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In news about a team that isn't being outcoached, the Ravens are 5-0 and scoring an average of 10 more points per game since head coach Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and took over playcalling duties. Playcalling is more important than commonly understood. Coaches have good performances and bad performances at playcalling just as players have good games and bad games executing the plays -- and there's no doubt Billick is on a hot streak as a coach. But can playcalling make that much difference? TMQ wonders if Billick, many years removed from being considered an offensive mastermind, realized the Ravens' offense was about to jell under Steve McNair and fired an underling in order to ensure that he, Billick, got all the credit.
This week: Gregg Easterbrook on ...
• Cheerleader of the week
• Sweet 'N' Sour of the week
• Monday Night analysis
• Best purist drive
• So long, Steelers
• News from distant space
• Adventures in officiating
• Single worst play of the season
• USC-Notre Dame analysis
• Mini reader animadversion
Sweet Play of the Week No. 2: As Buffalo's Roscoe Parrish broke into the clear on a wild punt return, he began to stumble and seemed about to fall. Kiwaukee Thomas, running behind Parrish, reached out and grabbed him by the jersey, steadying his teammate -- then let go and Parrish, footing regained, continued for an 82-yard touchdown against Jacksonville. Should Thomas have been flagged for the rarely called "helping the runner" rule? (Rule 12, 1, 1: "No offensive player may assist the runner except by blocking opponents.") Maybe, but the play sure was sweet. Sour Coaching Decision of the Week No. 1: Trailing 17-10, Chicago faced fourth-and-6 on the New England 14 with 3:38 remaining. The Bears needed a touchdown; Lovie Smith sent in the field goal unit. After the kick, the Bears still needed a touchdown. When you're down by seven points with a couple minutes remaining on the clock, getting a touchdown is imperative -- so try for a touchdown! Sure fourth-and-6 is risky, but you're close to the goal line, the game is almost over and you need a touchdown. Needless to say, Chicago never had possession in New England territory again. There are times when I want to shout, "Coach, can you see the scoreboard?" The scoreboard dictated going for it; Lovie Smith sent in the kicking team. Had the Bears gone for it and failed Smith would have been blamed for the decision, whereas this way Smith was able to blame his players. Which he did after the game, saying, "It's tough to win with four turnovers, it's as simple as that." This shifts the onus onto the players. Whatever happened to win-as-a-team, lose-as-a-team? If Bear Bryant had coached this game, afterward he would have said, "The fault was mine for not going for it at the end." Sour Coaching Decision of the Week No. 2: With just more than 10 minutes remaining, the Arizona (Caution: May Contain Football-Like Substance) Cardinals scored to make it Vikings 31, Cards 19. The end-game scoreboard had come into focus, and Arizona needed a minimum of 12 more points. Take the single PAT and reduce the margin to 11! Coaching theory holds that when a deuce try is likely during a comeback, always leave the deuce attempt to the final touchdown, when your guys are pumped and the team that once held the "safe" lead is reeling. If you try for the deuce and fail on the first of two needed touchdowns, the air goes out of your guys because they know the comeback just became less likely. Instead of closing to 31-20, Dennis Green went for two and failed. Then with a minute remaining, the Cards scored again to make it 31-25 and took the single because the deuce was meaningless here. Had Green taken a single earlier, the score would have been 31-26 and a deuce attempt pulls the Cardinals within a field goal of overtime! Arizona proceeded to recover the onside kick; the clock expired with the Cards on the Vikes' 36, from which strong kicker Neil Rackers could have tried for the tie had Green simply managed the point-after attempts according to standard coaching theory. Wacky Martini Watch: Jeff Foerster of San Antonio reports that Aldino's restaurant in his city makes a wedding cake martini that smells and tastes exactly like vanilla wedding cake. Do you freeze some and drink it a year later? Sour Play Design of the Week: Indianapolis leading 14-0, Philadelphia had first-and-10 on the Colts' 46. Receiver Hank Baskett got the ball on a throwback, and looked downfield to pass. Tuesday Morning Quarterback has done a number of items, apparently unread by the Eagles' coaches, showing running backs are far more likely statistically to complete trick-play passes than wide receivers -- and this week LaDainian Tomlinson threw a trick play pass for a touchdown, while Baskett's heave-ho, as perhaps you have guessed already, was intercepted. That aside, everything about the play design was wrong. First, Baskett is a rookie, and thus likely to be a bundle of nerves and make a wild throw -- which is exactly what happened. Second, Baskett seemed uncoached in the First Rule of Trick Passes: throw only if the receiver is totally uncovered, otherwise just run and we don't care if you lose yardage. Third, Baskett took the lateral in the left flat, and threw to a receiver running deep right. That's a hard completion for a quarterback, let alone a rookie wide receiver. Finally, the left-to-right play design forced Baskett to look at the entire field. One reason halfback passes are more likely to work is that the halfback is almost always running parallel to the line of scrimmage and looking only at what's directly in front of him, less than half the field. That was the design on Tomlinson's touchdown pass. Note: Following the interception, Brian Westbrook, the intended receiver, barely bothered to jog after the Colt with the ball. Sweet 'N' Sour Play: Game tied at 10 in the fourth quarter, New England faced second-and-goal on the Chicago 2. In came the heavy package with Mike Vrabel as an extra blocker. "This will be a play-fake either to Vrabel or the tight end on the opposite side from him," TMQ said to his 11-year-old, Spenser. Play-fake to an uncovered tight end, touchdown. Nobody play-fakes at the goal line as well as the Patriots, and this winning touchdown looked sweet. But because nobody play-fakes at the goal line as well as the Patriots, the fact that the Bears seemed surprised was sour.
So Long, Steelers: Maybe it was always folly to think Ben Roethlisberger, coming off a motorcycle accident and then removal of his appendix, should be playing this season. The quarterback with the formerly charmed life now has 19 interceptions on the season and a 3-7 starting record. But, ye gods, everyone on the Steelers' offense played poorly at Baltimore. The Ravens blitzed a lot, and this normally risky tactic worked in part because Pittsburgh running backs seemed to make no attempt to blitz-block on key downs. The Steelers' offensive line, normally solid, blocked poorly even on standard-defense downs when there were more blockers than pass rushers. On the game's decisive play, Baltimore led 17-0 and Pittsburgh faced third-and-5 on the Nevermores' 30: sack, fumble returned for a touchdown and TMQ wrote the words "season over" in his notebook regarding Pittsburgh. On this play Steelers' left tackle Marvel Smith just stands there, making no attempt to hit anybody, as Corey Ivy blows through Smith's gap for the forced fumble that concludes the defending champion's season. Because the Pittsburgh offensive line usually has played with heart, Sunday's sack fest was some combination aberration and great Baltimore performance. But ay caramba, was the Pittsburgh blocking bad. Roethlisberger can't block for himself. This Fulfills My Obligation to Say Something About the Cincinnati-Cleveland Game: Cincinnati leading Cleveland 30-0 with 10 minutes remaining, what was Carson Palmer doing still in the game and still heaving passes? Was Marvin Lewis trying to run up the score? The football gods always punish that. Or was he intent on getting the team's first shutout in neatly two decades? Shutouts are irrelevant; risking injury to stars is quite relevant. Put Lewis down for a questionable coaching day, too. This Fulfills My Obligations to Say Something About Numerous Games: The Thanksgiving Day contests already seem far in the past. And I watched tape of the Houston-Jersey/B game. Many people ran around chasing a ball. Coaches were always angry no matter what the officials called. I'm sure the whole event was very interesting to immediate family members. Otherwise I can't think of anything to say about that game and I bet you can't either. Also, though TMQ promises at least one comment about each NFL game, I make no warranty express or implied regarding the NFL Network's new Thursday night contests -- most will seem far in the past by the following Tuesday. And only now are commentators noting that the NFL's broadcast power play did not succeed. The league scheduled NFLN's first live telecast on Thanksgiving night, in hopes of forcing Comcast and Time Warner to say uncle and put the new network on basic cable at NFLN's asking price. But in the days before Thanksgiving, callers did not deluge their cable carriers with complaints about not getting NFLN, as the league had hoped, and Comcast and Time Warner stood firm in their contention that the price of the new network is too high. Hearts must have sunk in NFLN offices when Denver-Kansas City, the first telecast, was a dull game; had it been a thriller, football fans who didn't see it would have complained the following day. Anyway the power play failed, and presumably NFLN now will cut its asking price to the market level. It's good to know the National Football League can't get its way in everything! Optics note: the NFL Network ran full-page ads in major newspapers, asserting its broadcast was "a huge success." The ads show announcers Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth seeming to stand in a stadium tunnel. They've been super imposed into the picture, with lighted faces despite standing in shadow. Look closely -- Collinsworth is significantly disproportionate to the background. Plus, "Vanderjagt" Sounds Like a Flavored Schnapps: Speaking of coaches blaming players, last season Bill "Mr. Personality" Parcells blamed his kickers for the Cowboys failing to make the playoffs. Dallas spent a lot of money on kicker Mike Vanderjagt, and now he's been cut for missing a game-winning kick. Where, exactly, is the coach who has a kicker who never misses at the end? "Win as a team, lose as a team." In individualistic sports such as basketball and baseball, individuals can play well or poorly regardless of the overall effort. But in football, when you win it's because everyone played and coached well, and when you lose it's because everyone played and coached poorly. To shift the blame for an entire game to the kicker over one single play is unsportsmanlike and petty. Thus, fitting behavior for the NFL coach! Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Carolina led 13-10 and had the Redskins, quarterbacked by Jason Campbell in his second career start, facing third-and-8 on their 34 with about four minutes remaining. Since the average NFL play gains about 5 yards, all the Cats had to do was play straight defense and the odds favored a stop. Instead, it's a blitz! The result was a 66-yard, game-winning pass to Chris Cooley.