Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Commentary is so Dumb

Here's a great column from an anonymous player across the pond making the point that players are not interested in what is said by pundits:

With top-level football being so complex, it is very difficult to deconstruct a live game within a couple of minutes of it being over, and because of this the "analysis" is usually reduced to goals and individual performance. But the fact that many pundits don't even try to scratch beneath the surface, despite knowing what it takes to win a match at this level, annoys me. It's the trivialisation of what we do by people that we used to call our own and, more importantly, deprives the viewer of some very interesting tit-bits that would, I feel, add to the entertainment.
This point is both intuitive and fascinating. On the one hand, it would stand to reason that former coaches and players would be able to provide insights that go above and beyond those of people like me who did not play games on a high level. On the other hand, as is drilled into our heads every time we listen to Lou Holtz and Mark May try to explain what we just saw, the level of commentary from former coaches and players is, to use the English term, dross.

So why is that? It can't be that former coaches and players are unable to understand what they see. As the anonymous player writing for The Guardian points out, modern footballers are subject to an incredibly complex set of instructions. The same would be true for American football players, who have to understand incredibly complicated offensive and defensive systems. (A related point that has been percolating in my head: with modern college and pro football schemes getting more ornate, an underrated, but critical skill for modern coaches is the ability to explain difficult concepts to players who sometimes might not be the sharpest tools in the shed.)

If we're not talking about an inability to explain what has actually happened on the field, then there have to be other factors at work. I can think of two. First, studio pundits have to talk in 30-60 second bursts and they have to say something that the viewer will remember. The same factor that drags down our political discourse also drags down the quality of commentary. In the same way that it's hard to explain the various options for addressing the U.S.'s long-term debt dilemma in 60 seconds, it's also hard to explain what Alabama was doing with their inside linebackers to negate Florida's zone read plays. The format lowers the quality.

The second factor is that inane commentary is a feature, not a bug. For whatever reason (mostly to ensure that the product can be understood by the dumbest person watching), commentary in cliches seems to be valued by editors and producers everywhere. I have little doubt that if Mark May gave a good, detailed explanation for why Ohio State is getting consistent pressure on the quarterback and why Penn State is failing to deal with their pressure schemes, he would have a producer in his ear telling him that what he just said is unlikely to produce the desired emotional reaction.

The inane reaction to Jay Cutler's injury against Green Bay is a perfect example. This was the dominant factor in the post-game coverage. Both of the local sports talk morning shows were prattling on about it for at least two days thereafter. Why? Because it drives an immediate emotional reaction. It's easy to make unprovable statements about a guy's character and it's certain that a whole bunch of people with IQs of 95 can understand and call in to vent about that p**** quarterback. It's not as easy to explain why Green Bay was able to move the ball at will on its first two possessions and then failed to score an offensive point for the rest of the game. Thus, we end up with coverage that the very players being discussed view as not worth a second thought.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Answering Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is surprised that the Packers opened as a slight favorite over the Steelers:

The AFC champ has won nine of the past 13 Super Bowls. Pittsburgh was the No. 2 seed in the AFC, going 12-4. Pittsburgh has won two of the past five Super Bowls, and now, facing a wild-card qualifier that won two fewer games this season, Pittsburgh is …

A 2 1/2-point underdog.

Mark, you’re just looking at the wrong numbers.  Someone with serious skin in the game, i.e. the sharps who would kill the sports books if they based their lines on the wrong numbers, won’t look at who won the last 13 Super Bowls.  Maybe that issue was relevant in the 80s and 90s when the NFC won every year, but if the AFC had moved ahead of the NFC, that era has ended, as the NFC has won two of the last three.  The NFC was a whopping four games under .500 against the AFC this year, despite being dragged down by the NFC West. 

Sharps also won’t pay too much attention to the record of the two teams.  When we’re looking at a season of 16 games, there is the potential for a lot of noise in the records.  One or two bounces of the ball can cause one team to go 12-4 and another team to go 10-6.  Sure enough, the Packers went 4-6 in one-score games while the Steelers went 6-2.  Did that stat show that the Packers lacked a magical ability to win close games?  Probably not, since Green Bay has won a pair of one-score games en route to the Super Bowl.  In short, no one putting a $50,000 wager on a game is going to base his bet on the teams’ records.

So what it a sharp going to consider?  Yards per play.  Here is a reprint of a Chad Millman column making this point regarding the 2009 Michigan-Michigan State game:

Michigan State should have been the favorite when it opened. In fact, wise guys played some money on Michigan at first just to move the line a bit, so they could go back and play the other side for a better price. They knew most sharps would be on Michigan State. There were guys doing this with Cal and Oregon last week. Cal got bet up to 7.5 by wise guys looking for a better price because they were so sure of Oregon. Now, most college sharps build their math models around average yards per play. If you look at Michigan, it has gained 6.1 yards per play and allowed 5.5. Michigan State has gained 6.6 and allowed 5.1. Plus, I think MSU has played a tougher schedule, so that's why this game changed favorites.

Michigan came into the game at 4-0, having won a pair of nail-biters.  Michigan State was 1-3, having lost three tight games.  The yards per play numbers indicated that Michigan State was the better team.  Sure enough, the Spartans dominated the game and only won in overtime because Mark Dantonio did his best to make the game close.  Here is a podcast in which Millman explains in great detail why yards per play matters. 

So what does yards per play tell us about the Super Bowl?  Over the course of the season, it tells us that Pittsburgh was the best team in the AFC (+1.1 YPP) and that the Packers were one of the three best teams in the NFC (+.6).  However, YPP also shows that Green Bay has been dominant in the playoffs, as they were +1.0 against Chicago and +2.4 against the Falcons after a –.8 against the Eagles.  Pittsburgh was –.6 against the Jets after a +1.4 against the Ravens.  Green Bay has been great for the past two weeks, whereas the Steelers were a little lucky to survive against the Jets after being dominated in the second half.  So, yards per play reflects that the Steelers might be a slight favorite, but the Packers are the hotter team.

So what if we look at points-based models?  This is where we get the answer.  Sagarin would make the Packers a two-point favorite.  SRS would make the Packers a favorite of a half a point to a point.  When Green Bay has won, they have won comfortably.  The Steelers have won a number of close games.  We would expect these results from points-based rankings.

The overall point is that Bradley isn’t looking at the right numbers.  He is looking at the small sample – overall record – instead of the big sample – points and plays – that will give us a better sense of how good the two teams are.  I have to admit that I was a little surprised to read Bradley’s column.  He’s surely smart enough to realize that there are better ways to set a spread than “Pittsburgh was a higher seed and the AFC has been better over the past 13 years.”  His own sidebar reflects that he reads a lot of numbers-based sites (KenPom, Peachtree Hoops, Beyond the Boxscore, etc.), so he’s clearly aware of the blogosphere’s trend to being a reality-based community.  I’m inclined to reject the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” conclusion, so are we left to believe that his editors don’t want him using meaningful numbers in his columns?   

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What, you’re Going to Follow 82 Games of Foreplay?: the First in an Occasional Series

Admit it, you’re bored with the prospect of the sports scene on the horizon.  There is only one football game left, so your gridiron fix is wasting away.  You’re not interested in the Hawks after they fully and irreversibly committed to a flawed core in the summer and you’re nauseated by the idea of picking between cyanide (the Celtics) and throwing yourself in a wood chipper (the Heat).  You’re vaguely aware of the existence of the NHL, but you’re underwhelmed about the idea of following an 82-game regular season where the teams are playing for seeding that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when the playoffs start.  College basketball?  Everybody knows this is nowhere.  Try as you might, you can’t be excited about professional athletes taking a month of fake games to get into shape for the start of baseball season.  You need a sports fix and yer trouble is you know it too good.  You want to watch meaningful games played by athletes who are the best in the world at their sport?  Called by announcers who aren’t Joe Theismann or Matt Millen?  In front of intense, heaving crowds that rise and fall on every change in the action?

Look, you know where I’m going with this.  Let’s cut the pretense.  Here is the first of five storylines to follow from the world of European soccer over the last four months of the season:

The English Civil War

In the English Premier League, Manchester United is two points ahead of Arsenal with one game in hand and three points ahead of cross-town rivals Manchester City with two games in hand.  Chelsea, the defending champion, is seven points back and has played one more game than United, although the Blues do have two head-to-head meetings with the Red Devils still remaining and Chelsea has pulled itself out of its funk in recent matches.  The strange aspect of this year’s race in the EPL is that none of the major teams look that good, which is a change from a few years ago when the Big Four in England were dominating Europe. 

United is an odd team this year.  Most observers agree that, on paper, this is one of the weakest United teams in recent memory.  Wayne Rooney isn’t scoring goals, the midfield is merely functional, and the back line was a question until Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both got healthy.  Although they aren’t exactly reminding the world of Arsenal's Invincibles, United are unbeaten and are in pole position to win another title.  Sir Alex Ferguson is getting goals by the bushel from the formerly wayward Dimitar Berbatov and the defense is close to airtight. 

Manchester City is a poorly constructed plaything of insanely wealthy benefactors.  City has an expensive collection of attackers and defensive midfielders with precious little linking the two on the pitch.  (Think of a football team with a great offensive line and terrific receivers, but no quarterback.)  The work of gluing the team together has fallen to Carlos Tevez, who put in a transfer request earlier this season and then withdrew it.  As could be expected for a collection of mercenaries (even by professional footballer standards) where the defense and offense don’t mesh, there has been blood.  City also have a manager who has brought some old school Italian conservatism to England, producing some truly soporific performances.  (Arsenal-City a couple weeks ago was positively unwatchable.  In their defense, their cross-town rivals have also produced some stinkers.  Spurs-United was dreadful; United-Arsenal was barely better.)  Naturally, with all of these problems, City are in contention for the title for the first time in ages and are in good position to make the Champions League for the first time ever.  How?  It’s the Jimmies and the Joes, Exhibit 53.  If you have billions in oil money to splash around, you’ll end up with good players.

Sitting behind the two is Arsenal, the most popular club in England and also a side that hasn’t won a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup.  In contrast to City, the Gunners are constructed primarily by buying players young and then developing them.  Whereas City are a hodge-podge of different concepts (their transfer policy is perfectly encapsulated by Hugo Drax’s line in Moonraker when he is looking for a new evil henchman: “oh, well if he’s available…”), Arsenal bear the stamp of Arsene Wenger in all respects.  Wenger controls everything about the club, from the way the youth teams play to the blend of grass at the Emirates.  The problem for the gifted, but stubborn Wenger is that his Arsenal are perpetually next year’s team, full of talented young players and therefore able to stay in the top four, but never able to win the league because Wenger won’t spend his millions on the one or two veterans that will push the team over the top.*  This year, weakness from United and Chelsea (although United’s weakness hasn’t shown up in the form of actually losing games) has opened the door.  Samir Nasri has parlayed his summer snub by the truly inept Raymond Domenech into becoming one of the best attacking midfielders around.  With a front four of Robin Van Persie, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, and Nasri, Arsenal look like a real contender.  Their issue is the defense.  An injury to Thomas Vermalen has left Wenger with a host of unpalatable options for central defenders.  Moreover, Arsenal fans live in a perpetual world of waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of one of their green goalies dropping a ball at a crucial juncture. 

* – Contrast Arsenal and Barcelona.  Barca’s first XI has eight products of La Masia.  To fill in the gaps that the youth system has left – striker and the two fullback spots – Barca has spent on the best right back in the world (Dani Alves), a solid complement at left back (Eric Abidal), and one of the best strikers in the world and a guaranteed good fit with the Barca midfield (David Villa).  Arsenal, on the other hand, has needed a goalkeeper and better central defenders for ages, but Wenger hasn’t bought a keeper and his efforts at buying central defenders haven’t been as thorough as needed.  On the other hand, Wenger has avoided saddling his club with Barca's balance sheet-killing wage bill, so there is merit to his approach.

The American Equivalent – Think of the EPL like the NBA’s Eastern Conference:

United = the Celtics: a proud team full of clever veterans who have dominated the league in the last several years and won’t give up their title without a tussle.  (I had Ryan Giggs and Shaquille O’Neal t-shirts in 1995.  They’re both old.)

City = the Heat: a collection of talented players thrown together for the entertainment of the masses.  This analogy would work a little better if City had signed Messi for 200M Euros.  Also, City has too much depth, whereas the Heat don’t have enough. 

Arsenal = the Bulls: an exciting, young team that plays an attractive style, but one wonders how they’ll do when subjected to veteran dirty trick in crunch games down the stretch.

Chelsea = the Magic: a talented team that depends on one very large man in the middle (Didier Drogba = Dwight Howard) and that is trying to survive a midseason slump.  Problem with the analogy: Chelsea have the urbane Carlo Ancelotti managing their side and no one will ever use that adjective to describe Stan Van Gundy.

Sunderland = the Hawks: who?  Exactly.   

Monday, January 24, 2011

It’s the Losing, not the Lying

In a development that is entirely unsurprising, Atlanta Spirit is suing King & Spalding for malpractice, alleging that K&S made massive mistakes in drafting the agreement by which the entity would buy out Steve Belkin’s shares and then compounded the error in its representation of Atlanta Spirit in the litigation in Maryland against Belkin.  The suit is unsurprising because the source of the litigation was an ambiguously drafted provision in the sale agreement that allowed Belkin to try to control both of the appraisals for the value of his interest.  Atlanta Spirit ultimately prevailed on appeal in Maryland by convincing the Court of Appeals there that the appraisal provision was unenforceable.  The moment that happened, a malpractice claim was likely.  (Note: K&S will have plenty of defenses to the claim, one of which will be that, as the Maryland opinion notes, they had 30 hours to prepare a complex commercial document.  Another caveat: I’ve only followed this dispute through the media, so take my thoughts with a pound of salt.)

Atlanta Spirit’s Complaint makes for fascinating reading as a history of the legal wrangling regarding the ownership of the Hawks, Thrashers, and Philips Arena (albeit from the perspective of ownership).  One of the big issues that Atlanta Spirit faces is establishing damages.  OK, so K&S drafted a document with an imperfect provision regarding the determination of fair market value for the teams; what did that mean for you in terms of actual dollars and cents?  Atlanta Spirit’s claim is that they wanted to sell the Thrashers after the resolution of the 2004-05 lockout, at which point the competitive landscape would be better for a team like the Thrashers and the franchise’s value will be greater, but they were unable to do so because of the uncertainty as to who actually owned the teams: Belkin or the rest of Atlanta Spirit.  This is a somewhat embarrassing argument for the owners of a major pro franchise to make, but this is what happens when you air your grievances in the public litigation process.  Atlanta Spirit faced the same issue when it was litigating against Belkin in Maryland and had to put forward evidence regarding the vast sums that the teams were allegedly losing.  (Unrelated issue: this dispute illustrates the value of an arbitration clause in certain commercials contracts.  Atlanta Spirit would have been much better off if it could have fought with Belkin behind a wall of confidentiality.)

Naturally, Jeff Schultz has latched onto this argument to complain that we’ve been swindled by Atlanta Spirit.  Here’s his opening flourish:

They told you they cared. They lied.

They told you their biggest concern was putting out the best product for you, the fans. They lied.

They told you not to pay attention to any of those rumors of the Thrashers being for sale, although they eventually admitted begrudgingly that, yes, they were looking for “investors.” They lied.

The Atlanta Spirit is not looking for investors. They’re looking to sell the Thrashers. They’ve been looking to sell them for — ready for this? –six years.

Six . . . years.

Those are the caretakers of your franchise. Those are the ones who’ve pleaded with you since 2005 to support a mostly inferior product — and now they can’t figure out how they’ve burned so many bridges in this town why fans still feel too angry or worn down to show up for a pretty decent team. Reality never has been their strong suit.

This is hopelessly naive.  A decision to buy or sell a franchise is one of those topics about which we can fully expect owners to lie and with good reason.  If a team’s owners admit that they are looking to sell, then they immediately start to look desperate and their price goes down.  This is negotiation 101.  If I’m going to scalp tickets outside of a game, I want to create the impression that I’m not committed to getting into the stadium.  If I show up in team gear reeking of desperation, then a scalper is going to fleece me.  The apparent decision by Atlanta Spirit to lie about its intentions to sell the team is no different than a college coach denying that he’s considering leaving his program, a presidential candidate denying that he’s considering ending his campaign, or a president lying about surveillance flights over the Soviet Union.  If Schultz wants to be mad, then he ought to be mad at himself for assigning weight to the self-interested answers of Atlanta Spirit to questions that they could not answer honestly for perfectly legitimate reasons.

Schultz is absolutely correct in the conclusion of his column: “If Atlanta loses its second NHL franchise, it won’t be because the sport failed here. It will be because ownership and management failed.”  The reason why he’s correct has nothing to do with Atlanta Spirit claiming that it was trying to sell the team when it was, in fact, trying to do exactly that.  Rather, if hockey fails again in Atlanta, it will be because the team didn’t win nearly enough games to generate interest.  Atlanta fans will respond to a winner.  We turned out for the Hawks in the 80s, we turned out in droves for the Braves in the 90s, and now we’re selling out the Georgia Dome for every Falcons game.  Atlanta fans, unlike some fans elsewhere, will not pay for a bad product.  (This does not extend to our affection for our college football teams, whom we’ll pay to see even when they are 0-11.)  The Thrashers have made the playoffs once in eleven seasons and were promptly swept.  Let’s go out on a limb and say that that qualifies as a bad product.  Indeed, one of the first defenses that K&S will make regarding Atlanta Spirit’s damages is that its alleged malpractice didn’t cause a diminution in the value of the franchise; Don Waddell’s fumbling of the on-ice product is the proximate cause of the loss.  (K&S would also point to larger systemic factors, like the economic downturn and the NHL’s descent into irrelevance.  That said, they’ll try to resolve the case on legal grounds if at all possible.  They won’t want 12 jurors trying to make these complex analyses of market value.)  At this point, we would all be happy if Atlanta Spirit sold the team, but it’s not because they had the temerity to claim that they had no interest in doing so.    

Friday, January 21, 2011

The BCS and Brazilian Futebol

Spurred by Ronaldinho's return to Brazil after AC Milan realized that they had not bought the Ronnie who won the Ballon D'Or for Barcelona, Tim Vickery has a typically incisive post up about the odd structure of Brazilian futebol. In short, the Brazilian season is divided in two. In the first part, the clubs participate in state championships for each of Brazil's 27 states. In the second part, the major clubs then participate in a national competition. The state championships are a bit of a joke, as major clubs plays against teams with negligible fan bases. In essence, the first half of the year is a waste. Here's the money graf:

The signing of Ronaldinho has concentrated minds on this issue like never before. I have been railing against the State Championships for 16 years. For years I felt like a lonely voice, but the momentum has been building, and over the last few days I have noticed an unprecedented outpouring of criticism. People have been looking at Flamengo's fixture list and coming to an obvious conclusion - what is the point of buying a Rolls Royce and then driving it on dirt tracks?

Imagine if Georgia spent the first half of the college football season playing an eight-game schedule against teams from within the state. Imagine the Dawgs playing Valdosta State and Mercer. Better yet, imagine the Dawgs playing at Valdosta State and Mercer. The whole exercise would be a giant waste of time, right?

But honestly, is it that different than what goes on in September in college football these days? Georgia is something of an exception in that they have been playing two quality non-conference foes for the past several years. Next year is no exception with the Dawgs playing Boise State and Georgia Tech. However, most major powers play one credible opponent and then three tomato cans. Fully one-quarter of the average power's schedule is total filler. To take Vickery's killer line, what's the point of recruiting Rolls Royces and then driving them against San Jose State, Duke, and Georgia State? And the worst part is that the best programs are the ones who are most likely to play crap non-conference opponents because they can count on sheep like me to file through the turnstiles no matter the opponent. (So quiet down, ACC and Pac Ten fans. You play tougher schedules because you have to, not because you're brave.)

The solution for the FBS is the same as the solution for the CBF: mimic the English Premiership by reducing the size of the league. In Brazil's case, the solution is to do away with the state championships. In the case of college football, the solutions are to tighten the requirements of membership in the FBS (would anyone really miss the MAC and Sun Belt?) and go back to the old rule that wins over FCS teams do not count towards bowl eligibility. In both cases, there is political opposition. Read Vickery on the obstacle to rationalizing the Brazilian structure and tell me that you can't picture the NCAA posing similar roadblocks:

Change will not come overnight. The State Championships are vital to the power structure of Brazilian football - and since the power structure controls the 2014 Fifa World Cup, there is fear of rocking the boat at the moment.
One final and somewhat unrelated thought on Vickery's article: I get sad every time I am reminded that Ronaldinho exists. As good as the current iteration of Barca is, the side would be even better if Ronnie wouldn't have pissed away his prime. When Barca won the Champions League in 2006, Ronaldinho was 26 and acclaimed as the best player on the planet. Barca had won the title despite Xavi missing most of the season with a knee injury and Messi and Iniesta only starting to make their mark in the side. Ronaldinho should have been on the left side of the 4-3-3 as Messi and Iniesta matured and gelled with Xavi into an unstoppable force. Instead, Ronnie flopped at the 2006 World Cup (although he got a lot of unfair criticism that should have been directed at an unbalanced side) and spent the next two years in a funk that allowed Real Madrid to win two titles. Barca came roaring back after selling Ronaldinho (and his partner in sloth, Deco). In essence, there are two missing years from the resume of one of the all-time great teams in football history because of a great players' sudden fall from grace.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It’s All Bob Costas’s Fault

According to betting odds, we are headed for a Green Bay-Pittsburgh Super Bowl.  The NFL would have to be pleased by such a match-up, as it would pit two of the largest, most passionate fan bases in the league.  The optics of thousands of Cheeseheads and Terrible Towels descending on Dallas, filling local hotels and driving up the secondary market for tickets, would make for a great event.  Moreover, these two teams are consistent draws on television, so the NFL’s broadcast partners would be happy covering a Super Bowl with extra eyeballs. 

Now think about this: Pittsburgh and Green Bay are two of the smallest media markets in the NFL.  Pittsburgh is the 22nd largest MSA in the country, while Milwaukee is 39th.  It’s a testament to the NFL’s structure that two of its most popular teams come from smaller MSAs.  (One can make the same point regarding the Saints, who have been the “it” team over the past two years and hail from the 46th largest MSA.  The Saints’ crowing achievement was winning a Super Bowl over the team from the 34th largest MSA.)  This would never happen in baseball.

The immediate explanations for why teams from small markets are so successful are the salary cap and revenue sharing.  Teams from the larger markets cannot leverage their natural advantages into success on the field because: (1) they can’t spend much more on players than their smaller rivals can; and (2) they can’t sign lucrative local TV deals based on being in bigger MSAs, as the NFL has national, evenly distributed TV contracts.  Thus, when a team like the Jets makes it to the NFL’s final four, they are doing so on the basis of good player acquisitions and a smart head coach, as opposed to when one of the baseball teams from the nation’s largest MSA succeeds by virtue of the innovative “let’s identify the two best free agents and pay the most money for them.”

That said, there is another factor at play here that further distinguishes the NFL from MLB: the NFL does a much better job of mythologizing its past.  The Steelers were one of my first two rooting interests.  (In case you’re scoring at home, Virginia hoops with Ralph Sampson was the other.)  I became a Steelers fan at age five in 1980 because my Mom would take me to the Charlottesville public library and I would read about Super Bowls.  Because the Steelers had won twice as many Super Bowls as any other team at that time and they had cool helmets, a fan was born.  My rooting interest was cemented by watching NFL Films videos of the Super Bowls.  Super Bowl Sunday was nirvana for me because ESPN would run all of its half-hour Super Bowl programs in order, leaving me with the dilemma of when to watch and when to play outside.  (The good Super Bowls to skip: V, VIII, and XI.)  I suspect that I’m not especially unusual in this respect.  NFL Films does a terrific job of selling the story of past champions.  The Packers – the team that won the first two Super Bowls under Vince Lombardi – and the Steelers – the team that won four of six in the 70s – are the major beneficiaries of the gauzy treatment of the past.

Despite its reputation as a traditional, stuck-in-the-past sport, Major League Baseball doesn’t have any equivalent to NFL Films.  MLB doesn’t create fans of the Big Red Machine or the Earl Weaver Orioles with string music and John Facenda.  (If you want a modern example, compare the America’s Game series on NFL Network with the one-hour documentaries that MLB Network runs on specific baseball seasons.  The former are outstanding; the latter are forgettable.)  In the void left by MLB not producing features on its past that come close to the product of NFL Films, we end up with “blurry-eyed nostalgia about the Only Great Era In Baseball History, i.e. the time in which an especially narcissistic generation of New York writers were growing up.”  Take it away, Scott Lemieux:

But what really gives away the show, I think, is the complaint about too many teams. In large measure, this complaint is about New York sportswriters craving a return to to what Ken Burns called “the Capital of Baseball” era — the 2/3rds of the 50s in which baseball was completely dominated by New York teams and large parts of the nation were deprived of major league baseball. This New York domination was terrible for baseball, of course, creating stagnating or declining attendance during a boom economy, but this is something we’re never supposed to notice. And to draw a line under it, he devotes another long paragraph to the elevently-billionth assertion that the Brooklyn Dodgers mattered more than any team has ever mattered to anyone ever, although this has nothing to do with either Willie Mays or the book under review.

In the end, the NFL ends up as the most popular league in the country because of its ability to create Steelers fans in Charlottesville, Virginia, whereas MLB experiences declining popularity because all it can offer is fetishization of when New York City had three teams instead of two.  The NFL has a democratic structure in which teams from any market can win, whereas MLB has an oligarchy in which the only factor that prevents the rich teams from winning every year is the lottery nature of the playoffs.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

There Must be Some Way Out of Here, Said Thousands of Falcons Fans to the Thief

So it turns out that the Falcons just aren't that good. The 13-3 record masked the fact that the team just isn’t that good on offense or defense. The shortcomings were exposed brutally by the Packers last night. If anything, the game was another illustration of the fact that a team is often not as good or bad as its record. I have no idea how Green Bay lost six games in the regular season. Coaching malpractice is the only explanation that makes sense. Now that the Pack have a functional running back, they are a team with no weaknesses. The Falcons, on the other hand, have a raft of issues to address. In fact, the silver lining to a loss like that is that it will prevent Thomas Dimitroff and the rest of the Falcons’ brain trust from buying the notion that the team is elite and needs only minor tinkering. The Packers showed what an elite team looks like and the Dirty Birds are still about two drafts away from getting there. What needs to change?

Let’s start with Mike Mularkey. There is a general criticism to be made and then a specific one. Generally speaking, the Falcons’ offense is underwhelming because it does not threaten the opponent down the field. Can anyone remember an instance where the Falcons took a shot down the field last night, other than the hurried throw-and-hope by Matt Ryan for his first interception? (And nice effort on that play, Michael Jenkins.) The Packers knew that the Falcons were going to be throwing in a certain short area and they jumped all over those routes. Look at the difference between the cushions given to Packers receivers and those given to Falcons receivers. You think that the ability to stretch the field isn’t a factor there? That brings us to the specific criticism: the play that ended in the back-breaking pick six was one of the worst playcalls in recorded history. Let’s count the ways in which it was a terrible idea. Mularkey decided to roll his right-handed quarterback left to throw a sideline pattern when the defense knew that the Falcons had no timeouts and would need to throw to the sidelines. Not to belittle him, but Tramon Williams had an incredibly easy read. You know you’ve dialed up a bad play when your quarterback is asked about the play after the game and he says he should have thrown it away. No shit you should have thrown it away, Matt; your offensive coordinator might as well have presented Dom Capers with an engraved tablet telling him where the throw was going.

Athough the Falcons’ defense was as bad as the offense yesterday, Brian VanGorder does not deserve the same degree of criticism for two reasons. First, there was evidence of good defensive coaching yesterday in the fact that blitzes dialed up by VanGorder got unblocked blitzers into Rodgers’ face on numerous occasions. Those blitzers whiffed repeatedly, which is a clear an example of a failure in talent as opposed to scheme. The team had the same issue against the Saints. Those missed sacks were critical because they deprived the Falcons of the ability to get the Packers off the field. Second, the offense is supposed to be the strength of the team. It’s the offense that has the #3 pick under center, the first round left tackle, the pair of first round receivers, the coveted free agent running back, and the Hall of Fame tight end. The defense hasn’t received the same attention until the last two drafts and it had a longer way to go when Dimitroff and Smith came to power.

That brings us to the second area crying out for improvement: the pass rush. The defensive line is critical for Brian VanGorder’s defense because he isn’t a blitz-heavy coordinator. The defensive game plans in the second Saints and Packers games were out of character in the number of blitzes (a point that Ron Jaworski made quickly) and were probably based on a recognition by VanGorder that his defensive line isn’t good enough to get pressure on Brees and Rodgers without help. We assumed after last season that the Falcons would look to upgrade the defensive line – specifically the defensive end spot opposite John Abraham - after a season in which opponents had great success throwing the ball. Instead, Dimitroff took the opposite approach to the pass defense, signing Robinson, and then he didn’t draft a defensive end at all. Given the available options in the Draft, this made sense at the time, but now, it’s time to get an upgrade over Kroy Biermann, a player who should be the first defensive end off the bench. The Falcons were 22nd in the NFL in sacks this year. If you prefer advanced stats, the Falcons finished 23rd in Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate.

Last night’s game drove this inadequacy home. Aaron Rodgers had beautiful pockets from which to throw. When he felt pressure, there was always somewhere to go. Ryan usually had guys in his face. For the Falcons to become elite, two things have to happen on the defensive line. One is that either Peria Jerry or Corey Peters need to turn into a pocket crusher to go with Jonathan Babineaux as a penetrator. The second is that the Falcons need to find a bookend for Abraham, either in the Draft or in free agency. VanGorder needs to find his Quentin Moses (or 2002 Sugar Bowl Will Thompson) to go opposite his David Pollack.

Even if 13-3 flattered the team, this was a very good season for the Falcons. Three straight winning seasons and two playoff berths out of three means that this team isn’t a flash in the pan like every other good Falcons team has been. The days of a topsy-turvy NFL are long gone. Smart teams have figured out how to manage the salary cap. With limited exceptions, the AFC is consistently dominated by the Colts, Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, and Chargers (with the Jets seeking to join the club). In the NFC, the Falcons seem to have joined (or are at least close to joining) the Giants, Eagles, Packers, and Saints as teams that can be expected to contend every year. The keys for the team going forward will be figuring out how to unleash their offensive weapons in more dangerous ways (Mularkey needs to stop thinking like he has the Steelers defense in his corner) and improving the pass rush. If that happens, then maybe Falcons fans will stick around for all four quarters of a playoff game.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Preparing for the Invasion of Styrofoam Cheddar

Let’s get this out of the way up front: the Packers are a better team than the Falcons.  Vegas think so by making the Falcons a two-point favorite, which means that the Packers would be a slight favorite on a neutral field.  Football Outsiders puts the Packers ahead of the Falcons on both offense and defense.  Sagarin would make the Pack a five-point favorite on a neutral field, as would SRS.  Yours truly’s Lazy Ass Ranking System (hereinafter “LARS”) shows an even wider gap, as the Packers are +.6 in yards per play margin, while the Falcons are –.6. 

So why bother on Saturday night?  Here’s how the Falcons win:

1. Turnovers – the Falcons are slightly better at protecting the ball.  (The teams are a push in terms of forcing turnovers.)  If Atlanta wins, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that they will end the night with a positive turnover margin.  With homefield advantage and a loud Dome, John Abraham should be close to unblockable, which means that Aaron Rodgers is going to make throws under pressure.  Also, because they have had two weeks to prepare, Brian VanGorder should be able to throw a blitz or two at Rodgers that he hasn’t seen before (not unlike the home game against New Orleans, in which the Falcons turned in an excellent defensive performance).

2. An advantage in close games – my regular readers will know that I abhor explanations that come down to clutchiness, but run with me here.  The Falcons are 7-2 in one-score games this year; they are 17-8 in such games during the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era.  The Falcons’ conservative offensive style tends to lead to close game and then for whatever reason, the Falcons are very good in such games.  None of us would feel bad about the prospect of Ryan having the ball with the team down three and three minutes to go.  In contrast, the Packers are 9-17 in one score games during the Mike McCarthy/Aaron Rodgers era.  McCarthy is 18-21 in such games overall, which means that either Brett Favre was more reliable than Rodgers in close and late situations.  I’d prefer to believe that the Packers struggle in close games because of McCarthy because I like Rodgers.  Moreover, McCarthy does seem to struggle in game management tasks.  His use of timeouts isn’t good (such as not using one when the Eagles were lining up for a field goal at the end of the first half last week) and if either of the the games in Philly is any indication, he tightens up with a lead.  That said, to the extent that we can determine anything from the small sample size, Rodgers is a problem in close games.  I don’t really buy this explanation because it’s the kind of claim I’d expect on sports radio, but I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic when I’m attacking a liter at Der Biergarten before the game.  (Speaking of which, how does one insult someone from Wisconsin in a biting, but non-offensive way?  I tend to do these things when drinking, but I’m at a bit of a loss here.  "Fat Fuck!” only goes so far.  “You live in an ice box” doesn’t exactly work this week.  “Thanks for sticking humanity with Brett Favre?”  “Paul Hornung was a drunk?”)

3. A week off – With the exception of Mike Mularkey, I like the Falcons coaches.  I like the idea that they have had two weeks to prepare this team.  And speaking of Mularkey, he has a reputation of liking trick plays.  Wouldn’t this be a good game to use one or two?

4. Special teams – this is where the Falcons have a major advantage.  According to weighted DVOA, the Falcons have the best special teams in the NFL, whereas the Packers are 17th.  The Falcons are outstanding on both kickoffs and kickoff returns; the Packers are terrible.  If the Falcons are starting drives on the 35 and the Packers are starting on their own 20, then that will make up for a significant yardage disparity.  (Note: this advantage will matter more in a shootout than in a 21-14 game.)

Overall, I’d say that the game is a coin flip.  Green Bay is better at the two basic elements of football: moving the ball and stopping the other team from doing so.  Atlanta is better at all of the garnishments.  This is a game between a very good piece of New York Strip unadorned on a plate and a really good hamburger with a bevy of great toppings and the best onion rings in the NFL.  So let’s eat.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

HR Lessons from Domino's

Here is David Brandon explaining how he ended up with Brady Hoke:

Hoke, who turned around San Diego State and Ball State after being a Michigan assistant for eight seasons, might not have been the fans' first choice because many of them wanted Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles to restore the program as a national power.

Athletic director Dave Brandon said he had discussions with both of them, but insisted Harbaugh and Miles weren't offered the job in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday night.

The next day, he seemed to try to knock the luster off the coach who left Stanford to lead the San Francisco 49ers and the one who stayed at LSU.

"All that glitters is not gold when it comes to some coaches,'' Brandon said. "A two- or three-hour meeting with a coach uncovers much more than you could learn scanning the Internet or sifting through statistics.

"Sometimes the hype or the PR doesn't match the real person.''

And here are Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explaining in their review of Moneyball why Brandon's concept of being able to judge coaches on the basis of interviews is a terrible idea:

Lewis poses this question: "If professional baseball players could be over- or undervalued, who couldn't? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn't play baseball for a living." Right! On the basis of first principles, the market for baseball players should be one of the most efficient labor markets on earth. It is hard to think of any high-paid profession in which performance is measured so precisely--and is publicly available to every other potential employer. Compare the market for baseball players with the market for corporate executives. A company looking for a new director of human resource management would be hard-pressed to get any objective data on the past performance of job candidates. Instead, such a company would be forced to make choices based on interviews with the candidates--a process that is even less accurate than the one the old scouts use to size up a high school player. Interviews are notoriously bad predictors of future job performance. In most contexts their predictive value is essentially zero.

A decision to hire a college football coach is more like evaluating baseball players than HR managers. There is plenty of objective evidence that should help glean whether a coach is good or bad. The information is imperfect because the sample size of games is small (at least in comparison to at-bats) and a coach can win or lose for reasons that have little to do with his own merit (talent left over by a predecessor, key decisions made by subordinates, strength or weakness of key conference rivals, etc.), but there is plenty of publicly-available information about coaching candidates. If Brandon thinks that hiring Brady Hoke is just like hiring a VP at Domino's, then he has illustrated why Michigan has erred (yet again) by hiring an athletic director who comes from the business world without experience in athletic departments.

There are several possibilities here to explain Brandon's comments:

1. Brandon is making a post hoc rationalization to the fan base as to why he hired Brady Hoke instead of the two former Michigan players who had better resumes. "I didn't want to make out with Jessica Biel at the bar. She'd be more trouble than she's worth." This rationalization can be used to cover for: (a) Brandon trying to land Harbaugh and Miles and failing; (b) Brandon deciding that he didn't want to spend the money on Harbaugh or Miles; and/or (c) Brandon wanting Hoke all along because he wants a motivated coach for whom coaching at Michigan is the end-all, be-all of his existence.

2. Brandon actually believes that as a captain of industry, he can sit across a table from a guy and divine lessons about the guy's soul. In other words, Brandon is deluding himself in the same way that Dubya did with Vladamir Putin.

I've been using blackjack analogies a lot over the past few days to describe Michigan's coaching hires. Hiring Rodriguez was the equivalent of splitting two face cards when the dealer is showing a six and then being dealt a pair of fives. It was the right decision at the time, but it didn't work out. Hiring Hoke is the equivalent of hitting on 15 when the dealer is showing a six. It's not the right move, but there is still a chance that it could work because we're dealing with probability instead of certainty. If Dave Brandon believes his own rhetoric, then he's doing the latter and thinking that it's the right move because of his close study of the dealer's facial expressions.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

C3PO, You’re Up

When I make small talk at cocktail parties about backgrounds, I almost invariably get the question “wait, so you grew up in Macon and went to the University of Michigan?  How did that happen?”  (This question usually comes about 45 seconds after making the joke that I didn’t live in Macon for my whole life and that’s why my knuckles don’t drag on the ground when I walk.)  My answer is that Michigan was an antidote to everything I hated about Macon.  In short, my adolescence was spent as a red-headed Jewish liberal debate star with less than “stylish” clothes (as if a polo shirt and khakis is the definition of style) at an non-diverse private school where open displays of prejudice were the norm and outsiders (read: people whose parents weren’t members at Idle Hour) were shunned.  I was attracted to Michigan by the end of middle school because it was everything that Macon wasn’t: big, progressive, diverse, intellectual, and welcoming of outsiders.  The last quality was especially important to me.  By design, I was going to a school where I wouldn’t know a soul, so a public university where one-third of the students were from out-of-state fit the bill perfectly.  If I’m not from here, then you won’t be either.

I bring up this back story not because my therapist told me to vent, but rather to express why I hate the Brady Hoke hire with the heat of a thousand suns.  Michigan hired Hoke because he coached at Michigan before.  Let’s ignore the fact that his eight-year coaching record has produced a losing record, or the fact that he wasn’t exactly in demand by other schools, or that he has expressed a disdain for the spread offense that is the one part of the team that worked in 2010.  Let’s hire Hoke because he has Michigan on his resume and only Michigan Men need apply.  There’s a word for that line of thinking: inbred.  I have this crazy preference for evidence-based decisions and there is no evidence to support hiring Brady Hoke at this stage in his career other than the fact that he’ll know how to place an order at Zingermann’s.

My verdict on the Hoke hire depends somewhat on my view of the Lloyd Carr era.  I liked Carr as a coach and as a representative of the University, but I wasn’t upset when he retired in large part because he had not done a good job of surrounding himself with top-notch coaches.  It’s in this respect that he is no Bo.  Bo Schembechler created modern Michigan football and one aspect of his greatness was that his coaching tree was excellent.  Carr, on the other hand, doesn’t have a coaching tree to speak of.  Thus, the two obvious candidates for Michigan’s head coaching position were Jim Harbaugh – a Bo quarterback whom Carr declined to hire when he was looking for a quarterback coach – and Les Miles – a Bo lineman/assistant whom Carr reputedly did not want as his replacement in 2007.  If Dave Brandon’s much-discussed Process was designed to bring back a Michigan Man from Bo’s lineage, then that would have been fine because hiring a Bo protege is can be done on merit.  The fact that the Process produced the one sickly branch from the Carr tree is the reason why Hoke’s hire has been greeted by articles with titles like "Advice for the Despondent."  I couldn’t agree more with this description by Brian Cook:

I'd rather have Rich Rodriguez entering year four with a new defensive staff than this, a total capitulation. Does anyone remember Tressel's record against Lloyd Carr? 5-1. Change was necessary. It didn't work, but that doesn't mean you go back to the stuff that required change.

Lloyd’s teams looked out of date by the end of his tenure, especially against spread opponents.  (Might I mention the Appalachian State game as Exhibit A?)  So that’s why I feel nauseous about the prospect of hiring a coach who expresses the following about the offensive style of the two teams that played in the national title game last night:

“Right, wrong or indifferent, when you’re zone blocking all the time -- when you’re playing basketball on grass -- you practice against that all spring, you practice against it all fall and then you’re going to play a two-back team that wants to knock you off the football,” Hoke said. “I don’t think you’re prepared.

“I think there’s a toughness level (required in college football). I still believe you win with defense. That’s been beaten into my head a long time, but I really believe that. The toughness of your team has to be the offensive front and your defensive front.”

So let’s summarize.  The University of Michigan is a great research institution based on the concept of open inquiry, but its football program just hired a coach who ignores all evidence regarding the dominant offense in modern football.  The University of Michigan is supposed to represent the values of tolerance and open-minded thinking, but its athletic director just concluded a coaching process where he did not interview a coach who was not a former Michigan player or coach.  The University of Michigan’s football program is the winningest in college football history and leads the nation in attendance on an annual basis, but with a massive pool of revenue from which to pay a coach, it just hired a guy with a 47-50 career record.  For the first and last time, I will quote Michael Rosenberg (excluding fisking purposes, which come up on a weekly basis): the University of Michigan is better than this.

Michigan is Replacing "Hail to the Victors" with...

Gene Chizik, National Championship Winning Coach. Hmm.

My overall impression of the game is that I am going to need to pull out the hoariest of football cliches and say that Auburn won because they dominated in the trenches.  Pat Dye wouldn’t have it any other way.  Coming into the game, all of the attention was on the offenses and rightly so.  On one side, Cam Newton and Gus Malzahn; on the other side, the Darron Thomas/LaMichael James combo coached by Chip Kelly.  With the stage set for a shootout between two Spread teams, we got a tight, relatively defensive game that Auburn controlled (for the most part) because they won on both lines.  On offense, Auburn was able to run between the tackles with Newton and Michael Dyer.  (Nick Saban figured this out quickly and made the point at halftime.  You’d almost think that he’s familiar with this Auburn team.)  That inside running game set up the rest of the offense.  On defense, Auburn’s defensive line was unblockable (and not just Nick Fairley, although he was outstanding).  Oregon’s offense was a big doughnut.  Chip Kelly did as good a job as he could scheming around the hole in the middle as the game progressed, but there’s only so much that a coach can do when the base play of the Spread offense – the inside zone play – is not an option.  Sure enough, the game was ultimately decided by two big runs from Dyer.  Kudos to Brent Musburger for identifying the difference-maker for the SEC in the consistent ability of its teams to win big games against opponents from other conferences: athletic defensive linemen.  (Contrast him making this simple, precise point with Kirk Herbstreit attributing SEC national titles to “speed.”  Gee, that helps.)

Random thoughts:

  • 2010 was the year of Cam Newton, both in a positive and a negative sense, but Newton was not the star tonight.  He had 330 yards passing and rushing, but needed a combined 56 pass attempts and carries to put up those number.  He threw one pick, should have thrown a second, and missed two wide open touchdowns, one on a crucial fourth and goal and the other on a third and long when Darvin Adams broke wide open.  A one-man band shouldn’t win a national title, so it’s appropriate that Auburn won its championship on a night when Newton was not at his best.


  • Let’s not get carried away with the claim that this game was a defensive struggle because it finished 22-19.  The teams combined for 975 yards of offense.  Auburn-LSU ‘88 this was not.  A related and somewhat contradictory point: this game finished with almost the same score as the Rose Bowl, but in this game, there were 25 possessions and 158 plays, whereas the Rose Bowl featured 16 possession and 116 plays.  See how much can be squeezed into a game when the teams are playing at a fast pace?  Also, these defenses accomplished a lot more than the Rose Bowl defenses did and vice versa for the offenses.


  • One aspect of the coverage of the bowl games that bothered me was the efforts to relate everything back to the NFL.  I realize that the NFL is the most popular sports league in the country, but college football isn’t exactly indoor lacrosse.  For the biggest games of the year, I don’t need a dissertation on Andrew Luck’s draft status or the differences between college and pro rules.  At times, the coverage of the bowl games mimicked NBC’s unwatchable coverage of the Olympics, which is inevitably ruined by efforts to cater to casual fans as opposed to their core audience.  Fox’s abominable Cotton Bowl coverage was the worst example, but we had an instance even in this game.  When Auburn was driving in Oregon territory up 19-11 with six minutes remaining, Musburger suddenly started talking about Newton’s draft status.  Of all times to play the NFL card, you’re going to choose a critical moment in the national title game?  To his credit, Herbstreit brushed the discussion off in about five seconds and then made the argument that we were watching a massive set of downs because Oregon would have a hard time coming back if they fell behind by two scores.


  • And now that I’ve said something nice about Herbie, this seems like a good time to mention that he kept yammering in the first half about how the two defenses were playing well because they had emotion on their sides and they had gotten tired of hearing about the opposing offenses.  It took Herbstreit 28 minutes of game time to make the point that was blindingly obvious to people who had watched the Ducks and Tigers this year: both offenses start slow and then ring up numbers in the second half when they have worn out their opponents.  What was interesting about tonight’s game was that the offenses didn’t get on track in the second half.  We ought to credit Gene Chizik/Ted Roof on the one side and Nick Aliotti on the other, although both defensive brain trusts were aided by the fact that they were familiar with defending fast tempo Spread attacks having seen them in practice all year.


  • And now that I’ve complained about shoehorning the NFL into college coverage, here’s an NFL thought that occurred to me during the game.  Auburn’s touchdowns came from Emory Blake (AU’s third-leading receiver on the season) and Kodi Burns (Auburn’s sixth-leading receiver on the season).  One of the hallmarks of the Spread generally and Gus Malzahn’s offense specifically is that lots of receivers and running backs get the ball, so no one receiver is integral.  Am I overreacting by saying that Bill Belichick’s work with Urban Meyer has led New England to import the spread concept of ball distribution around?  Probably.  After all, New England won three Super Bowls with a series of “who dat?” receivers.  My point ought to be more limited: modern offenses tend towards using a number of fairly even backs and receivers, rather than copying the Irvin-Emmitt model of focusing on one receiver and running back.  That makes our Falcons something of an outlying team. 


  • I realized tonight that my “stop hitting your brother” point is a copy of Urban Meyer’s glare and point.  I’ll miss you, Urban.  You make me a scarier father.


  • Surely I wasn’t the only one thinking on Auburn’s penultimate snap “Gene Chizik, Jim Donnan is on the line and he’d like to suggest that whatever you do, don’t give the ball to Jasper Sanks here.”  And am I wrong in saying that other than that kneel-down, the only other play in the game in which a quarterback was under center was the Auburn safety that swung momentum from the Ducks to the Tigers?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Hey Zimmy, What do you Think of Michigan's Coaching Search?

Everything Is Broken

Broken lines, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken

Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broken dishes, broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Broken cutters, broken saws
Broken buckles, broken laws
Broken bodies, broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin'
Everything is broken

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Broken hands on broken ploughs
Broken treaties, broken vows
Broken pipes, broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken

One Thought on Oversigning

The Senator's post on the possibility of the NCAA acting to rein in oversigning is interesting because of the political implications. Here is the concluding paragraph:

It’s hard to see how that changes. And if that’s the case, how long is it before Jim Delany decides he has no choice but to lead the charge to get the NCAA to tighten up the rules on class signing numbers? No doubt he’d couch it in terms of doing what’s best for the student athletes, but we’d all know what that’s really about. And it would be fascinating to see where the battle lines get drawn in that fight – the Big East and the mid-major conferences would seem to be natural allies for Delany, but would the Pac-10 and Big XII commissioners stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Mike Slive?
The programs that ought to be the most aggressive in condemning oversigning are Florida and Georgia. The Gators and Dawgs don't oversign, but they compete in the same conference for the same titles as the worst oversigning offenders. Thus, they stand to benefit the most from closing this loophole and denying their competitors the advantage of an extra recruiting class every five years. Georgia and Florida ought to be in Mike Slive's ear about the practice, which would cause the SEC Commissioner to be neutral in the event that legislation is discussed on the NCAA level. At that point, there would be no committed opponent against Jim Delany if he tried to push through legislation that would create a hard 85-scholarship cap that applies throughout the year as opposed to the beginning of the season.

(Get ready for an analogy that will be uncomfortable for people in Alabama and Mississippi in 3, 2, 1...)

There is an analogy to be made between efforts to end oversigning and the efforts to end Jim Crow laws. In both instances, a minority of entities were engaged in an exploitative practice to further their own self-interest. (Note the states where oversigning takes place and see if there is something of a correlation with the states that engaged in massive resistance to Brown v. Board.) The practice went on for a period of time until attention from the national media turned the minority of entities into outliers subject to intensifying criticism. Without the ability to filibuster NCAA legislation, I suspect that the schools that engage in oversigning will meet a similar fate.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

This is why you Fail, Exhibit 79

A commenter asked for my thoughts on the Big Ten’s New Year’s Day faceplant.  I don’t have much to add to what I wrote 384 days ago about Big Ten expansion.  The Big Ten operates at a disadvantage relative to the SEC because the South has far more blue chip high school players than the Midwest.  What the Big Ten does have is revenue, loads and loads of revenue because the Big Ten schools sit in populous (but shrinking) states and churn out sports-addled alums like yours truly.  Big Ten schools ought to plough that revenue into hiring the best coaches.  Instead, they hire Danny Hope and Greg Robinson.  Any league where Mark Dantonio is considered to be one of the hot young coaches is going to be a league that gets massacred on New Year’s Day when its teams start swimming in a deeper pool.

This brings me to Michigan’s current disaster of a coaching search.  In 2007, Michigan had an obvious candidate: Les Miles.  Because of infighting among the powers that were in Ann Arbor, Michigan either dithered while LSU locked Miles up, made an insulting offer that pushed Miles away, or never made an offer in the first place.  Michigan then lurched around, making offers to Kirk Ferentz and Greg Schiano, before hiring Rich Rodriguez.  Rodriguez was a good hire at the time, but one factor in his ultimate demise was Michigan skimping on hiring a defensive coordinator for him when the position was open after the 2008 season.  Michigan had figured out that to compete with the best in college football (read: the SEC), it needed to pay the market rate for a top head coach, but it had not learned that lesson for the coaches below the head man.

In 2010, Michigan again has an obvious candidate.  David Brandon has let Rodriguez wither on the vine for over a month, neither firing him for a lack of progress nor giving him an extension and a new defensive coordinator for recruiting purposes.  The only way that Brandon’s ludicrous “evaluation after the bowl game” mantra made sense was if he had Jim Harbaugh signed, sealed, and delivered.  Otherwise, Brandon was pissing away a month that could be spent with either Rodriguez recruiting his tail off or Brandon lining up a replacement so the successor could recruit his tail off in January.  Normally, a major program can take a hit to one class in order to make sure that it hires the right coach.  In this case, Rodriguez’s recruiting is one of the major reasons why Michigan is making a change, so UM cannot afford to give away another class. 

With Harbaugh apparently gone, Brandon’s process appears to be an epic failure.  Coming back to the SEC, I’m at a loss to think of an SEC program that has behaved this ineffectively.  Compare Michigan’s actions to those of Florida.  The Gators had an opening, they filled it quickly, they’ve paid top dollar for a coordinator to cover for the new head man’s weak side of the ball, and they are off and running in recruiting.  Michigan knew that they would need to make a change around the same time that Urban Meyer was retiring and yet, Michigan hasn’t even made the introductory step of making their vacancy official.  Assuming that the San Francisco 49ers showed Harbaugh more love, we can speculate that an SEC program would not have allowed itself to get outfought in the “show me love” department when trying to hire an alum like Michigan did.  However, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that an SEC program would not have dithered like Michigan has. 

Michigan Football in a Nutshell

Uh oh. For the second straight coaching search, Michigan has had an alum who was an obvious candidate and who was rumored to be coming back to Ann Arbor. For the second straight coaching search, Michigan couldn't reel in a blindingly obvious candidate.

Monday, January 03, 2011

When I Find Myself in Times of Trouble…

There are a precious few subjects that I know well. Michigan football, Dylan songs, Bond movies, and the Eastern Front are pretty much the list. So, with Rich Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan crumbling like the Wehrmacht in the face of Operation Bagration or Drax’s space station (check check), my mind went into analogy overdrive. I spent an entire workout yesterday like John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, listening to Dylan break-up songs to find the right one to capture my mood. Because Dylan fans tend to be obsessive and we like to show off our command of his output, I wanted something obscure. Trying and failing at that task, I kept coming back to his most famous (or at least one of the two most famous alongside “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”).*

* – There is a line of thinking that “Tangled up in Blue” is a break-up song, at which point it would be Dylan’s most famous song in the genre. Maybe I’m too much of a glass half-full person, but I come out of listening to that song with a sense of optimism. Look at how it ends:

But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

That’s a perfect mantra for Dylan’s life as a traveling performer - a modern-day Hank Williams - after the end of his marriage to Sara. It’s a “my marriage has ended, I'm at peace with the reasons, and I’m moving on with my life” coda. That doesn’t scream break-up to me. Put another way, college Michael didn't cue this song up after a break-up. This song, on the other hand…

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin’ through
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

The orphan with his gun could be the fans of West Virginia whom Rodriguez left behind, but I doubt that they are crying right now over the fact that Rodriguez fell flat on his face after he left them. Likewise, Rodriguez’s players were generally well-behaved in Ann Arbor with few police blotter issues (unlike Michigan’s friends in East Lansing), so the gun line doesn't work for them either. That’s one of the funny aspects of Rodriguez’s failure in Ann Arbor. When he arrived, the concern expressed (or at least hinted at) in the Detroit-area media was that this was the college coach of Chris Henry and Pac Man Jones. Michigan was going to turn into Miami North, especially because Rodriguez would recruit a bunch of scary kids with dreadlocks from the South. Instead, Michigan’s players made very few headlines off the field, but Rodriguez is getting the boot anyway for the prosaic reason that the product on the field was terrible. Who knew that Michigan was hiring Tyrone Willingham?

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

I thought of the first line during Michigan’s third quarter capitulation on Saturday. Michigan’s last show of life under Rodriguez came in the form of forcing their first punt of the game on the Bulldogs’ opening drive of the third quarter (read that again) and then Junior Hemingway running the punt back to the Bulldog 23. A Michigan touchdown would close the gap to 24-21 and we would have a game. Three plays netted five yards, at which point Rodriguez sent on the field goal unit, a decision so bad that even conventional wisdom personified Mike Patrick knew that Rodriguez was making a big mistake. Sure enough, Brendan Gibbons missed the kick and Mississippi State scored the final 28 points of the game. Use your sense, Rich.

The second line makes me wonder about Rodriguez as a coach and our ability to evaluate coaches in general. Was Rodriguez’s reputation gathered by coincidence? Was he a product of Pat White and Steve Slaton? I still don’t think that’s the case because then how do you explain his offensive success at Clemson and Tulane? Is he a good offensive coordinator who was lucky to stumble onto Jeff Casteel at West Virginia and then failed to replicate that one good staffing decision in Ann Arbor. Yes, and that’s where the coincidence line hits home. A lot of what we believe about head coaches is really a product of the guys around them. Speaking of which, it’s not hard to think of the empty handed painter drawing crazy patterns in this story:

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
All your reindeer armies, are all going home
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The carpet, too, is moving under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

The first two lines make me think of Rodriguez’s players in Ann Arbor, many of whom set sail from Florida and other parts of the South to play for a coach with a great reputation and may row home now. On the other hand, part of what was so dispiriting about the loss on Saturday was the fact that the team didn’t fight for Rodriguez. With his job twisting in the wind, I expected Michigan to play their asses off, either to save their coaches’ jobs or as a last hurrah, sorta like what the 2007 Michigan team turned in in Lloyd Carr’s final game. ("Some day, Urban, your team will play as hard for you as mine did for me today." I wonder if Meyer was thinking about that line on Saturday.) Instead, Michigan got a limp, disinterested effort from its reindeer armies. The players appear to have checked out.

As for the lover, the protagonist of the song, that has to be Dave Brandon, who has metaphorically had to sleep on the floor as a result of Michigan’s cash cow football program being in the toilet.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

The first two lines have to represent Rodriguez’s hope as he moves forward from the Michigan job, namely that he can leave the last three years behind. Despite the epic failure that was Rodriguez’s tenure in Ann Arbor, the consensus is that he’s not a bad coach. That’s the odd thing here. You would think that a guy who went 15-22 at the helm of the winningest program in college football history (and a program that had played in three Rose Bowls in the five years before Rodriguez was hired, so it wasn't as if all of the Wolverines' glory days were in the distant past) would come out of the process with his reputation in tatters, but I don’t feel that way. A Rich Rodriguez who has learned his lesson about how to hire defensive coaches and whose recruiting makes sense at a new school could produce excellent results. (I certainly would have taken him over Randy Edsall if I were Maryland.) It’s just a matter of striking another match and starting anew.

And as for the vagabond rapping at the door, here comes captain obvious:

One last thought on Rodriguez’s untergang: I felt nothing on Saturday. I started reading a book midway through the third quarter and then went over to see some friends for the Rose Bowl. The last time I felt any emotion about this Michigan team was the first half of the Wisconsin game. After that point, I just gave up. If I’m representative of the fan base, then that reaction is why Dave Brandon will make a change. It’s one thing for the fan base to be angry. It’s another, more dangerous thing for the fan base to be marked by apathy.