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The Answer Man, Series 9, Volume 1

Posted Feb 6, 2013

The Buc fans' inside source is back to tackle another round of questions, touching on such topics as quarterback age, the bye week system, top Tampa Bay rookies, and more


So, that was a pretty good Super Bowl, huh?

 

Other than the fact that it was a little light on Buccaneer representation for the Answer Man's taste Supe number 47 just about had it all.  Big-play touchdowns; a game-changing kick return; an act-of-God type of moment when the lights went out; a stirring comeback; emerging stars like Colin Kaepernick and Torrey Smith; an apoplectic coach; key turnovers; heck, there was even an attempted fake field goal, which the Answer Man liked quite a bit even if it fell a yard short of success.  Really, a slightly more successful block by the tight end on the end of the line and it would have worked.

 

I mean, come on…any Super Bowl that essentially comes down to a do-or-die fourth-down in the closing minutes from inside the 10 probably kept your interest for the full four hours or so.  For most viewers, that final San Francisco goal-line sequence and the Ravens' title-winning defensive stands ranks as the most memorable moment from Sunday's extravaganza, especially considering the debate that the prominent no-call on fourth down has inspired.

 

That's all well and good, but the favorite moment of the evening for the Answer Man came just a little bit after Michael Crabtree and Jimmy Williams tangled in the end zone.  Even though the drama was slowly leaking out of the situation as it became evident that the Ravens could essentially run out the clock, my ears pricked up as soon as I heard the announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms mention an "obscure rule" known as the "fair catch kick."

 

Anyone who has read my column through the years knows that I have a love-hate relationship with the Official NFL Rulebook.  The stilted, complicated language often makes it difficult to suss out the exact information you need, but when  you do find the answer to a murky bit of trivia, it's a wonderful experience.  That happened for the Answer Man way back in 2004, my very first year on the job, and it was courtesy of this exact and obscure rule, the fair catch kick.

 

I first came across it in just my 12th column ever.  (You may notice I've had a bit of a wardrobe change and some work done since then.  Don't judge.  How was your style 10 years ago?)  I was answer a question about whether a kicker could be called for being offside if his plant foot landed beyond the ball before he hit a kickoff with his other foot. (No, by the way). Tucked into the lines I quoted from the Rulebook was this "fair catch kick" concept.  I concluded by warning my readers that if somebody asked me what a fair catch kick was, I might throw myself off a bridge.

 

Yeah, it's a real caring bunch out there.  I had about a dozen questions to that effect in the next week, and so I had to figure it out.  Here's the discussion, from a full nine years ago:

 

"I would agree that it’s an antiquated rule, by the second definition of antiquated in Webster’s Dictionary: ‘out of style and fashion.’ However, it is not antiquated by the first definition: ‘obsolete.’ NFL teams are free to kick after a fair catch now just as they’ve always been. The thing is, it would take just the right combination of circumstances to ever make it a viable strategy.

 

"Let’s start by explaining just what this beast is. This time, I’m going to spare you the exact wording from the NFL rulebook because it gives me a splitting headache just to read it, even after I’ve had it explained to me by live humans with normal speech patterns.

 

"Certainly, you all know what a fair catch is: A player waiting to return a kick can signal for a fair catch by waving one arm over his head; he must then be given room to catch the ball, but he cannot advance it after the catch.

 

"Now, here’s where it gets tricky. Or antiquated, depending upon your point of view. Supposedly, the referee then asks the team captain if, after the fair catch, he would like to run a play from scrimmage or attempt a free kick from the yard line of the catch. In the NFL, that must be either a drop kick or a placekick without a tee (reportedly, a tee can be used in high school.) By the way, to execute a drop kick, you drop the ball on the ground and kick it either as it hits the ground or as it begins to bounce back up. A very Australian-Rules thing to do.

 

"Let's recap in plain language: You call for a fair catch. Rather than run a play, you may choose to execute a free kick from the line of scrimmage established by the fair catch. And by free kick, we mean a kickoff-type kick in which the defense is not on the line of scrimmage. [ADDED NOTE: They have to line up 10 yards away, as on a kickoff.  Should've said this back in 2004.]

 

"Now, the Answer Man personally believes that the last time an official actually asked a team captain if he wanted to kick or run a play after a fair catch, that captain was probably wearing a leather helmet. Still, the rule exists and, believe it or not, players and coaches in the NFL know about it. Just for fun, I walked through the football offices on Tuesday morning and asked a sampling of three coaches, two players and three scouts if they knew what a ‘fair catch kick is.’ Seven answered correctly (names withheld to protect the innocent). These eight quiz men were chosen mostly on the ‘who-happens-to-be-standing-around’ criteria, but I think it’s fair to say that the fair catch kick rule, though antiquated, is still taught in NFL 101.

 

"So when would this little gambit ever be put into play? Here’s a possible scenario:

 

"Team A has a one-point lead and possession of the ball at their own one-yard line. There are three seconds left in the game, but it’s fourth down and Team A is going to punt, fearing that a kneel-down will leave a second left on the clock and a ‘run-around-until-the-clock-runs-out’ strategy exposes the risk of a sack in the end zone.

 

"Now, since the clock starts on the snap on a punt, the act of kicking the ball away is likely to take up the remainder of the game time. The receiving team, Team B, would be forced to run the punt back for a touchdown in order to avoid defeat, right?

 

"Well, maybe not. Let’s say the punt comes down at the 40-yard line. If the return man executes a fair catch, Team B could elect to use the fair catch kick option. And here’s the beauty of it: Team B can choose to kick from a kickoff formation, without a defense challenging them at the line of scrimmage. In addition, the kick would be from the spot the ball was caught, not from seven or eight yards back after the snap. So, if the return man caught the ball at the 40, we’re talking about a 50-yard field goal, without any potential blockers in the way."

 

Now, Nantz and Simms brought up the fair catch kick but didn't spend too much time on it because it was clear it wasn't going to be a viable strategy at that point.  The Ravens, with a five-point lead, had taken an intentional safety and run all but four seconds off the clock.  That meant they were kicking away (a punt-style kick, as you can do after a safety) from their own 20, and there was no way the ball was going to be caught by the 49ers anywhere near close enough to try a field goal.

 

However, if the Ravens had drawn some sort of penalty after their safety – a post-play personal foul or something, and had to kick off from closer to their goal line, and if the punt was somehow shanked so that it only went about 40 yards, then maybe you have something.  Anyway, we didn't really come that close to actually seeing a fair catch kick – on the Super Bowl stage, no less! – but it was at least discussed, and that made the Answer Man feel all warm inside.


Now, I've been warned lately by my editors to cool it on the cut-and-paste-from-old-columns bit; apparently, I'm paid to generate new content, if you want to be a stickler about it.  So I guess it's time to get to your questions.  It's 2013, we're in Series 9, and here we go…

 

(…oh, and if you have a question, send it in here…)

 

**

 

1. Al Carroll of Orlando, Florida kicks off with this beauty:

Welcome back Answerman!  I was wondering if we were going to hear from you again. So I've heard a couple times that Doug Martin had the third most yards ever by a rookie, after Dickerson and Edgerrin, I think.  That's obviously pretty cool, but what I want to know as a Bucs fan is how that compares to other rookie seasons in team history and what happened to those players after that.  I mean, I know that the Muscle Hamster has to be number 1 on the list, but who else is close and how did their careers pan out?

 

Answer Man: Well, thanks Al.  And I'm going to keep coming back every year until they take away my One Buc Place entry badge and put in reinforced walls that I can't bash a whole through with my super strength.

 

To flesh out your question a little bit so that we all know what we're talking about, the Dougernaut did indeed put up the third highest yards-from-scrimmage total by a rookie in league history.  That's rushing plus receiving yards, and he had 1,926, which trails only Eric Dickerson's 2,212 in 1983 and Edgerrin James' 2,139 in 1999.  That was by far a Buccaneer record for rookies, and in fact it was the second-highest total in team history for any player, after James Wilder's 2,229 in 1984.

 

The old record for a Buccaneer rookie had been 1,440 by Warrick Dunn in 1997.  Not coincidentally, Dunn had been the only other Tampa Bay rookie running back to make the Pro Bowl before Martin this year (not counting Clifton Smith in 2008, as Smith made it a kick returner).  Here are the top 10:

 

Player

Year

Yards

1. Doug Martin

2012

1,926

2. Warrick Dunn

1997

1,440

3. Cadillac Williams

2005

1,259

4. Michael Clayton

2004

1,223

5. Errict Rhett

1994

1,130

6. LeGarrette Blount

2010

1,021

7. Mike Williams

2010

964

8. Jerry Eckwood

1979

958

9. Mike Alstott

1996

934

10. James Wilder

1981

877

 

The good news: That's a pretty impressive list overall, including some of the top offensive performers in team history.  There isn't really a bust among them, though it would definitely be fair to say that neither Michael Clayton nor Cadillac Williams rounded out their careers the way their rookie seasons indicated they might.

 

The bad news: I'm not sure how much predictive value there is here (or maybe that's more good news, depending upon how you feel about the other nine careers on the list after Martin).  I mean, only Warrick Dunn's 1997 season seems somewhat comparable to Martin's, really. Maybe Caddy in 2005, though he wasn't heavily involved in the passing game.  Clayton and Williams are receivers; Rhett and Blount had to wait six or eight weeks into their rookie campaigns before they became heavily involved in the offense; and none of Rhett, Eckwood, Alstott or Wilder were really the team's primary ballcarriers in their rookie seasons.

 

Still, we can look at what happened to each player in the long run.

 

  • Dunn had five very good seasons in Tampa (with two Pro Bowl appearances) then another six that were perhaps even better in Atlanta before finishing his career back with the Bucs in 2008.  He finished with marvelous career totals – more than 10,000 rushing yards, more than 500 catches and a total of 64 touchdowns.
  • Williams' never topped 1,000 yards again after his rookie season, almost completely due to some rather terrible luck when it came to injuries.  His time in a Buccaneers uniform (2005-10) is still fondly remembered because he showed such grit in overcoming two major knee injuries, and because he was always a very positive and team-oriented presence in the locker room.  Caddy played a year with the Rams and finished with more than 5,000 career yards from scrimmage, but there is certainly a what-might-have-been feel to his NFL days.
  • Clayton is the first receiver on the list thanks to his stunning breakout season in 2004; at the time, it was one of the very best rookie campaigns by a wideout in NFL history.  Hopes were high for an offensive featuring Clayton and Caddy in 2005, but injury problems also found the LSU receiver the next couple years and he too failed to recapture his rookie-season glory.  Clayton played two seasons with the Giants after six with the Bucs and finished with just under 3,000 receiving yards.
  • Rhett, as mentioned had to wait until about midseason before he really got his chance in 1994, but then he exploded.  He was the first Buccaneer rookie running back to crack 1,000 yards, and he did most of it in the last eight games.  He topped that with a 1,200-yard season in 1995 and looked like he had a chance to be a long-term workhorse.  However, a holdout to start the 1996 season irrevocably changed his career path.  Rhett eventually came back after five weeks but by then the Buccaneers were finding out what they had in Alstott and basically went by a committee approach.  In 1997, the team drafted Dunn and that was pretty much it for Rhett, who did go on to have an 850-yard season with Baltimore in 1999.  He finished his career with just under 5,000 yards from scrimmage.
  • Blount's story is still being written.  He had one of the best seasons ever for an NFL undrafted running back in 2010 but the Bucs' entire offense took a serious step back in 2011 and he finished with a little over 900 yards from scrimmage.  Last year, the arrival of Martin put Blount into a supporting role and thus his numbers dipped quite a bit.  As he is still only 26, it's difficult to predict what lies ahead for the hurdle-happy runner.
  • Ditto for Williams, though he retained his prominent spot in the Bucs' new-look offense in 2012 and may, alongside Vincent Jackson, be one of the best #2 receivers the team has ever fielded.  Williams has been remarkably consistent with his catch totals – 65, 65 and 63 through three seasons – but his yardage total went back up in 2012 and that's a very good sign moving forward.  In just three seasons, Williams has already made himself the first player in Buccaneer history with at least nine touchdown catches in two different seasons.
  • Eckwood was a very good role player for a strong Buccaneers team in the late '70s and early '80s.  He only played three seasons in the NFL, all in Tampa, but he had between 864 and 979 yards from scrimmage in each of those years.  Eckwood shared a backfield first with Ricky Bell and then with James Wilder and James Owens, and gave the Bucs a lot of production.
  • Alstott ranks as one of the best and most beloved players in franchise history, and he's all over the Bucs' record books.  He's by far the team's all-time leader in touchdowns, and he ranks second in rushing yards and fourth in receptions.  His rookie season was a revelatory introduction, as he gave an early taste of the second and third-effort type of plays that would become his highlight-reel signature.  Alstott's first season was a bit of an anomaly compared to the rest of his career path, as he was much more involved in the passing game than the ground attack in 1996.  He caught 65 passes that year and never got above 35 in any season after that.  However, his 377 rushing yards in '96 were also his lowest until injuries started robbing him of playing time in 2003.  It's easy to remember the excitement that surrounded the young player from Purdue after that debut season, however, and he would go on to a marvelous career.
  • Wilder might be a lot higher on this list had he not started his career as, essentially, a fullback.  He did get 107 carries and catch 48 passes in his 1981 rookie season, but the team didn't really cut him loose until 1984.  That's when he exploded for the aforementioned 2,229-yard season, a feat he followed up with 1,641 combined yards in 1985.  Wilder remains the Bucs' all-time leader in both rushing yards and receptions, and until the arrival of Martin, there didn't seem to be a significant threat to catch him in both categories.

 

So it's Wilder that really provides the bar for Martin.  A career like that of either Warrick Dunn or Mike Alstott would have to be considered a success, too, though Martin's rookie season hints at the possibility of even more.  A couple of men on the list had unfortunate injury trouble that kept them from delivering on their rookie-season promise, and the jury is still out on a couple more.  All in all, it's an encouraging list, if you happen to see any predictive value in it, Al.

 

**

 

2. Giles O'Dell of Nashville, Tennessee asks:

Hi Answer Man, it's good to see you flying around the Buccaneers facilities once again. I have a question about the NFL in general, but it's related in some ways to the stretch of several games this season when the Buccaneers were suddenly one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. My question is essentially, have NFL games in general trended towards higher-scoring contests in the past decade? At times I've heard defensive players and coaches remark that rule changes have favored offenses in recent years. This season, as I scanned the scores each week, I noticed lots of routs and shootouts, but very few low-scoring defensive battles. Let's define low-scoring as each team scoring no more than, say, 17 points in the game. What do you think? Are games in recent seasons really ending up with more points on the board in general, or is this just a case of my own perception that isn't really backed up by the stats? Thanks.

 

Answer Man: Thanks, Giles.  It does make the morning commute to One Buc easier when you can just zip over the top of the traffic.

 

And I don't think you have to worry about your perception not being backed up by stats.  I have spent a lot of time in previous columns haranguing questioners in a know-it-all kind of tone (I know it's annoying; trying to stop) about how stubbornly they sometimes hold on to perceptions despite a lack of real evidence.  If you haven't heard me drone on and on about the "confirmation bias," well, consider yourself lucky.  (If you don't know what that is, however, and want to, click here and once again return to my very first series of columns).  I think, however, that you are accurately noticing a change in the game, and I say that before I dig into the statistics.


Let's just start with the simplest way of looking at this.  You want to know if games are higher-scoring on average now than they were a decade ago.  Let's take a look at the average combined score of regular-season games in each of the last 10 years.

 

2003: 41.7

2004: 43.0

2005: 41.2

2006: 41.3

2007: 43.4

2008: 44.1

2009: 42.9

2010: 44.1

2011: 44.4

2012: 45.5

 

Alright, you've got a little bump in 2004 and a little dip in 2009, but for the most part this is basically a steady upward trend.  You'll see that the top three marks on the list are all from the last three years (there were four more points scored in 2010 than in 2008)…those are, in fact, the three highest-scoring seasons since the merger.  (The AFL was a notoriously high-scoring league in the 1960s and there are some NFL seasons from the '50s with a lot of points, but the 1970 AFL-NFL merger provides a nice starting point to observe the evolution of the modern NFL.)

 

So, that's a jump from 41.7 points per game to 45.5 over the course of the last decade.  Is that a significant rise?  Yes, I would say it is.  It's a continuation of a trend that has been going on for the last four decades, to be sure, but it seems to be accelerating.  Here are the average game point totals from the start of each decade:

 

1970: 38.5

1980: 41.0

1990: 40.2

2000: 41.3

2010: 44.1

 

Now, that's cherry-picking a little bit to get the rounded year number, and things tend to fluctuate a bit from year to year.  For instance, 1983 (43.7) was a lot higher-scoring than 2005 (41.2).  But those '83 type seasons are mostly anomalies; for the most part, you see a gradual rise.

 

So getting back to those five numbers above.  You see a rise in scoring of 6.5% from 1970 to 1980; a slight decline from 1980 to 1990; a rise of 2.7% from 1990 to 2000; and then a jump of 6.8% from 2000 to 2010.  After a couple decades of basically holding steady, the game has changed as drastically in the last decade as it did from 1970 to 1980, when passing started to take over in prominence from the running game.

 

I have to wonder, though, if we all might have a little bit of a perception issue here.  What I mean by that is, are we really seeing a never-ending series of shootouts, at the expense of the classic defensive struggle, or are the numbers being inflated each year by a handful of offenses that are particularly prolific.  New England, for instance, scored 557 points this past season, while also giving up 331.  New Orleans scored 461 and allowed 454.  The Giants scored 429 and allowed 344.  Seattle scored 412, including 150 in a late-season three-game stretch against Arizona, Buffalo and San Francisco.

 

I've been using combined points in a game to compare season totals, but you suggested as a definition of a low-scoring affair a contest in which neither team scored more than 17 points.  Obviously, that's a bit arbitrary, but I would agree that anything along the lines of 17-13 or 13-9 is what we would think of as a defensive struggle.  Let's choose an arbitrary figure to call a high-scoring game; say, both teams score 28 or more.

 

So the Answer Man has looked through all the final scores from the 2012 season to find out if there were more low-scoring or high-scoring games, as we've just defined them.  Care to hazard a guess as to which one came out on top, Giles.

 

Well, there were 24 games in which both teams scored 28 or more points in 2012 (four of them belonging to New England, not to mention a 29-26 final and wins of 59-24 and 42-14).  There were 27 games in which both teams scored 17 or fewer points (including two for Tampa Bay in the first four weeks of the season, and weirdly, a whopping five such games in Week Five.)

 

Yes, it's pretty much accepted fact that certain rule changes over the past decade or so have favored the offense, most notably the more restrictive rules on contact between a defensive back and a receiver.  And, when things come together for an offense, as they did for the Bucs in pretty spectacular fashion for about five weeks at midseason, the scoreboard can really go nuts.  Think of Seattle's 58-0 win over Arizona in Week 14.  It probably didn't feel to the Cardinals like it was easier to score nowadays than 10 years ago, but that is a 58-point-total game that would send the average curve upward.

 

Of course, you do mention this when you talk about perusing game scores and seeing lots of "routs and shootouts."  So, yes, I would say you are right to believe the game is generally more high-scoring than it was a decade ago, and the trend is probably not over yet.

 

**

 

3. Dan (Higgs) of Sarasota, Florida asks:

I've always felt that the Bye-week system is grossly unfair. Since there are 17 weeks in the season, why couldn't half the teams have a bye in the 8th week and the other half in the 9th week? There are still plenty of games (8) to satisfy National programming on Sun, Mon & even Thurs.

 

Answer Man: Not sure why Dan decided to put his last name in parentheses, but I left it that way because it's amusing.  Like it was a little footnote for whatever percentage of my readers doesn't personally know Dan.  Like half of them will be all like, "Oh, Dan from Sarasota?  Yeah, I know that guy;" and the other half will say, "Wait, which Dan are we talking about?"

 

Also, I loved "grossly unfair" (emphasis added).  That immediately made me think of Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak in A Few Good Men (which is just an insanely quotable movie, isn't it?).  "'I strenuously object?'  Is that how it works?  Hmm?  'Objection.' 'Overruled.'  'Oh, no, no, no.  No, I STRENUOUSLY object.'  'Oh, well if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.'"

 

As you can see, Dan, I'm getting a lot of enjoyment out of your e-mail, and I like the topic, too, so let's see if we can make it clear.  "Are we clear?" "Crystal."

 

I've seen this line of thinking mentioned before by people who think the bye weeks are unfair, to the point where it's suggested that the whole league just takes a week off right smack dab in the middle and everybody gets the same bye.  That suggestion, of course, misses the whole point of why the byes were introduced in the early '90s.  It has nothing to do with players getting a rest – though that has become an appreciated by-product of the system.  Rather, it was introduced to extend the season to 17 weeks and therefore produce more television revenue.  The league even experimented with a two-bye-week system in 1993 but it was universally loathed that they shelved it after one year.

 

I'm pretty sure you knew all of that Mr. (Higgs).  I was just sharing it for anybody out there who perhaps did not.  Still, your suggestion is getting close to the one I mentioned above, with only eight games to be played in each of those two weeks.  You say that's enough to satisfy all the national programming, but I argue that it is not.  If you take one game out each for Thursday, Sunday and Monday evenings, that only leaves you with five to choose from for Sunday afternoon.  Now when you realize that those five are going to be split between two networks, you see that each network only has two or three to choose from.  That would definitely NOT fly in a meeting between the league and FOX or CBS.

 

(Another consideration: Fantasy Football.  Having half the teams off would absolutely kill those two weeks of fantasy football play.  It's hard enough during those middle weeks when six teams are off and there are only 13 games.  And don't think for a minute that fantasy football isn't an important consideration.  Many, many viewers tune in to NFL games largely to see how their own fantasy players are doing.)

 

Before we try to think of another way to fix the system, let's examine your contention and decide if the current way of doing it really is grossly unfair.  Right now, the NFL spreads its byes over an eight-week span, beginning in Week Four and concluding in Week 11.  There's little point in having a bye in the first couple weeks (though every week had at least one bye from 1999-2001, when there was an uneven number of teams in the league).  And for competitive reasons, the league doesn't want teams having byes during the last third of the season.

 

So a team can get its bye pretty much any time from late September to mid-November.  I assume that your complaint, Dan, is that a bye week in November is significantly more helpful for a team than one in September.  I'll concede that general point; there is simply a stronger chance that a team will have injured players, or just more general fatigue, after 10 weeks than after three.

 

In practice, though, I think it rarely works out as neatly as that.  A team's bye week tends to be more or less useful simply by chance.  If your bye is in Week Five and your quarterback hurts his arm in Week Four, you're going to be pretty happy you've got that extra healing time right then rather than two months later.  If you get your bye in Week Eight and you have virtually no injury concerns, you might regret it two weeks later when you experience a rash of injuries and there are no more breaks in the schedule.

 

Really, there are all kinds of random vagaries of chance built into every NFL schedule.  Sticking close to the subject, for instance, a team's bye week can actually be considered a disadvantage for another team, specifically the next team waiting on the schedule.  When you face an opponent that has just had a bye week, you are going up against a coaching staff that has spent twice as much time game-planning for you.  That happened to the Bucs in Week 7 last year, as the New Orleans Saints got an extra week to gather themselves after a 1-4 start and were able to come into Tampa and grab a 35-28 win.  (Actually, those games aren't completely random – since 2010 the NFL has been making sure not to give any team more than two road games against teams coming off a bye.)

 

Still, that's mostly random bad luck.  The same is true of a team that gets scheduled for several road games in a row, especially if they include a couple long trips.  Or a team that happens to have a Thursday game the very week after it plays a particularly rugged Sunday game and encounters some new injury issues.  Or, more fundamentally, a team that draws what proves to be an "easier" schedule because its own division is going up against another division that is having a down year.  The AFC West wasn't particularly strong this past year – Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego all struggled – and the Bucs got three of their wins against that crew.  Had it come down to a Wild Card battle between the Bucs and say, the Redskins, Washington might have felt it was unfair that they had to play the more rugged teams of the AFC North.

 

I guess what I'm coming back to is that "grossly" unfair description.  Is the bye week system completely fair right now?  Perhaps not, but it's not going away (unless an 18-game season is implemented) and it just can't work the way you described it.  Right now, it's pretty much the luck of the draw, and even then it's hard to predict for any given team whether a Week Eight bye is going to be better that year than a Week Five bye.  To me, it's no more unfair than the arbitrary matching up of divisions from year to year, which is always going to create harder schedules for some teams than others.

 

All of that said, the Answer Man did see one suggestion out there that I'm having a hard time finding fault with.  This is it: Each division has all four of its teams get byes in the same week, and then after the bye, those four teams are matched up in intra-division contests.  That way, no team gets the advantage of an extra week of preparation and an entire division has the same bye week impact.  This would still spread the bye over eight weeks, so it could take place in the same stretch of the season.

 

Really, this seems so logical to the Answer Man that I have to assume the objection is simply that it's difficult for the schedule-makers to pull off.  When you absolutely have to have a specific four teams being off one week and then playing each other the next, that's going to limit some of your options when you're trying to make everything fit.  From what I understand, formulating the NFL schedule is a VERY difficult process involving all kind of complications and stadium availability issues and the like.

 

What do you think of that idea, Dan?  Can you handle the truth?

 

**

 

4. Greg Thompson of N. Fort Myers asks:

What's the average age for top 10 quarterbacks (you choose criteria) over the last 10 years? Thanks in advance?

 

Answer Man: Well, that's a very straightforward question.  I don't have to redefine it or add any parameters or try to decipher the actual mission, or anything.  (Sigh.  I like doing those things, and it really adds to my word count, which pleases my editors.)

 

Well, the one thing I have to do is choose the ranking criteria, but that's pretty easy.  I'll just go with passer rating, because that is the statistic the NFL uses to rank the quarterbacks when it sends out its weekly stats package.

 

Here are the 10 highest-rated quarterbacks in each of the last 10 years, with their ages at beginning of the season listed.  The quarterbacks are listed in order of their finish in the passer rating standings.  We'll crunch the numbers at the bottom:

 

2003: Steve McNair (30), Peyton Manning (27), Daunte Culpepper (26), Trent Green (33), Jake Plummer (28), Brett Favre (33), Aaron Brooks (27), Matt Hasselbeck (27), Jon Kitna (30), Tom Brady (26).

 

2004: P. Manning (28), Culpepper (27), Drew Brees (25), Donovan McNabb (27), Ben Roethlisberger (22), Brian Griese (29), Green (34), Marc Bulger (27), Brady (27), Favre (34).

 

2005: P. Manning (29), Carson Palmer (25), Roethlisberger (23), Hasselbeck (29), Bulger (28), Brady (28), Plummer (30), Green (35), Byron Leftwich (25), Brees (26).

 

2006: P. Manning (30), Damon Huard (33), Brees (27), McNabb (29), Tony Romo (26), Palmer (26), Bulger (29), Philip Rivers (24), Brady (29), Mark Brunell (35).

 

2007: Brady (30), Roethlisberger (25), David Garrard (29), P. Manning (31), Romo (27), Favre (37), Jeff Garcia (37), Hasselbeck (31), McNabb (30), Kurt Warner (36).

 

2008: Rivers (26), Chad Pennington (32), Warner (37), Brees (29), P. Manning (32), Aaron Rodgers (24), Matt Schaub (27), Romo (28), Garcia (38), Matt Cassel (26).

 

2009: Brees (30), Favre (38), Rivers (27), Rodgers (25), Roethlisberger (27), P. Manning (33), Schaub (28), Romo (29), Brady (32), Warner (38).

 

2010: Brady (31), Rivers (28), Rodgers (26), Vick (30), Roethlisberger (28), Josh Freeman (22), Joe Flacco (25), Cassel (28), Schaub (29), P. Manning (34).

 

2011: Rodgers (27), Brees (32), Brady (32), Romo (31), Matthew Stafford (23), Schaub (30), Eli Manning (30), Matt Ryan (26), Alex Smith (27), Roethlisberger (29).

 

2012: Rodgers (28), P. Manning (36), Robert Griffin III (22), Russell Wilson (23), Ryan (27), Brady (33), Roethlisberger (30), Brees (33), Schaub (31), Romo (32).

 

It was kind of fun creating that list, actually.  Watching names go on and off the list (except for Peyton Manning, who only left the list when he missed a season).  Getting reminders of some QBs I haven't thought about in a while (Aaron Brooks!).  Seeing some random and completely unexpected name pop up (Damon Huard?!?!).

 

Okay, here are the average ages of the top 10 quarterbacks in each of the last 10 years.  Again, they were ranked by passer rating and we listed their ages at the beginning of each season.

 

2003: 28.7

2004: 28.0

2005: 27.8

2006: 28.8

2007: 31.3

2008: 29.9

2009: 30.7

2010: 28.1

2011: 28.7

2012: 29.5

 

So, what, about 29 years old on average?  Actually, if you take all 10 years and average them, that's about what you get – 29.2 years old.

 

As for trends, well, there's not much there.  The group from the first five years is slightly younger on average (28.9) than the group from the last five years (29.3), but you might as well just call that the Peyton Manning effect.  When you are ALWAYS in the top 10, your advancing age is going to have some effect on the group as a whole.

 

That 2007 season was kind of a strange quirk, wasn't it?  Seven of the top 10 rated passers were over 30, with Jeff Garcia and Kurt Warner making reappearances.  There was a jump of over a year of age this past season, which may seem strange with youngsters Wilson and Griffin joining the list, but that's the Manning effect again.  He was back, and 36 years old, after missing 2011, and Brady, Romo, Brees and Schaub held down the fort for the 30-somethings.

 

So one wonders why you ask, Greg?  One hopes it is intended as a point of optimism in terms of the development of the Bucs' young passer, Josh Freeman.  You'll actually see Freeman on one of those lists above, thanks to his marvelous 2010 season (at the age of 22), but he's still only 25.  Perhaps we should be expecting him to peak at about 28 or 29.

 

**

 

4. Ryan Powell Moritzkat of Leesburg, Virginia asks:

What was the winningest coach in Tampa Bay History? And is this past year's Offense our best complete Offense Statistically ever?

 

Answer Man: This is the kind of question I like to call a palate cleanser.  Yes, it's really easy for me and could probably be looked up in a matter of minutes even by people without awesome superpowers, but it's nice to get a break after a bunch of really long discussions in a row.

 

The coach with the most wins in franchise history is Jon Gruden, who grabbed 57 of them from 2002-08.  If you include postseason games, then Gruden's total goes up to 60, and that's still the top mark.

 

The coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history is Tony Dungy, whose teams were 54-42 (56.3%) from 1996-2001.  If you include postseason games, Dungy's record goes to 56-46, dropping the percentage slightly to 54.9%, but that's still number one.

 

Yes, the Buccaneers' offense this past season was the best in franchise history, in terms of both yards gained (5,820) and points scored (389).  That point total barely topped the 388 the Bucs put up in 2000, but the new yardage record blew the old one (5,456 in 2008) out of the water.  The Bucs also set a new franchise record for net passing yards, with 3,983.

 

You've got the word "complete" kind of stuck in that question awkwardly, so I'm not exactly sure what you're asking me there.  If you mean it was successful both on the air and through the ground, I would agree.  It's the first time we've ever had a 4,000-yard passer (Josh Freeman), a 1,400-yard rusher (Doug Martin) and a 1,300-yard receiver (Vincent Jackson) in the same season.  Of course, it's the first time we've ever had a 4,000-yard passer, and only the second time we've had a 1,400-yard rusher or a 1,300-yard receiver.

 

**

 

5. Killian of Clearwater, Florida (but now living in Hampton Roads, Virginia) asks:

I'm sick and tired of never hearing the 02' Bucs mentioned when discussing the best defenses in NFL history. I'm sure we were in the top ten, most likely top 5, but I'd like to know exactly where that unit stands in the history books. Can you help a brother out?

 

If I took a break with that question, then I'm really getting lazy by including this one.  See, I've done this before, and quite thoroughly.  The best breakdown was probably in this column from 2010.  Go check it out; it's the fifth question down.  I won't spoil it here, but I will say that I believe the conclusions are fair despite my oft-admitted homerism.

 

**

 

6. Chris K. of Winter Garden, Florida asks:

Hey Answer man! I just have a quirky question regarding the Pro Bowl. Now, if a player is "selected" as first team, but are unable to attend due to injury, does that still count as "attending" the Pro Bowl? Likewise, if an alternate player is picked but does not replace a starter, does that count as a "Pro Bowl" selection? It seems that Hall of Fame selection still heavily favors the amount of "Pro Bowls" a player has gone to, so I was just curious as to how they determine that actual number. If it's actually attending it, being selected and not going due to injury, or even replacements. What counts? I cannot seem to find the answer and I hope you are my man for that, thanks!

 

Answer Man: I don't think that's too quirky, Chris.  In fact, it's a pretty good question.  Let's go point by point.

 

- First, there is no "first team" term associated with the Pro Bowl.  You're thinking of All-Pro and other such designations.  They do indicate which of the players selected are starters when the teams are announced, but that's a relatively minor distinction.

 

- No, if a player does not attend the Pro Bowl due to injury or some other reason, he is not counted as having attended the game.  Or, I think the phrase we're really looking for here is "played in."  You have to actually appear in the Pro Bowl to get credit for playing the game.  If you check out Pro Bowl records and go to the service section, you'll find that Randall McDaniel and Will Shields share the record with 12 Games Played, with Reggie White, Junior Seau and Rod Woodson all right behind at 11.  There is an asterisk next to White's name that leads to this note: "Also selected, but did not play, in two additional games."  So he was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection but only gets credit for playing in 11 of them.  Similarly, the Bucs' Derrick Brooks was named a Pro Bowler 11 times but isn't on that list of record-holders because he didn't actually play in all of them.

 

- However, not playing in the game does not erase the honor of being chosen.  Generally, when a player's credentials are being read – such as, in your very good example, during Hall of Fame deliberations – the number of Pro Bowl invites he received is what is used.  That's only fair.  Just because White didn't go to two of those all-star games doesn't mean he wasn't considered among the game's best those two years.

 

- Yes, if you replace an injured player and play in the Pro Bowl, you are considered just as much of a Pro Bowler as anyone else.  All three of Vincent Jackson's selections, for instance, are treated equally.  This does inflate the number of Pro Bowlers that come out of any given season, and the numbers are only going up these days with the game now being played the weekend before the Super Bowl.  That means that, automatically, all the Pro Bowlers on the two Super Bowl teams are going to have to be replaced, and there are generally a lot of Pro Bowl players on those two squads.

 

- If you're worried about "grade inflation" when it comes to something like the Hall of Fame voting, I wouldn't get too worked up about it.  From what I understand, the deliberations that go on behind those closed doors on the Saturday before the Super Bowl are very nuanced and sophisticated.  Those voters know the right amount of value to put on things such as Pro Bowl selections and All-Pro choices. The discussions go well beyond those things and take hours and hours to sort out.

 

**

 

You know who's awesome?  You guys.  I can't believe how great the first version of my mailbag was this year.  I literally just skimmed off the top for this first mailbag; there are tons of good ones left.  So if you sent in a good question (and one that's not along the lines of, "Who are we going to draft in the first round?"), bear with me.  I'll be trying to get through as many as possible in the weeks to come.

 

However, there's always room for more.  We've got about six months to work on topics like this.  Keep sending in your questions here and I'll keep finding the answers.  Thanks, and Go Bucs!

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