This week, Fourth-and-Short travels around the league to touch on three notable news bits, beginning with Denver's stunning comeback victory over the Chargers last night.
I Can't Believe I'm Going to Defend Norv Turner, But
As you might suspect, 24-point comebacks don't happen frequently. Only once in the history of Monday Night Football has a team trailed by 24 points at halftime and come back to win. Ironically, that occurred 24 years ago to John Elway's Broncos, who also blew a 24-0 halftime lead by getting outscored 27-3 in the second half before losing in overtime. And only once in post-merger league history has a team playing in a regular-season contest on Sunday overcome a bigger halftime margin; that game saw the 1980 Saints blow a 35-7 halftime lead to the Niners before losing in overtime themselves. This time, Elway's Broncos were on the right side of the equation, riding a wave of turnovers and big plays to win by a comfortable margin in regulation.
In truth, though, this wasn't one of those comebacks where the resurgent team establishes a brand-new level of play in the second half and doesn't remotely resemble the team that got run around the field during the first 30 minutes. The Broncos were better than they looked during the first 30 minutes, and the Chargers weren't quite as bad as they seemed during the final 30. The difference was what happened with turnovers and the benefit that each team got from them.
In the first half, just about every break that could go San Diego's way did. There were three fumbles that hit the ground in the half, two of which drastically swung field position, and the Chargers recovered all three. You could forgive Broncos fans for throwing whatever they could get in their hands at the television; after that third lost fumble, Denver's season-long fumble-recovery rate (documented last week) was down to an astoundingly low 12.5 percent. They had recovered just two out of the 16 fumbles that had hit the ground in their first five and a half games. Denver wasn't due to recover some drastically high percentage of their future fumbles — that's the gambler's fallacy — but they were due to start recovering about 50 percent of them.
The Broncos also had to deal with a ridiculous string of events on their drive in the middle of the second quarter. After Eric Decker got open downfield for what should have been an easy 85-yard touchdown catch, the Broncos wideout tripped and fell just inside Chargers territory and ended up only making it to the San Diego 30-yard line. (After the game, Decker would blame the Chargers for installing trip wire on the field.) Three plays later, a miscommunication between Manning and Matt Willis resulted in an easy pick-six for Quentin Jammer. That swing was inspired by the definition of a lucky break for the Chargers (Decker tripping) and turned what would have been a 10-7 game into a 17-0 rout. The score might have been dramatic, but there really wasn't a huge disparity in the level of play between the two teams.
Obviously, things changed during the second half. Denver began to move the ball more effectively and San Diego's defense tired quickly, but the Broncos also got just about every break they had failed to receive in the first half. After Mike Adams failed to recover a Randy McMichael fumble on San Diego's opening drive of the half, the Broncos finally recovered a fumble three plays later and got the most out of it, returning it for a touchdown. They would pick up a second defensive touchdown on a pick-six by Chris Harris while intercepting Philip Rivers two other times. The Broncos weren't lucky to make those interceptions, but the distance of a fumble or interception return and the likelihood that it becomes a touchdown tends to be random. Just as the Chargers were "lucky" to pick up two fumbles that happened to occur deep in enemy territory in the first half (and get a pick-six that never should have happened), the Broncos were lucky to have Rivers's first fumble of the second half bounce in a way that created an easy lane for a touchdown return and have it scooped cleanly as opposed to fallen on and pushed forward. That doesn't remotely nullify Denver's win and how well they played, but it points out just how important the mostly random act of recovering a fumble and advancing it can be.
What was also interesting was that the Broncos didn't force the Chargers to punt frequently. The Chargers were able to move the ball in both halves, but most of their drives ended either in points or with a turnover. San Diego's 13 possessions produced just one three-and-out and four punts, one of which came on a fourth-and-19 from the Denver 36-yard line at the beginning of the second quarter. In the first half, San Diego's seven drives produced three punts, one interception, two touchdowns, and a field goal, and because of the muffed punts, they took place with an average starting field position on the Chargers' 42-yard line. During the second half, they had six drives, which produced five turnovers and a punt. Those drives took place with an average starting field position on the San Diego 20-yard line.
With all of this, though, I found it so odd that people were blaming Norv Turner for the loss after the game. Norv's an easy target, and one who normally deserves a fair amount of the criticism he gets, but what about this game do you pin on him? He didn't mismanage the clock. He didn't make any incredibly stupid tactical decisions; the punt in the second quarter on fourth-and-19 is probably less preferable than attempting a field goal, but you can understand not wanting to try a 54-yarder with your backup kicker. He didn't put Rivers and company in situations where they were doomed to fail; it wasn't like the Chargers were getting eaten up by the pass rush and Turner kept the team out in five-wide. The worst thing you can say is that he didn't run the ball enough with Ryan Mathews in the second half, but Mathews averaged 3.1 yards per carry on 15 first-half attempts and gained only 27 yards on his seven second-half rushes. It's not like they were gashing the Broncos with their running game. Do you blame Norv for Rivers making bad decisions and inaccurate throws? Or for Eddie Royal running a terrible route? The knee-jerk thing is to blame Turner, but this one wasn't on him.
Better Days in Baltimore
Sunday's defeat of the Cowboys represented a Pyrrhic victory for the Baltimore Ravens. While they were able to hold on for a narrow victory, they lost two of their defenders to season-ending injuries.
Of the two, Ray Lewis's torn triceps got far more press. Lewis, obviously, is a future Hall of Famer who's been an institution on the Ravens defense since 1996. Over that time period, he's put together a pretty impressive string of healthy seasons, with 2002, 2005, and 2011 representing the only years when he's missed more than two games due to injury. This year, his role has been to supply stability as much as it has been making plays; with outside linebacker Jarret Johnson having departed in free agency and opposite 'backer Terrell Suggs on the PUP list with a torn Achilles, Lewis is one of just two holdovers in Baltimore's linebacking crew. Now, while Lewis will still be able to provide some semblance of leadership and knowledge from the sidelines, that on-field role will fall squarely on the shoulders of linebacker Jameel McClain, himself in just his third season as a starter.
It certainly seems like Lewis's absence would hurt the Baltimore run defense, but the truth is that the Ravens weren't a phenomenal run defense with Lewis in the lineup. On first-and-10 in two-score situations (plays where one team was leading by 14 points or fewer) this year, the Ravens were allowing 3.8 yards per carry, which was the 13th-best figure in the league. Their run defense also rated out as 13th in DVOA before Sunday's game. There are also murky reports from ex-players suggesting that Lewis shouldn't have been on the field in coverage on third downs this year in the pass defense role he's filled for most of his career. Lewis will likely be replaced by Dannell Ellerbe, his backup for most of the past three seasons.
If all that is true and Lewis isn't an impact player anymore, the bigger concern for the Ravens will probably be the loss of promising young cornerback Lardarius Webb, who tore his ACL for the second time on Sunday. Webb's been a longtime favorite of mine, and the Ravens liked him enough to lock him up with a six-year, $53 million contract before the season began. He was unquestionably their top cover cornerback and the far superior of their two starters at cornerback, as he has lined up across from the limited Cary Williams for the past two seasons. The good news for the Ravens is that they've got a better backup available to replace Webb; 2011 first-rounder Jimmy Smith will move into the starting lineup to replace him, and Smith's performance in a limited role suggests that he should be competent from day one. Unfortunately, the Ravens are now stuck with Williams as their starter for the rest of the year and are scary thin behind him, with special teams dynamo Corey Graham and 2011 fourth-rounder Chykie Brown in for snaps as the nickel cornerback.
Although they've had years where their defensive line or secondary were ravaged with injuries, the Ravens have never had it this bad with injuries on the defensive side of the ball. They're a unit built around five star players on defense, and at the moment, three of them are out. Suggs is scheduled to come back from the PUP list in a few weeks, but there's no track record for a player returning that quickly from an Achilles tear and playing at anything resembling his previous level of performance. The fourth player is defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who suffered an MCL injury on Sunday that could limit his snaps in coming weeks, if not necessarily take him out of the lineup. Amazingly, the healthiest star on the Baltimore defense is perennial injury risk Ed Reed.
These problems don't sink Baltimore's chances of contending for a Super Bowl berth, but it will definitely place more pressure on their offense to produce. The good news is that the 5-1 Ravens get a respite after playing the Texans this week; after their Week 8 bye, a two-game stretch against the Browns and Raiders should give them a chance to integrate these new starters into their lineup. They've won their past four games by a combined 13 points, so they've been a little lucky to start 5-1, but the Ravens should still be good enough to make it into the playoffs as either the AFC North champion or as a wild card.
Gonna Foles Now
The Eagles made headlines this weekend when Adam Schefter reported that the Eagles would move on from Michael Vick this offseason if they didn't make a lengthy playoff run. Then, after another turnover-filled loss on Sunday, Andy Reid gave a tepid endorsement of Vick during his Monday press conference, saying that he was committed to Vick "today." Try that one on your girlfriend sometime and see how well that works.
Benching or dumping Vick sounds like a great idea to you, me, and the guy who programs the game breaks on Sundays who has arthritis from all the Eagles turnovers, but there's one problem with it: Who on Earth is going to take over if the Eagles do decide to bench Vick?
The options on the roster, at the moment, consist of rookie third-round pick Nick Foles and journeyman backup Trent Edwards. You know Edwards, but Foles is a mammoth 6-foot-5 project with uneven footwork and accuracy issues. He's the sort of quarterback who takes a couple of years to develop at the professional level, and almost surely is not a factor to contribute during his debut season with the Eagles. The list of third-round picks who got significant playing time as rookies is both short and unimpressive. It also notably includes Edwards. The team could theoretically turn to Mike Kafka, Vick's backup last season, but they cut him in favor of Edwards before the season and he hasn't attracted much interest around the league.
So, at the very least, the paucity of options to replace Vick basically ensures that he'll be in the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. If the Eagles struggle and Reid sacrifices Vick to keep his job, what are his options? He could bring in an untested Foles and hope that Foles can swim with a veteran team built to win today. He could go for Edwards or one of the quarterbacks of Edwards's caliber available on the market each year, or perhaps hope that the Cardinals cut Kevin Kolb and bring the opposite-of-prodigal son back to Philly. He could try to find a quarterback in the first round and insert him into the lineup from Week 1 as Vick's replacement, but if the Eagles perform poorly enough to receive a high pick in the draft that would allow them to go after a true franchise quarterback, Reid's going to be fired. It's almost impossible to find a scenario where Reid cuts Vick this offseason and it makes any sense.
The only way the Eagles can justify trading or releasing Vick is if they have an obvious replacement for him waiting in the wings. Do you know how rare it is for a team to give away their starting quarterback without an obvious replacement already on the roster? The only time in recent memory that comes up is when the Redskins traded Donovan McNabb to the Vikings for pennies on the dollar last summer, electing to go with Rex Grossman and John Beck at quarterback. And how did that go? Although the Eagles can dream about dealing a high draft pick for a disgruntled passer like Tony Romo or Philip Rivers, that slim possibility isn't enough to ever consider abandoning Vick in advance.
In all likelihood, Reid and Vick are joined together at the hip for another couple of seasons in Philadelphia. The Eagles might want to cut or bench Vick after his next batch of turnovers, but until they find a clearly superior option, he's going to be the man in Philly.