Fourth-and-Short: Bears and Lions Play a Misdirection Game

Jay Cutler, Matt ForteHaving suggested that the Bears were the best team in football last Monday, I anxiously tuned in to Monday Night Football’s tilt between the Bears and Lions to see just how gruesome the effects of my (unintentional) reverse jinx would be upon Chicago. Instead, the Bears showed up and played an impressive game under the prime-time lights, shutting out Detroit’s high-powered offense for most of the game before allowing a mostly meaningless touchdown on the final drive to prevail 13-7. That final score does a poor job of getting across what actually happened in the game. It was a game where, somehow, the Bears felt like they were dominating throughout and at the same time the Lions were far closer to winning than it might have seemed. The Bears played well and were not lucky to win, but they easily could have lost.

The most important factor in this game — the thing that won it for Chicago — was field position. Yes, Chicago’s performance on defense in the red zone helped a whole lot, but the Bears wouldn’t have gone up if it weren’t for the benefits of that great hidden helper. Detroit’s average starting field position was actually similar to that of Chicago’s, but that hides how the Bears benefited from field position and how the Lions accidentally kept it a close game.

Chicago didn’t have great field position for most of the game, but they did have excellent starting field position for three drives, thanks to Detroit’s wretched special teams. Likely concerned with the possibility of being beat by Devin Hester, the Lions set themselves up for a more subtle beatdown by booming 35- and 36-yard punts in the first quarter. Those two punts set up the Bears for drives that began on their own 41-yard line and directly at midfield, and they produced 10 of Chicago’s 13 points. The other three points came when Lions punt returner Stefan Logan muffed his second punt catch of the game and turned over the ball to the Bears on Detroit’s 27-yard line. All 13 of Chicago’s points came on short fields as a result of their special teams.

Otherwise, the Bears were mostly marooned deep in their own territory after the Lions failed inside the Chicago red zone. They had four different drives begin inside their own 5-yard line, and outside of one blocked field goal, the Bears punted on each of their eight additional drives on the night. Only one of those drives began past the Chicago 26-yard line, and that one — which began at the Detroit 47-yard line — was a quick three-and-out.

Detroit might not have done anything in the red zone, but their propensity for turning over the ball there actually exploited some of the hidden value in choosing to “go for it” in short-yardage situations near the opposition’s goal line: great field position. Those long drives almost all came after turnovers, and while the Lions spent the first quarter fielding the ball around their own 20-yard line, their average field position after the first was nearly on their own 30-yard line.

Really, field position and execution in the red zone masked the fact that these offenses both played pretty poorly. Although Jay Cutler appeared to struggle after suffering a rib injury toward the end of the first half, it’s still true that the Bears averaged a mere 3.4 yards per pass play; at 4.9 yards, Detroit’s vaunted passing attack wasn’t much better. Both teams were more effective on the ground, with each averaging in excess of five yards per carry. The Lions had four drives of 50 yards or more, while the Bears only had three but cashed in on some short fields. Detroit had shorter fields than normal, but with Chicago failing to turn over the ball, their 50-plus yard drives ended up flaming out in the red zone.

And yes, those turnovers mattered, but were they really a subject of the Bears playing stifling defense and having some sort of nose for the ball with their backs against the wall? In other words, were the turnovers something the Bears can count on? Not really. Think about those turnovers again. It’s safe to say that the Bears got something special when Lance Briggs punched the ball out from Mikel Leshoure’s grasp, but the other two turnovers were pretty fluky: Joique Bell’s I-Believe-I-Can-Fly leap from the 4-yard line would have been a fumble against any team in the league, and the late interception of Stafford was one that came on a fourth down with Stafford forced to try to find an open receiver on the run. The average team will accrue about three takeaways in the red zone per season, and over the past three years, the Bears have averaged exactly that figure. After their three takeaways on Monday, Chicago’s already up to five this season. Chicago should have a good red-zone defense over the rest of the season, but that’s because their defense is good over the other 80 yards of the field, not because they change shape inside their own 20.

Maybe 13-7 was a fair score after all. The Bears dominated the first quarter and then held on the rest of the way, and although their forays up and down the field didn’t result in points, the Lions mostly spent the ensuing three quarters out of any danger that Chicago would improve upon its lead. The Lions may be doomed to be this year’s version of the 2010 Chargers, a decent team that struggled with execution in key spots and had historically bad special teams, but they were competitive with one of the league’s toughest teams on the road on Monday night. And while the Texans blew out the Ravens this week, I don’t see any reason to believe that the Bears are still anything but the best team in football, a definition unlikely to be challenged after their upcoming games against the Panthers and Titans. What reverse jinx?

Xmas Vincent Jackson Waxon

The most stunning play of the week was undoubtedly Vincent Jackson’s 95-yard catch-and-run against the Saints, a play that saw him infamously get tackled at the 2-yard line before Tampa Bay promptly failed to score on four tries near the goal line. That touchdown would have tied the game in the third quarter at 28-28, but instead, the Buccaneers ended up going down 35-21 before launching a comeback that fell short on the game’s final play. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the longest reception without scoring a touchdown since Ahmad Rashad’s 98-yard catch in 1972.

Naturally, that play has become the fulcrum for a narrative that sees the Saints rising from the dead and making a miraculous run back into the playoff picture. Even I have to admit that it’s pretty poetic. The Saints seem like they’re finished after an early screw-up (dismal coverage safety Roman Harper flying in for an interception and missing it badly, creating the long play), only inches away from being embarrassed, but the endless hustle of a Saints player who refuses to quit (superior coverage safety Malcolm Jenkins) creates an unlikely stop that seems meaningless (first-and-goal from the 2-yard line still sucks) until the Saints build upon it with some key victories (four subsequent stops).

I think it’s a bit tortured; the Saints were a bit unlucky to start so poorly, having lost their first four games by a total of 20 points, and they’re now on a two-game winning streak that’s basically seen them turn losing coin flips into winning ones. They’re still stuck with a dismal running game and a highly questionable secondary, and their schedule is one of the toughest in football from here on out. They’re not making the playoffs, but it was still a pretty cool moment.

What hasn’t been considered, though, is what the moment might mean for the Buccaneers. The Saints will take something positive out of that moment, but it also might serve as the basis for a downswing by the Buccaneers, who have played six competitive-or-better games and have just two wins to show for it.

The Buccaneers were a candidate for improvement this year because they had a lot of things go against them in 2011. They were a young team that quit on their coach after playing a tough schedule. They were unlikely to turn over the ball as much, and they’d filled their biggest hole on defense (safety) while making significant investments on offense. They have a positive point differential this season, rank sixth in the league in turnovers, and have 3.3 Pythagorean wins, but they’re still just 2-4.

Their record belies the fact that they could easily be 5-1. Tampa’s only really struggled to compete in one game this year, their 16-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3, and they even led 7-0 to start that game. Otherwise, their three losses include a loss on the road to the Giants where they led by nine points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, a loss to the Redskins that saw them launch a 19-point comeback and take the lead with 1:42 left before being Griffined, and their loss to the Saints on Sunday. In that game, the Bucs led 14-0 in the first and 21-7 in the second before allowing the Saints to score four consecutive touchdowns.

It’s not fair to suggest that the Buccaneers will suddenly quit on rookie head coach Greg Schiano, but it’s also easy to imagine a young team getting discouraged after playing so well and blowing leads in every one of their four losses. With a tough game looming against the Vikings in Minnesota this week, the Buccaneers could fall to 2-5 before hitting a relatively soft part of their schedule (Oakland, San Diego, and Carolina). Tampa Bay will likely pick up a couple of wins over the next three weeks and move closer to .500, but at the very least, Jackson’s failure to score might end up being a marker of what Tampa Bay missed out on. Despite some early-season success and some opportunities to pick up upset victories, Tampa Bay couldn’t punch it in against the Giants, Redskins, or Saints when it counted. Now, whatever success they have going forward might end up being too little, too late.

The Churning in Carolina

On Monday morning, the 1-5 Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney. The decision came amid a rough few weeks in Carolina. After their heartbreaking loss to the Falcons in Atlanta, Carolina’s lost close games to the Seahawks and Cowboys by virtue of disappointing performances from their offense. Seen as the strength of the team heading into the season, the Cam Newton–led unit produced just 26 points across those two defeats, with Newton completing exactly 50 percent of his passes and averaging just 187 passing yards in the losses. Stars on both sides of the ball have gone down with season-ending injuries, as center Ryan Kalil and cornerback Chris Gamble each hit the IR in recent weeks. Throw in DeAngelo Williams re-tweeting fan comments about his lack of playing time, and it’s easy to see why the Panthers decided to make the uncommon decision to ax their general manager in mid-season.

Understanding the timing and decision-making that went into the move, though, is more difficult. When I wrote my piece on Hurney’s questionable decisions during the past few seasons in Carolina several weeks ago, my expectation was that he had been able to insert himself into the rebuilding process in Carolina for another cycle. His players — the core on which he’d spent money to keep in Carolina — were going to mature into their primes and get a shot to compete in the NFC South. Instead, as those players and their contracts have fallen from grace this season, owner Jerry Richardson decided that it was time to can Hurney.

Unless you think that Richardson made the move solely to scapegoat somebody for Carolina’s 1-5 start, it seems like the Panthers owner wants to rebuild the team in the image of a new brain trust, one that might include a replacement for head coach Ron Rivera. That’s going to be … arduous. Because they spent so much on the players Hurney wanted to build around during the summer of 2011, the Panthers were actually one of the few teams over the cap heading into this past offseason. When you’re a 6-10 team built around a second-year quarterback and one year removed from being the worst team in the league, being capped out is a bad, bad sign. If Carolina wants to rebuild, they’ll likely have to go ahead and make some big cuts this offseason. It seems likely that they would cut the likes of Williams, Jon Beason, Gamble, James Anderson, and Charles Godfrey, while probably giving serious thought to trading or releasing Steve Smith. The Panthers simply won’t have the cap space to make investments under new management without getting rid of those guys, and even then, they won’t be able to dip back into the free agent market until 2014.

That makes the Carolina job very unappealing for the league’s up-and-coming managerial candidates; while the presence of a franchise quarterback is always exciting, your options are a bad team that’s capped out or a bad team that will be terrible for the next year and a half. Furthermore, the situation creates an ugly situation in the Carolina front office that will make it difficult to conduct business for the rest of the season. Everybody in football operations — from management down through the scouts to the quality-control guys — will be spending the rest of the season under what essentially amounts to lame-duck status. Do you think that will encourage people to put in 16-hour days before the draft? And if you’re a scout, do you really want to make that extra trip to check out a guy when you’re probably going to be working for a new team in May? Firing Hurney now might give Carolina fans hope, but it should give their front office a foreboding feeling for the remainder of the year.

At the end of the day, though, Hurney sank his own boat. For whatever pressure he might have gotten from Richardson to make moves that would satisfy season-ticket holders, he’s the one who built a top-heavy roster that offered little depth in the case that the team was hit by a rash of injuries. He’s the one who dealt a future first-round pick to move up and draft Everette Brown. He’s the one who couldn’t convince Julius Peppers to re-sign in Carolina and didn’t get anything for him beforehand. He’s the one who tried to squeeze a title run out of an overachieving team by giving Jake Delhomme a contract extension without an appropriate offset clause. And, while he can’t force Rivera to use them on fourth-and-inches, he’s the one who built his team around a pair of expensive running backs in a league where running backs are less valuable than ever. Hurney’s firing was the right move, but unfortunately for Carolina, it came at the wrong time.

Filed Under: Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, NFL

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell