Commentary

That sinking feeling for the 49ers

Originally Published: September 24, 2013
By Gregg Easterbrook | ESPN.com

TMQTodd Detwiler

Psssssttttttttttt. That's the sound of the air leaking out of the 49ers' balloon.

A few months ago, a mere three yards shy of Super Bowl victory, San Francisco was just pounded on its home field by the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Andrew Luck defeat his former college coach, Jim Harbaugh, but also Harbaugh's former college assistant Pep Hamilton, now offensive coordinator at Indianapolis, composed a game plan that looked an awful lot like the Stanford offense.

"Awful" suddenly applies to the Niners. They've lost their last two outings by a combined 56-10. Since taking the field for the Super Bowl, San Francisco is 1-3. Sunday, the vaunted San Francisco defense was hapless; Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis repeatedly missed tackles. The Colts' defense -- 26th-ranked in 2012 -- dominated the Niners' vaunted offensive line. The San Francisco zone read that was unstoppable during the playoffs has turned unstartable. Star Aldon Smith is in limbo and star Frank Gore is in meltdown.

Colts leading 13-7 in the third quarter, on first down Colin Kaepernick was dropped for a loss trying to run the zone read. A second down rush was stuffed. On third-and-13, veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin made the rookie error of pulling up his pattern short of the first-down marker. Now it's fourth-and-4 on the Indianapolis 45 -- and Harbaugh/West sends in the punt unit! An offense that gained 468 yards in the Super Bowl punts on fourth-and-4 in opposition territory while trailing in the second half at home. Harbaugh/West might as well have left for a craft-brewed ale along the wharf. By the time San Francisco entered Indianapolis territory again, the score was 27-7 and the clock nearly expired.

Then there's the matter of the naked quarterback. Kaepernick has thrown for three touchdowns and four interceptions, with a 72.5 passer rating. At Kansas City, Alex Smith, sent packing to grant Kaepernick the San Francisco job, has four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 92.1 rating. Discounting for the 2012 San Francisco-St. Louis tie in which both played, since the beginning of last season, Smith is 9-2 as a starter, Kaepernick is 8-5. All of Kaepernick's starts are with a team many touts view as having the league's best roster. Three of Smith's starts have come with the worst team of 2012.

In August, this column supposed "Smith is the real deal. At the Niners, Harbaugh/West was so eager to showcase Kaepernick that Smith fell out of favor despite performing well. In Smith's final 2012 appearances with San Francisco, he combined to go 25 for 27 with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. Should Smith play well in Andy Reid's pass-wacky system, this trade will be viewed as the year's steal."

Kaepernick is talented, but his emergence was tied to NFL defenders not knowing how to handle the zone read. Now they do, as Robert Griffin III has found. If the zone read recedes into the collector's case as just a flavor of the month, teams will go back to emphasizing the kind of tried-and-true passing tactics epitomized by Tom Brady, the Manning brothers, Drew Brees -- and Alex Smith. By season's end, will Niners faithful be wishing their team had kept Smith?

Speaking of whom, the Kansas City Chiefs, who had two victories in 2012, already have three in 2013. Perhaps they will go worst-to-first.

Last season the Colts and Vikings jumped from the cellar to the playoffs. In the NFL's format, with just four clubs per division, each member team has a 25 percent chance of finishing first, plus a bonus chance of a wild card. Eight divisions, each with four teams with a one-in-four shot at the title -- if victories were distributed by chance, each season there would be two worst-to-first outcomes. Turns out that in the last decade, there have been an average of 2.5 playoffs teams that were cellar-dwellers the previous year. So Kansas City's chances are good.

[+] EnlargeBoston Braves and Portsmouth Spartans
Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection The Portsmouth Spartans defeat the Boston P*rs*ns in 1933. Flash forward to 2013.

In other football news, the ghosts of the Portsmouth Spartans are smiling. The Spartans defeated the old Boston R*dsk*ns at Boston in 1933; then the Spartans were renamed the Detroit Lions and beat the R*dsk*ns in Boston in 1935; since the team moved to Washington, the Spartans/Lions had never won there. On Sunday, the Lions won in Washington for the first time ever, ending a 0-21 streak.

Stats of the Week No. 1: The Oilers/Titans beat San Diego for the first time since 1992, breaking a 0-9 streak.

Stats of the Week No. 2: The Dolphins have outscored opponents 17-3 in the fourth quarter.

Stats of the Week No. 3: The Ravens are 6-1 versus the Texans.

Stats of the Week No. 4: DeMarco Murray has rushed for 428 yards in his last two games against the Rams.

Stats of the Week No. 5: The Washington defense is on a pace to allow 7,808 yards; the NFL's all-time season worst is 7,042 yards.

Stats of the Week No. 6: In the first half at Carolina, the Giants had 1 net yard passing.

SportsNation

The 0-3 Steelers need to:

  •  
    15%
  •  
    52%
  •  
    33%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,815)

Stats of the Week No. 7: Tom Brady is 88-16 as a starter in home games.

Stats of the Week No. 8: The Patriots and Bengals are a combined 28-4 when BenJarvus Green-Ellis scores a touchdown.

Stats of the Week No. 9: Since the start of the 2010 season, the Jets are 6-1 versus the Bills and 23-24 versus all other teams.

Stats of the Week No. 10: Alex Smith is on a streak of 26 touchdown passes versus five interceptions.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 1: Trailing favored Atlanta 23-20, Miami reached second-and-goal on the Falcons 1 with 40 seconds remaining. The Genetically Engineered Surimi came out with a heavy power set; then the tailback went in motion wide left, making the defense expect the fullback up the middle; Ryan Tannehill play-faked to the fullback then threw to backup tight end Dion Sims, touchdown. TMQ's law of short yardage holds: Do a little dance if you want to gain that yard. Miami had two kinds of misdirection on the play, which was sweet. Sweet bonus: two times the Dolphins' defense forced Atlanta to settle for red-zone field goal attempts.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 2: Arizona leading New Orleans 7-0, the Saints lined up trips right with speedster Darren Sproles widest, tight end Jimmy Graham closest and the recently recycled Robert Meachem in the middle. At the snap, Sproles faked a hitch, while Graham headed up the field. The recently recycled Meachem hesitated as if to block for Sproles. The Cardinals' secondary came up on Sproles as Meacham ran a go, touchdown. Sweet.

[+] EnlargeTitans Cheerleader
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesEvery two decades the Titans' cheerleaders dance for a victory against San Diego.

Sour Play of the Week: In Week 2, the Vikings lost late when their secondary let Chicago's tight end get open in the right corner of the end zone in the final minute. Now it's Minnesota 27, Cleveland 24 in the final minute. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron already has two touchdown receptions, including one in the right corner of the end zone. Surely the Vikings won't let him go open in the right corner of the end zone! They do, touchdown, Cleveland wins.

That's not all that was sour for Minnesota. The Vikings allowed a 34-yard run from a punt formation. When the Cleveland field goal unit broke the huddle at the Minnesota 11, the Vikings ignored Cameron splitting wide; the holder threw him a touchdown pass. The play was well-designed, with Cameron splitting toward the Cleveland sideline. If he'd been near the Minnesota sideline, Vikings personnel would have pointed at him. "A lot of Minnesota supporters think their team is better than its 0-3 record indicates," yours truly heard on sportstalk radio the morning of the game. Can't be worse than 0-3 indicates.

Sweet 'N' Sour Sequence: The host Flaming Thumbtacks trailing 17-13 with 21 seconds remaining, Tennessee faced third-and-10 on the San Diego 34, out of timeouts. Touchdown pass to rookie Justin Hunter, Tennessee wins -- Hunter's first NFL reception, making the play doubly sweet.

With 51 seconds remaining, Bolts' safety Marcus Gilchrist dropped an interception that would have ended the contest. The Titans reached third-and-6: two incompletions would have ended the contest. San Diego ran an all-out safety blitz, 11 yard catch to sustain Tennessee's hopes. Did Bolts coaches learn their lesson? On the winning snap, San Diego again ran an all-out safety blitz, which left Hunter single-covered into the end zone. Sour defense.

With two ticks left on the clock, San Diego tried the Trinity of Texas play. Here is how the NFL Game Book describes what happened:

"(:02) (Shotgun) P.Rivers pass to D.Woodhead to TEN 44 for 13 yards. Lateral to E.Royal to TEN 33 for 11 yards. Lateral to L.McClain to TEN 46 for -13 yards. Lateral to P.Rivers to SD 45 for -9 yards. Lateral to K.Allen to SD 40 for -5 yards. Lateral to E.Royal to SD 35 for -5 yards. Lateral to K.Allen to SD 33 for -2 yards. Lateral to D.Woodhead to SD 33 for no gain. FUMBLES, RECOVERED by TEN-A.Verner at SD 29. 1-10-SD 43. Penalty on SD-P.Rivers, Illegally Kicking Ball, declined."

[+] EnlargeBengals
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsHow sweet it is. And how sour.

Sweet 'N' Sour Sequence No. 2: Green Bay leading 30-27 at Cincinnati, the Packers faced fourth-and-inches on the Bengals 30 with four minutes remaining. Conversion puts Green Bay in the driver's seat, and the Packers were having a rare good day on the ground, with 182 yards rushing to that point. Third-string running back Johnathan Franklin fumbled, and Cincinnati returned the ball for the winning points. Plays don't get more sweet-and-sour. Extra sour for Green Bay was that it was only the fifth fumble by a Packers running back since the start of the 2012 season.

Every Action Show Needs an Underground Control Center: Tomorrow the goofy sci-fi show "Revolution" begins its second season, carrying this stark warning to humanity -- In the future, nothing will make sense.

Current action series "Revolution," "Defiance," "The Walking Dead" and "Falling Skies" all have same basic situation: a ragtag group of survivalists wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape armed with those special guns that never run out of ammunition. Hollywood loves post-apocalyptic scenarios. The props and sets are a snap. Rip some old consignment-shop clothes, buy some junker school buses, lease an unwanted industrial area and voilà! Post-apocalypse.

Falling Skies
TNTOn "Falling Skies," even the prop guns with blanks never need to be reloaded.

In "Defiance," several alien species invaded Earth from a fleet of super-advanced space arks. Now, just a few years later, not only have the aliens forgotten everything about the technology that brought them across the stars, they've forgotten how to build cars that have doors.

In "Falling Skies," a super-advanced alien armada took 24 hours to destroy all the world's militaries, but three seasons later still has not finished off the ragtag survivalists, despite attacking them relentlessly. The resistance uses rifles to destroy alien battle bots that during the initial invasion were impervious to tank cannon and precision-guided munitions.

As the third season of "Falling Skies" began, slaves wearing mind-control devices were removing rocks from a mine, under the direction of malevolent aliens. Apparently out there among the stars, faster-than-light battlecruisers are a dime a dozen but rocks have become incredibly precious. Above the mine entrance is a sign reading, "NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY." In the show, the sole beings alive on Earth are malevolent aliens, slaves wearing mind-control devices, and ragtag survivalists with guns that never run out of ammunition. So for whom, exactly, is the "NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY" declaration intended?

"Revolution" tops them all for sheer goofiness. In the future, electricity blacked out globally for 15 years. The explanation has changed repeatedly as NBC ordered more episodes, necessitating stalling the plot. First the explanation was a "machine that sucks up all electricity." Then the explanation was a computer virus on a flash drive. Then it was quadrillions of nanites that "absorb electricity and use it to reproduce." Then it was a superconducting supercollider that emits some kind of pulse. The nanites were my favorite explanation -- once they absorbed all the electricity, wouldn't they have died off?

In last season's finale, the good guys reached the underground control center for the run-amok government experiment that caused the 15-year blackout. Once in the command room they punched a couple buttons and immediately the entire globe lit up, power coming back on everywhere. But electricity isn't just floating in the air. Even if whatever was "sucking up electricity" were eliminated, it would take weeks or months to restart power plants.

[+] EnlargeGame Over
NBCOn "Revolution," the Wrigley Field sign says "2012 world champions." The series really is science fiction!

The underground control center is a masterwork of action-movie clichés. Hundreds of feet below the surface, it is the size of a small city. Such a complex would require thousands of workers many years to complete, yet no one knew the complex was there. The facility contains a supercollider, which would have cost billions of dollars, yet Congress and the White House knew nothing about the project. Where did the funding come from? The underground complex offers narrow walkaways over enormous chasms, plus air shafts big enough to run through while standing up.

To reach the underground complex, two characters walked from Virginia to Colorado Springs. This took about a week by the show's clock, and their one set of clothes remained clean: many "Revolution" episodes depict people walking vast distances without rest, food or wearing out shoes. Arriving at the Centennial State's eastern border, the characters passed a "Welcome to Colorado" sign; there they paused to behold the towering Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are 200 miles from the eastern border of Colorado. So that's how they walk so far in "Revolution" -- after the apocalypse, distances will shrink!

The Football Gods Chortled: As the Eagles took the field hosting Kansas City, NFL Network announcer Brad Nessler noted that Michel Vick had thrown 94 consecutive passes without an interception. Immediately Vick threw a pick-six.

[+] EnlargeThe King of Sports
Courtesy Thomas Dunne Books Reform and the future of football.

Maybe, Possibly, I Will Mention My New Book: Polarized contemporary debate assumes that whatever the subject, one must be either "for" or "against." Why can't a person really like something yet also acknowledge its faults and want them corrected? That's how I feel about the United States -- I love the country, and want it reformed. That's how I feel about football -- love the sport, want it reformed.

Your columnist lays this out in "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America," which is published today. The book's core theme is how to change football so the sport is "just as exciting and popular, but no longer notorious."

From concussions to NFL subsidies to endless NCAA scandals, football is acquiring a polarizing reputation. Some are for -- play the games, leave things alone, keep those pesky reformers away from the king of sports. Others are against -- stop the games, shut the sport down. To me, reform is what's promising.

Think about the core issues facing football. Whether young people should play; whether public high schools can afford the litigation exposure; whether the advent of year-round football is ruining the GPAs of high school boys; whether football-factory universities exploit players; why so few football-factory players graduate; the Grand Illusion that college players will reach the NFL when less than 3 percent do; public subsidies to billionaire NFL owners; the outrageous tax gimmick that allows NFL headquarters to pretend to be a charity; whether an education-based society should have a favorite sport that encourages millions of young people to risk neurological damage.

Many who love football wish these issues would just go away. They won't. "The King of Sports" is about what aspects of football are good, and what must change.

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCoaching needs more decent human beings.

Because much of the book is critical, I also wanted a positive example. Your columnist spent most of the 2011 season with the Virginia Tech football team, a season that culminated in a BCS bowl game. Virginia Tech has big-time football in perspective -- 20 consecutive winning seasons coupled to a football graduation rate of 77 percent, versus 55 percent for Division I as a whole. Perhaps you think, "That's because Virginia Tech has Frank Beamer, a decent human being. Decent human beings are in short supply in coaching." Beamer is a factor -- but so is the way the Virginia Tech football experience is structured. "The King of Sports" shows that what the Hokies do to combine victory with players throwing their caps into the air at commencement could be done at any university that meant what it said about the term "student-athlete."

Here are buy buttons for all the major national booksellers. Here is an excerpt in the new Atlantic Monthly. On Sept. 24, I will be on NPR's All Things Considered and on Sept. 25, on MSNBC's Daily Rundown discussing the book.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Carolina leading 10-0 with 19 seconds remaining before intermission, the Panthers faced third-and-12 on the Jersey/A 16. Carolina lacked a timeout. This dictated the pass had to go into the end zone; anything stopped on the field of play might not allow time for the field goal unit to attempt a kick. The situation also dictated that a sack did not matter; the Cats would still be in field goal range, with the clock rather than the yard line their problem. What the Giants' defense needed was to stop a pass into the end zone. It's a blitz! Six gentlemen charge; no safety lines up in the end zone; third-stringer Terrell Thomas has single coverage on Brandon LaFell, who runs his pattern to the end zone, touchdown.

[+] EnlargePatriots cheerleader
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsWhen Tampa punted trailing 23-3, New England cheerleaders chanted "Game over! Game over!"

"Safe" Tactics Fail Again: Trailing Detroit by 10 points, the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons faced fourth-and-goal on the Lions 3 with 1:40 remaining, holding three time outs. Washington needs to score twice. The "safe" move is to take a field goal here, which is what Mike Shanahan did; the game ended with Washington at midfield.

Though the "safe" move is to take the field goal, even if Washington either recovers an onside kick or uses its timeouts to get the ball back, then it will trail by a touchdown and be far from paydirt. That's why the Rdskns should have gone for the touchdown, as should any team in this situation. Then only a field goal is required, and while a touchdown mandates traversing the length of the field, a field goal can be launched from long distance. Going for the touchdown in this situation means the team has to gain another 25 yards or so if it gets the ball back; taking the field goal means if the team gets the ball back, it must gain another 50 yards or so.

But taking the field goal is the "safe" move, so Shanahan did. Had he gone for the touchdown, he would have been blamed by sportstalk for the loss. Doing the "safe" thing shifted blame to his players.

Art Imitates Life: Michigan's Devin Gardner is wearing 98, jersey number of fabled Wolverine Tom Harmon, who won the 1940 Heisman Trophy and was, to his era, what LeBron James is to ours. Though there is far more money in sports today than in the 1940s, don't think there was no marketing then. Today sport stars have electronic avatars. Then, Harmon lent his name to a series of young-people's novels featuring a fictionalized Tom Harmon of Stockton College.

Your columnist trudged to a library --- these are buildings where ancient artifacts called books are stored -- and dug up "Tom Harmon and the Great Gridiron Plot" by Jay Dender, published in 1946.

[+] EnlargeTom Harmon
Whitman PublishingA sports star avatar, circa 1946.

The storyline centers on the hope of Stockton College to win its annual rivalry game against Douglas University, whose team is led by the sinister stop-at-nothing head coach Nails Edwards. Stockton has three secret weapons: the handsome, valorous Harmon; a trainer who holds an eccentric belief in cardiovascular conditioning; and a T-formation playbook lent to Stockton's coach by a friend with the Chicago Giants. The sinister Nails Edwards has a secret weapon, too. He has bribed a Stockton professor to plant evidence that will make it seem Tom Harmon cheated on a chemistry test.

The Douglas team is depicted as bigger and stronger than Stockton, because Douglas recruiting standards are low -- a subplot that is quite current. Using conditioning to overcome size also sounds current -- many colleges and high schools now employ this strategy. Ben McGrath of the New Yorker details how Don Bosco Prep of New Jersey uses near-obsessive conditioning to defeat larger opponents. In the 1940s -- even as late as the 1960s -- cardio conditioning was rare, seen as something for marathon runners, not manly men. As recently as the 1960s a standard football summer-camp test was the 12-minute run: could a player jog for 12 minutes without stopping? Then, many could not.

As for the playbook, the Chicago Bears' fight song, written in 1941, contains the phrase, "We'll never forget how you thrilled the nation/with your T-formation." At the time, a pro football T-formation playbook would have been a valuable edge. And Harmon has an amazing, radical idea about how to use the playbook -- he will call the plays himself, at the line of scrimmage!

Cue the ominous music. When the chemistry professor is proctoring a test the day before the big game, he announces he has found a crib sheet sticking from Tom's notebook. Harmon is immediately marched to the office of the president of Stockton College, who declares he has no choice but to expel the school's football star. This part of the storyline does seem to lack relevance to the way today's football-factory universities are administered.

Never fear! Tom's stalwart teammates search for evidence of the plot -- after helping Harmon pack his suitcase and leave the campus. They find a letter in which, conveniently, Nails Edwards spelled out the conspiracy: Lots of old novels turn on the discovery of a letter. Just before kickoff, the chemistry professor is confronted, and confesses. Reinstated, Tom races to the locker room to dress. He wins the game by calling a hook-and-lateral on the final play.

"Pip it up you fellows!" Harmon cries in the locker room when Stockton trails at halftime. "Sis boom bah!" the cheerleaders chant. Illustrations in the book show Stockton students wearing coat-and-tie or dresses and high heels to class.

[+] EnlargeSenior citizens
Robyn Beck/Getty ImagesSociety has known for years that a wave of retirees is coming. Society's plan? Pretend it's not happening.

Baby Boomers Debuted by Creating the Sixties, Bow Out by Bankrupting the Country: Yet another federal budget showdown looms on Capitol Hill. The short-term fiscal outlook is positive for the first time in many moons, with the federal deficit and many state deficits declining compared to last year. But the long-term outlook remains bleak, with the total national debt climbing and many states having staggering unfunded pension liabilities.

Last week the Congressional Budget Office released this study showing that while the sequester has reduced short-term spending on discretionary items, spending on big-ticket areas -- Social Security, health care, entitlement benefits -- is rising with no end in sight. The disturbing aspect of the mega-deficits that began under George W. Bush, and have continued under Barack Obama, is that they occurred before the Baby Boom heads for the retirement home. Knowing the dotage of the Baby Boom was coming, the nation should have been saving. Instead the nation has been spending like there is no tomorrow -- and when the Baby Boom retirement costs fall due, tomorrow comes.

The Words "Game Over:" Readers fairly have asked how they can know I write the words "game over" in my notebook when I believe a head coach has just made a fatal error.

Game Over
Gregg EasterbrookTest of "game over" in front of the entire nation! Or, of anyone who looked.

Thursday night there was a live test on Twitter. In the North Carolina State versus Clemson contest, the Wolfpack faced fourth-and-2 on the Tigers' 40 in the first quarter. When head coach Dave Doeren sent in the punt unit, TMQ wrote the words "game over" in his notebook -- and immediately tweeted that fact. Yea, verily, it came to pass that North Carolina State lost.

Was this a reasonable test of my game-over theory? Clemson was the favorite; then again, TMQ declared game-over with 3:36 remaining in the first quarter of a close game. The obvious next step would be to do a weekly live Twitter test. Complication: at some point I'd be sure to be wrong.

Readers on Twitter: Bob Stevens of Jamestown, N.Y., tweeted "game over" when Michigan State, trailing 17-13, punted on fourth-and-5 from its 45 with 6 minutes remaining. Stevens was correct. Just to prove this was no fluke, still trailing 17-13, Michigan State punted again with three minutes remaining. When Michigan, trailing UConn 21-14 in the early fourth quarter, went for it on fourth-and-2 and failed, Jeffrey Miller of Elkhart, Ind., tweeted this meant Michigan would win -- TMQ theory holds that it's better to try and fail than be afraid to try. Miller was correct.

Next Season on "Survivor Mars," Contestants Fight Over an Oxygen Tank: Last week scientists reported no trace of methane has been found by the Curiosity rover on Mars, which makes it even more unlikely there is organic life there. This is one of many reasons there seems no hurry to get a vessel bearing people to Mars.

The main reason there's no hurry is cost. Harvard Business Review estimates Mars is "a trillion dollars away." Expand the graphic to see the core of the challenge -- even a rudimentary Mars mission would require about 4,000 tons of vessel and supplies at departure from Earth orbit, or 10 times the weight of the space station. Placing that much mass into orbit would require the equivalent of 30 launches of the Saturn V moon rocket; during the entire Apollo program, there were 11 launches of the Saturn V. The second reason not to send people to Mars is that automated probes can accomplish anything people could. The third reason is that there's no point trying to live there. Only a handful of researchers try to live in Antarctica, which is far more hospitable than Mars and can be reached at less than 1 percent of the cost.

[+] EnlargeGame Over
Walt Disney PicturesEven Hollywood can't afford location shoots on Mars.

None of this dissuades Mars dreaming! In 2010, President Barack Obama said a crewed ship could go into orbit around Mars -- prelude to a later landing -- "by the mid-2030s." Speakers at this recent Washington conference, including NASA administrator Charles Bolden, suggested Mars flight may happen sooner. Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, held a press conference at which he declared that a privately funded Mars mission would depart in 2018 at a cost of just $1 billion. Tito received some moderately credulous press though his project has no rocket and though the tiny, automated, one-way Curiosity rover cost about $1.5 billion.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has claimed a Mars colony could start for $36 billion, with the ticket price being $500,000 per person for the 50 million mile journey. How this could possibly be when SpaceX currently charges $135 million to deliver a small capsule of supplies 200 miles to the space station isn't clear. Atlantic Monthly -- the best, highest-quality magazine of our generation -- recently treated seriously an entrepreneur's claim that Mars could be reached for "a few million dollars per person".

Surely men and women will walk on Mars one day; perhaps, live there. But with current propulsion technology, the notion of Mars travel is nonsense. Assuming someday there will be a propulsion breakthrough, it's still hard to explain what would justify the cost and risk of living on Mars. Settlers of the past took great risks, suffered hardships, and achieved much, but in most cases did so at their own expense. The Mars dreamers want someone else to fund their adventure.

"Vaccination Certificate Please," Heinz Field Gate Personnel Say: During the Chicago at Pittsburgh contest, announcer Al Michaels declared, "The Steelers have rabid fans." I don't want to sit next to a rabid fan.

Wacky Food of the Week: The high-end foodie world was rocked in 2011 when El Bulli of Catalonia shut down. The restaurant had two memorable qualities -- dinner was $200 a head, and dinners had no clue whether they were eating organic materials (in the biochemistry sense) or aluminum shavings sprayed with radium. In the spirit of El Bulli, an annual Madrid Fusion Festival now previews strange combinations dreamed up by high-end chefs. This year's festival drew 100 chefs and 10,000 tourists. We live in a world where 10,000 people have enough money and time to travel internationally to taste food! The Wall Street Journal's George Semler reported on cutting-edge dishes at the festival:

[+] EnlargeChef
AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani"Hmmm. Could use a dash more aclla cress."

• Chef Angel Leon made "green mozzarella-like cheese from phytoplankton." Leon says he gets recipe ideas by "listening to the ocean."

• Chef Elena Arzak used "papier-mâché technique to paint a balloon with pulverized herbs" into a "crunchy canopy" for hake.

• Chef Javier Brichetto won "Best Tapas Design" for sardines marinated in vinegar from Jerez, with aclla cress.

• Chef Joan Roca offered a sandwich of sardines, "foam of yeast, Moscatel grape puree and toasted bread-and-olive-oil ice cream."

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk: TMQ tracks willingness to go for it on fourth down: doing so is often not a "huge gamble," as broadcasters say, but the percentage move. St. Louis went for it six times against the Cowboys, converting thrice, and was clobbered: Les Mouflons were so outclassed it didn't seem to matter what tactics they used. Tennessee took a field goal from the San Diego 2, yet went on to victory. Both these outcomes contradicted TMQ dogma.

The rest of Sunday's fourth-and-short results upheld TMQ dogma. City of Tampa punted in the fourth quarter when trailing 23-3 at New England. Who cares if it was fourth-and-9? The punt ran up the white flag. Trailing 24-9 in the third quarter, Houston punted on fourth-and-3 at midfield; the Moo Cows went down hard. Cincinnati leading 14-10, Green Bay kicked on fourth-and-goal from the Bengals 1; the Packers went on to lose by 4 points. Leading 10-7, Atlanta kicked on fourth-and-1 from the Miami 2; the Falcons went on to lose by 4 points. Trailing 17-0, the Steelers kicked on fourth-and-4 from the Chicago 9, going on to lose badly at home. As noted above, the NFC defending champion 49ers kicked on fourth-and-4 in Indianapolis territory when trailing in the second half, and needless to say were defeated.

On the flip side, fortune favors the bold! Game scoreless, the Panthers went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Jersey/A 2. Touchdown, triggering a 38-0 rout. Leading 10-0, Chicago went for it on fourth-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 1. Touchdown, triggering a 40-23 rout.

[+] EnlargeNina Davuluri
Michael Loccisano/Getty ImagesNina Davuluri, Miss America 2014 -- a real live niece of her Uncle Sam.

This Items Exists to Justify the Photo: Tuesday Morning Quarterback runs an annual Miss America item strictly as transparent justification for a swimsuit photo. This year's winner, Nina Davuluri of Syracuse, N.Y., has engaged a public-policy question. Media reports say Davuluri's selection prompted racist comments on Twitter and similar social-media sites, from dimwits who believed her name and complexion mean she is an Arab Muslim. Davuluri was born in Syracuse and raised in Oklahoma; her parents are from India, and she's a Hindu.

But suppose Miss America were a Muslim with Arab parents -- so what? One of the strengths of the United States is that anyone born here is a real live niece of her Uncle Sam. There's no skin tone or religion that makes a person American -- it's whether you bleed red, white and blue. Jimmy Cagney, who stared in the 1942 film "Yankee Doodle Dandy," had an Irish mother. The Irish-descended were then subject to prejudice, and now are viewed as quintessentially American. The points that flow from this are obvious.

TMQ would guess that 95 percent of the nation is happy to have a Hindu Miss America with Asian parents. An Arab-descended Muslim Miss America may be a ways off, but when it happens, she'll be born on the Fourth of July.

Untouched Touchdown of the Week: Underdog Colts leading 13-7 late at San Francisco, the Lucky Charms faced third-and-3 on the Niners 6. Andrew Luck faked the handoff and kept the ball on a naked bootleg, walking into the end zone untouched. Naked boot defeats naked quarterback!

Even the Football Gods Got Soaked: Last week TMQ noted a college contest that featured consecutive scoreless overtimes. In driving rain at Blacksburg, Va., this happened again -- Marshall and Virginia Tech played consecutive scoreless overtimes. Another game played in the same storm ended Gardner-Webb 3, Wofford 0.

Sgt. Schultz Impressed: Last week JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay about $1 billion in fines for its botched "London Whale" trades. A few months back, the executive who oversaw the London Whale (the nickname of the trader) told Congress she knew nothing, nothing about the trades. Typically the bonuses of Wall Street executives are based on claims of their incredible financial acumen. But when something goes wrong, they say they had no idea what was happening around them.

Krumble on the Play! TMQ contends that the "krumble" -- kickoff fumble -- is the most devastating moment in football, since a team that just scored immediately gets the ball back in scoring position. Cincinnati scored a touchdown, Green Bay krumbled the kickoff: Cincinnati quickly scored again and went on to win.

Adventures in Officiating: Zebras' arms must have gotten tired from flagging the 27 accepted penalties in the Jets-Bills contest. There were seven penalties on one possession alone. Since Jersey/B gave up 168 yards on penalties, it can seem amazing Buffalo managed to lose -- until the Bills' eight sacks allowed are considered.

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Citadel SportsBen Dupree of The Citadel. He only scored five touchdowns, nowhere near enough to win a modern NCAA game.

The 500 Club: Visiting Fresno State, Boise State gained 561 yards, and lost. Hosting Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic gained 503 yards, and lost. Hosting Pitt, Duke gained 532 yards, scored eight touchdowns, and lost. East Stroudsburg gained 566 yards against Shippensburg, and lost. Eastern Illinois gained 577 yards versus Northern Illinois, and lost. Princeton gained 501 yards versus visiting Lehigh, and lost. Citadel gained 566 yards versus Old Dominion, and lost. Citadel's Ben Dupree scored five touchdowns in a losing cause.

High school 500 Club member note: Decatur Central of Indiana is averaging 59 points scored, and is 2-3. Runaway offense note: Baylor is averaging 70 points scored and 751 yards gained. Saturday, Baylor gained 781 yards despite taking out star Lache Seastrunk after the first series of second half. All of Baylor's opponents have been cupcakes, faced at home -- Buffalo, Wofford, Louisiana-Monroe. Is there any pride in running up the score against opponents who have no chance?

Baylor has one of college football's all-time gimmick schedules -- eight home dates versus four road games. The Bears don't play a ranked school on the road until Oklahoma State just before Thanksgiving.

'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Then Never to Have Rushed at All: Fielding a hot offense made Chip Kelly a coaching celebrity with an endorsement deal from UPS, then a $32.5 million deal with the Eagles. After Thursday night's loss to Kansas City dropped the Nesharim to 1-2, Kelly seemed more interested in talking about the stats of his offense than the result of the contest. Offensive stats made him a wealthy sports celeb. But alone they don't win games, as the 500 Club demonstrates.

Trailing the Chiefs 16-6 in the third quarter, Kelly's Eagles reached second-and-3 on the Kansas City 11 and went incompletion, incompletion, field goal. This was the decisive sequence of the contest. On the night, Philadelphia rushed for 260 yards and a phenomenal 9.3 yards per carry average. But needing three yards in two tries to reach first-and-goal, Kelly got cute and ended up leaving points on the table. The defense was to blame for Kansas City's 15-snap fourth-quarter clock-killer drive. But had Philadelphia scored a touchdown at this point, the outcome might have been different.

The Chiefs punted thrice on fourth-and-short, which normally should have doomed them, but a 5-0 turnover advantage swamps all other leading indicators. Players dumped the Gatorade bucket on Andy Reid as the clock reached all-naughts. Trifle not with the football gods! Kansas City has won three games -- save the celebration for later. If the Chiefs' season implodes, this moment may be the cause.

The 600 Club: Delta State barely avoided admission to the 600 Club, gaining 602 yards at North Alabama yet needing a field goal on the final play for victory. Reader Fran Rosen of Big Rapids, Mich., reports Lake Erie College, a Division II school, gained 650 yards of offense in its home opener against Gannon, and lost. The next week Lake Erie gained 613 yards at Ferris State, and lost. The Storm of Lake Erie College is averaging 535 yards and 39 points per game, and is 1-2. In the Lake Erie-Ferris State matchup, the Storm's big mistake was to kick field goals from the Ferris State 3 yard line and from the 4 yard line, despite rushing for 364 yards on the day. In today's football, gaining 613 yards just doesn't cut it if you settle for field goals.

Cleveland Continues Master Plan of Epic 2014 Draft: In my AFC preview, I noted of the new Cleveland management team, "Rob Chudzinski at coach and Michael Lombardi at general manager traded away fourth- and fifth-round picks to bank extra selections for 2014. Strong teams bank draft choices; for a weak team to bank draft choices is a head-scratcher." Scratch your heads anew over last week's decision by Chudzinski and Lombardi to trade the team's young star, Trent Richardson, to Indianapolis in order to bank another pick for April 2014. The Colts are likely to have a winning season: giving a high 2012 first-round pick for a low 2014 first-round pick is a bad deal unless Richardson is a bust. If he's not a bust and churns out yards for Indianapolis, Cleveland faithful will be hit over the head yet again.

Perhaps the trade is simply an effort by Chudzinski and Lombardi to line up excuses in advance. The previous coach and general manager, Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert, used the third overall choice of 2012 on Richardson, trading additional picks to get that selection. Chudzinski and Lombardi in effect are saying the previous guys blew the 2012 draft. If the Browns do well this season, Chudzinski and Lombardi look like geniuses for overcoming a handicap. If the Browns fold, well, what did you expect, the previous management blew the third choice of the 2012 draft.

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Cindy Ord/Getty ImagesFootball factory programs just love these.

Cupcakes on Parade: Ohio State 76, Florida A&M 0. Miami of Florida 77, Savannah State 7. Washington 56, Idaho State 0. Virginia 49, VMI 0. Florida State 54, Bethune-Cookman 6. Bowling Green 48, Murray State 7. Northwestern 35, Maine 21. What do these games have in common? All involved a lower-division cupcake hired to provide an automatic blowout victory on the field of the hosts. Miami and Savannah State coaches mutually agreed to shorten the second half to prevent the Hurricanes from reaching 100 points. They should have activated the high school mercy rule -- running clock once Miami was ahead by 35.

TMQ's law of blowouts is that when a football team wins by more than 50 points the victor, not the vanquished, should feel embarrassed. Alumni of Ohio State or the University of Miami -- you should feel mortified.

Rachel Bachman noted in the Wall Street Journal, whose sports section continues to impress, that the NCAA's 2005 decision to allow college teams to play 12 games rather than the previous 11 has led to football factories hiring cupcakes for an extra week of revenue and booster parties. This mocks the sportsmanship that collegiate athletics are said to teach.

The NCAA said its 2005 decision was "contingent" on there being a maximum of two possible postseason dates, so a college team could not appear in more than 14 games. Bachman notes that if the big-college playoff system expected to begin in 2015 expands to an 8- or 16-team field, a 16-game season will become possible. All that time away from the classroom would mock the student part of student-athlete. But at this point the NCAA cares more about methane levels on Mars than about education.

Cupcakes Come to the NFL: Jacksonville at Seattle was not, technically speaking, a lower-division opponent hired by a football factory. But the 20-point spread made it sound as though the contest was Jaguars A&M versus Seahawks University.

Pity north Florida and south Georgia, where the NFL compelled viewers to watch Jaguars A&M rather than the headliner Colts at Niners contest. Don't be deceived by Jacksonville scoring 17 points at Seattle. The points came in garbage time; Jacksonville crossed midfield only once in the first half. The Seahawks are allowing an average of 9 points per game.

Reader Animadversion: Last week the column said clean-diesel cars make more economic sense than hybrids. Readers animadverted, including Nick Darling of St. Louis: "I recently purchased a new commuter vehicle with my primary objectives being value and gas mileage. I considered diesel vehicles but I found they are still cost prohibitive, at least for my objectives. Some examples, assuming diesel costs 25 cents per gallon more than gasoline: on the Chevy Cruze, I calculate it would take 37 years to make up the cost difference to buy the diesel model. For the Volkswagen Jetta diesel, it would take eight to 21 years to come out ahead, depending on the model.

"These calculations are for the way I drive, which is city commuting in traffic -- diesels get great highway millage but the city mpg is not much better than gasoline. If you mostly drive long distances on highways, then diesel becomes appealing. For now the problem is automakers are positioning diesel offerings as premium models. You get all the bells and whistles, but that plus the additional cost of the diesel drivetrain wipes out fuel savings in city driving. For what it's worth, I purchased a Honda Civic hybrid, and should make up the cost difference in less than eight years."

Obscure College Score of the Week: Saginaw Valley 35, Findlay 34. Located in Findlay, Ohio, the University of Findlay has an All-Hazards Training Center that will "help you find your level of jeopardy."

Single Worst Play of the Season -- So Far: In the Browns at Vikings collision, when Cleveland muffed a punt, a Minnesota defender scooped up the ball and ran to the end zone. The home crowd roared because it thought a touchdown was scored. But a muffed punt cannot be advanced; officials rightly ruled Minnesota ball at the Cleveland 26. Vikings' coach Leslie Frazer threw a challenge flag. But the play cannot be challenged as all such plays automatically are reviewed. Officials called unsportsmanlike conduct against Frazier, moving the spot back to the Cleveland 41. Minnesota settled for a field goal on the possession. The referee later acknowledged an offseason rule change meant the Vikings should have been assessed a timeout, but not penalized.

Frazier is a highly paid NFL head coach who has 22 assistants, and neither he nor anyone around him on the Vikings' sideline knew a muff cannot be advanced, or that a muff ruling cannot be challenged. Leslie Frazier, you are guilty of the single worst play of the season -- so far.

Next Week: The Raiders are incensed that the Jets are getting more penalties.

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. Every Tuesday during the football season, at 3 p.m. Eastern, he will answer questions on Twitter about that day's column.

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