Thursday, April 12, 2012

When Lines Are Crossed

There is nothing quite as disgusting as watching a media hit in progress. Make no mistake about it, that's what occurred Sunday during the NFC Championship Game. At some point before halftime, Jay Cutler suffered a partial tear of his MCL. He finished the half, attempted to come back in the second half but wasn't able to make it more than one drive. After that drive, the coaches and team doctors made the decision to keep him on the sidelines.

What happened next was truly astounding. Analysts began questioning whether Cutler had taken himself out, Twitter exploded with Cutler-induced vitriol, and current players quickly joined the lynch mob. The crazy thing? Nobody knew the severity of Cutler's injury. Almost everyone in the media just assumed that it wasn't that bad, and that Cutler must have quit on his team.

Why were so many media members so willing to ignore the facts and assume Cutler wasn't hurt that badly? Because it fit the narrative that most media members wanted. Jay Cutler has never been a friend to the media. His personality isn't one that blooms in front of the cameras, and the media take offense to that. All you have to do is read Rick Reilly's piece on Cutler to understand the relationship. In it, Reilly takes a shot at Cutler for not wanting to be interviewed by a reporter about the charity work he had done with a children's hospital. Good point, Rick. It's not what you do, it's whether you get in front of a camera and talk about it. They hate that he has the nerve to not make them part of his everyday life, and when the time came, they made him pay for it. Sure, Cutler may rub many people the wrong way, fans included, but nobody deserves the kind of character assassination that went on Sunday afternoon.

But Jay Cutler has a track record of being soft, right? Not even close. Cutler faces massive hurdles that no other QB in the NFL faces. He's a Type 1 diabetic playing QB in the NFL, and that in itself is enough to prove his toughness. Just one of the side effects of diabetes is that cortisone shots aren't a viable option  due to their tendency to cause adverse blood sugar reactions. Anyone familiar with the world of professional sports knows that cortisone shots have long been the remedy of choice for players in pain. Even pain killers can be a dicey subject with a diabetic. Yet, Cutler has overcome his disease and in the process, become an inspiration to kids with diabetes throughout the country.

Even without the aid of cortisone shots and some pain medications, Jay Cutler has missed exactly one game in his career. He played behind one of the worst O-Lines in football this year while leading the league in sacks taken, and his only missed game was the result of the NFL's new concussions policy. Defensive players hammered him over and over, but Cutler kept getting back up. Ask Bears fans about him and many will admit that they're surprised he made it this far without a major injury. That's how bad things were this year, but, outside of the concussion, Cutler was on the field competing every single Sunday. People should feel free to criticize Cutler's performance on the field or even his demeanor, but there should never be any questioning of his toughness.

Peyton Manning. Tom Brady. Brett Favre. All of these QBs would have gotten the benefit of the doubt had they been on the sideline with a knee injury on Sunday. Those are the perks that go along with being a media darling. Whereas the guy who purposefully makes himself a media outcast gets unfair speculation that he quit on his team. Once again, Jason Whitlock (Is it a coincidence this article came out today?) lead the way with his absurdity. Whitlock not only bashed Cutler for being soft, but he also made the assertion on Twitter that it wouldn't matter whether Cutler's injury turned out to be serious. Why wouldn't that matter you ask? Because Whitlock supposedly played his last season with a torn ACL. Now assuming that's even accurate, where does that logic stop? The great Jason Whitlock played O-Line at Ball State with a torn ACL (allegedly) so how can any NFL player dare to leave the field? Someone get in touch with all of the players on injured reserve with ACL tears to let them know that they're soft. Wait, don't forget to criticize everyone who missed games this year due to an MCL tear. If they truly loved the game, they wouldn't be missing games. Unfortunately, Whitlock wasn't the exception in this case, he was the rule. Why should the media care about the facts when given an opportunity to bury Cutler? To them, he doesn't deserve any better because he has the nerve to avoid fully embracing his place in the spotlight.

Whitlock's comments also bring about another way of thinking that needs to be put to rest. Every player's body is different, and they all respond differently. Ronnie Lott once decided he'd rather have part of his finger amputated than miss the next season. Does that mean that every player should be expected to make the same decision or face being called soft? Absolutely not. Some people are just blessed with extraordinary pain tolerance. I know it's popular for everyone sitting on their couch to offer that they wouldn't have left the field without a stretcher, but how can anyone know for certain? The only way to truly know how you would respond to that kind of situation is to experience it yourself. Until that happens, the Monday morning QBs need to take the hyperbole down a notch or twelve.

Even worse, were the attacks on Cutler coming from players and former players around the league. Here's a collection of some of those attacks. As Brian Urlacher angrily pointed out:
"Who cares what they think? That's my response to them. They are not playing in this game. Jay was hurt, obviously. There's no reason for him to be out there if he can't get it done. He was obviously hurt pretty bad or he would have played. 
"For them to question his toughness is stupid to me."
Urlacher is right, the attacks on Cutler reeked of jealousy. Deion Sanders captained the NFL Network assault on Cutler while forgetting that he only played eleven games due to a toe injury in 1998. Maurice Jones-Drew tweeted: "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee... I played the whole season on one..." MJD apparently already forgot that he missed the last two games of the season when the Jaguars were fighting their asses off to earn a playoff bid. Some analysts cited Tom Brady's playing an entire season with a stress fracture in his foot, but they conveniently left out the fact that Brady left the AFC Championship Game in 2001 due to injury. Again, the facts are inconvenient little buggers.

A Barry Cofield quote from Matt Mosley's ESPN article rings especially true in this situation.
"A wise man once told me that it's easy to be tough with somebody else's body"

At some point, doing what's best for the team took a back seat to being tough. Players who gritted out injuries are lauded for their devotion to the team, but playing hurt isn't always what's best for the team. Philip Rivers get's praised for playing in the 2007 AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL, but no one pays attention to HOW he played. While it was certainly gutsy for Rivers to play, I think his backup, Billy Volek, could have thrown up a 46.1 QB rating. Especially when you consider that Volek was instrumental in helping the Chargers finish off the Colts after Rivers was forced out of the game. It's entirely possible that Rivers hurt his team by playing at well below 100% health.

Can we honestly say that Cutler, with an injured knee that felt unstable, prevented him from planting, and kept him from pushing off during the throw, was the best option for the Bears at that point? Now, he didn't make the call to remove himself, but it seems to me that that call could very well have been the right one for the team (The bigger blunder was having Hanie as the third string QB instead of the second). To highlight this point, I'll take you to the famous AFC Championship comeback that propelled Peyton Manning to his first Super Bowl victory. During the second-to-last drive of the game, Peyton smashed his thumb against a lineman's helmet. On the sidelines, it was obvious that he was having trouble gripping the ball, and at one point the camera's caught him telling Jim Sorgi to be ready. Peyton seemed to realize that if he couldn't grip the ball, Sorgi gave them the best chance to win. Now, Peyton was going to do everything in his power to play, but if it wasn't going to work, it was better to give way to someone that could get the job done if it meant the Colts would have a chance to win. Being able to step aside and let the more effective player take the field is the sign of a true team player.

In the end, the damage has been done. Jay Cutler's toughness and reputation have been unfairly tarnished by a controversy that never should have gotten started in the first place.

The Patriots, Tom Brady, and Stats Padding. A Happy Family

Let me preface this post by saying that Tom Brady is having the best season of his career, and he is obviously the MVP choice at this point. 

That being said, there was a good article this week that broke down the percentage of NFL QBs' stats that were accumulated in garbage time. My guess is that the writer was motivated to dig into the stats by the recent blowout wins the Patriots racked up where Tom Brady was in the game throwing until the very end. Regardless, it comes to a very interesting (although not surprising) conclusion. Brady has accumulated a much higher percentage of his stats in garbage time than his fellow MVP candidates, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. Now, I don't know the exact percentages for the other MVP candidates, but the article states that their garbage time stats percentage falls below league average. Brady's garbage time stat percentage on the other hand, is over 4.2% higher than the average NFL QB and at least that much higher than the other three named QBs. While that may not sound like a lot, it's a very significant amount. 

Nobody should really be surprised to read of those stats. Haven't we all at some point thought "Why is he still in the game and throwing?" Perfect example: New England vs. New York two weeks ago. The Patriots are ahead of the Jets 45-3 with four minutes left in the game. Is Tom Brady sipping Gatorade and running his hands through his hair on the bench? Nope. He's in the game throwing passes out of the shotgun formation with a 42 point lead. Of course, anyone who watched the 2007 season, when Brady threw for 50 TDs, would have seen this act time and time again. I lost count of how many times Brady threw jump ball after jump ball to Randy Moss as the Pats were blowing out their opponent late in the game. Rest assured, nothing was sweeter than watching 18-0 turn into 18-1 because it felt like karma was finally having her way. Well ladies and gentleman, the 2007 Patriots seem to have been resurrected, at least in the sportsmanship department. Karma, please be ready.

The main thing that struck me about this article was that it didn't even mention the difference between the two types of garbage time. The vast majority of passes that get thrown in garbage time are thrown by the team that is trailing. Almost always, the defensive strategy of the team with the lead shifts completely to protecting against the pass and big plays. While the underneath routes are left open for short gains, the defense is focused on preventing long passes and quick scores. The defensive line no longer plays the run, they just pin their ears back and go after the QB. Watch a Colts game when they have a big lead and see how many times Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis get late sacks and pressure. Without any responsibilities for playing the run, the defensive linemen are free to focus on teeing off on the QB. What this means in terms of the losing QB is that his job can get pretty dicey. While he can amass chunks of yardage by dropping the ball off for short completions, he has to take risks with the deep ball if he wants to try and bring his team back. In doing so, he plays right into the defense's hands. That's why you will see a lot of interceptions thrown in garbage time because QBs are forced to take chances and look for miracles.

Now when the winning team has the ball the strategy is completely different (Usually). Generally speaking, teams with large leads are content to run the ball, keep the clock running, and get the game over with as quickly as possible. By the time a team has put up a massive lead, the defense is just trying to get out of there and lick their wounds. As was evident in the Pats Jets game, putting up a huge lead will break the spirit of the defense, and they will almost always lose their intensity. This is when the true garbage time occurs. If a winning team is truly unaffected by a need for sportsmanship, they can exploit that broken defense for huge stats. That's what I see whenever Tom Brady continues to throw up 42 points with four minutes left in the game. It's stat padding, plain and simple. 

The reasoning the 2007 Patriots gave for consistently running up the score was that the game was never out of hand. There is always the chance that a team could pull off a miracle comeback (Or in the Jets case, throw a couple of 21 point TDs). However, that logic falls flat on its face when you see Brady get pulled in a losing effort as happened against the Browns this year. Better yet, think back to 2009 when the Patriots went to New Orleans and got pounded on. With three minutes left in the game, down by 18, Brady is on the bench and his backup is playing. How can anyone make the claim that a 42 point deficit isn't safe, but an 18 point deficit is too much to overcome? Well, for one thing, the guy from Indianapolis led his team to 21 points in around three minutes to tie the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football. O yea, and then there was the time the Colts scored 21 points in two minutes and ten seconds to come back from a 17 point deficit at the end of the game. Is that Belichick admitting that Brady isn't capable of that kind of magic? Or that Peyton is better? Nonsense. It solely had to do with protecting Brady and his stats. Like I mentioned before, a lot of interceptions occur in garbage time. I guess in New England, games are always in doubt when you're ahead but not when you're behind. Makes a TON of sense. 

Lastly, here is a leaderboard of career TD passes by situation for you to digest. They seem to lend a lot of support to the original argument. As Nate Dunlevy from observed, these numbers taken as a percentage of total passing TDs are even more outrageous. 

Most career TD passes with a 17+ point lead
1T. Tom Brady - 33
1T. Brett Favre - 32
3. Peyton Manning - 30
4. Steve Young - 28
Most career TD passes with a 28+ point lead
1. Tom Brady - 10
2. Sid Luckman - 8
3. Norm Van Brocklin - 8
4T. Craig Morton - 6
4T. Len Dawson - 6
Most career TD passes in the 4th quarter with a 28+ point lead
1. Jacky Lee - 5
2T. Tom Brady - 4
2T. Pete Beathard - 4
2T. Craig Morton - 4
I was shocked when I stumbled upon these numbers. Four TD passes with a 28 point lead in the 4th quarter is simply outrageous. Remember this post the next time you see Brady out there slinging it around with a huge lead. It might put some things in perspective.

Tom Brady Just Wins!!! Well, Not Really.

If there is one thing that I could eliminate from the NFL media's talking points, it would be using W-L record as a measure of a QB's individual performance. It has come to the point that I heard Aaron Rodgers being disparaged because he had yet to win a playoff game. Rodgers threw for 423 yards and 4 TDs, but his TEAM lost the game. So yes, he was 0-1 in the playoffs, but using that record to criticize Rodgers' performance is remarkably stupid. Peyton Manning made the playoffs carrying a pitiful Colts team, that had been ravaged by injuries, on his back. Not surprisingly, they lost. If you subscribe to the whole playoff record idea, Peyton would have been a better QB if he had missed the playoffs because that loss wouldn't have gone on his record. Since 2005, Tom Brady is 5-5 in the playoffs, Peyton Manning is 6-5, and Mark Sanchez is 4-1. OBVIOUSLY, Mark Sanchez is much better than the other two.

Tom Brady has specifically been the recipient of this misguided media praise. How many times have you heard that "Tom Brady just wins games" over the past decade? Yet, thanks to the Jets, the Patriots have now lost three straight playoff games. Those three games included a Super Bowl loss after going undefeated in the regular season, a first game loss at home as a #1 seed, and another first round home loss. Gosh, I could have sworn Brady just won games. 

What's even more relevant is that the playoff master has been awful over those three games. In those games, Brady has thrown for 5 TDs, 4 INTs, and an atrocious 5.3 yards per attempt. In fact, even with all of Brady's postseason lore, he still carries an 85.7 career QB rating and averages only 6.46 yards per attempt (YPA) in the playoffs. Wasn't Brady supposed to step up his game in the playoffs? Yet, Peyton Manning, the renowned playoff choker, has a postseason QB rating of 88.4 and averages 7.51 YPA. To put that in perspective, Brady's career YPA drops from 7.4 in the regular season to 6.46 in the playoffs while Manning's YPA goes from 7.6 to 7.51. As you can see, Brady has a major drop-off from the regular season to the postseason, but it's Manning who takes the heat for playoff struggles. No one mentions that Peyton holds the NFL record for most playoff losses with a QB rating over 90 (and also over 80). It's much easier to look at the W-L record and ignore the fact that he has played well in the majority of the losses.

Just last weekend, Peyton Manning was strongly criticized for the last pass he threw in the Jets game. Somehow, driving the team down the field and setting up a lead changing field goal with less than a minute left just wasn't good enough for many media members. They decided to claim that Peyton blew the game by not completing his last pass. Bill Simmons called it a sloppy pass to a wide open receiver sparking Nate at to post this article and this picture (Remember the 4th and 13 pass to Branch Sunday night?). Both thoroughly debunked the crazy claims. Manning's performance in the Jets game looks much better after watching Brady be thoroughly frustrated by that same defense. The truth of the matter is, Peyton was extremely good against the Jets. It just goes to show that the national media can't be bothered with facts.

It's no coincidence that the Patriots' playoff ineffectiveness directly coincided with a major shift in philosophy. For whatever reason, the Patriots made the transition from defensive force to high-powered offense. Brady's role also made a dramatic shift. One of the best game managers in NFL history was suddenly responsible for putting the team on his back and carrying them to victory. Since that shift, Brady has experienced firsthand what Peyton Manning has experienced his whole career. You need a solid defense to win Super Bowls, and an incredible offense without a solid defense won't get it done. 

Now that Brady's winning reputation and playoff expertise seem to have taken a solid hit, let's take a look at the media's claim that he is one of the best QBs to ever play the game. It was remarkably refreshing to hear Brian Kenny take a stand while filling in as the host of The Herd on ESPN radio. Kenny made a persuasive argument that Tom Brady was vastly overrated ("Vastly" may be a little extreme), while also attacking the idea that QBs should get credit for wins and losses. Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute of it. 

When evaluating Brady, Kenny used a method that he uses for MLB Hall of Fame voting. According to Kenny, the best way to determine a player's career dominance is using the number of times they finished at the top of the league in the important statistics. This method rewards consistent greatness while recognizing that career stats may be skewed by a couple of amazing years (Tom Brady anyone?). Naturally, I was intrigued so I decided to delve further into the statistics.

Here's a table listing the number of years finishing in the top five in the major statistics

Peyton Manning
Tom Brady
QB Rating
8 Years
3 Years
11 Years
3 Years
Yards Per Attempt
8 Years
2 Years
Interception %
3 Years
3 Years
Completion %
11 Years
4 Years
13 Years
5 Years
Sack %*
11 Years
1 Year
Net Yards Per Attempt
7 Years
3 Years
*Some will argue that sack numbers are a product of the offensive line, but that is not necessarily true. Peyton Manning has consistently finished at the top of the league in sack percentage even though his offensive live has been mediocre at best over the past 4 years. Brady, on the other hand, has one of the best offensive lines in football, but he has only finished in the top five in sack percentage once in his career.

Notice anything specific? Brady only comes close to Peyton in one category, interception percentage. He gets blown out of the water in all of the other statistics. Does Brady have the consistent greatness to qualify him as one of the best QBs ever? It sure doesn't seem that way. The fact of the matter is that Brady has had two amazing seasons that have skewed his overall stats. Were those seasons dominant? Absolutely. However, it should be noted that Brady has been consistently outside the top five at his position in most important stats. Unfortunately, it looks like Brady's placement among the best QBs to ever play the game comes from his team's success more than his own. 

While QB rating is far from a perfect statistic, this chart shows just how much different Brady's 2007 and 2010 were from the rest of his career. 

QB Rating
Peyton Manning
Tom Brady


















Now, this article wouldn't be complete without a direct comparison of Brady vs. Manning.

The first chart was based on top five finishes in the NFL, but this next one is focused solely on Brady vs. Manning based on years finishing higher in the standings for each statistic. In order to make it fair, I began with 2001 (Brady's first year). 

Peyton Manning
Tom Brady
Adjusted Yards Per Attempt
7 Years
2 Years
Yard Per Attempt
7 Years
2 Years
6 Years
3 Years
Completion %
7 Years
2 Years
4 Years
5 Years
7 Years
2 Years
Seasons with 4000 Yards Passing
11 Years
3 Years

Once again, Peyton Manning has a significant advantage. This chart doesn't take into account Peyton's 1999 and 2000 seasons, both of which would have placed above most of Brady's seasons. Even taking those out, it's obvious who has been the better QB over their careers. 

To sum this all up, Peyton Manning has been much better overall, been much more consistent, been better overall in the playoffs, and has less of a drop-off from the regular season to the postseason. Brady supporters are left with one argument, W-L record. However, even that argument is (or at least should be) eroding away. 

In the end, it'd be foolish to expect the use of logic and statistics to have much impact on the Jason Whitlocks of the world, but we can hope.