Giving thanks for byes, coaches rest their cases

January 06, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

Having earned a first-round bye in the 1998 NFL playoffs, Dan Reeves and the Atlanta Falcons settled in to play a guessing game.

Which of three potential second-round opponents would they face as the NFC's No. 2-seeded team? The Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers or Green Bay Packers?

Because the Falcons had played the division-rival 49ers twice that year, Reeves, the coach then, invested most of his bye week preparation in looking at the Cowboys and Packers, two teams Atlanta hadn't played in 1998.

So, of course, the Cowboys were upset by the sixth-seeded Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round, sending the 49ers to Atlanta for a divisional playoff.

"As far as practice time, you make your best judgments on who you think you're going to play," Reeves said yesterday from his Atlanta home.

Reeves and the Falcons recovered nicely. They still had a week to prepare for the 49ers, and they had a wealth of data from which to draw up their game plan.

Atlanta not only beat San Francisco, but also went on to play in the Super Bowl. In the end, the bye week was more crucial to the Falcons for its recuperative powers than for its strategical insights.

"Preparation was not a factor at all," Reeves said. "It was more just getting over some bumps and bruises, getting a little R and R. That's why the bye week is so important."

The Ravens are traveling a parallel path this week as a No. 2 seed in the AFC, awaiting the outcome of wild-card games today and tomorrow. The first-round bye is fiercely sought-after; the problem is what to do with it.

Ravens coach Brian Billick gave his players off until today, but sent his staff through the machinations of multiple preparations.

"It's a lot of work," Billick said at a recent news conference. "You have to backlog all the data that you're going to need when you find out who it is you're going to play.

"That work has to be done and trying to hedge it and [say], `Well, I think it's going to go this way,' is a little too risky for me."

There is tape to be catalogued and studied. There are tendencies to be deduced. There are game plans to be formulated. The uncertainty of the opponent is easily outweighed by the convenience of setting your own pace, former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy said.

"You covet getting the bye for a number of reasons," said Levy, now the Bills' general manager. "One, you're going to be home the next week, which means no travel. You do get a running start. You do get refreshed. The first day or two [of the bye week] I'd tell my coaches to take the family up to Niagara Falls."

In eight playoff seasons with the Bills, Levy earned five byes. His playoff record the week after the bye was 4-1. Obviously, he knew how to make it an advantage.

"You don't have a lot of [other] things to do during the week," he said. "You have ample time to prepare."

The NFL's playoff seeding format is designed to reward the teams with the best records. The top seed, for instance, always draws the lowest advancing seed in its conference bracket.

When it comes to the bye-week advantage, it's double jeopardy for the wild-card teams because of the tight schedule. Instead of rest and relaxation, teams that play on wild-card weekend are squeezed in preparation. Injuries are often magnified.

Reeves experienced the wild-card disadvantage as a first-year coach with the New York Giants in 1993. The Giants lost the regular-season finale - and a bye week with it - to Dallas. After beating the Minnesota Vikings in a wild-card game, the Giants were crushed in San Francisco, 44-3, where the 49ers were coming off a bye.

"We had a snowstorm for three days [in New Jersey] and had to go down to Rutgers to practice because we had no indoor facility," Reeves said. "It wasn't so much we were tired; we just didn't have enough meeting time. But the 49ers had time to get ready for us."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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