Friday, December 21, 2007

The Greatest Meaningless Game Ever

Last Sunday Dolphin fans saw one of the greatest, most exciting, emotional wins in franchise history. Strange isn’t it to talk that way about a meaningless win in the worst season in team history? But who could deny it? We all saw the wild celebration, Huizenga’s tears, the whole bit. Clearly, the win wasn’t meaningless; it meant everything to the Dolphins. Honestly, it’s hard to think of any meaningful regular season games that ever resulted in the kind of emotional exhibition we saw from Dolphin fans and players. Remember, the game had no playoff implications whatsoever. It ain’t easy wringing great drama from a game between two bad teams. People care when the Patriots vs. Colts play a regular season game but that’s because they’re the two best teams in the league right now. Back in the Reagan administration that was your classic smashed windshield game. It was meaningful (I suppose) when Favre became the NFL’s leading passer last Sunday but honestly, who really cares? Even Favre didn’t cry (or threaten to retire). No, when playoffs aren’t involved the NFL’s most riveting games are often those played late in the season when one team is desperately trying to stave off history, fighting to avoid by becoming the first team ever to lose all 16 games. Everybody can relate to fear of failure and the desire to avoid laying claim to the title of Worst Team Ever.

Here’s the list of every 1-15 team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule:

1980, Week 15: New Orleans 21 New York Jets 20
1982, Week 2: Houston 23 Seattle 21
1989, Week 9: Dallas 13 Washington 3
1990, Week 2: New England 16 Indianapolis 14
1991, Week 11: Indianapolis 28 New York Jets 27
1996, Week 9: New York Jets 31 Arizona 21
2000, Week 13: San Diego 17 Kansas City 16
2001, Week 1: Carolina 24 Minnesota 13

You can see that only the 1980 Saints, the 1991 Colts, and the 2000 Chargers played deep into the season with fans dreading the possibility of immortal infamy. Also note that all three of those critical wins were hard-fought nailbiters. It’s just never easy to break that double-digit losing streak. Now, other teams besides those above have given their fans 0-16 nightmares, but they wound up winning more than a single game. Here’s the ones who gave it a good run:

1984, Week 12: Buffalo 14 Dallas 3 (Bills finished 2-14)
1986, Week 14: Indianapolis 28 Atlanta 23 (Colts finished 3-13)
2001, Week 13: Detroit 27 Minnesota 24 (Lions finished 2-14)

Again we see how hard it is to actually lose them all and how close that streak-breaking win usually is. So where does Miami’s 2007, Week 14 22-16 OT triumph over the Ravens fall among classic triumphs by previously winless teams? Well, only the 1980 Saints went longer than Miami did in making their fans wait for that first win. And that was a close hard-fought game, not decided until inside the final minute when Jets running back Bruce Harper stupidly stayed in bounds trying to get extra yardage even though New York was out of time outs. With the ball at the Saint’s 37-yard line the final eleven seconds ticked away before the Jets could try a field goal or one final pass to the end zone.

The only other team starved for a win as long as the 2007 Dolphins was the 1986 Colts and they also won in last second crazy fashion. The Colts blocked an Atlanta punt and returned it for the winning TD with 20 seconds left.

Three critical late-season triumphs. Three teams coming through with clutch victories to disappoint those rooting hard for 0-16. So which was the greatest game? You’ve got to go with last week don’t you. That’s the only overtime game! And think about the unique rollercoaster ride Miami put its fans through. Trailing by 10 at the half. Coming from behind. Seemingly winning the game with a late field goal. Allowing the Ravens to drive down to the Miami one-yard-line with seconds left. Baltimore choosing to play it safe and go to overtime. The ravens missing the game-winning field goal. And finally, catching lightning in a bottle with a 64-yard TD strike to a complete unknown, the big play that’s been missing the entire season!

Miami 22 Baltimore 16 OT. In the worst season EVER, one of the greatest wins in team history. You heard me. We’re not the worst team ever! It adds up to one thing: the greatest meaningless win in NFL history.

Game, Match

Well, last Sunday Brian Billick choked even worse than he did on Match Game. His team had the ball inside the one-yard line with 12 seconds left in regulation, trailing by three. A FG forces overtime; a TD wins it. If Vince Lombardi had been the coach we know what the decision would have been: "Well, run it and let's get the Hell out of here". But Billick didn’t have the guts to lay it on the line like that even though the Ravens had Miami on the ropes and were averaging over 4.5 yards a carry on the day. He panicked, played it safe, and gave Miami a chance to win it in OT. His play-it-safe strategy blew up in his face in OT when Baltimore drove to Miami’s 25-yard line. Instead of aggressively trying to move the ball into chip-shot field goal range, the Ravens ran the ball up the gut three straight times netting all of one negative yard. Stover missed the 43-yard FG and lightning struck two plays later in the form of Greg Camarillo. Baltimore’s eighth-straight loss and their most humiliating one yet, beaten by an 0-13 club. Clearly Brian Billick has much to teach us about success. Hopefully he made more money off his book than he did from his humiliating Match Game appearance:

Friday, December 14, 2007

Brian Billick: Star-studded big money coach

For some reason, I used to watch Match Game a lot back in its Seventies heyday. It's not like I was the only one of course, the show was insanely popular. So popular there was actually both a daytime AND a primetime version of the show. The nighttime version was known as Match Game PM and the announcer, Johnny Olsen, would introduce it as “the star-studded, big money Match Game”. That always cracked me up since the “stars” were the likes of Bret Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly (who I loved, don’t get me wrong, but c’mon), and the “big money” ran into the hundreds of dollars. Compare that to a certain $100,000 pyramid on another network!

Alright so what does this have to do with football? Well it just so happens that a 1977 episode of Match Game PM featured as a contestant one Brian Harold Billick, now the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. At the time of his Match Game fame, Billick had just ended his attempt to play pro ball and took a job as a coach at his old high school. The best part of the whole thing (if Wikipedia is to be belived) is that Billick got crushed by whoever he played and Gene Rayburn and Richard Dawson made fun of him! Rayburn said, "Boy, I hope you signed that contract already. They might think twice after seeing this performance" and Dawson followed up with this: "Failed at football. Failed at Match Game. Where will you go now?.” Classic. Hopefully, Billick will lose as embarrassingly this week as he did back in 1977. Hey Billick, remember this?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Golden Age of Winlessness

The Jets blew it! The chance to keep their streak of losing to one-loss teams intact for a fifth consecutive decade was right there and they choked. They just had to put a beatdown on this pathetic Miami Dolphins’ team. Well, the Jets’ streak may come to an end once this decade has reached its end, but the streak of another team continues. Yes I’m talking about the 2007 Miami Dolphins, who else. Last week seemed to be their last best chance to avoid making the kind of history no team wants to make, but even a bad Jets squad humiliated the Dolphins. At 0-12, no truly terrible team remains on Miami’s schedule. Where that one win will come from I don’t know. Like Miami, Buffalo’s starting a rookie QB this weekend and, like Miami, Buffalo’s lost their star running back. Could it be that...? Yeah, right. Actually, Marshawn Lynch is questionable so expect him to get well this weekend. John Beck has yet to lead the Dolphins to a single touchdown so predicting a win this weekend would be the height of insanity. No, it’s quite likely Miami goes 0-13, leaving them just three more losses from immortality: the NFL’s first ever 0-16 team.

Previously, I wrote how going undefeated is just about as difficult as losing them all. Only the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran the losing gauntlet successfully since the 1970 merger. The 1982 Baltimore Colts are the only other winless team since that time: 0-8-1. One tie marred their hapless mark. Of course the 1982 strike cost them seven shots at a win though so who knows if they were truly historically Superbad? The NFL has seen many one-loss teams over the years (and the Jets have lost to four of them!), but winless teams are another matter. Other than the Bucs and the 1960 Dallas Cowboys you have to go back to the 1940’s to find another winless NFL team! Three in a row as a matter of fact.

Yes, the 1940’s were the Golden Age of Winlessness. In 1942, the Detroit Lions went 0-11, in 1943 the Chicago Cardinal went 0-10, and in 1944, a merged Cardinals/Pittsburgh Steelers team, Card-Pitt (aka the Carpets) went 0-10. No research into the reason for this futility seems necessary. The years of these winless seasons tells the tale. Manpower shortages caused by World War II no doubt left several NFL franchises woefully lacking in quality football players. The Cardinals and Steelers actually had to merge for a year they were so short of players. Going back to the beginning of NFL’s division format/championship game era (1933), the only one other winless team would be the 1934 Cincinnati Reds. That team, an expansion team in 1933, posted an 0-8 mark in their second and final season, the team actually going out of business for good with three games remaining on their schedule. Fast-forwarding, another expansion team, the 1960 Dallas Cowboys, dropped 11 of their 12 games and tied their opponent in the other.

So, since 1933 the NFL has seen seven winless teams. Three of those teams played in the WWII era and were probably not of true professional quality. Two others, the Bucs and Cowboys, were expansion teams. The final two, the Reds and Colts, never got to play a full season. Plus the Colts at least tied a game. Now we can really see what an amazing “achievement” it would be for the 2007 Miami Dolphins to drop them all. The Dolphins are four decades removed from their expansion days. While they certainly suffer a shortage of quality players, that problem is purely a result of bad personnel decisions, not a war. And the Dolphins will play a full schedule, 16 games. And a tie is unlikely; the NFL hasn’t had one since 2002. The Miami Dolphins are just four games away from pulling off a truly historic feat: a non-expansion, non-wartime team losing a full season’s worth of games. It’s never been done.