Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Latest Ramblings

I wrote a column last night on wishing that college football had a dictator like Roger Goodell.  I realize that this isn't the week to express Goodell envy, but I have been so non-plussed by the non-conference offerings this September that I am pining for a central authority to force major powers to play one another.  People have faith that a selection committee for a four-team playoff will create the right incentives, but these are still human beings who are more affected by the number in the loss column than anything else.  I don't get why a committee of ten would be likely to reach a different result than a poll of one hundred, at least in terms of valuing strength of schedule over record.  Using computer rankings that account for margin-of-victory would be a good way to align incentives properly so that teams played challenging schedules, but we don't appear any closer to that.  Is anyone punishing Texas right now for playing an embarrassing non-conference schedule?  Or Oregon?

My column last week was about my feelings on Keith Brooking, namely that he was an overrated player when he was here and if that opinion makes me an idiot according to Steak Shapiro, then that is a cross that I am willing to bear.  I thought about that issue when Bill Simmons made a telling remark in a footnote last week.  He wrote a paragraph about whether the replacement refs would amplify homefield advantage because of their greater propensity to be intimidated by a crowd and then he added the following: "This whole paragraph would have been much more fun to write during the era of sportwriting when you didn't have to support your arguments with actual facts."  For whatever flaws Simmons has, he does seem to take a data-based approach to most (but not all) sports issues, at least moreso than many popular writers.  And then you have sports talk radio, which is pretty much a data-free zone (with a few notable exceptions).  If someone in print were going to tackle Keith Brooking's career with the Falcons, they would surely have a more logical take than "he's local and he made a few Pro Bowls."  Then again, I was listening to sports talk radio instead of a football podcast, so maybe the joke's on me.

As always, you can find my SB Nation work here.  I am writing there once a week.  When I get time, I do intend to write a post or two here about the Blaugrana's start to the season.  (Short answer: they are playing well, but the next three games - at Sevilla, at Benfica, and home against Real Madrid - will be telling.  The lack of depth at center back may prove to be a killer, as they go into this stretch with Pique and Puyol both out.  [PSG's inflation of the transfer market is affecting clubs as rich as Barca.  The amount that PSG spent on Thiago Silva crushed Barca's attempts to sign him or anyone close in terms of talent.]  They look better up front when at least one of Pedro or Tello play to give them some width.  Cesc is struggling.  Xavi remains irreplaceable.  Busquets is having a quietly excellent year.  I am concerned that they lack balance at the back because they need [but don't have until Abidal returns, if that ever happens] a defensive left back to cover for a marauding right back.  Adriano's defensive issues were on full display last week against Spartak.)

Friday, September 07, 2012

Why I'm Rooting for Missouri

I'm not usually one to go for catchy headlines for my pieces.  In fact, I typically struggle to come up with good headlines at all.  My writing process is often such that I write the entire piece and then stare at the screen for a few minutes when I'm done trying to come up with a clever title before beating a retreat to to let the bard do my work for me.  This piece, however, was an instance where the title came to me first and then the rest of the piece flowed from the title premise.  The themes that have been most interesting to me this year have been: (1) SEC offensive regression; and (2) the idea that athletic department budgets are big bubbles that are going to burst unless ticket prices come down and schedule quality goes up.  Thus, it was inevitable that I would write something like this:

There are a pair of good reasons why successful seasons from the Aggies and Tigers will benefit the SEC. First, if you want to tell a story as to how the league would lose its perch as the best conference bar none, it would go something like this: Alabama dominates the SEC. The league is filled with teams trying to imitate the Tide and falling short. Bama wins every other national title, which hides regression in the rest of the conference. All of a sudden, Nick Saban accepts the richest contract in football history from Jerry Jones to coach the Cowboys. The SEC is left with a bunch of teams that squander their talent with second-rate imitations of what NFL offenses used to be before Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers started setting passing records. The teams remain stout on defense, but lack the punch to win big games consistently. In the end, the SEC looks like it did in the 1980s: a bunch of very good, but not elite teams that watched as Miami and Florida State passed them because those programs were better as using their athletes on offense.

Second, did you happen to glance around at SEC stadia over the weekend? Florida's imitation of their 1989 offense was watched by whole sections of empty bleachers at the Swamp. The crowd for Tennessee and NC State was about 20,000 below capacity at the Georgia Dome. As Pat Forde notes, there was only one capacity crowd among the eight SEC home openers. I am not pretending that the state of SEC offenses is the only reason for this result. Among the factors causing the empty seats are higher ticket prices (along with required donations for season tickets), a soft economy, bad non-conference opponents, the ability to buy tickets for big games online, and the improved experience of watching at home on a flat-screen TV. Forde points out that attendance was down in other conferences, so offensive regression cannot be the sole factor. However, one of the SEC's selling points is the passion of its fans. It ought to be doing better than other leagues in attendance. The march towards a more defensive conference has to be included in the list of explanations for empty seats.
Similarly, it was inevitable that I would turn Chris Brown's piece of Package Plays into a plea for SEC offenses to quit it with their homages to Pat Dye:

The query that comes to mind now is when packaged plays will come to the SEC and which teams will be the ones to first exploit them. SEC offenses have been going backwards in recent years as coaches mimic Nick Saban, not quite understanding what makes Saban's teams so successful. Gary Danielson has taken Auburn's and Florida's decisions to move from the spread to a pro-style approach as the occasion to do a victory dance for his prediction that the spread would recede in the SEC. After all, we are a whopping one season removed from Auburn winning the national title with an unstoppable spread and a mediocre, Ted Roof-coached defense (a pair of redundant adjectives, I know), so why wouldn't Gary claim victory now? And Auburn and Florida only combined to win three of the last six national titles using the spread, so the offense is clearly never going to work against SEC defenses.

One of the joys of packaged plays is that Danielson's Luddite views on offense do not justify the SEC ignoring this trend. The SEC can combine its traditional strengths in recruiting and defense alongside a cutting edge offensive approach. If Danielson is right that SEC teams should not use the spread because it is harder to recruit when you run an offense that is not common in the NFL, then there is no reason why they cannot use a concept that can be run out of any formation. In fact, as Brown points out in his piece, NFL teams also run packaged plays. What better way is there to prepare a quarterback for the NFL than to say "we trained him to run the same plays and make the same decisions as Aaron Rodgers?"
I might end up being a stuck record on this subject.  I might be giving too much power to Gary Danielson and Tony Barnhart to get inside my head.  But this is the direction in which I am going this season.

Porn for Blutarsky

This is too long to fit into a tweet, so I just want to paste a whole paragraph from Andrew Sharp's excellent NFL predictions:

The Patriots And Packers Will Both Go 13-3 And Lose In The Playoffs. They are probably the two best teams in football, but neither team's built to dominate in their freezing cold home stadiums in January, and plus, it just wouldn't be the NFL if the favorites actually met in the Super Bowl. While we're here, a reminder: The NFL Playoffs are basically the NCAA Tournament. It's not even surprising anymore when the best teams lose. That's just how things work in the parity era. The Giants, for instance, are Michigan State during the 2000s, the crappy team that always manage to sneak in to the Sweet 16 and then shock everyone and end up in the Final Four. This also means that the NFL regular season is every bit as meaningless as the college hoops season, so keep that in mind, too.

It's one thing for a pair of college football apologists from the South to say it.  It's another thing entirely when NFL writers start to notice that their playoff system is devaluing the larger part of the season.