Friday, May 29, 2009

BurritoBlogging Believes in a Healthy Chest

I suck at titling my posts, but I'm quite proud of the theme for my Friday night posts generally and this title in particular.

Signs your local NHL team is going out of business: a friend of mine at work and a buddy have had Thrashers tickets since the team's first season, and good tickets at that. They decided after last year not to renew because of the utter ineptitude of the team and ownership's complete lack of caring. After the buddy broke this news to his ticket rep, his ticket rep showed up at his office unannounced. With an autographed jersey. And Thrash. Yes, Thrash was waiting in the lobby of a major law firm to thank a season ticket holder for his years of ticket purchases. Doesn't that strike you as sweet, but utterly desperate? It's like you break up with a girl and she responds by coming over to cook Chateaubriand and give you the girl-on-girl fun you always wanted. It's like Chris Farley trying to keep dancing after losing the Chippendale's competition to Patrick Swayze. I heard that story and thought "this team is headed for Chapter 11." The Thrash cannot be making much from local TV and the NHL makes almost nothing from national TV deals. If the ticket base shrivels up, then the team either folds or Atlanta Spririt write a fat check. It's a shame because this would be a perfectly good hockey market if the league and the team weren't run by boobs.

Since I didn't have time this week to write about Bill Simmons column about NBA refs, I'll give you the short version: incoherent. Is the problem that there are too many fouls? That the refs are inconsistent? That they need to call the game according to the book? Each problem has a different, mutually exclusive solution. The only point that he made that made sense was that superstars hurtling at the basket with no intention other that getting a call is a bad thing, but this has been going on at least since Jordan. It cannot be a coincidence that the playoffs suddenly suck the round after the Celtics were eliminated.

Signs that having a rooting interest cures anything: I am excited about watching some of the Michigan-Florida softball game tonight. Fast-pitch can be fun to watch. There's something cool about a ball being thrown at 70 mph at extremely close range with the third baseman right on top of the play. As a soccer fan, I can appreciate a game in which scoring is very difficult.

In 2007, Barcelona struggled against quality opponents in part because Frank Rijkaard was not the same without his tactical ace, Henk Ten Cate. Manchester United fans, I submit that the same happened to you this year without Carlos Queiroz. The decline wasn't as sharp because Fergie refused to let his Ronnie ruin the chemistry, but it happened. Bad tactics always show up in games against top opponents, the ones that United couldn't out-talent.

I wish there were something to say about the Braves other than that we do not have an outfielder who can hit and no team can win with that dead weight. Francoeur raus!

After Kanu knocked my question about Euro/Champions League winners out of the park, I have a new query: do I have the only two years old in the US who can belt out el Can't del Barca? Both verses?

My friend Ben (the Ben of "Five Outlandish Predictions" fame) called the 800 number listed on Phil Steele's site to ask if he could get an advance copy of the Preview...and the Godfather himself answered! I would have peppered him with questions about the stats that he uses, but Ben (who has more gall than I ever will; he's a plaintiffs lawyer) just complimented Steele on his magazine and that was it. Steele's mag is a real milepost for me. I don't opine on teams until I've read it. I feel naked without Phil, even if he uses the wrong stats. Honestly, does anyone but his special teams numbers?

Friggin' Dylan is coming to town when I'm taking my summer beach trip. His last trip to Atlanta was on Yom Kippur. And NY&G, I know that I owe you a take on the new album. My initial thought is that it picks up steam, but I need to immerse to get the full flavor.

I feel like listening to "Actung Baby."

Visca el Barca!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Three of Three

If you asked me before the game to draw up the perfect game for Barcelona, how would it have gone? I would have asked for an early goal to calm everyone's nerves. I would have asked for Eto'o to strike as a reward for turning his attitude 180 degrees and being the embodiment of the difference between last year's team and this. I would have asked for Leo Messi to score to cement the Ballon D'Or. I would have asked for Xavi and Iniesta to boss the midfield as an advertisement for the way Barca teach players to play at La Masia. I would have asked for Puyol to make Ronaldo his bitch, reducing Ronaldo to his arsenal of pouty faces. I would have asked for Paul Scholes to embarrass himself as punishment for knocking Barca out of the Champions League in 2008. I would have asked for Manchester United to wear white uniforms so they look like Real Madrid when getting beaten. I would ask for the final minutes of the game to play out with Barca stroking the ball around, as if to say dismissively "We don't need to score anymore. You've had enough."

In other words, I would have asked for exactly what happened on May 27, 2009 in Rome.

So how did this happen? How did a team that was unbeaten in 25 straight Champions League games get undressed? I'm glad you asked:

1. Whether he wanted to prove a point after last year's semifinal or he was suckered in by a makeshift back four, Sir Alex decided to attack from the start. This was a mistake because it gave Barca's front five oxygen. United played well at the start, but they were creating space for Barca. Look at what happened on the first goal. Iniesta played a one-two at the center circle and suddenly had lots of space to attack. He never had that space against Chelsea or United last year. He freed Eto'o in the box and Samuel made no mistake. Where's the left back Evra when Eto'o cuts in from the right? Where is Anderson covering Iniesta when Carrick goes towards Messi at the start of the play? The amount of space forced United's players into decisions and they often made the wrong choices.

2. United decided to use the new Happy Fun Ball by shooting a lot from distance. This played into Barca's hands as Valdes is a good shot-stopper and United didn't test the Barca backline with crosses. Ronaldo was the worst "shoot from anywhere!" offender. As great as he is, he can be the Iverson of football: a volume shooter who does not involve his teammates. That's fine when he's scoring, but I don't see him as being the right guy for a very talented United frontline. (Then again, United's midfield is not full of creative types, so an individualist makes some sense.) This is the best argument in the Messi-Ronaldo debate: look at the assists.

3. United played the wrong formation. If Barca's weak link was left back, then why play Park, an offensive non-threat, at right forward? Rooney was positioned opposite Puyol, Barca's best defender. In the second half, Ronaldo was opposite Puyol and had no success.

4. Xavi and Iniesta were the men of the match. They assisted on the two goals and dominated United in midfield. Giggs and Anderson are not in their class and Carrick had an off night. I felt bad for Rooney. His midfield was getting bossed and his striker was hogging the ball every time it came forward. He was totally absent and it wasn't his fault.

5. For all of Barca's struggles against English teams, they haven't played with the lead in the last two years. Once Eto'o struck, Barca's possession game came into play and they dominated. Despite a possibly suspect defense, Barca are the perfect team to play with a lead (or in a road first leg) because of their passing style. United had to open themselves up further and play into Barca's hands. (Looking back four years, this is why Arsenal fans were insane to retrospectively want to concede a goal instead of a red card in the '06 Final.)

6. United were not as good as we thought. The Arsenal win over-inflated their value and obscured the fact that they were not very good against top teams this year.

7. Barca were better than we thought. They struggled against Chelsea, but great defensive teams can make great offensive teams look bad (and Barca had the game at Real in between the Chelsea match, so they couldn't be 100% invested). Once Barca's players had two weeks off after the Copa del Rey Final, they were able to recharge and show their best form.

Bullet-point thoughts:

  • If you want two unlikely means of goals for this Barcelona team, then you wouldn't do much worse than Eto'o cutting in from the right (a role in which he was woeful in the second leg against Chelsea and even the chorreo at the Bernabeu) and Messi scoring with his head.

  • I feel like a damned fool on a night like this coming up with a negative, but there is one. If you were a manager looking to beat Barcelona in 2009-10, what approach would you take? Would you take Manchester United's approach of trying to attack the Blaugrana and thus create space in the midfield for Xavi and Iniesta or would you take the Chelsea approach of packing ten behind the ball and being as physical as possible? Which approach pushed Barca to the brink of elimination and which leaves them astride the football world as a colossus?

  • One other sad thought: I couldn't help but think as the final minutes ticked away about what Ronaldinho was doing watching the match. He could have been on the left side of the trident, receiving pass after pass from the dominant midfield. Instead, he let himself become a shadow of the World Player of the Year. That was three short years ago. Imagine the regret he must feel now as he rides the pine for an average Milan side.

  • So what does Barca look to buy in the offseason? How do you improve upon this team? I need to give this some thought, but the only answer I can come up with right now is that they need more depth, especially in the midfield.

  • After the Chelsea matches, it was nice to watch a match that was played with few fouls and cards and little controversy. The game flowed very well.

  • Though we will all choose to forget it, it sure seems like a long time ago that Joan Laporta was barely surviving a no-confidence vote and then the fans were waving white hankies in protest when Barca took one point from the first two games of the season.

  • Does anyone know off the top of their heads the list of players who have been reigning European Champions on both a club and a national team level like Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta are now?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's Time

Five keys for the game tomorrow:

1. Andres Iniesta's Gait - If he doesn't play or plays at less than full speed, then this Barca team is vulnerable. The slump in February occurred when Iniesta was injured. If he gets to play alongside Xavi in the midfield, then Barca can dominate possession and pin United back, thus reducing the pressure on the suspect back line.

2. Alex Ferguson's Hubris - I've said it before, but I'll repeat myself: Barca's best chance as the underdogs in this match is for the greatest manager of our generation (with the possible exception of Capello) to imitate Icarus and try to fly too close to the sun. If he plays his normal, cagey style and relies on counters, then United should be successful. If he tries to make amends for being defensive in 2008 by taking an expansive approach, then Barca could get going like they did in the home first halves against Lyon and Bayern, two of the most dominating displays you'll ever see. Ferguson's most interesting tactical dilemma is that he would normally use Ji Sung Park against a team like Barca to provide defensive oomph from the front line. However, if he sticks Park on the right side of attack, then he's deploying his weakest attacker against Barca's weakest link: the 34-year old second choice left back. Then again, if he doesn't play Park on the right and Henry and Iniesta are healthy, then John O'Shea could have a really tough time defending against Barca's left.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo's Shooting - Barca's defenders are not the most confident bunch, so they'll be wary of letting Ronaldo go past them. That might give Ronaldo the space to put home a rocket, a la Porto and Arsenal. Ronaldo has shaken the choker label, but he can pile further dirt on that myth with a 30-meter screamer tomorrow.

4. Pep's Countermeasures - The Blaugrana struggle against EPL sides that defend in depth because Barca's short passing game gets choked off and they lack the shooting from distance or crossing threats to overcome a massed defense. Dani Alves was the most useful addition to this year's team because of his ability to cross (ask Chelsea), but he'll be watching from the stands. Carles Puyol is a surprisingly adept offensive threat at right back, but he's no Alves. If Barca have a hard time breaking through United's ranks, what do they do as a Plan B?

5. Eto'o's Form - Samuel has been going through a real crisis over the past several weeks. Guardiola kept playing him in the last two meaningless matches after La Liga was sewn up, but Eto'o keeps misfiring. An ineffective striker can make all of Barca's nice creation and passing useless. On the other hand, Eto'o can rise to the occasion (ask Arsenal), so a performance against the run of play could be the difference tomorrow.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I watched the ninth inning of Game Five of the '86 ALCS with the eight-month old this afternoon and I felt a little guilty knowing how things turned out for Donnie Moore. The game also reminded how insufferable Red Sox fans are. They subjected the world to years of the "no one has suffered like we have" schtick based on the Bill Buckner game, but they were playing with house money after the ALCS. They escaped a situation in which they were down 3-1 in the series and 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game Five. After surviving that, they had a lotta' nerve to say that they were deprived of a World Series title. They were the equivalent of the guy who wins a pile of money after being dealt a straight flush and then complains that he pissed the winnings away.

I will admit, though, that between an enjoyable blast from the past on the MLB Network, an interesting Phillies-Yankees game today, and the outstanding Halladay-Kawakami (?!?) duel last night, I'm enjoying baseball right now. Wednesday will put it in its place.

Watching the game last night made me think that these Braves are a little like the '93 Braves before the McGriff trade. The pitching is good, but it is a real ordeal trying to push runs across. I don't see a McGriff savior this year because of the whiplash from the Teixeira debacle.

I have a feature-length "why I love LeBron" post in my head right now. I am most definitely not a starf***er of an NBa fan, as I have disliked most major stars of the past 25 years with the exceptions of Duncan and Shaq. I rooted against Bird, Magic, Jordan, and Kobe. I tend to rebel against the guys who are held up as the ideal, but I really like LeBron. Fundamentally, it's because he gets along with his teammates so well and has great passing skills. The Democrat in me finds him very non-elitist in the way he carries himself. I'll flush this out when I get time.

When I watched the end of the Magic-Cavs game last night, I was really happy that I kept the TV on. We all watch, in part, on the off chance that we'll see history and last night was the payoff. These Conference Finals have been great. Three really rootable teams and a foil (the Lakers).

Speaking of my political ideology infecting my rooting preferences, I have always liked Urban Meyer (December 2006 excluded for obvious reasons) because he is so good at what he does and because I love watching his offense. However, the "you're either with me or you're my enemy" has me reevaluating. I am picturing Dick Cheney and Meyer standing on the deck of a Star Destroyer watching the construction of the Death Star.

SI had a great article about how Nadal solved Federer...and then Federer beat Nadal in Spain on clay. Good timing.

Brian McCann, bunt single. What are four words I never thought I'd type in a sentence for 500, Alex.

Speaking of Jeopardy, I've used an image of "Suck it, Trebek" in at least two recent e-mails.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

There was Literally No Chance that ESPN Wouldn't Make this a Headline

Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium! If only Army were not involved, this would be the ultimate meteor game. Oh, and Florentino Perez should somehow be involved. With Stuart Scott and Dick Vitale calling the game.

Speaking of the Irish, I'm interested to hear frequent commenter Ed's view on ESPN being against the Irish on the heels of Notre Dame Week on College Football Live.

The Case against Manchester United

In the immediate aftermath of the semifinals, I thought that United should be the clear favorite in Rome. Barca were wounded by playing a much tougher semifinal (you're right, Bill Simmons; this whiny bitch thing is pretty fun) and United are really rounding into shape. However, after thinking a little more, I'm of the opinion that United are overrated. This could be a really dumb thing to say about the two-time EPL champs and the Champions League holders, but bear with me here. I give you the case against the Red Devils:

1. They don't have an identity. The fact that they can play all sorts of styles is great, but what do they do when they play a team that plays one style really well?

2. United's best test was their games in the EPL against the rest of the Big Four. If anything is a good predictor for how United will stack up against Barcelona, it would be the games against Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. United's results? Two losses against Liverpool, a loss and a draw against Arsenal, and a win and a draw against Chelsea. The sole win came against the collapsing, disinterested Chelsea team that got Big Phil Scolari the boot. (The counter: United's two-legged thrashing of Arsenal in the Champions League, a result that is both very impressive and also creates a recency effect that overrates United a tad.) I've often thought that Barca could be measured by their performances against the elite teams in Spain. If the same is true of United, then they aren't that great. And by way of comparison, here are Barca's results against the elite in Spain (and I'll freely grant that the Primera elite are not on the level of the EPL elite): two wins against Real, a win and a draw against Villarreal, a win and a draw against Valencia, two wins against Sevilla, and a win and a loss against Atletico.

3. Per the Guardian Podcast, United scored fewer goals than another of their other sides that have won the EPL.

4. With the Ronaldo and Tevez drama, are they really pulling in the same direction?

5. If Sir Alex really thinks that the United-Barca semifinal was a missed opportunity (the Graham Hunter theory) and he wants to show the world that his side can go toe-to-toe with the Blaugrana, then he'll be electing a sub-optimal strategy. He does not have a midfield that can create chances like Iniesta and Xavi can. I'll freely admit that I'm relying on one of the all-time great managers to make a strategic error, but Sir Alex isn't beyond a little hubris. f

6. When is the last time that United played really well in a Final? (G-d, I'm really setting myself up here.)

Altogether, this United team is reminiscent of the '97 Juve side. I vividly remember reading a USA Today article while on a bus in Florence about how that Juve team were unbeatable. They were defending European champions and were en route to another Serie A title. Two days later, Borussia Dortmund upset them 3-1 in the Champions League Final in Munich.

Other random thoughts about the Final:

  • United's counters scare the bejeezus out of me. Their final goal against Arsenal -a sweeping counter that ended with Ronaldo roofing the ball - is exactly the sort of goal that they could score in the Final. Barca can get caught forward with their pants down. The key guy to stopping the counters will be Busquets in defensive midfield. He has to break United's rhythm up as soon as Barca lose the ball in attack. And by break United's rhythm, I mean foul the s*** out of them.

  • I am also scared of Ronaldo in the air. If he plays on the right, then he'll be matched up against Sylvinho, who will have to do a better job of tracking him into the box than Michael Essien did in the Final last year. Otherwise, Barca's back line - Puyol, Pique, and Toure - are all good in the air. Pique and Toure aren't the fastest guys in the world, so Rooney will pose problems.

  • Samuel Eto'o's finishing has been dreadful over the past several weeks. Barca could outplay United and still lose if Eto'o keeps whacking the ball right at the opposing keeper.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Two of Three

Is it me or does the trophy for winning the Primera look like a prop from the knight's quarters at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Burritofinger, doo doo doo

It made perfect sense that I would write a post touting the great control shown by Braves pitchers and then the next night, they lose because Jeff Bennett completely lost the strike zone in the tenth inning.

I always thought that Javy Vasquez was a great pitcher when he was an Expo, probably because the Braves never hit him. Normally, that's a bad test. Exhibit A: Randy Shannon hiring Patrick Nix because Miami struggled against his offense. Once. It's nice that the Vasquez who did well against the Braves is doing well against the rest of the NL.

My 31-month old son asked for the Barcelona 2006 European Champions video yesterday instead of Thomas the Train or Elmo. When I got home from work and heard this story, I had to hold back tears. Roma victor!

I cannot tell you how disappointing it was to see Dr. Saturday write this morning that Alabama's archtype this season should be '02 Ohio State. You're better than that! The biggest misnomer about that Ohio State team was that they had a great defense. In reality, it was aided by playing games with few possessions and plays. I don't know this, but I bet I could prove it.

I really like the zoo. One of the cool things about having kids is that we get to go all the time.

I have a post working in my head about the fact that numerous movie franchises have opted for the "explain the origins" reboot and there are a number of college football programs that need the same treatment. My challenge is to avoid making the post totally obvious. Yeah, Miami would like to go back to the late 80s; what else do you have for us?

I read the excerpts of Selena Roberts' book about A-Rod in SI and it struck me as incredibly unfair. I'm no A-Rod fan by any stretch, but Roberts manages to attack him for absolutely everything. She manages to turn his gesture to Cal Ripken to play short in the All-Star Game into a negative. She uses every anonymous gripe by a former teammate into an indictment. Needless to say, when I get done with Vasily Grossman's war diaries, I won't be buying Roberts' book.

If the Braves can get a serious outfield bat and Hudson and Hanson (or Medlen) bolster the rotation in August, this team has a real shot...other than the fact that baseball's stupid post-season doesn't reward teams for having depth in starting pitching.

I found it amazing that SI decided that 80% of the top five owners in the NFL can be found on the I-95 corridor in the Northeast. Riddle me this: what has Jeffrey Lurie done that Malcolm Glazer hasn't, other than not win a Super Bowl. And suffice it to say that I'm not buying the idea of George Steinbrenner as one of the top five owners in baseball when the Yankees' dynasty occurred on the heels of Steinbrenner being suspended from baseball. I guess everyone in the Northeast must be smarter and better.

What would happen if a Jew like me took the "what kind of Lutheran am I?" Quiz on Facebook?

There's class, and then there's John Terry going into the Barca locker room to congratulate the Blaugrana after a bitterly contested tie. There's class, and then there's Carles Puyol wearing the Basque flag to salute the Athletic Bilbao fans after the Copa del Rey Final. Central defender/captain/club icons are always the most rootable guys, like catchers in baseball.

Why do I get the feeling that Megan Fox isn't really bi and is just leading us all on?

So if we were all supposed to root for New York teams after 9/11, shouldn't we root against them on principle after a chunk of the financial services industry plunked us into a quasi-depression? Mike Lupica, what say you?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One of Three

I would say more, but GolTV contrived to not show the Copa del Rey Final after showing the preliminary rounds of the tournament. So, all I know is that Athletic went on top first, Toure Yaya (Barca's defensive midfielder playing central defense) scored a cracker of a goal to equalize after slaloming through the defense, and then the Blaugrana blitzed Athletic after the break. Oh, and Puyol put on a Basque flag after the game to salute the Athletic fans. There's some affinity between the flagship side of Catalunya and the flagship side of the Basque Country, namely hatred of Real Madrid.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

National Champs Per Play

So I was having a debate with a friend about the 1994 Michigan Wolverines and whether the Colorado and Penn State losses kept that team from winning the national title. My friend said that '94 Michigan had plenty of athletes on defense and they were very close to being an elite team. I said that '94 Michigan's defense was just plain bad by Michigan standards, from the opening play of the season - a 70-yard touchdown pass by Boston College - to the end. Even if Chuck Winters would have knocked down Kordell Stewart's heave in the end zone and even if Amani Toomer would have hauled in Todd Collins perfect heave on the final drive against Penn State, this defense was not good enough to win a national title.
So, to prove my point, I spend a few minutes playing around with the NCAA's statistical database to see how Michigan's '94 defense, which allowed over five yards per play, would have compared to the teams that have won the title this decade. That little assignment turned into a survey of each of the ten teams that have won a national title in the aughts. I wanted to set the parameters for what a team needs to show in terms of yards per play gained and allowed to be consistent with a decade's worth of national champions. Behold:
Yards Gained Per Play:

2008 Florida - 7.13
2007 LSU - 5.84
2006 Florida - 6.34
2005 Texas - 7.07
2004 USC - 6.33
2003 USC - 6.49
2003 LSU - 5.89
2002 Ohio State - 5.61
2001 Miami - 6.57
2000 Oklahoma - 5.99

Yards Allowed Per Play:

2008 Florida - 4.46
2007 LSU - 4.42
2006 Florida - 4.32
2005 Texas - 4.39
2004 USC - 4.27
2003 USC - 4.41
2003 LSU - 4.02
2002 Ohio State - 4.66
2001 Miami - 3.93
2000 Oklahoma - 4.14

Yards Gained/Yards Allowed Margin

2008 Florida - 2.67
2007 LSU - 1.42
2006 Florida - 2.02
2005 Texas - 2.68
2004 USC - 2.06
2003 USC - 2.08
2003 LSU - 1.87
2002 Ohio State - 0.95
2001 Miami - 2.64
2000 Oklahoma - 1.85

Sagarin Strength of Schedule:

2008 Florida - 4
2007 LSU - 11
2006 Florida - 8
2005 Texas - 13
2004 USC - 7
2003 USC - 19
2003 LSU - 28
2002 Ohio State - 30
2001 Miami - 27
2000 Oklahoma - 14

Thoughts on the data:
  • Generally speaking, the BCS has done a reasonably good job of spitting out national champions like McDonald's spits out Big Macs. Over a wide space of time and geography, the end product has been fairly consistent: national champions who: (1) played schedules that can be described as "strong to quite strong;" (2) gained something in the neighborhood of six-to-seven yards per play; and (3) allowed something in the neighborhood of four yards per play. The BCS may not be perfect, but it has prevented a recurrence of 1984 BYU winning a national title without playing a quality opponent. (Sagarin's database at USA Today's site does not go back to 1984, but Soren Sorenson's site does and his ranking system put BYU's strength of schedule at 85.) Advocates of going back to the old bowl system might want to consider the fact that we haven't had a massively unqualified national champion since the inception of the BCS.
  • Using yards per play margins, national champions this decade can be put into three groups: three dominant champions ('08 Florida, '05 Texas, and '01 Miami), one team that had absolutely no business winning a national title ('02 Ohio State), and then everyone else. The numbers for the '02 Bucks are pretty amazing. Ohio State had the lowest yards per play and the highest yards allowed per play, all while playing the weakest schedule of any national champion this decade. There is absolutely no way to view that team as something other than insanely lucky. In other words, 2002 Ohio State should never be held out as a credible model for a team seeking to win a national title. Note to self: set Google Alert for "2002 Ohio State" in September for fisking possibilities.
  • One other issue: 2002 Ohio State is the only non-Sun Belt team to win the national title. If the Bucks were such an anomaly, then what does that say for the teams of the Northeast and Midwest as credible contenders for the national title? (One counter: Ohio State and Penn State have produced teams that looked more like national champions than the '02 Bucks. For instance, 2005 Penn State outgained its opponents by 1.89 yards per play. 2006 Ohio State outgained their opponents by 1.54 yards per play, even with the decimation by Florida in Glendale.)
  • Although few will make the case that 2008 Florida is one of the great teams of recent history because they lost a home game to Ole Miss, the yardage numbers put the Gators in elite company. Florida had the best offense of any national champion this decade, a defense that would stack up with most, and they played a very difficult schedule
  • For fun, here are Georgia's yard-per-play differentials for their three best years under Richt: 2007 - .75; 2005 - 1.45; and 2002 - .94. 2005 is the year that the Dawgs had a national title-caliber team (barely) and can consider themselves unlucky.
  • The main point of this exercise is to give us a yardstick for November when the various national title contenders have been identified. Yards per play gives us a good way to say that a team does or doesn't look like what we've come to know a national champion should resemble.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Channeling the Construction Worker from "Major League"

Deese guys ain't too bad.

The Braves have crawled back to 16-16 on the strength of a 5-1 stretch against the Marlins, Phillies, and Mets. After the last few years of dismal pitching, it's quite the treat to know that chances are better than 50/50 that Atlanta is going to get a quality start when a starter goes to the hill. When is the last time that we could say that? And if this team can stay in the picture until August and then insert Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson into the rotation?

I'm probably about five years behind the time in using "Three True Outcomes" as a measure for a baseball team and Peacedog will let me know the error of my ways in the comments, but the Braves look good in all three departments relative to their opponents:

Home runs:
Braves - 26
Opponents - 22

Walks received:
Braves - 129
Opponents - 109

Strikeouts by pitchers:
Braves - 247
Opponents - 193

When's the last time that the Braves had a K/BB ratio of better than 2/1? OK, I just looked and it was 2007. Not that impressive. Maybe I'm getting carried away by competent pitching for 32 games. The Braves' pitchers are first in the NL in fewest homers allowed, second in the NL in strikeouts, and fourth in fewest walks allowed. As for the defense, it is 8th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, so this isn't a Tampa scenario where a better defense is causing spill-over effects on the staff. This is just better pitching.

As for the offense, it's middle-of-the-pack, which isn't the end of the world in light of the facts that Brian McCann has been out for long stretches and Kelly Johnson has performed below his ability. The outfield looks about like the disaster that we anticipated. Jeff Francoeur's OBP is on the wrong side of .300, Jordan Schaefer is striking at a mammoth pace (although he's 22 and we're going to cut him a lot of slack because, unlike Francoeur, he's patient), and the knife is fully sticking out of Garret Anderson's back, save for the big hit he had in the seventh against the Phillies on Sunday. The infield is good, bolstered by an excellent first 20% of the season from Casey Kotchman.

Speaking of the bats, no Brave has more than three homers right now. The lineup is balanced, but are we trying some sort of homage to the deadball era by having a team without a hitter getting to 20 homers for the season? This team certainly isn't honoring 1980s NL baseball because the team leader in the stolen base department steal. That's all? One g-ddamned steal?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

I Swear, this was not Going to be a Rant about ESPN when I Started Writing

In this morning's edition of the AJC, Christian Boone tackles the oft-discussed question of why so many Atlantans root for non-local teams. This subject has been tackled repeatedly in a number of outlets, including this one. Because the story is coming from a local source as opposed to Michael Wilbon or Bill Simmons, I'm not going to be defensive, but let's take a look at the evidence anyway:

1. LeBron and Kobe jerseys are bigger sellers than any Hawks jerseys. This would have the be a function of: (1) the NBA marketing players as opposed to teams; and (2) the fact that the Hawks don't have an especially good track record of producing teams that have even come close to winning a championship (hence the stat that until last Sunday, the Hawks had not won a seven-game series since the 70s). I'd imagine that LeBron and Kobe jerseys sell well in other NBA cities, but point taken.

2. There are a lot of Cowboys, Steelers, Yankees, and Red Sox fans in the stands when those teams come to town. Boone tries to address the argument that the city is full of transplants, but does so a little weakly:

The “everyone who lives here is from somewhere else” rationale has been used to explain Atlanta’s divided sports loyalties for years, and while there’s some truth to it, the numbers don’t add up.

According to the 2000 Census, of those living in Georgia at the time, 46,975 were born in Massachusetts. Roughly 25,000 more hailed from the New England states, where the Red Sox fervor runs just as deep.

So are we to believe one-third of those natives flock to Turner Field whenever Boston invades, or has Atlanta become over-run with front-runners?

It's too simplistic to say that there are 72K people born in New England in the area and therefore that that is the only population that would come to Turner Field for a visit by the Red Sox. Those 72K people are probably not all sterile, raising the possibility that they have offspring. It has been known to happen that offspring will cheer for their parents' favorite teams. Also, looking solely at the metro area is short-sighted because the Braves draw fans from a multi-state region, especially for weekend games as the tilts with the Red Sox always are. Do you think a Nashua, N.H. native living in Birmingham or Greenville isn't going to drive two hours to see the Sox play at the Ted?

That said, I'd be lying if I said that Boone doesn't have a point that there are plenty of people who have no connection to New York or Boston who become fans of the Yankees or Red Sox. We're going to see more and more of this as sports fans turn with increasing frequency to national news sources as opposed to local ones. A city like Atlanta with relatively young teams is going to be especially vulnerable to this phenomenon because the ties between its teams and fans won't be as tight as the bonds in other places. This is what's annoying about ESPN devoting excessive coverage to certain favored teams. If ESPN is going to play a bigger role in shaping rooting preferences, then they have a responsibility not to push those rooting interests to two or three teams in every sport. ESPN would no doubt claim that they are simply giving the viewing/reading/surfing public what they want, but that underrates the WWLIS's impact in shaping those preferences to begin with.

One other problem with Boone's article: any piece about sports preferences in the Atlanta market that doesn't discuss college football is, by nature, incomplete. I recognize that newspaper pieces are subject to strict word count requirements, but an article like this that argues that Atlantans aren't very committed to the home teams ought to address the fact that this market is full of college football fans who support their teams with religious fervor. The major problem that I have with outsiders who criticize Atlanta as a sports town is that they have only one conception for what a good sports town is: a city that is fanatically devoted to its pro sports teams. They don't recognize that there is merit in a market that follows college football more intensely and is full of large fan bases for about ten different programs. Boone's article feeds into that flawed mindset by treating the sale of Hawks jerseys as the measure of this city as a sports mecca.

Friday, May 08, 2009

"I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone."

Uh oh, we've pissed off Cleveland. What are they going to do? Get revenge by sending more transplants who would rather live here than there?

By the way, this is in place of a post on the Hawks' two blowout losses to the Cavs. What is there to say? The Cavs are a much better team and the Hawks have several key players out. The only question is whether the local pro basketball collective will put up a fight at home before getting hammered in Cleveland. Again.

Andres Iniesta: Spanish for Lindsay Scott

I was trying to think of another instance of a team being totally dead and buried before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by scoring in a manner that's a little unorthodox for that team and this was the first game that came to mind...

Lindsay Scott's touchdown is made doubly famous by Larry Munson's call of the play. By the time I'm done watching the Iniesta goal (and I've probably seen it 20 times already), I will have memorized Derek Rae's description...and when the ball flew in, he identified Xavi as the scorer. In Rae's defense, he is the best soccer play-by-play commentator on this side of the pond by some margin. Also, it's not easy to identify one 5'7 Barca midfielder with dark hair as opposed to the other, especially when watching the game in a studio thousands of miles away from the live action. Iniesta's receding hairline isn't that obvious, is it?

Other thoughts on the day after the day after:

1.'s Carlo Garganese positively nails Guus Hiddink's hypocrisy over the officiating. I tried to make this point after the game, but Garganese is much more specific. It's hard to pick a favorite paragraph, but this is mine:

I know what I'm thinking Guus, and it is not conspiracy, but hypocrisy. The regularity and enormity of the events at the 2002 World Cup were more than enough to form a conspiracy theory, yet Hiddink shrugged them off as Italian and Spanish sour grapes. What took place last night at Stamford Bridge was just plain bad officiating that penalised both sides in equal measure.

2. There has been a lot of discussion about Barca looking poor against Chelsea and that this team isn't as good as we previously thought. (I'm looking at you, Steven Cohen.) While I'll be the first to admit that Barca still struggle against organized, defensive EPL sides because of their weakness at shooting from outside the box or heading in crosses from the wings, the criticism of the Blaugrana sell Chelsea short. The Blues are a very good defensive side, especially when they play in a conservative fashion. Any team in the world would struggle to score against a Chelsea side coached by Hiddink and deploying a healthy Essien and a motivated Drogba. (Drogba was essential to Chelsea's conservative strategy because he allowed the Blues to commit their midfield to defense, knowing that they could generate some offense from pumping long balls to Didier.)

The criticism of Leo Messi relative to Cristiano Ronaldo is similarly misplaced. Ronaldo turned in an outstanding performance against Arsenal, but he was playing against a makeshift back four attached to a team that is clearly not on an elite level. In the second leg, he was playing against an opponent that was pushed forward and therefore had acres of space in which to operate. Messi, on the other hand, was playing against an outstanding back line full of international starters, protected by a midfield also full of top players. Every time he got the ball, he was surrounded by excellent adversaries. Messi struggled at times with his final balls and he clearly lacks Ronaldo's ability to shoot from distance, but he also deserves credit for not turning the ball over and exposing his defense, something that Ronaldo did against both Aston Villa and Porto.

Also, Messi isn't a complete and utter prat like Ronaldo.

Barca get criticized for having a suspect defense that succeeds only because the attacking players maintain possession so well. Well, in the same way that Drogba made Chelsea's strategy possible, Messi's supreme ability to keep the ball under pressure from defenders who are trying to bugger him makes Barca's style possible. Yes, the Blaugrana have only scored one goal in their last 360 minutes against EPL sides, but they've only conceded two (both of the wonderstrike variety) and Messi's ability to keep the ball has been critical in maintaining that defensive record.

3. The EPL's Big Four are on top of football right now and Barca have battled them to a standstill. The Blaugrana have played the Big Four in eleven matches since Rijkaard and Ronaldinho ushered in the club's current era. Barca have won four, lost three, and drawn three of those matches. Barca have won three ties and lost three. Barca have scored 12 and conceded 12 in those eleven matches and six ties. These results illustrate that Barca are on par with the Big Four, and they're probably the only club on the Continent that can make that claim at present. As of May 2009, there is a four-team elite in Europe: Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United. I would have hesitated to put Liverpool into that category before 2009, but their new-found abilities to score goals and compete for the EPL title represent a turning of a corner.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

All Roads (and 1-1 Draws in the Most Dramatic of Circumstances) Lead to Rome

OK, I frankly don't know where to begin after watching that game.

Last Thoughts on Chelsea

I had an impulse at first to write a "Chelsea got what they deserved" post based on the fact that the Blues made no attempt to get a road goal, so it is only fitting that they go out of the Champions League on road goals. We don't want to reward teams for parking the bus, blah blah blah. But then, I think about the way that Chelsea lost the Champions League Final last year when they were one kick away from adding the trophy that has eluded them and I just feel sad for their fans. It's hard to deal with one blow like that; following it with an injury time strike to lose a Champions League Final at home goes beyond cruel.

Now that the Special One has left North London, there are few personalities on that Chelsea side that are disagreeable. Ashley Cole is the only one who comes to mind. Didier Drogba is a flopper nonpareil, but I do have a soft spot for African players and he's one of the best. Michael Essien is one of my favorite non-Barca players. If Barca were to be knocked out, then better they lose to a fantastic strike from a great player. Frank Lampard seems like an alright guy. Now that the English have given up claiming that he's the best center back in the world, there's nothing wrong with John Terry. Michael Ballack is a good player who deserves to be more than a bridesmaid someday. I feel bad for this core group that it's looking more and more likely that they won't win a Champions League together.

The Ref

He just was not very good. He missed a penalty on the Pique handball, although there was a whiff of a foul by Malouda on the header that set up the chance. The remaining Chelsea penalty shouts were all of the marginal variety (in my biased opinion). The decision to send of Eric Abidal was absolutely horrendous and puts paid to Lucky Guus's inference of a conspiracy after the match. I'm willing to cut Chelsea a wide berth in their post-match behavior and comments. They lost one of the all-time gut-wrenching games and they did have some close decisions go against them, so some animated griping is natural. That said, I cannot BELIEVE that this came out of Hiddink's mouth:

People are making suggestions but it's difficult to prove things. Conspiracy is a very tough word and you have to be able to prove it. But when you analyse things closely, then I also start thinking... I cannot say if Uefa would not like another all-English final. What I'm sure about that, in big games like this, you need top notch referees who have lots of experience in the big leagues in Italy, Spain, England and Germany.

Yeah, Guus, as soon as you give back whatever rewards you received for guiding South Korea to the 2002 World Cup semifinals on the backs of a series of atrocious calls by clearly intimidated refs from, wait for it, Ecuador and Egypt, then you'll have the right to make this complaint. I can guarantee you that people in Spain are laughing their asses off at Hiddink, seeing as how La Furia were denied two clear goals in the quarterfinal and lost in penalties. Of all the people in the world to complain about refs from small federations getting stage fright in big games, you are the absolute last person who can do so.

Man of the Match

Victor Valdes? You could make a strong case for it. Who saw that coming? Player ratings on a 1-9 scale:

Valdes - 7.5 - Iniesta's heroics don't matter if not for a huge save on Drogba in the second half. He also did well with Drogba's free kick after the disputed "was he in or outside the box?" call.

Abidal - 6.5 - Played reasonably well and was only guilty of a red card in a strange Norwegian fantasy.

Toure - 6.5 - Not bad for a midfielder playing defense. His speed and height were important, although there were definitely occasions where space appeared in the middle because of positional issues. When I think of Ten Catalan Lions in the future, I'll remember Toure gutting it out late in the game when he was clearly winded from chasing Chelsea players all night.

Pique - 7.5 - A very good performance.

Alves - 4.5 - I was going to give him a 3 as the game crept into injury time and I was composing the "we lost to a better team" post in my head. He wasted so many good crossing and dead ball chances.

Busquets - 6 - Not his best game, but he was reasonably good at blunting Chelsea attacks.

Xavi - 6.5 - Played his usual sharp-passing game, but he was pushed back by Chelsea's excellent midfield. It was his nice pass out to Alves on the right that started the move for Iniesta's goal.

Keita - 5.5 - He didn't materialize at all like I thought he would, although Alves's horrendous crosses had something to do with that. The lack of service to Eto'o has to be caused, at least in part, by having an inferior passer in one of the two central midfield spots.

Messi - 6 - A quiet game and he could use work on his shooting from outside the box, but don't lose sight of the fact that he assisted on the winner. Like Pirlo in the '06 World Cup semifinal, Messi was awfully composed in a big situation to find a teammate as opposed to trying to shoot himself.

Iniesta - 8 - And not just for the goal. He was the most dangerous of the three front men for the entire match. Barca clearly noticed this at the half because the attacks were all coming from the left in the second half.

Eto'o - 5.5 - whether it was a lack of service or a lack of running, Samuel was totally absent.

My Moment of Prescience

You'll just have to take my word for it that I went with the Iniesta yellow jersey when I came home from work tonight and sat down to watch the DVR copy of the game. I am happy with that decision.

On the Road to Rome, we'll Channel Hannibal

Update: the lineups are out. Chelsea bring Anelka into the side in place of Obi Mikel, so they'll have two wide attackers instead of one. As expected, they have a more adventurous formation than what they showed in Catalunya.

Barca have elected to put Yaya Toure in the central back spot with Sergi Busquets coming into the team to play defensive midfield. Because of injuries and suspensions, only one of the three normal starting midfielders is in his customary spot. I like Toure a lot, but I can't say that I've seen him in the center back role in order to form an impression. The devil that I don't know is better than the devils I do, as I've seen both Caceres and Abidal at center back and neither were very impressive. Toure is strong in the air and that had to be a factor. Communication and positioning will be critical.

Once More into the Breach...

I'll admit that Sid Lowe's
description of how Barcelona struggle against English opposition has me concerned. The vulnerabilities that Barca have against big, physical sides that can score in the air have hurt it generally against English teams and specifically against Chelsea in the past. With a fifth-choice center back playing a prominent role next to the 21-year old Gerard Pique, it's quite possible to imagine Chelsea having some offensive success when they see the ball. The Blues survived their suspension crisis at left back; we'll see if the Blaugrana survive their suspension/injury crisis in the center.

Barca are also likely to be without Thierry Henry, who was one of the heroes on Saturday at the Bernabeu. However, this does open up an option for Barca. Andres Iniesta will play as the left forward, a role in which he excels. He'll be closer to goal. Guardiola will then probably move Seydou Keita into midfield. Although an obviously inferior passer to Iniesta and Xavi, Keita gives Barca two elements that the magical dwarves do not: a pile-driver shot from outside the box and the ability to head home a cross. If Barca make it to Rome on the strength of Keita heading in an Alves cross, remember where you heard it first. It wouldn't be the first time that an African headed Barca to a win at Stamford Bridge:

And the full highlights of my favorite Barca gave since becoming a fan 12 years ago:

(Also, check out the play preceding the Eto'o goal if you want an example of the refereeing that I'm expecting today. John Terry runs over Leo Messi in the box, then lands on the ball with his hands. Twice. No call.)

Keys to the game:

1. Does Victor Valdes control his area? Valdes is a good shot-stopper, but he is suspect at coming for crosses. He could be faulted for Madrid's second goal on Saturday because he didn't come to punch Robben's free kick. Valdes was definitely to blame for Valencia's opener the week before when he came for a corner and missed it. Chelsea know where Barca are weak defensively, so Valdes has to play the game of his life by confidently and aggressively claiming or punching crosses. Puyol and/or Marquez normally marshal the back line. With those two out, Victor has to be assertive.

2. Does Didier Drogba's physicality/flopping get free kicks near the Barca box? I won't deny that Barca players will occasionally exaggerate contact as well. The difference is that Chelsea are a greater threat with a free kick.

3. Does Leo Messi turn in a performance of the ages? Messi's coming out party was his outstanding performance at the Bridge in 2006. He was off his game in the first leg, but he was terrific on Saturday when Guardiola played him in a free role in the center as opposed to his normal role on the right. Does Pep play him there again and if so, what is the Chelsea countermeasure? Ronaldo threw down the gauntlet yesterday with a sterling performance at the Emirates. It's time for Messi to respond to set up a meeting of the two best players in the world.

4. Does Xavi have space to make passes? With all of this talent on this Barcelona team, Xavi is the key. He plays the role that Guardiola once did for the Blaugrana, only with a little more speed. Xavi had four assists in the Chorreo in Madrid. If he gets time and space, he will carve Chelsea to pieces. The Blues did a great job of denying him the lanes to do so in the first leg. Is anything different this time around?

Overall, I don't have a great feeling about this game. Chelsea are going to come on very strong in the first 20 minutes and I fear Barca going a goal behind and pressing. This center back thing gives me nightmares, as do the memories of the most recent trips to Anfield and Old Trafford. I keep telling myself "Barca are the better side and Guus clearly agrees based on the way he parked the bus at the Camp Nou," but the best team doesn't always win.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Playing with House Money

With their demolition of the Heat on Sunday and ultimate victory in the least competitive seven-game series in NBA history, the Hawks have achieved just about every reasonable goal that could have been set for them at the start of the season. The Hawks improved by ten games, they got homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, they won a playoff series for the first time in a decade, and they won a road playoff game for the first time in 12 years. The only goal that the team didn't achieve was to win 50 games. Now, with the 66-win Cavs on the schedule, anything that the Hawks add to this season's accomplishments will be gravy.

A few thoughts looking backwards and forwards...

1. Mike Woodson needs to show Josh Smith a clip of his first six minutes against the Heat on Sunday and say "that is how you should be playing basketball." After turning the ball over on the first possession, Smith went right at the hoop every time thereafter, consistently scoring or drawing fouls. He kept the team in the game until Joe Johnson's shooting put the Hawks ahead. The million dollar question is whether Smith can put together that sort of show on the road. He's about to be matched up against Anderson Varejao, the kind of defender who should be able to frustrate Smith. Let's see if Josh can show some maturity on the biggest stage that he's played on to date.

2. I often complain about the Hawks' offensive system (or lack thereof), but they were pretty to watch on Sunday. The spacing and ball movement were outstanding. The team doesn't run an organized system, but they do have a number of players who are above-average passers, so when they play collectively, they're a sight to behold.

3. If Marvin Williams isn't able to play at full speed, then the Hawks chances of making this a series will take a hit. Williams did a reasonably good job as the primary defender that the Hawks used on LeBron in the regular season...and by "reasonably good job," I mean that LeBron averaged 26.3 ppg as opposed to his normal 28.4 ppg average. LeBron's shooting percentages were also a little lower against the Hawks. Keep in mind that there may be one or two statisticians who would say that a four-game sample size isn't enough to make firm judgments.

4. Part of what has made LeBron such a dominant player this year has been his ability to lock down the opponent's best perimeter player. Joe Johnson, this means you. Johnson's ability to get points, especially on big possessions, is going to be massive.

5. After being the irritant in residence for the Heat series, what does Zaza do for an encore? The Cavs are good at just about everything and one such strength is their rebounding. The Hawks were not a good rebounding team during the season, so Zaza & company are going to have to exceed expectations on the glass. That, and Zaza is going to have to hand out more concussions.

If this series goes longer than five, then that's a victory for the Hawks.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Take it away, Samuel

I need some time to properly put this weekend into words, so for the time being, enjoy the poetic stylings of Mr. Eto'o.