The Vengeance of the Football Gods

The stadium scene.
Jan. 9 2001 6:30 PM

The Vengeance of the Football Gods

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Cronus tormented Uranus, Zeus tormented Cronus, Hera tormented Hercules, Paris tormented Hera, Hades tormented Persephone, Aphrodite tormented Helen, and now the football gods have chosen to torment the Tennessee Titans. Oh, why such a bitter fate? "Poor wretches, what misery is this that ye suffer?" (Sophocles, or possibly Bonnie Bernstein from the sideline.)

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They are rending garments and gnashing teeth in Nashville today, for the Flaming Thumbtacks—possessors of the league's best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the clear team to beat in the NFL postseason—honked to the Baltimore Ravens, becoming the sole home team to lose in the playoffs so far.

How could the football gods have allowed this to happen? The T's wandered in the desert seeking a home. They have been humble during success. Their collective head is not swelled. Their opponent, by contrast, was arrogant and showed hubris. The Ravens boasted, bragged, and preened in the week before the game. They called T's RB Eddie George a "baby." Ravens defensive linemen showed up at the stadium dressed in military fatigues. Ravens coach Brian Billick shook his fist at the crowd after his team went ahead 24-10, one of the most unsportsmanlike gestures TMQ has ever observed. Yet Tennessee was humbled, the Ravens crowned, and the outcome was clearly divine intervention. The T's completely dominated play (see Stat No. 5 below), but Baltimore won on two improbable turnover returns that appeared under the direct control of supernatural forces.

There's only one possible explanation. The Tennessee franchise is being punished for changing its name from Oilers to Titans, taking the name of the primordial gods overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus at the battle of the Titanomachy. The football gods, we must infer, are descended from the Olympians (obvious sports link) and, offended by the name Titans, staged a second Titanomachy. That's the only explanation TMQ can think of. It surely can't be that the arrogant, thuggish Ravens are the better team.

Mythology note: He whom the gods puff up, the gods destroy. Let's see what happens to Billick and his chief thug, Ray ("Sure I Was There at the Double Murder but Nobody Was Guilty of Anything") Lewis.

Motivational note: The early line for the NFC championship makes the Vikings a one-point favorite at the Meadowlands. Imagine the grin Jersey/A coach Jim Fassel must have broken into when he read that. Nothing could offer a better motivational tool than to be the dog in your own house.

Best Plays of Divisional Weekend: Best No. 1. Leading 17-3 and facing third and one early in the third, Minnesota called a power run. But when QB Daunte Culpepper came to the line and saw the Saints' CBs playing soft, he gave Randy Moss a hand signal that meant run a quick hitch. Moss caught it and brilliantly outran all defenders for the 68-yard touchdown that broke open the game. One reason the play worked so well was that Culpepper didn't bark an audible, which would have alerted the Saints that he was altering plays based on their alignment—Moss was the only Viking who knew the call was changing to a pass. But boy, did Minnesota ever get away with one. Because the offensive linemen still thought it was a run, they run-blocked, firing across the line rather than retreating to pass-block. When Culpepper released the ball, the entire Viking offensive line was downfield. The play should have been brought back.

Best No. 2. Leading the Eagles 17-3 in the fourth but doing nothing on offense, Jersey/A lined up with two tight ends then split both left. QB Kerry Collins play-faked and then crouch-faked, hiding the ball at his midriff. Both TEs ran posts, one shallow, one deep. The well-coached Philadelphia defense had no idea what it was looking at. Collins completed a 34-yard pass to Pete Mitchell, setting up the Giants field goal that iced the game.

Best No. 3. After Jersey/A tackle Luke Petitgout left the game with an injury, the Eagles expected their opponent to run or roll away from his replacement, unknown OT Mike Rosenthal. When a green replacement enters a game, coaches normally move the action as far as possible in the other direction. Instead the Giants ran straight behind Rosenthal's tail on his first three downs, and the Eagles were so unprepared for this move that the runs generated 33 yards.

Worst Plays of Divisional Weekend: Worst No. 1. Trailing Oakland 20-0 on the first possession of the second half, the Dolphins faced fourth and three at their 39. Dave Wannstedt sent in the kicking team. Why are you punting? Behind 20 points on the road, a team must take chances, and as chances go, fourth and three is not bad. For his faint heart, Wannstedt was punished by the football gods. The punt went 39 yards and was returned 24 yards, meaning the ball ended up about where it would have been anyway if Miami had gone for the first and missed.

Worst No. 2. On the ensuing possession—one of the fun things about football is that guys whose inseam measurements exceed their IQs say "ensuing"—the Raiders faced third and seven on the Marine Mammals' 14, score still 20-0. Miami had to get a stop or its goose was cooked. Tim Brown, Oakland's best receiver, went motion left. Both Miami DBs on that side ignored him, and Brown jogged out into the flat uncovered. (Miami had two DBs named to the Pro Bowl; perhaps there should be a recount.) Brown's unopposed catch put the ball at the 2. Tyrone Wheatley plowed in on the next play, and Raiderettes began calling their agents about sports-bra endorsement contracts for the AFC championship game.

Worst No. 3. On Miami's ensuing ensuing possession, the Dolphins faced fourth and eight on their 40, trailing 27-0, four minutes left in the third. Why are you punting? Punt, game over. The remaining 19 minutes were a tedious formality. At least Wannstedt could have negotiated safe passage back to the airport before announcing his surrender. Was Wannstedt worried that he had to keep the margin of defeat from getting bigger to protect his standing in the BCS? Real men go down in flames, not punting when there's still time for a last gasp.

Stats of Divisional Weekend: Stat No. 1. In its last four consecutive playoff defeats, ending the 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 seasons, Miami was outscored 144-13. Ye gods.

Stat No. 2. In three games against the Giants this season, the Eagles were outscored 51-6 in the first half. Ye gods.

Stat No. 3. New Orleans receivers dropped two third-down passes in the first half at Minnesota, when the game was close. Miami receivers dropped three third-down passes in the first half at Oakland, when the game was close. Philadelphia receivers dropped two third-down passes in the first half at Jersey/A, when the game was close. Punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt. A third-down drop forcing a punt is in effect a turnover: All three dropsy teams went on to get stomped. New Orleans also dropped two interceptions in the first half, and a dropped INT is in effect a turnover.

Stat No. 4. Tennessee lost to Baltimore despite a 317-134 edge in yardage, a 23-6 edge in first downs, and despite blocking two Ravens kicks, just as Baltimore blocked two T's kicks. The Ravens had more punts (eight) than first downs. But Flaming Thumbtacks kicker Al del Greco missed three of four field-goal attempts, and the Ravens got their two supernatural returns. In two of Baltimore's last three games, the Ravens have allowed the opposition at least twice as many yards and three times as many first downs yet won on returns.

We Also Admire Your Devotion to Duty: Giving nothing away to the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, who last week wore barely there two-piece numbers despite a kickoff temperature of 57 F, the aesthetically impressive Raiderettes (to gawk at them, click here) flounced out in two-piece outfits despite it being 58 F at kickoff. The promotional line in the NFL's current playoff commercials is "SHOW ME SOMETHING," and the Raiderettes came through!

Visible Coaches of the Year: TMQ has had his fill of sideline "reaction" shots of coaches. From these all-too-frequent views, we have learned: 1) When something good happens, coaches smile; and 2) when something bad happens, they frown. Many coach reaction shots are such zoom-ins that the information content is mainly cosmetology. TMQ and about 48 million other viewers could do with less of red-faced coaches yelling at the zebras (was there a single call in any game this year that a coach didn't holler about?) and increased camera focus on the cheerleaders, who after all are supposed to be looked at. Viewers never learned of the courage, devotion, and professionalism of the barely clad Raiderettes, for instance, because CBS only showed them flouncing in background shots while we saw close-ups of Jon "I Was a Teen-Age Coach" Gruden's really fascinating snarl perhaps 200 times. On the rare instances the networks do show cheerleaders, it is usually with advertiser logos plastered over them during "bridge" shots out of commercials. Cheerleaders spend months intensively preparing to be looked at. Why don't the networks reward their efforts? Surely not owing to taste.

Covert Coaches of the Year: TMQ heartily seconds the choice of Jim Haslett as Coach of the Year. In his first season, Haslett brought the Saints their best finish in team history, despite numerous injuries and a club left bereft of draft choices by the coming-unglued Faux Coach/Tawdry Pitchman Mike Ditka. (Remember Ditka's line that he traded all the Saints' draft choices so he could spend draft weekend golfing instead of staying up late reviewing player printouts? He meant it.) But the gentlemen Tuesday Morning Quarterback most admires are the coordinators and the position coaches, the unseen wallahs who make football happen. Here are TMQ's Covert Coaches of the Year:

Defensive Line: John Mitchell, Steelers. Pittsburgh consistently excels on defense despite a who-dat front. Honestly, can you name a Steelers DL? On draft day, every team's position coaches engage in turf fights over whose subspecialty gets the high selections. Mitchell obtains such great results from unknowns and low draft choices that the front office won't give him high picks to work with.

Linebackers: Jim Schwartz, Tennessee. The first-ranked Flaming Thumbtacks' defense has some flashy players (Jevon Kearse, Samari Rolle), but its essence is methodically efficient, well-coached LBs who are almost never caught out of position.

Secondary: Steve Shafer, Baltimore. He has the luxury of recent high first-round picks at both corners but gets the most out of them and all his DBs, both on coverage and INT returns. The Ravens' quick-strike interception scores helped keep the team winning during its midseason offensive stall.

Special Teams: Joe DeCamillis, Atlanta. The Falcons were awful except on special teams where they covered well, scored three times on returns, blocked kicks, and ran some of the classiest onsides ever. One, against the Rams in a surprise onside situation, worked like this: Of the three Falcons in the area where the onside was directed, two made no attempt to field the ball. Rather they smash-blocked any Rams out of the way so that Falcon No. 3 could fall on the rock unmolested.

Offensive Line: Jim McNally, Giants, TMQ Position Coach of the Year. As last week's column detailed, McNally molded low-paid castoffs into an excellent unit. See that silk purse over his shoulder? Used to be a sow's ear.

Tight Ends: Keith Rowen, Kansas City. Rarely is a coach hired essentially to work with a single player. This gentleman arrived at the Chiefs two years ago to work with Tony Gonzalez, and Gonzalez has been Pro Bowl since.

Wide Receivers: Todd Haley, Jersey/B. Joining the Jets in 1996 at age 29 with no playing or coaching experience, Haley has somehow made himself a capable WR tutor. Jersey/B had the league's sixth-ranked passing attacks despite its WRs being a collection of castoffs and misfits, and all short to boot.

Running Backs: Bobby Turner, Denver. Since Turner joined the Broncos in 1995, no NFL team has had more rushing yards. At first that seemed the advent of unknown low draft pick Terrell Davis. But then Davis got hurt, and unknown low draft pick Olandis Gary ran just as well. Then Gary got hurt, and unknown low draft pick Mike Anderson ran just as well. Sense a pattern? Turner relentlessly teaches a one-cut running technique—Denver RBs are allowed just one cut and then must plow forward, forbidden to make a second change of direction until such time as they may be in the secondary. No stutter steps behind the line, no "Look ma, I'm dancing." One-cut running works like an amulet. Why do so many teams let their RBs dance?

QB: Alex Wood, Minnesota. Yes, Daunte Culpepper is gifted, but it's been shown that gifted QBs can be turned into towers of compressed sawdust by bad coaching. Wood, a former head coach at James Madison, will be a head coach again.

Offensive Coordinator: Marty Mornhinweg, San Francisco. Football pundits shrug that the Niners consistently have great offense "because of their system." If it were just a matter of plugging in a system, everybody would have great offense. Mornhinweg is the guy who runs the Niners' system, and if he had been born Marty Monday or anything pronounceable, he'd be famous. Head coaching vacancy, please.

Defensive Coordinator: Ted Cottrell, Buffalo. Last season the Bills were the No. 1-ranked defense, then they lost Bruce Smith and three other starters to free agency. This year five more starters went down with season-ending injuries, including star Sam Cowart. Yet the Bills defense still finished third overall, a spectacular achievement considering the personnel loses. Cottrell draws no notice from the networks because his defense plays a cerebral style based on position, analysis, and discipline, not the blitzing, taunting, and preening sort of defense exulted by the media. Cottrell is also unrecognized because the sports press doesn't know what to make of—or how to pigeonhole—a black guy whose primary approach to the game is intellectual. Head coaching vacancy, please.

Covert Coach Notes: Kansas City has a coach exclusively for "nickel packages," and the Packers have no fewer than three gentlemen who coach "quality control."

We're All Professionals Here: The Giants and Eagles were a combined four of 28 on third-down conversions. On a broken play, Minnesota guard Corbin Lacina was flagged for offensive pass interference.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Leading Miami 10-0 in the second quarter, Oakland faced second and eight on its 18. Down and distance favored the well-regarded Dolphin defense. It's a blitz! Six gentlemen rush, and a dinky safety-valve pass becomes a 32-yard gain keying the drive that allowed Oakland to pull away.

Blitzing does sometimes work, much as TMQ hates to admit it. Robert Tate's game-clinching INT late in the third at Minneapolis came on a six-man blitz. But note the next item.

Incredible Insider Tip: Weak defenses often try to cover their deficiencies by DB-blitzing, and it almost always backfires. Indy fell on its sword with DB blitzes at Miami in the wild card round. Minnesota sent DBs repeatedly against the Saints. The Vikes were never burned by their own blitzes, but the target was a novice QB playing in his eighth career start. Jersey/A is the sole NFL team that has consistently come out ahead this season by using DB blitzes. This means that if the Vikings try their DB blitzing in the Meadowlands, they will be running the ploy against a team that regularly sees it in practice. Giants coaches will be thinking along briar-patch lines—please throw those DBs at us.

Playoff Pressure Coaching Performance Watch: Losing players get outplayed, and losing coaches get outcoached. Form held this weekend.

In the Vikings-Saints matchup, Jim Haslett played seven or eight "in the box," committing his defense to stopping the Minnesota running game. That worked but allowed the Vikings to hit devastating big-play passes. As the contest got out of hand, Haslett lost his focus by engaging in pointless duels of sideline yakking with Vike Cris Carter. Ah well, any Cajun told before the season that Haslett would take the team to 11-7 and the divisional round would have praised Dieu.

In the Miami-Oakland matchup, Dave Wannstedt had a good game plan—come out throwing when everyone expected the power run—but saw it fail because of dropped passes and the dreadful Jay Fielder first-series INT that the Raiders ran back 90 yards for six.

In the Tennessee-Baltimore matchup, Jeff Fisher, a TMQ favorite, had two weeks to come up with something original on offense to counter the powerful Ravens defense and instead ran exactly what he's run all year, Eddie George plus dink-dunk short passes. The Thumbtacks had just one pass attempt of more than 20 yards until the game was out of hand, the same stat as too conservative Tampa Bay in its first-round loss. Because there was no deep threat, Ravens DBs choked up on receivers while Ravens coaches could put seven or eight in the box against Eddie George runs. Once Tennessee got behind by 14 in the fourth, its limited attack was so exposed that at one point, QB Steve McNair threw short safety-valve passes to George on six of nine snaps. One was the game's backbreaker, the ball that bounced out of George's hands and into Lewis' for the TD return that clinched the contest. Mitigating factor: The T's had so many WR injuries that during the fourth quarter, they were lining up rookie TE Erron Kinney as a wideout.

Coaching was about equal in the Eagles-Giants matchup, where Philadelphia's Andy Reid did what he could considering he had advanced to the quarterfinal round with essentially no one at the skill positions. Giants coaches neutralized Eagles QB Donovan McNabb by having a "spy" LB mirror his every move, preventing McNabb from scrambling. "Spy" defenses usually mean someone will be open downfield, but then the Eagles advanced to the quarterfinal round with essentially no one at the skill positions. Reid, who has been a gambler this year—he opened the season with an onside kick—went weak-kneed against the G-People. Trailing 10-0 and facing fourth and inches on the Giants' 39, Reid ordered a punt. Yumpin' yimminy.

Travel Agent Blunder of the Week: West Coast teams playing on the East Coast, and vice versa, are at a disadvantage owing to jet lag. The countermeasure is to arrive two days before the game, rather than the day prior. The Dolphins did not leave until late Friday morning, Miami time, for their Saturday afternoon contest in Oakland. The team landed barely 24 hours before kickoff following a six-hour flight, just shy of the longest possible within the contiguous states. The Dolphins proceeded to play as if jet-lagged.

Hardest Workin' Man in Sports Business: All NFL Web sites and tout sheets promise incredible exclusive insider dope, but usually what they print is recycled from USA Today. If you want actual fresh info, watch for anything bylined by Len Pasquarelli at the CBS Sports site. Pasquarelli is the hardest workin' man in football journalism, and all his prodigious output is available free. (I have no idea how the New Economy is supposed to work, either.) He always has correct details of contracts when others are engaged in wild speculation. In December, Pasquarelli noted on a Friday that Persons QB Jeff George had finally had his inevitable childish fit, screaming at quasiprovisional coach Terry Robiskie that he (George) could have him fired. It took until Monday for the Washington papers to notice this story, and then only with Pravda-esque wording that Robiskie had denied "published reports" of a scream-fest. Two weeks ago, Pasquarelli reported that Head Coach/Beanie Baby Wade Phillips of the Bills would be dismissed while the AP and others were reporting that Phillips was secure. Late Sunday night Pasquarelli posted the details of the firing while most sports services were still watching the Giants-Eagles game. (ESPN had it Sunday night, too.) TMQ doesn't know, but Pasquarelli appears to fit the Saturday Night Live caricature of the Internet guy who never leaves his room, just works the computer and the phone. Boy, is he good at it.

Helmet Instructions: TMQ's previous item on the true wording of NFL helmet disclaimers got enough mail that, as a public service, here are the actual instructions printed inside each helmet liner:

Insert head. Obey coach. Never "lead with your helmet" during tackling, unless you wish to receive an increased salary. Always "see what you hit," and always hit everything you see. Continue every play until such time as you hear the whistle or notice that everyone has left the stadium. Give 110 percent. (Note: If not presently giving 110 percent, ask trainer to tighten the screws in your frontal lobes.) When game completed, remove helmet. Repeat sequence until you are waived for a younger, less expensive player.

Hidden Indicator of the Week: Baltimore and Jersey/A, both winners Sunday, scored just one offensive touchdown between them but ran up four touchdowns on kick and interception returns. This is the sort of hidden indicator essential to an insider's understanding of the game, and in this case Tuesday Morning Quarterback knows what it means: It's better to be lucky than good.

Running Items Department

New York Times Final-Score Score: The Paper of Record goes 0-4 in its quixotic attempt to predict an exact final score, bringing the New York Times Final-Score Score to 0-256 for the season. Just three chances left.

Reader Animadversion: Several readers objected that the Colts-Miami wild card contest invalidated the TMQ law, Fake Kick = Victory, because Indianapolis was defeated despite faking a field-goal attempt. Ah, but the deception must be successful. (This qualifier appears in the case history of the law.) Any team, even the Bengals, can run a failed fake. The Colts' fake resulted in a tackle for a loss.

Many readers objected to a previous objection, from last week's Reader Animadversion, in which reader Cathy protested that TMQ had incorrectly calculated the permutations of 15 people at ESPN predicting each of the 12 playoff slots. TMQ said two weeks ago that the number was 180. Using factorials, Cathy came up with almost a zillion permutations, bearing in mind that dictionaries define zillion not as "one line in the federal budget" but rather "an extremely large, indefinite number."

But oh, don't cross mathematics types. Reader "johnshade1" sent in a record-setting 621-word "Fray" entry calculating the ESPN permutations by [(5*6*5)*(13*12*11/3!)]*[(5*5*5)*(12*11*10/3!)] and arriving at 1.2 billion. Reader Milt Eisner proffered this calculation, 6 * 5^5 * C(12,3) * C(13,3), yielding precisely 1,179,750,000 permutations. TMQ takes your word for it. ESPN had 1,179,750,000 chances and still whiffed.

"Statistics Nerd" and others objected to the follow-up item in which TMQ used factorials to calculate his own odds of having correctly predicted the final records of three NFL teams as "one in 1.2 thousand trillion." Statistics Nerd countered with this formula for guessing records of the 31 teams, (1/17)^C x (16/17)^(31-C) x 31! / (C! x (31-C)!), and derived slightly better odds, namely one in six. Now, TMQ lives near Washington, D.C., where in Congressional budget debates, the numbers "six" and "1.2 thousand trillion" are not considered significantly different. Anyway, my factorial self-calculation was supposed to be a joke. I deliberately generated an impossibly huge figure. I have learned my lesson—joke about Cindy Crawford in leather, not about mathematics.

TMQ Trivia Challenge: Last week's question:

One team playing in the divisional round holds an all-time postseason record no club would care to have, and the record could get even worse. Name the team and its undesired place in the history books.

Several readers suggested the Baltimore Ravens, who, as the Cleveland Browns (Release 1.0), possessed the unenviable record of the most consecutive postseason road defeats and stood to worsen the record at Tennessee. But although the Ravens once were the Browns, officially they aren't anymore. The Browns (Release 2.0) are now the Browns, according to an elaborate records-swapping deal worked out when the Browns (Release 1.0) moved. The Ravens are officially a new franchise, even though they came from Cleveland and brought all the Browns (Release 1.0) players with them. Got that?

Many readers locked in on the Minnesota Vikings, who join Buffalo in having lost four Super Bowls and who are alive for the chance to have the mark all to themselves at five losses. But the question referred to an unenviable record already held by one club alone. That record also belongs to the Vikings, with 22 total postseason defeats. The Challenge goes to Tom Scocco of Baltimore, first with the correct answer.

This week's Challenge:

Which of the following is not an actual modern era postseason record:

—Fewest yards rushing, minus 4: Detroit vs. Green Bay, 1994.
—Fewest pass completions, three: Miami vs. Oakland, 1973.
—Most career fumbles, 16: Warren Moon.
—Most career interceptions, 28: Jim Kelly.
—Worst passing percentage, 19 percent (five of 27): Bucs vs. Rams, 1979.
—Most total turnovers per game, 14: Oilers (nine) vs. Steelers (five), 1978.

Submit your answers via The Fray, titling them Trivia Answer. And include your e-mail address in case you win the 50,000 Microsoft stock options. Wait, sorry, the Federal Reserve has just informed me that owing to market conditions, the prize has been changed to having your name in next week's column.

Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

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