Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You Couldn't Wait a Week?

I don't get what the Niners gain from firing Singletary now. Next week would have worked just as well. What's the point of having the extra turmoil and the interim coach and all that?

It's not like they're auditioning their potential new guy. They've already announced they will be hiring a new GM, and that guy will choose the coach. So this interim coach is a lame duck. What are they accomplishing?

I'm not saying they shouldn't have fired Singletary. But why now? Was his presence so detrimental to the players/organization that they needed him out of the building, instantly? I find that hard to believe.


Monday, December 27, 2010

New Iron Man

Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson set a team record this past Sunday, with his 112th consecutive game, passing Peter Boulware. (Boulware is the team's career leader in sacks, though Terrell Suggs is just 2 sacks away from taking that record.) 112 games is seven seasons of 16 games; less if the record counts playoff games, as I assume it does.

Seven years is a long time to stay active in football, at a position like linebacker. You might think Ray Lewis sets the standard for durability among Ravens linebackers (and of course you'd have a point), but Ray-ray missed 2 games in 2007, and 2 the year before. Jarret Johnson just kept trucking along.

JJ is an interesting player.
Obviously he's an important cog in the Ravens defense. He became a full-time player in 2005, having absorbed Rex Ryan's multiple system in his third year. He belongs to a class of players whom I think of as "just sub Pro Bowl players". If he were just a smidge faster, he would have a lot more than the 17 1/2 career sacks he has; but he does get QB hurries. If he had just slightly better hands, he would have more than the 3 career interceptions he has; but he does have 18 passes defensed. His physical gifts are not elite, at least not elite for the NFL. But he is smart, tough, reliable, sound. He is a great football player.

JJ was drafted out of Alabama, and he is the only 2-time captain in Alabama football history. Alabama is Ozzie Newsome's alma mater. To me this highlights two things about Ozzie: (1) he is very aware of Alabama players, and SEC players in general; and (2) he scouts for leadership as a trait just like 40-times and bench press reps. That would go part way toward explaining why Ozzie would spend a 4th-rd pick on an undersized defensive tackle, move him to linebacker, and be willing to wait a few years for him to develop into a player.

A tip of the cap to the Ravens new Iron Man.


The Cover None?

Andy Furman with the observation that the Cover 2 is ineffective against top flight quarterbacks:

Pete called it fool's gold. You get success vs weaker teams with these schemes, but when you play against the GOOD QBs, it does not work. Aaron Rodgers picked on the off coverage so often (slants, etc..) that he racked up 225 yds in one half. Thomas and Webster were playing on Pluto while Jennings, Jones and Rodgers were playing pitch and catch. By the time the second half came and we began to see a little more press coverage, it was too little too late.
I'm not sure about the veracity of this. The 2002 Buccaneers certainly had success running this scheme almost exclusively, but that defense also averaged 3 turnovers per game and featured 5 Pro Bowlers. It seems like a more reasonable argument that under a team with more pedestrian talent, this pedestrian 'limit-the-damage' scheme cannot succeed against offenses that efficient at executing plays.

It would be worth exploring how the T-2 performs (relatively) against great offenses versus poor offenses.


Stop Jeff Triplette

Before he maims again.

Can you believe this? One would think that blinding Orlando Brown would be enough for one lifetime. But there's Triplette, throwing his beanbag at a players face again.

How is this guy still officiating NFL games? Never mind that he doesn't know what constitutes a catch. That's bad, but maiming players is worse. Get that joker off the field.


Friday, December 24, 2010

When The Story Is The Punchline

Terrelle Pryor sold his leadership award.


I think it is hard to be particularly surprised by this. His character has been in question since his recruitment. Just the fact that he allowed himself to be recruited by Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia should have set off alarms. He would have fit nicely into the tradition set by Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Charles Pugh.

But he didn't become a Mountaineer. Instead he followed the other tradition, you know, the one started by Maurice Clarett and continued by ongoing, not-quite-provable shady practices at Ohio State.

I think everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop for the Buckeyes, but at this point it is worth wondering if it ever will. It is an abomination that the Buckeye suspensions do not begin until next season, but the cynical needs of the Sugar Bowl and the Cam Newtonification of the NCAA made it impossible for them to impose any immediate penalties. Seriously, if $100k in payola is not enough to get the NCAA to budge then it is surprising that $2500 to Pryor even got them to blink.

Pryor's next moves should be pretty interesting. He is hardly polished as a passer. Dave Razzano thinks Pryor is undraftable sort of like *cough* Clarett before him.

This seems to be Pryor's season of discontent. Merely a week after expressing undisguised jealousy at Cam Newton's accolades which culminated in the Heisman, Pryor has been caught doing his best Cecil Newton impression; turning what are supposed to be the most rewarding years of his life into a cash grab. And like the relevance of his performance compared to Cam's his cash grab is equally unimpressive. At least Cecil Newton knew the value of a few precious memories. Terrelle Pryor sold his for a handful of bling and a tainted resume.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Playing for #1

Panthers @ Steelers was never exactly a Thursday night showdown. It was always likely to be a slaughter. Really the only hope the Panthers had was that they could mount some sort of semblance of a better-than-bottom-two offense with Polamalu out.

But is there any question, after deciding to kick a FG when down 27-0 with 9 minutes to play, as to what the Panthers are really playing for? They sure look like they're not playing for anything but the #1 overall pick.

This organization is pretty much the definition of FAIL. The owner fights to spend as little as possible. He's fortunate to not have to fire John Fox, his contract will just run out and he'll go hire someone on the cheap. The problem with that of course is that the first overall pick will probably cost them a fortune, if no draft caps are put in place.

Either way, that was a pretty loser decision to kick that FG.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where Are The Peoples, Eli?

If Eli calls a press conference and no one shows does he really make a whine?


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Back To The Blog

Somehow football proceeded without me the last few weeks. I didn't even get a phone call from the commissioner's office wondering where I was. I certainly wasn't consulted by Jim Delaney on Legends and Leaders.

First order of business. While I find other peoples' fantasy teams boring. Hell, I find my own fantasy teams boring. It seems at least topical to mention that I made it to the league championship in one of my two leagues despite leaving Ray Rice on the bench (doh!) and Heath Miller in the lineup (doh! doh!). Even worse, I picked up Brent Celek as a hedge against Miller's broken head, and then forgot completely.

What a great year for football punditry. There hasn't been a single story line that has captivated the league, but rather story trumping story trumping story. Am I the only one who barely remembers Ben Roethlisberger's suspension and the cascade of stop-gap quarterbacks the Steelers used to plug the dike (pun intended, but probably only funny to me).

We've already had three coaches fired and at least a couple more on the way out. As much as Mike Singletary proclaims his undying love for Alex Smith, does anyone really question what a terrible decision it was for him to hitch his wagon to Smith's tiny hand? Is Jeff Fischer going to survive another winter in Tennessee? I don't know that the record matters as much as his chick fight with Vince Young. Putting yourself in a position to start Rusty Smith can't be good for the 'ol resume. Even so, Bud Adams would be stupid to fire Fischer, but he's done much stupider things.

It can't be much of a suprise that Bradford and McCoy became regular starters in '10. Nor can it be too shocking that Clausen and Tebow have gotten starts. But Rusty Smith? John Skelton? Max Freakin Hall? And considering that Brett Favre is a serious threat to explode into dust on every dropback, it is only a matter of time before we see Joe Webb

Moving along to all things Brett Favre's penis. While we celebrate Favre sending pictures of his


I think that scandal might have been trumped up to err .. overtrump this scandal.

Matt Taibbi sums up the whole 'why are reporters in the locker room in the first place question much better than I ever could.

It’s not like sportswriters need details such as, “Stevensen, his flaccid but impressive seven-and-five-eighths-inch dong slowly unwrinkling in the locker-room heat, expressed concern that the Lions’s offense had failed to execute down the stretch for the third week in a row. ‘Somebody has to step up and make a play,’ he said, as the eyes of the assembled press repeatedly glanced downward involuntarily.…”

Okay, picture time is over. With a rare free window in my life I have to get to important issues like gift purchases and drinking and ... well, that's about it but that's plenty to fill my schedule.


The Most Valuable Player

I hate this award. The award is arguably the most mis-named award in sports. Not just in football necessarily, but it is particularly so in sports. To accurately state what this award is would be to call it the "Best Player of the Year" award, often given to the guy playing the most explosive position on the field. Only twice in the award's history has it been awarded to a non quarterback or non running back (not counting the strike-shortened '82 season). The two are completely different from each other. The problem is, the best player of the year is not necessarily the player that is the most valuable to his team.

A perfect example would be Tom Brady from '07 to '08. Tom Brady was almost unquestionably the best player of the '07 season. But was he the most valuable player to his team? In '08, he was injured early in the first game of the season. In comes pick #230, a guy that hadn't started a meaningful game at QB since high school. All he did was lead the team to an 11-5 record with the 5th ranked offense in the league.

Brady looks to be on his way toward earning his second NFL MVP, challenged probably only by Mike Vick. But neither are the player most critical to their team's success. No, the Most Valuable Player to his team is Troy Polamalu.

Polamalu is universally regarded as one of the best players in the game, regardless of position. He's been to five Pro Bowls, missing only his rookie season and last year when he missed 12 games. His knack for making game-changing plays, such as his strip-sack of Joe Flacco that was the pivotal play of a pivotal game, frustrates non-Steeler fans everywhere.

But it's time to look beyond just the plays he makes on the field. It's time to take a brief look over the last two years at the state of the Steeler defense with, and without Polamalu. Over the last two years, the Steelers have played 30 games. 18 have been with Polamalu, 12 without. Here are the very basic numbers in those games, shown as the average per-game with, then without him:

1st downs allowed
17.1 / 17.8 (4% decline with him)

Total yards allowed
287 / 317 (9% decline with him)

Total points allowed
14.8 / 23.1 (36% decline with him)

Turnovers force
2.4 / 0.9 (163% increase with him)

Won-Loss record
14-4 / 5-7

Allow the deltas of those final three numbers to really sink in for a moment. Those are simply staggering differentials! And one cannot really argue that most of his missed games were last year and the team was different. If you look at the limited sample of games with him last year and the game without him this year, his numbers hold up remarkably well.

The bottom line is, the Steelers are and have been for a long time a team built around great defense. They've lived and died based on how great their defense is. And their defense is a completely different unit with vs. without him on the field. Two days ago, the Steelers looked poised to lock up a bye week in the playoffs. But at this point, despite playing two fairly lightweight opponents in the final weeks, it's not unreasonable to think they lose one of those games, watch the Ravens win out and end up a Wild Card team. And if it happens, it's likely due to the injury to Polamalu

In my mind, no man is more critical to his team than Troy Polamalu. He may not be the best player on the field this year. But he's very close to it, and he far better fits the title of the award.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Today will mark the first outdoor NFL game in the state of Minnesota in nearly 3 decades. This will truly be a game to test the mettle of everyone--not just the players and coaches, but also the fans. Not only will it be outdoors, but Mother Nature is catching up on 30 years of football weather for them--it is snowing right now in the Twin Cities, and 4-6 inches of fresh snow is expected by game time, and continuting throughout the night with more. Temperatures should be in the teens, with wind chills below 0. What more could you want on an alcohol-free night in Minnesota?

I think the team has done a remarkable job of trying to make lemonade popsicles out of lemons, but the odds have been stacked against them from the start on this one. Those popsicles may end up tasting more like the "lemon slushees" that every northern kid tried to feed their younger brothers after the dog did his thing in the snow.

Weather: Out of anyone's control. The story last week had been whether they could clear the 17+ inches from the stadium before tonight. Now there will be fresh snowfall and cold windy weather. So much for all that clearing.

Tickets: The U of M stadium (TCF Bank Field - aka "The Bank") holds about 50,000, which is about 15,000 fewer than the Metrodome held when actually inflated. That means 15,000 fans won't get in--though as it turns out, maybe the weather is actually a positive in this regard.

Seating: General admission. This is probably an even bigger factor than the ticket availability. Imagine tossing down a couple hundred bucks a ticket to get seats at the 50 yard line at the Dome. Then imagine deciding to get into the spirit of the game and bundling up like a yeti in a snowmobile suit. Now imagine getting to the stadium, only to find that you're actually sitting 3 rows from the back of the upper deck in a corner section of the stadium. I imagine you'll be stompin' mad. But don't decide to drown your sorrows with a drink, because...

Alcohol: ...there will be no alcohol at the game. In a long standing debate between fans and the university and the Minnesota State Legislature, alcohol is not sold at The Bank. This is a stadium rule, not a tenant rule, so no booze will be on campus for tonight's "Miller Lite / Captain Morgan Special Presentation of the Budweiser-Corona-Sam Adams Kickoff Show starring the Summit Brew Minnesota Vikings and Leinenkugel Chicago Bears, brought to you by Heineken!" Not that we'll notice the lack of alcohol in a dry sport such as the NFL anyway, of course.

Fans: We're a hardy sort up here. But we're a bit out of practice. The last time the Vikings played the Bears outdoors in Minnesota, their coach was a player for the Bears. Prince hadn't even sung yet in 1982 about the year 1999 which is now 11 years ago in 2010. Kevin McHale was a great basketball player, not a terrible basketball GM. Walter Mondale was a recent VP and an up-and-comer, not an embarassing sacrificial lamb. Suffice it to say, it has been a while. So, even though I do think outdoor football would be embraced in Minnesota going forward, tonight is going to be a heck of a first run to shake the rust off.

Traffic: If there's one thing we Minnesotans like, its our traffic jams. Mass transit availability continues to lag every other major metropolitan area in the country, and the University light rail line is still a favorite political hot potato. The U of M is conveniently situated on the intersection of the two largest interstates in the area, right next to I-35W north (and its now world-famous bridge) and I-94. Traffic in this area is pretty much terrible no matter when you go through it, unless you're a night trucker lucky enough to pass through at 3am on a banking holiday. On Gopher game day, when fans come through on Saturday morning when downtown is empty of weekday workers and communiting students are not coming to classes, traffic is bad enough. Tonight? Kickoff is in about 8 hours, and I think I'd already be late if I actually had a ticket. Oh, and remember, there's some snow going on too, which always makes travel more fun.

The Field: Oh yeah, there's actually a game going on amidst all of this. Remember that The Bank is a college field. Yes, it is outdoors, but the Big Ten/Eleven/Twelve doesn't play after mid-November or so. As a result, there are no heaters embedded in the field surface, as is standard for an NFL field. They've been trying to clear the field, but there have been well publicized issues with that, with the best view of it coming from punter Chris Kluwe's Twitter feed:

Serious time - All respect to the people that cleared the field and got it ready, you did an amazing job. That being said, it's unplayable. The field is as hard as concrete an hour and a half after they took the tarp off, and anyone that hits their head is getting a concussion. I find it interesting that the NFL can claim an emphasis on player safety, and then tell us the field is fine. It's beyond hypocritical. I can only hope, however unlikely, that no one gets catastrophically injured at the trainwreck that's about to take place tomorrow night.

Besides being one of the best punters in the game (with all due apologies to my co-blogger Jim and his man-crush on Mike Scifres), Kluwe is one of the sharpest--and most quotable--players in the game. The quote above is a pretty damning indictment of the NFL given their focus this year on hits, but is all the more powerful because of how dead-on it is. Anyway, the snow today will only make it more slippery, but hopefully provide a slight bit of cushion for the players when they get whomped.

All in all, this really ought to be one of the most interesting games of the year. It is gonna be an ugly, sloppy mess and we're clearly not going to see anything resembling the 1998 Vikings offense. My prediction is that regulation will end with a 0-0 tie, and end 2-0 when one of the teams will get sick of playing in overtime and give up a safety to they can all go home--and finally get a much deserved beer.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Ails the Ravens

In the last eight games, the Ravens have blown fourth quarter leads five times, and without a clock-killing drive against the Bucs, could have been in position to do it a sixth. All four of their losses were after holding leads in the fourth quarter, and four of their wins featured leads given up in the fourth quarter, only to later be regained.

Let that soak in for a second...the Ravens have surrendered a lead in eight of their thirteen games this season. I’m struggling to remember the Ravens surrendering eight fourth quarter leads over the previous decade.

Given that, it’s actually fairly easy to make an argument that the Ravens could be the only undefeated team in the NFL right now. It’s also just as easy to argue that the Ravens could be 5-8 and out of contention. I don’t see another team with such a razor thin margin between how good they could be, and how bad. So I’ve decided to try to cut deeply into what specifically it is that is wrong with the Ravens, and whether or not they can do anything about it.

So much has been made of the coaching in Baltimore. Fans seem to fall in one of two camps. Either Harbaugh and crew are terrible and need to all (or some of them) be fired, or they’re doing a fine job coaching the team to one of the best records in the NFL The truth probably falls somewhere in between.

The coaching staff is clearly doing something right. The Ravens are 29-16 since Harbaugh and co took over, have won three playoff games – all on the road – and have yet to finish a season ranked in the bottom half of the league in points scored or out of the top five in points allowed (and are on pace to continue that this season). The offense is more productive than it’s ever been over a three year stretch, and the defense is still playing very good football.

But there are things about what these coaches do that are maddening. Three examples specifically, to show why people are so frustrated with the coaching.
1) Earlier I posted a little about the Ravens tendencies on third and short. They pass twice as often as they run, and play out of shotgun half the time and spread teams out even more. For a team with a strong run game and mediocre pass game, this is a disappointing trend.
2) Defensively they quit trying to put pressure on quarterbacks when sitting on a lead in the fourth quarter. They often go into a three-man rush and rarely use the zone blitzing schemes that are very effective at generating pressure even with four rushers. The disappointing play from the safety position (more on that in a moment) has resulted in an inability to effectively control the hurry-up offense when there’s no pressure on the quarterback. So why aren’t they using more zone blitzing, rushing 5+ and rarely using the three-man rush plays even late in games?
3) One fundamental issue has been Flacco’s snapping the ball with time on the clock late in games when trying to burn time. A specific example was the Ravens final drive in regulation of the Texans game. Flacco left 19 seconds on the clock, snapping the ball early. Had they snapped it at the last second each time, they’d have been able to call a run play on 3rd and 2, and run the clock down to the two minute warning. With those 19 seconds on the clock, the Texans were getting the ball with a two minute warning stoppage in their pocket no matter what the Ravens did on that third down.

There is no question this Ravens team has talent on it. The problem is, I think many people assume that there’s a great deal more talent than there really is. The result is a predictable underperformance compared with expectations. Three positions highlight a large gap between perception of and actual talent, but the reality is that the Ravens are actually lacking talent in a lot of key positions.

The three positions: The Ravens are perceived to have great talent at three positions that they don’t actually have. Michael Oher was at one time leading the Pro Bowl voting for AFC tackles. While he hasn’t been terrible, he certainly hasn’t been Pro Bowl caliber. He’s committed several penalties of all sorts. He’s not only been beaten regularly, but is regularly missing assignments and allowing rushers to come at Flacco untouched. He’s played well at RT, but has been average at best at LT.

Gaither’s absence has had a big impact on the entire line, not just with Oher’s shift. Oher’s move off RT forces Yanda away from RG where he has Pro Bowl talent, into RT where he is merely average. This has pushed Chester, an adequate backup but in no way a decent starter, into RG. With Birk showing his age, and Grubbs no more than an average LG, no one on the line is better than an average player, and overall the line is predictably performing poorly.

Ed Reed, while boasting an impressive four picks in seven games so far, is barely playing replacement level at safety. None of his four picks were “vintage” Ed Reed, reading the QB and jumping the route. They’ve come off tipped or badly overthrown balls, three of them he was far behind the play as it developed and happened to be lucky with the ball coming right to him. He’s often lined up deep and away from the LoS, where most of the action happens. He is no longer fast enough to jump routes. And he’s taking bad angles, which leaves him out of position in pass coverage, often resulting in long completions given up.

Largely this isn’t Reed’s fault. He’s the victim of a body breaking down from a mix of years of launching his 5’11, 200 pound frame into much larger bodies with abandon, and an impinged nerve in his neck that is both unfixable and very painful. In July I wrote that Reed should retire and I’ve seen nothing thus far that has changed my opinion.

And finally, Ray Lewis is, with 15 seasons nearly under his belt, a shadow of what he once was. He’s regularly blown off the ball, not getting off his blocks, slow in pass pursuit and missing tackles more than he ever has. He’s still one of the smartest and best at reading the play, which allows him to make up for his physical deficiencies. But those deficiencies are starting to have a significant bearing on how he’s able to impact the game.

Again, this isn’t Lewis’ fault. To know that he’s still able to play MLB at an average NFL level in his 15th season is an amazing accomplishment. Look back at some of the greatest LBs to play the game. Singletary. LT. Ham. Lambert. Butkus. Lanier. Virtually every great LB has been playing golf for two or three seasons by this time in Lewis’ career. Of the great LBs, only Junior Seau played significantly longer than Lewis has. And by this time in Seau’s career, he was starting half or less of the season and didn’t have more than 58 tackles in a season after his 14th year.

These three players, while creating an illusion of great talent due to name recognition where it’s actually average or worse. But they’re hardly the only positions where the Ravens lack even average talent. I’ve already covered the OL. The rest of it lies with the defense.

Reed isn’t the only problem in the secondary. Dawan Landry is a below average safety struggling to make even fundamental plays. The loss of Foxworth combined with the disappointment of Fabian Washington has created a vacuum at corner. And while Josh Wilson, Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb have played admirably for nickel-level players, they aren’t NFL quality starters. And Lewis, while just average at this point, remains the best linebacker on the team. There is no talent beside him at ILB, and if you count Suggs at DE – which is where he’s lining up most plays these days – there’s little to speak of at OLB either.

While the defensive line, particularly Suggs and Ngata, is playing quite well, and statistically they’re top ten in yards and top five in points, clearly the defense isn’t what it once was. Giving up long drives and fourth quarter leads is out of character, and the talent deficiency is a big part of it.

The Fans and Media
Okay, let’s get real for a minute. While this team has its problems, the level of crazy in Baltimore right now is off the charts. Fans and media are calling for the heads of coaches and giving up on games. Between message board watching and several chat conversations on Monday night vs. the Texans, I lost count of how many people told me some version of “game over” when the Ravens punted in overtime.

The Baltimore fan base has always been rabid. The media consistently paints the Ravens as the perceived bad guys fighting adversity. And the city has largely felt like they’re the step-children of the league, fighting for respect but preferring the role of underdog. Meanwhile, many believe the Ravens are an elite team that should be Superbowl contenders if not favorites. And while watching eight blown fourth quarter leads will wear on any fan, the reality is, the team is 5 games over .500 and two in front of any wild-card contender with three to play. They control their destiny to win the Superbowl, have not lost to anyone by more than five points and have the seventh highest point differential in the league.

The Ravens fan-base and some of the Baltimore media are making things out to be far more dire than they really are. While the Ravens aren’t the best team in the NFL this year, they’re without question in contention for the Superbowl. And fans of no less than 18 other teams would love to be in the position the Ravens are in, and enjoy the regular success the Ravens enjoy year in and year out.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some Ravens Numbers

In our email discussion thread, Craig made some commentary around analysis of certain situations. I've been watching the Pens/Flyers game tonight and decided to cut up some data during the game, to take a look at various situations to satisfy my own curiosity.

This is only partial data. As a Football Outsiders game charter, I've charted 20 of the Ravens 54 + 3 (OT) quarters across 8 of their 13 games. All data comes from their charting sheets and my personal charts.

One would have to assume that this data is representative of the whole, but I don't see a whole lot of reason to think it isn't. The only reason I could see is that of the 10 halves I've charted, six are first halves and four are second halves. Otherwise I don't think there's much to indicate this isn't representative.

- The Ravens run the ball a little over 55% of the time on first downs (last year they ran 53% of the time on first down). Their success on run vs. pass plays are pretty similar. They average 4.5 ypp on the pass, 4.2 on the run. But 53% of the pass attempts resulted in 0 or negative yards, while 17% of the run plays did.
- They run the ball 47% of the time on second downs, regardless of distance. On second and short (defined as 3 or fewer yards), they run 78% of the time.
- On 3rd and short, they run the ball only 33% of the time! They were in shotgun nearly 50% of the time, and had a 3+ WR set 67% of the time. Flacco has completed only 43% of all attempts (includes sacks) on those passing plays, 14% of those completions did not pick up the first down (sample size very small, so may not be truly represntative). Thus, the Ravens pick up the first down on third and short less than 40% of the time when they throw the ball. This, as compared to a 63% first down pick-up rate when they run on third and short.
- In the red zone, they run 60% of the time, though they run 76% of the time in the red zone on short yards to go situations. Inside the 3 yard line, they run ~60% of the time, the same percent of first/second down plays.

The bullet on 3rd and short is representative of why Ravens fans are generally frustrated with the coaching / offensive play calling. I've got an article brewing in my head breaking down the Ravens season thus far, and what's "wrong" with the team. I use the term "wrong" lightly, given they have four losses thus far...only so much can be wrong with such a team. Part of it is, in my belief, the coaching. There will be more around this in the coaching section I think.

In the mean-time, if there are any other particular stats anyone can think of they'd like to see, I'm happy to post them.


Ngata and the Ravens OT win

I've replayed that final play - Josh Wilson's pick 6 to end the Baltimore @ Houston game - several times now. Haloti Ngata is the key to the play's success.

Ngata made a terrific move to get by the blockers. Houston double teams him with C-LG. Ngata starts to rush as if he's going right into the teeth of that double-team. Then he suddenly re-directs to his left, using his left arm to get outside the C, makes a swim move with the right and comes to the C's right, leaving the OG standing around looking for someone to block. The C was beat badly by the swim move and the RG couldn't disengage in time to pick him up.

Ngata comes free inside and bee-lines to Schaub. Schaub has to back-peddle, make an off-balance throw, and rather than deliver a bullet which could have been complete, he throws a soft duck that hangs in the air long enough for Wilson to jump on.

It was a terrific play by one of the league's premiere defensive players, and is the reason the Ravens won the game.


Monday, December 13, 2010

A hidden issue

Watching the end of the Ravens/Texans game, and seeing yet another issue that I think is at least playing a part in the Ravens problems holding late leads. On this drive that started with 6:00 left in the 4th and the Ravens up 8 points, Joe Flacco has snapped the ball early on every play except one. He's left nothing less than 19 seconds on the clock.

This is actually a pretty consistent problem. If you watch, Flacco's not burning the time off the clock when the clock is still running. I don't know if it's a coaching issue, an awareness issue or what. But it's a definite problem, and it's GOT to be corrected.


Dirty Pool, Mister

If the Sal Alosi ridiculousness doesn't result in a firing, and hopefully a league ban, then I'm not sure what would.

I suppose we could make some commentary about how this is representative of the Jets attitude of entitlement. I'd like to think this could happen to any NFL team, one bad apple in the system. But I also think it's more likely to happen within certain organizations...the Jets is one of them.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Collapse of a Division Leader

Today the Arizona Cardinals will be trotting out John Skelton to play sacrificial lamb under center. Skelton is known most for his works as a satirist poet and tutoring Prince Henry. Apparently he's not as well known for having been reborn as a football player hailing from Fordham...

Fordham. ESPN announced this morning that Skelton would start for the Cards, and they posted a graphic touting well known Fordham graduates. You know you're in a bad situation when ESPN is comparing your starting quarterback to other notables that graduated from their college, and Captain Kangaroo leads the list.

The Cardinals have been a spectacular failure this season. They've improved their win total each of the last three seasons, and in the previous two years they've won 19 regular season games, 4 post-season games and were a Ben Roethlisberger wink-and-a-prayer from winning the Superbowl.

Now, it's unfair to put all of their problems on the offense. Defensively, the Cards are 28th in yards allowed and have given up the most points in the league. But they've never been known as a defensive powerhouse. Last year, their best defensive season in five years, they were 14th in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed.

But it's the offensive collapse that's been simply spectacular. Part of it has to do with some of the positional turnover. The loss of Anquan Boldin being the second most major loss on offense this off-season for them. But it's without question the loss of Warner, and the franchise's inability to account for it, that has crushed the life out of them in a pathetically weak division.

During Warner's tenure as the primary starter, their offense averaged in the top ten and was one of the best in the NFL in '08. He completed over 65% of his passes for over 7.5 YPA, threw a TD every 21 att and a pick one out of 36 tosses. Compare this with the Cards passers this season, which are completing 51.5% for 6.1 YPA, throwing a TD every 51.5 passes and a pick in half as many attempts. The result has been a predictable plunge from the upper echelon of the offenses in the league into the bottom two in points scored and yards gained.

The real issue has to be that the Cards are showing the signs of being the same old whipping boy organization it's always been, making poor decisions and allowing good players to walk without replacing them with other good players. Obviously Warner wasn't able to be retained. But when your contingency plan includes hoping Matt Leinart - a career 71 rated passer after four seasons - turns into a good option, signing Derek Anderson - who's career includes 3 awesome games and a ton of terrible ones - to compete and picking up whoever off the street happens to be able to have a working arm to throw a ball, you have to expect what's actually happened.

It's got to be a disappointment in a division led by two teams that look like they'll both struggle to finish .500. I'm struggling to remember a time that the opportunity to win a division has been so easily out there for the taking, and the collapse at one position has allowed that opportunity to be squandered.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Talking about Steelers - Ravens

Patrick emailed Chris and Jim the morning after the Ravens game. There ensued a conversation.

I was tempted to rib you guys, pulling items from the game thread [on a Ravens discussion board] on all the Raven fans turning on the team mid-game, but right now that feels cruel.

But that said, if 24x7 is representative (in the way that other message boards are representative) then I can’t imagine a more reactionary fanbase. Baltimore got beat last night, and for once there aren’t any excuses. Two major personal fouls went uncalled, including one that knocked a key player from the game, and the Ravens got beat. But they didn’t get beaten down, they didn’t get beat because they played poorly. It was a tough game between two rivals who nearly played to a standstill, very similar to the Jets game, and the majority of the posts in the game thread and elsewhere are fan-suicidal, angry at the coaching staff, ready to throw Flacco under the bus. I can’t imagine how bad things get in a couple years when the Ravens are no longer among the best teams in the league.

Pittsburgh was better last night, but not that much better. They were no more than a couple of plays better. Hardly a reason to pitch the season in the toilet.

I peeked at 24x7 overnight, saw the thread titles and decided I didn't have the strength. Haven't read anything there. I'm not ready to throw Flacco, Cameron & Harbaugh under any buses.


If you can't beat the Steelers last night, then you just can't beat them. You're at home, you knock out their punter and their RT, break the QB's nose early, get the better of the refereeing decisions, penetrate their O-line constantly, have the lead and the ball with 3 mins left – and lose.

You described the game as a tough one between two rivals playing each other to a standstill. You said Pittsburgh was better, but not by much, just a couple plays worth. I almost agree with you. I do agree that the two teams are very, very close to each other in terms of talent. But it seems to me that the Steelers have the edge in poise, composure, focus, playmaking in key situations – "clutchness", whatever that is. You don't see the Steelers jumping offside on 3rd-&-1 in a chaotic hurry-up situation. You don't see them fail to wrap up the tackle on a 3rd-&-goal pass well short of the end zone. You don't see Roethlisberger short-arming a pass on 4th-&-2, so it bounces before it gets to the receiver. Etc.

This is one of the most bitter losses I can remember as a Ravens fan. I was bitter about the AFC Championship loss a couple years ago, but there were so many silver linings that day, not least of which was just making it to that game with a rookie QB and a bad offense coming off a 5-11 season. This game, it's galling.

Chris B
I drove up for the game. Didn’t get back till 3 AM last night, had nothing but time to boil in the car on the 3+ hour drive. I’m glad not to take the ribbing – I’m getting it from friends who are Steeler fans and my brother who’s lived in Pittsburgh for the last 10 years and a Steeler fan – right now it’s just painful. I’m nowhere close to the “done with the team” crowd or anything stupid like that. But this was a really painful loss.

Here’s something I PMed to a couple of the fans on the Ravens board:

I just drove 3+ hours back to Richmond by myself where I pretty much had nothing but time to stew about this game. I'm gonna write a lot of thoughts on it (I haven't even seen the boards yet and I shudder to think what's on them) later. But right now, it boils down to a few things:

  1. I think the team is winning as much as they are cause there's some exceptional talent here.
  2. I think the team has a dramatic lack of talent at key positions which is killing them.
  3. I think the coaching staff is very strong in some areas, but has shown terrible weaknesses in others and has not shown any signs that they're learning from their mistakes.
  4. I think this team is showing an alarming trend of being incapable of putting away good teams. We now have three of our four losses where we had fourth quarter leads. Championship teams do not lose three games on a season where they gave up fourth quarter leads. I think the only loss I’ve taken as hard as this one was the AFC Divisional game loss to the Colts in the ’06 season. I’m not sure which of the two was worse.
I'm sick.

My original point wasn’t about how painful the loss should or shouldn’t be, or how you should feel. It was about how those guys at 24x7 turn so viciously on their own team so quickly. I made fun of them for doing it during the Bills game which they ultimately won. It isn’t like I typically lurk there during Raven games. I went there during the Bills game expecting comedy and getting more than I expected. I went there this morning because of what I read during the Bills game. I hate to say it’s a majority but I think it is a majority. Maybe only a handful are bitterly calling for the firing of Flacco and Cameron and Harbaugh but where is the silent majority saying ‘hey, hold on a second’. There is no reason at all, not even a little.

I would like to claim I know how you feel, but I don’t and it is a little hard to comment on it. I don’t think I could ever care so much about a game that I could feel so distraught by the outcome. Didn’t feel that way during the ’06 World Series, the ’87 playoffs, the ’91 NFC championship, any of the Wing’s failed runs. The fab four failing twice in championship games. Maybe the closest I came was with the Pistons losing to the Lakers in ’88, but even then we knew they were good and we knew they would be back. Greatly disappointed sure, but that bitterness – I just don’t get it.

And all this over a regular season game. The Ravens still control their own destiny. Nothing’s really changed.

Chris B
This loss is just devastating for me because of how much energy I put into the Ravens. I don’t know for certain how big of a fan of any of your teams you are Patrick, but my sense has always been that you’re much more objective about it than I am. I try to stay objective in how I evaluate the Ravens, but I’m not in any way anything other than extremely emotional about the results. If I weren’t married with kids, I’d be living in Baltimore and the Ravens would likely be the most important thing in my life. That may or may not be sad to say, but it’s a fact, so –

A loss like this is just horrible. I was telling my dad before the game that the only regular season game in Ravens history that may have come close to how big this one was is the first time the Colts came back to play. Losing to a rival. Losing when getting outplayed. In your own house. Ugh. It’s just awful.

I didn’t know Ngata broke Ben’s nose till this morning.

Not sure I would say nothing has changed. There's a big difference btw being one of the top 2 seeds in the playoffs, vs being a wildcard. In the one case, the road to the conf championship game is paved for you; in the other case, every playoff win is a rare gift.

I understand and agree, but my point is that this hardly ends the Ravens’ season. So it’s gotten tougher, they still control their destiny.

Chris B
I think the biggest difference in my mind is the confidence I believe about the Ravens ability to do it. The Ravens win last night, they completely control the #2 seed and have a decent shot at going to and even winning the Superbowl. After last night, I feel like there’s almost no shot. I don’t think the Ravens are good enough to do it, regardless of the fact they control their destiny. The only hope I really see is that the loss winds up sparking them to playing at a different level, cause the level they’re playing at right now – the same level as that which allowed the Falcons and Patriots to come back and win – is nowhere near good enough. And I frankly think it’s more likely the team winds up going the other road and just folds up and dies.

I think we may see how good a coach Harbaugh really is in these last four games. There is CONSTANT word right now that there’s a big rift building in that locker room between him and the players. I don’t know how true it is, but this loss is a definite test. The Ravens are teetering right now – I don’t know which way they fall.

I don’t know that I’m naturally objective, I’m just older and more used to being disappointed. You guys have been pretty spoiled with the Ravens, but that’s just one team. Where do they fit with the Orioles and Caps (or Penguins) and Wizards? Sooner or later the Ravens will go through a multiyear downspell where things just don’t work even though it looks like they should work. I’m not talking about a Millenesque period, just a prolonged period where they aren’t very competitive. I have a feeling that you will become less sanguine. Maybe it’s ego, but I like to think that I am good at reading the tea leaves, not from a fan perspective but from a broader one. My optimism and expectations are tempered by reality and mathematics. It wasn’t until the last few years that I really developed an appreciation for accumulated probabilities. This is also why I get so angry or sarcastic with arrogant fan classes like the Patriots (had) or like what I see at 24x7. Do you guys have any clue how special what you have is? There are 27 fanbases in the league who would trade your team’s last decade for theirs in a heartbeat. So yeah, it does get me a bit started when I see an ignorant fanbase turn so ugly with an organization that has given them so much and is still relevant this year!

You guys have had your 7 years of plenty. Will you still be as passionate a fan after your 7 years of famine?

I have rooted for losers before. For example, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles (of the 0-21 start). Maryland basketball from the death of Len Bias to year 3 or so of the Gary Williams regime. The 1978-83 Baltimore Colts, who in the end suffered the greatest sports loss possible: the whole team. (I was one of the pathetic ones, young enough to still feel an attachment to the team when it moved, and who still tried to root for the Colts from afar.) There are pleasures to be had. In some ways it makes your enjoyment of the sport purer – you find ways to appreciate single plays and individual players, without living or dying by changes to the playoff seeding picture.

I do need to have a sense that the organization is making positive moves to get better. The Orioles and baseball as a whole lost me thru a combination of factors in the 90s, some of which were "macro", having to do with the series of strikes and what I perceived as Major League Baseball's sense of entitlement with respect to their fans. But most of it was Peter Angelos' systematic dismantling of the franchise, his egomaniacal way of making sure that no one in that organization was bigger or better-loved than he. (It's also true that I did not have that deep love of baseball that some kids imbibe with their first sip of dad's beer.)

I think it could happen to me in football. If I had been a Lions fan, the Matt Millen era would certainly have driven me away from the team.

It's hard to imagine any such thing happening in Baltimore, as long as Bisciotti and Ozzie are in charge, or the succession plan for Ozzie is Eric Da Costa. I can see the Ravens having "7 years of famine" where they miss the playoffs and mix in some 7-9 records with 8-8 or 9-7, and field teams that don't quite jell. Maybe something like Bill Cowher 1998-2000. I can't see them having "7 years of famine" that are anything like the scorched earth of the Millen era. The Ravens scouting dept under Ozzie or Da Costa should keep bringing in decent players, though perhaps not Hall-of-Famers; and the organization as a whole should continue to value continuity and player development.

Patrick – when you ask if we Baltimore fans have any clue how special what we've had is, I wonder if some of the, uh, indignation on that 24x7 board is fans being angry almost on behalf of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed et al. A sense of, we've had something special for many years and we're wasting it.

But it is true that Baltimore fans habitually have a chip on their shoulder. Second best, or younger brother syndrome, or something.

Chris B
I stuck with the Orioles in down times until Angelos let Mussina go. That was the back-breaker for me. He was my favorite player on that team, even more than Ripken. They had him signed and Angelos ripped up the deal and I swore if they didn’t get him signed I would no longer monetarily support the O’s till Angelos was gone. I can’t support him as an owner, and I haven’t since then.

Yeah, I know what we have is great. I think that’s part of what makes it worse, is knowing we’re so close but just can’t get over that hump.

I am seriously starting to question what Cam’s doing. Part of it might just be paranoia. But I can’t figure out what’s going on with some of these play calls. There are so many things that I just don’t understand what they’re doing. The fumble play is the perfect example. 2nd and 5, game is close, the Steelers need a TD. Why in God’s name are they throwing the ball there? I just can’t see an offensive game plan that looks cohesive. I want to say he’s got a plan, and the things he’s doing make sense cause I’m just an armchair quarterback. But I just can’t see it.

Well, I don't necessarily agree with that criticism of Cameron. Other fans, including me, are criticizing the Ravens for not throwing on some other 2nd-downs in the 4h quarter. Why were they so unaggressive? Especially in the possessions near midfield. If we jump on Cameron for not throwing more earlier in the game, it's tough to criticize him for not attacking on a favorable down-&-distance.

I also disagree that there's no evident plan. We faced the toughest attacking defense in football, and gave up a reasonably low number of sacks and no INTs, and moved the ball decently. There was clearly a plan. Sometimes I feel the adherence to plans is a little robotic rather than responsive to the game situations. But it's not like there's no plan.

I also don't think play-calling is an OC's only job. There is also the growth & development of the offense. That has obviously been happening over the years Cameron has been here. So, I'm not as willing to stomp on Cameron as some fans seem to be.

Chris B
It’s far less about that play in a vacuum. A throw there isn’t bad on a one-play-only view. But the point of this is, if he’s running first and second down on previous drives in obvious running situations where we get positive yards but don’t necessarily pick up big yards, then why are you deciding to throw on THAT particular down, when you REALLY need to burn clock, and have a solid shot to either pick up a first down or at least make it third and short? It’s the decision to pass there after having decided that clock burn was more important. I wouldn’t mind a throw there nearly as much had the Ravens been passing more earlier in the quarter. As it stood going up to that point, the play call there just made absolutely no sense.

That’s what I’m talking about as to not really appearing to have a game plan. I mean, I watch a lot of different teams closely. Not as closely as I watch the Ravens of course, but I’ve charted 12 halves of games so far this year and not all of them were Ravens games; plus I’ve watched a lot of other games pretty closely. There’s a certain offensive cohesion with some teams. A game plan that goes out and specifically attacks some area against another team’s defense. Indi does it. New England does it. Philly does it. New Orleans does it with machine-like precision.

The Ravens just don’t do it. To me, it more looks like the Ravens are just out there calling plays, as opposed to attacking defenses. To me, it’s really reminiscent of the way Matt Cavanaugh used to call plays. He’s just out there calling plays, not trying to design an offensive game-plan that puts everything together like pieces of a puzzle. It’s nowhere near as bad as what Cavanaugh did. And there’s sometimes a game plan in place. But then you just get these calls that leave you scratching your head, saying “Hunh? WTF???”

Look at the Atlanta game as a great example. Offensively we’re not doing anything well. Then, Flacco leads a drive down the field in the second half that features 7 rushes and 4 passes – one of the passes a screen – where they just jammed it right down the Falcons’ throats. The rushes on that drive averaged 8.5 ypc, the passes 3.5 ypp. They were running the ball well all day, avg over 6 ypc to that point. The very next drive they come out with five straight passing plays. Seriously, how does that make ANY sense what-so-ever???

BTW, did you guys see what Mason said after the game? Wow. Really powerful stuff. And very concerning…

Yeah, I saw the Mason quote. I don't disagree.

But to say the Ravens weren't targeting a weakness in this game: Collinsworth kept harping during the TV coverage, about how the Ravens were picking on Bryant McFadden relentlessly. That certainly seemed to be a weakness the Ravens were attacking.

I have to wonder how different this season would look, if Gaither (last year's version) were starting at LT and Oher on the right, with Yanda back at RG. A strong, athletic (and healthy) O-line changes everything.

Chris B
There’s little doubt in my mind the Ravens OL is significantly better like that than it is now. Oher doesn’t look like even a mediocre LT to me (how he’s leading in Pro Bowl voting – if he actually is like someone on 24x7 claims – is beyond me), and Yanda is not a good RT. But we’ve seen Oher and Yanda play very well at RT and RG respectively. Chester is a backup at best at RG. Gaither and Grubbs aren’t world-beaters, but they are average or maybe slightly above average players at LT and LG. A line like that would help significantly.

I think Gaither’s gone after this year. I think it’s likely we go LT in the draft somewhere if not early. But this team is lacking a lot of talent in the defensive front seven as well.

Here’s another thing that really concerns me about our offensive coaching. They’ve got a TON of talent on this offense. But they don’t really look all that better than they have over the last decade. How are they still underperforming?

Um, doesn't the first half of your email, answer the question you ask at the end of the email? You spend your first paragraph stating that 3/5 of the Ravens O-line is below-average:
Oher doesn’t look like even a mediocre LT
Yanda is not a good RT
Chester is a backup at best at RG
How can the offense not be underperforming, if the O-line really is weak?

It's not like the "ton of talent" is invisible in the offense's showing. Flacco is having the best statistical season of any Ravens QB since Vinnie's Pro Bowl season: on pace for ~4000 yards, 25 TDs, passer rating over 90. (Actually, Flacco's INT% is so much better than Vinnie's that his passer rating is actually slightly higher than Vinnie's that season, even with so many fewer TDs.) That's a direct result of the new talent on offense, along with Flacco's growth as a QB. They definitely look better (more efficient) in the passing game than they have in a dozen years, when they can throw the ball (exclude sacks etc). But the O-line has problems, so the offensive consistency is way down and the ability to sustain drives (without sacks or holding penalties or false starts) is way down and the rushing numbers are way down, and the scoring is somewhat down as well.

It really makes total sense.

[And later]

The "5 things we learned" column is pretty good, as usual:

Chris B
This sentence from that piece really summed up perfectly my feelings about Cam:
“He seems to come up with great plays here and there, but he can't find anything that consistently works well.”


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