Game 13 Review: Indianapolis

Opening Statement: There are half a dozen dividing lines between people who analyze information about sports and the fans and media. They’re almost always about the value of intangible or unmeasurable things:

  • Leadership: either by the players or the coach/manager.
  • Locker room atmosphere: the personalities of teh players.
  • Defense: usually “Why it is way more valuable than offense.”
  • Clutch performance: which, even though it pops up at random points, is an ability and not random.
  • In-game events: A single play or at-bat changing the course of the game.

My attitude is not that these things don’t exist– or don’t matter. It’s that nobody can document how much they matter and demonstrate how and where they apply.

People who like Peyton Manning, for example, point out that without his leadership and savvy, the Colts (who were 10-6 in 2010) fell to 2-14. My question is “OK, if Manning is worth 8 games, then why did Denver (which was 8-8 with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow) improve to only 13-3?”

Shouldn’t it be only five games (the number of games Denver improved)?

Does giving Manning the credit for the eight additional losses mean that the 53 other players, strength of schedule and coaching are all meaningless?

There’s no difference between Kyle Orton (who is still starting and beat the Browns a few weeks ago) and Tim Tebow (who won a playoff game)– the duo who preceded Manning in Denver– and Dan Orlovsky. Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter, not one of whom has started another game?

When the Indians signed Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, people talked about how their playoff experience would help the team. I pointed out that Bourn (who was 1-6 in the playoffs), had been the goat of the 2012 Wild Card game and Swisher was 26-154 (that’s a .169 average), and asked “If their performance is an accurate reflection of their ability, how does adding these people help?”

But the big reason I don’t set much store in this stuff is simple: People who claim to believe in it often toss it out the window when it doesn’t help their case.

When Mike Pettine named Brian Hoyer the starter against the Colts, it was reported that he relied heavily on input from the veterans. Joe Thomas was publicly credited; I’m told Andrew Hawkins thought Hoyer deserved to start. On the defense, Donte Whitner was vocal and Paul Kruger and Joe Haden apparently weighed in as well.

My opinion of Hoyer has been public record for two years. I never believed he was materially different than Kyle Orton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mike Glennon, Chad Henne and other journeymen quarterbacks.

My position on Johnny Football was stated in full after the Buffalo game:  If you spend two high draft picks on a player, you need to begin evaluating him as soon as possible

If you try a rookie and he plays badly– as the Browns’ other #1 pick, Justin Gilbert has– that’s a valid reason not to play him. Especially if (as is true with the Browns) you have better players. But not to play the guy because you’re hoping a team with no proven running back or wide receiver can stagger into the playoffs on the shoulders of a journeyman? That’s insane.

But to the degree you believe in veteran leadership, you have to trust the opinion of the players who supported Hoyer.  Thomas is going into the hall of fame. Whitner is a two-time Pro Bowler who played in a Super Bowl and two conference championships; Kruger was the defensive star of the Super Bowl champs.

Maybe they’re ignoring the obvious superiority of Johnny Football (or the gross inferiority of Hoyer) due to friendship. Maybe they’re afraid to play rookies, like Spud Shaw was. (And Terry Pluto as well.)

It’s worth pointing out, for example, that Bill Belichick’s decision to stay with Tom Brady in 2001 was not unanimously popular.

When Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury in game two (the Pats were 0-1) and missed several games, a lot of players thought Bledsoe– who was only 29, a former #1 overall pick, a three-time Pro Bowler and the starting QB on the team that went to the Super Bowl against Green Bay– deserved his job back. It took many games until everyone bought into Brady.

Or maybe they have looked deep into Johnny Football’s soul (or lack thereof) and watched him in practice and determined– sooner and more correctly than anyone else can– that Johnny Football is a disaster waiting to happen.

The ideal case study being Ryan Leaf or Jamarcus Russell, whom their teammates disliked (in Leaf’s case, despised) on sight and did not want to start. (Todd Marinovich would be another case).

It’s not clear, at this point, what the truth is. But if his teammates say “We want this guy”, you better give serious consideration to what they say. Because, if you don’t, you risk tearing the team apart.

You’re kidding– Hoyer cost us the game.

No he didn’t. For one thing, Billy Cundiff cost the team the game, by missing a 40-yard field goal in good weather, with a decent snap and hold.

For the other, you have no idea what would have happened if Johnny Football had played. If you want to believe that every other event in the game would have been identical if the coach had changed quarterbacks, that’s fine with me.

But it’s your opinion– it isn’t a fact. I don’t agree with that opinion and my position is unalterable. You don’t know what would have happened had Johnny Football started the game

All he would have had to do–

I do not need anyone to demonstrate the magnitude of the offense’s ineptitude. I was planning to display a table listing the number of times that a team has scored two or more defensive touchdowns and lost the game… but Pat McManamon saved me the trouble. Read the piece, click the links, learn all you need to know

Pat and I have been exchanging e-mails for 15 years, and that’s the sort of stuff I used to send him. It’s great to see other people who can do that type of work, even  if it is provoking a mid-life crisis.

The question I’d ask in return is “What proof do you have that every other component of the game would have been identical, had Mike Pettine has decided to start Johnny Football?”

Offensive and defensive game plans are not separate things– they’re two sides of the same coin, developed collaboratively. Paul Brown is the coach who defined the process:

  1. The offensive and defensive units review film of the opponent and determine how many points they believe the can score (a) if everything goes well for them, (b) if the opponent does everything right, and (c) in the most likely scenario.
  2. The units meet to exchange the figures.
  3. Based on the projected results, one or both units might change their plans.

The basic example. The offense says “We can throw of them and put up 28-40 points. We’re figuring somewhere in the low 30’s.”

The defense says “OK, that could be a problem. We don’t think we can stop these guys. We’re figuring they score at least 31, probably 35 and maybe as many as 42.”

At which point, the offense might say “We were planning to throw 45-50 passes. If we run the ball, we could eat up more of the clock.

“We wouldn’t score as many points– we’d be in the 27-31 region, because there would be fewer possessions, But we could probably stay on the field for 35-40 minutes. Would that help?”

The defense might reply “Yes that would. We can’t stop them in our base defense, so we were going to try to pressure the passer– figuring we might give up some big plays, but hoping to make some. If you can hold the ball, we can play a more conservative scheme– stay in the nickel and go “bend but don’t break”– and make them work harder to earn it.

“We could keep them in 24-31 if you can hold the ball for close to 40 minutes.”

It goes back and forth. Maybe the kicking teams says “We think we can break a return or block a punt.”  (This is obviously a hypothetical answer, since Chris Tabor‘s kicking teams can’t do that unless the opponent commits hara-kiri.)

The notion that one team would change quarterbacks– and neither the defense nor the opponent would do anything differently– is ludicrous.

He wouldn’t have needed–

Here’s the second thing you don’t understand: The amount of confidence a team has in a quarterback determines how well they play,

This is something I first noticed with Mike Phipps & Brian Sipe, but I’ve seen it many times. The most recent examples with the Browns have been Tim Couch & Kelly Holcomb and Brady Quinn & Derek Anderson.

If the players on the offense and/or defense don’t believe in the quarterback– or other key players– they play with less enthusiasm. They don’t seem to move as fast, or execute as crisply or make as many good plays.

One illustration. If Brandon Weeded holds the ball and holds the ball and holds it– because he can’t read defenses and find an open man– linemen won’t make the extra effort to hold linemen back for the extra half-second. Why kill yourself when it won’t matter?

If the defense figures the offense won’t score– or they believe the offense can win if the defense does its job– it affects their play. Defenses rely more on emotion than offenses do.

A more obvious example: If the wide receiver doesn’t think the quarterback can get him the ball, he’s going to quit running during his pattern. Or not dive for a ball. Or not fight the corner for it. Or not make a good read.

Are you insinuating something about Josh Gordon?

No, I’m saying it: Puff is tanking. He doesn’t want to be in a cold-weather city playing in an open-field stadium for a quarterback he feels is unworthy of his talents.

One possibility is that he was tanking to get Hoyer out of there. The other is that he’s just tanking.

You’re aware he refuted that.

No, he just denied it.  He denied he was a drug addict, or that he lied. He can say whatever he wants, I’m not obligated to believe it.

The assumption that the defense (a) would have used the same game plan or (b) would have played as hard for Johnny Football is pure speculation. Maybe they would have played harder, maybe they would have put less into it… maybe it would have been exactly the same.

Neither of us knows. I’m just admitting that uncertainty. In their game against Washington, Indianapolis went after QB Colt McCoy on about 50% of the plays. In the Browns’ game they rushed Hoyer about 30% of the time. Was that because:

  • Washington’s line is weaker than Cleveland’s and the Colts didn’t think they could get through?
  • The Colts were worried that Hoyer would beat then on the blitzes?
  • The Colts didn’t want to give McCoy time to throw (he has several excellent receivers) and weren’t worried about the Browns’ receivers.
  • The Colts thought they could intercept Hoyer if they dropped more men into coverage, but felt McCoy wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
  • It was McCoy’s first start and the Colts thought they could rattle him.
  • They wanted to make McCoy scramble, because they thought he made bad decisions once he left the pocket.

All those rationales are plausible. Since McCoy and Johnny Football are similar types of quarterbacks, it’s very probable that Indy would not have used the same sets that they did against Hoyer.

How can you think Johnny Manziel
wouldn’t have done better?

Look, when a player has a game rating of 29.3, it’s likely that anyone else would have done better. Hoyer went 13-30 for 136 yards (4.5 yards a throw), with no touchdown passes and two picks. It would be hard to do worse.

But look at the evidence. The Wall Street Journal looked at the results when a #1 pick, who has sat more than half the season, makes his first start. There have been 7 guys (since the league went to full free agency in 1994) who qualified.

Their chart has 11 guys, but the competitive landscape was different when teams could hold onto players forever. I don’t think they were playing with the data– they picked a 25-year interval– but I think they chose the wrong one.

Of those 7 guys:

  • Tim Tebow and Jamarcus Russell played well (game ratings over 90)
  • Steve McNair had a good game (85.2).
  • Jay Cutler and Rex Grossman sucked (ratings of 60).
  • Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning were Weeden-esque (ratings of 45)

Yes, all of those are higher than 29.1… but not a lot higher. And Hoyer’s results would have been higher if just two passes had been caught.

OK, there’s no point in talking to you…

I’m not going to assume that Johnny Football would have done better. Look, there are a lot of things that happened during the gamer.

1. “Poke” Cameron played, and the run-blocking got worse.

2. Without Miles Austin at Split End, the Browns had an undersized receiving crew on most plays. It got beat up.

3. The Browns ran 32 times and gained only 116 yards (3.6 per carry).

4. Hoyer didn’t target a single running back. He has thrown only 41 passes to running backs all season lon. Possibly because all of them have been horrible:

  • Ben Tate, despite being cut several games ago and missing some games with injuries, is still the team leader in receptions (9 on 12 targets) and second, by a single yard, in yards (60).
  • Terrance West (9-10 for 51 yards, the only TD) has been hopeless.
  • Isaiah Crowell (6-10 for 61 yards) is the only back averaging more than 7 yards a catch.
  • Ray Agnew (3-9 for 15 yards) has been as big a black hole as Owen Marecic.

Not to make too many excuses for Hoyer, but the guy has had virtually nothing to work with:

  • Despite being fourth in rushing attempts, they’re 15th in yards and 28th in average. Crowell is averaging 4.4 yards, which is the NFL average.
  • The Browns’ leading receiver, Andrew Hawkins, is 41st in catches (with 56),  28th in yards (756), tied for 44th in yards per catch (13.5) and tied for 98th in TD catches (2).Austin, the #2 guy is 64th in both catches (47) and yards (556) and yards per catch (12.1), and also tied for 98th in TD catches.

And you don’t think Hoyer is responsible for any of that.

He’s not blameless, but, as has always been true, there isn’t much talent at the skill positions. They have a receiver who can play well when he feels like it and a tight end who won’t block and hasn’t been healthy. I wouldn’t re-sign Poke and I would trade Puff

if you imagine that Andrew Luck would look a lot better with these guys, you’re dreaming. The line is better and the backs couldn’t be worse.

But he had receivers who could get open on every play. They didn’t always get open, thanks to heroic coverage, but they had the ability to separate.  Luck was struggling making the short throws– and coupled with the determination to try to run the ball and throw short– that throttled back the air attack

Johnny Football will be more interesting to watch, but it’s an open question as to whether he’ll be better.

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