The Pat Tillman saga

tillmanFrom Sunday’s NY Times Book Review:

Most everyone, at least in the United States, is familiar with the basic facts: [Pat] Tillman, a free-thinking, hard-hitting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract after 9/11 to enlist in the Army. He joined an elite unit, the Rangers, and was killed on April 22, 2004, in a canyon in eastern Afghanistan. The story did not end there: Tillman’s commanders and possibly officials in the Bush administration suppressed that he had been killed accidentally by his own comrades. They publicly lionized Tillman as a hero who died fighting the enemy and fed the phony account even to Tillman’s grieving family. The sordid truth, or most of it, came out later.

. . . Tillman was very much his own man: he wore his hair to his shoulders, rode his bicycle to training camp each morning and “never went anywhere without a book.”But after the 9/11 attacks, Tillman found his professional life suddenly hollow. “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in May 2002. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”

So Tillman said goodbye to the N.F.L., to stardom and to the three-year, $3.6 million contract the Cardinals had offered him to stay. In deciding to enlist, he moved hard against the grain of contemporary wartime America, which demands extraordinary sacrifice from a few while asking almost nothing of everyone else.

. . . Once Tillman lands in Afghanistan, though, Krakauer’s narrative lifts off. The death of Tillman is handled deftly — and sad it is, the end of a series of errors and misjudgments, some of which border on the criminal. During a mission to search villages, one of the Humvees in Tillman’s platoon broke down. An officer back at headquarters ordered the platoon to split up: half to tow the Humvee to the base, the other to search the villages. The platoon leader objected — splitting his platoon in a hostile area rendered his men vulnerable — but he was ordered to proceed.From there, the disaster unfolded. The units went off in different directions, but then, the one towing the Humvee thought it had found an easier route and doubled back, only to come under attack from Taliban insurgents. Tillman and others from the first unit raced to the rescue — and were fired on by their fellow soldiers in the second unit, who mistook them for the enemy. Tillman was shot three times in the head by a machine-gunner; an Afghan government soldier was also killed, and two other Americans were wounded. Tillman’s brother Kevin — the brothers enlisted together — was in the unit that killed Pat, but his weapon, a grenade launcher, had jammed. He never got off a shot.

While most of the facts have been re­ported before, Krakauer performs a valuable service by bringing them all together — particularly those about the cover-up. The details, even five years later, are nauseating to read: After Tillman’s death, Army commanders, aided and abetted by members of the Bush administration, violated many of their own rules, not to mention elementary standards of decency, to turn the killing into a propaganda coup for the American side. Tillman’s clothing and notebooks were burned — a flouting of Army regulations — and he was fast-tracked for a posthumous Silver Star, which, as Krakauer shows, was a fraud. Members of his unit were ordered to stay silent about the manner of his death. Even part of Tillman’s body disappeared. Most important, Army commanders went to great lengths to keep the facts of Tillman’s death a secret and allowed the story that he died at the hands of the Taliban to flourish. The low point came at his memorial service, where he was lionized before television cameras, while officials who knew the truth stayed quiet.

Krakauer doesn’t nail down precisely who gave the initial order to conceal the manner of Tillman’s death, but he demonstrates conclusively that the White House was happy to peddle the story that he’d been killed by enemy fire. It makes sense: at the time of Tillman’s death, the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq was dominating the news. In any case, the slipshod way the Army investigated Tillman’s death is part of Krakauer’s story.

Oddly enough, Tillman himself suspected that, if he were killed, the Army might try to turn him into a poster boy. And he wanted nothing to do with it. As Tillman told an Army friend: “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”

If only he’d gotten his wish.

My article on Jim Tressel

For those that haven’t already seen it, check it out here, over at Dr Saturday on Yahoo.com. Thanks again to the Doc.

The Patriots’ comeback play and Belichick on passing

bradyLast night saw the return of Tom Brady, and, in a wild finish, he led the Pats to a waning-minutes 25-24 victory. There were several remarkable aspects of the game, but the most interesting to me was that Belichick obviously made a choice to put the game in the hands of his great — but returning — quarterback. I discussed the nuances of the Pats’ passing game last week, but Brady’s two touchdowns last night were remarkable in that it was the exact same play against the same defensive scheme and the ball was thrown to the same receiver.

The play was a variant of “smash” to one side, with the tight-end, Ben Watson, running a post route. I don’t have all the possible reads and route adjustments available, but the Pats ran the play the same way both times. To the two receiver side the Pats ran the smash concept, with the inside receiver on a corner and the outside on a quick hitch. To the other side the outside receiver, Randy Moss, ran a type of under route, presumably to settle in a hole against zone or run away from man coverage. The runningback just ran the flat — Brady always had this option against man coverage to hit Kevin Faulk if he could outrun the linebacker.

Patriots-gamewinner

The tight-end of course ran a post route. His job was to jab like he was going to the corner (and I believe the Pats have run a variant where he ran a corner route), and then break for the post inside the near safety. The corner route on the other side runs away from the safety to his side. Brady’s job is to read the safeties first and if the corner or post doesn’t come open, work to the underneath guys. Both times last night, he didn’t get that far into his progression. The first time Watson was simply wide-open. On the second touchdown, the linebacker did a better job getting down the deep middle in a “Tampa Two” defense (Tampa two is simply cover two where a linebacker tries to get deep down the middle). But the pass was good and the catch even better, and the rest is history.

Here is a link to video of the Pats’ final two minutes, though it is low quality. Here is a link to Brady’s passing highlights from NFL.com; if you watch this you can see how often the Patriots ran the above play, though they often hit other receivers besides Watson, before hitting the game winners.

Relatedly, one of the ongoing questions was how the Pats’ offense would be after Josh McDaniels left. Brady recently told ESPN.com, “As long as we have Belichick, I always think that we’re going to be just fine.” Coach Bill knows offense, and is heavily involves. This gets to the other point that I enjoyed about last night: with Brady back, Belichick did not pull any punches, as, partly because the Pats got behind in the game, Brady threw it 53 times and set his own career record for completions with 39. Indeed, Belichick knows for Brady it is about getting reps to get the rust off. A lot of coaches take their rookie quarterbacks or a guy returning from injury and want to “ease them in.” Besides ignoring the fact that it is repetitions that make you better — you learn and improve by doing — the conservative playcalling often forces the passer into a lot of third and longs anyway.

But Belichick, never afraid of set his own path, knows that his team will rise and fall with Brady and he was going to let his guy throw it. Early on Brady was rusty, but that rust clearly began to wear off. It reminded me of Joe Tiller’s famous quotation when he first got to the Big 10 and caused waves by throwing it around sixty, or even eighty (!) times (against Wisconsin): “We’re going to throw it ’til we got hot, and then we’re going to keep throwin’ it.” It’s how you get better.

Finally, I wanted to highlight a great quote from Belichick about the passing game, passed along by Coach Mountjoy.

What the passing comes down to is the timing and execution. That’s true of every team in this league. It doesn’t matter what level you throw the ball at. It’s a combination of the throwing and the catching of the skill players and the protection of the blockers, which includes backs and tight ends. If a team pressures, they are involved in the protection, too. What you want to do is protect the quarterback. Whether you’re throwing three-step drop or seven-step drop or whatever the pattern is, protect him long enough so he can drop back and get set and throw the ball on time. The receivers need to get open and come open on time when the quarterback is ready to throw. Not a second before he’s ready, not a second after he’s ready. That’s just not the way to do it. You might get away with one here or there, but that’s not the way to do it. So all of that needs to be synchronized and if it is, then you have a well executed passing game. If it isn’t, then something’s going to go wrong. We are all part of that. Sometimes the receiver is open and the quarterback can’t throw. Sometimes the quarterback can throw and the protection is good and the receiver is not able to get open on the route, or the distribution of the receivers is wrong and then the quarterback doesn’t have a clear throwing lane. Sometimes the guy drops the ball. Sometimes the quarterback makes a bad throw. Sometimes it gets tipped. There’s a lot of things that could happen in the passing game.

If you throw the ball well, you’re completing in the mid-60s, the high 60 percents. Not 90 percent, that’s a good passing game. You’re completing 68, 67 percent of your passes, that’s good. If you’re the best passing team in football, you’re probably going to miss one out of three. The difference between hitting one or two more per game is the difference between having an okay passing game and having a good passing game.

NFL hits the Oregon Trail

From Slate TV:

Big balls Pete Carroll

petecarrollThat’s the title of the new profile of USC’s Carroll in Esquire. Lots of interesting stuff, but here are two of the best bits. The setting for both anecdotes here is during USC’s summer camp for high school kids, some being recruited by USC, others just there to be coached for a week by Carroll and co.

The [coaching] staff met in the War Room. (In a culture so steeped in tradition, everything has a fancy name.) The mood there always seems part frat house, part locker room, part battlefield HQ. There’s much scathing humor and shit-giving, bro love in its highest form. Around the rectangular wood table are fourteen high-backed leather swivel chairs; each of the coaches takes the same chair every time, with Carroll at the head. Behind them, a hodgepodge of stools and folding chairs for the graduate assistants — some of them former players, some manager types who never played a down. Two walls are dominated by double whiteboards; panels slide to reveal depth charts of players and recruits; another whiteboard lists the name of every offensive play and the number of yards the play averaged last season. With desks occupying two corners and video-projection equipment in a third, the room is tight. Deep into a session you will find some of the larger guys reclining so far back they’re practically in the lap of a GA.

At one minute before seven, one of the GAs walked in with two giant sacks of Egg McMuffins.

“All right!” somebody screamed. “The hockey pucks are here!”

“Pucks!

“Go Pens!” hollered BC [Carroll’s son, an assistant coach].

A feeding frenzy ensued. Large men reached and grabbed for the various bottles of hot sauce and mini containers of jelly that live permanently at the center of the table.

“It’s time to get ready for some football around this muthafucka,” yelled Ken Norton Jr., son of the former world-champion boxer, himself a former All-Pro linebacker. Norton had retired after thirteen seasons when he happened to meet Carroll; things just clicked. Now he’s going into his fifth year with USC. Nobody gives him shit for being a UCLA alum, particularly at noontime basketball, where he’s been known to let out the monster, playing Shaq to Carroll’s Kobe. Since the last NFL draft, when three USC linebackers were scooped up in the first two rounds, people have begun joking that USC, once known as Tailback U, needs to be renamed. Norton’s Egg McMuffin appeared tiny in his giant paw. His rocklike mandible made quick work of it. He helped himself to another.

Carroll entered from his office across the hall, McMuffin in hand. His mouth was full, he was chewing, he was wearing the silly/happy expression of a guy who’s just come to work after his morning surf. “What’s happenin’ boys?”

“A little camp today!” hollered the defensive coordinator, Haruki Rocky Seto, “Rock” to his friends, a second-generation Japanese American named for the boxer Marciano. (His brothers are named after Sonny Jurgensen and Johnny Bench.) An undersized junior-college fullback who made the Trojans as a walk-on, Seto entered the coaching ranks as a video assistant, filming practices. When Carroll came to town for his first USC press conference nine years ago, Rocky was the kid who picked him up at the airport. Now he’s in charge of Carroll’s first love: defense.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” hollered offensive-line coach Golden Pat Ruel (his actual full name). He’s known Carroll since 1977, when they were both graduate assistant coaches making $172 a month at Arkansas. Like most of the veterans in the room, he’d coached in the NFL. He chose to work for Carroll for less money. “How many people do you know who enjoy driving to work every morning?” he’d testimonialized at the chalk talk.

Carroll talks a lot about his coaches “growing up in the program.” He likes grooming his own people instead of bringing in established stars. He is proud of the fact that former assistant coaches, like Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who recently departed for Pac-10 rival Washington, have gone on to head-coaching jobs themselves. “I want guys to come to the program knowing that I’ll do everything in my power to get them the job of their dreams at some other place,” he says.

Carroll gulped down the last of his sandwich and took his chair; the GA in charge of statistics fired up the iPod. Carroll ran the meeting briskly, a stylized form of controlled chaos. And then a few final words:

“Let’s come out of our shoes today on these kids, man,” he told his staff. “Let’s just coach the shit out of these guys. I want lots of enthusiasm. I want you frickin’ screamin’ and yellin’ and makin’ ’em feel it. Make it memorable — but don’t abuse anybody.”

(more…)

Coaching matchups: Charlie Weis vs. Michigan’s Greg Robinson

Over at Dr Saturday, check it out in full here. I discuss Michigan’s new-look D versus Charlie Weis’s big-play (at least he hopes it is) pass game. Also of note if mgoblog’s great anatomy of a zone-read. It’s a must read.

And, after the jump, a couple of diagrams/vids that got left off the floor for the Dr Saturday bit.

(more…)

Smart Notes 9/11/09

LSU vs Georgia TechThe best of times, the worst of times. Georgia Tech’s win over Clemson was a fun game to watch, but ultimately taught us very little. GT scored on a long touchdown run (beautiful), and then a punt return for a touchdown off a quick kick and then one of the great trick plays in the form of a fake field goal where GT snuck a guy onto the field. And, after the initial burst, GT’s offense completely stagnated, and, over that stretch, Clemson looked like the better team.

But I wasn’t that impressed with them. Tigers quarterback Kyle Parker had a bizarre statline, where he completed touchdown passes of 77 yards and 63 yards, and added another 37 yard completion, but other than that he was 12 of 28 for 84 yards. I mean, I know it’s not totally fair to imagine someone’s statline without their best plays, but the fact that Clemson could not move the ball well other than two or three enormous plays doesn’t necessary speak well to an offense. (And this goes for GT’s 400 yards of offense considering 82 of them came in the first two plays.)

I think the takeaways are that: both teams are probably better than last year, but have issues; Georgia Tech will not win many games if they have to throw it; Clemson has a very impressive defensive line (they used a nose tackle on every play and managed to stop the dive-phase of the option without committing many extra people, which helped them run down the rest of the option until GT went to some counter plays); Dabo Swinney passed a test by bringing his team back; and Paul Johnson just earned a +1 for wins attributable to coaching (at least in a sense) since the quick kick return and the fake field goal were the result of good planning and taking advantage of plays, and both played into the margin of victory. The question on that last one is whether Johnson has any more of those in his system.

– Option to win. Speaking of Johnson and the option, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated has a nice article on the subject.

– Best preview you’ll read this week. Blutarsky previews South Carolina vs. Georgia, blahblahblahblah.

– 1969, football’s season of discontent. From Slate.

– What is Michael Crabtree doing? From the Fifth Down. I am normally pretty sympathetic to players who fight for their value — fans and owners are quick to turn them into greedy jerks who “won’t play” to turn all the leverage and public opinion against them when this is, realistically, their one shot to get paid while the money they don’t take will just wind up funding jumbo trons and luxury boxes and whatnot. But I don’t really have a handle on the Crabtree situation: do we really know what he wants? Are the 49ers lowballing him? (That wouldn’t surprise me.) Or is he being irrational? (That wouldn’t totally surprise me either.)

– Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes lead the Steelers to victory. I didn’t get to watch all of this game, but Roethlisberger is turning into sort of the Lebron James of football to me. Now, he’s not as good as Lebron, but both are excellent, excellent players, who play the game with almost zero grace. I love Lebron, but for pure fluidity and elegance and aesthetic measures, Kobe or Jordan just obliterate him. Yet he’s amazing, and aesthetics is not a metric that affects the bottom line. Same with Roethlisberger: the guy lumbers around, points downfield, does those herky-jerky pump fakes, but hey, he’s turned into a hell of a quarterback.

– A video on pairing wine with cereal. Seriously.

(more…)

Breakdown of USC’s multiple D versus Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor

Read the whole thing over at Dr Saturday. I discuss Pete Carroll’s move to more of a Cover 1 man look against mobile QBs, and at a few of the plays that OSU might use to counteract that. One I didn’t get into is one shown in the video below, a pretty nasty QB draw/counter play Ohio State used last season with Pryor.

For help I want to thank Art of Trojan Football Analysis and Jerry Gordon for their insights, and the invaluable Brophy for the game film that launched a thousand (or more) words. And for more nitty gritty, TFA has a nice series. See parts one, two, three, and four.

Breaking down the New England Patriots’ pro-spread pass game

You can find it over at the NY Times Fifth Down blog. I discuss three concepts — levels, the drive/shallow, and pivot concepts (y-stick type routes, or a pivot route with a square-in behind it) — and how the Pats use Wes Welker to make it all go and open things up for the other receivers, especially Randy Moss. Read the full thing here.

Gregg Easterbrook: NFL should hire more high school coaches

Well, I know a lot of high school coaches who would agree with this:

[T]he larger coaching issue is that once again, the NFL is stocking up on head coaches who have never been a head coach at any level, even high school, before becoming the boss in the pros.

Steve Spagnuolo, the new coach of the Rams, has never been a head coach at any level, not even when he worked for the Barcelona Dragons. Spagnuolo has been an assistant coach or scout for the University of Massachusetts, the Redskins, Lafayette, the University of Connecticut, the Dragons, the Chargers, the University of Maine, Rutgers, Bowling Green, the Frankfurt Galaxy, the Eagles and the Giants before landing the Rams headmastership. Twelve previous employers — he must have quite a collection of team apparel! But no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach.

Rex Ryan, the new head coach of the Jets, has been an assistant at Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico/Highlands, Morehead, the Cardinals, the University of Cincinnati, Oklahoma and the Ravens. . . . Raheem Morris, the new head coach of the Bucs, has been an assistant at Hofstra, Cornell and Kansas State. Lots of college pennants for his dorm room — but no head coaching experience. Morris has never even been a coordinator at any level, and now he’s an NFL head coach. Todd Haley, the new head coach of the Chiefs, . . . [had] no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach. Josh McDaniels, the new head coach of the Broncos, has been an assistant for Michigan State and the Patriots. He didn’t even collect much team apparel, in addition to less than a decade of experience, before becoming an NFL head coach.

Meanwhile Jim Fassel, Jon Gruden, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan — a combined 701-536-4 as NFL head coaches — aren’t working in the NFL this season. Schottenheimer and Shanahan each have more career victories than any active NFL coach, yet neither wears a headset. Only four active NFL head coaches have at least 100 victories (Bill Belichick with 153, Jeff Fisher with 133, Tom Coughlin with 123 and Andy Reid with 107). Yet 100-plus winners Shanahan and Gruden were just shown the door and 100-plus winner Schottenheimer can’t get his phone calls returned.

Why do NFL teams keep hiring head coaches who have never been head coaches? This year, inexperienced head coaches sound good because Mike Smith and John Harbaugh, neither of whom had been a head coach previously at any level, just did great jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore. But other factors are at work. One is inexperienced gentlemen earn less than experienced head coaches. Going into the next round of collective bargaining talks, NFL owners are attempting to project a “woe is me, the wolf is at the door” financial image. There will be internal league pressure come late December for no owner to give Bill Cowher the $10 million a year that is reputed to be his price for returning to coaching, as this would counteract the league’s poor-mouth campaign. Hiring inexperienced coaches to moderate salaries, on the other hand, fits the times.

Another factor is that inexperienced coaches kowtow to owners and general managers. For bureaucratic reasons, some NFL front offices prefer a head coach in weak political position. . . .

Next, the track record of major-college head coaches who jump to the pros — Nicky Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier — isn’t good. Few Division I coaches even want NFL posts. Who in his right mind would give up the job security and fawning treatment that football-factory college coaches enjoy, in order to be knifed in the back for a couple of years in the NFL, then fired? If big-college head coaches either won’t take NFL jobs or don’t do well in them, owners may assume that NFL assistants without head coaching experience are the only option. But what about the universe of small-college and high school head coaches? The more coaches I meet and the more I learn about football, the more I become convinced that some of the best coaching occurs at small colleges and in high school — where coaches must succeed without huge staffs and unlimited budgets. But the NFL looks down its nose at small colleges and high schools; Mike Holmgren was one of the few successful recent NFL coaches to begin as a high school head coach.

(more…)