Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is this even possible?

We were talking about Strength & Conditioning last week. From the Baltimore Sun:

Zbikowski poised to take next step for Ravens

While Ed Reed rehabilitates his surgically reconstructed hip, Zbikowski, 25, will likely get the first shot at replacing the team's Pro Bowl free safety. ... If passing camps meant anything, Zbikowski is ready to step in. He showed better quickness and more understanding of the defense this summer than in either of his previous two seasons with the Ravens.
The Arlington Heights, Ill., native headed back to his offseason training haunt, the Turner Pain and Wellness Center in Naperville, Ill. There, he told owner Mark Turner he needed to address several self-described deficiencies, including change of direction, acceleration and jumping ability.
"This was probably the first year he was honest with himself in what he needed to improve upon," Turner said. "He felt like he was 3 inches away from a lot of big plays last year. He has really grown up this year and taken responsibility."
Turner put Zbikowski through an exotic routine of plyometrics and functional sport- and position-specific exercises. Turner said Zbikowski increased his vertical jump by nearly 8 inches. "Before, he couldn't touch the rim," Turner said. "Now he can dunk." Zbikowski also wanted to strengthen his neck and improve his durability in case he gets to return punts this season. He added 21/2 inches to his neck, Turner said. ...
"Tom trained like a beast in the offseason," Pagano said. "He's leaner than he's ever been. He's explosive. He's got great range. You see the instincts, you see the ball skills, so I'm sure glad we got the kid."

Wait. Is it even possible to add 8 inches to the vertical leap of a conditioned athlete?

It's easy for a non-conditioned guy (like say, me) to make great strides on a S&C program. Heck, any strength coach who can get my vertical leap up to 8-1/2 inches will have added 8 inches to it. But Zbikowski was already a professional athlete. There's no way, is there? If this guy Turner can add 8 inches to someone's vertical leap, every pro athlete in the country would be banging down his door.

Zbikowski has so far in his career been just another big-hitting-but-slow safety. Smart, fundamentally sound, not a playmaker. But what if he's completely transformed himself as a player? The work has already paid off some. This past May the Sun was writing about a big difference in him during OTA's:
Zbikowski gets up to speed
It wasn't just one play, either. Overall, Zbikowski looked quicker and smoother in the drills. That wasn't by accident. Since the season ended, the former Notre Dame star has been working on his vertical leap "to get an extra spring in my step," he said. His idea, he said. "It's a game of speed."
Zbikowski has already shown the defense can count on him. With his new "burst" ...
And Zbikowski hasn't sacrificed muscle at the expense of his new-found speed, either. He played at 192 pounds last year. This camp, he weighed 200.
What an illustration of the impact of a S&C program on a player. Can't wait to see him this preseason.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Coaching Carousel

ROOKIES REPORT!!!! Training camp is here! The long dark interregnum of baseball is nearly over. The Hall of Fame game is in 12 days, other preseason games the weekend after.

'Bout time we looked at the Carousel, huh?

A year ago, fully one third of the league's coaches were all new. After all that upheaval, a much smaller group this year:

TeamNew CoachFormerly
SeattlePete CarrollUSC HC; Patriots HC
BuffaloChan GaileyCowboys HC; Ga Tech HC; misc OC
RedskinsMike Shanahan
Broncos HC; star OC

Our task with these guys is to divide them into three groups, based on whether they will Succeed, Fail, or Muddle Along Respectably. Interestingly, all three of them have winning records as NFL head coaches, which has got to be unusual for classes of rookie coaches. That ought to make it easy to project success for all of them, right?


No. None of them will succeed. Move along, nothing to see here.


Chan Gailey
Buffalo; formerly Cowboys HC, Ga Tech HC, misc OC

First, let's get a handle on exactly how preposterously arrogant this judgment is. Chan Gailey has about 35 years experience as a football coach, college and pro, including experience as a head coach, college and pro. He has a winning record as an NFL head coach. Here's a timeline of his football career:

as playerQuarterback, Univ of Florida3yr letter winner
as coach

1974-75Grad Asst, Univ of Florida
1976-78Secondary, Troy St
1979-80Defensive Asst, Air Force
1981-82Defensive Coord, Air Force
1983-84Head Coach, Troy StDiv II Natl Champship 1984
1985Spec Teams/Def Asst, Broncos
1986-87Spec Teams/Tight Ends, Broncos
1988QBs/WRs, BroncosElway, Vance Johnson (Dan Reeves)
1989-90Offensive Coord/WRs, BroncosElway, Vance Johnson (Dan Reeves)
1991-92Head Coach, Birmingham FireWorld League, 2 playoff appearances
1993Head Coach, Samford Univ
1994-95WRs, Steelers4 division titles, and
1996-97Offensive Coord, Steelers3 conf title games, 1 SB appearance
1998-99Head Coach, Cowboys18-14, 2 playoff appearances. Undef in div in '98
2000-01Offensive Coord, DolphinsTwo 11-5 records (Dave Wannstedt)
2002-07Head Coach, Georgia Tech6 bowl appearances, 44-33 overall
2008Offensive Coord, ChiefsGonzalez & Bowe over 1,000 yds. Fired in 2009 preseason

This is a guy who knows a little bit of football, right? It takes a fair amount of gall for a blogger to sit in judgment on a guy who's won one championship in college, taken another college team to 6 bowl games in 7 years, and made the playoffs 4 times in 4 seasons as a pro head coach

Ok, with that out of the way – the perception of Gailey back when he was the Cowboys coach in 1998-9 was that he was one of those guys, like Norv Turner, who is a quality coordinator but doesn't have quite the leadership charisma to succeed as an NFL head coach. Gailey fielded one good team for the Cowboys, at 10-6, and then one 8-8 team before Jerry Jones pulled the plug. Maybe this perception is unfair: the Cowboys were bad the year before Gailey got there, in Barry Switzer's final season, and they were terrible over the next 3 seasons after Gailey left, under Dave "5-11" Campo. But that perception is out there. Let's say there's some truth to it.

(Gailey also somehow managed go get fired as the Chiefs offensive coordinator last year, 3 games into the preseason. That was weird.)

This year's edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac has an article on the Bills which does a nice job of detailing the challenges they face. Some of it is organizational: they are not in a big revenue market and just don't have a lot of money, for things like free agents and a big scouting dept and high-profile coaches. Some of it is the personnel: the team is weak at QB, weak at WR, shaky on the O-line, and their defensive personnel is best suited to playing the scheme they played last year and are abandoning this year. And some of it is the coaching staff: the offensive coordinator has never been a coordinator before, and the defensive coordinator is also pretty raw.

Put that all together and – well, this team still has to compete in the division with Belichick's Patriots, Rex Ryan's Jets, and the Parcells/Sparano Dolphins. There just aren't that many wins or playoff appearances lying around to be grabbed. The Bills last made the playoffs in 1999, under current Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. They're not going back anytime soon.

Muddle Along

Pete Carroll
Seattle; formerly USC HC, Patriots HC

This may seem like a snap judgment. Carroll was wildly, wildly successful at USC; and he's not entirely a college guy. He has a winning record as an NFL head coach!

I gotta say, I don't entirely believe in Carroll. For one thing, he seems to have gotten out of USC just a few steps ahead of the NCAA enforcement cops. For another, he doesn't have Norm Chow around this team to install the offense.

And just how good was Carroll as an NFL head coach, the first time around? He took over a Super Bowl squad from Bill Parcells, and over the next three seasons won 10 games, 9 games, and 8 games. Then the job went to Belichick and two years later the Pats were winning Super Bowls. A surprising number of key players for the SB-winning teams were already in place in '96, including:

Terry Glenn
Willie McGinest
Ted Johnson
Ty Law
Lawyer Milloy

Carroll had those guys plus Pro Bowlers Curtis Martin & Ben Coates, and still declined in wins each season. If Carroll is so good, shouldn't he have gotten more out of those teams?

I dunno, I've just never believed in Carroll. On the other hand, the Seahawks do have Alex Gibbs coaching the O-line, and Sherman Smith coaching the running backs. It's likely they will be able to run the ball, eventually. Also, secondary coach Jerry Gray knows his business. The competition in the AFC West is not as formidable as some, although Whisenhunt has done good things in Arizona and Singletary's team might turn the corner in San Francisco.

They'll muddle along.

Mike Shanahan
Redskins; formerly Broncos HC, star OC

What the hell?

Shanahan won 4 division titles in Denver, with 7 total playoff appearances, and he won 2 Super Bowls. Won 2 Super Bowls! He had 2 losing seasons out of 14 in Denver, both of them coming when he turned over to the next QB (Brian Griese from Elway, Jay Cutler from Plummer). His winning pctg in Denver was over .600. This guy can coach. His stint coaching the Raiders offers no evidence to the contrary. He took a bad Raiders team to 7-9 and then was fired 4 games into the next season.

The Redskins also have an actual professional GM now, in Bruce Allen. Allen won the George Young Executive of the Year award in 2002, while with the Raiders. He navigated the Bucs out of salary cap hell while putting 3 winning teams on the field in 4 seasons, 2005-8. So far the Redskins have acted responsibly, making reasonable picks in this year's draft and not throwing huge money at free agents. They've actually had a brilliant offseason, reworking their QB situation and O-line while not trading away any future picks.

So what's the problem?

It's not easy to see how The Danny will screw it up, but it's almost impossible to believe he won't.

It's easy to forget how good Joe Gibbs was, and why he is in the Hall of Fame. Here's a nugget for you: before he returned to bail out The Danny, Gibbs' career playoff winning pctg was .761. That put Gibbs just behind guys like Vince Lombardi (.900!) and Weeb Ewbank (.800!) – and ahead of everybody else. Joe Gibbs was not able to win under Dan Snyder. Joe Gibbs! In 4 Snyder seasons Gibbs went 30-34 with 2 playoff appearances. His pre-Snyder winning pctg was .674.

Yeah but, you say, Gibbs was saddled with the football albatross, Vinny Cerrato. Shanahan is working with a pro, Bruce Allen. Ok. But Bruce Allen is mostly known for his skill working the cap, and for his ability to work closely with a strong head coach; not as a personnel genius. Who's the guy in the organization who is going to draft well? Shanahan is a really great coach. But his weakness is personnel, as was demonstrated rather clearly when he took sole control the last few years in Denver.

Now, the Redskins can do pretty well just by being well-coached and not screwing up in the draft and free agency. They can climb to respectability, to being competitive, just on that basis alone. But I don't see how they're going to break thru – esp in the NFC East! The Giants, the Cowboys, Andy Reid's Eagles! – without someone drafting brilliantly and building a great defense. Who in this group is going to do that?

I hate to disrespect Shanahan, but it seems to me like the next 3 years in Washington are going to be more like Shanahan's last 3 years in Denver, than his first 3 years in Denver. And what happens after 3 years of solid but unspectacular performance? Whose trigger finger is going to start getting itchy?

Yeah, that's right. The Skins are already struggling under the weight of the Albert Haynesworth contract. I give him two seasons before he makes a similarly splashy yet ill-judged move.

So there you go! Another little glimpse into the future from the Oblong Spheroid. Tune in next year, when we foretell the futures of the new coaching staffs of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, among others.


Monday, July 26, 2010

"Let's Take It From Them"

From Jim's popular category of 'things I meant to post a while ago but didn’t' comes a discussion from Brian Burke where he tries to tie NFL economics to more classical ones. While his ideas are interesting, I really can't say I agree with him at all.

Personally, I think they're all overpaid, rookies and veterans. If you ask most football players if they would still play football for $80,000 per year instead of $800,000 or $8 million, they'd say yes. It's almost certainly a better proposition than whatever else they'd be able to do in the labor market. If Sam Bradford had the choice between playing in the NFL for $80k/yr or looking for an entry level job in Oklahoma City, what do you think he'd do? Every dollar above $80k is icing on the cake. Technically, it could be considered economic rent.


It seems to me almost all of the economic rent in professional sports goes to the players. It's hard to imagine any other multi-billion dollar company paying more than 60% of its revenue to a few hundred employees. It's not that the salaries are high in absolute terms, it's that the athletes would gladly play for far less. I think that's partly why so many people object to the high salaries for many professional athletes.
Like I said, clever.

While this argument fails in a number of spots, its primary flaw is simply that Burke uses rhetorical ploys - he flails at peoples' sensibilities - in the place of sound reasoning. It hardly matters whether "multi-billion" dollar companies pay "60% of its revenue to a few hundred employeeds". The reason that they don't is that other multi-billion dollar companies rely on many more than a few hundred people to make things go, and professional sports are unique in that their highest paid employees are also their primary product. Investment banking (eg) follows similar principles, with their highest paid employees getting much more than professional athletes, however they have huge support networks feeding providing them with tools. NFL players have a couple of position coaches and strength trainers. Regardless, most multi-billion dollar companies do not have people as the primary product.

This discussion became topical recently since Domonique Foxworth's candid discussion of labor talks. Foxworth appears to be on the short list of players who may replace Kevin Mawae as NFLPA president.

What about allocating money to veteran players if a rookie wage scale is adopted?

Foxworth: "We had a meeting with the NFL and they said they wanted the money to go the veteran players. We said we would agree to it if they would guarantee all of that money would go to veteran players. They said we're not willing to make that guarantee. The rookie wage scale, in all honesty, they're using it as smoke and mirrors. It works in the NBA, but they have the Larry Bird exception.

"Those players get to be free agents a lot sooner and they can make so much money like a LeBron James. It works there. If they adopted the same model, we would consider it. But they're not interested in changing it. They're interested in changing it in a way that would hurt us. I think players should get paid on potential. The onus falls on general managers to make the right decisions on draft picks. They get steals in many cases."

With the owners refusing to reveal their financial records, at what point does the union stop asking for them to open up their books?

Foxworth: "We've negotiated without it up until this point. It's not something that we've been necessarily pleased with. In the interest of keeping the fans happy and keeping our product going, we'd be willing to agree to a good deal. Right now, they're not offering a good deal. They're offering a bad deal and saying we can't see their books. We would be willing to consider a good deal. It's unfair. There's no other companies that expect one group to negotiate with another group where you can't see all their cards and they can see yours. It's ridiculous. It's unfair."

I know that a lot of this is posturing. I'm probably a bit naive but when it comes to something like labor negotiations I fail to see the benefit of winning in the court of public opinion. The NFL won't open their books because they don't have to open their books. Those of us who remember the strikes of '82 and '87 can reasonably predict a similar pattern. As soon as the game checks stop flowing the pressure on the union to reach an agreement will intensify exponentially. A third of the NFLPA will realize their entire NFL income over the course of 1-2 seasons. Every week without a game is a minimum loss of $20k per player.

A few months ago Robert Kraft attempted to explain the NFL's position, disputing that the league was actually requesting an 18% rollback from the negotiated numbers.

The bottom line on this deal, in the new deal, is 75 percent of all the revenue has gone to the players since ’06. We just can’t survive doing that. It means we’re not gonna take risks, and that’s not good."
If this is true then I wonder what kind of calculus the league agreed to that made 60% into 75%. Kraft's claim was supported by the Packers recent financial statement (Green Bay publicly traded, ergo public financials).
During the four years of the current collective bargaining agreement, player costs increased 11.8 percent and revenue 5.5 percent annually, said Mark Murphy, president and CEO.

Player expenses include salaries, signing bonuses, health care plans, retirement plans and other payments to players. The team spreads the cost of signing bonuses over the life of contracts – called amortization – but otherwise generally account for player costs as they arise.

“We always try to follow conservative accounting policy,” Weyers said.

Murphy said that since the most recent collective bargaining agreement took effect in 2006-07, Packers’ revenue increased incrementally by $131.7 million. Of that, $123.4 million, or 94.3 percent, went to players.

If true, anyone can see that this is unsustainable, but again it raises the question of how 60% isn't 60%.

Okay, so enough meandering for now. Other than 'they're all lying' (which they are). It is hard to see how this will play out. I suspect that the NFLPA will look hard at the recent lesson learned by the NHL players and hammer out a deal before the clock strikes midnight.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Chris Henry's Brain

Under the heading of “stuff I meant to post about 3 weeks ago”, we have this:

Former Bengal Henry Found to Have Had Brain Damage
By Alan Schwarz, NYT
Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University announced on Monday that Henry, 26, had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive brain disease whose recent discovery in some retired N.F.L. players has raised questions of football’s long-term safety risks. The 22nd professional football player to be given a diagnosis of C.T.E., Henry is the first to have died with the disease while active after 2007, when prior C.T.E. findings prompted the N.F.L. to begin strengthening rules regarding concussion management.
It's taken me forever to write about this; and now that I force myself to do it, I realize that the problem is that I don't really have anything to say on the subject.

Much respect to Alan Schwarz at the Grey Lady, who has kept this subject (brain deterioration in NFL players) in the forefront as a story. Ultimately I think it's THE most important football story. I'm proud of our little blog for talking about it consistently. But overall it's hard to be anything but sad.
“I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I’m struggling to see if something can come out positive out of this.”
Dr Bailes is right. If Chris Henry developed CTE by age 26, then don't all NFL players have it, to one degree or another? Has a former player ever been tested for it, and found not to have it? The only thing I can see coming out of this, ultimately, is a ban on contact football for youth players.

While we ponder the levels of moroseness and guilt appropriate to the topic of CTE and football, go read this amazing series. Rick Telander is a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times, and a former Northwestern football player. He did a series of articles:
“The Team: What football did for us and – what football did to us” is a nine-part series by Sun-Times' award-winning columnist Rick Telander about the 1968-1970 Northwestern Wildcats, a team for which he played. This story begins at a brain research lab in Massachusetts, and it will end there, too. But on the way it moves about the country as Telander visits with old teammates and talks about the sport they played together years ago, the one that shaped them, rewarded them and wounded them.
This is must-read stuff.
What football did for us and - what football did to us
The story of the 1968-1970 Northwestern Wildcats
Part 1: What football did for us and - what football did to us
Part 2: 'I have lost words on air occasionally'
Part 3:The study too far ahead of its time
Part 4: 'I liked the physical contact. A lot of people don't like it. I always did.'
Part 5:'I had my concussions, but I never would allow myself to be held out of a game for that.'
Part 6:'I was fuzzy after I hit a guy's knee'
Part 7: 'I was never diagnosed with a concussion, but ...'
Part 8: 'I have to jot things down to remember them'
Part 9: 'I'm a cheerleader for the brain'


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nick Saban: The Idiot Father

Tuesday Nick Saban dropped his pants to show that he has bigger, hairier balls than all of us combined when he called out the NFL to do something about agents that assist student athletes to get in trouble.

I think that the players have a responsibility to make good choices and decisions about what they do with the agents. I also think the NFL Players Association has a responsibility to monitor and control what agents do.

I think if an agent does anything to affect the eligibility of a college football player, his license ought to be suspended for a year. That's the only way we're going to stop what's happening out there because it's ridiculous and it's entrapment of young people at a very difficult time in their life. And it's very difficult for the institutions and NCAA to control it and it's very unfair to college football.

I think as college coaches, we should look into doing something about that relative to we develop a lot of football players so they can go on and play in the NFL. We treat the NFL as well as anybody in the United States when they come to the University of Alabama. If something doesn't go on from their end of it to control what they're doing to affect our players, then I'm not sure that that same hospitality will be welcomed in the future.
Now, while Saban gives the boiler-plate "players should be responsible" quote at the beginning of what I've quoted here, it's brushed over quickly as though it's inconsequential. Instead he focuses on two other entities. First, the dirty agents, who I'm not exonerating; they share a great deal of responsibility in this matter. I happen to agree with him that the agents should face stiff penalties for coaxing these kids to break rules (same with boosters, though their schools may impose penalties on them that I/we don't know about). Second, the NFL, which for some reason should supposedly share the blame for college kids getting into trouble at the hands of agents and boosters playing fast and loose with their money and the rules.

The problem is that this comes off as the idiot father looking to assign blame to anyone but himself when his kid goes off and gets himself in trouble.

It doesn't help that Saban's not exactly a likable character, and is already seen as looking to stab the NFL in the back any chance he gets with how he treated the Dolphins. But here he just looks to be ducking his responsibility to teach his own kids a lesson. That's right Nick, everyone here's at fault except you and the schools. You're all just looking out for their best interests, not trying to cut corners yourselves.

Tomorrow, Nick has some fantastic soon to be highly developed real estate opportunities in the 'Bama wetlands that he'd love to discuss with you!

Postscript: For what it's worth, I agree with Saban that agents are out of control here. The fact that schools are hammered constantly as well as the students, while no punishment is levied against the agents is ridiculous. However, what the NFL has to do with this, I have no idea, and his threats against the NFL sound to me like a bitter kid that's angry he was left off the invite list to a party. Plus, the coaches need to take some responsibility here themselves...Saban acting as though the coaches don't have a clue what goes on with their kids getting paid is laughably asinine.


Dan Snyder has a love of learning

Dan Steinberg writes the DC Sports Bog for the Washington Post. Not "blog", it's "bog" as in swamp or getting bogged down. And he's brilliant. Today he writes:

What Daniel Snyder has learned: A brief history
Now we're on the eve of another training camp, and many of the introductory stories will surely focus yet again on what Snyder has learned: hiring a general manager and a strong coach, backing away from personnel decisions, cutting his friendly ties with players, and so on. For example, from Fox Sports this summer:
"I learned - and I think this has to do with Joe Gibbs - the most important thing for me personally is to have a head coach who is extremely competent," Snyder said. "That's what I've got with Mike. It creates an opportunity for me to be extremely hands off and not have to worry."
But -- without being a total crank -- it seems worth pointing out that this year isn't the first time people will talk about what Snyder has learned, and last year wasn't, either. A brief history:
And then Steinberg lists 10 years of quotes from Snyder, about what he has learned this year. They're stunning and beautiful, listed like that.

Oct, 2001: Now I've learned...
Jan, 2002: Ok, now I've really learned...
Mar, 2003: Ok, this time we really are going to build thru the draft...

Great work by Steinberg. Go read it.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How Good Will Sidney Rice and the Vikes Offense Be?

It’s getting to be fantasy football time, and as it happens I’m in two leagues for reasonable amounts of money where keepers are used. One league is an auction where it costs dollars to keep players. The other is a snake draft where you lose the pick where the player was taken, and if the player was undrafted you lose your pick in the last round.

It so happens that I have DeSean Jackson in the 7th and Sidney Rice in the 16th in that league. And in trying to figure out who I want to keep, the question is coming up, how good can Rice be this year? Last year he had a terrific season. In standard point scoring (6/TD, 1/10 yds), he was the 14th highest scoring receiver with 1,200 yards and 6 TDs through six games. It was his third season, he’s primed to break out as an elite fantasy (and NFL) player, right?

I think the answer to this doesn’t lie in how good he is, but how good Brett Favre can and will be again this year. And there-in lies the problem. Last year, one of the major reasons Rice had such a terrific season is because Favre had his best season in years. It’s arguable he had his best season ever, though I do think ’95 was better.

How much better was it? Last season, Favre was:
363/531, 68.4%, 4,202 yds, 33 TD (6.2%) and 7 INT (1.3%) with 7.9 YPA

Over the past ten years prior to last season, his average numbers were:
340/552, 61.6%, 3,832 yds, 25 TD (4.5%) and 19 INT (3.5%) with 6.9 YPA

And if you take his best numbers from any of those ten seasons, his numbers are:
66.5%, 4,155 yds, 32 TD (6.8%) and 15 INT (2.8%) with 7.8 YPA
That’s a combo of his best from ’07 and ’03.

Now, while the Vikes offense is likely to be very good again next year – assuming Favre can continue to play at a high level – any smart betting man has to assume there’s going to be a regression here. Last year’s numbers weren’t simply better than what Favre’s typically done the last few years…they were significantly better. It’s almost impossible to imagine him repeating those numbers. This, especially in light of both the fact that he’ll be 41 and that the Saints gave somewhat of a blueprint of how to pound him off his game.

As such, we also need to expect Rice to take a step back. At some point I may look at what happens to an emerging receiver and what his numbers look like when his QB has a terrific season, and then regresses to the mean the following season. But it simply makes sense that if Favre pulls back, so will Rice.

To improve upon his numbers, Rice will not only have to contend with a QB likely to perform below what Favre did last season, he’ll also be competing with the fact that there is one other young up-and-coming player and two established veterans around him that are likely to take opportunities. Percy Harvin played exceptionally well as a rookie and should be more prominent in the passing game his second season. And Schiancoe – while maybe not likely to improve upon his 11 TDs – is going to perform, while Berrian and his $40something million contract is going to get his fair share of balls thrown his way as well.

I expect the Vikings offense to play well again this year. However, I don’t buy the people saying Rice will improve. I think it’s far more likely he’ll regress. His only real shot in my opinion is to improve his TD numbers. And that could happen…move three of Schiancoe’s TDs to Rice and it’ll make up for 100 – 200 in lost yardage. But if Favre looks much more human with say 4,000 yards, 27 TDs and 14 INTs (still well above his average from the last ten years), plus Harvin improves and plays a more prominent role, I think Rice will have significant difficulty even just matching last year’s performance.

As for my FFL where I need to choose between Rice and DeSean? I moved Rice to a guy who let me trade my first pick in the 4th and last pick in the 5th for his first pick in the 3rd and last pick in the 4th. Makes the decision very easy for me, and I’ll let someone else worry about wondering why Rice isn’t scoring at the top of the league every week this season.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hell Week, with Donavan McNabb

Here's something interesting, from the Washington Post:

Donovan McNabb's 'Hell Week' gives Redskins' offense a chance to get in sync
Donovan McNabb's "Hell Week" is scheduled to get underway bright and early Monday morning in Arizona. ... McNabb invited the Redskins' wide receivers, tight ends and running backs to Arizona to take part in his regular offseason workout program. It's the same opportunity he offered in the past few years to his former teammates in Philadelphia. Wide receivers Devin Thomas, Santana Moss and Malcolm Kelly are among those expected to participate. McNabb calls it "Hell Week" because of the demanding nature of his workouts, and also because of the extreme summertime heat.
The Redskins' players were expected to land in Phoenix on Sunday with an itinerary waiting for them. The week was expected to begin with an early wake-up call and the players reporting each morning to Fischer Sports, the 20,000-square foot workout facility where McNabb does most of his offseason training. There, Brett Fischer, McNabb's trainer, will lead the group through workouts and exercises nearly identical to the ones the quarterback does during the offseason.
"For them, I think it's an eye-opener what we're doing," said Fischer, whose résumé lists him as a physical therapist, an athletic trainer and a strength-and-conditioning specialist. "I think it's an eye opener for them, comparing themselves with their quarterback, with how hard he's working out here. To me, it's him telling them, 'Hey, I'm taking this thing seriously to the next level. Let's go to the next level.' " ... "People, when they come in here and they see what he does, they're shocked," Fischer says.
After a rest, McNabb summons the players to an area high school field in the late afternoon, where they work on routes. They also will assemble for seven-on-seven drills, against other athletes trained by Fischer, including New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. ... After the workouts, McNabb and his teammates head to a movie or dinner. The key, they say, is just being around each other as much as possible.
The annual week was a staple of McNabb's offseason routine with the Eagles, and it brought him closer to former teammates such as L.J. Smith, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett and Lorenzo Booker.
I never knew McNabb was one of "those" guys. There are a few NFL players who are/were famous for their offseason conditioning routines. How hard they worked to keep themselves ready. And these guys are largely huge stars, and players of great longevity: Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Ray Lewis, guys like that. Nolan Ryan, in baseball.

("Exceptionally" hard physical work is sort of a nebulous concept when applied to an NFL player. Don't they all prepare themselves exceptionally hard? Well sure, compared to me. I can barely carry the kid upstairs without getting short of breath. But supposedly some guys stand out even from the body of NFL players, in terms of how hard they train. For example, there were a ton of anecdotes about some young receiver or DB showing up to run with Jerry Rice, and never coming back for day 2.)

I never knew McNabb was one of those guys who worked exceptionally hard to prepare himself physically. Somehow that tidbit had not leaked out to national fandom.

And then on top of that, to run essentially a passing camp for your team, every year: that's pretty amazing. Lots of QBs are talked about as "leaders": Manning, Brady et al. But who the hell does that? Another tidbit that had not leaked out to national fandom. Maybe Pheagles fans knew about it, but it had not made it to national attention.

And that all by itself is interesting. McNabb has always been a somewhat controversial figure in the NFL; people have always disagreed about exactly how good he is, even before Chris' examination of McNabb's Hall pass.

And it's usually been true that people closest to the game, players and ex-coaches and ex-scouts, seem to respect him more than media types and statheads and fans. Stuff like this may be part of the reason why.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Steven Jackson's offseason

What have you done on your Summer vacation? You probably think you've had a fun and exciting Summer vacation. I think you've done nothing. Nothing!

Jackson jumps headfirst into Rams shark tank



Matt Hinton, writing on, brings us this:

Every so often, a mass underage drinking bust at a Notre Dame party turns up a handful of Irish football players and other athletes. Sometimes those athletes have famous last names. So the Indiana State Excise Police set their sights at the top of the genetic totem pole this morning, nabbing one Nate "Yes That Montana" Montana and seven teammates among a cast of dozens
Cops swept up a bunch of college-aged kids (about 45 of them) at an off-campus party in South Bend, and not just off-campus but school is out of session too; and more than two dozen of them were Notre Dame student-athletes, including 8 football players. One of the football players was Joe Montana's son Nate.

My first impulse about this is summed up by one of the commenters on the Rivals site, posting as "chereemcglade":
OMG!! College kids drinking, who has ever heard of such a terrible thing!
(That was only the second-best comment on the article, the best being from the guy who swears he thought Hannah Montana was one of Joe's kids.)

This is not something that needs to have any impact on Nate Montana's career, as far as I can see. The only reason I am posting this, and I mean the only reason, is so I can include the pic that accompanied the article:

OMG. Does he look like his dad under that helmet, or what? I got a chill when I saw that.

I would love for him to do well enough that he not only gets to start during his Notre Dame career, but also makes it to the NFL. It would be awesome to see a young Montana under center in the league again. (Hmm, Brian Kelly is now his coach.)

Not that I mean to add any extra pressure. Just getting a scholarship to play football at Notre Dame, and the chance to wear his dad's old number at the alma mater, is a terrific acomplishment. Good luck to the kid.

(By the way there's a younger brother Nick, who's going to be a freshman at Washington this upcoming season. Some of the reports I've seen on this are mixing up Nick and Nate.)


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A History of S&C programs

Under the heading of "stuff I meant to post a week and a half ago" comes this. John D. Lukacs writes on the 4-letter dot com, “Many college football dynasties have roots in strength training.”

Programs decades in the making
Boyd Epley is universally credited for his seminal role in creating the phenomenon of the strength and conditioning program in college football – and deservedly so. The first full-time paid strength coach in history, Epley is also arguably the single most important individual in the history of strength and conditioning in college athletics. ... literally lifted strength and conditioning – and all those who followed in his footsteps – out of the shadows and into the year-round spotlight that is the millennial, media-saturated, modern incarnation of college football.
In the opinion of Buddy Morris [at Pittsburgh], one of the most respected strength coaches in the business and an icon revered by former players, the thinking of old-school coaches and the myths concerning strength and conditioning could not have been more wrong. The weight room – not the film room, not the recruiting trail and not the huddle – was where preparation takes place and where championships were really won.
"If you look at the calendar year, 65 to 67 percent of your time is spent on preparation," Morris said, "and only about 3 to 5 percent on actual game time, the rest being other responsibilities, so if you don't enjoy the process, you're in the wrong sport."
Morris, like Epley decades ago, is on to something. Examples of both sustained and mini-dynasties in college football that have roots in strength training lore abound.
A great story, featuring such characters as Bob Devaney, PT Barnum, and Ara Parseghian. Meet Father Bernard Lange, Boyd Epley, Buddy Morris, Brad Roll, and Mike Gittleson. Go read it.

That percentage Buddy Morris gives above calls to mind what the Bronco's S&C coach said in A Few Seconds of Panic. As Fatsis relates it, the coach told him, “70% of your job is in here.”

70%? Could that be true? It's a side of sports that fans don't see at all, have almost no knowledge of. And it can make or break your team.

John Harbaugh first made his mark on the Ravens, within weeks of joining the team in January, with the offseason lifting program. I read on a message board recently that the Ravens had previously been a machine-based team, and Harbaugh had it all thrown out and replaced with free weights. I don't know if that is true; but that offseason there were quotes from him saying that the offseason program was going well: “weights are flying around.” Previously the team had lifted “by seniority,” whatever that means. Harbaugh changed it so they were lifting by position group – you can see how that would be competitive, guys lifting with their peers. There were also quotes from players about how Harbaugh was a little crazy, and “a strong dude” – he would lift with them sometimes. After Flacco’s first season, Harbaugh talked about how important it was to get Flacco into the offseason weight program, get more strength esp in his lower body.

Point being, here's a young coach who was hired by a team known primarily for its physicality, and for its lack of talent/execution in the passing game. And the first thing he goes after is the strength & conditioning program. The #1 priority. Some of that undoubtedly had to do with the timing of when he was hired: the offseason program was about to begin, and you can only start where you are. But does some of it have to do with how important S&C is? Remember Harbaugh was at Michigan as a child, when his father was an asst coach there; and around the program as a young man when his brother played there. And Mike Gittleson was there. Harbaugh must have absorbed lessons about the importance of the strength & conditioning system to the total football program, at a young age.

(You might wonder who Harbaugh hired to coach S&C when he came to the Ravens. The answer is, Bob Rogucki and John “Mother” Dunn. I know nothing at all about them. You can listen to them talk training here.)

Anecdotes about S&C run all thru sports, when the talk is about great teams and great players. Remember people used to talk about how Walter Payton ran in The Sand in the offseason. Paul Westhead’s basketball teams at Loyola Marymount used to run conditioning sprints on a sand hill. Those were supposed to be killer workouts; the point was that the Marymount players would still be running full speed late in the second half, when other teams had hit the wall.

I'm a Terps basketball fan, have been for a long time. I remember one year they lost a late-season game to rival Virginia, and the TV color guy (who was an ex-coach, it might have even been Terry Holland) described it as a game the Cavaliers won in the offseason in the weight room. In a later game, Maryland was bounced from the postseason by a St Johns team that simply out-physicaled them. Gary hired his ex-player Kurtis Shultz to run the S&C program for the Terps. Kurtis had been, shall we say, a power player on Gary's earliest Terp teams. A big powerful guy, not a guy with a lot of moves, an effort player, really a walking foul. He had gone on to be a S&C coach for 8 years, at nearby Loyola College and Johns Hopkins. He also worked with Ray Lewis some, as a personal trainer. Schultz coached with the Terps for ~3 years – and the Terps won the National Championship in 2002. Now, obviously Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter and Stevie Blake and Chris Wilcox et al had more to do with that than anyone else. But did an improved S&C program play a role? It almost had to, didn't it? Esp when you think about those particular players. Dixon and Blake were skinny, actually looked like Dickensian orphans. But they were wiry strong. Lonny was supposed to be too soft & pudgy to play in the ACC. He was credited with utterly transforming his body from his Freshman to his Junior season. And so forth.

Schultz reaped some professional reward. Marvin Lewis tabbed him to be an asst S&C coach on Lewis' first Bengals coaching staff. It was a pay cut, but “The NFL is a once in a lifetime shot,” the top of the world in the training business. Schultz moved on to be the head guy at Minnesota (I think under Mike Tice), before being pushed out when Brad Childress brought in a whole new staff. Schultz landed on Gruden's Tampa staff as an assistant. Raheem Morris later promoted him to be the head guy.

We've mentioned football, basketball. Obviously baseball has its own S&C culture. I can barely even imagine how central S&C must be to a hockey team. Even golf has been permeated with S&C, and you can thank Tiger Woods. Before Tiger, the conventional wisdom was that weight lifting would mess up your golf swing. But Tiger trained hard, and he forced the rest of the tour to train hard to stay in the game. Maybe that's a bit of an overstatement; but there's no doubt that Tiger trained hard.

What if the S&C program is the single most important thing your favorite team does? What if it's more important than whether they run a West Coast Offense, or a 3-4 D, or any of the other tactical considerations we pay all our attention to? Do you know who the S&C coaches are, of your favorite team? What kind of training do they use with their players?

Lukacs has a related little piece:
Follow these rules … or else
At Florida, strength coach Mickey Marotti runs his weight room like a Marine Corps base and has inspirational quotes from military legends and leaders such as Winston Churchill adorning the walls, is a stickler for uniform behavior, not to mention uniforms. One of Marotti's rules is that no one is allowed to train in his weight room wearing gear featuring the logo of another team, college or professional.
More on the importance of the S&C coach from Pat Forde, who writes:
Strength coaches doing heavy lifting
The fact that Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has an office, and that said office sits in a fitness complex that features more than 250 pieces of weight-training equipment, a 50-meter sprint track and a 45-yard artificial turf field, tells you what strength coaches mean to the modern college football program.
"It used to be that it almost was a boutique thing if you had a strength coach, a luxury," head coach Brian Kelly said. "It's now become a leadership position. The strength and conditioning coordinator is on parallel with the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator."
Because of NCAA rules, the strength coach spends more time in contact with players than anyone else on staff. Although the head coach and position coaches are limited in their dealings with players during the offseason, strength coaches have significantly greater access year-round.
With such a long list of responsibilities, strength coordinators now are paid like topflight assistants at most power programs. ... "After the head coach, the top three people in your program are the strength coach, the strength coach and the strength coach," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. "Because of the 20-hour rule [players can participate in football-related activities for a maximum of 20 hours per week during the season], that person quickly moves to the top of the food chain. They're the closest person to the head coach. It's almost like an associate head coach."
Bruce Feldman has a little related piece, ranking the Top 10 training facilities, for ESPN Insiders only.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Patriots From 1-82

Okay, to begin with I didn't know there was such a thing as ESPN Boston. I am fairly nauseated by the concept. I don't know how many other ESPN [insert city name]s there are. Suffice to say that not all of the major sports markets are covered.

But this isn't about that.

On the ESPN Boston site Mike Weiss ranked the New England Patriot roster in importance from 1-82. I thought it was a pretty cool idea even if I don't have much of an opinion of Stephen Gostkowski at #23 versus Taylor Price at #42.

A couple of things cross my mind though.

First, if Wes Welker is truly the Patriots' 2nd most important player, the team could be in trouble. Welker might be back by the beginning of the season. On the other hand he might hit the PUP and be out for the first 6 weeks. I'm sure Patriot fans will be relieved that I really don't believe that Wes Welker is their 2nd most important player.

The other thing that crosses my mind - and maybe this is a Duh! moment - is that you can really tell the prospects of a team by looking at their top 10 players. Maybe it isn't 10, maybe it is 8 or 12 but you get the point. It's great to have a special teams stud or a great punter but if either of those guys are among your 10 (or 20) most important players, your team is probably in big trouble.

So that Pat's top ten?

Tom Brady
Agreed he is their most important player. I kind of wonder if he is still their best though.
Wes Welker
Jerod Mayo
Vince Wilfork
If not Brady then Wilfork. It is hard to imagine this defense being very effective with Wilfork sidelined.
Randy Moss
Brandon Meriweather
Sebastian Vollmer
I get what Weiss is arguing. These guys probably are a bit high on production alone, particularly Vollmer. New England needs for each of these players to become stars if they are to move back into the elite.
Logan Mankins
Darius Butler
Same thing with Butler. He had an outstanding rookie year. The team really needs for him to lock down that #1 CB spot.
Tully Banta-Cain

So is this a top ten that can win a Super Bowl? I really doubt it. There are a handful of really good players but then there is another handful all of whom have to take big steps to put the team over the top. Looking at the next ten only Julian Edelman and 1st rounder Devin McCourty are young enough to also be in that category of players who might also develop, and if the team relies on Edelman it would mean that Welker is out, so no real help there.

Still, kind of a cool idea. I'm sure by midnight Chris will be hammering out the Ravens from 1-82. Hint, Chris: Flacco is #1.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Greatness, The Keltner List, and Yes, Donovan McNabb

Chris stuck a bit of a stick in the hornets nest with his recent series on Donovan McNabb. I don't know that this reflects anything particularly controversial that he wrote, but rather that everyone has their own definition of greatness and their own beliefs on what the Hall of Fame should be.

I've gone back and forth on the issue and on Chris' posts, down to considering discussing his articles on a point-by-point basis. Writing nothing was also an option. This is an interesting topic though, and since it seems to generate widespread opinions I'm going to go ahead and hammer out a few thoughts that I've been mulling over the last few days.

Statistics in football are funny things. Of the major American team sports, football is the one that least lends itself to statistical analysis. Every player on the field has a different role, and every player on the field is to a great extent dependent on every other player on the field. Statistics can identify some things. If a running back rushes for 2000 yards he had a great year, but we really didn't need statistics to tell us that. If a running back rushes for 200 yards? Well he still might have had a great year, depending on his other contributions.

What about quarterbacks? 4000 yards is a great season, right? Well, maybe. Did you know that Lynn Dickey once passed for 4000 yards in a season? I didn't. Bill Kenney, Jay Schroeder, Brian Sipe, Jon Kitna (twice), Neil Lomax, Steve Beurlein and Don Majkowski each had 4000 yard passing seasons. Two quarterbacks have passed for 5000 yards in a season, in one of those seasons the team went 14-2 and made it to the Super Bowl, in the other the team went 8-8.

What about passing touchdowns? 15 times in NFL history a quarterback has passed for 35 touchdowns in a season. All of those teams were good, even very good, however only two of them won league championships or Super Bowls*

Okay so my point, which took longer for me to make than I expected or than was probably necessary is that football statistics aren't particularly meaningful when evaluating the quality of a team or a player. Yes, the best teams/players will have better statistics than the worst ones but we don't need statistics to identify the differences.

Greatness is usually self-evident. We know it when we see it. In the 2008 Super Bowl David Tyree had 3 catches for 43 yards and a TD. A nice game from a secondary receiver. What the statistics don't tell us is that one of those catches - the most important catch - was the single greatest or most improbable reception in Super Bowl history. Everyone who saw it instantly knew it was great and no one needed to run to the box score later to confirm what their eyes had seen.

Now Donovan McNabb. Is he a great quarterback? This is a very tough question. He has done great things for sure. He has had great games, even great seasons. He has led his team deep into the playoffs repeatedly and he has done it with teams that lacked the firepower that the greatest teams of the era had. No one confuses the Eagle defense with the Raven or Steeler or Buccaneer or Bear defenses that were great this last decade, no one confuses the offenses with the Ram or Colt or Patriot or Saint offenses. The Eagle accomplishments despite these shortcomings are impressive. So are these shortcomings McNabb's undoing? As you will see, I think they are not.

So the Keltner List. I'm sure many people have devised similar checklists for football but I am too lazy to find one I like so we'll just go ahead and adapt this one.

  1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

  2. Donovan McNabb was never regarded as the best player in football.

  3. Was he the best player on his team?

  4. Most years, yes. If nothing else he was certainly the most important player on his team for the last decade.

  5. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

  6. No, he was probably never considered the best quarterback in football. That said though, from about 2001 - 2005 if a team was starting a team from scratch and needed a quarterback, McNabb would have rated just behind Peyton and Brady. Maybe behind Carson Palmer too at the end of that stretch.

  7. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

  8. Yes. From 2000 - 2009 his team went to the playoffs 8 times, to the Conference Championship 5 times and to the Super Bowl once.

  9. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

  10. Yes.

  11. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

  12. Can't answer this one for fairly obvious reasons. Assuming that Peyton, Favre, Brady and Warner get elected, McNabb would be next up.

  13. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

  14. Yes. Half of his comparables listed at PFR are Hall of Famers. Assuming McNabb continues to build his resume, his comparables should only improve.

  15. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

  16. Yes.

  17. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

  18. Yes.

  19. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

  20. Cannot answer.

  21. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

  22. Once again, cannot answer this. He never won the MVP. Tough to find the voting history. My gut says that he never got a lot of votes.

  23. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?

  24. Okay, here we go. 19 quarterbacks in NFL history have 6 Pro Bowl selections (or more). Other than active players (Favre and Peyton) every player from this group is in the Hall of Fame. If we go down to 5 Pro Bowl selections there are 5 more players; Tom Brady and 4 Hall of Famers.**

  25. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

  26. This seems self-evident. Yes.

  27. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

  28. Not really. He was drafted as one of the "new" quarterbacks back in the misguided days when multithreat quarterbacks became a brief fad. I suppose it is meaningful that only Culpepper and McNabb succeeded from that group.

  29. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

  30. Yes.
So is McNabb a Hall of Famer? I'm actually kind of suprised that there is much of a debate. If you look at any one component of his career you wouldn't think so, but he has accumulated accomplishments in all components of his career, and it is that accumulation that puts him over the top. We haven't even discussed his playoff passing accomplishments. He is currently 11th all-time in playoff passing yardage. He will probably move to 7th with one more game. He is tied for 9th in playoff passing touchdowns. He is 4 career TDs behind Peyton and Brady, and while he may not catch either, I think the perception is that they are both much more accomplished playoff quarterbacks. The numbers seem to disagree.

One other point where I disagree with Chris. I don't believe he needs to win a Super Bowl to go to the Hall of Fame. While that can make the difference with more marginal players, McNabb isn't marginal. I have little doubt that he will be elected.

*George Blanda also accomplished this for Houston in 1961 but I am reluctant to include results from the AFL.. Houston did win the league championship that year
**Likewise these lists do not include 3 players who were primarily AFL players. These guys got no respect. John Hadl and Jack Kemp each went to 6+ Pro Bowls with the AFL/NFL and neither are in the Hall.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sports Love

It's not football, but the Lebron announcement is big news across sports. Check out the open letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The QB - Does McNabb Belong in the Hall of Fame, or the Hall of Very Good?

I ended the last article with a brief look at McNabb and what may or may not be a Hall of Fame career. It’s a question that I believe deserves a significant look. McNabb has been a great quarterback through his 11 years thus far, but is it worthy of Hall of Fame consideration?

The answer to this is pretty complicated, and begins with the caveat that his career isn’t over yet, so there’s no way to make a definitive argument one way or the other today. If McNabb blows up for 4,500 yards, 30 TDs and 15 INTs per season the next three years and wins two Superbowls, he’s almost certainly a lock to get in. If he implodes next year and washes out of the game completely without adding anything to what he’s done thus far, he’s likely not to be considered.

For purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that he plays another 3-5 years, averaging around 3,200 yards, 20 TDs and 10 INTs per year, which are slightly lower than his historic numbers. Tack on another 500 rushing yards and 5-10 rushing TDs, and McNabb would round out his career with numbers that look something like this:

3,900 / 6,550 … 59% completion rate … 45,500 yards, 300 TDs, 140 INTs
3,750 rush yds, 35 rush TDs, 5.7 YPC

This puts him at 6.9 YPA and an 87.0 QB rating for his career. I’m simply not going to assume anything about post-season play because that’s way too hard to predict. But the above numbers assume basically four more years at the annual production levels I noted, and those are I believe pretty fair assumptions.

These numbers would give him the following places for overall career passing leaders:
#6 overall completions
#8 overall attempts
#8 overall yards
t- #5 overall passing TDs
#60 overall INTs (!!!)

And he’d be somewhere in the top 20 in passer rating, though this is difficult to predict given that 13 of the 17 people currently in front of him are still active. I’ve already shown QB rating is improving dramatically, and he’s actually not likely at all to hold any of these places for very long.

There-in lays the problem. While it’s incredibly impressive that McNabb will likely finish top ten in all the major passing statistical categories; given the improvement of QB play over the recent years, we should probably expect him to fall out of the top ten no less than a decade after his retirement. There are several QBs playing today that would certainly pass these numbers just by playing 10 more years (though not all of them will).

From here, the discussion could diverge in several directions. So I’m going to step back and examine the arguments for why he should and why he shouldn’t be considered a legitimate HoF candidate.

The argument for induction

A good portion of the argument for his induction has already been made, as a top ten finisher in the most common statistical categories. He’ll finish with better numbers than many modern age Hall of Famers like Montana, Kelly, Aikman and Young. And despite the fact that at least a reasonable portion of this can be said to be due to improvements in QB play and the passing game over the last decade, the reality is he’s been playing at a high level for an exceptionally long time. Each of the four I just mentioned played 8-11 years at a very high level. McNabb already has ten years of high level play under his belt (stripping his rookie year which wasn’t bad for a rookie save a terrible completion rate), and will likely get another few on top of it.

Despite what I believe many people think, longevity has to be a fairly critical consideration. Playing five years and averaging 3,200 yards, 20 TDs and 10 INTs is decent but certainly nothing special in the NFL. Playing ten years at that level is pretty good. Being able to do it for fifteen years? Well, one of the major reasons that McNabb will finish his career top ten in those categories is precisely because not many players can play for that long at that high a level.

It’s almost the Emmitt Smith argument. Emmitt was a great runner, but he wasn’t a dominator for the vast majority of his career. What he was, was a great runner for longer than pretty much anyone had ever been a great runner. No one else has ever run for 1,000+ yards in 11 separate seasons, and it’s possible no one ever will. And at the end of McNabb’s career, it’s likely he will have thrown for over 3,000 yards ten or more times; a rarity for a reason. There’s a legitimate argument to make that a player being great for a very long time deserves HoF consideration just as much as a player who was exceptional for a moderate amount of time.

We also must consider some of the more subjective measures…ones that aren’t monitored just by statistics. The reality is that McNabb is good at winning games. It’s partly a function of playing for a great organization with a great coach and solid surrounding cast. But he’s a big part of why they win games. McNabb carries a .651 regular season winning percentage, is 9-7 in the playoffs, has been to five Conference Championship games and to the Superbowl once. Only a very select few quarterbacks can make such a claim. Marino can’t. Moon can’t. Fouts can’t. His track record of winning must be a strong consideration.

In addition, McNabb has played a majority of his career with almost no help at receiver. Names like Chad Lewis, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash do not particularly strike fear into the hearts of DBs. The one season McNabb did have a legitimately great threat at receiver – ’04 with TO – he had by far his best season, completing 64% of his passes for nearly 3,900 yards with a better than 3:1 TD:INT ratio. Translate those numbers over even a five year stretch of his career, and this may not even be a discussion. Assume he'd been drafted one year earlier, and gone #1 overall to Indi, playing his entire career with Marvin Harrsion / Reggie Wayne / Dallas Clark, and we may instead be discussing where he belongs in the discussion of the greatest QBs ever to play the game.

One last strong consideration must also be that he’s one of the best rushing QBs of all time. He likely finishes with 3,500 – 4,000 rushing yards and over 30 rushing TDs at between 5.5 and 6 YPA. These numbers are untouched by a vast majority of other QBs that also qualify as prolific passers. Cunningham and Young can boast such claims, as can Steve McNair. Elway has solid rushing overall numbers but more because of a higher number of attempts than most other QBs get, his YPA don’t compare. Other than those few, almost no other QB that has been as good of a rusher has been such a capable passer.

The argument against induction

While McNabb’s overall numbers are impressive, one thing we must do is attempt to normalize them in some fashion. Getting into the HoF is not about how great you are in comparison with the other players that are in the Hall. It’s how great you are in comparison with the players you played with. In the email discussion, Patrick had this to say, which echoes my sentiments exactly:

There can only be so many HoF players at a position at a time. Right now we have Peyton and Brady and Favre for sure .... Warner is very likely. Brees is building credentials and a few others may be on the way up. Is there room for McNabb in that group? I don't know...

Since there really isn’t a great way to make a strong, objective argument in how to compare players of certain times without using statistics, I’ve attempted to develop a framework for comparing McNabb to other QBs during his tenure, and compare that with current and future Hall of Famers as well as guys with impressive stats that can either be considered on the margin or just “Hall of Very Good” candidates vs. their respective co-workers.

Using the data from the first two in this series, I ranked the players according to anything I thought could be considered a major stat category. This involved a lot of sorting and cut/paste rankings for all the different categories. This allowed me to get a data set that showed McNabb’s 11 seasons, and where he ranked in all of them. I had this for all the QBs in my data set. Then I could average what McNabb and his peers were ranked across their careers.

For example, in the data set below, McNabb’s “Average of Yards” rank is 14.0. This means that across his career, he was on average 14th in total passing yards by season.

I then compared this against four different groups of other passers. The first I called “Old HoF,” which I defined as the HoF QBs in my data that played a majority of their careers prior to the five yard contact rule change. The second is “New HoF,” the HoF QBs playing a majority of their career after the rule change. The third is “Future HoF,” QBs that I believe are likely to make it into the HoF. The last is “Marginal,” which was an arbitrary group. These are QBs that have amassed impressive stats over the course of their careers, and may at some point be Hall candidates, but I don’t think will ever make it. The names in each group are as follows:

Old HoF: Jurgenson, Unitas, Tarkenton, Namath, Staubach, Griese and Bradshaw
New HoF: Fouts, Kelly, Marino, Young, Montana, Moon, Aikman and Elway
Future HoF: P Manning, Brady, Warner, Brees and Favre
Marginal: D Bledsoe, McNair, Testaverde, Esiason, Simms, Cunningham and Brad Johnson

Higher numbers are worse for all “Average” categories

A few things jump out from these numbers. The first has to be how impressive McNabb’s INT rank and INT % rank are vs. the competition. Part of this I’m sure is due to his lower completion percentage. If the ball’s not getting near the receiver’s reach often, it’s probably not in the DB’s reach either. But this doesn’t fully explain how exceptional he’s been at not throwing INTs. Even in the playoffs, where he’s gained reputation with some as a choker, he’s thrown 24 TDs to only 17 INTs.

The second fully supports the argument that McNabb really shouldn’t be a legitimate Hall candidate. Other than his INT rank, his other rankings don’t stand up well to any of the HoF’er categories, and really only compare to the Marginal categories. For the count categories, it’s only relevant to compare him to the Future HoF category. These are his peers; his direct competition in getting into the Hall as the players who played a majority of their careers at the same time he played his. And his numbers are low vs. that group, despite being fairly impressive overall. He of course still has time to add to these numbers, but so do those other players on this list (Warner’s the exception). Overall, he statistically doesn’t stack up to his competition.


The question is complex, and I don’t think Jim, Patrick or I could come to a definitive answer. There are pretty powerful arguments on both sides, and this leads to a fence-straddling unlike most I’ve encountered in football arguments.

My general sense is that there’s one final factor that will wind up determining if McNabb makes it or not. I believe the final determinant of whether or not he makes it will be predicated on whether or not he wins a Superbowl. If he does, I think it puts him over the top. Six Conference Championship games, two Superbowls, one Lombardy, with his pedigree, I think would be difficult to deny him entry.

However, if he doesn’t win that Superbowl, I feel like McNabb is the sort of marginal player who will likely spend several years on the list of candidates to be considered, but will always be passed over for a more deserving candidate.

So ends the quarterback / passing game analysis series, at least for now. I’ll hang onto the data and may dig in some more in the future for some other interesting tid-bits. Thanks to those that read this whole thing…I know it’s been a lot. And thanks especially to Patrick and Jim who really shaped these articles significantly with the discussion we’ve had over the past few days.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The QB - The Evolution of the Passers

As mentioned in this earlier post, one thing I wanted to look at was how much quarterback play has improved recently. I decided to take a look at the last several decades, because what I wasn’t sure of was whether recent play has spiked – i.e. QBs are improving at an accelerated rate – or if it’s just part of an overall trend.

It's worth calling out that this is probably as much of a statement about how much passing offenses have evolved over the last few decades as it is telling how much the QB has evolved. The rules of the game have changed over the years, and a couple of key innovations have happened which opened up passing offenses. Those deserve to be discussed a bit before getting into the statistics of the players themselves.

The Rules of the Game Have Changed

Much as I dislike the Steelers, there’s a great site set up by Steeler fans that lays out some (all?) of the major rule changes and when they occurred. A summary of the evolution of the rules governing the passing game:

Between 1974 and 1978, the NFL adopted rules to dramatically open up the pass. Prior to ’74, it was virtually anything goes against WRs. The physical corners like Night Train Lane and Dick LeBeau ruled the roost, able to knock receivers off their route with near impunity. In 1974, the NFL began restricting the contact DBs could have with receivers down the field. In 1977, defenders were limited to only contacting the receiver once down the field.

And in 1978, we got the big rule change that ushered in what many people refer to as the modern era of the passing game. The new rule established that defenders could not come in contact with receivers beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage. This opened up the long passing game, and over the next ten years, the QBs in this data segment threw 15% more passes per game than they had in the nearly 2 decades back to 1960. And that’s just QBs with over 200 attempts. Attempts per QB per game have continued to increase ever since, although not at the same rate.

Note the shift in the trend line (6-order polynomial) between ’78 and ’88. Two interesting outliers bear mentioning. I started by looking at total attempts, but 1982 stood out as a massive outlier, which I realized was due to the strike-shortened season. I normalized this by simply adjusting to look at passes per QB per game, which also helped me strip out the bias in the NFL moving from 14 to 16 games in a season. Then, in 1987 there’s an unnatural dip in attempts per game. Removing that outlier actually adjusts the decade from a 15% increase in per game attempts to 17% per game. Between ’79 and ’88 there’s no season with less than 24 att/game except ’87, at 21.3 per game. It’s an outlier for which I can’t seem to find a cause, but clearly stands out.

The rules continued to evolve in the mid-‘90s to help the passing game flourish. In ’95, QBs gained the ability to use a microphone to receive communications from the sideline. In ’96, they re-emphasized the five yard downfield contact rule. In ’01, protection of the passer began being emphasized even more, allowing QBs to worry less about where and when they’d be hit; and in ’06, defenders were restricted from hitting passers below the knee. It’s known as the “Tom Brady rule” but in reality it was put in place more due to Carson Palmer’s knee injury in the post-season loss to the Steelers where Palmer – coming off a season where he could have been MVP if not for Peyton’s amazing year – went down very early in the game. Somewhere in the mid-‘00s as well saw an additional re-emphasis of the five yards downfield contact rule, though I can’t find exactly when that happened.

The Passing Game has Seen at Least Two Major Innovations

The first was Don Air Coryell’s (RIP) offensive innovation with the Chargers between ’78 and ’83. Leading Dan Fouts to a Hall of Fame career, Coryell emphasized an attack on every part of the field. His contributions led to two things that have redefined offensive positions in the league. One was changing the tight end position from a blocker little used as a receiver into a down-field attacker. The second was the evolution of the running back position in the creation of the H-back (for passing game purposes as a pass blocker) and using the RB as a receiver. He’s credited with evolving offenses, and forcing defensive evolution to defend his passing attack, forever changing the landscape of the league.

The second was Bill Walsh’s development of the West Coast Offense in the mid-‘80s. This emphasized short, precise passing in order to later open up defenses to allow for longer plays. Montana worked this system to near perfection, completing 64% of his passes for 7.8 YPA with 190 TDs (5.5%) to 91 INTs (2.6%) between ’83 and ’90. He went 84-24 regular and 11-5 post season in that stretch, including three Superbowl wins. It of course helps to have Jerry Rice as your side-kick through much of that.

The WCO and “Air Coryell” offenses are seen in some form across virtually the entire NFL today. Some props should be given to “Mad Mike Martz” and his crazy-effective passing offense run with the Rams (a derivation of the Air Coryell offense). But this largely didn’t really innovate or change the dynamics of the league in near the fashion of Coryell’s and Walsh’s offensive advancements.

And with this, we come to the core of how much better quarterback play has been in the last few years. I started with the hypothesis that QB play over the last decade has been improving at an accelerating rate. The data seem to support this, though not to the extent to which I thought. The below graph shows the median and maximum QB rating for the top 25 passers, by season.

This only graphs back to the mid-‘70s, when 25 QBs qualified. Once again, I added a 6-order polynomial trend line for the median QB rating to show how it’s trended over the years. You can see the increase trending in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The trend then flattens from the mid-‘80s to the mid-to-late-‘90s, increasing just a little bit. In the late ‘90s, the increase begins to accelerate again, with a recent somewhat sharp increase in the rate of improvement.

The early increase tracks nicely with the five yard contact rule change, and the Walsh/Coryell innovations. The more recent one, however, does not. In the past five years, median QB rating has increased about 5% faster than median QB rating over a five year stretch a decade ago. But where we see real change is in the extremes. The first graph below shows the number of QBs with a > 100 and > 90 QB rating by season. The second graph shows the number with a < 80 QB rating by season (remember, only taking the top 25 QBs by season).

Once again, 6-order polynomial trend lines were drawn to show emerging trends of QBs with higher than 90 and lower than 80 ratings.

The decline of QBs rated under 80 has been fairly steady since 1975. But it’s also been a sharp decline. Given the trending of this data, it’s possible that 10-15 years from now the NFL will see 25 passers with over 200 attempts that have a greater than 80 QB rating.

On the flip side, there’s been a sharp increase recently in the number of QBs with a greater than 90 QB rating. I left pre-’76 in this graph more for illustrative purposes, to show that there were QBs that were capable of throwing 200+ times for some very impressive ratings. But over the last decade, a significant increase in the number of QBs with > 90 QB rating has been seen. The past ten years have seen 85% more QBs with a 90+ QB rating than the previous ten years. While QBs with a 100+ QB rating have increased in that time, there aren’t enough instances to truly see how this is trending.

In conclusion, QB play has almost certainly improved a fair amount over the past several years, including an impressive improvement over the last few years. Almost certainly some portion of this is due to improved passing offense overall…better receivers, better offenses, more favorable rules. But I also think the passers themselves have gotten better at the game in that time.

What that means is we are not able to look at “overall” numbers to come to any sort of conclusion as to who the best is, or even how good a player is. This leads to the McNabb discussion. McNabb will almost certainly finish his career in the top ten in completions, attempts, passing yards and TDs; and in an amazing achievement, will likely not crack the top 50 in INTs thrown. But we can’t evaluate him based on his overall numbers, given how much QB play and passing offenses are improving. We will need to look at where he stands vs. other QBs in his tenure, and compare him to where the HoF QBs stood vs. QBs in their own time.

Thus laying the foundation for the third post of the series, which I will get into tomorrow. In the mean-time, feel free to provide any thoughts or feedback on this below.


Monday, July 5, 2010

The QB - Laying the Foundation

There would be little argument from most people that the quarterback is the most important player on the football field. They’re typically the team’s leader, or their scapegoat. They get the credit when they lead their team to a thrilling come-from-behind victory. And they take the blame when they cannot drive the field late with the game on the line.

In the last few years I’ve felt we have been seeing a transformation of the position. It seems that more and more very good to great quarterbacks have been popping onto the scene. I believe I wrote somewhere – I think in an article I wrote for Profootball24x7 – that the game used to often come down to if one team had a terrific QB, if the game was close, that QB would drive them the field and win the game while the other could not. But that now, with several teams having great QBs, it would come down to whoever had the ball last, to drive the field and win the game. “Tom Brady trots onto the field, down 4 with three to play. Can he drive the field? And can he take up enough clock not to allow Phillip Rivers the time to drive the field if they score?”

I’ve also been intrigued by a question that I’ve seen popping up more and more in discussions with friends and fellow fans. As Donovan McNabb’s career comes to a close, is he a Hall of Fame quarterback? His numbers are certainly impressive. He’ll finish in the top ten in several very important passing categories. But given the rate at which I have perceived the QB play to have improved over the last decade or so, I wasn’t convinced that was enough.

And so I set out to try to find out exactly how much QB play has improved the last few years, and try to answer the question of whether McNabb is truly good enough for Hall worthiness or not. The result is this series of three posts. The first - this one - will talk about the methodology and reasoning behind my analysis of the QB position. The second will be the actual analysis of the position. The third will be an in depth look at McNabb and his Hall worthiness.

I’ll start with a note that Patrick, Jim and I have had a very interesting email conversation about quarterback play and how to best analyze it. I won’t post the whole conversation, but the general discussion centered on how much we can or cannot use statistics to tell the story of the position. There’s still disagreement on exactly how much of the story can be told using stats, but it seems clear that the answer is some form of “Stats can tell part, but certainly not all of the story.” This actually gets truer the more you look at smaller data sampling. For instance, if you want to look at how much QB play has improved over the past 25 years, statistics will be able to tell a larger portion of that story than they will be able to tell you how well (or not well) Kyle Orton played in 2009.

To truly get the entire picture of quarterback play improvement, we should look beyond the statistics. How has the play of wide receivers improved over the same period? How have NFL offenses evolved in this time? Some of the non-statistical measures will be examined in the next two posts, in addition to the statistical evaluation.

So to start on the statistical analysis, a framework had to be developed. It wound up somewhat arbitrary, as any analysis tends to be. I probably could have developed a much deeper, more precise frame-work for this. But let’s be realistic. It took several hours to pull and cut the data I have for this, and this isn’t my profession. I’m not taking an “80/20 is good enough” attitude. But there’s no realistic way to add additional value to what I’ve done without spending significantly more time on it. Given this isn’t my profession, I can’t really afford that, so this was my best effort.

I began by defining my arbitrary cuts as looking at the following boundaries:
- No more than 25 QBs per season would be looked at.
- The top 25 QBs by QB rating would be looked at.
- QBs must have 200+ attempts on the year to be looked at.
- No seasons prior to 1960 would be looked at.

What was my reasoning behind this? I used QB rating as the barometer because, despite the criticism that seems so fashionable these days, it does encompass the major aspects of how QBs tend to be viewed in their effectiveness. Completion percent, yards per attempt and TD:INT ratio are all considered in the rating, and I feel no other single metric does a better job at evaluating the position. While it’s not a good metric to tell the entire story of the position, when you have to say “Pull QBs by rank of [something],” you either have to pick one metric to rank them by, or you have to do a ridiculous amount of work to combine several metrics. Ironically, QB rating already does this for us. Plus, any new fancy-schmancy ranking I could come up with that blends several different factors could simply be called arbitrary anyway, so I took the path of least resistance since it also seemed to be the path of most sense.

Going only back to 1960 was definitely an arbitrary and somewhat ridiculous cut, but I felt like this was a good enough cut around what defines modern era QBs. The NFL Hall of Fame actually segments between Modern Era and Pre-Modern Era players. Now, there are guys like Y.A. Tittle and Bob Waterfield who played most or all of their careers prior to 1960. But realistically the value in going prior to ’60 wasn’t really high and just seemed to be creating more work.

The cut at 25 QBs was mostly to cut out the fat. Some work could have been done here to find a better cut, perhaps. But while the NFL had 26-32 teams for a majority of the years for which I captured data, not all have starting QBs worthy of being looked at. I didn’t want to cut out mediocre to poor starters. But I did want to cut out the absolute trash, and the guys that either only played because injuries forced them into action or guys who’s play was hurt because of injuries. For instance, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of value in capturing Joey Harrington’s ’06 season and comparing it to Vince Farragamo’s 1985 season.

Finally I used a minimum of 200 passing attempts because that’s what Pro-Football-Reference uses for its statistical qualifier. I went to PFR, went year by year, sorting QBs by QB Rating, capturing the top 25, and dumping it all into an Excel file.

Interestingly, there was a very distinct cut for where I could get 25 players to pull in a season. After 1976, there were always at least 25 players (though sometimes exactly 25) that threw 200 attempts in any given season. Prior to 1976, there was never a season in which 25 players qualified. There was also a pretty distinct cut at 1970. Between ’70 and ’76, an average of 22 qualified with no less than 17 throwing 200 attempts. From ’60 through ’69 – prior to the AFL/NFL merger – an average of 13 qualified with no more than 14 throwing 200 attempts. Because of this, some of my data cuts were taken with this lens.

From this data it was a matter of ranking everything and then pivot-tabling and cutting the data. I added columns and manually sorted by [year] then [data set] to rank every QB by season in every major passing category. Then I started graphing various things I found interesting.

And that’s pretty much it. The methodology behind the madness that’s about to ensue. Is it perfect? Hardly. Not even close. But I think it will provide a good framework for looking at a few major things…
- How much have the best QBs in the NFL improved vs. the best of prior years?
- How much has the ‘average’ QB improved over the years?
- How much have the bottom-dwellers … the guys considered marginal to poor starters … improved over the years?

These were the questions I really wanted to address, and I think you’ll find they’ve been addressed at least somewhat competently in the next day when I post that analysis. Meanwhile, feel free to post any “You’re an idiot for not considering this” commentary below.


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