Sunday, February 28, 2010

Five Thoughts on USA-Canada

1. If you want to know why some people opine that Gary Bettman is a plant by David Stern to destroy the NHL, Bettman is having second thoughts about NHL players participating in the 2014 Olympics. Today's game makes me infinitely more likely to watch an NHL game or three over the remainder of the season. The game reminded me - a fan who used to follow hockey quite closely, but who has mostly dropped the sport because of a combination of work/family demands and the complete ineptitude of the local franchise - of what I loved about the sport, of what made me play it in the backyard at home. (Yes, the fabled story of a 12-year old kid playing hockey on grass in the 95 degree heat of a July day in Macon, Georgia. It's just what CBC would have in mind if they did a documentary on the sport at the grass roots level.) I'm going to venture a guess that the rating for today's game will dwarf the rating of any Stanley Cup Final game by a factor of five. So why would the NHL want its star players being exposed to a wider audience? Why would it want them showing the game at its absolute highest level? Why would the league have an interest in large audiences seeing its players bust their lungs on every shift?

2. The strange thing about the game is that I kept saying to myself "when is Sidney Crosby going to make an impact?" Crosby has the mantle as the next Gretzky (or at least the next Lemieux), and S.L. Price's piece on Crosby in SI before the Olympics got me excited for the tournament. Expecting Crosby to be the best player on the ice, I had a hard time finding any impact from him, other than a breakaway that he created in the third period and then flubbed. Sure enough, Crosby emerged from a quiet night with a sterling play to win the gold medal for Canada on Canadian soil. It's hard to overstate the movie-esque quality of the moment. Just read the Price piece if you haven't already and then try to think of the last American athlete who is or was as iconic as Sidney Crosby now is in Canada. (On a related note, how pissed is Alex Ovechkin tonight?)

3. At times during the game, I thought that there were two factors keeping the U.S. in a game with a more talented opponent. One was a superior goalie, the great equalizer in hockey. The other is the fact that the U.S. team is more like a regular hockey team, with a few stars and then a series of role players. Canada has gotten away from the notion of putting star players on all four lines, but they still seemed a little less constructed for a tight, grind-it-out game like the final. Then, Jarome Iginla and Crosby connected on a tremendous goal and I was reminded that sometimes, skill wins out. It's hard to imagine two American players combining like Iginla and Crosby did.

4. If there's a better way to end a sporting event than an entire arena belting out their country's national anthem, I'd like to see it.

5. Part of what was so cool about the game was that NBC presented it as a straight sporting event. I remember being in London during the 2000 Olympics and enjoying the Games far more than I normally do because the English presented the Olympics without the insultingly stupid engineered melodrama that NBC favors. Fortunately, NBC did nothing of the sort this afternoon, possibly because it has the NHL's national contract and has an incentive to show a hockey game in a way that will appeal to a sports fan like, say, me. More, please.

This Is Why You Fail

Imagine an SEC football coach saying the equivalent of the following from John Calipari:

John Calipari is one win away from clinching a Southeastern Conference championship in his first season at Kentucky -- just what he was brought in to do.

That's why his answer was swift and decisive when Calipari was asked Friday what winning the school's 44th conference title would mean: "Nothing."

The No. 2 Wildcats (27-1, 12-1), college basketball's winningest program, would assure themselves of at least a share of the championship by beating Tennessee on Saturday. They would get the championship outright if Vanderbilt also loses at Arkansas.

"I've always taken the approach that it's about the seed in the NCAA tournament," Calipari said. "If you want me to be honest about how I think and what we're doing to prepare, that's what it is. The SEC tournament is about our seed in the NCAA tournament."

Calipari is an unethical twit. He's made Kentucky hateable again, which is a public service, in a way. That said, he just did a wonderful job of distilling why college basketball has killed itself: it has rendered a three-and-a-half month regular season completely meaningless by making everything about a three-week tournament in March. It has produced a legion of casual fans who tune into the sport in March so they can stumble their way through the banal exercise of picking a bracket, but it has killed any incentive for people without a rooting interest in one of the contenders from being anything other than extremely casual about the sport. So thanks, John. You make me feel better about no longer caring for a sport that excited me as a kid.

Friday, February 26, 2010

An Essay on Oversigning

Oversigning: a college football issue that implicates legal thinking, recruiting, and fighting between SEC and Big Ten fans? Sign me up! I've been reading over the past few weeks and enjoying the discussion. The authors there take a much harder line on oversigning than I would and at times, their writing devolves into unhinged attacks on the SEC from every angle. (Comparing endowments? Really?) In those instances, they come across as excuse-making Big Ten fans who want to justify the fact that SEC teams have won more national titles in the past four years than Big Ten teams have won in the last forty. However, the site is well-written and reasonably well-argued, so I encourage you to take a look, especially if you are an Alabama fan looking for someone other than Paul Finebaum to whom to send a "SLANDER!!! BURN IN HELL!!!" e-mail. Anyway, here are my occasionally coherent thoughts:

We're all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator: The point that the authors miss is that most of the schools in the SEC that sign beyond their recruiting budgets are recruiting from some of the worst high school systems in America. Put yourself in Houston Nutt's CrazyDome for a moment. You're recruiting primarily from high schools in Mississippi, which rank in the bottom five in just about every output statistic. If you have 20 open spots on your football team, you'd be nuts to recruit only 20 players when you know that you are likely to have 4-5 academic casualties. It's no accident that Georgia and Florida don't oversign, but the schools from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina do. The high schools in Georgia and Florida are better because those two states are more economically developed. (I'd add "more removed from the 19th century," but let's leave that joke for another day.) Yes, you can make the point that Nutt and other coaches like him are recruiting academic basket cases and expecting them to hack it in school, but this hypocrisy applies throughout college football. What is worse: Ole Miss recruiting players with 800 SATs who are expected to compete in college with a student body that averages 1050 or Charlie Weis recruiting players with 950 SATs who are expected to compete at a private school with smaller, more competitive classes against a student body that averages 1300? (I'm guessing at the numbers here, but I don't think I'm far off.) Yes, it's bad to see a number of players flunk out at Alabama and Ole Miss, but is it better than players with 950 SATs are graduating en masse from Notre Dame and Stanford?

The Invisible Hand: The notion that the authors like to advance is that Nick Saban has an advantage over more ethical coaches because he signs the equivalent of an extra recruiting class every five years and then weeds through the players. However, if the scenario that I'm describing above is correct, then Saban and other oversigning coaches aren't getting a boost from oversigning because they aren't the ones picking which players stay and which players go. Grades and standardized test scores are doing the culling, or at least a lot of the culling.

You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes: The rest is done by Saban, but it's important to determine how he's doing it. There are two possibilities, each that would lead to a separate judgment. In Scenario One, Saban tells a player that he has been passed on the depth chart by younger players and that it is unlikely that the player will see the field at Alabama. The player is welcome to stay, but he will be making all of the sacrifices of a college football player in terms of time and physical commitments without getting the benefit of playing on Saturday. The player then decides to transfer. Take Nick Fanuzzi, for example. Fanuzzi knows that he is unlikely to be a starter at Alabama. He has the chance to transfer to Rice, where he's likely to be a starter and get a great education. He is aware of Joe Flacco's career path, in which Flacco transferred from Pitt to Delaware so he could see the field and Flacco ended up as a first round draft pick. Why wouldn't Fanuzzi transfer? And what's wrong with that result? Should we punish Saban for being honest? Would we prefer it if he strung players along with the promise of playing time, only for some of those players to wake up as upperclassmen, knowing that it's too late to transfer and they have lost their chances at seeing the field?

Paging Bob Ley: In Scenario Two, Saban either tells a player directly that he needs to transfer or implies it with something along the lines of "we're going to make your life very difficult." If that's the case, then the authors are absolutely right that Saban and other coaches like him in the SEC are deriving a competitive advantage from bringing in large classes and then cutting players who don't pan out. I don't see any evidence of that occurrence, but maybe some media outlet will do some reporting on players in the Alabama Diaspora. I can't imagine that it would be very hard to get a former player to say bad things about Saban and his staff is they are indeed cutting people. I don't see any media outlet in the State of Alabama taking up the cause, but ESPN? Yahoo!? Sports Illustrated? If the story is there, they would be foolish not to take it. Media attention to cutting players should be one of the two checks on oversigning. The other is negative recruiting from rivals. If Alabama really is intentionally cutting ten players per year, then that would be an awfully effective recruiting tool for Urban Meyer or Mark Richt.

Please act like an aristocrat: One legitimate criticism of Alabama and LSU is that those two schools have the recruiting cache to be more selective in taking players. To come back to the Ole Miss example, one can see why Ole Miss would go so hard after Jerrell Powe. Ole Miss does not have a huge recruiting profile, so they can't afford not to go after a five-star defensive tackle from the state, no matter how marginal his academics. (And before you mount your high horse,, be prepared to defend some of the players that Michigan State has signed and then retained over the years. Desperation isn't the sole province of the SEC's middle and lower classes.) Iowa State and Kansas State have to pull in huge classes because they are in states with minimal talent, so they go the route of JuCos and marginal prospects from talent-rich states be necessity. Alabama and LSU, on the other hand, are national powers. They have recent national titles, significant fan bases, and renown from coast to coast. (Maybe not quite like USC or Notre Dame, but close. I'd venture a guess that most people in Oregona have heard of Bear Bryant and Death Valley.) They should not be in the top 15 of average class size. I was interested to see UNC so high on the list, since they don't fit any of's tangents about the SEC. UNC is an excellent academic school, ranking ahead of most schools in the Big Ten. It's in the ACC, which claims is a refuge for schools that didn't want to compete in the unethical SEC. And yet there it is, signing 128 players over its past five classes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stats with Jeff

Jeff Schultz on the prospect of LaDainian Tomlinson becoming a Saint:

Now, personally, I think this would be a great move by the Saints. Tomlinson isn’t an every down back any more but he’s still one of the top running backs in the NFL. Putting him in that offense would be, like, sick, especially given his motivation level will be at an all-time high next season.

And if I’m Falcons coach Mike Smith, my first thought would be: “Oy.”

I had Tomlinson on my fantasy team this year. He killed me. Thus, I can speak to the fact that Schultz is about three years late in making this point. Tomlinson was 29th in the NFL in yards rushing. He was 49th out of 50 qualifiers in yards per carry, leading only the artist formerly known as Larry Johnson. Tomlinson achieved these numbers despite playing with one of the best quarterbacks in football. His total yards, yards per game, and yards per carry have declined in each of the past four seasons. His sole value last year was that Norv Turner, out of a sense of loyalty to a stumbling old war horse that has served its owner well, let LT score a number of short touchdowns.

If I'm Mike Smith, my first thought upon the Saints signing Tomlinson would be "when did Mickey Loomis get a lobotomy?"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Few Random Footie Thoughts

When the Champions League draw took place, I was confident in the extreme that Barca would have no trouble with Stuttgart. In light of Barca's injury situation and Stuttgart's improved form under Christian Gross, I don't feel that way anymore. There's an argument to be made that Xavi is more integral to the team's success than Messi because Xavi is the fulcrum around which Barca's play operates (and also because Xavi has been more able to impose his style when playing for his country). Xavi will likely be out tonight, as will Dani Alves, who gives the team its width and its Plan B. Alves's absence on the right forces Puyol to play on the right instead of the center, which then brings Rafa Marquez into the mix and I don't trust him defensively. Marquez the central defender scares me. Marquez the defensive midfielder, I like. There aren't too many defenders in the world with the skill to do this:

If you are looking for a good, short, weekly post as a primer on soccer history, I highly recommend the Joy of Six feature that runs every Friday morning in the Guardian. For instance, last Friday's edition was a trip down memory lane to one of the most shocking, gutsy moves you will ever see from a coach: Arrigo Sacchi pulling off Roberto Baggio 22 minutes into a must-win match against Norway in 1994. Baggio was the world's best player at the time, Italy were in a must-win game against a defensive opponent, and Sacchi made the decision in thirty seconds to pull Baggio off when his team went down to ten men.

I am extremely excited by the prospect of the second leg of Lyon-Real Madrid after Lyon won the first leg 1-0. 1-0 is a great result for a home team in the first leg because it means that they only need to score once in the second leg to force the home side to score three to beat them. (My first experience with this phenomenon was the '97 semifinal between Dortmund and Manchester United, when I was just getting into club football. Dortmund won the first leg 1-0 and then got an early goal at Old Trafford. The rest of the game was academic. United melted under the pressure of needing three.) Now, imagine the pressure that is going to fall on Los Merengues when they take the field in the second leg. The club spent hundreds of millions of Euros to succeed in Europe, which their fans view as their birth right. Their arch rival, whom they could always taunt as being a choker in Europe, has won two Champions League titles since Real last won it. Real have been knocked out at this stage in each of the last five years. The final is at their home stadium. I normally root for the La Liga sides in Europe, even Real, but I am definitely amused by the idea of watching the faces in the crowd if Lyon exploit Real's weakness at left back and strike first.

As a football fan, it hurts to watch AC Milan look this bad. Several weeks ago, I was excited to watch the Milan derby after Milan had reduced Inter's lead and were in a fine vein of form. The match that ensued was a colossal ass-whipping by the Nerazzuri didn't pause even after they went down to ten men. How does a major club allow itself to have this bad of a backline? Are they not aware that left and right backs are useful to have? The same issues popped up against Manchester United, even with Pirlo and Ambrosini turning back the clock and having strong games in the midfield. Milan created a bunch of chances after getting a lucky bounce to go up 1-0, but they didn't extend their lead and then United embarrassed them every time they came forward, especially exploiting 93-year old reserve right back Giuseppe Favalli.

I like Chelsea over Inter. Until I have reason to believe otherwise, I am picking against Serie A teams in Europe. (On the other hand, Inter now have the link-up players - Sneijder and Pandev - that they never had before, so maybe this team is different?)

Manchester City-Liverpool: I would like those 90 minutes of my life back, please.

I feel very conflicted on Landon Donovan right now. On the one hand, he is playing very well for Everton. He's found a team in which he fits and he's showing that he can compete at the highest level. Thus, he should stay in England. On the other hand, he's the biggest American star in MLS, so the league might need him right now, especially with labor issues popping up. Thus, he should come home when the loan ends.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Post in Which I Compare Texas to France

I am about two-thirds of the way through Paris 1919, so naturally, it's time for more tortured historical analogies.

With the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles firmly in the front part of my brain, I read Dr. Saturday's post last week on conference expansion and immediately thought of France pushing its hand too hard after WWI. Margaret MacMillan doesn't mean to do so, but she certainly makes the French out to be incredibly shortsighted. In many instance, the U.S. and Great Britain were arguing with France and trying to restrain the latter from following through on unreasonable positions. One can understand the French wanting to impose a punitive peace on Germany and Austria-Hungary after losing hundreds of thousands of casualties and seeing its countryside and coal mines ripped to shreds. Still, with the benefit of hindsight, specifically the knowledge of how Germany would react to Versailles and how they would take their vengeance against the French, Clemenceau and Foch made major mistakes. They pushed for serious reparations against Germany. They neutered the German military to such a degree that paramilitary groups (like, say, the Nazis) became important for maintaining order in Germany in the economic chaos that followed the war. They lopped off German-speaking populations in the east and west, thus leading to another source of resentment. In sum, the French took a hardline position that seemed to be in their interests at the time, but ended up being a colossal mistake that led to blowback from their historical rivals to the east.

I mention this because Texas may have made a similar mistake in the formation of the Big XII. Most articles that discuss the motivations for Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri potentially leaving the conference discuss the unequal sharing of revenue. Because the Big XII doles out revenue based on TV appearances, the marquee programs in the conference - most notably Texas - do far better in terms of income. When one adds the revenue and recruiting advantages that Texas already has with an unequal distribution of TV money, you have a situation where the northern members of the conference are going to feel a good deal of resentment. Going from memory, Tom Osborne expressed these concerns when Nebraska decided to join the Big XII. He was worried about the Huskers being left behind in a Texas-dominated conference. Thus, it was not at all surprising to read Osborne express interest in Nebraska joining the Big Ten, a league that has a more redistributionist revenue scheme. Thus the conclusion that Texas may have made the same mistake that France did: pushing for an arrangement that benefits it, but in doing so, planting the seeds for future problems.

The problem with this analogy is that Texas may not suffer the same blowback that France did because it is in a better position. France imposed a punitive resolution on Germany because Germany was bigger and more economically powerful after unification. In short, France was scared of Germany, so it acted to weaken the Germans. Texas, on the other hand, is much stronger than Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri. Let's say that Colorado went to the Pac Ten and Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas joined the Big Ten. At first glance, that would leave Texas in an eviscerated Big XII. However, the Horns would still have options. One suspects that the SEC would jump at the chance to add Texas along with Texas A&M or Oklahoma, as would the Pac Ten. Thus, as fun as it is to insult Texans with an analogy to cheese-eating surrender monkeys, we don't have a perfect fit.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

East, West, Mere Points on a Map

The Senator's post on conference expansion interested me this morning. I don't often disagree with him on college football issues, but I'm not buying the notion that this passage from the Orlando Sentinel is the "truth":

If the power conferences – and more importantly, the TV networks — saw value in any teams not currently in the BCS conference power structure, those teams would already be in it. The truth of the matter is that there are no teams outside the current BCS conferences who can add to the money pot. Any realignment scenarios that mention any non-BCS team as a likely candidate are grounded in wishful thinking but not much reality. Oh, perhaps a couple might get in simply to balance divisions or fill a particular regional gap in TV markets, depending on how the dominoes fall. That’s you, Utah and perhaps BYU. That’s you, TCU. That’s probably not you, Boise State. Only if you get lucky with the way things break, UCF. Everybody else? Better just focus on the mirror instead of that pie in the sky…
Not to get all Orrin Hatch for a moment, but the BCS Conferences do function as a cartel in certain respects. If a decision were made on pure economics, the Big XII would boot Baylor and add TCU. The Pac Ten would boot Washington State and add Utah or Boise State. The SEC would boot Vandy and add Florida State or Clemson. The Big Ten would boot Northwestern and add Louisville. Conference affiliations are not a simple matter of free market economics. There are political factors in play. Why is Baylor in the Big XII? Because it had powerful friends in state government at the time that the conference was formed. Why is Texas to the Big Ten so unlikely? Because the legislature and the governor would have a cow if the Horns tried to move by themselves. Why is Virginia Tech in the ACC? Because the Virginia legislature put pressure on UVA to make it happen. There are also academic issues, which would be the reason why the Big Ten wouldn't boot Northwestern to add Lousiville.

Finally, there are inertia factors in play. Vandy is in the SEC because they have seemingly always been in the league. The members of the SEC are not going to vote for expansion because new teams are going to have to bring a lot to the table to justify splitting the pie 14 ways instead of 12. To use a legal analogy, conferences that are doing well right now are not going to conduct a de novo review of expansion; they're going to apply the abuse of discretion standard and upset the status quo only if such a decision is patently obvious. (Or maybe the right analogy is the standard for an injunction?) The last round of realignment in the early 90s took place as conferences snapped up independents and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, er, I mean the Southwest Conference broke apart. There is an assumption that another wave of realignment will take place along the lines of the early 90s, where the SEC became the first conference to break into divisions, the Big XII and Big East were formed, the Southwest Conference disappeared, and the Big Ten insulted parents trying to teach their children how to count. However, the conditions are not quite as favorable this time. The factor that would drive realignment would be the SEC and Big Ten exercising their economic power as the two leagues that are richer than their brethren by a significant margin, but is that factor as powerful as a bunch of free agent schools looking to join conferences?

Coming back to the rumor that started the discussion on conference realignment, I don't see why the Big Ten would add Pitt. If we assume that conference expansion is about money and the major source of money for college conferences is TV revenue, then what does Pitt bring to the table? A market that Penn State already covers? A fan base that struggles to sell out home games? A brand that isn't national in any way? From a pure money perspective, adding Texas would be a coup. Assuming that that is unrealistic, then adding Missouri or Nebraska would be the second option, with the decision coming down to Missouri's demographic advantages, a.k.a. people live there, versus Nebraska's national brand. Any of those schools are preferable to Pitt. (Thinking out loud here, the ballsy move would be to add Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Nebraska to become a 16-team mega-conference, but there would be a host of political issues with that.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Oversigning: the Cliff Notes Version

I lost a long post on oversigning in the ether. Here is the outline for your comments. I'll either find or replace the flesh.

1. Oversigning is a rational response for a school like Ole Miss that is recruiting predominantly from a terrible high school system. They don't get a huge competitive advantage because grades and SATs are making roster decisions instead of the coaches.

2. Alabama and LSU have less of an excuse because they have the recruiting cache to be selective.

3. Georgia and Florida don't have to oversign because they have enough prestige to be selective, plus they recruit in states with better high school systems (relatively speaking) in comparison to most other SEC states. Also, they are in more urbanized states and have newspapers that would stay on them, which I don't see as the case in Alabama and Mississippi.

4. The key question in the oversigning debate is whether players are really cut. Does Nick Saban state, explicitly or implicitly, that departing players need to leave? Or does he just tell them something along the lines of "you're free to stay, but you aren't going to see the field" and then the players themselves decide to go because they want playing time. The answer to this question would come from a media outlet talking to the players in the Alabama diaspora (or doing the same for any school that oversigns). The media reporting on players being cut (if that is indeed the case) ought to be one check on the practice. Negative recruiting from rivals should be the other.

I Hate Baseball

Good morning from the AJC: Jurrjens to have MRI on sore shoulder. This never ends well.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Saints Envy

I would like to buy Mark Bradley's argument that the Falcons can do what the Saints just did, but I see a couple, um, shall we say meaningful differences:

1. Sean Payton calls plays for the Saints. Mike Mularkey calls plays for the Falcons. For a guy who rates coaching as being a critical factor on the college and NFL levels, this should mean something to Bradley. I'm not sure how to characterize the Saints' offense, but it's really cool to watch. New Orleans does a million different things and they spread the ball around, but everything is keyed off of the passing game. Mularkey is completely different. His offense is keyed off of giving the ball to Michael Turner over and over again. Whereas the Saints spread the ball to a number of different receivers, the Falcons funnel the ball to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. The only similarity between Payton and Mularkey is that they both like trick plays.

2. After the season that Matt Ryan just turned in, one that caused Bradley to write that we may have Eli Manning instead of Peyton, I'm not quite sure how he concludes that the Falcons aren't behind the Saints at the quarterback position. Yes, Matt Ryan is "further along than Drew Brees was after two seasons," but he's not comparable to where Brees is right now. Long-term, Ryan is obviously a better bet, but Bradley is writing about 2010. In a similar vein, Curtis Lofton might turn into a Jonathan Vilma, but he's not there yet (and based on my sense that Vilma was a great player in college and Lofton wasn't, I don't think that Lofton will ever get there. Lofton looks like a pretty good NFL linebacker, but I see him as a cut below Vilma.)

3. The sea change for New Orleans was hiring Gregg Williams, who changed New Orleans' defensive approach into a hyper-aggressive, blitzing style that compensated for the fact that the Saints' defensive personnel isn't superior. (By the way, I stopped reading him years ago, but is Gregg Easterbrook still on the tangent that blitzing is a terrible idea? I thought of Easterbrook as Tracy Porter was weaving his way downfield after picking off a pass that Peyton Manning threw under duress in the face of a six-man blitz.) Have the Falcons taken a step to hire an ace defensive coordinator?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Jeff Schultz Doesn't Bother to Divide

Out-of-touch liberal eggheads like your truly like spending our time reading books like Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason so we can gripe in our heads about the lack of rationality and evidence-based argumentation in the modern media. (What Jacoby would think about me spending my free time writing about sports is a different matter entirely.) One of Jacoby's numerous complaints about the modern media is the prevalence of innumeracy, i.e. the inability to understand basic statistics and mathematical concepts. For instance, Brian Cook did a nice job recently in debunking Bruce Feldman's argument regarding the prevalence of lower-rated recruits among the Super Bowl starters. Because Feldman is a good writer and a rational guy, Cook was polite in his criticism.

I am under no such constraints when writing about Jeff Schultz's predictable blathering about Georgia Tech's haul on Signing Day. Schultz has filled Terence Moore's shoes as the AJC columnist whose arguments I read mainly because I want to mock them. With arguments like this, you can see why:

The NFL, generally recognized as the most successful sports league in the world, employs hundreds of scouts, spends millions of dollars, crosses the country several times over, breaks down every conceivable potential pro player from Big Campus U to Couldn’t Find Us Without GPS A&M and feeds it all into computers that spit out professional looking, color-coded spreadsheets, suitable for framing.

Know what? They still get it wrong more than half the time.

So what are we to think about national letter of intent day? College scouting is even less sophisticated than pro scouting. They’re dealing with athletes four years younger. Teenagers. More variables means more guessing, which means more darts are likely to hit the wall, three feet from the target.

NFL teams are almost uniform in the high value that they place on Draft picks. The major exception are the Washington Redskins, who regularly trade picks for established players. Ask a Redskins fan how that's working out for them. The Falcons acquired a Hall of Fame tight end last spring for a second round Draft pick and no one batted an eye. Bill Belichick, who has a reasonably solid reputation, traded Richard Seymour, his best defensive lineman and one of the pillars of the Patriots dynasty, for a first round pick and most people assumed that Al Davis was getting fleeced again.

So here's the question Jeff: are NFL teams misguided when they place such high value on the lottery tickets that they get to play each April? Have you intrepidly identified a market inefficiency? Or is it possible that you just don't understand the concept of probability at all? Assuming that you are right that NFL teams miss on over half of their picks, draft picks are still valuable because the more picks a team has and the higher those picks are in the draft order, the greater the likelihood that the team will find a good player.

And that brings us to recruiting. Schultz acts in a dismissive manner towards recruiting gurus, putting up sarcastic quotation marks around rankings, stars, and experts. Here is the meat of his argument:

Let me take this opportunity to give a value to these rankings on my own personal scale: one raspberry.

“The No. 64 guard in the country, you can’t tell me who that is,” Johnson cracked Wednesday. “I don’t even know who the No. 2 guard in the state is.”

The old expression of a team “looking good getting off the bus” applies here. They are recruits, nothing more, nothing less. Georgia Tech will be fine because the success of a football program is defined by coaching and direction, not by which recruits emerged from those inane hat-switching acts at press conferences.

The recruiting rankings tend to track the offers that a player receives. If Texas, Florida, and USC are all after the same player, then that player will get four or five stars. If the schools of the MAC are fighting for a player's signature, then he won't. If Schultz is right that the stars and rankings are meaningless, then he is adopting the position that the staffs at the elite programs do not know how to evaluate players. Care to defend the position that Urban Meyer doesn't know the difference between a player and a poseur, Jeff?

And then Schultz's crowing insult comes at the end, where he lists four players that Paul Johnson will have to replace this year: Derrick Morgan, Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer and Morgan Burnett. Guess how many stars went next to Morgan's, Dwyer's, and Burnett's names when they were recruits? Cue Moses Malone: fo, fo, fo. Guess how many stars went next to Josh Nesbitt's name? The 2009 Georgia Tech team succeeded for a number of reasons. Good offensive coaching and good fortune come to mind immediately, as does Chan Gailey's recruiting. The assumption that Paul Johnson can continue to win at the same level without recruiting at the same level is just dumb.

The funny thing is that Tech's class is quite good if Schultz were able to understand how numbers actually work. He cites Tech's middling overall rankings, but doesn't account for the fact that the Jackets signed a small class of 18 players. By average star ranking, they do quite well: #26 by Rivals and #34 by Scout. Johnson brought in five four-star players, which is not far off the eight four-star players that Gailey signed in the 2007 class that formed the backbone of the 2009 ACC Champions. The class is defense-heavy, which is good for Johnson because he can cobble together an offense out of spare parts, but defense requires athletes and it isn't his field of expertise.

Yes, Jeff, there is no guarantee that these players will become stars on the field. The debris field of wasted talent at Florida State that paved the way for the Jackets to win the conference is a testament to the fact that talent alone does not win games. However, rather than reveling in the anti-expert, "no one knows anything about anything!" mindset that you encourage, Tech fans should be either reasonably happy because Johnson brought in a collection of good lottery tickets yesterday or mildly concerned because he didn't bring in more on the heels of two successful seasons.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

One Thought on the Super Bowl (with Obligatory Barca Content)

The prevailing sense that I'm getting from the media is that Indianapolis is a clear favorite in Miami. After Peyton Manning's performance against the Jets, the assumption is that the Saints' defense doesn't stand a chance, especially because the Saints live and die by the blitz just like the Jets do. I think that there is a heavy recency element going on with the pre-game analysis. Yes, Indianapolis looked better nine days ago than New Orleans did, but no one seems to account for the fact that Indianapolis played a much weaker opponent.

The Saints played a team that had been neck-and-neck with them in the NFC for the entire season. Other than an inept head coach who doesn't understand that a 50-yard field goal is not a gimme, Minnesota was a team without a significant weakness. They can run, they can throw, and their defense is very good because of a dominant front four that forces its opponents to be one-dimensional. OK, they struggle to cover kickoffs, but that's not exactly a major weakness like, say, the Jets' inability to throw the ball.

Although their defense was playing at a very high level and their running game was very good, the Jets were 9-7 for a reason. Moreover, the Jets were 7-7 after losing a home game to our local pro football collective (which was no one's idea of a great team) and then made the playoffs on the strength of two wins over playoff-bound teams with nothing to play for. Put it this way: if the Saints played a home game against the Jets - a team they beat by two touchdowns and outgained by 99 yards in the regular season - and the Colts played a home game against the Vikings - a team that wouldn't need to blitz Peyton Manning and thus expose itself downfield - what would the expected results be? Maybe a two-score win for the Saints and a nail-biter for the Colts?

The build-up to the Super Bowl reminds me of the discussions before 2009's version of the other massive final on the world's annual sports calendar: the Champions League Final. There, Manchester United were described in the media (especially the English-language media) as the clear favorite because they were coming off of a demolition of Arsenal in the semifinals, whereas Barcelona had edged past Chelsea on an injury-time equalizer. The pre-match analysis ignored the facts that: (1) Chelsea were obviously a better team than Arsenal, as evidenced by the Blues winning easily at the Emirates on the weekend after the semis; and (2) Barca had faced the challenge of playing Chelsea twice in eight days with a trip to Real Madrid for the La Liga title decider wedged in between the two legs. The pre-match analysis also ignored the fact that Barca had a record-setting offense over the course of the year and it wasn't as if Messi, Eto'o, Henry, Xavi, and Iniesta had forgotten how to score just because they struggled offensively in the semifinal before saving themselves with a last-gasp score. Does that sound a little like the Saints to you?

I'm not saying that the Saints are better than the Colts? I am saying that the Saints were even with the Colts over the course of the season and the Super Bowl coverage is ignoring that fact by overrating the performance of the two teams in the Conference Championship Games.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Don't Blame Me

Der Wife and I went out on Saturday night. I watched the first six minutes of the Hawks-Magic game, at the end of which the local basketball collective led 16-6. When I got out of the shower and had finished primping, the Hawks were down 55-46. I watched for a few more minutes, during which time the Hawks cut the deficit to 57-54. We then headed out and the Hawks were thrashed for the rest of the evening. Thus, I have little to say about the game other than that Al Horford is an all-star, but he isn't a true center, so the Hawks cannot handle the Magic in any way, shape, or form.

The question becomes whether there is a center on the market who can give the Hawks a fighting chance against Howard. And if there is such a character, do the Hawks deploy a big lineup against Orlando with Horford and Josh Smith at the forward spots? That's an awfully weak-shooting front line. The alternative is to rotate Horford and Josh Smith at the four while keeping Marvin Williams at the three, but then you are cutting the minutes of two of your best players. Maybe there is no solution other than hoping to avoid Orlando in the playoffs.

Dear Cesc Fabregas

You can get with this:

Or you can get with that:

Hugs and kisses,
Pep Guardiola