The Fox NFC Championship Post-Game Show may have been renamed the Yippee Ki-Yay Fox NFC Championship Post-Game Show, but the network bigwigs aren’t the only ones who can use the tagline from an old movie as a sponsor. Welcome to Dingoes Ate My Baby Mandatory Monday.
Peace in the Delaware Valley
Joe Flacco’s hometown of Audubon, N.J., was quiet on Sunday night.
It was not strangely quiet, because there is nothing strange about sleepy Audubon, or the surrounding towns, being quiet on a Sunday night. Even when Flacco is playing in an AFC Championship Game, as he has twice before, the neighborhood pubs are quiet, far quieter than they are during an Eagles or Flyers playoff game. There are many reasons for this, one being that busloads of local residents travel to Ravens playoff games, and there are only so many busloads to spare in a town like Audubon, another being that Flacco and the Ravens are always facing the Steelers or Patriots in championship games, forcing a very guarded optimism.
A survey of a handful of bars in the Audubon area – conducted strictly for professional purposes – found smatterings of Flacco jerseys, and eager-but-polite outbursts of applause when the Ravens made a good play. Only in the placid little towns of Camden County do Ravens games sound like the Masters.
Maybe no one believed. Flacco’s neighborhood fans started out as Eagles fans, and anyone who rooted for both the Eagles and the Flacco has had to cope with a 1-7 record in championship games.
Make that 2-7. The Ravens upset the Patriots 28-13, bringing Harbaugeddon down upon us all. Flacco, the oft-maligned, non-elite hometown hero of the 856 area code, threw three touchdown passes to out-duel Tom Brady after throwing three touchdowns passes to outlast Peyton Manning. Six touchdowns in two wins against the two best quarterbacks of their generation: It is the kind of thing that sparks a little community pride.
Write this off as boosterism. Write it off as the mewling of someone who lets the personal get in the way of the professional. Or just acknowledge that it feels good to watch a neighborhood kid do well and achieve something special. There are more than 100 neighborhoods celebrating their hometown heroes tonight: Turlock, Calif. (Colin Kaepernick’s home town); Bruceton, Tenn. (Patrick Willis); New Rochelle, N.Y. (Ray Rice); and so on. I just happen to be embedded in Flacco’s.
The heart of suburbia on a Sunday night can be found on Facebook, and my Facebook feed is flooded with joyous comments by friends, neighbors, ex-classmates, ex-teachers and relatives of the Ravens quarterback. They are thrilled because they know him and they feel like they are a part of his victory. And this is supposed to be how sports make us feel. If not, what’s the point?
After the final gun, after 500 cameramen circled Ray Lewis and took pictures as he squatted on the field in the “downward dog,” his plumber crack eclipsing the sports cosmos for a few seconds, around the same time as the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy, the silence of Joe Flacco’s hometown was interrupted by backyard fireworks. Maybe they were left over from Fourth of July, or from the Phillies’ World Series in 2008. Whatever their provenance, they crackled briefly, for just a few minutes. These towns are so quiet we could hear them with our windows closed, and the towns were quiet again as soon as the pyrotechnics amateurs realized that a) it was cold outside and b) they should save some, in case they are needed in two weeks.
This quiet town, and about a hundred others, is not going to be very quiet for the next two weeks.
The reason the Patriots mismanaged the clock in the final seconds of the first half against the Ravens is because they are one of the best clock-management teams in the NFL.
When you are exceptionally good at something, you attempt things no one else would even try. Your success rate at these tasks is often high, but there is always going to be some failure associated with high-difficulty tasks like lining up an offense and getting a meaningful play off with 18 seconds left. Tom Brady might succeed 50 percent of the time at tasks of this nature, while other quarterbacks do not attempt them at all. Brady and Bill Belichick, master manipulators of probability, sometimes fail at ventures others would not dare attempt.
To recap what happened: Brady scrambled to the Ravens seven-yard line with 18 seconds left and one timeout remaining before halftime. He ended the scramble with a sliding scissor kick of Ed Reed. There was no penalty, for reasons that involve the thought process of NFL officials and those who train and manage them. A normal person thinks, “Well, he whipped his leg upward in a Chuck Norris motion, which is obviously unnecessary and possibly injurious, so I will call a roughness penalty.” An NFL official thinks, “Well, this eventuality is not specifically detailed in any rulebook subsections or addendums; and there is no complicated and unenforceable language specifying the exact angle the cleat makes with the ground or radians-per-second rotational velocity of the foot toward the opponent’s thigh that differentiates a ‘slide’ from a ‘kick;’ and heaven knows that no part of the rulebook allows me to make decisions based on common sense or experience, so have at it, Jackie Chan.”
But I digress.
Brady pops up from his “Enter the Dragon” moment with 18 seconds on the clock and begins hustling his team to the line. His decision is probably emboldened by the fact that veteran receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch are on the field, and both know the system like they know their shoe size. Unfortunately, Welker got knocked to the ground at the end of the scramble, and Branch ran a pass pattern that took him deep into the end zone.
With 13 seconds left, the offensive line has already coalesced around Brady, and he is barking orders. Aaron Hernandez is also there. Branch is still jogging in from the end zone. Welker pops up and is now jogging back to meet his teammates, though he is a beat or two behind his usual promptness.
At 11 seconds, the official is getting ready to spot the ball, and the offensive line, Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead are nearly in position to get into stances and wait for a snap. Branch and Welker have just arrived to hear Brady’s message.
The next three seconds will be remembered by Patriots historians as the Time of Yelling at Deion Branch. Brady shouts instructions to Branch, then Hernandez points and tries to clarify them to Branch. All the while, Branch’s body language suggests that he did not hear a darn thing. Welker, meanwhile, loops around behind Brady, then throws his arms out in the official shoulder-shrug of not having any idea what is going on. At seven seconds, the ball has been placed, the line and Hernandez are set and the Ravens are fanning out on defense, but two of Brady’s most trusted weapons/confidants are completely out of the loop.
At six seconds, Branch and Hernandez switch alignments, with Branch heading to the line of scrimmage and Hernandez stepping back. Only the Patriots would attempt motion in a situation like this. Welker, unfortunately, is still making goofy gestures.
At five seconds, the Patriots are actually set. But Belichick has seen a lifetime in the last 13 seconds and demands a timeout. A final second ticks off as the referee waves his arms; meanwhile, Brady finally comes to terms with the futility of his efforts and draws the same conclusion his coach drew: It’s time for a freakin’ field goal.
The interesting thing here is that Belichick said after the game that the Patriots were trying to “clock” the ball. In other words, this was just a spike play. Why did it take Branch and Brady so long to understand that it was a spike play? Why bother changing the Hernandez-Branch formation for a spike play?
This may be a case of Belichick disinformation. The Patriots do not appear to be trying to kill the clock. They appear to be trying to run a play, probably something inbounds and in front of the end zone, knowing that they have one timeout left if Welker or Hernandez is tackled after a catch. When you think about their personnel and their play style, this makes sense. Welker and other Brady weapons are most dangerous when catching the ball in front of a defender and making a move than when trying to catch the ball in traffic.
At any rate, most teams would have called timeout after the scramble, attempted a fade or back-of-the-end-zone pass or two, and kicked a field goal. The Patriots are not other teams. They won three Super Bowls, reached two others, and made the 13-win season an annual expectation by not being other teams. When Brady tried to bend space-time to his will, he was just being himself.
The Patriots were not being themselves when they punted twice from Ravens territory, including on fourth-and-eight from the Ravens 34-yard line in the third quarter. Winds gusted up to 28 miles per hour during the game, so a 51-yard field goal was unlikely, and Flacco moon launches sailed off course all evening (it was his short passes, which sliced the wind instead of being borne upon it, that kept connecting). Belichick took a calculated risk to pin the Ravens, who were trailing 13-7 and sputtering on offense at that point, and dare them to drive 87 yards without bombs. Who knew they had it in them?
The thing about Patriots calculated risks is that they are, in fact, calculated. They know the odds, and the odds have worked in their favor for 12 years. On Sunday, they were off by a matter of yards and seconds a few times, and they faced an opponent ready to press the advantage.
With His Foxy Sidekick, Sweet Vermouth
Michael Turner IS Green Olive.
That sounds like the casting tagline for a bad summer blockbuster about a forgotten Marvel superhero. Barry Bingle was an ordinary Manhattan nightclub owner until evil gang lords dropped him into a giant radioactive martini. Bingle lost his sense of smell but gained the power to shoot viscous liquid from his fingertips and attack his foes with exploding pimentos. From the people who will soon be bringing you "Thor II," "Iron Man III" and "Moon Knight," Michael Turner is … Green Olive! Yippee Ki-Yay!
But no, this is not a movie. It’s an audible. When Matt Ryan calls “olive” at the line, it appears to mean that he is calling a handoff to Turner. Several Twitter followers pointed this out on Sunday. The “Green Olive” call may clarify direction or blocking scheme, or it may mean something else. I plan to take some time this offseason to re-watch Falcons games with the audio turned up to determine which (if you have theories, please share them). Mike Smith, coordinator Dirk Koetter and his staff should spend this offseason changing up their line calls, because if Twitter knows the call, so does Patrick Willis.
The beauty of the 49ers offense is how quickly and fluidly it adapts. The Falcons loaded up to stop Colin Kaepernick all afternoon on Sunday, so Kaepernick just handed off to Frank Gore or LaMichael James. When the Falcons cornerbacks dropped into soft coverage before the snap, Kaepernick fired “smoke” passes to Michael Crabtree. It can all be done with a decision just after the snap in many cases.
The Patriots, of course, are capable of similar sudden adjustments, even though they do not run an option offense. When Tom Brady read a blitz by a Ravens cornerback in the second quarter, he made a quick series of line calls, and adjusted the play to make it a wide receiver screen in the opposite direction of the blitz, a play that set up a touchdown. The screen even had a little play-action handoff attached to it. It was a complicated play to audible into, but the Patriots did it quickly, and the Ravens could not anticipate what was being called.
Matt Ryan, meanwhile, yelled “Green Olive” every time he wanted to hand off to Michael Turner. There is obviously more to the Falcons audible package than this, but the Falcons offense came up short in the adaptability department when it counted. Just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, Turner got stuffed on a Green Olive play. There are few things as delicious as a stuffed olive, but the wasted play set the Falcons doomed final real sequence of plays in motion.
You don’t have to be as unpredictable as the 49ers on offense to reach the Super Bowl. But a little variety helps. The Falcons don’t need to change much about their roster or playbook. They just need to update their bartender’s manual.
Webster’s Defines “Wide Open” As …
So begins the Wikipedia entry on tight ends. It’s amazing to live in a world in which there is a Wikipedia, or a Wikipedia entry on tight ends, but here we are. The entry goes on for about 1,000 words, features a diagram with the tight end highlighted, shows a picture of an exemplar of the tight end species (Bubba Franks, because Christian Fauria and Alfred Pupunu declined to participate), and references to John Mackey and Mike Ditka.
It is hard to imagine who would ever read the tight end entry in Wikipedia; is there anyone who does not know what a tight end is who would be helped with a picture of Bubba Franks and a hyperlink to John Mackey? The entry is as helpful as it can be, under the circumstances, explaining that “the tight end is usually faster than the linebackers who cover him and often stronger than the cornerbacks and safeties who try to tackle him.”
Someone should email the Falcons defense a copy of the Wikipedia entry on tight ends to study over the offseason. They may find it useful. In fact, this final thought might have helped on Sunday: “Tight ends are, on average, usually among the taller members of the team. Their large size has an effect on their speed, as tight ends are often not as fast as wide receivers or running backs; this is not always the case, though, with tight ends nowadays able to run a 4.38 forty yard dash time [Vernon Davis].”
Davis had five catches for 106 yards and one touchdown on Sunday. Fellow tight end Delanie Walker had one catch for 20 yards. Davis and Walker were more important to the 49ers comeback than the Kaepernick option threat. Had the Falcons stopped Davis, or slowed Davis, or covered Davis once in a while, they could have held their 17-point first half lead longer and taken the 49ers out of their option game.
The same thing happened against the Seahawks. The Falcons built 20-0 and 27-7 leads, and the Seahawks could only use option running plays as an occasional wrinkle as they played catch-up. But Zach Miller had eight receptions for 142 yards in the Seahawks comeback. Like Davis, he was wide open often. Unlike Davis, he is not the type of player who gets singled out for his unique athletic ability by Wikipedia.
The Seahawks comeback failed because the Falcons kicked a late field goal, thanks in part to the efforts of Tony Gonzalez, who caught a pass over the middle on their final drive. The Falcons defense should know very well what a tight end is, because they have faced the best one ever for four years in practice. The Falcons offense also knew who Gonzalez was all day on Sunday, as the future Hall of Famer caught eight passes for 78 yards.
But amnesia may be contagious. The Falcons forgot about Gonzalez on their final drive. When they reached the goal line, Matt Ryan threw to Jason Snelling and Harry Douglas. The 49ers were bracketing Gonzalez with a linebacker and safety on some plays, but the Falcons used him as a decoy on a third-down designed pass to Douglas that was batted down by linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The whole “third-down designed pass to Harry Douglas in the red zone down by four in the final two minutes” phenomenon is a separate issue.
On fourth down, Ryan famously threw to Roddy White, who was blanketed, and possibly interfered with, but was neither open nor assuredly past the first-down marker. Gonzalez appeared to be open, and both body language and lip reading suggests that he that he was.
In fact, Gonzalez was not really open, or not for long. He had worked inside cornerback Tarell Brown on a slant, but safety Dashon Goldson was behind him and ready to leap in front of any pass. Goldson did not leave Gonzalez until he saw Ryan begin to throw to White. When Goldson follows the pass, it creates the illusion that Gonzalez was wide open.
White is a great receiver, but a mostly-covered Gonzalez beats a completely covered White, and had Ryan looked Gonzalez’s way at the snap, he could have rifled the ball between Brown and Goldson for a first down. Ryan never looked Gonzalez’s way, possibly because he was suffering the same tight end amnesia that plagues his defense for two weeks.
So let’s send Mike Smith and the Falcons staff that Wikipedia entry, just as a refresher. Next season, they can enter the playoffs with an airtight game plan for stopping Bubba Franks.
Championship weekend lies at the crossroads of football’s past, present and future.
The present belongs to the Harbaugh brothers, who will soon let slip the hounds of Harbaugeddon, and to Kaepernick, Flacco, Frank Gore and Ed Reed, Randy Moss and Bernard Pollard, and of course, Ray Lewis.
The past belongs to Gonzalez, acting for all the world like a man ready to find a broadcast booth. Gonzalez was drafted in 1997, the year of Orlando Pace and Tiki Barber, of Warrick Dunn of Walter Jones, of awful stories (Rae Carruth), sad stories (Yatil Green), and inscrutable selections (Jim Druckenmiller, the quarterback who was great at weightlifting). Reading through the 1997 draft will make you feel old and Gonzo seem even older. Jake Plummer and Duce Staley were drafted that year. Fine careers started, ended and were plowed over by history since 1997. Only Gonzo and Ronde Barber are left, and it would be great to see them both for another year or three, but it sounds like Gonzo has been through seasons just like this one too many times.
The future belongs to the eight teams that changed head coaches, and to other teams, like the Jets, that are in the process of changing everything else. It belongs to the prospects who traveled to Mobile, Ala., on Sunday to begin preparations for the Senior Bowl, and for the players who took part in other college all-star games this weekend.
Of all the NFL fans in the world, 93.75 percent have seen their teams eliminated in the last month; more, really, as teams like the Cowboys and Giants obviously have more fans than the Ravens. Let’s round to 95 percent. The 95 percent want to know about Chip Kelly and Bruce Arians, Geno Smith and Terrance Williams, free agency and the salary cap and just about everything but what Jack Harbaugh taught his sons on camping trips.
Mandatory Monday is heading to Mobile for Senior Bowl week, then to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. I am keeping one eye on the future and one on the present, and I will let you know what I see, both here and at my all-new blog. Do not worry about the past; it is always close behind.
Over the next two weeks, let Sports on Earth be both a cause and cure for Harbaugeddon, and join me as I seek out next year’s big story before it starts, even as I flog this one until it drops.