Wednesday, May 16, 2007

College Football: Possibly the One Topic about which Gregg Easterbrook Knows Very Little

Anyone who has read Gregg Easterbrook's work for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly,, Goatherding Quarterly Digest, and See Sevastopol! Magazine knows that he fancies himself as something of a Renaissance writer, opining about just about everything under the sun. Interestingly enough, Easterbrook apparently is unfamiliar with college football, but that doesn't stop him from offering up the following gems in his Draft Review:

Here's the passage that motivated me to write this piece:

Lawrence Timmons looked good at Florida State in 2006, but he's a one-year wonder, only starting as a senior. A year ago in the draft, Philadelphia used the 14th overall selection on another one-year wonder from the Florida State defense, lineman Broderick Bunkley, who spent much of his rookie season on the inactive list, totaling six tackles. Florida State front seven guys tend to look good because the Seminoles overload-blitz so much; every member of the front seven gets a couple highlight-reel plays, and those long touchdowns allowed, well, blame them on the safeties. Miami and Florida both had safeties taken high this weekend; these schools play conventional defenses. Florida State plays a gambling defense that makes the front seven look good and the safeties look bad. Something for Steelers' coaches to consider if they discover Timmons has no idea what it means to drop into coverage.

All statements in this paragraph guaranteed to be wrong! Timmons left Florida State after his junior year, after seeing action as a true freshman and then seeing significant action as a sophomore. Florida State rotates so much that looking at starting experience for a defensive player is simply fruitless. Easterbrook cites Broderick Bunkley's lack of production for the Eagles and conveniently ignores Kamerion Wimbley, the Nole linebacker taken one pick before Bunkley who merely led the Browns in sacks with 11 as a rookie. He also ignores Ernie Sims, who was taken five picks before Bunkley and led the Lions in tackles last year. But Wimbley and Sims must be the only Florida State front seven players who ever experienced success in the NFL...except for that Derrick Brooks guy who is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. And that Corey Simon guy who was so good for the Eagles for years. Oh, and Darnell Dockett, who has started for the Cardinals at DT since being drafted. And then there's Tommy Polley, who started for the first five years of his career before injuring his knee last year. And Orpheus Roye, who has had an 11-year career. And Greg Spires, a nine-year veteran who has 17 sacks in the past three seasons.

And that's before we get to the complete mischaracterization of Florida State's defensive style. Might I recommend that Mr. Easterbrook crack open a tape of Mickey Andrews' vintage defensive schemes against Steve Spurrier's Florida teams? They're actually excellent illustrations of defenses that work without blitzing. Andrews dropped numerous players into coverage, sometimes rushing only two. Florida State's defense worked for years not because it gambled too much, but because the defensive linemen were unblockable and FSU could rotate them all game to maintain a rush into the fourth quarter.

Conversely, I don't know how anyone could have watched last year's Florida team and concluded that they play a conventional defense. Perhaps Mr. Easterbrook missed that subtly named National Championship Game, when Florida blitzed from the word "go" and cost Troy Smith millions of dollars in the process. Florida's defensive coordinators are Greg Mattison, who introduced the concept of the blitz to hidebound Michigan in the mid-90s, and Charlie Strong, who innovated the 3-3-5 defense at South Carolina.

Other than that, how was the play, Ms. Lincoln?

Here's an instance of a normally rational analyst engaging in talking head-esque hyperbole:

Quinn's a fine quarterback who was fired up for Miami and has the confident swagger no one since Marino has shown in teal.

I thought that this argument went out the window around the turn of the century when it was revealed that "Ryan Leaf should go ahead of Peyton Manning because he has more swagger" was a less-than-airtight basis for a draft strategy.

This one doesn't have anything to do with college football, but it is so inconsistent with the rest of the column that I had to mention it:

The most striking and original draft analysis came from Page 2's Ted Kluck, who broke down many years of first rounds and found that quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers (in that order) were most likely to be busts, while safeties, linebackers and cornerbacks (in that order) were least likely to become draft flops. First-round safeties, defensive tackles and linebackers had the best odds of reaching the Pro Bowl, while first-round cornerbacks, offensive linemen and wide receivers the longest odds to receive ticket to Honolulu. Kluck's conclusions were striking on several fronts. One is that quarterback, running back and wide receiver -- the positions that produce the most statistics, and hence the players you'd think we knew the most about -- were most likely to disappoint in the pros. Maybe the stats generated by "skill players" tell you more about their teammates than about them.

Easterbrook kills the Jags, Texans, and Dolphins for not taking Brady Quinn and then promptly touts the conclusions of an article that claims that first round quarterbacks are more likely to end up as busts than players at any other position. Easterbrook then guesses that quarterbacks' stats are really a reflection of the surrounding skill position talent, but in the instance of Quinn, he might want to consider the role of the system and coaching as leading to players being overrated. And keep in mind that Easterbrook dismisses the role of stats in evaluating college skill position players mere paragraphs after making the following claim:

Nobody took Chris Leak, who just led Florida to the BCS title. Sure Leak is 5-11, but in college and high school he threw for 26,086 yards -- most of those throws coming over the outstretched hands of guys just as big as NFL defenders.

For a guy who does a nice job of showing Mel Kiper changing courses every five minutes before the Draft later in his column, Easterbrook sure seems to do a good imitation of a Japanese carrier in sub-infested waters himself.

And this one has nothing to do with college football, but I thought it would be fun to correct Easterbrook on a matter of economics:

Actually, by the draft value chart, the Bolts won the trade, obtaining a choice worth 530 points for picks worth 500 points -- remember, you must divide by two the value for that 2008 selection, in order to discount to present value.

There is no rational way to discount for present value with draft picks. Future dollars are discounted for present value because of inflation. My $10 bill will be worth less in 20 years because wages and prices will be higher and there will be more money floating around in the economy. Draft picks, unlike money, do not change in value because the number and value of picks do not change from year to year. The #10 pick in the Draft is worth the same amount next year and the year after as it is this year. The picks might have diminishing value to general managers because they have the incentive to spend as many picks as possible in the present to preserve their jobs, but that's not a legitimate justification for teams treating future picks as being less valuable than present picks.


Grandy said...

Future picks are a little riskier, taking into account (1) uncertainty of where a team whose pick you've acquired will finish and (2) factoring in things like relative strength of draft crops (though I'll naturally argue that it's tough to gauge that anyway, and it's probably better measured 5 years down the road), since next year's crop is unknown at this point (who will go, who will stay? etc).

Of course, none of that has anything to do with what Easterbrook said. It's certainly possible he was thinking of value in terms of risk, but he needed to communicate that better.

Mithrilhawk said...

Hey, I'm not the only one that understands economics applies to more than just $$.