Friday, December 30, 2011

Packers-Colts: Longing and Belonging and a Fistful of Prop Snow in the Face

If you've been following our all-time playdowns as closely as I am, you're a liar. I'm the freaking author. On the other hand, if you've been following the playdowns semi-closely, you know the Colts' advancing to the semifinals is a point of some contention. People say they shouldn't have beaten the Vikings in the round of 16, the Cowboys in the quarters, or even the Eagles in the first round. Well, they did. They did because while the defense is little more than average the offense is consistently far above average. Put another way, they have not one but several of the most dynamic offensive players in professional football history at a rate of at least one to every position. Tight end, John Mackey and Dallas Clark. Wide receiver, Ray Berry, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne. Running back, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, and Lenny Moore. Oh, and quarterback, Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas.
If you're still unconvinced, here's the convincer. According to, the Colts have 13 offensive players among the top 250 players of all time – two in the top 11 (including player No. 1), three in the top 20, four in the top 30. Just doing the math, if there are 32 teams, there should be eight players per team, four on offense and four on defense. Thirteen offensive players from a team means there are more than 200  percent more offensive players from the Colts than from an average team. Throw in five defensive players, and the Colts have 18 of the top 250 players of all time, where the average team has eight – and all that with no Art Donovan, no Bubba Smith, no John Mackey, or no Dallas Clark. That's why the Colts are here.
And if you're unconvinced about the value of Peyton Manning versus his Colts counterpart, Johnny Unitas, consider this: The Colts lost Unitas and nearly won to the Super Bowl with Earl Morrall. The Colts replaced Manning with the closest thing to Morrall the waiver wire had to offer, Kerry Collins, and have nearly won Andrew Luck. Oh, and despite playing most of his career behind Jeff Saturday and an assortment of grain-storage buildings, Peyton Manning is almost never sacked.

The all-time Colts have more than enough line to block for Manning and all that firepower, and just enough defense. So enough about whether they belong. They're there.

Let's compare the Colts to the Packers. The Packers have 14 players in the top 250, eight on defense. (Twelve if you stretch and include Ted Hendricks, Emlen Tunnell, Steve McMichael, and Hardy Nickerson, all of whom spent portions of the back ends of their careers in Green Bay.) So the modern Packers are at a decided disadvantage – and they'd stay at a disadvantage, if we pulled a National Football League and started football time with the merger of the All-American Football Conference.
Unfortunately for the Colts, their time starts with NFL Football Standard Time. The Packers start their football epoch B.C. (Before Cleveland), and by doing that, they up the skill level tremendously. The Packers add the greatest receiver of the prewar era (Don Hutson), three of the best backs (Tony Canadeo, Clarke Hinkle and Blood McNally), and two great linemen (Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske). Throw those six players in the mix and the Packers have the edge, 19 to 18.

Close game, in other words. Both teams belong, and the game shapes up as an offensive powerhouse versus a strong, well-balanced defense.

Let's play this out.

The Colts get the opening kickoff and go three-and-out. The Packers get the punt and do the same. The Colts take over at their 37 after a decent Lydell Mitchell punt return and Manning goes to work. He hits Wayne, Moore, Berry, Faulk, and Mackey in succession, broken up by a couple of handoffs to Eric Dickerson. The drive takes the Colts to the Packers' 17, where it's third and five.
You know what Peyton Manning throws in these situations like you know your own name. Fade route to Reggie Wayne, touchdown, Colts up seven-zip.
Now it's the Pack's turn. With wide receivers like James Lofton, Sterling Sharpe and Don Hutson working against Bob Boyd and some sugar cookies, Bart Starr doesn't need to be Brett Favre; being Starr is plenty. Starr largely eschews the run in favor of out-routes and screens to Tony Canadeo. The Packers stretch and wedge and ply the ball down to the Colts' eight-yard line. A Gino Marchetti sack pushes the back to the 13. Starr figures if it worked for Manning, why not? He throws his own fade route to Hutson and the game is tied.
Fair enough. The Colts come right back. This time Manning, starting to feel the heat from Reggie White et al., makes better use of draws and screens with Faulk and Mitchell. He wriggles the ball down to the nine and lets Eric Dickerson take over from there. Three straight-and-I-mean-straight runs make it 14-7.
The Packers can't get into a shootout with the Colts, but they're willing to try. Starr continues to exploit the Colts' suspect secondary, in particular on a  57-yard Max McGee route with Hutson playing the part of ol' Max. Jim Taylor bashes it in from the five and we're tied.
Games sometimes veer from flurries of scoring to flurries of ... well, flurries, in the sense of tiny snowflakes being all the announcers have to talk about (except for Kevin Harlan, who never seems to talk about anything). In the case of this game and the Packers, it's Willie Wood, Charles Woodson, and Herb Adderley asserting themselves on the back end of the D and Willie Davis, Henry Jordan and Reggie White asserting themselves on the front. For the Colts, it's using Ted Hendricks as he was meant to be used – as a rogue force playing the whole field.
All of which is a long way of saying that Hendricks blocks a field goal as time expires in the first half, and the Packers and Colts go into halftime tied.
The teams come out in the second half to heavier snow – and if snow isn't Manning's kryptonite it's his triple-decker sauerkraut-and-toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce. After the Packers go nowhere after the second-half kickoff, Manning makes his first mistake. A pass steered in the direction of Ray Berry ends up in Adderley's hands instead. He returns the interception to the Colts' 39 and the Packers are in business.

It's not much of a business, as it turns out. A pass to Sharpe and a couple of Jim Taylor runs move the ball to the 30, where Chester Marcol is called on to not run with a blocked field goal, and he performs his task admirably, putting the Packers ahead 17-14.

At this point the snow takes over, and Eric Dickerson tries to. He bulls the ball downfield into field-goal range, leaving the kicking duties in the hands of long-time bad-weather kicker Adam Viniatieri.

Now is the time when poetic justice should assume power, and the Green Bay Ted Hendricks should block the kick of his former team, forcing the Baltimapolis Ted Hendricks back out on the field to stop the Packers, but that doesn't happen. Fred Carr doesn't even get an island-sized paw on it. Instead, Viniatieri simply pulls it left.

There's not much after that, fans of offense, lovers of the Washington-Baylor Alamo Bowl. Everyone sort of slips and mucks around for 10 minutes, Manning throws a pick to Dave Robinson, and Reggie White supplies the exclamation point with an exuberant belly-whopper of a sack. The gun fires and the Packers escape with a 17-14 win.

What a gyp! What a dirty, rotten gyp of a game! To have a absolute upset-in-the-making, one of the greatest pretend games in the entire history of made-up football games, ruined by the oldest trick in the book – a blast of stage snow in the face.

Okay, but think about it. The game is played in Green Bay in winter. It snows in Green Bay in winter. One of the greatest real games in history, the Ice Bowl, was played in Green Bay and was made great in part by the temperature. See, it gets cold in Green Bay in the winter. The game itself minus the temperature was no greater than a score of other games. Add the temperature and – voila! – instant classic. And a cup of instant coffee to go with it.
Besides, there's nothing that says the Packers wouldn't have won the game on a dry Green Bay field on a placid Green Bay winter's day. The superior Packers lines and a better Green Bay secondary were starting to assert themselves before the snow. Bart Starr didn't have a multitude of weapons to attack the colts with; he just had the right weapons. You don't need four great running backs and seven great wide receivers; two of the former and three of the latter work fine.
Of all the great players in this game, Sterling Sharpe really stands out. The receiver was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before the neck injury. As it stands, his seven-year numbers compare very favorably to Lofton, Steve Largent, Berry, and Bob Hayes. Sharpe pulls down 11 balls in this game for 117 yards. Hutson is fine – five catches for 87 yards and a TD – but no one matches up with Sharpe.
Dickerson has a nice game for the Colts – 97 yards rushing, mostly in the second half – but Manning's numbers fall off a ledge once the snow starts. He finishes 21 of 38 for 225 yards and two scores, but also an interception and three sacks. Manning's had better games, and that's part of the point. Most of Manning's better games have not occurred in big games in bad weather. This game is completely in character for Peyton Manning and the Colts – even if it took a silly vaudeville prop to do it.
So the stage is set for the last game in our all-time playdowns. Sorry, all you non-traditionalists and disavowers of the NFL's prewar past: It's Packers-Bears.
Let the railleries begin.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bears-Rams: Let's Try A Run, Nagurski

Final Four is trademarked, so I can’t use it in this context. I can’t even think it in this context. In fact, I had to pay $275 just to mention it in my lead. Hey, NCAA: You take PayPal, right?

Okay, $275 poorer I press on. The four remaining teams in our all-time playdown are the Colts, Packers, Bears, and Rams. Disappointed that the Cowboys and 49ers didn’t make it? Tell them to get better players. Disappointed that the Cardinals didn’t make it? Just be thankful that that D-Line of Don Brumm, Chuck Walker, Eric Swann and Leo Sugar made it out of the first round. Baby steps. And no more Kevin Kolb experiments.

If the here-and-now suggests the Colts, Bears and Rams are all-time nothings (I can hear the shouts now: “You’d rather have Dan Orlovsky over Kevin Kolb? And you call yourself an expert?”, to which I reply, using my best expert tone, “Braaaaaaaaaap!!!”) don’t get your Victoria’s Secrets in a wad. It’s the norm for at least one of the four to stink at any given time. There has only been one year when all four teams have been truly bad (1982), no years when are four have been really good, and lots of years when three of the four have been really bad (1953, 1973, and 1974) or really good (2002, 2003, 2010, and most of the '60s). It’s more a matter of how good they are when they’re really good than how bad they are when they’ve been really bad. The Chad Hutchinson years are a mulligan, in other words.

The thing that distinguishes these four teams is in fact just how good they’ve been when they’ve been good. I hesitate like Colin Firth to use the word “dynasty” to apply to professional football. In my opinion there were only three true dynasties in sports: the Canadiens, the Yankees, and the Celtics. Every other proto-dynasty was just an extended period of goodness. In fact, if we were doing this exercise in any other professional sport the fix would be in – not because the fix was actually in in the sense of pretend Mafiosos rigging the pretend results so that all the pretend betting in pretend Las Vegas would tilt their way, but because the top teams were that much better for that much longer over so many more decades. You really think the all-time St. Louis Baseball Cardinals could take down the all-time New York Baseball Yankees? Albert Pujols could be swinging the hammer of Thor and Bob Gibson could be throwing sub-atomic particles at the speed of light and the Yankees would still prevail in five.

The sketchy initial impressions of our four all-time teams are that the Bears and Rams are the “defensive” teams of the foursome and the Packers and Colts are the “offensive” teams. Of course, the initial impressions are wrong, and also of course, the two defensive teams play each other.

The Rams resemble a defensive team the same way that Newt Gingrich resembles the Dalai Lama. They’ll have three Hall of Fame quarterbacks once Kurt Warner makes it in, they’ll have four HOF wide receivers once Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt make it, they have three HOF running backs, and they throw in a couple of HOF linemen just for giggles. They actually have more offensive firepower than any of the four, but they have Deacon Jones, who holds the trademark on the quarterback sack (whoops – there goes another $75. Hey, Deacon: You take PayPal, right?) and Merlin Olsen, arguably the third-greatest athlete (after Lou Brock and Ferdinand the Bull) to while away his toast-'n'-jelly days schlepping flowers.

Actually, the most fascinating thing about the Rams-Bears matchup is how archetypical it is. How many games have been characterized as a clash between a running team that plays tough defense and a wide-open passing team that plays swinging-gate D? Well, this is that game, and on Mt. Olympus. Instead of Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson versus Tim Tebow and Von Miller, this game offers Walter Payton and Dick Butkus against Norm van Brocklin and Deacon Jones. The only way this game could be more souped-up is if they were throwing around lightning bolts instead of The Duke.

As so often happens with games like these, what each team does well lines up with the other team’s weaknesses. The Rams don’t need to run, and pass defense (including a pass rush) is the Bears’ sole weakness. The Rams get after the quarterback like no one else but are lacking ‘50s-style run stuffers in the line – pity, because the Bears come right after their opponents with a battalion of ill-tempered linemen and a fleet of big-boned running backs.

Most of these games go off-script. Rodgers runs a mess of pitch sweeps to Ryan Grant and Tim Tebow dazzles (okay, not really dazzles, but doesn’t suck) with flag pattern after flag pattern to Eric Decker, and the whole sloppy mess causes fantasy-football players everywhere to throw handfuls of nacho-cheese Doritos at their big-screens.

This game doesn't. The Bears run, the Rams pass, the Bears block, the Rams shoot the gaps, the Bears control the line of scrimmage, the Rams go vertical, both teams get really dirty, and one team goes home.

That team is the … well, not so fast. It’s still the pregame show.

The only way we’re going to make any headway here is to send James Brown in search of more Doritos, and while he’s gone, look more closely at the areas of discord – the Rams against the run and the Bears against the pass.

The Rams have had a top-two defense six years (1947, 1966-67, 1970, and 1974-75). The Bears have had a top-two defense nine seasons since 1942 (1942, 1948, 1963, 1965, 1985-86, 1988, 2001, and 2005), which should tell you something right there.

In the six years where the Rams had one of the league’s top defenses, they were (going from earliest to most recent) first, third, second, fourth, first, and second against the run, and second overall every year except 2004.

The Bears were first, second, first, second, first, first, first, first, and second overall and third, second, second, ninth, third, first, 25th, 29th, and fifth against the pass.

The best Rams defenses (where most of the Hall of Famers are) are better against the run than the best Bears defenses are against the pass.

The way to beat the Bears, in other words, is to pass against them. The way to beat the Rams is not necessarily to run against them.

So does any of this matter?

Not much, because the Bears also have the greatest kick returners in history. I absolutely hate – I mean, Black-Eyed Peas levels of hate -- to have a game like this come down to special teams, because that would mean Kevin Harlan is right (“Big games like these ALWAYS come down to special teams!!”), but kick-returning is a huge plus for the Bears.

Gale Sayers didn’t get into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his 4,956 rushing yards alone. He got there on the strength of 4,956 rushing yards plus a kickoff-return yardage average that’s still the best in NFL history, a kickoff-return TD number that’s still top-three, and an all-purpose-yards-per-game number that isn’t tracked as an official statistic but which is large enough to make Mark Cuban want to buy it and move it to Dallas.

The reason Devin Hester is serious Canton material isn’t because he’s a pretty good third receiver. He’s Rust Belt-bound because when you kick the ball to him … you don’t want to kick the ball to him. Ever, under any circumstances. And that’s why he’s HOFesque.

The other reason why kick returns matter is because Deacon Jones, inventor of the quarterback sack (damn – another $75 out of my pocket) doesn’t play on kick returns.

Okay. So the Rams kick off to a split-back tandem of Sayers and Hester, and … hold on. Just think about that for a second. The Rams kick off, and if they kick it long it’s going to The Greatest Kick Returner In Football History, numbers 1 and 1a. Of course they’re going to run the kickoff back a long way. There is not a number out there that would suggest otherwise.

So the Rams kick off and Hester runs it out to the Rams’ 43. A mess of runs and an incomplete pass take it down to the 21, where Kevin Butler kicks a field goal. 3-0 Bears.

The Bears kick off to the Rams and Ollie Matson, no mean returner hisownself, flies it out to the Rams’ 40. Two runs and three passes take the ball down to the Bears’ 37, where the drive bogs down. Max Zendejas comes in to kick a field goal, but Doug Atkins blocks it with his island-size paw. Fortunately there’s no Devin Hester to return the blocked kick, and the Bears go three-and-out.

The Rams are set up nicely at their 39, and a series of quick slants and sideline routes take the ball down to the Bears’ 29. A screen to Marshall Faulk seemed like a good idea at this point, but Dick Butkus strips him clean and Bill George recovers. Faulk stumbles off the field holding his forearm by the hair, like it’s a Cabbage Patch Kid, and another drive goes a-glimmering.

The Bears pound it up the middle for about 17 yards, and that’s about it for the first quarter. The Rams lead in the excitement category 17-3, but excitement only matters in Battle of the Network Stars football, and then only when they hand the ball to Loni Anderson.

The Rams get the ball to start the second quarter, and they go right to work. A draw play to Eric Dickerson gets them their first positive rushing yards, and it’s quickly followed by a swing pass to Ollie Matson that nets 14. At this point Norm van Brocklin gets the bright idea to air it out to Crazylegs Hirsch and … it works. Whaddya know. Hirsch takes it 48 yards for a score, and suddenly it’s 7-3 Rams.

Oh, but then they kick it to Gale Sayers. First down Bears at midfield.

The problem with long kick returns, even for a defense as good as the Rams and an offense as woefully one-dimensional as the Bears, is that it asks the offense to do about 37 percent less to achieve the same result. And doing about 37 percent less is what the Bears’ offense is all about.

In the case of this drive, it means one middling 16-yard pass to Mike Ditka, a couple of nice eight-yard runs by Walter Payton, a little swing pass to Gale Sayers, and ultimately a two-yard plunge by Bronko Nagurski that puts the Bears up 10-7, taking us to halftime.

The halftime stats are nothing to write home about, even if you’re just writing home to ask for money. The Bears rush for just short of 70 yards and pass for 35. The Rams rush for 11 and pass for 139, but the fumble and the interception are, in the immortal words of The Philadelphia Story’s Macaulay Connor, a great levelerer.

The Rams get the ball to start the second half and take off down the field like they’ve been shot out of a gun. Unfortunately, it’s my son’s BB gun, and so they wind up about 20 yards short of the target. Max Zendejas knocks it through from 35 and we’re all tied at 10.

All things considered, the Rams would have been better turning over the ball on downs, because Hester takes the kick inside the Rams’ 40. Perhaps buoyed by this, Luckman does the unthinkable and lobs one between the arms of Deacon Jones in the direction of Lake Michigan. Harlon Hill jumps, Ed Meador jumps, and since Hill jumps better than Meador it’s a touchdown. Butler’s extra point makes it 17-10, and you can sense all the water leaking from Merlin Olsen’s Birthday Party Bouquet.

The Rams do their best to respond. Pinned back deep in their territory for the first time all afternoon, the Rams mix draws, screens, sideline patterns, and one sweet seam route to Torry Holt to move inside the Chicago 20 before the roof caves in, courtesy of Joe Stydahar and Dick Butkus. Two QB sacks plus an incompletion force Zendejas to attempt his third field goal. He knocks it through and the Bears’ lead shrinks to 17-13.

Finally the Rams squib a kickoff, forcing the Bears to start inside their 40. A three-and-out is matched by a five-and-out from the Rams, which is matched by another three-and-one, then a six-and-out, then a five-and-out, and before you know it it’s the Rams’ ball on their 27 with less than three minutes on the clock.

Van Brocklin is masterful. He works over the overworked Bears’ secondary with quick passes to fast receivers. The Rams thrust-and-parry down to the five, but then the angles tighten and the passes don’t get through. Zendejas is called on once again and delivers the field goal that brings the Rams within three.

The Bears get the ball with less than two minutes to play and a simple task to accomplish: Get a first down – just one. With the game on the line, Payton rushes for four and then two, bringing up a key third and four. The Rams are out of timeouts; a first down seals the game.

As has happened so many times in their existence, the Bears’ survival will be determined by their ability to run for four yards when they need it. True to character, they hand the ball to Bronko Nagurski and let a line-full of HOFers attend to their business. Nagurski gains five. Luckman takes a knee and Bears fans go home slightly less ornery than when they came.

It’s not a pretty game – again – but once again, it epitomizes Bears football. Payton runs for 87, Nagurski adds 36, and Luckman throws for 121 with no interceptions. Between them Sayers and Hester return nine kicks for 217 yards.

The Rams’ numbers are more impressive by far. Van Brocklin throws for 286, Hirsch has a long TD, Holt and Bruce each catch four, Dickerson and Faulk combine for 117 yards rushing – but those numbers are ultimately irrelevant. Two empty sorties into Chicago territory are fatal in a game this close.

So, yeah, Kevin Harlan, you called it all right. It did come down to special teams. Play the game tomorrow and it might have a different outcome. But today the Bears move on. The Final Four now numbers three.

Drat. I hope the NCAA takes Visa.