Football arguments never die. There are still experts who talk about the importance of “establishing the run,” even though the run was disestablished in 1978 and is never coming back. The guy in the barstool next to you shouts “just fall on the ball like you’re told!” at the television after a fumble, even though high school defenders are now taught to scoop and score, for the simple reason that scooping is a far more effective strategy for all but the flabbiest guys on the field.
We can't make tired talking points go away, but we can try. The following topics will come up over and over again in the weeks to come, inspiring (if that is the right word) roundabout arguments that don’t lead anywhere and are not very interesting. You've heard all the rhetoric, and you'll hear it again, but let's pretend to have the last word on four never-ending debates.
Beware of teams that won in the first round — they have “momentum.”
The Giants, Broncos, Texans and Saints all won this weekend. And what did the 49ers, Packers, Ravens and Patriots do? Nothing! Those home teams had better watch out: while they were lying on the couch eating bye-week bonbons, this weekend’s opponents were building a full head of steam.
Since 2001, teams with a first-round bye are 25-15 (.625) in the second round of the playoffs. In gambling terms, 62.5 percent is as close as you will get to a “lock” in the NFL. The home team doesn’t always win, but it doesn’t spend the bye getting rusty and forgetting all the things that led to home-field advantage, either.
Upsets do happen, but they are often not that upsetting. Many are perpetrated by teams like this year’s Saints, obviously great teams that happen to end up with the third seed (and happen to be road favorites). Chasing “momentum” is dangerous, because teams that look hot in the opening round often get brutal reality therapy in the second.
Last year, the Ravens looked like the “hot” team after a 30-7 opening round win against the Chiefs. They went on to their usual playoff loss to the Steelers. The Cowboys and Ravens appeared scary after beating the Eagles and Patriots in 2009, but were outscored 54-6 in the second round.
You get the idea. There is no magical “momentum” at work. If you like the Saints this weekend, join the club, and the road dogs all have their selling points. Just make sure you pick a team because you like a matchup or are impressed with their strengths, not because they are “on a roll.”
Coach should have gone for it on fourth down, or not: poor Mike Smith.
The guy won’t be able to turn on the radio without hearing about fourth-and-1 gambles. He won’t be able to buy groceries: “why did you go for it?” will replace “paper or plastic?” as the cashier’s first question. Fans love it when coaches go for it on fourth down, except when it doesn’t work, and it never seems to work for Smith. The fact that going for it is mathematically proven to be the best strategy in almost every feasible situation will never stop second guessers from questioning the tactic when, and only when, it fails.
The success rate on fourth and short (one or two yards) in the last two years is 55.9 percent. Once you factor in the other variables, like the value of a punt versus the likelihood of scoring if you extend a drive, going for it becomes a mathematical no-brainer in most circumstances.
Fourth-and-1 from midfield? Go for it. Fourth-and-2 from the 39-yard line? Unless there are four seconds left in a tie game, you are better off trying for a first down than a 56-yard field goal. Fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line? Even if you fail, the chances that you force a safety or a quick punt, get the ball back, and score on your next drive make going for it a much better percentage play than an 18-yard field goal.
But what about what the Falcons did? According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons success rate in short yardage in 2011 was 59 percent, a little below league average. The Giants stopped 39 percent of short-yardage plays, a little above average. The short-yardage odds were stacked slightly against them.
The Falcons’ plays of choice — quarterback sneaks both times — was questionable, and they were in one of the situations where going for it is not a statistical slam dunk. Still, as a general rule, coaches should go for it on fourth down far more than they do now, and with some better execution, Smith would be hailed as an innovator of a high-percentage strategy, not a crazy man who tossed the mortgage on the roulette table.
The quarterback doesn’t have what it takes to win in the playoffs
Matt Ryan is bound to hear this one. Matthew Stafford might also hear it. Tony Romo heard it for years. Some people really believe that it takes some magic combination of courage, gumption, or whatever to win in the playoffs, and that some otherwise good quarterbacks don’t have it.
Remember Jim Everett? He was notorious for panicking under pressure and getting into slap-fights with talk show hosts. If there was ever a guy who shouldn’t have been able to win in the playoffs, it was him. Except that he took the Rams to the NFC championship game. But he beat two easy defenses, right? Sure: the Buddy Ryan Eagles and the Bill Parcells Giants.
Rex Grossman led the Bears to a Super Bowl. Bubby Brister once led his team to a playoff win. So did Mark Malone. Let’s not even mention Trent Dilfer. Notorious flakes like David Woodley and Kordell Stewart won playoff games (and Woodley wasn’t always saved at the end by Don Strock). Obvious seat-warmers like Mike Tomczak and Rodney Peete won them. Do we really think these guys had some magic power that a player like Ryan lacks?
Quarterbacks don’t win games, of course. Teams do. There’s a breed of quarterback so bad that the team must cover up for him. Those quarterbacks rarely make the playoffs. There are also Peyton Manning-Drew Brees types who are so good that they can elevate their teams to the playoffs, though Manning ironically wore the “doesn’t what it takes to win” label early in his career.
Every other starting quarterback falls into the middle category, from Ryan and Stafford to Grossman and Mark Sanchez. In favorable circumstances, with good performances, they win. In unfavorable circumstances, they often lose. Losing three straight playoff games doesn’t mean Ryan or someone else is a “loser,” just as winning a playoff game here and there did not turn Grossman or Sanchez into great quarterbacks.
Talking about “the next level” or “what it takes to win” is just a fancy way of blowing smoke. If you aren’t talking about a quarterback’s actual skills, strengths, and weaknesses, you aren’t really saying anything.
A rookie quarterback should learn from the bench, or start right away
Here’s another chestnut that will make the rounds until the draft. It's another favorite topic among stat types, though unlike fourth-down percentages, it yields no productive conclusions. Asking whether rookie quarterbacks are ready to start is like asking if 25-year olds are ready to get married. Any answer besides “I need more specific information” is useless and a little bit irresponsible.
Still, we debate it. The “Start Right Way” camp can use Cam Newton and Andy Dalton as easy examples. The “Benchers” can note that Jake Locker probably learned a lot from Matt Hasselbeck, and that the three best quarterbacks in the league started their careers on the bench (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady). Of these situations, only Rodgers’ has any resemblance at all to the impending Manning-Andrew Luck controversy, but that won’t stop anyone from bringing up whichever example best illustrates their side in the debate.
But what does the research say? It says that if you glom together dozens of different quarterbacks from dozens of different situations, you get an indistinguishable blob of useless information. Smashing the rookie seasons of Sam Bradford, JaMarcus Russell, Charlie Frye and Eli Manning together only makes it obvious that you are trying to build a wristwatch with an analytical sledgehammer. The players are different. The teams and circumstances are different. And the results take years to sort themselves out.
There are a few things to point out about this “argument.” First, there were no “good old days” when every team had a Steve Young waiting in the wings behind Joe Montana or a Danny White behind a Roger Staubach. Those were rare examples, which is why they are the only ones that are ever cited. (Add Rodgers and Favre to the list to make three.)
Most teams in every era were forced to start rookie quarterbacks very early in their careers, or keep them on the bench for a few weeks behind the rickety journeyman who inspired them to draft a new quarterback in the first place. Second, it has become abundantly clear that many quarterbacks like Ryan, Newton, Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, and countless others arrive in the NFL more or less ready to play on Day 1, so grabbing Whoever McCown to start six games as a matter of principle makes little sense.
Still, applying that as a blanket statement is silly: Luck versus Dan Orlovsky may be an obvious question, but so is any rookie on earth versus a healthy Peyton Manning.
All four of these chatter points have one thing in common: they are all vague and over-generalized. So if we want to talk football, let’s make it more interesting for everyone by getting specific. Let’s talk about the Giants' defensive line, not their momentum. Let’s look at fourth-down plays that work instead of lambasting the ones that don’t. Let’s focus on Ryan’s short-passing accuracy, not his intangibles. Let’s talk about a rookie quarterback, not “rookie quarterbacks.” We will have better, more intelligent, more entertaining debates.
Of course, if television producers want me to talk about any of the topics I just ranted against, I am very, very available!
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
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