Friday, March 27, 2009

Wasting away in Raging Burritoville

Powered by Sweetwater...

I'll bet that some CBS producer in New York is struggling between picking between the 87-51 game and the 58-37 game. Now watch the two late games both be barnburners.

If Bobby bats Josh Anderson leadoff this year, I will throw a shoe in his general vicinity. It's one thing to pick.the worst of three center field options; it's another to compound the mistake by batting the light-hitting out machine first because he is fast. I will say that Bobby has been more rational about these sorts of things over the past several years.

Big dance pools are to sports fans as New Year's Eve is to drinkers: amateur hour.

I just had a discussion with a married couple about how the Nazis came up with the idea of killing the Jews as opposed to sending us to Madagascar. I really don't know how I end up in these places.

On a related note, I am giving some serious thought to the video clip to post at 2:45 on the date of the first leg of Barca-Bayern. This is my wheelhouse. And with the crap performance of Bundesliga sides in the Champions League, who knows when this chance will come again. A mere Untergang clip will not suffice.

I really wonder about the Thrashers' season ticket base next year. They are facing a perfect storm of a bad economy, a franchise in freefall in terms of management, and a sport in which ticket revenue is the key source of income. I am not opposed to reigniting my love of hockey, but I need a sign from Atlanta Spirit. Nothin' lasts forever and we both know hearts can change.

You think there is any chance that Andre Smith will be available when the Falcons are on the clock? I'd be willing to ignore the "take defense!" edict if a potential star left tackle is around. I don't put that much stock in NFL people being outraged that he jumped through Saban's hoops, but wouldn't jump through their's.

Does anyone else think that the Hawks were more vulnerable against the Spurs with Duncan out and Ginobli gimpy because it forced San Antonio to exploit Parker's massive advantage over the Hawks' ability to defend a one?


Duke : College Basketball :: __________ : College Football

Let's review Duke's NCAA Tournament performances since making the Final Four in 2004:

2009 - #2 seed, lost in Sweet Sixteen by 23 to #3 seed Villanova

2008 - #2 seed, lost in second round by six to #7 seed West Virginia

2007 - #6 seed, lost in first round by two to #11 seed Virginia Commonwealth

2006 - #1 seed, lost in Sweet Sixteen by six to #4 seed LSU

2005 - #1 seed, lost in Sweet Sixteen by ten to #5 seed Michigan State

Here are some stats for your consideration:

  • Duke has won one tournament game played outside of the State of North Carolina since winning the 2004 Atlanta Regional as a #1 seed against #5 seed Illinois and #7 seed Xavier. [Thank you to an anonymous commenter for pointing out a mistake in my original stat here. I had overlooked a one-point win over Belmont in Washington, D.C.]

  • Duke has not won a tournament game against a team seeded #4 or higher since winning the 2001 national title game against Arizona.

  • Based on their seeds over the past five years, Duke would be expected to have won 15 tournament games. (This assumes that they would lose their opening game at the Final Four.) Instead, Duke has won seven.

Leave aside the fact that Coach K was once a great tournament coach and this resume ought to cause Duke to be branded as world class chokers. My understanding is that Duke still hauls in McDonald's All-Americans. Has Coach K turned into a talent waster? Is he Guy Lewis? Bill Frieder? Is Duke's status as the emperor with no clothes common knowledge in college basketball circles and I just think this is an underreported story because I follow the sport very casually? As someone who just gets his content from major national sources - ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc. - I still hear Duke discussed as a college basketball royalty even though they haven't played like it for years. Is the ACC currently sitting on declining coaching legends in both football and basketball?

Come to think of it, I wonder what changed in the ACC after the 2004 season that might cause Duke to go downhill...

Speaking of football parallels, there are two obvious comparisons: Ohio State and Oklahoma. The Buckeyes and Sooners regularly lose big postseason games, although they are not in the same position as Duke for two reasons. First, the college football regular season is a much bigger deal than the college basketball regular season, so Ohio State's and Oklahoma's success before January matters more. Second, there's no shame for the Bucks or Sooners in losing national title games to Florida, LSU, and USC. If Duke were getting to the Final Four and losing to UConn, UNC, and Kansas, then that would be one thing. It's quite another that they are losing to VCU and West Virginia. Duke could counter by saying that talent is more evenly distributed in college basketball and the post-season is longer, so it's more likely that a college hoops program would get upset in March.

The Ohio State-Duke comparison works better for a few reasons:

  1. They both get criticized for lacking athleticism (read: too white).

  2. They both get criticized for being media darlings with high-profile backers on ESPN. Thankfully for Ohio State fans, Kirk Herbstreit is better looking and far less annoying than Dick Vitale. Herbstreit also makes a pretense of not openly rooting for Ohio State.

  3. They both play in overrated conferences. I know the ACC is supposed to be the bees' knees in hoops, but are there any major programs in the league other than Duke and UNC? The middle class of the conference - Georgia Tech, Virginia, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Maryland - have all been down since 2005.

  4. I hate them both and prefer that they end up in the same flaming ship.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Rampaging Fullbacks

While the fullback is dying in American football, Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian points out that attacking fullbacks have become critical in soccer. While I don't necessarily agree with all of Wilson's arguments (most notably the claim that France won the World Cup in 1998 because of their attacking fullbacks; that team was premised on an airtight defense and Zinedine Zidane. If France's fullbacks were so good, then their offense wouldn't have dried up when Zidane was suspended for the first two knock-out games.), the general thesis is excellent.

Wilson's thesis is certainly consistent with what I've seen from Barcelona this year, which has been a team that has improved dramatically because of the insertion of Dani Alves at right back. Barcelona's first-choice back four includes Alves, who gets forward at every possible opportunity, and Eric Abidal, who is more of a defensive left back and one who has experience playing center half (which is effectively what he plays when Alves bombs forward and Barcelona have a back three). According to Wilson, this is consistent with back lines dating back for decades:

In 1970, Brazil operated with just one attacking full-back, Carlos Alberto, with Everaldo tucking in on the left to provide balance. That was a function of the highly idiosyncratic development of that side, but it was symptomatic of a more general trend. Most European sides who used a libero tended to deploy one attacking full-back, balanced by a more defensive player on the other flank, who tucked in and operated as a marker: Giacinto Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnich in Helenio Herrera's Inter, for instance; Paul Breitner and Berti Vogts in West Germany's World Cup-winning side of 1974; or Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile in Italy's World Cup winners of 1982.

The major difference now is that no one plays a libero anymore, which is too bad because it's such an interesting position. Part of me wonders whether Barcelona could play Rafa Marquez in a sweeper-type role because, regardless of his other shortcomings, he is a bright player who can distribute the ball well.

After reading Wilson's piece, it occurred to me that soccer and football (at least college football) are seemingly headed in the same direction. In soccer, there is greater emphasis on getting full backs wide because that's the one place on the pitch where there's open space. Ditto for football teams, which are increasingly using wider formations to take advantage of space. In both sports, the use of wide attackers then generates more space in the middle.

Wilson describes how Spain dominated the center of the midfield (and therefore the match) against Russia in the Euro '08 semifinals after an injury forced Luis Aragones to deploy Andres Iniesta and David Silva in wide position. The use of wide players nullified Russia's full backs, destroyed their offensive outlets, and then allowed Senna, Xavi, and Fabregas to run wild in the middle. Isn't this essentially the same description as to how the spread running game works? A soccer offense deploys wide men to stretch an opponent and create more room in the center for direct attacks; a football offense deploys four wide receivers to stretch the defense horizontally, so there are more lanes in the middle to attack with running plays.

This makes me feel much better about 3-9.


At long last, Atlanta is going to get a notable footie match. After being ignored by MLS, after being dismissed by the U.S. Men's National Team (which would rather play a match in friggin' Birmingham than play in the Capital of the South), and after being an after-thought as countless European sides toured the U.S., we're going to get a game this summer. Unfortunately, Grant Field is too narrow for soccer, so the Georgia Dome will have to be used, but beggars can't be choosers. A.C. Milan and Club America, come on down. Hopefully, I can nab good enough seats to help reenact Dida's famous performance in Glasgow:

Dida's opposite number in the game will likely be Guillermo Ochoa, who appears in the most unrealistic commercial in human history:

I cackle to myself every time this spot appears on GolTV. The next time that a member of El Tri gets whacked in the shins by an opposing player and then actually helps that player up (as opposed to writhing around on the ground for 15 minutes [five minutes if Mexico are behind] before being hauled off on a stretcher), I'll eat my hat. I look forward to discussing this in detail with Ochoa on July 22.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Random Thoughts over a 420 at Raging Burrito

I won't lie. Sometimes I think that I should have given this blog a less specific name so I wouldn't feel guilty about writing so often about subjects that have nothing to do with Atlanta sports. This has gotten more pronounced since I got linked to Mark Bradley's page at the AJC. I feel like I have to live up to the title.

I wanted to do a post about how doing a bracket is dumb. Now, it seems a little late.

The girl next to me hasn't had a sip of her Stella since I sat down. These are the sorts of things that I notice.

Good omen department: I worked late last night and listened to the Braves game on the way home. They scored three times of of Dontrelle on my commute home. Should I be happy that the Braves have a great record in the spring or sad that Francoeur is no better? He did draw a walk while I was lsitening last night. Omen?

This season of Friday Night Lights has been outstanding. Even better than the first seaons. Between FNL, the Office, 30 Rock, and SNL, I guess we are an NBC household.

Signs that my man card should be revoked: last week, Der Wife's US Weekly arrived at the same time as my SI. I read the US Weekly article on Jason and Melissa first.

Tommy Hanson has me giddy. If only he and Naftali Feliz could be our one-two for the next decade. So much excitement; so much regret.

The podcast will kill (or at least dramatically alter) sports talk radio.

Insta-thoughts on the Champions League Draw

Manchester United-Porto - United fans have to be overjoyed. Maybe this is karma for a very tough draw in the round of 16? A reward for banishing Jose Mourinho to the sidelines? Every other major contender is on the other side of the draw. A quarterfinal against Porto followed by a likely semifinal against Arsenal is as manageable a draw as United could have hoped for. Then again, with United's record against the big four in England this year - four points in five matches - the tie with Arsenal might be tricky. I didn't see anything from Porto in the Round of 16 that would lead me to believe that they can hang with United.

Arsenal-Villarreal - Arsenal are the darkhorse right now. If they get healthy and can deploy Arshavin, Walcott, Cesc, Adebayor, and Van Persie at the same time, then they could be a threat to make the final. I still see them as being a notch below United, Liverpool, and Barca; their roster isn't as deep and talented as those three, but they wouldn't be an easy out for anyone. As for Villarreal, they have tailed off in 2009, but they do retain an excellent central midfield with Cazorla and Senna and they are dangerous up front with Rossi and Nihat. They are very vulnerable defensively other than Diego Lopez between the sticks.

Chelsea-Liverpool - These sets of fans have to be muttering. After challenging round of 16 draws, they have to play one another and then (probably) Barca to get to Rome. That's quite the gauntlet. Chelsea-Liverpool ties were shit on a stick for years, but the second leg last year was encouraging. Hopefully, with Mourinho gone and Benitez now having a quality striker, the quality of the matches will continue to improve. I'd have no idea how to pick a winner between these two. Their three Champions League encounters have all been decided by razor thin margins. Two went to extra time and the third finished 1-0 after Eidur Gudjohnsen missed a glorious chance to send Chelsea to Istanbul. You might as well flip a coin between these two.

Barca-Bayern - Barca's relatively lucky Champions League draws continue. Jurgen Klinnsman is noted for a very offensive playing style, which will create lots of space for Barca to operate. I operate under the assumptions that no team in the world is better than Barca when granted time and space and that counter-attacking teams like Liverpool are the most dangerous opponents because they can use Barca's aggression against the Blaugrana. Bayern's defense is suspect and Barca's attack is rolling. The concern that I have is the idea of Franck Ribery with acres of space on Bayern's left because of Dani Alves getting too far forward. Barca are going to have to shift Rafa Marquez out on the right when Alves gets forward and push Yaya Toure back into central defense to cover. That would then require one of the two offensive midfielders to shade back a little to play the screening role. I do like the match-up of Pique against Toni. Pique is a little slow, but he's good in the air. Toni is the kind of striker whom he should be able to mark. (The same would be true with Didier Drogba. Fernando Torres, not so much. Another reason to root for Chelsea.) Also, I'd put the odds of Mark van Bommel getting sent off at 2/1. He's a total hothead and he'll go crazy trying to get the ball off of Xavi and Iniesta. Barca's biggest advantage in these matches will be their dominance in the midfield. The strategy will be to kill the supply lines to Ribery and Schweinsteiger. Operation Uranus, commence!

In Case you Missed it...

The local professional basketball collective completed a perfect 7-0 homestand last night with a win over Dallas. The team now has a four-game lead over Miami for the #4 seed and they retain an outside shot at winning 50 games, as they would need a 9-4 finish to accomplish that feat. Some quick thoughts on the team:

1. You think that Marvin Williams' value on the free agent market went down a little with the team playing some of its best basketball of the year after Marvin hurt his back? The team's strong performance this year without Josh Childress and now Williams illustrates that non-superstar swing men are totally fungible in the NBA. In fact, I'd argue that the only two players on the team who are not fungible are Joe Johnson (because quality lead scorers are hard to find) and Al Horford (because big men who can score are hard to find). Kudos to Rick Sund for figuring this out and bringing in Maurice Evans as a replacement swing man.

2. Remember when Mike Woodson and Josh Smith had their little tiff in Charlotte? Smith has averaged 17 points and ten rebounds per game on the homestand. Not coincidentally, he has three three-point attempts in the seven games. His rebounding numbers are especially important because that's a weak suit for the Hawks. If Josh cares enough to clean the glass, then this is a very good team.

3. Al Horford has also played very well over the stretch, averaging 14.6 ppg and ten boards. Again, this team is better when its power players do well on the glass. Al also seems energized. I don't know if the Hawks are making a more concerted effort to get him involved offensively, but if that is the case, good idea, Mike!

4. In the seven-game homestand, the Hawks didn't allow an opponent to score over 100 points and only two opponents broke 90. Might that have something to do with Maurice Evans playing more minutes?

5. Just a theory: the Hawks' ownership mess has helped the team because the resulting impasse has prevented them from making major moves like firing the coach. As a result, whereas Mike Woodson would have been blown out in most cities after a poor start to his head coaching career, he's been allowed to grow with the team. The ownership instability has had the effect of creating stability for a collection of young players who have only played in one system for their young careers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Brave New World Post that Doesn't Cover the Braves

Last night, I waded through Paul Starr's long essay on the decline of American newspapers and the unfortunate consequences for our democracy. The difficulties of the newspaper industry do not pose the same dangers for sports that they do for honest government and business. I can live without a number of reporters following the Braves or reporting on the Final Four on-site; I prefer not to live without the AJC properly staffing its coverage of the goings-on at the State Capitol or the behavior of our elected officials in Washington. That said, Starr's description of a world with fewer metropolitan newspapers did have some parallels to the world of sports:

Metropolitan newspapers have dominated news gathering, set the public agenda, served as the focal point of controversy, and credibly represented themselves as symbolizing and speaking for the cities whose names they have carried. They have tried to be everyone's source of news, appealing across the ideological spectrum, and to be comprehensive, providing their readers with whatever was of daily interest to them. Some newspapers, a smaller number than exist today, will survive the transition to the Web, but they probably will not possess the centrality, the scope, or the authoritative voice--much less the monopolies on metropolitan advertising--that newspapers have had.

The news media emerging in the digital environment seem likely to be more concentrated in some respects and more fragmented in others. Readership is already becoming concentrated in a national press. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post seem well-positioned to capitalize on the abandonment of international, national, and cultural coverage by regional newspapers. The likely closing of some papers, or their retreat from daily to weekend print publication, should only intensify this shift. In Europe, the press has long been dominated by national papers; now American newspapers are moving in that direction.

If the sports media follows this progression, what will our world look like? More consumption of national sports media and therefore more focus on a few national teams. There is a common complaint in England that the football clubs in smaller towns have a hard time drawing new fans because all the young people in their villages want to support Manchester United or Arsenal instead of the local club. In an American sports landscape dominated by an increasingly national media, we could be headed in the same direction. Just wait for the composition of the crowds when the Red Sox and Yankees come to the Ted this summer. A lot of the support for the rapacious northern teams will come from transplants, but a lot of it will also come from locals who chose to support those teams instead of the Braves.

The major factor cutting against a nationalization of sports issues will be the proliferation of blogs devoted to one team. Blogs can cover a local team far more obsessively than newspapers ever could. Blogs can also be totally forthright in their assessments because they have no access to guard. If we get our sports news from blogs instead of newspapers, then there's no reason why local teams won't get plenty of interest.

On the other hand, the Internet permits a fan access to the obsessive blog coverage of teams around the world. 20 years ago, I would have had no option to read in-depth daily coverage of teams outside of those covered by my local newspaper. Today, if I want to be an intense fan of F.C. Barcelona, I can read blogs about the team, as well as English-language articles from a number of publications about the team and its rivals in La Liga. I'll admit that I'm odd, but the decline of the metropolitan newspaper and the shift of news consumption to the Internet doesn't simply imply that the Cowboys, Lakers, and Yankees are going to become more popular; it also implies that they are going to have to compete with Manchester United, Barcelona, and AC Milan. In the end, metro areas will rally around one team with far less frequency.

Starr also predicts a greater gap between news junkies and the rest of the populace:

For those with the skills and interest to take advantage of this new world of news, there should be much to be pleased with. Instead of being limited to a local paper, such readers already enjoy access to a broader range of publications and discussions than ever before. But without a local newspaper or even with a shrunken one, many other people will learn less about what is going on in the world.

We can already see this phenomenon in the world of sports. Nuts like me end up with obsessive knowledge about our teams, while the average person, who normally would have known a little just based on having a paper including a sports section delivered to him home every morning, is left behind.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Suck it, other Metropoli!

Worst sports town in America, eh? How about some actual numbers.

For people who are unfamiliar with Atlanta, here is a brief primer on this city as a sports town:

1. Atlanta is a great NBA city, although it's not necessarily a great city at supporting the local NBA team. This is an entirely logical result of a city nicknamed Black Hollywood being home to an NBA franchise that has not made a conference final since moving from St. Louis. There is tremendous passion for basketball in Atlanta, but that passion hasn't really had a local outlet. Hopefully, the Hawks are entering a sustained run of playoff appearances and that can change.

2. Atlanta is a very good NASCAR market. I'm not going to pretend to be a NASCAR fan, but millions of people tune into the races on a weekly basis. It's a major sport in America, no matter how much Mike Lupica wishes it were not so.

3. Atlanta is a great college sports market. What other city sits at the junction between the premier college football conference and the premier college basketball conference? Add in a ton of transplants from the Big Ten states, as well as the fact that the city has a high proportion of people holding college and post-college degrees, and you have a gumbo of different, intense college rooting interests.

So yeah, if the Braves' failure to sell out playoff games this decade were the sole measure of a good sports city, then Atlanta would be a bad market. If one employs a modicum of rationality and looks at other factors, then this city is a great place to be a fan.

One Hundred Cocktails for Le Ann Schreiber

I have very little to add to this outstanding piece by ESPN Ombudman Le Anne Schreiber regarding the problems with the Worldwide Leader. Money grafs:

When I cast my mind back over two years of mail, searching for that taproot, the first word that came to mind was "arrogance." That wasn't the word most frequently used by fans, but accusations of arrogance were implicit in the many complaints I received about specific anchors who imposed their personalities on the news, announcers who elevated their own chatter over the game at hand, commentators who leapt to the absolute in a single shout, columnists who heaped scorn on minor sports or minor markets, and the relentless corporate "me, me, me" of multiplatform cross-promotion.

If arrogance were indeed the taproot, the message to ESPN from fans would be simple: "Get over yourselves, it's not all about you." And the solution would be as simple as ESPN asking the loudest and most self-smitten of its many personalities to tone it down.

I'm convinced that measure alone would cut the ombudsman's mail in half, but I'm not convinced it would be the solution to what ails ESPN's fans most deeply. Arrogance may be only a symptom of the second vice that came to mind when I thought about those 30,000 messages: excess.

Again, excess is not the word my correspondents used most frequently, but it is the root of all the "too much" mail I received -- as in too much Manny, T.O. and A-Rod; too much Yankees, Red Sox, Cowboys and Patriots; too much Joba, Kobe and Brady (both Tom and Quinn); too much Hansbrough, Tebow and Duke; and way too much Favre...

Fans don't object to ratings-driven decisions about what games to telecast, but they do object when that selection dominates other kinds of programming, in the form of excessive advance promotion or postgame hoopla on "SportsCenter." ESPN's postgame attitude seems to be: We have the footage and the crew there live, so why not make the most of it, whether or not the game warranted it? Fan attitude seems to be: We just saw that game or chose not to, and it's late, so please give us the other news of the day.

Sometimes, ESPN seems to forget that the loyal audience of its studio programming is a subset of those who drive up ratings for the marquee events, and that by appealing to the starstruck, they risk losing the committed sports fan, whose interest runs deeper.

Two follow-up thoughts:

1. In the back of my mind, this has been my concern with ESPN picking up the domestic rights to the English Premier League. On the one hand, it would be great for footie to benefit from ESPN's gargantuan platform and resulting ability to force stories into the public consciousness. On the other hand, I can't say that I'd be thrilled with the idea of Steven Gerrard being forced onto my screen every other minute. And frankly, I shudder to think about what ESPN's Champions League coverage would be like if the WWLiS had a vested interest in plugging the English teams. Real Madrid and AC Milan would be made to look like Universitatea Craiova or Sporting Fingal F.C. ESPN has destroyed my ability to enjoy baseball; I would hope that they wouldn't do the same for soccer, but it's not impossible.

2. In light of the fact that I and many others in the blogosphere mock ESPN for shutting out criticism in a propagandish way, the network does deserve kudos for printing Ms. Schreiber's column. Not every corporate monolith will devote front page coverage to an able thinker and writer distilling the common themes of roughly 30,000 critical e-mails.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Premier League and the SEC

With the north star of my night sky of footie beliefs - that English teams are inherently overrated by a voracious, myopic media - coming crashing down, it's time to examine why the EPL has placed four teams in the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the third straight year. This article from the Guardian is an excellent jumping off point. Here are the explanations from Jonathan Wilson:

1. Money

The three rough eras of the Champions League – Italian (until 1988-89 to 1998), Spanish (1999-2004) and English dominance (2005-) – correspond with the ability of clubs in those countries to outstrip the others in transfer spending. Between 1984 and 2000, the world football transfer record was broken nine times by Italian clubs. Only twice in that period – when Alan Shearer moved to Newcastle and Denilson joined Real Betis, was the record held by non-Italian clubs.

The moves to Real Madrid of Luis Figo in 2000 and Zinedine Zidane in 2001 took the record to Spain, and ushered in their period of dominance. Transfer fees as a whole have dropped since then, but the four biggest moves since 2004 have all been to English clubs.

2. Importing New Ideas

Foreign players and coaches have brought new ideas and, while the Premier League's Big Four all play in very different ways, a general balance seems to have been achieved between physicality and technique. The way United and Liverpool were able to retain possession last week, certainly, is a leap forward from the way English sides were picked off in away ties in the nineties.

3. The Right Level of Competitiveness

Again, such things are speculative, but it may be that the Premier League has hit upon a middle ground conducive to success in the Champions League. There is a sufficient gulf between top and bottom that key players can be rested, or certain games taken at half pace, but equally sufficient good sides to provide the tough encounter that ensure players do not lose their edge.

Interestingly, the same three statements can be made about the conference that has produced the last three national champions in college football and is 10-3 in BCS Games this decade: the SEC. In an age where sports revenues have exploded as teams and leagues have figured out how to turn the passion of their fans into cash, the SEC and the English Premier League have benefited the most because they have the greatest intensity of preference among their supporters. In the same way that Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, and Arsene Wenger have brought new ideas to the EPL that have moved the league beyond the "hoof it upfield, mate!" mentality that used to dominate English football, the SEC has imported coaches like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Les Miles from other conferences to bring new ideas. (I might be stretching a little by calling Les a new ideas guy, but he does have a knack for hiring top-shelf coordinators from outside. I'm also stretching a little by giving Mourinho and Benitez credit for moving England past route one when they've both deployed that as an offensive strategy, but they are certainly ahead of the curve in terms of defensive tactics. This analogy isn't perfect.) The willingness to import new ideas is one major factor that sets the SEC apart from the one conference that can match it in terms of revenue generation: the Big Ten.

Finally, there is a good argument to be made that the SEC, like the EPL, has the right level of parity. The conference is good enough and deep enough that its teams come out of the conference schedule battle-tested and with sufficient strength of schedule to win comparisons against teams from other conferences. However, the conference is not so good that its elite - Florida, LSU, Georgia, and now Alabama - can't perpetuate their status as top teams.

The major difference between the SEC and the EPL is this: the SEC benefits from being in a talent-rich region, while the EPL has succeeded despite the fact that it is located in a country that does not produce much talent relative to other countries in the world. If the SEC were like the EPL, then its teams would be stocked with players from other regions of the country. Florida would play Penn State and have more Pennsylvanians in the lineup than the Nittany Lions, not unlike Liverpool fielding more Spaniards than Real Madrid.

Other random thoughts from Matchday 8:

1. Barca were stunning for the first half last night. If I could explain why I love this team, I would show those first 45 minutes. The Blaugrana put Lyon - a good team that has always been competitive in knock-out ties - under pressure from the start and didn't let up until the game was 4-0. Les Gones barely touched the ball for the half and certainly not in the attacking third. Barca's players were constantly linking up, and not just the offensive guys. The first goal came from an assist from central defender Rafa Marquez. (Rafa may be suspect defensively, but he does have skills beyond marking and tackling. I still think that his best role is the one he plays for Mexico: defensive midfield. I can also see how the comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer came about.) The third goal was a great move that started with a perfect cross-field pass from Gerard Pique, the other central defender.

2. I feel icky complaining about anything after a 5-2 win, but I do have some concerns:
  • Dani Alves is a defensive liability. He was nowhere to be found on Lyon's second goal and he was also absent on the glorious chance that Karim Benzema fluffed at 4-2. The last ten minutes would have been excruciating if Barca were nursing a 4-3 lead. Alves's defensive issues will be a focus if Barca play Liverpool, as Benitez will make it his mission in life to tactically negate Barca's attack and exploit the spaces that Alves leaves. Alves would also be an issue if Barca play United or Bayern, as Ronaldo and Ribery could use those spaces to great effect. I wonder whether Pep would tinker with the formation by either instructing Yaya Toure to drop back into the right back role whenever Alves gets forward (although that would weaken Barca in the middle) or pushing Alves into midfield and deploying Puyol at right back.
  • Samuel Eto'o is slumping right now. With the number of chances he gets from his teammates, he should have 40 goals right now. That sounds ridiculous, but I watch this team twice a week and Eto'o is anything by clinical. I love the guy because he runs his tail off and his movement is first-rate, but he just isn't top-shelf as a finisher. Maybe my standards are too high.
  • Barca have a tendency to switch off for stretches.

3. Life is good in a week in which Barca clobbers a Champions League opponent one day after Real Madrid got humiliated 4-0.

4. Was I the only one who had the Yakety Sax music going through my head when watching the highlights of Sporting Lisbon trying to defend in Munich? Comical doesn't do justice to that display. They made Lucas Podolski look like Gerd Muller.

5. More evidence that Arsenal's claim to play beautiful, attacking football is crap: the Gunners didn't score from open play in 210 minutes against Roma. Roma are an offensive team who take plenty of chances, so Wenger can't whinge about how his team can't score because of an opponent packing the defense. Arsenal are either incapable of scoring (a possibility when Nicklas Bendtner is involved) or they don't take risks. A combination of the two is possible.

6. Serie A did not acquit itself well at all, but how would its performance be viewed if two Brazilian strikers - Adriano and Julio Baptista - would have converted almost identical chances at home in front of goal from about ten yards out?

7. Chelsea are a different team when Didier Drogba actually cares.

8. Right now, I would put the eight surviving teams into three tiers. The top tier is United, Liverpool, and Barca, in that order. The middle tier, in no discernible order, is Chelsea, Bayern, and Arsenal. The bottom tier is Villarreal and Porto. I'm not wild about Barca's chances to win the whole tournament because of the team's defensive issues, but if they can avoid United and Liverpool in the quarters and the semis, then they could certainly beat either team over 90 minutes. If they do draw one of the big two, then having the home leg last is imperative. Since hiring Frank Rijkaard, Barca are 6-0 in Champions League knock-out ties when they have the road leg first and 0-3 when they have the home leg first.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Matt Stafford, by the Numbers

ESPN has their own measure for predicting the success of college quarterbacks in the NFL and it looks amazingly similar to the measure that Football Outsiders created. FO's measure, which is based on testing quarterbacks from years past to determine which stats correlate to NFL success, looks at completion percentage and starts. ESPN's measure looks at the same two stats and then adds in TD/INT ratio for good measure. When run on the top three quarterback prospects in this year's Draft, Matt Stafford does not come off well. In fact, he would be wedged between Akili Smith and Cade McNown, which is not a place that a quarterback prospect wants to be.

The article does acknowledge that Stafford lags because of a freshman year in which he threw seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions. I suspect that most Georgia fans are willing to cut Stafford some slack for 2006 because Stafford was a true freshman starting on a team with a mediocre running game and receivers who dropped everything that was thrown their way. If Stafford didn't start in 2006, then his numbers would be better, although he would then suffer in the games started category.

Not surprisingly, Bill Barnwell of FO runs its test on Stafford and finds him wanting. He makes an interesting point in comparing Stafford to Greene:

One of the arguments against a statistical-based system for projecting college quarterbacks is that a system quarterback such as former Hawaii star Colt Brennan would put up inflated numbers that weren't true indicators of his NFL ability. Although scouts should sniff that stuff out and encourage teams to avoid taking such players in the first two rounds (something Lewin built into his system), another easy way to control for system quarterbacks is to compare the quarterback to the previous starter at his school.

Stafford was directly preceded at Georgia by the recently retired David Greene; both spent their entire college careers under head coach Mark Richt in similar offensive systems. Stafford's college numbers are actually worse than Greene's, with the latter completing 59 percent of his passes and averaging 8.01 yards per attempt to Stafford's 7.83. If Stafford was really a star in the making, wouldn't he have put up better numbers, in the same system, than a guy who washed out of the NFL without taking a professional snap? If it was our $25 million guaranteed, the answer would need to be yes.

Personally, I wouldn't spend a pick in the top half of the first round on Stafford, not because of the "maturity" concerns that are nebulously asserted about him. Rather, his technique is inconsistent, which causes him to have accuracy problems. The ESPN article nails the issue:

College quarterbacks don't typically improve their accuracy in the NFL. If his decisions were at all suspect against SEC opponents, then it's reasonable to wonder how he will react to professional defenses.

If Stafford didn't have consistent footwork as a junior in the SEC with two seasons of experience under his belt, then one has to wonder whether he's really driven like a great athlete. In other words, he might be like you, me, and the vast majority of humanity in that he isn't obsessed with mastering his craft to a microscopic level of detail. Wouldn't it be fair to say that the reaction of most Georgia fans to Stafford at the end of his career was "he was good, but there was always something missing?"

If Football Outsiders is right about Knowshon Moreno being a suspect prospect because of his speed score and FO and ESPN are right about Stafford being overrated because of his accuracy issues, then isn't the corollary that Georgia's 2008 season wasn't really that disappointing? We were excited all summer in large part because the Dawgs had bona fide stars at the offensive skill positions. What if we were just wrong about that strength? Isn't the implication positive for UGA in 2009? And does this mean that my conclusion from the season that Richt is behind Saban and Meyer is faulty?

Speaking of the Gators, I'll be interested to see how Tim Tebow is evaluated before the Draft next year. On the one hand, you're going to have scouts bagging on him as having a slow release and being a product of a great college scheme that cannot be duplicated in the NFL. On the other hand, Tebow will come into the Draft as a three-year starter. He's currently a 65% passer with 67 career touchdowns against 11 picks. If his numbers hold steady, he should be off the charts in terms of ESPN's three measures. Then again, so would Graham Harrell. As Barnwell notes above, the FO test for quarterbacks only applies to the first two rounds, thus relying on scouts to screen out system quarterbacks. If Tebow goes in the fourth round despite sterling numbers, then the scouts will have done their work.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

SEC Speed!!! Or not?

I have a default presumption that SEC running backs are faster and make better pros than Big Ten running backs. I was all ready to bang this drum for the month leading up to the Draft in comparing Knowshon Moreno and Beanie Wells. This piece from Football Outsiders is giving me second thoughts. It turns out that Knowshon isn't very fast:

Knowshon Moreno, regarded as the draft's top back, ran a disastrous 4.6 40-yard dash that yielded a speed score of only 96.9. Even if you go with the time of 4.55 that has also been unofficially reported for Moreno, his speed score would be only 101.3, putting him just below Chris Perry (102.7).

Going back to 1999, that would be the lowest speed score posted by a first-round pick; the only two backs selected in the first round to post a speed score under 100 are William Green (98.7) and Trung Canidate (99.3). Only one back in the 11 seasons we've got speed score data for made it to the Pro Bowl after posting a speed score below 98.0: Brian Westbrook.

In his defense, Moreno's regarded as having elite agility, which goes unmeasured in the 40. Agility is measured in other drills, though, so if Moreno's agility was really at an elite level, we'd expect to see as such in the three-cone drill and the two shuttle runs.

In the three-cone drill, Moreno's 6.84 seconds were second to Abilene Christian back Bernard Scott. Scott also topped the leaderboard in the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.08 seconds, while Moreno was eighth at 4.27 seconds. (In the 60-yard shuttle, which we don't track data for, Moreno finished fourth out of the six who attempted it.) Over the past ten years, the average back who's been drafted has been 5'10" and weighed 216 pounds -- almost a mirror image of Moreno's 5'11", 217-pound frame. Those same backs have averaged a 20-yard shuttle time of 4.20 seconds and a three-cone drill time of 7.07 seconds. While Moreno's three-cone drill score was better than average (and would rate as the fourth-best time for drafted backs), success in the three-cone drill actually bears a slightly inverse correlation to NFL success, while the shuttle, which Moreno was below-average in, has a much more positive relationship.

While Beanie Wells' 4.59 40-yard dash almost perfectly mirrored Moreno's, the fact that he did so with 18 extra pounds on his frame produces a speed score of 105.9 (below-average for a first-rounder, but passable for a day-one pick). He actually profiles as rather similar to another Big Ten back: Larry Johnson, who was 228 pounds and ran a 4.55 40 at the 2003 combine, yielding a speed score of 106.4. Unfortunately, Wells doesn't come with the 2006 Chiefs offensive line.

I'm not a fan of Wells because he is a classic Big Ten runner. He's great in a straight line, but he's not especially good when he has to make a cut in the backfield. He's used to running through big holes at slow linebackers. He's a slightly better version of Anthony Thomas, who was good in front of a Steve Hutchinson-Jeff Backus-Maurice Williams-Jonathan Goodwin (NFL starters, all of them) offensive line, but not so good in the NFL (after a good rookie year, it must be said). The problem is that I said the same things about Johnson and he's had an excellent NFL career.

It might be hard to argue in favor of Knowshon if he's neither fast in a straight line, nor quick in the shuttle. The Knowshon-Beanie debate might play out like the JaMarcus Russell-Brady Quinn debate from two years ago, with neither guy being a terrific selection high in the Draft. Knowshon was very productive in college despite playing behind average offensive lines (by Georgia's standards) against excellent defenses. Then again, if Stacy Searles is as good as we think, then I'm underrating Georgia's offensive lines and possibly explaining why Knowshon was so productive despite non-elite speed and quickness. If Searles is indeed the explanation, then that's good for Georgia's future, but bad for Moreno's.

One other thought on the speed scores: if Andre Brown and Cedric Peerman are indeed two underrated Draft prospects, then this would be further evidence that the ACC is the worst-coached conference in the country, at least on the offensive side of the ball. The ACC has been roughly on par with the SEC at the Draft for the past several years, but its teams haven't come close to the SEC's teams in terms of on-field success. If it turns out that Brown and Peerman were good running backs in hiding (not unlike Willie Parker and Leon Washington), then we have further evidence that ACC coaches just aren't maximizing the resources available to them. And then that minimizes Frank Beamer's accomplishment in winning the league repeatedly, which is pretty much how half of my posts end [/still bitter about Vick, DeAngelo, and Jimmy Williams].

Ten Things I'm Excited About

With the economy in the crapper for the foreseeable future, this seems like as good a time as any to think positive thoughts. So, without further introduction, here are ten things I'm eagerly anticipating in the world of sports:

1. Don Sutton calling Braves games again. The past six years have been death by a thousand paper cuts as everything that made the Braves unique have gone out the window. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Andruw, Schuerholz, Skip, Pete, the Bravo Club, winning divisions, etc. Don's return will be a little slice of nostalgia for the decade when everything was great from April to September.

2. Duke's inevitable exit to a lower seeded, more athletic team. The NCAA Tournament doesn't officially start until a Duke player is crying his eyes out on a Thursday or Friday night in the second week of the Tournament. Greg Paulus, come on down!

3. The NFL Draft. It's such an odd feeling to have confidence in the Falcons' decision-maker. That confidence is buoyed, of course, by the team's decision to play hardball with Keith Brooking.

4. Josh Smith's first dunk in a home playoff game. I nominate Udonis Haslem as the dunkee.

5. The Copa del Rey Final. As I was mocking a Manchester United friend for the fact that United inevitably play boring finals, I realized that Barcelona have played exactly one final this decade. (I'm excluding meaningless games like the World Club Championship, the Spanish Supercup, and the European Supercup.) Thus, Barca's date with Athletic Bilbao (which ought to be re-named the "Who hates Fascist Real the most?" Cup) will be something exciting.

6. Terrell Owens' first interview after being cut. I'm sure that Stephen A. Smith is working the phones with T.O. as we speak. I'm also sure that Owens will be circumspect in his comments and wouldn't dream of throwing his teammates under the proverbial bus.

7. Liverpool losing at Old Trafford. 1990 was a long, long time ago.

8. Spring practice reports. There's nothing so exciting as the inevitable "Player X who has never seen the field before is tearing it up!" noise that comes out of every spring practice. We all manage to banish the thought that Player X is tearing it up against his own teammates. G-d help my sanity the first time I hear "Tate Forcier can [insert quarterback skill] much better than Steven Threet ever could!"

9. My friend Ben predicting an undefeated season for Georgia. It's a rite of summer. He's already thinking that the Dawgs are going to win 11 games. By May, that number will creep to 12 and by July, he'll reach 14-0. It's good to be friends with Pangloss.

10. Another Nadal-Federer final at Wimbledon. I'm not a tennis fan like I was when I was a kid, but the Wimbledon final last year completely sucked me in. I'd be very disappointed if there isn't a sequel.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Five Thoughts on Hawks-Cavs

1. Kudos to the crowd. When Atlanta got two inches of snow in the afternoon, Der Wife and I first assumed that the game would be canceled and then assumed that Philips would be half-empty. We were somewhat surprised when we arrived just after tip-off to see the place totally packed. Apparently, Atlantans desire to see LeBron will trump our paranoia about driving in or after snow. Despite the result, I had a great time at the game, save for a BBQ Chicken sandwich that I referred to as "chicken jerky."

2. The Hawks' end-game strategy drives me crazy. If you want to know why the Cavs scored the last six points of the game, here's a helpful primer on the Hawks' last four possessions:

  • Joe Johnson drives, misses dunk/gets hammered, ball fortuitously squirts out to Marvin Williams in the corner and Marvin drains a three. One of the luckiest plays you'll ever see, but kudos to Marvin taking advantage.

  • Joe Johnson runs a pick-and-roll with Flip Murray, sets Murray up for an open jumper, and Murray misses after hesitating at the foul line. This would be the only instance in recorded human history in which Flip Murray hesitated before shooting. Have I mentioned yet that Murray missed five lay-ups/close-in shots during the game? I digress.

  • Joe Johnson isolates on LeBron and misses a floater in the lane.

  • Joe Johnson misses a jumper from the left wing at the buzzer, a la Larry Bird in Game Four of the '87 Finals.

My point in making this list is simply to show that Mike Woodson runs plays for Joe Johnson on just about every important end game possession. Woodson was so inflexible in this strategy that he kept running plays for Johnson despite the fact that he was being guarded by the best player on the planet. I would need to re-watch the last few possessions to be sure of this, but unless Cleveland had changed its lineup, 6'7 Marvin Williams was being guarded on those possession by either 6'3 Delonte West or 6'1 Mo Williams. Marvin is also very good at getting to the foul line, which is apparently the way to win an NBA game in the final minute.

My problems with Woodson's reliance on Johnson are three-fold. First, it's totally predictable. Second, Johnson doesn't get to the foul line in end-game situations, although there are certainly some occasions in which he deserves to get a call. Third, the Hawks' strength is not that Johnson is a superstar player, but rather that the team has a balanced starting lineup with five good to very good players. Woodson coaches the team as if he's coaching the '09 Cavs, but he's really coaching the '04 Pistons. This bothers me since Woodson was an assistant on the '04 Pistons.

All that said, the play that Woodson drew up for the final shot was excellent. Also, the Hawks did get a couple good looks at the end of the game. Johnson and Murray just missed those looks. I'm criticizing the offense, but it's not as if the Hawks were throwing up off-balance 30-footers.

The Hawks' biggest end-game screw-up was giving Cleveland the de facto last possession. The Hawks called timeout with 40 seconds left in a tie game. In that instance, it was imperative that they shoot within ten second (and ideally sooner) so they would get the last shot. Instead, Joe dribbled too long before making his move. I don't know whether to blame Woodson or Johnson, but the net effect was that the Cavs ended up with the ball with 24 seconds left. At that point, I looked at Der Wife and said "I think we know what's coming here."

While we're refighting the last few minutes of the game, why do the Cavs run screen-and-roll with LeBron and Anderson Varejao as opposed to...anyone else? Their other three starters - Williams, West, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (or, as Der Wife calls him, Drew Nizzlegoskos) - can all shoot the ball. Varejao can't shoot, nor is he much of a threat to drive (his late three-point play aside). Why doesn't Mike Brown pair LeBron with a screener who can punish an opponent for doubling James when he comes around the screen?

3. LeBron gets some shady, shady calls. I'm not so bothered by the call at the end of the game, as he was bumped a little by Al Horford (although Joe Johnson would never get that call). I was bothered by the flood of calls that LeBron got in the second quarter, each one more ludicrous than the last. It's apparently legal for King James to bear hug Josh Smith. It's apparently not legal to be within five feet of him when he drives. I really, really hope that LeBron gets these calls in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.

4. The crunch-time line-up: Flip, Joe, Marvin, Al, Zaza. I kinda like it. I criticized Woodson's offensive strategy at the end, but he was flexible enough to ride two bench players - Murray and Pachulia - who had given the team a lift in the third quarter.

5. Although the Hawks dropped to 1-4 against the Cavs and Celtics, I came away from the game pleased with the team's ability to play with these two potential second round opponents. Marvin did an outstanding job on LeBron (again), so a match-up with the Cavs would be competitive. We all know what games against the Celtics are like. Four of five games against the Cavs and Celtics have come down to the final possession.