Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Best and Worst of Bill Simmons in One Handy Capsule

I have a love-hate relationship with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, this is my 21st post about his columns and most of those posts have been some variety of "this argument is totally wrong!" He is typically irrational when it comes to the Boston teams, which is to be expected, and he lets that irrationality affect his analysis, which is a problem for a guy who's paid to write smart columns about sports. He turned me into a Peyton Manning fan, which is quite an accomplishment in light of the fact that I swore eternal vengeance against Manning and Phil Fulmer for lying down in the January 1998 Orange Bowl. The recent dominance of Boston teams has been the worst development for my enjoyment of Simmons' work.

On the other hand, I read Simmons with more regularity than any other columnist. He doesn't just have a good writing style; he clearly cares about the craft of writing. His reading habits are evident in his writing and I appreciate anyone who reads voraciously. I wish I had more time to do the same. Simmons is so much better than the average columnist because he's a product of the Internet. He knows that there is a market out there for analysis that goes deeper than "Derek Jeter is clutch because his teams win." He knows that there are better stats than the conventional ones that one would see opening a newspaper, as evidenced by his collaboration with people like Aaron Schatz and John Hollinger. That said, he does get lazy with his analysis...

Take today's effort regarding Mike D'Antoni. This paragraph irked me:

We spent so much time arguing SSOL's team merits that we never noticed its effects on careers. Remember what happened to Quentin Richardson when he left Phoenix? (Even Sugar from Survivor didn't disappear as quickly.) Have you seen Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa or Raja Bell this season? (Overpaid bench players, as it turns out.) Or Amaré Stoudemire? (Is he even an All-Star anymore?) Have you caught Al Harrington, David Lee, Nate Robinson and Duhon in the Knicks' version of the SSOL system? (Suddenly, they're gone in every fantasy league.) Most important, has anyone seen Steve Nash lately?

Initially, the paragraph bothered me because Simmons ought to acknowledge that Joe Johnson has had an excellent career since leaving Phoenix. Billy Knight was ripped for signing Johnson to a massive deal and giving up a lot to acquire him. The source of the critique was that Johnson would not be the same player outside of Phoenix's system and without Steve Nash to feed him the ball. Now, Johnson is the lead player for a 21-10 team. He's turned into a good scoring option at the end of a tight game and he's also the Hawks' defensive stopper against opposing guards. If he were more of a character (you know, giving himself nicknames, getting stabbed in a nightclub, that sort of thing), he'd be one of the big stars in the league. Of all people who should know about Johnson, a Celtics nut who saw game four of the Celtics-Hawks series last year tops the list. He's a massive exception to Simmons' argument and he isn't mentioned.

So, with a skeptical eye, I decided to look at the players that Simmons did choose to cite to prove his point that players drop off the face of the earth when they are no longer playing for D'Antoni:

Quentin Richardson - Funny thing about Q, he's muddling along this year at 12 points per game while being coached by D'Antoni! If Simmons' theory were right, he should have exploded this year. Here are Richardson's PER numbers for the last four years:

2004-05 - 13.63
2005-06 - 9.61
2006-07 - 14.30
2007-08 - 8.72
2008-09 - 12.00

Richardson was in Phoenix for 2004-5 and then ended up with the Knicks thereafter. He had a great year for Phoenix, then a bad year, a good year, and a bad year for the Knicks. If I were trying to make the case that D'Antoni makes players better, I wouldn't choose a guy who had a better PER two years after playing for D'Antoni.

Boris Diaw - Diaw had a terrific 2005-6 that caused Hawks fans to want to send him or Mike Woodson a Semtex eclair (depending on whom we blamed for Diaw exploding after leaving Atlanta), then promptly declined thereafter:

2005-06 - 17.31
2006-07 - 13.02
2007-08 - 11.97
2008-09 - 13.55

Either D'Antoni was an apparition in 2006-07 and 2007-08 or Diaw declined while he was in the SSOL system. Note that Diaw's numbers have gotten better this year in year one AD'A.

Leandro Barbosa - Here is another guy who had one great year for D'Antoni, but started his decline while D'Antoni was still on the bench in Phoenix:

2005-06 - 15.14
2006-07 - 18.49
2007-08 - 15.81
2008-09 - 16.00

Barbosa's numbers are unchanged this year, despite the coaching change.

Raja Bell - Here is another guy whose decline started well before D'Antoni took the money from the Knicks:

2005-06 - 12.94
2006-07 - 12.01
2007-08 - 10.48
2008-09 - 8.97

Bell was 29 in 2005-06. The best explanation for his decline would be the fact that he has been moving farther and farther from his athletic prime.

Amaré Stoudemire - Finally, we have a guy who suffered from D'Antoni leaving:

2004-05 - 26.71
2005-06 - injured
2006-07 - 23.15
2007-08 - 27.29
2008-09 - 22.77

Stoudemire is not producing on the same levels he hit under D'Antoni. This could be the result of coaching, or it could be the result of Steve Nash showing his age. A third possibility is that we are dealing with a small sample size of 30 games and we need to wait a year or two before proclaiming that Stoudemire was destroyed by D'Antoni leaving Arizona.

As for the Knicks players, they are producing bigger numbers, but I don't see anyone proclaiming that Nate Robinson and Al Harrington are suddenly great players. Rather, I think most sane people realize that the Knicks are playing at a much faster pace this year, which means more shots for Knicks players and their opponents.

While Simmons' examples are faulty, his underlying point is spot-on:

The best thing that ever happened to Malone was Stockton, and vice versa; So, what if the Bullets hadn't screwed up and had picked Mailman one spot ahead of Utah instead of taking the immortal Kenny Green? How would you remember Dominique's career if the Lakers had picked him over Worthy? What if Pippen never played with MJ? What if McHale never played with Bird? What if young Kobe had gotten stuck on an expansion team instead of the Lakers? What if KG found a great team before he turned 30? What if Tim Duncan landed on the 1997-98 Celtics instead of the 1997-98 Spurs? In a league where you can play only five at a time, the fortunes of every good player are irrevocably tied to those of his teammates and coach. For better and worse.

If I had to pick one mistake that sports columnists make more than any other, it's that they fail to appreciate context. I've yet to see anyone in the AJC note that we all thought that Mark Richt was a great coach when Georgia's primary rivals were coached by Phil Fulmer, Ron Zook, and Chan Gailey, but now we all have gnawing concerns because of Urban Meyer and Paul Johnson. We all thought that Leo Mazzone was the greatest pitching coach on earth, but how much of that was based on the fact that he could trot out Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz on a regular basis? We all worried that Joe Johnson was a complementary piece masquerading as a star, but look at what Johnson looks like now with a proper point guard and more mature sidekicks at the forward positions?

Simmons makes a great point. I just wish that he would have remembered it when he claimed last year that the 2007 NFL season was resolving the Manning-Brady debate, as if Brady's numbers had nothing to do with having a motivated Randy Moss on the team. Or maybe Simmons will acknowledge that he thought that Doc Rivers was one of the worst coaches in basketball when the Celtics were tanking in 2007, but now he loves the Doc who gets to coach Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and a maturing Rondo.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Five Thoughts on 11-5

1. Was I the only one who watched the game yesterday and said to myself "how did this Rams team come in at 2-13?" I understand that their defense is horrendous, but Mark Bulger, Steven Jackson, and Torry Holt ought to be a good nucleus for an offense. The Rams have had injuries this year, especially to the offensive line, so I guess that explains a lot of their shortcomings, but the team on the field yesterday was not a bad team. They were helped by the fact that the Falcons' defensive line is not very good, especially with John Abraham not getting many snaps. That said...

2. I would normally deride the Falcons as being a lucky team for winning six of seven games decided by one score. In this case, there is one factor that makes the Falcons a good bet to win more than their share of close games: the substitutions on the defensive line. I've harped on this before, but the Falcons' rotation of eight defensive linemen allows the team to have a fourth quarter pass rush. In the last three weeks, the Falcons had gotten a big fourth quarter sack on the opponent's final drive all three times. John Abraham was the hero against Tampa and Minnesota; Chauncey Davis was the hero yesterday. Ask a Saints fan how their season would have been different with late sacks against the Bears and Panthers. The difference between teams in the NFL is very small, as yesterday's game between a 2-13 road team and a 10-5 home team illustrated. Having fresh defensive linemen in the fourth quarter provides a critical advantage for the Falcons against equivalent teams.

2a. That said, I'd love to see two or three new defensive linemen enter the rotation in free agency and the Draft.

2b. The embers of the 2008 regular season were still hot last night and ESPN was already running a projection for the first ten picks of the Draft on their crawl.

3. Mike Smith, you clearly understand the importance of using your depth when it comes to the offensive line. You're certainly a smart enough guy to notice the elite teams in the league using running back rotations. You have one of the best back-up running backs in the league, a guy who sends a charge through the crowd every time he touches the ball. So why oh why did Michael Turner get 376 carries this year and break the sacred rule of 370?

4. Matt Ryan is in a definite slump right now. He reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Like Roethlisberger, Ryan's problem is that he is making inaccurate throws. It isn't that opposing defenses are confusing Ryan and he's making bad reads, as one would expect from a rookie. Rather, Ryan has been missing high with the ball. Roethlisberger had a thumb injury that caused the ball to sail on him. I wouldn't be shocked if we hear after the season that Ryan also has some sort of hand injury that has affected his grip. It goes without saying that the Falcons aren't going to face too many defenses in January that will permit the Birds to run for 263 at 8.3 yards per carry, so Ryan needs to find the juice with which he was playing in the first three months of the season.

5. Does anyone have a problem with naming yesterday as Schadenfreude Sunday?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Rant on Baseball (Ending with a Link on Jeff Francoeur)

While talking to my brother on Sunday (the same brother who pointed out that Joe Johnson had an 84% chance of hitting his last free throw against the Celtics, the same way that a coin has a 50% chance of coming up heads even if it has come up heads on the last five flips), I realized that I like baseball much more as an intellectual proposition than as a sport. The game itself is too slow. If I've started watching soccer more and more in place of the NFL because soccer is constant action and the NFL is intermittent action broken up by interminable commercial breaks and trips to the peep show hood by an official, then what does that imply for my consumption of baseball, a sport that is even more intermittent in its action. Is there anything less exciting than a batter stepping out after every pitch to adjust his batting gloves as some sort of nervous tick? Baseball is crying out for an initiative like the one the NHL successfully executed after the strike where they cut a half an hour out of games by speeding up line changes and faceoffs. I still like the idea of going to a baseball game, but that's more because I enjoy the company of the people with whom I attend games. Baseball games are a good trigger for conversation.

I'm also disillusioned by baseball because of the way the Yankees and (to a lesser extent) the Red Sox dominate attention to the sport. This offseason has been frustrating as a Braves fan because the team has money to spend and pitching holes to fill, but it is priced out of the market because the Yankees can afford to take dumb risks that Atlanta and just about every other team in baseball have to eschew. No other team in baseball can afford the prospect of paying A.J. Burnett $16.5M for his age 36 season. As the last several years have shown, spending 30-50% more than their nearest competitors hasn't guaranteed success for the Yankees, but the mere fact that the Yankees were dumb with their resources in recent years doesn't mean that it's any less annoying now that they are slightly smarter (or at least in an early spending cycle, prior to looking dumb again in 2012-3 when they have a pile of dead money on their books).

(For those of you who might point out that I'm a bit of a hypocrite rooting for Barcelona and ripping on the Yankees, I have three responses. First, Barca don't spend any more than Real Madrid, the Big Four in England, the two Milan sides, and Bayern Munich. Second, half of Barca's current side is composed of products of the youth system, including the team's three best players: Messi, Xavi, and Puyol. Third, Barca are a club that never had a shirt sponsor until they put Unicef on the front. They actually pay another entity for the space on their shirts instead of the reverse. In a way, the club are the antithesis of a team that wins through the projection of raw economic power. Barca are an institution owned by their fans; the Yankees are a profit machine that wins through good marketing paired with the fact that they were born on third base.)

Despite the fact that I'm not at all enthusiastic about sitting down to watch a baseball game, I do like the idea of analyzing why teams win and lose. I don't like the game as a spectacle, but I do enjoy reading the Baseball Prospectus. I like being educated about the Braves. More generally, baseball lends itself to statistical analysis more than any other sport because performance can be isolated so precisely, so I enjoy reading that statistical analysis done properly.

With that unintended diversion aside, the Prospectus has a lengthy analysis of Jeff Francoeur's 2008 collapse($). The conclusion is that he has no sense of the strike zone. Early in his career, he swung at everything. As time went on and pitchers started throwing him crap, he started taking more pitches, but he's indiscriminate in the pitches that he takes. Rather than swinging at strikes and looking at balls, there is apparently no rhyme or reason to when he swings and when he takes. Here's the money graf:

Jeff's plate discipline is a major, major concern, and unfortunately he has done literally nothing to show any hint of improvement. In his rookie season, he swung at 34.7 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone. In 2006, this rose to 36.7 percent, and over the last two seasons, to 36.7 and 36.3 percent. Granted, he has not gotten any worse in this regard, but maintaining the status quo in this situation is not a positive. Curiously enough, his rates of swinging at pitches in the strike zone have declined, from 85.8 percent in 2006, to 76.1 percent in 2008. Francouer still cannot lay off of pitches he shouldn't be swinging at, and is keeping the bat on his shoulder on called strikes. I don't know how anyone can truly succeed like that. Compounding the problem is that Francouer is now seeing more pitches out of the strike zone. And why not? If opposing pitchers know he can't resist them, why bother giving him anything in the zone? Even with an increasing rate of contact on balls out of the zone, his overall numbers speak volumes for the type of contact he is managing.

Francoeur knows what the problem is and has every incentive to solve it. I'm leery that he actually can. The list of players who have developed a batting eye over the course of their careers is a short one.

Sunday, December 21, 2008




And not only are the Falcons going to the playoffs, but assuming a victory next week over a Rams team that is decidedly without hap, the Falcons are going to be favored in round one on the road at Arizona. The Cards have been outscored on the season and are 3-7 outside of their wretched division. In other words, there is a very good chance that the Falcons will be playing a game in Charlotte or the Meadowlands in January.

[Update: in all the discussion about Carolina potentially winning the top seed in the NFC, I forgot that a Panthers loss would put the Falcons in position to win the division. So now, Atlanta is a win over a two-win St. Louis team and a Saints win at home against Carolina from winning the division, getting the #2 seed, and playing a home game for the right to play in the NFC Championship Game. In other words, Carolina would have to become the first NFC South team to win a road game in the division in order to prevent the Falcons from getting the #2 seed. Pity the poor Saints. Their reward for winning their final game and finishing with a winning record would be to hand the division title to their arch-rival. If not for parenting obligations, I would be tempted to go to the Saints-Panthers game this weekend in Falcons gear just to be obnoxious.]

With those happy thoughts out of the way, I have to make an obvious point: the Falcons were fortunate to win today. Minnesota moved the ball fairly consistently on the Falcons' defense, but the Vikings put the ball on the ground repeatedly and the Falcons fell on it repeatedly. Since the recovery of fumbles is an essentially random occurrence, Atlanta was lucky in winning a one-score game in which they fell on the ball the first four times the Vikes put it on the ground and the Falcons fell on their own fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Minnesota outgained the Falcons by 128 yards and 1.2 yards per play. Those numbers are a little inflated because the Falcons spent the whole fourth quarter trying to run clock and the Vikings spent the fourth quarter in two-minute mode. Still, after the Falcons' first drive, they were outplayed. The game was the reverse of the Vikings-Saints game earlier this year, in which New Orleans badly outplayed Minnesota and lost because of a variety of freaky occurrences that should be expected by Saints fans at this stage.

And while I'm complaining about a 10-5 team that was predicted to be one of the worst in the NFL, another beef: the Falcons get very predictable with the lead. Lloyd Carr would have approved of the playcalling in the fourth quarter, which was very, very basic and allowed the Vikings to seize momentum. As good as Michael Turner is, the Falcons' passing game is the team's best attribute (other than the punting unit, which would make Jim Tressel proud). With a lead in the fourth quarter, the Falcons voluntarily did away with that asset, save for a couple very predictable throws on third and loss and a moderately predictable rollout on second down on their last offensive series prior to kneeling.

The one guy who makes Atlanta's conservative end-game strategy work is John Abraham. If Bill Walsh is right that a fourth quarter pass rush is the key to success in the NFL, then Abraham deserves consideration for NFL MVP because he's consistently making plays at the end of close games. His sack of Tarvaris Jackson was critical. Mike Smith and Brian VanGorder also deserve credit for Abraham's exploits at the end of games because of their rotation of defensive linemen (including Abraham) throughout the game. I always associated cycling of defensive linemen with college football powers as opposed to NFL teams (Florida State in the 90s comes to mind immediately), so maybe having a former Georgia defensive coordinator has been a good thing for the Falcons.

Other random thoughts on the game:

1. There are certain universal Atlanta sports experiences. One such experience is bitching about Keith Brooking. Der Wife does so on just about every defensive snap. I watched the first half of the game at the gym today and after Brooking whiffed on a sack when he came in unblocked at Jackson, the guy next to me broke into a tirade that surprised his wife and just about everyone around us. I'll go out on a limb and guess that his reaction was universal, outside of Beau Bock's living room. Going into action today, the Falcons were 22nd in the NFL at defending against opposing tight ends (according to Football Outsiders' numbers). This was before Visanthe Shiancoe exposed the Falcons' defense repeatedly. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Remind me who plays strongside linebacker and is responsible for opposing tight ends? The Falcons came into the game 31st in the NFL against opposing running backs, so it isn't as if Boley and Lofton have covered themselves with glory. The question for Thomas Dimitroff is whether the linebackers are bad in coverage or whether they have tougher coverage assignments because they have to help out a mediocre secondary.

2. Dick Stockton sure does seem excited every time that Matt Ryan makes a play. I always hated Stockton for teaming up with Tommy Heinsohn for the most openly biased announcer pairing in the 80s when they would call Celtics games (at least until the Mike Patrick-Dick Vitale pairing for Duke games), so I have a strange sense of entitlement that Stockton has called a number of Falcons games this year and clearly likes Ryan. I've also enjoyed Brian Billick, who is perfect for the color role. I especially liked Billick today because he was the offensive coordinator for the Vikings when the Falcons upset them in the January 1999 NFC Championship game, so everything he said reminded me of one of my few happy Falcons memories.

3. Speaking of memories, Tarvaris Jackson reminds me of Michael Vick. Same number, same facemask, same running threat, same indecision in the pocket. That last clause aside, Jackson did play very well today. Speaking of Vick, he must have seen the graphic on the Falcons having the fewest dropped passes in the NFL and muttered to himself "must be nice."

4. The Falcons did a great job on Adrian Peterson. Jackson's solid performance had to be an off-shoot of the Falcons paying attention to the Vikings' best player.

5. I'm loving you, Matt Ryan, but please watch out for that rush of blood when you think you're going to hurdle into the end zone. Thanks, the management.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Damn you, Kevin Garnett's Impossible Wingspan!

1. Overall, I'm pleased with the Hawks' performance against the Celtics last night. It would have been nice to continue the home winning streak against Boston and maybe give the Celtics some reservations about playing at Philips. That said, the Hawks have now played the 23-2 Celtics twice this year and both games came down to the final possession. In November, Paul Pierce hit a very difficult shot to win the game. In December, Kevin Garnett hit a somewhat easier shot to take the lead and then Joe Johnson missed the tying free throw with 2.7 seconds remaining. Speaking of which...

2. You'll have to trust me when I say that I remarked to Der Wife when ESPN flashed a graphic that Johnson, an 84% free throw shooter, was seven for seven from the stripe "he's due to miss one." If you can't tell, I don't think that I can really jinx a player shooting a basketball eight miles away.

3. Garnett got exactly what he wanted on the go-ahead hoop in the final minute. He got the ball on the left wing, dribbled to the middle of the lane, and dropped a little jump hook over Josh Smith. Smith was too reliant on his shot-blocking skills against a guy who is almost unblockable in the lane because of his wingspan. In Smith's defense, I'm quite positive that he was terrified of bodying Garnett and trying to stop him from getting into the middle because he knew the refs would whistle him for it. [Insert standard "the Celtics get all the calls" rant from the 80s here, updated to reflect the fact that Paul Pierce is now the one who goes to the line whenever a defender exhales in his general presence.]

4. If you asked me for the major difference between the Hawks and the Celtics 25 games into the season after the teams have played two very tight games, I'd have to say it's Mike Bibby. The Celtics don't have a defensive weakness on their team. The closest they come is Ray Allen and he's not exactly a bad defender. Of the ten starters on the two teams, Bibby is by far the worst defender. Normally, the Hawks can hide him on Rajon Rondo, but last night, when the Celtics needed a basket, they ran a screen up top for Pierce to get Bibby on him. In contrast, there are no weak defenders on the Celtics for the Hawks to target using ball screens.

4a. I would have thought going into the season that the Celtics' major advantage against the Hawks would be their bench, but the benches battled to a draw last night, scoring 13 points apiece. The Hawks' bench outscored the Celtics' bench 30-13 in the first meeting.

5. Random player note number one: Boston's big three is Garnett-Pierce-Rondo, not Garnett-Pierce-Allen.

6. Random player note number two: we're 25 games into the season and I keep wanting to call Maurice Evans Anthony Peeler when I see him. I think it's the number, the bald head, and the body type. Or maybe I have Missouri basketball players on the brain because a friend mentioned the '89 Rockets the other day and that led to a discussion about Derrick Chievous.

7. I was trying to figure out last night why the Hawks play so well against the Celtics. I kept thinking that the reason is that the Celtics have two guys on offense off of whom the Hawks can help defensively (Rondo and Kendrick Perkins) and that plays into the hands of a team that has a terrific help defender (Josh Smith) and a smart defensive coach who can use that advantage creatively. That said, the explanation might not be any more complicated than the fact that the Hawks are a young team that raises its game against good teams, especially a good team against whom they got their first taste of success last year.

8. The Philips homecourt advantage was back last night. The three games last spring were not a mirage. I don't remember watching another NBA regular season game this year that was quite that intense, but I'll concede that I'm probably projecting a little because I felt intense in my living room.

9. Josh Smith, I love you, but you're showing a little bit too much Rasheed Wallace with the refs.

10. So where do the Hawks find themselves 25 games into the season? Boston and Cleveland are clearly the class of the conference. Barring a major injury to one of their key players, those teams are heading for the Eastern Conference finals. Orlando are already four games up in the division, although they wouldn't scare me in the playoffs if the Hawks met them. The fourth seed seems like a good goal for the Hawks this year. It would be a major improvement over last season and it would give the team a good chance at making the second round of the playoffs. It wouldn't have been possible before the Iverson/Billups trade, but with Detroit giving up on the season, it's quite attainable.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Feelin' Peppy

Most of my Saturdays this fall have followed the same pattern. Wake up. Play with the older son for a while. Go out for lunch. Come home. Watch Michigan lose. Watch college football go on without the Wolverines. In a normal year, this would drive me batty. This year, thanks to GolTV, I always had a nice dessert after a wretched main course: a DVRed Barcelona game. Saturday night, when the family are all asleep, I could take my mind off of Michigan's latest failure by watching my favorite futbol side dismantle some hapless La Liga opponent.

For a while, I was trying to be cautious. Sure, Barca were putting up 4-0 scorelines with regularity, but they hadn't played any of the top sides in Spain and their Champions League group was the easiest of the eight. (Then again, Inter were probably saying the same thing when they were drawn with Bremen, Panathiniakos, and Anothorsis Famagusta [from Cyprus, naturally] and they contrived to finish second in that group.) Through a quirk in La Liga's schedule, Barca would play the other four contenders in succession in four week in November and December: at Sevilla, home to Valencia, home to Real Madrid, at Villarreal. Barca are now halfway through this stretch and have a 3-0 win over Sevilla and a 4-0 win over Valencia to their credit.

Madrid arrive at the Nou Camp on Saturday at 10 p.m. local time. Based on the form of the two sides, they are going to get smacked around something fierce. The Barca-Real Madrid rivalry has featured more than its share of blowouts, the most recent coming in the teams' last meeting last spring at the Bernabeu. At that time, Madrid had just clinched the league, Barca were in freefall, and the Catalans were subjected to the humiliation of having to form a guard of honor for Los Merengues as they took the field. Deco and Eto'o chose to avoid the humiliation by getting yellow cards in the preceding match, thus precipitating Barca's decision to put those two, along with the artist formerly known as Ronaldinho, on the market. Barca were an embarrassment in the match against Madrid, losing 4-1.

Fast forward seven months. Madrid are in shambles after their tedious fumbling in the backseat pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo failed over the summer. They've lost three of their last four and sit night points back in La Liga. By Sunday night, they could be out of all of the European spots. They were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Real Union Irun. Who? Exactly. They've just sacked their manager for suggesting that his side have no chance of winning El Clasico this weekend. (Real's appointment of Juande Ramos is the only factor that give Madridistas any hope that their side can get a result this weekend. Madrid can play a new style and they will certainly play harder for a coach who has not lost the dressing room. Barca fans can testify to that latter point.)

Meanwhile, Barca have not lost a match since the opening match of the season (excluding the meaningless Champions League tie on Tuesday in which Barca deployed its reserves). The Blaugrana have scored 44 goals in 14 league matches and have a ludicrous goal difference of +35. With the standard caveat that so much can change between now and the Champions League Final in Rome in May, Barca are the best team in Europe.

So how did this happen? Sid Lowe has a very perceptive piece on the changes that Barca has made under Pep Guardiola. He hits on all of the major factors: better team attitude, a renewed commitment to playing Barca's traditional style, intense pressure all over the pitch, and great players.

Barca's purchase of Dani Alves has been a game changer because he allows Barca to deploy three of the top players in the world - Alves, Messi, and Xavi - on the same side. Last year, Messi's tendency to drift in from the right (and Iniesta's similar tendency on the left) made Barca easy to defend because their 4-3-3 ended up being narrow. This year, with Alves posing such a threat wide on the right and Henry playing more as a true left winger, Barca is a wider team and that creates more open spaces for Messi to cut in and for Xavi to make runs into the box.

Barca's pressing style has also been effective. The offensive players all get after opponents as soon as they lose the ball. Barca's defense is not airtight by any means. I'd feel comfortable with a Puyol-Milito pairing at the center of defense; Pique-Marquez (with Puyol filling on on the left for an injured Eric Abidal) is a confidence-inspiring pairing. That said, Barca can get away with an average backline when opponents never see the ball because Barca is constantly taking it from them.

One last factor that has improved this year has been Barca's play on set pieces. Lowe covers their effectiveness on offensive set pieces, but I've been more impressed by Barca's defensive work on opposition corners and free kicks. This was always a bugaboo under Rijkaard. This year, Barca look like a more organized, focused team and that really shows up when they defend set pieces. They're like a football team that is rock solid on special teams; you just know that they look this way because they're well-coached. Hopefully, the proof will be on display tomorrow. I'm just itching to post a certain celebratory chant fron Samuel Eto'o...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Don't Punt, I Know Just What you're Thinking

Up until a few minutes to four on Sunday afternoon, I was having a perfect sports weekend. Michigan beat Duke in basketball. The Hawks beat the Knicks on Friday night and then put forward a credible showing in Dallas on Saturday night. Barca thrashed Valencia 4-0 to position themselves for a massive vengeance game against stumbling Real Madrid this weekend. Even the Thrashers managed to win a game.

Then, with his team trailing by four and a little more than three minutes remaining, Mike Smith elected to punt on 4th and 5 from his own 35. I looked at Der Wife and said "this game is over. We are never getting the ball back." Sure enough, the Saints got two first downs on three plays, then got a final first down to finish the game off. Let's count all the ways that this was a bad decision:

1. The Falcons' passing game had been playing well all game, averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt. The odds were better than 50/50 that Atlanta would get a first down.

2. The Saints' pass defense is horrendous.

3. The Saints' offense is excellent and had scored on six of nine possessions at that point. Thus, the odds were significantly less than 50/50 that the Falcons would ever see the ball again if they punted.

4. The Falcons hadn't stopped the immortal Pierre Thomas all day.

5. Even if everything went perfectly, the Falcons would get the ball back in roughly the same spot without their two timeouts and with about two minutes remaining.

Now, for the standard caveat that Mike Smith has done a great job this year. If you would have told me before the year that I would be bitching about a call at the end of a close game that left the Falcons at 8-5, I would have told future Michael to quit his moping and recognize that the season has been a massive success. We often tend to overrate late game strategic decisions when evaluating coaches, so I'm not saying that Smith isn't a good coach or hasn't done a great job this year. That said, he made a big blunder yesterday and it might be the difference between the team making the playoffs or staying home in January.

My other beef with the way the Falcons approached the game was that they ran the ball way too much. It was evident fairly early that the run wasn't working especially well (although I'll acknowledge that the fact that I missed the Falcons' first drive on which Michael Turner gained 35 yards on his first two carries colors my judgment here). It was also evident that Matt Ryan and Roddy White could have a field day against the Saints' secondary. Mike Mularkey needed to take a step back and forget the fact that Matt Ryan is a rookie. He needed to recognize that Ryan is playing like an upper echelon NFL quarterback and give him the chances to win the game on downs other than second and third and long.

Speaking of Ryan, I'm a stuck record, so I'll just say this again: he's excellent. I'm not sure if my favorite play yesterday was the one on which he stepped up in the pocket and found Roddy White to convert on third and 21 or the scramble that gave the Falcons their last lead of the game. G-d help the rest of the division if Ryan follows a normal trajectory for quarterback development.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


A Half-assed Liveblog of the SEC Title Game (sleeping sons permitting)

Bama was too conservative on its first series. Two runs between the tackles for three yards apiece, followed by a short pass that doesn't get a first down. Bama is playing a feeling out round, but they can't be giving up possessions against this Florida offense.

And Florida promptly makes Bama pay with a great drive to take the lead. Urban smartly goes to the no-huddle because he knows he has better depth than Alabama does. Bama's defensive strategy so far has been to bring blitzers up late to confuse Florida, but it wasn't working. Tebow's throw for the touchdown was excellent, an NFL improvisation to throw outside to a guy in the end zone with a defender in man coverage. Initiative to Florida.

And Alabama promptly takes it back. Shock of shocks, they throw the ball on first down, Julio Jones is open, and he rambles inside the Florida 20. Charlie Strong has to shade his defense to account for Jones. Julio reminds me more and more of David Boston in terms of being a really big guy with excellent speed. Bama then takes the momentum and scores on the next play. Glen Coffee had an acre of space on the right side. Uh oh, Gator front seven.

If I were Charlie Strong, I would assume that Alabama are going to break all of their tendencies in this game.

Does Florida have much experience punting the ball? They're excellent on special teams, but this could be a soft spot.

Bama is much stronger when they throw the ball on first down.

Two straight three-and-outs for Florida's offense. Bama is stopping the Florida running game on the early downs and Meyer's offense plays off of the running game. The two-man rush on third down was reminiscent of Mickey Andrews' oft-successful strategy against Steve Spurrier.

I'm not buying what Danielson is selling that this is the 2007 Florida offense because of Harvin's injury. The 2007 Florida offense was all Tebow and Harvey because the Gators didn't have a functional tailback and had to replace that position with a quarterback and a slot receiver. This year, Florida has two tailbacks. I don't see the offense being that different, other than the fact that it's a little less effective.

Florida has looked labored in the red zone so far in the game. They don't have the ability to push Bama's front seven off the ball.

I'll be honest here. I just spent the last 20 minutes watching my alma mater's rebirth in hoops. I talked about this Alabama-Florida game for weeks and then got caught up in remembering what it's like for Michigan-Duke to mean something. I came back in time to see Tebow throw a touchdown to take the lead.

Why in the world did Urban Meyer not take a timeout after Florida stopped Alabama with a minute and change left in the second quarter? It's not like Meyer to lack aggression.

Halftime note: I had Fox Brothers BBQ for the first time for lunch. Holy hell was it good. I'm a conisseur of half chickens at local BBQ restaurants and this one was especially good because it was done like Memphis ribs with smoke and a rub as opposed to heavy sauce.

Alabama has figured out that throwing on first down is their best chance to move the ball. Conversely, I love the draw play to Glen Coffee on third and five. Running on passing downs is a nice idea.

Bama ties the game on a monstrous 15-play drive. That was absolutely critical for three reasons. First, the Tide will have Florida worried about the pass and the run the rest of the game because of the balance they've been able to maintain. Second, Bama's offensive line is asserting itself against the Florida front. Third, Bama just shortened the game and minimized Florida's depth advantage by reducing the number of aggregate plays and drives.

"The whole offense is #15." Florida immediately then gets four yards up the middle from Jeff Demps. Good timing, Danielson. Maybe now's a good time for another rant about how the spread doesn't work.

Tebow misses a big third down throw on an open slant and then the Gators miss a field goal. We have a 19-minute game for the SEC Title. Eat your heart out, Big XII.

Alabama's offense is composed of three good plays: runs out of the one-back, two-tight end formation, play-action throws off of the one-back runs, and square-ins to Julio Jones. Unless I missed it when I was watching basketball, Alabama's passing game has all gone to the tight ends and Jones. Hell, if it's working, why do anything different?

Florida retakes the lead. The drive gave me two thoughts. First, on their biggest drive of the season, Florida put the ball in the hands of their tailbacks time and again, including an Emmanuel Moody sighting. 2007 offense, my ass. Second, I'm trying to figure out what Saban is doing against the Florida offense and one conclusion is that he isn't taking too many risks. He's forcing Florida to beat him in five-yard in five-yard increments. Alternatively, Bama might be forcing Florida to be patient because they're good tacklers and they're used to playing a high-pressure defensive style.

Wow, Alabama's offensive line has been their strength all year and they got pwned on a tackle-end stunt on third and long. Florida now has the ball with a four-point lead. This is great.

Tebow throws a very nice deep ball and he's showing the whole country that skill. He's been accurate deep time and again. He has all the throws to play in the NFL. The only question is his ability to take snaps under center and read a defense while dropping back. And now he finished the drive with a perfect throw on a slant, bailing his coach out from having to answer some uncomfortable questions about drawing a key penalty. Could Tebow be a good quarterback in the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense? That slant is the key pass in the offense (and people forget that Joe Montana was a good runner early in his career, although he wasn't exactly running over people).

Der Wife weighs in: "Riley Cooper looks like a Riley Cooper."

I love Andre Smith, but he needs to work on his endurance, his ability to handle a speed rush, or both. Florida's depth ended up paying off despite that third quarter in which Alabama shortened the game. When these teams meet again in two years, they'll be fighting on more even terms.

And reminding us that they're from the Sunshine State, Florida finished off the game with a personal foul on Brandon Spikes and then Jim Tartt kicking an Alabama player.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Quick Thoughts on Bama-Florida

Normally, I am skeptical when the media anoints a great offense team over a great defense team, as they seem to be doing this week in picking Florida. I haven't read too much about the game, but I've yet to see anyone picking Alabama to win outright. There is too much attention given to Percy Harvin's ankle and not enough to Florida missing two defensive tackles against a power running team.

That said, the way that a defensive team normally wins a game against an offensive team - turn the game into a street fight that is decided by turnovers and special teams - won't work against Florida. Florida doesn't turn the ball over, they have the best returner in college football, they have a more reliable kicker, and they block a ton of kicks. I'd feel much better about the odds of Tebow going all game without a turnover than I would John Parker Wilson doing the same. Finally, Bama doesn't have the depth that Saban is ultimately going to create, so even if they keep the game tight for three quarters, they won't have an advantage in the end game.

Florida 23
Alabama 10

Here are a few things that I'll be especially interested in tomorrow:

1. What does Alabama do if they fall behind early? The constant "Florida is faster and better" patter from the media (and I'll admit that I've taken the same position) is a powerful motivating factor for Alabama, but it can also be a problem if Florida does look faster and better initially.

2. Does Florida use its wider line splits and if so, what effect does that have on Terrence Cody's role in the game?

3. What do Alabama's first ten runs net? If there is a script for Alabama winning this game, it starts with the Tide offensive line dominating Florida's defensive front and the interior linemen consistently getting a helmet on Brandon Spikes.

4. Does Alabama get anything out of a receiver other than Julio Jones? The obvious defense to deploy against Alabama is eight in the box with the safety shading towards Jones. Has Bama been saving up something for Marquis Maze for this game?

5. How do the Alabama safeties tackle? Florida has been so good on offense this year because it has three skill players - Harvin, Demps, and Rainey - who turn small gains into huge gains. Bama will not let them run free as much as other defenses have, but when they get to the second level, tackling will be critical. Bama has excellent safeties, so they might be able to corral the quarks in ways that other teams have not.

6. Does Bama throw a series of new blitzes at Florida in an effort to confuse the Florida offensive line? Saban has had weeks to dream up new ways to attack the Gators. Miami had some defensive success against Florida after Randy Shannon spent the summer preparing for the game. This Florida offense is better than the Florida offense from September because the line has gelled and the Gators have found tailbacks. Do Bama's new blitzes out of the 3-4 put pressure on Tebow?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tuberville Raus!

In the customary five thoughts format...

1. This is a dreadful miscalculation by Auburn. I've had a lot of "rank the coaches in the SEC" exercises with friends over the last several years and Tuberville invariably came out in the top half of the deepest coaching pool in the country. Tuberville made a mistake with his handling of the Auburn offense this year, but he also butchered the offense in 2003 (not quite to the same degree as this year, but still...) and rebounded the next year with an unbeaten season, the only unbeaten season by an SEC team this decade. Any head coach can make a mistake in hiring a coordinator for his weak suit. Rich Rodriguez made a mistake in putting together his defensive staff this year. Steve Spurrier made mistakes in hiring defensive coordinators before finding Bob Stoops. Pete Carroll has a still-uncorrected mistake on the offensive side of the ball. Bob Stoops struggled to replace Mike Leach and Mark Mangino before finding Kevin Wilson. The point is that Tuberville made a correctable mistake this year, but that doesn't change the underlying fact that he's a good coach.

The big variable here regards the discussions between Auburn and Tuberville about changes to his offensive staff. As a guy who constantly whined about Lloyd Carr keeping personal friends on staff who were substandard at their jobs (namely Andy Moeller and Mike Debord), I'm in no position to begrudge Auburn if they got annoyed with Tuberville putting his personal loyalty ahead of putting a top product out on the field. Tuberville handed his offense to Ensminger and Nall in 2003 and it was a disaster. He kept them as position coaches and they apparently became a major thorn in the side of Al Borges and Tony Franklin. If Tuberville was going to stick with them as a driving force in the offense, then this move makes a little more sense, although I would still direct some blame at Auburn for not trying to reach a middle ground. Sadly, we'll never know what really happened unless Tuberville and the Auburn decision-makers speak up and tell a relatively consistent story.

2. What does it say that two major programs in the South - Clemson and Tennessee - have made coaching changes this season and they guys they tabbed as their new head men have resumes that are completely inferior to the guy that Auburn just hired?

3. Tuberville's termination illustrates the danger of the coaching arms race going on in the SEC. As I've argued in this space before, the SEC has left the rest of college football in the dust in terms of turning increased revenue from football into brand name coaches. While an arms race can cause the participating nations to end up with vastly improved forces, it can also create major miscalculations. Country A is worried about the new tank being developed in country B, so country A abandons its current plans and goes hog wild in a new, uncertain direction. Or, country A foolishly invades country B because of fears that it won't be able to defend itself in a year's time from country B's new tank.

Auburn is overreacting to the fact that Nick Saban just had an unbeaten season at Alabama. Saban has proved himself (yet again) to be an excellent coach, but his success doesn't make Tommy Tuberville a bad coach, especially since Tuberville has a 4-3 record against Saban. Auburn's overreaction illustrates the danger of the SEC coaching arms race: program decision-makers getting too emotional and carried away by recent events and making irrational decisions as a result.

3a. Or maybe the lesson is simply that Bobby Lowder is a nut who always had it out for Tuberville and was going to axe him the moment he got a chance to do so. If so, good luck to Auburn convincing a new coach to come into this situation.

4. Auburn's and Tennessee's decisions to fire their coaches sure raise the stakes for coordinator hirings, don't they? The lesson coming out of this season may very well be that head coaches in the SEC cannot take risks on bringing in outsiders to make significant changes to their offenses.

5. In the summer of 2007, I started on a project comparing SEC coaches to World War II generals. I never got very far into the project, in part because of time constraints and in part because I didn't think there'd be much interest in such a specialized set of articles. The two posts that I did write compared Steve Spurrier to Heinz Guderian and Tuberville to Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower was not a great general, but he was masterful at assembling a good set of men under his command and then managing those underlings. Eisenhower managed to keep Patton and Montogomery, two massive, headstrong egos, effective in the same theater. Eisenhower made mistakes in his managing of the generals below him, namely in letting Monty go ahead with Operation Market Garden, but his overall work in command in Europe was excellent. He didn't intervene and let the generals on the ground do their thing.

In the summer of 2007, this seemed to be a good way to describe Tuberville. He brought in excellent coordinators and then gave them space to operate. He made good personnel decisions, such as replacing Gene Chizik with Will Muschamp. Tuberville's demise reflects that he is no Eisenhower. Tuberville lost his job for mishandling the conflict between his offensive coordinator and his position coaches.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Random Thoughts from the Weekend

Boo Head-to-head Tiebreakers!

If you're looking for a good argument against head-to-head as a tie-breaker, take a gander at the ACC Coastal. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech finished tied at 5-3. Georgia Tech has:

  • A better overall record;

  • A higher ranking using all three of Sagarin's measures (the Jackets would be a two-point favorite on a neutral field, per the Sagarin Predictor);

  • A better yards per play on offense (6.12 to 4.6) and defense (4.78 to 4.89). In fact, Virginia Tech is that rarest of "champions" to be outgained on a per-play basis; and

  • A better per-game scoring differential (7.3 to 3.7).

I can't see any measure that would lead one to conclude that Virginia Tech is better than Georgia Tech this year. Nevertheless, the Hokies are going to the ACC Title Game on the strength of a three-point win in Blacksburg in which the Hokies were outgained by 140 yards. The love affair with head-to-head tiebreakers reminds me a little of NFL fans' blithe acceptance of the notion of a six-loss team being declared "champion" over a one-loss team: it requires submission to an arbitrary rule that elevates the small sample size over the larger one.

Boo Dabo Swinney!

So Clemson has hired Dabo Swinney on the basis of a sterling 4-2 finish for the Tigers, despite the fact that he's never been a coordinator. Am I pointing out the obvious when I mention the following three names: Ray Goff, Bobby Williams, and Bill Stewart? I suppose it's possible that all of Clemson's ills were caused by Tommy Bowden and Rob Spence and that Swinney will assemble a good staff, recruit well, and turn out just fine. That said, that's an awfully thin resume for a head coach at one of the ACC's premier programs.

Boo Lane Kiffin!

I also hate the Lane Kiffin hire. (And no, I'm not intentionally trying to be Statler & Waldorf here.) Kiffin's resume is certainly fuller than Swinney's, but I still don't like what's on it. I'm willing to overlook Kiffin's time with the Raiders because that toxic waste dump of a franchise can destroy anyone's ability to look good. I'm more focused on Kiffin's time at USC. He was co-coordinator in 2005 when USC had ludicrous offensive talent and was only one year removed from Norm Chow. The USC offense took a serious step back in 2006 when those two conditions no longer existed. Kiffin is touted as a great recruiter at USC, but it's not as if the Trojans' recruiting has suffered since he left. Something tells me that Pete Carroll's personality and the fact that USC is the NFL franchise for the nation's second-largest market have more to do with the annual parade of five-star players who sign with the Trojans. As with Swinney, the only compelling case to be made for Kiffin is the fact that he'll bring in his dad to coach the defense and the Orgeron to coach the defensive line. What does it say about a head coach when the best thing that can be said about him is that he'll bring in assistants who are better than he is? I'm frustrated that Tennessee didn't hire Brian Kelly, mainly because I wanted them to keep him away from Notre Dame.

Boo Tony Barnhart!

And while we're on the subject of the Vols' coaching search, how about Tony Barnhart letting out his inner neanderthal:

Tennessee fans might want to rethink Mike Leach: Don’t get me wrong. I like to watch Leach’s Texas Tech teams play. And the Red Raiders have had a wonderful season. But Saturday night at Oklahoma it was time to play big boy football on the road and the Sooners destroyed Texas Tech 65-21. Understand that in the SEC you have to play three or four of these types of games every season. These are physical football games where finesse tends to get overwhelmed by brute strength. Alabama will be that kind of team as long as Nick Saban is there. Leach is a good coach but not a fit for Tennessee or the SEC.
I don't know where to begin with this. Maybe with the fact that Oklahoma apparently plays big boy football this year, but not last year when the Red Raiders beat them. And Oklahoma plays big boy football, but Texas does not. And there's no acknowledgment that maybe Leach has accomplished something by getting good, but not great talent to 11-1, or that Leach might be able to accomplish really big things if he had Tennessee talent instead of Texas Tech talent. And wasn't brute strength supposed to overwhelm finesse and prevent Urban Meyer's offense from succeeding in the SEC? If Mike Leach isn't a fit for the SEC, then that's an indictment of the SEC. Barnhart is one of the best college football writers out there, but he occasionally lets loose a bad General Neyland impression. He ends up sounding like the Japanese generals in World War II who swore that Japan did not need to develop radar because their eyes could see just fine.