Monday, November 30, 2009

What Quarterbacks Learn From The Bench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, here are the two composite seasons:

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

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

256 444 57.6% 2981 17 15 76.8

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


Ward and Holmes' attitude toward concussions is a problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gerhart for Heisman

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Quiet Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, November 27, 2009

When Thanksgiving Games Mattered

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Manning and Colts converting 3rd down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stover Stays Classy


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

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

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

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


Ravens Face Difficult Times Ahead

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

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

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

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

Lack of talent in several positions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aging at several positions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

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

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

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


The opposite of Dan Snyder

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

Full Washington Post coverage here. Includes these pieces:

Wizards owner helped transform D.C.

Wilbon: A man who reached out

Wise: Long-standing loyalty

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

George Solomon on Pollin's life, legacy

Pollin remembered for loyalty, fire

A public-spirited life

Leonsis on Pollin

Abe Pollin timeline

A good man.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Love This Stuff

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, November 20, 2009

"Revolutionize" the tight-end position

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there you go.

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When winning is losing

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

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

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


Monday, November 16, 2009

Any questions?

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 14, 2009

A look at Joe Flacco at mid-season

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

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

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

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

Some general observations about some various situations…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mid-Season Musings

A few random thoughts on the season now that we're half-way through (for all but two teams)...

Best team - New Orleans Saints
No weaknesses anywhere to be found. Maybe their run defense a little bit. But it's not really easy to attack that because it's still a pretty good defense. Everywhere else is ridiculously strong.

Team most likely to rise up in the second half - Houston Texans
Two tough games down the stretch, the rest are definitely winnable. They're playing much better in a conference where a wild-card berth is pretty achievable at 10-6.

Team most likely to fade down the stretch. - Arizona Cardinals
Old in a lot of key places. And Warner going down would be a disaster for them. Leinart has shown an inability to get the job done, so I feel like if Warner goes down, that team could come unraveled quickly.

Most impressive season - Denver Broncos
Almost no one thought this team could win six games in the first half of the season. Made up of older players on defense, a questionable QB, and a HC and GM combo platter that ran a Pro Bowl cry-baby out of town and looked like they should be serving fries and sodas at a take-out window more than running a team, three wins was the optimistic situation. They've gone 6-2 against a tough slate, and looked impressive in the first half (even though I believe they'll fade down the stretch).

Most disappointing season - Tennessee Titans
I didn't expect them to be as good as they were last year. But I also didn't expect them to look like a bottom-feeder, either.

Most important player to his team - Peyton Manning
It's cliche to say, but really if you take him off the team, the Colts are maybe a .500 team at best, maybe way worse. He's having an incredible season, and making up for a complete lack of running game, and lack of run defense.
Troy Polamalu deserves a mention here as well. That defense looks completely different with him in there than without.

Best comeback - Cedrick Benson
What a story he's been. Cast off for dead, he comes back and re-dedicates himself to being the pick he was supposed to be coming out of the draft. He's a big reason for the Bengals' success this season.

Stupidest story-line - The Packers made the wrong decision letting Favre go
Have people watched Aaron Rodgers? Rodgers is playing as well if not better than Favre behind a swiss-cheese line, sacked twice as often as Favre. And let's not forget the difference between the Packers D and the Vikings D. Do people really believe the Pack would be 7-1 if Favre was still on the team?

Who will win the Superbowl - Saints over Steelers
And what a Superbowl it's going to be!

Who will win this coming off-season - Washington Redskins
Because that's what they do best.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Brian Kelly: Maker Of Quarterbacks

You know it's a topsy turvy college football world when the best college football team in Michigan is in Mount Pleasant, when the best football team in Ohio is an hour south of Columbus and when the best football team in California is in the middle of Oregon.

But this isn't so much about that.

What this is about is the genius of Brian Kelly.

I only sometimes toot my own horn (that sounds like a euphemism) but one of those sometimeses is when the subject of Kelly comes up. I've been pimping him since he resurrected Grand Valley St. and turned them into the most successful college football program in the country. Something happened yesterday though that made me view Kelly in an entirely new light.

Zach Collaros happened.

So what is a Zach Collaros? That, dear reader, is an excellent question. I'll admit that I didn't know the kid from a grape either until last night, despite two outstanding starts in place of Tony Pike. In three starts he has now passed for 1028 yards while completing a modest 80% of his passes. Oh yeah, he is also 8/0 TD/INT in those starts. His passer rating in those games is 218. By comparison, the current NCAA leader is Kellen Moore out of Boise St. at a shade under 170. Tony Pike, the man he replaced, is 10th at 155.

Now in fairness, Collaros hasn't faced the stiffest of competition. Of the three teams he's started against only UConn has a shot at a bowl game. All Collaros did was save his best for them passing for 480 yards. In school annals only the immortal Greg Cook ever put up a bigger number.

And oh yeah, Collaros? He's a sophomore.

But back to Kelly. Here, in his third coaching stop, a pattern is really starting to emerge. The man is flat out a passing game genius. With GVSU he had two quarterbacks who were finalists for the Harlan Hill, including Curt Anes twice. Anes' 2001 team averaged 600 yards/game offense. With Central Michigan he recruited Dan LeFevour and turned him into a top NFL prospect. Taking over Cincinnati he plucked Pike off of the injury list and in a single year transformed him from 'decent college QB' to 'arguably the best QB prospect'.

While I'm sure Pike's injuries will knock him back down, the performance of Collaros simply cements Kelly's genius. No one will ever confuse Collaros for an NFL prospect. He is small and slight, and all he does is complete passes. In a way, the success of Collaros should throw up warning signs for NFL scouts who are looking at LeFevour or Pike who now seem much more like system quarterbacks than naturally gifted.

But who knows? Maybe Kelly (and longtime QB coach/confidante Greg Forest) do have the gift of turning good college QBs into elite NFL-caliber talents.


Saturday, November 7, 2009


Tonight was the first chance I got to really see Cincinnati and Brian Kelly in action, and I wasn't disappointed.

It's clear from watching this team that it's excellently coached. The players are simply smart. Everything they do looks to me like the right move. And it goes beyond simply fundamentally sound football.

Brian Kelly is really an impressive coach. I can't imagine him not winning a National Championship at some time in the next decade or two, probably in Cinci. This team might get outplayed because of a lack of talent. But I find it difficult to think they'll ever be outcoached.

The play at the end of the half sort of epitomized this. Lined up for a FG with seconds left, but it wasn't 4th down. The holder - also their QB - bobbled the snap. Knowing he couldn't get it down clean, he quickly wheeled and threw a bullet out of bounds. It was intentional grounding, but they were basically at an xpt range anyway. Just smart.


Friday, November 6, 2009


Once in the week before a game, Chad Ochocinco Johnson sent a gift basket to the Browns secondary: a case of Pepto Bismol. This week he sent a gift package to the Ravens secondary (and Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis):

Roll-on deodorant.

That's pretty funny. “I not only sent them gift baskets, but I sent them something they could use so they don’t sweat,” Ochocinco said.

Chad gets funnier as the years go by.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Superiority of Football

So, I suppose congratulations are in order for the New York Yankees, cause they apparently did something that was at least supposed to be impressive.

Really all they did was show exactly why football is far more interesting than baseball.

There's a lot of discussion about this between some sports fans. Baseball lovers make fun of the brutal senselessness of football. Football lovers make fun of baseball's likeness to watching paint dry.

But one thing that is inarguable that football has and baseball doesn't? Parity.

No, it's not perfect parity. Yes, there are some dominant teams in football, just as there are in baseball. Football has the Patriots, Colts and Steelers like baseball boasts the Red Sox, Yankees and Cardinals.

But the difference is that in football, no one is buying championships.

Take a look at the Yankee team's salary vs. the rest of the league's. The Yankees boast a team salary 48% higher than the next highest team's salary. Only seven teams have more than half the payroll that the Yankees have. Three of the top four player salaries are paid by the Yankees. Six of the top twenty five are. Fifteen players on the Yankees roster made more in '09 than the league average $3.24MM.

This would be fairly similar to taking the Colts, and then taking the worst players on their roster, and replacing them with the best players on the Steelers roster. Let's stick Polamalu next to Bob Sanders, Casey Hampton stuck in the middle of the DL to help plug the run, and ... well, let's just take all the Steelers linebackers for good measure.

"Holy crap! How unfair is that?!?!?"

That's not unfair...that's the New York Yankees.

The other day as I was walking around upstairs I heard on ESPN they were interviewing a few people asking who they wanted to win the World Series. After a few answers, I heard one person say "I hope the Yankees win, cause they paid for a Championship, and you should get what you pay for."

This outcome wasn't just predictable, it was almost expected. It would have been a disappointing season with anything BUT a World Championship. Executives get fired when they lose to the Red Sox in the post-season.

Can anyone imagine Pioli getting fired for losing to the Colts?

What makes football infinitely more exciting than baseball is the not knowing. Not knowing who will be in the post-season each year. Not knowing who's going to get the big name free agents. Not knowing who's going to surprise. It makes the season far more interesting across the board.

It's probably one of the main reasons football has a far bigger following than baseball these days.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fire Snyder



What the hell is going on in Cleveland?

Browns fire Kokinis!!!!

Did he fall or was he pushed? The
AP story says:

left the team Monday under unexplained circumstances ... After reports surfaced that Kokinis was fired, the team issued an awkwardly worded statement saying Kokinis “is no longer actively involved with the organization.” The Browns also denied reports that Kokinis was escorted from team headquarters. Kokinis’ apparent ouster came one day after Browns owner Randy Lerner said he wanted to hire a “strong, credible, serious” football adviser ... Citing unnamed team and league sources, reported that Kokinis refused to resign when pressed by Lerner, who then persisted in seeking a dismissal “for cause.” The report said the team’s security and legal department were reviewing phone records to build its case against Kokinis.
What a cluster.

The arresting thing to me was that Lerner was trying to dig up reason to terminate Kokinis “for cause”. Also known as “pulling an Al Davis”. I think that's disgusting. If you realize that you've hired the wrong guy, just be a man about it. Don't try to invent a firing offense where none exists: the main fact is that you decided you wanted to move in a different direction. This is an area where Goodell should step in. Lane Kiffin, George Kokinis: just pay them and move on.

The story opines that the Brownies might hire Accorsi. Yeah, in their dreams. Good luck with that. I dunno, maybe it is possible: Kosar has a relationship. But Accorsi really retired. He walked away from a loaded Giants team, that went on to win the Super Bowl. And Randy Lerner better be careful what he wishes for. If he manages to hire a real GM, Lerner's precious Mangini is gone the next day.

How on earth is Mangini unscathed in all of this? Yuck.

When you read profiles or biographies of the great coaches across sports, one thing that shines thru is that coaching is a people business. Maybe even more so in pro sports than in college or high school: you can be more dictatorial in scholastic sports. Can't in the pros. The pre-eminient example of this might be Red Auerbach. Red sure as hell knew a basketball player when he saw one. But when you read him, what he talks about is how important it is to know your players personalities, and how you have to handle different people differently. Know what makes them tick. Don't lock yourself in with too many arbitrary rules, because they can rob you of the flexibility to deal with different players differently.

Mangini does not have one ounce of that capability in his makeup.

Y'know, ordinarily I wouldn't mind seeing a Ravens divisional opponent stumble around. But this is just unseemly. Plus Kokinis is a good guy (ex Ravens front office). He would not have been my choice as the guy to take the fall in that situation.


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