There is nothing better than the start of "real football," but with the beginning of the NFL season comes the usual predictions of which teams will get to the Super Bowl. And with all due respect to my colleagues here at SI.com, 99.9 percent of the time those predictions are wrong.
I cannot think of a more difficult challenge than -- after watching basically three meaningless preseason games, (no starters ever play in the fourth) -- trying to predict which team will be lucky enough to stay healthy, get hot at the right moment and have the right chemistry.
I am sure there are some MIT students who can craft the right formula for the Super Bowl participants, but for me it's way too hard. Yet I do know several key statistics that are essential to the makeup of a Super Bowl-caliber team:
1. Have a successful first-half point differential
I can promise you with a 99.0 percent degree of certainty that the final four teams in the playoffs will be ranked in the top eight of point differential in the first half. For example, last year the Patriots lead the league in first-half point differential with 196. That means the Patriots, on average, went into each halftime with a lead of roughly 12 points. Rounding out the Top 10 in this category were the San Diego Chargers at 104, the Colts at 102, Tampa Bay at 76, Washington at 62, Pittsburgh at 59, Green Bay at 56, Seattle at 55, Jacksonville at 49 and the Cowboys at 23, all playoff teams last season. (The Giants had a plus-two point differential last season.)
Now, what is so important about halftime leads? Well, it forces the opponent to play a near-perfect second half. It also requires the defensive play-caller to not make one mistake, lest he limit his ability to be creative in attacking the passer. Calling a defensive game is a challenge in itself, but calling it from behind is very taxing. Every third down is crucial as your team needs to get the ball back to close the gap. So if the defensive coach makes one mistake -- like calling a blitz and giving up a big play -- then the 10-point deficit might turn into a 17-point deficit, essentially putting the game out of reach. Forcing a defense to play a cautious and conservative game is what most offenses thrive on to be successful.
On average there are slightly more than 13 third-down situations in every game. Teams that convert above 45 percent of their third downs are considered excellent. Every week coaches put tremendous time and energy into breaking down the third-down tendencies of their opponent's defense and learning how their foes plan their exotic blitzes on those downs.
But when a team falls behind and is concerned about not allowing the big play on third down, this reduces their blitzing and makes the game much easier on the quarterback. This is to not imply that if you get a lead, your team will never see any blitzes, but it does reduce the amount of blitzes and makes their predictability much easier to decode.
In 2007, home teams that had the lead at the half had a record of 112-29. Road teams had a 70-24 record. Combined home and away, winning at the half resulted in a 182-53 record, or a .774 winning percentage. I'm not suggesting you change channels or give up on your favorite team if they are behind at the half, just be aware of the odds your team faces trying to overcome the deficit and win the game. Here are the stats from the past 10 seasons:
2. Throw the ball in the first half -- often
Last year only three teams (Minnesota, Oakland and Jacksonville) ran more than they passed in the first half. Most of the playoff teams averaged a 44 percent run to 56 percent pass ratio before intermission. Seattle, Green Bay, Indy, N.E., Dallas, Pittsburgh and the Giants came out trying to establish the pass, therefore most of them had a positive halftime point differential. San Diego and LaDainian Tomlinson had a 48 percent run and 52 percent pass ratio.
There's a famous scene from the mid-80s frequently shown on NFL Films of Bill Parcells telling quarterback Phil Simms to take the air out of the ball in the middle of the third quarter. But even in Parcells' last year in Dallas, he was 43 percent run and 57 percent pass in the first half. Parcells understood that successfully throwing the ball early in a game meant scoring points.
Now, I know the famous Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once said: "Three things happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad." But with the utmost respect to Hayes, football has changed -- dramatically. The NFL is a passing league and this Sunday you are going to see the ball in the air more often and earlier than ever before. Because to score, you have to make big plays in the passing game. So each year we are seeing a trend that teams look to establish the pass first instead of the run.
3. Seven yards per passing attempt
The two teams that find their way down to Tampa for the Super Bowl will have above a 7.25 average per attempt passing for the season. Last year, Eli Manning played on a team that led the NFL in dropped passes, so his stats in this area were a little off, but of the 25 top-rated passers in yards per attempt, 17 had above 7.00. Completions are nice, they look good on the stat sheet and it's nice to have a high percentage, but making yards matters most.
So, there are my three key stats to study for the year and I will monitor them as each quarter of the season goes along. I fully expect San Diego and Seattle to achieve high rankings in all three areas and I believe they have the key elements of teams that reach the Super Bowl. The one prediction I do know will come true is that 2008 will be the most exciting and entertaining season in NFL history. Every year in the NFL is always better than the year before.
• FROM THE WASHINGTON POST..."I was disappointed we just looked so poor ourselves," said Redskin coach Jim Zorn, who is admirably honest. "I didn't feel it was domination. It was what we were doing."
This Redskin poor performance did not just happen last night, it started three weeks ago as the preseason became more intense. I was worried about the Redskins talent level before the game, I was worried about Zorn's ability to call and manage a game for the first time before the game (I wrote about this subject in June) and I was worried about Jason Campbell adapting to the West Coast offense before the game -- now I am really worried. The Skins have to find a way to increase their talent level as the year goes along, they are going to have to help Zorn manage the game and, most importantly, find a system that can best utilize the skill set of Campbell.
• FROM THE WASHINGTON POST..."He [Peyton Manning] was talking about all the things he went through and now where he's at," Jason Campbell said, referring to a conversation the two had about forks in the road of a career and how Manning somehow veered down the right path against every piece of evidence to the contrary.
Campbell is not a west coast quarterback and the longer the Redskins try to make that style fit his game, the quicker backup Todd Collins will become the new Redskin starter. When the Redskins hired Zorn they had to hope the Zorn/Seattle system they picked was the right one for the Campbell. But much like what is going on with Alex Smith in San Francisco, when the system does not fit the player, there are huge hurdles to overcome and careers lie in balance. The key in scouting is to know what system best fits a player's skill level.
• FROM THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS..."We still left about 90-95 yards on the field along with about 21 points," said Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. "It should've been better."
The Giants played a good half of football Thursday night and were fortunate their opponent did not have a passing game or else the result might have been different. The one thing that is clear about the Giants is they have depth and talent at running back. When Tom Coughlin talks to his team next week, his message will be very clear: congratulations on the win, but we have much work to do to improve and take our game to a championship level. There is no better feeling than winning in the NFL and knowing your team is capable of playing much better.
• If I were a fan of any team, I would not worry if my team won or lost this weekend. Opening games are very hard to predict and most coaches play their cards so close to the vest in the preseason that often the best team on opening day does not win. Heat, humidity, cramps, starters not being used to all the live game repetitions -- it all balances the playing field, allowing the potential for a strange beginning.
• If I were a Chiefs fan, I would be very worried about quarterback Brodie Croyle after his play this preseason. His longest completion of the summer was for 24 yards and he consistently threw the ball with marginal accuracy on all levels. In fact, often he threw the ball out of bounds on deep throws. For the rebuilding era of the Chiefs to move along quickly and successfully, it will require productive play from their quarterback. Based on the "Summer of Croyle" that is very doubtful.
• If I were a Vikings fan, I would be extremely nervous about losing left tackle Bryant McKinnie for four weeks of the season. Artis Hicks will have his work cut out for him having to face four very good pass rushing teams in Green Bay, Tennessee, Indy and Carolina. I would expect to see a scaled back passing game from the Vikings in those four weeks and more reliance on Adrian Peterson.
• If I were Bucs kicker Matt Bryant, I would be happy to be playing the Saints indoors for the first game of the season. I need to make my first kick and regain some confidence because I know that if I miss one field goal attempt during the season opener, I might not have a seat on the plane going home.
Our heartfelt prayers and warm wishes are with Jacksonville Jaguars' Richard Collier, who was shot on Tuesday night and as of this writing remains in critical condition in a Jacksonville hospital.