Miscellaneous Football Thoughts

Been struggling a little bit this week with ideas for longer columns but have some quick thoughts from last week’s NFL Playoffs and the BCS Championship Game. Here goes:

Alabama-LSU

In combining talent and discipline, Alabama had the best college defense that I have ever seen or heard of this season. Every time I watched them play, I was astounded at how ballcarriers were tackled on the first hit, holes were closed at ludicrous speed, and players stayed in their lanes to prevent big plays. Miami’s defenses of the late ’90s and early ’00s – with (not all at the same time, but man…) Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Vilma, Duane Starks, Philip Buchanan, and Sean Taylor – were probably more talented than Alabama’s D. However, the gap in discipline between the two, in Alabama’s favor, was in my opinion greater than the talent discrepancy.

In 13 games this season, Alabama gave up 103 points; the most it gave up was 21 and the 2nd-most was 14, which happened twice. In 10 of their 13 games, they held their opponents to 11 points or less, pitching three shutouts including that of LSU in the BCS Championship Game. I’m very interested in looking back on this roster in 3-5 years to see how many NFL starters played on this unit.

Relatedly, Nick Saban just won his third title in seven years (nine total but two were spent in the NFL). Personally, I can’t stand Saban. I think he’s emotionless, a liar, a bully, and completely in it for himself. But, he’s the best in his generation in an extremely competitive profession. As Colin Cowherd once said, professional greatness often comes with emotional imbalance. See Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Vincent Van Gogh, Jerry West, Brett Favre, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Kurt Cobain, and Floyd Mayweather to name just a few. If you are an achievement outlier, there is often a good amount of ruthlessness and/or egomania that serves as fuel for the relentless grind along the way. And if I were an Alabama fan, I’d definitely think the ends justify the means.

If I had to guess, Nick Saban will coach for about 10 more years, win three more national championships, and go down in history as the greatest college football coach of all-time. Even if Saban were “only” to win two more and find himself one behind Bear Bryant’s six, I would still argue that Saban was better. With the proliferation of football in America, there are so many more viable programs than there were 30-50 years ago that, even if not reasonably able to compete for a national championship, are able to knock contenders off on their best day (as Iowa State did to Oklahoma State this season). It is much more difficult to win a national title in 2012 than it was in 1961-1979.

Split National Title?

There was an idea making the rounds that if Alabama narrowly edged out LSU (as it turns out, they left no doubt), the two teams should split the national title. This is stupid. When the Patriots went 18-1 but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl in 2007-2008, not even Tommy from Quinzee would have suggested that they split the championship. This was the national title game, LSU knew what was at stake, and having the teams split the national championship game would be a farce.

Unrelatedly, this would be my plan for a college football playoff, which appears to be headed towards a final four next year–a good start. I would make a six-team playoff with no automatic qualifiers, based on a widely debated and transparent formula split between public votes and statistics. Games played on the home field of the higher seed until the national championship game, which would be on a neutral field rotating between the four current BCS bowls. We hear so much about SEC speed but wouldn’t it be awesome to see Alabama or Arkansas have to go into Ann Arbor, Columbus, or Madison and win in December? And vice versa?

Giving two teams byes and subsequent home games would maintain the importance of the regular season–everyone knows how significant these are in the NFL season and fights for them. I imagine it’ll never happen.

Broncos-Steelers

Tim Tebow had a great game on Sunday but he almost cost the Broncos the win. With about two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 23-23, the Broncos faced 3rd-and-8 from their own 35. Tebow missed a wide open Demaryius Thomas on a pattern that, if converted, would have given the Broncos a chance to keep moving towards field goal range while most likely keeping the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger’s hands until overtime at the worst. NFL starting quarterbacks have to make that throw. At least 25 of 32 opening day starters complete it for a first down.

But, as Tebow has done on many of his incompletions this season, he missed terribly. On the ensuing Steelers drive, the Broncos’ defense bent but didn’t break; with a 1st-and-10 at the Broncos 45, jussssst out of Mile High field goal range, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Elvis Dumervil. The Steelers would not get back to that line scrimmage on the rest of their drive. The Broncos won the coin flip and Tebow and Thomas performed a miracle on the first play.

And the Tebow hype machine keeps churning. The Jesus stuff can be annoying and overbearing but at least it’s sincere–Tebow has been under the public eye, and therefore extreme media scrutiny, for the past five years and has not had a single moral misstep. He practices what he preaches, is outworked by none, leads by example, and wins football games in an increasing sample size. The biggest issue that die hard football fans have with the Tebow hype is that anyone who credits him universally for his team’s success has simply not been watching the games. If the Steelers had continued their drive and kicked the game-winning field goal, which felt inevitable before the Dumervil sack, Tebow’s disastrous incompletion would have loomed large. Weirdly, though, Tebow’s overtime pass and intangible leadership qualities have been the predominant story while Dumervil’s sack and defense’s overall excellence as a unit both in the Steelers game and since Tebow took over as starter, are footnotes in the narrative.

I’ve been saying since John Fox started to let Tebow run the option that the Broncos’ game plan is sustainable. Play ball control, shortening the game with a strong rushing attack. Limit the other team’s passing game with a strong pass rush from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil and shutdown corner play from the ageless Champ Bailey. Keep the game close. Unleash the Tebow option attack in full throttle in the fourth when the opposing defense is worn down. Win late. Tebow might be the most important piece of this puzzle by a plurality but it is not a majority.

I like Tebow and have been rooting for him since I won a $5 bet with my roommate that he’d be a first round pick. It’s always refreshing to see so many self-indulgent sportswriters be so conspicuously wrong. Tebow deserves a lot of credit for the team’s turnaround but he still has lots of room for improvement. To no fault of his own, not enough accolades have been given to his team’s offensive line and overall defense. If you put Tebow on the Colts this season, perhaps they would have gone 5-11 but probably no better and possibly worse. Just once, I’d like to see him thank his defense for its help in his success before he thanks Jesus.

Giants-Falcons

More on the Giants in Friday’s picks but one of the more important storylines from this game is what it said about the Falcons, who are in an odd position in NFL No Man’s Land. With their current core, they can beat enough bad teams to make the playoffs some (most?) years but they lack ability necessary for the big push to make or win a Super Bowl. What can they do about it? They can’t fire Mike Smith, who is 43-21 in four regular seasons but 0-3 in the playoffs. They can’t get rid of Matt Ryan, the starter in all but two of those games, who is on the cusp of being a top-10 quarterback but didn’t progress from last year to the extent that many were expecting.

I’m not quite sure how I would address the Falcons’ systemic issues–and it will be difficult to do so without bottoming out–but I would start with trying to add players on the offensive and defensive line, both of which were abused by the Giants’ fronts. It might be in the long-term best interest of the Falcons to miss the playoffs next year, get a high draft pick, and rebuild their roster. The goal in the NFL is to win Super Bowl championships and, as presently assembled, their ceiling is a game or two lower.

Saints-Lions

In order to beat a team that is much better than you are, you have to play a perfect game. You have to capitalize on all your opportunities, sustain momentum through halftime lull, and avoid falling behind by more than one score. For a little while, it looked like the Lions would hang with the Saints, but they failed to make the most of the chances they were given. The Lions got no points off of the Saints’ two turnovers and dropped a couple other potential interceptions. And the Saints would eventually pull away.

Going forward, though, I’m scared of the Lions. This year, Matthew Stafford’s play was only surpassed by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady (OK company) and, if he can stay healthy, he and the Lions will only improve. Even though the Packers were able to beat them in Week 17 with their back-ups, nobody is going to want to play them next season.

Bengals-Texans

Not a particularly exciting game. I got plenty of predictions wrong (see 49ers, San Francisco), but I’d like to point you to my pre-season column calling the Texans my NFL sleeper. The Wade Philips table I spent over an hour putting together at a Starbucks with slow internet is particularly awesome and prescient. The JJ Watt call was also nice. There was a great NY Times profile of him today. Basically, he’s Tim Tebow except that he encountered much more adversity on his path to the pros and he isn’t overbearing about God.


Is it Friday/Saturday/Sunday yet?

Nope. But we’re getting there.
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