Breakfast Table: Three is a magic number

For the last decade or so, Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski have been putting together an email exchange centered around (but not limited to) the NFL. You might enjoy listening to them haggle. You might prefer a swift kick into the stomach. The Table isn't for everyone; we hope some of you enjoy it.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 5:27 PM
Subject: Week 9 Breakfast
To: scott pianowski

Not really in a mood for football now. There are huge problems and loss of life and property here in New Jersey. Entire communities are devastated. New York City is not much better, nor are parts of Connecticut.

But if everyone reading this will use their cellphone to simply text "redcross" to 90999 in order to donate $10, it will be worth it. Forget canned goods or any of that crap that politicians send to create photo optics. The Red Cross needs money to get the things they will turn out to help us in this region. They don't need to go through boxes and sort cans, taking manpower away from the urgent problems people are facing.

I have not followed football since Sunday. So I'll let you lead on that this week. And there's nothing wrong with enjoying the games this week or talking about them now, let me be clear. Sports are there for us to get some relief and I'm certain that no one will enjoy a break this week from the devastation wreaked by Sandy than all of us here. So please, proceed and feel no need to focus on all of this. I want the distraction. I'm even rooting for the Giants this week because all Giants fans in the area should squeeze every drop of pleasure they can from every day until we all get back on our feet. And we will get back on our feet, with the help of the government that exists exactly for situations like this. As Governor Christie said so eloquently, New Jersey is 50th in return on tax dollars sent to Washington and New York and Connecticut are near the bottom, too. So now is the time for that money to be flowing the other way, back to us.

Usually, I list my favorite scary movies on Halloween. But I'm not in the mood for that, either. We're suddenly really living in the ravaged, post-apocalyptic landscape that provides the setting for many of my favorites. The great son of the Jersey Shore, Bruce Springsteen, once said: "It's a hard world that asks us to live with the unlivable. But what else can we do?"

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Subject: Re: Week 9 Breakfast
To: Michael Salfino

I don't have a lot to add to your opener. It's obviously been an awful week, a scary week, a destructive week.

I've checked in with family and friends; for the most part, everyone escaped major problems. So for a second I feel lucky. But that doesn't change the facts and the numbers and the reality of the situation — people are obviously suffering, whether or not I have any connection to them. I almost feel guilty for feeling any temporary relief that I do.

As cliched as this may sound, sometimes good things — sometimes incredible things — are born out of tragedy. I hope everyone who has time or money or a skill to lend does just that. I've contributed what I can. New York's response to 911 was moving and empowering; maybe something similar will emerge from Sandy's wake.

There's no good or reasonable segue to that, but I'm going to discuss a few teams that interest me.

I rewatched the Redskins tape, as I do weekly, and somehow I was impressed by an offense that scored just 12 points. Okay, the drops were a constant problem. But Mike Shanahan must pinch himself every morning, thinking of how lucky he is to coach Robert Griffin III every week. I'll be surprised if Washington doesn't thump Carolina.

I can't get a couple of Griffin quotes out of my head, one fresh and one a leftover.

On Wednesday, Griffin was asked about the matchup against Cam Newton and comparisons to Newton. Griffin's reply was priceless: "I'd rather be compared to an Aaron Rodgers or a guy like that, someone who has won Super Bowls." Somehow Griffin can say that and not sound like a jerk (at least to me, he doesn't).

And then there's the Week 7 loss to the Giants and the aftermath of it; in some ways that might have been Griffin's biggest coming-out party, his first divisional game and a dazzling show in New Jersey. "That guy is flat-out unbelievable," Osi Umenyiora said after his team won. "I'm not even going to lie. That's the best quarterback we've played this year."

I have no stake in the Griffin story. He's not on any of my teams. I've never rooted for Washington. But I'm awestruck at what is possible here.

The Eagles interest me for different reasons. Andy Reid's post-bye solution was to scale down the offense, hide Michael Vick, avoid mistakes at all costs. It kept the turnovers at bay, but the Eagles didn't make any splash plays against Atlanta. Vick didn't throw deep, not even once, the entire game.

What's best for this team in the here and now? Reid obviously needs to win this year to keep his job. Maybe Vick can't help but fail given that the offensive line is riddled with injuries and the wide receivers are grossly overrated. But with so many rookies playing well around the league, maybe Nick Foles could do something right away if he's eventually summoned. (Normally we could say none of this matters — Philly's defense looked horrendous against Atlanta, and they've already fired the coordinator. But a weak schedule might keep the Eagles relevant through the second half.)

I still think Reid is a super coach — the consistent record of success speaks for itself — and a fantastic hire for anyone post-Philly, especially in a coordinator gig. That's one of the safest and smartest ways to build your team: work the reverse Peter Principle, plug former head coaches back into coordinator gigs. Jack Del Rio is doing great things as Denver's defensive coordinator. Marty Morhinweg has been Reid's right-hand man for years. Wade Phillips in Houston. Norv Turner could be someone's best friend next year — as a coordinator.

I haven't touched on too many NFL things here, so feel free to go anywhere of interest. I have some comments on the Giants-Steelers, but I don't want this reply to get too long. Minnesota-Seattle feels like a "show me" game, too.

Hang tough, Eastern Seaboard.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 1:00 PM
Subject: Re: Week 9 Breakfast
To: scott pianowski

Griffin is really amazing. He's third in the NFL in accuracy if you back out the garbage like throw aways and spikes and hit while throwing, just ahead of Peyton Manning. But just in plain accuracy, completion percentage, he's the best rookie in history at a tick over Ben Roethlisberger (2004). But look at how many more passes RGIII is throwing — almost twice as many. He's also one of four true rookies to have a passer rating over 90 — Roethlisberger, Dan Marino (1983) and Y.A. Tittle (1948). Oh, and the Redskins still lead the NFL in yards per play, a pretty important stat. Of course, their defense is one of the worst defenses in that stat ever. So that's why it hasn't translated into wins like it normally does (the top 10 all-time average 12.2 wins).

But Mike Shanahan deserves credit, too, for designing an attack that plays to his strengths. He's only 23rd in air yards per completion. But why make the tougher throws when you don't need to, witness that YPP stat.

I think what happens with quarterbacks sometimes is that the effort to avoid mistakes just saps them of any big-play ability. When you have Vick, you have to accept that he's going to turn the ball over. That's the price he pays for the gashing plays. But if you neuter him, what are you getting? He's never going to be a guy who just marches teams down the field efficiently because he's just not a good enough thrower. He really gets a gift this week in getting the start again against the Saints. I guarantee he'll look great. The Saints are significantly outpacing the worst defense ever in yards per play, the 2008 Lions, 6.71 to 6.41. That's in post-merger history because the 1940s yards per play stats are really screwy on Pro-Football-Reference. The Bills are third worst ever at 6.35 and the Giants, who actually improved greatly in giving up nearly 500 yards to the Cowboys on Sunday, are 10th worst at 6.21. Man, this is a bad defensive year: Redskins 12th worst all time, Tampa Bay 13th, Kansas City 14th, Tennessee 20th. A lot of this may be that the samples are too small and teams haven't had a chance to, for lack of a better term, progress to the mean. Or it may be a continuation of the game swinging more greatly to the offensive's favor than it always does (as offenses generally have more control than defenses over outcomes).

If the Eagles don't win this week, Reid and Vick are both gone. It's only a question of when.

The Giants have questions on defense. How on earth do you let Jason Witten catch 258 passes on Sunday? And Miles Austin and Dez Bryant went off, too. More alarmingly, their offense looked very uninspired for one of the few times all year. When they had the chance to really stick it to the Cowboys, they got uncharacteristically conservative. Or maybe it just seemed that way because Eli and the receivers were uncharacteristically out of sync.

The turnovers with the Giants have to be addressed. I say that's always fluke. Remember, if offenses control outcomes mostly, then how do we give defenses the majority of the credit for turnovers. Not saying they are totally bystanders. Just saying that about 40% of turnovers are their credit and 60% the opponents blame. Heck, just look at that Dallas game last week and draw your own conclusions. If anything, the 40% will seem generous.

What's really interesting about the Giants is that they are only plus-82 in yards from scrimmage. That's 12th in the NFL. The Chiefs do better in yardage differential but are minus-18 in turnovers. The Chiefs haven't run a single play this year with the lead, by the way. Usually, you get one point for every 15 yards from scrimmage — that's the NFL average that's been fixed for decades — if you look at league average yards and league average points. So the Giants should have a point differential of only about plus-5. Instead, they are plus 73. That's a difference of plus-68. But we have those plus 13 turnovers. Divide that and you get a little more than about five points per turnover, which is only slightly high (interceptions are arguably worth a little more and fumbles a little less, on average). So you can make the case that the Giants are a .500-ish team in disguise right now.

And Dallas is third best at plus 636 yards, but minus-11 in turnovers. This week, they play the Giants South, the Falcons who are just plus-87 in net yardage from scrimmage and plus-10 in turnovers.

The team I continue to circle is the Broncos, plus-603 yards and minus-3 in turnovers and also leading the league in net yards per pass attempt. That's the best team in the AFC now and I think the record will quickly catch up to that.

Minnesota and Seattle are both middle-tier teams, it seems to me. I thought Seattle would be better, though Pete Carroll says they are close to being 8-0. Rah, rah, Pete.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 1:03 PM
Subject: three is a magic number
To: Michael Salfino

I wonder how the Redskins are going to address their receivers going forward. It's too early to say where the Pierre Garcon story is going (past 2012), but that definitely felt like an overpay. The draft was blown up to get Griffin in the first place. Imagine a motivated Dwayne Bowe playing with a real quarterback.

Two specific things I love about Griffin: his pocket movement is normally used to set up a pass; he keeps his downfield focus and doesn't simply tuck it and run like a lot of inexperienced QBs do. And he's very good at throwing from unorthodox angles and positions, though you need to be careful of that (run the reel of Matthew Stafford's 2012 picks). Just keep this guy healthy, I want to see what happens over the next 10-12 years.

There are two big problems with the Eagles passing game: Vick isn't a very good anticipation thrower (he wants to see a throw develop before he pulls the trigger), and Maclin and Jackson haven't been the game-breakers to match their reputations. I wouldn't want Jackson on my team, period — he hates contact and shows alligator arms over the middle. If you can't run the entire route tree, I can't pay you big money.

That said, the Week 8 loss is clearly on the Philly defense. The Falcons started the game with six consecutive scoring drives, covering 80, 51, 73, 66, 69 and 78 yards. That's getting your ass kicked. The Eagles have no pass rush and their secondary is an all-time put on. Just when I learned how to spell Nnamdi Asomugha, he fell off the face of the earth. (Sure, they misused him all of last year, but what's the excuse now?)

I give Dallas a shot to win at Atlanta. I like the Cowboys corners and the passing game is interesting if everyone is healthy. And I can't help but root for Tony Romo a little bit, perhaps the most harshly-criticized player in the game today. Career rating of 95.1, YPA at 8.0, 158 TDs to 85 picks. Those guys don't grow on trees, Dallas.

The Seahawks have five home games left, can be dangerous with that defense. Russell Wilson is quietly improving. They're another team that desperately needs a major receiver; Sidney Rice isn't that guy. And if the Steelers heal up in the secondary, they're very dangerous. I won't be surprised if Godzilla Roethlisberger pushes into the MVP discussion.

Steelers by 3. Falcons by 1, because Romo doesn't phrase Final Jeopardy! in the form of a question. Seahawks handle the Vikings (time to grow up, Christian Ponder). Bengals stun the Broncos.

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