Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pete Fiutak's Big Admission

It's not every day that a sports journalist admits that he got pressure from higher ups to refrain from criticizing a sports league or entity whose broadcast rights are owned by the journalist's employer. Today is not every day. Pete Fiutak, tell us why you have soft-pedaled your criticism of the BCS over the past four years:

Over the past few years when Fox had the big bowls, I’d get a call or five every late September from various higher-ups making sure that CFN (who provides content for FoxSports.com) didn’t go over the top when commenting on the BCS. To be fair and thankful, no one ever told me or anyone else at CFN what we could and couldn’t write or tried to limit what we could say on TV and radio appearances. That was never a problem (outside of not commenting on some of the announcer teams) since we’ve made it a point to not get dragged down in all the “BCS Sucks” rhetoric (again, since the ranting goes nowhere), and there was never any discussion of what we could and couldn’t write and say when it came to the BCS chase and how the rankings were shaping up. Fire on the process and the system … not really. Go nuts on what was happening within the system ... … fine. It’s extremely doubtful that the ESPNers will get the same leeway and freedom.

Here is the reaction from Blutarsky and Dr. Saturday. My two cents:

1. This is a pretty suspect admission from Fiutak. He comes clean only after the fact that his commentary was compromised by his employer's commercial interests and then he claims that whatever compromises he was forced to make will not be as bad as the ones that ESPN employees will have to make. This is a really self-interested move by Fiutak, which doesn't detract from the credibility or importance of the admission against interests, but it does make Pete look bad all the same. And Fiutak's claim that ESPN is going to be biased in favor of the SEC is amusing, in light of the fact that (as Blutarsky notes) Fox Sports is a joint partner in the Big Ten Network and Fiutak is (IIRC) a Wisconsin grad. I'm sure we can look to him for impartial coverage if Alabama and Ohio State are vying for the second spot in the Championship Game, especially after this admission.

2. The entity that comes out of Fiutak's article smelling like a rose is Sports Illustrated. I'll freely admit to being critical of SI at times, but its status as the major sports media entity that doesn't broadcast games and doesn't have contractual arrangements with the BCS or the major conferences becomes doubly important in a world where Fox and ESPN (as well as their numerous affiliated entities) are tainted by the almighty greenback. That's not to say that SI and its writers don't have their own axes to grind, but as an entity, it comes to college football debates with cleaner hands. So thanks to Pete for implicitly endorsing one of CFN's competitors. Mandel, maybe a nice box of chocolates to Fiutak's office would be in order?

3. I don't really see ESPN's incentives as being especially changed now that it is covering the BCS games. ESPN has invested a tremendous sum of money in covering college football, so it has always had the motivation to portray the sport in a positive light. If college football is seen as a fraudulent institution as much of the Northeast media intelligentsia seems to think (now I'm sounding like a Nixon speechwriter) because of the lack of a playoff system, then ESPN would suffer, regardless of whether it is showing the BCS games. It's not as if ESPN undercovered the BCS Championship games when they were on other networks.

Take Major League Baseball as a test case. ABC/ESPN do not have the rights to the League Championship Series or the World Series. Has that affected ESPN's coverage of baseball? No, they still slobber over the Red Sox and Yankees on a nightly basis. Why? Because ESPN covers the baseball regular season and they have an interest in the sport succeeding. Fiutak claims that ESPN swept the PED epidemic under the rug (they were hardly alone in that respect), but ESPN was doing so for a sport whose crown jewel was covered by Fox.

4. If Fiutak is right, then ESPN will change its coverage of teams like Boise State and TCU. Powers from outside of the BCS conferences represent a threat to the legitimacy of the current system because they can go unbeaten, beating the pants off of the teams on their schedules, and still face long odds in making the national title game. If ESPN pooh-poohs Boise State, then something is up. If they are honest in covering the Broncos, then we'll know that the nefarious Disney suits have not paid a midnight visit to Maisel, Fowler, or Nessler. The coverage of the Boise State-Virginia Tech game will be an early test case. BSU can position itself for a spot in the title game with a win, especially in light of a relatively open field in 2010. How will ESPN treat a Bronco win?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Even with my Statler & Waldorf Attitude Towards the Tournament...

This Kansas State-Xavier game is the bee's knees. Gus Johnson is going to look like one of the Duke brothers by the time this is over. I'm just not sure if he'll be screaming "turn these machines back on!!!" or he'll be on a stretcher. On Jordan Crawford's three at the end of regulation, he call was this: "Crawford's gotta hurry! Aaah!?! AAAAHHH!!! He tied it!!!!" I don't agree with Bill Simmons on everything, but he's spot on on his Gus Crush.

If Xavier plays Butler, then I won't know what to do because I'm always confusing those two programs as the two feisty mid-majors from the Midwest who wear navy blue.

If Bruno Ganz is unavailable for Downfall: The Prequel, Frank Martin can stand in for him. He's, uh, passionate. I was seriously wondering whether he was going to pull a reverse Sprewell at the end of regulation when his team fouled a shooter taking a three.

This is like a game that I would have played my myself in our driveway when I was a kid.

And somewhere, Mitch Richmond is smiling.

I'm Going to Start Swearing

I don't like Michael Rosenberg. Although we attended the University of Michigan at the same time, I can't say that I've ever met him, so this isn't based on any personal interaction. I can't say that he smells bad, he has a weak handshake, or he kicks homeless people when they're sleeping. What I can say is that I don't like his written product at all. For evidence, I give you this piece on John Calipari.

Before reading the piece, keep in mind that Rosenberg authored a ludicrously unfair attack on Rich Rodriguez's Michigan program in August, a piece that willfully obscured the distinction between countable and non-countable hours. A piece that preyed on unsuspecting freshmen in a manner that would make Urban Meyer purple. A piece that a proper Michigan grad/journalist referred to as "journalistic malpractice."

If Rosenberg wants to cast himself as a defender of purity in college athletics, then that's one thing. He can rant and rave about cheating coaches until the cows come home. I can disagree with him and chastise him for writing unfair articles, but at least Rosenberg would have a consistent worldview for his readers to accept or reject. However, it's quite another thing to write pieces as if Rodriguez is the devil and then write the following about John Calipari:

REFUSE TO LOSE. It sounds like such a simple, inspirational phrase for a team -- and it can be. But it also describes the man. He's a scrapper, and will weigh all of his options besides losing.

Calipari has done the most remarkable coaching job of this season, and nobody is close. Think about it: He convinced John Wall, Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins to come to Memphis, inserted clauses into their letters of intent so they could go somewhere else if Calipari left, convinced Memphis to keep its Notice of Allegations from the NCAA quiet for three months, took the Kentucky job before anybody knew about that notice, then convinced Wall and Cousins to join him in Lexington. That is refusing to lose.

(Rosenberg is factually wrong in a number of respects in this paragraph, starting with the fact that Wall never verballed to Memphis, let alone signed a letter of intent, but what else did we expect from Rosenberg? To paraphrase Francisco Scaramanga, facts never were his strong suit.)

Or this:

Calipari just keeps rolling. Since he first arrived on the national stage, Calipari has changed offenses, stars and schools. He has gone from the hot new coach that everybody loved too much to the crafty veteran that people hate too much.

When people attack him, he fights back. Refuse to lose. But he'll open his home to fans and his program to anybody who can help him win.

There are plenty of people in college basketball who think it will all come crashing down around Calipari -- that we will witness the professional death of a salesman. I don't know. We won't know for years. All I know is that I filled out my bracket the other day. I'm picking Kentucky.

Sorry, Mom, but I'm about to swear. Are you fucking kidding me? Rich Rodriguez is a dirty bastard because your investigation uncovered the fact that Michigan was practicing five hours on certain days instead of four and quality control assistants were watching some summer skeleton drills. John Calipari is an inspiring fighter even though he has left both UMass and Memphis on probation and came within a whisker of winning a national title with multiple players who apparently cheated on their SATs. If you're going to be a moralist, then be a moralist. Don't pick on one guy for running a stop sign and laud an arsonist because the arsonist is a smooth salesman and and the bad driver isn't. Your credibility as a writer sorta depends on whether readers think that your opinions are based on something other than completely subjective judgments about people.

An unrelated note: Rosenberg unintentionally does a great job of illustrating why the NCAA Tournament has killed college basketball with this paragraph in his paean to the Big Dance:

The NCAA tournament is never overhyped because from November to March, most of the country doesn't pay attention to college basketball. You might watch your team. You might watch your conference. But the college basketball season starts during the baseball playoffs, stays underwater for the NFL playoffs and finally comes up for air at the end of the regular season. I mean, Baylor, West Virginia and Kansas State are all top-three seeds in this tournament, and I have yet to hear anybody say they have been inundated with Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia basketball talk for four months and they're sick of it.

Yes, the Tournament is great because we no longer know anything about the teams playing! We have destroyed the village to save it!

Lefties on the Right

If you're interested in footie tactics, then I can't recommend Jonathan Wilson's pieces in The Guardian strongly enough. His latest offering explains why teams are getting so much benefits from playing wingers on their off-feet, i.e. putting a left-footed player on the right side of the pitch. The short explanation is that this allows a player to cut in to shoot or to send in an in-swinging cross to the far post, as opposed to putting a right-footed player on the right wing where all he can do is send in an out-swinging cross.

The additional benefit for a team deploying its wingers in this manner is that the defensive counter-measure is to do the same with its fullbacks, i.e. put a left-footed player at right back. Chelsea did this to great effect against Barcelona last year when they put left-footed Jose Bosingwa at right back to deal with Leo Messi. However, when a team does this, it cuts down on the offensive punch that it can expect from its fullbacks, which might explain why Chelsea, a team that depends on its fullbacks for width, created so little offensively against Barca (especially in the first leg).

When I read the article, my thoughts naturally went to ... Preki? Yes, Preki. Steve Sampson might not have had the most successful term as the coach of the National Team, but he did have the good sense to put the left-footed Preki on the right wing, where his sole job was to cut in and unleash shots off of his sweet left boot. Unfortunately, I have a very distinct memory of the US fumbling around against Iran in the '98 World Cup and the announcer noting that the Iranians had scouted Preki and figured out how to take away his one trick. That trick was about the only thing that the '98 team had going in its favor.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So Leo Messi, What Did You Do This Weekend?

Real Zaragoza coach José Aurelio Gay:

Tonight, I saw Diego Maradona, but at more revs per minute. There are no words left to describe him – he is interplanetary. We could have beaten Barcelona but we could never have beaten Leo Messi. If we had scored four, he would have scored 12.

Sid Lowe:

It was a performance that started off well, got better in the middle, and by the end was barely believable. One that left you feeling exhausted just watching it, full of ridiculously good touches. It got better and better and better and when you thought it couldn't get any better it got better again. One that went from Crikey to Bloody Hell to Oh my God to Now, you're really taking the mickey. Only Messi wasn't taking the mickey, he was just playing football – the way he plays football. The way no one else has played football. Maybe ever before.

Phil Ball:

Sigh, what can one say? Adjectives are beginning to fall short for this little man who seems to require neither space nor time to work his mojo. President Joan Laporta, frothing from every visible orifice, declared Messi the greatest player in history after the game, as if he [Laporta] were somehow qualified to say. He was getting a little carried away, and Messi will need to now prove his qualifications with his national side before any more can be seriously said on the subject. But, yes, the lad's a bit useful.

Duel of the Jews, Basketball Edition

Before you read Stewart Mandel's claim that the term "mid-major" should be retired, here are four statistics for you:

1. No team from outside of a BCS conference has won the national championship in college basketball since UNLV twenty years ago. (The Tarkanian-coached UNLV teams had, uh, certain attributes that make them distinct from any current program. It appears that the mid-major who came closest to ending the drought - 2008 Memphis - also shared some of those attributes.)

2. Here are the seeds of the last 20 NCAA champions:

2009 North Carolina - 1
2008 Kansas - 1
2007 Florida - 1
2006 Florida - 3
2005 North Carolina - 1
2004 UConn - 2
2003 Syracuse - 3
2002 Maryland - 1
2001 Duke - 1
2000 Michigan State - 1
1999 UConn - 1
1998 Kentucky - 2
1997 Arizona - 4
1996 Kentucky - 1
1995 UCLA - 1
1994 Arkansas - 1
1993 North Carolina - 1
1992 Duke - 1
1991 Duke - 2
1990 UNLV - 1

14 #1 seeds, three #2 seeds, two #3 seeds, and one #4 seed. '88 Kansas, '85 Villanova, and '83 N.C. State are in the distant past and even those three noted Cinderellas come from the Big Eight, the Big East, and the ACC. If you want a good piece of evidence for my notion that the NCAA Tournament should be 16 teams instead of 64, this is it.

3. We are one year removed from an NCAA Tournament in which all of the 1, 2, and 3 seeds made the Sweet Sixteen.

4. We are two years removed from a Final Four that featured four 1 seeds.

So yes, Stewart, in light of that evidence, the distinction between schools that belong to the six BCS conferences and those that don't is "mystical." Mandel shows this bizarre ability to acknowledge reality:

As we move into Stage 2 of this championship, the favorites will remain those schools with the number 1 in front of them -- Syracuse, Kentucky and Duke. None were remotely threatened in their first two contests, and surely, we must assume, the clock will run out at some point for our friends at Saint Mary's, Cornell and Northern Iowa. It always does.

and then forget it a few paragraphs later:

But when the "best teams" aren't all that different than "the next-best teams," upsets happen. Here's guessing we've hardly seen the last of them in this, the nation's most egalitarian sporting event.

Mandel's line of thinking annoys me in two separate ways. First, it is a really good illustration of the recency fallacy. He takes one weekend of results and makes broad conclusions, completely ignoring a bevy of relevant facts that demolish his hypothesis. The clear trend in recent years has been for chalk to prevail in the NCAA Tournament. Northern Iowa beating Kansas and St. Mary's beating Villanova doesn't change that. Second, Mandel is feeding the media narrative that the NCAA Tournament is exciting and unpredictable. It may be exciting for people who want to reduce a season to three weeks, but the unpredictability factor is seriously overrated. Yes, there are upsets every year in the first two rounds (some years more than others), but at the end of the road, there is a team from a major school standing in the falling confetti in a dome somewhere. We like to imagine that the NCAA Tournament embodies the American Dream and that the little guy can go from nothing to glory, but just about all of the time, the little guy ends up face down in a pool with "The World Is Mine" rotating above his head.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hello Again



I'm happy with the draw. Arsenal do not play they style that gives Barca trouble: two lines of four playing defense and then quick counters. (Inter and United, on the other hand, can both play that style.) They do what Barca does, only they do it with inferior players. Moreover, they have been mostly abused over the past two years when they've played truly top shelf opposition (read: United and Chelsea). Arsenal have a major question mark in goal and there's a good chance that they would be trotting Sol Campbell out in central defense. (I'm sure the mentally fragile Campbell will handle the pressure of a Champions League knock-out tie against the holders with aplomb.) Barca get the second leg at home and they haven't lost with the second leg at home since 2003. Finally, this will be the chance to impress upon Cesc that the time is now. I could see a strategy for Arsenal that would involve a defensive style and then attempts to spring Arshavin into the space behind Dani Alves on Arsenal's attacking left, but will Wenger go against type and play a Mourinho/Benitez style? What matters more, Arsene: your vision or the result?

A semifinal with Inter will be trickier. Mourinho has done a great job remodeling that team since last year. Barca handled them comfortably in the group stage (0-0 at the San Siro and 2-0 at the Nou Camp despite Messi and Ibra not playing), but Wesley Sneijder had just joined Inter when they played the first time and he was out for the return match. Inter are a different side with Sneijder; he's the link-up player that they have lacked for years. Inter fit together very well, especially as a yin to Barca's yang. The question is whether they have a left back who can handle Messi, even with assistance. I'd give Barca a slight edge because they have the second leg at home, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Inter win it. One other factor that helps Barca: Jose Mourinho is a master preparer, but how much does that advantage really count when the semifinal matches would be the ninth and tenth times that his sides have played Barca? He can't have any new tricks, can he?

Regarding the other side of the bracket, short of drawing CSKA, this is the draw that Sir Alex would have made if he picked the balls himself. United won't see the three strongest contenders until the final. Although come to think of it, with the way that United have handled Arsenal recently, Sir Alex would probably rather play them than Bayern. I have to imagine that United fans will be thinking the same things about Ribery that Barca fans are thinking about Cesc: let's smack this team up so their best player decides to join us. The wild card for United is Arjen Robben, who is in the form of his life. My black 2004 Bayern Champions League jersey (Makaay #10, in case you were wondering) will definitely make an appearance.

The French have to be reasonably pleased with the draw because they are guaranteed to have a team in the semifinals for the first time since Monaco in 2004. I don't pretend to know what the history is between Bordeaux and Lyon, other than that Bordeaux ended Lyon's long run of Ligue Un titles last year. Laurent Blanc is a hot name in coaching right now and a Champions League semifinal against United would be a great platform for him.

One final thought: after suffering through three English semifinalists in each of the last three years, it would nice to have a balanced semifinal this year. If the four favorites progress, we'll have teams from Spain, England, France, and Italy. Michel Platini would be very pleased with that result.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Five Thoughts on the Champions League

1. Barca figured something out at halftime of the match against Valencia on Sunday: Thierry Henry can still be a useful player. It's hard to say that a team that has lost one game out of 26 in La Liga (and that with a youth team player at right back) and qualified at the top of its group in the Champions League is struggling, but if there has been a cause for concern for the Blaugrana this year, it's been their struggles in replacing Samuel Eto'o. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started reasonably well, but he's ground to a halt over the past several months and the team looks less fluid when he plays. (There's a parallel to be made between Ibra and Allen Iverson. Both are tremendous individual players who are capable of incredible acts of skill. However, both also need the ball all the time, so they struggle to play a team game where the ball is supposed to circulate.) Thierry Henry has been mostly bad. Sunday, Barca went to the locker room at halftime somewhat fortunate to be 0-0 against Valencia. Pep Guardiola threw Henry onto the pitch at center forward and the team played one of its best halves of the season, thrashing Los Che 3-0. Henry didn't score, but he created space for Leo Messi to hit a second half hat trick. Henry's movement, passing, and presence made the space for Messi to run riot. The game illustrated Tim Vickery's point that players are a function of their surroundings and that Messi has the perfect surroundings at Barca, but he has no help for Argentina.

That dynamic continued yesterday. Messi was absolutely sublime. He scored two, he could have scored several more, and he set up a goal with a great pass to Yaya Toure. Again, Henry didn't score, but his understanding of how to play the center forward position was critical. It will be interesting to see how Guardiola plays his hand going forward. Is Ibra now out of the first choice XI? And given that Henry is getting up there in years, how much does he need to be rested now that there will be a temptation to play him every week?

2. Am I going to have to revise my negative view of Jose Mourinho? I started to dislike him in 2005 when he brought an expensively assembled Chelsea side to the Nou Camp and promptly parked the bus, then had the nerve to allege that Frank Rijkaard had gone into the referee's locker room at halftime to alter the result. Mourinho then followed that performance by taking part in the "shit on a stick" ties with Liverpool in 2005 and 2007. So you might imagine my surprise when Mourinho's Inter arrived at Stamford Bridge defending a 2-1 first leg lead and then deployed three strikers and an attacking midfielder. (Technically, Goran Pandev might be more of an attacking midfielder than a forward, but the point remains.) Rather than committing resources to defense, Inter took control of the game and were dominant by the second half, with their winning goal coming from a mile away. I at least need to change my view of Mourinho as a dogmatic conservative. In reality, he's an extremely detailed preparer of teams who analyzes the opponent and comes up with a specific approach. In this case, he saw the weakness of the slumping Chelsea back line and went for the throat.

Also, Mourinho deserves credit for remodeling the team. It would have been tempting to make few changes to a side that won four straight Scudettos (albeit two aided by Calciopoly). Instead, he bought five players in the summer - Eto'o, Lucio, Thiago Motta, Wesley Sneijder, and Diego Milito - and then added Pandev in the winter. All six started on Tuesday. Jose has turned the team over in the space of a year and they look like a more effective force. Specifically, they finally have the player (Sneijder) who can link defense and attack. (As a Dutch fan, I have to say that watching Sneijder and Robben drag their teams forward in Europe is an encouraging sight.)

3. On a related note, is it possible that Manchester United is better without Cristiano Ronaldo in the same way that Inter are better without Ibra? United lost the former World Player of the Year, but the side that they have now fits together a little better. Everyone has their role, namely Rooney scoring goals and everyone else on the team supplying him. They're like a Christmas tree with Rooney as the star on the top. On the other hand, United's back line isn't nearly what it's been for the past two years. Rio Ferdinand's health is questionable and Nemanja Vidic has had a noticeable drop in form. I'd be very interested to see them play Inter again to measure how United would defend the suddenly potent Nerazzurri.

4. I was definitely underwhelmed by the supposedly new and improved Bayern. Bayern have been torrid in the Bundesliga for months, but in their two matches against Serie A also-ran Fiorentina, they were outplayed for long stretches (and saved by some really shaky refereeing in the first leg by B&B favorite Tom Henning Ovrebo). I could just hear Der Kaiser grumbling away (in a language I don't speak), especially about the defense that could not handle Stevan Jovetic in either game. Daniel van Buyten was especially weak. Going forward, Louis van Gaal's strategy will have to be to put opponents under so much pressure with Robben, Ribery, and Gomez that the defenders have little to do.

5. My ranking of the remaining eight contenders headed into the quarterfinals:


I feel bad putting a quality Bordeaux team outside of the top four. If they draw one of the top four, they are going to have their chance for a coming out party. You know, the sort of coming out party that it took Lyon about seven years to have.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Sickening Injustice of Not Getting a Fifth Year!

So let me get this straight: Terry Grant and Travis Sikes were on Alabama's roster for four years. Both players have graduated. Neither player will get a fifth year with the Tide, with Grant's decision based at least in part on injury issues. And this is evidence of the evils of oversigning? How exactly have Grant and Sikes been harmed? It's a crime that they were deprived of the right to be practice fodder for a fifth season? I can say with certainty that Lloyd Carr, who is held up as a model of propriety, made the same decisions with players who had been in the Michigan program for four years and had not made an impact on the field.

Hell, the fact that Grant and Sikes were on the roster for four years is evidence that Nick Saban does not simply cut players to make way for more talented replacements. At this time last year, Alabama was in the same spot that they currently occupy, namely faced with the prospect of more than 85 scholarship players when the freshmen arrive in August. Grant and Sikes were both on the roster at that time, headed into their fourth years in the program and having never made an impression on the field. If Saban were a ruthless dictator looking to make roster decisions himself (as opposed to letting grades and poorly executed cocaine operations do the work for him), then he surely would have cut Sikes first and then Grant. He didn't.

In a B&B First...

I am going to express a modicum of sympathy for the Duke University basketball program. Duke just won the ACC regular season and tournament titles. They are 29-5 and, according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, the best team in the country. They drew a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So what is their reward for a season of excellence? A bracket in which they could end up playing Texas A&M and then Baylor in Houston.

Pitt faces a similar issue. The Panthers are 24-8 and, according to the NCAA, one of the 12 best teams in the country. What is their reward? A potential Sweet Sixteen matchup with BYU in Salt Lake City. (One caveat: since I mentioned KenPom's ratings earlier, I should mention that Pomeroy has BYU as the seventh-best team in the country, so this is not an injustice according to my preferred methodology. That said, the NCAA doesn't use KenPom's ratings, so by their standards, they screwed Pitt.)

The NBA, NHL, and MLB all have interminably long regular seasons followed by short, overvalued playoffs, but at least those three leagues have the decency to give incentives to teams in the form of homefield/court/ice advantage. If the Lakers have a great season, then they are rewarded by getting to play extra home games in the playoffs. College basketball doesn't even have that reward. Teams play all year for a chance at being slightly closer to home for the couple games that will decide whether their seasons are successes or failures, but even if a team does everything right and gets a #1 seed, there is still a reasonable chance that it will end up in someone else's backyard.

Moreover, the same commercial pressure that is pushing the NCAA to further expand an already gaudy tournament also causes the NCAA to put teams like Duke and Pitt is difficult situations. It cannot be a coincidence that Baylor and Texas A&M are both in the South bracket when the NCAA needs to sell thousands of tickets for a regional at Reliant Stadium. Duke ends up being penalized by the NCAA's need to maximize revenue. Couldn't the NCAA have adopted a more neutral way to draw Texans to the regional, like say burning Thomas Jefferson in effigy?

I will now return to my normal Vicious Little Ferret jokes.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dunta Robinson, the Book Report

I'm a pack rat. Normally, this is a problem. However, when I'm lying in bed at night and wondering things like "I wonder what all my old Pro Football Prospecti say about the Falcons' new franchise cornerback," it comes in handy. So, here are some thoughts from people who have watched more Texans football than me:

2006 - Robinson is a "bona fide upper echelon cornerback, but like Eddie Murphy on the post-Belushi Saturday Night Live, the man desperately needs some help from his teammates."

2007 - Robinson is the one "bright exception" in the Texans's secondary. He was "extremely streaky" in 2006, but overall, he improved his numbers.

2008 - Robinson was hurt at midseason and then replaced by Fred Bennett, who outperformed Robinson and just about every other corner in the league.

2009 - Robinson missed extensive time with injuries for the second straight year and wasn't right when he was on the field. They do add that "Robinson has exceptional cover skills and a track record of success."

We'll have to wait for the summer to get an evaluation on Robinson's 2009 season. In the meantime, here is an interview with FO's Bill Barnwell about Robinson and the impact on the Texans losing him. Robinson's numbers weren't as good as the Texans' other numbers, but he was seeing their opponents' number one receiver regularly. It does sound like his level of play didn't match the heights he achieved before his injury-plagued 2007 and 2008 seasons.

In sum, the Falcons are taking a gamble here. They've acquired a player who has top talent, but has been hurt and was not great last year. They're signing Robinson in the hope that they are getting the Robinson from 2005-06. This sounds dangerous to me. There has to be a reason why the Texans didn't scratch and claw to keep him. Color me a skeptic of this move.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cue VU

And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties
A hand-me-down dress from who knows where
To all tomorrow's parties

And where will she go and what shall she do
When midnight comes around
She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown
And cry behind the door

And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties
Why silks and linens of yesterday's gowns
To all tomorrow's parties

And what will she do with Thursday's rags
When Monday comes around
She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown
And cry behind the door

And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow's parties
For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown
For whom none will go mourning

A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown
Of rags and silks, a costume
Fit for one who sits and cries
For all tomorrow's parties

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

One Quick Thought on Dunta Robinson

If Dunta Robinson is truly s shut-down, #1 corner, then this is a terrific move by the Falcons. The team has glaring needs at corner and defensive end. With corner taken care of, they can draft the best available defensive end next month (hint: Brandon Graham!) and then spend the rest of the Draft focusing on bringing in quality depth for the roster. I'm not ready to predict a Lombardi Trophy in the next three years (and Bradley is the guy who quite rightly pointed out last fall that we might have Eli Manning instead of Peyton under center), but signing the best available player at a position of need is never a bad thing. Normally, I would worry about the salary cap effects, but lo and behold, there are none!

And now for the empty part of the glass: I started the last paragraph with an "if" because I'm not sure that Robinson really is a shutdown corner. Using Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, here are the Texans' rankings over the past three years against #1 receivers:

2009 - 19th
2008 - 22nd
2007 - 30th
2006 - 23rd
2005 - 31st
2004 - 5th

(Note: Robinson was hurt for a chunk of the '07 and '08 seasons.)

I can't say that I've ever watched a Texans game from start to finish, so I can't say that my eyes can confirm or deny the numbers. Maybe the Texans have no pass rush and that failing hung Robinson out to dry. Maybe the Texans don't line him up against their opponents' #1 receivers on every play. Thomas Dimitroff does have a good reputation for scouting defensive backs and I doubt that he made this move without watching a ludicrous amount of film. Dimitroff doesn't seem like the sort of GM who would make a move based on reputation. All that said, the numbers are what they are and they show that the Texans were below average against opponents' #1 receivers every year after Robinson's rookie season. Does that sound like a team that had a shut-down corner on the roster?

And now, rest of the NL, you will die.

450 feet at a time.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Unintentional Irony, Mike Lupica-style

So I was watching the Sports Reporters on the elliptical this morning and the opening segment was about the plans to expand the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams. Bob Ryan and Mike Lupica lit into the idea, complaining that it would ruin the "perfect sporting event" and that it would devalue the regular season. Ironically, these are the same two people who cannot discuss college football at any point in the season without moaning about the fact that there is no playoff. I found a few things about their wildly inconsistent worldviews to be amusing:

1. They complained that expansion of the Big Dance is driven by coaches (because of the pressure to get bids) and the combination of the NCAA and the networks (which want more product to sell). Unwittingly, they illustrated the best case against a college football playoff. (For the record, I'm in favor of a 4-8 team playoff, but I'd like a constitutional amendment capping the field at eight. I'd rather have the current system than a 16-team playoff.)

2. Which arguments that Ryan and Lupica made against expanding the tournament from 65 to 96 could not be made to contract the tournament to 32? Or to 16? (I would be a much bigger college basketball fan if the tournament were 16 teams.)

3. It was not an accident that the panel spent the whole first segment discussing the potential expansion of the Tournament, but there was no discussion of actual college basketball teams and games in 2010. That wouldn't be because the "perfect sporting event" has killed the regular season, would it? Lupica's contribution was to mispronounce "Louisville" (the "s" is silent, Mike) and to refer to a non-existent school named "Missouri Valley State" as the typical Cinderella. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the NCAA Tournament is loved by people like Lupica and Ryan who spend the most of their time catering to the pro-sports obsessions of their readers because it allows them to distill an entire season down to three weeks. It's a sports writer's path of least resistance.

Uh Oh

Do you ever have one of those Saturdays where you realize that it just isn't going to be your team's season? Yesterday was that day for Barcelona. Barca came into the day two points ahead of Real Madrid. Real have been playing the better football in 2010, although their faceplant at the Stade Gerland is evidence that the Merengues are hardly infallible. Most importantly, Real have a torrid striker - Gonzalo Higuain - who is burying chance after chance created by Ronaldo, Kaka, and Xabi Alonso. Barca, on the other hand, have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who looks slow and out of sorts. Even when Ibra broke his duck by scoring a critical equalizer against Stuttgart in the Champions League, he did so after hammering a shot at point blank range straight at Mad Jens Lehmann, only to see the ball come right back to his feet.

Yesterday, the divergent directions of the two teams came into full view. Barca dropped two points at mid-table Almeria, twice going behind because of errors by my beloved Carles Puyol. (Maybe I was a little hasty in pointing the declining icon finger at John Terry? Lord, I hope not.) Leo Messi led the team back twice. Ibra did nothing, save for flubbing a header when Andres Iniesta found him with a great cross and then getting sent off (albeit for a foul that was barely a yellow, let alone a straight red). With the exception of Eric Abidal, Barca played as good a starting XI as it can deploy, so injuries and rotations cannot be the cause for the dropped points.

Then, Real, channeling the Carolina/Notre Dame tendency for heroic comebacks that drove me insane in my sports fan youth, came from 0-2 down at home against Sevilla to win 3-2, with the winner coming in injury time. Moreover, Real looked like a fantastic attacking machine. This was not the Real side that lucked its way into win after win last season before Barca put them in their place. This was a team that looked like, well, a team assembled for the GNP of Gabon. They also looked like a team that will win La Liga. I hope like hell I'm wrong, but the trend line worries me.

Friday, March 05, 2010

One Thought on Tebow's Draft Status

I can feel the "if you do one more soccer post, Mr. Trotsky" stare that you're giving me right now...

I agree with the general consensus in the college football blogosphere that Urban Meyer shouldn't care that NFL types are running Tim Tebow down because of his technique. Meyer is a whopping six years removed from producing a quarterback who went #1 in the Draft (and who, as it turns out, isn't a total bust). The notion that he cannot produce a pro quarterback is idiotic because it relies on an incredibly small sample size and it requires forgetting a significant portion of that sample size. Yes, opposing coaches may try to use Tebow in recruiting, but how effective are those claims going to be coming from Florida's recruiting rivals? You think that Jimbo Fisher and Les Miles are going to try to sell JaMarcus Russell's NFL success? (Yes, he went #1, but so did Alex Smith, which is my point.) What does Mark Richt have to sell prior to Matt Stafford? Two Heisman winners who amounted to nothing in the NFL (one of the two didn't even enter the Draft because of his low stock) and Brad Johnson, whom Richt and Bobby Bowden consigned to being a back-up for most of his career? Does Nick Saban want to tout his history with producing NFL quarterbacks? How about you, Coach Spurrier?

I don't see why we can't accept the notion that Tebow may very well turn out to be a great college quarterback who isn't suited for the pros. We never had much trouble making this distinction before. No one seemed outraged when Danny Wuerrfel and Chris Weinke didn't make a stir on Draft day. I suppose that the massive build-up that Tebow got from the media led to a notion that he was a great quarterback period, as opposed to a great college quarterback who was in the right offense for his skill-set, and now we're seeing the deflation of the massive edifice.

I also think that we're seeing a misunderstanding as to what the spread 'n' shred offense really is. People see shotgun formations and multiple receivers and think that the offense is designed to throw the ball. Some versions of the offense are pass-based (such as the version that Florida might use with John Brantley), but Meyer's current version isn't. Tebow has been at the helm of the modern day version of the wishbone. Meyer's offense is better than the wishbone because of the enhanced passing threat, but it is still an offense that is based around the principle of making the quarterback a running threat to create a numbers advantage on running plays. Yes, Tebow had outstanding passing stats in college, but how much of that success in the air was derived from having open receivers as a result of: (1) Florida's superior talent; and (2) defenses being stretched as a result of the running threat? Because there is such a misunderstanding as to what the spread 'n' shred does, there is a misunderstanding as to what Tebow has been doing for the past four years and therefore, what his college experience bodes for his professional career.

World Cup Stocks, 98 Days to Go

Stock Up: Spain

It's not like I'm covering any new or exciting ground here by touting the favorites , but hold cow are they good. They went to France, a place where they haven't won in my lifetime, and calmly strolled out with a 2-0 win while not facing a shot on goal. Graham Hunter on the World Football Daily Podcast on Wednesday got across the ludicrous amount of talent on this roster. Like Canada in hockey, Spain could put a contender together with the players they are going to leave in Iberia this summer. They have at least of three of everything. For instance, Victor Valdes, who has done a bang-up job in goal for Barca this season, will probably not be one of the three keepers going to South Africa, but he would start for Germany, England, or Argentina. Speaking of our Teutonic friends...

Stock Down: Germany

The standard caveat with Germany is that they never look good in friendlies, they are never the sexy pick to do well, and then they usually exceed expectations. That said, they have problems. First of all, they have the problem for which their fans have always mocked England: a disaster between the sticks. What, pray tell, is Rene Adler doing here?

And that was only one of his blunders on Wednesday. Second, the coach, Jogi Loew, is feuding with the DFB over his contract. Technically speaking, his contract will expire on June 30, which is during the tournament. No one could have thought that little detail through? (Insert standard "are they taking management lessons from the French?" joke here.) Third, and most importantly, Germany seems stuck between generations, not unlike France. On the one hand, you have the Ballack-Klose-Friedrich-Frings generation that took Germany to finals in 2002 and 2008. On the other hand, you have a pile of promising young players who will form the next generation of top German players - Muller, Ozil, Khedira, Kroos, and Taschi - who have been winning junior tournaments. In the middle is a mostly disappointing generation that has produced Mertesacker, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and a bunch of disappointments. In short, this team doesn't look like it is in its prime.

Stock Up: Uruguay

You won't find many better combos up front than Forlan and Suarez. Winning 3-1 in Switzerland is no joke, especially with the defense that the Swiss typically deploy. My dark horse for the tournament is Chile, not necessarily to win the thing, but to make a run to the quarters. With Chile's team taking a break for obvious reasons, I need to tout someone else. Why not the country that won the first World Cup?

Stock Down: South Africa

Let's just say that it's not just the stadia that need some work.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Need Your Help

So I decided to coach my eldest son's soccer team and I found out tonight that I get to pick the team's name and t-shirt colors. So what nickname would be most intimidating for a collection of three-year Kiddie Kickers marching out to do battle? The Land of Fire? The Pirate Ship? The Lions of Decatur? The Coffee Growers? The War Elephants?

Team Handbags?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

It's Official

Jason Heyward isn't going to make an out all year. I think that would be a record of some sort.

Benching a Legend

Chelsea are facing an interesting problem right now: captain/club legend/Mr. Chelsea John Terry is playing like utter dung. I've never been Terry's biggest fan. I immediately approach all English stars with the assumption that they are overrated by the English media. (I am rethinking that position with every goal that Wayne Rooney scores, now that he's playing with a proper winger instead of a preening ballhog [admittedly, a preening ballhog who scored 42 goals in a season].) Terry always struck me as a guy who played hard all the time and did flashy things like clearing balls off the line, but his positional sense was not perfect and he wasn't the quickest of central defenders. Rio Ferdinand would have gotten Terry's hype as England's best defender if he didn't have cornrows. Still, I was willing to concede that Terry was a good central defender, that he was a capable organizer of a backline, and that he was rock solid in the air.

This season, however, Terry's form has left him. His well-publicized dalliance with the mother of former best friend Wayne Bridge's child and his resulting shaming (including the loss of the captaincy for England) is clearly weighing on him, as strikers are beating him left and right. The Chelsea backline, which was the only defense in Europe to contain Barcelona during its treble-winning campaign, is now leaking goals left and right. This month, Chelsea bled two goals in a loss to Everton, two in a first leg loss to Inter, and then four over the weekend at home to Manchester City. Terry was directly responsible for conceding goals in each of the games. The Blues, who came into the month as favorites in the Premiership and one of the favorites in the Champions League, have now lost their lead in the former and will need to reverse a 2-1 deficit against Inter in the latter. In short, John Terry is blowing his club's chances at winning the two big trophies at stake.

Carlo Ancelotti's dilemma with Terry is interesting to me because it comes up all the time in sports and it is one of the most difficult to resolve: how does a team deal with a declining icon. Florida State went through a decade of declining results because they struggled with a resolution to Bobby Bowden's tenure. Penn State went through a similar funk in the first half of the aughts with Joe Paterno because Joe got the message and became the Queen of England. Moving from coaches to players, the Red Sox are going through such an issue with Jason Varitek and David Ortiz. The Yankees will go through such an issue with Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. (Mariano Rivera, I'm convinced, is a cyborg.) The Braves went through it with Smoltz and Glavine and may go through such an issue with Chipper, although he appears to have the self-awareness that Bobby Bowden lacks and will take himself out of the picture if he can no longer perform. The Angels went through it with Garret Anderson. The Chargers just went through an issue with LaDainian Tomlinson. The Packers were going through it with Brett Favre before he arrested his decline in 2007. The Spurs may go through it with Tim Duncan.

For Terry and each of the players I listed (save for Ortiz), the difficulty for their employer is doubled by the fact that they are all homegrown. It's one thing to cast aside a mercenary who came to your team; it's another to bench a player who has never worn another uniform. As sports fans, we want to think that the players care as much about the colors as we do. That comforting thought/delusion is easier with players who come up through the youth team/minor leagues/draft. I have one Braves jersey and John Smoltz's name is on the back. I have three Barca jerseys: Messi, Puyol, and Iniesta, all of whom are products of La Masia.

It's easy to call for the benching of a player whose relationship with the team is purely business. It feels disloyal to do the same for players whom we believe to have some sort of familial connection to the team. It's like banishing a son. With crunch games against Inter and Manchester United coming up in the next month, it will be fascinating to see how Chelsea handles its slumping son.