One of the things I love about football is the importance of team chemistry. In no other mainstream sport is the team concept so vital to winning. Baseball is actually more like a series of one on one matchups, pitcher vs. batter, over and over again, masquerading as a team sport. Basketball requires five men or women working together on the court, but the NBA level is so dominated by star power and super teams now that cohesion has taken a back seat. Hockey fans will argue their side, I don’t know enough about the sport to judge, but the only close thing in this regard to football is the other football, soccer. In soccer, a team could win 1-0 and it’s possible that the man who scored the winning goal could have had the least influence over the result of any other man on his team. In both sports, if the component parts don’t work well together, no individual talent can carry the team on his back all alone. A running back needs nasty fat guys to block for him, a striker needs service in the box, and linebackers need to help stop the pass and run because the defensive line and the secondary can’t do either on their own.
There’s a word for this phenomenon that happens to be one of my all-time favorite words; gestalt. Gestalt is a German word meaning the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In football, eleven players must each perform their given role for a play to be executed. Once a group of players play a lot together they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, develop an unspoken level of trust and begin to become something bigger than themselves. Nothing can replace time spent together on or off the field and the contagious enthusiasm it breeds. The Chiefs have a set of new Corn Hole (or Bags) tables in their locker room to at least partially to thank for their recent turnaround (http://www.kansascity.com/2011/10/10/3199471/chiefs-use-locker-room-game-to.html).
The Eagles and the Redskins game this Sunday shows two teams on opposite ends of the G (gestalt) index. The Eagles are the self-proclaimed (Vince Young does speak for the whole team, right?) super team. They added a slew of high priced free agents to a team many thought were already the most talented in the league last year. They have a quarterback who has the most ridiculously unfair skill set in NFL history and a slew of speedy weapons for him to distribute the ball to. They added an elite corner and another very good one in the off-season to an already decent defense. Meanwhile, the Redskins rely on journeymen, castoffs and recent draft picks in several key positions and have only three borderline all-pro players in Landry, Fletcher and Orakpo, and that might be being kind. And yet, the Redskins come out of their bye leading the NFC East with a 3-1 record, while the Eagles are 1-4.
You can say the Eagles have played a much harder schedule so far, but the Eagles have definitely under achieved while the Redskins have outperformed their expectations so far. Some still think the Eagles will right the ship (Vegas is not among them as the odds for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl have soared to 100:1 when they were among the preseason favorites) but this Eagles team looks all too familiar to me. For a solid decade Dan Snyder threw money at the biggest free agents available to patch holes in the team. The big signings always disappointed and the Redskins never seemed to live up to their talent level. The simple fact is that no matter how gifted a player is they will not thrive in an unfamiliar system, with unfamiliar teammates, when thrust into an unfamiliar role.
Nnamdi Asomugha is the poster child for the Eagles’ problems thus far. Regarded for years as an elite corner, he has struggled immensely this year. During those years in which Asomugha built his reputation, he was mostly left on an island with an opposing receiver in bump and run man coverage, and this is what he excelled at. The Eagles have asked him to play a lot more zone and have lined him up frequently in a safety/ corner hybrid role. They are asking him to do things he is not comfortable with and largely taken away what he is best at. Tackling used to be considered one of his strengths and he was known as one of the most physical corners in the league, but now he is missing many more tackles, perhaps because he is finding himself in unfamiliar places on the field and does not know where to expect his teammates to be.
With gestalt in mind, let’s go to the games! As always, my lines are taken from the ESPN Pig Skin Pick ‘Em Game (my entry is now in the 97th percentile http://games.espn.go.com/pigskin-pickem/en/entry?entryID=310755 ), and my pick is in BOLD.
Last Week: 10-3
Sunday 1:00 PM EST
Eagles @ Redskins -0.5
This has been the most boring Redskins team in years and I mean that in a good way. There has been no one complaining about their role OR cross dressing for press conferences. There are no huge individual egos, but the players still believe in the team and have made predictions the experts laughed at. They had a good deal of turnover in the off season but the rookies and free agents they added are familiar with the system or at least were chosen to fill a particular role that played to their strengths. Ryan Kerrigan, Jabar Gaffney, and Barry Cofield are all good examples of this. And reports came out last week that many players were still hanging out at Redskins Park over the bye week getting in extra work spurning their sole in-season vacation. The Eagles have much better players but at this point, the Redskins are a much better team.
Panthers @ Falcons -4.5
The Falcons offense is struggling with its identity and they will miss rookie playmaker Julio Jones this week against a Cam Newton powered offense. The Falcons scored just 14 points in their loss last week to the Packers and the Packers’ defense has been pretty liberal about giving up points through their five wins. The Falcons are supposed to be that much better at home, but the Panthers, Bears, Broncos, and Saints, managed to score more points against Green Bay. Cam has the team excited and it is bringing the most out of marginal players and rejuvenating veterans as well, as seen by the renaissance of the original Steve Smith. I think the Panthers could win, but even if they don’t Cam has been a covering machine, putting points on the board to keep all their games close until late. An interesting parallel for this Panthers team is the 2010 Detroit Lions. The Lions went just 6-10, but they were in most of their games and their improvement was obvious even if they couldn’t close games yet. That team was 12-4 against the spread. Carolina has a 1-4 record, but have been a gambler’s best friend going 4-0-1 against the spread.
Colts @ Bengals -6.5
The Bengals embody the team first emphasis as well as my Redskins. They have no big names or superstars on their defense, and lost their best player from last year in free agency, but still are first or near it in all defensive categories. The “Uso” defense (http://www.bengals.com/news/article-1/Introducing-The-Uso-Defense/30b946ad-805d-4e33-bbde-b84dc47fb509) is about brotherhood and trust in the guys next to you in the trenches. Think Umbuntu, but not basketball players so way tougher and more bad ass. Anytime you take a rookie quarterback giving away a touchdown it’s a nervous affair, but the Colts are rudderless without Peyton Manning. The team was built around his particular strengths and the way he plays the game and lacking him they have fallen apart.
Bills @ Giants -3.5
With Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson the Bills have built a solid core at their skill positions out of guys nobody else wanted. The Giants being favored in this game kind of makes my head hurt. The Bills are 4-1 coming off a win over the Eagles while the Giants got shocked by the Seahawks at home last week. When things are going bad for Eli, they tend to get even worse very fast. He is not like his brother in that he lacks the ability to rally his team around him and fight their way back into games. He is definitely the least charismatic Manning, and if your teammates don’t love you, they don’t play as hard for you.
49ers @ Lions -4.5
This is the Lions first big test. The 49ers defense is nasty, their offensive line solid, and they are using Alex Smith effectively, letting him manage the game and play conservatively and trusting their defense to give them a chance to win. They dismantled Tampa last week at home in a very thorough fashion. But the Lions might be the most balanced team in the league through five weeks. They struggle to run the ball but make up for it with screens and short passes to Jahvid Best and their tight ends. Best can take it to the house any time he touches the ball and Calvin Johnson has just simply been the baddest man on the planet so far. I’m sticking with them until they give me a real reason not to.
Rams @ Packers -14.5
This is one of the biggest mismatches we will see in the NFL this year. That is a big spread, but I think it could be higher. The Rams have been decent against the pass, 13th overall and top ten in average attempt against, but they will play this game without their top 3 corners from their opening day roster. Aaron Rodgers has been spreading the love as seven receivers have nine or more catches. They seemed to have avoided the big egos and Disease of More (copyright Bill Simmons) that usually comes with the ultimate prize. Their offense is an efficient machine armed with versatile weapons that create matchup nightmares for the defense. What are the Rams going to do with Luck and Bradford?
Jaguars @ Steelers -12.5
This is a gut call, but I don’t see the Steelers putting it all together two weeks in a row. The Jaguars are another no name defense hanging around in the top ten both against the run and pass despite playing such high scoring offenses as the Saints and Panthers and including their blowout loss to the Jets. The Jags will run the ball heavily and avoid tempting fate with rookie Blaine Gabbert facing the Steelers’ top ranked pass defense and intimidating pass rush. It’s too many points for me to bet on a team that has been as inconsistent as the Steelers so far. The only thing you can rely on them from week to week is that Mike Wallace will get me at least ten fantasy points.
Sunday 4:05 PM EST
Browns @ Raiders -5.5
Sometimes a tragic event makes a team united behind a common cause which causes extreme gestalt. Such a team can play at a level well over their heads until the emotional and physical strain causes exhaustion. I witnessed such a team in the 2007 Redskins. After my favorite player ever, Sean Taylor, was murdered by cravens, the team bonded together and won their last five games to get into the playoffs. I don’t like when people become apologists for people when they die and only remember the good things they did (side tangent: do you think Al Davis and Michael Jackson ever hung out? They must have right?), but Al Davis meant a lot to his franchise. He rose from the sidelines all the way to the owner’s box, gave Raiders fans a couple Super Bowls and unleashed Bo Jackson AND John Gruden on the league. I think the Raiders will continue to ride this emotional wave for at least a few more weeks before they come back down to Earth.
Texans @ Ravens -7.5
Andre Johnson and Mario Williams are more than just the Texans’ best players on their sides of the ball. They are both giants and uniquely gifted athletically for their size. Without these two, the Texans are punchless. Their team is not built to withstand such losses. They will try to run the ball to keep the pressure off the very-average thus far Matt Schuab, but the Ravens are a team that sense weakness and goes for the kill against such teams. The Ravens defense led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed maintain the same nasty attitude and contagious swagger that they have had since Siragusa and Rod Woodson.
Sunday 4:15 PM EST
Cowboys @ Patriots -7.5
This looks like a good matchup for the ‘Boys, but I gotta go with Brady and the boys. For the very best quarterbacks in the NFL, their offenses become almost just an extension of themselves. The teams are put together to play to their strengths and the names Brady, Manning, and Brees become almost synonymous with their teams. The connection he has with guys like Welker, Branch, Hernandez and Gronkowski is almost eerie and even though the offense line has struggled, Brady has the footwork and awareness to get the ball out and in the hands of his underneath receivers the good part of the time. The Cowboys’ pass defense has been surprisingly good so far, but the quarterbacks they have faced, guys like Grossman, Alex Smith, Mark Sanchez and even Matt Stafford, are not on Tom’s level.
Saints @ Buccaneers +4.5
Drew Brees has the Saints’ offense humming. They are averaging over 30 points per game and have only the shoot out week one loss to the Packers to blemish their record. Brees has found a new favorite target in Jimmy Graham. Graham is really tall and really fast, more of an athlete/ basketball player tight end in the Gates/ Finley mold. He and new Saint Darren Sproles create favorable matchups all over the field and Brees has used them to pick apart opposing defenses. Injuries are starting to catch up with the Bucs and having to face Brees and crew the week after the total embarrassment in San Francisco will be no picnic. I find it interesting that the Saints are the only road favorite this week.
Sunday 8:20 PM EST
Vikings @ Bears -3.5
This is the first of two ugly primetime games. Both of these teams are solid at most spots but are hurt by one glaring weakness. The Bears offensive line can’t protect Cutler and Donovan McNabb holds the Vikings offense back. Both teams have strengths to match up with their opponent’s weak spot as well. The Bears will have to block Jared Allen, or try anyway, and likely fail, while the Bears’ defense is still good and will likely try to stop Adrian Peterson and make McNabb beat them. In a game where I don’t like either team, I’ll take the points and the team that’s not the Bears, even though that team is the by default the Vikings, yuck.
Monday 8:30 PM EST
Dolphins @ Jets -7.5
When we’re talking about team chemistry and teammates playing for each other there is one old and infallible rule: when a team is struggling, especially when they are winless, the backup quarterback playing will always boost hopes and raise moral like nothing else, for a while anyway. Usually the new guy is good for a few games, feeding off his team’s energy and the lack of tape the opposing team has on him, but it usually wears off unless the guy is a truly special player. The Jets struggle to run the ball, the Dolphins defense is better than they have played so far, and Sanchez doesn’t scare me at all in this game. The Dolphins will rally around Matt Moore and their coach for at least this game and the Dolphins will get their first win, or at least come damn close.