Here’s some analysis of some of the stories that came across the Sports on Earth desk in the last few days: Cam Cameron’s firing, the proposed kickoff rule changes and Chris Kluwe’s sticky support of Ray Guy’s Hall of Fame bid.
The End of Kickoffs
I am not in favor of the proposed “Schiano Rule” that would replace kickoffs with fourth-and-15 opportunities from the 30-yard line. I am not opposed to the Schiano Rule. I stand in gaping astonishment in front of the very idea of the Schiano Rule, as if I were staring at a unicorn fossil I unearthed while digging a veggie garden.
It should not shock anyone that Schiano has some nutty rule proposals stashed away in a dog-eared little dream journal somewhere. But you would expect most of them to involve landmines. Schiano is the innovator of Death Kneel 2:00 after all. He comes across as the guy in your fantasy league who always wants to draft punters and won’t shut up about what a great idea it would be. What’s shocking is that a) Schiano had an idea that was so creative and, well, good; and b) Roger Goodell actually listened to it.
Can you picture Schiano sidling up to Goodell and saying, “Hey Skipper, I have a great new idea for eliminating injuries from kickoffs,” looking like he is about to whip open a dirty trench coat to reveal an assortment of knockoff Bulova watches (and, let’s hope, nothing else)? But instead of calling for security, Goodell listened, and actually liked an idea that is so far out of the box that it is not even in the parking lot of The Container Store so much that he felt confident floating it to Time magazine.
Now, I have no doubt that Goodell is crowd sourcing with this one. It takes a thief to catch a thief, and it takes the minds on the furthest reaches of the blog spectrum to tune in to Schiano’s wavelength and find the flaws in his reasoning. Some poor intern on Park Avenue is being forced to wade through the deepest crannies of our bleacher nation blogosphere searching for fissures in the Schiano Rule, reading every article speculating on the pros and cons of replacing kickoffs with punts, the more tangential and ill-informed, the better. To that poor intern, I can only say, “hope you are enjoying this so far.”
The NFL is mulling other rule changes to eliminate the high-speed collisions of kickoffs. The first is moving kickoffs to the 40-yard line, which would be the conservative, boring choice. The other is a weight limit for the kickoff teams, which sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen. Coming in three years: Weight Gate, in which the poor Norfolk County, Mass., Weights and Measures supervisor in charge of testing gas pumps and high school wrestling scales is forced to testify in front of a grand jury about how he had no idea that the guy standing on the scale in the No. 87 jersey was not Rob Gronkowski at all but horse jockey Javier Castellano. In my past career as a high school teacher, I watched wrestlers spit saliva into paper cups until they reached their weight limits, then head to Old Country Buffet to dive face-first into the carving station in search of a few extra pounds before the meet. If suburban phys-ed teachers can game the system, imagine what a creative rule-shaver like, say, Schiano could come up with.
A few history-minded analysts have compared the Schiano Rule with the legalization of the forward pass at the turn of the 20th century. Both are game-changing innovations meant to prevent critical injuries, and both came from those strange, brief windows of history when Rutgers football was relevant. All kidding aside, the Schiano Rule won’t have quite the impact of the forward pass if it is ratified, but the callback to the Teddy Roosevelt era reminds us that the most dangerous plays in early football were “mass plays,” like the flying wedge. Players were not obligated to line up on the line of scrimmage in 19th-century football, so the offensive line, the backs and the boys of Phi Gamma Delta could surround the ball carrier and plunge into the defense with a 10-15 yard head of steam. Cranial injuries ensued. The advent of the seven-player line of scrimmage had more an impact from a player-safety standpoint than the forward pass. All vestiges of the Flying Wedge disappeared from football early in the 20th century, except for the kickoff return, where the wedge was an accepted strategy until the NFL started taking (ineffective) steps to outlaw it a few years ago.
Eliminating kickoffs would eliminate the last holdover from an era when placing five men in a tight formation and ordering them to race full-speed at a handful of isolated defenders was considered “strategy,” not “reckless endangerment.” When viewed that way, it sounds like a great idea.
I would like to hear some of Schiano’s others, though Goodell would be wise to keep vetting them before they reach the public.
Let My Cameron Go
Cam Cameron’s tenure as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator began with creativity and innovation. It ended on Monday in predictability and frustration.
Cameron arrived in Baltimore in 2008 along with head coach John Harbaugh and rookies Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. Cameron installed an offense that was traditional on the surface but brimming with forgotten, repurposed offensive ideas under the hood. Cameron unbalanced the Ravens line, putting two tackles on one side of the center to confound conventional defensive fronts. He reintroduced two-back rushing principles, making fullback Le’Ron McClain an equal partner in the I-formation rushing attack. The retro-chic power game churned out yardage and drew safeties toward the line of scrimmage so Flacco could beat defenses over the top with his arm. Cameron’s attack suited the Ravens’ defense-first philosophy well, and it fit the personnel: Flacco as in-the-pocket cannoneer, Rice as I-formation projectile.
Over the years, the unbalanced lines and fullback dives disappeared. Nothing replaced them. Football Outsiders uses the high-tech DVOA statistic to measure offensive efficiency. The Ravens leapt from 25th to 19th in offensive DVOA when Cameron took over, then to ninth as Rice and Flacco matured in 2009. They since fell to 12th, then 13th, then were 14th entering this week, despite adding multiple weapons over the years: Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, a pair of all-purpose tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
This offseason, Cameron installed an upgraded no-huddle offense with much fanfare, used it regularly for the first few games, then mysteriously shelved it. The Ravens became a run-and-bomb team, this time without the wrinkles. The offense no longer played to the strengths of the personnel. The immobile Flacco was left without extra protection when opponents blitzed. Rice, an MVP-caliber performer, had to wait in line for touches. Rice touched the ball only 13 times in a close, competitive game against the Steelers two weeks ago, as Flacco launched bomb after bomb into a well-prepared defense.
The Ravens offense was sharper against the Redskins than it was against the Steelers, but one series from Sunday’s loss exemplifies the confusing final weeks of the Cameron era in Baltimore. The Ravens got the ball before halftime on their own 13-yard line with 44 seconds and two timeouts left, leading 21-14. The Redskins were out of timeouts. An offense has two choices in this situation. They can kneel or hand off up the gut to kill the clock, because they are leading, the field position is treacherous and their opponent cannot stop them from going to half. Or, they can drive for a field goal: They have timeouts, so deep passes over the middle are viable, and the Ravens have an outstanding rookie kicker in Justin Tucker.
So what did Cameron decide to do? It’s not really clear.
On first down, Rice took a handoff from Flacco in the shotgun and ran off tackle for no gain. The Rice shotgun handoff made some sense – catch the Redskins dropping into prevent, and the Ravens can get 15 easy yards from Rice – but when he was stuffed, the Ravens called timeout. Clearly, they planned to go whole-hog with a downfield pass on their next play, right?
On second down, Flacco tossed a nine-yard pass to Pitta up the seam. The Redskins blitzed on this down, and Pitta appeared to be the hot read: He turned and waved for the ball once he saw the blitz. Pitta failed to get out of bounds. If the Ravens really wanted to drive, they needed to call their final timeout at this point. But they did not.
Flacco came to the line and ran a quarterback sneak for a first down. Then the Ravens called timeout. There were 16 seconds left.
There was still time to throw a 30 yard pass out of bounds and set up a long field goal attempt. Flacco has the arm, the Ravens have the weapons, and the Redskins have a mistake-prone secondary. The Redskins showed a clear prevent defense on the next play with three down linemen, no coverage defenders within eight yards of the line of scrimmage and three deep safeties unseen on the television feed. Flacco lined up in shotgun with Rice and Pitta in the backfield on either side of him. It was a strange formation for the situation. The Ravens didn’t really need Pitta as an extra blocker; they need him as an extra receiver to release downfield and threaten the sidelines. Not that it mattered. Flacco takes a cursory look downfield and dumped the ball quickly to Rice, who got tackled for a minimal gain as the seconds tick down.
What was the point of all of that? Why risk passing at all if you aren’t going to take a shot downfield? Why use the timeouts at such strange times? Cameron got outsmarted on every play. The Redskins anticipated the Rice handoff. They blitzed when they knew they could force a short pass. When they sat back in prevent, Cameron coached as if he were expecting a blitz. There were too many series like that this year, series where the opponent had a better handle on the Ravens offense than the Ravens offense did.
Firing a coordinator in midseason is rarely a good idea. Jim Caldwell is in no position to provide creative new ideas or install packages, and a new voice can bring more contradiction and confusion than innovation at this point in the season. But the Ravens offense was stagnating under Cameron, and they are a team expected to do more than show up for the playoffs and get beaten. A high-risk jolt was necessary. The Ravens could not keep doing the same things and expect different results.
Unfortunately for Cameron, he seemed to run out of fresh ideas three years ago.
Punters Flock Together
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe campaigned for Ray Guy’s induction into the Hall of Fame by wearing a Post-it note reading “Vote Ray Guy” on his uniform on Sunday. Thank heavens that Post-it notes were not that popular in the mid-1980s; Jim McMahon would have woven them into a blanket covered with dirty messages for Pete Rozelle.
Kluwe has taken bold political stances in the past, from his rigid defense of Syfy original movies to his condemnation of Panda Warrior infiltration into “World of Warcraft.” He also speaks out in favor of same-sex marriage from time to time. But this is the first time Kluwe has ever endorsed a candidate, and if he feels strongly enough about Guy to attach a temporarily-adhesive scribbling to his chest, we should take a longer look at Guy’s Hall of Fame qualifications.
The Ray Guy Hall of Fame argument is often elevator pitched like so: Guy was the greatest punter ever, by far, and therefore he belongs in the Hall of Fame. In fact, Guy is not the greatest punter ever. Sammy Baugh was the greatest punter ever, and he is in the Hall of Fame. Baugh was also the greatest quarterback of his generation and a very good defensive back. He was an outstanding player, maybe THE outstanding player, from the final days of two-way football.
There is a second punter in the Hall of Fame: Yale Lary. Lary also intercepted 50 passes as a defensive back and returned three punts for touchdowns. Lary retired in 1964, nine years before Guy entered the NFL. There are a few other Hall of Famers who punted, like Norm Van Brocklin, but Baugh and Lary are the only two for whom punting is a critical component of the resume.
It is important to keep Lary’s time frame in perspective. Less than a decade before Guy entered the league, a Pro Bowl punter was still expected to play other positions. The roles of kicking and punting specialists evolved rapidly in the 1960s. In previous decades, kicking chores were handled by position players like Lary or old veterans who used to be position players. Soccer-style kickers began appearing in the mid-1960s, and when you import your kicker from Budapest (the birthplace of the pioneering Gogolak brothers), you don’t expect him to play free safety. There were punter-kickers like Don Chandler of the Giants and punter-quarterbacks like Ed Brown of the Bears, but very few punter-punters, and most of them had brief careers.
The roles of punter and kicker were still not fully formed when Guy entered the NFL. In 1972, the year before the Raiders drafted Guy, the Eagles used All-Pro safety Bill Bradley as their full-time punter. Dan Pastorini punted and started at quarterback for the Oilers. Larry Seiple, punter for the undefeated Dolphins, was just three seasons removed from a 41-catch season at tight end, and would return to tight end later in his career. The Chargers and Browns still used combo kicker-punters; the Browns employed Don Cockroft, one of the best two-way specialists ever. Full-time punters were crowding out the multi-position players during Guy’s career, but even during Guy’s heyday, Danny White was the quarterback-punter for the Cowboys, while sometime-receiver Pat McInally regularly battled Guy for the AFC punting crown.
One consequence of all of this evolution is that the concept of “All-Pro punter” was still relatively new when Guy’s career began. The Associated Press and other outlets only began selecting specialists for the All-NFL team in 1963 (All-AFL kickers and punters arrived a year or two later). For the Pro Bowl game itself, an all-purpose player like Lary handled the actual punting chores, and that player was often chosen for versatility as much as punting excellence. Many great early punters had no chance to make an All Pro team. Horace Gillom, a punter-end for the great Browns teams of the late 1940s, led the league in punting average three times, but he made just one Pro Bowl because the concept of “punting specialist” was not really formed yet.
So Guy entered the NFL just in time to benefit from being an All-Pro punter. And he earned the title. Guy was the best punter in the NFL from 1973 to 1978, leading the league in punting average three times in those seasons. For two years after that, he was one of the two or three best punters in the NFL, along with McInally of the Bengals and Dave Jennings of the Giants. But Guy was in the playoffs and the Super Bowl all the time, unlike the other top punters of his era, and he was still punting in the Super Bowl a few years after his prime, when punters like Jennings and Reggie Roby were clearly better than him.
If you are reading carefully, and you understand the dynamics of 1970s and 1980s football, you should spot the “piffle potential” in Guy’s reputation. Guy appears just as the AFL and NFL merge, full-time punters become established and postseason awards begin recognizing them. He plays for a great, colorful team in the time before satellite dishes and smart phones, when the only teams that earned regular national broadcasts and media attention were the great, colorful ones. Every time Guy lined up to punt in a playoff game, the play-by-play man would remind the audience that he was one of the best in history, even though he was not markedly better than the opposing punter by the early 1980s.
Guy was an excellent Hall of Fame candidate for the era before searchable databases, the time when it was hard to find good data on punters and he seemed like he was head-and-shoulders above the competition. Now, it is clear that players like Gillom were also great but never got the chance to be recognized. Or take Jerrel Wilson, who led the NFL in punting for three years, including Guy’s rookie year, and led the AFL twice. Wilson punted for two Super Bowl teams. He was as good as Guy, maybe better, but he peaked a few years too early to benefit from the attention Guy enjoyed in the early 1980s.
Take away the piffle, and Guy was still the best punter in the NFL for six years. If Guy were the best quarterback, running back or middle linebacker in the NFL for six years, his Hall of Fame candidacy would be a no-brainer. But Guy was a punter, so his case is much more borderline.
Let’s look at this one other way. Shane Lechler has been an All-Pro punter six times, has led the league in yards-per-punt five times and will retire with one of the highest punting averages in history. (Guy is 80th, all-time, but that means nothing, because punting averages were much higher in the 1940s and today than they were in the 1970s). Lechler has spent his career flirting with records set by Baugh in an era when rolling punts inflated net averages. And Lechler is not competing with backup quarterbacks and converted receivers for an honor that was recently invented.
Lechler, not Guy, is the best punter in Raiders history. Do you consider him a Hall of Fame candidate? Perhaps you do. Perhaps you don’t because the Raiders were great in Guy’s era but terrible now. Should a punter really be held accountable for the success of his team? And if he should not, then, well, doesn’t that undermine the whole argument for punters in the Hall of Fame in the first place?
As you can probably guess, I disagree with Kluwe. I am not a supporter of Ray Guy for the Hall of Fame, though I do not find his campaign ridiculous, like Steve Tasker’s. Too much of Guy’s candidacy is based on not his greatness, but on his status as the first famous full-time punter. Perhaps that should be a point in his favor, but there is too great a backlog of position players who are not in the Hall of Fame to be lenient. To appease Raiders fans, I will mention one of guy’s teammates: Cliff Branch. There are many others.
As for Kluwe, he will probably be fined for his little message. Goodell does not like little messages. Unless they come from Greg Schiano.