We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Nate Jackson
To: Drew Magary, Stefan Fatsis, Tom Scocca
Stefan, it's impressive to see you go deep on the subject of kickers. There certainly is a limited interest in the kicking game, and, seemingly, a waning interest in the art of kicking altogether. Kickers used to at least get some of the praise their difficult jobs deserved, but these days, no one seems to care.
Sebastian Janikowski tied the record for the longest kick ever in the history of the world! And no one cared. The announcers talked about it for a moment, then it was on to, "Uh oh, Trent, they're chanting 'Tim Tebow' in the stands now. What does that mean for Denver's chances, and what is John Fox going to do about it?" And there it was, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The NFL is now, and always has been, a quarterbacks' league. Teams spend big on big-name quarterbacks because they put asses in the seats, jerseys on people's backs, and football games on prime-time television. They create a buzz around the team, a buzz that doesn't exist if the quarterback is handing the ball off 40 times a game.
For a fan, the passing game is what you come to see. The ball is in flight. It's easy to track. The movements of receivers are spread out, in open space, and the action is easier to isolate, digest, and understand. Yep, he caught it. Nope, he dropped it. There is also the ever-present threat of the quarterback being maimed by a defensive lineman while standing in the pocket. Yes! He got knocked out. We love to watch quarterbacks play well almost as much as we love to watch them get assaulted. Run plays are much more nuanced; to appreciate all that goes into being a successful run team requires a level of fandom that the modern NFL doesn't cater to. A four-yard run, after all, is a successful football play; a four-yard pass isn't. It might damage the guy's Total Quarterback Rating. It is the Year of the Quarterback, you know.
But these shouldn't be reasons for the NFL to be so pass-happy. These are made-for-television things, fan things, marketing things. On an actual team, the coaches calling the plays should be concerned about winning and winning only.
All the talk has been about the passing-yardage record. I'm less interested in the yards accrued than the number of passes attempted. There were 10 quarterbacks who threw at least 40 passes. That's a large number. Maybe as large a number as there's ever been. And of those 10, seven of them were on the losing team. That's pretty standard stuff. If you look at box scores every week, you'll find that the team that attempts the most passes often loses the game. That's because teams on the wrong end of a score take to the air trying to rally. My junior season at Menlo College, we had some severe transportation issues and we showed up to our game against Cal Lutheran 15 minutes before kickoff. We came out predictably stiff and fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter. The rest of the game we threw the ball nearly every play trying to catch up. When it was all over, our quarterback, Zamir Amin, had set the all-divisions record for most passing yards in a game: 731. 731 yards, and we lost the game. In the case of the NFL weekend past, the gaudy passing totals say as much about the lopsided margins as they do about any offensive trends.
But coaching philosophies are changing. Just look at the Dolphins. They've totally abandoned their running game in favor of some hybrid form of the Patriots offense. Brian Daboll is the offensive coordinator. He used to be a position coach in New England, and he was the OC in Cleveland when I was there for a week. How was Cleveland's offense in 2009? It wasn't surprising to see so much miscommunication and bad timing in their passing game. It was an irritatingly complicated offensive scheme that was lost on its players. The terminology had no rhyme or reason to it. It seemed to be a bunch of arbitrary numbers and words thrown together. The goal was to confuse the defense by doing a lot of shifts and motions, but the naming of all the groups, formations, and movements seemed to confuse only the offensive players. I was there late during training camp. The team had been practicing for five months, and no one could explain anything to me. Even the tight ends coach was lost. When figuring out where to line up is devouring all your time and energy, your team will likely suck.
But "irritatingly complicated" is just what many young offensive coordinators want these days. A solid ground attack doesn't get you the genius moniker these days, which is why Chad Henne, who is not a 50-passes-a-game guy, is throwing 50 passes in a game.
It was instructive watching the imitation go up against the real thing on Monday. The Patriots, it seems, play by a whole different set of rules. Everything they do works. All their personnel clicks into place. They utilize two athletic tight-ends who can stretch the field down the middle. They use a slot receiver who can read defenses effectively. They have good receivers on the outside who can beat man coverage when it happens. And they have a quarterback who can make sense of all of it, digest it instantly, and tell everyone what to do. Couple this with an endless number of personnel groups and formations, and the ability to do it all without a huddle, effectively preventing the defense from making substitutions, and you have the model for passing-game efficiency in the NFL.
But those are the Patriots. No one does it better. They'll win their division again, and someone will have to beat them in Foxborough in the playoffs to keep them out of the Super Bowl. And the team to beat them isn't a team like the Dolphins, who try to match them throw for throw. It's a team like the Raiders, who will pound them into submission with their running game and a rotating cast of hungry defensive linemen. That's the formula, I think.
Top photo via The Palm Beach Post.