Tandler's Redskins Blog 9/30

How costly were those bad calls? Plus why down by contact isn't reviewable, and baseball at Hog Heaven

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September 30, 2004

The Cost of Bad Calls

The NFL had apologized to the Redskins for two bad calls made by the officials in Monday night's game. Actually, one was a bad call, a first-quarter pass interference call in the Redskins' end zone on Washington's Walt Harris and one was a non-call, the fact that no flag was thrown when a defender grabbed Rod Gardner's jersey in the Dallas end zone as the receiver was going for a pass in the fourth quarter.

It's easy to do the math and say that each call cost the Redskins seven points, they lost by three, so the calls cost them the game. The flag on Harris came one a third and eight at the Washington 41 and it set up a one-yard touchdown run by Eddie George to make the score 7-0. A 58-yard field goal is clearly out of Billy Cundiff's range so a no-call means that the game remains scoreless and Dallas is punting.

The non-call came after the Cowboys had take a 21-10 lead with 13:00 to go. Washington was responding to the score with a nice drive that had them with a first and ten at the Dallas 33. Instead of first and goal at the one the drive broke down and the Redskins ended up punting from midfield.

The problem with simply adding or subtracting points is that you don't know how getting the call right would have changed the dynamics of the rest of the game. If Dallas punts after the Harris call, what happens from there if the Redskins end up being pinned back deep? How does that affect the play calling and strategy the rest of the way?

And if the Redskins get a TD and the two-point conversion instead of punting with about 9-8 minutes left in the fourth quarter, what does Dallas do? Are they more aggressive with a 3-point lead? When the Redskins get the ball back do they go bombs away as they did in driving 64 yards in two passes, both from Brunell to Gardner?

Then answer to each question is, of course, we just don't know. This wasn't a clear-cut case of a blown call costing the game. In other words, it wasn't the Mel Gray game.

That one was in Busch Stadium in 1975. The Redskins were leading the St. Louis Cardinals 17-10. The Cards had the ball fourth and goal at the Washington six. Jim Hart goes to Mel Gray, who gets his hands one the ball but has it knocked out immediately by Pat Fischer. After a zebra huddle, St. Louis is given—that's the key word here, given—a touchdown.

Even that loss can't be 100% attributed to the bad call since the "TD" just put the game into overtime. It was clear that the Redskins defense didn't do a very good job is shaking off the adversity as St. Louis won the toss and easily drove downfield for Jim Bakken's winning field goal.

Reviewing "Down by Contact"

While we're on the subject, let me explain something to those of you who are constantly asking why "down by contact" calls can't be reviewed by instant replay. This seems to come up at least once a game and there's always a big outcry by someone when an apparent fumble is ruled not to have happened because the player was down by contact.

There's a very good reason why such calls can't be reviewed. When a runner is ruled down by contact the referee blows the whistle. Players are trained to go hard until the whistle blows and then immediately let up lest they draw an unnecessary roughness call.

So let's say that Portis runs into the line and the ball pops out and is rocking on the turf. Coles has a bead on it and an angle on a defender near him, but Coles hears the whistle blow—the referees have called Portis down by contact--and gives up his pursuit of the ball. The defender swoops in and dives on the ball. Replay reveals that Portis' knee was not down before he fumbled.

Is it at all fair, then, to give the defense the ball, to reward them, in essence, for something that was done after the whistle blew? Clearly it is not, even though the whistle should not have been blown. The message to players would be to ignore the whistle, to keep on going for the ball since there is a chance that replay will nullify the whistle.

The whistle can't be conditional, it has to be the final word, saying "nothing that happens past this instant counts, period", even if further review shows that the whistle should not have been blown.

Baseball at RFK

The news that baseball is back in DC and that the Nationals will be playing at RFK Stadium for three years brings up the point that, while most people have fond memories of that building as a gridiron venue, it was a better baseball stadium than it was a football stadium.

For those of you who have never seen it set up for baseball, here's the lay of the land. Home plate is in the near corner of the left end zone from the TV perspective, right around where Minnesota's Darren Nelson dropped the pass to send the Redskins to Super Bowl XXII. Darryl Grant's spike after scoring the clinching TD against Dallas in the '82 NFL title game was in deep right field. The stands behind the visitor's bench, the ones that were bouncing up and down during that Dallas game, roll back underneath the left end zone stands to reveal left field, where Frank Howard used to roam.

It was a pitcher's ballpark in terms of its dimensions, 335' down each line and 410 to center. Since those left-field stands rolled back and the stands in the right "Budweiser" end zone were removable, there were no lower-deck seats in fair territory. I suspect that part of the renovation might be to add some seats in the outfield to shorten up those distances to right and left field and perhaps add an asymmetrical element to park, very much in vogue these days.

September 29, 2004

Brunell Not Right Fit?

In the Washington Times, Dan Daly suggests that Mark Brunell isn't the right fit for Joe Gibbs' offense and he's not so sure that Clinton Portis is the right guy either.

Let's talk about Brunell first. You have to wonder what was going through Coach Joe's mind when he reviewed the game tapes and decided, "Mark's my man." All of his previous quarterbacks, after all, have been able to throw the deep out, one of the staples of his offense — Theismann, Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, all of them. But Brunell doesn't have the arm strength; he simply can't get the ball there. And if you can't hit that intermediate-range pass with regularity, you won't be able to get the defense to back off ... so that, among other things, you can pound them with the running game.


He then moves on to Portis:

And what kind of back does Gibbs require? Well, he had his greatest success with a guy who, in his two best seasons with the Redskins, averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards a carry — as compared to Portis' career average of 5.4. John Riggins wasn't much of a breakaway threat, but he could be counted on to gain those 3.6 or 3.8 yards most of the time, which kept the chains moving and kept the Washington defense off the field. Coach Joe refers to those Super Bowl teams as "first-down teams." Riggo and the Hogs just cranked out the first downs.
Portis, on the other hand, is a home run hitter, and it's harder to control the ball with a back like that.

Let's see here; Gibbs has gone from strong-armed, big play quarterback and bruising, move-the-chains runner to weaker-armed, ball-control QB and big-play runner. Gibbs hand picked both players. Now, I doubt that Gibbs had any kind of secret plan to build up Brunell's arm strength beyond what he saw on film and it's also improbable that Gibbs had a plan to bulk Portis up to 260. It's logical to assume, then, that he had a plan. That's just a guess, mind you, just like Daly was guessing that Gibbs didn't have one.

There's nothing wrong with looking for your big plays from your running back instead of from your passing game. Perhaps given the gambling, blitzing defenses that are in vogue these days, it's better to have a runner who can take it to the house if he can bust through a tackle than it is to hope that your quarterback can stay upright long enough to execute the deep out or launch one downfield.

Besides, I'm not quite sure that Daly's premise is even valid. Portis did a good job grinding it out on Monday night, gaining 94 yards with no carries over 12 yards. Brunell found his stride on the deep ball in the fourth quarter, hitting Rod Gardner with a couple of long ones.

Daly did emphasize that it was early to be pushing the panic button:

Of course, it's a journey of discovery for Coach Joe, just as it is for his players. Another thing he's finding out is that zone blitzes and run blitzes, tactics he didn't see much of the first time around, have become much more prevalent. And this means more plays — no matter how well designed — are going to take losses, losses the offense has to be able to recover from.


Scouting the Browns

I never really considered getting digital cable since I don't subscribe to HBO or any of the other premium channels and there just wasn't enough benefit to digital to justify the extra expense. That all changed when Comcast digital cable started offering the NFL Network and their weekly on-demand highlights package.

The NFL Network is OK; the Playbook show is a good in-depth show on strategy and techniques. But the key to the package is the on-demand highlights for each game that is available each week. You get about 10 minutes of highlights from each game played the previous Sunday. You get all the big plays as well as a lot of the "smaller" but also important plays that keep drives going or end them. It's all on demand so you can call it up at any time, pause and rewind, slow motion, the works. Among other things it's great for scouting out the upcoming opponent.

A first glance at the Browns' game against the Giants last week shows a couple of weak spots. Their biggest is under center. Jeff Garcia is playing awful football. I base this assessment on having watched most of the Browns' game against Dallas as well as the highlights package. His passes just aren't on target and it doesn't matter if he's under pressure, which is the case frequently, or if he's comfortably in the pocket.

Certainly, Garcia isn't having much fun. This was evident on a play late in the game with the Giants up 27-10. A shotgun snap went over Garcia's head and scooted back deep into Browns territory. He made a half-hearted attempt to pick the ball up inside the 10, but he didn't come close and Michael Strahan recovered near the goal line. It was a Jeff George type moment for Garcia.

Rich Tandler is the author of Gut Check, The Complete History of Coach Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins

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