Monday, December 31, 2007

Piling Dirt on Rich McKay

Here is Football Outsiders' All Rookie Team and it is completely bereft of Falcons. There are 40 players listed, but a team that drafted in the top ten and had plenty of playing time available could not get one of them onto the list.

The list also illustrates what the Falcons may have lost by winning yesterday. If the Falcons would have lost, they would have had the second or third pick in the Draft. By winning, they could fall as low as fifth. Now, let's assume that they are interested in an offensive tackle (as they certainly should be). They're less likely to get the top tackle (presumably Jake Long) at the #5 pick as opposed being at #2 or #3. Now, look at that rookie list. You think the Falcons regret taking the second defensive end on the board (Jammal Anderson) over the first (Gaines Adams)? You think that Cleveland isn't happy that they landed Joe Thomas (16 starts and likely second place in offensive rookie of the year voting) over Levi Brown (11starts)? You think that Houston isn't happy that they landed Amobi Okoye (32 tackles, 5.5 sacks) over Justin Harrell (inactive for the first nine games)? I'd be an idiot to argue that the second-ranked player at a position is always significantly inferior to the top-ranked player, but this season provided plenty of illustration that being slightly higher in the draft order is very important.

For the record, if Jake Long is off the board, then I want the Falcons to take Glenn Dorsey. The team is certainly not set at defensive tackle and I'd rather have the top defensive tackle than the second-best offensive tackle. Whatever happens, I don't think that any of the available quarterbacks are worth a #5 pick and that especially goes for Matt Ryan, who is colossally overrated.

My TV Weekend

I was apparently the only straight male between the ages of 18 and 49 who did not watch the Pats-Giants game on Saturday night, as Der Wife and I went to see Juno. Although it sounds like the game was outstanding, I don't have much interest in the Pats' run because of the excessive hype that their season is getting. It's not that New England isn't a great team (they are, although the defense is a little soft in the back seven for my tastes) or that ESPN is devoting more attention to a Boston team as opposed to what they would devote to an unbeaten Kansas City or Seattle team (there might be a little of that, but the NFL is wildly popular right now, so any team that threatened the '72 Dolphins as the only team to go unbeaten and win the Super Bowl would get a ton of hype). I'm just loathe to give much attention to any huge sports story these days because they all get overhyped.

I'm also feeling quite hostile to the NFL these days. Case in point: my viewing options yesterday were the Jacksonville-Houston game, which was totally meaningless as Houston was not in playoff contention and Jacksonville had locked up the #5 seed, and the Washington-Dallas game, which was meaningful, but also boring as Dallas rested some of their starters and mailed in their performance. The NFL is the only major sporting league that actively screws its fans. If the Falcons game wasn't sold out, then why couldn't the local Fox affiliate carry a different game? Why are we subjected to endless Jacksonville games as Atlanta's secondary team when I don't know a single Jaguar fan? Why didn't we get a 4:15 game on CBS when we only got one game at 1:00? If the NFL was screwing its customers to get them to purchase Sunday Ticket, then that would be one thing, but by limiting Sunday Ticket to DirectTV, the NFL makes it hard for fans to pay their way out of inexplicable programming decisions.

So instead of watching the NFL this weekend, I watched plenty of English footie. It makes perfect sense that I can watch Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool across the pond (as well as just about every Barca game), but my viewing options for the NFL are severely limited. Chelsea pipped (I love that word) Newcastle with a late goal, but neither team acquitted itself well. Chelsea are a shell of their former selves because of injuries. I was excited to see Ballack and Essien play together in the center of the midfield because I think that's the Blues' best pairing and those two were excellent for the first half, but they faded a little in the second. Chelsea lack a quality striker with Drogba and Shevchenko out and Avram Grant didn't make matters any better by putting on the disappointing Claudio Pizarro. The Chelsea fans were chanting "you don't know what you're doing" at their own manager, shortly before Pizarro accidentally deflected a shot to a clearly offside Solomon Kalou for the winner. Chelsea didn't deserve the winner, but Newcastle didn't really deserve any points from the match, either. They were crap for the first 45 minutes, then they promptly put Chelsea on the backfoot, scored an equalizer, and nearly scored a second if not for a timely defensive play by Belletti. (This might be the first time ever that the last six words in that sentence were typed together.) Newcastle were looking like winners when they promptly decided to shut up shop and play everyone behind the ball, as evidenced by the Magpies using their first sub to pull off a striker and put on a defender. They deserved the bad luck they got with the missed offsides call.

In contrast, I was very impressed by Arsenal, who came from a goal down on a rainy night in Liverpool to beat Everton. On this weekend last year, I watched Arsenal go down 1-0 at ultimately relegated Sheffield United on a rainy, cold night because they did not have any manner of attack when their slick short passing game ground to a halt. In similar conditions against a better opponent one year later, Arsenal floundered for a half before they tried something new: direct long balls to Eduardo, who proceeded to make Everton's defenders look dreadful. By the hour mark, Arsenal were on their way. The Gunners proved to be adaptable in exactly the spot (rainy night on the road) that has proved to be their undoing in the past.

And finally, a word on Liverpool. I've been a stuck record on them for a while: too defensive to consistently get three points from matches, so they can progress in knock-out competitions where negating the opponent is such a big deal, but they can't contend in the EPL where scoring regularly is so important. The 0-0 draw against Man City (which sounds like a movie title one could find on Cheshire Bridge Road, but I digress) could be further evidence for this assessment, but Liverpool did look pretty good to me. The first half was dull with few chances either way, but the second half was all Liverpool and it took a pair of bad misses from Fernando Torres and a pair of last-ditch clearances from Richard Dunne to salvage a point for Citeh. Liverpool definitely has better personnel than they did last year. Torres is much better than any of their previous striking options and Yossi Benayoun is a far better winger than either Jermaine Pennant or Boudewijn Zenden. It has to be frustrating for Liverpool fans to be ten points back (with a game in hand) with no apparent roster deficiencies, just as it's perplexing as a Barca fan to be seven points back after a summer in which the team made smart purchases to cover for the team's weaknesses. My initial thought when Liverpool was drawn against Inter was that Inter would make short work of them, but after watching the Pool for 90 minutes, I'm not sure about that.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My First Attempt at Microsoft Paint

15-12! Yes, it's early. Yes, the Hawks have slightly out-performed their point differential, which is even. Yes, the Hawks have played five more home games than road games. Yes, the Hawks are exactly one game ahead of seventh place. Screw it all, the Hawks are not only in playoff position, they would actually have home court in the first round if the season ended today. They've won five in a row! If ever there was a time to throw perspective out the window and engage in some Gamecock-style irrational exuberance, this is it!

A few thoughts on the game last night:

1. The Hawks had six players in double digits with Josh Childress right behind at eight points. A possible explanation for the team's success that is so simple, I hesitate to make it: years of being bad has given the team enough high draft picks that they now have a lot of good players. Rather than one or two superstars, this team is built on the Bulls' or Pistons' model of having six or seven good players.

2. More irrational exuberance: Anthony Johnson's assist/turnover ratio is 3.47/1. Chris Paul's ratio is 3.5/1. Steve Nash's ratio is 3.41/1. Deron Williams' ratio is 2.55/1. Those of you who thought that this would be the case after AJ was dreadful in the opener and banished to the bench for several games thereafter raise your hands.

3. I was going to compliment Al Horford and Shelden Williams for holding Jermaine O'Neal to 16 points and then I checked O'Neal's stats, which reveal that he's averaging, wait for it, 15.9 points per game. Remember when Jermaine was viewed as a star? So instead, the number that jumps out at me in the box score is that Jamaal Tinsley took 21 shots and made six. When did he turn into Allen Iverson? Did he see former teammate Anthony Johnson opposite him and think he could go off? If so, then thanks, Jamaal!

4. Last night marked the seventh straight game that Marvin Williams made at least half of his shots. In contrast, Joe Johnson hasn't hit over half of his shots in 12 games this month. I'll be interested to see if opposing defenses shift more of their attention to Williams in 2008 and if they do, how Williams will respond. Marvin is experiencing his first period of meaningful success in the NBA. Let's hope it continues. FYI, Williams also had a hand in holding Danny Granger to nine points, eight below his average. Williams and Smith have given the Hawks some very good defense at the forward positions. Speaking of which, the Hawks see Nowitzki and Lebron on the road in the next two games.

5. This seems as good a time as any to fellate myself for taking the position that Billy Knight was at least as good a GM as Rich McKay before it was popular to do so.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ronnie Raus! Rijkaard Raus?

My apologies for the late take on Barca-Real, but I'm at my in-laws place and they don't get GolTV. I found the complete game on YouTube and settled in this morning for a match that Phil Ball aptly dubbed a "White Christmas." As Sid Lowe points out, Ronaldinho is getting the blame and he certainly deserves it. He shot Barca's best chance of the game straight at Casillas. He rarely linked up with Eric Abidal, who must have gotten annoyed at constantly banging up the left wing and not being rewarded with the ball. He gave the ball away repeatedly and then proceeded to flop to the turf, looking for calls. With his speed gone from too many nights spent clubbing, Ronnie's best remaining assets are his free kick taking and passing, but Barca didn't force any free kicks in dangerous areas on Sunday and Ronnie's passing was poor. If Barca get a good offer from Chelsea or Milan in January, they should probably take it and move on with Giovanni and Bojan getting more time along with Henry, Eto'o, and Messi. Ronnie should have come into this season loaded for bear after he took so much stick last year, but nothing has changed. Clubs should avoid selling low on players when things look their worst, but Ronnie has run out of chances to show that he is willing to commit himself to the levels necessary to be a great player.

All that said, Ronnie's poor performance shouldn't obscure from the bigger problem, which is that Barca's tactics were poor again. The game was the same as the home matches against Madrid and Liverpool last year. Barca looked bright for about the first half hour and then teams managed by abler men than Rijkaard totally snuffed out the Barca attack, choking off all of their passing lanes and then killing them on the counter. Real looked far more dangerous than Barca because every time the Blaugrana hurled themselves against Madrid's massed defense and gave the ball away, Madrid then snapped into a counter and completely out-numbered Barca going forward. I kid you not, Madrid had a four-on-two at one point with about twenty minutes remaining. Opponents have seen Barca's system and style time and again and the quality opponents have figured out how to snuff Barca's attacks out. The individual brilliance of Messi covers for these tactical problems on a number of occasions, but with Messi out of the match with a bad hamstring, Barca completely lacked ideas on how to create chances.

Rijkaard has apparently stated that this year is his last in charge at the Nou Camp and it's probably for the best, as he has run his course and doesn't have the same effect on the players that he once did. The team needs fresh ideas and nothing drums that point home quite like losing 1-0 at home to Real Madrid and going seven points behind in La Liga. The question is now whether Barca will turn its attention to Jose Mourinho. I have never much cared for the Special One because of the fact that he turned the most expensive collection of talent in the world into Graham Taylor's England side that missed the '94 World Cup. Chelsea were typically dreadful to watch and Roman Abramovich lost patience the moment the results stopped coming Chelsea's way. That said, I can't begrudge Chelsea fans for loving the guy because he always delivers results. At this point, I'm ready for some wins over quality opposition. Mourinho is most noted for his ability to get a collection of egos to pull in one direction and that is something that Barca badly need at this point. I have no idea what Mourinho would do with players like Messi or Bojan, but part of me is interested to see him try. Mourinho did work at the club under Bobby Robson, so he's aware of the club's values and might turn over a bit more of an attacking leaf.

A word now for the victors on Saturday. As's player ratings suggest, Pepe was outstanding at the back for Los Merengues. He cut out Barca's attacks time and again and completely denied the Blaugrana the middle of the pitch. He was critically the first to the rebound that Casillas spilled late in the proceedings from Bojan's drive. Madrid's back line is excellent. When they play Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, and Heinze across the back, they're extremely hard to break down, especially with Diarra in front cleaning up the mess. In contrast, Rafa Marquez was wearing the "please attack this way!" sign on Saturday and Puyol was a little uncomfortable in space against Robinho, which makes one wonder why Rijkaard didn't opt for the obvious backline of Zambrotta, Puyol, Milito, and Abidal. Maybe Zambrotta isn't fit for 90 minutes?

I also like Madrid's midfield. Baptista made a great run and finish for the goal, linking up perfectly with Ruud for the winner on a one-two that Barca used to create when its players passed the ball properly. Sneijder was also solid and swung in some dangerous-looking free kicks towards Pepe and Ramos. The one change I'd make if I were Bernd Schuster would be to deploy Robben on the flank instead of Raul. This is not just because I can't stand Raul, but also because Robben on one flank and Robinho on the other would create tremendous pressure on a defense and open up the middle more. The one negative would be that Robben and Robinho both tend to be black holes with the ball, whereas Raul has a more unselfish side.

Overall, Madrid look suspiciously close to joining Arsenal, Manchester United, and Inter as a fourth form team in Europe right now. They have opened a healthy lead at the top of La Liga and they have the depth and tactical options to fight well on multiple fronts. Schuster is building on the work that Capello did at Madrid, although the team is no more attractive to watch than the unit last year that got Capello fired for winning the league in an insuffciently entertaining style. Madrid's Champions League tie against Roma should be very interesting, as both sides create a ton of chances. Real certainly look more threatening than Barca, who should off Celtic, but will likely lose to the first megaclub they face.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quicky Thoughts on the Hawks

13-12! I love a parade!

For my money, Anthony Johnson has been a real key for the team in their recent purple patch. His assist and turnover numbers have looked like, gasp, a real point guard's numbers! He defends the position reasonably well, he gets the team into the offense, and he's good at running the fast break. The Hawks' offense is simply better when Johnson is on the floor. The offense that he provided last night was an unexpected benefit. He nailed a big shot towards the end of regulation and he had the dagger runner over Wee Chris Quinn in overtime.

I also liked Joe Johnson's game last night, as he had a number of big shots. He sent the game to overtime with a bucket in the final minute and his tough three-point play gave the Hawks the lead with a minute to go in overtime. That said, I banged my hand on the seat in front of me when Johnson dribbled out the shot clock on the Hawks' last possession at the end of regulation. For one thing, the Hawks got the ball in a tie game with 40 seconds to go; what the hell were they doing not trying to go two-for-one? Second, Johnson isn't quite quick enough to isolate and then break his defender down at the end of the shot clock. He's not Dwyane Wade. The Hawks ended up with a dreadful possession, leaving the Heat 15 seconds to win the game. I was positively convinced that Wade would dribble out the clock and get fouled, but the Hawks forced the ball out of his hands and Ricky Davis proved to be a hero. Thanks, Ricky!

Speaking of Wade, he seems like a nice guy and all, but I'm not overly juiced to see him in person because his game is all about marching to the foul line over and over again. There's not much that's appealing about 36 points with 20 from the line. It brings back all my bad memories of the 2006 Finals, which were one of the most frustrating sporting events I've ever watched where I didn't have a major rooting interest on either side. I had a slight preference for the Mavs because I like Mark Cuban and I'm sympathetic to Dirk as another athlete unfairly tagged with the "can't win the big one" label, so watching Miami win because of Wade's never ending parade to the foul line was galling.

Unrelated to Wade, I had a lengthy discussion with my brothers last night about what it would take to start a Hawks hooligan group. The group's name would be the Marietta Street Ultras and would specialize in San Siro-style placard shows (or tifo, if you prefer)in the upper deck behind the baskets.

Maybe some sort of mural of a bloodthirsty Hawk doing unspeakable things to a bobcat? We were undecided as to whether the MSUs would be an extreme right-wing or left-wing group. Liberal use of flares would of course be a requirement. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Quick Thoughts on Parcells

I was perfectly happy with the idea of Bill Parcells coming in as the VP for Football Operations for the Falcons. Sure, hiring Parcells would make Arthur Blank's protestations about Bobby Petrino look foolish, since Blank's next move would have been to hire the similarly itinerant Parcells. That said, Parcells has generally left teams better off than he found them. He's a good talent evaluator and that takes primary importance this year because of the bevy of picks the Falcons are going to have in April. Blank needs to bring in someone who can analyze the team in short order and then come up with a smart drafting strategy (starting with the determination of whether the Falcons have so many holes that they need to trade down out of their top five pick to acquire depth). Parcells would have been that guy.

The only reservation I had was that Parcells would also bring in a protege as head coach and start drafting a team to meet his specific style. Most specifically, I was worried that he would bring in a 3-4 defensive coach, the team would give up a bunch of defensive pieces for 50 cents on the dollar, and then they would spend their draft picks and free agent dollars looking for specific 3-4 parts. If Parcells is only going to be around for a few years, then changing the team's style and doing a wholesale changeout of the front seven is a bad idea.

In any event, Parcells simply used the Falcons to squeeze more money out of the Dolphins, so it's all water under the bridge. The search continues.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'm as Happy as a Little Girl

You'll have to forgive me and the rest of Michigan fandom for acting a little like idiots over the past several weeks. We're not used to this whole coaching search thing, seeing as how Michigan had not undergone one since 1969 when Don Canham replaced Bump Elliott with Glenn E. Schembechler (but only after Joe Paterno turned Michigan down and recommended Bo for the position). We responded with vast bouts of paranoia after the presumed #1 option - Les Miles - passed on the position and sounded like Bo in growling about his "damn fine team." Visions of MAC mediocrity Brady Hoke, MAC failure and general bumbler Mike Debord, or totally unproven Ron English were bandied about, as Wolverine fans assumed that this process would be like every other one: an insular search yielding an underwhelming candidate who happened to be affiliated with the program.

So imagine our surprise this afternoon when media outlets galore suddenly started reporting that Rich Rodriguez was going to take the job. Yes, that Rich Rodriguez. He of the 32-5 record for the past three years in the frisky Big East. He of the spread option offense that rings up 300 yards rushing regularly. He of the ballsy fake punt to kill off the Sugar Bowl. This guy? He's going to coach Michigan? Not one of Lloyd's lackeys who will keep punting on 4th and three from the opponent's 39 and will call plays as if four-yard out patterns are the ticket to heaven?

I really hope that you humor me and let my annoying feelings of euphoria slide a little. I'll try not to be like Sports Guy and the Boston teams, but I can't make any promises right now. I've been watching Michigan since the late 80s, pretty much ever since I figured out that it was a good school with lots of Jews and the fight song was catchy. Throughout almost two decades of Michigan football, I've yet to hear anyone describe Michigan's strategic approach as "ballsy" or the offense as "innovative" or "cutting edge" or "a step above mediocre." Do you know what it's going to be like to watch a Rodriguez offense? This is like going from black and white TV to HD. Like going from dating Blythe Danner to Salma Hayek. Like going from tuna helper to sushi-grade salmon. I know this is a little harsh on a program that consistently wins, but Michigan has never been sexy, scheme-wise. Players like Braylon Edwards and Charles Woodson made us sexy in terms of personnel, but our offense would never get the blood going down there. December 16, 2007 is the date that Michigan got the football program equivalent of breast implants and Agent Provocateur thigh-highs.

Old blog nemesis MANDEL!!! echoes my excitement:

How big is Rich Rodriguez to Michigan? In terms of the ramifications for both program and sport, it's college football's most significant hire since Florida landed Urban Meyer.

Michigan, one of the last bastions of smash-mouth football and 6-foot-5 pocket passers, just hired arguably the most renowned pioneer of the new-age, spread-option offense. For all those weeks of hand-wringing over Les Miles, Michigan wound up landing itself a better coach.

I had been meaning to write a post comparing Michigan's coaching search to that of the FA hunting for the next England manager. Both Michigan and England are traditional powers that are stuck in their ways and haven't been especially relevant in quite a while. Both had cultural opposition to bringing in outsiders to run their outfits. In the end, both brought in their best coaches in decades by refusing to bow to inbreeding. Oh, and both paid a pile of money for their guys and will be expecting their new coaches to drive up revenue and pay for major stadium renovations. England hired Fabio Capello, a coach who has won everywhere he's been. Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, a coach who has won everywhere he's been. I look forward to Rich reacting like this the first time Ryan Mallett throws an interception:

And I need to be clear that while I'm terribly excited about Bill Martin's big marlin, I'm not expecting Michigan to come on like gangbusters right away. The track record of the best coaches in college football is that they tend to have underwhelming results in their first seasons at major powers. Here's your list for the last decade:

Pete Carroll at USC - 6-6
Jim Tressel at Ohio State - 7-5
Bob Stoops at Oklahoma - 7-5
Mack Brown at Texas - 9-3
Urban Meyer at Florida - 9-3
Nick Saban at LSU - 8-4
Tommy Tuberville at Auburn - 5-6
Mark Richt at Georgia - 8-4

9-3 seems to be the best that a major power can expect when it hires an excellent coach. There's always the possibility of a Spurrier in 1990 explosion, but the Big Ten is more familiar now with the spread option than the SEC was with the forward pass at the end of the Dye-Dooley era.

As will be pointed out ad nauseam between now and the opener against Utah next September, Michigan has a collection of statue-esque Caucasian pocket passers (OK, most writers will use buzzwords for Caucasian instead of coming out and saying it) and Rodriguez's offense in its current iteration requires significant mobility from a passer. Visions of Chris Leak running Urban Meyer's offense will abound. It's a legitimate concern, but it will probably be overstated because Rodriguez has coached plenty of pass-heavy offenses, or have we all forgotten the pleasure that was watching the Clemson offense with Woody Dantzler. Ryan Mallett isn't an ideal quarterback for Rodriguez's system, but the guy knows how to coach the passing game. With Mallett and a number of quality receivers (depending on whether Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington stay in school), Rodriguez will have different toys. If Michigan signs Terrelle Pryor, a number of fans will assume that Pryor will be the starter from day one, but another plausible scenario is that Pryor redshirts, then spends a year or two in a Tebow role before starting in 2010 or 2011. OK, that seems a little far-fetched when I see it on the screen, so I'll just say that I'm not necessarily buying the notion that Pryor would be the starter from day one, unless he signs with Michigan and Mallett decides to transfer to Arkansas to play for Bobby Petrino.

A more interesting question will be whether Rodriguez will bring the 3-3-5 with him. That seems unlikely to me, as Michigan's defensive line should be a strength of the team next year (especially after an off-season in a competent strength and conditioning program). Also, the 3-3-5 always seemed like a gimmick designed to compensate for the fact that West Virginia didn't have great defensive talent. I wouldn't be shocked if one of Rodriguez's reasons for leaving was the ability to coach more talented players, especially on defense.

Another plausible reason for Rodriguez coming to Ann Arbor is the advice of his mentor, Don Nehlen. Read these quotes and ask yourself if Don Nehlen is going to be running for the governorship of West Virginia any time soon:

I think it's a great, great, great opportunity for him. I think it's tremendous. There are very few Michigans. When you coach at West Virginia, you walk on water in West Virginia. But when you coach at Michigan, you walk on water, period. There's a difference. Some people around here don't want to believe that.

I thought it would be great for him. These opportunities don't come around very often. Rich has found a place that's just special. If you're a football coach, it's a dream come true. I'm certainly not belittling West Virginia. It's just different at Michigan.

When it looked like Michigan was going to hire Miles, I made a remark to a friend that Bo was the gift that kept on giving. Michigan was in the lucky position of looking for a coach at the same time that a former Bo player and assistant was succeeding in the SEC and wanted the Michigan job because of his affection for the school and his former coach. While it didn't turn out that Miles became Michigan's coach (in no small part because of Pat White's treacherous thumb), Bo still blessed the program in another way, as his former assistant Nehlen likely directed Rodriguez to Ann Arbor. This is the value of a significant coaching tree and it highlights the biggest difference between Bo and Lloyd, the latter of whose tree is a mangled, scraggly bush.

Another factor in Michigan's ultimate success in its coaching search is the fact that Bill Martin seemed to evolve as the process developed. I dubbed Martin a
"Helpless Finch" early in the process because his clumsy pursuit of Miles. It's possible that Martin was lukewarm in pursuing Miles because he decided that if he was going to spend $3M per year on a coach, he might as well get a great one instead of a very good one. A more likely scenario is that Martin initially thought that Miles and other coaches would gladly take a pay cut to coach in Ann Arbor and was caught off-guard when he realized that he had to compete for top coaching talent. Faced with a threat in his habitat in the form of outraged donors and former players ripping his handling of the process, this finch evolved rapidly and ended the process with razor-sharp talons that shoot frickin' laser beams.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Shakeup at 790

So here are the big changes at 790: the Stews are moving to the afternoon slot, Matt Chernoff is totally out, Chuck Oliver and Mike Bell are going to be the new afternoon drive time show (along with Brandon Leak), and Brandon Adams and Jeff Woolverton are going to get the 11-1 timeslot. On the whole, I'm happy with the changes. I had soured on the Stews a little, as they have gotten more and more schtick-heavy and were discussing sports less and less. Their segments are also very short, even shorter than those on Mayhem.

Oliver and Bell should be an excellent afternoon drive show, although it's interesting that their show is essentially going to have the same dynamic as Buck and Kincade: one loud Yankee and one local college football guy. For some reason, I associate comedy bits with morning shows more than afternoon shows, so we'll see how Bell's bits play out in the later time slot. Leak will be important as a straight man with Bell and Oliver, plus he'll provide a link to the Stews' audience because he can drive a little Hawks/NBA discussion.

The one negative to the change is that Bell, Nick Celini, and Chris Dimino had developed great chemistry in the morning and had made Steak Shapiro superfluous; removing Bell means a great role for Steak and Steak is clearly the weakest of those four. The rampant success of Boston's three major teams has not been good for a guy who already came off as arrogant. Conversely, the Falcons' annus horribilis has been great for Mike Bell, who has done some very funny bits over the past couple mornings about the content of the team's 2007 highlight video. He and Celini played off of each other perfectly on that topic this morning.

I like Adams and Woolverton's weekend shows because they cover actual sports topics. 11-1 is a good time for them, as they'll be hitting 790's core audience. Der Wife will not be happy that 790 is breaking up Monsters of the Midday, which had become her favorite show. She's in the car a lot more than I am during the day and had really grown to enjoy that show more than any other. Personally, I listen in the morning for about an hour and in the early evening for about 15 minutes, so the moves are a slight wash for me. Mayhem gets a little weaker, while the PM drive show gets stronger.

By the way, it wouldn't be an AJC thread on sports talk radio without a race war breaking out and the sparks starting flying in record time. Here is the very first comment posted after the article went up:

what network signed them?

was it ENSN - the Ebonics News & Sports Network

It is a shame that Chernoff is departing and these two clowns are staying. Well At least Chernoff speaks english and can get another job

I love posters who criticize others for poor use of the English language and don't know that the word "English" is capitalized as a proper noun.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Petrino Raus!

Terence Moore tried to warn us...

On the one hand, I can't really blame Bobby Petrino for leaving. He stepped into a situation that was probably appealing to him because he was going to get the chance to coach a really unique quarterback. Unfortunately, that quarterback has a pressing engagement in the federal penal system and his absence has revealed a roster that wasn't very good in August and is dreadful now after injuries have devastated the team. Petrino probably realized at some point during the year that Rich McKay hadn't exactly stocked the team with talent. Worse yet, McKay had stocked the team with players who developed a culture where this was considered to be a good idea:

It's one thing to have mediocre players on your team. It's quite another to have mediocre players who were drafted to appease your dogfighting entrepreneur quarterback.

Then again, when Alge Crumpler is complaining about the coach, you know you have a problem. Steve Wyche's interview on 790 the Zone this morning was telling. He made references to champagne bottles being popped at Flowery Branch, Petrino completely ignoring his own players, and Petrino being a real jerk to Falcons employees. If half of what Wyche says is true, then Petrino leaving is a good thing because it averts a player mutiny or a mass exodus in the off season. Petrino left after an extremely brief meeting with his coaches and without saying word one to his players, which is not a high charatcer move.

The fact that's hard for me to square is the fact that Petrino was an outstanding college football coach. Peter King and others in the NFL media are trying to establish the meme that Petrino was a dictatorial coach whose style works with college kids, but not professionals. Huh? Bill Parcells? Bill Belichick? Dictatorial coaches don't work in the NFL? If anything, it's more important for a college coach to be a communicator because college coaches have to motivate 19-year olds whose attention waxes and wanes. Pete Carroll is a good college coach because his enthusiasm and ability to relate to players works in recruiting and motivation. Professionals can be expected to get excited for just about every game because they're playing for their livelihoods, so the rah-rah stuff doesn't work on them. Petrino should have been a good NFL coach because his strength is his offensive system and technocrats with limited people skills should do fine in a league where match-ups and x's and o's are so critical. In the end, Petrino and the Falcons was a bad match on both ends: an autocratic coach who didn't respond to failure well, combined with a roster with more than its share of headcases that chafed under authority after the previous coach had desperately tried to be their friend.

Assuming that Petrino can be as good a coach at Arkansas as he was at Louisville, then Seccu just became an even more bloodthirsty place. The SEC now has half of the ten best coaches in the country and maybe eight of the top 20. It's going to be an absolute bloodbath for the next several years, and an unstable bloodbath at that because there's no way that the high profile coaches in the league are going to be able to meet their fans' expectations. The contrast between the SEC and Big Ten could not be any starker. The SEC's seventh best program just nabbed one of the best coaches available who has no connection with the program. The Big Ten's best (or second-best if you're from Ohio) program is too cheap and dysfunctional to hire an obviously qualified alum who wanted the job. You get what you pay for.

The Bad Hawks Return

Unable to guard opposing point guards? Check. Josh Smith showing bad shot selection and turning the ball over frequently? Check. Unfortunate loss after a big win? Check.

In truth, there's no shame in losing to the Raptors, who are one of the better teams in the East, even though their record doesn't necessarily reflect it. Losing by 12 at home though is hard to justify. And what has happened to the Joe Johnson who used to shoot 50%?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


I noted on Sunday night that the Hawks had won six of nine, but that the six wins had been against the dregs of the NBA. That caveat no longer applies to the team's current purple patch, as they won last night in Orlando against the 16-5 Magic and led wire-to-wire in doing so. Josh Smith continues to emerge as the team's star, as his line last night was 25 points, 16 rebounds (so much for not rebounding because he's trying too hard to block shots), five assists, four steals, and four blocks. Ken Pomeroy has an interesting post at the Basketball Prospectus arguing that the best defensive players tend be good at both steals and blocks. Money grafs:

Complicating matters is that blocks and steals are so rare. Big-time shot blockers will record a rejection on about one in ten possessions. We don't know their impact on the other nine. That's just talking about the top shot-blockers in the nation. What about the less proficient big men who still rack up blocks, but on one in 20 possessions? It's even more difficult to assess a player's impact based on his steals. The best at forcing steals will do so on about one in 20 possessions. That leaves 95% of the player's possessions unaccounted. What if a player is going for steals all the time, and putting himself out of position when he's not successfully causing a turnover?

So it's difficult to accept that block and steal rates are a foolproof way to identify who is making an impact on the defensive end. I am more than willing to accede to traditional scouting in this area. However, one thing I have noticed in the brief time I have been gathering tempo-free individual defensive statistics is that being proficient at both blocking shots and forcing steals is a strong indicator that a player is doing disruptive things on those possessions where he doesn't get credit for doing either.

Smith is now first in the NBA in blocks and seventh in steals. If he keeps those numbers up and the Hawks continue to show as an above-average defensive team, then Smith will deserve serious consideration for the NBA's all-defensive team. This post about the Magic also has some applicability to the Hawks, specifically this paragraph:

Few teams could afford to play [Rashard] Lewis full-time at power forward, given his poor rebounding--Lewis has grabbed only 7.1 percent of available rebounds this season, about half the league average for power forwards (14.0 percent). The Magic can get away with it in large part because [Dwight] Howard is such a good rebounder.

As I mentioned on Sunday night, Josh Smith is tremendously disruptive on the defensive end of the floor, but the downside is that he often leaves his man open for offensive rebounds. Adding Al Horford to the team makes Smith better because the Hawks now have an excellent defensive rebounder to cover for Smith. Horford's back-up, Shelden Williams, is also a very good defensive rebounder. (Speaking of Shelden, he was outstanding last night and then promptly got hurt and couldn't build on a 12-point [on six-for-six shooting], seven rebound start to the game.) In retrospect, playing Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia together was a defensive problem because Zaza isn't a great defensive rebounder (he's much better on the offensive end) and Smith needs to play with a center who can clean up the defensive glass. Horford was in foul trouble last night and only played eight minutes, so his first match-up with Dwight Howard was not a success, but the rest of the team pitched in well. The defense did a good job on Dwight Howard and an even better job on Orlando's three-point shooters. Stan Van Gundy gave credit to the Hawks' defense for making his shooters' lives difficult:

We did make some mistakes, but I actually thought a lot of it was them. They've got great, great quickness as a team, and good length. I thought they made it very, very difficult on us to get quality shots -- they contested shots better than anybody that we've played against.

One other note on the game last night: the Hawks turned the ball over only eight times, which was a major factor in the victory. Josh Smith took care of the ball better than he normally does and the team's point guards were pretty flawless. Horford missing time also kept the turnovers down, as his excellent start to his NBA career has also been marked by frequent turnovers (not at all surprising for a rookie).

In sum, the Hawks now have relatively comfortable wins over the Magic, Suns, and Mavericks to their credit. The Hawks are a young team, so it's reasonable to worry about a let-down. The Hawks lost five of six (including home games against Washington and Seattle) after they beat Phoenix and Dallas in the first part of the season. That said, the team identified their stretch of games this week as a critical measuring stick and they got off to an ideal start last night.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Score More, Please

Coming towards the quarter pole of the season, the Hawks are 9-10, which is cause for celebration for this team after eight years of varying degrees of miserable. The team has won six of nine, but the wins haven't exactly come against a murderer's row of opponents: Minnesota (twice), Miami, Milwaukee, Memphis, and Philadelphia. For those of you who haven't been following the NBA this year, I just listed five lottery teams. The Hawks haven't dominated any of the games and they required this to beat the worst team in the league at home:

The home game against the T-Wolves was as depressing as the opening wins over Phoenix and Dallas were exhilarating. The Hawks' third quarter in the game was simply wretched, as they turned a significant lead into an eight-point deficit. The offense was stagnant and they allowed Corey Brewer to get just about every available rebound. The team gutted out a win in the fourth quarter, thus preventing a season-crushing loss (or at least as much of a season-crushing loss as you can have in an 82-game schedule). The final two possessions for each team were telling. Minnesota got a pair of lay-ups; the Hawks got a contested 16-foot bank shot and a fade away 18-footer. The sequence seemed to be a microcosm of what's wrong with this team, especially on the offensive end. The Hawks have good individual players, but everything comes much harder to them, either because the team's schemes are poor or the team doesn't know how to implement them. Either way, the implication is not good for Mike Woodson.

The numbers back me up here. The Hawks are 24th in the league in points scored. If you normalize for pace, the Hawks shoot up all the way to 21st in the league in points per possession. Atlanta is 22nd in field goal percentage. The charitable explanation is that the Hawks' injuries at the point guard position have hurt the offense and there is certainly some truth to that. The more concerning explanation is that the team doesn't appear to have any defined concept on offense, which leaves a bunch of good and improving players to score on their own. Hopefully, Acie Law and Tyronne Lue will get healthy and the offense will get better. Something good will have to happen as the schedule gets tougher, starting tomorrow night at 16-5 Orlando.

The game against the Magic is going to be very exciting because it will be the first match-up between Al Horford and Dwight Howard. Horford has been everything that Shelden Williams was supposed to be, but isn't. He's a monster on the glass, he's fluid on the offensive end (although he's uncertain of his moves, which is holding his scoring down), and he always plays hard. His basketball IQ is excellent; Billy Donovan wasn't lying when he said that Horford was a really smart player. Al is a significant reason why the Hawks have become a solid defensive team (9th in the NBA in points per possession allowed). Horford is the best Hawks post player since Dikembe; there's no debate on this point.

The interesting problem is that Horford is a monster on the defensive glass, but the Hawks are still not a good defensive rebounding team (28th in the league in defensive rebounding rate). My theory on that is that Josh Smith leaves his man all the time to block shots. Smith should get credit for leading the NBA in blocked shots and affecting opposing offenses, but the negative of his defensive style is that it can lead to Minnesota pulling down 20 offensive rebounds. The rest of the Hawks need to do a better job of rotating and helping Smith out when he goes on his shot blocking raids, but then they can bleed out to run, which is a stated goal for the team this year. After the last eight years, it's nice to have a player who has a "this is good, but here's the tradeoff" dynamic.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

I Like Mark Richt. I Hate Jim Tressel.

1. I think that Mark Richt is intellectually smarter than the average coach. If you sat all 12 SEC coaches down and forced them to take IQ tests, I bet he'd score better than most. My reason for saying this is that he sounded far brighter than the average coach when discussing Georgia's BCS situation. He came up with an excellent scenario explaining why teams that don't win their conferences should be considered for the BCS title game. He also made a inventive argument that Georgia needs to win the Sugar Bowl because pre-season rankings matter, as evidenced by the way that voters have treated LSU well in part because of their pre-season ranking. (I'll admit to a little of this myself. I've touted LSU this year because I think they're really good, but I'll admit to being biased because: (a) I thought they were being coached by Michigan's next head coach; and (b) I picked them #1 before the year and wanted to be proven correct.) In sum, Richt demonstrated an ability to grasp logical concepts and make persuasive arguments that most coaches lack. I don't think that pure intellectual ability is that critical for a head coach; recruiting, assembling a quality staff, and motivation are the three most critical tasks and none of them require an IQ of 140. That said, it's nice to know that Georgia has a bright guy as its head coach.

By the way, I complained vigorously last year about Urban Meyer politicking for the spot in the national title game. I took some significant flak for it and I'm starting to think that the flak was accurate. Richt made the case this morning that he had to say something because he had to stand up for his players - the Bobby Cox approach - and that makes a lot of sense to me. Plus, I'm rebelling against Lloyd/Michigan for living in a by-gone era where athletic directors don't return calls from the agents of prospective coaches even when they have been given permission to do so.

2. Did anyone else notice that Jim Tressel abstained from voting in the final 2006 regular season coaches poll because of his "unique position" in having a hand in selecting Ohio State's title game opponent, but he had no qualms about voting in the final 2007 regular season poll? Between the smarmy "Senator Tressel" persona, the Colonel Klink "I see nothing!" response to Michigan being frisked on its way into the Horseshoe or just about anything relating to Maurice Clarett, and the fact that he loves Celine Dion, I really don't like Jim Tressel. This of course has nothing to do with Michigan losing to his teams over and over again.

It's a Great Column, But...

Kudos to Bill Simmons for a remarkably self-aware column acknowledging the fact that New York and Boston teams get excessive media attention and their successes and failures are shoved down the throat of the rest of the country to no end. That said, Simmons, as one of the most widely read and influential Internet sports columnists, has a giant hand in the over-hype of New York and Boston teams. Regardless of his writing talent, he wouldn't have obtained his Page Two gig if he were the Buffalo Sports Guy or the Auburn Sports Guy. Once hired by ESPN, he hasn't exactly shied away from writing endlessly about Boston and New York teams, which is why his NBA columns when the Celtics were bad were his best work. I know that Simmons faced a word limit with this column and he comes close to a mea culpa with his self-deprecating remark about being one of the 60,000 people who wrote books about the Red Sox after the 2004 World Series, but couldn't he have done a little more to acknowledge that he is as complicit in the "New York and Boston teams are the greatest! Or they're the worst!" focus that comes out of Bristol and much of the rest of the sports media?

Monday, December 03, 2007

ACC Fever: Catch It!

Want to know why Georgia fans were so blah about the possibility of playing Boston College or Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl? Because this is the excitement that those two teams generated in Jacksonville this weekend:

Georgia vs. LSU

I don't feel like taking the time to take apart the usually sane Mark Bradley's poorly constructed argument that Georgia should be playing for the national title instead of LSU, but here is one of a dozen good arguments against that proposition: every SEC coach other than Mark Richt had LSU ahead of Georgia.

Thus concludes the first instance in which Terence Moore was right and Mark Bradley was wrong about a subject.

Bill Martin is a Helpless Finch

Let's play Darwin for a moment. Imagine that you have two islands in the Pacific. The islands are populated by two types of finches that were once the same, but because of the separation of the islands and changing winds, have now evolved in separated environments. On one island, which we'll call Seccu, the finches are surrounded by predators and thus evolve over thousands of years to have sharper talons to fight off the predators. On the other island, which we'll call Bigtennu, there are no predators, so natural selection does not push the finches in the direction of having sharp talons. After thousands of years, the islands are suddenly pushed together by a massive tectonic shift such that the Seccu and Bigtennu finches are now on the same island. The newly consolidated island has limited quantities of the insects that both species eat. Which species of finch do you think is going to get the grubs?

Now read this article and tell me that Michigan isn't a defenseless finch when forced to compete with an SEC school for coaching talent. On Saturday, Les Miles had a massive offer from LSU in hand, as compared to an assurance from Michigan that they would interview him and that their financial offer might be competitive if and when it would be made. When I read this story, my initial reaction was that Michigan's approach to Miles is just like Notre Dame's fruitless pursuit of Urban Meyer. Notre Dame reportedly showed up in Salt Lake City in the school's jet and just expected that Meyer would take the job the moment they arrived because "we're Notre Dame." Meanwhile, Florida had been furiously recruiting him, they made a large financial offer, and they were aggressive about explaining why he should take the job. Thus, Meyer took the Florida job even though ND was one of his three dream schools. Notre Dame's notion that Meyer would immediately faint into their arms when they showed up was arrogant and wrong. Michigan made the same mistake in its pursuit of Miles and has thus pissed away the tremendous good fortune of looking for a coach at the same time that an alum who loves his alma mater is winning big at a comparable program.

Getting back to the finch story, Michigan and Notre Dame suffer because they do not face the same competitive pressures that SEC programs do. LSU and Florida are surrounded by cut-throat rivals who will sell their rivals down the river the moment they can take their rivals' coaches or report to the NCAA that the rivals' boosters are buying players. LSU and Florida are also in an environment in which the right coaching hire is critical because the level of competition is so high. Michigan and Notre Dame, living off of their reputations, don't face the same pressures. This is especially true for Michigan, which has won consistently despite having an average coach for the past 13 years. Michigan hasn't tasted what it's like to be coached by Ron Zook or Curley Hallman. It doesn't face the prospect of having to fight against programs coached by Nick Saban, Mark Richt, Urban Meyer, Tommy Tuberville, and Steve Spurrier. Instead, it competes in a conference where Kirk Ferentz is considered to be a good coach and Tim Brewster is an acceptable hire. Thus, Michigan doesn't go all-out to hire a top-shelf candidate. Instead, it dawdles around with a languid process and an initially uncompetitive financial offer. The difference between Michigan and a program that understands the importance of good coaching and is willing to expend every effort to hire a good coach will be evident on New Year's Day.

PS - per the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Michigan's opening offer to Miles was "insulting."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

SEC Championship Keyboard Diarrhea

This has been a fairly eventful Saturday. When I left for Taco Mac for lunch, that noted journalist Kirk Herbstreit was reporting that Les Miles was going to take the Michigan job and bring the highly-capable John Tenuta with him. When I returned, Miles had announced (in vague terms that later became more resolute when he was talking to - irony alert - Michigan grad Tracy Wolfson) that he is staying at LSU. Part of me thinks that this is all some sort of ruse on the part of Miles and LSU to reduce the distraction before their biggest game of the year, with the ancillary benefit being that they can embarrass the Mouse and Herbstreit. (Oh, the emotions of college football!) On the other hand, Michigan (like the rest of the Big Ten) is not in the ballpark of the major SEC powers in terms of paying for coaches and Miles might have decided that he didn't want to come into a situation where the former coach and university president are still pining for a guy who just went 6-6 and thinks that offense is an optional part of football. In other words, Michigan might have f***ed up a situation where it had a perfect candidate who is 32-6 in the SEC and desperately wanted to take the Michigan job.

First Quarter

We're ten minutes into the SECCG and Tennessee is up 7-6. The Vols, feeling that they had been insufficiently committed to creamsicle orange this year, have broken out the Tony Robinson orange pants. They looked excellent on their first drive, picking on an LSU defense that has been a shell of itself as injuries have kicked in in the second half of the year. I'm dreading a Tennessee-Virginia Tech combo of victories today, sending meth heads across Appalachia for celebratory dinners at the local Golden Corral. (My wife the psychologist points out that meth heads don't eat because meth acts as a diet pill. Stupid facts getting in the way of my bitter rant.) LSU's offense has looked good so far with the Perrilloux offense. As a Michigan fan, it's mind-blowing to see a team adapt its offensive approach to the talent available. (Expect a series of pining remarks over the next several hours or years.)

Tennessee just punted on 4th and five from the 37. They gained 23 yards of field position in a game in which their offense is much better than their defense. Lloyd is probably furiously dialling Bill Martin to say that he was going after the wrong coach in the Championship Game. I'm rooting against Tennessee for a variety reasons and their excessively conservative coach is one of them. In case you were wondering, the other reasons are: (1) they were insanely lucky this year; (2) no SEC Champion should have a defense this weak; and (3) they're my least favorite team in the SEC. Why are the Vols my least favorite team in the conference? Prepare for another numbered list: (1) very white fan base; (2) laying down in the 1998 Orange Bowl; (3) school that produced both Albert Haynesworth and Leonard Little (kinda like West Virginia giving the world Chris Henry and Pacman Jones); and (4) Phil Fulmer...ask any Alabama fan.

Second Quarter

My 14-month old son just made a orange poop. A good sign for the Vols. Also a good sign for the Vols: LSU running behind the shuffling fullback on 4th and 1.

LSU's defense is playing better this week and they have in the past month.

LSU just faced a third and 35 from their own five-yard line. Did anyone else have a flashback to the '89 Miami-Notre Dame game? No? Just me? I'm a nerd? Can't disagree.

I really like Erik Ainge's playfakes. His pocket sense is also excellent, as evidenced by the fact that he's been sacked only three times all year. If only he was a little better at, you know, throwing the ball.

Is it just me, or does Tennessee have a lot more fans in the Dome than LSU? Were LSU fans reluctant to travel after losing last week and all the rumors that their head coach and defensive coordinator had one foot out the door?

Perrilloux looked very good on the last drive of the first half (with an insane catch from Dominique Byrd thrown in for good measure), but LSU bogged down in the red zone (again) and Colt David missed a short field goal. What is it about kickers becoming incontinent against Tennessee? This should be another reason for me to hate them. Fulmer is clapping on the sideline with that "born on third base and think I hit a triple" grin on his face. 7-6 Vols at the half despite being outgained 273-95 in the first half and not forcing a turnover. Everything sucks right now.

Third Quarter

It's interesting that Tennessee has one experienced player in its secondary - Jonathan Hefney - and he was at fault letting Brandon LaFell get open for a long gain on third down. More conventionally, Eric Berry was at fault on the touchdown, underestimating Perrilloux's arm. Perrilloux's performance is driving LSU towards the top five in the poll next August.

Is LSU the only team to fall for the IQSD this year? Come to think of it, Georgia Tech ran that play very well with Tashard Choice and Arkansas obviously did well with Darren McFadden in the Wildcat formation. Maybe the lesson is just that Michigan has no idea how to coach plays with mobile quarterbacks.

Ha! Tennessee can miss field goals as well! And no false starts to save them.

Taking a little break for the little guy to watch Dragontales and Thomas the Train. on Sprout. 13-7 LSU and Trindon Holliday just fumbled.

Fourth Quarter

Der Wife und der grandparents are upstairs putting Junior to bed, so we're back. The Vols are up 14-13 and Perrilloux is either getting medical attention under a tent on the sidelines or he's involved in a Jewish wedding.

Gary Danielson has been on the ball tonight. One insightful comment after the other. He just pointed out that Bo Pelini smartly moved to a three-man line because of Glenn Dorsey's injury and that he probably wishes he would have made the same move last week. Danielson also immediately diagnosed Perrilloux's mistake on the interception to Eric Berry, which initially looked like a dreadful panic throw, but after looking at the replay, it was actually Perrilloux thinking one thing and his receiver thinking another.

As much as I like Les Miles and this LSU team, this game is yet another instance in which they look to be less than the sum of their parts. They're way ahead in terms of yardage (and were at the half before their turnovers and they were still losing), they haven't had any major special teams breakdowns other than one missed field goal, and yet they're losing.

Eric Berry is having a helluva game. If he were a white linebacker in the Big Ten, Brent Musberger would have already soiled himself.

LSU's receivers have trouble getting lined up correctly. After the Tigers lost out on a touchdown last week because of the receivers lining up illegally, I'm surprised to see them make the same mistake again.

Fake punt? From his own territory? Nope, we can't have that guy at Michigan.

Please note that I said that part about not throwing especially well about Ainge before the pick-six. And nice job by Danielson pointing out that there was an open receiver over the middle for a first down. Danielson isn't forgiven for his Gainesville Gary performance in this game last year, but he's sharp as an analyst.

Am I the only one who thinks that this business of coaches reading the defense for their quarterbacks and signalling in play changes after the offense is already lined up is a little girly? I know that everyone does it, but can't we teach quarterbacks to read a defense themselves? Ainge is a four-year starter and yet his coaches emasculate him by doing all of his pre-snap reads for him.

LSU's defensive ends are beating the Tennessee tackles regularly, but Ainge's sense for how long he has to throw is too good. The Vols' tackles did a nice job on fourth down to give Ainge plenty of time, but Ainge threw the ball behind his receiver and the receiver dropped the ball.

Doesn't the referee know that a punter falling over a rusher on the ground near him is running into the kicker in the Georgia Dome?

For all the talk about Perrilloux being a liability for LSU and likely to make mistakes, Erik Ainge made the two big mistakes that decided the game.

LSU killed the game off with a naked bootleg and then an option. Michigan would have run the ball between the tackles three times and put the game in the hands of the defense, regardless of how good the defense is. I warned you that I'd be stuck on the "Carr doesn't do that" note all day.

Danielson just said that LSU would be playing for the national title if not for the chopblock by Auburn. Good for Danielson. That play can't be brought up enough.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Busting the "LSU is Uber Talented" Meme

The most commonly-deployed argument against Les Miles right now is that he is benefiting from ludicrous amounts of talent bequeathed to him by Nick Saban and he's merely rolling a collection of future Pro Bowlers out onto the field to do their thing. As this nifty post from the ostentatiously-named blog Blue reveals, that simply isn't the case. LSU's starting lineups on offense and defense are not especially loaded with blue chip recruits. In fact, LSU starts exactly one five-star player - Early Doucet - and Doucet has been injured for much of this season, as has LSU's best defensive player, Glenn Dorsey. (Thanks, Auburn!)

For the record, here are Nick Saban's 2003 and 2004 classes that were both ranked in the top two and are allegedly the source of Les Miles's success at LSU. Do you see a bevy of five-star recruits who are causing the Tigers to win this year? Do you see analogous talent to what Pete Carroll has assembled at USC (and Carroll has the same record as Miles in 2006-7)? Put another way, do you see classes that haven't been adequately replaced by Miles's subsequent classes?


Yesterday morning, I wrote about how pollsters are exhibiting a total lack of critical thought this year in blithely placing West Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio State in the top three spots in the polls simply because they have one loss and certain teams chasing them have two, even though several of the two-loss teams have played markedly tougher schedules. As if on cue, our old amigo Stewart Mandel arrived on the scene to illustrate what uncritical thinking looks like:

Not only have I been anti-playoff, but I've also been pro-BCS since it's inception (I can, in my mind, justify every title game participant). If Ohio State backdoors its way into the title game, then it's off to the playoff bandwagon I go. Please tell me you agree that putting Ohio State in the title game (and not just because of last year's performance versus Florida) is a bad, bad idea. A loss to Illinois isn't bad ... but beating absolutely no one of real significance is.
--Jared, Lawton, Okla.

First of all, that's very brave of you, Jared, to admit your fondness for the BCS in a public setting. I believe in certain states you can be fined and imprisoned for such a thing.

While I'm certainly not crazy about the idea of a team advancing to the national-title game while sitting on the couch for two weeks, I fail to see any grave injustice were the Buckeyes to make it. A month ago, when we were talking about then-undefeated Ohio State's credentials versus more accomplished one-loss teams like LSU and Oregon, I was right there with you. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't care what conference you're in; if you can't make it through your schedule with less than two losses, you're just not national championship material.

Has Georgia played a tougher slate than the Buckeyes? Absolutely. USC? Yep. But by no rational measure are either more deserving than Ohio State. The Dawgs lost at home to 6-6 South Carolina and by three touchdowns at Tennessee. That's the equivalent of OSU losing to Michigan State and getting destroyed by Illinois (rather than losing by a touchdown). USC lost to Stanford. Can you imagine if the Buckeyes lost to Minnesota? I think we can all agree that in neither scenario would OSU even remotely enter the national-title discussion, yet because of the backlash that still lingers from last year's Florida game, there are no shortage of people who would rather see 10-2 Georgia or 10-2 USC in the title game instead of the 11-1 Buckeyes. That's just silly.

I hate to break it to the masses, but guess what? Ohio State? That's not a bad football team. I don't necessarily think it's the best team in the country, but it's up there. Last we saw them, the Buckeyes went to Ann Arbor and held Michigan to 91 total yards. No, it was not a great Michigan team, but holding any team to less than 100 yards of offense is pretty darn impressive. LSU did not do that this season. Neither did Oklahoma, nor USC, nor ...

I think OSU is in the exact right spot in the pecking order as of now -- last of the remaining one-loss teams, but ahead of any two-loss teams.

I'll agree that there would be no "grave injustice" if Ohio State made the title game in place of a series of two-loss teams. However, the question is whether a good case can be made for those two-loss teams ahead of the Bucks. The pollsters seem to think that the answer is no, as they uniformly put the one-loss teams ahead of the two-loss teams without a care in the world as to the schedules played by those teams.

Mandel claims that "no rational measure" could put Georgia or USC ahead of Ohio State. None of us should be lectured about rational thought by Mandel, especially since the centerpiece of his argument is completely irrational. He claims that he was willing to consider ranking one-loss teams with better schedules ahead of an unbeaten Ohio State team that hadn't played anyone, but he's not willing to rank two-loss teams with better schedules ahead of a one-loss Ohio State team. In what universe does this make sense? The analysis is exactly the same: can a one-game disparity in record be overcome by a significant different in schedule strength and if so, how big does the schedule gap have to be? But don't take my word for it that a two-loss team can be ranked ahead of a one-loss team on the basis of having faced a more difficult schedule; Mandel himself employs this reasoning by ranking one-loss Kansas behind two-loss Georgia, LSU, USC, and Oklahoma.

Leaving aside the irrationality of a hard and fast "two-loss teams cannot play for the national title," Mandel's arguments regarding those two-loss teams are weak as hell. I'm going to leave USC aside because their strength of schedule isn't much better than that of Ohio State. Georgia's SOS is much better than that of the Bucks, but Mandel thinks that Georgia's losses were worse. That's probably true, although deriding a loss to a 6-6 South Carolina team is very misleading, as the South Carolina team that Georgia played in September had Captain Munnerlyn and Jasper Brinkley in it. This was the South Carolina team that started the year 6-1 and beat Kentucky handily, rather than the South Carolina team that collapsed after blowing the Tennessee game in ludicrously unlucky fashion. On the other hand, Ohio State doesn't have a win that comes close to a 12-point win over top ten Florida at a neutral site or a 25-point win over a top 20 Auburn. Should we focus on the quality of wins or the quality of losses? Seems like an interesting question to me, but Mandel and the voters are unwilling to consider it.

Comparing Georgia and Ohio State is instructive because it illustrates the importance of scheduling. Georgia and Ohio State both came into the season with inexperienced players all over their rosters. Georgia's young players were thrown into the fire with games against Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee in the first half of the season. Ohio State didn't play a bowl team until its sixth game of the year. It didn't play a team that would finish better than 7-5 until the 9th game of the year. They played one team that finished with fewer than four losses all year and lost that game. At home. Could that breeze of a schedule in the first half of the year possibly explain a one-game gap in record?

Even if Mandel is right that Ohio State deserves to be ahead of Georgia because Georgia's losses are bad, he's omitting another two-loss team that played a markedly more difficult schedule than Ohio State and also happens to have better losses: LSU. The Tigers' two losses were both to quality teams in three overtimes. LSU's wins over Florida, Auburn, and Virginia Tech are better than anything on Ohio State's resume. If LSU beats Tennessee this weekend, then the Tigers will have an additional quality win and their strength of schedule will go even farther past that of Ohio State. Is there "no rational measure" that would put the Tigers in the title game?

Again, for the record, I have no problem with Ohio State playing for the national title. They have an excellent defense and their schedule, while weak, isn't Hawaii weak. I do have a problem with the fact that pollsters don't seem to be critically evaluating their resume against that of LSU and Georgia. College football's silly post-season structure requires hair-splitting between teams, but if Mandel is any guide, the media are either refusing to split hairs or they are doing a crappy job in that task.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Random Thoughts on the College Football Weekend

1. I'm not a huge playoff advocate, but can anyone tell if the pollsters who determine which teams will play for the national title are making any effort beyond ranking teams according to record? The three teams in contention right now are the three major one-loss teams: Missouri, West Virginia, and Ohio State. (Kansas is the fourth one-loss team, but they violate another irrationally sacred rule of pollsters: don't lose late.) The message is clear: regardless of your strength of schedule, we the pollsters group teams based on their record. The "nightmare scenario" regarding West Virginia and Missouri losing this weekend is only a nightmare scenario because it would break pollsters out of their "one loss = contender; two-loss = untouchable" stupor and force them to consider LSU, Georgia, and USC. Why is it so unthinkable that LSU (10-2, SOS of 26 [and likely to go up if they beat Tennessee this weekend]) or Georgia (10-2, SOS of 22) should play for the title ahead of Ohio State (11-1, SOS of 56)?

1a. And after bagging on Ohio State, I think it deserves mentioning that the "they sucked against Florida" argument against the Bucks playing in the title game is ludicrous. Unless the Fiesta Bowl against Miami been erased from the collective memory, Ohio State has typically played very well in bowl games under Jim Tressel. He's one of the better big-game coaches in the country. Ohio State has an excellent defense and a match-up against Missouri or West Virginia's spread offenses would be a football nerd's delight. Ohio State did lay an egg against Florida last year for a variety of reasons, but that doesn't change the fact that Bucks have been better-than-average in bowl games this decade and have enough speed to play with the big boys.

2. You would think that I would enjoy a Gregg Easterbrook screed that starts with a dig at Ohio State's abysmal academic record for its football players and then continues with shots of comely women in various barely there outfits, but then Gregg has to go and screw it up by opining on Les Miles:

When You Hire a Coach Who's Only in It for Himself, You Get a Coach Who's Only in It for Himself: Lloyd Carr retired at Michigan, and early last week, Les Miles of LSU refused to say whether he would return to LSU or
seek the Michigan job. A few days later, LSU lost to Arkansas, surrendering its
pole position for the BCS title game. True, Miles can't control that Carr
stepped down in November or that columnists are linking him to the job. But he
didn't deny interest in the job, either, nor did he emphatically embrace LSU,
which sure seemed to indicate he already was thinking ahead about the Michigan
post, which he has long been believed to be seeking.

This brings up a point Tuesday Morning Quarterback perennially makes about coaches campaigning for other jobs when their current seasons are not complete, or halfheartedly pretending they are not campaigning. My point: When you hire a coach who's only in it for himself, you get a coach who's only in it for himself. Dennis
Franchione, Mike Price, Bill Parcells (when the mid-'90s Patriots were close to
the Super Bowl), Chuck Fairbanks, Herm "I Honor My Contract When I'm In The
Mood" Edwards and Little Nicky Saban are all examples of coaches who either
officially quit on their teams with a season still in progress or halfheartedly
denied doing so. All of them, after arriving at their new gigs, had bad years.
If a player openly angled to leave for another team, late in a season that was
still in progress, we'd be outraged. Why is it OK for coaches to do this,
shafting their entire team, not just causing a one-man problem like when a
player drops his loyalty? Michigan, should you hire Miles, bear in mind you're
getting the sort of person who sure seemed to place his own career goals ahead
of a national championship run last week.

First of all, what exactly is Les Miles supposed to say? He's obviously interested in returning to his alma mater, but he doesn't want to screw his existing team at the end of the season. He can either: (a) take the Nick Saban approach of denying any interest in the new job (and thus lie and earn the enmity of all of the Easterbrooks of the world when he takes the Michigan job in December); or (b) say nice things about Michigan and LSU while refusing to answer questions about his future, which is exactly what Miles has done. How in the world does Easterbrook suggest that Miles handle the questions?

Second, Easterbrook is getting up on his high horse regarding Miles being "only in it for himself," while ignoring the fact that Miles is interested in the Michigan job for non-monetary reasons. If he wanted to cash in and keep getting cracks at the national title, then he would take an extension at LSU and continue to profit from that school's incredible recruiting base. Instead, he apparently wants to coach at an institution about which he feels strong affection. Shouldn't the guy who wrote The Progress Paradox, a book about how we all make more money and have more cool possessions, but are still less happy, approve of that sort of thinking?

What Miles is doing is no different that what Bear Bryant did when he left Texas A&M, right down to the fact that the Aggies fell out of title contention with an upset loss to Rice when rumors of Bryant returning to his alma mater began to swirl. How did Alabama's hiring of an "only in it for himself" guy like the Bear work out? If you prefer a more recent example, Urban Meyer took the Florida job at the end of Utah's 2004 regular season after he had been rumored for a variety of positions in the weeks leading up to his departure. How has that hire worked out for Florida?

3. And speaking of my LesCrush, I'm still waiting to hear all the people who ripped on Miles for going for the win against Auburn instead of settling for a field goal acknowledge that there is risk in playing for a field goal. Exhibit QQ: the Kentucky-Tennessee game. Kentucky picked off a pass on Tennessee's possession starting the second overtime. At this stage, the Cats are completely in the driver's seat. Kentucky has an outstanding quarterback and a passing game that has run roughshod over the Tennessee defense ever since halftime. Tennessee will obviously be playing aggressively on defense to push the Cats back as far as possible. So what does Rich Brooks do? Three runs to set up a field goal attempt that the Vols block. Is there any criticism of Brooks the way there was of Miles? No. Why? Because the conventional wisdom overrates certain unlikely risks (turning the ball over or a simple one-read pass play taking eight seconds) and underrates certain far more likely risks (a missed or blocked field goal).

4. Steve Beuerlein, Georgia is coached by Mark Richt. Mark. Not Mike. Mark. Seems like something an SEC announcer should know.

5. I wish I had something interesting to say about the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, but I don't. Mark Richt showed why it's important to have two quality running backs, as his hot hand turned out to be Thomas Brown and not the freshman who had been setting the world on fire. Georgia Tech shot themselves in the foot on numerous occasions, which indicates that Reggie Ball isn't the only Jacket who lost his cool when he sees silver britches. Ultimately, Georgia Tech was done in by their dreadful passing game, a fitting coda to the Chan Gailey era. Gailey came in with the reputation as a sharp offensive mind who worked very well with quarterbacks, but his teams were almost uniformly good on defense and spotty on offense.

6. I thoroughly enjoyed the Missouri-Kansas game. The neutral site environment added a great deal to the atmosphere, as there was a roaring crowd reaction to just about every play. College football could use more neutral site games like that. Here are some impractical ideas that will never come true, but are fun to bounce around:

Michigan-Notre Dame rotating between Chicago and Detroit
West Virginia-Penn State in Pittsburgh
Maryland-Penn State in Philadelphia
South Florida-Florida in Orlando
Louisville-Ohio State in Cincinnati
LSU-Texas in Houston
Auburn-Virginia Tech in Charlotte

Of course, part of what makes most of these games unrealistic is the fact that pollsters are so slavish in their reliance on record that there is little or no benefit to playing difficult out-of-conference games if the sole focus of a program is on winning the national title.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Smoked Bird

When I finished my yardwork around 3:00 last Sunday and eagerly plopped onto the couch to watch the last part of the second half of the Falcons-Bucs game, I was initially annoyed to see the Falcons punting with a 24-0 deficit and the crowd booing lustily. After I had a few moments to think about the situation, I was happy for two reasons:

1. This Falcons team is obviously not going anywhere, so it's probably good to lose some games to put the team closer to the Jake Long-Darren McFadden range.

2. It meant that tickets to the Colts game would drop in value and I would get a chance to see Peyton Manning play live. I'm one of those fools who always wants to say that he saw great players play in person. I've seen Tom Brady play live. Specifically, I got to see his first pass in college, which came at the tail end of a blowout of UCLA in 1996 and was returned for a touchdown for UCLA's only touchdown of the game. With the Falcons out of contention, I got to see Manning in the flesh without paying through the nose.

Seeing Manning in person isn't that different from seeing him on TV: he's really good. His internal clock for how long he has to throw is unbelievable. His ability to make accurate throws off his back foot or while being mauled is outstanding. That said, he's not playing at the same level this year that he has for the past several years. My best guess is that he is a little unsettled without Tarik Glenn protecting his backside and thinking more about pressure than on his reads down the field. He made at least two throws that he never made in previous years. The first was on a post pattern to Reggie Wayne in the second quarter. Manning had hit Wayne for the Colts' first touchdown after Wayne had roasted Chris Houston on a post pattern. (Welcome to the NFL, Chris. Houston didn't play badly when you take into account the fact that he was being targeted by QB1 or QB1a in the League.) The Colts ran the same play when they were threatening for their second score. On this occasion, Mike Zimmer had the right call on and had Chris Crocker providing deep help for Houston. Manning didn't see the safety (how often do you see that?) and threw a ball that Crocker should have intercepted, but didn't. The second instance in which Manning made a bad decision was on the first drive of the third quarter when he underthrew a ball in DeAngelo Hall's direction and was picked off. The play was in the opposite corner of the stadium and I didn't get a great look but the throw defeintely looked as if it lacked Manning's normal zip. Aside from those two mistakes, Manning played well. Maybe I'm being excessively harsh and assuming that Manning never threw bad passes before, but the enduring image I took from the game was Manning failing to look off a safety because it was so surprising.

As for the Falcons, they played well for about 20 minutes and then rolled over when they got jobbed on a running into the kicker call. The offense doesn't really threaten its opponents down the field when Joey Harrington is in the game. Harrington did have a nice deep touchdown pass to Roddy White when he caught the Colts out of their customary cover-two and White burned Dante Hughes down the sideline, but otherwise, the Falcons tried precious little down the field. You can see why Bobby Petrino wanted Byron Leftwich to start. The Falcons' tackles are not good, but we knew that already. On defense, John Abraham and Keith Brooking did precious little and they're the two most highly-compensated Falcons on defense, so what does that say. Abraham has played very well this year, so he gets a pass. Brooking, not so much. Michael Boley was the Falcons' best player on the field, although Mike Zimmer deserves some credit for dialing up blitzes that freed Boley up on blitzes.
One other thought: the crowd was really good for the game. I hadn't been to a Falcons game since the 2003 debacle, in part because my recollection was that the atmosphere in the Dome was really drab. Despite the fact that the team is poor, that was not the case on Thursday night. The crowd was lively from the start before reality beat it down. The noise on the Colts' first series when the Falcons got a lot of pressure and forced a three-and-out was positively SEC-esque. (OK, it was more Arkansas or Kentucky than LSU or Florida, but still.) The Dome was also full, which was nice, although the prevalence of Colts fans in the building certainly helped.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

People are So F***ing Stupid

Far be it from me to defend a coach who lost to Louisiana-Monroe, but what the f*** is the deal with the hyperbolic reaction to Nick Saban invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to make a point? The only way to get exorcised about his comments is if one takes them hyper-literally, but it is plain to any sentient human being that Saban was not saying that losing to Louisiana-Monroe is the same thing as flying planes full of unarmed civilians into buildings full of more unarmed civilians. Rather, Saban was making the simple point that sometimes, people respond to well to significant adversity.

If the media was correct in losing their minds over Saban's remarks, then historical analogies would never be appropriate. I make analogies all the time at work comparing litigation to historical events, usually with the result being that my co-workers roll their eyes and mutter "nerd" as they walk away. I've compared opposing counsel's approach to discovery to Stalin's "not one step back" order in 1941, but I wasn't saying that opposing counsel is a ruthless monster who murdered millions of his countrymen in the Gulag Archipelago. I've compared another opposing counsel's moves to Hitler ordering around imaginary German divisions from the bunker in the final days of WWII, but that doesn't mean that I thought that opposing counsel was about to poison his dog and wife before blowing his brains out. Law tends to lend itself to military analogies. More generally speaking, part of the value of history is that it's a wonderful guide as to how humans react in various situations. Saban, in his own uncertain way, was trying to make a legitimate point.

So why did the media jump all over him? There are a few factors at play here. First, there is a certain degree of political correctness that attaches to 9/11, such that any reference to it comes loaded with baggage in the same way that any reference to race does. Second, Saban makes a lot of money and is coaching an underperforming football team, which makes him the most inviting target imaginable. Third, the media is actively rooting against Saban because they don't like the fact that he lied about his intentions in taking the Alabama job. Thus, Saban has brought a lot of this criticism upon himself, but that doesn't make the criticism at all valid.

LD, If You Wonder Why Michigan-Ohio State is Hyped by ESPN...

Here is your answer. For the second straight year, Michigan-Ohio State was the highest rated regular season college football game. (And for people who think that college football's lack of a playoff is an unmitigated disaster, find me a regular season game from the MLB or NBA that comes close to a 6.4.)

Reading Sports Media Watch this year has been fairly illuminating for me. The biases of ESPN make more sense when one reviews the ratings and sees that, yes, Michigan and Ohio State do draw higher ratings than other teams. Similarly, the Yankees and Red Sox draw banner ratings when they play one another. ESPN drives me absolutely crazy when they focus all of their attention of the Yanks and Sox, but in the rational part of my brain, I have to tell myself that they are simply giving their customers what they want.

My Top 25 Doesn't Like the Way you're Looking at it

2Kansas 1
3Arizona State 4
4Ohio State 4
6West Virginia--
7Oklahoma 3
8Georgia 1
9Southern Cal 1
10Oregon 8
11Florida 1
12Texas 8
13Boston College 10
15South Florida 1
16Texas Tech 10
17Virginia Tech--
19Cincinnati 8
20Virginia 1
21Boise State--
22Auburn 3
23Clemson 8
24Kentucky 11
25Connecticut 1

Dropped Out: Michigan (#22).
I gave Ohio State a bounce not so much because they beat a good or healthy team on Saturday, but rather because their defense is outstanding and I'm always a sucker for teams that play great defense. Say hello to the pre-season #1 next year, assuming that the Bucks don't lose too many of their juniors. Gholston and Malcolm Jenkins seem to be the most likely departures and that might cause some concern on the defensive side of the ball, but the Buckeye defense has a Hydra thing going on right now and I hate it.
I also gave Arizona State a bounce because they are easily the quietest one-loss team from an excellent conference this year. The Pac Ten is vying with the Big XII for the #2 spot in the conference pecking order this year (I suppose the Big East is in the picture, as well) and Arizona State has run through the conference impressively with the only blemish at Oregon. Why exactly aren't the Sun Devils in the discussion for a shot at New Orleans?
I gave Oklahoma less of a hiding than I did Oregon in part because losing to Texas Tech is more respectable than losing to Arizona (suck it, Klinsi!) and in part because Sam Bradford will return this year, but Dennis Dixon won't. Oregon presents a real "Cincinnati without Kenyon Martin" problem. Their resume is very impressive, but they are dependent on Dennis Dixon and without him, they aren't a top ten team. I basically split the difference between their resume, which would have them at about #6, and their merit as a team without Dixon, which would have them in the mid-teens. Dixon's absence is going to illustrate that they never had a championship-caliber defense. Dixon's absence also illustrates a failing of the spread option: the quarterback is a little more likely to get knocked out when he gets hit a lot and quarterbacks who can properly run and throw as required by the offense are not easy to find, which means that there will often be a major drop-off to the back-up.
I'm probably being a little harsh on Kentucky for losing a competitive game at Georgia, but I'm getting the sense that their lack of depth is coming back to haunt them. The offense has really lost its mojo after the Florida game and the likely culprit is the fact that they can't replace injured starters in the same way that their conference rivals can. I've been selling the meme all year that the Cats would usher Phil Fulmer out of the ranks of the employed by passing the Vols silly, but now that everyone seems to be predicting a victory by the Cats, my suspicions have been raised. On the other hand, Tennessee has been the luckiest team west of Charlottesville this year and that has to end at some point, right? Here's a question for Georgia fans to ponder before Saturday: if a Tennessee victory is the difference between Phil Fulmer keeping or losing his job, is a Kentucky victory really worth a trip to the SEC Title Game? The answer is probably "yes," but it's not at all clear-cut.