8 January 2010

The Year of the Pass

The 2009 NFL Season

In the NFL this season, passing dominated as never before. Ten quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards, besting by three the old record set in 2007. Seven of those quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs—and they’re joined there by Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner, each of whom failed to reach the 4,000-yard mark only because they missed games early in the season. (Warner also sat out most of the Cardinals’ final game, with a playoff spot secured.) It was—due to offensive trends, dominant receivers, stricter rules protecting QBs, and a host of other factors—The Year of the Pass.

So which pass-happy teams will meet in the Super Bowl?  Nobody knows. In the NFL, unlike other sports, each team plays only half the other teams—if everybody played everybody, the players would all be dead by season’s end. Even as is, they break arms or ribs, or twist their knees on the turf in such a way that they fall and can’t get up. So some teams head into the playoffs “streaking,” and others “slumping” (the more exact term would be “crippled”).

Sixteen games provide too paltry a data set to predict what will happen in the playoffs. Yet it’s in no one’s interest to admit the massively unjust role that chance and “peaking at the right time” play in this multibillion-dollar industry. When a team loses, we point not to a crappy day or an injured linebacker, but to transcendent themes like Discipline, Character, or A Weak Defensive Front Four. We quote Vince Lombardi, the Confucius of the NFL: “Luck favors the prepared team.” It would have to, wouldn’t it?


Through mid-October, the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos were the teams to beat. The Giants, two years removed from a championship, had a new corps of young receivers to go with their veteran offensive line. They also had a strong quarterback in Eli Manning, who even with a Super Bowl ring remained best known as Peyton’s baby brother, and Osi Umenyiora to lead the pass rush. The Broncos had a cocky new coach, Josh McDaniels, who looked fresh out of coach college, but in fact had been coordinator of history’s most explosive offense (the 2007 New England Patriots). At his disposal was quarterback Kyle Orton, a classic strong, silent type to replace the loud, whiney Jay Cutler, wisely shipped off to Chicago. The Giants began 5-0, sparked by a come-from-behind victory in the first-ever game at Dallas’s monstrous new stadium; the Broncos started 6-0, including an emotional overtime win against the Pats in Week 5. But the short season was a little too long, and neither squad made the playoffs.

The Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints also started the season 6-0, and ended the season with their conference’s best records. But the Vikings lost to the mediocre Panthers and Bears in December, and did so in a manner that fit—eerily, uncannily—the twice-told tale of Brett Favre: Elderly Egotist. (Favre feuded with his coach, even referring to him as “Brad” instead of “Coach Childress” at a press conference—a no-no in football’s military-inspired culture.) After winning their first thirteen games, the Saints lost their last three, one to the dreadful Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What else will we remember from this season?

After a few lackluster games, the Washington Redskins hired Sherm Lewis, a former Green Bay Packer offensive coordinator who most recently had been calling bingo at a Michigan senior center, as their “West Coast Offense consultant.” He was tasked with calling all passing plays. The offensive coordinator called the running plays, while the head coach—who was originally hired specifically for his stellar play-calling ability—decided what to do on fourth down. This arrangement markedly improved Washington’s offense.

After beginning 1-11, the Cleveland Browns won their final four games, saving coach Eric Mangini from being thrown out on his ass, like he was last year.

It took the Eagles two-thirds of the season to figure out how to use ex-convict Michael Vick properly: have him run the QB option on third and 3. This might come up in the playoffs, of course, in which case we’ll see Michael Vick.

John Madden left the building. Any nostalgia we had for his windy truisms and Telestrator handiwork was quickly forgotten as his replacement as Sunday Night Football’s color man, Cris Collinsworth, working in an occupation defined by idiocy and annoyingness, repeatedly turned in performances as impressive as those on the field, and as important to the viewer’s enjoyment.

Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew wisely took a knee at the one-yard line with his team down by one, rather than score a touchdown that would have enabled his opponents, the New York Jets, to get the ball back with time to catch up. Instead the Jags burned more clock, kicked a field goal, and won by two. As if the selflessness and savvy of the move weren’t awesome enough (“That’s an MVP play right there,” said Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez), Jones-Drew later apologized to his fantasy owners for denying them the points that were rightfully theirs.

Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker on the brutal impact that concussions, as well as repeated sub-concussive blows to the head, have on aging football players. The piece detailed a preponderance of early-onset dementia among former offensive linemen and, along with an NFL study, prompted a frank national conversation about football and brain damage. Medicine and technology will either solve these problems, or football as we know it will come to be seen as inhumane and be forced to alter itself to something unrecognizable. Whatever happens, Gladwell’s piece will be seen as the catalyst.

Other than Gladwell’s article, the most important moment of the 2009 regular season was Fourth-and-Two. (Twenty-five years from now, the children will know it by this name.) In Indianapolis, the Patriots, having dominated the game only to squander much of their margin in the fourth quarter, are up by six with a little over two minutes left, on their own 28. It’s fourth-and-two. Coach Bill Belichick elects to go for it, rather than punt. The Pats fail to convert. The Colts, predictably, score a touchdown from the Pats’ 28 (their third of the quarter) to win, 35-34.

Belichick’s call was highly unorthodox and, in this instance, failed. Everyone was watching—it was a night game in November featuring the decade’s best rivalry—and everyone had an opinion. (The ubiquity of the Fourth-and-Two conversation reminded me of one critic’s observation that, like them or not, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s big orange gates at least had the virtue of making every person in Central Park talk about the exact same thing at the exact same time.) Every football number-cruncher pointed out that it was the statistically correct move, and St. Patrick didn’t win as many converts as they did that week. Fourth-and-Two will be seen, years and decades from now, as the watershed instant when it became okay to go for it rather than punt; when possession became more valuable than field position; when the Go-For-It camp, previously perceived as football’s hectoring Tea Partiers, was vindicated. Only Belichick could have done all this. He lost the battle, but won the war.

Second-year Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson had the most impressive season of any individual, no question. He rushed for 2,006 yards—only five others, including greats Eric Dickerson, O. J. Simpson (yes, he was great), and Barry Sanders have had 2,000-yard seasons—and set a new record for total yards from scrimmage. Yet how valuable was Johnson? He averaged over 99 yards per game rushing while his team opened the year 0-6; Tennessee’s fortunes changed only when it replaced its starting quarterback with Vince Young, who at the University of Texas was a glorified tailback but who this year showed everyone that he can actually throw the ball, too. This, after all, was the Year of the Pass, when a team can lead the league in total defense and rushing offense, and yet only barely make the playoffs (ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 New York Jets!).


On to the playoffs!

An essential element of NFL mythology is the Cult of the Coaching Tree: which football masterminds of yore have influenced the 32 headset-wearing middle-aged dudes who run the teams today. That cult, in this Year of the Pass, finds no coaches more worthy of worship than Andy Reid and Norv Turner of, respectively, the Eagles and the Chargers.

Of all current coaches, Reid has the most direct link to Bill Walsh and his West Coast Offense: risk-averse short passes that eat up the clock while, if done right, averaging several more yards per play than just running the ball. (Reid was the quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren, who in turn had been the quarterbacks coach under Walsh.) Reid’s variant has always had a big-play mutation, though, and this year there has been no bigger big-play tandem than quarterback Donovan McNabb and receiver DeSean Jackson. Time and again, McNabb has chucked the ball downfield only to find Jackson—impossibly! again!—with five steps on his man. Announcers invariably cited blown coverages, never bothering to surmise that Jackson just has a knack for getting down the field faster than any other man. Along with Chris Johnson and Baltimore Ravens back Ray Rice, Jackson is the year’s most exciting player. The Eagles did not lead the league in passing, but they finished second in completions over 20 yards, and first in completions over 40.

Norv Turner’s offensive ideology, meanwhile, is the one that’s influenced everyone but is practiced by no one (except, now, Turner). It is the original West Coast Offense, now known as Air Coryell (after its inventor, Coach Don Coryell), and it would be hard to conceive of an offense more suitable to a favorable passing year. Most plays send four or five receivers, at least two deep, stretching the field so that—given a good offensive line and a very good quarterback (Turner’s quarterback, Philip Rivers, is very good)—defenses are forced to allow midrange and deep one-on-ones. The strategy saw its greatest success with Joe Gibbs’s three-time world-champion Redskins, but Don Coryell found his greatest success in 1970s San Diego, and now the offense has come home. The Chargers have the league’s highest yardage-per-completion, a 13-3 record, and an 11-game win streak. Turner’s Last of the Mohicans-type ability to implement this esoteric offense deserves much of the credit.

The most likeable postseason squad is the Green Bay Packers. They are the NFL’s only publicly owned team (they belong to the good people of Green Bay, Wisconsin), they have its best stadium, and they are a Venerable Franchise. They also play the most sympathetic role in the NFL’s largest tabloid drama: they are Brett Favre’s jilted ex-wife, who toward the end of the marriage wanted kaput as much as he did, but who now must watch him gallivant about with her biggest rival (Adrian Peterson’s Vikings). Even Green Bay’s personnel are likable: an offensive line whose middle-of-the-road performance represents a laudable improvement from its atrocious play early on; a brash, talented young quarterback in Aaron Rodgers; and cornerback Charles Woodson, the probable Defensive Player of the Year. I’ll be rooting for the Packers, and you should, too.

The Jets and the Cincinnati Bengals—the only two successful teams that didn’t get the Year of the Pass memo—play Saturday for the privilege of losing to either Indianapolis or San Diego. The Arizona Cardinals and the Ravens are pretenders (though statheads love the Ravens). The Pats would have had trouble beating the AFC’s premiere teams with go-to slot receiver Wes Welker; now that he’s injured, the collective over-the-hill-ness of Laurence Maroney, Randy Moss, Tom Brady, and Belichick—oh, and the entire defense—will be exposed, and New Englanders will have to go back to caring about just baseball and basketball, like before 2000. Minnesota has a better chance than most would admit, but you’d still be foolish to trust them. Dallas is everyone’s pick now. Has everyone therefore forgotten that quarterback Tony Romo is the worst clutch player of all the decent quarterbacks? Or that the Cowboys represent all that is wrong with America?

Finally, the Colts. The ’00s are littered with Colts teams that underperformed. But the Colts could supply a performance over the next month that constitutes underperformance and still win the Super Bowl. Aside from their final two games, which they forfeited by pulling their starters, the Colts have won their previous 14, and 22 of their previous 23. (The loss was to the Chargers. There will likely now be a rematch.) Seven of their 2009 wins were by four points or fewer. Win half your close games, you’re an average team; win all your close games, and you’re a team that knows how to win. Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders’s season ends after Week 2? Stars on both sides of the ball are consistently banged up? Future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri misses nine games? The Colts kept on winning. We all know why—we all know who’s responsible.

On the second Monday of the season, a friend and I found ourselves at 10:30 p.m. in the bizarre zone of Lexington Avenue in the upper 40s. My phone told me that the Colts were down seven at Miami in the second half. We ducked into a Marriott and, over $7 Budweisers, watched Peyton Manning put together two field-length drives, both culminating in touchdowns, in under ten minutes (and that’s including a Dolphins possession that resulted in a field goal). Joseph Addai rushed to keep the linebackers honest. The one single-covered receiver—and Dallas Clark, who last Sunday became only second tight end ever to make 100 catches in a season—had the ball delivered right to them just as they were streaking toward the sidelines and could run out of bounds to stop the clock. In the end, the Colts had possessed the ball for less than one-fourth of the game. And they won, 27-23.

Peyton Manning is awkwardly tall, and his helmet appears to squeeze his narrow head like a vise. His commercials are terrible. He gets frustrated too easily, and I have seen him miss his receivers by a full first down. He throws too many interceptions (he threw two against Miami). He does not work in a complicated, crafty, ingenious offense, a la the Chargers and the Eagles. But this season, whenever he has been in it to win it, he has won it. You could credit his superb offensive line—quarterbacked, so to speak, by veteran center Jeff Saturday. You could credit Manning’s unparalleled gamesmanship, his talent for drawing defenses offside way more times than should ever happen in professional football. Certainly credit his formidable smarts, which have enabled him to become his team’s lead play-caller, if not its de facto offensive coordinator. And credit his magnificent arm, too. Myself—being a purist of a football fan—I prefer to admire 2009 Peyton Manning most of all as the consummate winner. Lombardi say: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.“Manning will win his second Lombardi Trophy in four years.

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  • Marc Tracy
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