Last night, I threw a question out to the Twitter followers: “Should I work on an excellent gameday post, or a Watchtower I likely won’t finish?” The only answer I got back was from @derylgarland, who said “Will one choice make Michigan’s defense less sucky?” The answer, of course, was no—so, tilting at a windmill, I started a Watchtower I knew I couldn’t finish.
Mike Shanahan vs. Gunther Cunningham
Here’s why I couldn’t do it: Shanahan and Cunningham have a long, long history of facing each other as coordinators, longer than any I’ve ever written up before. Dave Birkett of the Free Press wrote an excellent article that explores their rivalry and relationship:
"Like I said, that system is a special system," Cunningham said. "I know a lot about it, obviously. I can run the plays myself."
Over the years, there’s been a tug-of war between the two—but Cunningham has had the upper hand, by Watchtower reckoning. Looking at their respective units, both men have had some incredible successes; in 1997 Shanahan led the best offense in the NFL against Cunningham’s best defense in the NFL—and in both games, Cunningham’s defense held Shanahan’s offense well below their average on the season. In the second game, they even held them a half-point below their average allowed! There are several other examples in the table above where Shanahan’s offense dramatically underperformed expectations.
In 1999, the only season where Cunningham's defense was clearly better than Shanahan's offense, the Broncos were held to ten offensive points in both games—when the Broncos were averaging almost 20 on the year.
The handful of examples where the Broncos met or exceeded their season averages, there’s a common thread: exceptional yards-per-attempt averages. You see, Shanahan deploys the most run-heavy variant of the Bill Walsh “West Coast” offense: even when his passing game is devastatingly efficient, it’s not for very high yards-per-attempt. Look at 1997 (highlighted with double-white): the Broncos were the #1 scoring offense in the NFL, yet averaging only 6.81 YpA. That’s healthy, to be sure, but typically elite offenses average between 7 and 8 YpA. Now look at the YpC: 4.57. Shanahan’s offenses are most fearsome when the running game is rolling, not when the passing game is exploding.
Cunningham has thus focused on depressing the rushing yardage—and has been largely successful. When he’s failed to stop Shanahan is when the passing defense completely fails, and Shanahan’s offense starts racking up atypically huge YpA. Therefore, I’m comfortable concluding: given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham’s defenses have a systemic advantage in depressing scoring, by aggressively attacking the run—but if Shanahan’s offense can counter with the deep pass, this effect is negated.
This season, the Redskins’ offense is ranked 22nd, averaging 18.6 points per game. The running game is uncharacteristically mediocre (4.10 YpC), due at least in part to Clinton Portis’s groin injury—but Ryan Torain has been an admirable fill-in. The Skins’ offensive line is aging, though, so if Gunther can do what he normally does against Shanahan, the Lions could depress scoring indeed. The only question will be, can Donovan McNabb exploit the Lions secondary? I project the Redskins will score 13-17 points, average 7.00-7.50 YpA, and muster 3.25-3.50 YpC. I have high confidence in this prediction.
Scott Linehan vs. Jim Haslett
I’m flat-out running out of time for this part, and I’m deeply sorry. But we don’t have very good data anyway—Linehan’s offense has had a massive talent advantage every time they’ve met—and have met the expectations that that would engender, doing very very well each time. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the Lions will meet expectations—and the Lions, ranked sixth in the NFL with 25.2 points per game, should score 20-23 points against the 9th-ranked Redskins defense. I have very low confidence in this prediction.
Okay folks, I'm calling it: with Stafford back, a mostly-full home crowd, DeAndre Levy, and a winning streak (!) going against the Redskins, the most likely outcome of the game is a 20-14 Lions victory..