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.


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