Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Scott-Delany Pact

An agreement between two powers that are separated by flat plains?  I'm in!

My main reaction is that college football needs more agreements like this.  At present, there is a race to the bottom in terms of non-conference schedules.  With: (a) poll voters somewhat unwilling to reward teams for play tough non-conference schedules; (b) a plentiful supply of outmatched opponents as a result of the NCAA allowing wins over FCS teams to count towards bowl eligibility; and (c) major conference athletic programs funded mostly by their football programs, there are a host of incentives for teams to maximize home games and minimize contests against quality opponents.  The way to beat programs out of this mindset is to create formal structures.*  Some teams are constrained by tradition.  I'm sure that Jeremy Foley would play four non-conference games at the Swamp against tomato cans if he could, but the tradition of the game against Florida State prevents him from scratching his worst itch.  Teams that are not constrained by tradition need other rules in place to force them to play watchable games.  Wisconsin won't leave Camp Randall to play a competent opponent?  Jim Delany will just have to force them to behave.

* - The other factor that would force major programs to play quality non-conference opponents would be a softening of ticket demand.  Programs get away with scheduling directional schools right now because they know that they can sell season tickets regardless of the presence of multiple weaklings on the slate.  If athletic departments sense that they are having a hard time selling season tickets because of soft opponents, then they will schedule better.  The Pac Ten is already in this boat because the intensity of their fan support is not equal to that of other conferences.  I can see a future where Stubhub has the same effect on season ticket packages as it is currently having on bowl tickets.  Right now, schools struggle to sell their bowl ticket allotments because fans know that they can get the tickets at much lower prices on Internet ticket sites.  What happens when fans also realize en masse that they don't have to pay to see New Mexico State and they can instead by tickets to the best games on the Internet, thus spending less and still seeing the games that really generate interest?  New Mexico State comes off the schedule. 

Aside from the obvious benefit of giving fans better games to watch, the ancillary benefit of the Big Ten-Pac Ten alliance is that it will make it easier to judge teams at the end of the season.  Part of the problem with college football's current structure is that the BCS has an already difficult task of picking the two best teams from a field of 120 and then its task is made harder by the relatively small sample size of games between BCS conference teams.  It's hard to compare Alabama and Oklahoma State because there are so few connections between teams in the Big XII and SEC.  While an alliance between the Big Ten and Pac Ten doesn't solve that specific problem, it does increase the number of meaningful games and therefore gives us a better sense as to teams' relative strengths.  If the pact is successful, then other conferences will copy it.  The natural dance partner for the SEC would be the ACC, although an alliance with the Big XII (plus four) would also be doable.  Who knows, in ten years, we might be able to use real evidence to back up our claims of SEC superiority before the bowl games.

My New Digs

In case you missed it, I am going to be writing on a weekly basis for SB Nation's Atlanta site.  The plan is to put up my Atlanta-centric posts - the local pro sports collectives, along with SEC football - up on that site and the unrelated content - Michigan football, Barca, the occasional complaint about Peter King ignoring the Red Army - will stay here.  I will try to link everything that I write for SB Nation here so you don't have to go hunting.

Anyway, here is the first column.  It starts as an analogy between the Falcons' and Georgia's seasons before devolving into complaining about Sean Payton and Drew Brees:

Leaving aside the fairness question, I like the idea of a rematch on a purely emotional level. Sean Payton and Drew Brees rubbed the Falcons' collective nose in the mud on Monday night. For those of you who were smart enough to abandon ship before I did, the Saints took the ball over on the Falcons 33 with 5:08 to go and with a 38-16 lead. Most coaches would do one of two things at this stage: (1) leave the starters in and run the ball to kill the clock; or (2) put in the back-ups and run the regular offense to take a look at the lower parts of the depth chart in game conditions.* Instead, Payton chose option (3): leave Brees in the game to throw five more passes so he could break Marino's record on a meaningless drive against a beaten opponent. Though the Hindus speak of karma, Brees remained upright to the end and was even able to deliver a nauseating show of false modesty after the game, claiming in his usual aw shucks manner that he didn't know how many yards he needed to get for the record. Uh, Drew, maybe the fact that you were throwing on just about every down on a drive that started on the 33 should have clued you in that you needed fewer than 33 yards.
 * - This latter approach would have made the most sense for the Saints because they are one Brees injury from having to play Chase Daniel. Daniel has thrown all of five passes in his NFL career, two this year and three last year. In contrast, Brees has thrown 622 pass attempts this season, 120 more than Aaron Rodgers and 58 more than Dan Marino threw during his fabled 1984 season. Not that you would know this from the Breesapalooza that Tirico, Jaworski, and Gruden unleashed on Monday night, but Brees broke the single season passing record in no small part because he has a ridiculous number of attempts. One reason why he has a ridiculous number of attempts is that Payton apparently leaves him in the game to keep chucking the ball at the end of blowouts. One counter: no Patriot other than Tom Brady has thrown a pass all year and Matt Flynn has thrown all of five passes for the Packers, so maybe the standard in the NFL is for the back-up either to stay on the bench or to refrain from throwing when he comes in.
And speaking of the coverage of the game, I thoroughly enjoyed Mike Pereira's comprehensive takedown of Jon Gruden's criticism of the defenseless receiver call on Monday night.  During the game, I was annoyed that the Falcons were called for a hit on a defenseless receiver, but the Saints were not on at least two occasions.  In retrospect, my annoyance resulted from Gruden not knowing the rule.  As it turns out, the defenseless receiver call is limited to very specific instances.  The name implies a broader penalty, but having a "hitting the head of or spearing a defenseless receiver" is a bit of a mouthful.  You would think that knowing the rules would be a requirement for an announcer, but apparently not for Gruden.

Also, I am wondering why ESPN never thought to have someone like Pereira provide analysis of close calls.  This is very common in other countries.  For instance, in Brazil, coverage of futebol matches usually comes with input from former refs on contentious decisions.  Former refs are also a prominent part of the coverage of footie in England.  Given how much attention is paid to ostensibly bad calls, you would think that the Worldwide Leader would provide an authoritative voice.  Instead, we got Craig James.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Brazil Goes to the Map Room

My favorite movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark.  My parents dragged me to it when I was six years old.  I say "dragged" because I wanted to see Clash of the Titans instead.  Based on the picture of Indiana Jones in the newspaper wearing a Middle Eastern headdress,* I feared that the movie was going to be an extension of Sunday School, which I was already mature enough to find boring.  Two hours after being forced against my will to go into one of the theaters on 29 in Charlottesville, I came dancing out, convinced that I had seen the best movie in the history of the world.  Three decades later, I will admit that there might be other movies of superior technical quality, but no movie has surpassed Raiders as my favorite.

* - Showing a similar mentality, my five-year old described our neighbors' nativity scene as "Jews, a camel, and a donkey."

One of Raiders' best aspects is that it is stuffed to the gills with iconic scenes.  Indy running away from the boulder.  Indy's travels being tracked by a red line on a map.  Indy shooting the swordsman in the Cairo market.*  The Ark melting the faces of Toht and Dietrich.  The Ark being buried in a government warehouse along with who knows what.** 

* - If there is a better 30-second metaphor for colonialism, I'd like to see it. OK, maybe the fact that the locals cheer the Westerner who uses technology to defeat the skilled, but outdated native cuts against my conclusion, but leave me my attempt to find meaning in a pulp classic.  Also, it's interesting to me that two of the best scenes in George Lucas-affiliated movies - the swordsman scene in Raiders and the "I love you." "I know." scene in Empire Strikes Back - were both improvised by Harrison Ford.

** - The perfect metaphor for government waste.

For me, the best scene in the entire movie is the Map Room.  Indy takes his right-sized staff into the Map Room at the right time, waits for the sun to hit the right spot, and then looks on with amazement as a brilliant beam of light strikes the location of the Well of the Souls.

Two qualities make the scene.  The first is John Williams' score, as the Ark's theme rises to an inspiring crescendo.  The second is Harrison Ford's expression of wonder at the show of light.  The cynicism of a world-weary archaeologist with the weathered leather jacket and fedora - the guy who said earlier in the movie " I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about the boogie man" - melts away now that he realizes that he is in the presence of the ethereal.  Steven Spielberg's movies are often noted for the moment of realization that his protagonists have.  (Think about Roy Scheider's face in Jaws when he realizes the size of the shark he's hunting, or Liam Neeson's face when he finally realizes the extent of the Final Solution and its effect on children in Schindler's List.)  The definitive moment of realization is Indy in the Map Room as his face changes to a wide-eyed gape.

I had Indy's expression in mind when I read Tim Vickery's pieces about the lesson that Brazilians should take from the hiding that Santos took from Barcelona in Japan.  With the world title on the line, Santos brought in a team that had been strengthened after winning the Copa Libertadores and was led by two burgeoning stars: Neymar and Ganso.  With the Brazilian domestic league in good financial form after signing a lucrative TV deal and the currency doing well against the failing Euro, this seemed like the time for a Brazilian club side to show its strength against a European champion.  Instead, Barca won in embarrassingly comfortable fashion, breaking out to a 3-0 lead at the half and then coasting home.

Vickery, who has been preaching about the failings of modern Brazilian futebol for as long as I have been reading and listening to him, could have viewed the match as a confirmation of his hypothesis that Brazil has given up the ability to produce passing midfielders.  Here is what Vickery wrote for the BBC:
Like watching Muhammad Ali against some outgunned challenger, Barcelona's destruction of Santos was as joyful as it was clinical. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi ran rings round Santos as if the Brazilians were traffic cones in a training exercise.
According to the dominant current of thought in Brazil in recent years, this sort of thing is not supposed to happen. The physical evolution of the game, it was thought, had made it impossible. In this modern football of reduced space, the central midfielders need to be six-footers, big and strong enough to win the 50-50 balls and protect the defence.

And there was no point in possession football - a move with more than seven passes had a reduced chance of ending up in a goal. The way to win was to block the middle and look for quick counter attacks and set-pieces.

And the quality of the play? "If you want to see a spectacle," says Santos coach Muricy Ramalho, "then go to the theatre." Or maybe go to watch his side taken apart in such style by Barcelona.

In football the idea comes first. And the line of thinking helps explain the type of players produced. In Neymar Santos could count on a Messi equivalent. But where is the Xavi or the Iniesta? Brazilian football no longer has them because it is not looking to produce them. They do not fit the mould.
And here is his similar description for ESPN:

Sunday's match was not decided by a financial imbalance. It was the imposition of one footballing philosophy over another, a victory for the skilful little guys with the low centre of gravity, a triumph for the spectacle and self-expression of pass and move - a win like many that South American football has enjoyed in its glorious history.

The value of defeat is always in the lessons that it can teach. Perhaps the big lesson that Barcelona have taught in Yokohama is this: if Brazilian football wants to keep on winning not only titles but also hearts then it would be well advised to get back in touch with elements of its own tradition. There is an argument against the view that possession football is outdated and that the central midfielders should be unimaginative giants. Its case was made loud and clear in Japan this Sunday.
If Spain's triumph and Brazil's failure in South Africa was not evidence enough, Sunday's result in Yokohama should be Brazil's trip to the Map Room.  It should be enough to convince the cynics who have led Brazil astray ever since the beautiful 1982 iteration to the Selecao - led by Zico, Falcao, and the late Socrates - was upset by Italy (ironically enough, in Barcelona at Espanyol's old ground) that technical ability in the central midfield is more important than brawn.*

* - As Jack Lang of Snap Kaka Pop was marveling at Thiago - Barca's latest midfield prodigy and the son of a former Brazil international - and expressing regret that Thiago has declared for Spain instead of Brazil, I was tempted to respond with "maybe he didn't want to become a fullback."

To come back to this blog's favorite topic, the Map Room analogy has me thinking about similar episodes in college football, instances where one striking result caused an epiphany from a team or a conference.  These are the examples that came to mind, but I am all ears for more:

1.  After getting his tail kicked in by Florida State and Miami in a series of Orange and Fiesta Bowls, Tom Osborne decides that he needs defensive players who can run.  He recruits Texas and California more heavily, thus producing the dominant team that won national titles in 1994, 1995, and 1997.

2.  After a favored Ohio State team gets obliterated by Florida in the 2006 national championship game, the Big Ten moves towards the spread offense.  Ohio State shows a run-based spread with Terrelle Pryor, Penn State deploys the "Spread HD," and Michigan hires Rich Rodriguez. 

3.  After Danny Wuerrfel is beaten to a pulp by Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium in November 1996, Steve Spurrier relents on his long-standing opposition to the shotgun.  The Gators bury the Noles in the rematch and the 'gun is a feature of Spurrier's offense from that point forward.

4. After the SEC was dominated in the 1980s by conservative, run-the-ball-and-play-defense coaches like Vince Dooley and Pat Dye, Spurrier arrives in 1990, destroys a highly-rated Auburn team in 1990 48-7, wins the Gators' first SEC title in 1991, and then sets himself on a path of destruction through the conference.  The rest of the SEC enters the Map Room and emerges with the David Cutcliffe offense at Tennessee, the Air Raid at Kentucky, and the quasi-spread run by Terry Bowden and featuring Dameyune Craig at Auburn.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Dwight Howard Pipedream

Two weeks ago, I started a post agreeing with Jeff Schultz that the Hawks should make a play for Dwight Howard and then, in the process of writing it, realized that Howard would never come here because he would end up in a situation that is worse than the one he was leaving in Orlando.  Here was my conclusion:

Additionally, Howard has to be thinking that the biggest obstacle to gaining a higher Q-rating is that he hasn't won a championship and has only made the Finals once.  He needs to go somewhere where he will win.  His issue in Orlando is the supporting cast.  Will it make sense for him to come here to play with Jeff Teague (a player whose promise is based on a six-game series against the Bulls last year), Joe Johnson (holder of one of the worst contracts in the NBA), Marvin Williams (average small forward who escapes being non-descript only because of his Draft position and the careers of the players taken after him), and a power forward to be named later?  And then you add in the fact that Atlanta Spirit has expressed an aversion to paying the luxury tax and in light of the team's revenues, they can't really be blamed, can they?  The end game could well be that Thorpe wants to send Howard to Atlanta, but can't make the trade happen because Howard refuses to agree to a potential extension with the Hawks.
Yesterday, Bill Simmons framed Howard's decision in the same way:

Put it this way: If I'm Dwight Howard, I'm thinking about titles and titles only. I don't care about money — that's coming, regardless. I don't care about weather — I have to live in whatever city for only eight months a year, and I'm traveling during that entire time, anyway. I don't care about "building my brand" and all that crap — if I don't start winning titles soon, my brand is going to be "the center who's much better than every other center but can't win a title." I care only about playing in a big city, finding a team that doesn't have to demolish itself to acquire me, finding one All-Star teammate who can make my life a little easier (the Duncan to my Robinson), and winning titles. Not title … titles. I want to come out of this decade with more rings than anyone else. I want to be remembered alongside Shaq, Moses and Hakeem, not Robinson and Ewing.
Tellingly, Simmons listed five destinations for Howard and Black Hollywood was nowhere in sight, except for a brief mention of the fact that the Hawks were able to beat the Magic last year with a "let Dwight get his; we need to make sure that the Magic shooters don't get theirs" strategy.  For instance, he pooh-poohs the prospect of Howard ending up on the Lakers because he would be playing with Kobe Bryant and a gutted roster.  Would Howard be any more likely to have a desire to play with Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague, Marvin Williams, and then a similarly gutted roster, only in this instance, you have Atlanta Spirit instead of Jerry Buss filling in the remainder?

Simmons' interest in stars going to play for the Bulls is interesting to me.  As he mentions, he wanted LeBron to go there and now he wants Howard to make the same decision.  This preference is to Simmons' credit, as a superpower in Chicago would be detrimental to the prospect of the Celtics winning a title in the next decade.  Simmons is often derided as a Boston homer and he does plenty of things to earn the label, but he is able to put that aside when he pines for Derrick Rose to have a superstar wing man like LeBron or Howard.  I think that there are two things going on here.  First, Simmons is more of a basketball fan than a Celtics fan and he would like to see a memorable team come together instead of the NBA's stars being isolated and surrounded by poor supporting casts.  Second, he wants that memorable team to play in uniforms that mean something and in an environment that makes for good TV.  The Bulls uniform evokes memories of the Jordan dynasty and the United Center has a great atmosphere when the team is good.

I have to admit that I feel the same way.  It's hard for me to reconcile my feelings about Major League Baseball with my current feelings about the NBA.  In baseball, I get very annoyed by the constant focus on the Red Sox and Yankees.  This annoyance extends to those two teams sucking up free agents left and right to cover for the failings of their own farm systems.  In basketball, I liked the idea of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard going to the Lakers because that team would be highly entertaining.  Again, I am going to point to two factors that drive my thinking.  First, basketball is a team game.  Like soccer, it's more interesting to watch great players play with one another because they bring one another to a higher level.  Baseball, on the other hand, is a game with a minimal amount of teamwork.  This makes baseball more conducive to reaching stat-based conclusions with confidence, but it also means that there is no great joy in watching superstars play with one another.  Mark Teixeira driving in A-Rod isn't the same thing as Messi finding Cesc with a defense-splitting pass or Paul hitting Howard with an alley-oop.  Second, I have a lifelong disdain for New York teams.  If the Knicks were the ones assembling a cache of talent, then I would be annoyed because Mike Lupica would be happy.  I don't feel the same "oh G-d, this is going to be intolerable" pangs with Chicago or Los Angeles.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Five-Star Temptresses

I like to imagine that Saturday night was a little instance of karma biting the University of Texas in the rear end for playing every card in their hand (to use T. Boone Pickens’ apt phrase) and chasing off one-third of the Big XII.  A week after losing to Baylor by 24 – a loss that was the Horns’ second in a row to the Bears after having beaten Baylor every year since 1997 – Texas fans had to watch Robert Griffin III win the Heisman Trophy.  Griffin, a four-star recruit from Copperas Cove, Texas, was not recruited by Texas as a quarterback.  (Darron Thomas, also from Texas, was in the same class.)  Instead, the Horns put all of their eggs in the basket of Garrett Gilbert, a five-star prospect from Austin who would be in the next class. 

If you follow college football at all, you know how this decision panned out.  Griffin led Baylor to its most successful period since the days of Grant Teaff and Mike Singletary, culminating in a 9-3 season this year.  Meanwhile, after a promising performance in the national championship game against Alabama, Gilbert was a disaster in Austin, performing poorly as Texas went 5-7 in 2010,  losing his job to a pair of underclassmen in 2011, and then transferring to SMU. 

Texas’s decision to commit to Gilbert is interesting because the Horns’ greatest success was when they were running the run-based spread.  The apex of Mack Brown’s tenure in Austin was 2004-05, when the Horns went 24-1 and won two major bowls and a national championship with Vince Young running the show.  To a lesser extent, Texas then experienced more success in 2008-09 with Colt McCoy at quarterback.  The offense under McCoy wasn’t as run-heavy as it was under Young, but it did feature a quarterback running game (McCoy was the team’s leading rusher in 2008 and second-leading rusher in 2009) and relied on spread formations, albeit with more of a focus on short passing as opposed to the zone read play. 

Given that Texas usually finishes its recruiting classes early, we can’t hold the McCoy experience against Mack Brown when looking at his decision not to recruit RGIII as a quarterback.  The Horns had not had their 2008-09 run when they made that decision.  However, we can criticize them for not learning the lesson of the Vince Young era.  Apparently, the lesson that Brown took was “recruit five-star quarterbacks from Texas,” when he should have concluded “recruit quarterbacks who can run.”  In short, Texas was seduced by the prospect of a local five-star pocket passer and shifted their offense away from what worked for them when they were upsetting USC in the game of the decade.*

* – One defense of Mack Brown: it’s easy to say in retrospect that he should have recruited Griffin, knowing what we know now about the way that Griffin matured as a passer in Waco.  However, Texas produces all sorts of dual-threat quarterbacks who do not turn into players who are on RGIII’s level.  In the recruiting class that produced Gilbert, the State of Texas produced five of the top ten dual threat quarterback prospects in the country.  Only the lowest-rated of the five – Casey Pachall – has been a success as a quarterback on the college level.

One can look at Florida and see the same mistake.  Urban Meyer has always won with mobile quarterbacks.  Josh Harris, Alex Smith, and Tim Tebow can all run the plays that form the basis of Meyer’s offense.  Nevertheless, Meyer was seduced by the same siren that causes Mack Brown to jump off the deck of his ship and swim to his doom.  He had a five-star pocket passer – John Brantley – living one hour from campus, so Meyer committed his post-Tebow Gators to Brantley.  Meanwhile, Meyer did not offer Denard Robinson a chance to play quarterback in Gainesville.  As with Gilbert, RGIII, and Texas, Brantley has been major disappointment at Florida while Robinson has flourished at Michigan, finishing in the top six of the Heisman voting in 2010 and then leading Michigan to its best season in five in 2011.  In retrospect, one wonders what Meyer was thinking when he went with the five-star player who did not fit his style when he had a number of four-star options who would have been a perfect fit in his version of the spread-n-shred.

This parable of mistakes made by Mack Brown and Urban Meyer might offer a cautionary tale for Brady Hoke.  Hoke’s most successful team prior to Michigan was the 2008 Ball State team, led by the mobile Nate Davis.  This year, Michigan has exceeded expectations and earned a Sugar Bowl berth with Robinson.  Like Brown and Meyer before his, Hoke has the siren call of a local five-star pocket passer: Shane Morris, a prospect who might be the top quarterback in the class of 2013.  Is Hoke about to make the same mistake?  It seems unlikely because Hoke’s offensive coordinator is Al Borges, a play-caller whose preferred system works better with pocket passers.  The mistake that Meyer (and Brown, albeit to a lesser degree because he had had pocket passers before Young) made was to get away from his style.*  Morris will be a step towards Hoke’s previous orientation.  Still, as a defensive coach, Hoke will want to think long and hard about the pressure that a player like Denard Robinson puts on a defense by his ability to run and throw before he surrenders that asset. 

* – One corollary from this: maybe Gilbert and Brantley would have been successes in college if they would have gone somewhere other than Texas and Florida.  In the same way that coaches who experience success with mobile quarterbacks should resist the urge to sign the local five-star, the local five-star should resist the urge to play for coaches who aren’t at home with pro-style attacks.  There will always be the Stanfords of the world.

(Senator, did I hit all of your questions?)

Friday, December 09, 2011

We Meet Again

After taking a four-month break to cut swaths through Europe and, in Barca's case, drop points on the road with alarming frequency, Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona will have a little get-together on Saturday at 4 p.m.  Light refreshments and occasional eye-gouges will be served.  The proceedings will be broadcast on GolTV, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3, and any one of a number of streaming Internet feeds of dubious legality.  As I do every year, I will make an appeal for any college football fans who have been thinking about checking out a European footie match to spend some time on Saturday watching this match.  SEC fans, just watch the reactions of the fans in the stands as the game progresses.  The looks of sheer anger and exhilaration will be quite familiar to you.  Plus, you will be watching the two best players and the two best teams in the world,* bar none and without any dispute.  Come on, this is our first Saturday without college football and you have the perfect dose of methadone staring you in the face.  Plus, there is a good chance that there will be more scoring than there was in Bama-LSU.

* - Real and Barca are now almost prohibitive favorites to win the Champions League.  The two best contenders from England are out, Bayern Munich have slowed down after a fast start, and Barca recently won on the road against the best side from Serie A.  The only question seems to be whether Barca and Real will avoid each other until the final.

For those of you who are already familiar with the game and the players, here are my thoughts of what to watch for in the match:

1. How does Pep line up his forward line?  I assume that he is not going to play three at the back, given that Real play one striker (three at the back really makes more sense against two) and Puyol and Pique are both available.  I further assume that the midfield will be Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta.  (Busquets gets the nod over Mascherano because the latter has become more of a defender than a midfielder.)  So who goes with Messi up top?  Alexis Sanchez, who is coming back to health and has played really well over the past week?  Pedro, who just came back from an injury spell on Tuesday, but who gives the team more width and has a great record of scoring against Real? Isaac Cuenca, the latest product of La Masia and a player who Guardiola already trusts to be in the right place at the right time?  David Villa, the big star who has been struggling and whose confidence might be shattered by starting the match on the bench?  My guess is that Pep will go with Villa and Sanchez alongside Messi.  The other possibility is Cesc, playing an advanced role along with Messi and then one of the aforementioned forwards switching wings to provide width.  Cesc and Messi have developed a great understanding with one another and Cesc brings dimensions that the rest of the team lacks, namely the abilities to: (1) crash the box from the midfield to provide a target for Messi's passes; and (2) shoot from outside of the box with accuracy.  If Real play defensively, then Cesc is the countermeasure.  Also, with his experience as a midfielder, he can be the one to harass Xabi Alonso - Real's fulcrum - when Los Merengues have the ball.

2. Does Mourinho play a third defensive midfielder?  Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira seem like automatics.  Does he then add Lass Diarra to the mix in place of Meszut Ozil, who is slumping like Villa?  Is he going to play a pure counter-attacking game or is he going to press?  If it's the former, then he plays Diarra.  If it's the latter, then he plays Ozil.  As is always the case when Mourinho teams play Barca, it will be most interesting to see how aggressive Real are and whether they let Barca have the ball in non-dangerous areas.  Real were far more offensive in the Supercup matches in August and they have been scoring goals by the bushel in La Liga, so I am not going to assume that Jose parks the bus.

3. Does Mourinho go with Benzema or Higuain up front?  Benzema is the more technically gifted player, but Higuain is the superior counter-attacking weapon.  Again, Real's orientation will determine the selection.

4. Who plays right back for Real?  Is Alvaro Arbeloa healthy enough?  If not, does Diarra go there?  Does Sergio Ramos go there, knowing that Real are then shakier in the middle?  Does Fabio Coentrao play the spot?

5. Which Brazilian fullback is the bigger defensive liability: Marcelo or Dani Alves?  Mourinho usually puts Angel Di Maria opposite Alves because Di Maria is better at tracking back than Ronaldo.  In the past, this has meant that Real have been weaker offensively against a potential Barca defensive weakness, but Di Maria is in great form, so they don't have to make a sacrifice this time around.*  Barca have given up goals this year when opponents have gotten down the wings and then pulled the ball back to late-arriving attackers.  Real will almost certainly look to do this: Ronaldo and Di Maria getting into advanced positions, the striker making a run to occupy the central defenders, and then a midfielder  - Alonso or Khedira - arriving late to occupy the space vacated by the central defenders.  Conversely, Pep's decision on his front line will be interesting.  His right-sided attacker is going to get chances against Marcelo.  (The biggest goal of the five Barca-Real matches last season was Messi's opener in the Champions League first leg.  That came from Affellay skinning Marcelo and getting in a low cross that Messi knocked home.)  Who is that attacker going to be and can that attacker help out defensively when Marcelo gets forward.

* - Invalidating everything I just said, Mourinho had Ronaldo on the left in the Supercup matches and Dani Alves did a great job defending him.  The title of this paragraph is a little unfair, as Alves can be underrated as a defensive player.

6. How does the ref call the game?  The referee will be under enormous pressure.  Barca will want the game called tight, with frequent cards for hard fouls.  Real will want license to put in physical tackles.  Any decision to send a player off will be analyzed a million times over.  Does the ref want to be harangued by the Barca players on the pitch or Mourinho off of it?  And will Barca's players and Mourinho behave better after they all did themselves and their teams a disservice by their embarrassing conduct in the first leg of the Champions League tie last year?

Overall, I'll take a 2-2.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Forced Evolution: Pep Guardiola, Mack Brown, and Urban Meyer

If you're interested in the other football, Barcelona, evolution, or just an interesting discussion about how tactical changes occur over time, then I highly recommend Kevin Alexander's new piece at Slide Rule Pass.  His basic thrust is to put Barcelona's style into context, tracing back the major innovations in football from Herbert Chapman's W-M at Arsenal through the Magnificent Magyars, the Brazilian Back Four, and Total Football,* and then to Guardiola's Barcelona. 

* - One common thread occurred to me while reading the piece.  Both the Hungary side of '54 and the Dutch side of '74 lost World Cup Finals to West Germany.  The Germans have never been credited with a major tactical innovation like the sides that they conquered.  Is that a compliment to German teams for overcoming innovators or a criticism that they win without giving anything to the world game, other than stereotypes about efficiency and determination? 

Alexander then gets to his point, which is that Barca have been trying a new 3-4-3 formation this year and that their attempts to take another step in evolving might be the reason why Real Madrid are three points ahead with a game in hand:

Though crowned Champions League winners in 2009 and 2011 Barcelona managed Pep Guardiola has sought to vary Barcelona’s approach this season. On one hand it is understandable that he wants to prevent other sides from figuring out a way to stop his side playing (as Inter Milan famously did in the 2010 Champions League), yet on the other hand one has to wonder whether trying to enforce a change on a fluid and evolving game is ever going to be truly successful.

The move away from the 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 that had served them so well to an, at times, 3-4-3 (often with no recognised centre-backs) has met with decidedly mixed success. Though there have been victories, it’s difficult to ascertain whether Barcelona won those matches thanks to their new system, or thanks to the extraordinary individual talents they possess...

Given time, perhaps Guardiola’s new way will take root, and set in motion the next stage in the evolution of Barcelona and, by extension, modern football. However, by trying to force change where no natural pressure exists, Pep may have found himself on a dead branch of the evolutionary tree.
The question of whether there is truly natural pressure is an interesting one.  As Alexander notes, Barca lost its European title to Mourinho's Inter in 2010, so Guardiola might have been thinking one step ahead: "if Mourinho is spending all summer trying to figure out how to deal with out style, then maybe I need to change the style?"  Additionally, trying a new formation is a good way to keep players sharp and interested, which is no small matter when one is trying to motivate a group that has won everything there is to win, both for club and country.  Finally, Guardiola was faced with a dilemma this fall in that both of his starting central defenders - Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique - were injured and he was faced with cobbling together a backline using a left back (Eric Abidal), two defensive midfielders (Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano), and a collection of Brazilian attacking fullbacks (Dani Alves, Adriano, and Maxwell).  Change or die, right?  Well, Barca have dropped nine points away from the Camp Nou in La Liga, they have scored only eight goals in their six road matches, and now they head to the Bernabeu in a must-win position, so maybe change wasn't such a good idea.

Alexander's line about forcing change where no natural pressure exists had me thinking about college football.  I remember having a conversation with a friend three years ago about how USC, Texas, and Florida were poised to dominate college football in the coming years.  They had the coaches, the systems, the fertile recruiting bases, and the rivals in turmoil to ensure a series of meetings with crystal balls on the line.  Leaving USC and their NCAA issues aside, as recently as two years ago, Texas and Florida were both coming off of years where they lost only one game: to national champion Alabama.  In the summer of 2010, we read numerous writers opine that both the Horns and Gators were moving away from the spread styles (pass-based for Texas and run-based for Florida) that they had favored in favor of more conventional, power-based attacks.  (I remember Tony Barnhart being especially pronounced in making this point, but I cannot for the life of me find a link to verify my memory.)

The results of this forced evolution (maybe devolution is a better term) have been disastrous.  Here is Florida's national rank in yards per play from 2008 forward: 3, 2, 78, 67.  And here is Texas's: 13, 57, 78, 67.  Both Florida and Texas had a style that worked for them and then have gone away from that style, whether by recruiting decisions or scheme.  They had evolved into approaches that moved the ball and then chose to eschew those approaches for something new.  Two years later, they are both picking up the pieces from those decisions to force change.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Best Team Wins the Championship? What Kind of Communist Notion is That?

It’s too bad that this article resides behind ESPN’s paywall and is full of untrustworthy notions like “computer rankings,” because Brian Fremeau makes a very good, basic point about college football’s structure: it is more likely to crown the most deserving team.  Fremeau notes that according to the Massey Rating composite, the BCS has consistently crowned the team that the computer consensus has placed as the best team in the country (or at least the team with the best resume, if those two concepts are distinct).  In fact, the Massey composite goes back to 1996 and reflects that the BCS (and the Bowl Alliance before it) is a perfect 15 for 15 in awarding the national title to the most deserving team.  The BCS is not as good at matching the best team against the second-best, but as Fremeau notes, playoff systems don’t really achieve that aim, either:

According to the Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings, the Green Bay Packers were only the third-best team in the NFL last year and didn't face the best team, the New England Patriots, in the playoffs. (Note: They did lose head-to-head to the Patriots in the regular season). In college basketball, the Connecticut Huskies played the best in the month of March and claimed the championship, but they finished only 10th in Ken Pomeroy's opponent-adjusted ratings. The Huskies didn't face any of the tournament's No. 1 seeds and faced only two teams in March Madness ranked in Pomeroy's end-of-year top 10.

Fremeau then notes the drawback of a playoff system: as the playoff increases in size, the odds that the best team will win goes down:

What is accommodated in a playoff system is the opportunity for weaker teams to have a shot at winning the championship. Opening up the field certainly has its rewards, potentially assuring every possible championship-caliber team a chance. But it changes the nature of what the championship means, as well. The Packers and Huskies were terrific teams down the stretch in those seasons, but advanced metrics and many fans would agree that the tournament title didn't suddenly mean they were the best team over the course of the whole year. A smaller playoff field, even as small as two teams, allows the best overall season to be rewarded with a championship.

Our college football FEI ratings project the Tigers with a 68 percent chance of beating the Crimson Tide in the BCS title game rematch. Certainly not a guarantee, but it presents a better than 50 percent likelihood that the clear No. 1 team in the nation will claim the crown. If we had a four-team playoff and LSU was required to beat both Stanford and Alabama on a neutral field, that likelihood drops below 50 percent. With an eight-team playoff built from the final BCS standings, LSU's likelihood of defeating Kansas State, Stanford and Alabama drops to 41 percent.

This is a great way of framing the playoff discussion and it helps me tighten my own beliefs.  There is a happy medium between the playoff structures of American professional sports,* which strike me as too big and not slanted enough in favor of the most deserving teams, and college football’s current structure, which is too small to accommodate teams like 2004 Auburn.  Brian Cook does a nice job of finding that medium with his annual description of a six-team playoff system that incorporates byes and homefield advantage to reward the best teams and is also small enough that any team that wins the tournament will end up with the best resume.  That said, Fremeau’s point about the advantage of the current two-team playoff cuts against Cook’s (and my) complaints about the BCS.  We all love to complain about the impossible task of picking the right #2, but the advantage of the BCS is that it is more likely to pick the right #1.

* – The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is just a complete abomination to me.  If you need additional evidence that the Big Dance has killed college basketball, look at Saturday’s sports coverage.  Were you aware that North Carolina and Kentucky played?  Two top five teams, loaded with NBA prospects wearing the jerseys of the two winningest programs in college basketball history, played a one-point game that was decided in the final seconds and the game was a total afterthought on the day of the college football conference championship games.  That’s what happens when a sport becomes a four-month lead-in for a three-week tournament.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Original Title Comparing Gary Danielson to a Famous Propagandist Violated Godwin’s Law and was Deleted

OK, let’s talk about the latest illustration of the futile task that college football’s movers and shakers demand: picking two teams out of 120 to play for the national title.  I voted for Oklahoma State on resume grounds.  They have played a tougher slate than Alabama.  The Tide are getting by on the reputation of the SEC, despite the fact that it pretty clearly takes a back seat to the Big XII this year.  The SEC was a top-heavy league with five quality teams, two of which Bama missed.  Moreover, Oklahoma State looked good against their tough schedule, as only two of their wins were by single digits. 

In addition, I have philosophical issues with Alabama having a chance to win the national title against LSU.  One of the unique and positive aspects of college football is that it is the only American sport that doesn’t hit the reset button at the end of the regular season.  It is possible for a team other than the BCS Championship Game to be the national champion, at least as declared by the AP.  We had that result in 2003 when USC won a share of the national title despite the fact that they didn’t play in the title game.*  When declaring a national champion, we should be looking at the whole body of work, rather than arbitrarily anointing the winner of the last game as the champion.**  It’s with that framework in mind that I agree 100% with Clay Travis that LSU should win the AP poll as long as they aren't blown out by the Tide.  What does Alabama prove with close win at the Superdome, other than that they split a home game and a neutral site game with LSU and otherwise played a significantly easier schedule?  This isn’t just a matter of what I want to see as a viewer; it’s a matter that I don’t want an inconclusive national title game, which is exactly what the Bama-LSU rematch is going to be. 

* – Yes, the coaches have agreed to give the crystal ball to the winner of the national title game automatically.  I view that decision as an abdication of responsibility, a desire to tie everything in a neat little bow when life doesn’t work like that.

** – I will argue to the death that for all the complaints about the notion of a two-team playoff voted on by a mismatch of distracted coaches and minimally-qualified Harris Poll voters, I’ll take that over a system that can declare the 83-78 Cardinals World Champions or can decide that the 14-6 Giants are more deserving of eternal glory than the 18-1 Patriots who ended their regular season beating the Giants on the road.

All that said, I also agree with Matt Hinton that there is no way to be confident that Bama or Oklahoma State has a better resume than the other.  This is a great summary:

You like Alabama? Sorry. Oklahoma State has twice as many wins against teams ranked in the current BCS standings. It has seven wins against teams that finished with winning records; Alabama has three. OSU is second nationally in scoring, first in defensive takeaways and usually spent the fourth quarter throttling down in garbage time. Two of its three wins against top-20 opponents came by five touchdowns. Robert Griffin III, soon to be awarded as the best quarterback in the nation? Oklahoma State picked him off twice and led Baylor 49-3 after three quarters. Need I mention what happened Saturday night against the Sooners?

The Cowboys are outright conference champions against a round-robin conference schedule. The Crimson Tide missed two ranked teams in their conference and didn't even win their own division.

Oh, so you like Oklahoma State now, huh? Wrong again. Alabama bludgeoned its opponents by the widest margin of victory in the nation. Its seven SEC wins came by an average of 30 points apiece. Its closest win all season was 16 points, at Penn State, and it wasn't that close. 'Bama leads the nation in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense and third down defense. At 8.8 points per game, the Tide are the least scored-upon team in Division I in more than a decade.

The only thing standing between Alabama and a perfect season is a three-point overtime loss to the undisputed No. 1 team that came down to field goals. Oklahoma State blew a 17-point lead to Iowa State. In late November.

You say Oklahoma State succeeded against a tougher schedule, I say Alabama has been more dominant on a more consistent basis. Let's call the whole thing off.

As someone who touts yards per play as a good baseline statistic with which to measure teams, the only argument that I would add is that the Tide are better on a per-play basis than Oklahoma State.  The Pokes are good, outgaining their opponents by 1.86 yards per play, but the Tide are off the charts with a 3.14 YPP margin.  That is a number reflecting the fact that Bama has been utterly dominant in its wins this year.  Too bad so few of those wins were over teams with winning records.

Hinton ends with this perfect description of the fundamental problem with college football’s postseason:

The only thing more ridiculous than using the BCS to determine a champion is pretending that it isn't ridiculous. After 14 years and a dozen legitimate, unresolved controversies, we are all fully aware that the emperor has no clothes. It never has. As the evolutionary link between the old, pell mell bowl system and a full-fledged playoff that actually determines a football champion by playing football, it's run its course. Stop the madness. Bring on a bracket. Or just point to LSU a mile ahead of the rest of the pack and declare the Tigers the champions right now. But stop splitting hairs.

I started and ended a post on the Florida-Michigan debate five years ago making the same points:

The first and most important is that it requires a serious splitting of hairs to pick between the teams. Both teams have one loss against fairly tough schedules. Florida has more quality wins, as they went 5-1 against Sagarin's top 30, whereas Michigan was 3-1, so it's fair to say that Florida played a slightly tougher schedule, although for a national title contender, there are tough games and then there's playing the #1 team on the road, which Michigan did and Florida didn't. On the other hand, Florida didn't blow anyone out all season. Compare the team's performances in their biggest games. Michigan beat Notre Dame by 26 on the road and Wisconsin by 17 at home before losing on the road to the wire-to-wire #1 by three points, the one result that can legitimately justify a rematch. Florida lost to an Auburn team that twice got blown out at home, benefitted from LSU's "shoot yourself in the foot, the Les Miles Way!" exhibition, and they eked past Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State, Vandy, and South Carolina. In fact, they were outgained by both South Carolina and Vandy. In contrast, Michigan beat Vandy by 20 and outgained them by 210 yards. It's Michigan's dominance in its wins that's the basis of Vegas having the Wolverines as a six-point favorite on a neutral field, per Chris Fowler. In any event, it's legitimate to say that Florida is #2 because of a better resume and it's equally legitimate to say that Michigan is #2 because they have looked like a better team this year…

Of course, all of this would be irrelevant if we had a plus-one system. The whole unseemly process of announcers and coaches blathering on like Carville and Novak would be less important if we didn't have a system that required impossible tasks such as differentiating between two one-loss teams with very similar credentials. With a plus-one system, we would have Ohio State vs. LSU, Michigan vs. Florida, and the debate would be a far less important one over who is #4, rather than who is #2. In the end, Florida is going to get the nod over Michigan because of the short memory of simple-minded voters, which seems a wee bit inferior to the two teams meeting in Pasadena or New Orleans to settle the matter like men.

I made these points as a Michigan socio who desperately wanted to see the Wolverines get a second shot at Ohio State in Glendale.  (As it turns out, Buckeye fans should have been hoping for the same so they would be spared Jim Tressel turning into Unfrozen Caveman Coach: “your spread formations and running plays frighten and confuse me.”) 

I mention this concept of trying to present rational arguments in a consistent way because the villains of the weekend - more than the BCS, Roy Kramer, Bill Hancock, Jim Delany, Nick Saban, or the person who convinced Herman Cain to expose himself to the scrutiny of a Presidential bid - is Gary Danielson and the people behind CBS’s production of the SEC Championship Game.  At this point, Craig James is credible when compared to Danielson.  Gary is quite good when he is discussing x’s and o’s, but when he steps away from the game that he is covering into bigger picture discussions, he embarrasses himself. 

In 2006, Danielson and the SEC on CBS team spent the fourth quarter of Florida’s win over Arkansas lobbying for the Gators to play for the national title over Michigan.  Their argument was based on the fact that Florida had played a tougher schedule, which they demonstrated with a graphic comparing the teams that the Gators and Wolverines had beaten.  Guess what metric CBS did not use yesterday?  You guessed it, the one that favored the SEC team in 2006, but cut against the SEC team in 2011.  Moreover, consider the fact that CBS was ready to go with graphics to begin with.  I have plenty of criticisms of the way that ESPN/ABC do games (I was bitching in this space last week about discussing Urban Meyer potentially taking the Ohio State job during the fourth quarter of a very close Michigan-Ohio State game), but I never get the sense that they are presenting a legal case for the teams that they cover over the teams that they don’t.  At times during the fourth quarter yesterday, I felt like I was at a mediation, watching one side make a PowerPoint presentation as to their strengths of their case and the weaknesses of mine. 

And leaving aside the fact that CBS apparently has the sports equivalent of Roger Ailes doing its SEC games and they think that no one remembers their convention speech in 2006, the remainder of the argument was shoddy in two more ways.  First, Danielson never bothered to acknowledge that he said before and during the LSU-Alabama game that he was against the idea of a rematch.  When it was in the network’s interest to bill the November game as an end-all, be-all, Danielson said that there shouldn’t be a second edition.  When it was in the network’s interest to go to bat for one of its teams in December, they did so without acknowledging the massive inconsistency.  Second, Danielson cited the fact that Oklahoma State is 106th in total defense and that disqualified them from consideration as a potential national champion.  One of the main reasons why the Pokes give up a lot of yards is that they have a no-huddle offense that scores quickly, so their defense is on the field for a lot of plays.  If you look at their defense on a per-play basis, they allow 5.31 yards per play, good for 52nd in the country.  In case you’re wondering, Auburn allowed 5.4 yards per play in 2010, good for 55th nationally.  Can someone refresh my recollection as to whether Danielson had an issue with the Tigers playing for the national title?   

I could be tilting at windmills here, but it is not good for the SEC that Danielson and CBS are filling the role of Baghdad Bob for the league.  There is already something of a backlash against the SEC, partially as a result of jealousy regarding the conference’s success, and partially for more legitimate reasons, such as oversigning (a topic that will surely get some attention in the lead-up to an Alabama-LSU title game).  The facts that the league is getting both spots in the BCS Championship Game and that its network broadcast partner is openly shilling for its teams will be another reason for people outside the South to look for chances to get even.  SEC football can succeed on its own merits.  It doesn’t need the unsubtle assistance of a former Purdue quarterback to prosper.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Once Every Eight Years...

Michigan beats Ohio State and I agree with a "trade for this superstar" column from Jeff Schultz.  In this case, he wants the Hawks to acquire Dwight Howard.  His reasoning is that Howard is not going to re-sign with the Magic, so the Hawks should offer that the Magic pick any two players for Howard.  Schultz suggests scenarios that would involve Joe Johnson, which made me laugh out loud.  Otis Smith may not be the GM in the NBA, but having signed one of the worst deals in the league to acquire Rashard Lewis and then having to trade that stinker of a deal for the disaster that is the Gilbert Arenas contract, I seriously doubt that he is going to give a second thought to acquiring a similarly terrible deal.  The Joe Johnson contract was a terrible idea when it was signed and only looked worse last year as Johnson's scoring regressed (although John Hollinger points out that Johnson's reduced numbers were the result of fewer minutes and a slump shooting threes that does not seem repeatable($)).

Thorpe would be committing GM malpractice if he touched Johnson's deal, so the trade would almost have to be Howard for Al Horford and Josh Smith.  Rick Sund could only make the deal if he had the assurance that Howard is going to sign a long-term contract, but if Howard expresses interest in coming home and staying, then the trade makes sense.  It solves the eternal issue for the Hawks, which is that their two best front-court players are both natural power forwards.  (Hopefully, Thorpe won't notice that he's trading for that problem, or at a minimum, Smith and Horford - overlapping skills and all - are the best he can do in terms of a return for Howard.  Wouldn't he prefer that deal to one centered around Andrew Bynum and his various ailments?)  It also reboots the team, which is a major need right now.  Atlanta Spirit is in desperate need of something to change the narrative.  They are selling a team that has reached its absolute apex: the second round of the playoffs.  They are also the group that killed hockey in Atlanta.  Faced with the prospect of trotting out the same product to lukewarm response, they would love an energizing, marketable star.  There's one in Orlando.

The big question is whether Howard wants to come and stay.  To make his case, Schultz cites a New York Times piece on Atlanta's increasing prominence as a center of Black culture as a reason why Howard might come here as opposed to New York or Los Angeles.  I hope that Schultz is right about this, but Atlanta has had the Black Hollywood nickname for a long time without becoming a preferred destination for NBA players.  We have neither a winning tradition, nor a respected ownership group.  Additionally, Howard has played against the Hawks in the playoffs in front of less-than-full houses.  If fan intensity matters to him, then he isn't coming.

Additionally, Howard has to be thinking that the biggest obstacle to gaining a higher Q-rating is that he hasn't won a championship and has only made the Finals once.  He needs to go somewhere where he will win.  His issue in Orlando is the supporting cast.  Will it make sense for him to come here to play with Jeff Teague (a player whose promise is based on a six-game series against the Bulls last year), Joe Johnson (holder of one of the worst contracts in the NBA), Marvin Williams (average small forward who escapes being non-descript only because of his Draft position and the careers of the players taken after him), and a power forward to be named later?  And then you add in the fact that Atlanta Spirit has expressed an aversion to paying the luxury tax and in light of the team's revenues, they can't really be blamed, can they?  The end game could well be that Thorpe wants to send Howard to Atlanta, but can't make the trade happen because Howard refuses to agree to a potential extension with the Hawks.

In sum, I agree with Schultz's position, but the more I think about it, the more unrealistic it looks.