Jerry Richardson gets grouchy, Chan Gailey gets slouchy and humans like Matt Cassel don’t need to be hit very hard to suffer a potentially serious ouchy. It’s time to open up the Twitter mailbag and see who gets some love (big cornerbacks, Ron Jaworski), who gets some hate (old-school running game apologists) and whose brains are filled with mayonnaise (all of us).
All questions have been re-formatted from Twitter Speak:
* * *
Q: Do you have a surprise AFC team that could make a deep postseason run?
A: The Broncos aren’t exactly a surprise, are they? But then again, they are .500, and most media coverage makes them sound like a Beach Boys tour: It’s great to see an old guy play some classic hits, but this is in no way relevant anymore.
But the Broncos are much more than Peyton Manning and a bunch of guys Mike Love found hanging around the studio. Their defense is ranked eighth in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, and Willis McGahee has been one of the most efficient running backs in the league on a down-by-down basis this season.
Plus, remember their brutal early season schedule, with games against the Steelers, Falcons, Texans and Patriots. They just survived it. The future holds some very beatable opponents like the Browns, Bengals, Panthers and Buccaneers, plus two games against the Chiefs, in addition to this week’s visit from the still-pesky Saints and a late-season trip to Baltimore. If the Broncos can just stop spotting opponents leads, they could easily end up as the second-seeded team in the AFC playoffs.
* * *
Q: Was there really a point in firing Marty Hurney in midseason?
A: The 1-5 Panthers fired Marty Hurney after their loss to the Cowboys, and it was clearly an act of frustration by owner Jerry Richardson. In the short term, firing a general manager puts an increased strain on head coach Ron Rivera and pro scouting director Mark Koncz, who must now make all roster decisions. Little things, like scouring the waiver pool for players to fill the practice squad and cover injuries, could fall through the cracks without an extra executive in the chain of command.
In the long term, the midseason firing sends a bad message to Hurney’s potential successor (win now or clear desk), though too much can be made of that. Hurney had a long run and a good relationship with Richardson, so it is not like the Panthers will become the Raiders East, a team top candidates shy away from. If Richardson plans to promote from within, there is some justification for the midseason firing: The new executive can take complete control of the college scouting process and direct next year’s draft strategy from its earliest stages. Of course, if Richardson planned to promote from within, he did not have to fire Hurney.
Hurney’s overall player acquisition record is not very good. He helped assemble the Panthers team that reached the Super Bowl in 2003, then held onto players from that team for far too long while providing few reinforcements. (I used to call Jake Delhomme “Chief Justice Delhomme” because that is the kind of job security he had.) Other than Cam Newton, Hurney has acquired no “signature” player, and of course Newton has gone from Best Thing Since Corned Beef to Plague Upon Modern Society after a few losses and press conferences. The Hurney firing is an example of a change that had to come sooner, or later, but not necessarily now.
* * *
Q: How is pushing a player out of the end zone not an offense, yet said player re-establishing himself in play to make the catch is?
A: What Patrick Robinson did to Mike Williams near the back of the end zone in the final play of the Saints-Buccaneers game was an offense: It was illegal contact. It wasn’t a blatant foul -- more of the pushing and shoving that always happens when a quarterback scrambles and the receivers and defenders break their routes -- but it was clear enough that it should have been called.
At no point, however, should Williams have been awarded a touchdown. A receiver who leaves the field is no longer eligible, never has been, and never will be. Had Williams used the contact with Robinson to, say, sneak behind the cheerleaders and re-emerge elsewhere to catch a touchdown, we would not want to reward that. The penalties for contact and re-entering the field should have been offset, with the defensive penalty giving the Buccaneers one more play.
When re-watching the final minute of the Saints-Buccaneers game, I got the impression that the refs “swallowed their whistles” a bit, ignoring some borderline calls. That’s no excuse for ignoring a critical call in the end zone, of course. But if the Buccaneers wanted a touchdown on that play, they needed Williams to keep control and stay in bounds after Robinson’s little shove.
* * *
Q: Given tight end productivity, why don’t defensive coordinators find big cornerbacks like Seattle has, ones who might be too slow for receivers but can handle tight ends?
A: Big, slow, physical cornerbacks? You mean “safeties?”
Seriously, teams have placed a premium on finding big cornerbacks or fast safeties who can match up against both Jimmy Graham-style tight ends and Calvin Johnson-sized receivers for years. One reason the Stephon Gilmore shot up the draft boards this season (he was selected 10th overall by the Bills) was because he is 6 feet tall and has a rep for physical coverage. Dre Kirkpatrick was graded as a second-round pick by many experts before the draft (I had him a bit higher), but he was selected 17th overall by the Bengals, who were willing to overlook a lack of elite speed and some character questions to get a 6-foot-1 cornerback with a Nick Saban pedigree. The Seahawks drafted safety Earl Thomas 14th overall in 2010 to get a 200-pound safety with elite speed and good coverage skills.
The problem is that 6-2, 200-pound defenders who can really turn and run in the secondary are pretty rare. Look at a draft guide and you will find page after page of 5-foot-10 cornerbacks, guys adapted to running around in open spaces against NCAA spread offenses. Reach for a big cornerback just to get a big cornerback, and you may get a guy who just lacked the physicality to play safety in college. In short, supply and demand have just not caught up to the NFL’s desire for tight end busters.
* * *
Q: How did Matt Cassel suffer a concussion on a play where it looks like his head was never touched?
A: I had the opportunity to speak to David Halstead of the Southern Impact Research Center about concussions a few weeks ago. Halstead and the SIRC conduct impact tests for football helmets and other athletic headgear, and years of hands-on research have made him an expert on how concussions really happen.
What researchers have known for about a decade (and both sports leagues and the media are just catching up to) is that many so-called “mild” concussions are caused by the rotational acceleration of the head snapping around along the axis of the neck, not the direct linear acceleration of a fast linebacker crashing into a quarterback or a quarterback smacking into the ground. That linear impact is absorbed, by a great degree, by the helmet. The forces caused by rotational acceleration, occurring inside the body, are not
So what we have is a brain sloshing around at tremendous speeds inside a bowl of cranial fluid that Halstead compared to mayonnaise, at a rotational velocity he described as 6,000 radians (about 1,000 revolutions) per second after a massive impact. We did not understand this kind of concussion or its long-term consequences until recently. Until a few years ago, Cassel would have “had his bell rung” and been back on the field quickly, with potentially dire long-term consequences.
So whenever you see a player’s head whip suddenly as a result of contact, there is potential for a concussion. Cassel’s extended time off the field is an example of the NFL moving in the right direction on the concussion issue: proper diagnosis, and a reasonable rest period that reduces the risk of re-injury.
* * *
Q: Would you fire Chan Gailey, Dave Wannstedt, both or neither?
A: I am not a fan of firing coaches midseason, especially when they do exactly the same things they have been doing for years. Chan Gailey has a gadget-happy offense that runs hot-and-cold? There’s a news flash. Wannstedt has a 4-3 defensive scheme from the 1990s, and it doesn’t jibe with all of the 3-4 talent the Bills have accumulated for the past few years? Another shocker. Come Week 17, the Bills should brace for another regime change. Both of these coaches have proven their NFL limitations time and again.
* * *
Q: Is it really that important to run the ball on first down if the team has a superlative passing attack?
A: Absolutely not. If someone like Herm Edwards has been screaming this idea at you all year, I suggest some inanity-canceling earbuds.
It is important for teams with superlative passing attacks -- like the Packers, Patriots and the Eagles of the past -- to run the ball regularly and effectively in a few key situations. They must run well, and often, with a lead late in the game, as the Eagles and Patriots keep re-learning the hard way. They must have a power running component in their goal-to-go offense, a problem that has been an issue at times for the Packers (and the 49ers, of all teams). And the rushing threat must be viable enough to keep defenders from completely committing to the pass rush on 55 snaps per game. That’s why Alex Green is so important to the Packers: He takes the running game from “nonexistent” to “mediocre,” but mediocrity is going to buy Aaron Rodgers a few more milliseconds in the pocket to be great.
Overall, though, the running game is about one-fifth as important in the NFL as old timers will tell you. And on first down, the important thing is to gain meaningful yardage, not achieve “balance.”
* * *
Q: Any football viewing advice for someone new to the game that wants to learn more about football?
A: First, watch as much football as possible. That may sound obvious, but given the choice between watching some talking-suit infotainment programming and watching a game, watch a game. Invest in NFL Game Rewind, get the tablet application and watch “condensed” games (every snap of the game edited into a 40-minute package) while waiting in the doctor’s office. Watch college games; there is one on right now, no matter when you are reading this. Ten minutes of raw football are worth more than two hours of expert analysis.
That said, the show all of us NFL wonks like the most is “NFL Matchup,” where Ron Jaworski, Sal Paolantonio and Merril Hoge take in-depth looks at specific plays and players with the help of their years of experience breaking down coaching tape. ESPN runs “NFL Matchup” on the fishing show schedule (8:30 a.m. on ESPN2, subject to change if Danica Patrick finishes higher than ninth in a NASCAR race), because actual knowledge is not as interesting as nine guys screaming at each other. Admittedly, if you are a football newbie, “NFL Matchup” can get a little detailed at times, but you cannot beat the actual insight.
Does your cable/satellite package include NFL Network? If so, check out “A Football Life,” a weekly documentary that profiles contemporary personalities (Bill Belichick) and past greats (an awesome recent episode covered the Fearsome Foursome, the Rams’ great defensive line of the 1960s anchored by Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones). Also, take a look at “NFL’s Top 10,” a breezy countdown of historical players and events that often includes segments by yours truly!
* * *
Q: Was it me, or was there an unusual number of safeties this weekend?
A: It was you! There were two safeties this week. The Texans sacked Joe Flacco in the end zone, and Mark Sanchez kicked a ball through the back of the end zone to prevent the Patriots from recovering it for a touchdown. The third, a penalty in the end zone by the Seahawks against the 49ers, was declined.
Last year, there were 21 safeties in the regular season, or about 1.2 per week. There were just 12 safeties in 2010 and 14 in 2009, and there have been five this year. Safeties are so rare that you have to expect some statistical volatility: nothing for a month, then two or three in a bunch.