Friday, January 28, 2011

Steelers Skeletons

I'm not one to really dump on my enemies when they're down. Okay, now that you've gotten the laugh out of your system, I'll present this article for your viewing pleasure. Your three sentence summary of the article?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the greatest franchise in sports.

But you know what I've learned while covering this team, extensively, during the past 15 years?

They also might be one of the dirtiest.


Ahh... Music to my ears! I thought, "Now here's an article I can really get into and enjoy with all my heart." And then I actually read it. Okay, so I am one to dump on my enemies when they're down. And while I'd love to pile on support for this piece, I can't. It's deeply flawed.

The author, David Fleming, commits two of the biggest sins of analyzing a problem. Let's look at each individually.

The first and biggest problem involves what Fleming is trying to prove. In this case, he's trying to prove that the Steelers are "one of the dirtiest" organizations in football. This suggests that the Steelers have done more bad "stuff" (whatever that stuff is) than any other organization, or at least a majority of them.

While he does a mediocre job pointing out the bad stuff the Steelers have done (more on that in a minute), he's missing a key point. He doesn't tell you how bad all the other teams are. Okay, he mentions that 13 Steelers have been arrested since Superbowl XL, vs. only 5 from the Packers.

But that's a joke. First, what's with the ambiguous time-frame? Well, a quick look at the database the article linked shows a near four year gap between arrest #13 and #14. The database actually shows arrests since 2000. The Steelers have 16. Out of 531. Let's see... 32 teams in the NFL... Carry the five... The Steelers are actually below average in arrests since 2000. Second, why is this the only supporting evidence given at how bad the Steelers are at something vs. other teams? And why is only one other team used as the barometer?

The real issue here isn't that Fleming doesn't show the Steelers have skeletons in their closet. It's that he simply doesn't show the Steelers have more than anyone else. Ben Roethlisberger allegedly assaulted a woman in a public restroom and another in a Vegas hotel? I'll see your alleged double rape and raise you a Ray Lewis alleged double murder. Santonio Holmes tests positive for something, suspected to be pot? I'll reraise you a Jamal Lewis cocaine deal. Jeff Reed got drunk and disorderly? I'm all in with a Donte Stallworth dui manslaughter. And while the three Steeler examples were just the last three years vs. the Ravens over a decade, the article was really talking about the past 41 years.

The Ravens aren't the only other team with skeletons in their closet. I won't list them all, it's not my job to prove it. But only because I'm not trying to prove that the Steelers do or do not have more issues than any other team. I'm simply trying to show that Fleming did a terrible job proving that the Steelers do.

The second problem is that Fleming doesn't even do a great job pointing out all those skeletons. As an analyst, if there's one thing that irritates me to no end, it's lying with statistics. And while this isn't statistics he's exactly using to completely falsify his point, it's the same logic.

At the heart of Fish's 2009 investigation was the revelation in 2007 that Dr. Richard Rydze, a longtime member of the Steelers' medical staff, had been questioned by federal authorities after supposedly using a personal credit card to purchase six-figures worth of human growth hormone. According to published reports, Rydze said he purchased the HGH for his elderly patients. His ties to the team were cut four months after his name was identified in news reports. There was no proof that Rydze ever provided the drug to players.

This incident was followed by off-the-field problems involving, among others, Santonio Holmes, Jeff Reed and Roethlisberger. Holmes was traded to the Jets before the season and Reed was cut in November. Among the many admirable qualities of the Steelers, and especially the Rooney family, is the club's habit of cutting loose troublemakers in a league normally governed by a sliding scale of morality.


The implication couldn't be more clear. The reader is left to draw the following line:
Rydze purchased tons of HGH --> Rydze worked with the Steelers --> Steelers players got in trouble --> Rydze probably provided HGH to the Steelers despite it never being proven

But how can you draw such a conclusion? How can he even make such an implication? Holmes tested positive for a banned substance, but it was never shown to be HGH, and given his history it was in fact far more likely to be marijuana. Reed had issues with alcohol, not performance enhancers. Roethlisberger was accused of assault, not doping. The classic lying with statistics example many professors use goes like this:

In summer, ice cream consumption rises.
In summer, rate of rape rises.
Ice cream causes people to rape.

Fleming doesn't outright state those issues are proof of Rydze providing HGH to the Steelers. But the implication is there, and he should be called out for it.

So are the Steelers a dirty team? Maybe, it really depends on what you believe makes a team dirty. Given all the trouble they've had on and off the field, sure, you could argue they are. But are they any dirtier than most other NFL teams? Fleming certainly hasn't proven it, and I don't see any reason to believe they are.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Improve the Team

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti wraps up the team's season-ending news conference:

video

It's that easy!

Vid taken from the Ravens web site. The whole press conference is viewable there, about 45 mins long or so but broken into pieces:

Season Review Part 1
Season Review Part 2
Season Review Part 3

I highly recommend watching it, even for non- Ravens fans. Many of the questions are about the collective bargaining / potential work stoppage situation, and Bisciotti addresses them.

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A Simple Solution To Oversigning

If you aren't already familiar with the issue of oversigning in college football I highly recommend you visit oversigning.com for a thorough review.

Go ahead and take a few seconds to go to the site now, I'll wait.

Okay. Quickly reviewing, oversigning is the practice among college football programs, most predominantly in the SEC West, of offering more scholarships to incoming freshmen than the football program can offer. Typically this isn't 1 or 2 scholarships too many. Alabama, the king of oversigning, regularly signs 6-12 more scholarship freshmen than they can fit into their 85 scholarship limit. They then use a lot of creative methods, up to and including pulling a scholarship after a student has signed a Letter of Intent.

This last point is important, because Andy Staples offers a solution to oversigning that I hadn't seen before.

Take away the Letter of Intent. Membership in the National Letter-of-Intent program is a privilege, not a right. If a school doesn't deliver on the scholarship it promised in an NLI, don't allow that school to take part in the NLI program the following year. The NLI binds a signee to a school for an academic year. If a player hasn't signed one, he can still be recruited by anyone. In other words, without the NLI, even players who have signed scholarship agreements are fair game for other schools until the second they set foot in a college classroom.
This is really brilliant. The National LOI is a contract between a student and a school. It is a promise from the student that he will attend. In most cases, the LOI follows a scholarship offer from a school, so there is an implicit promise that if the student signs the letter, that he will get a scholarship. Schools that pull scholarships for non-academic reasons should simply lose the privilege of the LOI exclusivity. This solution will allow the Alabamas and Arkansases of the world to offer all the students they want, and when they don't come through, they lose their exclusivity for a year. If a football player gets tired of sitting on the bench he can go to another school, receive a scholarship and play right away. If an incoming freshman decides after August practice begins that he'd rather go elsewhere then he'd be free to go.

I really love this idea. It won't happen, but it would be a just solution. And you'd see oversigning be killed instantly.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Defending Jay Cutler


I won't begin to pretend to understand what happened with Jay Cutler on Sunday. I don't know that we will ever know who made the call to sit him. I won't repeat here what I heard because it probably is about the same thing that everyone else heard. Peoples' opinions of Cutler are going to be driven more by a manufactured perception of what an NFL player should be rather than any sense of reality. If Cutler was a linebacker or lineman or corner then no one would question the validity of the injury. It probably wouldn't have been an issue if it had happened in Week 3 or Week 7 either. It baffles me to think that an injury that is "real" when it happens to someone else or is "real" when it happens in a less important game suddenly becomes a fake one when it comes to a game of this magnitude.

It baffles me that people reason that Cutler has devoted his entire life to football only to quit in the biggest game of his life.

Jim Trotter of SI also weighs in on the question.

Cutler says he knew something wasn't right when he took a hit on the outside of his left knee near the end of the first half. Doctors examined him at halftime and a decision was made to test it to start the third quarter, when the Bears would receive the opening kickoff.

He needed only one pass attempt to know the problem was serious. Cutler says the joint lacked stability and, at that point, the medical team made the decision to pull him, according to coach Lovie Smith.

"It's no player decision," Smith said. "For us, Jay hurt his knee. He couldn't go. ... The trainers, doctors and all -- they're the ones who really made that decision. "

The problem was, in this age of the Internet and instant commentary, Cutler was crucified on the Twitter and blogs. Maybe things would have been different if an announcement were made in the press box that the medical team had ruled him out because of the injury. However the only statement was that Cutler's return was questionable. In this case, most interpreted questionable to mean that he COULD play.


I doubt the headlines will ever change, and even though the Bears have already told us that the decision was taken from Cutler, I doubt that the opinions of so many that were cemented as fact last night will ever change. Cutler is a different kind of a guy. Cut from a different cloth, shaped from a different mold, [something] from another cliche. No doubt that his history with the Broncos play into the perception that people have of him now, but until last night no one ever questioned his competitiveness, and really I see no reason to start questioning it now.

Edit: Luis DeLoureiro reminds us that Cutler passed for 3500 yards and 20TD during his second season while playing with undiagnosed diabetes.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Enemy of My Enemy...

J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!!!

FWIW, I hear a lot of Baltimore fans talking about how lucky the Steelers are because of how easy a path they have to get to the Superbowl. What a laugher. The Bears are clearly the luckies team ever. They get ridiculously lucky in a handful of games to pull out wins, pick up the 2 seed for a bye, then get Seattle in their first game. Now all they need to do is get by a 6 seed - admittedly a very good one - to make it to the SB, where they may wind up facing another 6 seed.

But as I was saying...
J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!!!

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Carousel stopped?

Is it possible the Coaching Carousel spun to a stop, even before the divisional round of the playoffs? Only the Oakland job remains open; and I don't anticipate any late surprise openings.

This is very unusual. Most seasons, there's a star coordinator whose team is still playing, and teams are waiting for a chance to interview / hire that guy.

Guess we'll have to get up the new coach success / fail predictions. No reason to wait for the Oakland hire to be announced; we know what category that job will fit into …


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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Anquan Boldin and a Failing Offense

I’m trying to figure out how the Ravens offense has failed so badly. Not just in the Steeler game, but let’s face it, they’ve been mediocre at best all year. They’re 16th in points scored and 22nd in yards.

I think a big part of it we know was the offensive line. But I’m having trouble getting past the play-calling. I’m watching the Patriots, and the Packers yesterday, and even the Falcons who sucked but serve as a good example. I see something in their offenses that I don’t see in ours, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what it is, and I think I’ve got it although I’m not sure that I can express it that well.

I think the best one word for it: variety. Give me a sentence: The Ravens don’t seem to have as expansive a playbook as other NFL offenses.

There are a couple specifics I’d point out. The first is the use of a guy they went out of their way to get to solve their receiver problems. They brought in Boldin to bring a lot to this offense. And in the first half of the year, they used him a lot. Then, his productivity fell off a cliff. I took a look at this a bit closer. Below is a graph of the # of targets and receptions Boldin received by game, with a trend-line for targets.



I cannot explain this. You can see the declining trend. It gets horrendously worse if you remove week 5 where he only gets 3 targets and then weeks 12 and 13 where he gets 9 each. But even with them in, it’s basically a decline of an average of 0.42 targets per game. It’s not his catch rate, the 1st half of the season it was 56%, it was 58% in the second half. He had 71 targets in the first half of the year, only 43 in the second half. Worse than that…in the first 9 games, only once did he get less than 7 targets. The last seven games, five of them he had 5 or less.

So, in conjunction with this, I’m trying to think about not just why Boldin wasn’t getting targets, but how he is most effective. One of the plays I think saw the most success with Boldin in AZ was the quick slant. Get him crossing over the middle, get the ball out in front of him and let him run with it. Last year, in a dispute year, he ranked only 39th in YAC (according to Football Outsiders), though the previous two years he was 5th and 10th. I’ve charted 15 of the Ravens 32 halves over the regular season for FO. In that time, the Ravens ran a total of three quick slants. Two of them went to Boldin, both of those were catches for a total of 30 yards and resulting in more YAC (21) than the yards picked up on the throw itself (9). According to the FO sheets – I have full data from all weeks (just not charted) where they track which direction of the field the passes went – only 26% of all passes to Boldin went in the middle.

I feel like the playbook is severely limited. We don’t see those quick slants. We don’t see crossing routes. We don’t see a lot of the things so many successful offenses use. It really feels like it’s all outs, tosses down-field, screens, etc.

Now, I don’t know if Cam and the coaches just feel like Flacco’s too limited to throw these passes and/or run these plays. But they’re not there. Something fundamental about this offense is broken. And I’m concerned that it may not improve any time soon, at least under this coaching staff.

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Reflecting on a terrible football game

My dad and his cousin traded emails for a little while after the Ravens game, including me in the mix. I went to a neighbors to watch the Pack slaughter Atl in the second-worst game of the day and drink a good bit to drown my sorrows, so I missed much of it. Upon returning home, I replied. Below is the email - edited only to remove the swearing - because, as it turns out, it's pretty reflective of my general thoughts about the game.

Back when Patrick, Jim and I started this blog, Patrick and I disagreed about whether the Ravens/Titans '08/'09 season playoff game was a great game. Patrick eventually agreed that it was. He chatted with me tonight and said almost exactly what I say below to my family in the email...people will call this a great game. But it wasn't. It was a giant, sloppy mess, riddled with errors, played by two teams that hate each other, but neither acting like they wanted to win. With that said, onto the email.

Begin email:
The second half of this game was some of the worst football I’ve ever seen the Ravens play. This goes back to before the ’00 team when the Ravens flat out sucked. Both the offense and the defense failed on such epic level’s it’s beyond disgraceful. Cam’s play-calling wasn’t great, but for Ravens fans to blame it on him – and there are plenty right now – is laughable. One can easily argue stepping on the Steelers’ throats is the better move. However...
- You are winning by 14 points with one of the best defenses in the NFL, and
- You have all the momentum and the crowd dead silent.
The theme for the second half has got to be error free football. It literally CANNOT be anything but “go out there and try to kill these guys early in the second half, but DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES make any mistakes that gives them life. So let’s review what they instead do...

1) Ray Rice decides to carry the ball like a loaf of bread. Clark wasn’t even trying to strip him or punch it out, his hand just happened to hit it on the tackle and out it comes.
2) Flacco, under little pressure, decides to air it out to Heap in double coverage and puts it 5 yards too far for an easy INT.
3) Birk snaps the ball early and then doesn’t even realize it (how he doesn’t know Flacco doesn’t have it is beyond me) for another short-field turnover.
4) Flacco gets chased from the pocket. No one is open. He’s 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Throw it away, no grounding, no problem. With no real pressure on him, he instead simply runs out of bounds for a 9 yard loss. Um, WHAT???
5) Marcus Smith holds a special teams defender, nullifying a TD when the defender wouldn’t have even come close to Webb had he never touched him.
6) Flacco throws a pass to the only spot on the field that could get to Boldin without the two defenders covering him being able to make a play on the ball. Yes it was a low pass. It also hit Boldin in the chest. In the end zone. On 3rd down. FG next play.
7) On 3rd and 19 with 2:07 to play, the clock stopped, ball at the Steeler 38 yard line, the Ravens drop 8 into coverage and STILL allow the Steelers #4 receiver to get behind everyone, not only converting the 1st down, but setting up 1st and goal from the 5 which they eventually convert to a TD. I wrote this play up on the Ravens board and cut-pasted it below if you want to read more about how gigantic a failure this play was. Realize this was a thread blaming Mattison for this play failing, and my essentially saying, “Um, no, Mattison is in no way at fault.”
8) Cody gets a defensive holding penalty on a big stop on first and goal.
9) Flacco yet again fails to get rid of the ball before the pocket collapses on 3rd and 10 at mid-field with 1:10 to play and takes a sack, forcing the Ravens to take their final TO and suffer 4th and 18.
10) Flacco finds a wide open TJ Houshmazilly 21 yards down-field at the sideline with over 60 seconds to play. He hits him in the hands for a sure catch-and-fall-out-of-bounds leaving 60 seconds to go 35 yards to tie the game. BUT WAIT! NO! Hoashmazoad <> Championship and drops the ball. Game over.

Counting kicks, punts, etc up until Pitt is kneeling for the win, there were 80 total plays with some sort of football action associated with them in the second half. Those ten plays above are not tiny, semi-meaningless errors. They are GIGANTIC F******* FAILURES. 10 plays out of 80 where the Ravens completely, totally failed, in a half where all they had to do to win was play error free. It is hard to imagine an NFL divisional round playoff team capable of an error rate so high.

Assuming they watched, NE has to absolutely be licking their chops. The first half was almost as bad, on both sides. Even the two huge Ravens-turning plays were terrible plays on one or both team’s parts. Suggs got a nice fumble on his sack, but then 21 out of 22 players fail to realize no one has blown a whistle, so everyone stands there and stares at the ball till Redding comes from about 7 yards out, picks it up and reads a chapter of War & Peace before taking a leisurely stroll into the end zone. The other play, the Mendenhall fumble deep in their territory, was caused by Mendenhall rolling up on Kemo’s elbow…his own man knocked it loose.

Pundits and talking heads will spew garbage about what a hard-nosed, well fought battle this game was, and how great a game it was. But the truth is, it wasn’t. It was a terrible game where neither team played like they wanted to advance. Odds are pretty good New England will rout the Jets tomorrow, and then destroy the Steelers next weekend.

---------------------------------------- Posted to the Ravens message board ----------------------------------------
Such a gigantic f****** FAIL by the players on so many levels it's not funny. This isn't a busted defensive scheme, and it's stupid to suggest that we should have rushed more than 3 players on a 3rd and 19 when a receiver gets by people. Sorry [poster], I respect you a lot as a fan, but you - and anyone else trying to blame Mattison - are dead f****** wrong.

1) Nakamura gets called for illegal contact. They get a 1st down anyway.

2) Before the ball is thrown, Nakamura contacts his man 17 yards down the field and releases him to the deep safety. Now, you need to fully grasp the magnitude of this stupidity. First, if you're releasing a receiver, it's cause there's someone else short that you're worried about covering. I've got the TV on, paused at the moment he releases his receiver right now. Nakamura is 1/3 of the way from the hash to the sideline, at the Ravens 44. Draw a box from the middle of the hash marks to the Ravens 44 to the sideline to the Steeler 30...there is NO receiver there. How Nakamura doesn't turn his hips and run with the receiver is beyond stupid. Second, even if you are covering underneath, it's 3rd and 19...you don't release to cover an underneath route at the 1st down line on third and super-long. TURN YOUR GODDAMNED HIPS AND RUN WITH HIM YOU F****** IDIOT!

3) Nakamura releasing his receiver freezes Landry to the inside. The reason Landry's late on the outside coverage is cause he has to pick up Nakamura's man. Landry may be - IMO - the worst starting safety in the league, but he's not at fault on this play.

4) Webb completely fails on this play. Brown lines up on the Steeler 37. Webb is on the freakin' 50...seven yards in front of the 1st down marker. Webb doesn't seem to recognize it's a go route till Brown's in full stride on the Ravens 48, Webb on the 42 and Ben starting his throwing motion. This is beyond ridiculous. Watching it in full speed, Brown is in a dead sprint at the Steeler 42 yard line. That's 10 yards of dead sprint he's running before Webb decides he's gonna turn and try to run with him. Naturally, by the time Webb's hit his stride, Brown's behind him. Massive f****** fail by Webb. The only explanation is that he thought he had safety help over the top. Which he should have, had Nakamura not released his man to Landry.

So essentially I put 60% of the blame on Nakamura and 40% on Webb for completely blowing that play. Notice how 0% of the 100% total blame goes to Mattison. There's NO excuse for the players not executing on that play. None.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

AARGH!

After the Steelers beat the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec 5th, I wrote this in an email to Chris & Patrick:

If you can't beat the Steelers last night, then you just can't beat them. You're at home, you knock out their punter and their RT, break the QB's nose early, get the better of the refereeing decisions, penetrate their O-line constantly, have the lead and the ball with 3 mins left – and lose.
...
it seems to me that the Steelers have the edge in poise, composure, focus, playmaking in key situations – "clutchness", whatever that is. You don't see the Steelers jumping offside on 3rd-&-1 in a chaotic hurry-up situation. You don't see them fail to wrap up the tackle on a 3rd-&-goal pass well short of the end zone. You don't see Roethlisberger short-arming a pass on 4th-&-2, so it bounces before it gets to the receiver. Etc.
Obviously I think the same thing now, except re-quintupled. You take a 21-7 lead into halftime, on the strength of exactly the kind of horrible plays the Steelers have typically made in games against the Ravens. You have to know a storm is coming in the 3rd quarter, right? Of course you do.

So how on earth does Ray Rice choose this moment to carry the ball like an iPod in the commercials, and fumble after a fumble-free season, his first fumble in 406 touches? How does 6-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk snap the ball into his left thigh rather than the QB's hand, for another turnover? How does 3-time Pro Bowl WR Anquan Boldin, Baltimore's big offseason acquisition to jump-start the passing game, how does he let a go-ahead TD pass bounce off his chest in the end zone, in the 4th quarter? How does TJ Houshmazilly drop a 4th down pass that hits him in the hands? How do you have the opponent deep in a hole, facing 3rd-and-19 in their own end, just before the 2-min warning, where all you need to do is force the punt to wind up with pretty good field position, 2 mins and all 3 timeouts, a great chance to drive for a winning FG – with a Pro Bowl kicker warming up on your sideline! – and give up a 58 yard bomb to their #5 WR, down to your 4 yard line? Their number 5 wide receiver! Dude had 16 catches on the season, on his career, going into the game. The Ravens defenders let him run right past them. Undisturbed, unmolested. He didn't even lay a move on them, he just ran in a straight line downfield.

Dierdorf was was doing the game for CBS, and postgame he used words like “implosion” and “self-destruct”. Those are the right words. Aren't they?

The thing is, champions have an extra gear they can kick into when they absolutely, positively have to. We may not believe, as statisticians, in something as unquantifiable as “clutchness”. But as fans, we see something that looks like it must be “clutchness”. The hard thing that, as a Ravens fan, I have not wanted to admit is, the Steelers have it. When they absolutely, positively had to make something happen in the 4th quarter on Dec 5th, Troy Polumalo did. And when they again had to make something happen in the 3rd quarter today, they did again. And you knew it was coming, and the Ravens had to know it was coming (my wife knew it was coming), and they did it anyway. Playmaking. It takes stone cold brass ones to throw the bomb to your #5 WR on 3rd and 19 with 2 mins to play in a tie playoff game. The Steelers did it, their QB did not hesitate for an instant, he let if fly, and they made the play.

The Steelers have it. And the Ravens don't.

Oh, maybe some of the Ravens do. Ray Lewis has proven his abilities to deliver in big moments over the course of 15 years; if he doesn't have as much left in the tank now, that doesn't make him less than clutch. Ed Reed, same notation. Terrell Suggs was a beast today, a monster, a titan. He was dominating, with 3 sacks and I don't know how many hits and hurries. But as a team, the Ravens don't seem to have it. They are a little jittery in key moments, flinch a little, commit small errors.

Is this is a permanent state? Is it too late for this group of Ravens to ever develop "clutchness", if indeed that thing exists? Might Flacco still be promising? He seems a little robotic at times, and he takes terrible sacks. But he did hit Boldin in the chest in the end zone on a crucial 3rd-and-goal in the 4th quarter. Flacco only made one costly mistake in the game, the INT on the deep pass to Heap. If Boldin holds onto that ball in the end zone, everything is different. Even the season ending incomplete on 4th down, that ball hit the receiver in the hands past the 1st down marker.

These are the things Ravens fans will be wondering about, as we watch the Steelers in the conference championship game and wait for next year.


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Before the Ravens-Steelers game

I just want to mention somewhere, that I think the Steelers are better than the Ravens. Not enormously, not by some wide margin. Just a little bit better: a little more powerful & violent on defense (Harrison & Woodley), a little more dynamic on offense (Rapistberger & Mike Wallace). Just a bit more likely to get a key sack & fumble, or a key catch & run. The Ravens are just a bit more likely to jump offside on 4th & 1, or throw it short on 3rd & 3.

But I also think the Ravens can beat them. Yes, in Heinz Field. These two teams are awfully close. By now you've heard all the stats: 5 of their last 7 games have been decided by a FG, the 6th was a 4-pt game, and the other was the 2008 AFC Championship game: a 2-pt game in the last 4 mins of the 4th quarter, before Pittsburgh returned a pick 6. Pittsburgh is better, but the margin is very thin, and the Ravens can beat them.

I dunno if this is a heart or head pick: but I have 19-16, Ravens.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Glad to see it

Don't know what's going to happen, the Ravens season could very well end tomorrow. If it does, I think the Ravens fan base is at least happy about one thing.

Obviously the Ravens fan base has a ton to be happy about, overall. Three consec seasons in the playoffs, three seasons with at least one postseason win. The fan bases of 20 to 25 other teams would gladly trade places. It is silly not to be grateful for what we have in this team. Compare to what fans in Carolina had to endure this season, or fans in Detroit this decade.

Yet it is a fact that there have been frustrations for Ravens fans this season. I think the thing is, thru the season there was never any sense that the Ravens had played a complete game. They had eked out some wins in games that really shouldn't have been that close. They struggled to put teams away. 12 wins is a lot, but for most of those games it seemed they did not play up to their abilities. Some of it was luck: for a long stretch of the season they did not get good turnover luck. Some of it was conservatism on offense, in a year where the fans expected a more wide-open attack after the signing of Anquan Boldin. But whatever the cause, the Ravens looked like a team that was not hitting on all cylinders.

That is what was so great about this past week, the Ravens 30-7 win over the Chiefs. The defense dominated, with sacks and turnovers. The offense capitalized, scoring opportunistically off of the turnovers. The kicking game was very solid, pinning the Chiefs deep. Flacco completed 73.5% of his passes, with 2 TDs. Rice, McGahee et al rushed for over 140 yds. Heap was over 100 yds receiving. Boldin had a TD catch. Just a complete performance.

I almost feel like we can be happy now, because we've finally seen one great, complete performance out of the Ravens. We don't have to wonder what could have been: we've seen them play the way we thought they were capable of playing.

And now of course we have Steelers week, which is another thing Ravens fans can be thankful for: to be part of what most national observers agree is the best current rivalry in the NFL. The playoff match between these teams two years ago, was the single most brutal football game I've ever seen. Like every other fan of these two teams, I look forward to tomorrow's game with a mixture of excitement and fear.

Prediction? Pain.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Changing the Tuck rule

There was a Tuck Rule incident in the Ravens-Chief game wildcard weekend. You can see the play in this long highlights package on NFL.com, at about 5:10 into the video.

Mike Pereira was the NFL's Vice President of Officiating between 2004 and 2009. Fox Sports made one of the all-time great network announcing hires when they tabbed him to provide commentary on officiating and rules interpretations. He writes that the Tuck Rule was correctly applied in this case. But the interesting part is what he goes on to say:

I think it's time to change this rule. A pass should only be ruled incomplete if the ball comes loose in the actual act of passing the ball. If it comes loose in the tucking motion, then it should be a fumble. I would support a rule change, although it took me a long time to get to this point.
I guess it's been a long journey for all of us, with the Tuck Rule. I wish he had written more about how & why his thinking evolved on this rule: what he used to think, what changed for him. That would be interesting.

For me, the Tuck Rule illustrates a bad tendency of the NFL, to try to take all judgment out of the hands of officials and legislate every conceivable situation. The impulse is misguided, because (a) it is impossible to list every situation, (b) you move the game even further from the fans by adding arcane rules that are un-intuitive and difficult to understand, and (c) you wind up dis-empowering the officials on the field. It's not possible to remove the element of judgment from sports officiating, and when you try you produce refs who are unused to exercising good judgment.

Make the rules more intuitive, give the refs the authority to exercise their judgment to keep play moving along, and fire the refs who are bad at it.

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Collinsworth

I love listening to Cris Collinsworth announce football games. He's IMO the best color analyst in the game, and is the best I remember dating back to Madden's heyday. Jawarski comes close I guess, but Collinsworth is just exceptional at it. He's very knowledgeable and I feel like:
a) I learn something from him every time I listen, and
b) he points out intricacies of the game that no one else spots.

Example: Last night late in the game, he made a comment about how the Colts were playing man on the outside with a weak corner (I think it was Lacey) against Braylon Edwards with no help over the top, and that it would be a good idea to go that way if they could. Next play, Sanchez throws an 18 yard completion to Edwards against single coverage to put them in easy FG range. This is a fairly simplistic example, but I love the insight he brings to the game.

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Carl's Prediction

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Friday, January 7, 2011

Coaches of Bad Teams Should Take More Risks to Increase Win Rate

This season there’s quite a bit of turnover in the coaching ranks, which is nothing new for the NFL. And as usual, many of the positions left vacated are from teams lacking talent and performing quite poorly. Four of the biggest coaching vacancies – Carolina, Denver, Cleveland and San Fransisco – come from teams with a combined 17 wins this year and one total playoff appearance in the past five years. Another – Oakland – is coming off an 8 win season and seems to have some talent, but is one of the worst managed teams in the NFL and a perennial bottom-feeder.

Some of these positions will be filled by coaches with thin or questionable resumes, and are likely to start their new jobs a hair away from the hot seat. My belief is that these coaches have a way to over perform expectations. But to do so requires accepting more risk than almost any ever seem willing to take.

Earlier today, Patrick forwarded Jim and I a terrific article which gives a blue-print for what the underdog should do to win a game. For those too lazy to click through, the idea is this:
- An underdog has an expectation that is worse than the favorite.
- The underdog should work to maximize variance to give themselves a better shot at winning. Increasing variance, even if it slightly hurts your average expectation, increases your top-end expectations and therefore improves your chance of winning.
- Subsequently, the favorite should do everything they can to reduce variance, as the more likely both teams are to perform at their mean expectation; the more likely the favorite is to win.

The article expresses this with examples based in basketball, but the same principles apply to football. Let’s say Team X is a 3 point favorite over Team Y. Team X is expected to score 20 points, Y to score 17. Team X has the best chance of winning the game by forcing the game to play exactly to expectations so that they win by three points. Team Y maximizes its odds of winning by taking risks and trying high variance plays to increase its maximum score-band. This way, they have a better chance of winning the game. The draw-back is that they also are more likely to lose by significantly more than 3 points.

This article helped bring into focus a post that’s been bouncing in my head for some time. The basic premise is simple: A coach of a team likely to lose should take chances on plays with poor expectations, but that can give their team a big edge when they work. That’s not to say they should always take chances. But it’s to say that they should be taking these chances far more often than any coach has ever been known to do. If I were to accept a position as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach for ’11, here’s what I’d do to maximize my chances of winning.

Blitz the quarterback almost all the time, and coach my DBs to jump routes.
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of data about how often this works in the NFL. But defensively, this will make two outcomes far more regular than what is currently seen. First, my team will force more negative plays for the offense. They will sack the quarterback more often than expected. They will intercept the ball more often. Etc. This turns the tide in my favor, ending drives earlier with fewer scoring and even potentially my team scoring on those plays.

Second, my team will allow more big plays for the offense. If my DB jumps a route, misses and has no safety help over the top, that’s going to be a big gain if not a touchdown. While this is obviously a negative outcome, there are some mitigating factors to them. One, if my team is truly a bad team, my opponent has a pretty decent chance of scoring anyway. Two, my defense is getting off the field quickly, and isn’t likely to be worn down in the fourth quarter.

Kick onside a lot.
“A lot” here I would define as somewhere around 20% of the time. This year, teams scored on average 4.1 times per game. Add in the kick at the beginning of either the first or second half and you come out to around 5 kick-offs per team per game (obviously worse teams will have fewer kickoffs). I think one on-sides kick per game when the opponent isn’t expecting it would be a good number.

For the five teams I listed above, average starting field position allowed was somewhere between the 29 and 34 yard line (Carolina’s was at the 33.2 line). This includes punts, but is a pretty decent proxy for general field position. A failed onside kick would result in my opponent starting somewhere around my own 40-45 yard line. I’m giving them a free 25-30 yards when I fail.

However, when I succeed, I’m also giving myself an extra possession. NFL teams this year averaged somewhere around 2 points per drive. My having a worse offense would hurt this number of course. However, that’s mitigated by the fact that, with the average starting position somewhere between the 25 and 30, my getting the ball starting somewhere past my 40 yard line will increase that value. I also deprive my opponent of the 2 points his drive was valued at. This onside kick could be a net 4 point swing in expectation, a huge advantage in the NFL.

And onside kicks aren’t exactly a very low probability of success. No, I didn’t ask Sean Payton for his opinion there. Instead I went to the data, looking at the 2010 success of the onside kick. I eliminated all fourth quarter onside kicks though, believing that most of those would be expected onside kicks (apologies to Tom Coughlin). There were only 14 onside kicks not in the 4th quarter this season. Kicking teams recovered six of those, a 43% success rate.

So here you have a question of how often you’re willing to give up 25 yards of possession in order to potentially receive a full extra possession yourself. Obviously the more you kick onside, the more it’s expected and the more you’ll fail. But, while I don’t see data for it, I have a hard time imagining 25 yards of field position is worth close to the 4 point swing I would create by getting the extra possession. Even if it’s worth as much as 2 points, I could afford to succeed only 33% of the time and have an equal expectation.

An additional benefit gained is that teams would be forced to react. They would likely be using more of a hands team to guard against onside kicks, which leads to their starting with worse field position when I kick it deep. And if they don’t put out their hands units, my success rate likely moves far closer to the 43%.

Consider never kicking a FG unless it’s 4th and 10+ between my opponent’s 10 and 30 yard line. When kicking, run fakes regularly (25% or more).
I tried finding good data on success of fakes but couldn’t find much. My all plays spreadsheet had only three plays with a fake punt or FG clearly marked. Two of those were successful. But I remember the Ravens ran a fake punt against the Dolphins, which wasn’t on my sheet as a marked fake, so who knows how many I’m missing. Fakes, when unexpected, tend to be fairly successful. Obviously the more they’re expected, the less they’ll work.

When outside my 30, I’d choose to punt and work on having an excellent punting game that can pin my opponents inside their 10 yard line, or to simply go for it on 4th down (see below for more). This replaces a FG attempt of 47+ yards, which across the NFL were less than 58% to be made. When inside the 10, I’d go for the TD as even if I fail, I’m pinning my opponent deep in his territory, making it harder for him to score. 4th and 3-10 yards is somewhere in the range of 25% to convert. This is giving up about a point of expected value, but fits the theme of higher variance even with lower expected value, and is mitigated by your opponent starting inside their ten yard line where if I kicked the FG, the subsequent kick-off puts them around the 30. Twenty yards of field position helps claw back that point of value.

Go for it on 4th and 3 or less every time I’m not in my opponent’s FG range.
Again looking at all 2010 data, the success rate of 3rd down or 4th down and 3 or less to go was 44%. I also looked at the bottom five offenses (AZ, Car, Chi, Sea, StL) in DVOA and found their success rate was 39%. This fits with the idea of taking negative expected value plays which result in significantly positive advantages when they work. When I’m outside my FG range, I extend my drive and increase my chances to score more points in the game. When I’m in my FG range, I improve my chances of scoring a TD for seven points. And the deeper I go into my opponent’s territory, the less likely they are able to drive the field and score if my fourth down attempt fails.

Go for two point conversions every time.
Looking at data on 3rd or 4th and 2 or less from 2010, offenses had a 48% success rate (42% for the bottom five DVOA teams). This again goes with the idea of taking plays with negative expected value, but improves chances of winning significantly if and when they work. Those bottom five DVOA offenses averaged two TDs and a FG per game. First, since I’m not kicking FGs much anymore, I’m more likely to score three TDs instead of two and a FG. Second, if I convert more than one of my two point conversions, I’m requiring my opponent to either score four times, or also convert more than one two point conversion with me to match my three scores.

The total combination of these five things reduces my overall expected point total per week. But it also increases my max expected point total per week, and should increase the number of games I should win against superior opponents. If Carolina would have an expected 5-11 record next season – not unreasonable given the lack of talent – it’s more likely that two things happen:
1) I experience more blow-outs in games I lose, and
2) I win more than five games.
Would I be willing to accept a few 42-7 losses in order to lead my team to an 8-8 or 9-7 record?

This actually comes to the one huge draw-back, and likely reason we don’t see this happen pretty much ever. It’s not assured that I will over perform my expected win total by three or four games by employing these strategies. And coaches with poor winning records who suffer a higher than expected number of 42-7 type blow-outs do not last long in this league. As a coach, I’m more likely to survive longer by simply playing vanilla, expected football and going 5-11 my first year, than I am to play high risk football and steal a few wins to bring my team to the middle of the pack.

It’s easy to armchair quarterback these decisions when I’m never realistically going to get a shot to run an NFL team for a year. But to be one of those 32 lucky individuals getting that shot, I can understand why they would want to maximize their chances of being invited back the following year, even if it means costing themselves a higher win rate. Still, it’s fun to ponder the ideal, and to think about the shot I’d love to take.

*Note: All data for this article were from Football Outsiders.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Matt Millen: I Stunk

No shit.

Link

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Detroit Lions: Things I Got Right, Things I Got Wrong

I’m not a big fan of ‘I told you so’ posts and this isn’t intended to be one. With that said, I did add something at the end which probably is that type of statement.

Things I Got Right

Suh To me, picking Suh was the easiest, most obvious thing the Lions have done in a decade. When you can pick the best player in the draft and when that player fills a position of need then there is really no question about it.

Stafford I’ll put this out there, but it’s a bit weak. He surpassed my expectations for him this year in his limited time. I would have been happy to simply see progress, to see him start to recognize the game, to start to take what’s given. Instead he bought all the way in, stopped trying to force the ball on every drive, took what defenses gave and became a solid NFL quarterback with considerable remaining upside. However, when I was worried about whether Stafford could succeed in Detroit, one of my main concerns was that he would get killed. So far, he has. Some of it is a testament to his stubbornness, to trying to make plays, but this is still something he has to learn; that he can’t always be the guy, that in the NFL discretion usually beats valor. Maybe with the two shoulders this year, he will come back subdued and complete his evolution to NFL star.

Backus/Raiola I defend these guys and defend them. I don’t think most fans here appreciate how much worse many teams have it. Sure, it would be great to have a Jake Long or Ryan Clady, but last I checked their teams aren’t doing well and their quarterbacks got knocked out too. Neither of these guys are great and both of them will have to be replaced eventually, but they are also both players a team can win with.

Shaun Hill I’ve been a fan for years and he did nothing to let me down. Other than transition time, there is really no drop off with him under center. It’s a different type of offense, but definitely no less effective. He threw too many picks. I thought the one yesterday was terrible, considering how the game was going. Otherwise though he is smart, he finds open receivers, he will make plays with his legs when he has to. The team averaged 1.7 more ppg with him in the game than out. He doesn’t fumble much or take too many sacks. He’s just a heady player who I really like.

Things I Got Wrong

Suh Even though I was right about the pick, I was absolutely wrong about the impact that he’d have. He could have had 50% of his statistical production and I would have been delighted. I fully expected that he would have to grow into his role. Instead he is already the rare type of player who makes the entire team better. Not just his unit, not just the defense, the entire team. He gets the defense off the field, he prevents offenses from going 5-wide, he gives the offense field position. The Lions haven’t had a player this dynamic at this stage of his career for 20 years. The next decade is going to be amazing.

Corey Williams While I believe that some of Williams’ play can be attributed to the guy standing next to him, not all of it can. Williams was a force, both with Suh in and out of the lineup. I thought he might be solid, and a gap solution. Instead he appears to be a multi-year starter still capable of playing with the best in the conference at his position. With Hill behind them, the center of the Lions’ defense looks very bright for the next half decade.

The Defensive Backfield Funny. For many years I have believed that scheme trumps talent, and when it comes to other teams I’ve still believed it, but I lost faith when it came to the Lions. Despite my belief in the coaching staff, I fell into my old beliefs about the Lion curse (or whatever). Well, I am glad to say that again, scheme trumps talent. I still don’t think the Lion corners are very good, and I definitely don’t think the guys who were playing at the end of the year are very good, but it didn’t matter. With the havoc being created up front the demands on cornerbacks and other pass defenders were reduced to a point where they were able to manage receivers fairly well. Other than the 4th quarter onslaught by the Patriots, no team’s quarterback put a thumping on Detroit.

Where They Got Their Wins I was both wrong in the number and the way they would win games. I believed that the Lions would have to win their games in the first half of the season, that once injuries started eating into their depth that they would really have no chance. I was obviously wrong. As surprising as anything is how resilient this team was with depth players at key spots. I predicted 3-4 wins, simply because I couldn’t see them doing much better than 1-7 in the 2nd half.

Bryant Johnson Not a lot to say here. I really thought he would do well with the pressure off.

Drew Stanton Okay, he doesn’t completely suck donkey cock.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010: The Year In Picture



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