Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review: Big Play

So, the Wall Street Journal has recently started to emphasize sports more, devoting a regular page to it in the daily edition, in addition to the occasional column and regular weekend coverage. While I've been a Journal subscriber on and off (mostly on) since my freshman year in college, the recent expanded sports coverage has reminded me of something-the Journal really isn't that good at covering sports. This isn't that surprising-the nature of their sports coverage means it isn't as attractive a platform for a writer as a more sports-focused outlet or an outlet with better national coverage. The best you can hope for is somebody with a semi-focused niche and let him expound on his pet theories.

For a while, that person was (I don't think he's still there) Allen Barra, and Big Play: Barra on Football is a collection of Barra's columns through the years. Published in 2004, some of the work dates back to the mid-1980's, while some of it is more recent. Some of the pieces originally were in the Journal, while others appeared in Slate, Salon, Inside Sports, and other outfits. I must admit to a strong personal bias-the point to writing a 275 page book is to make arguments you can't make in an 800 word newspaper column or 2000 word magazine piece. A book that's merely a pastiche of those shorter pieces fails that test. Most importantly, in a column you can simply make pronouncements that I know this and get away with it. In a book, you can expound on why you believe this to be true-explanation, reasoning, address counter-arguments, stuff like that. Context-free recitations of YPA and INT% are acceptable (yet tiresome) in a column, but repeating it over the course of 20 different columns (38 in the book) is simply unacceptable. Stuff that's minorly annoying you see in a column once a month expands to heinous proportions in the book, notably Barra's habits of bringing up Alabama's greatness under Bear Bryant and Pudge Heffelfinger's 1950's book. The contradictory nature of columns is also stressed by collecting them in a book-it takes a fine mind to simultaneously hold the opinion that Bart Starr is better than Johnny Units because he had more postseason success in the 1960's, Y.A. Tittle is underrated because he didn't have enough postseason success in the 1960's, and John Elway is overrated because he some but not enough postseason success in the early part of his career (Barra compares his career minus the 2 SB-winning seasons to Dave Krieg's).

The oddest column, though, is the one praising Carmen Policy's cap management for the 49ers during the 1994 season, which he notes in the intro he included over the advice of some (more perspicacious) friends. Policy did do a pretty good job of setting up the 1994 49ers for success in a way that other teams weren't able to replicate (see Oilers, Houston, compare 1993 to 1994). A couple ways he did this-for existing players, he had some guaranteed money come in 1993, in the pre-cap era, to keep players happy. Second, he used a loophole-the cap only covered payments made through 1999, so he delayed payments. Third, he gave players signing bonuses instead of salaries, eating up future years of cap. (It would've been useful if he remembered this mortgaging against the future when he writes that Steve Young was overrated because of his lack of postseason success.) Fourth, he simply cheated. The 49ers were later punished for this, but Barra says that value of winning the Super Bowl outweighs the cost of the fine and loss of a draft pick, which to me is fairly stupid results-based thinking. Ah, but Policy still did a great job, Barra says, even in Cleveland. Yes, he drafted Tim Couch and Courtney Brown, both of whom were enormous busts, but these were smart picks even though they turned out to be enormous busts because everybody else liked them, too, and championship teams would like to have a franchise quarterback and defensive line stalwart, and the 49ers haven't come that close to a Super Bowl since '94, so Policy must have done something right. Reading this piece was one of four or five times I had to pick the book down and, as non-violently as I could, hurl it onto the bed, chair, or couch in frustration. Far be it from me to criticize Barra (after all, he made the print WSJ, while I was only in the online edition), but a far better explanation for the 49ers fall since then is that they haven't been very good at talent evaluation and thus haven't been able to replace the players Bill Walsh drafted and the expensive veterans Policy's mortgaging of the future (and Eddie DeBartolo's deep pockets, something Barra hints at but doesn't mention) made it possible to acquire.

Oh, what else should I mention? Well, probably not the column where he "argues" Tim Brown is better than Jerry Rice, or else I'd feel compelled to rant about that one, too. I guess I'll just simply note that reading Big Play, even while watching basketball, was not a very productive use of my time. It's up there with The Paolantonio Report is terms of being the listed on the sidebar as being least worthy of your time. If I'd bought my copy instead of getting it from the library, I'd consider burning it in my fireplace as its highest and best use, and you, you should not read it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Draft Links

Draft blatherings, draft blatherings, lots and lots of draft blatherings.

National Football Post has been doing mocks. See February 9, February 16, and March 2 (also below).

Lance Zierlein, who I consider must-read from January through April, had an important reminder about keeping in mind the different between draft grades and draft positions. You get a flavor of this in Madden franchise mode, but that always conveniently has 5 players in the top tier (top 5), 5 players in the next tier (top 10), something like 15-20 players in the next tier (1st round), etc. You don't see stuff like 2 players listed as Top 5, 4 players Top 10, and 35 players 1st round, which happens in real life. So, in constructing a draft board, it's not enough to just rank the players at a position (NFP 2/10), but to assemble them into tiers or at list an updated top 100 (NFP 2/18).

NFP's ranking of the running backs by attribute is incomplete-it fails to include those "most likely to have fans curse their name for failing to get to the hole before it closes" and "inability to cut back despite straightline speed. Sorry, disgruntled Titans fan annoyed at White and Henry.

A focus for the draft, but useful at other times, too, has been NFP's Scout's Eye series on how to evaluate players by looking at their various skills. This series underscores just how ill-qualified I am to be a scout-I'm simply way too unobservant to have anything interesting to say about most of these categories. Anyway, they're doing it by position, so check out quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive tackles.

One thing I'm catching up on is Combine links. Jack Bechta had some thoughts on what the experience was like as an agent, and Matt Bowen produced a very useful four-part series on his experience in Indy (one, two, three, and four). See also the various combine reports: NFP, NFP 2,

Small school players, aka the guys we didn't see on TV much (if at all) this fall: Tony Pauline has some of them. See also more from NFP on sleeper prospects. Along the same lines, see combine non-invitees who may be drafted or at least make an impact.

Money matters. The teams pay $75,000 each, a total of $2.4 million. Player attendees also get free swag from Under Armour.

Ray Gustini got to attend the Combine and did a typically amusing writeup of his experience.

Of course, maybe the biggest story about the Combine was Andre Smith's mysterious disappearance. More recently of course, Smith worked out in Alabama for scouts. See Mike Lombardi, Matt Bowen, and Lance Zierlein, and particularly the latter two's note that none of the recent nonsense has made the tape on Smith look worse and he should therefore still be picked in the first half of the first round.

Rick Gosselin was another Combine attendee and afterwards gave his top 10 prospects and players going up and down. See also NFP's post-combine report by position.

Of course, with the Combine over, it's on to what's next. Of course, you have to put out another mock draft (NFP 3/2). There are also updated position rankings (NFP 3/3), draft prospects by tier (NFP 3/4), and you could even do a stock watch (NFP 3/5).

Finally, just because he's a smart guy even if he is a rival GM and I don't have anything amusing to end with, Bill Polian gave an interview about what the Combine is and isn't. Medical exams, medical exams, medical exams.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Linkagery

Another round of links.

One of the things that seems to distinguish the football-savvy from us amateurs is the use of the term "fire zone" to designate a zone blitz. Chris at Smart Football had a nice article, inspired by a Dr Saturday post on Utah's use of the tactic in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.

A little overtaken by events now, but Mike Lombardi has a nice analysis of the decision-making by both sides in whether or not the Ravens should re-sign Ray Lewis, and if made sense for Lewis to re-up. Of course, by now, Ray Lewis has been re-signed by the Ravens, to which I attribute the lack of willingness of another team to pay him the crazy numbers. Playing the Me game and losing... I wonder if it was a humbling experience for Lewis. I know it can be.

SI had an interesting piece a while ago on where recruits come from. I commend to you Dr. Saturday's take on the same issue.

Also from Dr. Saturday, some of the annual fun with victory by the transitive property. All hail Gallaudet, obviously better than Florida!

Finishing a little trilogy from Dr. Saturday, some of the guiltiest pleasures of the 2008 college football scene.

Greg Cosell of NFL Films is probably best known as the executive producer of ESPN's great NFL MatchUp show, and had a good column examining the different yet still successful styles of the Super Bowl quarterbacks.

A useful reminder for some people: the media has a job to do in covering a team, and you shouldn't get mad at them for trying to do their job. Frustrating it may be as a fan, but Fisher really does an excellent job with the media-trying to play their game while at the same time keeping a very tight lid on things. I'm not sure it'd work in a different city, but it doesn't have to.

Too depressing to actually read: why the Titans only had 1 TO on their final drive during Super Bowl XXXIV. Watching the replay on NFL Network a couple weeks ago was too depressing, and this analysis doesn't get into the time they wasted on that drive. Fish may now be regarded as one of the best clock management coaches in the NFL, but he didn't do a great job then.

A useful explainer from Dr. Saturday on how scholarships and stipends work.

Rick Gosselin did his annual ranking of the best special teams units in the NFL. The Titans came out second, ranking highly in kickoff return distance and opponents missing their field goals (something I'm really not sure they have much control over).

Another thing slightly overtaken by events: the Mike Leach contract saga. It's interesting to see what kind of issues he and Texas Tech were disputing, and the various bonuses in the contract.

Some very nice advice from Jack Bechta of NFP on financial advisors, focusing on the cautionary tale aspect. One of his pointers reminds me of the sagest advice I got in my Bankruptcy class: "Never open a restaurant." Over half of the actual Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcies, per the prof, were restaurants. Something like 90% fail in the first year or 18 months.

Mike Lombardi, in his preview of free agent running backs, has a number of useful factors to keep in mind in evaluating an RB. The first two questions get to the core of my problem with LenDale White-he gets the yards the blocking scheme gets him, and no more. He did the same for other positions, including tight ends, wideouts, centers, guards, tackles, defensive linemen, defensive ends, linebackers, and outside linebackers.

Over at PFR blog, Chase Stuart did a three-part series on ranking the greatest wideouts ever. See parts one, two, and three.

Ray Gustini of NFP had one of his typically excellent and highly amusing piece on the retirement of Brett Favre. His disparaging comments about Wisconsinites and Favre love are so on point.

Greg Cosell had an excellent column looking at Matt Cassel's strengths and weaknesses. I listened today to the BS Report (almost always a mistake) with Mike Lombardi from last Monday. One of the things I disagree with most with Lombardi (and also Peter King) is affection for Matt Cassel. As Cosell points out, Cassel was effective the second half of the year because he was in shotgun. Key graf: "In the last seven weeks of the season, the Patriots were primarily a shotgun passing team. They did not call a lot of drop-back plays. Why? Because Cassel was simply not very good at it."

You may have seen the news that the scrimmage kick exception that made the A-11 offense in its current incarnation possible was fixed. Chris at Smart Football gives his take. I particularly agree with him that the scrimmage kick exception isn't the right vehicle, and the A-11 guys are free to try to convince teams to set up their own parallel leagues, but they don't seem to be interested in lobbying for a rule change to get rid of the eligible lineman requirements. This is probably a losing cause, but it's at least an honest one.

Chris had another nice post on thinking seriously about risk analysis, and in particular when and when not teams should be risky.

Finally, I can't help but point out this little nugget courtesy of Andrew Brandt: the Pro Bowl came at about the same time as a matchup of the Lakers and Cavs, Kobe Byrant and LeBron James. The utterly meaningless and pretty boring Pro Bowl outdrew one of the NBA's premier regular season games by 50%.

Enough for now. I'll have more to say later.

Miscellanea

I was watching college basketball earlier today, specifically the Purdue-Michigan State game on CBS. One of the commentators, I believe PBP man Gus Johnson, mentioned that Purdue coach Matt Painter wanted his team to "play with a greater sense of urgency" than they had in their previous game, a loss to Northwestern. Now, this sense of "playing with a sense of urgency" is one I've heard before from football commentators, and I must confuse I have absolutely no idea what it means aside from "play better". At best, I guess it could be referring to some sort of vague combination of hustle and playing hard (in that case, why not use more direct words, except maybe those are white connotations), but I really suspect it's much more anodyne than that-something silly like "be on the lucky end of your expected distribution instead of the unlucky end." I guess it's petty to be annoyed at good thoughts toward a team, but that's who I am. It therefore shouldn't be a surprise to see that I'm going to try to "blog with a greater sense of urgency". When it gets to the point where you don't want to organize your bookmarks because you don't want to see how many there are (about 340), yeah, you've reached that point. Of course, since I'm committing to something meaningless, I don't know what I'm committing myself to. Anyway, on with the show.

Long and not that boring interview with Joe Tiller. It's interesting to read this in conjunction with Smart Football's posts on defense catching up with the spread offense. Tiller's comments on not reading a football book in the past decade and instead reading management posts trying to connect with kids is also interesting and potentially along the same lines.

This is a basketball link, but the same thing exists in football-Tim Duncan as a player with an innate sense of spatial relationships. That's the difference between a safety who gets there in time to break up the pass and the one who gets beat by half a second-the former guy probably has that special innate sense, whereas the other guy is reading and reacting.

Were I a different person, with a different sense of priorities and different time commitments, I'd tell you in detail just why this is a bad article. Instead, I'll simply aver that.

One of the fun things about being a snarky blogger is you get to make fun of media people for being contradictory. In this case, check out David Climer in January and March. Yes, this is front-running at its most able to remind me why almost all columnists are worthless finest.

Scott Coy and Darren DeMeio, idiots of the week. The Westminster College football coaches were in Nashville for a convention and decided it would be a good idea to go wrestling in the atrium, whereupon they crashed their way through a plate-glass window to fall four stories. When I mention this occurred at 4:15 A.M., you may surmise that alcohol was probably involved, or at least that was my surmise.

A useful data dump: the likelihood of a TD or FG based on starting field position, based on 8 years of NFL data.

Adam Schefter had some nice excerpts from Jim Schwartz's presser talking with the Detroit media. Nothing too groundbreaking here, but he's very kind when he mentions, "Obviously some holes in the roster. No different, though, than probably half the teams in the NFL at this time of the year that are evaluating their roster..." Yes, except those other teams' priority lists include "replace right guard" and "upgrade at running back", not "find 7 average-quality players to start on defense."

Of course, Jim's task isn't simply to collect talented players, but to build a team. A couple good examples here from hockey-a nice scene in Miracle, where Herb Brooks mentions his job isn't to pick the 20 best players, but instead the right ones. The second is the difference between the Canadian Olympic team in 1998 and 2002-the former was more of a collection of talent built to achieve an agenda as much as win (Bobby Clarke building up Eric Lindros), whereas the latter was built to win.

Lee Igel had a nice article at NFP on how coaches are hired. It sounds a lot like how hiring is done is the world at large, which isn't very surprising.

Mike Lombardi had a nice list of keys to remember for a big game that he put together based in part on observations of Bill Walsh.

Mike Lombardi again, with some insightful words on Jon Gruden and his inability to fall in love with players. Gruden's a guy who'll never be successful if he has a young quarterback or a competent backup.

Jack Bechta with NFP with some insight on agent inducements to get players to sign. Most of it, of course, it just time-shifting payment (see life-cycle hypothesis).

Chris of Smart Football had a very nice breakdown of a deep crossing route, focusing on Larry Fitzgerald's TD against the Panthers and also bringing in Norm Chow and Texas Tech's versions of the same play. See also Chris's resource post for Texas Tech/Airraid information.

More cross-sport perspective: vintage Bill James, from the 1984 Baseball Abstract, on inside out perspective. Key difference, in my mind: the insiders deal with the people, while the outsiders can't see the people for the most part. Both parties, as James points out, lose valuable information because of it.

Finally, a very interesting post from Andrew Brandt of NFP on the effects of 2010 as an uncapped year.