Sunday, November 29, 2009

Well, That Was Surprising

Or maybe not. Wow, you mean that a team with a bad defense that survived a bevy of close games and recovered an unlikely percentage of fumbles might have been overrated? They might have been due to have a couple unfortunate events occur in a close game? You don't say!

I hate to be Statler and Waldorf here, but last night's game, while certainly emotionally satisfying for Georgia fans, could have some negative repercussions. The first is obvious: Mark Richt decides that the defense isn't broken, so he keeps Willie Martinez out of an admirable sense of loyalty and a misguided sense that a good performance against the Jackets carries more weight than the disastrous performances against Tennessee and Florida.

The second is a related point: Richt and Mike Bobo decide that the way to go in the future is straight-ahead power football. Their strategy worked last night because: (1) Georgia's offensive line was bigger and more talented than Tech's front seven; (2) Georgia collectively played with their hair on fire in a season-saving performance; (3) Tech foolishly left too few players in the box against the run for too long (watch the first drive again and count how many times Tech had six in the box against Georgia's one-back, two-tight end formation); and (4) Tech's defense is bad and can be pushed around by a decent offense. That strategy is damn hard to replicate in the SEC. SEC defenses are not so easily pushed aside and they are coached by coordinators who will take the run away. I'm not saying that Georgia shouldn't try to run the ball in 2010. With two good backs, an improving offensive line, and a redshirt freshman quarterback, Georgia is going to have to be good at establishing the ground game. However, the Dawgs need to avoid the temptation to get too ground-heavy. I lived through years of Lloyd Carr coaching as if he had Charles Woodson and the '97 defense, even when he had shoddy corners and Tom Brady. I have some experience with coaches overreacting to a successful strategy. Richt and Bobo will have to resist that urge.

Other random thoughts:
  • Demaryius Thomas ought to take solace in the fact that Tech would not have been in the game without him. That said, I think we have resolved the Thomas/A.J. Green debate, to the extent that there ever was one.
  • I feel very happy for Reshad Jones.
  • After the disaster that was the Bolerjack/Beuerlein team for the Iron Bowl (more on that when I have a moment), it was nice to hear McDonough and Millen do a professional job calling the game. It's nice to have the basics, like yardage and down and distance relayed properly.
  • I generally think it's a bad idea to ever second-guess the way that Paul Johnson runs his offense, but the four straight pass plays to end the game seemed a little desperate. Tech had time to keep running the ball, but they ended up playing their weakest cards. That said, the call on fourth down was excellent.
  • The game reminded me of the 2001 Georgia-Georgia Tech game, which I remember as the night that Georgia sent Verron Haynes between the tackles about 72 times and he kept piling up yardage against an undermanned defense.
  • The future of the ACC in one question: does Frank Beamer fix his consistently underperforming offense before Paul Johnson recruits enough talent on defense that Tech moves from bad to decent on that side of the ball.
  • I always thought that Florida State's success against Florida in the 90s was a little hollow because the Seminoles always played the Gators in the former's last game of the season, whereas the latter usually had to have one eye on their in-state rival and a second on the SEC Championship Game one week later. This week's games illustrated this phenomenon all over again. In a little dose of irony, Florida State was nowhere near capable of taking advantage of Florida peeking ahead to Alabama. By all means, Bobby, come back for another year!

Worth Every Euro

El Clasico was 0-0 at the half, with Real Madrid having had the better of the chances. Barca was getting nothing from Thierry Henry, who was turning in another indifferent performance for the Blaugrana. (I've never seen anyone exert so little effort at coming back out of offside positions.) Five minutes into the second half, Pep Guardiola summons alleged big game bottler Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the bench. Five minutes later, the choker makes a well-timed run as Dani Alves is sending a perfect cross over from the right..

And Barca finishes their crunch week with wins over Inter and Real. The team still has a few issues. Leo Messi remains below his best. Henry gives them nothing. The team's depth could be better, especially at center back where it's Puyol, Pique and pray for rain. That said, Barca are tops in La Liga, tops in their Champions League group, and, unlike their arch-rivals, still alive in the Copa del Rey.

To be honest, Real looked like the better side for long stretches today. Manuel Pellegrini has figured out his best XI. My hope is that he succumbs to pressure to mess with a good thing by playing Raul, Guti, and the slumping Benzema. One can never go wrong by assuming that the internal politics at Real Madrid will lead to the wrong players ending up on the pitch.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Are You Lionel Hutz in Disguise?

Imagine that you are a lawyer representing a defense contractor. Your client has a high-level executive who has not quite lived up to expectations. However, it would be somewhat costly to fire this executive. How do you advise the client to handle the issue? Well, if you're Clay Travis, you tell the client to admit to defrauding the government (regardless of whether the client committed actual, substantial fraud as opposed to de minimis violations) so you can fire the executive for cause. In the course of doing so, your client would expose itself to massive liability that would damage the ability of the executive's successor to do his job, not to mention the client's prospects to hiring a quality replacement in the first place. But hey, sometimes you have to destroy the village to save it, right?

I'm going to chalk Travis's suggestion up to Peyton Wuz Robbed Derangement Syndrome (hereinafter, "PWRDS") as opposed to the ramblings of an insane idiot. I've flipped through Travis's books at Borders before while my three-year old sampled the best of of The Backyardigans' offerings and they seem reasonably entertaining. (Clay's books, I mean.) Travis can write and he has some legal training. That said, his suggestion that Michigan trump up NCAA violations so it can fire Rodriguez for cause and negotiate a reduction in his buy-out is atrocious. He would have Michigan admit to major violations, thus practically guaranteeing that the NCAA will sanction the program for the first time. Michigan would be left in a spot where it would have to hire a successor while litigating with Rodriguez with probation hanging over the program.

Put yourself in Brian Kelly's shoes. Michigan wants you to replace Rodriguez. Are you chomping at the bit to take a job from a program that used meritless charges asserted by a sputtering newspaper and a columnist with an axe to grind to can another offensive guru who won big in the Big East? Are you dying to recruit at a program whose rivals are all telling prospects "Michigan is headed for probation and they are estopped from defending themselves against the NCAA. What does "estopped" mean? I dunno. I heard our lawyers use the term once."? Michigan would end up having to hire a second tier candidate, it would be on probation, and the football program would bleed revenue in a manner that would dwarf the savings from knocking Rodriguez's buyout down. There's a word for Clay's legal advice: malpractice.

Travis cites specifically to documentation that Rodriguez's staff allegedly didn't maintain. As it turns out, they did maintain the records. More importantly, the records in question are not required by the NCAA. Maybe Clay wasn't in 1L Contracts when the professor explained the concept of material breach, but Michigan cannot claim to be absolved of all of its contractual obligations to Rodriguez unless his committed a breach of the agreement that goes to its fundamental purpose. Committing major NCAA violations would be a material breach. Failing to maintain certain records that are only required as an administrative matter by the school? Good luck with that.

Finally, Travis cites to Kentucky fighting with Billy Gillespie to reduce his buyout as an example for what Michigan should be doing. Let's ignore the merits of firing Gillespie who, unlike Rodriguez, had pissed off everyone at Kentucky and was facing a player revolt. (Hereinafter, "Pulling a Doherty.") Travis's suggestion would be useful if Rodriguez were a fool and had not signed his contract like Gillespie. Rodriguez hasn't turned in sterling work in Ann Arbor, but I'm pretty sure that he hasn't had a frontal lobotomy. Thus, I'm confident that he signed his contract. Clay ought to save his sage legal counsel for a program whose coach has made NCAA violations a part of his "look at me!!!" recruiting strategy.

PS - Thanks for the sterling effort in the January 1998 Orange Bowl against Nebraska that cost Michigan the coaches' poll.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Here's Everything For Which I Am Not Thankful

1 Alabama
2 Texas
4 Florida
5 Cincinnati
6 Georgia Tech
7 Oregon
8 Ohio State 2
9 Pittsburgh
10 Boise State 1
11 Oklahoma State 5
12 Clemson 4
13 Iowa 1
14 Virginia Tech 3
15 Mississippi 10
16 Oregon State 6
17 Penn State 1
18 Miami (Florida) 3
19 California
20 Texas Tech 1
21 North Carolina 2
22 Stanford 8
23 LSU 10
24 Southern Cal 4
25 Nebraska
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: West Virginia (#23), Arizona (#24).

Welcome to the weekend of my dissatisfaction with:
  • Greg Robinson for blitzing on third and goal from the 12 when: (1) Jim Tressel loves field goals; (2) Jim Tressel is terrified of Terrelle Pryor throwing into tight spaces; and (3) you've been blitzing predictably in that situation all year. (I decided during the game that Ohio State is Glasgow Rangers: a team that dominates a formerly strong league, but does nothing outside of its small pond. I guess that makes Michigan Hamilton Academical, the team currently at the bottom of that small pond. FML.)
  • Mark Richt for...everything about Saturday night. If this Georgia season were Scarface, Saturday night was Tony shooting Manny.
  • Les Miles for devaluing a Michigan diploma by topping his blunder in the 2005 Tennessee game when he tried to call a timeout after an interception.
  • Jeff Tedford for some insanely conservative decisions in the fourth quarter of the Cal-Stanford game when his team was locked in a shootout with the Cardinal. Punting on fourth and inches from his own 40 was dumb (and it took Stanford six plays to score thereafter); settling for a field goal that gave Stanford a chance with the ball down six and three minutes to go was incredibly dumb. And I like Tedford.
  • Penn State for putting itself into contention for a BCS bowl without a single quality win. Who died and made them Notre Dame? Oh yeah. Notre Dame.
  • Arizona for depriving my friend Klinsi of the dream of watching his alma mater in Pasadena for the first time...and in the most excruciating fashion, no less. Then again, Klinsi bought my eldest son an Oregon Ducks shirt after Oregon hammered Michigan in 2007, so karma?
  • ABC for not cutting away from Texas going all John Doe in his first murder in Seven on Mark Mangino to show a far more compelling game out West.

Five Thoughts on the Falcons

1. Is it a coincidence that Matt Ryan played the best he has in weeks without Michael Turner in the lineup? Or that the Falcons' offense really jumped into gear after they fell behind 17-7 at the half and came out throwing in the second half? Is it a shock that a talented quarterback flinging the ball to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez is a good idea?

2. I know I'm not making an original thought here, but the NFL's overtime rule illustrates everything I don't like about America's most popular league. Pro football is supposed to be about competition and the best man/team winning, and yet the NFL reduces games to random chance because it wants to appease its broadcast partners by assuring them that no game will stray too far outside of its appointed time slot. There can be little in sports that is more unfair than a game like the Giants-Falcons game in which neither defense could get a stop in the second half being decided by a coin flip. And was I the only one feeling a little conspiratorial when the ref flipped the coin twice?

3. I'm not saying that he made a mistake kicking the extra point, but I would not have had any problem with Mike Smith going for two after the Falcons tied the game with 28 seconds remaining. Pro: you would rather have the game come down to your torrid offense than a coin. Con: your running game is shaky, which means the Giants know what's coming. Pro: they could know what's coming and still not stop Tony Gonzalez from snatching the ball out of the air. Con: can your defense hold on for 28 seconds if the Giants are desperate to score?

4. There is no hope for this defense unless 2008 John Abraham reappears. There is no solution for stopping opposing passers when the corners are average at best and the defensive line cannot get a rush. It's pick your poison: blitz and leave Brent Grimes on an island or rush four and give the opponent all day to find a receiver. (Brandon Graham, please be on the board when the Falcons have their first pick in April.) After a Josh Freeman breather this week, we get McNabb and Brees in the next two home games. Oy vey.

5. After years of Keith Brooking (not to mention a fall of Saturdays watching Michigan's clown car linebacker unit), I can't tell you how much fun it is to watch Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson on Sundays.

If You're Curious About the Other Football...

Might I suggest you set the DVR for Fox Sports South to record Barca-Inter at 2:30 tomorrow (or catch the replay on Fox Soccer Channel at 7). What's at stake? Well, the defending Spanish and European champions are one point behind the three-time defending Italian champions in a group in which the four teams are separated by two points. The winner is in the driver's seat; the loser is in a world of trouble. Barca are defending their crown; Inter are trying to shake the reputation of being choke artists when they step outside of Italy.

Barca comes into the game with its two best attacking threats - Leo Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - both nursing injuries that have their statuses up in the air. Two more Barca starters - Eric Abidal and Yaya Toure - are down with the swine flu. Abidal's absence forces Maxwell, a former Inter player, into the lineup. Former Barca hero Samuel Eto'o, he of the 108 goals in five seasons for the Blaugrana, makes his return to the Nou Camp for the first time since being sold to Inter in the summer. Also returning to Catalunya is favored whipping boy Jose Mourinho, the object of intense disdain in the region dating back to the bitter Barca-Chelsea ties in 2005 and 2006.

So, to recap: massive stakes between two of the superpowers of Europe, several players meeting their former teammates, more top class players who will be starring in South Africa than you can shake a stick at, and a little coaching morbo.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why I'm Shedding No Tears for the Irish

For those of you who don't follow World Cup qualifying, the big story in the rest of the world for the past two days has been Thierry Henry controlling a ball with his hand before crossing for France's winning goal against Ireland, sending the French to South Africa and eliminating Ireland. I'm not at all upset about this turn of events. As usual, my reasons have numbers

1. France was denied a legitimate penalty before the goal:

The penalty is at 4:50. Ireland can retroactively complain all they want about the lack of replay in football, but if there were replay, then perhaps someone would have noticed Shay Given grabbing Nicolas Anelka's ankle as he flew by. Yes, Anelka was a little theatrical about it, but there was clear contact and that's a penalty. I wouldn't be shocked if the ref viewed the Henry handball as a makeup call, not that any of the media outrage will reflect that dynamic. Alternatively, the two calls can be explained by the fact that it's always easier for a ref to not call something than it is to blow the whistle. Either explanation is more likely than that there was some sort of conspiracy to send France to the World Cup. If there were a conspiracy, then France would have had a penalty.

2. I guess it's easier for the Irish to point the finger at someone outside the team as opposed to Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, both of whom missed gilt-edged chances to win the game in regulation. Ireland were only in position to get "screwed" because they wasted opportunities.

3. Ireland didn't lose the game because of the goal. They lost a 50-50 shot in penalties because of the goal. By the time the British media have run this into the ground, it's going to occupy the same pantheon as the Hand of G-d (another refereeing blunder that did not decide a game). Funny how a World Cup Final decided by a goal that didn't cross the line isn't mentioned in the same breath:

4. In the realm of the unclean hands defense, as Roy Keane has pointed out, Ireland benefited during the group stage from a penalty decision that went beyond the realm of inexplicable. Read the Guardian's description of events as Ireland trailed 1-0 with 18 minutes remaining in Georgia:


72 mins: This is quite fun: the Georgians have no idea why a penalty has been awarded and nor does anyone else. Keane tried to control a long ball and failed and it was cleared and, um, the ref pointed to the spot! A startling decision. As I said in the preamble, it looks like luck is on our side in this campaign.

GOAL! Ireland 1-1 Georgia (Keane, pen, 73')

76 mins: Bafflement and outrage has unbalanced the Georgians now, and Ireland could yet nick a winner. Their tempo remains high, their ambition positive and even the crowd are making some noise now. Meanwhile, Georgia make a change, withdrawing Siradze and introducing someone who's name I didn't catch and who I hope will not be significant.

GOAL! Ireland 2-1 Georgia (Keane 78') Keane sends a diving header into the net from a corner! Actually, the replay indicates that, in keeping with the night's events so far, it flukily came off his shoulder. Are you watching Rafa!? "Another advantage to having Trappatoni as manager is that like many Italian managers he has a knack for getting dodgy decisions in his favour," chuckles George Templeton.

Zaza deserved better.

5. I've got no love for France, especially a France coached by an absolute moron. (I wouldn't trust Raymond Domenech or Diego Maradona to assemble a four-piece puzzle, and yet they are in charge of two of the five most talented teams in the world.) However, I prefer France in the World Cup to Ireland. Here is Ireland's history at the World Cup:

1990 - three draws in the group stage, a 0-0 win in penalties in the round of 16, and a 1-0 loss in the quarterfinals. Five games, two goals scored. They played Romania instead of West Germany in the round of 16 because of a drawing of lots. (Karma?) They never led a match.

1994 - 1-1-1 in the group stage and a 2-0 loss in the round of 16. Four games, two goals scored. They never led other than after their hit-and-hope goal against Italy.

2002 - 1-1-1 in the group stage and a 1-1 loss in penalties in the round of 16. Excluding a 3-0 win over a shambolic Saudi Arabia team, they played three matches and scored three goals, but they never led in any of those matches.

So what's the pattern? The Irish play boring, defensive games and only make a serious effort to score when their backs are against the wall. Their decision to hire Giovanni Trapattoni makes perfect sense with that context, as does the fact that they made it into the playoff on the strength of four wins over the minnows in their group and then six (six!) draws. Ireland did show themselves to be capable of playing good stuff when they went to the Stade de France down 1-0, but that just makes me dislike them more. They're capable of coming out of a negative shell, but they only do so when their backs are against the wall. Otherwise, they're content to be parasites, relying on the opponent to take all the risks. The Irish football team will be as missed in South Africa as polio. (Standard disclaimer: Irish fans are outstanding. They deserve better.)

And for the record, I'm not taking this position to defend Henry because he's a Barca player. He's not one of my faves. That said, his handball was similar to a tug of a jersey by a defender or a keeper coming off of his line before a penalty kick is struck, but we don't label defenders or keepers as cheats for preventing goals outside of the rules. Players handle the ball all the time, but Henry is being vilified because he followed his handball with an accurate cross. In terms of judging a player based on his intent, that's awfully unfair.

This Is Going to Suck

I've been a Michigan fan for two decades and I have never had a greater feeling of dread before an Ohio State game than I do for the one that will be played in Ann Arbor tomorrow. There have been times where I felt really nervous. (1997 comes to mind. The fourth quarter of that game was absolute torture. 10.75 perfect games coming down to a terrifying effort at holding onto a six-point lead with an offense that could not get a first down.) There have been times where I've worried about getting blown out. (1993, my freshman year, comes to mind. Michigan was 6-4. Ohio State was 9-0-1. Final score: Michigan 28 Ohio State 0.) Last year, I just wanted the game to be over quickly so that disaster of a season could end.

This year, the emotions are different. I have committed totally to Rich Rodriguez as being a good coach, so watching the team finish 1-7 in a conference that I don't respect is going to be tough. Losing what will likely be a lopsided game against a coach who represents everything I dislike in terms of pussified strategic and tactical decision making won't be fun. (Watching the end of the Ohio State-Iowa game last week, all I kept hearing in my head was Yoda: "this is why you fail." You can win the Big Ten by putting a straitjacket on your offense, especially when you're coaching against an opponent that has to do the same for middling talent reasons, but you can't beat real teams that way. Congrats on winning Sagarin's sixth-place conference! [Mandel, you still think that conference strength is cyclical? When exactly can we expect the Big Ten to have an up-cycle?] But then again, my beloved Rodriguez is about to lead Michigan to last place in that craptastic conference, so the joke's on me.)

Tomorrow's game is almost certainly going to be a physical bludgeoning. Michigan has little chance of blocking Ohio State's front four. The only element that could keep the Buckeye offense from running wild is their constipating head coach. By the fourth quarter, when Tate Forcier's legs are sticking out at odd angles and Ohio State has kicked nine field goals to lead 27-6, Michigan Stadium is going to be full of Ohio State fans, celebrating with roses and the four-letter chant that represents the extent of their spelling skills. Naturally, Michigan's staff has made this weekend the big recruiting weekend for the year, so the collection of talented defensive players who could help get Michigan out of the Marianas Trench of a ditch in which the program finds itself will be watching the rival fans take over the stadium, with Michigan fans either heading for the hills or shouting angry, "I don't understand why this is happening to us, so I'm going to irrationally take this out on whomever is in earshot" statements.

So yeah, tomorrow is looking like a total disaster. I'm not one of the mouth-breathing troglodytes who, in true sports radio fashion, have demanded a coaching change at the end of the season. I still think that any coach should get four years, especially one: (1) with an outstanding track records; and (2) who is implementing significant schematic and cultural changes. That said, I just want tomorrow to be over.

To bring this back to a local angle, I was originally thinking that Georgia fans might feel the same way about their visit to the Flats next weekend. On the one hand, Georgia hasn't imploded quite like Michigan has this year. On the other hand, Georgia's humiliation could be worse because there's something more embarrassing about giving up 500 yards as opposed to gaining 200. Assuming that Georgia plays reasonably well tomorrow, I suspect that Georgia fans will feel like they have a chance of winning against Tech and they won't dread that game the way that I'm dreading tomorrow. Anyway, I thought the question should be asked.

Who ever thought that I would recover from being an emotional basket case as a result of Michigan's getting satisfaction from the Hawks?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Maybe Pulling a Head Coach From the 2004 Pistons Was a Good Idea

Peachtree Hoops had a good post asking whether Mike Woodson has changed and it hit on a thought on which I've been noodling. I started Bill Simmons' NBA book last week and found myself disagreeing with Simmons description of how a championship team has to be constructed. I don't have the book in front of me, but Simmons argues that a championship team has to have an alpha dog who is one of the best players in the league, if not the best. My immediate thought when reading this was "2004 Pistons?" Simmons tried to shoehorn Chauncey Billups into the star role for that team, which is interesting coming from a writer who didn't seem to like Billups so much in 2007:

Announcers and studio guys steadfastly continu[e] to call Chauncey Billups "Mr. Big Shot," quite possibly the most undeserved sports nickname of this century. Here's a quick recap of Chauncey's career:

1997-2001: Bounces around from Boston to Toronto to Denver to Orlando to Minnesota.

2002: Plays well enough for the T-Wolves (0-3 in the '02 playoffs) that Detroit gives him a $30 million contract.

2003: Leads a Pistons team that eventually gets swept in the 2003 Eastern finals by New Jersey … and gets destroyed by Jason Kidd in the process. Billups shot 11 for 40 in the series; Kidd averaged 23.5 points, 7.5 assists and 10 rebounds per game. To be fair, Billups was playing with a sprained ankle. Just pointing out that the "Mr. Big Shot" nickname hadn't kicked in yet.

2004: Shoots 39 percent in the regular season, gets hot in the playoffs, leads the Pistons to the title, makes some big shots along the way, and somehow picks up the name "Mr. Big Shot."

2005: Leads the Pistons to the Finals, makes some big shots along the way, then pulls a relative no-show in Game 7 (13 points, 3 for 8 from the field, no big shots).

2006: Heading into the playoffs, with the Pistons peaking as a 64-win team, I wrote that Billups was "one more killer spring away from moving into the pantheon of Big Game Guards, along with Sam Jones, Jerry West, Dennis Johnson and Walt Frazier. Out of anyone in the playoffs other than Kobe, he's the one who can make the biggest leap historically. Well, unless Artest charges into the stands again."

Didn't happen. During the last three games of the Eastern semis against Cleveland -- which the Pistons nearly blew -- Billups shot 13 for 34. In the six-game loss to Miami in the Eastern finals, he shot 39 percent and 3 for 14 in the deciding game. So much for the pantheon of Big Game Guards.

2007: Struggled in the Chicago series (39 percent shooting), then completely flopped in the first four games of the Cavs series (22-for-57 shooting, 32 turnovers, some killer mistakes at the end of Games 3 and 4), to the point that people are now openly wondering how much money he's costing himself this summer.

So here's my question: With all due respect to Billups -- who's been a valuable player, a gamer and a winner over the past few years -- can we really keep calling a 41 percent career shooter who slapped together one great playoffs and nine-tenths of another great playoffs "Mr. Big Shot"? Isn't that a little insulting to Robert Horry? I vote that we call him "Chauncey" or "Billups" unless he completely redeems himself over these next few weeks. This meeting is adjourned.

And keep in mind that Simmons is big on the idea of reading what people wrote at the time that a player in question was at his peak and using those contemporaneous judgments as a measuring stick. That's one of his bases for arguing that Russell was better than Wilt. I digress.

The point at which I was driving is that the 2004 Pistons stand as an example for this Hawks team, a historical marker that shows that a team does not need to have a dominant superstar in order to win a title. Just like the 2004 Pistons, the Hawks will need a little good fortune in that the teams with the dominant superstars will need to be operating at below peak efficiency because of injuries, in-fighting, distractions, slumping supporting casts, inexplicable decisions to bring in aging, out-of-shape, not half as good as their reputations centers, etc. That said, there are precious few champions in any sport that don't require some good fortune.

The Pistons succeeded because they had a balanced roster that fit together nicely and because they had a head coach who was able to convince the players to co-exist and not play outside of their roles. It's been a bumpy road, but Billy Knight and Rick Sund collectively put together a logical roster full of complementary players. (Remember when there were constant complaints that Knight was assembling too many similar swing men? Does anyone watch Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith and think that they all do the same things? I suppose the story might be a little different if Josh Childress were still here.) And interestingly enough, through 11 games, Mike Woodson has his charges playing their roles and not trying to do things at which they struggle (read: Josh Smith shooting jump shots.)

To come back to the Peachtree Hoops post, this passage struck me as a good description of where Woodson has succeeded in a Larry Brown kind of way for the first 11 games of the season:

Jamal Crawford. The guy is doing things we have never had before in Atlanta. He can break guys down, get to the foul line, pass well, and get (if not always hit) wide open jumpers. As Hoopinion has mentioned well and I have tried to talk about badly, Woody's job is to manage these great skills against Crawford's very real weaknesses. How can you hide his defense? How can you manage his minutes in a way to control his shot selection? So far Woodson has done a great job, but so has Crawford. Where to stop lauding Jamal with praise and start tipping your hat to Woody is a tough line to find.

It's still early, but Woodson is fulfilling the Brown role of getting NBA players to limit themselves to roles that work for the team. Jamal Crawford has always been one of those guys about whom you'd say "he can be a very good player if..." Those ifs - namely, "...he had better shot selection and didn't always try to hard to get his" - have never come true because he's always played for bad teams that presumably had toxic environments. Maybe this is the environment where Crawford becomes truly valuable?

And one last question about the parallel to the 2004 Pistons: is that team viewed in NBA circles the way that I view the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes, namely as a total anomaly, an exception to the rule, a team that followed a path to a title that is almost impossible to replicate? I honestly don't know enough about NBA history to know how really knowledgeable fans view the '04 Pistons.

Another Short Question

What was/is more predictable: (1) the results of games involving contenders coming down the stretch in the 2009 college football season; or (2) the writers of Melrose Place curing their middling ratings by having their best looking vixen Ella Simms do a little homage to Sappho in a crowded bar during the episode in which Amanda Woodward returns?

Update, per request:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Simple Question for Georgia Fans

Option A: the Georgia defense plays inspired football against Tech and shuts down the triple option. The Dawgs win 24-17. Willie Martinez stays.

Option B: the Georgia defense plays the same way against Tech that they did last year, only Matt Stafford isn't around to keep the game close. The Dawgs lose 45-24. Willie Martinez goes.

Which option do you choose?

(If I were a law professor, I would change the hypo after you answer "I'll take A" by making it a choice between the Georgia defense playing well in a close loss and the Georgia defense playing poorly in a blowout defeat, with the former leading to Martinez keeping his job and the latter leading to his discharge. Yay Socrates!)

Come Back, Matt Ryan

Generally speaking, it is hard to beat the Carolina Panthers when your quarterback plays worse than Jake Delhomme. Such was the Falcons fate on Sunday. I am of two minds on Matt Ryan's slump. On the one hand, his accuracy has taken a definite slide. Normally, when a young quarterback struggles, it's because he makes bad decisions, doesn't recognize coverage, and then throws the ball into spots that he shouldn't. That's not the case with Ryan. Matt is making good decisions with the ball, but he isn't putting his passes where he should. That would seem to indicate that he has a fixable mechanical problem, which is a less concerning problem than an inability to make good decisions.

We're all a little queasy about Ryan's slump because of our collective experience with the Falcons' last young phenom signal-caller. Mike Vick's best season was his first year as a starter. He regressed thereafter to the point that his Untergang was a blessing in disguise for the franchise. There is a slight sense of deja vu for Falcons fans with Ryan having played on a very high level as a rookie and then regressing as a second-year player.

On the other hand, I do have concerns about Mike Mularkey's offense. Daryl Johnston can be a fairly perceptive analyst and he was surprised that the Panthers were covering the Falcons' passing routes so well on Sunday. His reasoning was that Michael Turner was running the ball so well that the playaction plays should have been wide open. Instead, the Panthers were jumping the routes, which indicated that they knew what was coming. It is true that Ryan threw high on his first pick, but it's also true that there was a linebacker in his passing lane who forced him to throw high. That linebacker should not have been able to make such a deep, effective drop if the Panthers were truly concerned about the run. So the question is this: what did the Panthers figure out that allowed them to guess run/pass right. Was there a tell from one or more of the players' stances? Are Mularkey's play-calling tendencies that pronounced? Methinks some self-scouting might be in order.

So here's a final question. Let's assume that John Fox figured out the Falcons' offense. Does he share the tell with the New York Giants, his former employer? Or does he keep the information as a trade secret for the future. Also, the Panthers might end up fighting with the Giants for a wild card spot, so maybe he doesn't want to help them out.

My Top 25 Shoots Blood

1 Alabama
2 Texas
3 TCU 1
4 Florida 1
5 Cincinnati
6 Georgia Tech 1
7 Oregon 6
8 Clemson 16
9 Pittsburgh
10 Ohio State 2
11 Boise State 1
12 Iowa 5
13 LSU 7
14 Stanford 9
15 Miami (Florida) 4
16 Oklahoma State 2
17 Virginia Tech 4
18 Penn State 1
19 North Carolina
20 Southern Cal 5
21 Texas Tech 4
22 Oregon State 4
23 West Virginia
24 Arizona 12
25 Mississippi
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Tennessee (#16), Houston (#20), Utah (#22).

I made the decision to put TCU ahead of Florida when the Horned Frogs were beating a pretty good Utah team senseless. After watching a game in which Florida struggled to move the ball against South Carolina and in which Tim Tebow didn't know what to do with plenty of time to throw the ball, I decided that Florida has serious problems on offense (at least relative to where they should be). Georgia is the only semi-credible opponent against which the Florida offense has impressed. Ergo, the Gators are #4. At this stage in the season, their ranking is irrelevant because they'll jump TCU and Alabama if they run the table and win in Atlanta. However, I don't like the Gators chances against the Tide right now. If competent Greg McElroy shows up (as opposed to midseason slump McElroy), then Bama is more likely to score on the Florida defense than vice versa.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Well Done, FIFA

I can't imagine anyone having an interest in watching a finish like this.

Rematch on Wednesday.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sometimes, a Riot Really Is the Logical Solution

Imagine, if you will, that the NFL allowed each of its 32 teams to control and sell the TV rights to their home games. Imagine Daniel Snyder deciding to sell the rights the games at FedEx Field to MASN because they were the highest bidder. Imagine, then, that Snyder and MASN attempted to extort other TV companies to the rights to the games in Washington, such that the Redskins-Cowboys game was not on in Dallas. Do you think that there might be an outcry in that situation? Do you think that the episode might illustrate that allowing teams to control and sell their own TV rights is a bad idea?

That is exactly the situation that FIFA has created by not taking control of the TV rights to World Cup qualifiers. Earlier this year, there was no English language broadcast of the USA-Mexico match. Then, there was no broadcast period of the USA-Honduras match, except in a precious few bars. Now, because of a dispute between French Football Federation, its TV company, and various media companies in Ireland, the second leg of France-Ireland next week may not be on in Ireland. This match is only going to be the most important match for the Irish in at least seven years, so who on the Emerald Isle would really want to watch it?

This weekend features the first legs of the four European playoffs, the first leg of Costa Rica-Uruguay, and the final round of qualifying in Africa (including the tasty tie between Egypt and Algeria with a spot in South Africa on the line). None of these games will be on in the United States. Well done, Sepp Blatter!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Someone Stop Me...

Because I'm feeling very optimistic about the Hawks. The local professional basketball collective is off to an excellent start, as they are 6-2 despite having played only three home games and having already gone on a West Coast swing. Josh Smith is showing inklings of making the jump. With the standard caveats about sample size, Smith is shooting 59% from the floor and is averaging 4.4 assists per game. The Hawks could potentially have six players average double digits in points, with the one limiting factor being that the team has a much better bench this year that will keep the starters' minutes down.

Mike Woodson has far more viable mix-and-match options this year among the reserves. I can't even begin to say how much happier I am with the idea of Joe Smith getting minutes as opposed to Solomon Jones. Jamal Crawford is a better version of Flip Murray. (Let the Vinnie Johnson analogies commence!) Jeff Teague is miles better than Acie Law ever was as he has, you know, athleticism. The Hawks should do better in the second and third quarters this year with quality bench guys. Woodson must have moments where he looks down the bench and thinks to himself "yes, this is the life." For all the stick that Atlanta Spirit gets, they spent the money to assemble a very good roster and their decision to stick with Woodson looks wise.

So here's the question: is the Hawks' ceiling fourth in the East? Before the season, I thought that the answer was yes. Now, I'm not so sure. Boston looks great, but they have an old roster that might again end up missing a key part by the end of the season. Cleveland looks underwhelming right now (last night's solid win over the Magic notwithstanding) because Shaq is not a good fit with LeBron in a basketball sense. I could see that team struggling with the "will LeBron stay?" distraction that will be amplified by the Northeast-based national media, which is quivering with anticipation like a teenage girl on opening night of a Twilight movie about the notion of LeBron in the Big Apple. (Please, G-d, don't let this happen.) That leaves Orlando, a team that is a tough draw for the Hawks because Atlanta doesn't have an obvious defensive option to handle Dwight Howard. Could the Hawks be one team away from the Finals? This team that has never played in the Eastern Finals? I think I have a tag for moments like this...

Making the Case for TCU

I highly recommend Football Outsiders' piece on TCU($) being a true national title contender. It's always nice when my subjective sense about a team is confirmed by quality statistical measures. Sagarin's Predictor has TCU as being right in the Texas/Alabama/Florida class, as does the FEI. Brian Fremeau also makes the argument that this TCU team is like '04 Utah and unlike most unbeaten non-BCS conference teams in that they dominate their opponents from start to finish:

We use a measure called Game Efficiency (GE) to describe team performances, a function of a team's ability to maximize its own possessions and minimize those of its opponent. TCU currently ranks third nationally in GE, but all of the undefeated contenders find themselves in top 10 in GE. What the Horned Frogs have been able to do more effectively than the others is jump out to a lead and never look back. TCU has trailed in only 10.9 percent of its possessions on the season and has had at least a two-score lead (greater than eight points) in 54.5 percent of its possessions so far this year. Nationally, teams with a two-score lead at any point in a game win nearly 90 percent of the time. TCU pushes the score margin to a three-score level faster than any other team in college football -- 36 percent of all Horned Frogs possessions this year have been played with at least a 17-point lead.

It's that kind of throat-stomping that impresses a drive-based rating system like FEI, and it's the kind of thing that has held back other non-BCS teams from achieving high end-of-year ratings. The 2008 Utah Utes had five games come down to the wire and never received a dramatic schedule strength boost until the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. The 2004 Utah Utes provided a much better benchmark for undefeated non-BCS team success: stomp everyone.

That Utah team, led by Urban Meyer, trailed only two teams at any point in the season and never trailed in the second half. Their 0.436 GE rating for the season is the best unadjusted efficiency measured since 2003. TCU hasn't put together quite that level of annihilation this year, but has faced a stronger slate than 2004 Utah, and still has opportunities left to impress.

I also like the idea of Football Outsiders' strength of schedule ranking system giving greater weight to the top of a team's schedule as opposed to the bottom. I've always been bothered by the methodology of ranking a team's schedule simply by averaging the ranks of its opponents. It doesn't matter whether a top five team plays a team ranked #70 or #125; they're almost certainly going to win the game. The question is how many games did that team play against teams that posed a legitimate threat. So, kudos to Fremeau for inventing a better mousetrap.

Here are the current FEI rankings. FEI is high on the ACC, as its top third occupies spots six through nine in the rankings. Georgia Tech has the best offense in the country according to the ratings, but their defense is 16 places worse than anyone else in the top 15. FEI is definitely not impressed by LSU.

Radiohead, Arrested Development, Woody Allen Movies...

This blog. (HT: Ryno.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Notre Dame Lost! Let's All Overreact!

Illustrating the reality that the media are often afraid of performing their function as fact-checkers and that they will repeat any old claim from someone "in the arena," here is Mandel repeating the Pat Fitzgerald quote that has been breathlessly cited since Saturday:

"Even though we're similar academically, we're in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame. We've been consistently winning since 1995. They're still saying they can do it, but we're doing it."

It took me a whopping five minutes to confirm that Fitzgerald's claim is utter bunk. Yes, Pat, Northwestern has been "consistently winning" in a time period in which the program is under .500. And the Wildcats are doing SO much better than Notre Dame over that time period, as evidenced by the fact that the Irish are a mere 37 places higher than Northwestern in the winning percentage rankings. Good lord, Mandel, you're basing an entire piece on a claim by your alma mater's head coach that is verifiably false!

Leaving history aside and just looking at this year, Fitzgerald cannot make the case that the Wildcats are on par with the Irish. Superficially, the teams have close records, but they have played wildly different schedules. Northwestern lined up the murderer's row of Syracuse, Towson State, Eastern Michigan, and Miami (OH). The Wildcats are the only team against whom Eastern Michigan stayed within single digits. Northwestern joins Maine and Akron as Syracuse's only victims this season. Northwestern doesn't play Ohio State, they played a colossally overrated Iowa team without its quarterback for most of the game, and they were dominated by Penn State. The Sagarin Predictor puts Northwestern a mere 58 spots behind Notre Dame and would make the Irish a two touchdown favorite on a neutral field. Is this what parity looks like?

And then let's tackle your central thesis, Mandel, which is that "Notre Dame is no longer different than other programs of its type." If you're reading this, I'd like to propose a little wager: Notre Dame will have a better average ranking over the next five years than Stanford or Northwestern. I'm so certain that the Irish's massive advantages in exposure, recruiting, and financial resources will matter that I'll give you 3:1 odds on the bet. If gambling makes you uncomfortable, then we can agree that the winner will donate his booty to the charity of his choosing. I'm not much of a betting man myself, but I'm so confident that you are overreacting in a massive fashion to the events of one weekend (not to mention using a chance to plug your team) that I'm willing to do something new. Good gracious, I'm so confident that I'm willing to put money on Charlie Weis.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Case Against Georgia Tech (Or Why the Gap Between the Dawgs and Jackets Isn't As Big As You Think)

Let's set the ground rules here. I am not saying that Georgia Tech isn't a good team. I'm not saying that they aren't the best team in the ACC (although the margin isn't as wide as the rankings would indicate). I'm not saying that Paul Johnson isn't an outstanding coach. However, there is enough chatter about Tech playing for the national title if Teams X, Y, and Z lose that I need to pop this rhetorical bubble.

So let's say this plainly: Georgia Tech is not a national title contender, regardless of who loses. National title winners don't allow six yards per play. Remember that 2008 Oklahoma team that everyone ridiculed as having a bad defense? They allowed 5.2 yards per play and that was in an extreme offensive environment. This Tech team would have to play like '92 Alabama for the rest of the regular season to get into that neighborhood.

I like yards per play margin as an indica of a team's merits. Let's see how Tech stacks up with the other national title contenders:

Cincinnati - 7.4 / 4.7 / +2.7
Florida - 6.6 / 4.0 / +2.6
TCU - 6.5 / 4.0 / +2.5
Texas - 5.8 / 3.5 / +2.3
Alabama - 6.1 / 3.9 / +2.2
Boise State - 6.4 / 4.4 / +2.0
Georgia Tech - 6.3 / 6.0 / +0.3

Georgia Tech's yards per play margin is more like, oh, I don't know, the margin of their friends in Athens? Actually, that's not fair to Georgia. Georgia is 5.8 / 5.1 / +0.7 and Georgia fans want a Night of the Long Knives as soon as the season is over.

So how is Tech reveling in a top drawer season while Georgia fans are despondent? Schedule and luck. Georgia has played a tougher schedule, although the margin isn't enormous. The luck factor is a bigger deal. Georgia Tech has played in four games decided by one score and has won them all. That is a classic sign of an overvalued team. If Tech were even in close games, then their record would be 7-3, which is a truer reflection of this team's merit.

But let's dig a little deeper and look at a stat that has been shown time and again to be a result of pure luck: fumble recoveries. Reams of data have shown that there is no such thing as a player's or team's skill in recovering the ball once it's on the ground. Look at the national rankings for percentage of fumbles recovered on defense. Tech is 13th in the country, recovering 70.6% of the balls that their opponents have dropped on the ground. Take away three or four of the fumbles that the Jackets have recovered and I'd be willing to bet that you're going to swing at least one of those four close games. In contrast, Georgia is dead last nationally in fumble recovery margin and it's not even close. Georgia has recovered 9.1% of its opponents' fumbles; the next closest team has recovered 20%. In a fall in which Willie Martinez has been blamed for just about everything, this is one failing for which he is not responsible.

The percentage of fumbles recovered on offense paints a similar picture. Tech is 29th in the country at recovering their own fumbles, as they lose only 40% of the balls that they put on the ground. Again, add a few lost fumbles to the Jackets' totals and they aren't 9-1 anymore. Georgia is in the middle of the pack at recovering their own fumbles; they retain 47% of their drops.

In sum, Tech has been good this year, but they've also been lucky. They may ride that luck through the ACC Title Game and the Orange Bowl, but we should not be deluded into thinking that this team is on the same level as Alabama, Florida, Texas, and, yes, TCU. Maybe in a couple years if Johnson recruits sufficient talent on defense to make the Jackets above average on that side of the ball, the conclusion will be different. In 2009, the gap between 9-1 Georgia Tech and 5-4 Georgia isn't a chasm.

Now watch Tech beat UGA 51-7.

The Forward Pass Returns to Tuscaloosa

1 Alabama 2
2 Texas 1
3 Florida 1
4 TCU 1
5 Cincinnati 1
6 LSU 1
7 Georgia Tech 5
8 Ohio State 5
9 Pittsburgh 5
10 Boise State 2
11 Miami (Florida) 7
12 Arizona 4
13 Oregon 7
14 Oklahoma State 6
15 Southern Cal 4
16 Tennessee 3
17 Iowa 8
18 Oregon State
19 Penn State 9
20 Houston 3
21 Virginia Tech 4
22 Utah 1
23 Stanford
24 Clemson 1
25 Texas Tech
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Oklahoma (#15), Notre Dame (#22), California (#24).

Explaining myself...

I bumped Alabama out of the top spot because of Greg McElroy's descent into the depths that, well, every Alabama quarterback has seemingly occupied since Gary Hollingsworth. After missing an open Julio Jones in the end zone on Saturday, McElroy showed me that the guy who was so good in September isn't dead to the world. If good McElroy is back, then Alabama is the most complete team in the country, followed by Texas (shaky running game) and Florida (shaky offensive coordinator; confused quarterback).

Speaking of the latter, did I hear Tim Brando proclaim Tebow to be the Heisman front-runner on Saturday? Isn't watching football part of Brando's job description. I ask because the guy who should be the front-runner plays tailback for Alabama and was playing in the very game that Brando was hosting.

I'm normally not a fan of mid-majors claiming that they deserve shots at the national title game. I was dismissive of Utah last year, even after the Sugar Bowl. I view Boise State as an amusing sideshow. The reason for my disdainful waves of the hand has always been that these teams have not dominated the opponents on their schedules like a true top five team would. For instance, Florida, Texas, and Alabama would not surrender 35 points to Louisiana Tech or find themselves in a dogfight. There are two exceptions for my elitist snobbery: Utah '04 and this year's TCU team. Both teams beat/have beaten their MWC foes the way I would expect a truly excellent team to. I'd have absolutely no problem with the Horned Frogs being first in line if one of the top three have an unexpected stumble. If not, then TCU will be another great argument for a plus one.

It may seem odd to boost LSU after a nine-point loss, but they looked good on Saturday. They lost their quarterback, their tailback, and their best corner over the course of the game. Even in a loss, that was LSU's best performance of the season. If they maintain that level, then they won't lose again this season.

In my head, there is one cliff after #4 and another after #10.

I wish that I had the courage of my convictions about Iowa. I wouldn't have had to drop them so far if I would have had them around #15, which is where I thought they belonged in my heart of hearts when they were unbeaten and getting fluffy profiles in Sports Illustrated.

I had Tennessee five spots higher than anyone else in the Blogpoll last week. I'm going to guess that they're going to make me look good as the season progresses.