Friday, October 12, 2007

NFL week 5 – the Velvet Bear

I hadn't intended to catch the Cowboys/Bills game this week. The team with the most points in the NFL in opposition to the side with the worst defense anywhere didn't exactly look mouthwatering, unless you are the sort of person who likes watching Bambi's mother get shot (or unless you support Leicestershire at cricket, in which case why would you want to suffer twice?).

Fortunately, a slightly complicated sequence of events, where nothing worked out quite as I intended it to, meant that I ended up seeing the game anyway. I'm really glad that I did. Forget the fact that the Cowboys won 25-24. Forget the fact that they did so with a 53 yard field goal in the final second*. Forget, even, that along the way Tony Romo, imperious this season, threw no fewer than five interceptions. To me, it was what the Bills did in the first quarter that was special.

First of all, we had two exceptional pieces of skill from Bills punter Brian Moorman. Now, punters really are the runts of any NFL team. Their sole role in the team is to come onto the pitch when their team's offense has failed to move the ball the requisite 10 yards in the first 3 downs.

They are then expected to hoof the ball as high and as far as they can, hopefully landing it somewhere inside the final 10 metres of the opposition half. That's it. Maybe they get to make the occasional tackle if their opponents catch the punt and manage to run it back far enough. Very very occasionally they get to take a long range kick at goal. It is a job which lacks glamour, thanks and – in NFL terms – money.

In this game, the Bills received the ball from the kick-off. They ground to a halt well inside their own half after 3 plays and so Moorman was sent for, with the side still 4 yards short of a first down.

The ball was snapped back. Moorman caught it. And ran and ran. For a full 10 yards. It doesn't sound much, but for someone to do something like that on the fourth play of a match takes real guts. If he hadn't made the first four yards, Moorman would have handed the Cowboys the ball deep in his own half. Because remember, those 10 yards are measured from where the ball started, not where Moorman started, which was a good 20-25 yards from where the ball was snapped to him.

The surprise of that move didn't unsettle the Cowboys too much and, although Moorman had given his side another four downs, they failed to make any real headway with the first three and so he was very quickly back on the field again. This time he did punt the ball in the normal way, this time from just inside the Dallas half (or at least the ball was just inside the Dallas half, see above).

With accuracy astonishing even at this level, Moorman landed the ball just two yards from the Dallas goal line. Which meant Dallas had to play from practically on their own line and the pressure was enough for Romo to throw his first interception of the evening – one which was run straight back at him for a touchdown to the Bills.

Even more remarkable was what happened the next time Dallas had the ball. Romo threw another interception. Moreover, their offensive team looked completely rattled by a defence reaching legendary levels of uselessness. It took a little while to work out why. To understand, you need to understand the 'line of scrimmage'.

The line of scrimmage is the point where the two teams face one another. On one side you have the offensive line and on the other the defensive. The offensive line will almost always have 5 players in it, sometimes even more. The defensive line can have anywhere between 3 and 7 players in it, depending upon what the offense does. The players crouch down like sprinters in the 'set' position, with either one or two hands on the ground.

What the Bills were doing was putting anything up to 7 players on the line, but only one of them was going into the 'set' position; the rest of them were standing like – to continue the athletics analogy – the way middle distance runners do when they start a race. Not only was this perfectly legal, it was confusing the hell out of the Cowboys, who didn't seem to have a clue what was going on. It is one of those tactics that probably isn't going to work more than once, but full credit to whoever came up with it.

In the rest of the NFL:
Two seasons ago, the Steelers and the Seahawks contested the Superbowl. Last season the Seahawks suffered badly from the strange phenomena whereby the losing Superbowl side suffers a spate of injuries which ruins their season. The Seahawks seem to have managed to get that to carry over to this season, but even that can't excuse being shut out by a Steelers side who still look pretty average;

In a sad postscript to the above, Seahawks fullback Mack Strong announced that he had a serious spinal condition and that his career was over, although thankfully his quality of life is not affected;

The Patriot's Tom Brady tied an NFL record by throwing three touchdowns for the fifth consecutive game as the Pats destroyed the Browns 34-17. The most interesting thing about this game was an after game spat between Eric Steinbach of the Browns and the Pats' Mike Vrabel over a late hit towards the end of the game. Steinbach called Vrabel 'classless' which, frankly, is like Victoria Beckham calling another Spice Girl 'talentless'. NFL players are picked for many things, but being classy isn't one of them;

The Cardinals eked out a win over St Louis by 34-31, but in doing so lost QB Matt Leinhart for the season with a broken collarbone;

More heartache for Miami as the Dolphins slump to 0-5 by virtue of a 22-18 loss to the Texans. More importantly, they also lost QB Trent Green with grade 3 concussion – the most severe – when he tried to make a block on Houston tackle Travis Johnson. He will miss at least one game and probably more;

In fact, injuries are really beginning to take their toll in the NFL this season. The determining factor seems to be which team manages to cope best without a large number of stars. High up this list will be the Colts, who shook off losing 5 starters to beat Tampa Bay 33-14. The Bucs in turn will lose RB Michael Pittman for at least 6 weeks with an ankle injury;

Over in Carolina, QB Jake Delhomme is out for the season with an elbow injury, but they just manage to edge out the Saints 16-13;

Painfully, the Broncos lose starting center Tom Naylen with a torn bicep. Even more painfully, they put up their worst performance for almost 30 years in losing 34-3 at home to the Steelers, who barely even bother to break sweat in the final quarter;

In Wisconsin, a genuine “Star me, how did that happen?” moment as the Bears, led by Brian Griese, beat the Packers 27-20 to claim bragging rights in one of the NFL's oldest rivalries;
Things can't even go right for the Vikings on a week off, as Tavaris Jackson announces that he will be fit for this weekend's game. I thought they just shot lame donkeys?

*The equivalent of Jonny Wilkinson kicking a penalty from inside his own half to beat the French with the last kick of the match this Saturday. Except I won't complain if he does.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Tradition is dead in the fixture list – Premcorrespondent

In last night’s football action some former Chinese parents complained at length about their missing children. That’s right, the money men mucked about with the fixture list again, cancelled the traditional Monday night game, and put me right off my chow mein with the pointless documentary I couldn’t turn over after breaking my remote in anger.

Fortunately that was the low point of an otherwise good weekend for football purists.

Early on Saturday afternoon Manchester United displayed the sort of master class in football that people predicted for this season what with their £50million enhanced squad. And frankly, how Rooney, Ronaldo, and Tevez only scored four goals against Wigan is beyond my imagination.

Having taken top spot, United lost it again early on Sunday afternoon when Arsenal displayed the sort of master class no one predicted from their Henry depleted squad this season, couple with worrying defencive frailties.

The Gunners took an easy two goal lead at home to Sunderland, and then decided to add some spice by letting the away team draw level later in the game. That set the scene for an 80th minute corker of a winner that ensured Wenger need not be sacked for a dull brand of victorious football.

Talking of Chelsea, they played out a 1-0 win against Bolton in which much of the little excitement caused came from Bolton’s attacking efforts that deserved to earn at least a point. Roman has responded by approaching Ten Cate as the next man to make Chelsea exciting.

One team not lacking excitement on the pitch is Spurs who snatched defeat, or a draw at any rate, from the hands of glorious and well deserved victory at Anfield.

The Lilywhites came from behind to lead 2-1 thanks to Robbie Keane’s acrobatic finishing. But alas Paul Robinson made another effort to avoid being called into Steve McLaren’s England squad. Having gifted Liverpool the lead early on, he gifted them further chances that the Reds squandered, only to be blameless for the 93rd minute equalizer.

Fortunately for Spurs, Fulham lost to Portsmouth thanks to two goals just three minutes apart from Benjani and Hreidarsson. That left Fulham in the bottom three instead of their London rivals, although had Pompey keeper David James not been on top form Fulham could now be further up the table, instead of James being further up the England pecking order.

Michael Owen returned from injury yet again this weekend, and ensured Steve McLaren need not think too much about his striker options this week. In a fifteen minute cameo the England man scored a late winner against Everton. Though McLaren’s mental clogs should be turning after the combination of Baines and Johnson for one of Everton’s two goals.

In other games no one much cares about, Bentley played a scoring part in Blackburn’s win over Birmingham, Derby recorded an relative victory by losing just 1-0 against Reading, and West Ham lost by the same score to Aston Villa in the only 3pm Saturday kick off of the weekend.

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