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For 11/23/2004

With the Steelers recent surge to the top of just about everyone's Power Rankings list, I've noticed that there's a guy who's been getting a lot of attention for his play. In fact, more than he's probably had since his senior year of college -- LB James Farrior.

For those of who don't recall, Farrior was Bill Parcells' first draft pick after taking over the New York Jets in 1997. When he came into the league, Farrior was supposed to be a playmaker in the same mold at Junior Seau. But Farrior struggled in Parcells' defense and wasn't exactly viewed as a priority free agent when his contract expired.

So he went to Pittsburgh whose 3-4 defense was better suited to his style of play and he did his best to erase the bust label he had developed in New York. However, Dick LeBeau's return to Pittsburgh had remade Farrior into the playmaker he was supposed to be and he's already set or tied his career highs for sacks, INTs, and forced fumbles. And his INT return for the TD this afternoon was huge.

While guys like Roethlisberger, Staley, and Ward are getting a lot of the credit for Pittsburgh's season, don't overlook what Farrior's contributions.

From the "not quite what you'd expect in the stat sheet" category: through the first 8 games of the season, the Ravens had tallied more sacks from their starting DBs than INTs (6.5 vs. 5).

In response to my thought that Mike Martz might just find himself as the "old coach" entry in an ESPN column this January, one of my friends responded that it couldn't happen soon enough. He said "Martz' main problem is being too married to a plan... when everything is going well, he runs the plan and looks like a genius... when it all falls apart, he runs the plan anyway". Another friend quipped that "in the new century, it's all about halftime adjustments... that's why Belichick is so great".


Before I address these issues, I'd like to start by explaining the importance of game planning. Football, more than any other sport in America, requires a detailed game plan to help the coaches prepare the players for the upcoming game. This is because football is the only game where the individual plays are so choreographed and so complex that they require extensive preparation to understand how to execute them let alone the actual execution.

I'll give you an example, as Donovan McNabb moves up under center, he has to make his pre-snap "reads" (where he makes assumptions about the defensive scheme that's being called, based on the positioning of certain players), he also has to listen for the center's call for the blocking scheme that the linemen will use, and signal to any receivers to go into motion. Without a week's worth of preparation, he might not have a clue about whether the defensive back covering the slot receiver is going to play man defense, zone defense, or if he's going to come on a blitz. And if the guy does blitz, not only does McNabb has to know where his "hot" receiver is going to be, but the receiver needs to know that the blitz is on and that he has to adjust his route accordingly.

Compare this to baseball, where the batter knows that the ball will always be coming from the pitcher (not the first baseman) who still has to put the ball over the plate, or the guy playing second base who doesn't have to worry about the runner on first charging him while he tries to field a ground ball (unless, of course, the runner is A-Rod), and you realize why game planning is exceptionally important to football.

Now, let's get to what a game plan is.

First, it involves identification of your opponent's tendencies on offense and defense from a review of game films. For example, Miami runs ball between the tackles on 1st down 25% of the time, or that the Steelers blitz the free safety and the strong-side OLB together on 36% of 2nd and long plays on their opponents' side of the 50-yard line.

Second, it identifies plays that your team will use to exploit your opponent's tendencies. For example, in 3rd and long situations, we're going to double-team David Givens, or on second and short from midfield, we're going to go for the end zone.

Third, it involves a mix of schemes that the coaches believe will work (e.g., keep pressure on Bledsoe and his decision making will get progressively worse) and coaching philosophies (e.g., "I want to run the ball 35 times a game!").

In short, the game plan is a blueprint that the coaches and players use as the basis for how they will play the game. And like any blueprint, it represents what the finished product should look like, not what it will look like. The details of the plan, as well as adherence to it, depends on the head coach.

As most of you probably know, Bill Walsh's game plan included a script of the first 15-20 offensive plays of the game and he stuck to that plan. This had the several key benefits, but the most important of which was that his players executed incredibly well to start games because they practices all of those plays in the preceding week.

As a point of fact, I know of at least one instance where a copy of the game plan was left in a coach's hotel room and was summarily delivered to the opponent's coaching staff. The 49ers lost that game, after getting off to a horrible start. It was almost like they knew what was coming.

Now, before I get back to Mike Martz and his game plans, I want to talk about an over-inflated concept that's been the subject of far more credit than it's worth, especially in the New England area. That term is halftime adjustments.

There seems to be this notion that coaches just keep doing what they're doing, blindly, until halftime, and then, after huddling up at the half, they magically come out of the locker room with the knowledge of how to make things better. I'm not sure how idea this go started, but it's a load of [vernacular term for dung].

From the second the ball is kicked off the tee to the final gun, coaches are always watching the game, and making slight adjustments to the plays in the game plan. They are also working very hard to keep the players aware of what's going on throughout the game. The only advantage that halftime offers over the breaks between quarters or TV timeouts is that a coach can pull aside the player who committed 3 penalties in the first half and, off camera, threaten to insert a new anus and sphincter in his person.

All I'm trying to say is don't rave so much about "halftime adjustments". It only denigrates the adjustments which are made during the rest of the game.

Getting back to Mike Martz, there's a reason why he dogmatically refuses to abandon his game plans -- they work. His 48-25 record over the last 4 1/2 seasons is the best in the NFL since the start of the 2000 season and you can't argue with those results.

However, you can argue his level of success. And by that, I'm referring to his 2-3 record in the playoffs.

Part of the fault lies in the fact that Martz can be called guilty of having too much faith in his players and trusting them more than he should -- which is a theme that pervades the careers of the NFL head coaches who were assistants under Jimmy Johnson in Dallas or who were assistants under his former assistants. A quick look at that list -- which consists of Dave Wannstedt, Norv Turner, Dave Campo, Mike Martz, and Butch Davis -- shows you a bunch of guys who have reputations as a genius on one side of the ball or another but haven't been able to duplicate the success that Johnson had.

The other part of that lack of success, I think, comes from poor motivational skills. Let's face it, guys like Dave Wannstedt, Norv Turner, and Dave Campo make great next-door neighbors but not great NFL head coaches. However, Martz, who by all accounts is a very good coach, just seems as though he loses his team's attention from time to time. Sometimes it's for a play, sometimes for a half, but that's inexcusable in the NFL.

What an interesting weekend of football we have in store. As usual, the focal point will be Thanksgiving afternoon's double-header. However, I'm going to focus on two games that will be played this Sunday. Those being the Baltimore Ravens at the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins at the San Francisco 49ers.

Let's start with the Ravens-Pats game. Before the season started, I said that this could be the game of the year and I'm not backing down from that prediction yet. This is a great strength against strength game because it features New England's high-precision offense vs. the Ravens "fewest points allowed in the NFL" defense. I heartily recommend that if you can watch this game, that you do. I doubt that you'll be disappointed.

I'm pointing out the other game simply because these two teams faced each other during Super Bowl XIX, 20 years ago. Back then, they combined for a record of 29-3 during the regular season. This year, there's a serious chance that they might combine for a record of 3-29. Even for fans of these teams, I do not recommend that you watch this game, unless you have a bet on the total number of punts, turnovers, and/or penalties.

After watching his pass defense get torched week-in and week-out, I wouldn't be surprised to see Bill Parcells make a bold move this offseason to improve it. As such, don't be surprised if he makes a trade with the Dolphins for All-Pro CB Pat Surtain.

Surtain, who will be entering the last year of his contract, has a salary cap number for 2005 around $8 million. For the cap-strapped Dolphins, who are expected to part ways with several veterans just to get under the cap (such as Fiedler, Seau, and Tim Bowens), Surtain is a luxury that I doubt they'll be able to keep.

For the Cowboys, Surtain would bring an immediate improvement to a defensive backfield that has already given more TDs than it did all of last year and is giving up more than 60 yards per game over what it allowed last year.