What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next three and a half months providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
In the first quarter of the Cardinals’ Week 3 win over the Eagles last year, a few minutes after Larry Fitzgerald caught a desperation flip from Kevin Kolb that went for four yards on 3rd-and-16, this graphic popped onto the screen.
Think about this only for a second, and it makes sense. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best wide receivers in football, and has been since he came into the league almost a decade ago. Think about it for any longer, and it makes absolutely no sense at all.
Since Fitzgerald came into the league, the Cardinals have played 144 regular-season games. For 57 of those games (and two playoff runs), Kurt Warner was the Cardinals’ starting quarterback — so we’re good there. For the other 87, Arizona trotted out a combination of — I know you think you know this list, but I promise, it’s still great every time — Josh McCown, Shaun King, John Navarre, Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer. For 60 percent of his games, this is what Larry Fitzgerald has worked with at quarterback, and still, no one younger has ever caught 700 passes. Bill Belichick thinks everyone he’s about to play is the greatest something ever, but with Fitzgerald, I think he might actually believe it.
There's one enormous misconception that keeps cropping up this NFL offseason in the reaction to surprising personnel decisions. In terms of evaluating how much a particular player is worth (to his team or another), one little tidbit matters more than anything else: Past performance, future performance, personality, and name value all fall by the wayside to this most essential bargaining chip. It explains both the Tony Romo deal from this past weekend and Carson Palmer's desperate attempt to flee the East Bay. In the NFL, leverage is everything.
Consider Dallas's predicament with regard to its occasionally brilliant, frequently embattled quarterback this offseason. With a team of expensive veterans surrounded by a relative paucity of players on cheap, team-friendly rookie contracts, the Cowboys normally would be up against the salary cap. It didn't help when the Cowboys failed to come to terms with Anthony Spencer on a long-term deal and were forced to franchise him for the second consecutive year. Throw in the cap penalty they're eating after the NFL took away $10 million over two years for their handiwork during the uncapped year, and the Cowboys were really struggling to create space under the cap. Cap figures aren't released publicly, but by some accounts, the Cowboys couldn't have fit a Crown Victoria into their cap space this offseason, let alone Victor Butler.
Most of the news from the first day of this year's NFL combine has been standard podium fare. The Bears haven't started contract talks with Jay Cutler. Greg Schiano is channeling Lovie Smith. Jeff Ireland still sees a role for Reggie Bush in Miami.
But amid all the news was an inspirational story that might have been lost in an age before 800 reporters flocked to Indianapolis to watch men run around in their underwear. It's a story of a man dedicated to a bygone age and his relentless effort to preserve a vital piece of our nation's history.
Black Monday delivered. The first morning of the offseason for 20 of the league's 32 teams brought a stunning wave of pink slips, as more than half of those 20 teams responded to their disappointing campaigns by firing at least one prominent member of their front offices or coaching staffs. Most handled it with class. Bud Adams of the Titans fired his COO, former general manager Mike Reinfeldt, by noting "I think we’d be better off without him," which is a total disregard for tact that you can only possess by being 90 years old and an NFL owner. It's like sending a telegram whose entire contents read "IDGAF." By the end of the day, seven head coaches and five general managers had hit the street, despite the continued employment of embattled candidates like Mike Munchak, Ron Rivera, and Jeff Ireland. Somehow, though, the only move that seemed truly surprising came out of Chicago, where Lovie Smith was sacrificed for the Bears' second-half collapse.
It's much easier to figure out which coaches and general managers are likely to be fired than fill those same holes with available candidates, so I'm going to avoid prognosticating here. My rule of thumb is that teams tend to notice their personnel's weaknesses as they fire them and replace them with personnel of the opposite persuasion. If they've just fired an offensive-minded leader with a reputation for being a player's coach, teams often look for a defensive coordinator with a disciplinarian streak. I don't know that the pattern I'm describing is necessarily what teams should follow, but I think it's a path that a fair amount of the league's teams do, in fact, take.
So, with that in mind, I want to examine why these 12 men didn't make it into 2013 with their jobs. Understanding what went wrong (or what was perceived to have gone wrong) should give us some insight into whether the moves made any sense and if the teams in question are actually going to improve by making a switch.
There's no clear-cut smoking gun in every case, but there is one factor that plays an obvious role in many of these firings: disappointing quarterback play. By my count, the only firings on Monday that weren't directly preceded by a failed season from the sacked employee's quarterbacks were with Smith in Chicago and the combination of A.J. Smith and Norv Turner in San Diego. You can make a case that Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers didn't quite meet expectations, but consider that each of the nine other candidates oversaw quarterbacks who will either lose their job or be in a battle for their previously secure starting job in 2013, and you have an idea of just how closely quarterback play and coach/GM job security are related.
Let's start with the most surprising firing of Black Monday and work our way down.
It's good to check in with the league's most relevant team statistics about once every four weeks. Four weeks isn't enough to dramatically shift things, but it's enough to see some change from (season) quarter to quarter and actually get a macro-level view into how teams and players are performing and changing. Of course, I haven't gone back and done this since Week 8, so today's look at the numbers is actually going to be with six weeks of gametime in the books. Are the Broncos still treating loose footballs like they're banana peels in Mario Kart? And have the Dolphins continued to press opposing field goal kickers into missed opportunities? Let's see what the numbers say. (Much of the data in this piece comes courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this year’s BQBL Bowl is over. It wasn't the BQBL points scored in the Jets-Cardinals game that made it special. There's no way to appropriately quantify this brand of failure, no stat that captures how terrified each quarterback was, and no metric for embarrassment to measure what happened in New Jersey on Sunday. There is just the film. Let’s go to the tape.
Jets (Sanchize and Greg McElroy) 84 points, and Cardinals (Ryan Lindley) 65 points
In anticipation of this column, I rewatched this entire game. I had my eye on it and everything Sunday, but when a game like this is played in front of cameras and microphones, and it's your job to bask in the ineptitude of quarterbacking failure, you would be a fool not to savor these performances. Also, as I mentioned, there's no number that can capture the experience of watching these men attempt to move the football forward. The most dynamic part of this adventure from kickoff to final kneel-down was tracking the tortured reactions of both the play-by-play team of Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick and the Jets fans in the stadium. I now present to you a running diary, of sorts, of the 2012 BQBL Bowl. No lie — I might go back and watch it again.
How did Chad Henne only score five BQBL points? How did Mark Sanchez only score four? Wait, Lauren Tannehill’s husband was in the red with -7 points? When I first saw the numbers for this week I thought that our scorer must have gone on a four-day “The only way to stop the sounds of my family is by drowning them with alcohol” binge, but when I saw who was on top of the leader board, it all made sense. Since Thanksgiving weekend has no mascot like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I am nominating Ryan Lindley. His fear-driven failure on Sunday was a calming transition to life as usual after a weekend that was anything but in both your life and in the NFL. Let me explain.
Three and Out
Cardinals (Ryan Lindley), 80 points: Last week, Ken Whisenhunt introduced us to rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley, and we watched him make it through his first NFL game without throwing an interception. He didn’t look great, but he didn’t look Skeltony either. After getting a week’s worth of reps with the first team, his true test came Sunday against the Rams. Let’s have a look at the pass attempts during his first drive as a starting quarterback:
You may have noticed that we at Grantland take bad quarterback play very seriously. While Grantland's finest in the Los Angeles office take part in the BQBL each season, my basis for bad quarterback knowledge dates back to a childhood during which the starting quarterbacks for my favorite team were universally terrible. You try suffering through Dave Brown, Kent Graham, and Danny Kanell for a five-year stretch and see how much you enjoy it. Those mid-'90s Giants teams even gave away Tommy Maddox, who would eventually become a starter in Pittsburgh after winning an XFL Championship, but he delivered one of the worst backup performances in a single year I've ever seen: 6-for-23 for 49 yards with three interceptions and a fumble is probably deserving of professional excommunication.
With my esteemed qualifications, then, I was skeptical this Sunday when people started referring to Philip Rivers's bizarre pick-six against the Buccaneers as the worst pass of the year. Sure, it essentially turned a game that was about to be tied in the fourth quarter into one where the Chargers had an 11 percent chance of winning, but swings like that happen every day. A truly bad pass is more than just an ill-timed poor decision. It has to have panache. It needs to make you rewind with equal parts disgust and confusion. If possible, the cheery ex-quarterback doing color commentary should audibly groan or say something like "Oh no" as the pass is traveling in the air. It shouldn't look anything like a normal football play. Those are the truly terrible passes. And after I watched Rivers's pass, I realized that it did truly deserve to be in the running for worst pass of the year.
With 20 quarters in the books for 26 of the league's 32 teams, now seems like a good time to take a quick look back at the first five weeks of the year and start seeing which clubs have been enjoying notably good or bad times in those hidden factors that help determine success. Some of the statistics and concepts I'll mention are mostly random and subject to dramatic regression toward the mean over the course of a larger sample, while others might be harbingers of impending success over the remainder of the season. I'll try to make that clear as we go along. Let's start with one of the more beguiling and meaningful measures of success out there: fumble recovery rates!
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Rams defense contained Kevin Kolb (28/50, 289 yards) and Ryan Williams (14 carries, 33 yards) en route to handing the Cardinals their first loss of the season, 17-3. Among those in attendance at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis were actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, and President Barack Obama. Nah, I'm kidding, none of those people would ever go to that game. Grow up, St. Louis. You're pathetic.
A reader named Mike in St. Louis sent me the following e-mail this week:
"Simmons, football fans in St. Louis have suffered enough, compiling the worst 5 year stretch in NFL history (15-65). Please give us a chance in our lone nationally televised game and don't pick us. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T PICK US!!!!!!!!"
Mike wasn’t alone. Fans of the Cardinals and Rams spent the past 72 hours jockeying for my anti-approval in tonight’s clash in St. Louis. In less than a month, Thursday's Skunk of the Week quickly evolved into one of football's most frightening forces, taking its rightful place alongside Bernard Karmell Pollard, concussions, replacement referees, Detroit’s kick-return coverage and every time a CBS producer says the words, "Let’s have Shannon Sharpe do this highlight." I’m not just 0-4 picking midweek winners against the spread I’m a LOUD 0-4.
There are only three undefeated teams left in the NFL: the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans, and — wait for it — the Arizona Cardinals. Not only is Arizona's record a surprise, but to get there, they knocked off preseason favorites New England and Philadelphia, as well as a Seattle team with wins over Dallas and (however controversial) Green Bay. Most of the credit for Arizona’s perfect record has to go to its defense. Although the smart money remains against their ability to keep up this success, going 3-0 is extremely difficult in today's NFL, and Arizona deserves respect for that alone.
The main concern about Arizona going into the season was its offense, and although they haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard, whether it was Kevin Kolb's off-the-bench comeback drive to beat the Seahawks in Week 1 or their get-the-lead-and-hold-on performance against a normally resourceful Patriots team, the Cardinals have made just enough plays to win. Last weekend against Philadelphia was no different: Arizona was actually out-gained by the Eagles, but they made enough key plays on offense to put pressure on Michael Vick and allow their defense to force three turnovers (including a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown) on the team’s way to victory.
This week on The Trenches, I decided to take full advantage of Ephraim Salaam's 13 years as an NFL offensive tackle and drag out the Jay Cutler shoving-his-lineman controversy another day. Then, of course, Ephraim made sure we didn't leave that conversation without me feeling properly horrible about the Bears' performance at Lambeau.
Speaking of horrible performances! Ephraim and I discussed the real issue with the NFL replacement referees, the Ravens' offensive identity crisis, the Patriots' shameless Wes Welker contract ploy, and more on the run-up to Week 3 of the NFL season.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
A referee was pulled from the Panthers-Saints game when his Facebook profile revealed that he was a Saints fan, and Cam Newton's 324 yards of total offense led the Panthers to a 35-27 win. The referee in question was assigned instead to Monday night's Broncos-Falcons game, though NFL lawyers are checking whether that would violate a restraining order issued three years ago when he bit Matt Ryan's leg at a charity event.
As the long, hot summer drags on, we here at The Triangle figured we’d provide a steady stream of NFL goodness as a reminder of the light at the end of the baseball-lined tunnel.
With NFL training camps opening today, it’s about time we touched on what is inevitably going to be the biggest story line of the next few weeks. We’ve known for a while that one quarterback battle is set to dominate the news as teams prepare for the regular season. One QB has already been a star in New York City, and the other was once a highly talked-about backup who shined in his only few starts before leaving his former team. It’s the matchup everyone has been waiting for, and now, it’s finally here: