Top Ten Most Exciting Games of 2010: Skins at Lions

Rex Grossman straps on his helmet; stretches, paces, takes the field. The field mike picks up a Redskin angrily complaining about a missed facemask penalty on the kick return. The camera zooms on Grossman. It’s his first snap of the season. It’s first and ten on the Washington 30, Skins downs six, 1:54 remaining in the game. On the sideline, Donovan McNabb twists his face into various frowns. His expression seesaws between indignity and self-conscious reserve. Grossman breaks the huddle and sets under center. Washington sets three wide, tight end right, single back shaded left. Detroit sets in a 4-2, linebackers cheating back well away from the line of scrimmage.


Grossman sets his eyes deep, dutifully awaiting his first read: the bomb. Pressure churns and approaches, is forced back and surges forward again. He senses it. Grossman looks middle-right, towards his second read: Santana Moss. It’s too late. Kyle Vanden Bosch disengages from Trent Williams, blindsides Grossman and forces a fumble masquerading as a lateral.

A lateral to Ndamukong Suh.

This sequence is well know, as is the fallout. Mike Shanahan benches his nominal franchise quarterback at the turning point in the game. He substitutes Grossman for McNabb. The above proves decisive, Washington falls to 4-4 and then loses six of its next eight games. McNabb is re-signed to a five-year, $70 million contract but with a scant $3.75 million guaranteed. Grossman starts the final three games of the season, matching McNabb bomb for bomb, sack for sack, interception for interception. The not so subtle suggestion is that McNabb has a chance but no guarantee to salvage his short and unremarkable stint in Washington, DC.

McNabb's benching is well known but the game itself is mostly forgotten. It ranks eighth in excitement index. Why? And does that objective excitement translate to subjective thrills?

Why this game was exciting: Brian has yet to deduce a metric that measures intrigue, so we'll dispose of that for now. Let's look at the chart and attempt to provide a little context.

What we see is a common back-and-forth game with few big shifts and no one in command until late in the fourth quarter. There is only one commanding lead prior to the fourth quarter (in this case, "commanding" defined as > 75% WP), Washington climbed to 76% following an Albert Haynesworth sack on Matthew Stafford early in the third quarter.

Then in the fourth, big plays erupt all over the chart. Stafford connects with Calvin Johnson to put Detroit ahead by one. Washington stops the two-point conversion. Redskins returner Brandon Banks returns the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Etc.

It's good setup, a bit like a Kenzaboro's Oe's A Quiet Life: Compelling but formless at first; shot through, reinterpreted and solidified by a late-in-narrative reveal.

Neither quarterback was confident in their respective systems. Stafford was playing for the first time since week one, and in experience if not actually, was very much still a rookie. McNabb was struggling with the contrasts between Shanahan and Andy Reid's system. Most notably, Reid emphasizes West Coach conventions like high completion percentage and reading short-to-long. Shanahan trades steadiness for explosiveness and reverses Reid's progression: long-to-short. It's a system that makes Grossman's, how do you say, proclivities seem advantageous (on a practice field.)

Both offenses were stuttering and disorganized. Center Casey Rabach tripped McNabb twice in the first two series, and the Redskins lost yardage on both plays. Both run games were ineffective in different ways. Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith posted negative win probability contributions (-33% and -19% respectively) and Best particularly struggled with success (28.6%.) Skins starter Ryan Torrain was knocked out of action in the first half and though rookie Keiland Williams was a bit more successful than Torrain as a rusher, his inexperience reared its head in other ways. He botched a play-action fake on Washington's first snap of the second half, leading to a fumble, recovered by McNabb, and downed after a loss of five. He also struggled as a pass blocker.

Neither defense was dominant, as the final score attests. So it wasn't beautiful. It wasn't a pristine display of football. No one expects that from two teams that finished 6-10. It was exciting though. It was exciting for its progression, big plays and especially for the talent on display.

The Turning of the Tide: See: Suh, Ndomination.

There's a lot to love about Suh's fumble-recovery touchdown.

  • The reminder that though fumble recoveries are too infrequent and varied to be statistically significant, that fumble recoveries are often a product of skill. The awareness, quickness and hand-eye coordination displayed by Suh is anything but luck.
  • The legitimate possibility that this moment, the moment captured above in .gifly glory, is the first undeniable evidence of Suh's greatness.
  • Santana Moss's attempted strutus interruptus and how Suh shrugs him off, spins to facing and runs backwards into the end zone.
There's a lot to love, but for our purposes, Vanden Bosch's strip sack and Suh's recovery get the nod. Following a Lions three and out, the Redskins took the field down six and with a full 1:50 remaining. One snap later, Washington's win probability sunk from 25% to 2%. And that 2% was as precarious as they come. Anything but big yards or a quick score was certain to send it to 1% and towards flatlining.

Which is pretty much exactly what happened.

Five most exciting plays of the game: We'll dispense with "defining" and emphasize excitement.

Vanden Bosch Appears: Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is a versatile old hand with experience coaching the 3-4 and 4-3. He kept it simple when explaining his design to the Detroit News, recalling a setup favored by the turn-of-the-millennium Ravens and Dolphins:

"What we'd like to evolve to is to have two giant defensive tackles and two real fast defensive ends – then you can do anything you want," Cunningham said. "But that's gonna take time to get those players."
Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch isn't an otherwordly talent but a solid talent and a coach's best friend. That is, he's assignment correct, versatile and vigilant. What football analyst call "instinctive" or in a redundant-seeming turn of phrase "a football player."

Where good coaching and expert execution meet is plays like this. Detroit sets with three down linemen, notably Suh playing right end opposite rookie left tackle Trent Williams. Vanden Bosch is in what color commentator Tim Ryan calls the "radar" position. Functionally, it's a standing lineman that can align and pass rush from any spot. This snap, he's right of nose tackle Corey Williams, showing the pre-snap look of an "A" gap blitz. At the snap, Suh attacks hard in, towards Trent Williams's interior shoulder and draws a double team. Vanden Bosch takes a false step forward and then wraps around the offensive left, untouched into the backfield and sacks McNabb for an eight yard loss on third and 15.

The play is worth 4% win probability, a sizable amount for a non-scoring play in the first quarter. Plays like the above are one reason Vanden Bosch, despite missing five games and totaling only 4.5 sacks, ranked second only to Jared Allen in win probability added by defensive ends.

LaRon Landry sinks the screen: Landry is probably the best pure strong safety in the NFL. Which would be more exciting if pure strong safety wasn't a dying position. Nevertheless, as a safety that ranges towards linebacker, Landry has few peers. This play is a good example why.

Nate Burleson motions into the left slot before the snap. Stafford takes the snap and cocks his head towards Burleson. From nine yards past the line of scrimmage, Landry begins to close. Burleson receives and attempts to breaks towards the left sideline but to no avail. Landry hits, wraps and tackles Burleson for a loss of two. The play was worth 3% win probability.

Suh forces a three and out:
  • First and ten from the Redskins 24: Right guard Artis Hicks stands straight up, flat footed, and extends his arms to ward off Suh. Suh places his right hand along Hicks' left elbow, turns Hicks aside and closes and strikes McNabb in under two seconds. Sack for a loss of eight.
  • Second and 18 from the Redskins 16: Skins run a stretch left and create a sizable hole, but Corey Williams outstretches his right arm and hooks and tackles Torain. Okay, it wasn't all Suh.
  • Third and 13 from the Redskins 21: Just mostly. Suh rushes the left "B" gap from a two-point stance. He powers through Trent Williams' inside shoulder with an arm-under and then pushes through Torain toward McNabb. McNabb evades and scrambles to his right. Suh pursues, catches and crushes McNabb for a loss of nine, forcing the punt.
The plays combine for 8% win probability. Suh and Vanden Bosch combined for 73% WPA total.

Brandon Banks breaks one: Banks threatened a big return all day, amassing 210 return yards and breaking another one for a score that was called back by penalty. This winding, touchdown-scoring, if not quite sensational return was his capper. That one play alone was worth 30% win probability. Memo to the NFL: making the game less exciting does not make the game more safe.

Vanden Bosch and Suh put it away: See above.

Official Interference: Jerome Boger and his pronounced drawl do not inspire confidence, and let it never be said that inspiring confidence and appearing assured and in control are not integral parts of a referee's job. That said, Boger wasn't a big problem. One play probably deserves recognition though.

With time winding down, fourth and ten, the Skins behind six and every play as high-leverage as high-leverage gets, Clint Avril wrapped around Suh and Stephon Heyer and sacked McNabb for a loss of eight and a turnover on downs. The Skins were already in desperate straights and though it was a turnover on downs, the play was only worth 5%.

The problem was/is, Suh grabbed ahold of Heyer to set the edge for Avril. It's clear as day even in the tiny, pixelated highlight provided by

A little cheating doesn't deserve mention. It's an every snap occurrence, of course, but this play is interesting in another way: The cheating is designed into the play. Suh and Avril form a bunch on the right. Suh cuts in. Avril fakes in and then loops around Suh towards the right edge. Heyer should be able to release and block Avril but can't because, well, because Suh does his job and doesn't let him. I am not crying foul so much as pointing out that coaches, successful coaches, do what it takes to win, and cheating is subtle, ingrained and as much a part of football as pigskin.

Subjective Excitement Index: Not the best game. If you wanted to know what all the fuss was about Ndamukong Suh, this is a great place to catch up. There's an air of historical significance, as McNabb is a borderline Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, Mike Shanahan is a shoe-in, and London Fletcher was playing in his 200th consecutive game. McNabb and Shanahan may both be in the twilight of their respective careers and this controversial intersection is sure to be remembered. I would fault Shanahan less if McNabb's replacement was someone other than Rex Grossman. That fate punished Shanahan immediately is rather beautiful, really.

For the football completist, if such a thing even exists, this is an important game and has its merits, but for Joe Football Fan, the slow start, sloppy execution and stuttering offense on both sides, isn't likely to chase away any offseason blues. Modern era football needs competent execution from the quarterbacks and this game lacked it.

Final Verdict: Skip the Lions offense, which was little more than runs to the outside and Calvin Johnson, and train your eyes on #90. Even when Suh isn't crushing quarterbacks and embarrassing veterans, he's closing holes, creating pass rush lanes and forcing double teams.

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