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Posted: Monday February 1, 2010 7:19AM; Updated: Monday February 1, 2010 6:52PM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

Super Bowl XLIV week begins with storyline: Will Colts' Freeney play?

Story Highlights

If Dwight Freeney sits with an ankle injury, Saints' chances of winning increase

My odds on who's likely to be voted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday

Putting Kurt Warner's career into perspective; 10 Things I Think I Think

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Dwight Freeney had 13.5 sacks this season, but his status for Super Bowl XLIV is questionable because of a right ankle injury.
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MIAMI LAKES, Fla. -- We've got ourselves a story. When the Indianapolis Colts take the practice field Wednesday, everyone who follows the NFL will be interested in learning if Dwight Freeney will be in any kind of shape to play in Super Bowl 44 Sunday against New Orleans.

The Colts Sunday night described Freeney's right-ankle injury as a low-ankle sprain. ESPN described it as a serious injury that could keep the standout defensive end out of the Super Bowl, an injury that includes torn ankle ligaments. Either way, it's likely he won't be practicing much, if at all this week, and could be a gametime decision. My guess is the Colts will keep Freeney mostly out of sight Wednesday through Friday, when the serious practices will take place at the Miami Dolphins training complex in nearby Davie, Fla. I'm told he's been here since Friday, sleeping with a stimulation machine on his right ankle and spending hours per day in a hyperbaric chamber to increase the amount of oxygen his body ingests.

If the injury is a Grade 3 ligament injury, sports-injury expert Will Carroll says it means there are ligaments in Freeney's ankle that are more than 50 percent torn. How quickly they can heal after being hurt near the end of the AFC Championship Game ... well, the answer is, not quickly enough, most likely. This is all conjecture now, but I'd expect Freeney will do everything he can to play, and will try to play. Unless the ankle is simply collapsing, I can't imagine him not playing.

But Freeney's a right end, and with a right-ankle injury, sprinting, cutting and pivoting with the right leg will be problematic.

I surveyed the AFC locker room last night after the Pro Bowl to see how much of a factor the loss of Freeney would be. The answers were predictable. "This is huge for the Saints if he can't play,'' Ray Lewis said. "Freeney's one of the biggest difference-makers in the league.''

Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jacksonville running back, had the most insightful explanation about what the loss of Freeney would mean. Jones-Drew has often had to stay in to chip-block either Freeney or his bookend impact defensive end, Robert Mathis. "The difference with both Mathis and Freeney playing,'' Jones-Drew said, "is that the Saints will almost always have to keep an extra guy in to block. That means one less guy in the passing game for Drew Brees. You know how much they like to send multiple receivers out.''

Jones-Drew is right: Losing Freeney would probably allow the Saints to not help left tackle Jermon Bushrod with an extra blocker as much.

I guess I'm the lucky one; I'm the Pro Football Writers Association's AFC pool reporter, assigned to watch Colts practices and write a daily report for the assembled media on their activities. I hope before the end of the week I'm able to see Freeney at least test the ankle in something close to full speed. We'll see.

***

You've heard my feelings on overtime, and you're tired of them. I think.

But I'm not finished advocating for a change to the archaic system that calls for the two teams to take part in a coin flip at the start of overtime, beginning a period of sudden death. In the past two postseasons, two playoff games have been decided with the teams that lost the coin flip (Indianapolis in 2008, Minnesota in 2009) never touching the ball in overtime. To those who say defense is an equal part of the game, I say, Why have only seven of the 460-some overtime coin-flip winners in NFL history chosen to play defense first if it's such an equal part of the game?

Enough about my thought. This morning I've enlisted former Naval pilot Brian Burke, founder of the site Advance NFL Stats, to make a case about why he thinks the overtime rule should be changed. You might remember Burke from the Bill Belichick fourth-and-two drama in November. Burke said Belichick's reasoning was sound and he actually backs Belichick going for it on fourth-and-two with a lead in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis. The Patriots lost after failing to covert the fourth down, but Burke wasn't swayed. He produced numbers that backed his beliefs. (I still disagree to this day, but I appreciate that Burke's reasoning was math-based.) Burke's mini-essay on overtime:

Over the past decade, there were 158 overtime games, including the playoffs. There were two ties, and there was one game in which the coin flip winner chose to defend a side of the field rather than choosing to receive. (The Lions in 2002. They lost.) In 96 of the 158 overtimes, or 61 percent, the coin flip winner won the game. And in 58 of the 158 OTs, or 37 percent, the coin flip winner won on their first possession while the loser never touched the ball. This includes two of the last three OT games in the playoffs.

Don't be fooled by other numbers. In 2009 there happened to be only 13 overtime games, and the coin flip winner won seven (54 percent). In six of the 13 (46 percent), the loser never touched the ball. The sample size for any single year is too small for a reasonable estimate of the true numbers. Also, don't be tricked into thinking "only 61 percent." If we agree 50 percent would be the fairest rate, you might think 61 isn't very far from 50. But that's not the right way to look at it. The appropriate comparison is 61 percent versus 39 percent, the respective winning percentages of the coin flip winners and losers. That's a big advantage --over 3:2 odds.

The primary culprit here is the kicking game. When the current overtime format was instituted 35 years ago, kickers have become far more accurate. From 1974 until today, the NFL's field-goal percentage has climbed from 61 percent. In 1974, 35 percent of kicks were from 40 yards or beyond, but by 2008 that number had climbed to 41 percent.

In response to the increasing range of kickers, the kickoff spot was moved from the 35 back to the 30-yard line. But this only worsened the imbalance in overtime. For example, had Ryan Longwell's 71-yard kickoff to start the Vikings-Saints overtime period been from the 35, it would have almost certainly resulted in a touchback instead of a return to the Saints' 39. It would have been considerably more difficult for the Saints to score on their first possession.

While we may not agree on a solution, it's fair to say the current OT format is broken.

First, a quick and easy improvement would be to restore the kickoff line to the 35 for the overtime kickoff. This would essentially cause lots of touchbacks, forcing the offense of the coin-flip winner to start on the 20, instead of the 30 or so. It sounds like a small difference, but teams with first downs at their own 20 are no more likely to score next than the team currently on defense. By just getting past a team's own 30-yard line, the team on offense now has a 60 percent chance of scoring next -- exactly the odds we see in the current OT format. Moving the kickoff spot back to the 35 would give both the coin flip winner and loser about an equal chance of winning. I realize nobody tunes into the NFL on Sunday for the touchbacks, but it's a small price to pay for a fairer system.

But as you know, that's not what most people are upset about. The bigger problem is that in over one-third of OT games, one team loses without getting a chance to touch the ball.

An excellent summation. But I don't sense traction on this right now. It's been five years since the Competition Committee presented a proposal on a two-possession overtime to be voted on by membership. It got 16 votes, eight shy of the 24 needed to change the overtime procedure. One Competition Committee source told me he thinks sentiment peaked toward overtime when "about 19'' teams favored the rule if the kickoff were advanced to the 35- from the 30-. But he said it's never been close to winning approval to change the rule. My feeling is it'll take a one-possession game in the Super Bowl to get any real sentiment to change.

One more thing: I knew the winner of the coin flip in New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game would win the game on the first possession. In the stadium, you could just feel it. It was a rock-'em, sock-'em-robot kind of game, and the two teams were absolutely spent by the end of regulation. "I think both Brett [Favre] and Percy [Harvin] were finished by halftime,'' one Viking told me. And the defenses were dragging to the finish line. It's no wonder the opening kick of overtime was returned to the 39."

In the past three years, the team winning the coin flip to start overtime has won 64 percent of the games. It's too much of an imbalance. The NFL should act now to fix it.

The other day, one respected member of the Competition Committee told me, "I struggle with why we want a coin flip to play such a major role in who wins and loses games. The statistics have gotten to the point where I feel they're unreasonable. In the last three years, almost two-thirds of the games were won by the team winning the flip. It just doesn't smell right.''

***

Let the arguments begin.

The following is presented simply to open the discussion for the week on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010. The 44 selectors for the Hall gather at 9 a.m. Saturday for this year's selection meeting in Fort Lauderdale. I don't throw out the Hall of Fame tote board to say that after locks Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice the guys at the top of the list will definitely get in; the odds are simply my gut feeling from years of being in the Hall of Fame voting room as one of the 44 selectors. But my jaw usually drops the same as yours when some of the votes are made public with the announcement of the new class each year. (We vote by secret ballot, so we don't know who's in until the class is announced by the Hall the afternoon of our vote. This year, the class will be disclosed at 5 p.m. Saturday.)

There are 15 modern-era candidates and two Senior candidates. A maximum of five modern candidates can be chosen; after Rice and Smith, though, 13 candidates are left to joust for three spots. The two Seniors, running back Floyd Little and cornerback Dick LeBeau, are voted in or out independent of the modern-era candidates. They need 80 percent of the vote to earn entry to the Hall.

In order, here's how I see the class of '10 falling:

Odds Candidate Comment
1-5 Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice Discussion on each will take five seconds.
6-5 Dick LeBeau (senior) Will top coaching work seep into debate for a very good CB?
7-5 Richard Dent I sense him getting closer every year.
9-5 Floyd Little (senior) One career 1,000-yard season, but strong Denver support.
2-1 Shannon Sharpe Numbers dwarf any TE currently in Canton.
3-1 Russ Grimm Voters may be creeping toward inducting first Hog.
3-1 Cris Carter Could get dinged for third year by strong class of WRs.
4-1 Don Coryell Sentimental favorite who made great offensive impact.
4-1 Dermontti Dawson What Mike Webster, Dwight Stevenson were to prior decades.
4-1 Charles Haley Five-time Super Bowl champion impacted edge-rush game.
5-1 Andre Reed Strong support from Rod Woodson could help.
10-1 Rickey Jackson Check his stats. Not better, but in LT's league.
12-1 John Randle Unique player. I really support his cause.
12-1 Tim Brown Immense numbers may get lost with exploding WR stats today.
15-1 Roger Craig First ever to get 1,000 rush yards and receiving yards in same year.
15-1 Cortez Kennedy Could move mountains, but hasn't moved voters ... yet.

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