Thursday, September 30, 2010

Good reading

I really enjoy Football Outsiders. They're the best sports analytical site I've found, and their annual almanac is always enjoyable and informative. They also have regular content updates on their site (duh), but this was a particularly enjoyable read.

Mike Tanier is probably my favorite writer for them. He did several chapters in the FO Almanac, including the NFCS teams. The chapter he wrote on Atlanta is one of the best chapters I've read of any book, blending information and entertainment wonderfully. Most of his stuff is "information" with a sprinkling of "entertainment." This article is more the other way around.

When blogger Billy Rios discovered a glitch in the ESPN Fantasy Football site that made it easy to make changes to his opponent's roster, he tested his ability to hack the system by making a fellow owner pick up Grossman. Hilarious. It's like making the computer in "WarGames" start a global thermonuclear war, only worse because it's Grossman.

Read more...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two ways to look at Ravens-Steelers

Patch emailed me something from sbrforum today, an analyst or handicapper looking at the individual players in this Sunday's Ravens-Steelers game. It was very interesting. And it got me to thinking.

There are two distinct ways of looking at this game. And depending on which viewpoint you adopt, it's obvious who should win the game. I mean it's utterly, completely clear who's going to win. What's not obvious is which viewpoint is the correct one. ( I guess it'll be obvious during or after the game, but what fun is that?)

Viewpoint #1:
The Steelers are playing well this season, and the Ravens are not.

Pittsburgh is #3 in the FO's ratings this week (#1 in "DAVE"), Baltimore is #18. Some people have the Steelers as the best team in the NFL. They have won all their games, some against good teams, and they have looked like themselves doing it. The D is baaa-aaack; in particular, Troy Polumalo and Aaron Smith. And the running game is back: Rashard Mendenhall is the NFL's 4th-leading rusher. Meanwhile, Baltimore has not played well. Their offense was AWOL the first two games of the season, while Flacco thew 5 INTs. When the offense finally showed a pulse in week 3, the defense got pushed around. The Ravens gave up 173 yards on the ground, to Cleveland. 6.0 yards per carry!

This, then, is the Ravens-Steelers matchup: two teams going in opposite directions. And the best team in the NFL, playing at home, will blow the Ravens off the field.


Viewpoint #2: The Ravens & Steelers are very, very evenly matched, so the significant players who are out will determine the winner.

From 2008 on, the Ravens & Steelers have played 5 games against each other. These have been the final margins:

3 pts (overtime)
4 pts
9 pts (iced by a late 4th Q Polumalu INT return)
3 pts
3 pts
That 2008 AFC Championship game was a 2-pt game with 4 or 5 mins to go, until Flacco threw the pick-6.

Ravens-Steelers games have been exciting, hard-fought – the rivalry has become must-see football, one of the most anticipated matchups in the league. Pittsburgh has won 4 of those games, so they have been better (they were the 2008 SB Champs, after all); but the margin separating these teams has been thin. Distinct, but thin.

So now these two teams line up against each other again, but with some key people out. The Ravens are missing starting RT Jared Gaither, and the Steelers are missing –

Ben Roethlisberger.

!

Now, Jared Gaither is an important player. But, can we all agree that Ben Roethlisberger is miles and miles more important to the Steelers than Jared Gaither is to the Ravens? I mean, it's not close, right?

I know Rashard Mendenhall is a big-time player now, and the Steelers have a new offensive identity that they haven't had in recent years. Fine. But (no matter what it looked like last week against Cleveland) you just can't earn a living running against the Ravens D. It is not going to happen. The difference-maker for the Steelers offense has been Big Ben hanging in the pocket on third down and miraculously keeping drives alive. If he's not there, the Steelers are not going to move the ball, and their biggest threat to score will be Polumalu. Meanwhile the Ravens also have an added dimension on offense, courtesy of Anquan Boldin.

This, then, is the Ravens-Steelers matchup: the usual slugfest, but without Big Ben's miracles. The game will look like a replay of the Ravens-Jets Monday Night season opener: two teams slogging it out, with the home team unable to do a thing offensively, and the Ravens stringing together just enough offense to leave with the win.

~

So. One of those viewpoints is obviously right. But, uh, which?

__________________________________________________

Edit

Chris emailed me me after the post went up: "Jim – No mention of Reed as a pretty important player missing for the Ravens?"

Uh, oops.

I still think the salient part of viewpoint #2 is that Ben Roethlisberger has been the most important difference-maker for the Steelers in their games against the Ravens (more important even than Polumalu), and he's gone. (You could even argue that without Big Ben back there, the Ravens don't need Ed Reed.)

We'll see how it plays out.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

The best thing I've read (recently) about wide receivers

It's been 25 years since John Madden wrote his first book Hey, wait a minute, I wrote a book and entitled a chapter, "Wide receivers are like artists". This might be the most sympathetic/insightful thing I've read about WRs since:

Five Things We Learned From The Ravens 24-17 win
by Kevin Van Valkenburg
Let's remember that, in order to play wide receiver in the NFL, you need a little diva in you. You have to believe you're open every play, because if you lose that edge, it's really hard to get it back. It takes a certain level of minor insanity and tremendous courage to run really fast, get open for a half second, catch a pass and then let your body get hammered by a defender who could potentially seriously injure you on every play. So when we talk about Derrick Mason, let's respect that. His self-confidence is the reason he has been as good as he is for as long as he has.

But it's obvious he's frustrated. It's clear he doesn't like getting three passes a game thrown his way. We don't need to hear him talk to understand it.

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Rumor

To be clear, I haven't heard this anywhere. I am starting this rumor, not passing along anything I know. (Because I know nothing.)

Parcells will be coaching the Giants next year.

It's plausible. He's available now; and Ernie Accorsi revealed in his book that Parcells was interested, and would have been the choice when Coughlin was hired, but the Maras didn't learn of Parcells' interest until Coughlin was already offered. And suddenly Coughlin seems like a good bet not to survive the season.

I dunno, Coughlin is very tenacious, and tends to wriggle out when his back is to the wall. Watch him pull another Super Bowl win out of his hat.

But, Parcells. You heard it here first.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Da Browns

For a team that sucks – the Browns suck, right? That's the general consensus, that they suck, that they are the weak sisters of the AFC North. They are coming off consecutive seasons of 4 and 5 wins, and they're projected to get stepped on this season as well – for a team that sucks, the Brownies have an awfully good offensive line.

LT Joe Thomas might be the best player at his position in the NFL.
LG Eric Steinbach can play.
C Alex Mack is last year's 21st overall pick, and looks excellent.
RT Tony Pashos may only be solid and reliable, but he is solid and reliable. He's an ex-Raven, and with Jared Gaither out, "solid and reliable" looks pretty good. I wish we still had him.

I don't know anything about RGs Floyd Womack & Shawn Lauvao, but judging by the way the Browns controlled Kelly Gregg & Haloti Ngata, and the way Peyton Hillis (!) ran wild against the Ravens (!!) today, I suspect at least one of them is pretty decent.

O-line is the single most important unit of a football team. (Ok, and QB is the most important single position.) If you have a good O-line, everything else on offense becomes possible. I don't know if the Brownies have their QB question answered: seems like it'll be a while before we know anything about Colt McCoy. But after what I saw from them today, I wouldn't be shocked if everything came together for them very quickly. That O-line might be the best in the AFC North.

Eh, maybe I'm overreacting to one good game. Maybe the Ravens overlooked them, with the Steelers looming next week. The Browns defense looked porous today (to be charitable). And they play in a brutal division.

Still. That unit is much better than the O-line a terrible team should have.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A quarterback regressing?

Joe Flacco's statistics through two games give some cause for concern:
48% completion rate, 5.2 YPA, 1 TD and 5 INTs
Now, granted it's only two games, and they were on the road, in a six day period and against the #1 and #6 passing defenses from last year. And while I'm far from panicking over whether Flacco is in serious regression, or if it was just a bad streak in a tough situation, there are some signs of true concern that deserve some attention.

The biggest sign has been the media's favorite tag-line of the week. Flacco's mechanics were terrible against Cincinnati, and he was consistently throwing off his back foot. Part of this may have been due to the fact that despite not allowing a sack, the Ravens OL really had a poor game. Flacco was constantly under pressure and forced to either throw on the run, or simply get a throw off with someone in his face or in the process of tackling him.

But there's at least one more concerning possibility. One that I thought about at the time, but didn't know enough about to speak up on. I still don't "know" a ton, but what's a good conspiracy theory if it goes untold?

Last year, the Ravens lost Hue Jackson - Flacco's quarterback coach - to the Raiders. Jackson is an accomplished and respected coach that was credited for helping Flacco develop quickly into a solid QB. There was hope he could replace Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator if he were given another shot as a head coach, before getting the opportunity in Oakland. He was later replaced by the much maligned as a head coach, but seemingly well respected quarterback coach, Jim Zorn. The hire was lauded as an excellent replacement for Jackson to continue Flacco's development.

The concern I have, and had at the time of hire, was that Zorn was never a quarterback known for his mechanics. He was more of an instinctual player. My concern is, how does a guy that plays on guts teach good form?

I don't have a lot other than that. There's no proof. In fact, Zorn coached Matt Hasselbeck from '01 to '07. The difference between his stats in that time vs. the rest of his career are striking:
With Zorn: 61% comp rate, 7.1 YPA, 4.5% TD rate, 2.7% INT rate
Without: 58% comp rate, 6.1 YPA, 3.4% TD rate, 4.0% INT rate

But I'm still not sure about it. And after two games, while it's too small a sample to say the jury's out, I've hardly had my mind put at ease.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Tidbits - Week 2

Steelers 19 - Titans 11
Titans - Seven turnovers and still had a shot to win at the end. Fans were left wondering how they managed to get the Ravens for their team.
Steelers - After the game, Tomlin announced that he still wasn't sure whether Roethlisberger would be his starting quarterback upon his return, or if he'd simply draft someone out of the stands, as he really doesn't need one to win games.

Packers 34 - Bills 7
Bills - Displaying Marshawn Lynch's talents to the team most likely to pick him up may have backfired.
Packers - Realized somewhere around 7 minutes left in the first period that they really don't need to run the ball anyway.

Bengals 15 - Ravens 10
Ravens - Joe Flacco sends the city of Baltimore into a panic as they wonder whether the spirit of Kyle Boller has somehow taken over his body. Ray Lewis puts everyone's mind at ease by opening himself to a $3.8MM fine blasting the refs.
Bengals - Carson Palmer laments at how bad of a quarterback he is by missing an uncovered Chad Eightfive repeatedly, thanks the refs for bailing him out.

Falcons 41 - Cardinals 7
Cardinals - The harsh, sad reality of Derek Anderson sets in.
Falcons - The uplifting, enjoyable reality of the Cardinals defense sets in.

Chiefs 16 - Browns 14
Browns - Cleveland fans hanging their hat on not having lost to a team with a loss yet.
Chiefs - Realizing they don't need an offense to score points, the Chiefs lobby to be allowed to play nothing but defense and special teams all 60 minutes.

Bears 27 - Cowboys 20
Cowboys - Jerry Jones brags to the media about his paper championship being almost as good as the real thing.
Bears - Cutler is bewildered as he didn't turn the ball over once for an entire game.

Eagles 35 - Lions 32
Lions - Shaun Hill does his best John Elway impersonation leading the Lions back to have a potential game winning drive in the closing minutes. Then on the final drive he does his best Shaun Hill impersonation to close out the loss.
Eagles - Mike Vick was caught preparing his post-game presser on the sidelines in case of a loss with a statement of how if the Eagles had allowed him to play defense all game as well, they'd have won the game.

Dolphins 14 - Vikings 10
Vikings - Minnesota fans realizing that life is nowhere near as fun with Human Favre as it is with Superman Favre.
Dolphins - I've got nothing. Seriously, if this wasn't the most boring win of the week, I don't know what was.

Bucs 20 - Panthers 7
Panthers - Realizing nothing was working, the Panthers decided to try the bold strategy of laying down and doing nothing. This worked well enough to hold the Bucs to only 20 points.
Bucs - Tampa fans unsure of what to think of the fact that they seem to have a legitimate quarterback.

Broncos 31 - Seahawks 14
Seahawks - Pete Carrol realizing that things are hard when the other teams are allowed to pay their players too.
Broncos - Xander working on a petition to be allowed to play terrible teams at home every week in the hopes of going .500 on the year.

Raiders 16 - Rams 14
Rams - Sam Bradford can play a little. Too bad the rest of the team can't.
Raiders - Cable has a violent flashback at half-time of life with Jamarcus Russell and benches his starting QB, not realizing it's Jason Campbell. Upon that realization, is relieved to find he hasn't benched anyone with actual talent.

Jets 28 - Patriots 14
Patriots - Justin Bieber asks Tom Brady to style his hair differently after the game cause he's not living up to its expectations.
Jets - Rex led away in handcuffs after trying to steal the Lombardy, yelling to onlooking media "Did you see what we just did? We're gonna own that thing anyway, I was just trying to save everyone the time!"

Chargers 38 - Jaguars 13
Jaguars - Jags announce their intentions of remaining a tease and renew their vows to scrape out close wins against bad teams and get thrashed by mediocre ones.
Chargers - Norv dials up a 50 yard pass play after fearing 8 minutes may be enough for an anemic Jacksonville offense to ring up 25 points and threaten a come-back.

Texans 30 - Redskins 27
Redskins - McNabb suffers violent delusions of angry fans claiming he didn't do enough defensively to help them win the game. Calms himself by realizing he's no longer in Philadelphia.
Texans - Gary Kubiak caught in post-game handshake with Shanahan saying "Hey dude, thanks for coming up with that brilliant idea of taking a time out right before the FG attempt!"

Colts 38 - Giants 14
Giants - Brandon Jacobs forcibly restrained from removing his pants and throwing them in the stands after doing so with his helmet.
Colts - Big brother erases all doubt about who the real NFL quarterback is.
Both teams - Rest of the non-Manning rosters ready to pull hair out after hearing "Manning Bowl" for 18,243rd time.

Read more...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Show for the Hardcore Fan

In the mornings on ESPN - sometimes ultra-early, but you can get it as late as 7:30 AM - is the best football show on TV, NFL Matchup. It's a show not widely watched, so much so it is almost cancelled pretty much every season. Then at the last minute, ESPN decides to bring it back, after hearing from the few but die-hard fans that love it. But Google it and there isn't even a website for the show...ESPN does little to try to promote it.

Still, there needs to be some love for this show. The greatness of this show comes through in several different areas.

- The two analysts - Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge - are two of the best in the business. They display an excellent knowledge not simply of the game and players, but of all the facets of each play going on that make a play succeed or fail.
- It's the only show on the air that uses coaches tape. This is the angle from high in the box that allows you to see every player on the field. They use the tape to highlight players and angles and show how players find holes in zones, seal blocks effectively, read defenses and run through progressions, etc.
- They show typically one or two plays per game, spending two to four minutes per play showing every aspect of it, what the teams do to make the play work and ultimately why it did or didn't work.

The depth the show brings to each play gives the fan a better appreciation for how much work it takes for every play to succeed in the NFL. It's a great view into what separates professional football players and coaches from the rest of us. If you're not already watching, I'd suggest checking it out.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brother Ray Speaks


video
Video from the Ravens weekly show 1 Winning Drive. Original available here:
1 Winning Drive week 1 segment 2
Copyright by the Ravens.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Monday Tidbits

Realizing that I'm one of the guys that has access to and largely watches the 8-game channel Direct TV offers me, so most weeks on top of seeing game recaps I've actually seen most of the games themselves. As such, I'm going to try to write some random thoughts - some serious, some not - on each of the Sunday games. Weeks I miss will largely be due to weeks I'm attending Ravens games, and don't catch much action.

I'll also note to make sure you go below and read Patrick's and Jim's excellent posts from Sun/Mon on the Calvin Johnson no-catch and Ravens preview.

Texans 34 - Colts 24
Colts - Stuck trying to find a witty comment covering both Colts run D sucking and Bob Sanders getting injured for the 83rd time. Went the obvious route.
Texans - As Texans-nation began to panic about another Colts come-back, Arian Foster stepped up and said "My ball, stop me if you can." They couldn't.

Bears 19 - Lions 14
Lions - LOLWTF that was a catch amirite???
Bears - Leave it to the Bears to out-gain a team by 300 yards and require a ridiculously stupid call of a no-catch to actually win the game.

Giants 31 - Panthers 18
Panthers - Panther fans in disbelief, wondering how they'd cut Jake Delhomme and yet he was still starting for them.
Giants - Looks like their defense is back. And that Hakeem Nicks guy might be pretty good, too.

Titans 38 - Raiders 13
Raiders - Yep.
Titans - Chris Johnson thinks he'll go for 2,500 rushing yards this year, then is suddenly thankful he doesn't play the Raiders every week as it would leave him with the vastly disappointing total of 2,272 rushing yards.

Jaguars 24 - Broncos 17
Broncos - They are who we thought they were.
Jaguars - See that? They didn't need Tim Tebow! Tyson Alualualualualualu had three times more sack yards than Tebow had rush yards.

Steelers 15 - Falcons 9
Falcons - One is almost left to wonder how many catches Tony G has had negated by penalties after his 1,000th was negated by a penalty. Immediately afterward we remember we don't care as he records his actual 1,000th catch.
Steelers - Defensive monsters as Polamalu's hair is too big for offensive players to run around and to thick and lusterous for them to run through.

Dolphins 15 - Bills 10
Bills - Only losing by 5 to the Dolphins has to be a sign that things aren't as bad as everyone believed them to be.
Dolphins - Only beating the Bills by 5 has to be a sign that things aren't as good as everyone believed them to be.

Patriots 38 - Bengals 24
Bengals - Wait. You mean Chad Eightfive and TO are NOT the greatest combination since peanut butter and jelly? I don't believe you!
Patriots - What is the NFL without Wes Welker being a human ball-catching machine, and Randy Moss whining? They were just doing their parts to ensure we all remember what the NFL season is truly about.

Buccaneers 17 - Browns 14
Browns - Browns fans disheartened after realizing that Jake Delhomme did NOT stay in Carolina, as previously believed while watching the Panthers game.
Bucs - Sometimes you want to believe an opening game win by a perceived bad team is a sign of a shocking season. Then you realize, it was just a 3 point win over the Browns at home.

Seahawks 31 - 49ers 6
49ers - Singletary thanked Coach Carroll for kicking their tails. Later plans to thank John York for firing him.
Seahawks - I really wanted to use the line "Somewhere Matt Millen was watching Mike Williams and saying 'Now you want to play, hunh?' " Then I found out someone beat me to it. Figures.

Cardinals 17 - Rams 13
Rams - Sam Bradford is going to be really good. Assuming he doesn't get killed, first.
Cardinals - Number of times the Cardinals scored: 3. Number of times the Cardinals lost fumbles: 4.

Packers 27 - Eagles 20
Eagles - Kevin Kolb enjoyed a nice five minute span where Eagle fans didn't boo their starting quarterback. Then things returned to normal.
Packers - They tried their hardest to give this game away, but just couldn't quite finish the job.

Redskins 13 - Cowboys 7
Cowboys - Scientists hypothesize that there are alternate universes where every possible alternate reality that could be, actually exists. I wonder if there's one in which Alex Barron commits no penalties? Probably not.
Redskins - In his post-game presser, McNabb expressed his disappointing debut performance on not being used to fans cheering him. "I promise to get back to my playing abilities, even if you refuse to boo me out of the stadium. It's simply going to take some adjusting to the difference in the noise type and level."

How I see tonight playing out
Jets - Hey, Rex. STFU
Ravens - Hey, Rex. Have some STFU.

Chiefs - Entirely new year! Same crappy team...
Chargers - Phillip Rivers learns life isn't as easy without a really good LT protecting your blind-side and a really big target to throw the ball to every other play.

Hope you enjoyed this week's!

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Completing The Process

There's a term in chemistry called reaction rate and it means exactly what it sounds like, the time it takes for a reaction to complete. Metal rusting is a slow reaction, gunpowder burning is a very fast one.

I think usually our emotional responses are more of the gunpowder type. Something happens to alter our mood and we instinctively understand how we are supposed to feel about it. But then, sometimes things happen that are beyond our ability to process quickly and our reaction times are blunted.

The no-catch catch by Calvin Johnson yesterday was one of those events. How do you react when your gut is telling you one thing – quite confidently – but the "experts" are explaining it differently?

After digesting my reactions a bit, I wrote something that I still like, most of which I will share here:

I've heard and read the explanations. I've seen the replay, both in real and slow-motion several times. And I still don't understand it.

A poster at MGoBlog wrote a really great article on how to make videos. You know, the little highlight deals that people paste all over YouTube. I wish I could find it, and if I could I'd link it. The author was a film major or somesuch and he discussed a lot of cinematographic techniques that Hollywood uses to have a conversation with the audience, things like the good guy is always introduced on the left and the bad guy on the right because English speaking audiences read left to right.

Point is though, he discussed believability. These techniques in film have conditioned us to expect certain things, both consciously and subconsciously and when we get things that are incongruent with our expectations, for example the good guy introduced on the right, then we the viewer are discomfited long after the impression, regardless of the explanation.

This play was like that. Every single one of us knows what a catch looks like. We know what a touchdown looks like.

Both hands on ball, foot one down. foot two down. Catch. Touchdown. Let's go drink punch.

This play was exactly like that except some interpretation of an obscure rule said otherwise. Regardless of whether the call on the field was correct, and I'm not sure that it was, it still jarred with the believability of the play. There wasn't even some ambiguity for us to fall back upon. It wasn't 'he broke the plane, he didn't, his second foot came down on the chalk, the ball was slipping in his hands ...' It was none of that. It was catch, one, two, drink punch, oh-wait-a-second.
This morning while running the play kept percolating through my head. How does this make sense? How does this make sense?

The answer was, it doesn't.

It does not make sense.

As I wrote last night, we all know what a catch is. If it's a catch on the playground, then it's a catch in the National Football League. It really does boil down to something this simple. I dunno, maybe the league should employ a 5 year old as a final arbiter on whether a catch is a catch. At least the 5 year old would get the easy ones right.

If the call was correct then the rule is bad. Anyone can see this. This is a direct product of the league trying to legislate out judgment. If game officials had the leeway to use reasonable judgment in rules interpretation then this would have been a catch. What makes this particularly outrageous though, is that in no way has subjectivity been legislated out of the game. On virtually every play one official or another is using judgment and experience to make determinations of penalties, ball placements, completions, and turnovers. Rules that restrict the flexibility for game officials to use their professional judgment when it absolutely matters the most are absurd.

As sports fans each of us has experienced heartbreak. As a Michigan alum and Detroit sports fan mine center around game 5 of the 1987 NBA playoffs, the Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook hail mary to beat Michigan, the famous Chris Webber timeout in the national championship game against North Carolina. There are many more famous ones that any of us would recognize. Baseball's degree of individual matchups has made individual names synonymous with these events. Mitch Williams, Donnie Moore, Bucky Effin Dent.

But those are heartbreaks we understand. Those are reasons that we cherish sport. Here in Detroit Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game this summer on a bad call by Jim Joyce. It was an obvious bad call. Everyone knew it. Joyce knew it. But it was a human error, it was the type of error we can understand and ultimately forgive.

But systemic error? Rules that are written by lawyers and officials that are terrified to make common sense interpretation? Those create emotions we don't understand. They create feelings of helplessness.

And maybe even worse is the level to which the talking heads defended the call. Mike Pereira clumsily defended it in real time. Studio guys at the NFLN network defended it. No one who sucks at the teat of the corporate giant NFL questioned the call or criticized it. Maybe that's changed since last night, but it hardly matters. Anyone seeing this should have appropriately reacted This Is Not Right. Not on reflection, but as a first reaction.

I spent several hours last night waiting for this call to make sense. I wasted half an evening looking for an explanation.

It took me until this morning to realize that there wouldn't be one. There couldn't be one. And finally I was able to distill out how I actually feel about the whole thing.

Angry?

You're goddam right I am.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ravens Outlook (or, the Season as Process)

I guess if you write for a football blog, you have to put down something about how your team is going to do.

The Ravens are widely projected as SuperBowl contenders.
For example, here: SI.com experts' season picks
and here: ESPN Super Bowl forecast
I have largely bought that, this offseason. I'm very excited about this season.

However. I think it's unusual for a SB contender to have so many questions in the defensive secondary, in the pass rush, and on the offensive line.

  • The Ravens top 3 cornerbacks are affected by knee injuries. #1 is lost for the season; #s 2&3 are recovering from injuries suffered last season; #3 has not played a down this preseason. I think the Ravens have done a decent job shoring up the area, for example the Josh Wilson trade and the improved play of Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamora. But how well is this patched-up unit going to be able to cover?

  • Traditionally a strong pass rush can disguise some weakness in the secondary. But the Ravens have only gotten about 30 sacks each of the last 3 seasons, and they made no personnel moves this past offseason to address the pass rush. (Rookie Sergio Kindle was supposed to make a contribution rushing the passer, but he has yet to join the team.) They even traded away Antwan Barnes at roster cutdown – not that Barnes was such an impact player, but he was 4th on the team in sacks last year (tied). That's another move that doesn't improve the pass rush.

  • The Ravens O-line is described, by those picking the Ravens as a SB contender, as "one of the best in the NFL". But that was last year. This year, the Ravens swapped their offensive tackles, moving Michael "Blind Side" Oher over to left tackle and Jared Gaither to the right. This is a move that weakens both positions. That's not the Ravens fault. Gaither justified his 10-cent-head reputation (which Patch called back in 2007) by not participating in OTAs, and then showing up at camp with a dramatic weight loss, and promptly injuring his back. Oher was the Ravens best solution at LT, so they put him over there. But Oher doesn't have Gaither's ridiculous size nor quite his nimbleness, and Oher's arms are perhaps a little short for a prototypical LT. On the right side, Gaither is not available to play, and the Ravens backups have not been inspiring so far. Even when Gaither comes back, he doesn't have Oher's explosiveness or nastiness, so he doesn't project as a prototypical RT. All Ravens offensive tackles have struggled some in preseason, giving up sacks. Since the Ravens plan to throw a lot more to their revamped wide receiver corps, that's a problem.
This then is the state of your Baltimore Ravens: other then defending the pass, rushing the passer, and protecting their own passer, they look dominant.

Their own division is very tough. The Bengals are the defending champs, and they made some additions in the offseason. Everyone is predicting a collapse by the Steelers, but I'll believe that when I see it. That D is still there, Rashard Mendenhall can play, and I believe Dennis Dixon can play too. Would not shock me to see them at 3-1 when Roethlisberger comes back from the suspension.

This then is the state of your Baltimore Ravens: locked in a dogfight with two tough teams in the division.

~

So the Ravens team that takes the field Monday night does not look like a team that can romp thru the league and win the Super Bowl.

Most pro teams pretty much are what they are when the season starts. College is different: the players are young, every year they are in slightly different roles, and they grow and improve as the season goes on. This is especially visible in college basketball, where you can really see squads get better every week. But true in college football too: especially over the long break between the regular season and bowl games, you see some teams & players raise their games to a whole different level. But in the pros, teams tend to be what they are when the season starts. The offseason is long, and training camp is long, and guys play in the same roles year after year. Really the most common change in a team's performance over a season is downward, as the horrible attrition of the NFL meat grinder takes its toll on a team's best players.

This is just perception, of course; not a thesis I want to try to defend at any length. I'm sure every team tries to improve during the year. And we can easily think of teams that did improve dramatically over the course of a season, and went on to win a SuperBowl: 2000 Ravens, 2001 Patriots, 2006 Indy, 2007 Giants. But that improvement is not the usual trajectory.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has an extensive background as a college coach, before his 10 years on the Eagles staff, and his dad is a longtime college coach. The staff that he's built, while possessing great NFL experience, is also filled with guys who were longtime college coaches and have reputations as teachers. Harbaugh made it clear he was looking for that, when he spoke in his first year about the kind of coach he wanted to hire for his staff.

I mention this because, in each of Harbaugh's first 2 seasons as Ravens coach, there were clear signs of the team improving as the year went on. 2008 was the rookie season for Joe Flacco and Ray Rice: other players who improved on offense as the season wore on included LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee and Jason Brown and Jared Gaither.

2009 (last season) the Ravens biggest vulnerability was defending against the pass. They regularly gave up big plays the first half of the season. In his press conferences, when asked how the Ravens were going to address the weakness, Harbaugh said that they were going to coach the players they had. They were going to re-emphasize technique and fundamentals, and get their guys to play better. This sounds like the kind of thing a football coach just has to say, because really what other choice does he have? And how often does it work? The amazing thing was, you could see the results on the field in the latter weeks of the season. The Ravens DBs were playing noticeably better; even the fans' favorite whipping boy Frank Walker played better, almost well, late in the season.

Harbaugh's Ravens have shown that they treat the season as a process, and they work the process. They lift weights and practice and they sharpen their technique as the season goes on. They get better – well, those that don't get hurt, anyway. It's pretty interesting to see.
(I'm not implying that the Ravens are the only team who work during the season. I'm sure lots of coaches emphasize incremental improvement every week – Jeff Fisher leaps to mind. I'm just saying, it's cool when your team is like that. The Ravens haven't always exemplified that kind of work ethic.)

The Ravens are expecting that kind of work to improve their pass rush, even without any new personnel. DC Greg Mattison and LB coach Ted Monachino worked an offseason "pass rushing camp" for the defensive front 7, emphasizing such details as hand placement and footwork etc. We won't know anything until the real games start, but the Ravens pass rush looked more dangerous this preseason than it has looked recently. Terrell Suggs is also supposed to be in great shape this season, looking to redeem himself from a disappointing performance last year.

Beyond mystical ineffable coaching magic that may or may not exist, the Ravens have concrete reasons to expect to improve thru the season. Ed Reed starts the season on PUP; he'll be able to return after week 6. So will Brendon Ayendadejo, who was the Ravens nickel LB last season. Also their top 2 (remaining) corners figure to take on greater roles as they gain confidence in their surgically repaired knees. Those together are big reasons to expect the pass defense to be better in the 2nd half of the season than in the 1st.

On offense, Jared Gaither should come back soon from his back injury. No telling if he'll displace Oniel Cousins as the starting RT; but he would vsatly improve the Ravens available bodies at the position. Cousins is an example of the coaches attempting to work their magic. He was drafted in 2008 as a project, a player with physical gifts but very little experience on the O-line. They've been working with him for a couple years, and now he gets a chance to play. (Bad news, the opponent is the Jets; but it's still a chance.) That's the huge advantage of having some continuity on your staff, you get to develop projects. That's something the Steelers are famous for. The Ravens have done that on defense over the years, including Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott. They have another one on the O-line this year, monster 6th round pick Ramon Harewood.

Also on offense, recent acquisition TJ Houshmazilly should get more comfortable the offense as the weeks go by; and Flacco should grow in his ability to work with all of his new receivers.

~

Every AFC contender has some questions. No one looks like a complete team that will romp thru the season.

If the Ravens fight thru the early season with some wins (and if they get a little bit of luck with their injured players and their young players), then they have a chance later in the year to grow into the SB contender so many now project them to be. Given the way their schedule falls, I think if they get thru the first 5 or 6 games at or above .500, they will have a chance at a first round bye in the playoffs.

They have a lot of business to take care of first.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

McNabb Deniers

Don't miss this great essay at Football Outsiders. Friend of blog and longtime Pheagles fan Naj brought this to our attention. He said it was "perhaps one of the best NFL essays I have ever read, not just about a player, but about fandom in general". I don't disagree.

McNabb Deniers

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Briggs On Trust, Accountability

Nothing really to add.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Did Rex Ryan get screwed?

First I'd like to draw your attention to this:

Inside the Ryan family 46 defense
Excerpted from Blood, Sweat and Chalk, by Tim Layden

(I first saw this linked among the Football Outsiders Extra Points, so thanks to them.)

The book "examines the roots of many of football's most iconic offensive and defensive systems". The excerpt is the chapter on Buddy & Rex Ryan, the "46" defense and whatever the hell defense it is that Rex runs. Fantastic reading, and I'm putting the book on my to-get list.

Page 3 from the link has this outstanding quote:

"Rex has an immense defensive package," says former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden.
I feel like we've been hearing about Rex's immense package all offseason, esp during Hard Knocks. Nice soundbite, Gruden.

But this part disturbed me:
In 2002 defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis left the Ravens, and Billick promoted Mike Nolan to defensive coordinator.
"I was pissed because, basically I got f-----," says Rex. "Brian never knew me. Maybe I never fit his image. But it was a crock of s---."
That quote makes me sad. As a fan we like to believe that everything is all sunshine and roses among the players and coaches we root for. They all hold hands and sing kumbaya during the week between games. I guess if I had thought about it for 5 seconds, I might have realized that two outsized personalities like Rex Ryan and Brian Billick are likely to strike occasional sparks off of each other. But this is more than a combustible moment between hotheads. Check out this lovely quote (in response to Billick's criticizing Rex's potty mouth):
Ryan worked for Billick as a defensive assistant/coordinator for nine years. You'd figure they would have some love for each other. But when Ryan was asked what he thought of Billick reportedly saying he needed to tone his act down a little, Ryan shot back.
"Like I give a [expletive]," Ryan said. "I just thought, OK, Brian, that's more than he ever talked to me before when he was here [in Baltimore]".
Rex was in Baltimore for 10 years, 10 great years for Ravens fans. It saddens me to think that these might not have been great years for him. But, looking back, there were three events that could easily have soured him on the organization.

~

By the time the 2001-2 offseason rolled around, Mike Nolan had been coaching in the NFL for 15 yrs across 4 different teams, and had been a defensive coordinator for 8 yrs across 3 different NFL teams. Rex had been coaching in the NFL for 3 yrs, only as the Ravens DL coach. He had 7 yrs of coordinator experience, but all of it at the college level. I think 20 years from now we're going to look at Rex Ryan as the better coach. But in 2002 Billick had to hire a defensive coordinator to replace the departed Marvin Lewis. Billick's decision to tab Nolan looks pretty reasonable.

Actually, it wasn't a 2002 decision at all. Billick had made the move a year earlier, to grab Nolan when he became available. Nolan had been the Jets DC. When Al Groh left the Jets to go coach at Virginia, they replaced him with Herm Edwards, Edwards brought in his own guys, and Nolan was out on the street. Billick knew that Marvin Lewis was going to get a head coaching job, so he stashed Nolan on his coaching staff – as a WR coach! Nolan had never in his career coached on the offensive side of the ball. It's hard to imagine he was especially good as a WR coach. But Billick never seemed to care about having a great WR coach. This was strictly insurance. It paid off a year later, as Marvin left (not for a head job, though – strange circumstances) and Billick had an experienced quality coordinator in-house. Rex may have felt blindsided, esp as the guy who got the job wasn't even coaching on the defensive side of the ball that year. But it's obvious that Billick was planning to promote Nolan all along.

Even 8 years later, knowing that Rex is a really great D coordinator, Billick's move still makes sense. Rex had only been coaching in the NFL for 3 years; Nolan had been an NFL coordinator for 8 years, and a good one. And that particular Ravens team needed experience on the coaching staff. That was the year the Ravens purged salary, after having loaded up the previous year in an attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The Ravens were really limited by the salary cap, and wound up fielding the youngest team in NFL history. You can see why Billick would go for experience over promise, in that situation. And it worked out. That youngest-team-in-history won 7 games, was still in contention for a playoff spot on the 2nd-to-last weekend of the season. The following year they won 10 games and the division.

But whatever: sensible decision or not, clearly Ryan was angry about it. I never knew.

~

It's worse than just this little event. The chapter excerpted from Tim Layden's book doesn't mention it, but a year or so later Brian Billick prevented Rex from interviewing for a D coordinator job with another team. This was either 2003 0r 2004, and I believe the team was the Raiders.

Background:

As you probably know, by rule, when teams have assistant coaches under contract, they must allow them to interview for head coaching positions around the league. I think (but don't know for sure) that Bill Walsh was the driving force behind this rule. In the 1970s when Walsh was Paul Brown's offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, there was no rule encouraging the open movement of asst coaches. Teams could keep their coaching staff under lock and key: and Paul Brown did exactly that with Walsh. Brown prevented him from interviewing for head coaching positions, when interested teams would call Brown asking about Walsh. Walsh wrote that Brown "worked against his candidacy," bad-mouthed him to other teams, so as to keep him from getting a head coaching job. It was the main reason Walsh finally left the NFL in the 1970s and wound up coaching Stanfaord, taking a circuitous route to becoming a head coach in the NFL. It's my understanding that after Walsh became a star head coach, he pushed for a rule change, so that NFL teams must allow their assistants to interview for head coaching positions, during a certain window after the season ends and before the pre-draft stuff starts.
(Walsh had a reputation as a tireless crusader for asst coaches, in his late career.)

Fans of a certain age might remember the 80s or early 90s, when the rule was slightly different. The first version of the rule change read that teams could not block their assistant coaches from interviewing for a position that represented a "promotion". This led to an abuse of titles, where for example a team might want to hire a guy who is currently a QB coach, so they'll label their open positon "QB coach and asst offensive coordinator". Stuff like that: assistant head coach, associate head coach, offensive consultant, etc etc. After a couple years of confusion, the NFL clarified its policy to the current version, well-described here.

Teams must allow their asst coaches to interview for head jobs, and they are not required to allow their assistants to interview for any assistant jobs, including coordinator jobs.

So: in 2003 or 2004, the Raiders (or someone, but I think it was the Raiders) wanted to interview Rex for their D-coordinator position. Brian Billick was already facing the loss of one or two guys off his coaching staff. If it was 2003, LB coach Jack Del Rio was hired away by the Jags to be their head coach. If it was 2004, DB coach Donnie Henderson was hired away by the Jets to be their DC, and DC Mike Nolan was getting interviews for head jobs. I think it was 2004. Either year, Billick was looking at hemorrhaging talent from his defensive coaching staff, and needed to stop the bleeding. Probably he wanted to keep Rex in his back pocket to succeed Nolan as DC. In the event, Billick denied the other team permission to interview Ryan: he blocked Rex from a chance at a promotion.

If I'm right and it was 2004, the Raiders instead hired Rex's twin brother Rob Ryan to be DC, which must have been a special twist for Rex. Also, Mike Nolan was not hired as a head coach that year, so Rex was back in the salt mines.

If Billick felt passed over by Billick for the DC job in 2002, he must have been enraged by this.

~

In 2005 the 49ers hired Mike Nolan to be their head coach. Rex Ryan, once passed over for the D coordinator position and then once prevented from interviewing elsewhere, was the guy for the job.

It's kind of hard for me to believe that Rex was the Ravens D coordinator for *only* 4 years, because those are to me the signature Ravens defenses. The Super Bowl D was brutally physical; but they lined up in a plain 4-3, stayed in their stance til the snap, and then just beat you. The Mike Nolan defenses were the years where Ed Reed came to the fore; he won his Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004. Those defenses were good, but not as physically strong (they lined up in a 3-4), and maybe less an attacking D and more of a coverage D. It wasn't until Rex became DC that the Ravens started using the crazy, multiple-front, blitz from everywhere attacking defenses. These were the defenses that seemed to get into a QB's head. These were the Ds that fought the epic battles against Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

If Rex would have been happy with a D-coordinator-for-life position, a la Dick Lebeau or Jim Johnson, I would have been delighted to have him forever. I would have wanted the team I root for to play that style of D, forever. But of course, Rex wanted to be the head guy, like his dad. Excuse me: like most everyone who has ever coached, Rex had ambitions to run his own program. In the 2007-8 season, the Ravens job opened up when Steve Bisciotti fired Billick.

I thought Rex was the obvious candidate:
do the Ravens almost have to hire Rex Ryan? I mean assuming no one else snatches him away. Here you've got a guy who's worked his way up the ladder from position coach, whom you've consistently described as a guy who's ready for a head job. He's top-notch at Xs and Os; he's excellent at player development; he's at least good and perhaps excellent at talent evaluation; he works great within your system of scouting etc; and his players friggin run thru walls for him. And he's YOUR guy! You've developed him for a decade. If you don't name him, then you're sort of sending the message that development and rising from within really doesn't mean anything, when the chips are down. And I don't know if that's the message you want to send.
I said last year that Rex Ryan is going to make some team very happy as a head coach. Should that team be Baltimore?
Rex thought he was the obvious candidate:
"[The Ravens] know I would be a good fit based on the facts. And the facts are that my guys have played hard for me, no matter if it was veterans or young guys. They enjoy coming to work every day, and they enjoy playing." ... But being a players' coach doesn't mean Ryan would have a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to conduct on the field, he said. "When you look at it as a disciplined standpoint, in the three years I was coordinator, we were the third-least-penalized defense and the second-least in yardage," Ryan said.
Columnist Bill Ordine thought Rex was the obvious candidate:
When I observe Ryan, I also have the advantage of seeing him within the context of his football pedigree. I covered his father, Buddy, in Philadelphia. And this much I can tell you about those two: As fierce a defense as Buddy fielded and as loyal as his players were to him, son Rex has more going for him. (Sorry, Buddy, if you read this, but it's a compliment to you as well.) Rex is far more flexible and adapts to changing circumstances. I believe he listens more. At least, I gather that from his players. His schemes are more sophisticated and nuanced and not so vulnerable. And he is certainly much more politic – and that's hugely important in today's much more complex NFL.
Rex also interviewed for the Atlanta and Miami jobs.

Here's the thing about Rex. He's a fat sloppy guy with a bit of an Oklahoma drawl in his voice. He had lap-band surgery this offseason, so take your idea of how he looks now (from Hard Knocks or the Jets sideline) and add ~30 pounds. People who hire football coaches always have a picture in their mind of what the ideal football coach looks like, and that picture looks something like this:
Jaw of granite, stern leadership, trim and fit. Rex reminds me of Bum Phillips: easygoing cornpone with a glint in his eye. The joke's gonna be on you when you go up against his team on Sunday, but it takes an eye to look past the surface.

Rex didn't get any of those head coaching jobs. It's hard to criticize any of those hires: all three coaches have winning records. I think Harbaugh and Sparano are excellent coaches. But Harbaugh in particular looks the picture in exactly the way that Rex does not.

Everybody came together and mended fences after the hiring. Harbaugh had this to say about Ryan at his press conference:
"Listen, I've known Rex Ryan since 1987, when he was the defensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky and I was at the University of Pittsburgh. And I'll tell you, the only reason they won was because they had better players! ... He's a great coach and a good friend."
They had been together on staff at the University of Cincinnati in 1996, Ryan as DC and Harbaugh as asst HC and RB coach. The Ravens gave Ryan a raise, and Harbaugh gave him the title of asst HC. Ryan began his press conference this way:
"Man, It's great to be a Raven. And, you know really that head coaching stuff, I was just kiddin about that."
Rex is a pro and he made the best of the situation – the 2008 Ravens had a great season. But the guy the Ravens hired is one of those trim and fit clean-cut guys who always says the right thing in front of the media. In a piece in the Baltimore Sun around that ime, Ryan made some comments which suggested he didn't do as well in his interview with the Ravens as he would have liked – some specific questions or areas or whatever – and he said that Steve Bisciotti had promised to help him with that stuff. I'm sure that happened. But it's also true that Rex had expensive dental work that season, or offseason, and he lost some weight. He looked different when the Jets interviewed him for their vacancy.

Was one of the reasons he didn't get the Ravens job, because he didn't look the part?

~

So: three crucial career disappointments in Baltimore. It bothers me, the thought that Rex might look back on his time in Baltimore post-2002 with resentment.

I still love him for what he did for the Ravens, and I love his defensive style of play, and I think his candor is good for the game. I want to see him do well.

Except for this coming Monday night when the Jets play the Ravens.

____________________________

Update
Rex has some nice things to say about Harbaugh this week:
Baltimore Sun
Ryan conceded that he was disappointed about being passed over for the Ravens head coaching vacancy after the 2007 season, but he said it turned out well. "It was a great experience being under John for a year and the things that he allowed me to be with gave me a huge advantage going into my rookie year as a head coach," said Ryan, who had been promoted to assistant head coach by Harbaugh in 2008 before joining the Jets. "Experiencing some of the things, he allowed me to sit in there with him, and that was huge. I think the world of him for allowing me to do that. It was just a great experience."
I guess he still hates Billick, but at least there is some sweetness and light there.

Monday is going to be a brutal game.

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Monday, September 6, 2010

The BCS Bust Is On

Tonight, Boise State put on a clinic in the first quarter, and with a display of guts at the end of the game unlike anything we've seen from them since the last time they played a close game (which was unlike anything we've seen of them since the previous time before that...), they have begun the journey to break their way into the Championship game.

This was another classic, like I feel Boise St is just destined to give us every time they take the field vs. a major college program. A couple things jumped out at me from this game...

- Man, they just jumped all over a VaTech team that looked nowhere near prepared for the size of this game. In the first quarter, it looked almost like a pro team vs. a high school team.
- The Boise DL completely dominated the LoS for a lot of the game.
- Boise has some terrific play-makers. The blocked punt early was gigantic. The one-handed catch in the end zone. The TD run on third and one on such a critical drive in the second half to take some momentum back when it was all against them. Just a treat to watch.
- Kellen Moore is one cool customer. His game-winning drive was absolutely vintage. I don't know that he's got the arm to succeed in the pros, but he's almost certainly got the decision making and the poise to do so.

Going into a hostile environment masked as a neutral site and playing the way they did, they're making their case early for a shot at the National Championship. They have a tilt with Oregon St in two weeks, but they're poised to run the table. I'd love to see them do it, and get that shot.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Josh Wilson And Relative Value

The Wilson trade probably would never have crossed my radar if one of the principals wasn't the Ravens and if my two co-bloggers weren't Raven fans. But one was and they are and as a result Jim and Chris and I had a good time with some back and forth exchange on the day following the trade.



The impetus for this post though is from our discussion of whether an absolute value for Josh Wilson can really be calculated. Okay, it wasn't exactly that since we never really discussed it but we talked all around the question. At one point Jim wrote:

Bill James wrote something many years ago, about how his default position was always that professional baseball men were professionals, and you have to assume they know more than you do. He goes on: "And then came Don Zimmer."

There's always going to be some room for idiots at the top in football, because the cause-&-effect is not always clear when teams win and lose. Luck is a big factor. But football people can't really believe (can't afford to believe?) the extent to which luck determines their results. And who knows if "personnel evaluation" is even the most important thing that owners look for in hiring a GM. There are all those aspects of the job we don't see: negotiating contracts, handling the stadium and all the people who make that go, travel, arranging training camp, hiring coaches and hiring the training staff, hiring the scouting staff, handling their travel, etc etc. It seems possible that a guy could be a good GM and not have any skill at evaluating players.

There's also the situation where two GMs could hold very differing ratings of one particular player, and it's not that one of them is right and the other's an idiot, but that they have different "philosophies" of that particular position. For example, a tall statue pocket passer is going to seem like a better player to the guy who comes from the Coryell-Zampese passing school (like Cam Cameron), than he would to a pure West Cost offense guy (like Holmgren or Shanahan). Likewise a small-armed accurate good-decision-maker QB is going to seem like a better player to the WCO guys than to the other school. Some players fit your system, and some players don't. The Ravens wouldn't draft a lot of the defensive players that Indy drafts at LB, from my take of some stuff Eric DaCosta has said in interviews, because they would be too small to set the edge on running plays in the Ravens 3-4 D. But they work great in Indy's D. (The Steelers and I think Patriots tend to draft the same defensive players the Ravens do.) Shanahan's Broncos could draft those small O-linemen, because they had a way to use them, but most teams didn't want them.

A guy like Josh Wilson is almost the textbook case of a situation where scouting/coaching philosophies will change the way you rate him. He's a productive player with bad measurables. Maybe he's too small to fit "the Seahawks System". Ozzie sees a playmaker and leader, a guy with a lot of speed and heart at a position where the Ravens have a need, and he grabs him. Ozzie has spoken before about how Ted Marchibroda taught him to not get too hung up on "measurables", watch how a guy plays. And Wilson will help the Ravens during the regular season. But the size is a real thing. If Wilson is covering Randy Moss in the AFC Championship Game, we can't be surprised or disappointed if Moss catches the TD right over Wilson. That's part of the package.
which is probably better than anything I can add here, but I still think it is an interesting question. 'What is Josh Wilson worth?'

From an obvious perspective, the Ravens perceived his worth to be greater than the Seahawks, otherwise a trade could never have happened. Wilson was highly drafted and productive at times but could never crack the lineup on a full time basis. With Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings ahead of him, and with younger players (Walter Thurmond and Roy Lewis) developing rapidly behind him it wasn't at all clear where Wilson fit on the depth chart.

On the other hand the Ravens have been dealing with nicked up corners for the entire offseason. Their top three corners are each dealing with injury, and with their best lost for the season. Wilson represents great importance to them, particularly considering that their are otherwise poised to contend for a championship. Wilson could be the difference between and early season victory and loss, a difference that could cascade into significant playoff implications.

This really isn't about whether Wilson was a fungible commodity to the Seahawks (he was) or whether the Ravens really needed to acquire a player like him (they did), but rather how the question of how the market was set for this kind of player.

Last winter a fairly large number of starting players changed teams for picks in the 4th - 6th round range. Kerry Rhodes, Bryant McFadden and Sheldon Brown are probably the most relevant because they are each cornerbacks who are probably relatively more valuable than Josh Wilson. Only Brown - who was traded for a 4th - garnered a greater return than Wilson.

So it seems that Wilson went for a premium. There was an additional hidden premium to the trade as well. Roster spots are finite and as with any supply/demand question represents a value to the team. Presumably Wilson would not have been cut, so trading him allows Seattle to keep a player who they otherwise wouldn't. Likewise, acquiring Wilson requires Baltimore to cut a player. I would be the first to agree that the last player on a 53 man roster isn't terribly significant, but it isn't entirely without significance either.

So what we see here, if I am right, is that Wilson actually returned a greater value to Seattle than he probably would have if traded over the winter. I am certain that we are seeing supply dry up so close to the season, which makes acquiring players much more difficult.

While first reactions were overwhelmingly positive for the Ravens - which they should have been - it also seems that Seattle made out much better than it initially appeared.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Joe Flacco and the streaky QB

Let's pass lightly over the abysmal sink of suck that was the Ravens performance in the final preseason game, last night, against St Louis. (Gawd.) Here's something I was thinking about after last wk's game vs the Giants.

Bill James wrote a piece once,
about how much difference it makes to a baseball team's scoring output, to have the lineup set "correctly" – ie who bats first, who bats cleanup, who's in the 9 hole, etc. In order to run his study, he had to construct a comparison "worst" lineup for a given set of players. He described his process for setting up that lineup. He put the leadoff hitter in the 9-hole, and he distributed the other good hitters around the lineup so that they wouldn't be able to "interact" with each other. That's the concept that stuck in my mind: that to have a good offense, you needed the productive hitters to interact. You need to cluster a few hits together. A random hit here or there = a shutout. A few hits together = runs.

(Been a long time since I read the Bill James piece. For those wondering how the rest goes, I'm not sure I remember it correctly. I think he concluded that the lineup change did not make a significant difference in a team's scoring output. The figure that sticks in my head is around 20 runs over the course of a year, which would be about .12 runs per game. I might be remembering the wrong figure.)

Basketball has the concept of a "streaky shooter". This is a guy who is inconsistent, and maybe not reliably a great player. He misses shots a lot of the game. But then he scores in bunches. He can get hot, and he can hurt you if he does. He can be dangerous.
(Yes, I know there have been studies demonstrating that there is no such thing as a "hot" shooter in basketball. I'm more interested in the perception here, and the implications of the idea of streakiness. Let's stipulate that the streak shooter exists, if you don't mind.)
The culture of basketball is an interesting one (and a little odd). This streaky player is, I think, not accorded quite as much respect as the consistent player, even when the consistent player isn't as productive overall. The streaky player is regarded warily – by both sides. When he's missing, fans (and coaches?) of his team are confirmed in their view that he can't be depended on. When he's hitting, the opponents are confirmed in their view: I told you he was dangerous! It's almost like he's dangerous to both sides.

So.

Joe Flacco brings the Ravens offense out in preseason game 3, which is traditionally the game where the starters play the most. It's the game most like a regular season game, the "dress rehearsal". And early on he doesn't look good. Sails his first couple of passes and gets sacked, and that's the Ravens 1st possession. Not counting the punt, the Ravens 1st 5 snaps totalled two incomplete passes, 2 sacks, and a false start. Great offense, guys. Flacco's last drive of the 1st half was just two plays: him getting sacked and then throwing an interception. And Flacco played one series in the 3rd quarter with the 2nd-teamers, going 1 for 2.

Flacco's total stats on the day were decent. He went 21 for 34 (61.8%) for 229 yards (6.7 yds/att) with 2 TDs and 1 INT, for a passer rating of 89.0. These numbers are similar to Flacco's stats from last year: 63%, 7.2 y/a, rating 88.9.

… You can see where this is going right? Flacco put up terrible numbers on his first and last drives: 4 of 12 for 41 yds with 0 TDs and 1 INT. That's a passer rating of 9. But if his overall stats were decent, then he must have put up great stats in the middle, right? Yes! Over 3 drives in the 1st half, the Ravens 2nd, 3rd and 4th drives, Flacco went 17 of 22 for 188 yds (8.4 y/a) with 2 TDs, for a passer rating of 132. The Ravens scored on all 3 possessions. (And on the next possession, with Flacco doing ok-but-not-good, the Ravens got into FG range and would have had a chance at another score, but for a dead-ball unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Derrick Mason, on the Ravens sideline.)

I don't want to get into whether this was a "good" performance for the Ravens offense. The Baltimore paper and fan sites were thrilled. Perennial Ravens critic Mike Preston even wrote that yes, fans weren't dreaming, the offense really did play that well. I am not as convinced. The Ravens needed two 4th-down conversions and a 15-yd personal foul on the Giants to score the two touchdowns, and the pass protection was at best spotty. But, whatever.

What's interesting to me is, Joe Flacco did not (statistically) play at the same level all game long. He played 7 possessions, and he was poor for 3 of them, and not good on another. But he got hot. He played great (or put up great stats, rather) on 3 possessions, and the Ravens scored each time. A football offense is sort of like a baseball offense, in this way: that you need to string a bunch of successful plays together, in order to score. One or two completions = punt. A string of completions = score. Flacco is like a streaky basketball shooter, in that he was able to get hot, and cause some damage when hot.

Is it always like that?

In basketball, the streak shooter is treated warily. Should we be embracing the streak passer in football? Basketball is one thing: but in a football game, if your team gets 10 possessions, and you stink on 6 of them – completely ineffective – you can still have a great game if you get hot for 4 possessions and drive for 4 scores.

I think even the best offenses punt most of the time (have to check that). Are the great QBs (Brees, Manning, Rivers, etc) streaky in the way that Flacco illustrated last night? We think of them as their stat line: consistently completing 65% (or whatever) of their passes. Are we wrong about that? Are they up and down, instead? Just that they get hot more often than the average QB?

Is this the whole point of football? Beat your head against the wall, punt when it doesn't work, but eventually put together a few drives where everything works right, and you score?

I feel like I've been watching the game wrong, this whole time.

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