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.


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