Tag: NFL

What Happened to Parity in the NFL?

Over the last decade or so, the National Football League has been striving to create a balanced league in which the old saw “on any given Sunday” could literally be taken as truth. A league where several playoff spots would be up for grabs into the 14th, 15th and 16th weeks of the season. A league with fewer haves and have-nots and more sharing of talent and potential.

Well, this year, that plan has turned to, you should pardon the expression, poop.

At this writing, we have completed 10 of the 16 weeks in the season, just past the halfway point. We still have 37.5% of the season ahead of us.

But in six of the eight divisions, one team is essentially running away with the title with records well above average, with seven to 10 wins under their belts. In all cases, they have at least a two-game lead. That’s not yet a title, but it’s certainly imbalance.

Equally revealing, almost half (15 of 32) of the teams have rung up fewer than five wins with six games remaining. Most of those teams are looking at losing seasons and only a handful have any shot at a playoff spot. (Notable exceptions are the AFC South and East where the division leaders are playing .500 ball and their closest competitors are one or two games off that tepid pace.)

Unfortunately, my San Francisco 49ers are not only dead last in the NFC West at 3-7, they have the worst PA (Points Against) rating in the entire league, being outscored by their rivals, 252-139. That’s a 113-point deficit. The only other team to come close is my once-favorite team, the Detroit Lions, with an 89-point deficit.

It’s ugly out there, folks, and it ain’t gettin’ any prettier.

The Difference Between “Arrested” and “Charged” and “Convicted” Seems Too Subtle for Media, Some Observers

The controversy in professional sports over how million-dollar athletes who abuse their partners are treated took a bit of a bizarre twist on Thursday night when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who knows better, lumped 49er Ray McDonald into the discussion along with Ray Rice and other athletes involved in such acts recently.

Ray Rice has been convicted. He is guilty of the crime. He needs to be dealt with as a criminal. A two-game suspension is undoubtedly too light a punishment; the NFL admits it screwed that one up. (And the screw-up is almost certainly part of a bigger picture of deliberate eye-winking and elbow-nudging that has gone on for far too long.)

49ers Ray McDonald - Not Even Charged!

49ers Ray McDonald – Not Even Charged!

But — and this is a huge but — the difference is that McDonald hasn’t been convicted. In fact, he hasn’t even been charged. So far, he’s only been arrested and released on bond. He has a court hearing scheduled. Here’s where our nation’s well-known (and, I thought apparently naively, well-understood) rule of law — that one is innocent until proven guilty (i.e., convicted) — comes into play. To punish McDonald at this point would be the very definition of injustice. He has been arrested “on suspicion” of committing a crime. But you can’t be convicted on “suspicion.” The authorities must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed and that you committed it. Period. End of discussion.

If the DA in Santa Clara County had the evidence, he could charge McDonald with a specific crime. In the face of formal charges, the Niners and the NFL might be justified taking some temporary action. (Although even then, he’s still presumed innocent. Depending on how overwhelming the evidence appears and how egregious the offense, the league or the team might be justified in acting, but I would argue would still be premature.) But until the man is convicted, he is innocent. As such, he’s entitled to keep his freedom and his job.

This is not rocket science, folks. Just because a crime is outrageous or egregious or offensive doesn’t lend it any additional power to punish in the absence of proof of its commission. You may not like that. Until the first time you’re unjustly accused. Then you’ll fall madly in love with this crucial provision of our legal system.

49ers Make Playoffs! But if Defense Wins Championships…

The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons yesterday, 34-24, in a game that was closer than it sounds and shouldn’t have been.

49ers-FalconsThe lowly Falcons shouldn’t have posed any real challenge for the Niners. Atlanta starts more rookies than any team in NFL history that wasn’t an expansion team in its first season. Seven rooks on the defensive side of the ball a good part of the day? QB Matt Ryan is at best a slightly above average player. The Falcons were 4-10 and out of reasons to play other than maybe morale. The Niners were playing to clinch a playoff birth (which they did) and keep slim hopes of a division title alive.

And yet Ryan and his low-octane offense scorched the Niners time after time after time. They ended up the evening with 402 yards of total offense, 341 of it through the air. And a good bit of that yardage came on long passes that seemed to find the pores in the Niners’ passing D. When the Falcons tried a desperation on-side kick with just over 2:00 left in the game — and freaking recovered it! — I really thought it was game over for the Niners. A tie seemed all but inevitable and the way Ryan had the team working, a winning TD wouldn’t have come as a shock.

Then a fluke INT plopped into NaVorro Bowman’s hands and he returned it 89 yards for a TD and the game was over. Finally.

I must say the Falcons acquitted themselves very nicely. They have demonstrated to their fans that they can play with the league’s elite even if that comes too late to salvage a disappointing season.

So the Niners are in the playoffs. Depending on how they do in the final game this week at St. Louis. But you have to be a little worried about that defense. Over the past three or four games they’ve had lapses that have seemed incomprehensible. And they’ve yielded their share of penalties while contributing very few turnaround or scoring plays or opportunities. Sure, they’re still stingy as hell on scoring and that’s huge, but in the playoffs it doesn’t take too many lapses before you find yourself playing catch-up.

And Coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have to reduce the number of dumb play calls and poor clock management incidents or they’re going to cost us a crucial close game.

On the up side, the offense has been clicking a bit more smoothly and efficiently of late. Kaep got some of his wheels back yesterday and looked really good a couple of times. He’s still making too many bad decisions on passes, sailed a couple too high and ate the ball once too often. But given that he’s only a bit more experienced than a true rookie, I guess we have to cut him some slack.

Why Do Low-Scoring Football Games Bore Me, Unlike Low-Scoring Baseball Games?

So what’s the matter with me? I love it when a baseball game ends with a low score and a low winning margin. Pitcher’s duels are a feast for my baseball eyes. But show me an NFL game that ends 10-9 like the Niners’ loss today to the Carolina Panthers, and I’m bored to tears.

Never mind that my team lost; the Panthers’ defense was obviously much better coached and prepared than the Niners’ offense. In fact, I’m beginning to worry about the Niners’ ability to sustain a championship run with an offense that is dead last in the NFL in passing. I thought Colin Kaepernick was supposed to be a gun. Maybe a Derringer?

But I digress.

The game today was just dead for me. To many turnovers, too many sacks, too much offensive futility, and far too little scoring. I think that my sense is that when a baseball game ends 2-1 or 1-0 or 3-2, there’s dynamic tension and strategy at work. But when an NFL game ends that way, it generally means, as it seemed to me today, that the offenses were just sputtering. It comes off as ineptitude. I’m not saying the teams in today’s game were not good teams; they clearly both are. But they’re not exciting teams, at least not the way they played each other today.

I expected a track meet, a high-scoring shootout. Both teams were on long winning streaks, both had scored 30+ points per game in their last several outings in dominating opponents. Instead — and I was obviously in a minority in my expectation because most other observers seemed to expect what we got — we got brutish, smash-mouth, in-your-face defensive football. Which I just don’t enjoy.

kaep_running_towardFWIW, I no longer expect the Niners to make a run at the Super Bowl this year. They may not even make the playoffs but if they do, they’re not going very far. Kaepernick has proven to be a weak (that is, inaccurate and sketchy) passer and once the defenses in the NFL caught on to the college-style offense the Niners tried to get away with behind Kaep, the team has relied on running and defense to win. That formula won’t carry the day, as they learned painfully today.

But I don’t care if they make the playoffs or not; I just hope they find a way to win and lose future games in a bit more exciting fashion than they did today in their first real test against a good defense since the Seahawks clobbered them.

If not, it’s going to be a long five weeks to the end of the season.


Harbaugh’s Not Whining. Seattle DBs Break the Rules

According to this piece on Bleacher Report today, 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh plans to seek league clarification on how far defensive backs can go with physical play downfield.

I know a lot of fans around the country will accuse Harbaugh of being whiny and trying to influence the officials before the Dec. 23 rematch between the Niners and the Seattle Seahawks. But the truth is, in this case, it appears to me that Harbaugh’s concerns are legitimate.

During last Thursday night’s game between the two teams at Candlestick, I was continually astonished by the downfield contact the Seahawks DBs engaged in, often right in full view of officials who seemed somehow blind to their offenses. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman were particularly egregious offenders from what I could see.

NFL rules prohibit a defender from making physical contact with a receiver more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. Yet I saw a dozen or more plays in which the ‘Hawks backs blatantly broke that rule. Not one such penalty was ever called.

I’m not saying this is limited to Seattle, though they seem to be the most egregious offenders according to NFL scuttlebutt. Whether it’s Seattle or someone else, though, it’s important that teams be able to count on the rules being enforced consistently. Harbaugh is right to question the performance of Thursday night’s officiating crew on this point.


Nifty Niners Win Big, Show Some Flash

The San Francisco 49ers mixed things up brillliantly at the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon as they handed the New York Jets their asses and their jockstraps in a 34-0 rout. The score would have been higher but for the fact that Colin Kaepernick slid at the 4-yard-line rather than rambling into the end zone for another six as the game entered its final moments.

Putting Kaepernick into the game early and giving him the ball a few times before the result was sewn up was a neat offensive trick that I found quite tasty. It kept the Jets’ defense on their heels, which was considerably south of the parts of their anatomy on which they spent most of the afternoon. There was razzle dazzle and the expected great defense.

The only part of the game that fell down was special teams, where David Akers missed two field goal tries, both to the right. Ordinarily, a placekicker blowing two three-pointers would be a minor footnote. But when that kicker is Akers, routinely among the best in the NFL and a guy who booted an NFL-record-tying 63-yarder two weeks ago, this kind of inconsistency is enough to get my attention.

So the Niners enter a three-game homestand against, consecutively, the Bills, the Giants and the Seahawks, all standing at 2-2 at this point and all dangerous foes. It seems likely they’ll finish that home stand at no worse than 5-2 and probably 6-1.

Nice start, guys!


Niners Win Handily, Officials Decimated by Stupidity

Check out my Storify story today about yesterday's surprisingly easy 30-22 Niners' win over the Green Bay Packers. The story also includes:

  • my comments on the Niners' new-found #1 Power Ranking
  • the worst officiating I've seen in more than 50 years of fandom and sports writing
Let me know how you're enjoying this Storify approach I'm poking at. I'm finding some blemishes but it may be worth my spending more time with, assuming you, my readers, don't just hate it!

NFL Preseason Live App is Way Cool

I downloaded the NFL Pre-Season Live iPad app and signed up for their service before tonight's San Francisco 49ers Preseason Opener. I am really, really impressed.

When I watch football games, I often use what i call "speed mode." I record the game, then watch every play but fast-forward between plays and through commercials. It's a rough experience sometimes, because I "overbutton" and have to backtrack too much of the time. Of course, even though I fast-forward through stuff, it still takes some time.

This app — which runs in my desktop browser as well — has a "condensed" game viewing mode which captures every play start to finish, no breaks, no time-outs, catches the penalties…. Perfect. It takes about 30 minutes to watch an entire NFL game. I'm going to be watching a LOT more football this year!

Great job, NFL.com!

Niners Ranked #6 in Early Power Rankings, Rest of West Below 20

Bleacher Report published its pre-season power rankings of the NFL teams today and while it's way too early to start predictions or bets based on such flimsy evidence, the result was unsurprising for fans and followers of the NFC West.

The Niners ranked #6 in the list but the other teams in the NFC West — the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Rams — all ranked #20 or below. In other words, the Niners are in the top 19% of the NFL, and their conference competition are all in the bottom third.

As I said, too early for predictions but I think it's probably safe to give the SF bunch a pass to the playoffs as champions of the West. It probably won't take a matchup of 2011's 13-3 record to get there, which is a good thing because I'm expecting them to go more like 11-5.

ESPN’s Sando Sees Deep 49er Trouble if Smith Falters

Mike Sando at ESPN.com says that if 49ers' starting QB Alex Smith has a forced extended layoff this season, the Niners will tank. He ranks his confidence level in the team's ability to win without Smith as 35%.

My guess is that's a bit pessimistic because I suspect Colin Kaepernick would rise to the occasion after a game or two of adjustment time and that the confidence level then would rise, but not any higher than 50-60%.

As Smith goes, so goes the franchise this year.