Why It's Great To Be Way Behind

Why It's Great To Be Way Behind

Why It's Great To Be Way Behind

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The stadium scene.
Oct. 31 2000 6:45 PM

Why It's Great To Be Way Behind

 

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Like Richard Nixon, who would never turn off a bad movie because it might get better—it's Halloween, and Nixon is the scariest thing TMQ can think of—Tuesday Morning Quarterback is never discouraged by "insurmountable" leads because they just create opportunities for memorable comebacks! The Jets showed this to the Dolphins last Monday night when they came back from a 20-0 deficit. Miami showed it to Green Bay on Sunday, coming back from 17-0.

What most huge comebacks share in common is that they occur when a team takes its "insurmountable" position in the first half, then promptly nods off as if the game is already over—although if you've taken a big lead before intermission, that means there is as much time left for your opponent to overcome the cushion as you consumed in building it.

In the greatest-ever NFL comeback, Buffalo recovering from 35-3 to beat Houston (Release 1.0) in the 1992 playoffs, the Oilers hit the 35-point mark on the first play from scrimmage of the second half, then switched to a soft-zone defense and began admiring themselves in the mirror; yet half the clock remained. All-time comeback No. 2, San Francisco rallying from 35-7 against New Orleans in 1980, followed the same script: The Saints achieved that margin just before halftime, and New Orleans players began composing their boasts of victory. In the recent Jets-Miami tilt, the Dolphins went to sleep when they got so far ahead so rapidly but should have remembered that a rapid big lead is much more vulnerable than a slowly built big lead. Just last season the Marine Mammals themselves fell behind New England 14-0 after the game's third series and came back to win (on the road no less) as the P-Men began to act like it was over with three-quarters of the clock left to run. Big early leads just set the stage for comebacks.

Tactics note: The Jets posted their incredible 30-point fourth quarter against Miami partly by letting Vinny Testaverde call his own plays. This was done to save time so that plays need not be signaled in, but will any of the NFL's control-freak coaches take heed of how well the tactic worked?

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When the QB is a veteran who makes smart decisions, letting him call his own game helps offensive rhythm, inspires teammates—pros go harder when they know they, not coaches, are fully determining the outcome—and, not inconsequentially, gives offensive personnel an extra moment in which to prep mentally for the upcoming play since an on-field call goes out into the huddle faster than a signaled-in call. Yet Jim Kelly, who retired in 1996, was the last NFL starter to call his own plays. Modern coaches want to believe only they could possibly understand the incredibly subtle details of a game plan. Yet when handed the car keys, Testaverde did not make impatient or crazy calls—he just kept advancing the chains with rhythm plays that worked.

Elsewhere, one of the sweetest traditions in sports lore involves the 1972 Dolphins, who finished 17-0, the only perfect season in NFL history. Each year at the moment when the last remaining unbeaten NFL team honks a game, every surviving member of the 1972 Dolphins uncorks a bottle of champagne that he set aside to cool on opening day. And it's genuine Champagne champagne, not Chilean sparkling French-type-style mango-chutney white zinfandel/Gewürztraminer blend. As the Vikes, last undefeated of 2000, left the field in Tampa mumbling "#@&**%#$@!" to each other, corks popped. Gentlemen of 1972, TMQ hopes you enjoyed your Sunday afternoon draught. You earned it and are likely to savor these bubbles annually until the day when the football gods summon you to Asgard for song and feasting.

Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. Honoring a TMQ law of football (Fake Kick = Victory), the Dolphins pulled off one of the classiest trick punts in years. Midway through the third quarter, Green Bay leading 17-14, Miami lined up to boom away from its 45. Punter Matt Turk convincingly leapt into the air as if he was trying to snag a bad snap, drawing the Packers' attention as the ball was actually direct-hiked to LB Larry Izzo, who lumbered for a 39-yard gain that set up the go-ahead TD. (Note: The burgundy gentleman's failed punt run on Monday night, followed by a loss, does not invalidate this rule because the play was a botched snap rather than a called fake. Bad Snap ? Victory.)

Best No. 2. Trailing 13-7, the Indigenous Persons had the ball on the Tennessee 34 with 10 seconds left and were looking for that one quick pass to improve field-goal position. That one quick pass went directly to Flaming T's CB Samari Rolle, who staged one of the best return plays ever, staying on his feet for a seemingly endless 81-yard touchdown return. Rolle had marvelous awareness of the fact that it was score or nothing—the clock ticked to double zeros as he crossed midfield. Rolle's teammates had marvelous awareness of the clock situation, sprinting from all over the field to block for him mightily. The extremely highly paid Indigenous Persons, the NFL's most expensive team, had scant awareness of the situation, almost ignoring Rolle. Though all that was required for this play to become harmless was for any burgundy-clad individual to push Rolle out of bounds, many Persons just stood around watching, as if it were somehow insulting to them, as extremely high-paid types, to bother with this reversal of fortune.

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Best No. 3. Late in the third, trailing 24-17, the Rams lined up on the San Francisco 19. The sal-cap-depleted Niners start five rookies on defense. St. Louis shifted from a standard set to an "empty backfield" with RB Marshall Faulk as the slot receiver left, and this fairly standard shift so befuddled Niners rookies that no one lined up to cover Faulk, who ran uncontested to the end zone to catch for six. The play was a testament to why people watch game film. A week ago against Carolina, a fairly standard Panthers shift so befuddled Niners rookies that when the ball was snapped, Carolina had six gentlemen to the right of the center and San Francisco had but three; no one covered RB Tim Biakabutuka, who ran uncontested to the end zone to catch for six.

Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. First and goal on the Jets one, score tied at 17, middle of the fourth quarter, Buffalo figured to pound the ball for the all-but-assured touchdown, taking time off the clock in the process. Or maybe there would be a play-action fake from a "jumbo" run package of the team's most ample gentlemen. Instead Bills coaches called a regular pass from a regular formation; the receiver drew an offensive-interference flag that pushed the spot back to the 11; three straight incompletions took nothing off the clock, and a field goal was settled for, leaving Jersey/B time to respond with its own field goal that tied the game.

Football purists know that the closer you get to the end zone the harder it becomes to complete a pass because the defense has steadily less territory to guard: Near the goal line, defenders are packed into so little space that it's very hard for receivers to break free. This is why almost all successful goal-line plays are runs, roll-outs (which create confusion), or play fakes designed to throw to a TE or OL who looked like a run blocker: Regular passes rarely work at the goal line. Seattle made the same mistake when it went for the deuce conversion to tie the Chiefs late in the fourth. Ball spotted on the two, rather than run or roll out, the Hawks tried a standard passing play, and no one was even a little bit open.

Worst No. 2. After Buffalo settled for the above-cited field goal, the resplendent New Jersey gentlemen moved to third and one at the Bills 14 with 2:30 remaining, trailing by three. Surely the Jets, noting their opponent just bungled a similar situation by throwing, would pound the ball to move the chains, grind the clock, and one way or the other (six or three) score with only a few ticks left. Instead, exhibiting no short-term memory, Jersey/B coaches also called a pass, in this case a screen. Can't anybody run straight ahead on a short-yardage down anymore? Bills LB Sam Cowart beautifully read the screen and leveled a Jets back for a 5-yard loss, forcing Jersey/B to settle for a field goal and leave enough on the clock for Buffalo to position itself for the third late kick of the game—the winner as the clock hit 0:00.

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Injections of the Week: Battered, beat-up Troy Aikman of Dallas had six cortisone shots to his lower back before attempting to play against Jax, then left in the first quarter anyway. Aikman wears three Super Bowl rings and will be first-ballot Hall of Fame. Troy—it's not worth it.

Portent of Doom: As Tampa pulled away from the Vikings, Bucs DT Warren Sapp strutted, preened, and danced on the sidelines. What is it about the combination of Florida and football that inspires rodomontade? (Cf. Me-Shawn Johnson, Jax in 1999, the University of Miami, etc.) One does not strut, preen, and dance when one's team will end the day 4-4: The football gods notice such things and rarely show mercy. Tampa's season is doomed, doomed.

Put the Dogs Back: TMQ views with dismay the viruslike spread throughout the league of spinning "Who Let the Dogs Out" when a home-team defender makes a play. Scant weeks ago, hardly anyone outside the Backstreet Boys/Vitamin C/Mindy D'Stasio's musical orbit had heard this underwhelming ditty. Now half the league's stadium sound systems are sampling it at military-afterburner decibel levels, and another stadium falls each week. The song snippet has propagated much more rapidly than the similarly annoying "Whoomp! (There It Is)" of the early 1990s. At the current rate, "Who Let the Dogs Out" is on a pace to replace "Hail to the Chief" at the January 2001 presidential inaugural.

TMQ will leave it to pop psychologists to explain why defensive players would wish to be compared—by their home-field staffs!—to loose dogs. But rather than encourage negative thoughts and inflame passions, Tuesday Morning Quarterback feels it would be more appropriate to play Loreena McKennitt through stadium loudspeakers following sacks. This would calm the crowd, allowing them to reflect on the spiritual themes in their lives.

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We're All Professionals Here: The Lions-Colts game featured nine turnovers, a safety, and a missed 29-yard field goal.

Skinny Guy Feat of the Week: Skinny Feat No. 1. In the above-cited game, Indianapolis punter Hunter Smith ran down Lions returner Desmond Howard from behind to prevent what seemed a sure touchdown. TMQ just loves it when kickers make athletic plays. Fun Desmond Howard fact: Though he is tied for the league's all-time lead in punt return TDs and barely missed the record Sunday, Howard has been released by four teams.

Skinny Feat No. 2. Bills kicker Steve Christie, who has won three games this season with last-second field goals, is now 15 of 17 in his career on game-winning attempts in the final two minutes or overtime. Cold, cold Canadian blood (hometown: Thunder Bay, Ontario) runs through this gentleman's veins.

Unis of the Week: Man, those San Diego baby-blue throwback uniforms look fine. Why don't the Bolts switch to them? Explanation: The Chargers have a strict team policy of avoiding success. (See below.)

Grade Inflation Strikes NFL: Only five QBs in NFL history—Steve Young, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Bret Favre, and Jim Kelly—averaged a statistically significant amount above 60 percent completion for their careers. Right now, with the drip, drip, drip of the West Coast offense proliferating, no fewer than 13 NFL QBs are above that level. Even the woeful Jon Kitna is running a Hall of Fame percentage; his 62.1 completions is nearly the same as his bottom-quartile 66.3 passer rating. Something's wrong when you can hit 62.1 percent of your passes and still be awful.

Stat of the Week: Stat No. 1. The Steelers have not allowed a touchdown in four games, outscoring opponents by a combined 66-9.

Stat No. 2. The Titans have totaled just 377 offensive yards and 21 first downs in their last two games, yet won both.

Stat No. 3. Baltimore has now gone five games—59 possessions, 306 clock minutes, the entire month of October—without scoring a touchdown. This for a team that had the fifth and 10th picks overall in the 2000 draft and spent both on offensive players. Unfortunately, TMQ does not know a printable ejaculation that is stronger than ye gods!

Stat No. 4. The Rams rolled up 34 points and 447 yards even without Kurt Warner. Rams tailback Marshall Faulk has 14 touchdowns, which puts him on a pace for 332 touchdowns in the decade. (NFL career record is 185 by Jerry Rice.) That plasma pulse anti-decompensator Warner brought with him on the star-cruiser from his homeworld sure is coming in handy!

Save Time, Start Your Annual Swoon Early: From the point at which Seattle was 2-2 and led Kansas City 17-7 on Monday Night Football, the Hawks have lost five straight and been outscored 135-49.

Quote of the Week: After the 2-6 Bengals beat the cover-your-eyes Browns while scoring only 12 points and managing just 240 yards of offense, new Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau declared, "It doesn't get any better than this." Hey, it's the Bengals: He's right!

Disclaimer of the Week: A football writer TMQ admires is Paul Zimmerman ("Dr. Z") of Sports Illustrated. But how to explain the disclaimer that appears at the bottom of Zimmerman articles on www.cnnsi.com, the joint CNN-SI sports-obsession site: "The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer."

What, Zimmerman's musings do not reflect the official policy of the swimsuit-babe weekly? Must Z have his articles cleared by Wen Ho Lee? Apparently CNN's board of directors feels it must distance itself from such red-hot controversial Zimmerman comments as, "It's always risky to play rookie runners too soon." TMQ inquired about what, exactly, constitutes the official policy of Sports Illustrated. But at a secret debriefing, a magazine spokesman referred me to an informed senior official who insisted on staying on background for national security reasons.

For Halloween They Dressed as Empty Seats: The frighteningly bad football-like Cardinals played at home before 35,286 people.

Cartographic Perfection Achieved: Reader Kyle writes in to protest that TMQ's practice of referring to the national capital area's NFL team as the Maryland Indigenous Persons does not really solve the problem posed by the team's phony Washington name since while the Persons play in Maryland, their headquarters and practice facility are in Virginia.

It's a global world, but Kyle has a point. The Persons and Jersey/A (Giants) and Jersey/B (Jets) are hardly the only clubs with cartographically flummoxed names. The Buccaneers call themselves the "Tampa Bay" Bucs though their city is Tampa and the bay in question is a body of water where, presumably, the team neither practices nor performs. (The Green Bay Packers are OK as they represent the city of Green Bay.) Perhaps there is a littoral solution to this literal problem. From now on TMQ will refer to the Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons.

Name Perfection Achieved: And should the above-cited franchise lose the lawsuit that seems on a course to force it to abandon its present name, reader Chris Reynolds suggests the team be renamed the Foreskins. TMQ would gladly give them back their illusion of playing in the nation's capital in return for a team called the Washington Foreskins. Condom-company sponsorship, MTV ads, etc. Really convenient team-logo seat cushions: Just rub them, and they become a king-size bed. And to fire up the crowd, the cheerleaders could—well, anyway.

Great Moments in Management: Why are the Chargers the only NFL team without a W? In winter 1998, the same time the team gave up 1998 and 1999 No. 1 choices and more for the draft rights to Ryan Leaf, San Diego also traded its 2000 No. 1 for the draft rights to Mikhail Ricks, who is not an obscure Ukrainian lyric poet but an obscure American WR. A few weeks ago the Bolts quietly waived Ricks, who was a bust even on special teams. Toting up these two canny transactions, San Diego surrendered three consecutive No. 1 draft picks (including the third and eighth selections overall), a high No. 2 pick, and players in return for: a bust now cut and Leaf, the lowest-rated passer in the NFL. Ye gods.

New Economy Score of the Week: Giants defeat Eagles 24-7.

Hidden Indicator of the Week: The Bengals, Browns, Cardinals, Eagles, Falcons, Panthers, Raiders, Ravens, Steelers, and Vikings—10 teams—combined to score six touchdowns. This is the sort of hidden indicator that is essential to an insider's understanding of the game, and in this case everyone knows what it means: ZZZZZZZZ.

Running Items Department

Obscure College Score of the Week: Bemidji State 70, Minnesota-Morris 0. Bonus Obscure Score: Albion 80, Olivet 7. Double Bonus Obscure Score: Swarthmore 29, Franklin and Marshall 21. Well of course an entire team would beat just two guys! (Disclaimer: Statement may not apply to all Swarthmore teams in all seasons.)

Obscure College Game of the Year: Indiana of Pennsylvania, which lost to Clarion 21-13, and California of Pennsylvania, which lost to Shippensburg 21-17, were both caught looking ahead to next weekend's monster Indiana of Pennsylvania-California of Pennsylvania showdown, which TMQ proclaims the Obscure College Game of the Year. People all over the world can listen to the play-by-play via the Internet, follow the links at www.iup.edu/athlet/sports/fb. Sorry, no network TV coverage.

Obscure Nicknames Milestone: Two weekends ago, Hobart defeated both those guys of Franklin and Marshall, 28-10. Alert reader Kevin notes that by team nicknames, this game, held while the Middle East emergency summit was in progress, pitted the Statesmen against the Diplomats. Wonder if either team wore striped—no, I can't finish that sentence.

Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Suspended in respect for the troubled Middle East. Though last night Miller didn't come on until 9:08, his latest bow yet, and his opening segment was the shortest yet. The phrase "easing him out" leapt to TMQ's mind.

Reader Haiku of the Week: Here are two haiku and a heroic couplet. TMQ admires the structured minimalism of the Eddie George lines while being unsure about the conclusion of the couplet. Keep your football verse coming; it gives the column a highbrow patina to offset the leering sex references. Submit manuscripts via "The Fray," titling entries "Football Haiku," "Football Sonnets," and so on.

Eddie George runs ball

Will run again if not stopped

Eddie George runs ball


—Ted Arrowsmith

Janikowski kicks!

Raider faithful close eyes, pray

At last he makes them


—Bob Krasner

Johnson's shoulder 'neath his sternum lies.

Behold! The Flutied Buffalo shall rise!


—Marcus Koval

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, bringing the season Times Final-Score Score to a combined 0-128. Times predicted: Lions 23, Colts 19. Actual: Colts 30, Lions 18. Times predicted: Panthers 20, Falcons 14. Actual: Falcons 13, Panthers 12. Times predicted: Packers 21, Marine Mammals 20. Actual: Mammals 28, Packers 20.

Brad Hammill Final-Score Score: Reader Hammill's generic prediction—Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14—again goes 0-14, leaving the Brad Hammill Final-Score Score at 0-42 since inception.

Honored Guest Predictions: Since we laud Dr. Z above, let's check his forecasts. Zimmerman danced around the Flaming T's-Persons matchup by saying he liked Tennessee if Eddie George played but liked the Persons if not: TMQ dreams of finding the bookie who would take both ends of the same bet. Zimmerman also picked the Bills, Bengals, Bucs, Giants, Chiefs, Jax, and Ravens. That's 7-1-1 if you throw out the Tennessee fudge-bet and 8-1 if you include it; not too shabby.

TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week Tuesday Morning Quarterback inaugurated a new policy of lauding the first-read correct reply, not the first-received. Would readers include enticements to lock in on their submissions? It seemed to be paying off when Fray entries from Doug Butler and Ben Domenech appeared with titles "Claudia Schiffer Dominatrix Pix" and "Jennifer Lopez Leather Party Invite." Naturally TMQ opened these first! But sadly they contained no sordid, prurient material, just politely worded entries. Another eye-catching submission, from a reader screen-named JDG, was titled "Read First, I am in League with K. Warner." This entry threatened to report TMQ to the silicon-based masters of Warner's homeworld unless JDG was awarded victory. Ha! As if I would quail before such peril! Wait—what's that tentacled thing materializing by the credenza?

On a completely arbitrary basis, the judges hand last week's Trivia Challenge to Brodie Jarrell of Conshohocken, Pa., who correctly answered "Steelers-Saints" to the following question:

On Sunday the spiraling-toward-the-water Cleveland Browns recorded just five first downs. Pretty depressing, but a Herculean effort compared to those times in NFL history when teams have managed no first downs at all. Of the four games listed below, which is not an actual instance of a team finishing a game with zero first downs?

Giants vs. Green Bay, 1933

Eagles vs. Lions, 1935

Broncos vs. Oilers, 1966

Saints vs. Steelers, 1995

A tip of TMQ's maybe-it-will-exist cap to reader Mark Longbrake, who adds that of the five times in NFL history when a team has achieved zero first downs, three times that team won. New hope for the Baltimore Ravens!

Here is this week's Trivia Challenge:

Last week Gary Anderson became the NFL's all-time highest scorer—despite having led the league in scoring during the season just once in his 19-year career. Name another gentleman who holds the NFL all-time mark in a major category yet led the league in that category only once during the season or not at all.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback has fiendishly crafted this question to render it impossible to answer by searching www.nfl.com or scanning the index of the NFL 2000 Record & Fact Book. This one will require thought, expertise, and flipping through dusty volumes. So let's see if it takes the winner more than 45 seconds. And for added fun confusion, there may be more than one correct answer.

As always, send replies to The Fray, slugging them "Trivia Answer." The first-read correct reply might receive a TMQ cap at season's end. Remember to include your e-mail address in the highly remote, extremely unlikely chance that you win.