Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tuesday Morning Quarterback

So far every NFC playoff game has been decided by the margin of a field goal or less -- Seattle 21, Dallas 20; Philly 23, Giants 20; New Orleans 27, Philly 24; Chicago 27, Seattle 24 -- and in the AFC, the FG has also reigned supreme. That's all you got was field goals in the Indy-Baltimore game won by the Colts 15-6, and it was two 3-balls -- one made, one missed -- that of course decided the 24-21 New England win over San Diego.

The point is that I got to see a lot of snaps, holds & boots, with nary a mishandle or botch among them. One thing I was dead wrong about was that Tony Romo's holding style of using his left hand to spot the ball is somehow unique; no, it turns out that the standard methodology is to use the left hand, which of course is closer to the kicker when he makes contact with the ball. I found it weird that holders are being asked to use their off-hand, if you will; I thought it leaves more room for error.

One thing I would do next year is take Tony Romo off all holds on FGs and extra points and instead give those duties to the backup QB or punter. Another high profile muff would have the wolves out in force. Better to quietly make the switch in training camp.

I thought the QB play over the weekend was borderline putrid in a lot of cases, with a virtual pick parade interrupting any semblance of quality passing games. And I also couldn't help thinking that it's really all about perception when it comes to who gets pilloried based on which set of statistics. In other words, if it was anyone else but Steve McNair or the sainted Tom Brady putting up the kinds of numbers they did, out would come the knives, ready to cut into these QBs' prestigious postseason reputations. But even with the elevated importance of the kicking game in the postseason, more often than not a team's fortunes ride on a QB's play, for better or often worse. All told, in the eight playoff games, QBs have thrown 19 INTs against only 17 TDs.

Take the two-game stat line of Peyton Manning -- take it as in here, I don't want it, you take it. The completion percentage doesn't look all that bad, with 45 completions in 68 attempts, but for only 438 total yards -- a meager 6.4 yards per attempt. Where it really gets ugly is the 5 interceptions and only 1 TD, which gets you a 58.3 on the all-important QB passer meter.

Tom Brady struggled against the Chargers' pressure defense, throwing 3 picks and going only 27-51 for 280 yards, good for only a 57.6 QB rating. In the same game, first-year starter Philip Rivers went only 14-32, for 230 yards, a pick and no TDs, earning him a 55.5 rating. Baltimore's Steve McNair seemed to play even worse than his rather pedestrian 18-29, 173-yard day would indicate. He seemed to play with no fire and his 2 INTs were costly in a tight game, and his 49.9 number was well-deserved.

My regular, perceptive readers are probably already beginning to ascertain where I'm going with all this. When you look at the less-than-inspiring play at the QB position in this year's playoffs, suddenly young Tony Romo doesn't look all that bad in comparison. Let's look at a few more stat lines, as we call 'em in the bizniss. You want ugly, then peruse not-so-young-anymore Trent Green's numbers in the Chiefs' loss to Indy last week: 14-24 for only a buck-seven (107 yards), with two picks, bad enough for 48.4 on the vaunted QB-meter. Seattle's Matt Hasselback never came close to matching his stellar 2005 campaign this season, and that trend continued right into the postseason games; in a win over Dallas and a loss to Chicago, he went 36-69 for only 435 yards, and his 3 TDs were offset by 3 INTs. Final rating, a mediocre 68.2.

I thought Philly's Jeff Garcia played way above his head down the stretch, and his above-average play continued into the playoffs. In the win over the Giants and the loss to New Orleans, Garcia went 32-61 for 393 yards, with 2 TDs and no picks, good enought for an 83.6 QB rating. That number was bested by the beleaguered Eli Manning, whose 16-27 day for 161 yards with 2 TDs and a pick gave him an 85.6 rating.

Another much-beleaguered signal-caller, Chicago's Rex Grossman, picked a good day to return to early season form, going 21-38 for 282 yards, one pick and one beautifully thrown deep ball to WR Bernard Berrian, a 76.9 rating. Grossman also threw a clutch 30-yard pass to WR Rashied Davis on third down to set up the game-winning FG in OT. I liked the way Grossman handled himself during all the turmoil over his recent play, and I think he lights it up from here on in, eventually leading his Bears to the title.

Drew Brees put up the best numbers in the Saints' tight win over the Eagles. His efficient 20-32 passing, with a TD and no picks, gave him the only 90-plus rating among all playoff QBs, at 96.2. No surprise when you consider Brees threw for over 4,400 yards in 2006, with 26 TDs against only 11 INTs -- an overall passer rating for the season of, you guessed it, exactly 96.2! Maybe the best free agent pickup since the late Reggie White joined the Packers in the mid-1990s.

In the Cowboys' excruciating 1-point loss to Seattle last week, Romo threw for 189 yards on 17-29 passing, with no picks and a tough. That gave him an excellent 89.2 rating -- the second best one-game QB performance in this year's playoffs after Brees'. Looking back, it's now abundantly clear that the Cowboys' offensive game plan didn't do enough to let Romo and his receivers exploit Seattle's weakness in the secondary. Yet when the Cowboys came up a point short, it denied Romo a chance to do what no other first-year starter had accomplished in almost 30 years -- namely, the Rams' Vince Ferragamo was the last first-year starting QB to win a road playoff game, and that took place way back in 1979. So when you consider the odds, and how difficult it is to win any postseason game, you can't be too disappointed with Romo and the Cowboys losing a close one. It's just the way they lost it that still stings. That and how tough Seattle played the Bears makes you wonder whether the Cowboys could have been sitting a game away from the Big Dance going into next week. But let's move on...

I'll admit I was pulling for the Eagles to beat the feel-good-story Saints, especially after Reggie Bush's unforgivable fumble late in the fourth quarter gave Philly such a great chance to go ahead. It would have been oh-so-sweet for media darling Bush to spend the entire offseason taking hits as the one who cost his team the chance to advance. Hey, what can I say -- misery enjoys a little camaraderie.

Fox got burned during the Saints game when the network's habit of constantly showing close-ups of fans in the stands as a core production value caught up with them -- dwelling several seconds too long on a young woman wearing a black T-shirt with the words FUCK DA EAGLES scripted across her ample chest ... Announcer Dick Stockton came up with another of his patented malapropisms, saying a defender had made a "shoe-saving tackle" ... You'd hate to lose a shoe and cost your team a game ... One pitiful fan at the Bears' game brought a homemade "Play Like Jack Bauer" sign. Can you be more of a human billboard? Pathetic. Hopefully he reported right back to the mental institution at game's end ... Incidentally, not only did Fox shatter the under/over of shameless plugs for the 24 premiere, but even more predictably used the 24 "template" for a forced opening segment leading to the kickoff. Typical Fox subtlety ... Seattle's Shaun Alexander exposed the Bears' run defense for over 100 yards, but I still think he runs soft and doesn't like contact ... You want to see slashing, tough running, you need to look at the Saints' Deuce McAllister (21-143 versus the Eagles); that's how you hit a hole and drive for extra yardage ... Three weird cases this weekend where the pass defense range of a middle linebacker actually hurt his team: both Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis (twice) dropped back into coverage and batted balls down that otherwise would have gone for easy interceptions by a defensive back ... I still can't quite believe that longtime Cowboys nemesis Tiki Barber will indeed stay retired, but one thing is certain: after that nasty $15 million divorce settlement, we all know Michael Strahan isn't going anywhere for a while.

Let's cap these incisive football comments with best wishes and good luck to baseball's Bobby Ray Murcer in his recovery from a malignant brain tumor. Newsday's Mark Herman had a terrific column Sunday on what Murcer meant to Yankees fans of my age: "For anyone who grew up a tad too late for the big dynasty, Murcer was the best we had and we were happy to have him." Nicely put ... Let's hope we get to hear some more of Murcer's own charming verbal vernacularisms in the coming season.

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