Tag Archives: Philadelphia Eagles

Super Bowl LII: The Last Word

For more than three hours on the evening of February second, all of America (or at least the football-watching portion of that population) tuned into Super Bowl LII looking for the precise moment that the Philadelphia’s Eagles’ Cinderella ride would turn back into a pumpkin.

Even after the Eagles – history’s most dis-respected number one seed – had opened up a 15-3 lead on the New England Patriots just 21 minutes into the contest, the haters remained unconvinced.  We had all seen this film before.

With 5:15 left before the end of the half, Nick Foles’ long toss up the right sideline deflected into the hands of New England’s Duron Harmon for the game’s first turnover.  Surely that would change the momentum of the game.  But after New England went 90 yards for a touchdown following the interception, Philadelphia answered with a touchdown of their own before the half and went into the locker room with a ten-point lead.

Like the monster in all of the slasher films, the defending champions from New England refused to die.  They opened the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and finally – with 9:22 left in the game – pushed ahead 33-32.  Surely this would finally be the end of the under-dog Eagles.

This was, after all, the same Patriot team that overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl just the year before, and just two weeks earlier had overturned an 11-point deficit against Jacksonville to qualify for this year’s big game.  It seemed almost expected that Philly’s 12-point lead would at some point evaporate.

But on this evening the under-appreciated Eagles slew the dragon from Boston by doing the one thing that the Falcons (in Super Bowl LI) and the Jaguars (in this year’s AFC Championship Game) were unable to do.

They kept scoring.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were done scoring at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter.  After having three earlier touchdown drives of at least 62 yards, the Falcons totaled just 44 yards (and 3 first downs) on their last 4 possessions.  Jacksonville scored its last touchdown of the game at 7:06 of the second quarter.  They had moved for 158 yards and 11 first downs in their back-to-back touchdown drives.  Over their final 9 possessions of the game, the Jaguars managed just two field goals, 193 yards and 9 first downs.

Doug Pederson’s offense never relented.  Every time the Patriots surged back into the game, the Eagles responded.  They ended the Super Bowl by scoring on all of their last 5 possessions following the interception to carry off a 41-33 victory (gamebook).

Reversing the Trend

There was an era not too long ago when the Super Bowl was traditionally one of the dullest contests of the season.  Beginning with the Raiders 38-9 thumping of the Redskins back in Super Bowl XVIII (18), all of the next 5 Super Bowls would be decided by at least 19 points, with four of the five being decided by 22 points or more.  The average margin of victory in those five Super Bowls was 27.6 points.  Two Super Bowls after the last of those (Washington’s 42-10 pummeling of Denver), the San Francisco 49ers authored the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history – a 55-10 rout also at the expense of the Broncos.  It was an era where advertisers pushed to get their commercials aired in the first quarter as a large percentage of the viewing population had moved on to something else long before halftime.  From Dallas’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI (6), through Tampa Bay’s 48-21 conquest of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII (37), only 9 of 32 contests were decided by one score or less, and the average margin of victory was a disappointing 16.5 points.

But, beginning with New England’s tense 32-29 victory over Carolina that next season, the dynamic has decidedly changed.  Ten of the last fifteen have been one score games – including this one, which ended with Tom Brady throwing into the end zone as time expired.

And while the recent decade has brought us more competitive contests, the last three have been nothing short of transcendent.  Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl brought us Peyton Manning’s farewell.  One of the great presence’s in recent football history, Peyton went out a champion, leading Denver to a 24-10 decision over Carolina.  Last season, of course, Brady and the Patriots authored one of the great comebacks of all-time.

And two weeks ago the no-chance Eagles fashioned a stunning upset in a game that set a hatful of Super Bowl offensive records. League-wide all teams averaged 334.1 yards per game.  The Eagles racked up 323 yards and the Patriots managed 350 yards.

At the half.

Offense Galore

During the entertaining first half, the two teams combined for 673 yards on 72 plays – a breath-taking 9.3 yards per play.  By about the mid-point of the third quarter the two teams had set the Super Bowl record for combined yardage.  They would finish the affair with 1151 total yards and 9 combined touchdowns.  Nine different players ended with a run or a catch of at least 20 yards.  Four of them had pass catches of over 40 yards.

Together, the Eagles and Patriots were 15 for 26 on third down (.577), including 8 of 12 (.667) in the second half.  They were also 3-for-4 on fourth down.  The 33 points scored by New England were the most ever by a losing team in a Super Bowl (supplanting the 49ers, who scored 31 points in losing Super Bowl XLVII [48]) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX [29] the 49ers outscored the San Diego Chargers 49-26).  Considering that this game saw two missed extra-points, a missed field goal, and two failed two-point conversions, that record held by the slimmest combination of circumstances imaginable.

The Defining Moment of Super Bowl LII

The contest will forever be remembered for the touchdown that the Eagles scored on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the first half.  Leading by just three points, and with New England set to receive the second-half kickoff, Philadelphia simply could not afford to come away from this opportunity without points.  So, even the decision to go for the touchdown here was risky.  And for Pederson to reach deep into his bag of tricks for the tight-end option pass to the quarterback ranks as one of the gutsiest calls in the now-long history of the Super Bowl.  The potential for disaster here was huge.  With an inexperienced passer throwing to the flat on the goal line, any of the numerous ways that play could have backfired would almost certainly have cost Philly the game.

But the play didn’t backfire.  Trey Burton threw an accurate pass, and Foles made the catch in the end zone.

It will be remembered by many as the critical play of the game.  But here’s the thing.  Even in spite of this highlight-reel play, the Eagles still found themselves trailing with nine minutes left in the season.  The actual play of the game – not so much highlight reel stuff – might well have been Philadelphia’s other fourth-down play.

That the Eagles trailed by one with 9:22 to go was the least of their concerns.  The raspberry seed in their collective wisdom tooth was the Patriot offense that they had not yet managed to stop.  In nine possessions to that point of the game, New England had managed at least 1 first down in all of them, and 2 or more in 7 of the 9.  Six of the nine had covered at least 74 yards, and eight of them accounted for at least 48 yards.  The nine had resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 missed field goal, 1 missed fourth-down play, and the end of the first half.  Every drive but one to this point had ended in Philadelphia territory – and the one that didn’t made it to the 50-yard line.  Philadelphia needed to find some way to keep this offense off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

So, as the Eagles lined up along their own 25-yard line with those 9:22 to go, more than just the score to put them back in front, Philadelphia needed to kill the clock.  And when a third-and-one screen pass to Torrey Smith ended shy of first-down yardage, the Eagles’ season hung in the balance.

There was still 5:39 left in the game.  With the fourth-and-one, Philadelphia sat on their own 45-yard line.  A punt here was an open invitation for New England to put an exclamation point on their comeback.  But a failed fourth-down play would give the Patriots a short field and a golden opportunity for the game-clinching score.  In spite of the fact that Philadelphia ran for 164 yards this day, they opted for a pass, risking everything on the arm and the judgement of the much maligned Nick Foles.

Nicky Who?

As recently as 2015, Nick was a sometimes starter for the St Louis Rams, fashioning a 4-7 record as a starter with an exceedingly modest 69.0 passer rating.  He spent 2016 sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and had much the same function in Philadelphia for most of this year.

And now, everything depended on him.

In a 3-tight-end set, Foles had Zach Ertz tight to the right side, and Brent Celek and Burton lined up tight to the left.  Ertz and Celek ran a simple shallow cross against New England’s man coverage.  Devin McCourty – in coverage on Ertz – ran headlong into Celek and Patrick Chung – who had coverage on Celek.  And now there was just Ertz roaming completely free underneath.  The pressure on Foles was quick.  Trey Flowers slipped immediately inside tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to flush Foles to his left, and Kyle Van Noy stunted around Vaitai’s back to hit Nicky just after he released the ball.  The throw was a little high, but Zach pulled it down.  And the Eagle drive continued.

That play was the lynch-pin of a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:01 from the remaining game-clock.  Foles connected twice more with Ertz for third-down conversions – including the 11-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) that concluded the drive.  McCourty had Zach in man coverage on that play as well, but Devin stumbled just slightly as Zach made his break to the inside, creating the opening that led to the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming off the game of his life against Minnesota, Nick Foles was very good again against New England.  He finished 28-of-43 (65.12%) for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns and the interception.  His rating against the Patriots overall was a strong 106.06.  But once again, he was at his very best on third down.

Against the Vikings, he completed 10-of-11 on third down for 159 yards and 9 first downs (including 2 touchdowns).  On third-down against the Patriots, Nicky completed 11 of 14 for 169 yards – again for 9 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Thus Nick Foles finished the last two games of the season completing 21 of 25 passes (84%) for 328 yards, 18 first downs and 4 touchdowns on third down – a combined 158.33 rating.

Of all the remarkable numbers amassed by Foles in his surprising Super Bowl run, his dominance on third down are both the most amazing and the most vital.

He also finished the game on a hot streak comparable to the way he finished up the Vikings.  Beginning with his 22-yard touchdown toss to Corey Clement about midway through the third, Nicky finished 13 for his last 16 (81.25%) – albeit for just 127 yards (9.77 per completion) – and 2 touchdowns.  His passer rating reached 139.32 as he finished the game.

Coming down the stretch, Nick began to look more and more for Nelson Agholor – who was matched mostly against Chung.  Patrick – one of the defensive heroes for the Patriots during the playoff run – had a tough Super Bowl that included being knocked out of the game twice.

Five of Foles’ last 16 passes went in Agholor’s direction, with Nelson catching all five for 54 yards and 4 first downs.

Defensive Measures

As did Minnesota, New England decided to play man coverage against the Eagle receivers and brought frequent pressure.  Nick got man coverage on 79% of his drop-backs, including being blitzed 37% of the time.  Foles chewed up the Patriot blitz to the tune of 11 of 16 (68.75%) for 126 yards and 1 touchdown (a 113.02 passer rating).  The Patriots did a little better when they played man and didn’t blitz (a 109.49 rating on 11 of 18 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and the interception).

Best of all against Foles may have been the zone defenses the Patriots threw at him, though they went to zone too infrequently to make much of a judgement.  Foles was 6 of 9 against the New England zones, but for just 63 yards and 2 first downs.

When they could pressure Foles, they did very well against him. Credit to the Eagle offensive line that Nick only threw 11 passes under duress (about a fourth of his attempts).  He completed only 3 of those passes for just 9 yards.  All three of those completions came in that pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown drive.  Foles was also just 4 for 11 when they could flush him out of the pocket. Again, this was something New England couldn’t do enough of.

Does Foles Have an Encore In Him?

The great post-season mystery now becomes what happens with Nick Foles?  With emerging superstar Carson Wentz set to return, this playoff run was essentially an audition for Foles.  Have these last three games convinced anyone that Nicky is their quarterback of the future?  Or is it more likely – given his recent performance in St Louis – that this playoff run had more to do with the team around him?

Let me say this for Foles.  During the playoff run, he made excellent decisions and threw a very catchable ball.  He especially has a nice touch on deep passes.  In all this, though, I don’t think I’m completely convinced Nicky is the answer as anyone’s starter.   And even after all this, I’m not sure that everyone understands what was truly remarkable about Foles, the Eagles, and their 2017 playoff run.

Put the tape back in and watch the first possession of the game.  Watch Foles coolly and confidently run the Eagle offense.  In the eyes of the rest of the world, Nick Foles had everything to prove.  But that’s not what you saw two weeks ago.  You saw a backup quarterback playing in the Super Bowl with absolutely nothing to prove – to himself or anyone else.  That is because his entire team, from owner down to ball boy, had already placed their entire confidence in him.  Nick Foles was their quarterback.  The defense didn’t put extra pressure on themselves. Neither did the offensive line.  The coaches made no effort to hide their quarterback.  He threw 11 times in the 16 plays of Philadelphia’s first two drives (a field goal and a touchdown) and threw on 10 of the 14 plays of the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Without exception, everyone in the Eagle locker room firmly believed that Foles would deliver a starting quarterback effort that evening – and with 373 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes tossed – and one caught, Nicky Foles did just that.

Imagine for a moment how difficult that is.  Imagine All-Pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox standing on the sideline watching Wentz not get up after scoring that touchdown against the Rams.  Imagine what must have been going through his head.  And Jason Kelce’s.  And Zach Ertz’.  And coach Pederson’s.  In the pit of your stomach, how can you not feel that your season had just ended?  Remember, Carson Wentz was not just their starting quarterback.  He was the soul of the team.  He was the piece that made the whole machine go.  If you had been watching the NFL season up to that point, you would have tabbed Carson Wentz as one of the handful of irreplaceable players.  Every other member of the Eagle team must have felt his loss as a debilitating punch to the gut.

And then somewhere in between that devastating moment and the time the Eagles took the field for their first playoff game that most under-appreciated element of professional sports took over.  The Eagle locker room healed itself.  They embraced Nicky Foles, and endowed him with their complete trust and confidence.  This wasn’t a pretend “oh, sure, we’re all behind you” confidence.  Nicky Foles became – for a few dynamic weeks – the sum of the faith of his team.

Even should the Eagles and Wentz go on to experience success on the level of the Patriots, this first Super Bowl win (and the under-dog status that they carried into it) will always be memorable to them.  I’m not sure, though, history will forever remember this aspect of this remarkable achievement.

Oh, Yes . . .

Speaking of history, the quarterback on the other end of this entertaining contest has been involved in a bit of it himself.

The Eagles managed to hold Tom Brady and the Patriot offense to field goal attempts in three of their first four possessions by bringing fairly consistent pressure.  But as New England’s offensive line got their feet set under them, Brady became Brady again.

Beginning with a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the third quarter, and continuing until Brady threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski that put New England ahead in the fourth, Brady completed 12 out of 14 passes for 181 yards and all three touchdowns.  He worked with great frequency and effectiveness to the left side, where Ronald Darby was a frequent target.  Tom completed 12 of 14 passes (85.71%) to the offensive left side of the formation for 215 yards (15.36 yards per attempt) and 1 touchdown – a 142.56 rating.  In fact, subtract two spikes to stop the clock and his last 7 passes against rather extreme zone defenses, and Brady was 25 of 39 (64.1%) for 465 yards (18.6 yards per completion) with the 3 touchdowns – a 130.82 passer rating.

Not much that Philly tried against Tom succeeded. The Eagles went to predominantly man coverages – doing so on 70% of Brady’s pass attempts (other than the spikes or the prevents).  They blitzed less often than New England (only 20% of the time), but with no better results.  Tom went 6 for 8 for 111 yards against the Eagle blitzes.  But when they played man without the blitz, things went even worse.  Brady completed only 11 of 20 passes against those man coverages (55%), but for 215 yards (19.55 yards per completion) and 2 of his touchdowns – a 126.04 rating.  The Eagles didn’t play much zone – and just as well.  Tom was 8 of 11 (72.73%) when they did, for 139 yards (12.64 per attempted pass) and the other touchdown – a 145.08 passer rating.

Frankly, when Brady and the offense got the ball back, trailing by 5 with 2:21 left and holding one time out, I thought – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone – that the Patriots would add one more improbable comeback to their swelling playoff lore.

Not What You Might Have Expected

But then the unusual happened.  Instead of the Patriots making that clutch fourth-quarter, game-deciding play, it was the Eagles making it against them.  In a game that featured just one punt and one sack, it was the latter that finally decided matters.  With New England facing a second-and-2 on their own 33, Brandon Graham surged underneath Patriot guard Shaq Mason and closed quickly enough on Brady that he hit the ball as Tom was raising it for a pass.

For a small eternity the football – and the season – bounced freely on the turf, to be gathered in in the next heartbeat by Eagle defensive end Derek Barnett.  The Eagles had the ball on the Patriot 31 with just 2:09 left.

This would be the only time of the game that the Eagles would go conservative – and it almost cost them.  Three running plays gained 4 yards.  Jake Elliot finished the one minute-four second drive with the field goal that gave us the final score, and when New England finally got the ball back for their desperation drive, there was only 58 seconds left in the season – and the Patriots had 91 yards to cover.

And even at that, they were still throwing into the end zone as time expired.

A Warning Note

Among the more glamourous offensive records set in Super Bowl LII was the passing yardage record.  Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for 500 yards in a game (505 to be exact).  Whose record did he break?  Why his own, of course.  The year before in Super Bowl LI Brady had thrown for 466 yards.  Across all of football this year, the average quarterback threw for about 3800 yards for the 16-game season.  In the last two Super Bowls, Brady has thrown for 971.

Impressive? Of course.  But the reason behind the record is even more instructive.  In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots ran 72 offensive plays.  They trailed in every one of them.  They didn’t have so much as one offensive snap where they were at least tied in the game.  They trailed by 10 points or more in 24 of those plays.

Two weeks earlier against Jacksonville, New England held the ball for 61 offensive plays.  They trailed in 42 of those – finding themselves down by ten points or more in 22 of them.  In last year’s Super Bowl, they trailed in 67 of 93 plays, finding themselves at least ten points behind in 53 of them.

So, during their last two Super Bowl games and their last AFC Championship game, New England has run a total of 226 plays.  They have been behind 80% of the time (181 plays) and trailed by at least 10 points almost half of the time (99 plays – 43.8%).  Brady – of necessity – has thrown 110 passes in his last two Super Bowls.

Taking nothing away from the Falcons, Jaguars or Eagles, the Patriots have been having an increasingly difficult time matching their opponent’s emotion in these big games.  Brady reported to Al Michales that he didn’t even feel nervous at the start of this – his eighth Super Bowl.  In particular, during the start of the Atlanta game, the Patriots looked almost like they were standing still.

There are already a sizeable number of mysteries that the 2018 season will answer.  The 2017 season saw a lot of upheaval.  Long-time doormats in Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, Los Angeles (and, yes, Philadelphia) all earned playoff bids.  Are these teams on the rise? Or one year wonders?  Meanwhile playoff mainstays in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle watched from home.  Are they franchises in decline?  Or were they mostly unlucky?  What does the future hold for marquee quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith – not to mention backups turned into heroes Nick Foles and Case Keenum?

As compelling as any of these mysteries is what we will see from the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.  How they respond to this surprising loss will be one of the stories to follow – and one of the keys to the direction the franchise is heading.

As for the Eagles – who jumped from 7-9 in 2016 to world champions this year – they will now be challenged with handling success.  Staying on top is always harder than getting there.

It all sets up for a fascinating 2018.

Yes, Actually, That Will Be Nick Foles in the Super Bowl

There was 1:25 left in the first half.  The Eagles held a modest 14-7 lead, but had second-and-ten on their own 47-yard line.  With a pass rush coming from his right, quarterback Nick Foles took a couple of steps to his left.  But there was more trouble coming from there as Everson Griffen came roaring unabated toward him.  Before he was hit, Foles flung the ball up the left sideline in the general direction of Mack Hollins.  And then Griffen buried him.

The blow looked worse than it was.  Foles bounced right back up.  That pass was not to be his last pass of the game.

But it would be his last incompletion.

To that point in the contest, Nicky’s numbers were modest.  He was now 11 for 18 (61.11%), but for just 95 yards (just 8.64 yards per completed pass).  Only 7 of those 11 completions had earned first downs, and he carried a 75.00 passer rating as he went to the turf.  In short, he was Nick Foles.

But when he got back up off the turf, he was Joe Montana.

Foles in a Frenzy

On the next play, receiver Alshon Jeffery put a double-move on cornerback Terence Newman.  Alshon veered slightly towards the middle of the field.  Newman followed along, only to be surprised when Jeffery cut back underneath him and broke free down the right side-line.  Foles was undergoing another very close call in the pocket as Griffen and Emmanuel Lamur almost got their hands on him.  But Nick was slick enough to elude their grasp.  He lofted an arching rainbow toward the goal line that Jeffery ran under, and suddenly Philly was up 21-7.

For Foles, it was the first of what would grow to be 15 consecutive pass completions – a streak that would take him through the rest of the game.  Four of those final 15 completions went for 36 yards or more, and all fifteen together totaled 257 yards (an average of 17.13 yards per).  Twelve of his final 15 completions went for first downs, including 3 for touchdowns.

Philadelphia cruised past the Vikings 38-7 (gamebook) to earn a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl opposite Tom Brady and the Patriots.  Foles’ impressive evening included going 10 of 11 on third down for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns (with 9 of his 10 completions gaining first downs), on his way to a 352-yard, 141.41 passer rating performance.

There is little I can say – even after studying the film – that can explain the greatest game of Nick Foles’ career.  It was, essentially, four huge passes (totaling 172 yards) and a whole bunch of shorter passes (totaling 180 yards).  He was 19 for 20 on passes that were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.  He took what the Viking defense gave him, and took advantage of his deep opportunities when they arose.

Vikings Fading

Hearkening back to their Divisional Round game against New Orleans, perhaps this melt-down is more revealing of the state of the Viking defense at the close of the season than it is the skills of the Philadelphia offense.  In the second halves of their last two games, the Vikings allowed Drew Brees and Nick Foles to complete 28 of 33 passes (84.85%) for 321 yards (9.73 yards per attempted pass).  They allowed the two QBs to throw for 20 first downs, including 5 touchdowns.  Minnesota failed to record a sack in either second half.  The Saints (as you recall) almost came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Vikings.

In retrospect, perhaps they should have played more basic man coverage.  It was the most effective defense they threw at Foles the whole game.  They rarely played zone against Nick (only 6 times) and they paid for that decision almost every time.  Nick stung them for 5 completions in those six throws for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Blitzing Nicky was just as catastrophic.  He completed 11 of the 12 passes he threw against the Viking blitzes (91.67%) for 157 yards (13.08 per attempted pass).  Eight of the 11 completions went for first downs, including one for a touchdown – yielding a passer rating of 146.53 against the blitz.

But 16 different times, they simply challenged Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and the other Eagle receivers to win against man coverage, with no blitz to dilute the coverage.  Nick was a good, but not remarkable 10 of 15 (66.67%) for 115 yards (7.67 per) with the only sack he endured on the evening.  He threw no touchdown passes against this straight man coverage, and finished with an 89.58 passer rating against this defense.

But even had Minnesota played more man coverages – and even if they had continued successful – winning this game would have been difficult with only 7 points put on the board.

Keenum Fading as Well

If the performance by the one Cinderella quarterback (Foles) was astonishing, the performance of the other (Case Keenum) was less than surprising.  A career backup, Keenum was tossed into the spotlight this season after Minnesota lost their first two quarterbacks to injuries.  Behind a strong running game, an elite defense, and the emergence of rookie receiver Adam Thielen, Keenum had the year of his life.

But the question always lingered.  What would happen if Minnesota ran into an opponent that would force Case to throw them to victory.  That opponent was almost New Orleans in the Divisional Round.  On his way to what would have been an uninspiring second half, Minnesota won the game on a last-second miracle pass from Keenum to Stefan Diggs (made possible by a missed tackle).  He was last seen standing on the sidelines leading his home crowd in the “Skoal” chant.  He was dressed in his pointy-hooded warm-up jacket, looking for all the world like a purple garden gnome.

Sunday in Philadelphia, the miracles ran out.  Forced to throw 48 times, Case finished with 28 completions (58.33%) for just 271 yards (only 9.68 per completion).  He did manage a touchdown pass, but also threw 2 interceptions.  His passer rating on the evening was an exceedingly modest 63.80.

While Foles excelled on third down, Keenum was just 6 for 10 for 57 yards and an interception.  Throw in his 0-for-2 on fourth down, and Keenum’s passer rating on third and fourth down was a miniscule 28.82.

Even worse – if such a thing were possible – was his adventures in the red zone, where Case completed only 2 of 10 passes for 15 yards with one interception – an uncommon 0.00 rating.  He also fumbled away another red zone opportunity on a sack.

Well, there was only one glass slipper, after all.  So it would have to strike midnight for one of them.  It is perhaps unfair, but the truth is that the best season of Case Keenum’s career failed to truly answer the questions about him.

Turning Toward Sunday

As to Foles going forward, the same perception of Keenum applies to him.  If someone (New England) can make Nick win the game with his arm, it would seem to diminish Philadelphia’s chances.

It is extremely hard to pick Philadelphia in the upcoming Super Bowl.  Foles vs Brady seems – on the surface of it – an unconscionable mismatch.  But understand this.  Philadelphia was always more than just their quarterback.  There are a lot of championship pieces on this Philadelphia team.  Not the least of these is the coach.  Philadelphia doesn’t get a lot of press for this, but they are an exceedingly well-coached team.

In New England – perhaps the best-coached team in recent memory – Philadelphia faces an enormous challenge.  But Sunday evening, they will get their chance.  In spite of the odds-makers, in spite of the Patriots’ mystique and overwhelming playoff experience – in spite of the disbelieving press – the Philadelphia Eagles will get their moment on the big stage with a chance to write their own ending to what has been something of a fairy-tale season.

And that, after all, is all that anyone could ask for.

Miracle in Minnesota

Up until there were ten seconds left in the fourth and final playoff game last weekend, the New Orleans Saints were fashioning the greatest come-from-behind story in their history.

The first half couldn’t have been worse.  After allowing a touchdown to the Vikings on their opening drive, New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley was flagged for two questionable pass interference penalties against the Vikings Stefon Diggs.  These penalties were part of a 6 penalty first half that cost the Saints 92 yards and handed Minnesota 4 first downs.  They led to a second-drive field goal and a 10-0 Viking lead.  Before the half would end, Minnesota would turn an interception into another short-field touchdown to give them 17 points.

Offensively, the first half had been just as disastrous.  The first quarter saw New Orleans run 12 plays for 33 yards.  They earned as many first downs (1) as they threw interceptions (also 1).  But the second quarter was even more frustrating.  Finally finding a little rhythm, the Saints put together to long drives.  In the two drives, the Saints combined to run 20 plays for 117 yards and 8 first downs.  And no points.  The drives ended with a red zone interception (off a deflection) and a missed field goal (the miss – it should be pointed out – was from 58-yards, so it was hardly automatic).

So, New Orleans went into the locker room at the half, trailing the best defense in football on their home field, 17-0.  Not terribly encouraging.

And then, in the second half, New Orleans erased the entire deficit.

Second Half Heroics

Star quarterback Drew Brees – who completed 72% of his passes this season and fashioned a 103.9 passer rating in 2017 – was dominated by the Viking defense through the first two quarters.  He was just 8 for 18 with 2 interceptions.  His passer rating for the half was a stunning 26.6.  In the second half, Drew was Drew again.  He completed 17 of his last 22 passes (77.3%) for 177 yards.  Against a Viking defense that had surrendered only 13 touchdown passes through 16 regular season games, Brees tossed three in his spectacular second half – leading to a passer rating of 139.6.

When Will Lutz drilled a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the game – putting New Orleans ahead 24-23 – it looked like the remarkable comeback was complete.  Fifteen second later, when Minnesota broke the huddle for the game’s last play, they faced third-and-ten, still about 25-yards away from field goal range.  At this point, a Viking win seemed remote.

Ten seconds later, Diggs was standing in the end zone holding the football.  There was no time left on the clock.  The Vikings had won the game 29-24 (gamebook).

Diggs spent the next five minutes or so striking his go-to pose – standing with his arms crossed in front of him with a god-like, worship-me look on his face – while thousands of cameras flashed in his direction.  Stefon had caught the desperation pass from Case Keenum and transported it over the goal line.  But the story of the last play belongs to New Orleans’ rookie defensive back Marcus Williams.  Coming off an impressive rookie season that included an interception of Keenum earlier in the game that provided a crucial turning point, Williams had the play in front of him.  He missed the tackle.  And that was it.  It handed Minnesota its only second-half touchdown – but it was enough to send the Vikings on and send the Saints home.

What Happed to New Orleans?

At their height, New Orleans was a dominant running team.  From Week Six through Week 13 (an eight-week span), the Saints averaged 166.9 yards on the ground.  Not co-incidentally, they averaged 32.5 points per game and won seven of the eight games.

Over their last six games – including their two playoff games this year – the running game struggled noticeably.  Over those games, they averaged just 80 rushing yards a game, and scored just 25 points per game.  They lost three of those six. As the season progressed, it became fairly evident that the dominant running game was the element that transformed New Orleans into one of the elite teams in football.  When the running game fell off, the Saints became merely a good team.

Atlanta Goes Down, Too

This dynamic was also generally true for Atlanta.  When they ran the ball effectively, they very much resembled the Atlanta team that marched to last year’s Super Bowl.  But when the running game stuck in neutral, the entire offense was beset with inconsistency.

Against Philadelphia, the Falcon running game was nearly thrown into reverse.  Running back Devonta Freeman – who scorched New England for 75 yards on only 11 carries in last year’s Super Bowl – was held to 7 yards on 10 carries.  His 4 second half carries netted a loss of one yard.

The Falcons finished with only 86 rushing yards in a game in which they were mostly dominated on offense.  Winners of 7 of their previous 9 games, Atlanta never did drive the field against Philadelphia.  Their lone touchdown came after an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt mid-way through the second quarter.  They finished with just 281-yards of total offense.  They had been held under 300 yards only twice through their first 17 games.

While Foles Leads the Offense

Meanwhile, Nick Foles – playing in the very large shadow of the injured Carson Wentz – kept on keeping on.  Nick threw the ball only 30 times in the victory – with only 3 of those passes travelling 15-or-more yards in the air.  He missed on all 3 of those passes.  But when throwing the shorter passes, Foles completed 23 of 27.  Throughout the second half, Foles completed 12 of 15 passes against the Falcons (a cool 80%).  It all added up to just enough to push Philly past the Falcons, 15-10 (gamebook).

All year (here for instance) I have been reminding you that Philadelphia was more than just Wentz.  I’ve documented the strong running game and top-shelf defense.  Both of those other aspects were very much in evidence in the win.  Even though the running game wasn’t remotely prolific (the Eagles averaged only 3.0 yards per rush), it was relentless.  Thirty-two times the Eagles ran the ball against the Falcons.  In the second half, their 16 rushes managed only 19 yards (1.2 yards per rush).  None of those second-half running plays gained more than 7 yards.  But they kept at it.

Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that Philadelphia was trying to – if not hide their quarterback, at least make sure they didn’t depend on Foles to win the game for them.

Minnesota in Philadelphia

So the NFC Championship is set for Sunday afternoon, as the Cinderella rides of Keenum and Foles continue on.  Midnight will strike for one of them in a few days, but one of these two unheralded and much-given-up-on quarterbacks will lead his team into the Super Bowl while fabled quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan will be home planning for next year.

Some years the NFL is an easy read.  Some years it seems that anything can happen.  This year is one of the latter.

Marquee Games Entertain, But Resolve Little

Two of the most anticipated games of Week 14 turned out to be two of the most entertaining games of the season.  Ultimately, though, neither may have added any clarity to the playoff picture.

Sunday night saw the suddenly hot Baltimore Ravens invade Pittsburgh.  Baltimore may not have been getting the attention that they – perhaps – merit this season.  In their Week Four game at home against these same Steelers, Baltimore trailed 19-0 at the half, staggering to an uninspiring 26-9 loss.  (Curious in that game is that other-worldly wide receiver Antonio Brown caught only one second half pass for just 8 yards, on his way to a 4-catch, 34-yards game.)

They entered their bye at just 4-5, and as late as the beginning of Week 13 they still ranked last in passing yards and next to last in total offense.

Through all the low moments of the season, John Harbaugh’s troops never flinched.  Believers in their locker room and trusting that over the course of the 16-game schedule the cream would eventually rise, the Ravens kept putting the pieces together.

In their Week 13 game, they overhauled the Detroit Lions 44-20.  They churned out a season-high 370 yards that day.  They also held the Lions to 78 rushing yards.  From Week Three to Week Seven, they surrendered at least 100 rushing yards in every game – and were pounded for at least 160 rushing yards in four of the five games.  In the five games since Week Seven, they have not allowed more than 78 yards in any of them.

Now it was the Sunday night of Week 14, and the Ravens found themselves with a 7-5 record and facing their 10-2 nemesis in Pittsburgh.  Offensively, the Ravens showed themselves every bit the equal of the Steeler defense that entered the game ranked second against the pass, fourth overall, fifth in points allowed, and eighth against the run (although it is worth noting that Pittsburgh was playing its first game without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier).  The Ravens put together six different drives of at least 50 yards, pounded Pittsburgh for 152 yards on the ground (led by Alex Collins and his 120 yards on 18 carries), scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone possessions (and all three of their goal-to-go possessions), and after falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, raced to a 31-20 lead by the end of the third quarter and a 38-29 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

But it was the Raven’s defense – the defense that had kept Baltimore alive all through the team’s offensive struggles – that was not up to the task at hand.  The Ravens’ defense entered the contest ranked first in interception percentage (5.1%), second in lowest passer rating against them (68.2), third in total pass defense and points allowed (207), fourth in sacks (33) and seventh in total defense.

But Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense had their way with them.  They converted 6 of 7 third downs in the first half – on their way to converting 12 of 18 for the night. Roethlisberger ended up throwing the ball 66 times for 506 yards – much of the damage coming on passes to Antonio Brown.

Held to just 34 yards in the first game against the Ravens, Brown scorched the Baltimore defense for 139 yards on 7 catches.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Antonio checked in with 11 catches for 213 yards as the Steelers scored 10 points in the last 3:30 of the game to pull out a gutsy 39-38 victory (gamebook).

The win does – I suppose – demonstrate that Pittsburgh is still the better team.  But of course, their comparative records already hinted at that.  Very little else changed with the verdict.  The victory doesn’t change Pittsburgh’s trajectory that much.  Winners again of their division, all of their chips are on the table for this week’s game against the defending champion Patriots.  That game will likely determine the AFC’s top playoff spot.

For Baltimore, the loss isn’t devastating – although certainly disappointing.  Even with a win, Baltimore was unlikely to overtake the Steelers for the division title.  Meanwhile, their remaining schedule is less than frightening.  This week they travel to Cleveland to face the 0-13 Browns.  They end with home games against Indianapolis (3-11) and Cincinnati (5-8).  No victories are assured in the NFL, but this is a very manageable closing schedule.  A 10-6 record and a probable fifth-seed are all before them – if they take care of business.  Depending on who else does what to whom, a loss in one of those games may not sink them, but it will certainly open the door for a myriad of other teams.

The Changing AFC Playoff Picture

Also rising in the AFC race are the Los Angeles Chargers.  After their 0-4 start, I have been hesitant to jump on their bandwagon.  With last week’s conquest of Washington, the Chargers now sit in a tie for the division lead with the Kansas City team that was – at one point – 5-0.  Those two teams meet tonight (I am typing this it is about 2:30 Central Time), with the winner probably taking the division crown and the loser probably making the playoffs as a wild card team.

Both Baltimore and Los Angeles have profited from the demise of the Tennessee Titans.  After stubbing their toes in Arizona, the Titans are still 8-5 and are still clinging to the first wildcard spot.  Buffalo (7-6) currently has the other, with the Ravens and Chargers (who are both also 7-6) currently out of the picture – separated by the NFL’s intricate tie-breaking system.

But Tennessee still has the re-invigorated San Francisco 49ers, followed by the Rams and Jaguars (both 9-4 teams) left on their schedule.  Tennessee really needed the Arizona game.  Seeing them finish at better than 8-8 now is a stretch.  For their part, the Bills host the Miami Dolphins this week (the Dolphins hot off their surprise conquest of New England), but then finish the season on the road in New England and in Miami.

Like Baltimore, the Chargers are finally coming to the soft spot of their schedule.  After tonight’s big game, they finish with the Jets and Raiders.  Given the remaining schedules, it is not at all difficult to see Baltimore and LA pushing Tennessee and Buffalo out of the last two playoff spots.

The Dolphins’ victory did not materially damage the Patriot’s playoff chances.  With the conference’s second best record, it would be hard to imagine them not getting a playoff invite.  Nonetheless, the loss was not insignificant.  If they now lose to Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon, New England’s chances of finishing with the third seed and being relegated to the wild card round increases significantly.  A loss on Sunday would be their fourth.  If Jacksonville wins out (and their remaining schedule is Houston, San Francisco and Tennessee) they will also finish the season with just four losses, and a conference-record tie breaker over the Patriots.  (Under this scenario, the Jags would finish 10-2 in conference play with the Patriots finishing 9-3).

Of course, if New England beats Pittsburgh, they will probably go in as the number one seed.  That is how much is riding on this particular game.

Meanwhile, in the NFC Showdown

A few hours before Baltimore and Pittsburgh squared off, the big NFC showdown between Philadelphia and the LA Rams took place. With the Eagles starting play at 10-2 and the Rams at 9-3 (and playing at home) it was easy to see home field throughout the playoffs riding on this game.

Coming off a disappointing loss to Seattle the previous week, the Eagles were ready for the Rams from the opening kick.  They scored 3 touchdowns in the game’s first 20 minutes, and took a 24-14 lead into halftime.  The Eagles rolled up 304 yards of offense and 17 first downs in the first half alone.

But the Rams would not go away quietly.  In a furious second half that featured two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards (each of which took less than three-and-a-half minutes) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, the Rams pushed their way to a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.  But the Eagles scored the last 12 points of the day to finish with a 43-35 victory (game book).

Now at 11-2, the Eagles sit on top of the conference – and with the win over Los Angeles (and the tie-breaker that comes with that) – a clear path to the top seed in the division.

Except for the fact that they lost their quarterback along the way.

With about four minutes left in the third quarter, quarterback phenom Carson Wentz squirted into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.  The play wouldn’t count due to a penalty, but the hit he endured certainly would.  Sandwiched between two defenders as he dove over the line, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Carson’s left knee gave way.

Wentz actually finished the drive – even throwing an eventual touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey – before retiring to the sideline for good.  His spectacular 2017 season has come to a close.

Into the breach now is Philadelphia’s once-and-future starter, Nick Foles.

Foles led Philadelphia to a playoff berth in 2013, and was so impressive that the Rams traded Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick.  But Foles was a disappointment in his one season for the then-St-Louis Rams, going 4-7 in his 11 starts for them in 2015.

So now Nick is back in Philly.  As I have pointed out numerous times this season (here for example), the Eagles have been more than just Wentz.  They have been bolstered by an excellent defense and a running game that has – at times – bordered on the phenomenal.  It is not inconceivable that Foles can bring them home with the top seed in the conference.  With the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys left (those last two games at home) the Eagles chances at home field throughout the playoffs are better than OK.

The question will be, what happens once the playoffs start.

The NFC Playoff Picture – as it Now Stands

Last week, the Seahawks took a leg up on the last NFC playoff spot with their upset win over Philadelphia.  This week, they gave it back through the combination of their own loss in Jacksonville and Atlanta’s upset of the New Orleans Saints.

Behind the 11-2 Eagles sit the 10-3 Minnesota Vikings (who are also coming off a loss).  The Rams and Saints – both 9-4 – come next, with the Rams holding the tie-breaker with their earlier win over New Orleans.

Carolina – after their big victory over Minnesota – has tied New Orleans at 9-4, but the Saints won both games against the Panthers, so they hold the tie-breaker.  The Panthers are solidly entrenched as the fifth seed, while Atlanta (by virtue of their win over New Orleans) has currently passed Seattle (after their loss to Jacksonville) for the last playoff spot.  Both of those teams are 8-5, with the Falcons holding the tie-breaker due to an earlier victory over the Seahawks.

While I think we’ll still see some shifting in the AFC, the NFC is starting to look pretty settled to me.

Congratulations to the Fans of the Miami Marlins

In a quick baseball note, it was announced earlier this week that the baseball team in Miami had traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals.  In exchange, Miami received arguably the most electric arm in all of the minors and three more prospects.

The 2018 season will obviously be another re-building year in Miami, but for the years 2019 and beyond Marlin fans should be giddy about the trade.  Sandy Alcantara – the key figure in the trade – lights up the radar gun, routinely hitting 101 and sometimes 102 with an almost nonchalant delivery.  He also has devastating breaking pitches.  Sandy is just 22, and his command isn’t major league ready just yet.  But he has all the ability to be a dominant pitcher in this league for years to come.

If it were me, I would have never traded Alcantara for Ozuna even straight up.  Miami would have had to give me another solid major league player and one or two top prospects for Sandy.  To think that the Marlins not only didn’t have to give anything else to the Cardinals, but actually received three other excellent prospects – including a very exciting outfielder in Magneuris Sierra makes this trade nothing short of highway robbery.

My congratulations to the Marlin organization.  They read the smell of desperation coming from the Cardinal front office and took full advantage.  You may need to wait a year or two to see the fruits of this effort, but they will come.

Eagles More Than Wentz

Last Sunday in the NFL the Detroit Lions survived against a three-win Chicago team when a last-second, 46-yard field goal sailed wide.  Last Sunday, the winless Cleveland Browns went into the fourth quarter against the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars trailing by only a 10-7 score before the Jags pushed their way on to a 19-7 win.  Baltimore also struggled through three quarters against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers before pulling away in the fourth.  The six-win Chiefs succumbed to the two-win Giants.  New Orleans stretched its winning streak to eight games, but they needed a nearly miraculous comeback against Washington.  Across the NFL, Week 11 saw many contenders struggle to push aside lesser teams.

And then there was Philadelphia.

In what was billed two weeks ago as a titanic showdown for the soul of the NFC East, the untouchable Eagles swept aside the suddenly hapless Dallas Cowboys, 37-9 (gamebook).  This even though the Cowboys made things as tough for Philadelphia as imaginable for the game’s first 30 minutes.  That first half featured 18:29 of ball control by the Dallas offense, and the Dallas defense stopping the Eagle offense on all six of their third-down opportunities.  Coming into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked running attack, Philadelphia went into the locker room with just 35 rushing yards.  None of their 10 runs had gained more than 7 yards.  In addition, quarterback sensation Carson Wentz finished the first half just 7 of 18 for 80 yards.

For all of this, Dallas went into the half leading just 9-7.  As it turns out, they never would make it into the end zone.

But in the dominant second half that would see Philadelphia outgain Dallas 268-99 and outscore them 30-0, the heroes went well beyond Wentz.  Carson made his contributions with 2 touchdown passes, but threw only 9 times in the second half.  If the point hadn’t been sufficiently made before, this game demonstrated how much more the Eagles are than just a star quarterback.

In fact, the more you watch the Eagles play, the harder and harder it is to ignore the outstanding work of both the Philadelphia offensive and defensive lines.

The Lost Art of Pulling

A generation ago, the Miami Dolphins stitched together the only un-defeated un-tied season in the Super Bowl era.  In 14 regular season games, they threw the ball only 259 times.  An average team playing in 2017 would hit that mark at about halftime of their eighth game of the season.  Those Dolphins ran the ball 613 time in 14 games – an average of 43.8 rushing attempts per game.  They never ran for fewer than 120 yards in any of their games, rushed for at least 200 yards 8 times in the regular season and almost two more times in the playoffs (they reached 198 against Cleveland and 193 against Pittsburgh), and topped 300 yards once (in Week 12 they amassed 304 rushing yards against New England).  They averaged 211.4 rushing yards a game.

The offensive line that powered this running game consisted of Wayne Moore (265 pounds), Bob Kuechenberg (253 pounds), Jim Langer (250 pounds), Larry Little (265 pounds) and Norm Evans (250 pounds).  The life of an offensive lineman back in 1972 was much different than it is today.  Back then, zone blocking didn’t exist.  A 300 pound offensive lineman would have been considered a liability.  Back then, offensive linemen moved all of the time.  Guards were nearly always pulling – it was the era of the great Lombardi sweep.

In 2017 most offensive linemen tilt the scales at over 300 pounds.  Sunday’s Eagle lineup featured Halapoulivaati Vaitai (315 pounds), Stefen Wisniewski (295), Jason Kelce (282), Brandon Brooks (343) and Lane Johnson (303).  The lightest member of this year’s Eagle offensive line is roughly 17 pounds heavier than the heaviest member of the Dolphin line of yesteryear.

As it turns out, offensive linemen in 2017 mostly pass protect.  They do still pull – or try to pull – but this relic of football’s offensive past is starting to fade for lack of effectiveness.

At 300-plus pounds, few of the modern offensive linemen possess the quickness to get away from the line of scrimmage before being caught up in the congestion, and the speed to make it to the designated spot while the play is still going on.  There is another key component necessary to allowing one of your linemen to pull successfully that is also mostly lacking – the art of the downblock.

Frequently, as a guard takes his place at the line of scrimmage, there is a defensive tackle lining up across from him.  If this guard is supposed to pull on this particular play, that would render him unable to block the tackle – allowing him to disrupt the play.  To compensate, another near-by lineman – in this case, usually the center – would slide over at the snap and block the tackle.

This agility and athleticism was the trademark of those Dolphins and many other teams of that era.  Today – since defensive linemen are getting smaller and much quicker – it is difficult for offensive linemen to cut them off before they can penetrate.  Much of the time these days, when linemen pull, it ends up as a scrum in the offensive backfield.

But Not the Eagles

All of which makes watching the Philadelphia Eagles such a singular experience.  These Eagles pull like no team I’ve witnessed in many years.  There were probably more cleanly executed pulls, traps and downblocks executed in Sunday’s game than most teams will manage in a season.

While there may well have been a dozen or so perfectly executed run plays, perhaps the best came on the second play of the fourth quarter.  The Eagles faced first-and-10 on their own 48, and lined up with tight end Zach Ertz tight to the right side.  At the snap, left guard Wisniewski bolted around center, heading toward the right side of the formation, while center Kelce executed his perfect downblock on Cowboy nose tackle Maliek Collins.  Meanwhile, the right guard and tackle (Brooks and Johnson) double-teamed Dallas’ other tackle – David Irving, and Ertz flew past end Demarcus Lawrence.

After the initial double-team staggered Irving, both Brooks and Johnson quickly disengaged and hurtled into the defensive secondary, where they effortlessly cleared out linebackers Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant.  As to Lawrence – who was unblocked to this point – he had to hesitate to see whether Wentz was going to keep the ball and roll to his side.  This caused him to pause just long enough to allow Wisniewski to plow through him. Ertz hunted up cornerback Byron Jones and drove him up the field.

By the time running back LeGarrette Blount reached the line of scrimmage, the entire Dallas defense had been picked off and pushed out of the way – exactly as it had been drawn up.  Blount would finally be caught from behind on the Cowboy 22 – after a 30 yards gain.

On that play, left tackle Vaitai had the easiest assignment – turning Cowboy end Taco Charlton to the outside.  But on this evening every Eagle lineman would have their moment – even Vaitai who is filling in for injured legend Jason Peters.  On Philadelphia’s longest offensive play of the game – Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run – it would be Vaitai, pulling from left tackle – who would throw the key block.

Ghosts of Cowboys Past

The entire second half would be eerily reminiscent of the Cowboy teams of the mid-1990s that would pound teams into submission in the second half of their games.  Philadelphia ran the ball 23 times in the second half for 180 yards – sending them to 215 rushing yards on the game.

A total even the 1972 Dolphins wouldn’t have been embarrassed to own.

And Then There Was the Defensive Line

Almost as dominant was the Eagle defensive line.  They kept the pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott the entire night, while rarely letting him escape the pocket.  Watching the game, it seemed like the Eagles blitzed constantly.  In reality, Prescott saw only 10 blitzes in his 35 drop-backs (29%).  But those blitzes were effective enough.  Dak was only 3 for 8 for 19 yards, 2 sacks, and 1 interception when facing the Eagle blitz.

The rest of the time Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long constricted the pocket.  Right defensive end Derek Barnett had the opportunity to exploit Dallas’ weakness at left tackle.  With starting tackle Tyron Smith missing his second straight game, Dallas turned to Byron Bell.  While his effort was decidedly better than Chaz Green’s the game before, the Cowboys still struggled all night trying to keep Barnett out of the backfield.

The pressure from Barnett, the blitzes and the false blitzes all took their toll on Prescott.  Dak played fast most of the night, and his accuracy suffered noticeably.  What a change for Dak from last year.

Last year at this time, Prescott was playing easy behind what was then regarded as football’s best offensive line.  But left guard Ronald Leary is in Denver now, and right tackle Doug Free retired.  With Smith sitting out with his injury, the Cowboys are down to just two of last year’s five starting offensive linemen.

And it makes quite a difference.

Last year, Dallas streaked to a 13-3 record and the top seed in their conference.  This year they are unlikely to make the playoffs.  That’s how quickly life can change in the NFL.  The Eagles and the other teams currently riding on top of the football world should take notice.

Eagles Run through Broncos

In the latest exhibit of the week-to-week nature of the NFL, the Denver Broncos were scorched by the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday by a surprising 51-23 score (gamebook).

The Broncos entered the game with the number one ranked defense (in yardage allowed).  That they ranked sixth against the pass was important enough against the Eagle passing game.  Even more impressive, this defensive unit ranked second in the NFL against the run (allowing 72.9 yards per game).  They were also surrendering just 3.0 yards per attempt (also second in the league), and had yet to give up a rushing touchdown.

The week before they mostly silenced an excellent Kansas City offense with man coverage and a stifling run defense that took away chief weapon Kareem Hunt.  With Philadelphia’s best receiving threat (Zach Ertz) on the bench, the prospects of the Broncos shutting down Philadelphia seemed at least plausible.

For, maybe, 15 minutes.

By the Way, Philadelphia Can Run the Ball

Already ahead 17-3 after the first quarter, Philadelphia kept scoring, finishing, finally with 7 touchdowns and 4 field goals.  It is no longer surprising when Carson Wentz – even without his best receiver – chews up an opposing defense.  Wentz finished his afternoon with 4 touchdown passes and a 118.7 passer rating.  What very much surprised me about this game was the Eagle running attack.  Against a team that had surrendered more than 80 rushing yards just once in their first seven games this year, the Eagles finished the game with 197 rush yards on 37 attempts (5.3 yards per attempt).  The team that had yet to allow a rushing touchdown served up 3 on Sunday.

All of a sudden, this offensive line merits some re-evaluation.  Right tackle Lane Johnson – a pass blocking hero in the Monday night game against Washington, stepped up again in that role.  This time he gave Von Miller all he could handle.  Guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski spent the afternoon pushing Denver ends Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis five or more yards into the defensive backfield.  Center Jason Kelce showed surprising power against 300-pound nose tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr.

Some of the offensive line’s best moments belonged to fill-in tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.  On most of the Eagle’s biggest runs of the game, Vaitai was at the point of attack with the critical block.

The Eagles didn’t really get serious with their running game until there were two minutes left in the first half.  They were already ahead 24-9 at that point.  The Eagles were on their own 40.  Their first 10 running plays of the game had earned a modest 23 yards.  But then a plan emerged.

Finding Flaws in the Denver Defensive Scheme

The heavy lifting on the Bronco run defense has fallen all year to fast flow linebackers Brandon Marshall and Zaire Anderson – along with several secondary players who almost always play in linebacker positions.  Mostly these are Darian Stewart and Will Parks.  The defensive line’s only responsibility in the Denver scheme is to penetrate.  For the season, so far, they have been very proficient at disrupting runs in the backfield, leaving the linebackers and others to clean up.

What their linemen don’t do often – or well – is occupy blockers.

Now, with two minutes left in the half, the Broncos are expecting pass.  They open with six in the box.  They have pass-rush specialists Miller lined up at left end, and Shane Ray at right end.  Vaitai pushed Ray off to the sideline, while Wisniewski and Kelce pinned Harris to the inside.  With Harris unable to get off of Kelce’s block, Wisniewski popped through to the second level.

In what would be a recurring theme all afternoon, Brandon Marshall would be contending against linemen getting nearly free releases into the second level.  Wisniewski easily pushed Marshall out of the way, and new Eagle Jay Ajayi motored through the gap for 14 yards.  The Eagle staff must have liked how that worked out, because they ran almost the same play again.  Once again, Vaitai removed Ray.  Wisniewski handled Shelby Harris by himself this time, as Kelce pulled around the end.  Brandon Brooks streaked untouched toward Marshall pushing him out of the way.  With most of the Bronco defense on the ground, Ajayi scooted untouched around the left end and sped 46 yards for his first Philadelphia touchdown.

Second Half All About the Run

Whether this was the plan all along or a sudden revelation, we won’t know.  But throughout the entire second half, Philadelphia attacked this weakness in Denver’s run scheme.  Wentz threw the ball only 6 times after the intermission, while the Eagles ran 24 running plays for 108 yards.  As the Broncos always seem to be in pass rush mode, all the Eagles needed to do was stop the penetration.  If the line could do that, they would have mostly unfettered access to the linebackers.

With 11:54 left in the third quarter, the Eagles faced a second-and-4 at the Denver 22.  The Eagles stacked three receivers to the right (tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek, and receiver Mack Hollins).  The Broncos responded with their 3-4, with Shaquil Barrett playing in Miller’s usual left linebacker position and safety Darian Stewart flanked to the left of Marshall like a linebacker.

Burton turned Barrett to the outside.  Hollins stung Stewart (who was coming on a blitz).  Celek pulled and got a trap block on Shelby Harris, who was penetrating through the middle.  Just into the game after an injury to Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo (who was more than a little impressive in his limited opportunities) stopped Kerr’s attempt to penetrate from the left end position.  Wisniewski also handled Gotsis in a one-on-one situation.  So on this particular play, both Brooks and Kelce went untouched into linebackers Marshall and Anderson, respectively.  By the time the pile enclosed around running back LeGarrette Blount, Blount had picked up another 10 yards.

Five plays later, another Eagle running back Corey Clement took a pitch from Wentz on an option play at the goal line to score the touchdown that pushed the Eagle lead to 38-9.

A Blue-Print Against the Bronco Defense?

Remembering that this was a run defense that had held Dallas to 40 rushing yards, Buffalo to 75, and Kansas City to 79, it bears asking how repeatable this success could be.  Could other teams do this to the Broncos?  I think yes, providing a couple of things.

First and foremost, the offensive line would have to keep the Denver front seven out of the backfield.  Philadelphia made it look easy, but they will present a challenge for most offensive lines.  Also, the potency of the Eagle passing game kept Denver from making stopping the run a priority.  Even after this debacle, Denver is still number 5 against the run.  I would have to see a few more teams do this to Denver before I would expect some kind of change in scheme.

Too Many Running Backs?

In regard to the Eagles, the addition of Ajayi might make too many running backs.  On Sunday the 34 carries by running backs were distributed thusly:  Clement had 12, 9 for Blount, 8 for Ajayi, and 5 for Wendell Smallwood.  Classically, a team settles on a primary running back.  Usually 8-12 rushes isn’t enough for a runner to get into the rhythm of the game.  Probably, now, that will be Ajayi.  The Eagles have a bye this week, and may emerge on the other end with Jay being the 25-carry back.  But I know they like the other three guys a lot, too.  Plus, you figure Carson will still be throwing the ball a lot.

Finding enough footballs to keep everyone happy and sharp could prove to be a challenge.  Such are the challenges of an 8-1 team.

Carson Wentz and His Monday Night Party

As the Washington Redskins took the field last Monday Night, their defense was something of a puzzle.  They had surrendered 113 points through 5 games (22.6 per), holding only one opponent under 20 points.  Yet, they had the eighth-ranked run defense in the league, allowing only 88 yards per game, with only Kansas City rushing for more than 97 yards against them.  Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks held only an 81.8 passer rating against this defense.  They had not – and still have not – allowed more than 298 net passing yards in any game.  The Skins were dropping the quarterback on 7.7% of the passing attempts against them.  Through the season’s first 5 games, they had allowed only 10 offensive touchdowns to be scored against them (they have also seen two fumbles returned for touchdowns against them).

So – in spite of the points they had allowed – this was a pretty accomplished defense.

Moreover, even though they allowed 30 points to Philly in the season opener, they did some very good things defensively.  They allowed the Eagles just 58 rushing yards (only 2.4 yards per rush).  They limited the potent Eagle offense to just 2 touchdowns.  Philadelphia was forced to kick 3 field goals and added a defensive score in the win.

Game-Planning Wentz and the Eagles

In that first game, the Redskin defense briefly lost track of receiver Nelson Agholor when quarterback Carson Wentz looked like he had been sacked.  But Carson made one of his miracle escapes and lofted a prayer up the seam that Agholor pulled in for a 58-yard touchdown.  Other than that play, the Eagle receivers didn’t really hurt Washington.  Nelson caught 5 other passes that afternoon, but for only 28 more yards.  Alshon Jeffery – the other primary target – finished with just 3 catches for 38 yards.

So the plan coming in was to play aggressive man coverage with one deep safety (Montae Nicholson).  They would challenge those receivers to win their matchups, chase Wentz around with a generous sprinkling of blitzes, and assign a spy (yes, Carson Wentz is a dangerous enough runner that Washington assigned him a spy – usually linebacker Mason Foster), and take their chances at stopping the running game again.

For 26 minutes and 31 seconds on Monday night, the Redskin defensive plan worked like a charm.  Through their first 25 offensive snaps, Philadelphia had run the ball 11 times for 42 yards (15 of them from Wentz himself), and had been flagged for 3 penalties, costing them 23 yards.  Of Wentz’ first 11 drop backs, only 3 passes were completed for just 30 yards.  One other throw had been intercepted, and 3 other attempts had ended in sacks of the quarterback (giving back 24 of the yards).  With halftime creeping up, the Eagles had scored 3 points while moving the ball just 25 yards in a positive direction (once the penalties were weighed into the equation).

For their part, cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland – hardly household names – held up excellently in coverage.  While, on the Philadelphia sideline, the Eagles had unwittingly played into Washington’s hands.

Philadelphia and the Running Game

Since that first game, Philadelphia had re-invested in the run.  In the five games since, they had totaled at least 101 rushing yards in each game, including the 214 they racked up against the Chargers in Week 4.  The Eagles came into the game ranked fifth in the NFL in running the ball (132.5 yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry), and they intended to run against Washington.

In Week One, tight end Zach Ertz caught all 8 passes thrown to him as Washington simply could not cover him.  As the Week Seven game began, Ertz was watching from the sidelines as blocking tight end Brent Celek saw most of the action.  With about three minutes left in the first half, Ertz had not even had a pass thrown his way.  Everything was working out as well as Washington could have hoped.

But Then

Of course – even if man coverage is the game plan – you can’t only play man coverage.  Sometimes you have to drop into a zone.  With the Eagles facing second-and-16 on their own 36 with just 3:29 left before the half, Washington dropped into a zone.  Carson Wentz exploited it.

Alshon Jeffrey lined up to the right behind speedy rookie Mack Hollins.  Both attacked vertically up the seam for about 15 yards, when Jeffery broke his pattern to the sideline.  When cornerback Breeland bit on Jeffrey’s out-route, it left safety D.J. Swearinger all alone with Hollins.  Wentz hit Hollins in stride, sending the rookie on to his first career touchdown, igniting Philadelphia’s turnaround, and beginning what would be a nightmare second half for Swearinger.  All of a sudden, a game that Washington was in control of was tied at 10, and Philadelphia was beginning to reconsider its approach.

Before the half would end, Ertz would catch both passes thrown to him for 50 yards and a touchdown.  By game’s end, Ertz had caught all 5 passes thrown his way for 89 yards.  In the two games played against Washington this season, Zach Ertz caught all 13 passes thrown his way for 182 yards.  Most of the damage came with Swearinger trying to chase him down, but he also proved too much for Foster in the odd times that Mason tried to cover him.

Washington came in with a great plan with one tiny flaw.  No one on their team can cover Ertz.  In watching the tape, I actually think he was open every time he went out for a pass.

As to Wentz, all through his 3 for 8 start I don’t think he was ever confused by what he saw.  The initial trouble was getting a receiver open.  Throughout the entire game, Wentz seemed ready for whatever the Washington pass defense showed him.  Carson is a toolsy quarterback, but his understanding of the passing game is quite advanced for a second year guy.

Signature Moments

The rest of the game would serve as notice for anyone in the football world who hadn’t yet heard of him that Carson Wentz is a force to be reckoned with.  He finished the game with a 126.3 passer rating and 4 touchdown passes – beating every coverage Washington threw at him.  He also memorably scrambled for 63 yards, leading the Eagles to their 34-24 victory (gamebook).  The win included a signature play in both the passing and running aspects of Carson’s play – calling cards to remember him by, as it were.

The Pass

There is 9:49 left in the third – Eagles now ahead 17-10.  They face third-and-goal at the 9 yard line.  Washington defensive end Terrell McClain almost makes a game saving play.  Bull-rushing his way past center Jason Kelce, McClain has Wentz in his grasp.  Almost.  Once again, Carson twists out of the way.  With Matthew Ioannidis and Mason Foster sandwiching him in, Wentz manages to flip the ball over the head of Foster with just enough juice to get it up the sideline in the end zone where Corey Clement gathered it in.

Linebacker Zach Brown’s adventure on that play more-or-less epitomized the night for Washington.  Clearly expected to cover Clement on the play, Brown blitzed immediately.  It was as Clement and Brown passed each other going in opposite directions, that Zach realized his error.  He pivoted quickly and began pursuit of Corey, but that only earned him the best view in the house of Clement’s touchdown.

The Scramble

Now it’s the fourth quarter.  There is 14:55 left, and Washington has fought back to make it a 24-17 game.  The Eagles are on their own 27, facing a third-and-8.

Washington blitzes.  As they did almost all night, the disciplined Eagle line picked-up the blitz, but gave ground as they did so, resulting in the Washington pass rush completely encircling Wentz.  For nearly two seconds, it seemed inevitable that Carson would be discovered at the bottom of a very large pile of bodies.  But then – somewhat miraculously – Wentz shot out of the cluster of humanity and sprinted 17 yards to the 44 for a back-breaking first down.  Moments later, Agholor would weave his way through another broken zone defense to haul in the clinching touchdown.

A funny thing about that moment.  While escape looked impossible, Wentz was never in any real danger.  All of his offensive linemen were there in between him and the Redskins.  They weren’t all standing, and in some cases they were just barely between, but I think the only hand laid on Carson during that whole progression was from Zach Brown (again) who reached over running back Wendell Smallwood and managed to put a hand on Wentz’ back.  In essence, his line formed a kind of cocoon around their franchise quarterback – from which Carson exploded at the first glint of daylight.

Love for a Lineman

Nothing in football happens in a vacuum, and all success on the gridiron is team success.  There were many names trumpeted as heroes of this contest – and there were many who played extremely well.  One name that probably won’t get any mentions is right tackle Lane Johnson.  He spent most of the afternoon lined up against Washington’s best pass rusher – two time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who recorded 11 sacks last year – and made him disappear.  Kerrigan did get a half sack in the first quarter.  On that play, Ryan lined up over left guard Steve Wisniewski and slipped around him to get to Wentz.  As far as I remember, that was the only time that Kerrigan lined up inside.  He spent the rest of the game outside, trying (unsuccessfully) to work his way around Johnson.

Tapping the Brakes

It was a magical night for Carson Wentz and the (now) 6-1 Eagles.  But before we start reserving his spot in Canton and marking the Eagles down for home-field advantage, let’s hold on to a little perspective.  Carson has played 23 impressive games as a pro, and you can see why the organization is optimistic for the future.  But it is just 23 games.  Carson has yet to play a meaningful December game, much yet a playoff game.  It’s an auspicious start, but it’s just a start.

As for the Eagles, 6-1 is an excellent start.  But six wins won’t get you anywhere.  The most challenging part of the season lies ahead.

Remember, the NFL is still a week-to-week league – even for Carson Wentz and the juggernaut Eagles.

Quarterbacks with Question Marks

On the previous Sunday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs had roughed up the Houston Texan’s defense for 450 yards.  They pushed them around on the ground to the tune of 127 yards (107 by super rookie Kareem Hunt) and another 323 through the air as oft-maligned quarterback Alex Smith completed 29 of 37 passes for 3 touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.2.  The 42-34 victory left them at 5-0 with a seemingly unsolvable offense.

As they took the field last Sunday afternoon, they were bludgeoning opponents on the ground, racking up 156.2 yards per game and an unheard of 5.7 yards per carry.  When they wanted to throw, Smith was producing a 125.8 passing rating (for the season) – a performance that included completing 76.6% of his passes with no interceptions.  For five games, the Kansas City offense had its way with the rest of the NFL, scoring 32.8 points per game.

And then they ran into a buzz saw.  For the first 30 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated Kansas City the way that top 25 NCAA teams dominate Division II teams in their home-coming games.  As they walked into the locker room at halftime, the Steelers had controlled the ball for 21 minutes and 41 seconds, outgained KC 232 yards to 6 (no that is not a misprint) that included a 116 to minus-2 differential in rushing yards (that is not a misprint either).  They held a 16-1 edge in first downs.

While the Chiefs would play better in the second half, they ended the game with just 251 total yards and a 19-13 loss (gamebook).  The heretofore unstoppable Alex Smith finished with an 88.6 passer rating.

What happened?  The short answer is Le’Veon Bell, but the full answer is more complex than that.

After losing commitment to the run in their previous week’s loss, the Steelers wielded Bell and their offensive line like a cudgel.  Bell finished with 179 yards on 32 carries, and the Steelers team finished with 194 yards on 37 carries.  Although they didn’t score on all of them, Pittsburgh had three different first-half drives that all lasted at least 6:19 – two of them lasting 12 plays.  To their credit, the Kansas City defense never did completely implode.  But neither could they get themselves off the field.

Here is what always happens when one team’s offense pushes the other team’s defense around in the first half – and I’ve seen this hundreds of times.  This is, in fact, what had happened to Pittsburgh the previous week.

The only chance the pushed around team has is to have early success running the ball.  After the Steelers chewed up the first 6:19 of the game, Kansas City gained 4 yards on its first two runs.  Then, after the Steelers ran off another 6:25 of the clock, the Chiefs came out throwing and never got back to the running game.

I point out that there was no need to abandon the running game.  At the point that they gave up on the run, they were only trailing by six with three full quarters to go.  But NFL teams don’t seem to have the will to counter-punch with the running game unless they see early returns.  Even though the quarterback has been sitting cold on the sidelines for 12:44 of the first 15:05 of the game, all NFL coaches seem to feel the irresistible urge to get back into the game by throwing the football.

Kareem Hunt entered the game with 609 rushing yards on 97 carries through his first 5 NFL games.  He finished Sunday carrying the ball only 9 times the whole game, even though KC never trailed by more than 9 points.

How did the Steelers – who came into the game allowing 136.6 rushing yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry – muffle the powerful Kansas City running game?  They stopped the first three runs and let Kansas City turn off their own running game.

Alex Smith

With the decision made to go to the air, the fate of the Chiefs rested on the arm and head of Alex Smith.  In a game eerily similar to the playoff game they lost to Pittsburgh last year, Alex threw the ball pretty well.  Last January he was 20 of 34.  Last Sunday he was 19 of 34.  He lost 18-16 last January.  He lost 19-13 on Sunday.

Let me be clear about this.  It is unfair to pin this loss on Alex Smith.  Pittsburgh dominated this game on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  But, because the KC defense managed to hold the team in the game, Alex – as he did in the playoff game – had late chances to win the game.  In particular, there were two throws – two plays that were there to be made – that Smith just didn’t make.

There was 2:31 left on the game clock.  The Chiefs had second-and-10 on the Steeler 15.  Alex did get pressure.  Mike Hilton came free on a blitz.  But standing all alone in the left corner of the end zone was Demarcus Robinson.  Smith overthrew him.  That drive ended in the field goal that made it a 19-13 game.

Then, with 1:11 left, Smith and the Chiefs had the ball again, second-and-10 from the Steeler 40.  Again, it was Robinson breaking clean over the middle.  And, again, Smith’s throw was too high.

As Kansas City has surrounded Alex with more and more offensive playmakers, we are finally beginning to see the quarterback that Smith can be.  More than just a game-manger, Alex Smith is a craftsman with plus mobility.  He makes excellent decisions, he makes them quickly, and he delivers the ball with great accuracy.  Most of the time, anyway.  There is no mental or physical reason why Alex couldn’t lead his team to a championship.

Except that he hasn’t.

With Smith, it’s all about the playoffs now.  However great his regular season is, everyone will be waiting for him to play in January the way he plays in September and October.

(Footnote: Kansas City played last night and suffered a stunning 31-30 loss to Oakland.  Even so, Alex was back to the Alex Smith of the first five games.  He finished his evening 25 of 36 for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating for the evening was a stellar 127.3 and he still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.  We’ll have more to say about this game later, I suspect.)

Cam Newton

Last Thursday, Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers fell to Philadelphia, 28-23 (gamebook).  Again, pinning the loss on Newton would be unfair.  Like Kansas City, Carolina’s running game was also inhaled by Philadelphia’s dominating defensive front.  For the game, every Carolina ball-carrier not named Cam Newton was held to 9 yards on 14 carries – an almost mind-numbing stat.

Still, Newton’s final line was disappointing.  Throwing 52 times, Cam completed 28 for just 239 yards (Carolina had only one play of twenty yards in the game).  Newton offset his one touchdown pass with three interceptions – a 48.5 passer rating.  More than just the numbers, though, this game brought to the surface all the questions that I (and others) have about Newton.

Mechanics

Always a point of discussion with Newton is his inconsistent mechanics.  More than any quarterback I watch, Cam is content to throw flat footed.  There were probably ten Newton throws last Thursday thrown without Cam planting his feet and getting his body behind the throw.  When you see his tosses sail high or fall well short, usually you will see Cam throwing flat footed.

Superman in the Backfield?

Everyone knows that Cam has a thing for Superman.  Many of his self-congratulatory antics connect him with his boyhood idol.  But sometimes in the back field he acts like he thinks he really is Superman.  None of the other mobile quarterbacks will stay rooted in the pocket as it begins to close in on him.  They will spin out and move the pocket away from the pressure.  Even the less mobile quarterbacks will at lease retreat a few steps from the chaos directly in front of them.  Failing all else, they will cover up the ball and take the sack.

One of Newton’s curious quirks is that he will stand planted on his spot and try to throw the ball over the top of linemen that are almost standing on his toes.  There were at least a half-dozen throws that Newton made in that game where he tried to throw over a lineman that was standing in his kitchen.

His first interception came on such a throw.  About half-way through the second period, Eagle defensive lineman Fletcher Cox got under Panther guard Trai Turner and pushed him right back into Newton’s face.  Watching the replay, I actually think that Turner was stepping on Newton’s foot when Cam threw the ball.  Certainly, he was close enough that Cox could reach over Turner and still hit Newton’s arm as Cam made the pass – which fluttered duck-like until Eagle cornerback Rasul Douglas gathered it in.

It is almost as though Newton expects all those linemen to bounce off his chest like so many bullets.  But even that won’t put a crease in the brow of Cam’s offensive coordinator as deep as his other recurring quirk.

Not Going Through His Progressions

Much was made of the Panthers losing star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to a possible concussion – and understandably so.  Kuechly is a force.

Less was made of the fact that Philadelphia also lost their starting middle linebacker.  Jordan Hicks had hurt his ankle at some point of the first half and didn’t play in the second half – and with his exit came a complete change in the Eagle defensive scheme.

Throughout the first half, the Eagles rushed with four, played tight man coverage and left Hicks to spy Newton.  With Hicks out of the mix, the Eagles became almost a 100% zone team in the second half – a defense they don’t run nearly as well.  Combined with the tiring of the pass rushers, Cam Newton had myriad opportunities to exploit holes in the Eagle zone.

Except that he never looked for those opportunities.  Perhaps rattled by the early game pressure, Newton spent most of the second half deciding – I think off his pre-snap read – where he was going to go with the ball.  One of the strangest habits he fell into was never looking to his right.  Of his 32 second half passes, 21 were thrown to the left – and on most of those he never even looked at what was going on to his right.  I will give you my two favorite examples:

There was 13:51 left in the third quarter.  The Panthers trailed 18-10, and had the ball first-and-10 at their own 35.  Newton executed a play-fake to Jonathan Stewart that completely fooled the entire left side of the Eagle defense.  Everyone over there came crashing into the Panther backfield, including safety Malcolm Jenkins (who would have made the tackle in the backfield) and cornerback Jalen Mills.

Lined up in the slot, Devin Funchess made a slight fake like he was going to block, and then popped clear in behind the Eagle defenders that raced heedlessly past him.  But Newton never looked.  He was already throwing the ball to Kelvin Benjamin on a short curl into a soft spot of the zone – a perfect throw, by the way, that Benjamin dropped.

But my favorite play occurred during Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

There is 13:30 left on the game clock, and the Eagles hold a 28-16 lead.  The Panthers are first-and-10 on their own 42.  After Benjamin and Russell Shepard switched sides, Cam had Shepard wide to his left, with tight-end Ed Dickson in the slot to that side.  His two most explosive receivers – Funchess and Benjamin – were now to his right.  Newton, of course, never looked to his right, as he dropped a nicely thrown 3-yard pass to Shepard who found a soft-spot underneath the zone coverage.

Even more compelling than the routes Benjamin and Funchess were running, was the defensive reaction to the play.  On the offensive left side, the Eagles were playing an “active” zone.  As Dickson ran his deep bow-out, the secondary closed on him.  As Shepard curled under the zone, it flowed to meet him.

On the offensive right side, the defense was, technically, playing zone.  But mostly they just stood and watched.  Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had the short zone, jogged back about three steps and watched.  Mills had the deep zone, so he dutifully dropped to his required depth – but did little else.

Benjamin raced all alone to the right flat.  Robinson was – technically – within 15 yards of him, but didn’t even look at him, much less follow him.  A quick toss to the right flat would probably have been good for 12-15 yards.  Meanwhile, Funchess ran untouched and un-regarded right up the seam.  Mills watched him streak by without even a wave.  But Newton had already made up his mind, and settled for the 3-yard pass to Shepard.

For quite a while I puzzled over Cam’s compulsion for the left side, until it occurred to me that looking and throwing to the left is the easiest play for a right-handed quarterback to make.

Analyzing Newton

Here’s my take on Cam:

Newton is an enormously gifted football player.  Arguably he is the most gifted quarterback anywhere in football.  That can be a double-edged sword.  I don’t believe that Newton has ever struggled at any level of football – including the NFL where he was setting records in his very first game; and where two seasons ago he almost led this Carolina team to an undefeated season.  Since anything athletic has always come easily to Cam, it’s only natural that he wants football to keep coming easily.

Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a great ride, and nobody enjoys the ride any more than Newton.  Whether he’s preening for the cameras after a first-down, or organizing team photos on the sideline while the game is still going on, or whether he’s directing teammates’ touchdown celebrations, the fun part of the NFL means an awful lot to Newton.  And – since his talents are such that he usually completes his passes even if he is standing flatfooted, or throwing with a lineman in his face, or even if he hasn’t scanned the field – it can be a little hard to impress upon him the importance of these techniques.  They become skills that less gifted quarterbacks have to develop to compete.

Newton will continue to enjoy significant success in the NFL, just on his athleticism alone.  But Cam won’t be a great quarterback until he embraces the discipline that greatness requires.