Clayton: This Year’s Good Teams Will Be Next Year’s Good Teams

John Clayton, Great Prognosticator, has come up with a list of seven teams he thinks are the early favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl.

I’m just going to come right out and tell you what teams he’s got: the Packers, the Steelers, the Patriots, the Colts, the Saints, the Falcons and the Ravens.

So we have the last two Super Bowl champions, the top three seeds in the AFC, the team with the third-best record in the AFC, and the top seed in the NFC.

This is great stuff. What would we do without this valuable knowledge that the best teams are still the best teams right now, before anyone has made any roster moves or anything? Is Clayton that hard up for shit to write about now? I can just imagine the conversation with his editor:

“Hey, Editor, I don’t know what to write. I know I have to write something, but I have absolutely nothing to say.”

“Well, John, why don’t you handicap next year’s Super Bowl two days after this year’s Super Bowl?”

“But that’s ridiculous. How can we really say who’s going to win next year’s Super Bowl? This is a league of parity, so there are surprise teams every year; this season’s disaster can easily be next season’s champion.”

“Yeah, but who do these people think you are, fucking Nostradamus? Who are the best teams this year, Clayton?”

“Probably the two in the Super Bowl, right, and the Patriots, they won the AFC; and the Falcons, they won the NFC; and the Colts, Manning is still great; and the Ravens, they won 12 games; and throw the Saints in there, since they just won the Super Bowl too.”

“So basically this article is just a big middle finger to the Jets, Bears and Eagles. Alright, I dig it. How quick can you have it for me?”

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Bringing Up Some Old Shit

Let’s stick to our theme of John Clayton articles that vaguely have to do with the Jets-Steelers game. Friend of FJC Susan Shan recently wrote about how aggressive play calling worked for Mike Tomlin — going with a pass play with less than two minutes to go to ice the AFC Championship game instead of running the clock and punting. Unfortunately, in her effort to prove a point of comparison between Tomlin and known loser Marty Schottenheimer, she linked to… you guessed it. John Clayton.

Am I really going to do this with a four-year-old column about a 2006 AFC Divisional Game? You’re fucking right I am. This one’s called “Patriots teach Chargers a lesson in playoff football.”

Schottenheimer may not have gone as conservative in his offensive play-calling as in past playoff eliminations, but the failures against the Patriots hit on a striking theme.

Please don’t say that they played not to lose.

The Chargers played not to lose.

FUCK.

The Chargers called 19 first-down running plays for LaDainian Tomlinson, including five in which he gained 11 or more yards.

Handing the ball off to your all-world, record-setting superstar playmaker running back — the best player on your team and maybe in the league — is now called playing not to lose.

In case you forgot about the legendary season LT had that year, let me remind you. He rushed 348 times for 1,815 yards — a 5.2 average — and scored 28 (TWENTY-FUCKING-EIGHT) rushing touchdowns. The Chargers “played not to lose” all year by handing him the ball all the way to a 14-2 record.

LT rushed 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns in that AFC Divisional Game. Do you know what Philip Rivers did in that game? No? That’s probably because Clayton refers to him one fucking time in the entire article. So what did Philip Rivers do? He completed 14 of 32 passes for 230 yards (64 of those by LT), no touchdowns and an interception. He also lost a fumble.

Consider for a moment that, as Clayton says, 19 of LT’s 23 carries were on first down. That’s gotta make you say, well, how about second down? In San Diego’s 19 second-down plays over the first 59 minutes of the game, they passed 13 times. (I’m not even including the final drive here.) The few times they ran it were almost all in short-yardage situations. They ran the ball on second-and-long ONE time. Never have I seen such commitment to the run game!

But go on. Please. Be my guest.

Belichick and Tom Brady were all over the place. Brady couldn’t find his rhythm in the first half so they junked some two-tight end sets and went to a three-receiver offense, sprinkling in some no-huddle once he got a rhythm.

This is actually the very next sentence after the one about LT, so apparently, it’s further proof of the Chargers playing not to lose.

The Chargers continued playing not to lose, while the Patriots just tried to make enough plays to be one play ahead of San Diego at the end of the game.

In a span of five sentences, the Chargers have “played not to lose,” run the ball for double-digit gains on first down multiple times, and “continued playing not to lose.”

Brady was awful for all but the final drive of the first half.

Guess he was playing to lose at the time.

The Chargers executed a solid, conservative game plan. Tomlinson was great on first downs, but the Patriots defense wasn’t concerned as long as Tomlinson didn’t bust long touchdown runs. Tomlinson wasn’t going to beat them with 10-yard runs.

LT’s 22nd of 23 carries went for his second touchdown of the day, giving the Chargers a 21-13 lead at the time. He was beating them with 10-yard runs; thanks to him, the Chargers were able to sustain drives all day long. That “solid, conservative game plan” of handing the ball off to arguably the best player in the NFL that year was working perfectly. Can you imagine if Schottenheimer called for Rivers to throw the ball 50 times? Clayton would have ripped him a new one for not handing the ball off to LT, guaranteed.

Eventually, inexperienced playoff quarterback Philip Rivers had to make a play, and the Patriots were ready to stop him.

This is literally the only mention of Philip Rivers in this article.

14-for-32.

So let’s get this straight. Running the ball with LT roughly 50% of the time (we’ll throw out the last all-pass series because it was in desperation mode) is a “conservative game plan” and “playing not to lose.” What the Chargers should have done instead, Clayton implies, is have “inexperienced playoff quarterback Philip Rivers” throw the ball more than the 32 times that he did, even though “the Patriots were ready to stop him.”

Kind of sounds like they’re fucked either way.

The Chargers led 14-3 and could have started running away with the game.

San Diego never had the ball when leading 14-3. Never. Not for one play. They scored to go up 14-3, then the Patriots marched right down the field and scored to make it 14-10 before the half.

In the second half, Brady completed 18 of 32 passes for 177 yards. Sure, he threw three interceptions on the game. But Belichick kept trying to let Brady improvise and make the plays that would eventually let the Patriots win.

Sounds like Brady was better in the second half. Seems like that might be why the Patriots won.

As he has done so often in these big games, Schottenheimer played the field-position game.

Oh, this is a nice new angle. Too bad it’s a pile of bullshit.

The Chargers’ average starting point was their 37, but they had three possessions that started at midfield or in Patriots territory. The Chargers had a touchdown and two punts in those possessions. The Patriots had six starts inside their own 20.

The first such drive started, indeed, at midfield. The Chargers ran the ball on first down. (So conservative! No other NFL coach would do that!) Rivers then threw incomplete twice and they were forced to punt. One run and two passes.

In the second of those three drives, the touchdown-scoring one in the second quarter, the Chargers went for it on fourth down (playing not to lose!).

In the third such drive, leading 14-10, the Chargers ran the ball three times, got a first down, then took a holding penalty, threw an incomplete pass, and ran the ball second-and-19 (a good play with the defense playing prevent that ended up not working), only to get called for a penalty.

So they were faced with a third and 19 at New England’s 28 yard line. It’s about a 46-yard field goal from there with traditional playoff choker Nate Kaeding.

As an NFL coach, you’re faced with two options on this play. Either you run it, figuring that the Patriots are most likely going to be in prevent defense, allowing you to pick up, say, 6 or 8 yards and get into easier field goal range, or you try a low-percentage play to try to get if not a first down, at least close enough to go for it on fourth down if you need to. The conservative play call here is to run it and kick the field goal to go up by seven points.

What’s Schottenheimer do? He calls for a pass, Rivers is sacked for a 10-yard loss that puts the Chargers out of field goal range, and San Diego is forced to punt.

This, in the world of John Clayton’s bulbous head, is “playing the field-position game.”

You can call this the  “playing the write-an-article-about-a-game-you-didn’t-watch game.”

Perhaps the strangest call of the game came in the first quarter. Schottenheimer went for a fourth-and-11 instead of attempting a 49-yard field goal by the AFC’s Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding. Naturally, the fourth-down play didn’t work.

That doesn’t sound like playing not to lose. Going for seven points instead of three in the first quarter is extremely aggressive. See:

“I thought we had a play that we could use that would make the yardage,” Schottenheimer said. “The intention was to be very aggressive. I thought we had a play that would get it and Cam Cameron said, ‘I’ve got one’ and we went ahead and did it.”

Everything about what Schottenheimer did in this entire game was aggressive — stupidly fucking aggressive — so, naturally, John Clayton excoriates him for not being aggressive enough.

Things started unraveling in the third and fourth quarters. Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence got a 15-yard unnecessary roughing penalty after Brady was stopped on a third-down sack at the Chargers’ 36-yard line.

Not mentioned here: Eric Parker’s muffed punt that gave the Patriots great field position for that drive. Obviously also Marty Schottenheimer’s fault. Shouldn’t have called for such a conservative punt return.

Tackle Shane Olivea got an unnecessary roughing penalty after an extra point following a Tomlinson TD that put San Diego ahead 21-13 in the fourth quarter. Kicking off from their 15, the Chargers handed great field position to the Patriots.

When the Chargers get good field position, they’re “playing the field position game.” When the Patriots get good field position, the Chargers “handed great field position to the Patriots.”

But after driving to the Chargers’ 41, Brady was picked off by Marlon McCree with just over six minutes left in the game. Troy Brown stripped the ball from McCree’s hands, though, and Reche Caldwell recovered it, giving the Patriots a first down and new life.

Oh, the Patriots got lucky as a motherfucker! Must be Marty Schottenheimer’s fault.

The final straw came with 2:31 left in regulation. Brady spotted the Chargers in press man-to-man coverage at the line of scrimmage. He hit Caldwell down the sideline for a 49-yard completion that set up Gostkowski’s game-winning 34-yard field goal.

It was the last play the Patriots made to win the game. The Chargers played not to lose.

Except for all those aggressive plays they made to try to win the game, like going for it on fourth down multiple times, eschewing field goal tries to go for touchdowns, and passing consistently (and ineffectively) on second and third down.

Seems more like the Patriots won because they had the better quarterback and the Chargers had two fluky fumbles late in the game. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?


No, Seriously, John Clayton Sucks

Ever since the untimely demise of firejoemorgan.com, there has been a void in the world of sports journalism criticism that occasional #FJM marathons on Deadspin are unable to fill. I’m sure other Doritos-eating, mother’s-basement-dwelling mole people like me have attempted to come out of the woodwork to blatantly imitate what the FJM writers were able to do with such humor and eloquence, but failed miserably or just weren’t noticed. Where they failed, I will, well, probably also fail.

I’m sort of mystified that no one aside from Sean Salisbury has noticed that John Clayton sucks, and since Sean Salisbury is more or less illiterate, I guess it’s left to me to carry that torch as well. I may not be as funny as the FJM writers and I may not write for a successful TV show (or any TV show at all, or really anyone who pays significant money for writing of any sort), but the world needs this. Or, at the very least, I need this.

I formed what will one day be described by my official biographer as “the vendetta that defined [my] very existence” by simple chance: I happened upon this horrendous piece of non-information by Clayton. Since the Jets deferred and then lost, there’s only one thing we can expect from Clayton: wild generalizing. It’s called “Deferring doesn’t make sense.”

My latest pet peeve is coaches who defer the opening kickoff after winning the coin toss.

A hypothesis is always a good start to any scientific paper.

Jets coach Rex Ryan and Dolphins coach Tony Sparano are the league’s biggest proponents of the strategy. What I can’t figure out is why. Ryan did it eight times during the regular season and he ended up with the second-lowest first-quarter scoring totals in football.

… And an 11-5 record. And a win against the Colts in the playoffs after Indianapolis won the coin toss and elected to receive.

In the ’10-’11 regular season, the Jets had a 7-3 record when kicking off and a 4-2 record when receiving. So kicking off clearly worked out just fine for them, although certainly not in a statistically significant way.

Sparano’s slow starts in games almost cost him his job.

Fuck me sideways.

Miami’s points by quarter this year:

  • First: 70
  • Second: 72
  • Third: 60
  • Fourth: 71

If those look like bizarrely low totals to you, well, they are. Miami had the third-worst offense in the NFL this year, which probably had more to do with almost costing Tony Sparano his job than starting slowly. The Dolphins not only started slowly, they also continued slowly and finished slowly. Several NFL teams posted single-quarter scoring totals larger than Miami’s best two quarters combined. Maybe Sparano’s offense playing like a pile of shit for the entire game, pretty much every game, is a little more relevant than whether he elects to kick or receive.

Ryan figures the Jets are playing to their strengths by having their defense on the field at the start of games. Every offensive coach the Jets face has a 15-play script of what he wants to do early. Why give him the chance to run it when you control the action at the beginning of the game by winning the toss?

John Clayton Revelation: NFL offensive coordinators come up with game plans.

Does having the second possession mean you’re going to deviate from your offensive game plan four minutes into the fucking game? If you’re planning to do, for example, what the Steelers were able to do to the Jets in the first half of the AFC Championship — in short, ball control and long drives — are you going to throw out your “script” because you’re down 3-0 or 7-0 in the first quarter?

No. No you’re not. You’re going to run the same fucking plays regardless. No offensive coordinator who values his job is going to abandon his game plan to start heaving the ball 40 yards down the field in an attempt to make a dramatic first-quarter comeback.

I went through the entire season of coin tosses. Teams deferred kickoffs 74 times this season. In 50 of those games, the other team ended up getting points first. The NFL is an offensive league. Why not take the ball and try to score?

The team that gets the ball first tends to score first? NO FUCKING WAY. Too bad that’s not relevant.

Still, impressive data. (Who the fuck keeps track of coin tosses like that?) Conspicuously missing information: What was the deferring team’s record in those games? What was the kicking team’s record this year in all games combined? I don’t know and I’m not going to waste five hours of my life finding out, but I’m willing to bet one whole bag of Doritos that deferring didn’t have any negative effect on the deferring teams’ records, or you’d actually have a number that says it did.

For the Jets’ part, in the 10 regular-season games in which they kicked off (I neither know nor care whether they deferred; the kicking team is the kicking team and the receiving team is the receiving team, no matter who won the coin toss), the other team scored first six times. The Jets still went 7-3 in those games.

To me, the deferred kickoff is like the overuse of the two-point conversion. For years, many coaches tried it in the first half and failed. Some found the failed use of the two-point conversion took points off the board instead of balancing the score.

Going for two is a fairly low-percentage play — it succeeds at a rate of about 40%, to be precise, which means that going for two unless you need to is provably fucking retarded. It’s kind of like sacrifice bunting with your No. 2 hitter. Kicking off at the beginning of a game, on the other hand, changes the distribution of possessions so that you have the possibility of back-to-back possessions before and after halftime, as well as the ball at the beginning of the second half, which is generally considered, you know, the more important half.

Let’s go back to the baseball analogy. It’s generally accepted that the home team in a baseball game has a strategic advantage because it has the last at-bat. You’ll never hear a baseball player say he can’t wait to go on the road so his team can have the chance to score first. Deferring the opening kickoff is very much the same principle as being at home in baseball — you’re giving yourself the last at-bat, in a sense, setting yourself up for the possibility of an extra possession at the end of the game (unless you turn the ball over, but if you’re doing that, you have bigger problems) that — if you have an offense and defense that keep you in the game, which is exactly what those Jets units were built to do — give you the opportunity to drive down the field and tie or win.

By all means, if you have Michael Vick or Peyton Manning at quarterback and it’s bombs away from beginning to end, go for it — receive. If that’s not your game, though, too fucking bad — receive anyway, ’cause if you decide to kick off, you might as well just stab yourself in the face.

In John Clayton’s world, NFL teams that kick off are already losing 1-0.

Deferring the kickoff in order to get the ball at the beginning of the second half is a failed strategy.

Because the Jets lost to the Steelers. If Ben Roethlisberger threw that final pass to Antonio Brown into the ground, the Jets got the ball back and scored to win the game, it would have been a successful strategy. But because the Jets lost, clearly deferring was a failed strategy. When the Jets were 8-3 after kicking off, it was just fine. Lose a game in the playoffs in which you kicked off and it’s now a failed strategy. That’s the kind of brilliant logic that John Clayton brings to the table.

This is all part of a general theme in NFL “journalism” in which every risky strategic move that works is staggeringly brilliant, while every one that fails is horrendously stupid and a failure. The Saints onside kicking to start the second half in last year’s Super Bowl — “one of the greatest coaching jobs in Super Bowl history.”

Unless the Colts recover the kick, in which case he’s an idiot who gambled the fucking Super Bowl on a low-percentage play with a rookie kicker that his team recovered because of a lucky bounce off perennial piece of shit Hank Baskett’s hands. If Hank Baskett wasn’t such a piece of shit, Sean Payton wouldn’t be a genius.

If Mark Sanchez’s “fumble” for a TD had been ruled an incomplete pass, the Jets could well be headed to the Super Bowl and deferring would be a smart strategy again.

Fuck that, Clayton. You’re on notice.