Only in the crucible of the playoffs does it seem logical to define somebody’s legacy almost entirely by what a totally unrelated person does in his role. This weekend, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan saw the latest chapters in their postseason careers come down to the ability of another player on their respective teams to successfully carry out his job. Ryan got lucky. Manning was horribly unlucky. And in reality, we haven’t learned anything new about either player.
As I wrote at the end of November, Ryan is actually traversing a similar path to Manning. Like Manning, Ryan lost each of his first three postseason games, leading to talk that he was a player who couldn’t produce in the playoffs. Manning broke his streak in 2004 with a monster game (22-26, 377 yards, 5 TDs) against the Broncos, only to find that the bar for being taken seriously had shifted from “win a playoff game” to “beat the Patriots in a playoff game” and, after doing so, “win a Super Bowl.” And even that hasn’t satisfied the Manning mouth-breathers who are sure that Manning’s postseason level of performance isn’t comparable to that of Tom Brady.1
Ryan’s first playoff win only seemed like it might be that emphatic for the first 35 minutes or so. Despite an early interception, Ryan staked the Falcons out to a 20-0 lead, only for Seattle, led by Russell Wilson, to claw their way back into the contest. When Ryan threw a second pick, Seattle’s win expectancy crept above 10 percent for the first time in the second half. While Ryan couldn’t even lead his team on a clock-killing drive, a pair of Seattle touchdowns pushed the Seahawks into a 28-27 lead. And at that point — be honest — we all signed off on Matt Ryan. The comeback was complete. Fox showed slow-motion shots of Ryan vomiting in his mouth on the sidelines, if only because the Exorcist–inspired moments beforehand weren’t suitable for network television. An entire nation of experts sprinted to their social media accounts to declare that Matty Ice was Matty (some awful derivative nickname).
And yet, somehow, Ryan led the same sort of game-winning drive he had on his home field a bunch of different times during the regular season, as if the game being played in January really didn’t mean all that much. You know, like the drives against the Bears in 2008. Or the Ravens in 2010. Or the Panthers this September. After a very solid kickoff return from Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan had 25 seconds and two timeouts to pick up somewhere in the range of 40 yards. He only needed 13 of those seconds, using the middle of the field to find Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez to get those yards, setting up Matt Bryant for a would-be game-winning field goal.
Here’s exactly where the argument of Ryan-as-playoff-choker falls apart. If you really believe that the only way Ryan can overcome his issues and become a legitimate franchise quarterback is by winning a playoff game, you’re basing your entire viewpoint upon whether Matt Bryant hits a long field goal. Ryan is a fraud without merit if Bryant misses and a rejuvenated, vindicated winner if Bryant hits it. And then, since Bryant actually missed the first field goal, your belief structure is built upon the fact that Pete Carroll might have iced Bryant with a timeout. (More on the coaching decisions from this and the weekend’s other games later.) That’s too flimsy of a pretense for justifying or declaring anything about Ryan. He’s the same player with the same skills and the same performance record regardless of whether Bryant hits his kick or Carroll decides to ice the kicker. Ryan’s job for the day is done, and it’s only fair to judge him based on what was under his control.
The same is true for Manning, who took a fair amount of flak for not winning with a below-average defense and a running game that seemed to disappear in big playoff games in Indianapolis. People actually convinced themselves in 2010 that Mark Sanchez was better than Peyton Manning in the playoffs because Sanchez’s defense managed to hold an ailing Manning to 16 points, which meant that Sanchez’s 189 yards and one interception were enough to hold on for a 17-16 win. It seems so silly now; were we ever so young? Perhaps a better question: Will we ever grow up?
I don’t think Manning’s performance would go down in the books as an all-time classic, given that he threw a (tipped) pick-six and required two special teams touchdowns from Trindon Holliday to leave the field for the final time in regulation with a lead, but it wasn’t as if Manning was having a terrible day. He finished regulation having gone 24-for-37 for 261 yards with three touchdowns and that first-quarter interception, the sort of performance that gets written up as ” struggled early before finding his groove ” in the AP story if the Broncos win. He walked off the field having left his team with a 95 percent chance of winning. The Ravens would take over after the ensuing punt on their own 23-yard line with more yards to go (77) than seconds left on the clock (69), and with no timeouts left barring some sort of four-timeout Harbaugh family trickery. They were done.
Enter Rahim Moore. Denver’s second-year safety has had an impressive year as part of a surprising secondary, but on the biggest play of the year, Moore simply lost track of the ball in flight and got beat. If Moore does what virtually any safety serving as the last line of defense does on that play, he doesn’t let the ball or a receiver get behind him, the pass gets broken up, and the Broncos almost surely win, which would mean that Manning had a good game. If Jacoby Jones delivers on his dismal postseason reputation from a year ago and drops the game-tying touchdown pass, the Broncos almost surely win, which means that Manning had a good game. If the Broncos get the sort of defensive/special teams miracle they seemed to get last year in overtime games with Tim Tebow, the Broncos almost surely win, which means that Manning had a good game.2
Instead, Manning becomes defined by the unconscionably bad decision by his safety and his own poor decision in overtime, choosing to throw a pass over the middle of the field against his body motion à la Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, setting the Ravens up for a game-winning field goal. You can rightly blame Manning for that second interception, of course, but the game should never have even gotten to that point. Manning had performed well enough to put his team in an extremely advantageous position. His team promptly blew it. It seems worth separating the two.
The biggest problem with these narratives is that they totally ignore the meaningful performance record of a player and replace it with a much less accurate and uncontrollable depiction of the player, his win-loss record. Forget about Ryan and Manning for a moment and look at their opposing numbers. Do you really believe that Matt Ryan outplayed Russell Wilson in that game Sunday afternoon? If those two quarterbacks played again tomorrow, would you really pick Ryan over Wilson? You wouldn’t, and neither would I, but the same arguments that would you have believe that Ryan is a choker would suggest that Wilson was outplayed by the Atlanta quarterback. The same is true for Flacco, who had an excellent game against one of the league’s best pass defenses even before the fourth-quarter bomb past Moore to Jones. Flacco and Wilson were the better quarterbacks on the day because they played better, not because they won or lost.
Unfortunately, Manning’s history tells us where the case of Ryan’s playoff viability is heading. If Ryan loses to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game or to the AFC champion in the Super Bowl, the book on Ryan won’t change; it’ll still be that Ryan “can’t win the big one,” but the “big one” will shift from a playoff game to the Super Bowl. In Manning’s case, his playoff legacy might require him to win two Super Bowls before the people who formed their opinions of him in 2003 get over themselves.
As a sports culture, we slap labels on players out of laziness, because the information on how they really performed wasn’t readily available to us. Now we know better and we still do it because those narratives have become tried-and-true. Matt Ryan is going to wake up Monday morning and be exactly the same quarterback he was when we woke up the day before. The same is true of Peyton Manning. The work of Matt Bryant and Rahim Moore shouldn’t be enough to affix or remove any label. Only the actual performances of Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning should be meaningful enough to do that.
No Question of Degree
Meanwhile, Saturday saw the two biggest question marks left among the eight postseason quarterbacks come through in spades. Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick delivered sterling performances in victories that will help shape the immediate future of their franchises in different ways, in addition to our perceptions of what they can and can’t offer their teams.
I haven’t always been at the helm of the Flacco bandwagon by virtue of all those graphics that focus on his win-loss record without ever talking about how great his defenses have been; in a vacuum, though, Flacco’s been about a league-average quarterback with elite health and durability. I put him 27th on the preseason Trade Value List for a reason; that’s valuable, even if it’s not necessarily elite. Then, in the middle of November, I suggested that we were going to find out the “truth” about Flacco as his defense fell apart with injuries. From that point forward, the Ravens pulled out a 13-10 win over a Byron Leftwich–helmed Steelers squad and a 16-13 victory over the Chargers (with that famous fourth-down checkdown to Ray Rice) before losing four of their final five games. Flacco didn’t play terribly, but his average work was producing losses instead of wins.
After a decent game against the Colts, Flacco was every bit the downfield weapon his supporters suggest he is against the Broncos, who rated out as the league’s fifth-ranked pass defense per DVOA this season. This isn’t a case of that Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones inflating his numbers, either; before that pass, Flacco was 15-of-25 for 219 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, numbers that undersell the throws Flacco was actually making. It’s not just the throws you make but when you make them, and Flacco came up with big drives at the end of each half. While his drive at the end of the fourth quarter will be the one that gets remembered, it was just one throw against a defensive back who grossly misplayed his coverage (albeit one throw that was incredibly meaningful and required every bit of his elite arm strength). His drive at the end of the first half might have been even more impressive, as Flacco took over close to midfield with a little over a minute left and drove his team into the end zone in three plays, producing points that seemed even more valuable when Trindon Holliday turned the opening kickoff of the third quarter into a touchdown.
The win offers Flacco more than a signature victory to claim as his very own. It was a signature victory in the playoffs with the sort of numbers that take a backseat to nobody, a win over the greatest quarterback in NFL history in a shootout. If that’s not enough to convince the Ravens that they should give him market value on a contract extension, he’ll hit free agency3 on the heels of his most impressive career performance. Unless he’s just terrible against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, teams aren’t going to forget this. My estimate is that it did enough to boost the guaranteed money in Flacco’s deal by a few million dollars, and if it comes down to a bidding war between the likes of the Chiefs, Cardinals, and Jaguars, I think Flacco’s next deal could approach $40 million in guaranteed money. Even scarier, Saturday night might have proved that Flacco is worth it.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, had about the best possible game you can have after throwing a pick-six on the opening drive of the day. San Francisco had nine subsequent competitive possessions, and they turned out pretty well. The Niners had one three-and-out, a 47-yard drive that ended with a punt, a 48-yard drive on a short field for a touchdown, a 62-yard drive for a field goal, and five drives of 80 yards or more that each produced touchdowns. It’s close to impossible to do better than that.
The numbers are truly astounding. Kaepernick finished with 181 rushing yards on 16 carries, which is the most any quarterback has had in a game — regular season or playoffs — since 1960. It’s the 14th-largest total by a player at any position in postseason history, and he did it while averaging 8.5 yards per attempt through the air.
While teams have known about Kaepernick’s running ability since he entered the starting lineup in mid-season, it was shocking to see just how little the Packers could do to control Kaepernick from escaping the pocket and scrambling. They tried using outside linebacker Erik Walden as a spy on Kaepernick in the first half, a move that will come in handy if Walden is ever asked to describe the back of a 49ers jersey to a police lineup. Walden was burned on several occasions, unable to effectively diagnose the read option plays that drove the Packers batty. Green Bay then used blitzes from the outside to try to force Kaepernick to stay in the pocket, but that only served to create throwing lanes and tantalizing matchups for him downfield. That includes Kaepernick’s favorite target, a receiver who has become an elite player since Kaepernick showed up under center.
Michael Crabtree is the player who has benefited most from Colin Kaepernick’s insertion into the 49ers lineup at quarterback. Since being selected 10th overall in the 2009 draft, Crabtree has only really shown flashes of the brilliance he exhibited during his time at Texas Tech. Some of that’s been due to injuries and the natural progression that young wide receivers go through in adapting to the professional level, but a lot has been that he really hasn’t had very much to work with at quarterback. Forget Alex Smith; Crabtree has been thrown passes by Troy Smith, David Carr, and Shaun Hill during his time with the Niners.
Crabtree had begun to break out during the first half of the 2012 campaign, but his numbers skyrocketed after Kaepernick entered the lineup for good in Week 11 against the Bears. Here are Crabtree’s numbers from his first three seasons, the first nine games of the 2012 season, and this eight-game stretch with Kaepernick at quarterback, all prorated to a 16-game season:
With Alex Smith in the lineup, Crabtree was basically repeating his 2011 line of 72-874-4, with a few extra touchdowns thrown into the mix. Once Kaepernick came in as the full-time starter against the Bears the Crabnick Connection has been staggeringly effective. Crabtree is, after scrambling, Kaepernick’s best weapon on third down. He’s Kaepernick’s best weapon downfield, too. He’s run solid routes and worked himself open against superior coverage, and he’s used his athleticism and timing to get open downfield on double-moves and go routes for huge gains. He catches the easy ones and brings in quite a few of the hard ones, and he’s been excellent picking up extra yardage after the catch this year, especially on third-and-medium or -long. Crabtree was a slightly less than average no. 1 receiver with Smith at the helm, but now he’s putting up Brandon Marshall numbers. It’s a truly exciting transformation for the Niners.
What that all got me thinking about is how we judge wide receivers during their maturing years, how much we really know about their true level of ability, and how much an elite quarterback (or even just the right quarterback) can help a player look like a star or a bust. Some players are truly scheme-transcendent, of course, and I bet that Calvin Johnson would look like a superstar in any offense. Crabtree, though, has exhibited drastically different levels of performance depending on the identity of his starting quarterback. It’s possible that he could just be playing better with Kaepernick, or that Kapernick’s ability to throw downfield creates opportunities for the young pass-catch combination to make big plays, but the most obvious likelihood is that our perception of Crabtree’s ability is shifting based upon the quality of the quarterback throwing him his passes.
There are some cases where the relationship between the change in quarterback and the change in performance seems patently obvious. Take the Broncos, for example, where Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas had occasionally impressive games in 2011 with Tim Tebow at the helm. When Tebow was replaced by Peyton Manning this offseason, both the numbers and our projections for the pair rose a bit, but they’ve both managed to look like superstars with Manning around this year, improving their collective performance dramatically. You can make the same argument with Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville, whose performance veered from failure to competence over the second half of the season in Florida, likely thanks to the act of replacing Blaine Gabbert with Chad Henne.
There’s no foolproof line of demarcation that separates out a quarterback’s input from that of his wide receiver, but it’s also clear that somebody like Pierre Garcon gets more help from his scheme than, say, Megatron. Instead, it’s better to take the numbers and use them as a factor when it comes to judging the talent through their developmental process. An obvious bust like Charles Rogers might not be able to turn into a superstar wideout anywhere else, but even a player like Crabtree capable of elite performance can produce average numbers with the wrong quarterback before heading to brilliance with the right one. That’s worth keeping in mind as we evaluate young players going forward.
Stop Talking About Playoffs
Just for fun, a quick note on two impossible-to-eradicate postseason memes and how they did this weekend:
- The teams who were playing their best ball at the end of the season had an uneven week. The Ravens finished the regular season losing four of their final five games, but after beating the Colts last week they pulled out a victory over the Broncos on Saturday. Denver had been on an 11-game winning streak, so it seems safe to say that they were playing their best ball then. The Falcons lost to the Panthers and Buccaneers over the final four weeks of the year, but they somehow still managed to beat the red-hot Seahawks, who had been the league’s best team during their five-game winning streak to end the season. (The Seahawks dispatched the Redskins, another team that had been on a season-ending winning streak, last week.)
- Baltimore has done a fair amount to eradicate the idea that the trusted, postseason-hardened veteran kicker is a must-have over the past couple of years. In 2010, the Ravens signed Billy Cundiff off the scrap heap and got a career year from the journeyman kicker, encouraging them to sign Cundiff to a five-year, $15 million contract. Cundiff was erratic in 2011, and at the end of the year, the league’s highest-paid kicker missed the year’s most important field goal, a 32-yard chip shot that would have sent last year’s AFC Championship Game into overtime. Baltimore cut Cundiff in training camp and replaced him with rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who went 30-for-33 this season before hitting a game-winning 47-yard field goal in double-overtime to seal the win for the Ravens. It’s not always this simple, but the Ravens were better off with the undrafted free agent rookie kicker in the playoffs than they were with one of the highest-paid guys in the league.
Thank You for Not Coaching
You might want to go get strapped in for this one. We’re going to be here a while.
Let’s start with the Denver Broncos, who managed to do something incredibly short-sighted twice in one game. After Flacco’s aforementioned drive at the end of the first half tied the game up at 21 apiece, the Ravens kicked off and produced a touchback. That gave the Broncos the ball with 36 seconds left on their own 20-yard line, but Denver also had all three of their timeouts to work with. Despite having Peyton Manning under center, they chose to hand the ball off once to Jacob Hester4 and walk into the tunnel for halftime. Then, in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were given the ball on their own 20-yard line after the Flacco Hail Mary with 31 seconds left and two timeouts. Without even trying one play to get the ball downfield, the Broncos knelt and headed to overtime.
I’ll spare you the Twitter links, but I assure you that this isn’t a case of hindsight trying to plug in field goals in places where the Broncos should have knelt. There are certainly cases where you wouldn’t want to try to advance the ball in this situation; if you had a heavy lead, a terrible quarterback, or a kicker who couldn’t boot anything through, I’d understand passing on a 30-second drive. But that’s not the case here. The Broncos were in a competitive game in both cases, had Peyton Manning at quarterback, and were playing in the thin air of Denver, where long field goals are more likely to occur than anywhere else in the league. Were the Broncos5 really worried about turning the ball over with Manning on that drive, ô la Ben Roethlisberger against the Bengals in Week 16? If that’s the case, then they didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. And if it’s not the fear of a turnover, well, I can’t see the downside in trying to move the ball downfield for a tie-breaking field goal at the end of either half. And if you’re really that worried about a turnover, why run a giving-up handoff to Hester at the end of the first half as opposed to taking a knee? Is Hester really likely to break one for an enormous gain?
There aren’t always times when an overly conservative decision can be immediately countered by a successful result for a team who isn’t so conservative, but that’s about what happened this weekend. When the Falcons went down by one point at the end of the game on Sunday, they took the Seattle kickoff to the 28-yard line and faced an eerily similar situation to Manning and his Broncos from the previous day. They had two timeouts to work with and needed somewhere around 40 yards before they could set up for a credible field goal try. Because the Falcons weren’t in a tie game they couldn’t afford to be risk-averse and ultra-conservative and wait for overtime. They had to try to march down the field which they did quickly enough to kick a game-winning field goal. Imagine if the Broncos hadn’t had the option of putting off the possibility of losing for another quarter! They might actually still be in the playoffs today.
Atlanta needed to overcome that one-point margin because they grossly mismanaged a game situation that seemed entirely innocuous at the time. (Again, I’ll spare you the tweet.) When the Falcons scored a third-quarter touchdown to go up 26-7 pending the extra point, they probably should have considered going for two to extend their lead to 21 points with about 17 minutes to go. Obviously, that would have forced the Seahawks to score three touchdowns to tie the game, whereas there really isn’t much of a difference between being up 19 points and being up 20. If the Seahawks managed two touchdowns and two field goals, an extra point would keep Atlanta tied, whereas a failed two-pointer would leave Seattle behind. Of course, that’s less plausible than the three-touchdown scenario, and the value of being tied there is far more meaningful.
It’s a debatable call, but it quickly became an obvious decision when the Seahawks went offsides on the extra-point attempt, giving the Falcons the ball on the 1-yard line. That one yard represents a more significant difference than you might expect. During the 2012 season, teams scored on 38.4 percent of their plays from the 2-yard line, a figure that rose to 56.2 percent from the 1-yard line. The play from the 1-yard line is such that it’s almost always going to be better to go for two than to kick an extra point, but that goes even further in this unique situation. And then, even more amazingly, the Seahawks went offsides on the ensuing extra-point attempt. That’s first-and-goal from 1.5 feet away from the goal line, a play in which your quarterback can basically just wave the ball over his center’s head and cross the plane before anyone can react, as Tom Brady did against the Niners during the regular season. I don’t have numbers for a half-yard, but they’re going to be even better than 56.2 percent. And of course, the two-point conversion means that Seattle would have tied the game with their late touchdown as opposed to taking the lead, so not thinking this through almost cost Michael Smith & Co. their postseason life.
The final moments of that game were chaotic and full of questionable decisions.6 You can forgive the participants for falling apart amid amazing drama, but it’s also their job not to, so I can point out what went wrong here. Let’s start at the end of the Tony Gonzalez completion that set up the game-winning field goal. First, the Falcons chose to call timeout almost immediately after the completion, leaving 13 seconds on the clock for Atlanta’s game-winning field goal attempt. What’s the point of leaving that much time on the clock beyond giving the Seahawks a chance to get a kickoff return and a possible Hail Mary/field goal attempt after a successful kick? It was Atlanta’s last timeout, and the kick was sufficiently far away that they wouldn’t have been able to recover from a bad snap, so there wasn’t a safety net available for a possible rekick. Running the clock down to three seconds or so for the kick would have been the right move.
Atlanta had one shot until Seattle gave them a second one. Pete Carroll iced Matt Bryant’s first crack at the game-winner, a kick that Bryant actually missed. Carroll had all three timeouts, so there was no reason for him to keep the timeout, but there’s also no evidence that icing the kicker really induces more missed field goals. It was a useless process masquerading as meaningful, and it ended up costing the Seahawks dearly. My respect to Carroll for trying to convince the line judge that he hadn’t actually wanted a timeout before the kick was taken. That’s some incredible hustle.
One Seattle decision I didn’t hate was their choice to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 11-yard line down 13-0 in the second quarter. I’ve heard arguments that the Seahawks should have taken the points and stopped being shut out, but those are mainly because the game ended up being decided by two points. It’s a hypocritical, hyper-conservative argument from the same people who will tell you that you shouldn’t go for two before the beginning of the fourth quarter. The logic behind that two-pointer argument is that you shouldn’t chase a particular score or game situation until it’s likely to be the score at the end of regulation, that too many things can change between the point of a failed two-point conversion and the end of the game. If that’s the case, then why should you settle for three points if that’s not the optimal move you can make? History says that you’ll produce an average of 2.8 points by kicking the field goal, but if you go for it, you’ll produce an average of 3.6 points by going for it. And that’s with an average offense; I suspect an elite offense like Seattle’s would produce more than four points by going for it. When you’re not chasing a particular score, your goal on offense is to score as many points as possible. Going for it was the option that gave Seattle the chance to score the most points, even after adjusting for the possibility that they might not score any. You can argue that a fullback belly wasn’t the right play call, but going for it was the right decision.
Houston–New England was actually a relatively well-coached game. The Texans faced a similar situation to Atlanta and Denver at the end of the first half and actually went downfield and scored three points, which was a positive moment in a game that wasn’t really full of them for Houston. They also made a high-reward challenge on a long touchdown pass to DeVier Posey in the fourth quarter that went their way. Bill Belichick made a low-risk, high-reward challenge in the fourth when he challenged that Arian Foster was down before converting a fourth-and-1 carry. The spot was murky and was always going to be difficult to overturn, but the upside was enormous: It would have given the Patriots the ball deep in Houston territory with a comfortable lead and basically ended the game as a contest.
Finally, let’s go back to Saturday night, where Jim Harbaugh put on yet another clinic in a big game. Never mind that the 49ers stopped running the Pistol in Week 16 and Week 17 to get it out of Green Bay’s minds and film watching before bringing it back in style in the divisional round. It’s their aggressiveness that’s so exciting. With a 14-point lead and five minutes to go in the fourth quarter before a fourth-and-1, most teams would line up to kick a field goal to go up 17 because, well, it’s what teams do without thinking. Not Harbaugh & Co. Blessed with an offense that had beaten up the Packers all evening, the 49ers lined up to go for it and easily drew the Packers offsides, picking up the first down without even having to snap the ball.
That it was preceded by a situation where the Packers seemed to give up only made it sweeter. Green Bay’s previous drive ended at midfield, when the Packers punted on fourth-and-5 with 11:28 left. Now, remember: Green Bay is down 14 points, they haven’t been able to stop Colin Kaepernick all day, and they’ve got Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. How can you justify punting there? After a day of being torched by the 49ers offense, you’re suddenly going to play a defense and field-position game? Do you remember how angry Aaron Rodgers was at Mike McCarthy when he threw the challenge flag on an automatically reviewed play a couple of weeks ago? He should have been equally angry at him for insisting on punting there. When the 49ers promptly went hyperaggressive on their following drive, they got what they deserved. San Francisco scored a touchdown to seal the game, sending McCarthy and Rodgers back to Green Bay for a long offseason.