Monday, September 21, 2009

Throwing Uphill's Even Harder Than Running There

National Football League teams throw 50 passes in a game for one reason only. They're behind. Teams pass to score, and run to control time and keep their offensive linemen sane.

Most often, they're way behind. The classic example of this strategy came from Kevin Kolb of the Eagles yesterday. The Saints led most of their game by around three touchdowns. Accordingly, Kolb put the ball up 51 times, a high number even for that lover of spirals Andy Reid.

The New England Patriots have thrown 100 passes in two games. They've been behind in both games -- but not far behind. The Patriots are demonstrating that being behind is more than a question of the scoreboard. It's a state of mind.

The Pats never led in their opener against the Bills until the last 50 seconds and trailed by 11 with 5 minutes to play. In the latter circumstance, Tom Brady or any other quarterback is going to get a great deal of right shoulder joint exercise. But the Pats had over 30 passes in the game's first three periods, too, during most of which they trailed by a margin of four, hardly a desperate situation.

Against the Jets, New England was behind from the opening minutes of the second half, but never by more than seven points. Their first loss of 2009 was always within one play of being a tie or win. The Pats began the game's scoring, and led throughout the first half. 16-9 is not a score that calls to mind an aerial circus. And yet, Brady had 47 pass attempts, an outlandish figure considering the game's overall flow and point total. How come?

Well, as noted, there are different types of behindness (a word I just made up). There's absolute behindness, as registered on the scoreboard, and what I call situational behindness, in which down and distance make passing an almost imperative play call. Third and long is the most obvious form of situational behindness, but second and long has increasingly become its equal.

Evidence mounts that Bill Belichick is coming to view just about every down outside of third and fourth and inches as situational behindness for his offense. He surely doesn't trust his running game to convert anything longer, or to turn second and long into third and short. He doesn't much seem to trust it to convert first and ten into anything but second and long, either. In two games, which is not a trend but is a sample worth examining, Belichick has taken situational behindness to its ultimate extension -- psychological behindness. The Pats are running plays that suggest the team FEELS behind unless Brady's turning the secondary into a free-fire zone.

In times of trouble and doubt, sports teams ALWAYS tend to shift the workload to their best player. That's smart, not neurotic. But it is remarkable, and not a little disturbing, to see New England's offense indicate that the team has seen the 2009 season as full of trouble and doubt since shortly after the opening kickoff of Opening Night. That, far more than Brady's indifferent performance yesterday, is what I would worry about were I a Pats fan given to worry.

One more thing. Teams which throw approximately 50 passes in a game lose said game far more often than they win it. This is not an outcome we need Amos Alonzo Stagg to explain. Teams that are behind for most of the game tend to be behind at the end of it, too. Even if Tom Brady threw the 50 passes for it.


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