If there's one thing NFL coaches dread, it is the gutsy call. When a coach's deliberate gamble goes bust, in Monday's papers he is to blame. When a coach plays the percentages and things go bust, the players, the refs, the wind, and the rotation of the Earth are to blame.
This is why, facing fourth and short in the fourth quarter, so many coaches send in the punting unit: They may be accepting defeat, but the loss won't seem their direct fault ("well, shoot, I was counting on the defense to get the ball back") as it would if they went for it and failed. And this is why faked punt, field-goal, and PAT kicks are rare in the NFL. Although the faked field goal is probably the single most effective offensive play in football—and though faking a one-point PAT and trying for two is so unexpected it almost always works—coaches rarely make these calls. Better to play it safe and shift blame to that Austro-Serbo-Moldavian place-kicker.
Yet this weekend it was bartender, fake kicks for everyone!
Against the Falcons in the second quarter, the Rams faked a one-point PAT and ran for two, setting in motion a game with a total of five two-point conversions, the most in NFL annals. The Saints faked a punt using a guy they'd barely met while the Jets faked a field goal using a linebacker as a running back. The Eagles ran the classiest field-goal fake of the day, having the holder flip a no-look lateral from his kneeling stance to 180-pound kicker David Akers, who ran for the first down. The Bills sneaked deep-threat WR Eric Moulds onto the field as a blocker (!!) for a field-goal attempt, then threw him a touchdown pass that was hysterical to behold and was called back because the refs hadn't whistled play to start. Even the Bengals faked a field goal, though in their case the result was, well, take a guess.
Coaches, please note: On Sunday, every NFL team that attempted a fake kick won. Except for Cincinnati, which is not, so far as anyone can tell, an NFL team.
In other action San Francisco and Green Bay, who played so many memorable and important matchups during the 1990s, staged a fabulous game full of exciting plays, last-second drama—everything you could ask for. When it was over, the teams stood a combined 5-9.
Best Play of the Week: Best No. 1. With its place-kicker injured, St. Louis faced fourth and 15 on the Falcons' 30, score tied at 21 and 11 seconds left in the half. The Rams passed. Kurt Warner pump-faked, even though, with time almost expired, a short completion would have accomplished nothing; only the end zone mattered. The Falcons bit on the pump-fake, and Az-Zahir Hakim scored as the half expired.
Best No. 2. From the Jaguars' 21, the Flaming T's sent Eddie George and two linemen right for what looked like a screen set-up. TE Frank Wycheck blocked on that side as if aiding the screen—then broke over the short middle, because the pass was to him, for an 18-yard gain that set up a Tennessee touchdown. Double-screen-action plays usually don't work; seldom has one been executed so sweetly.
Football Gods Note: After last night's loss, the bloated, overrated Jax is 2-5 and, stretching back to last season, 2-6 since the day it won a playoff game 62-7 and its players proclaimed themselves the greatest in NFL history. Hubris is penalized more severely than holding; read your Greek theater, gentlemen.
Best No. 3. Leading Carolina 10-6 in the fourth, New Orleans lined up to punt. Into the game came career special-teamer Fred McAfee, whom the Saints had just signed. It's a fake! The ball was direct-snapped to McAfee by someone whose name McAfee surely doesn't even yet know, and he ran for 40 yards, setting up the game-icing TD.
Best No. 4. The Jets faced fourth and two on the Patriots' 22, leading 14-10, late in the first half. They lined up for the field goal. It's a fake! Holder Tom Tupa—now a punter, but a career 258 of 502 as a QB—ran up behind center to take the snap. The Patriots, suspecting nothing, did not call time. Tupa pitched it to linebacker Mo Lewis, who ran for the first; a touchdown followed, and the Jets began to pull away.
Worst Play of the Week: High-schoolish uniforms are bad enough; San Diego coach Mike Riley announced he would use high-school tactics by playing QB Jim Harbaugh in the first quarter at Buffalo, then switching to the great Moses Moreno for the second quarter. Harbaugh finished the first quarter with six straight completions and the Bolts in a 3-0 lead. Sticking to the plan, Riley promptly yanked him. On his first snap, Moreno fumbled; Buffalo recovered and scored six. On the next possession, Moreno fumbled again; another Buffalo touchdown. Harbaugh then returned. For the four plays Moreno was on the field, San Diego was outscored 14-0; for the rest of the game with Harbaugh playing, the Bolts outscored Buffalo 24-13. You do the math.
Worst No. 2. In the Battle of Maryland, the Baltimore Ravens reached the Indigenous Persons' one, first and goal, 10 seconds left in the first half and the score tied at three, Baltimore holding two timeouts. The Ravens could have pounded the ball twice and, if unsuccessful, still been able to stop the clock for a field goal. Instead on first down Baltimore coaches called a pass, which QB Tony Banks forced into double coverage for the INT. Baltimore ultimately lost by seven. Mitigating virtue: The Ravens can donate their unused timeouts to charity.
Stat of the Week: Stat No. 1. There were more punts (22) than points (15) in the Steelers-Bengals game.
Stat No. 2. After 286 yards running and catching against the Falcons, Marshall Faulk has 1,083 yards from scrimmage this year, which puts him on a pace for 34,295 yards in the decade. (The NFL record for career yards gained is 21,803 by Walter Payton.) That sidereal resonance transducer Kurt Warner brought with him on the star-cruiser from his homeworld sure is coming in handy!
Stat No. 3. An astonishing 23 individual players—David Akers, Morton Andersen, Gary Anderson, Cary Blanchard, John Carney, Steve Christie, Martin Gramatica, Al Del Greco, Jason Elam, Marshall Faulk, John Hall, Jason Hanson, Edgerrin James, Sebastian Janikowski, Ryan Longwell, Olindo Mare, Curtis Martin, Joe Nedney, Terrell Owens, Wade Richey, Matt Stover, Matt Vanderjagt, and Jeff Wilkins—have outscored the entire Cincinnati team.
Stat No. 4. The Ravens are 5-2 despite not having scored a touchdown since Sept. 24.
Kick of the Week (Rule Quirk): In overtime against the Chargers, Buffalo kicker Steve Christie missed the winner from 41 yards, but a Bills lineman was whistled for false start. Because false start is a "dead ball" infraction, the Bolts did not have the option of declining the penalty and taking possession: San Diego was compelled to accept the flag, which allowed Buffalo to repeat fourth down. On his second try, Christie hit from 46, ending the game.
Kick of the Week (Sociological): Heather Mercer, an aspiring place-kicker who was cut from the Duke University team, sued in federal court claiming discrimination. The jury comes back—the foreman is up—and it's good! Mercer awarded $2 million.
Now if being cut from a football team entitles you to $2 million, doesn't this mean that the men of the United States are, collectively, owed approximately $148 trillion? Duke coaches may indeed have wanted Mercer gone because of her gender, which is discrimination: The trouble is that big-time sports discriminate against almost everyone on the basis of physical attributes. We won't stop to make the tedious, serious point about the social priorities of conferring a huge windfall upon someone whose sole injury was that she failed to qualify for a special privilege—two-thirds of those who try out for college football rosters are cut, and there's certainly no right to be on a team—while denying much smaller amounts to countless deserving people who would, for example, give anything receive an education at Duke University.
Employee of the Week: Kicker Michael Husted won two consecutive games for the Maryland Indigenous Persons by nailing field goals on the final play. As his reward, the Persons cut him. Doesn't this mean he is entitled to $2 million?
Equipment Disclaimer of the Week: For several years now, NFL helmets have sported warning copy—that block of text that can be glimpsed but not read during telecasts. Logically, warnings are only relevant to those unaware of risks; if an NFL player doesn't know football is dangerous, a block of lawyer-written gibberish is unlikely to do much good. But as a public service, Tuesday Morning Quarterback presents the actual NFL helmet disclaimer:
Use of this helmet may cause injury or deceasement. You must sign the release before wearing; please do not read the release. Concussion, ringing in ears, torn body parts, and intense pain are normal during use. Manufacturer not responsible for points scored, bonuses offered, or crowd response. Bird claws, lightning bolts, or other mythical imagery on helmet do not confer these properties on wearer. Never use your helmet in a deliberate attempt to injure other players: Attempts to injure should appear to be inadvertent. If ringing in ears persists more than five years after your final game, consult doctor. The coffee at your pregame breakfast may be very hot!
Comeback of the Year: Don Ohlmeyer tossing Chris Berman from Monday Night Football is the greatest thing that could have happened to Berman, and thus good for fans. Once Berman was the embodiment of the sarcastic sports-nut attitude that made the old ESPN such a pleasure; his one-hour NFL Primetime, with Tom Jackson, was also by a huge margin the best NFL show, knowledgeable and funny and admired for showing not just touchdowns but incomplete passes and stuffed runs and other plays that tell as much about a game as the flashy stuff.
Then came the Disney-ESPN-ABC unholy alliance. Disney tried assiduously to turn ESPN into the House of Shill, devoted to breathless corporation promotion. NFL Primetime was cut back. Berman was assigned his Monday Night Football halftime slot, which, if better than what MNF now runs (see below), was his worst work ever. His soul was in danger of going to the Dark Side—that is, Disney.
Now that Berman has been exiled back to ESPN, his old flair has returned: So has NFL Primetime's hourlong format, complete with incompletes. When Ohlmeyer was dithering around early in the season, trying to come up with a new halftime format that was bad enough to meet his standards, he compelled Berman to narrate a couple of canned segments. The contempt in Berman's voice was so pointed, only a very highly paid network executive could have failed to notice. Now Berman is back to doing what he does best. Thanks, Don, for setting him free.
Haiku of the Week: Tuesday Morning Quarterback has not abandoned its commitment to football poetry; there was just a space crunch in last week's column. Here is a staff effort:
George Bush or Al Gore
Which one will throw out the ball
Here are reader efforts:
Contained no reader haikus
Where the heck were they?
A pack of rabid
Weasels have more team spirit
Than the sad Bengals
See Dennis Miller
Funny man, just not clicking
He may be gone soon
In manuscript form Krasner's entry said h-e-double-hockey-sticks, not "heck," but TMQ bowdlerized him because this is a family column, except for the Cindy Crawford-in-a-leather-harness references. And TMQ was thrown into a deep contemplative state by the metaphysical question of just what, exactly, kind of team spirit would be exhibited by rabid weasels.
Readers are invited to continue submitting verse (literary merit optional) to "The Fray," titling entries "Football Haiku" or "Football Heroic Couplet," and so on.
Hidden Indicator of the Week: Of the five top-ranked defenses by yards allowed, only two are also top-five by points allowed. Miami, with a league-leading spectacular figure of 8.5 points per game allowed, doesn't make the top five for yards allowed. This is the kind of hidden indicator that is essential to an insider's understanding of the game. In this case, everybody knows exactly what it means.
Running Items Department
Most Embarrassing Don Ohlmeyer Moment: Last year's Monday Night Football halftime restaurant tie-in had to go. Excruciating were those promotional shots of ESPN Zone diners quaffing microbrewed raspberry-mango Belgian lite pale dark ale as they "spontaneously" cheered. But at least the old halftime plays of the week were inherently interesting. The new halftime stuff is about as compelling as a data screen of barometric pressure readings from Bolivia. Players get "miked up," and we learn that during games, they say fascinating things like "let's go!" and "c'mon, guys!" What is the plan—to encourage viewers to mute the halftime, or did it just work out that way? Halftime filler bonus: Now there's plenty of time to make that Dagwood sandwich.
Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Deconstruction of Miller has been suspended for humanitarian reasons. Though: "They call the wind Melissa" sung after Melissa Stark spoke? TMQ couldn't tell whether this was a) just stupid or b) intended to insult Stark. TMQ guesses nobody else could tell either.
Obscure College Score of the Week: Mount Senario 74, Marantha Baptist 6. Bonus Obscure Score: Carson-Newman 77, Tusculum 24. Double Bonus Obscure Score: Slippery Rock 38, California of Pennsylvania 20. TMQ eagerly awaits the Nov. 4 showdown between California of Pennsylvania and Indiana of Pennsylvania.
Obscure Physically Impossible Feat: Several readers wrote in to point out that one weekend ago, when Zamir Amin of Menlo College threw for an all-levels record of 731 yards, the St. Louis Rams were dark. Did Kurt Warner use the shape-shifting abilities of his homeworld technology to become "Zamir Amin" for the bye week? The conspiracy deepens, yet so far Earth authorities suspect nothing. This weekend, "Zamir Amin" threw for a modest 421 yards as the final was St. Mary's of California 71, Menlo 34.
New York Times Final-Score Score: Once again the Paper of Record goes 0-14 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score, resulting in a Times Final-Score Score of 0-99 so far this season. Times predicted: Patriots 16, Jets 10. Actual: Jets 34, Patriots 17. Times predicted: Ravens 28, Indigenous Persons 24. Actual: Persons 10, Ravens 3. Times predicted: Tennessee 18, Jacksonville 14. Actual: Tennessee 27, Jax 13. And so on.
Readers continue to write in suggesting that the Times' quixotic quest is not an actual attempt to predict a final score, but rather a device to signal betting tips without actually printing the spread. Tuesday Morning Quarterback is skeptical: The full argument against the Times covert-advice theory can be found here, under "TMQ's Irrefutable Reasons for Tormenting the Times."
To recap, if the Times' true intent were to signal bettors, the paper would not need to forecast upsets, only margins that beat the spread. For instance last Friday, when the line was Raiders plus three at Chiefs, the Times predicted a final of Raiders 30, Chiefs 29. If the purpose were encrypted betting advice, predicting a Raiders loss by two or one would have encoded the hidden message that Times readers should sell their Sag Harbor ocean views and let it all ride on Oakland: There was no need to add the improbable forecast of a Raiders straight-up victory considering that the Chiefs had won 10 of the last 11 at home against their Bay rivals. Therefore TMQ thinks the Times predicted a Raiders win because the paper guessed this would happen—which it did, though not by the predicted score. (Actual: Raiders 20, Chiefs 17.) If its predictions are viewed as encrypted betting advice, this week the Times went 8-6, which sounds more like chance than a hidden hand.
Honored Guest Predictions of the Week(New Item): In an effort to indict the entire national media, not just the New York Times, for failed football predictions, TMQ will single out an honored guest each week.
Since we laud Berman of ESPN above, let's check his predictions. Berman styles himself as the Swami and sometimes wears a turban for his predictions segment. He doesn't forecast all games—reducing his chance of error—only those he has a feeling about. His calls this week: Bills over Bolts, Cowboys over Giants, Rams over Falcons, Saints over Panthers, Seahawks over Indy. That's just 3-2, and achieved by picking the Rams—easiest call on the card—but steering clear of could-go-either-way games like Packers-Niners.
Brad Hammill Final-Score Score (New Item): Reader Brad Hammill writes in to suggest that the Times or anyone would have a better chance of projecting an exact final score by simply endlessly issuing this generic prediction:
Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14.
TMQ will track the generic prediction to see if it does better than the carefully considered views of professional sportswriters who have access to exclusive insider information. In its debut weekend, the Brad Hammill Final-Score Score went 0-14.
TMQ Trivia Challenge: Speed has become so essential to the Trivia Challenge that last week a cluster of replies came in within an hour after the column posted, then everyone else gave up. Last week's question:
The Falcons' 13 yards rushing (at home!) this week may not seem like much but represent a Herculean effort compared to the worst rushing days in NFL history. Which of the following is not an actual NFL record for running futility?
-53, Detroit vs. Chicago Cardinals, October 1943
-36, Philadelphia vs. Chicago Bears, November 1939
-33, Philadelphia vs. Brooklyn, October 1943
-24, Seattle vs. Chicago Bears, December 1985
For the third straight week, Chad Hart of Ames, Iowa, was first to answer, correctly identifying Seattle vs. Bears as the phony record. Though we think of inability to run the football as a modern disease, all the really disastrous running days came in the past. Perhaps Atlanta can find some small consolation in this. Small consolation is the only kind Falcons fans will get this season.
But because Mr. Hart is a previous winner, the judges summarily toss out his entry. TMQ was amused by someone screen-named Decorum, who sent in four separate replies, each claiming one of the four records to be false, thus covering all bases. But sheer guesswork won't win anyone the highly coveted, hardly assured chance of a TMQ cap at season's end. So this week's nod goes to Scott Schiefelbein, who provided the first non-Hart nonguesswork correct reply.
For future challenges, TMQ suggests: If you want to post a fast, accurate reply without doing any actual work, just check The Fray and copy whatever Chad Hart says. But to prevent a speed arms-race from taking over this collegial event—the Trivia Challenge should be as warm and genuine as the Bush-Gore debates--TMQ decrees a rule change. The winner will be the first-read, not necessarily first-posted, correct reply. And how will TMQ choose which entries to read first? That decision will be completely arbitrary.
Now here is this week's Trivia Challenge:
This week future Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman of Dallas heave-hoed five interceptions against the Giants. Not good, but careful ball management compared to those QBs who have thrown even more INTs in one game. The NFL record for picks in a game is eight. Below is a list of those who have thrown either seven or eight INTs in a single game. Which gentleman was guilty of the all-time worst eight?
Zeke Bratkowski, Chicago Bears; Steve DeBerg, Tampa Bay; Jim Hardy, Chicago Cardinals; Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders; Bob Waterfield, Los Angeles Rams.
Reply to The Fray, slugging your entries "Trivia Answer."