By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts conspiracy theorist
The Cold, Hard Football Facts take their weekly look at the chilliest issues on Planet Pigskin, with all the hollow emotion of the empty popcorn carton Terrell Owens tossed back at a fan in the end zone Thursday night.
Icy Issue: Is Dallas good enough to overcome the "Curse of Doug Flutie?"
Icier Response: They certainly looked it during their 37-27 win over Green Bay Thursday night. But the Curse works in mysterious ways.
The "Curse of Doug Flutie" was born back in the 1999 playoffs and continues to haunt the Buffalo organization and any team or coach that employs Wade Phillips, who's now the Cowboys head coach.
Back in 1999, Phillips was Buffalo's head man when he benched quarterback Flutie entering the playoffs, despite the fact that the famously diminutive passer had led Buffalo to a 10-5 record.
You know how it all ended: Flutie sat on the bench during a first-round playoff game at Tennessee, watching his replacement, Rob Johnson, play a poor game (10 of 22, 131 yards, 5.95 YPA, 0 TD, 0 INT, 64.8 rating). Still, the Bills held a late lead when the Titans used some controversial razzle-dazzle to score on a kick return with no time left, in a play quickly dubbed "The Music City Miracle."
That play was just the start of the curse. Buffalo has never been back to the postseason. In fact, they organization has never matched the 10 wins Flutie led them to in 1999.
Phillips, for his part, has enjoyed only a single playoff victory since that day, a wild-card win over Green Bay when he was defensive coordinator with the Falcons in 2002. But he was also DC with Atlanta the following season when head coach Dan Reeves was unceremoniously canned with three games to play. Phillips then spent 2004-06 as Marty Schottenheimer's defensive coordinator in San Diego, a period during which the team suffered two devastating playoff losses at home despite being favored in both games (Jets in 2004, Patriots in 2006). With great regular-season teams but zero playoff wins with Phillips at his side, Schottenheimer also lost his job.
Through it all, Phillips somehow ended up with the plum head coaching gig in Dallas. And, with an 11-1 record and the inside track on homefield advantage in the playoffs, he's certainly exceeded all the expectations one might have based upon his past accomplishments.
Now only one question remains: Can Phillips carry the Cowboys to the Super Bowl, or will the Curse of Doug Flutie rise up when it always does: when it will hurt the most.
Icy Issue: How important is it for a team to put up big passing yards?
Icier Response: About as important as it is for you to wear your lucky t-shirt while watching the game at home.
Few accomplishments get fans and "pundits" all fired up more than an electrifying day passing the ball by a quarterback. Those 300-, 400- and rare 500-yard passing days will almost always generate big headlines, "player of the week" honors and buzz from the faux-football fantasy crowd.
It won't get you a victory. In fact, big passing days are often the sign of desperation.
There are thousands of examples through history (not to mention plenty of objective evidence) of the meaninglessness of passing yards. We've been handed two textbook examples in recent weeks.
Last Sunday, Arizona QB Kurt Warner, a two-time MVP, Super Bowl champion, and third highest-rated passer in NFL history, passed for a personal best 484 yards against San Francisco. He lost.
Tennessee's Vince Young, meanwhile, has thrown for 257, 305 and 246 yards in his last three games. They're the three best passing totals of his career. He lost all three games. In fact, Young is now 2-5 in games in which he's passed for more than 200 yards. He's 4-1 in games in which he's passed for fewer than 100 yards.
Some analysts will point to Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Tony Romo as indicators of the importance of passing yards. They're the top three passing-yards leaders in the NFL, and happen to lead arguably the three best teams in the NFL.
But their success is not due to the raw number of passing yards they generate. Their success is instead due to the efficiency with which each team is passing the ball, as measured by yards per attempt – which has historically proven to be one of the single greatest indicators of offensive and team-wide success. Passing yards per attempt is far more important historically, for example, than rushing yards per attempt.
And nobody is more efficient passing the ball than Brady's Patriots, Romo's Cowboys and Favre's Packers. Entering last night's Green Bay-Dallas game, the Patriots ranked No. 1 (8.26 YPA), the Cowboys No. 2 (7.95 YPA) and the Packers No. 3 (7.45 YPA). (These numbers were calculated using the adjusted Cold, Hard Football Facts formula, which includes sacks as attempts and subtracts yardage lost on sacks from the gross passing totals.)
The superiority of yards per pass attempt over total passing yards is evident is this little historical nugget. The last two quarterbacks to lead the league in passing yards per attempt (Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger) won the Super Bowl. The last quarterback to lead the league in passing yards and win a championship was Johnny Unitas with the Colts back in 1959.
Icy Issue: Whatever happened to that guy in Indianapolis, Peyton Whats-it?
Icier Response: He's still there, and needs to show flashes of his old self on Sunday.
The media hype machine is more fickle and more catty than a high-school cheerleading squad.
Take, for example, the sudden departure of Peyton Manning from the national consciousness (other than his omnipresent and entertaining commercials). A year ago, and for almost the entire decade before that, Manning's name dominated virtually every discussion of quarterbacking, and his high-flying Colts were showered in an unending hymn of praise from the "pundits."
Suddenly, it's disappeared. And it didn't take much. The Colts lost a nail-biter at home to an undefeated New England team a few weeks ago. Then they laid an egg the following week, with a 23-21 loss at San Diego and barely edged out the sub-mediocre Chiefs, 13-10, at home. And their 31-13 win over a lousy Atlanta team Thanksgiving night was hardly enough to arouse the passions of pigskin nation suffering through a turkey coma.
Clearly, Manning has played more like Eli than Peyton in recent weeks without sidekick Marvin Harrison. And, in fact, his troubles go back beyond the loss of his Hall of Fame batterymate. The Indy quarterback has tossed a Jeff George-like 19 INTs in his last 15 games (including playoffs).
But the Colts are anything but out of the Super Bowl picture, even if the adulation they've grown accustomed to has moved on to New England, Dallas and Green Bay. At 9-2, they still have the inside track on the No. 2 seed in the AFC postseason. Their impending collision course with New England remains well on track, even if the hype over a rematch has dissipated in recent weeks.
Of course, one thing stands in the way: a remarkably underhyped Jaguars-Colts showdown Sunday in Indianapolis. It could prove one of the pivotal games in the AFC all seasoon. The Jaguars have been trying to break Indy's grip on the AFC South lead for years, and their best chance yet is in front of them. If the Jaguars win, they'll have split their season series with the Colts, will be in a tie for first in the division, and will have inserted themselves squarely into the race for a first-round bye.
And if Peyton Whats-it wants to re-insert himself into the cocoon of hype and adulation in which he's lived the past decade, Sunday would be a good time to do it. But it won't be easy. The Jaguars always play well against Manning. In their last three meetings, Manning's best effort was a merely mediocre 80.8 passer rating.
But as the cliche says, big-time players play big in big-time games. Manning is a big-time player, and Sunday is a big-time game ... even if the media has overlooked both facts in recent weeks.