Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rock Bottom

If I had to say one nice thing about the Braves this morning, I would probably stammer for a while and then mention the fact that Bobby Cox has won a lot of games as a manager. Otherwise, it would be damn near impossible. The past three games have been the unofficial "stick a fork in 'em" games for the team. The Braves have allowed 34 runs in the three games and have allowed 10+ in three straight games for the first time since 1986. (Incidentally, the starters for those three games? Rick Mahler, Craig McMurtry, and Zane Smith. The three losses came in a July 4-6 series against Montreal. Oddly enough, the Braves had won seven of eight coming into that series and were only 1.5 games out of first. The sweep by the Expos triggered a vintage stretch for the '84-'90 Braves in which they lost 11 of 12, including a three-game series against the Mets in which the Braves were outscored 26-2. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.)

The lineup last night could have doubled as Bobby Cox's concession speech. Mark Kotsay was signed to be the #8 hitter, but he was hitting clean-up last night. The starting lineup included Gregor Blanco, Omar Infante, and Clint Sammons. And that's before we get to Jeff Francoeur, who is still a favorite among the parts of the crowd who aren't bothered by a .287 OBP. Charlie Morton was the starting pitcher. Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes are doing their best to disabuse Braves fans of the optimism that we had weeks ago when it looked like we had the makings of a good, young pitching staff. After the team's experience this year with older starters (punctuated by Tim Hudson's elbow injury that will likely keep him out for the rest of the year), a collection of young hurlers seemed like a good idea. Not so much when the youngsters are doing things like allowing seven earned in three and two-thirds innings.

Opposing teams can look forward to facing a Braves team that has been gutted of its starters. They can also look forward to coming to the Ted and being greeted by a bevy of their own fans. The crowd last night was at least one-third Cardinals fans. Braves fans have a tendency to not support a bad team (the horror!) and instead focus on college football when the calendar turns to August and the Braves aren't good. Don't say I didn't warn you when the Cubs come in later this month and then the Mets arrive in September. Hell, I'm a pretty committed Braves fan and I'm ready to start thinking about Georgia's fullback situation instead of the local baseball collective. I'm no masochist.

The Florida-Georgia Debate

One of the most interesting topics in the college football world this summer has been the question of where to put Florida and Georgia in preseason rankings. Both teams return a ton of starters. Florida has the most pronounced strength - a virtually unstoppable offense - and the most obvious weakness - a defensive backfield that can't cover and a defensive line that struggled to get a pass rush, even with the now-departed Derrick Harvey. Georgia is more balanced than Florida, but isn't a threat to average 45 points per game, either. Georgia also has, as you may have heard, a very challenging schedule, as they play the entire top half of the SEC West and most of their big games are away from Athens. Finally, Georgia had a total transformation in 2007, going from a decent, but unspectacular team to a dynamo with the dividing line between the two being the celebration in Jacksonville. (Cue Kirk Herbstreit for a reasoned discussion of mojo here.)

We've tackled this question a little, mainly with an agnostic, "it's reasonable to pick Florida ahead of Georgia and here's how you would get to that conclusion" argument. Now, the SEC media has weighed in by picking Florida and Tony Barnhart weighs in with explanations. The comparison between the national media and the SEC media is interesting. The national media fell in love with Georgia when they pummeled Hawaii, whereas the SEC media remembers Georgia getting pantsed by Tennessee and then eking past Vandy. The national media probably isn't thinking about the effects that a four-game stretch of LSU in Baton Rouge, Florida in Jacksonville, Kentucky in Lexington, and Auburn on the Plains can have on a team, mainly because there wouldn't be anything like that in another conference. The SEC media understands the value of easier road games, so the fact that two of Florida's three road games are against Arkansas and Vandy is a big deal.

Normally, I would write off the media's love affair with Florida as "ooh, shiny offense!" In this case, I have an assumption that the SEC media is less likely to fall into this trap than the national media, so I tend to give the SEC media the benefit of the doubt that they aren't forgetting that defense occasionally matters, too. Then again, maybe I shouldn't. Someone else might remember the details better, but my recollection is that there was a streak running for about a decade in which the preseason SEC favorite did not win the league. That streak would have been broken by LSU last year, but I seem to recall that the streak dated back to the mid-90s.

Anyway, if you asked me right now, I'd say that Georgia has the better team, but that Florida is more likely to win the East because of their schedule. I would rank Georgia ahead of Florida in a preseason top 25 because those rankings are meant to rank the best teams and not necessarily the teams that are likely to finish the season on top. I would pick the SEC East in the following order: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Vandy. (Boring, I know.) So, to answer Barnhart's question, the simplest explanation for the disparity between the national media picking their top 25s and the SEC media predicting the order of finish in the SEC East is that those two medias have different missions in late July.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Are you F***ing Kidding me?

Olympiakos? Really?

This is a massive repudiation of everything that Atlanta Spirit has done to run the Hawks since buying the team. It's one thing to lose Josh Childress to a better NBA team that outbid them. That would be one thing. To lose him to a Greek team is simply unforgivable. The fact that Childress would rather play with this collection of players (hey, it's Lynn Greer! From Temple!) instead of an NBA team is a searing indictment.

What makes the deal even worse from my perspective as a Hawks fan is that Childress didn't really get a huge deal. The Hawks were offering $5.5M per year and he signed for $6.6M per year. (One major caveat: there may be perks that amplify the Olympiakos offer. Lower taxes would be one possibility. If you've ever been to Greece and know how that economy operates, you can probably figure out some other possibilities. One little nugget I learned about Greece while reading The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football: by one estimate, 5% of Greece's GDP is devoted to betting on football.) This isn't a Samuel Eto'o situation where Childress was offered a massive raise to join an inferior league. Rather, Childress apparently: (1) took stock on where the Hawks are and where they're going; (2) figured out that the Hawks were likely to match any offers made by other teams; and (3) decided that he would rather play in Greece than play for the Hawks. In the NBA.

[Update: a helpful commenter pointed out that Childress's $20M is post-tax income, so his contract represents a major increase over what the Hawks offered. My caveat turned out to be right, and that's before we get to the "sketchy Greek economy" factor.]

And here's the real kicker: Childress is a smart guy. If some dolt with more hops than sense decided that he didn't like the direction of the team, then that would be one thing. This, in contrast, is a Stanford-educated athlete taking in a situation for four years and making the judgment that he wants no part of the Hawks. That said, Childress also seems like the kind of guy who would enjoy living in another country, which makes him unique. If I could smear with a broad brush for a moment, most American professional athletes lack the cosmopolitan sense to move to another country (if they have domestic options), especially another country where English is not the primary language. Childress is not that sort of guy, which is to his credit.

I feel like a total fool for having defended Atlanta Spirit to any extent. Their approach to Childress could not have been any more penny wise and pound foolish. I'm all for playing hardball, but when they got wind that Childress was considering this move, they should have stepped in and done what it took to keep him. Now, they have damaged the team's reputation and its ability to sell tickets, presumably because they wouldn't up the ante by a million or so per year. The alternative explanation is that they tried to up the offer and Childress said no, which is an even bigger indictment. I also wonder whether their cheap-ass decision to keep Mike Woodson played a role. Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia were the most out-spoken in their feelings about Woodson, but Childress very well may have been harboring similar feelings, only Childress was professional enough to keep those opinions to himself.

If you can't tell from the direction of this post, I always liked Childress as a player and I like him a little more this morning. He's a good defender, he moves well without the ball, he finishes at the basket, and his ugly shot is fairly effective. The Hawks were a better team with him on the floor because he did all the little things to win games. If he were white, he would have gotten all of the David Eckstein adjectives. This morning, I can add two more compliments. I like a player who has the guts to call his poorly run employer's bluff. I like an American who is willing to take the chance to live somewhere else.

In sum, this blog has been heading in the direction of being solely focused on college football and European footie. Childress's move and the underlying dysfunctions that it highlights in the ownership group running two of the four local pro sports collectives demonstrates exactly why my attention has gone in the direction that it has.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Three Years Ago...

So I was thinking this weekend as the Braves were getting pummeled twice at home by the hapless Nationals that the Hawks are officially the best pro team in the city. The Falcons and Thrashers are one of the two worst teams in their respective leagues, while the Braves are meandering under .500 and have put together one of the worst outfields in recent memory. Meanwhile, the Hawks are coming off of a season in which they made the playoffs and pushed the eventual champions to a seventh game. Yes, the Hawks did so after finishing eight games under .500 and they didn't come close to winning a game in Boston, but work with me here.

Anyway, it was only three years ago that the roles were completely reversed. At this time three years ago, the Braves were en route to their 14th straight divisional title. They were in the process of reinventing the team with a corps of players from the minors, led by local products Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann. The Falcons were coming off of a season in which they made the NFC Championship Game. They had Michael Vick, one of the biggest stars in the NFL. The Thrashers had not yet made the playoffs, but they had assembled a nucleus of Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley (one month from being dealt to Ottawa), and Kari Lehtonen. The future of all three teams looked bright. Only the Hawks were in the toilet, as they were coming off a season in which they won a whopping 13 games and finished with the worst record in the NBA.

What are the lessons here? I can think of a few possibilities:

1. As bad as things appear for our local sports collectives, fortunes can change in a relatively short amount of time. With progressive drafts and salary caps (in three of four sports), three years is an eternity in American professional sports. That said...

2. This is Atlanta and bad things will happen.

3. The Braves, Falcons, and Thrashers were all stocked with young players, but bad decisions from management of those three teams (the Thrashers and Falcons far more so than the Braves) caused the teams to founder. This is a clear lesson for the Hawks. Assembling good young talent is only the first step. That young talent needs a supporting cast. The players also need hobbies that don't violate federal law.

Friday, July 18, 2008

I Come not to Bury Atlanta Spirit, but to Praise them

My greatest fear for the Hawks' off-season was the following: Atlanta Spirit is too cheap to pay for a coaching upgrade over Mike Woodson, so they keep Woodson and that decision is the last straw that causes Josh Smith to bolt. Part one of the scenario came true, but it's looking like management's decision not to break the bank for Smith is going to pay off. Rather than lavishing Smith with a massive contract, they instead left him to his own devices, knowing that the Hawks would have a chance to match any offer. They let the market set Smith's value and right now, that value doesn't appear to be too high. It's not that the rest of the NBA sees Smith as being an overrated player. Rather, Atlanta Spirit's decision has paid off because there are few teams with cap space to make a serious play for Smith and those teams preferred to go after unrestricted free agents as opposed to having their cap space in limbo for a week after signing Smith, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet. There is some risk to the "f*** you" pair of moves (retaining Woodson and then not signing Smith) in that Josh might pull a Cristiano Ronaldo a demand a move, but right now, the hardball approach appears to have worked.

Atlanta Spirit's approach could not be any different than that of Arthur Blank's. While Atlanta Spirit is letting the market dictate Josh Smith's salary, Blank fell all over himself to lavish Matt Ryan with a contract so outlandish that it made Ryan the poster child for overpaid NFL rookies. This analogy isn't perfect because Ryan couldn't go to any other teams, whereas Josh Smith theoretically can, but the approach taken by the two different owners is illustrative. For my money, the only reason why Blank is seen as a better owner than Atlanta Spirit is because he's much better at public relations. OK, there's also the fact that he spends more money than Atlanta Spirit, but that spendthrift trait is a negative in a sport with a hard salary cap.

Speaking of Blank, the chapter on the Falcons in the 2008 Pro Football Prospectus takes a number of shots at Blank for mismanaging the team. The opening two paragraphs are an outstanding summary of the perfect storm that hit the team last year. The piece then goes into Blank's love affair with Vick, his willingness to go after Pete Carroll after another college coach just bombed, and his generally overbearing approach in a field in which he lacks expertise. The piece concludes by guessing that Blank will make Ryan the centerpiece of the team's marketing efforts (after all, he's the FACE OF THE FRANCHISE) and thus, the Falcons will rush Ryan onto the field before he's ready and before they've assembled a decent supporting cast for him.

As I was reading the chapter on the Falcons, I was wondering how much money I'd pay to hear Steak Shapiro read it on the air. Could he make it through three pages ripping on Arthur Blank?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

I'm Having a William Safire Moment

I am tired of the term "spread offense." It's become the term du jour in college football, but I'm not sure that anyone can really define it in a useful way. Most generally, it describes teams that use the shotgun and three-, four-, or five-wide sets on a regular basis. Thus, the term covers every offense from Texas Tech, which averaged 470 yards passing and 59 yards rushing per game, to West Virginia, which averaged 297 yards rushing and 159 yards passing last year. Any term that purports to lump those two offenses together, like the name Anakin Skywalker, no longer has any meaning for me. If you tell me that there's a feline in my backyard, I'd prefer to know if it's Garfield or a Siberian Tiger. So, I'm going to make a small suggestion for the college football blogosphere going forward. Let's all be precise when describing offenses. I don't profess to be an expert in x's and o's. I'm just a fan who likes to watch a lot of college football and, like a stopped clock, make the occasional clever observation. So, these are more suggestions than firm statements. Here are the categories that I'd propose:

1. The Run 'n' Shoot

As the term "spread" is used these days, the Run 'n' Shoot isn't really a spread offense because the quarterback doesn't present a running threat. Take this solid article from Bob Davie. Even though he defines the spread as including Texas Tech and Kentucky, the way he describes the offense is by illustrating the fundamental principle of the "spread" offense as it is currently employed: use the quarterback (especially with the zone read play) as a runner to outnumber the defense. I'm proposing that the term "spread" no longer be employed to describe teams that don't use this principle that Davie illustrates. Instead, Run 'n' Shoot can describe offenses like those found at Texas Tech, SMU, and Purdue. If you prefer, pass-based spread can also be an acceptable term.

2. The Fast Break

There's an off-shoot of offense that requires its own category: superpower programs that throw from the shotgun, four-wide look a lot to take advantage of a talented quarterback, a deep receiving corps, and a capable pass-blocking offensive line that doesn't require help from tight ends and fullbacks to protect the passer. Florida State's offense under Mark Richt with Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke under center comes to mind as the most obvious example. That offense got the name "Fast Break" because the Noles went without a huddle, so the term might be of limited value when applied to other teams. Other examples in this category would be Ohio State 2005-6, Michigan in the Citrus Bowl against Florida, Oklahoma in 2000, and Auburn with Dameyune Craig. (I'm probably violating a cardinal Southern blogger rule by saying something nice about Tater Tot, but Terry Bowden did run this offense very well without having a talent advantage over Auburn's major competitors.) The New England Patriots' offense from last year comes to mind. Alabama arguably tried this approach last year and figured out that they don't have a talent advantage over their opponents, especially with John Parker Wilson under center. Again, while its technically true that these teams all spread their opponents out with multiple receiver sets, none of them used the concepts that have now come to define the "spread" offense.

3. The Pure Run-based Spread

This is the category of offense that most closely resembles the option-heavy offenses that dominated college football in the 70s (at least in the SEC, Big Ten, and Big Eight). As Davie illustrated, this offense is based off of the zone read play and also uses option plays from the shotgun. Instead of using multiple running backs like the wishbone or the Nebraska I-formation, this offense works the slot receivers into the running game. Unlike the first two categories of offenses, this offense requires a running quarterback, but it can compensate for an average-throwing player under center. West Virginia with Pat White is the best example of this offense. Illinois with Juice Williams under center is another good example. Texas with Vince Young would be a third example, although Vince turned out to be a better thrower than either Juice Williams or Pat White. Maybe South Florida is a fourth example?

One incidental note on Rich Rodriguez: I would not put either his Tulane offense or his Clemson offense into this category. Rather, the pure run-based spread appears to have evolved in the past several years. Rodriguez started out with a balanced offense and slowly mutated into the modern-day version of the wishbone, capable of putting up 400 yards rushing on any given day.

4. The New Hampshire Offense / the Urban Meyer Special

I'm thinking of two particular offenses here: the Urban Meyer offense and the Chip Kelly offense that Oregon ran last year with Dennis Dixon. This is arguably the hardest offense to staff because it requires a quarterback who can throw better than Juice Williams and run better than Chris Leak. On the other hand, the offense tends to produce easy reads for the quarterback and wide open receivers, so the passer doesn't have to be that proficient. The Meyer/Kelly offense seems to be more balanced than the Rodriguez West Virginia offense, although I'm willing to consider whether that's simply a function of the talent available at quarterback for those coaches. The Randy Walker Northwestern offense deserves a shout here, as it always balanced the run and pass nicely out of the shotgun, but didn't use too much option, if I recall correctly. The John L. Smith Michigan State offense also falls into this category.

Some follow-up questions for the world:

1. Where does Missouri fall? Category four? And Kansas? Category one?

2. There is a follow-up post percolating in my head right now. Warren Buffett has a saying that with every trend, there are three categories of people: innovators, imitators, and idiots. Divide the minds behind various incarnations of the "spread" into those categories. Right now, that post would simply be a chance for me to mock Charlie Weis's 30-minute attempt to run the run-based spread all over again.

3. I'm very open to additional categories and subdivisions. In other words, someone with a better grasp of x's and o's (as opposed to my "that quarterback can't throw; put the offense in category three" level of analysis) might want to take this ball and run with it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

One Time in London I'd Gone out for a Walk

My apologies for the dearth of posting recently. Things have been hectic at work, sandwiched around a three-day trip to London for the Fourth of July weekend. Since I know you're all on pins and needles for my thoughts on the trip, here's a brief photo diary:

This has to be the most inexplicable advertisement I've ever seen. I took this shot in an elevator at the Covent Gardens tube stop. I still can't decide whether this is some sort of joke and English gays know that South Carolina isn't noted as a haven of tolerance for...just about anyone or if it's just the worst idea ever. Come to think of it, you could do a pretty good movie in which gay Londoners go to Myrtle Beach, only it would be a little derivative of this:

Needless to say, I know what picture is going up on the blog on the Friday before the Georgia-South Carolina game.

This is a shell from the largest gun that the Wehrmacht produced during WWII. The gun required a crew of 1,400 to operate, it took six weeks to assemble, and the Germans fired about 45 shells from it for the entire war. If you ever wanted a perfect example of German over-engineering, this is it.

The shell, incidentally, can be found at the Imperial War Museum, which currently has a bitchin' James Bond exhibit on the occasion of Ian Fleming's 100th birthday. Sadly, because photos were verboeten in the exhibit, I don't have pictures of the nuclear bomb from Octopussy or Ian Fleming's desk or the note that Stalin sent to Fleming denying a request for an interview. I didn't know much about Fleming before going to the exhibit, so I was interested to learn that his passions were golf, gambling, drinking, smoking, and women. Sound like any fictional secret agents we know? I also found it interesting that Fleming's father died in WWI when Fleming was eight and Fleming then found a father figure in Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming's boss in WWII when Fleming worked in naval intelligence. Accordingly, M is supposed to be Bond's father figure in the books, which makes Dame Judi Dench's casting in the role a little interesting. Speaking of the Dame, here's the trailer for Quantum of Solace:

Other than the fact that there are some parallels to License to Kill, one of the weaker Bond movies, it looks good.

Yes, that is in fact a man playing a guitar in a trash can. I took this shot in Cambridge.

This is pretty much the only sports-related picture that I snapped in London. Behold, the outside of the Emirates from a train speeding by! I was pretty far removed from the world of sports while I was across the pond, with the exception of watching the extended highlights of the Federer-Nadal match. I'm not going out on a limb when I say it was one of the best tennis matches I've ever seen. It's rare to see a game/match in which the two teams/players are both at the top of their game. The closest college football parallel I could think of was the Texas-USC Rose Bowl. I was a tennis fan as a kid, but had lost the fever as an adult. Now, I'm certainly looking forward to the U.S. Open.

This is proof that I am, in fact, a 14-year old. I am quite confident that the term means something different in England than it does to the Beavis and Butthead generation in America.