Is the zone-read option the flavor of the month, or is it the new vanilla? The first few weeks of the NFL season might tell.
Last season, the Forty Niners, Seahawks and Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons (see below) employed the read-option to reach the playoffs; the Niners came within fourth-and-goal of the Lombardi Trophy. Obviously, that's been noticed.
This season, the Cowboys will have two games versus zone-read Washington, two versus the Eagles and a zone-inspired Blur Offense. The New York Giants get Washington and Philadelphia twice, plus Seattle and the Carolina Panthers, for whom Cam Newton sometimes executes the zone-read. Green Bay, whose defense was left a smoldering wreckage in the playoffs by the Niners' zone-read, opens against Colin Kaepernick, then hosts Robert Griffin III in Week 2.
There are likely to be numerous all-zone confrontations. San Francisco and Seattle play each other twice, plus each line up against Carolina. Washington faces the Eagles twice and also the Niners.
Considering the zone-read was a surprise tactic last season, who will surprise with it this season? The Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans have been practicing the zone-read; the Chicago Bears are planting rumors (perhaps misinformation) about using the tactic; Green Bay didn't sign Vince Young, or the New England Patriots sign Tim Tebow, because they need someone to fill the Gatorade bucket. Imagine having to prepare for the disciplined traditional passing of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady and also for zone-read chaos when a guy who can run or throw takes a few snaps.
Quarterbacks have bedeviled defenses with their feet before, of course -- Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young and Randall Cunningham come to mind. Usually, they did their damage after a called passing action became a broken play. The zone-read presents the quarterback as a regular rushing threat -- RG III ran 120 times for 815 yards last season.
In college, the quarterback is assumed to be a rushing threat, if only because his economic value is so low: He works for free, and an injury does not cost the school anything. An NFL team might have $20-$50 million invested in its starting quarterback and thus wants to protect him from harm. The result is that conventional NFL rushing plays are 10-on-11; the quarterback hands off, then watches. A zone-read rushing play is 11-on-11, and, as the Niners showed the Packers, you'd better be ready to account for that extra man.
Fads in football tactics run in cycles. The spread was common in the late 1940s; today's pass-wacky looks have nothing on Sid Luckman, George Blanda, Milt Plum or Sammy Baugh; the veer once seemed unstoppable. Inevitably, as NFL defenders improve versus the zone-read, its effectiveness will decline. TMQ noted in January that having the edge rusher force the action back inside is "the adjustment the whole league will make next season".
Whether the zone-read becomes an NFL standby or is countered and gradually discarded, one impact seems likely: more rushing plays. Adjusting for sacks and scrambles, only three NFL teams -- San Francisco, Seattle and Washington -- ran more often than they passed in 2012. All three made the playoffs; two won a playoff game, and the only reason it wasn't three was that Washington and Seattle faced each other.
For decades, NFL offenses have featured the pass, or used the run primarily to set up the pass. In 2012, the top four rushing teams -- Washington, the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle and San Francisco -- reached the playoffs. The top three passing teams -- the New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions and Dallas -- did not. Last season's stats show that, just like in college, a team can win by featuring the rush. For 2013 at least, expect an uptick in rushing plays.
Now, Tuesday Morning Quarterback's NFC preview.
Arizona: The Oakland Raiders gave the sun, moon and stars for Carson Palmer, kept him just two seasons, then shipped him to the Arizona Cardinals for a late draft pick. Arizona gave the sun and moon, though not the stars, for Kevin Kolb, kept him just two seasons, then waived him. Now, Arizona has Palmer, while Oakland is left holding a pair of late-round draft picks. Had Arizona simply acquired Palmer two years ago for what it spent on Kolb, this would have been praised as a brilliant move. Instead, head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves paid with their jobs for the disastrous Kolb trade. Then, a few months later, new management acquired Palmer for next to nothing.
Arizona had an above-average defense in 2012 but the league's worst offense. Considering the offense could not stay on the field, the stout performance by the defense was impressive. The Cardinals' big problem on offense was an abysmal average of 5.6 yards per pass attempt. Palmer can only improve that number.
Whisenhunt seemed in the clouds in 2012; Bruce Arians is sure to be an upgrade. Last season, Arizona held a 10-point lead over the Atlanta Falcons, who would go on to host the NFC title game. Whisenhunt pulled starter John Skelton and sent in the never-used Ryan Lindley, who immediately lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Arizona was not only defeated in that game but was 1-6 for the remainder of the season.
Atlanta: The easiest thing to forget about the 2012 NFL season was that the Falcons went 14-4 and came without a couple snaps of the Super Bowl. Taking a 17-point lead at home in the NFC title game, then being outscored by San Francisco 14-0 in the second half at home with a Super Bowl invitation on the line seemed to discredit the Falcons. Few teams have ever had a better thing going, then looked worse, than Atlanta in its NFC title meltdown.
It was as if in last season's playoffs the Falcons suddenly forgot how to play football. The season before, the Falcons went to Jersey/A in the postseason and seemed to forget how to play football, losing 24-2. The season before that, the Falcons had the table set, opening at home after a bye, then seemed to forget how to play football, losing 48-21 to the Packers. Mike Smith and Matt Ryan are 56-24 together in the regular season but 1-4 in the playoffs. Until this version of the Falcons shows it can handle the mental pressure of the postseason, it is an impostor with interesting stats.
But what stats! Ryan took every snap for the Falcons last season. He completed 70 percent of his passes in the regular season and 70 percent in the postseason. His stat line for the NFC title loss was incredible -- 30-for-42 for 396 yards, three touchdowns and one interception -- as the Falcons rolled up 477 offensive yards. All anyone will remember is that the Falcons lost.
The Atlanta defense finished 24th statistically, and often -- at inopportune moments -- forgot how to play football. Between the salary-cap space expended on Ryan's new contract and the king's ransom in draft selections paid for Julio Jones, the Falcons had little wiggle room to improve their defense in the offseason. The result might be another fine regular season followed by another bow to the audience in January.
Carolina: Newton was 25-1 as a starter in college and is 13-19 as a starter in the NFL. If the Panthers don't win this season, stress for the former first overall draft pick will become intense.
When Newton arrived in the league, defensive coordinators assumed he'd be mainly a running quarterback and kept their safeties near the line of scrimmage. Newton responded by throwing for a record-smashing average of 427 yards in his first two contests. Defensive coordinators then told their secondaries to drop into a regular shell; since then, Newton has averaged 248 yards passing per game. A hopeful sign about his performance is that Newton closed out the 2012 season on a streak of 11 touchdown passes versus two interceptions.
Football is a team sport: Quarterbacks get too much praise in NFL victory and too much blame in defeat. The Panthers, as a team, have been erratic, losing last season to the Kansas City Chiefs, who would finish as the league's worst club, then defeating the powerful Falcons the following week. Ron Rivera, who had never been a head coach at any level before getting the Carolina job, seems in over his head and has responded by firing assistants left and right, trying to shift blame. Blame-shifting is a time-honored tradition in the NFL, but coaches who practice it generally do not excel.
Last season, Carolina led City of Tampa by eight points with 1:09 remaining in regulation -- Bucs out of timeouts, Cats facing fourth-and-inches at midfield. One yard here wins the game -- victories don't come in the mail. Go win the game! Instead, Rivera sent in the punt unit. Would Bill Belichick send in the punt unit in this situation?
Now there are 24 seconds in regulation, Buccaneers ball on the Cats' 24. Vincent Jackson, the opponent's best receiver, was able to run into the end zone covered only by a linebacker -- touchdown. Just to prove it was no fluke, on the deuce play, no one at all covered Jackson. Overtime, and Carolina lost. This was among the season's worst botched series. The Panthers must have better coaching and fewer mental errors if they are to get Newton into the playoffs, to which Andrew Luck, RG III and Russell Wilson have already been.
Chicago: Over the past two seasons, the Bears opened a combined 15-6 and closed a combined 3-8. That's one reason head coach Lovie Smith was shown the door despite an 84-66 career record in Chicago -- a sense the team was peaking early in the season, then fading. Presumably, new head coach Marc Trestman can avoid this perception by losing early.
During the offseason, the Bears used first- and fifth-round draft choices on offensive linemen, then traded offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, their first-round choice just two years ago, to the Buccaneers at the fire-sale price of a sixth-round draft choice. Chicago signed guard Matt Slauson, which means the Slauson Cutoff is now an exit on the Dan Ryan Expressway. John Mullin details the Bears' O-line changes.
Why discard Carimi, a great college player and a major investment for the Bears, even if his NFL career started slowly? Front-office politics are the likely answer. New general manager Phil Emery needs to shift blame, so he gave the heave-ho to Smith, a hire of former general manager Jerry Angelo. Now he tells the world that Angelo's final first-round draft choice was a blown pick. Emery also waived Chris Williams, an offensive lineman chosen in the first round in 2008 by Angelo. This allows Emery to enter the 2013 season with excuses lined up. If the Bears win, fine; if they lose, Emery can blame Angelo's bad draft picks.
The Bears assigned No. 50 to free-agent arrival James Anderson. No one had worn No. 50 since Mike Singletary, but the number isn't retired. Chicago has 13 retired numbers, most in the NFL. Many hail from the old days -- numbers of Bulldog Turner and Willie "The Wisp" Galimore are retired but not Singletary's or Mike Ditka's, and, presumably, Brian Urlacher's won't be.
Stars Should Get Stuck in Traffic Like Everyone Else: Many readers, including Jacqueline Kellerman of Sarasota, Fla., noted a law enforcement officer was disciplined for giving LeBron James a police escort so he could cut through traffic around a pop concert. TMQ pounds the table about police escorts for athletes and celebrities that inconvenience ordinary people to allow special privileges to the few. Discipline of the officer might be viewed as progress -- except the only reason the details of the police escort became known is that James posted a boast to the Internet. Most of the time a police escort roars by, the public has no way of knowing whether it is justified.
Dallas: Did Tony Romo's agent plant those rumors that teams would be lining up for him when he becomes a free agency in 2014? Boys owner Jerry Jones responded by offering Romo a very rich contract extension, ostensibly to keep him off the market in 2014. Romo's new deal includes $55 million guaranteed. This tops the $54 million guaranteed in the deal signed around the same time by Rodgers and the $52 million guaranteed in the deal signed around the same time by Joe Flacco. (Only the guaranteed portion of an NFL contract means anything.)
Romo won the contractual kewpie doll despite a grand total of one career playoff victory; Rodgers and Flacco have both led their teams to Super Bowl victories. Rodgers and Flacco both seem to get better when the pressure cranks up; Romo seems to fold. Expect the Cowboys to beat the Raiders on Thanksgiving and then lose to the Bears the next week. For his career, Romo is 21-4 in November and 12-20 after Dec. 1.
Romo's contract shifts some of his accounting charges into future seasons, which adds salary-cap space to the Dallas ledger for 2013. At one point during the offseason, the Boys had just $51,000 in cap space. Nevertheless, the total value of the deal is puzzling. When Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells flamed out together for the Cowboys in 2006, Jones put his chips on Romo, an undrafted gentleman from an FCS college. The Boys owner has a lot of his credibility invested in his oft-stated contention that Romo can win a Super Bowl -- and now a lot of his money invested, too.
In the Dallas-San Francisco draft trade, the Boys gained only a third-round choice to allow the Niners to swap up 13 spots to the middle of the first round. In other trades involving the first round, to swap up eight spots, the St. Louis Rams gave the Bills a second-round choice. To swap up from the second round to the late first, the Vikings gave the Patriots a third-, fourth- and seventh-round selection. Jones, who likes to present himself as a master of the trade, ended up with just a third-rounder in return for San Francisco receiving a major improvement in its position. Perhaps Jones paid so much to Romo that he needed to move down in the first round to lower his rookie bonus costs and was so focused on moving down he allowed himself to be fleeced.
In my draft column, yours truly observed that Mel Kiper and his kith get a hard time because their predictions are public, while we never know what mistakes NFL scouts make in private. Reader John Martin in Washington, D.C., reports that because Jones allowed himself to be filmed -- looking manly, of course -- in the Boys draft room, it was possible to freeze-frame and zoom in on the Dallas board. The Boys slotted DJ Hayden, taken by Oakland with the 12th selection, as a second-round choice. The Boys' board reflects guesses about value specifically to the Cowboys, not necessarily a Kiper-style overall ranking. Nevertheless, Jones stood before a board that should make Buffalo shudder. Dallas had EJ Manuel, taken by the Bills with the 16th overall choice, as a fourth-round talent; Marquise Goodwin, chosen by Buffalo in the third round, belonging in the sixth; and Robert Woods, Buffalo's second-round selection, as undrafted. Then again, no one Jones chose in 2009 became a Cowboys success. A Dallas third-round choice that year, Robert Brewster, spent last season with the Kansas City Command. So what does Jones know?
Athletic Donations Should Not Be Tax Deductible: Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal calls the new palace at the University of Oregon "the physical embodiment of this gilded age of college football." In the most recent academic year, Oregon cleared a $31 million profit on football, according to Department of Education data, while graduating just 49 percent of its African-American players. Exploiting young black males without conferring education ought to shame Chip Kelly, the University of Oregon alumni and trustees and the NCAA. Jon Anderson, why haven't you apologized in public for Oregon's terrible record of failing to graduate African-American football players? Meanwhile attending the University of Oregon costs $23,352 a year for a state resident and $42,702 for out-of-state students. What might parents paying these fees, or students borrowing to meet them, think of Oregon's new four-star, athletes-only dining facility?
Greg Bishop of The New York Times estimates Phil Knight of Nike gave at least $68 million to build the Football Performance Center, with its "rugs woven by hand in Nepal, couches made in Italy and Brazilian hardwood underfoot in the weight room."
Perhaps you are thinking, "At least the money was not from taxpayers." Think again. One of the issues in the gilded age of college football is that nearly all athletic donations, and some ticket costs, are tax deductible. Assuming Knight is in the top bracket, donating $68 million to the University of Oregon football program would cost him about $43 million. Taxpayers would be hit for the other $25 million. To cover Knight's deduction, average people must be taxed more or the national debt must increase.
The theory of tax deductibility for donations to colleges and universities is sound: Higher education benefits society as a whole. But when the tax expenditures go to football programs, society does not benefit. Coaches receive additional millions in salary; the NFL gets a free Triple-A league; ordinary people are shafted. And if the money given to football might have instead been donated to the university's endowment or core academic mission, society is actively harmed.
That athletics diverts money from college education, and does so at taxpayer expense, is a broad problem. The very impressive Pegula Ice Arena is nearly complete at Penn State. Terrence and Kim Pegula gave $94 million (in 2013 dollars) to build the facility for Division I ice hockey. The gift was the largest ever to Penn State, dwarfing the $71 million (2013 dollars) donated by William and Joan Schreyer to establish Penn State's honors college. The honors college is hundreds, if not thousands, of times more important to American society than an athletic facility -- yet the latter gets more money. Assuming the Pegulas are top bracket, taxpayers covered about $35 million of their gift.
Under the NCAA's nose, money is diverted from education to athletics in other ways. The University of Maryland just reported a $21 million athletic department deficit despite all UMD undergrads being charged $398 annually to subsidize athletics. That's about $11 million taken annually from regular students who are struggling to pay tuition and diverted to sports. The University of Maryland expects to lose money on athletics until at least 2017, partly because it owes a $52 million exit fee for breaking an ACC contract the school signed of its own volition. University of Maryland trustees are pursuing an extremely unrealistic attempt to get the ACC to waive its fee. Assuming their canny plan fails, the University of Maryland will either demand a taxpayer bailout or divert even more money from education to sports.
Student fees to subsidize the NCAA are not rare. Here's a jaunty history of how ESPN and the mid-major conferences put college football on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Midweek games are fun for viewers, and more are coming.
But what about education? The above article, in The New York Times, uses the University of Louisville as its example and reports dramatic recent growth in athletic department budgets and athletic construction. This creates, the Times says, a problem of "optics" when education budgets are stagnant or declining. Not to worry: "To be fair, that new construction is financed by donations, and the athletic department, a separate nonprofit entity, brings in enough revenue to largely pay for itself, aside from a few million dollars from students and the university. Lately, the department has also sent money back to the university — $350,000 annually, plus a one-time $2 million donation to finance a pay raise for the faculty and staff, whose salaries had been frozen."
Deductibility means that about one-third of athletic construction at the school is financed by taxpayers, not private sources. And a "few million dollars?" Louisville charges undergrads a mandatory $100 annual fee for athletics, sending about $1.6 million per year to the athletic department -- on a regular basis, more than the crumbs the department transfers to education. Curtis Eichelberger of Bloomberg News notes Rick Pitino of Louisville is being paid about $6 million this season, 10 times what the college president makes and 17 times what the athletic department promises annually to education. (Eichelberger is a tireless investigator of college sports abuses; don't miss the graphic on this story. Bloomberg has emerged as the go-to source for news on money and sports.) College games airing midweek are fun; the financial details are not.
Detroit: Stacked with high first-round draft picks and mega-contract players, no NFL team underperforms like the Lions. The talent-stacked defense, which allowed 49 touchdowns in 2012, has given up more total points than any other NFL team over the past four seasons. The talent-stacked offense, with its fantastic passing stats -- including receiving records for Calvin Johnson -- hasn't won games. The Lions were 0-6 within their division last season and, in one stretch, lost eight straight.
In a pass-wacky league, the Lions are wackiest. Adjusting for sacks and scrambles, Detroit coaches radioed in 378 more passes than rushes last season -- 24 more called passes than rushes per contest. While Seattle rushed 57 percent of the time (see below), the Lions threw just shy of twice as much as they ran. Because the NFL has become a passing league, even Bill Belichick is now pass-wacky. But Detroit takes pass-wacky too far.
Havard Rugland, the Norwegian placekicker who got a tryout with the Lions, says he learned English partly by listening to Wu-Tang Clan. TMQ ran "Havard Rugland" through a Wu-Tang name generator. The result: Violent Artist. Put it on his jersey! Dave Birkett of the Denver Free Press reports the Lions do pilates.
Green Bay: No team ever had a quarterback streak like the 20-year span of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Jay Sorgi of WTMJ radio has some history. Probably, the great quarterback play will continue. Rodgers goes into the season with the NFL's all-time lowest interception percentage -- just one Rodgers throw in 58 is picked off. He posted a league-best 108 passer rating in 2012 and a league-record 122.5 rating in 2011. His superlatives are legion.
But football is a team sport. Last season, the Packers often wobbled as a team. The offensive line was unsteady. Rodgers was sacked a league-worst 51 times during the regular season, then dropped four more times in the playoffs. In the playoffs versus San Francisco, Rodgers was sacked when Green Bay had six men to block four rushers. Because the Packers barely even try to run, rushers can tee off. With tackle Bryan Bulaga suffering a season-ending injury in camp, the line situation might get worse.
The defense allowed a cover-your-eyes 579 yards in the San Francisco postseason contest, sometimes seeming more concerned with looking cool in its funky unorthodox sets than with playing gaps. Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes many Packers are in their contract years and will presumably be motivated. Opening day and Nov. 17 are the dates cheeseheads must circle -- the Packers are at San Francisco and at Jersey/A, respectively. Since the start of the 2012 playoffs, Green Bay is 0-4 versus the Giants and Niners and 12-3 versus all other teams.
This column is a longtime fan of Vince Young. It might be chaotic when he's on the field, but at the double whistle, his team has more points than the other team. So it's nice to see Young get another chance with the Packers.
Considering Green Bay's passing system relies on precise execution -- the Packers throw deep sideline routes, a favorite pattern of the Manning brothers -- it's hard to see Young running the same offense Rodgers runs. Mike McCarthy's charges were eaten alive by the zone-read in the playoffs and now open against the Niners. Young can impersonate Kaepernick when the Packers run the scout team. And if Young comes in a few times a game for zone-read plays, this will force Green Bay opponents to prepare on defense for two entirely different philosophies of offense.
Undrafted rookie Lane Taylor got a $7,000 bonus. The new collective bargaining agreement puts a ceiling of about $75,000 per team on bonuses to undrafted free agents, though teams can guarantee some salary, which effectively adds to bonus. Though the CBA was progressive in reducing megabucks to the first 10 players selected while increasing pay to those taken in the middle rounds, undrafted rookies continue to be treated like impressed sailors. Many undrafted rookies spend a decade of their lives doing little but football, then end up with nothing but a check for travel expenses from their rookie summers. Pay at the bottom of the NFL wage scale needs to improve.
Book News: Is there a realistic way to correct the kind of misplaced priorities seen in collegiate football while sustaining the game that millions love? Yes! As are there ways to make football safer while keeping it popular and exciting; to make the NFL socially responsible; to reduce painkiller abuse in football; to fix the priorities of high school football; and to improve the sport in many ways.
My book "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America," to be published on Sept. 24, will both explore football at the youth, high school, college and professional levels, and present a practical program for long-term reform. "The King of Sports" is original, not a column collection. The football gods will smile upon those who pre-order. If you haven't pre-ordered a book before, it's cool. The book arrives on the day it is released to the general public; you see it first.
Jersey/A: The Super Bowl victory over the Patriots is only 18 months in the past, yet it seems so, so long ago. Last season, the G-Men finished 31st on defense; the Giants lost to Atlanta and Baltimore by a combined 67-14. Then again, Jersey/A defeated San Francisco and Green Bay by a combined 64-13. So which was the real Giants?
Tuesday Morning Quarterback has long felt the Giants are a better reflection of the New York City milieu than the Jets, setting aside that both neither practice nor performs in the Empire State. The Giants bicker openly about money and ego, seem constantly on the verge of collapse, then rally and do something special. That's New York! The Jets seem constantly depressed and fouled up. That’s New Jersey.
There's no sane reason to expect the Giants to be good this season -- but touts felt that way going into 2011, which ended with Eli Manning hoisting the Lombardi.
Minnesota: The Vikings' last season came down to this: In the playoffs, trailing Green Bay 24-3 with 11 minutes remaining, facing fourth-and-2, Leslie Frazier sent in the punting unit.
Who cares if the spot was the Minnesota 17? It's the playoffs. There is no tomorrow! The Vikings had the league's second-best rushing attack by yards and best rushing attack by average, 5.4 yards per attempt. What good is a power rushing game if the coach is afraid to use it in crunch time? This column groans over the Preposterous Punt, instances of NFL coaches sending in the punting unit on fourth-and-short in critical situations. Timid coaches punt to deflect criticism. Had Frazier gone for it from his own 17 and the try failed, he would have been slammed by the sports media. Since he did the "safe" thing and punted, he wasn't criticized. But down by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a playoff contest, punting on fourth-and-2 is like running up the white flag. Needless to say, the day ended with Minnesota decisively defeated.
Minnesota generated some fun stats in 2012. You probably heard about Adrian Peterson. Blair Walsh of the Vikes finished 10-for-10 on field goal attempts of 50 yards or more.
There were also plenty of negative stats. Quarterback Christian Ponder averaged only three inches more per pass attempt than Peterson averaged per rush attempt. The play fake to Peterson should have opened things up for Minnesota passing; instead, the team's aerial performance barely avoided being worst in the league. And, as usual, led by Jared Allen, the Vikes did well for sacks. But the team finished just 20th overall on defense -- Allen and other Vikings defenders gambled for sacks at the expense of gap discipline.
The Five-Year Mission Enters Its Sixth Decade: Here is what we learn about the year 2255 from the new flick "Star Trek Into Darkness:"
1. Two-and-a-half centuries into the future, defusing a bomb will still require cutting the correct colored wire.
2. Though teleportation, antigravity and faster-than-light travel are ho-hum, engineers still don't know about guardrails. The climactic Spock-Khan fight scene occurs atop a platform that floats above downtown San Francisco and inexplicably has no guardrails.
3. Starfleet designers still place all critical buttons at the end of long, cramped tunnels.
4. Heroes can still leap through plate glass windows without getting cut and still must prove their manhood by hanging by their fingertips. In separate scenes, New Improved Kirk and New Improved Spock hang by their fingertips from great heights. In a third scene, New Improved Kirk and New Improved Scotty dangle together from a great height. New Improved Chekov comes along and hauls the pair up, using one arm to raise the weight of two men -- something not even an Olympic power lifter could accomplish. Perhaps by 2255, fitness DVDs are more effective at building muscle mass.
"Into Darkness" is the fourth "Star Trek" movie in which the Enterprise is smashed to shreds; she was also destroyed (repeatedly, owing to time travel) in the series finale of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Just once, couldn't the shields not fail?
"Into Darkness" is the third consecutive "Trek" movie in which the Enterprise fights an ultra-enormous space dreadnaught whose captain is obviously insane yet obeyed by his crew. It is the second "Trek" movie that concludes with a beloved character sacrificing his life by entering the warp core to reposition the dilithium MacGuffin. If the dilithium MacGuffin is so important, why is it so easily knocked over? "Into Darkness" is likewise the second "Trek" movie in which the character who dies a weepy death saving the ship comes back to life.
"Into Darkness" was a lot of fun if one was willing to let go of the steam-era idea that plots should make sense. In the flick, Starfleet is run by a neo-Nazi megalomaniac intent on galactic domination. He is able to build a secret starbase, there to manufacture the ultra-gigantic space dreadnaught, without anyone noticing. Wouldn't building a starbase in orbit around Jupiter require a fantastic investment of material and labor? Wouldn't an auditor have spotted trillions of quatloos missing from the Starfleet budget?
A Star Trek chestnut is that a movie or episode includes an incredible technological advance, then, in the next movie or episode, the advance is forgotten. The 2009 flick simply called "Star Trek," first of the reboot, was set in the year 2253. During the movie, Scotty learns how to transport across interstellar distance. Set two years later, "Into Darkness" has all of Starfleet forget about this technology, which would have solved several plot problems.
"Into Darkness" has Starfleet researchers discover how to track, overtake and fire upon a starship traveling in a warp field -- said to be impossible in all previous "Trek" iterations, including the movies and TV shows set a century after 2255. Attacking a ship in a warp field was previously said impossible, even for Species 8472, the most advanced civilization the Federation has ever encountered. Suddenly, doing this is a snap. "Into Darkness" also has Bones acquire genetically engineered blood that brings the dead back to life. TMQ wagers that in the next "Star Trek" flick, everyone will have forgotten how to track, overtake and fire on a starship in a warp field, and, when a character dies, everyone will have forgotten about the resurrection blood.
At least Victoria's Secret is still in business in 2255! In the cheesecake scene, the new megababe science officer has to strip. She is revealed to wear fashion bedroom lingerie under an active-duty uniform.
New Orleans: Sean Payton is back, and, as of April, Sinnersgate draft forfeitures are concluded. The Saints have paid for their sins! Those guys selling indulgences on Bourbon Street -- Saints supporters can ignore them now. And relations between the Saints and league headquarters are sure to improve. At the low point last summer, it was touch-and-go whether drone aircraft would circle Saints practices.
The Saints posted a strikingly positive stat in 2012 -- they did not fumble on a rushing play. The rest of the stats? Not so much. New Orleans was last on defense, allowing 440 yards per contest; its 7,042 total yards allowed was the worst season performance in NFL annals. That the 2011 Packers allowed the third-most yardage ever, followed by the 2012 Saints allowing the most, tells the story of contemporary emphasis on offense.
Though awful on defense, the Saints were effective on offense, finishing second in yards gained and third in points scored. If the New Orleans defense can rise to merely average in 2013, the Saints might return to the postseason. Between the effective Saints offense and terrible Saints defense, a typical New Orleans game saw 851 yards gained from scrimmage. Contrast to a typical Pittsburgh Steelers game of 2012, which saw 609 yards gained.
Philadelphia: Chip Kelly left the University of Oregon "one step ahead of the posse," as was said in the Wild West, with NCAA sanctions coming. Kelly must have had trouble not laughing as he said "I accept my share of responsibility for the actions that led to the [NCAA] penalties" in the Eagles' media room, Kelly was not held responsible in any way! The NCAA effectively ruled he could not coach in college for the next 18 months. But the NCAA knows that even if Kelly does not fare well in the NFL, it is unlikely he would be fired after a single season, which makes it unlikely Kelly would attempt an immediate return to the college ranks in any case. A real penalty would have said, "If Chip Kelly wants to work at an NCAA member institution again, he must first spend 18 months away from coaching of any kind, without pay." That would be an actual penalty. Instead, what the NCAA did was signal other NCAA coaches that, so long as they win, there will never be any consequences. Hey kids, the NCAA says cheat to win!
Where was the NFL on all this? When the NCAA imposed a symbolic penalty of five suspended games on Terrelle Pryor after he left for the NFL, the league made Pryor sit out the first five NFL games he might have played. When the Indianapolis Colts hired former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who had been given a six-game symbolic NCAA suspension, the Colts made Tressel sit out his first six NFL games. Yet the NFL has done nothing regarding Kelly. Hey kids, the NFL says cheat to win!
For the Eagles, Kelly announced a 24-person coaching staff that includes two tight-end coaches and a "sports science coordinator." Shaun Hulls, the sports science coordinator, has this background: "most recently serving as the head strength and conditioning coach and combatives coordinator for Navy Special Warfare." Combatives? Last year at this time, TMQ chided the Vikings for having a league-high 22 coaches. Oh, for the bygone days of 22 coaches. The Buccaneers and Seahawks list 23 coaches this season. Note each, like the Nesharim, is run by a recent football-factory headmaster.
Everyone's waiting to see if Kelly implements his Blur Offense with the Eagles. Michael Vick, named the starter, would seem the perfect quarterback for the Blur; Nick Foles and Matt Barkley are pocket passers. Regardless, TMQ is putting his chips on this wager -- not only will Barkley win the Eagles' starting job sooner rather than later, he will be the top quarterback of the 2013 draft class. But it's hard to see Barkley operating a zone-read action. The compromise might be Barkley running a quick-snap spread. Under Andy Reid, the Eagles rarely went four wide, favoring conventional West Coast sets that focus on intermediate routes. Kelly could install four-wide looks with the dig-or-go passing routes favored in the current college game.
Assuming the Eagles open with Vick executing an Oregon-inspired Blur, what will happen in the NFL? Dean Blandino, the NFL's veep for officiating, told Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal the Ducks' pace will not be allowed in the pros because "teams don't control the tempo, our officials do." Blandino supposed quick-snapping will be made impossible by the NFL standard that the ready-for-play whistle doesn't sound until the official who spotted the ball has moved behind the deepest defensive back.
TMQ is not buying this. I reviewed January's Texans at Patriots playoff collision. The first New England touchdown came on a Blur-like play -- just 16 seconds between the previous Patriots runner down and the next snap. A third-quarter long New England gain came when the Patriots quick-snapped 18 seconds after their previous runner was down. Both plays were midgame, not in a two-minute-drill situation.
Last season, NFL offenses averaged 64 snaps per contest. The Patriots averaged 74 snaps and the Ducks averaged 82 snaps. The Oregon number was helped by NCAA first-down rules that generally cause more total snaps in college games regardless of tactics and hurt by Oregon's many insurmountable second-half leads and switching to grind-the-clock tactics. The difference between what the Patriots have already shown possible at an NFL officiating pace, and what Oregon achieved, shouldn't hold the Eagles back. TMQ thinks Kelly will be able to run a full-blown Blur Offense in the NFL. Whether it will work is the question. Depending on the answer, Eagles games could be tremendously entertaining.
Song of the Summer, 2013 Edition: As the warm season winds down -- unless you live in Hawaii, state of endless summer -- vacations conclude and school resumes, usually one pop music number emerges as most associated with summer.
What was this year's Song of the Summer? "See You in September", by the Tempos, was the No. 1 single of Summer 1959, then the top summer hit again in 1966 when rebooted by the Happenings. Summer of 2008, Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" was pounding out of every beach boom box and the speaker towers of every lakeside watering hole.
Perhaps the Song of the Summer 2013 is "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk. It's nice to see an act that has been around for a long time reach No. 1 in middle age -- American society overrates the smash debut and underrates gradual accumulation of accomplishment. Though it can be unsettling that Daft Punk members look like the Breen, one of the enemy aliens on "Star Trek." Other nominees for Song of the Summer are "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke and "Clarity" by Zedd. "Blurred Lines" has a good title for this moment in national history and offers humor. Some have objected to the lyric "I know you want it." There's no reason a man cannot say this to a woman -- the line is likely to backfire, but that's a separate issue. TMQ's Song of the Summer vote goes to "Clarity," which mixes the bouncy electronic sound that's all the rage with a bittersweet power ballad. Most pop odes to romance are gooey. This one is not -- "You are the piece of me I wish I didn't need."
The ultimate summer song surely is the Beach Boys' "All Summer Long", from 1964.
San Francisco: The 2012 Niners were both impressive statistically and fun to watch, owing to the midseason switch from conventional passing to Kaepernick. Lots of things went very well. San Francisco finished second in total defense; the offensive line was stable for the entire season; 14 players scored touchdowns (lots of guys handling the ball is usually a positive sign); the season finished just a couple snaps shy of the trophy. The offseason was good, too. San Francisco realized this impressive draft haul, plus obtained Anquan Boldin, while banking Tennessee's third-round selection in 2014 and a conditional 2014 pick from Kansas City. A mild question is why San Francisco used its three seventh-round choices rather than banking some of them, too. Considering the Niners have the league's strongest roster, can three late picks make this team?
Hidden in an otherwise-glittering season was the late collapse of the San Francisco defense. Through their first 13 games, the Niners allowed an average of 14.1 points; Aldon Smith was leading the NFL in sacks. For San Francisco's final six contests, the Niners allowed an average of 29.2 points, and Smith went sackless. A factor was the injury that slowed his running mate Justin Smith, but all NFL teams must deal with injuries. Worst was the secondary, which, as a debonair columnist pointed out, in terms of opponent passer ratings "during the regular season made opposing quarterbacks look like Blaine Gabbert but during the playoffs made opposing quarterbacks look like Aaron Rodgers."
Coaches coming on the field will be an NFL officiating "point of emphasis" for the 2013 season. Did you hear that, Jim Harbaugh? In 2013, San Francisco finished 5-1 in games played at night and 8-4 in daylight. The football is a little harder to see at night -- perhaps that favors Kaepernick's blinding-fast zone reads. This regular season, the Niners are slated for five night games.
Seattle: Last season, the Seahawks did something practically risqué by contemporary NFL standards -- they rushed more than they passed. The Bluish Men Group attempted 405 forward passes and 536 rushes, the kind of ratio that was common half a century ago. With most NFL defenses geared to stop the pass, Seattle's run-first offense seemed to baffle opponents, allowing the Seahawks to average 4.8 yards per rush and 8 yards per pass attempt, both healthy numbers. College football teams often run more than pass. College football tactics aren't supposed to work in the sophisticated NFL. For Pete Carroll, taking college tactics north from USC to Seattle worked.
Carroll's defense played a power style, holding opponents to 6.2 yards per pass and 4.5 yards per rush -- both nice margins compared to Seattle's own numbers. The Hawks defense finished fourth against yards and first against points. Seattle ended its season with a narrow loss to Atlanta on the opponent's field, coming oh-so-close to the NFC title game. If the Seahawks carry their 2012 quality of play over into 2013, the NFC West could have two of the league's best teams -- Seattle and San Francisco. The Seahawks-Niners home-and-home might be pivotal events of the season.
Sadly for NFL marketing, there is no Seattle-Green Bay pairing in the regular season: no chance to relive the Fail Mary game, unless these clubs should meet in the postseason. But the Bluish Men have got to like their sked -- only four trips to the Eastern time zone -- and their final two contests are both at home versus beatable teams, the Cardinals and the Rams.
St. Louis: Last season was a fun one for Rams special teams. Punter Johnny Hekker completed two passes in the same game. The football gods chortled when placekicker Greg Zuerlein hit from 60 yards and 53 yards in consecutive wins, then missed from 37 yards the next week as Les Mouflons lost by three points.
Since the arrival of Jeff Fisher as Rams coach, the team has been active in draft-choice trades. Notably, the Rams dealt away the chance to select RG III; Fisher has made multiple other transactions involving high picks. Summing Fisher's trades, St. Louis swapped Griffin and two first-round picks, plus second-, sixth- and seventh-round selections for Tavon Austin, Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, Isaiah Pead, Stedman Bailey, Rokevious Watkins, Zac Stacy and Washington's 2014 first-round pick. Considering modest production from the 2012 rookies and that Watkins has already been waived -- while Griffin was a Pro Bowl performer from the moment he stepped on the field -- Rams fans might soon wish Fisher simply played with the hand he was dealt.
Budget Politics No. 1: Yet another federal budget showdown is brewing. Federal spending is out of control, right? That's the impression given on talk radio and was the impression given by the Page One Washington Post lead story this Sunday. It began by saying that since federal spending was $3.457 trillion in 2010 and will be $3.455 trillion this year, spending is "not down by that much."
As stated, the decline does appear trivial, less than a tenth of a percent. But the figures are not adjusted for inflation! In 1980, a copy of The Washington Post cost 25 cents; now, the newsstand price is $1.25. But it would be unfair to say today's Post costs five times as much; in current dollars, the 1980 price was 75 cents. A persistent error in journalism and political debate is comparing a past money number to the present without adjusting to current dollars.
Buried deep on the jump page of the Post story, the paper acknowledges that adjusting to current dollars, federal spending has declined five percent in three years. That seems like meaningful belt-tightening. The Post's bold Page One claim was not supported by the details of the story: Adjusting to current dollars ruins the assertion that the federal budget is not being cut.
In turn, current dollars are only one of three factors in assessing government spending. Since 2010, the population has grown 2.2 percent, and the economy has expanded about six percent. There is no universally agreed-upon way to roll these considerations together. But factoring for inflation, population and GDP growth, federal spending has shrunk 7-8 percent in the past three years. Whether the White House or the sequester should get the credit can be debated; either way you slice it, that's an achievement in fiscal discipline. Why does the main newspaper of the nation's capital create the opposite impression?
Tampa: The Buccaneers have not won a postseason game since taking the Super Bowl trophy in 2003. Since walking off the field triumphant that day in San Diego, the franchise is 69-93 and rarely has been part of the elite-team conversation. The final link to the Buccaneers' glory days is gone with Ronde Barber's retirement. Or was that Tiki Barber? TMQ continues to believe "Ronde" had an amazingly long 16-season career because his twin Tiki played some of "Ronde's" games -- allowing him to rest -- and none were the wiser.
Scratch a football coach and he will say, "Defense is about stopping the run." The Bucs were the league's best versus the rush in 2012 -- first overall against running yards, plus an impressive 3.5 yards per rush allowed. Yet what good did it do? Any team can "stop the run with numbers," bringing safeties down into the box. Weasel coach Greg Schiano often employed this tactic, which is common in college, but putting safeties into the box invites the opponent to throw. Tampa finished 32nd in pass defense in 2012, giving up 69 completions of 20 or more yards.
First in run defense, last in pass defense -- sounds like Buccaneers coaches were not employing balanced tactics. TMQ admits to dislike of Schiano, owing to his bad sportsmanship. Many coaches are poor sports; few, like Schiano, boast about being poor sports. Because I don't like Schiano, my views cannot be seen as unbiased. Still, he seems an ineffectual coach. Even after the Bucs were repeatedly burned deep in 2012, Schiano kept the safeties low, as if he were coaching an NCAA game. He might be again soon.
Budget Politics No. 2: TMQ supposed in January that as the sequester takes effect, a metric for tracking special pleading would be statements by the science community. Everyone expects the defense lobby and the entitlements lobby to use sham money claims. But don't scientists always tell the truth?
In March, the lead editorial of Science, the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, declared "the United States has lost its way" because R&D funding is being "cut." Science complained that, in 1985, federal R&D funding was 1.25 percent of GDP but is now 0.87 percent. Science further said that "the mindless sequester will make the situation considerably worse."
Check the fine print and the source cited by Science for the GDP number shows that, converting to 2012 dollars, federal R&D spending was about $100 billion in 1985 and is now about $140 billion. Not only did the AAAS misrepresent its source; since GDP has grown considerably in the last quarter century, 0.87 percent of a much larger number will be greater than 1.25 percent of the smaller number. When private R&D is included, even the absolute GDP figure rises -- from 2.5 percent of GDP in 1995 to 2.8 percent of GDP today. By any measure, scientists command more money than in 1985. Rather than express gratitude, science lobbyists are whining and demanding special treatment.
In March, the American Astronomical Society "expressed deep concern about the U.S. government's new restrictions on travel and conference attendance for federally funded scientists." Attending conferences is useful for many professions, but why should average people be taxed to fund science junkets? I write novels and benefit from attending literary conferences. If I demanded that scientists be taxed to fund my travel, scientists would be outraged.
Lobbying groups that rely on taxpayer subsidies claim every year is a crisis. There's always a farm crisis, always a science-funding crisis. As the debt-ceiling deadline draws closer, bear in mind, much of the special pleading you will hear is simply not true.
Washington: Slate magazine, newly divorced from The Washington Post, will no longer refer to this team as the Redskins, finding the term racist. It's blowin' in the wind -- the Redskins will not be Redskins much longer, and no one gives a hoot what Chainsaw Dan thinks.
TMQ banged the drum for years about eliminating the Redskins name. Then, when the world seemed to lose interest, I returned to using the name in the column. Now that interest is rising anew -- two lawsuits are in progress -- this column will go back to calling the franchise in question the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons. Not only is Redskins inappropriate, the Washington part isn't right, either, as the team practices in Virginia and performs in Maryland. Like Slate, I will use "Redskins" only in direct quotation of others. Persons or Potatoes will be the column's shorthand, bouncing off Tony Kornheiser’s great line that "Redskins" would be a fine name so long as the logo was a side dish of potatoes.
Wouldn't it be nice if, rather than acting defiant, Chainsaw Dan showed people that he cared? That would be possible only if he cared. The Persons recently finished 108th in the rankings of fan value published by ESPN The Magazine.
To what should this team's name be changed? TMQ thinks the franchise should be rechristened the Washington Insiders. In winning seasons, they'd be the powerful Insiders.
Five years ago, TMQ began writing that linebacker London Fletcher, an undrafted Division III gent, would become the first modern-era player elected to the Hall of Fame without ever reaching the Pro Bowl. That problem corrected itself. Fletcher goes into 2013 with a 240-game iron man streak. By October, he could have the third-most consecutive starts of anyone other than a kicker, trailing only Brett Favre at 299 and Jim Marshall at 282. Another undrafted Person to watch is Kai Forbath, who, in 2012, hit 17 straight field goals; he didn't produce enough touchbacks, though. And perhaps you've heard of RG III. What impressed TMQ in 2012 was not his lightning runs but his accurate passes. Griffin threw just five interceptions; compare to 18 for Luck.
Slate Update: I had just been laboriously pitting cherries using a paring knife -- fresh cherries and vanilla yogurt is a nice summer breakfast -- when I saw this Slate video recommending a pitting device. So I went to Amazon and searched "cherry pitter," figuring there would be one manufacturer, maybe in Washington state. There were 19 models! This is what Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College calls the paradox of choice: too many options. Schwartz would say the consumer would be better off with three options than with 19. After spending way too much time comparing models, I ordered one that cost $8.33 delivered, which was so inexpensive it's spooky.
Next Week: Still America's original all-haiku NFL season predictions!