The Football Gods' Super Bowl
It's the Super Bowl the football gods wanted to see -- the No. 1 offense versus the No. 1 defense. Perhaps the football gods will show mercy and send mild weather!
It's fitting that this season of scoreboard-spinning -- the Broncos with the highest-scoring team of all time -- should conclude this way. If Seattle's fantastic defense overcomes Denver's fantastic offense, the decade-long trend of favoring offensive players and tactics over their defensive equivalents might reverse. If Denver prevails, the movement toward a powerful offense may get even stronger.
What does history predict? This year's New Jersey Super Bowl will be the sixth time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that the top-rated offense has met the top-rated defense. So far, defense is 4-1 -- Bucs over Raiders (2003), Giants over Bills (1991), 49ers over Dolphins (1985), and Steelers over Cowboys (1979), with the top offense prevailing only in 1990 (49ers over Broncos). Football lore long has held that defense trumps offense, especially in the postseason. Two weeks from now in the swamps of Jersey, we'll find out if that remains true in the shotgun-spread era.
The Super Bowl also matches the conference No. 1 seeds, and thus is as if the NFL playoffs were a seeded tournament, pleasing cranky critics. And the pairing makes me look smarter than I am, because seven weeks ago, Tuesday Morning Quarterback led with a forecast of a Denver-Seattle Super Bowl.
You'll hear many times in the next two weeks that if Denver wins, Peyton Manning will become the first quarterback to start in Super Bowl victories for different teams. If Seattle wins, Pete Carroll will sort of become the first head coach to win both a BCS title and a Super Bowl trophy. Sort of, because the BCS win was vacated due to the Reggie Bush scandal. (Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer won both a Super Bowl and the old "mythical national championship.") And though a Seattle victory likely would be mainly about the Bluish Men Group defense, it also would be a crowning moment for the zone read.
In other football news, the time approaches to name the winner of the coveted longest award in sports: the TMQ Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP. Because the official MVP always goes to a quarterback or running back, TMQ annually names an MVP who is neither. This year, readers will choose! Next week's column will present four nominees. A poll will determine the trophy recipient. See next week's column for details.
At the intersection of football and politics, an online petition started by Lynda Woolard of New Orleans, seeking to revoke the nonprofit status of NFL headquarters, already has more than 300,000 signatures. It's worth considering. Her view is seconded by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, among the most conservative members of Congress, who has proposed a bill to strip other professional sports of this and other tax favors.
NFL headquarters is hardly the only offender: "Outside the Lines" recently reported that the PGA hides behind a charitable exemption curtain, though only 16 percent of donations to its tour charity events actually go to charity. Coburn's bill would put an end to such abuses, and also to NFL access to tax-free bond issues, a financing tool that was created to finance libraries and cultural institutions, but now is used to subsidize stadium luxury boxes.
Nobody likes taxes. But if the wealthy don't pay their fair share, then average people must pay more, or the national debt rises. It is a measure of the bleak condition of national politics that although it's transparently absurd for the $10 billion-a-year NFL to have a tax-exempt headquarters -- where commissioner Roger Goodell pays himself $30 million a year while on paper being the leader of a philanthropy -- only one other senator has agreed to co-sponsor Coburn's legislation. Coburn can push hard because he has announced he will retire at the conclusion of the current Congress. Not seeking re-election, he no longer cares about campaign donations. Yet in the U.S. Senate, the notion that the very wealthy National Football League should not have a tax-exempt headquarters is too controversial for 98 of 100 senators to touch. That is a measure of the bleak condition of national politics.
Stats of the Championships No. 1: Before Spygate, Bill Belichick's Patriots were 12-2 in the playoffs and 3-0 in the Super Bowl. Since the taping scheme was discovered, they are 6-6 in the postseason and 0-2 in the Super Bowl.
Stats of the Championships No. 2: The Broncos have punted once in the playoffs.
Stats of the Championships No. 3: In four starts versus Seattle and Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick is 1-3 with 3 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions and a 54 quarterback rating.
Stats of the Championships No. 4: Averaging 144 yards rushing in his previous three games, LeGarrette Blount was held to 6 yards.
Stats of the Championships No. 5: In 33 offensive possessions against Seattle this season, San Francisco recorded three touchdowns.
Stats of the Championships No. 6: Russell Wilson is 17-1 at home, with 32 touchdowns versus seven interceptions.
Stats of the Championships No. 7: In two meetings with New England this season, Denver jumped out to leads of 24-0 and 23-3.
Stats of the Championships No. 8: Ten of the past 11 Seattle-San Francisco contests have been won by the home team.
Stats of the Championships No. 9: In the 2010 regular season, the Patriots averaged 32.4 points; they scored 21 points in their playoff loss. In the 2011 regular season, the Patriots averaged 32.1 points; they scored 17 points in their playoff loss. In the 2012 regular season, the Patriots averaged 34.8 points; they scored 13 points in their playoff loss. In the 2013 regular season, the Patriots averaged 27.8 points; they scored 16 points in their playoff loss.
Stats of the Championships No. 10: Eli Manning won the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, when that was Peyton Manning's home stadium. Now Peyton has a shot at winning the Super Bowl in Eli's home stadium.
Sweet Play of the Championships: It felt as if Denver was blowing New England off the field, but when a Patriots touchdown made it 26-16 with 3:07 remaining, a deuce would have put the visitors within one score. New England showed a passing set, then ran a draw to Shane Vereen. Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips knifed in and dragged down Vereen by his ankles. Tom Brady hung his head, knowing the game ended on that play.
Sour Play of the Championships: With Denver leading 20-3 late in the third quarter, the Flying Elvii faced fourth-and-3 on the Broncos' 29. Needing points against the league's highest-scoring offense -- New England was unlikely to shut Denver out down the stretch -- Belichick rightly went for it. At the snap, Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton simply ran straight by his blocker, sacking Brady before he even had a chance to scan the field. Who was the blocker? Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, called by some the best offensive lineman in football. Mankins barely so much as slowed Knighton. Very sour.
Sweet 'n' Sour Play: Seattle trailing 10-3 in the early third quarter, Marshawn Lynch headed into the line left behind backup rookie tackle Alvin Bailey, who was playing in a six-lineman heavy package, then cut back right and went 40 yards for the touchdown that tied the contest. Sweet for the home team. The play occurred on third-and-1. San Francisco had eight defenders in the box and two deep safeties, an alignment that might give up a first down but should be impossible to get a long run against. Not only did Bailey take out two defensive backs with the same block, the highly hyped first-round draft pick, safety Eric Reid, whiffed on his tackle attempt. Sour for the visitors.
Disclaimer of the Championships : Reader David Lisitza of Silver Spring, Md., reports bottles of Palmolive dish soap proclaim "No unnecessary chemicals." He notes: "A plutonium trigger factory can probably make the same claim."
In the Nissan Rogue commercial in which the car leaps atop an imaginary elevated Amtrak train in San Francisco, a small-type disclaimer warns: "Fantasy. Cars cannot jump onto trains." The real fantasy of this ad is that when the urban hipsters reach their destination, they find ample vacant parking spots on the street in downtown San Francisco.
Concussion Lawsuit Subtext: The judge supervising the brain-injury settlement between the NFL and some 4,000 retired players put the deal on hold because of questions about whether enough money was being set aside by the league and whether the deal is fair to the "actual class members." The latter concern is that the deal as it stands would be fantastic for plaintiffs' lawyers (big payday up front) and fantastic for the NFL (liability shed with no admission of wrongdoing) but not so great for the "actual class members" (many former players would receive little or nothing). The proposed settlement is $765 million for players and $112 million in attorneys' fees. Did the league offer plaintiffs' lawyers a bag of gold doubloons in hopes that the lawyers would sell their clients the deal and make the former players go away? As the judge's ruling notes, lawyers expect this spectacular fee despite having bungled rudimentary aspects of the settlement proposal.
The rational move for the NFL would be to address the judge's move immediately by increasing the offer to the former players but not increasing the offer to their attorneys. Perhaps the NFL should offer twice as much, $1.5 billion, with all additional funds being given to former players.
From the league's standpoint, it is essential that the chance to settle this mess not be lost. The NFL can buy its way out of any problem, but this works only if the other party agrees. With the settlement now perceived as the lawyers having shafted their own clients, the willingness of the former players to make a deal may not last. Increasing the money is the league's best chance of getting the former players to stay on board.
Here's the rub. With any class-action lawsuit, "actual class members" must decide whether to opt in (take the current offer while waiving future claims) or opt out (get nothing while reserving the right to file their own lawsuits). For those former players who are already aging, or already showing signs of neurological complications, it makes sense to opt in and take the best offer right now. Former players in these situations need help fast, and may not live long enough to receive a larger settlement that other lawsuits might produce in the future.
But for any former player who doesn't show neurological symptoms or who is less than, say, 65 years of age, opting out may be the way to go. The proposed settlement's offer to players without current neurological conditions is relatively modest -- waiver of future claims in exchange for about $25,000 to $50,000 each. The incentive to opt in for the relatively modest amount is that because with current technology it's nearly impossible to prove that harm to the brain was caused by NFL contact, you might as well take a relatively small payment and move on.
That's with current medical technology! Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is little-understood and has been studied only a short time. Think about a former NFL player who is, say, 45 years old and in decent health. He might have decades of life ahead. Despite the media misconception that former NFL players die young, they as a group live longer than men of the same age. In the next decade or two, neurological diagnoses may advance significantly. It may become possible to link the onset of CTE to specific life events. If that happens, then a former player would have a much stronger legal claim against in the NFL.
The league needs former players to waive liability now, before some development in medical knowledge strengthens the former players' hand. The way for the league to achieve this is to put a lot more money in the pot.
The Road to the Swamps: This year's Super Bowl will be played in New Jersey, but all of the media talk will be of New York. So TMQ is keeping the focus on Jersey.
Did you know that the Garden State is named after the largest Channel Island? Today the island of Jersey is sort-of a miniature country, a self-governing dependency of the British crown. Because Jersey remained loyal during the English Civil War, James II gave the land that is now New Jersey to two aristocratic supporters. The Lenape were not consulted. If the Washington R*dsk*ns ever move to New Jersey, they would become the Washington Lenape.
In 1783, Princeton was briefly capital of the United States. There is a large waterfall on the Passaic River. Alexander Hamilton tried to use the waterfall to generate power so the United States would have industry and not be dependent on Europe for manufactured goods.
The hit movie "American Hustle" is very loosely based on the actions of several New Jersey politicians and con artists during the FBI's ABSCAM stings in the late 1970s. The movie is a must-see -- witty, gritty, with fabulous acting by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, though the audience never understands why the bungling loser who is the film's central character is intensely desired by two spectacular women: Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Maybe it's because they know he is really Christian Bale.
The senator taken down by ABSCAM, Harrison Williams of New Jersey, resigned moments before the Senate was to expel him, then to his death (following prison) maintained he resigned on principle, not to avoid expulsion. "American Hustle" misses the funniest moment of the actual ABSCAM. After video was released showing Rep. Richard Kelly reaching for a briefcase of cash offered by a fake sheik, Kelly declared he was using the money to conduct his own investigation. (No one bought this.) Not addressed in coverage of the movie -- because ABSCAM ended three decades ago -- has the FBI given Congress a pass on corruption?
New Jersey offers what your columnist considers the best delicatessen on Earth, the Millburn Deli. My last meal would be a Millburn Deli smoked turkey sloppy Joe with a Balvenie neat. And if I had to choose between the two, I'd take the Joe.
How Did Seattle Do It? TMQ took a lot of heat halfway through the season with a column saying San Francisco couldn't pass the ball. Then the Niners finished 30th in passing and in the NFC title game were held to 147 passing yards. The game concluded with San Francisco trying to throw into the right corner of the end zone -- exactly what San Francisco tried at the end of last year's Super Bowl -- and like in that Super Bowl, were unsuccessful. In both instances, the intended receiver was double-covered -- maybe defensive coordinators know something?
Jim Harbaugh has taken the 49ers to three straight conference title games, so he's obviously doing well. But his decisions can be puzzling. He sent Alex Smith to the bench, then traded him, to give Kaepernick the reins. Though the Nevada quarterback is a lot of fun to watch, he has yet to show he can pick apart an NFL defense. In the second half, Kaepernick turned the ball over on two of three snaps. As the stats item notes, Kaepernick is 1-3 versus the Seahawks, with a terrible passer rating. Versus Seattle and Russell Wilson, Smith was 1-0 with a 74 quarterback rating.
In-game, Harbaugh/West can be puzzling. With Seattle leading 23-17 at the 2-minute warning, San Francisco had first-and-10 at midfield, holding three timeouts. The game would be decided by Kaepernick's interception thrown from the Seattle 18 with 22 seconds remaining. The coach only used one of the timeouts, leaving two on the table. (They were called during Seattle's kneeldowns.) Harbaugh/West let an inexperienced quarterback sweat as the clock ticked toward all-naughts, rather than call time and coach up Kaepernick. Earlier, San Francisco, facing third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, took a delay-of-game penalty rather than burn one of the timeouts they ended up not using. Puzzling.
Harbaugh/West also had the Niners facing fourth-and-1 on the Seattle 41. They tried to draw the home team offside, then took a penalty and punted. Why not just run a play for the first down?
San Francisco played terrific defense against Seattle in the first half, stuffing several short-yardage runs; on the game, the Niners sacked Russell Wilson four times: the visitors surprised the hosts with zone blitzes. But it was as if everyone on the San Francisco defense thought they'd heard the whistle on Wilson's 51-yard completion to Doug Baldwin. Wilson had 7 seconds in the pocket, a long time in NFL terms, as numerous Niners defenders just stood around looking at each other.
On the Seattle side of the ball, San Francisco was held to 17 points with a total of just three blitzes. Last week, TMQ wrote that the Seahawks play old-fashioned vanilla defense and rarely blitz, despite a reputation for Carroll being blitz-happy. Three blitzes in a title game; conventional four-man rush; Super Bowl invitation.
Down 10-3 with seconds remaining before halftime, Seattle faced fourth-and-6 on the San Francisco 38. Carroll went for it, disdaining a 55-yard field goal attempt on a day that was cold and humid, both bad for long-distance kick flight. The attempt failed, but the result of the play was San Francisco ball on its 38. (The spot moved back following a dead-ball penalty walkoff.) Had Seattle missed a field goal on the same down, it would have been San Francisco ball on the 45. Because the half was nearly over, going for the first down was less risky than attempting the long field goal.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Seattle faced fourth-and-7 on the San Francisco 35, a nearly identical situation. Still an improbable field goal through cold, humid air. The Bluish Men Group lined up trips right. At the snap, all three trips guys ran go routes; Lynch ran a flare left; six blocked. Wilson looked toward Lynch, drawing the safeties' eyes that way, then threw into the end zone for a touchdown to little-used Jermaine Kearse. San Francisco seemed to expect a short possession throw. Instead on a big play, the ball goes to a guy who rarely sees the ball, which is a time-tested football success tactic.
Later leading 20-17 in the fourth quarter, Seattle failed on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with a simplistic no-misdirection play that looked an awful lot like the fourth-and-2 play for the national championship that failed for USC when Carroll was coaching against Texas. Denver has the NFL's prettiest goal-line plays. Seattle needs to work on goal-line designs for the Super Bowl, because settling for field goals won't git 'er done against the highest-scoring team ever.
Huge Players Not Big Enough: Reader Matt Loughman of Suwanee, Ga., notes this Kansas City Star story saying Eric Fisher, the first choice of the 2013 draft, needs to "get bigger and stronger." Loughman asks, "Fisher is 6-8, 305 pounds, that's not big enough?" At the combine, Fisher did 27 reps of 225 pounds. That's not strong enough?
In a supersized society, the notion that huge, muscular football players aren't huge and muscular enough is not an outlier. During the preseason, a Packers analyst scoffed at Green Bay linemen as "soft and small." The Pack's expected line starters in preseason averaged 6-foot-4, 317 pounds.
My new book "The King of Sports" -- say, have I mentioned "The King of Sports"? -- has a chapter titled, "How 307 Pounds Became Undersized." Among facts from that chapter: When the Green Bay Packers played in the first Super Bowl, their defensive line averaged 254 pounds. When the Packers played in the 45th Super Bowl, their defensive line averaged 320 pounds. No one on the 1972 Dolphins' perfect team weighed more than 300 pounds. In the most recent Super Bowl, Ravens versus 49ers, 13 starting players weighed at least 300 pounds. The chapter offers, via Mel Kiper Jr.'s storeroom of draft records, considerable detail on the steady rise in size and strength of linemen.
At the NFL level there is always pressure on linemen to gain strength. Professional athletes supervised by trainers and nutritionists can gain healthy weight and then lose it back once their playing days end. But in a nation with a childhood obesity epidemic, it just cannot be good that the No. 1 sport celebrates weight gain.
For every one NFL player gaining weight as lean muscle mass, there are a hundred of teens wolfing down bacon cheeseburgers to get big so they can start for varsity. "The King of Sports" gives lots of stats for weight increase in high school football, and the numbers are bleak -- high schools where the average offensive lineman weight is higher than the 1972 Dolphins, prep programs with multiple 300-plus lineman. High school players who gain significant pounds usually are not under the tight supervision of trainers and nutritionists, and they're on their own trying to lose that weight when no recruiting offer comes.
Beyond that, very heavy football players extolled by television as celebrities give young people the idea that weighing that much is not a risk. True, television also bombards young people with images of perfect-10 bodies. But a perfect-10 body is impossible for most young people to attain, while anyone can gain pounds by reaching for the French fries. Football needs to rethink the way in which it extols "getting big."
The Belichick-Welker Psychodrama: Back home at Foxboro, Bill Belichick called the Wes Welker hit on Aqib Talib "one of the worst plays I've seen" . . . a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib." Psychoanalyzing the Patriots could itself be a sport. Here goes:
• Welker felt unappreciated at New England. Despite being the franchise's all-time leader for receptions, he was shown the door the moment a less-expensive Welker-like figure, Danny Amendola, came along. Driven by subconscious oedipal conflict, Welker wanted to slay his father figure, but decided that defeating his father-figure's team would be more acceptable. In the first Denver-New England game, Welker played poorly and the father figure prevailed. That made it essential for Denver to defeat New England on the second try. Welker entered the contest filled with rage, which in football is a useful emotion.
• Welker was jealous of Talib, who was being welcomed into the Patriots' locker room just as Welker was being shown out. Welker was the good boy, Talib the prodigal son. Yet Talib received honors -- whether the Patriots sacrificed a fatted calf is unknown -- while Welker was banished.
• Welker was further enraged that the master he served, Tom Brady, did not protect him. Instead, Brady's wife, Giselle Bϋndchen, blamed Welker in 2012 at Indianapolis when the Patriots failed against the Giants. Brady received the fair damsel's embrace while Welker was sent into the wilds, which to Bϋndchen would be any place you fly over going from Boston to Los Angeles. Thus Welker wished Brady to suffer, ideally to see Bϋndchen leave him for, say, Andy Samberg.
• Brady knew if there was one way the loss of Welker would blow up in the Patriots' faces, it would be if Welker joined up with Peyton Manning, to whom Brady secretly feels inferior, despite having two more Super Bowl rings and seven more playoffs wins. The football world thinks of Manning as a "real" quarterback, even though he wears wigs while lip-syncing rap music, and thinks of Brady as a pretty-boy. Suddenly Brady's best option defects to the "real" quarterback.
• Belichick viewed Welker as a disloyal son. Belichick has made many football players better than expected, but the two over which he waved the magic wand were Brady, an unheralded sixth-round selection who is now a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Welker, who wasn't drafted at all, and became a star wearing New England colors. Brady is loyal and grateful; he brings in Dunkin' Donuts for the coaches using his Lamborghini. Brady never complains in public when the Patriots offer him $57 million! But Welker was not grateful when offered $10 million. Now Belichick so despises the disloyal son that his name cannot be spoken. He's not Welker, he is "the receiver."
• Belichick feels his genius is evident if anybody he plugs into the slot receiver role in his offense catches 100 passes a year. Ideally, a volunteer chosen at random from the audience just before kickoff would be Belichick's slot receiver. That would prove the coach, not the player, produces New England's passing stats. Amendola only caught 54 passes, and who cares about that collapsed lung or whatever his flimsy injury excuse was. This embarrassed Belichick, causing him to feel human emotion, which in turn made him very uncomfortable.
• Those who have themselves been accused of questionable ethics like to redirect attention to others, so Belichick denounces someone else for poor sportsmanship. Soon, Chris Christie will complain that the NFL Super Bowl setup in Manhattan is blocking traffic for New Jersey residents trying to use the bridges into New York.
• What does TMQ think? That Welker should have been flagged for offensive pass interference. He wasn't blocking -- he hit Talib while the pass was in the air.
Et Tu, Bob? In his roles in public life, Robert Gates seemed a fine, conscientious man. Then his new book "Duty" stabs in the back the president and vice president who supported Gates against liberal opposition and kept him in charge at the Pentagon. OK, it's Washington: The stab in the back is practically mandatory. How slick of Gates to make it seem it was his "duty" to slam the president and vice president; this way he sounds loyal and daring simultaneously. But even acknowledging that former government higher-ups of both parties are motivated by self-praise, your writer was blown away by the following passage about Gates' book from Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at the Wall Street Journal:
Take this vignette from 2010: That January, Mr. Gates called for a highly restricted meeting of [White House] principals to discuss the possibility of conflict with Iran with little or no advance notice. Mr. Gates describes the meeting in detail and then concludes with this nugget:
"I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his very closest advisers, he said, 'For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran. Joe [Biden], you be my witness.' I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters." This is related without irony on page 393.
Gates was offended by the president's suspicion that Gates might do precisely what Gates later did. Wow. Even by Washington standards, this is amazing double-talk.
Of course Gates did not make policy regarding Israel or Iran. What about issues Gates personally controlled? This brings to mind the Pentagon's KC-X program.
Since 2002, the Air Force has been trying to build a new airborne tanker. Most Air Force tankers are derivatives of the obsolete 707 jetliner, which first flew in 1958 and which Western airlines retired a generation ago. The initial phase of the KC-X tanker project, occurring before Gates, involved a corruption scandal that sent a high Pentagon official, Darleen Druyun, to prison. In 2006, Gates become secretary of defense, tasked by President George W. Bush to clean up the KC-X mess, with wide authority regarding the project.
There were years of lobbying wars regarding whether Boeing or an Airbus-led venture would get the contract. The lobbying involved high-priced hired guns hurling campaign donations hither and yon to members of Congress who were more concerned with influence peddling than Air Force operational requirements; John McCain also got involved, and McCain gave George W. Bush the willies. To be secretary of defense while this was going on would not have been easy. But fixing the tanker mess was his job, and Gates failed, despite having five years in charge of the Defense Department.
In 2008, Gates called a new tanker the military's top acquisition priority, declaring production would be "expedited." Yet today, nothing is flying. Six years after Gates got on the case, Air Force fighters still are refueled by Eisenhower-era hardware.
The latest estimate is that the initial prototype of the new tanker, now dubbed KC-46, may take wing in 2015 -- seven years after Gates said the project was being expedited. First deployment is hoped for in 2017, a decade after the moment of "expedition," with construction of the new fleet not complete until 2028.
This terrible record of acquisition performance does not link to lack of money: $52 billion has been authorized for the program. Nor is some great technological leap involved. The KC-46 is a "variant" of the Boeing 767, an airliner that has been in the skies for 30 years and already gone through half a dozen variations. At the current pace, 15 years will have passed between when the Air Force decided to build a tanker based on well-established existing aircraft, and when the new planes actually are fueling Air Force aircraft. (The entire B-24 bomber project -- the most-produced U.S. military aircraft ever -- took six years from first test flight to final model off the assembly line.) Nine years will have passed between when Gates said he was giving his full attention to the problem, and the first tanker reaching service.
What does Gates have to say in his book about the Air Force project? He complains that at the Pentagon, when "anyone elected" from Alabama was on the phone -- the Airbus competitor would have been built in the Yellowhammer State -- the call was whining about tanker politics. That does sound excruciating. But it was his job to fix the tanker program, and Gates failed completely. Now he wants to sell you a book about how everyone else is to blame.
How Did Denver Do It? Was Bill Belichick too clever by half? Riding a streak of strong performances by the revitalized New England rushing attack, he went into Denver and had the Patriots call just 14 running plays and 42 passes. (That figure adjusts for sacks and scrambles.) Did the unexpectedly ideal conditions cause Belichick to yield to his normal pass-wacky self, after three consecutive bad-weather rush-oriented games in Massachusetts? Was he attempting reverse psychology -- passing because he expected Denver to expect runs? The Patriots executed a lot of play fakes, suggesting they wanted to establish the run, then started play-faking but forgot the first part of that equation.
CBS color man Phil Simms repeatedly stated the Patriots were throwing because the Broncos have a highly ranked run defense and a low-ranked pass defense. But those stats are artifacts of Denver jumping to big leads, resulting in second halves in which opponents abandon the run while the Broncos drop into a Cover 3. Teams that win by big margins often have great rush defense stats and weak pass defense stats. Denver finished the regular season seventh in rushing yards allowed -- but defended just 420 running plays, one of the league's lowest figures. Denver finished 27th in passing yards allowed -- but defended 613 passing plays, one of the league's highest figures.
Maybe Belichick thought the Denver secondary would collapse with Chris Harris out injured, replaced by the graying Champ Bailey. Maybe the pop-psychology explanation of the New England sideline was that Flying Elvii offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel, former head coach at Denver, wanted to show he and Tom Brady could out-pass Manning -- because in the current football reality, throwing is viewed as more manly than running. Whatever happened, the New England offensive game plan was too clever by half.
The Patriots' defensive game plan involved frequent use of a front Manning hasn't seen much -- an 8-1-2 with all receivers against press coverage. This unusual front was worth a try, but alternated with a funky two-defensive lineman look, allowed 507 yards of offense and an 8-of-14 conversion rate on third and fourth downs.
Belichick made a puzzling decision by ordering a punt from the Denver 39. Sure, it was fourth-and-16, but you don't defeat the league's highest-scoring team by punting in its territory. Belichick made a really puzzling decision when with New England scoring to pull within 23-10 with 9:23 remaining, he had the Flying Elvii kick away. Belichick has never cared for the alternative -- only one recovered onside kick in his many years at New England. But what choice did he have? The ball went back to the league's best offense, and soon the lead was 26-10.
As for the Broncos, as usual they had a creative play for the goal line. Reaching second-and-1 on the New England 2, the Broncos lined up heavy left and ran outside left. Stuffed, they faced third-and-1 on the New England 2, and again lined up left and ran outside left, reaching first-and-goal. Again they lined up heavy left -- then faked an outside run left, Manning rolling right to toss an easy touchdown pass to the backup tight end. Denver's other touchdown came on a really pretty goal line zed-in to Demaryius Thomas -- the zed-in is the Canadian version of a z-in.
Denver has faced many third-and-short situations in the playoffs, and every time gone for a super-short possession play rather than thrown deep. Back in the day, Bart Starr thought third-and-short was the best down to throw deep. Seattle plays so tight on receivers, will Denver be able to complete super-short possession passes on third-and-short?
One of TMQ's themes this season has been the warning that scoreboard-spinning teams tend to peter out at the last. Until this season, the highest-scoring NFL team ever was the 2007 Patriots. They averaged 37 points per game in the regular season, then dropped to an average of 26 points in their two home playoff games, then scored 14 points in their Super Bowl loss. This season, the Broncos became the highest-scoring team ever. They put up 38 points per game during the regular season, then dropped to 25 points during their two home playoff games. Will the third part of the pattern repeat?
Tinkering with Kickoff, Try and Onside Rules: Last week TMQ proposed doing away with the kickoff -- the scored-upon team would start at the 25, which is generous to the receiving team because the average returned kickoff reaches the 23 -- and also eliminating the singleton PAT kick, making all tries two-point attempts. My reasoning was that eliminating kickoffs would reduce concussions, while requiring two-point attempts would add back roughly the amount of excitement lost with no kickoffs. The PAT kick is the dullest moment in professional football -- more than 99 percent succeed -- while the kickoff is the most dangerous moment. So fix both in one fell swoop, whatever "fell swoop" means.
My alternative suggestion was to eliminate kickoffs, then after touchdowns, give the scoring team the option of going for two from the opponent's 2-yard line (the current deuce try) or kicking for one with the ball spotted on the 35. That would add all kinds of strategy to the second half, and sports fans love statistical analysis.
Reader Tim Kokesh of San Jose, Calif., countered: "Instead of doing away with the kicked PAT altogether, how about requiring the player who scored the touchdown to kick the PAT? Kind of like a foul shot on a made basket. The scoring team could either allow their touchdown man to kick for one, or go for two using the current deuce format."
Dave Moore of Pittsburgh wrote: "I don't like the injuries on kickoffs either, but I love the strategic choice of the onside. So why not leave the PAT rule as is, and change kickoffs to encourage the onside? Spot the ball at the 50 for kickoffs. Most of the time, the scoring team would just sail the kickoff out of the end zone for a touchback -- no wedge-busting, no kickoff concussions. But with the kickoff spot at the 50, onside kicks would become more likely. A failed onside would cost only about 20 yards in field position: the opponent would start around his 40 instead of at his 20. Risking 20 yards of field position in return for the chance of a turnover could be attractive, especially in the fourth quarter."
In the 2013 regular season, there were 2,748 kickoffs and only 62 onside kicks, about 2 percent of kickoffs. Under Moore's scheme, onside kickoffs would become more common. In 2013, 11 onsides were recovered, or 18 percent. Would recovery likelihood go down (receiving teams more wary) or up (kickers practice the onside more) under Moore's idea? Only experience would tell, as only experience would tell whether more onside kicks would become a concussion factor. Even if the recovery percentage stayed the same, there could be many instances where an 18 percent chance of getting the ball back was worth the risk of 20 yards of field position.
Maybe Self-Aware Nanobots Write the Scripts: The weirdest show on television, "Revolution," is halfway through what is likely to be its swan-song season. In a world without electricity, three good guys armed only with knives are walking down a dark country road where eight bad guys with carbines wait to ambush them. The guys who formed the ambush and have the element of surprise fire hundreds of rounds at close range: all miss. The good guys sneak up behind the bad guys, and need mere seconds to kill them with knives. How can you sneak up behind an ambush? After the first couple of bad guys die when struck from behind, why don't the rest turn around?
"Revolution" carries a stark warning to humanity -- after the electricity stops, so will logic. The current season depicts the 16th year after the global power blackout. A child born at least two years after the blackout is shown as now a man in his mid-20s. No explanation. A character is shot in the stomach at close range with a bullet from an assault rifle; in a few minutes she is completely fine without medical treatment, and able to walk several miles. A good-guy character is shot in the chest with a crossbow arrow, recovers in a day or so when treated with "balm," then needs mere seconds to kill a huge muscular man by kicking him once.
After electricity, good guys cannot be killed but bad guys drop dead instantaneously if a good guy looks at them crosswise. And there's an infinite supply of bad guys. Viewers are told that about a year after the blackout, order broke down and a horrific Hobbesian war of all against all killed 90 percent of the American population. Since then militias have fought each other for control of towns and of remaining manufactured products. So military-age males ought to be in short supply. Instead, the societies of "Revolution" seem to consist entirely of military-age males and good-looking young women.
There are huge muscular men everywhere, all obedient to various crackpot warlords who are obviously insane. No matter how many military-aged males are killed, twice as many more march in. But there are no old people, no children -- and no farmers. No one grows crops or raises stock: Eating seems to have been forgotten altogether, though there's plenty of moonshine, which characters drink all day long, and unlimited bullets. Plus, Aaron the computer geek has been wearing the same clothes for 16 years, and they're not frayed.
During the initial episodes, it was darkly hinted the blackout was caused by a test of a military ray-gun weapon; during the test, something went Horribly, Horribly Wrong. The McGuffin everyone was seeking in the first season was a flash drive with software that nullified the ray-gun effect and caused electricity to come back on. A dozen or so episodes concerned maneuvering for the mysterious flash drives. Then "Revolution" was renewed for another season, and the flash drives, like food, were forgotten -- they haven't even been mentioned in the current season. In the future, memories will be short.
Now viewers are told that self-aware nanobots shut down the electricity in order to, in order to . . . presumably, that's the Big Reveal for the series finale. Often as action series are strung out and new twists added, previous episodes become nonsense in retrospect. This year's plot twists have rendered nonsensical nearly everything in the series pilot. Consider the super-scientist character, Rachel. Now we're told that 16 years previously, Rachel designed the self-aware nanobots and always knew they would destroy the world. Yet in the pilot, she's a mother with two little children, she's made no preparations to care for them after what we're now told she always knew would be a permanent global blackout. And in the pilot she was obsessed with getting one of the flash drives, though we're now told they were always no good versus the self-aware nanobots she herself built.
"None of this makes any sense" -- an actual line from a character in the latest "Revolution" episode. So brace yourself for what's coming as the next weirdest show on prime time, "Resurrection," premiering in March. The premise: in a remote town where all of the phone lines have failed, long-dead people come back to life. "None of this makes any sense," the protagonist says in the "Resurrection" trailer now running in theaters.
Race to the Bottom at Big Universities: The University of Louisville made itself look terrible by bringing back weasel coach Bobby Petrino, and no one seems to care except Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby. He notes Petrino "didn't pay any price for all the embarrassments he caused to the institutions where he was at, to his family, to the NCAA and to the member schools." This is a core point about institutional corruption in NCAA sports. If a player eats a free cheeseburger, all hell breaks loose. If a coach behaves dishonorably, he gets a $3.5 million-a-year deal. Human beings respond to incentives; in big-college football, cheating is rewarded and dishonor never punished.
Syracuse University is maneuvering to make itself look terrible. As noted by reader Mike Zaino of Rocky Hill, Conn., though a private school that costs undergraduates $57,450 a year, Syracuse is lobbying for at least $300 million in taxpayers' money to build a fancy new football stadium. Last year, Syracuse cleared an $11 million profit on football; a new stadium with luxury boxes would increase that. If a private school wants a nicer football stadium in order to gain revenue, why should average taxpayers -- many of whom cannot afford college for their own children -- be compelled to pay? New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, born into privilege, endlessly says he's for the average person. If he backs a public giveaway to a private university, voters may find out where his true loyalties lie.
Louisville and Syracuse are amateurs compared to how the University of North Carolina is striving to make itself look terrible. First there was the 2011 scandal regarding fake courses for athletes. The NCAA lowered the boom on a player but only slapped the wrists of the university.
After all, the NCAA's policy is that players should be used up and thrown away, while colleges, coaches and athletic staff should roll in money. So fake courses were not in any way offensive to the NCAA. But a player revealing the existence of fake courses -- off with his head!
Last month the professor who ran the fake courses was indicted for fraud. What about higher-ups at the university, the deans and the chancellor? In big organizations, the people on top say they should receive ginormous paychecks because the buck stops with them. Then, when something goes wrong, they say they're not responsible. Holden Thorp, who was chancellor when fake courses were being offered at UNC, paid no fines, faced no indictment. He's now provost at Washington University in St. Louis, a cushy job at a top school. Thorp and Petrino ought to get together and have a few laughs.
The University of North Carolina's latest move toward the bottom is to lash out at a whistleblower who says many Tar Heels athletes don't read well enough to be qualified for high school, let alone college. Only after trying to blame the messenger did the school agree to investigate: first step in the "investigation" is ordering researcher Mary Willingham to stop discussing her allegations. Maybe the investigation will show the claims of illiterate athletes aren't true. If they are true, will Tar Heels chancellor Carol Folt resign?
Wacky Dog Food of the Week: Kibbles 'n Bits dog food now offers "grilled USA beef steak flavor." Though there are several USDA grades of beef, "grilled USA beef steak" is not one of them. But then the dog food doesn't actually contain "grilled USA beef steak," only its flavor.
Wacky Human Food of the Week: TMQ likes coffee with nonfat half-and-half. The other day, my grocer was fresh out, so I bought regular half-and-half and mixed it with skim milk. This means I made half half-and-half.
Wacky Primate Food of the Week: Many readers, including Marcia Hefler of Santa Monica, Calif., noted the news that bananas are bad for monkeys.
Adventures in Officiating: Everyone agrees NaVorro Bowman recovered Seattle's fumble at the San Francisco 1. Even the football gods agreed, causing Seattle to lose another fumble on the next snap. The frustrating part was that replay review can't overturn a fumble ruling on the field. That needs to be corrected in the offseason. The reasoning is that dog piles following a fumble often are impossible to see into, so replay won't show anything definitive. In this case, replay did have a definitive view.
TMQ maintains that officials consistently call this situation incorrectly. When the ball comes out and a player on the ground grabs it, the whistle should sound immediately. The play should be over the instant a fumble is possessed by a man on the ground who's in contact with an opponent. Instead, officials tend to let the boys fight it out in the dog pile, where matters quickly become Darwinian.
Hidden Play of the Championships: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but sustain or stop drives. With Denver leading 3-0 in the first quarter, the Flying Elvii had first-and-10 at midfield. Tom Brady play-faked and rolled right; Julian Edelman cut deep left and was as open as an NFL receiver ever gets; Brady badly missed him. Had New England recorded a touchdown on this play, taking an early lead -- Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats maintains home-field advantage works most in the first quarter, then fades -- the game outcome might have been different. Instead, New England ended up punting, and Denver drove the other way for a 10-0 lead.
Next Week: Readers vote on the coveted longest award in sports: Entertainment and Sports Programming Network's Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-Quarterback Non-Running-Back National Football League Most Valuable Player.
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The King of Sports" and eight other books, and is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
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