Read Option: On the ‘Cats, Cubs, Ravens and Cowboys

Hey guys! I’ve written a lot of series over the years, and their names have ranged the spectrum from cringy (Professor Sports) to clever (Varsity Letter) to fitting (Nostalgia Blast). Today, as I kick of the college era of Johnriker.com, I’m resurrecting one of my favorite formats/names, the Read Option. Quick history lesson — my Read Option column was published on this website every week of the NFL season and covered a bunch of topics (requiring frequent posting, though definitely fun) . In this version of that column, I’ll give three or more takes on relevant sports/culture issues (the options). For this installment of the Read Option, I’ll tackle three issues relevant to my sports teams this month.

Option One: Two Point Conversions

When your team is favored to lose a game by over three touchdowns, just covering the spread may seem like a small victory itself. That wasn’t the case this Saturday, though, as my Northwestern Wildcats lost by only nine points to the eighth ranked Wisconsin Badgers in mind-numbing fashion. After a low-scoring, tight first half, Wisconsin pulled ahead to a commanding 24-3 lead thanks to two defensive touchdowns, but a couple of Wildcat touchdowns and a couple of Wisconsin fumbles allowed the Cats to scratch back into the game until late. It was the worst of two worlds — we writhed in the agony of losing a blowout and a close game all in the span of four quarters. 

By mind-numbing, I mean that there was a defeat that went beyond the box score and into the team’s mentality and strategy, errors that made me say, “I could’ve coached this team better.” While coach Pat Fitzgerald is a legend in Evanston and an all-around great coach, his decisions with Northwestern mounting a comeback were puzzling. That brings me to the topic of this option, the two-point conversion.

First, a brief rundown of the two-point conversion. After scoring a touchdown (six points), the team that scored has the option of going for one point (a usually automatic kick) or a two-point attempt (one play from the 2-yard line). Thanks to two-point attempts, a team down eight points can consider it a one-possession game, or a sixteen-point lead a two-possession game (though analytics suggest that two-point attempts should be utilized more frequently). 

The ways Northwestern utilized the two-point attempt were puzzling. After cutting the three-touchdown second half deficit to 24-9, the WIldcats could’ve kicked the automatic one point, which would allow the Cats to tie with two touchdowns and ensuing extra points (thus, a two-possession game). Instead, they went for two and missed. Still a two-possession game, but now one of the two touchdowns would need to have a two-point conversion (since 15 points would be needed to tie). 

Following a wild onside kick, Northwestern took advantage with another touchdown and found themselves down 24-15. A one-point kick would make it a one-possession game, but the next touchdown would require a two-point attempt to tie. A two-point attempt could position the Wildcats to win the game in regulation if both the attempt and a two-point attempt after another touchdown were successful, or at least cut the deficit to 7 (a touchdown and the almost-automatic one-point kick). But if the two-point attempt backfired, the Wildcats would be unable to score the tying points in one possession, because there is no way to score more than eight points on a touchdown. Given Wisconsin’s stout defense, the game-defining risk of the two-point attempt and the fact that a third-string quarterback was under center, I would’ve taken the seven and cut the Wisconsin lead to eight, still keeping open the possibility of tying the game. 

Again, Northwestern went for two. Again, they failed to convert. And with four minutes left in the two-possession game, the match was over and the Wildcats left Madison, Wisconsin with an unimpressive 1-3 record. You hate to see it.

Two point conversions played a bigger role in the prime game that same day, with host North Carolina making an upset bid against the number one team in the country, Clemson. Few anticipated a close game between the ACC rivals, but with 1:17 left in regulation, North Carolina running back Javonte Williams scored on a short touchdown carry. Clemson 21, UNC 20. Conventional wisdom would say kick the automatic one point and send the game into overtime, but as is the case with all of these point-after attempts, there was more to consider. While UNC had played up to their competition all game, the talent disparity between one national champion team and one cellar dweller could show during overtime. But if UNC got the two-point conversion and the lead, they would be up by one point and Clemson would have to score in just over a minute to win. The same strategy has been used in the NFL more and more often, with the Jaguars, Broncos and Chargers recently going for two against a superior team instead of playing for the tie. UNC was stuffed at the one-yard line and lost by a point, but it was the best decision for the team because it gave them the chance to sneak away with a win. 

That’s all I have about two-point conversions, right? Wrong. One of my NFL teams, the Baltimore Ravens, were in the headlines for their liberal use of the two-point attempt during their match against the Kansas City Chiefs. Coach John Harbaugh went for two even on the opening drive, and though the Ravens were unable to convert on any of their three attempts, it was a laudable strategy. Baltimore needed every point it could get going against the best offense in the NFL, and those two-point attempts both furthered the aggressive mentality Harbaugh wanted to implement and never impacted the number of possessions needed to erase the deficit, as had happened in the Northwestern game. 

With the one-point kick becoming more difficult in the NFL and analytics impacting how teams strategize with their PATs, two-point attempts are becoming a major trend. They’re also making football a lot more entertaining, given all the scenarios, risks and implications. Regardless of whether the decision is a good one, sometimes you just wish your team was on the other side of that goal line at the end of the attempt (see: Northwestern). 

Option Two: Brilliant Starts

September NFL football has been good to me. I got NFL Sunday Ticket, met a lot of fellow football fans at Northwestern and watched my teams, the Cowboys and Ravens, soar to the top of the league hierarchy. For the Ravens, it was a 59-10 opening win against the hapless Miami Dolphins as well as the deterioration of division rivals Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In Dallas, it was a 3-0 start that left fans and experts elevating the Cowboys to Super Bowl contender status. Both teams’ quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson for Baltimore and Dak Prescott for Dallas, appear to have improved significantly, cutting down on turnovers and making plays through the air and on the ground (Lamar’s “pretty good for a running back” clapback comment ranks among my favorites all-time). At the same time, the Cowboys have played three terrible teams with subpar quarterbacks and defenses, while Lamar has been carving up some of the league’s worst defensive units. Are the Ravens and the Cowboys for real?

I’ll give my take on Dallas, the 3-0 kings of the NFC East, first. They opened with the league’s easiest start, and the schedule figures to get a lot tougher soon with New Orleans, Philadelphia, New England and the Los Angeles Rams on the schedule. It’s hard to gauge a team’s Super Bowl prospects when they’ve played some real stinkers, but it’s also hard not to love what I’m seeing from the Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott is moving after coming back from a holdout, the defense is as stingy as last year and Prescott is playing mistake-free football. But the best sign is what I thought would be the Cowboys’ key to the season — the development of new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore into a premier playcaller. Playcalling is what I believe doomed the Cowboys last playoffs, but the archaic tendencies of past Cowboys teams have gone to the wayside. If Dallas can survive a challenging schedule and hold off the Eagles, they should enter the playoffs as a threat to go all the way.

Baltimore has faced stiffer competition, edging out the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 and almost pulling off a comeback in a Week 3 loss to Kansas City. Lamar’s development is the most encouraging aspect of the season. Jackson looks like a completely different thrower and has benefited greatly from the addition of first round receiver Marquise Brown and the presence of tight end Mark Andrews. Add in Mark Ingram to the ground game, and the Baltimore offense is as dangerous as Harbaugh advertised it to be. The defense is a work-in-progress, but the ability to play up to the Chiefs in Kansas City so early in the season signals to me that the Ravens are a team to be taken seriously in the AFC. 

Again, no Super Bowl trophies are handed out in September, but I couldn’t have asked for better starts from Dallas and Baltimore.

Option Three: A Colossal Chicago Collapse

I think I may have done something to the Chicago Cubs. I moved into my dorm on the Northwestern campus a couple Mondays ago, when the Cubs were firmly in the Wild Card hunt with about a 70% chance of making the playoffs. With bouts against the St. Louis Cardinals, the division leader coming up, the Cubs were in a prime position to move into the standings as the regular season came to a close… if they could win those games and make the most of the opportunities. 

Instead, one of the most shocking collapses I’ve ever seen of any team in any sport (and I endured the 2011 Red Sox). The Cubs lost five straight one run games, many of them in the ninth inning or extra innings, and went on a nine-game losing streak. The stretch knocked the injury-riddled Cubs out of the playoff picture, all while division rivals Milwaukee and St. Louis clinched bids back to October. The worst came while I was watching the Cubs in my dorm with my friend Patrick. Up by one run in the ninth inning with All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel coming in to close it out against the Cardinals, the Cubs were in reach of victory. I felt uncharacteristically nervous, but still hopeful the W flag would fly. First pitch — Kimbrel gives up a home run. I angrily stomp and groan, while Kimbrel doubles over in disgust. Tie game. The next batter comes up against Kimbrel, and the next pitch… a home run. Cardinals lead. I threw my Cubs hat against the wall, and Patrick, a huge sports fan, notes, “well I’ve never seen that before!” 

The Cubs’ nine-game losing streak has larger implications than this year’s playoff race alone. SInce winning the 2016 World Series, Chicago has taken steps back: losing in the NL Championship to the Dodgers, losing in the Wild Card Game to the Rockies, and now missing out on October. Jesse Rogers of ESPN summed it up pretty well in his article about the Cubs’ last few years https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/27680505/weekend-wipeout-sweeps-away-last-shreds-cubs-championship-legacy, but I’ll give my perspective as a fan. 

It would be hard, no, impossible for anything the Cubs could do to top the significance of the World Series in 2016. The Game 7 win was monumental and an emotional explosion, both for the teams and the region. I loved it, and I really thought a dynasty could be in the works on Chicago’s North Side given all of the team’s young, dynamic players. But as they’ve fallen further and further from World Series glory, the slide felt inevitable and especially crushing at times. By this season, it was clear that the gas had run out as the Dodgers and Astros were firmly entrenched atop the MLB while the Cubs struggled with injuries and an aged pitching staff. I held out hope that the Cubs could discover their magic one more time, but the traumatizing September collapse sealed their fate. 

As Rogers said in his column, the Cubs’ fall boils down to their struggles developing players. The Dodgers and Astros continually introduce talented, impactful rookies into their lineups and pitching staffs even while they are contending every year for the World Series. They have staying power, because their influx of new talent keeps the costs down and the production high. Contrast that with the Cubs, who built their championship roster around young position players and picked up pitchers in the offseason. But since then, they’ve struggled to bring up or develop any impactful players, resulting in a thin roster that can’t recover from injury and lineups that are stagnant and headed for decline. The same phenomenon is true in the NFL, with the decline of the Seahawks as perhaps the best example. With their money tied up in massive free agent contracts and their pipeline bare, the Cubs had no way to climb back up the mountaintop.

Change is coming for the Cubs. Manager Joe Maddon, my favorite manager of all-time, may be on his way out. I would never have considered a potential departure as being in the cards, but it could be a win-win for Maddon and the team as fresh opportunities may be the best way to go. [Update: Maddon and the Cubs have parted ways] The team’s young core of position players should stay intact and keep the team in playoff contention, but the roster may be retooled by next spring. I also wouldn’t count out change in the front office, as baseball mastermind Theo Epstein may be onto his next mission to save an MLB franchise. I hope the Cubs don’t adopt the atrocious practice of intentional tanking, but I’ll acknowledge that change is necessary and the World Series era is in the history books.

And to those who want to blame me for bringing bad luck to Chicago this September, just remember — if the Cubs can overcome the Billy Goat Curse, they can surely overcome the John Riker Curse. 

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