Friday, October 30, 2009

How easy is banning football?

Jim poses an interesting argument to banning football below. I started this post as a reply to Jim’s post, I feel like it’s got enough meat in it to serve as its own separate post.

I wanted to play football as a kid. My mom wouldn't let me, because she was a guidance counselor, and she watched one of her students die on the field of a broken neck. Of all the kids, I had to be the one with the responsible parent...

The idea of banning high school and below football has pretty far-reaching impacts that could go beyond football. I guess the question is, if you're going to ban football for minors, what do you have to ban beyond that? Hockey? Baseball? I played baseball up to high school and saw several kids hit in the head, either by pitches or by hard line drives.

An interesting possible solution to this beyond Patrick’s mention of rule changes across the board would be sweeping rule changes at the Pop Warner and high school level. Make it a non-contact game until they get into college. The argument would be “How much can it really prepare someone to play at the college/professional level?” As mentioned, we ban smoking and alcohol for minors. However, we don’t have professional smoking or drinking leagues, and I think we all know how pervasive underage smoking and drinking is.

I don't know if anyone here watches Penn & Teller's "Bullshit." It's on Showtime, a half an hour adult comedy/documentary series designed to debunk popular rumors like the end of the Mayan calendar/world and how good organic food really is for you. I catch it every so often when I like the subject.

They did an episode on video games, specifically on video game violence causing real violence. At the end of the episode, I thought they did a quite powerful summation of the issue, relating it to football. You can watch the clip here.

It's a sticky subject. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the sentiment of banning the sport, or at least the version we're playing now. But logistically you're not talking about simply throwing a switch and making everything stop. You're talking about a ban on a major staple in our way of life. You're talking about a ban on something that would have a MASSIVE economic impact. Right or wrong, it wouldn't be easy to actually execute, and you can of course be certain it would be met with great resistance.

The resistance is going to be the most difficult thing to overcome in this. Not because of how engrained it is in our world. But because the resistance is going to come from the people that are actually playing the sport! We are clamoring for change, but – unless I am wrong – none of the three of us have children playing football right now. The parents who would want the change will pull their kids out of football. The ones that don’t will let the kids play. And most kids – parents pulling them or not – will likely not want to stop playing.

So if what you have is the participants as well as their parents resistant to making the change, how simple would it be to actually make such a change? Realistically, how would we be capable of making such a change? Where would we even start? It’s not as simple as banning the playing of the sport. Not in any realistic sense…not in this world. It’d be nice to say “You just ban it.” But that won’t happen. To institute real change, you’ve got to be realistic about how you want it done.

I don’t know. I don’t have answers for how to go about doing it. But I think that may be more a function of not caring enough to attempt to initiate that change myself. As a father of two daughters, if I had a child that wanted to play the sport, I’d start reading like crazy on the subject, and make the decision whether or not to allow my kid to play, very similar to the way my parents decided not to allow me to play.

I guess that actually means my answer lies in educating the parents so that they can make the most informed decision for their kids. It’s not a perfect solution, and it’s not the best solution.

But it’s at least a start.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ban football

NFL commish Roger Goodell testified in front of Congress Wednesday, about concussions and the league. Basically he said that a connection had not yet been established between head injuries on the field and brain disease in later life, while at the same time playing up the steps the league has taken in recent years. This of course is exactly what we expect the head guy to say. Meanwhile, the NY Times has a piece on the daughter of former Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, who is also testifying before the committee. Gay Culverhouse is now 62yo, and her pursuit of this issue is nothing short of heroic. As the Grey Lady tells us, Culverhouse is trying to

“tell the truth about what’s going on while I still have the chance.” Culverhouse has blood cancer and renal failure and has been told she has six months to live. “I’ve got to see that someone stops this debacle before it gets any worse,” said Culverhouse, 62, the daughter of the former owner Hugh Culverhouse who held various executive positions from 1985 to 1994. “I watched our team do anything it could to get players back on the field. We have to make that right.” ...
“Telling the players that football has nothing to do with it is literally adding insult to injury,” Culverhouse said. “It’s a joke. It’s unconscionable.”
(I had never heard of Gay Culverhouse before, and now I feel that was my loss. This is a woman in sports who deserves a biographical treatment.)

The NFL gets all the headlines. But the NFL is not the real issue here. The most compelling discussion of head trauma in football players that I've read is the piece that James linked the other day, by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker: Football, dogfighting, and brain damage. There's a paragraph in the Gladwell piece that makes abundantly clear where the real issue lies:
McKee [Dr Ann McKee, who runs the neuropathology laboratory at the Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts] got up and walked across the corridor, back to her office. “There’s one last thing,” she said. She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”
Forget legislating the NFL, for a minute. Those are grown men, and they are well-compensated for the risks they run. Maybe they're not fully educated about those risks, maybe they are: it's an issue that can be argued. Forget even college football for a minute. Those are legal adults too.

McKee is talking about evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in an 18-yr-old kid, who (probably) did not play a down of college football. She says that he played football “for a couple of years.” That's gotta be high school football, right? This is a guy who was exposed to the repetitive subconcussive trauma of high school practice (read thru the Gladwell piece to the part about the Sports Concussion Research Program at UNC). That was enough to create this condition in his brain.

It’s one thing to leave the NFL substantially alone: maybe throw some more money at the ex-players medical fund, improve the helmet technology, that kind of thing. Maybe even get bold, and have neurologists on the sidelines who are not in the employ of the teams, to judge whether guys can go back into the game or not. These are useful things to do: but they still leave the game as played essentially unchanged.

But high school football is played by 15- and 16- and 17-year-old children. Pop Warner is played by kids even younger. If football can be shown to cause brain damage in children – and not just the ferocity of game-day competition, but the routine subconcussive pops that every player gets every day in practice – then high school football and Pop Warner football must be banned.

I don't like it any better than you do. It seems obvious what would happen to pro and college football if there were no pool of high school players to draw upon. But what choice would there be? We don't let children buy cigarettes or alcohol either.

What we really need is a longitudinal study, along the lines of the Framingham Heart Study or the Nurses' Health Study, where every kid who plays high school football in some county or district (preferably in a hotbed like Pennsylvania or the states that are home to the SEC) is tracked over decades, with their brains evaluated after death where possible. God knows where the money for that would come from. The NFL sure as hell isn't going to fund it, because they can see what such a study would find.

Is there any choice but to ban youth and high school football?


Monday, October 26, 2009

Orthodox Unorthodoxy

Chuck Klosterman previewed his upcoming book Eating The Dinosaur which immediately hit my Christman list. He is a very clever thinker with the skill to see what many don't or can't. This being a football blog and ESPN being a sports site, it should be no surprise that this particular essay is about football.

And while I will mainly let his words speak for themselves I have to say that I am a bit stunned how 'right' he is. Football is not only a sport of innovation, it is the Only sport where innovation is so crucial to success. Sure, there are occasional ripples in other sports, but they are typically ripples within a theme. Doug Moe's motion offense merely took what others were already doing to an extreme. Loyola Marymount's (Hank Gaithers/Bo Kimble) 5 second offense took that extreme to another extreme as a way of leveling the court against tougher opponents. Rick Pitino ran a full-time press while coaching the Knicks, and while it was another ripple it was merely a ripple during a time of increasing attention to defense. If some is good, more is better.

In sports like baseball and hockey, it is even more difficult to find innovation. Both sports go through cycles, but rarely true innovation. Tony LaRussa's bullpen management was the last great strategic change in baseball. Billy Beane's moneyball techniques the last significant change (really in any sport) on player development and selection, and in fact became pervasive across the sporting landscape as the statistical revolution broke down (and continues to break down) how teams value skillsets among their personnel.

But football. Football is the only sport where innovation is purely a survival measure. On the gridiron you never see a player standing still - unlike every other sport - once the ball is in motion. Complacency is death in a sport where the average career lasts only a few years. Teams are in a constant state of rebuild, typically turning over 20% - 30% of their rosters annually.

In this wonderful sport with 22 moving parts, each integral to the outcome of every play, the fight for small edges is great. The masters who are able to find and exploit those edges are usually revered over the players who have to execute the schemes.

From Klosterman's article:

Right now, the most interesting coach in America is Mike Leach of Texas Tech, a former lawyer who's obsessed with pirates and UFOs and grizzly bears. He never played football at the college level and barely played in high school. But his offensive attack at Texas Tech is annually the best in the country, and it seems to be the best no matter who his players happen to be. The Red Raiders play football the way eleven-year-old boys play Xbox

"There's two ways to make it more complex for the defense," Leach told journalist Michael Lewis, writing for The New York Times Magazine. "One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that's no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays run out of lots of different formations. That way, you don't have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand."

It's easy to overlook the significance of this kind of quote, mostly because it seems obvious and casual and reductionist. But it's none of those things. It's an almost perfect description of how thinking slightly differently can have an exponential consequence, particularly when applied to an activity that's assumed to be inflexible.


Sam Wyche, the principal innovator of the no-huddle offense: Wyche was known for having curious ideas about everything, but his theory of a chaotic attack (that ignored the pre-snap huddle in order to generate matchup problems and tire defenses) is now common. In 1989, Wyche's Cincinnati Bengals played the Buffalo Bills in a play-off game. Members of the Bills defense constantly feigned injury in order to stop the Bengals from rushing to the line of scrimmage. Prior to the game, Bills coach Marv Levy had openly questioned the moral credibility of Wyche's approach. The following season, Levy stole the Bengals' no-huddle offense and went on to play in four straight Super Bowls.


These are just a few choice cuts. Klosterman's entire article - and hopefully oncoming book - is well worth the read.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wasn't he supposed to be a coaching genius?

You are the coach of a college football team. You're newly hired with expectations that you will make your team competitive once again. And you're starting to.

You're playing against one of the best teams in the country, in their house, and you're holding your own. Holding it so well, in fact, that you're down by only two with just under a minute left, driving for a win.

However, you're down by two because your kicker has two missed field goals. He missed a 47 yarder, and had a 43 yarder blocked. He did, however, hit the 27 yard FG earlier.

BAM! Your quarterback hits a pass in the middle of the field, down to the 27 yard line. There's around 40 seconds left, and you're set for a...

... A 44 yard FG.

So, with the time to play, and knowing you've had serious problems hitting a FG from the length you're currently sitting at, you decide your best option is to:

A) Drop back and try to hit a quick pass for another 7-10 yards and get into far more makable range. If you hit, run up to the line and spike it quickly to kick a 34-37 yard FG. Maybe even get it to a 30 yarder!

B) Run the ball up the middle, giving up getting any more yards, let the clock tick down to 6 seconds, spike it and try to kick the 44 yarder.

So, can anyone justify for me Lane Kiffin, with the chance to knock off the #1 Crimson Tide in Alabama, choosing option B?


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Patience is a virtue...when it's deserved

In his recent piece by USA Today's Jarrett Bell, Al Davis talks with him about having patience with JaMarcus Russell.

As expected, TV experts have had a field day blasting Russell as unfit, even unprofessional. The criticism seems to be as embarrassing as it is frustrating for Davis.

Asked about Russell, Davis said he has to stick with him — for now.

Then Davis proceeded to offer up a history lesson, rattling off one detail after another. He mentioned Troy Aikman's 1989 rookie year, when the Cowboys were 1-15. He pointed out that Terry Bradshaw was benched for Joe Gilliam in 1974. He talked about the turbulence John Elway had early in his career. He flashed back to Ken Stabler's first five years, and recalled that Jim Plunkett was once considered a washout.

His theme? Patience.

The article goes on to mention that Davis has another call placed to Bell to tell him about more quarterbacks that were slow starters, including Montana, Steve Young and Dan Fouts.

And the logical fallacy Davis commits? None of those guys have been as absolutely, shockingly horrible as JaMarcus Russell has. Certainly not Montana and Young, who despite starting slower than they wound up playing much of their careers, still looked very respectable. But not even Plunkett or Bradshaw had looked as terrible as Russell, particularly given the handicap of not having the leniency which quarterbacks are given by today's passing rules.

Take away Russell's long TD to Zach Miller, if you will for a moment. He doesn't deserve most of it anyway. He threw it straight to Miller, who was wide open in a gaping defensive hole 20 yards down field. At which point the Eagle decided they'd rather have their afternoon tea than play football, allowing Miller to lumber down the field about another 50-60 yards for a score in what was one of the worst examples of defensive pursuit and tackling that I have ever witnessed. I like Louis Murphy a lot, but if he's blocking three guys on the way to the end zone, you as a defense are not doing your job.

Anyway, minus that TD...let's even call it a catch for 25 yards... Russell would be 17 of 28 for 163 yards, 0 TD and 2 INT. A whopping 47.2 rating. This would actually lift his QB rating on the season to 47.0 for the year. Thanks to the Eagles generously forgetting they were in Oakland, not London, Russell sits with a far more impressive 51.0 QB rating so far for the year.

But for all of Davis' wishing and hoping that all Russell needs is time, one has to wonder two things.
1) How much time exactly should a $60 million quarterback need to turn into something even serviceable?
2) How likely is he even to turn into something serviceable?

The answer to the first all depends on how much money you're willing to spend. Al Davis certainly throws it around like it's meaningless. But while he's busy giving $60MM to guys that in their third season look like they shouldn't be playing in Jr High, he's also costing himself significantly at the will call window, as fans are anything but excited to come catch a game at the stadium.

The answer to the second is more compelling, and not nearly as likely to provide an answer Davis will be happy with. I've watched three Raiders games now, and bits and pieces of others. This isn't simply a case of a quarterback that needs time to develop. It's certainly not a case of his supporting cast failing him...his backs are rushing okay, his receivers are often times WIDE open (likely a result of defenses stacking pretty much everyone in the box, knowing Russell has no hope of beating them deep), and his line, while not the best in the game, is performing adequately.

JaMarcus simply is not throwing the ball well in any way. The best thing that can be said about him is that his passes are often so far off the mark, the defenders don't have a chance to catch them without being caught well out of position. The passes he's completing now are mostly short throws. The past two games he's completed 60%+ of his passes. But taking out the YAC of that Miller TD, he's under 11 yards per completion, under 6.5 per attempt. A lot of this is due to the sloppy footwork and mechanics that we keep hearing about.

And JaMarcus Russell boasts one simple, fatal flaw that none of the other quarterbacks Al Davis mentioned seemed to suffer. He is lazy.

We're hearing and reading multiple statements that Russell isn't putting in the work needed to play at an elite level. He reported to camp overweight and out of shape, yet again. He's reportedly been fined multiple times for being late to or outright skipping meetings. It's been said that he's often the last one on and first one off the practice field. His own coach has said he's regressing.

And what is Russell's response to this? Well, he's shouldered some of the blame, admitting he's "Not where I want to be." But he's also taken to throwing his own teammates under the bus. "I know where the guys are going to be, but at the same time, once you look there, they're not quite there yet," Russell said.

Yes, patience is often a virtue. And yes, you should absolutely be patient with your quarterbacks to make sure they develop...even with the ones you pay $60 million. Not everyone will be a Dan Marino, or Matt Ryan, or even Joe Flacco, playing well out of the gate.

But the players must prove that they deserve that patience. They have to show the work ethic to make themselves better, rather than be lazy and seemingly feel adequate in underperforming. And until Russell begins to show those qualities, he doesn't deserve any of the patience Al Davis is giving him.


Monday, October 19, 2009

I Naysay No More

I was one of the more vocal critics of the drama surrounding the first offseason of the Xanders/McDaniels era, and I was hardly in the minority predicting a bad season for this team.

No more.

I am all in on the Broncos. Their defense under Mike Nolan has executed a stunning turnaround since last season, despite wholesale roster butchery of the holdovers from Shanahan's last season. During tonight's broadcast they showed a statistic: on Philip Rivers' first 30 dropbacks he was pressured, hit or sacked on 21 of them. 70%!

I don't know what the final tally was, but considering they forced two Rivers fumbles and at least one more blow to his gullet on the Chargers' final drive I don't think that percentage went down much.

Some of the credit can go to the disarray of the Charger offensive line, particularly the interior which merely waves at incoming rushers, but any team that can get to the quarterback better than half the time he drops back isn't going to lose many games.

Off to grab a six pack of Orange Crush.


Dog fighting... uh, human fighting... uh, the NFL...

The thuggish hit by Dante Wesley on Clifton Smith yesterday brings back to the forefront the topic of concussions in the NFL. It's a topic we've discussed here at Oblong Spheroid in the past, but an article penned today by Malcolm Gladwell (the esteemed author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers) offers a provocative yet thoughtful point of view, juxtaposing dog fighting and the NFL. (An additional call out to Peter King's MMQB column for today, where I first saw the Gladwell article.)

It's a compelling read, and really does call out the brutal nature of the game. More than anything, it calls out to me the importance of supporting the former players, who played for little money and are left with injuries and poor medical coverage to boot but paved the way for owners and players alike to make millions today.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's Better To Be Lucky Than Good

Given the way today's Viking-Raven tilt went, I think I'm going to have to do the duty of commenting on this one. Two of my fellow bloggers here at Oblong Spheroid, Jim and Chris, are Ravens fans. Jim is probably still shaking his head at all of the good and the bad that we saw today. Chris is probably somewhere on a ledge on the tallest building in town... I hope he lives in a small town.

This game really did have it all--the good, the bad, and the ugly. At times, both teams were brilliant, and at times, absolutely inept. When the dust cleared, the Vikings remained undefeated for yet another week, and the Ravens were left shaking their heads and wondering "what if?" for a third week in a row.

On the Viking side of the field, the offense came out like gangbusters, with Favre drilling his way down the field to nab two TDs in the first two drives. Throughout the game, Sidney Rice continued his significant improvement over last season, making difficult adjustments on catches and making big plays when they were needed, en route to a 6-catch, 176-yard day. Adrian Peterson broke a nice run early, was shut down for most of the rest of the game, but made some more big plays late in the game. For 3 quarters or so, the run defense for the Vikings was incredible.

Then the wheels totally fell off. As the broadcasting crew of Dan Dierdorf and Greg Gumbel noted, this was an absolutely immense defensive collapse in progress. The run defense that was an immovable object for most of the game suddenly became a bunch of matadors waving the Raven RBs through the line and unhindered to the end zone. Ray Rice capitalized on some big gaps and made the Vikings look silly. The Viking D may have continued what is now the longest active streak in the NFL of holding the opponent without a 100 yard rusher, but they should have nothing to feel good about after that 4th quarter. To add injury to insult, Percy Harvin went down late in the 4th, closely followed by Adrian Peterson a few plays later (though Peterson was able to return).

This came after what would perhaps turn out to be the most important loss of the game, the departure of Antoine Winfield in the 2nd quarter. Winfield, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated players in the game. He doesn't have the big stats or the fancy strut of your stereotype "shutdown corner" but the guy is all about solid fundamental football. He tackles as good as just about any linebacker in the league, and is rarely ever out of position on a play. He is also fierce in coming back to help out in run defense, and is one of the key cogs in the Viking dominance against the running game. With him in there, I think he's there to stop at least one, if not both, of the long Ray Rice TD runs, and is playing better coverage on Derrick Mason than happened after he left.

On the Raven side of the ball, I finally got a chance to see Joe Cool in a situation where I had a good feeling for the context--sometimes it can be difficult to evaluate a player if you aren't familiar with the opposing defense, but I got to see him against the defense I watch every week. I came away impressed as hell with the kid, and definitely see where the Joe Cool moniker came from. Just ask Aaron Rodgers what it can be like to face the Viking D, since they ate him alive for 8 sacks a couple weeks ago. The Raven O-Line did a great job of stopping the Viking pass rush, though they did struggle in the running game until the 4th. Still, it was as good of an effort as I've seen against the Viking D-Line this year.

Just as impressive were the Raven receivers. (Wait, did I really just write that sentence?!) I thought they were tough and gritty on several of the big plays that Flacco made. There were at least a couple where Joe had to deal with strong Minnesota pressure and fling the ball as he was about to be crushed. On those plays, the Raven receivers ended up getting balls that required a leap or an adjustment, which they did even with some tight pressure by the defenders at times. Without the receivers making those plays, Flacco just ends up with some impressive looking incompletions.

Even as the 4th quarter was collapsing all around the Vikings, credit Favre with recognizing one significant weak point in the Raven defense: cornerback Frank Walker. Twice in the 4th, as the Ravens gave a free play to the Vikings via an offides jump, Favre blasted the ball downfield to whomever Walker was guarding. Both times resulted in pass interference calls that were so blatant even Referee Pitman could call them, though only the first was enforced since Sidney Rice caught the second one despite the interference. Both set up Viking scores, which proved rather significant given the close finish.

And speaking of the finish--let's just say Steven Hauschka is no Matt Stover. Despite the abysmal start by the Ravens, they still had a chance to pull this one out in the final seconds with a 47 yard field goal. Yet, in a windless and warm domed stadium, the Ravens lost yet another game in the closing moments.

Both teams had plenty of positives to feel good about, but I don't think either team is going to feel at all good about the game anyway. There were too many mental-error penalties (especially false starts by the Ravens and offsides by the Vikings), too many blown coverages in both the running game and passing game, too many sloppy moments for either team to enjoy. Certainly the Ravens won't, and I suspect the Vikings are going to feel like they got away with one--after the magnitude of the 4th quarter collapse, they really do have plenty of room to continue to improve.

Still, someone had to win, and though I was actually suspecting the Ravens would pull it out (given the rule of thumb that the most desperate team usually wins), the Vikings managed to sneak away with another game en route to a 6-0 record.

The one silver lining for both teams is that they were neither the Titans, who lost 59-0 in a game that wasn't even as close as the score indicated, nor the Iggles, who actually managed to find a way to lose to the Raiders. Ouch and ouch.


Thru the easy part

The Redskins managed to breeze thru the easy part of their schedule, the back-to-back-to-back games against all those winless teams, with a 2-4 record. The rest of their schedule is:

@ Atlanta
vs Denver
@ Dallas
@ Philadelphia
vs New Orleans
@ Oakland
vs NY Giants
vs Dallas
@ San Diego

Are there two wins for them on that schedule? Will they even win a game? If the Pheagles could stumble in Oakland, how are the Deadskins going to perform there? The other most-winnable-looking game is at home against: unbeaten Denver.

Jim Zorn will get fired, but the blame for this debacle lies squarely at the feet of owner Danny Snyder and his player personnel crony Vinny Cerrato. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post just absolutely destroys Cerrato in an opinion piece:

Cerrato optimistic on line

Here's one thing I love about this piece. On the Post's main sports page online, the subtitle to the link was:

Vinny Cerrato spouts some nonsense to Larry Michael about the woeful offensive line he helped assemble.
On the front of their sports page, the Post offhandedly dismisses public statements from the guy in charge of the team's front office! It is, to put it mildly, unusual for reporters to be so bluntly critical of NFL team front-office types. The lack of respect Cerrato commands is stunning. Maybe more stunning to me than to some of you: I can't imagine the Baltimore Sun treating Ozzie Newsome that way. Steinberg's piece is beautiful:
I happened to be listening to ESPN 980's pre-game show on my way to FedEx Field Sunday morning, and Vinny Cerrato came on for a pre-game interview with Larry Michael. ... Michael was unusually pointed when questioning Cerrato about his handiwork [the offensive line].
[Steinberg quotes the question and Cerrato's doddering answer]
This made no sense to me at 11:30 in the morning, and it makes no sense to me now, but there's really nothing left to say any more. Rarely are the media jackals this completely right. I've never played a down of real football in my life, and yet in August, I–like everyone else–was saying that this offensive line was one or two injuries away from disaster.
Against the 32nd ranked NFL defense–a team that had been allowing 27.6 points and 402.8 yards a game–we saw what disaster looked like. It looked like a cold, wet, smashed hot dog bun that's been run over by a Hummer, stomped on by a marching band, doused with lighter fluid and then smeared onto the side of a porta-potty.

Earlier in Sunday's Post, before the game, a longer article appeared, by Rick Maese and Jason Reid, that was perhaps less colorful, but no less critical:
Redskins Are Still Trying to Put the Pieces Together
Speaking with reporters before the season's first game, Vinny Cerrato, the Washington Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, ran down the team's roster, sprinkling praise on nearly every position, starting with the team's young wide receivers and the depth at offensive line.
Five games into what has begun as a frustrating season – from the locker room to the head coach's office – every corner of Redskins Park has faced intense scrutiny. While the speculation outside of Ashburn might focus on Coach Jim Zorn's uncertain future, the questions surrounding the roster – and those who assembled it – are increasing.
talent evaluators say that while the Redskins might never have been built for an immediate playoff run, they were a team that was clearly built for 2009. They started the season with the oldest team in the NFL. The average NFL team has 10 players age 30 or older; the Redskins have 17.
One veteran, high-ranking NFL player-personnel official who has studied the Redskins' roster said ... “they're an 8-8 football team if everything goes well from a talent standpoint. That's what they are. If they get lucky, maybe you win nine, 10 games.”
The NFL personnel official agrees, saying the biggest change a struggling organization can make during the offseason is not necessarily to its roster.
“It's an evaluation problem,” he said. “And evaluating is evaluating the players, evaluating the scouts, evaluating the coaches. It is an evaluation problem and it is clear. . . . If you go clean house in terms of coaches, you go get a new coach in there, you've still got that problem in the front office that's got to be corrected.”
Cerrato's seat has never been hotter. I'm curious whether this time around Danny and Vinny think they can jettison the coach and pronounce everything all better. I almost think Danny will have the gall to try it.

In the midst of the carnage, columnist Mike Wise reminds us that some of the people over there deserve better:
Sacked by his own coach
You don't have to be from the anti-Jason school or the Told-You-the-QB-Isn't-the-Problem camp to understand: The last guy to have Campbell's back in the organization, the one person he believed would ride out the tough times with him no matter how cold, miserable and rotten the season got -- and six games in, that's what it is -- just retreated to base camp. With no protection to speak of, with the memory of Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato trying to dump the incumbent starter for the newest It Guy in the offseason, and now Zorn, so desperate to coach another Sunday, finally disappearing from his flank, Jason Campbell now must try to scale the mountain alone. First abandoned by the I-need-a-new-toy owner and the team architect who neglected Campbell's offensive line, an architect who forgot to lay the concrete before choosing between gilded faucets, Campbell could at least count on Zorn in this uphill struggle to score points, master complex offensive schemes and beat inferior teams.
But Zorn left him Sunday
How much more abysmal football does anyone with a clue have to see before we find out this is not about the quarterback?
Campbell understandably walked out the back without talking Sunday, stopping only to autograph footballs for a group of children stricken with cancer and leukemia. Mac Dillon, a brother of one of the kids, wore Campbell's No. 17 jersey, which Campbell signed. Mac proudly said he was 17 years old. He invited Campbell to his junior varsity game at Robinson Secondary School. After spending several minutes with his favorite player, Mac bit his knuckles in delight as Campbell walked toward his car in the parking lot.
While I do take an unholy glee in watching the Redskins implode, and I will really savor their 3-13 record if it comes to pass: still I think Zorn & Jason Campbell are stand-up guys who probably deserved a better chance than Danny Snyder's Redskins gave them.



In the late hours stories emerged that Zorn had been relieved of his play-calling duties:
Following the team's dreary 14-6 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Zorn met with Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, and was asked to give up his offensive play-calling duties, according to Zack Bolno, the Redskins' executive director of communications. After some discussion, Zorn agreed, and the two were expected to meet again Monday at Redskins Park to decide who might call plays moving forward.
This is the kind of thing that typifies Danny Snyder's Redskins: make a rash move, and then try to turn it into something intelligent & workable, later. Exactly who, on the premises, is qualified to take over play-calling duties? You originally hired Zorn to be the offensive coordinator and QB coach! You only gave him head-coaching responsibilities when the guys you wanted wouldn't take the job. Sherman Smith is the titular OC: but he's a former RB coach who Zorn brought in to be his guy, has (like Zorn) never coordinated an offense before. There isn't anybody else. And this is the situation you wanted: you took Jim Fassel's suggestions about who he would want as coordinators if he were to take the head job, and then you shafted him by not offering him the job.

Oh wait, there is someone else:
Sherman Lewis, hired Oct. 6 as an offensive consultant, is expected to be given playcalling duties tomorrow, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation.
Sherman Lewis is the guy Danny and Vinny plucked out of retirement last week, and brought in to undercut Zorn. He's been in the building 10 minutes, and he's supposed to command the support of the players on offense? Really?

This classless quote is also typical of how that organization operates. “Two sources with knowledge of the situation”: hmm, who could those be? Snyder does this sh!t every year. Officially he doesn't give statements during the season. Unofficially, he leaks stuff constantly, making sure the slant that he wants gets out there. But it's not for attribution: it's “sources”. Despicable. And so transparent: the only “two sources with knowledge of the situation” are Danny and Vinny. But the DC media lets them get away with this stuff.

Sherman Lewis is by reputation a man of class and dignity. Mike Wilbon championed him as a head-coaching candidate ~10 yrs ago (and as one of a number of examples of the league's discrimination in its head-coach-hiring practices). It would be awesome if he found the resolve to tell Danny and Vinny that Zorn is his head coach, and he will not take play-calling duties without being instructed to by his coach.

Won't matter, ultimately, as all of these guys will be gone by season's end. But oh, what a little drama plays itself out.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oblong Spheroid is Tweeting

Come follow us on Twitter.


Updates on blog entries (which should be very useful to our faithful readers ) and other random thoughts too small to be worth posting here.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Enigmatic Seahawks

Just a brief note on a team I find somewhat interesting. I haven't watched more than highlight clips of the Seahawks yet, but I of course know this: Hasselbeck played in game 1 and 5, sat in 2-4, and the Seahawks won when he played and lost when he didn't.

But he can't be the only thing that makes a difference, right?

In games the Hawks have won, they've outscored their opponents 69-0. In games they've lost, they've been outscored 82-46. Now, I realize sample size has something big to do with it. Also, the Seahawks have faced a very different caliber of opponent in their losses than their wins.

However, that is an absolutely staggaring contrast. It will be interesting to see if the team stabilizes, or continues to play with such massive variance in their wins and losses. And frankly, if they stabilize, it will be interesting to which level of play they do.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Steve Czaban shows me some love

I have a huge man-crush on Steve Czaban, so hearing him read an email I sent him this morning (go to around 3:50 of the link to hear it) was a pretty big thrill for me. :-)

Here is the picture I sent him.


Monday, October 12, 2009

How Bad Are They?

I read a rumor last night that the Raiders have called around letting the rest of the team know that virtually any player on their roster is available for trade.

My guess is that there won't be too many inquiries about Jamarcus Russell.

This Raider offense is bad. And by "bad" I mean historically bad. Awful. Breathtakingly putrid. It is a train wreck that fascinates us. We can see this by the increasing airwave time committed to just how dysfunctional that team really is.

Yesterday they got the ball on offense 12 times and ran a total of 36 plays. Third grade math tells us that they averaged a three-and-out on every series. Their longest drive was 3:56 and went for 17 yards. Their touchdown 'drive' was 15 yards long.

Last week they managed a 13 play drive that resulted in a field goal and ate up 6:08. Other than that, their longest drive was 22 yards. Their second best time possession was 2:38. They had 6 three-and-outs and a seventh that would have been if they hadn't fumbled the ball away.

Looking back to week one the Raiders seemed to be very promising. They dominated the Chargers in what ultimately was a close loss. After the game the consensus was that they might have been able to win the division with even something approaching average quarterback play (at the time we didn't realize how surprising Denver would ultimately be). But even in that game the offense showed some flashes, most of which were ultimately extinguished by some bizarrely bad play by Russell. They had two 20 play drives that consumed over 6:00 of clock. They had another 7 play, 4:06 drive that ended in an interception deep in Chargerland. They had a 9 play touchdown drive toward the end of the 4th quarter. So even with the dysfunction under center, this team showed at least some semblance of putting a competitive offensive team on the field.

The wheels started coming off before week two. They managed a scoring drive and narrow victory over the hapless Chiefs (will someone please send that team some hap?) Against Denver 6 three-and-outs along with a four-and-out. Exactly one drive in that game over 3:00. Even worse in week 4 against the Texans. Two three-and-outs. A five play drive that netted -16 yards. Three drives totalling 5 plays that ended in turnovers.

This season the Raiders are averaging less than 25:00 TOP. They are averaging under 200 yards per game. Their quarterback has a 47 rating after 5 games. Their average yards per play for the season actually went down yesterday and is sitting at 3.6. The next worse team going into week 5 was the Chiefs at 4.2.

What is somewhat odd is that as bad as Russell is, this can't be put entirely on him. Oakland easily has the worst wide receivers in the NFL. Darren McFadden is looking like a bust. Zach Miller is their only reliable offensive threat. In the past this team was able to hide their inept passing game with one of the better running attacks in the league. Whatever worked in the past though, isn't working now. The Raiders are averaging 3.3 yards per rush. This isn't quite the worst in the NFL but it's close.

Have to wonder when the mandate from the deranged ownership to play Russell and (possibly) McFadden will lift and some relief will come to Raider nation.

Perhaps the increasingly sparse crowds at the Colosseum will get Big Al's attention. Reality sure hasn't.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Safety of Players

Football executives, from the NFL all the way down to high schools, harp constantly on how the safety of their players is critical. We have had a few conversations about concussions on this blog, and concussions are an extremely hot topic in medical studies.

And for all the talk about how the health of the players is of paramount importance, games like Florida @ LSU simply make it all lip service. Cause two weeks after a concussion so bad, Tim Tebow was puking in a hospital and not allowed to read or watch TV for days, he's playing. And playing against one of the best, most aggressive defenses in the country.

My wife had a concussion similar to Tebow's back in college. She ice skated, took a terrible fall and smashed her head on the ice. She wasn't allowed back on the ice to even practice for three weeks.

Seeing this is terribly frustrating. I'm not a Tebow fan, nor could I care less who wins this game. But I am a fan of common sense. And I hate to see a guy with a potentially bright future being allowed to put himself at risk. Regardless of whether or not he wants to be out there, at what point is common sense going to kick in here? Is it going to take a high profile guy - a guy like Tebow - wind up becoming permanently crippled, or God forbid, get killed, before this sort of thing isn't allowed?


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Once in a Lifetime

First, an apology for the formatting. The picture feature isn't easy...

On Weds, my friend Troy asks me what I’m doing Sunday. After telling him it’s Ravens @ Patriots and my butt will be parked on the couch all day, he says “How would you like to watch the game at M&T Bank Stadium instead?”

My friend was a lucky recipient of an invitation a few lucky fans receive each year. We – along with 16 other fans – would arrive at noon, receive a tour of the stadium, then go to a suite to watch the game. Needless to say it didn’t take me long to accept the invite.

The drive from Richmond takes around three hours, but we left early to make sure we would arrive on time even if we hit traffic. We got there at about 11 AM, before anyone else had arrived, including Kim, the Ravens employee that organized the event.

Two people were in the stadium at the door. Later in the tour we learned that the folks that lease the suites can use them any day, and some will watch away games in their suites. The attendant let us in, and Walter – the man that would later take us on the tour – led me into the stadium to let me use the restroom.

I don’t know if anyone has ever been to an NFL (or other major) stadium while it is completely empty. To date, I hadn’t. I’ve been to a stadium where there were only a few people walking around. But seeing a place that’s normally packed with people instead devoid of life is sort of creepy.

I mentioned to Walter how the stadium was very strange completely empty. He said “Yeah, the stadium’s haunted.” I chuckled, and he said “I know it sounds like a joke, but I’m serious. It gets real creepy in here at night, when it’s dark and doors are opening and closing by themselves!”

After another hour, Kim and the rest of the party had arrived and we began the tour with Walter. We began by going upstairs to the luxury box area. Walter told us that if we have the money, we can rent any part of the stadium. All it would cost us to rent the field is $45,000…seems like a good deal to me! Anyway, he explained that one night they hosted three separate proms, and none of them even knew the others were there.

Walter also mentioned that the last building demolished prior to building the stadium was a piano shop. The final piano was in the stadium while Art Modell was still the owner. But once Steve Bisciotti took over, he moved the piano out of the stadium (Walter didn’t say where), but honored the piano store in another way. He had a section of the walk outside the stadium cut like a piano, with keys along the sidewalk.

From there, we moved on to the press boxes. He showed us the doors to the major boxes, but couldn’t let us in. These were the major network box, the Ravens box and the opposing team’s box for each broadcast. We then moved on to the larger, general press area, where we could sit while he gave us some more info about the area and who uses it.

The box holds almost 150 members of the press, and is fully equipped to handle any of their needs. All one needs to do to get into the press box on game day is submit credentials to the Ravens and receive approval to be in the box. Some day, I’ll probably start taking some shots at doing just that.

The box itself stretches from around the 40 yard line down behind the corner of the end zone. It’s a terrific view of the stadium from anywhere in the box. But Walter did say that you are seated in the box according to how you treat the Ravens in the press. The Ravens are clearly a notch above a first class organization!

After the press room, we migrated down to the tunnels at stadium level, headed to the Ravens locker room. On the way, he showed us the paths the media take to get to the Ravens press room and the opponents’ press room for post-game conferences.

Walter mentioned that the Ravens room is right off the elevator, while opposing team’s rooms are well down the hall. Among several home-field advantages many of us never hear about, another advantage similar to this is that when the players come out at half-time, the Ravens locker room is right next to where they come out, while the opponent’s is across the stadium. He said that it takes the Ravens 30 seconds to get to the locker room at the half, but takes the opposition three and a half minutes. He also reminded us that for all the advantages we enjoy at home, our opponents enjoy the same while we’re on the road.

I’ve been in the Ravens locker room before. In ’08 my dad and I went to the Ravens annual draft party, where we were allowed on the field and into the room. But we didn’t get such an intimate feel for it, with info on what, and who, is where. In the picture above, you’re only seeing about a third of the room. Ray Lewis’ locker is in the picture, fifth from the door. Joe Flacco’s locker is on the other side of the room behind me. While we didn’t see the visitor’s locker room, Walter said the whole locker room is the size of what you see in my picture, with metal lockers we all fondly remember from high school.

We walked through the showers next, a wide open area explained as meant to be a team-builder which is why there aren’t private areas for each shower. Then around another bend to a scale that was almost as big as I was to weigh the players. We got a chance to step on the scale if we wanted to, and Walter noted the scale could measure up to 500 pounds (in response to my question about how Sam Adams did on the scale).

After this, we walked past Harbaugh’s office. Walter knows Harbaugh and had nothing but great things to say about him. He said he talked with Harbaugh after Harbaugh was first hired, but that he didn’t know who Harbaugh was during the conversation. At the end, Harbaugh introduced himself, which shocked Walter a bit.

Three weeks later, Harbaugh saw Walter, walked up and patted him and said “Hey Walter.” He was floored that Harbaugh still knew his name. Walter said he has a hand-written Christmas card from Harbaugh framed at home.

We walked through the training room prior to walking back to the tunnels. The room was quite large, and Walter mentioned there is an X-Ray machine in another room, available to both home and away teams.

(space for picture spacing)

From there it was onto the field. For those that don’t know, the field is artificial and state of the art. If you run your hands across it or simply try to pick up the “grass” you’ll note small pieces of rubber you pick up, like pieces of sand. These are from thousands of shredded tires, used to keep the turf softer on impact than the more traditional artificial turf. My brother-in-law used to play football in college, and said that stuff was nice, but a draw-back was that if you were on the turf, it could splash up into your eyes.

(space for picture spacing)

We were allowed out onto the middle of the field, but only between the 40s, and weren’t allowed to run or jump on the turf. The turf is very soft, and you can really feel how good cleats would grab it. I would assume that we couldn’t run or jump on the turf because it could easily be damaged. It’s made up of thousands of individual squares, and replacing all of it costs – if I remember correctly – around $2.4MM. Each individual piece can be replaced, but you can imagine it’s not cheap.

Nothing in the stadium is cheap. The heating and electric bill during the off-season runs $30,000 per month, and goes to $1.4MM per month during peak months of the season. The field itself can be heated on cold days, or cooled on hot ones, which helps the players not feel the full impacts of some of the weather extremes. Benches are placed over top of grates that pump hot or cold air into them (5 for the Ravens, only 3 for the visitors). It’s clear that the stadium was built to be state of the art, and both be a fan as well as player-friendly stadium.

From there, we walked down the tunnel where the Ravens walk to get to half-time. On the wall was the above Raven, which Walter said at some point everyone on the team has touched. He told us while he doesn’t believe in luck, he does believe in positive energy, which we were asked to give to the Raven as we rubbed it prior to heading upstairs to the suite to watch the game.

Upstairs at the suites, we learned that the suites ranged from $75,000 to $250,000 to lease each year, and accommodate around 24 people per suite for most. Companies or people could get on a wait list, and when someone from the prior lease agreement doesn’t re-up, you get called based on where you sit on the list. Leases run for three seasons, and you are allowed to re-up your lease at any time.

While you can’t live in your suite, you can spend 23 hours a day there if you’d like. And while you can have as many people as can fit in your suite for a game, your lease agreement does NOT include tickets for the game. So on top of your $75,000 price tag for what would be an end zone suite, you’ll be paying another $30,000+ for 20 season tickets for you and your guests to attend the games.

We made it to the Ravens suite, where they had a catered lunch ready for us and the game on the television. And while the Ravens lost the game – in incredibly frustrating fashion – the entire experience was memorable. I feel as though I’m extremely blessed as a sports fan, having been lucky enough to personally attend some very memorable events and have some pretty unique experiences. This one ranks up there very highly, probably top five.

What a great weekend. A big thank you to Kim from the Ravens, who hosted the event; and Walter from SAFE, who gave us the tour!


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Playing The Odds: Coming Back From Two Touchdowns To Win

Our good friend TheNajdorfDefens (an internet moniker named after some obscure chess strategy that forced a draw in 1927 or something) sent me an article over the course of three emails. I set out to edit it into something cohesive but quickly realized that any editing would eliminate its unique Najness. Here it is, more or less in its entirety. I've added my own comments at the end.


Here is a common NFL [or college] situation. You are losing by 2 TDs in the 4th quarter, say 21-7. Essentially, to win you need to score 2 TDs to tie it up and then win in overtime, while shutting out your opponent.

So, Team A has the ball down 14 with 10 mins or 6 mins or 3 minutes left, drives down the field for the TD, and then the only debate centers on kicking deep versus going for the onsides kick.

Aha, but the mistake has already occurred!

We, for our entire football-watching/coaching careers, implicitly assume that the Team after scoring the TD should kick the XP to cut the margin to 21-14.

But, if you’re trying to win the game [and as Herm Edwards reminds us, ‘You play to Win the Game’] you shouldn’t kick! You should *always* go for 2 here.

I can hear you laughing, so some very simple math will show us the light where ‘common sense’ has failed.

NFL Teams are 60-65% to score from the 1, and 55% to score from the 2-pt conversion market. Let’s be conservative and call it 50%, fair?*

Scenario A: You score 2 TDs, kick XPs and go to Overtime. You are 98% to hit both XPs and 50% to win in overtime, OT famously being a coin-flip. We can call that 49-50% odds of Winning.

Scenario B: You go for 2 after your first TD:

B1) 50% of the time you make it, and are only down 6. With your next TD you kick the XP as normal to win the game.

50% of the time you miss, and are down 8 now:

B2) Down 8, you score another TD and covert the 2 50% of the time. You go to Overtime, where you win 50% of the time. Odds of this = 12.5%.

B3) You miss both 2-pters, and lose the game.

So, you have a 50% chance of winning in Scenario A, and a 62.5% [5/8 for the percentage challenge] in Scenario B. And that’s with using a conservative 50% estimate of converting for 2 on the play.

In addition, in Scenario B1 you have additional winning chances because you no longer need a TD to tie it, you can kick two FGs and take it to overtime if you can?t penetrate the end zone.

So the odds of going for 2 from the start are at least 25% better than trying to get to OT.

In fact, Team A needs to have an incredibly awful <40%>

Bonus : Coaches/players/fans who passionately ‘believe’ in their teams and like playing ‘aggressive’ are rewarded both qualitatively and quantitatively. Win-win!

So why don’t Coaches use this obvious logic and try to win more games?

I think you already know the answer: they’d rather go into OT and win ~50% of the time than have a 63% chance of winning in the 4th Q, because 20-25% of the time they miss both conversions and lose in regulation [as if that’s worse than losing in OT].

Coaches in the NFL would rather keep their jobs than win games. But I remain amazed that the Pats, or Steelers, or Eagles or etc have yet to realize the error of their ways.

The math is so simple I’m sure I’m not the first person to figure this out, but I have not seen this discussed anywhere on the various sites I follow, not even the smart guys at Football Outsiders but it certainly could appear there or at 2p2 or elsewhere.

ps I did just find this paper which shows the math in more detail, but uses a 6% miss XP rate for NFL kicker which is absurd [approx right for NCAA], the the conclusion and analysis is still correct.

Oh, I didn't even mention the 'surprise' factor of doing this - 21-7, you drive down and score with 6 mins left, the Def trots off and the S/T comes on with like 9 lineman and 2 safeties, and your offense lines up either gaining a *huge* advantage or forcing the other team to take a timeout. [You could even be really sneaky and have the Off pretend to walk off, then run back to the LoS and snap the ball, or put the kicker in with like 3 WRs and run a fake, etc, etc.]

*Naj did find some additional research that indicated a 43% success rate for 2 point conversions which would make the winrate 55% instead of 62%. Still considerably better than the 50% winrate that we typically expect for overtime.

Additional Comments

As many of us know there is a growing body of research in football that is discovering that many of the standard strategies are wrong. Teams punt far too often. Teams should run more on third down than they do. Naj gets into something else but I'm not sure I agree with him, or at least not completely. The question comes down to whether to go for the win in regulation rather than the win in overtime. Taking a simpler equation, a game scoring touchdown at the end of regulation, assuming a 99% conversion rate for extra points and a 43% conversion rate for two point conversions the team is still more likely to win by taking the game to overtime.

Naj argues that from a two touchdown deficit the two point conversion should be attempted on the first touchdown, and then if missed the team would (of course) attempt to tie the game with a two pointer on the second touchdown. The net net of this is that the team would outright lose in regulation 33% of the time, would outright win in regulation 43% of the time for an overall 55% winrate when using this strategy (assuming the team in deficit is able to score twice). While I can't argue with the math, it is so specific to this situation: down exactly two touchdowns with <10 minutes, it is easy to see why teams don't pursue the strategy. It simply doesn't come up very often. And for Naj's last question: why don't the "smart" teams realize this and do it, I think the answer is pretty obvious. For one thing, they are down exactly two touchdowns far less often than the dumb teams, and they are in a position where they will win more than 50% if the game goes to overtime, sometimes far more than 50%. Take 2008, teams like Pittsburgh or Baltimore or Tennessee would have been foolish to settle for a 55% winrate in regulation. They could count on their defense to prevent a score on an opening possession 80% of the time (made up number).

Thanks Naj for the contribution.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Two mistakes

Couple games this past weekend where coaches made the same tactical error.

First the Redskins game. Skins had the ball
4th and goal at the 1 with 7 mins left in a scoreless 1st quarter. Gotta kick the FG, right? No! Zorn chooses to run it in. They handoff to Portis and send him to the left, and he gets stuffed.

That result was bad enough for Washington, but then on the ensuing possession the Lions drove 99 yards for a TD to take the lead. That's at least a 10-pt swing. Skins went on to lose by 5: a FG would have made a big difference in this game. At the very least, the Skins final desperate drive could have played out differently if they only needed 3 to win, as opposed to needing a TD.

(Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell wrote that Zorn made another mistake that gave away points. The Lions failed to convert a 3rd-and-3, and were left facing the choice of either punting or attempting a 50+ yd FG. But Zorn accepted a penalty, which gave the Lions 3rd-and-13. They converted, and went on to score a TD on the drive. That's +4 points to the Lions, in addition to the -3 to the Redskins from the non-FG attempt: more points than the final margin. Looks bad. But I don't agree that it's cut-&-dried that Zorn was wrong on that sequence. He said in the post-game that the Detroit kicker had made eight 50-yd FGs last season, so they were in range, and he felt he had to push them out of range. That makes sense. The decision would have looked better if the D had held on 3rd-and-13.)

Zorn's decision is in violation of a basic tenet of the game. Or at least I think it's a basic tenet: I picked it up from the first football book I ever read, John Madden's Hey, Wait a Minute, I Wrote a Book from 1984. Maybe Madden's opinions made too strong an impression on me, as they were the first I was exposed to. But this still makes sense to me 25 yrs later: the hardest, most important score to get in the game is the first one. Do anything to get that goose egg off the scoreboard. Madden wrote that it seemed to him that once you scored those first points, other points seemed to come more easily. You also never know how the game is going to play out: what kind of opportunities you are going to get, what kind of score will hold up. Take the first points. Later on you can get fancy, go for it on 4th down or try for two points or whatever the game situation dictates. But to start the game, break up the shutout by whatever means necessary. Get on the scoreboard. Take the points.

John Harbaugh faced a similar decision with about 11 mins to play in a scoreless first quarter. The Ravens had the ball 4th and about a half-yard to go between the Brownies 10 and 11 yard line. Harbaugh sent Joe Flacco on a QB sneak, picked up 2 yards, and the Ravens scored a TD on the next play. The rout was on.

Harbaugh's call seems like a mistake to me. Take the 1st points. Having said that, I think there are some mitigating factors that make Harbaugh's decision less of a mistake than Zorn's. A look at some these might be instructive. If nothing else, it will illumine just how bad Zorn's call was.

For one thing, the Ravens did a couple of things tactically to give themselves the best chance of converting the down.

• They ran up to the line quickly and got the play off fast – something like 20 seconds after the refs unpiled the previous play. The Browns may not have been ready; the CBS crew definitely wasn't, they barely cut to the live field in time for the snap.

• The Ravens did not mess around with their play-calling, they ran a QB sneak. I would like to see some stats on this: it seems to me the sneak is almost automatic in "and one" situations. (You associate the sneak with certain players. Was Steve McNair ever stopped on a sneak with one yard to go?) This has got to be the one play most likely to net you a single yard. Useless for anything else: but if you absolutely positively need one, the sneak will get that for you.

Another factor in comparing Harbaugh's decision with Zorn's is the roster. The Redskins O-line is famously weak. It's so bad that the Skins running game becomes one-dimensional, they tend to run it only to the left behind Chris Samuels and Derrick Dockery. If everyone in the stadium knows where the ball is going to go, that's got to stack the odds against the Redskins in that situation. By contrast, the Ravens have a very strong O-line. Last year they had the most productive running game in the NFL. They also have one of the most inventive running games. OC Cam Cameron will go with unbalanced lines, end-arounds, pulls & traps, straight ahead smash-mouth man blocking, option runs, fullback dives – everything. With the draft of Michael Oher this year, the Ravens O-line can go to either side behind powerful athletic run blocking. Which O-line would you rather run behind, if you absolutely positively had to pick up 1 yard?

(I was going to mention that the Ravens have a big strong QB in 6-6 Joe Flacco, as another advantage for this situation. But the Skins QB is a pretty big & strong guy himself. He & Flacco are both listed at 230, with Campbell only an inch shorter. Campbell is probably stronger than Flacco; and has more of a background as a runner, having played his college ball at Auburn. So wait a minute, doesn't it seem like Campbell would be a great candidate to run the sneak? Oh but Zorn didn't call the sneak, he handed it off.)

And of course, Harbaugh's decision worked. It's easy to criticize that as "results oriented thinking", but the NFL is a results-oriented league.

The differences between Harbaugh's and Zorn's situations is stark. Zorn's Redskins crumbled last season, going 2-6 to end the year, then began this season 1-1. They lost at the Giants, in a game that probably wasn't as close as the final score, and barely beat the Rams in week 2 on the strength of 3 FGs (no TDs). Zorn may have felt he needed to jump-start his offense, but now we can see clearly that the Redskins are a bad team, or on the edge of being a bad team, and more than anything they need to eke out a few wins. The Lions game for them was the first of 4 straight against winless opponents: time to right the ship.

On the other hand, Harbaugh might have a chance at a Super Bowl. There's no question about whether he has a good team: the question is how much they can achieve this season. The answer to that might depend on whether he can transform his team into an offensive juggernaut. That's clearly the task that Harbaugh & Cam Cameron have set themselves, judging by the play-calling thru three games: overturning 10 years of futility & frustration on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe part of that is taking some risks to get touchdowns in the red zone early in the season.

I still think you should take the points. But if this Ravens offense continues to grow, and it takes them to the promised land, then I might have to concede that Harbaugh knew what he was doing.


Two overrated units

It goes without saying that you're never as good as you look when you're thrashing an overmatched opponent, and never as bad as you look when the Steelers D is shutting you down. This early in the season, two teams have units that have shot toward the top of the league rankings, on the basis of games against inferior competition.

One of them is obvious; every commentator has mentioned that these guys are likely for a fall. That of course is the
defense of the Denver Broncos. They've given up only 16 points in 3 games, a 2000-Ravens-esque number, and parlayed that into a 3-0 record. The Broncos have given up half as many points as the #2 D, the Jets. Is this for real?

No. The Broncos last 2 opponents have been the Browns and Raiders, who could not score in a walkthru on an empty field. Their first win was against the Bengals, which may turn out to be a quality win, esp given the big number they hung on the Packers in week 2. But I think we can still consider the Bengals suspect.

Reality is coming at Denver in a hurry. They are 3-0 on their way to 4-7 or worse. They're about to start a 5-game losing streak (Dallas, Patriots, @Chargers, @ Ravens, Steelers), and while the game #9 matchup with the Redskins looks very winnable after this weekend, that game is in DC (actually Landover MD). Travelling West-to-East is tough, and the Skins can probably win some home games. Then Denver has the Chargers again and the Giants, to complete the reality-adjustment part of their schedule. If they don't beat the Redskins, Denver could need to win a road game in Kansas City to break an 8-game losing streak. Two of their last 4 games are @Indy and @Philly.

I think it's safe to say that the Broncos won't be the #1-rated D in 3 weeks.

The other overrated unit should be obvious, but every commentator has been eager to pile onto this bandwagon. Sadly, it's the Ravens offense. Baltimore is #2 in the league with 34.3 pts per game and 430 yards per game. These are excellent numbers: but the Ravens have piled them up against the defenseless Browns and Chiefs. Even the game against the one good opponent the Ravens have faced is a little tainted: San Diego lost their starting Pro Bowl NT and another D-lineman just before the game.

Baltimore's pace just can't be maintained.

The nice thing for the Ravens is that their performance indicates substantial improvement on offense. Time was they couldn't roll up 22 first downs in a scrimmage; now they're doing it against the Chargers in San Diego. Maybe they're not really a top 3 offense: but the fact that they can blow out some teams indicates they could "really" be a top 10 offense. That's plenty good enough: it's a drastic change from what Ravens fans are used to.
Baltimore's reality checks are going to come spread out this season, not concentrated into one stretch. They have one this weekend in Foxboro; then in 2 weeks in Minnesota. Their toughest stretch of the season might be the one starting Nov 8: two road games in the division, then Indy, Steelers, @ Green Bay.

What are we likely to see from the Ravens offense? Probably what we have seen so far: they'll blow out weak teams, and put forth a credible (but not dominating) performance against good teams. Depending on how good the defense is, that might be good enough to get the Ravens back to the conference title game.


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