Year of the Quarterback, indeed. After the hold-everything-back preseason, Thursday night's 42-34 Packers victory over the Saints was almost over the top in its fan-pleasingness. A combined 731 passing yards by the last two Super Bowl MVPs! Six touchdowns through the air! A pin-balling, record-tying kickoff return! A 72-yard punt return for a touchdown! A last-minute comeback snuffed out when a Heisman Trophy winner got slammed backward at the 1-yard line with no time left! I'm just surprised there weren't any bicycle kicks, free-throw-line windmill dunks, or unassisted triple plays. And where was the seal balancing a football on its nose?
Now, let's do some small-sample-size conclusion-jumping. I'm now convinced that Deadspin's "gambling expert"—"Saints and the under is my 10-star parlay of the decade/millennium"—is perhaps not as much of a gambling expert as he believes. (Look out for the shocking headline on A1 of today's New York Times: "Man Loses Sports Wager.") It also seems that this summer's lockout has caused a dramatic downturn in equipment managing. Players on both teams slipped and fell on almost every play. Did they forget that players typically wear spikes? Did the slippery, dew-covered grass just have a legendary, Lombardi-esque performance?
On this night, the forecasts of a yearlong scoring drought felt a bit silly. As Tommy said the other day, an accumulation of innocuous-seeming rule tweaks have made the NFL a throwers' league. The league's passing imperative has birthed uncannily accurate quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees who, on their best days, turn defenders into bumbling bit players. A back-shoulder pass is impossible to defend if the quarterback zips the ball where he wants it. In that case, all a cornerback can do is provide a contrasting uniform for the highlight package.
Rodgers and Brees aren't every-quarterbacks, of course—watch Andy Dalton and Luke McCown for three hours, and you might conclude that completing a pass is against NFL rules. But even with Peyton Manning possibly maybe out for the season, there are enough great passers around to ensure that touchdowns will not become a sometimes thing. The lockout cut down on practice time. It didn't rewrite the rulebook or tear Tom Brady's rotator cuff.
The offseason's one big rule change—the five-yard, touchback-increasing kickoff shift—generated the game's dullest and most-thrilling moments. In 14 kickoffs, we had eight kneel-downs, one failed onside try, one sky kick designed to prevent a return, two ordinary-ish returns, and two long runbacks out of the end zone—one for a 108-yard touchdown by Packers rookie Randall Cobb (with an assist from fullback John Kuhn, who caught Cobb in midair to prevent his knee from hitting the ground) and another for 57 yards by the Saints' Darren Sproles.
In his postgame column, ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert wondered if Cobb's long return would change the league-wide kickoff calculus. While pushing the kickoff to the 35 forces returners to catch the ball deeper, restricting on-rushing special teamers to a five-yard running start might increase the likelihood of a long touchdown sprint. If you have a top-flight return man, then, the potential reward of eschewing a touchback (an instant six points) could outweigh the risks (an injury; a fumble; or, most likely, starting at the 15 rather than the 20).
The Packers, for one, have told their returners to kneel if the ball lands in the back half of the end zone. According to Seifert, "[Packers coach Mike] McCarthy was admittedly furious that Cobb broke the 5-yard rule." Cobb's explanation: "I just trusted in God. He told me to bring it out." (Thanks to God, the Packers covered the point spread.)
Reading about McCarthy's rage at his team's unscheduled, impulsive touchdown, I thought of our friend Nate Jackson. In Slate last year, the former Denver Broncos tight end wrote that the "trend in the NFL is to robot-ify the athlete, making the game plan as specific as possible so that the coaches feel that it is flawless execution that wins games, not the talent of the players." After his amazing touchdown scamper, Cobb ashamedly insta-kneeled on the next kickoff. Smart play, rook! Only in the NFL could a player who scored two touchdowns say after the game that both of his scoring plays were "mess-ups."
The other guy who messed up last night, we're told, is Saints coach Sean Payton. Unfortunately for Saints fans, Payton's alleged mistakes were of the traditional, touchdown-denying variety. With the Saints down 35-27 near the end of the third quarter, Payton called a play-action pass on 4th and inches from the Green Bay 7-yard line. Brees, under immediate pressure, ran backward and had to throw the ball away. Payton soon had a chance to redeem himself—with the clock at zeroes, the ball on the 1-yard line, and the Saints again down by eight, he needed to make the perfect play call. Brees handed it to Mark Ingram, who ran into a wall of fat Packers. Game over.
In his postgame press conference, Payton abetted the second-guessers by saying he regretted that failed play-action pass: "It's one that, you know, you look back and I'll kick myself a little bit." After the game, Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk wrote that Payton lost his nerve after that third-quarter failure, "decid[ing] to go with the plainest, most conventional call in his playbook with no time left. It didn't make any sense"
That criticism is as inevitable as it is silly. The Saints fell behind so quickly on Thursday night that they needed a succession of improbable plays even to give themselves the opportunity to fail at the end. No single coaching move decides a game, and no outcome is certain before the play is called. If Ingram had plunged in for that touchdown, Sean Payton would've been called out for boneheadedness if New Orleans missed the game-tying two-point conversion. If a play doesn't work, it's because it was dumb. Yes, we are now officially back to football.