What’s Wrong With the Vikings and the Seahawks?

The Minnesota Vikings carried a 5-0 record into their Week 7 contest against the then 3-2 Philadelphia Eagles.  They were convincingly thumped by Philadelphia, 21-10.

That evening, the Seattle Seahawks carried their 4-1 record into Arizona to play the 3-3 Cardinals.  Seventy-five excruciating minutes later the two teams staggered off the field with a 6-6 tie.

Both the Vikings and the Seahawks have done some very good things through the first half of the season, but last Sunday they shared a common flaw – one that casts a significant shadow over their futures.  Both have offensive lines that are liabilities.

Minnesota Vikings

Offensive tackle wasn’t a position of great strength even as the season began.  It became a pronounced liability when starting left tackle (and one-time Pro Bowl selection) Matt Kalil went on season-ending injured reserve with a torn labrum in his hip after the season’s second game.

The right tackle spot was manned by Andre Smith – a former first-round pick by the Bengals who made 73 starts in Cincinnati before signing with Minnesota.  He lasted six plays into the fourth game of the season before a triceps injury sent him to IR as well.

Now what?

Well, against Philadelphia they tried varying combinations of T.J. Clemmings (a fourth round pick from the 2015 draft who was last year’s starting right tackle – the position they wanted to upgrade), Jeremiah Sirles (an undrafted free agent who made just his third start in three years last week), and Jake Long (signed before last week’s game, the 31-year-old Long was a former Pro-Bowl caliber tackle in Miami before injuries compromised his career).

As you might guess, this didn’t work very well for the Vikings (although it did make for some highlight reel footage for Eagle defensive ends Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham).  As the game progressed, the Eagles also found that they could blitz pretty much at will as Minnesota’s offense could do little to counter it.

Quarterback Sam Bradford ended up taking a beating.  With little running game and less protection, it’s difficult to imagine anything more Bradford could have done to win the game.  That being said, with the Vikings still 5-1 and leading their division it’s time we begin a discussion about Sam Bradford and his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

Bradford

This is my Sam Bradford moment:

It is Week Two of 2015.  Bradford’s Eagles are hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  The Eagles are having significant difficulty with the Dallas defense (they go 2 for 11 on third down and are shutout until the first minute of the fourth quarter).  I don’t remember the precise moment or play, but during one of the failed third down plays, the camera caught Bradford’s reaction (maybe to a dropped pass?).

I don’t remember the play, but Sam’s reaction has stuck with me.  His shoulders slumped, he bowed his head, and crept quietly to his sideline.

Is this a big deal?  It kind of is.  This moment iconifies my lingering feeling about Bradford.  I think Sam is a quality NFL passer.  He reads defenses well, makes good decisions, and throws with plus accuracy.  But if I were to describe him as a leader the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “meek.”  There is a pervasive meekness in Bradford’s game.  In a Biblical sense, this is probably a very good thing as the meek will inherit the earth (and Sam certainly inherited a lot of it last Sunday).  But it’s not a great demeanor for the leader of your football team to have.

By this, I don’t mean that Sam should be yelling at receivers who drop passes or linemen who get penalties.  And I certainly don’t mean to say that he should worship himself the way that Cam Newton does.  But the quarterback of an NFL team can’t retire quietly to the bench and sit and wait for the next time his team gets the ball.  Watch any of the Minnesota games this year that Bradford has started.  When the Vikings don’t have the ball and the camera finds Bradford on the sidelines, he’s never standing and talking to anyone.  He is always sitting, quiet and alone, on the bench – sometimes with his head down.

You never see this with the top quarterbacks.  Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Newton, etc – they are always with somebody – the offensive coordinator, his O-line, some defensive player.  They are always discussing something – or putting their arm around the shoulder of a receiver who dropped the ball.  Quarterbacking a team extends beyond what happens once the ball is in your hands.  There is a leadership imperative that everyone can’t necessarily embrace.  It certainly helps to have a certain amount of charisma going for you.

This doesn’t mean that Bradford can never win a Super Bowl.  But I don’t think of him as that quarterback who can raise the level of the team he plays for.  The Bradys of the world can lift a good team to a great team.  Sam Bradford will need to have a great team around him.

And that will have to include an offensive line that can keep him upright and healthy.

Seattle

As for Seattle, this was the number four offense in the league last year – both for yards and for points.  They were held under 20 points only five times all of last year, and scored 30 or more seven times.  In six games this year, they have been held under 13 points three times already (something that only happened once all of last year) and have managed 30 points just once (they scored 37 against the mostly hapless 49ers).

Marshawn Lynch, of course, is gone and Thomas Rawls – so impressive in his seven starts last year as Lynch’s replacement – is injured.  Also injured is quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s legs accounted for 553 rushing yards last year.  Russell is playing, but staying in the pocket while he nurses knee and ankle injuries.  So the running game isn’t a particular strength at the moment.

Like the Vikings, though, the problem runs deeper than lack of name players to carry the ball.  The Seahawks, too, are less than proficient along the offensive line.

From last year’s offense to the 2016 edition that currently ranks twenty-second in yards and twenty-eighth in points, only one offensive lineman remains in the same place – right tackle Garry GilliamJustin Britt – who started at left tackle last year is also still in the mix, but he has now been moved to center.  The other three who started for this team last year are gone.

Russell Okung, last year’s starting left tackle (a former Pro Bowler) took the money and went to Denver.  Patrick Lewis, last year’s starting center, is now in Buffalo (where he is nursing a knee injury).  And J.R. Sweezy, last year’s right guard, is now in Tampa Bay (and suffering from a back injury that has kept him off the field so far).

In their place, Seattle has stitched together the offensive line with Bradley Sowell (an undrafted free-agent with his third team in his five-year career) at left tackle, Mark Glowinski (a fourth-round pick of the Hawks in 2015 who made one start last year), and this year’s first-round pick, Germain Ifedi at right guard.

They have been pushed around a little bit so far this season, helping in no little degree to hamper the offense.  Some of these players don’t have high pedigrees, but that means less than some people imagine.  Every year the Pro Bowl teams are populated with several players who began their careers as undrafted free agents, cut by more than one team.  This may yet develop into an effective unit.

But they aren’t there yet.

Chargers Survive Broncos

The crowd barely had enough time to absorb their good fortune before “it” started again.  “It.”  That inescapable fourth quarter collapse that had stalked the fortunes of the San Diego Chargers all season.  Having already lost four games this season due to fourth-quarter mishaps, the crowd watched in horror as history began to repeat before their eyes.

One week before, a potential game-tying drive against Oakland was foiled when holder Drew Kaiser fumbled the snap on what might have been a 35-yard field goal.  The misplay sealed a 34-31 loss.

The week before that, they held a 34-21 lead over New Orleans with 5 minutes left in the game before two late San Diego fumbles deep in their own territory paved the way for two late touchdowns in a 35-34 loss.

The week before that they held a 22-20 lead right up till the last 1:17 of the game, when a missed tackle on a simple hook route resulted in a 63-yard touchdown pass for T.Y. Hilton and the Colts, sending Indianapolis on to a 26-22 win.

Their season had begun two weeks before that with Kansas City erasing a 27-10 deficit with less than ten minutes remaining in the game – a game the Chiefs would win 33-27 in overtime.

Now it’s last Thursday night.  The Denver Broncos were in town and the season sort of hung in the balance.  Again, playing very well for three quarters, the Chargers took a 19-3 lead into the last period.  Three minutes into the fourth quarter, San Diego forced Denver tackle Russell Okung into a holding call in his own end zone – the safety pushed the Chargers’ lead to 21-3 with 12 minutes left.  Insurmountable against most teams.

And then Denver free kicked.  While the partisan crowd was still giving itself high-fives, Riley Dixon’s short punt sailed in the direction of offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins around mid-field.  For some reason, all offensive linemen attempt to return kicks.  Rather than let the ball bounce safely, Wiggins attempts the catch.  Predictably the ball slips through his hands and Denver re-takes possession on its own 49 with 11:57 left and down by three scores.

The suddenly muted crowd watched the Broncos effortless advance of the football.

On second-and-four, Trevor Siemian droped a short pass off to Emmanuel Sanders for 8 yards.  First and ten on the Chargers 37 yard line.

Three plays and a false start later, Siemian drills a 20-yard pass into the hands of Sanders in between two defenders along the left sideline.  First and ten on the 21 with still 9:15 left in the game.

C.J. Anderson churns up the middle to the Charger 12.

Finally, with 8:13 left, a blown coverage leaves Bennie Fowler all alone in the middle of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown pass.  Now its 21-10.

Two runs and a sack have the Chargers punting back to Denver, and the Broncos set up on their own 37 with 5:45 still to play.  And here they came again.

Fowler got open again in the left flat.  His ten-yard reception moved Denver into San Diego territory with 5:03 to go.  Sixteen more yards on a toss to John Phillips put the ball on the 31, and Anderson took a handoff up the middle for eleven more yards.  Denver was on the Charger 20 with still 4:24 to go.

It all led to this predictable moment.  Anderson, curling out of the backfield, took a short pass, bounced off a would-be tackler on the ten, and cut crisply into the end zone.  There was 4:13 left on the clock and Denver was a two-point conversion away from cutting San Diego’s lead to 21-18.

At least it sure looked like they were.

For the entire game – but especially throughout the second half – the Bronco offensive line was pretty much eaten up by a determined Charger front seven.  Jatavis Brown, Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Tenny Palepoi and Corey Liuget were constant presences in the Bronco backfield.  On the apparent touchdown play, another Charger lineman – Brandon Mebane – outmaneuvered Okung (his former teammate in Seattle) and drew another holding call.  Among Denver’s 10 second half penalties for 93 yards were four offensive holding calls – including one for a safety and one that took away the game-changing touchdown.

And then, as soon as the apparent uprising began, it was quelled.

On the first play after the penalty, Jatavis Brown stormed up the middle to sack Siemien for a ten-yard loss.  Brown – who finished with 13 tackles and the sack – then sealed the deal on the next play.  Trying to at least get close enough for a field goal, Siemien hit Demaryius Thomas over the middle.  Making the tackle, Brown put his helmet squarely on the ball and it popped free, bouncing directly to teammate Craig Mager who was already on his knees as though he were expecting the direct bounce.

And the Chargers had their victory.

The decisive sequence that breathed life into the Chargers’ season and helped scramble the AFC West standings was made possible by Mike McCoy’s most boring game plan of the season.  With their season hanging in the balance, the Chargers displayed almost inhuman patience and discipline on both offense and defense.

Even as it appeared that Denver was going to fight its way back into the contest, the defense never got splashy or aggressive.  They sat in their soft zones and waited for Denver to make some mistake to interrupt its drive – a starkly different approach than most teams have taken toward the Broncos and their rookie quarterback.  Most other teams have contested the short throws, daring Tevor Siemien to beat them deep.  The Chargers took away the deep ball, stopped the run (the Broncos ran for 84 yards) and waited.

Even more impressive was the offense.   Determined not to let the super-bowl caliber defense make the plays that would tilt the game, San Diego ran the ball (29 times even though they only averaged 3.4 yards per) and threw short.  Of Philip Rivers’ 29 throws, only 3 travelled more than 15 yards in the air.  Even in the end game, when some teams would be tempted to throw for that clinching first down, the Chargers played safety first and ran time off the clock.

The game didn’t actually end on Thomas’ fumble.  The Broncos would, in fact, get the ball back two more times, driving for a field goal and then recovering an onside kick.  The game actually ended with Siemien throwing toward the end zone.  But so thoroughly in charge was the San Diego defense by that point that there was never a reason to believe that Denver could make the necessary plays down the field.

All the Broncos could muster was a series of five-yard dump passes – with the receiver most of the time tackled in the field of play.  The final score of 21-13 didn’t reflect how thoroughly out-coached and out-played the Broncos were.

One of the most fascinating moments of this upset occurred much, much earlier.

With 5:38 left in the first quarter, and San Diego already ahead 7-0, the Chargers took over on their own 6 after a Denver punt.  They then proceeded to mount an 18-play, 75-yard drive that consumed the next 10:03 of playing time.  It was reported that this was the longest drive of Rivers’ career.

Think about that.

Philip Rivers – now in his thirteenth season – has started 166 games in the NFL.  If he averaged 7 drives a game, that would put him at 1162 drives for his career.  But his second drive (following a 7:00 minute opening drive) was his longest.  Of course, ten minute drives are few and far between.  There are probably a lot of QBs who never manage a ten minute drive, so in that regard it’s a believable number.

But more compelling is the fact that it’s Rivers leading the drive.  Philip is an exceedingly talented quarterback and holds a splendid 95.9 passer rating over 5540 career passes.  But patience has never been one of his primary virtues.  For as good as he has been, his career has been highlighted by that one egregious, impatient mistake that would cost his team a game here and a game there and ultimately keep them out of the playoffs or eliminate them early.

Frankly, for most of his career, Rivers has lacked the focus necessary to lead his team to the mountaintop.  He has always seemed more interested in trash-talking the other team than focusing on what he needs to do to beat them.

Now 35 years old, I don’t see Philip jawing with opposing players anymore.  I see him with all the energy, passion and love for the game that he has always had.  But it seems now that he is more concerned with leading his team.  I also don’t see the egregious mistake anymore.  Two-hundred and one passes into his 2016 season, Rivers has tossed only 3 interceptions.

And on Thursday last he led an 18-play, ten-minute and three second drive.

For the first five games of their season, the San Diego Chargers have endured an enormous amount of adversity – some of their own making, some not.  Age and adversity can temper a man and a team.  I will have to see this new Philip Rivers a little longer before I finally buy into it, but it looks for all the world like he’s maturing into the leader he always could have been.  Could be that the Chargers are growing up with him.

A Word About the Seattle-Atlanta Game.

The Seahawks are annually in the playoff discussion.  The Falcons have faded from importance in recent seasons, but are starting to look like contenders again.  Seattle is always very difficult to beat in Seattle, so the 26-24 Seahawk victory isn’t much of a surprise.  But did you notice the Falcons in the third quarter?

Down 17-3 at the half, the Falcons opened the second half with a 75-yards drive right through the Legion of Boom for a touchdown (36-yard toss to Julio Jones over Richard Sherman).

After a Seattle punt, Atlanta marched through the storied Seattle defense again – 79-yards ending in a touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu.

After a subsequent Seahawk punt pinned the Falcons on their own three-yard line, they once again blew through the Hawks for 97 yards and another touchdown pass.

Three drives, three touchdowns against the ‘Hawks in that quarter.  I’m not sure how many other teams in the league could do that to Seattle in Seattle.

The Falcons last gasp came on a fourth-down heave from quarterback Matt Ryan to Jones with 1:39 left in the game.  Had Jones caught the ball, the Falcons would have been in field goal range.  Of course he would have had to catch it with just his left hand as Sherman was pulling down his right hand.

It would be very unfortunate if a playoff berth or seeding would be decided by a pass interference call that wasn’t made.

Looking Ahead to Week Seven

Week Seven is already upon us.  Football season flies by.  Here are four games that deserve a little extra attention:

Minnesota Vikings (5-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-2) – Early Sunday

One week into the season the Philadelphia Eagles traded an extra quarterback named Sam Bradford to a team (Minnesota) that had just lost its starting quarterback for the season.  With command of the offense fully given to rookie signal caller Carson Wentz, the Eagles won their first three games convincingly, before coming back down to earth the last two weeks.

Now at 3-2 and already 1.5 games behind the front running Cowboys, the Eagles are preparing to face the Vikings and the QB they traded away.

That’s the 5-0 Vikings, if you please.  As pleased as the Eagles have been with Wentz, the Vikings have been just as pleased with Bradford. Wentz has completed 65% of his passes.  Bradford has completed 70.4% of his.  Wentz has averaged 7.55 yards per pass attempt, while Bradford has averaged 7.92.  Wentz gets a touchdown on 4.5% of his passes – just slightly behind Bradford’s 4.8%.  Wentz has thrown only one interception all year – which is exactly one more than Bradford has thrown.  Wentz’ passer rating is an excellent 99.9 – pretty close to Bradford’s 109.8.

Both have played very well.  But the stories in both Philadelphia and Minnesota have been on the defensive side.  The Vikings have yet to allow more than 16 points in a game.  They are the league’s top scoring defense and second overall in yardage allowed (number 4 against the run and number 6 against the pass).  They have allowed only 7 touchdowns in five games.

The Eagles looked like that same team through four weeks, but were a little exposed last week as they spit up 230 rushing yards (and 493 yards of total offense) in a 27-20 loss to Washington.

It’s still early in the season, but this game will let us know a little better who Philadelphia really is.  And, maybe a little better who Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz are.

New England Patriots (5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) – Late Sunday

This one was going to be a great game.  Perennial contenders in New England and Pittsburgh set to face off in a game with serious playoff implications.  After doing without their All-Everything quarterback for the season’s first four weeks, Tom Brady has returned with a vengeance as the Patriots have blown by Cleveland and Cincinnati these last two weeks.  Brady has completed 76.0% of his passes and carries a passer rating of 135.5 into this matchup.

For their part, after a humbling defeat at the hands of the Eagles, the Steelers had bounced back to trounce the Chiefs and the Jets behind their elite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  But Ben’s knee injury in last week’s surprising loss to Miami has re-written the script for this game.

Into the breach is third-year pro Landry Jones, veteran of 56 NFL regular season passes and five more at the end of last year’s messy divisional round win against Cincinnati.

The expected thing would be for Pittsburgh to focus on their ground attack.  The Patriots have been pretty stout against the run (allowing 92 yards a game and 3.7 per carry), and would likely be even better on Sunday if they thought they could focus on the stopping the Steelers’ ground attack.  This would have the domino effect of forcing Jones into passing situations.

Steeler Coach Mike Tomlin knows all of this.  And that’s why I believe he will put the ball in Landry Jones’ hands and let him fling the ball down the field.  In fact, I expect Tomlin’s most aggressive game plan of the year.

And I expect that New England’s Bill Belichick will expect the same thing.  If Tomlin and Jones succeed in lifting this wounded offense past the Patriots, they will have to do it with execution.  They won’t surprise the Patriots.

In the meantime, the Pittsburgh defense – which is allowing a completion percentage of 65.7 and has only dumped 8 quarterbacks all year will have to do much, much better than that against Brady and his receivers.  Otherwise the Steelers won’t keep this one close enough for their Landry strategy to have any effect.

San Diego Chargers (2-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-2)

For the moment, last Thursday, the Chargers saved their season with a gritty 21-13 conquest of the Denver Broncos.  At 2-4, their position is hardly enviable.  And now they must go on the road to face the electric offense that is the Atlanta Falcons.

With 199 points scored, the Falcons are the league’s top ranked offense both for yards and points per game (33.2).  One hundred and twenty-two of those points came in a three-week deluge against Oakland, New Orleans and Carolina.  While they have only managed 23 and 24 points the last two weeks respectively, it should be noted those games were against elite defenses in Denver and Seattle (both on the road).

And San Diego’s defense?  Before its stellar performance last Thursday, the Chargers had allowed 33, 14, 26, 35 and 34 points in their games.  They rank twenty-third in scoring defense (25.8 ppg) even after the Denver game.

But this number comes with an explanation.  In the 1-4 start, the Chargers invented ways to yield points – most frequently through creative fumbles.  The Chargers have fumbled the ball away 10 times so far this season – the most in the NFL.  Judged on their own merits, San Diego’s defense hasn’t been that bad.  The pass defense allows just 6.81 yards per attempted pass and just 10.6 yards per completion.  Only 3.8% of the passes thrown against them result in touchdowns, and San Diego has intercepted 7 passes – 2.7% of the passes attempted against them.  They face Atlanta with 14 sacks and an 85.4 passer rating against.  Against the run, they allow only 83.5 yards a game (the fifth best in the NFL) and 3.8 yards per attempt.  Solid numbers across the board.

But will they be solid enough to slow down the Falcons?  That is the question.

Another good question that may not be getting asked as much is: can Atlanta slow down San Diego’s offense?  While their offense has been lighting up scoreboards, the Falcon defense has been surrendering points almost as fast.  In their six games so far, Atlanta has held only one opponent (Denver) to less than 26 points and only one opponent (Denver again) to less than 261 passing yards.  They have allowed 166 points (27.7 per game) and carry the NFL’s twenty-fourth rated defense into the contest against the Chargers.  Opposing passers have flourished against the Falcon defense to the tune of a 99.1 passer rating and a 68.5% completion percentage.

And San Diego and quarterback Phillip Rivers are more than capable of exploiting that weakness.  The Chargers – who have the league’s #3 scoring offense (28.8 ppg) have scored at least 21 points in every game so far and have been over 30 three times.  Rivers comes into the matchup having completed 135 passes at a 67.2% rate.  He has thrown for 1647 yards, averaging 8.19 yards per attempt and 12.2 yards per completion.  His 3 interceptions are offset by his 12 touchdown passes.  His passer rating is an excellent 105.9.

The way this plays out on paper is two explosive offenses having their way with two less than stellar defenses.  San Diego’s defense is notably better than Atlanta’s, but the Falcon’s offense is more diversified.  The Falcons are the home team, but the Chargers have to have this game.

There is something going on with the Chargers.  I hope to write more about them tomorrow. Their season could not have started out any worse.  Between their own fourth quarter collapses and an injured reserve list that already has 14 names on it – many of them prime contributors like Manti Te’o, Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen – 2016 has been a nightmare.  But in spite of all that, they are hanging together.  The AFC West is going to be a wild ride this year, and won’t be decided early.  If San Diego can stay relevant, it’s hard to say how things could yet play out.

Winning this game – if they can manage that – will be a huge step in that direction.

Seattle Seahawks (4-1) at Arizona Cardinals (3-3) – Sunday Night

The Seahawks got bumped from the ranks of the unbeaten fairly early – an exceedingly ugly 9-3 loss to the LA Rams.  This followed an unimpressive 12-10 conquest of the Miami Dolphins.  Seattle didn’t look so hot coming out of the gate.

The Arizona Cardinals (who, you’ll remember, played in the NFC Championship game last year) also struggled at the beginning of the year.  They lost 3 of their first 4, scoring less than 22 points in each of the three losses.

Since then, both teams have righted their course.  The Seahawks have toppled San Francisco (37-18), the New York Jets (27-17) and the Falcons (26-24).  They have resumed their customary spot as the top ranked defense (in yards allowed) – number three against the run.  In five games, only the 49ers have more than 64 yards running the ball against the Seahawks.

But Seattle’s own running game has been largely absent.  With Marshawn Lynch retired and Thomas Rawls out with a broken fibula, the ‘Hawks rank twenty-fifth in rushing, averaging just 88.8 yards on the ground per game.  They totaled just 138 rushing yards in their last two games.

This has had an unbalancing effect on the offense, forcing them into being more of a pass-first offense.  Nonetheless, they have adapted and – with quarterback Russell Wilson and his 97.0 passer rating leading the way – have scored 90 points in the last three games.

Among the NFL’s 3-3 teams (there are six of them) Arizona gets my vote as the most dangerous.  They boast a solid run defense (allowing 104 yards a game) backed by an elite pass defense.  The passer rating against them of 65.8 is second in the NFL, barely behind the Vikings 65.3 rating.  They also rank second in yards per pass (6.05) and third in lowest completion percentage against (58.2).  They are also tied for third in sacks with 19.

The inconsistency in Arizona has been with the offense.  After the best year of his career in 2015 (his passer rating was 104.6) quarterback Carson Palmer has been hot and cold so far in 2016.  In the most indicative two-game span, he followed a 304-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 40-7 win against Tampa Bay with a 4-interception game in a 33-18 loss in Buffalo.

But the difference for Arizona in the last two games (33-21 over San Fran and 28-3 over the Jets) has been the re-discovered running game.  They ground up the 49ers to the tune of 172 yards and then followed that with 171 more against the Jets.

All of a sudden, the Cardinals have the fourth-ranked run offense in football.  Probably this showdown in the desert will be decided by the clash between Arizona’s run game and Seattle’s run defense.  If the Cardinals can punch their way through the Seahawks’ run defense, they will pretty much control the game.  If, however, Seattle smothers the running game, it will force Palmer into the air.  And the Arizona passing attack has been far too error prone this year to be able to beat Seattle and their secondary alone.

Revival in Dallas?

Tyron SmithRonald Leary. Travis FrederickZack MartinDoug Free.

None of these gentlemen is necessarily a household name – even in households that watch a considerable amount of football.  But these five gentlemen – who collectively man the offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys – are at the heart of what is suddenly a very scary team.

Tyron Smith was a first round draft choice out of USC in 2011 (the ninth player chosen).  He has gone to three Pro Bowls and was named a First Team All-Pro following the 2014 season.

Ronald Leary signed as an undrafted free agent out of Memphis.

Travis Frederick was also a first-rounder out of Wisconsin in 2013 (thirty-first player selected).  He has since gone to two Pro Bowls.

Zack Martin was the Cowboys’ first-round pick the next year (sixteenth overall) out of Notre Dame.  He joined Smith as a First Team All-Pro in 2014 and has also been to two Pro Bowls.

Doug Free is playing in his tenth season after being drafted in the fourth round in 2007 out of Northern Illinois.

They are five very large and very athletic men, and what they did last Sunday afternoon to an opposing collection of large, athletic men from Cincinnati had to be seen to be believed.

Since their last losing season in 2010, the Cincinnati Bengals have been playoff regulars and have won at least ten games in each of the last four seasons.  Last season they ranked eleventh in overall defense and seventh against the run.  They were expected to be a competitive match for the Dallas offense and came into the game into the game fairly confident that they could at least limit the Cowboy running attack.

For the first 33 minutes and 22 seconds of the contest, the Dallas offensive line manhandled the highly regarded front seven of the Bengals.  The first time they had the ball, the Cowboys marched 64 yards in 7 plays for a touchdown.  They never faced a third-down in the drive.  Then, after a Cincinnati punt pushed them back to their own 11, they mounted an 11-play, 89-yard touchdown drive.  After another Cincinnati punt, Dallas made it three-for-three as they marched 80 yards in 8 plays for the touchdown that pushed the halftime lead to 21-0.

They trotted into the locker room at halftime having already piled up 117 rushing yards on just 17 carries (6.9 yards per).

Then, on their first play of the second half, that offensive line crumpled the Bengal front like so much pie crust as rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott sprinted 60 yards untouched up the middle for the touchdown that pushed the score to 28-0.

There is a revival in Dallas these days.  The Dallas Cowboys are finding new names for an old formula – an electric running back running behind a dominant offensive line.  The running back is this year’s first-round draft pick, Elliott – the former Ohio State back was the fourth overall player taken.

But the story of the revival doesn’t end there.  With a pre-season injury sidelining starting quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys have given the ball to another rookie.  Former Mississippi State signal caller Dak Prescott has stepped in to the breach and taken the NFL by storm.  Lightly regarded coming out of college, Prescott is completing 69.0% of his passes, averaging 7.99 yards per attempt and 11.6 yards per completion.  He has done this with a poise and polish beyond his years as he routinely finds second and third receivers and delivers passes to them with pinpoint precision.

Prescott has reached 155 passes in his career now, and has yet to suffer his first interception.  His passer rating of 101.5 perfectly complements Elliott’s league leading 546 rushing yards and 109.2 yards per game.

As good as the numbers have been, though, the most impressive thing about the revival in Dallas is the energy.  Last Sunday the Cowboys fell on the Bengals as though they couldn’t wait to get their pads into them.  They playoff veteran Bengals had the game taken away from them before they could blink.  It was, to say the least, an impressive showing.

Should the NFL be very, very afraid?  Maybe, but there is a lot of season left.

As good as they’ve been there is the question of how they will look when (if) they run into a defense that can bottle up the running attack and put pressure on Prescott (something he hasn’t had to deal with too much).

But to do that, someone will have to contend with that offensive line.  As good as the rookies have been, the long-term story of the Dallas season will begin and end as this post has.  With Tyron Smith.  Ronald Leary. Travis Frederick.  Zack Martin.  And Doug Free.

Looking Ahead to NFL Week Six

With five weeks in the books, the NFL landscape is starting to take shape.  Week six provides us a few compelling matchups worth thinking about:

Denver Broncos (4-1) at San Diego Chargers (1-4) – Tonight Night

At 1-4, the Chargers have been kind of left for dead in the complex AFC West.  But the AFC West is never that cut and dried.  They are currently looking up at the 4-1 Broncos and Raiders and the 2-2 Chiefs.  But the Chargers have put 152 points on the board (30.4 per game), which ranks second in all of football to Atlanta and their 35.0 points per game.

Defensively, they allow opposing passers just 11.3 yards per completion and have intercepted 7 passes – the passer rating against them is a very modest 87.1.  Meanwhile, opposing running attacks have averaged just 83.4 yards per game and just 3.6 yards per attempt.  But somehow this team has surrendered 142 points (28.4 per game) – tied with Tampa Bay for the fourth highest in the NFL.

They blew a 21-point lead before losing in Kansas City in overtime; lost in Indianapolis in the last two minutes after a missed tackle turned into a 63-yard touchdown; spat out a 13-point lead against New Orleans with less than five minutes to play on a couple of late turnovers; and lost last week to Oakland when they missed a field goal with two minutes left.

Clearly the Chargers are a team with issues, but they’ve probably played better than their 1-4 record indicates, while the Raiders and Broncos haven’t really played as well as their records indicate.  Kansas City has issues as well.

While the division looks like it’s starting to separate into the haves and have nots, my feeling is that this division is far from settled.  Right now, Denver and Oakland are closing games while the Chargers are inventing ways to lose games.  If the West is going to get wild, a San Diego victory tonight could be the starting point.

To do that, San Diego’s excellent offense will have to cope with Denver’s sometimes dominant defense.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) at Washington Redskins (3-2) – Early Sunday

In Philadelphia, all eyes have been on rookie quarterback sensation Carson Wentz – and why not.  At the season’s quarter pole, Carson is already one of the league’s “name” passers.  He is completing 67.4% of his passes (91 of 135), averaging 7.46 yards per pass (on 1007 passing yards), is tossing 5.2% of his passes for touchdowns (he has 7), while throwing just 1 interception for a very low 0.7 interception percentage.  Working behind excellent pass protection, Carson has gone down just 7 times which works out to just 4.9% of his drop-backs.

Less noticed – but possibly more responsible for the Eagles resurgence – has been the surprising Eagle defense.  The Eagle defense has been tough to throw against (194 yards per game and a 80.1 QB rating) and worse to run against (3.9 yards per carry and 73.3 yards per game – the NFL’s third best figure).

They ride into Washington to face a Redskin team that has also focused, perhaps, too much on its quarterback.

Kirk Cousins – fresh off the big contract – has performed similarly to Wentz (except he has chucked 5 interceptions in five games).

The real story, though, in Washington is defense – the lack thereof.  The 130 rushing yards they surrender per game is the league’s third-worst figure and the 5.1 yards they allow per running attempt is the worst in the league.  The pass defense isn’t anything to write home about, either.  Opponents complete 68.8% of the passes they throw at Washington’s soft zone coverages (the fourth worst percentage in the league) on their way to a 91.0 passer rating.

This game doesn’t set up very well for the home team.  They can’t really afford to sit back in their zones and let Wentz dunk away at them, but it’s uncertain if they have the personnel to play a lot of man coverage.  With little hope of establishing much of a running game of their own, the Redskin defense must figure it out quickly or this will be a long afternoon for them.

Atlanta Falcons (4-1) at Seattle Seahawks (3-1) – Late Sunday

What a hoot it’s been to watch the Falcons so far.  After losing 31-24, Atlanta has gone on to win 35-28, 45-32, 48-33 and 23-16.  They have been one of football’s most electric offenses and one of its leakiest defenses.  Usually, this kind of football will work well enough against lesser competition but will be woefully insufficient against better teams.  However, the Falcon’s victims have included Oakland, Carolina and Denver.  Two of the league’s once-beaten teams owe their single losses to the Falcons.

Highlighting the Falcons’ pin-ball offense has been the lethal passing combination of Matt Ryan to Julio Jones.  I wonder how many fans noticed that in their victory over Denver Atlanta ran the ball 32 times and passed only 28 times (30 if you count the two sacks).  I wonder, further, how many realize that the Atlanta ground game averages 124 yards a game and 4.5 yards a carry.

This balance is a fairly new concept in Atlanta and has been a boon to both the passing and running attacks.

On Sunday, they will be facing a Seattle team that is 3-1 on the strength of Russell Wilson’s charisma and their elite defense.  Much has been ragged in the Emerald City so far his season, but they have played determined, gritty football.  Now their semi-legendary defense will face what has been (for the first five weeks of the season) the NFL’s most balanced and lethal offense.

Should be a compelling matchup.

Dallas Cowboys (4-1) at Green Bay Packers (3-1) – Late Sunday

I hope to have time to write a bit more about the Cowboys tomorrow, but for now suffice it to say that the Cowboys are one of the “it” teams here at the beginning of the 2016 season.  Led by their first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott – who has been everything they could have hoped for – and their fourth-round quarterback Dak Prescott – who has been one of the league’s biggest surprises, the Cowboys have taken the NFL by storm.

If I had told you at the outset of the season that the Cowboys would face Aaron Rodgers in a week six matchup with an unheralded rookie quarterback whose passing numbers across the board would be far superior to Rodgers’ you would have called for a drug test – yet that is precisely what Green Bay will be up against in young Prescott whose completion percentage (69.0-56.1), average per pass attempt (7.99-6.30), yards per completion (11.6-11.2), interception rate (0.0-2.2) and passer rating (101.5-87.7) are all significantly superior to Rodgers.

While much of this is the terrific start by Dak, a lot of it is a surprisingly pedestrian season so far by Rodgers – whose numbers are much lower than we’ve come to expect.  Now in his twelfth season, Rodgers has made 123 starts, leading Green Bay to an 83-40 record during his tenure.  Along the way, Aaron has tossed 4,186 regular season passes, completing 64.8% with a 266-68 touchdown-to-interception differential.  His lifetime passer rating is an impressive 103.6 and includes 7 seasons over the 100 mark (including six in succession).

Some years it takes a while for things to come together offensively.  To this point, the Packers are averaging only 24.5 points per game.  It is reasonable, I think, to expect that number to rise over the course of the season.

But this game is compelling for more than just a pairing of two of the league’s storied franchises in a storied venue matching a legendary quarterback against some hot-shot rookie.  While Green Bay Wisconsin has been fretting over an inconsistent offense, they have quietly been treated to a remarkable performance by the team’s defense – especially the run defense.

Green Bay began the season holding Jacksonville to 48 yards on 26 rushes.  In their narrow Week Two loss in Minnesota, the Packers yielded 30 rushing yards on 22 carries – including limiting Adrian Peterson to 19 yards on 12 carries. In Week Three they beat Detroit, holding the Lions to 50 rush yards on 23 carries.  After a Week Four bye, they came back last week to allow the New York Giants 43 rushing yards on 15 carries.

It’s only four games and there is a lot of football to play, but at this point 86 running attempts at the Green Bay defense has seen 171 yards gained – an average of 42.8 yards per game and an unheard of 1.998 yards per attempt.  For the first five weeks of football, this statistic is as phenomenal as any offensive number put up anywhere.

And so now here come the Cowboys, whose offense (Prescott notwithstanding) is driven by an elite offensive line and a heretofore unstoppable running attack (155.2 yards per game – 4.6 yards per rush).  The Cowboys have 11 rushing touchdowns already this year.  The Packers have allowed only 1 all year.

It’s the irresistible force vs the immovable object coming to a TV near you.

Weighing in on Jaime Garcia’s Option

Among the early “hot stove” chatter topics is Jaime Garcia’s option. It’s been pretty much a foregone conclusion that the team won’t pick up the $12-million option. In some ways, Jamie has become a kind of poster boy for the disappointment of the 2016 season.

In a recent post at CardsBlog, Rohan Gupta makes a fairly convincing case for keeping him. While there are several well-argued points that he makes, this is probably the most important statement in the piece:

“Garcia’s woes became exaggerated because they happened to occur in the midst of a tight pennant race. He cost them valuable games down the stretch, and that made his struggles all the more frustrating. But the Cardinals can’t allow that frustration to prompt a mistake for next year.”

One of the obligations that management always has is not to make decisions based on emotion. Everyone is disappointed in how the end of 2016 went for Garcia. But that disappointment shouldn’t serve as the basis for this decision. So, for a couple of minutes, let’s look at what little we know for sure about Jaime Garcia and make our best guess about his future.

About the only thing that I can absolutely say we know is that Garcia has devastating stuff. More than one of the members of the Cardinal family has declared that Jaime has the best stuff on the team (I haven’t heard that since Alex Reyes was promoted, but at the very least Jaime has the second best stuff on the staff).

In any given game that Garcia pitched, you would see at least one unhittable pitch from the talented left-hander. We know that he can be dominant. What we don’t know is why he is dominant some days and a batting practice pitcher on others.

I maintain that no one on the staff – least of all Garcia himself – knows how to get him to a level of consistency representative of his talent level. In the above referenced article, Gupta tries to support the belief that Garcia’s 2016 was nearly as good as his 2015 season until fatigue took over when he reached his innings level from 2015. It’s an interesting argument, but doesn’t quite hold.

In 2015 Jaime never had consecutive starts that failed to qualify as a quality start until after he hit the 100 inning mark. In 2016 he never managed more than two consecutive quality starts. One hundred innings got him through 15 starts in 2015 – 12 of them quality starts. His first 100 innings of 2016 made it through 17 starts, of which only 7 were quality. His ERA at the end of 100 innings in 2015 was 1.89. At the 100 inning mark of 2016, that ERA was 4.01.

Jaime’s season, in fact, had three phases. He had a solidly good beginning (which lasted seven starts). In those first 7 starts he managed 1 complete game and 3 quality starts. He allowed just 28 hits in his first 45.1 innings (only 2 of them home runs), while walking 15 and striking out 48. He was 3-2 during that span with a 2.58 ERA.

For the next 16 starts, Jaime was just a middling-to-below-average hurler. Only 6 of his next 16 starts would be quality starts and over his next 92 innings he would give up 107 hits (11 of them home runs), walking 28 and striking out 66. He was 6-6 during those games with a 4.60 ERA.

For his last 9 games (7 of them starts) he was just bad. He managed just 1 quality start over that stretch, allowing 44 hits and 13 home runs in just 34.1 innings. He walked 14 and struck out 36 in those games on his way to a 1-5 record and a 7.60 ERA. Fatigue could have something to do with the steep drop off at the end, but no twisting of the numbers can color Jaime’s season as anything other than mediocre.

Rather than fatigue, a more likely factor in Garcia’s late season struggles was the importance of the games. One of the very strong tendencies throughout Jaime’s career has been a consistent inability to rise to the occasion in big games. Which games should be counted as big games is subjective enough that it’s difficult to quantify, although I submit for consideration his 0-3 postseason record with its artificially deflated ERA of 3.94. I say deflated because all five runs charged to him in his two-inning meltdown in last year’s playoffs were unearned (due to his own throwing error).

If anecdotal evidence is admissible in this court, I offer the relief effort that won him one more turn as a starter. On September 21, Jaime came into a game in Colorado. Luke Weaver – making his last start of the season – had lasted only 2 innings and left Garcia with a 6-1 deficit. For the next four innings, Jaime dazzled the Rockies. He needed just 47 pitches to clear those innings, allowing only a two-out single to DJ LeMahieu in the fourth. He struck out five along the way.

Five days later he made his last start of the season against Cincinnati. It was game number 156 and pretty much do or die for the Cardinals. He lasted one eventful 21-pitch inning against the Reds, during which he served up two home runs and two other hits, starting the Cards on the path to a costly 15-2 loss.

Was fatigue a factor? I don’t think so. As a long man, Jaime faced no real pressure. The team was already down five runs in the third inning. He could just go out there and throw the ball. When he faced the Reds five days later, the team needed the win.

This might be the most critical reason why I hope the Cards cut their ties with Jaime this offseason. Is there a chance that Garcia could return to the effectiveness of 2015? I consider it remote, but I concede the chance. But if that should happen and if the Cards should find themselves back in the playoffs, Mike Matheny would be almost morally obligated to give him a playoff start.

And that’s an option we can all do without.

So New England Got Shutout

Buffalo 16 – New England 0.

So, there was some expectation that New England might struggle during Tom Brady’s exile.  He was, after all, being replaced by two quarterbacks who had never thrown passes in the NFL before.  In spite of this fairly embarrassing result, the Patriots weathered Brady’s absence with a 3-1 record – certainly acceptable under the circumstances.

Where Was the Balance?

Still there was something more than a little bizarre about the game.  Not only did the Patriots never find any kind of balance on offense, they never even tried.

This isn’t entirely unusual in New England.  Frequently, with Brady under center and facing a team with a significant run defense, it’s not at all uncommon to see Bill Belichick to abandon the running game out of the gate and attack with his devastating short passing game.  However, this was an animal of an entirely different color.

Opening drive of the game.  The Patriots, after a penalty (which wiped out a 90 yard pass play) and two running plays sat at third-and-five on their own 14.  Quarterback Jacoby Brissett hands off to LeGarrette Blount up the middle and then the Pats punted.

Well, that’s a little un-Belichick-like, but OK.  It’s a young quarterback backed up deep in his own end against a very aggressive defense.  Whatever.  Play it safe and let the defense set the tone.

They punt and Buffalo drives 65 yards for a touchdown in 12 plays and 7:11 of clock time. Buffalo 7 – New England 0.

Now it’s New England’s second drive.  After a short completion and a shorter running play, the Patriots are third-and-two from their own 22.  They run again – James White loses a yard off right tackle – and New England punts again.

Hmm.  Well, Brissett did hurt his thumb last week.  Maybe he can’t really throw the ball, and he’s only back there to keep Julian Edelman from playing quarterback.

Buffalo takes the punt and moved 52 yards on 10 plays and kicked a field goal.  Buffalo 10 – New England 0.

New England’s third drive.  They open with a first down on a short pass – all of Brissett’s passes so far have been short.  Then two more running plays and a false start made it third-and-fifteen on the New England 30.  James White gains 4 yards on another run and the Patriots punt again (and Buffalo moves in for yet another field goal).

When the teams jogged off the field at halftime (with Buffalo up 13-0), New England’s Jacoby Brissett had thrown all of three passes.  The Patriots had run on all five of their third-down opportunities, failing on all of them (although Brissett did drop back on one third-and-eleven, but pulled the ball down and ran with it).

This is more than just conservative.  Brissett had thrown 19 passes in the previous game against Houston, so it wasn’t that Belichick didn’t trust him to know where to go with the ball.  He has to be hurt worse than the Patriots had let on (also not uncommon for New England).

So, the Patriots come back out in the second half, trailing by only two scores, and start throwing the ball all over the place.  Brissett is now chucking the ball downfield.  He’s zipping the ball on the intermediate routes.  He throws the ball 24 times in the second half.  He is also sacked twice and scrambles three other times.  From the 13:06 mark of the third quarter till the first snap of the fourth quarter, the Patriots dialed up 13 straight passing plays.

Although they never trailed by more than two scores, they called only six running plays the entire second half.  They thus abandoned the offensive stable that they worked so hard to establish in the first half in favor of a scatter-armed rookie (Jacoby was only 14 for 24 for just 130 yards in the second half).

Or the Urgency?

When the Patriots set up on their own 24, trailing 16-0, with 7:02 left in the game they, then, returned to their running game.  They called three running plays during a leisurely 12-play drive that consumed 4:16 of the games last 7 minutes.  It was exactly the kind of drive you might expect from New England if they were the team ahead 16-0.

The Patriots are always a little mysterious, but however they were expecting things to play out last Sunday, they didn’t.

Regarding Carolina

The Panthers have lost three of their first four games this season.  Common to all three loses was the lack of the running attack.  Denver and Minnesota stuffed the running game with excellent defenses.  The Falcons put points on the board in such rapid succession that Carolina couldn’t stay with its run.  Cam Newton (when healthy) is a dangerous passer and a significant downfield threat.  But Carolina’s passing attack can’t sustain its offense.  They are built to run the ball and struggle when they can’t.

A substantial aspect of that running game is quarterback Newton.  Removing Cam’s legs from the equation will remove much of the charisma of the offense.  And yet, quarterbacks run at considerable risk.  Newton left last Sunday’s game to undergo concussion protocol, even though he seemed unfazed by the hit.

It is a reality of the NFL today.  (And I’m not saying this is a bad thing!)  But, you don’t have to knock the quarterback out of the game to knock him out of the game, anymore.

2016 St Louis Cardinals – a Postmortem

It actually could have been any of the 75 other losses.  When the playoffs are missed by one win, any single one of the missteps over the course of the season could have made the difference.  And yet the one that sticks in everyone’s memory is the last one – September 28 against Cincinnati.

A looping third-inning single by Adam Duvall that dropped just beyond the reach of Cardinal shortstop Aldemys Diaz brought in the only two Cincinnati runs of the night.  The Cards then proceeded to waste RBI opportunities in the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth.  Now it’s the ninth.  St Louis trails 2-1.  Pinch hitter Kolten Wong misses a game tying home run by a couple of feet as he lines a leadoff triple off the right field wall.  Eight pitches later, Cincinnati walked off with a 2-1 victory.  Wong never moved off of third.

The game Cardinals won their last four games, but – to their credit – the San Francisco Giants made it all meaningless as they also won out against a Dodger team that, I think, may come to lament the fact that they didn’t eliminated San Fran when they had the chance.

While memorable, this was hardly an isolated incident.  The Cards lost 23 one-run games this season.  They hit .173 (30 for 173) with runners in scoring position in those games.  In those games, they were presented 35 times with a runner at third and less than two outs.  They brought that runner home only 15 times.

You can’t – by any stretch of the imagination – claim that this edition of the St Louis Cardinals was playoff worthy.  But, of course, you could have said the same thing about both the 2006 and 2011 teams.  Forever unanswered will be this particular what-if.

So, the baseball season rushes on with the Cardinals no longer a relevant factor.  Left for us is the dissection of what went right – and more significantly what went wrong.

The Pitching

Every discussion of the 2016 Cardinals will have to begin with the pitching staff.  Scary good in 2015, the Cardinal pitching – particularly the rotation – was seen as its primary strength entering into the season.  The rotation frayed early struggling to a 4.34 ERA at the end of May.  Through the first 53 games, the vaunted rotation had managed just 26 quality starts.  They rebounded in July with a 3.63 ERA and 17 quality starts in 25 games.  But instead of turning a corner, things just imploded from there.  Over the season’s last 84 games, the Cardinal rotation provided just 37 quality starts and a 4.55 ERA coupled with a .285 batting average against.

Throughout the season, every time this team would start to rouse itself and look like it was about to make a run, the rotation was almost always prominent in stifling the momentum.  Coming down the stretch in September, the Cardinals allowed first inning runs in 13 of their last 25 games.  During the last 25 games of the season, the team suffered through a 7.56 first-inning ERA and a .340 batting average against in that inning.  During the season’s first half, Cardinal batsmen came to the plate trailing in only 32% of their at bats. Over the final 25 games, they trailed 42.5% of the time.

The news from the pitching staff wasn’t all bad.  Carlos Martinez (16-9, 3.04 ERA) continued to develop into a top of the rotation starter, and Alex Reyes – although walking 4.30 batters per game – won 4 of 5 decisions with a 1.57 ERA.

Thereafter, the results were mixed at best.

Adam Wainwright ended the season with 6 strong innings against Pittsburgh in a game the Cards eventually won 10-4.  This provided an apt counterpoint to the season’s first game – also started by Wainwright, also a quality start (3 runs in 6 innings), also against Pittsburgh – but that one a loss.

In between Adam struggled to an inconsistent 13-9 season with a 4.62 ERA.  His season, though, wasn’t as dismal as it appears on first glance.  After three rough starts to begin the season (Adam gave up 15 runs in his first 16.1 innings), Wainwright put together a streak of 17 starts in which he achieved 13 quality starts, a 9-3 record (with two other leads lost by his bullpen) and a 3.47 ERA.  Hardly the performance of a washed-up pitcher.

This streak ended with a July 27 game in New York against the Mets.  In that game, after walking off the mound after six innings with a 3-1 lead, Mike Matheny left him to twist in a 31-pitch, 3-run seventh.  He was never the same after that.

When you are 35-years-old (as Adam is now) and you are coming off a struggling season, there are going to be questions.  But there are reasons to suspect that Adam will be capable of better next season.

Mike Leake finished a disappointing 9-12 with a 4.69 ERA. Luke Weaver was promoted after just one AAA start. He finished just 1-4 with a 5.70 ERA in 8 starts and one lamentable relief performance.

Michael Wacha suffered through another injury plagued season, going 7-7 with a 4.62 ERA (as a starter).  Lest anyone forget how good he was, I invite you to remember that at the end of August of last year, after 25 starts, Wacha had 17 quality starts, a 15-4 record, and a 2.69 ERA in 157.1 innings.  Since that date, Michael has made 30 starts and 3 relief appearances with a 9-11 record and a 5.57 ERA.  His loss as a starting pitcher is a significant blow to the organization.

Of all of the starters, the most disappointing was Jaime Garcia.  He disappointed me the most, because he had me convinced after what was really a brilliant 2015 season. He had games where there were no runs scored for him, games where defensive plays weren’t made behind him, games where umpires made brutal calls against him.  These were all the types of things that would cause Jaime to unravel in previous seasons.  But last year, he shrugged all of these things off and just made his next pitch.  He made 14 quality starts out of his 20 total starts with a 10-6 record, a 2.43 ERA and a .225/.274/.299 batting line against.  You couldn’t have asked for a better showing.

His 2016 season was marked with front to end inconsistency.  He never managed more than 2 quality starts in a row, and finished with only 10 in 30 starts on his way to a 10-13, 4.67 campaign that deteriorated as the season went on and the games became more important.

The most maddening thing about Jaime is that it seems that neither he nor anyone else understands why his good games are good and his bad games are bad.  When Wainwright struggled during the season, he searched, he looked at film, he figured out an answer.  With Garcia, it’s as though we don’t even know the question to ask.

The Bullpen

Out of the carnage of the season, there emerged – by the end, anyway – an entirely capable bullpen.  In Korean-import Seung-hwan Oh (1.92 ERA), Zach Duke (1.93 ERA as a Cardinal), Kevin Siegrist (2.77), and Matt Bowman (3.46) they developed a quartet of late game pitchers they could rely on in pressure situations.  Bowman inherited four bases-loaded situations, allowing only 1 of the 12 inherited runners to score.

Furthering the promise of the 2017 bullpen is the potential return of a healthy Tyler Lyons (3.38) who seemed to be finally coming into his own before his season ended with another injury; and the return to form of Trevor Rosenthal (who allowed 1 run in 7 healthy innings over his last 5 games).  If Wacha ends up in the bullpen, too, this could be one of the most formidable bullpens in baseball.

The Offense

In discussions of the deficiencies of the 2016 Cardinals, the offense is usually given a pass.  St Louis finished the season hitting 225 home runs and scoring 4.81 runs per game.  These totals are impressive by themselves, and even more so when compared with the totals of the offensively challenged 2015 team (they hit 137 home runs and scored 3.99 runs per game).  Still, the construction of the offense, I think, lent itself too much to the feast and famine sort of results that we got.

The offseason focus was on home runs.  They succeeded spectacularly, but, perhaps at the expense of some necessary offensive balance.

In Jedd Gyorko, Brandon Moss, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Pham, Matt Adams, Randal Grichuk and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals had 7 players who averaged less than 20 at bats per home run – all of whom hit less than .250.  The seven players combined to hit 139 home runs in just 2,297 at bats (one every 16.5 at bats).  But they also combined to hit just .239 and strikeout 665 times (29% of their at bats).  These 7 players represented 41% of the team’s total at bats this season and hit 62% of their home runs but only accounted for 48% of the team’s RBIs.

What this meant was that this largely became a team that was a threat to any fastball pitcher, but struggled routinely with anyone who could throw that baffling pitch known as a change-up.

In what I consider to be the single most telling stretch of games in the season, the Cardinals returned to Busch on June 14 having won 5 in a row for the first time this season.  The record now stood at 35-28, the .556 winning percentage was the highest it had been since they were 12-9 (.571) after 21 games.

It would never get that high again.  After their most inspired five games of the season, St Louis promptly came home and was swept in a five-game home stand by Houston and Texas.  In those games, it wasn’t the pitching staff that let the club down.  The five starters pitched 34 of the 45 innings of those series with a 1.59 ERA.

But the offense could only pony up 10 runs in the five games, hitting just .210 during the games.  Holliday, Moss and Adams did each hit home runs in those games, but the seven players named before combined to hit .132 (7 for 53) in that home stand.  Much of the reason was the fact that for the most part starting pitchers Doug Fister, Colin McHugh, Cole Hamels, Nick Martinez and Martin Perez didn’t challenge them with fastballs.  They showed them fastballs but got them out with curves and that elusive change.

This wasn’t an isolated moment.  Guys who throw the change-up for a living (like Zach Davies and Kyle Hendricks) owned this team pretty much every time they faced them.

Not Hungry Enough?

On August 8, the Cardinals ran into the immortal Cody Reed.  The Cincinnati lefty came into the game with a perfect 0-6 record and a lofty 7.30 ERA.  But the home standing Cards (riding a three-game losing streak at that point) couldn’t lay a glove on him.  He left after throwing 100 pitches over six innings, turning over a 4-0 lead to his bullpen.  With Jumbo Diaz and Blake Wood handling the eighth and ninth innings, Tony Cingrani came on to finish up and send the mostly apathetic crowd of 40,616 home to finish their nap.

After Yadier Molina led off with a seemingly harmless single, Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko both flied out.  St Louis was down to its last out, still trailing by four runs, with the bottom of the order up, and with just one runner on base.

But a funny thing happened on the way to St Louis’ fourth consecutive loss.  A walk to Tommy Pham put a second runner on, and Cingrani loaded the bases when he hit pinch-hitter Kolten Wong.

Matt Carpenter didn’t hesitate to cash in.  He singled home two (hitting the first pitch) and Stephen Piscotty singled home a third.  A four-pitch walk to Holliday re-loaded the bases and sent Cingrani to the showers in favor of Ross Ohlendorf.

With the aroused crowd in full throat, and the Cards now down to their last strike, Brandon Moss walked on a 3-2 pitch to tie the game.  Up for the second time in the inning, Molina took Ohlendorf’s second pitch off his hip, and St Louis had an improbable 5-4 victory (box score).  The crowd cheered so hard that the ground shook.  The rest of the team poured out of the dugout to mob Molina as he slid into first.

The next day – almost as if no one had told them that they had to go out and play another game the next day – these same Cardinals bowed without a whimper to Brandon Finnegan, 7-0 as they would go on to lose six of the first nine games after that emotional victory.

Again, this was not an isolated incident.

After Matt Adam’s walk-off home run in the sixteenth inning gave the Cards a second five-game winning streak, they promptly lost three of the next four.  Their last five-game winning streak included two wins in Wrigley, two wins in Houston, and an 11-inning win (on an RBI double from Grichuk) in Philadelphia.  They lost 8 of the next 13.

At every turning point moment of the season, it always felt like the games were more important to the team we were playing – that they played with an intensity that we couldn’t match.  Even against teams that were long out of contention.

From August 2 through September 29 the Cards played 29 games against also-rans Cincinnati, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Oakland and Milwaukee who were only playing for pride at that point of the season.  They lost 15 of those 29, being outscored 134-106 and outhit .279-.235.  Fourteen times in those 29 games they scored fewer than four runs.  Five other times they scored at least four runs but still lost the game.  Eleven times in those 29 games against teams playing out the string they surrendered 5 runs or more – three times yielding more than ten runs.  Five other times they held the opposing offense to fewer than four runs, but lost the game anyway.

With the season on the line, in 29 games against “lesser” opponents, the Cards hit .162 with runners in scoring position (32 for 198).  Forty-four times in those games they had that runner at third and less than two outs.  They scored that run just 19 times.  It wasn’t until the last three games against Pittsburgh that it felt like they really wanted the game more than the team they were lining up against.

Over the last five years, this team played 61 post-season games – more than an extra third of a season.  If it seemed like the teams lining up against then were hungrier than they Cardinals, maybe they were.  I won’t charge them with complacency, but the entire season they just assumed that their hot streak would be there and that they would be fine.  And they may even have been right (about the hot streak, not about being fine).  The last three games looked like those playoff teams.  They just flipped the switch too late.

All of which makes for a puzzling read on this team as we look ahead to 2017.  On the one hand, a jolt like this could be just the medicine the team needs to get a little passion flowing.  On the other hand, this is a team in transition.

Matt Holliday is 36 years old and is already as good as gone.  Behind him, Adam Wainwright is 35, Jhonny Peralta, Yadier Molina and Seung-hwan Oh are 34, Zach Duke and Brandon Moss are 33.  Coming swiftly onward are Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Harrison Bader and other talented young players.

This is a transition that has already started and will continue through the next several seasons.  How they can manage to make this transition and still compete for a playoff spot will be the next great challenge for this proud organization.

Cardinals NoteBook

The Cardinals were held to fewer than 4 runs 15 times over their last 30 games.  They lost 13 of those games.

From the All-Star Break on, St Louis was 27-13 (.675) in games started by Wacha (5-1), Wainwright (10-5), Martinez (9-5) and Reyes (3-2).  They were 13-21 (.382) behind Leake (5-7), Garcia (5-8), Weaver (3-5) and Mike Mayers (0-1).

The 2016 Cardinals scored 10 or more runs 19 times.  They allowed 10 or more runs 13 times.  They lost 14 games this season when scoring at least 5 runs.  They lost 15 games in which they allowed fewer than four runs.

They were 3-0 in games when Mark Carlson, Angel Hernandez, Jerry Meals, Bill Miller or Tim Timmons worked the plate.  They were 0-3 with CB Buckner calling balls and strikes.  All time, they are 23-20 with Carlson (.535), 26-23 (.531) with Hernandez, 26-11 (.703) with Meals, 22-18 (.550) with Miller, 29-10 (.744) with Timmons, and 25-15 (.625) with Bucknor.

In the final series’ tally, St Louis finished winning 23 series, losing 21 and splitting 8.  They were in position to sweep 12 of those series, achieving the sweep 8 times.  They were in position to be swept 11 times, suffering that indignity on 5 occasions.  They were 10-11 in rubber games.

At home, they won only 9 series all year, losing 15 and splitting 2.  Of the 26 home series, they were only in position to sweep 3 of them – which they did all 3 times.  They were in position to be swept at home 6 different times, succumbing to the sweep 4 times.  They were 5-9 in rubber games at home.

St Louis won the first game of 23 different series, going on to win 18 of those series, losing just 4, and splitting only 1.  When extended to a rubber game after winning the first game of the season, St Louis was 5-4.  After winning the first game, the Cards were 28-20 in the subsequent games of those series.

They finished 10-7-4 in series against teams that had lost their previous series, going 36-27 in those games.  They had a chance to sweep 7 of those series, pulling off the sweep 5 times.  Six other times, teams that had lost their previous series had a chance to sweep the Cardinals – a fate they avoided 4 times.  St Louis was 3-2 in rubbers games against teams that had lost their previous series.

Not Dead Yet

All of a sudden the season is old.  One of my maxims is that in baseball it’s always early until it’s not.

In the seventh inning of last night’s game – with an October chill in the air – Matt Holliday came to the plate.  And suddenly it was before us.  The end of an era stood in the batter’s box to await the stylings of Pittsburgh’s Zach Phillips.  Forty-three thousand stood to honor the 37-year-old outfielder who is one of the last remaining links to the Albert Pujols/Chris Carpenter era.

It had been previously announced that his option would probably not be renewed for 2017.  His return to the roster and to the lineup was purely ceremonial.  It was for this moment.  For the fans and Matt Holliday to say goodbye to each other.

The moment became transcendent three pitches later when Holliday flicked Phillips’ slider into the Cardinal bullpen for his twentieth home run.  That pushed the Cardinal lead to 6-0 in what would eventually be a 7-0 victory (box score) that – for the moment – has kept the team’s playoff hopes alive.  They still trail the Giants by one game for the last wildcard spot with two games to go.

One inning earlier – with the Cardinal lead just 3-0 – embattled outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss came to the plate.  Suffering through a historically bad September (struggles which have been well documented in this space) Brandon crushed a two-run home run that turned the mood of the crowd from nervous to exuberant.  It’s difficult to tell whose trip around the bases was more emotional; Moss’ or Holliday’s.

The sudden offense – the Cards scored six runs in the sixth and seventh innings – jolted a 1-0 lead into the final seven-run cushion that rewarded the dominant work of emerging star Carlos Martinez.  Rising to the moment in the biggest start of his young career, he struck out nine in seven innings to record his career-high sixteenth victory.

I am frequently moved by the sheer resiliency of this franchise.  If I looked back over the season – or even last offseason for that matter – I bet I could find 20 different moments where it seemed reasonable to give up on this team.  Much of the 2016 season was an absolute train-wreck – a symphony of horrific baseball interlaced with back-breaking injuries and mystifying slumps.  I know I could produce at least 200 discreet statistics that would establish the Cardinals as a strictly second-tier team, in no way worthy of a playoff invitation.  For large stretches of this season, this team has been unwatchable.

And yet, this team has persevered.  The team that can’t pitch, can’t hit, can’t field, and can’t run the bases has willed themselves into playoff contention until at least the last game of the season.  What you have seen is no easy task.  Look to the other dugout at the Pirates.  Their story is our story – injuries, brutally disappointing seasons from counted on players, etc.  Yet they couldn’t do what the Cardinals have done.  They couldn’t fight all the way through this long, long season to its bitter end.

With a myriad of reasons to doubt themselves, the Cardinals never blinked, never waivered.  A baseball season doesn’t stop for you – it doesn’t care about your injuries or your slumps.  The games and the pitches keep coming and the only answer that you’ll have is your faith in yourself and your teammates.  If you are going to be the championship teams of 2006 and 2011, you have to sustain an irrational belief in your own invincibility.  No team in baseball does that better than your St Louis Cardinals.

Of course, it may be too little too late.  They still trail the Giants, so if San Francisco keeps winning the Cardinal series against the Pirates will matter little.  There is, of course, no guarantee that the Cardinals have, in fact, turned the corner.  There have already been about a dozen points in the season when they looked like they had finally turned things around.

I do have to say, though, that last night felt different.  As Moss’ home run darted into the right-field bleachers, you could almost feel the oppressive fog lift.

This is still a deeply flawed team that will be underdogs in every postseason series it plays – if it even qualifies for postseason play.  But it’s a deeply flawed team that irrationally believes it is invincible.

NoteBook

With last night’s victory, St Louis finishes the season 23-29 in opening games of their series.  The 29 times that they lost their opening game, they went on to lose the series 17 times, coming back to win five and tie seven others.  In eleven of those series, the Cards were pushed to the brink of a sweep (which they avoided six times).  They came back to force a rubber game in 12 of those series, but only won 5 of those 12.  They were 35-27 in the subsequent games of those series.

As the Pirates came into this series after losing two of three to the Cubs, the Cards will play no more series this year against teams coming off wins in their previous series.  They finished the year 12-10-4 against teams that had won their previous series.  They completed series sweeps in 3 of 5 opportunities, were swept only once in two opportunities (by the Rangers back in June), and finished 6-8 in rubber games against teams that had won their previous series.  The Cardinals finished 46-39 in the games of those series.

Three more home runs gives the Cards 223 on the year with two games remaining.

No Post on Monday

After posting six days a week for almost six months now, there will be no post on Monday.  By Tuesday morning either the season will be over, or the Cards will be preparing for their wildcard game.  If the season is over, I will probably not post Tuesday either but will put together a brief postmortem before the end of the week.  And then we will watch some football.