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" The Gravel Pit "
It�s clear to see that running the football is still very important in today�s NFL. On the other side of the ball, stopping the run is also important � defenses do not want to yield 100-yard rushers, nor encourage teams to run the ball 30 or more times. It is still true that teams will run more when ahead and pass more when behind, but looking at these numbers over the whole season, I believe there is definitely a trend to be found.
Obviously, team which rushed the ball 30 or more times were the most successful. They accounted for 38.67% of all decisions, but 61.71% of all wins. That�s a huge jump. By contrast, teams rushing the ball 21-29 times accounted for almost half of all decisions, at 45.51%. However, those teams accounted for only 33.98% of all wins. Bringing up the rear, of course, were the teams who rushed the ball 20 or fewer times. They accounted for 15.82% of all decisions, and just 4.29% of all wins.
Over the course of a full season, a team who had a 100-yard back every week would go 12-4. A team rushing the ball 30 or more times every week would go 13-3. A team rushing the ball 20 or fewer times each week would only go 2-14. NFL coaches have hereby been warned and counseled: run the bloody football. It�s good for your team, and it�s good for your job security. If you have a crappy RB, get a good one. If you have a crappy offensive line, make improvements.
Interestingly, the only team to finish this season without a 100-yard rusher was the Miami Dolphins. Their record? A woeful 4-12. By comparison, with Ricky Williams in the backfield the two seasons, the Dolphins had seven 100-yard efforts in each of those seasons, and went 9-7 and 10-6. The Steelers this year had 11 games wherein a back rushed for 100+ yards, and they finished 15-1.
Does anyone still think the run isn�t important?
We (Don�t) Hate to See You Go
The first coaching casualty of the offseason was not a head coaching position. The Ravens finally smartened up and fired the worst offensive coordinator in history, Matt Cavanaugh. Never has one man called so many four-yard out routes on 3rd-and-9. The Ravens may not have had stellar offensive personnel over the years, but a consistent complaint of mine (and many other Raven maniacs) has been the shoddy playcalling. There�s no word on a replacement yet, but I�m hoping the Ravens can keep Jim Fassel around and promote him from consultant to Assistant Head Coach � Offense.
We (Don�t) Hate to See You Go II
In a move that surprised few, the woeful 49ers sacked head coach Dennis Erickson and GM Terry Donahue. Erickson, who has never shown one shred of coaching acumen at the NFL level, refused to overhaul his coaching staff earlier in the season, and the axe dropped on him only three days after the team completed its worst season ever, at 2-14. Erickson was 9-23 in two seasons following the questionable firing of Steve Mariucci, and is just 40-56 overall in the NFL.
Donahue was the longtime coach of UCLA who was brought into the front office to rebuild the team from mediocrity. Donahue took control of the team in 2001, and has since been criticized for poor drafts and questionable player evaluation techniques. The 49ers, mired in salary cap hell, have not found as much relief from those burdens as they�d like. Donahue has gutted the roster of many veterans, which did remove some �dead money,� but also left a substandard team on the field.
The Envelope, Please
The NFL and the AP have been handing out plenty of trophies this week.
Offensive Player of the Year: Peyton Manning, QB, Colts. Who else could have won this, really? Manning broke the single-season record for touchdown passes, and made two previously unspectacular receivers (Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley) into machines, with each men getting at least 10 TDs and 1000 receiving yards. Add perennial All-Pro Marvin Harrison to the mix, and that�s one deadly trio. Manning finished the season with a ridiculous 121.1 passer rating, smashing Steve Young�s 1994 record of 112.8. The shame in all of this is that, while Manning was having the best season of any QB in league history. Daunte Culpepper was having the second-best.
Manning received 35 of 48 votes from the nationwide AP panel. His closest competitors were Culpepper and Eagles WR Terrell Owens, who got four votes each.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers. When the Steelers� starting QB, Tommy Maddox, went down with an elbow injury in week 2, the Ravens probably thought they had done the league a favor. How wrong they were. All Roethlisberger did was go 13-0 in his 13 starts, leading Pittsburgh to its best finish ever, at 15-1. He was helped by the league�s #2 rushing offense and #1 defense, but Ben-Ro�s stats are by no means mediocre: 196-295, 66.4%, 2621 yards, 17 TD, 11 INT, 98.1 passer rating.
Roethlisberger�s selection was unanimous.
Comeback Player of the Year: Drew Brees, QB, Chargers. After last season�s dismal finish, Brees was a forgotten and unwanted man on a bad team. The Chargers drafted Eli Manning #1 overall, despite his stated objections to playing in San Diego, then traded him for #4 pick Philip Rivers. Rivers eventually signed a very rich contract, but his long holdout cemented Brees as the starter. The Chargers surprised many by finishing 12-4 this season. Star RB LaDainian Tomlinson, a revitalized offensive line, and the emergence of TE Antonio Gates as an offensive force certainly helped, but Brees is a huge reason the Chargers made the turnaround they did. He went 262-400, 65.5%, 3159 yards, 27 TDs, and just 7 INT. His passer rating was third in the league at 104.8 � a 37.3 improvement over his rating last year.
Brees received 18.5 votes, easily beating the second-place finisher, Carolina LB Mark Fields, who missed all of last season with Hodgkin�s Disease.
Wild-Card Previews and Picks
Rams at Seahawks:
It�s the battle of inconsistent teams who have definitely not played like playoff teams this season. Seattle needs to take advantage of the Rams� shoddy run defense. Shaun Alexander has averaged about 7 yards per carry in the previous two games against the Rams this season; he should get 25-30 carries as a result. His asinine comments of earlier in the week should not prove a distraction. A wild card for Seattle will be Koren Robinson. He missed five weeks late in the season between team and league-mandated suspensions, and was inactive in week 17. Mike Holmgren is supposed to go to his players� committee before deciding if Robinson will play. Expect him to: he averages about 16 yards a catch, and gives the Seahawks a legit deep threat.
The Rams won both regular-season meetings with Seattle, but it�s very difficult to beat the same team three times in one season. RB Marshall Faulk still has a gimpy knee, so the Rams will rely on rookie Steven Jackson. If they choose to work him into the gameplan, that is: St. Louis came out passing on 13 straight plays in an earlier game against Seattle this year, and Martz often over-relies on the passing game. QB Marc Bulger threw 14 picks in 14 games, and the Seattle D loves them some interceptions.
In the end, I think Holmgren is a better coach than Martz, and while neither of these teams are long for the postseason, one of them has to advance. Seattle 30, St. Louis 26.
Jets at Chargers:
Jets RB Curtis Martin just finished off a regular season in which he won the rushing title. So the Jets will have success running the ball? Not so fast. Against top-tier rushing defenses, they�ve struggled to find success with the ground game. San Diego has a strong and quick front seven, and they should present problems for Martin and backup LaMont Jordan. At WR, the Jets have poor depth and average speed: deep threat Santana Moss is undersized. QB Chad Pennington, while accurate, does not have the strong arm needed to make tough throws in traffic. If the Jets cannot establish the run, their passing game will likely struggle. The Chargers� pass defense is by no means good, but if they can force Pennington to throw outside the hash marks and expose his lack of velocity � and his shoulder is probably not 100% still � then they can prosper.
San Diego has shown a balanced attack this season, equally adroit at winning on the ground or thru the air. RB LaDainian is very close to 100% if he�s not already there, and Drew Brees� success was chronicled above. The Jets defend against the run well, but they can�t overcommit to it: Tomlinson is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield, and TE Antonio Gates causes all kinds of matchup problems for the Jets. The Chargers don�t have a true big-play threat at WR, but they have a deep receiving corps. Gates is the go-to guy inside the red zone, and look for him to line up as a receiver to draw a linebacker or safety away from the run defense.
The Jets should have Wayne Chrebet back, and they should also have John Abraham on passing downs. Those gallant returns will help, but not enough. San Diego, 24, New Jersey 14.
Broncos at Colts:
The Broncos did beat the Colts last week, but it was a hollow victory, with Peyton Manning taking only three snaps and many other starters resting. This week, the Denver defense will get the full monty of the Colts� offense. That will be minus TE Dallas Clark, who will miss the game with a concussion. Marcus Pollard will play in place of him, but he�s not the vertical threat up the middle that Clark is, and the Colts will not be able to use their two-TE set nearly as often. The Broncos cannot overcommit to the pass because of RB Edgerrin James. They will often use six-man fronts with nickel coverage, but Denver has athletic LBs who can stuff the run and cover the pass. It�s hard to say any defense matches up well with the Colts� offense, but the Broncos� unit does it better than most. The Ravens gave everyone a blueprint for containing the explosive Indy offense; now the Broncos have to follow it.
For the Broncos, they absolutely must establish the run and be successful with it. If they can control the clock, they can keep the Colts� offense off the field and wear down their undersized defense. The Colts� defensive line gets to the QB well, but the Denver O-line is talented and allowed only 15 sacks all season. The question mark is the play of QB Jake Plummer, who needs to make good decisions and play consistently. Indy should focus on stopping the run, and Plummer will need to hit his throws when they do. Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell must make positive yardage and hit their gaps well. Denver is a longshot to win this game, but they have zero chance if they don�t control the clock for at least 35 minutes.
The Colts took last week off, but they�ll be firing on all cylinders this week. A rested offense on the fast Indy turf spells an early exit for Team Shanahan. Indianapolis 34, Denver 23.
Vikings at Packers.
The Packers won both regular season meetings, but each was decided by a late field goal. The Pack is 7-3 in the last 10 meetings, and Minnesota has the spectre of being 2-20 in their last 22 outdoor games looming. The Vikings have to get their high-powered offense going, which might be a challenge in the freezing temperatures of Green Bay. Michael Bennett is a speedy, dangerous RB, and Daunte Culpepper had an amazing season at QB. The Packers will have to be more concerned with the pass, so the Vikings should try and run the ball, spreading the field to make it more effective. Minnesota�s defense has been awful of late � and pretty awful in general � with boatloads of missed tackles all over the field. They will have to tighten up in this regard to have any chance here.
Green Bay will need to establish the run early and cram the ball down Minnesota�s throat to control the clock. The Vikings give up an average of 4.6 yards per rush, and Packers RB Ahman Green should be salivating at that figure. Minnesota is not used to playing in the cold, so Green should be more effective in the second half; the Packers need to keep the game close until then. With SS Corey Chavous out, Minnesota cannot cheat against the run as effectively as normal. Green Bay�s defense is not very good, but a few hard hits in the bitter cold should take the spring out of the Minnesota receivers� steps. Green Bay must tackle well and not allow Randy Moss to catch any home-run balls.
This one should be the third close game the teams have played this season. In the end, playing on grass in the freezing cold is too much of an advantage for the Pack. Green Bay 30, Minnesota 26.
Next week: Wild-card reviews, divisional round previews, and maybe some year-end awards.
Dr. Tom Fowler
Drtomfowler at yahoo dto cmo