Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook Blah Blah Blah

I remember a time when Tuesday Morning Quarterback used to be one of my most anticipated reads of the week during football season. When Easterbrook was on, his weekly columns were an oasis of fresh analysis in a desert of "Team X won because they were the tougher team" articles. At some point, however, Easterbrook ran out of fresh things to say, at which point his columns became an endless repetition of the same points:

Teams shouldn't go blitz-wacky.

Teams shouldn't go pass-wacky.

Coaches shouldn't wear too many layers in cold weather games.

Cheerbabes shouldn't wear too many layers ever.

I look forward to Easterbrook's pieces in The New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly, mainly because he does well when he moves from topic to topic and stays fresh. And I'll also admit that I never get tired of his frequent attacks on oversized SUVs. (You have to love someone who titles a major article [or, more precisely, whose editors title one of his articles] "AXLE OF EVIL: AMERICA'S TWISTED LOVE AFFAIR WITH SOCIOPATHIC CARS.") However, whereas Easterbrook can write one or two columns every year on how Humvees are the worst thing to happen to American roads since Billy Joel, 20-25 columns per year on the NFL just get stale. He gets repetitive and then, in order to stave off boredom, he comes up with ill-reasoned arguments. To wit, he leads off his NFC Preview with a paean to why pro coaches have it so much harder than college coaches. Gregg might want to confine his analysis in the future to subject that he knows just about everything else in the world other than college football. Here are his most problematic arguments:

An orangutan could compile a winning record and become bowl-eligible at Ohio State, Florida State, Texas and many other football-factory colleges.

Unfortunately, this means that John Mackovic has fewer mental faculties than an orangutan. (Peter and the rest of the Burnt Orange Nation are probably nodding furiously at this point.) It means that John Cooper was no longer a primate in 1999, nor was Earle Bruce in 1987. And Gregg is clearly unaware that Florida State had no football tradition to speak of when Bobby Bowden came from West Virginia in the 70s. The major problem with Easterbrook's argument is that he assumes that "football-factory college" are pre-ordained to be good, but the histories of just about every such college belie that point. Notre Dame has more advantages than any other program as a result of its fan base, tradition, and media exposure, but that didn't stop the Irish from having three non-winning seasons in a four-year stretch from 2001 to 2004. Yes, Texas has lots of natural advantages, but so do Texas A&M and Oklahoma and UT fans won't be happy if their program is behind those two.

Not only are the teams stacked in big-college football, the schedules are stacked: National title contender West Virginia plays seven home dates and five road games this season, for example. The cupcake teams that allow themselves to be clobbered at football-factory stadia for money reasons -- West Virginia will host Division I-AA Eastern Washington -- have just shy of zero chance of winning, giving every big-college coach several annual guaranteed Ws.

Gee, Gregg, do you really think that college football fans are so stupid that they would be happy with their coaches if those coaches beat all the pushovers on their schedules and then lose to every team that has roughly equal talent? Ask Michigan fans what they think of Michigan's 7-5 season last year, which was bolstered by gimme wins over Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, and Indiana. Ask Florida fans about their feelings about Ron Zook.

Big-college coaching is a very sweet deal, plus coaches get treated like little gods, whereas at the NFL level the knives are always out.

Gregg, might I suggest you spend some time in Alabama? The notion that the knives are always out for NFL coaches, but not college coaches is so completely wrong, I don't even know where to begin to rebut it. How about the treatment that Mack Brown got for winning ten games per year at Texas, but not beating Oklahoma. How about Bill Curry and John Cooper getting fired, despite having excellent records, because they couldn't beat their arch-rivals? How about Miami fans running off Dennis Erickson because he didn't win national titles every year at Miami? Admittedly, the cases of Curry, Cooper, and Erickson are more complicated than I'm making them out to be, but the general point remains that there is a lot of pressure on college football coaches and the notion that they can't be criticized, even when winning ten or eleven games in a season, is flat-wrong.

In recent years, only a handful of football-factory coaches have been willing to accept offers to work in the pros. NFL owners always say they aren't pursuing college coaches because college coaches might not transition well to the professional environment. But the more basic reason is that most big-college coaches don't want NFL jobs. If you had a sure thing at a football factory, would you exchange it for a job with 20 percent annual turnover?

Easterbrook leaves out a very important factor when discussing why college coaches don't want to take the filthy lucre of the NFL: college and pro coaching emphasize different skills. Knowledge of x's and o's, while important in college football, is paramount in the NFL because of the relative evenness of the talent. In college, personality is more important, in part because of the importance of keeping fat cat alumni, but mainly because recruiting is so important. Pete Carroll's personality was wasted in the NFL, where boring, no-personality coaches rule the roost. In college, however, that personality allows him to bring in the sick amount of talent that has allowed USC to dominate the West since 2002. A coach like Jim Tressel wouldn't necessarily be a good fit in the NFL because his skills as a recruiter and his relationships with Ohio high school football coaches would be worthless. If Easterbrook spent any amount of time following college football instead of fawning over NFL cheerleaders named Crystal and Dakota or selectively noting every time a team converts a third-and-long against a blitzing opponent, he might understand these things.

Incidentally, Easterbrook does have a couple interesting observations about the Falcons, one of which has more merit than the other:

1. There's little reason to think that Mike Vick will be anything more than an average NFL quarterback. I chuckled this morning when the Mayhem in the AM crew were totally shocked that SI could pick the Falcons to go 7-9 this year. They are living in a "we love Arthur Blank and Rich McKay because they come on our show" bubble and don't seem to recognize that the Falcons were simply an average team last year. Last year, they were 12th in total offense, 14th in scoring offense, 22nd in total defense, 18th in scoring defense, and 13th in turnover margin. This was not a 10-6 team masquerading as an 8-8 team; this was an 8-8 team, full stop. They are good at running the ball and stopping opponents from throwing the ball. They are bad at passing the ball and stopping other teams from running the ball. (I laughed out loud at Mike Bell's argument that the Falcons shouldn't be behind the Bucs because Tampa's passing game is not good. Mike might need to be reminded that our expectations for Mike Vick's passing are so low that the Mayhem crew were busy showering him with praise on Monday morning for his performance against the Titans on Friday night. Vick's line in that game, you ask? 7/14 for 48 yards. That's 3.4 yards per attempt. Stellar stuff against a bad defense.) Maybe Grady Jackson and John Abraham will make the defensive line excellent again, but are they going to be worth two wins to get the team to the playoffs?

2. The Falcons tend to mortgage their future to acquire name players. I don't know that I totally buy this argument, since draft picks, even picks in the middle of the first round, are something of a crapshoot. Trading a pick for Peerless Price was obviously a mistake, but that's because the Falcons underestimated the importance of Price transitioning from a #2 receiver in Buffalo to a #1 receiver in Atlanta. Trading for John Abraham is different because there are no such concerns. Easterbrook argues that "[w]hen a team wants to get rid of a player, usually there is a reason," but in the case of Abraham, the reasons were most likely that the Jets were rebuilding and therefore didn't need to pay for a star in his prime. They are also moving to a 3-4 defense, which means that they would have been fools to pay a lot of money to a 4-3 defensive end. Abraham did have a lot of value for the Falcons, as well as the Seahawks, who tried like hell to acquire him.

As for the Lelie trade, the Falcons didn't give up a draft pick, as Easterbrook claims. They gave up T.J. Duckett, who isn't a good fit in the Falcons' offense and who has been rendered expendable by Jerious Norwood. That said, there are problems with the deal. Lelie is a fast receiver who isn't very good in traffic. Given Mike Vick's accuracy issues, a receiver has to be willing to go get the ball in traffic, something that Brian Finneran could do. Lelie could be for Vick was Andre Davis was for him at Virginia Tech: a deep threat who allows Vick to show off his nuclear-powered arm. However, the Falcons' playbook is a bad fit for Vick and it will be a bad fit for Lelie, who isn't good at the patterns that are utilized most frequently by the Falcons.


Buford T. Justice said...

I have to agree wholeheartedly. I used to eagerly await Easterbrook’s ruminations on the NFL. A lot of the ideas have gone stale and are getting moldy.

Please don’t overestimate the reasoning of most college football fans and what they will take from their respective schools. I just love people who use these phrases, “Well we won 9 games last year,” “Hey we went to a bowl game,” and “We played in January.” Or my personal Auburn pet peeve, “We’ve won 5 of the last 6 SEC West titles.” Don’t get me started.

As for Mr. Vick, the number of times I won money last year taking a strong defense against the Falcons was absolutely sick. If I was Jim Mora, I really would consider installing the single-wing.

Fox said...

The debate about which job is harder is a tough one. There is absolutely no question that NFL coaches work much, much harder than their college counterparts. But that doesn't answer the whole question, because the other part of the equation is which requires more skills. And there, I think the answer is simply that they require different ones. The most important qualification for a college coach, as you pointed out, is personality/the ability to recruit, followed by the ability to motivate, with all the Xs and Os stuff a distant third. NFL coaches don't have to recruit, but do need enough personality to motivate, or at least manage athletes with very large egos (witness the transformation between Bellichek in Cleveland and in New England after watching Parcells again for a few years in NYC). But you're right, strategy and Xs and Os are very important skills for an NFL coach. So the bottom line is that some people are better suited to one job and not the other.

The question Easterbrook should have been answering (and to some degree was), is which job is more desirable. And the answer is clearly a college coach if you're thinking long-term. I know that the boosters at some big schools have relatively short leashes but that's nothing compared to the ridiculous world of the NFL where the average coaching tenure for anyone other than the Rooneys is (and I'm guessing here) two years. Even the worst college coaches get much longer chances than that, if only because they have the excuse of waiting on "their" recruits to develop.

As to the Vick comments, Michael, you touched on the falcons biggest problem--why is Vick running a West Coast offense. I honestly think that if you sat back and tried to design an offense that LEAST fits his skills (big arm, weak decision-making skills, low accuracy, ability to make one read, maybe 2, before taking off and running), the answer would be the West Coast.

Anonymous said...

you suck sun of a bitch