The popular Wisdom is that's it's only 1 game out of 16, and this is exceedingly true when you have a talented roster and the first week can be really really wild. Look around the league and you see a lot of teams that seemed to under perform in the first week of it counts now football. And not all of them lost, so you can almost understand the wailing and gnashing of teeth that we all go through when our first week falls flat. When super coach Bill B and the Patriots won (as i think almost everyone expected) few are surprised, unless of course its a come from behind victory over . . . perennial powerhouse Buffalo. Sure every year a team emerges as a dark horse favorite, and teams are always looking to improve. Or are they? The Vikings lost this weekend to a very dangerous and improving Detroit team. A team that had so many surprises in store for our coaching staff that the fans were able to give us the game plan a couple days in advance. Not the coaching staff, the fans. And they were right. And we had no answer it seems for just about anything. So where did we go wrong? We have had 2 stellar drafts, or so it appears, along with a number of good to great players picked up as we rework our roster to plug in the holes. But we made a couple of the more obvious holes months ago.
I am not saying that the front office / coaching staff chose this foreseeing a loss. In fact I am sure it's quite the opposite, but it shows a trend that might be more important to our future (and our coaches future) than most think.
When running, your LINE is most important
So what did we do at the end of last season to make sure our line was in great shape? We kept it intact. On the face of it this was a GREAT move because chemistry among the starters is so important. Our tackles Kalil and Loadholt were set, and we made sure to get Phil under contract longer term. We still have Sullivan playing center and he has consistently graded as a fantastic lineman. All the grades for this past game show we barely had a respectable line, and it is all true, our line was uninspired except for an initial blocking setup that sprang Adrian for 7 yards, which Adrian felt was just not enough so he tacked on another 71. The blocking there left a whole so big that Loadholt might have been able to get 8 yards, and we all know how his footwork can be . . . slow.
So what happened the rest of the game? Simple, months ago we let Geoff Schwartz walk. And we kept Brandon Fusco as the starter. Schwartz was injured a bit last year, so he did not start early, and yet every time he saw the field he outplayed Fusco. He was better in pass protection, which was something we sorely needed this past weekend, and I think he was better in run blocking as well. The coaches decided to keep Fusco as the starter all year. predictably Schwartz was gone at the end of the year. The weakest spot on our line last year was guard, where we could have kept the better player, upgrading our blocking. And we passed on it. And it's not like Schwartz was injured to end the year off and on as the season went along. He was healthy and ready to play during it seemed like the entire second half of the season. I know Schwartz is older (27 vs 23), but seriously those years are not putting this guy into total geezer mode. And it allows you to get your handpicked guy really settled into the role.
Would Schwartz have changed the outcome of the game? Hard to say, but one of our weakest blockers playing against Suh/Fairly changes just a bit with a better person in front of them. Football is a game of inches, and those few inches change how long Ponder has in the pocket to pass, how often Adrian is hit in the backfield (which was a LOT after the first electrifying run), how often the blitz is picked up better. Wait did the Lions ever blitz? . . . Did they Need to? . . . Did we pick it up? . . . . Did we NOT KNOW IT WAS COMING? . . . After Buffalo?
I talked about how Puntf__ker felt he was the smartest person in the room, when in reality even in an empty press room he wasn't, just because there was a podium made of dead wood that always placed him second in the IQ listings. Rick and Frazier and Musky are teetering towards that same boat, like a lot of other coaches. But there are few other Sith out there like Bill B in New England. Just because you drafted someone does not mean they will take that step and perform. Fusco has NOT taken that step. Players need to play in games and get the experience that comes from it, it can't be replicated. Fusco certainly has been given that opportunity, and has not gotten better, nor shown improvement. I'm not ready to toss Baca out there yet though, as he's a rookie. But I do blame the coaches and Rick for allowing a better alternative to walk, because they wanted 'their guy' to prove them right. You have done it for years with Ponder (and that mistake is so glaring its not funny), and we should expect that they will continue to do it with the rest of the roster. And certainly Fusco might turn into one of those players, that it lights up, slows down, and suddenly they are pro-bowl material. Sully certainly proved it could be done, as he looked shaky to start with, but he went a different route. He improved noticeably during the season and especially over the break.
But it wasn't just our offensive line that prompted our fate. What did we do on defense that had a hand in this?
Hold them . . Fold them . . Just know When
Our defense should be much improved, looking at the talent we have spread all over. One weakness was at linebacker, and we went out and picked up some help. Then we didn't play him. With some players coming in looking good, and even some players from last year looking improved what could possibly have depressed our defense so much that come game day they played uninspired?
It's not a position or completely the player, but the defense missed Antoine Winfield more than anything. He's played quite a while, played out of his contract last year, and we dumped him unceremoniously after the legal tampering was almost completed. Rick's treatment of Antoine was bad enough, but how many of our free agents are going to look at that come contract time this year? We have Allen, Robison, Griffen all coming up on contracts.
I watched a defense playing much less inspired, something I think Antoine brought to the secondary, along with a nose for play setup. Leadership is something that is not really just a given based on length of contracts, or age, or position. It comes from making players realize that you expect the best out of everyone . . . including yourself. Many posters remember (and have talked about even recently) one of the best examples of leadership from Antoine. It is, of course, the interception fail. In the middle of a game in front of 60,000+ spectators he dropped what looked to be a sure interception. And he dropped and did 10 push-ups, because when YOU make a mistake that's what you DO. You show everyone that you know, and you take the punishment that should be there.
No one can say that kind of leadership from one of the most highly regarded defensive players is just ignored. The ENTIRE defense got it and understood that Antoine was not special, he was not talk talk talk, he expected that you WILL perform, and he was holding himself to that exact same standard. And then he went out and had a career year. One that EARNED his final year payout. And just as quickly he was cut. Of course our front office tried to play it off as a cap issue, and that they cut him out of respect so he could get a team interested. But it was late, way too late to be saying things like that . . . if you actually meant it. Which is presumably why he did not come back when he was offered money (supposedly better than Seattle was offering) by our very own front office weeks after he was cut.
Again, would Antoine have made a difference in the game? Yes, not sure it would have given us the win, but I think he cuts Bush's effectiveness in half. And with it I think the defense plays better all around. Of course we could also have played a better set of personnel, like possible Bishop, maybe Cole as the game went on. But in game adjustments are not our coaches forte (at least according us, Joe fans). Our coaches are glacial in a lot of things, but especially on adjusting. Or roster changes.
Thinking . . . Waiting . . . Development takes time
So the elephant in the room. Ponder's . . . . Pondering . . for lack of a better description. During preseason everyone saw Ponder not do exceptionally well, and the mantra is it is preseason. The games don't count, wait till we get AP in the game, wait till the games count, everyone will see this is just everyone getting back to playing, no reason to panic. After the first game that mantra is still holding, it's just one game, Detroit is always tough to play at home, without blocking what can you do, did you not see the improvement in his play because everyone has always been asking for him to do those things and now that he is showing the ability to throw down field why cave and do something stupid like blow it all up. Even I myself pointed out that I had glimpsed the nigh impossible sight of Ponder making a . . . . . progression.
And you know what? I agree that it is still too early to go all chicken little. We can still go 15-1 in the regular season, make some serious noise in the playoffs and be in the hunt for that First oh so sweet Lombardi trophy. . . . . And right now that Winged Monkey is making a break for it!
Sure it's fun to pander and blather about how some people are just not serious fans because they are concerned about Ponders lack of improvement. But his every improvement comes with failures, and in some cases things we thought were getting better. yes he threw down field and yes his blocking was, well I'm not sure we did any of that so the grades given by PFF seem right. Why is he staring own his primary receiver for pretty much the full 2.5 second AVERAGE release time for a quarterback? . . . When players are OPEN WHERE HE IS ALREADY LOOKING!
I can't fathom why he has not had the light go on to realize that this is his last year in the NFL. Drew Brees got it when this happened to him, so there is still hope that Ponder can switch it on. But they HAD Bree's replacement, and we don't seem inclined to even push Ponder. The front office would rather the fans spend time locating Hat gif's then see a reliable replacement on our roster it seems. Do we have a better option? Not really, MBT is interesting of course as he's the Backup to the Backup, and since our backup is certainly no threat maybe, just maybe he is? . . . . Not really seeing the connection there. But this is really close to Ralphie's Old Man territory (that kids gonna eat I'll just take that plate and shove it down . . . ) coming out of the front office / coaching staff.
The Past is the Past . . . . and the Future
We've been down this road before of course, with PuntF__ker deciding to impress us all with his knowledge of the game and his quarterback scouting prowess. We had a nice guy in Teeth, but the patent pending jump pass, inability to run through his reads and basic iffy-ness in decision making really took a toll on us. Especially after years of mostly middling play from the quarterback position going back quite a ways (some exceptions of course). Coaches need to be able, and especially ALLOWED to be wrong about a player (few not most) and not be punished severely for it. But Frazier's style is not holding players accountable early / fast enough for the team to make that jump. When we overachieved last year it set expectations in the fan base, expectations that don't mesh with Frazier's seemingly glacial pace at improving the team. It's time to get things right, and the first thing is to stop using blinders on the players picked in the draft because you think you need to be right.
But it will be different this time.
Because . . . . It's a different year, and we all upgraded our checks with nifty new designs. And we have a coach that is NOT dumber than the podium stand of dead wood. We have a new stadium to look forward to. We have . . . .
A draft coming up in just a few long months. Here's hoping the months are not going to feel even longer.