If you listen closely, you can hear the faint pounding of drums, the mounting footsteps, the far-off cries of revolt. All around NFL cities -- at least for the quarter of the league that's been utterly uncompetitive this season -- fans are finding their collective voice and making their opinions known.
Is it just me, or has 2009 become the year of the fan in the NFL?
We've seen mounting outrage and outcries in cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City and Washington, with ownership taking note. All of those teams have experienced plenty of lean times over recent years, and with the economy struggling, spending those extra dollars on tickets or merchandise is tougher than ever for a lot of folks, which seemingly makes it all the more difficult to simply sit on one's hands and keep mouths closed as another losing season unfolds.
In Buffalo, Ryan Abshagen, an unemployed 18-year-old from New Freedom, Pa. raised money on the Internet to rent a billboard and voice his discontent with the Bills. In Cleveland, two longtime members of the "Dawg Pound," who were in the process of organizing a fan protest in which all season-ticket holders refrain from taking their seats until after kickoff of the team's next game (Monday, Nov. 16 against Baltimore), ended up meeting for two hours with owner Randy Lerner on Tuesday.
Mike Randall and Tony Schaefer came away utterly impressed with Lerner's passion and willingness to accept blame. "He wants to get this right," Randall told the Canton Repository. "He was very open in saying mistakes have been made. He basically said, 'I take full blame.'"
However, despite the meeting, Randall and Schaefer also said the fan protest will not be called off.
In Washington, fan acrimony is boiling over, with ownership and management the primary target. There were no shortage of signs voicing displeasure with the state of the team, and chants directed toward the owner's box, that the team decided to forbid any signage from being brought into FedEx Field. Snyder, who has a policy of not speaking to the media during the season, ended up issuing an apology to fans through the media after a charity event this week.
Things are so tense in Washington that after Redskins legend John Riggins took aim at Daniel Snyder on Inside The NFL, defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who had solicited and received permission from the league to be relieved from his media obligations due to health reasons, jumped in front of the cameras Thursday to offer what he called his "unsolicited" support for Snyder, calling it "something I thought I needed to do."
Some fans are doing what they believe needed to be done, and organizing a walkout at an upcoming home game to show their frustration with the direction of the franchise.
In Kansas City, Chiefs fans have started an online petition asking general manager Scott Pioli to deactivate suspended running back Larry Johnson for the rest of the season so that he can not eclipse Priest Holmes' franchise rushing record. Johnson, who was barred from the team for two weeks after making a gay slur on a social media site, is 75 yards behind Holmes' team record.
"He has never represented anything close to the values that we have for our Chiefs," the petition states, "and it would be another dagger to the fans that continue to support this proud franchise."
Certainly not your average season.
The league is prospering on most all fronts, and rightfully so. There have been no shortage of tremendous games every weekend and the NFL dominates our sporting culture for good reason. But for those in the minority in this league of parity, the sense of refusing to remain a silent minority is palpable.
Some of these movements might prove effective. The spirit of empowerment and solidarity can only help in fanbases that have long waited to prosper, and ultimately, owners are running a business that is fueled by the emotional attachment of the fans, and their willingness to invest in that franchise financially through spending on all things related to it.
With half a season left to play, and no shortage of teams hovering with two wins or fewer, you can't help but wonder if we've seen the last of an organized fan outcry? And, as long as it's done in good taste, I say, Viva La revolución!
Ballin' with the blitz
Early this season, I took a look at how teams fare against the blitz as an indicator of overall success and failure in the NFL. As we approach the season's midpoint, it still holds true.
There are eight teams in the NFL with a passer rating of 96 or better against the blitz (in this order): Green Bay, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Atlanta, Denver and New England. Not a bad group; filled with most of the league's elite.
The bottom eight teams in the NFL in terms of passer rating against the blitz (from worst on up): Cleveland, Carolina, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Miami, Tennessee, St. Louis and the N.Y. Jets. There is not a real contender in the bunch (Mark Sanchez was brilliant on third downs and against the blitz the first three weeks, when undefeated, and has been woeful since).
Defensively, who are the worst six teams in the league in terms of opposing passer rating against them when they blitz? Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Oakland, Kansas City, Detroit, Seattle and Cleveland. And the best eight NFL defenses in terms of opposing passer rating when they blitz? New Orleans, Buffalo (young secondary is strength of that team), San Diego, Denver, Indy, N.Y. Jets, New England and Green Bay (the Eagles and Giants are right there, too).
Obviously, not one factor in a game as nuanced as this is going to predict success. But this is certainly one to watch. It speaks to one of the more risk-reward gambles in this game, and the teams that thrive best in those crucial situations are winning more than their fair share of games.
If I'm a Packers fan looking at this, I'm thinking, "Man, we cut down on sacks and turnovers just a bit, and we're not out of this thing." Teams such as the Giants, Eagles and Bengals, whose records say they should be contenders, rank No. 20 through 22 in offensive passer rating against the blitz (all right around 75.0), which might hold them back. It's something I'll continue to monitor as we all look for ways to predict a sport that serves up surprises with great regularity.
Slaton's sophomore slump
The sophomore slump has been hitting some running backs hard. Matt Forte has caught a lot of criticism in Chicago, but in terms of yards per carry, he's not horribly off last year's pace. That offense has more weapons now and he's carrying such a heavy load.
Steve Slaton has actually experienced a much stronger dropoff, and the expectation among many in the Texans organization is that Ryan Moats is going to start getting the ball much more on first downs and in obvious running situations, while Slaton will continue to factor in the passing game.
Slaton has already lost five fumbles this season after just two as a rookie. He's on pace for half as many first downs as a year ago and has been stuffed for a loss 21 times already this season, after just 29 all of last season. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie, and is well below the NFL average at 3.1 this season.
With tight end Owen Daniels out for the season, look for Slaton and Jacoby Jones to pick up some of the slack in the passing game (Slaton nearly has as many receiving yards this year as he had all of last season). But the Texans know they need more out of the run game, and Moats should be able to grind out some tough yards, and is more equipped to handle that role. You're going to lose some explosion and big-play potential with Moats, and he may not be a long-term solution, but they need a little more balance there.
Slaton could create matchup problems in the slot, a la Brian Westbrook, and will still be on the field. But even after rushing for nearly 1,300 yards last season, he may not prove to be an every-down back. Time will tell.
Et cetera ...
» Am I the only one who found Roy Williams' sounding off about being the No. 1 wide receiver in Dallas amusing? Yes, Roy, they made a trade on the premise that you are a No. 1 (a deal that struck me as a steal for the Lions at the time and continues to look more that way by the week), and you may be paid like a No. 1 receiver (with another $9.5 million in bonus money due to you in 2010), but that does not make you a true No. 1 receiver. Finding a way to click with the quarterback and generate some trust and cohesion with him would probably be your best way to go, because he pretty much controls your production. A circus catch or two on a fade or down the sidelines, like you often executed in Detroit, would be a good step as well. Barely a week can go by without some Dallas drama it seems. ...
» If Randy Lerner is really intent on retaining Eric Mangini as his head coach (as he told Cleveland.com in a question-and-answer session), and also giving Mangini a voice in that decision (as Mangini told the media), and if Bernie Kosar is going to take on some kind of formal role in the front office, then I have a difficult time expecting much to change there any time soon. That's gonna be tough to pull off, and finding someone highly qualified to operate under all of those conditions will be difficult enough. ...
» My midseason comeback player of the year pick is Anthony Hargrove, the Saints' versatile defensive lineman who overcame personal demons and addiction to fight his way back in the league. He's starting now for an undefeated team, he has blossomed personally and physically with lots of love from his teammates, the Saints coaches and staff (helping him get to meetings, embracing him despite problems in his past), and got the game ball on defense when the Saints defeated the Dolphins. The guy was writing letters to every team in the league from a halfway house about six months ago, hoping someone would take a chance on him, and he has rewarded the Saints both on the field and off thus far. This is a tremendous feel-good story and I wish him all the best as he continues to forge a new life for himself. ...
» Of all the potential injury issues in the league this week, I'm not sure any would have a bigger effect than Haloti Ngata's status for the Ravens. They can't let Cedric Benson run wild again, and this freak-of-nature defensive tackle is the first line of defense. That sprained ankle could loom large there. ...
» I have now reached the point where I TiVo WordGirl for my own amusement. If there is a better educational cartoon in the free world, direct me that way. I'm pretty sure they had Andy Dick voicing an evil librarian character last week. Genius. It's to the point that at 9 a.m., I'm all pumped up for WordGirl, and my 4-year-old daughter is turned off by the fact that I have co-opted her show and begs for Happy Days reruns. Such is life. ...
» Another 9-4 week last week (which puts me around 75-40 on the season, if my quick math is correct). This week, give me Atlanta, Chicago, Indy, Baltimore, Kansas City, Green Bay, New England, Carolina, Seattle, Tennessee, N.Y. Giants, Philly and Pittsburgh.