Can two of the worst teams in the NFL play a compelling game? Efficiency, after all, though abstract as a concept, is comprised of tangible, felt-in-the-gut events. Inefficient teams suffer missed assignments and general disorganization by their offensive lines. Inefficient teams suffer discordant timing between their quarterback and wide receivers. Inefficient teams suffer poor spacing and reaction time from their defensive backs.
The data that inform a 31st ranked passing offense or a 22nd ranked run defense is in fact the distillation of a season’s worth of errant passes, drops, missed blocks, over-pursuit, blown coverages and missed tackles into a number.
So can the worst team in the NFL and the 30th ranked team in the NFL, by efficiency, play an exciting game?
The answer, of course, is yes. And it isn’t “yes” because there are more things in heaven and earth, Brian, than are dreamt of in your statistics. It is “yes” because football is relative, and bad teams tend to burnish each other’s strengths and mask each other’s weaknesses. If only the best of the best talent, playing at the very peak of their ability, in the most expertly crafted and executed system, were able to play a compelling game of football, well then, college football wouldn’t exist.
So surely the Rams and Cardinals could play a compelling game of football in week one of the regular season, but did they? Well, do you enjoy college football? How about a low-scoring slog punctuated by big moments from legitimately great players?
Arizona traveled to St. Louis in week one of the regular season. It was a game filled with portent. It was first overall pick, quarterback Sam Bradford’s first regular season start of his career. Wait, did I write “portent?” I meant to write, it was a game smothered in tacked-on storylines. It was Derek Anderson’s first start as a Cardinal, Arizona’s first chance to defend their illustrious NFC West title, Bradford’s first chance to obscure an expectantly weak rookie campaign with a few sort-of exciting plays, and Larry Fitzgerald’s first chance to sink some poor sap’s fantasy season. It was football and a retrograde strain of it, but it was football and darn it if that isn’t a welcome sight in June.
Why this game was exciting: A bit like Lions-Redskins, this is a center-hugging win probability chart with only a few big swings and only one commanding lead before the fourth quarter. Unlike Lions-Redskins, the Rams-Cardinals showdown was less about scoring and more about turnovers. The two teams combined for nine fumbles, three interceptions (all thrown by Bradford) and a blocked field goal attempt (blocked by Arizona.)
Football suffers from the assumption that scoring equals excitement. As game one of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals demonstrated, there is great tension found in a low-scoring game, in which every shot on goal makes you hold your breath in anticipation. The alternative is basketball, in which the first three quarters seem almost irrelevant, any and all leads seem vulnerable, and there is an almost unbearable lightness to scoring. In 2011, every team in the NBA, from the mighty Heat to the lowly Timberwolves, averaged more than a point per offensive possession. No team since the 2004-2005 Charlotte Hornets has failed to average at least one point per possession. Converting a possession into points is the expectation. It can feel busy and meaningless.
Cards-Rams was exciting because it was close throughout, with two ties and four lead changes. Or, to cut to the chase, that is how win probability viewed it. One's subjective feeling of excitement is a bit harder to pin down, but for most, this probably doesn't qualify as a barn-burner.
Turning point: At first blush, Anderson’s game-winning touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald is the easy call. It pushed the Cardinals win probability to a not so modest 74% and, of course, won the game. Something crazy happened between Fitzgerald’s reception and the closing whistle: the Rams ran 23 plays. That’s right. In part because of an incomparable dink-and-dunk style conceived by then-Rams' offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, and mostly because of a Tim Hightower fumble recovered by Craig Dahl, the Rams crammed in a half’s worth of downs in six minutes of game clock. It was a flurry of inactivity. St. Louis ran 23 plays over two drives, 19 of which were passes, and totaled 90 yards. Both drives ended in interceptions. The second of which was a lob into triple coverage that Adrian Wilson intercepted to end the game. That, almost by default, is our turning point. It concluded two minutes of game clock in which the Rams twice fell to 1% win probability, soared as high as 22% and stayed as high as 18% on the last play of the game.
Top three most exciting plays of the game: Why top three, because to paraphrase Nat X, the Man won’t allow the NFC West to have five.
Mark Clayton’s circus catch for 39: Never having stepped foot in a broadcast booth, this is just a guess, but I assume the producers, statisticians, on-air talent, et al, determine the most likely and most compelling storylines for each game before the broadcast. Academic, right? This becomes grating though when those predetermined storylines are seemingly forced on the viewer independent of what is actually happening. And so for the greater part of the first half, Ron Pitts and John Lynch told us about the chemistry between Sam Bradford and receiver Mark Clayton, how they both attended Oklahoma, how Clayton used to practice with Bradford during the off-season, and how Clayton compares Bradford to Peyton Manning. And for the greater part of the first half, Bradford and Clayton defied that pre-ordained storyline by struggling to connect. Through seven attempts, Bradford to Clayton amounted to four completions in seven attempts for 35 yards and an interception.
Then Clayton ate up Greg Toler’s cushion, found the high-arcing pass descending just along the right sideline, and leveraged to separate from the defender. He swung his arms up and over and the ball popped him in the right shoulder as he fell backward towards the turf. Catch. Fact finds fiction for 37 yards and 11% win probability.
Adrian Wilson buries Bradford: Wilson led all defenders with 35% win probability added. Little wonder why he had two interceptions and a blocked field goal. His most exciting play, though, if not his most valuable (5% WPA), was a perfectly executed safety blitz that resulted in a six-yard sack on Sam Bradford.
Two things made the sack possible. St. Louis took the play clock to under five seconds and that allowed Wilson to key motion and time his blitz just so. He was in full sprint at the snap. The Rams were attempting play-action, and a hard play-action with right guard Adam Goldberg pulling left and opening a big gap between center Jason Brown and right tackle Jason Smith. Wilson exploited that, exploited running back Steven Jackson’s first step towards Bradford's left, and ran through untouched and leaped high and slammed hard into Bradford for a six-yard sack. Less than two seconds passed from snap to sack.
The Game Winner: Speaking of forced storylines, it’s hard to watch this game – mindful as I am of the Cardinals 2010 season – and not notice Larry Fitzgerald’s apparent frustration with Derek Anderson. Week one, quarter one, target one, if eyes could scream, Fitz was screaming “What have you done to me, Ken Whisenhunt?!”
Fitzgerald converted three of his 15 targets for 43 yards. The final target was the most important and also probably the easiest for Fitzgerald. Rams defensive back James Butler was caught looking as Anderson’s pocket broke down and Anderson scrambled right. Fitz angled away from Butler, coming wide open in the right corner of the end zone. Following the play, Anderson looked ecstatic. Fitz looked relieved and barely that.
Apart from Anderson’s scramble to escape pressure, the play wasn’t viscerally exciting, but it was exciting within context.
Breaston was Arizona’s offensive MVP, finishing with game highs in EPA (13.0) and WPA (47%). He converted seven targets into seven receptions for 132 yards.
Final Verdict: Rationalize and qualify as I may, this was a sloppy game with a handful of big plays, big performances by star players and a few noteworthy debuts (Bradford, Rodger Saffold, Daryl Washington) that was intermittently entertaining but hardly one of the most exciting games of the season.