Tuesday, December 28, 2010


My Monday started with a gum graft and ended with Mike Smith's indefensible decision to punt the ball back to the Saints inside of the final three minutes. Happy days are here again! Here are my barely coherent thoughts on the game:

Overall, last night's game was either overdue or out-of-character. If you view the Falcons as a team that isn't especially good at either moving the ball or stopping opponents from doing so, then it was unsurprising. The team's record flatters them, so losing a close game was bound to happen. A team can't keep getting outgained and expect to win again and again. On the other hand, if you view the Falcons as a team with certain defined traits - a low variance offense that keeps the ball and avoids turnovers and a defense that doesn't give up the big play - then last night's game was weird because Atlanta didn't play like the team that we have seen for the first fourteen games. The Falcons turned the ball over twice, once on a fumble by a running back who never fumbles and the second a completely unforced blunder by Todd McClure. The Falcons were poor on third downs and as a result, were on the short end of total plays, first downs, and time of possession. In short, Atlanta didn't show any of the strengths that have gotten this team to 12-2.

Mularkey! The Falcons have one major advantage and one major disadvantage against the Saints. The advantage is that the Falcons' offense is based off of a between-the-tackles running game and the Saints are weak up the middle, as Baltimore showed the week before. The disadvantage is that the Saints' defense is entirely dependent on blitzing like mad, but the Falcons are not a team that looks for big plays to punish opponents for taking risks. In other words, Gregg Williams doesn't let his teams get nickeled and dimed and the Falcons don't have another way to attack. In the first game between the teams, the Falcons' running game was dominant. Last night, the Saints negated the running game and the Falcons had no Plan B. Whether by design or by circumstance, the Falcons went away from the bread and butter of their passing game - Roddy White (five targets) and Tony Gonzalez (three targets) - and instead funneled the ball to Michael Jenkins (nine targets!?), Harry Douglas (three targets and no catches; slot receiver ought to be a focus in the offseason, unless the Falcons are confident that Douglas's poor 2010 is the after-effect of his knee injury last year), and the non-Turner options in the backfield (Jason Snelling and Ovie Mughelli got three targets each). In an odd way, the Falcons were mimicking the Saints by spreading the ball around, but the end result was a meek 215 yards and seven points. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Gregg Williams ate Mike Mularkey alive.

And I'm spent. Brian Van Gorder's defense was terrific last night. Like the offense, the defense was out of character in the sense that they blitzed like crazy. If Brian Williams could make a tackle, the team would have had a bevy of sacks and gotten the Saints off the field sooner on several occasions. Williams' repeated whiffs were a reminder that Van Gorder had come up with blitzes to get rushers free, so kudos to Brian. The one concern for Falcons fans is that there is a good chance that the Falcons and Saints will be seeing one another again in January. In the grand scheme of things, last night's game didn't matter much because the Falcons have what the English would refer to as a home banker: the home game against the hapless Panthers on Sunday. We have to hope that Van Gorder didn't empty his magazine last night.

Hi, we're 32-14 over the last three years. Nice to meet you for the first time! From the start of the game, when Jon Gruden proclaimed that Matt Ryan is the best quarterback that no one knows about, to the end, when Mike Tirico admitted that fans around the country might not know much about the teams in the NFC South because they aren't favored in the media, there was a sense of "America, meet the Falcons." Gee, I wonder why America doesn't know much about the Falcons. Could it be that Tirico and Gruden's employer pays them no attention? Could it be that a team with consecutive winning seasons and a hot young quarterback hasn't been on a Sunday or Monday night game until week 16? The broadcasters' repeated references to the Falcons' low profile reminded me of Kirk Herbstreit claiming that Texas was motivated in their Rose Bowl against USC because no one gave them a chance, all while ignoring the fact that leading up to the game, he had been pimping USC as the greatest team of all time. A little self-awareness would be nice.

One other gripe about the broadcast last night: unless I missed it, no one mentioned that Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins is a converted corner. That's a pretty important fact when commenting on a safety who is showing great man-to-man coverage skills against the opponent's slot receiver.

OK, and one more: there is a creeping Favreism in the coverage of Drew Brees. When Brees blindly flipped a lateral to Pierre Thomas while being sacked, the obvious conclusion was "that's a low reward, high risk play." Tirico, Gruden, and (to a lesser extent) Jaworski all oohed and aahed a a quarterback making a dumb decision. He's just a crazy backyard quarterback out there having fun and making plays! So with the "where have I heard this before? alarm bells going at full steam, it was only natural that Brees threw a horrendous pick six on the next series. The funny thing about Tirico's reaction in particular is that it shows a complete lack of understanding big and small risks. He loved Brees taking a major risk with limited upside, but he treated Mike Smith's ludicrous decision to punt with 2:48 remaining - a decision that was high risk (as evidenced by the fact that the Saints were able to run the clock out) and low reward (the best case scenario was that the Falcons would get the ball back with two minutes and no timeouts) - as self-evident. And then the best part was that he never acknowledged Smith's and his mistake when the Saints were able to run out the clock.

What a pity, such nice muscles too. If only they were brains. Ed Hochuli and his crew seemed especially addled last night. The call that stood out was the inaugural appearance of a mutual pass interference call against Roddy White and Jabari Greer. I'd love to hear from anyone who has seen that call made before. The funny thing is that it makes sense to make that call in certain instances. How many times have we heard announcers say (correctly) that a receiver and corner had their hands all over one another? Hell, Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin played an entire NFC Championship Game that way in 1995. The problem was that Hochuli's crew unearthed the call for the first time on a play where Roddy White did nothing.

I'm confused. If Drew Brees and the Saints really saved New Orleans, then what was with all the transplanted Louisianans who now live in Atlanta at the game last night?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Negative Grohmentum Strikes Early

The media looks at a Maryland team with mediocre talent that went 8-4 all while: (1) missing Virginia Tech; (2) not beating a single ranked opponent during the season; (3) going 4-1 in games decided by one score, including squeakers over Duke and Boston College; and (4) being outgained by nine yards per game and says “Coach of the Year!”  Maryland’s athletic director looks at the same evidence, combined with the fact that coach-in-waiting James Franklin decided to stop waiting and took the Vandy job, and says “You’re fired.”  Is there a better illustration of the uselessness of coach of the year awards than that?  They’re a nicer way of saying “you haven’t recruited that well, but you managed to win a pile of close games so your record flatters your team.  Here’s a plaque!”

For the record, I like Ralph Friedgen a lot.  To the extent that one can tell anything from an interview, Friedgen sounds like a good guy.  His work at Georgia Tech under George O’Leary was outstanding, as were his first several years at Maryland.  However, the Terps’ slide since 2004 – Friedgen was 31-8 in his first three seasons and 43-42 over the next seven – leads to the conclusion that Friedgen is a great coach when someone else is recruiting for him.  Friedgen’s record illustrates the potential downside for hiring guys like Dana Holgorsen or Gus Malzahn: you know that these guys know how to scheme on offense, but can they handle the other aspects of being a head coach?  

Thursday, December 23, 2010

You're Not Getting to a Jury with this Claim, Counselor Mandel

Stewart Mandel alleges that Ralph Friedgen and Bill Stewart suffered adverse employment actions (fancy law-talking term, +1), at least in part, because of their age. In how many ways is he wrong? Let's count:

1. If Mayland and West Virginia have legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons to support their employment decisions, then Friedgen and Stewart don't have employment claims. What could that legitimate business reason be? Scroll down to the bottom of Mandel's article:

West Virginia is just three years removed from a BCS bowl appearance and shared this year's Big East title, but Luck believed the program had lost its sizzle.

"Our season ticket base has declined from Stewart's first year to the present time," said Luck. "We've had only two crowds since 2004 under 50,000, and both of those took place in the last couple of years. That to me is an indication that our fans aren't satisfied with the product."

Maryland had a similar but more drastic problem. With the enthusiasm of Friedgen's early tenure (three straight 10-win seasons from 2001-03) a distant memory, the Terps averaged just 39,168 per game this year at 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium. On the field Maryland showed considerable promise, led by freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien, the ACC's Rookie of the Year. But with several assistants expected to follow Franklin to Vanderbilt, Anderson, who called his move a "strategic business decision," made it clear Monday he had no desire to let Friedgen rebuild his staff and continue coaching the current group.
The football programs at Maryland and West Virginia, like the football programs at most schools, pay for their athletic departments. They pay the debt on stadium renovations, they pay for non-revenue sports, and they pay for bloated administrative staffs. If attendance is down (and one can assume a corresponding decline in donations), then the Maryland and West Virginia football programs will struggle to pull their weight. Is Mandel really going to argue that athletic directors should twiddle their thumbs while their fan bases show less and less interest in their football programs? Can there be a more legitimate reason to push a coach out than this?

(Side note: do we give Mandel credit for including in his article a rationale for Maryland's and West Virginia's actions or do we criticize him for burying at the end evidence that refutes his lede?)

Part of what made the Terps and Mountaineers unappealing this year were their pedestrian offenses. The two teams tied for 69th in yards per play. Their new coaches - Dana Holgorsen and Mike Leach (we presume) - are offensive experts. Mandel mentions the examples of Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly as guiding the decisions at issue here, but he ignores the fundamental lessons that the success of Auburn and Oregon teach: we are in a Spread-led offensive age in college football. There can be no denying that Auburn and Oregon are headed to Glendale because of their cutting-edge offenses. West Virginia fans don't need to have long memories to recall when their program was last nationally prominent and what the driving force was for that halcyon era.

2. On the question of whether older coaches are discriminated against, Title VII recognizes the existence of a bona fide occupational qualification as a defense against a claim of age discrimination. For instance, a construction company doesn't have to hire a 70-year old man for a position that entails strenuous lifting. Likewise, because the position of a college football head coach is an extremely demanding position in terms of the time commitment required, it seems possible that a school could fire a coach for not being able to put in the hours anymore. (I'm thinking of two particular examples right now in Tallahassee and State College.) I'm not saying that Ralph Friedgen and Bill Stewart were unable to meet the time demands of being a college football head coach. Rather, I'm making a general statement that there would be instances where a school could say "look, if you don't have the ability to watch film until 2 a.m. every day or go on recruiting visits for a solid month, then you can't be a head coach."

3. What bothers me the most about Mandel's argument is the fallacy that a head coach is solely responsible for the record of his football team. To come back to the Queen of England, this bothers me the most when writers wax lyrical about Joe Paterno, still winning games. Joe Paterno has only slightly more to do with coaching his football team as you or I do. This was perfectly obvious when health problems relegated him to the press box in 2008 and he "coached" up there without a headset. Penn State's resurgence over the past six season has been the direct result of Paterno being phased out so Tom Bradley and Galen Hall can run the team.

Let's ask this question: why did Maryland and West Virginia win this year? Maryland had to have won in no small part because of James Franklin. Maryland obviously thinks highly of Franklin because they anointed him as Friedgen's successor. With Franklin and other assistants leaving, Maryland was losing a large secret of their success. The case is even more compelling with Stewart. West Virginia won because of their defense, which is coached by holdover Jeff Casteel, and talent that was largely recruited by Doc Holliday, who is now the head coach at Marshall. Can someone explain what role Stewart played in WVU winning nine games this year? Anyone? Bueller? And we haven't even gotten around to mentioning the obvious fact that the Terps and Mountaineers benefited from playing in weak conferences. According to Sagarin, Maryland ranked 60th in strength of schedule and West Virginia ranked 73rd, so it's not as if either team had to survive the Bataan Death March to achieve a good record.

4. I'd be interested to hook Mandel up to a lie detector and then ask him the following two questions:

If you were a Maryland fan, would you rather have Ralph Friedgen or Mike Leach as your coach?

If you were a West Virginia fan, would you rather have a Bill Stewart-Jeff Casteel combo or a Dana Holgorson-Jeff Casteel combo leading your program?

The answers to both questions are fairly obvious, which invalidates the complaint about age.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Few Follow-up Thoughts on the Falcons Post

  • It's worth mentioning that a low variance offense can be very effective, even though it ends up with a lower yards per play number. Georgia Tech's 2009 ACC Championship team is a perfect example. Tech averaged 6.2 yards per play, which is good, but only ranked 17th in the country. According to Football Outsiders' FEI rankings, however, Tech had the best offense in the country. Why? Because FEI is drive-based and Tech's offense was excellent at scoring by consistently stringing together five-yard gains and by avoiding long yardage situations that kills drives. All things considered, you would rather have an offense that gains five yards on every play than one that gains seven yards per play on two 35-yard plays and eight plays stopped for no gain. The Falcons seem to follow that model. The Eagles are the polar opposite; they have an offense that generates a high yards per play number on the strength of a wealth of big plays, but they are also high variance, which is how they found themselves down 31-10 to the Giants with eight minutes to go on Sunday.

  • A second benefit of a low variance offense that strings together consistent, medium-sized gains is that a team with that sort of offense will hold onto leads very well. Remember the stat during the Cowher years about how the Steelers almost never lost games in which they led in the fourth quarter? Mike Mularkey has brought that tendency to Atlanta. Here's your stat of the day: the Falcons have not lost a game in which they held a fourth quarter lead since the road game against the Saints in 2008. The Smith/Mularkey regime has only lost two times when the Falcons had a lead in the fourth quarter: the games against New Orleans and Denver in 2008. For Falcons fans like me whose formative memory is the home playoff loss to Dallas in 1980, this is a refreshing feeling. It's like rooting for a team with a great bullpen. If the Falcons have a lead heading into the fourth quarter, they're in great shape, even with a suspect pass defense.

  • Watching Michigan on Saturdays and then the Falcons on Sundays has been an Elvis-like experience of taking uppers and downers. Even with an appalling defense, Michigan had a reasonably good yards per play margin this year because the offense averaged 6.9 yards per play, which was 7th nationally. However, Michigan's yardage advantages didn't translate onto the scoreboard because of what I described as the "dumb shit" factor: red zone turnovers, missed field goals, and terrible kickoff coverage and punt returns that gave opponents field position advantages. The Falcons are 180 degrees from that. The Falcons are outgained by a significant margin on a per-play basis, but they get the dumb shit. They don't turn the ball over, they make field goals, they don't commit penalties, and they are good on special teams. If "dumb shit" is a way to measure the effect of coaching, then Mike Smith should be coach of the year and Rich Rodriguez should be making way for Jim Harbaugh.

  • When I did the chart of conference champions from the pas decade, 2008 stood out to me for a couple reasons. First, Arizona was better than their record. The '08 Cardinals were not strong in terms of points and Football Outsiders was very down on them, but their yardage margin was better than the margins of a number of Super Bowl champions (admittedly against a weak schedule). It shouldn't have been a massive surprise that they made the Super Bowl. The team they played in the Super Bowl had the best defense on a yards per play basis of any Super Bowl team in the decade. The '08 Steelers were three-tenths of a yard better than the '02 Bucs and four-tenths of a yard better than the team that struck me as having the best defense at least since the '85 Bears: the '00 Ravens. (The '85 Bears allowed 4.4 yards per play, which is surprisingly high, although that team did force a ridiculous 52 turnovers. The '76 Steelers - the Steel Curtain at its best - allowed 3.8 yards per play.) Given the quality of the teams in the game and the way that it played out, Super Bowl XLIII deserves consideration as one of the best Super Bowls of all time.

  • One argument in favor of the way that championships are awarded in college football: the two best teams of the past decade in the NFL were the '01 Rams and the '07 Patriots and neither team won the Super Bowl. In both instances, those teams lost the Super Bowl to opponents with demonstrably inferior records whom the '01 Rams and '07 Pats had beaten on the road during the regular season. It strains the meaning of "champion" to assign that title to the '01 Patriots and '07 Giants. I remain in favor of a small college football playoff; four teams would be good, six teams would be very good, and eight teams would be OK. However, we shouldn't ignore the fact that the absence of the playoff reset button in college football is a good thing in a significant way.

This is why you Fail

Andy Gray's comments that "Barcelona would struggle in the EPL as they've never played the likes of Stoke" mean one of two things. Small conclusion: Andy Gray is a fossil and we should pay attention to his opinion as much as we would John Madden's on Brett Favre's place in history or Dick Vitale's on John Calipari being misunderstood. Larger conclusion: English football is held back by attitudes like Gray's.

The underpinning of Gray's thinking is that Stoke represent a big, tough team that get stuck in and that a passing side like Barca would struggle to break them down, presumably because Stoke would push them off the ball and the referee would wave play on. (Maybe he puts a lot of emphasis on playing in the cold, not realizing that: (1) there are parts of Spain that get cold; and (2) as recently as 2008, Barca got results on the road in the Champions League at Rubin Kazan in November and Dynamo Kiev in December. It's not like the team would cease to function when the orange ball comes out, but I digress.) In other words, bah humbug to this Latin notion of passing, close control, and movement being the keys to good football; we want players who are full of piss and vinegar. This attitude is absolutely toxic on lower levels as it deemphasizes skill and emphasizes physical dynamism. If you want to know how Spain can come to the World Cup with a surplus of midfielders - Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, and Busquets starting; Cesc and Santi Cazorla on the bench, Javi Martinez waiting in the wings; and Mikel Arteta wondering about getting a British passport - and England wonder yet again why they can't put together a functioining central midfield, just think about Gray's comments.

Or maybe Andy is just a muppet.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What do we Know about the Falcons?

As the local professional football collective comes down the stretch, they are 12-2, which gives them a two-game lead over the Saints and Eagles for the best record in the NFC. Unless something goes terribly wrong, the Dirty Birds are going to be at home for the NFC playoffs. At first glance, the Falcons’ record is deceiving because the team has won seven straight games decided by one score after losing the opener in Pittsburgh in overtime. They look like a team whose record flatters. However, the Falcons are also second in the NFC in point differential, so maybe they aren’t a lucky team after all. The best team in the NFC in terms of point differential is Green Bay, a team that last year and this year seems like less than the sum of its parts. Great offense, good defense, and yet still loses more games than they should. Do we point a finger at Mike McCarthy? They’re the anti-Falcons: good statistical profile, but mediocre record because they lose close games.

When I say that the Falcons don’t have a good statistical profile, this is what I mean:

Yards per play gainedYards per play allowedMargin

Eeek. We can explain away that low yards per play gained number by pointing out that the Falcons have a low variance offense that consistently churns out first downs by getting medium-sized gains without giving up sacks or penalties. The opening two drives on Sunday against Seattle were the Platonic ideal for this team’s offense: 15 plays and 51 yards for a touchdown, followed by 14 plays and 51 yards for a field goal. At the end of two drives, the Falcons had ten points while gaining a mere 3.5 yards per play. (Put in context, the hapless Panthers have the worst offense in the league and they gain 4.3 yards per play.) Yards per play doesn’t quite do this offense justice. The Falcons don’t hit big plays, so their number isn’t very high, but they score points just fine because they are rarely in third and long and they convert makeable third downs on a consistent basis. The Falcons are first in the NFL in total plays and second in first downs. The offense may look like a tortoise, but we ought to remember who wins the race in Aesop’s fable.

The defense, on the other hand, is harder to justify. They are significantly worse on a per play basis than any of the other contenders in the NFC. They are decent at denying opponents first downs (11th in the NFL), but that’s probably a function of the fact that the offense keeps the ball all day. The saving graces for the defense is that they are good against the run (seventh in yards per rush allowed) and they force turnovers (fifth in the NFL). (The Falcons are not unlike the Patriots, who also allow 5.6 yards per play and get by by forcing turnovers. The Pats, however, are better on offense.) That said, the NFL is a passing league and the Falcons give up a lot of passing yards. Should we feel confident that we can win consecutive playoffs games against Aaron Rodgers and then Mike Vick or Drew Brees? Yes, the Falcons beat Green Bay and New Orleans this season, but both games were very tight and the Falcons needed a little bit of good fortune both times.

So how much does yards per play matter? Can the Falcons win a Super Bowl when their opponents are outgaining them by a healthy margin? Let’s look at the last decade’s worth of conference champions:

Yards per play gainedYards per play allowedMargin
‘09 Saints6.35.5+.9
‘09 Colts5.95.0+.8
‘08 Steelers4.93.9+1.0
‘08 Cards5.95.3+.6
‘07 Giants5.15.0+.1
‘07 Pats6.24.9+1.3
‘06 Colts6.05.5+.5
‘06 Bears5.04.6+.4
‘05 Steelers5.44.6+.8
‘05 Seahawks5.84.9+.9
‘04 Pats5.55.0+.5
‘04 Eagles5.94.9+1.0
‘03 Pats4.84.4+.4
‘03 Panthers5.14.7+.4
‘02 Bucs4.94.2+.7
‘02 Raiders5.85.0+.8
‘01 Pats4.95.3-.4
‘01 Rams6.64.7+1.9
‘00 Ravens4.74.3+.4
‘00 Giants5.14.6+.5

Eeek squared. 19 of the last 20 conference champions have had a positive yards per play margin. In fact, only two of 20 conference champions have been lower that +.4: the ‘01 Patriots and the ‘07 Giants. Both of those teams won the Super Bowl, but they needed to pull two of the biggest upsets in NFL history to do so. Is that what we’re counting on to make the Super Bowl? You wouldn’t know it from reading the paper or listening to the radio, but this Falcons team doesn’t fit the statistical profile of the vast majority of conference champions.

Again, we need to point our fingers at the defense. There are six teams that have made the Super Bowl averaging five yards per play or less and five of them came home with the Lombardi Trophy. (An interesting side note: there are four teams on the chart that allowed less than 4.5 yards per play and every one of them won the Super Bowl. If you drop last year’s Super Bowl in which both teams had top offenses, there have been seven teams to make the Super Bowl with an offense gaining 5.8 yards per play or more and six of those teams lost. Let’s file that away in the memory bank if the Eagles or Patriots make the Super Bowl.) There isn’t a single team on the list that allowed 5.6 yards per play, although there are two teams that allowed 5.5 yards per play and both of them won the big game.

So we have one team as our beacon of hope: the 2001 New England Patriots. A young team with a burgeoning star at quarterback that got hot, won a ton of close games, and then pulled a massive upset in the Superdome. There’s actually a larger point to be made here: it might not be hyperbole to say that the Falcons are built on the Patriots model. Look at the three New England teams that won the Super Bowl. One had a negative yards per play margin and the other two were a nothing special +.4 and +.5. Those New England teams won with superior turnover margins: +8 in 2001, +17 in 2003, and +9 in 2004. If there is a secret to having a positive turnover margin, then Thomas Dimitroff has brought it from Massachusetts. Maybe we aren’t doomed after all. If the Tuck Rule comes into play in the Falcons’ first playoff game, then I’m headed for the nearest casino to bet on the Dirty Birds in Dallas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

In the Words of Jean Girard, Come Face Your Destroyer

The Champions League draw with quick thoughts:

Barca-Arsenal - I've made my point about this pairing before. I'll be very interested to see if Wenger changes his approach this time around. He's stubborn, but he also doesn't like getting embarrassed. Barring a spate of key injuries for Barca in the next two months, Arsenal cannot play their normal style with their normal XI and hope for anything other than a hiding.

United-Marseille - A good draw for United. This has first leg draw, second leg United win written all over it.

Chelsea-Copenhagen - This is why it's important to finish first in one's group. That said, Copenhagen were surprisingly frisky in the group stages. If Chelsea are not playing better by February, they'll have a torrid time in the first leg. Watch out for Dame Ndoye.

Spurs-Milan - Possibly the best tie of the round of 16. Lots of attacking talent on both teams, along with suspect defenses.

Shakhtar-Roma - Hard to pick a winner from these two. Roma get the pleasure of a trip to Ukraine in March.

Bayern-Inter - The "how far have we fallen in six months?" tie.

Real-Lyon - Real get a chance to exorcize a very recent demon. Lyon winning this tie would be unbelievably hilarious to me, but it's not going to happen.

Schalke-Valencia - On league form, one would have to take Valencia, but Schalke are showing signs of improvement and Manuel Neuer could be the difference in a close tie. Raul will certainly feel at home in this one.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Cliff Lee’s No Accounting for Taste Decision

C3PO said it best. It’s always possible that the Phillies will be beset by injuries, especially with a number of players on the wrong side of 30, but man, it’s hard to imagine competing with a starting rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and now Lee. Egads, they’re getting close to the rotations that the Braves trotted out in the 90s. Also, the uncomfortable thing about this acquisition is that it’s reminiscent of Greg Maddux’s decision to join the Braves in that Lee took less money because playing for the Phillies was so attractive to him. It was most satisfying when Maddux turned his back on the Yankees’ filthy lucre because pitching in Atlanta for Bobby Cox, Leo Mazzone, and this fan base was so appealing. The fact that the Yankees’ naked economic might wasn’t enough to sign a player is about the only aspect of Lee’s decision that is good for Braves fans. Otherwise, we’re just left with a reminder that the Braves used to be the preferred destination for free agents, but now, the destination is somewhere else in the division.

The other thought that’s kicking around in my brain right now is that Lee’s decision is our fault. On the radio this morning, the local hosts were making the usual complaints about Liberty Media not being “invested” in the team’s success, but the sort of investment that is being requested is really just red ink. If we use attendance as a proxy for revenue (and I know that it isn’t that simple), the Braves were ninth in the NL in butts in seats last year. How is it fair for Braves fans to demand that the team’s payroll go above its revenue? In other words, are we forgetting that professional sports teams are businesses? In what segment of the economy is it an expectation that ownership should lose money? The Phillies were first in attendance in the NL last year, so Cliff Lee is a reward for fans who turn out. Again, the Braves were once the team drawing better than their rivals, so we deserved Maddux. Phillies fans aren’t intrinsically better than Braves fans; they’re just in a place where Braves fans were in the 90s when their team was winning big and consistently for the first time in eons.

And now for a CYA paragraph. It occurred to me after writing this post that referring dismissively to the Yankees' "filthy lucre" in the first paragraph and then singing the praises of the Phillies' right to the luxury item that is Cliff Lee in the second paragraph can be seen as inconsistent. I hate the Yankees for a number of reasons, but one of the primary motives is that the Yankees and their fans are the quintessential brats who were born on third base and think that they hit a triple. The Yanks are the major team in the largest, richest market in the country. Their market is old and established (as opposed to Los Angeles), so their roots are deep. Their two local rivals both moved out of New York, which gives the Yanks a leg up on their current local rival. Thus, the Yankees win because of money and they have money for a number of factors, most of which have nothing to do with good management, but are instead the result of circumstance. (A little like Stalin taking credit for beating the Germans in World War II.) The Phillies can't be described in the same way. Philadephia is a big market, but it's not New York. The current management of the team doesn't benefit from the decisions of its predecessors because the team's history is mostly lousy. The Phillies' current success deserves respect, so I don't begrudge them a great free agent signing. And I say this as a person who has a per se rule against rooting for teams from Philly.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Auburn and Oregon in Context: Strength of Schedule

Following up on my post on Stewart Mandel's point regarding Auburn's and Oregon's schedules, I decided to look at their schedules in context with every other team that has played in a BCS title game.  Rather than using opponents’ records as the barometer, I used the three computer rankings that go back to 1998: Sagarin, SRS, and Sorenson.  (I must have a thing for rankings that start with S.  I blame my kids’ consumption of Sesame Street.  Or maybe the fact that they were fighting over Steamer & Samuel this morning.  Whatever, it’s the little ones’ fault.  Definitely.)  Using opponents’ records is a simple, but weak way to evaluate strength of schedule because it rewards teams that play in conferences with smaller numbers of conference games and/or whose members tend to play tomato cans outside of the league.  Here are the ranks of each of the 26 teams that made the title game, sorted by the average of the three rankings:

Sagarin Sorenson SRS Average
Florida 08 4 4 5 4.33
Florida State 98 5 3 5 4.33
Bama 09 2 10 2 4.67
USC 04 7 5 5 5.67
Oklahoma 08 7 9 2 6.00
Florida 06 8 10 4 7.33
Florida State 00 11 2 11 8.00
USC 05 8 16 9 11.00
Florida State 99 11 9 14 11.33
Oklahoma 04 15 10 11 12.00
LSU 07 11 12 14 12.33
Oklahoma 00 14 13 14 13.67
Texas 05 13 15 23 17.00
Auburn 10 15 24 14 17.67
Tennessee 98 24 22 26 24.00
Miami 01 27 27 22 25.33
Nebraska 01 29 26 29 28.00
Ohio State 02 30 42 21 31.00
Oregon 10 19 38 38 31.67
Texas 09 38 31 26 31.67
Oklahoma 03 39 29 32 33.33
Ohio State 06 38 35 34 35.67
LSU 03 28 38 41 35.67
Miami 02 37 34 37 36.00
Virginia Tech 99 43 35 58 45.33
Ohio State 07 53 51 57 53.67

The first point to make about this chart is that it underrates Auburn and Oregon because it compares their pre-championship game schedules against 24 other teams’ post-championship game slates.  After the title game, both Auburn and Oregon are going to find themselves about five spots higher in the rankings, so Oregon will be in the middle of the chart and Auburn will be right around tenth.  The conclusion to be drawn is that the e-mail that led Mandel to create his table – a message claiming that Auburn had an extremely hard schedule en route to Glendale and Oregon had an extremely easy one – is totally wrong according to the computers that aren’t castrated by the BCS.  Auburn played a tougher schedule, but not by a wide margin and neither team is an outlier in the 26-team sample.

It is worth noting, however, that the general point stands that strength of schedule has predictive power in title games.  The top six on the list all won the title game, with the exceptions of Oklahoma ‘08 (they were playing a team above them on the list) and Florida State ‘98 (they were starting the Rooster instead of Chris Weinke).  The bottom seven on the list all lost with the exception of ‘03 LSU, who played a fellow member of the bottom quartile. 

Also, the list gives us more reason to heap scorn on the Big Ten.  Leaving aside the fact that only one Big Ten team has made the title game over a 13-year period (joining the ACC as the only conference about which that statement can be made), Ohio State has two schedules in the bottom five of the list.  The best of the three Buckeye teams to make the title game had the 18th best schedule of the 26 title game participants and will likely be 19th after Oregon meets Auburn.  This isn’t a jibe at Ohio State, as the Bucks can’t be faulted for the state of their conference rivals.  This is a jibe at the rest of Jim Delany’s conference, which produced neither title contenders outside of Ohio State nor a depth of good opponents to challenge the Bucks in the three season in which they made the title game.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Point to Auburn

Stewart Mandel’s latest Mailbag contains a chart that I find very interesting.  The chart lists three measures of strength of schedule for every team that has played in a BCS Championship Game.  The results are fairly telling.  Auburn has played the third-toughest schedule, while Oregon’s is dead last.  Now, it’s important to mention that simply looking at the records of a team’s opponents isn’t a great way to measure strength of schedule.  Specifically, it penalizes a team from the Pac Ten because the Pac Ten has a nine-game conference schedule, which will tend to push the records of Oregon’s opponents towards .500.  SEC teams play eight conference games and tend to replace that ninth conference game with a revenue-friendly tomato can, which inflated the overall record of Auburn’s opponents.  Massey and Sagarin show Auburn and Oregon as having played equivalent schedules; SRS shows Auburn has having played a tougher schedule, but the margin isn’t huge.  I’d bet that Jerry Palm himself, the person that Mandel refers to has “our hero,” would be unimpressed by the methodology that Mandel uses.   

That said, look at what has happened in title games where one opponent was more than ten spots removed from the other on the chart:

1998 Tennessee (20) over Florida State (1)
2006 Florida (4) over Ohio State (24)
1999 Florida State (5) over Virginia Tech (25)
2009 Alabama (7) over Texas (19)

Three of the four teams that played significantly tougher schedules won the title game and the fourth is a bit of a misnomer because Florida State was playing without its starting quarterback.  The Noles wouldn’t have been in the title game in the first place if Marcus Outzen would have been their quarterback for the whole season.  (Counterpoint: if we drop the ‘98 game, then we should also drop the ‘09 game because of Colt McCoy’s injury and then we’re left with a sample size of two.)

The more I think about it, the more I’m deciding that Mandel has a good point about strength of schedule, but he’s using the wrong stats to achieve it.

Pearls before Swine

Carl Crawford is the most coveted free agent position player in no small part because of his defensive ability.  He’s terrific at covering wide open spaces in left field because he’s lightning fast and gets great jumps on balls.  So which team signs him in the free agent market?  The team with the smallest left field in baseball, naturally.  This makes as much sense as taking a five-star pocket passer and putting him in the Spread ‘n’ Shred. 

I'm Sorry, but this is Hilarious to me

Barcelona absolutely destroyed Arsenal last year. 2-2 in the first leg flattered Arsenal in an unbelievable fashion in light of the fact that the Gunners couldn't get the ball out of their own half in the first half. In the second leg, Barca played without Iniesta or either of its first-choice centerbacks and won 4-1. (Yes, I know that Arsenal had injuries as well.) This year's Barca side is better than last year's because David Villa is a better fit at striker and Iniesta is healthy. There's not another team I'd rather Barca play in the Champions League because Arsenal try to do what Barca do, only they aren't as good at it. Possibly to his credit, Wenger can't or won't play the counter-attacking style that is a necessity against the Blaugrana.

I mention all of this because I was laughing for about ten minutes straight when I read this:

Twitter / @Henry Winter: According to one #afc play ...: "@henrywinter
Henry Winter
According to one #afc player, only one name discussed in Emirates dressing-room afterwards... Barcelona
12 hours ago via Twitter for BlackBerry® Favorite Retweet Reply"

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Where are the Trees in this Great Big Forest?

The problem with the computer rankings used by the BCS is that they are mathematically indefensible. The primary reason why this is so is that the computer rankings are forbidden from accounting for scoring margin. Thus, a 12-0 team that wins every game by 30 points looks exactly the same to them as a 12-0 team that won its games by seven points. If a bettor placed wagers looking only at record and strength of schedule without accounting for scoring margin, he'd end up at a bar being berated by Nicky Santoro. ("You call yourself a man?") And yet we have these ridiculous computer rankings that the programmers themselves view as inferior playing a major role in who plays for the national title.

So what's the problem with the computer rankings according to Tony Barnhart? The fact that Wes Colley made a data entry error. Yes, Tony, it would be nice if the computer rankings made their formulae publicly available. You know what would be even better than that? If Massey and Sagarin could actually use the formulae that they believe are far superior than than the drivel that they have to report to the BCS. Coming back to our inept bettor, let's imagine that Nicky's victim is wasting his family's money by playing craps instead of paying the power bill. Barnhart's complaint is the equivalent of Nicky ripping on the gambler for one decision that he made during an eight-hour binge at the tables instead of tearing him a new one for playing craps in the first place.

More Messi vs. Ronaldo

Sid Lowe weighs in:

It is true that what makes Messi appear so remarkable are his headline skills. He has a ridiculous number of goals -- 70 in his last 72 games. He has also outdribbled Ronaldo this season, completing 50 successful dribbles to the Portuguese's 30. But it is not about that. It is about the other things. All the other things. It is about the fact that, contrary to the assumptions that Messi is a player who only does the extraordinary, he does the simple things, too. Messi, in short, can play. When Ronaldo is no longer an athlete, he will probably not be much of a player. Messi will.

Monday was no one-off. If you really want to run through a checklist, try a list that's based not on arbitrary marks but actual statistics. This season, Messi has provided 27 assists, seven of them leading to goals. Ronaldo has provided 22, four of them leading to goals. Messi provides a goal every 147 minutes to Ronaldo's 307. Messi has completed 590 passes to Ronaldo's 429. Messi has delivered 105 bad passes to Ronaldo's 159. Messi gives the ball away less often, too. Ronaldo has delivered 45 balls into the area and Messi has delivered 64. Of those, Ronaldo has found his target four times, Messi 60 times.

In total, Messi has tried 695 passes and completed 590 to Ronaldo's 588 and 429. He is involved all over the pitch; his "action areas" are more varied. He participates in moves more often, starts more plays and has more total "actions" in a game than Ronaldo. As for that often eulogized quality known as fight, the cojones stereotype of which English commentators, in particular, are so fond: Messi has even committed more fouls, robbed more balls and won more possession than Ronaldo.

At this point, it seems hard to find anyone outside of Madrid and Portugal who will take the position that Ronaldo is the better player.  I’d like to say that I was right side of history, but it’s just as easy to say that I’m a Cule making the case that our player is better than their player.  The question that Sid Lowe doesn’t address (and possibly because it’s hard as hell to evaluate) is what role one should assign to coaching and teammates.  Messi plays in front of the other two finalists for the Ballon D'Or, two superlative midfielders who supply him with the ball.  Messi is playing in the system in which he has flourished since he was a youth team player and he’s playing for a coach who is himself a product of that system.  In watching college football, we’ve learned about system quarterbacks, guys who look great because they are in the right system with the right coach and the right teammates.  I’m not saying that Messi is Danny Wuerrfel, but it is possible that he’s Cam Newton: a superlative player who wouldn’t be where he is without his surrounding environment. 

The counter to this argument might be that Ronaldo wouldn’t fit in the Barca system.  Messi fits, both in terms of his style of play and his unassuming personality.  It’s hard to picture Ronaldo playing the same role, given his preference for doing his own thing.  The great counter-factual from the debate is this: what if Messi would have come up at Sporting Lisbon and Ronaldo would have come up at La Masia?  This question would get into psychology and adolescent development, so maybe Sid Lowe wouldn’t be the right guy to tackle it, but it would be a gem of an article, right?

Piling onto Wetzel

I am undecided as to whether I want to read Dan Wetzel’s book on the BCS.  I’ll give Wetzel credit for apparently going beyond the usual “decide it on the field!” cliches that one hears on sports talk radio.  (Steak Shapiro had his zillionth “a coach should be measured by how his team is doing at the end of the season” rant this morning, as if the first half of a season ought to be a glorified preseason.)  Wetzel’s examination of the bowl system sounds like a worthy read.  That said, his justification for a 16-team playoff sounds weak:

The way to reward the best teams is two-fold. First is providing home-field advantage to the higher-seeded team until the title game (more on this later).

The second is by giving an easier first-round opponent – in this case No. 1 seed Auburn would play No. 16 Florida International. Earning a top two or three seed most years would present a school a de facto bye into the second round.  FIU isn’t in the tournament to win the title – they won’t – but to make the regular season matter more.

Right now, the regular season matters because one loss is often fatal (ask the three Big Ten co-champions about that) and two losses are almost invariably fatal.  If you replace the existing system with a 16-team playoff, then teams are no longer playing for survival every week.  Instead, they are playing for homefield advantage, which anyone with skin in the game will tell you is worth about a field goal, and the right to play marginally easier opponents as the playoffs progress.  The Auburn-South Carolina game this weekend was all-or-nothing.  If Auburn won, they would almost certainly play for a national title.  If they lost, they almost certainly would not.  It would not have had nearly the same import if Auburn were playing for the right to play the LSU/Oklahoma winner in the second round instead of Wisconsin.

The other issue that I’d like to see Wetzel address is that a system that gives a 6-6 Sunbelt champion the same chance to win a national title as a 13-0 SEC Champion (or, for that matter, a 10-2 team that finished third in a six-team division over the 13-0 team that won that division and beat the 10-2 team) is flawed.  To use my favorite NFL example, a system that gave a 13-6 New York Giants team a shot on a neutral field to beat an 18-0 New England Patriots team that had already beaten the Giants in New Jersey is inferior in terms of determining a true champion, a.k.a. the team that deserves a title the most by virtue of having the best season.  How much did homefield and the right to play easier opponents matter in 2007?  Or the following year when the Arizona Cardinals almost won the Super Bowl after going 9-7 in the easiest division in football?  From all accounts, Wetzel presents a compelling case that the bowl system is fundamentally corrupt, but his solution is flawed in its own way.  Maybe his book is just a good case for reforming the bowl system?  Or implementing a limited playoff within the bowl system?  

Friday, December 03, 2010

Michigan Needs a Burst of Cleansing Synchronicity

Please tell me that I'm not the only one who reads the account of Michigan's season-ending banquet and then thinks immediately of this scene from Heathers:

[in the caf]

PF [shouts] Attention!

[GE spits out his milk]

May I have your attention?

[VS walks in through the door, wearing black glasses]

This school has been torn apart by tragedies. I'm here to fuse it back
again, in togetherness. I want everybody to clap hands. [VS takes of her
glasses, and looks at PF as if she was insane]
We need to connect this cafeteria into one mighty circuit! Look! Here's
the TV crew! Clap your hands!

[PF start walking around in the caf, making everybody hold hands]

VS [to HD] Look's like Ms Phlegm's on another one of her crusades.
Usual success, of course.

TV Hi, what's your name?

HD [smiling] Hi, I'm Heather Duke.

[MD crawls down under the table]

[JD walks up to VS, and holds her from behind]

JD Is this as good for you as it is for me?

[JD takes a seat at MD's table, and MD returns to her chair]

Greetings and salutations!

PD [to PF] I need a copy of all this by monday for my Princeton

[VS leaves]

I thought we had hired Bo Schembechler, but instead, we've hired Pauline Fleming.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Cam Newton's Going to Play? Cam Newton's Going to Play!

This is what it's all about, folks!

Random thoughts on the NCAA ruling:

1. Though you wouldn't know it from the reaction of Auburn fans (or at least the Auburn fans with whom I work), yesterday was not a good day for Auburn. The NCAA has concluded that Cecil Newton attempted to sell his son to Mississippi State. That raises two possibilities for what actually happened in Newton's recruitment: (a) Cecil Newton was bluffing when he told Mississippi State that he had an offer on the table; or (b) the Reverend did have an offer from Auburn. Likewise, now that it's been established that Cecil Newton was looking for a payday when Cam was recruited and Cam ended up at Auburn after Cecil made the decision himself, we have a strong implication that Auburn paid for Newton. An implication isn't enough to declare a player ineligible, so the NCAA ruling is defensible, but if one were taking odds on whether Auburn paid for Newton, the favorite would be "they're cheatin' again."

2. The other negative for Auburn is that the stakes are just going to keep rising for them. If Newton would have been declared ineligible before the Georgia game, then it's quite possible (likely?) that Auburn would have lost to Georgia and Alabama and therefore would not have won their division. Now, Auburn has won the West and is favored to win the SEC Championship Game. If Auburn wins this weekend and it turns out that they paid for Newton, then they will have bought an SEC Championship. And then, you have the prospect that Auburn beats South Carolina and wins in Glendale. That would be the equivalent of the Tigers pushing all of their chips into the middle of the table. If that happens and then the NCAA (or, more likely, the FBI/IRS and then the NCAA) establish that Auburn boosters paid for Newton, then the blowback would be immense. At that stage, Auburn would have embarrassed the sport of college football by winning the national title on the back of a quarterback who was bought and paid for. As a neutral college football fan, the conclusion is that we would all feel a little more at ease if South Carolina won on Saturday.

3. All that said, the NCAA's ruling yesterday didn't offend my sense of propriety because I generally assume that players and their families will accept money if it's offered. That seems implicit to me in college football recruiting (with obvious exceptions). The bulwark against rampant cheating is not recruits and their families; it's the coaches and athletic departments that place their reputations on the line by offering money. The prospect of NCAA sanctions is the deterrent against schools paying for recruits. The prospect of becoming Todd Bozeman is the deterrent for a coach. All of the hyperventilating about families now having the ability to have their hands out seems excessive to me. If programs don't pay money for players, then it doesn't matter. Also, there is concern about a slippery slope with families asking for money all the time, but think about the alternative if the NCAA rules that asking for an improper benefit renders an athlete ineligible. Recruits and players are probably asking for small benefits all the time: tickets, meals, apparel, travel, etc. Most of the requests are probably entirely innocent. Do we really want every such request to put eligibility at risk?

4. The NCAA's ruling also makes sense in another respect: there are no damages. If this were a civil action, then Auburn's defense would be "no harm, no foul." Yes, Cecil Newton solicited money, but in the end, there is no evidence that money changed hands and that is the focus of these particular NCAA rules.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My Top 25 Runs Deep, So Deep

One observation on my ballot: this is a pretty good year in terms of depth of quality teams. Look at 16-20. Those five teams combined for only 11 losses and all five either won or tied for their division titles. We have three major conference title games coming up this weekend and there isn't a suspect team playing in any of them (even in the ACC!). One thought on why: this has been a relatively upset-free season. We thought coming into the season that this would be like 2007 in that there wasn't a dominant team and therefore that results would be crazy from week to week. It's true that this year was like 2007 in that none of the top teams from the preseason polls ended up in contention for the national title in November, but this year has been unlike 2007 in that there haven't been a pile of upsets. You don't get three one-loss teams in the Big Ten or an obvious big two in the Pac Ten if this were a year in which there was massive parity between the teams.

On the other hand, I got 22 teams on my ballot and then had to struggle for the last three.