Monday, April 28, 2008

ESPN outdoes itself.

Teeing off on ESPN seems barely even worth doing these days, at least since the embarassing "Who's Now" segment made the channel's decline in quality painfully obvious to everyone.

Still, this story is notable in its quintessentially ESPN awfulness.


1. Another shameless plug for the Arena Football League, which nobody takes seriously but ESPN partially owns, hence it gets covered like a mainstream sport. Actual line from the article: "God Bless the Arena Football League."

2. "Who's Now"-esque celebrity worship.

3. The celebrity being worshipped is Jon Bon Jovi.

That is all.

Are the 2008 Marlins for real?

Our recent post on surprise division leaders generated some discussion about whether Florida's strong start can hold up, so we've decided to go a little deeper into this:


Projected returns of key starting pitchers:
-Sanchez: All-Star Break, at best.
-Johnson: September or next season.
-Mitre: aiming for June.

In the meantime, Miller has improved with virtually every start, although he has yet to pitch more than five innings and his ERA is still barely below 8.


No sooner did we emphasize the Marlins' easy schedule than they impressively took 2 of 3 at Milwaukee this past weekend. Some other upcoming series that will help determine if this team is for real:

May 20-22: hosting the Diamondbacks for a 3-game set.

May 26-June 5: a 10-game road trip including 3 at the Mets, 3 at the Phils, and 4 at Atlanta.

Draft Quick Hits Cont'd - Colt Brennan's selection

One dark horse pick in the draft was Washington's selection of Hawaii QB Colt Brennan in the 6th round. While he put up ridiculous numbers at Hawaii, much of it can be chalked up to their old-school run-n-shoot offense and weak competition - their Sugar Bowl collapse against Georgia showed they were completely unprepared for a real pass rush. Indeed, Brennan's Hawaii predecessor of similarly insane stats, Timmy Chang, never lasted on an NFL roster past the preseason and now plays in Canada.

Still, the Hawaii offense has been one of the most fun to watch in college football in recent years, and it will be interesting to see if Brennan can stick with the Redskins. The odds of it happening are slim though, especially now that Spurrier's "fun-and-gun" is no longer in place in DC.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Draft Day Quick Hits

1. This has got to be one of the least exciting draft weekends in recent memory - the no. 1 pick was settled well in advance, no draft day trades on the level of last year's Randy Moss stunner, no precipitous drop of a big name guy like we saw with Brady Quinn, most of the biggest picks were offensive or defensive linemen, and the most exciting player in the draft ended up in Oakland.

2. That said, it should be interesting to see Jake Long and Vernon Gholston face off as rivals again.

3. Years later, the Herschel Walker trade still amazes.

4. The Big Lead says that ESPN's coverage of the draft kills the suspense of watching it unfold. Then again, the fact that the NFL draft is a TV event at all is pretty ridiculous.

5. Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Rays are tied for first place.

6. Speaking of baseball, why doesn't the MLB draft help create competitive balance in that sport? Baseball Prospectus explains a broken system.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Surprise Division Leaders

It's only April, but there are surprises atop three divisions - the White Sox, the A's (tied with the Angels), and the Marlins.

For Oakland's strong start, Jeff Hackman of the Hardball Times credits productive starting pitching.

The White Sox have based their success so far on both offense - 2nd in the AL only to Boston in runs scored, and first in home runs (led by Thome and Crede with 5 apiece) - and pitching (team ERA behind only Oakland and Minnesota). They've also benefited from a weaker-than-expected AL Central.

Florida's run seems the most likely to be a fluke - they've got a negative run differential, have beaten up on the Pirates and Nats, and their starting pitching hasn't been there: of their rotation, only Scott Olsen and Mark Hendrickson have ERAs under 6. Things could get ugly fast if the heavily-taxed bullpen starts to wear down or Hanley Ramirez goes into a slump. Also, despite their strong start, they're again having trouble filling the seats.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The #1 Pick and the QB Myth

Greg Cote thinks Miami should draft Matt Ryan with the #1 pick, as opposed to likely top pick Jake Long or one of the high-rated defensive linemen. A defensible argument - probably - but what's really interesting about his column is the way it falls for the myth of the Savior Quarterback:
"Jake Long could be another Richmond Webb just as Chris Long could be another Taylor (minus the cha-cha). But those are not positions of defining impact, which is partly why Webb and Taylor, together, have the same number of Super Bowl rings as your neighbor Fred."

1. If Webb's and Taylor's lack of Super Bowl rings means their positions don't have a "defining impact," then what about the fact that Marino doesn't have one either? Add Jim Kelly and Warren Moon as two other recent HOF QBs with no ring.

2. If you want a #1 OL pick that had a "defining impact" in terms of Super Bowl impact, think Orlando Pace. No way the Rams' deep-pass offense of that era would have been able to work without that offensive line, which Pace anchored.

3. While we're on 1990s drafts, let's remember Jonathan Ogden, picked 4th overall by Baltimore. The 2000 team won the Super Bowl, mostly because of its record-setting defense, but also because its running game - 5th in the NFL - was able to make up for having the mediocre Trent Dilfer at QB.

4. On defensive end not being an impact position - this year's Giants team basically won the Super Bowl with their pass rush. Also, Bruce Smith was a number one draft pick, and he helped the Bills get to four Super Bowls (of course there are some 1st-pick DEs who turned out to be duds - Courtney Brown comes to mind - but the same is of course true of QBs).

5. The importance of the left tackle position brought to mind this old SI cover story, definitely worth revisiting - not that SI's recommended #1 draft pick that year panned out that well.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Steve McNair

When I read that Steve McNair retired yesterday I instantly thought back to his memorable SI cover and the accompanying article. This was still when what SI wrote and who graced its cover mattered a lot more, and I became a McNair fan on that alone.

The article is a good read, if anything to see just how much "black quarterback" was part of the conversation only 15 years ago, or for lighter gems like:
"He's on the same level as the best quarterbacks I've seen since I've been scouting," says Dwight Adams, director of player personnel for the Buffalo Bills. "Testaverde, Bledsoe, Shuler, Mirer, Dilfer.
McNair's retirement dates me as a sports fan. He came into the league when I was in grade school, the formative years as far as fandom is concerned. To put it in perspective: he was the last high draft pick QB to start his career with the now-archaic two year bench apprenticeship without much of a fuss being made over it. To compare, consider how much talk their was about Vince Young sitting behind Billy Volek, or Carson Palmer behind Kitna.

He never threw for 3,500 yds or 25 TDs in a season but neither did Troy Aikman. To go by his numbers and say he wasn't among the elite QBs of his generation would be myopic. Jeff Fisher told him to hand it off, and so he did. He made those Titan teams go and his 2003 MVP was well-deserved. What would his numbers look like if he had a true number one receiver? (No, Derrick Mason does not count).

He patented the Red Zone QB draw and was part of a memorable rivalry with the Ravens. An organic rivalry to boot - two teams with no history, simply playing hard against each other each time out.

He said he couldn't do it physically anymore, and that's not surprising. He leaves behind an archive of injury reports and a legacy as one of the toughest players to ever play. Some relevant Steve Young commentary, circa 2003 playoffs, via Simmons:
Someone mentioned how McNair finally started limping on that final drive, how that may have derailed the Titans more than anything. So Steve Young casually mentions, "I think the painkillers started wearing off -- they usually don't last for the whole game."
That was McNair in the 17-14 Divisonal loss to the Pats, playing with a torn calf.

If it's not the barrage of injuries, the prevailing memory will certainly be, "one yard short." Naturally, his unbelievable scramble-and-pass (1:55 mark) on the prior play has been forgotten.

He was a fun player to grow up with. And that's coming from a Jags fan.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Basketball is pretty cool too.

Last week Kottke linked to a post about why Baseball is the best of all games.

We make the case for basketball.

There are many arguments to be made: the awesomeness of the dunk, the sweet crispness of a catch and shoot three, etc, but the most fundamental difference is that basketball allows a synchronization unavailable in other sports. Obviously all team sports require teamwork, but basketball more than the rest relies on and even thrives on creative teamwork.

A taste.

Basketball, Hockey and Soccer are obviously all similar in this regard. Football relies heavily on planning and strategy and is segmented. Sure, a runner scores a touchdown because of the blocking, but rarely is a block conceived spontaneously. Similarly the Favreian improviser is praised because that quality is so unusual.

If football is segmented, then baseball is almost completely a collection of individual moments assembled together. It lacks fluidity. It's why the Jamesian numbers approach gained such traction, whereas its been more difficult to apply similar concepts to other sports.

Hockey, Soccer and Basketball are similar in their essence, but the former two are expressly more restrictive. In hockey the full range of motion is constrained because on skates players are locked to the ground. And even on the ground they can only turn around or move laterally in limited ways; the acrobatics happen in spite of the skates.

Soccer is closest to basketball, but because it is played on such a large field, it's play is more spaced out and thus moments of hyper-connectivity are fewer. Plus there's the obvious limitation of playing handsless. Having to use your feet and being on skates are what makes soccer and hockey respectively interesting. But by limiting the body's capabilities they limit synchronization.

Basketball at its peak is the pinnacle of wordless communication: the no look pass, the behind the back pass, the alley-oop...Isn't that an instinctive pleasure - to be in sync with others?

This dovetails with our CP3 post from last week re the resurgence of watchable basketball after a decade-plus of isos, 10 second post-ups, and scores in the 80s.

Thats why it was so easy for everyone to jump on the Suns bandwagon a few years back,

or the Warriors bandwagon last spring.

Sure, an 8-1 upset is compelling in its own right, but no one was lovin' the '94 Nuggets that much.

Open-court, pass-happy basketball, ie basketball played the right way, engages even the uninterested non-fan, because that kind of creative and spontaneous athletic communication strikes a chord universally.

We leave you with Showtime.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Props to Joe Dumars

Don’t know if anyone has noticed, but Detroit has themselves a pretty nice young bench.

Yesterday against the Raps, with 4:43 to go, Jarvis Hayes checked in for Lindsey Hunter. At 26, he was the oldest Piston on the court. The rest of the youngins joining him:

Aaron Afflalo 22
Amir Johnson 20
Jason Maxiell 25
Rodney Stuckey 21

The Pistons were up 83-75 at the time, and the lead had only been 6 three minutes earlier when Johnson came in for Ratliff. They held on to win 91-84. That Flip Saunders left crunch time in the hands of two rookies (Stuckey, Afflalo) and three other guys with not much more service time is significant.

Was it a meaningless game? Maybe. The Raps didn’t have a shot at the 4 seed because of Cleveland’s head-to-head tiebreaker and maybe they don’t have a preference who they face between Detroit, Orlando, and Cleveland.

But maybe not. They did have Ford, Calderon, and Bosh on the floor at the end of the game and couldn’t chip away at the Pistons' lead. Regardless of just how hard the Raps were playing it, the youngins’ performance in this game isn’t the ultimate point. Rather, the game was representative of the kids' success, and a pointer to the Pistons' future.

Maxiell has established himself as their sixth man, and Stuckey and Jarvis Hayes get the 7th and 8th most minutes, respectively.

While this may not be indicative of their playoff minutes, as those will likely skew to the older guys (more time for Ratliff and Hunter), the point is that the Pistons bench is very young, and possibly primed to take over the reigns once the current group tires.

Credit goes to Joe Dumars for not having any high picks and still doing so well. These guys have been to the Eastern Conference Finals 5 years running, so naturally their draft position hasn’t been anything to get excited about. Look at where Dumars grabbed these guys. None higher than Stuckey at 15, and even as low as Amir Johnson at 56. And everyone just keep in mind how little value there is to be had outside the lottery. Maybe in a year or two people will consider forgiving him for Darko, and years from now it’ll be the only blotch on an otherwise impeccable resume.

I think its fair to say that the Pistons have only 2 years left with their current core. Sheed’s contract is up next year and Rip’s is up in ’10. They’ll be 34 and 32 respectively at the end of each of those. Even if those guys have something left in the tank after playing close to a 100 games a year for maybe as many as 8 consecutive years, and are re-signed for reasonable money at a reasonable length, Chauncey’s recent deal will then expire in ’11 and then Rip will be the youngest of the three at a spry 33.

So its safe to say that that group’s window is closing. But I think the Detroit fans will have it good for years to come.

They’ve already maintained without Ben Wallace, after they let him leave when he became too old and too pricey. In part, because of Maxiell, and to a lesser degree Johnson (1.29 bpg at only 12 mpg). In Afflalo and Stuckey (look at how Stuckey has responded to more minutes in April) they perhaps have the backcourt to replace Rip and Chauncey, and the 28 year old Tayshaun* (signed through ’11) will be the bridge.

No, I’m not going so far as to predict anything big, because that would be withholding the current group’s just due; what they've accomplished will be tough to match, plus who knows how these kids will pan out. I’m just giving props to Joe Dumars and the Pistons for drafting well and being able to account for the present as well as the future without sacrificing one at the expense of the other.

So no, there aren’t any guarantees of everlasting success, but we can expect Dumars to continue to draft well. And what they do have is promise, and options, and very few teams can claim that in tandem with present-day title hopes.

*Dumars also snagged Prince with the 23rd pick in 2002.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Johnny Cueto, no longer on your fantasy waiver wire.

The Cincinnati Reds' rookie pitcher has started off extremely strong. His 1-0/2.03 after two starts is nice, but what's especially impressive is his K/BB ratio of 18/0. The lack of walks puts his WHIP at a ridiclous 0.45. This comes on the heels of a great Spring Training for the righthander, who throws a slider (his strongest pitch), fastball and changeup.

Obviously it's early, but Cueto's season should be fun to watch, assuming Dusty Baker hasn't pitched him into the ground by June. The Hardball Times tells us not to worry about that: "Dusty Baker is not a professional arm shredder."

Here's Cueto in spring training.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jake Long and the Dolphins

The Dolphins have begun contract negotations with Michigan OT Jake Long, setting him up to be the first pick of the draft; he will most likely start at LT, with Vernon Carey moving to RT. Long improved his already-high stock by demonstrating great upper body strength at the NFL Combine. At 6'7" and somewhere around 300 pounds (depending on which website you read - he's been variously reported at 295, 310, 313, and 315), Long will fit with the pattern (which we've mentioned earlier) of Miami acquiring physically huge guys this offseason.

Overall this looks like a good move for Miami: RB is one of their few bright spots, so getting a top-shelf run blocker will allow them to press this advantage; also, the team has been looking for the successor to Richmond Webb for years. John Beck obviously has to be feeling good about this pick - not only will his protection improve, but this mean that Matt Ryan won't be heading to Miami, allowing Beck to remain the QB of the future at least a little longer. And while the 1-15 Dolphins obviously have plenty of other needs, particularly on defense, it's not surprising that Sparano, a former OL coach, would want to start his rebuilding project here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Re: The Big Lead's Question

Touting their choice for NBA MVP the other day, The Big Lead pointed out that Paul was averaging 21 points and 11 assists, and rhetorically asked who the last player to throw up 20 and 10 in a season was.

The question was answered in the thread, but let us probe deeper and consider the significance of Paul's accomplishment and its timeliness.

Here's the full list of 20/10 seasons in NBA history:

Tiny Archibald '72-'73
Isaiah '83-'87 (Four years in a row!)
Magic '86-'87, '88-'89, '89-'90
KJ '88-'91 (three in a row)
Michael Adams (who?) '90-'91
Tim Hardaway '91-'92, '92-'93

First, a couple of points of interest:
1. That '72-'73 season for Tiny was amazing: Points and Assists titles, APG season record, PPG season record for a guard. The next year he tore his Achilles and came back to earth, hovering around 20-7 for three years before more injuries did him in.
2. Michael freakin' Adams, he of the 14 ppg for his career. He can thank Paul Westhead for the Loyola-as-NBA-team experiment. The Nuggets' numbers that year: 119.9 PPG, 130.8 PPG allowed, and a 20-62 record.

But back to Paul and the present day.

If the elite company that he'll be joining isn't enough, consider that he's also leading the league in steals. MVP or not, he's had one of the greatest PG seasons in history.

The bigger picture is that for a decade, starting with the 1983-84 season, the NBA had a 20-10 PG. In '87, '89, and '90, it had two of them. It's no coincidence that those years are best remembered with nostalgia and the subsequent decade is associated with stagnant offenses and ugly basketball.

Now, after an almost 15 year drought, we have this season from Paul and a 19 and 10 from his doppelganger Deron Williams. For all the talk of the dawn of the new NBA era, this might best indicator yet that it's actually happening.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Pressure: Fresh Expectations and Free Throws

A couple of thoughts on the NCAA championship game.

1. Because of Carmelo Anthony and his ilk it has become expected for college freshman to do great things. With the hevay emphasis on AAU ball and summer basketball camps, college freshman are much more seasoned than they were 10 years ago and it is no longer a novelty to see a Kevin Love, an Eric Gordon, or a Michael Beasley mentioned in Conference POY and even National POY conversations.

As such, I had to catch myself being surprised at Derrick Rose's cold start in the first half. But was it really so strange? He's still an 18 year-old kid playing in front of millions, with a rabid fan-base (or even a city, if you heard Calipari's pre-game comments) relying on him. He was seeing double teams from different angles - it was obvious that the Jayhwaks' top defensive priority was to stop Rose - and wasn't able to find his offensive rhythm. He finished the first half shooting 1-4. He was regularly giving up the ball early in the possession, not confident in his ability to score, or at the very least penetrate and create. Instead his passes were more statements of surrender.

When he did get going in the second half, he was great, his 15 second half-points keying Memphis' run. All I'm saying is its not so shocking that it took him until the second half to get going and play with confidence. It's also not shocking that he missed an important free throw near the end...

2. So Memphis lost on free throws. Up four, with a minute to go they clanked four in a row (3 by CDR, 1 by Rose) until Rose made his second attempt. Not such a surprise. Anyone who followed college basketball this season knows that free throws were topic number one when anyone wrote or talked about Memphis. It really got going in the past month and a half when they lost the #1 vs. #2 match-up to Tennessee by throwing up bricks from the line and letting the Vols come back, and more recently as they shot well during their tournament run, the media unleashed an equal amount of "Memphis doing it from the foul line" stories. We even picked them to miss out on the Final Four because we were so sold on their shortcoming.

Sometime between the Tennesse game and the tournament Calipari tried to quell the free-throw panic, saying, on PTI, something like that free throw shooting is the 25th most important skill that he valued in a basketball player. At the time it sounded reasonable, I thought, sure maybe everyone was exaggerating it a little too much.

But looking at CDR and Rose brick those shots, so visibly nervous before and after, I couldn't help but feel bad for them - especially when the game went to OT and they eventually lost. You can't evaluate free throws just as you would any other skill - passing, shooting, etc. as coach Cal did with more than a little bit of arrogance on the aforementioned PTI appearance. Because when these kids are at the line (especially if the game is in the balance - and they are kids after all) they are made to feel the attention of the entire arena, and the country. More than any other basketball skill, free throw shooting relies on the mental component.

The more I think back to Calipari's words the more he sounds like a parent coddling their child, refusing to label them as wrong or weak, or anything else that's negative, and promoting a positive self-image at the expense of reality. Perhaps thats all coach Cal could do with so much of the season already passed and so much of an avalanche falling on him regarding the FT woes. But regardless if he exacerbated his team's mental problem or not, it was only fitting (and sad) that it was the free throw shooting that did them in.

And a question: Did anyone else think that Rose's two was originally called a two, only to be overturned twice (to a three, and only then back to a two) during the referees' conference?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Thoughts on a China Olympics Boycott

We've discussed before on this site the controversy over China's hosting this year's Olympics. Recently there's been a lot of talk in the US and elsewhere about boycotting the Beijing games.

The problem with these boycotts is that they come at enormous cost to the athletes themselves. The intense training and short window of opportunity for athletes means that a boycott can effectively derail their life's efforts up to that point. Recently Canadian athletes spoke out against such a boycott - including some who are still pained by their country's boycotting of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This article from the SF Chronicle describes the fate of US athletes who missed their chance because of the 1980 boycott - although it goes too far in the other direction in overestimating the ability of the Olympics to change a host country for the better.

"If there is one thing more punitive for a repressive regime than an Olympic boycott, it is the Olympic spotlight. Adolf Hitler's twisted vision of Aryan superiority was shattered by the four-gold performance of Jesse Owens, an African American, in the 1936 Berlin Games. "

... leading Hitler, of course, to see the error of his ways and resulting in the peaceful, willing dissolution of the Nazi regime.

If ordinary Americans are upset about China's human rights practices and want to express their disapproval, here's an idea: instead of outsourcing the sacrifice to some track runners and swimmers, how about boycotting watching the games instead?

UPDATE: Clinton suggests, maybe just the Opening Ceremony (found on TheBigLead)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Darren Collison Shits the Bed

The nationally acclaimed point guard, a borderline lottery pick, couldn't back up the hype tonight against Memphis. His line: 2 pts on 1-9 shooting, 4 assists and 5 TOs. Oh yeah, he also fouled out with three minutes to go. The foul obviously came as a result of frustration. Collison had just missed another lay-up (a contested one sure, but a lay-up nonetheless), and was late coming back on defense. When he caught up to Derrick Rose just past half-court, Collison lazily reached in for the ball and fouled out. Packer and Nantz rightfully let him have it, questioning why he would commit such a dumb foul.

The fact is Rose had abused the smaller and slower Collison to the tune of 25-9-4, and stifled him on the defensive end where Collison was regularly unable to feed the ball to Love in the post. The UCLA offense was never in rhythm and that responsibility was Collison's. It's fair to say that he's the reason why they lost. His last sequence of the game was the exclamation point: between the missed lay-up and Rose's made free throws the resulting four-point swing helped seal the win for Memphis.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

NFL rule changes

A look at the rule changes adopted by the NFL this past week (summarized here):

Putting less on the officials:

"The force-out rule was eliminated, meaning a player who catches a ball must have both feet (or another body part) in bounds. "

A smart move. It was an unnecessary judgment call to put into the hands of the refs. You're asking for controversy like with the Browns comeback against the Cardinals last year.

"Incidental grasp and release of the facemask, which was a 5-yard penalty, no longer will be penalized. The 15-yard penalty remains intact for twisting, turning or pulling the mask."

Good. Why open it up to complaints of how severe the penalty should be? Yes, there will still be complaints about whether or not the penalty should be caled at all, but thats one less point to argue.

Correcting some obvious mistakes:

"Instant replay was expanded to include review of field goals (except those above either upright that don't touch anything)."

Why wasn't this included to begin with? Probably becasue they didnt foresee this.

"Snaps untouched by a player in position to receive a hand-to-hand snap will no longer be a false start, and either team may recover and advance the ball."

A logical move as well - good explanation here.

More puzzling decisions:

"Teams winning the coin toss now can defer a decision until the second half."

Jack Del Rio seems to think this one was important

"Muffed illegal forward handoffs will be treated as fumbles, and no longer as incomplete forward passes."

We're not sure what prompted this one, but in any case it seems to make sense - why should offenses get the benefit of an incompletion (as opposed to a fumble) in a situation where they wouldn't be allowed to pass the ball anyway?

Not Passed

A new playoff seeding system, "allowing wild-card teams to be seeded ahead of the division winner with the third- or fourth-best record, if they had a better record."

Interesting idea - the point was to create more competition for playoff seeding and therefore having fewer meaningless games at the end of the season, like last year's Tennessee-Indy game in which Indy's playoff seeding was already set, and the Titan's victory over the Colts' backups knocked Cleveland out of the playoffs.

Of course, it's always good to avoid meaningless games, but the proposed system would have removed the reward for winning your division, traditionally very important. Apparently this was too high a price to get a little more jockeying for position at the end of the season, as the proposal didn't even get enough support to be put to a formal vote.