The Monday Morning Hangover

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 01, 2006



This week's Monday Morning Hangover was written while shaking off the effects of too much Russell's Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon, which was consumed New Year's Eve and then continued to hammer away at our collective skull on Sunday and into Monday. The press kit calls it "an exceptional 10-year-old bourbon." We call it a "fat girl" bourbon. It's great going down at night but doesn't seem so hot when you wake up in the morning and find it still lingering there beside you.
 
NFL regular season goes out with a whimper
Thank the Football Gods that we had a full slate of college bowl games this weekend because, for the second straight year, the NFL regular season whimpered to a sad, sorrowful and meaningless conclusion. Eleven of the final 16 games of the season had no bearing on the playoff picture and only five of the 12 teams that made the playoffs felt compelled to actually attempt to win this weekend. Even worse: All five teams that needed to win closed the season against shitty opponents who were out of the playoff picture.
 
Here's what passed for season-ending playoff drama in Week 17:
  • Pittsburgh (11-5) needed a win to guarantee itself a playoff spot and handed lowly Detroit (5-11) a 35-21 defeat.
  • Washington (10-6) clawed its way into the playoffs with a 31-20 win over sad-sack Philadelphia (6-10).
  • The N.Y. Giants (11-5) locked up the NFC East division title with a 30-21 win over pathetic Oakland (4-12).
  • Tampa Bay (11-5) secured the NFC South title with a 27-13 win over a disoriented New Orleans (3-13) team.
  • Carolina grabbed one of the final NFC wild-card spots with a 44-11 drubbing of Atlanta (8-8).
Yes, we realize that the BCS is a joke forced down the throat of football fans and that Division I college football is the only sports league in the world that stoops so low as to routinely fail to crown a legitimate champion on the field.
 
But the flip side is the most meaningful regular season in sports. Every contending team must win right through the end of the season to have a shot at the national championship. We never see what the NFL offered up: An entire week of games that meant virtually nothing.
 
ESPN goes overboard again
ESPN the Magazine recently declared Tony Dungy "the best coach in the NFL" (Jan. 2 issue, page 39).
 
Even when you're familiar with the magazine's mission statement – "To Grossly Over-inflate the Value, Skill, Performance, Ability, Historical Significance and Ego of Every Sporting Figure Who Appears in Our Pages" – it seemed like a bit of overkill. So, forgive us if we take ESPN's declaration with a few extra large grains of kosher salt.
 
Dungy is certainly a deserving Coach of the Year candidate following Indy's stellar 14-2 campaign in 2005. But last we checked, in every sport, coaches need to win a couple championships before they're considered the best in their given sport. Dungy, in his best years, has fallen at least two wins short of leading his team to a single title.
 
That, then, leaves us with two coaches who need to be considered the best in football. One is Bill Belichick, who has led New England to three championships. His accomplishments in recent years have been well-chronicled here and elsewhere. But the other coach has flown under the radar screen even though he also has led his team to three championships. His name, of course, is Joe Gibbs.
 
Gibbs can stake a claim as the best active coach in football for his history of NFL success dating back more than two decades. But he should also be considered a Coach of the Year candidate for his team's performance this season.
 
The Redskins posted a 10-6 mark, earning their first winning season and playoff appearance since 1999. They clawed their way into the playoffs by winning their final five games of the season, including key divisional victories over the N.Y. Giants (11-5) and Dallas (10-6) in back-to-back weeks in December. Washington won those two games by a combined score of 70-27.
 
Washington made the playoffs the hard way, facing 10 quality opponents this season – more than any other team in the NFC – and beating five of them. In fact, only one other NFC team faced 10 opponents this year with winning records. That team was Philly, an organization whose struggles this season were well-documented. The Eagles beat just two of their 10 quality opponents.
 
It's no small feat to make the playoffs during a season in which 10 of your 16 opponents were teams with winning records. In fact, if we look only at the best teams in football each season, we find that only one team in history went on to win the Super Bowl after facing 10 quality opponents in a single season. That team was the 1979 Steelers, who went 7-3 against quality teams before going on to win their fourth Super Bowl in six years.
 
In addition to Dungy, Chicago's Lovie Smith and Cincy's Marvin Lewis are leading Coach of the Year candidates. But the name Joe Gibbs needs to be tossed into the ring. What he's done to turn around the Redskins this year, against one of the most demanding schedules in football, is nothing less than remarkable. It's at least as impressive, if not more impressive, than what Lewis has done in Cincinnati and Smith has done in Chicago. Their teams each went 11-5 this season, but did so against weaker competition than Washington.
 
And, as far as being the best coach in football beyond just this season ... well, only one active NFL coach is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And, yes, his name is Joe Gibbs.
 
Alexander clear choice as MVP
While the Coach of the Year picture is more than a little muddy, the MVP race should be crystal clear to anyone who follows football and values history. Shaun Alexander was the best and most valuable player in football during the 2005 season.
 
Here's how Alexander's 2005 campaign stacks up against the performances of every other running back who has earned MVP honors over the past 25 years. 
 
Shaun Alexander, 2005
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
370
1,880
5.1
27
Receiving
15
78
5.2
1
 
Marshall Faulk, 2000
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
253
1,359
5.4
18
Receiving
81
830
10.2
8
 
Terrell Davis, 1998
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
392
2,008
5.1
21
Receiving
25
217
8.7
2
 
Barry Sanders, 1997
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
335
2,053
6.1
11
Receiving
33
305
9.2
3
 
Emmitt Smith, 1993
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
283
1,486
5.3
9
Receiving
57
414
7.3
1
 
Thurman Thomas, 1991
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
288
1,407
4.9
7
Receiving
62
631
10.2
5
 
Marcus Allen, 1985
 
Att./Rec.
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Rushing
380
1,759
4.6
11
Receiving
67
555
8.3
3
 
Alexander compares favorably to any running back who has won NFL MVP honors over the past 25 years. And, of course, his 2005 performance compares favorably to any other player's this year. Alexander is, in other words, the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2005. The fact that it's not an open-and-shut case lends some credence to the charges of anti-West Coast bias you often hear about in outposts like Seattle.
 
In 2004, Peyton Manning was universally (and deservedly) proclaimed the NFL's Most Valuable Player during a year in which he passed for more touchdowns (49) than any player in history, breaking the previous TD pass record of 48, while finishing third in passing yards. In 2005, Alexander scored more touchdowns (28) than any player in history, breaking the previous TD record of 27, while finishing first in rushing yards (1,880 yards).
 
If Manning deserved the MVP award in 2004, Alexander certainly deserves it in 2005.
 
Another compelling case for the Quality Wins Quotient
Seventeen teams played more than half their schedule (nine games or more) against quality opponents. Only four made the playoffs: Denver (7-3; 13-3 overall), New England (3-6; 10-6), Washington (5-5; 10-6) and N.Y. Giants (4-5; 11-5).
 
Nine teams played less than half their schedule (seven games or less) against quality opponents. All nine finished the season with winning records and seven of the nine made the playoffs: Cincy (3-4; 11-5), Indy (5-2; 14-2), Jacksonville (3-3; 12-4), Chicago (3-4; 11-5), Tampa Bay (4-3; 11-5), Carolina (3-4; 11-5) and Seattle (3-2; 13-3).
 
The two teams that played less than half their schedule against quality opponents and failed to make the playoffs were Miami (4-3; 9-7) and Minnesota (2-5; 9-7).
 
The Quality Wins Quotient took a bit of hit this season when we attempted to use it to pick every single NFL game. But when it comes time to separate the wheat from the chaff in the league, it remains the single most telling indicator in football.
 
Easy does it for Seattle
The Seahawks posted the best record (13-3) in the NFC this season and tied Denver for the second-best mark in football. But, with just five games against teams with winning records, they faced the easiest schedule in football this season.
 
Over the past two years, including the postseason, Seattle has faced just nine quality opponents. The Seahawks went 1-3 against quality teams in 2004 and 3-2 in 2005.
 
QB comparison
Peyton Manning's career passer rating: 93.5
Jim Sorgi's career passer rating: 99.1
 
LJ rips it up
Larry Johnson started just nine games in Kansas City this year, but that was enough for him to establish a new franchise rushing record with 1,750 yards on 336 carries (5.2 YPC).
 
Johnson did not start a game until Nov. 6 and, over the second half of the season, rushed for 1,444 yards (180.5 YPG).
 
Bears tumble down the defensive list
We had some fun tracking the status of our beloved Bears defense this season. But, with the NFC's No. 2 seed already wrapped up, Chicago emptied the bench in its meaningless season finale against Minnesota and lost 34-10.
 
While it had no bearing on the NFL playoffs, it did drop Chicago off the list of greatest defenses of all time. The Bears entered the game surrendering just 168 points through 15 games (11.2 PPG). It made the 2005 Chicago defense the second-best in the NFL's Live Ball Era (since 1978), behind only the 2000 Ravens defense (10.3 PPG), and the 13th-stingiest defense in the Super Bowl Era.
 
More interestingly, it put the 2005 Bears well ahead of the famed 1985 Bears (12.4 PPG) and its less well-known but tougher 1986 version (11.7 PPG).
 
But, after falling apart against Minnesota, the 2005 Bears gave up 202 points for the season, or 12.6 PPG. That ties the 2005 Bears with the 1992 Saints, who also surrendered 203 points, for 8th-best in the Live Ball Era. The 2001 Bears gave up just 203 points and are ninth on that list.

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