Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's Time for Sweeping Changes

It’s time to use your imagination.

Let’s first rewind to Thanksgiving. You’re sitting, watching the Packers at Lions game; it’s first and ten at the Lions 40 with just over 12 minutes left in the third. Rodgers drops back to pass on a drive that could put them up by two scores. But instead of completing a pass to Greg Jennings for 19 yards, Suh beats his offensive lineman and crushes Rodgers. Rodgers holds his head, is taken to the sideline, shows signs of a concussion, and sits the rest of the game.

Three weeks later, Rodgers still doesn’t have any insight into when he can return. The season strolls on. The Packers lose two or three games down the stretch. They make a playoff appearance, but cannot overcome his loss. Rodgers, inexplicably, cannot make it back from his concussion, and no one knows why he can’t shake his symptoms, or when he’ll be able to return.

Fast forward a year from now. Rodgers didn’t play in mini-camps or the pre-season. He was only cleared for contact in August. But we’re in the first week of October before he sees his first action. Out he comes to rousing cheers! One of the best young quarterbacks in the league is back! He has a coming out party his first game, completing 80% of his passes, throwing for 450 yards and five touchdowns.

Three weeks, 1,200 yards and 11 TD passes later, Rodgers limps off the field toward the end of the game after taking a big shot. The Packers are already up by four scores in the fourth quarter, so they sit him just in case. And then on Monday, it’s revealed he has more concussion-like symptoms. He’s no longer cleared to play, out indefinitely.

After having sat his first three seasons, Rodgers isn’t exactly a spring chicken. But it’s safe to say that people still think of him as a fairly young QB. Compare him to Brady, Manning and Brees – all in their 30s – and he still seems to be from that “next” generation. Roethlisberger is only a year older than he is, but has nearly 60% more attempts than Rodgers because he was the primary starter his first three years, and suffers several bone-jarring hits himself. When fans think of Rodgers, I believe they tend to think of him as having a shelf-life five to seven years, maybe more, beyond what these other four guys have.

But think about this scenario. He’s been a Superbowl MVP. He’s got the active and all time highest career QB rating. He’s streaking toward an auto-entry into the Hall of Fame and making people question whether we could be seeing the guy destined to be called the Greatest of All Time.

And just one year from now, Rodgers’ career suddenly looks to be in jeopardy from concussions.

How would this change the game? What would it do to fans’ mind-sets? We witness the oncoming of one of the greatest players we may ever get to see play; and without warning, his career is swept out from under him. The game would survive, of course. But how would that impact the way you think about the game? How would it impact your emotions, losing such a great player?

How big a story would it be?

The ramifications of it would likely be huge. We’ve seen single players alter the course of the game before. David the Deacon Jones got the head-slap outlawed in 1977 after perfecting the technique and becoming one of the greatest pass rushers of all time. Tom Brady took a season-ending shot to his knee, causing the implementation of a rule where defenders on the ground cannot hit a quarterback below the waist. It only makes sense to think that the threatening of one of the greatest player in America’s most popular sport would be cause for big changes. And it makes just as much sense to think that the story would be the headline story in the sports world, not just for a day or two, but for weeks. It’s a story that would rock the sports world, and likely result in a major change of direction.

This is the story of Sidney Crosby, and the potential tragedy the NHL now faces. The only difference is, Crosby is a far younger star than Rodgers is, and he’s more meaningful to his sport than Rodgers is to his.

Like him or hate him, Sidney Crosby’s greatness cannot be denied. Though he’s five-and-a-half years into his career, he’s only 24 years old. But in those six seasons, he’s won the league’s scoring title, been the league’s MVP, won the Stanley Cup and scored the game winning goal in the Olympic gold medal game. At this time last year, Crosby was the league’s scoring leader again and on a pace for an easy MVP award on a major Stanley Cup challenger.

In the Winter Classic on Jan 1, ’11, Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman hit Crosby in the head. He suffered concussion-like symptoms, and found himself out of the game for nearly a year. He returned to action Nov 21st, scoring four points and immediately sparking discussion of whether he could worm his way into contention for the scoring title by the end of the season. Less than a month later, he’s back on the bench, out indefinitely with more concussion-like symptoms.

It’s a truly tragic story for hockey fans. We face the prospect of losing what appears to be one of the greatest players of all time in his sport. Crosby seemed to be capable of challenging The Great One himself. Now, instead of wondering how many MVPs and Stanley Cups he’ll win in his career, we’re left to question whether he should retire now. And we’re left to wonder whether the game should undergo massive, sweeping changes, in the hopes that we can ensure that if Crosby can overcome this, we don’t lose him forever, and that if we do, we ensure we minimize the risk of the same thing happening to the next great player to come along, or any of the current greats we have playing the game.

This story should be bigger than it is.

It’s here where I need to note that it’s a shame that hockey isn’t even half as big or as popular in this country as football is. The story of Aaron Rodgers would dominate sports headlines for a long time. The story of Sidney Crosby is a bi-line, falling behind the ESPN recap of the 2-11 Rams losing to the 6-7 Seahawks as well as two other non-NFL related stories that night.

The true shame of this reality is that if the story were as big as it should be – if it were of the magnitude of an Aaron Rodgers-like injury – the attention it would bring to the problem of violence in these sports would likely bring about important, necessary changes. I’m hopeful that the NHL will finally begin to take a serious look at how violent the sport is, and how risky it is for all their players, including their potential all-time greats, and that it will lead to significant changes for the better. But I’m even more hopeful that we can reach that point in both of these sports prior to losing anyone beyond those that have already been lost.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Angles on Niners - Ravens

Would be nice to have Ray Lewis back.

I think the Niners might be the most physical, bullying team in the league. I think Jim Harbagh knew exactly what he wanted to emphasize. The Steelers or Ravens are usually "that guy", but I think this year it is San Francisco. The Niners are playing better than Pittsburgh or Baltimore is, certainly better than Baltimore. Weighted DVOA says so, and so do your eyes. I'm sure the Niners are younger at some key positions – Patrick Willis has been faster than Ray Lewis for some years now – and Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks & Justin Smith can really rush the passer. Whereas, in addition to Ray-ray's toe issue, Haloti Ngata has been wrestling with a thigh injury for a couple weeks now.

Also, the Ravens kick coverage units have been terrible this season. They have given up big play after big play. Ted Ginn is super dangerous.

So, you know, I'm worried about this game. The Ravens have been unraveling a bit on defense over the last couplefew weeks, and it's a powerful team coming in. Plus I looked at the Steelers remaining schedule, and I think they go 5-1 the rest of the way, the loss coming in San Francisco. That means the Ravens will have to win 5 more games to win the division, and they still travel to San Diego and to Cincinnati this season. They need to win this game.

A few points that might benefit the Ravens:

• They are at home. The Ravens have been very difficult to beat at home over the last dozen years – I think they have one of the league's 3 best records over that span. They have thumped good opponents this season in Baltimore (Pittsburgh, NYJ, Houston). What are the Niners impressive road wins? @ Cincinnati week 3, @ Philadelphia week 4, @ Detroit week 6. (The win over the Giants was in San Francisco.) Those are good teams, but Cincy & Philly were still working out some kinks early in the season.

• No matter how well he's managing the games for them right now, the Niners QB is still Alex Smith. I have a hard time believing he will beat the Ravens defense. Frank Gore is a beast, but one-dimensional teams do not typically do well against the Ravens.

• The Ravens are used to playing in "that game". I'm assuming a certain style of hard-hitting slugfest. Have these Niners ever played in "that game"? The Ravens play it twice a year vs the Steelers, often three times a year. Plus their games against Cincy often go that route as well. Whatever quality of nerve and poise it takes to shake off a bad sack or a bad turnover, and stay in "that game" all the way until the final minute, the Ravens have demonstrated they have it. Flacco might be a lock to commit 1.5 dumb turnovers per game, but he has come right back with solid performances in the remainders of those tight games, and given the Ravens chances to win.

• As wildly inconsistent as it has been, the Ravens offense still has more weapons with Flacco, Ray Rice, Boldin & Torrey Smith & Lee Evans, Dickson & Pitta, than the Niners offense has. The Niners have dangerous offensive players in Gore, Crabtree and Vernon Davis, esp Davis, but the Ravens have more.

So, I dunno. I feel that there's a risk of the Niners defense and spec teams overwhelming the Ravens, scoring points off turnovers and returns. Big number for the Niners, in that case. If that doesn't happen, and the game settles in to a knock-down drag-out battle, then I see the Ravens offense eking out a TD here and a few FGs there. I don't see the Niners offense getting much of anything. Ravens 16-6, in that case.

I think some in the Baltimore media will see this game as a referendum on how much the Ravens want to sacrifice for John Harbaugh. By "some in the media" I mean Preston. He has consistently written that Harbaugh does not connect well with the team, they find him corny etc etc. I have usually found Preston unconvincing on this issue. Not "wrong" necessarily. There are 50+ guys on a football team – the number is probably well over 60 when you factor in the practice squad and guys who are out with injury but still around the facility rehabbing and participating in meetings. Sixty guys do not agree on anything. Probably any head coach "connects well" with some of the guys, is ignored by others, etc. The Ravens as an organization pay more attention to issues of personality than most teams do (they go out of their way to assess how coachable a player is, draft team captains, etc), but there is zero chance that no one on the roster rolls his eyes when he hears about "Mighty Men" etc. So, I think on any squad it would be pretty easy to find ~5 guys who are sarcastic about the head coach and his motivational tactics. Even starters. So I don't think Preston is necessarily wrong, but that he is misinterpreting or blowing out of proportion.

But that's easy for me to say. He's actually met the players and been in the locker room. What if he's right? In that light it will be interesting to see how hard the Ravens play, what kind of determination they show late in the game, and how they celebrate with Harbaugh toward the end if they win. Suggs has already said that he can't wait for the post-game handshake between the coaches. I'd be really touched if a lot of guys are hugging Harbaugh and dunking him with Gatorade etc.

Does Jim Harbaugh remind you at all of Cowher?


Sunday, October 16, 2011


I have a persistent morning amnesia. When I wake it takes me a minute or more to recall significant events from the prior day, a physiological equivalent of booting up.

Usually this is a positive experience, however today it was soaking up the memory of the Tigers losing last night. A game I barely paid attention to after a 9 run barrage by the Rangers in the third inning. An outcome I had no immediate emotional investment in and a bitter disappointment that really only set in this morning.

I've read some fan posts in a couple of places about how proud we should be of this team and how happy they would have been before the season if the Tigers had gotten this far. I guess in theory this makes sense but opportunities lost are opportunities lost. This team was every bit good enough to compete for the world championship, especially after chopping down the Yankees and seeing the Phillies fall in the National League. But they are much too hurt, too slow, really not good enough defensively. They couldn't make the key hits that would have gotten them past Texas and so the season is over.

Of course, this isn't about that but more about my current state of mind.

Jim encouraged me to write about the Lions a couple of weeks ago when they were 3-0 and I promised to write about them when they reached 4-0. Well, now they are 5-0 and going into their toughest game to date. I hate the idea of writing this after they lose their first game, and this has been brewing in my head for weeks.

Lionized. It's a term coined by Lions fans cleverer than me, with it's genesis in Rod Marinelli's ridiculous press conferences. "We will keep digging, we have to keep our shovels sharp". We heard some flavor of this theme week after week when there was no better explanation for a team with the worst roster and the worst record marching to an historically bad season. Perhaps my favorite quote to come out of the 2008 mess came from Rob Parker who asked Marinelli 'do you ever wish your daughter had married a better defensive coordinator?' A nod to Marinelli's love of nepotism, both in his coaching staff and in his team which evolved into a collection of ex-Buccaneers who were no longer good enough to even play in Tampa, a team that had problems of its own.

Marinelli's pressers were eerily similar to what we had heard before, from Mariucci, Mornhinweg, and Ross before him. Speculation would start almost as soon as a coach was hired, 'how long until he's Lionized?' How long until we start hearing these stultified and repetitive cliches? Usually it would take about a season and a half. Ultimately it would result in bizarre decision making. Choosing to kick in overtime. Hiring a 300 pound quarterback and starting him with two days practice. Abandoning the team's nascent franchise quarterback after only 2 weeks on the job in favor of a third stringer acquired from the Browns (Mariucci/Harrington). The list goes on.

This brings us to Jim Schwartz. I loved the hire. This isn't saying a ton, because I also loved the hire of Marinelli for different reasons, but I did love that the Lions hired Schwartz. His pedigree was flawless with extensive experience working with both Bill Belichek and Jeff Fischer, along with their waves of coaches who now represent about a significant fraction of head coaches and coordinators in the league. I loved that he had a head for analysis beyond orthodoxy. And at the same time I hated that he would probably fail. That the roster was so lacking in talent that it was probably impossible for him to succeed within any time frame that would allow him to keep his job, that like his predecessors he would become lost and confused long before the tunnel's end showed any light.

Sure enough, his career in Detroit did start as predicted. 2-14 his first year with the #1 overall quarterback equally ineffective and hurt. His second season starting 2-10 with the franchise quarterback appearing to play much better but at the same time even more brittle than his rookie season.

The one thing that never happened though, was the Lionization of Schwartz. Who knows, maybe he was only a week or two away from starting to appear vexed and lost and confused like we had seen so many times before. Certainly there was cause. There was the 'complete the process' game against the Bears which rhymed with so many experiences that Lion fans have had in the past. There was the overtime loss to the Jets where Stafford was lost for the year and where the team was unable to preserve a 7 point lead in the last minute. I doubt though that Schwartz was ever that vulnerable, that close to succumbing, because it is clear that the team never lost faith, that there were never any cracks in the veneer that would have foreshadowed the wall caving in.

And then they won.

It was a weird win. 7-3 against the eventual champion Packers. A game where things that typically happened to the Lions happened to the other team instead. The star quarterback got knocked out, the star wide receiver inexplicably dropped the game winning touchdown. The Packers missed on scoring chance after scoring chance even while leading 3-0 for 3-and-a-half quarters. A game that nearly ruined the Packers' season.

And then they won again, in a game that Tampa Bay needed and lost. A win that would nearly have secured a playoff spot for the Buccaneers who ultimately stayed home for the playoffs. A game where the Lions gave up a 4th quarter lead but came back to tie in the closing moments only to win in overtime. This win broke their NFL record 26 game road losing streak

And they won again and again, the last without Calvin Johnson. What in the name of the Wide Wide World of Sports was going on around here?

And today here we are. 5-0 with an NFL best 9 game winning streak. A team that has won this year with consecutive 20 point comebacks, the most in NFL history. A team that demolished an inferior opponent 48-3. A team that battled cramps and fatigue to beat the Buccaneers on the road for the second time in 5 games. A team that got held in check by a good Bears defense even while the crowd forced false start after false start during a national coming out party on Monday night.

I am intensely proud of this team and the city. I am intensely proud that the fans never lost faith.

and yeah, I don't want it to end

Detroit is probably the most misunderstood city in the country. Any national coverage highlights the decay, the open fields where neighborhoods once stood depicted like scars with the downtown as a backdrop. Coverage invariably discusses the auto industry, the unemployment, the crime rate.

We know. WE KNOW!

What you almost never hear is how loyal Detroiters are to Detroit. How people who move here, often reluctantly, grow to love this city. As dysfunctional as the city had to be for decades, as much infighting between the city and the suburbs which often resembles pitched battles, we always have a unified front against usurping press that tries to reshape our story, to only highlight the bad.

And for so many years the Lions were simply representative of the city. A bizarrely inept franchise representing a depressingly inept city.

If that's the story though, we are also seeing that story change. Young people with no memories of the racial tension that marked the late '60s and early '70s are rebuilding the city from the inside out. Grass root businesses are springing up, lofts are getting renovated and occupied. New construction is continuous for the first time in decades. While this is the hidden inward story, the Lions are an outward face. A resurgent franchise that appears poised to join and surpass the league giants.

So here I am. Deeply disappointed in a Tiger season that didn't go long enough. A season that maybe ended in the worst possible way. Even so, hope remains. While the seasons change and we march toward winter, it is a figurative spring for the Lions.

And maybe they can continue to change the language. Maybe Lionized will take on a whole new meaning.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Al Davis

So wow. Al Davis dead.

There was a time when I would have felt qualified to eulogize this man. He was both great and terrible, both Peter and Ivan. There was a time when the hallowed grounds of the NFL quaked beneath his footfalls. We can argue about his impact but we certainly cannot deny it.

There are a lot of internet entities that understand him better and will have more lucid things to say about Davis than I would.

But for my part I will simply retire his name. Not that we won't talk about him and not that we won't potentially talk about other prominent footballers named Al Davis. Really, it's just an honorary retirement, a tiny shout out to this man we both admired and ridiculed.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Troy Polamalu and the Steelers 2011

I wrote this article after the Ravens win over the Steelers, but never posted it. Still think it's pretty relevant, so I'm dropping it in here now.

After week one’s performance in which the Ravens controlled the Steelers on both sides of the ball, a few things jumped out at me. First and foremost, it’s unlikely any team will thrash the Steelers this season as badly as the Ravens did. I have to believe a large part of why the Ravens were able to do what they did was due to an emotional outburst, taking out four years of frustration in one three hour stretch.

Second, the Steelers offensive line is very bad. After charting the second half of that game, I counted nine blown blocks and three unblocked rushers applying pressure or making plays in the backfield out of 37 total plays. That’s a near 30% failure rate, when the league average in 2010 was under ten percent. While this may be a statistical aberration, the Steelers OL is a weakness. To make matters worse, Willie Colon was placed on IR this week due to a torn triceps. While it’s unlikely that this line will play that poorly all year, it is likely the performance of the line will hold back their offense from being as great as it can be with their strong players at the skill positions.

But third and probably most importantly, Troy Polamalu looked old and slow. This was evident watching the entire game, but no play demonstrates it quite as clearly as Ed Dickson’s 3rd quarter TD catch. To be fair, the throw and catch were both great, placed where no DB would have a play on it. But notice how badly Polamalu gets burned on this play. It’s not about Dickson getting behind him. It’s that after Dickson was already behind him, Dickson – a tight end, not a receiver – pulled away from him.

Last year, I wrote a blog article arguing that Polamalu should be the league MVP. The premise was that over the previous two seasons (we were only 14 games into the ’10 season when this was written) the Steelers defense has been far more effective with him playing than without. Refreshing the numbers by adding in the five games played at the end of the season doesn’t change much.

(Apologies for the format, I still don't know how to do tables on this thing...)

                  With Polamalu     Without Polamalu
Avg Pts Allowed 15.9 21.5 (35% increase)
Avg Yds Allowed 280 301 (8% increase)
Avg Def DVOA -21.8% -0.2%
Avg 1st downs 16.8 17.0 (1.5% increase)
Avg Turnovers 2.2 1.0 (54% decrease)
W/L Record 17-5 6-7
Win % .772 .462

This data includes all 2009 and 2010 games
* This figure does not include the Superbowl, for which I didn’t have defensive DVOA (which would almost certainly cause the -21.8% to go down, but should not impact it enough to come close to the -0.2%)

And so I believe it’s fair to at least raise the question, “What happens to the Steelers defense if Polamalu is no longer able to play at the level he once did?” It is of course not fair to assume that the Steelers defense will be as bad in 2011 as they were in week one, even if Polamalu turns out to be a shell of his former self, or misses significant time due to injury. People don’t call week one “National Overreaction Week” for nothing.

But Polamalu has suffered several injuries over the last few years. Eight seasons of launching your 220 pound body into opposing offensive players like a missile will tend to wear down many people. Polamalu has missed games due to injury in four of the last five seasons. So while it wouldn’t surprise anyone to find that this game was nothing but a fluke and he performs at the high level we all expect for the rest of the year, it would probably be just as unsurprising to find that he truly has lost a step.

So what happens if you take a sure-fire Hall of Fame player out of a defense and replace him with an average over-the-hill player?

In the Football Outsiders Almanac, the age of the Steelers defense was specifically discussed. “Eleven of the 12 oldest defenses since 2000 had defensive DVOA below zero percent. There’s virtually no correlation between average age and defensive DVOA.” They point out that any slight trend seen tends to favor older defenses. Increasing age does not automatically result in decreasing productivity.

However, they too pointed out that the Steelers defense was far different without Polamalu than with him. And while his leadership, intelligence and play recognition will always mean he will be capable of making plays, a loss of his overall talent could be difficult for the defense to overcome.

The numbers above don’t lie. The Steelers defense is certainly not as bad as it looked this past Sunday, when the Ravens averaged 6.3 yards per play and scored 35 points with a 29.4% Steelers VOA on defense (ranked 27th in the league). But if the defense is missing the Polamalu the league is used to seeing wreak havoc, and the Steelers are fielding an average defense as a result, then the Steelers are likely closer to fighting for a Wildcard berth than they are the Super Bowl contenders that many believed them to be just before they stepped onto M&T Bank stadium’s turf last Sunday afternoon.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Head Trauma And ALS

One of our ongoing themes here at OS is a running commentary on football and head trauma. I remain proud that in our tiny corner of the internet we were doing this before it got cool.

Steve Gleason recently revealed he has ALS. He's a folk hero in New Orleans (I had no idea about this before this morning) and will be the honorary captain for today's game. It is difficult to reconcile our great passion for football with the terrible costs that the game incurs.

Six months before Gleason's diagnosis a team of researchers from Boston University reported a link between an ALS-type disease and the repetitive head trauma suffered by some athletes.

Some peers say the study's sample size -- two former football players and a former boxer -- is insufficient to draw accurate conclusions, but evidence shows ALS strikes athletes in far greater numbers than the general population.


A 2005 paper found that Italian professional soccer players had developed the disease at rates about six times higher than normal.

The disease strikes about two in 100,000 people, which means only two or three NFL players since 1970 should have been afflicted. BU researchers identified 14 former NFL players since 1960 as having been diagnosed with ALS, a total about eight times more than what would be expected among U.S. men of similar ages. Perrin said his research shows Gleason would be the 27th former NFL player identified with the disease.

Most experts believe brain trauma is not solely responsible for diseases like ALS or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE. Those afflicted probably have genetic factors leading to susceptibility, with concussions serving as a catalyst.

"You have people in both camps," Gleason said. "But it's getting harder and harder to say that there are no repercussions from head trauma in the NFL or in football. You can't say that anymore."


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Who's Built To Win?

I keep trying to write this post and I keep changing the title and then changing the content and then deleting the whole thing altogether.

Built to win. One of the cliches that we see, particularly in football I think. Ridiculous to think of the alternatives. Built to lose. Built to tie.

I sort of have an argument that I trot out every spring and summer that every team is improving every year. Mostly it's a rhetorical argument. Fans get so myopic about the progression of their own team that they forget about the progression of others. So yeah, teams are always getting better, but they are also always getting worse. The teams who can outrun attrition ultimately improve. The teams who can't don't.

Not sure what this has to do with anything. Originally this post was going to be about Pittsburgh failing to outrun attrition, but after looking at them a bit more I decided that they hadn't, or at least I was not sure that they had. Yeah, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu are past peak. James Farrior and Casey Hampton are simply old. On the other hand though, LaMarr Woodley is the next man up in the Steeler pantheon and it seems likely that others are poised to join him. They have Lawrence Timmons who some in Steelerland are already calling a star, although to me it's premature. They have Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds, each at varying levels of development and each players who appear to be highly regarded in Pittsburgh. So are the Steelers outrunning attrition? Is there really any way for us to know?

A couple of years ago I thought I had stumbled on a pretty simple formula to identify a champion. Give me a team with a great quarterback and a star at each level of defensive depth; defensive line, linebacker and defensive back, and this is a team who will compete for Super Bowls. I still think this is a pretty good model, but unfortunately reality intruded and teams started winning Super Bowls without all of these great defensive players. Or maybe they didn't. Sometimes it is hard to tell.

Two years ago New Orleans won with Darren Sharper being named All Pro and Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper Pro Bowlers. While this sort of validates the model, my gut says that Vilma's and Harper's tickets to Hawaii were gifts, that the real strength of that defense was Gregg Williams and a defensive line that was deep and talented. Really, that team had good players everywhere. Jabari Greer was probably the best of the back seven, but he was hurt for a good chunk of the season. Sometimes teams just come together. Things work. Championships are won.

Football Outsiders informs us that it is easier to build a consistent offense than a consistent defense, which is why you've seen so many recent champions win from an offensive philosophy. If you can build an offense that can score on anyone then maybe once in a while your defense will hold opponents down enough for your team to win. Indianapolis won one championship doing this, and they made another Super Bowl with an even weaker defense.

Going back five years, Indianapolis had the 2nd ranked offense and 23rd defense, the Giants the 14th offense and 17 defense in their fluky run. In 2009, the Saints had the number 1 offense and 20th ranked defense, bolstered by opportunism that forced turnovers in all but two games (both losses) including 5 in the NFC championship game. If you've been counting though, you'll notice I skipped 2008, the last time that Pittsburgh won. That year they had one of the most dominant defenses of all time, finishing 1st in scoring, total yards, passing yards, and second in the NFL in rushing yards against. This against an offense that finished a more pedestrian 20th overall.

So built to win? Again, I'm not sure what that means any more. I thought I knew once, but now teams are learning that they can overcome defensive deficiencies with greater offense. The NFL appears to be getting in to an arms race. Looking at the current contenders, all appear to be making receiving options a priority. The Falcons had one of the best running backs and one of the best wide receivers in football. No matter. They traded half their draft to go up for Julio Jones.

I was clicking back through some of the quarterbacks of the '90s earlier and was startled to realize how common it was for these guys to have completion percentages in the low 50%s. Not just run-of-the-mill guys but Pro Bowlers. Steve Young was an aberration, not just because he was the only guy hitting 65%, but because he was one of the very few who would even hit 60%. Now since the NFL liberalized the passing game even further with their reinterpretation of pass defense in 2007, one wonders if there is really any room left for a running game at all.

The Lions openly admit that they aren't prioritizing development of a running attack. For their purposes 3 yards per carry is as good as 4. Sure, the more, the better but the main goal is to tie defenders to the line, at least a little. The Lions are going to take their yards in chunks, not by running through the tackles 16 times on a 9 minute drive. You can just look at how they've built the team in three years, how they've surrounded Stafford with guys who can catch. It's easy to forget that only Calvin Johnson was on the team when Stafford showed up. They drafted Pettigrew that year, signed Burleson a year later. Traded for Scheffler, drafted Best and then Titus Young this year. That's a loud statement on how the offense is going to run, and now that Stafford is healthy, it appears that the strategy is reaping huge dividends.

The Lions of course aren't the only ones. The Ravens have transitioned to a pass heavy attack. So are the Jets. The Patriots have always been one. The Eagles were among the first to adopt the strategy with Andy Reid's handoff-phobia.

The most exciting game today was Buffalo's 38-35 win over Oakland with both teams scoring down the stretch as the Bills came back. It was exciting for the flow of the game, but equally improbable considering the participants. Buffalo? Oakland? Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jason Campbell? Really? Last week Chad Henne passed for 400 yards. Cam Newton has passed for 400 plus in 100% of his NFL starts - and lost twice.

What we often see in football is the development of a trend by innovators, and then me-too adoption. At this point, it appears to have gone to an extreme.

So what's the next innovation? Probably some kind of Parcellsian strategy to haul the NFL back to a game of running and defense and field position.

The team who figures out how to do this?

That team will be built to win.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Revisiting the Rule of 26-27-60

Back before the ’10 season, SI writer John P. Lopez published a piece examining whether there was a magic bullet that could allow teams to predict NFL success at the quarterback position.

Could a simple formula have warned us of Russell's lack of NFL readiness? And Ryan Leaf's and David Carr's and other failed, high-pick quarterbacks?

Call it the Rule of 26-27-60.

Here is the gist of it: If an NFL prospect scores at least a 26 on the Wonderlic test, starts at least 27 games in his college career and completes at least 60 percent of his passes, there's a good chance he will succeed at the NFL level.

The article gets mentioned on occasion around the sports community, and every time it does, I get irritated by it. The problem is that Lopez falls into the trap of cherry-picking his quarterbacks, and not particularly doing the greatest job at it. As such, I’d like to take a much deeper look at this.

So my intention is to look at the following: I’ll be examining all quarterbacks with more than two years as the primary starter in the NFL. This will eliminate guys like Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow, who we can’t really say whether they’ll be good or not. I do intend to include guys like Matt Stafford, because even though he’s started only 14 games in the NFL, I do think we’ve seen enough of him to say with confidence that if he can stay healthy, he’s going to be a very good NFL QB.

I’m also going to include all first round QB draft picks between years 2002 and 2009 if they’re not primary starters, as this mostly labels them busts. Given the predictor of success, we’ll want to know the QBs that fizzle out as well. Starting with 2002 is a bit arbitrary, but ’01 only had Vick who’s included in current starters and ’00 had Pennington who is difficult to categorize anyway, so it’s not terrible not to include him.

I’m also rounding the study out with two other QBs that deserve mention here, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Both are long-time starters that just finished or are injured and would normally still be starting. This gives us a population of 40 different quarterbacks, and should be a good gauge of whether the Rule really does work or not.

I’m also going to try to simplify the definition of QB success by listing four different categories. They’ll go as follows:
The elite – These are the true cream of the crop of the NFL, the best of the best. Seven fit here.
The solid – These are guys I would define as good players that you are happy to leave in as your team’s QB for five-plus years. They may not be the best QBs out there, but they’re good enough to give your team a chance. I have 13 in this category.
The young guns – These are guys playing in their third or fourth year and are on a trajectory to fall somewhere in either the elite or the solid groups in the next few years. There are six of them.
The bad – These will range between flat busts and QBs that are starters for their teams, but are unlikely to hold that job long because they’re not good enough to rely on being winners in the long term. There are 14 in this category.

There may be some discussion as to whether certain guys could fall into the “bad” vs. the “solid” category. And I’m fine with that, but in general, I don’t see a lot of argument there. We may also argue between elite and solid a bit to, but I think that’s an even less important distinction, as the Rule isn’t really called out to distinguish between the good and the great; I’m just looking at it for general instruction.

And so the meat of the discussion, how does the Rule really perform?

Elite, fits Rule
Brees, Manning, Rivers
Elite, doesn’t fit Rule
Brady, Favre, Rodgers, Roethlisberger
Solid, fits Rule
Eli Manning, Kolb, Schaub, Fitzpatrick, Romo
Solid, doesn’t fit Rule
Palmer, McNabb, Cutler, Kerry Collins, Cassel, Hasselbeck, Vick
Young gun, fits Rule
Matt Ryan
Young gun, doesn’t fit Rule
Henne, Flacco, Freeman, Sanchez, Stafford
Bad, fits Rule (as in, does not have 26 and 27 and 60)
Alex Smith, Quinn, Leftwich, Carr, Losman, Russell, Campbell, Harrington, Boller, Ramsey, Tarvaris Jackson, Vince Young
Bad, doesn’t fit Rule (as in, does have 26-27-60)
Leinart, Grossman, Orton

One thing worth noting here, I count Aaron Rodgers in the “doesn’t fit Rule” category, because I don’t count his starts at community college as true college starts. If you do count those, then he fits the Rule. However, starting at community college seems to me to be a terrible measure, as I don’t know that the NFL has ever seen a community-college-only QB ever come into the NFL and succeed. I’m not sure one has ever entered the NFL, and either way it doesn’t impact the overall numbers much.

And so, what percent of each group has the Rule correctly predicted?
Elite – 3/7 = 43%
Solid – 5/12 = 42%
Young Gun – 1/6 = 17%
Bad – 12/15 = 80%
Overall – 21/40 = 53%

Let’s look at it a different way. What percentage did achieve 26-27-60 and succeed and what percentage did not achieve 26-27-60 and turned out bad?

Did achieve 26-27-60 and succeeded – 9/12 = 75%
Did not achieve 26-27-60 and were bad – 12/28 = 43%

It looks like the Rule is actually pretty solid at predicting that a quarterback will succeed on some level if they fit the criteria. However, the Rule appears to be a terrible predictor of failure if the prospect doesn’t fit all the criteria. It also appears to be poor at distinguishing exactly how good a QB is going to be, as only 33% of those that achieved 26-27-60 turned out to be in the elite or young gun category, while 32% that didn’t achieve 26-27-60 fell into elite or young gun.

Overall the Rule doesn’t do a much better job at predicting overall success or failure of the population pool than simply flipping a coin. I hated this Rule from the first time I read about it, because Lopez cherry-picked his quarterbacks to fit his study and never really looked at how good of an indicator it was across the whole population. Seeing the numbers in greater detail doesn’t change my opinion.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Defensive play of the week

I love this play. I'll eventually want you to focus on Ravens OLB Jarrett Johnson, but first here's the entire play. Ed Reed's first interception of the game:

highlight on NFL.com
This is kind of the generic Ravens defensive highlight. Haloti Ngata flushes Big Ben from the pocket, and Ed Reed ball hawks the ill-advised throw. Ho-hum. You've seen a play just like this 20 times on SportsCenter, the last three years.

What makes it especially interesting for me is the read that Jarrett Johnson makes. He's #95, and at the snap he is lined up at left end, just outside of Ngata. He starts out sort of in the midde of your screen, at the bottom of the group of Ravens at the line of scrimmage.

A YouTube uploader (not me) provides another view, emphasizing JJ's action on the play:

This is amazing to me. Ngata and JJ get what seems like a free run at the QB, who is flushed from the pocket. If anything, JJ is even closer to Ben than Ngata is, has a better angle. I would think that in the heat of the moment, the sight of the QB that close to you, almost in your grasp, would be inflammatory. Like red to a bull, or something.

Yet here's Jarrett Johnson. He is clearly making a read. In the middle of one of the most heated moments you can imagine, obviously something clicks in his brain and he says "Wait, I recognize this play." And he peels of from his pursuit of the QB, he turns away from the QB, and he goes and looks for the WR he knows must be coming across the formation.

And absolutely DESTROYS him.

That the receiver was Hines Ward is just icing on the cake. Ward is the most hated Steeler in Baltimore, a player whom the fans regard as dirty, a cheap shot artist. This hit got some threads devoted to it on Ravens discussion boards. You can get a sense of Ravens fans giddiness over the play from this other YouTube vid.

But that's not the point, to me. The play is set up to be a screen pass. Ben is trying to lure the pass rushers up field, so he can flip the ball to a guy coming around behind them. JJ recognizes it in mid-rush, and he turns around and blows it up. This is some kind of triumph of intelligence over instinct. It's reading your keys, trusting what you've seen in film study, trusting in your understanding of the opponent. The QB is right there! He's almost in your grasp. But JJ is a savvy veteran. To me there's some hard-won experience reflected in JJ's read. He's been involved in a ton of Ravens-Steeers games. He knows that with Big Ben, "almost in your grasp" can be fools gold. Instead he turns and makes the play he knows he can make. Let a younger guy, a special physical specimen like Haloti Ngata, go and chase after Ben: JJ is going to neutralize the play's intended target.

I am super-impressed by this.

Did JJ cause Reed's interception? I don't know, that might be a stretch. Reed makes breathtaking reads of his own. CBS showed one replay last week from the end zone cameras, of Reed's second INT. Ed starts on the right side of the field, and he's watching Big Ben all the way, as Ben reads his progressions from left to right. Reed drifts further and further to the center of the field, like he's participating in Ben's decision-making process. When Ben decides to throw the ball, Reed has arrived in the perfect spot to jump it. It's uncanny. He has some special ability. I'm reluctant to give another player credit for Reed's plays.

But JJ did take away Ben's primary receiver on that play. (In fact he obliterated him.) That leaves Ben on the run from Haloti Ngata, looking for a place to go with the ball, quickly. Let's say that JJ created the situation that Reed was able to exploit.

I've thought for a while that Jarrett Johnson is some sort of unsung hero on the Ravens defense. This play is one of the reasons why.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

R.I.P. Chesmu

Chesmu died today. Born Nov 5th, 2007, Chesmu the monkey was an avid Steeler fan that took up residence on the back of the Baltimore Ravens.

Chesmu died a fast and violent death Sept 11, 2011. As his broken body lay twisting on the ground, Ravens coach John Harbaugh showed Chesmu the ultimate sign of disrespect by dropping a deuce on his face despite already being up by three scores.

Chesmu will be remembered fondly by the city of Pittsburgh. His cousin, Corbin, a natural rival Ravens fan, climbed onto the Steelers back as Chesmu was laid to rest.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

I just read

Mike Tanier's article on the Redskins in the Football Outsiders Almanac. Holy god, has there ever been a more perfectly written analysis of this organization?!? To call it "scathing" is accurate, but inadequate. It is brilliant, top to bottom.

I suppose in one sense it might prove ironic that Tanier has written that piece this year. At one point he says that after last year, analysts no longer need to worry that the Redskins might stumble into a good team for one season. I'm not sure he's right on that point. I watched the Skins play the Ravens in preseason, and came away with the impression that they might be pretty good this season. Pretty good like to the tune of 8 or 9 wins.

It doesn't matter. All of Tanier's larger points are spot-on. It's a terrific read.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Coaching Carousel

I would like to write about the blatant flouting of the Rooney Rule this past couple seasons. Roger Goodell consistently makes steps that seem buffoonish, from his posturing on the conduct policy to his enforcement of NCAA penalties. This is another area. Goodell does not seem to take enforcement of the Rooney Rule seriously, so it has lost its teeth. Candidates are getting blatant token interviews -- Danny Snyder had one of his asst coaches fake an interview -- it is on its way to becoming a sham. It's terrible.

I had planned to write some of that stuff. But this is a tough offseason to make an argument along those lines, when we have more minority head coaches in place than at this time last year. Leslie Frazier and Hue Jackson are black, Ron Rivera is Latino. Another minority coach, Perry Fewell, did not get hired this year, but has been identified as a potential future star candidate.

I don't know if this means the Rooney Rule is alive and well. One of those guys was an interim appointments who performed too well to dismiss. Al Davis has always gone his own way on this issue, anyway. And Ron Rivera has been a high-profile HC candidate since Paul Tagliabue was commish. It seems inevitable that Perry Fewell emerge as a HC candidate, given the great work he's done the past few years. Is the process working, or did the league luck out this year?

Anyway, here's the list. A quarter of the league's coaches are new this year.

TeamNew CoachFormerly
CarolinaRon RiveraDC Chargers, Bears; Eagles LB coach
ClevelandPat ShurmurRams OC; Eagles QB coach
DallasJason GarrettCowboys OC; Dolphins QB coach; longtime NFL QB
DenverJohn FoxPanthers HC; DC w Giants, Raiders; DB coach
VikingsLeslie FrazierDC Vikings, Bengals; DB coach Indy, Philly; 9 yr college HC
RaidersHue JacksonOC Raiders, Falcons; O asst Ravens, Bengals, Redskins
49ersJim HarbaughHC Stanford, San Dieg St; longime NFL QB
TitansMike MunchakLongtime Titans OL coach

Our task with these guys is to divide them into three groups, based on whether they will Succeed, Fail, or Muddle Along Respectably.


John Fox, Broncos

Fox coached 9 years in Carolina, to the tune of 5 non-losing seasons, 3 division titles and one Super Bowl appearance. (They came very close to winning that 2003-4 Super Bowl, too.) This after taking over a 1-15 team. Prior to last year's catastrophe, Fox's *worst* record in Charlotte was 7-9. Then the wheels fell off last year. Still, this is a good coach. His strengths are defense and running the football: physicality, back-to-basics stuff. Guess where Denver has been lacking in recent years? This is a great fit of an organization that needs some old-school butt-kicking, and a coach who is well-prepared to do it.

It's fair to wonder who is going to be picking the players. Brian Xanders is still the GM there. He's the genius who brought you the Tim Tebow trade. That's going to remain a black mark -- Sergio Kindle & Ed Dickson & Dennis Pitta are potential starters for the Ravens, while Tebow will never be worth anything. But the Broncos had a very traditional draft this year, where they loaded up on exactly the type of players John Fox knows how to use: basic football guys like Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin and Nate Irving. 4 of their top 5 picks (and 6 overall) were defenders. Couple more drafts like that and this squad will look just like Fox's good Carolina teams: hard-nosed, physical, tough to beat. Probably not championship winners, but good football teams.

Leslie Frazier, Vikings

Are black head coaches disproportionately successful, compared to white head coaches? Lovie Smith has taken Da Bears to the Super Bowl; Mike Tomlin has won it, and then gone back. Ton Dungy's career record is ridiculous, especially when you consider the delta between how bad the teams were before he got there, and how successful after. Art Shell had a winning record his first go-around. Even plucky Raheem Morris, whom I picked against when he was hired a couple years ago, went 10-6 last year, with an exciting young QB who has a bright future.

If you're going to assert that black coaches are better, you'd better have some explanation about why. For a long time, I thought that there were more un-hired potentially great black head coaches than white, simply because the field of white head coaches was so picked-over. Rich frickin Kotite got multiple chances at a head job in the 90s, while Sherman Lewis's phone never rang and Art Shell never got a 2nd look even though he had a 54-38 record thru 1994. It was an ugly era. If you were looking for a great head coach, I thought black coaches were almost an untapped pool. A lot of great candidates. Since then we've had the Rooney Rule, so it's tougher to make that argument, although I am still biased in that direction. The other factor for me is an article Paul Zimmerman wrote several years ago about the importance of black leadership on successful football teams. It makes a lot of sense.

Frazier is supposedly more Dungy than Tomlin; and there's nothing wrong with that. There's great talent on that roster. Donovan McNabb can stabilize the QB situation for a year or so; and maybe they'll bring someone in. Frazier was a head coach for 9 years at Trinity International University in Illinois, starting at age 29. He founded the program and built it from thin air to a 2-time conference champion. That says something about his grasp of all aspects of a program. I just think Frazier will prove to be a breath of fresh air, and revitalize a sleeping giant.

It's a tough division, of course. The SB champions reside there, and I've already predicted "succeed" for the current Lions administration. Something's gotta give, you'd think. But today I'm picking Frazier to be successful.

Jim Harbaugh, 49ers

I can't pick against Jim Harbaugh. The Harbaugh family seems to really, really know what they're doing when it comes to football teams. Father Jack coached a zillion years in college and won a D2 national championship. Jim played a part in that achievement, as an unpaid coach and recruiter. Big brother John has proven the Harbaugh schmaltz is not just a rah-rah college thing, with a .667 reg season record and 4-3 in the postseason. If anything, Jim might be even *more* ready to talk to pro players than his brother, having toiled thru a 14-yr pro playing career.

All that is background. Jim H has been stunningly successful as a college coach. 29-6 thru three seasons at U of San Diego with 2 league championships. Then 4 seasons at Stanford, building them up to a 12-1 record, an Orange Bowl win and a #4 ranking. At Stanford!

College coaches don't always, or even normally, make a successful transition to the pro's. But Harbaugh knows the NFL intimately well. If he trips it will be for the normal reason of not having the right talent; not because he wasn't ready for the game.

The lockout hurts him, as it hurts all these 1st-year coaches. But I am very intrigued to see what this team does over the next few years. Harbaugh's record makes him look like an honest-to-goodness miracle worker. And I liked how he embraced the proud history of the franchise. He was asked if the team was going to run the West Coast Offense. "We will install the West Coast offense in San Francisco, the birthplace of the West Coast offense," Harbaugh said without hesitation. "And I'm excited about that." He went on with: "I think the West Coast offense is a very broad system," Harbaugh said. "It has the ability to encompass the talents of a lot different kinds of athletes."
Sac Bee
Harbaugh arrived at Stanford in 2007 and met often with Walsh before his death later that year. He said he had a small picture of Walsh taped to his computer screen and called him a "legendary coach and a great man."
"There's really no sentence that you could put Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh in," Harbaugh said when asked about their parallel career paths. "I have a long way to go and a lot of work ahead of me before any comparison can be made."
Doesn't necessarily mean that the team's commitment to Frank Gore will be lessened. It's useful to remember that Walsh's late Niners teams, and some of Seifert's, were excellent at running the ball. Also useful to remember that one other fairly pure West Coast Offense coach is Mike Shanahan. So, WCO does not necessarily mean that you don't run the football.
Bleacher Report
As for Stanford's alleged run bias: they may have statistically appeared heavily wedded to the run, but that is not entirely uncommon for a true West Coast Offense. In 10 seasons under Walsh, the 49ers never failed to attempt fewer than 415 rushes nor to gain less than 1,743 yards on the ground (except in the strike-shortened 1982 season). Remember, in a West Coast Offense the pass sets up the run, making the run the change of pace and often the thing that results in big plays. Also, as a team builds a lead, the run still becomes more and more prominent in eating up remaining clock.
I suppose it would be relevant to consider who will be picking the players (Trent Baalke), who the coordinators will be (Greg Roman and Vic Fangio), and whether it's really appropriate to believe in a magic coach when the guy is not named Parcells or Schottenheimer. I don't care about any of that. I am swept up in the Harbaugh mystique. Go Niners!
Bleacher Report


Ron Rivera, Panthers

I suppose Rivera knows his football, but that team is a mess and Cam Newton will prove to be an anchor.

Pat Shurmer, Brownies

Longtime student at Andy Reid's coaching school in Philly, and Holmgren seems to be building something stable in Cleveland. Holmgren seems to have recognized the necessity to be above all physical in this division. Chris on this blog believes Colt McCoy will prove to be the second coming of Drew Brees -- I've encountered more than a few people with that opinion. Cleveland has great personnel on the O-line.

Whatever, my brain cannot hold a scenario where Cleveland has a good football team. Marty and Belichick have been gone for many years. These guys have to pass both Baltimore and Pittsburgh to win division titles, and Holmgren has not shown personnel to be his area of expertise, in previous stops. This might be a heart over head pick.

Hue Jackson , Raiders

Sigh, Raiders. Sorry Hue.

Mike Munchak, Titans

Former Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher was an unbelievable football coach. He was there for 17 seasons, won 142 games, and established a tradition of physical, tough, smart fooball. He shepherded that franchise thru rebuilding movements and built great teams. Now he's gone and his longime OL coach has taken the reins. I'm sure Munchak is a fine fooball coach -- the Tennessee O-lines have usually been terrific -- but can his force of personality and fooball acumen do as much to buoy up the Titans as Fisher's did? It's tough to believe.


Jason Garrett, Cowboys

I originally had Garrett in the "succeed" list. And I have not changed my mind about how well he'll do. His team responded to him last year: he went 5-3 with a bad team absent its starting QB. The QB returns. Jerry will spend money to win; and god help me for saying this, but Jerry seems to have an eye for skill position talent. These guys could be a perennial 10-win team. If Garrett has even a little of Sean Payton's flair, then they could be very good.

But this is Dallas. What's "successful" in Detroit or Charlotte or San Francisco, does not necessarily spell success here. Even a good team could consistently finish 2nd or 3rd in this division, to the Eagles and Giants. It's easy to picture Jerry becoming impatient with 10 wins and out of the playoffs after the first round. Maybe Jerry gives extra slack to his handpicked fair-haired boy, but for how long? Jerry doesn't usually suffer 2nd place gladly.

I should also mention that Garrett does not have the same depth of coaching experience that this year's other NFL-QB-turned-HC has. Jim Harbaugh worked as a college asst in D2 for his dad, in an unpaid position during his playing career! And then turned around two different college programs as the head guy. Garrett did nothing but coach QBs for the Phins a couple years, then inherit a pre-built high-scoring offence to coordinate in Dallas. This is a guy who interviews well. Does he have the chops to manage this large a group of men, thru tribulations? We'll see.

Tune in next year, when we evaluate the new coaches in Cincinnati, Miami and San Diego!


Monday, August 22, 2011

Player safety vs our viewing pleasure

It's interesting, the debate on the new kickoff rule. Everyone hates it. Matt Bowen of the Natl Football Post writes a piece on "Why the NFL’s new kickoff rule hurts the game". The Bears voted against it, then tried to veto the rule single-handedly on the field in their first preseason game. The league told them to cut it out. In that linked piece, Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports and Football Outsiders writes that:

"The rule seems like an overreaction built to take fun and excitement out of the game."
I agree that the new rule removes some fun and excitement from the game. I think the most exciting play in football is the kick return for a touchdown. The speed, the cutbacks as the guys weaves thru the entire defense. It's beautiful.

Have we stopped to consider how hypocritical we're all being?

We've been told that kick returns produce a disproportionate share of injuries, compared to other plays. Cutting down on kick returns is a player safety issue. Former NFL VP of officiating and current FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira puts this succinctly, in an ESPN interview written up in another piece by Farrar:
Pereira was then asked if the rule could be changed back, which is where things got a bit squirrely. "I don't think so, and here's the issue — when you pass something for player safety reasons only, and you then go back on that, you're almost sending a message to the players that you don't care about player safety."
Yes. So what's more important, player safety, or our viewing pleasure?


Sunday, August 21, 2011

What's A Criminal Who Runs A 4.3 40 Worth?

Well, we're going to find out tomorrow after the NFL's supplemental draft.

I think it's a fair question because there's a funny dichotomy that goes on with fans; they will go from 'no way do I want that bum on my team' to ' what a smart pickup for my team' on the fly. I guarantee we will see message-board born agains by this time tomorrow.

So Pryor. Not exactly a criminal but it made for a good post header. He's facing a 5 game suspension regardless, and it is unclear for what. If the NFL is all of a sudden going to start carrying over college suspension to the pros then I am all in favor, but I doubt this is that.

At Pryor's ad hoc Pro Day he ran 40 yard dashes in the 4.3s to 4.4s. He's 6'5" tall, 230 pounds. He can 'easily' throw a football 65 yards. Sounds like Calvin Johnson with the 'throw a football' part as a bonus. There's sort of a universal agreement that he can't be an NFL QB, or at least not without a lot of metal work and detailing. This year would be a wash for him so anyone who drafts him as a quarterback is looking at investing a roster spot for at least two years before any kind of a payoff can be reached. There's some question about whether or not he can ever learn the position.

But the measurables, the athleticism he's put on tape. He interviewed with 17 teams this week. He probably impressed at least a couple of them with requisite humility. Someone is going to be willing to gamble on Pryor. 3rd rounder? 5th rounder? Surely if Plaxico Burress is worth $3M then Pryor is worth a contract, right?



Ravens and Air Coryell

Just after the Pittsburgh loss, we had an intense discussion about what ailed the Ravens offense. The discussion continued offline, but the general idea was that I thought that the Air Coryell was completely wrong with their players, and was failing.

After quite a bit of research, I wrote an article about it, which was published on Football Outsiders here. Short story: I don't believe Cameron's system was primarily the problem last year.

I'd asked Aaron Schatz for some data to help with this, which he graciously provided with the caveat that I give them the article first and decide if they wanted to run it. They did, hence the direction to their site (as opposed to publishing here). I may or may not follow-up on it. I have the content, just not certain about the time.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Collusion and Coercion

Doug Farrar writes about the NFL "influencing" Michael Vick to sign with the Pheagles in 2009, when he had offers from Cincinnati and Buffalo. It's an interesting situation. Did the NFL approve Vick to sign with Philly, but not with the Bengals or Bills? That raises important questions about competition and the reserve clause etc, as Farrar points out.

I don't really have anything to say about it, I just wanted to draw attention to Farrar's piece.

Roger Goodell's NFL seems to keep blundering into areas where it shouldn't. Like
the odd decision to suspend Terrelle Pryor for 5 games. Cindy Boren of the WaPo writes about it here. She's right. Why on earth is the NFL suspending Pryor for something that has no bearing on his conduct as an NFL player? Failing to cooperate with an NCAA investigation can't be a violation of NFL rules. And hiring an agent certainly is not. So what the hell?

Boren goes on:

...why not retroactively suspend or fine Reggie Bush for dragging USC into NCAA purgatory? How about the players responsible for the ongoing disaster at North Carolina? Or Bengals rookie WR A.J. Green selling a game-worn jersey? And what about the laundry list of alleged player participants in the scandal at “The U”?
And while we’re at it, why should Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll be permitted to leave a wake of NCAA violations behind at USC and be granted a clean slate in the NFL?
...the NFL is opening a giant can of worms with its decision.
The suspension is arbitrary and just weird. I hope Pryor files a grievance with the union, after he is in the NFL. The suspension should get overturned.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Concussing Our Kids

Fabulous piece in the Dallas Observer, about brain injuries in youth sports:

Concussing Our Kids, One Hit At a Time
Natasha Helmick goes up for a header during a soccer match and gets speared in the left temple by an opponent. The 14-year-old, a talented center midfielder playing in the choice Lake Highlands Girls Classic League, crumples to the ground.
The discussion of brain injuries has mainly focused on pro sports so far, and some on college football. But despite the high-profile nature of those victims, they are almost beside the point. The real battleground is youth sports.

I tell you right now, we are not very far from tackle football being illegalized (?) in some states, for athletes under 18. Maybe 10 years. Some state is going to go first, and some states will follow, the District among them. Football as we know it is built on a foundation of high school and Pop Warner leagues. Without that supply of athletes, there is no one to play NCAA Division I, whether it's legal for 18-yr-olds or not. And what happens to the NFL, without a deep pool of college players?

The NFL is smart, I'm sure there's someone in the league offices who is looking to get out in front of this thing. Fund some studies, sponsor some safety legislation, etc. They might be able to frame the discussion and turn the tide. But make no mistake, that is what is on the table when we start talking about head trauma and youth sports: the end of football.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Speaking Of The Redskins

For a couple of years now I've marveled at the patchwork offensive lines that the Redskins seem to trot out every year. Despite a relative lack of talent and despite playing in a tough division and despite having no direction and no continuity the team tends to perform fairly well - and by fairly well, I mean they don't roll out 3 win or 4 win seasons like ever, they are always in that 5-9 win range.

There's kind of an adage about having offensive line continuity being integral to team success, and that continuity is more important than pure talent. I kind of am thinking now that this really isn't true, that it's one of those footbally things that footbally people say but that the evidence belies the adage. Is it better to have a great line with great continuity? I'm sure it is. I just think that the degree that it really matters is probably blown out of proportion.

So this is a topic I want to start to chip away at as time permits.

So the Redskins. I'm not a fan of the team but I am definitely a fan of following the team. It's like a soap opera for men where everyone is a bad guy. It's a train wreck where you get to giggle while counting the bodies.

So looking at the Redskin line which is kind of the point, I ran a query of PFR for season starts over 7 from 2007 - 2010. The query returned 15 players who had at least 8 starts in any one of those four season. To me, this seems like an awful lot. To pick a team that seems a bit more stable I ran the same query with the Jets which returned 8 results.

So what this query tells us is that on average, the Redskin offensive linemen are averaging less than one-and-a-half seasons before being replaced. Perhaps worse (although perhaps not), Casey Rabach actually started all four of those years and is now gone. On the other hand, the Redskins do seem to be building a little continuity, as their tackles will probably be starting for the next few years and Kory Lichtensteiger will probably get every chance to be the center for the next half decade.

But even with this turmoil, the Redskins really weren't that bad. They won 9,8,4,and 6 games. So no, not great but not terrible either. Add in disruptions from Albert Haynesworth, the quarterback and running backs last year and we might think that this teams should be among the worst in the league - and yet they aren't.

So how important is offensive line continuity? Hard to say. This conversation probably doesn't advance the question very much, but maybe it will begin the discussion.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

We Don't Need No Steenken Quarterback

The Redskins continue to bemuse their fans while amusing league followers with their antics. I was one of many who thought they might be overturning their leaf when Daniel Snyder dumped Vinny Cerrato and turned to Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan to save the franchise.

While I suppose there might actually be a method to their madness, from 30,000 feet it really just looks like madness.

I have to confess, a few years ago I was convinced that quarterbacking in the NFL was overrated. Well, maybe it is, but I was still way off base. We were fresh off Super Bowl wins from the Ravens with Trent Dilfer and the Buccaneers with Brad Johnson and I became convinced that throwing high draft pick after high draft pick at the quarterback lottery was no good path to success when reasonable game manager types were all over the place and that a Super Bowl team could be constructed with great players at other positions.

I still remained convinced of this to a degree, but really only the degree that some teams are terrible at drafting and developing quarterbacks. There are Super Bowl caliber quarterbacks on the open market every year or two; Drew Brees and Kurt Warner are recent examples. Mike Vick may be the latest one. I think teams can do well by signing or trading for quarterbacks such as with Vick, the Texans did with Schaub a few years ago and possible Arizona with Kolb.

But this isn't so much about that.

The point is, I was wrong. You do need great quarterbacking to hope to contend for a Super Bowl. About 90% of all Super Bowl winning teams were quarterbacked either by a Pro Bowler or a future Hall of Famer. The exceptions had names like Joe Theismann and Jim Plunkett, no slouches either. And one team had a dude named Trent Dilfer.

So the Redskins. I have no idea what they are trying to put together there. I really don't think Allen or Shanahan know what they are trying to put together. I agreed with their addition of McNabb and I remain a closet fan of Donovan's, but for whatever reason it didn't work. But instead of trying to build on it, they seem hell-bent on scrapping the whole thing. A few months ago I thought it was kind of a joke that they intended to go into the season with Rex Grossman and John Beck. I was sure that they would pick up a solid veteran or at least draft someone to develop.

Nope and nope.

I don't discount the possibility that Beck and Grossman will be much better than they've been in the past. Funny things happen to quarterbacks who hang around the league long enough, they tend to improve. Heck, it even happened with Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson. Even so, there is really no chance that either of these guys are going to lead the Redskins to the promised land, particularly since this team has no version of Ray Lewis or Derrick Brooks.

Furthermore, the exact problems that doomed McNabb from the beginning haven't been addressed. They have no playmakers on offense. Their offensive line appears to be even more of disaster than last year's. They devoted the draft and free agency to shoring up the defense which is understandable to a degree, but even if they succeed in that they are facing going into the third year of their rebuild with no real progress on offense.

It is hard to imagine that this Redskin team is improving. At best, they seem to be treading water as a 6-10 team while swapping out players and systems. Snyder has a lot of ego invested in Allen and Shanahan and will probably give them a bit of rope, but it is easy to predict that Snyder will start to get twitchy with another losing year.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What it's like to be the best basketball player

Check out the video embedded in this post from Brian McCormick's magnificent blog.

Football's great, but – well who would you say is the most beloved NFL player? Peyton Manning? In Baltimore it's Ray Lewis, but probably not in Atlanta. Let's go with Ray, just for illustration purposes.

Can you imagine Ray-ray playing his game in an intimate non-professional setting, with hundreds of fans ringing the sideline? Playing for fun, with amateurs? Can you imagine him getting mobbed by his fans after making a series of great plays? There's no way, right? Football does not lend itself to that sort of thing, at all. I'm sure Ray gets mobbed in Baltimore, like if he shows up for a charity event or a speaking engagement or something. But that's not the same thing. In the vid, Kevin Durant's fans are involved with his play in the game.

Football's great. But basketball has a very different relationship with its fans. It's so central, so present, so immediate.

You can imagine getting on the court with Kevin Durant, to play some pickup ball. And he would utterly dominate you, it wouldn't even be funny. But you could dribble it and pass it around and try to take a couple shots, and maybe have some fun. Afterward slap hands and ruefully acknowledge how awesome he is.

You couldn't play football with Ray Lewis. He would obliterate you.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mike Preston is a moron

Still! He's just warming up, not yet in preseason form, but we get this:

Offense struggles early
Ravens have plenty of time to improve, but you'd figure there would be more cohesiveness in a unit that...
That what, Mike? That did not work together for a single OTA the entire offseason? A unit that is working together for the very first time? Playing without the starting center? You'd seriously figure there would be more cohesiveness?



Monday, August 1, 2011

Swing Your Sword

Chris Brown of Smart Football with a must read on Mike Leach and his book Swing Your Sword



This is not an uncommon theme in football: great players often do as much to make the game evolve (from both protagonist as well as antagonist positions) as coaches. And the great leap forward for Texas Tech and Leach in 2002-2003 was largely sparked by a happenstance combination of this read-on-the-run four verticals plus Wes Welker plus Mike Leach — it was the perfect marriage of the greatest backyard play in football (get open) with one of the greatest backyard players of all-time in Welker with maybe the greatest backyard coach to ever roam an actual, honest-to-god Division I sideline.

Oh, and “six”? It also happened to be the route Leach called for that game-winner of Harrell-to-Crabtree against Texas. In that game, Texas Tech went 9 for 11 for 173 yards on “six.” Leach says his only regret was he didn’t call it another ten times.


Sunday, July 31, 2011


Everything I read had Asomugha going to the Jets. I'm very surprised to find him ending up in Philly. I even wrote up a little something for the blog in anticipation of Asomugha signing with the Jets. So as not to waste it, here it is:

Remember the 1983 Raiders? At the trade deadline they acquired CB Mike Haynes from New England. They already had a great corner in Lester Hayes; but Mike Haynes was a Hall of Famer, and instantly became their #1 corner.

With 2 shutdown corners, the Raiders let them take the opponents WRs man-to-man, and played 9-on-9 with the rest of their D. And they killed everyone. Only Neil Lomax' Cardinals did any real scoring against them after the Haynes acquisition (the only game they lost). They marched thru the playoffs and killed the Skins in the Super Bowl.

I'm sure Rex Ryan remembers that. He's gotta be salivating at the notion of having two Pro Bowlers at the corners. That would open up his entire playbook of crazy blitzes and overloads.

That would make the Jets very formidable.
Well, I guess it would've. Now Asomugha will make the Eagles very formidable.

My first reaction to this news was, Andy Reid is a genius. The Eagles are friggin loaded. And they've stocked up while fortifying the future, as well. They got a future 2nd-rd pick in the Kevin Kolb trade; possibly their most significant move for the future is getting Vince Young to sit on the bench behind Vick for a couple years. Young may or may not pan out; but it's an ideal situation for him, and he's got great upside. Like Michael Vick upside.

My second reaction was: wow, can you imagine the culture shock for Nnamdi Asomugha? He is going to *love* his new life. He goes from possibly the most dysfunctional situation in pro sports, to one of the best-run NFL organizations of the last decade.

I don't think he has any idea what a relief it will be for him, to have everything all be about football. It's too bad that Asomugha, a once in a generation talent at corner, will not get to play for Jim Johnson, the Eagles longtime defensive coordinator who passed away a couple years ago. That would have been awesome. But even so, I imagine there will be a point sometime this season, or maybe the following offseason, where something will be handled in a quiet, professional in-house manner by the Eagles organization, and Asomugha will realize he is happier than he's ever been during his NFL career.


Monday, July 25, 2011

The interesting parts of the new deal

Peter King's MMQB talks about the new deal. Below are the two parts that I think are most interesting, and my thoughts on them...

Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported Sunday that the league could unilaterally cut the preseason schedule from four games to two in '13 or any subsequent year of the agreement. The players would have the option to either play 16 regular-season games and two preseason games, or increase the regular season to 18 games per team. The upshot: Players would lose money if they stayed at 16 plus two.

King and Florio both agree this is an owner-player stare down, and it certainly sounds like it. I don't think there's any chance the owners don't cut the two preseason games in '13, unless somehow finanically the money the players lose is less than the money the owners get from those games. Since I doubt that's the case, it's a matter of whether the money on the table is enough to get the players to agree to 18 games.

The players hate the idea of 18 games, so I'm actually a bit surprised this is in there. If there's one thing that could derail this deal from happening, I would think this is it. But maybe the players think the money they lose here isn't enough to make them care about the 18 games, or that they're getting enough else that they'd be okay going to 18 games. The latter would shock me, the former wouldn't.

If they DON'T go to 18, this seems like a big win for fans, specifically season ticket holders. I'm thrilled not having to pay for an extra game that means nothing to me.

Men who play in a game in any season of this deal will be eligible to stay in the NFL medical plan for life. Currently, retired players have five years of post-career health care.

Don't be surprised if Brett Favre comes back, specifically for this. And in kind, don't be surprised if a lot of guys that were going to retire, and a lot of guys that have retired in the past few years but still may have SOME gas left in the tank, come back very specifically for this.

Say you're Kurt Warner. Or even better, a guy like Deuce McAllister or Derrick Brooks, playing a position which beats your body to submission for years on end. Why on earth would you NOT want to jump back onto a roster somewhere for vet minimum as a backup to ensure you get benefits from this deal? I think I'd be more surprised NOT seeing come-back attempts from a bunch of retired guys than I would be to see guys coming back, potentially in droves.


And, we're back

Who won?


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Terrell Pryor Can Even Screw Up His Draft Eligibility

I have to admit, the guy makes for great theater.

Alex Marvez of Fox Sports reports

[The supplemental draft] is for players whose circumstances have changed in an unforeseen way after the regular (college) draft. It is not a mechanism for simply bypassing the regular (draft) ... examples of “unforeseen” changes [are] players who were kicked off their college teams, declared academically ineligible or graduated and then decided to leave school. Pryor doesn’t qualify on any of those fronts.
Not that Pryor really has much of a chance to be an impact NFLer anyway, and not that he could have necessarily foreseen this, but still.



Saturday, July 16, 2011

How to negotiate

How to Properly Negotiate When the Other Side Perceives You to be Weak
A memo by DeMaurice Smith

Step One - Set yourself up so that your weakness is covered
Step Two - Tell no one about it
Step Three - Wait until close to deadlines, allowing the other side to perceive you as weak
Step Four - Drop the bomb
Step Five - Win

Hope you enjoyed this tutorial!

cc: NBA players


Monday, July 11, 2011

He's Not Fat, He's "Fleshy"

The Redskins, desperately in need of depth with 6 picks in the last two rounds of the '11 draft. Mike Jones of the Post projects their professional chances.

A small preview:

G Maurice Hurt (Seventh round)

Why he could struggle: Hurt looked rather fleshy at the player-led minicamps, and needs to get stronger.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Good was Matt Stover?

About a week ago, the official Baltimore Ravens site released their full list of the Top 50 Ravens of all time. The article listed Matt Stover at #4 overall, which among some Ravens fans seems to be a controversial ranking.

I wound up in a somewhat heated discussion with another fan about how good Stover was in comparison to other kickers. This, to me, is a more interesting question than where Stover ranks on the all time Ravens list. An argument over the value of a great kicker compared to a great starting position player could be endless.

So I set out to rate Stover in relation to his peers, in response to hearing him called “overrated” and “not much better than an average kicker.” These two statements caused me to react sharply, as I believe Stover is one of the best kickers ever to play the game.

And so I set out to look at Stover from a pure statistical perspective to get an idea of how good he really was in comparison with the rest of the NFL kickers. I grabbed 30 years of kicker data from Pro Football Reference to evaluate this question. I looked at four major categories, and will cover each below.

Field Goal Percent

Take the total # of FG made divided by total # of attempts and you get “FG%”. Stover sits at 83.66%, good enough for eighth on the all time list. Interestingly, if you look at the top 25 kickers on this list, all but three of them are active. The three that aren’t, all played as recently as 2007. Clearly there’s some sort of recency bias that should be accounted for. How good is Stover in comparison with the kickers he’s playing with?

I looked at the full set of NFL kicking data for both the whole of Stover’s career, and the years ’01-’09. The latter is a bit of an arbitrary data set, but it was brought up in discussion so I looked at it just the same. The data are as follows:

Last decade
All kickers: 6,872/8,527 = 80.6%
Stover: 234/270 = 86.7%
Full Stover career
All kickers: 19,943/25,993 = 76.7%
Stover: 471/563 = 83.7%

Over his career, Stover is seven points better than the league, and six points better over the final nine years of his career. Fairly impressive numbers, but how do they stack up to other players above him?

I didn’t spend the significant time to evaluate everyone against their peers for only their careers. However, using the league-wide data for Stover’s final nine years, we get a decent proxy. For instance, the top guy on the all time FG% list is Nate Kaeding, an 86.5% kicker from ’04-’10 (kickers in ’10 made over 82%). Stover’s ’01-’09 is better. Shayne Graham, #3 on the list, is 86.0% from ’01-’10. In fact, if you run down the list of kickers in front of Stover on the list, all but #2 – “idiot kicker” Mike Vanderjagt – started their career in ’01 or after. And Vanderjagt started his in ’98. Given Stover’s 86.7% accuracy in this time, there’s an easy argument to be made that Vanderjagt is the only one that stacks up to him.

One of the criticisms Stover faces is his short leg, and how he had accuracy issues from 40+ in the final years of his career. I’ll address this later.

Field Goals Made

Stover sits at #4 on this list, unlikely to be passed by many if any over the next few years. At some point as offenses continue to move the ball more efficiently and attempts go up, with the increased accuracy we see in the game, he will be passed. But compared to his peers, he stacks up quite strongly.

To compare him with his peers, I looked at kickers who kicked more than 15 attempts in a season. An arbitrary number, but about one kick per game should be good enough to indicate who were the primary starters over the course of a season. These kickers averaged 22.0 FG made per season, compared to Stover’s 25.7 FG made for all but his final season (where he didn’t record 15 att). Stover averaged nearly 17% more FG made than the “average” NFL starting kicker.

Purely for perspective, I looked at the top 25 QBs in passing attempts in 2010. This gives us QBs with > 350 att on the season. Take their avg comp, att, yds, TDs and INTs. The stats for this “average passer” look like these:
306/492 (62.1% comp) ... 3,546 yds ... 23 TDs ... 13 INT
I then inflated the critical numbers - completions, yards and TDs - by the 16.8% that Stover's been above avg in FG made for his career. The stats now look like these:
357/492 (72.5% comp) ... 4,141 yds ... 27 TDs ... 13 INT

Aaron Rodgers is the closest comparison. For 18 of his 19 years, was Stover the Aaron Rodgers of kickers? It’s debatable, but a case can be made.


An argument has been made that it’s difficult to evaluate the value of Stover’s 19 season tenure, since kickers and punters tend to last longer than other position players. This article states the following:
“Punters, kickers and long snappers are more likely to have the longest careers in the NFL. … Four of five players with the greatest longevity (>18 yr) were punters or kickers (the other, a rare quarterback).”

While not surprising kickers have the longest careers due to lack of impact on players at their positions, what we don’t see is a lot of difference in the average tenure of the kicker vs. the average tenure of all NFL players. This article, using NFLPA data, shows the average career length of a kicker is 4.9 years vs. 3.3 years for all NFL players.

Stover isn’t the most seasoned to played the position. There are three kickers who have 20+ years – Morten Anderson, Gary Anderson and John Carney. John Kasay is poised to pass him this year, and Jason Hanson to tie him. But only Adam Vinatieri remains as a recent threat to Stover’s 19 seasons. Others may pass him at some point, but it’s far too early to say they will.

And Stover’s performance held up very well over 18 of his 19 years. The 19th year was also not bad. Playing spot-duty for a Colts team with a hurt Vinatieri that punched the ball in the end zone most of the time, he made almost nine of his eleven kicks.

Outside the Forty

Two of Stover’s biggest criticisms have been that he doesn’t have the leg to kick from 40+ yards and that he faded badly in this category toward the end of his career. However, the numbers refute the argument that he doesn’t have a good leg outside the 40, and the dip toward the end of his career was driven by the final two years in Baltimore.

Across Stover’s career, using the same 15 att criteria, all NFL kickers - from 40+ yards out - were on average making 6.97 FG in their 10.92 att per season (63.8%). Stover averaged 7.72 FG per 11.67 att (66.2%). He’s clearly better than the league average in all measures here.

I then plotted Stover’s FG attempts and FG% from 40+ through his years (lopping off his Indi tenure, where he didn’t have 15 att), and added a trend-line for both. One should expect the trend lines to dip, or at least have no slope if he truly was getting worse. Instead, the trend lines slope up, showing that not only were the Ravens trusting him to kick from 40+, he was also validating that trust for all but the final two years of his time in Baltimore. For 16 years, Stover was both trusted to kick from 40+, and was getting the job done at that distance.


Overall, I don’t think there’s much of an argument to be made that Stover is either “overrated,” or “not much better than an average kicker.” The numbers all argue he is significantly better than average, and clearly deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time best at his position. Whether he belongs at #4 on the all time Ravens list could be an interesting debate. But where he belongs in relation to his FG kicking peers does not appear to be a controversial topic.


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