Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Review: It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium

Honestly compels me to admit to a perhaps strange affection for Varsity Blues, and not just for Ali Larter in a whipped shaving cream bikini. In particular, the last line got me: "The day was ours . . . and no one can ever take it away." Ok, fine, you reached this wonderful level of achievement. But what happens tomorrow, when that achievement is over? That is, in its essence, the heart of It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium by John Ed Bradley.

Bradley was an All-SEC center for the LSU Tigers who, after ending his career in 1979, walked away from the game. Or tried to, at least. Sometimes, he was successful. Other times, not so much. And the siren song of the game, of the adoration, of the brotherhood still beckoned, yet was resisted.

In some respects, this is the book Friday Night Lights wanted to be, but couldn't, because Bissinger was an outsider. Bradley saw it, felt it, was part of it, then had to deal without it. Bissinger just got to see it-he described it well, and there's this communal aspect, but it's not innately part of him.

I know I'm trying, and failing, to put into this post just exactly what it was about Never Rains that caused me to read it in four hours. Those of you that are getting what I'm talking about are fine, but I'm sure I'm about to lose those of you who aren't. Then again, I have trouble passing up a chance to talk about the most underrated movie of the past 20 years, Toy Story. Yes, that Toy Story. Half (or so) of "Toy Story" (the arc of Buzz Lightyear) was a brilliant telling of the story A.I. tried to tell. The other half (the arc of Woody), is in part the story of John Ed Bradley and of thousands of others. Except Woody's story is more like that of Lance in Varsity Blues-finding his place within the same field of action, but from a different perspective. Bradley, the son of a coach, consciously forgoes this option, turning down a chance to be a graduate assistant, for ... something, though what it is is not quite clear.

One of Bradley's thing as a football player is he had this chest injury. And because of the pads he used, and a not-so-good job of fixing it (in part the result of macho bullshit). This chest injury gets ripped open every game, worse and worse. He has a scar to this day (or so he tells us, and it's quite plausible). This is, pretty much, his metaphor or what football meant to him. It's not particularly satisfying, though, and nor is his story of why he walked away from the game, his coaches, and his teammates. He turned down the GA because, well, he saw coaches as people trying to recapture the old thrill of the playing days. This is, of course, quintessentially sophomoric thinking. Nearing three decades away from his playing days, you'd hope Bradley could now give a better answer than that-it feels like there's more to it than that, particularly now that I've finished the book and put it down for a while (this section of the review would read differently if I'd written it yesterday, immediately after finishing the book). Maybe this is Bradley's real answer, maybe it's the answer for public consumption, and maybe it's an answer that's grown comfortable because it's been repeated for so long.

One of the problem with memoirs, of course, is it's difficult to entangle the personal foibles and failures of the author from the broader lessons you could take from the text. And Bradley, like all of us, has his own foibles and failures. The point of this meandering review, though, is many of those foibles and failures are universal enough, and the broader lessons evident enough, that I can enthusiastically recommend this book to football fans.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Blogroll Update

In honor of this excellent post on Javon Walker, please welcome former NFL agent and Green Bay Packer cap guy Andrew Brandt to the blogroll. Posts seem to come once or twice a week at irregular schedules, so this is another one for those of us who live by the RSS reader.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What If WhatIf Sports had a clue?

One of the things that annoys me about blogs is the (unnecessarily and ridiculously) provocative titles. Yet, for the second time in a week (see this post), I'm doing it. Why? Because I read a really stupid piece. This one, in fact, from WhatIf Sports predicting the AFC South results in 2006. In particular, this nugget from their look at the Indianapolis Colts really bothered me:

Most Exploitable Weakness: Running game Joseph Addai is a great talent and a fantastic fantasy performer, but the Colts were a slightly below average running team last year and Addai cannot be the only guy. The team brought back Dominic Rhodes and drafted Mike Hart, but neither projects to improve the team rushing average.


On the surface of things, that the Colts were a below average running team seems like a credible statement. After all, they finished 18th in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per attempt. As I mentioned in my review of Dominance, though, yardage stats suck. Fortunately, we have better statistics available.

In particular, I refer to Football Outsiders. First, let's take a look at the Colts' overall team offensive efficiency. We see from that page that the Colts ranked 3rd in the NFL in Rush DVOA, 11.0%, just ahead of ... the Minnesota Vikings, everybody's rushing attack darlings. This ... can't ... be, can it? This must be a mirage. If we look at the running backs, they can't be that good.

The Colts' lead running back was Joseph Addai. He's 4th in the NFL in DPAR. Not bad. 16th in DVOA-not as great, but still not bad. But let's look at Success Rate-54%, 6th in the NFL. Oh, but Addai was much better than the other rushers. So, let's look at Kenton Keith, the only other guy who had more than 30 carries. Keith: 4th in the NFL in DPAR, 13th in DVOA, and #1 in the NFL in Success Rate with 58%!

Ok, Addai's not a bad player, and maybe Keith's better than he's generally given credit for. So, let's take a look at the offensive line statistics. The Colts rank 5th!, 5th! in Adjusted Line Yards. They're 1st in the NFL at Power Success. They're 6th in Stuffed. But, aha, here we come to the rub. The Colts are 5th in ALY at 4.51, but they're only averaging 4.03 when it comes to RB Yards. What happened? Fortunately, the answer is right there on the same page: only 9% of the Colts' rushes went for 10+ yards, 31st best in the league. Most teams in the NFL get 2, 2, and 12 yard gains when they run the ball; the Vikings are a good extreme example of this. The Colts get 4, 4, and 4. One of these is better, and it's not the Vikings.

There are legitimate reasons to think the Colts may not be as good this year. Addai seemed to wear down as last year went on. He may not have had many long runs because he was on the field so much (or not, as the Colts haven't been in the top half of the league in 10+ runs since 2001). The Colts have to replace Jake Scott at right guard. Manning was sacked last year at a rate he hadn't seen since 2001, and that represented a marked decline from the year before. Wayne is the only known healthy and reliable receiver. The defense may not be deep, and who knows if and how quickly Freeney and Mathis will return to full strength. But, whatever weaknesses the Colts have, "they were a below average running team in 2007" has NOTHING to do with them.

UPDATE: Stupid Preview screwed up the URLs. Should be fixed. Also, forgot the HT to DGDB&D, from which the link.
UPDATE #2: Colts only lost Jake Scott on the O-line, so they return 4 starters. Sentence edited accordingly.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Book Review: Who's #1?

One of the reasons I'm not a very good book reviewer is sometimes I'm not sure what I want to say about a book, and Who's #1?: 100-plus Years of Controversial National Champions in College Football by Christopher J. Walsh is one of those books.

On the negative side, it's unusually-sized, more like a picture book than a normal text-based book. But, while it does have some photos, there wasn't really a budget for photo rights, as Walsh acknowledges, so what photos there are are black-and-white and not spectacular. The other thing I personally would like in a broad scope book like this is a long list of sources consulted, so I could read more on some topics. That isn't something lots of people like, though, so Walsh foregoes that.

The title is a little misleading, too. About half the book is on national championships, a description of how the process has changed over time, an examination of 10 of the more controversial ones, and a listing of who's been picked each year by all the selectors Walsh could find. A great part of the book is instead given over to team capsules-a look of some of the most successful years for a reasonably large number of different teams, ranging from the obvious traditional powers (Alabama, Nebraska, USC, etc.) to some teams that used to be well-known but aren't anymore (Chicago, Sewanee, Santa Clara, etc.). How informative these sections are depend on just how much you know about college football; the Sewanee section talks about the most impressive road trip in college football history, but I've known about that since I was about 7. I'd forgotten, though, Santa Clara had won Orange and Sugar Bowls.

I should have mentioned this in my review of Forward Pass, but Who's #1 could have used better editing. There are some annoying typos (who is this Arizona State alumnus Barry "Bongs"?), anecdotes are repeated (especially annoying in a book with 180 pages of text), and sentences are sometimes crafted particularly inartfully (something I here am often guilty of). I tend to read quickly, with my brain often seeing what should be there instead of what actually is there, so poor editing doesn't both me nearly as much as it does some people.

Gripes aside, this isn't a bad book, and it's a pretty good primer on college football history, making it a much more useful book than the title and subtitle indicate. Is that a recommendation? If you think it is, then it is; if not, then it isn't.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Blogroll Update

Longtime NFL personnel man Michael Lombardi, who's worked for Bill Walsh and a whole list of other NFL luminaries, now has a blog that's reasonably interesting. This post on evaluating college wide receivers is particularly interesting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Forward Pass

One of the biggest problems I have with the football books listed on the sidebar is they're not about football, not really. Take, for instance, When Pride Still Mattered; it's a bio of Vince Lombardi, but there's not really any evidence in there that Maraniss knew what the heck he was talking about when he talked about football. Heck, there's not really any evidence in there Vince Lombardi knew anything about football. There are football books out there that are actually about football, but they tend to be things like AFCA's Offensive Football Drills; books for coaches, not for fans. It is therefore with pleasure that I am pleased to write this review of Forward Pass: The Play That Saved Football by Philip L. Brooks.

Who the heck is this Brooks guy, you ask? Aside from being someone I'd never heard of before seeing this book, he seems to have been a longtime coach in Michigan at both the high school and college levels, including a head coach at Alma College. Apparently, he retired and, like other people, got bored. Instead of merely annoying his wife by following her around, he decided to write a book. Even more unusually, he decided to write a book on something he actually knew something about. Best, he wrote a book on something you could actually write a good book about. See, in the early part of the 1900's, college football was this oft-brutal game played by people with often spurious academic credentials. So, you can see not much has changed in the past century-plus. Joking aside, college football plays looked a lot more like rugby scrums than what we recognize today, and was reasonably dangerous (including deaths). As President Roosevelt, a fan of the game, and several university administrators considered banning the game for excessive violence, rules changes were in order. There were a number of important rule changes, but one of the biggest was permitting the forward pass.

The problem, then, was how the forward pass was incorporated into the existing run offenses. The answer, for many teams, particularly those in the Eastern Establishment, was hardly at all. Fortunately, there was Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had seen the virtues of movement and worked on taking the forward pass to his full advantage. Better, Stagg left a record of this work, and Brooks has mined this for the better part of his work. By quirks of scheduling, the first legal forward pass was thrown by St. Louis University, but Stagg at Chicago was one of those who took full advantage of the new rules. Moreover, he was a teacher; one of his former players who'd graduated was Jess Harper, who became a coach in his own right. Harper first coached at Alma College, where Brooks later coached, then Wabash, before ending up at Notre Dame. It was at Notre Dame where he made his greatest impact, thrashing noted Eastern power Army 35-13 in his rookie year of 1913 at the Golden Dome based on a superlative passing performance by QB Gus Dorais and fine pass-catching by end (and later successor to Harper as head coach) Knute Rockne. And, so, in 8 years, the forward pass went from a new novelty to a known and established part of the game that had shown itself as a threat to the most powerful teams in the land.

There's more to Brooks' book than I've outlined above; I neglected to mention, for example, the 1910 rules changes that made the penalties for incomplete passes less onerous, but the heart of the book is the development of the forward pass by Stagg and then Harper as a coach from its 1906 introduction to that epochal moment in 1913. Unfortunately, Harper didn't leave behind nearly as detailed a football biography as Stagg did, so Brooks is limited to newspaper accounts for game results, and some moments are less well-covered than you'd hope (there are detailed recaps of Wabash's 1909 and 1910 performances and almost no details on 1911, which is mildly disconcerting). There's still a lot of good material here, though, and Brooks's book is well-worth reading for anyone interested in the history of football or any fan of the game in general. This was a library rental, but I'll probably be acquiring it in the none-too-distant future.

Almost as an aside, Brooks helps shed light on somebody I'd long wondered about-just why Notre Dame traveled so much. At that time, the Western Conference, forerunner of today's Big 10, had more extensive restrictions than most teams, in terms of number of games and which players were eligible (notably, no freshmen), and Notre Dame, like most teams, didn't adhere to those guidelines. As a regionally important school, it could beat up teams like St. Viator and Olivet, but needed to travel to find quality opposition (Harper initiated changes and was later able to schedule Western Conference teams). Importantly, Harper was able to negotiate guaranteed travel payments, helping turn around an ND football program that had run consistently in the red; yes, Notre Dame in 1913 was in some respect the Troy (pre-conference affiliation) of that day's football, albeit of a somewhat more respectable caliber. Why exactly the other schools guaranteed travel payments isn't quite clear (Army didn't even charge admission to its games), but they did and ND was able to establish a national profile it's worked for the past 90 years to maintain.

UPDATE (7/19/08 1353 CT): I should have linked to this review earlier.

Just Say No to Frank Wycheck in the Hall of Fame

I have a long post up at Total Titans, plus a few comments, on why Frank Wycheck does not deserve to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Yes, outside of middle Tennessee, nobody would ever ask that question, but fans tend to overrate their local team and players.

No new content tonight; between the Wycheck post, yesterday's post here, and a post on The Other Blog, I broke 3k words. That's a little bit of writing of writing for me.

UPDATE (6/12/08 0039 CT): Remember that no new content thing? I finished a football book, Forward Pass, so I went ahead and posted a review.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Linkagery

More links. I'll see if I can't update more than I have been lately.

A follow-up from my last post, I wondered what Yakuza Rich would think of Roger Rex reinstating Pacman. He posted a comment in the FO thread, and said . . . exactly what you'd expect a Dallas fan who'd criticized Goodell before to say. Goodell knows where his bread is buttered.

I've hinted at this before, but here's a piece on the effect of the credit market on stadium financing. An already-dubious idea (public financing of stadiums) becomes more expensive. I feel bad for most of the people who will have their pocketbooks hit because of these subsidies.

A college football playoff is pretty much inevitable, given a sufficiently long time-frame (15 years, say), and this post from Coaches Hot Seat shows way: CHA-CHING. I strongly doubt their numbers for playoff revenue are anywhere close to accurate (cut them in half, I'm guessing), though I have no relevant industry experience, but even at that level the college presidents won't resist the siren song forever. Alas, this'll probably help kill my interest in college football, so thankfully it's a few years away. See also SMQ on the same (the inevitability of a playoff point, not my distaste for it).

The NYT, in its typical timely fashion, discovers some very smart people are trying to analyze ideal football strategy. Of course, the nature of some of these decisions is that people aren't making them, giving a perhaps distorted view of what would happen if decisions were made in the "ideal" manner. I'm also not in the least bit surprised to see Jeff Fisher rank around the bottom quartile of NFL head coaches when it comes to making intelligent decisions.

A look at 10 years of draft history, from P-F-R blog. The Oilers/Titans rank a little above average when it comes to first round value, and almost at the top of the pack when it comes to finding value in the middle and later rounds, headlined by the Jon Runyan and Derrick Mason picks. It's generally hard to pick good players there, but Reese and company did pretty well at it for quite a while. Just how well may not be apparent unless you've done a lot of looking at draft picks, which I have, I have.

Some interesting thoughts on salary caps from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. I think he misses the heart of the conflict among the owners, which will be at least as severe as the struggle between the players and the owners. I still fear a baseball-style resolution, where the lesser owners (Pirates + Marlins/Bills + Browns?) get a near-guaranteed profit and the bigger teams (BoSox + Yankees/Cowboys + Patriots) get to buy near-guaranteed success, and I think that'll be the most likely outcome.

Finally, some thoughts from MGoBlog on his grievances with sports blogs. You will not find (a) pictures of attractive women, (b) Erin Andrews fetishization, (d) "Blank" Nation, or (e) countdown posts. I do reserve the right to do picks posts, as it's something I've meant to do, but will endeavor to do them as part of general preview posts rather than on their own.

I know I said "finally" there, but I also must mention that over on Total Titans, we're voting on a Tennessee-era all-time team. Only 10 years, so some of the picks are near no-brainers, but it's an interesting enough exercise for June. I hope to have a post up there on another topic that'll get me flamed in the next couple days, and will link to it here when I get that done.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Miscellanea

More links.

The NFL's rules are generally well-considered and good at discouraging strategic behavior. But, now always, as the Giants' recent signing of Renaldo Wynn makes clear-the Giants waited until after June 1 to avoid having it affect their compensatory picks for next year. I suspect there are two factors at work here. First, June 1 used to be more of a cap-friendly release date. That's changed, because of the ability to designate earlier releases as post-June 1 releases that spread over the next two years. Thus, post-June 1 signing were by more cash-strapped teams, the kind that couldn't sign free agents. In this way, excluding post-June 1 signings from the compensatory formula made sense. But, it doesn't anymore. The second rationale, which is still valid, is post-June 1 free agents tend to be the dregs of the market, and teams are generally set. But, this isn't necessarily true, and players are valued on how productive they are for their team, not how good they are. Either way, I believe the rule is obsolete and should be changed. HT to PFT.

PFT: good for links, bad for analysis. See, e.g., Florio's recent column on why not having a cap wouldn't be too bad. So, if you assume bad management by big-money teams, continue the revenue sharing adopted to get the current CBA to work, and assume the draft stays in place unchanged (three bad assumptions), then life won't be too bad.

Thoughts spurred by the Lexington Herald-Leader: one thing I've taken heat for on my posts over at Total Titans is that I'm "too critical" to actually be a fan of the team. I must confess, the attitude that criticizing a team or its players means I'm not a fan puzzles me greatly. One of my goals in blogging about my favorite team is to say something intelligent. Sometimes that means being complimentary; other times, it doesn't.

I promise, I don't link to Yakuza Rich's posts sometimes just because he thinks Roger Goodell is as bad as I do.

Speaking of YR, he's a Dallas Cowboys fan, so I'll be curious to see his take, if any, on Goodell's limited reinstatement of Pacman Jones today. This is contrary to my expectations. But, one of my bigger problems with Roger Rex is he's in thrall to the more financially important owners. See, e.g., Bob Kraft and downplaying Spyage. See also Jerry Jones and reinstating Pacman Jones? Probably, though there's no way to be sure. No, I'm not just saying this because I'm on record as saying Pacman would never be reinstated.

Back to Yakuza Rich, he ranked the NFL's punters. The method is pretty opaque, and it's hard to disaggregate good punters and bad coverage teams, but the results seem generally valid. I'm encouraged by seeing McBriar not in the top 5, though I think he's still too high at #10-he's a classic high-gross, low-net punter, and would be really exposed on a team like the Titans with mediocre coverage units.

Another thing I do that makes some people question my fanhood is say nice things about opposing players. Particularly, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Peyton Manning as a quarterback-the way he plays, the way he works, the respect he has for the game. Habitually writing retired players is just a manifestation of that, and something else I applaud him for.

Finally, when I do these link agglomerations on The Other Blog, I like to end with a more amusing link. To that end, I conclude this session with SMQ on Athlon Sports' 2008 Preview of Mrs. Kirkland's 6th-8th Grade Homeroom.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Linkagery

Some more miscellaneous links, as I avoid doing any form of actual work, both blogging and actual...

SMQ took a detailed look at Alabama's over-recruiting. I personally find the Alabama partisans taking a totally ridiculous attitude on this.

Remember that crystal football Florida got for winning the BCS Championship? Some recruit broke it.

A good long article on stadium subsidies, which are bad things. On a related note, remember how the Super Bowl was in Arizona? The city of Glendale lost money.

Over at P-F-R blog, JKL took an extended look at the NFL's scheduling and format history. See also part two of the same.

If I spent more energy on this blog, one of the things I'd do would be more stuff like these player profiles by John Morgan of Field Gulls.

Completion percentage is overrated. Proof? Chad Pennington leads the NFL. Like, the entire history of the NFL.

NFL teams, by rookie pool amount.

Biz of Football did an interview with Louisville Fire (Arena2) QB Matt Bassuener. Why do I link to this? Hoya Saxa!

Yakuza Rich pointed out sacks are decreasing in the NFL.

SMQ, as part of an ongoing series, took a look at Georgia as a national championship contender. They have a really rough schedule this year, but they're my early pick for the BCS Championship Game, beating the Buckeyes. I reserve the right to change that in the next seven months.

Speaking of predicting the upcoming college football season, Phil Steele's magazine comes out June 10. Check out the covers for this year. In particular, note the Florida variant. Schools represented: Florida, Florida State, South Florida. Note: not Miami. Major points to anybody who predicted that five years ago. Sit down, you liars.

More content later.