Tuesday, December 10, 2013

NFL Week 14 and Drama in Washington

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* This hasn't made much noise nationally, but Cincinnati's talented young guard Clint Boling is out for the rest of the season. Losing a guard probably isn't the end of the world, as this week's offensive explosion would imply, but Boling's probably their best lineman.

* Every team in the AFC South has been outscored this season, by a combined 200 points. We made fun of the NFC East in September and October, but that's a stronger division.

* Three weeks ago, we all made a big deal out of the Eagles finally winning a home game. They've now won three in a row.

* I can't remember a season with such drastic homefield advantage for so many teams. Collectively, the league is 128-79-1 (.618) at home. That means an average team might go 10-6 if it only played at home.

* Eight teams particularly stand out right now:

Chart

Those teams are a combined 45-8 at home, compared to 15-35-1 away. That doesn't even include the league's most famous (and probably most significant) homefield advantage, in Seattle, simply because the Seahawks are so good they haven't lost much on the road, either, but they're far more intimidating at home. In the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era, the Ravens are 39-8 at home and 22-24 on the road.

The Mess in Washington

In Week 14, Washington drew the lowest attendance in the 16-year history of its stadium, fell behind 31-0 and lost 45-10, yielded 6 sacks to an opponent with only 1 in its last four games combined, and gave up 2 return TDs on special teams. And yet, all that is overshadowed by the messy drama with Robert Griffin III, Mike Shanahan, and Daniel Snyder. You could write a dissertation on the team's broken culture, but I'm going to try for the short version:

1. Daniel Snyder is a meddlesome owner. He has all the bad traits of a George Steinbrenner or Al Davis, and none of the good ones. He's never respected any of his coaches, and he likes feeling important more than he cares about winning. Snyder habitually subverts the authority of his coaches to strengthen his relationship with players like Clinton Portis and RG3.

2. The players do not like or trust Mike Shanahan. Shanahan has failed at the interpersonal aspect of coaching, and he has assembled a coaching staff with at least two high-profile washouts (defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and special teams catastrophe Keith Burns). In recent days, he has burned bridges with the team owner and the franchise quarterback. His statements in the media and his continued support of Burns have led to speculation that he is trying to force Snyder to fire him.

3. We have ruined RG3. We have — fans and the media. From Day One, Robert conducted himself like a leader on and off the field. When the regular season began, he looked even more special, with one of the great rookie seasons of all time. We couldn't stop telling him how great he was. The home crowd in Washington audibly chanted, "R-G-3," like Griffin was the team. In the ongoing controversy about the team name, people even suggested "Washington Griffins" (and the proposed logos, based on the mythical gryphon, were awesome).

Then he got hurt. He played when he was nowhere near 100%, and probably cost the team a playoff win. Griffin assumed he could return on the same timetable as Adrian Peterson had. He became a celebrity and gave weekly press conferences in the offseason. He had dinner with the owner. He complained about how the coaches used him. He treated all criticism as unfair, and deflected blame towards his teammates and coaches. We gave RG3 his god complex. We turned him into Michael Vick.

There are no innocent parties here; all three are at least partly to blame. Griffin has regressed, but he is a great talent. He's only 23, and he'll play better when he's further removed from his knee injury. Mike Shanahan has to go. It's not out of the question that he could put together another run like last year's, and winning hides a lot of problems. But that would just be a Band-Aid. He has no long-term future with the team, and he'll hold it back from real progress as long as he's in charge. It may not be necessary to fire him immediately, but he can't coach this team in 2014.

Most fundamentally, the problems continue to lie with Dan Snyder. He needs to hire a real GM, defer to the head coach, and stay out of the way. He's shown more restraint the last few years, though that may be only because Shanahan's contract obligated him to. And yet, Griffin's relationship with Snyder is the lightning rod that powers the present mayhem. When there's not a real head coach with real authority, sustained success is impossible. Just in the past decade, we saw this with Jim Zorn in Washington, the Raiders in Al Davis' last years, the Saints without Sean Payton, Gary Kubiak this year, the Bills ever since Marv Levy retired. Snyder's ownership has been characterized by immaturity, impatience, and megalomania. The thing holding the team back is that he's the one running it.

Thursday Night Game

* The Texans outgained Jacksonville 406-281 and 23 first downs to 18. They converted twice as many third downs (8-4), with a better percentage (47%-29%). They won time of possession by more than 10 minutes. And yet they lost. The main culprits were two turnovers and 14 penalties for 177 yards. Houston had 115 penalty yards by halftime.

* I like NFL Network play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler. He's prepared and professional, he understands the game, and he doesn't treat the audience like we're stupid. But Nessler said during the telecast, "[Shane] Lechler's one of the best in the business at knockin' it out inside the 20 or the 10." That literally could not be more wrong. The subsequent punt did get downed at the 4, but Lechler's career ratio of punts down inside the 20 to touchbacks (2.35 to 1) is the worst in the history of the NFL.

* I've written 100 times before how much I hate firing coaches during the season. Gary Kubiak led Houston to back-to-back division titles, then had one bad season — not even one bad season, three-quarters of a bad season — and got fired. Arian Foster and Brian Cushing got injured, fans turned on his best quarterback, and he had a mini-stroke on the field. Yes, it's a nightmare season, but give the guy a break.

* Maurice Jones-Drew strained a hamstring during the win, but for now it sounds like he'll play in Week 15.

Sunday, Early Games

* The Ravens and Vikings exchanged leads a record six times during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game. It was very exciting, but it was awful football, and both teams should be embarrassed. Tony Dungy, who said on NBC that "good teams like New England and Baltimore know how to keep their poise in the final minutes," obviously didn't watch the Minnesota game. When there are five touchdowns in 2:05, that's not "keeping poised," it's losing your stuff just a tiny bit less than the other team.

Down by a field goal, the Vikings got possession at their own 32-yard line with 2:05 to play. They gained 68 yards and the go-ahead score in two plays, torching Baltimore's defense. But Minnesota wasn't poised either: on the ensuing kickoff, Blair Walsh floated a ridiculous short kick to Jacoby Jones, who ran it back for a touchdown. The Vikings got the ball back and went 79 yards in three plays and 31 seconds. That's the opposite of poise, I think. The Ravens' defense totally fell apart in the last two minutes. But the Vikings were just as bad, and the clock ran out while Baltimore was ahead. Super exciting, but not the sort of thing that makes you think either of these are good teams.

* Baltimore benefitted from one of the most shocking upheld replays I have ever seen, Toby Gerhart's "fumble" in the first half. I don't know what Pete Morelli saw, but Gerhart's knee was unmistakably down. In the Bengals/Colts game, Jeff Triplette — who last week took Washington directly from first down to fourth — upped the ante with a questionable replay ruling of his own, on a BenJarvus Green-Ellis TD.

* The wild finish in Baltimore rightly stole early headlines, but you have to feel bad for Cleveland, which led the Patriots 12-0 in the third quarter, and 26-14 with 2:39 remaining. Thanks to a touchdown, onside kick, imaginary pass interference, and another touchdown, New England won. I'm not in the habit of rooting for the Patriots, but this isn't about hating anyone, it's about feeling sorry for the Browns.

* I suspect New England would happily trade the win for Rob Gronkowski's knee. He is out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. That's a huge loss. When Gronk played this season, the Pats averaged 29.1 points per game, compared to 20.8 without him. Tom Brady averaged 230 yards and a 79.5 passer rating without Gronk, compared to 298 yards and a 95.8 rating with him.

* Josh Gordon gained at least 150 receiving yards for the third game in a row, and passed Calvin Johnson for the NFL lead in receiving yardage (1,400).

* The major themes this weekend were frigid weather and close games with exciting finishes. The combination was best embodied in Baltimore, with a ridiculous fourth quarter and the backdrop of a snowy field and freezing temperatures, but in Green Bay, the Packers quietly re-entered serious playoff contention, with a 22-21 comeback victory over the Falcons in 9° temperatures (-1° wind chill).

* For sheer difficulty of weather conditions, you can't top Philadelphia, where the field was blanketed by snow so heavy that neither team successfully kicked a field goal or extra point. In a game with eight touchdowns, the teams combined for seven two-point conversion attempts (three successful) and one blocked PAT.

* The weather didn't slow LeSean McCoy, who rushed for an Eagles-record 217 yards and passed Adrian Peterson for the NFL lead (1,305). McCoy broke the team record set by Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren, another legendary bad-weather runner. In the 1949 NFL Championship Game, Van Buren set a title-game record that stood for 40 years, rushing for 196 yards in ankle-deep mud. In the previous title game, with snow so severe that Van Buren was late to the stadium because he assumed the game would be cancelled, he had rushed for 98 yards and the game's only touchdown.

* The Buccaneers whomped Buffalo 27-6. Tampa QB Mike Glennon in the win: 9/25, 81 net yds, 2 TD, 2 INT, 40.4 rating. Bobby Rainey had a good day, the Bucs' defense intercepted 4 passes, and the Bills committed 114 yards in penalties.

Sunday, Late Games

* Eli Manning threw another 2 interceptions this weekend, his third season with at least 20 INTs. Worst TD/INT differential, min. 100 attempts:

1. Geno Smith, -11
2. Terrelle Pryor, -5
3. Eli Manning, -4
t4. Chad Henne, -2
t4. Christian Ponder, -2

Peyton Manning is +36.

* All week, NFL "experts" warned that Peyton Manning was 3-7 in freezing temperatures. This stat conveniently ignores that all but one were road games, and several came in the playoffs against good teams. Manning's cold-weather struggles continued, as he passed for only 397 yards, 4 TDs, and a 107.8 passer rating in the Broncos' 51-28 victory. Denver gained 39 first downs, one shy of the single-game record set by New Orleans last month.

* Matt Prater made a 64-yard field goal on Sunday. That's an NFL record, though I agree with Cris Collinsworth about the thin air in Denver and Tom Dempsey.

* Collinsworth, like many pundits, spoke this weekend about Cam Newton's development as a player and a team leader. "We have seen fourth-quarter magic from him that we had not seen in the past." The stats do not bear this out. Newton's fourth-quarter passer ratings:

2012: 94.8
2013: 89.6

Fourth-quarter and the score within seven points:

2012: 96.5
2013: 76.1

In 2012, Newton four times led go-ahead drives in the fourth-quarter, only to watch his defense give up the lead. The difference this year isn't Newton, it's the Carolina defense. This is obvious if you give the matter any consideration. Cam Newton was awesome his first two seasons. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and broke numerous rookie records, and his success probably inspired teams to let players like RG3 and Russell Wilson run the read-option. Statistically, this season is very much in line with Newton's previous performances, except that now his team is holding onto leads and winning close games. We are much too quick to equate team success with the quarterback.

Monday Night Football

* Jon Gruden: "This Cowboy defense, they have to find something that they can do well. Tonight it's been nothing." The Bears scored on every drive and didn't punt all game. Only three teams have done that this season, and two have been against the Cowboys.

* This was the second time in the last month that the Dallas defense has been humiliated on national television, and the sixth game in a row that they've allowed over 20 points.

* This game was the Gruden Bowl. Not only was he announcing for ESPN, his old assistants were all over the place. His defensive coordinator from Tampa Bay, Monte Kiffin, is now DC for the Cowboys. His old offensive coordinator from Oakland, Bill Callahan, is OC for the Cowboys. Bears head coach Marc Trestman was an assistant to Gruden in Oakland.

* It's not at all obvious to me that the Bears are better with Jay Cutler than Josh McCown. McCown got lucky on a couple of dropped interceptions Monday night, but he's played well for weeks and he's far ahead of Cutler in efficiency stats, including a 109.8-88.4 edge in passer rating.

NFL Week 14 Power Rankings

Top 10

1. Seattle Seahawks
2. Denver Broncos
3. San Francisco 49ers
4. New Orleans Saints
5. Carolina Panthers
6. New England Patriots
7. Philadelphia Eagles
8. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Arizona Cardinals
10. Miami Dolphins

The 49ers lost to the Saints last month, but in New Orleans and only by a field goal — and that was without Michael Crabtree or Aldon Smith. I think they're the better team right now. The Saints' problems on the road limit their rating for the same reason the Baltimore Ravens (three wins in a row, all at home) don't crack the top 10. Those three wins all came against teams with losing records, and two of them came down to the final minute. The Ravens are 1-5 on the road.

Bottom Three

30. Cleveland
31. Houston
32. Washington

I actually think the Texans, losers of 11 straight, might be worse than Washington, but teams often seem to pick it up in their first week or two after the head coach gets fired, so I'll slide them ahead on that theory.

Click here for the NFL Week 13 Report.

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