Wildcard Monday

The wildcard round of the NFL playoffs is complete. The Lions, in their first playoff game since 1999, fell to the apparently unstoppable Saints in New Orleans Saturday night. Detroit was in command of the game throughout the first half, but by the fourth quarter, the home team had decidedly overwhelmed them. An errant whistle cost Detroit a touchdown, but there were too many missed opportunities on offense and too much softness against the run on defense for the visitors to finish the upset. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson had good games, but it wasn’t enough. Still, the Lions have to feel ok about a 10-win season that included a competitive playoff game after going 0-16 three years ago. Keep reading…

The steel-silver lining in Rashard Mendenhall’s season-ending injury

In Tuesday morning’s weekly update, I wrote that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall’s season-ending ACL tear was “a literally crippling blow to Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl chances.” Observant Grantland writer Bill Barnwell offered a contrary view:

Will [Mendenhall’s absence] really affect the Steelers heading into the playoffs, though? It’s debatable. Mendenhall certainly has the biggest name of any Steelers running back, but his production is positively ordinary. He’s only averaged 4.1 yards per carry on his 228 rushing attempts this year. Meanwhile, primary backup Isaac Redman has averaged 4.4 yards a pop on 110 attempts, while third-stringers Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer have combined for 280 yards on just 38 carries, for a rushing average in excess of seven yards.

It’s not totally uncommon for a backup to produce a rushing average superior to the starter, but that usually happens because the starter is accruing a large quantity of touches, including many in less-than-ideal situations for gaining consistent yardage. It’s hard to fathom that Mendenhall is such a back, since he’s only carried the ball about 15 times a game and had just one game this season with more than 19 carries. The DVOA statistic, which adjusts for quality of opposition and game situation, says that Redman and Mendenhall are virtually identical; Mendenhall’s DVOA is at 3.8 percent, while Redman’s is at 3.5 percent.

It would be one thing if Mendenhall had a history of success, but he now has 813 NFL attempts and a rushing average at those same 4.1 yards per carry. His case for being a star basically amounts to his status as a first-rounder and two big games in 2009 against the Chargers and Broncos, in which he combined for 320 yards against two below-average run defenses. He’s never developed into a reliable receiver, catching just 68 passes in four seasons. We hoped and expected that he would take a step forward this season after a somewhat disappointing 2010, but if anything, he had taken a step backward before the torn ACL.

If the Steelers can get Moore back from a sprained MCL to serve in his customary role as the third-down back, chances are that they won’t miss Mendenhall whatsoever.

My only rejoinders are a) Barnwell’s analysis fails to consider a durability notion (the effect on Mendenhall’s replacements of having to shoulder a heavier load), and b) the combination of Mendenhall’s absence and Ben Roethlisberger’s limitations due to his own injuries, which I mentioned on Tuesday. Still, given Barnwell’s recently proven successful playing of the NFL numbers this season, I’m inclined to yield to him on this sort of thing.

Tuesday morning special

We normally do this on Mondays, but with the breakdown of this fall’s orderly football schedule, together with adverse outcomes in the two games I attended over the weekend and the opportunity to post the song below, I figured it was ok to wait until Tuesday this time.

On Friday, the Red Wings lost by a goal on the road to Chicago, and on Saturday, Vanderbilt lost by a touchdown to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. Recaps of both of those games will come later.

There wasn’t much of special note in the NFL’s final week of regular season play on Sunday, except that Steelers’ RB Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL and is done for the season, a literally crippling blow to Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl chances, especially considering Ben Roethlisberger’s lingering leg injury.

The traditional New Year’s Day bowls were played on January 2 this year, and Michigan State came back to win a triple-overtime game against Georgia in the Outback Bowl, much to the chagrin of commodawg and bpbrady. By the second half, it appeared that nobody wanted to win the game. The officials insisted that there had to be a winner, though, and two missed field goals by Georgia, including one the Spartans blocked in the third overtime, sealed the game.

The BCS games played yesterday were exciting as well. Oregon topped Wisconsin for the Ducks’ first Rose Bowl victory in over ninety years, and Oklahoma State beat Stanford in overtime for all the Tostitos in the Fiesta Bowl.

Tonight, the once-proud Sugar Bowl stakes its claim to irrelevancy when Michigan takes on Virginia Tech. Our bpbrady is there. Watch for him on tv, assuming he makes it into the stadium after a week in the French Quarter.