Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Time for Some Whining

The Hawks are 1-3 on their West Coast swing after getting edged by the Suns last night 125-92. Mark Bradley, who usually has a pretty good sense for evaluating the local teams and specializes in basketball, wrote a scathing piece yesterday in which he proclaimed that Mike Woodson "might be the worst coach in Atlanta history." For my money, the answer would be Eddie Haas, but the fact that the question can be posed in the first place is a major indictment of Woodson. Chris Mannix at is reporting that the relationship between Woodson and Josh Smith is completely broken, such that Smith would not re-sign with the Hawks if Woodson remains the coach. If that is indeed the case, then Woodson needs to go because Smith is the most promising of the Hawks players. So things aren't exactly going well for the Hawks right now.

(Side note: I'm mildly positive on the idea of trading for Jason Kidd, although he isn't nearly the player he used to be, but it would be lunacy to give Smith up in return. I could agree to a deal that would send Josh Childress to New Jersey for Kidd, but even that causes me consternation because the Hawks would be buying a rapidly depreciating asset.)

The Braves' arch-rival just acquired the best pitcher in baseball and didn't have to give up their best prospects to do so. The Twins got 60 cents on the dollar, probably because they did not want to trade Santana within the American League. In so doing, they mimicked the Timberwolves, who got far less from Boston for Kevin Garnett than they could have gotten from Phoenix because they wanted to trade Garnett out of the Western Conference. The net effect of the Twins' irrational approach is that the Mets are now, barring injuries, the presumptive favorite in the NL East (especially if Pedro Martinez comes back and is anything close to his former self) and the Braves' ambition probably shifts to the Wild Card. In January.

And on a personal sporting note, Barcelona is now nine points down in the Spanish Primera after dropping points this weekend at Athletic Bilbao while Real Madrid won late (yet again). The team seems to be suffering from the same malaise caused by a presumptive lame-duck coach that Michigan football went through in the past several years. Barca are getting nothing from the two linch-pins of their Champions League-winning side: Deco and Ronaldinho, neither of whom can be bothered to stay fit. A variety of circumstances have forced Barca to deploy 18-year old Giovanni Dos Santos and 17-year old Bojan Krkic in the starting line-up alongside a fading Thierry Henry. (Henry strikes me as being in the same place in his career as Zinedine Zidane in his final seasons at Real: a former star who can show you glimpses of what he used to be roughly once every three games. Although it's always dangerous to compare between sports, the one silver lining for Braves fans is that there's an analogy to be made here to Santana, who is a little younger than Henry, but the same principle applies: the Mets are trading for a pitcher who is leaving his prime. His numbers did tick down slightly last year.) Krkic looks like the real deal; Dos Santos doesn't like to share the ball and isn't especially threatening with the dribble. The team has done a good job defensively, but the attack is easily figured-out and negated by opponents because Barca have been attacking in the same way for four years now. In the end, Barca have become something that is totally foreign to the club's nature: boring. Here is the list of their results in 2008 (excluding the match played by the reserves against Alcoyano):

Barca 2 Mallorca 0
Barca 1 Sevilla 1
Barca 4 Murcia 0
Barca 0 Sevilla 0
Barca 1 Santander 0
Barca 0 Villarreal 0
Barca 1 Athletic Bilbao 1

George Graham would be so proud. Two goals in the last four matches. One goal in 180 minutes against Sevilla, a genuinely attractive side that should have produced good chances for both sides. This is not how the Blaugrana are supposed to play. If they were grinding out results and leading the league, that would be one thing, but it's quite another to be nine points down and boring.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Plea for a New End-Game

It may not be a great idea for me to make pronouncements about the Hawks on the basis of following the final 30 seconds of today's loss to Portland on Gamecast, but I'll do it anyway. Here's the situation: Hawks and Blazers tied at 93, Hawks ball with 33 seconds to go. The next entry reflects that Joe Johnson missed a 22-footer at the shotclock buzzer and that the Hawks got a 24-second violation because the ball didn't hit the rim. I haven't seen the sequence yet, but I'm willing to bet that Joe dribbled the clock down and then tried to break him man down, which is certainly not his forte. Remember last week after the Hawks' last loss to Portland when I said that Marvin Williams and Josh Smith should be the ones to handle the ball on critical possessions because they're more athletic and more likely to get to the line? Yeah. This point was then driven home on Portland's final possession, when Brandon Roy (obligatory reference to the facts that we took Shelden Williams over Roy and I stupidly thought this wasn't a terrible move) drove and got fouled by Johnson. Again, I'm just guessing here, not having seen the highlights.

Here's the bottom line: Joe Johnson is shooting about 40% and doesn't get to the line much. The Hawks play a lot of close games because they do not have a significant margin for error against the rest of the league. If they continue to kow-tow to their star by letting him hog the ball on critical possessions as if he's Iverson or Kobe, then we're playing with a hand tied behind our backs. The Hawks have an athletic team. Why are they letting one of their less athletic players go one-on-one at the end of games?

Man, I'm going to look really premature if it turns out that Johnson did not get the ball in an iso situation at 93-93.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


That was my first reaction to the news that the Falcons have hired Mike Smith, the Jacksonville defensive coordinator, to be their new head coach. When I was driving to work, the consensus on the radio seemed to be that Steve Spagnuolo of the Giants would be the pick. By lunchtime, Smith was the guy, despite the fact that he hadn't been mentioned before. Anyway, kudos to the Falcons for running a quiet coaching search.

In terms of the hire, I'd be lying to you if I claimed to have a good sense for Smith's merits. Jacksonville usually seems to have a good defense, so that's nice. Whether they have a good defense because of the coordinator or because of two blue chip defensive tackles and a variety of talented high draft picks surrounding them is an open question. As I complained previously in the context of the NFL's decision to bombard the Atlanta market with Jacksonville games, I don't know a single Jags fan, so I'm not sure where to go for guidance. I will say that Jacksonville seemed to take the right defensive approach against New England, so that's something.

The main factor I like about this hire is that Arthur Blank resisted the urge to go for the big name. My biggest criticism of Blank's meddling as the owner is that he has always gone for the splashy hires and player acquisitions. Having seemingly learned his lesson (other than the Pete Carroll flirtation), Blank has hired a quality talent evaluator to be the general manager and an unheralded coach who comes recommended around the league. Len Pasquarelli makes this point well:

In a city where the Falcons have become irrelevant, which is Blank's worst nightmare realized, this is a franchise that needs to win games in order to win back some fans.

Mike Smith knows about winning football games. In five seasons as the Jacksonville coordinator, the Jaguars won 46 games, counting postseason victories. The Falcons have won 55 games this millennium.

Although the group that Jack Del Rio assembled in Jacksonville featured five former NFL or college head coaches, Smith was arguably the staffer most responsible for the franchise's success over the past half-decade...

In hiring the third different head coach during his time as owner, Blank actually got out of the way a little bit, a difficult thing for the spotlight-seeking owner to do. Once he brought Dimitroff aboard, he afforded him considerable input. And why not, since Dimitroff and Smith will confront the daunting task here together. Blank did have his moments of weakness -- not so much in chasing Bill Cowher and Bill Parcells, but more in his flirtation with Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll -- but in the end he deferred to the recommendation of his new general manager.

And given Blank's history and his penchant for sometimes over-reaching for the headline-making candidate, that's not an altogether bad thing.

So we have a general manager and coach in place. The next step is to start obsessing about every little bit of misinformation that comes out in regards to the Falcons' plan for the Draft. Over/under on my overreactions to "the Falcons should take/are interested in Matt Ryan as their 'franchise quarterback'": 429. (A brief digression: is there a more overused term that "franchise quarterback?") I'm not sure if I've been clear about this, but I'm firmly in the "take Jake Long or Glen Dorsey" camp. If neither are available, then take the next best offensive or defensive tackle. There are no quarterbacks in this Draft who merit a top ten selection (with the possible exception of Brian Brohm) and, as the Giants have illustrated, quality running backs can be found later in the Draft, especially this year with so many early entrants at the position. I could also live with the Falcons taking Aqib Talib, although that would be an admission that the Chris Houston pick was a waste. Talib seems a logical fit for New England if they can't trade down and he's on the board.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Uh Oh

The Hawks lost in overtime yesterday against Portland and while it's never a good idea to put too much emphasis on any one game over the course of a long season, this was a really big loss. The Hawks are now headed out on a five-game west coast road trip to play Denver (who will be looking for revenge after the Hawks swatted them last week), Seattle (who beat the Hawks early in the season), Portland (one of the best teams in the NBA right now), Phoenix (you may have heard of them), and the Clippers (OK, they're terrible). The Hawks are three games under .500, losers of five of seven, and now headed out on an extended road trip with a 5-11 road record. If the Hawks couldn't win last week in Milwaukee, then how am I going to expect that they'll win these games out West? Even if they go 2-3 on the trip, which any Hawks fan would take at this stage, they'll return home four games under .500 and needing a hot streak just to get back to the break-even point.

The way the Hawks lost yesterday was also frustrating. Zaza Pachulia was apparently sent to the locker room for whining about minutes. Mike Woodson called a timeout in overtime just as Josh Smith was about to release Josh Childress for a breakaway dunk. (Steve Holman had to catch himself when he was calling the play, as he clearly had a "I'm might get fired if I say what I'm thinking right now" moment.) A critical possession in overtime ended with Josh Smith taking a three, which, as Mark Bradley points out, was "the shot an opponent on the sixth stop of a seven-game trip was praying he’d hoist." Bradley blames the facts that the Hawks don't know where their strengths lie and that they still don't have a true starting point guard. Both of these are reasonable points and the latter point was drilled home yesterday by Brandon Roy's presence in the building, as he is the player the Hawks passed on to take Shelden Williams. Roy is not a true point guard, but he's a markedly better player than Williams. I'm not totally convinced by the point guard explanation, as both Anthony Johnson and Tyronne Lue have assist/turnover ratios in excess of 2.5/1 (Johnson is at 3.86/1), but it's still out there.

Leaving the meta issues aside, here are my thoughts on why the Hawks have slowed down in recent weeks:

1. Al Horford is hitting a bit of a rookie wall. His scoring is down, as is his field goal percentage. It's natural for rookies to tail off a little at this stage in the season, as they're not used to playing this number of games and the rest of the league is starting to figure out what a rookie's weaknesses are. Here are Horford's field goal percentages by month:

November - .520
December - .480
January - .413

I don't see anything to worry about long-term with Horford, but he needs to find his second wind.

2. Joe Johnson isn't shooting the ball very well. This isn't a recent issue. Rather, his decline in shooting percentage has been a season-long phenomenon, but with the rest of the team struggling a little more, it's more of an issue. He was excellent yesterday, but he's turned in some poor games this month: 3-11 in the loss to Indiana, 4-16 in the loss to the Nets, and 4-16 in the loss at Milwaukee. He shot seven free throws total in those games, which is a very low number for a primary scorer. The Hawks are 4-12 this year when Johnson shoots four or fewer free throws. There's probably a cause/effect issue here, as Johnson shoots more free throws in some games because the Hawks already have the lead and the opponent is intentionally fouling him, but I've personally observed that Johnson is a better player when he gets to the hoop. Dennis Scott made this very point yesterday when he noted that Johnson got the Hawks back into the game by getting to the line and then he settled for a long jumper on the last possession of regulation. Personally, I'd prefer having the ball in the hands of Josh Smith and Marvin Williams at the end of games because they're better at getting to the line and that's the best way to score on critical possessions in the NBA.

3. Marvin Williams has also struggled offensively this month. He's shooting 39.*% from the field after being over 50% for the first two months. He's been over 50% from the field exactly twice out of ten games this month. More than any other player, the Hawks' improvement this year was tied to Marvin becoming the 20 point per game scorer that he should be as the #2 pick in the Draft. He's regressed in that department in January. Pay attention to him on this West Coast swing.

It bears noting that Josh Smith has played really well in January. He's scoring 20.7 points on 50.9% shooting. He misses a few too many free throws for my tastes and is still a bit of a turnover machine, but overall, he's been great this month.

Monday, January 21, 2008

More Evidence that Atlanta Sucks as a Sports Town

While the ratings for the BCS Championship Game were down around the country, the ratings for the game were unchanged in Atlanta. In fact, the Atlanta market had higher ratings for the game than any other market except for the markets for the participating teams. But that doesn't matter at all because the Braves don't sell out their playoff games.

Thoughts on the Championship Games

Getting in Touch with my Feelings

This sucks. I was all ready to root against the Patriots in the Super Bowl because I'm not prepared to deal with the ludicrous hyperbole that will come from certain quarters. (The opening bit about how the '86 Lakers and '07 Colts intentionally lost because they were terrified of the Celtics and Patriots and that this deprived Boston fans of their just desserts was possibly the perfect encapsulation of Sports Guy's bitchiness. His team is on the brink of the first 19-0 season in NFL history and he still manages to piss and moan about how it's all so unfair for Boston fans. These people really cannot let the Red Sox Persecution Complex go.) I was ready to root for the Packers. Hell, I was even ready to root for the Cowboys. But now? I have to root for a New York team? And after my enjoyment of baseball was slowly destroyed by the incessant Yankees-Red Sox drumbeat from the Worldwide Leader, we'll now be subjected to two weeks of hype leading up to a Boston-New York Super Bowl? Kill me now.

I felt annoyed about not having a rooting interest in the Super Bowl, but nothing cheers me up quite like a little Hitler humor:


I was interested to read how Peter King would react to his man-crush Brett Favre playing so poorly in the Packers' biggest game of the season. Naturally, he totally ignored Favre's role in the game. King spends roughly 5,500 words on the two games and only at the very end meekly points out that Brett shouldn't have thrown a pick to R.W. McQuarters. Really, doctor? Would it pain you to also point out that Favre threw a terrible pick to Corey Webster to set the Giants up for the winning field goal in overtime? Or that Favre preceded his interception to McQuarters with a truly dreadful throw into triple-coverage? Will Deanna no longer invite you over for tea and crumpets if you point out when her husband throws abysmal passes that would cause various talking heads to label just about any other NFL quarterback as a choker or a terrible passer? Yesterday's game really made me think that Favre is the anti-Bonds. Barry Bonds gets treated ruthlessly by the press because he is, by all accounts, a prick (or at least he's a prick to the media). Favre can get away with terrible throws that would lead any other quarterback to be pilloried because he is, by all accounts, a really good guy. And let me be even more frank, just to show you that I'm not a hard-hearted man, and that it's not all dollars and cents: I was rooting for Favre after reading the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year piece. That said, sports are supposed to be about performance and Favre's performance was not good yesterday. At one point in the fourth quarter, I was cringing at the idea of Bill Belichick having two weeks to come up with pressure schemes designed to force Favre into excessively risky throws. What does it say that I'm far more confident that Eli Manning will be able to handle the looks that the Pats will throw at him than Fave would?

That said, Favre had no running game to speak of and New York's defensive line won its match-up with the Packers' offensive line, so Favre shouldn't be singled out as the only reason why Green Bay lost. It's not easy to win on a windy day when your running back produces a tad more than two yards per carry.

I don't know if anyone else noticed this, but Favre seemed to have a lot of problems when Green Bay was heading left-to-right on the TV. I assume that there is a wind-related explanation for this, but Favre was unable to complete anything other than very short screen passes in the first quarter, the fourth quarter, and overtime. He was OK in the second and third quarters. Eli Manning, on the other hand, was able to consistently make passes throughout the game.

Random Stuff

In case you're wondering, I did feel quite conflicted by the fact that Charles Woodson and Amani Toomer were matched up against one another all game.

Did anyone else notice that Philip Rivers' first pick was caused by Mike Vrabel kicking out his leg as he flew by and tripping Rivers during his delivery? Isn't tripping, you know, illegal? And why was I able to notice this, but Jim Nantz and Phil Simms prattled on about Rivers making a bad throw? Should the slogan for the Pats' linebackers be "we're old and slow, but we know the best ways to cheat"? (Actually, Vrabel had run right around Marcus MacNeil on that play, so slow isn't the right word for him.)

Norv Turner redeemed his reputation in this post-season, but the guy is a really, really conservative coach. Punting from the 36 down two scores in the fourth quarter is the most obvious example, but did it seem to anyone else that San Diego's playcalling on first and second downs was, dare I say it, Big Ten-esque?

I was impressed by the Pats' ability to switch identities on offense based on the opponent. With Brady struggling and the Chargers doing a good job on the Pats' spread formations, New England was able to shift course and run Laurence Maroney using two tight end sets. Now I can see what Charlie Weis was trying to 20-hour practice weeks with inexperienced players who lack basic fundamentals.

I was quite amused to read this piece, which concludes as follows:

"Sports in my view is a highly disposable product in that it has a significant decline in viewer interest once you know the outcome," said [Jeff] Genthner, the general manager of Atlanta-based regional sports networks FSN South and SportSouth. "So therefore you know that when people watch your sports event they are watching it live and can't fast-forward through the commercials. Agencies and advertisers know that as well."

while Der Wife and I were watching the Packers-Giants game on DVR and fast-forwarding through the commercials. Because the Pats-Chargers game started at the same time as the Barca-Racing match (yes, I know I'm probably the only person who viewed this as a legitimate conflict), I decided to DVR both, watch the first half of the Barca match, and then start the Pats game with a 45 minute delay so I could fast-forward through commercials. That 45-minute lag lasted me through halftime so I ended up having to watch the second half in real time. In case you're scoring at home, that's 45 minutes of commercials and useless piffle from the CBS studio crew in a 100-minute period. The lesson I took is that there is no reason to start an NFL game less than one hour after the actual start time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: no league pisses on its fans quite like the NFL.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blog Night Coda

The Game was a rousing success from the Hawks. Coming off of their dismantling of the Bulls on Sunday, this is two straight decisive performances from the team that gets them back to .500 and almost even in point differential. The Washington loss on Friday night doesn't look as bad in retrospect after the Wizards swept Boston over the weekend. Then again, the Wizards capped their great run with a bad loss in New York last night, which is what the Hawks were watching in the locker room afterwards. What's that?

Yes, Blog Night II ended with the assembled nerds of the keyboard getting to attend Mike Woodson's press conference, which was considerably longer than his press conference last year after the Lakers whipped the Hawks on Blog Night I, and then getting to meet Al Horford in the locker room afterwards. My impressions of the locker room:

1. It's impossible not to feel like an extreme fan boy in a pro sports team's locker room.

2. Horford seems like a nice guy. Like most guys on the team, he's a good dresser. I asked him who the dirtiest player is that he's played against. He was very diplomatic in delivering his answer.

3. I know this will sound weird, but the locker room smells really, really good. I don't know if the Hawks pump frankincense and myrrh or what, but a room full of sweaty clothes smelled nice.

4. The extent of my interaction with Josh Smith:

Me: "Good game."

Him: "Thanks."

On the basis of this interaction, I have decided that the Hawks should pay him whatever he wants this summer.

5. Acie Law is tall. It was a nice reminder that 6'3 might be short in the NBA, but not in the real world.

6. Tyronne Lue was primping in front of a mirror. Lots of attention to detail.

By the way, Zaza Pachulia was running on the Hawks' practice court to work on his injured toe while Woodson's press conference was going on. After Woodson was done, Zaza wandered to the podium and dead-panned "OK, what questions do you have for me?" I was too dumbfounded to ask anything. In retrospect, I should have asked if he's still buds with Esteban Batista. I also learned that Zaza has purchased the Hawks' court from last year and is planning to ship it back to a rec center in the Republic of Georgia, which will surely be an interesting sight.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Quarter Four: It Sure Would Suck to Blow this Lead

11:44 - I'm pretty sure that the root cause of Denver's problems in this game is the fact that Von Wafer has not seen the floor. His sole appearance was a victim on Kiss Cam.

9:32 - I spent two minutes rattling off my Acie Law-Randolph Childress comparison and then Acie drives to the hoop and scores. I'll need to come up with a long list of failed first round scoring points for the big games coming down the stretch.

8:10 - I'm not sure what I'll do if I ever have a daughter about bringing her to Hawks games and letting her see the A-twon Dancers. The last number can only be described as Luther Campbell-approved.

7:47 - Marvin just forced Melo to take a tough shot, but Melo buried it. 88-76.

5:24 - Nice move by Josh Smith to drive and score. He's had a quiet game, but that's not necessarily a bad thing because it means he hasn't been turning the ball over too much. I just checked the box score and he has a quiet three turnovers.

5:08 - Yahoo has plus/minus stats in their box score. Joe Johnson is +23 right now.

3:41 - Denver is playing a little harder defensively, but it's too late and the Hawks are in rhythm. Anthony Johnson drives and kicks to an open Josh Smith for a jumper. Five assists and no turnovers for AJ. 101-86. Time to power down and head for the press conference.

Third Quarter: Judge Joe Brown Thinks the Nuggets are Uninterested in Moving their Feet

6:14 - It took Nava a little while to get me my spinach and mushroom quesadillas, so I missed the first half of the third quarter. In the intervening period, Orson and I speculated on the number of conceptions that resulted from people meeting at the (formerly known as) Bank of America bar area. Gobinda would not be impressed.

Girls. Selling themselves.

4:10 - My brother's probably the only one chuckling at that last joke.

3:40 - The Platonic ideal of a Josh Smith sequence: he pins a shot against the backboard and then gets called for palming at the other end.

:03 - Micah Hart just asked me what my beef with Mandel is. That's the explanation for the dead space for the past three minutes. Hawks are up 82-67 at the end of three. Melo has 30, Iverson has 20, and J.R. Smith has 13. You do the math on what that says about the remaining five Nuggets who have seen the floor.

Quarter Two: It's a Long Way Down from Here

11:50 - The Hawks lead 34-22 going into the second quarter. The Denver defense is as suspect as advertised, although the fact that they're letting the Hawks cut sans resistance certainly helps. I'm fearing a little bit of a clampdown from Denver this quarter.

9:43 - I've probably said this before, but Josh Childress would benefit the most from playing with a great point guard. He's terrific at moving without the ball and a great finisher around the basket. I'm still refusing to agree that the Hawks erred by taking him over Deng and Iguodala.

7:56 - And Childress makes me look good with a high hoop IQ play. He catches an attempted alley-oop pass from Acie Law that carried him past the basket. Instead of doing something dumb, he calmly locates Joe Johnson in the corner for an open three, which Joe nails. Kudos to Joe for running to the spot even though Law was throwing an alley-oop on the play.

6:20 - It's 49-33 right now. The Hawks are moving beautifully without the ball and passing the ball. 15 assists on 19 baskets. On defense, they're putting in the effort that the Nuggets aren't, thus making Denver earn their points.

5:48 - The A-town Dancers are gyrating in oversized white dress shirts and ties to ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man. Oddly, the shirts stay on for the entire routine. Typing ceases again.

5:02 - Billy Packer says "tssk tssk" about you hanging from the rim, Melo.

3:30 - Josh Smith doesn't get the memo on sharing, as he misses Marvin on a nice cut. He is kind enough to miss the shot so Marvin can get the rebound and putback. Josh makes amends on the next possession by hitting Al Horford underneath for a dunk. 61-41 with a chunk of the second quarter still to go.

:05 - The offensive tour de force that was the first half concludes with Childress stealing the ball after a Denver defensive rebound, resetting the offense because he didn't have numbers, and then hitting an uncovered Mario West for the jam. 65-44 at the half. Ryan Cameron, I see hoarseness in your future.


10:47 - It's 2-2 and I'm not loving the Iverson-Anthony Johnson match-up, prospectively speaking.

9:44 - Good cut from Marvin on what looked like a designed play, but he missed the shot. I'll cut him some slack; he was 2-2 up to that point.

8:16 - G-d bless the Atlanta nightlife. The Nuggets appear uninterested in playing defense.

Actually, the Nuggets played in Charlotte last night, so there's no Cheetah joke to be made here, but when have I ever let the facts get in the way? 16-6 Hawks and George Karl looks fussy. The Nugs haven't recovered from their Bobcat mauling...

5:22 - Iverson and Melo have ten of the Nuggets' 12 points. Make that 12 of 14 as Melo lays the ball in while I'm typing. 20-14 home team.

4:12 - What happened in the old days when the Nuggets and their 27-color jerseys met the Bucks and their 27 shades of green?

2:53 - The typing magically stops as we have a feature on the board about a comely A-town Dancer. She's good-looking enough to get away with admitting that she loves Lionel Richie in front of thousands of strangers.

1:55 - Any Denver possession that involves Linas Kleiza driving is a good one for Atlanta. Take that, massive audience for Braves & Birds in Columbia, Missouri!

1:04 - Orson points out that the game rematches Iverson and Tyronne Lue after their famous tussle in the 2002 Finals that caused Washington to pull an Al Davis and massively overpay for a free agent based on a good championship game/series performance.

:02 - Josh Childress: ugliest effective shot since Adrian Dantley? Bill Cartwright? In the honor of the Nuggets, Alex English?

Live Blog Tonight!

We're going to blogging tonight from Chez Philips as the Hawks try to get back to the .500 mark against the Nuggets.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Atlanta's Yin and Yang

Expressed through the magic of song...

Finally, a Highlighter-colored Alternate Jersey for Redheads

In a fine B&B tradition every time a happy package arrives from Catalunya, I give you...

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this shot:

1. Der Wife is a great gift giver; and

2. Der Son is a shameless mugger for cameras,

Jason Whitlock is the Crazy Uncle in the Attic

I'll admit that at one stage in my life, I enjoyed Jason Whitlock's commentary, mainly because he was the one counter-point to the Northeast-obsessed middle-aged white guys on the Sports Reporters. He was also a guy who was willing to discuss race, which is subject to so many taboos that the topic has become almost impossible to cover. Lately, Whitlock has completely lost me, as he's become an eccentric blowhard. Specifically, he's become the go-to guy for prejudiced white people to say "see, I'm not racist when I say [insert prejudiced statement here]; Jason Whitlock says the same thing!" Sports Media Watch absolutely destroyed Whitlock on this front:

Whitlock's articles supposedly tell black America to sit down, shut up, and take responsibility. 'Real talk', apparently. Which would make sense if black America was one individual person, instead of a race of millions of individual people, each with their own mind. One of the main tenets of prejudice is the stripping away of individuality from the group being targeted. Whitlock certainly excels at doing this, as his articles frequently depict black America as one indistinguishable mass, especially young black America. It is this lumping of black America into one group that can allow Whitlock to so foolishly suggest that All Star Weekend was a calling people felt in the pit of their stomach, and to suggest that hip hop music is the cause of every ill within black society...

His articles are designed to get attention, to be controversial, and to always please the majority. Whitlock is considered the “rational” black man, the one who can see beyond his race, and look at things from the right point of view. He never plays the race card, and doesn’t blame white America for everything -- or anything at all, for that matter. He is a true 'credit to his race'; sadly, one imagines that he would beam with pride upon hearing such a statement. He tells it like it is, in that he tells the majority what they want to hear.

Even if one agrees with what he says, one must concede that he is transparent. Whitlock has no interest in the fortunes of black America, and is simply giving people what they want – validation. And that validation has resulted in multiple copycats. Whitlock has awoken a sleeping giant, one that took one look at what he wrote, and realized: “If he’s doing it, I can do it too.”

Jason Whitlock, worst of the sports media in 2007.

I like the idea of African-Americans (or just about any group) engaging in collective self-criticism. I'm also receptive to the idea that the standard for blacks being racist is much higher because of the historical context that colors race in this country (read: 250 years of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow). All that said, it's hard to argue that this statement by Whitlock is not racist (HT: Mayhem in the AM):

Pete Carroll might be the one guy who could handle the special problems unique to coaching a professional football team in Atlanta, the hip hop capital of the Dirty South.

Carroll has built a college powerhouse in Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight's backyard. Maybe Carroll could do the same thing in the house that T.I. built.

To me, there's a reason Atlanta's basketball and football teams consistently stink. There are just too many distractions for young, rich black athletes and the look-at-me, bling-bling attitude that permeates Atlanta isn't conducive to building a team atmosphere.

This comment is so bad on so many levels. First, the generalization involved are truly striking. Atlanta is collectively written off has having a "look-at-me, bling-bling attitude" that acts as an explanation for why the Falcons and Hawks aren't good. Whitlock's comment personifies lazy journalism. Instead of actually analyzing why the Falcons and Hawks have been bad, which would require evaluation of a variety of bad personnel decisions, Whitlock opts for a one size fits all, pop psychology generalization that would make even Kirk Herbstreit blush.

Second, the comment doesn't make any logical sense. Unless you assume that Atlanta has excessive distractions and a look-at-me attitude, but Los Angeles doesn't, then USC's success refutes the argument entirely. The most successful college football program of the decade resides in the nation's capital for distractions, glitz, and superficiality. How is USC able to handle these distractions, but the Falcons and Hawks aren't?

Third, if you view Michael Vick's downfall as the cause (or at least a microcosm) of the Falcons' failures, then Whitlock's point is factually inaccurate. I have no doubt that Whitlock was thinking about Vick when he wrote that passage. As George Dohrmann and Farrell Evans of Sports Illustrated described in a well-done piece on Vick, Vick's problem was precisely the opposite of what Whitlock describes. Vick never made friends in Atlanta, he never put roots down, and he never made any effort to integrate himself with one of the preeminent African-American communities in the country. Instead, he kept his old friends from Newport News and he flew back to Virginia when he had free time. The problem for Vick wasn't that he was influenced too much by the city; it was that he made no effort to integrate to his new home. But why pay attention to actual facts when you can denigrate a metropolis and two of its sports franchises with a sweeping, unsupported, prejudiced generalization?

We have a Centerfielder

Meet Mark Kotsay. Kotsay was hurt for most of 2007 and when he was healthy, he was abysmal, racking up a .575 OPS. So the Braves are buying low on Kotsay, which is nice. The good news is that his three most similar batters through age 31 all had downturns in the middles of their careers before righting the ship to a degree. Kotsay doesn't need to return to his peak form of his late 20s for this deal to work. Rather, he simply needs to give the Braves good defense and about 500 plate appearances of league average OPS. This deal is all about avoiding a weakness. It's about making sure that the Braves don't have an out machine at the bottom of the order and they must be concerned that Josh Anderson would be exactly that.

As for giving up on Joey Devine, I'm not overly upset. He was dreadful in 2005 and 2006 in a small sample size and then was good last year in a similarly small sample size. His numbers at Richmond last year were excellent, so the A's might be getting a valuable product. A change of scenery might be good for Devine, as he must have some pretty negative associations with the Ted. Generally, the Braves have a good track record of not giving up quality pitchers, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Again, if the Braves get a league-average offensive performance (.335 OBP, .765 OPS) from Kotsay at a premium defensive position, then the deal will be a success.

By the way, Joe Sheehan of the Baseball Prospectus has tabbed Jeff Francoeur as his break-out player for 2008($). Here's his reasoning:

Take a player who has top-tier tools (save speed), who has lots of experience at a young age, and who has clearly improved the biggest hole in his game—that’s a player who projects for a significant leap forward. It Francoeur merely redistributes his XBH and adds 10 walks and five singles, you’re looking at a .300/.350/.500 player with plus defense. If he takes a leap forward—which is what I can see happening—you’re talking about a mid-ballot MVP candidate. Given the RBI he’ll end up with as a product of batting behind Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira, and the bonus given to a player who comes out of nowhere, and he might actually be the BBWAA MVP.

I'd personally like to see Sheehan come up with one or two comparable players who solved their major weakness at the plate and then went on to achieve great things, but that would be icing on top of the cake. Sheehan's overall point is that we shouldn't worry about the drop in homers last year because Francouer's extra-base hit rate remained roughly the same and power hitters typically see some variance in terms of their mix of doubles, triples, and homers. The important point is that Francoeur finally starting being selective at the plate in 2007 and that was one of the best developments in the Braves' season.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

We have a GM!

Meet Tom Dimitroff. If nothing else, the guy making decisions at Flowery Branch has the name of a Bond villain.

I'm generally not a big fan of hiring coaches and general managers just because they come from successful organizations. If the Patriots are successful because of decisions made by Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick or because they lucked into drafting an all-time great quarterback in the sixth round, then it doesn't make sense to hire one of Pioli's underlings. The variable to this hire is what sort of role Dimitroff played in the Patriots organization. The various articles about him describe him as being in charge of the Pats' college scouting. If that is indeed the case and he was making college player evaluations, then this is a great hire.

The Patriots, like the Colts, have been consistently successful because they have great quarterbacks and they surround those quality players with talent through the Draft. The free agent market in the NFL is simply too expensive to be used heavily in team-building. Compare the way the Falcons have drafted in recent years to the Colts or Patriots. It's not close. The Patriots came off of a Super Bowl championship in 2004 and found quality starters with their first three picks in the 2005 Draft. The Colts came off of a Super Bowl championship in 2006 and found quality starters with their first two picks. The Falcons had three picks in the top 50 this April and got precious little collectively out of Jammal Anderson, Chris Houston, and Justin Blalock. (In the interest of full disclosure, I thought these were good picks. It's probably unfair to write the picks off after a year in which the Falcons were a complete train wreck and were on the receiving end of one of the worst coaching jobs in recorded history.) The Falcons will have three picks in the top 50 this year. They need someone like Dimitroff making those selections.

In terms of salary cap management, it's hard to say whether Dimitroff has much experience. Hopefully, he learned from watching Scott Pioli and won't overpay for free agents. The Patriots have studiously avoided the sort of mistakes the Falcons have made in allocating cap dollars, mistakes like overpaying to keep your average veterans (see: Brooking, Keith), not paying to keep your truly valuable veterans (see: Kerney, Patrick), or paying #2 players as if they are #1s (see: Price, Peerless). Hopefully, Arthur Blank will stay out of the decision-making process and let Dimitroff make decisions.

Jeff Schultz has a quality column on the hire. Money graf:

The Falcons didn’t need to hire the big name. The Falcons only had to hire somebody to fix a mess. Tom Dimitroff — meet your mess.

The next few years will tell us if owner Arthur Blank chose well. This much we know: Blank has absorbed a lot of criticism of late. But after being conned by Bobby Petrino, used by Bill Parcells and dancing an illogical dance with Pete Carroll, he bounced back with a reasoned choice, free of emotion, pyrotechnics and clowns with exploding feet.

Blank didn’t hire a sideshow. He hired a football guy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

My Final Top 25

1. LSU - It got very comfortable ranking them in this spot all year (with a couple brief exceptions). They certainly won't go down as one of the dominant national champions and it will be interesting to see if they get asterisk treatment on message boards for being the first two-loss national champion. On the other hand, the fact that they looked very good in the national title game will have recency effects (as opposed to, say, 1990 Colorado who were lucky to beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl and that colors the view of the Buffs title team). LSU can credibly argue that once they got healthy, they returned to being the team that buried Virginia Tech at the start of the year. The fact that LSU's two decisive big game victories came against the champions of the ACC and Big Ten certainly speaks well of the depth and quality of the SEC.

2. Georgia - Part of me wanted to rank West Virginia in the #2 spot on the basis of: (1) a better bowl scalp; and (2) better losses (the Mountaineers can blame both losses on injuries to their quarterback and they never lost a game as decisively as Georgia did at Tennessee) . That said, Georgia's run in its last six games was truly epic and sets the stage for the Dawgs being the pre-season favorites in 2008. Prepare for a summer of hype, qualified by "gosh, the schedule is tough." My friend Ben, who has been known to be hyperbolic on an occasion or two, has already proclaimed Georgia's schedule to be "the hardest I have ever seen." This is going to be a long, miserable summer.

3. West Virginia - The Sagarin predictor ranking tabs the Mountaineers as the best team in the country, so start printing t-shirts, Morgantown.

4. Missouri - I have the Tigers ahead of Southern Cal for a couple reasons. First, it's much more respectable to lose to Oklahoma twice than it is to lose to Stanford at home. Second, I'm tired of the USC hype at the end of the year that is based on beating an Arizona State team that didn't beat anyone and an Illinois team that no one took seriously going into the Rose Bowl.

5. Southern Cal - All that said, on a neutral field, I'd have Southern Cal as a slight favorite over LSU. USC's problem for the last two years has not been rising to the occasion against quality opponents; it's been playing well when they don't respect the team on the other sideline.

6. Kansas - Many thanks to the Jayhawks for prolonging the ACC's drought in BCS Bowls. We're two years away from completing an entire decade with the ACC. For those of you keeping track, the SEC is 9-2 in BCS Bowls this decade and the ACC is 0-8.

7. Oklahoma - At some point, the Sooners need to figure out what they're doing wrong in bowl games because they were a very good team during the season and then they got dominated in the Fiesta Bowl.

8. Ohio State - This seems about right. They're going to have a whole lot to prove when they travel to Southern Cal next year. (Cue Kirk Herbstreit!) It is mildly annoying as a graduate of a Big Ten school to see the entire conference deemed inferior to the SEC when in reality, the conference as a whole has a pretty decent record against the SEC in bowl games and Michigan has a particularly good record against the SEC (7-3 in bowls). When SEC fans say that the Big Ten sucks, what they really mean is that Ohio State has a major hoodoo against the SEC.

9. Oregon - I really struggled to come up with my last two top ten teams, so I'll reward the Ducks for being really good before Dennis Dixon got hurt.

10. Auburn - Good lord was their defense good this year, especially when you take into account how meager the assistance from the other side of the ball was. I am very interested to see how Tony Franklin's offense works next year because Auburn's schedule will be home-heavy and they could do some serious damage if they are better at moving the chains.

11. Cincinnati - Brian Kelly must have some serious skeletons in the closet to not get hired after doing such quality work with the Bearcats this year.

12. Florida - You think Urban Meyer might be selling some immediate playing time at corner to recruits this January? I'm looking forward to seeing Meyer's offense with a quality tailback next year (assuming that Emmanuel Moody is the real deal).

13. Michigan - As with Oregon, I'm giving Michigan credit for being a much better team with a healthy Henne and Hart. If only Lloyd would have coached every game in fear of the opponent scoring 45 points.

14. Virginia Tech - Like Ohio State, the weakness of the ACC (especially the weakness of Miami and Florida State) has retarded Virginia Tech's development. They've been good enough to beat ACC teams without having to develop a functional offense.

15. Texas - Their bowl performance was easily their best performance of the season. Four bowl wins on the trot for Mack Brown.

16. Tennessee - I still don't think this team was very good. They were 4-0 in games decided by four points or less. If you want to be less arbitrary, they were 4-1 in games decided by one score. They weren't as good as their record this year and fans on Rocky Top have to be very nervous seeing what's happening around them in the coaching ranks in the SEC while their staff gets worse. Translation: I'm bitter that I was a goalpost away from being right on the "Phil Fulmer will be fired at the end of the year" prediction.

17. Arizona State - On the one hand, they didn't really beat anyone all year, other than an Oregon State team at its nadir. On the other hand, their weak performance in the last two games against USC and Texas might render them undervalued going into next season. Dennis Erickson does have a great record in year twos.

18. Boston College - Has there ever been a bigger gap between college and pro fans in terms of evaluation of one player than there is with Matt Ryan? I don't know a single committed college football fan who thinks that Ryan is anything more than a pretty good quarterback. Meanwhile, NFL fans who know nothing about Ryan except for the facts that he has an Irish name and plays for Doug Flutie's alma mater think that he's a surefire top five pick. Please, lord, don't let the Falcons take him.

19. Oregon State - The 40-14 loss at home against UCLA sticks out like a sore thumb. Otherwise, the Beavers quietly had another very nice season.

20. Clemson - I'm really struggling to say anything interesting about the Tigers. Uh, they should have been the best team in the ACC this year?

21. Illinois - Worst BCS at-large team ever and we can't even blame the Rose Bowl because there were very slim pickings. If you want to blame an entity, blame the BCS for the limitation that conferences can only send two teams. That said, even if Missouri and Florida were eligible for the Rose, you know that they would have taken Illinois anyway.

22. South Florida - The Bulls win the award for most inexplicable bowl performance.

23. Texas Tech - The Red Raiders join Georgia, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Maryland, Fresno State, and Virginia Tech in the pantheon of teams that have had huge rallies against Virginia. Congrats!

24. Brigham Young - Obligatory non-BCS spot. Could someone explain to me why there are two mid-major conferences out West when there are only enough good programs to fill one? Wouldn't it make more sense to dump BYU, Utah, Hawaii, and Boise State into the same league so their conference schedules aren't so abysmal. I know that programs wax and wane in terms of success, but I stand by the overall point that there's no reason to have a WAC and a MWC.

25. Kentucky - Yup, it's officially a football school.

Michigan against the Defending National Champions

In my never-ending quest to compare and contrast my homestate team and my alma mater, this post from the Georgia Sports Blog got me thinking about Michigan's record against the defending national champions (as measured by the media and/or coaches polls, starting in 1936):

2007 - Michigan 41 Florida 35
2003 - Michigan 35 Ohio State 21
1992 - Michigan 38 Washington 31
1989 - Notre Dame 24 Michigan 19
1988 - Miami 31 Michigan 30
1984 - Michigan 22 Miami 14
1978 - Michigan 28 Notre Dame 14
1975 - Oklahoma 14 Michigan 6
1969 - Michigan 24 Ohio State 12
1966 - Michigan State 20 Michigan 7
1961 - Minnesota 23 Michigan 20
1958 - Ohio State 20 Michigan 14
1955 - Ohio State 17 Michigan 0
1953 - Michigan State 14 Michigan 6
1945 - Michigan 7 Ohio State 3
1943 - Michigan 45 Ohio State 7
1942 - Minnesota 16 Michigan 14
1941 - Minnesota 7 Michigan 0

Michigan's record is 8-10 overall, but 6-3 since hiring Bo Schembechler (the self-servingly titled "modern era" according to Michigan fans).

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Not Faster, Just Better

I just can't wait for the meme to take hold that Ohio State was too slow to play with LSU. People see what they want to see when they watch games and because the stereotype is that Big Ten teams are physical and SEC teams are fast, the fact that an SEC team beat a Big Ten team will lead to that conclusion. In reality, LSU won last night for three primary reasons. First, a Jim Tressel team played bizarro Tresselball. Tresselball, as established in the 2002-3 time frame, is supposed be about great special teams play, dominating defense, and a mistake-free offensive approach that capitalizes on the weaknesses of its opponents. Ohio State lost by two touchdowns last night despite outgaining LSU 353-326 because the Bucks had three turnovers, five personal foul penalties, and two major special teams screw-ups ( a blocked field goal and a roughing the kicker penalty that prolonged an LSU touchdown drive). Ohio State looked like a talented, but sloppy team. To engage in a little Herbstreit-esque amateur psychology, they looked too geeked for the game and that emotion caused them to do all sorts of dumb, uncharacteristic things that I would associate with a Bobby Bowden team. Based on a sample size of one, I'd say that any game in which Jim Tressel is pumping his fist and carrying on like a cheerleader will be a bad one for Ohio State.

Second, LSU out-schemed Ohio State. The Bucks started the game using their one good idea: the fly pattern to Brandon Saine off of a fake pass to Beanie Wells. After that, all of the innovation came from the Tigers' sideline. The touchdown pass to Richard Dickson was a thing of beauty, as Ohio State left the tight end totally uncovered because of the unbalanced formation that LSU threw at them. Generally speaking, LSU's offense was way more diverse than Ohio State's and they kept the Bucks' defense off balance all game. On the defensive side, the blitzes dialed up by Bo Pelini consistently generated pressure and they were coming from all sorts of different angles. LSU simply did more creative things than Ohio State, which isn't bad for a team that was supposedly going to lose because of its inferior coaching staff.

(To me, the explanation for SEC teams deploying better schemes than Ohio State comes down to competitive pressure. LSU won't succeed in the SEC solely on the basis of its athletes because there are a number of teams in the conference with great talent. [This is why most of the criticism of Les Miles misses the mark. If he was just rolling Nick Saban's players out onto the field, he wouldn't be 34-6 in the SEC with a national title, a conference title, and two major bowl wins.] Thus, they have a sideline full of excellent coaches who do creative things to put their players in positions to succeed. Ohio State, on the other hand, faces only two teams in the Big Ten with comparable talent, one of which is coached by a checked-out octogenarian and the other was coached by a pretty good coach who has been gradually retiring for the past four years. Ohio State doesn't face the same pressure to maximize its talent, so they're a little like Saudi Arabia right now.)

Third, by the end of the game, LSU was whipping Ohio State up front. Ohio State did a reasonable job of handling LSU's defensive front in the first quarter, but as the game progressed, LSU's defensive front got better and better. They negated Beanie Wells and they were getting after Todd Boeckman on just about every passing down. Conversely, LSU's offensive line played better and better after the first quarter. Bill Walsh said that the most important thing in football is a fourth quarter pass rush and last night's game illustrated the point.

See, it's possible to analyze a game without once relying on the speed crutch. And the great thing is that I don't have to try to explain why LSU's speed was decisive when Ohio State's 240-pound tailback ran away from the LSU secondary on the fourth play from scrimmage.

Random stuff:

1. Could someone explain to me why Mayhem in the AM spent roughly half of their time this morning regurgitating the Roger Clemens "news" from yesterday? If you're "Atlanta's sports leader" and the Atlanta market is dominated by college football, then why are you spending so much time on the morning following the college football national championship game discussing an issue that is much more of a Bob Ryan-Mike Lupica story (read: something about which the Northeastern media obsesses and then assumes that the rest of the country cares)? For the love of G-d, you people were at the game! Tell me about the game! Tell me something I might have missed not being in the Superdome! Don't babble on about a story that you acknowledge is a farce! My thoughts on the steroid jihad are nicely summarized in this passage from Gary Huckabay at the Baseball Prospectus's blog:

[Henry] Waxman and his committee are displaying the basest kind of vile pandering, willing to do anything for a few minutes in front of a live camera with an opportunity to wag their atherosclerotically clubbed fingers in righteous anger. We’re talking about small widgets in a small business, that’s already done a hell of a job cleaning up their act, if you actually look at the numbers.

And before anyone gets the idea of writing me with yet another ironically juvenile “What about the children?!?!?!?” diatribe…piss off. The children are at far greater risk from the advertisement barrages that bracket innings within the game. No six year old should know who the hell Spuds MacKenzie or the Budweiser frogs are. Let’s tally up the damage to children from steroids compared to alcohol, shall we? Selective protection of the young teaches hypocrisy.

This whole issue is bulls–t, and everyone, in their heart of hearts, knows it. The collective societal masturbation on this issue is something out of Ionesco, and the number of whorish sell-outs who should resign in disgrace is climbing faster and more brazenly than Barry Bonds‘ HR totals ever did.

2. This will be a one-time admission from a Michigan grad, but when Ohio State is beaten in the national title game by a head coach from Elyria and a defensive coordinator from Youngstown, that's an indication that there's something special about football in the state of Ohio. Now, returning to our regular programming...

3. Der Wife could not believe how Hitler Youthy the Ohio State band looks in their berets and quasi-military uniforms. There, that felt much better.

4. In their heart of hearts, LSU fans need to acknowledge that they've won all three of their national titles in New Orleans and that playing at home might be a wee bit of an advantage. (Miami and USC fans need to make the same admission.) Home crowds are good for a lot of things, one of which is prolonging momentum. That seems like a relevant point to make on the morning after a game decided by a 31-0 run.

5. In the realm of things I'm excited for next year, Ryan Perrilloux in Gary Crowton's offense ranks right up there. When I put my objective hat on, I'll admit that I'm also excited to see what Beanie Wells looks like as a junior because he was pretty phenomenal as a sophomore.

6. In a reflective moment, proclaiming Georgia to be the most overrated team in the country was my worst pick of the summer and tabbing LSU as the best team in the country when everyone else was stuck on USC was the best. The weird thing is that I was totally right about Georgia for the first seven games of the year and then they had one of the most complete transformation I've ever seen from a sports team after the dance off in the end zone in Jacksonville.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Terence Moore was Due for a Real Stinker

And he obliges with this gem: Terance Mathis should be the Falcons next GM. What are Mathis's qualifications, you ask? According to Moore, he spent the summer as a coaching and scouting intern with the Baltimore Ravens. So all you law students who are going to be summer associates with big firms this summer take note: you'll be qualified thereafter to be managing partners according to Moore. Mathis then plays the role of Hillary Clinton by insulting Barack Obama:

“If Barack Obama can win Iowa, why can’t I be the general manager of the Falcons?” said Mathis, 40, which makes you sort of wonder why not, indeed?

Oh, I don't know, because being a U.S. Senator is a generally accepted qualification for being president, but being a summer intern is not for being a general manager? The fact that Moore figuratively nods at this mind-blowingly naive statement makes me wonder how Moore's editors could have let this piece run in a reputed publication. This article deserves the race war that follows in the comments.

Since Terence has established that qualifications are irrelevant and tribal loyalty is paramount, I hereby nominate my former camper Max Pollock, who just finished his final season as a walk-on linebacker at Michigan, for the Presidency of Kenya.

Michael Lewis is not Amused

Thanks to columns like this effort from Bill Simmons, Moneyball continues its ascent as one of the most misinterpreted book in the Western Canon, right up there with the Bible and the Prince. Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane overcoming the A's financial disadvantages by exploiting a market inefficiency, namely the undervaluing of strike zone judgment and college players in the market for baseball players. In so doing, Beane rejected the subjective judgments of his scouts that certain guys "look like players" in favor of objective statistical analysis of prospects.

Simmons claims that a similar revolution is taking place in the NBA:

Here's the new mantra for savvy NBA teams: "Chemacterility." Why haven't you heard the term before? Because I just made it up. But it's an amalgam of three concepts that have formed the foundation of the Duncan era in San Antonio: chemistry, character and (cap) flexibility. As soon as Duncan arrived, in 1997, Popovich and Buford began to avoid bad guys and bad contracts, preferring role players, quality guys and short-term deals.

You're probably aware of the obvious stupidity of this argument, especially with Moneyball as the lead-in. One of the primary themes of Moneyball is the importance of objective analysis of players. Beane figured out that it was better to evaluate players statistically than to listen to scouts, who based their judgments of their experience and near-mystical beliefs in whether a guy could succeed or fail. Simmons has Moneyball backwards and claims that the analogous revolution in the NBA is to evaluate players based on chemistry and character, both of which are inherently subjective.

You would think that a guy like Simmons who pays attention to the NBA would realize that there is a much better parallel between Buford's Spurs and Beane's A's. The Spurs were one of the first NBA teams to figure out that foreign players were undervalued because they developed better team skills - namely passing, movement without the ball, and team defense - than American players did. Thus, they capitalized on the good fortune of landing the best player in basketball (Tim Duncan) by surrounding him with Tony Parker (28th pick in the Draft) and Manu Ginobili (57th pick in the Draft). Screw character, the Spurs pay homage to Moneyball because they had a better player acquisition strategy than anyone else in the league did.

Simmons cites the Miami Heat as an example of a team that has ignored the character strategy at their own peril, but this completely misses the reason why the Heat aren't very good. Miami has two marquee players. Dewayne Wade is coming off of a significant shoulder injury. He is still rounding into form. Shaquille O'Neal is a shell of his former self. He can barely lift his arms over his head after years of getting pounded in the post. The rest of the Miami roster is crap. It doesn't much matter whether that crap is high- or low-character. Does Simmons really think that Dewayne Wade is frustrated because Ricky Davis and Mark Blount are bad guys or because he doesn't have any teammates who can hit open jumpers or rebound misses?

The irony of Simmons touting a character and chemistry strategy is that his beloved Patriots are unbeaten in large part because of their acquisition of Randy Moss. Apparently, character and chemistry matter in the NBA, but they don't matter in the NFL.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cue Harry Doyle

In case you haven't noticed, and based on the TV ratings, you haven't, the ratings for the Sugar and Rose Bowls were way down. If you operate on the theory that the people who run the BCS are motivated by money (and I'm not totally sure that I'm one of those people because everyone agrees that a playoff would generate more money, although the issue might be that the BCS conferences would lose control over that money if they had a playoff because it would have to be NCAA-sanctioned), then low ratings for the BCS games are a good sign. I have absolutely no doubt that Fox is going to be in the ear of the BCS conference commissioners telling them that they want better match-ups next year because they aren't paying hundreds of millions of dollars for games that draw 7.9 ratings.

The Capital One Bowl was the lone exception to the trend of lower ratings and will likely finish as the third-highest rated college football game of the year if the Virginia Tech-Kansas game doesn't produce a big number tonight (and I can't imagine that it will). On the one hand, you can see the high ratings because of the story lines, namely: (1) a long-term head coach at a marquee program retiring; and (2) a high-profile, unique, telegenic Heisman winner. On the other hand, the game might have produced such a strong number simply because it was a close game. I'm a die-hard college football fan and I stopped watching the Rose Bowl at 21-3 and the Sugar Bowl at 24-3. In both instances, the favorite came out and demonstrated right off the bat that they were significantly better than their opponent. I assumed (correctly) that there was no point in continuing to watch when I could bathe my toddler or go to sleep.

Thus, if I'm a Fox executive, I'll be lobbying hard next year for competitive match-ups between teams of roughly equal ability so the games won't bleed viewership in the third and fourth quarters. The BCS commissioners will then be put in a bind. Their TV pay masters will be demanding games like Oklahoma-Virginia Tech and Georgia-USC. Their bowl partners (especially the Rose) will be trying hard to preserve their traditional ties to teams from certain conferences and will be desperate to avoid being stuck with the Danny Devito in Twins Illinois-Hawaii dreg bowl that will be the result of putting the best teams up against one another. (The expansion of the BCS from eight teams to ten brings in more substandard teams, especially when paired with the requirement that conferences only send two teams to the BCS. It's kinda like when the NCAA narrowed the goalposts without narrowing the hashmarks.) They will also be running up against the possibility of a split national champion if they create a #3 vs. #4 or #5 game and #3 looks great. But then again, the BCS commissioners claim that unresolved endings to the season and constant argument thereafter are a great thing for college football, so why wouldn't they want to create a clusterf*** end to the season?

Another Reason Why I Love Lloyd

Per the rumor mill, his post-game comment to Urban Meyer:

"Someday, you're going to retire, and your players are going to play as hard as mine did [today]."

That's just a perfect combination of insight and Midwestern modesty. Lloyd drove me crazy as a coach at times and I really wasn't liking him when the rumor mill indicated that he was a force against hiring Les Miles, but I've always had the greatest respect for him as a human being. His comments to Meyer, just like his "finish your degree" speech to his players after the game, illustrate that feeling.

To those of you who aren't Michigan fans and find this treacly or nauseating, I apologize. I'll stop being blubbery and return to white hot rage in a couple weeks if Ryan Mallett transfers and Terrelle Pryor verbals to Ohio State.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Complete Thoughts on the Sugar Bowl

Georgia is a much, much better team than Hawaii. Is there anything else to say? The Dawgs could run against nine-man fronts and Colt Brennan had no time to throw and no open receivers to locate. End of story.

OK, one other thought. The game illustrated the importance of margin of victory in evaluating teams. Hawaii's close wins over bad teams were a major red flag that separated them from the '04 Utah or '06 Boise State. The standard for mid-majors making BCS games should not simply be whether the mid-major is unbeaten. Rather, mid-majors need to beat their opponents in the same manner that a quality team would.

And one other thought: Georgia has really struck out in the Mark Richt era in terms of playing exciting opponents in bowl games. Georgia has made three Sugar Bowls. In them, they've played a mediocre Florida State team, a West Virginia team that no one took seriously at the time (although, in retrospect, that was a very good opponent), and a Hawaii team that didn't belong on this stage. Other than those games, UGA has had some humdrum games against uninteresting Wisconsin, Purdue, and Boston College teams and the somewhat appealing Peach Bowl match-up against Virginia Tech.

The Tortoise Wins the Race

Michigan started the season losing at home to a I-AA team, leading me to question why I'm a sports fan. Michigan ended the season by beating Florida and its Heisman Trophy winner on the road, leading me to mist up as Lloyd Carr was carried off the field by a group of players who genuinely care for their leader. (Read this outstanding AP piece if you want more. Suffice it to say that having defensive players who cite Kipling to one another to get fired up appeals to Michigan fans and is one of the things I'll miss most about Lloyd Carr. There's much to be said for a coach who sells his players on poetry and uses his final locker room speech as an opportunity to remind them to finish their degrees.)

To me, the game was about Michigan's players and coaches finally reaching their potential and correcting their prior mistakes. The offensive brain trust finally decided that their best offensive approach would be a pass-based spread to take advantage of the team's depth at wide receiver (especially relative to Florida's poor secondary) and to create running lanes for Mike Hart. The defensive brain trust threw a bevy of new blitzes at Florida and kept the pressure up from start to finish. (The contrast between Ron English's defensive approach and that of Jim Herrmann in the same situations was telling. Carr's loyalty to Mike Debord has been frustrating, but he deserves credit for bringing in a newer, better defensive coordinator, even if it meant deposing a friend.)

Chad Henne, whose weakness as a quarterback was always a lack a pocket presence, had a precise internal clock yesterday. He consistently knew exactly how long he had to throw the ball. There was also a great closing of the circle moment yesterday. In the 2005 Rose Bowl, Henne missed on a third and three rollout pass when a conversion would have allowed Michigan to bleed down the clock and deny Vince Young a chance to come back and win the game. The play illustrated Henne's problems in throwing on the run. Yesterday, Henne completed a rollout touchdown pass to Adrian Arrington at the end of the first half that showed that he had finally learned how to make that throw. In sum, Henne probably played his best game in a winged helmet yesterday.

The game represented progress for Michigan in a third respect because they were clearly the better conditioned team. Michigan lost a number of games in 2005 because they weren't in as good shape as their opponents. I can't say that Michigan was clearly better conditioned than their opponents this year, but they certainly were yesterday. Bill Walsh said that the most important determinant of winning in the NFL was a fourth quarter pass rush. If you contrast the time that Chad Henne had to find his receivers deep with the pressure that Tim Tebow faced on Florida's last two drives, you'll see an illustration of this fact. Michigan won the fourth quarter because of its conditioning, combined with: (1) Chad Henne making faster decisions than Tebow in terms of where to go with the ball (Henne is certainly more advanced as a pure passer than the Heisman winner); (2) Henne's decisions being simpler because Florida's defensive backs are so weak; and (3) Michigan outcoaching Florida by dialing up better blitzes and putting in better pass protection packages.

Other random thoughts:

1. To quote my brother, there has never been a bigger disparity in terms of quality of a play-by-play and color guy than Mike Patrick and Todd Blackledge. Patrick got details wrong on just about every play. Blackledge made one good observation after another. For my money, Blackledge was the best color guy in college football this year, which just leaves me pining for a Ron Franklin-Blackledge pairing on ESPN Saturday night games.

Come to think of it, my dream pairing for the game yesterday would have been Tim Brando and Gary Danielson, just to register the repeated "does not compute" statements that would have been made from the second quarter on.

2. With all of the discussion of Lloyd learning from past mistakes, the play calling sequence after Michigan stopped Florida at 38-35 was dreadful. In a shootout where the opponent cannot stop your passing game, bleeding the Gators of their timeouts was far less useful than scoring a touchdown to put the game away.

3. I don't know if this is ironic or what, but Michigan's two biggest passing performances in the LLoyd Carr era came in Lloyd's first game as coach (375 yards against Virginia) and his last game (373 yards against Florida). I haven't double-checked this stat, but I'm fairly confident that it's right. [Update: the Virginia and Florida games are actually the third and fourth for passing yards in the Carr era. The top two performances came in losses at Ohio State in 1998 (the "David Boston gets his over Marcus Ray" game) and Iowa in 2003 (the "wait, we're doing this rolling punt again?" game).]

4. This is going to come off as excuse making, but it's probably fair to say that Michigan and Oregon were the two teams most damaged by injuries to their quarterbacks this year. Maybe USC goes into the mix as well if you blame Booty's dreadful performance against Stanford on his broken finger.

5. The talk of Florida starting next year as pre-season #1 or #2 was and is fanciful. The Gators were dead last in the SEC in both passing yards allowed and yards per pass allowed. The only way to conclude that they are the best team in the country is if you think that offense is 80% of football and defense is some sort of irrelevant sideshow. Florida's secondary should be better next year, but they have miles to go before they have a national title-caliber defense. 2009 looks to be their year. Their offense is outstanding, their run defense is decent, and they are well-coached, but they have a major weakness that keeps them out of the Oklahoma-USC-Georgia-Ohio State-LSU tier.

6. The game yesterday was one of the most emotionally satisfying wins I can recall since I started rooting for Michigan in the late 80s. First of all, it's great that Lloyd's legacy will be capped off with a stirring bowl win over a quality opponent. We all overrate the last piece of evidence and my last emotion watching a Lloyd Carr game was total happiness. Second, as a Michigan grad living in the South, beating Florida is a big deal because it gives a nice rejoinder to "Big Ten teams are too slow." If anything, Lloyd's teams were much better against SEC teams (6-2) than they were against Pac Ten teams (3-6). If one associates the Big Ten with running and the SEC with passing, then yesterday's game was a complete inversion of the stereotype, as Michigan passed the ball at will while Florida struggled in the passing game. Conversely, Florida ran the ball very well while Michigan was only OK in that department.

7. Lloyd, like most coaches, is obsessed with turnovers, so what do we make of the fact that Michigan won Lloyd's last game despite being -4 in turnover margin (or -3 if you include Florida's failure to field the second half kickoff)? Maybe the lesson is that not all turnovers are the same. Turning the ball over inside the Florida five three times and leaving the Gators with terrible field position wasn't the worst thing in the world.