Updated Featured Articles/Top past articles

I have updated the “Featured Articles” section of the site (located in the upper right hand corner), for two reasons: (1) it’s the offseason, and (2) I’d like to think many of my articles, although often written about specific teams and times, have an evergreen quality about them that makes them useful after their dates of publication.

Hopefully others agree, so do check it out. I’ve also rearranged some of the presentation, so let me know if there’s a better way I could do it, as the list of articles is beginning to grow long.

Smart Notes 3/9/2010

The Tao of Christian Okoye:

(H/t Clay Travis).

2. Talking 3-4. It seems the big trend this year is for teams to move to a 3-4 style defense, and Texas A&M is no different. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, most recently of Air Force, talked some shop:

Q: What’s going to be difficult about the transition from A&M’s defensive scheme last year to your 3-4?

TD: They did some of that stuff last year, they ran little bit of a 3-3 package, so the transition that way helps a little bit. Our [run] fits are going to be a little bit different, but the fact that they ran some four-man and some three-man fronts helps in the big picture. Our terminology is going to be different, so they’ve got to learn a new language. But the fact that they played some quarters last year is also going to help us. Those things, when you talk about the transition, we’re not starting from ground zero. It’s a chance to kind of build on what they did before, and it doesn’t have to be a wholesale change.

DU: Back to Von for a bit. What were your early impressions of him once you saw him up close?

Q: So how does [Von Miller] fit into your system?

TD: We’re going to use him in a couple of different ways. He’s going to play what we call a Joker position, which is an outside linebacker who does a couple different things. He’s going to be a guy who’s in the rush at times, and then drop [into coverage] at times. We’re going to put a lot on his plate and see if he can handle it, which I’m sure he’ll be able to. He’s a very sharp young man, and again, I think, hopefully he’ll give us a chance to play multiple fronts with some of the personnel that could give people problems.

If I had to pick one trend right now, it would be teams trying to find a player they can use in ways similar to the “Joker” position DeRuyter described above, as a guy who is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. The reason this is so useful is that you can basically play entirely different defenses — or at least give very different looks — using the same personnel. And when he discusses “fits” or “run fits,” he is referring to the gaps and responsibilities defensive players have on run plays.

3. Jim Tressel does interview with LGBT magazine. This is last week’s news, but is still worth mentioning. (H/t EDSBS.) People have emphasized several quotes (available here), but I thought this one in particularly was wise, as it obliquely hinted at the pressures on an athletes to understand themselves in a world where everyone defines them early based on their talents:

“What we have, quite often, with our athletes, and with a number of young people in any sport, is that from the time they were 6 or 7 years old, their identity has been through sports. You’re the tallest, you’re the fastest, you’re the best player. All their feedback has come in terms of their role as a player, and they are often hesitant to go beyond that narrow role. … The greatest achievement we can have as coaches is that a young man leaves us with a concept of who he is, what he wants from life, and what he can share with others — someone who is ‘comfortable in his own skin,’ and that identity can go in a number of directions.”

In typical Tressel style, he is speaking in somewhat fuzzy abstractions, but here that’s okay. Indeed, it reminds me of the Myron Rolle issue, where in many cases it is simply not okay to be both a football player and anything else.

4. Okay, Coach. Mike Leach is set to be deposed Friday. I haven’t said much on this, because (a) I don’t know anything non-public, and (b) I’m a little worried about the direction it will go. Leach is clearly upset, and I think it’s also clear that Texas Tech used the situation and the James family to give him the heave-ho. I don’t know whether that constitutes a violation of his contract or anything else, though the most likely result will be a settlement. But this kind of thing has to make you wonder (h/t Blutarsky):

Meanwhile, Leach’s attorneys have subpoenaed documents from Frenship Independent School District. They are seeking any correspondence between F.I.S.D. and Texas Tech University and/or Tech’s new head football coach, Tommy Tuberville. Court documents imply that Leach’s legal team is especially interested in any conversations about enrolling members of the Tuberville family in the school district.

Obviously they want to know if Tuberville’s family moved in before he was officially fired, as that could show all manner of bad faith on behalf of Texas Tech. But I’d be surprised if they did find anything. I think it was pretty clear that Texas Tech took the approach to Leach that Leach so often used on opposing defenses: shoot first (i.e. “fire” away), and ask questions later.

5. Goodbye, Donald; Hello, Oregon. Disney has relinquished its hold over Oregon’s mascot after sixty-years: (more…)

Smart Links 3/8/2010

Is home court advantage really about the ball? This article is about basketball, but I think it is an underrated element in football games, though many times the team on offense gets to use their own ball.

2. Brian Burke is not impressed by Bill Polian.

3. What components of a QB’s passer rating are most important for winning? Interceptions play an interesting role here, with there being evidence of it being possible to throw too many interceptions (obviously) and too few (by being too passive, and thus costing your team expected points and the game).

4. Bill Connelly on recruiting success breeding recruiting success.

5. The trouble with web traffic numbers. Also see the print WSJ, Slate, and Yahoo.

6.  What are NFL teams worth?

7.  Dynamic ticket pricing and sabermetrician salaries.

8. Should the Senate abolish the filibuster? Key quote: “There is no pressure in the Senate itself to abolish the filibuster. The reason is that it benefits all Senators, not just those who expect to be in a minority, because it arms every Senator to demand concessions in exchange for voting for cloture.”

9. Five tips for writing non-fiction. I tend to agree with — and simultaneously to be bad at — generally all of these.

10. Georgia’s new DC talks defense. (H/t Blutarsky.)

This irritates me

Most of you know of Myron Rolle, the former FSU safety turned Rhodes Scholar who is now waiting to see where he will be drafted. As I’ve discussed previously, I’m a big fan of Rolle’s and I think he’s an incredible model for younger players, and, while it’s difficult to judge someone’s athletic ability to play in the pros, I have no doubts that his character and background are assets. People in the NFL, however, seem to disagree:

Welcome to proof of the NFL adage: You want players to be smart, just not too smart. Rolle is an example of a gifted, driven, accomplished young man. He’s a guy who could survive and thrive without playing mankind’s version of demolition derby.

Rolle is a man with options and that makes NFL types, some of whom would be teaching P.E. in high school if not for the pro game, very uneasy.

“We’ll have to find out how committed he is,” an NFC assistant coach said, echoing the sentiment of five other NFL types leading up to this weekend’s scouting combine. “Committed” is a euphemism for desire, care, passion and whatever other combination of emotions goes into wanting to play football enough to make it a career.

Trainer Tom Shaw, who has worked with Rolle for the past year, understands the process very well. Having trained the likes of Peyton Manning, Chris Johnson and Deion Sanders, a total of 118 former first-round picks and nine straight Super Bowl Most Valuable Players before this year, Shaw hears the criticism and shakes his head.

“I hear all the negative things that he has too many things going on in his life,” Shaw said. “But if [the NFL] is saying that Myron Rolle is a bad example, that’s a joke. … Myron is what you want all these kids to be. Every one of these kids should want to be Myron Rolle. . . .

. . . During a 45-minute interview before the Senior Bowl in January with seven members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff, including head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik, one member of the staff asked Rolle what it felt like to desert his team this season.

“I hadn’t heard that one before,” said Rolle, who pauses ever so slightly before answering to consider his thoughts. “My initial reaction was a bit of confusion. It never was anger, but I was more bothered by the question because if anyone knew my involvement with my teammates, how much they care about me and how much I care about them.”

My initial reaction to this — which might be unfair — is that asking Rolle about “deserting” his teammates is something only someone who could not comprehend the significance of a Rhodes Scholarship would do. Small minded, in other words. But maybe it’s a fair question: the NFL is not looking for men of character and robust interests to staff a consulting firm or business or whatever else, but is instead looking for man-machines who will obey orders and sacrifice their bodies for the paycheck and the glory; someone with other options might not think it was such a great bargain.

So what’s the answer? Is the NFL insular and closed minded, or are they just coldly looking out for their interests, or both?

Give that man a scholarship (just not a football one)

One of the top incoming recruits this fall for Nebraska:

And by “incoming recruit” I mean he’s the video coordinator.

Smart Links 2/27/2010

Without a Single Throw, Tebow Rules the Combine.

- At the Combine: Union Will Watch Teams’ Spending.

- Is “cellar door” the most beautiful phrase in the English language?

- Gus Malzahn has a “secret dossier of Auburn’s most valuable intelligence.” (H/t EDSBS.)

- Why the young tend to be more creative than the old. For more on the subject, see this old article by Gladwell.

- Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich ‘not at maximum potential’ for spring, but still on his way.

- Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, ridin’ nerdy on broken foot.

- 170 year old lost letter by Descartes found.

- Where’s Chang? (Gated.) For a related article, see Todd Kliman Pursues the Perfect Chef. Also, Tyler Cowen talks up China Star, Chang’s former restaurant. I have eaten there as well, and it is as advertised.

- The New Yorker profiles Paul Krugman.

- Tips on writing fiction from some of the world’s best authors, from the Guardian. Read both parts one and two.

- Publishing: The Revolutionary Future, from the New York Review of Books.

- During Prohibition, the U.S. government poisoned its own citizens.

Tressel’s new calling: Ball control . . . passing?

Buckeye Football Analysis recently broke down Ohio State’s tactics in their Rose Bowl win over Oregon. The verdict? The Tresseller rose above his reputation as football dinosaur and outschemed famed schemer, Chip Kelly. Specifically, Tressel channeled his inner Bill Walsh by having Pryor use a lot of ball control passes, including one play Buckeye Football Analysis highlighted in particular, namely a packaged combination of “snag” to one side and “double-slants” to the other.

Packaged concepts” refers to the fact that Tressel has put different route combinations to either side: To the left he has put the double-slant combination, while to the right he has the snag combo. As BFA points out: “First, it was part of the quick passing game so it allowed Pryor to throw before the blitz came. Second, putting these routes to each side actually provided three coverage beaters.”

One of these was a simple man-blitz beater in the slants: If Oregon blitzed and played man, Pryor could immediately throw the slant. Indeed, he could do this against regular man coverage too, as he did in the clip below.

Against zones, Pryor had a few options. One was to simply hit the slants again if that’s what the defense gave him by its alignment. He does this effectively below:

Another would be to work the “snag” combo. The snag is a variant of the smash, where one point is to get a high-low with the corner route and the flat route (except now the flat is controlled by the runningback), with the added dimension of an outside receiver running the “snag” route — a one-step slant where he settles inside at 5-6 yards. This gives you a “triangle” stretch, where you have both a high/low read (corner to RB in the flat) and a horizontal read from inside to outside (snag route to the RB in the flat).

And the best part for Pryor is that these are all quick, immediate routes that (a) give him options against the blitz, and (b) provide controlled passes against zones too as the receivers settle in the voids. I don’t have any video of OSU throwing the snag side, but here is an example of the Steelers using the play to win the Super Bowl, and some Airraid/Mike Leach based cut-ups of their snag play, Y-corner (which is actually basically the same, with snag to one side and a form of double-slants to the other).

So the final question is, how does Pryor read this and know where to go? I don’t know what keys Tressel is giving Pryor, so I can only say how I would teach it. Note that both the snag combo and the double slants are both designed to attack either (a) man coverage or (b) two-deep zones, so the main key you’d give your quarterback — go one way if there is one deep safety or another if there are two — is out. This doesn’t mean it’s poorly designed, it’s just a different goal. (This is how most pro teams package snag as well.) Instead you probably give the quarterback a pre-snap key along the lines of: “go to the snag side unless…,” where the unless includes (1) a man-blitz or other man coverage where you have a good matchup (see the first video), or where the defense is just giving you the slant by alignment (the second video). From there the QB can make a judgment on whether he likes the snag or the slants based on the alignment of the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Another possibility, though one I probably wouldn’t use, would be to read the middle linebacker and choose whether to go to the snag side or the double slant side based on where he went. That would give you a good key on those two routes, but I wouldn’t use it because it doesn’t tell you much about the corner/flat combo or the outside slant to the other side.

Two final thoughts. One, unless it is a blitz and the quarterback can’t get it out (hence the slants), the snag is the more versatile combo as, even if the defense is in a three-deep type coverage, the “snag” receiver can usually find an open spot and get you five to six yards as an outlet. And, finally, there is a final advanced technique you could use that I plan on expanding on in the future. It is the packaged three-step and five-step combination. Basically, you put a three step drop combo to one side with a five-step to the other. The QB can look to the three step side first — which should be open versus a particular coverage as well as a blitz, as sort of an automatic hot route — then, if that’s not there, the quarterback would reset his feet for depth and swing his eyes to look for the five-step combo; here, the snag (though whether snag is three-step or five-step depends on what depth you run the receivers’ routes at). In the future I will talk about how to package this and even let the quarterback pick the three-step combination at the line.

But that is all for a later post. For now, viva la Tresselball.

Smart Notes 2/25/2010

The elder Kiffin. Despite the weirdness of his recent career path — due entirely from following his son around — Monte Kiffin remains both one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the game as well as a source of hope for the fans whose team is (currently) coached by Lane. So it is with the excellent Trojan Football Analysis, which adroitly summarizes Monte’s defensive philosophy.

2. Tebow’s motion, cont’d. Tebow is changing his release. I’m fine with this: it needed to be done, it appears (from the few clips I’ve seen) that he’s getting good coaching and things are improving, and if he didn’t the story threatened to derail him from getting drafted at all. And most importantly, if it works, he should be a better quarterback. Two points. One, realistically, Tebow just has three timelines with all this. The first is his pro day. If he can improve enough there to get drafted somewhere, then that’s a major hurdle. And then guess what? He has a long time to work on these mechanics and get better — his next two deadlines would be (a) preseason when he might play a bit, and (b) the eventual day he would get in a regular season game, which might be years hence. So while this overhaul requires a quick turnaround for his pro day, it is just one day and involves throwing in a controlled environment to receivers he knows, like Riley Cooper. (Of course, this fact that Tebow needed to learn to play pro quarterback is why I said he should have gone pro last year and sat the bench working on these mechanics all year.)

Second, the Senator rounds up the minor dust up regarding who is to blame for Tebow’s crappy throwing motion. If there must be blame for this, I blame Tebow, though I don’t think that’s really fair either. Basically, Meyer’s job was to win games, and Tebow is the all-time greatest; yes there was some spin in hiring Scott Loeffler, but Loeffler was basically told not to mess with Tebow’s motion. (And as others have pointed out, they had limited practice time together.) But Tebow regressed during his time at Florida. Here’s what I saw from Tebow, especially as a senior: Instead of trusting his footwork, his release, and his progressions, he would drop back, look for the first receiver, and then simply try to buy time and scan the field. Quite literally from one side to the other, the way you would do in a backyard game where each receiver is just making up his route. This is why he was so often late with passes; he wasn’t throwing on time. And as he became fatigued his footwork regressed and he relied on an increasingly large wind-up to try to deliver the ball with velocity. Remember, it’s much easier to have good form if you’re throwing on rhythm. Can you blame Meyer for this? To an extent, sure. But remember who you’re talking about, the most celebrated and maybe the most successful quarterback ever. A guy who won games on moxie and guile alone. This business about dropping back, scanning the field, looking for Hernandez or Cooper, and then throwing on the move with a huge wind-up became part of his game. In any event, he has time to rectify the problems, and I wish him luck in doing so.

3. HGH testing in the NFL? It’s on the table in current negotiations.

4. How do you evaluate kickers? The WSJ Numbers guy chimes in, as does the Sabermetric Research Blog:

And that just seems wrong to me. League-wide, a 51-yard field goal attempt is successful only about 55% of the time. Admittedly, Stover has been worse than that, but still, when you try something that succeeds only about half the time, and then it winds up failing, all that second-guessing isn’t really called for.

5. Bench the quarterback! It was clear that the Packers of Lombardi’s day could only rise to the top if they did one thing: bench Bart Starr. Or so says a fan letter from 1959, from Pro Football Reference Blog.

6. Fire zones. Brophy with more wisdom (and video).

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What is the proper goal for a professional sports team, profits or championships?

Professor David Zaring asks if “the high-end sports team debt burden [is] a feature of private equity?”:

And plenty of other examples exist, as Americans continue to buy up the English Premier League, as concern grows that debt financing in high end soccer (Real Madrid, AC Barcelona are almost as debt ridden, Arsenal isn’t far behind) is reaching unsustainable levels. I’ll note that the most indebted teams are the ones who have been playing in the Champion’s League finals, of late, and the least indebted ones – those would be the non-private equity owned German teams (often owned by their fans, in fact) – are not. But that too, smacks of the risk-or-insolvency strategy that, fair or not, is almost as associated with private equity strategy as is a love of debt.

And one can go further. . . . It’s armchair empiricism at best, but if I were in major league baseball, the one American sport without a salary cap, I would worry about selling another franchise to a private equity firm.

This question runs right to the core of the paradox of big time sports, with a modern financial crisis twist. For traditional businesses, there is (generally) a single primary goal: become and remain profitable, thus ensuring that you survive. Many people assume that all businesses do this well and the only issue is how to fairly distribute their profits, but if you take the longer view you’d be surprised how much turnover there is among the largest companies — many that at one time were among the largest on the planet now no longer exist. A perusal of the companies that historically made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average confirms this. So remaining profitable is a constant struggle.

On the other side, you have the teams’ professed goal: to win games and championships. Of course it’s not clear that these two interests are aligned: sure, more wins tends to result in more ticket sales and sales of merchandise, but putting out such a good product requires expensive players, expensive coaches, and expensive facilities. There’s no guarantee that the “break-even” point from a profit or business standpoint would result in championship level output. It might be to have a winning season but avoid New York Yankees levels of expenses.

This tension is not new, and the two motives have generally been able to coexist. Everyone, at least implicitly, understands that sports teams must at least make some money (just ask the USFL what it is like to have an unprofitable sports franchise), but fans and the sports media tend to turn on owners who are perceived as pursuing profits ahead of wins. The most beloved owners tend to be the ones who establish an image of being willing to spend and even lose money to see their team succeed, even if in practice that is really the case. But things have gotten more interesting in recent years.

There are a number of factors now that have not always been present in major sports. The first factor is the one that underlies them all, which is that, at least in certain sports like professional football, it would be very difficult for a franchise to actually be unprofitable. This is because the league as a whole generates massive revenues, and it redistributes much of that revenue among the various teams, including TV revenues, merchandising, and even some team specific revenues get redistributed to other teams (though that may change). Buttressing this is that, despite the high demand for professional football, the league has an effective monopoly over the sport and limits the numbers of teams.

This sounds like a strange point but think about it: The NFL limits the league to keep the revenues per team artificially high, whereas if you wanted to open up the market for football teams (i.e. if we imagine the NFL didn’t enjoy all the legal exemptions it now does to restrict who can have a team), you’d see a lot of people starting new football teams because each one, even the bad ones, enjoys profits. It’s the old supply and demand argument: if you are making big profits making widgets, eventually — unless there are significant barriers to entry — others will jump in and sell widgets too and get profits too, until the market got saturated. Don’t think others would start teams? I believe they would (though I admit this example is very artificial) as there are many geographic areas of the country without a football team and, further, football, being a sport, would attract many wealthy hobbyists. Think about horse racing: The sport of kings is profitable for very few owners despite the large purses for winning, because, to oversimplify, wealthy people can buy a horse, get it cleared, and begin competing.

The point is that NFL teams effectively make monopoly profits, which allows them more freedom to “go for winning” as opposed to always focusing on profitability. But that’s not always the case with sports leagues, as we’ve seen with European soccer and other leagues, including non-NFL football leagues.

Next, you have the imposition of the salary cap, which is a great deal for owners and a terrible one for players. Of course, that is different than saying it is bad for sports fans, because it might well be good for them (competitive balance and all that). But it’s a terrible deal for players as a whole because it makes competing for salaries a zero sum game: Assuming teams max out the salary cap (as most teams effectively do in football), each additional dollar a player earns is taken from a teammate. On the other hand, for owners it protects them from the hard business versus winning decisions owners in leagues with looser salary caps must make. In Major League Baseball, every team is compared to the Yankees and Red Sox, simply because they tend to outspend everyone else. Sure, when a lesser team wins it’s a great underdog story, and occasionally it gives rise to superior management techniques as with Moneyball, but sports contests are like wars between countries: At the end of the day, the bigger team with more resources is probably going to win.

If you combine the above two points, you have a very owner-friendly system in a league like the NFL: You have guaranteed profits from your restrictions on other entrants into the market and you have alleviated pressure from the fans and media to focus on winning by spending more because of the salary cap.

But let’s get back to Zaring’s point about debt. (more…)

That’s what I call a shootout

Back in 1990 — before the spread offense had been invented, so we’re told — Houston beat TCU 56-35 in one of the greatest aerial duels of all time. TCU’s quarterback, Matt Vogler, threw for 690 yards and five touchdowns on 44 of 79 passes. Houston’s David Klingler countered with 563 yards and seven touchdowns on 36 of 53 passing (with four interceptions). Of course, Klingler was running John Jenkins’s brand of the run and shoot. Below are the scoring drives from the first half (hat tip to Football Mastery for the vids):

See below the jump for the second half clips:
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