Coaches Are So Close but Can’t See It: Just Run the Ball

Not everyone can be as passing-savvy as Niners Coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana were (in 1982 in the week before the Super Bowl in Pontiac, Mich).

Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 masterwork “The March of Folly” details how leaders make foolish choices even when a wise choice is available. This theme is writ large in history and writ small in professional football, where head-scratcher decisions are many, and not just Odell Beckham’s three personal fouls in the same game. Consider:

■ On Sunday, leading Oakland by 10 points with 2:44 remaining, Green Bay faced second-and-9 on the Raiders’ 15. Had the Packers simply run twice, they would have forced Oakland to expend its timeouts, then could have kicked a field goal for a 13-point lead at the two-minute warning. Instead pass, interception, and Green Bay sweats out the endgame.

■ Thrice this season, versus the Cowboys, Patriots and Jets, the Giants reached a commanding position with the game almost over and possession near the opposition goal line. In all three cases, Jersey/A needed only to run to keep the clock moving; in all three cases the Giants lofted passes, either intercepted or falling incomplete to stop the clock, allowing the opponent time for a comeback. If in all three cases the Giants simply had run up the middle for no gain, they might now be 9-5 and masters of the N.F.C. East.

■ Reaching the Patriots’ 1-yard line at the end of the most recent Super Bowl, Seattle could have run on three possible snaps. Coaches called a pass — interception! — and New England got the trophy.

■ Two Super Bowls prior, the San Francisco 49ers, then actually representing San Francisco, reached second-and-goal on the Baltimore 5 at the two-minute warning. To that juncture, the Niners had rushed for 182 yards. If they’d simply run the ball, a Lombardi Trophy was likely. Instead Niners coaches called three straight passes, all incomplete, and purple confetti fell on the Ravens.

There are many more examples in this vein. Everyone makes mistakes, but this specific kind of mistake — putting the ball in the air when keeping it on the ground is more likely to work — is the N.F.L.’s folly of the moment. Why?

T.M.Q. thinks N.F.L. coaches like passes because they are higher-status than rushes. Running the ball is so Bud Wilkinson, and does not create an aura of coaching genius: setting aside whether any coach in any sport has ever been an actual genius. Though a well-drawn rushing play is aesthetically pleasing, running is perceived as a brute-strength exercise that succeeds because of the linemen’s muscles and the runner’s athletic ability. Passing has a much greater glamour factor.

Passing offenses are spoken of as if mystically complex, though the basic passing tree has just nine branches. “It’s a quarterback league” is a truism of the contemporary N.F.L. — nobody says “it’s a tailback league.” That means pass completions are where the status is.

Television coverage of the N.F.L. focuses on the quarterback and his relationship to the coach. The current generation’s great coaches are renowned mainly for cultivating Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady; Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning; Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger. But not everyone can be like Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Mike McCarthy probably wants to be seen as the coach who made Aaron Rodgers, Tom Coughlin as the coach who made Eli Manning, Pete Carroll as the coach who made Russell Wilson. No N.F.L. coach is remembered for his ability to teach trap blocks.

Thus passes are called when running makes more sense. “Folly is the child of power,” Tuchman wrote, and professional football is all about power.

In other football news, because the N.F.L. postseason is single-elimination, often what matters is who’s at their best down the stretch. Arizona, Carolina and New England are playing well — and so is Seattle.

The Seahawks have won five straight, by an average score of 34-14, with Russell Wilson throwing 19 touchdown passes versus no interceptions in that span. Seattle is second in defense, fifth in offense: the league’s best offense-defense statistical combo. The Seahawks are the team nobody wants to play right now.

Last season the Seahawks struggled early, opening 3-3. They closed strong, winning eight straight before pulling up one yard shy in the Super Bowl. This season the Seahawks struggled early, opening 2-4, and now are rolling again, a 7-1 stretch. The harmonic convergence between the two seasons is that both years the Blue Men Group offense performed better after shedding a highly paid No. 1-drafted receiver.

In 2014, Seattle markedly improved pretty much to the day it traded prima donna Percy Harvin. In 2015, Seattle has markedly improved roughly to the day Jimmy Graham went on injured reserve. Both are high-profile megabucks receivers who seem to expect the offense to be about getting them their stats. Freed of the expectation he should work the ball to specific guys who demand the most targets, Wilson just throws to whoever’s open, which is a much better approach.

Sweet ‘n’ Sour Pair of Sweet ‘n’ Sour Plays. Game tied at 27-27 with four minutes remaining, Pittsburgh had first-and-10 on the Denver 23. Antonio Brown ran a deep slant for what would prove the winning touchdown; sweet. Ben Roethlisberger, who’s become like a different quarterback since switching to the quick-snap, quick-release philosophy, had the ball in flight in just two seconds. Adjusting for sacks, scrambles and kneel-downs, Steelers coaches radioed in 58 passes and 14 rushes: Pittsburgh has changed from run-first to pass-wacky.

Sour for the Broncos was that Brown is the league’s leading receiver, yet he was single-covered. Denver’s lone high safety lined up on the opposite side of the field to double-cover somebody or other who is not Antonio Brown.

Earlier, Broncos leading 27-20, the Steelers punted, and a Pittsburgh cover guy touched but failed to down the punt. (See note below.) Denver’s Jordan Norwood alertly scooped the ball and began running. Scooping in this situation is risk-free, because when the kicking team is first to touch a punt that crosses the line of scrimmage, the receiving team has the option of the result of its return or spotting the ball where the first touch occurred. Norwood went 71 yards to the house, which was sweet.

Sour was that the score was nullified because Denver’s offense came onto the field while Norwood was running. (This is the flag that should have been thrown during Miami’s phantom touchdown against Duke.) The rolling punt Norwood scooped was along the Pittsburgh sideline. Over on the other side of the field, the Denver sideline could not see what was happening. Thinking they were about to take possession, the Broncs offense began trotting in before Norwood emerged from the pack of players 53 yards away.

Sour Giants Game-Management Plays of the Week (New Running Item). Carolina at Jersey/A scoreless, the Giants punted on fourth-and-1 in Panthers territory. That punt caused The Upshot’s 4th Down Bot to blow out vacuum tubes and need emergency solder. Then down 14-7, Jersey/A again punted on fourth-and-1. This time it was fourth-and-1 on their own 29. But the Giants were facing the league’s sole undefeated team, victories don’t come in the mail, go win the game! Taking possession, Carolina advanced to a 21-7 lead.


In the 2007 regular-season finale, the Giants faced 15-0 New England and lost 38-35. A few weeks later, Jersey/A defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Now the Giants have faced 13-0 Carolina and lost 38-35. This augurs well, should Jersey/A reach the postseason and encounter the Cats.

Stats of the Week. Carson Palmer is on a 25-4 streak and leads the league in yards per attempt, the most important passing metric.

Houston won at Indianapolis for the first time, snapping an 0-13 streak.

There’s a scenario in which Jacksonville hosts a playoff game at 7-9 while Atlanta at 9-7 does not make the playoffs.

Undrafted Doug Baldwin of Seattle has 10 touchdown receptions in his last four games.

The Cardinals reached 12 wins for the first time in their 96-year history.

Kansas City became the first N.F.L. team to lose five straight and then win eight straight.

Peyton Manning has not played in a month, and leads the N.F.L. in interceptions.

Spoiler Alert: Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber Chose Rey. A month ago, T.M.Q. asked of the coming Star Wars movie, “How many bottomless pits?” Several, it turns out, including the film’s big-finish confrontation, Han Solo versus his evil son Mordred, I meant Kylo Ren, occurring above a bottomless pit spanned by a narrow walkway with no guard rails.

Why futuristic engineering requires bottomless pits is anyone’s guess, but they have become a staple of sci-fi. The 2009 reboot movie “Star Trek,” produced by J.J. Abrams, now the Star Wars showrunner, involved a bottomless pit inside a moving starship. The pit was spanned by a narrow walkway without guard rails, scene of a climactic fistfight. Red Skull’s base in the first Captain America movie featured a bottomless pit with a narrow walkway Steve Rogers had to cross. “X Men Origins: Wolverine” involved a mysterious research facility with a bottomless pit spanned by a narrow walkway. Imagine the request for proposals: COMPETITIVE BIDS SOUGHT ON BOTTOMLESS PIT, MUST BE CONSTRUCTED IN SECRET. T.M.Q. hopes the third of three “Golden Compass” flicks is filmed someday, because the trilogy will conclude with Nicole Kidman hurled into a bottomless pit.

None of these and other cinematic bottomless pits are as impressive as the walkway across vast depths in the 1956 “Forbidden Planet.” On a distant world, a scientist played by Walter Pidgeon walks the starcruiser captain Leslie Nielsen along a narrow bridge that crosses an immense underground machine that the extinct Krell civilization built to convert thoughts into reality. The Krell considered themselves highly advanced, but had psyches full of hatred: When their thoughts became reality, they all killed one another in a single night. Pidgeon’s character has been using the machine to convert his own thoughts into reality, and it’s not pretty. In the movie, Nielsen “chews the scenery,” setting the acting precedent that William Shatner would use for Hollywood’s next plum role as a starship commander, Captain Kirk.

Do a Little Dance. T.M.Q.’s Law of Short Yardage holds — do a little dance if you want to gain that yard! Misdirection is essential to short-yardage plays, creating an instant of hesitation by the defense. Arizona leading 17-10, the Eagles faced fourth-and-1 on the Cardinals’ 8 and simply ran straight ahead, no misdirection, stuffed. “You have to wonder what DeMarco Murray was thinking,” the announcer Al Michaels said, because the power back was not on the field for this down. You ought to wonder what Chip Kelly was thinking!

Why Bad N.F.L. Games on Monday Night Cost Twice as Much as Good Games on Sunday Night. “Sunday Night Football” offered the playoff-atmosphere Cardinals at Eagles; “Monday Night Football” followed with a woofer, Lions at Saints, two eliminated clubs with a combined record of 9-17.

For several years running, the Sunday night N.F.L. offering has been superior to what airs on Monday night. For instance, coming into the 2015 season, league schedule-makers assigned “Sunday Night Football” 10 games that paired playoff teams from the prior year; “Monday Night Football” received four such contests. “Sunday Night Football” was assigned rematches of the A.F.C. and N.F.C. titles games; “Monday Night Football” got no big-game rematch. “Sunday Night Football” drew 12 total appearances from some of the N.F.L.’s glam clubs — Denver, Green Bay, New England and Seattle — while “Monday Night Football” received four appearances by these teams.

Yet NBC pays the N.F.L. about $950 million annually for “Sunday Night Football” while ESPN pays the N.F.L. about $1.9 billion per year for the inferior slate that airs on “Monday Night Football.” What’s going on? One factor is that the ESPN fee includes broad access to N.F.L. highlights, which matter more to a 365/24/7 sports empire than to a network that airs football only during the season. (Whether the N.F.L. should be able to copyright and sell highlights obtained in publicly subsidized stadiums is a separate issue.) The other factor is that the N.F.L. is central to ESPN’s ability to charge the highest subscriber fees in the cable realm. No cable carrier could tell customers, “Sorry, we don’t offer ‘Monday Night Football.’ ” That means the N.F.L. has ESPN over a barrel, and it shows in negotiations.

There’s more about football economics in my new book “The Game’s Not Over,” just out. There’s a lot about putting concussions into perspective: The roughly 200 total reported concussions per year that happen to N.F.L. players, adults who are highly compensated for risk, pales before the 200,000 concussions per year for youth and high school football players — children unlikely ever to receive any tangible benefit from sports. (This recent Frank Bruni column wrestles with that question, as does a considerable portion of the book.) There are proposals for reforming the N.F.L. for the long haul, plus there is all you need know about why football teams should not punt on fourth-and-short, including the full story of the Arkansas high school coach Kevin Kelley, who almost never sends out the punter.

Unhappy Hour in Hell’s Sports Bar. Hell’s Sports Bar has festive holiday parties with mistletoe, under which you must kiss the romantic partner who in life left you for your best friend.

Sunday in the late slot, coastal California became an actual Hell’s Sports Bar. As the rest of the country saw consensus headliner Denver at Pittsburgh, the California coast beheld either lower-significance Cincinnati at Santa Clara or meaningless Miami at San Diego, combined records 8-18. Programming note: Hell’s Sports Bar airs all presidential primary debates in their entirety.

A Cosmic Thought. At this time of year, it can be well to reflect that science keeps finding the cosmos vaster and more grand, and humanity older. Here are striking research contentions from 2015:

■ Some cosmologists have supposed that in the early eons, life would have been impossible, owing to bombardment by gamma rays whose sources were closer in the incipient cosmos. This paper counters that life could have begun when the universe was very young — leaving all the more haunting the absence of indications of other civilizations among the stars. The paper also finds that in gamma-ray terms, the safest place is the outer rim of a blue spiral galaxy — just where Earth is in the blue-spiral Milky Way.

■ When did Homo sapiens spread out of Africa? The standard answer is 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. This paper finds biologically modern humans in China at least 80,000 years ago, scrambling theories about how people populated the globe.

■ The fastest star in the Milky Way moves at about 2.7 million miles per hour, about one-half of one percent of the speed of light. Warp drive and hyperspace may always be sci-fi fantasies, but if a complex object can move at half of a percent of light speed, propulsion to this velocity may be possible. At that pace it’s still 800 years to the star system closest to ours, and most of the galaxy would remain unfathomably distant. But half a percent of light speed would open up our solar system to any kind of shenanigans. Mars would be a little less than a day away.

■ People were making hand stencils in Indonesia 40,000 years ago. (O.K., that’s from late 2014.)

■ Modern humans have another ancient cousin. The list of our ancient cousins is getting long.

■ It now appears 69 percent of the universe is dark energy (specifics unknown), 25 percent is dark matter (ditto), 5 percent is what stars, planets and Taylor Swift are made of (once called “normal” atoms, these constructs may be rechristened peculiar), and the rest is interstellar miscellany. The Princeton theoretical astrophysicist David Spergel writes: “Dark matter and dark energy … signify that our understanding of physics is incomplete. We will likely need a new idea as profound as general relativity to explain these mysteries.” Talk about cosmic understatement: Understanding of the 100 billion galaxies of the 14-billion-year-old cosmos is “incomplete.”

■ People may have lived in Chile 18,000 years ago, upending theories of how the Western Hemisphere was populated.

This quasar, which existed 13 billion years ago, shone with 420 trillion times the luminosity of the sun.

Because the cosmos is inexpressibly old compared with people, we tend to conceptualize the heavens as declining toward entropy. But compared with itself, creation glistens with morning dew. Current estimates are that the universe will exist in approximately its present form for at least tens of billions more years, if not far longer. Stars are still forming, some right in our neighborhood. Who can say what the cosmic enterprise calls for? Happy holidays.

To Each, His Dulcinea. Against the Chiefs, Kamar Aiken caught a long touchdown pass that left the 4-9 Ravens down by 10 points, and celebrated wildly. They were soon 4-10.

Authentic Games Standings. This unscientific metric continues to project a Cats-Pats Super Bowl rematch. T.M.Q. continues to think the best thing that could happen to the Panthers would be a nice defeat, getting the whole 1972 Dolphins business off their minds. Stretching back to last season, Carolina is on a 19-1 run. Nobody always wins: best to lose a game sooner, not later.

Carolina is first in turnover differential at plus-19. Turnovers are a vital stat — right now there’s no winning team with a negative turnover differential. But clubs that rely on turnovers tend to sputter when they don’t get them, and there’s always an element of luck in takeaways, especially fumbles.

The Broncos have dropped two straight, and “dropped” is the operative word. In the fourth quarter versus Oakland, tight end Vernon Davis dropped a well-thrown pass on fourth down. In the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh, Davis dropped a well-thrown pass on third-and-16, causing a Denver punt. Once a star, the 31-year-old Davis is fading fast. Denver’s offense misses Julius Thomas, let go in a salary-cap move.

In Authentic terms, New England and Carolina have soft schedules for the remainder of the regular season. Arizona goes strong against Green Bay and Seattle, giving the Cardinals an outside chance to finish first in the Authentic standings.

New England: 7-2

Carolina: 6-0

Arizona: 4-1

Cincinnati, Denver 5-3

Kansas City: 5-4

Green Bay 4-2

Pittsburgh 4-4

Philadelphia 4-3

Washington 3-4

Minnesota, Seattle 2-4

Jersey/A, Jersey/B 2-5

Oakland 2-6

Buffalo 2-7

Rex Ryan Boast of the Week. Ryan took over one of the league’s best defensive clubs and worked hard to make it one of the worst. Since Ryan fired Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, tore up the scheme and changed many defenders’ positions, the Bills’ defense has dropped from fourth over all in 2014 to 21st this year, allowing 35 points on Sunday at Washington. The offense isn’t much better. The Bills snapped four times from the Washington 1-yard line and failed to score, two snaps being no-misdirection runs straight at Terrance Knighton, Washington’s largest player. “There was no quit in anybody,” Ryan boasted afterward of a team that clearly quit.

At least the Bills are second in the N.F.L. in penalties! Washington going for it on fourth-and-1, Buffalo jumped offside, automatic first down. The backup offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio came in for a gadget play in which he lined up as a fullback then went in motion — and was called for illegal motion. Kouandjio probably spent the whole week practicing that play, and committed a penalty. Washington leading 21-0, Ryan ordered a field goal on fourth-and-4, to ensure the Bills did not get shut out. Outraged, the football gods made it 28-3 one snap later.

Percy Harvin Note. Midway through 2014, Jersey/B acquired the perennial malcontent from Seattle: The Seahawks promptly improved while the Jets went 2-7 after Harvin arrived. Since Harvin departed, the Jets are 9-5. The negative energy field Harvin projects seems to drag down everyone around him. That Rex Ryan wanted Harvin at Jersey/B, and then at Buffalo, is another of the many indications Ryan is clueless.

Haiku of the Week. The haiku fad seems to have faded. Here’s an N.F.L. haiku:

Frigid wind off lake,

sleet, snow. Then, weather gets bad.

Chicago’s Da Bears.

Here’s a fun haiku posted on Twitter by Elise Foley @elisefoley.

Today was stupid

Tomorrow might be better

But probably not

The 500 Club. Visiting St. Louis, City of Tampa gained 509 yards on offense and lost.

Adventures in Officiating. Last week’s column on rules complexity noted how often zebras confuse which rule applies to which level of the sport. In college it’s legal for offensive linemen to block downfield before a pass that is caught behind the line of scrimmage. This is not legal under N.F.L. rules, but officials often act as if it is.

Versus the Buccaneers, Tavon Austin of Les Mouflons caught a hitch screen behind the line of scrimmage and scored a 17-yard touchdown. Before the pass was released, St. Louis left tackle Greg Robinson ran several yards downfield, no flag. During the previous Thursday contest, Minnesota at Arizona, Vikings tight end Rhett Ellison caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage with guard Mike Harris already five yards downfield, no flag.

The referee for Bucs at Rams was Jerome Boger, who spent about 15 years working college games before reaching the N.F.L. The referee for Vikings at Cardinals was Gene Steratore, who has a side gig training college football officials. Perhaps both get confused about which rule regarding linemen downfield applies to N.C.A.A. action and which applies to the pros — another argument for simplifying and standardizing the rulebook.

Adding to the complexity, in the N.F.L. an offensive lineman may be downfield before a pass if he begins blocking a defender near the line of scrimmage and continues to block the same defender. If the defender evades the block, the offensive lineman is supposed to retreat to the line of scrimmage. I’ve watched a lot of N.F.L. games and never seen this obscure rule enforced. At any rate, the St. Louis and Minnesota offensive linemen didn’t make initial contact with a defender, and simply sprinted downfield as if they were receivers, too.

Regarding the Denver-Pittsburgh punt return: Because there’s no yardage walkoff for first touch on a punt — the ball is just spotted where first touched — the kicking team’s cover guys often deliberately grab and down a rolling punt. Technically this is a foul, but zebras rarely throw a flag since the spot won’t change. First touch by the kickers of a rolling punt is football’s victimless crime.

Obscure College Score. Mount Union 49, St. Thomas 35 (Division III championship). Located in Alliance, Ohio, the University of Mount Union has admitted women since its 1846 founding. Mount was part of the pre-Civil War Ohio-led movement, begun at Oberlin College in 1833, to educate men, women, whites and blacks together. On matters of college-admission equality, the state of Ohio was way ahead of the Ivy League. Here’s to you, Mount Union alums.

Obscure College Sign-Off. The item folds its tent for the 2015 season, as the colleges that play from here on tend to be well known. Tuesday Morning Quarterback finds it reassuring that long after you and I have departed this mortal coil and are trying to scalp tickets to meet the football gods, every Saturday at colleges across our great nation, plastic-clad gentlemen will slam into each other as leaves fall, students angle for dates and car alarms go off in the parking lot. In the Great Chain of Being, this is the football link.

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