Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Week 4 NFL Wrap-up: Winning the Line of Scrimmage

Week 4 NFL Wrap-up: Winning the Line of Scrimmage

Photograph via Bleacher Report

Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ‘98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.

SAM: In contrast to last week’s guest columnist John Ambrose, who delivered a Drew Bledsoe-esque performance coming off the bench in my absence, I’m no fan of the New England Patriots. In part, it’s because they’ve beaten my beloved Steelers like the proverbial rented mule for the entire Tom Brady era. But just as enraging to me is the media’s apparent collective decision, at least since the Pats morphed into a juggernaut in the 2003-04 season, that the Patriots could never be an inherently flawed team. Patriots start 1-2? They’re still ahead of nine teams with better records going into Week 4 on the ESPN.com power rankings, with the collective wisdom being that they’ll somehow right the ship because Tom Brady is ANGRY!

Granted, the Pats put the hurt on the Bills this week, and looked pretty unstoppable in doing so. But why are the pundits so quick to assume that historical powerhouses like the Patriots will always get back on track, while the 4-0 Arizona Cardinals are just a mirage? Part of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that early in the season, there’s little to cling to other than last year’s performances; the various hands of rookies, injuries, free agents, and aging players have not yet been dealt. And part of that is due to the fact that certain teams have been demonstrably stronger than others in the past decade (Pats, Saints, Steelers, Packers, any team with Peyton Manning). But it seems that we’ve crafted a narrative where certain clubs will always figure it out, no matter how bad they look. Who decides which teams get this assumptive bump?

NATHAN: Media, obviously. Fans need to be sold on the NFL narratives, and so they need to hear that the Pats (Brady), Packers (Rodgers), and Broncos (Manning) will be good (Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and the Saints will have to wait until next year, when they’ll be the league’s redemption story). These are simple, familiar, and comforting stories. We can pretend we want something new, but we (humans? Americans?) value the outright winner so much that we’ll never respect and truly believe in a team like the Texans until they win a Super Bowl, or until Schaub takes some sort of media-mandated “leap” (basically, he needs to be less bald and less bulky; Rogaine and an Atkins diet could help). But watch—if the Texans win the Super Bowl this year or next with bombs to Andre Johnson and the best front seven in football (J. J. Watt is looking unstoppable, and Brian Cushing is not only on steroids, he’s the greatest bro not named Ryan Lochte), in 2019, even when Houston’s running the Wildcat with a 315 lbs. Tebow and a 45-year-old Plaxico Burress, we’ll be hearing about the Vaunted Texans Vertical Passing Game; even when their only good defenders are safeties, we’ll be reading articles about “how they breed ’em backers down there in Houston.” Those first impressions stick with us for years; it’s why everyone thinks the Ravens’ defense is as good as it was in 2000, even though Ray Lewis’s arms have slowly morphed into cinder blocks.

[pullquote_right]We’ll never respect the Texans until they win a Super Bowl.[/pullquote_right]

SAM: Much of the confidence that the media affords to struggling teams seems to be tied to the specific personalities of specific players (read: quarterbacks). Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning: these are guys who just REFUSE TO LOSE, despite the fact that all of them are playing in front of (mostly) garbage-can defenses, behind shaky offensive lines, with mediocre running games (though the Pats RBs have been solid of late), and are a combined 7-12 heading into week five. Why should we assume that any of these teams are going to overcome the real concerns associated with having to win games 34-28 every week? Meanwhile, the Texans, who have a nasty defense and look like the most complete team in the league, make their fans and followers so insecure that you can easily find “Why the Texans can’t win the Super Bowl” articles. The 49ers, with a similarly smothering defense and a vastly improved wide receiver corps from the team that was a botched special teams play away from going to the Super Bowl, can’t win with a hesitant, mediocre Alex Smith. Tony Romo and Jay Cutler are just losers.

The media seem to be stubbornly beholden to the narrative of the star quarterback, the leader of men who can fight through any hardship, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and perform every other cliché. This then translates into the narrative of which teams can actually succeed in the face of adversity. But look at the Niners, Texans, Cardinals, and Falcons—the four teams that have to be considered strongest in the league, at least for now. None have a superstar at QB, unless you want to extend that credit to Matt Schaub or Matt Ryan (who, to be fair, is playing at an MVP level for the first time in his career). Rather, the Cardinals, Texans, and Niners intersperse random offensive superstars (Larry Fitzgerald, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Vernon Davis, not Randy Moss) with the best defenses in the league, winning games in the trenches along the defensive lines. Interestingly, and comparatively, the Falcons have a ridiculous set of skill players on offense (Julio Jones, Roddy White, Matt Ryan, the corpses of Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez, the small plastic bag filled with Jacquizz Rogers’s alleged potential) and a defense that has, at least thus far, overcome the lack of a consistent pass rush (other than John Abraham) and the loss of star cornerback Brent Grimes to somehow make the stops that it needs. It’s a weird amalgamation of styles and success, and yet none of these teams are winning with the “media-mandated” “superstar” QB. What gives?

NATHAN: Well, during the Sunday night Giants-Eagles game, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how the NFL has become such a massively powerful and essentially faceless national institution{{1}} with so much flashy exposure{{2}} and $12 billion in projected revenue for 2012 . . . and yet if you were paying attention to any actual gameplay, you’d see how game was ebbing and flowing according to who was controlling the line of scrimmage . . . which happens to be the most old-school, back-to-the-basics, fundamental football idea in existence.{{3}} The offensive and defensive lines of both teams were playing to a stalemate (strong rush + good enough blocking = no offensive rhythm), and it wasn’t until the second half that Philly’s line started to open up holes, and LeSean McCoy started back-cutting around the defensive ends that over-committed to the tackle box and juking the linebackers and safeties who squared him up in open space. He was the Eagles’ best player by far, but he couldn’t do much in the first half, when his O-line couldn’t overpower the Giants’ D-line.

[pullquote_left]LeSean McCoy was the Eagles’ best player, but he couldn’t do much when his O-line couldn’t overpower the Giants.[/pullquote_left]

Because of contemporary rules that favor route running over contact coverage and devastating hits, a disruptive defensive line is one of the most treasured elements of today’s NFL team. Except for someone like Darrelle Revis (clearly one of the best corners ever), a defender can only shadow even a pedestrian receiver for a few seconds. So, the thinking goes, if the pass rush can pressure the quarterback quickly, it will stop the other team’s offense and thus always give its own offense a chance to scrap together a few scoring drives and win the game, no matter how mediocre the rest of the players.

Of course, the flipside is that an excellent offensive line can negate an excellent pass rush. This is what tends to happen in the playoffs. The reason the 49ers’ special teams error was so costly in last year’s NFC Championship Game was because neither offensive line nor defensive line would budge. Neither team established dominant line play, neither offense generated sustained success, and so the game turned on what is essentially luck. The same thing happened in the two Giants-Patriots Super Bowls. The teams played to a draw, the Giants happened to execute a few unusual plays that the Patriots couldn’t, and that was enough to swing the game.

Football is the closet sport we have to organized battle (i.e. war). The first thing we want to know about a military is, who is its commander-in-chief, and who is its general? With football, it’s: who is its coach, and who is its quarterback? (Preferably spoken in the Arnold voice from Kindergarten Cop.) Organized battle, whether occurring for real in Iraq, for entertainment at Lincoln Financial Field, or for imagination on the family Risk board is much more complicated than can ever be put into words (just ask Tolstoy, who needed over 580,000 of them to convey that Napoleon was influential in unthinkable ways). But NFL fans don’t need that complication. They need something simpler. They need to know that the tall, strong, slender, and handsome young man with the reasonable head of hair and the chin made smooth by the same Gillette Fusion MVP razor they can purchase at their local CVS is responsible for making their autumn Sunday afternoons less rage-filled. Am I saying Matt Ryan will lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl victory? The Falcons, an NFL franchise in an SEC location, will always feel like imposters, until they aren’t. Matt Ryan will always feel like a playoff failure, until he isn’t. In order to find out, certain prerequisites have to be met. Come December, when the NFL is in full hijacking-the-holidays mode, it all comes down to the least marketable question a football fan could ever ask: will Matt Ryan’s offensive line give him time to throw?

SAM: And in the case of Ben Roethlisberger, the answer is “No, absolutely not.” In honor of the Steelers’ bye week, which apparently has given James Harrison’s knee time to get worse and Troy Polamalu time to age another sixteen years in a week, I’m skipping the generic reactionary bullshit recaps. I’ll be back next week, ready to watch the Steelers get taken apart at home by a vastly superior Eagles team. Then I’m going to drink bleach.

[[1]]Its power is kind of scary. Take these two not-so-random examples. First of all, despite the player and coach and fan and media outcry, the league steamrolled the replacement ref fiasco, with the seal of approval being Goodell’s contrite apology as if he weren’t reveling in attention he’d bestowed upon the NFL simply because he could, simply because the NFL’s at the point where it’s every move is as dramatic as anything Shakespeare conceived. Two, the day a superstar disgraces himself (a la Favre) or retires nobly (e.g. Manning in a couple years), the league will grab whoever’s next on the assembly line (Matt Ryan, Matt Barkley) and get him filming DirecTV commercials as if no one else ever existed.[[1]]

[[2]]During the pregame, the last Eagle to run out of the tunnel was Brian Dawkins. He was wearing jeans and a tucked-in jersey, and he danced so vivaciously, and so excessively, maybe even more so than Ray Lewis, before running through the gauntlet of teammates, slapping hands and screaming like a psychotic. Of course, Dawkins isn’t on the Eagles. He’s retired, and the Eagles were retiring his number. So at some point later on, NBC shows the spectacle by which they retire his number. The lights are all dimmed, the stadium’s all fogged up, and Dawkins (now wearing a navy suit so snazzy it looks reflective) is standing on a stage, bopping around, head down, pumping his fist, while the crowd belts out that “Fly, Eagles Fly” song.[[2]]

[[3]]The moment I wrote down this note, Chris and Al threw it to Michele Tafoya down on the field. She was standing in front of one of those “Sunday Night Football” boards that teams put up during press conferences to transform a nondescript conference room into a gathering point for Very Important Affairs. Next to her, on a table, was a torso-and-head mannequin outfitted with a Kevlar vest and a reflective, dark silver facemask more ominous than the ones worn by the foreigners that challenged Maverick and Iceman in the final showdown in Top Gun. So Michele Tafoya starts breathlessly explaining how Michael Vick’s been wearing this previously top-secret military-only outfit to prevent injuries and increase his durability, speaking with no sense of irony and zero appreciation for preposterousness of the context. [[3]]