Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Great Article on '87 Miami-Penn State

Kudos to Michael Weinreb and for this great piece on the '87 Fiesta Bowl between Miami and Penn State. That game will always go down in my memory as a "I remember where I was" game; my Dad, my brother, and I had come back from a vacation in Hilton Head. On New Year's Day, Auburn beat up on USC in the Citrus Bowl and then my brother wasn't allowed to watch the Rose Bowl (another Michigan loss in Pasadena; nunca nada cambia) because he was refusing to finish his dinner and it became a battle of wills between Dad and Dan. Anyway, we drove back the following day and then we all watched the Fiesta Bowl. I was rooting for Penn State because even at 11 years old, I had the sense to dislike Miami (going to summer camp with people from South Florida helped in that regard) and the combat fatigues coming off the plane seemed a little much for someone reared on SEC football. I remember being pleasantly surprised by Miami's dreadful performance and by Penn State repeatedly hitting Miami's receivers so they developed alligator arms. When Penn State held on, I celebrated, along with much of America, I suspect.

The trip down memory lane aside, I think the article does what many historical pieces do and that's overrate the importance of the event covered. History is typically far too complex for one event to completely cause a change of course, although we always like to imagine to the contrary because we like to imagine that we control the direction of history more than we do. (How's that for overwrought proselytizing at eight in the morning?) Thus, statements like this don't really ring true for me:

Of course, even today's BCS system is deeply flawed. Games like this do not take place every year, and even when they do, the hype is often manufactured and artificially inflated. Rarely is the contrast so stark, so obvious, and rarely is the game so competitive, and rarely is the emotion so palpable.

This statement makes no sense because the BCS, while no doubt flawed, is a better system than the one that produced the Miami-Penn State game. That game was only possible because college football lucked out and the consensus top two teams were both independents. If Miami and Penn State were unbeaten today and we had the old bowl system, then they wouldn't get to play. Additionally, one year after Texas and USC staged one of the all-time great title games in any American sport, the claim that BCS title games are hollow doesn't really grab me.

Weinreb also sings the praises of Penn State quarterback John Shaffer and claims that he was a relic of a bygone era:

But that was the thing about John Shaffer: He was one of those quarterbacks who specialized in not losing, one of those quarterbacks you hardly see anymore in major college football, one of those quarterbacks who not only shows up for class but actually cares about his classes, one of those quarterbacks whose job is not to alter the course of the game but simply not to screw the damn thing up.

Uh, anyone remember this guy:

Do you want to bet that in 16 years, there'll be a similar piece written about the Ohio State-Miami Fiesta Bowl and Krenzel will also be described as a relic of a past era, even though there'll probably still be game manager quarterbacks floating around, winning national titles by limiting mistakes and relying on an excellent defense and running game? Speaking of which, has anyone ever done a good comparison between the '86 Nittany Lions and the '02 Buckeyes? Close calls against mediocre opponents (including Cincinnati); styles marked by a great defense, a good running game, and a functional, smart quarterback; and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl over a heavily favored, "one for the ages" Miami team that turned the ball over entirely too many times. The difference I suspect that Buckeye fans would point out is that Ohio State played a better schedule in '02 than Penn State did in '86; Penn State fans would counter with the fact that the two good teams Penn State played both got the Lions at home, whereas Ohio State played every big game in '02 at the Horseshoe. Anyway, I digress. The point is that game managers are certainly not foreign to college football now, although offense has taken on more importance because teams don't piss possessions away like they used to. SEC football was mostly about possession, field position, and defense until Steve Spurrier came in and rewrote the rules. I daresay that this was good for the conference.

This passage also struck me as incorrect:

That Nittany Lions drive accounted for nearly half of their 162 yards of total offense; Miami would finish with 445.

And all of this was fine with Paterno, and it was fine with Sandusky, because they had built this team on a philosophy that, two decades later, has begun to seem more and more quaint: You win with defense first, and you win with special teams second.

And all your offense has to do -- and all your quarterback has to do -- is avoid screwing the whole thing up.

And maybe this explains why Miami has four national titles since January 2, 1987 and Penn State has none, or why Miami won 82.9% of its games from 1987 to 2005, while Penn State has won at a significantly lower 67.9% clip. I know of no conceivable rationale for a strategy that is based on winning a game in which you're outgained by 283 yards, other than "hey, let's rely on a factor that we can barely control - the other quarterback having the worst day of his life and presaging his NFL career by throwing bushels of interceptions - and ride that to victory!" In other words, let's not lionize Penn State's approach in the '87 Fiesta Bowl as some sort of gallant, chivalrous relic. Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky did a wonderful job of tailoring a strategy to the talent that they had on-hand and the notion of hitting the Miami receivers hard was certainly an effective one, but at the end of the day, they were also damn lucky that Vinny Testaverde was so inept. Yes, their defensive strategy had something to do with it, but I've read Phil Steele too many times to think that the defense was mostly responsible for all of those turnovers.

And all of this is aside from the most obvious criticism of Weinreb's statement: if Penn State's strategy was entirely defense-o-centric, then why did they give up 445 yards?

Here's John Shaffer on Penn State's "defense first" approach:

And our offense was very comfortable taking a secondary role. I think for a young head coach today, with all these wide-open offenses, it would be very hard to win that way.

Here's a question for Shaffer, who's obviously a very bright guy: why does having a great offense have to be mutually exclusive with having a great defense? How about neither the offense, nor the defense playing a secondary role? Aren't you really just saying that your defense was a lot better than your offense? Why would a head coach intentionally limit his offense? It's hard to win that way because it's hard to create a defense that's so good that it can win a game when the offense is only getting five first downs.

I feel like I'm taking crazy...wait, I used that line two days ago.


Grandy said...

Jay Barker! Jay Freaking Barker! He's the greatest game manage of all time for heaven's sake! Much better than Krenzelstiltskin (course, he had a better defense to lean on, but never mind that).

Game management QBs, possession receivers, and "fundamentally sound" point guards everywhere (white *and* black) all worship at the altar of Jay Barker. Jay Barker grew up to be Chuck Norris.

Isn't the real analysis to take away from this game:

1. PSU was really opportunistic, and furtunate and
2. Karma is a bitch

And nothing more? Also, how can this game be called a turning point, and yet the Miami v Nebraska "Game of the Century" a few years earlier is not? Didn't that game get more hype? I'm pretty sure I saw an add for it the other day.

While I agree with you generally concerning the points on traditional thinking versus, you know, actual reality I must point out that while the Title count disparity and winning % are good stats, Miami was also cheating their asses off about the time of this game. That too is a factor in the disparity. But it's a baseline factor. Miami cheated to get players. It then used those players to win in combination with using a mode of thinking that wasn't several decades past its prime.

Dan was chearing for USC in the rose bowl, wasn't he? Cheering for USC is such a Dan thing.

Fox said...

Great job pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of that article. I read it yesterday, and thought it was pretty good. But I was startled (as you guys were) at how much credit they gave to Penn State for Miami's screw-ups. Sure some of it was tough defense--it'd be naive to think that PSU had nothing to do with Testaverde falling apart, but they were awfully lucky. It reminds me of the way people talk about the 2000 Ravens, as if their offense was designed to be inept because the D was so good. In reality, Billick hoped the offense would be good, realized halfway through the year that it sucked, so gave Dilfer one job--to not turn it over. Yes that was a smart move, but if he'd had a choice, Billick surely would have designed a competent offense.

It does make a nice point about the commercialization of bowls and the national title game, but like you said, it's putting far too much emphasis on one game. After all, if the game was so ground-breaking, why wasn't the BCS created until more than 10 years later?