Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Rough Magic

Another book about college football, another book listed by an ESPN college football reporter as one of his five. Last time, it was Meat on the Hoof, recommended by Gene Wojciechowski, while this time it's Rough Magic: Bill Walsh's Return to Stanford Football by Lowell Cohn, recommended by Ivan Maisel.

In Rough Magic, Cohn tells the story of the 1992 Stanford Cardinal, the first year of Walsh's second tenure as head coach at Stanford. At the time, Cohn was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Walsh granted him almost unlimited access to the team and coaching staff to, well, chronicle the year for the book. Call it another example of the Breaks of the Game model. I was worried Maisel, a Stanford alum, was overrating a book about his alma mater, but thought Cohn did an excellent job of giving a portrait of a coach and his team. Make no mistake, this not a book about a team like John Feinstein tried to make Next Man Up, but instead about a coach and his team.

Full credit goes to Cohn for using his access very well, and to his good fortune Stanford ended up having a good and interesting season. Expectations were fairly low, but the Cardinal ended up going 10-3, including a bowl win over Penn State. Interestingly given Walsh's reputation as an offensive guru, Stanford that year was driven more by its defense than the passing game, as the offensive line struggled to block for QB Steve Stenstrom, who also didn't cotton on as quickly as Walsh hoped to the complicated passing offense.

I really enjoyed reading Rough Magic, but as I think back to it I'm not sure quite how valuable reading it was. I felt like I already sort of knew Walsh from The Genius, in particular, and the impression I got from Walsh was consistent with the Bill Walsh I felt like I already knew. The portrait is definitely more detailed than a full-life bio like Harris's book, but I'm not sure it's interestingly different. That said, I can't think offhand of any other Breaks-style books on a single year of a college team, and Cohn does tell that story as well in a slightly less-complete fashion.

Rough Magic only covers the 1992 season, and does not cover the 4-7 and 3-7-1 1993 and 1994 Stanford seasons when Walsh's less college-oriented background and assistant coaches may have been more of an issue.

Recommended to people who think they'd enjoy it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review: Meat on the Hoof

I must admit I was not familiar with Gary Shaw's Meat on the Hoof until I saw that Rex Ryan recommended it (though it was mentioned in this Howie Long profile by Dr. Z). Now that I've read it, I can see why Gene Wojciechowski would include it on a list of the top books on college football.

Meat on the Hoof is the story of Shaw's experience playing (practicing, primarily) for Darrell Royal's University of Texas Longhorns football team beginning in the fall of 1963. The "meat" of the title refers to Shaw and his fellow football players, as they were winnowed out from the opening intake to the smaller number who'd actually see the field for the Longhorns varsity.

That winnowing process was, at least back in those days, the result of a simple numbers game. Texas, per SWC rules, could give out 100 football scholarships. A class like Shaw's would have 45 freshman, of whom 40 would be redshirted. Obviously Texas couldn't recruit and keep 45 players every year with a 100-scholarship limitation. To make room for the new meat, the Texas coaches essentially conducted psychological (and physical) warfare on the players, turning football into a struggle of persistence and will over body. The winners were those who could sublimate physical pain and continue to perform, and the healthy. The losers were those whose desire or physical ability didn't measure up to the coaches' standards, and the injured.

The injured are a particular point of concern in Shaw's book. The clearly seriously injured were perhaps the best off: they went off to do rehab and seemed to disappear from the thoughts and minds of the coaches. Those not clearly seriously injured were the worse off, as a seemingly key part of the winnowing process was systematically denying medical attention to anybody except a varsity first- or second-stringer who'd already passed through the winnowing process. That deaths were not a more regular occurrence was part fortune, part a testament to the durability of the human body, and part the result of players reaching a point where they decided they had to go outside the bounds of the football team to get medical attention.

The situation was even worse for those lower on the depth chart. Slip below the fourth team, and you were excluded from the regular practice and sent to run "shit drills." Keeping in mind the numbers game, players down that far were, in that merciless logic, an active drain upon the football team's scarce resources. They couldn't be simply be cut, by the rules, so the "shit drills" were designed to force them to cut themselves, particularly by running what Shaw describes as drills whose sole intent seemingly was to create injury-causing violent collisions.

However it happened, injured players disappeared from the scene; like those deemed physically or mentally not strong enough, they were removed from the boundaries of the team. The coaches removed them from their universe, and the remaining players, whom the coaches praised and demeaned in what Shaw portrays primarily as psychological motivating tactics rather than critiques of talent and technique, followed their leaders' examples, shunning their former friends.

At the top of the pyramid was the man Shaw refers to as Daddy D, Darrell K. Royal himself. DKR was an Olympian figure to whom the players were simply meat. His personal charm and political skills, and particularly time off the practice field, were reserved for those over whom he did not have complete authority: recruits, parents of recruits and current and former players, and boosters. That authority was exercised at a remove: in seemingly arbitrary shifts of the depth chart, and by the passel of assistant coaches who actually spent time with the players in smaller group settings, almost all of whom were cut from the same mold as the man himself.

Reading Meat, I expected it to end like Scott Turow's One-L, in which the author tells his story but leaves out that he was one of the elite few who triumphed over the others. Shaw does indeed make it farther than most, but not to the end. After missing most of his junior season with a shoulder injury, he returns and is assigned to the thankless task of scout team duties, at which point he decides he's had enough, and joins the more than two-thirds of the rest of his class in leaving the football team before exhausting his eligibility (and generally the university as a whole as well).

While the players officially were entitled to their scholarship for their entire tenure, the numbers game meant the coaches were never eager to remind them of that fact, and so players tended to give up their scholarship and schooling when they left the football team. The psychological work done by the coaches plays a role here as well: many players considered themselves football players first, second, and third, and college students maybe fourth, and without football, being a student wasn't always sufficiently fulfilling.

Shaw did not seem to have a particularly happy adult life after the publication of Meat in 1972, being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spending a decade on the streets. His main legacy now is the book he wrote, so what should we think of it?

We're now close to a half century removed from Shaw's freshman season, and obviously there have been big changes since then. Players look a lot different: his UT team was all-white, and there aren't many 6', 196-pound defensive tackles playing major college football these days. We may condemn Nick Saban for over-signing, but the 25 man/year and 85-total scholarship limitations mean anything he (and others) do in running off players is small potatoes compared to what Texas (and, to be fair to Royal, other high-profile programs) did. At the same time, though, the cult of manliness still rules college football, and still takes a regular toll. As a non-player, I really can't say one way or the other, but will only note that stories like Shaw's make me as a fan deeply uncomfortable about football as a whole and extraordinarily glad I went to a high school and college where football was not a factor and leave it at that.

Recommended to those who think they'd enjoy it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: Da Bears!

Da Bears! : How the 1985 Monsters of the Midway Became the Greatest Team in NFL History by Steve Delsohn is exactly what you'd expect from the subtitle: a look at one of the greatest teams in NFL history, the 1985 Chicago Bears, a quarter-century after their season.

Unlike my immediately previous book review I don't feel the need to expound at length about the subject covered. Delsohn read all the books he should have, talked to the people he should have who were willing to talk to him, and wrote a light but quite entertaining book about the Super Bowl XX champs.

I didn't notice many nits to pick. The score of the first game of that 1985 season first appears correctly as a 28-17 halftime deficit to the Buccaneers, then later appears incorrectly several times with the Bucs having 24 points. Ditka in his discussion of McMahon refers to a costly interception against the Vikings which probably was actually thrown by Jim Harbaugh in this game-it's fairly famous Bear lore, as Harbaugh audibled into a pick-6 that led to the Bears blowing a 20-0 4th quarter lead and Ditka was fired after the Bears went from 11-5 to 5-11.* Yes, it's Ditka's fallible memory, but it's still Delsohn's fault it's in the book.

Anyway, if you have fond memories of the '85 Bears or what to know what the excitement was all about, Delsohn's book is an engaging and quick read about one of the most memorable teams in NFL history.

*-Obviously, how a team goes from 11-5 to 5-11 is much more complicated than a single interception, but we're talking about lore here.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Book Review: Death to the BCS

In Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case against the Bowl Championship Series by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Passan, in case you weren't clear from the book's title, we learn that the BCS is responsible for virtually all of the problems that plague college football. These include:

1. Teams actually don't make very much money off going to bowl games, partly because teams are required to buy a lot of tickets they often have trouble selling. Partly because of this, athletic departments are not profitable.
2. Bowl games are profitable, partly because teams are required to buy a lot of tickets they often have trouble selling, and don't give money to charity even though they're non-profits.
3. Bowl games would too still continue to exist even after a playoff.
4. The BCS inevitably screws some team.
5. Teams schedule weak non-conference opponents (non-BCS teams and I-AA) because the BCS promotes winning over a competitive schedule and because they want to win 6 games to be bowl eligible.
6. The regular season would too still continue to be really important even after a playoff.
7. The computer rankings as used by the BCS are nonsense math.
8. Poll voters are bad because Harris Poll voters don't necessarily even watch college football and coaches vote in their own interest.
9. Lots more people would totally watch a playoff, partly because ESPN's College GameDay has promoted the sport as a whole.
10. The BCS was created and run by a cartel of the power conferences, which hates non-power conferences.
11. Going back to the old system of bowl tie-ins would be a bad idea.
12. A 16-team playoff, with early round games at home sites, would be a huge money-earner and is obviously the right way to go.

The book is full of righteous indignation, and seems to be addressed to those who have an immediate negative reaction to the BCS. There are a couple chapters, like one on "superfans" and the one on "GameDay" that don't really feel like they add to the argument.

The big issue is, is their argument convincing? Do they make a good case that (a) the BCS should die, and (b) should be replaced by a 16-team playoff? To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, I think the BCS was created and continues as a reasonable compromise designed to address the problems created by bowl lock-in relationships preventing more desirable matchups but still keeping the historic and valued bowl system.

I. The Problem of a "Playoff"
The BCS, as currently constituted, is essentially a two-team playoff with a bunch of trappings. The trappings (the other BCS games) exist because they were needed as inducements to bring together the parties needed to create and maintain without defections a two-team playoff.

Wetzel et al. prefer a 16-team playoff including the conference champions of the 11 I-A conferences (the 6 "Cartel" conferences and the 5 others), plus 5 other teams chosen by a selection committee. They don't explain their proposed playoff in huge detail, but seem to prefer the first three rounds at home sites for the higher-ranked team with a national championship game at the Rose Bowl.*

*-Just to give a flavor of Death, they mention "Even an old Ohio State fan ... sees the allure of Pasadena hosting the national-title game" (184). Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ohio State is a Big 10 member, and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena is where the Big 10 has historically sent its conference champion. If you asked me to pick where a fan of any B10 team would prefer a national championship game, I'd guess at least 95% would say the Rose Bowl. A better, more interesting question is where an SEC fan would prefer the national championship game; my guess is New Orleans, home of the Sugar Bowl, would be the majority call, but Wetzel et al. are content to simply point out our Ohio State fan prefers Pasadena and leave it at that.

The ideal number of teams in a playoff is a question without an obvious answer. Obviously, Division I-AA has a 16-team playoff similar to what Wetzel contemplates. If you look at other leagues, most of them have had different playoff formats over time.

  • The NHL has had a 16-team playoff for a while, but previously conducted four four-team playoffs for each of its divisions before switching to 8 teams per conference with guaranteed top-3 seeds for the division winners.
  • Major league baseball previously had two divisions per league, a league championship series between the two division winners (even if one division winner had a worse record than several teams in the other division), and the World Series between the two LCS winners before switchng to its current two leagues, three divisions per league plus one wild card format.
  • The NFL since the AFL-NFL merger has gone from 4 playoff teams per conference with one wild card to 5 and then to 6, and for 1970-89 had a rule in place that a division winner could not face a wild card from the same division before the conference championship game.
  • The NCAA basketball tournament has gone from 16 to 65 teams and from conference champions and at large teams not in a conference only to guaranteed berths for conference champions and at large teams from a general pool.

So, obviously, there is no obvious ideal and universal playoff format. These formats do have one thing in common: at the end of the playoff, they crown a champion.

The issue with a 2-team playoff as opposed to a 10, or 12, or 65 team playoff is that the team is guaranteed to be among the N-best teams as determined by the playoff method. I'll get to the method of determining the "best" team later, but the pretty inevitable result of a 16-team playoff is a team not among the 5 "best" teams in the country will win the national championship. A good example of this has been the NFL-the last team rated #1 in DVOA to win the Super Bowl was the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it's not particularly unusual for a team to make or win the Super Bowl over a team that was clearly far superior to it-the most recent example of this is Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants beat the Patriots and were awarded the championship, even though the Patriots (a) won 6 more games than the Giants did in the regular season, and (b) defeated the Giants on the road in the regular season.

A probably even better example has been the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Despite the last three years, when arguably the #1 team in the country won the championship every year, you only have to go back to 2006 when a team not ranked by the Selection Committee among the country's top 8 won the championship.

In that way, college football's 2-team playoff has been, at least in my eyes, an interesting and pleasant exception: the champion is guaranteed to be among the two best teams in the country according to the selection criteria. Yes, that eliminates the possibility of the enthralling upset, but as I've described it's a trade-off.

Beyond the inevitability of an mediocre champion, the other problem Wetzel's proposed 16-team playoff has is the inability to include every team that could win the championship. W/r/t the NCAA basketball championship, a 65-team tournament and the ability to play 6 games in 3 weeks and 34 at-large teams means every team capable of winning the tournament is in the tournament; I'd estimate that the top 40 teams in the country are guaranteed to all be in the tournament. A 16-team playoff's smaller size, only 5 at-large teams, and conference championship games that may knock out a conference's best team, likely means that between 8 and 12 of the 12 "best" teams in the country would be included in a 16-team playoff.

Wetzel of course uses the 2009 season as proof this is a parade of horribles, and the actual highest-ranked (by AP) team they exclude is #14-ranked BYU. That depends, though, on 8 auto-bids in the top 10, which is not inevitable. A better example may be 2002, when only 5 auto-bids went to teams in the top 12.

The other thing a larger playoff does that Wetzel et al. don't acknowledge is it doesn't stop the debate about which teams should make the playoffs, it merely shifts the debate. The marginal team, instead of Oklahoma over USC in 2003, becomes LSU over BYU in 2009, but the same debates still apply. Unless I missed it, at no point do Wetzel et al. ever acknowledge this point.

II. Bowl Economics
Bowls occupy their privileged place in the college football postseason primarily because of historical inertia. They were initially created as essentially exhibition games, and were typically ignored in the polls until the late 1960's. Because they existed, and provided a valuable data point in comparing teams that were generally tough to compare, pollsters started incorporating them in their rankings. But because the bowls existed, there was never a strong push to create an NCAA-sanctioned postseason the way there was with other sports, simply because the most important teams wouldn't have been better off.

The most effective part of Death was just how much of the money from the bowl games stays with the bowl organizing committees. This is partially the result of a weird economic hybrid-some of the value of the bowl games, especially the more prominent ones, derives from their historical value, but some of it is obviously attributable to the historical ties of the games. Take, for instance, the Rose Bowl: how much of the value of the Rose Bowl brand belongs to the Rose Bowl organizers, and how much belongs to the Pac-10 and Big 10? The right answer here isn't obvious to me, and I think part of their outrage is over the top-a good bit of the Rose Bowl brand value, which belongs to the Rose Bowl and not the competing teams, is a result of the historical value accrued by the Rose Bowl organizing committee, and so it makes sense that the bowl keeps a portion of its provided value. Not that I need to tell you, but this sort of non-obvious nuance isn't to be found in Death.

Actually, probably more effective than how much money stays with the bowl organizing committee is the way payouts really work. This information isn't entirely novel, but essentially a bowl payout of $X includes $Y in expenses for the school. It's possible in some circumstances, depending on the bowl, for Y to be greater than X, especially if you look at it on a team-specific case.* In addition to $Y that's part of $X, schools also $Z in related expenses, like coaching bonuses.

*-Individual teams divide their bowl payout at the conference level, rather than keeping all of it. Wetzel "shows" that Florida's appearance in the 2009 BCS Championship Game only earned the school $47,000, despite the advertised $17.5 million payout. This isn't entirely untrue, but isn't entirely forthright either:
1. All bowl revenues are divided among the entire conference, so UF's revenue isn't bumped by as much as you'd expect from going to the BCSCG.
2. The BCSCG doesn't pay as much as it should based on how valuable it is compared to even the other BCS bowls.
Both revenue distributions are exactly what you'd expect if you were looking at a system designed not to for a single team to perform like gangbusters in its most successful year but rather to be successful for more teams over a bigger number of conferences.

A related point is that Wetzel et al. seem very confused by not-for-profits. To a corporate lawyer, the key difference between not-for-profits and regular for-profit entities is that for-profit entities are under an obligation to maximize shareholder value, while not-for-profits are instead obligated to pursue their mission. There are two points of contention here:
1. The bowls, by talking about their not-for-profit status, make people think they're good and wonderful charitable organizations, but don't give as much money to charity as you'd expect from the impression they give. It's a useful talking point for the book, but I rolled my eyes. Approximately nobody, including all charities, gives as much money to charity and charitable causes, as they talk about.
2. Athletic departments don't maximize profits. Instead, they tend to value more highly the prestige of their sports teams. Among other things, this favors bringing as many people, whether team members, band members, athletic department employees, sponsors, donors, and the like, as your bowl game permits. I'm sure part of the reason Florida only made $47,000 in profit from their BCSCG appearance was because the traveling party was larger and spent more lavishly than would have been the case if they'd gone to, say, the Music City Bowl.

If athletic departments really cared about maximizing revenue, they'd have as few non-revenue sports as they could, lobby the NCAA and the conferences to decrease the number of non-revenue sports they have to have*, and fund sports, especially the non-revenue ones, as meanly as possible. They comprehensively don't do this, in some cases quite the opposite. I'm pretty sure I know some of the reasons why, but Wetzel et al. don't acknowledge any of the unclear priorities. The not-for-profit status of athletic departments also explains why schools aren't completely eager to embrace a higher-revenue 16-team playoff, and why only 12 athletic departments turn a profit, and many others are reimbursed by a school's general fund.**

*-See this WSJ article (PDF) on the differing approaches between Texas and Ohio State.
**-Because they can.

III. Non-Conference Scheduling
Teams schedule non-power conference teams and I-AA teams, we are told, because (i) the BCS rewards teams for winning a lot of games and (ii) getting to 6 wins is important for bowl eligibility. Oddly for a book focused on teams being stupid and money-grubbing, what I see as the most important reason teams do that is never mentioned in the chapter: it's revenue-enhancing for the teams involved and college football as a whole.

Here's a hypothetical example. The dollar amounts are approximates, but the details are generally right and that's all that matters for this example.
Scenario 1: Ohio State plays Toledo, and Texas plays Wyoming.
Ohio State pays, e.g., Toledo, e.g., $750,000 to play one game at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State earns, let's say, $2.75 million off a home game. They pay $750k to Toledo and walk away with $2 million. Texas schedules Wyoming to play one game in Austin, pays them $750k for a home game, earns the same $2.75 million, and walks away with the same $2 million net.
Scenario 2: Ohio State plays Texas, and Toledo plays Wyoming.
Ohio State and Texas decide to play a home-and-away. That's how this normally works. I'm less sure of this works, but let's say to help even out revenue from year-to-year, Texas and Ohio State each give the other $1 million when they go to the other team. Let's say Texas and Ohio State earn a little more in TV revenue, so instead of $2.75 million for the home game, they earn $3 million. Meanwhile, Toledo and Wyoming play each other; I'm not sure what the numbers here quite look like, but let's say it's $750k in revenue and a $250k payment to the other team.

In that case, here's your bottom line financial picture for one year of each series:
Scenario 1: Ohio State earns $2 million, Texas earns $2 million, Toledo earns $750k, and Wyoming earns $750k. Total revenue: $5.5 million.
Scenario 2: Ohio State earns $2 million, Texas earns $1 million, Toledo earns $500k, and Wyoming earns $250k. Total revenue: $3.75 million.
That is your bottom line: it simply does not make financial sense for individual marquee teams to play other marquee teams on a regular basis in non-conference play. The only explanations I can come up with for Wetzel et al.'s failure to mention that in their chapter on non-conference scheduling are: (a) they don't know that and are therefore incompetent, or (b) they do know that and are deliberately withholding that extraordinarily important (to me) fact and are therefore mendacious.

The other problem with this chapter is, well, it's actually wrong. Non-conference scheduling HAS in fact mattered a great deal in making BCS decisions. Oklahoma making the Big XII championship game over Texas (and Texas Tech) in 2008 because they had a higher BCS ranking was partially the result of Oklahoma's superior non-conference scheduling (and actually winning those games). Ditto the Sooners making the title game over Auburn in 2004.

It was at this point in the book (Chap. 9, pp. 91-100) that I threw down Death for perhaps the sixth time and view to stop reading it. I decided, however, that before I declared a trio of national journalists to be either incompetent or mendacious, I should finish reading the book.

IV. Determining the Best Team
One of the recurring problems that Wetzel et al. consistently deal with, but never address directly is the difficulty of determining the best team. The closest they get here is in their chapter on how awful the computer rankings are and the chapter on the Harris Poll voters, but the real problem is something else:


Okay, that's probably a little strong. Here's the more nuanced story:
1. The national champion in college football has historically been the team ranked #1 in the AP poll.
2. The voters in the AP poll are journalists, most of whom cover a single college football team's games every Saturday. They watch more college football than most people, but less than many hardcore college football fans.
3. When the BCS was created, the powers-that-be (SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer being the main driving force) created a hybrid formula composed of the most famous computer rankings and the human polls (AP and coaches).
4. Any time the BCS formula produced a BCS Championship Game with teams other than AP #1 and #2, the AP pollsters threw a tremendous hissy fit and the BCS formula was adjusted so that in future years that exact case would produce a BCSCG with AP #1 and #2, even though the instant result was never clearly wrong.
5. The flaws of the Harris Poll Wetzel et al. point out aren't really a problem, because of the anchoring effect created by the AP poll. Ditto also the non-problem not solved by not doing the Harris Poll until October; there will still be preseason rankings and in-season rankings done by various people, and until those are outlawed (or fixed, to the extent such a thing may be possible), the Harris Poll cannot be truly fixed.
6. At no point do Wetzel et al. mention all of the well-known problems with the results of polling, most notably poll inertia where teams that win rise and teams that lose fall. An individual weekly poll is almost always the result of poll momentum, not a comprehensive rating of the relative strength of the teams in the poll.

The "solution" they advocate is the creation of a selection committee. This is something I'd advocated myself in the past, because it's a back-door way of creating legitimacy with journalists any time you have a result other than What The AP Poll Says. I'm skeptical this will actually work, given that, as noted above, journalists are incompetent whiners who've been important historically. Why exactly Wetzel et al. want a selection committee and what sort of criteria this selection committee would use is left clear as mud; I have no clue if they recognize just how bad the human polls are, or if they skate around the topic without mentioning it directly because they don't see or believe that the human polls are bad. Without a clear statement that the selection committee should completely ignore the polls the way the men's basketball selection committee does, a selection committee is not in my mind much of an improvement.

UPDATE #2: I realized that I neglected to write in more detail about the BCS's use of the computer rankings. There are two problems here. First, Richard Billingsley's rankings are included because Billingsley's been ranking college football teams since the late 1960's even though Billingsley's ranking system is insane. Second, the computer rankings have been neutered by removing margin of victory because including margin of victory was blamed for producing results other than AP#1 v. AP#2. The BCS isn't interested in good computer rankings because the pollsters are only interested in good rankings if the good rankings agree with the pollster rankings.

V. The "Cartel"
The Cartel is how Wetzel et al. refer to the power conferences that were responsible for the creation of the BCS and are the primary beneficiaries of the BCS.

The power conferences also have the primary allegiance of almost all fans of most college football, had all of the most important bowl tie-ins, perennially have most to almost all of the best 10, 20, and 40 teams, and in short provide substantially all of the value. Death mentions the memorable 2007 Fiesta Bowl game between Oklahoma and Boise State; what they don't mention is that game got horrible television ratings. The TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl this year actually had non-terrible ratings (that was the Iowa-Georgia Tech Orange Bowl), but both those teams were undefeated and have had a decent run of recent success. That's the same reason the BCS conferences control the BCS: they've had historical success and the large alumni bases that can deliver television ratings points. That's where the value is, and that's why the control the BCS. Weird how control follows money, though that's maybe the corporate lawyer in me again.

VI. Quick Hits

  • Wetzel et al. treat the 16-team playoff as though it's a novel concept, even though it's the only feasible playoff if you abandon the bowl system.
  • The best argument for a 16-team playoff is one they don't make, namely the lack of connectedness in college football and concomitant difficulty in comparing teams across conferences makes it impossible to identify the best teams, so we'll done as well as we can and hope for the best, and that's a 16-team playoff.
  • Minor bowls would become completely meaningless in a playoff, and sponsors and television would be less willing to pay enough to keep them viable. Some of them, probably 10-25 of the extant 36 or so, would die if a 16-team playoff were implemented.
  • Individual regular season games would, I believe, see their ratings decline. This LSU-Alabama game I'm watching is a de facto BCSCG elimination game for both teams. If it's not even a playoff eliminating game, which would be quite possible under a 16-team playoff, I'm probably watching stuff off my DVR instead. This underrating of the casual fan most interested in the most important games is persistent throughout Death.
  • Even the traditional bowl system was less popular than the NFL; this can be seen by comparing even pre-BCS ratings to NFL games played the previous or subsequent day. A college football playoff will not match the ratings of the NFL's playoffs.
  • Nobody aside from former Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen thinks going back to the old bowl tie-in system would be better than the BCS, and Hansen probably would get rid of the internet and maybe even the telephone as new-fangled inventions of dubious value.
  • Housekeeping notes: I call them I-A and I-AA and the Big 10 because I want to, and know and don't care that they're officially otherwise ("FBS", "FCS", and "Big Ten" respectively). I-AA is also consistent with Death, not that that's a positive indicator. I also got tired of typing "Wetzel et al.", so read that any time it just says "Wetzel."
  • The revenue split from a 16-team playoff is not addressed.

Anyway, I've ranted enough. I've hit some topics Wetzel et al. didn't cover quite the same way I did, and haven't hit every topic they did, but I think I've given you a brief overview of my thoughts on why Wetzel et al. have written a bad book you shouldn't read. Emphatically not recommended.

See also the book's website and the book's twitter feed if you want to see more of what they have to say, not that I recommend doing so. See also Joe Posnanski's review, the least bad that I saw. Posnanski also gave BCS executive director Bill Hancock space to respond, not that he uses it particularly well (or could, for political reasons).

UPDATE (11/6 1742 CT): Doing some minor cleanup and proofreading; one point of order: it was pointed out to me that the normal reason for CFB not playing on Jan. 1 was because it was a Sunday, not because of the NFL conflict. Fair enough, so I've revised that bullet point to reflect CFB's lower ratings compared to NFL games the next or previous day.
UPDATE #2 (11/13 0015 CT): I finally made it through and re-read the review with clear eyes, and cleared up a few times where I'd had the wrong word and some grammar/readability issues. I also added a paragraph on the computer rankings in determining the best team (marked UPDATE #2) which I neglected to include in the initial post.
UPDATE #3 (9/1/11 1116 CT): Some numbers courtesy of MGoBlog suggesting the revenue cost of giving up a home came is in the neighborhood of $3.9 million.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Total Titans

Some catchup on what I've written on Total Titans of late:

Yesterday, I wrote about two myths regarding the Titans' run offense.

I wrote about field position and the Titans' offensive success, which is something I'd written about in the offseason.

I liveblogged the Titans-Jaguars MNF contest.

With today's loss to the Chargers, the Titans now don't play for another two weeks because of the bye. During that time, I plan to write one or more posts at Total Titans covering in some more detail the Titans' struggling run game. Unless I get lazy and don't, which has a small but non-zero chance of happening. I also have a goodly number of bookmarks to sort through, some of which I might blog about at some point during the next two weeks. I'm also continuing to read football books-I should in November finish at least the three I've been averaging over the quarter, with reviews of those appearing at the proper time.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book Review: God & Football

For God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC, Chad Gibbs decided to undergo a season long tour and see a home football game for every SEC team during the 2009 season. If that sounds slightly familiar, well, it should, since that's exactly the conceit behind Clay Travis's Dixieland Delight, written about the 2006 season.* Of course, Gibbs couldn't just write Dixieland Delight Version 2, By Some Other Guy, which meant he had to find a separate hook.

That hook, as you might guess from the title and subtitle, is that the SEC just happens to be located in the South, where 84% of the population self-identifies as Christian. How do Christians like Gibbs square their devotion to their alma mater's gridiron achievements (or lack thereof, see, e.g., Vanderbilt and Kentucky). For his tour, Gibbs spends his time meeting with students who are part of organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ and speaking with local preachers, many of whom tend to be just as fanatic in their football devotions as Gibbs and just as conflicted as he.

As far as hooks go, I am none too religious by personal avocation, so the conflict Gibbs writes about is one I don't personally feel. Nor, I admit, did I find it deeply insightful into other areas. There are no great answers at the end of this book, which I view as being primarily because there really aren't any great and easy answers, and there shouldn't be.

Given that, how does it compare to Dixieland Delight? Travis's book was much more a tale of drunken debauchery, because that's more who Travis is and not who Gibbs is (at least in terms of their authorial presentation). Like Travis, Gibbs is a generally pretty good writer and God & Football does have some amusing moments, though I recall Dixieland Delight being more consistently funny. I did, however, get cranky at Gibbs occasionally, for joking references to the reader to look things up on the internet if they wanted to know something, or (and yes, I freely admit this may be me being cranky) calling a piece of music the 2001 theme (it's called "Also Sprach Zarathustra", which even a cultural philistine like me knows). Travis's book also benefited from more "recurring" characters, as he tended to travel to games with people he already knew. Gibbs does attend games with his college roommate and his wife, but, as mentioned, he's meeting with the local religious establishment, and they're simply not on stage and don't have enough of a relationship with the author for any sort of distinctiveness to stand out.

Anyway, now is the point at which I tend to say something about who should read the book. Unusually, I don't have what feels like a suitable pithy recommendation and will simply state res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself. I guess I should also note I read God & Football as a library rental, and there are a couple typos, only one of which bothered me (Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead is referred to as "Javon" at one point).

For more on Gibbs and God & Football, see his website. He's also on twitter. If you want to read the book and talk about it, he has a list of discussion questions for each chapter posted on that website.

*-Unless I missed it (and I did look), at no point do the phrases "Clay Travis" or "Dixieland Delight" appear in God & Football. I'd be extraordinarily surprised to learn Gibbs hadn't read and been inspired by Travis, and if he didn't know Delight (published in 2007) existed before writing this book, he didn't do his book prep properly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Review: The Ones Who Hit the Hardest

Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne's The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight for America's Soul is perhaps the least satisfying book I've reviewed on here to date. That's not to say it's the worst book on the list, because it's not, but a book actually on the 1970's Steelers, the 1970's Cowboys, their rivalry, and in the broader context of the U.S. in the 1970's could have been a very interesting book.

Rather, we get about 175 pages on the Steelers of the 1970's, 50 pages on the Cowboys of the 1970's, and 50 pages on the United Steelworkers Association's history of the 1970's, focusing on the election of 1976. I may have thought Perfect Rivals was slanted toward Notre Dame, but Carroll tried to write a book that treated both schools fairly. Coyne and Millman, by contrast, make no such pretense; despite the subtitle, this is book about the Steelers of the 1970's with other stuff thrown in, apparently because people are incapable of reading more than 20 or so pages about the Steelers at a time without digressing into another topic.

The USWA portions are particularly disappointing; they had some interesting challenges, and there can be a real and valid debate as to the extent to which a union can and should cooperate with and challenge the main employer(s). In fact we've seen this debate in the NFLPA, with Gene Upshaw criticized by some sources for being too cooperative with the NFL and Paul Tagliabue. De Smith, at least in rhetoric, has cut a very different image, but how much of that is the uncertain labor situation and how much truly is a different attitude is another question. The problem is, aside from the USWA being headquartered in Pittsburgh, its story is completely separate from the Steelers, the Cowboys, and their rivalry to be the NFL's team of the 1970's.

There's just enough material on the Cowboys to be slightly interesting, at least if you don't really know that much. Given the Cowboys' second banana status in the book, it's probably not too surprising to see much of the Cowboys content focused on Duane Thomas, his impact as a rookie, and then his squabbles with The Powers That Be in Landry and Schramm, plus native western Pennsylvanian (and son of a steelworker) Tony Dorsett.

Even the Steelers portions of the books aren't fully satisfying. The worst crime is the end; the book abruptly ends after the Steelers' third Super Bowl championship in Super Bowl XIII over the Cowboys, and completely ignores that they won Super Bowl XIV the next season. Other facts that don't fit conveniently in the narrative, like the 1977 season, are covered in little detail or elided over in one manner or another. It's a pretty well-told story, but a disappointingly incomplete one.

I'm not sure I regret reading The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, but I am glad that I didn't spend money acquiring it and doubt anybody other than fans of the Steelers of the 1970's will find it any more satisfying than I did. Not generally recommended.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Total Titans

I haven't been cross-posting my Total Titans stuff here of late, so this'll be a sort of macro-update.

Chase Stuart wrote a post about whether the Titans were potentially lying in the weeds as an elite team, to which I wrote a fairly long response, diving into some FO and other numbers to say I didn't really think so.

I wrote a decently detailed breakdown of rookie corner Alterraun Verner's first start against the Broncos.

Not quite as much detail as I wrote for the Steelers game, but I also did a breakdown of VY's play against the Broncos.

I also answered Ultimate NYG's questions about the Titans as part of our weekly Q&A exchange.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Book Review: Perfect Rivals

Among the (interminable) number of games billed College Football's Game of the Century, the first I remember was the game that bore another, more distinctive moniker: Notre Dame and Miami's 1988 meeting dubbed "Catholics vs. Conflicts." The two programs bestrode college football almost like juggernauts; Notre Dame with the most-storied history of any program, returning to glory after the Gerry Faust Error, and the brash upstart Miami Hurricanes, super team of the 1980's.

Notre Dame would walk away with a 31-30 triumph after a Miami failed 2-point conversion that October day, and finish an undefeated national champion, while the Hurricanes would otherwise be unblemished and stuck a bridesmaid. The return visit to the Orange Bowl the next year saw a reversal of fortune; the once-beaten Hurricanes (by Florida State) would beat the Irish 24-10 and win a national championship after Notre Dame toppled unbeaten Colorado in the Orange Bowl. The programs would meet again in 1990, but they'd both already suffered a disappointing loss and, well, whatever.

This is the story told in Jeff Carroll's Perfect Rivals: Notre Dame, Miami, and the Battle for the Soul of College Football. Carroll begins his story in 1985 with Miami's 58-7 rout in Gerry Faust's last game as Notre Dame head coach and spends the first chunk of the book setting the stage for the 1988 (and 1989) games. He's a former Notre Dame beat writer (currently a student at mine graduate alma mater, if twitter is to be believed), so the story is somewhat ND-slanted. In fairness to him, ND's story is probably more narratively interesting, as Miami had reached elite status and stayed there, while Lou Holtz was dragging the Irish out of the dregs and building a real team.

The stage duly set, Carroll takes us through the 1988 game, the rest of the 1988 season, then the 1989 season, the 1989 game, and the rest of the 1989 season. The 1990 game is discussed in the book's third part, which features a discussion of Notre Dame's decision to break away from the CFA and sign its own television contract. That's a very interesting issue, but one covered in more detail in Dunnavant's Fifty-Year Seduction and feels out of place here since it didn't really affect the game on the field at all.

Now is the time for me to begin my ritual complaint about how the subtitle vastly overpromises what the book delivers. Catholics vs. Convicts really felt like a big deal, and a big culture clash. In terms of national reputation and fanbase, it was, but in terms of player profiles and whatnot, it really wasn't, or at least if it was you don't really detect it from Perfect Rivals. Rather than a "battle for the soul of college football," it comes across as just a series of games between two very good football teams that ended up being meaningful in terms of its impact on the national rankings.

In case you can't tell from the review, Carroll's book is best described as workmanlike. The events are competently related, the generally right sources properly read, and the major events covered, but the narrative never really rises above the mundane. The book is none too long, only 262 pages including epilogue, but my reading of it dragged because I just never got into it. Carroll's ND slant (though he really did try to be fair) will likely put off some Cane-focused readers as one of the Amazon reviews points out, but didn't really bother me that much. This was a library rental for me, and that's all it was worth to me.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

My Football Outsiders Archives

Most things I've written for Football Outsiders online have been co-authored, so they don't necessarily show up if you click my name on the site. Therefore, this post will be an irregularly-updated repository of links to what I've written for FO that's available online. It will include all columns and any commentary Extra Points I make, but will not include regular extra points.

2012 Season
2012-05-09: Four Downs: AFC West
2012-04-04: The 2006 Draft: Six Years Later
2012-02-16: The Tom Coughlin All-Stars
2012-02-13: Four Downs: AFC West

2011 Season
2012-02-08: Scramble for the Ball: Super Bowl XLVI Recap (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2012-02-01: Super Bowl XLVI Prop Bet Extravaganza (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2012-01-25: Scramble for the Ball: 2011 All-KCW Team (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2012-01-18: Scramble for the Ball: Well-Named Losers (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2012-01-11: Scramble for the Ball: Fantasy All-Stars (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2012-01-04: Scramble for the Ball: Playoff Fantasy Draft (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-12-29: Scramble for the Ball: Best of the Bad Teams (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-12-21: Scramble for the Ball: Rethinking the Machine (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-12-14: Scramble for the Ball: Strength of Schedule (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-12-07: Scramble for the Ball: 2011 Hall of Fame (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-11-30: Scramble for the Ball: Harajuku Suhspension (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-11-16: Scramble for the Ball: Over/Under Update (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-11-09: Scramble for the Ball: Point of Origin (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-11-02: Scramble for the Ball: Comebackery (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-10-26: Scramble for the Ball: Strange Correlations (co-written with Mike Kurtz, except intro)
2011-10-19: Scramble for the Ball: Get Off My Lawn (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-10-12: Scramble for the Ball: The New Losers (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-10-05: Scramble for the Ball: Back to Basics (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-09-28: Scramble vs. Zombie Welker (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-09-21: Scramble for the Ball: P-P-P-Pressure (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-09-14: Scramble for the Ball: Doubt and Regret (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-08-31: Scramble for the Ball: 2011 FO Staff League (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-08-24: Scramble for the Ball: 2011 AFC Over/Unders (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-08-17: Scramble for the Ball: 2011 NFC Over/Unders (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-08-10: Four Downs: AFC South
2011-05-11: Four Downs: AFC South
2011-04-08: 2005 Draft: Six Years Later
2011-02-15: Four Downs: AFC South

2010 Season
2011-02-10: Scramble for the Ball: Super Bowl XLV Commercials (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-02-02: Super Bowl XLV Prop Bet Extravaganza! (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-01-26: Scramble for the Ball: 2010 All-KCW Team (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-01-19: Scramble for the Ball: Smooth Outliers (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-01-12: Scramble for the Ball: Wild Weekend (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2011-01-06: Scramble for the Ball: Second Season (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-12-29: Scramble for the Ball: Fantasy's End (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-12-22: Scramble for the Ball: Holiday Wishes (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-12-15: Scramble for the Ball: QBs, Continued (co-written with Mike Kurtz, except intro)
2010-12-08: Scramble for the Ball: Pretty Good Quarterbacks (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-12-01: Scramble for the Ball: Bad Predictions (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-11-24: Scramble's Turkey Day Showdown (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-11-17: Scramble for the Ball: Robot Snowmen (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-11-10: Scramble for the Ball: Losers and Winners (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-11-03: Scramble for the Ball: Party Tray (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-10-30: Matt Schaub Could Be Big Against Colts (ESPN In$ider piece on HOU-IND MNF game, link to FO thread)
2010-10-27: Scramble for the Ball: Disparity (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-10-20: Scramble for the Ball: Magnificent Losers (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-10-13: Scramble for the Ball: Rules and Regulations (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-10-06: Scramble for the Ball: Powerhouses (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-09-29: Scramble for the Ball: Let Them Score (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-09-22: Scramble for the Ball: Controversial (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-09-15: Scramble for the Ball: Cheesecake (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-09-01: Scramble for the Ball: NFC O/U II and Fantasy Drafts (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-08-25: Scramble for the Ball: NFC O/U I (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-08-18: Scramble for the Ball: AFC O/U II (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-08-11: Scramble for the Ball: AFC O/U I (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-05-26: Breaking Down the American Needle Case (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-05-16: Four Downs: AFC South
2010-03-29: Four Downs: AFC South
2010-02-22: Four Downs: AFC South (wrote JAC and TEN sections)

2009 Season
2010-02-10: Scramble for the Ball: Wrap Party (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-02-03: Super Bowl XLIV Prop Bet Extravaganza! (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-01-28: 2009 All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-01-20: Scramble for the Ball: Warm Fuzzies (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-01-14: Scramble for the Ball: Our Biscuits (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2010-01-06: Scramble for the Ball: Stuck in Your Head (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-12-30: Scramble for the Ball: Ratedness (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-12-24: Scramble for the Ball: The Clutch of Our Lives (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-12-18: Scramble for the Ball: The Winter of Our Discontent (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-12-09: Scramble for the Ball: Playoff Etiquette (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-12-02: Scramble for the Ball: Heck of a Guy (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-11-25: Scramble for the Ball: Coaching Carousel (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-11-18: Scramble for the Ball: In a World ... (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-11-11: Scramble for the Ball: Parade of Losers (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-11-04: Scramble for the Ball: We Were Wrong (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-10-28: Scramble for the Ball: Responsibility (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-10-21: Scramble for the Ball: Keepin' the Faith (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-10-15: Scramble for the Ball: Bye Week Fodder (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-10-07: Scramble for the Ball: Epicure (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-09-30: Scramble for the Ball: Fair Market Value (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-09-24: Scramble for the Ball: Snuggie-licious (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-09-16: Scramble for the Ball: The Beginning of the Beginning (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-09-11: Scramble: 2009 Over/Unders Part II [AFC, our fantasy teams] (co-written with Mike Kurtz)
2009-09-04: Scramble for the Ball: Change Partners Again [NFC, staff league] (co-written with Mike Kurtz)

2007 Season
2007-12-07: Book Review: Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls (guest column)

Site News

I've stopped posting regular promos of my other work on here, for no very good reason, and that's not likely to change until I start writing actual posts here on a semi-regular basis.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: Blood, Sweat and Chalk

Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today's Game is a bit of an unusual attempt. Pretty much every single book on football I've reviewed has been very limited in scope-either about a single person, a single season, or a relatively brief period of time. In Blood, Layden sets out to give a 22-part overview of tactical changes in football over time. Given my love for large-scale topics and books, this should've been right up my alley. Yet, I walk away from it feeling a little disappointed.

There are a couple reasons for this mild disappointment. First, my perennial complaint about the books is that they're not really about football, but rather about the people who play football. Layden, who writes for Sports Illustrated, spoke in a podcast about how one of the things he was trying to do with Blood as talk more about what's really going on on the field. Music to my ears, but alas, I didn't think the book really delivered. The twenty-two chapters, each profiling a separate tactical development, gives us details of that development but also spend time, more time than I would've liked, telling the personal story of the man or men associated with the development. There are clearly cases where this is useful, as a sort of intellectual biography, such as it is, but by the time you've read 4 or 5 coaching histories, you realize that football coaches tend to move around a lot.

The second complaint is that Layden does an inconsistent job of explaining exactly why, tactically, the innovation was so successful and why it disappeared or had to evolve. One of the later chapters is on the no-huddle, focusing on its use first in Cincinnati by Sam Wyche and then subsequently in Buffalo for four seasons. Why were the Bills so successful running the no-huddle? How much of it was a product of an excellent quarterback in Jim Kelly, a great back in Thurman Thomas, a center in Kent Hull who could make the line calls on his own, and an excellent receiver in Andre Reed? Were the Bills really that much more successful than they would have been running the no-huddle than they would have been with a different offense with that talent? Maybe not every QB could call his own plays like Kelly did, but Esiason didn't call his in Cincinnati. Why did the Bills stop running the no-huddle after 1993, as Layden says? Why didn't more teams immediately adapt it, and why don't more run it now? If I wanted to really pick nits, why did Layden mention the Bills as a team that threatened to fake injuries before the AFC Championship Game without mentioning the Seahawks were the team that started that particular counter against Cincinnati? For some of Layden's developments, I can fill in some of those gaps myself, but I can't really say much intelligent about the Wing T and there are plenty of people who know less about football than I do who may pick up Blood.

Mind you, those are reasons why Blood, Sweat and Chalk disappointed me. This could have been a great book, but it's merely a very good one. Strongly recommended for what it is.

EDIT (9/26 2200 CT): Meant to include a direct link to this very good review on Amazon by C.Baker.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Total Titans

New post up, play-by-play breakdown of VY's day against the Steelers.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, customary Friday night post on the final injury report and the potential impact of the reported injuries.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: Bigger Than the Game

Michael Weinreb's Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete is a capsule look at the iconic athletes of the mid-1980's: Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Jim McMahon, Len Bias (focusing on his untimely death), and those Miami Hurricanes teams that faced first a Bosworth-less Oklahoma Sooners team and then a more traditional Penn State team in consecutive bowl games. The stories are all relatively familiar, to a greater or lesser degree, but Weinreb does a good job of relating them and even when I knew a story well, my attention never wavered. Unusually for a sports book, it's well-written and has an index, bibliography, and sufficient endnotes to look up a quote if you bother; I noticed only one error, when the co-author of McMahon's autobiography is identified on consecutive pages as Don Pierson and Bob Verdi (it was Verdi).

The problem, though, is I never thought Weinreb's book lived up to its subtitle. The modalities of fame may have changed, but to the extent that any of the athletes in the book were uniquely famous, Weinreb doesn't really show it. Rather, the book works best as a nostalgia trip. Like Weinreb, I was born in the 1970's (though he was born toward the beginning of the decade and me toward the end) and came of age in the 80's, and had memories of varying degrees of clarity about the figures in the book. In that context, I greatly enjoyed it, and if you're interested in a mid-1980's nostalgia trip, then I will commend Bigger Than the Game to you. If you have no interest in the time period, though, even in a well-done look, then you should feel no regret if you give Weinreb's work a pass.

UPDATE (9/15/10 2031 CT): Link I should have had in the original post: Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post. I didn't find the Reagan stuff as heavy-handed as Yardley did, and that kind of thing normally does bother me. Yardley's point is that the 80's were when the big money sports culture really took off is quite apt, and there's room for a book about that at the professional level (the Sperber books mentioned by Yardley are on my "to read, eventually" list).

UPDATE #2 (9/16/10 2248 CT): A couple more links: Weinreb's website and blog, plus an interview with Gelf Magazine.

Football Outsiders

The first regular season edition of Scramble for the Ball is now available at Football Outsiders for your reading pleasure.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, Titans-Raiders injury report and impact.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post on season expectations, entitled The Titans Will Go 8-8*, and Other Eve of Season Thoughts. *-Unless they don't.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Book Review: Football Outsiders Almanac 2010

So, Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. I'm mostly including this for completeness' sake. It's along the same lines as FOA09, Pro Football Prospectus 2005 and PFP08, the previous reviews of the annual put out by the gang at Football Outsiders I've review. Said gang now includes yours truly as a member, viz as author of the chapters on the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Since I'm one of the authors, I'm not even going to try to pretend to be the least bit objective or really to give a review. The PFP08 review is probably the most informative one I did, so read that one if you want more detail on the book. The most important thing included in FOA10 not in PFP08 is more detailed college football content, including projections making use of Bill Connelly's S&P system, the closest thing college has to real DVOA. So, really, you're getting the same book, plus more good content. Hw could you possibly complain about that?

FOA10 is also available as a PDF download through the FO online story, for those of you who like trees and burning electricity.

UPDATE (9/7/10 2357 CT): Just in case it isn't clear, I got my copy of FOA10 for free in PDF form. I did however pay for my print version, albeit with an authorial discount through our publisher CreateSpace.

Book Review: Birth of the New NFL

Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football by Larry Felser tells the story of the 1966 NFL/AFL merger, as you might guess from the subtitle. Felser's primary problem in telling the story is he's working on pretty well-trod ground. Michael MacCambridge's excellent America's Game tells the story of the merger pretty well, and does a very good job of placing the merger in the context of the pre-merger war and the post-merger transition into the combined whole.

Felser's book covers a narrower time-frame and consequently has to either tell the broader story with less gloss or drill down on some of the more topical aspects. He goes with the latter path, only the way he drills down is by writing about the late-season contests that determine the representatives in the Super Bowl. The problem is, these stories aren't very interesting to the broader scope of his story. There's a potentially relatively interesting story, about how things could have been different if, say, the Raiders had won the 1968 AFL title and played the Colts in Super Bowl III, but that's an inherently trickier story than Felser's more straight-forwardly historical narrative.

Beyond that I didn't quite get the value-add of Felser's book after previously reading MacCambridge, Birth second primary drawback is it's not as well-done as MacCambridge's book. I'd expect a book by a veteran journalist (long-time Buffalo News scribe and head of the Pro Football Writer's Association) to be better proof-read and error-checked.

This review probably makes Birth sound worse than it is. It's not that it's a bad book, just that it fails to supersede or improve upon in any real manner an earlier book on the same topic. Read America's Game if you haven't, or re-read it, and feel free to skip Birth of the New NFL.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Total Titans

New post up at Total Titans, cutdown day open thread, now updated with all Titans cuts and the tentative 53-man roster.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Football Outsiders

Scramble for the Ball, NFC Over/Unders Pt. 2 and Fantasy Draft Review, including review of the FO Staff League fantasy draft, is up at FO for your reading pleasure. Because of Staff Predictions running in the time slot, no Scramble next week, so we wrote two columns in one to compensate.

We have now decided, though, that 7700 word columns = PAIN. By point of "I can't really believe this" comparison, the most recent Audibles, for the friggin' Super Bowl, was 6100 words. We're really, really not trying to beat our 9300 word first column. The prop bet column I think came closest, at 9046 words. This is what happens when you get attorneys to write stuff, publishing stuff isn't more expensive on a per-word basis, and you don't give them word limits.

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, some thoughts on blitzing with a focus on some cover-0 stuff the Titans ran in the preseason. Warning: really basic stuff, with no graphics.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Total Titans

Following up on the data dump, a new post up at Total Titans with more thoughts on Titans-Panthers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Titans-Panthers comments data dump

The following is a straight data dump of my comments from the Titans' 15-7 loss to the Panthers in Week 3 of the 2010 preseason. Heavy on abbreviations and generally brief, plus I took greater care with the first half plays (watched 2-5 times, generally) than I did with second half plays (generally not watched more than twice), simply because the Titans didn't play their starters into the second half.

KOR #1-Damian Williams-catch ball cleanly, run forward
1st play-run-MLB unblocked, Harris?
2nd play-run-Roos seal a little soft, CJ run down from behind
3rd play-pass-Roos turned around, VY pump, should he have thrown ball?

1st play-run-McCourty does job-Ball doubled on edge
2nd play-run-Jason Jones late shift, semi-stunt around C/RG, Griff unblocked run blitz
3rd play-pass-Tulloch lines up deep in Tampa-2 look, lining up too deep?
4th play-pass-Babin quick to QB, no recognition, rest of D does eh
5th play-run-Griff blows his alley and opens cutback lane
6th play-pass-Morgan good outside move as LDE, McCourty soft coverage-unclear why
7th play-run-eh
8th play-pass-max pro, Jarrett outruns Verner!?!, overthrow prevents TD
9th play-pass-Morgan LDE good outside move, forces dumpoff

PR #1-Damian Williams-clean fair catch of wobbler at 8-stood at 10 and backed up
1st play-pass-Stevens in at TE, slightly underthrown(?) but nice corner route
2nd play-pass-shallow out for Stevens, Gamble bailed & changed look at last second
3rd play-run-Cook with weak block, cannot run to his side
4th play-scramble-Cook sole TE, VY scramble, no clue what's downfield
5th play-pass-CAR DE overload right side, Scott whiffs a la Loper, CJ tries to pick up inside guy & fails, outside blitzer w/ free rush, VY screwed, hot for Britt(?)
6th play-draw-Scott got pushed back & destroyed inside lane, CJ tries dancing but can't do squat
7th play-pass-3 man rush & 8 zone in 3&long, Hawk underneath

1st play-run-Ball good at POA
2nd play-pass-McRath late/weak blitz, TEN rushed 6 (Verner?), Curran in good position
3rd play-run-Ball too easily moved by POA, was there an outside defender?, Curran or Witherspoon bad gap play?

PR #2-DWill-failure to field punt costs 25 yards
1st play-run-Harris bulled at POA, forced CJ to string it out
2nd play-pass-deep for Britt, ball underthrown/too far inside?, DPI
3rd play-pass-Harris tries blocking 2 guys, can't, CJ slow to pick up inside blitzer, Stevens can't run away from LBs-shallow drag well defended
4th play-pass-free rusher up middle, scott commits to DT too early?, no help up middle, sitdown for Britt
5th play-pass-dump for CJ, no downfield look

1st play-pass-Morgan overcommits to inside, but Haye recovers on boot and actually well defended
2nd play-pass-smoke w/ McCourty playing off, overcommits outside but has inside help, does he overcommit w/o help? (Mouton v MikeWilliams)
3rd play-pass-Tulloch free blitz, Verner jumps Lafell route, potentially dangerous

PR #3-DWill-short punt and to side, DWill directs players away
1st play-run-couple yards, Harris caught up in trash & can't get to 2nd level
2nd play-run-couple yards, Amano can't move off double to get to 2nd level
3rd play-run-Cook as offset FB, run to his side-Cook doesn't draw defender, Harris beat & DT slides down line

1st play-run-Marks fall down split, disrupts flow, rest of team collapses well
2nd play-run-Tulloch attacks hole on FB give well as Witherspoon blitzes outside
3rd play-draw-Marks pancakes OL, Jones gets penetration playside

PR #4-DWill catches punt to side, runs forward ok but no explosiveness
1st play-Ringer in-run-blah, #94 looks good
2nd play-pass-deep for Hawkins, off target
3rd play-pass-deep out for Britt, pass probably too far, Britt doesn't do a good job of toe tapping

1st play-pass-McRath too early on dumpoff, DPI
2nd play-run-Griff blocked out, McCourty w/ good job coming up to make tackle, Ford taken out by Rosario at POA
3rd play-pass-ineffective blitz by 51&55, McCourty jumps out & breaks it up
4th play-pass-zone blitz w/ Ford dropping off, blitzes not getting home, Lafell open but hard catch & drop

PR #5-DWill-does ok to dodge early hits, but coughs up ball on hat-on-helmet

1st play-run-blah, penetration by Jones
2nd play-run-Babin outside rush, penetration by Jones, OL thoroughly pwnt
3rd play-pass-short pass w/ no YAC opportunity

PR #6-Mariani-punt dropped at 1
1st play-run-Jared Cook SUCKS, barely bumps DE who runs down line & makes play
2nd play-pas-WR screwup?, designed for quick throw?, ball doesn't come out & VY gets sacked, Stewart beat to inside
3rd play-draw-semi-stunt screws up blocking, Harris can't pick up Brown who blows up play
PUNT-Schommer(??) blew his lane?

1st play-pass-triple coverage, pass may have been well underthrown, Rosario prevents Hope INT
2nd play-draw-Hope + ATV up to make tackle, Hope good job in run support
3rd play-pass-Tulloch blitz, Rosario turns Spoon around & Moore w/ good pass
4th play-pass-Verner in good coverage on pass for crappy rookie wideout
5th play-pass-heavy blitz, Moore finds hot, Griff blows tackle but Hope cleans up
6th play-pass-shallow in completed v Verner in man
7th play-pass-Haye with pressure late after loop, ATV slipped, pass to Gettis v McCourty too far
8th play-pass-heavy blitz, tipped at line by Jones
9th play-pass-Fuller beat by Lafell on corner, smash combo, challenged & confirmed
10th play-pass-Griff flagged for DPI for unnecessary bump on Barnidge but picked up, pass overthrown
11th play-pass-short play completed by ATV, Fuller & ATV converge, ATV w/ FF & recovery

1st play-pass-sitdown for Britt, some YAC
2nd play-pass-VY doesn't see anything & scrambles for more time, sacked by Stewart's man


KO-Hawk blows outside lane
DEF-2nd string
1st play-run-Keglar sucks
2nd play-pass-CAR miscommunication
3rd play-pass-Rivera good tackle for no YAC 1 yd short

OFF-2nd string
PR #7-Mariani-punt dropped at goal line
1st play-run-blah
2nd play-run-blah (holding on #86)
3rd play-draw-blah
4th play-pass-Cook drops it on drag

1st play-pass-hole in zone?
2nd play-run-Brock flagged for offside, 1st of night
3rd play-pass-screen against stunt & blitz, well-timed
4th play-run-blah
5th play-scramble-blah
6th play-pass-ATV in coverage, way overthrown

KOR #2-Mariani-clean catch, ok, Kropog flagged for holding
1st play-pass-quick slant to Britt, eh
2nd play-run-good power run by Ringer to outside
3rd play-run-MLB unblocked, not clear who/why
4th play-pass-screen, not well blocked
5th play-pass-good deep comeback for Britt
6th play-run-blah
7th play-pass-KFC too far for Hawk in shallow out, blah
8th play-pass-KFC doesn't see outside blitz, bad on him, RT #69 didn't do well either (Howell?)

1st play-pass-8 yd out to Edwards v Mouton
2nd play-pass-quick hitch to Edwards v Mouton playing off, doesn't attack ball quickly
3rd play-run-Keglar tackle at POA but not until after couple yards
4th play-pass-deflected by Rivera blitzing up middle
5th play-pass-ATV slot blitz, Johnson v Lafell in shallow cross, Johnson gets beat
6th play-run-good gain, Hill/RJohnson playing too far inside
7th play-run-blah, holding
8th play-pass-screen v soft zone
9th play-run-blah, no room
10th play-pass-tipped at line by Joseph

KOR #3-Mariani 5 yds deep, should take knee, tackled at 17
1st play-pass-Mariani was open deep but manages to adjust to underthrown ball
2nd play-pass-KFC sacked, Kropog's man, KFC doesn't get ball out & tries to move
3rd play-pass-great slant to Mariani & nice RAC, Cover-2(?) safety got sucked too far inside
4th play-run-DO NOT RUN AT JARED COOK, fails miserably on seal v DE Hardy
5th play-pass-seamer to Cook for 6, outruns #25, good throw away from single-high safety

KO-Bakhtiari & Johnson blow tackle, Sewall & ATV blow their lanes, TD

KOR #4-Mariani-out of EZ
1st play-pass-bootleg, Ryan drops pass after hit
2nd play-pass-KFC rips it in for Cook, Velasco at RG flagged for holding
3rd play-pass-Edison on slant, flagged for OPI
4th play-pass-KFC throwing off back foot throws it to underneath defender, pressure v Kropog

1st play-penalty-Jimmah! pulls his RT and TE offside, oops
2nd play-run-blown up by Harrington
3rd play-pass-open on sideline, looked close to pick by underneath defender, Hill playing soft
4th play-penalty-false start
5th play-penalty-false start
6th play-penalty-false start
7th play-pass-short pickup

KOR #5-Mariani-does ok, takes pop & doesn't cough up ball
1st play-penalty-false start #69
2nd play-run-good hole, Blount attacks it & breaks ankle tackle
3rd play-pass-Rusty pressured, can't quite hit Pfahler on sideline
4th play-pass-slant complete to DWill
5th play-run-Blount for a couple
6th play-pass-quick out to Pfahler, decent move to pick up extra & 1st down
7th play-pass-Rusty airmails seamer, picked by high safety

1st play-run-blah
2nd play-run-good penetration & tackle by Johnson
3rd play-pass-Barnidge shallow out for a lot after Keglar blows tackle & Mouton blows help
4th play-pass-smoke, Bakhtiari tip at line
5th play-run-OLB sucked in, Rivera can't do contain, Schommer comes up & makes tackle
6th play-run-Winborn slow to edge, holding
7th play-pass-screen, Rivera blows tackle but other guys can get it

1st play-pass-miscommo/airmail+behind open WR after CAR defensive screwup
2nd play-pass-DWill underneath for a couple
3rd play-pass-good pocket presence & finding PWill over middle in what seemed like small hole
4th play-pass-good shallow drag for Pfahler, AWFUL move not to get OOB
5th play-pass-Smith strip-sacked, blown block #77
6th play-pass-underneath for Pfahler, reasonably good pass, Pfahler gets OOB
7th play-pass-deflected by underneath defender, Britt can't concentrate enough to catch ball
8th play-pass-Pfahler underneath, not the best choice, Pfahler can't catch it

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Football Outsiders

Eh, late again. Scramble for the Ball, NFC Over/Unders Pt. 1 is available at FO for your reading pleasure.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Football Outsiders

Failure to plug my own writings: Scramble for the Ball, AFC Over/Unders, Part II went up last Wednesday. Look tomorrow for NFC Over/Unders, Part I, including probably one of the nuttier comparisons in FO history. Other columns like Cover-3 and Walkthrough, those are products of planning and thought; Scramble, at least the way Mike and I do it, is the product of a genuine conversation which will take twists and turns you don't necessarily expect.

Total Titans

A couple posts up at Total Titans I haven't yet plugged. The first is from Monday, and was a gameday post for the Monday Night Football contest against the Cardinals. Naturally, I just used my twitter page to comment and ignored the game thread. I rounded out the positional analyses by taking a look at the special teamers on Saturday, then mucked around with a couple video breakdowns on Sunday.

Yes, I'll do more of those video things, and yes, if/when I do, it'll be with a slightly more sophisticated setup than an older digital camera sitting on a stack of books on a chair in front of the TV while I speak aloud and make lots of hesitation sounds.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, this one the cornerback positional analysis.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Review: Take Your Eye Off the Ball

In some ways, I first decided to get semi-serious about watching football a decade ago, shortly after I'd graduated from college. In some ways, this was a rather odd decision. I'd watched the game growing up when the constraints of life and the fall weekend schedule made it possible, and considered myself a fan of the game, but had never played it beyond the backyard level. So, one of the things I thought I should do was learn more about the game. Being me, I read a couple books about football, of which by far the most valuable was the already somewhat dated Dr. Z's New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football. The primary problem with watching football, though, is you tend to end up with what I think of as ball myopia, following the player in possession of the pigskin and ignoring the panoply of action going on around him. The kind of book I was looking for then, and still haven't found, is the book that told me how to watch football more intelligently.

The latest entry in the quest for that book is Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan and David Seigerman. That sounds like a very promising title, and Kirwan's book follows the same basic organizational patterns of the best books on football, New Thinking Man's Guide, Madden's One Knee Equals Two Feet, and Billick's More Than a Game (which review I plan to get to this month), of going by the team position by position and also chapters on the other big stuff. Plus, Kirwan has worked at the NFL level and now writes for after an earlier stint writing for Sports Illustrated, so he would seem to have the requisite experience to write a book like the one I've been looking for.

The problem, though, is the title has almost nothing to do with the content of Kirwan's book. There are a couple things in there that are useful in terms of watching the game, but Kirwan's book is more about the action on the field and what happens a lot out there. That's valuable information, and you can use it to aid your ability to watch a game, but it's not particularly rare.

In some ways, I recognize that seems kind of hypocritical coming from me. The complaint I have about a bunch of those books listed on the sidebar is they're not really about football at all, but rather about people who play football. Let me emphatically note that's not my complaint about Kirwan's book, since it clearly is about the on-field action (leavened, obviously, by Kirwan's personal anecdotes). I can't say too many bad things about a book that tries to bring more sophisticated football content to a broader audience, and I won't rip too badly into a book that has diagrams of a fire zone blitz from both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive front.

Still, beyond mostly ignoring its stated title (which would've filled a valuable niche in the marketplace), Take Your Eye's second major fault in my eyes is that it really didn't teach me anything new. Pretty much everything in there I'd picked up by osmosis from simply watching and reading about football. It has most of the stuff you'd expect in there, like a wide receiver route tree, a discussion of the basic differences between 4-3 and 3-4 defensive front (but see infra), and discussions of man versus zone coverage in pass defense (again, but see infra). One thing I was expecting and hoping for but wasn't included is a list of defensive lineman positions listed by technique, since football people. It shows up a little bit in the 4-3/3-4 section, but is one thing that could've used a systematic breakdown designed for the non-technical reader and wasn't included.

The third major fault of Take Your Eye is the list of what I referred to on Twitter as howlers. These include:
1. Kirwan's attributes the origin of zone blocking in the NFL to Alex Gibbs in the mid-1990's. See this piece at FO by Doug Farrar for why that's nonsense.
2. One of the things the book has is little half-page sidebars where Kirwan's mug shows up and answers a question related to the main text of the chapter. One of those is how a team can run the ball effectively without a feature back. In that, Kirwan says the team has to commit to running the football, and mentions the 2009 Bengals as a team that committed to running the football. Now, I question whether or not the '09 Bengals really fall in this category-Cedric Benson was the 4th overall pick in the draft, and was a fairly effective feature back for them. The Bengals also did commit to running the football schematically, by playing lots of 6-OL and heavy sets. Kirwan, though, has two questions for determining whether or not a team is committed to running the football:
i. Are you willing to run the ball on second down after running on first and gaining zero yards?
ii. Will you run the ball when you're down seven points?
Nothing about 6-OL, heavy sets, just some strategic questions so vague as to be indeterminate and blathering about commitment.
3. In his discussion of the 3-4 and the 4-3, Kirwan presents a stark dichotomy between a one-gap 4-3 and a Parcells/Belichick-style two-gap 3-4. He does not, however, mention the one-gap 3-4 of the type run by, for example, Wade Phillips.
4. In discussing the secondary and pass coverage, Kirwan wrote: "Some coaches prefer a man-to-man scheme because it's so easy to see which players are making mistakes. There's no gray area in man coverage the way there is in a zone scheme. You know who got beat." Frankly, that kind of statement strikes me as absolutely incredible in the most literal sense: I cannot find it credible that coaches at the college or NFL level would play man instead of zone because without it they can't tell which of their own players made a mistake.
5. Less of a literal howler than a seemingly systematic error by Kirwan is his presentation of events linked to his past and his friends in an overly optimistic light. One example that stuck out to me was his description of Dewayne Robertson. Kirwan writes that Robertson, the 4th overall pick in 2003, was lost when Mangini came in and immediately converted the Jets to a 3-4 scheme, where he was undersized at defensive end. Problem #1: Mangini's first year as head coach was 2006. In 2006, the Jets, at least officially, still played a 4-3 (PDF link to random gamebook from 2006 (Wk 11 vCHI, to be precise)). PFR's list of '06 Jets starters agrees, showing them lining up in a 4-3. Second, the Jets actually got a little better on runs up the middle from 2006 with Robertson as one of the starting DT's to 2007 with Robertson at NT, moving from a horrid 4.57 ALY to a still horrid 4.50. Robertson then moves on to the 2008 Broncos, who went from 4.09 ALY on runs up the middle to 4.41. Given that Robertson's conventional stats his whole time with the Jets are fairly similar, I have different suggestion for Mr. Kirwan: maybe, just maybe Dewayne Robertson was a bad football player who was ill-suited for both the 3-4 and the 4-3, and if you want to give an example of a guy best suited for one scheme, pick somebody else.
6. Ok, I just can't let this go: Kirwan was with the Jets in 1996 when they took Keyshawn Johnson first overall in the draft. Kirwan wrote that they were concerned about Keyshawn's 4.6 40-yard dash time, which is a slow clocking for a #1 wideout. But they did some research and found that Jerry Rice ran a 4.6 40, too, so they weren't really concerned. As a fan of good decision-making processes, I hope their analysis really wasn't that facile.
7. Last one, just can't resist this one: he writes the Vikings were looking for a playmaking wideout who could play in the slot, return kicks, stuff like that in the 2009 draft. Brad Childress was trying to decide between Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin, so they did their due diligence on Harvin, talked to Urban Meyer and his grandmother, and felt comfortable enough with him they chose him with the 22nd pick in the draft. Detail Kirwan leaves out: Maclin was off the board at the point, having gone 19th to the Eagles. The story as it is could've been told without the need to choose between Maclin and Harvin, but instead Kirwan puts Maclin in there, I guess to create conflict, or maybe that's just the way Childress told him the story, but it bugged the heck out of me.

There's no bibliography or index, not that you needed me to tell you that. I don't think a bibliography would've been appropriate, since consulting other books would probably have saved them from some of the howlers, but an index for when he refers to players would've been convenient. The book as a whole probably isn't as bad as I've made it sound in this review, but the howlers were enough of a distraction to me I can't recommend it. And, thus, the search for a book on how to watch football more intelligently continues.