This post was authored by my brother-in-law, Dan Courtright, a writer who lives in New York and knows a hell of a lot about football.
I’ve heard each of the following claims over the past few days, mostly on the Mike Francesa show and ESPN. Let me weigh in on their relative merits:
1. On the final drive of the game, the Giants put 12 players on the field on purpose. An entertaining fallacy. The idea is that the Giants purposefully put 12 men on the field in the 4th quarter to defend the Pats with extra players, taking non-refundable time off the clock, guarding the end zone, and taking the 5 yard penalty afterward. I have no problem with the idea that this might be a good strategy; but it was not the Giants’ strategy on Sunday. Justin Tuck – the 12th man – was running off the field when the ball was snapped.
2. Deion Branch may have caught the pass on the sideline at the Giant 30 with 5 seconds left. I haven’t heard this anywhere. But it’s true. Giants fans – check your Tivos (Patriot fans, recover the game from your Tivos’ ‘Deleted Items’ folder). Branch dragged both toes in bounds, and kept them down through the chalk; the only question is whether he had possession of the ball while the toes were still in bounds. My Tivo attests that it was incredibly close. When Branch first touches the ball, both toes are on the ground. There is a frame on one replay where he has both hands on the ball, and the toes are probably still in – although, the reverse angle would tell a more convincing tale (did anyone else wonder where the reverse angle was on the Manningham sideline catch the Pats challenged? The ball appeared to start moving as Manningham hit the ground…). The replays on the game broadcast did not offer the “incontrovertible video evidence” required to overturn a call, but a preponderance of the replay evidence led me to believe that it was probably a catch. One of the hardest things to determine in a frame-by-frame replay is “possession” of the ball – when the ball between Branch’s hands? Had his fingers yet flexed around it? It’s tough to tell.*** One thing is certain: incontrovertibly, the booth should have called for a review.
A lot of pundits wondered why Lee Evans’ end zone drop in the Super Bowl was not reviewed. The Branch play was much, much closer to being a catch than that one.
***The NFL needs to adopt a method by which the replay official can view a play from two angles simultaneously. How many times does an NFL replay have two elements that need to be satisfied at or by a specific moment in time? ”Was the ball out before the knee was down?”; “Was the foot still down when he gained possession of the ball?”; “Did the ball break the plane before the knee was down?” As any fan knows, sometimes one angle proves the first element, and another angle proves the second element, but there is no shot that prove both together. You can see from one angle when the ball came out, but the runner’s knee is obscured by a mess of bodies; you can see from another angle when the knee touched down, but the runner’s back is to the camera and you can’t see the ball. The when is the problem.
I’m no expert on video (despite the fortune spent to drag me through film school. Sorry, Dad). But couldn’t FOX and CBS and NBC sync all its video to one time code (isn’t its video already synced to a uniform time code?) Then, couldn’t they offer the officials split-screen, frame-by-frame video of any two angles simultaneously? There’s no way this is impossible. And there’s no way it won’t eventually affect the outcome of a big game. Like most of life’s important questions, NFL hinge on particulars of time, space, and perspective. With a split-screen, time-sensitive review of plays with multiple questionable elements, the NFL could bind the three in a way that would make Einstein blush. I know money’s not the issue. And, if the NFL wants to pretend money is the issue, slap a sponsor on it – the Budweiser “Double-Vision” Review. You know. For kids.
3. Having a first-round bye is a disadvantage. Some numbers: Since 1990-91, when the modern playoff structure was adopted (as far as two home-field byes awarded) the home team in the divisional round is 73-33. Since 2002-’03 the home team is 25-15. Since 2007-’08, the home team is just 11-9. Overall, since 1990, the win percentage for the home team following the bye is 70%. But, from 1990-02, the win percentage of the home team after a bye was a whopping 85% (41-9); and only in 1995 did the home teams in the divisional round collectively fail to win at least three of four games. From ’03-11, the win percentage for the bye team was just 58%; and the home teams collectively managed to win at least three of four games in only three of the nine years. The question is whether this discrepancy is significant. Statistically, it is probably not, given the small sample size (although, this should be confirmed by someone who can actually, you know, do math). But the discrepancy does follow a good deal of colloquial logic. Reasons for the downward trend could include:
(a.) The relative prevalence of precision-based, timing-route passing attacks, as fostered by recent pass-friendly changes in NFL rules and stricter enforcement of existing rules. See Peyton’s ’05 and ’07 Colts; and Aaron Rodgers ’11 Packers (all of whom took Week 17 off after clinching the bye).
(b.) The introduction of the salary cap in 1993, its effect on free agency. The integration of new players into a system takes time – even if these players are as good as the players they replaced, they aren’t usually that good right away. This could explain the “late surge” phenomenon that has produced many of the last decade’s Super Bowl champs. From 1980, when Plunkett’s Raiders won the Super Bowl, till 1997, when Elway’s Broncos did, no team without a 1st-round playoff bye won the Super Bowl (from 1980-89, all three division winners earned byes, and there was only one Wild Card game per conference). The ’00 Ravens; the ’05 Steelers; the ’06 Colts; the ’07 and ’11 Giants; and the ’10 Packers all won Super Bowls as teams without 1st-round byes – and they beat teams with 1st-round byes to get there. While each respective team was not the league’s most dominant team in September, winning the Super Bowl supports the argument that each of them was the best team in January. When there is a lot of player turnover, this sort of late emergence becomes much more likely. Rookies, newly added free agents, and former back-ups who step into starting roles for departing free agents, who don’t know what they’re doing in training camp, emerge as contributors late in the season. When bad players become average, average players become good, and good players become stars, the team on a whole gets much, much better. That team can, in those cases, surpass teams who would have mopped the floor with them in September, October, or November, when they amassed the wins that earned them the bye. In those cases, these wins over teams with byes are not so much upsets – at the time of the play-off game, the emerging team is actually better than the team that had the bye.
(c.) The league divisional and scheduling realignment of 2002, which turned three 5-team divisions into four 4-team divisions; and made teams within the same division play common opponents in all but two of their 16 games. The changes were made to fit two new teams – Houston and Cleveland – into the NFL. The first part – which created more, smaller divisions – increased the variance in intra-divisional strength. Strong divisions were likely to be stronger, and weaker divisions weaker, than under the old system. The second part – which brought more inter-divisional equity to the schedule, introduced three new factors with regards to the playoffs: 4 division winners per conference, instead of the three from 1990-2001; 2 wild cards per conference, instead of the three wild cards from 1990-2001; and a schedule that was relatively balanced within the division, and therefore made it more likely for each division’s best team to win the division. These three factors combined to make division battles more fierce, since Wild Cards were reduced by 50%. Also, more subtly, these factors conspired to mask terrible divisions when they were matched in the schedule with another terrible division. Each division plays one in-conference division and one out-of-conference. When relatively weak divisions (divisions whose mean expected win total is under 8 wins) are matched up against one another, they artificially inflate the records of their divisions by bringing both divisions closer to the league mean expected win total of 8 wins. Simply put, when teams from these bad divisions play one another, one team has to win, and one team has to lose. But if both teams are bad teams, really neither team deserves to win – they both deserve to lose! When this reciprocal stinky-divisional masking takes place in concert with a large discrepancy between the good and bad teams within a division, the division winner finishes with a record that is better than the actual strength of the team. Two such teams include the 2003 Chiefs (opponent record in Chief wins: 80-128) and, in concert with (a.) above, the 2005 Colts (101-123 opponent record in Colt wins).
The above analysis does not tackle the real question – is a 1st-round bye a disadvantage? Well, compared to what? Compared to what it used to be? Well, yes. Compared to the teams who have to play an extra game? Decidedly no. I mean, would a team ever NOT want to take a bye? Winning the divisional game is not – of course – the only consideration; the team with the bye essentially has a 100% chance to advance to the Divisional play-off. If that team had to play a Wild Card game, that percentage (while still above 50%, presumably) would depreciate significantly.
4. The Giants are picking 32nd in this April’s draft. I saw this on the ESPN crawl. That’s when the win sunk in. I love when the Giants pick 32nd.
5. Eli Manning is an elite quarterback. True. I am a linguist, and – thank you to my friend, and foremost Eli devotee, Satch – you cannot spell elite without Eli. He is so good at the 2-minute drill – and so literally unstoppable in the 4-minute drill – in a league where the 2-minute drill is very hard to stop (due to expanded restrictions on contact with receivers, and the quarterback***), that the Giants are within 6 points and two minutes of winning any game. Taken with the fact (above) that NFL teams are designed to be, and are in reality, competitively balanced; and are likely to play close games with close scores; the best (or 2nd or 3rd best) two-minute quarterback gives his team an enormous advantage over other teams. With age, vulnerability to injury, home field, and all other applicable factors in consideration, I would trade Eli Manning straight up for Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. That’s it.
***Many of the “rule-changes” I remember the NFL making are actually amendments in how the rules are enforced. I was sure that “illegal contact” was a completely new penalty, invented in the mid-2000s; I mean, I’d never seen it called before – there was pass interference, and defensive holding; evidently, it was not. A rule from 1995 outlawed using the helmet to hit ‘defenseless players’ in the head or neck. The helmet-to-helmet roughing the passer and defenseless receiver penalties that we see every Sunday owe to the expanded enforcement of that rule.
6. Eli Manning is a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, I offered some loud-mouths at work a bet: 1:1 odds, I take Eli Manning inducted into the Hall-of-Fame in the next 20 years, you take that he’s not, for any amount of money up to $10,000 (I used the money total for bravado). No one took it (it’s untakeable – the duration is preposterous – any of us clowns might not have a job in two weeks – we spend most of our time at work making bets). The odds are now 1:2***. I don’t know if Eli should make the Hall of Fame; I try not to think like a sportswriter thinks. But I do know that he will.
***The only 2-time Super Bowl-winning QB eligible for the Hall of Fame who has not been inducted is Jim Plunkett. Three are currently active: Eli, Brady, and Roethlisberger.
7. Eli Manning is as good as Peyton Manning. False. He’s better. Much better. He’s six years younger, and he has the ability to turn his head up to 90 degrees each way.
8. Eli Manning’s career is as good – or better – than Peyton Manning’s career. False. Peyton Manning is one of the three best quarterbacks in NFL history. Eli Manning is one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFC East.
9. Tom Coughlin is a Hall-of-Fame coach. Tough Tom’s career winning percentage is .558. The only coaches in the Hall of Fame with lower win percentages are Sid Gillman (who modernized the downfield pass) and Weeb Ewbank (whose name is Weeb). Coughlin was Jacksonville’s first head coach; he led them to a record of 36-12 from 1997-1999, including 14-2 in ’99, and the team made the play-offs in four straight seasons, the first of which (’96) was the Jags second season in existence (an NFL best). He does not make enemies among sportswriters, nor does he make friends among sports-readers. He is not known as unique in either personality (an important component in a popularity contest) nor in football strategy; his most notable trait is his punctuality. He has won two Super Bowls. So did Jim Plunkett’s coach, non-HOFer Tom Flores. So has Mike Shannahan; not yet eligible and, unless he turns around the Redskins, not a Hall of Famer. So did Bill Parcells, who failed to make the Hall of Fame last week, in his first year on the ballot. I thought he would make it – 1:100 odds. So I’m not sure about Coughlin. Again: I try not to think like a sportswriter. (Of course, when Coach Coughlin wins his third, he’ll be a shoe-in. Let’s Go Giants!)
10. The Giants need to sign a guard this off-season. Okay, so only Satch said this to me, and he said it three weeks ago. And, after the Giants’ 4-game skid, when he wanted to put 100 bucks down on the G-Men to win the Super Bowl, I talked him out of it, so I do sort of owe him $10,000. But I went back and watched the tape: aside from the bullshit hold call on 3rd-and-1 when Wilfork fell down, and a false start, LG Kevin Boothe had a phenomenal Super Bowl. He looks trimmer (you know, than a blimp), quicker, and he’s really strong. The Pats clearly had Boothe marked coming into the game, as they lined Wilfork up over him the whole first half. In the 2nd half, they moved Wilfork over Baas to try their luck there; Boothe had simply owned the All-Pro nose tackle. Also, his combination-blocking with Diehl on stunts was great. When the Pats ran a two-man stunt against their side, Boothe and Diehl switched seemlessly. He really had a great game, and I’m glad we have him signed through next season as a player with no leverage to hold out.
11. Mario Manningham has played his last game as a Giant. True. Some desperate GM will sign him to add bling to a crappy WR corps. I saw Cincy being bandied about; a buddy of mine at work thought Cleveland. Either one sounds feasible – Oh-hi-oh, meet low-I-Q. Nice postseason beating nickel-back single-teams about 30% of the time. Thanks for the memories.
12. Brandon Jacobs has played his last game as a Giant. True. Jacobs all but bid the Giants adieu during his post-game interview on the field in Indy; when he was asked about Eli, he said he loved being Eli’s teammate. Then he added that he wished Eli, “All the best.” The Giants owe Jacobs 4.4M next year, plus a $500,000 roster bonus due in March that they won’t pay. Jacobs has expressed a desire to renegotiate; but I think the Giants terms will come under market value. Satch asked me to put a number on him; I think the Giants will offer him about 2M, little guaranteed, for one year, with escalators he won’t reach unless Bradshaw gets injured. As above, I think some desperate GM will sign him to add bling to a crappy RB corps. I think somebody will give him 2 years, 5M, half of it guaranteed.