Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I can't write up the post mortem on the Fins 2009 season just yet with one game still to be played but barring a miracle the Dolphins are about to do something unique in their history: play an entire decade of football without notching a single postseason victory. Disappointing. Very disappointing. (Also unique: five different coaches in the decade.) But let's be optimistic, at least these last two seasons were an improvement on the two before them. So with hope for the future Past Interference wishes everybody a Happy New Year.

Indianapolis Colts: 14-1

Finally. We now know that once again another NFL season will end with the 1972 Miami Dolphins remaining the only team in NFL history to finish a season undefeated and untied. After an incredible 14-0 start the Colts fell at home to a mediocre New York Jets team, proving once again just how difficult it is for any team to go undefeated. Don Shula and those old Dolphins players presumably breathed sighs of relief, popped champagne corks, and partied like it’s January 14, 1973.

What? Ok, I know. It’s not that simple. It's what I hoped would happen before the game. But I just wanted the Colts to get beat. Instead, as everyone knows, leading 15-10 Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell made the curious decision to bench several of his starters including Peyton Manning. Once that decision was implemented the game turned. The second stringers were no match for the Jets and so the Colts went down for the first time this year. The CBS cameras fixated on Peyton Manning’s face while he stood on the sidelines watching his team lose its first game of the year. Hmm. How can I describe it? Well, he didn’t look too happy about it! The fans weren’t happy either. They furiously booed their home team. It was incredible theatre. You could just see how badly Manning wanted to be back in that game. He was clearly pissed.

Now the Colts made it clear weeks ago this might happen. They said they’d rest their stars once the team wrapped up the top-seed so we shouldn’t have been surprised. But I sure as hell was surprised! How could you not be? Who turns their backs on a shot at a perfect season? Bill Polian kept saying a perfect season wasn’t one of the team’s goals. No duh. Who goes into a season expecting to do undefeated? But once it’s there how do you not go for it? The ’72 Dolphins wrapped up their division (teams weren’t seeded back then) in week 10! But they kept playing like every game meant something. I thought for sure the Colts would do likewise. I’m kind of glad they didn’t because I know how much the perfect season means to Shula and his ’72 team. But what the Colts did just makes no sense and Tom Jackson summed it up in one word on ESPN right after the loss when he said he respects Polian but what the Colts did made him “uncomfortable”.

That’s exactly how I felt. To see Manning on the sidelines looking like that. And Wayne, Clark, and some of the other guys didn’t look to thrilled either. Manning knows his football history. Actually, even the dumbest player alive probably knows how special a perfect season would be. A championship’s great but 19-0 would be remembered forever. For Manning personally a perfect season could well earn him consensus “greatest QB of all-time” status. Not now.

So why’d they do it? To avoid injury? Then why play Manning and the rest at all? And why’d they play the whole game in week 15 when they had the top seed already wrapped up? A player can get hurt on any play at any time. Even in practice. You can’t play scared. Or maybe you can. Just leave Manning in but call only runs and safe passes. The chances of winning are still way better than with poor Curtis Painter. If Caldwell just wanted more rest for his players then again why play them at all? One more quarter was the breaking point?

I can see the argument that taking an undefeated season into the playoffs makes it more difficult to win it all. All that extra pressure combined with the extra physical wear and tear coming every week from every team playing you like it’s the Super Bowl so they can knock off an undefeated opponent. A lot of people think the Patriots got worn down by the time of Super Bowl XLII. Maybe it happened to the ’72 Dolphins too. They led the league in offense and defense that year but in the postseason they trailed late in two playoff games and had trouble scoring in all three. And check out this excerpt from an article about the Green Bay Packers first and only loss of 1962:

Lombardi, however, was actually seen laughing in the dressing room as he told the press after the game, "You didn't think we were going to win them all, did you?" He let the team know that the loss was a great reminder of the importance of teamwork and of not ever being overconfident.

Ok, so even Vince Lombardi thought trying to go undefeated could get in the way of trying to win a title. But so what? What do you do if you are undefeated, throw a game? Well you essentially could by resting starters during a tight game. But that just leads to a different problem. Now you’ve got a controversy dogging you the rest of the way. It’s the number one sports story right now: the Colts laid down and threw away a chance at a perfect season. They’re never gonna hear the end of it even if they win the Super Bowl. They threw away a ton of goodwill too. Fans everywhere were rooting for a perfect season to happen and for the game’s most popular player Peyton Manning to lead the way. Now you’ve ensured the reverse: fans rooting for the Colts to lose for angering the football gods by not putting their pedal to the metal and going for 19-0. Backlash! Yoou've got people speculating the Colts purposely lost to get the Jets or Texans into the playoffs and keep Pitsburgh and/or Baltimore out. The press has turned.

I don’t understand the thinking. What the Colts did makes no sense. It rubbed me and every other football fan the wrong way. To keep seeing Peyton Manning, a tremendous competitor, scowling like that on the sidelines denied a chance to do something nobody's ever done was just wrong. You know, this Colts team pulled out a lot more close games this year than you’d expect from a dominant team making a run at perfection. So now they’ve also lost their aura of invincibility if you will. And they can’t win for losing now. If they lose a playoff game everyone’s going to blame the loss to the Jets for killing the team’s momentum. If they win it all, everyone wonders what might have been.

Stupid Colts.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Your 2009 Miami Dolphins: Weeks 15 and 16

Wow. Two devastating defeats back-to-back, all but ensuring no repeat visit to the postseason for the Dolphins. Strangely, after having problems all year finishing games after strong starts, the team now has come out flat two weeks in a row, gotten way down early, and had to furiously fight to get back in the game but fall just short both times.

The Tennessee was the "shoulda won" game. Six times on the Titans side of the field in the first three quarters and they settle for three field goals while turning it over three times. Three was the magic number. Vontae Davis appeared to be in good position on both of Justin Gage's two TD catches but he never made a play. Miami finally caught a break when Jeff Fisher bizarrely decided not to use any of his three time outs at the end of regulation when the Fins were backed up at their own two. Miami got the ball in first in OT but Henne badly overthrew his pass to Bess, the Titans intercepted it, and when the refs tacked on that terrible unnecessary roughness call on Camarillo (how the hell was he supposed to know the untouched defender wasn�t getting back up to advance the ball?), the Titans were in field goal range even though they couldn't advance the ball any further. It was nice to see Miami fight back to tie the score after being down by 18, but all that effort ended up going to waste.

They fell behind even further to the Texans in Week 16. 24-0? At home? That first half was a complete embarrassment. Way worse than the Week 15 embarrassment. I�ve praised Sparano several times for having his team come out prepared and motivated to compete almost every week so I'm at a real loss to explain what's gone so wrong so early two weeks in a row. Especially with the playoffs on the line. Again, there are positives: The defense coming up big in the second half; Lex Hilliard adequately subbing for Ricky Williams; and especially Henne getting his team back in the game. He�s not afraid to try to make a tough throw and he's only a first-year QB so you have to live with some mistakes. But it would have been nice to see a complete game at some point down the stretch from the whole team.

You know, I'm not one to blame officiating for a loss but you've gotta admit Miami�s getting jobbed way more than the average team this year. The worst this week was that obvious fumble by Chris Brown (recovered by Miami) ruled instead to be an incomplete pass even though Brown ran with the ball for three freaking steps. C�mon refs! And don't forget the ticky tack tripping call nullifying the bomb to Ginn that would have gotten Miami to within 10 with a whole quarter still to play plus all the momentum. The Dolphins just can't catch a break this year (literally in the case of Gibril Wilson who dropped the easiest interception opportunity he's ever gonna have).

My prediction of a 9-7 record was looking pretty good before the twin disasters of the last two weeks. Instead, as Dolphins� radio analyst Jim Mandich wrote after the Texans loss, "I'm sure when I open the phone lines this week for the talk show it will be 'Mad Dog, who are the Dolphins going to take with their first pick?'"

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas

38 years ago the Miami Dolphins bested the Kansas City Chiefs 27-24 in what remains the longest NFL game ever played. 82 minutes and 40 seconds. I know a lot about this game. I know the Dolphins scored a TD to tie the game with just over a minute left in regulation. I know that all suddenly looked lost for Miami when Ed Podolak, having the best game of his career, returned the ensuing kickoff back 78 yards. I know KC kicker (and future Hall-of-Famer) Jan Stenerud, in the midst of the worst game of his career, then honked the 31-yard field goal try to send the game into overtime. The kicking follies continued--each team missed a FG try in the first OT period; Nick Buoniconti blocked Stenerud's try while Garo Yepremian couldn't convert a 52-yarder for the Fins. So on to double overtime where Miami made the big play that led to the end of the endless game. From their own 35 the Dolphins called a trap play that sprung Larry Csonka for 29 yards. A few more runs, a few more yards, and then Yepremian came in to boot the game-winner that silenced the stunned Chiefs home crowd.

Like I said, I know a lot about this game. But I have no memory of it. I was a little kid at the time and maybe I watched it but if I did I certainly don�t remember. No, my interest in this game came from a book somebody once bought me for my birthday. Each chapter related the saga of how some NFL record was made. And you know what? It was riveting. Man, I wish I still had that book. I remember one chapter related how Bert Jones set the NFL record (since broken) for consecutive completions in a game. That chapter ended something like this: "Bert's father Dub Jones once scored 6 touchdowns in a game. But he only tied an NFL record. His son broke one". Oooh. Chills (haha). Another chapter had a very evocative title that's stayed with me, "The Day The Footballs Flew". That one was on the NFL's all-time highest scoring game, a 72-41 Redskins blowout of the Giants. Jurgensen vs. Tittle. Hard to believe that 113 point total has stood for over 40 years.

Anyway, the last chapter of the book was entitled "The Longest Day". I know now but didn't know then that the title came from Cornelius Ryan's famous book about D-Day (or from the movie based on the book). But it was a perfect title for the NFL's longest game and I must have read and reread that chapter dozens of times. Somehow it connected me to a now-legendary game that maybe I'll actually get to see one day. (When will the NFL open up its library already? I'll pay). The Miami Dolphins first postseason victory in franchise history.

It's a different world now. With cable and the internet there's just so much out there to see and hear and read about football. And you can get sick of it all pretty quickly. But back in the time of Miami's Christmas day double-overtime victory and for years thereafter if you wanted NFL entertainment outside of the games themselves, you actually had to take the time to sit down and read a book. I wish I still knew the name of the one that chronicled the NFL's Longest Day. And I really wish I knew who wrote the thing. But whoever you are nameless author of that NFL book that once meant so much to me, if you're out there somewhere, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

And Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to any readers I have out there in the blogosphere. I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read what I write, especially you sptrfn (I'll attempt to address your "What If" scenarios in a future post).

Ward vs. Harrison

I didn’t include any stats in my previous post on Hines Ward. Below you can see just how much bigger Marvin Harrison’s career receiving numbers are than Hines Ward’s (through Week 15 of the 2009 season).


That's a big advantage. Of course Ward’s not done yet though I don’t see how he realistically catches Harrison in any major category. However, there is one area where Ward is clearly superior to Harrison. One huge area. The postseason. Check it out:


For such a great receiver on such a successful team, Harrison’s postseason numbers are shockingly pedestrian. And despite playing in 16 playoff games, Harrison’s only scored twice in the playoffs, both in a wild-card round blowout of Denver. By contrast Ward’s raised the level of his game in the playoffs. Check out the tables below. While Harrison seemed to play worse as his team got farther in the playoffs, Ward gets better each playoff round. The goal of every team is to win. At least in the postseason Ward did a lot more to help his team win it all than Harrison ever did. That’s got to count for something in choosing an all-decade team.

Playoff RoundGRecYdsY/CTD
Super Bowl155911.80
Conf. Championship27608.60
Wild Card72843315.52

Playoff RoundGRecYdsY/CTD
Super Bowl2716623.71
Conf. Championship41928715.12
Wild Card32324910.82

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Orleans Saints: 13-1

Dude, what is your problem? Seriously. A 24-yarder?

Finally. The Saints at last fail to pull a rabbit out of their helmets and their unbeaten streak is no more. No thanks to Nick Folk (you jackass!) who pulled a Suisham. I'd really like to know what kind of voodoo curses or crude sexual taunts the Saints are using that unnerve their opponent kickers so badly that they miss chip-shot field goals at key moments. Magnets? Hypnosis? Anyway, the ultimate nightmare scenario has been avoided. You know, Drew Bress, leading his team to a 19-0 perfect season, capping it all off with a Super Bowl victory in the very home stadium of the team that not only passed on him twice but previously stood as the only NFL team to post a perfect season. Not gonna happen. One down, one to go. The Colts luck needs to run out soon too. Hard to see them losing to the Jets or Bills though. A loss, if it is to come, may have to wait for the playoffs. Maybe long-time Dolphin fans will wind up rooting hard for Brees after all, but as the instrument that drives a Super Bowl stake through the heart of the Indianapolis Colts' drive for a perfect season.

Your 2009 Miami Dolphins: Week 14

A nice workmanlike victory over the Jaguars. Thanks to some turnovers the Dolphins were never able to get that one score to put away a game they seemingly controlled from the start, leading to some unnecessary suspense at the end. But beating a solid team on the road is never easy and Miami deserves a lot of credit for the tough win. Henne played extremely well. His one mistake, a interception, came when he got confused by a coverage. It's a shame the Dolphins have scrapped the Wildcat as they were the only team that could execute it consistently, but obviously neither Ricky Williams nor Pat White can run it anywhere near as effectively as Ronnie Brown. But the Dolphins are still doing a great job of running the football regardless. Camarillo looks to be back where he was before the knee injury. With him, Hartline and Bess all looking so good I think we can shut the door on Ted Ginn's days as a starter and once again resources will have to be expended on acquiring a deep threat in the offseason.

A lot of praise must go to the defense which shut down the Jags' passing game all day, especially in fourth quarter, something we haven't seen them do very often this year. So the playoffs remain a possibility. I wouldn't expect the Dolphins to do much should they qualify but playoff experience is always helpful, especially to guys who've never been there before like Henne.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hines Ward: All-Decade WR?

Recently football writer Peter King posted his NFL all-decade team. I don’t always agree with King and his stuff may not be great 100% of the time but he’s a great football writer and I always read his stuff. And I don’t have any criticism at the moment of any of his selections. His most controversial pick is surely Hines Ward as one of his two all-decade wideouts (alongside Randy Moss). King passed up guys with more impressive receiving numbers, most notably Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. Now King knows the numbers and preemptively defends the Ward pick, highlighting Ward’s blocking ability and stating it was for a player “who produces and blocks and wins.” I kind of like the call. Yeah, I know T.O.’s caught a lot more TD’s but you can’t ignore the fact that three different teams decided they’d be better off without the guy even though he was putting up great numbers. How many other all-time greats can you name who were repeatedly told to get lost while still in their prime?

As for Marvin Harrison I think you have to adjust his career numbers down a bit because he played his whole career with maybe the greatest passer who ever lived. Notice how Peyton Manning’s in the midst of his greatest season even though Harrison's gone and was replaced by a rookie and a second-year guy with a French name and four career catches. Manning hasn't missed a beat.

Owens and Harrison were able to post bigger numbers than Ward in this decade not necessarily because of superior talent but because they played in better passing offenses. Or at least offenses that preferred to throw. Here’s how Harrison’s Colts ranked in passing attempts for each year of his career:

Marvin Harrison


Four times in the top five, seven times in the top ten, 12 times in the top half of the league.

Here’s Terrell Owens' teams:


Three top fives, seven top tens, eight times in the top half of the league. Now compare Hines Ward's Steelers:


Only once has Ward ever even played for a team ranked in the top ten for passing attempts (and that was just a tenth-place ranking!). Only three times has his team ever finished in the top half of the league. We can see he simply hasn’t had the opportunity to post the same kind of numbers year in and year out that Harrison or T.O. have. Ward’s played with a good QB for the past several years. He’s had other good receiving teammates (Burress, Holmes). So clearly the Steelers organization simply prefers to run the ball more than other teams. And therefore it’s only fair for Peter King to recognize Ward for his overall game and great productivity given the conservative offenses he’s played for. You can’t just give the nod to Owens or Harrison because they played on pass-happy teams. You’re supposed to be honoring the individual player, not his offense. It's not insane to prefer Ward.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mr. Drew Brees

I continue to follow Drew Brees’ career with a certain horrified fascination. Just knowing he should be but isn’t quarterbacking the Miami Dolphins right now kind of sucks, there’s just no other way to put it. The Dolphins blew it with Brees twice. Wannstadt passed on drafting Brees in 2001 and with the chance to rectify Wanny’s error in 2005 Saban instead passed on Brees in favor of signing worthless Duante Culpepper. And Brees wanted Miami to sign him! That’s the worst part. Actually I don’t know what the worst part is. What I do know is that a team in desperate need of a quarterback for practically this entire decade twice refused to grab somebody who for the last few years has been one of the best QB’s in the game. And every week this year football fans have gotten to see Brees’ incredible accuracy and tremendous decision-making week in and week out. His team’s 12-0, one of those wins coming at the expense of the Dolphins. Brees’ demolition of the New England Patriots a couple weeks ago was staggering. Could any quarterback ever have played a better game?

Making it slightly worse is the fact that Brees seems like a really good guy, someone you actually want to root for. I mean, you’re going to root for your team no matter what but it’s nice when your team’s got some actual quality individuals who deserve the cheers they get. Brees is one of the most respected players in the game. Which makes me wonder something.

Remember a few years back when Bret Favre’s dad died and there was a whole huge media story about how that would affect Favre and if he was going to play that week? That was all we heard about that week and for weeks after (And unless you drink a lot or suffer from early onset dementia you of course know Favre did play and play well that week and for the rest of the year). Well you may not have heard that Drew Brees’ mother passed away back in August. And it was just recently determined that she committed suicide. Also, while previously it was reported the two had not even spoken in the three years before her death it turns out that was all wrong and in fact the two had been working on repairing their strained relationship. So you have to think coping with all of that would be at least as hard as what Favre went through. Yet I heard no preseason speculation whatsoever wondering if after his mother’s death Brees could maintain the level of play that won him the 2008 Offensive Player of the Year Award. I’ve seen no commentary on just how amazing it is that Brees continues to perform like this despite what he’s been gone through. I’m just sayin’.

Your 2009 Miami Dolphins: Weeks 12 and 13

I’m kind of glad I delayed writing up a summary of Buffalo game. Man that was one depressing game. Coming off two wins in a row it looked like the Dolphins might have been starting to put something together. Climbing over .500 for the season and putting themselves in playoff position would have no small thing after an 0-3 start. Instead we saw Chad Henne seeming to regress, the team unable to execute the Wildcat without Ronnie Brown and a defense once again saving its worst for last-- the fourth quarter. That last item’s a real mystery ‘cause it happens even when the Dolphins are dominating time of possession all day. It’s always easy to overreact to one game but that collapse in the final four minutes really left a bad taste in the mouths of Dolphin fans.

But the high of the week 13 upset of the Patriots washed away that bitter taste real quick. The Patriots should have won that game. Taking advantage of Miami’s unfortunate tendency to give up the big play New England jumped out to a 14-0 lead and, after Miami crawled back into it, took a 21-10 lead in the second half. But the Dolphins kept plugging away. They decided to put the game in Henne’s hands and responded. And the defense made a couple of huge plays, stopping the Pats on a 4th-and-one and picking off Brady in the end zone.

So Miami fans go from pessimistic to optimistic in the space of a week. But losing to Buffalo blew the Dolphins’ margin for error when it comes to the postseason. It’s hard to see how they make the playoffs if they lose to Jacksonville this week.