Thursday, January 3, 2008

Out, Damned Wild Card Spot: Assessing the shortcomings of every NFL team playing on wild card weekend

It’s safe to say that Shakespearean scholars and football fans are not often mentioned in the same sentence, but the NFL’s wild card weekend will feature enough fatally flawed football to appeal to both demographics. The eight teams playing during the first week of the 2008 playoffs are more likely to meet the fate of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth than that of Super Bowl legends (Jack) Ham or (Joe) Montana.

Not since the early-90’s 49ers and Cowboys can I recall such a division between the elite class of the NFL and the second tier playoff teams. The four teams with first round byes – New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay went a combined 55-9, including week 17 losses by the Colts and Cowboys while they rested their starters.

Sure, eight other teams qualified for the playoffs, but just as indecision eventually led to Hamlet’s demise, each of the teams in action during wild card weekend will be exposed and fall long before their Super Bowl dreams are realized.

So dust off your old English Lit books, or your SparkNotes, as I assign a character from Shakespearean tragedy to each of the eight pretenders and explain why they will make an early (first or second round) playoff exit. The teams are listed in order from the most flawed to the least flawed.

1. Tennessee Titans as Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra

Like Cleopatra, the Titans seem to have a flair for the dramatic. They sneaked into the playoffs by edging a Jim Sorgi-led Indianapolis Colts team resting many of its starters in week 17. In 2006, Tennessee closed the year by winning six of their last seven, and Vince Young was league’s hottest young star. But Young struggled throughout the 2007 campaign, finishing as the 26th rated passer in the league.

Still, Young remains in the spotlight. Just like Cleopatra, Young has the physical tools to leave fans in awe, but his superstar potential tends to overshadow his teammates around him. Like Cleopatra, Young’s charisma and natural leadership ability are evident, but he doesn’t fit the typical NFL quarterback mold. Young will have to disprove skeptics who bring up his shortcomings as a pocket passer.

The running game features LenDale White, who led the team with 1,110 yards and 7 touchdowns. But their receivers accounted for just 8 touchdown catches all year. Defensively, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch lead the league’s fifth ranked defense. But they will not be enough. Tennessee gets a taste of the playoffs, but a win is asking too much too soon for Young and the Titans.

2. New York Giants as Brutus from Julius Caesar

The New York Giants are back in the playoffs again. It is the Giants’ third straight year qualifying for the playoffs. They lost in the wild card round each of the past two seasons. Playing in the Big Apple, the Giants are a public figure. Much like Brutus in Julius Caesar, they are a conflicted team confounded by their idealism.

To quote Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” The Giants began the season 6-2 and finished 4-4. They beat just one playoff team (Washington), and that was back in week 3. Four of their six losses came against the NFL’s elite: New England, Green Bay and Dallas twice. They're mediocre just like the past two seasons.

Coach Tom Coughlin is a perennial hot seat coach, and another first round exit will fuel that fire-the-coach fire in New York. The fact that they played the undefeated Patriots tightly in week 17 in a game that meant nothing in the standings for the Giants is nice, but it’s still a loss. They left the field banged up, and Eli Manning threw another late game interception. And like Brutus, the Giants let their noble idealism get in the way of their real goal: playoff success.

3. Washington Redskins as Juliet from Romeo & Juliet

The Redskins were forced to grow up in a hurry due to real life tragedy, the Nov. 27 shooting death of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor. In Romeo & Juliet, the 14-year-old Juliet begins as a timid, naïve child before growing into a self-assured, loyal young woman.

When the Redskins lost their top defensive back, they also lost a teammate and friend. But following a gut-wrenching last second loss to Buffalo, the Redskins rallied to win their last four games to qualify for the postseason. Juliet’s final act of suicide is tragic, but it is an act passion. Washington needs to worry about taking itself out of the playoffs by riding too high on emotion.

They’ll put their trust in veteran quarterback Todd Collins, who has gone 4-0 as a starter this season. The problem for Washington is that while Collins is 36 years old, he has less playoff passing attempts than every other quarterback in the playoffs except Vince Young. Collins went just 1-of-4 for 7 yards in a 1996 playoff appearance for Buffalo against Jacksonville. They will go down honorably, but inexperience will be the downfall of the Redskins.

4. Seattle Seahawks as King Lear

The Seahawks are an illusion. They are NFC West champions for a fourth straight year, but champion is a bit of a misnomer. Outpacing the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers, three teams that combined for as many wins as the Patriots had on their own, is no major feat.

King Lear valued appearance over reality. Perhaps he reigned in Seattle, where the Seahawks’ best win came way back in week 1 over Tampa Bay. It was their lone victory against a playoff team – not that they faced many. In fact, the Seahawks’ had the easiest schedule in the league, and half of their wins came within the aforementioned weak competition of their own division.

Like Lear, the Seahawks are an aging king. Their 2005 NFL MVP running back Shaun Alexander ran for a career low 3.5 yards per carry this year. After scoring double digit touchdowns for five straight seasons, he’s scored a combined 11 times the past two years. As Alexander’s production has slowed, the team has become a predictably pass-happy team that seems doomed to a flame out during a frosty January road trip to Lambeau Field.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers as Hamlet

This is not your father’s Steelers football, or is it? Under first year coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers are enigmatic much like Hamlet. Sometimes they are indecisive. They aren’t sure if they should play smashmouth football the way they played in the days of Franco Harris or even the more recent days of Jerome Bettis.

In other games, they want to feature Ben Roethlisberger and choose to air it out. The end result is an up and down season. They won six games by 17 points or more. They also lost games against the lowly Jets, Ravens, Broncos and Cardinals. While the Steelers are capable of taking down a team or two along the way, their inability to carve out an offensive identity will be too much to overcome.

The Steelers were asking themselves what to be or not to be on offense even before the playoffs. Now injuries make the Steelers problems even greater. Starting running back Willie Parker and tackles Max Starks and Marvel Smith are all out with injuries. Should the Steelers try to grind it out, Najeh Davenport will carry the load. If they try to go through the air, Big Ben will have to try to regain his form. After starting the season strong, he cooled down the stretch, throwing just 12 touchdown passes in his final eight games. Hesitant to commit either way, the Steelers will fall short.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Titus Andronicus

After a last place finish in 2006, Tampa Bay responded with a 9-7 record in 2007 to win the NFC South. But their winning won’t last long in the postseason. They have a solidly built team, but not a championship team.

They're rooted in the tradition that defense wins championships. After all, their 2002 Super Bowl unit was built on a strong defense. But the goal isn’t to rebuild the 2002 championship team. They need a team fit to win it all this season. They simply do not have the offensive firepower to compete with the likes of the Patriots, Cowboys, Colts, or Packers. Those teams had the four best records in the league, and they were also the top four scoring teams in the league. They each averaged more than 27 points per game whereas the Bucs scored less than 21 per game.

Titus Andronicus was lauded for his reverence for traditions before it led to his downfall. At some point it simply becomes stubbornness and refusal to change. Tampa Bay should know better than to rest on its laurels from postseasons past. Caretaker quarterback Jeff Garcia is not enough to win the big one. Case in point: Garcia is 2-1 in the wild card round and 0-2 in the divisional round in his playoff career. Expect similar results from him wwith the Bucs this year.

7. San Diego Chargers as Macbeth

Like Macbeth, most people are familiar with the story of the Chargers in the playoffs, even if they don’t really understand them. Last year they went 14-2, grabbed the number one seed and promptly lost their home playoff game against the Patriots. They fired their coach and hired Norv Turner. He led them to an 11-5 record, good enough to win a depleted AFC West and claim the third seed. Yet San Diego is supposedly more poised for a championship run this year. Cue the Macbeth comparison. The Chargers’ ambition to take down the big dogs of the AFC combined with their self-doubt ("We fired our coach and won three less games?") makes them a shaky pick against anyone.

On the plus side, they have the best all-purpose running back in the game, LaDainian Tomlinson, and he seems to have run right out of his early season slump. On the negative side, quarterback Philip Rivers had a miserable QB rating of 55.5 in his playoff debut last year. And this year, his regular season passer rating dropped 10 points.

Macbeth’s penchant for self-doubt also carries over to the Chargers sidelines where coaching questions are bound to follow Norv Turner. Brought in to replace Marty Schottenheimer and help the Chargers take the next step, Turner is desperate for playoff success himself. In ten years as a coach, this is just his second playoff appearance. The Chargers franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since the ’94 season. Their coach hasn’t won a playoff game since the ’99 season. Sounds like all that self-doubt may be warranted for San Diego.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars as Othello

Everyone seems to be riding on the Jaguars bandwagon these days. Wins against the Titans, Chargers and Steelers in the second half of the season make them the most dangerous team playing on wild card weekend, but that still doesn’t mean they’re going to beat the Colts or Patriots. The Colts beat the Jags twice, and the Patriots haven’t lost a game all season.

Like Othello, Jacksonville is an outsider. They were an expansion team just over a decade ago. They jettisoned their franchise quarterback in the offseason to make room for David Garrard, a move that appears ingenious after Garrard threw just 3 interceptions all season. The man they released, Byron Leftwich, threw two picks while playing in just three games for Atlanta.

Othello is also marked by jealousy, even as he denies it. Similarly, the Jaguars are also jealous of the elite teams, though they’d never admit to it. Despite an 11-5 record, no Jaguars were named to the Pro Bowl. The problem extends to the coach as well. Jack Del Rio has compiled a 45-35 record with Jacksonville, but he’s failed to lead the team to a playoff victory. Meanwhile, Del Rio’s predecessor, Tom Coughlin, took Jacksonville all the way to the AFC Championship game in the franchise’s second year of existence. Jacksonville has enjoyed success before. Championship football is what they crave. They feel they belong in the discussion of elite teams, but they’ve yet to prove it on the big stage. After all, all life's a stage come playoff time in the NFL.


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