Friday, January 16, 2009

The Curious Case of Donovan McNabb

Early morning local sports radio chatter on Nashville’s 104.5 turned today momentarily to Donovan McNabb and his status as a potential Hall of Fame candidate. The shorthand assessment—mainly from Paul Kuharsky, former Tennessean writer and now with—seemed to be that, since the standard of the era is Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, McNabb might not qualify. The Philly QB doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring—something that might yet be rectified, and possibly very soon—and Kuharsky seemed to be saying that, without one, McNabb can’t automatically expect to get the HOF nod.

This spurred on a review of McNabb’s career numbers. In fact, they’re pretty damn impressive, maybe moreso than the average fan might realize.

McNabb just turned 32. He’s got some years left probably, if he stays healthy, something that has been a bit of a problem. In a 10-year career that might’ve encompassed 160 games, he’s participated in only 134. At present, he’s thrown for 29,320 regular season yards, completing passes at a 58.9% clip. He’s also rushed for 3,109 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. His overall QB rating is 85.9. What really stands out, though, is his TD/INT ratio of 194/90, better than 2 to 1.

McNabb’s 2004 season was phenomenal: 3,875 yards, a 64% completion average, a 104.7 passer rating, and 31 TDs vs. only 8 INTs. The man’s talent isn’t in doubt, but what about this Super Bowl thing? Is it really the benchmark of achievement it ought to be?

In 1983, Sonny Jurgensen was inducted into the HOF. In 1993, Dan Fouts. In 2005, Dan Marino. Not one of ’em ever won the Super Bowl, but that didn’t seem to bother the voters.

Here are the key comparative career stats (Yards passing-Completion percentage-TD/INT ratio-QB rating):

Jurgensen: 32,224 yards-57.1%-255/189-82.6
Fouts: 43,040-58.8%-254/242-80.2
Marino: 61,361-59.4%-420/252-86.4
McNabb: 29,320-58.9%-194/90-85.9

No question: McNabb stacks up. Only Marino’s got him beat in completion percentage and overall passer rating—but just barely—and McNabb’s got ’em all beat in TD/INT ratio, which is considered a key marker of efficiency.

Furthermore, what exactly is the true value of a quarterback? Is it the statistics he piles up if he happens to have a lengthy career? Is it his raw, demonstrable talent as a passer? Or is it his ability to win games?

Here are the career regular season stats for all four of our subjects in team winning percentage. Stats are based on games started, and ties are not factored in:

Fouts: 86-84-1 (50.5%)
Jurgensen: 67-70-7 (48.9%)
Marino: 147-93 (61.2%)
McNabb: 82-45-1 (64.5%)

McNabb again, and it’s not even close where Fouts and Jurgensen are concerned, both of whom’s reputations have rested on their undeniable gifts as pure passers. Marino was both a pure passer and a consistent winner, yet a Super Bowl ring eluded him.

In some statistical levels, McNabb might have a way to go, but if his career continues apace, he should get the numbers. In fact, his raw numbers already surpass those of Bart Starr (80.5 career passer rating, by the way), who made his HOF claim based practically on winning alone, with the great Packers teams of the 1960s.

McNabb may be Hall-worthy already. If he can triumph in SB XLIII, he should be a lock.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Titanic Collapse: Fisher’s Boys Dominate Ravens, Then Squander Opportunities in 13-10 Playoff Loss

Nashville’s Circle Players are currently in rehearsal for a production of Titanic, the Musical, set for opening next weekend. But for a compelling tale of unbridled disaster, the Tennessee Titans beat the local community theater to the punch with their performance Saturday afternoon in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Like the journey of the Titanic itself, this one started out with high hopes and a sense of majesty. And the vital statistics were impressive. Basically, the Titans outran, outpassed and outmuscled the Ravens through most of the game. They outgained Baltimore 391 yards to 211. They averaged 4.1 yards per rush, while the Ravens managed 1.7 yards. The Titans’ Kerry Collins threw for 281 yards; the Ravens’ Joe Flacco threw for 161. The Titans dominated time of possession, 34:07 to 25:53.

But instead of heading into the locker room at halftime with a healthy lead as they should have, the Titans could only manage a 7-7 tie at intermission, and any local fan who recognizes negative game trends—which often spell impending doom—had to have been nagged by a sinking feeling.

A strong game plan looked in place, and Titans secret weapon rookie Chris Johnson had gained 72 yards on 11 carries in the first half, including a first quarter TD scamper that seemed to set the proper pace. But after that, it was an exercise in frustration, as the Titans committed 12 penalties and turned the ball over three critical times, thwarting drive after drive with sloppiness and handing the game to a Ravens team that was not at its best but outlasted their opponent by playing conservatively and minimizing mistakes.

Between the 20-yard lines, the Titans’ offense was in synch, and the Ravens’ vaunted defenders often looked less than their usual tireless selves. But Baltimore came up with the big plays when it counted, including an interception of a dying quail Collins pass and two key fumble recoveries. The last one, coughed up by veteran Titans tight end Alge Crumpler, was particularly galling. Crumpler, a former All-Pro signed with great fanfare in the off-season, had had a relatively quiet year statistically, but in his biggest, long-overdue moment, he couldn’t finish off a key reception near the Ravens’ goal line. Sandwiched hard between two Ravens, the ball spurted out of his hands, and with it went Tennessee’s last serious scoring threat.

The Ravens played things close to the vest down the stretch, Flacco made a couple of key connections with his receivers, and Matt Stover kicked a field goal late to seal the victory.

It was yet another classic struggle in the Ravens-Titans series, but this time out the probably superior team proved themselves seaworthy, then sabotaged its most important voyage in nearly a decade with mental mistakes and physical faux pas. (Hold on to the ball, for chrissakes, LenDale!)

The Titans played this game without All-Pro center Kevin Mawae. Johnson never took the field in the second half due to a painful ankle injury. These were factors in the team’s overall play, but they were not the sole reasons for the loss.

Sometimes teams just choke; alas, that’s what appeared to happen here. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher will now have plenty of time to ponder that reality, and, like the rest of us, wonder why.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Clash of the Titans—and Ravens: NFL Gypsies Lock Horns Once Again

This weekend’s Baltimore Ravens/Tennessee Titans playoff matchup—Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST (CBS)—could be a game for the ages. Not only are the teams veritable spiritual clones of each other—big-time physical defenses, strong running games, competent quarterbacks—but the history between the two, while relatively brief, is rich, eventful, and amazingly balanced in the outcomes.

Both teams are also football gypsies with checkered pasts.

The Titans were the original AFL-franchise Oilers from Houston, where they played from 1960 to 1996. Then owner Bud Adams up and moved his team to Tennessee, which then required three halting phases. The team played as the Tennessee Oilers (there’s no oil in the Volunteer State) in 1997 in Memphis. The next year, 1998, still as the Oilers, they made the move to Nashville, where they played their home games at Vanderbilt University’s Dudley Field. Finally, in 1999, they got a new nickname, Titans, and a new stadium to go along with it, called Adelphia Coliseum due to a naming rights arrangement with Adelphia Business Solutions, a subsidiary of the Adelphia telecommunications company. After Adelphia filed for bankruptcy in 2002, the stadium became known simply as The Coliseum for four years, until the current naming-rights deal with Nashville-based Louisiana-Pacific was struck in 2006, and the new name, LP Field, was born.

The Ravens’ lineage, of course, offers an even more bitter tale. From 1950 to 1995, they were the Cleveland Browns, one of the NFL’s more storied franchises. Winners of four league championships in the pre-Super Bowl years—1950, ’54, ’55, ’64—the Browns had suffered through a series of painful postseason losses in the ’80s and ’90s under coaches Marty Schottenheimer, Bud Carson and even Bill Belichick. Then, following a 5-11 season in 1995, longtime Browns owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore, earning the undying enmity of Clevelanders, who were essentially promised a replacement team by the NFL—to salve the wounds—as soon as possible. So hostile were Clevelanders to the Browns’ move that they lobbied successfully to retain team records, which would carry over to the expansion team that eventually arrived in 1999. (This was an unprecedented circumstance; normally in sports, when a team moves, passing, rushing, receiving records, etc., follow to the franchise’s next destination.)

Since starting in Baltimore with a clean slate in 1996, the Ravens have an 8-8 record versus the Oilers/Titans, and each team is 1-1 versus the other in the playoffs, with both teams losing the postseason matchups on their home turf. From 1996-2001, both teams were members of the old AFC Central—aka the Black and Blue Division—with plenty of tough, bone-crunching games between them. The historical linkage between the two teams reached critical mass in 2006 when the Ravens won a regular-season tilt in Nashville, 27-26, with longtime local favorite, former Titans quarterback, Steve McNair leading Baltimore to a classic fourth-quarter comeback, throwing a game-winning TD pass to yet another former Titans favorite, Derrick Mason.

In an eerie foreshadowing of this year’s situation, the Ravens, in 2000, entered Nashville as a wild-card team and faced a Titans squad with the best record in football. The Ravens won that tilt decisively, 24-10, and went on to win the Super Bowl, led by a crushing defense headed up by linebacker Ray Lewis. (The quarterback for the loser New York Giants in the big game? None other than current Titans QB Kerry Collins.)

Well, Lewis is still around, now in his 13th season. So is Mason, now in his 12th. And the Ravens enter Saturday’s game with a ton of momentum. After starting the season 2-3, the team has won 10 of its last 12, including a convincing road playoff victory at Miami. Their five losses this year have all been to playoff teams—Pittsburgh (2 losses, by a total of 7 points), Indianapolis, the Giants, and, yes, the Titans, who beat them 13-10 in Week 5 in Baltimore.

Something about the Ravens compels. On Dec. 20, I was heading home after a piano gig, and then remembered they were playing the Cowboys in a night game. Without the NFL Network on my home cable, I decided to head to a bar and watch the game there. They looked potent, defeating the Cowboys in Dallas, 33-24, including two huge long TD runs late in the game by Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee, each of whom burst explosively through the Dallas linebackers and were on their way to paydirt.

McClain is a little-known second-year guy out of Alabama, a tough bruiser of a back. McGahee is in his sixth year, out of Miami, and is better known, and maybe a mite quicker, though he has battled injuries during his career. Still he’s gained 5,243 yards in his time with the Bills and Ravens.

The Ravens’ one-two running-back punch is supported by a passing game that seems to get better with every week, mainly due to the rapid growth of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, but for a rookie they’re serious: 60% completion rate, 2,971 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs, and a QB rating of 80.3. His receivers—Mason, Mark Clayton and TE Todd Heap—are talented and experienced. In fact, Mason’s career numbers are starting to scream Hall of Fame—seven out of his last eight years have been 1,000-yarders. He’s cagey and resourceful for sure, and even though he’ll turn 35 on January 17, he seems as sharp as ever. He is, however, nursing a seriously sore shoulder, so look for Titans defenders to hit him hard throughout.

Now about the vaunted Ravens defense: They are extremely physical. They have Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce and Bart Scott among the front seven. The secondary features Samari Rolle (another ex-Titan) and the all-world Ed Reed, both very savvy and eager to get their hands on an errant Collins throw.

How the Titans, and head coach Jeff Fisher, counter all this will be interesting to watch. Here’s a statistical wrinkle, though: For all the Ravens’ defensive swagger, in fact there were two teams in all of football who allowed fewer points than they did: the Steelers and the Titans. Tennessee has nothing to apologize for in that department. They have two All-Pros in their secondary (Cortland Finnegan, Chris Hope), one All-Pro alternate (safety Michael Griffin), two of the most underrated linebackers in the game (Keith Bulluck, David Thornton), and a defensive line which, if at maximum strength, stacks up with any. Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, when healthy, are animals. Problem is, both are on the rebound from the inactive list, and it remains to be seen how strong they’ll be. Their presence is key to this game.

As for the Tennessee offense, well, so far it’s mostly been “Smash and Dash,” which means lightning-fast rookie RB Chris Johnson and bull-headed fullback LenDale White. Running behind an offensive line that’s been healthy and consistent, the duo has gained 2,001 yards in ’08. Nothing to sneeze at there, but the matchup against the Ravens means there’s got to be some meaningful production out of the passing game. In other words, QB Collins and a corps of under-the-radar receivers have to step up and provide a legitimate attack of some kind. Against Reed & Co., that’s gonna be a real challenge. Justin Gage, Justin McCareins and Brandon Jones—not exactly household names—are veterans without much in the way of spectacular talent. They’ll have to be creatively schemed, with Collins using checkdowns to solid TEs Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife.

But maybe the most intriguing offensive possibility where the Titans are concerned is the use of Johnson out of the backfield on screen passes. The kid is the fastest man on the field, and getting him into fluid, moving situations with the ball in his hands could pay off bigtime. It may also be the only way to thwart Baltimore’s aggressive front seven, who’ll be looking to manhandle the aging (36) Collins.

Now, in case you were wondering, if Collins gets hurt, his backup is Vince Young. If Flacco gets hurt, his backup is Troy Smith. Both are fleet-footed African American QBs who have yet to prove they can consistently run NFL offenses. Behind Young is journeyman Chris Simms. Behind Smith is journeyman Todd Bouman. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves...

I’m not big on predictions, but this one’s hard to resist: Titans 24, Ravens 23.