Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Will the Heat Care Tonight?

On my way to lunch on Saturday, I was listening to ESPN Radio and the hosts were interviewing some media professional associated with the Miami Heat.  (Either that or they were talking to an NBA writer and just happened to only ask him questions about the Heat.  Given that we are talking about ESPN, that is just as plausible.)  The topic was the Heat coasting at times during the season, specifically during a barely-explicable home loss to the Bucks that dropped the Heat to 11-5.  The Heat have since won five in a row to get to 16-5, a record more befitting their talent, but the fact remains that even in a shortened NBA season, we can't rely on teams to be focused from game to game.  The stakes are simply too low.  What is the advantage gained by the Heat busting their tails to get to 50 wins?  The right to play those rare game sevens at home.  That's a small payoff for a major effort.  If you want an illustration of how low the stakes are in regular season NBA games, the Heat and Bulls - the two best teams in the East - played on Sunday and the discussion on Monday morning was not about the result, but rather about the fact that Carlos Boozer's son was caught going along with the "Let's go Heat" chant.

If you want to know why I've gravitated to European soccer as my second favorite sport after college football, the lack of importance of the vast majority of American pro sports games would be one of the major reason.  In contrast to the "will the Heat care today?" question that we have to ask ourselves before each game, on Sunday afternoon, I watched Barca labor to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal.  Unlike the Heat, Barca have earned the right to coast every now and again by winning 13 trophies in the past three years and change.  The theme of Barca's season in La Liga this year has been their struggles on the road, dropping points regularly in 0-0 and 2-2 draws.  Maybe Barca's players are having a hard time getting up for these games, but the key point is that they are punished for doing so.  The Blaugrana are now seven points behind Real Madrid and will require significant help from their arch-rivals to get back into the title race.  If the La Liga season were simply about seeding for a short post-season tournament, then Barca could go through the motions on the road and no one would bat an eyelash.  Instead, the stakes are high for each match and the penalty for not scoring at El Madrigal is significant.

I thought about this issue when reading Bill Simmons' column last night.  Simmons spends 1,261 words describing an elaborate plan to push the NBA regular season back with a later start date and conclusion, but he never grapples with the fundamental problem with the sport: the regular season is four-times as long as the playoffs, but isn't even one-quarter as important.  What about doing away with the playoffs to reward the teams that are the best over the long-haul?  Or at least limit the playoffs to one series like baseball did before 1969?  To quote Simmons:

"Because that's the way we've always done it."

(News flash: Those are the eight worst words in sports.)
For the record, I don't buy Simmons' notion that leagues should make radical changes and that there is no value in traditions.  A sport should follow a certain rhythm and the NBA is no different.  Get rid of that rhythm and you are disconnecting your fans from their patterns, which might lead them to no longer buy your product.  However, if the NBA is interested in a major change, then surely doing something to increase the stakes of the regular season is more important than the start date. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Matt Ryan, Greg Schiano, and the Value of Coming from the College Football Proletariat

My column on Greg Schiano is up at SB Nation.  The thesis is that he might be better prepared for NFL success than most college coaches because he is used to coaching without a talent advantage:

Schiano might garner a series of "meh" reactions from college football fans based on Rutgers output after their explosion onto the scene in 2007, but his experience might be the right one to prepare him for the NFL. Starting in 2011 and moving backwards, here are Rutgers' recruiting rankings in the Big East according to Rivals: second, sixth, third, third, third, sixth, fourth, and third. The conclusion is simple: in an eight-team conference, Rutgers had decent talent, but nothing overwhelming. As a result, Schiano had to focus on getting more out of his three-star guys than his coaching rivals were getting out of theirs. That experience prepares him for the NFL, where talent is distributed far more evenly than it is in college.

In fact, if Rutgers' merely decent recruiting rankings reflect that Schiano is an underwhelming recruiter, then this fact might actually be a good sign for Schiano in the NFL. When Saban and Pete Carroll moved to the NFL, they were both leaving behind a primary asset: top recruiting ability. That recruiting ability undoubtedly led to their success at LSU and USC, thus leading the Dolphins and Seahawks to pay for a skill that would not translate to the NFL. Schiano might not have experienced success on the level of Saban or Carroll, but if his success was the result of good player development and acumen with strategy and tactics in lieu of bringing in great players, then he is well-prepared for the NFL.
In retrospect, it was a bit of an oversight that I didn't mention Jim Harbaugh coming to the NFL from college and immediately turning the 49ers from a perennial laughingstock to a Super Bowl contender.  Harbaugh, like Schiano, came from a non-elite program where he had to do more with less (although Harbaugh was a better recruiter than Schiano and had the benefit of five-star Andrew Luck under center).  I also wanted to reference Bill Simmons' since-abandoned theory that college coaches are vastly inferior to NFL coaches, but I didn't feel the need for added snark.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Scott Loeffler and Creeping Sabanization

I posted a long-ish article yesterday morning about Scott Loeffler's hire at Auburn and what that shows in terms of the direction of the SEC.  Because I goofed in terms of categorizing the post, it only showed up on the sidebar of the page, so you would have to do some hunting to find it ... or you could just click on this link.  Here is the conclusion:

Auburn's transition from the run-based spread to a pro-style attack* brings up a somewhat disturbing trend in the SEC: Creeping Sabanization. When Saban joined the conference, the mix of offenses was fairly diverse. Florida was running the spread. LSU was running something with spread elements. Arkansas was relying healvily on the Wildcat. Within two years, Auburn and Mississippi state were also running the spread. Two national titles for Saban later, everyone is trying to copy him, but not necessarily in good ways. Florida is running a pro-style offense under a Saban disciple. Ditto for Tennessee. LSU is attempting a modern-day imitation of the Bo Schembechler offense. Now, Auburn is eschewing the offense that was a significant factor in the Tigers winning their first national title in 53 years.** Mississippi State is left as the only run-based spread team in the league (and no one is running the Air Raid that played a role in Clemson, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State all making BCS bowls). Chris Brown asks whether the age of the spread is in decline. The answer is clearly "yes" in the SEC.
One point that I meant to make in the column is that the trend away from the spread is not a good development for Georgia in one respect.  When Florida was at its full pomp under Urban Meyer, one argument that Georgia fans made was that the Dawgs would have a recruiting advantage in a spread-crazy conference because Georgia would be somewhat unique and could tout its superior preparation for the NFL.  Matt Stafford going at the top of the Draft provided evidence for this point.  That advantage goes away now that Florida, Auburn, and (to a lesser extent because they were never really a spread team) LSU are all running pro-style offenses.  Style-wise, Georgia is just another team in the SEC.  Yes, they can tout where Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, and AJ Green were drafted, but Auburn can cite to Scot Loeffler's record sending quarterbacks to the NFL. 

On the other hand, if you view the run-based spread as a slightly better way to skin a cat, then Georgia benefits from conference rivals adopting a sub-optimal offensive approach.  After the 2008 and 2009 Florida games and the 2010 Auburn game, Dawg fans will not be sad to see the return of stationary quarterbacks on the offenses of their two biggest conference rivals.

We Expected Midway and Got Antietam

Barca and Real Madrid drew 2-2 on Wednesday.  It's helpful to think about the meeting both in terms of tactics and strategy.  Tactically speaking, the match was a win for Barca because they progress in the Copa Del Rey and will now be favored to win at least one of the three major trophies on offer (albeit the least important of the three).  Barca kept Jose Mourinho stuck on one win against the Blaugrana in ten tries since he took over at the Bernabeu.  Mourinho has still never won at the Camp Nou, which is a nice stat to bandy about in relation to the club's bete noire. 

Strategically, the match was a win for Mourinho and Real Madrid because they preserved their dignity.  Here is Sid Lowe's description:

They got knocked out but they got up again. For José Mourinho's Real Madrid, the latest clásico was always likely to be less about the result and more about recovery after a week of intrigue and insult. As Pep Guardiola insisted on the eve of the game, Barcelona had a problem: the assumption was that the Catalans were already in the semi-final. A place in the next round was not really at stake; instead the prize was something less tangible. This morning, it is Barcelona who are through but Madrid emerged from a wonderful 2-2 draw as winners too.

Suddenly, unexpected, deservedly, a semi-final slot had been within Madrid's reach. In the end they could not grab it but they did grab a lifeline. Madrid never expected to progress in the cup but the progression was evident. Mourinho's side have now faced Barcelona 10 times and won just once. The run was extended but it felt like it had been ended. Mourinho underlined the comment going round the away dressing room: "it's impossible to win here." Yet the lasting impression was the exact opposite: it no longer looks impossible to win here. Barely 24 hours earlier, it did.
In this respect, Wednesday night was a missed opportunity for Barca, a chance to end the war gone.  If you like military analogies (and you know I do), this was McClellan allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape in the aftermath of Antietam.  At halftime, Barca had a 2-0 lead in the match and a 4-1 lead on aggregate.  Real's players had to have been dispirited at halftime because they had played well in the first half, but had failed to score because of a combination of poor finishing and excellent shot-stopping by Barca's rapping reserve keeper, Jose Pinto.  Barca had the chance to stick the knife in by delivering a humiliation that would have caused a serious crisis for Mourinho, a malaise that might have affected Real's form in La Liga and allowed Barca to winnow down the current five-point deficit.  Instead, Real came off the deck in the second half, scoring twice in rapid succession and forcing a very nervy final 20 minutes for the Catalans.

All that said, there are two caveats to the conclusion that Wednesday was an affirming match for Mourinho and Real.  First, Real came out of the Spanish Supercup in August with a similar feeling.  In that instance, they had gone at Barca hard for 180 minutes, choosing to employ an aggressive, attacking approach instead of parking the bus.  Barca won the tie 5-4 on aggregate, but Real had seemingly showed that they were now on par with Barca, such that they would no longer need to employ the tactics of inferior teams.  That affirmation didn't last, as Real lost the next two matches against Barca, both at the Bernabeu.  Second, Real's players have cause to wonder about Mourinho's tactics.  If Real can truly play with Barca, as they showed in the second leg, then why did Mourinho take such a defensive approach - marked by Pepe in midfield - in the first leg?  Couldn't Real have come to the Nou Camp without having to win on the road if their style would have been better in the first leg?  Also, Real played much better with Karim Benzema up front as opposed to Gonzalo Higuain.  Benzema is establishing quite a record for scoring against Barca, so why was he not on the pitch from the start?  Again, would Real have been in a better position than down 4-1 if Benzema had been a starter?

The two clubs will now take a break from one another for at least two months (the earliest that they can play would be the Champions League quarterfinals, which kick off two months from today).  Real have been the better side this season against everyone else, so we'll see if that continues.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mourinho's Fleet Arrives at Midway

Barcelona and Real Madrid meet this evening for the ninth time in the last ten months.  Real Madrid have won only one of the previous nine meetings, that in extra time at the Mestalla in the Copa del Rey Final last spring.  Los Merengues are five points clear of their hated enemy in La Liga, which one would think would be cause for celebration among their fans.  Instead, discontent is building because of Real's failure to beat Barca head-to-head.  Real got two shots at the Blaugrana in recent weeks, both at home.  In both matches, Real went ahead early and then lost as Barca's midfield asserted control over the matches.  Most gallingly for Jose Mourinho and Real fans, they can't even throw up their hands and say "Barca have the best player in the world and he beat us."  Leo Messi hasn't scored in either match, although he assisted on the equalizer in December and the winner last week. 

Mourinho's failure to beat Barca is now starting to become an issue.  Real Madrid is a massive institution, even by the standards of European mega-clubs.  It has a complicated political structure involving various executives and sometimes players (read: Raul) that often illustrates the saying "too many chefs spoil the broth."  For years, the manager was set up as a fall guy.  He didn't decide the style, he didn't have control over signings, and if anything went wrong, he would be the scapegoat for the failings of others.  The experience of Vicente Del Bosque at the Bernabeu is Exhibit A:

In his four seasons in charge Del Bosque ushered the club through its most successful spell in modern history, having steered the club to two UEFA Champions League titles in 2000 and 2002, two domestic La Liga titles in 2001 and 2003, a Spanish Supercup in 2001, a UEFA Super Cup in 2002, the Intercontinental Cup in 2002 as well as finishing in the last four of the UEFA Champions League every year he was in charge. Not since the great Madrid side of the 1950s and 1960s that had Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás did the club succeed so consistently. Del Bosque was famed for his humble, patient and unassuming style which saw him manage the club as it underwent a policy during Florentino Pérez's tenure as club President that was known as 'Los Galacticos'- where the world's best and most marketable stars were signed for the club beginning with Luís Figo, and including Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo. Del Bosque's management was successful in uniting the many different modern player egos in his star studded team: in the Del Bosque era Real managed 104 wins out of a possible 186 in his time as coach of Madrid. Despite the level of success, many players – in particular the so-called 'Galacticos' – were bought without the input of Del Bosque amid often made allegations that the Real Madrid hierarchy (in particular Pérez and general manager Jorge Valdano) had more control over transfer policy, team selection and other aspects of club that minimalised the level of control Del Bosque had during his time as manager.

Shockingly, Real Madrid decided not to renew Del Bosque's contract in 2003, just a day after he won the club its 29th League title and a week after the club signed David Beckham. Del Bosque was offered the post of technical director but turned it down, leading to many suggestions in the Spanish media that there was indeed a much rumoured political split at the club involving Del Bosque and several players, especially captain Fernando Hierro (who was asked to leave the club in the summer of 2003), on one side, while Jorge Valdano and Florentino Pérez wielded the axe of control to in their words, 'shake up the team', on the other. Pérez said in an interview with BBC Sport: "Del Bosque was showing signs of exhaustion. I want to be sincere about this – our belief that he was not the right coach for the future."
Del Bosque then added the World Cup to his personal trophy room in 2010.  Depending on Barca's trophy haul this year, his list of accomplishments is not that far removed from that of Pep Guardiola's four years in charge in Barcelona.  Guardiola is untouchable; Del Bosque got the boot because winning La Liga and losing in the last four of the Champions League (in a close, enthralling tie with Juventus) was just not enough.  Moreover, the guy who made the decision to axe Del Bosque - Florentino Perez - also happens to be the current president of the club.

One of the issues that makes Real a snakepit for a manager is the local media.  Madrid has two sports dailies - Marca and AS - that provide exhaustive coverage of the club.  Marca has especially close ties to Real, such that its campaign against Manuel Pellegrini during the first year of the new Galactico era in 2009-10 was thought to be encouraged (or at least tacitly permitted) by upper management at the Bernabeu.  So, when Marca prints an exchange between Mourinho and Sergio Ramos verbatim, this is not a good sign for Mourinho.  Here is Sid Lowe's description of the Marca story:

Marca's cover showed Mourinho and Sergio Ramos face to face. Word for word, they reproduced a conversation between the two men, and Iker Casillas, at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training ground on Friday morning – two days after Madrid, playing ultra-defensively, had again been beaten by Barcelona; two days after Ramos had noted: "We follow the coach's tactics. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't." According to Marca, the conversation started with Mourinho turning towards Ramos and saying: "You [plural] killed me in the mixed zone." To which Ramos replied: "No, mister [the Spanish term for a coach], you only read what it says in the papers not everything we said."
Mourinho replied: "Sure, because you Spaniards have been world champions and your friends in the media protect you … and because the goalkeeper …" At that point there is a shout from Casillas, training 30 metres away: "Eh, mister, round here you say things to our faces, eh!"
Another part of the conversation starts with Mourinho saying: "Where were you on the first goal [against Barcelona], Sergio?"
"Marking Piqué"
"Well, you should have been marking Puyol."
"Yes, but they were blocking us off [using basketball style screens] with Piqué and we decided to change the marking."
"What? So now you're playing at being coach?"
"No," replies Ramos, "but depending on the situation in the game, sometimes you have to change the marking. Because you've never been a player, you don't know that that sometimes happens."
This story represents all sorts of issues for Mourinho.  First, it illustrates a less-than-content locker room, which cuts against one of Mourinho's noted strengths: his ability to get wealthy, egotistical stars to all pull in the same direction, even if they might not like being on the bench or playing in a defensive style.  Second, it hints at cliques based on nationality, hence the "you Spaniards" remark.  (The current rumor is that there is a division between the Spanish and Portuguese players in the side.)  Third, it hits Mourinho where it hurts, which is that unlike Guardiola, he was not a successful player.  (Think Tracy Flick here.)  Fourth, the fact that Marca has a source within the team and ran a cover story pulling up Mourinho's kimono implies that Mourinho's political situation is not entirely secure.  For someone with a well developed sense of paranoia (Simon Kuper attributes this tendency to Mourinho growing up in a dictatorship), Marca's story is ominous.

Jose's teams generally don't play attractive football, with the match against Barca last week generally and Pepe's behavior specifically being a nadir.  If his teams win, then everyone is happy.  If they don't win, then there is really nothing to commend Jose at all.  Real Madrid are winning, but they are not accomplishing what Mourinho was brought to the Bernabeu to do: conquer Guardiola's Barca.  (Mourinho's wins over Barca at Chelsea and Inter were a major credential in hiring him.)  Thus, today's match is critical because it comes at an important juncture.  If Real can overturn the 2-1 deficit and win at the Nou Camp (a feat that Mourinho has never accomplished, despite three chances at Chelsea, two at Inter, and three so far at Real; he has four losses and four draws), then his reputation as a Barca-killer returns.  He will re-establish his credibility with his players and accumulate political capital to deal with management and the media in Madrid.  If Real lose, then Jose faces a genuine crisis because the impression will be further cemented that he cannot do what he was brought to Madrid to do.  It's one thing to lose to a historically great team; it's another to do it while deploying eight defensive players, including your compatriot - a center back playing midfield - stomping on Messi's hand.  It's strange for me as a Cule to say this, but today's match is more about the enemy. 


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dirk Koetter and the Coaching Bell Curve

My column about Dirk Koetter ran on Friday.  The point is simply that we really don't know much about most coaches because they are highly dependent on context:

Take Dirk Koetter as an example. What do we really know about him based on his resume? When he was at Boise State, he was instrumental in that program's emergence from I-AA to becoming a non-BCS conference power. He went 20-5 in his last two years there, which landed him the head coaching job at Arizona State. With the Sun Devils, he went 40-34. His offenses were all over the map, averaging 34, 32, 25, 30, 37, and 27 points per game from 2001 to 2006. He also had the misfortune of coaching when Pete Carroll's USC was at its absolute apex: 2001-06. What coach was going to succeed against Carroll in the first half of the Aughts, especially when that coach not only had to go up against Carroll on the field, but also had to vie for talent in Southern California against a recruiting dynamo? Taking his college record as a whole, did he forget how to coach when he moved from Idaho to Arizona? Or is there something about Boise State that allows its coaches to win and then those coaches cannot replicate that success elsewhere? (Dan Hawkins is currently nodding furiously.) A regression analysis of the Broncos' rise to prominence would not identify head coaches as a driving factor, but I digress.
Koetter then proceeded to Jacksonville, where his first offense was excellent - sixth in scoring and seventh in yards - and then his next three were mediocre before the bottom fell out this year with a rookie quarterback and receivers so bad that Dunta Robinson was moved to mock them. Was Koetter a good coach in 2007 and then had a lobotomy before the 2008 season? Or was he a lifeboat on the heavy seas that were David Garrard playing the season of his life in 2007 before a six-year, $60M contract destroyed his motivation?  
When my editor at SB Nation asked me to write about Koetter and/or MIke Nolan, my initial thought was "I really don't have an opinion on either of them."  I then got up from my desk, filled up my water cup, and by the time I came back, I had a theme based on the fungibility of coaches.  I had just read the Soccer Men chapter on Capello, so it was in the front of my brain.

I'll also admit that the three Michigan coaching hires since I enrolled there in 1993 affect my thinking.  When Lloyd Carr was hired in 1995, he was one year removed from presiding over one of the worst defenses in Michigan history.  By the close of his third year, he had won the national title that eluded Bo Schembechler.  By the close of his fifth year, he had a pair of major bowl wins, or one fewer than Bo had in 21 season.  Carr was then replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who came in with a sterling resume and left three years later on a rail, having won six conference games total in three seasons.  By contrast, Carr failed to win six Big Ten games in only three of his 13 seasons as head coach - 1995, 1996, and 2005 - and in those years, he won five.  Rodriguez was then replaced by Brady Hoke, a hire that made me positively apoplectic.  Hoke went 11-2 in his first season and won the Sugar Bowl.  If anything, this experience should make me respond to every coaching hire by shrugging my shoulders and quoting Zhou Enlai: it is too soon to say.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Guys, The Roadblocks on 316 Are Not Necessary

I took a quick run this morning at the rumor that the Falcons are interested in Todd Grantham.  I guess if you are replacing one former Georgia defensive coordinator, you might as well do so by making another one, right?  Aside from the facts that Grantham's scheme is a bad fit for the Falcons' personnel and the team has neither the draft picks nor the cap space to re-tool in the offseason, I opined that there is no way in hell that Arthur Blank is going to piss off the significant portion of his fan base that spends their Saturdays barking:

A significant portion of the Falcons' fan base is comprised of Georgia fans. How exactly do we think that Georgia fans would react to losing their now-beloved defensive coordinator to the local pro football collective right before a season in which Georgia will be preseason top ten and expected to win the East and challenge for the SEC title? Arthur Blank didn't get to where he is by angering his customers. It would make a lot more sense for him to back the Brinks truck up to Steve Spagnuolo's house so the Falcons can sell their fans on the fact that they hired a Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator.
So no, I don't think that this is happening.  In fact, I seriously doubt that the Falcons even considered it beyond "yeah, that would be a terrible idea."

If the Falcons wanted to do a change of scheme, how about the Air Raid?  It's almost certainly too radical for a winning team, but if some teams are going to move towards the spread 'n' shred, then why wouldn't someone try the other offense that is ripping up college football?  It's not like the run 'n' shoot was a resounding failure in the NFL.

Phil Jackson & Bela Guttmann

Jonathan Wilson’s latest article, which asks whether Barcelona will be a victim of Bela Guttmann’s famous three-year rule, is worth a look.  Here is the gist:
"The third year," the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann always said, "is fatal." If a manager stays at a club more than that, he said, his players tend to become bored and/or complacent and opponents start to work out counter-strategies. There are occasional exceptions, especially in weaker leagues, but at the highest level it seems to hold true that great teams last a maximum of three years – which is why Barcelona's draw against Espanyol on Saturday may be more significant than just two dropped points. This, after all, is Pep Guardiola's fourth season as a manager at the Camp Nou.
Now right off the bat, there is a problem with Wilson’s analogy.  Guttmann said that the third year is fatal, but in year three under Guardiola, Barca won the two biggest prizes available to it: the Spanish Primera and the Champions League.  It’s only if you modify Guttmann’s concept to “every year after the first three is fatal” that is has applicability here.  Additionally, Guardiola is a disciple of Johan Cruyff and Cruyff’s version of the theory is that a great team has a four-year shelf life.  This makes sense from Cruyff’s personal experience because his Barca Dream Team won four straight La Liga titles in the early 90s, as well as the club’s first European Cup, and then declined.*  Guttmann could make a side function at a top level for two years, so he thinks that that is the statute of limitations.  Cruyff’s team lasted for four, so he thinks that that is the limit.  There is a danger here of assuming that one’s personal experience is universal.

* – Cruyff suggested that Barca should have broken its 2006 Champions League-winning side apart because it was coming to the end of its cycle, although that team had really only been together for three years.  The bottom really fell out in year five when the Blaugrana finished third in La Liga and suffered the ultimate humiliation of forming a Pasillo for Real Madrid after Los Merengues clinched the league.  Samuel Eto’o and Deco both got cards intentionally in the preceding match so they would not have to participate, which is a major reason that both were ultimately drummed out of the club.

Wilson’s article got me thinking about American sports and whether a three- or four-year rule applies there.  One could make a good argument that it applies in the NBA.  Because basketball requires more natural teamwork than baseball or football,* it would seem to be a proper candidate.  Look at recent NBA history.  The Bulls won three titles, then Michael Jordan went away.  They won three more, then Jerry Krause broke the team apart.  The Lakers won three in a row, then Shaq and Kobe could no longer co-exist.  Once a team gets to the top, it seems that it has a three-year statute of limitations before the combination of egos and pressure create an untenable situation.  Phil Jackson, did you ever know that your intellectual forefather was a Hungarian nomad?

* – Football obviously involves players working together, but to do so, they are often following instructions in the form of a play.  Basketball, because it is less controlled by the coaches, requires organic cooperation from its players.

In addressing whether Barca can be an exception to the three-year rule, Wilson points out a distinction that would not apply to NBA teams:

Yet in many ways, Barcelona are a side set up to endure. Like Ferguson, who reflected last week on how those who have been brought up at a club have more instinctive loyalty, Guardiola has a stock of homegrown talent. The impression is that most players play for Barcelona because they want to rather than because it's a convenient way of paying for the cars and clothes and rounds of Jaegerbombs.
The Lakers and Bulls didn't build their teams by signing players when they were twelve and then teaching those players over the course of years how to play in a certain style.  With the exception of Dani Alves, Barca's current core comes from the La Masia cocoon.  These players grew up together, were taught how to play together, matured together, and have now won a room full of trophies together.  That experience is simply different than what the NBA's dynastic teams experience.

I'm currently reading Soccer Men, which is Simon Kuper's attempt to explain what modern soccer* stars are really like.  One of the themes of the book is that players don't feel the same way that we do about teams and matches because for them, it's a job.  For instance, Bernd Holzenbein, one of the starters on the team that won the 1974 World Cup in a famous final against the Netherlands, recalls West Germany's win in 1954 with greater fondness.  As he describes his feelings, he was a fan in 1954 and a professional in 1974.  The chapter on Fernando Torres is also interesting, as it explains that Torres was an Atletico Madrid fan almost from birth, but had no problem moving to Liverpool because it was a better opportunity for him.  We want to think that the players we love feel the same way about the clubs that we love, but that usually isn't true.  On one end of the spectrum, we expect that LeBron, Wade, and Bosh don't feel any strong connection to the Miami Heat as an institution.  On the other end, it will be interesting to learn how strong the connection is between Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi and Futbol Club Barcelona.   

* - Kuper explains in the book that soccer is actually a British term and the sport was referred to by that title instead of football until the 70s.  I am going to be more comfortable using the term and not worrying that I come off as too American.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Quick Thoughts on the National Title Game

  • I said before the game that Bama would need to fin decisively for me to give them my #1 vote.  I’d say they achieved that aim, wouldn’t you?

  • If anyone else has any idea what LSU was trying to accomplish on offense, then please let me know.  They kept running screens against a team that was pressing them.  They kept running option with a quarterback who was indecisive in running that play.  (Kudos to Kirk Herbstreit for taking a break from discussing the emotions of college football to explain what a lousy job Jordan Jefferson was doing with that play.)  They waited until the fourth quarter to run the toss play that has been a staple of their offense, and then they didn’t go back to it after it produced one of their only good runs of the game.  Likewise, they started the second half by running a pair of plays seeking to get Odell Backham between the corner and the safety in Bama’s cover two, the first of which almost worked and the second of which did, but then they never went back to that pattern.  They never went to Jarrett Lee despite the fact that Jordan Jefferson was atrocious.  They punted on fourth and short down two scores in the fourth quarter.  In sum, LSU’s coaches seemingly approached this game with the midnset that they were going to minimize a losing margin. 

  • In contrast, Bama’s offensive plan made sense.  They gave AJ McCarron simple reads (“more Dick and Jane than War and Peace”), especially using flag routes to the sidelines that he consistently dropped in the bucket.  They were focused on great execution of simple passing plays.  It helped that the Bama receivers, which I viewed as a weakness going into the game, played their best game of the season.  Brent Musberger seemed confused that the Tide were able to have success throwing on Tyrann Mathieu, but Mathieu’s fame this year comes from everything but coverage.  It’s not that he’s a bad cover corner, but he isn’t elite in that department.

  • I wrote after the Sugar Bowl that Michigan's ability to avoid Virginia Tech's repeated mistakes was a skill, in and of itself.  Bama showed that same skill last night.  No turnovers, one penalty, and no hare-brained tactical decisions by Saban.  In the realm of stating the obvious, it's preferable for a team to be mistake-free AND outgain the opponent by almost 300 yards.  The score might not reflect it, but Bama turned in one of the all-time dominant title game performances in college football history because they were so superior in terms of yardage and yet were able to do so without sacrificing their ability to avoid mistakes.

  • My prevailing feeling at the end of the game was feeling wistful that college football doesn’t have a 4-8 team playoff.  I’m not the biggest playoff fan in the world because there is a tradeoff between the side of a tournament and the value of a regular season.  That said, I’m also a guy who is fascinated by history.  This Bama defense was one of the best defenses in modern college football history.  In an offense-heavy era in college football, they didn’t get to test themselves against a really good offense.  It’s not Bama’s fault.  Normally, you would think that a schedule that included Penn State, Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn would give several good tests for an offense.  This year, all of those programs were down, especially on the offensive side of the ball.  We’ll never get to see how the Tide would have done against Andrew Luck or Oklahoma State’s version of the Air Raid or Oregon’s version of the spread ‘n’ shred.  Imagine Andrew Luck trying to decipher one of Nick Saban’s shifting coverage schemes.  Imagine Dre Kirkpatrick covering Justin Blackmon.  Imagine DeAnthony Thomas in space against Donta Hightower.  One of the benefits of expanding college football’s postseason is that we would get more matchups like that, but we are denied that opportunity.  I hate ending the college football season on a note of frustration, but that’s how I feel this morning after having seen a truly great defense test itself against a mediocre offense.    

Monday, January 09, 2012

Mularkey Fuera!

You know that when I am channeling the ever-disgruntled fans at Atletico Madrid,* then thinks are not going well.  Here's the column.  As usual, I am complaining about the focus on Michael Turner:

Leaving the playoff struggles aside, the most basic criticism of Mularkey is that he doesn't understand the strengths of his own attack. The Falcons are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing the ball around to the toys that Thomas Dimitroff has bought for him.

The Falcons' running game is overrated by people who only look at raw numbers. Michael Turner was 39th in the NFL in DVOA this year. Put another way, he was below average in terms of his success rate on a per-play basis. Collectively, the Falcons' running game ranked 25th in the NFL by Football Outsiders' numbers. If you look at the more conventional yards per carry number, the Falcons jump all the way up to 22nd. An objective observer would look at this team and conclude that their approach in January should have been to throw the ball and then use the run on occasion to keep the defense honest. Mularkey, whether because of ideological rigidity or a misguided notion of avoiding the Giants' pass rush, stubbornly gave Turner nine carries in the first half. Those carries produced a whopping 27 yards. Did Mularkey react to this evidence by refraining from wasting downs in the second half? No, he started the half by giving Turner three more carries that produced ten yards. The Falcons blew their chances when the defense was playing really well.
I heard a good call this morning on 790 by a fan arguing that the problem is that the running game is so uni-directional.  The Giants' runners can all change direction and cut back, but Turner just plods between the tackles whether or not the blocking is there.  Interestingly, the Falcons are above-average in their percentage of runs going outside, so I'm not sure that this criticism is valid, but it sure feels right after yesterday.

* - The full chant there is "[Insert name of inept manager or club owner], cabron, fuera del Calderon."  Catchy, no?

Friday, January 06, 2012

Customary Invective About New York

You didn't really think that I would let a week like this go by without a paragraph on my love for New York sports culture, did you? 

Adrift on a sea of potential ennui, there is one subject that in my experience unites Atlanta sports fans: we hate New York teams. I've yet to encounter a non-Big Apple transplant Atlantan who views the teams from New York with anything but contempt. When their teams come to our venues, we get overrun with loutish, gold chain-festooned former New Yorkers who have John Franco mustaches with no shred of irony and who cheer lustily for teams from a city that they fled because they didn't want to pay $3,000 per month for 500 square feet. When we turn on the TV, we get inundated with news about their teams as if they are our teams. Their shills in the media have completely appropriated baseball history as being the story about New York teams and their games against one another or the Red Sox. Nothing will quite bring out passion quite like being dismissed as a bystander.

Unfortunately, the post then deals with reality, which is that Atlanta teams have a terrible history against New York teams in the postseason.  I missed an opportunity to make a joke about Rutgers football not being in a position to play the Dawgs in a bowl game.  Sorry about that.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

No Really, You Go Ahead And Blow Your Own Foot Off. I’ll Be Here In The Corner, Doing A Lot Of Nothing

On May 6, 2009, I sat in this room, in front of this computer, and wondered about the meaning of my team winning a big game when it had been both outplayed and the beneficiary of at least one notable close call.  In that instance, Andres Iniesta hit a 93rd minute winner past Petr Cech to send Barcelona to Rome.  Iniesta’s shot was Barca’s first on target in the match.  The Blaugrana trailed for most of the encounter and had to stave off numerous close encounters, including a pair of one-on-ones between Didier Drogba and Victor Valdes and four penalty appeals of varying quality.  In the end, Barca were the inferior team, but went through anyway. 

In the aftermath, I came to grips with the fact that there are more ways to succeed in a football match than by dominating possession and creating chances.  For one thing, a goalie making big saves is not exactly luck.  You would think that I would grasp this fact given that I have played goalie since age ten, but after the game, I had to remind myself that Valdes performing to keep Barca in the match counted just as much as Messi or Eto’o creating and finishing chances at the other end.  For another, a team keeping its concentration in adverse circumstances is important.  Barca could have gotten frustrated with Chelsea’s defensive approach, with the penalty that they were denied in the first leg, and with the general unfairness that their perfect season was about to end without the most coveted prize available.  Instead, they kept plugging away and then Iniesta foreshadowed his World Cup-winning strike with the goal that made the treble possible.

Tonight, I’m in the same position.  Michigan just won the Sugar Bowl, capping an 11-2 season that, with one notable exception, is as good as any I’ve experienced since enrolling in Ann Arbor in September 1993.  By conventional metrics, Michigan had no business winning the game.  The Wolverines were outgained 375 to 184.  The Hokies ran 24 more plays and were 1.4 yards better on a per play basis.  Michigan’s two touchdowns were both Jeff Bowden specials, with Junior Hemingway playing the role of Greg Carr.  Michigan’s first field goal in regulation came from an insanely lucky deflected pass to a previously-ineligible receiver.  The Michigan defense was stout in a number of respects, especially in the red zone, but they gave up a season’s worth of third and longs to a team without an especially good passing game.  In the end, Michigan benefited from a close reversal of a Hokie touchdown in overtime (the right call, I think, but very close) and then an ignored false start on the winning field goal (although it’s not as if Virginia Tech can claim that Michigan gained any sort of advantage from Brendan Gibbons starting, stopping, and then having to start again).  Notre Dame in the late 80s, Tennessee ‘98, and Ohio State ‘02 all came to mind; this was lucky.

All that said, the ability to avoid blowing off one’s own foot is a skill in college football.  If we have learned anything over the last few days after seeing kickers repeatedly spit the bit, coaches turtle up in end-game situations, and players of all shapes and sizes make mistakes, it’s that avoiding big errors is important.  Michigan had one turnover and 24 yards of penalties.  They didn’t miss a field goal.  They didn’t call a stupid fake punt on fourth and one when their running game was cooking.  Fitzgerald Toussaint didn’t take a 220-yard loss on first and goal.  They neither roughed a punter to prolong a drive, nor watched the drive end by not knocking down a pass on 3rd and 17.  Feel free to shoot me in the face for sounding like a Tressel acolyte, but playing mistake-free football can atone for a lot of sins.

Likewise, just as Barca’s persistence at Stamford Bridge was a skill, so was Michigan’s performance tonight.  They came in with their star left tackle limping around.  They then added an injury to their Rimington-winning senior center who makes all of the calls for the line and who relies on mobility to make up for a lack of size.  A group of players who remember total collapses like Illinois 2009 and Ohio State 2010 showed that they don’t roll over anymore.  Virginia Tech dominated most of the first half, but the defense made stands in the red zone and then the offense had a brief flurry to turn a 6-0 deficit into a 17-6 lead.  When the Hokies pegged them back to 17-17 and then 20-20, Michigan stood up in overtime and won the game.  Add persistence to “didn’t blow our own feet off” to the list of skills that this team used to make up for the fact that they couldn’t block or make a stop on third and long.

In a way, this is how the 2011 season had to end for Michigan.  At the end of the Rich Rodriguez era, Michigan was a great offfense and then a smoking heap of wreckage.  The defense was unconscionably bad.  The special teams were barely above that level, most notably because the Wolverines could not kick a field goal.  Michigan did dumb things like not knowing that a blocked field goal is a live ball.  The turnover rate was terrible.  This year was a palate cleanser in every way.  In the end, Michigan won a game despite the offense being completely stymied.  The Wolverines won by being good on defense, very good on special teams, and smart enough to avoid the mistakes that killed their otherwise superior opponent.  In 2010, I looked at box scores and said “we have to be better than what the scoreboard says.”  At the end of 2011, I say “according to that gleaming Sugar Bowl trophy headed to Schembechler Hall, we are better than what the box score says.”  

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Mark Richt and the Cult of the Field Goal

My column about the import of Richt's colossal mistake against Michigan State is up at SB Nation. The criticism of the decision not to attack in the first overtime is obvious; here is the attempt to contextualize:

Richt's shockingly conservative disposition during the end-game of the Outback Bowl was and remains indefensible, but the passage of time reminds me of one truism: we all overrate the importance of late game decisions when evaluating a coach. When it comes to determining whether a program wins or loses, late game strategery is the easiest factor for fans to judge. We can put percentages on various courses of action, such as the odds of a turnover versus missing a 42-yard field goal. Additionally, because late game play-calling is the last impression that we have of a team for a week (or, in this case, for eight months), it sticks out in the memory and the recency effect takes over. However, this factor isn't nearly as important as the other things that a head coach does.

Recruiting is much more important and Richt has done a very good job in that department such that we can have the sense that Georgia had too much talent to go down the way it did yesterday. Managing a staff is more important and Georgia fans are pretty much united in their affection for Todd Grantham (and well they should be in light of the defense's performance this year). As the demises of Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno have shown this year, the CEO functions performed by a head coach are also critical. Dawg fans should have no concerns about Richt making the right decision if he were confronted with a potentially incriminating e-mail or a (alleged) pedophile assistant coach. Making timid decisions at the end of a close game is annoying, but in the grand scheme of things, it is only a small portion of the pie chart when evaluating a head coach.*
* - Take it from a Michigan fan. We all complained about Lloyd Carr making conservative decisions at the end of games that overvalued kickers, the clock and timeouts while undervaluing the possibility of winning a game with his consistently good quarterbacks. We didn't appreciate the fact that Carr was putting good teams on the field that were in position to blow close games in the first place. Three years of Rich Rodriguez were enough to bring Carr's positive attributes into full focus. For instance, the Big Ten Network had a timely showing of the 2000 Orange Bowl yesterday afternoon. In that game, Carr laid up for a field goal at the end of regulation. He could have put the game in the hands of future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, throwing to future top ten pick David Terrell and protected by four future NFL starters on the offensive line. Instead, he put the game in the hands of the immortal Hayden Epstein and was only bailed out by Alabama kicker Ryan Pflugner one-upping Epstein by missing an extra point. Carr deserves lots of credit for assembling a great team and a smaller amount of criticism for relying on the wrong aspects of that team. College coaches should not rely on their kickers unless all other resources have been exhausted.
If you want a more substantive criticism of Richt, it is this: eleven years at the helm in Athens has shown that he is dependent on Florida having a bad coach in order to be successful. When Richt came to Athens, Steve Spurrier was putting one of his best Gator teams on the field in 2001, a team that should have played Miami for the national title in Pasadena if not for a pair of injuries to Ernest Graham. Spurrier then flew the coop for Dan Snyder's filthy lucre. He was replaced by Ron Zook and Richt enjoyed his heyday: three division and two conference titles. Urban Meyer then came onto the scene*, and Richt did not take another trip to the SEC Championship Game until Meyer had fled the stage. Now, the elite programs in the conference are in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, a point that was drilled home in the second half of the title game against LSU. Is Richt going to require regression from one or both of those programs in order to win a third conference title? Quite possibly? More generally, can we accept that Richt is a good, but not great coach? I certainly can, but it will be easier if days like yesterday become more frequent.
* - It does bear mentioning that Richt's second title came in Meyer's first year in Gainesville when Urban was going through the growing pains of De-Zookification.
The point that I do not address is what part(s) of the pie chart do we use to reach the conclusion that Richt is good, but not great.  In other words, is his quality recruiting what makes him good and his staffing decisions prevent him from being great?  That question will require a lot more consideration.