Field Guide to 2-0 Teams
Bottom line: they're 2-0.
There's a well-established vocabulary for talking about 2-0 teams, a phrasebook codified through decades of use in thousands of newspapers columns and talk shows across the country. You know the lingo. They don't award style points. A win is a win is a win, and two wins are two wins are two wins.
The phraseology derives from the fact that few teams win their first two games going away, by 34-3 final scores, against playoff-caliber opponents, after winning the Super Bowl the previous year. A 2-0 start almost always comes with caveats and qualifiers. But fans don't like caveats and qualifiers, and fans (like you) are the customers, so writers and hosts developed a language and thought process that brushes all of those doubts and concerns aside.
They are winning. That's all that matters. In that case, why not just publish the standings and lay off all the sportswr… I HAVE SAID TOO MUCH.
All 2-0 teams are not created equal, no matter how hard we try to paint the Broncos, Patriots, and Chiefs with the same broad brush. Experienced 2-0 team watchers have developed a field guide to identify the various types of mid-September undefeateds. Here are the classifications:
Takin' Care of Business Contenders (TCB): You knew they were great entering the season, and they have looked great through two games. Surprisingly rare.
Plausible Next Steppers (PNS): These teams were expected to get better, and they may have gotten a little better: popping champagne after a 2-0 start is not a crazy overreaction, as long as you only take a few sips.
Schedule Beneficiaries (SCH): The gods of Mount Schedulympus smiled down upon these teams, providing two soft, beatable opponents.
Finding a Way Orienteers (FAW): They got it done. With the help of fluky penalties, lucky bounces, missed extra points, or a summer squall blowing away the opposing coach's clipboard. Maybe they have found some magical way to win without playing well. If so, they will be the first.
Aw, How Cute, You Won Two Games (LOL): It's so adorable how these teams suddenly have a lil' bandwagon, not just of fans (who are supposed to get excited), but analysts claiming that they are For Real. And they are for real: real cuddly and huggable! The LOL team differs from the SCH and FAW teams by virtue of how terrible it was in previous seasons and how much giddiness the two wins provoked. The LOL team is not a PNS team because itsy bitsy widdle baby steps forward are not that impressive when you were 2-14 last year.
Some teams fall into more than one category; the field guide is more of a Venn diagram than a series of neat filing cabinets. Let's go team-by-team through the undefeateds and classify them.
Denver Broncos (TCB). The Broncos toy with opponents like cats torturing crickets in the basement. Close first halves against the Ravens and Giants were largely illusory, caused by a messy turnover near the Broncos end zone early in each game. About the only thing the Broncos do not do well is rush the passer. Von Miller will be back in a month to solve that. By then, they may have already scored 270 points for the season.
Seahawks (TCB, with a little FAW). The Seahawks beat the 49ers, holding them to three points, forcing three interceptions from Colin Kaepernick, and holding 49ers running backs to 13 yards on 11 carries. That's as big and decisive a win as a team can have. The Panthers, who Seattle beat in Week 1, aren't too shabby, either.
So why aren't the Seahawks a full-fledged TCB team? If you watched Sunday night's game in its entirety -- which required sitting through a long rain delay and a defensive duel that made bedtime an appealing option -- you saw a Seahawks passing game that subsisted on Russell Wilson scrambles and miracles plays.
Big deal, you say: the 49ers defense can do that to any team. But the Seahawks offense looked about the same against the Panthers. Remember, they only scored 12 points in that game; Wilson's numbers from that game look good, but he struggled for much of the afternoon. The Seahawks passing game is not very strong right now. They are compensating with Marshawn Lynch, the option game, one or two Wilson miracle passes per game, and what must be the best defense in the NFL.
Defense, a running game and miracles can get a team pretty far in an easy division. The Seahawks play in the NFL's toughest division. Eight completions are rarely going to beat a good opponent. As great as Sunday night's win was, the Seahawks have to be better offensively.
Texans (FAW-SCH, with a little TCB). The Texans' effort to achieve a strange kind of football purity -- a 16-0 record, with all wins determined by penalties on field goals -- was foiled by this end-of-regulation sequence against the Titans:
Randy Bullock makes 51-yard field goal, but the Titans call timeout to ice him.
Randy Bullock's 51-yard field goal is blocked, but the Titans jump offsides.
Randy Bullock's 46-yard field goal is wide left, but the Titans call another timeout to ice him.
Randy Bullock's 46-yard field goal hits left upright. No good.
That was the pu pu platter of field goal attempts. In overtime, the Texans decided to give rookie DeAndre Hopkins a chance to do what he does best: out-jump defenders. He did so twice, once to get the ball down to the goal-line, once to tightrope a fade in the end zone for a 30-24 win.
Hopkins' emergence is encouraging, but the constant need to engineer comebacks and bend the fabric of special teams space-time against bad opponents is troublesome. The Texans should be in pure TCB territory. Instead, they actually look less dangerous than the old Texans. Maybe they are just trying to peak later in the year. Much later.
Bears (PNS). The Bears beat two opponents that made the playoffs last season, which is all you can ask from a plausible next stepper. The key word is plausible. The Bears could stand to look a little less like themselves. Interception return touchdowns are great. Devin Hester 80-yard kickoff returns are great. (The long return only led to a Jay Cutler interception, but that led directly to a Tim Jennings interception, so yeah, Bears football.) An offense generated by seven Brandon Marshall receptions and 30 Matt Forte touches is okay as long as the first two things are humming.
Those looking for signs of progress in the Bears' performance can find small ones. Cutler was sacked just once this week, and it was his first sack in two games against great defensive lines. Martellus Bennett has stopped talking about his productivity and started producing. At least the Bears are showing no signs of regress. For a team that changed coaches and lost a Hall of Fame linebacker after a ten-win season, holding ground is not the worst thing in the world.
Saints (FAW, with a hint of PNS). The logic for thinking that the Saints have taken a step toward contention goes like this: the defense has gotten better, and the offense only looks a little weaker, but the offense is likely to come around, and any sign of life from the defense is encouraging.
That line of reasoning would be easier to swallow if the Saints offensive line did not look so terrible. The running backs have nowhere to go, and the receiving corps is not nearly as deep as it once was. Drew Brees may find a way to compensate, or he might keep taking hits (four sacks, six hits on Sunday) and throwing the ball into defenders' bellies until he gets himself injured. For now, they are a Finding a Way to Win team that is lucky enough to share a division with the Buccaneers and Panthers, who have an entire GPS filled with paths to defeat.
Chiefs (LOL, with some SCH and a dab of PNS). Yes, the Chiefs have matched their 2012 win total. So what? The Jaguars would rank third in the NCAA polls at this point, and the Cowboys are only a little better.
Chiefs-Cowboys was an odd game, of the kind often played between two bad teams that can each do one or two things very well. The Cowboys blitzed Alex Smith frequently and effectively, as if they had read every scouting report filed about Smith, ever. Meanwhile, Tony Romo completed 25 of 30 passes at one point in the game, but the Cowboys only had 13 points, thanks to a combination of sacks, awful field position (the Cowboys started three straight drives at or inside their 10-yard line in one sequence; Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt was by far the game's MVP), and seven-yard passes on 3rd-and-10.
The Chiefs had a 17-16 lead with 3:48 to play, and the Cowboys had all three timeouts. Suddenly, Andy Reid and the Chiefs got all timey-wimey; clock management has never been Reid's strong suit. The Cowboys burned two timeouts while Jamaal Charles rushed twice for one first down. Charles then ran 16 yards for another first down … and out of bounds. Charles tiptoed up the sideline for several yards and could easily have flopped to trade three yards for a timeout, but instead he channeled the ghost of Marion Barber in the 2011 Bears-Broncos game. The Chiefs doubled down on foolishness by committing an illegal shift which made their next first down harder to come by, then (after two plays and the last Cowboys timeout), committed a delay of game to stop the clock AND force 3rd-and-long with 2:28 still to play.
Not meaning to be outdone, the Cowboys committed pass interference, leading to a fresh set of Chiefs downs, then more Colquitt punt-and-pin heroics that effectively ended the game.
So yes, the Chiefs have improved a little bit. There are a lot more little bits in between them and a winning season.
Dolphins (PNS-LOL). On the one hand, the Dolphins look better than they did last season, making them a PNS team. On the other hand, like a FAW team, both of their wins should have been a little more emphatic. On the other, other hand, the Browns have proven to be pushovers, and the Colts are weak by the standards of playoff teams, so there is some schedule-assisted SCH at work. Still, the Dolphins are too good to earn a full LOL. All-in-all, the Dolphins are a wishy-washy, hard-to-categorize 2-0 team, which only befits a franchise that has perfected the wishy-washy, hard-to-categorize 7-9 season.
Patriots (SCH-FAW, with some lingering attributes of the TCB). The adventures of Tom Brady's Babysitters Club have left us with the same two default opinions that we flogged throughout the offseason. Either the Patriots dynasty is finished, finished, due to the fact that they can no longer win every game by a 52-14 margin, or two narrow victories are further proof of Bill Belichick's infallible genius and the receiving corps stinks by dint of his recondite wisdom.
Give the Patriots' doomsday preppers credit for not waiting for their first loss of the season this year. The preppers will have the last laugh, because either the Patriots will fall apart or the sun will burn out at some point, but the teeth gnashing would carry more credibility if the Patriots had actually lost a game. And while the Belichick canonization committee goes overboard with the all-seeing/all-knowing routine, there's evidence that Belichick knew he was playing the long game with this year's schedule.
Belichick knew the Patriots were leading off with the Bills, Jets, and Buccaneers. By August, he knew two of those teams would start the season with major quarterback problems, and he probably had some insights into the mysteries of Josh Freeman's circadian rhythms as well. The Patriots could have kept Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and/or Leon Washington as veteran safety valves. They chose to get younger, gambling that they could win a few games while Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce developed, and Rob Gronkowski rehabbed. (Danny Amendola's absence makes this gamble much more of a gamble.)
All the Patriots did in the last two weeks is position themselves to win the AFC East again, despite the fact that they are far from full strength. It's hard to spin that into a doomsday scenario, but some folks have five years of practice.
For analytical types, the Patriots are providing something extremely valuable while Danny and Gronk are out: real data on what an excellent quarterback looks like with a terrible receiving corps. There are few examples in NFL history of an in-his-prime Hall of Famer like Brady throwing to a receiving corps this bad. The data we gather from the 2013 Patriots may someday help unlock the age-old mystery of where a quarterback's ability stops and a receiver's ability kicks in, allowing us to better answer Montana-without-Rice questions or better predict the effect of an All-Pro receiver joining or leaving a team. For now, all we know is that Brady's talent stops the moment the ball hits Aaron Dobson in the hands.
New Fall Season
Everyone who watches television knows that there are no new ideas for programming, and even great shows are just clever twists on classic formulas. Mad Men is just Bewitched without witches, Duck Dynasty is Beverly Hillbillies with more beards, and Breaking Bad is simply Welcome Back, Kotter with "up your nose with a rubber hose" taken literally.
There are lots of new television shows on the fall schedule, and NFL teams provided their own versions of the network's latest fare in Week 2. Let's have a look:
Actual Premise: Buddy cops. One of them is a robot. Starkey and Hutch meets My Favorite Martian.
NFL Premise: Robert Griffin, Cyborg Who Longs to Lead a Real Team. We heard all offseason that Griffin was superhuman. He has looked like a malfunctioning android for two weeks. At one point in the Packers' 38-20 hammering of the Redskins, Griffin's helmet came flying off after a sack; we half expected his headless body to keep going through the motions of leading a second hopeless comeback in six days. Later, he had to rip dirt and turf from the mechanism of his space-age leg brace; one of the cleaning robots from Wall-E should have helped him. In between, Griffin portrayed the robot who would save all mankind (somewhere between Gort and Astroboy) while the Redskins played like panicky, helpless townspeople.
Griffin is a man, not a machine. All of the publicity which made the Redskins sound like a one-man team offseason has now become literally, distressingly true. Klaatu Barada Nikto. The decision to avoid self-destruction rests with the other Redskins.
Actual Premise: A service comedy for the post-ironic age. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. meets It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
NFL Premise: Pressed into Dubious Service. Chad Henne replaced Blaine Gabbert as the Jaguars quarterback, which is the NFL equivalent of KP duty. Henne fulfilled the minimal requirement of being better than Gabbert, completing 25-of-38 passes, and if one-yard passes to Will Ta'ufo'ou are what the Jaguars are hoping for from their passing game, Henne is the player to lead them to 19-9 losses.
The Redskins signed kicker John Potter on Saturday to replace Kai Forbath, who was sidelined with a groin injury. Mike Shanahan figured Potter was ready for the low-pressure situation of kicking a 50-yard field goal for a team desperately trailing. He wasn't.
Jason Campbell was forced into service in relief of Brandon Weeden, who suffered a thumb injury in a 14-6 loss to the Ravens. Campbell was 1-of-4 for six yards. Now we know how Weeden won that starting job.
Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Actual Premise: All the non-superpowered Marvel characters try to put on a play in the old barn. NCIS meets the Damage Control comic books.
NFL Premise: Agents of S.C.H.A.I.N.O. Let's give the Buccaneers defense a little love. They held the Saints to just 16 points and 371 yards of offense. Lavonte David had one-and-a-half sacks, another hit on Drew Brees, and a pass defensed. Mark Barron had 13 tackles. Mason Foster made seven tackles and provided half his team's scoring. The Buccaneers defense is very good. Unfortunately, their quarterback situation is rapidly turning them into the Sun Coast Jets, which is not nearly as cool as being one of the West Coast Avengers.
Actual Premise: A family is held hostage by a rogue FBI agent while a surgeon operates on the president. Um… 24 meets Trapper John, M.D.? This really sounds like a premise with a five-year story arc that will get cancelled after three episodes because NO ONE WANT TO SEE A FAMILY HELD HOSTAGE FOR ANY REASON, LET ALONE AN INSANELY HIGH CONCEPT ONE.
NFL Premise: Hostages on a Pirate Ship. Fans had to endure a 69-minute weather delay in Tampa, which is arguably worse than enduring 69 minutes of the Buccaneers offense. The sudden urge to watch Josh Freeman play football is the epitome of Stockholm Syndrome.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland
Actual Premise: Alice in Wonderland, except that Alice is in an insane asylum. Television producers need to stop taking children's classics and making them creepy (though Alice in Wonderland arrived pre-squicky for easy transformation). Coming soon: Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle: Zombie Decapitators.
NFL Premise: Panthers Through the Looking Glass. The story of young man named Cam who swills a beverage labeled "Drink Me" and arrives in an upside-down world where leads are impossible to maintain. The Bills beat the Panthers 24-23 thanks to some late-game EJ Manuel heroics and the Panthers coaching staff smoking hookahs and acting like Mad Hatters.
The Panthers settled for three field goals, two inside the 10-yard line, in the fourth quarter, paving the way for the Bills' comeback. Cam Newton should be a great goal-line weapon, but the Panthers called ZERO designed running plays inside the 10-yard line, because Mike Shula doesn't believe in that stuff. Curious. On the final drive, with no timeouts, the Bills managed to get out of bounds to stop the clock four times. Curiouser: most late-game prevent defenses are designed specifically to take away passes near the sideline, but Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott do things differently. The Panthers then botched simple man coverage at the goal line: D.J. Moore waved and gave the international hand gesture for "switch receivers if they cross," and Josh Norman responded with a nod, then Norman stuck with his receiver while Steve Johnson crossed and caught a touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Curiouserer.
The story ends with owner Jerry Richardson shouting "off with his head." Just whose head will roll is yet to be determined.
Actual Premise: Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman battle it out in modern times. Can a headless horseman operate a cell phone? The X-Files meets Petticoat Junction.
NFL Premise: Sleep Through Browns-Ravens. It is almost always a good idea, and Sunday's 14-6 Ravens victory made that Thursday night mud crawl look like the 1981 Chargers-Dolphins playoff game. And if Ray Rice (hip) misses any time, that will be one sleepy, hollow victory.
Actual Premise: Seven people win the lottery, and their lives are turned upside-down. Every television show about the lottery has always stunk, especially Lottery!
NFL Premise: Lucky Non-Sevens. The Giants caught a break in the first quarter when Montee Ball fumbled into the end zone for a touchback. The Giants then nearly returned the favor when Rueben Randle fumbled into the end zone in the second quarter; the play was nullified by a Broncos penalty, and good thing, because Tom Coughlin's blood pressure was high enough to compress mastodon bone into 10W-30 at that point. The defining play of Giants football so far this season is a turnover near the goal line.
The Packers were about to take a 31-0 lead over the Redskins at halftime, but James Jones fumbled off the end zone pylon while reaching for an apparent score, resulting in a touchback. The Redskins awarded the pylon a game ball.
The Crazy Ones
Actual Premise: Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in one show! So, Buffy the Mork Slayer, except that they work in an advertising agency, so it will be like Mad Men without drama, or Bosom Buddies without (let's hope) cross dressing.
NFL Premise: Crazy About the Manning Brothers. Remember when you liked Robin Williams? If you are under 30, the answer is probably "no," but trust me: he was funny once. Similarly, Gellar was once the sexy-coolest thing on television, not a pretty actress who married a nitwit and started making Scooby-Doo movies. The Crazy Ones was developed for people who have tuned out of the last decade of mass media history … kind of like Manning Bowl coverage, which is designed to appeal to people who do not like football and think of the Mannings as some fascinating human interest story.
At one point, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms ticked off a list, compiled with the help of the Manning Parents, of which brother was better at what activity growing up. So, Eli was better at darts, Peyton at horseshoes, or whatever. (There was an on-screen graphic, but I refuse to go looking for it, even during a Seahawks-Niners rain delay.) Now, Peyton is five years older than Eli, so it is fairly certain that Peyton was better at Eli at everything, except rocking the Fisher Price Bouncy Balls and Bubbles Lawnmower, until Peyton was at college and already a well-known athlete. So maybe Papa Archie was comparing them at similar ages, with laser-like precision. (Well, Eli was a better bowler in 1997 than Peyton in 1993 …) Maybe he was exercising his fatherly privilege of getting his kids mixed up, and really Cooper was the better backgammon player. Or maybe he just told Phil Simms anything to make him go away. Probably the third thing.
Later, Nantz and Simms mused about how often Archie and Olivia see the grandchildren. The Broncos-Giants game was close through three quarters, so there was no reason to pad the broadcast. Why on earth were they talking about grandkids? It is as if the network's target demographic is old … oh yeah, CBS. What network is banking on the star power of Robin Williams? Oh yeah, CBS. There you have it.
Spirit of the Law
Dean Blandino is trying. The NFL's new vice president of officiating faces a thankless, nearly impossible task: making sense of the NFL rulebook. So far this young season, he has done a lot of things right.
Blandino announced last week that several calls made in Week 1 games were incorrect. On Monday night, the Chargers were flagged for running into the long snapper on a field goal; the snapper is now classified as a defenseless player while he is snapping the football. The game turned on the penalty, as the field goal became a 15-yard penalty that resulted in a Texans touchdown. Blandino said the call was incorrect, and he said so in interesting ways. "This is not the intent of the rule as it was written," he said, calling the contact with the snapper "incidental." Blandino later added: "it's a judgment call by the umpire … in his judgment, he felt that it was enough for a foul. And in our review today, we felt that it was not."
The key words are judgment call and the intent of the rule. Blandino is stating that officials must make inferences. He is also stating that there is an "intent," a "spirit of the law," which is different from -- and in fact may supersede -- the written words of the rulebook.
These are new concepts in the NFL, which has spent decades trying to legislate all human judgment out of the rulebook and has invoked -- and upheld -- the letter of the law in every possible instance. Along the way, the NFL turned its rulebook into a malfunctioning HAL computer that destroys all common sense in the name of eliminating human error.
To cite two notorious examples, both the late, un-mourned Tuck Rule and the Calvin Johnson Rule found the NFL upholding an insanely over-precise interpretation of rulebook language in complete defiance of any rational purpose the rules originally served. Rulebook fundamentalism has not been the exception in the NFL for over a decade. It has been, well, the rule.
Suddenly, Blandino tells us that officials have a choice. They can see a defender run into a long snapper and say, "Well, that was minor, and the snapper in fact had a split second to assume a protective posture. Most importantly, the intent of this rule is to prevent injuries, not to award 15-yard penalties based on technicalities, so I am not going to throw my flag here." Folks, we are just a baby step away from "the receiver caught the football and quickly tossed it into the air, and while it technically was one motion, he clearly caught the freakin' ball, as everyone in this stadium saw, so it's a touchdown, no matter how many jots and tittles the opposing coach points to."
Some people hate the idea of referee judgment calls. I think they are the greatest thing the NFL can reintroduce to the game right now. The judgment of an experienced referee during the flow of the game is better than the judgment of a committee trying to reach a consensus about scribbled legalese in the offseason. A referee has a better chance of interpreting what he sees in front of him, live and in a replay, than he has of interpreting the simultaneously precise-and-confusing verbiage in a rulebook that has grown as huge and arcane as a penal code. The referee is the cop on the scene. He has to work within the Constitution, but he also has to have the power to decide when to write the ticket or slap the cuffs on.
Blandino did something else remarkable last week. He distributed a video of what were called "tough, physical, and legal hits" to teams and media outlets. The video showed several forceful tackles that fell within NFL rules. Blandino narrated, explaining why the hits were legal, using words like "led with his shoulder," "aiming at the midsection," and "turned his head to the side."
This is exactly what the NFL needs more of: a Best Practices video of what should be done, and what can be done, that operates in tandem with videos of illegal hits and the ever-growing list of midweek fines. Among its other problems, the NFL rulebook is a list of Thou Shalt Nots, with too few Thou Shalts. The roll call of penalties exacerbates the problem: players, coaches, and fans get plenty of examples of what is being done wrong, but we are left guessing about what was done right, and solid, legal tackles become something almost theoretical.
Fines, penalties, and dangerous hits will continue, but constant reinforcement of what constitutes a legal tough hit will help the NFL find the path forward. Give these highly-trained athletes a clear bull's-eye and they will start hitting it properly.
These tough-but-legal videos should be disseminated as widely as possible. They should be broadcast on ESPN and the NFL Network, and posted on the league website. College and prep players and coaches should see them and hear the explanations. And we should see them over and over again, every week, with fresh examples and clear explanations. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a few videos of clean tackles is worth more than thousands of rulebook words when it comes to making the game fairer, easier to understand, and safer.
Blandino may be leading the NFL and fans on a new path forward. Empowered officials can make judgments and legislate intent. They can use their eyes, minds, and experience to differentiate clean plays from too-rough plays to outright dirty plays. Coaches and players can review tape of both the dirty plays AND the clean ones to guide them. Fines and penalties will seem less random. And fans may once again feel like they know what a touchdown is, what a fumble is, what pass interference and unnecessary roughness are.
By empowering referees to use judgment, the NFL can empower players and coaches to use judgment. By clarifying rules, the NFL can improve enforcement and (more importantly) compliance. Blandino and the league have not solved any problems, but they acknowledged a few, and pointed toward some better solutions. Anyone who watches a big hit and wonders whether or not it is okay to get excited should consider that a step in the right direction.