NFL Team to Watch – Sam Bradford’s St. Louis Rams

When it comes to football as stimulating entertainment, not all teams are created equal. This is part of my pre-season series on Teams to Watch, which literally means to “watch their game,” not necessarily to “watch out for” (though it can mean that too)

The St. Louis Rams, who went 7-9 in 2010, were not a great team last season and are unlikely to be a great one this year. But there is reason for optimism. First, Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams’ second-year head coach, has been reshaping the defense in his image, and appears to be the steady hand on the wheel the team lacked under Scott Linehan. Second, the offensive line should improve and the backfield looks better and deeper than it is has been since Marshall Faulk manned it alone in his heyday: The great Steven Jackson returns, this time with some assistance from new additions Cadillac Williams and the quick Jerious Norwood. And, of course, Sam Bradford had a magnificent rookie season, where he undoubtedly showed that he is a future NFL great. Or did he? As Chase explains:

Sam Bradford’s rookie season has been incredibly overrated by nearly every football writer and talking head. . . The problem when it comes to evaluationg Bradford is that too many people are paying too much attention to the wrong stats. Bradford’s 2010 performance wasn’t very good, even for a rookie. Over the past 20 seasons, there have been 37 quarterbacks to throw at least 224 passes in their rookie season. According to the Net Yards per Attempt Index, which grades each quarterback by his average net yards per pass attempt adjusted for era, Bradford ranks just 22nd out of 37 quarterbacks. That puts him just behind Tony Banks and Trent Edwards, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Matt Stafford. Bradford ranked 31st in NY/A last season, only topping Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen; he ranked just 29th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Does that scream superstar to you?

I am a bit more hopeful, and that is why I’ll be catching Rams games this fall. Specifically, although I agree that Bradford’s rookie season should not be exalted as one of the all-time greats, I am willing to go beyond the stats in this case and apply some of that good ol’ fashioned “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” type of analysis. And what I saw was a smart young quarterback on a bad-to-mediocre team with a horrendous supporting cast, who managed to get himself through a lot of ballgames by taking the conservative option, dumping it off, and picking spots to throw downfield. I saw a quarterback who didn’t fall on his face, but, along with developing those downfield weapons, will have to learn to push the ball downfield. Most telling in this regard was St. Louis’s most important game, against Seattle late in the season. Had the Rams won that game, they would have been in the playoffs, but Bradford struggled against Pete Carroll’s blitz schemes, managing only roughly four yards per pass attempt and an interception. But I saw a guy who, with another year of maturity and a better supporting cast, could develop into a good NFL starter (with the added benefit of a generally weak division).

Moreover, the statistics are not all bad. Bradford’s 5.4 Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt (Pro Football Reference’s vaunted quarterback stat), although not great, was better than the rookie number for another highly touted rookie: Peyton Manning only had a 5.2 AY/A in 1998, his rookie season. My point is not that Bradford was 0.2 better than Manning, but instead simply that with young quarterbacks it’s a guessing game. Remember too that Bradford was coming off a college season where he barely registered any snaps due to injuries, and logic indicates that he’s at least on the right direction.

But the point is well taken: Bradford will not be Tom Brady this season, and his progress will be as dependent on his supporting cast as it will be on himself. Most specifically, Bradford needs his receiving corps to step up and improve. The only sure thing returning is former undrafted received Danny Amendola, referred to as a Welker clone for many reasons, some more obvious than others, but not least of all because they both were slot receivers at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Amendola will roam the undercoverage, but from there it’s anyone’s guess: rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas look promising but are unknowns, Donnie Avery returns from injury, veterans Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, and Brandon Gibson have done some good things; no one really knows. Yet it’s not necessary in modern football to have two great gamebreakers outside, like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, to have an effective passing attack. And no one knows this better than new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

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The Miami Scandal: Eleven

A few months back, Yahoo! Sports’ Charles Robinson said that they had a “10 out of 10″ scandal story, while the Tressel situation only garned a middle rating. Well, it’s here, and it’s an eleven:

In 100 hours of jailhouse interviews during Yahoo! Sports’ 11-month investigation, Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro described a sustained, eight-year run of rampant NCAA rule-breaking, some of it with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs. At a cost that Shapiro estimates in the millions of dollars, he said his benefits to athletes included but were not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.

The entire breakdown is unreal, as are the individualized player pages detailing the involvement of specific current and former players and recruits. Go and read it. (Though the Worldwide Leader seems a little slow on the take . . . .)

My questions are these: How do you stop this kind of thing, with some renegade booster running his own personal red light district? And for high school coaches, do you educate your players to try to avoid this kind of thing, both on recruiting trips and as players? Can you? (Note that the page for Orson Charles says it was his high school coach that took him to meet Nevin Shapiro.)

And, finally, with all the fear about paying stipends to player or criticisms of amateur athletics in general, stories like this make me wonder if it’s all beside the point: In time, amateur collegiate athletics may simply collapse under its own weight.

Gregg Easterbrook is very naive

Though commissioner Roger Goodell just led a collective-bargaining negotiation that resulted in NFL players being showered with money and benefits, according to Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, Goodell is “a crook” and “the devil.”

That’s from his latest TMQ column and, uh, what? The rest of the lead-in to the column is an argument that the real reason the players don’t like Goodell is that the players simply resent that he has the audacity to enforce rules on safety. But setting that issue aside, Easterbrook’s intimation that the player’s should feel indebted to the Commissioner for having “led a collective-bargaining negotiation that resulted” in their “being showered with money and benefits” is just silly. The media had a difficult time sorting through the many moving parts in the lockout, but this kind of White Hat/Black Hat thinking was extremely defeating. The lockout was very simple: The old deal split revenues 50/50. The owners cancelled that deal because they said their expenses had gone up, and proposed a new deal that, among other things, split revenues closer to 60/40 owners versus players. The players balked, counter-proposed, dissolved their union, and sued, all in support of trying to keep the status quo regarding revenues. Many other issues were discussed, but once it became clear that the owners could potentially face anti-trust damages (though the players’ injunction was defeated), the two sides settled on a revenue split of roughly 53/47 owners/players (there is some wiggle in these numbers, as there was in the old CBA). (The veteran players were also able to get comfortable with less overall revenue for players by lowering the amounts payable to rookies and thus grossing up some of that difference with respect to veterans.) There were other bells and whistles, but that’s basically the story: cold hard capitalism; rough and tumble dealmaking, with high stakes (lots of money to divvy up); and plenty of complexity that reduces, like all big deals, to the bottom line.

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The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

This is a new book by John J. Miller, and it is very interesting so far. Roosevelt’s perspective is not unlike our own today, as he loved football but understood its dangerous. His interventions in the game were to save it from its fiercest critics. And the debate reached the highest levels, as the great Judy Battista observes in her review in this past weekend’s New York Times book Review:

[Roosevelt] convened a White House summit with football’s leading coaches and thinkers; even Elihu Root, the secretary of state, attended. Miller argues that this was the moment when Roosevelt put his stamp on the sport by imploring the men to crack down on dirty play and reform the way the game was coached. With Roosevelt’s encouragement, Miller says, a series of rules changes was set in motion — among them, increasing the number of referees and strengthening penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct — that ultimately quieted the critics enough to allow the colleges to play on.

The original one-back spread offense

Before the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Airraid or the Urban Meyer spread-to-run, there was the old, original “one-back” offense. The man who is considered the father of the one-back and did the most to popularize it is Dennis Erickson, who doesn’t even run it anymore at Arizona State, having given the reins of his offense over to Noel Mazzone, who runs a kind of hybrid with the Airraid offense filtered through a former NFL assistant’s viewpoint. But the one-back has a storied legacy in football, both in that it paved the way for the 2000s, the decade of the spread, but also as an incredible offense in its own right. Erickson has explained the origins of the offense:

The one-back worked for me

“The ingenuity [Jack Elway] had offensively has spread throughout the country and has certainly had an influence on my strategy and my coaching,” Erickson said. “Obviously, he (Elway) was a pioneer of all that stuff, and used it before a lot of others.”Erickson said the first to use the spread offense was Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills, where John Elway played his high school football. Jack Elway then used it at Cal State Northridge and brought it to San Jose State.

Neumeier was a high school coach who wanted to open up his offense back in the 1970s and began splitting out extra receivers to do so. Both Jack and John Elway, then a young high schooler, wanted John to play somewhere that would showcase his talents as a quarterback in an age when everyone wanted to out-muscle everyone and so John enrolled at Granada. Granada’s offense got rolling as it was based on three excellent concepts:

  1. One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
  2. Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
  3. Having John freaking Elway as your high school quarterback.
Although undoubtedly already convinced of the wisdom of #3, Jack Elway saw the wisdom of #1 and #2 and realized that maybe the most advanced offensive mind in the game that he knew in 1976-78 was a high school coach in Granada. So Jack began spreading guys out and using what became the “one-back.”
Dennis Erickson served as Jack Elway’s offensive coordinator for three years at San Jose State, before later becoming a head coach at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and later Miami. During that time he coached with a number of other one-back gurus, including future head coaches John L. Smith, Mike Price and Joe Tiller (not to mention future NFL head coach/offensive coordinator Scott Linehan). It was during this time that Erickson solidifed the one-back’s offensive package, based on several important principles:
  1. One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
  2. A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
  3. A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
  4. “Option routes” as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
  5. A systematic or “constraint play” approach to playcalling.

Probably the best exemplar of the one-back in its prime was the 1997 Washington State squad led by then coach Mike Price and quarterback Ryan Leaf. History was not particularly kind to either man (though nicer to Price as after his Alabama debacle he’s been the coach at UTEP since 2004), but for that season the results speak for themselves: PAC-10 champ, 42 points per game and over 500 yards of offense per game. And let me say it again: They did this at Washington State.

That season Price employed a lot of formations but he used the “double slot” the most: two receivers to either side of the quarterback along with one running back. Many now will recognize this as the basic spread formation (though Leaf was usually under center rather than in the shotgun), but back then it was somewhat of a novelty. Price used it because of its then relative rarity, but also for practical reasons: Washington State’s fourth wide receiver was better than its tight-end.

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End of an Era – Howard Schnellenberger retires

Howard Schnellenberger is retiring. There is a lot to be said — and his persona was… unique — but the bottom line is that this is an important moment. Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are more famous links to an older era, but they were also institutions at their own institutions; their reach was/is (in the case of Bowden and Paterno, respectively), limited largely to their specific schools. Schnellenberger’s reach across football is almost difficult to fathom from the vantage point of 2011:

  • He played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky.
  • He coached for Blanton Collier (who was Paul Brown’s right-hand man at the Browns before becoming head coach himself).
  • He was Bear Bryant’s offensive coordinator at Alabama (and won three National Championships while there).
  • He was Don Shula’s offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, including for their undefeated 1972 season. He became head coach of the Baltimore Colts, before returning to coach for Shula at the Dolphins, and they returned to the Super Bowl in 1982.
  • He essentially invented, resuscitated and established the championship winning program at the University of Miami.
  • He essentially invented, resuscitated and established the respectable and bowl winning program at the University of Louisville. Howard defeated Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl 34-7; Louisville had almost discontinued the football program before he arrived.
  • He literally invented, resuscitated and established the bowl winning program at Florida Atlantic University. FAU had no program before Schnellenberger arrived; within two years they were playing football; within seven years they were a Division I program; and within nine years they had won the Sun Belt Conference Championship and won their first bowl game. They won their second bowl game the following year.
Howard has had his stumbles — he was fired from his job with the Baltimore Colts and there are few Oklahoma Sooners fans with fond memories of Howard — but in the big moments, when the big, grandiose plans are on the line like having an undefeated season, seeing UM become a national powerhouse, seeing Louisville in  BCS conference, and seeing Florida Atlantic having a football team at all (let alone a pretty solid one), Howard came through. Indeed, Howard just has a knack for the big moments; there’s a reason why he never lost a bowl game.

Smart Notes – Holgo’s O, Boise, Kevin Wilson, Charlie Strong – 8/12/2011

2009 Houston cut-ups from when Holgorsen was offensive coordinator:

I actually expect West Virginia’s offense to resemble this a bit more than Dana’s offense at Oklahoma State. A lot of what they did at OSU was based off their great tailback and great outside wide receiver: last year, Dana ran a bit more than he had at Houston (and more straight ahead runs) and he used that to set up more one-on-one matchups on the outside with Justin Blackmon. As the clip below shows, with Blackmon and Weeden Holgorsen used more of an NFL route tree — go, post, comeback, etc. It all remains to be seen but the roster at WVU seems more like a variety of quick receivers, but not necessarily one go-to outside gamebreaker. But Dana’s good at adjusting to his talent.

- The NCAA has new academic restrictions, which Stewart Mandel likes. I’m not as enthused but I suppose any movement is good.

- Sad. Arkansas runningback Knile Davis is out for the season with a broken ankle, before it even began. (For what it’s worth, this is exactly what I managed to do before my senior year of high school — broke my ankle four days before our first game. Mr. Davis’s is in a bit of an exalted position, but it’s not fun at all.) Arkansas has a deep backfield and a deep receiving corps, but if you forced Petrino to choose I think he’d rather lose a receiver than his featured back. And the person it probably affects the most is new quarterback Tyler Wilson. There is no better transition for a new quarterback than to step in with all of the firepower from the year before, and having a gamebreaker in the backfield is a huge help to a new quarterback. But Petrino will adjust, as he always does.

- Mike Tanier has his new walkthrough up, and here’s very excited about actual football.

- Ahman Green will retire a Packer.
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ESPN’s new Total Quarterback Rating

The NFL’s quarterback rating is bizarre and misleading, so it is no surprise that many have tried to invent the better mousetrap. What is a bit surprising is that ESPN has invented its own metric, which it will undoubtedly promote relentlessly. And, in the twist that is maybe what is most surprising of all, it’s actually pretty good, or at least a well grounded attempt to move the ball forward (at least when it comes to this kind of thing). As Chase explains:

The [formula behind the existing] quarterback rating is complicated, but it can be reduced to a simple formula. That’s what Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn discovered in their groundbreaking book, The Hidden Game of Football. Essentially, QB rating is equivalent to yards per attempt, but with a 20-yard-bonus for each completion, an 80-yard-bonus for each touchdown, and a 100-yard-penalty for an interception. Such adjustments should seem ridiculous to every reader, which is why everyone finds quarterback rating ridiculous. By way of comparison, PFR’s ANY/A formula — in addition to including relevant data on sacks — gives no bonus for completions, a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions.

But on Thursday, ESPN released the methodology behind its new QB Rating. And last night, ESPN aired an hour-long segment at 8 PM to discuss the new formula. So how does ESPN’s formula look? There’s some good and some bad, which means it has exceeded my expectation. . . .
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Smart Links – Manny Diaz, HGH, Les Miles, Herbstreit – 8/11/2011

Manny Diaz’s fire zones. Make sure to click on this excellent video showing examples of how to teach yourdefensive linemen to “run to daylight”.

- Eleven Warriors is not impressed by Kirk Cousins.

- The Colts’s Anthony Gonzalez thinks lots of NFL players are using HGH.

- Jerry Hinnen has his preseason all-SEC picks.

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Heaven in the Bluegrass State

Heaven for Kentuckians likely consists of nothing but an endless series of basketball courts, but if there’s any little corner tucked away somewhere that’s dedicated to football, it simply must look like this:

Louisville at Kentucky. In a perfect world, this rivalry is always coached by Howard Schnellenberger and Rich Brooks, and the postgame show is conducted over fine scotch in front of a roaring fireplace with hunting hounds sprawled on the floor and tasteful 19th century landscape paintings on the wall.