Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why the Tea Party would hate the Tennessee Titans and one of football's best assistant coaches...

Very quietly this season, the Tennessee Titans have one of the finest defenses in football. It may not show in some of the traditional measurements (the Titans are a very mediocre 23rd in the league for pass yards allowed), but make no mistake: they make plays.

Through week six, Tennessee has the most interceptions in the AFC. And, most tellingly, they have the most sacks in all of the NFL. The secret lies not with any particular player (can you even name one of their starters?), or a particular scheme, but with their mentality.

While running back Chris Johnson is undoubtedly the star of the 2010 Titans, he’s a blip on the map in the reign of Jeff Fisher. After all, Fisher had guided the team through multiple peaks and valleys before the swaggering Johnson had even enrolled at East Carolina, let alone the NFL. And it’s that continuity that has allowed the Titans to endure through the never-ending attrition of the salary-cap era.

Men like defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who’ve been with Fisher and the Titans since 1999, help to continue the mentality of success. They’re no-nonsense, and absolutely confident in the principle that hard work and chemistry will always close the gap on superior talent.

This probably explains why the Titans have been so willing to part with top talent over the years. Albert Haynesworth is the most notable example, but the 100 million dollar man (Haynesworth’s now infamous nickname in Washington) is merely a drop of water in the ocean of highly competent players Fisher and Washburn have deemed superfluous in the last decade.

Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jevon Kearse, John Thornton, Robaire Smith, Antwan Odom and Kevin Carter were all Titans for probably the best years of their careers. Their other common denominator is that they left Tennessee for greener pastures. Most would move onto greater salaries but diminished production (though the jury’s still out on Vanden Bosch considering he’s only in his first year in Detroit).

To define Tennessee’s secret; it would be a cop-out to simply say that you have to watch them play. Yet, to an extent, that is the only way to fully understand and appreciate their way of doing things. On any given play, Titan defensive linemen will be exploding off their blocks like its fourth down in the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1st and 10, 2nd and 20 or 3rd and 1.

The initial response to seeing someone say that is “but everyone else does that too, right?” This is the difference between the Titans and almost everyone else. Washburn’s unit rotates continuously during the game. Tennessee linemen are not prioritized in the same standard way as other linemen on other teams. They have no default starters.

Instead, the “starters” will go as hard as they can until they inevitably tire out (at which point they sub out to players who nearly equal them in minutes-played by the end of the game). It’s a simple idea, but Tennessee’s emphatic confidence in their backups is what separates them from most teams. And it’s more than simply having confidence, as the skill gap isn’t as pronounced because Fisher, like any shrewd coach in the modern game, won’t overspend on an individual. He saves his money so depth can be maintained.

It’s a dangerous game, since they constantly have to discover new talent (and any draft or free agent additions that fall short of expectation precipitate a drop-off in wins). Year after year though, Fisher and Washburn seem to confidently move forward with new faces but a timeless mentality.

This year, they appear to have a particularly strong unit. Despite a season-ending ligament tear to rookie defensive end Derrick Morgan (who Tennessee drafted with their first round pick), the depth is as self evident as the production.

Six different Tennessee linemen have sacks so far this season, and “backup” defensive tackle Jovan Haye is third in the group in tackles. Watch them if you can, because even the most anti-socialist Glenn Beck addict would have to admit that the equality of the group has equated to maximum productivity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tom Jackson's longstanding friendship with Bill Belichick and the Randy Moss trade...

I’ve taken quite a break from this blog, but like MJ in the fourth quarter, the comeback was inevitable. (Ok, perhaps I'm not in His Airness's class, but it sounded cool you can't deny it.) And a lot’s happened in the many weeks that I’ve been lounging in one of the most densely populated counties in the world.

Probably my favorite story (other than Brett Favre agreeing with Brent Musburger about Jenn Sterger), was the Randy Moss trade. Perhaps more accurately, I loved the fallout from it.

Predictably, Viking fans were pumped while many Patriot fans were distraught (as they should be. The guy was had the greatest 16 game season of any receiver EVER in 2007 and didn’t appear to be losing his Hall of Fame touch.) Yet the reaction by many conveyed the obvious: that Moss’s leaving New England leaves a corresponding hole in their lineup which the Patriots can’t overcome.

This is where the “oh my god they traded Moss” syndrome turns into full blown “we can’t win the Super Bowl” disease. Some people have no sense of history. Consider:

When it comes to making unpopular personnel moves, no one is more practiced than Bill Belichick.

As a second year coach in Cleveland in 1992, a much less experienced Belichick showed the same determination when he unseated franchise quarterback and local hero Bernie Kosar. He did it again with Drew Bledsoe in 2001.

My favorite example was from 2003. That season, the Patriots were two years removed from their Cinderella Super Bowl run and fresh off falling back to earth the next season. They appeared rebuilt and ready to make another run, but only five days before the season opener, the Pats released starting strong safety and fan favorite, Lawyer Milloy. (By the way, what are the odds a guy named Lawyer Milloy partners in a defensive backfield with another guy named Ty Law for almost a decade?)

Naturally, Milloy turned around and signed with the Patriots Week 1 opponent, the Buffalo Bills. To complete the embarrassment, Milloy recorded a sack against Brady in that game and New England got smoked, 31-0.
Following the game, Tom Jackson, an ESPN analyst and perpetual Super Bowl loser, decided that it was best to get ahead of the media wave and declare what everyone was surely thinking.

“I want to say this very clearly: they hate their coach, and their season could be over” spouted the guy who came up a little short in Super Bowl XXI (the same night that two particularly personal events happened: the New York Giants won the Super Bowl…and I was born).

Jackson’s comments, though undoubtedly galvanizing for a now pissed-off Pats team, resonated. New Englanders, so sure not even 18 months before of Belichick’s genius, questioned the cold and calculating coach. Why had he done this?

Before I get to answering that, it’s obvious to point out how the rest of the 2003 season played out. New England got things straightened out and began a league record 21 straight wins, culminating with their defeat of the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, 32-29 (or, as many more people remember it, the "Janet Jackson Titty Game".

Following the game, in probably one of my most favorite media/coach interactions ever, Belichick ran into who else but Tom “I don’t have any sources for what I say” Jackson on the set of NFL Live. According to Michael Holley in his book, Patriot Reign, the following exchange took place:

Belichick would talk…but not, initially, with ESPN. When his friend Chris Berman personally asked him to appear on the air, however, Belichick couldn’t turn him down. They walked on the Reliant Stadium field, passing few workers and television reporters doing stand-ups. On the set Belichick saw Tom Jackson. The coach didn’t want to be diplomatic. He still didn’t like the way the comment from September was handled, and winning the Super Bowl wasn’t going to change his mind about that. Jackson extended his hand to Belichick. The coach looked at him and said “Fuck you.” It was left at that.

Priceless. I know Bill Belichick is one of the most polarizing men in professional football, but say what you want about him (and people will continue to) just don’t knock him on two things:

1. He’s brave about personnel decisions when he's convinced it's in the team's best interest.

2. He doesn’t give a flying fuck about sticking to his guns (especially when it comes to calling out a largely dishonest and sensationalized media).

Why did he trade Randy Dandy? No one can say definitely but I have a feeling Belichick, as always, was concerned about team chemistry. And he’s not sold on the direct net-loss of Randy now catching touchdowns from Brett Favre and not Tom Brady. Having seen his team’s win time and again by subscribing to the tired cliché of “addition through subtraction,” my guess is he believes this will be a shot in the arm for the rest of the receiving corps.

People keep saying the Patriots don’t have a deep threat anymore, but doesn’t this make them more unpredictable? Randy wasn’t exactly the master of running underneath routes. Defensive backs could be fairly certain he was either running a deep out or a go-route. With him gone, opposing defenses (much like regular fans and the Tom Jacksons of the world) can’t be sure of anything. And that’s exactly the way Bill Belichick likes it.