Friday, February 27, 2009

Ravens reply

Patch posted a very thoughtful comment in reply to my superlong Ravens entry. Naturally his comments were interesting and provocative; naturally I couldn't keep my reply brief & concise. Here's my "comment" to Patch's comment.

>> I've changed my mind about Mason. He was a completely different
>> player from the soft stat accumulator of the prior year.

No, he really wasn't. Mason's play has been pretty exactly the same over each of his 4 seasons with the Ravens. He does the same stuff: run super-crisp in and out of routes, attack the ball in the air, and catch just about every damn thing that comes near him. You might be perceiving it differently, but his play has been about identical. Mason wasn't super-effective last year, with McNair & Boller throwing him 6-yd passes; but his play was the same.

I think I understand the distinction you're making about "great wide receivers", which I take to refer to game-breaking guys like Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. Mason's not a home run hitter anymore, which maybe he was in 2001. I'd be happy to settle on a consensus that Mason's a great Football Player, but not the kind of game-dominating receiver that the very top guys in the league are.

But I have one caveat: Mason's certainly "great" as a wide receiver in the sense that if you were coaching and you wanted a guy to hold up as a model to your young receivers, for preparation and route-running and quickness and technique and hands and toughness, Mason would be the guy. He does absolutely everything right. If Darrius Heyward-Bey got Derrick Mason's central nervous system implanted in his body, that Frankenstein monster would break all of Jerry Rice's records. I can see a staff wanting to keep Mason around past his effective playing days, just in the hope that some of his play would rub off on more physically gifted receivers.

I agree with you about the cliff, Mason should stop being effective due to age pretty imminently.

>> Steelers thugs cheaters sour grapes

I hope I was clear about why the Steelers won the game and about the margin between the two teams. I hope I was also clear about the Ravens not exactly being choir boys over the years.

In this game the Steelers committed some helmet-to-helmet hits, and forearms to the helmet, and at least one incident of spearing (I think by Ward?? don't remember for sure). That's not normal clean hard-hitting, those plays are illegal. And they weren't called for them.

Contrast to for example the first game in Pittsburgh this season. That game was breathtaking for its brutality, but I don't remember thinking that anyone (with the permanent exception of Hines Ward) was dirty or head hunting. I definitely don't think the Steelers normally play like thugs or cheaters; tough as hell, strong, and very very physical, but not dirty. In this game they took more shots at the head than seemed usual. Possibly they were way, way amped up for the game and playing a little out of control. Y'know, one thing that happens in college basketball all the time is, early in the game the refs will call a foul on a player, and the foul will have the effect of establishing limits and settling the guys down. Something like that might have been useful here.

Look, Willis McGahee was carted off the field *ON A STRETCHER* after a helmet-to-helmet hit where no flag was thrown. How is it sour grapes for a Ravens fan to remark that it happened?

But it's also true that those things were not the margin of difference between the two teams. As I recall, the hit to McGahee happened after the game was decided, and the Ravens were just driving for a final make-the-score-respectable TD. The hit on Darren Stone was bad, but he's a spec teamer, not a major part of the Ravens D or O (though I will always wonder if concussion impairment was a factor on that huge 15-yd penalty he took late in the game). I don't remember the other ones clearly; I don't think any one was particularly game changing.

But I do think the Steelers did more head-hunting than is usual for them. And it wasn't called.

>> Roethlisberger Elite Top Three in the NFL. ... man that guy can make plays
>> like nobody's business.

Agree completely, he's a major force.

He's an ugly galoot, huge and ungainly, looks like a bumpkin with that ridiculous beard; and he doesn't run a high-octane passing attack; and he plays for a team with a dominating defense. I wonder if all these things conspire to help fans & media underrate him? Whatever, it's a mistake. He's as difficult a QB on third down or in the 2-min drill as anyone in the league. He's really murder on 3rd down, a monster.

I also consider it highly likely that he will be knocked out of the game prematurely, concussion or other injury due to all the hits he takes. If that happens too soon, he may never get his due from fans & media; might have this permanent image as a guy riding the coattails of a great organization. I remember my perception of Aikman really changed late in his career, when it was just him and an old Emmitt and Larry Allen left from the great Cowboy offenses, and the teams weren't very good. Aikman would still complete 60% of his passes; and if he got the ball back down 5 with 4 mins to play, he would cut you up – only to have some terrible rookie WR/TE drop the TD pass in the endzone.

>> Flacco started every game and took nearly every snap. He got plenty of
>> preseason work.

He did not get plenty of preseason work. He had to miss one minicamp entirely because I think his school hadn't graduated yet; and after a certain point in training camp he was #3 on the depth chart while Boller and Troy Smith were getting the vast majority of reps and fighting it out for the top job. You might remember that the plan was for one of the returning QBs to start this season, and groom Flacco for next year. If you look back over some Baltimore Sun articles around the end of preseason and the beginning of the reg season, you'll find some hand-wringing about Flacco having to start when he hadn't gotten the reps in camp.

Mostly I'm going off of this: as late as around week 8 or 10, I read an article where the Ravens coaches were kicking themselves for not getting Flacco more reps in camp. There was a strong flavor of them not knowing he'd be that good that soon; and as I recall this quote actually appeared in the piece: "Imagine how good he'd be now if he'd gotten the reps in camp." I believed the reporter who quoted the Ravens coaches as saying Flacco could've/should've gotten more preseason work.

I agree with you that a lot of it is just rookie stuff that Flacco's going to have to work his way out of. Seeing the field and deciding quickly where to go with the ball and using all your receivers, those are things at which an NFL QB learns proficiency as he goes along. My point was merely that Flacco has an opportunity to make greater strides this offseason and camp, than he did last offseason and camp.

I wouldn't request a do-over of last offseason anyway. Maybe a few weeks of running as the #3 guy was exactly what the rookie needed, to get focused on what he needed to do. The NFL landscape is littered with rookie QBs who were proclaimed the #1 guy after the draft and proceeded to stink up the joint. This was better. And as you say, more training camp snaps may not have made much of a difference.

>> I know you guys think Flacco had a great year but he didn't. He probably wasn't
>> even average overall. He really wasn't asked to do a whole lot. He was efficient
>> in his limited role, but when the burden was on him he had a pretty poor record.

I think everyone knows Flacco didn't have a year like, say, Steve Young's 1994 season. It was not a "great year" in the pantheon of quarterback seasons. He was protected by a somewhat limited role, though not quite as limited as Roethlisbugger's rookie season; and he was efficient in that role, though not as efficient as Roethlisbugger's rookie season.

But he certainly had a great season for a rookie QB. It's true he didn't do much of anything against the best D's in the AFC in the last two playoff games; but I don't really ding a rookie too much for that. He got a taste of the playoffs, and will do better next time he gets there. Roethlisbugger's exceptional rookie season is a great comparison: he threw 5 INTs in his two playoff games. It happens. Anyway, there's this:

Flacco's last 11 reg seasn gms

That would put him in the top 10 in passer rating in the league among qualified passers (qualified = 14 att/game). Barely: it would tie him for #9 with Jeff Garcia. But up there. The guys around him were Aaron Rodgers, Schaub, Romo & Garcia above; and Mattie Ice, Shaun Hill, Seneca Wallace, Eli, McNabb & Cutler below. Sure, those other QBs operated more fully-featured passing games. But that's still good company, for a rookie.

A fan would have to be blind not to be excited about that.

>> The Ravens are going to have a terrible time not all getting way too
>> old at once. This seems more like a rebuild on the fly ... Baltimore
>> will have the greatest challenge of all of the contenders

Yes, exactly. Plus ultimately Rex Ryan may prove to be the greatest loss of all.

One thing I do think is, the Ravens are on sounder footing now to build and maintain a good team, than they've been in the last 10 years. They have fine coaching on both sides of the ball now, which they just haven't had before. They may not have top-flight elite coaching on the D side as they've had, but it's at least solid and professional there; and the coaching on the O side is top-flight elite.

(I think it's likely we won't be able to retain Hue Jackson after next season. Someone is going to offer him an OC job; esp after Flacco throws 30 TDs and makes the Pro Bowl next season. But I think they have a couple guys who could move into that role, in Jim Hostler and Craig Ver Steeg; plus they can hire someone. And Cam Cameron can no doubt function partly as a QB coach anyway. Hue Jackson would be a big loss, but coverable.)

I expect the Ravens to be less pull-your-hair-out maddening in the coming years. More even-keeled, more consistent: not go from 6 wins to 13 wins, and back to 5 wins and then back to 11. Capable of playing normal football: if they hold a team like the Colts without a TD in a playoff game, to be able to win that game.

>> I don't know that the Ravens can replenish and retain their talent
>> quickly enough to get another shot before Lewis and Reed leave. I
>> know you think they can ... I look at the pattern of the rise and
>> fall of teams a lot and the Ravens are on the fall side.

It's not that I think the Ravens can get another shot at a SB before Lewis & Reed leave. Ray Lewis might leave today!

It's that I think the Ravens have made a nice start at building their *NEXT* championship contender.

They have a good young athletic core on the O-line, to go with their two great O-line coaches. (The core would be better if they can retain Jason Brown.) They have a couple of interesting young RBs who complement each other. And of course they have the very promising QB prospect. If he can become the QB I think & hope he can, that changes everything. Absolutely everything.

On the other side of the ball, Ozzie has quietly done a nice job of assembling some pieces to help reload the creakily aging D. Certainly not enough to make Ray Lewis irrelevent; but it's a nice start. Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed are still there & playing at a high level, for now. Haloti Ngata is their next obvious defensive Pro Bowler. That's a Pro Bowl -caliber player at each level, DL & LB & DB. For the rest of the D: Fabien Washington is solid, Brandon McKinney and Jameel McClain look like they can play. Dawan Landry is a good player, and is expected to come back from the injury. Tavares Gooden is supposed to be a good talent. They may make a move in free agency, and they're about to have another draft.

Maybe in the post- Ray Lewis era they won't be a perrenial top-3 D; but they can still be a good D, maybe top 10. And with a real offense, they can compete. Not your father's Ravens, but a different kind of good team.

The Ravens may well take a step back this season, as they adjust to different faces on defense and continue to grow the offense. Hopefully a small step back, staying aroung the 9-10 win ballpark. But I think the next 3-5 years look very bright. Brighter than they have in a long time.


It's the Most ... Wonderful Time ... of the YEAR!!!

This is it, folks! It's Christmas for Redskins fans! Each year, Redskins fans across the country wake up nice and early on the morning of free agency, come bounding down the steps, turn on their TVs/radios and like a child ripping into their gifts, eagerly listen for which bright, shiny new toys their team has signed to play with next football season!

"This is IT, Frank! This is our year! Look who we just signed! He's (they're) gonna make us unstoppable!!!"

Here, you can follow Adam Schefter's blog and keep up with everything that's going on in free agency. You can keep up with the Redskins spending flurries, of which there have been a couple, and everyone else's as well.

This is always an exciting day of the year. But as a hardcore football fan, it's also often depressing. I see a couple teams that set a ridiculous market year after year, and it's really very frustrating. Two deals, both by the Redskins (who else?), are the catalysts this year...

Albert Haynesworth, the $100MM man
Haynesworth is a beast, don't get me wrong. But here's a guy who's never played a full 16 game season, and has a lot of personal questions (stepping on a dude's face) surrounding him. Schefter reports the deal includes $41MM in guaranteed money in the first three years. Now, can anyone explain to me how on earth this could be a good deal for the Skins? Haynesworth to me seems like a guy that's seriously a risk to get paid, and then pull a Ryan Leaf "I never have to work again" disappearing act. Even if he doesn't, if he plays as well the next seven years as he has so far in his career, is he worth $100MM? Remember, that comes with missed injury time, too. Is it even possible he becomes more productive than he's already been? I doubt it.

DeAngelo Hall, the enigma
Schefter's blog reads: "As the clock struck midnight, CB DeAngelo Hall struck it rich." He forgot the word "again." The Skins give Hall $22.5MM in guaranteed money. This is LESS THAN ONE YEAR after Hall got more than $20MM in guaranteed money, and then cut him half-way through the season. Is there a more idiotic deal even possible to be struck this year? Maybe if someone gives Ray Lewis $100MM over 7 years we could say yes. Maybe. Actually, probably not. Who in their right mind gives this guy $22.5 mil up front when he's been nothing more than a solid corner who's shown a penchant for causing significant internal strife?

Oh wait, it's Danny Snyder, there's no such thing as "in their right mind."

As the free agency day is underway, there's one man who's coming out a huge winner without collecting any bonus money. Haloti Ngata, a free agent next season, just became a very rich man.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009


It's taken me a little while to get this out...

Congrats to Steelers on winning the AFC championship. They were clearly the better team. The margin was not huge, but it is undeniable.

It's a tough pill for a Ravens fan to swallow, because all three of those games were very close. The first one at their place went to OT – you can't get closer than that. The second game was decided by that replay windowpane TD to Santonio Holmes. And in game 3 we had the ball down 2 with 4 mins to go, with a chance to make the deciding drive and get into the Super Bowl. I think many, many Ravens felt there was a bit of destiny swirling around this team, esp after the win over the Titans. I know I personally was a believer, right up until Flacco threw the INT to Polamalu.

The difference between these two teams starts with Big Ben, who is an unbelievable QB. He doesn't dominate the ball like Peyton Manning does, and he doesn't wind up with the stats, but it's ridiculously difficult to get his team off the field on 3rd down. He rolls away, keeps a play alive, and then throws a perfect strike to the guy who uncovers. His size, accuracy, decision-making, and mobility make him difficult to deal with. It's a hell of a package. And he's clutch. I gather from Pittsburgh discussion boards that Ben has a rep as a bit of a drama queen. That seems odd to me, because he's absolutely clutch. (Reminds me of Earl Weaver's quote about Jim Palmer: "Jimmy's tough to beat when he has his excuses all lined up.") You can free up a blitzer and get to Ben, but he's so friggin huge that half the time the guy just bounces off of him; and then Ben completes the pass. In the process he takes a lot of shots; and I wonder if he's not going to have great longevity as a player. And I also wonder what his post-football life is going to be like as he gets older (there have already been concussions). But today, there aren't three QBs in the league better than Roethlisbugger.

Another piece of the margin between these two teams: that 65-yd TD play to Holmes in the 2nd quarter, that play has happened in each game. Each game someone has broken free to weave his way thru the entire Ravens D and score a long TD. Each time the play seemed to unfold in slow motion, and it looked impossible that the Ravens couldn't tackle the guy. And he got in. On reflection I think this shows that the Steelers depth is better than the Ravens depth. The Steelers are a younger, quicker, more athletic team. Not position by position, but probably the 9-10-11th guy on the field with each unit. This lets them win the "sudden change" on the football field – that's something Jimmy Johnson has talked about as a centerpiece of his football philosophy: scoring on the turnover, etc. The Steelers were able to do that in their three games against the Ravens (they also did it in the SB against the Cards), and that reveals something about the two squads.

Honorable mention to the Steelers O-line, which improved all season, I guess the result of coaching and hard work. They looked better in the postseason than they did early in the regular season, and that's significant.

Other factors:
• Steelers DBs healthier
• Steelers RBs healther
• Steelers WR corps is better. It may turn out that Mark Clayton and Marcus Smith become players; but Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington are already players – and damn fine ones, as Holmes went on to prove in the Super Bowl.

This game highlights the ways in which Joe Flacco was still a rookie. He can be slow to decide to throw, he stares down receivers, and he doesn't use all his receivers. He only throws to his favorite guys. On the game-clinching INT, Mason is double- or triple-covered, and Flacco throws to him anyway. On the replay, it looks to me like Marcus Smith is open down the seam, about 20 yards over Mason's head. Polamalu gambled on the throw to Mason (is it really "gambling", if you bet that Flacco is going to throw to Mason?), and there was no over-the-top help on Smith, who had gotten behind his man. I think on a lob to Smith he'd still be running. On the other hand, a play like that puts the ball in Big Ben's hands down 5 with 3:50 to play, and I've seen that movie before. And the point is that the rookie QB wasn't able to find that receiver. It may turn out that Flacco has a longer, more productive career than Roethlisbugger; but Big Ben is already a polished QB – a great one, as his two Super Bowl rings demonstrate.

Feinstein wrote a nice piece on the game for the Washington Post:

They were a banged-up team coming in: cornerback Samari Rolle was inactive; fullback Le'Ron McClain played only a few snaps; Terrell Suggs needed a pain-killing shot in his shoulder to get on the field. All the receivers were hurting. The game began with backup safety Daren Stone knocked silly on the opening kickoff. Late in the first half, cornerback Corey Ivy was also knocked for a loop.
Ben Roethlisberger was a fifth-year quarterback who could get out of trouble and make plays; Flacco was a rookie who did miraculous work to get this far, but wasn't quite ready for this game or this defense.
There was a lot of talk about the future, about coming back and doing this again next year, but veterans knew full well that the NFL holds no guarantees. ... As the Ravens took off their uniforms and hugged one another in a quiet locker room, the sense of loss -- not so much of defeat as a greater sense of loss -- was palpable.

And of course this wasn't one devastating loss but two:

Jets to Hire Ryan
The Jets made a formal offer to Ryan “about an hour” after the Ravens lost 23-14 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game

Not just the end of a season, but the end of an era.


The Steelers are a great football team, and a truly great organization (one of the best in sports, possibly the best in football).

It's also true that their play in the AFC Championship game was remarkably dirty. This wasn't just "solid hard-hitting football"; many of the Steelers were head-hunting and should have been penalized. The hit that put Willis McGahee on a stretcher was helmet-to-helmet and should have been called. It was not the only one.

I of course have very little room to complain, as a Ravens fan. They don't exactly play the game with their lily-white gloves on. The last time the Ravens got to the conference championship, Tony Siragusa belly-flopped on Rich Gannon and put him out of the game, effectively ending the Raiders chance to compete. I believe the Ravens themselves wouldn't complain: as I understand it, their philosophy is that it's their responsibility to out-hit the opponent, they don't need no stinking refs to protect them. And that's a fine philosophy for players to have.

But the refs have a responsibility. Guys were getting hurt. The Steelers were hitting with helmets and forearms to the head, and guys were getting hurt. If as a ref you are not enforcing safety rules, then what purpose are you serving?

It's natural as a Ravens fan to say, "We went to the conference championship game with a rookie QB! And with the most-injured roster in the league! Imagine us next year, with Flacco having a full season of experience and a full offseason in the program! Super Bowl here we come!"

But it's not going to be simple for the Ravens to build on this season. Rex Ryan's departure will have an impact on the team; and it's not just Ryan, the Ravens have a ton of free agents on defense, including Ray Lewis. It's possible that the era of defensive dominance in Baltimore has ended, with a loud free agency "POP!" Also, the injury situation and the three Pittsburgh games revealed that the Ravens roster is a little brittle. They infused some young talent into the squad with last year's draft, but they need more. You can never stand still in this sport: you are constantly fighting erosion, from free agency and time, and the terrible toll football takes on the bodies of dynamic young athletes.

Early look at Ravens needs for next season:

• Re-sign their own free agents!
• stud corner
• big play WR
• pass rusher
• LB
• depth at TE
• RT
• RB??

Starting at the bottom of the list and working up:

The Ravens finished the season thin at RB. Ray Rice missed the last 5 games with an injury; Le'Ron McClain was hobbled for the AFC championship game with an ankle; and Willis McGahee was carried off the field on a stretcher. It was sadly a fitting end to a difficult season for McGahee, who had knee surgery toward the beginning of the season and nearly had his eye poked out toward the middle. I think a lot of Ravens fans were frustrated with McGahee this year, and there were persistent rumors in the Baltimore Sun that the Ravens coaching staff was too. Yet I think most of us fans would be surprised if we saw up close what he had to go thru to get ready to play each week this past season.

I personally started to see McGahee in a new way during the 4th Q of the AFC championship game. The hit and stretcher probably overshadow this in a lot of fans minds, but McGahee played like a hero in that 4th quarter. He didn't have overwhelming rushing numbers, but his pass blocking against the Steelers blitz was amazing. Really amazing. There were 3 or 5 plays were he lined up to one side of Flacco in a shotgun, the blitzer came free on the other side, and McGahee lunged across the formation and somehow got a piece of the pass-rusher, buying Flacco an extra second to get the ball away. Each individual play was amazing, a block that you thought he couldn't possibly make, requiring total effort and focus and commitment on his part. And then he made plays like that again and again. It was an extremely impressive performance.

Anyway: A lot of fans figured during the season that McGahee was not going to be part of the team's plans for next year. And the way the teams rushing attack sputtered, there is probably some groundswell for improving the talent base here. Matt Forte doesn't seem to be on this roster, and if those guys are growing on trees (he was a 2nd-rd pick!) then it would be natural to think the Ravens should get one. But of course, guys like Matt Forte do not grow on trees, the Bears got very lucky landing him in the 2nd round. McGahee's contract means that he will be back next season. The Ravens would take some absurd cap hit by cutting him, something like $15 million of accelerated money. No way do they cut him. Also, McGahee may have "redeemed himself" (if that was necessary) with his play vs the Steelers; and it's important to remember just how many injuries he dealt with this season. He may be a very significant part of the Ravens attack next season. (He turned 27 mid-season.) Also, Ray Rice had evidently fully recovered from his injury, and the coaches seem to love him, esp as a Brian Westbrook -type receiving back. He had 40-yd reception vs Miami this year, and a 60-yd run vs the Browns. He seems to be able to play, at least in a defined role. And finally, Le'Ron McClain had over 900 yds rushing in a combined FB/tailback role, his first season as a tailback. He just turned 24.

I think the Ravens are very happy with their running-back-by-committee situation, and I don't think they plan to make a change. Ozzie is a determined "best player available" guy, so the Ravens might not be able to pass up a LeSean McCoy or whomever; but I don't think that's the plan.

At RT, the Ravens may feel they have their guy of the future in-house. They had a couple of draft picks this year who were depth guys during the season, but who have some upside as prospects: Oniel Cousins and Nathan Hale. Cousins was really raw coming out of college, and Hale probably wasn't carrying enough weight. But supposedly the Ravens loved Cousins play and attitude in camp – he was running with the first team last camp and in most of the preseason games, with the early injury to Adam Terry – and Hale was one of their "red star" draft picks. I would not be surprised to see the Ravens give extensive playing time to one of those guys at RT during the OTA's and minicamps, and proclaim him the starter as the season approaches. Willie Anderson was an important player for the Ravens this past season, with his experience and leadership: but he is 10,000 yrs old, and a statue compared to the athleticism of the rest of the line. I think the Ravens will let him be supplanted. If the one of the young guys steps up at RT, *and* if the Ravens can re-sign Jason Brown, then they will have one of the best young O-lines in the AFC.

Another possibility on the O-line is, the Ravens feel that Cal center Alex Mack is the "best available player" when their turn comes in the 1st-rd. O-line isn't on the radar for the Ravens on any of the mock drafts. But they got Ben Grubbs at this spot in the draft two years ago, and in general Ozzie likes to get a guy he feels is the best player at his position, with a late-in-the-round pick. Examples include Grubbs at G, Todd Heap at TE, Ed Reed at S. Maybe the Ravens let Jason Brown walk in free agency and target Mack in the draft. I'd be sad because I like Jason Brown as a player, and also because I think there are more important uses for the Ravens 1st-rd pick. However, that scenario would let the Ravens throw a lot of money at Ray Lewis.

At TE, the Ravens should get Quinn Sypniewski back from injury, and that will help the depth at this position a lot. They were so thin at TE this year, they switched a LB over to TE during camp (he even caught a reg season pass!).
(That player was Edgar Jones: you may have noticed #84 rush the passer a few times during the AFC championship game.)
I think the national publications will point out that Todd Heap had his least-productive season since his rookie year (not counting 2 injury-shorted 6-game seasons), and is about to turn 29, and will conclude that the Ravens need to look for his replacement. I'm not sure that's true. The Ravens kept Heap in to block a ton this past year: they went max-protect a lot, and they ran a whole lot. Heap would block at the RT spot when the Ravens went to the unbalanced line, and his performance there was a big part of their success. He really did have a good season: just not the season he's used to. I think this is a situation where the position looks worse from afar than it really is. I think the Ravens have higher priorities than upgrading this position. I do expect them to spend a late-rd draft pick here, probably for a blocker. And of course, the "best player available" when the Ravens pick at #26 in the first round, may turn out to be tight end Brandon Pettigrew of Ok St. Impact players are always good; but as I said, I think other positions are priorities.

Three of the four starting LBs for the Ravens are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Three of four! The one starter who is not a free agent is the one who's never made a Pro Bowl, ROLB Jarret Johnson. He's a good player, but he's not the meat of the Ravens D the way Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott are. The Ravens can probably keep two of the three players, but not all three.

As of this writing, the Ravens have franchised Suggs, which was the utterly necessary move. He's 26 yrs old, has averaged 9 sacks a year, and has become a complete player. The Ravens have also done a nice job of getting young players into the organization who may be able to step in. Last year they drafted Tavares Gooden in the 3rd round: he got into a few games before getting injured in game 6 and missing the rest of the season with injury. He's supposed to be a fine player. They also snagged undrafted free agent Jameel McClain, and he had a fine season. Frankly he looked like a potential James Harrison type: an undrafted guy who eventually blossoms into the defensive player of the year. McClain had a few sacks and a blocked punt and a safety. He seems to be a real impact player. They also have Antwan Barnes, who looked like a potential sack machine a season ago but was not productive this year. So with those players, and with Suggs, the Ravens seem to have done what they can to position themselves to make a transition this season.

Ray Lewis will obviously be the story of the Ravens offseason. *If* they can re-sign him, then they will have only one hole to plug at LB, and they already have Tavares Gooden, so everything will be fine. Bart Scott turns 29 next season anyway. If they can't re-sign Ray – and it will take bux to sign Ray, and Dallas & the Jets might be serious contenders for him; not to mention that the Broncos have freed up significant salary cap space the last few days, and their DC Mike Nolan used to coach Ray in Baltimore – if they can't re-sign Ray, then they might retain Bart Scott and technically only have one hole to fill at LB. But that's a huge friggin hole.

Even if the Ravens bring everyone back from last year's D, they still need some help rushing the passer. Is that odd, that the #2 D in the league needs a pass rusher? But Adalius Thomas went to the Patriots in the 2006/7 offseason, and since then the Ravens haven't been able to consistently bring pressure from the side opposite Terrell Suggs. Trevor Pryce is a stud, but he'll be 34 next season. I haven't seen any national publications list a pass rusher as a need for the Ravens, but putting a situational rusher on the right side could really stabilize this D. Could USC linebacker Brian Cushing be the "best player available" when the Ravens pick at 26? (Or Clint Sintim of Virginia, or Aaron Maybin of Penn State?) Esp if they lose Ray Lewis, the Ravens might need to get more raw talent into the LB corps. Ozzie has always been able to just find guys who can play at this position, but Ray Lewis' departure would change a lot of things. Remember also the Ravens lost one of their LB coaches, to become Rex Ryan's DC in NY. There might not be as much reason for faith that they can just "make" a Pro Bowl linebacker out of late-round talent, the way they have.

On Ravens discussion boards, there is a lot of disagreement. Throw a lot of money at Ray, to keep him til he retires? Or make a "reasonable" offer, while signing their other important players, like Jason Brown? This sometimes devolves into the argument "Which would you rather have, Ray or Brown?" which I think is not the right way to look at it. I dunno what the right thing to do is. In general I feel you shouldn't tie up the team's salary cap on a 35yo (before camp starts) linebacker. But it's Ray Lewis! Fortunately the team has Ozzie to make the call.

Of course the Ravens need what they always need, a big-play wide receiver. They've been trying to get this player since Michael Jackson got old & Derrick Alexander left after the 1997 season. Or maybe since Qadry Ismail left after 2001. Derrick Mason is a man; but the guy Ravens fans are looking for is more like Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson.

I get frustrated talking with other fans about this, because people say stuff like "the Ravens need to draft a #1 wide receiver." As if it's possible to order one out of a catalog! Guess what? Guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson are not easy to find, and they don't come around very often. For whatever reason, WRs are tough to project to the NFL. Is there a position where more draft mistakes are made, than WR? I guess QB; but maybe not. If there was a guy in this draft you could point to and say HE is going to be the next Fitzgerald/Johnson (other than Michael Crabtree, who is expected to go in the top 5), then sure, I'd say draft him. But drafting a WR is a crapshoot. I tell you what the Ravens don't need: they don't need another good but not game-breaking WR. They have plenty of guys who can make some plays, but aren't dominant: Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, Marcus Smith.

The top guys in free agency are TJ Houshmazilly, Devery Henderson, maybe Shaun McDonald. And of course there are persistent rumors about Anquan Boldin leaving the Cardinals. I would take Anquan Boldin in a friggin heartbeat: but he's not leaving the Cards, no matter what he thinks. Maybe they'd trade him if he didn't report next camp. Houshmazilly isn't considered the "#1 receiver" that a lot of fans want: but he does have the ability to get open and catch passes. I would not despise him as a FA signing. But he'll be 32 next season: for the money, is he really a big upgrade over what the Ravens have? Devery Henderson is an actual deep threat. And he's only 26 yrs old. I don't know much about him: why has he never caught more than 32 passes in a season? I would think you could catch more than that just standing around, the way Drew Brees sprays it around in Nawlins. Shaun McDonald looked like a football player last year, and played 5 yrs for Mike Martz; but his yards-per-catch is very low for a WR.

Is Nate Washington of the Steelers a free agent? I wouldn't mind improving us and weakening them in one stroke.

The WRs I see projected on the mock drafts to go near where the Ravens are picking in the 1st round are, Percy Harvin of Florida and Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland. They're both potential game-breakers, and they both have question marks. Harvin is fast and a playmaker; but he's not real big (under 180#) and he played a hybrid RB/WR position in college (a lot like Reggie Bush). Heyward-Bey is superfast and has great size, but hasn't played a lot of football (he ran track in high school), and wasn't super-productive in college. The next tier of WRs in the draft is Hakeem Nicks of N Carolina, Kenny Britt of Rutgers, Juaquin Iglesias of Oklahoma, and Derrick Williams of Penn St. I'm not qualified to have an opinion on any of these guys; but it's worth pointing out that the old Rutgers OC is on the Ravens coaching staff, and Iglesias is described on one mock-draft as "a smooth route runner", which is sort of like saying a girl is a great dancer. Mark Clayton is also "a smooth route runner". That's a great quality: but it's not one the Ravens need to spend a top-2 pick on.

I'd be fine with the Ravens taking a flyer on either Harvin or Heyward-Bey, if they felt they had an insight about him as a player. As a Maryland fan, I'd love to see Heyward-Bey go to the Ravens and blossom into a great WR. He really is ridiculously fast: 4.3 and occasionally sub-4.3 in the 40, at 6-3 210. But there's bust potential there. It would not bother me as a fan if the Ravens went in another direction with that pick.

I gotta tell you, I think there is great potential for the Ravens to improve in the passing game, just with the personnel they have. The WRs did not rack up great stats last year, but all of them were held back by the adjustment to a new offense and a rookie QB. Mark Clayton called it one of the most frustrating, exciting, challenging seasons he's had (this was in a mid-season interview). The Ravens were a very run-dominant team, so there weren't a ton of opportunities in the passing game, esp early. Then Joe Flacco latched on to Derrick Mason like a newborn latches on to a nip, so there weren't a lot of balls thrown to other guys. Seriously, there seemed to be some very primitive reaction deep in Flacco, like in the lizard brain, where "throw to Mason" = good and "throw to someone else" = not as good. I wonder if it crystallized when Heap dropped the TD pass in game 1. I swear there were plays where Flacco would drop back, and Marcus Clayton would be open, Marcus Smith would be WIDE open, and you could see a sliver of Derrick Mason's jersey thru the guys draped over him – and Flacco would throw it to Mason. And half the time Mason would catch the stupid thing! Dislocated shoulder or not; which didn't help break the cycle of Flacco looking only to Mason. Demetrius Williams caught a 70-yd TD pass in game 7 vs Oakland – and then was lost for the season with an injury. Mark Clayton had a breakout game against Cincinnati in game 12; but wasn't able to follow it up with similar numbers. Marcus Smith made a circus catch off a DB deflection in the playoffs, but the play was called back by a penalty ("throw to someone else" = not good), and I'm not sure Flacco ever threw to him again.

Here's the list of WR "looks" for the Ravens, off of This is the number of times the player was targetted for a pass by the QB:

Ravens receiver looks
Derrick Mason121
Mark Clayton82
Demetrius Williams23
Yamon Figurs5
Marcus Smith4
Ernie Wheelwright0

Mason's number is high, good for #21 in the league. That 3rd figure is low, good for 119th in the league. If you add up the looks to all the other Ravens receivers, they total less than Mason's number: Flacco threw more to Mason than to all the other receivers put together. There just weren't a lot of balls for guys other than Mason to catch.

Remember that Flacco was not identified as the #1 QB last offseason, or in training camp. He was the #3, and did not get the reps that Kyle Boller & Troy Smith got. He only became the starter as of the last preseason game, when Smith went down with the illness. In fact the Ravens coaches were lamenting mid-season in one article I read, about how if they'd known he was going to be this good this quickly, they'd have given him more reps in training camp. "Imagine how good he'd be if he'd gotten the reps." Well, this time Flacco will go thru the offseason as the #1. He'll get all the reps in the OTAs and minicamp. He'll get to build the relationships with Clayton and Williams and Marcus Smith (and Todd Heap!), and maybe wean himself from this "throw only to Mason" thing he had going on. Couple that with the natural improvement from a QB in his 2nd year, and you could see a whole new Ravens passing attack next year, even with all the same guys.

I also think the Ravens got a sleeper with last year's 4th-rd pick, Marcus Smith. He's real fluid, and seems to have great hands; he's got great size, moves well. Get this: I am raving about a rookie WR who finished the season with zero catches. It seems ludicrous. ZERO! But I swear he looks like a football player to me. Flacco just would not throw to him. In the first place he only got on the field when the Ravens went to 3-WR sets, after Williams got hurt, and AFTER the Ravens stopped trying to use Yamon Figurs there. Subtract out all the caveats, and there weren't a lot of opportunities for Smith. He did draw a pass interference penalty in the endzone, which gave the Ravens a TD; but he didn't get a reception for it.

Maybe I've wandered from the point a bit? Ok, here's the point. The Ravens could use that "big play receiver" they've been seeking for a decade. A player like that could have a disproportionate impact on this team, make more of a difference than just about any other type of player. If the Ravens think that guy's there when they pick, I'd be quite pleased to come out of this draft with a Percy Harvin or Darrius Heyward-Bey or whomever they like. Even with the question marks, the Ravens staff has earned my trust: and Cam Cameron might want a shiny new toy to plug into his offense. But if the Ravens have doubts about the guys they're seeing, I have no problem with them looking elsewhere in the draft, and improving their production in the passing game without a magic new receiver. Either way I would like to see my boy Marcus Smith get more looks. ;-)

Maybe it sounds weird to say about a top 3 defense, but the Ravens really need to add talent at the corner. Chris McAlister missed 18 reg season games the past 2 years, and as of this writing they've cut him, thus freeing up $8 million they can use on their other free agents. That leaves Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington as the starting corners. Washington is very good, but he's small, and he battled injury off and on during the season. Rolle is 32, a fine player but not a young 32. He missed a lot of time the prior season, when he was diagnosed with epilepsy. The team is thin after that, though I should mention that Frank Walker, a player whom I criticized thruout the season, really improved all year, and made important contributions down the stretch. Corey Ivy and Evan Oglesby have played well in nickel & dime situations, but you don't think of either of them as starter material. (And Ivy is about to turn 32.) This is a position that needs an influx of talent.

I think any team would be looking for more talent at corner with the above roster; but for the Ravens, having good corner play is especially important, because of the style of D they play. They have been a gambling team with all sorts of odd blitz packages; and they say they're going to continue to play that way even with Rex Ryan gone. That puts pressure on the corners. When the Ravens have had to go to their backup corners the past 2 seasons, they have had to back off some of their pressure in order to get double-teams and zones on some receivers, and they've had trouble getting off the field on third down. (Esp against the friggin Steelers.) A shutdown corner would really stabilize the entire defense; it would instantly improve the pass rush.

Of course, the "stud corner" isn't any easier to order out of a catalog than the "big play receiver" is. One possibility that had me intrigued was all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. How would we feel if the Ravens didn't re-sign Ray Lewis, and instead gave the big bucks to Asomugha? That's one way to shore up a defense! I wonder how he'd like playing for a winner, instead of the Raiders? However, as of this writing the Raiders have locked-up Asomugha with a huge contract, like Peyton Manning -type numbers. The deal has been criticized; but Asomugha is the best player at his position in the league. Teams don't even throw to his side of the field.

(An interesting footnote: in John Madden's first book Hey Wait a Minute, I Wrote a Book! he wrote that when he was coach of the Raiders, Al Davis always felt that the cover corner was the most important position on a football team. Madden said that they would argue, because Madden felt that OT was the most important position on a team. However, their arguments weren't too intractable, because each of them thought the other guy's favorite position was the second-most important position on a team.)

The corners who are mentioned in mock drafts near the Ravens pick are, Vontae Davis of Illiois, Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest, DJ Moore of Vanderbilt, Sean Smith of Utah, Mike Mickens of Cincinnati, and Darius Butler of UConn. That's a lot of players at one position for one small stretch of the 1st round, which indicates a lack of consensus about how to rank the corners. Probably this diversity of opinion will coalesce after the combine. Already, Davis and Smith are the two most often mentioned in this area of the draft (assuming Malcom Jenkins goes off the board in the top 10). I think the Ravens really need one of those guys; esp a big physical guy like Davis.

It should be noted that the Ravens are one of only a few teams (the Pats, and I think the Raiders and Redskins are the others) who do not subscribe to the combined scouting services. Instead they do all their own scouting, with regional guys going around to campuses during the year. It would not be shocking if the Ravens addressed their CB need with a guy not as high on the radar, maybe a 2nd or 3rd round pick for a guy like Mike Mickens of Cincinatti or the kid from Nicholls State, Lardarius Webb, who had the fastest 40-yd dash of the CBs at the combine.

Free agent re-signing priorities:

Terrell Suggs
Jason Brown
Bart Scot??
Jim Leonhard
Dawan Landry
Brandon McKinney

Not much you can say about free agency. The Ravens need to retain most of these guys, won't be able to keep all of them. They've franchised Suggs, and I think retained McKinney. We'll see soon about the others.

There is a lot of noise about Ray Lewis. Whatever happens will be national news; in the meantime, I don't know anything more than you do.

I had a spirited discussion the other day with Chris about Jason Brown. Upshot: Chris thinks the Ravens would be stupid to spend a lot of money on Brown, center is a highly-replaceable position; I think the Ravens really need to keep Brown, they're trying to grow a top-notch O-line and must not take a step back here, by letting their most accomplished OL (other than Old Man River Anderson) walk, over a medium-sized contract. Chris has a viewpoint worth hearing, but I'm right. ;-)

I love Jim Leonhard, but he will probably walk, and it doesn't seem like money is the main issue. He wants to start, he deserves a starting spot in this league, but the Ravens have Dawan Landry returning from injury and they drafted two safeties last year, so there's no guarantee in Baltimore. I find this sad: I don't think a team can ever really have enough guys like Jim Leonhard. He's 5-foot-8 and looks like Orel Hershiser, but he's a bulldog of a football player. There are a lot of guys with better measurables who don't make the plays he does.


I notice I've been particularly wishy-washy about who the Ravens should draft. Writing above, I have advocated using the Ravens #1 pick on RB LeSean McCoy, C Alex Mack, TE Brandon Pettigrew, outside LBs / pass rushers Brian Cushing & Clint Sintim & Aaron Maybin, WRs Percy Harvin and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and corners Vontae Davis & Alphonso Smith. Ten players!

To me, this reflects the fact that there are a lot of ways this team can improve. It's not like last year, where if the Ravens don't come out of the draft with a QB prospect we must all shoot ourselves. They can go in a variety of directions this year.

It also reflects a certain confidence in the organization, to make sensible intelligent moves. In Ozzie we trust. I can't wait for the draft!


Monday, February 23, 2009

Target Numbers

Gil Brandt posts on
What NFL teams look for in combine drills
He's got a fabulous chart at the bottom of the page, with the various drills in the left-hand column (40-yd dash, bench press, 20-yd shuttle, etc); and for each position (QB, WR, LB, OT etc) he shows what a decent score would be. A nice little reference to have around.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Combine Follies

Item: Andre Smith shows up late. Declines to work out because he is out of shape. This on top of his dealing with an agent that knocked him out of Alabama's bowl game. uhhh ... goodbye first round?

Item: The Incredible Shrinking Stafford. Matt Stafford measured in at 6' 2", and inch below his listed height. All of a sudden a questionable prospect just got a little more questionable.

Item: Tim Crabtree, The Injured Midget. Crabtree has also been visiting Stafford's pharmacy, measuring in at 6' 1.5", 1.5" less than his listed height. This probably is less significant than Stafford but his limited footspeed now becomes an increased concern. On top of that he has a foot stress fracture that is going to knock him out for ten weeks. Ten weeks puts him out of any workouts prior to the draft. He might have just slipped from top five to the second round.

Item: Another Shrinking Quarterback. Not to be outdone, the ultracompetitive Mark Sanchez also measured in an inch below his listed height at 6' 2". For sale: a short college quarterback with 16 total college starts. Price, $40M. Anyone? Bueller?


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rules for the uncapped year

Here is an interesting article that highlights the new rules that will come about in 2010 if a new CBA isn't reached and there is an uncapped year. This is especially interesting because it could actually have a very dramatic impact on how teams approach 2009.

I think many were predicting that 2009 would almost be a spending free-for-all since there was an assumption 2010 would be uncapped, and teams should go crazy back-loading deals now to get guys under this year's cap and hold them through the uncapped year. These rules seem to put fairly significant barriers in place to prevent that from happening.

I cannot validate these, so I can't vouch for how accurate this article is.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Insanity at Texas Tech

So Texas Tech puts some poison pills in Leach's contract offer, he doesn't bite, and now they're thinking of firing him? Am I the only person out there that thinks this makes the TT administration certifiably insane?

[No, I know I'm not, cause I listen to sports talk radio...]

Apparently they're not far apart on the money. By "not far" I mean they're separated by $0.00. What separates them is four clauses.
1) If fired without cause, they would only pay him about 10% of his contract's value. Most clauses like these are 40% or more, some 100%.
2) If Leach accepts another job, his buy-out goes from $0.5MM to $1.5MM.
3) If Leach interviews anywhere else, he'd immediately be fired and fined $1.5MM.
4) Anything he'd do in the future related to Texas Tech (books, speeches, etc) would result in the money going to Texas Tech, not to Leach.

So let me get this straight. You're Texas Tech's AD. Your school is in Lubbock, TX; population < 225,000. You're in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the Longhorns and Sooners. Your coach in this decade has taken you to nine bowl games in nine years, when in the previous two decades prior to his coming on board you'd gone to a total of seven bowl games. Last year you were competing for a shot to play in the National Championship game. This is a guy you wanna knife into a deal that very clearly isn't fair market value, and you'll fire him if he doesn't take it? This guy, who will be employed no later than 10 seconds after the end of the '09 season by one of the bigger programs in the nation (oh, say Notre Dame for example)? You don't really need him, right?

If anyone ever needed an example of the stupidity of emotions causing an organization serious harm, this is it.


Monday, February 16, 2009

NFL Combine

Ahh, the NFL Combine, another of those magical events that went from "just another day" to a big event in what has become another segue in the NFL that now has no off-season.

Saturday, Feb. 21
Group 1 (OL, SPECIALISTS), Group 2 (OL), Group 3 (TE)

Sunday, Feb. 22
Group 4 (QB, WR), Group 5 (QB, WR), Group 6 (RB)

Monday, Feb. 23
Group 7 (DL), Group 8 (DL), Group 9 (LB)

Tuesday, Feb. 24
Group 10 (DB), Group 11 (DB)

A random, unordered list of things I'm interested in seeing...

- Stafford and Sanchez both appear to be participating. How much will they do to help/hurt their stock? They already appear to be vastly overvalued (think Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers, though Rodgers fell about where it was initially thought he'd land), will a couple of teams start falling all over themselves over their skills? [Kyle Boller threw it through the uprights on his knee from the 50!]

- I think the combine is going to go a long way in determining if there are 2 or 10 WRs taken in the first round. There are a lot of receivers that look to me like the kind of guys that could hop from the second into the first as a result of their workouts (Derrick Williams, *cough cough*).

- Which of the big three OLs stands out as the best?

- Who starts making plays for the free agents, and/or trade bait? The combine tends to have a lot of this, and there are a lot of big names (Peppers, Ray Lewis, Chad Johnson, etc) in play this year.



Saturday, February 14, 2009

Profiles In Improvement

One of the perpetual arguments on Detroit Lions' message boards is whether the team should draft Matt Stafford with the first overall pick. I can think of a dozen reasons why it would be a bad idea, but that's beside the point. The one good thing about these types of arguments isn't that anything gets resolved; the Lions will draft who they draft regardless of message board heroism, and the only thing accomplished is positions entrenched. No the real benefit is that people dig so deep for arguments that occasionally a good tangential idea is synthesized as a by-product.

Without going into all of the details, an entire article unto themselves, I thought it would be interesting to go back to see teams that were particularly poor, who rapidly improved to 10 wins or more. My criteria is from 1990 to present, teams that had 15 or fewer victories over a three year stretch (all sub-.500 years) who proceeded to the playoffs within three years. At this point I have no idea how long this article will be. I'll just start with the "A"s and work my way down.

1989 Atlanta Falcons

It is easier to start with the '89 version of this team. 11 wins in 3 seasons. 1989 was Chris Miller's second NFL season and first as a full-time starter. After 1989 Dan Henning was fired and replaced with Jerry Glanville. Glanville won 5 games in his first season and then 10 in 1991.

How they did it: One thing they didn't do was to change quarterbacks. The team was coming off a series of weak drafts, with only Miller from '87, later rounder Michael Haynes from '88 and '89 1st rounder Deion Sanders making significant contributions to their recovery. The falcons held the first pick in the '90 draft, trading it (Jeff George) to Indianapolis for Andre Rison and the 23d overall pick, selecting rushing leader Steve Broussard and tackling linebacker Darion Conner. The '91 draft was outstanding with strong contributions from rookies Bruce Pickens (db), Mike Pritchard (wr) and Moe Gardner (dt). Glanville hired June Jones and installed the run-n-shoot with Miller/Rison/Pritchard/Broussard as the primaries. By 1991 they still had one of the league's worst defenses but the offense had improved 20 spots to 5th in the league and the team won ten games.

Did it stick? No. Glanville last two more seasons with back-to-back six win years. The Falcons traded two first-rounders back to the Colts to reacquire George. Since 1991 the team has had three ten win seasons.

1998 Chicago Bears

This was Dave Wannstedt's last season, coming off seven, four, and four win years to compete a relatively disappointing tenure as Ditka's replacement. He was replaced by Dick Jauron and the team showed little improvement in first two years, until the defense suddenly came together in 2001, moving from 20th to 1st in scoring while the team won 13 games.

How they did it: Honestly, it seems like a mystery. The scoring offenses and defenses jumped way up, the team finished 3d in the NFL in scoring differential in '01, despite the total offenses and defense only improving a small amount. Did they change quarterbacks? Did they ever. In '99 three different quarterbacks got starts, wtih Shane Matthews the 'official' starter, in '00 the same three got starts with second year quarterback Cade McNown getting the most. In their renaissance year of '91 the third stringer Jim Miller was the primary with 13 starts. Coming off of weak drafts in '96 and '97, '98 was fairly strong, despite the selection of Curtis Enis in the first round, with Tony Parrish (ss), Olin Kreuz (c) and Chris Draft (lb) all productive starters selected. The '99 draft was also strong, despite McNown with Marty Booker and Roosevelt Colvin among three starters who would contribute to the '91 team. '00 brought Urlacher, Mike Brown, Dez White and Paul Edinger, adding two pro-bowl defenders to the team. And '01 brought David Terrell and Anthony Thomas who both had very strong rookie campaigns, despite their later struggles.

Did it stick? Yes and no. Chicago has gone 56-56 since 2001 with a coaching change, but they have also gone to the Super Bowl. The defense slipped back to its prior levels in '92 and '93 before improving again to their Super Bowl levels. Offense has remained an afterthought. Ten quarterbacks have started games since the end of '91 and only for parts of '96 have they had a legitimate passing attack.

1989 Dallas Cowboys

1989 was Jimmy Johnson's
first season with Dallas. They won one game that year, following seven and three win seasons at the end of Tom Landry's career. '89 was Aikman's rookie year. By 1991 they improved to 11 wins.

How they did it. The trade, of course. But maybe not. The Herschel Walker deal is widely credited with giving Dallas the players they needed to become dominant but it is less than clear that this is so. They did acquire picks used to draft Emmitt Smith ('90) and Darren Woodson ('92) so maybe that's enough. Most of the rest of the picks and a few playes went to acquiring the #1 overall pick in '91, Russell Maryland, who never met expectations. They had a lot less luck with the other players and picks they acquired. The fact is they already had one foundational draft in '98 with Aikman and also drafting key components of the great blocking team they would develop with Steve Wisniewski, Mark Stepnoski, and Daryl Johnston. They drafted Steve Walsh with the first pick in the supplemental draft who they traded for first and second round picks, one of which became Alvin Harper. They also already had a young Michael Irvin on the roster. Coupled with drafts of Smith and Jimmy Jones in '90 and then Maryland, Harper, Dixon Edwards, Erik Williams, and Leon Lett in '91, the team had ample talent to elevate and begin their run.

Did it stick? Yeah. Dallas made the playoffs the next five seasons, winning three Super Bowls, before fading out with two more playoff appearances at the end of the decade.

2002 Dallas Cowboys

After the dynasty of the '90s faded the 'boys shuffled coaches. The Dave Campo era ran from '00 to '02 with three consecutive five win seasons. After '02 Campo was fired and Parcells was brought in to right the ship. It took him all of one season to take the team from five wins to ten and a playoff berth, as the team defense improved from average to the best in the NFL.

How they did it. After terrible drafts from '99 to '01, the course was altered in 2002 with the team landing Roy Williams, Andre Gurode (g), and Antonio Bryant (wr) who each played significant roles on the ten win team. Parcell's first draft brought in Terence Newman, Al Johnson (c) and Jason Witten who all started as rookies. They also acquired Terry Glenn. Quincy Carter started all sixteen games before being jettisoned the following winter. Even with Glenn, Witten, and Bryant the offense was below average. Even with the #2 scoring defense the team only managed a 29 point scoring differential for the season. The defense drove the team. Roy Williams was All Pro, Dexter Coakley made his final Pro Bowl. La'Roi Glover was picked up from New Orleans prior to '02 and in '03 made his fourth of six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.

Did It Stick? The team regressed in '04 but continued to build and climb. After a great draft in '05 they signed Terrell Owens, promoted Tony Romo and returned to the playoffs in '06. In '06 and '07 they had top five offenses (scoring and total) and were widely regarded as the best NFC team during th e'07 season. The discipline that Parcells brought seemed to wear off by '08 and we are all well familiar with the chaos in the Cowboy locker room.

1988 Detroit Lions

This seems like the natural transition point for this team. This was Darryl Rogers' fourth season as head coach. He was fired toward the end of '88 by Wayne Fontes during a three year stretch of five, four and four wins. Fontes was retained and by '91 the team improved to twelve wins, a trip to the conference championship, and their only playoff victory from 1958 - present.

How they did it Barry Sanders is the simplest answer. Like the Falcons, the Lions moved to a version of the run-n-shoot in '89 which they continued to run throughout Fontes' tenure. After picking up two foundational offensive linemen in the '85 draft they had a terrible '86 and '87 draft, picking up only one (very good) nose tackle between them. '88 was their first foundational draft, with important components Bennie Blades (s), Chris Spielman (mlb), William White (s), and Erik Andolsek (g). Andolsek was killed following the '91 season. 1989 brought Sanders, Mike Utley (t), Ray Crockett(cb), and Rodney Peete(qb). Utley was paralyzed midway through '91 but started the first half of the season at RT. In 1990 they added Dan Owens (dl), Marc Spindler (de), Tracey Hayworth (lb), and Willie Green (wr). They did not add any starters to the 1991 team through the '91 draft. They did pick Herman Moore in the first round but he had a very limited role as a rookie. The team defense was top ten in Rogers' last year and remained near that spot through '91. The big improvement was in the offense which went from last in the NFL to 9th overall.

Did it stick? Yes. The '91 pythagorean for the team was 9 wins, not 12, and they maintained a 9 win pace pretty much throughout the '90s. After the loss of Utley and Andolsek '92 was significantly off but starting in '93 the team made the playoffs five times in seven years, and led the division in victories for the decade.

1992 New England Patriots

The '92 Pats were at the rock bottom, coming off the second year of a disastrous two year stint under Dick MacPherson among rumors that the team was leaving Boston. In the 28 team NFL New England was 27th in offense and turnover differential, 23d in defense. They started four different quarterbacks in 1992, who collectively got punished for 65 sacks. Following the '92 season they replaced MacPherson with Bill Parcells and drafted Drew Bledsoe with the first pick in the draft. In 1994 they won ten games, qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card.

How they did it: It is easy to say Parcells and Bledsoe. This is the second time that Parcells appears in this article, a feat that he would repeat again with the Jets and nearly a fourth time as an executive with Miami in 2008 (they weren't quite bad enough to qualify). This isn't the entire story though. With first round picks they acquired from Dallas in the Maryland deal they picked Eugene Chung and Pat Harlow who teamed with veteran All Pro Bruce Armstrong and '93 2nd rounder Todd Rucci to build one of the strongest offensive lines in the NFL. They also added two starting linebackers in the '92 and '93 draft along with 900+ yard receiver Vincent Brisby in '93. In 1994 they drafted Willie McGinest with their fourth overall selection and he contributed significantly during his rookie season. As with most of these teams, prior drafts had been talent-thin, but the team did pick Ben Coates in the 4th round of the '91 draft. By the 1994 renaissance season he developed into a first team All Pro. Parcells managed to bring the defense up to the middle of the pack, and the offense into the top five, with five players catching over 50 passes, led by Coates' 96/1174/7.

Did it stick? Yes. The team dipped to six wins in '95 before returning to an eleven win season and Super Bowl berth in Parcell's final year in New England. He was replaced by Pete Carroll who guided the team to two more playoff appearances in '96 and '97 before getting sacked following an 8-8 year in '98. He was replaced by Belichick, launching the dynastic Patriots of the early oughts.

1999 New Orleans Saints

In Saints lore 1999 will be remembered as the year that Mike Ditka went crazy and traded his draft for someone even crazier. This was Ditka's third, and last season with New Orleans who totalled 15 victories under Ditka. Ricky Williams had a reasonable but truncated rookie season, rushing for nearly a thousand yards in twelve games. The passing attack was a shambles though, with three starting quarterbacks (including two starts from a young Jake Delhomme!), no real #1 receiver, and a team that finished near the bottom of the league in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Jim Haslett replaced Ditka after the '99 year and the team immediately improved to ten wins and the playoffs.

How they did it: Neither the offense nor defense was quite as bad as they appeared under Ditka, with both units in the middle of the pack for totals. Prior drafts had been thin, but they did pick the core players for a prolific rushing attack, with first rounders invested in Williams, Kyle Turley (t), and Chris Naeole (g) over the prior three drafts. The 2000 draft was still weakened by picks surrendered in the Williams deal, but the Saints did net a lead blocker for Williams with Terrell Smith in the 4th round. More importantly they drafted Darren Howard in the 2nd. He would go on to have a dominating rookie season at defensive end with 11 sacks, a pick and 2 fr in what would be the best season of his productive career. The team signed Jeff Blake away from Cincinnati and little-used Joe Horn away from Kansas City to form a passing threat. They also traded for Aaron Brooks who ended up starting the last five games and in the playoffs. Horn made the Pro Bowl going 94/1340/8 as the Saints only real receiving threat. Williams was limited again, with 1000 yards in 10 games. The offense, and more importantly the defense improved to top ten in all categories, catalyzing the sudden improvement of the team. Haslett installed an attacking defense which blossomed in the system. La-Roi glover made All Pro from a defensive tackle spot with an incredible 17 sacks and 3 ff. Joe Johnson played bookend to Howard, accumulating 12 more sacks for the team. Altogether the team accumulated 66 sacks en route to a home Wild Card victory over the champion Rams and an eventual loss in the divisional round to Minnesota.

Did it stick? Yes. The team didn't improve from 2000 on, but they didn't regress either, until Katrina forced them from the dome.

1996 New York Jets

'96 was the second of Rich Kotite's two year stint as head man for the Jets, and a year in which they went 1-15. Over the prior two years they had won six games in Pete Carroll's only season with the club, and then three in Kotite's first year. This was the eleventh year in a stretch that saw the team peak at eight victories (three times) during the late '80s and early '90s. The team had three quarterbacks get starts in '96, and despite very good production from Adrian Murrell, Wayne Chrebet and rookie Keyshawn Johnson the team finished 27th in scoring offense. Couple with a last place defense the single win fate of the team was sealed. Following the '96 season the team hired reclamation specialist Bill Parcells under whom the team immediately improved to 9-7 in '97. In 1998 the team went 12-4, winning the division and making the playoffs.

How they did it: Unlike other teams the Jets' improvement wasn't heavily linked to successful drafts. From prior years they had a young Aaron Glenn developing into an elite corner by '96. They drafted Kyle Brady in the 1st round in '95 and Keyshawn in '96 to anchor the receiving game. They got almost no help from Parcell's first two drafts. Only '97 7th rounder Jason Ferguson (dt) and '98 4th rounder Jason Fabiani (t) would contribute significantly to the 1998 team. They had to give up picks to hire Parcells from the Patriots, and then traded another 1st and 3d to the Pats for Curtis Martin. After making Neil O'Donnell the regular starter in '97, the Jets went out and acquired Vinnie Testaverde for the '98 season. Behind Martin, Testaverde, Johnson, and Brady the team's offense improved to top five in scoring and totals. Parcells coaxed a very veteran defense to #2 in scoring with All Pro Mo Lewis (lb) making his first Pro Bowl.

Did it stick? Not really. Parcells stuck around for one more 8-8 season. The team remained a bit better than average through Testaverde's last few productive seasons but never again threatened the elite position they reached in '98. This can't be too surprising for the team that - other than Glenn - was relying on defensive starters who were all in their late 20s and early 30s, and few young replacements on the horizon. Even so, Parcells' ability to transform bad teams into playoff contenders instantly is beyond rare.

1999 Philadelphia Eagles

'99 was Andy Reid's first season with the team, following the decline in Ray Rhodes' last years. The team won five games, following six and three win seasons. This was arguably the worst of the three seasons as the team finished in the bottom ten in offense and defense, slipping from 1998 standards. It only took Reid the one year to turn things around, in 2000 the team improved to 11-5 and a playoff win.

How they did it: Despite the poor records, this cupboard was hardly bare. Rookie Donovan McNabb acquired a half season of experience in '99. Recent drafts had acquired Tra Thomas (t), Jeremiah Trotter (lb) and Duce Staley (rb) among others, along with a young Brian Dawkins already on the roster. In 2000 they added Corey Simon who started all sixteen games, registering 9.5 sacks and 2 ff. McNabb has a great first full season, leading the team in rushing with over 600 yards and passing for 3300+ despite no credible wide receivers. Chad Lewis was the main receiving threat, making the Pro Bowl with 69/735 in his first full season after kicking around the league for a few years. After missing most of 1999 Hugh Douglas returned to defensive end and had his best season, making All Pro with 15 sacks, and INT and 2 ff. Altogether the offense improved from 30th to 17th and the defense from 24th to 10th, 6th in scoring.

Did it stick? Yes. The team continued to improve, making the next two NFC championship games. After adding Lito Shepard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Westbrook in one of the all-time great drafts in 2002 they broke through in their fourth consecutive championship game to compete in the Super Bowl following the 2004 season.

1998 St. Louis Rams

1998 was Dick Vermeil's 2nd with the team and they were continuing to get worse. From six wins in Rich Brooks' last year, they had won five and then four under Vermeil. The Rams other measurable were not improving either, remaining firmly in the bottom quarter in offensive and defensive scoring and totals. To cap things, the team also finished 27th in turnover ratio in '98. In one of the more inexplicable reversals, the team went from four wins to thirteen and a Super Bowl victory in 1999.

How they did it: It is hard to imagine that hiring an offensive coordinator has ever had more of an impact from one season to the next. The Rams hired Mike Martz away from Washington, he installed his Kill The Quarterback Offense and the NFL hasn't been the same since. The team had netted Orlando Pace (ot) in '97 and Grant Wistrom (de) and Roland Williams (te) after the barren '96 Lawrence Phillips draft. Couple with young veterans Kevin Carter and Isaac Bruce the team had an outstanding talent core. Bruce had only played 17 games the in '97 and '98 combined and there was some concern for his career so the team drafted Torry Holt in the 1st round, 1999. Bruce came back healthy and made his second Pro Bowl in 1999. The keys to the offense, and to the season, came at running back and quarterback. The teams leading rusher in 1998 was June Henley with a little over 300 yards. Prior to the draft, the Rams packaged a 2nd and 5th round pick to acquire Marshall Faulk from the Colts. Faulk made All Pro his first season in St. Louis, rushing for 5.5 y/c and nearly 1400 yards, along with catching 87/1048 and a combined 12 TDs. In the off-season they also signed Martz's quarterback, Trent Green who was coming off an outstanding 3400 yard season. The story is well known, Green was lost for the year with his knee in pre-season and former grocery bagger Kurt Warner took over, making All-Pro while passing for 4300/41. The defensive improvement was nearly as impressive, although not as startling. Anchored by All Pro Carter and veteran Pro Bowler Todd Lyght (cb) the team recorded 57 sacks and 29 interceptions, while improving from 24th to 4th in scoring, and from 10th to 6th in total.

Did it stick? Yes. Vermeil retired immediately after winning the Super Bowl and Martz took over. Team slipped slightly, losing in the Wild Card game in '00 before returning to the Super Bowl after '01 with their greatest offensive team in the game that launched Tom Brady's career. The team made the playoffs another two times in the next three seasons, as Marc Bulger replaced Warner and Faulk aged.

This completes the profiles of teams that have overcome multiyear futility to return to contention. If you have made it this far you have digested a lot. I'll save my observations and conclusions for a follow-up article when we can try to make sense of this whole thing.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Out With The Old, In With The Old

Using some of the criteria we explored in the last article, now I'd like to take a look at the eleven incoming coaches to see how they stack up.

A note or two before I do. As I was digging through some of the data for the last article I confirmed something I kind of already knew. Coaching hires work in three year cycles. Very rarely does a coach get hired and then leave his job prior to three years, also rare is the coach who gets a fourth year despite relative ineffectiveness. What makes this particularly interesting is that we've had a very rare juxtaposition this winter. Four tenured coaches left their positions, two coaches who had gotten extra time to fail (Nolan and Edwards) were finally sacked, and one coach was fired early (Kiffin). This made for an extraordinarily large incoming class of coaches. What this also means is that we can look for another very large class in three years as most of the current crop washes out.

Super Bowl appearances make coaches bulletproof for some reason. Until this winter, the only coaches with a Super Bowl team who got fired this decade were Bill Callahan and Brian Billick. With this winter's departures of Dungy, and Gruden, and with the recent retirement of Cowher, the only coaches currently employed who have won Super Bowls are Belichick, Coughlin and Tomlin.

So on to this year's crop:

Old Made New

Mora gets promoted after a couple of years under Holmgren's wing, while Mangini hadn't even opened his first unemployment check before being scooped up. They both fit the profile of young but experienced head coach who didn't quite succeed in his first gig. This is the Belichick/Shanahan/Dungy route and tends to make for very successful coaches. Seattle is a bit of a mess but both teams have some talent. I expect at least one of these guys to build a top-flight franchise. I'm giving the edge to Kokinis and Mangini who both have very good pedigrees and familiarity with each other from the last days of the old Cleveleland Browns.

The Interims Un-Interimed

Singletary and Cable. These guys are as different as they are similar. Both of them were promoted from position coach positions, Cable offensive line and Singletary as linebackers. Cable is a bit younger than Singletary and a career coach after playing under Dennis Erickson and alongside Scott Linehan at Idaho. He was Idaho's head coach for four years, unsuccessfully, before returning to college coordinator duties and eventually position coaching in the NFL. Singletary has a very brief coaching resume, only 5.5 years, all at linebackers. Although there is limited history, short apprenticeships and lacking experience as NFL coordinator are both very negative trends for NFL head coaching success. Going back to 1990 no team has won a Super Bowl with a coach originally hired as an interim. Two coaches have lost Super Bowls with that distinction, and both happen to be among the best; Marv Levy who was originally hired in '86 and Jeff Fisher who was hired in '94.

Apprentice Promoted

It only seems fair to give Jim Caldwell his own category since he's waited so patiently. Like Mora, Caldwell was anointed Dungy's successor over a year ago. Unlike Mora, Caldwell is a head coaching neophyte, but not a coach without experience. He may not have the right kind of experience to succeed though. Caldwell was a college head coach at Wake for eight years before joining Dungy in the NFL, first with Tampa and then for his entire tenure in Indianapolis. Caldwell has been stuck behind the great Tom Moore for his entire term in Indy, so he has only had the role of quarterbacks, not coordinator. Manning was already a great quarterback when he got there so it is very difficult to measure Caldwell's accomplishments. Jim Sorgi's preseason reps aren't a lot to go by. The Colts still have Moore and Manning and will win games provided Caldwell stays out of the way. In a somewhat worrisome move Caldwell has already demonstrated a bit of cronyism, inexplicably replacing Ron Meeks with Larry Coyer who he played under in college, and promoting another of his former players, Ray Rychelski to Special Teams coordinator. We'll see, but I'm thinking long-term prognosis poor.

The Position Coach

Yeah, I know. Technically Raheem Morris was promoted from the DC spot to replace Gruden, but considering he was coordinator for less than a month I think we have to consider him a position guy. All around, this looks like a really terrible decision. Morris is a young guy, turning 33 right around Labor Day, and has very limited coaching experience. He spent one year as a college defensive coordinator and six years with the Bucs sandwiched around it. He was a positional assistant until the last two years when he was promoted to defensive backs. He also had a couple of years of small college experience prior to joining the NFL. With the Tampa 2 architect Monte Kiffin joining his son at Tennessee, and with the team's offense continuing to lack an identity, Tampa Bay is at a crossroads, despite being very talented. Typically this is where a veteran coach with veteran assistants would move in to establish a system and standards. I have significant doubts that Morris, with his limited experience and limited NFL contacts will be able to pull it off.

The Coordinators Young And Old

This is the largest group of new coaches, which is common. They bunch into a convenient dichotomy between the inexperienced offensive coaches and the experienced defensive ones. First the offense.

In a normal year I would probably consider these two hires particularly weak. I still consider them weak, but dwarfed by the looming disaster of Morris and the likely immolations of Cable and Singletary. Both of these guys have questionable experience in their most recent positions, in a similar way to Jim Caldwell. Haley was and offensive assistant for offensive coaches under Garrett in Dallas and then Whisenhunt. While he is credited with the Cardinals' prolific offense in '08 his exact role is somewhat questionable. McDaniel is another very inexperienced coach, going from grad assistant to Patriot Offense coordinator in six years. While his role in the offense was likely more pronounced, there is no doubt that Belichick keeps himself firmly planted in every phase of instruction and organization. I suspect both of these guys are both more inexperienced than they seem, with only short terms as coordinators and professional homogeneity for each.

The defensive coordinators are each much more promising. Rex Ryan is the rock star of the three, born into football royalty. He's been coaching for 22 years which is typically reasonable experience for success. His NFL coordinator experience is a little lean, with four years, but any doubts that he was riding the coattails of a prior system or his head coach had to disappear this year when he was handed the keys by Harbaugh and put the Baltimore defense back into the top five. Jim Schwartz has the least total coaching experience of the three with 20 years, but he has the most varied and longest tenure as defensive coordinator. Working with Belichick's early staff in Cleveland, Newsome's first staffs in Baltimore and then with Jeff Fisher's staffs for ten years Schwartz has worked with a couple hands worth of current and future NFL head coaches. He's probably worked with more great coaches than any of the other new coaches with the exception of ... Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo is slightly older than many of the others, turning 50 toward the end of the upcoming season. He broke into NFL administration almost immediately out of college, working for a year with Gibbs' Redskin team in 1983. He managed to move back and forth between the NFL, colleges and the World League (twice) before landing in the NFL for good in 1999. In the mean-time he worked with Gibbs' Redskins, Ross' Chargers, Reid's Eagles for seven years before spending two years as DC for Tom Coughlin. Spagnuolo is a pure player's coach who gets his units to run through walls.

Of the eleven new coaches, Mora and Mangini probably have the best likelihood of success, followed closely by Ryan, Schwartz, and Spagnuolo. The other six, Cable, Singletary, Caldwell, Morris, Haley, and McDaniel all face more difficult challenges, each having limitations that typical new coaches don't overcome. All of this is contingent of course, on management teams and organizational philosophies that are also conducive to success. If Woody Johnson all of a sudden decides he is a football expert a la Daniel Snyder, or if San Francisco or Detroit continue their recent paths of front-office ineptitude Vince Lombardi, Mike Ditka and Nuke Laloosh all rolled together won't be able to save those teams.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Building The Perfect Coach

With Kansas City hiring Todd Haley and Oakland removing the interim tag from Cable I thought it would be interesting to take a look to see if there is some way to filter coaching candidates to improve the probability of success.

I took a look at every coach hired since 2000. It is an arbitrary year, and in fact if I had added a year there would have been quite a few additional hires as post-1999 turned out to be a prolific year for coaching turnover. Even so, 2001 to present should give us a lot of information to dig through. In fact, so much that this will probably be a multi-article series.

As we work our way through this I believe there will be one recurring theme. Teams do not hire previous NFL head coaches nearly enough.

There are five teams who have no coaches in the study. Each hired their current coach prior to the 2000 season. Those teams are Denver, New England, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Tennessee. Obviously two of those teams will have new coaches beginning next season. Each one of those coaches has taken his team to a Super Bowl, although only three of the five this decade. Two of them have championships. Belichick, Shanahan and Holmgren each had prior head coaching experience in the NFL. Holmgren won a title with Green Bay.

Looking at other Super Bowl champions from this decade we have Dungy, Tomlin, Coughlin and Gruden. Three of those four also had prior NFL head coaching experience. The trend breaks down prior to this, but going back to 1997 nine out of twelve Lombardi winners were coached by men who had previously coached other teams.

Obviously there were also quite a few guys hired with previous head coaching experience who didn't work out quite as well. With varying degrees of success, this decade saw Green, Jauron, Parcells, Phillips, Mariucci, Capers, Vermeil, Edwards, Turner, Shell, Schottenheimer, Turner (again), Erickson, Schottenheimer (again), and Gibbs all get hired. Only Jauron, Phillips and Turner are currently employed and at least the first two are feeling some professional distress right now. But still, six of the eight world titles have gone to experienced head coaches. Discarding Belichick's multiple championships this gives us 4/19 chance to win a Super Bowl with an experienced coach. This compared to 2/32 of relatively inexperienced hires.

Let's take a look at other teams who reached, but lost, the Super Bowl. To make things simpler, here's a table:

St. Louis Martz
Oakland Callahan
Carolina Fox
Philadelphia Reid
Seattle Holmgren
Chicago Smith
New England Belichick
Arizona Whisenhunt

Reid is sort of the oddball here with only seven years NFL experience and no coordinator experience. Other than Holmgren and Belichick, who we discussed, each of the others was promoted from a coordinator position.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, only two head coaches were hired directly from college with no prior NFL coordinator experience, Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier. Both of them were clearly out of their depth and flamed out spectacularly. Additional college head coaches were Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, and Butch Davis although each had been NFL coordinators earlier in their careers. Only Davis had moderate success at the NFL level.

Position coaches without coordinator experience included Tony Sparano, Mike Tice, Herm Edwards, Mike Singletary, Rod Marinelli, Tom Cable and Jim Zorn. We really only have some perspective on Tice, Edwards and Marinelli, each of whom demonstrated fatal inadequecies at times. Prospects for Singletary, Sparano, Cable and Zorn are not bright. Singletary in particular which I will adress momentarily.

First though, the curious case of Lane Kiffin. I'm surprised this didn't come up more prominently when he was hired. He may be the single most inexperienced coach ever hired at the NFL level. He grew up around the game with his father, so I suppose that mitigates things a bit. He was a backup quarterback at Fresno State for a couple of years and then went directly in to college coaching. He did secure one year in the NFL as a quality assistant with Jacksonville prior to his six year stint at USC. He was coordinator for the Trojans for only two years prior to getting hired in Oakland. He entered the NFL with a total of ten years of coaching experience, two as a student assistant.

On that same vein, six head coaches were hired this decade with less than ten years coaching experience. Singletary (5.5), Del Rio (6), Gregg Williams, Mike Smith and Mularkey (9). It remains to be seen whether the relative lack of experience will ultimately doom Singletary or Smith.

So this article meanders quite a bit. To try to tie it together a little, the most successful coaches this decade have either been prior head coaches, or NFL coordinators with at least 15 years total coaching experience. While there are dozens of coaches with those credentials who wouldn't prove to be successful if hired, the failure to meet those minimums is a good path to another coaching change.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Is Ray Lewis the best linebacker ever?

This is a question that I think about a good bit. The media asks it, but never really gives it much thought; or they imply it, but don’t particularly put a lot of reasoning behind it. Check out this article by some dude at Fox Sports that no one knows, arguing him as the greatest defensive player of all time. It falls far short of anything persuasive; leading those already believing he is to reconfirm, and those that don’t shaking their heads in disbelief.

A quick note of clarification. For such a discussion, I feel strongly that we need to take Lewis’ personal life out of this discussion. I know what he did, and I know many people’s impression of Ray Lewis the man. I’m not here to argue anything about his character. I’m here to discuss Ray Lewis the football player, and in that discussion, the events of 2000 bear no relevance.

I’m going to spoil this article up front, and say that I don’t believe I could ever complete a compelling enough case to call Ray Lewis the greatest LB of all time. There are several problems that I run into when thinking about this. One major factor is simply my age, and therefore exposure to the NFL before the mid-80s. I’m about to turn 32, so even my exposure in the mid-80s was limited, and I flat out have seen nothing but clips and random games of many of the guys I could compare him to.

But by far the most difficult piece to overcome is simply that I would be trying to compare people for which there is very little quantitative analysis to be done. Statistics for defensive players even today is difficult. Tackles were never recorded until some time in the ‘90s, and there is controversy surrounding how they are recorded. Sacks were not recorded until the early ‘80s. It’s also difficult to accurately measure the impact of those stats. Defenders record many tackles, but is the LB filling the hole, or is he tackling a runner 10 yards down the field? Are they getting more cause they’re on the field for more plays? Did Ray Lewis really have a better year in ’97 when he made 156 tackles, than he did in ’00 when he made 107?

Football players in general must be at least partially measured qualitatively since many times stats aren’t perfectly comparable. How much better an NFL QB is Peyton Manning than Johnny Unitas? Stats would say he is far better, but qualitative comparison suggests they are actually very close…many would argue Unitas was better in his time than Manning.

This is even more true for defenders, where normal quantitative measures are virtually impossible to compare. Aside from the issue of recording of defensive statistics, you also face the basic issue of statistical significance on much lower occurrences. TDs vs. INTs thrown can be used to compare QBs somewhat well given they typically occur between 20 and 30 times per year, several hundred times over a great career. But sacks and INTs happen far less frequently, with even the top sack specialists having less than 150 sacks in most cases, and many playing the MLB/ILB position having far fewer than the classic blitzers of the OLB position.

As such, it’s virtually impossible to argue that Lewis, or any other LB worth discussing, is actually the best ever. There will always be those that believe someone else is the best of all time. It seems to simply make more sense to try to pick a few players that define the position, and talk about them as collectively the greatest of all time. At the LB position, there are a select few that I think are worthy of discussion.

If you were to ask me to compile a list of the greatest linebackers of all time, my list in alphabetical order would look like this:

Those six players are the ones that I believe define the position. There have been several others that I think we can all agree were terrific LBs (Ham, Bednarik, Seau, Urlacher, Huff, etc). But in my opinion, each of the above six are all capable of being argued as the best linebacker of all time. Understanding that I don’t know how to adequately rank these six in order of who is best, below is my argument for Ray Lewis.

Each of these six players have one thing most definitively in common. All of them were (are) feared by opposing offensive players. These are men that made their counterparts duck, ran away from them, hoped not to be hit by them. They made people hurt, and that fear and that hurt would play a significant factor in how opposing offenses would play against their defense, and desired to play against them.

Lewis is crossing into virtually uncharted territory for this group of players. His longevity is proving to be far better than most of the other greats. Just finishing his 13th season, he’s been invited to the Pro Bowl in each season he was the full time starter except his rookie year, and is a starter this year. This is exceptionally rare for the position. Of the five others on my list, only Nitschke played more. LT played the same, but Lewis is not finished. Barring a major injury (which cut Butkus’ career short), Lewis will likely pass Lambert as well.

To maintain such a high level of play over that span is also rare. Even if Lewis doesn’t play another down, he’s finishing off still as one of the best currently playing the game. LT played 13 years, but didn’t make the Pro Bowl any of his final three and averaged less than half as many sacks per year over that span as he’d recorded the rest of his career. Nitschke wasn’t an All-Pro voted player four of his last five seasons. Lambert played only 11 seasons and in two of his last three didn’t play half or more of the games. Butkus suffered a terrible knee injury, cutting his career short before the ten year mark. Only Singletary maintained his typical exceptional level of play for more than ten years, his for twelve. While it is far from guaranteed, Lewis is very likely to continue to play at a high level for at least another year, possibly another two to four. Should he play another two years at the same level he’s played the past three, he will have arguably the greatest longevity of any other player at the LB position - possibly of any defensive player - ever.

Lewis’ speed and vision set him apart from many of the other great linebackers. Much the way Nitschke did in the ‘60s and Taylor did in the ‘80s, Lewis is redefining the prototype for his position. Now you don’t just want someone that can crush a runner between the tackles and defend the middle for the pass, you want a guy that can rove sideline to sideline and protect the entire field. Many of the MLBs coming onto teams today are slightly smaller but much faster than their counterparts even 10-15 years ago (must be comparative…look at how much LBs weighed vs. DLs then vs. now).

Lewis patrols the field sideline to sideline as well if not better than anyone else ever has. One of his defining plays was in his Superbowl MVP win. Tiki Barber took a pitch in the backfield to the corner. Lewis tracked him down from behind before he could turn the corner up the field. He’s known for playing the outside runs about as well as he plays the inside runs.

Something that sets Lewis apart from other greats is his leadership. I don’t know of another player aside from maybe Singletary that is known to be the sort of leader Lewis has been for the Ravens. (I’m speaking from inexperience on many from pre-1985, someone can correct me if I’m wrong.)

Lewis is the unquestioned leader of the Ravens defense, and has been since he took over that leadership role between the ’98 and ’99 season. It was the ’98 season that truly transformed him from a merely good to an all time great linebacker, and the leadership role he assumed was one of the main reasons for it. Many defensive players have come and gone in Lewis’ tenure, but the greatness of the Ravens defense has always had him as a staple right in the middle of it.

Remove the years prior to ’99, where the team was building around him and he was still fresh and hadn’t yet assumed his leadership role. As primary starter, his defenses have never finished worse than 6th in the NFL, averaging 3rd, and finishing 1st or 2nd in six of those eight seasons he wasn’t hurt. In further support, he has missed ten plus games in ’02 and ’05. In those years, they finished 5th and 22nd. His teammates, when asked, will all say the same thing, that he is the heart and soul of the Ravens defense.

Is Ray Lewis the best linebacker of all time? I can’t say for sure that he is. I know he now belongs in the conversation. His credentials at this point make the argument possible, a rare feat, and one I believe only belongs to five others at the linebacker position. I do feel strongly that if Lewis isn’t the best linebacker ever, he isn’t far away from being the best.


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