Don't sweat the small stuff, Part 1

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 30, 2006



 
It's the height of summer and a time when everyone on Planet Pigskin sweats like a 300-pound porker.
 
Players sweat from the gross physical exertion of dragging oversized bodies through the swampy air of a tropical football camp. Those here on Planet Pigskin who live a more sedentary lifestyle – that would be you, the beer-and-pizza-fueled football fan – sweat out every little training camp move, analyzing and overanalyzing its potential impact on your team's upcoming season.
 
Here's some advice to help you keep your barbecue-sauce-stained wife beater dry and your preseason a sane one: Don't sweat the small stuff.
 
Instead, sit back, relax and take a long lusty swig of icy and refreshing Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
We tend to look at football from a big-picture point of view. We've discovered that there are big, broad themes that govern the game – the universal truths of Planet Pigskin as dictated to us by the Newtonian physics of football. These trends tend to give us a little perspective, one that causes us not to fret, overanalyze or sweat here during steamy training camp season.
 
Here, then, is a big-picture NFL training camp overview, with an emphasis on the trends and pigskin proverbs that govern the game. We even provide a few inaction items to help keep you cool.
 
Part 1 is here. Part 2 appears tomorrow.
 
Chill out: Big Names don't always help you win Big Games
This is one of the most controversial maxims of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, but one we stand by most resolutely.
 
Sports fans tend to work themselves into a sweaty lather when their team signs Big Name player. Even worse, they work themselves into a depression when Big Name player leaves town for another team. This fan phenomenon – best defined as a lack of pigskin perspective – often reaches its zenith here in training camp and the preseason, when hope is at its highest.
 
Season ticket sales in Arizona skyrocketed when the Cardinals signed Big Name and Cold, Hard Football Facts favorite Edgerrin James. Dallas fans see Terrell Owens as the Big Name that will turn the Cowboys back into a title contender. New Orleans fans had Reggie Bush, one of the great Big Names in recent college football history, fall into their lap with the No. 2 pick in the draft.
 
Sure, Big Names are fun to watch, but they don't always help you win football games. In fact, in the Salary Cap Era of the modern NFL, Big Names often hurt teams more than they help – especially when they're signed at the dollar figures Big Names often demand.
 
Our years of studying football – and the stats that surround winning football teams – have proven one thing: Teams that are proficient in many areas are almost always more successful than teams that are dominant in a few areas.
 
What you want is a team that rates around 7 or 8 (on a scale of 10) in most major categories, rather than one that rates a 10 in a handful of categories and a 2 or 3 in others. We hate to use a cheesy metaphor, but football teams truly are only as strong as their weakest link.
 
The Salary Cap, meanwhile, accentuates this phenomenon. Teams that reach for Big Names are almost always sacrificing proficiency in another area by doing so, because they simply don't have enough money to spend in other areas. 
 
Oakland was a prime example last year: The Raiders swallowed up the final four years of Randy Moss's stupid eight-year, $75 million contract. Coupled with Jerry Porter's five-year, $20 million deal, it put undue financial resources into a single position. Quarterback Kerry Collins had a decent year, throwing for 3,759 yards and 20 TDs, but the Raiders struggled on the ground (ranking 29th with 1,369 yards) and were porous in virtually every single defensive category. Oakland finished just 4-12, even worse than their Moss-less 5-11 campaign in 2004.
 
So, just remember: It's great to be excited about the new Big Name players on your team. But there's a good chance your team will probably pay for this excitement somewhere else down the roster.
 
Inaction item: Look beyond the Big Names on your team's roster. Look at small names who are pegged as second- and third-stringers. Sooner or later, they'll be on the field and will play a big role in your team's success.
 
Chill out: The AFC is a 3½-horse race
Training camp is a sign of hope for all teams, and this hope can turn fans of even the most dysfunctional losers into a sweaty mass of excitement.
 
But barring some unexpected interruption in the Football Force that governs all things gridiron, Denver, New England or Pittsburgh will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl – no matter what transpires here in training camp. Indy will, in all likelihood, remain the dark horse who threatens to pull it all together sooner or later.
 
Denver, New England and Pittsburgh have combined for 8 of the last 11 AFC titles and six of the last 11 Super Bowl champions. There have been a lot of training camps and a lot of personnel and ownership changes in the NFL over the past 11 seasons, even among these three teams.
 
But one thing has remained constant: Systems and great QBs win in the Salary Cap Era NFL. In fact, great systems and great QBs have always won in the league. And right now in the NFL, the great systems belong to Denver, New England and Pittsburgh. Couple a great system with a great quarterback and you get a Super Bowl champion, as New England and Pittsburgh have proved in recent years, and as Denver proved in its Super Bowl-winning years when the awe-inspiring Shanahan ground attack system was coupled with a Hall of Fame quarterback in John Elway.
 
Perennial playoff contender Indy has nibbled around the edges of the AFC elite (and, by proxy, the NFL elite). Over the past 10 years, Denver, Indy, New England and Pittsburgh have filled a full 20 of the 40 available final four slots in the AFC playoffs. New England and Pittsburgh have each made six final-four appearances over this 10-year period; Denver and Indy have four each.
 
In a league dominated by systems and prolific QBs, there's no indication that the AFC will be anything but a 3½-horse race again in 2006.
 
Inaction item: Ask yourself if your team has upgraded its QB situation. Has it looked to establish a plug-and-play system that can continue in the face of injuries and defections? Has it defied the media and the "pundits" and quietly looked to upgrade its team in many areas, rather than chase Big Names? Has your team taken the failed system of the past and replaced it with something else?

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