Sunday, May 16, 2010

Big Ten Expansion, Seeing The Forest

So Big Ten expansion is in and out of the news with rumor this and rumor that and every other week or so sportstalk radio gets fired up with the latest "news". Every time the topic comes up I feel that the most important issue gets overlooked; this isn't an expansion for this year or this decade or ever the next 20 years. This is forever.

The Big Ten was formed in 1895 with 7 schools, 3 more were added over the next 17 years with Ohio State the last. When the University of Chicago dropped sports in 1946, Michigan State College replaced them. My point here is that the Big Ten is not only an exclusive membership, it is a permanent one. No school has ever left the conference for another, no school has ever been dropped by the conference.

So the spot where I am leading this should be pretty obvious. The Big Ten has to be really careful who they invite to join, and they have to be just as careful with who they omit (I'm looking at you, Notre Dame). Any argument for the inclusion of a school must consider the quality and history of an institution beyond any immediacy or ego.

There have been a lot of proposals that the Big Ten issue an ultimatum to Notre Dame: join now or never participate with our member schools in athletics again. This would be a stupid ultimatum because it only addresses current politics, not the history of the institutions involved. Any expansion of the Big Ten beyond 14 teams absolutely must include Notre Dame. I believe the Council of Presidents understands this, I believe that Notre Dame understands this. This goes beyond regionality, natural rivalries or history - all of which heavily support the inclusion of Notre Dame in the Big Ten. Notre Dame is so like the Big Ten schools in culture, quality of education and academic and athletic goals that the idea of excluding this institution "forever" is ludicrous.

In addition to Notre Dame, schools that are the most natural additions are Pittsburgh (230 years old and top 25 in annual research dollars), Missouri (180 years old, major land grant university, overwhelming leader in research dollars in Missouri). Rutgers predates the United States and is a major chemistry and medical research university. At 50,000 students they would be one of the larger schools in the Big Ten. At 19,000 students Nebraska represents the smallest of the currently proposed invitees - other than Notre Dame, however they are a Carnegie Research institution and a member of the Association of American Universities, both prestigious and both make a strong argument for inclusion in the Big Ten.

At $80M Notre Dame wouldn't be considered a top research school by Big Ten standards. Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State (in that order) each outspend Notre Dame by about ten times annually. Pittsburgh spends over $600M. Nebraska a relative lightweight ~ $110M. What Notre Dame provides is quality, character and branding. These are not insignificant, but Notre Dame needs to realize - and likely does - that they are not big dogs when it comes to the things that the Big Ten member institutions do best - things that are not demonstrated on athletic fields.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Worst Ever?

After reflecting a bit on the recent teams that had sub 4 win seasons recently, and how much worse (relatively) the Lions were than any other teams in the group, it occurred to me that the last ten years of this franchise might be the worst of any franchise in NFL history. Back to PFR to find out!

I decided to start with teams from 1935 on. Prior to '35 the league wasn't well organized, and was more a akin to barnstorming teams than an organized league. Teams played inconsistent schedules with some play 12-14 games and others 6-8. Conferences were formed in 1933 and from 1935 onward the teams all played the same number of games. Also in 1935 the Detroit Lions won the league championship so this seems to add some karmic legitimacy to the exercise.

Okay, so unless I am overlooking someone there have been a total of six teams who have gone through 10 year stretches at sub-30% winrates. The Lions are one of them. A couple of these teams have stretched this out to 11-12 years which the Lions will also surely do. While I wish I could provide more than birdseye insight into the relative ineptitude of these franchises - I can't. But I can guess, so guess I will.

Detroit Lions 2000-2009 42-138 (.263)

Oddly we can expect them to surpass this after 2010 as their 9-7 season from 2000 will drop off. This stretch includes two 2-win season, two 3-wins seasons, and the only 0-16 season in NFL history. Over this ten year stretch the team had 7 different head coaches, including interims. Perhaps the biggest lowlight was their record in their signature games on Thanksgiving. After blowing out New England in 2000 (Tom Brady's NFL debut!) the Lions went 1-8 on Thanksgiving, losing by scores including 47-10 and 41-9.

Chicago Cardinals 1936-1945 20-83-5 (.208)

Okay, here's a team with a worse stretch than the Lions. It's hard to pretend I know anything about this team (I don't) but just picking out some things from the pile, they had back-to-back winless seasons in 1943-44 (0-10 both years) and in '44 they were outscored by 22 points per game. In a 1-10 1939 season

Denver Broncos 1960-1969 39-95-4 (.293)

As an original AFL franchise, the early years were not kind to the Broncos. This was the only AFL team not to appear in a league championship game and they didn't have their first winning season until 1973. Despite their record this team doesn't really belong in the futility category. They built their fanbase all through the decade, they had professional football's first 100 reception season by a player, they had professional football's first starting black quarterback. They were also the first AFL team to defeat an NFL team, beating the Lions (of course) in a 1967 preseason game.

Green Bay Packers 1949-1958 34-84-2 (.292)

This Packer era fits fairly neatly from the last year of Curly Lambeau's tenure through the year prior to Vince Lombardi. I haven't found a lot of information on these teams. They had some good players, Tobin Rote, among others, so it is difficult to determine why they struggled so much. The team never really survived the retirement of Don Hutson but one player doesn't account for this. The team struggled financially for much of the '50. They had their second public sale of team stock in 1954 and in '56 moved from the original Lambeau Field to City Stadium - which would be renamed Lambeau following Lambeau's death ten years later. The dramatic turnaround with the arrival of Lombardi suggests that it was scheme and not personnel that contributed the most to the lethargy of the decade.

New Orleans Saints 1967-1976, 1968-1977 36-99-5 (.275)

Daddy Manning's original Aint's, football's version of the Chicago Cubs. These teams weren't awful so much as hapless, if that makes sense. Their first ever 1st round pick was something called Les Kelly, a linebacker who never started a game in his 3 year NFL career. Their 2nd rounder also had a 3 year career. 1968, more of the same with the only regular starter a 7th round pick. The first Pro Bowler they drafted was Ken Burroughs, their 1st rounder in 1970 but he didn't make the Pro Bowl with the Saints. They promptly traded him after his rookie year to the Oilers for 3 players, 2 who never played another down in the NFL and the 3rd - Hoyle Granger - who played fullback for one season before returning to Houston. Even Hank Stram couldn't save this team. He coached the '76-'77 squads and one source blames the performance of these teams for Stram's long delayed election to the Hall of Fame. It should be noted that one of the Saints' two wins in 1970 came on Tom Dempsey's 63 yard field goal as time expired against - yes - the Detroit Lions.

Philadelphia Eagles 1935-1944 28-70-6 (.298)

There is nothing I can say about these teams that isn't already lore to Eagles fans. From Bert Bell purchasing the franchise in '33 and losing their first two games by a combined 81-0, to Davey O'Brien's record setting rookie season amidst a 1 win year, to Art Rooney effectively trading the Steelers for the Eagles and hating it so much that the next year he traded back to the war years when they merged with Pittsburgh and played as the Steagles. Perhaps the lowlight came in 1936 when Bell talked the rest of the league into instituting a draft rewarding the worst team with the highest picks. The Eagles picked Jay Berwanger #1 overall in that first draft without knowing that he had no intention of playing pro ball.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eastern Oregon WR dies of head injury

Buried deep in headline sports pages comes this nugget about a receiver that died of a head injury taken on the field.

I don't have the time to get into a deep post on this now, but chalk this up as another case that should be prompting more action on the head injury issue. I think first and foremost has to be redesigning the helmets in a way that is far more protective than they currently are.

More disappointing is how this at least as of now seems to hardly be getting any air-time. Maybe I'm just out of the loop, but I stumbled upon this, where I feel like if it was a receiver at say Florida or USC, it'd probably be SportsCenter's lead and on the front page of most sports journalism outlets.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Once A Loser

As a fan of the Lions I feel like I have a better idea of what goes into being a really bad football team/franchise than - say - a recent fan of the Patriots or a fan of the Cowboys or something. Heck, Yankee fans burn players in effigy when their teams don't win the World Series. Not saying much but I think I've earned a little perspective.

But anyway, I've kind of noticed something. While every team has down years, the truly bad teams have a terrible time getting off the mat. It's one thing to go 5-11, it's entirely different to go 2-14.

I'm not entirely sure where the demarcation between 'bad year' and 'true futility actually lies, but for arguments' sake I'm going to pretend that 3-13 is the number. In other words, decent teams can have bad or unlucky years and end up with 4 wins, only truly bad teams can do worse.

So anyway, I got curious about the 5 year results of teams that hit this nadir. How hard is it for teams to recover? It seemed like an easy enough think to look at so here goes.

I'll start with 1995 and go to 2004. This should give us a good sample of 3 win teams. I'll take a look at their post 3-win season high water mark, the number of coaching changes, and where they ultimately ended up.


New York Jets (3-13) HC Rich Kotite. Record in 2000: 9-7, high water: 12-4 in 1998, low water: 1-15 1996. Two HC changes. Five year record: 39-41


Jets, five year record: 48-32

New Orleans Saints (3-13). HC: Rick Venturi/Jim Mora. Record in 2001: 7-9, high water: 10-6 in 2000, low water 3-13 in 1999. Three HC changes. Five year record: 32-48

Atlanta Falcons (3-13). HC: June Jones. Record in 2001: 7-9, high water: 14-2 in 1998 (SB), low water 4-12 in 2000. One HC change. Five year record: 37-43.


Indianapolis Colts (3-13). HC: Lindy Infante. Record in 2002: 10-6, high water 13-3 in 1999, low water 3-13 in 1998. Two HC changes. Five year record: 42-38.


Indianapolis Colts (3-13). Five year record: 51-29.

Cincinnati Bengals (3-13). HC: Bruce Coslet. Record in 2003: 8-8, high water 8-8 in 2003, low water 2-14 in 2002. Two HC changes. Five year record: 24-56.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-13). HC: Ray Rhodes. Record in 2003: 12-4, high water 12-4 in 2002, 2003, low water 5-11 in 1999. One HC change. Five year record: 51-29.


New Orleans Saints. Five year record: 42-38.

Cleveland Browns (2-14). HC: Chris Palmer. Record in 2004: 4-12, high water 9-7 in 2002, low water 3-13 in 2000. Two HC changes. Five year record: 28-52.


Cleveland Browns. Five year record: 31-49.

San Diego Chargers (1-15). HC: Mike Riley. Record in 2005: 9-7, high water 12-4 in 2004, low water 4-12 in 2003. One HC change. Five year record: 38-42.

Arizona Cardinals (3-13). HC: Dave Mcinnis/Vince Tobin. Record in 2005: 5-11, high water 7-9 in 2001, low water 4-12 in 2003. Two HC changes. Five year record: 27-53.


Buffalo Bills (3-13). HC: Gregg Williams. Record in 2006: 7-9, high water 9-7 in 2004, low water 5-11 in 2005. Two HC changes. Five year record: 35-45.

Detroit Lions (2-14). HC: Marty Mornhinweg. Record in 2006: 3-13, high water 6-10 in 2004, low water 3-13 in 2002, 2006. Three HC changes. Five year record: 22-58.

Carolina Panthers (1-15). HC: George Seifert. Record in 2006: 8-8, high water 11-5 in 2003 (SB), 2005, low water 7-9 in 2002, 2004. One HC change. Five year record: 44-36.


Cincinnati Bengals (2-14). Five year record: 42-38.

Detroit Lions (3-13). Five year record: 26-54.

(none in 2003)

San Francisco 49ers (2-14). HC: Dennis Erickson. Record in 2009: 8-8, high water 8-8 in 2009, low water 4-12 in 2005. Two HC changes. Five year record: 29-51.


Okay, so what - if anything - can we see from this? 13 distinct teams had at least one season of 3 wins or fewer, more than I expected. Of those 6 had at least two seasons like this while 1 (the Lions) had three.

Honestly this is the kind of post where I do all the work and find the results irritating enough that I just want to delete the whole thing. It wouldn't be the first time. One of these teams became one of the top teams of the next decade, four others became very good and went to Super Bowls. Another enjoyed some Bill Parcells magic before being forced to remake themselves a few more times.

and 6 of them never really got off the mat. Only San Francisco, Detroit, Arizona and Cincinnati went the next 5 years without a winning season, and two of them touched .500. If nothing else this shows that even being awful is a transient condition - unless you are the Lions.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Impressive Raiders offseason

How the hell did they start acting rationally? A reasonable draft, with functional football players at the top of it. They waited until about the 4th round to make their usual size/speed reaches; and in the process got some good players. They hired a good offensive coordinator (Hue Jackson, late of the Ravens). They acquired a functional quarterback.

And now this:

Raiders release former No. 1 overall pick Russell

Did someone nail Al Davis's coffin shut the morning after the Super Bowl, and he's been scrabbling at the lid ever since?

They seemed to be a pretty strong squad last year, undone by horrendous play at the QB position (Under 6 yards/att, 10 TDs to 18 INTs). If they get mediocre play from their QB(s), they could be respectable.

What the hell is going on???


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