.

New York Jets vs. Oakland Raiders: The Jets at their best have never been as good as a pretty good Raider team. Joe Namath throws four picks in a 28-3 Oakland win.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Minnesota Vikings: Too much D, too much O, and zero Ochocinco. Minnesota 41-13.

Atlanta Falcons vs. Green Bay Packers: Reminiscent of their first matchups, when it was Nitschke, Davis & Co. versus Cannonball, the Hawk and the Wheel. Starr throws for two and Favre (in a mop-up role) throws for one, and the running game runs. Packers 38, Falcons 7.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys: Tampa’s defense tries to make it close, but tires in the fourth. Aikman throws for one and Dorsett runs for two in a 27-13 ‘Boys win. Jerry Jones dances on the Texas Stadium star to celebrate.

You eagle-eyed readers no doubt detected a missing matchup. That game is just finishing up as we speak, and if we can ever get Kenny Albert to shut up we may have the results for you later this week. In the meantime, pray for laryngitis.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cards-Dolphins: The Old Souls

Okay, so here’s one of the things with these all-time-team matchups: the team with the better record doesn’t always win.

But shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t 90 years of NFL history pound randomness into something that looks like the North Dakota of distribution curves? After a team has spent that many years proving it’s better (or worse) than a given team, when you add everything up and pit x + 2x + 3x … + 90x versus y + 2y + 3y … + 90y, shouldn’t the largest sum automatically win?

Let me see if I can put this into layman’s terms: no.

Let me see if I can put this further into layman’s terms: Randomness always exists, even if you have 1,500 pieces of data as opposed to one. The 1,500 pieces of data draw a tighter circle around the randomness than the one piece of data, but randomness hasn’t gone away. It’s just spent a month at Outward Bound.

Besides, you have to remember that these matchups are being played in the friendly confines of my head, and few places are more random. Just ask my wife.

This is important as we consider today’s matchup: ChiStlAz at Miami.

Lord knows I am no fan of the ChiStlAzers. They have been managed more poorly than Lindsay Lohan by a family that if it were not ruining professional football in three cities would be running for office for the sole purpose of texting lewd pictures of themselves to constituents. They have a defensive line comprised of Cheez Doodles, indifferent linebackers, and a star running back whose best years occurred in Duluth. They have had more losing seasons than Vince Wilfork has had hot meals – and they’re playing a legitimate dynasty, or two.

The Dolphins have had two distinct periods when they were very, very good, almost exactly coinciding with the times they were led by Hall of Fame coaches. There was the Bob Griese Era of game management, a multifaceted running game, and power line, and a nondescript defense. Then there was the Dan Marino Era of South Beach tossaround, a power line, and a nondescript defense.

Are you honing in on the Dolphins’ problems? The two times in their 50-year history when the Dolphins were good they were essentially the same team. This is great for long-term success, since it shows constancy. In that regard, a successful team is a bit like the Foreign Service. The Ambassador to England gets all the press when he arrives and departs every four years, but what matters is that the chargĂ© d'affaires sticks around for 20 and keeps the port glasses washed and the secrets swept under the rug and the receptionist puts in 30 and doesn’t goober on the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, when a successful team’s traits run toward defensive anonymity, this advantage becomes a problem. It’s like palming off the Queen on the lavatory attachĂ© because he’s been at the embassy the longest.

For a football team to have a solid body of work it needs balance over time. A team can be great offensively for a long stretch, but eventually they need to swing around to defense. And vice versa.

Consider the Rams. They offer up a smashing smorgasbord of all-time talent despite a middling record, because they alternated periods of stellar defense with decades of powerhouse offense. The Rams ping-ponged from the Flying Dutchman to the Fearsome Foursome to Ground Chuck to the Greatest Show On Turf. Over time, that’s going to play like D-Wade.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, offer Dan Marino backed up by Bob Griese on one side of the ball and Bill Stanfill backed up by Bob Matheson on the other. It’s like sitting on a teeter-totter with a blue whale. There’s no balance point nohow, no way.

Not that the Cardinals are immune from imbalance. They flip from Jim Hart backing up Kurt Warner to Tom Wham backing Leo Sugar. But the remaining supporting casts are stronger for the Cardinals. There’s more balance in more places. It’s one of the positive byproducts of hanging around for 50 more years than the Dolphins. No matter how bad your team is, there’s almost always someone good collecting a paycheck.

On to the game. There is no QB better at picking apart a secondary than Dan Marino. Unfortunately, there is only one other all-time secondary better than the Cardinals. They roll with three HOFers, including the prototypical modern cornerback and the inventor of the safety blitz, plus three high-quality backups in Pat Fischer, Adrian Wilson, and Jim Hill. They also turn up the heat with two of the better situational pass rushers in Jamir Miller and Simeon Rice (who suffered from being essentially the same player on the same team).

The Cardinals counter with a pretty good QB and some very good wideouts pitted against a defense that is challenged to pressure the passer and defend the pass. The result is several long, sustained, pass-heavy drives culminating in TDs.

The Dolphins counter—the Dolphins always counter – with some vintage Miami ball-control offense, but they simply have no answer for the Cardinals’ – wait for it – running game. The fact that the Cards can trot out five HOF runners, including three that double as passers, overheats the ‘Fins D like a Hupmobile in Death Valley, and Ronnie Brown’s wildcat is as potent as an MGD 64 on the rocks compared to a straight-T featuring Ernie Nevers, Paddy Driscoll, and Charlie Trippi operating behind a surprisingly strong line.

The Cards get the nod in special teams, too, especially when it comes to kick returns. Fulton Walker is a piece of lint compared to Terry Metcalf, Ollie Matson, Vai Sikahema, and Stump Mitchell. Meanwhile, Paddy Driscoll is the best drop-kicker ever.

One of the more tantalizing what-ifs in pro-football history is this: What if the Cardinals had ever had a good D-line – especially in the Air Coryell days of the ‘70s? They would have been seriously tough. As it stands, they were more than tough enough for this game. Warner goes 26-for-37 for 366 and two scores, Nevers scores two TDs from in close, and the Cards win 31-16. For the Dolphins, Marino goes 24-for-41 for 321, two TDs and two picks, but the running game generates only 117 total yards.

It’s hard for the tykes to grasp, but sometimes being old is sufficient. The Cards are old, and for this one game, that’s enough.