Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beyond the Stats

The AJ Smith-LaDainian Tomlinson beef is ostensibly over, public apologies having been issued from both camps. There is no longer an official grievance, but as this was just the latest in a series of flare-ups between the two we wonder how LT will be affected in the upcoming season.

We are limited in the tools we have to evaluate a player’s performance. If a player isn’t playing well the deepest analysis usually ends at injury speculation. Rarely is the bigger picture considered. Sure there’s Tomlinson’s age (30 in June) and the evanescence of Runningback careers to consider, but what part do stress, uncertainty, and anxiety play?

After his second year in Oakland Moss was already a has-been. As many people that acknowledged that he was playing poorly because he was unhappy or insufficiently motivated they were a minority, their voices deafened by the popular certainty that at 30 he had slowed considerably. It’s perfectly defensible - it’s the logical conclusion. We see Moss playing poorly; we know he’s thirty and we know that athletes get worse with age. We don’t know what’s going on inside the Raider organization nor the huddle, so even if we get reports about them its too tempting to rely on what we know and what’s familiar – he’s old. And thus New England gets him for a fourth round pick.

Remember, in 2005 Smith traded LT’s best friend (Drew Brees) after LT had publicly hoped for Brees to stay, and then considered firing Marty Schottenheimer, with whom LT was “as close as a coach and a player can be.” LT was so concerned for his coach’s future that he went on a mission to secure his job, telling him “I'm going to do everything I can for you.”

LT put together the greatest statistical season in history to make sure that his beloved coach wouldn’t be fired, and like Brees, publicly supported him after the season. Like Brees, Smith fired him.

Now act three. After a subpar season, LT began hearing the requisite trade and cut rumors. Anxiously, he made his side of it clear. He wanted to stay in San Diego. It was unsettling the way Smith responded, openly mocking LT, parroting his statement.

Generally a GM will be evaluated for his draft picks and his contracts, and as far as Smith goes Michael Silver does a good job picking him apart on those grounds alone, but here again, just like with players, we are often limited in seeing the bigger picture.

In their 2006 year-end report on the Redskins the Washington Post unearthed some deeper reasons to explain the Skins’ problems. The hypocrisy of the team policy engendered anxiety and mistrust among the players.
Over and over Gibbs has stressed the importance of having players who are "core Redskins" or "real Redskins." Yet many of the people interviewed for this article, who requested anonymity because they did not want to be publicly associated with criticism of Gibbs or the Redskins, questioned whether Gibbs has ignored his own principles, being blinded by the temptations made available by Snyder's open wallet. Players said the organization has not prized the interpersonal relationships between teammates and the significance of those bonds in a game that is intrinsically team-oriented and brutally demanding.

" 'Real Redskins,' what does that mean?" one veteran player asked. "Everybody sees through that. When it comes to guys who have been here three or four years, who played hard and played in pain for them, they use that money to go out and buy the next toy. They make promises about using the money to keep everybody together, then guys like A.P. [Antonio Pierce] and Ryan [Clark] and Robert Royal -- our real glue guys -- leave and they go outside again.

"It's the same thing year after year. You look at a lot of the guys who left here, and they're mostly playing well and their teams are doing well, and we pick up more guys than any team, and we struggle. What does that say about us? It's like they're trying to build a team of superstars, or guys who are paid like superstars, and it's not working."
No doubt they struggled to a 5-11 record that year in part because Mark Brunell could no longer throw the ball deeper than 20 yards, Jason Campbell was thrown into the fire and Portis only managed to play half of the season, but it was also because of a disconnect between players and management and likely the task of learning a new offense in the form of Al Saunders’ notoriously large playbook. There’s almost always more to it than what we see on the field and almost always we fail to acknowledge that.

When Parcells came to Dallas he ordered the trainer’s room temperature lowered to just about freezing to discourage those that would linger there. Now Jerry Jones wont let Wade Phillips fine anyone more than $100 and Jason Garret is slow to corral Tony Romo.

San Fransisco is getting their 7th OC in 7 seasons, Denver their 4th DC in 4 seasons. Glen Dorsey is languishing because the Chiefs are using him incorrectly, Baron Davis is sulking because Dunleavy reneged on his promise to run, Mo Cheeks just about ruined Matt Barnes’ career, and Leo Mazzone explained the Orioles’ perennial woes in one swoop: “Once I got there and saw how they operated compared to the Braves, I knew I made a mistake the first week of spring training…The lack of organization. The lack of discipline. The lack of overall professionalism. I was shocked, and I couldn’t believe it.”

In the NBA Daryl Morey is leading the way in new statistical analysis, but inasmuch as the Rockets can measure Shane Battier’s effectiveness with newfangled techniques, a lot of his value is still unquantifiable – "basketball intelligence" for example. We're often forgetful and think we’re evaluating players in a vacuum. Why are his numbers down? Ah, he's probably hurt. Maybe not.

-Agent Easy

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

NFL Coaching Carousel Round-up Part II

Seattle and Indianapolis had the two smoothest transitions, both Jim Mora Jr. and Jim Caldwell having coach-in-waiting clauses in their contracts.

The teams are losing two future Hall of Famers in Holmgren and Dungy. If you blink at that consider that Holmgren will join Parcells and Dan Reeves as the only coaches with 3+ Super Bowl trips not yet in the HOF. Dungy retires with the 11th best winning percentage, surpassed exclusively by Hall of Famers. He’ll also deservedly get points for breaking the color barrier as well as transforming the Bucs.

Caldwell has been quick to put his stamp on the team. He replaced the Special Teams coach and DC, both his peers only months ago.

Rex Ryan replaced Eric Mangini in New York. Mangini’s firing was a bit perplexing. Only two years removed from weekly “Mangenius” stories he rebounded after an atrocious 2007 and had a winning record with a quarterback who led the league in interceptions.

Woody Johnson was intent on wooing Favre to stay for one more season. (No doubt his name would sell more tickets in the new stadium – it couldn’t have been a matter of preserving team chemistry). As Favre and Mangini didn’t get along it became an either-or proposition and Mangini was out.

Unsurprisingly he quickly landed on his feet with the Browns, forming the fabled ManKok duo.

Earlier it had been rumored he might wind up in KC with his old pal Scott Pioli, but Pioli – who went to KC ostensibly solely to make his name separate of Belichick – wasn’t interested in maintaining New England ties. He hired Haley, who, if his experience is wanting (one impressive playoff run) at least has a notable pedigree.

As for the Pats, they replaced Pioli with Tennesse personnel chief Floyd Reese. This attrition is typical of a Pats offseason. Since their 2001 Super Bowl season they’ve now lost 2 OCs, 1 DC and their Director of Player Personnel. This year alone they lost four position coaches.

In other front office news, after much speculation the Dolphins retained Bill Parcells. The balance of his $12 million (over three years) will be guaranteed regardless of his continued employment with the team. Parcells says he plans to stay on until the GM (Jeff Ireland) and coach (Sparano) “have enough experience.” Akin Ayodele thinks Parcells still wants to coach.

Finally there are the Raiders. Al Davis was uncertain of keeping Tom Cable because he was a Kiffin hire and let him flounder for six weeks. When he couldn’t find anyone better he offered Cable the job. No doubt many prospects were scared off by Kiffin’s midseason accusations.

Derrick Brooks speculated that the immediate success of John Harbaugh, Tony Sparano, and Mike Smith encouraged the Glazers to try things with a fresh face. That’s not a bad theory to explain the bump in seasonal firings. As Shanahan’s, Mangini’s, and Gruden’s teams were faltering down the stretch it was the Ravens, Dolphins, and Falcons that took their playoff spots.

With so much turnover – specifically the absence of Shanahan, Holmgren, and Dungy - the tenure list now looks like this: Jeff Fisher (15), Bill Belichick (14), Tom Coughlin (13), Norv Turner (11), Andy Reid (10), Wade Phillips (9), Dick Jauron (9), John Fox (7), Marvin Lewis (6), Jack Del Rio (6).

- Agent Easy

Sunday, February 8, 2009

USA Swimming Spineless

Whatever report you'll read about Michael Phelps' 3 month suspension wont mention any similar type of punishment he received four years ago for his DUI. There was no such punishment. When Phelps not only broke the law but was arrested and even convicted (he got probation), USA Swimming judged it unworthy of intervention. Not only is this suspension transparent - Phelps wont miss any significant races - but so are their motives; it's a knee-jerk reaction and only for show. It's unjust that their decisions lack integrity and are made only with public image in mind. It would have been perfectly reasonable for USAS to announce "We don't meddle in our athletes private affairs."

NFL Coaching Carousel Round-up Part 1

Now that Todd Haley has been hired to coach the Chiefs all NFL head coaching vacancies have been filled. In total ten new coaches were hired, eleven if you count Tom Cable and Mike Singletary who had their interim titles removed. That’s the most coaching changes in one season since at least 1996. There were also notable OC and DC hires as well as front office shifts.

Along with Singletary and Cable, Jim Haslett was the other interim coach this season. After Haslett won his first two games he Rams offered him an automatic extension pending another four victories. The league negated the contract, citing the Rooney rule. It became a moot point as the Rams lost their next ten games, coming within a touchdown only twice. The Rams’ new GM Bil Devaney hired his close friend Steve Spagnuolo on Januray 17 at four years/ $12 million. Spags was set for a HC job after last year’s Super Bowl showcase, but outdid himself guiding this year’s defense from 7th overall to 5th after losing arguably its two best players in Strahan and Osi.

Haslett interviewed for the Green Bay DC job that eventually went to Dom Capers and is now being floated as the Panthers’ DC. Scott Linehan, the Rams’ midseason fire, spurned the 49ers and instead took the Lions’ OC job. Whomever San Fran does hire (Dan Reeves!?) will be their 7th OC in 7 seasons.

The Giants quickly replaced Spags with their Linebackers coach Bill Sheridan. He shares Spagnuolo’s philosophy and Coughlin valued his commitment to an attacking style.

Spagnuolo beat out, among others, Jason Garret for the job. Garret, who last year was such a hot commodity that Jerry Jones had to give him the richest coordinator contract in history, whiffed on all three of his HC interviews this year (Denver, Detroit).

The postseason news that came out of Dallas likely didn’t help:
According to five sources, several offensive players lost respect for Garrett for his failure to corral quarterback Tony Romo in practice. Romo, sources said, often forced throws in practice and often did not treat practice work consistently.
The Cowboys are still trying to hire a DC, after Jerry Jones fired Brian Stewart.
It's further proof that head coach Wade Phillips has very little say at Valley Ranch. Stewart was Phillips' hand-picked defensive coordinator and the two have been close friends since working together in San Diego.

Phillips was ordered by Jones to take over defensive play-calling duties before the Tampa Bay game midway through the 2008 season. Phillips didn't acknowledge that the change had been made until the defense was playing well later in the season.

In his end-of-the-season news conference, Phillips said that Stewart would be back as defensive coordinator. Of course, that's not what happened. Phillips once lost a job in Buffalo because he refused to fire one of his assistants. He wasn't going to let that happen again.
They too brought in Dan Reeves - to inertview for an advising job - but the deal fell apart.

Those Denver and Detroit jobs that Garrett missed out on eventually went to Pats OC Josh McDaniels and Titans DC Jim Schwartz respectively. It’s notable that Martin Mayhew, the man now making the management decisions in Detroit, the man who hired Schwartz, was Matt Millen’s second in command. Steve Mariucci defended the connection, saying “Martin is his own man,” but the endless string of coaching failures during the Fords' ownership is remarkable – it is stunning how often the phrase “never coached again at any level” comes up in that list.

The Shanahan firing was surprising though not unreasonable. No matter the case for or against it, it’s agreed that Shanahan was a bad GM. To wit: hiring three DCs in the past three years, his inability to adequately evaluate defensive talent, and bad contracts (e.g. Daniel Graham for $30 million). On the one hand Shanahan had winning records with three different quarterbacks (he was just under .500 with Cutler) and his system could make a 1,000 yard rusher out of anyone. On the other hand he’d won one playoff game without Elway and closed this season with three straight losses, handing the division to the Chargers. The defense gave up 30, 30, and 52, in those games; it was in the bottom five in points allowed each of the past two years. McDaniels hired the Niner’s mid-season fire Mike Nolan as the Bronco’s fourth DC in four years.

Jon Gruden’s firing was similarly unexpected. Gruden himself was said to be "blindsided." The Glazers explained Gruden’s relatively late removal by emphasizing the prudence of deliberateness. Much like the Broncos the Bucs had a late season collapse that knocked them out of the playoffs, and much like Shanahan Gruden’s post-Super Bowl resume is unimpressive. Unlike Shanahan Gruden has had a consistently good defense and has had even less offensive success. Beyond the numbers, Gruden also was unpopular with his players – Michael Clayton said players felt like they were playing for themselves. Mike Lombardi, his former Raiders GM put it like this:
I once referred to Gruden as the Larry Brown of the NFL. I meant that as a compliment because I love Brown, but when Brown, the well-traveled NBA coach, has control of the personnel on a team, he makes horrible decisions and hates the players he coaches. He wants new, but after new is over, he wants more new. Does that sound familiar?

From Brad Johnson to Chris Simms to Brian Griese to Luke McCown to Jeff Garcia, there was never stability at quarterback, the one position that is vital to a franchise. In addition, this is the one position that Gruden can coach as well as anyone in the league. Yet his refusal to fall in love (I called him the Warren Beatty of quarterbacks coaches a while back in a column) with a quarterback was his downfall in Tampa Bay.

We have all read the reaction of the players on the record — some positive, some negative — but the one consistent theme when you’re talking about Gruden is that he loves football, but loves NO players. The negativity and the inconsistent message to the players never seemed to go over well. Gruden is the type of coach that needs to have consistent turnover in his roster. He needs new players every year and might be best suited for college football since graduation and the NFL draft promote the change he craves.
At 32 Raheem Morris becomes the youngest active NFL head coach and the second youngest all time (Lane Kiffin). He was promoted from DB coach. He hired Jeff Jagodzinski as his OC. Jagodzinski should be revlieved after himself being unexpectedly fired as a penalty for interviewing for the Jets job. The Bucs also promoted the similarly young Mark Dominik to GM, replacing Bruce Allen who had been fired in tandem with Gruden.

-Agent Easy

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Steeler sacks

The Steelers allowed 49 sacks this year, good for 4th worst in the league.

The '08 Steelers have given up more sacks than any other Super Bowl team in the past 10 years. They've given up the second most in the past 20 years, with only the '98 Falcons surpassing them. That Falcons squad ranked 6th worst in their year, thus leaving the Steelers the worst ranked sacks-allowed team in a Super Bowl.

Twenty years is a good cutoff. It's a round number, and closely approximates the league-wide shift to shorter drop-backs and timing routes (informally, the West Coast Offense).

Much has been made of the Steelers' O-line problems. (Their 3.7 ypc is also 4th worst in the league). We don't seek to assign blame. A sack isn't a definitive indictment of the line; in this case everyone knows Roethlisberger has a penchant for holding on to the ball. We simply mean to provide a historical context to show how unusual it is for a team that gives up so many sacks to make the Super Bowl.

-Agent Easy