Friday, November 19, 2010

Do NFL Teams Really Need to Stretch the Field?

Every year, the Great Gene Collier hands out his Trite Trophy for the most ubiquitous or annoying (or both) cliche in sports. Past winners have included well-known trite-isms that were so pervasive we just adopted them into the common parlance without even noticing: Smashmouth Football, Gut Check, Crunch Time, West Coast Offense, and Red Zone, a term so insidiously pervasive that we even have a cable channel named after it.

These represent trite cliches, but they often hint at something deeper, start to peel back the protective layer of sports talking head-isms to reveal the fickle zeitgeist of the NFL, unexamined truisms thoughtlessly bandied about as though they were proven principals of physics.

This year, the talking heads all assert this inalienable truth: you must have a deep passing threat to stretch the defense. They say it as though it's a conclusion, like gravity holds you to the earth or something.

If you don't have this essential "deep threat" on your NFL team, you are doomed. Yea verily, frogs and lizards will rain down upon your city, children will find internet porn and atavistic miscreants will roam the streets kicking puppies and knocking over old ladies.

I don't buy it. I don't buy it because it contains some truth, but not all truth. It is unexamined nattering and, as such, needs to be aired out to see if it flies.

About half of the 10 receivers with catches of more than 20 yard are on legitimate playoff contenders. The other half ... well, not so much. Brandon Lloyd of Denver has 18 catches of 20+ yards, but the Broncos are a woeful 3-6, good for last in a very weak AFC West. The Pokes' Miles Austin has 11 catches of 20+ yards and we all know about all the big drama in Big D. TO has 12 such catches, but the Bungles aren't going anywhere except near the top of the draft class. Again. Andre Johnson also has 11 long catches, but the Houston Texans are doing their usual trick -- promising this will be the breakthrough year, but ending up with a record of 8-8. Again. Like they always do.

The fact is, about half the receivers who lead in this category play for non-contenders and the other half play for legit contenders. So: Deep threat? Kind of important.

There are so many other things more valuable than the much drooled over deep threat: an accurate quarterback, a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback, an offensive line that can control games, a shut-down corner, a coaching staff that knows how to manage the clock and on and on. Sure, it's nice to have a speed guy like DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace. If nothing else, they are just fun to watch, running gazelle-like, the length of the field, a veritable blur on the screen.

But I'm not sure it contributes as much to winning as these other, harder to pin down elements of the game.

Here's a stat that reveals something about the defensive line -- fewest total yard surrendered. The Giants, Jets, Saints, Raiders, Steelers, Ravens, Bears and Eagles are all in the top 10 in that category. The only teams in the top 10 without winning records are the Vikes and the Chargers. Eight teams (nine if you include San Diego) fighting for division crowns rank in the top 10 in fewest yards surrendered.

Sticking with the defense, these teams are all in the top ten in fewest points allowed per game: Bears, Packers, Jets, Saints, Steelers, Ravens, Falcons, Titans. Again, only two teams made the top ten in this stat who are pretty well out of contention for the division crown, the Browns and the Rams (although, both of those teams are much, much improved.)

But it's not just defense, it's other things. As important as the offensive line is, sadly, there are no stats kept for pancake blocks or providing a comfortable passing pocket. But if the offensive line protects the quarterback, it's reasonable to assume he'll be able to do things on the field like convert third downs. The top 10 teams that convert on third down most successfully? You're looking at a list of teams planning on making some playoff money: Falcons, Saints, Eagles, Bucs, Pats, Colts, Ravens. (The interlopers on this list? Chargers, although, again, they're certainly not dead, the Dolphins and the Texans.)

Staying with the offensive line, the top 10 teams who have allowed the fewest sacks include: Giants, Colts, Pats, Jets, Saints, Falcons, Ravens. Allowing very few sacks indicates a good offensive line, but it also can indicate a quarterback who gets rid of the ball quickly, thus avoiding sacks. If the QB is waiting for the deep route to open up, he's probably hanging in the pocket a bit longer than a guy who is dumping the ball off for a 8 yard gain and a first down, thus risking a sack.

Maybe a look at recent Super Bowl winners will reveal something.

If a deep threat were so essential, the Patriots wouldn't have won three Super Bowls. The 2001, 2003 and 2004 versions of the New England Patriots were able to just crush teams under the drip, drip, drip of their short passing game. Not the deep threat, mind you, but the slow burn short game.

The defensive line of the 2007 Giants were a major factor in winning their Super Bowl. Basically, they won by beating up Tom Brady.

The 2006 Colts won because they had the best offensive line in football (and, rightfully, the MVP for that game should have been awarded to the entire line - or Jeff Saturday - rather than King Peyton.)

The 2002 Buccaneers (and their opponents, the Rich Gannon led Raiders) were short passing masters.

If it were absolutely crucial to have a terrifying deep threat, Randy Moss would have six rings. And yet, he has zero.

I'm not saying that having a deep threat is going to prevent you from winning. Certainly not. But the importance of the deep threat is being mightily overstated these days by the nattering nabobs of NFL booths.

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