Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Arm-Chair Quarterbacking Your Team into A Loser

Last night the New York Giants played the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football on ESPN. (Side note to ESPN: I understand the national exposure presents a good opportunity to showcase the myriad wonderful shows ABC has in its current line-up. But your cross-promotion ploy sucks. I beg of you: please stop cutting away from football to your in-booth interviews. People (me) tune-in to watch football, not hear about all the other great shows ABC has to offer. That's what COMMERCIALS are for. End of message) {Side-side note: ESPN is owned by Disney, which also owns ABC, hence the cross-promotion.}

Anyway, during the first-half of the game, Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe made some "terrible mistakes" by getting sacked three times in the first half and then had the audacity to run for a touchdown. He followed this by making a valid mistake - throwing an interception in the red zone which left the Cowboys unable to capitalize on a Giants turnover. The Giants, in turn, failed to capitalize on the Bledsoe interception. So it evens out.

When the second-half started, Bledsoe was replaced by oft-called for, but seldom seen fourth-year second-stringer Tony Romo, who went on to have his first pass tipped and intercepted on the Cowboys' first offensive series of the half. Romo ignited the crowd and at times seemed in-command while throwing three touchdown passes. But he made some awful, awful choices which also resulted in three interceptions.

Now, to clarify: I am not a Cowboys fan. I am a Broncos fan. However, I couldn't help but notice an eerie similarity between Bledsoe's predicament and that of the Broncos' struggling quarterback, Jake Plummer and his own personal 'Romo', Jay Cutler. Ever since draft day, people have been calling for a change at the quarterback position from Plummer to Cutler. This is not news. Also, Plummer has not played well. At all. Also, not news. But consider this: the Broncos are 5-1. Plummer is as important if not more so than any one player on the team, especially in the end result of each game. Granted, he makes bad decisions at inopportune times, but he has yet to "lose" a game for the team, just as he has yet to "win" a Super Bowl, which is the problem. What is seldom discussed is the fact that Plummer has one of the best records as a quarterback in the last five seasons in the NFL and as a result, so do the Broncos. This puts him in a category he shares with other quarterbacks you may not always associate him with: Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb to name a couple.

Recently, I checked out Malcolm Gladwell's website, as I am often wont to do, and I read a re-print of a New Yorker article titled: "Game Theory". Check it out at: gladwell.com/2006/2006_05_29_a_game.html In the article, Gladwell references a book called "The Wages of Wins" (Stanford; $29.95), by economists David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook. In the book, the authors explore the overall value of professional basketball players to their respective teams. I haven't read the book (I intend to, but I wish it was about football) but from what I read in Gladwell's article, I wasn't particularly surprised by the results and I suspect neither will be most readers. The authors argue that value assessment is currently way off in basketball and that scoring a lot of points isn't exactly the category that makes you the most valuable member of a team. (I could go on about what Gladwell said about the book, but I don't want to steal ideas from so many great minds. So for specifics, read the article and the book.)

Back to Plummer. He has led the Broncos to three straight playoff appearances, including a trip to the AFC championship, where the Broncos, unfortunately lost. (Note to Plummer-blaming fans: there are 21 other starters and a an entire coaching staff to share the burden of your derision.) He helps them to win games far more than he does to lose them, despite his mistakes. In other seasons, he has led a usually steady offense to wins despite the fact that the defense barely decided to show up at all. This year, the opposite is true: the defense has picked up the slack while the offense "struggles." While it's unfortunate that the Broncos' offense, Plummer specifically, isn't playing particularly well thus far, I point you to their record - a hard-fought and similarly well-earned 5-1 - and I remind you that two of those wins have come, at one time or another, against teams that are currently leading their division - the Ravens and the Patriots.

Armed with this knowledge, you would think that most Broncos fans would recognize Plummer's value to the organization and would therefore be reluctant to hand a team with a winning record over to a young and inexperienced quarterback like the Cowboys have seemingly done. Well, you would be wrong. It seems that the cause du jour since draft day has been calling for Broncos coach Mike Shanahan to replace Plummer with Cutler, who has yet to see a regular season snap.

For a working example of this scenario, I point you to the Arizona Cardinals, who replaced their starting quarterback, former NFL MVP Kurt Warner, with their top draft pick Matt Leinart. Leinart is a contemporary of Cutler and some say a near-equivalent in all respects. Leinart has played well, no doubt. The Cardinals record? 1-6.

It is said that quarterback in the NFL is one of the hardest positions to play successfly in professional sports. Rookie quarterbacks make a lot of mistakes. It is expected. What is not expected is that they win. This is taken into consideration when coaches put them in the game. But, fans expect their teams to win, no matter who is playing. The chances of doing so are damaged significantly with a rookie quarterbback at the helm. Albeit that it's not impossible. Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to the playoffs as a rooke and to a Super Bowl win in just his second-year. It is, however, notably rare.

Leinart is used to winning. He won a lot at USC. A lot. But the point is this: Broncos fans seem prepared to see an unpopular and unrelentingly scrutinized quarterback with a record of 5-1 and the top spot in the AFC West benched in favor of an unproven rookie who is bound to make game-changing mistakes.

Personally, I just can't envision a scenario wherein the Broncos chances of being successful would be enhanced by playing Cutler.

Don't get me wrong. Plummer may very well be playing his last season as a Broncos starter, especially if the team stalls in the playoffs. But as of yet, there isn't any reason to bench him in favor of Cutler. None at all. And at this rate the Broncos are poised to go somewhere around 13-3 by seasons's end. Not many teams do that. The teams that do typically make it pretty far in the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl.

So I ask you, Broncos fans: "Do you still call for Jay Cutler?" Surely you jest.

Epilogue:
After the game last night, a Denver newscaster announced Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's first shot at quarterback as a triumph by off-handedly relating that he threw three touchdown passes. Apropos, I think, for a town who seems collectively hell-bent on engineering the ruin of its own NFL team this season. What the newscaster failed to mention is that Romo also threw three interceptions. And the Cowboys still lost.