Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why Do They Have To Be Snakes?

It has been a week of reconsidering old grudges for me, at least with regard to the NFL. For years, now, I’ve held Del Rio up as an example of what ugly, stubborn, bully coaches can do to a potentially dangerous franchise. I stand by much of my criticism with regard to his refusal to help develop an athletic receiving corps that showed flashes of brilliance into anything other than a novelty. Matt Jones and Reggie Williams are out of the league (despite each having shown the ability to succeed at the NFL level), and even Marcedes Lewis, a physical freak of nature, had to wait for five years and everyone else to leave before Del Rio would consider utilizing him as a centerpiece of his aerial attack. Nevertheless, if I rake Neanderthal Jack over the coals for clinging to his own personal perspective on the game rather than adapting to the talents he has under his command, I need to give him credit for his dogged loyalty to David Garrard, who has proven both this season and in 2007 that he can carry the Jaguars to legitimacy when he’s working efficiently. Certainly, this is more of Del Rio clinging to his vision of a world in which the pass is only utilized as a counterpunch or trick rather than a integral tool, but kudos to him for having the conviction of his beliefs in the face of so much adversity.

Indeed, perhaps this is why Del Rio was so eager to displace former QB Byron Leftwich with Garrard a few years ago; Leftwich represented the allure of dominance from the position, and was exactly the kind of quarterback who could win a game with his arm that fans were clamoring for as recently as earlier this year. Garrard, by contrast, plays toward an effective management of resources and situations. It is, however, a total management of the game as opposed to merely the passing offense, and the result plays out in the Jaguars record: When Garrard is efficient, the Jaguars win, and when he is asked to do more than he can handle, they lose. But for the Cleveland game (the one true test of Garrard as a focal point of the offense, and one which he passed), the Jaguars have yet to win a game in which he throws more interceptions than touchdowns. This explains why the apparent strategy has been to keep Garrard from overextending himself (he has attempted just 291 passes on the year), and yet Garrard has responded in just the opposite way we have come to expect from the stereotypical “leader” under center, becoming a top 10 quarterback with a QB rating over 90 despite having no receivers in the top 30 in receiving yards (Mike Thomas comes in at #37).

This fascinates me as someone who enjoys seeing personalities of coaches and players stamped on the on-field product we see each week. As much as Del Rio can be faulted for not allowing his receivers to do embrace their identities on the field, it’s almost endearing the way he clings to Garrard as a brother in arms, allowing Garrard to fully embrace his own role as a tactician and manager in the most positive senses of both of those terms. MJD has seen increased success as the year has progressed precisely because Garrard has not been forced to create his own openings for punishing defenses that ignore him, but rather has waited in the reeds, compiling enough surprising death blows (go back and look at those wins over Indy, Houston, and Oakland) in a limited sample size to give the appearance of being far deadlier than he may actually be (although I would remind everyone that in 2007, Garrard was a damn Cobra with the way he punished teams caught ignoring him as a threat). If this isn’t the sort of imposition of will that I look for from players and schemes, it is at least the imposition of illusion resulting from the freedom to explore exactly what works best for Del Rio and Garrard as a necessarily bound duo.

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