December 05, 2011
Jason Garrett needs a nickname, and I'd like to throw out Jellyfish as a candidate. I know a no-backbone head coach when I see one.
Garrett's ice-the-kicker call at the end of the fourth quarter in Arizona was lambasted all across the Internet over the last 24 hours, but many pundits are overlooking Garrett's biggest gaffe in this mess. The Cowboys had 26 seconds to work with, and two timeouts, after Dez Bryant's(notes) sliding catch at the Arizona 31-yard line. A proactive coach, an aggressive coach — heck, a smart coach — would have immediately called a timeout when the Bryant play was complete, looking to get closer for the-game winning kick.
But that's not how the Jellyfish opted to play it: Garrett felt a 49-yard kick was close enough for comfort and he didn't want to risk a negative play. Geesh. It's not like you have a veteran quarterback, a stable of stud receivers, and a solid running game. If Garrett held 11 at the blackjack table against a dealer's 3, he'd probably decline on a double down because there are some small cards in the deck.
Mike McDermott outlined the playbook in Rounders: you want your money in the pot when you think you have the best of it, and you want to protect your stack when you don't have the cards. Garrett failed to recognize that his Cowboys were in a very advantageous position in the final 26 seconds, with resources (time on the clock, stoppages remaining) and talent on their side. Flushing that advantage down the toilet against an inferior opponent is begging to get beat, and in a karmic sense I'm glad the Cardinals were able to win this game in overtime.
The Arizona giveaway wasn't the first Jellyfish blunder of the season, of course. Backtrack to the Dallas at Philly game back in Week 8, when Dallas refused to target its two top wideouts in the first half, fearful of the big-name cornerbacks on the other side. The Eagles raced out to a 24-0 lead at the half and the game was as good as over. (As Andy Behrens likes to say, if you're going to play it that way, Dallas, why even make the trip?). And then there was the meek way the Cowboys handled their Week 6 endgame at New England, sticking with a conservative plan that practically begged the aggressive and opportunistic Patriots to beat them (and beat them New England did).
Garrett's personnel management hasn't been impressive either. DeMarco Murray(notes) hardly played for the Cowboys until a Felix Jones(notes) injury forced a change, and even after Jones got hurt, the Cowboys opted to start Tashard Choice(notes) over Murray in the first post-Felix game. You have these guys in practice every day, coach; you can't tell the difference between a potential breakout star (Murray) and a journeyman waiting to happen (Choice)? The Laurent Robinson(notes) emergence was also a happy accident of sorts, born out of necessity when others got hurt.
Let's try to learn some fantasy lessons from the Jellyfish: don't let unlikely events, secondary considerations or irrational fears steer you away from doing the right thing with your stretch-run decisions. Make the jump and we'll run through some examples that you can consider and apply through the fantasy playoffs:
-- Weather: Slippery field, I don't care. A snowy pitch is cool to look at, but I'm not going to worry about it. Unless the winds are consistently over 30 mph, the passing games generally are fine. Even cold weather can be thrown out the majority of the time, it simply doesn't move the needle. And remember that offensive players have a sneaky advantage on a bad track; they can run around the field knowing where their next step is going to be, while the defenders have to react to the opponent and make sudden and unexpected changes of direction.
-- Opponent's Roster: Your goal is to score as many points as you can, with the aim that it's more than the other guy. You can't defend his or her roster, you can't stop their guys from scoring. Don't put out inferior players just because it matches up with an opponent's quarterback, thinking you're limiting their scoring potential. Every quarterback in the league has several acceptable targets it can work with on a weekly basis; he can easily get his production without your fringe play getting involved in the mix.
-- The Due Factor: Marshawn Lynch(notes) will eventually stop scoring touchdowns, someday, but the fact that he's scored in eight straight games is not a negative factor, it's a positive one. You want your players running well, producing, marking their territory on their respective clubs. Even with a makeshift line in front of him this week, you want to roll with Lynch on Monday against the Rams, no questions asked. Don't let inane superstition or bad beats from the past get in your way.
-- The Friendliest Loss: I've regularly visited this term in this column over the last few years, and yet I see so many head coaches (NFL and fake-football alike) letting silly things guide their decision-making. What you paid for a fantasy commodity in August no longer matters; name-brand value is meaningless in a game that's only about numbers. Stop making your decisions based on what losing scenario you find easiest to potentially accept; focus on doing what you think is right, what will give you the best chance at victory. I know this sounds painfully obvious, but look at the Internet melee that break out whenever a professional head coach decides to do something unorthodox and it doesn't work out.
-- Motivation Mismatches: At various points in December you'll find matchups between the needs and need-nots; one team has to have the game for its playoff life while one team won't be in the hunt. It's tempting to conclude the incentive-heavy club will show up and win big while the non-contender just cowers in the corner, but you can never make that simple an assumption in the NFL. Motivation varies for everyone, week-to-week and snap-to-snap. Someone is always mad at someone else on the other sideline, or across the line of scrimmage. Almost everyone is playing (or coaching) for their next contract. Be careful what you assume. (There's a pick-em takeaway from this: if the lines keep getting jacked up on the teams with something to play for, so be it; as a general reflex, I'm going to take the contrarian stance on those games and side with the no-stake teams. Sometimes playing loose is a wonderful equalizer.)
There are plenty of proactive role models for us to follow in the coaching and thinking world, the Bill Belichicks, the Mike Tomlins, the Joe Maddons, the Mike Babcocks. The Rex Ryan tape is not going to help you. The Norv Turner blackjack card is not going to help you. Leslie Frazier's endgame instincts are not going to help you (playing for the kick block is not a strategy, buddy).
While you're gathering up your best Norv Turner material (get it in now, before he's sacked on Jan. 2) let's take a quick lap around the league:
• Although gross stats are rewarded in our fantasy racket and opportunity is king, we have to keep a keen eye towards play-by-play efficiency as well. Consider the Vikings passing game from Sunday. Devin Aromashodu(notes) had an acceptable six catches for 90 yards, but it took him a whopping 15 targets to get to that point. Christian Ponder only threw nine passes, comparatively, in Percy Harvin's(notes) direction, but they went for eight receptions, 156 yards and two scores. Takeaway: Aromashodu's day wasn't as good as it initially looks (though the opportunity keeps him on the radar), and maybe Ponder will accept that even a forced pass in Harvin's direction is a worthwhile exercise, at least when a situation is desperate.
Here are some of the other efficiency all-stars from Week 13: Andre Roberts(notes) (6 catches on 6 targets, 111 yards), Chaz Schilens(notes) (6-for-7, 89 yards), Austin Collie(notes) (7-for-8, 70 yards), and Victor Cruz(notes) (7-for-9, 119 yards). And we can't forget the patron saint of catch rate, Wes Welker(notes), who went 11-for-11 in in his afternoon jog around the Indianapolis secondary.
We need to be careful with the other side of the coin, however; when a receiver sees a lot of targets but not many receptions, it doesn't necessarily mean he's doing something wrong. Consider Plaxico Burress(notes), who had three catches on six targets in the victory at Washington. One of the incomplete passes was a pure throwaway from Mark Sanchez(notes), one of the incompletions was nowhere close to Burress, and the final incompletion was forced into coverage and more or less uncatchable. This doesn't mean Burress is without fault — if he does a better job getting open, Sanchez has easier throws — but we have to accept that non-completed targets don't always have an obvious conclusion. I recall Larry Fitzgerald(notes) having some low catch-rate games earlier in the year that were squarely the fault of John Skelton(notes), wild and outside.
• I understand why Dan Orlovsky's(notes) big day in Foxboro didn't excite some people. The Patriots have an awful secondary, of course, and Orlovsky's three touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter, garbage time all the way. That said, we should consider a few other things: the touchdown drives were all lengthy (covering 274 yards in all), and Indianapolis drove the ball well during the first, third and fourth period in this game. If you watched Orlovsky on a snap-by-snap basis you had to notice he looked confident, looked like he belonged, looked like an NFL quarterback. On experience alone, he's a significant upgrade over Curtis Painter(notes).
Okay, the Colts don't have a friendly end-of-season schedule: Baltimore, Tennessee and Houston are waiting for Weeks 14-16. But here's your Orlovsky takeaway: his mere presence in the lineup at least forces us to re-evaluate Pierre Garcon(notes), Reggie Wayne(notes), Austin Collie and Jacob Tamme(notes) in deeper leagues. Those guys hardly had a chance in the final five games of Paintball (one TD, eight picks, 44 QB rating), but an experienced player like Orlovsky is an upgrade of some measure. It's not like the Ravens, Titans and Texans are incapable of allowing points in garbage time.
• I can't tell you why Tim Tebow's(notes) performance line changes so much from first half to second half. I can't explain why he has a 100.5 rating after intermission this year, with eight touchdown passes, just one pick, and a tasty 8.2 YPA. I don't know why all of his wins get trashed in some circles; although the Broncos haven't faced Murderer's Row during the Tebow Stint, they have won five consecutive games on the road and six of seven overall, and beating the Dolphins (don't laugh, they've been legit since their bye), the Raiders (playoff contender) and the Jets (ballyhooed defense) should count for something.
I'm just enjoying the story. It's fun to have knuckleballers around, players with different styles and skill sets. And you have to grant Tebow this: by all accounts he works his tail off and his teammates really seem to like him and believe in him. Those things don't singularly make you a capable NFL player (or a star); a good teammate with a strong work ethic can't offset a lack of ability. But Tebow wouldn't be the first improbable underdog to shock the world and overcome scouting reports and general expectations.
I was saying last week (on Twitter and in some other mediums) that Tebow is essentially this generation's Doug Flutie, a terrific athlete with a unique set of skills and challenges. They don't match up physically, of course — Flutie's primary problem was height, while Tebow is a solid 6-foot-3 — but they're essentially the same guy when it comes to fan attention and media polarization. It was a blast tracking Flutie's college and pro career, and I expect the same type of magic carpet ride from Tebow, no matter where it ultimately takes us.
Let's savor it, amigos. Being consistently surprised is one of the great things about sports.
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