Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Back to Seventh Grade Biology

Don't ask me why, but I had a hankering while shaving this morning to do a blast from the distant past when I wore parachute pants and my greatest fear was breaking wind in class. Thus, I'll revisit the Scientific Method for the first time in ages for the lofty purpose of demonstrating Joe Johnson's value to the Hawks.

Observation - I've watched a number of Hawks games this year and have the distinct impression that the team is totally dependent on Joe Johnson. When he plays well, they're capable of beating most teams in the league. When he isn't playing well, they can be blown out by the Bobcats. Thus, despite the presence of three lottery picks (Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, and Shelden Williams) and a fourth player who would be a lottery pick if his Draft could be replayed (Josh Smith), the team behaves like a one-man team.

Description - To test the observation, we'll look at Johnson's numbers in the Hawks' wins and losses. This science stuff is just so easy! I should stop lauding my youngest brother for taking organic chemistry and physics at Michigan in contrast to my efforts to elude the science requirement with "The History of Medicine," "Biological Anthropology," and "Biology, Society, and Culture." (No joke, my term paper for the latter class was "Reproductive Success among Fashion Models." It was a really weighty application of principles of evolutionary psychology...and you should have heard the responses from modeling agencies when I contacted them about my potential research inquiries. I digress.) We'll use stats on a per 48 minute basis instead of raw numbers because we don't want the results distorted by increased or decreased minutes.

Prediction - Joe Johnson's points and assists will be higher in the Hawks' wins.

Control - We're dealing with a binary proposition, so I don't see the need for a control. B&B's Official Youngest Brother can correct me if my methodology doesn't work. That said, we can look at the other Hawks players in wins and losses to determine whether Johnson is the key or whether he rises and falls on the same tide that affects the rest of the team.

Falsifiability - The hypothesis can be easily disproven. If Johnson's numbers go up in losses, then I'm barking up the wrong tree. Fortunately, they don't:

Johnson in wins - 34.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.0 assist/turnover ratio, 1.49 points per shot, 54.8 FG%, 51.1 3P%

Johnson in losses - 26.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 assist/turnover ratio, 1.13 points per shot, 44.0 FG%, 29.6 3P%

Causal Explanation - There is a major correlation in almost every category. When the Hawks win, Johnson is an excellent scorer and shares the ball well with his teammates. When the Hawks lose, Johnson struggles to score, he doesn't get as many assists, and his turnovers go up. The disparity in three-point percentage is perhaps the most shocking disparity. That is evidence that Johnson's game is dependent on his shot. Johnson can't score in bushels when his shot isn't falling like Dwyane Wade. He doesn't have the same ability to blow by defenders and get to the line. Thus, everything for Johnson depends on being able to hit from outside, which sucks defenders towards him and allows him to get to the basket, break down defenses, and create for his teammates. As Ron Burgundy would say, it's science.

And now that we've established Joe Johnson's value to his team, for your viewing enjoyment, here is the promotional video that the Hawks created for his all-star campaign:

A few other notes on the disparity between the Hawks' wins and losses:

Zaza scores more in the Hawks' wins, but rebounds more in their losses. Could the latter be explained by the fact that the Hawks do better when Zaza gets help on the boards?

Josh Smith in wins: 21 points and 12 boards. Josh Smith in losses: 16 points and ten rebounds.

Josh Childress scores less, but rebounds more in the Hawks' wins. Marvin Williams is the same, only the disparity is really pronounced for him, as he scores 19 points/48 minutes in wins and 12 in losses. Marvin and Childress are also more efficient scorers in terms of points per shots in the Hawks' losses. Shelden Williams is also better in losses: 11/11 in wins and 13/14 in losses.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Those Wacky Argentines

As we've been informed before, Boca Juniors-River Plate and every other rivalry outside of the Northeastern United States pales in comparison to the majesty of a Redskins-Eagles game at historic Lincoln Financial Field, but a new chapter was written in the Boca-River rivalry in a Buenos Aires tattoo parlor, where a River Plate supporter/tattoo artist with a sense of humor and cojones grandes performed a unique interpretation of the Boca Juniors logo. While putting a penis on a man's back is amusing and probably an especially significant insult in Argentine macho culture, I think the artist in question missed a couple chances to really stick the knife in by tattoing the following images:

Monday, January 29, 2007

Great Post by David O'Brien on the Braves' Left Field Situation

I have very little to add to this excellent piece, other than to reiterate that O'Brien does a great job providing content beyond what is normally expected in a newspaper.

Poor Marco

(Warning: this post will have precious little Atlanta/college football content.)

I genuinely feel for Marco Materazzi. He's apparently going to be marked for the rest of his career as a target for headbutting. What I especially love about this clip is that Gennaro Delvecchio obviously nails Materazzi in the face and then goes nuts when he gets the easiest red card that a ref will ever have to dole out. And poor Marco got a yellow card for his trouble, just as he was also punished for being the target of Zinedine Zidane's rhino impersonation. And one final note: was I the only one who immediately thought of this:

Other thoughts as I transition my attention from one football to the other:


Is there anything that makes a sports fan feel as queasy as when your team wins on a dreadful call? Check out the penalty that Barca drew to break a 1-1 tie against Celta Vigo yesterday (at the 1:00 mark of the video):

Sure, that was a penalty...if you overlook the fact that Gio almost certainly dove to draw it and the "contact" was outside of the box. I spent the remainder of the game rationalizing the call away. Yes, Barcelona had dominated the game and were only level because of a questionable penalty decision at the other end on what was one of Celta's only forays forward. Yes, Barca stood a good chance of getting the second goal anyway. And still, I couldn't quite get past the fact that Barca had to use unfair means to get the winning goal.

Speaking of Gio, the game yesterday illustrated everything that's good and bad about his game. On the good side, he "drew" the winning penalty (he at least deserves credit for making a dangerous run into the box) and sent in a fantastic cross for Saviola to head home the opener. He also got a second ball into the box that led to Ronaldinho overhead kicking a pass for Xavi to shoot (watch the video if you don't believe me). On the other hand, both of Celta's good chances in the game came through his side, which is a disturbing pattern for Barca that has shown itself consistently even as the team has conquered Spain and Europe in the past two seasons. The defensive lapses on the left are more notable this year because Barca has struggled to get consistent production from Carles Puyol's partners in central defense. Lilian Thuram has been decent at times, but he was weak in the loss at Real Madrid and seems frustrated with his playing time. Rafa Marquez isn't close to the player he was last year (he was especially dreadful against Espanyol), possibly because of World Cup hangover and possibly because the acquisition of Thuram has unsettled him. That leaves Oleguer, who is more of a defensive handyman than he is an ace central defender.

The interesting tactical change that Barca made yesterday was that they gave Giuly the day off and played Andres Iniesta as the right-sided winger. Iniesta is a central midfielder, but he did nicely in the winger role. He isn't as fast as Giuly, but his passing is much better and he created excellent changes on a couple occasions. The interesting implication from the move is that it could make Leo Messi expendable. Well, not expendable but if Inter is really going to make some sort of ludicrous offer of one-quarter of the Italian economy for Messi, then Iniesta's ability to play the position factors into the decision. If Inter is willing to break the bank for Messi, such that Barca could pay for, say, Daniel Alves from Sevilla, Alex from PSV, and an unsettled Michael Ballack from Chelsea with the proceeds, then you have to consider making that move. Messi is a fantastic player and there's something to be said for keeping someone who came up through the youth ranks and would feel loyal to Barca because he came to the city in the first place because the club paid for his treatment for growth hormone deficiency, not to mention someone who has an understanding with Ronaldinho and routinely plays lights out in the biggest games, but he does have trouble staying healthy.


I thought that I would enjoy Chelsea's attempt to wrest the "F.C. Hollywood" title from Bayern Munich, but in reality, it has just made me sympathetic to Jose Mourinho and that gives me all sorts of shaky feelings. Mourinho is absolutely right in his dispute with the Chelsea board. The club are woefully short of depth in central defense after selling William Gallas and Robert Huth in the off-season and Mourinho can't win when he's forced to start Paolo Ferreira and Mickael Essien in central defense. Moreover, Chelsea's management structure reminds me of everything that is bad about the New York Yankees: an owner who meddles, guided by a series of competing advisors who are pulling the team in all sorts of different directions with the end result being a confused approach that leaves the coach flailing. And the worst part is that the instability will likely send Mourinho to Real Madrid, where he would pose a threat to Barca. (On the other hand, if Fabio Capello can't sort Madrid out and he has a record of winning that rivals Mourinho's [and over a longer timeframe, to boot], there are more fundamental issues going on in Madrid.) The other factor that causes me to not enjoy Chelsea's decline is the fact that Manchester United are the ones benefiting.

On an unrelated note, I have started dreading FA Cup weekends because all of the good games are on Setanta, which no one gets, and I'm left with gems like Chelsea-Nottingham Forest (a 3-0 nailbiter) and Spurs-Southend (a 4-0 squeaker). I know the FA Cup is supposed to be romantic because these tiny teams get to play the big boys, but upsets are so rare that you have to watch ten games to see one that's even mildly interesting. It's like watching the 1-16 games in the NCAA Tournament, only Fox Soccer Channel can't switch away when Chelsea are 2-0 up after 20 minutes.

Champions League

I'm confident that ESPN will not show any of the Inter-Valencia tie because the teams don't have big Q-ratings here, but that is shaping up to be the best tie when the Champions League restarts in February. Like Chelsea-Barca last year, this match-up is between the two form teams in Europe at the moment, such that the winner is likely to be the favorite going forward. Inter has won a ludicrous 14 straight games in Serie A and hasn't lost a game in any competition since a September 27 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Valencia are playing extremely well in the Primera right now and they looked great even in a loss at Betis yesterday. They also have a good pedigree in the Champions League. Inter, in contrast, do not have a great pedigree in Europe, but they didn't in Serie A (at least recently) and that has hardly mattered this year.

The other top contenders are Barca (although the defense isn't confidence-inspiring at present), Chelsea (once John Terry is healthy and especially if Shevchenko continues to show signs of life), Lyon, and Arsenal. You would think that Manchester United would be a serious threat, given their record in the Premiership, but I can't get past the fact that they make so little effort to score away from home against quality opposition. I can easily see them going out to someone on road goals. Liverpool would normally scare me because of their recent history in tournaments, but that image took a hit when Arsenal undressed them in the Carling and FA Cups at Anfield. The Gunners have taken the Scousers' mantle as the team that plays well in knock-out tournaments, but can't string consistent performances together in the league.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Smoke on the Braves' Horizon

Here($) is Maury Brown from the Baseball Prospectus on the current status of the sale of the Braves:

The Sale of the Braves… Tick, Tick, Tick

Since April of last year, Time Warner broke off dealing with any other bidders for the Braves besides Colorado-based Liberty Media. It's not just the Braves that are at stake, mind you - it's a complex deal based around dodging taxes. The Braves are a cog in a much larger deal where $1.35 billion in cash and the Braves go to Liberty in exchange for 107 million shares of Time Warner stock that Liberty owns. The deal has been sitting in the background of MLB's business dealings all this time, and we’re coming up on a deadline to make it work.

By May 17th the deal has to be completed in total, as at that date tax laws that impact the entire affair change. After May 17th, the amount of monies that can be involved in the tax dodge will be lessened. This isn't some deal where Liberty or MLB or Time Warner sets a date and is pushed out. No, this is a deal that has outside forces in play, so the pressure to get the deal done by the deadline is huge given the loss of tax-free dollars that's in play. All the parties are making a gamble here (Time Warner, Liberty Media, and MLB). MLB wants to make sure that it can have as much day-to-day control as possible given to a local executive such as Braves president Terry McGuirk.

The problem is that the IRS has some strict guidelines surrounding how this type of stock-swap deal works, and they may not fit in with MLB's view of ownership. Since MLB is used to tight controls on who is and isn't within the ownership ranks, the deal will be interesting to watch. If the Liberty/Time Warner deal collapses, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Atlanta real estate executive Ron Terwilliger have said they still have interest in purchasing the club.

This is not encouraging, other than the minor pleasure that we'll have a resolution of Liberty Media's purchase of the team by the middle of May. I'd like more details on the IRS guidelines in question, but reading between the lines, it appears that Liberty Media is actually going to have exert some control over the team to make this purchase work. Unless we operate under the assumption that a media holding company will do a better job of running the day-to-day operations of a baseball team than the figures who have run the team for a very successful period, then this is a bad thing. Presumably, Liberty Media would hire someone to operate the team, but that creates a big variable in the whole situation. Most importantly, would this new figure be able to keep Cox and Schuerholz happy? Or is that a moot point because they're both planning on retiring in the next few years, in which case Liberty Media will then get to pick their replacements?

White = Hardworking

That's the subtext from this gem from the easily-mocked Peter King:

Of the guys I've covered regularly in recent years, what's remarkable is the three players who stick out for their interest in constantly getting better and doing only what's best for the team. All three played this weekend. Manning. Tom Brady. Brian Urlacher. They love the game, respect the game, work at the game and treat other players with respect. It's what we all should be teaching our children, not that Reggie Bush crap we saw Sunday ... the pointing and taunting.

Among all NFL players, a significant majority of whom are black, the three who work the hardest and are most committed to the team are white. If there was ever a quote that best summarized the latent borderline racist stereotypes that middle-aged white sportswriters pile into their columns about hard-working white guys and loud-mouthed black guys, this would be it. I don't think that Peter King is consciously racist and I'm sure that he interacts well with black players. (He would really suck at his job if he didn't.) However, he, like most other writers, trades in racial stereotyping and this paragraph is pretty obviously an example.

This hits on something that I've wanted to discuss for several weeks. I feel a significant amount of white liberal guilt about my criticism of Michael Vick and that guilt intensifies with every call to 680 or 790 from Alpharetta about how Vick lives the "thug lifestyle" or he's "dumb" or "lazy" or "shouldn't drink from the same water fountain as me because that will lead to miscegenation." (OK, I made that last one up.) Some of those criticisms of Vick are probably true. He isn't very good at reading defenses and there are grounds to criticize his work ethic, in light of the fact that he fumbled on the final drive against Cleveland because he was clearly winded. However, those criticisms come with a lot of baggage in the form of unfair stereotypes that have been hurled at black quarterbacks (and black athletes in general) for years. There's no good way for me to distinguish myself from a latent racist when criticizing Vick's performance...other than to anguish in my guilt over it, I guess.

Anyway, I just wanted to get that out there.

Free Mike Vick!

Legally speaking, this is a good development for Michael Vick. He won't have to fight a distracting marijuana charge and it would seem that there is no basis for the NFL to suspend him if the Dade County police have determined that Vick did not have marijuana in his fake bottle.

Practically speaking, Vick's exoneration doesn't really affect my view of him that much. For one thing, Dade County might have made the decision that it just isn't worth it to fight Vick's very capable attorney(s) over marijuana residue. I'd imagine that they have larger fish to fry. For another thing, it's hard to conclude that Vick didn't have marijuana in the bottle at some point, given the smell emanating from the fake bottle, as well as the fact that he had the fake bottle in the first place. Vick didn't exactly rush forward to deny that the bottle was clean (even through his attorney) and the Falcons' brass getting after him is inconsistent with Vick being totally innocent. And finally, Vick still showed bad judgment in trying to take his fake bottle onto a plane (he might has well have tried to take a time bomb alarm clock) and then fighting when the bottle was taken from him. The beef with his actions in the first place was not his weed smoking (although that still might be a problem if he is a frequent user and I doubt that casual users walk around with fake bottles that smell of marijuana), but the lack of sense he showed.

Mark Bradley, as usual, nails it:

For all that, you still have a grand opportunity. This head coach arrives with the express mission of making you better. When Bobby Petrino was with Jacksonville, he’d sit with fellow assistant Dom Capers, ticketed to be the first coach of the expansion Texans, on charter flights and they’d talk about how it would be to have the draft’s No. 1 pick and for that No. 1 pick to be you. Way back then, Petrino was thinking of the plays he’d draw up to utilize your skill set. Lo and behold, here he is.

And what was your first face-to-face encounter with the new man? A "stressful" (Rich McKay’s word) meeting regarding the water bottle. Even the usually understanding front office sounds as if it has lost patience: The Falcons’ three-sentence release Monday didn’t mention you by name. And still missing from all the water-bottle blather is any explanation from you.

Oh No, We Suck Again!

It's so much classier to quote Rob Schneider as Townie (and yes, I had to look that up on than it is to cite Fredo Corleone ("I'm smart! Not like everybody says... like dumb... I'm smart and I want respect!") or Yoda ("That is why you fail") after a lost weekend for the Hawks. Maybe lost weekend doesn't do enough to describe two blowout losses to the Charlotte Bobcats. Lost weekend makes me think of the Lost Generation and then I imagine Zaza and Josh Childress sitting in a cafe in Paris, trying to make sense of the relentless ennui of modern existence. There was no such glamour this weekend. The Hawks pretty much trailed the Bobcats wire-to-wire in both games. They lost the two games by 40 points. The most damning number I can muster is this: the Hawks didn't win any of the eight quarters against Charlotte over the weekend. And have I mentioned that the Bobcats were 13-24 coming into the weekend and played both games without Sean May or Ray Felton, while the Hawks had a basically full complement? So yeah, there isn't too much progress to report for the Hawks.

As best I can figure, the Hawks are a young team that is capable of playing quite well, but they struggle mightily with motivation on a night-to-night basis (and Mike Woodson threatening their playing time hasn't had quite the effect that it should have) and they don't respond well to adversity (see: Josh Smith tossing his headband and then giving the finger to the Charlotte crowd after one bad call).

The team is also very soft inside. Zaza isn't the same player he was last year. Whether that's because he's nursing some sort of injury or he just doesn't have the same fire he used to is an open question. Shelden Williams hasn't given the team as much as we all hoped that an NBA-ready lottery pick would. His scoring average was higher in November than it has been in December or January, so there isn't a lot of progress to point to.

The only good thing I can reference from the whole weekend was Marvin Williams finally getting off the skids with a 20-point effort in the blowout loss on Saturday night. So we have that going for us. Which is nice.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Life from the Hawks

Lost in all the excitement regarding Vick and the LaRoche deal this morning is the little nugget that the Hawks won their third in a row last night by pummeling the T-Wolves in Minneapolis. The T-Wolves came into the game at 20-16 in the highly-competitive Western Conference, so it can't be said that the Hawks blew out a bad team. The Wolves also had a pretty full roster for the game, so it's not a matter of beating a short-handed team. (The wins this week over Detroit without Chauncey Billups and Boston without Paul Pierce could arguably fall into those categories, although beating Detroit with all but one of its stars in uniform is still an impressive feat.) The Hawks won the game by 17, which was their biggest margin of victory of the season and their biggest margin of victory on the road since a 102-75 win in Washington on November 28, 2000 The Hawks' lineup that night: Jason Terry, Matt Maloney, Chris Crawford, Alan Henderson, and Dikembe Mutombo. A few thoughts on the game:

1. Joe Johnson was absolutely torrid. He had 29 points on 19 shots and added eight assists, to boot. He also got to the foul line eight times, which is a good barometer for how he's performing. As has been the case this year, when the Hawks' star plays well, the team is pretty formidable.

2. The Hawks' resurgence has coincided with Josh Smith's return to the lineup. Smith did not have a terrific statistical impact in his first two games back (other than committing 13 turnovers in two games; in fairness, he did have 23 points and ten blocks in the two games), but he was outstanding last night. He had 21 points on 18 shots and most importantly, he didn't have a single turnover. I think I underrated the value that Smith's defensive abilities, especially his shot-blocking, brings to the team.

3. Royal Ivey has missed one shot during the three-game winning streak. Admittedly, he plays ten minutes a game, so he's taken all of eight shots in three games, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

4. Marvin Williams remains stuck in a dreadful shooting slump (.366 on the year; .250 in his last five games), but he's passing the ball better now, which is something.

5. Mike Woodson was clearly sending a message to the team with the starting lineup last night, which was Stanislav Medvedenko, Dijon Thompson, Lorenzen Wright, and Royal Ivey joining Joe Johnson. The message, unless I'm deaf, is: "starting is not an entitlement just because we spent a high draft pick on you."

All in all, Friday night was the first game this year that the Hawks had their full complement of the team's nucleus - Johnson, Smith, Childress, Pachulia, and the two Williams boys - and they are unbeaten ever since, so there might be hope for this season yet. The team has back-to-back games against Charlotte coming up. If they're really turning a corner, then they can contemplate winning those games and getting back into the playoff hunt, as they're only four games out of 8th place right now. Shocking, I know.

They'll Stone You when You're Trying to Board a Plane

You have to hand it to Michael Vick. He's the highest-paid player in the NFL and plays a position where mental ability is a critical part of the job description. So how does he spend his time in the off-season? By trying to board a plane with marijuana concealed in a fake water bottle. This raised a few new concerns about the face of the franchise above and beyond his 20th place finish in the NFL in passer rating.

Trying to board a plane with marijuana in a bottle is an incredibly stupid move, given the level of security at airports these days and the fact that everyone knows that you can't take bottles onto planes. (Were the 273 signs to that effect at every airport too subtle for our quarterback?) Raising a stink when your fake bottle is confiscated is even dumber. The inescapable conclusion is that Vick suffers from poor judgment.

The greater concern is that Vick's actions are consistent with someone who is more than just a casual marijuana user. I have no problem with athletes smoking the occasional joint, but someone who is handsomely compensated for his endurance and athletic ability should not be smoking on a regular basis. The fact that Vick went to the trouble of taking weed onto a plane, as opposed to having a hanger-on buy some when he got back to Atlanta, and then went to the further trouble of buying a fake bottle to transport his weed indicates that a joint isn't just a rare treat for Mr. Vick.

Aside from being a bad sign about Vick, the incident also complicates the Falcons' off-season because it creates the possibility that Vick will be suspended for four games by the NFL in 2007. Thus, it makes it almost impossible for the team to deal Matt Schaub, unless they're very confident in D.J. Shockley.

The LaRoche-Gonzalez Deal

My initial thought on the trade was "that's all we got?" LaRoche had a .915 OPS last year, which was good for 10th in the NL, bookended by Jason Bay and David Wright. Would anyone in their right mind trade either of those guys for a reliever, no matter how good that reliever is? My comparison isn't entirely fair because LaRoche is a first baseman, which makes his production less valuable than Wright's at third base, but still. LaRoche was also going to make a little north of $3M this year, so this can't be seen as a salary dump. What Schuerholtz's reasoning has to be is that LaRoche played above his head last year - his minor league numbers did not portend a .561 slugging percentage - and that he's trading him at his peak value. Either that or Schuerholtz was so traumatized by the Braves' inept bullpen last year that he's lost the ability to be rational about the value of a reliever and he's going to overpay to bolster the 'pen. He ought to have been traumatized more by the Braves' dreadful starting pitching last year, but the combination of the ridiculous sums that average pitchers were garnering on the free agent market, combined with the not entirely irrational belief that the pitching should be better this year with Hudson rebounding and Hampton healthy, are reasonable explanations for inaction on that front.

One other factor that surely played into Schuerholtz's assessment: he needs to clear a spot for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and he's doing so now while LaRoche's value is high and other teams don't perceive that the Braves are desperate to deal him.

One of my other initial thoughts was "if we could acquire Rafael Soriano for the incredibly replaceable Horacio Ramirez, then why are we acquiring a similarly-talented reliever for one of our best offensive weapons?" Then I looked at Gonzalez's stats and changed my mind. Gonzalez is not your average good reliever, nor is he a guy whose value is overrated because he closes. He has 177 strikeouts and 68 walks in his 155.3 innings in the majors over the past three years. By all rights, he ought to close for the Braves, relegating Wickman to the 8th and Soriano to the 7th. In truth, he ought to be the guy the Braves call upon in their highest-leverage spots, but I don't know if Bobby Cox is all the way there yet. The bottom line is that the Braves have responded to their financial straitjacket by investing in the bullpen, where they have decided they can get the most value for the fewest dollars. It seems like a reasonable strategy, but it's dependent on first base and second base not becoming giant holes on the lineup such that we never take a lead into the late innings.

I was expecting the Baseball Prospectus to be down on the deal because relievers have limited impact as compared to everyday players, but they're scoring this as a victory for the Braves because of the prospect in the deal - Brent Lillibridge - who sounds like a reasonable facsimile of Rafael Furcal. If he is, then the Braves should not overcommit to a "proven leadoff guy" this year, as they have their solution for 2008 or 2009.

I'm Going to Have to Use this Phrase a Lot

I have always been jealous of MGoBlog's list of quotes on the top right-hand side of his page, but Brian has seemingly helped me out by describing my attack on HeismanPundit as being marked by "vicious aplomb." I might need to work that into a brief today.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Pinata that Keeps On Belching Caramels

Our old friend HeismanPundit didn't like this post and was considerate enough to attempt to defend himself in the comment section against my claim that he'll claim victory for his offensivescheme-o-centric view of football, regardless of pesky things like facts and numbers.

Here's the part where I pretend to have really thick skin...and hope that you're unaware that I obsessively defend myself on my site from all manner of offended SEC fans, rational and otherwise:

I rarely comment on anyone's blog anymore as I usually can care less what people say. But Google Alerts brought me to this little love-fest so I will play a little ball.

Mentioning that Florida gave up 82 yards when talking about the BCS title game would be appropriate if one were trying to be a Master of the Obvious. The great things about blogs is that you can skip over all the stuff that average people are talking about and sort through and find something that not everyone is talking about. So, left it to types like you to talk about defense. Have at it. Maybe one day you can be an analyst with [sic] Emmit Smith and talk about how the key to the game is to 'Stop the Run'. Brilliant.

Only "average people" think that the Florida defense allowing 82 yards against the Heisman trophy winner and an offense that had just put up 42 points on the #1 ranked defense in college football is noteworthy. Similar average people thought that the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor was the big news on December 7, 1941, but an intrepid analyst like HeismanPundit surely would have found a more obscure, but just as important news item on that day so he wouldn't have been one of the "average people."

To be serious for a moment, HP is right that the blogosphere is supposed to provide content that a reader won't find elsewhere, but that doesn't mean we all have to be idiots by ignoring what was patently obvious to anyone watching the game. There's plenty of room to be interesting by explaining why Florida was so successful on defense against Ohio State. Instead, HP continues to act as if defense is not worth discussing (except to point out that defenses are befuddled by whatever offense he has proclaimed to be cutting edge on a given day) and chose to be interesting by lauding himself, despite the evidence to the contrary. I'd argue that a pundit pleasuring himself online isn't especially interesting, but that's just me.

But yes, I did want to extol Florida's offensive scheme. Because if you actually watched the game, you would notice that it was pretty much unstoppable against an elite defense. As I've mentioned countless times, familiarity with scheme and personnel is important in college football, which is why Ohio State had more trouble with an offense than Kentucky did. Same thing happened in 2004, when Pac-10 teams were far more successful in stopping Norm Chow's offense than Oklahoma was. Stanford lost by 3 points to USC in 2004 and Oklahoma lost by 36. So unless you are implying that Kentucky is better than Ohio State on defense, take your comparative scoring and stick it.

1. There are lots of offenses that can be "pretty much unstoppable" when they start most of their drives in their opponent's territory, but that would require acknowledgment of defense and special teams actually playing a role in determining the outcome of a football game.

2. OK, so Ohio State had 51 days to prepare for Florida and they are not familiar with Florida's scheme, so they couldn't stop it, but Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and the rest of the SEC were all able to stop Florida's offense with seven days to prepare because they had seen it in 2005. That makes perfect sense. I'm sure that Florida fans will be comforted that their offense will achieve average results in the SEC because opponents are familiar with it, but in years that they don't have a dominant defense like they did this year, they'll kick ass in the Outback Bowl.

I will grant that you are not totally irresponsible, which is why you cover your bases with a parenthetical sop to my point which allows you to agree with me while not agreeing. Very bold of you.

But you ask the question: Doesn't that imply that offenses are more sophisticated in the SEC? That answer to that is, some of them are, some of them aren't. As I wrote in 2005, Meyer's and Spurrier's addition to the SEC was going to change the league for the better and we have seen that. There is far more offensive creativity going on now than there was a few years ago. It's not even close. The result is that the league is better. As for Ohio State's scheme problem, I did mention that Florida's defense had no problem with its mundane scheme. But I laugh when you say that Ohio State's problem was their defensive approach. No shit. They didn't understand how to defense that offense, which is what I have been telling you.

I don't think there's going to be much disagreement on the point that Ohio State did not know how to defend Florida offense. The question is whether that's because: (1) the offense is impossible to stop because Urban Meyer is a card-carrying member of the Gang of Six, complete with secret handshake and laminated certificate suitable for framing; or (2) Ohio State ignored what had worked for every defense in the SEC - pressure aplenty - and then gave Florida outstanding field position by getting whipped on offense and special teams. I'm leaning towards explanation number two, possibly because Ohio State allowed Florida to score 41 points and the Gators averaged 22 points per game in SEC play. I may not be Columbo or Norman Einstein, but that seems to be evidence that Florida's scheme can be stopped and that their offensive output against Ohio State represented a confluence of factors that might be difficult to repeat.

On to more, including your classy use of the word fellatio.

I was really, really upset that HP promised to discuss my use of "fellatio" and then blew it. I was also touched that he took the time to complain about me not being "classy" by using a word that so aptly describes his post-title game post and then referring to me as a moron a few paragraphs later.

1. Yeah, I put Notre Dame in the group. So I was wrong. So what? What does that have to do with the BCS title game? And naturally you miss the whole point of the Gang which is primarily based on scheme and HOW offenses work and not on HOW many yards and points are produced. If yards and points were the point, then Hawaii would be in that group.

I'm confused. HP proclaimed Notre Dame to be in the Gang before this season because of the way they scored points last year. This year, every defense with a pulse, save one, shut them down. Did they forget how to score points? Did they try to score in different ways this year? I have this image of HeismanPundit in a grey Nehru jacket pressing the "Charlie Weis" button after shouting "this organization does not tolerate 14 points against backwards SEC defenses!" as Urban Meyer and Bobby Petrino look on in horror.

Anyway, the major point here is that HeismanPundit was being a tad bit dishonest (or as we like to say here about Ivan Maisel, he was acting as a Soviet Historian) by referring to the Gang of Six when he shaved the list from six to four before the season and hoped that no one would remember that 25% of the list was a big fat fizzle offensively this year.

And speaking of the HeismanPundit memory hole, his u-turn on USC is hilarious, given that he swore up and down last year that USC was winning because of scheme and not because their offense was packed with top shelf NFL talent. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were brilliant innovators when calling plays for Bush and Leinart and they were a pimple on the ass of the Pac Ten this year when calling plays for Booty and Gable.

2. You don't think scheme is important to Boise's success. If you don't think it is, then you are a goddamn moron. A moron. Why do you think they beat Oklahoma, because of all that talent on offense? For your information, Chris Pederson was Dan Hawkins' offensive coordinator, so the scheme didn't change at all when Hawkins left. Koetter did not run the same stuff that Pederson does and he was never as successful as Hawkins, so there are plenty of reasons why he didnt succeed at ASU. As for Hawkins, he took over a program in shambles, though as it turned out, one of his more successful games offensively was an outing against Georgia. What do ya know?

Scheme obviously has something to do with Boise State's success, but is it not odd that Boise has now sent two coaches to major conferences and neither coach has come close to replicating his offensive success in the WAC? Doesn't that imply that Boise's scheme isn't that revolutionary since it can't be replicated? Doesn't that imply that Boise does have good talent? Or that they have some sort of Nebraska in the 90s voodoo factor going on that allows them to amass huge offensive totals using a scheme that can't be replicated elsewhere?

And as for the gratuitous dig at Georgia, Colorado scored 13 points against the Dawgs, which is below average for their season, where they ranked 107th in 1-A despite having a coach who was in the Gang of Six in 2005 and down the memory hole in 2006. Colorado gained 313 yards against Georgia, which is slightly above their average for the season, where they ranked 102nd in 1-A. In sum, Colorado gained about 20 more yards than their normal, atrocious numbers against UGA and scored less than normal. Still think that was one of his more successful games offensively? Facts and numbers are bothersome for those of us still encumbered by the old math of yards and points when we could be enlightened like HeismanPundit and marvel at throws to tight ends.

3. Look man. Parse the stats all you want. Cal had a very good offense this year. They are CAL for crying out loud, with no winning tradition and not a whole lot of talent. Yet they just had their second 10 win season in three years. Guess what? That wasn't happening before Tedford came in and put in his offense.

This running back, who is likely to be the second running back taken in April's Draft, is not talented:

And this guy, the MVP of the Army All-Star Game and a likely pre-season All American on just about every list can't get out of bed in the morning without tripping over his own feet:

For the record, I like Cal's offensive scheme a lot and would be overjoyed if Jeff Tedford replaced Lloyd Carr in the event that Michigan commits the heretical acts of doing a national search and then paying the market rate for a coach in demand when Lloyd retires. Oregon's floundering since Tedford went to Cal demonstrates who the brains of the operation were when the Ducks were so good at the beginning of the decade. That said, they do tend to struggle against talented opponents, which indicates that scheme has trouble when it can't block.

Obligatory reference to the Tennessee-Cal game in 3, 2, 1...

As for your last note, your stats are skewed heavily by a few things. First, Florida scored 41.

I left Florida out of the numbers. Forgive HeismanPundit for being confused by this totally ambiguous statement: "SEC teams other than Florida, the ones that HP derides as having neanderthal offenses and defenses that are overrated because they play against bad offenses, averaged 27 points per game in their bowl games."

I should ask you why it was that the team with the offense tagged as the most advanced in the SEC by HP managed to score 41 on the No. 1 scoring defense in the land.

Gee, I think we might have covered this when we noted the roles of field position and Ohio State's curious decision not to employ "gameplanning" and "using what worked against Florida all year."

Second, LSU scored 41 on a horrible Notre Dame defense.

This from the seer who ranked Notre Dame #1 before the year and referred to their defense as "unfairly maligned." Damn you, pesky archived post!

After that, you had South Carolina scoring 44. Fine, Spurrier has a great scheme and I never said he didn't.

Given my mancrush on Steve Spurrier, it pains me to note that the Cocks were 6th in the SEC in scoring offense this year. But HP and I agree on Spurrier's merit, so let's all sing Kumbaya and pass the s'mores.

Kentucky managed 28, but then they are coached by Rich Brooks, formerly of Oregon and the NFL. So, they know a thing or two about offense.

Right, Rich Brooks, a defensive coach, is responsible for Kentucky's offensive success. And I seem to recall referencing Brooks' Pac Ten roots when Kentucky sucked and couldn't move the ball and not hearing a peep from HeismanPundit, but I can't find a link to support that point, so I'm not going to press it.

So as you can see, I acknowledge that not all SEC offenses are neanderthal. Just a lot of them. And it is changing for the better, as I pointed out two years ago. Better you should ask why the speedy rosters of Arkansas and Tennessee managed to score 14 and 10 against the slow Big Ten.

Congrats, out of nine SEC bowl teams, HeismanPundit found the two that didn't score many points. While we're discussing intellectual dishonesty, did anyone catch the teams that HP failed to mention? Georgia, whose offense he routinely mocks, and Alabama, whose offense just about everyone mocks. Bama scored 31 in their bowl game, which is roughly double their average from SEC games. Georgia scored 31 in their bowl game against the team that came into the bowls #1 in the country in both total defense and scoring defense.

Oh, and did you notice that Illinois only gave up 17 to Ohio State. So that means that Florida's defense is only three points better than Ron Zook's.

This argument is so bad, I don't even know where to begin. I've cited the fact that Florida scored 22 points per game in its eight regular season SEC game and never came close to 41 points. HP comes back with Ohio State's one bad offensive performance of the year, and better yet, is apropos of absolutely nothing.

As for 2008, I don't have to say anything.

You should have stopped here.

I told you guys two years ago that Florida, with its talent and its scheme, would be the next great power in college football. In 2008, you will see all that come to fruition as the personnel will be perfect for the scheme and they will run roughshod over teams.

Gee, and I remember saying after Ron Zook was fired that the Florida job was possibly the best job opening ever because of the combination of the natural advantages of the school, the talent being left by the predecessor, and the affection that Florida fans would feel for any coach that didn't defend his players by getting into fights with frat boys. If Florida dominates in the future, HP is not going to prove anything, except that Bear Bryant was right when he said that Florida was a sleeping giant that could dominate with the right coaches.

It must suck that you spent all that energy last year opposing my idea that Florida was going to be so good because of Meyer. Who was right? And who was merely mad because they didn't want to see Florida succeed for petty reasons?

I didn't disagree. I have always thought that Meyer was a good coach. He recruits well, he's hired excellent assistants on both sides of the ball, he keeps his players motivated, and he has an interesting offensive scheme that hasn't worked so far, but might look better with Tim Tebow running the show. I did spend energy arguing that Florida wasn't going to be great this year because of their losses on the offensive line and the Gators did a terrific job of proving me wrong by turning an inexperienced bunch into an effective unit. But see, the difference is that I acknowledged my bad prediction as soon as Florida won the national title. If I were HeismanPundit, I would have hoped that no one knows how to use that "older posts" link and claimed victory...and pretended that a defense allowing 6 yards of total offense to the Heisman winner was not the big story in a national title game.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Last night was a peculiar experience for me. Driving home from work, I got to listen to Buck & Kincaid (The Stews were not discussing Beckham, but I'll forgive them for that because they're still fighting over whether Barbaro should be put down.) I got to hear the Pride of Valdosta and Lindsey Scott's biggest fan Buck Belue state that "Beckham rarely beats other players for pace." I got to hear a caller with a real-life Cockney accent. Predictably, I also got to hear some tortured reasoning for why soccer isn't a huge spectator sport in America. Kincaid claimed it's popular in the rest of the world because it can be played in poor countries, unlike other sports. Gee, I was unaware that England, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and Japan are impoverished nations where the populace can't afford to buy balls for their kids. This sort of thing used to bother me because the knee-jerk "soccer is boring and for girls" impacted my ability to enjoy the sport. The backlash against soccer created an atmosphere that depressed popularity and kept games off the tube. Now, in an internet and digital cable world, I can watch as much European soccer as I want, subject to the threat of divorce and a "you never cared about me" speech from my son in 20 years. I can read the English papers online and blogs about most foreign leagues. I can pick a favorite team - FC Barcelona - and become a reasonably educated fan based on the amount of information about them online and the number of Blaugrana games on GolTV and ESPN2. Now, I couldn't care less that Joe Blowhard on the radio thinks that soccer is for pinkos. It doesn't affect my life one iota.

Where was I? Oh, I was discussing Beckham. If you want some solid takes on his potential impact in the U.S., Grant Wahl's article is a good one. For the English perspective, I recommend Richard Williams. Personally, I don't expect Beckham to have a dramatic long-term impact. In the short term, he is going to generate a tremendous amount of revenue for MLS and his sponsors. Beckham is the most popular athlete in the world, so MLS will receive far more attention (and thus far more sponsorship revenue) than it has ever received before. MLS is also getting Beckham not far from his prime, so there won't be a prevailing empty sense that Beckham's Q-rating is totally divorced from his ability on the pitch. Soccer fans in the know appreciate the fact that Beckham was starting for the English National Team this summer in Germany (and was pretty much their sole source of offense, which is more a commentary on the fact that their other players are overrated and/or Sven Goran Eriksson blundered badly) and that he's leaving a Real Madrid side in total disarray, so that departure isn't a comment on his playing ability. As long as Beckham is confined to his proper role - a right-sided midfielder who whips in perfect crosses and scores fairly frequently on free kicks - then he'll be a great addition to MLS and will show the sort of skill that casual fans can appreciate.

Long term, I'm too much of a critic of the "Great Man" theory of history to think that Beckham himself will launch MLS into a much higher profile. Aside from the fact that there is no team in Atlanta, MLS doesn't capture a fan like me because the level of play isn't outstanding and the games don't have the atmosphere that European games do. The appeal of watching an English Premier League game is the high quality play and the fans singing about Victoria Beckham's sexual preferences for 90 minutes. (On a related note, my one disappointment about GolTV is that they don't have nearly enough crowd noise in the audio feed.) MLS is getting closer on the fan intensity front as its teams build smaller, soccer-specific facilities that are more conducive to atmosphere, but it isn't there yet. The level of play has gotten better, but there's still a major difference between the speed of an EPL game or the skill on the ball of a Spanish Primera game on the one hand and the MLS on the other. Beckham is going to increase ratings in the short term in the matches he's playing and hopefully, that will suck people into becoming casual fans, but in the long term, MLS is going to have to improve its overall product so that when Becks is gone in five years or so, the league is better off.

Two other notes:

1. Although Ronaldo is a big name player, he's exactly the wrong kind of player for MLS to bring over. Casual fans are going to take one look at the chubby striker formerly known as El Fenómeno and recognize that they're seeing a player on the wrong side of his prime who's looking for a big paycheck without having to work hard or pass on seconds and thirds at the local churrascaria. Zinedine Zidane would be a far better option, even though he's older than Ronaldo and pretty inconsistent, because his Q-rating is as high after the headbutt this summer and he doesn't look like he's eaten Madrid's tapas bars out of house and home. Zidane might not be an option if he's truly serious about retirement, but if he could be brought over with a fistful of dollars, it would be worth the investment.

2. For those of you who are unaware of Beckham's Tyson-esque speaking voice, here's the famous "Ali G interviews David and Posh Beckham" clip:

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rock Bottom...I Hope

The Hawks can't get any lower than a 19-point loss at home to the following starting five: Devin Brown, Desmond Mason, Rasual Butler, Tyson Chandler, and Marc Jackson. Right? There is something significant going on behind the scenes. Marvin Williams is a better player than one who goes 2 for 13 against the Hornets' B-side. Joe Johnson is a better player than one who goes 6 for 24 against said back-ups. These players are either nursing injuries that are more significant than anyone lets on or there is some serious disharmony going on behind the scenes. Players giving up on the coach? Players hating one another? I have no idea, but things look bleak right now, unless the sole objective is to maximize the chance of obtaining one of the top three picks in the Draft. If so, then well done, Hawks!

I knew that things were bad when I got in the car last night after having not seen the game and Brandon Adams was saying on the post-game show that Mike Woodson was doing the best he could with the crappy hand he's been dealt, followed by clips of Steve Holman calling scores by Jannero Pargo in the most depressed voice imaginable.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Final Top 25

1 Florida 2
2 Southern Cal 2
3 LSU 2
4 Ohio State 3
5 Louisville 1
6 Boise State 5
7 Michigan 5
8 Auburn 1
9 Wisconsin 1
10 California 4
11 Rutgers 9
12 West Virginia 5
13 Brigham Young 6
14 Arkansas 4
15 Oklahoma 8
16 Wake Forest 1
17 Oregon State 1
18 Texas 4
19 Tennessee 7
20 Boston College 4
21 Notre Dame 3
22 Nebraska 1
23 Georgia 2
24 Virginia Tech 11
25 Hawaii 1

Dropped Out: Texas A&M (#21).

Random thoughts:

I had a hard time with LSU vs. USC for the #2 spot, but I ultimately decided that USC beat a better team in their bowl game. I also think that if they played on a neutral field, USC is one of the few teams in the country with more talent than LSU and I have doubts about Les Miles' ability to beat a more talented team.

I fail to see how the human polls have Wisconsin ahead of Michigan, given that: (1) Michigan beat Wisconsin handily; and (2) Michigan's two losses were to teams that were better than anyone on Wisconsin's schedule. Finally, Wisconsin was more than a little fortunate to win a bowl game in which they were badly outgained. Score one for the human voters relying on recency and record over any other consideration.

I had a final rapprochement with the Big East as I decided to bump Rutgers and West Virginia way up from where I had them before. Ultimately, I don't think there's any rational way to dispute the notion that the Big East was good this year. Their teams all took care of business in their bowl games (admittedly against less than sterling opposition as a result of their weak bowl tie-ins). I gave South Florida some serious consideration for the top 25 before deciding that I didn't have room for them, but depending on what they have returning, they should be an excellent sleeper team next year.

I know that it makes little sense to have Penn State unranked and Tennessee #19 after the bowl games, but I try not to put too much credence into the bowl games and over the course of the season, Tennessee was a little better. Also, the Outback Bowl was totally even until a stroke of luck: a fumble bouncing right to a Penn State defensive back standing next to the pile. Penn State didn't have a win of the quality of Tennessee's thrashing of Cal. That brings me to one of the ironies of the bowl season: during the year, the common wisdom was that the Big Ten was top heavy and the SEC was well-balanced, but the results of the bowl games reflected that the depth of the Big Ten was a little better than we thought and that the top of the SEC was outstanding.

I'm also uncomfortable with the fact that I have Texas ranked after a ho-hum win over a bad Iowa team and I'm not ranking Texas A&M, which beat Texas in Austin and lost a bowl game to a quality opponent.

It amuses me to see voters bump Boise State up to #2 on the backs of an overtime win over a team that most votes are slotting somewhere in the middle of the second ten. Does anyone really think that Boise State could hang with USC or LSU on a neutral field? And if so, shouldn't said voters be bumping Oklahoma up after being a hook-and-ladder away from beating the Broncos?

I punished Virginia Tech severely not so much because they lost to Georgia, but rather because I was unimpressed by their defense, which was my whole reason for ranking them #13. I know that field position was a major factor in Georgia scoring 31 points on them, but there's no excuse for them to leave Georgia's tight end and backs totally uncovered on a number of second half plays. The Peach Bowl left me with the impression that the Hokies' defense was exploitable by any offense with a modicum of creativity.

Did HeismanPundit Actually Watch the Game?

706 words on the BCS Title Game and not one mention of the minor fact that Florida gave up 82 yards. That couldn't possibly have had anything to do with the result, could it? Because of Florida's defense and special teams, the Gators managed seven scores in the game and only one of the drives was longer than 46 yards. And in light of that evidence, HP still wants to extol Florida's offensive scheme? The same offensive scheme that produced 17 points against South Carolina, 21 points against Georgia, 23 points against LSU, 25 points against Vandy, 17 points against Auburn, 21 points against Alabama, 21 points against Tennessee, and 26 points against Kentucky? No mention of a defensive scheme that completely confused Ohio State's offensive line by crowding the line of scrimmage and then dropped multiple defenders off at the snap, thus ensuring single-blocking for the Gators' defensive ends? This isn't the work of an analyst; this is the work of a publicist.

(I do think HP is right that Ohio State wasn't used to handling an offense of Florida's style and that's a legitimate criticism of the Big Ten, but doesn't that imply that offenses are more sophisticated in the SEC, since SEC defenses are able to handle the Florida offense with relative ease? In other words, Ohio State did have a scheme problem, but the problem was primarily with their defensive approach, which was extremely passive and was contrary to what worked against the Gators this season in the SEC.)

And let's also note what isn't mentioned in HP's self-fellatio on the Gang of Six:

1. He inducted Notre Dame into the Gang before the season and the Irish, despite returning nine starters on offense, including multiple prospective NFL first round picks, was handled relatively easily by just about every decent defense they played (with the exception of Penn State): 14 points against Georgia Tech, 21 points against Michigan, 20 points against UCLA, 24 points against USC, and 14 points against LSU. Notre Dame had 30 yards in the second half against LSU, a team that HP proclaimed as overrated earlier this year.

2. If scheme is the key to Boise State's success, then how come they don't miss a beat when they lose their coaches, the designers of those schemes? More importantly, if the scheme is so revolutionary and unstoppable, then why does it not work for Dirk Koetter or Dan Hawkins when they leave the WAC?

3. Funny how HP mentions Cal's outburst against a Texas A&M defense that no one respects and neglects to mention their offensive output in their final three games of the regular season: 20 points against Arizona, nine points against USC, and 26 points against Stanford (arguably the worst BCS conference team this year).

One final note: SEC teams other than Florida, the ones that HP derides as having neanderthal offenses and defenses that are overrated because they play against bad offenses, averaged 27 points per game in their bowl games. If these offenses are so bad, then why aren't they being exposed when they step outside of SEC play?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

As they Say in Latin America...

Mea Culpa.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Ron Powlus will win three Heismans Wrong.

And now, to make myself feel better: Right. Right. Right.

The lessons I take from that review are as follows:

a. I do my worst analysis when Michigan is involved. I was fairly high on Florida for much of the year, save for proclaiming them overrated in August (and even then, I correctly identified the two reasons why I would be wrong - the defensive line and Meyer's record in year twos - so I at least have the insight to know why my predictions are going to end up embarrassing me). I stuck up for their strength of schedule and noted that their offense was pretty good when I did the yards per play analysis. Then, as soon as USC lost and I got visions of Glendale and a dancing Fox Optimus Prime with a block "M" on its chest jangling in my noggin, I lost my mind and did what most lawyers do: marshall every possible argument against the opponent. So feel free to completely disregard me in the future when Michigan is at all implicated by what I'm saying.

b. I can never go wrong ripping on Tommy Tuberville. How's that "no SEC team can make the national title game with our schedules" mantra working these days?

Other thoughts on the game last night:

1. As much as I want to beat myself up for deviating from one of my core beliefs - the SEC is very good and its teams and players don't get the attention they deserve - I'm not going to get too upset because the Florida team we all saw last night was a distant cousin of the Florida team from the second half of the season. Who could have rationally thought that the team that was outgained by Vandy, that barely survived at home with a healthy dose of luck against South Carolina, that limped past a struggling Georgia team, and that was tied with 6-5 Florida State in the fourth quarter would also be the team to hold Ohio State to 80 yards and seven offensive points? Florida played their best game since at least the 1/2/02 Orange Bowl against Maryland. For that, Urban Meyer and the team deserves full credit for raising their game, but let's not pretend that we had any inkling that this was coming.

2. Last night's game was also evidence that we ought not overrate the importance of a blow-out in a championship game. History is replete with teams that completely lost the plot in Super Bowls and national title games. The Bills of the 90s were never as bad as they looked in the Super Bowl. '04 Oklahoma was not 36 points worse than '04 USC. '96 Florida State was not 28 points worse than '96 Florida. '95 Florida was not 38 points worse than '95 Nebraska. '92 Miami was not 21 points worse than '92 Alabama. There is an observable phenomenon that teams: (a) get stale after long lay-offs; and/or (b) freak out when they fall behind on the biggest stage and have total meltdowns. Florida was outstanding last night and they are clearly a better team than Ohio State, but they aren't 27 points better and there's no way that Ohio State's offense is really that bad. This point incidentally doesn't so much have impact for the game last night as it does for historical discussions where a certain team's merit consists mainly of running up a huge score in a championship game.

3. Last night's result has to be the equivalent for Florida fans of what the Braves hypothetically winning a pivotal World Series game against the Yankees in large part because of a game-tying three-run homer off the Yankee closer would have for me: a cleansing of history. A re-writing of the most painful episode. For years, Florida fans no doubt remembered the Fiesta Bowl against Nebraska as the darkest night of their sports lives. Now, whenever they remember it, it will trigger memories of a complete reversal: a dominant performance over a favored foe wearing red in the desert. The fact that Florida won the game in large part because of an unstoppable pass rush and ended the game downing the ball inside the Ohio State ten, just as Nebraska did to them 11 years ago just adds to the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind effect.

4. I generally think that the "Big Ten = Slow; SEC = Fast" argument is in lieu of actual analysis. It absolves the advocate of actually figuring out what went right or wrong in a given game. For example, I don't think that Ohio State lost the game because they're slow on defense. If they were slow, then they wouldn't have defended Texas so well over the past two years. I do think that they (and Michigan) have excessively conservative defensive approaches and that was evident in both bowl games. Time and time again, SEC defenses showed that the way to limit Chris Leak was to pressure him relentlessly and force him into bad mechanics. There's a reason why Florida's offense produced such meager output in SEC games. (Incidentally, this is why you-know-who will be completely wrong when he inevitably claims that Florida won the national title because of their OMG newfangled scheme that left mouth-breathing SEC coaches in the dust. That and the fact that anyone with a pulse might note that Florida won because their defensive line was completely unblockable and scheme is irrelevant when you get whipped up front.) So how did Ohio State try to defend Florida's offense? With a three-man line and no blitzes. If you let Chris Leak sit in the pocket, he will murder you because he's accurate and his receivers will get open. This is true with most quality quarterbacks. Against Texas and the undercarriage of the Big Ten, Ohio State could sit back because the opposing quarterbacks weren't very good and the Bucks could get pressure with four. Against Florida, Ohio State couldn't get pressure with a three- or four-man rush and they allowed Leak to kill them.

5. The one thing that Jim Tressel got right last night was the decision to go for 4th and one from his own 29. Naturally, Anthony Davis (Unconventional! Does not compute!) didn't like the decision and kept referring to it even after it "led" to three points in a 27-point rout, but Ohio State needed to move the ball and their defense wasn't having much success stopping Florida. Given that context, the 75% chance of success was worth 30 yards of field position. The problem was a totally predictable call - run off-tackle from a two-TE, two-back set - and the fact that Florida was abusing Ohio State up front. With a mobile, senior quarterback and a spread offense, Ohio State should have had multiple receivers on the field to force Florida to delcare its intentions before the play and then let Troy Smith decide whether to run or pass. Hindsight is 20/20, but my thought at the time was that Tressel's risk-reward analysis was right and his playcall was wrong as soon as I saw the formation.

6. Last night got me to thinking that the SEC has a pretty damned good record in national title bowl games. Here's what I came up with, starting with 1980 because that's when I started watching football:

2006 - Florida over Ohio State
2003 - LSU over Oklahoma
1998 - Tennessee over Florida State
1996 - Florida over Florida State
1995 - Nebraska over Florida
1992 - Alabama over Miami
1982 - Penn State over Georgia
1980 - Georgia over Notre Dame

I also did the math for the Pac Ten in my head and they have had similar success:

2005 - Texas over USC
2004 - USC over Oklahoma
2003 - USC over Michigan
2001 - Oregon over Colorado (keep in mind that the winner of that game would probably win the AP vote if Nebraska had beaten Miami in the Rose Bowl)
1991 - Washington over Michigan
1984 - Washington over Oklahoma

Based on an admittedly small sample size, there's an argument to be made that the two conferences that feel most ignored by the media have a point that when their teams survive their relatively balanced conference schedules and make it to national title games, they do very well, as opposed to the teams from the top-heavy conferences like the Big Eight/XII and Big Ten.

Petrino Linky Linky

Len Pasquarelli has a typically measured take, pointing out that there are always unknowns with a coaching hire and that Petrino does have a history of bouncing from job to job that Blank and McKay need to take into account. If we try to tell ourselves that Petrino won't glance covetously at other jobs, then we're no better than the woman who convinces herself that her new boyfriend cheated on all his prior flames, but this time will be different because she's somehow different than all those other ladies. Nevertheless, Len comes pretty close to endorsing the move: "[W]ith his prickly personality and demanding manner on and off the field, [Petrino] was an obvious fit in hindsight, even if his candidacy was a secret one."

Thankfully for Falcons fans everywhere, Terrence Moore has panned the hire with his own unique blend of amnesia (the previous week, he asserted that "[n]obody of significance" would want the Falcons' job) and specious reasoning. Moore trots out the same tired argument that college coaches can't succeed in the NFL and, by citing Butch Davis, Dennis Erickson, and Steve Spurrier, thus illustrates my point from yesterday that the college coaches who don't succeed in the NFL are typically: (1) coaches who relied on superior talent in college; and (2) coaches who were hamstrung by terrible personnel decisions. Moore also argues that Petrino is "surly." Gee, how can any coach who is surly with the media succeed in the NFL?

Finally, Moore complains that Petrino looks to move a lot. Given that most coaches in the NFL are gone after 3-4 years anyway, wouldn't the Falcons be insane not to take a coach if they know in advance that he's going to be a success for four years and then move on?

Jeff Schultz sees the writing on the wall for Michael Vick: the coach now has leverage over the star player and if the star player doesn't perform, then he won't play. Given my lukewarm feelings on Vick's play over the past several years and my belief that football teams are generally too wedded to their quarterbacks and eschew competition at the position when they encourage it everywhere else on the field, I am happy with Schultz's argument. Petrino has gotten excellent production from Stefan Lefors and Hunter Cantwell. He made Jason Campbell look like an all-SEC quarterback as a sophomore. He did a fine job with Mark Brunell from 1999-2001. If Vick can't produce under Petrino, then that's a commentary on Vick.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Petrino, Muthaf***er!

The short version: this is an absolute home run hire. The Falcons obviously needed an offensive coach since they've committed so much to that side of the ball in terms of cap room and draft picks and they hired possibly the best one available. You can argue that Norm Chow and possibly Cam Cameron have slightly better raw offensive credentials, but Chow has never been a head man before (I view him as the Leo Mazzone of football) and Cameron was underwhelming as the head man at Indiana (an opinion I reserve the right to revise if he becomes the head coach at his alma mater [Michigan] in the near future. Incidentally, Petrino was my dream hire for Lloyd Carr's replacement, although he was a pipedream in that regard, given Michigan's refusal to pay top dollar and general stodginess about outsiders.) Petrino has been successful everywhere he's been, which indicates that he can handle the other aspects of being a head coach: motivation, managing a staff, handling the media, etc. His hiring will resolve once and for all whether Mike Vick is an above-average NFL quarterback.

Mark Bradley agrees. The world waits with baited breath for Terrence Moore's endorsement of the move.

Other thoughts:

1. I've been resisting "everything was Jim Mora's fault" narrative being put out on 790, a.k.a. Pravda Flowery Branch, and I'm more than willing to criticize Arthur Blank and Rich McKay, but you have to hand it to them for this hire. First, Blank's willingness to pay a head coach $4.8M per year gives the Falcons a leg up over much of the NFL. Blank may be too involved in certain respects, but he puts his money where his mouth is. It's too bad that he owns the Falcons as opposed to the Braves, a team that operates in a league without a salary cap, but I digress. Second, the fact that this hire came completely out of leftfield without any hints speaks well to Blank and McKay's ability to run a discreet coaching search. It's confidence-inspiring to know that the people running the local NFL team are able to run a hiring process in which there are absolutely no leaks and they get the guy they want quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

2. You'll be shocked to know that as a card-carrying member of the "College football is great! The NFL is boring!" junta, I don't buy the argument that college coaches can't be successful in the NFL. The reason for this is simple: the college coaches who tend to get hired are the successful ones who come from programs with natural advantages. When they lose those advantages in the NFL, they attain mediocre results. Exhibit A: Steve Spurrier. Spurrier was also put in a terrible situation. He's pretty much a x's and o's guy who needs assistance in assembling talent. In Washington, player acquisition is handled by a guy whose talents lie in outsourced marketing services. Notably, Joe Gibbs, whose NFL credentials are beyond reproach, is 21-27 in three years there, a marginal improvement over Spurrier's 12-20. Exhibit B: Nick Saban. As mentioned here last week, Saban was universally applauded in 2005 for getting a 4-12 team to 9-7. This year, he was done in by injuries at the quarterback position and I don't see how he can be faulted for relying on medical advice that told him that Daunte Culpepper's injury was less serious than Drew Brees's.

In any event, both Saban and Spurrier benefited in college from having superior talent. (I've often said that, all things being equal, the top three teams in the SEC should be LSU, Georgia, and Florida because they are in the best spots in terms of proximity to talent.) Petrino had no such advantages at Louisville. Kentucky is not especially talent-rich and Petrino has to compete with UK, the state's flagship school, for players. He is hemmed in like Poland in 1939 with the Nazis (Tennessee) on one side and the Communists (Ohio State) on the other. (I just adore that analogy. I'm very proud of myself right now.) The success that Petrino achieved was not the result of superior talent (although Brian Brohm and Michael Bush aren't a bad pair of building blocks and Petrino was fortunate that both players came out of Louisville high schools during his tenure with the added benefit of Brohm being a legacy), but rather a quality offensive scheme. The Cards have been successful regardless of who's been under center. Louisville also improved defensively over his tenure; this year, they were 40th in total defense, 17th in scoring defense, 19th in rushing defense, and 22nd in pass efficiency defense. This is encouraging because it indicates that Petrino is able to bring in the right assistant coaches to compensate for his presumed lack of defensive knowledge. (Charlie Weis might consider doing the same.)

3. We all need to agree on this right now: Petrino has shown some serious wanderlust over his career and we can't be upset in a few years when he starts looking elsewhere. If he gives the Falcons four good years and then replaces Phil Fulmer at Tennessee or Bobby Bowden at Florida State, then we should thank him for his service and move on.

4. I only have a casual familiarity with Petrino's offense based on watching Louisville for the past several years and Auburn in 2002, but my impression is that he tends to favor a power running game, which is inconsistent with the Falcons' current personnel on the offensive line, especially at guard and center. If I'm right about this, the Falcons would be wise to stockpile draft picks this year, i.e. trade down, and bring in several good interior offensive linemen. This would be an especially viable strategy because the team is set at the premium positions - QB, RB, WR, OT, DE, and CB - and needs to focus on mid-round positions: C, G, MLB, and FS. Ordinarily, I would say that trading Matt Schaub would be a good way to acquire additional picks in rounds 2-4, but the buzz on the radio this morning is that the Falcons told prospective head coaches that they are not wedded to Mike Vick and that the new coach won't be forbidden from going in a new direction at QB if he feels that Vick isn't a good fit in his system. Whether that's doable under the salary cap is another question entirely, but it does reflect that the team doesn't share Vick's view that he had a great year this year and it might also reflect that Arthur Blank is willing to put aside his personal affection for Vick.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Random Notes on a Night with the Local Professional Basketball Collective

Thanks to my mother-in-law (surely a rarely made statement in human existence), Der Wife and I got to check out our first Hawks game of the year last night. Here are my observations:

The Hawks' eight-game losing streak and their revival last night can be charted closely along with Joe Johnson's performances. Johnson was excellent in the first three games after he returned from an injury, but two of the games were the highly dispiriting games against Chicago and Utah in which the team blew huge leads and the third was the game against Indiana after which Johnson questioned some of his teammates. (I interpreted the remarks to be primarily directed at Josh Smith, but that's solely my speculation.) Johnson then probably had a "what am I doing killing myself for these guys?" funk, combined with turf toe and a bad calf, and then scored 12, 10, 11, 23, and 15 points in the next five games, all relatively uncompetitive losses. Hopefully, last night was Johnson coming out of his funk, because he was back to the form he showed at the start of the season when he was one of the ten best players in the league. He had 27 points on only 16 shots and got to the free throw line ten times.

The other offensive star on Saturday night was Zaza Pachulia, who had 22 points and eight rebounds. Zaza has always been an extremely hardworking player who rebounds well and gets to the foul line, but has a hard time finishing around the basket. Saturday night, he was finishing the set-ups provided to him by Speedy Claxton and Johnson. He also did a good defensive job on Chris Kaman, who became an important offensive option for the Clippers with Corey Magette and Sam Cassell out. Kaman finished with eight points and didn't get to the foul line, so Zaza's decisive victory in the paint has to be one of the major reasons that the Hawks got off the skids.

The essence of Zaza...possibly a good idea for a cologne in Tbilisi?

The 74 points that the Hawks allowed on Saturday night represented the fewest points allowed in a game by the team since Janaury 17, 2004 when they beat Toronto 75-70. (In case you were wondering, the Hawks' starting five that night was Jason Terry, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and Theo Ratliff.) Lost in all of the criticism of Billy Knight's decision to pass on Chris Paul, the Hawks' primary problem last year was not that they were rudderless on offense, but rather that they were a bad defensive basketball team. Last year's team was not capable of the sort of defensive performance that they turned in on Saturday night.

We gave up how many points?

The Hawks let Elton Brand get his 26 points (at one point in the first quarter, the score was Hawks 12, Brand 12, other Clippers 0), but they made him earn his points by throwing a number of big bodies at him. The Hawks completely shut down the remaining offensive players for the Clippers, which was obviously easier with Cassell and Magette out, but was an improvement nonetheless. Speedy Claxton deserves specific praise as he was very active in the passing lanes and ended up with five steals as a result. He also pestered Shaun Livingston into a 2/11 shooting performance. I came away very unimpressed with Livingston, who doesn't get into the heart of the defense nearly enough to be a good point guard. Then again, from what I understand, he's an extremely streak player, so maybe I just caught him on a bad night. Still, he had a height advantage over Claxton that he didn't exploit and he didn't pose any defensive problems for the Hawks.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that if the Hawks keep playing defense like they did Saturday night and Joe Johnson returns to his early season form, then the eight-game losing streak will become a distant memory.

Other random stuff:

1. You know the local hoops team isn't playing well when you get made fun of by a homeless guy wearing a Notre Dame jacket in Centennial Park for going to see the Hawks instead of going to see Elton Brand. Then again, kudos to Atlanta because our street guys know more about sports than other cities' street guys. And they say this is a bad sports town.

2. Do Zaza and new signing Slava Medvedenko talk shit to one another based on a rivalry between Georgia and Ukraine? Do they fight about who is the greater human being: Eduard Shevardnadze or Andrei Shevchenko? Inquiring minds want to know.

3. When I write the chapter of my autobiography on how Octopussy changed my life, I'll need to remember the number of times I've seen the dressed-to-impress (and get set for life by fathering the child of an NBA player) set at a Hawks game and quoted Gobinda to Der Wife: "Girls. Selling themselves."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

One Good Result of the Rose Bowl

Of all the people I expected to write that college football is much better in person, Bill Simmons is about the last one. On the one hand, I shouldn't really care what the enemy has to say about something that I hold dear. On the other hand, there's no better confirmation for your beliefs than when the enemy admits that you're right. It would be like George Bush having a Rose Garden ceremony on Monday afternoon and admitting that maybe it wasn't such a great idea to expect to occupy Iraq with 140,000 troops. Or maybe it wasn't a terrific idea for the balance sheet to slash taxes while not cutting spending, adding a massive new Medicare benefit, increasing farm subsidies, and funding the War on Terror. I digress. Anyway, here is Bill Simmons coming to the conclusion that most rational people who have attended a major college football game and an NFL game have reached:

Along those same lines, there's really no comparison between attending a big NFL game and attending a big college football game. Between the tailgates, cheerleaders, marching bands and fight songs, the life-or-death mentality of the fan bases, the pace of the games, the purity of the experience itself ... it's just not close. College football crushes pro football as a spectator sport. And it's mainly because of the TV timeouts (endless in the NFL), the canned/predictable songs blaring from the PA system (they're the same in every NFL stadium) and the lifeless, state-of-the-art stadiums that every NFL owner builds now, where they separate the levels with luxury boxes and diehard fans are trapped in the nosebleeds 200-250 feet from the field. Of the newer NFL stadiums, only Seattle's seems to provide a real home-field advantage, and that's only because Paul Allen hired someone to figure out how the layout of a stadium could reflect noise (the answer: through aluminum seats and a specially constructed end zone section). It's just not that fun to go to an NFL game anymore. College? Very fun. And the Rose Bowl was almost surreal. All in all, one of my favorite days in awhile.

And it also bears noting that Simmons saw a game between USC and Michigan, teams with good fan bases, but not on the level of intensity of an Ohio State, a Nebraska, or an SEC team. Simmons is also used to New England games on the NFL level, which I would have to presume are on the upper end of intensity for the NFL. This is one step removed from me going to Falcons games and coming away unimpressed because the Falcons have always taken a back seat to college football in terms of the priorities of most area football fans. The Patriots are pretty much the sole focus of football fans in New England, although I suppose the argument could be made that the Red Sox function to the Patriots the way college football functions for the Falcons.

I think you could see Simmons' progression towards realizing that college games are a more genuine, exciting experience this summer when he lamented the loss of his old Celtics experience. Leaving Boston and coming to Southern California is probably good for him because he never got to experience big-time college football in New England and is now tasting the forbidden fruit for the first time. There is a My Summer of Love parallel here that I'm not quite comfortable making. (Speaking of which, am I a bad football fan for missing part of the Sugar Bowl because My Summer of Love was on HBO? And am I a bad movie fan for watching a quality indie flick solely for prurient reasons?)

Friday, January 05, 2007

All Saban, All the Time!

Here is Jeff Schultz on Saban. Jeff at least has the good sense to understand that Saban lying to the media about his interest in the Bama job isn't a big deal because all coaches have to do so when they are contemplating a move. (By way of illustration, look at what happened when Jim Mora was honest and expressed interest in the Washington job. Apparently, coaches need to say "no comment," from which everyone will infer the presence of smoke or they should just say nothing, in which case there is no story and the media has nothing to discuss. Is that what they really want?) Schultz is right on the money when he says that it's unlikely that Saban will stay the full eight years at Alabama, but what Alabama wouldn't take the same success that Saban produced at Alabama? You think that Bama fans will be complaining if Saban leaves in January 2012 after winning a national title and two SEC titles and leaves the cupboard brimming with NFL-caliber talent? OK, they're Bama fans, so the answer is probably yes, but the two or three rational people in that state will be overjoyed and you can bet that Bama fans would take that deal right now. How many LSU fans are going to say that Saban was a bad hire or not worth the money that LSU paid him? Exactly. This is a home run hire and you have to be irrationally contrary to think otherwise.

Schultz also goes after Saban for a lack of success with the Dolphins, but Saban's work in 2005 in getting a really bad team to 9-7 was universally praised in the NFL (one game worse than the 10-6 that Eric Mangini put up this year in similar circumstances and now Mike Francesa and other ignorant yankees are proclaiming that Saban is leaving because he's scared of Mangini). The Dolphins were a disappointment this year, but they finished the season on their third quarterback, so what do you expect? Furthermore, I have it on good authority (from the one Dolphins fan I know and he's a Yale Law grad, so there!) that Saban made the decision for Culpepper over Brees based on medical advice that Culpepper's injury posed less of an issue than Brees's did. So, by all means, Jeff, criticize Saban for not having a medical degree.

And this gem from Schultz is especially weak:

There are at least five schools in the SEC with more strength, stability and promise: Georgia, Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Auburn. (Alabama gets the edge over South Carolina only because of the alphabet.)

Auburn? The school that was trying to fire its coach after the 2003 season because the booster who runs the school decided that the season was disappointing? The school that typically gets out-recruited in-state by Alabama even when the Tide are struggling. (Auburn does have strong ties to western Georgia that helps to compensate for this fact.) Auburn is only a better job if your memory extends no farther than back to 2004.

And as usual, the Auburn camp has stepped forward to claim that Alabama has goofed again. Where to begin?

After all the blown smoke clears, all the UAT "brain trust" has done today is overpay by about double for a football coach.

Yes, they overpaid, but as the baseball free agent market illustrates, it's better to overpay for something close to a sure thing than it is to overpay slightly less money for a variable. Saban is as close to a sure thing as there is in the coaching market. Moreover, if coaching salaries continue to skyrocket, then the $4M per year will be less and less objectionable.

As Ivan Maisel notes this evening, going out and bribing a coach out of the NFL is a classic desperation ploy. It's an admission that the Alabama job just isn't attractive to anybody who values his job security or sanity.

If the Alabama job isn't attractive, then why did the highly-compensated Nick Saban take it? And Saban has coached in the SEC before, so you can't even claim that he doesn't know what he's getting into. Only an Auburn fan can look at his rival hiring one of the most attractive coaches on the market and then decide that this means that the Alabama job isn't an attractive one. In related news, Will will be posting this off-season on how the '92 Bama defense was a sieve, Bear Bryant wasn't as successful as Shug Jordan, and crimson is actually blue.

And they've done it because being cemented in the wake of a successful Auburn is driving them completely crazy.

No shit, Sherlock. Bama is hiring the best coach available because they haven't been successful in recent years and that's included losing five in a row to their arch-rival. If the shoe was on the other foot and Auburn had lost five in a row to Alabama while posting mostly mediocre results, wouldn't Auburn want to go out and hire the best coach available? Maybe even one who swears he won't leave his current job other than in a pine box?