Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – Conference Finals, 2013 Season
One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.
Hard to believe we’re almost at the end of the road. Just one more (real) game left on this season’s NFL calendar, and it is sizing up to be a good one.
The 2nd of February will mark the first time since 2009 that the two number one seeds have met in the Super Bowl (that was the last time Peyton Manning played in the game, against the Saints as a Colt), and it’s the NFL’s most prolific offense ever, Denver’s Clockwork Orange against the Seahawks, who boast the league’s top-ranked defense.
Next week’s edition of What I Saw will be a Super Bowl preview, so this week I’m just taking a look at the Conference Championships, with the usual Away from the game(s), including the Coaching Carousel, where no new head coaches were hired since last week’s post but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some developments worth noting. (Any other moves involving coordinators will come up in each team’s 2013 Postmortem at some point in TFQ’s Deep Posts.)
For anyone wondering, no, I will not be covering the Pro Bowl unless something really interesting and/or funny happens. I don’t care if captains Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice suit up (what a lame publicity stunt) or if 100 points get scored. I only watch football when blitzes and multiple formations are allowed.
Before we move on, a brief look at how my playoff predictions turned out. Making picks on a weekly basis, I finished with a 7-3 overall mark heading into Super Sunday. Last week I went 1-1, predicting a Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. Some of you may recall that I tried to predict the whole playoffs in Week 17. The overall record of those is a wash, because I got two Wild Card round games wrong, and the subsequent matchups based on seeding made a mess of the future rounds. But I’ll just say that before the postseason began I foresaw that the Broncos-Seahawks would meet in New York to play for the Lombardi trophy – and that Seattle will win. That’s the prediction I’m sticking with, for now. I reserve the right to change my mind before TFQ’s Super Bowl Preview comes out.
Away from the game(s)
I SAW a story reported on by Peter King at The MMQB that is just priceless. We all knew Kellen Winslow (Junior…I think it’s important not to confuse the man described below with his Hall Of Fame father) is a bit of a weird guy, and that his career hasn’t quite turned out the way he’d expected. But King’s account below reminds me of the scene from Boogie Nights when Dirk Diggler stoops (pun intended) to performing for strangers in parking lots after his career in the porn industry took a bad turn.
Ummm…I’m experiencing testicle difficulties….
Honestly, this is just really weird – and embarrassing for Winslow. The best part, though, is the final line of the report….
“I think the greatest statement in Inappropriate Parking Lot Behavior History was issued Friday, on the heels of news that Jets tight end Kellen Winslow was cited for public lewdness and possession of synthetic marijuana in New Jersey after a woman in a Target parking lot alleged to police that she saw Winslow with his penis out in the car. His publicist, Denise White, said: ‘Kellen pulled over to a parking lot to smoke what he thought at the time was a legal substance. He changed his clothes in his vehicle as not to smell like smoke when he returned home. There was absolutely nothing inappropriate that took place, and if there was police would have investigated further and charged Kellen, which they did not’” Riiiight. Synthetic marijuana is available at all the gas stations where I fill up. And it’s quite legal. And I change my clothes in Target parking lots all the time! Winslow pleaded not guilty to the pot charge, and police didn’t charge him with lewdness because the woman did not choose to file charges or come forward to testify against him. Dom Cosentino of NJ.com reported that two open jars of vaseline were found on the console of his vehicle by police, and when an investigating officer approached the car, ‘Winslow sprang to an upright position.’
Maybe he wasn’t experiencing testicle difficulties.
I SAW my ongoing attempt to make referring to running a draw play on third-and-longs as a “Sonya” bring on some fun on Sunday.
This goes back to Sapp’s old NFL Network commercial when he’s shown playing football on a video game system against his housekeeper and taunts her, saying “You can’t run the draw on third and long, Sonya!”
So, when Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno took a first quarter handoff on a draw play on third-and-10 and rumbled 29 yards, I had this exchange with Sapp via Twitter:
Keep the “Sonya” alive, people!
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
I tweeted this when I heard about the new contract given to Jets head coach Rex Ryan:
Forget the infamous photos of Rex’s wife from a few years ago – I think the head coach has some incriminating pics of owner Johnson.
Sweet Fuck-all (still), Cleveland
What in the name of colossal failure is going on in Cleveland? First, they haven’t secured a new head coach despite canning their old one on the eve of Black Monday. Now they let two coordinators with a lot of cache – offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive Coordinator Ray Horton – in the NFL walk? Horton made the Browns defense what it was last season – a very strong overachieving unit that opponents didn’t want to face. Now he has the same job for the Titans. Unless the Cleveland brass signs a big coaching name on the defensive side, I expect that unit to regress next season.
Speaking of defense, in defense of the Browns five potential candidates were still working for their current teams heading into last weekend: Adam Gase for Denver, Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn for Seattle, and Vic Fangio and Greg Roman in San Fran. If I had to bet (and I’m glad I don’t) I’d say that Cleveland is holding out for Quinn, the architect of the Seahawks defense, which would address the loss of Horton. Maybe they’ll stupid their way to success this time.
UPDATE (1/23/2014): On Thursday Cleveland hired Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine from Buffalo.
One last thought on Horton: He’s worked for a different team in each of the past three seasons now. Hopefully he and his family can find some stability in Tennessee because he’s sure earned it.
Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator, Dallas
The Cowboys announced that they wouldn’t be firing Kiffin, as many people had expected them to do. I, for one, don’t think this is a bad idea. I’ve mentioned this in previous weeks, but the guru of the Tampa Two scheme hasn’t had the players to run his system properly. Let’s hope that owner/GM Jerry Jones isn’t so dysfunctional as to keep Kiffin but not make the needed personnel changes on the field. I think it would be a better idea to can offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, but as I often point out, they love to applaud mediocrity in Big D and Callahan has at least satisfied that requirement.
(1)Seattle wins vs. (5)San Francisco, 23-17
I SAW the Seahawks earn the second trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history and their first since losing to Pittsburgh to end the 2005 season. The loudest home fans in the NFL got to end their season in the Rainy City with a bang, and now the renowned 12th man will take their talents to the Big Apple. Head coach Pete Carroll is going to the big game for the first time in his coaching career but he’s no stranger to big games, having won two BCS titles at USC.
Seattle won the game in typical fashion, behind their bone-crushing defense and battering ram RB Marshawn Lynch, but the importance of the quarterback position shouldn’t be overlooked….
I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson lead his team to victory – and his role might gain more importance on Super Sunday. While Wilson hasn’t wowed with his numbers this season he has seldom made mistakes that cost his team games. Sunday’s line was indicative of both Wilson’s unremarkable stats and his valuable efficiency: 16-for-25 (64%), 215 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, and a passer rating of 104.6. That, and his leadership presence instill added confidence in the Seahawks’ rushing attack and D because they know that they can let loose and be more aggressive because their quarterback likely won’t put the team at a disadvantage with mistakes. Witness his failure to go into the tank after fumbling on the first play from scrimmage of the game on Sunday.
Something tells me that Wilson might be asked to do more than usual in the Super Bowl and believe it or not his relative inexperience might not put him at a disadvantage. Wilson is just the sixth QB to start a Super Bowl in his first or second season in the NFL, joining Colin Kaepernick (2013 season), Ben Roethlisberger (2005), Kurt Warner (1999), Tom Brady (2001) and Dan Marino (1984).
Those are some good names to be linked to. It’s funny; most people criticize the role played by most of those players (all except Marino?) because they had stellar supporting casts, but consider how highly those names are regarded today. Obviously Wilson isn’t there yet, but if the experiences of those early Super Bowl participants are any indication he could fare well because they all won except Kaepernick who came within one completion of winning last year, and Marino who ran into the beginning of the Joe Montana dynasty and lost to San Fran 38-16.
There’s a little taste of the Super Bowl preview to come next week. It’s also relevant in terms of Sunday’s win for Seattle because though he had a relatively quiet day, Wilson’s performance against an elite defense deserves attention. After all, according to the Fox broadcast Wilson was sacked four times, hit six times and hurried seven times by the Niners and still posted a passer rating above 100. That’s not too shabby.
I SAW the Niners fall ever so close to a title for the second year in a row as both losses ended with an incompletion in the right corner of the end zone to WR Michael Crabtree.
San Francisco showed a great deal of resilience this season, emblematic of their head coach Jim Harbaugh. But in the end, handling the Packers’ high-octane offense followed by the two most physical teams in the NFL other than themselves in Carolina and Seattle, the Niners ever so slightly ran out of steam.
I SAW need to touch on the story that has hogged the headlines since the game ended: the animosity between Seahawks CB Richard Sherman and Niners WR Michael Crabtree that culminated with bombastic outbursts by Sherman in a postgame interview with Fox Network’s Erin Andrews and moments prior to that, in footage that has just recently come to light. You can find that new footage here, with some reporting by the New York Daily News.
While I didn’t find Sherman’s outburst(s) nearly as off-putting as other have, I do think that it is an example of being a sore winner.
Should the history of the grudge (which reportedly goes back to a verbal altercation between the two at a Larry Fitzgerald charity event last April) prevent the behaviour from being seen as poor sportsmanship? I don’t think so – nor should the emotion of the moment let Sherman off the hook. After all, bad losers don’t get excused because of the intensity of the moment, so why should bad winners?
As far as Sherman’s claim that he was trying to shake hands with Crabtree after the game when Crabtree pushed him in the face, I call bullshit. To me it looked like a taunt, very much like the ass-slap-handshake move Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh gave his Lions counterpart Jim Schwartz two seasons ago. That, coupled with the reported history makes it tough to believe Sherman wasn’t taunting the wideout.
Another reason why it is difficult for me to swallow the “heat of the moment” defense is that Sherman continued to chirp at the postgame press conference and in the locker room – once he’d showered and changed into a suit. What’s worse, the cornerback called Crabtree a “mediocre” receiver, which actually takes away from his intelligent persona, seeing as Crabtree is a better player than that.
Overall, as Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said on Monday, Sherman’s actions took away from the team’s accomplishments. Sherman acknowledged that a day later, but I didn’t get the sense that it will change his approach to Crabtree in the future.
I SAW Niners QB Colin Kaepernick have an up and down game that ultimately resulted in a loss.
The good side came on plays that exhibited Kaepernick’s unique combination of physical attributes, namely his running ability and arm strength. He rushed for 130 yards on 11 carries (an 11.8 average), but did most of it in the first half. In fact, you have to go back to the 1993 season and a performance by Bills RB Thurman Thomas against the Chiefs for the last time anyone rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half of a Conference Championship. (NFL Network) The second-year starter now has two playoff games with 100 yards rushing or more. Every other QB in league history has two such games combined. His arm strength was on display several times, most notably when he rolled out and uncorked a casual laser to Boldin to take a 17-10 lead in the third quarter.
Casual laser: The name of my college band.
The bad side was equally obvious. Forget the 56.4 passer rating, the mere 153 yards passing or the 58.3 completion rate. It was Kaepernick’s turnovers that killed his team – he had three of them, all coming in the fourth quarter of a close game (2 interceptions, 1 fumble). The San Fran players and coaches can downplay it all they want going forward, but Kaepernick has a lot of work to do, especially against their division rivals. Including the playoffs, Kaep threw 10 picks and 5 of them were against the Seahawks.
More importantly, Kaepernick needs to get better at seeing the field and reading defensive coverage. For example, although Seattle S Kam Chancellor made a great catch on a fourth quarter interception on Sunday Kaepernick has got to see that obvious underneath coverage rotating over. He also needs to develop a better sense of where his checkdown options are. He keeps his eyes downfield when he escapes the pocket, which is a great start (many dual threat quarterbacks never develop this talent) but he often looks too far downfield, eschewing a short pass to an open receiver that could move the sticks. Kaepernick made a nice throw on the run to RB Frank Gore late in the game, but there were several other times when Gore was open in similar situations and the QB opted for decisions that resulted in incompletions.
There are many critics who argue that Kaepernick lacks the accuracy to be a complete pro quarterback. From what I saw Sunday and throughout the season, he does have the accuracy, but bad downfield vision can end up looking like inaccuracy too. The good news is that such a thing can be addressed through good coaching and his head coach Jim Harbaugh is as good a QB whisperer as there is.
I SAW Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch continue to be the barometer of his team. In the first half, Beast Mode was so cold he was more like Beast A La Mode, with no rushes longer than seven yards. Not coincidentally, Seattle trailed 10-3 at halftime. But Lynch heated up like melted Skittles in the second half. His 40-yard TD run in the third quarter to tie the game was the longest TD against San Francisco all season. Actually, the Niners defense is so stout against the run that they hadn’t allowed a hundred yard rusher in 22 games. The last player to accomplish the feat against them was Lynch himself.
I SAW Niners TE Vernon Davis pull another one of his disappearing acts, catching just 2 passes for 16 yards in Sunday’s loss. In three games against Seattle this season, Davis’ totals are disappointing: 7 receptions, 56 yards and one touchdown.
Sure, the Seahawks have arguably the best linebacker-safety group in the NFL in terms of pass coverage, but the San Fran coaching staff has to find a way to get the dynamic tight end more involved against Seattle next season.
I SAW a grisly knee injury for Niners LB Navarro Bowman. It turns out that Bowman tore both his ACL and MCL in the knee. The MCL will heal naturally, the ACL requires surgery, and he is expected to be back next season.
Hopefully Bowman’s injury won’t affect next season because this is possibly the best linebacking corps since the 1985 Bears with Mike Singletary, Wilbur Marshall, and Otis Wilson. The one that comes closest is the 2000 Ravens, with Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, and Jamie Sharper. But both of those groups weren’t a 3-4 offense to boast the quartet that San Fran does, and neither of them had a full set of starters equally strong against the run and pass.
Another injury note for San Fran that went more unnoticed, but was arguably just as important: G Mike Iupati, who inured his ankle. The Pro Bowler is expected to be back in action in time for offseason workouts, but his absence might help explain the Niners’ measly 31 rushing yards gained by players not named Kaepernick.
I SAW Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin have a great game, even though his impact in the passing game might not have been substantial if Percy Harvin had been able to play. Baldwin caught 6 passes on 7 targets for 109 yards and had 109 yards in the kick return game. Baldwin’s performance is just another variable for Denver to have to worry about in the Super Bowl.
I SAW a shit call on Niners S Donte Whitner for hitting a receiver in the head/neck area when Seahawks TE Luke Willson caught a pass up the middle late in the first quarter. Whitner’s teammate hit Willson in the lower body first, changing the tight end’s body angle in such a way that Whitner couldn’t have been able to avoid hitting the receiver the way he did.
I understand the need to protect players, and respect the difference between live speed and replay, though, so it’s not a huge deal in my eyes. Roger Goodell mentioned that the league would look into instant replay on these sorts of plays in an interview with NFL Network’s Rich Eisen this week. I like the idea – if the NFL can get its shit together and be more efficient with the time it takes to review plays. Otherwise games could really start dragging on. Don’t get me wrong though – safety comes first, and providing players with more clarity and/or fair calls on helmet-to-helmet contact should improve player safety.
I SAW something striking on Seattle’s fourth quarter TD catch by WR Jermaine Kearse. The Niners defense was called for an offside penalty and the Seahawks ran four verticals on the free play. (Four verticals means that all four receivers run fly patterns.) Either offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called that play on fourth-and-7, or his players have been coached to change the play called in the huddle and run four verticals if an offside penalty is called. I’m guessing it was the latter, which is a nice piece of coaching by Bevell.
(1)Denver wins vs. (2)New England, 26-16
I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning continue his monkey removal mission.
After the regular season ended with Manning setting all sorts of single-season records, all of the playoff monkeys on his back started to resurface. In other words, as Manning strengthened his case for the best regular season NFL quarterback of all time, dissident voices starting reminding everyone about how much further his playoff accomplishments fall short of measuring up to what he’s done in fall throughout the years. But the Broncos pivot has taken on monkeys with each playoff round and showed them who’s boss.
First, there was the issue of the one-and-dones. To me, eight one-and-dones in a career prevent Manning from being the best QB ever. But he can only control what is ahead of him, and he did exactly that by beating San Diego – a team that had beaten Denver exactly one month prior. His game was average by Manning standards, with just 230 yards, 2 TDs 1 INT and a 93.5 passer rating, but at the point Manning was at with the doubters just winning the game was enough.
Next came Peyton’s nemeses, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady. Even though Manning beat New England in the AFC Championship en route to his lone Super Bowl win to conclude the 2006 season, Brady and Belichick have booted him from the playoffs two other times and were 10-4 against him as a duo. Those last two numbers have overshadowed any other positives for Peyton in the rivalry. Let’s just say that Manning nailed it: 32-for-43 (74.4%), 400 yards – his third-highest yardage total in 22 career playoff games – 2 TDs, 0 INT, and a 118.4 passer rating. Sure, Pats CB Aquib Talib was knocked out of the game early (see below), but Manning’s huge stat line should go a long way toward silencing that particular monkey which had been camping out on his back. For good measure: Denver’s 507 total yards on offense Sunday is the most yards from scrimmage allowed by a Belichick team in a playoff game.
Now, in the Super Bowl the future Hall Of Famer has a chance to address another monkey. With a win against the Seahawks he can tie the amount of Super Bowl wins his brother Eli has, and if he does it will be in his younger brother’s home stadium. Should the weather be bad on Super Sunday and Manning performs well, that will be yet another monkey tossed to the trash, the one stipulating that he can no longer throw the ball effectively in the cold since his neck surgeries.
I’m not a fan of anointing one quarterback as THE best ever. They are all too different, from vastly different eras. But for those who don’t think Manning makes the cut based on those three aforementioned knocks on his resume, well, I’m not sure what else he can do to answer the critics. What’s more, maybe those same naysayers should start poking more holes in the resume of his nemesis….
I SAW Patriots QB Tom Brady as deserving of more criticism than he gets in terms of coming through in the postseason. I’ve been critical of Peyton Manning this season, but let’s take a moment to question Brady’s status as well. To the critical eye, a quick look at these numbers indicates that Brady has been riding the coattails of his first three Super Bowls while struggling to deliver in the meantime:
Tom Brady In The Postseason – Career
|First 10 Games||Last 16 Games|
|Pass Yards per Game||215.2||267.0|
|Super Bowl W-L||3-0||0-2|
Mind you, three Super Bowls over a four-year span is a pretty nice set of coattails to ride on – certainly a much better set than almost any other quarterback in history has rode on. (PROPS to Troy Aikman who did the same in Dallas, and Terry Bradshaw who raked in four rings over a 6-year span for the Steelers.)
Many talk about Manning and how his status should be elevated because he tended to play without the good defense that Brady has enjoyed in New England. I disagree. Apart from run defense the Indy D was perennially underrated during some of Manning’s bigger years (especially with dominant rush ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis), much like some other championship teams with top quarterbacks. (The Lovie Smith-coordinated D in St. Louis and the Joe Montana Niners teams come to mind.)
What about how undermanned Brady’s supporting cast on offense has been compared to Manning’s? Apart from the 2007 group, New England’s offensive skill players as a whole have paled into comparison to what Peyton had around him. Manning may have played with two Hall Of Fame wideouts already in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, not to mention TE Dallas Clark and the behemoth receivers he has now in his Clockwork Orange offense.
But another point against Brady, which might in part explain the stats in the table above: I don’t think he throws the deep ball very well anymore. He missed on several such in Sunday’s loss, and I have distinct memories of similar miscues in recent playoff runs. In fact, if you consider that when he was at his best at throwing long he was airing it up to arguably to one of the best deep ball receivers of all time, Randy Moss, maybe Brady has always been average-to-good at that facet of the game.
You might notice that I’m going back and forth between Manning and Brady here – for good reason. I still side with Brady because he hasn’t laid as many postseason eggs. But it’s a tough choice.
Maybe the best deferral is to say that these sorts of debates make Bradshaw and Montana’s four rings all the more special – especially for Joe Cool, who has 3 Super Bowl MVP awards to boot.
I SAW Denver’s Clockwork Orange gets the stage it deserves, like the previous record-holding offenses of the ’07 Patriots and the ’99 Rams in recent years – on the game’s biggest stage. One could argue that the Broncos have a taller order than those teams, facing off against Seattle’s top-ranked defense in the league. But that’s exactly what the biggest single sporting event on earth is made for.
I SAW head coach Bill Belichick lead the Patriots to their eighth AFC Championship in his tenure there, which deserves PROPS. More PROPS: Sunday against Denver marked the first time that they trailed at halftime of any of those games. (CBS Broadcast)
I SAW the Patriots defense get gouged like it never has in the playoffs (see the stats above in the Manning analysis) – in large part because of the absence of CB Aquib Talib, who left the game with an injury after Broncos WR Wes Welker ran into him in a clear attempt at a pick play. Lo and behold, Denver WR Demaryius Thomas had a big day once Talib was no longer guarding him: 7 catches on 10 targets for 134 yards and a touchdown. It was clear that the New England defense was unable to keep the Broncos in check without their physical cornerback.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called Welker’s hit on Thomas “deliberate” and “one of the worst plays I’ve seen.” Of course it was deliberate. Of course it wasn’t one of the worst plays the head coach has seen.
It bears repeating: Welker deliberately made contact with Thomas. For evidence look no further than The MMQB’s article about Denver’s (and New England’s) propensity for pick plays, often called “rubs” in order to downplay the nature of the play, which is to skirt the limit of the rulebook.
To what extent the hit was intended to hamper Talib’s performance is in question.
I, for one, would question why a player of Walker’s stature – 5’9”, 185 pounds – would try to take a 6’1”, 205-pound guy out of the game with a hit.
On the other hand, to say Welker didn’t mean to hit Talib not only ignores him dipping his shoulder just before contact, but it also doesn’t coincide with the awareness when coming across the middle that all of us credit Welker for having. What I don’t like about the play on replay is that Welker clearly left his route to make contact with the defender. But I’m not convinced that it was done with the intent to injure, and if I’m Welker I take offense to that…which he doesn’t seem to be doing…yet….
I SAW Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount follow up a 2-game, 355-yard stretch with…6 yards rushing on Sunday against Denver. Six yards. On five carries.
Sometimes situational football karma sutra’s you. (Karma Sutra: When life comes back to fuck you in the ass.) No need to try and switch it up; do what works, for crying out loud. Or at least force it for a while to make sure you can’t wear down a Broncos defense that had looked weak lately.
I SAW Patriots WR Julian Edelman finish with 10 catches on 15 targets. Last summer I argued in great detail that the position vacated by Wes Welker didn’t require a star athlete to produce because the job description is not terribly demanding in terms of physical talent and big scoring plays. At 5’10” and 198 pounds and no breakaway speed, Edelman finished the regular season with 105 catches for 1,056 – and a relatively low six touchdowns.
I SAW the ideal anti-PROPS, and it goes to DT Mitch Unrein, who receives the honor of being the first player I can remember to get deked out by cement-footed Patriots QB Tom Brady on the latter’s TD run. I hope Unrein’s teammates get a laugh at that in position meetings.