At last the playoff games begin—and you'd better not blink because there aren't many.
For all the of millions of dollars and billions of words that surround an NFL season—and despite the fact that measured by TV ratings or poll numbers, pro football is by a huge margin America's most popular sport—the league offers a mere 11 postseason games. Playoff contests are inherently far more interesting than the regular season, as well as extremely popular with TV audiences. But there are only 11, count 'em and weep, and just one in prime time: four wild card games this weekend, four divisional round pairings next weekend, two championship games, and the Super Bowl. During the regular season, the airwaves are flooded with meaningless NFL games between crummy teams with losing records. Yet when the playoffs arrive and every game is an attractive, important matchup of winners, suddenly we're on rationing.
The percentage of postseason games in football is notably lower than in other sports. There are 259 annual NFL contests, leaving the 11 postseason matchups at 4 percent of all games. Last year the NBA had 1,264 games of which 75 were playoff pairings, or a 6 percent total. The NHL seems to play its entire regular season just to eliminate the cellar team from each division: Last year the hockey league staged 881 games of which 83 were postseason, a 9 percent fraction. (Major league baseball, it's true, has a relatively low fraction of playoff games, but this is only because the regular-season game total is astronomical.) Hockey and basketball teams with modest or even losing records routinely make the playoffs, but this year four NFL clubs that played respectable 9-7 seasons—the Jets, Lions, Packers, and Steelers—were shut out of the postseason. The NFL's paucity of playoff games further means a team may post an excellent season and be denied a home postseason appearance. Last year Buffalo finished 11-5 and had to open on the road. This year Baltimore achieved a sparkling 12-4 record yet didn't even get a bye and is assured of just one January home game.
Of course football games take longer to prepare for and arrange than contests in other sports. Traditionalists like the fact that each NFL playoff game means so much in part because playoff games are so few, while purists are happy that it's all but statistically impossible for an NFL team with a sub-.500 record to make the postseason. Yet the league could add another playoff weekend, boost interest, sell more seats, and draw more ratings without any dilution in the quality of the tournament. So why hasn't the postseason been expanded? The answer is obvious: The NFL isn't greedy enough!
Postseason tactical note: It's a rule of NFL life that the farther you go into the playoffs, the more important coaching and psychological preparation become. During the regular season, good teams can win with a tossed-together game plan and an average psyche job: At the playoff level every team is good, every detail counts, and if you're not cranked, you might as well stay on the team bus. As the playoffs separate the good coaches from the mere administrators, the men from the individuals who merely have XY chromosome pairs, TMQ will track the game-plan and psyche-up factors.
Postseason math note: Twelve teams enter the playoff tournament, and 11 will finish their year with a loss. Cruel world, eh?
Best Plays of the Week: Best No. 1. On the Panthers one, leading by 10, the Raiders came out in a "jumbo" formation then play-faked to an uncovered Ricky Dudley for the touchdown. RB Tyrone Wheatley ran out his fake so convincingly that three Carolina gentlemen tackled him, one trying to pry out the nonexistent ball.
Best No. 2. With the game tied and 12 seconds in regulation, facing fourth and one on the Detroit 43, Chicago went for it. To the woeful Bears the game meant nothing; the Lions were playing for a postseason appearance, with their home crowd generating military-afterburner levels of noise. Surely the Bears would panic. Instead, Chicago calmly ran the most vanilla of plays, a quick sideline swing to RB James Allen, getting the first and position for kicker Paul Edinger, who hit from 54 on the final play to win it.
Best No. 3. Trailing Jax 10-7 in the fourth and needing a W to secure home-field advantage, Jersey/A faced third and long on the opposition 33. The Jaguars had been blitzing all day with success, and came again. Giants WR Ike Hilliard had been dropping balls all day, but QB Kerry Collins went to him for a spectacular long catch that put the ball in position for the go-ahead touchdown. Going back to a receiver having a bad day is either foolish or inspired; this time it worked. As for Jax, live by the blitz, die by the blitz, eh?
Worst Plays of the Week: Worst No. 1. In a do-or-die road game at Baltimore, Jersey/B held a 14-12 lead and faced second and goal on the Ravens eight with 21 seconds remaining in the half. To that point in the game, Jets QB Vinny Testaverde had thrown 26 times and handed off just 11 times; two of his passes had already resulted in INTs, one with a long return. So what did Jersey/B coaches call? Pass No. 27, a Samuel Morse Special (that is, telegraphed). It was picked off by Chris McAlister and returned 98 yards for the score that swung the game to Baltimore. Live by the pass, die by the pass, eh? Pass Wacky Under Pressure ? Victory.
Worst No. 2. In a do-or-die road game at Baltimore, Jersey/B trailed 27-17 and faced fourth and inches at the Ravens five late in the third. To that point, Testaverde had thrown 43 times and handed off 14 times. He can't possibly pass yet again on such short yardage, can he? Incomplete. Testaverde ended the day throwing 69 times, despite coming into the game as the most-intercepted player in the league. Pass Wacky Under Pressure ? Victory.
Worst No. 3. Score tied in the closing seconds of regulation, Tampa Bay needing a win over Green Bay to take the division title, the Bucs had the ball on the Packers 19, in snow and swirling wind. QB Shaun King knelt to position the ball at the center of the field for the kick—but did so in a way that lost three yards. Martin Gramatica's attempt from 40 barely hooked right but might have been good from 37; the Packers won in OT. Sure it was cold, but Gramatica wore a full-head eye-slit ski mask that made him look like a Jawa from Star Wars. Ridiculous Intergalactic Survival Gear ? Victory.
Stats of the Week: Stat No. 1. There were three touchdowns in the first 57 minutes of the Giants-Jax game and four in the final 187 seconds.
Stat No. 2. Denver had an 87-yard drive on which 66 of the yards resulted from San Francisco penalties.
Stat No. 3. Throwing 20 of 25 for 366 yards, three TDs, and no INTs against the Seahawks, Doug Flutie posted the third game this season that achieved the maximum of 158.3 under the league's cryptic QB rating system. (Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning had the other two 158.3 outings.) Flutie is now 33-14 as a starter for the Bears, Pats, and Bills, giving him the second-best winning percentage of any active QB, trailing only Warner. And still people around the league claim Flutie can't play.
Stat No. 4. Jersey/B lost at Baltimore despite these astounding edges: 542 yards of offense to 142 yards, 22 first downs to 5, 90 total plays to 51. But the Jets also allowed Baltimore an astounding 486 total return yards, including three touchdowns on kick and interception returns.
Stat No. 5. The Vikings get a bye week despite losing their last three straight while surrendering 104 points.
Bartender, Laterals for Everyone! NFL players saw the highlight reels of last week's classy Tampa Dunn-to-King lateral and came into the final week with laterals on the brain. Atlanta lateraled a kickoff return for an extra 30 yards. The Rams lateraled an interception return for a long gain. A Ravens defender so convincingly faked a lateral on an INT runback that it added another 20 yards. And the Bucs themselves converted a two-point try by handing off inside to Warrick Dunn, who reversed to Mike Alstott, who lateraled back to Shaun King.
Mile High Stadium Farewell: Last 30 years: two Super Bowl winners, three other conference championships, 250 consecutive sellouts. Wow. Explain to me again why we're smashing these storied stadiums? Does the executive set need heated skyboxes with waitress service that badly?
Authentic Game Index: TMQ's "combined efficiency" measure crashed as an indicator of who would prevail down the stretch—a post-mortem will appear in next week's column. To divert readers from remembering I proposed a statistical indicator that didn't work particularly well, let me propose another statistical indicator, the Authentic Game Index. Authentic Games are contests between playoff teams and other teams that made the playoffs too. As the postseason begins, this is how the contenders break down based on Authentic Games:
Note this index shows most teams that reached the playoffs didn't have many pairings against playoff teams, thus inflating their Ws. Only the Dolphins, Saints, and Vikings appeared in five Authentic Games, and the Rams were the sole qualifier playing six. Meanwhile, of those teams stopped at the postseason vestibule with a 9-7 record, all appeared in more games against playoff teams than any club that made the tournament: the Jets, Packers, and Steelers played seven Authentic Games, the Lions eight. At any rate this index predicts good things for the Broncos, Bucs, and Flaming Thumbtacks; despair for the Eagles, Ravens, and Saints.
Olindo, My Lindo: Olindo Mare missed from 28 yards in the fourth as the Marine Mammals almost blew it in New England, then came back to hit the game winner from 49 yards with nine seconds left. This item appears strictly to justify the headline.
ESPN To Call Next Florida Election: Shortly before the season began, ESPN ran no fewer than 15 sets of predictions of winners for the six NFL divisions and six wild-card slots. This was an astonishing exercise in covering every base, as ESPN NFL regulars John Clayton, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Merril Hoge, Tom Jackson, Andrea Kremer, Paul Maguire, Mark Malone, Chris Mortensen, Tom Oates, Sean Salisbury, Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Theismann, Solomon Wilcots, and Pam Ward all made complete forecasts, seeming to guarantee somebody would get it right if only by blind chance. Instead all 15 sets of predictions were wrong. Fifteen people each picking 12 positions offers 180 permutations, and even with this incredible wiggle room, the ESPN meta-forecast whiffed.
If Intellectuals Were Football Columnists: From Karl Marx's column, "The Linebacker Manifesto":
While it may appear that football matches are based on "rules," the underlying structure is economic exploitation. First the reserves and rookies are exploited by veterans, who demand that reserves play on special teams and rookies stand on training tables to sing. In this, the veterans perpetuate destructive social norms by mimicking exploitation they themselves endured. Next, the average, proletarian players are exploited by the stars, who claim for themselves a disproportionate share of the salary cap. Superstars in turn exploit the stars by monopolizing endorsement fees. Everyone exploits the offensive linemen, whose identities are rarely known even to their position coaches. Fans are exploited by media hype to paint their faces and engage in displays of faux-barbarism that rob the working class of dignity. Ticket-buyers are exploited by owners to waste discretionary income on exorbitant concession-stand prices. (Have you tasted the bratwurst at the Vet? I don't recommend it for your life expectancy! And the latte at 3Com Park is all syrup.) Systematic exploitation inevitably drives all players to starvation wages—hmm, I'll have to fudge the $1 million average salary point—while causing players "voluntarily" to sacrifice their bodies to injuries that doom them to later life as spokesmen for automobile dealerships.
The mythic edifice of football is based on sociological illusions. Fans are manipulated into the belief that home-team victories will provide entertainment (for every happy crowd there is another crowd of angry people ripping up their ticket stubs!) and further lulled into the mytho-poetic deception that a Super Bowl championship will improve civic fortunes of the community. False hopes of collective glory are then methodically dashed. Can it be coincidence that Super Bowl trophies have been monopolized by affluent cities such as Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, and Washington to the exclusion of working-class locations such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit? (Must fudge the Packers and Steelers somehow; ask Friedrich to work on it.) Dreams of "wait till next year" prevent fans from taking action in the present to alter the conditions that oppress them—or at least to improve draft choices. Football is the microbrew of the masses!
Notice that while the workers (players) are systematically exploited, owners share NFL TV revenues equally among themselves in a socialistic arrangement. For the owners it is, "From each according to his network contract, to each according to his need for private jets and supermodel mistresses!" Why cannot the proletariat join in this arrangement? (Especially, why cannot scruffy writers of manifestos have supermodel mistresses? My need is great!) To revolutionize football, the structure must be smashed in these ways:
- Workers should control the means of production. Therefore players should organize practices, compose game plans using central planning sessions, and change training camp to re-education camp for coaches and owners.
- Passes should be distributed not on the bourgeoisie basis of "who's open" but according to need, with the lower-paid player thrown to first, then the next lowest-paid and so on.
- Workers (players) would stop competing against each other and mutually pledge to concentrate efforts on blitzing and sacking management.
- Intellectuals should call the plays. However, we would be exempt from bourgeois criticism if our calls led to humiliating defeats, mass suffering, etc.
- Referees should be abolished. Players to govern themselves by group consensus.
- All seats priced the same and 50-yard-line positions distributed by lottery. All skyboxes open to the public; anyone may have the Scotch.
Also, in an ideal restructuring, the cheerleaders would want to have sex with the intellectuals.
Linebackers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your tape.
TMQ Failed Predictions: Considering the above item on bad ESPN forecasts, it's only fair that Tuesday Morning Quarterback review its own preseason predictions, noting they were plainly labeled as "absolutely guaranteed to be wrong."
TMQ was totally, utterly wrong about the Vikings ("the club has train-wreck potential") and the Giants ("that clucking sound you hear is the chickens coming home to roost"). TMQ was wrongly sanguine about the Seahawks and Panthers, inexplicably forecasting winning years. TMQ was only sorta right about the Saints and Eagles, expecting improvement but not the playoffs, was too pessimistic about Miami and too optimistic about the Colts. TMQ was pretty much dead-on for every other club: calling every loser; praising Tennessee, Oakland, and Baltimore; warning that Jax was composed of paper Jaguars; foreseeing that the football gods would punish the Bills; and forecasting this about the Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons: "Maybe all the money will buy happiness, but let's note about Daniel Snyder what Dorothy Parker once said: 'If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people He gave it to.' "
Haiku Corner: Reader verse:
Miller twists in wind
Soon cut loose. How many ways
To say, "Outta here?"
Alstott back early.
Irrelevant, for Bucs learn
give Dunn the damn ball.
TMQ cans script
Last column had no "ye gods!"
What next, no haiku?
Jersey/A in shock.
Home-field advantage? Oh, for
God's sake don't blow it.
Nineteen eighty two
Vikes move into Metrodome
No Super Bowls since.
NFC West champs
Who dat, who dat, who dat say!
We go one and out.
—"Realist Saints fan"
Hidden Indicator: Teams playing at home that needed wins for postseason reasons went 4-2, while teams playing on the road that needed wins for postseason reasons went 2-2. This is the kind of hidden indicator that proves—look, you already know it's better to play at home.
Running Items Department
Obscure College Scores: Check out the Little All-America team from obscure colleges. Best names: Clay Clevenger, Carson-Newman; D.J. Flick, Slippery Rock; Abed Taha, Western Georgia. Best hometown: Kevin Nagle of East Stroudsburg hails from Effort, Pa. This brings Obscure College Scores to a close for the year, since the teams that play from now on are well known. Though there are a few obscure bowls ahead. Gotta love the Humanitarian Bowl, at which teams promote global compassion by hitting each other.
But there's a remaining college point TMQ wants to make: NCAA football has become so money-oriented that most big schools no longer go through the motions of pretending otherwise. When Associate Professor Linda Bensel-Meyers blew the whistle on grade-alterations for University of Tennessee football players last year, the surprise was not that she became a pariah on campus but that she was naive enough to presume grades weren't being altered. Last spring the graduation rate for Division I-A football players sank to 48 percent, the lowest ever. In all NCAA divisions, the only schools that graduated every player were Georgetown, Holy Cross, Lafayette, and Northwestern. And so far as can be seen, big-university regents couldn't care less that their football programs are hoaxes from the academic standpoint.
Collegiate athletic cynicism might be acceptable if it landed players an occupation, but far less than 0.1 percent of NCAA football players ever receive a pro check. Thousands exist on a false dream of NFL careers, encouraged by their college coaching staffs. By the time they wake up, their scholarships are exhausted. Four or five years in college turns out to translate into no diploma and, if they're lucky, a job driving for UPS. No need to add that it is predominantly minority athletes who get shafted in this manner.
Owing to such considerations, many have proposed that pretenses be dropped and college football players simply be paid. TMQ (assisted by TMQ brother Neil, a professor at a Division I-A school) has an alternative solution: a new standard by which, for every one year someone plays or redshirts Division I-A football, he earns another year of scholarship. That way when football eligibility ends and the 22-year-old wakes up to the need to get an education, the chance won't be gone: Four years of real learning will still await.
Some players won't need this option, they will be disciplined enough to perform and study at the same time, getting degrees on schedule. But for the majority of NCAA football players who under the current system never graduate, universities will face a choice. Either pay the cost of keeping ex-players around an extra four years or insist on real education while they play and stop tampering with grades. NCAA schools today have no incentive to educate athletes. The incentive is to take advantage of them, then toss them overboard. Give every I-A player an extra year of full-boat scholarship for every year he plays, and suddenly schools will have an incentive to foster genuine "student athletes."
Most Embarrassing Dennis Miller Moment: Suspended out of respect for Dennis Miller, former MNF farceur. Memo to Disney senior management: Despite Miller's best efforts, MNF still has some ratings left to save. Robin Roberts would look mighty sharp in that booth, and then the show would be about football, not shtick and self-promotion.
New York Times Final-Score Score: The paper of record completes a perfect season, finishing 0-248 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score. Now the pressure is really on, as the playoffs provide a last chance at redemption. Reader Brad Hammill's generic final score—Home Team 20, Visiting Team 14—also whiffs, closing out this item at 0-163 since inception.
Before the season began, the paper of record made a quixotic attempt to predict individual player regular-season performances. Here is a summary of New York Times preseason predictions:
Giants QB Kerry Collins will throw eight interceptions (actual: 13), RB Stephen Davis will carry for 1,800 yards (actual: 1,318), RBs Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis each will carry for 1,300 yards (actuals: Anderson 1,024, Davis 282), RB Edgerrin James will carry for 1,500 yards (actual: 1,709), Ram RB Trung Canidate will be "one of the defending champion's most valuable players" (actual: six yards rushing). Broncos will win the AFC West (actual: Raiders won it), the Jets will start 0-2 but make the playoffs (actual: Jets started 2-0 and did not make the playoffs), the Panthers will not win their division (correct), the Eagles will make the playoffs (correct), Norv Turner will return to Dallas after the season (undetermined), Giants DE Michael Strahan will record 12 sacks (actual: 9.5), Giants coach Jim Fassel "will get a two-year contract extension after making the playoffs" (actual: made playoffs, no contract news, love that pseudo-precision of predicting exactly how many years the extension would run), Bill Parcells will become head coach of the Dolphins.
Reader Animadversion: Reader Kirill Roschin, an exchange student from Kazakhstan, writes to complain that NFL games "are too long and boring, and most of the time after one game ends, another one starts." Kirill has a point, but if you want to talk long and boring, what about the train from Almaty to Aksu-Dzhabagly, huh? (For rates and availability of guesthouses in Aksu-Dzhabagly—"amazing fresh air is filled with the aroma of blooming grass … phyto-tea on request"—click here.)
Several protested the statement that NFL Sunday Ticket, which allows the viewer to watch any game, is available only via the mini-dish service DirecTV. Okay, technically you can also get Sunday Ticket using C-band satellite antennas of the type installed at sports bars. A C-band antenna is an enormous radar-sized apparatus that appears designed to watch for starcruisers coming out of hyperspace beyond the outer moons of Saturn. One man per thousand is willing to have a C-band receiver on the house, one woman per million.
Several readers protested the nuance in my statement that San Antonio residents do not feel fondly toward Dallas. They don't, Texans agreed, but they do love the Cowboys, especially San Antonio's Hispanic population. Therefore it makes sense to show Dallas games on San Antonio TV. Speaking of Dallas, its CBS affiliate, KVTV, has an innovative solution to the problem of local affiliate bad choices. KVTV allows viewers to vote via its Web site on which game they'd like to see. Democratizing programming blunders! TMQ strongly approves.
TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week's question ruminated on the Pro Bowl tendency to take as "fullbacks" players who are really halfbacks:
But sometimes the slot goes to real FBs whose role is to lead-block where others follow. Once there was a Pro Bowl fullback selected exclusively for blocking: He made it to Hawaii despite not having a single carry during the season. Name this gentleman.
Readers suggested such admirable lead-block specialists as Maurice Carthon and Matt Shuey. Some said Daryl "Moose" Johnston, but he ran the ball at least occasionally in each of his Pro Bowl years. Many readers knew the correct answer: Sam Gash, who went to Hawaii for the Bills last year despite not running the ball once and was rewarded for his Pro Bowl effort by being cut in the offseason to save salary cap space. On a completely arbitrary basis, the judges award the challenge to Jason Zimmerman of Brookings, S.D. Reader Topher Connors of Indianapolis added that Gash is "the smallest offensive lineman of the modern era," noting that in 1999, with Gash lead-blocking, the Bills rushing offense ranked eighth, while this year, with the same runners and linemen but no Gash, Buffalo dropped to 17th. Gash is now with Baltimore, whose running game leapt from bottom-quartile in 1999 to fourth in 2000. This season Gash had two carries for two yards.
This week's Trivia Challenge:
Fifteen NFL teams went into the final weekend knowing they were eliminated from the playoffs and their last performance was meaningless. They might as well have forfeited. (Note: For humanitarian reasons, the Cardinals should have started forfeiting in October.) If there ever were an NFL forfeit how, according to league rules, would it appear on the scoreboard?
Submit your answers to "The Fray," titling them "Trivia Answer." And remember to include your e-mail address in the event you win—pending determination by Santa on whether you have been naughty or nice.