Monday, December 28, 2009

Urban Meyer: I Retire ... Yoink!

Yesterday I was all primed to write about Urban Meyer's sudden retirement; how courageous it was, how he was able to walk away from his career at the prime of his life to spend decades with his family. As I was on the road I decided to let the issue rest a bit until I could get on more familiar ground, and I guess I'm glad I did.

I don't have a problem with Meyer taking a leave of absence rather than resigning. This isn't a Brett Favrish on/off again retirement. This is a decision that (obviously) has been tearing at Meyer and his family for years. He is - quite literally - working himself to death. He's had chest pains for several years now and blacked out during the Alabama game, subsequently undergoing 9 hours of tests.

Reports are vague. Meyer has a heart valve problem? He had a heart attack? So far everything has been denied an Meyer only said

"I saw it as a sign from God that this was the right thing to do," Meyer told The Times of his daughter's reaction. "I was worried about letting people down. I was feeling so awful and concerned about my health. That was among several other signs that said it's time to back away.

I have given my heart and soul to coaching college football and mentoring young men for the last 24-plus years and I have dedicated most of my waking moments the last five years to the Gator football program," Meyer said in a statement. "I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to reevaluate my priorities of faith and family."
Bo Schembechler wrote about how difficult it was to leave coaching. He had heart problems for difficulties, his first heart attack coming on the eve of the Rose Bowl following his first season at Michigan. He wrote about conversations with Bear Bryant, about how Bear worked until he could no longer get out of bed he was so ill, that both he and Bear shared the same feeling of responsibility for their respective staffs. Bo discussed how the livelihoods of more than 50 people depended on him being Head Coach, that a new coach would bring in a new staff, new trainers, new secretaries even. Bo found a way by working as athletic director for a couple of years to organize his own succession.

So now Meyer. Another man who is working himself to a point where he will ultimately leave his family fatherless unless he alters everything. And he can't stop.

We discuss health in football, and post career trauma quite a bit. High level football might be the most demanding and crippling (legal) profession in this country. Even during war the military doesn't suffer casualties at the rate that big time college and professional athletes do. Coaches regularly work 100 - 120 hour weeks at the expensive of everything.

I have no pithy conclusion to insert here, only the certainty that there will be more.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Favre's late season swoons

A lot of media attention has been paid to Favre's last three games and the contrast between his late season swoon last year vs. this year. The primary difference, as folks like Peter King claim, is that last year, Favre's was due to injury.

You recall last year when Favre had the Jets 8-3 after 11 games, then fell apart in December. Could it happen again? Sure it could. But last year happened because of an injury. Favre's sore this season but not hurt, by all accounts.

The problem with that theory is, last year wasn't the first time Favre's suffered a definitive performance decline late in the season.

If you look at Favre's seasons since '05, he's actually seen a performance decline in the final five games each and every year. And this isn't a small's significant. Since 2005, split Favre's numbers between his first 11 games, and his last 5 games, of the regular season only.

First 11 - 1,269 for 1,934 (65.62%), 14,039 yards (7.26 YPA), 99 TDs, 53 INTs, 92.65 QB rating
Last 5 - 457 for 803 (56.91%), 4,919 yards (6.13 YPA), 16 TDs, 38 INTs, 61.96 QB rating

His QB rating the last five games is two-thirds what it is the first eleven. Far from a meaningless drop. And in case you think this is primarily due to last year's injury and this year's decline, here's the '05 - '07 numbers by themselves.

First 11 - 776 for 1,229 (63.14%), 8,704 yards (7.08 YPA), 55 TDs, 37 INTs, 86.58 QB rating
Last 5 - 295 for 526 (56.08%), 3,217 yards (6.12 YPA), 11 TDs, 25 INTs, 61.47 QB rating

His performance in the final five games in '05 - '07 is virtually identical to his performance these past two season after that 11th game. In fact, these last two years it's actually been better. The difference is that his performance in the first 11 was better in these last two years vs. the former three.

Regardless of that, though, there's still been a significant drop in his performance late in the season since '05. Based on this, I don't think we should be all that shocked that Favre's facing a performance drop this season. And I think we shouldn't be shocked if it continues for the final two this year, and happen again next year if he decides to come back.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Opponent Adjustments Inadequate

One of the biggest knocks against the Football Outsiders DVOA metric is on display right now. Two weeks ago the Ravens were ranked 8th in the league by DVOA, and that seems pretty close to right. As a Ravens fan I would have said 8th-10th. A dangerous team, they've played close games against good teams; but they haven't been able to break thru and win against the best teams they've played. Maybe if Hauschka doesn't hook that kick, or Clayton doesn't drop that pass, they'd seem different. As it is, they seem second tier. (But dangerous!)

Then they blow out two bad teams, and all of a sudden they're
the second-best team in the league??? Really?

Week 15 DVOA Ratings

I know that the ability to stomp on a bad team is a very important indicator of a good team. (FO wrote an important article about this 4 years ago.) But the Lions are bad, and the Bears really aren't very good. I just don't see how we have new information about the Ravens, after those two games. We knew going in that the Ravens were going to win easily. Now they have. Does that really change the picture that much? Are the Ravens really so much better than they were two weeks ago?

I don't think so.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fox Sports Radio Sucks

Today was Steve Czaban's final morning show on Fox Sports Radio. I found this out, well, today, when a friend of mine, via Facebook, pointed me to the bottom of this article. Reportedly, there was a far less PC version of Czabe's blog post initially posted; but he deleted that and posted what I linked above instead. He also wrote this post today. Replacing him will be the ... well, let's call him "unequalled" ... Steven A Smith.

The purpose of this post was to more than throw a litany of links at's to gripe about how moronic Fox Sports Radio is, and generally rant for a bit.

First, a note to Czabe. (Yeah, I'm sending him a link to this, hopefully he actually reads it.) Thank you very much for making a positive impact in my sports life. I've been listening to the show from Richmond, VA (the 804) for over a year now, and it is the highlight of my day. Well, okay, the highlight of the part between when I leave my family in the morning to work and come home at night. But still! I got my wife listening, and we even bought a radio for our bathroom so we could listen while getting ready for work in the mornings. I've always come away at least entertained if not more intelligent, and truly appreciate the work you've done. You, Scott and Solly will be missed.

And with that, it's worth ranting about Fox Sports Radio for a moment because I'm pissed off and really have no other place to vent. It's bad enough they've let Czabe go. However, I don't understand what reasoning they could possibly have for it, nor can I understand their decision with whom to replace him.

Czabe has had his show for several years now, and I can't find any indication it was fading in popularity. One common theory I'm hearing around the interwebs is that FSR decided his show was too similar to Mike & Mike, and needed to go in a different direction. If that theory contains any truth, clearly whoever makes the decisions at FSR has never listened to Mike & Mike.

But talk about your 180 degree switches! Steven A Smith comes off to me as a shock-jock wannabe. Nicknamed "Screamin' A Smith" for good reason, he comes off to me, at least, as the ultimate fake persona. A guy who expresses his opinions as loudly and controvertially as possible to garner attention. Even the station he used to work at says that he's a ratings play...people listen, and they come back. Love him, hate him, doesn't matter, they come back.

Well, I won't be coming back. I'll be following Czabe out the door, and will find something else to fill my mornings instead.

If you'd like to write to Fox Sports - as I've already done - you can do so here through their site. You can also apparently take a survey which I haven't yet done, but look forward to filling out.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday Morning Haiku

You yank my control?
I'll run the worst play ever!
Eff you Dan Snyder!

So it's 12 hours sue me.

Anyway, gonna start doing these regularly from now on. Feel free to either enjoy, or make fun of my lack of creativity. Either way, you win.


Redskins headline

In the Washington Post, their coverage of the MNF game, in which the Skins got blown out 45-12, their headline is:

Evaluate that

..with a subtitle of "Washington taken apart in front of new GM Allen".



Monday, December 21, 2009

Concussion Ad

In tonight's MNF game with around 6:20 left in the 3rd Q, they ran a CDC ad discussion the severity of concussions. Very interesting TV spot. Link attached here.


"I Wish I Never Played Football"

Jeff Pearlman from SI with an interview with Dave Pear on a subject much beloved at Oblong Spheroid.

Pear is sitting at his home in Seattle. His neck hurts. His hips hurt. His knees hurt. His feet hurt. When he wakes up in the morning, pain shoots through his body. When he goes to sleep at night, pain shoots through his body. What does Pear do to stay active?

"My life is simple," he says. "It's hard to get out of bed, but eventually I do. I try and do a little walking on the treadmill. I take naps. I go to physical therapy once per week. I read my Bible."

He is, in basic terms, a train wreck -- a football-inflicted train wreck. Pear walks with a cane and, often, simply doesn't walk at all. He suffers from vertigo and memory loss. Over the past 18 years, he has undergone eight surgeries, beginning with a Posterior Cervical Laminectomy on his neck in 1981, and including disc removal and rod fusion in his back (1987), arthroplasty in his left hip (2008) and, earlier this year, four screws removed from his lower back. Though he chalks up his physical ailments to snap after snap of punishment, he pinpoints the biggest problems back to 1979 and '80, his final two NFL seasons. While playing for Oakland, Pear suffered a herniated disc in his neck that never improved. Despite the unbearable agony, he says the Raiders urged him to keep playing.

Be a man! Be tough! "Those last two years in Oakland were very, very difficult times," he says. "I was in pain 24 hours per day


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Weather hits the NFL

This morning there were reports that the Bears didn't make it to Baltimore for their game on Sunday. I live in Richmond, and was planning on coming up for this game. Thanks to VA being in a state of emergency, I won't be going up tomorrow. I'm not even certain I'll be able to drive out of my neighborhood even if I wanted to.

The game was already moved to 4 PM due to the weather. But it might be interesting if the Bears can't get in until Sunday afternoon. Do they push it to Monday night? If they do have to push it, when will it be broadcast? In Richmond, the Skins are the team with primary coverage, so they'd broadcast that game if only on one channel...but FOX may still have rights to the game so I might luck out and get it anyway.

Either way, it's good and bad for the Ravens and all bad for the Bears. The Bears have plans disrupted and may have to fly in tomorrow morning which should mean Cutler would be likely yawning through his huddles. The Ravens get to face them which is good, but bad because they face the Steelers on a short week.

Weather sucks.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Dan Steinberg dances on Vinny's grave

Steinberg writes the "DC Sports Bog" for the Washington Post. Wow, has he hated Cerrato. There are 8 things he won't forget about Vinny.

Bless this piece, without it I would never have heard of Kindergarten Ninja.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Vinny falls on his sword!!!!

Breaking news! Vinny Cerrato resigns from the Redkins!

He stays classy to the end:
in his statement to the press, Vinny says,

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great coaches such as Joe Gibbs, Greg Blache and Sherman Lewis...”
Conspicuous by his absence in that list is the Redskins current head coach, Jim Zorn. Nice, Vinny. Does he think people won't remember that he hired Jim Zorn? What a tool.

DC sports radio is in a tizzy. Kevin Sheehan and Andy Pollin of ESPN 980 (a station owned by Dan Snyder) are speculating that someone will be announced today. Mike Shanahan is the name they are bandying about. I find this easy to believe: Snyder is a PR guy, and his classic move is to put a new hire in front of the press ASAP to take the focus for the duration of the news cycle. One assumes he waited until he had his guy, before telling Cerrato to take the fall.

It's funny listening to those guys. Sheehan actually said to Pollin on-air that (paraphrase) "For guys like you & me, today's announcement gives us a lot of pleasure." Sheehan's statement didn't seem motivated by personal animosity toward Cerrato: rather by despair over the last 10 Redskins seasons. How bad do you have to be that guys who try to be journalists (Sheehan's not a shock jock by any stretch) say with a straight face that your losing your job is cause for celebration?

So Snyder is going to announce a "name" guy today. (Always remember that Snyder's objective is to win the news cycle, not football games.) Let's say it's Shanahan. Shanahan is a fabulous coach, of course. But his track record in Denver was that he was not great at having "full control". He did not seem to be a great personnel guy. He was a fine offensive coach, really an unbelievable offensive coach, but his last 2 defenses where ranked 28th and 30th in points-allowed. His last 3 teams went .500.

On the other hand, Shanahan could be in a coma and still be a better football guy than that clown Cerrato. The Redkins got better today just getting that guy out of the building.

This may be hard for me to adjust to. It has been a source of pleasure to me, having the Redskins being so inept over the last decade. It will be odd if they suddenly become respectable. Of course, that hasn't happened yet. We'll see who they announce.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chris Henry

With news that Bengals receiver Chris Henry is fighting for his life after a serious car accident, it's worth a brief call-out to the impact he's had on the Bengals. Palmer's numbers have taken a significant hit since his injury, with yards per game and per attempt down 30% and 12% respectively. He's a strong deep threat that likely will (or would have, depending on his recovery) never be thought of as one of the best receivers in the NFL, but clearly seems to make an impact for his team.

A troubled receiver coming out of WVU, he sort of represented the macro-culture of the Bengals. In and out of off-field troubles, gets cut, gets the owner to undermine his coach to bring him back, he was a caricature of the organization almost. But he also dedicated himself over the last year to turn his life around, and seemed to be doing so successfully.

Hopefully he pulls through and can come back and play.


Friday, December 11, 2009

No game counts

It's about that time of year again: time to argue about the BCS.

This year the problem is that there are *FIVE* undefeated teams, and one "national championship" game. And of course, no playoff. The arguments about this are legen (wait for it)...

We argue about this every year. Not having a playoff in college football is ridiculous. No, a playoff would ruin college football. Back and forth. This argument is RAGING. Again. I am not a huge follower of the college game, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage at this time of year; and that turns out to be part of an argument the anti-playoff faction uses. Sez they, the people who most loudly clamor for a playoff aren't even fans of the sport. They come in at the postseason, like carpetbaggers, and want to change everything around to make it like some other sport (the NFL, college basketball) that it's not, without appreciating what is beautiful and tragic about college football.

The beauty and tragedy revolves around the fact that in the absence of a playoff, one loss can dash your aspirations for a title that year. "Every game counts", is the tagline one friend of mine uses for this. With a playoff, you lose one game, and you can say "Eh, we'll make the tournament and go on a run." But without a playoff! With the championship determined by voters and power rankings – one loss and it can be all over! College football as grand opera.

I have some sympathy with this argument, actually. But I can't really do justice to the anti-playoff arguments (Patch does it better), and I don't really want to delve into them in detail. Let me just perfunctorily acknowledge that those arguments exist, note that some of them have some merit, and move on. What I currently find curious is how acrimonious this argument gets every year. Why do people (like me!) who don't really follow CFB, get SO pissed off at the postseason structure of the sport? And we do get pissed off. Five undefeated teams, and no playoff? Teams assigned to the championship game basically by fiat? It offends something: I am personally offended every time this season rolls around. Why? What is it that is so offensive?

One thing that seems obvious is, that "every game counts" tagline is BS. Every game counts *if* you're Alabama or Texas or Florida. But TCU and Cincinnati and Boise St went undefeated, and they have no shot at the championship. No shot at all. For purposes of a championship, they might as well not even have played their season. None of their games counted. There are about 10 or 12 teams that are in consideration for the championship, whose games counted. And everyone else was playing hopscotch or something. A different game. Their games don't count at all.

Just about concurrently with the BCS bowl lineups being announced, the Ravens are fighting for their playoff lives. I just discovered this site: They have the AFC Playoff Picture. Red means a team needs help to get into the playoffs, green means a team controls its own destiny. The site has another page with the Magic Numbers, which makes that even more clear, because most teams are marked with a big red DNCD: Does Not Control Destiny. The Jaguars can wrap up a playoff spot just by winning their games. The Ravens need Jacksonville to stumble, and maybe Miami & the Jets too. The Jags control their own destiny; the Ravens do not.

I am in love with this site, and wonder where it's been all my life.

It took a couple days for the obvious connection to sink in. The red and green highlights.

In most of our sports, every team starts the season in control of their own destiny. After you lose a few games the picture changes, and you get to the point where you need help to make the playoffs (a couple teams ahead of you losing). But when the season starts, you may be just a little upstart, but if you keep winning you will eventually find yourself under the bright lights. This is like THE fundamental tenet of sports. If you win, you're in. Gary Williams talks about this sometimes, as the great thing about basketball: it doesn't matter what clothes you wear or where you live or whether your parents got divorced. If you can play, that's all that matters. If you win, you're in.

The Detroit Lions started out this season on the ashes of 0-16, and we all expected them to be bad. And they haven't been good: but our opinion of them does not control their destiny. If they had won their games, they would go to the playoffs this season. Little tiny UMBC, where I went to college, is not a traditional basketball power, and they are not ranked this season. But if by some chance they came up with Bill Bradley, Stephon Curry and Jay Greene (or Ray Barbosa & Darryl Proctor) on their roster, and started winning all their games, it wouldn't matter what anyone thought. They would win their conference, get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and have as good a chance as anyone to tear thru the tourney field and make the final four. Everyone controls their own destiny, at least to begin with.

But not in college football.

This season we have graphic proof that at least 3 teams (TCU, Cincinnati, Boise St) did not control their own destiny. They could win every game, but they would still need help to make the championship. And of course, it's not just them, they're the tip of the iceberg. Most teams don't control their own destiny. Ultimately, perhaps no team controls its own destiny in CFB.

No wonder fans of other sports get pissed off every year. It offends the most fundamental values that drive sports.

I don't have any great solutions. I mean, there's one proposal that I like a lot, but I'm not really prepared to address all the objections to a playoff system. It's just nice to be able to put a name to precisely what is so offensive about college football's postseason.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More Abe

Mike Wise of the Washington Post writes a follow-up to Abe Pollin's death:

It has been two weeks since the patriarch of much more than his immediate family died, two weeks since a humanitarian and philanthropist moonlighting as the owner of an NBA franchise left a legacy that so transcended championships or arenas. And yarns never told keep coming off the spool, each one more jaw-dropping
Jose's eyes begin to well. "Mr. Pollin," he begins, "is why we have a child."


Monday, December 7, 2009

Parity Schmarity

While enduring the audio of my Chicago Bears being less execrable than the St. Louis Rams (I am loathe to use words like "win" or "victory" to describe their performance), it reinforced in a visceral way what I assume everyone else has noticed just by looking at the standings, namely the severe bifurcation in the NFL this year. After 12 weeks, we have two unbeaten teams. Has this ever happened before in NFL history? Not so coincidentally, we have not one, not two, but THREE one-win teams and one two-win team (and of the five total wins garnered by those 4 teams, two of them have been against each other).

"Parity" has been the watchword of the NFL during the salary cap era, and there's a whole bunch of largely indistinguishable teams in the middle of the league, but for whatever reason this year, the good ones are very very good, and the bad ones are bloody awful.

At some point I'll probably run standard deviations of wins by league for the last 20+ years to test the theory that league has had more parity post-salary cap than in the past, but it sure seems like this year is an outlier for any era.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Stafford In Peyton's Clothing

As my love hate relationship with Matthew Stafford - or more specifically his diehard fans - continues, I grit my teeth every time I hear him compared with Peyton Manning. And while my gut knows that these two quarterbacks are nothing alike, that even if Stafford has a trajectory similar to Peyton that his style and career will be totally different, I also can't ignore the simple statistical oddity that at this point in their respective careers (first ten games) they are remarkably similar.

Oh no doubt that Peyton put up slightly better numbers across the board, and no doubt that each quarterback got to this point in wildly different ways the juxtaposition of their numbers here is really fairly remarkable:

Comp Att Pct Yards TD INT Rate
209 378 55.3% 2289 15 20 64.6
201 377 53.3% 2267 13 20 61.0

So yeah, if it wasn't already obvious the top number belongs to Peyton but you really have to squint to see the differences and really the touchdown figure is the only thing that stands out even a little, and frankly that is possibly the most random number that a rookie quarterback will generate.

Other similarities?

As I said, they each got to this point in different ways so there really aren't many. Each had gone over a 90 passer rating in a game exactly once, and for each that particular rate was actually between 110 and 120 (118 for Peyton, 113 for Stafford). Stafford had a much greater deviation about his passer rating with two other games in the high 80s and five games under 50. Peyton barely creased 80 one other time but he also only had two games under 50. Stafford has had two games with more than three INT, one with four, one with five. Peyton had none*, however Peyton had 8 games with either two or three while Stafford has had fewer at six.

On other similarity? Both quarterbacks were 2-8 in their first ten starts.

While the similarity here is startling it is difficult to imagine that it is much more than coincidence. At this point of his rookie year Peyton was still riding a magnificent improvement curve while Stafford seems to have stalled a bit (for a variety of reasons) and so it is hard to expect Stafford to match Peyton's rate of improvement from his 11th game on.

But even so, the numbers are strange.

*it wouldn't be until Peyton's fourth season that he would throw as many as four interceptions in a game. To date he has done this twice, one four INT game and one six.


Patrick is really smart

That, or he has a crystal ball. Either way, his foresight is extremely impressive.

The Pats have lost three of their last four, and look like a team lacking leadership on defense. It's not particularly difficult to figure out why, coming off an off-season where they lost Bruschi, Harrison and Seymour. Tom Brady isn't particularly struggling. But it's clear at this point that '07 was likely an offensive anomaly, and while offensively the Patriots are still extremely good, defensively they don't have the ability to hold teams down to separate themselves on the scoreboard. They now sit only a game in front of two teams, with some very complicated tie-breakers that at this point I'm not even certain of.

They have a relatively easy schedule, especially in comparison to Miami and the Jets. It's certainly feasible they win out, and even if they lose one more they should still win the division. But right now, they look like an also ran, not even as good as they were last year when they missed the playoffs at 11-5, and a serious threat to be one-and-done in the playoffs.


Sundays have the buzz

I love NFL Sundays.

The air just feels different. It's a day that's blocked off in my house as "my" day. Sure, I help with chores in the morning. Sure I can keep an eye on the kids. Sure I eat lunch and dinner with the family and help put the kids to bed.

But from 1 PM till dinner, and after bedtime, I'm parked in front of the TV, watching games in HD and often watching as many as eight games at a time. I sit with my computer open, a game on the Direct TV app, Chrome open to my fantasy football teams and's scores page, Ravens jersey (or Niners jersey, when the Ravens don't play) on and remote in hand.

It's the day before Monday, but during football season, it's the day I look forward to most in the week.


Friday, December 4, 2009


Jason Cole has an article on Weeb Ewbank, as part of the 50th anniversary of the AFL:

Ewbank overlooked figure of AFL glory

A nice piece.

Weeb was not the greatest coach in NFL history, just one game over .500 in a 20-yr career. But he was plenty good, taking two rebuilding projects all the way to the top, and he won the two most important games in NFL history. He deserves to be remembered.

Here's some more on him, courtesy of Professor Google:

Hall of Fame class of 1978
Wayne Cnty Indiana notable people


Wednesday, December 2, 2009


The Ravens are better since the signing of kicker Billy Cundiff. The move has had a disproportionate effect, even a galvanizing effect. They've improved more than simply upgrading at kicker should have done for them. That's because the change has extra, symbolic significance.

The improvement I see has been obscured a little by the Ravens somewhat unimpressive results in the last 2 games: losing to Indy while failing to score a TD, and barely beating in overtime a Pittsburgh team that was missing Big Ben, Polamalu, OG Chris Kemoeatu, and a starting DE. Yet I think this improvement is real. Maybe a little subtle: but real. And much of it goes to Harbaugh's relationship with the team.

The Ravens made a lot of moves and tweaks this season.

• When Rex Ryan left, they filled the position by promoting a longtime college guy who has a relationship with Harbaugh's dad, rather than a longtime pro coach who may have deserved a shot but didn't have the relationship. The Ravens had a few candidates in-house who met that latter description: former defensive "consultant" / now LB coach Vic Fangio, DL coach Clarence Brooks, and secondary coach Chuck Pagano.

Fangio in particular seems a no-brainer to be DC, since he has coordinated for 11 seasons in the NFL: Dom Capers' Panthers & Texans teams, and Jim Mora's Indianapolis teams. Fangio was the LB coach for the New Orleans "Dome Patrol" of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills & Vaughan Johnson. He had three All-Pro LBs when he was DC with Carolina. He was a real obvious DC candidate. (I suspect Brian Billick stashed Fangio on the staff to hedge against losing Ryan. It's the kind of move Billick has made before.) Harbaugh didn't go that route. Nor did he promote CB, who has a 5-yr relationship with the Baltimore front 7 and probably deserves a shot at a coordinator role. He hired Mattison. In the press conference they underlined that the Ravens would not change their style of defense.

• The Ravens ponied up to remake their secondary with a bunch of small fast guys. They signed Domonique Foxworth to big bux, brought in Chris Carr to be the nickel back & punt returner, and put them out there with Fabien Washington.

• The Ravens moved away from their power running game featuring LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee, and became a pass-first team with Ray Rice catching passes out of the backfield.

• However, they didn't bother to upgrade at WR to facilitate this strategic shift.

• And they let Matt Stover walk, replacing him with baby-faced kicker Steve Hauschka, who could very easily be played by Michael Cera if they ever make The Blind Side 2.

• Then in the preseason new DC Mattison started talking about "being sounder" and needing to "get pressure from the front 4."

The thing with all of these moves is, every single one of them is reasonable. You can proceed thru the bullet points. Mattison certainly knows defense. The secondary needed revamping, and having fast guys back there sure doesn't sound like a bad thing. The Ravens have needed to improve their passing game for a decade. It seemed to me that there was untapped talent in the Ravens receiving corps. Matt Stover is the same age as some of the Ravens coaches: obviously a transition was going to be made at some point. A "sound" defense seems like a fine idea, and it's great to get pressure from the front 4.

But like a lot of perfectly "reasonable" things, these moves did not all work.

On defense, the small fast guys could cover ok, but when they got there they couldn't necessarily keep the game's monster WRs from making the catch. And it turned out that "sound" and "get pressure from the front 4" are coachspeak for "don't blitz". A striking departure from Rex Ryan, one of the two or three most creative and aggressive blitzers in football. Watching games seemed like a real slap in the face against that promise not to change the defense.

The Ravens offense opened like gangbusters, but as the games got more competitive, they got more stereotyped and more easily stopped. The hypothetical "untapped talent" in the WR corps didn't materialize. Mark Clayton has been the same-old same-old: his 46 yards per game this season is right on par with his 43 ypg last season. Demetrious Williams has dried up and blown away: 1 catch for 17 yards on the season. My boy Marcus Smith shredded his knee on punt coverage in the 2nd preseason game, and was lost for the season.
(I was at the game. He made a great play. He was the gunner on the right side, fought all the way down & across the field to make the tackle against the left sideline for no gain, didn't get back up.)

The Ravens scored 38, 31, and 34 points in their first three games. They scored 7, 16, and 15 in the last three before the Pittsburgh game. More disturbing than the totals has been the way the offense seemed stale and predictable. Line up in the shotgun and either hand off to Rice, or drop back and look for Mason before checking down to Rice. Play after play after play. Despite the greater number of pass attempts, the offense was actually more boring and predictable than last year's. Last year on offense the Ravens would use unbalanced lines or bring in an extra tackle, they'd split out Flacco, they'd rotate different backs in and blast the big fullback up the middle, they'd pull and sweep and counter and run screens. It was a safe offense and a run-first offense. But it was powerful and diverse and interesting. It challenged defenses and made them adapt. And it was pretty effective, good for 11th in the league in scoring. This year's new, wide-open offense is actually scoring a smidge less than last year's did.

So you can see how there would be a sense of disappointment. When you look at the cumulative effect of these changes, even though individually each is defensible, collectively they've had the effect of making the team less physical, less tough, less intimidating, without really bringing any compensation in the form of more explosiveness on offense.

And in the midst of all this, Harbaugh's pet kicker, for whom he jettisoned one of the most respected players on the team, has been missing key FGs. He went wide left on a FG to win the game at Minnesota as time expired, and two weeks later he hooked another left in the 4th quarter, that would have brought the Ravens within a TD, as they were trying to mount a comeback at Cincinnati. He missed another one at Cleveland a week later, that fortunately did not have any effect on the outcome.

So I have exaggerated a little bit for effect. It has not, of course, been all bad for the Ravens. They are still over .500, in a league where winning is extraordinarily difficult. None of their losses have been "bad" losses: they've lost to undefeated Indy (by 2), to the 10-1 Vikings (by 2, at Minnesota), to the 7-4 Patriots (by 6, at Foxboro), and twice to the 8-3 Bengals. DVOA likes them. They have a few quality wins (Chargers, Broncos, Steelers) , with the chance to get a couple more. They are tied for the last wildcard spot, and I think Jacksonville is likely to fold (Jax has some tough games left on their schedule).
(I also think Denver has high fold potential, with 2 eminently losable games on its schedule to go with three division games.)

On offense, Ray Rice is 2nd in the league in yards from scrimmage (he was #1 until Chris Johnson went ape the last couple weeks), and in the top 10 in yards-per-carry. Kelley Washington is a football player. Flacco is among the league's top 10 in completed passes, pass attempts, yards, and completion pctg.

So: not all bad. But there was a very strong sense of things not quite coming together for this team. It didn't quite click. And maybe a whiff of the coach being a little arrogant, making decisions that were "not the way we do things around here." And the season was about to slip away.

Then Harbaugh cut Hauschka, and brought in a professional in Billy Cundiff. Cundiff makes his first 4 FGs in the game against Indy, pushes a 30-yarder wide right in the 3rd Q but then makes his next one in the 4th Q to give the Ravens the lead. Where Hauschka was seen as talented but not quite mentally ready for the job, Cundiff seems like a pro. He probably doesn't have quite the leg, but he he will make the kicks he should make.

(Even his miss against the Steelers as time ran out in regulation reinforces Cundiff's professionalism. He had said prior to the game that his range to that end of the stadium was 53 yards. They gave him an attempt from 56 yards out, and he hustled out on the field with no timeouts as the last seconds ticked off and gave them a kick right down the center of the pipes, a perfect kick, that fell just a yard or two short. His range was exactly what he said. It made it seem like he knows what he can do, and he is reliable. Kinda like Stover.)

The move is symbolic. Hauschka was Harbaugh's project, a guy who has all the tools, whom the former spec teams coordinator felt he could mold into a good kicker. It wasn't working. Harbaugh abandoned his project for the good of the team. He signed a pro who may not have as much talent but who makes the plays he can make. I think this move sends ripples thru the locker room, about arrogance and willingness to put ego aside for the good of the team, etc.

There were other small tactical shifts that coincided with the change at kicker. Rookie CB Lardarius Webb got extensive playing time in place of the injured Fabien Washington. Webb has looked terrific. Terrell Suggs was out against Indy, with a knee: LB Jameel McClain got extensive time in his place. McClain had made the team as an undrafted free agent last year, and looked awesome at times, almost like a young James Harrison. He notched two safeties on the season, one on a sack and one on a blocked punt. This year the Ravens new defensive gurus decided in their wisdom to move him to the inside. He's been invisible all year. He moved back to the outside against Indy, in place of Suggs, and looked solid. So this is another example of an experiment by this year's coaching stuff, that has been undone for now.

Perhaps most important, the Ravens D played an excellent game against Indy. Indy's 17 pts represents their 2nd-lowest scoring output of the season. Baltimore mixed coverages and rushed well and covered well: they played a fine game. It was in some ways a return to Ravens teams of old; right down to the lack of TDs on offense. The Ravens offense took a lot of criticism in the week after the Indy game, for being stale and predictable, over-relying on Mason and Rice.

The small tactical shifts continued into the Pittsburgh game. Last year's starter at RG, Marshall Yanda, replaced Chris Chester after the Ravens interior line underperformed 2 weeks in a row. That's another old-school example of rewarding performance. If it's not getting done, things have to change. The first two Ravens pass completions of the game were to – Kelley Washington and Mark Clayton! Clayton finished with 129 yards receiving. Who says these coaches don't listen to outside criticism? LeRon McClain got carries in important situations, and produced 7 yards-per-attempt. He probably would have carried more, but had to leave the game with an abdominal strain. It was a return to the 3-headed monster from last year. Willis McGahee got carries and scored a TD. The Ravens used several unbalanced-line looks. They brought in Chris Chester as an extra lineman in several of these packages. Giving the D more things to prepare for, in terms of different personnel packages, was an important part of the Ravens offense last year. It seemed to go missing for much of this season.

The overall offensive success was spotty, against one of the league's best Ds. But on two drives the Ravens tore thru them like they weren't there. There were lots of small signs of improvement.

On defense, it looked like a continuation of a return to what we think of as "Ravens football". They used more deceptive blitzes than we'd seen earlier in the season. They made a nice coaching adjustment to go to more zone coverage, when it became apparent that Dixon didn't read the zone very well. Lardarius Webb was great. Punt returner Chris Carr had his best game of the season – by far his best game, he was spectacular. Normally a fair catch machine, he busted several big runs. Three of his best returns were called back by penalties; without those penalties, this game isn't nearly as close, the Ravens get a couple more scores in regulation. Rookie 2nd-rd pick Paul Kruger played in important situations, and he made the game-changing INT in overtime. The Steelers still made more plays than I'm comfortable with. But they are the defending champs, and a tough out.

And did you see how the Ravens mobbed Cundiff when he kicked the game-winner in OT?

Two+ weeks ago there was a strong sense of things not clicking for this Ravens team. Now, I think there is a subtle but real sense of small things starting to come together for them. Individually these things aren't that big. But there are several of them:

• Cundiff over Hauschka, professionalism over project, coach setting aside ego for the team.
• A return to Ravens-style aggressiveness, with some deceptive blitzing. More setting aside ego.
• Lardarius Webb stepping in for the injured Fabien Washingon, and playing extremely well.
• Chris Carr breaking off big returns.
• Jameel McClain and Paul Kruger contributing.
• Terrell Suggs likely to come back soon.
• Marshall Yanda over Chris Chester.
• More three-headed running back. LeRon McClain getting carries.
• The return of the unbalanced line and extra O-linemen. Power football!
• K Washington and Clayton in the passing attack; Clayton over a hundred yards.

I also got a sense of unity off the TV screen, from the end of the Pittsburgh game. Part of it was from the kick squad hugging Cundiff after he won the game; and part of it was Ray Lewis gushing over Ray Rice in front of Andrea Kramer post-game.

It's been an odd, disjointed, up-and-down season for the Ravens so far. But the playoffs are still right there in front of them. Don't be shocked if they close out the regular season 5-1 (or better!) and enter the postseason looking like they're ready to make some noise.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Zorn Gives Up

This is really pretty amazing. I don't think I've ever seen an NFL head coach use language like this. Okay, I take that back. I do remember Darryl Rogers saying "What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?'' back in 1988 (he was fired a few games later), but seeing a coach so thoroughly defeated it still pretty startling.

What he told reporters at Redskins Park yesterday:

With the responsibility that every head coach has, the accountability factor is [ultimate] really," Zorn said. "It really makes the difference in success or failure, and I certainly am accountable for our football season. No question about it. And I'll be held accountable. It's awful. It really is. "But I try not to lose heart myself, I want to stay positive. Our players inspire me, our coaching staff inspires me because we're working hard. To try to make good decisions and sound decisions, that's really what I'm trying to contend with.

"That's what I'm trying to contend with. Not just give up, and not just go 'woe is me' and sink back into a hole. I try to face what's before me. It's difficult. I'll be a better coach because of what I'm going through. It's just hard to go through it."
As much as I dislike the Redskins I find it impossible to dislike or root against Zorn. Wrong guy, wrong time, bad situation for anyone.

Of course assuming Zorn is gone it should be very entertaining to see the Redskins try to attract any credible coaching candidates.


Monday, November 30, 2009

What Quarterbacks Learn From The Bench

About once a week I see someone making the argument that quarterbacks can't learn from the bench. This is an unfortunate consequence of spending too much time reading Detroit Lion discussion boards and seeing all of the excuses posters make justifying ... well, virtually everything that Matthew Stafford does. Apparently some time last summer Peyton Manning told some sportswriter that quarterbacks can't learn from the bench and the quote was siezed by a vocal group of fans wanting so see Stafford play.

Never mind that if there is one thing that Manning doesn't know about quarterbacking it is how much can be learned from the bench.

This post isn't about Stafford. At this point there is no particular reason not to play him, assuming he is reasonably healthy. It is more about the question of how much can be learned by watching the game, particularly by rookie quarterbacks.

For one thing this should be a reasonably simple exercise in counting, and I will do that. For another it is simply a matter of generating a composite season of those quarterbacks who got a lot of playing time as rookies versus those who did not. To avoid survivor bias I will try to focus on quarterbacks who are current starters, although to be fair quarterbacks who played extensively as rookies and ultimately failed should at least be considered.

For the first part, we will simply count current starting quarterbacks to see how many played as rookies. My minimum is five starts, which may seem a bit arbitrary, but it is to avoid those frequent situations where rookies gathered a couple of starts at the end of a lost season. This is the eyeball test with the Alex Smith Exception which will be explained later (the is also known as the Vince Young Exception. You can see where it's going).

Team Quarterback Rookie Starts
NFC East
New York Giants Eli Manning 7
Philadelphia Eagles Donovan McNabb 6
Washington Redskins Jason Campbell 0
Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo 0

NFC North
Chicago Bears Jay Cutler 5
Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers 0
Minnesota Vikings Brett Favre 0

NFC South
Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan 16
Carolina Panthers Jake Delhomme 0
New Orleans Saints Drew Brees 0

NFC West
Arizona Cardinals Kurt Warner 0
Seattle Seahawks Matt Hasselbeck 0
St. Louis Rams Marc Bulger 0

AFC East
Buffalo Bills Trent Edwards 9
Miami Dolphins Chad Henne 0
New England Patriots Tom Brady 0

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco 16
Cincinnati Bengals Carson Palmer 0
Cleveland Browns Brady Quinn 0
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger 13

AFC South
Houston Texans Matt Schaub 1
Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning 16
Jacksonville Jaguars David Garrard 1

AFC West
Kansas City Chiefs Matt Cassel 0
Oakland Raiders Jamarcus Russell 1
San Diego Chargers Philip Rivers 0

From this you can see a few omissions. Three of them are teams currently starting rookie quarterbacks and for whom we have no real baseline. The other three are San Francisco, Tennessee, and Denver. In each of those case their current quarterback played extensively as a rookie and then ultimately was benched. Evidenced by the more recent play of Orton, Smith and Young it is safe to hypothesize that each benefited from watching the game from the sideline. It is possible that Russell or Kyle Boller may also join this class of quarterbacks.

Now if you were to say 'that's a nice list but it really doesn't tell us anything', I would probably agree. The one thing that I would argue is that it demonstrates that there is no inherent advantage to playing as a rookie.

The second peek may be a little more interesting. As I see it, if there is no benefit to sitting and watching then quarterbacks who play right away as rookies should accrue very similar statistics to those who wait and watch. My gut says that this simply cannot be so, but it is simple enough to test. If we build composite seasons of the two groups we can make a head-to-head comparison. What I've done is to take the first 16 starts of every quarterback and then combined them into average seasons, one for each group.

So here are the first sixteen starts for every current starting quarterback in the NFL (omissions are for QBs who do not have 16 starts yet):

Att Comp Pct Yards TD INT
Tony Romo 323 510 63.3% 4348 31 19
Eli Manning 248 494 50.2% 3079 21 18
Donovan McNabb 280 508 55.1% 2753 20 16
Jason Campbell 266 468 56.8% 3032 19 13

Kurt Warner 325 499 65.1% 4353 41 13
Alex Smith 228 403 56.6% 2502 10 18
Matt Hasselbeck 262 447 58.6% 2833 10 9
Marc Bulger 347 545 63.7% 4262 28 19

Jay Cutler 275 437 62.9% 3385 22 15
Aaron Rodgers 341 536 63.6% 4038 28 13
Brett Favre 323 502 64.3% 3390 20 17

Matt Ryan 265 434 61.1% 3440 16 11
Jake Delhomme 312 530 58.9% 3688 19 22
Drew Brees 320 526 60.8% 3284 17 16

Trent Edwards 289 468 61.8% 3240 13 12
Tom Brady 313 481 65.1% 3360 23 13

Kyle Orton 212 406 52.2% 2053 9 14
Matt Cassel 338 537 62.9% 3782 21 13
Jamarcus Russell 210 398 52.8% 2631 14 10
Philip Rivers 284 460 61.7% 3388 22 9

Joe Flacco 257 428 60.0% 2971 14 12
Carson Palmer 332 529 62.8% 3683 26 20
Ben Roethilsberger 219 335 65.4% 3133 21 9

Matt Schaub 298 474 62.9% 3424 16 16
Peyton Manning 326 575 56.7% 3739 26 28
David Garrard 284 483 58.8% 3258 17 12
Vince Young 216 400 54.0% 2492 14 14

And finally, here are the two composite seasons:

Average NFL Starter With Limited Experience As A Rookie, First 16 Starts:

305 495 61.6% 3547 22 15 85.5
And here is the composite first 16 starts of all current starting quarterbacks who accrued at least five starts their rookie season:

256 444 57.6% 2981 17 15 76.8

So while it clearly isn't a disaster to start a player as a rookie, there is significant evidence that quarterbacks in fact do grow quite a bit from observing the game, participating in practices, film sessions and off-season activities, to the extent that with this additional experience their first "full" season is significantly better than that of the player who is simply thrown into the fire.


Ward and Holmes' attitude toward concussions is a problem

Last night in an interview with Bob Costas, Hines Ward was asked about the team's attitude toward Roethlisberger sitting out round one of the annual Steelers / Ravens blood-bath. Ward admitted the locker room was "like a 50-50 toss-up" as to whether Ben should be playing or not.

"This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning, like 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before.' It's almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say. I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there. Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon. And then to find out that he's still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to the doctors didn't feel that they were going to clear him or not -- it's hard to say. Unless you're the person [himself]. ... I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight."

After the game, Santonio Holmes chimed in. "Only [Roethlisberger] knows how he feels right now. It was coach's decision to not play him. We wanted him to play. We felt like he could play -- that's only the way we felt. He felt like he couldn't go, so he didn't go. We just got to get the job done."

Ward and Holmes' attitude highlights everything that is wrong with the way the NFL and its players have handled injuries in the past; in particular head injuries. Things are changing, and may be changing dramatically, very soon. And it's a good thing for the NFL and for football players everywhere that they are.

As recently as a month ago, I was leaning more in the center on this issue. Do more than we're doing now, don't take overly aggressive measures that compromise the integrity of the game. This specifically regarding the topic of banning contact in high school. The more I read on the issue, the more I'm coming to the view that exceptionally aggressive measures should be taken. I'm not ready to say we should ban contact football, but I'm getting there.

Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson is the prototypical example of what can happen if these head injuries aren't taken seriously. At age 34, his post-concussion syndrome symptoms are so severe they are essentially debilitating.

The most concerning quote from the article I linked is this: "Officially, I've probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career," Johnson said. "But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I've been dinged so many times I've lost count."

The problem is that too many times, player's concussions go undiagnosed or simply ignored. And the two biggest reasons for that are that the players want to play through the pain, and that the NFL has a vested interest in having their best guys on the field. Tertiary to those are that fans want the players in the game, and they question their toughness if they sit.

The player's attitude isn't likely to change any time soon. It's too ingrained in the culture of the game. Tom Jackson said tonight on Monday Night Countdown that it wasn't just about wanting to step up for your fellow teammates (which is unquestionably a huge factor to them), but about self-pride. "You feel better about playing hurt. ... That's part of the macho attitude is, 'Boy I was proud of myself when I was able to play, and play well hurt.'" The fan's attitude certainly won't change any time one has to live Ted Johnson's life; nor have to put themselves in Roethlisberger's shoes Monday morning after watching Dennis Dixon throw an OT interception in a game many think Roethlisberger would have won in regulation.

This leaves it to the NFL to step in, and I give them credit for beginning the process and seemingly being open to making sweeping changes for the betterment of the players.

The problem is, the grumbling will take place over the rules changes. Players' toughness will be questioned. Steve Czaban sarcastically quipped on his morning radio show this morning "Can Tom Brady come out and play?" And guys like Ward and Holmes are openly questioning Roethlisberger's decision to have a seat last night rather than get on the field.

In my mind, Roethlisberger unquestionably made the correct decision. I give him a lot of credit for putting his personal health and safety first, and I give the coaches even more credit for doing so, given Ben's admission that the coaches told him he should sit.

To the NFL fan, we're often too caught up in the moment of the games. We don't think of these players as people. We think of them as football players. We don't see how much it hurts them to step out of bed Monday morning after a brutal game like we saw last night. We don't get to see the guys that struggle to walk ten years after the game. The percent of NFL fans that read the Ten Johnson article can almost assuredly be counted on one hand, if not one finger.

We need to change that attitude and begin to realize that guys like Ben Roethlisberger are people first, and football players second. They give up their bodies and often their health to entertain us. They shouldn't be expected to risk horrifying, debilitating injuries simply to try to prove they're the toughest guy on the field. And in the case of Roethlisberger, they shouldn't be on the field one week after suffering a brain injury. It's dangerous, and could easily result in not only a career-ending injury, but long-term health problems.

And guys like Ward and Holmes absolutely, positively must cease questioning their teammate's toughness and resolve if and when they make a decision that is clearly the best decision for their personal lives.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gerhart for Heisman

Tonight for the first time I got to see Toby Gerhart run. And run he did. All over the Notre Dame defense.

Now, I know we're not talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers or anything. ND is the #80 defense (and tonight won't help their case). However, Gerhart wasn't just terrific. He was an absolute beast. He ran over people at will, and made several terrific plays. He was unquestionably the reason the Stanford Cardinal-Trees won the game.

There was a play in the 4th quarter where he took the hand-off and ran right. A ND player was there for a solid tackle right around the first down marker. Gerhart lowered his shoulder and forearm, and literally ran over him like he was a tackling dummy. He simply blasted through him and kept running, almost not slowing. I lost track of the number of tackles he broke on the night.

The guy has made an impressive case for his Heisman candidacy. He has only one game where he hasn't scored a rushing TD. After tonight, he has over 1,700 yards and 25 rushing TDs, and added a throwing TD tonight. Nine of his games, he's rushed for multiple TDs. Ten with more than 100 yards rushing, three with 200+. Not sure who else has been more impressive. Ingram's getting a lot of hype and having a great year, but he's not carrying the load Gerhart is...and frankly, I think Gerhart's making a bigger impact on his team's surpassing expectations thus far this year. The rest of the field doesn't look nearly as impressive.

I'm hoping he wins it this year. He was a real treat to watch tonight. Very impressive person, and really, really impressive football player.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Quiet Retirement

Amani Toomer called it quits yesterday, or at least sort of. You never really know with professional athletes, but considering his declining skills and production he probably is out of landing spots.

So why discuss Toomer and not one of a few dozen (or hundred) NFL players who retire or are forced from the game every year? Because he quietly had a really productive career.

Where to start? He quietly became the New York Giants all time leader in receptions and reception yardage Quietly.

Right now he stands at 36th all time in reception yards, right behind Shannon Sharpe and Drew Hill, just ahead of Hall of Famers Ramond Berry and Charley Taylor. Granted, there's a new paradigm now and it is impossible to compare statistics across eras in football, but Toomer sits right in the middle of a group of his more illustrious peers including the Sharpe brothers, Keyshawn Johnson, Andre Rison, and Herman Moore. Toomer is in nearly the same spot in receptions at 35th, and among the same group of players. Moore, Taylor, Hill and Ozzie Newsome. His 54 receiving touchdowns even put him on the list in a tie for 84th.

His best season was 2002 when he went 83/1343/8 for a 16.4 average. He averaged 16.8 the next season in what would turn out to be his fifth consecutive (and final) 1000 yard receiving season.

Toomer won a Super Bowl and lost a Super Bowl. He caught passes from Eli Manning, Kurt Warner, and Kerry Collins.

This isn't a campaign for anything. Toomer has already gotten everything that he's earned. If he wants to go to Canton he'll have to buy a ticket like the rest of us.

But this is a hat tip to a guy who quietly had a very nice career, and on Friday very quietly retired.


Friday, November 27, 2009

When Thanksgiving Games Mattered

Tam Dayluk from PFW gets inside the head of Pat Summerall's old partner Tom Brookshier. These old guys have a perspective on the game that has disappeared.

"I'd say the greatest call I ever heard Pat Summerall make came on our first Thanksgiving game, the Redskin-Cowboys thing in '74" says Brookshier, "and it was nothing more than complete silence. The Redskins jumped out to an early lead, then [Redskins LB] Dave Robinson rung Staubach's bell and knocked him out of the game. Dallas clawed its way back behind some no-name quarterback named Clint Longley, but was still trailing with about 30 seconds to play. Then Longley throws this deep pass to Drew Pearson, and while it was taking place we didn't say a single thing — all natural sound. It was the damndest throw I'd ever seen, and Dallas won the game."


Those were the Chuck Knox Rams, grinder ball, with Fred Dryer and Jack Youngblood and Tom Mack and Larry McCutcheon, who'd sledge you to pieces their old line style but could never cap it all off once they felt the high level playoff tension.

"To me the reason was simple," says Brookshier, who retired from CBS in 1987. "We used to always look at teams' parking lots on Sundays to see which guys were driving pickups and station wagons and four-wheel drives, and who was driving the Porsches and Ferraris. We always felt the Rams were Brentwood, while Pittsburgh was the Bessemer furnace. It wasn't necessarily indicative of the truth, but maybe there was something to it.

The pair then worked a string of Thursdays in Detroit and Dallas over the following seasons, and by then Brookshier had chewed on so much Cowboy action that he was able to draw a few distinctions between the crowds in the two cities.

"Dallas fans never feel the Cowboys have lost a game," Brookshier said years later. "It's always that the referees screwed them or the Good Lord looked the other way or something. It's the toughest place to broadcast a game. Sagebrush, USA. The fans don't know football. They just know if something's wrong if the Cowboys don't win by two TDs.

"A few years ago the highlight film was called 'Like a Mighty River.' Boy, that's Texas all right. And John Wayne is the quarterback. You do a game in Detroit, say. The people there have seen a little football. You can't BS them. But try to tell the truth in Dallas and you'll find some frozen hemlock in your nachos."
It's kind of funny to be nostalgic for a time that most of us don't really remember. Somehow I think most of us would gouge our eyes out before watching a grainy game shot with a couple of cameras, but there was something terribly romantic to the football fan that has been lost; a room full of grown men yelling at a twelve inch black-and-white scream that was as much snow as it was picture. The broadcasters had to learn to tell the story of the game, rather than the generic, repetitious, androidic reporting of the games that we get today.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Manning and Colts converting 3rd down

My dad and I were talking at the Colts/Ravens game Sunday and I was saying on one of the third down plays that I actually would rather see the Colts in 3rd and 1 or 2 than 3rd and 4 or 5 cause it just seems like Manning always picks up the latter, while the former might not be as easy since there’d be a greater chance they run the ball and the Ravens had a better chance of stopping the run.

So I decided to test that theory, looking at Manning’s conversion rate (first downs or touchdowns divided by total third down attempts, not including kneels or spikes), the Colts overall conversion rate (adding rushes into the mix), and then for the heck of it looked at the league’s overall conversion rates.

On third downs, with the following yards to go, this is the conversion rate (first down and touchdowns divided by attempts, removing penalties, spikes, kneels, and other non-plays) for Manning throwing, Colts overall, and the league overall. Note that the Colts overall attempts and conversion rates include Manning's passing.

3rd and 1
Manning: 60% (5 att)
Colts: 67% (18 att)
League: 66% (430 att)

3rd and 2
Manning: 50% (8 att)
Colts: 55% (11 att)
League: 54% (300 att)

3rd and 3
Manning: 60% (10 att)
Colts: 50% (16 att)
League: 45% (332 att)

3rd and 4
Manning: 56% (9 att)
Colts: 50% (10 att)
League: 43% (329 att)

3rd and 5
Manning: 58% (12 att)
Colts: 58% (12 att)
League: 39% (363 att)

3rd and 6-9
Manning: 42% (33 att)
Colts: 40% (35 att)
League: 33% (1,145 att)

3rd and 10+
Manning: 26% (19 att)
Colts: 25% (30 att)
League: 20% (1,149 att)

Not surprisingly, I was wrong about rate of success from those distances. Also not surprisingly, the Colts are better at converting on third down from pretty much any distance than the rest of the league. In some cases, a great deal better. In particular, note how much better they are at converting 3rd downs between 5 and 9 yards. Speaks a great deal to their offensive success.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stover Stays Classy


"I have no bitterness," Stover said. "It's been a privilege for me to play for the Ravens for 13 years. I still love the Ravens. What was I doing before the Colts signed me? I was coming to the Ravens games."

His wife and kids still live in Baltimore while Stover commutes to Indianapolis. In fact, he remained behind in Baltimore on Sunday night and plans to return to Indianapolis on Tuesday.

Most NFL teams give their players Mondays off after victories – "Victory Monday," they call it. The Colts have won all five games since Stover joined them, so he has spent his last five Mondays at home in Baltimore.

"I don't want Baltimore to ever forget this – I'm part of this community and always will be," Stover said.


Ravens Face Difficult Times Ahead

In light of a hard-fought game where the Ravens ultimately made more mistakes than the Colts, which almost unquestionably cost them the game, the Ravens sit at .500 with more questions than answers. How good are they, really? Why can’t they seem to beat the great teams? Can they make a playoff push?

The argument has been made that the Ravens are only a few plays away from being an 8-2 or even a 9-1 team. And while this is an accurate statement, it can also be said about a lot of other NFL teams. Time and again, we’ve seen teams dramatically over or under perform their expectations by consistently winning or losing close games against solid opponents. (Cincinnati is one of the teams this season over performing because of this.)

But the Ravens are facing problems deeper than simply a few missed plays. They are in a precarious position in which – upon closer look – they’re more likely to have to go into rebuilding mode than attempting to plug a hole or two, to make a Superbowl run again next season.

The problem is two-fold. First, while the Ravens really have fallen only a couple plays short in close games, you cannot point to just one position or one or two specific players that didn’t make plays. The Ravens don’t just have one or two holes, they have several where they lack talent. Second, several positions currently considered solid or strong are stocked with old players that will very soon suffer a performance decline. Let’s examine both in more depth.

Lack of talent in several positions

The Ravens currently have several holes created by a lack of talent in several different positions. In no particular order:

Wide receiver – It’s no secret that the Ravens suffer from a tremendous lack of talent at the wide receiver position. Their only viable starter is Derrick Mason, who – while still performing – is not the receiver he once was. The rest of the crew are a smattering of slot-at-best receivers.

Interior offensive line – Ben Grubbs has been a severe disappointment as a first round pick. The rotating RG position between Yanda and Chester could easily be upgraded. Matt Birk started the year playing very well in his first three games, but since then has missed blocks and been beaten at the point of attack. This entire unit isn’t terrible, but it is also not good.

Tight end – Todd Heap is playing okay football. But he’s consistently injured for the last several years and is not as effective as he once was. LJ Smith has not made an impact.

Interior defensive line – While Ngata has played well, Gregg and crew have under performed and have not dominated the line as much as they have in the past.

Edge rusher – Suggs has played well against the run and in coverage, but is not having a good year rushing the passer. Pryce is okay but not consistently getting pressure. Jarret Johnson leads the Ravens with 6 sacks on a team that ranks t16-19 in the NFL. The Ravens need to generate more pressure on the QB to help their mediocre secondary perform better.

Inside/outside linebacker – Depending on if we’re in a 3-4 or a 4-3 formation, Tavares Gooden has shown athletic ability, but not instinct. Ray Lewis and Jarret Johnson have played well (Johnson has arguably been the best defensive player this season), but the Ravens have struggled to get consistent play out of whatever third and fourth LB sees the field.

Cornerback – While Foxworth is playing okay, Fabian Washington – now out for the year – has played poorly and looks completely different than he did last year. While Webb looks like he can make the second half of a solid starting tandem with Foxworth, Chris Carr has played poorly, and Frank Walker has earned his spot on the bench.

Safety – Put aside Ed Reed’s terrible decision to attempt a lateral…he’s made decisions like those for years. Like them or hate them (I personally hate them), sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Dawan Landry has been arguably the worst starting safety in the NFL prior to the last two games.

Kicker – Hauschka’s problems were well documented and resulted in his being cut. Billy Cundiff has been brought in and made 5/6 against Indi. The 30 yarder he missed was due to a bad snap, but Cundiff has hit less than 75% in his career, and is decidedly unimpressive from 40+. It is unlikely that he is a long term solution.

Aging at several positions

The Ravens will soon have holes at positions that aren’t currently considered holes due to players aging. From oldest down:

Derrick Mason (35) – Our only solid WR is our oldest and a FA this off-season. Players at this position do not typically decline gradually, their production falls off a cliff. Even if re-signed, how long can we count on him?

Trevor Pryce (34) – Years of wear & tear have taken their toll. His performance is suffering, and it’s not likely to get better.

Ray Lewis (34) – Lewis has been so great for so long it’s hard to imagine him not playing well. But linebackers that play well beyond their early 30s are exceptionally rare, and Lewis is unlikely to be able to maintain this level for more than another year or two.

Kelly Gregg (33) – Already showing signs of wear and tear from years of grinding bodies and getting nicked up, Gregg is close to becoming completely ineffective.

Matt Birk (33) – On the other side of Gregg, he suffers the same problem as Gregg. Guys like Pryce, Lewis, Gregg and Birk – guys that spend years pounding their huge bodies into other huge bodies, tend not to last even into their mid-thirties.

Ed Reed (31) – While not terribly old, he suffers from a debilitating nerve impingement, which is causing him great pain. While not a guarantee, it wouldn’t shock me to see him retire in another year or two because of it.

Bottom line

So let’s recap, and we’ll just look at the starters – 22 + a punter and kicker for 24 total starting positions. Positions we either currently have a deficit or soon will are:
- WR x 2
- OL x 3
- TE
- DT
- DE
- LB x 2
- CB ? (Webb may solve this one)
- S x 2
- K
That is 13 out of 24 positions that are or soon will be holes for the Ravens. Ten of them are already playing below average.

I am not claiming that we need to have dominant players in all of these positions. The best teams in the NFL don’t have dominant players at every position. However, the best teams in the NFL are teams that have a few dominant players, and solid performers everywhere else. The Steelers, Colts, Patriots and Giants – who have combined to win seven of the last eight Superbowls – fit that description very well.

In order for the Ravens to be a legitimate Superbowl contender, they need to find more than just a couple answers. They need to find viable performers at several positions.

And as Ravens fans, we need to be prepared for it to take a few years to adequately fill those holes.


The opposite of Dan Snyder

Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin passed away Tuesday, age 85.

Full Washington Post coverage here. Includes these pieces:

Wizards owner helped transform D.C.

Wilbon: A man who reached out

Wise: Long-standing loyalty

Feinstein: What a dreamer and a winner built in D.C.

George Solomon on Pollin's life, legacy

Pollin remembered for loyalty, fire

A public-spirited life

Leonsis on Pollin

Abe Pollin timeline

A good man.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Love This Stuff

Redskin safety LaRon Landry was not at all reluctant to share how he felt about covering Roy Williams on Sunday.

"Scared," Landry said flatly. "Yeah. I know he was. Y'all can quote it, too. Y'all can tell him right now, tell him I'm sayin' it. I can say it right now: yeah, he was scared, I think. I told him he was scared."

And what did Williams say when Landry called him scared? "Nothing," Landry said.

(A reporter pointed out that Williams would be here in a few weeks, and Landry chuckled. "I don't care," he said. "What's that gonna do?")

"Certain pass concepts they had," Landry continued, by way of explaining how he knew Williams was scared. "Certain routes he ran, you could tell he didn't want any part of it."


Friday, November 20, 2009

"Revolutionize" the tight-end position

You know what phrase I'm sick of hearing? Guess.

Yeah, it's "so-and-so revolutionized the tight-end position." You know you've heard it. Antonio Gates revolutionized the tight end position. Tony Gonzalez revolutionized the tight end position. Shannon Sharpe revolutionized the tight end position.


First of all,
let's reject out-of-hand the notion that this phrase could possibly apply to anybody who came after Kellen Winslow. Winslow led the league in receptions in 1980 and 1981, probably the first time a tight end did that. He was deadly from 1980-83, part of that explosive Air Coryell Chargers offense. He was the best I ever saw. (Also blocked the occasional field goal.)

The "revolutionize" phrase of course refers to a tight end who puts up big numbers catching passes as a receiver. Thru football history, tight ends have typically been big guys who functioned as extra linemen: they've been blockers. A little more agile than most linemen, they could go out and catch a pass, but it would be a pretty short pass, because tight ends were pretty slow, compared to wide receivers and running backs. You see this at all levels. The guy who "revolutionized" the position would be the guy who was big enough to play as a blocker, but fast enough to cause real problems as a receiver, catching passes and scoring touchdowns. Kellen Winslow was awesome.

Ozzie Newsome is another one whom you occasionally hear described as revolutionizing the position. Great player, Hall of Famer, retired as the career leader in receptions among tight ends (the record Shannon Sharpe broke). He came into the league a year before Winslow, and in fact was productive right away, getting 589 receiving yards as a rookie, with a very high 15.5 yards-per-catch average, which is a wide receiver's number rather than a tight end's. (His career high, as it would turn out.) But he never led the league in receptions, he averaged "only" about 5 TDs per season during his peak from '78 to '85, and he only squeaked by 1,000 receiving yards twice in his career. Barely. Winslow's peak was much shorter, about 1980-84, but he was very noticeably more productive in those years.

Another guy, who never gets mentioned but deserves to be remembered, is Todd Christensen of the Raiders. Pro Bowler from 1983 to 87, led the league in receptions twice (over 90 catches!), very high yardage and TD numbers in his best seasons. He also was a key member of a championship team, unlike the other guys mentioned so far, the great Raiders teams under Tom Flores in the mid-80s. Very, very fine player. More productive at his peak than Ozzie, really comparable to Winslow. But his first big-numbers season came a couple years after Winslow became a star. He's not the one who revolutionized the position.

How good were the receiving tight-ends of the late 70s / early 80s? Wow.
(The Raiders in particular did not suffer at that position. Prior to Christensen they had Hall of Famer Dave Casper.)

Would you believe there were good pass-catching tight ends before the 1970s? Fun little piece in today's Baltimore Sun:

Who are the top players in Baltimore football history?
8. John Mackey: An explosive receiver who could turn a short look-in pass into an 80-yard touchdown, he revolutionized the role of the lumbering tight end. His biggest catch was in the 1971 Super Bowl, a 75-yard TD in a 16-7 victory over Dallas.
(Johnny U was #1 of course.)

So Mackey was the one who revolutionized the tight end position! He's also the guy who once said “Being in the huddle with John Unitas is like being in the huddle with God.” Mackey was not just pithy. He was a 5-time Pro Bowler and 3-time All-Pro, 1963-68. Caught 9 TDs one year. That 80-yard TD in the quote above is not hyperbole: he had an 89-yard TD and an 83-yard TD in 1966, along with a 79-yarder and 3 others of 50+ yards. That's a home-run hitter right there. Check out his stats: they look like those of a modern tight end. They're very comparable to Todd Heap's! When you figure he's playing a 14-game season, in an era where the defense was basically allowed to mug a receiver downfield, and the rules did not protect quarterbacks the way today's rules do: it would take a special player to put up numbers like that.

So there you go.

But wait. What if the tight end's name was “Ditka”?

As a rookie in 1961, Bear's tight end Mike Ditka had 1076 receiving yards and 12 TDs, with over 19 yards-per-catch (4th in ypc among all players: the other leaders were wide receivers). He went to the Pro Bowl his first 5 seasons, 1961-65, and was All-Pro twice. The first tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Who revolutionized the tight end position? Who did you expect?

The next time you hear that silly phrase used for some modern player, throw a pillow at the TV and yell “DITKA”!


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When winning is losing

The Ravens played just well enough to beat what is possibly the worst team in the NFL and possibly the worst offense in the history of the modern NFL. I need to look at data, but the Browns are on pace to score only 139 points this season. For some perspective, through nine games, there are only two other teams that haven't yet scored 139 points (Raiders & Rams).

The Ravens look like a team going nowhere quickly. More concerning is the fact that the Ravens are a team that looks like they're about to enter a rebuilding phase, and comments from Ozzie Newsome give no indication that the front office is mentally preparing for anything other than attempting to plug a few holes to try to win a championship.

Ravens haters will relish it. But as a fan, I'm very concerned that starting next year, the team could take some pretty big steps back. It was the right decision to try to go for the championship this year. Coming off last season, they looked like a team that could shoot the moon. But that time looks like it's past. Last night, they were in a dog-fight with the lowly Browns. If they want to avoid more of those over the next five years, they need to come to terms quickly with the fact that they should be tearing down and readying for a rebuild.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Any questions?

The Bengals have swept the Ravens and Steelers, and will almost certainly complete the sweep of the division in two weeks, in Cleveland.

They have 3 legitimately tough games left on their schedule: @Vikings, @Chargers, @Jets. This is a team that has a shot at the #2 seed in the conference (although I give the edge to the Pats).

What an amazing turnaround for this organization. I'm
a little mystified as to how they pulled it off, though obviously Mike Zimmer and Cedric Benson are key ingredients. I'm so happy for Coach Marvin. I find I'm a little happy for the team, shockingly; it's because of watching Hard Knocks this preseason. Anyone else find themselves thinking of the little dude who leads them out onto the field at home games?

Coach Marvin is now 53-51-1 on his career in Cincinnati. The last Bengals coach over .500 was Forrest Gregg, who took them to the Super Bowl after the 1981 season and left the team after 1983. That's 25 years without a winner.

Coach Marvin's record in Cincinnati is better than Paul Brown's. Child, please.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

A look at Joe Flacco at mid-season

I’ve gotten my hands on a wealth of data through the entire NFL season, thanks to the Football Outsiders game charting project. Thanks to that data, I was able to cut down into some very specific data regarding Joe Flacco’s statistics. I’m not talking about his overall stats. I’m talking about being able to look at things like how he does on 3rd down with 3-9 yards to go when the opposition is winning. Thanks to this, I wrote an article for profootball24x7 (which I'll link here once it gets published).

I cut Flacco’s passing data using the following criteria:
- “No plays” (basically penalties accepted) were not considered
- Who’s winning – Baltimore, the opponent, or a tie game
- What down it is
- Result of the pass – Complete, incomplete, intercepted, sacked, intentional grounding or aborted snap
----- There was only one intentional grounding (in the Pats game) and one aborted snap (the Denver game, where the snap hit Heap)
- Distance to go for a first down
----- Long = 10+ yards
----- Med = 4-9 yards
----- Short = 3 or fewer yards
----- This was a somewhat arbitrary cut. C’est la vie.

So for instance, I can tell you that on third downs with 10 or more yards to go, when the Ravens are losing, Flacco is 5/8 for 56 yards, converting a first down two of the eight times and not throwing a TD nor an INT, and was sacked twice.

In addition, I’ve recorded the number of plays we’ve run in certain situations. Not surprisingly, when losing and facing 3rd and long, the Ravens have attempted a pass ten out of ten times.

Some general observations about some various situations…

Flacco’s 3rd down passing mirrors his complete passing stats.
On third downs, Flacco is 53/83 (64%) for 540 yards (6.5 YPA) with 5 TDs and 3 INTs for an 87.4 QB rating. This is comparable to his 90.2 overall rating, where the only measurable difference is in his YPA. He’s taken 5 of his 17 sacks (29%) on 3rd downs. But the Ravens have had only 88 third downs in 309 passing plays (28%).

Generally, it’s a good sign that Flacco is as good on third downs as he is on first, second and fourth downs. This is typically a pressure down, and defenses are typically playing the pass more frequently, especially in medium and long situations. He has converted 38 of all 88 attempts into first downs or touchdowns (43%). In third and medium/long situations, he’s converted 33 of 82 (40%).

When the Ravens are losing, Flacco is solid, but can improve
When playing from behind, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that quarterbacks’ don’t perform as well. Typically a team has to pass more, so the defense is playing against the pass. The Ravens are no exception. They ran a passing play on 68% of all plays when losing, vs. 53% when tied or ahead.

Flacco’s passer rating is a paltry 76.4, but primarily due to the fact that his TD:INT ratio is fairly poor compared to the rest of the time. Flacco is 85/139 (61%) for 940 yards (6.8 YPA) with 3 TDs and 4 INTs. He’s taken 10 sacks.

Of note, much of the worst of his numbers was during the Bengals game. Flacco never ran a play when tied or ahead. The Bengals game was by far his worst game, completing 56% with 2 INTs and 4 sacks. Cut that game out, and Flacco’s numbers look like this:
67/107 (63%), 745 yards (7.0 YPA), 3 TDs and 2 INTs with 6 sacks
Once again, his stats look very similar to his full stats. Now, you can’t simply take that game out of the mix…it happened, and it was a poor performance. But in general, Flacco doesn’t perform too badly when losing.

However, there’s room for improvement. Take Peyton Manning as what could be considered the gold standard. Manning’s numbers this year when behind look like this:
96/133 (72%), 1,120 yards (8.4 YPA), 7 TDs, 1 INT and 5 sacks
His 111.7 rating is better than his 105.2 rating through the whole season. His 7:1 TD:INT ratio is gaudy. Ideally, we’d like Flacco when losing to be as good as he is when winning or tied. Honestly, we’d like him to be better, but it’s telling that even Peyton Manning isn’t much better when behind as when tied or ahead.

Flacco has been very impressive with medium yardage (4-9 yds)
This isn’t just third down. It’s any down, and that can include first downs when they’ve accepted a 5 yard penalty, or first and goal from the 4-9 yard line.

Flacco boasts an impressive 104.2 QB rating, albeit thanks to a stellar TD:INT ratio. His stats look like this:
63/101 (63%), 657 yards (6.5 YPA), 7 TD, 0 INTs, 3 sacks
Flacco converted 48 of 104 (46%). Compare this to his converting 108 of 309 (35%) total passing plays he’s run, and 53 of 185 attempts from long (10+ yards) situations (29%).

His performance with moderate yardage to go is his money situation; he’s a top flight QB when facing medium yardage to go. And interestingly, the Ravens run passing plays on 68% of these plays. His performance in these situations may have something to do with that.

Bottom line
In general, Flacco performs fairly well in tough situations, but has room for improvement. He’s young, and it’s good to see he’s playing as well as he is in these situations.

Better yet, I think we should expect that as Flacco matures – and hopefully gets better receivers eventually – we’ll see continued improvement in these numbers as well. Part of his education is hopefully going to involve playing better in the pressure situations, and we’ve already seen him playing fairly well in them.

It’s an encouraging sign that we have a legitimately good quarterback under center, not just one that’s good any time except when it counts.


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