I think we may have ourselves a genuine trend here. Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday became the second coach in as many weeks to play for the win instead of the tie at the end of regulation.
Down 35-34 to Washington with 58 seconds left after scoring a touchdown, the Bucs tried an extra point, which was blocked. But Washington was offside. The penalty moved the ball to the 1. Gruden sent in the offense, and bruising running back Mike Alstott slammed in for the two-point conversion. The Bucs won, 36-35.
It's a journalism convention that when three people do something, it's a trend, so we're almost there, kids. With the go-for-it crowd 2-for-2, I like our chances.
"It's the newest, coolest, most exciting play in football: going for two points to win instead of settling for a point-after kick to tie and take the game to overtime," gushed Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post, even though Gruden was the first to do it. "After years and years of playing it safe, men from the most conservative fraternity in sports, pro football coaches, are now suddenly saying, 'What the heck?'"
Ahem. Working my side of the street, there, Mike. Cease and desist on the What the Heck, if you don't mind.
Anyway, first Dick Vermeil of the Kansas City Chiefs goes for and gets the winning touchdown instead of the tying field goal on the last play of regulation against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9, and now this. Forgive Wilbon for getting confused. They both went for it is the main thing. You watch: The next coach faced with this situation will go for it too.
Know why? Because something's changed, but not everything. NFL head coaches are still conservative. They still play not so much to win or lose but to avoid criticism.
Vermeil and, to a lesser extent because there was Vermeil's precedent, Gruden went against that impulse by calling the play that would have set them up for the most criticism had it not worked, rather than the one that would have resulted in overtime, a lesser chance at winning, and the dodge of avoiding blame because hey, overtime's a crapshoot.
An aside: The replays made it look like Mike Alstott was actually stopped short, his elbow on the ground shy of the line, and the ball in the crook of that elbow. But after a review the officials let the play stand, I think correctly, because it wasn't conclusive. Alstott might have broken the plane with the ball before his elbow hit the ground. I don't think he made it, but I can't say for sure.
What's changed for coaches is the praise Vermeil got last week and that Gruden's getting this week, in both cases because the play worked and their team won. Here's Wilbon's pal Tony Kornheiser, interrupting his whining about Washington's loss in the Post long enough to type: "Now that call took onions."
How close were we to not having this trend take hold? Here's Kornheiser's next sentence: "It's the dumbest call in history if Alstott doesn't make it."
Well, no, it isn't. Alstott has a better chance of going in from the 1 than the Bucs have of winning in overtime. Their overtime chances are roughly 50-50, but I'm guessing Gruden didn't even think they had those odds in O.T. with young quarterback Chris Simms, having a good game but still very green, against a hot Washington offense run by resourceful veteran Mark Brunell. Even if Alstott hadn't made it, it would have been a good call.
The new reality is that the next coach who doesn't go for the win instead of the tie in regulation is going to look like a weenie. He's going to face a barrage of questions about probability and trusting his defense and being aggressive, all of the new virtues an NFL coach must suddenly possess because the two who have displayed them in the last two weeks happened to get rewarded for it.
When it became clear the Bucs were going for it, Fox analyst Troy Aikman didn't like it.
"I don't agree with this call," he said, "and only because there's still time on the clock, and with Washington with two timeouts, they've still got time to move the ball down the field for a field goal, I -- boy, this is risky."
He was grasping at straws. His instinct as an old NFL hand was to think the "safe" play was less risky, so he threw in the red herring of Washington still having time in regulation. But Washington had time in regulation whether the game was tied or the Bucs were leading by one. Either way, if the Bucs give up a field goal, they lose.
The question was, assuming they could stop Washington on its final possession, did the Bucs have a better chance of scoring the two-point conversion or winning in overtime? The answer: Give the ball to Mike Alstott. Whether he really got that yard or not, he's going to make it more often than not, and that's better than going to overtime.
Get on board, Troy, the future is here.
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One more Washington-Tampa Bay note [PERMALINK]
The NFL is often praised by the commentariat, present company included, for its unpredictability, the whole "any given Sunday" thing. You just can't be sure who's going to beat whom. One week the New York Giants look like the best team in the NFC, the next they're losing at home to the Minnesota Vikings, who two weeks ago looked like the worst team in the conference.
Raise your hand if you had the Green Bay Packers thrashing the Atlanta Falcons on the road Sunday. Nicely done.
But the Washington-Tampa Bay game was unpredictable in a way the NFL doesn't get enough credit for. Here was a game between two solid, even stolid, defense-first teams. They haven't been hopeless on offense, but they haven't exactly been the Indianapolis Colts either.
They both have 5-3 records and they seem to be pretty evenly matched, with Washington on the upswing and Tampa Bay sliding, but still an intriguing game with playoff implications. It looks like it's going to be a grinder, the kind of game somebody wins 16-7 or 13-10.
And they turn in a humdinger, a wild, seesaw, 36-35 game with 729 yards of net offense and a 94-yard touchdown on a kickoff return. And Chris Simms, heretofore a liability at quarterback, throws for 279 yards on 29 passes, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Raise your hand if you saw any of that coming and you're not Phil Simms.
Oh, put your hand down, Phil.
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Backing! He backed him! [PERMALINK]
How can it be that there's an "illegal block in the back" penalty on every runback of every kick or interception in every game in the NFL, but a guy returns a missed field goal 108 yards, reversing his field, no less -- the international signal for "everybody block somebody in the back!" -- and no flags?
And can we come up with a better name for that penalty than "illegal block in the back," please? Like, "backing" or something? I mean, as long as it's going to be called on every runback.
Except this one. Nathan Vasher of the Chicago Bears fielded the missed kick by Joe Nedney of the San Francisco 49ers eight yards deep in the end zone and started running. Keep in mind that this was a field-goal-blocking team on the field for the Bears.
Quarterback Kyle Orton said the Bears actually practice that runback play, "and it looks like a waste of time, and it finally came through." You have to figure it doesn't get high-priority treatment if the players figure it looks like a waste of time.
Vasher started up and to his left, then pivoted and took off to the right, leaving pretty much the entire 49ers team on the left sideline -- the field-goal unit isn't too sharp at covering kicks either. It's a bunch of blockers. "I was out there with the big boys," Vasher said.
You pay $85 to get into Soldier Field and all of a sudden you're watching a pickup game.
So Vasher races down the sideline, into the end zone, 108 yards later, the longest touchdown in NFL history, beating Chris McAllister's similar play three years ago by a yard, and good thing it wasn't 109 because I don't think Vasher, limping by the end, could have made it that far.
And no flags! How can this be?
Well, a replay showed how it can be. The officials swallowed their whistles. I saw four guys get blocked in the back, and those were just the guys getting blocked in the back on camera. And all of those blocks came during the racing down the sideline part of the return. I wasn't able to see any at the point where Vasher reversed his field. I have no way to know if there were any blocks in the back there, but I'd put the over-under at half a dozen.
And you know what? It was a damn fine return and those were some damn fine blocks. If we can't get rid of kicking, let's get rid of backing, I mean, "illegal block in the back."
It can be Nathan Vasher's legacy to the NFL. Or mine, maybe.
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"He's such a nice" -- gulp! [PERMALINK]
I thought of a "Sunday Night Football" drinking game.
And then I thought: Somebody must have thought of this already, and I was right. Blogger Paul Katcher invented it and posted the rules last year.
So I have one to add: Every time play-by-play man Mike Patrick or analyst Joe Theismann says that some player or another is a nice guy, or one of the best guys in football, or a fine young man, you drink.
If you're plastered by the third quarter on that rule alone, here's another one Katcher should add that would wipe you out by the first TV timeout: One drink every time Paul Maguire or Theismann starts a comment with "You wanna talk about ...?"
Of course now that I've come up with this new wrinkle ESPN's team is going to be broken up at the end of the year. But you can still play the nice-guy rule with broadcasts that Patrick and Theismann do separately.
Theismann will join Al Michaels on the new Monday night show on ESPN -- can you imagine Michaels going on about how some linebacker is a really nice guy? Patrick does lots of college basketball with Dick Vitale.
Everybody's a fine young man on those broadcasts.
Here's a little clue for Patrick, Theismann, Vitale and other big-time network announcers about why so many players seem like such nice guys: It's because you're big-time network announcers.
Almost everyone treats royalty with politeness and respect, goes out of their way to seem gracious and charming. And in the context of the NFL or college basketball, these guys are royalty. You can't judge how "nice" a young man is by looking at how he treats the famous and powerful.
Want to know how nice your favorite ballplayer is? Ask the local beat writer or the struggling freelancer trying to get an interview. Ask the locker room attendant. Ask the kid who wants an autograph -- when the player hasn't just had a great game.
Are there nice guys in professional and major college sports? Of course. Tons. Just don't believe the TV announcers when they tell you who they are.
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