Tuesday, December 27, 2005

For a guy who hates what ESPN's become, I sure blog about their product a lot

1. Sports Guy has a mature take on Johnny Damon's much-hyped departure from the Red Sox to the Yankees. (By the way, couldn't you just feel the squeals of delight in Bristol, CT when they had a new story to hype? They've been going through withdrawals since the end of the ALDS, but now, they have their obsession back. I see them playing the Princess Leia role, the Red Sox and Yankees playing the Han Solo role, and the Damon deal freeing their true love from carbon freeze. Between that and SHAQ-KOBE: THE COLD SHOULDER!!!, it's been a good week for the Worldwide Leader in meaningless bullshit. I digress.)

Bill Simmons' take reminds me of my feelings on Tom Glavine signing with the Mets. Many Braves fans were up in arms that he would be so "greedy" as to sign a contract that was one year longer and several million dollars richer annually than the contract offered by the Braves, as if those fans would pass on millions of dollars to keep playing for fans who love you as long as you're performing and then will turn on you once you aren't (although Atlanta fans, to our credit, are far more patient than fans elsewhere.) In sports, you have the occasional case of a player giving a true hometown discount, but those cases are rare and it's unfair to expect every athlete to live up to that standard.

Here is Simmons' rationalization of why he didn't want the Red Sox to sign Damon:

"Honestly? I didn't want the Red Sox to re-sign Damon for $40 million over four years, much less $52 million. All the classic "Guy signing a big contract and going into the tank" signs were there. For one thing, he has a ton of miles on him -- over 1,500 games in the past 10 years in one of the most grueling roles in the league (leadoff hitter, centerfielder) -- and by the end of last season, he was breaking down like Denzel Washington at the end of "Man on Fire." Physically, he's had ongoing problems with his right shoulder and post-concussion syndrome (the latter stemming from his ugly collision with Damian Jackson in the 2003 playoffs). His offensive numbers have dipped after the All-Star break for every season in the last four, including a dramatic drop last season (hitting .343 with an .859 OPS before the break and .282 with a .740 OPS after the break). And he's hitting his mid-30's next November."

Contrast that with this paean he wrote in mid-August, extolling Damon as an overlooked MVP candidate. Seems like someone is hyping a guy when he's playing for his team and then trashing him as soon as he leaves town, no? To Simmons' credit, he does say later in the article that he thinks that Damon is going to have a big year in '06, just like Pedro did, but that seems a little schizo with the quoted passage above.

Simmons' rationalization, unfortunately, reminds me of my own every time a player leaves the Braves. I decided that Rafael Furcal was the key to the Braves' surge this July, and then I decided that he was easily replaceable once he took the money and ran west. I thought that Raul Mondesi would come close to replacing J.D. Drew in right field at a fraction of the cost. (Well, he was cheaper.) I extolled Leo Mazzone as a payroll multiplier, getting good production out of cheap pitchers, and then when he left, I decided that he was replaceable and, after all, he was in charge of that atrocious bullpen last year. We sports fans have a delicious ability to delude ourselves.

One other thought: when Damon signed his deal with the Yankees, I was fairly amused because it gives me another arrow in the "Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is overrated" quiver, namely that the players clearly don't care if they're all too willing to jump from one team to the other. And then I remembered this prick and I realized that my argument doesn't hold water unless I want to concede that my archetypal rivalry is not really a rivalry:

By the way, don't think that I'm not extremely proud of myself for finding an image of Figo and the pig's head that was chucked at him at the Nou Camp.

2. I'll admit that after my threatened boycott of SportsCenter because of their ludicrous "Is USC the best team of all-time? We say yes!" feature, I actually watched one of the features the other night. It would have been hard for the segment to fail to meet my expectations, which resembled Rafael Belliard's on-base percentage, but it managed to do so. For those of you who haven't seen it, it involves Fowler, Herbstreit, and May sitting together in the L.A. Coliseum (as if these clowns didn't have enough trouble being objective with their ten-minute memories, they're in the home stadium of the team they're comparing against the best in history) and discussing the opponent for the day, before concluding that the opponent does not have the athleticism to stay with USC and Reggie Bush will be the difference.

The worst segment of this wretched series so far was the one matching USC against the '55 Oklahoma team, mainly because May and Herbstreit picked USC big because players now are faster than players from 50 years ago. (The least they could have done is gotten all Fisher DeBerry or Paul Hornung and pointed out that Oklahoma would have had trouble with USC because that OU team was all white.) If we're going to take the time machine approach, as opposed to asking the more legitimate question, which would be "which team was more dominant in their era?", then what was Oklahoma '55 even doing in the competition, as opposed to Oklahoma '85 or Oklahoma '00, both of which also had far more athletes with better nutrition and more skin pigmentation? Why even bother having them in the tournament if you're simply going to point out the obvious. A bunch of 200-pound white defensive tackles are going to struggle to tackle Reggie Bush after being blocked by 320-pound linemen who have been taking part in sophisticated weight training regimens for years? Really? Does water also flow downhill?

And I've yet to see Herbstreit or May mention that USC might have a few question marks on defense and that defense might actually be a relevant issue to discuss when determining which team is the best of the past 50 years. Apparently, May picked USC to beat '97 Michigan 49-14. Really? The same Michigan defense that held Washington State, who scored 42.4 points per game and were, at the time, the most productive offense in Pac Ten history, to 16 points is going to give up 49 to USC, or one fewer than mighty Fresno State allowed. Stop it, Mark, you're making me blush. The crowning glory of this pile of excrement is going to be the match-up between USC and '95 Nebraska, where Herbstreit and May will apparently inform us that USC's freshmen linebackers are going to dominate the best running game in modern college football history. Can't hardly wait.

An addendum: as a military history buff, I can't believe that I missed this chance for comedy, but hats off to Texas fans, who have a 20-page thread of predictions for USC tangling with great armies from history. Since we all know that Wehrmacht Group South couldn't have handled Reggie Bush's speed, how quickly would Barbarossa have been repelled with the Trojans serving under Stalin in June 1941?

3. And while we're on the Worldwide Leader, I also want to point out the shortcomings in this piece by Len Pasquarelli. I like Len's work and his "Morning After" columns are usually a nice summary of the prior day's games for those of us who prefer to read about the NFL than attempt to watch it in between 469 commercial breaks. Len certainly avoids the hero worship and general pomposity of Peter King. That said, his position that the Steelers are playing better because they're running the ball more and playing "Steelers football" is really weak.

The Steelers have won three in a row because they've allowed 12 points in those three games. They're winning because of their defense. Running the ball has very little to do with it. I suppose you could argue that running the ball has allowed Pittsburgh to control the clock, but there are two easy responses to that:

a. Forcing opposing teams to go three-and-out a lot also helps control the clock; and

b. If the Browns can't score a point in 25 minutes of possession time, then how much more would they score in 35 minutes?

Basically, the Steelers have the luxury of pounding their running backs into the line over and over again because their defense is dominating some really bad offenses. (Seriously, they just beat the 25th, 26th, and 28th best teams in terms of total offense. Cue the Wolf.) In the playoffs, they'll play opponents who can actually make first downs and complete passes, against whom they'll actually need to score. I love the argument that they lost to Cincinnati because they threw too much. Hello, here's a little primer on cause and effect. They threw a lot because they needed to score points instead of viewing offense as a fun sidelight. If they would have played "Steelers Football" and run Bettis over and over again, then the final would have been 38-21 instead of 38-31.

And one other note for Lenny: if January is the time when running the ball is so critical and it's the centerpiece of Steelers football, then why does the team have such a lousy record in home games for the AFC Title?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Boo Hoo Hoo! Recruits Are Finally Wise To Our Dreadful Offensive Scheme!"

Other than the college football blogosphere and the occasional Stewart Mandel column (when he's not being a jackass and irrationally criticizing the SEC to provoke nasty e-mails so he can then pick the one with the worst grammar and the weakest reasoning to make himself feel like Norman Einstein), my favorite source of college football opinion this year has been Bruce Feldman's blog, which is worth the $4.95 per month for Insider, even if that $4.95 also requires me to haul ESPN the Magazine out to the dumpster every two weeks. (Maybe I'm just bitter that the "O.J. Misunderstood" cover that I predicted years ago when the Magazine was taking the side of every jerk in sports never materialized.) I usually like Feldman's writing, he took the time to respond to an e-mail I sent him when Miami signed Willie Williams, and he's a Member of the Tribe, which is so rare in the media these days.

That said, I'm not sure if Bruce was just looking for a straw man or just wanted to humor a Seminole, but he printed and responded to a letter from "Carter in Atlanta" (would a first name be too much to ask?), whining that recruits are signing with Florida under the mistaken impression that the Gator offense is better than that of the Noles. Since I don't have to be polite like Bruce, here's what I think of Carter's iron-clad reasoning:

1. Florida State fans hate Jeff Bowden. Chris Rix and his father hate Jeff Bowden. Fred Rouse hates Jeff Bowden. Lorenzo Booker hates Jeff Bowden (or at least he ought to, given that Bowden has taken the #1 running back from the 2002 recruiting class and led him to a whopping three 100+ yard games in his three-year career.) Anyone with a pulse who wants to see Florida State succeed (admittedly a small class) should hate Jeff Bowden for taking the keys to one of the most talented offenses in the country and driving it into the Grand Canyon. Jeff Bowden is going to stay as the offensive coordinator because he shares much of the same genetic material as the head coach of the Seminoles. Is that not clear enough?

2. Recruits make decisions on how given programs are going to be for the next 4-5 years. Given that context, it's foolish to look at one year worth of results. Urban Meyer's offense has been successful everywhere he's been. Jeff Bowden's offense? Not so much. If a recruit takes a four-year look backwards as opposed to a one-year snapshot, then the picture is much rosier for Meyer than it is for Bowden. Additionally, in projecting forward, a player needs to figure out with whom he's going to be playing. Florida just signed the #1 quarterback in the country, a quarterback who is a far better fit with the Meyer offense than Chris Leak is. Is any quarterback a good fit for Jeff Bowden's confused scheme?

3. As for this year, Florida State did average more yards per game than Florida did, but look at the distribution of those yards. 629 against the Citadel, 512 against Syracuse, 587 against Wake Forest, and 539 against Duke, as compared to 170 against Miami, 227 against N.C. State, 226 against Clemson, 334 against Florida (many of which were in garbage time after the Gators had pummelled the Noles like Sonny pummelled Carlo,) and 272 against Virginia Tech. What is a player like Percy Harvin going to gain by playing in an offense that destroys teams that are hopelessly outmatched athletically, but can't move the ball against a good team? Yes, Florida didn't set the world on fire against good defenses, but their performances were at least comparable and they got better as the season progressed and Meyer figured out that his scheme was not a fit for his talent, whereas FSU's offense got worse and worse.

4. And this statement by Carter is simply wrong:

"This is all because the media has completely got sucked in by Urban Meyer, even though his vaunted spread option, which by the way ain't that revolutionary (see: West Virginia) completely tanked in the SEC this year."

West Virginia's offense is spread option, but it is significantly different from Meyer's, which uses motion far more and breaks down the difference between wide receivers and running backs. West Virginia's offense is not that dissimilar from the offense run by Texas under Vince Young (or some of the looks that Alabama used with Andrew Zow and Freddie Milons in '99 and '00); Meyer's offense is a whole different beast, which is why teams struggled so much to defend it in the MWC and MAC.

5. In any event, it's not useful to make too much of recruiting rankings right now for two reasons. First, Florida is getting the bounce that every major program gets from a new coach's first full recruiting class. Second, Florida State will close strong, like they always do, because they most likely have several silent verbals that will spring forth on Signing Day. Carter's probably just bitter that Harvey wasn't one of those silent verbals.

Monday, December 19, 2005

...But Those Other Birds Sure Are Hot!

Thrashers: 4-0-1 in their last five. Hawks: 4-1 in their last five (and got legitimately screwed in the fifth.)

The Thrashers' season got off to a disappointing start for a very simple reason: because of injuries to their top three goalies, they were forced to do the equivalent of the Braves starting a AAA rotation. Imagine if Kyle Davies would have been the ace of the staff last year. That's the equivalent of the Thrashers having to play Michael Garnett and Adam Berkhoel every night. The team is next to last in the NHL in save percentage and it's virtually impossible to win in the league when your goalies' collective save percentage is .876.

Fortunately, Kari Lehtonen is close to returning (although, as the article's title makes clear, this isn't the first time we've heard that song. Also, Michael Garnett seems to be getting the hang of this whole stopping the puck business, which has allowed the Thrashers to be patient in returning Lehtonen to the lineup. (The team's last two wins represent the first two wins this season in which the team scored fewer than four goals. Garnett's save percentage in those games was .944, which is as good as his previous stats were bad.) More importantly, Garnett's improved play has allowed the team to be patient in returning Lehtonen to the fold.

The team is now a mere three points out of the last playoff spot, although 8th placed Toronto has two games in hand over the Thrashers. The good news is that the season is very young. On the day after Christmas two years ago, the Thrashers beat the Lightning to take an eight-point lead in the Southeast Division. The Thrashers responded by winning two of their next 21 games, while the Lightning went on to win the Stanley Cup. The point is that a lot can change over the next several months and the team certainly isn't out of the running for a playoff spot, despite their goaltending issues at the outset of the season. The rest of December, after what ought to be a gimme at home against Washington on Thursday night, is tough: four games against teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference (New Jersey, Montreal, Philly, and Buffalo.)

As for the Hawks, the win over San Antonio does appear to have been a springboard, as the team followed up with wins over Cleveland, New York, and Denver, along with being the victim of a complete screw job at the hands of Steve Javie's screw in Philadelphia. Joe Johnson is stepping into the role of team leader, averaging 24.6 points and 6.4 assists over that timeframe. Al Harrington and Tyronne Lue have been playing fairly well on offense, which has generated open shots for Johnson and his offensive game seems to flow from the threat of hitting threes. (I might have that backwards.) The team struggled for the first quarter of the season because they didn't have a third scoring threat and in their recent hot streak, that third threat has emerged in the unlikely persona of Lue, who has averaged 15.4 points per game during the hot streak, including some big late shots against the Spurs and Nuggets. Given that Lue is probably the same player who answered to that name over the first 7+ years of his career, a sustained period of scoring at that clip (or hitting over 55% from behind the arc, which Lue has done this year) seems unlikely. Still, it'll be fun to see how long the Hawks can ride this whole "Lue as very good player" thing.

Of more import to the Hawks' future, Josh Smith played his best game of the year yesterday. He's developed a reliable jumper, which he didn't have last year, and his passing skills are progressing. (He had a nifty behind-the-back feed to Zaza yesterday on a critical possession towards the end of regulation.) He's always been a good rebounder, but his game seems to be maturing, which is nice for a player who John Hollinger said before the year was statistically most similar to Tracy McGrady after one season at age 18. This leads us to the Al Harrington question. The Hawks are clearly a better team with Harrington, although the upside for the squad is probably 30 wins or so, whereas they're a 20-win team without him. He's a free agent at the end of the year, which means that they need to make a long term decision on him. To my mind, there's no way that they can keep him, since they are committed to Joe Johnson long-term and keeping Harrington would crowd out minutes for Smith, Josh Childress, and Marvin Williams. The only alternative would be to give up on Marvin, but that seems a tad rash 23 games into his NBA career. (Don't think that every Chris Paul highlight doesn't make me wince.) The most likely result is that the team is going to trade Harrington to free up minutes for their young players at the three and the four. The team will be worse initially before the trade and there is a concern that at some stage, they need to start creating and sustaining momentum, rather than continuing to build for the future. Still, I can't see how they can build for the future and keep Harrington long-term.

"Don't Criticize Me When We're Winning."

No, Michael? How about now? How about after a night on which you averaged a robust 3.8 yards per pass attempt and threw two interceptions (although one of them was not an interception, but was rather a dreadful call that made your coach enter the Bobby Knight ballistic zone)? How about after a game in which you led your offense to three points, despite the facts that (1) your starting running back averaged 4.8 yards per carry and (2) your first three possessions started on your own 44, your own 43, and the Bears 35?

Somehow, I knew that Vick was not going to play well last night when the ESPN broadcast opened with a shot of him on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, cowering in a giant parka and looking reluctant to come out and play. The fact that that parka reappeared every time he came over to the bench, usually brought by some flunky whose job it was to make sure that the franchise's star player was warm, added to the comedy of the evening. That was a perfect metaphor for the way the Falcons coddle Vick. From his giant contract extension to Arthur Blank wheeling him around when he had a broken ankle to the team protecting him from the media at every turn to Jim Mora making excuse after excuse for his average play, the Falcons have done everything in their power to make Vick totally unaccountable. Now, they're in a position where they have the highest paid player in the league, he is not playing at an average level, let alone a level commensurate with his salary, and the one factor that justified his sloppy play - the fact that the team generally won when he was under center and generally lost when he wasn't - has ceased to exist. Good luck reaching Mike now.

Meanwhile, let's not blame everything related to the fact that this team is 8-6 on the guy under center. The defense simply is not very good. Maybe Rex Grossman is the second coming of...er...I can't think of a good Bears quarterback from my lifetime. Anyway, the point is that the Falcons made Grossman look like an absolute star last night when he came into the game, with one notable exception: Keion Carpenter's diving interception. Keion being Keion, he followed up a great play with a killing play - a fumble on the team's own one-yard line - and he managed to do so one second after making the interception. Carpenter, Vick, DeAngelo Hall, they're all Hokies and since we're on a metaphorical kick, they represent that program beautifully. One second, they're doing something great and the next second, they can't get out of their own way.

In Vick's defense, this game was always going to be a bad match-up for the Falcons because their offensive line isn't very good and the Bears' defensive line is awesome. Vick rarely had time to throw because his blockers (and I use that term loosely) were getting pushed back into his face on a regular basis. It reminded me of those games against the Bucs back when Tampa had a very good defensive line and Vick was forced to scramble into Derrick Brooks' loving arms on just about every play. Last night, the Falcons needed a quarterback who would take five steps and then fire, because they couldn't protect the pocket for any longer than that. Shockingly enough, Mike Vick is not that guy.

The end of the story is that I turned the TV off after the T.J. Duckett fumble and started reading Richard Evans' "The Coming of the Third Reich" because I thought that might be more uplifting than watching this sorry-ass team. At least the Hawks are cute and lovable when they're losing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Arthur Isn't a Blank Check for the Braves, Har Har Har.

If this article by Tim Tucker is to be believed, then Braves fans are all a'twitter at the prospect of Arthur Blank buying the team (and his non-denial of interest is certainly an encouraging sign.) While Arthur has done a great job with the Falcons, the notion that he's going to ride in on a white horse and re-establish the Braves as one of the biggest spenders in baseball is a pipe dream for several reasons.

The basis of the assumption that Blank will be much better for the Braves than Time-Warner starts with the belief that Time Warner has been bad for the team, but in reality, they've simply been operating as any rational business would. The Braves were one of baseball's big spenders in the mid 90s when they were drawing close to three million fans every year and TBS was a major revenue stream for them. Now, attendance has settled at about 2.4 million every year, which places the Braves in the middle tier of baseball teams, and MLB's rights fees charged to TBS have become onerous, as they want ESPN to be their chief vehicle for showing games nationally. It's far more profitable for teams to show games locally now than it is to take the SuperStation approach. Thus, the Braves have lost the two chief assets - attendance and TBS - that made them one of the richest teams in baseball in the mid 90s. The notion that the Braves should have been spending with the Red Sox and Dodgers, both of which draw more fans, sell more expensive tickets, and have greater local TV revenues, is not right and the resulting criticism of Time Warner was always unfair. Yes, it would be great to have an owner who was willing to take a $20M loss on the team every year in order to field one of the most expensive teams in baseball, but it was impossible to assume that Time Warner would do so, especially since its primary interest is to serve its shareholders and said shareholders would not have been happy to see their dividends diminished so Larry in Kennesaw can watch a $110M roster every night.

Blank would be slightly more likely to take a loss than Time Warner was, since he doesn't have shareholders to answer to and could therefore indulge a little if it made him happy. That said, he didn't become a billionaire by taking losses to assuage his ego. I would be mildly pleased to have an owner who has a personal, emotional stake in the team's success (as Blank clearly does with the Falcons,) but it's important not to overrate how much money Blank would be willing to lose to scratch that emotional itch.

And Blank's personal investment in the team could also be a negative. One advantage of the Time Warner approach was that they stayed out of baseball operations. Like any disinterested investor, they simply set financial parameters and then let the baseball people make decisions. That has been a very successful approach for the team, dating back to the time in the second half of the 80s when Ted Turner reached the same realization and got out of the way so Bobby Cox could start building the franchise. Blank, on the other hand, has been anything but disinterested in his role as the Falcons' owner. The shots of him wheeling Michael Vick around when Vick had a broken ankle are memorable, but what's more troubling for me is the fact that Blank inserted himself into the negotiations with Peerless Price and Keith Brooking, fell in love with both players based on his interactions with them, and was likely a major reason why the Falcons overpaid for both of them (Price moreso than Brooking.) I'm uncomfortable with the idea of Blank inserting himself into negotiations with the Braves, especially since baseball deals have longer term impacts than football deals since the contracts are guaranteed. What if he drives the price of Andruw Jones' renegotiations in a few years because he takes a shine to Andruw and we end up paying through the nose for the tail end of a great career?

(One note in Blank's defense: in a competitive free agent market, his personal touch is often a positive factor for the Falcons. For instance, Pat Dye Jr. and Rod Coleman have both said that Blank's interest in Coleman was a major factor in drawing Rod to sign with the Falcons over the Giants and he has certainly been an excellent addition to the team. An interested owner can make bad decisions, but he can also be more attractive to play for than a nameless corporate monolith.)

Overall, Blank has certainly done a good job with the Falcons. Yes, he has benefited from Michael Vick, who was acquired before he bought the team, but he's also done dozens of little things, from cutting ticket prices to improving Falcons' tailgating from awful to merely mediocre to increasing the team's media profile in the local market, that have made the team far more popular than it was when it was owned by the Smith family. He would likely make the same efforts with the Braves, but it's important not to overrate his potential impact. When he bought the Falcons, they were one of the worst run franchises in the NFL, so a customer-savvy owner was a major difference. The Braves, on the other hand, are one of the best-run franchises in MLB, so his impact would not be as great.

All that said, it would be amusing to see him in his impeccable suits wandering through the home dugout at the Ted, through a miasma of dirt, sunflower seeds, and dip spit.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reason #862 Why ESPN Is Terrible

So the big lead-up to the Rose Bowl on SportsCenter is a competition between this year's USC team and the alleged 11 best teams from the past 50 years? Leaving aside the fact that USC still faces the minor detail of playing the Rose Bowl against unbeaten and largely unchallenged Texas (my goodness, if I were Mack Brown, I'd be furiously sending this link to every one of my players and titling it "guess we shouldn't bother to show up in Pasadena on the 4th,") as well as the fact that Texas might, gasp, be better than USC this year because, gasp again, they have a better defense, how did they come up with this list? More pertinently, how does ESPN not survive the charge that they are biased in favor of the Big Ten when their list of the ten best teams from the past 50 years is the following:

'55 Oklahoma
'69 Texas
'79 Alabama
'88 Notre Dame
'94 Penn State
'95 Nebraska
'97 Michigan
'99 Florida State
'01 Miami
'02 Ohio State

When a Big Ten grad accuses you of being hopelessly biased in favor of Big Ten teams, then you have a real problem. This is exactly the sort of "promote the popular schools with whom the Disney conglomerate has an exclusive contract" behavior that LD at the nattily-named Corporate Headquarters of the San Antonio Gunslingers has been ably railing against all year.

(As a preliminary note, ESPN picked only one team per school, so in their defense, they aren't saying that '02 Ohio State was better than '71 Nebraska, since ESPN already listed the '95 Huskers.)

What are my specific problems with the list? Got an hour? Let's start with the fact that Big Ten teams have won a grand total of two national titles since 1968, but there are three teams from that period on the list. Look, I have an irrational love for the '97 Michigan team that borders on a DSM Axis-II Disorder, mainly because I was seriously worried that I was going to spend my whole life rooting for Michigan and never see them win a national title, but I'm just not convinced that they were one of the ten best teams of the past 50 years. One of the ten best defenses? Absolutely. However, that offense was just too limited. 21 points in the Rose Bowl, 20 points against Ohio State, 26 points against Wisconsin, etc., and that was all with a defense that consistently gave them good field position by forcing opponents to go three and out. Washington '91 is on ESPN's wild card list and I'd be lying if I said that '97 Michigan could beat '91 Washington anywhere but my Playstation (and of course, that match-up has been played on several occasions.)

And that said, Michigan '97 was better than the other two Big Ten entrants on the list. '94 Penn State was the inverse of '97 Michigan - great offense, average defense - but (1) a great defense usually beats a great offense, and (2) if the voters in 1994 didn't think that Penn State was the best team THAT SEASON, then how can they be on a list of the ten best? Alternatively, if we're disregarding the voters and simply going based on how good a team was, then '02 Ohio State might not even be on a list of the five best Ohio State teams of the past 50 years. From my lifetime, the '98 Bucks would have killed the '02 Bucks because they, oh, how shall I put this, had an offense good enough that they didn't require miracles to beat the mediocre teams on their schedule. I refuse to believe that a team that required a dropped winning touchdown pass by Cincin-frickin-nati could be one of the ten best of the past 50 years. I strongly suggest that ESPN spring for the cost of one of their fancy new encyclopedias so their web site staff can read up on the '68 Bucks, who only went unbeaten, beat an 8-1 Michigan team 50-14 with the Big Ten title on the line, and then beat previously unbeaten USC (and Heisman winner O.J. Simpson) by 11 in the Rose Bowl.

While every decent Big Ten team from the recent past finds their way onto the list, SEC teams are strangely absent. I guess ESPN figured that they couldn't make the list without including an Alabama team (although Tide fans might prefer the '61 team over the '79 team, but that's a minor issue,) but that's apparently the only SEC program worth mentioning. '80 Georgia is on the auxiliary list, as is '57 Auburn and '98 Tennessee (a team that was completely indistinguishable from '02 Ohio State, but they're not from the Big Ten, so they must have been lucky rather than gutty.) Inexplicably, '96 Florida, which I put in my personal pantheon along with '91 Washington, '95 Nebraska and '01 Miami, isn't on ANY of the lists, but '84 BYU, the weakest national champion of my lifetime, is on the second list. ("We can piss on Southerners 'till the cows come home, but let's not get an avalanche of angry Mormons!") '58 LSU? Missing. '62 Ole Miss? Missing. And where are those glorious South Carolina teams that won the Outback Bowl? (OK, kidding on that one.)

In conclusion, I would threaten to boycott SportsCenter for running such a shoddy, biased, premature promotion, but I'm not watching the show anyway and riding up to Bristol to throw Smokey's droppings on the front gate seems a little rash.

Examining my NFL Ennui

Sunday afternoon, with the Falcons playing on Monday night and the TV therefore full of good NFL viewing options, I assembled a desk, chair, and computer while listening to the Thrashers game. Sunday evening, the wife and I went to a holiday party (waiting for the wrath of Bill O'Reilly in 5, 4, 3...) where the Chiefs-Cowboys game was on a giant HD screen and yet, I didn't watch any of the game, instead opting to chatter about a co-worker's revelations about her partner and his equipment. Last night, with the Falcons playing an important Monday night game, I watched about one quarter of the game, instead deciding to watch an Ali G DVD (I'm about two years behind in incorporating "Respek!" and "Booyahkahsha!" into my lexicon) and then go to sleep with the Birds leading by four in the third quarter. You would think that this would be an ideal time to be a Falcons fan, with the franchise poised for its first back-to-back winning seasons ever and Mr. Excitement closing in on a second straight season without a major injury. And yet, I can't really muster up the desire to watch a game from start to finish. Is there something wrong with me? Did my Sunday afternoon with Lifetime (scroll to the bottom) function as chemical castration? I'm looking for answers:

1. The combination of a demanding job and a wife have forced me to prioritize my sports viewing options. This seems like the most obvious explanation. Since I've been zealously guarding my fall Saturdays as a holy day, and probably drag Andrea to about 25 Braves, Hawks, and Thrashers games over the course of a year, some things simply have to be trimmed and my NFL watching was the most obvious candidate for cutting. I can roll my chores (like "assemble this desk and don't worry if the instructions are in Portuguese") into Sundays.

2. Falcons tickets are hard to get and I don't get that excited about a team that I can't watch in person. Tickets to the cities' other teams are easy (Hawks tickets are easy like Morganna's boobs were big) and so I go watch them, but the Falcons are a tough ticket. That said, I've always found the experience of Falcons games, even when the game is good, to be underwhelming. The idea of tailgating in a giant gulch underneath an overpass never struck me as the Platonic ideal of pre-game festivities. Plus, I found over the years that I got sleepy at Falcons games, most likely because the NFL has destroyed any flow from its games by the constant commercial breaks. (One of my aspirations is to do a study of how many plays are run in the average college football game as opposed to the average NFL game. I'm convinced that the NFL crams more commercials into the time slots for its games by having the clock run [by rule] almost constantly, but the braying American public hasn't noticed, probably because they're too busy marveling over the mystery of their own navels.) This is also a reason why I wasn't interested in watching a game on Sunday. Inevitably, the endless commercials drive me away until I get sucked in by one of the Die Hard movies on FX for the 7,000th time. (I am SUCH a sucker for a German villain.) The other deterrent from going to a Falcons game is that I feel like I'm being manipulated from start to finish. Cheer now! Order a Coors Light now! Look at the kid baby on the scoreboard now! Yell "Defense!" now! It all seems like such manufactured excitement. Everything about the NFL is plastic, right down to the cheerleaders' chests. Hell, I'll just make this a separate heading...

3. I don't really love this Falcons team, despite the fact that they're hyped to the nines in the local market. I still feel conflicted about Michael Vick because he's a good player, but not a superstar and the Falcons are paying him to be the latter. His enormous cap number is going to make it hard to assemble a championship team around him. Also, his standoffishness this year, specifically the "don't criticize me if we're winning," is less than endearing. DeAngelo Hall has also developed an attitude, pining for a Pro Bowl trip while missing tackles on a regular basis. (That said, he is clearly the team's best DB, but that's more of an indictment of the rest of the secondary.) Generally, the defense is very young, which means that they're athletic, but they don't know how to tackle and they're often moving very fast in the wrong direction. This team is not a threat to go to the Super Bowl, so really, the only major goal for the season is to finish with a winning record. (Is a wild card and out season really that different from 9-7 and no playoffs?)

4. There are too many things about the NFL that irk me, such as:

a. The announcing teams. Is there a single announcing team that isn't some degree of annoying? The fact that the second-most prominent NFL broadcast - the Sunday night game - is manned by a crew that's more universally panned than Battlefield Earth says all that needs to be said about the NFL. Is there room for one Ron Franklin in the NFL, an understated guy who provides the information a play-by-play guy is supposed to offer and does so with a modicum of class? Would Pat Summerall be hired today or would a studio exec be too busy trying to find the next Kevin Harlan to hyperventilate every time a three-yard pass is completed?

b. The erosion of free broadcasts as a viable option, combined with DirectTV's monopoly on Sunday Ticket. What other sport does so much to screw its TV watching fans through arcane rules that deprive them of good match-ups on free TV (Why can't I watch another game when the Falcons are at home and the game is a sell-out? Why is Jacksonville considered Atlanta's "home" AFC team?) and then refuse to let cable systems sell the Sunday Ticket package? I'm not going to friggin' get DirectTV because Paul Tagliabue says I need to. And is this related to the fact that halftime shows show so few highlights these days?

c. I know that punditry for most sports is filled with banal statements these days, but the NFL seems to be a refugee camp for idiots. How does Michael Irvin have a prominent role as an analyst? And who likes Sean Salisbury propounding yet again with gusto about how the quarterback has to be the leader of the team? And if Peter King is the dean of NFL journalists, then why does he manage to piss me off every week with some new OUTRAGE!!!

d. The fact that the League holds every market hostage for a new stadium and has kept a team out of the second largest market in America for years as leverage. I perceive the NFL as a Republican sport and it's a perfect metaphor for Bush conservatism, in that it holds itself up to be the representation of American values, but a good chunk of its profits come from the government teat. (In a cynical way, maybe that is a good representation of American values.)

e. The uniforms. I had no idea that Any Given Sunday was going to be so precient. The Falcons' old uniforms were sharp; their new ones look like the result of a kindergarteners' finger-painting. Gaudi would love them (although he wouldn't approve of the colors.)

5. I'll freely admit that I'm something of a contrarian on the NFL, as it has never been more popular. In fact, that might be why I'm rebelling against it. I feel like it's being forced down my throat in a dozen different ways and, whereas I was always happy to be a college football fan first and an NFL fan second, I now feel like I'm a college football fan as opposed to being an NFL fan because they represent two different ideals, a game marked by tradition and played by young men who give a damn as opposed to a game marked by ruthless profit-making and played by guys who are as loyal as the whisperings in their ears by Drew Rosenhaus.

All this being said, I'll probably pay attention once the playoffs start, just like I do with every sport other than the one where the playoffs start in week one.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Assorted Thoughts

Braves - Yet again, Schuerholtz shows how to operate properly within the confines of a budget. The Braves are getting Edgar Renteria for three years at $6M per season, or less than half what the Dodgers are paying for Rafael Furcal. Here are Furcal's OPS numbers for the past three years: .710, .794, .758, .777. And here are Renteria's: .803, .874, .728, .721. Edgar is two years older than Furcal, so his last two seasons might be evidence of the beginning of his decline, especially if he's older than 30. However, is Furcal really worth twice as much as Renteria? I'm quite willing to write off Edgar's 2005 season to transition problems to the AL, as well as playing in a more demanding, negative environment (and Edgar has added the Fenway infield as a culprit,) but he mediocre 2004 with St. Louis is cause for concern that last year was not a blip on the radar. Giving up Andy Marte was inevitable, as he's blocked at third base by Chipper for the foreseeable future and he would lose some of his value at first or in the outfield. His pedestrian AAA numbers last year, along with his struggles in Winter Ball this year, make the loss of the Braves' former top prospect a little easier to live with.

The question now turns to the closer spot. The free agent market was never going to be a solution, since it is badly inflated at all positions this year, and especially at closer after the Blue Jays lost all sense of proportion with their signing of B.J. Ryan. (The Jays remind me of a teenager first learning to drink this off-season. It's like they get to do something new and they are showing their naivete by drinking 11 Gatorade & Vodkas in one sitting, not realizing where they're going to end up in a few hours.) One option might be to find a good starter and move Smoltz back to the closer spot, although I suspect that he'll resist that move. The second option is to trade for one and the Braves certainly have the chips to do so, although they would have to find a willing partner. The third option is to find a closer on the staff, but I'm not sold on the idea of rolling Joey Devine or Macay McBride out there right now.

Hawks - Was the solution for the team's woes a threatened ziggy for Mike Woodson? The team responded to the rumored demise of their coach by beating San Antonio, a team that was merely 13.5 games ahead of the Hawks one-quarter of the way into the season. The result illustrated the "Josh Childress as Rafael Furcal" hypothesis. JC was the best player on the court in the fourth quarter and the team rallied to its best win in ages. When Childress does not play well, which is unfortunately a majority of the time, the team loses. The result, in a weird way, also serves as something of an indictment of Mike Woodson. If his team is good enough to beat the best team in the league, or beat the Pacers on the road, then shouldn't it be good enough to be better than 3-16? Or do we simply chalk those wins up to "anything is possible in the NBA"? Is Woodson failing to motivate the team, so they play well where the motivation is provided by a quality opponent, i.e. the Michigan State factor? Who the hell knows.

The World Cup Draw - Grant Wahl had the same reaction that I did when the U.S. was drawn with the Czech Republic: this is just like the Portugal match from 2002. A talented European side without a World Cup pedigree, but coming off of a very strong performance at the most recent European Cup and led by an outstanding left-sided midfielder who's getting up there in years and this is therefore his last big chance on the biggest stage. Wahl's distinguishing factor is that the U.S. isn't going to sneak up on anyone after making the quarters in the last tournament. Mine is that the Czechs have Peter Cech, the best goalie in the world, between the sticks instead of the pedestrian Vitor Baia. The US is going to see Cech and Gianluigi Buffon in their first two matches, so quality shooting is going to be absolutely critical. (Seeing Kasey Keller in practice will be good preparation.) Italy is also not an overly imposing foe, at least in the group stages, because they traditionally start tournaments very slowly. Hell, in South Korea, they couldn't beat Mexico in their last group game when they needed a win and the Mexicans had already clinched the group, and then they failed to get out of their group at Euro '04 in Portugal. This team is not unbeatable. They are solid in the back and have some very good strikers, but they're soft in the middle.

All that said, the Czechs and Italians all have stars from the biggest leagues in Europe. Even Ghana has Michael Essien, who is better on the European stage than any American player. The U.S. is going to have to ride great goalkeeping and Bruce Arena's tactical nous (a term that I've never heard outside of the soccer context) to get out of the group. And if they finish second, then they almost certainly draw Brazil, so the US's suspect defensive right side can match up with Ronaldinho. Yay!

Friday, December 09, 2005

More Gang of Six Debate

HeismanPundit was kind enough to respond to the argument that USC's offense is not especially complicated. My responses are below.

First of all, the argument that you 'impaled' was not mine, but College Football Resource's.

Sorry. Got my "Boise State is going to beat Georgia and it won't be close" authors mixed up. My bad.

Second, I think you have a real misunderstanding of what my whole 'Gang of Six' argument was about. It was basically that these six teams--each of them at different strata in the college football universe--were better than they would be otherwise thanks to their offensive systems, each of which are/were revolutionary in their own way. Unfortunately, people took it to mean that I was saying these teams were unbeatable or something. That's not what I was saying at all. I was merely pointing out that if it weren't for their system--if they ran a simple SEC-style offense, for instance--Boise would never have even been in the conversation at the beginning of the year as to whether they could beat Georgia. They would not have been ranked. Thanks to their system, they WERE ranked and only a six point underdog. They certainly weren't a six point dog because people thought they had legitimate talent. The system made their lack of talent better. That is the point of the Gang of Six. It was that those teams were better than they would be otherwise.

The basic point that certain teams run better offensive systems than others is incontestable, but the flaw in HP's reasoning, as well as in the Gang of Six model in general, is that it has no value. If the teams in the Gang of Six really run better offensive schemes than the rest of college football, then why is their success somewhat variable? Let's look at last year's Gang of Five and how they performed this year:

USC - Possibly the best offense since the 1945 Army team, despite losing their offensive coordinator. (His loss, if scheme was more important than talent, should have caused USC some heartburn.) As one personnel director said, their scheme has little to do with their success.

Boise State - Got shut down by Georgia and Fresno State, despite returning most of their offense. Apparently, their scheme can be defended after all, including by a Fresno team that does not have a good defense and does not have much more talent than Boise State.

Louisville - Productively offensively (as one would expect when they replaced their quarterback and running back with blue chippers Bush and Brohm,) but as West Virginia and South Florida showed, not unstoppable.

Florida - Ah, the real piece of evidence against the Gang of Six. A scheme that ripped the Mountain West to shreds was thoroughly ineffective in the SEC, finishing 62nd in the country in total offense (despite returning every significant starter other than Ciatrick Fason) and reducing the head coach to tears in Baton Rouge. Apparently, SEC defenses aren't good solely because they play against simple offenses.

Cal - 31st in total offense, aided in part by a ridiculously easy out-of-conference schedule (although, in their defense, they probably didn't know that Illinois was going to commit seppuku by hiring Ron Zook.) Interestingly, every team in the low-tech Big Ten met or exceeded the 35 points that Cal put up on the Illini.

Anyone can pick out the top offenses in the country and then claim that they're more sophisticated, but what value does that designation have if those offenses often fail to repeat their success the following year? And this would be even more evident if we went back and looked at programs that would have been labeled as "Gang of Five" in past years. Joe Tiller, anyone? How about the Tennessee offenses of the Peyton Manning era, which met all of the criteria for membership other than underuse of backs and tight ends? Or Ralph Friedgen's Maryland/Georgia Tech offenses, which met all of the criteria?

Look at Gang of Six member Notre Dame as a perfect example. In 2004's system, they were shit. In 2005 with a new system, they are very good. What is the common denominator?

A crappy prior regime? HP will get no disagreement from these quarters that Charlie Weis has worked wonders with the Notre Dame offense, but let's also acknowledge two points:

1. Notre Dame's prior offensive regime was complete crap.

2. Notre Dame's offense is replete with blue chip high school talent. Just about every starter on the offense was a four- or five-star recruit in high school. Moreover, the offense was almost exclusively comprised of juniors and seniors. Thus, Weis was stepping into a perfect situation to turn the offense around.

But if we want to quibble, Notre Dame probably fails on the "run when the other team knows you're running" part of the test, as the Irish were an underwhelming 49th in the country in rush offense and averaged only 3.68 yards per carry.

As for USC, to say they don't do anything revolutionary is silly. I can care less what a single scout says. There were scouts in the Sporting News that said that USC had no chance to beat Oklahoma last year, that Leinart was overrated, etc. I know several scouts personally and most of them don't know shit. So, just because you can quote a scout who says otherwise does not prove anything. The fact that a ton of teams around the country are trying to use their backs in the same manner as Bush is used at USC is proof alone that the Trojan offense has been influential.

Note that the quote was not from a scout, but rather from a "personnel man," which is a step up from your average rank-and-file scout. There's also a big difference between making observations about USC's offensive system, which is exactly the kind of thing that a scout or personnel man can do well, and then making predictions, which are difficult for anyone, especially for a game like the Orange Bowl between teams with divergent styles and no common opponents. And the fact that USC is copied doesn't mean that the sophistication of their offense is the primary reason for their success, rather than their overwhelming talent.

If you think that USC is just out-talenting people to win 34 in a row, then you have your head in the sand. USC has a lot of talent, but so do Texas, LSU, Tennessee, etc. It is USC's system, combined with that talent, that has made them untouchable. To ignore that is just ignoring reality.

Did I not say that coaching, especially on the defensive side of the ball, was a major reason for USC's success? Did I not mention Paul Hackett? Reading comprehension, my man. My point is simply that USC's offensive scheme isn't THAT revolutionary and that the "Gang of Six" concept is mostly useless as a predictive tool.

So, once again to recap: The Gang of Six theory does not ignore defense or other factors in football. It merely picked out six teams that had separated themselves in offensive sophistication, with the result being a rise in their program's success. USC is an elite school, but was struggling until the system arrived. Cal was shit for years and suddenly got good. Now, it is to the point where they can lose a first round pick at QB and have a bad replacement, but the system still enables them to go 7-4 (coulda easily went 9-2, but lost a couple last minute games). As disappointing as Louisville has been, they replaced Shelton and the nation's pass efficiency leader and went 9-2. Think it was because of talent or that system that kept them together? Boise went 8-3, but they have serious talent problems. If they ran a straight I formation, they are a 5-6 team, easy.

I can agree with most of that, although I also point out that Michael Bush and Brian Brohm were significant talent upgrades over their predecessors, so L'ville didn't exactly have to overcome Herculean odds to have a good offense this year.

Again, if you have impaled any theory, it wasn't mine.

It's hard to say what I'm impaling these days.

One other thing: If just having better players than everyone else means you win every game, then why isn't LSU undefeated right now? Why does any less talented team beat more talented teams? It happens all the time. Like I said, not all scouts are phi beta kappa.

See above, Reading Comp Scholar. I'm not denying that coaching has a major effect, but HP still overstates the complexity of USC (and others') offense relative to the rest of the country.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

An Interesting Nugget on USC

This quote from a "veteran [NFL] personnel man" caught my eye in Don Banks' article on why Reggie Bush is in the lead to be the #1 pick in the Draft ahead of Matt Leinart:

"But with that team [USC], if you watch it closely, the guy that stirs that drink is the tailback. The guy is clearly the factor. They don't do anything revolutionary on offense. They just have better players than anyone else. They're backed up on their goal line, but they give him the ball on a simple hand-off and he goes 70 yards. He's a special player."

Gee, that sure seems inconsistent with Heismanpundit's "Gang of Six" Hypothesis that we impaled this off-season. It's a lot more fun to imagine that your program wins because it has smarter coaches and more sophisticated schemes as opposed to simply having better talent as a result of sitting in one of the most talent-rich areas in the country and having little or no competition for the talent in that region. Anyway, this quote piles more dirt on the "Gang of Six" hypothesis, not that Urban Meyer's struggles at Florida or Boise State's destruction in Athens didn't already do the job. (Heck, Les Miles always had effective offenses at Oklahoma State and his more talented LSU team couldn't get out of their own way for much of the year, which means that either SEC defenses are actually tough [and not the product of getting to play weak offenses] or the Big XII gets thrown into the mix with the SEC as a conference full of neanderthals who don't know how to script beautiful plays while sipping a lovely pinot grigio.)

Upon re-reading the paragraph above, I do want to point out that USC isn't guaranteed success because of their proximity to talent (see: the Paul Hackett era) and they do have a very good coaching staff. Coaching is still important and there are differences between USC's staff and the staffs of most other college football teams. I do think that Heismanpundit overstates the differences between the USC offensive scheme and offensive schemes throughout the rest of the country. He also seems to misunderstand the primary reason why his own program is so successful: unlike the rest of their conference, they can play defense. That's what separates USC from the UCLA and Oregon teams that were on top of the league in the late 90s. Pete Carroll is an excellent defensive strategist and he has loads of talent with which to work. Great defense has always been the common thread for national championship teams and it's Carroll's work on that side of the ball, rather than some sort of revolutionary offensive concept, that has USC going for a three-peat in the Rose Bowl.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Top 25, Plus a Statistical Comparison of USC and Texas on Defense

1. Southern Cal
2. Texas
3. Penn State
4. Ohio State
5. Auburn
6. Georgia
7. Miami (Florida)
8. Oregon
9. Notre Dame
10. Virginia Tech
11. West Virginia
12. Louisiana State
13. TCU
14. Alabama
15. Texas Tech
16. Georgia Tech
17. Florida
18. Iowa
19. Louisville
20. Michigan
21. Boston College
22. UCLA
23. Oklahoma
24. Wisconsin
25. Clemson

Greater Los Angeles can breathe again; I've restored Southern Cal to the #1 spot in my rankings. They were #2 because they didn't give any sign of having a national championship caliber defense over the course of the season, but now, after they shut down one of the better offenses in the country, I'm sold. (And this will at least give us yokels some ammo the next time Heismanpundit makes reference to USC's shelling of Arkansas; the Trojans beat the #3 team in the Pac Ten in similar fashion.) That said, I ran a few numbers to see if USC's relatively pedestrian defensive numbers are truly the result of having played better offenses and the answer is only "somewhat," mainly in comparison to Texas:


Scoring Defense - 21.3
Opponents' Scoring Average - 28.81
Differential - 7.51

Total Defense - 344.67
Opponents' Average Offensive Yardage - 422.71
Differential - 78.04

Yards Per Play Allowed - 5.04
Opponents' Yard Per Play Gained - 5.39
Differential - .35

Turnovers Gained Per Game - 3.08
Opponents' Turnovers Lost Per Game - 1.68
Differential - 1.4


Scoring Defense - 14.6
Opponents' Scoring Average - 26.99
Differential - 12.39

Total Defense - 280.33
Opponents' Average Offensive Yardage - 376.17
Differential - 95.84

Yards Per Play Allowed - 4.13
Opponents' Yard Per Play Gained - 5.26
Differential - 1.13

Turnovers Gained - 2.08
Opponents' Turnovers Lost Per Game - 2.14
Differential - (.06)

Texas is better in every defensive category, even when opponents' offenses are included. They have healthy advantages over USC in scoring differentials and yards per play differentials and a slighter advantage in yards per game differentials. The one startling finding, though, is that USC is far better at forcing turnovers and, in fact, Texas forced fewer turnovers than their opponents average per game, despite Gene Chizik's reputation as a pressure-creating fool. The turnover stat, combined with Pete Carroll's record with a month to prepare, homefield advantage, and an offense producing at a world historical clip, are enough for me to rank USC #1 and predict that they'll win the Rose Bowl.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Tale of Three Nights

Friday Night - The Nadir

It takes a real confluence of events for the Hawks, a team that hasn't come close to a playoff berth since 1999, to say that they've truly reached the bottom of the barrel, but Friday night was unquestionably it. The Hawks met the Raptors in a battle of the teams with the worst combined records (minimum of 30 games) in NBA history. Philips Arena was, predictably, empty at tipoff (I estimated about 4,000) fans and the crowd only grew to about 8,000 at its peak. The Hawks started the game by digging an 8-2 deficit, at which point my "STOP THE BLEEDING" plea was heard by the entire arena. It wasn't just that the Hawks were being whipped by a 1-14 team; it was that they were sloppy with the ball on offense and then weren't getting back on defense. Anyway, despite some valiant fighting, the Hawks managed to lose the "G-d, We Suck!!!" Bowl, at home, no less. And you want more reasons to be pessimistic? That's what I'm here for:

1. The contrast between Chris Bosh (#4 pick in 2003) and Charlie Villaneuva (#7 pick in 2005), who are Toronto's best players, and Josh Childress (#6 pick in 2004) and Marvin Williams (#2 pick in 2005) was night and day. Childress got plenty of minutes down the stretch because he's played fairly good defense recently, but he's still a waste on offense. Williams played like he'd never touched a basketball and got rejected twice by Villaneuva (who has only one year of experience on him) on one possession.

2. Toronto scored easily on nicely designed plays down the stretch when they needed baskets. The Hawks, on the other hand, were reduced to Joe Johnson, who otherwise played superbly and exploited the fact that the Raptors are weak at shooting guard, throwing up crazy shots on one-on-one moves. What does that say about our coaching. And another thing: Woodson went with Tyronne Lue, who couldn't score in a women's prison with a fistful of pardons, down the stretch instead of Salim and paid for it when Lue nervously passed on an open three on a critical possession. As if to remind Woodson of his mistake, Salim then nailed a three at the buzzer to make the final margin one.

The highlight of the night was the fact that our section won free burritos from Chipotle Grill. So I have that going for me, which is nice.

Saturday Night - LSWho?

I let that stat on the team with the better record always winning the SEC Championship Game color my intuition that this LSU team isn't really that good. It's telling that I don't know a single LSU grad who was happy with Les Miles, even though he had guided the Tigers to a 10-1 season. Sometimes, the eyes don't lie and LSU was not an overly impressive team. The signs were all there for us: they couldn't defend Arizona State, they lost at home to a bad Tennessee team, they were extremely fortunate to beat Auburn, they beat an overrated Alabama team, they had a narrow escape against Arkansas, and they were poor in the sloppiness categories (turnovers and penalties.)

Georgia took advantage in a major way. LSU showed weakness from the start of the season in that their defenders clearly did not know what they were doing in zone coverage (the Tennessee game comes to mind immediately) and Georgia exploited an easily-flummoxed secondary ruthlessly. The deep passes on first down play action for which I pleaded against Tech led to the first two touchdowns. (Was Richt setting LSU up with his playcalling in the Tech game? Did he realize his mistake prior to the LSU game? Was LSU's secondary more susceptible to those sorts of tricks?) A beautiful special teams gambit led to the third touchdown and then LSU was in a position from which they could not extricate themselves: a deficit against a very good defense with a shaky quarterback. The second half was a somewhat uneventful buzzkill, not unlike the second half against Arkansas in the 2002 SEC Championship Game blowout, other than Tim Jennings welcoming Matt Flynn to the big time with a pick six.

The game also illustrated that, as much as I want to grab Lloyd Carr by the lapels some times and scream at him to stop getting all dreamy-eyed when talking about field position, it does matter where you start a drive. Georgia took a death grip on the game with three first half touchdown drives that totaled 111 yards. They illustrated that the playbook is a lot wider when you have the ball in the opponent's end of the field. Credit goes to the Georgia special teams, both for setting the offense up and for pinning LSU back with great punts, and the Georgia defense for refusing to allow the Tigers an inch when they backed them up.

Anyway, these numbers are pretty impressive for Mark Richt:

Georgia under Richt - 51-12 (.810), two SEC Titles, three divisional titles.

Georgia in the decade before Richt - 76-40-1 (.654), no SEC titles, no divisional titles.

I know that I'm catching Richt at a high point right now and he's benefited from the rest of the division slipping and comparing him to Goff and Donnan isn't the steepest comparison, but the guy may well turn out to be Georgia's Mack Brown.

Sunday Night in the McBoob

The wife and I went to see UVA, our grad school alma mater and a school that used to be able to field competent hoops teams back in the day, take on Georgia Tech. I expected the worst, since everything I've read on the Hoos said that Pete Gillen left the program bereft of talent, other than a pretty good point guard Sean Singletary and a semi-competent shooting guard in J.R. Reynolds, and that Dave Leitao will have to be John Wooden and David Copperfield rolled into one to get this team to six ACC wins. Sure enough, the team got off to a 29-13 deficit and ended the first half shooting 21% with 12 turnovers. Then, oddly enough, they rallied in the second half, mainly because they were crashing the glass with a motley crew of forwards like a good fourth line chasing the puck and generally acting like pests and because they got into the bonus early and starting marching to the stripe. UVA lost by only nine and at one point got to within four, despite the fact that Singletary was eaten up defensively by Zam Frederick and DeAndre Bell, Reynolds was similarly useless, and the team got all retro by not making a three-pointer all night.

Other observations:

1. Tech fans bitch about every call that goes against them. (I need to get tickets to a home game against Duke some time to see what happens when they do actually get railroaded by the refs.) And yet, to illustrate the loudest boos of the night, I offer a juxtaposition: if you're going to San Francisco...

Scott McKenzie: "be sure to wear some flowers in your hair"


All that said, I had forgotten how much fun a game at the Thrillerdome can be. Hawks games had disabused me of the notion that basketball crowds should pay attention and be loud, so it was nice to have a reminder.

2. I'm probably insane, but RaSean Dickey reminds me a little of Chris Bosh. Maybe it's simply that he's a tall, lanky inside player with touch. He needs the ball more.

3. Is it fair to say that you've seen a poorly-played game when the teams combine for 15 assists and 34 turnovers? Or at least a game in which both point guards played like poo?

4. Maybe I just caught Tech on a cold shooting night, but I'll be interested to see what happens when a team plays zone on them. As a team they're very athletic, but they lack shooters, especially if Anthony Morrow isn't hitting or the opposing defense plays a lot of attention to him.

5. Please tell me that one of you watched the game on TV and heard someone yell "PLEASE MISS!!!" when the arena was dead silent during a Tech free throw in the second half. Yup, that was me and yup, the wife was embarrassed. I might have to watch another Lifetime movie with her to make up for it. (If you ever get the chance to take in Every Mother's Worst Fear, which is naturally that their daughters will meet a man over the internet and that man will be working for Jefferson Darcy from Married with Children, who will auction them off on the internet and then try to kill them when they mouth off to him, please do so.)

Say Goodbye to Rafael

Three years and $39M? Enjoy. I liked Raffy as much as most Braves fans, but he's not worth roughly 15% of the Braves' payroll. Now, with the money that they were throwing at Furcal, the Braves have some flexibility in their free agent plans. Personally, I would lock Giles up long-term with the money that was targeted to Furcal, especially because the free agent market this year is grossly inflated as a result of the low number of quality free agents and the fact that teams are flush with cash after MLB distributed revenues from XM and the internet, as well as the potential sale of the Nationals. That said, I'd be willing to bet that Schuerholtz is going to add a significant name through a trade, as the Braves' farm system is flush with quality prospects and the team has some ability to take on payroll after Chipper restructured his contract and insurance is covering Mike Hampton's year with Dr. Andrews.

As for the Dodgers, this deal makes no sense long-term. They're so desperate to spend money to make headlines in Los Angeles that they just spent significant money when they're one of the few teams in the NL that has a shortstop in Furcal's class. You don't sign a big ticket free agent because one of your existing stars is going to miss half the season (unless they know that Cesar Izturis' arm is never going to be the same again and they were going to move him to second base, anyway.)

And speaking of questionable free agent signings, this is not what I wanted to see 16 games into the Hawks' '05-'06 season.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Annual ACC-SEC Debate

During my days as a PigskinPost.com columnist, I argued repeatedly with ACC fans who claimed that their league was better because they had the upperhand in the three rivalry games played in November: Georgia/Georgia Tech, Clemson/South Carolina, and Florida/Florida State. I never got over the irony of an SEC fan using computer rankings to show a number of Techies that the SEC was much stronger from top to bottom and that a sample size of hundreds of games was far more significant than a sample size of three. (And if they only knew that I got a mere 4 on the AP Calculus AB exam and dropped Statistics 402 at Michigan because I didn't like it.)

Anyway, as the AJC notes this morning, the tables are now reversed. (I implore you to take a look at some of the reasons offered by SEC fans for why the conference is better in the accompanying comment thread. Sure enough, facilities and fan support are the first reasons offered. Also, we have a prediction that Penn State will pummel Virginia Tech [as if that makes the SEC better], a "The ACC is for girly men" gem, and a number of tautological "we're better because we play harder schedules because...we're better" statements.) The SEC had a slight 3-2 edge in the overrated category of head-to-head performance, but the ACC dominated the SEC in every computer rating. Off the top of my head, it's easy to see why: the bottom of the SEC is terrible this year. The SEC is only going to be able to fill six of its eight bowl slots because the bottom half of the league ranges from pretty bad (Arkansas, Vandy, and Tennessee) to wretched (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Kentucky). The conference ratings in the computers are typically averages of the teams in a given conference and when half of your league is in some category of "sucks," then your overall league ranking is going to be poor. In contrast, the ACC has one terrible team, but the rest of the league is competitive and their top two teams are as good as the top two in any other league. The ACC has ten teams in the top 50 of Jerry Palm's expanded BCS ratings (subscription required and recommended); the SEC has six.

The SEC's record against non-conference opposition is also affected by the gulf between their upper and lower halves. The upper half of the conference was perfect in their non-conference games, save for Auburn's loss to Georgia Tech (likely attributable to Brandon Cox's growing pains and the Auburn coaches' failure to identify Kenny Irons as their best runner) and South Carolina's loss to Clemson, a team that must just have the Cocks' number at this stage. The lower half were roundly beaten by quality out-of-conference opponents.

All of this will be small consolation for the ACC when their much-hyped first conference title game is played to no national hype and (one would surmise, given Florida State's collapse) empty seats in Jacksonville. And the game will take place opposite the SEC Title Game, which has two evenly-matched participants and promises to be a far more compelling evening of football. As a measure of interest in the two games, I took a quick glance at stubhub.com and noted that the cheapest listed ticket for the inaugural ACC Title Game is $90 and the cheapest ticket for the 14th SEC Title Game is $286. Thank you, Jeff Bowden. Interestingly, I don't think that demand would be much higher if the league pitted its two best teams - Miami and Virginia Tech - in the game because Miami fans don't travel anywhere (including their own home stadium.) Again, we come back to the fact that SEC football generates more intensity and interest, which is why we love it so, but we also have to wonder why we aren't getting more bang for our considerable bucks in terms of a deeper conference.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Terence Moore: Genius, Part Deux

When I was struggling with the practice of law in my first year out of law school and was considering going into sports journalism, one of the factors that made me stay with the law was realizing that newspaper columnists essentially have tenure like college professors. There are rarely any openings for columnists in major newspapers because it's impossible to get rid of a columnist, no matter how illogical or idiotic his columns are. (Impossible probably isn't the right word. Unlikely might be a better way to describe the possibility of firing a columnist.)

To illustrate this conclusion, Terence Moore offers yet another entry in his pantheon of bad ideas. With the Braves likely to lose Rafael Furcal, Moore has come up with the brilliant idea that the team should liberate Juan Pierre from the burning, listing-to-starboard hulk that is the Miami, Florida baseball franchise. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here's why that's a terrible idea:

1. The Braves have a centerfielder. You may have heard of him. Moving Pierre to left is a New York Mets-type move, paying a premium for two centerfielders (it's one of the most expensive positions to fill in baseball because there are so few players that can play it defensively and still hit) and only playing one of them out there. Pierre has a career .730 OPS. That's fine in centerfield, but it's significantly below average in leftfield. It is lower than the OPS of either Kelly Johnson (.731) or Ryan Langerhans (.774), the Braves' proposed platoon for left field this year. In other words, Pierre would be an offensive step back for the Braves. Pierre does steal bases, but his career stolen base percentage is 73.6%, and as numerous analysts have shown, a player needs to steal at a clip of 75% or greater for the endeavor to be worthwhile. Also, Pierre turns 29 this season; anyone want to wager on whether he'll get faster or slower as he ages? I suppose that if the Braves got Pierre for next-to-nothing, it wouldn't be the worst deal in the world, but if they gave up anything useful (other than one of the leftfielders who will be relegated to the bench with Pierre's arrival,) then it would be a bad deal.

2. How on earth does a claim like this get past a fact-checker:

"In fact, it was Pierre's considerable energy that did the most to propel the Florida Marlins to a world championship for the 2003 season."

Gee, it couldn't have been Josh Beckett throwing 42 and 2/3rds innings that postseason at a 2.11 ERA, culminating in a complete game shutout to win the World Series. Or Carl Pavano throwing 19 and 1/3rd innings at a 1.40 ERA. Or Ivan Rodriguez's .910 OPS and 17 RBI. No, it must have been Pierre's "grit." (In Moore's defense, I didn't realize that Pierre had a .481 on-base percentage in the World Series and a .378 on-base percentage for that post-season, but remember what the sample size is there.)

3. Or how about this gem:

"[Pierre is] the ultimate winner."

Which naturally explains why he's been to the post-season once in six major league seasons and last year was one of the anchors around the neck of the most disappointing team in baseball by leading the team in at-bats and contributing a lowly .326 on-base percentage.

4. And then there's this:

"Mostly, since the Braves are traditionally a finesse team, they need as much grit as they can get, and Pierre is the grittiest player in the game."

What the hell does that sentence mean? What does Pierre have in terms of grit that Chipper or Andruw or Giles or Smoltz or Hudson don't? Does he have magic grits? Did he get his grits from the same guy who sold Jack his magic beans?

How does a human being get paid for writing this tripe?