Archive for the ‘Sports Commentary’ Category

Does the way which Notre Dame competes in Recruiting represent a problem for the Fighting Irish football program?

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

With Arizona four-star Wide Receiver Davonte Neal committing to play college football at Notre Dame next year, Notre Dame has dodged a bullet from signing day when Deontay Greenberry flipped his commitment away from Notre Dame to Houston, creating a major offensive void in the Irish’s previously impressive recruiting haul.  While Neal isn’t as highly regarded as Greenberry was by recruitniks, his signature makes him the highest rated wide receiver in the Irish’s 2012 recruiting class.

That’s good.  Though the way Neal went about his commitment today doesn’t make it entirely clear that he’s doing what he thought would be best for him:

Reportedly, there is an ongoing “power struggle” over the decision.  The player apparently wants to stay near home and play for the Wildcats, while the father wants his son to play for the Irish.

Simply put, the entire Neal family should be embarrassed over and ashamed of what took place late Tuesday morning at the receiver’s former elementary school.

And this incident reminds me a little bit of this from a month ago:

“From what I have been told, [QB Gunner Kiel] is no longer coming to LSU,” recruiting expert Michael Scarborough of told the Times. “He wants to come to LSU, but his mother (Aleta Kiel) got very emotional Monday and did not want her son to leave. He plans to enroll in classes at Notre Dame on Tuesday.”

Scarborough went on to add that “[w]hat has been relayed to me is that he wants to come to LSU, but his parents want him at Notre Dame because it is closer to home.”

Sure, the takeaway here is that Brian Kelly is managing to compete with the big dogs in college recruiting using tactics that going back to the very beginning of his tenure at Notre Dame, has allowed him to routinely land 4 and 5 star recruits without enjoying the advantages of being an annual national championship contender and also without Notre Dame being the pro-football factory it once was.  And part of the reason Kelly is the head coach at Notre Dame is so that he can modernize the Notre Dame football program and re-brand it as a modern football powerhouse, instead of the relic it’s detractors claim it to be.

It would be an issue if Notre Dame falls down the recruiting rankings because they can’t get the elite players to sign.  But the problem preceding Kelly’s administration wasn’t that they weren’t winning on signing day.

Notre Dame Recruiting Rankings 2002-2012

2012 – #22
2011 – #10
2010* – #14
2009 – #21
2008 – #2
2007 – #8
2006 – #8
2005* – #40
2004 – #32
2003 – #12
2002 – #24

Median recruiting ranking, by coach
Tyrone Willingham – 24th
Charlie Weis – 8th
Brian Kelly – 14th

Separated by coach, you can kind of see why there was reason to be concerned over the downward trend in recruiting under Ty Willingham, but after Charlie Weis put the Irish back in the BCS in his first two seasons, you can certainly see how recruiting simply hasn’t been an issue for the fighting Irish.  Since 2006, their mean ranking according to rivals is 12th, which is much higher than the average finish in the AP poll for Notre Dame over that timeframe.  Is is that the classes are overrated?

To a degree, sure, when you don’t win, anything that indicated future success is overrated.  But looking at Charlie Weis’ best three classes, most of the big name prospects panned out.  This is the second rated recruiting class according to Rivals in 2008.  Braxston Cave and Kapron Lewis-Moore are slotted as excellent fifth year seniors, who will combine to start 7 seasons for the fighting Irish, although both were injured and missed the end of last season.  Ethan Johnson was a three year starter.  Of course, Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd are going to be very significant NFL players over the next few years.  Rudolph profiles as one of the best in-line tight ends in football.  Floyd is projected to go in the first round of this draft.  Trevor Robinson has started for the Irish since 2009.  Darius Fleming could go on the second day of the upcoming NFL draft.  John Goodman and Jonas Gray were never starters, but bloomed late to contribute to Brian Kelly’s offense.  Robert Blanton was a four year starter.  If this class underachieved as the second best recruiting class as ranked by Rivals, it’s because Dayne Crist only provided ND with one injury-truncated season as a starter.

Both the 2006 and 2007 classes ranked and to list players who are in the NFL currently from those recruiting classes: Patriots DB Sergio Brown, Saints G Eric Olsen, 49ers TE Konrad Reuland, Cardinals G Chris Stewart, Dolphins TE Will Yeatman, Falcons CB Darrin Walls, Bills OL Sam Young, Bears RB Armando Allen, Browns LB Brian Smith, Seahawks WR Golden Tate, 49ers DT Ian Williams, and soon to be free agent Jimmy Clausen.  How did those recruiting classes result in Charlie Weis getting fired?

Unlike the 2008 class, there were some pretty significant recruiting busts and painful transfers.  Both Yeatman and Reuland transferred after they lost playing time to Rudolph.  Allen started for four years at RB, but didn’t break out until Kelly came in.  Darrin Walls was off the roster in 2008, perhaps when he was needed the most.  And the five stars from those classes really didn’t pan out.  Sam Young did not play like the best OL recruit of the last decade.  James Aldridge was a five star RB out of nearby Crown Point, IN, and finished his career as a fullback on a team that needed someone to stop its spiral.  And of course, Clausen didn’t stay long enough to achieve college immortality, instead giving way to another 5-star QB who never played like one (Dayne Crist).

But if it seems unfair to put the failures on an entire program on a couple of highly rated high school kids just to justify a theory about the Irish being unable to recruit elite athletes, it is only because it is unfair.  It is very clear that the issues for the Notre Dame football program run deeper than recruiting.  Perhaps a deeper examination of how Notre Dame is getting their recruits will show why they are struggling to consistently win with them.

Brian Kelly’s early success at Notre Dame was driven by the overachievement of Weis’ final recruiting class.  That 2009 class was perhaps Weis’ best, even though it wasn’t as highly rated as the others.  And over two years, Kelly changed the coaching  staff and put elite defensive talent on that side of the ball, fixing the single biggest problem of the Weis era, a leaky defense.

It is in spite of the great treasure trove of offensive talent Kelly stepped into that the Notre Dame offense hasn’t been all that good under Brian Kelly.  The quarterback play has been largely abysmal.  The rushing attack consistently good, though if the backs had been able to contribute even a little bit in the passing game, that would take pressure off the overmatched quarterbacks.  TE Tyler Eifert has developed great under Kelly and even considered leaving for the NFL draft this year with two years of eligibility remaining.  The offensive line has gone from a highly recruited weakness to an overall strength with lesser recruits.  But the receivers have been a largely frustrating group despite consistently high recruiting results.  Combined with the quarterback play, Notre Dame’s potentially explosive passing attack has never been particularly strong.

Two or three results, like those seen in the cases of Kiel, Greenberry, and now Neal is not necessarily indicative of a bigger problem, but all three mean comprise the future of the passing attack that has held the Fighting Irish back to date.  And it will be interesting to watch over the next few years: are the players who Notre Dame is signing going to help them compete on a national level, or are they specifically competing for ‘overrated’ high school recruits that SEC and Big XII schools are focusing elsewhere on.  Is it problematic that the talent that the Irish are relying on for the future are considering Houston and Arizona, and decommitting from LSU en route to Notre Dame?

It’s probably not a big deal so long as ND is able to win those recruiting battles.  It’s just something worth keeping an eye on if Brian Kelly’s recruiting classes don’t lead to more consistent winning.


FNQB: The Raiders and Quarterback Carson Palmer: A Fact-Based Debate

October 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Today’s Carson Palmer article features guest blogger Jason Hirschhorn of One Thirty BPM. You can find his work here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @JBHirschhorn.

Head Coach Hue Jackson with Palmer

The NFL trade deadline is typically not a place to find blockbuster transactions, but the 2011 NFL season has been a such crazy year that it felt somewhat expected when the Oakland Raiders leveraged the timing of the trade deadline to acquire QB Carson Palmer from the Cincinnati Bengals at the cost of a 2012 first round pick, and a 2013 second round pick.  The 2013 pick will upgrade to a first round selection if the Raiders win in the divisional round of the playoffs in either of the next two seasons, and are one of the NFL’s final four teams.

From the Bengals’ perspective, this trade is money in the bank.  The Palmer saga ends amicably, and they get a whole lot of draft pick value for which to rebuild their already young roster.  In return, their probability of winning the AFC Wild Card goes down a bit with the Raiders getting stronger in the short term. Potentially. LiveBall’s primary writer brings in a guest blogger in order to determine what, exactly, this trade really means to the Oakland Raiders in 2011 and beyond.

<INFO: Carson Palmer Career Statistics (PFR link)>

Jason Hirschhorn: Let’s not bury the lead: the Raiders will regret the Carson Palmer acquisition.

The closest trade comparison available is the 2002 trade of Drew Bledsoe from New England to Buffalo. Both players were in their early 30s at the time of their respective trades (30 Bledsoe / 31 Palmer), were coming off a series of disappointing but reasonable seasons (combined 34 starts, 57.8% pass completion, 6.8 YPA, 7676 yards, 38-36 TD:INT for Bledsoe / 36 starts, 60.9% pass completion, 6.6 YPA, 7795 yards, 50-37 TD:INT). From this we can gather than Palmer was a slightly more accurate when we account for league wide rises in pass completion, and he threw for more TDs. That said, the skill sets for both players were remarkably similar, and consequently their trade values should not differ too significantly. Bledsoe went for Buffalo’s 2003 first round pick, a cost that was thought at the time to be inflated due to the trade being within the AFC East. The trade was also done during the offseason, giving Buffalo time to acclimate Bledsoe into their offense. Palmer on the other hand will possibly be starting with less than a week back from retirement. His cost is at best an additional 2nd round pick, and at worse double the cost of Bledsoe. From this perspective we can conclude that Oakland massively overpaid for Palmer. Given that injured starting QB Jason Campbell could have returned in 5-7 weeks, a far smarter and cost effective approach would have been to acquire Kyle Orton (widely rumored to be available). Considering the price of fellow Bronco Brandon Lloyd (a 6th round pick that could become a 5th), Orton could probably also have been acquired for a 5th or 6th round pick: a far more reasonable price for a rental player than Palmer was as a permanent Campbell replacement. The efficiency numbers even suggest that 5-7 weeks of Orton plus the return of Campbell would be similar or better than Palmer. Quite the value, considering Orton would cost less than 3% of the price of the 2012 first round pick shipped for Palmer, not to mention the 2013 pick that could be a first rounder as well.*

Bledsoe’s tenure in Buffalo was a moderate success from an individual standpoint as he had a career year in 2002 in which he was Pro-Bowl selection and for a time chased Dan Marino’s single season yardage record. This followed by two mediocre campaigns in 2003 and 2004, and Buffalo made the playoffs 0 times during the Bledsoe era. Oakland may make the playoffs this year, but that was already their trajectory before the Palmer trade. Obviously, losing Campbell created a vacuum the team felt they could not fill internally. However, by trading those high picks for Palmer, Oakland is banking on this and next season being championship contending years.

This is where the trade really falls apart for the Raiders. As it currently stands, they are a half game behind San Diego, a team that by season’s end should prove themselves to be a top flight offense with a quality defense. More importantly, San Diego should have more wins than Oakland. The Palmer trade did not solve any of Oakland’s pass defense woes. For those familiar with defensive passer rating (possibly the best single metric in football for predicting success), Oakland currently is allowing opposing offenses a passer rating of 81.1. No team that made their conference championship last season had a defensive passer rating higher than 77.1. Since this strongly suggests Oakland will not be making the AFC championship this year, and Oakland’s limited 2012 draft picks and cap situation suggest that they will not likely improve going into next year, we can predict two things. First, Cincinnati will receive only Oakland’s 2012 first rounder and 2013 second rounder, and also that the Raiders will not be making any AFC championship game with Palmer at QB. Should this happen, the trade can only be viewed as a colossal failure.

* = value based on average trade chart value for a first round pick (1158.28125) and the average cost of a fifth round pick (34.171875)

Greg Trippiedi: I was delighted to see that you mentioned the San Diego Chargers, because at the heart of this trade for the Oakland Raiders, the only thing that truly matters is that they are better than the Chargers now and in the future.  The Carson Palmer trade makes a heck of a lot of sense for the Raiders if they can become the dominant team in the AFC West from now through 2013 or 2014.  It would be a fundamentally anti-competitive position to argue that the if the Raiders made a trade that set them up to dominate the division during the prime of Philip Rivers’ career, that they should actually be more concerned with their ability to compete with potentially rebuilt rosters from the Chiefs and Broncos over the rest of the next decade or so.  If Oakland becomes an 8-10 win/year team in the short term, as they appear to be now, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the teams in their division who are drafting far higher than they are.  Essentially, dealing a first and delayed second round pick for a starting quarterback is an admission that they aren’t going to compete with rebuilding teams in terms of acquiring low-cost, high upside talent in the 2012 and part of the 2013 NFL drafts.  And it ensures that a day will come where they fall behind teams that are building through those means.

I am plenty familiar with statistics that measure a team’s ability to defend the pass adjusted for the context of the situation and opponent, though I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the predictive ability of defensive passer rating.  I can affirm that the Raiders pass defense has been poor, though both film analysis and an understanding of statistical metrics such as DVOA, GWP, YPA, etc.  I noticed you didn’t spend a whole lot of time writing about the Chargers weaknesses or frankly, how every team the Raiders play the rest of the year is remarkably weak at defending the pass save one: the Detroit Lions.  If the Raiders were going to take advantage of the weakness of every opponent in their division, they needed to decide if they could do so with Kyle Boller.  They came to the conclusion that they were just biding time until Campbell returned from injury.

I do not think the efficiency numbers at all support the notion that 1 game of Kyle Boller + 5 games of Kyle Orton + 4 games of Jason Campbell = 10 games of Carson Palmer.  I think in the most pessimistic assessment of Carson Palmer (i.e. the problems with the 2009-10 Cincinnati offenses were totally his fault), you’re expecting maybe a player who replaces Jason Campbell, doesn’t run for as many first downs, but throws the ball a tad better, and roughly keeps the Raiders as the same team they were before the Campbell injury.  I don’t think that alone justifies the price tag on the trade, but the efficiency numbers absolutely do suggest that the Raiders are a 3 to 2 favorite to take the AFC West Title over the Chargers.  And that three to two figure makes the assumption that the Raiders don’t improve (or decline) as a result of this trade.

I might be accurately termed a Jason Campbell apologist from his Washington days, and I am one who believes that Campbell might have gotten to the Raiders to the playoffs anyway, but he unfortunately fractured his collarbone two days before the trade deadline.  It would be inaccurate to say the Raiders HAD to do something.  They would have been excused had they done nothing at the deadline.  The media would have given them a pass if they had dealt for Kyle Orton, even though that’s not a good trade for them.  If anything, Orton is the Bledsoe comparable here.  He’s the in-the-division trade candidate who lost his job this year after playing five poor games.  If your point was that the Raiders should have been looking to buy low, I couldn’t disagree more.  They already had Kyle Boller on the roster.  The point of a trade should be to avoid poor QB play.  I know this will be a point of contention, but with the Palmer trade, the Raiders did exactly that.  And this story will have a happy ending for Jason Campbell as well, who lines up as the prize jewel of the 2012 NFL free agency class, and he might be the best QB to hit the market since Drew Brees did so back in 2006.  Or at least since Brett Favre in 2009.

JH: I think we can both agree that if the Raiders do not play deep into the playoffs this year and next, the Carson Palmer trade will be a failure. As I’ve mentioned before, defensive passer rating is a powerful tool for predicting playoff success. Last season was an especially strong case, as the top two teams in DPR were the NFC and AFC Super Bowl representatives. While it will not always be the case that the top two DPR teams will make the Super Bowl, the 2009 champion Saints were ranked 5th, the 2008 champion Steelers were ranked 2nd and so on. The one noticeable exception was the 2007 Giants who were dead middle of the league with a DPR of 83.4. The Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XLII remains the greatest statistical upset in NFL championship history.

As I’ve pointed out, Oakland currently sports a DPR of 81.1. If they were to win a championship this year, it would fall just short of the 2007 Giants in terms of improbability. Obviously, Carson Palmer won’t do much to aid the Oakland pass defense, meaning that while he’s a significant upgrade over Kyle Boller, the chances of the Raiders capitalizing on this short-sighted trade are remote. And the Oakland DPR stands to worsen as the season progresses. If we assume that all their scheduled opponents play their current starters, their average passer rating is 88.8. Keep in mind that’s not accounting for the likelihood that division rival Philip Rivers, who the Raiders will see in week 10 and 17, will return to his Pro-Bowl form.

I think you’ve made a crucial error in your assessment that 10 games of Carson Palmer > 1 game of Kyle Boller + 5 games of Kyle Orton + 4 games of Jason Campbell. It assumes without warrant that Carson can step in and play at or better than his 2010 form. This seems to me an utterly unrealistic expectation. Palmer last played competitively January 2, 2011; he has not practiced in an NFL facility since. To expect him to step in with less than half a week of practice, in an offense he hasn’t played in before (while Hue Jackson has coached Palmer previously, Palmer has never had to learn Al Saunders’ infamous 700 page playbook) suggests Palmer won’t have any real grasp on the offense for several weeks. Even Kyle Boller, limited a player though he may be, has over a year in the system and is likely the more capable Raider QB until Palmer is finally acclimated to the Raiders both mentally and physically. What also must be accounted for is the amount of time it will take Palmer to build timing and trust with his receivers. This is a difficult task even for veterans in their prime, but the Raiders receivers average only 24.3 years of age. They’re young, prone to making route running mistakes, and their new starting quarterback has absolutely zero experience throwing to them.

Had he been acquired instead, Kyle Orton also would have had some (though not all) of those issues. However, we already know he is in football shape, and he has more recently been in an NFL environment learning an offense. The amount of unknowns with Orton is less than that of Palmer. Given all of that, and the significantly lower price tag for Orton, renting Orton until Jason Campbell would have returned would have been the smarter move. I’m also not convinced that Palmer is a better quarterback for Oakland than Campbell. Campbell is a less risky passer, as he’s statistically far less likely to throw an interception compared to Palmer (2.3 vs. 3.1 interception % respectively) and is far more of a running threat (4.3 vs. 1.8 yards per carry, again respectively). Considering that Oakland runs more than it passes (190 rushing attempts against 180 passing), the importance of the QB in the Raider offense is mitigated, even if only by a little. The idea that Palmer will propel this team deep into playoffs is far-fetched at its best, Lou Holtz crazy at its worst.

GT: I don’t know if I can make a sound argument that Carson Palmer can lead the Raiders deep into the playoffs.  It’s not that this doesn’t seem plausible, as it actually seems rather plausible.  I just can’t make an argument that it’s definitely going to be Palmer propelling the Raiders to victory as opposed to the Raiders propelling Palmer to victory.  To separate the two perspectives would result in resorting to dishonesty.  A healthy Jason Campbell likely directs the Raiders to the playoffs, but the Raiders had to act one way or the other in the absence of their most prudent option.

There is a business term used primarily in evaluating derivative trades known as a “hubris-motivated” swap, which essentially means what it sounds like: to pull even on (not lose) this trade, the Raiders will need to receive more out of Palmer than he was actually worth to the Bengals (none of this should matter to the Bengals, who sold high).  And the Raiders had a big problem if the Bengals were not accurately assessing Carson Palmer’s value to the Bengals, which is that they weren’t in a position to talk down the Bengals’ high asking price to a fair deal.  They had to pay on prospects, motivated by the Hubris that Carson Palmer can be one of the ten best quarterbacks in football. But the thing is, I don’t know if there are warning signs to point to in order to suggest that the Raiders aren’t going to be right.

If there are signs, they likely revolve around Palmer’s declining statistical record, something I addressed in this December 31st article following Palmer’s explosive passing performance for the Bengals throwing to the youngest players on the Bengals roster against the San Diego Chargers pass defense.  That’s the loss that knocked San Diego out of the playoff race last year.  And now this year they will have to beat Palmer and the Raiders. Twice.

While there may not be enough of a sample to even hint that the Raiders pass defense is likely to be as poor in December as it is right now, there is definitely enough of a sample to evaluate Palmer against a team that was rated incredibly well on offense with Jason Campbell over it’s last 16 games.  I’m not crass enough to say the Raiders are definitely better now that their starting quarterback is injured, but if the NFL Lockout taught us anything, it’s that plays (particularly on offense) will run just as smoothly following close to a year of down time as those plays would have if teams or players had enjoyed the benefits of a full offseason.  Palmer shouldn’t be considered an exception to this rule.  The Raiders should be skeptical that Palmer will be able to come in and take every snap the rest of the year: he’ll be very sore on Monday.  But I don’t see why the team would (or should) think he would be otherwise limited.  He’s not studying to try to earn a law degree prior to Sunday’s game; it is still just football.

The Raiders didn’t pay a first and delayed second round pick for just some quarterback like Kyle Orton or Drew Bledsoe as has been done in the recent past, they did it to acquire a specific player who they wanted to bring in over the offseason.  Did the leverage equation change in favor of the Bengals when Jason Campbell got hurt?  Sure it did.  But between the Bengals, who “won” this trade, and the Raiders who “lost” it, only one team is going to win a division as a result.  And that’s not the Cincinnati Bengals.  It’s the Oakland Raiders.

All About the 2011 NFL Players Lockout

April 4, 2011 1 comment
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 05: London Fletcher  of the Washington Redskins intercepts a pass in the endzone intended for Kevin Boss  of the New York Giants on December 5, 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The NFL lockout has reached it’s fourth week now, and it’s time for a LiveBall sports informational on The Lockout and what it means for fans.  I’ll put on a completely amateur and limited legal hat to sort out the lawyer-ese on the lockout.  There’s a difference between being informed, and being a professional, and I will prove that difference below (hint: wikipedia links).

Will the Lockout Stand into the NFL season, causing the NFL to not play games?

This is pretty unlikely, though it’s more likely than we thought about three years ago.  There’s a court case that will determine the legality of such a lockout.  What we already know is that precedent exists established in the case of American Needle Inc. vs NFL.  The NFL has some anti-trust exemption, but it would not be permissible by labor and anti-trust law for 32 independent organizations to lock non-unionized players out of their facilities and not allow their contracts to earn them revenue over the course of the season.  If the Chicago Bears wanted to lock out it’s roster and compete against the 31 other franchises with replacement players, anti-trust law probably wouldn’t prevent them from doing so.  If 32 teams do it as “the NFL”, we’re talking about a seemingly clear-cut case of collusion.

The NFL is not expected to contest that anti-trust ruling in court.  The NFL’s case is expected to be centered around the illegality of the decertification of the NFL Players Association, arguing two different points: that 1) the decertification itself is a ‘sham’ because it’s aimed at simply preventing an otherwise legal lockout by the NFL teams of a players union, and should not be legally recognized, and 2) that the decertification itself was not procedurally legal and valid according to US law and law in the state of Minnesota.  Premise 1) is almost certainly true in the nominal sense, but the NFL is going to have a difficult time arguing that in a court of law.  Certainly, the NFLPA sought legal council prior to decertify to ensure that their decertification was likely to stand, and they must be confident in their ability to have that hold up in court.  But on the second premise, the NFL could actually have a case that threatens the 2011 NFL season.

There’s also more for the players to prove here than just that their decertification was legal, at least to get the Preliminary Injunction they seek on April 6th.  To get that, the players must show they need to get back to work immediately in order to not suffer “immediate and irreparable harm.”  Ultimately, it is my belief that if the decertification holds, the players will win out in court regardless of whether they get that Preliminary Injunction or not, but getting it would more or less protect NFL football for the 2011 season, pending the inevitable appeal by the NFL, of course.

The NFL’s trump card, and the biggest fear for NFL fans, is that due to the complexity of all the legal issues, what appears to be a fairly simple decision on the surface could easily take months if not years to unwind all the layers of: this is fairly standard for the judicial branch — as nothing moves quickly through it.  Even if not ultimately ruled legitimate according to labor practices, the lockout could be upheld into the season, and the players would have no one to blame except their own chosen alternative for this occurring.

The bottom line is that games are at risk right now, although if the players receive a decisive resolution in their favor, they will play all the games, and if the league receives a decisive resolution in their favor, there will be plenty of time to come to some sort of agreement to lift the lockout and play the 2011 season.  If the courts stall the case, then we could miss games.  As of Monday, April 4th, word is that the players are unlikely to win the Preliminary Injunction, and that the lockout will stand, for now, but at least the ruling will be swift.

Why should I ‘root’ for the Players to win?

Well, the owners did opt out of the current CBA which the players were satisfied with and of which the owners would have remained profitable, at least for the duration of the CBA (set to expire after the 2012 season).  I have analyzed the situation and found that the owners concerns about the long term profitability of football under the current labor deal were legitimate, and good ownership of business entities requires the owners to take a skeptical look at their costs in a dynamic, changing business environment.  Dissatisfaction with the current labor deal was just good business.

With that said, any third party projection of that old labor deal would never have supported the idea that NFL owners were going to run into financial trouble in the final two years of the established deal.  At least 80% of the teams were going to post profits in 2011 and 2012 under the old labor deal anyway, which would have then expired and put us in the same situation 2 years later.  So why opt out?  A leveraging tactic of course.  In the absence of showing the books to the public, you have a 32-0 vote against the current deal to show “how much the owners are hurting.”  See: no one thinks this deal is good!  We can get a better deal!  And there might not be football because the selfish players don’t understand how much they are hurting our pockets under the current deal!

If you’re a fan, you shouldn’t buy the opt out as a state of the bargaining process because under desperate conditions, 30 of 32 owners ratified that CBA just two years before they all opted out of it.  It will never be challenged in court, but you can rest assured that the owners colluded to opt out of the CBA.  The owners are at fault for the timing of this debate coming in a down economy when the players are more concerned about looking out for themselves than about the mutually ensured sustainability of the NFL.

A deal is the only way for players to “get theirs.”  The only constraint the owners face when writing deals and manipulating the rules to their financial benefit over the course of the next six or seven years is the concessions they can get from the owners right now.  The owners will survive no matter what.  That’s why they own pro franchises.  If the now-expired CBA had continued indefinitely, the owners would have found a way to leverage their assets into profitable business.  It’s in their nature, their DNA if you will.  The players are helpless outside of the concessions they get through collective bargaining to get their free market value in a very short career.  And obviously, the owners know that they will “win” any long-term lockout situations.  Fans should root hard for the players to get everything they can in good-spirited negotiations, because the 32 businesses will always win on the back end and the 4 or so that do not have only themselves to blame for that.

Then again, speaking of good-spirited negotiations…

Why should I ‘root’ for the Owners to win?

The players needed to pursue the decertification option to have some backing in their labor negotiations with the NFL.  If they hadn’t done this, they could have been walked all over by the owners in collective bargaining.  With that said, the timing of the players to pull the trigger on decertification came at a particularly bad time for fans.  According to nearly all accounts, the players had backed the owners off their initial demands (leveraging decertification in their negotiations), and it was reasonable to believe another week of negotiations could see the two sides reaching a mutually beneficial deal that seemed impossible just a month before at the super bowl.  I’m not saying the players should have accepted the owners last/best offer (it was a ‘bad’ deal for the current players), but they should have extended the deadline once more knowing that mutually beneficial territory was well within sight.

The players pulled the decertification trigger in a pretty positive negotiating environment.  Yes, that’s easy for me to say without being in the room for two weeks, being worn down by the negative, trust-lacking, personal negotiations that destroyed the moral and perhaps the sanity of those in the room.  Sign me up for another week of that nonsense, please.  With that said, anyone who thought these negotiations would be easy, to the point, and that no one would have their feelings hurt was not living in the same world as the rest of us.  Football coaches talk endlessly about mental toughness and how they want players that exhibit it, but the truth is that the leaders on each side were not mentally tough enough to handle, uh, labor negotiations in a professional manner.  This, as much as anything, is why the NFLPA pulled the decertification trigger despite making plenty of unexpected, positive progress towards a resolution.  They made a somewhat irrational decision (but not a surprise decision) under a hard deadline.

If the owners win decisively in court despite the early predictions of the NFLPA that they could get a better deal going towards litigation over collective bargaining, you can score a win for unionized labor negotiations everywhere.  Though the NFLPA will almost certainly re-unionize as soon as it becomes obvious that they cannot block a lockout using an anti-trust tactic, what the players will have done though the de-certification ordeal is handed the owners the upper hand in the labor negotiations, giving away really good leverage they had in decertification, and they will lose a lot of their gains made in good faith in 2006.

While rich owners getting the best of less-rich players in labor negotiations is hardly cause for dancing in the streets, it would seem that victory by the defendants (the NFL) in court would re-establish faith in collective bargaining and how the “little guy” can make gains against large employers the old-fashioned way: logical complaints rooted in reality and necessity, and the art of persuasion over trying to leverage the courts to do the work for them based on obscure legal loopholes.

Why the NFL’s Proposed OT Rules Changes are Misguided

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Even though the NFL is the best marketed professional sport in the United States, the league is clearly not averse to doing things that generate bad PR.  They’ll fine players for acting unprofessionally, even if there was no intent to show anyone up.  They will maintain blackouts in local markets to protect the distribution of the league product, even for teams who cannot sell out their stadium.  And they still have the damn tuck rule.

So I was a little surprised this morning to hear that the NFL competition committee will vote on a rule change to overtime specifially designed at giving the team that doesn’t win the coin toss a chance to respond before the game ends.

It’s a terrible, horrendous mockery of a rule.

First, the implication that the overtime rules must be changed is based of a premise that the current rules aren’t fair.  It’s a false premise.  If two theoretically even teams–playing at a neutral site–enter overtime together, they both have an even chance to win the game.  Perfectly 50-50.  It’s the very definition of fair.

What has people ticked is that, before a down of football is played, a non-football event decides which team has a relatively small advantage over the other.  The coin toss does give one team a statistically significant advantage over the other, but not a particularly decisive one.  It takes a 50-50 proposition and makes it about 60-40 in favor of the team that wins the toss–maybe as much as 65-35 in an offensive heavy environment.

This advantage is the cause of such outrage, so much that the competition committee has to decide on a rule change regarding the very way that we will decide football games…but only in the NFL PLAYOFFS.  Remember, this rule is not good enough to decide a majority of football games, only the most critical ones.

Under the current rule, coaches have the option to avoid overtime if they think they can do better than 50-50 to win the game in regulation.  One of these options is the two point conversion.  If a team is down by seven, and scores a late touchdown, they can take an extra point with 99% accuracy [ex. point val = .99], or they can try a two point conversion with a 48% chance of success (plus or minus the quality of the offensive and defensive elements) [ex. point val = .96].  Essentially that’s a very similar probability to go win the game in one play vs. sending it to an overtime period.

The only real advantage to sending a game to overtime in this situation is to increase the sample of plays a team gets.  So if a team goes to overtime, and ends up losing the coin toss, it’s not like they’ve been screwed over.  They knew going into overtime that this outcome was a likely possibility.  And they’ve got to suck it up to win the game.  The penalty for failure to adapt to a dynamic situation is losing a close game.  No one is not okay with this outcome.

Fans of the losing team in these close overtime games are the ones who make the most noise about the overtime rules, but ultimately, it boils down to a case of leaguewide sour grapes.  Enter a preposterous rule change suggestion.  A rule that, by it’s very nature, is designed to make the game no more fair.

Entering overtime, the probability of two equal teams on a neutral field winning is still identical: 50% each.  This rule change makes the outcome of the coin flip far less important.  But now instead of one team getting an advantage at the beginning of the period by receiving the kick, each team gets an unequal, unfair advantage.  The team that gets the ball second gets an unfair advantage of knowing if they will need to score a touchdown, a field goal, or even at all.  They have the advantage of getting another DOWN if they trail in overtime, as the entire game becomes four down territory at that point.  Who the heck considers that to be fair?

Of course, this makes this one drive by the second team every bit as critical as the first drive of overtime under a current system.  A team that punts on that drive in a tie game, or a team that kicks a field goal to tie on that possession, essentially hands the sudden death advantage to the team who got the first possession.  I ask again: what overtime “problem” has this new rule suggestion actually fixed?  Is the NFL not going to have a sudden death overtime?  Are they planning on going to the non-football college rule?

The only actual solution to the current overtime is to make it a timed football period of finite length, either ten or fifteen minutes, and not make it sudden death.  The downside to this is that overtime games will go significantly longer than they currently do.  Oh, but wait, that’s also an unintended effect of the new rule proposal.

For a league that has been slow, at best, to embrace positive change, this would be the kind of jump-to-conclusions-solution that hurts the competitive balance of the league, and more significantly, panders to those fair-weather fans unable to stomach a fair result that goes against their team of choice.

Darelle Revis Plays in New York? You Don’t Say!

January 19, 2010 1 comment

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NOT NEW YORK CITY, NY — Even with the flare of all the highly touted quarterbacks who have reached the NFL’s version of the final four with their teams (all in blowout fashion, mind you), it certainly seems like none of them have received quite the credit for there as Jets CB Darrelle Revis has.

It’s not like Revis isn’t deserving of the praise.  The Pitt product is a true shutdown player at a position where failure is widely accepted as a bump in the road, at a position where a pass interference flag, in context, is a method of defense against a worse result.  Revis can excel in technique and physicality at a position where a few bad beats means that you’re freely available talent.

Especially in a year where Packers counterpart Charles Woodson was awarded defensive player of the year, it’s hard to complain about Revis getting all this hubbub, especially when then known alternative is all-Favre, all the time.

Here’s the big issue: a lot of the credit is disingenuous.  Revis is this year’s darling of the playoff ball only because he plays his home games in the New York media market.  Can we seriously not have a player from that market who is quietly underrated for a change?

Why does Mark Teixiera have to be baseballs best switch hitter since Bernie Williams?  Why is it so hard to find any information about the first ten years of Wayne Gretsky’s career?  And can someone please tell me why Spike Lee is a larger part of the culture of NBA Basketball than, say, Flip Saunders has ever been?

Darelle Revis has a really good shot at the pro football hall of fame, if for no other reason than the fact that he’s been accepted as one of the league’s most elite players–at any position–at the age of 24.  Other shut-down type corners have had to wait, sometimes until after their best years, to get this type of recognition.  It hasn’t helped that Nnamdi Asomugha has never played on a winning team, but he wasn’t universally accepted as elite until age 27.  League types knew that Champ Bailey was a great talent as early as 2000, but he didn’t make his first all-pro team until he left a historically underachieving Washington team for Denver, who would only begin to underachieve after Bailey (age 26) arrived.  Asante Samuel was age-26 before he was elected to his first pro-bowl.  Al Harris was 33 when he was first elected to the pro bowl.

The only real comparable type of career path to Revis is, ironically, Woodson, who went to the pro bowl as a rookie and also all of his first four seasons in Oakland, a media sinkhole.  But Woodson had a New York-media tie that even Revis didn’t have in college, when he played at the nationally-syndicated University of Michigan and won the Heisman trophy as a defensive player.  Green Bay is not exactly Los Angeles or San Francisco, but with Woodson’s late career “revival” (assuming the talent ever really went anywhere), he figures to be Canton-bound, much like Revis.

It was hard to ever expect a pro football player to rise to prominence in the national spotlight faster than Eli Manning did during his career 180 in some city over 6 months starting in September of 2007.  But Revis’ ascension has happened perhaps quicker.  Revis didn’t get good overnight: he played in the pro bowl last season, he was a mid first round pick who might have taken the league by storm as a rookie in 2007 if not for a lengthy holdout and the aforementioned Manning saga.  There’s no room to dispute Revis’ greatness, just as no one would ever suggest that Favre or Peyton Manning already has their Canton-check written, and just waiting to be cashed (whether there will ever be a 5-year period in American history where Favre doesn’t play NFL football is anyone’s guess).

Seriously though, it might be time to give it a rest.  He plays in New York, the cliche-capital of Greatest City in the World.  Look at him and their foul-mouthed, well-fed, character of a coach!  Isn’t it great that this team–and city–just never goes away!  It’s the City that NEVER SLEEPS!!!1!

But for the rest of us who don’t feel any particular nationalistic pride with the people and writers of New York, Revis is just another really, really good pro football player, like a Josh Cribbs or a Jared Allen, that we’d really only like to hear about in the context of a great individual effort or next contract, and certainly nothing more.

Boise State Wins Titanic Mid-Major Battle, Offered Small Trophy

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This is not going to break down into another “we need a playoff system in College Football” rant, because, quite frankly, that’s the very last thing college football needs, in my opinion.  In a four-team playoff system (for example) the NCAA can still force Boise State to go play at Alabama, and TCU to play at Texas and they would still likely end up with an Alabama at Texas final.

What the NCAA, more specifically, the big-time conferences themselves need is an attitude adjustment.  The idea of conference disparity is as much an issue between the “Big Six” conferences as it is between those conferences (collectively), and the other conferences that create the environment that is Division 1 College Football — Bowl Subdivision.

The Fiesta Bowl ended up being a very exciting game between two very good teams, and Boise State’s defense and coaching was just a little bit better at the end of it, and in the greater sense, Boise State become the very first team to win 14 football games in a Bowl Subdivision season.  It’s a fantastic accomplishment when you think about what that means.  Every additional game played, no matter how strong the opponent, decreases the chance of a team going undefeated by a much larger chunk than most would comprehend.  Sure, Boise State will probably beat Utah State every time they play, but their chance of winning every game they play gets MUCH greater if they just don’t put that game on the schedule.  14-0 is either a mistake, or an excellent capsule of the dominance of this team, one that beat two BCS teams this year, Oregon being the other.

The other thing that came from this game is just how great a team like TCU can play for a whole season, and then they can actually not be the best performing mid-major come the bowl season.  Last year, Boise State was probably more lauded for their season, but it was TCU that won the bowl match-up between these teams while Utah beat up on Alabama in the BCS bowl, going undefeated.

What it seems about time to realize is that–EVERY YEAR–some of the best teams in college football come from mid-major conferences.  Admittedly, it’s a lot of the same suspects: either Utah, or Boise, or TCU.  Eventually, these programs will become part of the major conferences because it will be necessary to maintain conference superiority over the mid-majors.  I don’t think there will ever be a college football season where the Mountain West will catch the Big Ten.  It’s very close right now, but it won’t continue to trend in that direction.  It will go back the other way.

This “attitude adjustment” I’m proposing would eliminate the need to have conference parity.  It’s an easy punchline to point out that these teams from mid-major conferences do not play anyone, but, honestly, who does?  ACC teams?  SEC teams?  The only teams who play really tough schedules are the teams in the conferences who also schedule good out of conference opponents.  That leaves: Alabama and Virginia Tech, who play each other.  Notre Dame still plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and they do not play a schedule anywhere near as hard as they used to.  No team in the Big Ten besides Ohio State even attempts to schedule a difficult opponent, and even with them, it’s hard to say that the conference is still challenging enough to suggest that a 2 loss Ohio State season can possibly stand up to TCU’s season, or Boise’s season.  Penn State’s schedule since they last played Notre Dame in 2007 has been a joke.

What could have been said had Oregon beaten Stanford and finished 11-1?  The only reason that they would have missed out on playing for a National Title would have been because they scheduled against Boise State…and lost on opening night.  In reality, it wouldn’t have mattered, but the potential lesson would have been that the way to reach the title game is to schedule lighter.  In essence, the BCS conference teams need to schedule more like those jokers in the mid-major conferences…who, remember, can’t make those decisive championship games because they play mid-major competition.

I’ve never had a problem with a system that tries to pair up the two best teams in college football to play for the national championship.  I think it’s more optimal than a playoff system, although it’s a utopian ideal to ever have a system objective enough to perfectly select the two most deserving teams for the championship game, it’s just as impossible to determine the team that most deserves a shot at the title as the 8th seed in a playoff system.  My solution lies in the bowl system, but without the notion of a national championship game.  I think mid-majors should be allowed to win the National Championship without having to go into a BCS Bowl against the number one team.

To me, if Boise plays in the Sugar Bowl next year against Texas (for example), and beats them, and has another undefeated season, there should be an objective system in place to weigh their relative merits against the winner of the other BCS bowls in determining the College Football Champion.  The thing that’s wrong with the bowl system right now that needs to be corrected is that the system has become so reliant on the BCS’ predictive ability, that eight teams every year play in BCS bowl games with zero opportunity to win the championship.  Some of these teams have three loses, others have zero.

My solution: all teams that win BCS bowls are eligible to be the national champion.  This includes any mid-major that goes undefeated in any given year.  The gap has closed far enough where we can look at a 13-0 or 14-0 Boise State team and compare them to a 12-1 Florida team and suggest that yes, the more impressive of the two teams is the Broncos.  And this can be done with a mathematical formula based on things that happen on the field, not based on polls that consider the opinion of only those who watch from the couch.

I think it was insulting to college football fans that, in a historic year where two mid-majors made the BCS, that instead of watching two different teams take on the BCS conference champions, we were treated to a pair of undefeated at-large teams matched up against each other.  For what exactly?  These two teams delivered us a great football game.  The only thing better than that: two great football games.

But, hey, at least we get to see Iowa play in the BCS against Georgia Tech.  It’s good that the bowl selection committees saved that game for last.

The Best of LiveBall Sports in 2009

January 2, 2010 1 comment

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A rare list of links to the very, very best stuff ever written in this here space chosen by the readers:

The Best of the Best

The Best of the Rest

And here were some lesser-trafficked articles that I thought I did a good job on.  Before, you know, they went largely unread: