Sources tell me that the World Series is very exciting this year, with two historic powerhouses battling back and forth through great plays, sudden reversals and controversial calls. Baseball, according to trusted colleagues, may be drawing some attention away from football. If you're a fan of more than one sport, you may be too amped up about the World Series to have your patience tried by a detailed breakdown of a Saints-Bills game.
Therefore, while Mandatory Monday will provide plenty of deep dissertations later in the article, plus the usual allusions to Neil Young and BBC America, the first segment will keep things as brief as possible for busy Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals or general baseball fans.
Like: one-to-three symbols brief. The first segment of this week's Mandatory Monday is simply called Statement! or Question? The Week 8 performances of playoff-caliber NFL teams are evaluated according to a simple three-symbol scale. A "!" means they made a statement. A "?" means they raised questions. A "…" means they did whatever the heck three dots mean grammatically: treaded water, wasted time, tailed off or provided inconclusive data.
You're busy, so let's get started:
Denver Broncos! Their 45-21 win started with three dots and descended into question mark territory when DeAngelo Hall's Pick-6 gave the Redskins a 21-7 third-quarter lead. A 38-0 run later, and the Redskins were buried in exclamation points.
Sunday's win proved emphatically that the Broncos defense is capable of stepping up and supporting the offense, something that was not clear in the Cowboys game three weeks ago. Von Miller had a strip sack and made his presence felt in other ways, applying constant pressure and dropping into coverage to disguise zone blitzes. Peyton Manning can now survive a bad half knowing his defense will keep the game under control.
As for Manning, he still cannot throw deep. The Broncos' two longest pass plays, both 35-yard touchdowns, were both screen passes followed by long runs. The Redskins copied the Colts' man-press strategy from last week and took it as far as it could go. It lasted about 20 minutes of game time. Manning, his receivers and his defense adjusted. Now everyone else has to adjust again.
Cincinnati Bengals! This is the Bengals team everyone was talking about in the offseason, the one with the great defensive line and the multi-faceted offense. Their 49-9 win over the Jets was not as close as the score: The Bengals came away empty handed on one early drive when BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran into pulling guard Clint Boling and fell down on 4th-and-goal. The Bengals are not running away with the AFC North, but they are walking away, and the other teams keep stepping on rakes and whacking themselves in the face as they try to follow.
Detroit Lions … There is no more Lions-y way to win a football game than to:
- Give up four turnovers, some of them comically inept (Reggie Bush appeared to be intentionally grounding the football after a nine-yard run in the third quarter; Matthew Stafford threw a sidearm pass straight to Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee like Stafford was Dan Quisenberry and Lee was Darrell Porter).
- Complete a long pass to Calvin Johnson that does not quite reach the end zone, because Megatron has caught more near-touchdowns than anyone in NFL history.
- Send Stafford to wave the ball over the end zone with seconds remaining, because the ultimate Lions touchdown is one that needs endless reviewing.
If the Lions can keep winning games this way, they are a playoff team. And no team in the NFL is able to keep winning games this way except the Lions.
Green Bay Packers! Just as the Broncos proved that their defense can spark a win, the Packers proved that their running game could spark a win. The Packers suddenly have a two-headed Eddie Lacy-James Starks backfield monster.
Of course, the Vikings rush game cannot stop anyone this season. Neither can the Bears rush defense. The Packers get three more games against them. And if you are leery of "statement games" against bad teams, remember that one of the hallmarks of a great team is the ability to generate blowouts.
New Orleans Saints! The Bills are pesky, so beating them 35-17 is not easy. We have gotten used to five-touchdown Drew Brees games (it was the seventh of his career) and heroics from a should-be-on-crutches Jimmy Graham, but the Saints defense continues to make a difference. David Hawthorne, Junior Galette, and Glenn Foster are among the barely-known Saints defenders who got multiple licks on Thad Lewis and the Bills' running backs in the backfield. Rob Ryan's defense produced nine quarterback hits and eight tackles for a loss. Mix that with some vintage Brees, and the NFC has a worthy adversary for the Niners and Seahawks.
The Saints' win, like the Bengals' win, was not as close as the score, which was not very close anyway. Garrett Hartley missed a pair of early field goals. You know it is a classic Saints season when Hartley is slumping!
San Francisco 49ers! Was this trip really necessary? Next season, the NFL should replace its three scheduled London games with three 49ers intrasquad games. It will save travel costs, provide the same excitement as watching Chad Henne throw seven-yard passes to Clay Harbor, and may provide a more accurate representation of the NFL experience than Sunday's existential mush.
Fun fact: the Jaguars won the time of possession battle in their 42-10 loss. So the next time you see a graphic stating that "Time of Possession" is one of the "Keys to the Game," turn off the sound and listen to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere instead.
Kansas City Chiefs … Some Chiefs fans think that national experts are not taking the team seriously. We are. The Chiefs have seriously turned things around. They are seriously going to make the playoffs. And they will be seriously hammered there by a team with a better offense.
The Chiefs have sweated out two straight close victories over down-and-out, ready-for-the-showers opponents. Two weeks before that, they survived a scare by the Titans. In between, they faced a Raiders team with an offensive line full of injured veterans who were on their way out of the NFL in 2010, and that game was closer than it had to be. In the last two weeks, the Chiefs have punted nine times, lost three turnovers, and failed on one fourth down conversion in the fourth quarter, while nursing a combined four-point lead for most of that time. That kind of performance will get you killed against better competition.
The Chiefs have a very good defense. They have an okay offense. They are narrowly beating third-string quarterbacks. They are a tremendous story. We know how this story ends.
Dallas Cowboys? Those who focus on games that Tony Romo has thrown away during his Cowboys career need to take a long look at games Jason Garrett has thrown away during his Cowboys career.
When the all-22 coaches tape becomes available, we may get an explanation of why Dez Bryant was targeted for six passes while Terrance Williams was targeted 10 times (Williams, a great rookie but still a rookie, caught two, one for a touchdown), and the rogue's gallery of Joseph Randle, James Hanna, Phillip Tanner, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley were targeted 12 times. But it won't be a good explanation. I was watching several games at once, and midway through the second quarter wondered if Bryant and Jason Witten had been injured while I was focused on Dolphins-Patriots. They had been targeted just four times and caught three passes for 20 yards by halftime. Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman do not play for the Lions, so really there is no excuse for making viewers wonder whether Bryant and Witten are even on the field.
Then came the two late drives when Garrett went into timid turtle mode. The Cowboys ran straight up the gut four times, with one incomplete Romo pass, one pass that yielded a penalty, and a field goal that which was not as useful as it needed to be. The Lions got the ball twice and scored 14 points in four minutes.
We have seen arch-conservative Garrett before. We have seen Jerry Jones criticize arch-conservative Garrett. The Cowboys are repeating themselves, though this year they added a Dez Bryant sideline tantrum, for zest. Romo is supposed to be making more game-planning decisions. Maybe Romo trusts Romo less than Romo haters trust Romo. Maybe Bryant should call the plays. Either way, the Garrett Cowboys just made it clear on Sunday that this is a Garrett Cowboys season: no less, and certainly no more.
New York Jets. Ever the outsiders, the Jets get a period. They are a rebuilding team, period. They need a year to develop Geno Smith, acquire more weapons, and add more defensive pieces, period. Is Rex Ryan in the team's future plans? All the punctuation in the world cannot answer that question, not even @$(^&!
Miami Dolphins? The Dolphins offensive line turns into a pumpkin at 3:30 Eastern Time. That is roughly midnight in the Maldives Islands, which are in one of those strange half-time zones. So if they played in the Maldives Islands, the Dolphins would be a Cinderella team. But they are just a not-so-great pumpkin. Jeff Ireland is Linus. Dolphins fans should demand restitution.
New England Patriots … ?! The Patriots looked lost as the Dolphins racked up a 17-3 halftime lead. They were clearly missing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Aqib Talib as the Dolphins ran the ball up the middle and completed passes. The overcooked knockwursts that Tom Brady was wearing over his injured fingers appeared to be affecting his accuracy.
Then, the dinner bell sounded for the Dolphins offensive line, and the Patriots tied the game with two quick touchdown drives. Just when the Patriots needed something to go their way, a 22-yard loss on a fumble became 10 yards and a first down on an "illegal bat" penalty last called when Ken Stabler was on the field. Patriots fans who spent seven days screaming about hinky calls in game-changing situations all looked down at their feet and began murmuring simultaneously. Once the Dolphins were forced to abandon the run, their pass protection went on its customary fourth-quarter hiatus.
It was a win, but it was closer than it needed to be, and it exposed several defensive flaws. What does it all mean for the Patriots? It means keep watching the Red Sox, Boston faithful, and check back next week.
Mandatory Monday loves taking a scientific approach to football. Here are mathematical, meteorological and temporal relativistic takes on Week 8 storylines. Don't worry, we will not use too much jargon, and there will not be a final exam.
The Revolution Was Televised. The fourth down revolution is over. Going for it won.
I broke down the 4th-and-short percentages around the league for the last three years a few weeks ago. It was not groundbreaking research and it reached no groundbreaking conclusions. Going for it on 4th-and-short is the best percentage play in many, many situations, and every scrap of data ever collected supports that conclusion. NFL coaches, who are generally as conservative as Dick Chaney's sock drawer, are finally starting to catch up to the data.
On Sunday, we saw:
- The Lions going for it on 4th-and-goal from the two-yard line, early in their win over the Cowboys. Calvin Johnson saw "off" coverage, nearly slipped in a puddle of his own drool, and scored a touchdown that probably made Dez Bryant very jealous.
- The Dolphins going for it on 4th-and-1 from the Patriots' 38-yard line, in the second quarter. Daniel Thomas gained 15 yards by bursting right through the hole where Vince Wilfork used to be.
- The Patriots going for it on 4th-and-4 from the Dolphins' 34-yard line, while leading by three points in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady scrambled for a first down. The Patriots scored a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal, and the two-possession situation knocked the Dolphins' station-to-station offense out of the game.
- The Bengals going for it on 4th-and-inches from the 1-yard line, while leading 14-0 against the Jets. The Bengals failed, but the Jets could not convert a first down, so the Bengals got the ball back in good field position. It was a good example of the relatively low risk involved in a failed conversion, in many situations.
- The Broncos scoring a 4th-and-goal touchdown to tie the game at 21 against the Redskins, in the third quarter. This touchdown was less "discretionary" than others, but there was plenty of time left. Twenty years ago, most coaches would have settled for the field goal to keep the game close.
- The Packers converting a 4th-and-3 from their own 42-yard line, setting up a touchdown to increase their lead to 31-17.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a representative one. Going for it on 4th-and-short works, and successful coaches are doing it more often, in more situations. The more commonplace the strategy becomes, the more commonplace success will become. In about five years, most fans will stop second-guessing it. It's already becoming something that belongs at the bottom of the weekly wrap-up, not the top.
Not Yet an Epidemic. Robert Griffin appears to be okay. He crumpled to the ground, clutching the knee formerly known as "his good one," after 350 pounds of Terrance Knighton pounced on him late in the Broncos-Redskins massacre. It was a scary moment, but Dr. James Andrews said that he was "OK" late on Sunday evening. We are sure to hear more from Andrews and others about Griffin's other, neglected-feeling, attention-seeking knee. Much more.
Kidding aside, no one wants to see Griffin suffer another major injury, and the initial Week 8 injury report looks manageable. We needed a healthy week after Week 7, which was the NFL equivalent of Antietam. We especially needed a break from ACL injuries.
ACL injuries have increased drastically this season. Kevin Seifert dug into the ESPN Stats and Information database during the week and crunched some staggering numbers. Thirty players currently are on injured reserve with confirmed ACL tears. Only 32 players were placed on injured reserve with ACL tears in all of 2012, and just 25 were placed on injured reserve with that particular injury in 2011.
What's going on? Seifert offers two theories. One is that the emphasis on avoiding helmet-to-helmet hits has defenders aiming lower, resulting in more leg injuries. The second theory is that the limitations on offseason and preseason pads-and-hitting work have left players more vulnerable to in-season injuries, because their bodies are not prepared for the big hits, sudden cuts and other perils of actual play.
Seifert himself is not sold on either theory, for good reason. "Any close observer would also note the frequency of non-contact ACL injuries this year," he said of the first theory. Neither of Week 7's high-profile ACL tears came as the result of some kind of vicious hit; Reggie Wayne was untouched, and Sam Bradford twisted his leg during a routine drag-down tackle. The second theory also has all kinds of problems. The season in which players had the least off-season football work was 2011, the year of the lockout. If lack of offseason work causes a spike in ACL injuries, then a summer of jogging and tossing footballs in parking lots should have caused a more massive spike than a routine offseason.
Here's my own theory for the rise in ACL tears this year, one backed by the best available science:
An event that occurs 20-30 times per year, across 35,000 plays involving 2000 or so players, is bound to be statistically volatile. The sample size is so small that it can be affected by lots of irrelevant factors. For just one example, Griffin's ACL injury from 2012 probably is not in the data. He got hurt in a playoff loss, so he was never on the regular-season IR. Simple counting quirks like that can make a big difference when each event represents two to three percent of the total data set. And of course, we don't stop to study the data until after a sudden injury surge. Of course we see an uptick in the numbers, because the perception of an uptick was the only reason we looked.
Writing all of it off to random fluctuation sounds like a shoulder shrug. It sounds irresponsible. But waiting and seeing is actually the most responsible thing we can do. If something is causing an ACL injury rash, then it must be studied longitudinally, over multiple years, on a case-by-case basis. We need to keep collecting data and organizing it, so we know if 2013's ACL tears are just a spike or a sign of a bigger problem. We need 2010's data, and unfortunately 2014's, plus other information.
Unfortunately, that is not how we (fans, writers, policy makers, Americans, earthlings) approach medical or scientific research. Something shocking happens, we react, we overreact, and too often we overcorrect. The last thing the NFL should do right now is form a committee to propose new rule changes, or get together with the NFLPA to bring back a few July full-contact two-a-days, to stave off the ACL threat. Telling defenders to aim high again (or to aim for some postage stamp around the belly button) is likely to exacerbate concussion problems. Increasing offseason contact might just replace a dozen dramatic injuries with hundreds of "routine" ones, impacting more players' health and careers.
Waiting and seeing can be the hardest thing in the world to do. The good news is that ACL treatment and rehabilitation procedures are getting better every year. Science is gaining some control over the ACL injury on the back side. Patience may be the best policy for minimizing them on the front side.
London Fog. The 49ers and Jaguars played a dreary, drippy game in London. The weather was also drippy, though it was expected to be far worse. High winds and steady rain were forecast, but the 49ers dismantled the Jaguars under mostly overcast skies.
The NFL announced three more London games for 2014 during the week. The league cannot stop talking about London games; one week they want to move a team there, the next they want to expand the London schedule to eight games. It's as though Roger Goodell binge-watches Orphan Black and thinks, "Man, that Tatiana Maslany is a doll, I need to visit England more, let's make the Jaguars play at Wembley every third Tuesday."
The commissioner may or may not like Orphan Black, but he clearly likes rainy, windy, sloppy games.
The average probability of daily precipitation in London during the month of October grows from 61 to 69 percent as autumn settles in. In other words, it rains in London two days out of three, this time of year. On 72 percent of those days, the rain is described as "moderate," so you can count on a pretty nasty day to be running around outdoors every third afternoon or so. In November, the precipitation probability grows to 71 percent, which is perilously close to three days out of four. December stays about the same, mixing a minor chance of snow.
Now -- before you jump up and down and scream "Seattle!" -- here is the comparison. The October daily precipitation chance in Seattle grows from 41 to 57 percent throughout the month, and 70 percent of that is "light rain." Seattle, despite its reputation, provides a 50-50 chance of drizzle and a slight chance of steady rain this time of year. The risk of moderate rain in late October in Seattle is 11 percent. In London, it is 49 percent.
In other words, a team playing eight games in London would have to expect an average of four rain-affected games per year. That means four games in which the conditions play a major part in the outcome, which would be one more impediment to the growth and quality of the team sent to play in London. ("Hey, free agent! Want to play for the London Buccaneers? In addition to the travel times and exchange rates, you will get soaked.") That means four unpleasant Sunday afternoons per year, during which the London Jaguars would have to try to lure reluctant new NFL fans to stand outside. That means four times per year some other NFL team would have to fly across the Atlantic, play a mud game, then fly back after a hot shower. Does this sound like a great idea?
Everyone loves the idea of watching a mud game -- old fashioned football, and so on -- but those games look much better as minute-long highlight reels and NFL Films montages then they do as 60 minute athletic contests, even when you are watching from a warm, dry couch. Moving a team to London, playing roulette with London weather eight times per year, would dilute NFL quality in many ways. But Roger Goodell might be too busy with a DVD of Copper to listen.
Speed Eraser. The Giants controlled the clock for two-thirds of the first half, in their 15-7 victory against the Eagles. The Eagles executed just 25 first-half plays, burning just eight minutes and 38 seconds. They recorded eight first downs, though if you blinked, you missed them.
The Eagles, of course, are supposed to have an up-tempo offense. Remember that? With zero offensive touchdowns in their last two games (their lone score against the Giants came on a botched punt snap), no one is talking about how Chip Kelly is wearing out opponents with his blistering offensive pace anymore.
The Eagles do still have the fastest offense in the NFL at 23.46 seconds per play, adjusted. They are just going nowhere fast. Don't blame the tempo; the third-fastest team in the NFL is the Patriots, who averaged 26.13 seconds per play entering Sunday. (The Bills are second.) The Patriots used tempo to take Sunday's game away from the Dolphins in the second half. When they approached the end zone, the Patriots switched suddenly into no-huddle mode, catching the Dolphins off guard. The Patriots change speeds like a veteran baseball pitcher; it is one of many devices Tom Brady uses to beat teams when his hand hurts, and when his primary receivers were in elementary school when Brady won his first Super Bowl.
There are two takeaways here. One is that tempo is one of the NFL's great strategic frontiers. The Patriots, Eagles, Broncos and other teams are still probing the hinterlands of how fast an offense can go, and when it should go that fast. The second takeaway is that it takes a good offense to be a good up-tempo offense. Early in the season, it was easy to believe that speed alone could make the Eagles dangerous. Up-tempo offense is not an end unto itself but a means to an end, and Kelly will have to make his team good before they can be good and fast.
And Finally …
Yes, there is more! Many NFL teams are dealing with "tackle trouble" this season. Which offensive tackle crises are most likely to shape this season? You have to click to find out.