Shallow Thoughts & Nearsighted Observations

Happy Tuesday, friends, and welcome to another edition of ST&NO.  As I started writing this, it was the Saturday of HOF weekend, and I live an hour north of Canton.  I went down last year to see Gary Zimmerman get inducted, with MattR and his friend, but, alas, I didn't attend this year.  It rained most of the day, anyway, and Adam Schefter tweeted about it every 3.4 seconds, so it was almost like being there.

I can generally take or leave Schefter, (I never read anything from the DP when he was there), but he did have one tweet I really appreciated:

Adam SchefterAdam_SchefterGreat to see old friend Shannon Sharpe in the house in support of his former Ravens teammate. Rod Woodson. Next year should be Sharpe's turn

This year should have been Sharpe's turn, actually, and I would have gladly sat in the rain to see him get inducted.  I caused a bit of a stir this winter with this item, in advance of the selections, as some of you may recall.  Next year will suffice, though, since that's the best we can do. 

What would really be great is if writers stopped voting for the Hall of Fame, and I mean that that should happen in all sports.  For the four who actually know what they're looking at, there are 20 more who don't, but semi-impartially rely on hype and what people tell them, and 20 on top of that who grind axes and hold personal grudges, based on who gave who access and information.  Until we manage to reach this utopian HOF state of affairs, where objective people who really know football elect Hall of Famers, we'll just keep doing what we do, and MHR's HOF committee will continue to work to get our greats elected.

In this space, though, we'll keep it Shallow and Nearsighted, like always.  Ready..... BEGIN!!!!

1.   Somebody put up a FanPost a couple weeks ago, requesting that somebody on the staff write something focusing on special teams.  I don't think a lot of action has happened on the request, so it occurred to me this week that I should try to write some stuff about the topic.  You may have wanted somebody else, but you got me. 

It's kind of a different person who becomes an expert on special teams, and I do not claim to be one, but it's conceptually interesting to me - especially from a roster-construction perspective.  After the jump, we'll get into some detail with it, and talk about players who we should expect to see in the kicking game, and why.

 

In general, good football teams have good kicking-game outcomes.  Its impact tends to be overestimated by talking-head types, though, when they say it is one-third of the game.  It's actually more like one-seventh of the game, if you look at it analytically (with offense and defense each comprising three-sevenths.)  It's not my intention to marginalize that aspect of the game, though, and we should definitely want our Broncos to be strong in that area.

At the surface level, success in the kicking game seems to be a function of the quality of 3 or 4 specialists (Return specialist, Punter, Kicker, and Long Snapper.)  There are a bunch of non-specialists, though, who play a huge role in the success of these units.  In April 2008, during my very early days writing FanPosts at MHR, (they may have still been called diaries then, actually, ala SBNation's forefather, Daily Kos), I advocated drafting players with an eye toward special teams here.   The Donny Deutsch Big Idea was that the Broncos special teams were terrible in 2008, and drafting players who showed speed, athleticism, and sure tackling would add quality bodies to the bottom part of the roster for use in the kicking game.  The Broncos ended up with Spencer Larsen and Josh Barrett from that draft, who both showed star quality at times in kick coverage, and Jack Williams who could, as well as Wesley Woodyard as an undrafted free agent.  Larsen, Barrett and Woodyard have to be considered core special-teams players for 2009, guys who will play somewhere on virtually every unit.

a. Kickoff Coverage  - You want fast players, with a sure-tackling skill set.  You're mostly looking for defensive backs and linebackers here, and the odd receiver, running back or tight end who remembers how to tackle correctly from high school.  The 3 aforementioned core guys will definitely be in the mix here, and you can count on Darcel McBath, Jack Williams, Alphonso Smith, Darrell Reid, David Bruton, and probably Andre' Goodman being there too.  (Incidentally, let's call Reid and Bruton core special-teams guys, too, as both were acquired with kick-team roles prominently in mind).  That leaves one spot, which Champ Bailey may fill, as he has in the past, being the safety man.  I would diagram the lineup something like this, if it was me building the unit.

 Kickoff_medium

Strategically, you're looking to split the field into nine equal vertical slices (or lanes, as they're usually called).  Each of the upfield players (all but Prater and Bailey in this case) need to stay in their lanes and play off the blocks they encounter to make the tackle on the returner.  Bailey and Prater would stay back and try to maintain good pursuit angles if a big return happens.  Better to stop them at midfield than to give up a TD.

b. Punt Coverage -  This is slightly different in nature, because you have to block to keep rushers out of the punter's face, and then turn around and go tackle somebody.  I will keep my core guys (Barrett, Woodyard, Larsen, Bruton, and Reid) and I like Alphonso Smith as a gunner, which is the player on one end of the line.  Bruton is my other gunner, which is a job he excelled at during his time at Notre Dame.  The Long Snapper, Lonie Paxton (#66) is here, and I added Tyler Polumbus (#76), Kory Lichtensteiger (#67) and Seth Olsen (#70) to help with the blocking.  The three guys in the backfield are Woodyard, Larsen and Barrett.  Woodyard and Larsen line up between the guard and tackle on either side, 3 yards in the backfield.  From that position, they can react to penetration either inside or outside (with inside taking priority, due to the shorter distance to the punter's launch point).  Barrett is 2 yards even further back, and is responsible for free rushers inside.  He's also in position to run the ball on a fake, and I like him in that role, with his size and speed.  I am assuming Brett Kern is the punter here. 

Punt_medium 

The way the punt play works is that the 5 linemen and 3 backs count off 3 seconds before running down the field to make the tackle of the return man.  The linemen want to block, but they want to stay on their feet, and heading downfield just as much, in order to man their pursuit lanes.  The punter needs to get the ball off in 2.5 seconds from the snap, and typically will take a 2-step approach after the catch (kick foot, plant foot, kick.)  The reason the blockers are counting 3 seconds is that the officials will penalize them for being ineligible and downfield if they leave before the kick.  Timing between the punter and his blockers is crucial for that reason.  The gunners leave immediately, and have to defeat man-to-man blocking, often a double team.  They would like to down the ball with no return or force a fair catch, and failing that, make a quick tackle.  In the absence of a tackle, their orientation should be to force the returner to the middle of the field, where most of the pursuit is coming from.  Good gunners are rare, and worth their weight in gold.  I don't remember the Broncos ever having an exceptional one in 22 years of being a fan.

c.  Punt Return -  These are two separate groups with two separate functions.  Obviously, the return team needs the size/speed guys, but you want some good blockers to help set up the return.  You like a backup TE or a FB, and maybe a RB or WR in the group, if you have some who are good blockers.  If I am staffing a return team, I include my 5 core guys, Richard Quinn, Jack Williams, Darcel McBath, Robert Ayers, and Marcus Thomas (a great athlete for his size, and a guy who can hold up blocking, and get downfield to make a tackle).  Williams, Bruton and McBath would be assigned to block the opposing gunners, with McBath being the double-teamer on the wider side of the field.  I would use Alphonso Smith as the return man, with Eddie Royal and Kenny McKinley as possible backups.  I would line them up something like this: 

 Punt_return_medium

The outside players attempt to impede the gunners, and if possible, knock them out of bounds.  If a player goes out of bounds, he has to get back in immediately, and he can't be the first to touch the ball in a downing situation.  Woodyard and Barrett are like linebackers here, watching for fakes, and then retreating quickly on the kick, to set up to block for the return man.  The front five are not rushing aggressively, and instead are making sure the kick is real, and also running downfield to block. 

d.  Punt Block  - In a block situation, we value length and speed, and not return-blocking, so much.  If the ball gets to the return man, he's most likely fair catching the ball, or watching it get downed, because the gunners probably get there before the ball does, with no focus on impeding their progress.  I actually really like virtually the same personnel grouping as the punt return team, but I want to swap out McKinley for McBath, and have him be the deep return man.  Alphonso Smith has an outstanding kick-blocking skill set, and a history of collegiate productivity, and I like him as an edge rusher here.  The surest tackler, Woodyard, is my only LB type in this alignment.

 Punt_block_medium

The nine men on the line are going to rush like hell and try to block the punt.  Woodyard is watching for a fake, and McKinley is going to be very careful about fielding anything that makes it to him, probably only taking a sure-thing fair catch, if the punt team sends two gunners at him.  In a must-protect, late-game situation, the punt team may not send both gunners, and may keep one in to help block (nine-on-nine, rather than eight-on-nine).  In that case, McKinley may be more likely to get a few yards on a return, if he can run away from the free gunner's side.

e.  Kickoff Return - A major rule change will affect kickoff returns, and I will be watching it closely in the preseason to try to gauge the effect of it.  The "wedge'' has been outlawed, due to concerns with player safety.  A wedge is when 3 blockers basically hold hands, and tandem-block right in front of the return man.  The returner would read the 3-man group, and run off of the outcome of their blocks.  To combat the effectiveness of the wedge, the kickoff team would assign players (think Spencer Larsen, or someone like him) to be wedge-busters.  Their assignment was to run right at the wedge, and blow it up at full speed.  The danger came for the guys in the wedge, who were getting hit squarely by guys who had a 50-yard head of steam, while they are close to stationary, waiting for the returner to catch the ball.  Now, the second-level group will have to individually block opposing players.  Personnel-wise, my five core special-teamers are here, joined by Quinn, McBath, Polumbus, and maybe a guy like Tim Crowder.  My return men are A. Smith and McKinley.

 Kick_return_medium

There's no wedge at work, as I mentioned, so the blockers will essentially have to man up nine-on-nine.  The returner who doesn't catch the ball becomes a free lead blocker, and should pick up the first free runner in front of the man with the ball.

f.  Field Goal / PAT - It's all about protecting the kick here, so we want a group of blockers.  For each of the other 6 groups, I am starting with the five core special teamers; but here, I am starting with a group of offensive linemen.  We need our long snapper, Paxton, and we'll use Polumbus, Lichtensteiger, Olsen, and Chris Kuper too.  We'll have Quinn and Darrell Reid as our end men, and Woodyard and Larsen as our outside backfield guys.  As a rule, I personally like the backup QB as holder, but we'll assume that Kern keeps that job.  I picture it like this:

 Field_goal_medium

Barrett and Bruton get a break from this team, the only one they don't play on.  Woodyard and Larsen have to block the outside rushers and force them wide of the launch point.  The holder lines up 7 yards behind the snapper, while the kicker is 2 steps back and one step to his plant foot side (the left, in Prater's case).

g.  Field Goal / PAT Block - More length and speed here, and for the internal linemen, power is good, too.  All five of our core special-teamers will be here, along with Marcus Thomas, Tim Crowder, Robert Ayers, and Kenny Peterson.  I like Richard Quinn here too, given his height and athleticism, and Alphonso Smith as an outside rusher.  (I am not tremendously confident of Everette Pedescleaux or Rulon Davis making the 45-man game day roster, but at 6'6" and 6'5" respectively, they'd be good candidates for this group).  The diagram looks like this: 

 Fg_block_medium

So in all, there are 20 players among the seven teams, which is probably a fairly typical distibution.  Having 4-5 core special teams guys is something which successful teams do, and those players are highly valued.  David Bruton was specifically drafted to be one this year, because he shone in the kicking game at Notre Dame.  The group of athletes that the Broncos have now can be a top-notch group in the kicking game.  Having been so below-average in this area, really for the entirety of the 2000s, the Broncos seem to finally value this part of the game.

2.  Are you ready for some football?  I couldn't possibly be more ready.  The tenor of this column will be changing, beginning next week.  It will be heavy on football evaluation, and much less theoretical.  To get the best jump on re-establishing my live football watching skills, I took in the Hall of Fame game on Sunday night.  These are my observations of it.

a.  Great design on the elaborate fake punt for a TD by the Titans.  My first thought was that I couldn't imagine why you'd run something like that in a preaseason game, but it has to be because they have some variations on it, definitely one where Michael Griffin gets the ball on the reverse action, and probably a play-action fake with a pass by either Griffin or Craig Hentrich (when he's healthy, and the TD scorer, AJ Trapasso, has moved on).  You make opponents prepare for that look, and then you run something different off of it in Week 13 at Indianapolis.  It's the sort of thing that the best coaches, like Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan, have always done.

b.  Great old-school Oilers/Titans uniforms, and the Bills ones were fun, too.  I think I am going to really like this series of AFL Legacy Games this year.

c.  LenDale White looks to have dramatically slimmed down, and was much quicker to the hole than I remember him being last season.  He and Chris Johnson are quite an impressive tandem.  The Titans offensive line looked very good, too.

d.  This is the first time I think I have watched anything on a broadcast network since the Super Bowl.  I didn't miss anything, evidently.  There are no shows that I particularly like on the networks, and I virtually always stick to the "cable" channels (on DIRECTV).

e.  Rotoworld.com must have gotten a good deal on the 15-second ad they ran early in the game on NBC.  You wouldn't think they were big-money enough to afford network advertising.  I use them for salary information, but not much else.

f.   Michael Griffin is a big-time star at Safety for the Titans.  They got killed for drafting him a couple years ago, especially by our dear friend Jamie Dukes, who couldn't believe they wouldn't take a WR for Vince Young (They're setting him up to fail!!!!).  WRs who went after Griffin included Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Craig Davis, and Anthony Gonzalez.  Bowe is good, Gonzalez is merely functional, and Meachem and Davis have been total busts so far.  Griffin is much better than any of them, though.  The Broncos, of course, took Jarvis Moss two picks ahead of Griffin, and that worked out great, too.

g.  Vince Young looked just terrible on a down-to-down basis.  He's never going to be in the Hall of Fame, unless he takes up another sport, and somehow becomes exceptional at it.  Maybe bowling?  Water polo?  He didn't even look like he could handle running the shotgun zone-read play that he has to have run 500 times between college and his first two years in Tennessee.  He made two solid throws on the pre-halftime scoring drive, including the fade for a TD, but both came on no-read plays.  The slant, you're just counting on the WR to get inside position against man-to-man coverage, and on the fade, you're throwing to the pylon.  The Madden Curse is one thing, but Vince's whole career has gone awry, in a seemingly irreparable way.

h.  Buffalo is going to really struggle to protect Trent Edwards this year.  Their players got bull-rushed straight backward on a bunch of occasions in this game.  You can get away with undersized linemen if they can anchor, but the Bills didn't display a lot of ability to do so across their front.  Rookie Guard Andy Levitre, #67, looked like he can't play in the NFL, let alone be a starter.  He consistently got dominated in both the running game and passing game.

i.  Gangster's Paradise as segue music?  Really, NBC?  Of all the music ever recorded, you're going with Coolio's Greatest Hit?

j.  The Titans sure can rush the passer with 4 men, even without Albert Haynesworth.  Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse both looked good in their limited action, and their rotation of DTs looked like they will get consistent penetration in the passing game.  Jim Washburn has always done a great job with that group.

k.  Terrell Owens looked good, which isn't a surprise.  He caught two quick passes from Trent Edwards and didn't play much beyond that.  He will help the Bills this year, especially by freeing up Lee Evans, who is one of the really great, underrated WRs in the NFL.  He's never had any help at WR, or a very good QB, so his statistics undersell his ability; but he is tremendous.  Defenses won't be able to roll coverages to Evans so easily, and I expect to see the best statistics of his career in 2009.

l.  My girlfriend officially broke up with me during halftime.  I kind of knew it was coming since Saturday morning, when she unloaded one of those "I don't know if I want to be in a relationship right now / it's not you, it's me," kind of things on me.  I'm doing a lot better with it than I thought I would, and I was actually kind of worried about how she'd feel about me watching so much football every weekend for the next six months.  Maybe it's just as well. :)

m. I've never been the biggest Tony Dungy fan as a coach; I think he has always somewhat underachieved, relative to the talent on his rosters. But it's impressive to listen to him speak, as a man.  That said, I could have done without him being in the booth for nearly the entire second half.  He, Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels spoke about everything except what was going on in the game.

n.  Alex Mortensen seems to be with the Titans as a favor to his father, when he didn't even play much at Samford.  He threw a duck that got intercepted and returned for a TD in the 4th quarter.  It doesn't look like his presence is any more serious than that of Stefan Fatsis was at Broncos camp a few years ago.

o.  When I went to Fawcett Stadium last year, I didn't realize it was, first and foremost, a high school stadium, and it actually was Josh McDaniels' home field in his high school days.  (McKinley High School is nearby).  They didn't sell beer there, or have ATMs, or anything, and it was all metal bleachers.  It was a little bizarre to sit there for an NFL event (I didn't go to the game, because I had to work Monday morning, and I'd had enough of Redskins fans, from the induction ceremony on Saturday.)

3.  I have been curious to see how ESPN's Scouts, Inc. would grade Ryan Clady after his rookie year, and the rankings just went up recently.  They say he is the third-best player on the Broncos, and rate him a 79, the ninth-best Tackle in the NFL.  The eight ranked ahead of him are Walter Jones, Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Michael Roos, Marcus McNeill, Jammal Brown, Jordan Gross, and Orlando Pace.  It makes you wonder if Jeremy Green did the rankings by himself, without watching any football.

When you give up 1/2 a sack in more than 600 drop-backs, commit only 3 penalties, play every offensive snap as a rookie, and you're the best in-space blocker in at least 20 years, you have a resume better than ninth in the NFL.  The rest of the O-Line goes Hamilton 73, Kuper 65, Wiegmann 63, and Ryan Harris 61 (Really?!??!)  Watch some film sometime, idiots! 

4.  NFL Network has the worst advertisers, and the Play 60/NFLRush.com commercials especially drive me crazy.  They play them all the time, and it's always the same ones.  I know, Adrian Peterson, Eli Manning, Santana Moss, Drew Brees and Bob Sanders are good role models for kids.   Try selling some ads to some advertisers, rather than repeatedly running this overkilled stuff, mmmkay?

5.  I am a big Michael Mann fan (Heat and Collateral are two of my favorite films ever, and I even liked Miami Vice).  I finally got around to seeing Public Enemies on Saturday night, which had an embarassment of riches among the cast, largely due to its being filmed during the writers' strike a couple years ago.  Featuring Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, and Domenick Lombardozzi, to go with the briliance of Mann himself, it looked really good on paper. 

Turns out, it was boring as all get-out, and I couldn't wait for it to end.  The characters were poorly developed and unsympathetic, and the story lacked the sort of conflict that it easily could have had.  It was all big names, good (not great) camera work and shot conception, and a boring story.  As I sat there, zoning out, it reminded me of the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers, (though neither has a Michael Mann as a leader).  Both teams have talent, though much of it is overrated, and the final product never seems to live up to the paper version.  They are paper tigers, as Styg has said so eloquently in the past.

6.  Interesting commentary from an anonymous NFL team source in PFW's Audibles yesterday.

 "(Steelers QB) Ben Roethlisberger is not a well-liked teammate. He's arrogant and lazy. It's not a nice mixture in a steel city known for its toughness."

I've never met the guy, but I am friendly with a former teammate of his at Miami University, and he told me the same thing about Roethlisberger.  You can't really argue with 2 rings, and things like this make me wonder sometimes if the importance of team chemistry can be overrated.  It may also be that the well-established Steelers program overcomes their QB being a jerk.

7.  Retired for John Elway.

8.  In the same audibles column as above, somebody said of Brandon Marshall:

 "Brandon Marshall had one good season. He's another guy that needs to get his act together. Quit whining and play the game."

In 2007, Marshall had 102 catches for 1,325 yards, and 7 TDs.  In 2008, he had 104 catches for 1,265 yards and 6 TDs, while missing a game due to his suspension.  So, the question is, which season was his one good one?

By the way, don't expect Marshall to exactly play a Randy Moss-style role, and Eddie Royal to exactly play a Wes Welker-style role in the McDaniels offense.  Picture Marshall being used more like the Cowboys used Michael Irvin, and Royal being used like the Panthers use Steve Smith.  Marshall will run a lot of intermediate slants and crossing routes, using his size, and Royal will be used to challenge every level of the field.  Brandon Stokley will run the bulk of the Welker stuff, and Jabar Gaffney will get to play against a lot of single coverage, like he did successfully in New England.  Good coaches alter their schemes to take advantage of the skills of their players; they don't try to make the players fit the scheme.

9.  Pork Chop Watch, and a beauty. 

Denver

Andre Goodman is tearing it up in Denver.

My take: If Goodman, signed as a free agent from Miami, can play well in the regular season, it will be a huge benefit for Denver. The Broncos will get excellent play from left cornerback Champ Bailey. That's a given. If Goodman performs well, Denver's pass defense could be decent.

Decent, huh, Bill?  That's a pretty tepid prognostication for getting excellent play out of both CBs.  I think Pork Chop is beginning with the end in mind (and not quite in the way that Stephen Covey meant).  The Broncos are going to suck, we all know that.  Everybody in the free football-watching world knows it.  Hell, even residents of Outer Mongolia know it.  There's no question about it.  So, if the Broncos have two of the 10 best CBs in the NFL (which they do, incidentally), their pass defense may be "decent."

10.  I bought The Sporting News NFL preview, which is usually the best on the market.  I kind of use it as a media guide throughout the season.  This year's edition is a total piece of crap, and I recommend not buying it.  In past years, a beat writer for each team would write about the team they knew a good bit about.  For the Broncos it would typically be Jeff Legwold, who is pretty good.

This year, in what seems likely to be a cost-cutting measure, TSN used one writer per division, so I get to read about the Broncos from...Adam Teicher of the Kansas City Star.  Boss Bailey is listed as the starting LOLB.  Did it ever seem, for a second, to anybody on MHR, or anybody who knows the Broncos, that he would be a starter in the new defense, or even be on the team this year?  Teicher's analysis is pretty surface-level, and very uninteresting.

The rest of the issue is garbage, too.  Jeff Darlington of the Miami Herald, on the Jets:

There's no reason to worry about the Jets' starting offensive line.  They have a Pro Bowl center in Nick Mangold, a locker room leader at guard in Alan Faneca, an all-around star in Brandon Moore, an improving young tackle in D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and a future star at right tackle in Damien Woody.

I love this; it's five misevaluations for the price of one.  Mangold is okay, but overrated, and the declining Faneca may be a good leader, but he's a shell of his former (overrated for at least the last half-decade) self as a player.  Moore is an average player, and not nearly a star.  Ferguson may be improving, but he has underachieved throughout his career so far, and is a below-average starting LT, based upon his body of work to date.  Woody is my favorite.  He's a ten-year veteran, who will turn 32 in November.  He played Center and Guard for his first nine seasons, and was a marginal starter on 2 Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams, (though he didn't play in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers, due to an injury).  When, exactly, is this future when he'll be a star at RT?  Will this be in some sort of senior citizens' league?

That's all for this week, friends.  Have a great week, and let's get ready for some football, when the Broncos play the 49ers on Friday.  It's here, finally.

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